A/N: Here it be, the final chapter.
"All right then, Colonel," Carson said as he snapped on latex gloves. "You ready for your second liberation of the day?"
John grinned up at Carson. "You'd think it was Christmas with how good I'm getting it today."
Carson smiled back, then removed the tape from John's cheek holding the plastic feeding tube in place. He was both gentle but quick about sliding the tube from John's nose that tickled his throat and incited the gagging reflex. A nurse held a plastic cup to John's lips for him to take a few sips and calm the savage beast that was his stomach.
Feeding tube and catheter – just stupid bodily contraptions, but their lack of presence was making John feel like a whole new man.
"I'll be bringing you broth later," Carson said. "After you've digested what's already in there." He set the tube on a tray then snapped off the gloves. "Now with that bit of unpleasantness out of the way, are you up for any visitors?"
John lifted one bony shoulder. Not out of indifference but to hide the giddy enthusiasm that would have made him feel like an idiot. He hadn't been fond of solitude for the past couple of days, though he couldn't explain why.
Like Rodney McKay ever needed permission to do anything. He came wheeling in seconds after John had agreed to company. He was dressed in jeans and a beige sweater that were loose on him like baggy street clothes. John noted the clothes first with a twinge of longing. Not that he was belittling the superiority of scrubs compared to gowns, but the scrubs he wore now were so light and lose it was easy to forget he had them on, and it made him periodically self-conscious.
"It's about time you had that damn tube taken out," Rodney said. He manipulated the wheels of the chair until he was inches from John's bedside. "Made you look like some kind of... cyborg or something."
John scrunched his forehead in a mock look of hurt. "Hey, what happened to the tube club?"
"It disbanded when the majority of the members had whatever tubes stuck in them removed. Welcome to the new club of the tube-free semi-invalids." Rodney's eyes darted over John in careful scrutiny. "You look better, by the way. More... well... lively, I guess."
John lifted both eyebrows. "Lively?"
"Yes, lively, as in 'less like a corpse'..." Rodney winced. "Sorry. I didn't mean it like that."
John lifted his hand off his lap, palm out. "It's cool, I know what you mean. I'll take any improvement, even the less than impressive ones." Now it was John doing the scrutinizing once over at Rodney. "You're not all that pale anymore."
Rodney straightened as much as his still-healing body would let him and smiled smugly. "Jealous? I had my weigh-in this morning. According to Carson, I weigh eight pounds heavier than you."
The twinge of longing for normal clothes was a pin prick next to the spear prick longing for a little weight gain. It bothered him in a small but sometimes depressing way when his ribs felt like they were digging into his own arms though his arms were barely touching his sides. John looked away at the loose thread of the blanket he was trying to entwine around his fingers. "Good for you," and he meant it.
The deeper truth didn't get by Rodney, who quickly sobered. "Hey, you're off the tube and'll be back on solids before you know it. You'll get back to your old weight in no time, and chances are I'll still be a couple of pounds heavier."
"Muscle weighs more than fat," John pointed out.
Rodney nodded and twisted his lips in a small grimace. "Which explains why you always end up heavier than you look when I have to drag your skinny rear-end to safety. Okay, then, until you get muscle back I'll probably still be several pounds heavier. Unlike you, I am an avid fan of snacking between meals, and proudly admit that. Follow my lead and you'll have padding within days. Right now the only reason you weigh anything is because of bones and organs. Or at least that's my theory. Carson hasn't exactly disputed it..."
John allowed himself a tiny smile. "You're probably right." It was hard to admit, but there wasn't much John could do about his current physical state except what he was doing now – resting and eating. Like Rodney said, it was going to take time, so John would give it time. In the mean time he would just have to avoid mirrors and other reflective surfaces.
"So what've you been up to today, McKay?" John asked for a change of subject. The self-consciousness was minimal but it was still there.
Rodney shrugged. "Sleeping, eating, tweeking less vital projects, working out a few theories – busy work."
"Sounds like fun."
"Only for me."
"What about Teyla and Ronon, what've they been up to?"
Rodney smiled, again smugly. "Ask them when they get here."
As though having said the magic words, Teyla and Ronon walked into the infirmary with Teyla pushing a wheelchair with several blankets piled in the seat. She was dressed in one of her long-sleeved shirts a myriad splash of dark colors, a large brush skirt, and her long coat that put more padding on her body then there actually was. Ronon was dressed in his usual leathers, shirt, and long coat also giving him the extra size his body was lacking. Yet to John, the big man was still a big man even with the way his collar-bones pressed against the skin.
Carson materialized from an adjoining room. "You lot are a wee bit early," he said. "But that's fine."
John looked from Ronon and Teyla to Carson and Rodney. "What's up?"
"A wee bit of a celebration in honor of your continuing improvement toward health," Carson said. "Your team have been insisting that you need to get out for a while, and I agree you could probably do with a change of scenery and some fresh air. But not for too long and not to the point where you end up back here passed out in exhaustion. Rodney, you'll need to get out of the way."
McKay wheeled himself away from the bed to let Teyla push the chair in close. Ronon limped after and joined Carson in helping John to sit up. Ronon held him upright by the shoulders as Carson pulled his legs out from under the blanket to hang over the edge of the bed. Meanwhile, Teyla laid out one of the blankets over the chair. With Ronon on one side and Carson on the other, John slid from the bed onto trembling legs, and shuffled around to be lowered into the chair on top of the blanket. Teyla pulled the two halves of the blanket around John, then covered him with two more. John looked down at himself and smiled. He looked like a potato with a head, but he was warm. That was the problem with having no fat to pad the bones; it was always so damn cold.
"Anyone of you starts to tire," Carson warned, "you head back."
"Yes mother," Rodney muttered.
"Stow it with the cheek, Rodney," Carson said, and gave his chair a little shove to send him on his way. Rodney headed out first, followed by Teyla, and John being pushed by Ronon. They were quiet as they walked and wheeled down the clean, metallic corridors, passed bubbling pillars and the living plants that had replaced the dead ones. Rodney led the way to a less populated sector of the city, then through stain-glassed doors onto a wide balcony. It was noon, bright and cloudless outside, and warm including the breezes that ruffled John's hair. John squinted at the luster of sliver-white light flashing off the crystal blue water.
They were all silent, all pensive, and all neutral in their expressions because of it. Over the past several days since waking up free from withdrawal, John had been remembering some things – or at least trying to. The memories were so vague he wanted to pass them off as dreams, except he knew, with a certainty that made his gut churn, that they hadn't been dreams. They had been real, and violent... very violent, with so much blood and pain. Faces he didn't know stared at him wide-eyed and mad. One face he did know, spitting a gob of blood on the ground. John looked up at Ronon's bruise-free face. He'd asked Ronon once already what the image meant, and Ronon replied that it didn't matter, not any more.
Ronon was right, it didn't matter in the long run. Too bad his brain couldn't take the hint and shove the images away back into obscurity where they belonged. But... Demons and skeletons in closets and such. Peace of mind didn't come that easily. Long sessions with Heightmeyer were already in the works. Individual sessions for now (John had endured his yesterday) then group sessions when John was freed from the infirmary.
"I don't remember a lot of what happened," Rodney said. The sudden interruption in the silence made John flinch. He looked over at Rodney, who was staring out at the horizon, thoughtful but uneasy, even a little lost.
McKay pulled his eyes from the horizon to switch his gaze to each team member. "Bits and pieces, and nothing pleasant, but... Is that a good thing?"
John squirmed deeper into the blankets. "It's a coping mechanism. You're brain's just trying to protect itself."
Rodney snorted caustically. "Let Kate handle the psychological babble. I'd prefer not to remember but keep trying to. What the hell is up with that? I don't want to remember." His voice was rising toward hysterical. "Why do we have to remember? Why is forgetting considered to be so damn unhealthy?"
"Because," Teyla said, her arms crossed tight across her chest as though she were cold, "it is never good to forget. Forgetting is like lying to ourselves. We learn from our experiences. We would learn nothing if we were to forget, and all our striving will have been in vain."
Rodney scowled. "I don't care. It's messed up. And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in the boat on this one. You guys can't remember clearly either." He looked pointedly at John.
John looked away, back to the ocean, then down at his lap. He was with Rodney on the wanting to forget part. Trying to remember hurt, sometimes, and the more that was remembered, the stronger the ache like a weight slowly crushing his chest. Too much pain, too much weariness, too much sorrow; all too much. But Teyla was also right – it was wrong to forget, whether they learned or gained something from it all or not.
There was only one constant to the memories, so constant it could almost be recalled with perfect clarity. The memories would rush by in a surreal semblance of order, and always return to the team. If John was taken, he was brought back to his team. If he escaped, he found his team. The memories cycled, starting at his team and ending at them – sometimes one of them, mostly all of them. Like a two way street where passing another car was inevitable, he always came back to them, and they always came back to him.
It made John smile. "I remember we were never alone," he said. "Kind of like now."
Teyla arched an eyebrow, Rodney looked at John sagely, and Ronon shifted.
Teyla was the first to smile back. "Yes... At least we were never alone."
Rodney settled more comfortably into his chair. "Now that I do remember."
John felt Ronon's hand clasp his shoulder through the blankets.
It was a small positive, like a single star in the darkness; too bright to be missed.
Carson looked up from the laptop on his desk to see Elizabeth leaning against the door frame with her arms folded.
"How are they, Carson?" she asked.
Carson leaned a little to the side in order to peer out the large window that gave him an almost unobstructed view of his infirmary. John was back in his bed, Rodney in his chair, and Teyla and Ronon sitting on the edge of the bed to John's left. They were talking, and on occasion someone would say something that would get the others to smile.
Carson looked back at Elizabeth and grinned. "I think they'll be fine."
Elizabeth smiled back. She had probably guessed as much already. It was still nice to hear, though.
A/N: Thanks be to all who reviewed. It took me forever to get this story done, and it makes me practically giddy to see it had been enjoyed so much.