Note: Yes, this is yet another Common Ground tag. I had it half written in my head the night the episode aired, but it's been nearly impossible to find the time to actually write it down. At this point, probably just about everything possible has already been done, but I can't seem to let this go, so here it is, good or bad, needed or not.

Disclaimer: No, I don't own any part of them or have any rights to them. I'm just playing in their yard for a while.

The Gift of Life - Chapter 1

The gift of life is reserved only for our most devout worshippers . . . and our brothers.

The phrase kept replaying in his mind like a broken record. Was he now the brother of a Wraith? What did that mean? The creature had taken his life, only to give it back.

"Colonel, we're here."

John jumped, instantly jerking back from the light touch on his arm so hard that he rammed his shoulder into the wall of the jumper.

"Sorry . . . I didn't mean to startle you," said Rodney, his eyes wide with apprehension.

John forced his muscles to relax and his ragged breathing to slow. "S'okay, just jumpy," he mumbled sheepishly. He glanced around the jumper, attentive to the sudden silence and lack of motion. Everyone was either staring at him, pity in their eyes, or pointedly looking away. He appreciated the ones that were looking away, obviously understanding his discomfort at being the current center of attention.

"Come on Colonel, let's go," said Beckett from his other side.

John grunted and nodded as he slowly got to his feet. His mind had been somewhere else during the trip back to Atlantis, so he had no idea how long it had taken, but it had been long enough for his muscles to lock up and get stiff. A pervading ache seemed to ebb from one side of his body to the other. He instinctively brought his hand up to his chest, rubbing the area where the feeding mark should be on his chest, feeling the deep burning ache that radiated inside him. The gift of life . . .

"Colonel, are you all right?" asked Beckett, prodding him from behind.

"I'm good," John said automatically, the meaning not even registering with him. He began walking forward, intent on heading to his quarters. He wanted to be alone and yet he didn't, but more than anything, he wanted away from the looks and the stares. He needed some time to sort though his thoughts, to put everything away into their nice little slots in the back of his mind. He needed time to rebuild his walls.

As John exited the jumper, Elizabeth met them, gasping when she saw his appearance. They had told her over the radio that he was all right, but she hadn't dared to believe them. But there he was, looking just like he had before he walked through the gate all those hours ago. The only thing that had changed, besides the obvious signs of exhaustion, were his eyes. She felt her throat constrict painfully at the absence of the confident light that usually commanded her attention.

Elizabeth stood directly in front of John, stopping his forward progress as she grabbed one of his hands, holding it firmly in both of hers. "John, you . . . you're really okay?" She fought hard to retain control, to speak without having her voice quake as badly as her legs were. "We were so worried."

"I'm fine," he said, his voice and his eyes seeming vacant. "Just tired."

Carson came around to stand beside Sheppard. "Elizabeth, I need to get him to the infirmary. We have no idea what all this has done to his system."

John frowned and turned to Beckett. "I . . . I thought I could stay in my room." He seemed almost childish in his request, like a boy asking for something he knew he couldn't have.

Beckett was shaking his head even before Sheppard finished his request. "Absolutely not, colonel. I have no idea what that Wraith did to you or what kind of long-term effects it might have. I'll need to run some tests and monitor you for a while." Seeing the look of panic on his patient's face, Beckett tried to smile reassuringly. "Don't worry, lad. The tests shouldn't take too long and if the monitoring goes all right, maybe I can let you go back to your room tomorrow."

John briefly considered running, wondering how long he could evade them if he could get to the far side of the city. He knew it was an absurd thought, but he was too tightly wound to sit around the infirmary. He'd wanted nothing else for the past twenty-four hours than to get back to Atlantis, and now he wanted to run from his friends. How crazy was that? He was beginning to wonder if maybe he'd lost his mind along the way. He almost laughed out loud. Saved from death only to go nuts. How ironic.

He was suddenly aware that he was moving. Beckett had hold of his forearm, steering him down the corridor toward the infirmary. He didn't even remember leaving the jumper bay. Glancing around, he noticed McKay and Elizabeth walking at his other side with Teyla and Ronon following behind. His legs were beginning to feel a little like Jell-o as the adrenalin from earlier began to fade. His whole body felt out of kilter, almost foreign.

John wasn't sure if his knees buckled of if he simply tripped over his own feet, but suddenly he was headed for the floor. It was a fine time to discover his reflexes were shot as he tried in vain to get his arms to come up and break his fall. Fortunately for him, Ronon's cat-like reflexes were in excellent shape and he managed to snag the colonel in time to keep him from crashing to the ground.

As the fog cleared from John's mind, he discovered he was sitting on the floor with his back against the wall. He blinked a couple of times, resulting in Beckett's face coming into focus. "Doc?"

Beckett gave him a tight smile. "We lost you for a few seconds there, colonel. How do you feel?"

"I'm okay," John said immediately. He was nervous about the way his team was looking at him, at the way they had been looking at him since they found him. John began to push against the floor, trying to get up.

Beckett's hand shot out and pushed John down. "Stay put, colonel. I've already called for a gurney."

"But I can walk," John said, knowing he was whining, but not caring.

"Aye, that may be, but I'll feel a whole lot better if you ride. Humor me, colonel . . . please."

Even though he felt weak and shaky, John still didn't want to ride to the infirmary. He glanced up at the faces looking down at him and he noticed for the first time how haunted their expressions were. With a start, he realized why. They had watched a Wraith feed on him, three times no less. He shuddered as he thought of them watching as he was tortured, his body growing older and more ravaged with each feeding. In their minds, he had been lost. He knew that they were expecting to find him dead or so old that he'd just be shipped off to a nursing home somewhere. For them it hadn't been so much a rescue mission as a recovery mission.

John looked down at the floor, avoiding their probing eyes. "Fine, I'll ride," he whispered. Closing his eyes, he let his head fall back against the wall. He focused on the ache in his muscles, attempting to block the memories of being fed on that kept popping into his head. The next thing he knew, people were tugging on his arms. He looked up to find Beckett and McKay pulling him to his feet, a lowered gurney sitting beside him. When had that arrived?

As they helped him onto the waiting stretcher, he realized he was shaking so much that he never would have made it the rest of the way to the infirmary. Once he was settled, the gurney was raised and began moving down the hall. He heard voices coming from behind him.

"What's wrong with him? I thought he was okay, that the Wraith fixed him." Worry and a bit of panic were creeping into McKay's voice as the pitch slowly went upward.

Are you kidding? I mean, he looks younger than he did before.

"I don't know, Rodney, this is my first time with a patient having his life restored by a Wraith. You have to remember he was fed on multiple times and I'm sure even the restoration process traumatizes the body. He's probably exhausted and in shock. We'll take care of him, though, I promise." Beckett kept his voice even and smooth, trying to comfort his worried friend.

"I am sure the colonel will be fine and that Dr. Beckett will give him only the best care," said Teyla.

Shock was a good answer, thought John. There was nothing about this situation that wasn't shocking. He just wished the whole thing was over and everything would go back to normal. He had a bad feeling that it never would, that he could never go back to the way he was. There are many things about Wraith that you do not know. He closed his eyes against the dizzying movement of rolling down the corridor.

He tried to jerk away from the hand on his wrist as his eyes snapped open and he pulled up.

"Easy, lad, just getting your pulse."

Moving his gaze from the hand still firmly gripped on his wrist, he saw Beckett standing beside the gurney. They were in the infirmary. He didn't like the way his attention was zoning in and out, keeping him confused and unsteady. Beckett pushed him back down as a nurse came up on the other side and began wrapping a blood pressure cuff around his arm.

"Sorry, Doc. Guess I'm still jumpy."

"Aye, lad, I'd imagine so. Are you in any pain?" Beckett frowned as he began adjusting his stethoscope so he could listen to the colonel's heart.

"No, not really. I'm kind of sore and achy, but mostly I just feel . . . off."

"What do you mean, off?"

John rubbed his face and noticed the tremble in his hand. "Okay, it's like when I get sick. The day before I actually get sick, I don't feel right. I don't really feel bad yet, but I just don't feel like I usually do, like something's wrong. It's kind of like that." John reached up and rubbed at his chest, only to have Beckett grab his arm and pull his hand away.

"Sorry, I don't know why I keep doing that."

Beckett opened the neck of Sheppard's shirt and pulled it down where he could see. The shirt was stiff with dried blood, but little remained on the colonel's chest. If he looked closely, he could see a small slightly pink area, almost like a fresh scar, just where the feeding mark should be. Beckett lightly ran his finger across it, resulting in a sharp intake of breath from Sheppard.

"Did that hurt?" Beckett asked, eyeing Sheppard warily.

Sheppard seemed agitated and nervous, shifting around under Carson's touch and look. "I don't know . . . maybe stung a little." He pushed Beckett's hand away. "Just don't touch me there, okay?" Sheppard pulled away as far as he could get on the gurney.

"I'm sorry, colonel. I'm not trying to hurt you, just take it easy. Let me take a listen and then we'll get some blood drawn. I'll run a scan after that and then we can let you get some rest. I haven't even asked you if you're hungry."

John knew he should be hungry, but the last thing he wanted to do right now was eat. "I'm not hungry. I'd really like to just go back to my quarters and sleep."

"I'm afraid not, Colonel. As I've already explained, your body has received quite a shock and we're not sure of all the ramifications of that yet. I want you closely monitored tonight until I see how you cope. When was the last time you ate? Did Kolya feed you anything?"

John closed his eyes and sighed softly. "No, as I recall, I was the one on the menu." Take your fill. " Funny how that kind of kills the appetite."

Beckett patted his shoulder. "All right, but if you change your mind, all you have to do is say so and we'll get you something." Normally Beckett would be encouraging a patient who hadn't eaten in over a day to consume something, but under the circumstances, he could understand Sheppard's lack of appetite.

John nodded without opening his eyes. He was so tired, he wasn't going to argue. He just wanted to left alone to sleep.

oOo

Carson stood for a few seconds, watching Elizabeth, Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon as they sat and talked quietly in the waiting area. Their expressions were strained, as if they'd lived through some terrible event. And indeed, they had. Somehow the relief at having Sheppard back in one piece didn't erase the horror of watching him tortured almost to the point of death. He took a deep breath and began moving toward them.

"Carson," said Elizabeth as she stood, announcing his presence to the others.

Carson nodded to them. "I expect you'll be wanting an update on the colonel."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "No, Carson, we're sitting out here because they're redecorating our quarters. Of course we want to know how the colonel is."

Carson paused long enough to give Rodney a brief glare. "He's resting right now. The scans were all negative, but the blood work is showing trace amounts of a substance similar to the Wraith enzyme. It may have been part of the process by which the Wraith restored his life. He's feeling a bit sore and achy, which could be due to a variety of things, and his blood pressure's a bit elevated. We'll watch him tonight and I may want to do a few follow up tests tomorrow, but so far he's mainly tired and run down. He's slightly anemic at the moment, so we'll be watching that as well."

"Bottom line, Carson, is he okay?" asked Elizabeth.

"I can't say for sure, not yet anyway. It's too early. Let's just say that there are no major complications as yet." Beckett wasn't going to commit to anything this early in the game when he wasn't even sure what the rules were. Heck, he wasn't even sure where the field was.

Elizabeth nodded, understanding the doctor's reluctance to guarantee things he had no way to deliver on.

"Can we see him a few minutes? You know, just to make sure he's really okay?" asked Rodney hopefully.

Carson thought for a moment. "We'll tip toe in, but if he's asleep, you aren't to wake him. To say he's been traumatized by this is the understatement of the century. I have no idea why he's as lucid as he is. I'm sure I'd be a babbling idiot by now. I'd give him something to make sure he'd sleep if it wasn't for that chemical in his blood. I'm not sure how the two would react, so I'm hoping the exhaustion will help him relax and get some rest."

When they all nodded their acceptance of his rules, he led them to Sheppard's bed. Beckett had hooked him up to a cardiac monitor and he lay on his back with his eyes closed. His breaths were coming evenly, but he twitched ever so often and mumbled softly.

"Carson, why the monitor?" whispered Elizabeth.

"Just keeping a check on him. I thought I heard a bit of an arrhythmia earlier, so I thought it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on it. I'm sure being fed on multiple times and even being brought back placed a strain on the heart, as well as most everything else."

Beckett checked the wires leading to the monitor, making sure everything was still hooked up properly. Sheppard stirred under the covers, a low moan coming just before more muttering as he moved his head around on the pillow.

Beckett pointed toward the door to the infirmary. "Okay, time to leave," he whispered, ushering the visiting group away from the bed. They gathered again in the waiting area.

"Have all of you received your post mission check?" Beckett asked John's team.

They all nodded in response. "We have all been cleared," said Teyla, assuring Beckett that they were all okay.

"Good. In that case, I think you all need to get some rest. The colonel needs some time to deal with everything on his own terms before he has to deal with the rest of us. God knows it's going to take us all a while to get over this one. I'm thinking we'll be keeping Kate busy for the next few weeks."

"I have a better idea," said Rodney. "I need food. I say we hit the mess hall and celebrate. Let's face it, when we left here, we didn't expect to bring much home. But we got him back and he's not even geriatric material. Heck, he looks like he's barely out of college. He'll get some much needed rest and he'll be back to annoying the heck out of me every chance he gets and playing Kirk to all the women. We can think about what happened and deal with the trauma tomorrow, but tonight, let's go toast having a young Sheppard back."

By the time Rodney finished, hesitant smiles had broken out on their faces.

"I agree with McKay," said Ronon. "We got Sheppard back in one piece and that's the most important thing."

McKay grinned. "See, even Ronon agrees. Let's go big guy." McKay turned and headed for the door with Ronon just behind him. Teyla and Elizabeth looked at Beckett and then each other, and then followed the men out the door.

oOo

Kelly stepped in the doorway to Beckett's office. She found the doctor just sitting there, staring into space. "Dr. Beckett?"

Beckett's eyes focused and he brought his attention to the nurse standing in front of him. "Aye, what is it? Is something wrong?"

"No, everything's fine. I . . . was just worried about you. You've been here all night and I know you haven't slept much in two days now. I'll call you if he has any problems."

Beckett shook his head and waved his hand at the folders scattered on his desk. "No, I wasn't staying here because of the colonel. I was trying to catch up on some paperwork."

Kelly crossed her arms and snorted. "Oh, please, you've been out there to check on him every fifteen minutes or so all night. Every time I pass by your office, you're just staring out into space. Don't even try to act like you're not worried about him." She paused a second and her expression sobered. "Was it horrible? To watch, I mean."

Beckett rubbed his eyelids with his fingers before looking back up at her, his eyes tired and sad. "I think it was one of the most horrible things I've ever had the displeasure of witnessing. I can't get the images out of my head. I can only imagine what goes through his head."

Kelly nodded, also looking sad. "He keeps moaning in his sleep and occasionally . . . I think I heard him say no a few times. He's still pretty restless."

Beckett stood up and walked around the desk. "I'm checking on him again and don't say a word."

"How about if I just go with you?" She was harassing Dr. Beckett about worrying, but if the truth were told, everyone there was worrying. No one knew the consequences of what the colonel had been through.

He was moving around and making low noises like mumbling or groaning as they approached his bed. Beckett watched the monitor a moment and frowned. With a loud and sharp intake of breath, Sheppard sat straight up in bed, gasping and trembling. "Get off me!" His hand went immediately to his chest as he sucked in air.

"Colonel, you're in the infirmary and you're okay," said Carson smoothly. "I'm just going to help you lay back down," he continued, wanting to warn the man before he touched him.

"Carson?" John blinked a few times, obviously trying to get his eyes to focus.

"Aye, lad, it's me. I want you to lay back for me." With Kelly now on the other side, they each put one hand on his upper arm and one hand behind him and lowered him to the bed. "That's good."

John frowned as he looked up at Beckett. "What time is it?"

"Almost four in the morning. Why don't you try to go back to sleep."

"No!" Sheppard said quickly. He took a deep breath and visibly calmed himself. "Sorry about that, I just . . . don't want to sleep right now."

Beckett nodded to Kelly and she quietly left the two alone. The doctor pulled a stool up beside the bed and sat down. "Feel like talking?"

John lay for a few seconds, still and quiet. "I don't know. I don't even know if I can." He plucked at the covers, twisting the top of the sheet around his finger and then unraveling it again. "I've never felt pain like that. It was even worse than the iratus bug . . . and worse than turning into one. I wasn't sure I could hold out. It was like I could feel it ripping every year it took from my body." He shuddered involuntarily, twisting his finger up in the sheet so tight that Beckett wondered if he'd cut off the circulation.

"But you did make it, colonel, and you're here now. It's over."

The gift of life is reserved only for our most devout worshippers . . . and our brothers.

John looked up at Beckett, his eyes sad and dull. "Is it?"

"Aye, it is. I admit, we all have some pieces to put back in place, but we'll do it. You have to believe that."

John looked up into Beckett's bloodshot, worried eyes. He took in the dark circles and the lines of stress. "How much did you see?"

Beckett dropped his gaze, unable to meet John's. "Enough. Elizabeth saw all three feedings. The rest of us missed the second time because we thought we were rescuing you, but it turned out to be a dead end. I've never felt so helpless in all my life."

John nodded, having been in situations where he was helpless to help his friends or protect them from pain. "I knew what the stakes were. I knew you couldn't hand over Ladon. Elizabeth knows that, right?" He was suddenly acutely aware of the guilt Elizabeth probably felt and he wished he'd been thinking clearly enough to reassure her earlier. He began pushing the covers aside and trying to sit up.

Carson stood up and put his hand firmly on Sheppard's arm. "Colonel, where do you think you're going?"

"I have to see Elizabeth. I have to make sure she understands that she did the right thing."

"Lad, I just told you it's four o'clock in the morning. She's asleep in her quarters; you can tell her later, at a decent hour." Carson was relieved when his words sunk in and Sheppard stopped trying to get up.

"Oh . . . yeah, you did say that." Sheppard seemed confused for a few seconds, but let Carson tuck him back into bed. "I can't seem to get my brain firing on all cylinders. I'm sorry about that."

Carson gave a small laugh. "I have to tell you, I think you're doing amazingly well under the circumstances. You aren't having any pain, are you?"

"No . . . not really pain. Still achy and . . . "

"And what?" asked Beckett, watching Sheppard in concern.

"I don't know . . . I just feel . . . not so good. Kind of like I'm getting the flu or something." Sheppard rubbed his hand across his face, then looked up at Beckett. "I'm sorry you guys had to see that."

Beckett let out a long slow breath. "Not your fault. I'm just sorry you had to go through it. I wish we could have done more, or found you faster."

"It's okay, Carson, I understand. I told him you'd come. He didn't think you would, but I had faith."

"Who didn't think we'd come? Kolya?"

"No," said Sheppard, his eyes a little unfocused. "The Wraith."

TBC