Note: Last chapter, believe it or not. Thank you to everyone for reading and/or reviewing. I'm sorry I didn't respond to you individually – just too crazy to keep logging in and out between accounts and I'm easily confused, but we both appreciate the feedback. Off to work on our next one!!!

WHEN REALITY FADES...part 10

When the door in front of him slid open, John sucked in a deep breath, letting the warm, moist air fill his lungs completely before breathing it slowly out.

"Feel good?" asked Keller with a light chuckle.

"You have no idea," said John breathily, pushing forward into the sunlight. He was dressed in scrubs and a light robe and the breeze felt wonderful, ruffling his hair and touching his skin, but warm enough not to chill him.

"Have a seat, Colonel," ordered Keller, taking his elbow and leading him to the bench set up near one side of the railing. "It was quite a walk from the infirmary and we don't want you collapsing in a heap."

John winced at the comment that touched a sore spot with him, his continuing weakness. He'd been awake and alert for a week now, his naps getting shorter every day. His strength was increasing as well, but at a much slower pace, a pace that was really getting on his nerves.

Once they were settled on the bench, he turned to the doctor he was slowly getting to know better. "How long do you think this is going to last?"

Keller squinted as she turned her head towards him, the sun coming in just over his shoulder. "I assume you mean the lingering lethargy and lack of energy." At his nod, she continued. "Well, it is getting better, although I know it's been slow. I think you've gained a lot in the last day or so, much more than the previous several days, so I think that indicates the pace will continue to increase. I'll probably be able to release you in a couple of days, but not to return to duty, of course."

"Of course," he said wryly.

Keller chuckled again. "You aren't going to like this, but I can't give you a timetable. If you continue to improve as you are now, I can release you to your quarters in a day or two, with someone checking on you several times a day and limited time up walking around. You need to get up and about to build your strength, but we need to be careful that you don't overdo it, especially at first. Then we'll just take it a day at a time, gradually increasing your activity level until we have you back up to speed. When I think you're ready, I'll start you on half days of light duty, then increase to full days, and then eventually full duty."

Sighing, John looked up to the clear blue sky, enjoying the feel of the sun on his skin. "I just . . . I hate this, you know?"

"I know, Colonel," she said with sympathy. "But I won't risk your health just because you're starting to get bored."

A small, almost bitter laugh crossed his lips and he looked back down at a confused Keller. "That . . . it sounded kind of like something Carson would say. And just for the record, I wouldn't expect anything else."

Keller smiled and patted his hand. "I'm glad to hear that, and Carson would be as well. Are you ready to head back yet?"

"No, could I please have a few more minutes?" he asked, a bit of pleading in his voice.

The door slid open to reveal Rodney, staring out onto the balcony as if in a stupor. After a moment he finally stepped forward and walked toward the bench.

"Oh, hey, you are out here. I thought that nurse was making it up to get rid of me."

John's brows eased up a bit. "Why would she . . . oh, never mind. Dr. Keller let me walk out here to get a little fresh air."

Keller stood and motioned toward the bench. "Why don't you take my spot, Dr. McKay and I'll head back to the infirmary. I'll be back in a few minutes with a wheel chair."

"I can walk back," said John.

"That may be true," said Keller. "But this is the farthest you've walked so far and the longest you've been out of bed. Neither of us wants me trying to carry you back to the infirmary, so I'll just get that wheelchair and come back for you."

"She's right you know," piped in Rodney, taking the seat next to John.

John sighed heavily and rubbed his chin. He knew she was right, the lethargy already beginning to weigh him down. He was already too tired to walk all the way back without having to sit down and rest, which made him wonder why he'd ever argued at all. "Okay, fine, I'll ride back."

Keller clapped him on the shoulder as she left. "Good decision, Colonel."

"Hmm, yeah, like I ever really had any choice," John said under his breath.

"Oh, quit whining, it's for your own good and you know it,' said Rodney. He looked up to find John grinning at him. "What?"

"I haven't had a chance to thank you yet."

Rodney sat open mouthed for a moment before letting his gaze drop to the ground. "Uh, yeah, I got behind . . . you know, doing the bedside vigil thing for so long . . . and all you did was sleep so . . . well, someone has to keep this place running and Radek certainly can't-"

"Rodney, it's okay."

"What?" he asked, jerking his head up to find John still grinning at him.

"I said it's okay that you were avoiding me. Under the circumstances, I probably would have been avoiding me too," John said, his voice a little sad. "Mostly I was worried you were mad at me."

Rodney began shaking his head. "No, no, I wasn't mad or avoiding you. Well, okay, in a way I guess I was but it was just . . . " He sat for a moment, trying to think. "You wouldn't wake up," he finally said.

John studied him for several minutes, noting the extra lines in Rodney's face, lines of worry and lack of sleep. It was ironic that John's needing so much sleep had caused Rodney to lose sleep. "I . . . I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say. I was just so exhausted. I'm still tired and weak and . . . " He trailed off and ran a hand across his face, feeling the scratch brought on by not shaving that morning. He hadn't had the energy after his shower. "I really hate this."

"I'm . . . well, for not coming by the last few days . . . I have been checking on you with Keller and Ronon and Teyla, I just . . . anyway . . . you know," Rodney said while waving his arms dramatically.

John smiled at him. "Yeah, I know."

"We're kind of pathetic, you know that, right?" asked Rodney.

John chuckled and looked at his friend. "Yeah, I guess we are. But since we're equally pathetic, we understand each other without having to say that stuff, so we're good."

Breaking out in an almost relieved grin, Rodney snapped his fingers. "Yeah, yeah, almost like our own language. Hey, that's kind of . . . cool."

Snorting, John looked back out to the ocean. "Yeah . . . maybe it is." They sat in silence for a few minutes, just watching the waves roll in. "Dr. Keller must have gotten held up."

Rodney nodded. "Probably one of my incompetent minions destroying another completely innocent experiment. Why did you thank me? You did that earlier, back when you were just starting to get better."

It was several moments before John answered, unsure of how to explain what had happened to Rodney. "It was the last nightmare I had. You and I were in that little boat from your dream and . . . he was there too." He paused and chuckled as he remembered how the Rodney in his mind had acted very much like the Rodney sitting beside him. "Anyway, you kept . . . insulting me and arguing with me about everything . . . you know, like you tend to do, and he got mad."

Rodney frowned. "He got mad at . . . wait a minute, what do you mean I tend to argue? I'm not the one who argues. It's you that can't see reason or anything else that's right in front of you."

"You mean like that I'm better looking than you?"

"Oh, no, why would you say that? Hey, you said that earlier too. You don't really think that, do you?" Rodney asked, exasperation filling his voice.

"This is what we were doing and the entity . . . or the residue of the entity or whatever it was . . . it just went away. I think maybe you distracted me from the stuff he was telling me enough I could let some of it go. Anyway, he's gone." John looked up from where his hands were twisting the tie of his robe. "Anyway . . . thanks. I know you weren't really in my head, but . . . knowing you like I do . . . I guess . . . " He waved his hand around helplessly as he searched for words.

"I know what you mean," Rodney said with a small nod. "And you're welcome."

John stared down at his feet for a moment. "Guess that secret language comes in handy."

Laughing, Rodney crossed his arms and leaned back against the bench. "It does at that."

They turned at the sound of the door sliding open and Keller hurrying out with a wheelchair. "I'm so sorry, Colonel, we had a minor emergency hit the infirmary. It seems two chemists went into a lab and –"

"This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke," Rodney quipped.

Keller paused and seemed to be considering his words. "Huh, I guess it does." She shook her head as if clearing it and looked back down at them. "Anyway, there was a problem with an experiment and they received some minor burns."

"Told you," Rodney sing-songed as he got up off the bench and began helping John stand and get into the chair.

"I guess you know your minions pretty well," John said.

"Unfortunately," he muttered.

"Let's get you back to bed," said Keller as she turned the chair around. "I believe Teyla and Ronon have come with food trays for all, you included Dr. McKay."

"Really?" asked Rodney, his voice filled with surprise. "What did they bring?"

"Something good for once, I hope," said John. "I'm about tired of bland and soft and easily digested. There's only so much of that a person can stand." He stifled a yawn, hoping his two escorts hadn't noticed.

"I saw that, Sheppard," said Rodney. "After dinner, it's naptime for you."

Sighing loudly, John glanced over his shoulder at Rodney. "Wasn't it you that was just complaining I slept too much?"

"Be quiet. We're trying to look after your health," said Rodney as he looked at Keller. "Can you believe how uncooperative some patients are?"

"Uh, no, it's . . . amazing . . . I guess."

They arrived in the infirmary to find Ronon easing a tray of food down to the rolling table before taking another over to set in a chair. "Hey, Sheppard, we brought food."

John craned his neck to see the tray and then slumped down in the chair with a sigh. "Soup?" he asked at the sight of a bowl.

Ronon came over in case John needed help moving to the bed, but John waved him away. "Not soup, stew. And I made sure they didn't water yours down."

John stood up, faltered only slightly and then pulled himself up into the bed. As he leaned back against the pillows, his body sagged and a tired ache seemed to take over. He closed his eyes a few seconds, only to open them and find Teyla tucking the covers around him with a big smile. He grinned sheepishly at her. "Thanks, Teyla, I'm good."

Nodding, she rolled the table over his lap and John looked down at the bowl of stew, thick with meat and vegetables. His mouth began watering as the rich scent hit him and suddenly the lethargy of a minute ago was forgotten. "This looks really good," he said as he tore a chunk off the thick piece of bread on his tray. Keller almost beamed as he dug in.

"Slow down, Colonel, it isn't going anywhere," Rodney said as he grabbed his own tray and settled into a chair. "Hey, thanks for dinner, guys."

"It has been a while since we were able to eat a meal together," said Teyla. "We thought this would be a good opportunity."

"Oh, man, this is good," John said between mouthfuls. And it was good. His stomach rumbled, almost as if telling him to send down more. It was the most solid meal he'd had so far and he suddenly found himself famished, as if he wanted to make up for all the missed meals right this minute.

"Colonel, you really do need to slow down so you don't make yourself sick," said Keller. John slowed to see everyone staring at him and sheepishly swallowed the bite in his mouth.

"Uh, 'kay . . . sorry." He glanced down to see the bowl already half empty. He really had been hungry.

"It's all right, I know you're probably hungry," said Keller. "To be honest, I'm happy to see your appetite has improved this much. If you continue to eat like this, it won't take long to put some of that weight back on you. Well, I'll leave you and your team to eat. Let me know if you need anything."

The team ate in silence for a few minutes, just enjoying each other's company and the fact that no one was on death's door at the moment. When John's spoon hit the bottom of the bowl, he was barely able to swallow the last bite. His mouth could have eaten another helping, but his stomach was protesting the amount already in it. Along with being full, came a major case of the sleepies. He found his eyelids beginning to droop, in spite of his efforts to keep them open. He wanted to listen to his team, to be with them.

He jerked his eyes open when movement startled him and Teyla winced as she moved the tray table away. "I'm sorry, I did not mean to wake you."

"S'kay . . . wuzn't sleepin'." John blinked several times as he fought his eyes back open.

A loud snort caught his attention and he found Rodney rolling his eyes. "Not sleeping. Right. Anyone who believes that raise their hand."

Teyla was back, placing her hand on his shoulder. "John, go to sleep if you are tired. We will be here for a while."

Yawning, John rubbed his face. "S'll I've done it sleep." He rubbed his face vigorously in an attempt to wake himself up.

Frowning, Teyla tilted her head a little. "John, are you worried about dreaming . . . about your other self coming back to taunt you? You cannot believe what he told you."

"I know," he said firmly. "Look, I know what he said wasn't . . . completely right. And he's gone. I haven't seen him in days . . . not since the dream with Rodney and the boat, which I still say was freaky. I just . . . I'm tired of sleeping all the time and not having any energy. I just wanted to hang out with you guys, you know? We haven't been able to do that."

"So, you missed us?" asked Teyla with a sly smile.

Sighing, John finally gave a short nod. "Okay . . . I missed you guys. There, I said it. Are you happy?"

Ronon chuckled as he bit off a huge piece of bread. "McKay's been calling you Sleeping Beauty."

Rodney's jaw dropped open and he sputtered for a moment. "I did not . . . well, okay, maybe I did, but it was a term of endearment . . . sort of. But you have to admit, the resemblance is uncanny. All we needed was a prince . . . or maybe a princess to wake him up."

"Gee, Rodney . . . thanks," mumbled John.

Turning back to John, Teyla placed her hand on John's arm. "Are you really all right?" she asked quietly. "I know you carry much guilt and that the entity fed off that guilt. I am also aware that the lingering part of him did much the same thing. None of this was your fault, John."

Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, John brought his eyes up to meet Teyla's. This belonged in the talking about your feelings category and he not only wasn't any good at it, he definitely wasn't comfortable with it.

"John?"

He was going to have to say something. Teyla was beginning to look worried. "I'm . . . " No, he couldn't just say he was fine. He could tell she wasn't going to accept that. He glanced around and found Rodney arguing about something with Ronon. At least he wasn't the complete center of attention. He turned back to Teyla, still watching him closely.

"Teyla . . . I'm okay. You said you knew I carried around some guilt over some things . . . I probably always will. And I've added some from all this stuff with the crystal thing. But . . . at least on some level, I know I didn't do anything wrong, that there was no way of knowing what was going to happen. I know none of this was directly my fault . . . but I also know that if I hadn't touched that crystal . . . Kate would still be alive." He smiled at her, touching the side of her face with his finger.

"But I'm not going to do anything foolish or drive myself into depression or anything, okay? I'll carry some of it around with me always. But that's who I am and I haven't found a way to change that. I'm not completely sure I would if I could. Maybe carrying around that guilt is what gives me the drive to do some of things I have to do. Maybe that's what keeps me from becoming Kolya."

Squeezing his arm, Teyla smiled and nodded. "You could never be like Kolya. Who we are and what we are capable of is a complex thing. Perhaps you are right. The tendency to carry guilt within you is part of who you are and not something to be changed. As long as you can be at peace with yourself."

"Not sure being at peace is possible, but I can handle it."

"I think you should join me in meditation some time," she suggested.

Remembering his time in the cloister, John groaned and let his head fall back as he closed his eyes. He could hear Teyla laughing and he smiled, realizing he'd been had. Ronon laughed loudly nearby and he could hear Rodney scolding him for something. It had been a long time since things had felt this normal.

"Sleep, John," Teyla whispered in his ear. "Everyone is safe and we are keeping watch. Sleep."

And he did.

THE END