AN: I'm sorry this is a day late! Thanks so much for the reviews, I'm really sorry that I haven't replied to everyone yet, but you guys should know it's really incredibly appreciated and means so much. Also, if you have not read The Last Survivor, Mawani was an OC that was rescued by the expedition via John and Rodney after she rescued them. Her character will make a lot more sense if you've read that story.
When John was six, he'd flown on his first plane. A C-130. They were bigger than some airplane hangars and louder than anything John had ever heard before. Riding in the cargo bay with ear muffs that weighed more than his head, the air blowing in his face and the angry rattle of engines thrumming up into his body through the jump seat, he'd felt for the first time that he'd finally gotten life figured out.
It wasn't about brushing his teeth, or saying "Yes, Ma'am" and "Yes, Sir!" or trying to print his name with perfection. It wasn't Saturday morning cartoons that, while fun, were boring after a while. It wasn't riding his bike down the steepest hill he could find – though that had been damn close -- it was about the rush of flying at speeds greater than you could ever accomplish outside of things with wings. The only experience he'd ever imagined that could make him feel like that plane had, was standing on top of a mountain, and jumping. And C-130's don't even fly all that fast.
When he was ten, he got to ride in an F4 phantom. It went fast as hell, the helmet was too big, and he breathed too fast. He also threw up, but John was pretty sure the pilot went out of his way to make him sick. After all, he was the general's son, and it was tradition to make VIP passengers puke. That night he promised his mom, "I know what I'm going to do when I grow up."
She'd smiled indulgently and asked, "What is that, John?"
"A pilot," he'd replied with the utter confidence of the young.
She'd smiled a little tighter, but tucked him in and kissed him on the forehead. She'd whispered, "You can be anything you want to John. Just never forget who you are, here," and she tapped him on the chest.
He'd grown up, he'd become a pilot, and his mom had died.
And maybe, he'd forgotten a part of himself along the way. Or maybe the parts had been stripped from him, piece by piece. His mom dying. His falling out with his dad. Mitch and Dex. His failed marriage when he'd returned home from Afghanistan, escorting flag-draped coffins, and he hadn't been able to get past what he'd left behind in the skies over Kabul. Then, returning to Afghanistan for a second tour, because he'd had some kind of idea that if he went back, maybe he could make peace with what'd happened, and instead, he'd gone against orders, got shot down in the process, and still screwed up. That time Holland had died and he'd came damn close himself.
Mom, Mitch, Dex, Holland, Sumner, Gall, Abrams, Ford…
He'd lost his faith first, then he'd shut everyone out. You get burned one too many times, you learn to keep your hands out of the fire.
And it had taken coming to Atlantis to learn all over again that sometimes the risk of getting burnt was worth taking, even if it hurt like hell.
Rodney, Carson, Elizabeth, Teyla, Ronon, Radek.
He'd been wrong. He'd thought life had no meaning. That it was just a cosmic game and if you won or lost, it was luck, chance, fortune or misfortune. You live, you die, and all the time between was just the struggle to get through, and what kind of meaning is that?
But it was the people. It was your friends. It was experiences. It was flying in a C-130, and riding down the steepest hill on his bike. It was walking through a wormhole for the first time, and a man he'd only known less than a year facing down a Wraith with just his pistol and his nerve to save your life.
Life didn't have meaning by itself. It just was. Meaning came from the acts of living, and even if you only lived one minute, or a hundred years, there were others that were affected by you, and their lives were changed because of you. The people he cared about gave his life meaning – he hadn't wanted to die without making a difference.
He hadn't wanted to die without his life having meant something.
But he realized now that he'd found meaning; that he'd had it all along. It was in Rodney's crooked grin of discovery, and Elizabeth's soft patient smile. It was in Teyla's touch and Ronon's hug and Carson's laugh. And even better, he'd gotten to show Radek that he really could be the hero.
And he'd had it sharing beers with Mitch and Dex, his mom bandaging his scraped knee and kissing him goodnight, or watching football games and eating popcorn, and even standing at their grave sites and telling the mourning crowd, "They were friends, sons and soldiers. They lived, and died, doing what they loved most."
He'd never expected to wake up after Ford touched the paddles to his skin and sent his mind spiraling away into nothingness. He had, of course, though it'd been a little slow and a lot painful. He'd blinked away lethargy that had wanted to turn his bones to liquid and stared up at the concerned face of Carson. It'd been his first time as one of Carson's patients, and John had appreciated the soft, "How d'you feel, Major?" Carson hadn't boomed the question, and every movement he'd made was slow and gentle, which helped John's headache more than words could say.
The Iratus bug had left him tired, sore and a little scared. He'd tried to put on a strong face, but during the night when he'd had his first nightmare of a Jumper filled with the chittering bugs, all climbing over him and another one biting into his neck, he'd woken to find Carson kindly shaking his shoulder, whispering, "It's a bit of a nightmare, Major, shhhhhh." When John had been about to deny any such thing, the doc had ignored him and continued without giving him a chance, "Go back to sleep. Those bugs won't get a bite of you in my infirmary, I promise." Then Carson had settled into a chair nearby and started reading something on his PC tablet.
John had rasped, "You don't have to stay, Doc. I'm okay."
Carson had kept his eyes on his screen but murmured, "I'm sure you are, Major. Now, go back to sleep."
He had, and he hadn't had anymore nightmares, but John was also pretty sure that Carson had topped his IV with something, too.
And waking up now was like that all over again. He was tired, sore and a little scared, because he hadn't thought he'd wake up ever again. It wasn't that he was scared to die – been through that a few times now – it was that he'd been somewhere else and then suddenly he was back here, all the pain rushing back into his body and someone holding tightly to his hand, ordering him to wake up and stop scaring everyone.
He blinked sluggishly, but all he got for the effort was blurry shapes.
An oxygen mask covered his mouth so even if he'd had enough energy to talk, it wouldn't have been heard.
The hand holding his was soft, smaller… Teyla or Elizabeth? He couldn't talk, but he thought maybe he could squeeze his fingers to theirs, try to grip their hand back, something to show them that he hadn't meant to scare anyone and that he was going to be okay. He gave up in keeping his eyes open, and shifted his energy into his hand. Into his fingers. Just a little, he thought.
"John?" The hand holding his tightened and tugged as he heard the scrape of a chair against the floor. "Carson! He squeezed my hand… Carson!"
He thought he might've grayed out because time fast-forwarded to a lower voice, Carson, urging him, "Colonel, open your eyes for me. Just a wee bit, John, then you can go back to sleep."
Open his eyes… John breathed deep and concentrated as hard as he could. He tried. At first, he just got his eyes to move underneath his eyelids. And then, after a couple more attempts, he cracked them enough to see light. It was just too hard and he was too tired. He couldn't get his body to listen to him.
"That's fine, Colonel. That's good enough. You're in there and that's all we needed to know. Rest some more." Another gentle hand gripped his shoulder for a moment before letting go. John thought he managed a small nod before he let the lethargy pull him back down.
Time passes differently in the infirmary. Days feel like hours and hours feel like moments. One minute you're awake, then you drift away, only to wake and realize you've lost a big chunk of time, again.
John had a nebulous grasp on lucidity at best. He wavered in and out over the following days. Carson had explained at one point that he had gotten an infection, and it'd gotten into his bone, so he'd be on IV antibiotics and surgery was in his future. They'd had to stabilize him first, treat the infection.
He'd seen Rodney, sleeping in the bed near him. He'd suffered four broken ribs, a punctured lung and internal injuries. Bruised liver and a spleen that was apparently not cooperating in healing. On the third day – least, John thought it was the third since he'd woken – Rodney crashed during the night. John had been in the twilight state – not quite asleep but not quite awake – when alarms started screaming.
Infirmary personnel had come running. John had tried to surface but he was still on a lot of drugs and he couldn't. There was a chemical wall blocking his way, keeping him down, and though inside he fought against it, nothing he did worked. He heard the shout for a crash cart, heard Carson snapping orders to prep Rodney for emergency surgery. He'd managed to finally get his eyes to start blinking, to start trying to open and stay that way, but all he got for his effort was more blurry shapes moving around the room. The oxygen mask that had been helping him breathe felt confining and John could hear another monitor speeding up.
He couldn't die now, not after John was sure his team was safe.
"Colonel, calm down," Carson ordered softly. "Rodney's going to be fine, he's going to be one spleen lighter shortly, but that'll fix his troubles right up. And he wouldn't want you getting in a snit and needing to be intubated." Hands rubbed his shoulders and Carson told him, "That's it, Colonel, slow it down… breathe." The hands pulled away. "Teyla, love, thank goodness. I've got to go, Rodney's had a set back, and the colonel is aware just enough to get worried and upset. Stay with him, keep him calm, or he'll need to be sedated and I'd rather not go there. See this number? That's his pulse ox, it needs to stay above 85, though I'd prefer it at least 90."
"Is Rodney going to be all right, Carson?" Teyla asked, worriedly. Hands returned to John's shoulder and arm, rubbing softly, and he recognized the touch as hers.
"Aye, I think so, but it's time to quit babying that spleen of his. It just won't cooperate and we've given it enough time to heal. I'll have a nurse update you when I know more."
"Thank you, Carson."
John tried to wake up. But he tried to keep his breathing even and slow, because he didn't want to be sedated and he didn't want to be intubated, either. Teyla's hand kept rubbing and she whispered, "Shhhhh, rest John. Rodney is in good hands. He will be fine."
Then time jumped again.
When he woke next, he didn't have the mask; the curtain was pulled around his bed, and Mawani was bathing his arms. He blinked a couple of times, relieved when focus returned and he could see her clearly.
"Hey," he whispered.
She looked up, a broad smile spreading across her face. "John, you wake; it is good. Sleeping for days will make your limbs useless," she teased.
"Déjà vu," he said.
Her brow wrinkled, even while she dipped the cloth into the warm bowl of water and wrung it free of the excess. "What is this word, déjà vu?"
"It means I have the strange feeling I've been here before." She'd cared for him, bathed him, and he felt a little odd being back in that position, where she was giving him sponge baths. She'd laughed then, back in her small home, and said he'd had nothing she hadn't seen before, and she'd said the same to Rodney.
Her smile trembled. "That is because you have. And I do not think I have to say you will be the death of us all, worrying. You risk too much, John." She moved to the other side of his bed and pulled his left arm free of the blankets. It was the arm with the IV and John followed the line of tubing up, surprised to see three bags. "Did you know that my first medical mission was to rescue you and sky eyes?" Her eyes twinkled mischievously. "It was… déjà vu."
He tried to return her light mood, but her words hurt. Death of us all… something she just said casually, but she had no idea. He'd almost cost his team their lives and the fact that the only thing that saved them was luck just made it worse. Next time they might not be so lucky. He'd just have to make damn sure there wasn't a 'next time.' "Yeah, I promise it won't happen again." It came out flat. She narrowed her eyes at him and he rushed to explain, not even sure why he was saying it, admitting these things. Maybe it was the drugs. Or maybe it was because he was sick of keeping it all bottled up inside and Mawani wasn't his team, or Elizabeth, or his dad. "My team almost died because of me. If they hadn't stayed, they could've easily escaped and Rodney would've gotten help way before he did. Ronon could've gotten lost, died of dehydration…" He was kinda surprised by how angry he was over it.
Her eyes grew serious and her hand stilled. "Do not promise what you cannot keep, John." She put the cloth into the bowl and sat on the edge of his bed, lifting his hand, taking care not to jar the needle taped to the back as it delivered medicine and fluids to his body. "You are the sun and the moon. You bring light and you bring darkness, but those that love and care for you understand this. They would not ask you to change. Would you ask sky eyes to turn his back on what he does, to keep him safe, like a baby swaddled against her mother's chest?"
"Mawani, it's not like that --"
She touched John's cheek with her other hand. "It is. I have known you for a brief time in the ages of all things, but I know this. You are a good spirit, a kind spirit. You act to help; you do what you must to save those around you. Our lives are but a small drop in time, and there is joy and pain that will come into everyone's days. If you would give your life willingly for others, do you not understand how they would do the same for you? Do you not think that a life lived true to the soul is a life lived well, no matter how short?"
John frowned at her and she smiled again, sadly. She let go of his hand and leaned forward, placing a light kiss on his forehead. "You are much more than you know, my dark haired one. You came into my life and you saved me, returning my memories and my heart. I am here now because you are who you are, and sky eyes is who he is." She stood and gathered up the bowl, looking down on him warmly. "Linger on those thoughts and remember the good you have done." Then the teasing smile was back. "Now, I am going to bathe sky eyes and he is far grumpier than you. He is as cranky as an old gnarl today."
She disappeared through the curtain, leaving it pulled around his bed. He heard her moving around on the other side, then the sharp sound of Rodney's surprised yelp.
The conversation had left him exhausted. He wasn't feeling a whole lot of pain yet. The ache was there, but Carson was still keeping him mostly pain-free, and that was beginning to worry him too. What was it going to be like when the drugs started to go?
He wanted to think that Mawani was just naïve. That she had no idea how things really worked, but he couldn't shake off the truth of what she'd said. He was so busy thinking about what he cost his team that he'd never considered the reverse. They'd risked their lives going after Ronon. John had almost died for Rodney, refusing to leave Doranda without him. He'd gone back with Rodney because he'd had a niggle clawing in his gut, telling him it was important. If it'd been anyone else, Rodney wouldn't have listened. He wouldn't have left. And he would've been blown up along with the planet and part of the solar system. Gall had ended his life, whatever he had left, so that Rodney could go save John.
John wasn't alone in being a liability. They all took their turns. But John had judged himself harshly because he was the one that had failed. He was the one that had lost too much before, and he'd blamed himself then as he did now.
The curtain was pushed aside and Carson came in, bearing a hypodermic filled with something. John looked at him then the object in his hand, a question in his eyes.
Carson smiled reassuringly. "It's time to get that leg pinned, Colonel. The infection's cleared and we can't wait any longer. It's already going to be a mess, I'm afraid."
"This is gonna hurt, isn't it?" John swallowed, trying to hide the nervousness he felt.
"Not at first, not much more than what you're in now, but when we start weaning you off the drugs, aye, I'm afraid so. You'll not feel up for polite conversation." Carson pulled the tubing towards him, wiping the port with an alcohol wipe.
"Wait," John said. "My team --" He wanted to see them.
"Please," he rushed, trying not to sound too pathetic, but enough to hopefully get what he wanted. This was his first real bout of awareness that he'd had. He could talk and be heard and soon, he was going to be back at square one, or just about. He had to let his team know how thankful he was for what they'd risked for him. John needed to let them know.
Carson frowned, but pulled his hand back. "All right, I'll get them. But Rodney's still in bed from his surgery last night, so it'll be a matter of talking across the space between you."
John nodded soberly. "That's fine."
He must've dozed for a bit because Teyla was shaking his shoulder gently and he blinked his eyes open to see Ronon staring at him, a sling encasing his arm and right shoulder.
"You okay?" the runner asked gruffly.
"Yeah." At Teyla's eyebrow rising in that "oh, really" way that she had, John grimaced and rolled his eyes a little. "I will be," he corrected grimly. "Thanks to you."
Ronon shrugged. "Just returning the favor."
The talk he'd had with Mawani stuck in his thoughts. His impulse had been to say Ronon shouldn't have, that John wasn't keeping score, but staring at Ronon, he could see that Ronon wasn't keeping score, either. That he was doing for John just as John would do for him. Being there. Helping. Risking his life for those he cared about.
Friends…family. You didn't get the luxury of telling them when not to care.
He nodded, his head moving ineffectually on the pillow. Then he turned towards Rodney. "You hanging in there, McKay?"
The curtain had been pulled open between them, and John could see the IV delivering blood and fluids into Rodney's body. He was covered in a sheet, but his legs were exposed, dressed in surgical stockings to prevent blood clots. John knew he was going to soon be wearing his own pair, at least on one leg. The other was going to be bandaged and elevated and a source of a lot of pain in his future. It was that thought that kept him from teasing Rodney about his new look. Saying something like, are you trying to give Superman a run for his money.
"Not m'ch choice," slurred Rodney, fighting to keep his eyes open. "C'rs'n…su…sucks." Rodney blinked more until his eyes finally stayed shut, ignoring what he wanted. "Did th's … to me."
Teyla made a sympathetic sound and left John's side to touch Rodney's forehead softly and to gather his hand in hers. "Only to save your life, Rodney. You will feel better soon, I promise."
Blue showed underneath barely cracked eyelids. "B'tter," he grumped. He craned his head to see John through his squinted vision. "Don't…die…ag'n." Then he rolled back and gave up his battle at staying awake.
John snorted softly. "Okay, Rodney. I won't."
"You will," Ronon said simply, cutting to the heart of the matter. "And so will McKay, probably Teyla and me. It's what we do." The runner leaned against the wall, looking unconcerned, but not quite hiding how careful he was with his shoulder. "The way I look at it, we're gonna be there to pick each other up." He looked thoughtful before pointing out, "But you need to work on your jumping skills."
"Ronon," Teyla scolded. She still held Rodney's hand but she looked at John. "You are not," she said severely, "to jump off any cliffs anytime in the near future."
"That's okay." John figured he'd already jumped off the biggest cliff, and it was his team that had stopped his fall. He wondered if they even knew it.
"Are you ready, Colonel?" Carson entered from behind the other side of the curtain, already dressed in his surgical scrubs. "It's time to take that final step and get you on the road to recovery."
"You're trying to make this sound like a good thing." John wasn't buying it.
Carson smiled, his eyes crinkling. He patted John's uninjured leg. "Aye, it is. Trust me."
John breathed deep and looked around at his team and Carson. He smiled crookedly. "Yeah…I can do that."
Then Carson was injecting the sedative into John's IV port and seconds later he felt drowsy and numb and then the curtain was being pushed up against the wall, his bed was being wheeled away and Ronon called, "We'll be here, Sheppard," and Teyla, "You will be fine, John." Rodney roused enough from the commotion to demand, "Where's he taking Sheppard?" Then John's hold on awareness was gone once more.
The surgery went well, or so Carson told him. John surfaced a little in recovery, enough to get sick from the anesthesia. Then they gave him more drugs and he fell back into a hazy not-quite sleep. He knew people were around him, he felt hands shifting him, felt the soft tug against his IV. There were murmurs at times, and then finally, he was able to swim up from the cottony netherland, a hard ache down low refusing to let him remain asleep any longer.
He was thirsty and his leg was hurting worse than it had since they'd been rescued. He was surprised to see Rodney standing next to his bed. It was dark in the infirmary, the lights dimmed, so John figured it must be night. "Hey," he rasped. "What're you doing up?"
"Bathroom," Rodney replied wearily. "The catheter finally came out a few hours ago." Rodney did a mental shudder and he met John's eyes sympathetically because John with his bad leg and recent surgery was still in the cath club. On the upside, the pain from his leg that had driven him back into consciousness, kind of overrode something as little as a tube up his penis. And that was something he never thought he'd be thankful for.
"Bed pan, McKay," John said, because he knew Rodney had no business walking around without a nurse escort.
Rodney scowled, pushing a hand against his bandages, stark white and clean against his naked torso. All Rodney wore was a pair of scrub bottoms, loose and low over his hips. Now that he'd satisfied himself with John, he turned away and shuffled slowly until he reached the edge of his bed; then he half bent, half rolled, half fell, back onto his gurney, groaning. "I hate this part," he swore.
John made a face. "Me too."
"They're talking Earth. A team vacation, because I told them that's the only way we'd agree to go. Six weeks, once you're mobile."
"I figured they would," John admitted, staring at the ceiling. He had some mixed feelings about that. But then he thought about showing Teyla the Grand Canyon and taking Ronon to Sea World. Maybe a six week vacation wouldn't be a bad thing, so long as his team was with him.
The pain was growing worse, inching higher in waves that were anything but gentle. Rodney was moaning as he shifted his body into a better position. "Oh, crap, that hurts," he gasped finally.
John was quiet, content to listen to the harsh pants coming from a very alive Rodney, and to his own heart monitor beeping steadily by his head. The rhythm was increasing a little, probably because of the pain and maybe a little at the thought of the long recovery ahead, a trip to Earth, and burned bridges that he might finally try to cross again.
"This is worth it, right?"
"What'd you mean?"
Rodney waved a hand at his IV, his thickly bandaged belly, and then at John. "The pain," then he grew quieter, "the suffering." He looked away and took a steadying breath. "Never mind. This stuff Carson's giving me is making me emotional. Stupid, really." He turned again to John. "Are you okay? You need me to call Carson? Because you look like crap."
The painkillers he'd been given were fast wearing off and John knew he was reaching his limits. He closed his eyes a little and tried to grab some strength before looking at Rodney. "You're not exactly looking hot there yourself," he joked. "I can make it a little longer." He had spent too much time drugged. John just wanted to think clearly for a short while more.
Rodney didn't look like he believed him, but he didn't argue.
John thought about what Rodney had said. Was it worth it?
He'd died twice, came close more times than he wanted to count. Rodney, same… Teyla had been possessed by Wraith, unwillingly addicted to the enzyme along with the rest of his team thanks to Ford, shot, beaten. Ronon, had lost his world, his family, and spent seven years struggling to stay alive – was it worth it?
If Ronon had given up, he wouldn't have been there to save John and Rodney. If John hadn't insisted on trying to rescue Sumner and the others, Teyla would have died years ago. The choices they made, the pain they suffered, the roads that lead you where you are and you never know where you'll wind up until you're there. John chuckled, softly. "Yeah, Rodney. It's worth it."
Then a nurse and Carson were walking through the doors. Carson looked sleepily at Rodney, who merely pointed to John. The doc's eyes focused in on John and he said, "Colonel, you're looking a little rough tonight."
"You look like hell, Sheppard. I'm not going to spend the night listening to you moan and groan."
"I wasn't the one groaning a minute ago." John pointed at Rodney, getting Carson's attention 'that-a-way' and saying, "He got up to use the bathroom instead of calling a nurse and using the bedpan."
Carson glared at Rodney. "What's this? Rodney, are you trying to set yourself back? Do you know what would've happened if you'd fallen?"
"You have two eyes. I didn't fall. And I'm not using a bedpan," Rodney said, petulantly.
"You will, or I'll stick a catheter back up your little man, am I clear?" Carson kept glaring even while he took the hypodermic from the nurse, the one that she'd filled with pain medication that John didn't much want. Well, he did. But he didn't.
With another glare at Rodney, Carson took John's IV line and transferred his ire to John. "I told you to be honest with the pain. If you let it get too far out of control, it'll set your recovery back and that does nobody any good."
"Sorry, Doc," John apologized, ruefully. "You know --"
"Aye, I know, you hate how it makes you feel, but you'll have to deal with it for a little while longer." Then the medicine was released into the line and John nodded thankfully.
Carson pressed an understanding hand against John's shoulder. "Get some sleep."
"That's all I do lately," John complained.
"And you'll keep on doing it until I say you don't have to."
He already felt the medication dampening his pain and making him drowsy. "Give some to Rodney," he slurred. "He's hurting, too."
"I know; don't worry, he's next."
"Hey!" Rodney protested.
John's eyes had closed and he grinned sleepily. "Suck it up, Rodney."
"Sleep," Carson stressed. "Both of you!"
Rodney turned into the driveway, braking to a stop and shoving the gear into park. He looked over his shoulder where John sat in the back next to Teyla. His plastered leg full of signatures and "Get well, Sir!" stuck out straight in front of him, his crutches on the floor.
"You sure about this?"
John reached for his crutches, wincing from the pain. "Not really." But he figured dying twice and still living to tell about it might be a hint that he should get around to dealing with this. He'd made a lot of discoveries in Atlantis, and not all of them were technological.
Ronon jumped out of the front seat and opened the side door of their rented Tahoe blazer. He reached in and hauled John out, setting him carefully against the side of the silver car, before pulling John's crutches out and handing them to John. "There," he said. "Don't be such a baby. We're here to help you."
"Thanks big guy."
Teyla leaned forward. "Are you certain you do not wish us to come with you?"
"Yeah, not… not at first. Let me say hi and we'll go from there."
John wasn't sure whether his dad was going to slam the door on his face, or give him the five minutes to try and talk. And he wasn't completely sure he had the guts to say anything. Still, he nodded at his team, and started the hopping walk toward the front door of the rambling ranch-style house.
Before he made it to the porch, the door opened. His dad, haggard and looking older than John remembered, stepped out. His eyes were as hard as John remembered. They looked him over, narrowed, traveled over his crutches and knee-high cast, then skipped over John's shoulder to the SUV full of his friends.
"John," his dad greeted, not letting anything through.
Life was about living. About taking those chances. John still wasn't sure about God, but the way John figured, maybe God wasn't all that sure about him, either. He steadied himself and gripped the handles of his crutches, seeking any support he could draw. He glanced back to see Ronon standing by the door, Teyla trying to look like she wasn't hovering, ready to come to his rescue at a moment's notice. Rodney sat behind the steering wheel, watching soberly.
John turned back and squinted into the morning glare, smiling crookedly. "Hi, Dad."