Days turned into a week and then two as John struggled to live. Most of the time, he was completely unaware of his surroundings, but when he was, the familiar voices anchored him, and with each voice, a touch - a firm grip on his shoulder, gentle hands washing his face, a pat on his knee, small fingers curled in his. Too weak to open his eyes and too exhausted to make sense of the words being spoken, he held tightly to the simple fact that he was not alone. And slowly, the waves of pain began to ebb.
"…took your advice, and you were right. It was a great movie. The little guy that kept pronouncing everything as 'inconceivable' reminds me of…."
He forced his eyelids up and found the thin woman with curly brown hair gaping at him.
"John?" she gasped incredulously as she touched a device near her ear. "Carson, he's awake."
He blinked at her, confused and disoriented, and began to panic when he could not breathe. He flailed in terror and reached for his throat only to have her grasp his hands.
"You are on the ventilator. The tube down your throat is helping you to breathe. Try to relax."
As he thrashed in a feeble attempt to get away, she moved her hands to the sides of his face and leaned forward until their noses touched. "You are safe. You are home now; no one will hurt you. Shhhhh…. Don't fight the vent. Let it breathe for you."
Her soft words and calm tone soothed him as her fingers brushed his cheek in the same way Neera had comforted Preslan after a nightmare. John looked into her eyes, searching for any hint of deceit or malice, surprised to find concern and affection instead. Nodding in understanding, he relaxed and gave control to the machine. When she straightened he could see the blue-eyed man with the musical voice standing behind her.
Smiling, the man studied the monitors surrounding John before shifting his gaze to him. "Hello again. It's good to see you awake. Do you remember me?"
John knew he should, the eyes and the voice were so familiar, and his brows drew together in concentration. White hot agony ignited in his mind, and his eyes slammed shut as his back arched in response. He was dimly aware of alarms shrieking and the man's lilt growing thick as he shouted. Then something warm and inviting hit his veins and seduced him into the darkness.
"Carson! What just happened?"
"I should have known better than to ask him that! I suspect he received some kind of neural shock from the console explosion; Radek and his team are still trying to determine exactly what happened. Dr. Keller has found some entries in the medical database regarding a condition some of the Ancients suffered from as a result of equipment malfunctions. She is working up a summary on her findings, and we should have it to you in the next couple of days."
"Is there anything you can do for him now?"
"Not much until his body is stronger. We need to make sure that no one repeats the mistake I just made. That means no questions about his past or his memory."
"I'll get the word out."
The vent was removed from John's throat after a few days to be replaced by an NG tube which was taken out once he was able to keep his eyes open long enough to sip clear broth. To his surprise, the people from his dreams were the owners of the voices that comforted him. They introduced themselves, explaining where he was and what had happened to him. No one made any demands of him; they simply talked to him about their day-to-day lives. Once his catheter was removed, he was allowed to walk, but for no more than ten minutes each day. The dreadlocked man, Ronon, helped him to do so while Teyla assisted him with deep breathing and leg exercises.
He was still plagued by nightmares of a past he could not quite put into context even after describing the dreams to whoever was sitting with him. John recognized his caregivers were trying to protect him, but he grew frustrated with the void in his mind. After pleading for answers, he was shown photos of his life on Atlantis, and personal items were placed around his bed - a board with wheels, a poster of a singer, a pair of dark glasses. But every time he tried to remember, the knife in his skull would twist, adding to the headache that had been his constant companion since the culling.
The ache pounded hard enough to bring tears to his eyes sometimes, and the medication the doctor had given him had proven useless. Light and sound made him nauseous, and one day when Rodney entered carrying a glowing device, the pain spiked hard enough to make John cry out. McKay glanced at the apparatus in horror and fled the room. Carson raced in a moment later, asking questions, but the blood roaring in John's ears drowned out the words. He rolled on his side as his stomach heaved, the movement only serving to compound his agony as he gagged.
"Please, make it stop," John begged the physician before surrendering to the looming darkness.
Carson stared in bewilderment as the colonel slumped into unconsciousness. He had known Sheppard's headaches were painful but had no idea they had reached this level. John had come so far only to start regressing, and nothing the Scot did seemed to help. He checked the pilot's vitals and turned to find Rodney lurking in the doorway, guilt etched on every feature, Teyla and Ronon standing behind him.
"Come on in."
"Is he OK?" the scientist asked as the three entered the area.
"I hope so. His heart rate and respiration show signs of distress but not enough to cause permanent damage." Carson huffed in disgust. "What were you thinking, bringing an Ancient device in here?"
"I didn't mean to," McKay protested. "Sometimes I forget I'm carrying a scanner."
"Rodney, you have to be more careful. You know that his brain can't interact with Ancient technology right now. Keller's research confirms that when an overload like this happens, the patient has to be kept away from anything that requires mental activation or interface."
"Dr. Beckett," Teyla began. "Does not almost everything in Atlantis require such interaction?"
"Not everything, but many systems, and devices, do which is why we have to take care regarding what we expose him to."
Ronon shifted his gaze from John to Carson. "Doc, what she's trying to ask is: would he be better off recovering somewhere else?"
Beckett studied the identical expressions of hope on Sheppard's team. "What did you have in mind?"
"We thought perhaps a few days on the mainland would help. My people left a few tents behind when the Ancestors insisted they relocate. We could take plenty of water and food with us, and you would only be a jumper ride away," Teyla suggested.
"You want to take him camping?"
"Carson, he's getting worse," Rodney pointed out. "If being on Atlantis is making him sick then he needs to be somewhere else. According to you, the database said he needed time away for his mind to heal. Will it hurt to try?"
"It's not that simple. The man has been very ill and needs medical care."
"He's eating solid food again and can walk a little bit," McKay argued. "You know if we were on Earth he would have already been released from the hospital with a list of instructions for home. How is this different?"
"This is camping."
"Not to me and my people," Teyla interjected as she placed a hand on his arm. "Please, Carson. We will not leave the settlement area, and you can check on him as often as you wish."
"Unless you have a better plan," Rodney added.
Sighing, Beckett had to concede that he did not, in fact, have a better plan. The colonel would most likely improve if he was away from the Ancient technology. "OK, then. What now?"
Dex grinned. "By the time you convince Weir and sedate Sheppard, we'll have the jumper loaded."
Soft voices woke John, and his eyes blinked open slowly. A flickering candle provided enough light for him to see the fabric walls of someplace new. He raised his head, delighted to find that the ache had dissipated to the same dull throb it had been on Trilox. As his eyes adjusted to the dim illumination, he discovered three people seated near the entrance to the tent. They had told him they were his team, but their expressions had spoken of relationships deeper than merely coworkers. At times, his mind whispered 'family' when he looked at them.
Ronon rose at the rustle of the blanket John pushed away and made his way to the side of the bed. "Feeling better?"
"Yes, actually. Where am I?"
Teyla and Rodney joined them as Dex answered. "You're in what's left of the Athosian settlement on the mainland."
"Oh." John had already forgotten who the Athosians were but decided not to ask. "Why am I here?"
McKay spoke up. "The Ancient technology on Atlantis was causing your headaches. We thought you might recover quicker here."
"I thought the doctor said my memory would return faster by being around familiar things."
Teyla smiled gently at him. "That is why we are here."
"To be familiar?"
"To remind you who you are."
After a meal of surprisingly good soup that Ronon assured him Teyla did not make, they sat at his bedside and told him of their exploits on Atlantis and in the Pegasus Galaxy. He listened carefully, testing each story against an image in his mind. Some found a match, but most were blank. He laughed at the idea of throwing Rodney off a balcony and grimaced at the pain Ronon must have felt as Beckett cut a Wraith tracking device out of his back not once but twice. He squeezed Teyla's hand as she told of the death of a beloved friend but found himself wondering what they were not telling him. His dreams spoke of violence and death while most of their stories told of friendship and courage.
"Tell me about me."
Smiles faded as they exchanged glances. "What would you like to know?" Teyla asked.
"Anything. You said we were friends. Do I have a family?" They shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. "Are they dead?"
"Well, we ah… we don't know much about your past," McKay confessed. "You don't really talk about it."
"We're friends, and you don't know if I have a family."
"Well, you must have at one point. You weren't hatched. At least I don't think you were. There are times-"
"Rodney…" Emmagan warned. "Be nice."
"Yes, right. Sorry. Like I was saying, you don't talk about your past much."
"That bad, huh."
"John, my father's name was Turghan. What does that tell you about me?"
"I know you are curious about your past, but knowing the names of your family members will not tell you anything about you."
"I guess you're right, but I would still like to know."
"The information is probably in your personnel file," Rodney offered. "I'm sure Elizabeth could look it up if you want."
"Maybe I'll have her do that." He rubbed a temple as his head began to throb mercilessly from the snatches of memory. "Do you mind if we pick this up tomorrow?"
"Not at all," Teyla answered as she smoothly stood. "Good night, John."
The three moved to the other side of the room as he pulled the blanket up to his shoulder. He fell asleep wondering why he would hide his past from his friends.
The hand slammed into his chest, and pain like he had never felt raged through his body. The gag was unnecessary, the agony so intense he could not have screamed if he had wanted. He could feel his life draining, cells dying, nerves shriveling, skin wrinkling. He twisted under the deadly grip as he silently begged for it to stop.
His scream echoed in the night air as he bolted upright, immediately sagging back down as pain rippled through his abdomen. Panting as his heart hammered uncontrollably, his eyes flew open again when he felt one small hand firmly clasp his fingers while another stroked his upper arm. He searched the darkened room and found Teyla staring back at him as tears trickled down her face while Ronon and Rodney stood behind her, their expressions a mixture of guilt and anger.
"S-s-s-sorry," John stammered. "I hate that one."
Teyla's hand moved from his arm to his face as she dabbed at the perspiration beading up. "You are safe here. He cannot reach you."
His heart seized at the name, and the dark-eyed man's face swam before his mind's eye. "Kolya. I've been wondering what his name was." He took a shaky breath. "Why does he hate me?"
"Because you're a better man than he is." Rage and bitterness made Rodney's voice so thick it was almost unrecognizable.
John's laugh was hollow. "Somehow I doubt that."
"McKay's right. Not only have you beaten him every time you've faced him, you fight with honor. He is a coward. I just wish…."
"You wish what?" He looked from one to the other noting the eyes that would not meet his and the defensive body language. An image flashed in his mind – Ronon and Teyla chasing him in the market, shock on their faces. "You weren't expecting to find me on Deneb; you were looking for him. Did you go there to kill him?"
Dex's chin lifted, and he met Sheppard's gaze squarely. "Yes."
John found the same hard look in the eyes of Teyla and Rodney which both warmed and chilled him. "I see." He thought back to his reaction at the sight of Kolya on Deneb. "Then I'm the type of man who seeks vengeance."
McKay's brow wrinkled in confusion. "What?"
"Why would you say that, John?" Teyla asked.
"You said that I was in charge of this team which I assume means that you follow my lead. Since I wasn't there, you did what you thought I would do."
Rodney's face mottled with fury. "I know you don't remember, but it's not that simple. He has tried repeatedly to kill all of us. He broadcasted your torture; we watched that Wraith feed on you three times!"
"You can't sit there and expect- What did you say?"
"It was four times." Grimacing, he shuddered as the memory pushed its way forward, his voice dropping to a whisper. "Once more after we escaped."
"God, Sheppard," McKay breathed. "Why didn't you tell us?"
Other images popped in his head, Rodney with a stab wound, Kolya dragging Weir toward the gate at gunpoint, an underground room with a math puzzle, an ambush in a forest. Moaning, John clamped his eyes shut at the bombardment of memories as Teyla gripped his hand tightly with both of hers, murmuring softly to him. Then she began to sing a haunting melody, her voice strong and beautiful. He could not understand the words, and the tune was exotic to his ears, but her song spoke to his heart and whispered comfort and peace to his soul. Ronon laid a comforting hand on his shoulder as Rodney squeezed his arm, and gradually his trembling stopped, and his breathing slowed. Tightening his fingers around Teyla's hand, he drifted back to sleep.
The next few days were filled with long conversations with his team. They told him of waking the Wraith, of losing the young man with the twisted face to an enzyme, of the invention and consequences of a retrovirus, of McKay's alternate self, and of a device that made them hallucinate to the point of hurting each other. He began to see himself through their eyes, not a violent criminal as he first feared but certainly not a perfect man either. He learned from McKay and Emmagan that he had authority issues, and Dex informed him of a lazy streak. But Rodney also told him about a suicide run with a jumper. Teyla described a conversation about family. Ronon spoke of keeping a promise to a Wraith. John stopped fearing what his dreams would show him, allowing his mind to reveal the truth, and one day he awoke to find the headache gone.
He and his team never strayed far from the tents, but they did take a few walks to the shoreline, and he discovered the origins of his love for the water as memories of childhood flooded back. Carson visited daily, his smile growing bigger each time. After ten days on the mainland, John was pronounced ready to return to Atlantis if he passed one last test.
"Tell me if this hurts even the tiniest bit, Colonel," Beckett said as he pulled a scanner from his pack.
"Don't worry, Carson. I'm more than ready to get my life back, but I won't risk relapsing."
The device hummed as the doctor waved it over his face, chest, and torso. "Anything?"
John grinned. "Not even a twinge, Doc."
Beckett handed him a life signs detector. "Can you activate and control it?"
At the pilot's touch, the display lit up, screens shifting at his command. "Yep."
"Then I think it's time you came home, son."
Once their belongings were loaded in the jumper, McKay took the controls and headed to Atlantis. Shortly after lifting off, Ronon kicked over Beckett's med kit in the rear compartment, earning him a good scolding from Teyla as she bent to help the doctor gather the supplies. She suddenly became all thumbs as Dex lounged in the compartment doorway, effectively blocking the view. Glancing at Sheppard, Rodney grinned and let go of the controls.
John's surprise quickly turned into gratitude and excitement as the jumper responded to his touch. He had forgotten how much he loved to fly. They skimmed over the surface of the water until they reached the city. He darted between several towers and flew straight up the side of one and down another, circling around the main spire before neatly dropping through the bay doors.
"Next time you can just ask," Carson grumped as he picked up his pack and stomped down the ramp.
Watching the doctor's retreating back, he made a mental note to apologize later and grinned at his team. "Thanks for that. It was exactly what I needed." He glanced down, rubbing the back of his neck. "Look, you guys know I suck at this, but um, thanks for, well, for everything, for finding me, for helping me to remember…."
"You're not going to get mushy, are you?" McKay asked, looking petrified. Teyla glanced at Ronon who smacked Rodney in the back of the head.
"You are welcome, John," the Athosian replied. "We are glad you are finally home."
Dex pulled McKay from the pilot's chair and loaded him down with luggage. "Sheppard isn't allowed to carry anything so you get to carry his, little man."
"What?" At Ronon's glare, the scientist rolled his eyes. "Fine." He glanced at John who smirked back at him. "Well, let's go, Colonel. Busy man here and all."
They strolled down the hall, allowing Sheppard to set the pace. Expedition members greeted them warmly as they passed, and John felt the last vestiges of doubt disappear. He was really home. Teyla bid farewell as they passed her quarters, and Ronon headed to a transporter to return some supplies to the quartermaster.
Rodney's nose wrinkled in disgust when the doors to the colonel's room slid open. "Do you ever clean up this pig sty?"
"I haven't been here in a while, McKay."
"Well, it didn't get like this while you were gone."
"You aren't the only busy man around here. In the grand scheme of things, the Wraith and the Asurans usually win out over putting my clothes away."
Dumping John's belongings on his unmade bed, Rodney grabbed the laundry sack from under the desk and began stuffing it.
"What you are doing?"
"You aren't allowed to pick up anything, remember? Unless you plan on wearing dirty clothes for the next few weeks, somebody has to do it." He moved to the uniforms in the corner and continued.
"It doesn't have to be you, McKay."
Setting the bag aside, the physicist began to stack the DVDs that covered part of the floor, his back to Sheppard. "Well, unless Atlantis has acquired a maid service recently, who else is it going to be?"
"I do have an entire military contingent at my disposal. I'm sure I can find someone to carry the laundry sack-"
McKay's movements completely stilled, his hands flattening on the desk as his shoulders hunched. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"I said I was sorry."
"For what? You didn't scratch one of the discs, did you?"
Rodney turned around, causing John to blink in surprise at the overwhelming guilt on the man's face. "I left you behind. On that planet that got culled. Everyone thought you were dead because I left you there. God, Sheppard, I am so sorry."
"First of all, this was not your fault so stop blaming yourself. According to Beckett you saved my life."
"If I'd been able to fix-"
"I'm not done yet. Second, you did not leave me behind. We got separated by circumstances beyond your control. Regardless of what you might think, Rodney, you aren't Superman."
"If I hadn't gone back to get-"
"Still not done. Third, you didn't give up. Ronon told me where they found you. Not everyone around here is an ex-con, you know. An escaped one at that."
Dipping his head sideways, Rodney blinked at him for a minute, a grin beginning to show. "I'd never thought of that. Think they'll put up wanted posters of me around that village?"
"It's probably a good thing their stargate doesn't work. The last time you had a wanted poster we wound up gassed and almost nuked."
McKay lifted an amused brow. "Subtle group, the Genii."
"Now, if you're done, I'd like my room back."
"You're not going to get mushy, are you?"
"Oh, hardly." Rodney moved to the door, laundry bag in hand. "I was going to ask if you wanted to head to the game room after dinner. We still have a trade negotiation to finish."
"Sure. As long as you promise not to offer beans again."
"Then don't send any more citrus." The door slid open as the scientist waved at the controls.
"Hey, McKay. You did good. Thanks for everything."
A smile tugged at the corner of Rodney's mouth. "You're welcome." He slung his pack over his shoulder. "Don't let it happen again."
Once the doors slid shut, John stretched out on his bed for the first time in weeks, propping his hands behind his head. He knew he had a long way to go before he was returned to active duty; he tired easily, and his abdominals were not fully healed. But he was home, and that was enough for now.
Five Weeks Later
Sheppard paced anxiously in the gateroom as he waited for his team to gather. At the sound of footsteps, he turned to find Elizabeth Weir standing next to him.
He grinned sheepishly at her. "Maybe a little. But mostly I'm looking forward to being able to thank Wenn and Neera for everything they did."
"Do you have the gifts?"
He hefted the pack on his shoulder. "Right here. The Athosians are fine craftsmen, and the toys are perfect."
The sounds of bickering echoed loudly in the room as Ronon and Rodney entered followed by a long-suffering Teyla. "He is right, Dr. McKay. The scent of the sunscreen will be detectable by anyone standing downwind of us."
Weir shook her head as the sniping continued, catching John's eye. "Sounds like things are back to normal."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he replied before addressing his team. "Knock it off, kids."
John nodded at Chuck, trying to contain his excitement as the dialing sequence began. It was time to get back to doing what he was meant to do. His smile widened as the gate bloomed to life.
But if I lose my way will you come and find me? If I forget who I am will you remind me?
"If I Lose My Way" written by Dale and Faye Belnap
A/N: Thanks to karrikln1671 on LJ for the song lyric prompt this is based on. To all of you who have joined me on this ride - thank you. I know your time is valuable, and I am honored you would choose to spend some of it with me. To those of you who have taken the time to share your comments and thoughts, I can't thank you enough. You make me smile.