Elizabeth felt drained. She had been sleeping, but only with the help of sleeping pills and she knew Beckett was going to cut her off of them soon. Truthfully, she was emotionally exhausted more than anything. Guilt and fear and confusion waged a battle inside her, wearing her down from the inside out. She had been so certain that Major Sheppard wasn't ready and able to do his job, but now she realized she was the one who wasn't ready. Wasn't able. She had messed up in so many ways and she didn't know how to fix her mistakes.

John seemed to be faring better. He was the one keeping morale up, offering hope for everyone, letting them believe that everything would be okay. He was the one keeping a nighttime vigil at Rodney's bedside, reading to the scientist, talking to him until he was hoarse, urging Beckett to get some much needed rest. John was doing everything right.

It scared the hell out of Elizabeth.

She watched the way John moved. The way he smiled. The way it never reached his eyes and she could almost see him reinforcing his emotional shields. He gave the illusion of letting everyone in even as he was busy locking them out. Locking her out. She didn't blame him, but she was worried about him. She talked to Kate about him but Kate didn't know what to do. Sheppard acted fine. Elizabeth began to wonder if maybe she was seeing what she wanted to see rather than what was really there. Maybe she needed John to be messed up so she would feel more in control. But she had never been less in control, less certain of herself and her choices, than she was now. She wanted to go home. To turn tail and run.

Several times she had come close to contacting SG1 to make the request to return to Earth. Even now she was tempted to do so. Instead she pressed the heels of her hands to her gritty eyes and rubbed hard. Just then her radio beeped. "Weir."

"It's Beckett. You need to come down here," he told her. "Rodney just woke up."

"I'll be right there," Elizabeth replied, and she was already out the door.

John had been sitting with Rodney when he opened his eyes. He saw recognition in the blue gaze and had taken a moment to squeeze Rodney's hand before calling for Beckett. Then John had faded away, slipping out the door. Rodney didn't need him anymore.

Without conscious thought, John found himself in the exercise room. It had been three weeks since Rodney had slipped into his coma. John had begun to lose hope that he would ever wake up. He was glad Rodney had come back to them, but he felt distanced from any real emotion. Which was just as well. He didn't want to feel anything anymore.

John hadn't brought his sticks with him, and he was feeling too wired up to consider the Kee-ta. But there was a heavy bag in the corner and he strode over to it and started punching. He put everything he had behind each punch and it wasn't until his muscles started to burn and his sweat-slicked body sagged to the floor, that he realized how angry he was. He was shaking with it and that scared him, more than he wanted to admit. Scared him enough that he pushed himself to his feet and ran out the door.

He kept running.

John was trying to focus on his book when he heard Rodney stirring. Setting it aside he stood up and moved to the bed. When Rodney's eyes fluttered open, John smiled at him. "How do you feel?"

"Thirsty," Rodney whispered.

Reaching for the glass on the bed stand, John held it for him. "Better?" he asked, after Rodney took a few sips.

Rodney nodded. "Thanks. How long was I out this time?"

"About eight hours." John glanced at his watch. Rodney had been drifting in and out of it for the past four days. Beckett said the natural sleep was good for him and that he should make a full recovery.

"How long have you been here?" Rodney locked eyes with Sheppard as he asked.

John shrugged. "Off and on for a couple of hours. I should call the nurse."

Rodney reached out to him. "Don't. Not yet. I want to talk."

"What about?" John felt a flare of tension that set off an instant ache in his temples. He was afraid he knew exactly what Rodney wanted to talk about. What had happened. They had managed to avoid it so far.

"I don't remember much...from the planet," Rodney began. "I remember them grabbing me and tying me up. I was scared."

John reached out and patted Rodney's shoulder, awkwardly. He didn't want to do this. "It's over, Rodney. You're safe."

Rodney sighed. "I want to remember...I just remember how much it hurt."

"They won't hurt you again!" John snarled, and he was startled by his own rage. He backed up a step when he saw the surprise in Rodney's eyes. "I…I'll get the nurse." With that John was gone. He told the nurse Rodney was awake then he headed for the exercise room.

Rodney woke up to find Elizabeth watching him. He could see the guilt in her eyes. It was almost a relief after the anger that had blazed in Sheppard's eyes. Anger and a pain that was dark and soul deep. "Hey," he said softly.

A shaky smile curved her lips. "Hey yourself. Can I get you anything?"

"No. Can we talk?"

"Sure." Elizabeth grabbed the stool. "Do you remember anything more?"

Rodney shook his head. "No. Carson says I might not ever remember everything. I'm hoping he's right about that." A shudder went through Rodney just thinking about the pain he had suffered. "Actually...I want to talk about you and Sheppard."

Elizabeth stiffened then forcibly relaxed. "I'm sorry about what happened, Rodney. I messed up and you almost died."

"I messed up, Elizabeth!" Rodney hissed. "I wanted to go back. We didn't know this would happen."

"Sheppard knew."

Rodney sighed. "No...he didn't. He just had a feeling. Guess we should have listened to him, but we didn't. End of story. I'm alive and that's all that matters."

Elizabeth nodded. "You got that right."

"Don't blame yourself."

"Who then?" Elizabeth's tone was sharp.

Rodney sighed. "Shit happens." He didn't know how else to explain it.

Elizabeth looked startled then she nodded. "Yes...it does."

"We all make mistakes," Rodney continued. Not that he was one to admit that to himself. But every since coming to the Pegasus galaxy, Rodney had come to learn that he couldn't control everything. No matter how hard he tried to do just that. He knew Elizabeth had fallen into the trap of believing that she could control things or, at the very least, do damage control. But sometimes you just had to suck it up and accept the failure and the loss.

"This mistake almost cost you your life, Rodney," Elizabeth said, and her voice was hoarse.

Rodney saw tears in her eyes and looked away. "But it didn't. That's what you have to remember."

Rising to her feet, Elizabeth reached out and patted his arm. "Thank you, Rodney. Get some sleep."

"That's all I do is sleep," Rodney groused. But he found himself closing his eyes anyway.

John didn't falter from the routine he had set for himself. Everyday fell into the same pattern. He got up, showered, stopped in to see Rodney, who was now recuperating in his room. Then he grabbed a bite to eat before checking in with Weir for the day. They went over reports, discussed what needed to be discussed then John did his rounds on Atlantis. His team would remain on base until Rodney was ready to go back out again. Beckett said he could probably go back in a month.

Just before supper, John would work out with Teyla. They would go their separate ways to shower then meet in the mess to eat together. John would then visit Rodney again and they would play chess. After the game John would leave and do a perimeter walk of Atlantis, just to reassure himself that everything was okay. Around midnight he would go to his room and strip down and pretend to sleep.

But he was dreaming again. Every time he closed his eyes he would see Sumner's face. The face of the old man he had put a bullet into. Then his face would morph into Ford's face and sometimes the image was blurry and faded and John would grasp at it. He couldn't let himself forget what Ford looked like. He couldn't let him go like that.

Sometimes the dreams would fade enough to let John get maybe two hours sleep. Tonight was one of those nights. He was able to drift into slumber, but was shocked out of it by a pounding on his door. He shot out of bed, forgetting the fact he was only wearing boxers and a tee shirt and thought the door open.

Elizabeth stepped inside. "Why didn't you answer your radio?" she snapped.

"What?" John shook his head at her then he looked over to his ear piece on the night stand and realized it was clicking. "I...I didn't hear it." That scared him a bit.

"We have a problem." Elizabeth was watching him with a narrowed gaze, but she focused on her reason for calling him.

John was already reaching for his pants and stepping into them. It should have been awkward to be dressing in front of her but he sensed the tension. Something was wrong. "What happened?"

Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment then braced herself. Eyes snapping open she replied, "Riley's team is trapped on M3R-394. The Wraith came, but they managed to find shelter. But they won't be able to hold out if help doesn't arrive soon."

"Tell them we'll be there in fifteen." John had his jacket on and was lacing on his boots. "I'll take two jumpers, eight men in each. Tell Blake to bring all the ammo and extras we may need." Boots were on so John reached for his thigh holster. He strapped it on, checked his Berretta, then he was ready to head out the door. He stopped when Weir touched his arm.

"Be safe," she whispered.

John nodded then he was out the door.

Twelve minutes later he was through the gate with Jumper 2 right behind him. They entered a war zone and blasted their way through. Using the Life signs detector, along with the coordinates that Riley had given Weir, they were able to find the others. John's only focus was on getting his people out alive and with that thought in mind, once they had landed the jumpers, he gave orders for everyone to do whatever was necessary to rescue their men. He took his own orders and plowed through the Wraith. He sensed Teyla at his side for a time then they were separated.

Riley's team had found some kind of ruins. It was barely daybreak so there were lots of shadows, more so inside the crumbling structure. John heard screams and followed the sound. He shot two Wraith who were sucking on two marines. The Wraith stayed down and John went to his men. One was Riley. "You okay?" John asked.

"I am now, sir," Riley replied. "Thanks for the rescue."

"Get back to the jumper." John hauled him to his feet. He then helped Corporal Davis to stand, but the young man had been fed on and he know looked about forty-five years old. John didn't react. He simply handed him off to Riley. "Get yourselves back to the jumper," he ordered.

Riley nodded. "Yes, sir."

John caught his eye, seeing the fear there. Fear and gratitude. He blinked then asked, "Anyone else inside?"

"The Wraith dragged Edwards back there. We were trying to rescue him when we got caught," Riley replied.

"I'll find him." John nodded for Riley to head off then he turned and stepped into the darkened corridor. The light from his P90 barely cut the darkness. He didn't see the body lying on the ground so he stumbled over it, falling to his knees. When he caught himself and looked back, John caught his breath at the sight. It was Edwards and he had been drained. Sumner's face flashed in John's head. He was so damn tired of this. There was a sound behind him, a sense of movement and John made to turn just as something hard struck him in the head and he went flying backwards. He hit the wall hard, feeling the impact in his ribs, biting back a cry as he landed on the floor in a heap. It was too dark to see clearly and his head was swimming and John closed his eyes, trying to orient himself. He heard a snarl and acted on instinct, raising his P90 and firing towards the sound. He heard the Wraith stumble back and go down.

John opened his eyes and he still couldn't see. He raised his P90, letting the dim light sweep the area, brushing over the ground. No body. John knew why a moment later when he went flying through the air again. This time he landed in rubble and everything seemed to hurt. He panted, trying to draw in full breaths, but it was hard to breathe with the breath knocked out of his lungs. John felt himself drifting away for a moment, shaken back to awareness when he felt his vest ripped open. There was a moment of déjà vu. Bob had almost fed on him until Ford arrived and zapped him. But Ford wasn't going to show up this time. Ford was dead. Left behind to die alone. John shook his head to dispel the memory, but Ford's image remained.

It hit John in this moment how tired he was. Tired of pretending that everything was okay. Tired of creating an illusion of himself to please everyone else. He was tired of feeling every single death. He was tired of trying to convince himself that he could deal with everything. He was tired of living a lie. He felt his tee shirt being ripped apart and John closed his eyes, ready to accept this. But the image of Ford's face wouldn't waver. And reflected in Ford's eyes was an image of himself. John knew that the young man had believed in him. Hell, Ford had followed his leadership willingly. He had never questioned John's past or the fact that he had shot Sumner. Ford simply believed that he would do the right thing.

Without even realizing it, John fired off his Beretta. Didn't remember pulling it out of his holster but it was in his hand and he emptied the clip and he heard the thud of a body dropping hard. Sucking in a breath as his ribs protested his movement, John got to his feet and made it over to where the Wraith lay. He shone his light on it and saw that he'd fired every shot into the bastard's face. It wasn't moving.

Stepping over the body, John staggered back out. He found Teyla waiting for him.

"We have everyone in the jumpers, Major," she told him. "We must go now."

"Right." John felt her take his arm and he let her lead him off. He was so damn tired that he stumbled a bit. But by the time they reached Jumper one he was moving under his own power. He was back in control. He slid into the pilot's seat and lead his team back through the gate.

Elizabeth was waiting for them. "How many?" was the first thing she asked.

There had been seven men on Riley's team going out. Five marines and two scientists. "We lost three," John replied. Three marines. His men had protected the scientists. Not that they always could. John was sharply aware of his own failures in that regard.

"You did good, John," Elizabeth stated.

He didn't reply. Darkness was swirling over John and he let himself fall into it.

He woke up twice to Beckett's worried face. The second time he remembered what happened and was told he had three broken ribs, a mild concussion and had suffered some internal bleeding. The third time John woke up to find Rodney sitting next to him, tapping away on his lap top. John just looked at him until Rodney realized he was being stared at.

"You're awake!" Rodney closed the laptop and set in on the floor before rising to his feet. "Water?"

"Yes." John accepted the glass and took a few sips. "How long?" he asked, after Rodney set it back on the bedstand.

"Three days. Beckett says you'll be out in three if you behave." Rodney looked solemn. "He also said that by the time you're ready to go back out, I'll be ready."

John saw something in Rodney's face that made him ask, "Will you be ready?"

Rodney froze then met and held Sheppard's gaze. "Yeah...I'll be ready. You?"

"Hope so." John saw that he had surprised Rodney with his answer. He thought Rodney might understand. "This wasn't supposed to happen. Any of this."

"This?" Rodney echoed.

John sighed, carefully, feeling the pull on his ribs. Then he looked away, staring at the far wall as he tried to explain. "No emotional attachments."

Rodney was silent for a moment then asked, "Did I ever thank you for saving my life? Not that I have to thank you or anything, it's your job to save my life and all...but I figured it would be the polite thing to do. You know?"

"Because you're all about being polite," John shot back and this felt like the closest thing to normal that he could remember since Ford died. Well, normal for his life in the Pegasus galaxy anyway.

"We've all changed, Major," Rodney replied, pointedly.

John resisted the urge to nod at that. His head ached enough as it was. "Point taken."

Rodney grabbed the chair and pulled it closer then he sat down again. "I don't do the family thing...or the friends thing. But...it's kinda nice knowing that there's someone watching out for you. As clichéd as it sounds, and I really REALLY hate clichés...all we've got is each other. So...we do what we have to do."

"I've lost all control of my life since coming here," John said softly. "I'm not dealing with that very well."

"I'm not dealing with anything that's happened since coming here very well," Rodney shot back. "Why should you be any different?"

John was able to smile at that. "Because I'm me and you're you."

Rodney grinned. "Sad for you, but true." He dropped his eyes to the floor for a moment then asked, "Are you going to stop being an ass?"

"Are you?" The words were out before John could stop them.

"Not in this lifetime," Rodney replied.

John was glad to hear that, but his smile faded. "I'm not sure how to fix things." Translation: How to fix himself.

Rodney understood. "If you won't talk to Heightmeyer, then talk to me. Not that I'll listen, but sometimes it's just all about hearing ourselves talk. Right?"

"Right." John realized that it wasn't an easy offer for Rodney to make, and he appreciated it.

"You could talk to Teyla too. She understands emotions and stuff. Plus there's the added bonus that she can kick your ass to straighten you out when you're acting stupid." Rodney's eyes were almost twinkling as he spoke.

John arched one eyebrow at him and deadpanned, "Guess she'll be doing a lot of ass kicking then."

Rodney looked surprised then he nodded. "She needs to kick a few asses. Mine included."

"Add mine to the list," another voice interjected.

John turned his head to see Weir approaching. He sensed Rodney standing up and moving away.

Elizabeth settled in where Rodney had been, nodding to him as he slipped away. "How are you feeling, Major?" she asked.

"Been better," John replied, and he realized that this needed to be the moment of truth between them. "I'll work on that."

"So will I," Elizabeth countered. "I don't think I was ready for this...for any of this," she stated.

John understood that all too well. "I didn't sign up for any of this. No one did. Shit happens."

Elizabeth chuckled. "That's what Rodney said. I think you're rubbing off on him."

"He's rubbing off on me too." It surprised John to realize that. But in a good way. "Look...I don't talk about things much. I just find a way to deal with it. I didn't do such a good job of that this time."

"You've had so much happen to you since coming here, John," Elizabeth replied. "More so than anyone else. At least the rest of us were as prepared as we could be. You didn't even know about the Stargate or that you have a special gene. I never should have asked you to come."

John reached for her hand, trapping it with his own, seeing the surprise on her face at his actions. "I'm glad you asked." He let her see the truth of what he said in his eyes. "If we could go back and do this all over again, I would change a few things...but I'd still be here."

Elizabeth squeezed his hand. "Me too." She cleared her throat and tugged her hand free. "You should rest. I need you back out there as soon as possible, Major."

"I'll be back soon," John promised, and he was pretty sure he could keep his word. He watched Weir leave then closed his eyes. He slept without dreaming.

EPILOGUE

"GO!" John shouted at Rodney and Teyla then he covered their sixes with round after round as they headed through the gate. "Raise the shield!" John ordered, as he ran through.

Elizabeth was waiting for him. "What happened?"

John was grim. "Hostile territory. We were ambushed. They have weapons much like the Genii."

"Where's Lt. Blake?"

"He was captured." John locked eyes with Weir. "We have to go back. I need a team of six men, heavily armed. Teyla will come with me, Rodney stays here."

Elizabeth held Sheppard's gaze for a long moment.

John felt the tension in the air, just as he could feel all eyes upon them. It was as if everyone were holding their breath. He was holding his own.

"Can you do this?" Elizabeth asked.

"Yes." John didn't hesitate.

Elizabeth nodded. "You have a go."

John exhaled slowly, nodded back then turned to shout orders. Five minutes later they were stepping back through the gate.

Twelve hours later, they brought Lt. Blake home.

THE END