It was the pain that woke him. A stabbing, throbbing ache in his temples that leeched into his nerve endings and made even breathing painful. His entire body hurt. But even as he shifted and a whimper escaped him, John heard a soft whisper in his head. He felt a warm and soothing essence washing over him. Atlantis was trying to soothe him back to sleep. But he fought against it. John realized he was home. He forced his eyes open, needing to see his surroundings. Needing to be sure.
He recognized where he was. The infirmary.
Turning his head to the right, John blinked hard and brought Rodney's face into clear focus. "McKay..." he croaked out.
Rodney grinned at him. "Welcome back, Major."
"Thanks." John's voice was raspy to his own ears and he coughed to try and clear his throat. Which was a mistake. Little flares of pain went off all over his body.
"Have some water." McKay thrust a glass in front of Sheppard's face, then held the straw for him.
After a few sips, which felt heavenly as they slid down his parched throat, John pulled back. "Thanks."
Rodney put the glass back on the bed stand. "You're welcome." Then he just stood there, awkwardly, grinning at Sheppard.
"Is Avitus...dead?" John needed to know but in a way he didn't want to know. He didn't want to remember what had happened, although it was already replaying in his head.
"He's dead," Rodney confirmed. "Nice work." His tone was flat and the grin had faded.
John realized something was wrong. "Rodney..." he began, only to be cut off.
"You died!" Rodney was yelling now. "What the hell were you thinking? YOU DIED!"
"I...I'm sorry." John wasn't sure what else to say. He shifted, feeling uncomfortable under the intensity of McKay's gaze. And when Rodney just stood there, glaring at him, he finally asked, "How did you find me?"
The anger seemed to leave Rodney in a rush. His shoulder's slumped and he turned and grabbed a nearby stool, hauling it over to the bedside before plopping down on it. "You have me to thank for that," he stated.
John almost smiled. "Of course I do. Thank you."
"You're welcome." Rodney sighed, rubbed a hand over his face, then brightened a bit. "Remember when we said goodbye? The...hug?"
"I remember." John did remember but he didn't get the point of remembering that.
Rodney shrugged. "When I slapped you on the back I placed a transponder on your jacket. It took a while to fine tune in the signal so we could locate you, but we did. I did."
John felt Rodney had earned his moment to crow about it. "Thank you...again," he whispered softly. And he meant it. There was more he wanted to say, more he needed to know, but John's eyes were becoming heavy-lidded and his mind foggy and Atlantis was back to trying to soothe him into slumber. He heeded her call and drifted into warm darkness.
The next time he woke up, Elizabeth was sitting on the stool. John saw how tired she looked and he knew he had been the cause of more than a few of the lines that marked her face. He felt regret over that. "Hey," he said softly in greeting.
"Welcome back, major," Elizabeth replied. "How do you feel?"
"Alive." It was succinct but apt.
Elizabeth smiled. "Close call though."
John knew that better than anyone. "How long have I been back?"
"Six days. Once we got you...back...you just went into this deep sleep." Elizabeth got off the stool and moved closer, one hand reaching out to touch his shoulder, as if needing the contact. "Carson said your body was trying to heal itself."
"Rodney said I died." That thought had been on John's mind, dancing in his dreams. He remembered dying.
Elizabeth winced. "You were on life support and we made the decision to turn it off, but Rodney figured out how to save you."
John wasn't the least bit surprised to hear that. And he knew how. "Atlantis." Even now he could feel her. She was a constant hum beneath his skin and a soft musical whisper in his ear. She was happy he was home. He was happy to be home. But there was something John needed to do. Something he had to do if he were to remain in Atlantis. If he were to remain John Sheppard.
"The city missed you, John," Elizabeth said. "We had a lot of power fluctuations and the like. Rodney realized they started right after you left."
"I missed Atlantis...and all of you," John replied, and he had to speak around the lump in his throat. He felt fingers closing over his hand and he let himself hold on to Elizabeth for a moment. Then he exhaled softly and said, "I'm changing."
Elizabeth looked confused. "Excuse me?"
John squeezed her hand then released it, bringing his own up to rub his face. "Before Avitus died, he taught me a lot about who I am now. It's amazing and addicting...but it's not me. It's something beyond what I am, Elizabeth. The things I can do are astounding...but it scares me." He could see that his confession shook her.
"Scares you?" Elizabeth echoed. "Why?"
"I have all this power," John replied, then he paused to choose his words carefully. He wanted her to understand something that was impossible to explain without experiencing it. "If I keep this power...then I sacrifice my humanity."
Elizabeth frowned at him then shook her head. "I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, John."
He wasn't sure he could make her understand. "I'm not ready to be a god, Elizabeth," John whispered, as he locked eyes with her, hoping that she could see what he meant. "I want to stay human." He saw her flinch at his words and continued on. "I want it out of me. Can we do that? Can we get it out?" John realized he was pretty much begging here and he didn't care.
"I contacted SG-1 a while ago," Elizabeth replied. "They got back to me soon after you left with Avitus." Elizabeth was smiling now. "The Asgard are on their way."
"I'll take that as a...yes?" John asked, hopefully.
Elizabeth nodded. "Yes."
Relief washed over John, but it was followed by sadness. He knew that Atlantis felt everything he was feeling and that it was her sadness he felt as well as he drifted back to sleep.
Four days later, John was released from the infirmary, but under strict orders to stay in bed and rest. And he had lots of visitors popping up to check on him. They tired him out. But he understood that they were happy he was back and they just wanted to make sure he was still with them. They needed to see him to make sure. But it still wore him out. John was almost dozing off when a knock sounded on the door. "Come in," he called out, wearily.
Rodney entered the room. "Got a minute?" he asked.
"Got a lot of them," John shot back, offering a smile. Rodney didn't smile back. "What's up?"
"The Asgard will be here tomorrow," Rodney blurted out.
John flinched at that, but swallowed against the lump in his throat and managed to say clearly, "Good."
Rodney grabbed a chair and moved it to the side of the bed. "You don't look happy."
"I'm fine." John knew it wasn't the answer Rodney was looking for. "It's just...it's going to be weird, you know? But...I want to be me again."
"But you'll miss it." Rodney spoke with certainty.
John frowned as he locked eyes with the other man. "Some of it," he allowed. "I'll miss...Atlantis. I'll miss being connected to her."
Rodney nodded. "Yeah...she'll miss you too."
"She'll be lonely," John whispered, as he leaned his head back against the pillows.
That brought John's head up. "You know?" he echoed.
Rodney looked almost ashamed. He twisted his fingers into knots as he replied, "I kinda...I felt it...a little…when we brought you to the console room to save your life. I had to put your hand on the console, and I felt the warmth. I felt the way Atlantis touched you. How she hummed with happiness..." Rodney broke off and looked away.
"Oh." John wasn't sure what to say to that, but he was kind of glad Rodney had been able to feel it. He knew how much Rodney wished he had that kind of connection.
"What's it like?" Rodney asked, his tone almost sharp. "I mean...I know I can't really understand...but maybe it'll mean more to me now. I mean...having all that power. What's it like."
John sighed and watched himself twist his own fingers into knots. "It's like playing god. Or...what you would imagine it would be like to be god. There are no...no limitations to what I can do. I could smell and touch and taste and understand everything. I felt what it was like to be a raindrop, Rodney. And I melded with a star."
John heard the wonderment in his own voice as he continued. As he remembered everything. "Everything has it's own sound. It has a flavor and a texture that's so much more than you can ever imagine. And I could fly, Rodney. Without a plane. Without metal wings."
John fell silent, letting the memories wash over him and sharing them with Atlantis. He felt her humming inside him. She was happy for him. But it hurt John knowing that he would never feel that happiness again. Atlantis had given him a gift and now he was going to give it back, and to make things worse, he was going to condemn her to a lifetime of loneliness again.
Rodney reached out, his hand stalling just short of Sheppard's arm. He heaved a sigh and said softly, "You're doing the right thing, Major."
"I know." John forced a wobbly smile. "I'm not ready for this. I doubt I ever will be."
"You may be surprised," Rodney stated, then he rose from the chair. "Get some sleep or I'll call Beckett on you."
John wasn't going to argue. He was beyond tired. "Goodnight, Rodney," he said as the other man headed for the door.
Rodney paused. "Good night, Major." Then he left the room.
Without John even thinking about it, the lights dimmed and the temperature lowered just a bit. Just the way he liked it for sleeping as he drew the covers up to his shoulders and closed his eyes. He let Atlantis lull him to sleep. And he dreamed.
John wasn't ready for this. He thought he was, but he wasn't. The Asgard had arrived and they reminded him of all the little green men alien stories everyone believed in, only they weren't really green and they were far more friendly than any science fiction movie would lead you to believe.
They wasted no time. They didn't even ask questions. John was in the gateroom when they entered and they moved to him as one. Three little beings whose only focus was him. He heard them talking in his head and he led them off to the console room. The moment they stepped inside they moved to the console and touched in, and John knew they were connecting to Atlantis, but he also knew that it was the same connection that he had with her. He also could feel how sad she was, and that she was reflecting his own sadness back at him.
The smallest of the three approached John. He nodded and John moved to the console and reached out to touch it. But an inch away from it he paused, unwilling, and it was Atlantis who bid him to continue. She understood.
John closed his eyes then pressed his palm to the console and in that moment everything he knew, everything he was, fell away. He didn't feel the little Asgard touch his hand. He didn't see the amber crystal that glowed until it lit up the entire room. He felt nothing but cold darkness, then there was nothing at all.
He knew it was Elizabeth who was calling his name and he rather wished she would go away. But he forced his eyes open to see her blurry image looming over him. A few blinks and she came into focus. He remembered what he had done. Pushing himself upright, John realized he was in the infirmary.
Elizabeth was watching him, her eyes narrowed with concern. "How do you feel?"
"Human." John closed his eyes against the sting of tears. The warm hum was gone. He felt empty inside. Cold and empty and human.
"You'll need some time to adjust." Elizabeth reached out to squeeze his shoulder.
John nodded, accepting the comfort she offered. He knew it would take time. "How long was I out of it?"
Elizabeth glanced at her watch. "Almost twelve hours."
"That would explain why I have to pee." John's attempt at lightheartedness failed miserably but...hey...he tried. "Am I free to go?" He searched for Beckett.
"After Carson gives you a once over."
John sighed. "Are they gone?"
Elizabeth moved to sit on the side of the bed. "They left right after. They told me that you will remember everything in time."
"I will?" That surprised John.
"They also said I should teach you the language, that you'll learn it easily, along with everything else."
John felt confused. "I'm not sure I get what you're saying."
Elizabeth frowned then continued. "You haven't really lost anything, John. Everything you had was meant for you. When the time is right."
"Did they say when that time would be?" He was curious and he felt hopeful. He also felt scared.
"No." Elizabeth smiled softly. "But they said you would know and you would learn."
John realized he had to accept that. He made another attempt at humor, anything to push the hope back. The hope and the fear. "I'm pretty lazy you know. Might take me thousands of years to learn."
Elizabeth chuckled. "I'm a patient woman."
"Lucky for me." John meant that.
"You should rest." She patted his leg then stood up.
John let his eyes flutter closed, but he didn't sleep. It was too quiet now.
Three weeks later he finally felt normal again. His skin felt like it fit him the way it was supposed too. In fact he was so back to normal that Teyla was kicking his butt again, but it was harder for her to do so now. John had remembered some things from before. He remembered what to look for and how to feel out her every move.
"You are much better, Major," Teyla said with pleasure, as he helped her to her feet this time.
"Thanks." John grinned then moved to the window seat to grab their water bottles.
Teyla joined him, accepting her bottle. "You no longer seem so sad," she commented.
John nodded. "I feel pretty good, he allowed." He didn't want to share with her why he felt happy again. The worst part of losing his power was losing his connection to Atlantis. But a few days ago John realized he hadn't lost that connection at all. That he had simply forgotten how to listen.
So one night, in his dreams, she had returned to him, slipping into his mind as softly as a lullaby. In the morning John had awakened and he had sensed her presence and he remembered what he dreamed. He knew that Atlantis had asked the Asgard to let them remain connected and they allowed it. Or so they believed. John knew the truth. He had always been connected to Atlantis and he always would be.
"Do you wish to go again?" Teyla asked.
"Sure." John let his reverie slip away. But as he picked up his sticks he heard Atlantis whisper his name.