Title: The Longest Mile
Rating: T, gen, h/c
Characters: Sheppard, McKay, Ronon, a little Zelenka and Lorne
Summary: Sometimes the only thing that keeps us from falling apart, is the need to hold someone else together. Sunday tag, SPOILERS.
Warnings: Spoilers for Sunday; possible squick alert for those with bodily-functions squicks.

Written for sga-flashfic's "Missing Persons" challenge.


The Longest Mile

That first, terrible night back on Earth, they went to Sheppard's place in Colorado Springs. There was no discussion about it. It just happened: the six of them. They could have gotten hotel rooms, any of them, but instead they went to Sheppard's apartment, because he was the only one who still had a place in town.

"I'm surprised you kept this." Rodney's voice was edgy, fragile, as Sheppard unlocked the door.

"Never knew when I might need a place to crash back on the ol' homeworld, Rodney." He could hear the edge in his own voice. Between the memorial service and the paperwork and all the damn meetings at the SGC, it had been one hell of a long day.

They trooped into the darkened apartment, and Sheppard remembered just a few seconds too late that lights on Earth don't come on automatically. He flipped the switch and found himself turning to Rodney, instinctively expecting a jibe. But Rodney wasn't looking at him; his eyes roved around the apartment, settling nowhere. The usual bristling, sarcastic humor wasn't there. It was like a piece of him was gone.

A piece of all of them was gone.

Somehow it seemed there should have been more of them there, or less. It just felt wrong. Sheppard had fantasized about showing his Pegasus Galaxy team members the wonders of Earth -- introducing Teyla to movie popcorn and Ferris wheels, showing Ronon the unique thrill of riding a Harley at a hundred and twenty miles per hour on a lonely country road. In those fantasies, Rodney was around somewhere, mostly in the background, because it wouldn't be a road trip on Earth without Rodney there, and yet his thoughts had mostly run towards all the cool stuff he wanted to show his Pegasus friends, not just what, exactly, Rodney might be doing while all of this was going on.

Now they were here, and it was wrong, all wrong. Because it was supposed to be the four of them, the team. It wasn't supposed to be just three of them, along with three people who weren't part of the team at all -- and Teyla in another galaxy, and a gaping hole in his heart where a friend had been.

"Nice big place," Dr. Cole offered softly, peeking around a corner into the hallway.

Sheppard realized suddenly that he hadn't thought ahead. At all. He'd been just reacting, going from one thing to another. Elizabeth and some of the others would be coming through from Atlantis in the next few days for the funeral in Scotland, but for now the six pallbearers were the only Atlanteans on Earth, and somehow it had simply seemed appropriate to stick together.

He was reacting to Earth as if on a mission through the gate, John realized with a dazed sort of shock. And in the meantime, Dr. Cole, a person -- a woman -- he hardly knew at all, was standing in his apartment and looking lost.

"Er ... there's a main bedroom and one spare bedroom, that's all. Uh, break it up into guys and girls?"

There were five guys, and only one girl. Cole looked at the men and lifted one shoulder in a little shrug, then rubbed her forehead. Sheppard had overheard her mention during one of the interminable meetings at the SGC that her migraine, the migraine that had indirectly saved her life, hadn't gone away since Carson's death. "I can share a room," she said.

Zelenka, Lorne and Rodney all erupted in a babbling chorus to the effect that she could have the room to herself and they didn't want to intrude. Cole stared at all of them; then, from the weary look on her face, she seemed to conclude that arguing about chivalry was utterly pointless on a day when you had just said goodbye to a boss, and friend, who'd died saving your life. "I'll be in the bedroom," she mumbled, and stumbled off, rubbing her temples. She closed the door behind her.

That left the five of them: friends and co-workers, bosses and subordinates, and, now, strangers. They stood in Sheppard's living room, staring at each other, all of them uncomfortable, none of them sure how to proceed.

It wasn't as if no one in the room had lost people before. Ronon, in particular, had to be all too well acquainted with that feeling. And maybe he was less lost than the rest of them. It was impossible to tell from his face, which showed nothing, as usual.

Sheppard realized finally that he was, still, the one in charge. The responsible one. Rodney and Ronon's team leader, Lorne's CO, Zelenka's ... well, whatever he was to Zelenka, he definitely outranked him. They weren't consciously waiting for him to tell them what to do, but on some level, that was how it had shaken down. It wasn't fair, but that was how it was. And, as had been true in the past, he could use the need to take charge as a way of holding the pieces together.

"Beer?" he asked them, going to the fridge.

After that whole fleeing-the-Earth fiasco, somewhere in the aftermath, he'd had a very long talk with General O'Neill, and somewhere in all of that, the conversation had turned to the whole idea of having a safe place on Earth where you could go if things went bad elsewhere. "I'm not planning on going home to stay, sir, not unless they make me," Sheppard had said.

"I understand that, Colonel. Believe me. But it might be in your best interests to have somewhere to go. Trust me when I tell ya that it sucks to have to find a place to stay at three in the morning in a town where no one knows you."

O'Neill had left with a promise to arrange for a caretaker for John's place. Sheppard had honestly never thought to check back; Earth was so far outside his mental space that he didn't even wonder about it. But apparently O'Neill had done a good job. The place was clean, the kitchen stocked with a couple of six-packs and a smattering of not-very-perishable goods: some frozen pizzas in the freezer, cans of soup in the cabinets.

The idea of food turned John's stomach, but when he tried to think back, he couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. In Pegasus, maybe. Before Carson's memorial. "Anyone hungry?"

This was another case where he expected, without even thinking about it, to hear the usual reaction out of Rodney. But instead it was Ronon who spoke, after a moment of silence. "I could eat."

And here was the point where Rodney should have said, You can always eat, and there -- there I go again, Sheppard realized, filling in the missing parts of the conversation.

Instead it was quiet, deathly quiet in a way that this particular group of people never could be. Sheppard put two pizzas in the oven and then came back to the living room to find them sitting -- Lorne and Zelenka both perched on the edge of the couch, Rodney slouched in an easy chair with his shoulders folded in on themselves. Ronon was leaning his hip casually against the back of Rodney's chair.

As dazed as Sheppard still felt, and as little as he'd seen of his team in the last two days, he had not failed to notice that Ronon had been protectively hovering around Rodney ever since -- it happened. He had virtually turned into Rodney's shadow. At any other time, John would probably have been gratified to see that. Now ... now it was just something else that was wrong and different. In an empty kind of way, he was glad that he was here on Earth, because over the last two days the place he loved, the only home he'd ever known, had become alien to him.

"So." Ronon spoke into the flat silence. "That's a TV?" He nodded towards the big screen in the corner.

Sheppard hunted for the remote. Rodney picked it up off an end table, handed it to him without speaking.

Nothing was right.

He turned on the entertainment system with the press of a button. Zelenka jumped as the sudden sound of AC/DC filled the room. "Knock yourself out, big guy," Sheppard said, tossing the remote to Ronon, and then went into the kitchen to check on the pizzas even though it hadn't been five minutes. The pizzas were still frozen, but he didn't go back into the living room.

The sound of Lorne explaining the function of the remote to Ronon was followed by the rock music changing to a montage of dialogue snippets. Leaning on the edge of the sink, Sheppard stared down into a darkened residential street three stories below him and listened to the stutter of a dozen aborted conversations in the flat, tinny voices from the TV.

"Hey, hey, that was Dr. Who. Go back," Rodney said suddenly, sounding in that instant almost like his old self.

The voices on the screen stuttered again and settled into a British accent.

"This is not the new one," Zelenka said.

"Hello, it's Tom Baker! Tom Baker! You can take your pretty-boy, action hero doctors and stuff 'em, Radek."

Sheppard's fingers tightened on the edge of the sink, the knuckles turning white. The awkward silences, the stilted conversation between all of them was bad -- as bad, he'd thought, as things could get. But the normalcy of Rodney and Radek's argument was worse -- made all the more so by the sharpness lurking under the familiar banter.

The oven timer went off, and the argument in the living room fell back into silence, with only the murmur of the television to break it.

"Hope you guys don't expect me to serve you," Sheppard informed them as he passed down the hall towards the guest room. There was no light under the door. He tapped lightly. "Dr Cole? You hungry?"

After a long time, a hoarse voice called back softly. "No. Thank you, Colonel."

He stood for a moment there, one hand pressed against the door, then went back, reluctantly, to the light. The entire group had moved into the kitchen, where Ronon had taken half of one pizza and the others were chewing listlessly on single pieces.

The beers were going a lot faster than the food. At one point Lorne volunteered to make an alcohol run. Sheppard actually half-seriously thought of ordering him to stand down and going himself, because sitting in the living room, drinking on an empty stomach and watching lousy BBC special effects on a 60-inch screen was very quickly driving him insane. The cool Colorado night outside would have been a relief. But Lorne was already out the door before he could say anything, and Sheppard forced himself back into CO mode, understanding that Lorne needed the space no less than Sheppard himself.

What Lorne came back with wasn't just more beer -- although plenty of that, too -- but also a fifth of R&R, another of vodka, one of rum and another of red wine ...

"What did you do, Major, buy out the liquor aisle?" Sheppard wanted to know as he hunted up glasses.

Lorne shrugged. "I wasn't sure what everyone drank, sir."

Rodney went straight for the vodka, which was more than just a little worrying to Sheppard; in the past he'd never seen the physicist drink anything stronger than an occasional beer. On the other hand ... Siberia ...

Ronon sniffed at all the bottles and then went off with the bottle of rum ... the whole thing. Sheppard quietly poured himself a few fingers of whiskey as the others chose their poison. He couldn't help noticing what was conspicuously absent from Lorne's otherwise comprehensive tour of 101 Ways to Destroy Your Liver: Scotch.

They drank themselves to near-insensibility in a slow, angry silence, channel-surfing aimlessly until something caught their eye, then moving on when whoever was nearest the remote got bored. If this was a wake, which was what it felt like, it had to be the quietest damn wake in history.

Sheppard felt only a hazy, distant relief when Lorne stood up unsteadily and looked towards the bedroom. "So, what's the plan here, sir? I'm guessing you've only got one bed in there."

"It's a big bed," Sheppard said, still defaulting to smartass in spite of everything.

This was greeted with a resounding silence. He sighed and waved a hand towards the hallway. He didn't feel like getting up and frankly, wasn't sure if he'd be able to. "Sheets and blankets in the closet. There's a bed, a sofa, and plenty of soft carpet. All of you have camped out before. You'll figure it out."

"Dibs on the bed," Lorne said immediately.

There was a mutter from Zelenka that sounded like it was probably "bastard" in Czech. After a moment he rose, caught himself on the arm of his chair. His eyes went to Rodney, who was huddled in a sort of boneless mass in the chair across from him, and then to Sheppard. He seemed to be searching for something to say, but all he said in the end was a soft, "Good night," before he followed Lorne down the hall.

Ronon seemed to have made his choice of sleeping arrangements by default: he was sprawled over the couch, the empty rum bottle tilted against his side, apparently asleep.

Sheppard glanced at Rodney. It was impossible to tell how drunk the scientist was; he hadn't spoken in hours, and hadn't moved except to refill his glass.

Awkward silences were never usually a problem between the two of them. Elizabeth might have joked that they didn't often experience silence at all, but in fact they did -- long, comfortable silences in Rodney's lab late at night, while Sheppard tried to catch up on a seemingly endless backlog of paperwork and Rodney tinkered with an equally endless series of Ancient toys. But this -- this silence had a weight, a presence. The TV flickered, the sound turned down low; it just made the silence in the room more oppressive.

It hasn't hit me yet, Sheppard had said to Teyla. I'm not looking forward to it when it does.

His hand trembled on the mostly empty glass of whiskey. He couldn't remember how many times he'd refilled it that night. After a moment, he set it down, very carefully, on the nearest end table.

The flicker of the TV in his peripheral vision had gone from being a welcome distraction to merely an annoyance. He reached for the remote, then looked over at Rodney. "You watchin' this?"

And that was when he first realized -- because it was quiet, and nothing McKay did was ever quiet -- that Rodney was crying, without making a sound. Nothing in his face moved; his eyes were fixed, blankly, somewhere in the general vicinity of the television. But the glistening of the tears on his cheeks was plainly visible in the blue glow of the screen.

Sheppard's hand stilled on the remote. After a moment, he turned off the television, plunging Rodney's too-revealing face into darkness. The only light came from the kitchen now; the living room was an alien landscape of shadows.

After a moment, Rodney got up -- it took him three tries to get his feet under him. Sheppard expected him to be heading for the bathroom, so when he didn't, but went for the door instead, it took John's alcohol-blurred senses a moment to catch up.

Hanging onto the wall to keep from falling down in his present state, Rodney fumbled for his jacket. He couldn't get his arm into it, and dropped it in a heap on the floor. The door clicked shut behind him.

Sheppard sat half-twisted around and stared at the door as long moments ticked over on the digital clock above the TV.

Don't go after him, said a small voice in his head. He won't thank you for it.

But deeper, yet more insistent, was the little voice that told him he was on an alien planet, and he had a team to watch out for ... all the moreso, now. He ignored that voice until his arm fell down from the back of his chair into his lap, and he felt the softness of the black wristband against the skin of his other arm.

Then he got up, found his own jacket and picked up Rodney's, caught himself on the doorframe when he started to tip over, and went out into the gently spinning hallway.

It was late, late, and there were no neighbors in the hall, none in the stairwell. He couldn't help the renewed surge of his danger instincts, the desperate yearning for a sidearm. He had to remind himself that he was on Earth, not doing recon in some abandoned building offworld.

Sheppard's apartment building didn't have a doorman, and he liked it that way. There was just a security door and a closet-sized foyer with bad carpeting and a series of buttons to contact the apartments upstairs. He let himself out onto the street. The breeze that greeted him was unexpectedly chilly, and he found himself, once again, assessing the climate on this planet and looking around for danger.

It's Earth, John. You lived here most of your life.

And yet in some ways his life had not begun until he'd left.

He looked around for Rodney and eventually located him by sound more than sight -- Rodney was on his knees throwing up into the bushes around at the side of the building.

Sheppard announced his presence by dropping Rodney's jacket over his shoulders. "There's a perfectly good bathroom inside, McKay."

Rodney tugged the jacket around his body with the arm that wasn't keeping him from faceplanting in the shrubbery. After a moment, when he was able to answer, he muttered in slurred tones, "Yeah, right next to the bedroom. Can't be heard out here, except when people don't mind their own business."

"Are you serious?"

"Of course I'm serious." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then wiped that on the leaves of the hedge. "I hate throwing up in front of other people." A woozy glower came Sheppard's way. "Present company not excepted."

Sheppard, who had a bad feeling he was going to be joining Rodney's hedgeside activities if he didn't get off his feet, slid down to sit on the sidewalk with his arms hanging over his knees.

"Okay, since you don't seem to be getting the hint, that was a not-so-subtle request to go back ins -- oh hell --" He groaned and doubled over again in renewed spasms. Eventually he said thickly, "I hate drinking."

"It doesn't seem to like you much, either."

Rodney coughed and spit, then staggered to his feet and lurched a couple of steps away before sitting down again, rather abruptly, and resting his palm flat on the sidewalk to ground himself. He was shivering, his teeth clicking rapidly together. Sheppard leaned over and gave him a bit of clumsy assistance at getting his arms into the sleeves of his jacket.

Rodney wrapped his arms around himself, and didn't say anything. A car passed them on the street, leaving a swirl of dust in its wake. Finally, in a tiny broken voice, Rodney said, "I think that he was my best friend."

There were a lot of things Sheppard could have said to that. In the end he said, only, "I know." Because he did, in a strangely intense way, know and understand. It was not unlike the way that Rodney, by himself, would never be as important to Sheppard as his team as a group. It was part of the fundamental difference between them. It didn't mean that he wouldn't throw himself over a grenade for Rodney, or Rodney for him.

"I'm cold," Rodney said softly.

"So'm I." And it wasn't a lie; his butt was going numb sitting on the pavement. He got to his feet with a little assistance from the side of the building and reached a hand down to Rodney. Eventually, he had to get an arm around the scientist and support most of his weight. Rodney was trying to help, but his legs were almost totally limp and kept going in different directions.

"Jesus, McKay, how much did you have?" Sheppard demanded as he helped Rodney around to the front door while trying to deal with the fact that the sidewalk seemed to be listing slightly at a very disconcerting angle. "You know, the perfect end to this day would be taking you to the hospital to get your stomach pumped."

"Please don't mention that."

In the foyer, Sheppard pinned Rodney between his own shoulder and the wall to keep him from falling down while getting out his keys. That was when he discovered that he didn't have his keys.

"Oh damn it." He vaguely remembered throwing them on the counter in the kitchen. He just wasn't used to doors that you couldn't open with the power of your mind.

"Sick again," Rodney mumbled.

"C'mon, hold it for a minute, would you?" He leaned across Rodney to the row of buttons labeled with apartment numbers, then had a bad moment when he couldn't remember what his apartment number was.

"Not happening, Colonel ..." And Rodney doubled over. Sheppard groaned softly, and caught hold of the back of his jacket, keeping him from falling down while trying to stay out of the line of fire. With his free hand, he depressed the button for what he hoped was his apartment.

"Ronon? Lorne? Dr. Z? Could use a little help down here." He cursed under his breath as he started losing his grip on Rodney. They both staggered against the wall, Rodney's weight nearly bearing him down.

There was a crackling and hiss of static from the intercom, cutting in and out as someone half-asleep and fairly drunk tried to figure out how to use it on the other end. Finally Ronon's deep voice said, "Sheppard?"

"Thank God. Look, come down and let me in, would you?"

Rodney seemed to have settled down again, but was still slipping dangerously towards the mess on the floor. Sheppard got an arm under Rodney's opposite one, giving him a sloppy armful of drunken physicist who seemed to be halfheartedly trying to get away. Luckily, Rodney had no real ability to move on his own.

"Let this be a lesson, Colonel. Next time I tell you to go away, maybe you'll listen to me," Rodney muttered, stopping his feeble attempts to escape when his forehead came to rest against the wall.

"Yeah, which would leave you where? Passed out in your own vomit."

Rodney swallowed convulsively. "Thank you, Sheppard. That image helps the present situation a whole lot."

The security door opened with a loud click, and Ronon leaned out after looking the door up and down, either to figure out how it worked or whether it was going to explode. Perhaps both. "Looks like you two are having fun."

"Just help me get him inside before I give in to the temptation to leave him out here."

Ronon took McKay's weight off Sheppard's shoulders effortlessly. Okay, definitely gonna have to work out some more when they got back ... but he quashed that thought. One step at a time, one night at a time.

They took the elevator rather than the stairs, because as far as Sheppard was concerned, the quicker they got this over with, the better. Predictably, the motion didn't do much for Rodney.

"Gonna suck to be you in the morning," Ronon remarked, pointing Rodney matter-of-factly in the opposite direction.

"Sucks to be me now," Rodney retorted, a bit thickly, and then moaned and heaved again.

"For not being a real big guy, he sure does hold a lot."

Sheppard glared at him, because being stuck in an elevator with a vomiting McKay wasn't helping with his own somewhat fragile equilibrium. "Would you shut up? Unless you want to be carrying two of us?"

He had the latest in a long line of bad moments when he thought that they were locked out of the apartment, too, before realizing that he was simply trying to open the door in the usual Atlantis way. Sighing, he twisted the knob and then gave Ronon a hand at getting Rodney inside. The scientist had gone almost totally limp, which would have worried Sheppard more if it hadn't made him much easier to deal with -- at least to a degree. While they had both been successful at keeping themselves clean, so far, Rodney himself hadn't been so lucky, and Sheppard was just thoroughly grateful that none of his neighbors seemed to be awake. True, they'd be going back to another galaxy soon, but some things he just didn't want to try to live down.

In the bathroom, they stripped Rodney to the waist and Sheppard found him a clean shirt, while Rodney remained hunched where Ronon had parked him, draped over the toilet. "This is so goddamn embarrassing," he groaned when Ronon grabbed hold of one of his arms and unceremoniously wrestled him into the shirt. It was the biggest one Sheppard could find, but it still didn't quite fit him across the shoulders.

"No picnic for us either, McKay." Ronon sat down on the edge of the tub, while Sheppard found a place on the floor and hoped that his own stomach would continue its tenuous hold on the good side of cooperation.

"Don't say picnic. Not right now."

"Piece of cake?" Sheppard offered, because he couldn't help himself.

Rodney just made a pathetic sound and threw up again. Feeling guilty, Sheppard reached out to lay a hand on his back. He could feel Rodney shivering, faintly but steadily. "Ronon, where's his jacket?"

"Trust me, you don't want it."

Sheppard sighed and reached over his head for a couple of bath towels, which he used for an impromptu physicist-warming blanket.

Huddling into the towels, Rodney laid his arm on the rim of the toilet and rested his cheek on it. Cracking open an eye at the two of them, he mumbled, "And this would be the point where you leave."

"And clean you up after you pass out and fall in? I really don't want to go there, McKay."

"You really want to make me sicker, don't you?"

"I'm just trying to avoid making myself sick, Rodney."

"Yeah, because watching me puke is going to help a lot with that. Oh God, McKay, stop talking about it," he moaned to himself, and gave a weak heave.

Sheppard wasn't a physical-contact kind of guy, to say the least, but he laid his hand between Rodney's shoulder blades again. No way in hell he was doing any more than that, but sitting here watching the guy be miserable wasn't much fun.

Looking up, he saw Ronon watching him with a small grin -- a grin as inscrutable as most of Ronon's facial expressions tended to be.

"What?"

"You're arguing again," was all Ronon said, and he made himself comfortable on the edge of the tub.

Sheppard was half asleep, leaning against the wall with one hand on Rodney, when the bathroom door opened halfway and then stopped against his leg. John blinked up at an equally startled and bleary-looking Lorne.

"If you people are done in here, some of us need to use the facilities, sir." Lorne rested his shoulder against the doorframe and scratched at his side.

Ronon came awake -- it appeared that he'd been fully asleep sitting up -- and leaned forward to nudge Rodney, who was drifting into either sleep or semiconsciousness. "Hey. McKay. You done?"

Rodney made an incomprehensible noise, followed by a slurred but distinctive, "How the hell should I know?"

"I don't think he's thrown up in about half an hour" -- Sheppard checked his watch -- "and I have wastebaskets, anyway. Let's get out of here."

Between the two of them, he and Ronon pried Rodney loose from the toilet and hauled him into the living room. Lorne stepped out of the way, watching with a look somewhere between sympathy and amusement, then shook his head and closed the bathroom door behind him.

"Couch," Ronon grunted. They deposited Rodney in a limp heap and Sheppard went to get blankets for all three of them. He found that Zelenka and Lorne had already cleaned out most of his meager stash of spare bedding, leaving him with a couple of sheets and a large beach towel with yellow cartoon ducks on it. Because it looked warmer than the others, he used it to cover Rodney.

"Where'd you get that?" Ronon wanted to know, raising an eyebrow.

"Salvation Army thrift store." Sheppard could anticipate the next question, and as Ronon opened his mouth, cut him off: "I know, and it's not a real army, and just don't ask, okay?"

Ronon shut his mouth and took the sheet that Sheppard tossed him.

Rodney rolled over suddenly and managed an indistinct, "Wastebasket."

Ronon gave Sheppard an accusing look as he dove for the nearest. "I thought you said he was done."

"I thought he was! How can he have anything left to throw up at this point?" Although moving again was about the last thing he wanted to do, Sheppard got to his feet and went into the kitchen to pour a glass of water. Contemplating the morning and the massive suckage thereof, he tossed back two glasses -- ignoring his stomach's undecided response to this -- and then refilled the glass for Rodney and set it down by the head of the couch. "McKay. Drink."

Rodney squinted at him, his eyes unfocused. "No."

"You'll feel a whole lot worse if you don't."

"Not possible. Go away."

Ronon, apparently deciding that his work here was done and the whole matter was Sheppard's problem now, had lain down just out of reach. John sighed and pushed Rodney in the direction of a sitting position.

"Bad idea, Colonel, bad idea." Rodney clutched at the rim of the wastebasket.

"Just drink the water and I'll leave you alone."

Reluctantly he took a sip, shuddered and spit into the wastebasket, then ventured a few small swallows. "Happy?"

"The rest of it's here if you want it."

"Good for it." Rodney's eyes were half-shut, his voice so slurred it was almost incomprehensible, and he was starting to shiver again. Sheppard eased him down against the couch cushions.

"Go to sleep, McKay."

Rodney's words were so soft and indistinct that they could barely be made out; far clearer was the choked half-sob in the middle. "You'd better not tell me that everything will be better in the morning."

"No," Sheppard said, speaking from experience, thinking of jet fuel and bodies, of a black wristband and dog tags engraved with the surnames Mitchell and Dexter. "It won't be." Then, after a moment, also speaking from experience, he added, "But the world will still be there."

Rodney didn't answer, his breathing growing deep. Sheppard made sure that he was lying on his side and seemed unlikely to roll into a more prone-to-choking sort of position. Then he wrapped the remaining sheet around himself, got a couple of cushions from the other end of the couch and settled down against it, close enough to Rodney that he would hopefully notice and wake up if any stoppage-of-breathing or other untoward things happened.

As his eyes began to drift shut, the sense of being watched made him fight his way back from the edge of sleep. Sure enough, Ronon was looking at him.

"Now what?"

"Just wondering..." There was an unusually diffident hesitation before Ronon finished his thought. "If you're doing okay."

"Better than him."

"Not what I meant."

A dozen glib answers floated on the tip of his tongue. But when Teyla had asked him that in the infirmary, he'd reached down deep inside and given her the truth. He owed Ronon no less. And when he reached for that answer, the truth that he found surprised him.

"Not exactly," he said. "But I think I'm getting there."

He'd lost everything once, and survived. This ... wasn't the same. It was hard, but it wasn't the same. And he knew a few of the things that were different.

Leaning against the couch, he shifted his weight under the sheet so that he could raise one arm to lay it on the couch, resting against Rodney's. The physicist stirred in his sleep, then subsided deeper again.

"I know what you mean," Ronon said.

Sheppard looked over at him; the former Runner's dreadlocked head was pillowed on his arm, but his eyes stared into darkness.

Ronon wasn't quite close enough to be reachable with his other hand, so Sheppard knocked a foot lightly against one thick leg -- realizing in the process that he'd forgotten to take his boots off. Doing so would require far too much moving, however.

He felt the leg move slightly -- as Rodney had done. And without a word spoken, Ronon's eyes closed. Sheppard's did, as well.

We're not okay. But we're getting there.