Well, here's the final chapter and epilogue. Thank you for the reviews and kind comments. An especially big thanks to my beta, Kodiak. I really couldn't do this without her. All mistakes are sadly my own.
I realised I must have fallen asleep as I suddenly jolted awake, my neck complaining loudly as I moved. My head had been resting on Sheppard's bed, and the awkward angle my body had been positioned in hadn't done my back any favours. Yet more permanent vertebrae damage – great.
I looked at Sheppard, and was concerned to hear his breathing sounded laboured again.
I searched blearily around for Carson, and spied him sitting a few feet away, copiously writing up notes. Someone had obviously opened the screens while I was sleeping.
I stood slowly and painfully, and made my way towards the good doctor.
"Carson? Sheppard's breathing doesn't sound too good again. What's going on?" I asked in concern.
Carson looked up from his paperwork and grimaced. "I'm afraid it's worsened a little, which isn't entirely unexpected. Draining the fluid only temporarily relieved the symptoms the colonel is suffering, but it didn't cure the problem," he explained. "It's not as bad as it was last time, and his sats are reasonably good at the moment. He's sleeping soundly, and that's an encouraging sign," he added.
I really thought Sheppard had turned the corner – again. Sometimes life just wasn't that kind to me, was it?
"Is he going to be all right?" I asked.
Surely the man couldn't take much more. Recovering from a serious gun shot wound, having stopped breathing, having lost copious amounts of blood, just to contract a bacterial infection resulting in pneumonia, how much more could fate throw at us? How much more could my friend endure? I'd had enough. I'd learned my lesson: never abandon a friend, that guilt hurts much more than that from hiding away trying to forget he existed in the first place.
Carson frowned. "It's still too early to say. He's not any worse though, and that's the best we can hope for at the moment. Go and shower and get some food, you could use both," Carson ordered, smiling ruefully at me.
"No, I want to stay," I complained.
"Go. I'll sit with him. If he wakes up I'll tell him you were offending my olfactory senses, he'll understand," Carson quipped.
Realising Carson was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that I didn't smell so good, I left to shower, and grab a sandwich.
"Rodney," he called. "Make it a long shower, and use plenty of soap."
As I hurried away towards my quarters, I heard Carson chuckling in the distance. Maybe things were finally looking up.
On returning to the infirmary, having only been gone for a little over an hour, I was alarmed to find a nurse by Sheppard's bed, sponging his forehead with a wet cloth. He'd been stripped, again, and a sheet lay loosely over the bottom half of his obviously naked body.
"What's going on?" I asked in concern.
The nurse, Melissa, looked up from her task. "Colonel Sheppard's temperature is up again. Dr. Beckett's given him medication to help, but it's not working as well as we'd hoped. So, we've resorted to this," she explained, pointing to a bowl of water, which was situated at the side of Sheppard's bed.
I nodded, resigned to the fact that my deity had really decided to teach me a lesson. 'Okay, message received, loud and clear,' I wanted to scream from the highest spire of Atlantis. Enough already. I'd learned my lesson - really. Abandoning friends because I felt uncomfortable or guilty was bad. Knuckles firmly rapped, tail between my legs. I got it, I really did. Contrition oozed from my body. So why was Sheppard still suffering?
I ran to search out Carson, he'd tell me what exactly was wrong, and he'd know how to solve the problem. He always did, didn't he? His voodoo worked brilliantly. Yes it wasn't scientific, yes it was messy sometimes, but it had always saved my friend. Well, it had up to then.
"Carson!" I yelled in no particular direction.
It didn't take me long to find him. He was sitting on a chair at a desk in the far corner of the infirmary, writing furiously, cursing as he went.
He looked up at me wearily.
"Before you go into meltdown. Yes, the colonel's fever has risen. Yes, I'm surprised the antibiotics don't seem to be helping. Yes, I realise sponging him down looks archaic. No, you can't take pictures of him for future bribery. Finally, yes, I'm concerned." He paused, breathless from his monologue. "Have I missed anything?" he added, eyebrows raised.
"Not really," I admitted. "Though bribing Sheppard using pictorial evidence hadn't even occurred to me." It honestly hadn't. Carson was sneakier than I realised.
I looked into Carson's face, hoping to find some comfort there. What I saw, was exhaustion, worry and a helplessness that struck fear in me.
"This is a bit of a setback, but at least his breathing has settled down. It's just his body's way of fighting this infection. High temperatures do help destroy bacteria. Of course sometimes the body doesn't know what's good for it," Carson conceded. He ran a weary hand through his hair, as if trying to shake some alertness into his brain. "To make matters worse, three marines have come down with a stomach bug. We don't know if it's food poisoning contracted off-world, or something else. My staff are run off their feet, and I've had to quarantine the men. Fortunately Teyla's helping out with that. The last thing I need is Colonel Sheppard contracting something else," he explained wearily.
For the first time I wondered how Carson did it. How he managed to help everyone, and yet not buckle under the pressure. Sure, I thrived on pressure, and if I failed we could all die in times of crisis, but the battles Carson fought for his patients seemed never ending. The poor man seemed to get no respite. They were also very personal battles. He knew everyone on Atlantis, and treating friends must have been hell.
"What can we do?" I asked helplessly. Maybe Carson hadn't explored every avenue. Deep down, I knew better than that.
He put his paperwork on the desk and exhaled.
"Not a lot more. I've prescribed him another anitbiotic, but it can have a few nasty side effects, and I was hoping to avoid using it," he admitted.
"Nice," I commented dryly, as I thought about the side effects. No doubt copious amounts of unwanted bodily fluids leaving the body at incredible speeds. I really didn't want to go there.
"Look, I know this is frustrating. But we're honestly doing all we can for him. I'm sorry I can't tell you anything more positive," he apologised.
I nodded my head slowly in understanding.
"Is it all right if I sit with him?" I asked, hoping Carson would agree.
Smiling, he looked at me, and I could see approval in his features.
"Of course. You can take over from Melissa, if you don't mind? Her shift ended half an hour ago. She's a good lass and stayed to help with the colonel." He stood and I followed him to Sheppard's bed.
Carson patted the nurse gently on the arm.
"Rodney will take over now. Go and get some sleep, love," he told his loyal nurse. "Thanks for staying back. What would I do without you?" he asked honestly.
The nurse blushed. "You'd do just fine, Doctor," she answered, before passing the damp cloth to me. "Goodnight. If things get hectic, let me know and I'll come back," she offered sincerely.
"Aye, I know. Thanks." Carson grinned at the dedicated nurse in appreciation.
After she left, Carson instructed me how best to delicately mop my patient's brow - and other body parts too, but I don't want to think about that again - ever.
I sat there for six hours, dutifully wringing out the cloth, professionally sponging down Sheppard's fever ridden body. How nurses did that sort of thing all the time, was beyond me.
Sheppard had been pretty delirious for the first few hours, muttering under his oxygen mask, and recoiling from the cool water I was dampening his burning skin with. He did surface for the odd moment of lucidity, and I could have sworn I heard him ask me if I was all right. Was my deity trying to punish me more, by showing me how selfless Sheppard was? How diametrically opposed to me he was. Well, not any more. This whole disaster had changed me. I had metamorphosised into a different creature. It had taken thirty-seven years, but I finally understood the importance of human companionship - friendship.
I'm not making excuses, but the life of a genius isn't an easy one. As often goes with that territory, personal relationships weren't something I'd ever excelled at. My one true failure in life. Yet coming to Atlantis had changed that. Finding a friend like Sheppard had changed that. It may have taken something dramatic and life threatening to make me understand, but understand I did, and only too well. True friendship comes at a price. It's not about what you get out of it – that's a bonus. It's about what you give. It's what you can do for someone else, even, if in the process you find yourself hurting.
After a further two hours, Sheppard had actually started to improve. His temperature had fallen, and Carson told me he thought the new antibiotics were kicking in. I just hoped I wasn't going to have to witness any possible side effects that would just complete my crappy day – literally.
"I'm really sorry, Colonel," I muttered. "I let you down, didn't I? You've never asked for anything from me – well, except for me to perform inhumanely impossible feats on a regular basis. Which, I might add, I've always succeeded at. Well, except for Arcturus, but let's not get into that at the moment. But, other than that…" I paused, trying to think what to say next. After all, Sheppard was basically unconscious, and he wouldn't remember any of what I was saying, would he?
"You've really made me look at myself in the last few days, and honestly, it's not been much fun to accept what I've discovered. Sometimes you look in the proverbial mirror and you don't like what you see, do you? No, I'm not talking about your hair, before you ask. Or mine, for that matter. I'm talking about me – the person." I paused again, taking the cool cloth and wiping a few remaining beads of sweat from Sheppard's forehead.
"I haven't had a great time as far as personal relationships go. I've told you bits and pieces about that, haven't I? But that doesn't excuse my behaviour. Yes, I felt guilty, yes I was embarrassed, but it recently struck me I was feeling something else – fear. I was scared. No surprise there, I hear you say. I ignored you, because I was terrified of suffering the pain of losing someone I cared about." I snorted. What was I, a teenage girl? All angsty and emotional.
"God, you're making me blab like a hormonal teenager here. I've never been someone who likes expressing emotion, it's just so – unscientific and illogical." I cringed inwardly as I continued unburdening myself to my unconscious friend.
"Anyway, I've learned a lot about myself, and I want to say I'm sorry for my behaviour, and that I've changed."
"I kind of like you the way you are." I heard Sheppard's weak voice from under the oxygen mask.
I jolted in surprise.
"Colonel?" I asked, amazed that he was finally lucid – and conscious.
"That's me," he answered weakly.
Suddenly I remembered what I'd been saying to him, believing him to be dead to the world. "Tell me you didn't hear my little self-indulgent monologue? Because I'm pretty embarrassed that I actually said that out loud, but if someone actually heard it…" I put my head in my hands.
I opened my fingers and peered apprehensively through them, spying Sheppard grinning under his mask.
"Yep. Heard it all," he whispered.
"Oh God, just shoot me now!' I moaned, letting my head fall on Sheppard's bed.
I felt a tentative hand on the arm shielding my eyes. Looking up, I saw Sheppard gazing at me, a puzzled expression on his face.
"'S'okay, Rodney," he assured me. "I've learned a lot about myself, too."
"Right. Good, good. So, can we forget this ever happened?" I half-begged, sincerely wishing the ground would magnanimously swallow me up.
He chuckled softly. "Sure. Big macho men like us don't pour out their hearts to each other, do they?"
I grinned at my friend. "No, they don't. Not that I'd ever describe myself as macho. I prefer manly," I joked, bringing more levity to our 'so not discussing our shortcomings or feelings of friendship' conversation.
Coughing, I brought my emotions under control.
"So, you feeling better? You look and sound it." He nodded his head.
"You know you owe me big time. I've been sitting here mopping your brow tenderly for over six hours. Carson was short of nurses, and he thought I'd make a good one, only he knows why," I laughed.
Sheppard smiled. "Thanks," he whispered.
I noticed him taking in his surroundings and peering under the sheet. "Tell me you didn't undress me though, because I think that'd be taking our friendship a little far," he joked.
"No. Fortunately not," I answered truthfully. "I should go and get Carson. He'll be relieved you're finally awake."
Carson checked Sheppard over, grinning broadly, and informed us both that he was pleased with what he found. It finally looked like the colonel had turned the corner; Sheppard's fever had broken, and his chest was clearing. My very own god had heard my prayers, and in turn, had answered them.
Carson left to check on the progress of the marines, and I stayed with Sheppard, making small talk, generally being the supportive friend I'd transformed in to.
I was inwardly patting myself on the back, thinking how well I'd done to get through this nightmare. I hadn't behaved that badly, had I? It was all quite understandable, if you thought about it, and I'd been there for Sheppard when it really mattered, dealing with the blood, the bedside vigils – even the sponging down of his fevered brow. However, I was soon to get a sharp reminder not to lapse into the old Rodney McKay routine again.
As often happens, when we become too smug and self-satisfied, fate has a way of bringing us right back down to Earth again. I don't know if my imagined ethereal rock, who I'd so desperately created in my hour of need, was giving me a gentle kick up the rear end, or whether it was just more of my ever present bad luck. But ill fortune certainly seemed to like me sometimes.
As I was chatting to Sheppard, I noticed he looked uncomfortable. He weakly lifted the oxygen mask from his face, and started to mumble something. Trying desperately to be the reformed friend I'd morphed into, I leaned across Sheppard to return the mask to his face, and was about to chastise him in my new found firm, yet gentle manner, when he groaned – and promptly threw up all over the front of my jacket. As I screamed for Carson, I looked up, heavenward, and simply muttered, "Message received, loud and clear.' I understood this time – really.
Sheppard spent the next four days vomiting up just about every internal organ he had through his mouth, along with violently expelling everything else out of another orifice. He really looked like shit – literally.
Being the friend I was, I weathered the unpleasant storm by his side, and when he came off the drugs, he improved dramatically. He was, however, still extremely weak, but was getting better every day. His internal injuries were healing well, his pneumonia had disappeared, and he was starting to eat again, well, eat what was tantamount to baby food.
Carson had agreed, albeit reluctantly, to allow Sheppard a pass out of his prison, and had agreed for him to be allowed out onto the nearest balcony, on the proviso that he was in a wheelchair, wrapped up like a baby, and only gone for twenty minutes. Carson would have had me burping Sheppard next, if he'd had his way.
As Carson and I had carefully lifted Sheppard into the wheelchair, I realised how thin and frail my friend had become, though nobody was more relieved than me to discover Sheppard had been given scrubs to wear. I'd recently seen quite a lot of my friend, and really didn't want to see any more.
As we sat on the balcony together, I watched as Sheppard breathed in the warm sea breeze. He closed his eyes and basked in the warm sunlight.
"That feels so good," he sighed in appreciation.
"Yes, it does," I honestly replied.
I saw him open his eyes, and turn his head to look at me. He scrutinised my features, and seemed to be thinking – always a dangerous thing for a man with his limited intelligence.
"You going to be okay?" he asked.
What sort of a question was that? Was Igoing to be all right? I wasn't the one who had clung so desperately to life, was I? Maybe, in my own way, I had.
"I think I should be asking you that," I replied.
He smiled tiredly at me. "I'm good. Going to take me a while to be up to using my skateboard again – but I'm getting there," he answered honestly. "You look tired," he commented. "I'm worried about you. I know this hasn't been a bed of roses for you."
I snorted. "No, though I think I'm finally starting not to smell like something you'd put on the flowerbeds," I quipped. I really couldn't do this again. I'd had enough of the touchy, feely emotional self-awareness crap, and I wanted things to return to the relative normality of life on Atlantis.
Sheppard smiled. "Yeah, sorry about that." He looked at me again, and I could see the concern in his face. "Seriously, are you okay?" he questioned further.
"We should be getting back now, we've been gone over half-an-hour," I said, trying to change the subject.
"Carson won't even notice I'm gone, Rodney. I don't want to go back yet. Please?" he begged. "And you haven't answered my question. Are you okay?" he pressed.
I knew I had to put everything behind me, so I took a deep breath, and let it all pour out, "I'm fine. I explained everything before to you, and I really don't want to talk about it again. I screwed up, I apologised, and I learned the true meaning of Christmas," I blustered, smiling at my last words.
"Ouch!" Sheppard winced. "Enough said. Look…I'm sorry if my actions upset you – and I'm really sorry I bled all over you, and threw up over you, among other things. I'll endeavour never to give you a repeat performance." He smiled warmly, but I noticed the fatigue in his face.
"Right. Time to return you to the Voodoo Shaman's clutches. I don't want him sticking my effigy with sharp pointy things because I haven't returned you to his lair," I joked.
Sheppard's shoulders sagged a little, but I knew instinctively how exhausted he was.
"Okay," he muttered in a sulky voice.
I chuckled. "Sometimes you really are a child. Carson would let you go if you were well enough. You're stuck in the infirmary for your own good, you know," I admonished.
"Not all of us actually enjoy lying on our butts doing nothing, while simultaneously being stuck with IV's and having thermometers stuck you don't want to know where. Oh and let's not forget the delicious infirmary cuisine," he whined.
I really didn't understand Sheppard's adversity to the infirmary. I actually liked it there. Still, takes all types, I suppose.
"Quit complaining. I swear he keeps you there longer than necessary just to teach you a lesson. At least everyone fusses over you. They can't wait to get rid of me, often dispatching me out of their clutches before I'm well enough to fend for myself," I complained.
Sheppard laughed, and I thought how nice it was to hear that. A few days ago he could barely breathe. I instantly made a note to be nicer to Carson, and to show him how much I appreciated his witch-doctoring skills.
As we entered the infirmary, my resolve suddenly disappeared.
Carson was standing there, hands on hips, looking none too pleased.
"Where the hell have you two been?" he demanded. "I thought I made it clear that you could have twenty minutes, and you've been gone for forty!" he yelled.
Sheppard grinned mischievously. "I told him to bring me back, Doc, but he said you were busy sacrificing a chicken and that you wouldn't notice I was gone."
I stood there, jaw hitting the floor. Well, wasn't that typical? Do a favour for a friend and you get no thanks, just a knife in the back.
Carson looked apoplectic. "Rodney? I can't believe you'd disobey my orders like that! I said twenty minutes for a reason, you know!" he shouted. Calming somewhat, he continued. "Help me get the colonel settled in bed, and we'll discuss this later," he added.
We got Sheppard safely tucked up in his bed; Sheppard lying there pale but smirking. He put his best puppy dog expression on his face, and looked up at Carson.
"Sorry to be a pain, Doc," he apologised.
Carson smiled fondly at his recalcitrant patient.
"That's okay, Colonel. I know how much you hate it here. Just a few more days, and you can return to your quarters, all being well," he soothed.
Sheppard grinned like a small child. "Thanks, Doc. I'll be good, and I won't let Rodney encourage me to go to the dark side again," he deadpanned.
Carson patted Sheppard on the arm, and went to leave. Sheppard gave me a lopsided grin. Sneaky bastard.
"You know, I think I've changed my mind. I don't want to be your friend anymore," I hissed at Sheppard. He gave me one of his innocent looks, and it took all my self-control not to thump him.
I was about to remind Sheppard about some of the embarrassing situations I'd witnessed him in recently, when Carson returned, with the biggest syringe I've ever seen.
"Rodney?" he called calmly. "I think you're looking a little peaky. How about I give you a nice big vitamin injection?" he asked seriously, though I couldn't help but notice the mad gleam in his eyes.
I shuddered. "Ah, well, actually, I have to go to…er, you know," I stuttered.
I heard Sheppard laughing in the background. That was until Carson turned to him.
"I don't know what you're laughing at Colonel, you need one as much as he does," Carson remarked icily.
I noticed Sheppard sink down into his bed, the laughing having dissipated at an incredibly fast rate.
I looked at Sheppard, then Carson, and did what I always did in situations such as that one – I ran to the sanctity of my lab, wondering what I had done to deserve my lot in life.
Once in the lab, I spied Zelenka working quietly in the corner. On hearing me enter he looked up from his work and smiled.
"Rodney. It's good to see you. Colonel is better, yes?" he asked.
I snorted. "Oh yes, he's better all right," I answered in an irritated voice.
Zelenka nodded. "That's good," he replied. "He is lucky to have a friend such as you. I did not think you had it in you to stick by him. You surprised me – pleasantly, for once," he joked – well I presumed he was joking.
I took in his words and realised he was right. I had stuck by my friend through thick and thin, and learned a lot about myself at the same time. I'd found that I had it in me to be somebody's friend, and no matter what fate threw at us both – I'd never let him down again, ever.