A/N: You have officially made it to the last chapter. Congratulations. You have survived. Now take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and relax.
John's team had a story to tell. Diavante's death had been – for lack of a better word – disturbing. And it was Ronon who had said it. They'd chased Diavante down, surrounding him, blasting the black mass of smoke until the darkness dissolved, leaving behind a grotesque, misshapen body that melted down like tar mixed with blood until nothing remained.
Even Ronon had gone a little pale, according to Teyla when it was her turn to fill John in.
For John, the manner of death didn't matter, just the end of the nightmare. Literally speaking. John hadn't dreamed a bad dream since being hauled back to Atlantis under Beckett's care.
Not quite true. There was still a bad dream left.
Rodney and Krissa hit it off faster than John had seen Rodney hit it off with anyone; because no matter Rodney's sarcasm or how he blustered and bellowed about this or that, Kirssa's response would always be a sweet little giggle followed by a "you're funny, Dr. McKay." Not even Rodney's inexorable anger could keep his heart from melting at that.
More unlikely companion-hood ensued at John's insistence that Bart get out and about, explore the city, be more independent, and keep out of sight of Carson's needles, whose fascination with the genetic hobgoblin had him continually wanting to draw blood. Teyla had volunteered to show Bart around, with Ronon following out of a mistrust he wouldn't admit. When Teyla next came to visit John, she was alone, which sparked an electric jolt of fear through John.
" Ah, crap, please don't tell me Ronon ate Bart."
Teyla, smirking, shook her head as she pulled up a stool. " No. We stopped by for some lunch, and Major Lorne invited Ronon and I to play that card game, the one where you wager. Bart became quite interested in participating. When I left, he had won twenty candy bars, four MREs, seven Mola fruits from Sriot, and some of your earth money. The money he returned. The food – except for the fruit – he gave to Ronon. Ronon is trying to bring in others to play."
It was hard for John to keep from bursting out laughing and pissing off his busted ribs, and he nearly suffocated trying.
John was released from the infirmary after three days – the one tolerable plus side to the serum. Arm cradled safely in a sling, and his body more comfortable in a T-shirt and BDUs, his first act of freedom was to go to the mess hall and quiet the complaint of his worked up stomach. There he found Ronon and Bart eating what looked to be some sort of stew, huddled over their food and not saying a word. John smiled at that, albeit sadly. Bren should have been a part of that muted fray. He missed reading the old man's words from the data pad.
John's own food retrieval was made easier by the always observant Bart, who took one notice of the sling and immediately hopped up to handle the tray and food.
" Heard you've been kicking a little ass at poker," John said as they headed to the table. Bart sniffed.
" I do well enough."
Bart set the tray down, and John sat before it. Ronon looked up and grinned.
" Kicking ass is an understatement," he said. To prove the point, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a hand full of power bars, chocolate bars, and a Snickers.
Bart shrugged indifferently, licking its stew spoon clean. " I prefer the fruit."
John was careful about laughing, but ended up with a twinge in his side all the same.
Two sandwiches, soup, and a slice of cake later, John resumed his meandering until he came to the lab. He willed the doors open and walked in to find Krissa, Rodney, and Zelenka gathered around Krissa's own data pad, talking softly as Krissa pointed things out. On looking up at John, her demeanor went from all business to all childish excitement, practically bouncing as she relinquished the pad to go bounding over to John, throwing her arms around his waist.
" You're out!"
John staggered at the impact, chuckling and placing his hand on her back. " Yep. Beckett finally kicked me out."
" Not fast enough I bet." Low toned, but John heard Rodney's comment all the same. He looked up to give the physicist a narrow-eyed glare.
" You shouldn't be the one to talk, McKay. Beckett had to physically shove your butt out the door."
Rodney glowered, rubbing the plastic splint on his arm. " A hand on my shoulder is not a shove."
" If you say so, McKay. What're you kids up to anyway?"
At this, Krissa released John to go bounding back over to the two scientists. " Construction of another sil." She took the pad from Rodney and flipped it around for John to see the blueprints. " My last one since I still have components to make it."
Rodney, clasping his hands behind his back and rocking on his heels, beamed. " And she's giving it to us."
Krissa nodded. " Atlantis would have more use for it."
John shoved his hand into his pocket since he couldn't fold his arms. " Don't you go home in a few days though?"
Krissa's smile, if possible, became bigger. " Dr. Weir says it's okay for me to come back and visit. And with Dr. McKay's help, I should have it finished sooner than a month."
John smiled. " So you and Bart'll be sticking around... kind of."
" Uh-huh. I'm learning a lot from Dr. McKay."
John eyed the now blushing, squirming Rodney, and smirked. " Wow, McKay. I must say your people skills – young people in particular – are coming along nicely."
Rodney gave a poor shrug of nonchalance. " Yeah, well... it's easier when the people in question know what you're talking about."
" Keep it up. You'll be running a school for gifted youngsters yet."
McKay paled, swallowing. Zelenka snickered. As Rodney whirled around to give Radek a blustering verbal tirade, John signaled Krissa over with a twitch of his head. She practically skipped. John had yet to see the eyes that were beyond her years.
" Hey listen," he said. " Since Weir's given you a free pass, I was thinking. That flying machine you told me about, the one you built that crashed? You bring me the blueprints, and I'll see if I can't get that sucker working right."
Krissa gasped. " Really?"
" Really. I'll even give you flying lessons."
She furrowed her brow at that. " Sure it would be safe?"
" As long as we have a puddle jumper following us, and install some kind of shielding in case of emergency landings... oh yeah."
Krissa giggled, then threw her arms back around John's waist. " Thank you John."
" Hey, it's what friends do."
Rodney snorted. " Get into trouble?"
John reared his head in mock surprise. " Hell yeah! You of all people should know that by now McKay."
Rodney rolled his eyes and turned to start puttering with something on the table. " And frighteningly enough, I do."
A luke-warm, salt scented ocean breeze toyed with John's hair. Stretched out prone on his back on the balcony, the metal beneath him cooled his spine, while the air warmed his chest. He pillowed his head with his good arm, and thrummed his sternum with the fingers of his injured arm, as he stared into the sky and mapped pointless constellations. He found one he swore looked just like that inflatable autopilot from Airplane, so called it the constellation Otto.
The incessant, lulling rush of the ocean made his mind drift back and forth like waves. He could have sworn every muscle in his body was melting, becoming one with the floor and the air. It felt indescribably wonderful.
It was always good to be home. But today – tonight – especially so, and so much so he didn't even pine over his suspended gate travel for the next couple of days. He'd had his fill of off world for the time being.
Just for the time being, though. He gave himself two days before he started suffering cabin fever.
To the mainland with me then. He'd promised Krissa a visit.
Inside the city, John caught the distant eruption of cheers rolling in from where the thrown together poker tournament was taking place. Bart was – without a doubt – winning again.
" There you are."
John turned his head to see Elizabeth standing at the entrance with arms folded.
John grinned. " Here I am."
Elizabeth uncrossed her arms and made her way over to John. She lowered herself, crossing her legs Indian style, beside him and clasped her hands in her lap.
" I was a little shocked to see you weren't at that game Ronon has going. Of course I was a little more shocked to learn that Atlantis' first major poker tournament was organized by someone from the Pegasus galaxy. Then, of course, it became even more strange when I watched your little friend winning over and over again. It's official – we have corrupted the Pegasus galaxy."
John winced. " Then I probably shouldn't tell you I taught Krissa how the play."
Elizabeth lifted both eye brows at the confession. " Did you?" She looked down, fighting to suppress a grin, a shook her head. " Lt. Colonel John Sheppard – you are a bad influence on us all."
He gave her the sweetest smile he could, hoping his eyes had gone all puppy-dogs and kittens. " But that's a good thing, right?"
Weir tilted her head to one side, still struggling against lips wanting to crook up in a grin. " In terms of teaching children to gamble, no. In every other aspect... I would have to reluctantly say yes. Being incorrigible, relentless, persistent, stubborn – they have their merits."
John looked back to the sky. " Good to hear. Don't know any other way to be."
" You're good influences are better."
John looked back at her. " And what would those be?"
Elizabeth looked up, chewing her lip as though in deep rumination. " Hmmmm, that's kind of a tough one..."
John feigned a look of hurt. " Why, I'm crushed, Dr. Weir. I thought by now you'd find at least one good aspect about me. I mean you do tolerate my presence so there must be something."
Elizabeth looked back at him, smiling rather than smirking, and expression softened. " How about a heart that seems too big for a human chest to hold. So big it becomes all you know and all you hear, shoving yourself out of the way, putting everyone else first, making everyone matter. Never leaving anyone behind."
" Or die trying," John added, trying to push for humor, but losing it even on himself.
Elizabeth, however, kept on smiling. " True, or die trying. Lucky for you, you've got others who think you matter too. Which is why you're still alive. You've got this nasty habit of selling yourself short... but face it; you don't give up on us or anyone without a fight, we don't give up on you without a fight."
John smiled. " So I've noticed. You know I appreciate it right? Even when I get pissed about no one listening to my orders and leaving me behind?"
" We assume as much. You may think you're a hard man to read, but you're not, at least not all the time. Contrary to what McKay likes to say, we all know you don't have a death wish."
John chuckled. " Obviously. McKay exaggerates everything." He brought the puppy and kitten eyes back. " So what else do you like about me?"
" I admire your ability to put humor into just about any situation. You really are incorrigible, you know that?"
John winked. " Merits, remember?"
Elizabeth shook her head. " Great, I've created a monster..." She winced. " Um, wrong choice of words, sorry..."
" No problem. At least you didn't say 'bug'."
Both fell silent, and looked up at the indigo sky with stars that had become as familiar to them as the stars surrounding earth. Maybe even more so.
Suddenly, reacting without thinking – or more before he had time to think – John sat up, spinning around on his seat while crossing his own legs to sit Indian style in front of Elizabeth.
" I owe you an explanation," he said quickly. Weir's brow creased.
" Explanation for what?"
John took a deep breath, and exhaled quickly. " Well... not really an explanation. An answer... No, a report. Yeah, a report. A proper one. The truth."
" About what?"
John flicked his tongue over his lips. " About what happened to me... with the Cyladrans... and what happened to Mathers. The whole story. You know... before something else happens," he twitched a sheepish smile, " and I don't get the chance to."
Elizabeth leaned forward. " Okay. I'm listening."
John nodded. " It started with starvation and a little humiliation... But Mathers, he did good. He was a good kid... " It wasn't a traipse through the park, because it still sickened him, what happened. But the more he said, the more he wanted to say, feeling vindication in it for Mathers, even a little bit for himself. He had to admit there was a kind of freedom to it, not complete, just enough to feel that something had been accomplished, even if it seemed minuscule.
When he finished, there was a long, quiet moment that had John's heart picking up speed and muscles pulling tight, before Elizabeth leaned forward to put her hand on John's.
" Thank you John, for telling me."
John didn't respond except to nod. " Took me long enough though, right?"
" Circumstances beyond your control prevented it. What happened to you and Mathers was sick. You'd have to be practically heartless not to be affected by it. Of course it would be hard to talk about – doesn't matter who you are. And it proves my point. You've got more heart than even you can handle."
She smiled. " You're human John."
John looked back down at his normal, blood free, everyday hands. " It's good to be reminded sometimes."
" Just don't ever forget - whatever happens, whatever skin your in. You're still John, and we wouldn't have it any other way."
John smiled too. " Neither would I."
A/N: It's over. Oh gosh it's over! I cry, you cry, we all cry. Now on to the party! John has the Koyla pinatas, Bart's got the cards ready, Ronon's brought the food (and let us pray he cooked none of it). And by popular demand, Zelenka's handling the drinks. Cakes, ice-cream, something that'll probably have you inebriated after one sip, and Mountain Dew galore! So we can expect massive sugar highs to be the end result. Bring your own music. Now let the festivities commence!
I thank you all for reading, and thank you even more for your wonderful, encouraging, and humorous reviews. Just how motivating is the feedback? Not just for fanfic stories, let me tell you. It's given me hope that my own original stories may have a chance after all, and increased my motivation to get published. So I thank ye for that as well.
Will there be some sort of sequel to this tale? As my sister would say – Maaaaaybe! I'm deeply considering having critter John make a comeback, since critter John is just so much darn fun. Also, if someone would like to do a funny piece on the poker tournament with Bart, you may, mostly because I don't want to, but wouldn't mind seeing someone's take on it.
Once again, thanks for reading. It was one wild ride, and it really is a downer that it's over. Oh well, there will be future rides, you can be sure of that.;)