Chapter Thirty-one

Sheppard glanced up from where he sat on a wide oblong boulder overlooking the village below and noticed Casea sitting beside him for the first time. He straightened from surprise, then winced from the movement, pressing one hand against his leg wound, the other against his ribs. Just how long she had been sitting there, he didn't know.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," she said with a chagrined expression.

"It's okay," Sheppard said, forcing his hands to drop away as casually as he could. "I guess my thoughts were wandering."

She eyed him carefully for a moment, then said, "You didn't join us in the great hall after you left the remembrance ceremony."

John frowned and nodded. "Yeah, and I'm sorry about that. I needed some time alone to think a few things through. This just seemed like the right place to do it. Besides, after almost getting stuck in the great hall on the other side for all eternity, I'm a little leery of going through those doors again."

"Oh, of course, I should have thought of that." Casea leaned over, putting a hand on his arm as she said, "John, I didn't come here to scold you. I came to see how you were doing."

"Ah, that," he said softly. "Yeah, well, I'm healing. It's just taking a little longer than I had planned."

She tilted her head to one side. "Are you speaking of spiritual healing or the physical healing of your body?"

Sheppard glanced at her, then pursed his lips together. "A little of both, I guess," he said finally.

Casea patted his arm and then released it. "Go slowly, John. You have been through much. It will take some time for both your body and spirit to come to grips with all that has happened."

Sheppard shook his head, then his gaze dropped. "No, it's not like that, Casea. I've been hurt before. I'll heal."

Her head dipped down to meet his downward gaze. "Have you ever been dead before?"

Her question caused him to exhale quickly before he gave her his best smart ass smile and said, "No, not that I can recall, but I've come close a couple of times."

"Then give yourself time to digest your experiences from all of this."

She went silent and they both watched the activity down below without speaking.

After a few minutes, Casea said, "Those children down there wouldn't be playing today, if it hadn't been for you and your people. The entire village would be dead if not for your intervention."

Sheppard heard the ache in his voice as he said, "There should be a lot more of those kids down there, alive and well."

"John, my people say the great hunter goes looking for souls when their time is over and takes them to a very special place of peace and happiness. It was simply not your time to go yet. You are one of the rare few who's seen the other side, but have returned to walk among the living again. It's a miracle and you should treat it as such."

Sheppard didn't say anything as he watched the children playing a little longer.

Her voice was softer as she added, "Look beyond the children. See the parents watching over their young with love and pride. Husbands with their wives. Brothers and sisters. Generations of families simply enjoying each other. That is what I see when I look down there. I see life where there could have been devastation. If you would change your perspective, you would see that, too."

John rolled his head as he thought. Finally, he said, "I might concede the whole metaphysical 'not my time to go' spiel, but I'm not the great hero your people tried to make me out to be at the remembrance ceremony. In fact, I've failed more times than I'd like to admit, and there have been times where others suffered simply because of my failures."

Casea leaned back. "Yet, you sit here, looking for answers to the questions of your heart, seeking the purpose for being alive."

He sighed and looked away, at a loss for words.

"Stop thinking so much, John. Let go of what troubles you. You've been given a second chance at life. Relish it."

Sheppard grunted, but gave her an appreciative smile. "You sure you're not trying to heal more than just my body?"

Casea drew in a small breath as she thought, then said, "Healers seek to heal the whole person, body and spirit. Sometimes, the heart has the greater need."

John felt his expression go distant. "Maybe. And sometimes you can't just fix things for another person. They have to do it on their own."

"Sometimes," she agreed quietly, then she said, "And sometimes it takes the combined efforts of those around you to help you realize you don't have to work through everything alone."

He sat for a moment, thinking, but didn't say anything.

She shifted, brushing her fingers through her silver-colored hair, and then glanced up at him. "I'm curious about something and you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but I was wondering – could you tell me more about what you saw on the other side?"

Sheppard took a deep breath and settled against an incline in the boulder. The journey to Jaxndaxta and the remembrance ceremony had exhausted him. Even though Beckett kept reminding him how far he'd come in the two weeks since the Sinomean incident, Sheppard wanted more. He wanted his normal life back, as crazy as it was.

He'd felt so alive when he'd awakened from his coma, ready to get out of bed and help with the repairs to the city, but he knew it wouldn't last even if Beckett had allowed him to get up. As it was, he was hooked up to too much equipment and IVs to do more than just think about roaming about, and even though he knew the healing wouldn't last, it was still disturbing to see and feel the return of his injuries.

But Carson had a worse time with it than Sheppard did, as if it were Beckett's fault that the healing reversed itself. By the end of the next day, John was feeling every bit of damage to his body. His memory blurred for the next few days, between the pain medication and his body's need for rest.

Now, it was two weeks later and he was still recovering. He really wanted to go for a good long run, but he couldn't even walk for any length of time, let alone jog, without breaking out into a cold sweat or his wounded leg buckling, and he sorely missed his runs. He could solve just about any problem while he ran. Maybe that was the problem. Without a physical way to resolve pent-up emotions and issues, everything was swirling around inside his head, messing up his thinking.

He glanced over at her and then away again. What could he tell her about the other side? There were the souls of dead people there. He sounded a little like that kid from the movie, the Sixth Sense, and the thought made him shake his head. Finally, he said, "I don't think there's a lot I can put into words."

He struggled for another moment. He wanted to explain it all to her, he really did, but most of what had happened on the other side was experienced on an emotional level and he'd never been very good at expressing his emotions. He didn't even realize he'd lost track of time again until a hand squeezed his arm and brought him back to awareness. He jumped again, though not as much as the first time, then squeezed his eyes shut with the sudden pain the movement caused.

When he glanced at Casea, her expression was filled with concern. "You worried me when you didn't answer."

"Damn," he whispered and frowned, as he felt the weariness of his ailments fogging his thoughts. "Sorry about that. I didn't mean to zone out on you. Again."

She put her fingers to his temple, wiping at the clamminess there, and then looked over him with an intensity Beckett would have admired. "The day is too chilly to be sweating. You need to lie down and rest. Today has taken much from you," she said quietly. "Perhaps we should have postponed the remembrance ceremony for another week."

He gently pulled away from her hand and shook his head. "It wouldn't have changed things much and our peoples need to put this behind them, so they can move forward, myself included."

"You can't move forward when your heart remains grieving in the past," she said.

His gaze darted around, looking for something neutral he could focus on, but his eyes kept glancing down to the children and the village below them.

"I'm moving forward, just not as fast as I usually do," he paused, then continued but he changed the subject, returning to their previous discussion again. It seemed like a safer subject to talk about. "It's frustrating that I can't explain to the others what happened on the other side with any clarity, but it's easier to talk to you, because you know what happened."

His eyes widened as the reality of his words sunk in. "Man, I didn't realize how much easier until now. Maybe that's why I haven't been able to answer anyone's questions with more than a shrug."

He glanced over at her, feeling very vulnerable. "I still don't get how we were able to talk like we did across the void, or how I could talk to the others – the dead others. Geez, that sounds totally insane."

Casea took a deep breath. "Not at all, not when the real story is known, as it is to you and me."

She sighed. "I have also tried to describe what happened between us to Denaz several times and always fail. Maybe what we shared during that time is an experience beyond words, and maybe that's why you can't give me more details of the other side."

He frowned, but nodded. "Maybe."

"And maybe it will take some time before adequate words will come to both of us. Remember, if the need to talk grows stronger, you always know where to find me."

She smiled, then looked him over again, and Sheppard knew she was assuming her role as a healer again. "Will you join us in the feast? The feast is actually a combination of dishes usually served at the remembrance ceremony and the harvest festival. To say there is an assortment of good food would be an understatement. It is almost time to eat. You look as though you could use some warm refreshments."

Sheppard cringed at the thought of food and it must have been evident to her because she reached into a pocket and pulled out a cloth. When she opened it up, he saw the denobian root. "I thought your stomach might still be recovering from the effects of the poisoning, so I brought you something to help."

He nodded, and took it from her, putting a piece in his mouth, well aware of its benefits. "Thanks. Beckett really needs to look into this stuff."

Casea shook her head. "You are still too pale and weak to suit me. You really should think about lying down. I have extra beds in my cottage."

He shrugged her off. "I'm okay."

She appeared torn whether to press her point further or not. After a moment, she nodded and said, "I have intruded upon your privacy long enough."

"Casea?" he said, looking up at her as she stood.

She turned her head toward him. "Yes?"

"Thanks for everything you did for me and Ronon. You didn't have to do the healing treatments for us, but you did it anyway. If I haven't told you thanks before, I'm saying it now."

She reached out to graze her fingers along his cheek. "It was a small gesture of gratitude for saving our children, but after getting to know you, it became something more. No matter what you say, I was graced by the presence of heroes and that always changes a person for the better."

John just stared at her, not knowing what else to say. She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. "I'll leave you to your thoughts, but don't let them weigh you down too much. And do not linger here much longer, or I'll send your friends to retrieve you."

He took a deep breath and nodded, then she left.


Sheppard thought about Casea's question long after she left. How the hell could he describe what he'd seen on the other side? Even to Casea? She already knew part of the story, so he might be able to fill in the blanks for her, once he found a way to start. But to tell the story to anyone else?

Ah, hell...

Any honest answer would land him in Heightmeier's office faster than he could plead fever-induced hallucination. He didn't need that kind of trouble. It was frustrating, though, trying to remember more of what had happened on the other side. It was like trying to catch the lingering wisps of a fading dream. Then again, the parts he did remember were so vivid, right down to the spices he could still taste –

"Sheppard? Hey, Colonel, look alive!"

McKay's voice broke through Sheppard's concentration and he jumped in surprise, for the third damned time that day. He gasped as stiff muscles protested the movement, then he channeled his pain into pure irritation.

"McKay," John said through gritted teeth, seeing Ronon right behind Rodney while Teyla was already sitting beside him. He growled, "What is your problem?"

"Problem? I don't have a problem other than having people go AWOL at official interplanetary gatherings held in their honor."

John sneered at him. "This wasn't just in my honor. It was for all of us. Besides, I haven't been gone that long."

Teyla touched his arm and said, "John, it is nearly sunset."

Sheppard blinked and looked around again, taking in the setting sun and the increasing chill in the air. "Okay, so I guess I kind of lost track of time." He grunted, feeling sheepish. "And, yes, I know I've been doing a lot of that lately, but that's going to change, starting right now."

He picked up his cane and started to stand as he asked, "What did I miss?"

But then he faltered and had to sit back down again rather heavily. He'd been sitting way too long to move with any kind of grace. Beckett had released him to go to the remembrance ceremony, but he was supposed to take it easy and not stay long. Well, at least he'd managed the 'take it easy' part of things.

"Only everything," McKay replied, his voice attempting sarcasm, but he radiated concern as he met Sheppard's gaze.

Ronon stood slightly behind him with his arms folded in front of him, watching him closely. Along with Teyla, their combined concern was intense and the effect made Sheppard feel very uncomfortable.

"Oh, well, if that's all... " He glanced away as he rubbed the back of his neck, then gestured with one hand. "Look, I'm sorry about losing track of time. Let's get back to the village and I'll try to apologize for my rudeness."

Teyla didn't move. "There is no need for that, John. Casea explained to the others that you were indisposed."

John swallowed. "Indisposed? That has a lovely ring to it. Sounds a little like I'm constipated or something equally embarrassing. I think I'll make my own apologies, thank you very much."

Ronon frowned. "I was going to come and get you a while ago, but Casea said to wait, that you needed some time alone. Well, you've had some time alone. Now, it's time to go."

Teyla looked from Sheppard to Ronon. "I agree. John has stayed too long. He should get back to the infirmary."

"He's sitting right here, thank you very much. And, no, he's not going to the infirmary," John said firmly, his tone becoming more obstinate. "He's – I'm – going back to my quarters. Beckett said I could stay there if I made daily visits to him, but I need to make my goodbyes to the rest of the villagers first. Come on, let's move out."

He started to get up again when a wave of dizziness swept over him and he settled down back again. "Or we could stay here a little longer," he said with a sigh as he swiped at the sudden return of sweat on his brow with a shaky hand.

Ronon cleared his throat as he casually moved closer and Sheppard was sure it was to catch him should he keel over. "Just take your time," the Satedan said softly.

John slammed a fist down beside him, hitting the boulder he sat upon, cursing when his hand throbbed in response. "Take my time? All I've been doing for the last two weeks is wasting time! Enough of this already."

But he still didn't make a move to stand. He was pretty sure he'd fall on his ass if he got up without assistance. Then the three of them would have been proved right. No way he was going to let that happen.

"Well, it was pretty rude of you to snub the villagers," Rodney said dramatically, but Sheppard got the feeling he was just stalling to give John a little more time to recover. He continued with a bored air, "They postpone this whole remembrance of the dead ceremony for a couple of weeks just so you could attend and you disappear before they start serving the feast, which by the way was incredible."

Weakness was replaced by irritation as he said, "Don't lay that on me. You knew exactly where I was. I just lost track of time."

McKay started to argue the point when Teyla, always the diplomat, stepped between them and said, "Do not listen to him, John. There was no ill will at your absence, only concern."

Rodney rolled his eyes, then they lit up as a new thought hit him. "Yeah, but you missed out on some newsflashes."

"Newsflashes?" John asked.

"The villagers were so grateful to us for saving their lives, they've offered to supply Atlantis with a free portion of their harvests every year from here on out."

Sheppard glanced over at him and said, "Oh yeah? That's cool."

Teyla smiled. "The people of Jaxndaxta have just become richer. They sold that shipment of Benji crystals in the hold of Conteale's ship and are going to use the money to restore their mountainside back to its original beauty."

McKay added, "Plus our scientists are helping the Jaxndaxtans out some as well."

"It's about time some good came out of all that trouble."

Ronon nodded and said, "And the Sinomeans we captured are facing life imprisonment at a penal colony for their crimes."

McKay's expression was wistful as he said, "Yeah, I guess it all turned out for the best, though when I think about what I could have done with that control interface device... "

"It's gone, McKay. Get over it already," Ronon said patiently in a low, quiet tone, as if he had already said the words a hundred times before.

Rodney sighed. "Damn it, it's not that easy. The device was so adaptable, able to work on a multitude of equipment and systems – "

Sheppard glared at him. "Do we have to go into the whole matter of the control interface device rendering Atlantis vulnerable to takeover by hostile forces if they ever gained control of said device again?

"No, but I wish I could have studied it a little more before Ronon let the invisible energy Yeti blow it to smithereens."

Ronon rolled his eyes and said, "McKay."

Sheppard knew how much science and new technology meant to McKay and he almost felt sorry for the man. Almost. Then he saw a few of the children and adults arrive at the remembrance memorial higher up on the hillside and place some flowers on it. Suddenly, Sheppard realized how painful true regret could be.

McKay glanced at the memorial and back to Sheppard. "Oh come on, just stop it with the kicked puppy dog look. These people are alive because we didn't give up. You didn't. Ronon didn't. And I didn't – well, I didn't most of the time. There could have been a lot more people dead if Teyla, Weir, Zelenka, and Lorne had given up. The same for McMurphy, Stackhouse, and the rest of his team. That's something I've learned since I got to Atlantis. We don't give up, plain and simple. Now, let's get back to the village, so you can get something to eat. While you're doing that, I plan on attacking their assortment of desserts."

Sheppard scratched at his neck. "Sorry if I'm getting between you and your food."

McKay sighed, ignoring the mocking tone of Sheppard's words. "It's okay, I'll make it, though I am famished again. Their food kind of reminds me of Chinese. Fifteen minutes later, you're hungry again. Besides, the compassionate buddy speech thing always burns way too many calories for me and makes my blood sugar plummet."

Sheppard made a face, then shrugged. "Well, you're getting better at it – the compassionate buddy speech thing, I mean. That one barely irritated me."

There was only a little sarcasm in his voice and McKay didn't bother to interrupt him with some snarky comeback line. At least, they didn't act like overgrown twelve year olds all the time. He glanced at his friends surrounding him. "And thanks. To all of you. Come on, help me up, so we can get out of here."

"Oh goodie, I'm sure Elizabeth, Stackhouse and McMurphy, along with the rest of the people from Atlantis will be overjoyed to see you. Mental note to self, do not depend upon Sheppard for diplomatic relations."

"I am so not listening to you," John muttered as Ronon and Teyla helped him stand, then he paused there a moment, grinding his teeth until the pain in his leg subsided and the landscape around him stopped spinning. He steadied himself with his cane, then let an evil glint come into his eyes.

"By the way, McKay, I heard you were reading to me from one of Katie Brown's romance novels while I was out of it, but you never finished it. I'm disappointed."

"Yeah, right, like you remember me doing any of that."

Sheppard winked at Ronon. "I heard all about it from Ronon. You left the book beside my bed while I was still in the infirmary. He read it cover to cover and thought it made for some interesting reading."

"As if Conan reads. You know, I was looking for the damned thing to give back to Katie and couldn't find – oh, for God's sake, you aren't serious, are you?"

Ronon nodded. Teyla leaned forward. "I started it this morning. It's – different – than anything I've ever read before, though I don't understand why Lady Jillian allowed herself to be bullied like she did, at least in the beginning."

McKay rolled his eyes as he threw his hands into the air. "You guys are doing all of this just to press my buttons, aren't you?"

"Well, that's the whole point, isn't it? Getting deep under your skin. By the way, I get the book after Teyla's done with it," John said proudly.

"Wonderful, just wonderful," Rodney said, wiping a hand over his face in defeat.

Ronon shrugged. "You know, I was surprised. It isn't half bad. I did want to blast a few holes in that Duke Maximus character. The only reason he was after Jillian was for her inheritance. Then Jillian found out he was really her evil second cousin on her mother's side."

Teyla nodded. "I am hoping Matthew Coggins will cause her to see true love always wins out – "

Sheppard grinned and interrupted, "Due to his manly ways, of course."

Ronon grinned and stood with his hands on his hips. "Of course. And then there was the sex... "

"Oh, good god," McKay muttered, but stopped and he looked to Ronon. "Wait, Duke Maximus was her second cousin? Oh, that can't be good... "

Ronon grunted. "It wasn't. That arrogant bastard thought he could dominate her life in every way. He was in for a rude awakening."

McKay looked at those standing around him strangely. "I never would have guessed in a million years that we'd be standing around having a conversation about the merits of a romance novel."

Sheppard gave McKay a crooked grin. "Life is strange at times, isn't it?"

Ronon waved his hands as if to usher them along. "If we're going, let's go. Sheppard shouldn't be just standing around like this."

McKay leaned closer to John. "I think our literary discussion has made Tarzan, Earl of Greystoke, a little bored."

Ronon took a deep breath. "No, but I could make things real exciting by holding you upside down by your feet. You'd be wishing for bored."

"Says you," McKay said defiantly.

Sheppard groaned. "Once again, I have to say so much for being really smart, McKay," he said with a sigh. "You think you'd learn by now. Have you ever seen a conversation with an irritated Ronon end well for you?"

McKay frowned as he blinked a couple of times. "No, I guess not, but there's always a first time."

Teyla stood and placed herself in the middle of the three men. "I think we are all agreed it is time to move forward. Let us go and finish our visit with the villagers, then home, so John can rest. I suggest a movie marathon in John's quarters later, complete with popcorn and beer."

She put a hand on Sheppard's back to help steady him on the uneven soil as he started walking, leaning heavily upon his cane.

"Or we could just talk... " McKay started.

Sheppard gave McKay a sideways glance and slowed down. For some reason, Rodney's tone put him on alert. A moment later, he found out why.

"I mean, I'd be more than happy to be a sounding board for anyone who needs to vent or share some deep dark secret. For instance, Colonel, what was it like to be dead three times? Did you go to heaven or hell? Come on, spill, inquiring minds want to know."

John sighed and closed his eyes. McKay had no idea how close he came to hitting a raw nerve. Sheppard started forward as he said quietly, but with force, "Rodney. Shut. Up."

McKay was oblivious, rattling on in classic McKay fashion. "What? You mean you aren't going to tell us a single thing about being dead? That's not fair. That's not fair at all. You know all about what happened when I died and re-ascended."

Teyla shook her head. "We know only what we saw with our own eyes. You could not remember anything about it."

"Well, he should still tell us about his experiences. Isn't that what teams do to bond? Share experiences that form the foundation of a life-long friendship?"

Sheppard groaned. "Give me strength," he muttered, his anger dissipating when he realized Rodney's natural inclination to talk came as easily as drawing air to breath.

McKay continued, "What? Aren't these the days we'll look back at with fond memories?"

Teyla put her hand on John's back again and urged him forward. "Simply, ignore him, John. Tonight, our team will relax and enjoy one another's company."

Ronon patted McKay on the back hard enough to make him cough. "And, if McKay can't keep his mouth shut, he'll find himself locked in Sheppard's bathroom for the night."

"That's a little harsh, don't you think?" he grumbled as he rubbed his shoulder.

"Yeah, for me," John said, adding his two cents worth, "I might need to use the facilities, you know. Lock him up somewhere else."

"Hey, hey, hey, I can take a hint." McKay put up his hand in defeat, then used it to make a dramatic display of zipping his lips closed.

"Let us hope so." Teyla chuckled as McKay and Ronon moved slowly behind them.

Sheppard glanced back, feeling like he was holding them back, and said, "You guys can go on ahead and we'll catch up to you."

"No rush," McKay said with a wave of a hand. He started telling Ronon a story, something to do with food, but in a quieter tone.

Sheppard gave Teyla a genuine smile as he limped along. Maybe all his soul searching needed was just some good friends around to remind him about the things in life he appreciated the most. The other stuff would get worked out along the way.

There was a ripple of laughter that seemed to usher them down the hillside, moving from one comment to the next, from one team member to the next. It acted like a healing balm for John's soul. The great hunter needed no more prey for this day and he was glad.

Damn, he was a lucky man.


Well, there it is, guys! I hope it tied things up for those of you who love the comfort part of h/c. (I guess after all that whumping, there should have had two chapters of recovery, but alas . . . LOL!) Thanks SO very much for all of the support. And, yes, there are some more plot bunnies at work on future stories. For the moment, Teprac S and I think we'll just enjoy the feeling of finishing. Take care!