The final chapter, hallelujah! and please excuse any military inaccuracies. All I know is what I get from google and TV. :-) Thank you again for reading, for your fabulous reviews throughout - this has been a wonderful ride and thanks for coming along.
John waited on a bench at the Reno Tahoe airport, watching the gray-haired, elderly tourists milling around him as they collected their seemingly endless amounts of luggage. John's flight had arrived 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and so he slouched back, propped his feet on his duffle bag and pulled his book from his pocket. It was Stephen King's IT, which, he hated to admit, was a damn scary book, and he hadn't been able to stop reading it since he'd found it in the infirmary back at Atlantis. He opened the book to the page where he'd left off, but he found that he couldn't concentrate. Not when there was so much to see around him. He looked up at every loud voice, at every brightly dressed tourist who wandered by him, the vast array of colors and faces mesmerizing.
John found this re-acquaintance with the visual world both overwhelming and wonderful. Those first few days, however, he'd been far too miserable to fully appreciate how tremendously his world had changed. The pain had been so bad he couldn't so much as turn his head without bile rising in his throat, and without everything spinning in sickening loops. His nose had kept bleeding off and on; one time when he'd been sound asleep, and he'd woken in a near panic at the blood soaking his pillowcase and smearing across his chin and neck. Everything had been blurred and fragmented for a seemingly endless time as the migraines raged with frightening tenacity. Thankfully, Keller kept him dosed up with something that had dulled the pain, and if he didn't move too much, the dizziness had been almost tolerable. He'd spent those days in a semi-conscious haze, blurred faces and streams of conversation drifting over him, uncertain what had been real and what had only been scattered, incoherent dreams.
When his skull finally decided that it wasn't going to explode after all, and the pain had faded, John discovered that his vision was still extremely limited. Anything beyond four feet, or so, deteriorated into indistinct smudges of shapes and colors. He hadn't allowed himself to feel any disappointment though – even severely myopic vision was better than a lifetime in the dark.
Then, nearly a week later, everything became much clearer, growing sharper with each passing day. He could easily make out his teammates' faces as soon as they stepped through the infirmary door. The light sensitivity relented enough that he could tolerate Dr. Keller and Dr. Ito's endless exams and scans. Even though he'd been cautioned not to strain his eyes too much, John had stolen the battered horror novel from a stack of other books piled on a table beside an empty infirmary bed, and had begun reading furtively and with guilty pleasure. He could only manage a few pages at a time without his head beginning to throb and the lines of text blurring, but he couldn't stop himself.
In a life that had given him some pretty amazing rushes, this veritable rebirth was the best rush John had ever experienced. Better than anything he'd likely ever experience again.
Each night, he kept the light above his bed turned on low, and he still found himself reluctant to close his eyes to sleep. Each morning, when he woke, the multi-colored light filtering through the stained-glass windows and washing over his face and arms was the most beautiful thing in the world. A small part of him feared that this was all a dream, a hallucination from which he would be happy to never emerge.
John's teammates seemed to share his caution. Rodney had gone back to the constant, nervous hovering. Teyla still kept taking John's hand whenever they walked down the long corridors, even though he was more than capable of finding his own way around now. But he didn't mind. The contact was reassuring, her small hand and her presence somehow grounding him in the wake of what should have been the impossible. Even Ronon behaved with uncharacteristic gentleness around him, as if John were made of spun glass and easily breakable. It was as though they each shared John's fear that this amazing reprieve was something transitory. Something fragile.
Maybe one day, the novelty would fade. Maybe his sight would once more become something John rarely thought about, but for now, his gratitude was immeasurable.
It took a few more days until he realized that everything appeared subtly different than how he remembered it. As if he were viewing the world through someone else's eyes. The Atlantean sunrises and sunsets were still incredible, but slightly… off. Certain colors seemed oddly muted, but maybe, he reasoned, after being so long in the dark, he'd simply remembered everything more vividly than it truly had been.
He'd put it out of his mind until Rodney figured out for him just what that difference was.
John had just been brought his lunch tray and was scowling with distaste at the watery chicken noodle soup, tuna salad sandwich – he hated tuna – and a clear plastic cup of… something, when Rodney sauntered in and plunked down in the chair beside his bed.
"McKay?" John asked, jerking his chin in the direction of the cup. "What the hell is that?"
Rodney looked at him then picked it up and shook it in demonstration. "Uh, jello?"
Skeptical, John glanced at his friend then at the jiggling substance. "Doesn't look like any jello flavor I've ever seen."
"What do you mean?" Rodney said, giving him another perplexed look then sniffed the cup. "It's raspberry or strawberry. You used to eat it all the time."
"But it's green." John pointed out, wondering if Rodney was messing with him. "Puke green. Umm… chartreuse."
"Chartreuse?" Rodney echoed, making his own disgusted face. He shook the jello again. "Sheppard, it's an alarming shade of carcinogenic neon red, and… and…" Rodney's voice trailed off as he stared at John. He quickly scanned the area around John's bed. When he couldn't seem to find what he was looking for, he jumped to his feet and rushed off around the corner.
"McKay!" John called after him.
Rodney came back a few seconds later, carrying a file folder. "What color is this?"
"What?" John shook his head in confusion. "Why?"
"Seriously, John," Rodney said, holding the folder almost in front of John's nose. "Just tell me what color you think it is."
John pushed Rodney's hand back, but looked back and forth between his friend and the folder, unsure how to answer, inexplicably and suddenly nervous. "I dunno… kinda… yellowy?"
Rodney stared at him wide-eyed some more, then threw the folder down at the foot of the bed. "I'll be right back."
"McKay… what the—" John swung his feet off the bed, ready to go after him.
"Just… just wait there," Rodney called over his shoulder and waving a hand for John to stay put.
John scowled in frustration, but stayed where he was. He was curious despite his irritation, and admittedly a little freaked out by Rodney's reaction. He heard Rodney yammering at someone. Then Rodney came back, still talking at breakneck speed, with Dr. Keller in tow, struggling to get a word in edgewise.
"So did you or did you not test him for colorblindness?" Rodney demanded, stopping at the foot of John's bed jerking a thumb at him.
"Colorblindness?" John echoed, incredulous.
Rodney ignored him, keeping his gaze fixed on the young doctor. Keller looked at Rodney then at John wide-eyed.
"Um, no, we hadn't thought that—"
"Well, I think you'd better test him right now," Rodney told her.
Frowning, Keller looked back to John. "Have you been having trouble distinguishing color, John?"
John froze, then shifted on the bed, reluctant at the possibility of even more tests to endure. "I don't know…" he began uncertainly. "I'd noticed that things looked a little different, but—"
"I don't think he can tell red from green," Rodney broke in, crossing his arms. "And why the hell haven't you tested him for something like this along with everything else?"
"But I was never colorblind," John protested before the doctor could answer. "My vision was always perfect."
"Yeah, well, you've never had Ancient technology perform corrective surgery on you before, either," Rodney pointed out.
"Hold on," Keller said, holding up a hand. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The fact that you can see at all, John, is downright improbable, and we've been waiting for your eyes to fully recover before giving you a full prognosis and further tests."
"Yes, yes," Rodney said, waving a dismissive hand. "But this is something you can test him for right now, isn't it?"
Keller nodded. "It is possible that John may be experiencing some side-effects from the Ancient technology, and it is possible to become colorblind after a serious injury to the eye." She stepped close to John and crouched down to peer into his eyes, as though the answer was written in his pupils. John had to force himself to hold still, uncomfortable under both the doctor's and Rodney's scrutiny. "I'll run a few more tests, but first, I'd like you to eat your lunch." She smiled and patted John reassuringly on the shoulder.
After he had eaten most of his soup and taken a few perfunctory bites of his sandwich, with Rodney hovering impatiently over him and wolfing down the other half of the sandwich, Keller led John to a gurney where Dr. Ito waited. As John had feared, he was subjected to more tests, endless lights shone in his eyes, a full-body scan, of which he couldn't figure out the necessity. Then Dr. Ito showed him a series of slides of color swatches and pictures with monochromatic dots arranged in a circle from which John was supposed to pick out letters and numbers. All of which he'd failed miserably.
"Your visual acuity is nearly back to 20/20 in you right eye, however, the left eye is still significantly weaker, which is not surprising, considering it was more severely damaged," Dr. Ito proclaimed when he finally finished with John. "But this is a tremendous improvement since the last test we performed a week ago. You also have deuteranopia, or red/green colorblindness. This means that you have difficulty with discriminating red and green hues."
"So now what?" John asked, unsure what to make of all this.
"Well, as Dr. Keller has previously mentioned, this is very likely a side effect or repercussion from the Ancient technology. We are still are uncertain as to how the technology restored your eyesight in the first place, so I can only speculate at this point. It is also possible that this may improve somewhat in time," Dr. Ito told him, "but if not, many people have this condition without even realizing it, or without it affecting their day to day lives."
"Yeah, but I bet none of them would ever be allowed to fly a fight jet," John said carefully.
Dr. Ito nodded. "There are certain limitations, yes, but it is not as though you'll be flying American jets here on Atlantis, is it?" he said with a smile, in an attempt at reassurance. John could only nod as he tried to take it all in.
This new development was unexpected to say the least, but John had learned a long time ago to stop being surprised by what life threw at him. He tried not to worry about how this would affect the possibility of getting reinstated to the military and to Atlantis. He'd only just allowed himself to hope for the possibility of getting his old life back. But he'd worry about all that later. For now, he wanted to hold onto his gratitude for a while longer. All that really mattered right now was that he could see. Everything else would sort itself out.
The next morning, John had slowly and reluctantly pulled himself from a dream of the first time he'd ever flown a fighter jet. He supposed that he hadn't been able to put his fears out of his mind, after all.
He'd dragged himself from bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and stumbling to the infirmary bathroom. After a long, steaming hot shower, he'd spent an adolescent amount of time peering into the mirror. He still found his own appearance strange, as though his face had weathered a few years instead of five months. There were more flecks of gray at his temples, sideburns and the two-day's worth of stubble on his chin was nearly white. His hair was much too long and he impatiently shoved it back from his forehead. The scars on his cheekbones stood out stark white against his deeply tanned and flushed skin. The long-healed gash bisecting his left eyebrow looked tough, like something he'd acquired during a brawl, and he ran a finger along it. These wounds had healed a long time ago, while he couldn't see them, and it was as though they hadn't existed until now.
The worst were his eyes. Keller had reassured him that the hemorrhages would soon fade and the blood would be reabsorbed into his system, but they still freaked him out. He knew they were supposed to be shot through with red, but instead, with this new vision, they held a strange greenish-yellow cast, making him appear almost feral. He bared his teeth and growled at his reflection.
By the end of the second week, John had submitted to the SGC a full report on the success of his 'consultation mission,' along with a request for reinstatement with the military and the Atlantis expedition. It took a few days for General Landry to respond. Predictably, the General had voiced his skepticism at John's incredible recovery and ordered John to return to base for a full assessment as soon as he was given the all clear to travel.
"Great," John groaned, slumping in the chair in front of Elizabeth's desk as she gave him the news. "You know, he's hated me ever since we stole that jumper right from under his nose."
Elizabeth smiled and raised her eyebrows. "I think he's hated all of us since then. But he is professional enough not to let that sway his judgement."
John folded his arms over his chest, not convinced. "I don't know… he'll probably make me a deskjockey in the SGC for revenge."
Elizabeth sat up straighter in her chair with indignation. "Not if I have anything to say about this. I have every confidence that you'll be fully reinstated, but, if you are going to be relegated to a desk job, then you can do that just as well here, and I'll tell him as much."
"Thanks. I appreciate that. He is scared of you, after all," John told her. He tried for a casual smirk, but he couldn't help a surge of fear at the unknown. After all, not even three weeks ago, his biggest goal in life was getting a guide dog and eventually his own place, but now… the world was wide open to him again, and the only world he wanted was Atlantis.
After another checkup with Keller and Ito, John was given a clean bill of health, and he was scheduled to accompany a team of soldiers returning to Earth in three days.
John spent the last few days with his team; playing sea golf with Ronon, endless virtual games with Rodney, stick fighting with Teyla. They all occupied themselves in the evenings with movie marathons, John calling dibs on who got to choose which ones to watch. After all, as he'd argued, he'd never expected to be able to see them again, so it was only fair. The first night, they watched Jaws, an indisputable classic. Then, much to Rodney's disgust, the original Planet of the Apes, which was one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, in John's opinion. Then he wanted to watch Jaws again, much to Ronon's delight. The next night was the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the extended versions, simply because they were such visual feasts. His teammates fell asleep three-quarters of the way through The Two Towers, but John couldn't pull his burning eyes from the screen.
On the last morning, John had woken up early, before the sun had fully risen, and he'd watched the sunrise from his favorite balcony. The sunlight gleamed on Atlantis's spires, casting them in silver light. He smiled at the sight of her. Once the sun was fully up, a hazy ball high in an overcast sky, he wandered the less populated parts of the city by himself, running his fingers along the walls as he walked, not for guidance anymore, but because he wanted to touch her. He couldn't imagine having to leave here again, but he'd done it before, and, he supposed if he had to, he could do it again. Even still, it would always feel as if a part of him was missing.
The last night before he had to go back to face whatever future Landry and the SGC had decided for him, Rodney lay stretched out on John's bed, simultaneously watching him pack and working on his laptop.
"You know, you may as well leave most of that stuff here since you'll be right back anyway," Rodney told him.
"Maybe," John said, pulling his shirts from the drawers. "But in the meantime, I still need something to wear."
"Oh, that's true," Rodney agreed and went back to pecking on his keyboard.
John rolled up his shirts and began placing them one by one in his bag. It was evident that a blind man had packed the clothes – everything, including his socks, were mismatched. He set aside one of the cotton shirts, intending to fold it more neatly, then frowned and picked it up, shaking it out. It was white with a very subtle gray pattern woven into the soft material. Holding it closer to his face, he scowled at it, because shit… was that paisley? Then he had to grin, realizing it had been Dana's way of sneaking a little style into his wardrobe.
"You know, I really like that shirt," Rodney said without looking away from his laptop screen.
Without hesitation, John balled up the shirt and tossed at him. It hit Rodney in the face and fell onto his keyboard.
"You're welcome," John said and went back to his packing.
Rodney set his laptop beside him on the bed. "What? You're giving it to me?"
"Yep. Consider it a thank you present. Besides, it's a little big on me anyway."
Rodney peered at the inside collar of the shirt, then unbuttoned it and put it on over his T-shirt. "Huh. I would'a figured it for a Calvin Klein, but it's Guess."
John turned around to see Rodney looking down and admiring himself. "Do you have any idea how gay you sound right now, McKay?"
"I do not." Rodney gave him an indignant look, but took the shirt off, folding it neatly beside him. "I just happen to have better fashion sense than you do, which really isn't saying much."
"I rest my case," John said with a smirk.
"So, are you sure you don't want me to come with you?" Rodney asked, sitting up on the edge of the bed. "You know, help you plead your real case?"
"I'll be fine," John told him, shoving the rest of his things in the bag and zipping it shut. "And I don't have a case. It's just a technicality. Military protocol and all that bullshit." He heard himself say the words, but he scarcely believed his own reassurances.
"Yeah, true," Rodney said, waving a hand. "Did you know that people with your type of colorblindness can actually be an asset in the field? There have been studies that they can easily spot what's virtually invisible camouflage to normal vision. It's actually like a bullseye to them."
"Really?" John said, feigning interest. Dr. Ito had actually told him the same thing during his last checkup.
"Yep," Rodney said, looking proud of himself. "I even sent General Landry and General O'Neill a memo pointing out that fact, among many other selling points. Some I had to embellish a little, but I can be very persuasive when I want to be."
John turned and gaped at his friend in surprise. "You send them a memo?"
"Well, yeah," Rodney shrugged looking embarrassed. "There's still a ton of stuff to explore on that planet that we need you for. And who knows what else you can make that chair do, although you might want to go a little easier on it the next time."
"I'll keep that in mind," John said, smiling a little at his friend's loyalty and determination. He suspected that if the SGC turned him down, Rodney, short of kidnapping him, would figure out one way or another to get him back here.
Once back at the SGC and faced with General Landry and General O'Neill impassively going over his file, John had felt any shred of cautious hope begin to fade away. Then Landry finally looked up and informed John that in light of his role in acquiring a fully powered ZPM, and another potential one within easy reach, he had proven that his Ancient gene was, in fact, indispensable to the Atlantis expedition. However, the paperwork would take some time, and once that was done, John would have to report back for a full physical assessment, as he had been out of action for almost half a year. Landry also couldn't give John any indication as to what position he could expect to fill on Atlantis just yet. Colonel Caldwell had been performing his duties as head of military operations in an exemplary fashion, and Landry, so far, was inclined to leave things as they were.
Looking back and forth at the two Generals, it had taken a moment for John to register what had happened, what Landry had just told him. They were letting him go back, he finally realized with astonishment. One way or another, they were letting him go back, letting him go home. The relief and gratitude had been so great that he hadn't been able to hold back a happy grin. Actually, he'd damn near stood up and whooped with joy.
General O'Neill had to hold back a smile of his own, and had suggested that John take a week of 'play time,' and take in the sights of Colorado before he had to rejoin the working world.
However, John had other plans in mind. First, he booked a flight to Reno that left the next morning. Then he called his dad from the base, and stammered out his good news. He had to make up some bullshit story about highly classified experimental surgery that he'd agreed to take part in. And no, he hadn't said anything because he hadn't wanted to get both his and William's hopes up, but yeah, amazingly, it had worked. William had been near speechless with shock and surprise, and John felt a small measure of guilt over that – but he reasoned that it was better than showing up in Reno and giving his poor old man a heart attack at the sight of him.
Before he hung up the phone, William insisted on getting John's flight information and picking him up at the airport, and John found that he was looking forward to seeing his dad.
But before that, he had an entire evening to himself. Escaping the gloomy confines of the base, he borrowed a car and went downtown. His first stop was a bookstore, where he spent way too much money on the types of books and magazines he thought that William might like, and he couldn't resist buying a few for himself, too.
Afterward, he'd searched until he finally found a board shop in a rundown section of the city. He couldn't believe his luck when saw the board in the window – it was just like his own. Exactly what he'd been looking for. He'd bought it, along with preteen-sized padding that looked cool enough that a twelve-year-old wouldn't balk at wearing it, and arranged to have the board and gear sent by courier to Reno.
As he'd left the shop, John had cursed himself for being such a damned coward. He should have delivered the gear to Dana's house himself, he knew that. But, if he were to be honest with himself, he simply was too afraid to face her. It had been difficult enough lying to his dad on the phone, and for some reason, John didn't think he could pull it off in person with Dana. Instead, he wrote her a cheque to cover the six months, which they still had scheduled to work together, plus enough for a couple of extra months. He stuck the cheque in an envelope, along with a postcard with a hastily scrawled note on the back and had mailed it. He still wasn't certain why he had done that to her, to a friend who had helped him through some of his worst times.
Maybe, he'd thought, maybe he'd write her a letter once he was in Reno. Maybe he'd at least try and tell her how he felt about what she had done for him, and how he felt about her. Maybe he'd even phone her. Maybe...
Shifting on the uncomfortable airport bench, these thoughts stole John's attention once again from his book. He glanced up in time to see someone heading straight for him. A gray-haired, older man, neatly dressed in light gray trousers and a short-sleeved white shirt. It took until the man was nearly in front of him for John to realize that it was his dad. He tossed his book down beside him and stood up, suddenly nervous.
William walked right up to him, smiling. "Johnny."
"Hey, dad," John said, returning the smile, but he was almost shocked at his father's appearance. The entire time he'd been living with William, John had naively envisioned his dad as the same man he had last seen fifteen years ago. Imposing, impossibly strong, with only a hint of gray in his hair, but now… now his dad looked old. His sharp features were softened and sagging, his hair thinner and entirely gray, his upper back slightly hunched. For the first time, his dad looked frail, John realized with a sharp twinge of sadness and regret at how much time they'd lost.
William looked intently at John's eyes and shook his head in disbelief. He reached around John's shoulders and pulled him in a fierce hug. His arms trembling, his breath rasping, he held his son like he never wanted to let go.
For a moment, John didn't know how to react, then he returned his father's embrace, almost carefully putting his arms around William's smaller frame. John took a deep, shaky breath and smelled Old Spice and tobacco. It was a scent that he'd always associated with his father, but it had never seemed comforting until now.
William finally released him, but kept one hand on the back of John's neck, his eyes damp and rimmed with red.
John's throat tightened, and he had to blink back tears of his own. "Dad… it's okay. I'm okay now."
"How did this happen, Johnny?" William asked, his voice raspy. He swiped at his eyes. "How is this possible?"
"Okay…" John paused and swallowed the lump closing up his throat. "You know that I'd been stationed on a highly classified outpost before my accident, right?" He waited until William nodded. "Well, this is so classified, I'd have to shoot you if I told you. And that would be a shame since we kinda like each other now…"
William stared at him in confusion. John raised his eyebrows and tipped his head apologetically. Then William burst out laughing and swatted at the top of John's head.
"Well, it's a damn miracle, is all I can say," William declared.
"Yeah, I guess it is," John agreed with a grin.
"So you ready to get out of here?"
John nodded and stooped to pick up his bag. He followed William outside into the cool October morning air.
"You up for some breakfast?" John said, shifting his bag higher up on his shoulder. "My treat."
William agreed, suggesting a pancake house not too far up the highway.
"So hey, what do you have planned for the next few days?" John asked.
"I don't know." William shrugged. "Figured you'd just want to relax for a while."
"Well, yeah," John agreed. "I kinda thought it would be fun to drive up to the Grand Canyon, too. Haven't been there in years."
William shot him a skeptical look. "You're joking, right? You thought it was 'boring' the one time I took you all up there. 'Nothing but a bunch of old rocks,' I seem to remember you saying."
"I was ten, dad. Everything was boring then."
"Well, let's think on it," William said, "after breakfast."
"Sure. It is hard to think on an empty stomach," John said, quoting McKay, as they navigated their way through the cars in the lot.
John thought it strange how things worked out sometimes. Coming from such ordinary beginnings, he'd never expected his life to turn out so extraordinary; Atlantis, all the things he'd seen and done, what he'd been through over the past five months.
What was even stranger was the fact that he had a full week to do whatever he wanted, and he'd chosen to spend it with his dad. No, it wasn't strange, he decided after a moment. It was good; it felt right, even. He supposed that maybe sometimes things worked out the way they were meant to. Sometimes.
What would come when the week was up, and he had to report back for his assessment, he didn't know. He wasn't going to think about it now. All that mattered right now, at this moment, was that the sun was shining, he and his dad were content in each other's company, and he had a week of perfect freedom ahead of him.
Pausing to gaze around him, the flat desert horizon in the distance was washed in varying shades of that odd grayish-green, something John suspected he'd never get used to, but the sky… He smiled as he looked up at it. The sky was still blue. Exactly the way he'd remembered it.