AN: Before we get started, while this can be read as a stand-alone, it is, in fact, a sequel to my previous story, 'Loyalty'. Also, this fic features the magnificent Titan5's version of Dave Sheppard's family. If you love cute domestic families and their protective Air Force Uncles, you should definitely read her story, Real Heroes Wear Orange, if you haven't already, as there is a few vague references to it, as well as a teeny one to my other fic that featured Dave and Cindy, A Summer Bonfire. Now, on with the story.
Clack, clack, clack.
The crutches made quite a bit of noise as John swung himself along comfortably, ridiculously familiar with the apparatus, able to maintain speeds that annoyed McKay to no end.
"How is it you manage to actually be harder to keep up with on crutches?" the physicist asked as he did a half-hearted catch-up jog.
Sheppard was headed to Midway, on his way back to earth for Keller's 'foolproof recovery plan'. With his arms occupied using the crutches, he had roped McKay into carrying his luggage. Looking back, Ronon might have been a better choice...
"I mean really, you're supposed to be resting your leg so it can heal and yet here you are, hooning around-"
"Hooning?" Sheppard asked incredulously. "Look, I've been on crutches more times than I care to remember, and you know I hate sitting in one place too long."
McKay huffed, "Walking at a normal pace is not 'sitting in one place'."
"No, but it can feel like it," Sheppard said, "What does it matter to you anyway? It's not like you'll have to put up with it for much longer."
"Maybe not, but if you end up crashing into a wall or something you will have to put up with it for way longer."
Sheppard scoffed. "I am in complete control. When I broke my leg in high school, I used to get stuck behind those slow groups in the corridors. Of course, then it rained and the floor got slippery and I had to go back up to the hospital... but that was a one-off, and it's not like the floor in Atlantis gets wet."
"Just don't complain to me when you end up stuck on them all month."
"That's not going to happen."
They exited the last corridor to the gate room, and Rodney started trying to figure out how Sheppard was going to get up the short flight of steps, but the Colonel had no problems. Without hesitating, John easily scaled the stairs, followed by McKay's exasperated sighs.
Waiting for them were Teyla, Ronon, Major Lorne, and Mr. Woolsey. Lieutenant Kerrigan and her team stood in a group off to the side, waiting for the fourth member of their team who was also heading back to earth for some recovery time.
Teyla strode forward, grasping John's shoulders and bowing her head. Touching his forehead to hers, John joined the traditional Athosian greeting/farewell. Pulling back, Teyla smiled, "Safe travels, Colonel. We look forward to seeing you well again."
"I look forward to being well again," Sheppard smirked.
"Yeah, can't wait to get back in the sparring ring with you," Ronon said as he clapped John on the shoulder.
"Uh, thanks, big guy," John said with a nervous grimace, to which Ronon's smile got bigger.
At that moment, Doctor Keller entered the gate room, escorting Private First Class Catherine Sullivan, who was still wheelchair-bound, her broken shoulder bone ruling out the use of crutches for her broken leg. Jennifer gave John a death-glare as she manoeuvred Sullivan's wheelchair up the stairs with assistance from Doctor Beckett. It had been a long two weeks in the infirmary. Carson had spent less time off-world than he normally would, just to give Keller some much needed time off.
"H-hey, Doctor Keller," Sheppard tried to give a placating smile.
After a quiet, encouraging word to PFC Sullivan, Keller marched up to the Colonel. "Alright, final orders; you are to use the crutches until your exercise physiologist says otherwise. Avoid jarring your leg until you're back in Atlantis, so; no running, jumping, or any other activity you can think of that may impact your leg. Be a good boy and follow your medical orders to the letter, and you'll be ready to come back on full duty by the time you're done on earth." She handed him a USB. "That's yours and Sullivan's scans from this morning, give that to Doctor Lam when you arrive at the SGC; she'll be overseeing your rehabilitation."
"Got it," Sheppard assured her, slipping the storage device into his pants pocket.
"I want to hear you say it."
John sighed, "I promise not to take unnecessary risks and to do as instructed by healthcare professionals, and I will give the scans to Doctor Lam at the SGC."
"I love how you changed it from 'no risks' to 'no risks I deem unnecessary'," McKay said snidely.
Sheppard poked his tongue out, to which Rodney pulled his head back in indignation.
"Don't you go falling off any of those horses your brother owns either," Carson added.
"What? Like I actually plan to fall off?" Sheppard feigned hurt.
"Excuse me gentlemen, but we're overdue dialling Midway," Mr. Woolsey pointed out.
"Right, well, I'll see you all in four weeks then," Sheppard said, as Woolsey signalled the gate technicians in the control room, and the gate started dialling.
AR-16 said their final well-wishes, as Sullivan threatened to run them over with her chair. Marines were indomitable spirits.
Sheppard lightly punched Ronon, then told McKay to carry his luggage through.
"What? I have to make a pointless trip to Midway just to bring your junk along?"
"Yep," John said as he made his way towards the now-open gate. "Come on, Lieutenant Kerrigan's making the trip for Private Sullivan. It's the least you can do."
"The least I can do? You still owe me for passing out in the gate room!"
"That was two weeks ago," John countered, throwing on his puppy face, "don't you want to help your wounded leader?"
"Oh, what ever, you're just-"
"Rodney," Keller cut over, "just get him out of here, it'll take three minutes."
Huffing irritably, McKay capitulated, carrying the small duffle bag across the event horizon.
"Look after things, Lorne," Sheppard said with a casual salute.
"Just promise you'll be back soon," the Major said, deadpan. Only his eyes showed humour. "I hate the paper work."
Taking a deep breath, John swung through the wormhole, leaving the Pegasus galaxy behind, for now.
Upon arrival, Sheppard and Sullivan were informed that they would be in separate rooms, so that they would both have access to a lower bunk, as neither of them were meant to be climbing ladders. Sheppard was sure he could have managed, but wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. They were also being kept near as possible to the small station's infirmary. Well, 'infirmary' might be a little generous. It was more like the typical nurse's station at a public school. As they both had to wait out the 24 hour quarantine, they decided to play a few rounds of floaters in Sullivan's room.
There was a lull in conversation, as they both enjoyed the music playing at a low volume from Sheppard's portable speakers. Turned out Trocadero was a favourite throughout AR-16.
"Y'know, I haven't thanked you yet," Catherine said quietly, as they were in the middle of their third round.
"I'm not losing on purpose," Sheppard said without looking up. His hand really sucked this round.
"No, I mean, for coming after us, back on the planet."
Sheppard still didn't look up, feeling a rush of remembered emotions. It had been a chaotic rescue op.
"I heard- the gate technicians that were on duty at the time, they said you never even hesitated, that the moment the explosion sounded over the radio, you were moving, getting ready to come help us." Sullivan wasn't quite looking at him, her gaze fixed somewhere over his shoulder. "Most CO's would have been weighing the lives of my team against the lives of the rescue team, but they say you didn't even take the time to go to the armoury, just grabbed what you needed off the SOs."
Sheppard looked up at her. "We don't leave our people behind."
"I thought I was dead," Sullivan returned his gaze, "in fact, I was sure of it. We'd heard about your loyalty to all your people, but I guess we hadn't seen it first-hand until then. It would have been easy to say the risks were too great, but you didn't, and I just wanted to say thank-you. Thank-you for saving my team."
John struggled to find the right words. "Look, I- The fact is, I really didn't think, I just acted. There was no time to waste, and I know, God, do I know how much it sucks to be on the other end of the radio, not knowing whether you'll get your team out safely, not knowing whether command thinks you're worth it. I never want any of you to doubt that we'll be there for you."
As if uncomfortable herself with the level of emotion this conversation required, Sullivan dropped her eyes, staring into her lap, "Thank-you, sir. I know we'll never doubt it."
Clearing his throat, John strived for a lighter atmosphere, "Now, let's hope I get something good in this draw."
"Yeah, I get a little squeamish whenever I steamroll anyone."
"Oh, it's on."
When he and Sullivan reached Stargate Command's infirmary, they were greeted by Doctor Carolyn Lam, and shown to separate beds, each partitioned by curtains. After receiving the scans, Doctor Lam told Sheppard to wait on the bed for his rehab specialist, then entered the almost-cubical Sullivan was in.
The first thing the exercise physiologist had wanted to do was visually examine the wound site. She introduced herself as Angela Mitrovic while gently poking at the angry red lines.
"What type of stitching did Doctor Keller use?" Angela asked.
"Internal," Sheppard answered.
"Hmm," Angela ran a finger along one of the healing cuts, "I think I can feel a few of them. Well, at this point, we don't have to worry too much about pulling them out. I'll just have a peek at those scans once Carolyn's finished with them, then I can finalise a routine for you."
"Sounds good," Sheppard said, finally allowed to pull his pants back up. This was one of the many reasons he preferred boxers.
Angela nodded. "So, I've heard you have a reputation for being a difficult patient."
"That's only really when I'm stuck in a bed all day, you've been spared the worst of it," John said, flashing his most charming smile.
"And how's the concussion going? Do you still get any dizziness or nausea?" Angela asked as she wrote down a few lines in a notebook filled with coloured tabs.
"Cleared up a few days ago, haven't had any headaches or anything since."
"Good, good," Mitrovic said absent-mindedly as she continued scribbling.
Doctor Lam pulled back the curtains and headed to the idling screens near the bed head. "Now that Private Sullivan is settled, let's see your latest scans." She had obviously already uploaded the files to the SGC's medical database, as she called the scans up directly from the computers.
"I can't wait 'til Area 51 finally manages to reverse engineer one of these Ancient scanners for us," Lam said as she and Angela crowded the screen, blocking Sheppard's view. Not that he knew what to look for anyway.
Muttering to each other in medical jargon, the two pointed at random things and pulled up last week's scans that Keller had sent ahead in the weekly data burst.
Reaching a consensus, they both turned to face their patient.
"Alright, Colonel, we've got plenty we can work with here. You're right on track with healing, though we will impose a weight limit for the next four weeks," Lam said.
"We're gonna start off nice and slow- activation and flexion exercises, though I'm sure you were expecting something like that," Angela explained. "We'll rebuild the correct neural pathways so that you get proper muscle cohesion back, and then work on bringing muscle strength up to speed."
"You're likely to feel like you're not making any progress in the first few days," Doctor Lam said, starting to make this feel like a tag-team, "but you'll need to keep in mind that pushing too hard will only cause setbacks. Rehabilitation is all about working within the pain-free zone."
"They say 'no pain, no gain', but that's actually a terrible mentality to have going into any sort of exercise," Angela said, an impassioned look in her eyes, as though this was something she had to argue about a lot. "Certain types of muscle pain are tolerable, but if you're hurting while working out it generally means you're doing something wrong. If you feel anything other than the pain associated with muscle fatigue, I want you to tell me straight away, and stop whatever exercise you're doing at the time. The last thing we want is to load up your leg too much and pull open the healing tissue, or damage your joints."
"I think that covers everything I'm needed for," Doctor Lam said.
"I'll give a yell if we need you," the physiologist waved her hand dismissively.
Carolyn left with one last glare, "I'll be watching you, Colonel."
"Well," Angela said with a pleasant smile, "we should head on up to the gym and get started."
John nodded, then hopped off the bed.
"Oi!"Angela snapped. "None of that! No jumping!"
Sheppard grimaced, "Wasn't thinking, sorry."
"Grab your crutches and let's go."
As they wandered through the corridors, SGC personnel giving Sheppard and his crutches a wide berth, Angela gave him an odd look. "You don't seem like a guy who just jumped on his torn up and still healing leg," she said, eyeing his spritely step-swing suspiciously. "That had to have hurt."
Sheppard shrugged, barely breaking stride to do so. "To be honest, my hands still hurt more than my leg."
"Oh, no, you're one of them, aren't you?"
John frowned in confusion. "Umm, what?"
Angela gave an annoyed grunt. "A high-pain-threshold type."
"Oh, yeah. I am. But my hands really do hurt more."
"There's nothing about them in the files I read," Angela said, sounding concerned, "What's up with them?"
"Burned them literally thirty minutes before the debacle on P4V-872 began." Sheppard paused, then corrected himself, "Well, before I got involved with it."
"Yikes. How badly?"
"They're pretty much healed now," Sheppard said, "but the skin's still sensitive and all baby-like. My bets are that they start blistering soon."
"Hmm..." Angela considered this as she pushed the call button for the elevator. How weird, having to wait for transport. "We might invest in some wool gloves for you then, just until your skin toughens up," she said as the lift doors opened.
Sheppard laughed, stepping into the elevator behind Angela. "Won't I look the picture of military authority, with my crutches and my fluffy gloves."
"You know the military has fingerless gloves, right? You'll just add to your special ops look. Or, even better," she said, exiting the lift, "just steal some of the exercise gloves. You'll still be able to grip, but protecting against blisters is exactly what they're designed for."
"That could work." And it sat better with John's sense of dignity.
They arrived in the gym, which was relatively quiet.
"Alright, let's claim the mats," Angela led him over to the exercise mats. "We're going to focus on ground work to start with. Here, let me help- and you're already on the ground."
Sheppard looked up at Mitrovic's disapproving glare. "What?"
"Did you just fall on your ass?"
"Best way to sit on the ground when you've got crutches."
Angela closed her eyes, and let out a slow breath. "You did that on purpose?"
"Okay, well, in future, I want you to let me help you lower down safely."
"Alright. It was kinda force of habit, but I can see where you're coming from," Sheppard said. "Let's get started."
Angela grabbed a towel and sat down. "The exercises we're starting with seem pretty simple, but the trick is activating the correct muscles. You'll find the larger groups will want to jump in and do the work, and that keeping them switched off can require a great deal of concentration." Rolling up the towel, she placed it under Sheppard's knees, his legs outstretched in front of him. "I want you to lift your lower legs, using your BMO group..."
The first week of rehab passed slowly, progressing from activation and stretches to band-resistance exercises, and eventually, very light ankle weights. John spent hours in the gym, making sure to work all his fully-functional muscles as hard as he was allowed to- the docs had placed a 6 kilo weight limit. It wasn't like he had anything else to do.
Members of SG-1 dropped in as their schedules allowed, and he often had dinner with them in the mess, but for the most part he was either by himself or with Angela, who turned out to be quite the task master, but still a chatterbox.
As week 2 progressed, they moved on to shallow wall squats and lunges, and spent time working on balance, and what Angela referred to as 'proprioception'- the brain's ability to track limb movement without needing to watch them. It was quite possibly the most in-depth rehabilitation routine Sheppard had had to date. By the end of it, he had ditched the crutches, and was using a walking stick instead, which made him feel like an old man, but Angela had insisted on the cane, saying he could call it a pimp stick if it made him feel better, but that he was to use it for another week, at which point he was allowed to walk without assistance.
And so it came time to visit with David Sheppard and his family.
When the taxi dropped him off on Dave's doorstep, John felt a familiar stirring of nerves. He and David had been making strides towards closing the rift that had formed between them over time, but they still had a lot of work to do.
Taking a deep breath, John tried to release his anxiety, then, fixing a smile in place, he knocked on the large wood door.
"DOO-OR!" The sing-song of a young girl was unmistakably Gabrielle, but it was David who opened the door.
"Hey," John's brother said, standing to one side. "Come on in. Here, let me help you with that." David made to take John's bag, but John pulled it back.
"Okay, let's get a few things straight," John said. "First off, I'm mostly recovered, so don't fuss so much, secondly, I'm not invalid, I can carry my own things, and thirdly..." his voice softened, "thanks for putting me up."
David crossed his arms, pulling a face that was half irritated, half amused. "Still as independent as ever, I see."
John smiled apologetically, just as Gabby rounded the corner from the living room, and ran up to the Colonel, smacking into his legs to engage hugging/clinging mode. "Ouch," John said weakly as David hurriedly pulled his daughter off.
"Remember what we talked about Gabby? Uncle John's here because he hurt his leg, so we need to not hurt him more."
Gabrielle got that little-kid look on her face, the one that said 'complete and utter repentance', and John knelt carefully to look her in the eyes. "It's alright, hey kiddo? You won't do it again."
Gabby nodded, tears in her eyes, and gave John a much gentler hug. "Sorry, Uncle John. I got too excited."
Standing back up with the help of his stick, John ruffled her blonde hair. Squirming, she dodged out of John's reach, then started heading down the hall. "Allow me to show you to your room, good sir," Gabby said in a most lady-like tone. John exchanged a glance with David, before the both of them broke into silent laughter, then followed after their host.
As they made their way to the downstairs guest room, Daniel joined the procession, with a million questions in tow, about everything from flying helicopters to shooting different guns. He seemed to have a decent knowledge of the specs of the more common weapons. John supposed a video game had something to do with that.
As John dropped his bag on the bed, David shooed the kids out to 'let Uncle John get settled'. Turning back to face his brother, David apologised. "Sorry about those two."
"Shouldn't they be in school?" John asked suspiciously.
David rolled his eyes. "Yes, they should, but they both just happened to develop flu-like symptoms this morning; despite neither of them having a fever, they were 'simply far too ill for school today'."
"Must be a case of Monday-itis," John said. "Very serious."
"They'll be watching movies all day. Fair warning, they're gonna try and rope you into joining them- they've been asking me all morning what your favourite movies are."
"Have you got work today?"
David shook his head, "I took the day off when I got your e-mail. Cindy and I wanted to make sure you were getting around okay."
"Speaking of Cindy, where is she?"
"Running a few errands. She had hoped to be back before you got here, but obviously she isn't."
"Uh-huh," John nodded.
"Well, I'll let you get settled, then," Dave said, heading for the door. "Make yourself at home; just grab whatever you need."
As David left, John quickly unpacked his clothes, and left his small toiletries bag on the bedside table. He hadn't stayed in the downstairs guest room before, but he appreciated the thoughtfulness of it. He could manage the stairs, but it was a bit of an effort. The room was a bit smaller than his usual one, but no less comfortable, and even had its own en-suite.
With nothing left to do, John found David in the kitchen, sitting on a barstool at an island counter, a fresh cup of coffee in hand. Pouring himself one, John joined his brother, and not long after, Cindy swept in, first giving John a more gentle hug than usual, then grabbed a coffee, and they spent some time catching up.
John loved hearing about the kids, especially how well Daniel was doing in his martial arts classes, where the staff John had given him last Christmas was the envy of the class. And both kids had been allowed to attend their first three-day-event, which both were now determined to compete in next year. David was sure they'd have the dressage down-pat, but he was still worried about them show jumping and doing cross-country. John felt a reminder of how young David and he had been when they started eventing would be timely.
"We started riding before they did, it's not the same," David said with a frown.
"Whose fault is that?" John asked.
"Okay, maybe I see your point... again."
"Just ease into it, start off with cavaleties, then move on to low jumps. They don't have to be clearing sixty centimetres from the start," John said with a satisfied smile.
"Well of course," David replied, "they're not you, they need practice."
"Eagle spooked while we were out on the trails, I didn't mean to jump that log," John said defensively.
For some reason, Cindy's eyes widened and she nudged Dave, who nodded, then cleared his throat. "On that subject, I have something to show you, if you think you can make it out to the stables."
Suspicions rising at Dave and Cindy's suddenly clandestine attitudes, John narrowed his eyes. "Easy peasy," he said casually, drinking the last of his coffee.
Setting down their own empty mugs, John's brother and sister-in-law stood and headed to the backdoor, Cindy with an excited spring in her step, David with his usual, somewhat stiff demeanour. When the door slid open, Daniel and Gabrielle were drawn out of the living room, and they bolted down the hall to catch up, grinning like Christmas had come early.
With no clue as to what his family had in store for him, John followed them out to the stables.
The familiar smell of horses, hay, and molasses greeted him as he approached the large wooden building. Inside, they passed a few old faces John remembered from way back, and several new faces. David stopped outside a stall half-way down the aisle, and called the horse inside to the gate.
John approached cautiously, unsure of how the horse would react to both the sound and sight of his cane, then he saw the horse reach out its head to nuzzle Dave, and he forgot all about the stick in his hand. "Eagle?" he said uncertainly.
The horse pricked its ears, staring at John, then it nickered a greeting. John closed the remaining distance, and reached up to stroke the bay gelding.
David was smiling. "I could never bring myself to sell him, as he's been with the family most his life, but he wasn't getting worked properly," he explained, "so I leased him out. After the amazing gifts you got us for Christmas, I wanted to say thank-you, uh, properly."
They shared a glance while the memories of a certain orange shirt surfaced.
Clearing his throat, Dave continued, "Anyway, the contract had an agreed notification period before I could bring him back, but then I thought, it's only a little longer until it expired completely, so I let the kid hold onto Eagle until he found a suitable replacement, and now, here we are."
Checking the stall guard was in place, John opened the gate, slipped under the guard, and gave Eagle a proper hug. Checking him over, John was impressed by his condition. "He'd be getting close to thirty by now, wouldn't he? Shouldn't he be retired?"
"I had the vet out a few weeks ago, just after Eagle arrived. He said Eagle's got a few more good years in him. He's twenty-seven, after all. The plan is to retire him once he reaches thirty," David said smiling, watching John pick up Eagle's feet.
"You don't seem very rusty around horses," Cindy remarked.
"Like I reminded Dave earlier, we were raised with horses; it's not something you forget easily."
"Shouldn't you stay on your cane?" David asked, seeming to notice for the first time that John had left it outside the stall.
"Don't want to spook him," John answered, running a hand along Eagle's spine, administering his own basic check up. He had bought Eagle when the gelding Warmblood was three, and had trained him to be a champion jumper. Cross-country had always been John's favourite equine sport; galloping up hills and flying over jumps had felt like freedom. He hadn't thought anything could top it, until he started flying planes and helicopters in the airforce.
Gabrielle and Daniel entered the stall, approaching Eagle sensibly, and petting him.
"Was Eagle your first horse, Uncle John?" Gabby asked in awed tones.
"The first I owned properly," John said, checking Eagle's teeth.
"They haven't been allowed in to see him yet," David said, explaining the kids' behaviour.
Gabby nodded. "Daddy wanted Eagle to see you first," she said brightly. "There's carrots in the bin just near the stall, do you want me to get one?"
"I'll get it," Daniel said, ducking out of sight. He returned in little time, offering the vegetable to John. "Eagle's a really cool name. How'd you choose it?"
"Thanks," John said, accepting the carrot from his nephew. "Well, eagles are one of my favourite animals, and I knew I was going to raise him as a jumper, so it seemed like a good fit."
John smiled, holding the carrot up to the horse, who munched on it happily, settling, in John's mind, that his teeth were sound. "Only thing left to do is to take him for a ride."
David frowned, "Don't you think that should wait? You're here on medical leave, after all."
"Hmm," John thought about this as he gave Eagle a good neck rub. "You're right. I'll leave it 'til the weekend."
"I'm supposed to come off the cane then, so it'll be fine. Hey, 'it's not dangerous if you know what you're doing'," John said, quoting David's favourite childhood defence whenever he got caught jumping higher than he was supposed to.
David conceded, for now. "In that case, why don't you take the cane back now, and rest properly this week, and then we can talk about this again on the weekend."
"Alright," John muttered, exiting the stall and grabbing his cane.
"But yeah," Dave said, gesturing to the kids to follow their Uncle, "I wanted you to meet him today, so now you know, if you get bored during the day, you can come see Eagle whenever you want. The carrot bin is there," he pointed just a bit further down the aisle, "and next to it is an apple bin. If you need anything else, the stable manager's office is opposite the tack room, if Ben's not out with the horses, that's where he'll be."
John hesitated, unsure of how to properly express how much seeing Eagle meant to him. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again, but from the look in David's eye, he didn't need to say a word. Horses had been their strongest bond as kids, and it had even lasted, to a point, when they were teenagers.
Dave rested a hand on John's shoulder, and shared a smile. "Alright, let's get these two sickies back to the house before they pass it on to the horses." Winking conspiratorially at John, David overrode his children's protests, and they returned to the house for lunch.
Daniel and Gabrielle had pumpkin soup for lunch, with an extra serving of veggies on the side, which John suspected was Cindy's sneaky punishment for chucking a sicky, especially when she loudly and obviously offered him desert, which he politely declined. John's own lunch had been a very nice turkey sandwich, reminding him how much better earth food was; food in the SGC didn't necessarily qualify, as it came from that most frightening of places- a military base mess hall.
Afterwards, the kids were sent to their rooms for a nap, 'to let all those vitamins help fight the flu', and John spent some time in the small gym room Dave had that didn't seem to see a lot of use, beyond the treadmill and bicycle machine- fitness was more important than strength for most equine sports.
With a wistful glance at the weights, John settled himself on the yoga mats, and ran through his physio exercises that Angela had set him, then, as he figured there was no impact through his legs when cycling, he got good and sweaty with some cardio. When he ran out of both exercises he was allowed and steam, John returned to his room to shower, then whiled the afternoon away lounging on the deck overlooking the pool, listening to his iPod.
When Cindy joined him with a cup of tea, John pulled out his earphones, and they had a nice talk, as she asked him about breaking in Eagle, and he asked about the newer horses he had seen in the stables.
As the sun began to set, Cindy stood up. "Well, it's been lovely chatting, but I need to get started on dinner."
Grabbing his cane, John stood too. "I'm not sure how much help I'll be, but-"
Cindy laughed, "I'm sure you'll do just fine."
She had him sit on one of the barstools at the island counter, knife and chopping board in hand, as she set him to work prepping a myriad of vegetables, while Cindy herself worked over the stove, prattling away.
The stir-fry they ended up concocting turned out quite nice, as David remarked. Dinner conversation was kept light-hearted by the kids, enthralled as ever with their Air Force Uncle.
Once the kids had finished their own dinner of chicken and pasta soup, they cornered John, as promised, asking him if he wanted to watch a movie with them. With a glance at Cindy to affirm they were allowed, he acquiesced, and was led by a very excited Gabrielle to the lounge room, Daniel following.
John sat on the couch in the well-appointed room, as Daniel quickly set up, turning on a few more devices than were used back in the Atlantis rec room, and swiftly placing the disc in the player.
"So, what are we watching?" John asked, silently hoping it wasn't Frozen again. There was only so many times you could hear 'Let it go' before you wished they would.
"Big Hero Six," Daniel replied happily.
John frowned, "I don't think I've heard of that one, is it good Gabby?"
Gabby, bouncing in her seat next to John, smiled up at him. "I lurrrrr-ved it," she drew it out, batting her eyelashes.
"Alright, I'll take your word on it," John said, and his niece beamed even brighter.
As the music started playing, David stuck his head around the doorframe. "Big Hero Six again?"
"Uncle John hasn't seen it yet," Daniel said quickly, his eyes not leaving the screen. Clearly he did not want to miss a second.
"Alright, I can admit, I really enjoyed that one. Once the movie's over you two need to go to bed though, okay? After all, sleep is the best thing to help you recover."
The only response from the children was a short but loud sushing.
"I'll make sure they get to bed, Dave," John assured his brother.
Nodding his thanks, David bowed out.
Turning his attention to the movie, John settled in, finding a position that was comfortable for his leg, and sat back to enjoy the show.
The movie had been pretty good, and John decided he needed to bring a copy back to Atlantis to show everyone. He had found a few coincidental parallels to life in the Pegasus Galaxy- Replicators and Stargates being foremost of these.
John smiled at the thought of McKay dissecting what he was sure were a myriad of science fiction liberties throughout the movie, as he chaperoned the kids to bed, overriding their protests as they climbed the stairs. "I'm going to all the effort of coming up the stairs with you, the least you can do is go to bed like your father wants." However, somehow Gabrielle was able to swindle a bedtime story out of him. That adorable child was dangerous.
By the time he finally had Daniel and Gabrielle in bed, John was exhausted. He found David in his home office and said goodnight, before dropping in on Cindy, reading in the study, to wish her a goodnight as well. He then made his way to his room, quickly got ready for bed, and was soon fast asleep, dreaming of flying Eagle through San Fransokyo.
The week passed fairly uneventfully. The kids had a 'miraculous' recovery in the morning, and attended every other day of school. David was pretty tied up at the company, so John spent a good deal of time with Cindy around the house, pitching in with a lot of the day-to-day chores to keep the house running. Dave and Cindy had hired help to take some of the load off maintaining such a large house and yard, particularly with the horses, but they weren't fully dependent on it, which John not only respected, but admired. Making a family had certainly kept David a bit more down-to-earth than he had been at the time John fell out with their father.
John enjoyed helping out, especially helping around the stables, although, not having had to do much in the line of housework for the last five years, he struggled a bit, which Cindy seemed to put down to his bad leg. John was content to let her think that. He took over daily grooming of Eagle, leaping at the opportunity to reaffirm his bond with the horse, and snuck him a few extra apples and carrots. He had to make up for all the years he'd been absent, after all.
Saturday saw Daniel and Gabrielle tearing through the house at 6:30 in the morning, waking John in their excitement. With a sort of amused resignation, John got out of bed. Realistically, it had been a rather long sleep in, compared with his sleep patterns on Atlantis, but, of course, a recovering body lapped up all the sleep it could manage. Reminding himself it was the last day he had to use the cane, he decided to make pancakes for everyone, delighting the kids to no end.
David and Cindy had been somewhat suspicious when they came downstairs to the smell of flour and sugar, but had praised his pancake skills after their first few bites. As they ate, Daniel and Gabby begged their parents to go for a riding lesson today, and when they secured permission for that, they begged John to come watch them.
"Puh-lease, Uncle John?" Gabby pouted, her blue eyes swimming.
"Sure thing," John said, "as long as you two help me with the dishes."
"Okay!" Their eager agreement made John smile, and they quickly set about cleaning up the mess he had made in the kitchen.
Daniel rushed upstairs the moment the last dish was loaded in the dishwasher, followed by Gabrielle's reminders of 'mom says not to run in the house' even as she skipped after him. They came down shortly after in full riding getup; jodhpurs and polo shirts, helmets tucked under their arms, conveniently carrying their gloves and chaps.
"Hold up, give me a chance to get dressed," Dave said as they headed out the back door.
"Daddy, I'm not seven, I can tack up on my own now," Gabrielle said matter-of-factly, rolling her eyes and grabbing her boots out of the small crate near the door.
Dave stared, nonplussed, at his daughter's retreating form.
John laughed at his brother's dumbfounded expression, before excusing himself to get dressed. He didn't exactly have proper riding clothes anymore, but jeans, a t-shirt, and his combat boots served well enough for spectating. When he was practically attired, John met David on the way out to the stables, who was dressed similarly to his children, gloves, helmet, and all.
John had checked out the stables pretty thoroughly over the week, but hadn't been inclined to walk the extra distance to the training yard, which he hadn't seen since the upgrades he had noticed at a distance during his last visit. The training yard was the same size- 66ft by 132ft- standard size for a dressage arena. The old painted wooden fence had been pulled out and replaced with taller metal piping, a large roof had been raised over its entirety, and rather than sand flooring, it now used shredded rubber, like the stuff used in the olympic arenas. All this meant that it was safer for both rider and horse, as well as more robust, and could be used in pretty much any weather. While John felt a pang of loss, remembering lessons from his mother in the old sand arena, he was impressed and a little bit envious of the fancy new arena.
He took a seat on the tiered benches overlooking the arena while David set up a course of trot poles. When Daniel and Gabrielle led their horses in, they called out and waved at John. Returning the gesture, he marvelled at their natural horsemanship. It seemed they weren't only learning english riding.
Dave checked both horses' tack over, then helped each child mount, pulling their girth straps just a bit tighter- no matter how well trained a horse was, once there was a rider in the saddle, the girths magically came loose as the horse lets out its cheeky breath.
David had them warm up their horses by walking then trotting the perimeter on both reins, then put them through their paces, with a focus on soft contact and leg aids, working on clear communication. Daniel had the softest contact, but his horse, Blaze, often took advantage of it, while Gabby was firm and consistent, keeping Cessie, which John had learned was an abbreviation of 'Princess', well in line, but relied too much on her reins to control the mare.
David had turned out to be a pretty great instructor, and there were a few of the exercises he set the kids that John was itching to try out on Eagle. Cindy turned up ten minutes in with a fancy camera that had a massive lens, and began snapping pictures. She even took a fifteen-minute video, explaining that Daniel and Gabrielle liked to watch their lessons after, so they could see their progress easier.
The lesson went on for an hour and a half, so the kids finished cooling down their horses around 9 o'clock. While they untacked and groomed their horses, John dropped in on Eagle, carrot in hand. When Dave turned up to chastise him, he quickly changed the subject to having a lesson of his own tomorrow. "I'll be off the cane then, and it'll be a good way to work out some of my frustration at being cooped up for so long."
His brother sighed, rubbing his forehead. "You know, I don't really think this is what your doctors had in mind when they sent you home to recuperate."
"They said no impact sports," John reminded him, "horse riding is about as far away from impact sports as you can get."
"I seem to remember a pretty big impact when Eagle ran you into that tree."
"So we just stay in the arena, and in any case, he was young and untrained back then. Eagle's a golden oldie now," John insisted. "Safest ride possible."
David hesitated, so John pressed his advantage. "Please, Dave? It's been so long..."
Throwing up his hands in surrender, Dave huffed, "Fine! But tomorrow. I don't want you to set foot in a stirrup until you're off the cane. Besides, the kids have plans for the rest of the day, and you know they involve you."
"Yes!" John pumped a fist. "You hear that, Eagle? We get to go for a ride tomorrow!"
Eagle nodded his head enthusiastically, reacting to John's energy.
"I just hope we don't regret this," David muttered.
First item on the agenda was morning tea, which took the form of a fruit salad, and the five of them sat on the pool deck, enjoying the clear autumn day. Covered in sticky juices, Daniel and Gabby ducked out from Cindy's grabbing arms, avoiding the damp face washer in their mother's hand, bolting inside to change into their swimmers.
They raced each other back out to the pool, as Daniel loudly proclaimed "Last one in's a rotten egg!"
With twin splashes, they dived into the crisp, clear water, squealing at the cold. Sharing a significant glance, Dave and Cindy vacated the area, taking the remaining fruit salad with them, and it wasn't long until John figured out why.
Tag-teaming, the kids started stalking John, trying their best to soak him, all the while both taunting him and asking him to come join them. Finally capitulating, John kicked his boots off, removed his socks, then jumped in after the brats. The water was definitely chilly, and his jeans weighed him down a bit, but John had plenty of fun with his niece and nephew, launching them in turn off his shoulders into the deep end of the pool, beating them in swimming races, and losing the breath-holding competition. They were in the middle of a hand-stand competition when Cindy called them inside for lunch.
"Come on, you'll catch another cold if you're in there too long," she said as she chivvied her children out the water, warm towels in hand. "You too, John," Cindy held up a third towel.
With a chuckle, John climbed out the pool, accepting the towel from his sister-in-law. "Thanks," he said as he wrapped himself in the warm towel. It felt heavenly. "You know, you two have probably got the best mom on earth," John commented to Daniel and Gabrielle, now also bundled up in towels.
"That's right, you little monsters," Cindy said, ruffling their wet hair. "Come on, hot showers then lunch."
Thoroughly warm and dry, they sat down to homemade tomato soup with fluffy, lightly toasted bread, then took over the kitchen to bake blueberry muffins and chocolate-chip cookies, making a solemn vow not to eat all the dough before it reached the oven. The fruits of their labours became their afternoon tea, after which they conned Dave and Cindy into joining them for a game of Cranium, forming two teams- Dave and Cindy versus Daniel, Gabby, and John.
They were so absorbed in the game that they didn't notice how late it was, and Dave decided to order pizza for dinner. Daniel and Gabby were extremely excited by this prospect, and John gathered they didn't get take away that often. It certainly felt at odds, eating their pizzas in the fancy lounge room, piled around the TV, watching Flicka 3, Gabrielle's movie choice. As much as he tried to enjoy the horse movie, John couldn't help but snicker quietly every time Flicka changed breed.
Anticipating another early morning, courtesy of the kids, John went to bed shortly after the movie ended, despite Gabby and Daniel begging for stories of his eventing days. It was a while before he fell asleep, however, as he started to grow excited for the morning. It reminded him of how he used to feel the night before a competition, as he would lie awake in bed, running over a mental checklist of things he needed to pack onto the float in the early hours of the morning.
John woke at five fifty on Sunday morning. Peeking out the curtains, he felt elated at the clear skies, hardly a cloud in sight, even as the remnants of a wispy fog evaporated. The heavy dew was only partially frosted, suggesting a perfect day for riding- not too hot, not too cold, and not too wet. With his jeans still in the laundry, John stayed in the sweats and t-shirt he had slept in, pulling a warm jumper over his shirt, and slipped his feet into his joggers, laces still tied from Friday.
Leaving his cane behind, John ventured out to the kitchen, where he made himself a cup of coffee, and sat at the island counter, gazing out the window to the stables, where he could see the stable hands already at work, letting the horses out into the smaller yards near the large building, where they worked out their jitters after being kept in the stalls all night, the cold air making them a bit frisky.
Daniel came downstairs at a quarter past six, and made a mug of hot chocolate. Sitting up at the counter, next to John, he mimicked his uncle's posture, nursing the steaming beverage in one hand while staring out the window.
"What's up, kiddo?" John asked after a moment of silence.
"Oh, you know, just the usual," Daniel said vaguely, sipping his drink.
"Ah, yes," John answered, fighting the urge to laugh at his nephew's serious, mature expression. Finishing his coffee, John got up, rinsing his mug before digging around the fridge, pulling out everything he needed to make a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and mushrooms for everyone. He enlisted Daniel's help frying the bacon, and, when Gabby came downstairs, he had her set the table.
Cindy followed not long after her daughter, and sat at the island counter with her own coffee, watching the borderline mayhem with a smile on her face. When David finally came down, he was once again dressed in full riding gear, with spare jodhpurs, gloves, and chaps folded in one hand. "And I thought the kitchen was a mess yesterday," he commented dryly.
"My kitchen wenches will clean it up," John joked.
"I brought you these," Dave held up the folded garments, "seeing as your jeans are still damp. They won't be a perfect fit but they're better than nothing."
John nodded his appreciation, as he quickly asked around for everyone's egg preferences.
They sat down to eat at seven, and it took a full half-hour to clean the kitchen, even with the five of them combined- John could cook most things to be edible, but he had never been neat about it. And so, by the time they had everything sorted, it was just past eight. With a sigh, John grabbed the spare clothes Dave had brought down, and quickly changed. The pants were a little loose around the waist, and the gloves weren't quite long enough for his fingers, but all in all, it was a decent fit.
Excitement building, John met Dave at the back door, and they headed to the stables, a slight thundering down the stairs letting them know Daniel and Gabby would be right behind them.
Dave headed first for the stable's tack room, where John tried on a few different helmets and boots 'till he found a good fit, and David picked up Eagle's tack.
Tying the horse up in one of the wash stalls, John quickly saddled Eagle, and then led the gelding out to the training yard, where Dave was waiting, having set up a new course of trot poles.
"You know, it's not too late to back out," his brother said as the kids waved from the seats. "I'm sure your leg-"
"Is healed, doesn't even hurt anymore," John insisted.
With a resigned sigh, Dave posted Eagle, giving a three count before John swung himself easily into the saddle. "Alright then," Dave said, tightening the girth, "warm up with two walking laps on each rein, then one lap trotting the length on each rein."
Nodding, John gave Eagle a gentle squeeze with his calves with a vocal cue, clicking his tongue, and Eagle responded immediately, plodding along, following John's guiding legs. After the first few strides, John asked for a livelier walk with a second, longer squeeze. The first few laps were easy, and John found himself slipping easily back into the movement, the gentle rocking of the saddle as it rose and fell with the horse's legs. Horse riding was like riding a bike- your body didn't forget it.
After warm up, Dave got him on a lunging rein, removing John's stirrups so he had to sit to the trot, as Eagle jogged circles around David. Once he was sure his brother had the rhythm back, David gave him back his stirrups and had him trot down the length and half the width, before turning into the middle, where they had to stop dead in the centre of a slightly raised square created by four trot poles. Next, John had to wind Eagle through bending poles; narrow, vertical poles placed in a line. Then, they began working on transitions, making John ask for a trot on the width of the arena, then a canter on the outside leg along the length.
John was having a blast, even as Eagle chucked in the odd refusal, evidently having got used to the holiday he'd been enjoying. Daniel and Gabrielle cheered, clearly impressed with their uncle's skill, and Cindy's camera clicked and flashed. Feeling the wind whip through his hair as he and Eagle careened down the length, both of them blowing off a bit of steam, John wondered why he had ever stopped riding, why it had taken him this long to come back to it.
Trotting the width, he prepared to go back into the canter as they turned the corner, only when he asked, Eagle skipped a beat. Rather than engaging from his hind legs, leaping into the canter, Eagle decided a larger trot would do just fine. John, expecting a surge from behind, instead got a rise from the front, and became unseated.
Time slowed and stretched, as he tried, first, to correct Eagle's pace, but each stride threw him further off-balance. Focusing on his seat, he tried to recover, his hands moving, too slowly, to the pommel of the saddle. The fourth stride of the not-canter made John slip to the left, and he knew in that moment, he was going to fall off.
It was a surreal experience, as the moment he had the thought, adrenaline kicked in. He'd had moments like it before, mostly on the battlefield, in the heat of combat. Time no longer seemed slow, but his brain moved at top speed, as he realised he would land on his bad leg. Carson's gonna kill me, John thought. Processing his rapidly dwindling options, John kicked his feet out of the stirrups and spotted the tall metal fence on his left, just within reach. If he could just-
Grabbing the top of the fence in both hands, John pushed his weight up into his hands, intending to lower himself gently to the ground, but he hadn't had as good a grip as he thought, and he immediately slipped, clipping his side against the fence rails on the way down to the ground, landing on his butt.
Eagle carried on a few strides then stopped, looking back with a confused expression.
Feeling winded but otherwise okay, John moved to stand up, but stopped when he heard David yelling.
"Sit back down right now!" His brother ran over, while Cindy climbed through the fence and made her way over too. With a shout, Daniel and Gabrielle ran into the stables.
David arrived first, having been closest. "Hold still a moment," he ordered.
"Did you hit your head?"
"No," John answered breathlessly.
"Do you feel any sharp pain?"
"Can you feel your legs?"
"Can you move them?"
John wriggled his legs by way of answer.
Sighing, John wiggled those too.
"Where did you hit?"
"Just grazed my side, honestly, Dave, I'm fine, just winded."
David wasn't listening, as he lifted up John's shirt, "I can see a bit of a red mark here," he lightly traced the lower left back of John's ribcage.
"The kids are getting the first aid kit," Cindy said, taking a peek at the reported mark. "Just sit still and breathe deeply."
"You didn't hurt your leg again, did you?" Dave asked, concern writ all over his face.
"No, don't think so." John flexed his leg experimentally. It seemed fine. He pulled off his helmet and Cindy fully removed his shirt to get a better look at the impact site.
"What were you thinking? Grabbing the fence like that!" David's concern was quickly turning to anger.
"That Carson was gonna kill me if I hurt my leg," John answered truthfully.
The kids turned up then with the first aid kit, then stood around, staring, apparently unsure of what they should do now.
Cindy opened some sterile wipes, and cleaned the light abrasions on John's wrists, the gloves having protected his palms from the worst of the damage. As she turned back to the kit, she seemed to spot Daniel and Gabrielle. "Why don't you two go secure Eagle?" she said, a hint of reproach in her voice. It was then John realised the kids hadn't seen him without a shirt on before- they hadn't seen the full extent of the scars he bore.
Wincing, he apologised to Cindy. "I'm sorry, I never meant for them to see-"
"It's not your fault," Cindy said, cleaning the small cuts on his side. "There now," she said, tucking the empty wrappers into her pocket and packing the first aid kit back up. "We should get you inside so you can get some ice on that, then we'll head up to the hospital."
"I don't think that's needed-"
"John," Dave said, "You fell off a 17 hands horse into a metal fence and hit your ribcage, you could have internal bleeding."
"I've done that plenty of times before, the internal bleeding, that is, and I know just what..." he trailed off as he felt a vague burning across his diaphragm. "Okay, hospital it is."
David helped him back into his shirt, then helped him stand up. As Cindy escorted John back to the house, Dave took Eagle off the kids, who were quiet and subdued.
Once inside, Cindy sat John down in the lounge room while she fetched a chemical ice pack. David and the kids came inside not long after, and Dave, after checking John didn't feel any worse, led John to the garage, leaving Daniel and Gabrielle with Cindy.
They made it to the ER without incident, and the moment the nurses at the reception heard John had fallen off a horse, he was pulled straight through to triage. There, he was put under special observation, where he had an ultrasound scan, and was then taken for a chest x-ray. Once the docs there were satisfied there was no immediate danger, John was moved to the normal observation beds, where he was kept for a few hours. Assured that his condition had not worsened, and that John was bright-eyed and bushy tailed, the final diagnosis ended up as a sprained rib, and he was finally discharged with orders to come straight back if he started vomiting or had trouble breathing.
On the car ride back, John pondered over what he was going to say to the kids.
"Cindy's had a talk with Gabby and Daniel," Dave said.
"How did you-"
"What else would you be looking so worried about?"
"How are they?"
"More worried about you than anything. I guess a text message doesn't prove much."
"No, it doesn't," John agreed quietly.
When they arrived back, they were greeted by a concerned Daniel and Gabrielle, who seemed to need to see their Uncle was okay with their own eyes. There wasn't much of the day left by this point, so John asked if they wanted to watch a movie.
Relaxing in one of the reclining arms chairs, John watched Daniel set up for his choice of movie; How to Train Your Dragon. Sighing at the dull, muscular pain in his side, John smiled as the movie started. "This is Berk..."
The last week of recovery flew by, and in what seemed like no time at all, John was hugging Dave and his family goodbye, as a taxi waited to drive him to the airport- none of the earth ships with Asgard beaming tech were in orbit. Cindy hurriedly passed him a glossy photo, flashing a cheeky smile. Heading down the steps to the drive, John kept up a constant stream of waves as Gabby and Daniel continued to call out farewells. It wasn't until he was seated in the back of the taxi that John got to take a look at the photo Cindy had given him.
It was a blurry photo of John, halfway through falling off Eagle. Of course she caught that on camera.
When he finally made it back to Atlantis, he was greeted not only by his team, but by Mr. Woolsey, Major Lorne, Doctor Keller, Doctor Beckett, and even Lieutenant Kerrigan, who was probably hoping to hear about Sullivan, who still had another two weeks rehab to go before she would return.
Before he got a chance to say anything, however, he was dragged off to the infirmary, Carson having been put on alert by the Colonel's stiff gait.
Sitting Sheppard up on an examination table, the Doctor came out swinging. "Alright, out with it, what did you do, lad?"
The Colonel sighed, "I had hoped at least a little bit of time to get settled back home before this came up."
"Too bad," Carson said. "You should have been walking perfectly by now, so, if you come out and tell me right now, I'll go easy on you."
John pulled off his shirt by way of explanation, the bruising on his side speaking eloquently.
"Och, how'd you manage this one?" Beckett said, pulling on disposable gloves and having a gentle poke at the healing cuts.
"Fell off a horse-"
"-onto a fence."
"Tell me I did not hear what I think I just heard," Rodney's irritated tones carried across the infirmary.
As McKay and the rest of AR-1 drew alongside the examination table, John handed Cindy's photo over.
"Oh, my god, you really did fall off a horse," Rodney complained.
"Right, scanner for you," Beckett said, pulling off the gloves.
"It was over a week ago, Doc, if there was any internal bleeding it would have caused a bigger problem before now." Sheppard tried to reason.
"I'm not worried about internal bleeding," Beckett answered, "I can feel a bit of calcification, which indicates a healing break in the bones."
"I had an x-ray done back on earth-"
"Broken ribs don't always show up on x-rays, just humour me, okay lad?"
John sighed, "Fine."
The ancient scan showed exactly what the earth-tech had been unable to; a large crack and the mineral-rich deposit around it as the body was already working to repair the damage.
"Now, how exactly did you manage to land on your ribcage first, and did you set your leg back any further?" Keller asked, disapproval colouring her voice.
"Well, Eagle had a bad transition into canter, and I lost my seat. I knew I was coming off onto my left side and that could hurt my leg, then I saw the fence was there so I kinda just... grabbed it." Sheppard tried to explain.
"Wait, who's Eagle?" Rodney asked.
"Why would you think breaking your fall with a fence is a good idea?" Jennifer demanded.
"And didn't I tell you not to go falling off any horses?" Carson chastised.
"You're in trouble," Ronon said in the understatement of the year.
Looking around at the varying states of emotion, from Teyla's resigned humour to Carson's concerned disapproval, John felt good to be back with his family, back home.
And now, it was time to fill his Atlantis family in on some of the things that had happened with his Earth one. "Okay," he began, "back when I was a kid..."
AN: So, once again, no medical training, but what I do have is the experience of falling off a horse 4 weeks ago, grabbing the fence to try and not hurt my bad knee, and breaking a rib instead. I'm pretty sure my GP hates me, but I know my Physiotherapist does for sure. His fault though- if he hadn't jinxed me by telling me not to fall off everything would've been fine.
Also, while I have a few more ideas knocking around in my skull, I promised myself I'd take at least a week to focus on my own novels, so it may be a while before I'm writing for SGA again, but I certainly will return.