Finding Peace of Mind

by

Stealth Dragon

Rating – T, for some rather unpleasant images involving blood and torture.

Disclaimer – I don't own it, ye jackanapes! SGA 'tis not of my make, I tell ye! So there.

Synopsis – John/Ronon friendship story. John is experiencing a new kind deterioration, and Ronon seems to know something the others don't.

A/N: I got the inspiration for this story from something I heard about a long time ago. I will not mention any names for privacy purposes, but I will say that I was one of several privy to hearing about someone's experience with open heart surgery. The person's heart had to be stopped, and after recovery, it had left this person in an odd state of depression. What happens in my story is not what happened to this person or what they went through. Not that I know exactly what they went through anyways. But it did sound scary. I don't know the psychological ramifications of this, but it did make me think about breaking points. This story's about John's. A little post torture recovery and then some.

SGA

Pounding shouts hammered into his brain like hurricane driven breakers tearing at the hull of a drifting ship. Shouts that were constant and roaring without words, just deafening white noise that made his ears throb and his head crack. He wanted to see the source of the noise, but saw only mute colors through a graying haze, and motion that made his gut roll nauseatingly. He wanted to puke, but something was over his face. He lifted his hand only to have it pushed back down. When he breathed to soak his lungs in pure oxygen, his chest caught on pain, and he choked, gasping, sputtering, and whimpering. It was a searing pain burning away his entire ribcage and every organ it was supposed to be protecting.

It hurt, a lot. A hell of a lot. He would have said pain like this was unnatural, but darned if he hadn't felt it before, once, the origin of the pain positioned a little lower that time. This time it was higher up, near his pounding heart. And it hurt so bad.

John moaned trying to say as much, except he didn't know who he was saying it to. Them? Those bastards? Someone else? Hands were all over him, and the pain wouldn't let him squirm away.

My gosh, is this some last minute, ditch effort, waste not want not rape kind of thing? Oh hell! He whimpered again, but thus far nothing uncharacteristically unpleasant was occurring below his waist.

Shouts on shouts made his head spin, made him want to shrink away. He'd admit this only once – he was scared, terrified, and felt like weeping. He probably was weeping but he couldn't tell sweat from tears, plus the pain was quite the monolithic distraction. It was growing, making it hard the breathe, increasing the fog over his eyes.

Pass out, pass out, pass out, please just let me pass out.

Or die. He couldn't believe he thought that. But was unable to think on it any fruther. Strange things were happening.

SGA

Alarms squealed and pulsed. Carson shouted orders, nurses in blood-spattered scrubs were running everywhere. It was chaos in every sense of the word according to sight, but within the minds of the meds, it was a psychotic interpretive dance splashed in blood.

Carson's world had narrowed to only him and the body beneath his hands. When an order was shouted, it was done. When something was asked for, it appeared in his hands like magic. This time around, the object requested was a scalpel. Defib wasn't working, CPR only did good at keeping the blood going to provide the brain with oxygen. They needed that bullet out, and Carson had finally hit desperate.

So he cut into his friend, deep, opening him up, cracking his chest, and physically reaching in to take his friend's heart and pump it with his own hands. It felt warm through the glove, almost hot. It hurt Carson to do this, made his throat close and his eyes burn with moisture. Chances for John's survival were now dramatically decreased, but Carson hadn't known what else to do. His motions were purely automatic, but when someone came to take over the motions, he nearly snarled out a caustic 'back off!' This was his friend's heart. He didn't trust it to anyone else.

But he didn't have to when to Carson's shock, he felt it fluttering under his gloved palm. There were statistics stating that under no circumstances was that possible. But odds were meant to be beat, and John was always the one to beat them. Carson reluctantly released the living organ, watching it, holding his breath for the moment it stopped, while the chaos danced around him, and the bullet was removed...

SGA

Carson snapped awake. Not because of alarms, or any sound for that matter, but to a feeling. The feeling of a presence – a rather large, imposing presence – standing next to him. Looking up and to his left, he still started in alarm to see Ronon. The big man's muscled arms were folded across his broad chest, and except for the occasional blink, was statue still.

Carson relaxed and stretched, then realized he was still wearing the operating scrubs pretty much soaked throughout the front in John's blood. That bothered him, disturbed him, because Carson knew for a fact that it was too much blood. He ripped the gown from off his neck, wadded it up and rose quickly to discard it in the bio-hazard waste receptacle. He then went back to the chair Ronon stood by and dropped himself into it to stare at John's unconscious form practically buried under machines and bandages. Monitors, I.V.s, ventilator, and a tube draining fluids from his chest. All that equipment had scared the hell out of Rodney, and had brought both Elizabeth and Teyla to tears.

Ronon – well, Carson hadn't expected a reaction, and his expectations were rewarded. The big man's lingering presence was reaction enough. Call it loyalty, call it as close as he came to showing concern, but he was normally the last to leave, sometimes sticking around until McKay returned to take up the vigil.

Carson shook his head in disbelief when his focus returned to Sheppard. " Bloody bugger's beyond resilient," he said. " I had to bloody well crack his chest open. Survival rate doesn't do too well when it comes down to that." Carson looked down at his ungloved hands, the hands that had pumped Sheppard's heart, and held it when it started beating. It made him shudder. Normally he didn't dwell on the notion of holding other people's lives in his hands, but that had been too bloody literal for comfort.

Carson sighed. " Besides filling him with bullets," he looked up at the runner, " what did those people do to him?"

Ronon shrugged, as though the matter weren't important, except that it was or Ronon would have left a long time ago. " Mistaken identity. Those people we ran into – the nomads - turns out they were a rebel raiding party. The leader was showing Sheppard the road to the ruins when the attack came. It happened so fast we didn't get there in time, and Sheppard was taken with the leader and the four that were accompanying him. Seeing as how it was mistaken identity, Weir thought we could go about this diplomatically." The Satedan shifted his weight from one foot to the other. " They wasted our time, blackmailed for technology they can't even use, then gave Sheppard back naked, starved, and bleeding... after they executed the other five."

Carson wrinkled his bow. He didn't need the details to have it explain the lacerations on the Colonel's back and legs, the dislocated shoulder, the various cracked bones, the more pronounced visibility of bone, and why he'd been without apparel.

Ronon continued. " He was shot on the way back by some captain of the guard who didn't believe Sheppard was an innocent. Which led to any return trips to the planet being banned when I blasted out a few rounds of my own."

Carson was a little shocked to find himself mentally cheering the runner.

" The naked thing was a humiliation tactic," Ronon went on. " I think Sheppard was more pissed than embarrassed. He kept watching McKay to make sure he didn't take any pictures."

Carson smirked at the mental image of a glowering (though sickly) Sheppard and a cowed McKay. " McKay would never do something so callous. Besides, even if the man were cold like that, people would be more inclined to lose their lunch over a half-starved naked man bleeding all over the place than laugh their arse off."

Ronon shrugged again. " Sheppard was pretty delirious. He wouldn't leave until he got that black wrist band back. Not the rest of his clothes, just the wrist thing. Although that was the only piece of clothing that didn't get tossed into a fire. Seems one of the guards liked it too much to burn it."

Carson lifted an eyebrow. " He still had his dog tags."

" Another guard thought they'd look pretty on his daughter. At the time, we just thought Sheppard was being practical asking for those. We drew the line when he started demanding his chewing gum. Teyla got his sunglasses when she saw them on some kid."

Carson snorted. " Gaw, they certainly picked the poor lad clean, didn't they?"

" The guy who shot him did it with Sheppard's gun. So we got that back. P-90 too. None of the soldiers knew how to make it work."

Carson folded his hands over his stomach, leaning back and stretching his legs out to cross his ankles. " Rather the bloody story of the Colonel's life, don't ya think? He'll be havin' forced chats with Heightmeyer, I be tellin' ya that now."

Ronon didn't reply to that. He just watched Sheppard as though there were something to watch. Maybe the mechanical rise and fall of the man's heavily bandaged chest running on a ventilator, but that tended to become a tiresome action to observe fast. But looking up at the Sateden, Carson found the man's expression to be something akin to pensive. The distant look, and less stoicism – it was careful thought, considerate, and it caught Carson off guard to see it. There wasn't a moment when the big man didn't seem to be thinking, but it wasn't usually accompanied with any sort of an expression, not even a hint of one unless he was pissed.

" Penny for your thoughts?"

Ronon frowned, his brow frowning with him, and looked at the Scottish doc as though he'd just spoken in Gaelic. " Huh?"

Carson smiled wearily. " Earth expression, lad, sorry. Means what're you thinkin'?"

Ronon looked back to Sheppard. " About a lot of things."

Carson sighed and looked as well. He should have known better than to ask. " I won't lie. Chances for complications are high, and survival rate is still precarious. But knowin' John, he'll fight. It'll be one rough recovery, though."

Again, Ronon remained mute and thoughtful. Carson wished he could see into the Satedan's head. Ronon's countenance Carson could have sworn was – not pity, mostly because Ronon knew better than anyone never to pity – but sad.

SGA

John awoke to a single rhythmic and mechanical noise, something shoving air into his lungs and something... something... different? He couldn't quite describe it, because he couldn't properly dwell on it. He was a little too busy suffocating, his heart racing in panic as he tried to take back control of his own organ.

His heart felt weird, or it had. Maybe it still did, he couldn't tell. Suffocating, his lungs burning.

His heart being crushed, squeezed out of existence. His panic shot upward to become terror, and the rhythmic beep screeched in his ear. Hands were on him, and out of instinct he tried to pull away, except that he didn't get very far. Voices spoke to him, talking kindly trying to soothe him.

" It's all right lad, you're all right, it's just the ventilator..."

He knew that accent. So it couldn't have been them. Except sometimes he heard the accent only to have it fade away when the hands started grabbing him, and voices shouted to drown out the other voices. It wasn't happening yet, but it was only a matter of time...

Something warm and pleasant sped through his veins, and he slipped off, still unable to determine what was different, or if anything was different at all.

sgasgasgasgasga

He awoke again, panicking, suffocating, until the hands came back, and the kind soothing voice with the accent.

" I need ya to breathe out for me, Colonel..."

If it meant the suffocating would stop, then all right. If it didn't stop, then it would prove everything he was hearing and feeling to be crap. He breathed out, and gagged on something sliding from his throat. He choked trying to pull in a breath, until something was placed over his face that filled his mouth then his lungs with sweet air.

" Good lad, that's good. Just breathe now..." He felt a hand on his shoulder, and tried to pull away, but couldn't. So he moaned and shuddered, hoping the offending hand would get the hint.

No touching. He was sick of it. People needed to learn to keep their hands to themselves. That guard, the one with 'issues', or maybe he had done it because he knew it'd piss them all off. All that 'petting' as they waited in line to be dragged out into public, slapped into a stockade, and have people throw rotten vegetables at them. Pervert guard would start at the top of the head, and run his hand down over the spine, petting the good little naked inmates.

It might have been just a scare tactic. It wasn't like he had molested them or anything (probably because he wasn't allowed), just more fun for the guards and humiliation for the prisoners. And, of course, John just had to become the favorite. Had to be because of kicking that guard's butt on two separate occasions. The first time, John had swept his leg out to knock the pervert onto his back. The second time, being a little loopy with pain, he'd bit the guy's arm hard enough to draw blood. He got beat for it, naturally, lost half his rations, then had to endure not only the petting, but the man tracing John's myriad of scars with the tip of a knife. Not enough to cut, just enough to drive home the threat of reopening old wounds. The second act of violence had awarded John with a rope around the neck that was 'tightened' if the guards thought he was up to anything. And they thought that a lot. When he was released to drop to the ground, gasping for air, pervert would press his toe, or his knife, or even his hand, into John's ribcage to make it harder for him to breathe.

Yes, such a hospitable lot they were. Thank yous needed to be administered in the form of a boat load of C-4.

John's heart pounded, making it hard to breathe. He could think now, and wished he couldn't. The hand had left, but he still didn't feel right. He could have sworn something was missing, and it made him wonder if this was real, or just a damn good hallucination. Not that he minded hallucinations, but one tended to wake up from them eventually, and he didn't want to.

He attempted to move his hand. He wanted to cover his heart that felt heavy and uncomfortable in his chest. Something was done to it, he knew it, he could still feel it, he just couldn't place what that 'something' was. Something that hurt, that scared him. Something that shouldn't be possible. They, the guards, they must have drugged him or stabbed him, and were healing him for more torment, more petting and prodding and choking. John shuddered and whimpered.

What had they done to him?

" I need you to open your eyes lad."

John didn't want to. That would be waking up, and waking up had yet to prove worthwhile. He wanted to keep wallowing in the hallucination until he was either forced awake, or... died.

The hand returned to his shoulder. " John, lad, I really need ya to open your eyes."

John's breathing increased with his heart.

" John, calm down, it's all right. You're safe, you're in the infirmary. No one's goin' ta hurt ya."

Could he believe it? He wanted to believe it, but was too afraid to test it. Except, by now, the other voices would have been here. Perhaps they had already come and gone, which would explain why he ached so much, an ache that was turning into pain all over his body.

" John, please, I need ya to open your eyes. You can do it, son. It'll be all right. Open your eyes and see."

Carson's voice was so much louder and clearer than the other times. John wanted to believe, so much. Maybe just this one time, and if he was wrong, the pain would send him back to happy oblivion.

It took monumental effort to pull his eyelids apart. He saw, at first, a blur of soft metallic colors, and blobbed shapes hovering over him. A good start, since his dungeon had been gray and black. He blinked to clear his vision, and the blobs sharpened around the edges to become human forms, with faces taking on details that were vaguely familiar.

" Good John, that's good lad..."

He blinked again, the fuzz congealed, and Carson's face hovered over him. John's breath caught in a broken, weak sob of indescribable relief. His body shook with it, tears blurred everything to flood and spill down his face because of it, and he would have sobbed harder had he the strength.

Carson looked at him sadly, smiling wanly. " You're all right, lad, you'll be all right."

Carson's hand went back to John's shoulder. It was Carson, his touch, but it still made John's flesh crawl.

His heart beat hard, even painful, and he wanted to ask what was done to him. But crying, it seemed, had sucked a lot out of him, and his eyes slid back closed.

sgasgasgasgasgasga

John awoke to cold, and pain. Pain in his head, and a burning, stabbing pain in his chest. He recalled... nothing. So in desperation to recall, he opened his eyes to see someone standing over him, a blur in human form. He blinked until his eyes cleared, and the form became a woman in light blue scrubs, soaking a cloth in a metal bowl of water. When the cloth was removed, he followed its course to his chest, his bare, red chest bisected by a glaring red, ragged line longer than his sternum, surrounded by dark bruises.

He couldn't look away from the ragged gash of black stitches and clotted blood. They had done something, this was the proof. He'd been wrong, dead wrong. Carson had been a dream. He was still with them, naked, being healed for more. They had done something to his heart. That's why it felt wrong.

The cloth touched his bruised flank and he gasped at the arctic feel of it. New form of humiliation? Pulling his eyes from the scab, he saw a sheet covering him from the waist down. The cloth moved carefully over him, like ice, making him shiver and his skin attempting to crawl off his bones. His heart beat hard and heavy, his chest heave with increasing breaths, making the pain spike and flare as though liquid napalm were being injected into him. He squirmed in the hope of moving away from the cloth. The motion incited a riot of more pain in other places, but he didn't care. He was tired of the touching, even with a cloth, that made him want to vomit until his stomach was turned inside out.

" Colonel Sheppard?" said the woman in blue. " Colonel Sheppard, it's all right. Your fever is high and we're just trying to lower it..."

Disgust and terror pumped into John adrenaline enough to lift his unsteady hand until he gripped the cloth. He pulled it away, but the nurse pulled it back, and unfortunately for John, she was the stronger one at the moment.

" Colonel Sheppard, please. I know it's uncomfortable but we really need to do this..."

John tried again, only to have the nurse intercept by wrapping her fingers lightly around his wrist and moving it back onto the bed. He didn't let it stay there long, and lifted it enough to drop it on his chest over his pounding heart.

" What..." he gasped in a voice made hollow by the mask over his mouth and nose.

The nurse stopped wiping to stare at him in wide-eyed alarm. " Colonel?"

" What did you do... to me...?" He grimaced and moaned at the stabbing pain in his chest that was making it impossible to breathe. He coughed, and the pain became so unbearable spots flashed in his eyes. His heart pumped harder and harder until he thought it would pulverize itself, and it escalated his fear.

" What did you do to me?" he demanded, but it came out sounding like a plea.

The nurses wide eyes went from alarm to panic, and she turned moving partially from his sight.

" Dr. Beckett! Dr. Beckett, you need to get in here!"

Footfalls and voices, then a familiar face popped into John's line of sight, confusing him even more. Carson took John's arm by the wrist and moved it from his chest back to his side.

" Colonel Sheppard, it's all right lad. Ya've got a high fever and we're trying to bring it down. Are ya in any pain lad?"

John nodded shakily, lifting his arm again to gesture at his chest with his limpid hand. " It... hurts..."

Carson nodded, looking simultaneously sympathetic and worried. " All right lad I'll take care of it, just give me a sec."

Carson turned to the I.V. and took a syringe handed to him. John's attention was yanked from Carson by the return of the frigid cloth. He again tried to move away, then take the rag from the nurse, when Carson moved John's hand back to the bed.

" Ya need to be lyin' still now..."

" Make her stop," John begged. He hated the feel of the cloth, the motions, like petting that made him sick. He looked up at Carson, begging, asking why they were doing this. They weren't supposed to be doing this. They weren't them. " Make her stop..."

John tried again to push the cloth away when Carson pinned his arm down on the bed. " I'm sorry lad, but we need to do this. Your fever's too bloody high and it needs to be brought down."

John's arm squirmed weakly under Carson's stronger grasp as the cloth moved over him. He shuddered, and tilted his head back so he didn't have to watch.

" Stop touching me," he rasped, then sucked in a ragged breath. " Stop touching me!" he snarled. The fire in his chest had been doused, but his heart still insisted on ramming itself into his ribs. " Stop touching meeee!"

Warmth swam through his veins, bringing with it a heavy lethargy. No matter his fear, his anger, he couldn't fight it, and slipped into darkness and blessed lack of feeling.

sgasgasgasgasgasga

John awoke, off and on, like swimming to the surface of his mind to breathe, only to get pulled back under again. The murmuring, echoing voices were what pulled him back up, but the touching – hands on his shoulders, his arm, or arctic cold on his skin – pushed him back under. So he couldn't say where he was. Sometimes there was pain, and sometimes there wasn't. His heart beat flaccid in his chest, as though it were too big. He hated it, wished he could take it out, get a new heart that fit.

Except it wasn't just his heart. Everything felt wrong, every inch of his skin, every bone, organ, down to his nerve endings that pricked and tingled. During the moments when the pain was gone, a hollow pit gaped vomiting something frigid between his ribs, too small to swallow him but getting a little wider each time the pain was shoved back. He wanted to curl into himself and crush the hole out of existence but didn't have the energy to lift a finger. He was afraid of that hole. If it got big enough, then it would pull him in. And it was cold in that void, colder than Antarctica in winter.

John hadn't had the coherence or the desire to count how many times he struggled back to the surface. And he'd stopped caring where he was. It seemed all up to chance now.

But there was a difference on his next resurfacing. There was no outward cold, or an ice-caked cloth wiping him down. No hands, no pain, and from the feel of light material against his skin, no being in the buff. So he felt mildly safer opening his eyes this time around. When he did, it was to dimly lit familiarity. Metallic walls, the steady beep of a heart monitor, blankets above him and a mattress beneath. He'd been aware of these things before, but in an incoherent way that had him doubting whether they were real. But the clarity of what he felt, heard, and saw was sharpened enough for him to be able to confirm it. He was in the infirmary, and he always had been.

And yet no palpable relief washed over him. Things still felt wrong, as though a large chunk of ice had been shoved into his chest. His limbs and muscles were heavy, he was nauseas, and his heart - though steady on the monitor – felt sluggish. It took an effort that left him breathless and shaking, but he managed to roll onto his side that hurt the least, and curl into himself.

" Carson says you shouldn't do that."

John inhaled sharply at the voice and the jolt of his heart. A beige covered torso blocked his view of the infirmary. John darted his eyes up to see Rodney looking down at him, wearing an expression of long-suffering. " Come on, back on your back." His hand moved toward John, and John involuntarily recoiled, snapping both hands to his chest. He winced when the right hand – encased in a cast nearly up to the elbow he now painfully realized – thumped him above the sutured wound.

Rodney snatched his hands back and held them up in placation. " Whoa, whoa, whoa, sorry, sorry, real sorry... uh... crap! I was... I was just going to help you roll onto your back. I – I wasn't going to hurt you..." Rodney was looking spooked, but a lot more confused. His hands twitched, going up and down as if indecisive, until he curled his fingers into a fist and dropped them both at his sides. " You really need to be on your back. I can help if you want... But not if you don't want. It won't hurt or anything."

John stared at him. This was Rodney he was looking at; petulant but otherwise docile Rodney McKay, the man with the propensity for having a dangerous mind, but not really all that inclined to inflict physical damage. This man would no more hurt him than he would hurt a kitten. But John hadn't been thinking when he reacted. It had just happened, like an instinct, which he knew wasn't boding anything good.

" Is it.. uh... all right if I help?"

John rolled his head back to the sideways position, and chewed his tongue as he thought. He was being ridiculous, this was Rodney, not them. Abashed, he nodded.

He heard Rodney sigh. " Good, good. I'm just going to uh... put my hands here..." Rodney placed one hand on John's right collarbone close to his neck, and the other on his right shoulder blade. John tensed but was glad to see he wasn't consumed by the need to squirm away. Rodney pushed and ensured that John returned to his back carefully. Once in the appropriate position, the physicist tugged on the blankets to bring them up farther, and John cringed when Rodney's knuckles brushed his chest.

Rodney's face tightened abashedly. " Sorry. You all right? Any pain or anything? And the truth. None of that 'I'm fine' crap because we already know you're not fine. I mean you're shaking, so no way are you fine."

John hadn't realized he was trembling, but looking down at his left hand resting on his stomach, he saw it to be unsteady even when immobile.

" You cold?"

John nodded. Rodney grimaced with discomfort, and took John's arm, handling it as though it might snap in two. Which, to John's alarm, it looked like it could. Rodney placed the skinny, decrepit limb beneath the covers then pulled the blankets up to John's neck.

" Better?" he asked.

John nodded. It wasn't a lie, he felt warmer, but now that he was aware of his trembling, he found that he couldn't stop. He felt exposed on his back, vulnerable, and wanted to return to being curled on his side. The gaping hole or ice chunk or whatever it was in his chest radiating cold was also filling him with lethargy. Not enough to knock him out right off, but he gave himself three more minutes before he was unable to fight it anymore.

" Is there a reason you're giving me the silent treatment?" Rodney asked. He poured some water into a plastic cup with a straw and held it within reach of John's mouth. John took a sip enough to moisten his sand-paper dry throat.

" How's that?" Rodney asked, pulling the cup away.

John cleared his throat to test it. " S'okay." His words were rough, and barely surpassed being a whisper.

Rodney set the cup back on the tray, then stuffed his hands into the pocket of his jacket and rocked back on his heels. " So, feel up for conversation or is it time for another nap?"

" What happened to me?" John blurted. Rodney stopped rocking and stiffened.

" Um... uh... what – do you remember?"

" Besides getting rotten alien vegetables thrown at my head or being fondled by an overweight, hairy prison guard, not much." His hand snaked onto chest to rest lightly over the sutured wound. He rolled his head to look directly at Rodney, terrified to ask, but needing to know. " What... did they do to me?"

Rodney pulled his hands from his pockets to start digging his thumb into his palm. " Oh, you know, same old, same old. Tortured you, starved you, beat you... then shot you in the chest. Carson had a hell of a time trying to get the bullet out. Nearly lost you on the table. Needless to say it wasn't pretty."

John took a deep breath and winced when something in his chest seemed to pull. " That all?"

Rodney's brow wrinkled. " That all? What else would there be? The Adarthians might have been good with the blackmail and the abuse but didn't have the mental capacity for anything medically devious if that's what you mean. They beat you, shot you, and that's as far as it goes."

John moved his hand enough to have it over his heart, and felt both the beat and his own ribs. " So... the wound on my chest was from removing a bullet?"

" Yeah. Just a bullet. Haven't you been shot in the chest before? I mean, I know this isn't the first time you've been shot..."

John nodded. " Legs, arms, gut, side, back... never so close to the heart, though." He pulled in another shuddering breath. Rodney's visage softened into concern.

" I know I asked this already but are you all right? You seem a little – I don't know – on edge or something. Tense. And you know Carson won't be too happy about it when he finds out."

The monitor wasn't lying. John's heart felt as steady as it was sounding.

" Carson says you're going to be fine," Rodney said. " It was kind of iffy at first, but after the fever broke, he got a little more hopeful. As usual he's upset by all the weight loss because of the fever, considering you weren't carrying a lot of meat on you to begin with when we brought you back. But other than being too skinny, he says you're very liable to make a full recovery."

" So there's nothing wrong? Like... with my heart or anything?"

Rodney shook his head. " Nope. Your ticker's fine. The bullet was nicely tucked between your heart and your lungs, but we got you to Carson in time and there was no permanent damage done. Although your chest might not feel all that comfortable for a while."

If Carson said he was going to be fine, then it had to be true. The Scot didn't even play down ingrown toenails. The sensation of his heart being crushed, that had to have been the bullet. It must have shattered his ribs, and the bone had pressed down on his heart. Nothing had been done to him other than that, nothing at all.

His inability to remember the rescue and being shot frightened him. Something was missing, either something Rodney wasn't telling about, or simply something he didn't remember. Had to be the latter because Rodney wasn't fidgeting and avoiding eye-contact. Or maybe he didn't know, but Carson did.

Or maybe it was all in John's head.

It was getting too difficult to think, and it wasn't as though John had had the energy for it to begin with. The lethargy was winning out, and he was happy to let it. But Beckett's timing was impeccable, and he walked up just when John was about to let his eyes slide closed.

" Colonel Sheppard," he said cheerily, putting his stethoscope to his ears. He pulled down the blanket, then untied the gown to do the same, moving John's hand from his chest. Beneath, the wound was hidden by bandages. Carson placed the end of the scope on John's chest over those bandages. " How ya feelin', lad?"

John winced at the pressure of the stethoscope and blinked heavily. " Tired."

Carson nodded as he moved the stethoscope around. " I can see that. Any pain or discomfort?"

" No." Then he sighed. " Does my heart sound all right?"

Carson lifted his eyebrows. " Aye, sounds fine lad. Strong, steady, blood pressure's looking fine as well. Won't be long now before you're back in your quarters."

John nodded. " 'Kay."

Carson smiled. " Thought ya'd be a wee bit more excited than that..."

So did John, but he didn't have the energy for excited. He didn't even have the energy to care. He slipped away into darkness though Carson urged him to stay awake a little longer. But he couldn't, and didn't want to try.

SGA

Elizabeth took the halls at a wide walk to cover the fact that she was hurrying, in part because she was pretty much walking on cloud nine, and in part because she didn't know how much time she had before John passed out in another drawn out nap. She'd missed John's moments of coherency thanks to the situation with the Adarthians refusing to let up. The Adarths were persistent about haunting every planet they could in order to dog whatever Atlantean team that happened to be wandering by so they could gibber out apologies. The Adarths feared war with the 'Lanteans to be just around the corner, and had come to realize their complete vulnerability after coming to terms with the fact that the 'Lanteans had been right - the Adarths couldn't work any of the Ancient techno.

Elizabeth milked it. Not very diplomatic of her, but she was pissed, and wanted retribution. She refrained from demanding blood for blood, and settled for having that mayor who refused to hear the 'Leantean's out, and several of the guards who had tortured John, incarcerated. Lately, she had been pushing the Adarths to allow Atlantis to hold their own trial against the mayor and John's tormentors. Nothing legit, just something to get them to wet their pants.

Even Caldwell had been shocked by Elizabeth's level of fury (and impressed), and truth be told Elizabeth was a little surprised herself. The once earth dwelling Elizabeth would have never considered putting on a mock trial just to see the bad men squirm.

Entering the infirmary – even momentarily happy as she felt – she was reminded for the tenth time the reason for this change in attitude, and cloud nine became a lot less stable.

John was awake and looked worse awake than he did asleep. At least asleep, there was no seeing the ramifications of his abuse. It wasn't that he looked peaceful in sleep – or less injured what with the glaring bright bruises patching his pallid face - he just wasn't reacting, fighting back mental breakdowns with the struggle evident in every twitch of his facial muscles.

Awake...

Elizabeth wasn't desensitized to the countless times she had observed Colonel Sheppard recovering from some illness, injury, or torture. But she had become accustomed to a certain pattern of it. Unconscious surrounded by machines, unconscious without the machines, delirious, sleeping a lot, then finally alert and restless. According to that pattern, John should be restless, badgering Carson to be released, chatting with the nurses or McKay, showing a ghost of his old smile and his old self. What Elizabeth saw now she couldn't give a name to, but it was breaking her heart.

John was painfully thin – no surprises there. His illness had taken off the little starvation hadn't. He was also pale, shadowed eye, all the usual after such a cruel ordeal. It was the look on his face that was getting to her. He was sitting up, leaning over the tray holding a bowl of broth he was eating with a spoon that barely got the liquid too his mouth no thanks to his shaking hand. There was no smile, neither on his lips or in his eyes, no hint of his energy trying to push its way back to the surface, no shows of defiance or general acknowledgment of anyone around him. He looked tired, like he needed more sleep, and probably did. Elizabeth also could have sworn he was nervous, or maybe more like worried, she wasn't quite sure.

He must have been cold. Instead of a gown, or even standard scrubs, he was wearing one of his long-sleeved shirts, a knit gray one, and as he ate with his left hand he had his casted right arm hugging his stomach. And it wasn't just his hand that was shaking. Even from where she stood, Elizabeth discerned the minuscule tremors in his sharp shoulders.

" There's no point."

Elizabeth jumped and spun to the right to see Rodney leaning against one of the beds with his arms folded as he observed Colonel Sheppard's methodical dining. The self-proclaimed genius' face was scrunched in what could have easily been mistaken for a look of mild irritation, but was in honest to goodness truth Rodney's usual face when he was thinking carefully. Even his own brain seemed to annoy him.

" No point?" Elizabeth asked. Rodney lifted his head to point his chin at Sheppard.

" Engaging in any kind of conversation with him. Don't get me wrong, it's not like he's snubbing anyone. He just doesn't stick it out, and keeps to the monosyllabic." Rodney squinted and shook his head. " Something is very wrong."

" You think?" Elizabeth replied. " Rodney, the man was tortured, shot, then sick for days. It's probably left him a lot worse for wear."

Rodney continued to shake his head. " No, this is different. It's not like this is the first time he's been tortured, or shot. Usually he's either all kinds of angry, or unnaturally cheerful because he's bottling it up." Rodney straightened at the sound of Carson's voice, and gestured toward Sheppard. " Watch him. Just watch."

Carson was talking animatedly with one of his nurses, both of them approaching John's bed. He kept on talking even when he turned his attention to John. He reached out, barely brushing John's shoulder with his fingertips, and John nearly jumped clean out of his skin, sending the spoon flying in a rain of broth. Panting, he twitched his head around up at Carson, and flashed him a sheepish smile while shrinking in a slight cringe.

" S-sorry," Elizabeth heard. Carson kept his smile plastered to his face, but his eyes seemed to melt into sympathetic melancholy. He patted John's shoulder and gave him assurances as the nurse retrieved the spoon. She went to the back of the infirmary, probably to clean the utensil. Carson kept assuring John, who'd stopped trying to smile and looked back at his bowl of broth without really seeing it. Both arms were around him, and the tremors had picked up into all out trembling.

Elizabeth's jaw went slack. " That was... interesting."

" See what I mean?" Rodney said, keeping his voice – for once – at a level that couldn't be overheard by a certain Lt. Colonel. " I'd tell you to send in Heightmeyer but I doubt that would accomplish anything. I don't know about you, but personally, I'm starting to think he snapped. Although I'd imagined his break down to involve more shooting up Atlantis in the pursuit of invisible wraith, not," again, he gestured at Sheppard, " timidity. Since when the hell has Sheppard ever been timid?"

Heightmeyer probably wouldn't get John to open up, but she could still observe, and Elizabeth was considering getting her to. When not being stubborn, or in a full military mindset, Sheppard was either in a state of total easement, smirking, or wearing a slightly sheepish expression when either under reprimand or in an awkward situation. But timid he never did, and had never done.

The nurse returned with the now clean spoon just as Sheppard finished drinking some water. She handed the spoon over, and Sheppard took it with a quiet, almost shy thank you. He went back to his soup, and flinched spilling soup from the spoon when Carson lifted the back of his shirt to listen to his breathing with the stethoscope. Elizabeth decided to make her move.

" Good luck," Rodney mumbled.

Elizabeth made sure to approach at the foot of the bed, and slapped on her brightest smile. She ducked her head, trying to catch John's eye.

" Hey John," she said.

John gave her a small smile before his next bite. " Hey." Then came a moment of rather uncomfortable silence. More uncomfortable for Elizabeth. John appeared thoroughly preoccupied with the motions of dipping the spoon and bringing it up.

" So," Elizabeth finally said. " How are you feeling today?"

John took another swallow of broth before speaking. " Better."

Elizabeth nodded. " You seem better. I've been trying to catch you awake for days. This is the first time I succeeded."

" Oh."

More uncomfortable silence settled between them. John's attention had returned to his soup, although his eyes seemed a little brighter, as though a bit of gloom had been wiped away. Soup slopped from his spoon to spill back into the bowl in splashes and plops. John didn't slurp but stuck the whole spoon in his mouth fast before anymore broth could be lost. At this rate, he would be done by tomorrow. Elizabeth wondered if that's why he wasn't talking, because he was trying to concentrate on eating.

Elizabeth clasped her hands in front of her and rolled onto her toes, then back onto her heels. " So, Carson says you're almost ready to get out of here. Bet you're excited."

John gave her a one-shouldered shrug. " Sure. I can turn off the light in my room."

Elizabeth's smile became more genuine rather than mechanical. Finally, a solid sentence consisting of more than one word. Plus a joke to boot.

" And turn up the heat?"

John smiled slightly. " That too."

Elizabeth's eyes flicked up to make contact with Carson's. He shrugged helplessly. The infirmary had to be verging on eighty degrees right now, comfortable were it winter time and not eighty degrees outside.

One more bite, then John returned the spoon to the bowl and left it there to move his arm to his stomach. Carson peered over John's shoulder at the still half-full bowl, but rather than coaching John into taking a few more bites, patted him on the shoulder. " Much better today, lad. Ya ready to lay back?"

John nodded. Carson eased John back against the pillows, and pulled the layer of blankets all the way up to his neck. After that, Carson pulled an electric thermometer from his pocket and stuck it in John's ear. John didn't complain, and in fact didn't seem to notice. Checking the temperature when the thing beeped, Carson nodded in satisfaction then pocketed the device.

" You're doin' great today, Colonel. Your temperature's back to regular, and your lungs sound clean. I definitely see a return to your quarters happening tomorrow."

John simply nodded, looking more expressionless than Ronon if that were possible. Speaking of the runner, Elizabeth hadn't seen the big man around all that much lately. Elizabeth had inquired Teyla about it, and though the Athosian seemed just as perplexed, she wasn't exactly worried. Ronon valued moments of solitude, and had the tendency to become scarce whenever he could. More so when missions weren't scheduled. It sounded reasonable, so Elizabeth had left it at that.

Carson took up John's chart and wrote something down, then tucked it under his arm. " Let me fetch your pain meds. You're right on time for your next round."

John nodded again, and Carson left to get the medicine. Elizabeth moved up closer to the head of John's bed. He smiled at her a tired smile, and looked ready for another doze.

" You okay?" he asked. Now that sounded like the old John, always worried for the other, looking out for the other. Elizabeth found comfort in it.

" To quote you, I'm good. Been good. Maybe a little frustrated diplomatically, but nothing I can't handle."

John smiled wearily. " What've I been missing?"

Elizabeth shrugged. " Nothing much. The mayor who wouldn't let us get you back has been imprisoned, and so have the guards that... you know."

" I know," John said, lowering his gaze to look at the edge of his blankets. He inhaled deeply, and exhaled softly, his eyes growing heavy and the muscles of his face going slack.

" Sorry," he said. " Tired."

Elizabeth laid her hand on his arm, and felt him flinch. " It's all right, John. Go to sleep."

John nodded. She felt his arm shift from beneath her hand, and saw its path through the movement of the blankets as he positioned his hand on his chest. Over his heart if Elizabeth wasn't mistaken, or maybe over the wound where Carson had to cut him open. Elizabeth shuddered, and hoped John hadn't caught her reaction.

He hadn't, his eyes were closed, his breathing even, and his head tilted to one side

Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow, unsure whether to be amused or concerned. " That was fast."

" But not unnatural," Carson said on returning. He uncapped a syringe and injected the contents into Sheppard's I.V. " His body's just trying ta heal itself." Beckett glanced down at his unconscious patient, furrowing his brow. " Though he's usually tryin' to be more of a bugger than sleepin'. I've yet to threaten him with sedation."

" Being the good patient for once?" Elizabeth said. Carson moved to return the chart to the foot of the bed.

" Aye." He leaned on the bed with hands planted on either side of John's feet. " Perfect, actually. Hasn't caused me a lick of trouble or said one word of complaint, and that's if he's talkin' at all. I don't know all of what they did to him on that planet, but it seems to have made him jumpier than a high strung cat. Mostly when ya touch him. He seems to have developed an aversion toward touch. Not all the time, mind, so I don't think it'll be permanent, but when Kathy tried rubbin' his back durin' one of his vomitin' fits, he nearly bolted from the bed. Ya touch his arm or leg and it's not so bad, but go for the back and he gets vicious about it, practically – and literally - snarlin'. His chest, though, that's a different matter. Down right bloody scares him when I try to listen to his heart. Sometimes he recoils, tries to cover his chest, but mostly he starts shakin' and his heart rate goes up, so I usually attempt to go for a listen when he's asleep."

Carson shook his head, and stood straight, shoving his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. " It's got me worried that..."

" That?" Elizabeth pressed.

Carson twisted his mouth uncertainly. " I don't know." He then looked directly at Elizabeth, and moved from the bed, taking her arm to lead her away out of hearing from John. " I had to crack his chest open, Elizabeth. And his heart stopped. I know it isn't the first time he's been through cardiac arrest, but trauma like that has been known to have emotional side effects on people."

Elizabeth's own heart began to pulsate. " What kind of effects?"

" Depression, mostly. What I'm worried about is if – some how – John was aware of what was happnin' to him. I'd like to say it's impossible, but strange things happen to folk on operatin' tables. Near-death experiences, awareness of what's goin' on durin' an operation, feeling pain, not feeling pain but bein' awake to observe what's happenin'. I mean it wasn't as though he was under anesthesia. He was out under his own power."

Elizabeth's eyes widened. " Are you suggesting he might not have been all that unconscious? But his heart stopped..."

Carson nodded. " Aye, I know, but the human body can do strange things when it wants to, and the human brain even stranger things. I honestly hope he wasn't aware, but until we know for sure what's goin' on with him, we'll need to keep a close eye on him."

Elizabeth nodded in vigorous agreement. " I was thinking about getting Heightmeyer to observe him. We both know he won't talk."

" Aye, good idea. I'll have a talk with Kate. If it is depression we're seein', then we'll need to start formin' a plan of treatment."

Elizabeth winced. Anti-depressants, possible transfer back to earth if things got bad. They'd been down that road a time or two, but Sheppard always managed to bounce back before it got that far, or seemed to for the sake of staying in Atlantis.

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at her sleeping military CO. She then turned her head to look at Rodney still leaning with the small of his back against the bed. His irritation was more pronounced in his features, therefore genuine. Obviously, he'd over heard the conversation.

SGA

It was Steve who grabbed him by the neck and slammed him down onto the table, and Bob who held the stunner on him. The red haired wraith queen sauntered up to the prone pilot. She smiled to flash her jagged teeth.

" I believe this is where we left off," she purred, then drew her hand back and rammed it into John's chest. The force sent her hand plunging through cloth, flesh and bone, deep inside to grab his pounding heart and squeeze.

John bolted upright in his bed, gasping for breath that wouldn't come. His hand went to his chest and over his heart that was racing too fast for his lungs to keep up. His lungs burned, and his heart only hammered faster in panic. He doubled over clutching his chest against the burning and the pounding. He forced himself to suck in ragged gulps of air and for his breathing rate to slow until his heart finally slowed with it. His chest continued to burn and throb thanks to rather pissed off abused muscles, bones, and a laceration.

The whole minute-long moment now left John sweat-drenched and shivering with his head in his hands and every heaving breath making his heart lurch. Then came what he should have seen coming, but coming too fast for his lead-based body to react in time. He scrambled from the bed, falling to the floor on his hands and knees with a bone-jarring thud, where he heaved three times until the burning bile sprayed from his mouth to slap onto the smooth metal floor. After the bile, more empty heaving until the muscle spasms finally settled.

John inched back and slumped on his knees, back bowed and shoulders drawn inward to ease the pressure off the muscles of his chest, and turning him into a shivering, hunch-backed mass.

Is this normal? He wanted to think so. Nightmare, still in recovery, still weak – it wasn't like he was a stranger to vomit inducing wake-ups. So it shouldn't be anything to worry about. Carson said he was going to be fine, just fine, and that there was nothing wrong with his heart.

John's left hand went straight to his chest to feel the rapid beats through his shirt, the bandages, skin and bone. He was startled, that's why it was beating fast. He was all right, nothing was wrong. He was just startled.

Just keep repeating that, and maybe you might believe it. Ah, the sweet bliss of self delusions. John could be a real SOB to himself when his mind couldn't walk a straight line.

His room felt like it was below zero, and exceedingly empty, like his very own private corner of a black hole. He nudged the heat up with his mind, but the devoid feel of his quarters had two options for solving it. Go back to sleep and forget about it, or do what he was supposed to be doing right now and head to the mess hall for food. What he wanted was to go back to sleep, and his body tried to urge him to give into that desire. But he also wanted normalcy, and establishing normalcy required energy he didn't have, energy provided by food. Body and mind would settle down once normalcy was established. He needed to eat, for the sake of normalcy.

So why am I not moving? John looked up to stare in the general direction of the door through the darkness. The longer he stared, the farther away it seemed, and moving farther. All he wanted to do was sleep. Food could wait, just a little longer. He needed the sleep, Carson had said so.

John twitched his head. No, I need food, energy. I'll feel better with energy, like myself. I'll heal faster, be back on my feet, and feel normal again. Like myself. I'll feel better, a hell of a lot better. I just need food, that's all. He rubbed the material and skin over his heart, and was overcome by a sense of being incredibly small and exposed in the dark, ironic as it sounded.

John curled his fingers into a fist against his chest. Shuddering pants he turned into seething heaves as he lit the fires of anger at his own pathetic mindset. But the anger didn't drown out the fear or the confusion, and it became more than just the cold making him shiver.

" What the hell is wrong with me?"

He might have been feeling small, but the room was shrinking around him as the door stretched away beyond his reach. He shrank into himself, pulling at the anger to make it grow, only to have it smothered by debilitating confusion. Beneath his fist, his heart hammered like a fist unto itself, knocking to get his attention.

John could hear it, a gentle tap to his ears though a pummeling to his chest, until he finally realized what he was hearing wasn't keeping time with what he was feeling.

" Sheppard?"

Something in John snapped, not out of place but back into place, and all emotion faded to leave him drained and exhausted enough to drop off on the floor by the mess of vomit. Thankfully, he never got the chance when he thought the door open as a means to force his mind to concentrate and Rodney stepped in, bringing up the lights for himself. McKay stopped at what the lights revealed to him, balking and gaping like a fish out of water.

" Oh man, what the hell?" Rodney gasped, and took long strides that were close to a run to get to John in four steps to crouch down beside him. He pulled John's blanket from his bed and wrapped it around his quaking shoulders. " Oh crap oh crap oh crap this can't be good. You need me to call Beckett? I'm going to call Beckett. And don't tell me no because finding you on the floor in front of a puke puddle can not be normal. I knew Carson shouldn't have let you out so soon," Rodney, keeping up the gibbering, stood, began pacing, and finally tapped his radio. " Carson! Get your sheep herding ass to Sheppard's quarters now!... He's on the floor and apparently vomited, that's what's wrong with him... He's still on the floor, so where the hell would he go?... All right, all right, just hurry it up, will you?"

Rodney whirled and strode straight back to Sheppard. " His voodoo preistness wants you sitting on the bed for easier access." He moved around John to take him by the left arm, and John let him. With Rodney's help, he was able to pull his sluggish body off the floor to sit slouched on the edge of his bed. Rodney plopped down beside him and adjusted the blanket around John's shoulders. " Maybe I should get you something to puke in should there be a round two," he said, and got up to search John's room for that something.

John watched Rodney, not much caring that the physicist was rummaging through his stuff. He felt oddly detached to the fact that Rodney had called Carson in. Any other day he would have been annoyed by the fact that Rodney had ratted him out, and that there was a good chance Carson was going to drag him back to the infirmary. Today, it just didn't seem to matter. John didn't want to expend the little energy he had in annoyance, and also – in a small way – hoped to prove to himself that his reaction wasn't out of the ordinary, just overdone.

But, in the long run, it just didn't matter. Carson would have been dropping by eventually for a checkup all the same.

Rodney paused in his search with a loud "ah-ha!" and returned to Sheppard carrying his small waste basket. He set it down in front of Sheppard, then dropped himself down beside the pilot.

" Round two readying itself yet?" he asked. John shook his head, and Rodney snorted. " Why so quiet then?"

John shrugged. " Tired."

" Tired? How can you be tired? You've done nothing but sleep the whole time you've been in the infirmary, and now that you're out you're telling me all you want to do is sleep some more. You know, usually by now you're hovering like a gnat around the lab looking for something to do." Suddenly, Rodney's hand shot out making a beeline for John's forehead. John involuntarily cringed away as though Rodney's hand had been a baseball about to smash into his face.

Rodney snatched his hand back, surprised and a little nervous. " Oh, sorry. Forgot about the whole no-touchy thing. What's up with that anyways?"

John didn't reply – number one because he didn't feel like it, and number two he didn't know how. The anti-touching back thing he got. That had been the pervert's doing. Everywhere else was more like an instinct, as though some unknown part of him actually believed the hands coming at him were going to strike. Either that or he'd officially developed an aversion to hands. Wasn't it always the hands doing the hurting? Hand in fists, hands holding weapons or objects to cause pain. Either way, both theories were pathetic, and made him scowl.

Rodney sighed. " Fine, don't tell me. Although you know good and well I'll badger it out of you sooner or later..."

" It feels wrong," John blurted, not to keep Rodney quiet, but because he was still trying to figure it out for himself. He felt Rodney stiffen beside him.

" What does, touching?"

John nodded, and Rodney eased out of his stiff posture. " Oh... Why?"

John lifted one shoulder in a lesser shrug, like an uncomfortable kid. " It just does." John's eyes wandered to the mess of vomit drying on his floor. Rodney gestured at it.

" Care to give an explanation for that?"

" Bad dream."

John's hand moved – on its own accord it seemed – to his chest, rubbing over his heart. He saw Rodney's head move out of the corner of his eye, up and down from John's face to the hand covering his chest, which made him suddenly self-conscious. It was a ridiculous action, he knew. Carson had said his heart was fine, just fine...

" You all right?" Rodney asked. John wasn't going to reply, having no answer for the question, but didn't have to suffer being prodded for an answer when Carson entered with medical bag in hand. He sidestepped the vomit to come up on John's other side and crouch adjacent to him.

" All right lad, what seems to be the problem?"

Rodney narrowed his eyes and jabbed a rigid finger at the puddle. " You see that nasty brown spot on the floor? That's the problem. So fix him already."

Carson gave Rodney a withering look, then placed on his stethoscope and looked back at John. " All right, John," Carson gingerly moved John's hand away from his chest, " I'm just goin' in for a quick listen to your heart and breathing. Won't take but a moment."

John's muscles pulled tight, but he nodded shakily all the same despite and in spite of the stammering voice of panicked warning in his brain. Carson moved methodically in lifting John's shirt, then even more slowly putting the end of the scope to his chest. John's hand immediately shot up to remove Carson's hand, but managed to stop himself halfway, leaving it hovering like a curled, seizing claw fighting the urge not to gouge eyes out. This, of all the physical contact, was the worst. He didn't know why, which added to his anxiety, making his breath come fast and his heart rate excel. Once again he was shaking from more than just being cold, and shaking so hard he could have flown apart had his limbs not been securely attached.

" Easy John," Carson soothed. " Easy lad, almost done."

" What's wrong with him?" Rodney tried to demand but ended up whining instead.

" Just a wee bit of an anxiety attack. You're doin' good, John. You're all right now."

Seconds were attempting to become hours, and the urge to pull Carson's hand away made John's fingers curl into a fist. Carson kept up with the soothing talk until like a blink the stethoscope was removed and John's shirt was lowered. Carson waited a moment before taking John's wrist and checking his pulse, which by then John's heart had climbed back down from its thrashing.

Beckett draped the stethoscope around his neck, and pulled out the electric thermometer. John was too busy reveling in the relief of having the small pressure of the stethoscope off him to notice the plastic device being shoved into his ear. After the beep, Carson read the numbers and pursed his lips.

" Well, temp is normal so no fever."

Rodney jerked his thumb at Sheppard. " He just told me the puke had something to do with a bad dream."

John shot Rodney a combination questioning look and scowl. He still didn't have the energy to care, but Rodney was starting to push it with all the tattling.

Carson nodded. " Assumed as much. No dizziness, headaches?"

John shook his head, enjoying the feel of his muscles easing out of their tension. " Just tired."

Carson tilted his head to one side. Rodney narrowed his eyes skeptically.

" And how the hell is Carson supposed to believe that?"

" Because," Carson said, opening his bag and rummaging through it, " he didn't say 'just fine' or 'I'm good'. Rodney, make yourself useful and bring the Colonel some food. I'm going to give him something for the nausea..."

John straightened as much as the damaged muscles and bones of his chest would allow, which wasn't all that much, and his heart started picking up speed. " No! Not in here. I want to eat in the mess. It was just a nightmare Carson, not because I'm sick. I don't want to stay in here anymore and you told me I needed to move around anyways, so..."

Carson sighed then nodded. " Aye, I did. That's fine lad, if ya think you're up to it. Just let me give ya somethin' so you can keep your food down, then Rodney can play watch dog and make sure ya get to the mess fine and dandy." The Scottish doc shook a pill from a bottle into his palm and handed it over to John. John took it, excepting the bottle of water proffered to him by McKay.

" Just let me get showered," John said after a swallow of water made unpleasant thanks to the lingering bitter vomit taste in his mouth. He grimaced. " And brush my teeth."

sgasgasgasgasga

John felt like a little kid forced to wear his big brother's hand-me-downs – clothes a little too loose and requiring an extra hole added to his belt just to keep his BDUs up around his bony hips. It bothered him, but in a 'back of the mind' sort of way, like one problem at the bottom of a list of many. At the moment, topping the list as his main concern was his sudden aversion to crowds. Nothing crippling, but he was starting to regret having begged Carson to let him go to the mess.

He stuck close to Rodney without seeming to, and knew he was failing at it, which was pissing him off. Actually, simply having someone walk by too close made his nerves wail in heated irritation. When the guy behind him brushed his back with an elbow on turning, John shot a withering scowl over his shoulder, which the soldier didn't notice being turned to talk with his buddy.

John tried to avoid getting in touch with his feelings when he could, but he knew good and well that what he was feeling wasn't pure and simple anger – it was trepidation verging on fear, flight or fight responses attempting to kick in, leaning naturally toward the fight response. John gripped his tray until his knuckles went white, and mentally kicked himself for wanting to come here so bad. He didn't even remember why he'd wanted to come here in the first place. There had been a reason, though. That and good old maintenance of pride kept him from stepping out of line and walking with forced dignity out the door where he could bolt back to his room unseen. He had to hand it to himself, he was doing good with the self control. Later, he planned on cussing at himself while standing in front of the mirror for having to force self control on himself in the first place.

What's wrong with me?

The pickings for today were green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese or last night's three cheese lasagna, bread, salad, various fruits, and pudding. But for John, it was chicken noddle soup, a glass of milk, box of juice, and an apple. It sucked that the cooks were under Beckett's thumb. John liked Mac and Cheese.

Rodney's own tray was quite heavily loaded with both Lasagna, Mac and cheese, a salad, fruit, and pudding as though the man had to get a little of everything before it was gone for good. They headed for an empty table out on the balcony, and John found a small modicum of comfort at being able to carry his own tray. But it was a precarious deal, and his spoon clattered and liquids sloshed when his arms began to go heavy and tremble. Rodney, even for his occasional distracted moments, caught on in time to set his own tray down and grab Sheppard's before the pilot's arms finally gave out. There was slight humiliation in it, but John gave it bottom-of-the-list regard and thanked Rodney with sincere relief. Rodney eyed him suspiciously as he sat down, but said nothing and dug in.

John eased himself down more carefully in regard for the various aches not completely erased by pain meds, and gradually tucked into his soup as though savoring it. Truthfully, chicken soup was chicken soup, and John felt wiped after lugging his tray to the table.

Rodney prattled on about recent discoveries, a new theorem, and incompetent staff. John nodded at the appropriate times. He listened with half attention for courtesy's sake, but kept getting his attention drawn to whoever happened to wander in too close when passing by. John would shoot them the evil eye though no one seemed to be paying attention. One young woman – dressed in the beige uniform of a scientist – caught John's look and quickly veered away like a spooked deer.

Rodney's fork heavy with casserole paused en route to his mouth as he stared at John in disbelief. " Geez, Colonel, feeling social much? You keep shooting off the dirty looks someone'll take offense – or drop dead from fright. At the moment I'm kind of going with the latter. Sure you were up to this?"

John had to consciously pull his eyes from the balcony entrance and plant it on his food. " I'm having second thoughts."

Rodney's fork finished its journey and he talked around his food. " Oh well, too little too late. I guess we can take comfort in the fact that you're not armed. Just try not to deck anyone, or bite them if that proves futile."

John focused on his soup to avoid giving others the death glare, but flinched every time the breeze of someone's passing brushed against the back of his neck. He really wasn't getting himself today. It was as though a part of him were asleep, and the rest was running on automatic, reacting when he was supposed to to what he was supposed to. Except, tired as he was, his awareness wasn't hampered, and he knew damn well there was no reason to react to all the close proximity like a lone wolf defending his personal space.

Although the occasional looks of pity he'd caught flashed his way while he'd been in line (mostly from the female personnel in the science department) was good reason for some of his discomfort and anger, just not all of it. The women meant well, he was aware of that, it just didn't help his fight against his own self-loathing for his current physical state. Piteous and concerned expressions tended to bring to light the fact that he was somewhat of an invalid, and he hated it. He didn't like feeling weak, and had to either ignore it or go insane from all the self-depreciation.

" Dr. McKay, Colonel Sheppard, may we join you?"

John looked up at Teyla and Ronon standing next to the table with trays of their own. John smiled at seeing them, and it was a genuine smile backed by the genuine pleasure of seeing two teammates. Here were people who knew better than to give him the 'oh, poor baby' looks. Ronon especially.

McKay, mouth full, gestured to the empty seats. " Unless Sheppard has imaginary friends we don't know about, I believe these seats are open for use."

Teyla took the seat beside Rodney, and Ronon beside John. Ronon's plate was a rival to Rodney's, though had the plates been weighed, John would have bet good money they would have weighed in the same.

" You are looking well today, Colonel," Teyla said, beaming. John wasn't able to absorb her chipperness, but her smile did the trick in easing the numerous knots of tension from his muscles, especially in his back. There was still discomfort with being in public, yet most of his new-found phobia had been smothered by a feeling of safety now that his team was around him. Talk about having a bond. John actually found himself on the road toward contentment.

" I feel better," John said before taking a bite of his soup. " A little tired," he added without compunction. He'd been abruptly struck by the aversion toward hiding anything thing from his team. " Achy, but better than before."

" You look tired," Ronon – Mr. Obvious – stated.

John shrugged and circled the tip of his spoon in the broth to make the noodles and chicken bits spin. " I had a bad dream. And Carson said my body still needs the sleep."

" What did you dream about?" Ronon asked.

The tips of the fingers of John's casted hand strayed to his chest. He covered up the action by pretending to scratch an itch. " Wraith attack." he gave a nervous chuckle at recalling. " Kind of scared the hell out of me."

" More like your last meal," Rodney mumbled. Somewhere deep inside John, a tiny voice urged him to kick Rodney's foot. But, instead, still running on aversion, he confessed with an abashed grin.

" Uh, yeah, more like that."

Teyla's brow knitted in mild concern. " You... threw up, you mean?"

It was Rodney who replied. " That's what he meant by having the hell scared out of him."

" I'm fine now, though," John added quickly at Teyla's increasing concern. He waved his spoon around. " One time thing, I swear. I think all the meds make my stomach a little pissed off now and then. No big deal or Carson would have dragged me back into the infirmary by now."

Then he quickly changed the subject by asking Teyla about the things he'd missed during his incapacitation. It was idle chit-chat, with Rodney and Teyla doing most of the talking, and John listening, soaking it all in and enjoying every minute. Normalcy – he was getting what he craved, and more knots untied themselves from his body. Ronon kept silent, no surprises there, but John's skin prickled like it usually did when someone was watching him. The Satedan kept his face forward, but John managed to catch the fleeting flickers of the big man's eyes darting his way.

John didn't mind. Ronon had a protective instinct, everyone knew it, and Carson had mentioned to John about Ronon's frequent visits while Sheppard had been unconscious.

" Keeping as steady a visual as Rodney," Carson had said. " More so this time around than last time, I'd say. But I swear each time ya come back wounded, he's around more and more."

John had only eaten half the soup, half the apple, and was done, though he finished off the milk and juice. So he just sat hunched against the soreness in his chest and listened like a child at story time as Rodney and Teyla talked.

" Dr. Rodney and Dr. Zelenka with Major Lorne discovered an area in the city where the Ancestor had made boats," Teyla said.

Rodney spread his arms out wide, leaning back to avoid bumping Teyla. " Huuuge indoor dock that opens up like the jumper bay... only sideways instead of above. There were only two boats, kind of like sail boats, but with solar cells instead of... uh... sails. Took us forever to get Elizabeth's permission to take the smaller one out. Sails like a dream and all the human component of the boat needs to do is steer. We believe they were for recreational purposes." Rodney then grinned after taking his next bite of food. " Its speed can go anywhere from paddle boat to speed boat. Zelenka's already attempting to fashion water-skis with the help of some of the engineers. I mean if the water's safe for surfing it's got to be safe for water skiing, am I right?" and Rodney chuckled

John smiled back through a pang of regret burrowing a hole into him.

" I found the boat more pleasant at a slower speed," Teyla said. " It had been very relaxing."

" Plus it has this device that let's you see what's under the water," Rodney said. " That Marine Biologist, Emmering, was going nuts over it..."

John nodded and kept on smiling as the pang began gaping into an ache. " Sorry I missed out on that," he said, though they had no idea just how sorry he was.

" Then Stackhouse and his team nearly got swallowed by some sort of giant trash receptacle," said Rodney. Then he shrugged, and twisted one side of his mouth in a semi-grimace. " Okay, not really swallowed, more like crushed."

John finally dropped his smile in alarm. " Crushed?"

" Yeah. A very Star Wars moment, actually, and I mean almost an exact reenactment from that scene in the movie, minus the creature that pulled Luke into the water. But there was panic, walls closing in, and me saving the day at the last minute when I finally found the controls. Although it took me and Cadmen combining our genes to get the stupid thing to work. One of those days where your gene becomes sorely missed."

The ache became pain that tightened Johns throat and made his heart thud heavily. He forced his smile back on, and raised his hand to rest against his mouth in hopes of hiding his useless attempt. " Sounded exciting. Glad it worked out though."

Rodney lifted one hand with fingers spread as he scraped the last of the lasagna and mac and cheese together onto his fork, bringing it to the edge of the plate to scoop it up. " Yeah, well, it always works out when you have a genius on hand."

Ronon was looking at John full on now, and that John didn't like. It made him nervous; the flight kind of nervous instead of the fight, and he became all too aware of every single person in the room. He quickly lowered his hand before either Teyla or Rodney noticed it shaking. Ronon was observing too intently not to miss it.

John cleared his throat while fighting himself to keep up the smiling. " You know what? I'm getting really tired. I think it's nap time." He grabbed his tray and bolted from his seat. He was up and away from his team, away from the safety and contentment, tossed back into the sea of bodies and already starting to flounder. His eyes were glued to his tray in an attempt to keep his attention away from his surroundings and took long, quick strides back inside.

His preoccupied attention cost him, and a passing body clipped his tray to send it flying from John's grasp. The tray hit the floor in a resounding clatter of plastic and metal with soup flying in every direction. Every head snapped his way and every eye became fixed on him as he stood there, staring at the tray in shock, then glancing around awkwardly.

John gulped, his heart started hammering, and to his horror he started trembling. He twitched a false, embarrassed smile, thought up some clever thing to say, but couldn't get the words passed his constricted throat. Instead, he crouched to begin gathering the fallen utensils back onto the tray.

Teyla and Rodney surrounded him also in a crouch to help. Rodney took the tray from John. " We got it, Sheppard." Ronon, however, kneeling on one leg beside John, took the tray from Rodney.

" He's got it," he said in that no argument, no question growl of his. He handed the tray back to John. Teyla and Rodney exchanged uncertain looks, but placed the utensils back on the tray.

Keeping his eyes down, John rose painfully and finished his journey to return the tray back to the cooks with a murmured sorry.

The cook who had given John his soup – Sgt. Riley – shook his head. " No big deal sir. It's a mess hall." Riley smiled. " There's always bound to be a mess."

John quirked a short lived grin and turned to hurry from the mess. Ronon had moved up beside him, and was pretty much blocking him from everyone's view, to which John was indescribably grateful for. He couldn't stop shaking.

They moved quickly and quietly through the corridors. John kept his eyes locked on the floor, negotiating the halls through memory, though twice Ronon had to steer him the other way by loudly clearing his throat. John didn't slow, not even when he neared his quarters. He rushed straight in without even turning up the lights, turned, dropped himself sitting on the edge of the bed, planted his elbows on his knees and began rubbing his face with his hand. He exhaled a shuddering breath of relief, massaged his eyes, moved his hand up to rub his scalp, then lowered his head to rub along the back of his neck. He stopped the muscle easing motions at the feel of a presence in his room, and brought his head up to look at Ronon hovering on the threshold.

John quickly looked away, wracking his brain for an explanation as to what just happened.

I had a freakin' panic attack is what happened, came the bitter realization. He opened his mouth, about to say as much, and apologize for it. Nothing more humiliating and morale debasing than having a military leader who cringed over a dropped tray and flinched at a shoulder pat.

He flinched when a strong hand clasped his shoulder carefully enough not to cause pain. John looked up at Ronon, startled.

Ronon regarded Sheppard with his usual, unreadable stoicism. " Get some sleep," he said. He dropped his hand from John's shoulder, and slowly left the room as though in no real hurry. The door slid shut behind him. John heard voices on the other end, Teyla's and Rodney's, and Ronon's deep, more audible voice saying something about Sheppard needing to rest. Then the voices were gone, meaning his team was gone.

John shuddered. What the hell is wrong with me? One minute he can't stand being alone, the next he can't stand company, now he can't stand being alone again. John bent in half to remove his boots. He was shaking so hard he barely got the laces undone. But once done, he slipped the boots off, set them neatly aside, then shifted to pull back the covers and curl up beneath them and give his mind free run.

Where had he been when they discovered the boats? Still on the ventilator? Where was he when Stackhouse and his team were about to be smashed into compost? Unconscious some of the time and delirious the rest of the time? One of the reasons he hated the infirmary so much was how much of life he missed out on wasting it in a motionless state on some uncomfortable bed. The biggest price paid when injured. Life doesn't put itself on pause for the sake of the sick.

Except it had never hurt so much as it did now. He should have been there lending his gene to the rescue, watching Rodney's and Zelenka's backs when they discovered the boats. Should have been, needed to have been, wanted to have been, and wished he had.

He was supposed to be there. It was what he did, what he was supposed to do. Be there for all of them, every single one.

Moisture burned John's eyes until his vision blurred, then trickled heated down his face. He didn't sob or weep, just let the moisture fall, sometimes urging it along with a blink. His eyelids grew heavy until they lowered on their own. He was too tired to think on it any more. When he was rested, and healed, with his energy restored, he would make it up to them... Somehow.

SGA

Two Genii soldiers with faces masked in darkness pinned John to the a cold floor in a featureless room by both arms, and a third held down both his feet. Koyla moved into John's field of vision with a knife in hand like a butcher ready to put down the sheep. One side of Koyla's mouth curled up in an amused grin, and he began picking his nails with the tip of the knife.

" Should have killed me when you had the chance, Sheppard," he said. He crouched and draped his arms over his knees. " But sacrificing good nature for practicality has never been one of your strong points." Koyla lifted the knife to look it over with disinterest, then set the tip of it directly on John's sternum. " I would say you'll regret it, but I have a feeling you already do." He shoved the knife into John's chest through the bone, and pulled down slicing his sternum in two. John screamed.

Then he lurched to the side of his bed to heave. Vomit shot out of his mouth to splatter the floor. His precarious lean had him sliding from the bed, right onto the mess, but he neither cared nor noticed being too busy trying to suck in air through a constricted trachea. Both hands went to his chest over his stumbling, crashing heart. His breath managed to break through to his lungs, yet the erratic pulsations of his heart continued to snatch his breath away. He rubbed the area, digging his palm in, pushing against his ribs despite – and in spite of – the pain.

" Stop," he begged. Panicked tears traced warm lines down his face. " Stop doing this to me." He went from rubbing to tapping the heel of his hand against his chest in the steady rhythm a human heart was supposed to go at. " Just stop."

He was scared. There was something wrong with him, maybe with his brain and the area that controls the heartbeat. There could have been some kind of damage inflicted that was messing with the electric pulses that kept his heart in line. But like he knew anything about brain chemistry and medicine to even hazard a guess.

His heart finally stumbled back into regular rhythm and slowed. John rolled onto his side to push himself up, and slipped twice with his hand in the vomit. He managed to struggle his way up into a sitting position, and had to stop to rest leaning languidly against the bed with his arms hanging useless at his sides, the knuckles of his left hand resting in the mess of puke. He smelled horrible, felt horrible, but had no inclination to move. He was exhausted enough to sleep where he sat, but the thought of dreams and waking up to suffocation wouldn't let him. So he sat there breathing through his mouth so he wouldn't have to endure the smell.

SGA

" Something's wrong with him," Rodney blurted. Since no one else was going to say it, he might as well be the one – once again – to state the obvious. Although the only one around to hear it was Zelenka. The Czek didn't look away from his laptop except to glance at the device the small computer was analyzing. Numbers and information scrolled up the screen in columns that would be sifted through and sorted later into understandable text.

Rodney was hooking up the alligator clipped cords from his own laptop to another device for the same reason, but kept getting the placement wrong.

" Of course something is wrong with him," Radek replied, typing to have a bar chart pop up. " Why would he be recovering if something was not wrong with him?"

Rodney moved the red clip from one side of the device to the other. " I'm not talking physically, although he is looking a little too much like a reanimated corpse. I'm talking about him potentially becoming a head case. It's been three days since his discharge from the infirmary, and except for his one trip to the mess hall he hasn't been back since. He barely leaves his room, which forces Beckett to make us bring him meals that he barely touches anyways, all he does is sleep, and I overheard Beckett mention to Elizabeth about how he hasn't gained a single pound yet." Rodney activated the device, got no data for the effort, so shut it off to shuffle the clips around the device's innards. " Then there's his constant sad-eyed, puppy dog look, and I'm not talking about the one he gives Elizabeth to get her to see his side. This one's more – I don't know - legit I guess you could call it. Like a kicked, abused puppy instead of spoiled puppy who knows how to get his way. It's hard just to look at him, never mind talking to him. The man's forgotten how to hold a conversation anyways so it's not like it matters."

That bothered Rodney the most – John's lack of verbal sparring. He would give up his secret stash of coffee grounds just to hear the man talk back to him once.

" He has been through much," Zelenka said.

Rodney reactivated the device, still got no results, so did the clip shuffle again. " Since when has a little torture ever phased him? He's supposed to be biting everyone's head off, not cringing every time we touch his shoulder." Although touching Sheppard's back was a big no-no unless one actually wanted to suffer Sheppard's deranged wrath. Supposedly, rumor in the infirmary had it that Sheppard had nearly bit someone's arm – that someone, supposedly, being the nurse unfortunately assigned to giving the Lt. Colonel a sponge bath. And being a small area of the city with not enough ears to distort the stories, infirmary rumors tended to hold some truth.

Rodney wasn't going to say it out loud, but he was frightened for Sheppard. Barring chemical or technological influence, Rodney had never witnessed anything like how Sheppard was acting now. When the man smiled, it never reached his eyes. When he laughed, it was quiet and short lived, sometimes even forced. Beckett may have thought he was forcing Rodney into spending time with Sheppard to get Sheppard out of his quarters in order to get him rejoining civilization, but Rodney was quite obsessed with pulling John from that dark den and back into the light. Rodney was going to figure out what was wrong with Sheppard even if it led to the man publicly breaking down into a crying huddled mass.

Okay, not publicly, though since they spent most of their time watching flicks in the rec room there was bound to be a couple of passers-by to witness any emotional trauma. Still, one way or another, Rodney was going to get to the bottom of John's timid fugue.

" I really prefer self pity," Rodney went on. " You can usually slap that back into someone's face. Inexplicable nervousness is more like trying to handle fine china while wearing a metal gauntlet."

Zelenka adjusted his glasses higher up on his nose then began clacking away. " Have you been reading Dr. Heightmeyer's books? Or have been secretly listening in on private sessions?"

Rodney leaned in closer to his own device, squinting at the mess of wires and small crystals. " I would never ease drop just to listen to a bunch of people whining about how daddy never hugged them. My metaphor was to enlighten you on what it's like dealing with Sheppard at the moment. He'll hate me for saying this but I don't care – it really is like he's fragile, like he'll break if I say the wrong thing or act the wrong way. Either that or snap and break my neck for no good reason." Rodney lifted his face away from the device in sudden thought. " Well, maybe not break my neck. Choke me to death, possibly. He can barely walk from his room to the rec room without panting like a runner. The guy's such a toothpick I'm surprised he hasn't been sucked down the drain of his shower."

" Perhaps all that has happened to him over the years has finally gotten to him, maybe?" Radek said. " Accumulations of bad experiences beating him down?"

Rodney rubbed his chin as he looked the device over, trying to fathom where the crap the clips could go that would establish a proper connection. " Maybe, but like I said, he should be biting our heads off, not cringing."

Radek shrugged. " Perhaps only torture is getting to him."

" Maybe. I just never imagined for a moment that his mental breakdown would involve him going all..." Rodney twirled one hand, " docile on us. I always thought he would go down a more violent path. Military thing, you see. Trained killer, therefore, start off your psychotic break on a killing spree. What's happening now is just weird."

Radek shook his head morosely. " I feel bad for Colonel Sheppard. He is a good man, easy to get along with. He does not deserve what happens to him."

Rodney paused on clipping the next wire into place. " No, he sure as hell doesn't." He attached a clip to a wire, then activated the device. Information immediately popped onto the screen, scrolling upwards. Grinning like a cat, Rodney clapped his hands together and rubbed them. " Finally!" he began typing, rewriting the info to form charts and graphs. " If I can figure this puppy out, then I've got Sheppard's problem in the bag."

Radek snorted out a breath. " I would take an unknown Ancient device any day over complicated human brain. Something tells me you will solve nothing in this matter... no offense."

Rodney heard, but chose to maintain his dignity by not responding. He'd helped Sheppard with mental dilemmas before, he could do it again.

SGA

Teyla knocked again. " Colonel Sheppard?" Still no answer. This had been the fourth time she had knocked, which officially made her justified to just walk in if she wanted to. It was fifteen minutes passed the lunch hour, and Sheppard's soup was getting cold. If he were in the shower, he would have been out by now, unless something had happened.

Teyla shoved aside her discomfort at entering Sheppard's quarters without invitation and palmed the pad to get the barrier to slide away. She entered darkness that took a moment to morph into various shapes as her eyes adjusted. Her gaze went to the empty bed covered in rumpled sheets, then down to the floor when she noticed a shape highlighted by the light of the corridor, and a slight movement.

She nearly dropped the tray when she finally registered the shape to be John. She moved quickly to set the tray on the table, then positioned herself in front of him, folding herself into a tense crouch.

John was leaning against the bed with his knees pulled up, both arms wrapped around them, and head resting sideways on his knees. The light from the corridor revealed to Teyla the dark wet stains on his long-sleeved shirt, and her nose revealed to her the sour stench of drying vomit.

" Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla said. She slowly, carefully, reached out to touch Sheppard's hand. He flinched and jerked his head up with a quick inhale. He had the heavy eyed look of one who'd just woken up, though Teyla had caught the white in his open eyes when she'd moved to be in front of him.

" I was just resting," he hoarsely explained, and dropped his head against the side of the bed.

Teyla looked back over his wet shirt, then to the floor and the remains of the mess. Her face twisted in frightened concern. " You were sick."

John blinked at her. " Bad dream."

Teyla looked at him sadly. She knew he hated any sort of expression of pity, but she couldn't help herself. He looked worn to the bone, was visibly shaking, and in what she hoped was only a trick of the light and shadows, seemed even thinner. She placed her hand on his arm and felt his tremors. He flinched but at least didn't try to pull away.

" Do you wish me to contact Dr. Beckett?"

John shook his head. " It won't make a difference."

For some reason, Teyla believed John. " Do you still feel ill?" she asked.

John shook his head. " A little cold."

That came as bit of a surprise. The room could have supported a rain forest in its current temperature. " I will take care of the floor," she said. " You get cleaned up." She lightly gripped his arm and helped him to rise on his unsteady legs. He didn't move until he found his balance, then grabbed some cloths from the drawer and headed into his bathroom. Teyla took a discarded towel from the plastic crate John used as a hamper to wipe up the vomit. The smell continued to linger. Teyla thought about bringing in a candle that was both sweet-smelling and made of herbs that were known to aid people in avoiding bad dreams. She heard the water running in the shower, so busied herself with straightening the blankets on John's bed

It wasn't a long shower. Maybe five minutes at most, then the water shut off. Teyla found more busy work in discarding the empty water bottles scattered around the small table. After dumping them, she turned, and jumped with a yelp of surprise. John was standing by his bed wearing only sweat pants, with his towel held around his shoulders in one hand, and the hand of the casted arm holding a long strip of wide gauze.

John flashed her an uncomfortable smile. " Um, I – uh – need some... help..."

Teyla relaxed, and smiled at him reassuringly. " Of course, Colonel. Just sit down and I will help you."

John lowered himself onto the edge of the bed, and didn't remove the towel until Teyla was sitting down beside him and had taken the gauze. The lights came on, and the door slid shut – faster than Teyla had ever seen it shut. Removing the towel was slow, and more of an effort than it should have been for John. Teyla had to finally take it from him. John kept his gaze to the floor, and planted his hands on his knees to keep his arms out of the way so Teyla could wrap his chest.

John wasn't horribly emaciated. Remnant muscles – stretched and ropey – gave him some definition, but mostly in the arms. Other than that, he really was skin and bones with every inch of his skeleton pressing against his skin as though all the meat had been sucked right out of him. The bruises were glaringly vivid, but fading, and the wounds on his back angry red yet on their way to becoming more scars to add to the collection of scars already marking his flesh. The brightest – like a king of wounds -was the one on his chest, still ragged with the black sutures but no longer needing to be covered. Teyla found that she hated looking at it, yet couldn't pull her eyes away. The area around the wound was heavily bruised where...

Where Dr. Beckett had split the bone to get to the bullet. Teyla wound the gauze around John's chest, knowing how tight to make the binding having provided similar medical help to her own people, and having learned under Carson how to better the technique. The gauze soon hid the chest wound from sight, and Teyla found herself breathing out in relief. She just hoped John hadn't noticed. He didn't seem to have, his eyes still locked unwavering on the floor. His back was stiff, his whole body tense, and his shaking more pronounced.

" I am finished," she announced, and the result of her words was like watching grass shrivel in a fire. John curled into himself, pulling his arms in to wrap around his chest. He had to pry one arm away from himself to grab the shirt he'd dropped on the bed, and quickly pulled it on. Another long-sleeved shirt, this one dark blue and knit. When he was done, his arm went back to his chest. He looked... concerned, nervous, confused, slightly afraid though the latter was on again, off again. Teyla had to clench her hands into fists to keep from reaching out and placing her hand on John's back. Instead, she placated the need by unclenching one hand to place on his arm. Again he flinched, but didn't pull away.

" I have brought you some food."

She saw his throat move in a swallow. " I'm not hungry," he said.

" You really should try to eat," she pressed. " It would do you good."

John gave her an apologetic look. " I'm still kind of tired. Can I eat something later? M-maybe I'll be more hungry."

Teyla nodded. " Of course. I will come back around dinner. But if you awaken sick again, please call Dr. Beckett. You should not suffer having to wake up in such a way."

John's eyes lowered toward his bed. " It won't help..." then after a moment added, " but I will."

Teyla smiled wanly. " Thank you." She stood, then helped him to stand and pull back the covers so he could get into bed. She pulled the covers up to his shoulders, then took the tray before heading out. The lights dimmed, the door slid open, but on looking back over her shoulder, Teyla saw John to be deep asleep – and even in sleep he looked weary.

SGA

It hurt to drag his heavy body from the bed, hurt shuffling barefoot down the dusky corridor toward the rec-room as Rodney verbally prodded him along, hurt to sit, hurt to have the heavy blanket press into his shoulders and back. Hell, it hurt to breathe, to blink, to think. A body-wide ache that was constant with every minor movement he made. John had just wanted to sleep, and for the same reason had given into Rodney's persistence that John eat, then step out of his room for air that wasn't tainted by the lingering scent of vomit. John had given in like an obedient robot because he just didn't have the energy to deal otherwise. Though eating he'd given up on after five bites. Even his organs weren't in the mood to be awake.

Yet now that he was in this public place – despite the fact that it was nighttime and Atlantis was settling down, leaving the halls virtually void – all John wanted to do was go back. But he needed to rest first. Going from point A to point Z had worn him out more than it really should have. Plus he seemed to be suffering the inability to focus. His mind kept drifting to the dreams that made him shudder and his heart thud, then to his heart that kept fluttering in his chest as though trying to run away. And it was making him nervous. If his heart wasn't feeling heavy and labored, then it was beating fast and wild for no reason, snatching his breath from its course to his lungs and making his head spin.

" Are you going to move or what?"

John jumped from his reverie to stare incomprehensibly at Rodney, his heart also doing a little jump that had his hand shooting to it as though covering it would calm it down. " Huh?"

Rodney was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. He was sitting in a plastic chair in front of a small table covered by a chessboard with the pieces all set up and ready to go. Rodney limply gestured at the pieces with one hand. " You've been sitting there for five minutes. I'm pretty sure you have a strategy in mind by now, so use it already."

John looked from Rodney to the pieces. He pried his hand away from his chest, and moved a pawn one square.

Rodney frowned. " Ooookay. Not exactly the way I'd start off..." Rodney moved a piece of his own two squares. " All right, time to start revealing your devious little ploy here, Sheppard."

John sighed, then curved his back and rolled his shoulders to alleviate some of the aches. His back popped, but that seemed to only instigate the aches into stepping things up a notch. He began rubbing his right shoulder with his left hand, and licked his dry lips.

" I um..." he began. " I don't think I'm really up for this, McKay. My head's kind of hurting, and – uh – I really can't think straight..."

Rodney shrugged nonchalantly. " Okay. You up for a movie? I just thought – you know – with all the movie watching we've been doing that you'd prefer something more intellectually stimulating. But that's all right, we can save the stimulating for when your brain's ready to come out and play." McKay picked up the box and began putting the pieces away.

John dropped back against the seat rest, the small action making his heart jolt and bringing his hand back to his chest. Rodney indicated the action by pointing a pawn at John's hand. " Why do you do that? Carson said your heart's fine. He looked into his crystal ball and made certain of it."

John didn't answer, just shrugged. He'd stopped trying to fathom this instinct a long time ago in hopes of scrounging a little peace of mind. But unlike what the old adage promised, ignoring it didn't make it go away.

Rodney plopped the box down onto the chess board, sending pieces scattering and several rolling with a clatter onto the floor. " That's not an answer."

John closed his eyes. He didn't have the capacity for an argument, mentally and physically. " It feels funny sometimes."

" Funny how? Like you're having a heart attack?"

John shook his head. He could have drifted off right then and there, but Rodney's voice wouldn't let him. John sighed.

" No, just... funny, uncomfortable."

Rapid finger snapping had John getting himself to pry his eyelids apart to see Rodney's thumb and middle finger clicking away in front of his face.

" Hey, stay awake. Don't you think you've been sleeping long enough? I mean, it's been three days since you've been released. Yes, I know you're still healing, but I honestly think you're well enough by now not to need that much rest."

Rodney was right, but John had already come to the same conclusion a long time ago. Unfortunately, his body begged to differ.

" What's going on with you?" Rodney pressed on, eyes flashing and brow lining. " You sleep all the time, keep puking, hardly eat, avoid the public like it has the plague... And you haven't snapped at me once. Not once! Usually by now you're ready to throttle me and string me up by my own intestines. And since Carson's rituals have yet to find anything physically wrong with you, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is mental. I'm guessing along the lines of a - oh, I don't know – pity party of some kind?"

John just stared at Rodney, surprised by his lack of anger and his sudden urge to want to shrink away out of existence. Was that his problem? Self pity? But didn't that usually involve a lot of whining? John looked down at the chess box and the scattered pieces strewed like fallen bodies after the battle. He shuddered.

Rodney went on. " I'm telling you now – Don't you dare be destroying yourself just because you're holding something in." He then threw his hands in the air and rose so abruptly that John flinched.

" You're always doing that," Rodney accused, and began pacing behind the chair without ever taking his eyes off John. " Always pulling everything in, never letting anything out. You hold and you hold and you hold until you can't hold any more and just..." Rodney clapped his hands, and John jumped. " Fall apart! And like hell I'm letting it happen again because I will not let you kill yourself over something that wasn't your fault. You do not have to go through this alone... Why do you keep thinking that!"

John cringed and swallowed. He did have that tendency. Was that the solution? Talking? Rodney continued to ramble, and the more he rambled, the more John thought things through. Talk to Rodney, to Heightmeyer even. Talk about what, though? Well, the nightmares, yes. Nightmares about his heart being crushed, impaled and overall pulverized in his chest. What the hell is that all about? Always about his heart, a heart Carson said was perfectly fine.

A heart that even now was picking up in rapidity, and he had to grab hold of his knee and squeeze to keep his hand from darting straight to his chest. He began shaking, trying to find the right words to describe to Rodney the terror born out of his own body reacting beyond his control and understanding, except he already knew Rodney's reply.

Carson said your heart was fine.

Then why don't I feel fine? I feel... I feel...What's wrong with me?

John swallowed again and started shaking his head. " I'm sorry Rodney."

" You never let us help you... What?" Rodney stopped, whirling around to face Sheppard.

John began rubbing his knee. " I'm sorry. I've been... feeling... weird. I don't know. Nervous. My heart feels weird." He looked up at Rodney to meet the other man's gaze. He was going to regret this, already hated it, but if talking helped then what did it matter? Let the confessions pour from him like a deluge if it meant a steady heart and easy breathing. " It's... I... I'm s... scared," John took a deep breath. " Or something, I don't know. I keep having these dreams... Then, I wake up, and I can't breathe, and my heart feels even weirder. I'm puking all over the place... I don't feel right, I don't... Everything feels wrong," John finally brought his hand up to touch his fingers lightly to his chest, " in here. Like something's missing. Like there's a big hole. A big, freakin' cold hole." Tears burned in John's eyes, tears of fear, and of shame, including the shame of crying in front of Rodney. He wiped one eye with the heel of his trembling hand, then brought his hand over his forehead to brush his fingers through his hair. He closed his eyes, and let out a heavy breath that seemed to take most of him with it. " I'm tired Rodney. I want to go back."

He felt a weight on his shoulder, and snapped his eyes open in pointless fright, looking up to see Rodney standing in front of him, slightly pale and nothing but sympathetic.

" You don't know what's wrong," he said, like a statement of fact, and it seemed to spook him.

John nodded, his throat too tight to speak.

Rodney lowered himself until he was sitting on the edge of the small table, and more pieces rolled away landing with a plastic clack on the floor. He kept his hand on John's shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. " You need to go talk to Heightmeyer," he said. " What I said before... kind of stands. You need to talk to someone, but in this case you need to talk to someone who can tell you the things you need to know."

Again, John nodded. Distaste toward shrinks be damned, he wanted to know what was wrong with him.

" And us being here for you still stands too. We'll listen if you need to do more talking, even if that talk is about leprechauns trying to invade our thoughts and how we all need to wear tin foil hats to be safe." Rodney grinned. " Although I don't think it'll come to that. It has yet to, so why should now be any different?" then the grin was gone when the worry pushed back. " It'll be all right. One way or another it will be."

John nodded. He wanted to believe that, tried to, but wouldn't stop shaking.

SGA

Ford's enzyme doped lackeys were the pinners this time. Arms and legs held down as Ford paced at John's head. He seemed to be in a state of emotional flux, arguing with himself over what he wanted to do versus what he needed to do. In his hand was a syringe full of enzyme.

" This much'll kill you sir," he said, sounding only minutely regretful about it. Then he shrugged, turned on his heels, and plunged the needle straight down into John's chest – into his heart.

" Sorry sir," he said without meaning it, and John screamed when the chemical burned.

Then he awoke pulling in oxygen until his ribs felt ready to split. His heart was racing, stuttering, tripping over itself. He didn't have long before the attack diminished. He needed to get to Carson, to let him hear and to know.

Something was wrong. Something had to be wrong. He'd never felt anything like what his heart was doing now, ever.

John scrambled from his bed stumbling in the sheets and blankets wound around his legs. He kicked them away, and nearly collided into the door before remembering to think them open. He raced out into the hall gasping and clutching his chest, stumbling, scrambling, and keeping to the wall for support. He had the vague impression that there were people moving through the halls, and it took a moment for that to register. But by then it was too late. He staggered, then stumbled to his knees, fell to his hands, and wretched violently.

SGA

" It's been four days and he's only talked to you twice?" Rodney blustered. They were gathered in the infirmary, and the room Carson had designated as his office for its privacy potential. He was sitting at his desk, Kate and Elizabeth across from him, and Rodney pacing all over the place. Any other time the physicist wouldn't have been present. But seeing as how he'd been the one who managed to talk Sheppard into meeting with Kate, Carson felt it only fair that the physicist be in on this meeting.

Carson rolled his eyes. " Rodney, sit down before you ware a hole in the floor."

" That's virtually impossible," Rodney absent-mindedly blurted, but he dropped his agitated self in the third chair beside Elizabeth. He leaned forward in order to look at Kate. " Do you know what's wrong with him after only two sessions?"

Kate had her legs crossed and her hands folded on top, looking placid but considerate. " I have an idea. And I would like to point out that they were productive two sessions. Meeting in his quarters helped for one thing. Although our first session was mostly just him apologizing to me for all his past rejections of my help and any rudeness he showed me. And he really was quite remorseful about it. Almost in tears, if I may be frank. Although that," she leaned forward to look back at Rodney meaningfully (almost threateningly Carson could have sworn), " I'm telling you in the strictest confidentiality."

Rodney held up both hands with sincere innocence. " Hey, I don't care how the man pisses me off in the future. None of this I find worth using against him. It's... wrong, just freakin's wrong."

Kate, seemingly comfortable with Rodney's reply, sat back. " Just so we have an understanding." She looked back at Carson. " He was worried he might have hurt me with his past actions and remarks. He was worried about many things, actually, but we didn't get into that until the next day. He's not holding back, he simply becomes exhausted quickly. He's overwhelmed for one thing, and I don't think it's anything singular. Guilt, loss, all the abuses he's suffered over the years, especially through torture. I've no doubt it's all weighing on him as one, though he's yet to talk about it. Actually," and here she grimaced, " I haven't been able to pin-point an exact trigger for his recent state. I may be inclined to agree with you, Dr. Beckett, that the surgery you performed on him may have been the catalyst something."

Rodney looked from Kate to Carson, confused. " His heart's stopped before. Probably more times than humanly possible, but it's never been a problem for him... mentally, I mean."

Carson sighed, sinking deeper into his chair. " Aye, I know Rodney. But we're talking accumulations of incidents, this one being the topper. I had to cut the lad open, pumped his heart with my own hands. There've been patients who – after open heart surgery – have suffered symptoms of depression."

Kate nodded. " Colonel Sheppard is definitely showing signs of depression verging on being severe, as well as heightened anxiety. He's told me about his dreams, about the concerns over his heart, and I believe what he's experiencing every time he wakes up from those nightmares is an anxiety attack. But because he doesn't know what's happening, he think it's a problem with his heart, and that something had been done to him. He's very frightened about it, even with all your assurances, Dr. Beckett." Kate then turned to Rodney. " The reason for only two sessions is because yesterday he was so wired from lack of proper sleep and agitation that he wasn't making any sense."

Carson pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded before speaking. " Aye, I had to come in and sedate him." Not because John had been acting violently, but because he was too high strung on fear-born adrenaline to sleep. Carson recalled being called in by Kate, then entering the dim quarters to see John pacing erratically and muttering incoherent and fragmented sentences. " He needed a deep enough sleep in order not to dream. But I can't keep doin' that to him every time the nightmares get too bad. But lack of sleep'll only make things worse."

" But all he's been doing is sleeping," Rodney protested.

" Aye, but not proper sleep. Nothing straight through, nothing deep. Plus depression and anxiety tend to interfere with proper sleep patterns, and all three are interfering with his eating. Well, that and him throwing up all the bloody time after the dreams."

Rodney gaped. " My gosh, he's really broken this time, isn't he?"

Carson felt his throat constrict and swallowed to loosen it. " Not if it can be helped."

" We're thinking about starting him on some anti-depressants," Kate said. " See if that doesn't make a difference. Hopefully it won't be anything permanent, and nothing too big. Getting him calmed down is the main goal, help rein in his emotions enough for him to do the rest. I believe, for the most part, he's just confused and scared. What was done to him, the chaos in his rescue, and the surgery has left him in a kind of permanent state of shock he's unable to get over by himself. I believe that once he sees that there's nothing to be afraid of, then the rest should take care of itself."

And if not, then it was off to earth Sheppard went, but neither Kate nor Beckett would say it out loud. They weren't there yet, and if it could be helped, it would never come to that.

Carson didn't like any of it though. Times like these always gave Carson the impression of breaking a wild horse until it was docile. Not just docile, but too docile, obedient to the point that if you led it off a cliff, it would go. Except Colonel Sheppard was already acting docile. The breaking part had already been done, so what would pumping him full of drugs do? Make him both docile and blissfully, vacantly happy, at least for a time. Yes, Carson knew he was exaggerating the effects, yet even as a medical doctor he didn't always like the use of drugs to solve a problem. Sometimes, especially in the case of drugs meant for the mentality, it felt like a quick fix. As Rodney would say, they were 'fixing' Colonel Sheppard in order to have him back as soon as possible, to return everything to normalcy, back to the way things were.

Only to have it all happen again further down the line, worse because next time around it was always heavier, always too close, leaving John even worse off than the last time. What John needed was time, and patience, to become healed when he felt himself healed, and not just when he started acting like his old self.

He needed to find his own peace of mind.

" Do you really think that's necessary?" Elizabeth asked.

" Yeah," Rodney joined. " He can't possibly be that bad off. Can't we just... I don't know... stage some kind of intervention?"

" Rodney," Kate said. " You suggested he come to me and he came. Voluntarily. I think it's safe to say he's fairly 'bad off'."

Carson nodded with a slight grimace. " Sort of like the times he's come to me on his own."

Rodney pointed at Carson. " But he only comes to you when he pretty much can't move and has to ask to be taken... Oh, yeah, I get it..."

They were interrupted when an urgent voice sounded over Carson's radio and he held up a finger to stall anymore conversation. He then tapped his radio.

" Aye, Beckett here. What seems to be the problem?"

" Dr. Beckett," he recognized the voice as belonging to one of his nurses. " It's Becky. You need to come down here, sir, it's Colonel Sheppard."

Carson immediately rose with heart thudding, making his way around his desk and out his office, leaving a confused Rodney, Elizabeth, and Kate behind. " What's the nature love? Where is he?"

" Just head toward his quarters, you'll see, and come quick."

sgasgasgasgasga

Becky didn't explain anything further, which Carson understood the reasoning behind at arriving at the scene. It was easy to spot with all the people clustered together by the left-hand side wall, with several more hanging back, muttering to eachother.

" All right, everyone, move back, I need to get through," Carson called. People looked up, startled, then parted for him to pass. He was alarmed at what he saw, but didn't stop until he was crouched beside Becky, who was kneeling beside Colonel Sheppard. The man was huddled tight against the wall with his legs drawn up, his head resting on his knees, his arms covering his head, and he was visibly trembling. In front of him was a rather large, foul-smelling brown puddle that could only be vomit, and Carson saw out of the corner of his eye several people making faces of disgust.

Becky had her hand on the Colonel's shoulder, and she looked at Carson helplessly. " He wouldn't move, wouldn't even talk. I didn't know what else to do..."

Carson nodded but kept his eyes on John. " Aye, ya did good callin' me." He reached out and placed his hand on John's bicep. John flinched and Carson heard his increase of breath. The pilot was so tense even the depleted muscles of his arm felt solid as a rock.

" John, it's Carson, son. Can ya look at me?"

John didn't move. Carson slid his hand to John's neck and pressed his fingers over the pules, a pulse that was fluttering uncomfortably fast. Shaking, heart racing – John was terrified. Carson glanced over his shoulder at the pressing crowd and anger rose up in him hot as lava and just as ready to burst.

He's not sitting here for you to bloody stare at ya daft buggers! he wanted to scream. This was, officially, the pinnacle of humiliation for John. Not when he was thrust naked into a crowd – now, in his moment of absolute weakness, in front of his men and the people he was here to protect. It was wrong, wrong and sick. People would talk about this, spread rumors, make it out as more than it was.

It was no wonder that John was hiding his face.

Carson forced enough calm on himself to rise and not snarl like a raging lion at everyone. But it was hard. " All right, I need everyone out of here now! Back to your business and where ever you're going, 'cause there's nothing to see here. Colonel Sheppard is extremely ill, that's all, and staring at him isn't going to help. So if you would be so kind as to depart, it would be much appreciated. So off with ya, now!"

The crowd began to disperse, breaking apart like a shattered ice flow. A few soldiers lingered, asking if they could be of any help. Carson softened at them, but dismissed them all the same. The last thing Sheppard needed was an audience, even one consisting of two or three people. When the people had left and the flow through the halls resumed, Carson turned back to John and gently placed his hand on his forearm.

" It's all right, lad, they're gone. Can ya move? I'll get a wheelchair if ya can't..."

John, finally lifting his face from his knees, shook his head. He was pale, and his eyes were bloodshot. With Carson's and Becky's help, they got John to his feet and helped him the rest of the way to the infirmary. Once inside, they helped him onto a bed where he curled up and kept on shuddering. Becky covered him with a blanket, then went to get the needed equipment for an exam. Carson already had his stethoscope and placed it in his ears. He slipped the listening end down John's shirt collar. John gasped, and curled further into himself, shivering even harder. His heart was still slamming away, pumping blood too fast to put any color into John's skin. Carson then pulled out the electronic thermometer. John's temperature was up, something to keep an eye on but not enough to panic over. Becky brought the blood pressure cuff and checked the Colonel's BP.

Carson placed his hand on John's upper arm and leaned in a little. " Colonel Sheppard, are ya still feeling any nausea, dizziness, or pain?"

John shook his head. His hand was at his chest, massaging the area over his heart and wearing a pained look of apprehension. " M-my heart, Doc..."

Carson cast a quick glance over his shoulder to the three people standing back behind him. Looking back to John, he took the pilot's arm by the wrist and gently pried it away from his chest to set it on the bed. " John, what you've been experiencing have been anxiety attacks caused by your nightmares. There's nothing wrong with your heart physically, ya need ta understand that. There is nothing wrong."

John's eyelids seemed ready to close with or without him. " I know," he quietly stated, then exhaled a shuddering breath. " How do I make it stop?"

Carson patted his arm. " I'll give ya something so you can rest properly, then we'll discuss it when you wake up." He was handed the readied syringe by Becky, along with an alcohol pad. Carson swabbed John's arm at the crook and injected the sleeping juice into the pilot's bloodstream. Except the man was already out before the needle even pierced his flesh. But as long as the medication kept him deep under, then the dreams wouldn't be able to invade.

Carson left the syringe for Becky to discard and turned to the three behind him – now four. Ronon had shown up, but remained hovering near the door, his arms folded over his thick chest and his gaze on Sheppard.

Carson turned his attention from the impassive Satedan back to the three waiting anxiously near his office. " We need to ready the medication and the schedule for administering the doses," he said, mostly to Kate. " The sooner we can get him started, the sooner we can get his mind settled enough to see the truth."

Kate nodded. " I also want to teach him some techniques to control his breathing when the panic attacks hit..."

Carson ushered the small group back to the office so they could continue their discussions. Carson cast one last look over his shoulder, and saw Ronon to be standing at the foot of the bed, not simply watching Sheppard, but studying him, contemplating him, as though trying to understand something or figure something out. It made Carson pause, then walk over to the former runner.

" You're going to drug him," Ronon stated, and though his expression remained the same, he sounded none too pleased about it.

Carson folded his arms. " We don't have much of a choice. They'll help him, though."

" For a while," Ronon replied, and the angered conviction Carson heard drove home Carson's earlier thoughts concerning psychological medication. In Sheppard's case, medication was a quick fix, never a permanent solution. Life enjoyed kicking him down too much to allow the effects to last.

" He doesn't need them," Ronon said next.

" No, not forever. He's too good at getting back on his feet ta have ta keep taking them..."

" He doesn't need them at all."

Carson shrugged helplessly. " I don't know what ta tell ya, lad. He needs help is what he needs. We're just trying everything we can. I know druggin' him isn't exactly a savory notion, but if he doesn't get back on his feet, then we may have no choice but ta send him back to earth."

Ronon's cold gaze shot to Carson, and Carson had to stiffen to keep from taking a step back.

" Would you send him back to your world?" he asked.

Carson shook his head with his own conviction. " Not if I had anything to say about it. It would only do to make things worse for the man. The thing is, there are people higher up the ranking ladder who don't know this. They will see Sheppard as an ineffectual military leader who must be removed so as not to become a hindrance to this expedition. They'll order him back no matter how much or how loud we protest. And then it'll tear John apart, being back on earth. Instead of going toward the mend, he'll just start to wither, and no one will have a bloody clue as to what is wrong. They'll pin his condition on PSTD, fill him full of drugs, keep him locked away, and then we'll never see him again. So no, I would never want him to go back to earth, which is why he needs to be medicated. He can't go back, Ronon, not like this. It would kill him, you can be bloody damn sure of that."

Ronon's gaze remained frosty, but in a way that gave Carson the feeling that his anger wasn't directed at the Scottish doctor. When big man looked back to Sheppard, the ice melted, and the emotionless mask slipped back into place, although – once again – Ronon appeared to be thinking.

Carson unfolded his arms to place inside the pockets of his lab coat. He turned to leave Ronon to his silent, pensive vigil, and took one more look at John. Even in sleep the man's face was lined, shadowed, and tight with exhaustion.

SGA

Pervert's hand passed through John's hair, down his neck, across his back along his knobby spine, pushing hard enough for his backbone to scrape his sternum. There would definitely be a mark afterwards.

John was huddled on his knees in the cold dark, naked and shaking with pervert kneeling beside him, petting away as though John were being a good little doggy.

And they weren't alone. Within the darkness he distinguished the outline of bodies, and pale faces that he knew either personally or from brief acquaintance. Sumner, looking both smug and pissed, Ford seemingly disappointed, scientists who died, Athosians who died, people from alien worlds taken by the wraith or killed in battle, numerous Genii soldiers wearing the uniforms but faceless in the dark. They watched John wallow in his humiliation, and reveled in it, smirking or chuckling caustically, the laughter hissing in John's ears to go skittering down his spine along with the sweaty, calloused palm. John, shivering, tried to shrink away, look away, but the faces had burned into his retina, and the laughter scraped down his back. His breath caught in a sob.

" Go away," he tried to demand but ended up begging. The laughter grew louder. John pulled his arms away from his chest to cover his ears. " Go away!" Even louder now so that no amount of covering could block out the sound. " Stop it! Stop! Make it stop, please, make it stop!"

Warm, fetid breath brushed against his face, and a thick, sweaty hand pulled his own hand away from his ear. " If that is what you want," pervert simpered. There was a flash of light off metal, and John saw the knife in time to witness it plunge upward into his chest, slicing through bone, and ripping into his heart.

John woke up screaming, grasping his chest, and choking on his own breath. The laughter skittered in his brain like tapping claws and he wanted to escape it. So he flung himself from his bed and dashed from his room into the shadowed corridors, taking no direction, just running and running, bare feet slapping the cold floor and lungs heaving to keep up with his psychotic heart.

The laughter faded away behind John, so he finally slowed, then stumbled to a halt. He paced to appease the buzzing agitation singing along his nerve endings, and patted his chest trying to reestablish the rhythm his heart was supposed to be going at.

He was screwed. Beckett had started him on the medication two days ago, so shouldn't it have been taking effect by now? Although Beckett had said that it sometimes took a while for the medication to start producing results. It may not have been John's first time on meds, but he never recalled what those times had been like, what the outcome had been for him mentally, except that after a while, somewhere along the way, he'd been able to remember what it felt like to be in control. After that point, the meds came less until he was off them all together.

But this was different, because normally he was pissed. Right now, he felt so frightened all he wanted to do was crawl into a small space and slip off into oblivion. So maybe the medication wasn't working at all. Maybe there would be no results this time, no recollections of control and sanity.

John paced faster, still patting his chest, with the fingers of his casted arm twitching as though in need of something to hold on to. His heart wouldn't stop pounding, and it was making it difficult to breathe. He tried to recall the breathing techniques Heightmeyer had told him about, but all his brain wanted to do was push the fact that his heart was going haywire.

" Stop, stop, stop, stop stop..." he mumbled in a plea. He licked dry lips, and felt his stomach start to roil. He was going to be sick again. Actually, he was going to be sick right now.

John stumbled and fell to his knees, hugging his stomach as he wretched and spewed out a dark, burning liquid. He'd overheard Carson talking about the vomiting, that if he kept it up, there would be damage to his stomach lining and esophagus. Old news to John. He been down that road before.

I'm never going to die of old age. The way he saw it, he would either be wraith sucked, shot, tortured to death, or completely fall apart from the inside out. But he definitely wasn't going to reach retirement.

John slumped against the wall. His money was on falling apart, since that's what he was doing right now. He couldn't deny it, he was screwed.

John sighed but it came out a whimper. He was cold – freezing – and puking had sent his body into an aching fit as though blaming John for it's own actions. He needed to get back to his room, where it was warm, but neither had the energy nor the will to move. Not that he could stay where he was for the rest of the night, and let all of Atlantis catch him out in the open when morning came, staring at him like a pathetic, helpless, mental invalid.

Which is what I am. Doesn't mean I want everyone to see it.

His gut started churning again.

Something brushed his shoulder, and he jumped with a yelp, snapping his head around and up.

Ronon was standing over him, staring down, expressionless as always. Shock ripped through John as though he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't. He shrank back some, and forced a pathetic, tremulous smile on his face.

" Um... H-hey – Ronon."

" Hey Sheppard."

John then attempted the struggle to his feet. It didn't feel right that Ronon should see him like this, the man who was supposed to be a leader, the man Ronon had called a fellow warrior. During the process of trying to rise, Ronon took John by the bicep of his arm and helped him, not letting go until he was certain John would remain on his own two feet.

They stood facing eachother, Ronon unreadable, and John growing more nervous and agitated by the second.

" Um," John stammered. " Th-thanks. I'll, uh, just... go back to my room, now."

Ronon tilted his head to one side. " Why? You'll just end up back here."

John opened his mouth without a reply to show for it. He quelled. " Infirmary?"

Ronon straightened his head, then took John by the bicep again. " Come with me." His grasp didn't remain. He simply turned John around, then headed off deeper into the darkness. John followed without question, with mild curiosity but a lot more trepidation. Ronon lighted a glow stick, and kept his pace casual so John could keep up. They went down one corridor after another, into the uninhabited part of the city. They took a transporter down, and kept on going. John's heart labored heavily with the effort of walking so far, and his breathing labored with it. He began to veer like a drunk, then stumbled along until Ronon placed a hand back on John's arm to keep him steady, making him flinch.

A quiet breeze toyed with John's hair, and brought to him the scent of brine. He heard like the echo heard in a seashell the thrumming rush of distant waves. The sound grew louder the father they went. Ronon turned a corner, and hovering at the end of the hall like the entrance to another world was an open door leading out onto a raised platform hugging the outside of the tower they were exiting. It was like a massive dock minus any jetties, and high enough off the water to keep the lesser waves from crashing onto it, and wide enough to prevent the larger waves from wetting the walls.

Ronon led John onto this platform, then to the left to where the wall of the tower turned in to form a rather large alcove flanked by two pillars. Between the pillars was a hammock with a pillow and blankets. Beside it at the head was a stack of crates acting as a table, and stacked on top of those more blankets neatly folded. Eight feet out from the alcove was a shallow metal box holding already burning wood. The flames whipped and writhed in the gusting ocean wind, pulling up sparks to go dancing toward the night sky like happy little fireflies. More blankets were spread out on either side of the fire, out of reach of the embers.

Ronon guided John to the left side of the fire then pointed at the Athosian made woven blanket. " Sit."

John sat, shivering, and scooted closer to the flames. It was a cool night that felt more cold to John every time the water tainted breezes brushed across him. The winds' assault didn't last long when a heavy blanket was place around his shoulders. John wrapped the blanket around himself and hunkered into it, leaving enough open space at the top for the heat of the fire to get in. A bottle of water was then placed beside him. He looked up at Ronon, then followed the Satedan as he went around to sit at the other end of the fire with legs folded Indian style and his own water bottle in hand.

The only things missing were marshmallows, graham crackers, and a ghost story. Although it was a nice night to be outdoors. The sky was so clear it was like a star-packed ceiling, and the sea air felt cleansing going in and out of John's lungs. The only setback was the lack of any walls or covering save for the alcove. They were screwed if a wraith dart decided to pop up for a little recon. John shuddered.

John wanted to make some comment concerning Ronon going for outdoor quarters, but ended up asking , " You sure it's safe out here?"

Ronon, unwrapping a power bar then taking a massive bite that cut the thing in half, nodded as he chewed. " A dart would smash into one of the surrounding structures before it was able to cull us. Besides, they still don't know this place continues to exist, remember?"

Sheppard shrugged. " You never know."

" Nope, you never do."

The runner finished off the power bar in two more bites, then wadded up the paper and tossed it into a nearby, upturned crate. John made a mental note to have Ronon on his team should they ever have the means to play basketball.

Ronon took a swig from the bottle, capped it, set it down, then rose, making his way to John. He stopped beside him, looking down, unreadable and reigniting John's unease.

" Get up," he demanded. John scrunched his brow.

" Huh."

" Get up, now."

" Why...?"

" Get up."

Gulping, John scrambled to his feet without Ronon lending any assistance. The bigger man planted his hands on John's shoulders, and positioned him so that they were directly in front of eachother. Before removing his hands, Ronon pushed the blanket off of John's shoulders where it crumpled behind him, leaving him open to the cool wind. He started shivering, but not from the wind. The look in the Satedan's eyes John wanted to call calculating. Or maybe he was just thinking. Whatever it was, it was starting to scare John.

" What are you doing?" John trusted the Satedan, but his fear was acting almost instinctual, born from his present weakened condition standing before a man who could easily break his neck with a twist of the wrist. Conditioning from times when he was starved into submission for easier pummeling by more muscle heavy thugs. It was Ronon in front of him, but the situation was too reminiscent of those times. They had always had John standing right before they...

Ronon said nothing. He balled his fist, then fast as a blink struck out aiming for John's chest. John lurched back, grabbing Ronon's wrist, and the fist stopped an inch from John's sternum.

" What the hell are you doing!" John screamed, anger warring with terror, and terror winning the fight. His hand gripped Ronon's wrist hard, but when he tried to pull Ronon's arm away, it wouldn't move. It took a while, but realization finally pushed its way through John's terror-muddied brain.

John didn't have the present strength to stop Ronon's fist. Ronon had stopped it on his own. Slowly, the big man lowered his arm back to his side, twisting his wrist from John's weaker grasp. He grinned at John, and a chill shot down John's spine.

" Just making sure."

John took a step back, stumbled on the blanket, and took another step to find firmer ground. " Making sure of what?"

Ronon didn't respond. He kept on grinning, then reached out toward John. John, cringing, stepped back and glared at Ronon.

" You could have killed me," he accused.

" My intention wasn't to hurt you. Even if you hadn't grabbed my arm, I still would have stopped. I wasn't going to harm you."

John eyed him for a moment to ensure himself of the Satedan's sincerity. But seeing as how he'd never come across Ronon lying before, he didn't know what to look for. Besides, the runner's truth had been in his attempted punch. John would be dead already if Ronon were lying.

When Ronon reached out again, John didn't move except to twitch when the runner grabbed his wrist. In Ronon's hand, the slightest squeeze would have easily snapped the bone. John looked at his own frail limb in disgust, then perplexity when Ronon moved that limb to have the hand over John's heart.

" Keep your hand there," he commanded, then released John's arm. Ronon bent to retrieve the blanket. He moved around John, placing it back on his shoulders, and keeping his hands planted on John's shoulders, urged him back down into sitting. Ronon returned to his own spot and dropped down onto his own blanket.

" Am I waiting for something in particular?" John asked. His heart had descended out of its hammering once he was back to sitting, and going at a normal, steady, everyday rate, tapping his ribs instead of trying to break them.

Ronon shrugged. " Just thought you'd like the reminder that you're still alive."

John narrowed his eyes quizzically. " The possibility that I might be dead hasn't exactly crossed my mind, lately."

" Dying has, hasn't it?"

Ronon had him there. Waking up from nightmares about death with his heart beating too frantically for his lungs to keep up had certainly made him ponder mortality more than he had wanted to.

" You're not going to die, Sheppard. They can't hurt you."

Ronon's visage wavered like water through the thin, transparent smoke of the fire. He was staring intently at John, which sent another river of cold trickling down John's back.

" I would think not. Elizabeth said they were all incarcerated."

" Not them," then Ronon lifted one shoulder. " Not just them." Ronon tilted his head back as though exposing his throat, but in fact was staring straight up at the sky and its rivers of stars. " I come out here when the dreams get bad and I wake up thinking a wraith is in my room."

John looked up as well. He said nothing, just waited for Ronon to continue, which he knew the runner would.

And he did. " Sometimes it's up to you to prove to yourself that everything's going to be all right, that's there's no real reason to panic, that you don't always have to give into the old instincts that kept you alive but now keep you awake. I come out here knowing it's not what the instincts would have me do. It's the open, where the wraith can find me – that's what the instincts say. Then when I wake up, still here, the instincts go quiet. The more I wake up, out in the open, vulnerable but safe, the less the dreams come, and I'm able to sleep for days without waking before it's time."

John lowered his gaze to look at the Satedan. Ronon continued to stare up at the sky as though counting the stars. After a moment of silent contemplation of the sky, Ronon's head came back down, and his eyes went to the snapping fire. " You could call it self defiance. I trust my instincts, I just wish they would shut up sometimes, and this is the way I make them."

Firelight flickered in Ronon's eyes, making them bright, almost feral, yet without the predatory glower. More like the eyes of a leopard long after the hunt, relaxing in the trees. Those same eyes flicked upward to land on Sheppard.

" When we brought you back, Beckett had to cut you open to get the bullet out. Then he had to pump your heart when it stopped. He used his hands to do it. He didn't tell us about that, only that he had to cut you open. But I heard him mutter about it a few times, about holding your heart in his hand. He told me that you shouldn't have survived that, but you did, because that's what you do. Beat pain, beat odds... pretty much beat death. Has to be true seeing as how you're sitting right here in front of me, heart beating and everything."

John's hand, still on his chest, began shaking. " He... Beckett..." He bolted onto his feet and started pacing, his heart picking up speed. Truths always were stranger than fiction, but this truth was more frighteningly disturbing than strange. It was one thing to have his heart stop, but something else entirely having it man-handled. It was too close. When it took human hands to work his heart rather than a defibrillator, then it was way too close to absolute death. Or at least that was how John figured it.

John dropped his hand to his side to clench his fist. He paced three more times, then halted suddenly before colliding into Ronon. The Satedan moved fast taking John's arm and placing his hand back over his heart. " You feel that Sheppard?"

John nervously nodded.

" You need to focus on that, and only that. It's still beating, and right now that's all that matters. It's your defiance, Sheppard. What happened doesn't matter, what happens does. What happened was your enemies tried to kill you. What happens is that your heart keeps on beating, you keep on breathing, and they fail. They fail every time you draw a breath and each time your heart pumps your blood through your body. They fail every second that you're alive, and that's how you defy them – by living. So they can't hurt you."

John's eyes flickered over Ronon's features incomprehensibly. " They can hurt me. They can try again."

" They have, again and again. And here you are breathing. They can't hurt you, Sheppard, not after the fact. Every breath is freedom. Every beat." Ronon clasped John on the shoulder. " They can try all they want. Break bone, break skin – break you. But they ultimately fail in what they hope to accomplish. They can't touch you where it counts, Sheppard. They can't end you, which is always what they really want. End you one way or another. You never let them. You're too stubborn to let them. You're too stubborn to end."

A smile crept onto John's face, and he nearly broke out laughing. " So, what're you saying? That I'm immortal?" He couldn't recall the number of times he was told the opposite, mostly by McKay, as though the reminder might make a difference.

Ronon's grin broadened. " That you're a lot harder to bring down than most people expect. You won't live forever, but you'll live."

John's mind gradually registered what Ronon seemed to be saying. " I'm alive and they can't take that away, is that it?"

" You won't let them."

John finally did chuckle a breathy, rather wheezy laugh. " I'm alive and they can't take that away."

" That's why they can't touch you, touch what they want in order to destroy you." Ronon clasped his hand over John's own hand still pressed against his chest, and applied enough pressure for John's heart beat to become more distinct, like a drum beat rather than a timid knock. " They can't touch you, Sheppard."

The chuckle rose into laughter, overwhelming, uncontrollable laughter that made John's chest throb and his heart hammer. It hurt, but it was a good hurt, making him aware of his body, and everything around him. He took a step back, doubling over, then turning to stagger toward the edge of the platform, once there, he straightened and inhaled the salty air. Ronon came up beside him.

John looked at him, chest jerking in hiccuping laughs. " They can't touch me."

Ronon shook his head. " They can't touch you."

John looked back over the ink-dark sea with breakers blue-silver when caught in Atlantis' glow. His Atlantis, his home, his safety, the place they couldn't touch, and where they couldn't touch him. Maybe it was sleep delirium addling John's brain, or maybe it was the ecstasy that was filling him with every beat of his heart – whatever it was, it overwhelmed John, and he threw his arms open wide into the air, shouting and whooping, his voice resounding off the clean metal walls and over the sliver-touched water.

" They can't touch me!" He shouted. " You hear that you bastards! I am John Sheppard! I am alive! And you will never change that! You – can' – touch – meeeee!"

For the first time in in many days, John Sheppard felt great to be alive.

The world spun around John and he staggered back. He would have probably crumpled to the ground if Ronon hadn't caught both his arms and hauled him back to his feet. He kept one hand on John's arm as he led John away from the water, but not back toward the fire. They continued onward to the hammock where Ronon pulled back the blanket.

" You need to rest," he said.

John nodded numbly in agreement. The world wouldn't stop tilt-o-whirling around him and it was making him a little nauseous. Ronon helped John climb into the hammock then pulled the blanket up to his neck. He covered John with more blankets from the small pile on the crate until his skinny friend was buried in a cocoon of warmth.

" What about you?" John groggily asked.

" I normally fall asleep in front of the fire anyways," Ronon replied matter of factly.

John grinned rather drunkenly. " Hope you got a bucket handy when I wake up. Doubt I'll be able to make it to the water."

Ronon clasped his arm. " Don't worry about it. You won't be waking up like that."

" You sure?"

" Very."

John took comfort in Ronon's nonchalant certainty, so didn't try to put up a fight against his closing eyelids.

" They can't touch me," he mumbled.

" They can't," Ronon said. " They can't."

John slipped into unconsciousness with the rush of the ocean whispering in his mind.

SGA

" Ronon, do you copy..."

Ronon peeled one eyelid apart, then the other to fill his sight with the gold touched gray of early morning, when the air was crisp and even more pleasant to breathe.

" Specialist Dex, do you copy?"

The fire was gone leaving behind only wisps of curling smoke. Ronon lifted his head from his pillow and reached out to the radio lying five inches away from him. He grabbed it and placed it in his ear. " Dex here," he replied, flinging back the blanket to stand and stretch sleep-stiff muscles.

" Ronon," it was Dr. Weir's voice. " We are unable to locate Colonel Sheppard. He's not in his quarters..."

" He's with me," Ronon interceded, heading toward the alcove and the mound of blankets hiding the skinny body of his team leader.

" Where are you?"

Ronon gave them the directions to his little camp. He ducked under the hammock to grab a bottle of water from the crate holding a few food supplies. With bottle in hand, he leaned with his back against the wall next to the alcove to wait. He glanced at Sheppard but saw only the top of his dark, spiked hair.

He was halfway through the bottle when Weir, Beckett, McKay, and Teyla arrived. Ronon immediately inclined his head toward Sheppard. " He's right there," he said.

Beckett wasted no time moving to the mound, with Elizabeth, Teyla, and McKay hanging uneasily back.

" He's fine," Ronon assured. McKay shot him an exasperated look.

" Fine? Since when the hell has he been fine? He hasn't been fine since coming back from that hell hole of a planet...!"

" He's fine, Rodney," Beckett interrupted, heading back to the small group.

Rodney's head reared back. " How do you know? You only went over to him two seconds ago."

Carson spread his arms. " See any vomit anywhere? And I checked his pulse, it was very steady. I think we should leave him for now and let him rest for however long he wants to. It's probably the best sleep he's gotten in a long time."

McKay, Elizabeth, and Teyla leaned around Beckett for a peek at John. The blankets had been pulled back enough to show his face, a face slack in deep, unperturbed sleep, knowing no worry and showing no distress. He looked rested.

He looked at peace.

SGA

" I believe this is where we left off," the wraith queen hissed. She lifted her hand ready to plunge it into John's chest. With a another hiss, the hand came shooting down.

John's came shooting up and grabbed the wraith queen's arm by the wrist with both hands, pushing the deadly limb away from his exposed chest. The wraith queen snarled with a flash of crooked fangs. She pushed, and John pushed back, digging his fingers into the pallid, slick flesh. He started twisting until he heard bone snap and the queen shriek.

" You won't touch me," John snarled back. " You can't touch me!"

The wraith queen's head snapped back to release an agonized howl.

John awoke, his eyelids snapping open to the black and blue shadows of his room. He blinked several times to remove the grit coating his eyes. His heart was thrumming away like a jack hammer, so he pulled air through his noise, and exhaled it through his mouth, just as Heightmeyer had taught him. A few minutes of careful, planned out breathing, and his heart settled comfortably back into its regular beat, safe within its cage of bone.

John sighed, and nestled deeper under the covers. He was hungry, and knew today the mess would be serving French Toast. A good day to start back on solid foods again. But it was still early, and he was still tired. A few more hours would remedy that. He settled into the softness of his bed and closed his eyes.

Let the bad guys come out and play. They couldn't touch him.

John sighed again, and smiled.

The End

A/N: Wow. Now that was hard writing, let me tell you. All the angst and turmoil was getting tricky to convey, and I'm still not certain it's quite what I wanted. Hope you enjoyed anyways. Took me forever to complete.