Of Coloring Books and Lt. Colonels

By

Stealth Dragon

Rating - T for mentions of torture and explicit injuries

Disclaimer – I don't own Stargate or anything affiliated with it. John Sheppard I keep trying to kidnap, but he's a slippery little devil.

Synopsis – After a week and a half of horrible torture, Sheppard becomes obsessed with a coloring book, and Rodney doesn't get it. Sheppard whump, Rodney angst and POV. Sheppard/Rodney friendship and nothing more. I have no idea where this idea came from. It is simply the product of a wandering mind and the consequences of indulging bored, deranged muses. Hound of Hell is still being written, I was just taking a bit of a break. Helps the muses get organized. Spoilers for Common Ground but this is not a tag. Much of this story is done in present-voice, which I've never done before, but there are parts that are done in past tense such as the beginning. So I apologize for any inconsistencies in the tenses. I've tried to iron them out, but there may have been one or two words that have eluded me.

Yep, it's another long one, so beware, and take your time with it.

SGA

They say there's no getting people sometimes. And there isn't. I never get people. Well, most of the time I don't, and most of the time I don't try. I say I want to, act like it irritates the hell out of me when I don't, and wallow in the self pity and petulance of people not getting me. But sometimes, out of the blue, hitting you like a right hook to the jaw, comes complete and undeniable understanding. An epiphany of the person, if you will, that happens without warning and is never fully realized until a long time down the road. When that happens, it scares the hell out of me. Not all the time, mind you. Most of the time my chest swells and a smug smile creeps on my face just begging to be wiped off. It all depends on what it is I discover, and whether I can use it against that particular person, or if it's something too profound to even dare utilize for blackmail or eliciting a self-satisfied grin from myself.

No, I'm not digressing. I'm speaking from gradually accumulating experience, and the changes in my humanity that came about through the trials of being in the Pegasus galaxy, and becoming the unwitting friend of one Lt. Colonel John Sheppard.

The poor SOB can never get a break. Must be the uniform, or the height, or the hair that always seems to be the first thing people notice about him, especially women. Women swoon and men get jealous, so the men focus their sights like a laser on John. Actually, it's probably just the fact that he's the team leader, therefore, he knows more secret crap. Either way, once again, John got snagged as he covered us and we ran. Okay, I ran, Teyla and Ronon lagged, Sheppard moved out of sight so no one would try to stick with him. He promised he would make it to the gate, and once again broke that promise.

This was all two weeks after he'd been wraith-sucked and miraculously restored. A week and a half later, after frantic searching and clawing for every molecule of information we could, we found him.

And I shudder, literally shudder, balk, and try not to vomit just thinking back on it. It was some sort of a facility out in the middle of nowhere, a combination prison and – to much disgust – collection of science labs. We busted in with a large contingent of marines armed to the teeth and quite impressive to the majority of scientists and little handful of guards occupying the place. And yet the intimidation of a technically advanced race of pissed-off earthlings wasn't enough to get anyone to cooperate. Idiots. Thank goodness for the compassionate, and faint, of heart in the form of a young assistant name Jyfel. He was short, wiry, with somewhat thinning, straw colored hair. He led us to where Sheppard was being kept, and seemed quite relieved to do so.

Oh if only relief were contagious. Relief was precarious when we entered that very dank, stinking, dark dungeon with its stone walls, mold, and water stains. Relief was tossed screaming over the edge when we burst into the cell where Sheppard was being kept. Beckett entered first, and I hovered at the door. Flashlights spasmed over the slick black walls, floors, and finally a pale, mutilated body huddled against the wall in the corner.

There's no comprehending what I was seeing. It was the wraith feeding all over again, minus the wraith, Koyla, a chair and a gag. Shirt too. Sheppard was half-naked but still retaining his pants, and barefoot. The real attention getter – and gut churner – however, was the vividly bright, raw, bloody flesh on the right half of his body, as though someone had started skinning off the surface layer of epidermis then quit.

More appropriately, it looked as though he'd been burned, except I saw no charred edges or any blackened bits of skin for that matter. It was a burn though, one I've seen before to a lesser extent in labs.

Chemical burn, starting at his shoulder and extending all the way down his arm. The rest going from his armpit down his ribcage to his hip, wider at the top and tapering toward the end. He was holding his quaking, skinned arm up close to his body without touching it. And it wasn't just his arm that was shaking. He was a trembling, skinny, bloody, bruised from head to waist, wild-eyed mess of a human being trying to hold himself upright by leaning against the slimy wall. One leg was tucked under him, and the other was stretched out in front for us to see the swollen black and blue ankle. Just listening to his struggling, rasping breaths was making it hard for me to breathe out of sympathy. He stared at us without recognition. In those glazed eyes was nothing but manic terror for what he thought was going to come next.

So it was probably a good idea that Beckett approached him slowly with hands outstretched in a placating way. My mind, however, had wanted my mouth to scream at Carson to just hurry up already so we could get Sheppard out before any more infections set in.

Carson moved one foot in front of the other, at a crouch, and lowering further. " Sheppard? Lad? It's me, Dr. Beckett. It's all right, son. You're going to be all right."

Sheppard blinked a few times, furrowed his brow, smoothed his brow, coughed, grimaced with pain, then convulsed in what I thought was the beginnings of a seizure, but what turned out to be laughter. Jyfel had warned us that Sheppard wouldn't be able to talk. He hadn't said why, though. I had my theory, and it almost made me puke. Those burns... chemical burns – any kind of burn – they hurt, especially when first inflicted, no matter someone's pain threshold. These people did what Koyla never could – they had made Sheppard scream.

Sheppard, chest still jerking with muted laughter, shrank back pressing himself deeper into his little niche. Carson stopped and lowered further with one hand extended palm up toward Sheppard. John wasn't going to say a thing, but the eyes were saying plenty for him.

Please don't hurt me.

" It's all right, lad. It's me. We're here to take you home."

When Sheppard didn't take Beckett's hand, Beckett scooted in closer, inch by inch. The laughter must have stumbled in John's chest the way his breath hitched and the manic smile dropped. He tried to cringe away, and ended up sliding further down the wall, closer to Carson. He didn't have the strength to move any farther.

Touching bad. No touching.

Carson placed his hand on the bruised and scabbed bony shoulder, inched closer, and helped push John back up enough so that he wasn't so doubled in half. Carson's other hand he placed just under John's jaw to lift his head and establish more appropriate eye contact. " John, look at me. It's me, Carson. And your team, lad. They're here as well. We've come ta take you home."

Home?

Had Sheppard the capacity to speak, he would have been parroting Carson. His only reaction was for his eyes to start shimmering up in a rapid flood of tears until one finally spilled down over the bruises on his face. Then he slowly, and yet still suddenly, pitched forward until his head was resting on Beckett's shoulder. In the shocked, numbing silence, we heard the ragged, convulsive intakes of air commonly associated with sobbing.

I want to go home.

sssssssssssssssssssssssssssss

So we took Sheppard home. And it wasn't easy, mostly for him. First Beckett and two of his med-monkeys had to get him on the stretcher. That meant moving him, which meant causing him pain since Beckett couldn't administer any of his happy juice into the man to dull that pain. The possibility of the chemical having seeped into his blood stream, and signs of drug administration, wouldn't let him. Sheppard had track marks all over his arms, and a few on his neck. Had Sheppard's tormentors been merciful at one point? Or got sick of his screaming so loaded him up with enough dope to make an elephant sing? I doubted it right away, and Jyfel confirmed it.

Truth serums, hallucinogens, even a few pain enhancers and only the occasional pain reducer if one needed testing. John had been the resident guinea pig. The chemical burns had been for kicks. John and expressed himself to be the naughty, uncooperative rodent, so the local brute squad was given free reign to do what was needed to tame Sheppard. Not so much tame, though, as weaken, according to Jyfel. He'd been present a few times to catch a few glimpses of the Colonel's final flings at resistance. Biting, for the most part, or squirming away, or smacking a few hands aside. He'd lost his voice after the chemical bath because he'd been screaming non-stop until his vocal cords were stretched to depletion.

" It wouldn't stop," Jyfel said in a quaking voice as we followed Beckett, med team, and the writhing Sheppard back to where the jumpers waited. " The screaming. I – I tried giving him something for the pain, but he wouldn't keep still, and I couldn't think... there had been no reason for it. We had more humane ways to subdue subjects. Animal subjects, but the treatments work on humans..."

I wanted to hate the kid, mostly because I needed someplace for my anger to go. All the guards had been left behind, stunned, and all the scientists were probably still packed into corners quaking in their sterilized boots. Pathetic and unconscious didn't do it for me in terms of venting. But I couldn't hate this kid. He talked of humane treatment, of trying to alleviate Sheppard's pain – not to stop the screaming – but because he had admired the man's tenacity. Jyfel's attempts had been successful only before the chemical. The kid had helped not because he had to. He had wanted to. And you just can't hate someone for that.

So why had the kid even worked their in the first place? Supposedly, on his world, to save money, all science facilities housed convicts. Easy enough to run tests on a murderer-rapist. No one had told the kid what Sheppard had done. He found out the truth after listening in on the third interrogation. After that, all the kid's self-righteous beliefs had been monumentally shaken. He hadn't said as much. His actions had spoken louder than words as a testament to it.

The kid was screwed career-wise but he didn't seem to care. We dropped him off on the outskirts of a nearby town. We said our goodbyes, he wished Sheppard well and hoped he would be all right, then headed off at a casual walk as though all were suddenly right in the world. Which it probably was for him. He'd done the right thing, and no matter what the future held for him, he would still have that to ease his mind at night. There are people out there – me included – that would sell their souls for just a scrap of something to find peace of mind over.

I'd gone with the jumper taking the kid to town since the kid had felt more comfortable around me than the soldiers. I was anxious to get back to Atlantis. When we did, and the moment the jumper bay door descended, I went at a run straight to the infirmary to find Elizabeth, Ronon, and Teyla waiting outside the door.

" Any word?" I asked.

Dr. Weir had one hand hugging across her stomach, and the other at her mouth. She shook her head, in no condition to be saying anything out loud. So the waiting game commenced; tense, drawn out, and nauseating. We interchanged pacing, sitting on the floor, and simply standing. Ronon did most of the pacing, Teyla sitting, Weir standing, and me all three. I never did like being still. Immobility - it's too much like claustrophobia. Instead of being boxed in by walls or bodies, I was boxed in by my own skin. The longer I remain still, the tighter my skin gets, as though something were accumulating within me, filling up every little gap until I felt ready to burst at the seams. Motion siphoned it out, leaving my body a more tolerable vessel to occupy.

Crap I hate waiting. I've obviously been spoiled by my propensity for pulling out fast results. Like I always say, Medical science isn't really a science. Most of the time it seems more like a gamble, and all of the time results come in the distant future, never now.

So when the infirmary door slid open and Beckett stepped out wearing a blood-flecked lab coat, my heart stuttered in my chest. We were getting news, not results. This wasn't the end to anything, just the beginning.

Carson looked the opposite of relieved, which wasn't something we needed to see right now.

" He's stable," he said. Always the first words out of his mouth. " We have him set up in isolation, and I'm tellin' ya now they'll be no visitin' him for a while. He needs to remain in a sterile environment for a bit. Burns always make the body prime targets for nasty infections, and he's had plenty of time to get infected. He's already battling a vicious fever that's makin' it hard for him to breathe." Carson looked away from us for a moment, down at the floor as he rubbed his mouth with one hand. He continued to gaze at the floor when he took up the rest of his diagnosis. " Blood tests confirmed no lingering drugs in his system, so we were able to administer painkillers, which for now I'm grateful for. Besides the burns, he has three broken ribs, two cracked, a broken collarbone, arm, ankle..." Carson rubbed his mouth again. " We can't wrap his ribs until after debridement. Or put his arm in a cast. He's severely malnourished, dehydrated, and disoriented..."

Carson fell silent for a moment, a very long moment, before he sighed as though in defeat. " He's bloody lucky to be alive."

For a moment, a very fleeting moment, I thought Carson was going to cry. He looked like he wanted to. It was a little shocking at first, then down right depressing. I felt bad for Carson, I really did. The man kicked ass when it came to medical matters though I would never say so to his face. The rest of the time, let's face it, the guy was the biggest softy in the entire city. Seriously, the guy's a marshmallow, and I'm not talking physically. He hefts guilt onto his shoulders as bad as Sheppard, and would have made someone a great mother if he hadn't been born a man. But he was a man, therefore would probably make a great father some day. Unlike me who has a complete and utter phobia toward children...

Now I'm digressing.

The thing is, Carson's every woman's dream – the sensitive man. On occasion maybe a trifle, seemingly, spineless. But, hey, he reserves the vast majority of his courage for the operating table. The guy's entitled to a few bouts of unease. He has a problem with guns but at least he holds them when the times calls for it. And when it comes to his patients, the man you might immediately assume to be spineless on first meeting will grow a spine of solid steel and dare to stare even men like Ronon down if they didn't back off. You don't mess with his patients – his friends – both inside and outside the infirmary. He hates violence, hates suffering, and hates it even more when he can't alleviate that suffering.

And when it came to suffering that was the result of torment caused by fellow human beings, that tears Carson apart.

I stepped forward and placed my hand on Carson's shoulder. " You did all you could for him," I said. " At least you could give him pain medication. That's something."

Carson nodded. Maybe my words helped, maybe they were empty. I would like to think they helped.

Teyla rose from her seat on the floor against the wall. " Can we see him?" she asked.

Again, Carson nodded. " Aye. But you may not like what ya see."

He led the way into the infirmary and on back to the area deemed the isolation room for its observation window and ability to be made into a clean room. Sheppard was lying on the bed with a sheet pulled up to his waist, surrounded by machines, and looking worse than when we found him. An oxygen mask covered most of his face, a face vividly colored in bruises of various shades. The whole left side of his body was splashed in an array of dark bruising that ended where the exposed red flesh began. A nurse – and I couldn't tell if they were male or female in all that gear – was gently, methodically, cleaning the burns, being extra cautious around the blisters so they wouldn't break. Sheppard's breathing was rapid and shallow, and the heart monitor was beeping rapidly. I pointed at the nurse.

" Are you sure the happy juice is kicking in? Because it looks like your lackey's hurting him."

" It's the fever, Rodney," Carson calmly explained. " At the moment it's extremely high. We've had to lower the temperature in the room considerably."

And sweat still poured down Sheppard's face and body.

My gosh. He looked so damn helpless, so... so... small, breakable. It's not like he was incredibly emaciated or anything, because he wasn't. Just... thinner. I could see the outline of his ribcage, and his sternum, in his skin. I mean it's not like they couldn't be seen before. I've seen more than I care to of John's upper body during post mission checks and medical emergencies (and, to my chagrin, occasional glimpses of his lower body during the bigger medical mishaps, which is really something I had hoped never to see and hope to never have to see again. That's just going too damn far in terms of friendship. Why I'm always the one volunteered to help take care of Sheppard when he's sick...)

Anyways. Sheppard's a lean guy, all muscle and bone with very little – if any - fat in between. There's always mild visibility of his ribs, just never like it is now. Too vivid, if you ask me, and a little less muscle. John's not going to like that when he wakes up.

If he even has the means to care when he wakes up. Being dumped with more torture after only just surviving previous torture wasn't going to do any favors with his psyche.

I glanced at my coworkers and fellow team mates. Weir and Teyla were in tears and trying to fight it. Ronon looked, as usual, pissed with nothing he could do about it. We just watched as Sheppard struggled to breathe and sweat himself dry.

sssssssssssssssssssssssssss

I am a man of two minds. One mind wants to me to tuck away in the lab and never come out until Sheppard is healthy and talking again. The other half tells the first to 'stuff it you selfish bastard' and drags my reluctant carcass to the infirmary, day in and day out. And for what? To observe the various stages of a comatose patient. Step one is sleeping and that's the only step there is. They had him wrapped up like a half-finished mummy with bandages around his torso and covering his arm from shoulder to fingertips. His ankle was in a cast, floating in traction to reduce the swelling. A nurse was in there each day to change the bandages, apply ointments, and re-mummify half of the formerly cocky pilot. The rest of John's treatment involved a lot of dietary supplementing – vitamins A, B, and C with a little K on the side and a lot of minerals with names I didn't recall. Okay, I remember Carson mentioning something about copper and zinc because I thought it sounded weird, but the rest I quickly forgot. The only plus to all this was that Carson didn't think any skin grafting was necessary.

There would be scarring, though. Carson's hope in reducing that was the use of a concoction made of aloe, various plant extracts that sounded more appropriately placed in a witch's cauldron, and a plant discovered on the mainland being used by Teyla's people for burns and rashes. After my brief rant concerning FDA approval, Carson had assured me the effectiveness of the home-brew by showing me a recent burn he had sustained that was barely there any more, the only sign of it a vague scar that would be hard to see at a distance. At the immediate moment, the only real concern was the fever.

So Sheppard's losing another large chunk of his life to a fever. One week, almost exactly. The only time he awoke was when the fever hit a high note and he was delirious. It never got to a point where Carson was rolling in the crash cart, but it had come to some pretty scary moments at times, including a short stint in which John had to have a tube shoved down his throat to help him breathe. Now that's hard to see, like a physical testament to Sheppard getting physically worse. But watch I did. I guess it's only fair that if he has to suffer the worst of it, he doesn't suffer alone. Yeah, I wasn't burned with a tube shoved in my throat, but I always had a feeling that the emotional pain was probably on the level with whatever physical pain John was going through, which was why a part of me wanted so badly to avoid it. Except to do that meant enduring the pain of guilt. Just pain all around until Sheppard's pain had passed.

It kept us there for him, which was all we could do for him.

When week two started creeping in, John's fever broke. He was out of that particular woods, and would have to trudge through a whole other forest when he woke up. No one addressed it out loud while Sheppard was under, but I've seen Heightmeyer doing a lot of discussing with Carson lately.

John was moved from isolation back into the populated area of the infirmary for easier access by the medical staff. There was an unspoken schedule with our team when it came to taking up the bedside vigil. So there was always someone with John for when he decided to wake up. The thought of him waking up alone doesn't sit well with any of us. Sheppard sleeps, and we watch. The lesser bruises begin to fade but the meaner marks are persistent about staying.

The second week draws to a close, and the schedule favors me to be the one around when Sheppard awakes.

Oh, and I'm being sarcastic, by the way.

I'm sitting in my usual spot, working on a theorem that would allow us to use the ZedPM to open a gate to earth without draining too much of the thing's power – no luck yet – when the heart monitor changes rhythm. I look up to see John's eye-lids flutter, then open to a centimeter slit. I rise so fast I nearly drop my laptop.

" Carson! He's waking up!"

Carson rushes in, and I instinctively step aside before he runs me down. He whips out his stethoscope and warms the end in his hand before sticking it to John's bare upper chest.

" John, can ya hear me son? Can ya open your eyes for me?"

John blinks incomprehensibly and moans. The heart monitor is picking up even more speed, and John's head starts fidgeting back and forth. He's trying to get his bearings, figure out where he is, and by the confused look in his eyes gradually succumbing to fear, he has no idea where the hell he is. His breathing goes from easy going to rapid, and his arm squirms trying to push himself upright.

" No," he mutters in a dry, breathy, barely discernible, defiant yet terrified whimper. " Wha...? No... no, no, no, leave me alone..."

Carson removes the stethoscope. " John." And makes the mistake of placing his hand on John's shoulder. John yelps, squeaky and sudden, and jerks his body to the side in an attempt to get away. Carson calls for back up and I have no choice but to step aside as several nurses and Carson try to hold John down without making his injuries any worse. John starts screaming, but it couldn't really be called a scream, more like a dry wheeze. His voice still isn't at where it should be, and probably won't be for another while still the way he keeps abusing it. For some reason, I find the silent scream more sickening than a loud one, as though someone had muted him for the convenience of everyone else's ears.

Carson injects something into John's I.V., and within moments Sheppard's back in la-la land. It mustn't been all that pleasant of a place, though. His features are tight with pain.

ssssssssssssssssssssssss

A day later, and the next time I come to see Sheppard, he's awake. Sort of. Well, he's sitting up, with the head of the bed raised and two pillows behind him to straighten him out a little further. The blankets are pulled up stopping a little below his chest, and he's still without a scrub top for easier access to all the bandages.

He's also sufficiently doped to the tips of his chaotic hair. He can barely keep his eyes open, his head up, and it's making me nervous concerning him pitching forward – or sideways off the bed – some time soon. I pick up speed to get to him before it happens, only to have Carson practically come out of nowhere and beat me to it. Except there's nothing to beat me to. John stays upright and Carson brings the tray around to set down a steaming mug with a straw.

" All right, Colonel. Let's see how ya handle a bit of broth. No over doin' it, though. If ya can't finish it, that's quite all right."

Carson checks the various machines attached to Sheppard then his vitals before dealing with feeding Sheppard, giving it a moment to cool. When the mother henning was passed, Carson lifts the mug to put the straw within easy reach of Sheppard's mouth. Sheppard doesn't seem to notice. His gaze isn't just tired, it's blank, like no one's home in that skull of his. Yet Carson keeps the mug hovering near John's face. Either the presence of the mug registered and his brain recalled the little annoying need known as hunger, or registered the mug as an annoyance to hurry up and get out of the way. Whatever. John opens his mouth, Carson moves the straw into position, and Sheppard drinks. I honestly hope the broth has cooled, because I was pretty sure Sheppard wasn't registering between cold and scorching hot.

" That's it lad," Carson praises.

Yes, that's a good little Sheppard. Such a good boy drinking up his soup. Okay, so I exaggerate the babying of Sheppard in my mind. The real world care-taking makes me shudder sometimes. He's a military leader, for crying out loud, not a freakin' five year old!

Except, of course, when he's acting like a vegetable. Sheppard looks horrible. Still bruised, white as a corpse, and slightly thinner than when we brought him in. His bandaged arm is in a sling, and most of his chest is wrapped almost all the way to the collarbones. Even as a half complete mummy, I think he would have easily cleaned up at several Halloween costume contests.

I finally close the rest of the distance between me and Sheppard's bed to stand next to Carson.

" I'm afraid to ask. " I say. " How long before he gets his voice back?"

" Not for a bit, I'm afraid," Carson replies. " He's really done a number on his vocal cords and his last wake up only set things back for him."

Sheppard doesn't last long with the broth, and pulls his head away when done. Carson sets the soup aside on a rolling tray and moves the bed tray out of the way.

My next question was the one I was really afraid of. " Has he... uh... responded at all? In anyway? Looked at you, nodded...?"

The muscles in Carson's forehead bunch together. And Sheppard thought he had the puppy-dog look down. Crap! You know not to give into relief when Carson's looking like that.

" I'll be frank with ya, Rodney. Even if he had his voice back, I doubt he'd be usin' it right now. Now, mind you I might be worryin' prematurely. I've got him on quite a few meds that are makin' him a mite loopy." Carson sighs heavily, and stuffs his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. " Except he's usually smilin' like a drunkard by now. Whatever those people did to him has left him a right bloody mess. And with it bein' so soon after what Koyla did, I don't see him comin' out of this grinnin' and goofin' like he usually does."

I fold my own arms across my chest. " Oh, I don't know about that. I can see him grinning but not because he's happy." Then I lean in a little. " Ya hear that Sheppard? You're only proving my point that you are and always have been a complete basket case."

Sheppard moves, almost imperceptibly but I was studying him hard enough to notice it. His head twitches, and his body lists an inch sideways, away from me. It was a sign, but not really a good one. I'd caught the momentary spark of unease in his eyes, a flash of fear there then gone when the shutters slammed back down, coating his eyes in a nice glaze. Then Carson's hand is on my shoulder, pulling me back some.

" Rodney, don't," he says, harsh and flat, admonishing me and not too kindly. The look he gives me isn't even close to rage, but it still makes me wither. I'd done something to upset his patient, and he wasn't going to have it. It was a momentary visualization that let up a little as Carson came to realize that I had no idea what I'd just done.

Carson exhales slowly. " There's still a wee bit of disorientation, I think. He startles easily, mostly when there's shouting or you raise your voice. And when ya come near him, ya need to be sure ya come within his range of sight. I about bloody sent him into cardiac arrest this morning when I walked up while he had his head turned."

Lovely, wonderful, splendid. A nervous Sheppard was no big deal when he was weak as a newborn pup, but give him a couple of days and next thing you know he has you in a headlock just because you cleared your throat a little too loud. The man wasn't a coward. He was human, got scared now and then, but the flight response wasn't even in his realm of conscious unless it involved helicopters and puddle jumpers. Sheppard was all fight; tooth and nail, 'if I'm going down the bad guy's going with me', no questions asked fight. And was definitely the type willing to die trying.

I tended to envy that about him since I was the type that considered flight way, way, way before fight. When it came to the soldiers and warriors, I swear that was the first thing they noticed about me. I don't know if Sheppard did, though. The first day we met he was a little preoccupied with the fact that he'd been sitting in an alien chair and had just activated it. I'd been preoccupied with what I was seeing, which was why when I tried to find Sheppard later that day, I couldn't. I hadn't been paying much attention to what he'd looked like. The only feature I had recalled was the hair, but that hadn't made the search go any smoother.

The reason why I wonder if he'd notice my immediate aversion to any kind of danger was because on the day he asked me to be on his team and I said yes, he pulled me to the firing range and taught me how to use a nine-mil. I thought he was making a statement at my expense, so I asked him why we had to do this now rather than tomorrow or something.

He'd shrugged, ever so nonchalantly. " Now usually trumps later. For all we know, I'll need you to cover my back tomorrow."

It had been a statement; that under no circumstances did he expect me to run, yet in a tone that said he didn't actually believe I would run. I've heard the other teams grumble about the scientists they had to drag along. But I've never heard Sheppard complain with them, and I was supposed to be the worst to have around. I've heard that talk too.

I know Sheppard doesn't think me a coward. I just wish I didn't think me a coward. It would be nice to skip the flight and go straight to the fight rather than hesitate as I pondered over the matter. I'm getting better at it, though. Maybe at the wrong times, but the fact that I've saved Sheppard numerous times shows marked improvement.

Snapping back to the present now... Carson picks up the half-empty mug (which wasn't that full to begin with), and turns to leave.

" Could ya do me a favor Rodney – not that I have ta ask – and stay with the Colonel for a wee bit?"

I wave dismissively. " Yeah, yeah. Go do your voodoo Carson."

Carson grumbles something about sticking me with a catheter the next time he hears me say that. With Carson gone, I was left in an awkward position with a high-strung vegetable capable of killing me in one move should he be so inclined. Not that I was really concerned that would happen, I just liked to remind myself of the possibility in order to keep my mouth in check.

I unfold my arms to place my hands in the pockets of my jacket, and begin rocking back and forth from heel to toe. Sheppard continues to stare off into space, and space seems to be boring him.

Bored. Huh. Maybe he was just bored already.

I pull my hand from my pocket, snap my fingers, and point at John. " You need preoccupation."

There was a crate on one of the metal supply shelves full of books and magazines tossed in there by nurses and other personnel for future use by those unfortunate enough to be stuck in the infirmary long term. Unfortunates like Sheppard. It wasn't full enough to have to lug and kill my back in the process, so I head over and pull it from the shelf to carry it back over to Sheppard's bed. I maneuver the tray to hover over his lap and set the small crate on top.

" All right, Colonel. Take your pick." I begin rummaging through it. " We've got... A whole lotta crap. Cosmo, GQ, Good House Keeping (who the hell brings that to another galaxy?) Entertainment Weekly from last year, Some, uh, romance novels of questionable taste..."

Maybe it was all the bright colors of the books and magazines, but the crate had actually manages to pull Sheppard's attention out of space and back onto the planet. He blinks, and leans forward with an almost timid, child-like interest. He peers into the crate as I continue to rummage, pulling paperbacks and more copies of Good House Keeping to see what caught his fancy.

Sheppard's good hand rises shakily and reaches inside. He grabs something in his weak grip with the intent to pull it out, drops it, and tries again. Finally, I simply grab it for him. His prize? A coloring book. A thick, manual sized coloring book with bent corners and cute cartoon animals with big, goofy eyes on the front. The title says All Kinds of Animals. I flip through it. Like the title says, it was a book of uncolored cartoon animals from around the world. It could have been worse. It could have been a Barney coloring book, or My Little Pony or something like that. GI Joe would have made a hell of a lot more sense for the thing to have peaked Sheppard's interest.

Of course I could scrounge no explanation for why the adult man would go for a coloring book, except to say that this was Sheppard. He only made sense during life and death situations. The rest of the time it was all up for grabs.

I flip the book around for Sheppard to get a better look.

" You want this?"

Sheppard studies it for a moment, actually contemplating it, then reaches out with his trembling hand to take it. I don't let him yet. I pull it back, move the crate, then slap the book down. He moves his hand slowly to the book, and just as slowly, almost carefully, opens it.

" That's not what I would call an entertaining read," I say. I wanted to make some comment about those with low I.Q.s finding low I.Q. reading material more attractive, but I couldn't. For one, I was forever forced to grudgingly acknowledge that Sheppard did not have a low I.Q. thanks to his Mensa confession. For another, there was no pleasure in making fun of someone in his current state. I just hope this wasn't a sign of some sort of brain damage or possible, permanent, insanity. Or maybe he was just messing with me. I didn't hold it passed him.

I also couldn't tell. His vacant look of interest seems a little too legit for comfort. But, hey, at least he was acknowledging something.

I decide to just go along with it, and begin wandering about the infirmary getting strange looks from the nurses when I ask for some crayons. Then an older nurse, Florence I think, says she's requested a couple of boxes of crayons to keep around for any Athosian children that might be brought in. The concept of coloring, as it turned out, was a universal one. Most of the boxes had been warn to nubs. But there was one last fresh box, one of those large ones with like two hundred colors and a crayon sharpener in the back. Crayola really knew how to stretch the prismatic world. There's a freakin' color called Razzmatazz. Kind of pinkish/purpleish... yeah, basically yet another shade of purple/red.

I bring the crayons to Sheppard and set them on the tray. He looks at the crayons, still vacant, then back to the book. His convulsing limb rises up, hovers over the box, then pulls out Robin's eggshell blue. He then hunches over the book and gradually, even dreamily, begins coloring. He doesn't appear any happier, but he does seem calmer, and a hell of a lot less tense.

And I thought he looked younger when he was asleep. He looks positively innocent pouring his focus into that children's book. Innocent and even more fragile than when he was just sitting there staring off into space. Maybe it's because of the dark bruises on his back around the shoulders, or the way the upper part of his backbone protrudes just below the neck. It was kind of sad, really. I mean it's always sad when Sheppard gets hurt, but we don't usually pay attention to the sad when we're too busy being scared out of our mind over whether or not he's going to make it. His mental state afterwards usually determines whether to be sad, still worried, or annoyed. Usually, it was worried and annoyed.

Today, right here and right now, it was all about the sad. How could someone do this to him? He's a soldier, yes, I know, and bad things happen to soldiers. But, crap, they're still human. They're still someone's son, someone's brother, cousin, father... friend. I don't know squat about Sheppard's family so I won't speak for them. I will speak for the people here, though; people who care about him just like family. He's important, to us, and someone had attempted to take him away from us for a few damn questions and for kicks. They'd beat him, burned him and left him to die... Why! For what possible ignorant, selfish, idiot damn reason would they have to do that! Because he fought? He fought to protect us, and he fought to live.

Thinking about it made my chest ache. Watching him, weak and helpless on a hospital bed, coloring carefully in a children's coloring book for reasons I didn't understand, made my eyes burn and blur. Crying. I've never reached that point before. I've gotten emotional enough to be more pissed than usual, but I never hit the high point of crying. Probably because crying was pity, and Sheppard hated pity.

This wasn't pity, though. More like a kind of mourning, really, for the good guys. Sheppard could say what he wanted to about himself, but he was the epitome of the good guy. Save women, save children, save friends and save your men, even if you have to sacrifice yourself to do so. And boy has Sheppard nearly sacrificed himself too many times to count. All for us, for this expedition and for his team no matter what galaxy they come from. 'Leave no man behind' isn't just some diatribe he likes to spew like a motto. He lives, and nearly dies, by it.

So when the bad guys beat, burn, maim, and break Sheppard down – turn him fragile, helpless, frightened and laugh at him for it – it hurts. It hurts so bad you want to hurt the ones who did this in return. Except you can't, so it leaves you feeling just as helpless, and all you can do is cry.

I said it once before, but I will say it again and forever after. Sheppard does – not – deserve – this.

A nurse comes over pushing a tray of sterile bandages and ointments. She looks at Sheppard coloring, then looks at me inquisitively.

I simply shrug. " He was bored."

The nurse shrugs in return, and sets about removing the old bandages. The sight of the blood-red burns drives home my musings, and I look down pretending to scratch my eye in order to hide the fact that I was wiping my tears. She cleans the burns, applies ointments, then rewraps his chest and arm. All the while Sheppard keeps on coloring. When done, she pulls the covers further up toward his chest, then drapes another blanket around his shoulders. I hadn't considered that he might be cold, which is rather stupid of me. He's shirtless and skinny as a twig. Of course he's cold.

Beckett returns after that, so I leave the Scottish doctor to try and fathom Sheppard's sudden artistic interest. My thoughts turn to lunch. First, however, I need some place private to be. My eyes kept watering. Damn allergies.

ssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss

I've created a monster. A five year old monster possessing Sheppard's body. The next time I visit Sheppard, he is up, laying back in the bed against a mound of pillows, with a blanket around his shoulders and the tray over his lap with the coloring book and crayons on top. He's coloring away eight, maybe ten, pages in.

My immediate reaction on seeing this was to feel affronted. He's doing this on purpose. He had this planned. He's not insane, he's just being a bastard, stifling the boredom by doing something so completely pointless and crazy just to see how long it takes to annoy me. It's usually my reaction to a lot of what Sheppard does, and I usually just go with it. I stalk up to his bed with the intent of giving him an earful concerning the pathetic attempt of using immature mind-games against me... when he looks at me.

And let me tell you, I didn't stop because I was bursting out the seams with joy. I was quite thoroughly spooked, enough to take a step back. Sheppard's expression was one of wariness, and warning, kind of like on those nature shows with the panther crouched before its kill, pausing to look up and glare daggers at the passing documentary crew. Yeah, kind of like that.

Scarier, actually, on that colorless, corpse-like face. And I know then, right then, that this isn't a game, since usually by now he's grinning like a drunk Cheshire cat and telling me to lighten up. There's a subtle difference I've come to discern between the mock glares and the sincere ones. The facade is like a clay mask, and develops cracks right before it slips. You usually snag the humor in the eyes before it manifests on the face. The true look goes deeper. It starts in the eyes, and burns outward, morphing John's features with lines of tension, or sometimes into something utterly unreadable, forcing you to look in his eyes to realize that what you're seeing is very, very dangerous. Ronon wears a lot of looks like that, but you get used to them. Not with Sheppard, though. He's always so damn nonchalant that you never see the shift coming. His mood changes are a weapon unto themselves, blowing you out of the water when they come. And the deeper they go, the bigger the blast.

Sheppard isn't pissed at the moment, he's being protective. His hand slides under the cover of the book, preparing to close it if I came any nearer. Body language in its finest hour. Sheppard didn't want me to see what he was doing.

So I hold my hands up innocently. " I'm not going to look," I say.

That seems to satisfy him, and he moves his hand away. He continues coloring in the deliberate manner forced on him by weakness. The wariness melts from him, leaving behind a kind of dreamy, vacant weariness like what I saw the other day. I just stand there watching him in dumb perplexity until Carson finally comes up beside me, hands in lab coat pockets and his head shaking.

" The nurses tell me this is your doin'," he says.

" Hey, I was just trying to find him a magazine full of pretty pictures to look at. Don't blame me that the perpetual child went for what struck his fancy first." Now I'm the one shaking my head. " Is this a joke? Seriously. Is he just messing with us?"

Carson pulls his hands from his pockets to fold in front of his chest, and shrugs. " I can't really say. Kate doesn't think so."

I look at Carson. " Heightmeyer was here? She get any leeway or was it cold shoulder and nasty looks all the way?"

" Actually, so long as she didn't try ta take a peek at what Sheppard was coloring, he was quite receptive to her. She asked him some basic yes or no questions, and he either nodded yes or no. She says it's not uncommon for even someone as closed as Colonel Sheppard to be more responsive when distracted by some mundane activity such as coloring. Although she also says it's a therapy used mostly with children. But it has its merits for traumatized patients as well."

I gesture one handed toward Sheppard. " So his little regression into toddler-hood is actually therapeutic?"

Carson shoots me a scathing look. " He hasn't regressed, Rodney. According to Kate he's still in a bloody deep amount of shock. The pain and starvation, not to mention the sleep deprivation caused by both... Coloring is relaxing him, that's all there is to it. It's something to preoccupy his mind, keep it from wandering to... uh... past events."

Leave it to a head doctor and a regular doctor to make something as ridiculous as a grown man coloring into something deep, profound, and dead-serious. Although the supposed diagnosis did force me to take a step back – observation wise, I mean. As I stand there, watching Sheppard's face as he colors, it dawns on me that the vacant look wasn't quite so vacant. There came, briefly and spontaneously, small furrows in his brow or temporary squints of concentration. When he was finished with one color, he shoved it back into the box, and took his time to sift through the prismatic collection for a specific color rather than just grabbing whatever came into contact with his fingers.

Between the bouts of concentration, he did look at peace, still innocent if a trifle sad. And I felt bad for thinking this some kind of joke at my expense.

" Oh, and whatever you do," Carson says, " don't try and take it from him. If ya have to, do it when he's asleep, and leave it and the crayons on the bedside table. Not that he tries ta go ballistic on ya when ya do, but the look on his face damn well broke my heart. The way he stares at it, and keeps tryin' to get it back..." Carson shakes his head, again, and finally approaches Sheppard's bedside. I get a glimpse of what Carson was talking about. Sheppard doesn't look up. He does stop coloring, and moves his hand below the cover to close it as Carson places on his stethoscope and puts the other end to John's bandaged chest. After Carson completes the vitals check and steps away, John opens the book and resumes coloring.

Well, at least I can find solace in the fact that it isn't anything personal.

But it still remains an oddity. The next day I come, and the next, he's still coloring in that book, never letting anyone see his work. That thing has become his freakin' comfort blanket. During the vitals checks or the changing of the bandages, Sheppard always keeps his good hand on top of the book as though someone might actually take it. When he's lifted from the bed to be wheeled into X-ray or where ever, he takes it with him, clutching it tightly to his chest, his skinny body nearly curled protectively over it (or he could just be massively slouching). When Teyla and Ronon come into to visit, Teyla says nothing of it, and Ronon gives Sheppard odd, uncomfortable looks, as though Sheppard has just sprouted blue feathers and Ronon's the only one who sees it.

And of course, no one dares try to take the book away. I want to. I don't know why I want to. I try to tell myself it's because Sheppard looks ridiculous coloring in a coloring book. People are going to make fun of him, use this against him. It'll be noted down in his psyche record and be the final straw to break the SGC's back and have him hauled to earth and into his own private, padded room.

Want to know the truth? I think I'm jealous of that book. Sheppard's my friend. I'm the one he should feel comfortable around. I'm the one who should be providing some kind of comfort, not some stupid kid's book. Except... I know that I suck at that kind of stuff. Hell, half the time it's the reason I'm usually the first to get herded out of the infirmary when the visits become 'too much' for Sheppard. Still, you'd think of all people, I'd be the one he was okay with seeing his coloring capabilities.

I sometimes think taking the book will finally knock some sense into Sheppard. Until one day when I'm finally the one to witness the aftermath of what happens when the book is taken. I walk in just in time to see it. A nurse, young, plump, somewhat pretty and fresh off the Daedalus so totally clueless, is tending to Sheppard. He has the book closed, staring down at it as he waits for the nurse to go about cleaning the burns on his side. She has a cart with the soap, sponge, and ointments beside her, and is already unwrapping the bandages.

Then she moves around the bed... and takes the book. Or tries to. Sheppard's hand presses down on it, trying to hold it, but he's not strong enough.

" Come on, Colonel Sheppard," the nurse coaxes, sickeningly sweet, as though John really were five, or mentally handicap. she's not going to last long around here. " I'm just going to move it out of the way so it doesn't get wet. It won't be for long." I half expected her to call him sweety.

She tugs harder, and the book slips free, John's hand slapping down on the tray. The expression on his face is pretty much one of total panic. His breathing increases, and his face – impossible though it should have been – goes as white as the bed sheets. The nurse doesn't set the book on the table where John can get it, she sets it on the bed next to Sheppard's. Sheppard then proceeds to shakily start moving out of bed to retrieve his precious.

" Colonel!" the nurse yelps. She's trying to push him back into the bed, and can't avoid placing her hands where it doesn't hurt. Sheppard's face twists with a painful grimace but he keeps on trying.

I can't take it any more. I hurry over, grab the book, and hold it up while facing John.

" Back in bed or the book gets it."

Sheppard's eyes, already round, widen, and he struggles to get his weakened body back into bed. The nurse helps, and the moment he's settled, I give him the book. His hand shakes when he takes it, barely bringing it over the rail to drop onto the bed. He shoves the book beneath the pillow hill with his elbow, and visibly melts in exhausted relief that has him trembling and slouched.

I scowl at the nurse who's moved back to the other side of the bed.

" Never take the book," I say.

Gaping, she can only nod.

She's learned her lesson, and so have I, though I still abhor the damn thing.

ssssssssssssssssssssss

Stupid book. But I can't really hate it, not if it's helping Sheppard. And to my amazement and chagrin, it is.

It's rather hard to have private sessions with Kate in the infirmary. I walk in during a session, not to visit with Sheppard, but because I cut my finger and need to make sure it doesn't get infected. Right now I don't even know if it's still bleeding being wrapped in so many tissues, but I'm a man who doesn't take chances with his health.

A nurse tends to my... um... medical dilemma. That young, fresh arrival that had dared to take Sheppard's book. She has me sitting on a gurney as she goes to fetch some disinfectant. I'm not out of earshot of the session, and I can see it out of the corner of my eye. Either Kate's too absorbed in the session to notice me, or it doesn't matter that there's kind of an audience. Probably the latter. For the most part, the questions are more 'what happened' than 'how does it make you feel?'

" Did they use you to test experimental medicines?" she asks.

Sheppard, hunched over his book opened to the middle and coloring away, nods.

" The scientists?"

Another nod.

" And the soldiers, the guards, did they interrogate you?"

Nod again.

" Did they use drugs as well?"

Nod.

" Did they want to know how to come to Atlantis?"

A negative shake of the head.

" Did they... Want to know who you were? Who we are? Did they see our people as a threat?"

A shrug, then a nod.

" They also... beat you?"

A nod.

" While drugged?"

A nod.

" That must have been quite frustrating for you, being subdued in such a way. Was it?"

Another nod.

" Perhaps... a little scary at times?"

Sheppard shrugs. I can hear the crayon as it moves over the paper, and moving a little faster.

" I'm told they did more than beat you. They denied you food. Sometimes... They hurt you for no reason?"

Sheppard pauses in his coloring for a moment, then nods and resumes.

" Someone tried to help you though?"

Another nod. I move my head a little, just to get Sheppard more into my sights. He was pressing the crayon hard into the page, and even from where I sit I notice the small tremors in his movements and the quaking in his shoulders.

" Did they? Sometimes?"

Sheppard nods, and I see the muscles in his throat contract in a swallow.

" But not when the chemical was used. Not when you were burned. We were told... You couldn't be helped..."

The crayon – red by the look – snaps in two under the pressure. Sheppard's hand remains poised in coloring, until it slides forward, dropping the crayon so his fingers can curl around the edge of the book and hold onto it.

" I can't imagine the pain," Kate says, " and I know you can't describe it to me..."

It strikes me suddenly as wrong that Kate should be poking around Sheppard's head with Sheppard denied the means to be able to speak back, to lash out, to end things on his terms when it got to be too much. And I see, shimmering in his eyes, the beginnings of tears. His face is blank, his eyes devoid, so I can't tell if the tears are from frustration at not being able to speak, or because he's being forced to relive something he would normally stuff away into an already overflowing closet.

" I also know you'd rather not describe it, or think about it, so don't. When your voice comes back, and when you're ready to talk, then we'll talk. We won't push you, John. You've helped me clarify what needed to be known, and you've taken the first step in acknowledging what happened. So we'll leave it at that for today. All you need to think about now is that you're home, safe, with the people who care about you..."

" Dr. McKay?"

I snap my head around, startled, to look at the young nurse. She smiles at me, and lifts my hand to show me my now bandaged finger.

" All done."

I nod my thanks and slide off the gurney. When I turn to head out, Kate is gone, and Sheppard has resumed coloring.

sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss

The mend cometh. Sheppard's trek toward health is at a crawl, but at least it's a crawl that's getting him somewhere. There's been setbacks, a few returns of the fever, but like a rain storm compared to the hurricane that had tried to kill him. He's moving from liquid foods to solids, eating toast and drinking health shakes, stuffing his body full of nutrients, though not really any fat as of yet. It always takes Sheppard a damn eternity to get back to what's considered a healthy weight. Mostly because of setbacks, like fevers popping up out of nowhere, and nightmares waking him screaming in the night then puking on the floor in the dark for everyone to slip on. I fell asleep in the infirmary one day, keeping him company, then nearly toppling from the bed when I hear the crash of the bed rails. The screams are nothing more then strangled, hoarse, wheezing that hurts my lungs just to hear. I don't think I need to tell you, he hasn't got his voice back.

The second time I was present, he did more than attempt to scream. Again I hear the rattle of the bed rails that snap me awake, to see Sheppard thrashing and hear the heart monitor go at a rate that I'm pretty sure is supposed to be impossible. I stumble from the bed and rush to his side. I take the book and place it in his arm. He presses the book to his side, enough to free up his hand so that it grabs the sleeve of my upper arm.

And he makes eye contact, with me. I can see the whites in the dusky infirmary. My sleeve pulls against my shoulder as Sheppard pulls on my sleeve trying to haul himself up.

" M-McKay?" He tries to say my name loud, but like his scream it's nothing more than a cracked wheeze, kind of like the sound a broken kudzu makes.

Instead of trying to push him back down, I kneel and pull his hand off my sleeve to take it in my own, and slide my arm across his back, just below his neck, to help support him. Touchy feely I'm not, but I've learned to get passed it for the time when Sheppard needed some kind of physical contact to help ground him.

" Yeah. Yeah, Sheppard, it's me, I'm here," I say.

Sheppard blinks and squints incomprehensibly for a moment, as though he can't see me, or isn't quite sure if what he's seeing is true. His backbone's digging into my arm, and I can feel him trembling.

" You... Right?"

I almost laugh, but manage to tone it down to an idiotic grin. " Yeah, I'm good. We're all good. Everyone's good. We're all just worried about you, as usual."

I swear I can feel the tension draining out of him. His weight increases against my arm as his eyelids droop, his breathing steadies, and the heart monitor descends. He sags back onto the pillow, and I pull my arm out from under his back, my wrist likely to form a bruise caused by his knobby backbone trying to poke out of his skin. I also lay his hand on his chest, and his fingers work to rub the area over his sternum.

" It... Hurt, McKay," he rasps. I have to lean in close to hear him.

" Huh?"

" It... hurt. Hurt... so... much."

And I can't say if he's talking about the burn, or when the wraith fed on him, or even both. But I see moisture shimmering in his eyes, and see his chest jerk in a caught breath.

" Hurt..." his eyes slide close and his head sags to one side. I try to take the book from him, but he tightens his hold, so I let him keep it. I pull the covers up over his chest and arms. When I turn, a nurse is there, asking questions with a worried look rather than her voice. I smile at her.

It's all good. And I head back to my own bed – infirmary bed. I'm not leaving Sheppard to another nightmare if I can help it.

Thing is, he doesn't wake up again for the rest of the night.

sssssssssssssssssssss

Sheppard's moving around on his own. His broken ankle wasn't so much a break as a crack that didn't take as long to heal as an actual break. The cast has been traded in for some kind of a boot thing that gives Sheppard the use of his legs without the need of a crutch. He takes shuffling, gimping steps with the support of two nurses, or Carson and Ronon, or Carson and me. And because the nightmares have been fewer, his voice has started to regain strength.

Walking and talking – you'd think he was being forced through infancy again. And kind of like an infant entering the terrible twos, walking and talking isn't necessarily a good thing. Around the time Sheppard regains mobility, he becomes the instigator of hell descending on the innocent staff of the infirmary.

But now there is an exception. The coloring book has gone from an oddity, to a help, to a freakin' blessing. Sheppard still preoccupies himself with coloring, and still with the same meticulous care as when he was immobile. He still hides his work, and still tries to snatch it back when someone tries to take it.

Yet he never talks about it.

Talking is kept to a minimum to allow his voice to heal. Most of the time he uses paper and his crayons, or a laptop when he has to say more than three words. He's also smiling more. Kind of timidly, as though he's forgotten how to smile and is trying to relearn. But, hey, at least he's trying. He's also making the occasional joke, and perks at the arrival of visitors, looking up from his book to greet them with a glance. He never stops coloring, though. He'll nod, shake his head, pause to type responses, just never stop.

And what if you ask him about the coloring? Well, you don't, actually, unless you want to see the smile fade and have him clam up. If you try to take a peek at what he's coloring, he shields it with his body rather than closes it, so it's best to keep enough distance to avoid accidental observation.

Oh, and he takes the damn thing everywhere. With coherency, eating, and mobility come trips out of the infirmary. Sometimes to the balcony for him to soak up some sun and get a little color into his sunken cheeks. Mostly to the rec room for movies. And the book's always there, tucked under his arm or held against his chest.

Watching movies brings a bigger smile to his face. A more Sheppard smile; lopsided, and even a little cocky as he indulges and I suffer through all three Back the Future Flicks, Monty Python, Austin Powers, Blazing Saddles, All six Star Wars (Sheppard had let Ronon pick that day) several episodes of the Simpsons and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Teyla's favorite).

The fourth movie outing, me and Ronon have him by the arms, with the book securely pressed between his upper arm and his ribs. When he walks, it's always at a shuffling, limping pace, and Teyla pushes the wheelchair behind us – just in case. Today, however, he makes it all the way to the rec room; panting, sweat dripping down his forehead, but on his own two feet. We set him down on the couch, and though he's sweating, we wrap a blanket around him. The sweat never lasts long, and the chills come fast. He brings the book around to hug it to his chest and shivers – point in case. Teyla wraps the blanket tighter, making sure there's no gaps for the air to creep in.

" So, what's the torture for today?" I ask him, flipping through DVDs stacked neatly on a metal shelf. " Young Frankenstein – again. Eric the Viking – again. Or – ah crap – Simpsons again?"

I glance over my shoulder at Sheppard. He's chewing his lip thoughtfully, and though I'm not even remotely religious, I still find myself begging some deity that he doesn't say Back to the Future. He lifts his head, his decision made, and I brace myself.

John looks at me, and grins. " You pick," he rasps. I would like to say the tension spilled out of me, but it had only been replaced by surprise.

" Me? Really?"

Sheppard, smiling wearily, nods.

I put the first Back to the Future copy down, scan the DVDs, and pick up Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn (a classic). I set the movie up, and plop down between Sheppard and Ronon, with Teyla on Sheppard's other side. She hands him a water bottle, and one pale, bony hand slips out from between the blankets to take it. He takes a few sips, then hands it back.

As the movie progresses, we share some popcorn – Ronon eating the majority of it and Sheppard taking pieces one at a time. Toward the end of the movie, I'm misty eyed as Spoc dies, Ronon's nodding his approval over Spoc's apparent bravery, Teyla's looking confused and keeps trying to ask what Spoc had just done to Dr. McCoy, and Sheppard's asleep with his head on Teyla's shoulder. And, no, he hadn't put it there himself. Teyla had moved his head to be on her shoulder since neither having it sagging forward nor craned back looked comfortable.

And there was that innocent, helpless look again. As the credits roll, we all just sit there, watching him. He'd find a way to seek revenge if he ever found out what we were doing. It was kind of hard not to watch, though. None of us want to wake him. Teyla and Ronon I could imagine contemplating how close they had been to losing him, the pain he'd gone through, and the desire to have arrived sooner to prevent that pain.

Me? I just wish Sheppard would stop looking so vulnerable, so fragile. He was neither. He looks like both, but beneath the pale, thin skin he isn't. Not even close. He's human, but stronger than most everyday humans. His body needed to reflect his soul. Yeah, I can be a little spiritual when the moment calls for it.

We don't have much of a choice after the credits end. Teyla moves her shoulder, and John lifts his head, blinking heavily. He doesn't protest when we move him into the wheelchair. He just clutches the book to his chest and enjoys the ride. I then realize that Sheppard hasn't been protesting much about anything. Carson fusses, we fuss, and he takes it without a word or even a scowl. When we get him back to the infirmary and help him into the bed, he keeps the book to his chest as he burrows into the mattress. He's asleep before Carson even pulls the covers up.

The box of crayons awaits Sheppard on the bedside table.

sssssssssssssssssssssss

He's still in a sling, but not longer in bandages. He's out of the infirmary and back in his room, back in his clothes, and closer to resuming his life. His voice is as it should be, though he's careful about how he uses it. He's still too thin, moves carefully, and favors his right side. He only comes out of his room to eat with us, sit out on the balcony, and watch movies in the rec room.

Oh, and to talk to Kate. Can you believe that? Talking to Kate, and on his own accord. Isn't that one of the signs of the Apocalypse? Boy oh boy, aren't we quite screwed.

And... He still colors – in the mess hall, the rec room, on the balcony, and I'd bet lab time and my scanner that he colors while talking to Kate. It's different though. No longer so much a means of occupying his mind, but a project he's out to complete.

Even as I sit across from him during lunch, he's leaning to the side, the book on a chair so I can't see, coloring. He pauses, closes the book, takes a bite of food, then goes back to coloring.

You still don't ask him about it. If you do, he won't answer, no matter how much you nag and prod and whine. You try to take it, and he moves it, or tucks it under his shirt, or sits on it. You can touch the crayons, just don't mess with the book.

" Make any new discoveries lately?" he asks as he colors.

" Nothing you'd understand."

" Try me."

I do. I tell him about a theorem, even go into details about it. The math seems to perk his interest, so I delve into that. I should have known better. I have to stop short to save my ego when he corrects three of my calculations. Damn his Mensa ways.

After I cut the conversation short, silence falls between us. Awkward for me but apparently nothing he can't handle. The sound of the crayon whispering across the paper starts to grate my nerves, and I disregard the unspoken rule.

I drop my fork onto my tray. " Do you really feel the need to color every page, Colonel? Can't you, like, do that in your room or something? In fact why are you still coloring it? You've got plenty to occupy your time now that you're beyond the confines of the infirmary. I mean, I know you probably have some profound reason to color cute little animals, but you're starting to freak people out..."

Oops. Seems, once again, my mouth ran away with my brain. I had just wanted him to stop coloring, not get him to evaluate his own sanity.

It works, though. He stops coloring. But I feel no pride or smugness. I feel like scum.

Sheppard doesn't look at me. He just stares down at his precious book, and I wonder if he's starting to come to realize what it must look like to have the military leader of Atlantis scribbling in a coloring book.

He then resumes coloring. " I just do."

I blink in surprise at that. He just answered me, about the book. Hadn't he?

" Just do what?"

" Color?"

" Why? Because you like to? Because it's fun? Because it's formed into an irreversible habit? Go ahead and pick one. I'll pretend to believe you."

" I'll let you know when I'm ready."

I pick up my fork to stab at the left over tuna casserole. " And when will that be?"

" When I feel like it."

I drop it after that. He's starting to get testy. Yet after a few moments of silence, he pauses again.

" I can't explain it," and he resumes. " I'll let you know when I can."

In other words, I'll never know.

ssssssssssssssssssssssss

He's out of the sling, but still favoring both his right side and his arm. He's started jogging again with Ronon, only for short periods of time. Physical therapy is helping him regain mobility in his arm, and there's a little more flesh covering his bones and especially the burn. He's regaining muscle, he's regaining strength, and he's smiling more. He's also getting back to being as annoying as he can be. The tit for tat has returned, and it feels good to banter again. You wouldn't think so, you would think a silent Sheppard a preferable Sheppard. But a silent Sheppard is an abnormal Sheppard. When the arguing returns, it means normalcy has returned, even though he's only been cleared for light duty.

And the body is starting to coincide with the soul.

Alls well that ends well, right? Ah, but what of the book?

Yeah, what of the book? I haven't seen him with it, and I'm a little disconcerted to find myself actually missing him with that book. Probably the only way I would grudgingly express that the blasted thing had been a comfort to him. When I ask him about it, he doesn't answer, and I don't nag. It's simply out of innocent curiosity that I ask, no longer with the obsession to know.

And I think that's why it bugged me so much. Not that he carried it around, not because it looked so ridiculous, but because it brought him comfort, and I wanted to know why. Now I never will.

Truthfully, it doesn't matter. The moment I stopped being selfish, demanding to know why the book was doing good, I became content just knowing that it had done good. Somehow, it had helped Sheppard find his way back to being Sheppard, and that's all that really matters.

Having my friend back.

ssssssssssssssssssssssss

As I walk with him from the mess hall, I talk, and he listens, despite the fact that he probably doesn't have a clue as to what I'm talking about. So I decide to change topics to something that might be of more interest, something we haven't done for a while.

" Oh. Major Lorne's team were able to dig up a pretty good haul of Ancient tech. Plenty for the activating if you're interested."

Sheppard, his hands in the pockets of his BDUs, smiles and shrugs. " Sure. Sounds cool as long as none of them tries to fry my brain."

" A little late for that," I mumble, just for the sake of verbal dueling.

Either he doesn't hear it or ignores it. " I'll drop by later tonight. I need to check in with Beckett then take the mandatory nap."

My eyes stray to his burned side hidden behind clothes and new, scarred skin. " That... um... your side still bothering you?"

" You mean the burns?" he replies. " They itch sometimes. Not so bad now." He's still retaining his smile, which is good, very good. Usually it falters when the burns are brought up.

I nod. " That's good to hear."

We remain silent as I go with him to the infirmary. I stop before the doors, and he continues. Yet when the doors open, he stops, turns, and clasps my shoulder with his formerly burned hand, the skin shiny with new flesh though still red, and the fingers stiff but mobile.

" You're a good friend, Rodney," he says. " You know that?" Then he continues on before I have a chance to respond. Which even if he'd waited I wouldn't have said anything back. I was at a loss for words.

Instead, I head to my own quarters, feeling both uplifted and a little shell-shocked by Sheppard's simple praise. The friendship thing has always been implied between us, the kind of implied where we never had to say it out right. It's nice to hear the words, I just never expected them to ever be said by him. Hell, by anyone for that matter, but especially by a demolition loving, fly-boy grunt.

I step into my room and glance at my bed.

Sheppard's coloring book is lying on it.

I step over to the bed, and stare down at it for several silent moments. Then I pick it up, hesitantly, almost reverently. It is Sheppard's precious, after all. I'm reluctant to open it, like opening someone's diary (although that never stopped me from getting into Jeannie's diary). It was a freakin' coloring book, not John's heart and soul poured into a rainbow array of words.

Spiting my reluctance, I open the thing, and flip through it page by page, furrowing my brow in confusion.

" What the hell?"

This book is proof – Sheppard is a basket case. He's colored the lion Razzmatazz and purple, gave the zebra rainbow stripes and a pair of sunglasses, colored the elephant pink (ha-ha). The dolphins he made red, white and blue, he gave the monkeys fuscha stripes, made the giraffe green and yellow, and somehow managed to make the bear look like Johnny Cash, with a black jacket and a sketched guitar in one paw. Next to the sky blue parrot was a helicopter sketch, and he gave the walrus swimming trunks.

Sheppard must have used every crayon in the collection, coloring every animal in an assortment of colors, patterns, and clothing styles. He drew apples in one tree, and lemons in another along with a sign that said 'Caution; People named Rodney must avoid this tree.' The sign was hanging from the beak of a blue, green, red, orange and ocher toucan.

As I flip, I ponder taking it to Heightmeyer and proving once and for all that Sheppard is nuts. But the more I flip, the more I find myself snickering. Some of what he did is hilarious. He'd drawn a stethoscope around a violet sheep's neck and wrote Beckett next to it. The Gorilla he gave dreadlocks and called it Ronon. He'd put spiky black hair on the eagle and wrote 'me' next to it.

One side of the eagle is colored red all the way down to its wing. Now that I get.

The rest I didn't. It was pure insanity, a blatant disregard for going with the norm. Beneath each animal was a description of what color that animal was supposed to be. The bear is black, the fox is red and white, so on and so forth in big blocky letters for kids just learning how to read.

Okay, that also made sense. You don't tell John Sheppard what to do. Ironic, I know. He's freakin' military, forced to submit to orders, and yet he despises being pushed around. Then again, don't most in the military end up in a position where they're the ones telling everyone else what to do? Of course I'm pretty certain that's not why John joined the Air Force. He did it to fly. That has to be the reason, or at least the main one. Maybe the other being it was the only option he had, or his father had been military. Career choices in some families I swear is hereditary.

I continue to flip through the book.

Of course Sheppard wouldn't follow the directions. The man's a control freak. Not a massive one, but he's a lot less pleasant to be around when situations are out of his hands and there's nothing he can do about it. It's what makes the bad extra bad, why he'd rather shove the bad behind him rather than bring it out into the open, why he hates the infirmary...

I stop flipping.

Control. It's all about control with him, being in control, being able to do what needs to be done, being able to take care of himself so he can take care of others.

And being able to color a picture however the hell he wants to color it. No wonder he loved this book. He could do whatever he wanted in it, and shove the freedom to do whatever he wanted in the face of the directions – the rules, the boundaries trying to control him.

" Huh," I say. Suddenly there was no question as to why he found solace in this crappy, two-dollar, temporary bit of entertainment. And I found myself admiring the book. All Sheppard ever wants when the bad befalls is a sense of control. And he got it, from a two-dollar coloring book and a box of crayons.

At the very end of the book is a note addressed to me.

I can't explain it, McKay. I wish I could, but I can't - Sheppard. Written words don't usually have a tone, but I swear these sounded heartfelt in my head, almost pleading. Not to understand – just, at least, to respect.

I took a pen from my pocket and wrote beneath Sheppard's note. You don't need to. I get it.

To my utter amazement, I really did. I understood something about John Sheppard. A lot of somethings, actually, but one more something to add to the rest of the something's; bit by bit, like stacking blocks. And instead of feeling smug, or shocked, I simply felt content, because I know Sheppard, and know that he'll be okay.

I head out of my room to return the book. We'll never speak of this again. Not out of discomfort or pride or avoidance of emotional moments. There'll just be no reason to.

We get each other like that.

The End

A/N: Whoa that was long! Not as tricky as Finding Peace of Mind but still a challenge, especially trying to keep the present-voice sections of the story in present voice. Yet still a fun challenge. Hope you liked.