CATEGORY: Drama, angst
Copyright Disclaimer: The Stargate Atlantis characters, as presented on the series, belong to MGM, Sci Fi, and other registered copyright holders. No copyright infringement is meant or intended by the writing and posting of this material. I'm just borrowing the characters and the universe for a piece of non-profit 'fan fiction' and will return in one piece (well, usually). Please do not repost this fiction, in whole or in part, anywhere, without expression written permission of the author.
SUMMARY: Did anybody really think that Major Sheppard could just walk away after all that happened to him on that planet? MAJOR SPOILERS for season one episode The Defiant One.
Okay, uh, story is in one BIG chunk until I figure out how to do the chapters thing....
Chapter One: Going Home
McKay seemed remarkably pleased with himself, and Sheppard was hard pressed not to give hearty congratulations to the scientist for whipping up a miracle in less than an hour. Ford and Jumper Two's team had arrived just minutes after the 10,000-year-old Wraith had been turned into fish food across the desert surface, courtesy of Lt. Ford's well-aimed shot. Yup, a foot there, a finger there, but that Wraith was never gonna get up and kill anyone again.
Now they could go back home. With some equipment from Jumper Two, McKay had managed to crack the force field - the blasted thing that had left residue of dancing blue and white sparkling lights dancing across Sheppard's vision when he'd run face first into the invisible shield - that the Wraith had erected on Jumper One. Damn, but that had stung and hurt fiercely, but the thought of getting caught by the Wraith and turned into some desiccated husk of a human had propelled him to get the hell out of there, despite the lingering sting across his body.
Both Teyla and Ford had fussed a bit over his injured arm. It was really was just a flesh wound. The bullet had scored the flesh, but hadn't punched any nasty holes through him or taken out the bone. It was a deep score, but nothing that had impaired use of his arm. The rest of his aches and pains were relegated more to bruises and muscle strains he knew he had sustained from his encounter with the Wraith. The roll down the hill hadn't done much except gotten sand scattered under his clothing, but the first smack the Wraith had delivered, sending Sheppard flying head over heel, had sure hurt, just as had the final blow in the chest when Sheppard had been desperate enough to stash the Power Bar on the Wraith to attract those pesky glowing bugs. Well, the plan had worked and he hadn't lost any limbs or years, and McKay had shown up in time to help. And he hadn't blown himself up with that Wraith grenade. Handy little devices. Darned shame he'd used up both of them, neither to any lasting effect.
Sheppard rubbed the side of his neck. The soreness had spread but he'd had worse in a football tackle back in high school.
Jumper One was nearly ready to go. The items the Wraith had trashed all over the place were now stowed back in their proper storage compartments. The glowing plastic things – damn, he could never remember the names of those translucent plastic things that McKay had spent nearly half an hour fiddling with when they were stuck in the wormhole. McKay had double-checked those things twice as the Wraith had been messing with them. In fact, that's how he had made the force field around the jumper. McKay was pretty sure that he could get the force field activated again so they could use it. Then on future missions, they wouldn't have to worry about finding Wraith inside the ship.
He couldn't wait to get off this god-forsaken world. It should have been an exciting scientific expedition – seek out and find some alien technology they could perhaps use to bolster Atlantis' defenses, or at least increase their fighting capabilities against the Wraith. Abrams and Gaul had both been gung-ho to visit the weapons platform, but when it had turned out to be a dud, neither had expressed any real trepidation in the side trip to the world below. Weir had had such trepidations. Maybe he should have listened to her. Anything to do with the Wraith – crashed ship or otherwise – could prove to be disastrous. But hindsight was 20/20, and he knew the mission briefing was going to be hell.
Both Gaul and Abrams were dead. Were they bringing back any handy technology? No. Instead, they were bringing back two body bags. Leave it to the military to make sure that when you're traveling to new and exotic galaxies, you bring along enough body bags… just in case. McKay had been very reticent to go back into the Wraith supply ship, and when Sheppard had seen Gaul's body, he knew why. The young man – now aged 30 or more years – had chosen to take his own life. Sheppard had felt a blackness envelope him upon hearing that news – he had suggested that Brendan hold a gun for self-defense purposes. He hadn't thought Gaul would have taken his own life, but then neither had McKay. But having the life literally sucked out of you, aged decades in seconds, was something nobody had covered in the traveler's guide to the Pegasus Galaxy.
Although Sheppard had taken Jumper Two's team to the downed Wraith ship and shown them where the bodies were to be found, it had been Markham and Collins who had brought back Gaul's body. Teyla and Ford had brought back Abrams. Ford had overridden Sheppard's desire to help. The bullet wound in the arm was, in both Ford's and Teyla's opinions, a strong reason not to be lifting heavy objects. He'd felt responsible that he should help bring back one of the men who had died under his command, but Ford's reasoning finally got through: his arm did hurt, and to be honest, both he and McKay were fried by the experience.
Sheppard had seriously considered burying the bodies on that planet, but then the thought of leaving them, even if properly buried, on a planet with just one atom of that Wraith, had burned the thought completely from his mind within seconds. He knew that Beckett would want to do autopsies, and that the two men would get a proper burial on the mainland. He hated the funerals. First it was Sumner, whom he hadn't known all that well, but he had known Marshall and Franklin, the two men whom Koyla's team had brutally slain in the abortive attempt to take over Atlantis. Since arriving on Atlantis, they'd lost five people. Not a large number in the greater scheme of things, but the death of anyone on Atlantis had lasting repercussions amongst all its personnel.
After shifting supplies between the two jumpers, they were ready to take off.
"Jumper one's a go," Sheppard felt a familiar sense of comfort as the alien vessel's energy thrummed through the joysticks. "Jumper two's a go," Markham's voice came clearly through the comm system. "We'll follow you."
"Major, you really should let me do the driving," Ford stood behind him, patiently waiting.
"We'll take turns," said Sheppard. "Besides, you just spent the last 15 hours behind the wheel."
"And you had 15 hours and how many more on the planet fighting a Wraith?" added Teyla.
"Well, yeah, but I'm too wired to just sit and do nothing," replied Sheppard. He sure as hell wished there was a convenient Stargate somewhere nearby. Somehow, he knew the 15 hours back was going to be a lot longer than the trip out. Teyla and Ford had switched over to Jumper One while Markham and Collins had the dismal task of being a funeral escort for the scientists' bodies.
"And," Sheppard added wryly. "Would you two stop looking at each other like that?"
McKay switched his gaze from Teyla, who stood behind him, to Sheppard. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, just go ahead and look at them." Sheppard gestured his head to the side, instantly wishing he hadn't. His neck was sorer than he originally thought. Oh well, those painkillers he took before back on the surface should handle it. "Teyla's got this stern look on her face, right? Something like Dr. Beckett gives you after you'd been nailed by a Wraith stun and you want to leave the infirmary but he's too busy tsking-tsking that you were foolish enough to end up there again. And Ford." Sheppard grinned. "Well, he just doesn't like being a backseat driver. That's more your domain, Rodney."
"You're calling me a backseat driver?" McKay glared at him.
"Yes. It's a darned sight better than you mangling the control sticks," said Sheppard.
"I did not mangle them."
"That's because I took over, or else we would have been impaled on that weapons platform."
"Are you still trying to teach McKay had to fly, sir?" asked Ford.
"Fly in a straight line is more like it," replied Sheppard.
McKay crossed his arms petulantly across his chest. "I seem to recall you saying I could fly us back."
"Yes, right after the Wraith blew up."
McKay had made that event sound so … ordinary. Maybe it was now. This was life in the Pegasus Galaxy. "I put one of the grenades right under that bastard and still he kept coming back," said Sheppard. "Definitely glad you showed up when you did, Ford. I did say thanks, right?"
"A few times, yes, sir," replied Ford.
As the jumper ascended through the atmosphere into space, the team just stared in silence at the massive weapons platform in the distance. It didn't seem that many hours ago that the atmosphere inside jumper one was radically different: McKay was squabbling with Gaul, or Abrams, or both, and driving him nuts with his flying skills. He'd complained about those hours trapped in the jumper with those men, but now, he'd give anything to go back to it and have those scientists alive and well.
But that was impossible. He knew McKay no doubt thought the same thing. When the scientist had been occupied with fixing and checking out the jumper's systems, he hadn't had time to dwell on what had happened. Now they would have hours – plenty of long hours – to think about everything that had gone wrong.
The omnipresent darkness filled the jumper's view screen. Sheppard checked the jumper's controls, and then set one of them. "All yours, Rodney."
The scientist glared at the controls. "It's on autopilot."
"For the next, hmm, 14 hours and 30 minutes?" said Sheppard with a crooked grin.
"Just wonderful," came McKay's sour reply.
"The two of you should rest," suggested Teyla.
Sheppard turned slowly in his seat. "You know, we really should stock magazines in these jumpers for the long flights, or maybe steal one of those portable DVD players. I'm sure I could watch The Thing for the twentieth time."
"You've seen The Thing twenty times?" said McKay incredulously.
"It seems like it. It was a favorite movie to play at McMurdo, and when you winter over at McMurdo, well, you see a lot of movies. A lot. It's not like you can go out and take a long walk to pass the time. Well, you can, but then you get frostbite or hypothermia. Or just freeze to death."
"The Thing. The black and white one or the color one?" said McKay, caught up in the inane conversation. "I've seen both, and while I realize the color one is more faithful to the story on which it was based, the black and white version is a classic. I mean, James Arness as a talking carrot."
Sheppard's brow furrowed in confusion. "Talking carrot?"
"Yes, the scientist… " McKay paused, then shook his head as though it didn't matter. "Well, his name escapes me but he was the one that wanted to reason with the alien, and at one point they referred to him as an intelligent carrot, or something like that."
"I just remember he sucked the blood out of the sled dog." Sheppard wasn't sure why that particular scene stuck in his mind, except that he liked dogs. "And in the color version, some head walked across the floor like a crab."
"Well, that's nice," said Ford. Sheppard imagined Ford didn't think it was nice but pretty disgusting.
"Yeah, well, who would have thought we'd find ourselves dealing with aliens like that for real," muttered Sheppard. He stared at his watch. 14 hours and 28 minutes give or take a few, left until they reached Atlantis. What were they going to do for 14 hours? He felt an odd feeling, a familiar one, and abruptly realized Ford was staring at him.
"Sir, I really think that both you and Dr. McKay should take a rest in the back."
"Sitting here isn't exactly strenuous," countered Sheppard.
"But you should rest," added Teyla again. This time exasperation crept into her normally calm voice. "You no doubt have more bruises than the one on your face."
"Oh yeah," muttered McKay, staring at him like some bug on a slide in a microscope. "That's a beaut. What happened?"
Sheppard felt both sides of his face, wincing as his hand touched the spreading contusion on the left side. "Oh, the Wraith slugged me. I stabbed him. I guess he got pissed off."
"Stabbed?" McKay gaped at him. "Pardon me for saying so, but that sounds pretty stupid. If you can't blow them up, what good would a knife be against one?"
"It was all I had." Sheppard paused, thinking back to the insane idea of going after a super-human Wraith with just a knife. "Out of bullets and grenades. Just thought I'd give that idea… a stab."
"Oh, that is so bad." McKay groaned and shook his head.
"I think that proves you're in no shape to drive, sir," said Ford.
"We're on auto-pilot," groused McKay.
There wasn't anything they could do upfront. Just stare at the blank blackness of the galaxy beyond and vivisect every decision made, how things might have been, and how to proceed in the future. "Fine, fine," said Sheppard begrudgingly. He stood up, realizing he did feel a bit stiff, but it wasn't anything too bad. "If I happen to fall asleep, I don't want to wake up and find out that McKay drove the jumper into the side of an asteroid and we have a huge dent in the side."
He'd planned on just grabbing the rear seat but Teyla instantly hooked her arm in his and steered him to the rear part of the jumper and sat him down on the padded seats. "You know, I can take care of myself. I was doing fine against that Wraith." "Yes," she agreed all too readily. "It's going to be a long trip. You may wish to lie down and get some rest."
McKay came back and sat down on the seats opposite. "I've been relegated to coach."
"And you think the forward section is what? First class?" Sheppard began to remove his vest, which would be a literal pain to lie on, when he stopped as a twinge of pain stabbed at his shoulder. He was about to protest Teyla's help when he thought better of it, so he let her remove the vest. The ache now ran from his neck down to the shoulder. Maybe another few Tylenol wouldn't hurt until they got back to base.
A few seconds later and Teyla actually deposited two tiny pills in his hand. "Do I look that bad?" he asked. Teyla nodded with a sympathetic smile that made him realize he probably did look that bad.
"You've looked worse," said McKay, rummaging through the supplies and pulling out a Power Bar. He stared at it as though he were reading the ingredients, one letter at a time.
Sheppard swallowed the pills and drained off the rest of his canteen. "Thank you, McKay. You don't exactly look like a spring chicken yourself." While McKay hadn't been victim of the Wraith's 'gentle ministrations,' he'd had to deal with Gaul. Somehow, physical abuse was far preferable to the psychological misery McKay must have endured. Death was never easy, and McKay hadn't really adjusted to just how prevalent it was in military situations. Another reason why Gaul's and Abrams' bodies were in jumper two. Somehow, Sheppard didn't think McKay could handle even five hours in close proximity with corpses of his colleagues, let alone 15 hours.
Sheppard lay down on the row of padded seats, grimacing as a multitude of aches stretched across his back. Had the Wraith hit him there? No, wait, he's landed on his back, but he'd been too busy trying to catch his breath and wondering if he'd lost an internal organ or two from the blow. Damn, what a mess.
"If I'd been paying attention…" said McKay's quiet voice.
Sheppard blinked. He hadn't realized his eyes had shut. He knew precisely what guilt was chewing away at the Canadian. "I told you to give him the gun, McKay. Neither one of us would have thought…"
"I should have known. When he asked…. When he asked to…"
Sheppard turned his head at McKay's pained voice, noticing that the Power Bar remained unopened. It took a lot to kill McKay's appetite. "Asked what?"
McKay looked down at the floor, as if it held all the answers. "He knew the Wraith had taken life from him. He wanted to see. I let him."
Damn. But who wouldn't? If faced with the same situation, he knew he'd want to know. But would he have shot himself? Lord, that was a difficult question. Gaul was the first person on Atlantis to really face that situation. The Colonel hadn't really had the option. He would have died no matter what.
"It wasn't your fault, Rodney."
"I had my back turned." McKay looked up at him.
"Not your fault," repeated Sheppard. "I shouldn't have left them alone, but we didn't know… we hadn't really thought that a Wraith could survive that long. A year ago we'd never heard of the Wraith. Hell, I'd never even heard of the Stargate. A lot of this is new to us. It's no excuse, but we are only human. We make mistakes. We pay high prices for those mistakes, and we can't go back and fix them. We just have to learn from them and move on."
McKay offered the tiniest of smiles. "You know, that sounds a bit like Elizabeth."
"Yeah, well, she's lectured me enough," Sheppard replied.
"Are you sure you're okay?" asked McKay again. "I mean... you really do look like hell."
"Heck, it's just a few bruises. I've had worse." Sheppard shut his eyes, for once not annoyed at the sound of the wrapper being opened.
Chapter Two: Arrival
My God, what had he been thinking? Going up against a Wraith with a knife? Did he really think he was going to slash the creature's throat, watch it drop dead in five seconds from massive blood loss, or maybe chop all its fingers off so it couldn't jam its hand against his chest and suck the life out of him? But no, the knife had just gotten stuck in the Wraith's hand. Then he'd been backhanded so hard that he'd seen a whole constellation of dancing stars before he'd slammed down on his right shoulder on the sandy surface. He turned over on his back, only to find the Wraith standing over him. Suddenly, the Wraith's massive hands were clenched around his neck, methodically squeezing the life out of him.
"Major! Wake up!"
Sheppard woke with a start, only to find Dr. Carson Beckett hovering over him and securely holding his wrists. The bizarre pressure still remained on his neck. After making sure Sheppard wasn't going to hit him, Beckett released his grasp. Sheppard immediately reached for his neck, which was now encased in something bulky and foreign.
"It's a neck brace, Major," said Beckett. Sheppard felt movement and then realized he was also on a gurney in the middle of the jumper. "You might have a case of whiplash from that Wraith striking you. We're just being careful."
"We're back at Atlantis?" Oh, that was a stupid question. It wasn't as though Beckett made housecalls in outer space. "I slept through the whole trip?"
Ford appeared in his peripheral vision. "You woke up a few times, sir, but you were emptying that Tylenol bottle pretty fast, so we did our best not to wake you."
"Thanks, I think." A groan involuntarily escaped Sheppard's lips as the gurney hit the ramp on its way out of the jumper, sending a wave of pain through him.
"You're pretty badly banged up." Beckett followed alongside the gurney. The good news, Sheppard noted, was the distinct lack of any intravenous rigs hooked up to him. "You look like you were hit by a car," continued Beckett.
"Wraith," muttered Sheppard. He hadn't taken enough Tylenol he decided.
"You might have some cracked ribs. X-rays will tell," explained Beckett. "But you're going to be grounded for a while."
"It's just some bruises," countered Sheppard sharply. Grounded! That was a death sentence for a pilot.
Beckett signaled to the corpsman and the gurney stopped. "Fine, then. Why don't you get up?"
An offer to escape being poked, prodded, X-rayed and lord knows what else? Sheppard started to get up, but pain pulled him back down to the gurney as though struck by intense G forces. Oh lord. Grounded? More like bedridden. Beckett patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, his face looking a little guilty for having pulled that stunt on Sheppard. "You'll be fine in no time."
Because there was no threat, imminent or otherwise, to the Atlantis base due to the mission to the weapons platform, Weir had given full control to Beckett over Major Sheppard, which meant no one would be visiting him until the doctor gave permission to drop by. All Beckett had said that was Sheppard would be all right, but that he had "messed himself up royally, again." Beckett wasn't fond of repeat customers, and Sheppard now had the dubious honor of having spent more time in the infirmary than any other expedition member, particularly since he put himself in harm's way with an alarming tendency.
Weir spent nearly an hour debriefing Rodney and the others involved in the rescue mission, but she sorely wanted Sheppard's version of what had occurred. The violent deaths of both Abrams and Gaul were eating away at McKay like some slow-acting acid now that he was back at Atlantis and had time to dwell on it. While Rodney was painfully accurate with facts, he still felt responsible for Gaul's death. It didn't matter that although yes, Rodney had put the gun in Gaul's hand at Sheppard's instruction, it had been Gaul who had made the decision and acted on it.
Weir wasn't a psychologist, although she understood enough of human psychology from her years in the diplomatic service to have a very good knowledge of the human psyche. But dealing with death on a daily basis was new to her, as it was to many of the civilian personnel on the base. The military members of the team handled it better, overall. McKay had known Gaul rather well. The two men had good-naturedly bantered back and forth over who the better scientist was even before they'd arrived at Atlantis. She knew McKay would eventually forgive himself for his perceived transgressions, but in the meantime, he'd need some careful handling.
The loud sound of gunfire had made him run faster. He thought he'd heard Sheppard yelling at the Wraith, but through the pounding of his own heart as he picked up his pace, he couldn't make out the words.
McKay had arrived just in time to see Major Sheppard flying through the air after the Wraith had struck him. Too late. Then he'd see movement; Sheppard was just stunned. McKay decided not to lose the opportunity and emptied his gun into the creature, but to no avail. The Wraith just seemed confused as to which person he should attack and suck dry first, and who should be wrapped up for a midnight snack. If Ford hadn't shown up when he had… McKay shuddered to think.
Two had survived. Two had died.
Scientifically acceptable odds. At least on paper.
The entire incident seemed worlds away, which, of course, it had been. McKay paced outside the lab. He had to go in there eventually. If not, Shantar would eventually come out, that is, if she didn't already know.
Gossip spread on Atlantis with the speed of Goa'uld nanobytes, even if its personnel were somewhat spread out. Even when it was 'public' knowledge, some people still didn't know until far later. After all, several of the scientists hadn't even realized that Sheppard's team had been trapped in a wormhole so many months ago when it had happened. But that had been just half an hour in total, and now, over 15 hours had elapsed since they'd left that unnamed world.
How could anybody on base not know by now?
McKay rubbed his hands together, realizing they were cold and damp. Nerves. Very frayed nerves. He could join Elizabeth and the others in the infirmary, but Carson had already told him that Sheppard would be okay in time. He'd spent hours with Sheppard in the jumper, so he was really pretty certain the Major would be okay. He only wished he could have slept through most of the trip, too, but then didn't like the reason why Sheppard had basically passed out.
Shankar had to be told but she probably already knew. McKay turned on his heel to leave, then stopped. No, this was his duty. Duty. That sounded so odd, so military. He was the chief scientist on base and virtually all of the scientific civilian population was under his command. This is what Sheppard had to do at times – break bad news. It wasn't all glory and saving the day.
It was nitpicking reports and sending them back full of critical comments, which is what he did more often than not.
Steeling himself, McKay entered the lab. It registered in his mind that the usually quiet lab was now filled with classical music. Yet it wasn't truly classical, not in the vein that he had studied it so long ago. He recognized piano, an organ, tympani, bells and more instruments, all arranged together in what those who liked to pigeonhole music might have been called New Age. Orchestral, yet not. He'd never heard the piece before, but it was both blissful and intensely sad at the same time, almost suitable for what had happened.
Dr. Venka Shankar was sitting on a stool across the room as though it were just another day. Her deep brown eyes were staring intently at the laptop on the counter in front of her. What was out of place was the pile of used tissues crumpled up near the slim computer. As he moved closer, McKay could see her large brown eyes tinged by red. Her olive-brown complexion seemed pale in the dim light, making her look older than her 30 some odd years.
Oh no. She knows. Now what? Leave before she sees me, or say sorry, your friend is dead. Just one of the hazards of going on a space mission.
"Venka," he managed weakly.
"I am glad to see that you are all right."
All right? He was anything but that. Leave it to Dr. Shankar to be concerned about his welfare. She had to be the most patient person on all of Atlantis, maybe even the whole planet.
"I'm… sorry about Brendan. I know you were friends."
The woman just made a barely imperceptible noise of regret. It was worse than if she'd screamed or cried. McKay just wanted out of there.
"He really loved this piece," the woman said.
McKay found himself drawn back toward the music, which was now accompanied by a soaring choral verse. "I don't recognize it."
"Novus Magnificat," replied Venka. A tired smile crossed her face, and she brushed back a stray hair from where it had escaped from the bun of thick black hair that she'd pinned in back of her head. "Brendan always said it was so perfect for this expedition. He liked to play it when he was tackling any difficult problems."
McKay wasn't sure how that particular piece of music would help in solving problems, but every person had a different methodology to help them achieve their goal. He liked to pace, he liked to talk out loud, even though he knew it annoyed others, but it helped him.
"Brendan left a note."
McKay coughed. Tense. "A note?"
"Lots of folks here have written up something, just in case something… happens," she explained. "Would you like to read it? It's here, on his laptop."
"Like a last will and testament?" said McKay tentatively.
"No. I don't think Brendan really cared what happened to his stuff here, as well, he didn't really have much, just the CDs, like the one you're listening to," said Venka. "You might as well read it. It's not that long."
He could always say no, no thank you, and leave, and wonder just what Gaul had written, what he wanted to be remembered by. He'd never really been a people person in that aspect. When he'd been very young, his aunt had died. He barely remembered her, but he couldn't forget her funeral. It had been been horrible. His relatives were squabbling over china and who deserved the silverware, and he'd spent most of his time hiding upstairs. Even his sister had finally retreated from what should have been a reflective occasion. He'd hated funerals ever since.
The music had hit a particularly pensive passage when Venka's voice intruded. "I'll read it if you'd like. Dear all, it begins. If you're reading this, I'm dead, but I know that I didn't die like my father did, sitting on the couch, a beer in hand, watching a barbeque infomercial. It took me several months to persuade Dr. Weir to let me in on the Atlantis expedition, and I know that I didn't regret a moment of it. Hopefully I died doing something meaningful (preferably historical!), but better yet, I died with a full head of gray hair of old age;) … and in another galaxy! That's it. What more can I say?" Venka coughed, then continued. "P.S. I leave my CD collection to Dr. Venka Shankar. I know she will give them the utmost loving care that they deserve. – Brendan Gaul."
McKay had felt dizzy at the mention of gray hair. Brendan had died exactly that way, aged 30 years in probably 30 seconds. That wasn't how the young man had wanted to die. Not at all. This was a very perverse trick played by the universe.
"I'm fine," he finally said, although he knew he wasn't. The music stopped. The silence was disturbing. It was followed by the swift sound of the CD being ejected from a player near the laptop. She took the slim round disk and inserted it in its plastic holder, then put that case atop a box of other CDs.
"Here." She handed the set to McKay, who numbly stared at CD casing staring at him. The words stared at him, at once mocking him but making him wonder. Novus Magnificat, Through the Stargate was the album's title. "They're yours if you'd like," she continued. Her brow furrowed, almost as if in apology. "Brendan and I were good friends, but not more than that, and he left me his CD collection because he knew I hated that piece with a vengeance, but I did promise him…" She did the sign of the cross against her chest. "That if he did die on this mission, that I would play it for him once, and I did, and now, I'm going to mourn him in the way that he knew I was going to, so if you leave, you won't offend me."
"Um, no, of course not," said McKay, not knowing what she meant. She slid another CD into the machine. She flashed a smile at him, one that was filled with loss and mourning, but also apology. A twangy guitar strum filled the air, followed by a cowboy type singing about great loss, and pickup trucks.
"It's just me," the woman shrugged regretfully.
McKay said nothing, but retreated quickly with the cache of tape, not fleeing so much from the awful lyrics of cheating ex-wives, but from the thought that Gaul had died for nothing.
Chapter Three: Reflections
Sheppard was beginning to doubt Beckett's credentials. He was reportedly a medical doctor with a few added degrees, but the pilot was starting to believe that the man's medical degree had been bought through some internet scam and Beckett had no idea what he was doing.
He only entertained that insane thought, he knew, because he felt a helluva lot worse now than he had before he'd entered the infirmary. What he really hated was the weird fuzzy feeling that made his brain feel like cotton. Beckett had given him something stronger than Tylenol to deal with the pain, along with a muscle relaxant to help with the strained muscles. Add to that a very restrictive neck brace that seemed to have pretty much immobilized him, and Sheppard knew he wasn't going to go down in Beckett's annals as the most cooperative patient.
All he could do is lie in the bed and be miserable, at least for one day. Lord, he hoped it wasn't more than that! Out of the corner of his vision, he spied Beckett puttering around the far part of the infirmary, a clipboard in hand, talking to a nurse.
Okay, it came out more as a whining plea, but he'd blame it on the drugs Beckett had shot into his system.
A moment later, Beckett came into his vision, looking down on him with what Sheppard perceived was a mixture of pity and, blast, impatience. He hadn't bothered Beckett that much since being stuck in the bed upon arriving back at Atlantis.
"Yes, Major. What is it this time?" Beckett went back to scribbling something on the clipboard.
"Can I have the laptop?"
"I need to write my mission report," insisted Sheppard.
"That's rather difficult to do if you're flat on your back."
"You could raise the bed."
"Aye, I could." Beckett finished writing, and then tucked the clipboard under his arm. Sheppard really didn't like the way the doctor was looking at him. The expression in the clear blue eyes was just so… superior. "Major, what do you know about car crashes?"
Maybe he'd hit his head, too, and hadn't realized it. He hazarded a guess. "They raise your insurance rates?"
"Typical American," sighed Beckett. He shook his head as though talking to a child, which irked Sheppard. "No, car crashes do damage to the body. You, Major, have basically been through two of them when that Wraith struck you not once, but twice. Between all the information I've been able to gather, you were thrown at least ten to fifteen feet. Twice. Luckily you don't have severe whiplash. Would hate to deal with torn facet capsulory ligaments out here in some remote galaxy."
"Um, okay." Damn, this had to be a lecture. Wasn't there something in the Hypocractic Oath about not torturing patients?
"And then there was the second blow, Major, the one that could easily have killed you." Sheppard had to think back. He remembering seeing being struck, but oddly enough, not really feeling the blow. It had all happened in some kind of surreal slow motion, and then he was smack on his back on the ground, watching little dancing pricks of bright light against the sky until he got his breath back. He thought he'd cracked a rib or two from that blow, but Beckett had actually seemed rather pleased when X-rays ruled out any breaks. "Major, are you with me?" Sheppard realized his mind was wandering. So easy to do when Beckett started on his speeches about safety in the Pegasus Galaxy. "Uh, sure."
"Anyway, I realize you probably won't see that bruise on your chest for a day or two since your neck is going to be rather stiff for a while," said Beckett. "But a blow like that could have easily killed you. And heavens knows what running face first into a force field did to you as well."
"You're repeating yourself. See, I am listening," said Sheppard with a smirk. Oh, he'd pay for that remark.
"It's good to know that you listen sometimes, Major." Beckett continued on. "If that blow had been just another inch to the left, you could have suffered mycardial contussion, or even an aortic tear. Do you realize that 80-90 of patients with thoracic aortic ruptures die before they get to the hospital? And you were nearly 15 hours out in that jumper." Sheppard decided to keep his mouth shut. Less talk, quicker this was over. "That blow was no different than slamming your chest into a steering wheel in a car accident, a prime cause of aortic ruptures."
Beckett suddenly looked more concerned than a second ago. "Is something wrong?"
"Can you just sum it up?"
The physician looked as if he were going to ignore that request, but thought better of it. "Point taken. For the next twelve hours, I want you flat on your back. No laptop. You wouldn't be able to get more than ten minutes on it anyway in your shape. You were operating on adrenaline out there, awake over 24 hours, fighting to survive against one of those damned Wraith, and now you're coming down and your body is insisting on rest. Whether or not your mind thinks it needs it. Is that clear?"
"If you're that keen on it, you could dictate your report," suggested Beckett. "I could have one of my—"
"No." Had that come out too sharp? "Uh, no, I'll do it later."
"If you need anything, just let us know." Beckett smiled. "You're best to try to get some sleep."
Sheppard's normal reaction would have been to nod his head, but that everyday response was definitely out of the question. "Sure." Beckett studied him momentarily, as if trying to ascertain if Sheppard was indeed all right. Apparently satisified that he'd won the battle and his patient wasn't going to drop dead on him, the doctor then went back to what he'd been doing.
The ceilings in Atlantis were boring, Sheppard decided very quickly. Surely he could persuade or blackmail someone into gluing a flat-screen monitor to the ceiling, which would give people like himself something to do while recuperating. But then again, if he stared at the ceiling long enough, perhaps he could just pass out from boredom. Better than—
"Major, are you okay?"
McKay's face abruptly loomed into view over him. "God, McKay. Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" hissed Sheppard. He should have not have tried to jerk his head back when startled. Big mistake.
"Should I get Beckett?" McKay began to look panicked.
"No, no. Just a twinge." Last thing he needed was Beckett coming back and insisting on more X-rays.
"I overheard him talking. I mean…" Sheppard winced at the extremely annoying screech that filled the air when Rodney dragged a stool up next to the bed. It was probably left there from when Weir, Ford and Teyla had visited earlier. McKay had been conspicuously absent. Elizabeth explained that he was busy talking with his fellow scientists, breaking the news. "He was talking about arteries and ruptures," McKay continued in his usual rushed voice. "Elizabeth said that you were fine. If he's holding something back then we should—"
"Rodney, it's whiplash."
"Whiplash?" Just at the edge of his peripheral vision, Sheppard could see the anxiety drain off the man's face, replaced instantly by confusion. "You mean, like you were rear-ended? By a car?"
"Yeah, but by a Wraith," finished Sheppard.
"Too bad you can't file a claim."
"Don't make me laugh." Bruised ribs were just as bad as cracked ribs – almost.
McKay sounded truly apologetic, which Sheppard knew was out of place, esepcially since he could see that the other man was finding something on the floor much more interesting than looking at him. It took a lot to get McKay rattled to this degree; he'd done remarkably well when Kolya's men had tried to take over the base not that long ago. Elizabeth had told him just how much of a smartass the scientist had been against the Genii military leader. That hadn't been too difficult, really, but putting himself in the way of a gun to save Elizabeth. That had taken true courage. It had been a stressful several days for everyone after that attack, but more so for Rodney and Elizabeth, who'd had their lives repeatedly threatened throughout the crisis.
He knew why Rodney was out of sorts now. It was the same reason why Sheppard didn't want to dictate a mission report.
They both needed to talk about what had happened. It hadn't helped at all that while on the planet, McKay had thrown himself into jumper repair with a vengeance, even to the point of obsessively arrnaging items back in the cargo nets. He did want off that planet – everybody did – but he didn't want to go back to that Wraith ship. Sheppard hadn't argued the point, letting jumper two's team take on the depressing details of the recovery mission – bringing back the bodies. It hadn't helped that once back on board the jumper and into space, Sheppard had easily succumbed to exhaustion. The chance to let Rodney hash it out in a neutral environment had been lost.
"So, you did the briefing without me." Not a question. A fact.
"Well, you were playing Sleeping Beauty back here with Beckett," remarked McKay.
"More like the Marquis-de Sade. Don't ever let Beckett tell you X-rays don't hurt," said Sheppard. McKay directed that patented 'are you insane?' stare that the pilot was now long accustomed to receiving from the scientist. "Not the X-rays themselves. Just him telling you not to move when you feel like your head's being ripped off."
"That's why I've always worn a seatbelt."
Uh-yup. McKay was busy deflecting the conversation. Sheppard was an expert at that himself. "Elizabeth gave me the rundown of the briefing." Dead silence. Not good. McKay always had something to say. "I was in charge of the mission, Rodney, not you. I made the decisions."
"Not all of them."
Sheppard shut his eyes, counting to three. For a man with a genius IQ, McKay could be incredibly naïve about what made people tick. "We're in a war, McKay. People die. And not very nicely."
"Oh, I hadn't noticed that," snapped McKay. The scraping sound of the stool shooting out from under the man was next noise Sheppard heard.
Dammit. "McKay." He could hear the scientist leaving. "McKay!" Sheppard lifted his head. Everything exploded.
"For God's sake, Major! What did I tell you about moving your head?" Beckett's irate but apprehensive voice cut through the haze of pain that swirled around his head. "D'ye think I put that damned brace on you for decoration?!"
"He's not going to be paralyzed, is he?" McKay's voice, horrified.
Oh, that yelp was me, Sheppard realized. The jolt of pain in his neck and shoulders had subsided down to a manageable throb now that he'd stopped moving. What an incredibly stupid thing to do. He knew Beckett was going to stab him with a needle next to send him off to la-land, if he hadn't already, or else duct tape his head down to the bed.
"You." Sheppard opened his eyes to see Beckett pointing across the bed at McKay. "Sit. Now." Remarkably, McKay obeyed, pulling up the stool this time without screeching it across the floor. "Now whatever the two of you were talking about before this fool here nearly did more damage to himself, finish it. Peacefully. No more stalking off in a huff. "The next finger was aimed unerringly at the space between Sheppard's eyes. "Don't move. You went as white as my grandmother's best china. One more incident like this and you're sedated for the next 48 hours. Do I make myself clear? Don't nod. Just speak, and you'd better say what I need to hear."
"Yes." Sheppard was horrified his response came out almost a squeak. Maybe it was the pain.
Beckett poked around a little more, at least not causing any more misery, but seemed satisfied that Sheppard hadn't done any damage to himself. He left, muttering something in Scottish so Sheppard was sure he was better off not knowing what was being said as it was surely an insult of some kind.
"Sorry." Both men's apologies collided.
Sheppard had to restrain himself from trying to look at McKay – something that wasn't difficult to do now that he'd had a taste of the results. The scientist was intentionally choosing to remain just out of his visual range.
"No, Major, I know—" McKay hesitated for a moment. Sheppard could well imagine McKay was studying the floor, or his fingernails, or anything but looking at him. "I know that Gaul made his own decision. He was convinced he was dying. And I… I think I denied that fact. He said that the Wraith left him with just enough life force so that I could watch him die." Sheppard knew precisely why, but let McKay continued. "I wanted to help you, but I couldn't leave Brendan. Not in his condition. Not alone." McKay sighed. "I'd turned my back. There had been that explosion. You were in trouble. Brendan told me to…" McKay abruptly sounded disgusted with himself. "He told me to 'save the day.' Then I heard the gunshot."
Sheppard shut his eyes in commiseration. It hadn't been so much that Gaul had killed himself, but why he'd done it. Or at least what McKay perceived the reason to be.
"If Gaul hadn't died," said McKay. "I would have stayed with him."
"If Gaul hadn't died, we'd both be dead." Sheppard heard McKay shift nervously in his seat. He felt he'd piqued the scientist's interest, so he continued. "If you'd remained with him, I probably would have been killed. If you hadn't arrived when you did, I probably would have lasted as long as I could have outrun him, and after getting smacked around, well, that wouldn't have been too long. And after that…"
"He would have come after us," finished McKay glumly.
"It sucks, Rodney. I know," admitted Sheppard. "I think Gaul knew he was dying. I'm sure he was."
"I don't know about that. Carson might have—"
"I'm not a scientist, or a doctor," interrupted Sheppard. "But I saw what that Wraith did to the Colonel. It was…" Indescribable? Horrifying? "… quick. The Wraith could have easily finished off Gaul before we got there, but he intentionally didn't."
"Why?" McKay's misery cut sharply through his protest. "So Gaul could suffer more?"
"No, so we'd stay behind to take care of him," explained Sheppard. "It's a nasty fact of warfare that an injured man is more of a liability than a dead man. You have to risk lives to get him off the battlefield, get him back to medical aid. If someone's dead, that's it. If he's there, you strip off his weapons and dog tags and continue to fight."
And that had been exactly what he'd done with Abrams' corpse. Taken the weapons. What the hell did McKay think of him now after that admission?
"When he was gone, there wasn't anything I could do." Sheppard realized he could just see McKay in his peripheral vision. He looked more than miserable. " I just realized he was dead and you were out there… I didn't even think of taking his gun."
"It's not an easy thing to do," said Sheppard. It was even harder if you knew that person. He heard McKay release a deep sigh. "We were in a desperate situation. People do desperate things. I never thought I'd ever see myself taking on a Wraith with a Power Bar." He noticed no reaction from McKay; he'd already heard the scientist's assessment of that 'bone-headed' move while they were back on the planet and McKay was repairing the jumper. "Why Gaul did… what he did, we'll never really know. But in my book, he saved our lives."
McKay looked up, a glint of optimism in his eyes. "He did. If he were here now, he'd never let me live it down."
"Not the way you two went at each other, he wouldn't," agreed Sheppard readily.
McKay actually laughed. "Oh yeah. And it was getting to you. I could see it."
Sheppard smiled. "You know, I was really tempted to just the lock the two of you in the rear compartment."
"What stopped you? Our scintillating conversation?" posed McKay.
"No. You can unlock any door in a jumper if you've got the proper tools," admitted Sheppard.
"True, very true." Sheppard was grateful to hear the man's normal smug tone come forth. "Rodney?"
"You okay with all this?"
"I… well. How do you…?"
"You never get used to it," said Sheppard. "You just deal with it. You realize that those who died didn't do it in vain. You're going to lose colleagues and good friends along the way, but if you hold on to the good memories, you can move on."
Sheppard was greeted with the kind of deafening silence that was always difficult to interpret. He felt a hand briefly touch his arm. "Thanks," said McKay. "I uh, guess I'll let you get some sleep now?"
"Sure," agreed Sheppard, confident that both he and McKay would rest easier now.
Chapter Four: Healing
He didn't care if Beckett yelled at him or not. With a sharp ripping sound, the Velcro peeled back and he removed the cervical collar from around his neck. That felt so much better. Sheppard scratched an itch caused by the darned contraption.
"Should you be doing that?"
Sheppard almost turned his head at the inquisitive voice. Instead, he waited until Weir sat down besides him on the grass. The view down the sloping hill was beautiful. Spring was in bloom on this world. Flowers of some kind – in divergent shades of violent and yellow – were scattered all about, creating a colorful carpet that made Atlantis look incredibly drab by comparison. The flowers would definitely increase McKay's complaints about allergies.
"It's more like a training collar." Sheppard dropped the item onto the lush grass. "Reminds you not to turn your head. Quite honestly, the pain works just as well."
"Dr. Beckett did say it would be several weeks until you were fully healed," reminded Weir.
"Yeah, and he told me how lucky I was that I didn't break my neck." Beckett's rundown of his injuries had been extensive and surprising – whiplash, several strained muscles on his left side from that flying he'd done after the Wraith had backhanded him, bruised back, badly bruised ribs, and lastly, a face that was half purple from that initial blow. On the positive side, the gunshot injury was minimal, he had no broken bones, and no teeth had been knocked out. Oddly enough, that last bit had been an enormous relief when Sheppard realized that Beckett and one of the nurses were the emergency dentists on Atlantis. While he trusted Beckett implicitly with medical decisions, he wasn't too sure about teeth. That was a whole 'nother degree of medicine entirely.
Sheppard absently plucked a flower out of the tall blades of grass. It looked like an Earth dandelion, only it had red petals instead of yellow.
"It was a nice service," said Weir.
"Well, we're getting practice," Sheppard remarked dryly. "How many people have we buried now?"
"We've been here six months, Elizabeth," he continued. "And lost five personnel already. If we keep up that trend, Atlantis will be a ghost town in a few years."
"That's not a constructive way of looking at it," said Weir.
"It's just statistics," he replied.
Weir sighed. "John, you can't blame yourself for what happened."
"I can take responsibility for it." He started plucking petals off the flower. "I was in charge of the mission—"
"We've been over this already," interrupted Weir gently. "We've both made decisions that have cost lives. People are going to die. I hate it as much you do, but you know we just can't hide on Atlantis and wait for the Wraith to arrive. You've argued that point more than me."
Sheppard looked up from the flower, realizing he'd plucked off five petals. One for each life they'd lost, but there were many more lives that still remained. "I know. I—"
"Don't," said Weir sharply. A second later, she'd reseated herself in front of him, blocking his view of the valley. "You were going to turn your head. I saw it. Don't deny it. You do that and you'll probably end up flat on your back in some spasm of agony. I'll have to get Ford and McKay to carry you back to the jumper and you just know Rodney will pull something in his back and he'll complain for—" Weir paused, puzzled at his reaction. "What?"
Sheppard couldn't help but stare at the woman in sheer amazement. "Wow, McKay's hypochondria sure is contagious."
Weir seemed stunned for a moment, and then laughed. It was a nice sound, one they didn't hear enough on Atlantis lately. "Yes, he can rub off on you," she admitted, "but Carson also read me the riot act to let you come here."
"He's rather possessive of his patients," observed Sheppard. He was basically on a short leash as far as Beckett was concerned, which was pretty easy considering he felt like an elephant had drop-kicked him across a goal line. Even if Beckett had said 'no' to this trip, he still would have gone, regardless of the misery he'd endure. He'd attended all the previous services, all the burials. It was part of his job, but he also did it out of respect to those who had lost their lives.
"You are his only patient right now," Weir pointed out. "And amazingly, he was right that you would wander off."
"I just needed some time alone," said Sheppard.
"Which you can do on Atlantis," said Weir.
"But it's from a different perspective." He'd done a brief speech at the service for Abrams and Gaul, but it was McKay and the other scientists who had truly known the dead men who had taken on the lion's share of remembrance. He'd been truly surprised by McKay's eulegy for Abrams, and especially what he'd had to say about Gaul. Most funerals usually had church organ music and the like, or taps, but McKay had found some music that had somehow seemed appropriate for the somber occasion. Yet Sheppard had always found it easier to reflect in solitude, not surrounded by many people who all shared the same loss. Sometimes you just needed to clear your mind.
Weir studied him closely, perhaps realizing what he meant. "Yes, it is." Sheppard's gaze swept past Weir to the open green vista beyond. Weir turned to see what he was studying, then shot him a quizzical look.
"Did you know that neither Abrams nor Gaul had ever been off Atlantis until this mission?"
"Well, everybody did gate off to Menaria," offered Weir, though even she seemed to know that statement was weak.
Sheppard ripped the head off the flower. "I don't count a forced evacuation to a planet of back-stabbers as a worthy trip. We're damned lucky we got everybody back in one piece." And Smead was extremely fortunate he'd gone into hiding when Sheppard and Ford had returned to reclaim their people. Bates already had the situation under control when they realized what was happening. If Sheppard had found Smead, he really felt he would have beaten the man senseless, or worse, for what he'd done.
Weir nodded silently in agreement. They'd lost two men in that disaster. Two very good men.
Sheppard forced a smile. "I think we should do weekly trips to the mainland. A day away from work."
"The Athosians are accustomed to living off the land," said Weir cautiously. "We don't know precisely what—"
"Dangers might be out there," finished Sheppard drolly. "We'd check for mountain lions and crocodiles, of course, and bugs, first. Teyla's people could help. It would go a ways to patch our differences, and give people a breather away from constant work. You can't work 24/7 forever without something giving. Even with a psychologist on base, someone's going to get toasted soon."
"Carson said there haven't been any electrical accidents in months." Weir stared at him, puzzled.
"Not toasted as in burned, but toasted as in fried. Like brain burn," said Sheppard. He could see Weir was still mystified. "I saw one case out on the Ice. Guy had been down there for two years solid. You just stop caring, you zone out. I had to MedEvac him out when he decided he'd build an Jacuzzi out in the ice and freeze himself to death."
"Ah, the Ice," murmured Weir. "Antarctica. I'd heard that term, but not 'toasted.'"
"You were probably down there almost as long as me," said Sheppard, silently wondering if he'd ever crossed paths there with the people with whom he now worked. "You should have picked up more terminology."
"I'm afraid most of my time was spent with scientists, approving requests, and dealing with politicians more concerned about their own position than the world at large."
"Beakers. Slang for scientists," Sheppard said with a true smile. "I think it was something to do with Muppets, but I'm not sure."
"Obviously that slang bypassed my section," said Weir.
"And then, here's another." Sheppard grinned. "Jafa."
"Jaffa?" Weir's eyes brightened in curiosity. "Dare I ask?"
"Well, beaker is your regular scientist type. Say, like Zelenka or Grodin. Now, Jafa. You really don't want those around."
"I wouldn't argue the point, as the Jaffa I'm familiar with are the soldiers of the Goa'uld," said Weir.
"Yeah, General O'Neill said they were like intergalactic rent-a-thugs."
Weir heaved an exasperated sigh. "Yes, the General definitely had a way with words."
"But anyway," continued Sheppard. "Jafa. Just Another… F'ing Academic."
"Oh." Weir blinked in astonishment. Sheppard really didn't think he'd ever see Weir do that.
Sheppard knew that they had a Jafa on Atlantis. Tall, arrogant, self-centered, wore a ponytail. More concerned with how others regarded him than in saving a bunch of people trapped in a wormhole.
"I wish you hadn't told me that." Weir looked very serious.
"Because I'll never be able to look at Kavanagh with a straight face again."
Weir maintained her serious stance, but only for a second until she broke down laughing. "Ow, ouch," said Sheppard, pressing an arm against his sore chest. "Don't think I should laugh."
"I think you've got a good idea there," agreed Weir. "People do need to get off base, preferably someplace where they aren't going to be assaulted by a Wraith."
"Yeah, I mean I get some downtime out of my missions," he agreed, "but usually it's flat on my back in the infirmary. I'm thinking of selecting one of the beds just for me. Sort of keep it in reserve."
A rustling sound erupted in a clump of bushes in the distance. Weir looked alarmed and he couldn't blame her. They had no idea of precisely what kind of wildlife existed on the continent, and they were a distance from both the jumper and the Athosian settlement.
Sheppard reached for his gun, and was keenly reminded of why Beckett had taken him off active duty. His shoulder and neck screamed at the sudden motion.. Even Weir cringed at his pained reaction.
They were definitely screwed if that was some huge bear looking for dinner.
"Over this way!"
Sheppard relaxed, then carefully massaged his sore neck. "Great. We're going to get whined to death."
A second later, McKay came through the thick brush. He was so noisy that several brightly colored birds flew out of a nearby tree, startled by his appearance. The scientist hastily brushed off some burrs that had attached to his pants, then studied the life signs detector in his hands.
"Ah, there you are!" he shouted when he spotted the pair on the ground.
"Yes, here we are," murmured Sheppard under his breath. "And I can't run."
"That's not very nice," Weir said in a mock scold.
"I'll bet you choice of movie tonight that the first thing out of his mouth is a complaint," Sheppard predicted.
Weir arched an eyebrow confidently. "You're on."
McKay trudged up the slope and stopped. Behind him, not far away, were Teyla and Ford. His hands on his P-90, Ford surveyed the area with a soldier's sharp-edged interest. Teyla smiled as she saw them. He noticed she had her backpack with her, and he knew she'd done some trading with her people.
"You can't just wander off like that," McKay griped as he stood over Sheppard. "What if you'd fallen off a cliff?"
"There are no cliffs in this area, Rodney." Sheppard turned to Weir and flashed a smirk. "The Great Escape."
"Again?" she mouthed woefully.
"Or eaten by something," continued McKay.
"Beaten?" repeated Sheppard intentionally.
"No, eaten, but not beaten. That's already been done to you," said McKay complacently. "Like by wolves or bears or whatever wildlife lives out here." Sheppard noticed Ford and Teyla come right up behind McKay, who seemed oblivious to their presence, or else he'd just been watching them on the detector.
"And just what are you two doing here?" McKay quickly surveyed the area. "There's nothing here but plants, and ugh." His eyes narrowed in what looked like contempt as he gazed down in the valley. "Flowers."
"Talking," said Weir simply.
"About beakers," said Sheppard.
"And Jafas," finished Weir.
Sheppard just assumed his most guileless expression. "And the difference between them."
McKay looked mortified at what he'd heard. "That doesn't make any sense. Beckett said you didn't have a concussion. He hasn't been wrong on that before."
"Oh, it really does make sense," continued Sheppard.
"I'm sure it's something military. Most of that doesn't make sense." McKay kept surveying the area with the detector. Maybe he was looking for rabbits or wolves. As long as he didn't utter the word Wraith, Sheppard didn't care.
"Civilian, isn't it, sir?" piped up Ford.
Sheppard smiled as he noticed McKay's eye twitch. The scientist started studying Sheppard, then Weir and Ford, and even Teyla, who seemed to catch on to what was going on. "Oh, that's it. Mock the scientist!" snapped McKay.
"Beaker," corrected Sheppard.
"Beckett was right. You—" McKay abruptly halted, his eyes locking on Sheppard's neck. "You took it off? Carson will kill you. He said to keep on that cervical collar."
"He said it really doesn't do much good," countered Sheppard. Well, that wasn't exactly what the good doctor said; it was more like 'we'll give another day but for pity's sake don't doing anything stupid like removing it.' "Besides, I don't like it. It reminds me too much of that damned Wraith bug that latched onto me."
"Sir, we really should get going," reminded Ford. "It'll be dark soon."
Although the view was appealing now, stumbling through the thicket in the pitch black wouldn't be fun, or safe. Then he just might break his neck.
Inasmuch as he hated it, he let Ford help him up to his feet. Sitting down on the grass hadn't been the smartest idea. In the hours since the burial and the meal at the Athosian settlement, Sheppard had stiffened up again. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was more like a 6, but at least not the 8 to 9 he'd experienced when he'd woke up in the infirmary. He winced as he realized that he'd foolishly left both the ice pack and the painkillers back at the jumper, where they were about as useful as a sponge in a tidal wave.
Worse yet, it was a good 15 minute walk back to the jumper. He knew that because he'd seen jumpers two and three take off earlier, carrying back to Atlantis those personnel who had wanted to attend the actual burial.
Teyla opened up her backpack and produced a large silver foil bag, the kind that people used to keep their food warm on trips. Sheppard noticed that McKay was instantly attracted to the sound of the bag opening. He realized that if McKay ever got lost on a planet, all they'd have to do is rustle some foil off a Power Bar, and the scientist would come running like a faithful dog to a can opener. Not that he would ever voice that opinion aloud, especially not now. He knew in his current condition that even the Canadian could easily knock him to the ground.
McKay's elated expression deflated, very much like a balloon punctured by a pin, as Teyla pulled an item out of the bag. A huge grin enveloped Sheppard's face as he gratefully accepted the ice pack and cradled it strategically on his neck and shoulder.
"You're a lifesaver. I'd hug you, but, well…" He rubbed one shoulder in indication.
"I will take a… raincheck," Teyla replied with a smile.
"If we're all set?" Ford motioned with his P-90. No doubt habit, but he was basically in charge of any off-base missions until Beckett cleared Sheppard for duty. Unfortunately, the mainland was considered off-base.
Sheppard noticed Weir retrieve the cervical collar from where he'd left it on the ground, earning a look of slight admonishment from the woman. It was far better to receive that glare here rather than the blistering lecture he knew he'd get from Beckett if he can home without the dumb thing.
"Ah." Teyla flanked Sheppard on his left as they all headed back toward the jumper. "Beaker. I have heard that term from Doctor—"
"Sssh," said Sheppard quickly.
"Hey." McKay, who was taking up the rear and still checking the detector, looked up. "Let her speak."
"No, you figure it out," insisted Sheppard, sidestepping a rut that could have laid him out for another week.
Sheppard knew he'd heard a snicker upfront from Ford. "Because you're the smartest guy on the base, right?"
It was a good five long seconds before McKay deigned to reply to what could have been taken as either a complement or an insult. "I am the foremost authority on the Stargate, of course, so—"
Weir was the first one to burst out laughing at McKay's so-serious tone, and despite the aches, Sheppard joined in. Fortunately Teyla's laugh drowned out Ford's chortle from upfront, as Sheppard knew Ford respected the scientist, despite their differences.
"This is not funny!" McKay practically yelled.
He knew McKay would track down that term within minutes of arriving back on base, and it was funny and not meant in a mean-spirited way, but what counted most was that the healing process had begun, and they could move forward.
Novus Magnificat: Through the Stargate
By Constance Demby
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