John woke up again later that day, then again the next day, and again the next. Each time he managed to stay up a little bit longer, and he could finally feel some of the weakness leaving his body. Beckett had eventually pulled out the feeding tube, and John had almost cried in relief. He'd hated to admit it, but that tube in particular had reminded him too much of the tubes he'd been subjected to while in captivity.
McKay, Teyla, Ronon, and Elizabeth would pop in on him at various times throughout the day, but at dinner his whole team would arrive. John graduated from clear broth to thicker, more substantial foods, and his strength increased exponentially. He even found himself laughing once again with the rest of his team.
Kate Heightmeyer had showed up eventually, as John had expected. He'd hated to admit he needed to talk to the base psychiatrist, but Kate had made it easy on him and seemed content half the time to just sit in silence with him. John had hardly said a word to anyone at first, but gradually he had relaxed, and with physical healing well on its way, mental healing began. He had listened to Ronon describe the stampede that had separated them in the first place, then to McKay's description of their rescue efforts. Teyla had talked about her own injuries and fear for John's safety.
John's story spilled out of him in quiet moments with Kate or Beckett or his team, and only in pieces. His friends seemed to know there was more to the story than what he was telling, but they respected his privacy and need to come to terms with things on his own. The memories were too fresh and too strong for him to talk about it all or all at once, but somehow, saying them out loud was diminishing their power. Night was the worst. He'd lost count how many times he woke up screaming and shaking from horrific nightmares of his ordeal with the tall aliens, but he noticed that Ronon was there every single time.
Ronon was there a lot. As John grew stronger, he noticed that the Satedan was almost hovering around him. Ronon chatted and laughed along with everyone else, but there was something in his eyes that caught John's attention—a look of haunted anger that he couldn't quite cover up. Whenever John tried to broach the subject with him, however, the rage in the man's eyes would flare and John would flinch at the sight of Ronon jamming his fists under his arms.
"We're going to take it slow, John, and I want you to let us do all the work," Beckett announced one morning. John had just finished his breakfast and was thumbing through a magazine. He looked up at the doctor in pleased surprise. John had started physical therapy a few days before, and Beckett had promised him they'd get him up and moving around soon.
"Slow, got it," John grunted, tossing the magazine aside. He watched Beckett move around the side of the infirmary bed, unhook the IV from John's hand, and cap off the top. It was the last of the tubes and wires still attached to him.
"Can't you just take it out completely?"
"Not yet, lad."
John forced himself to relax, and he leaned his head against the pillow propped up behind him. The head of the bed had been raised so that he was sitting up almost straight, and he stared down at his leg.
"Alright," Beckett said as a nurse—a former Marine medic—walked over to them. "Grant, you keep him steady while I swing his legs down."
"Yes, sir," the nurse replied, helping John sit up and sliding an arm behind his back. John reached up, grabbing the man's shoulder, suddenly apprehensive. Beckett swung John's legs over the side of the bed, then reached up to help the nurse—Grant—keep John upright.
John, for his part, felt fine if a little lightheaded and was getting impatient with the pace of this whole process. He was weak—he could feel it in the lingering shakiness whenever he had been sitting up for too long—but he was getting stronger.
"How are you feeling?"
"Fine," John responded breathlessly. Okay, maybe not that much stronger.
Beckett and Grant leaned him forward, shifting John's weight until he slid off the edge of the bed. His knees buckled the second his feet hit the floor, but the doctor and nurse were ready for that and kept him upright.
"When you feel ready, try to put a little bit of weight on your left leg," Beckett urged.
John had a tight grip on both people, and he grit his teeth as he attempted to hold a little bit of his own weight on his good leg. He could feel himself shaking with the effort already. His right leg dangled uselessly, completely numb. He tried to move it so that it was underneath him a little more, but the effort was pointless and he grunted in frustration.
"How are you holding up, John?" Beckett asked.
"Okay," he mumbled, trying not to let the exhaustion he was feeling sneak into his voice. He was starting to feel nauseous. He glanced down at this leg.
No pain, no achiness, nothing. Normally, that would be a good thing, but this time it had him freaked out. Whatever the substance in his leg was, it had wreaked havoc. He couldn't feel it or move it much beyond swinging it slightly from his hip, and despite everyone's reassurances that he would eventually be fine, the thought of never being able to use it again had him more than a little anxious. More than one of his nightmares had been about him losing his leg completely.
Sweat dripped down the side of John's face and he could feel his left leg starting to give out. The sprained ankle was not completely healed, and it was starting to ache under his weight. He gripped the shoulders of the two men standing next to him a little tighter. The plan had been to move around the infirmary, maybe sit up in a chair, but now he was wondering if he'd even make it to the chair.
"Doc?" John breathed out.
"It's alright, John. We've got you."
They moved forward slowly. John hopped on his left leg then half dragged, half swung his right leg behind him. Grant's grip tightened, and John was glad Beckett had picked the big Marine to help hold him up.
"What's up with Ronon?" John asked, concentrating on the floor in front of him. He spoke without thinking, saying anything to keep his mind off the task at hand.
"Ronon?" Beckett sounded genuinely confused.
"Yeah," John grunted. "He's always here, especially at night. Not that I'm complaining or anything. He just seems a little subdued."
"This is Ronon we're talking about. He's not exactly the most talkative of people."
John's left leg folded under him at the next step, and Beckett and Grant nearly lost their grip on him. They lifted him almost completely off the ground as they turned around. They'd made it halfway across the room.
"That's good for now," Beckett said to Grant.
"I mean," John continued, forcing the words out between breaths, "he's been a little more subdued and quiet than normal. He usually talks more—" John gasped as his leg gave out again, and he cursed at the uselessness of his dead leg.
"More than he has been," he finished, panting breathlessly. Beckett and the nurse moved quickly to cover the last few feet, and the next thing John knew, he was sitting back in his bed. Grant gently lifted his legs onto the bed, and Beckett wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm.
John watched them quietly as he struggled to catch his breath. The nurse pulled the blankets up over his legs and waist and was gently lowering the bed down to less of an angle. Beckett had the stethoscope out and pressed against his chest. John could feel his eyes beginning to droop already from the exhaustion, and the nausea from trying to walk around churned in his stomach.
"Try not to pant," Beckett said quietly as he moved the stethoscope to John's lungs.
John tried and ended up pressing his arms against his stomach. He could just feel the thin bandages over the incision through his scrub top.
"Feel sick," he groaned.
Grant turned stepped away but was back almost immediately and handing John a kidney dish. John gripped it, and tried to take a deep breath. He was sick of being tired and weak. Beckett hooked the IV back up, and John glanced down at the sudden sensation of cold racing through his veins.
"That should help with the nausea," the doctor assured him. "We'll try walking again a little later."
"What about Ronon?" John mumbled.
Beckett pulled out a thermometer and held it in John's ear until it beeped. He nodded in satisfaction at the number, then looked down at his patient. "You'll have to talk to him about that."
John nodded, his eyes closing almost against his will as his stomach began to settle. Beckett removed the bowl from John's loosening grip and pulled the blankets up around his shoulders, tucking them in. The sounds of the infirmary quickly faded as he slipped into a deep sleep.
For a reason Ronon could not even begin to explain, he felt compelled to check on Sheppard constantly. He knew Sheppard had noticed, but every time his friend had brought it up, he'd manage to deflect the conversation to other topics. Sheppard would pin him down one of these days, when he was stronger, and Ronon hoped he had an answer for the man at that point.
Sheppard recovered slowly, looking happy and relieved the day Beckett finally released him to his quarters. Ronon had been in the infirmary and watching his friend maneuver gingerly around the infirmary on the crutches. His movements had been slow and careful, but his smile had been genuine.
The numbness in his leg had graduated to a constant sense of pins and needles, and while Sheppard had been glad that feeling was returning, Ronon had seen him grimace more than once in the days following. The Satedan would catch the colonel rubbing his leg with his hand as if that had would accelerate the healing. Muscle control was returning a little slower, however. Beckett had released Sheppard to his quarters as long as the man promised to use a wheelchair for longer distance and the crutches only for getting around his room. Sheppard had happily agreed, and Ronon had laughed knowing that the man would have agreed to anything at that point.
The incision the length of Sheppard's chest and stomach was a bright pink line against pale skin, but it too was healing. Ronon felt a jolt of hatred toward the aliens that had caused it every time he caught a glimpse of it, but it was getting easier and easier to shove the anger aside and focus on the more positive points of Sheppard's healing. The bruises were all but gone, the ankle completely healed, and weeks under Beckett's care had even bulked up his skeletal thinness.
The internal wounds were healing a little more slowly. Even a week after being released from the infirmary, Ronon had caught glimpses of them in the way Sheppard's eyes would dart around a crowded room and in the way he would jerk and shudder whenever someone came up behind him. Those moments, though, were becoming less and less frequent, and Ronon could finally believe John Sheppard was well on his way to complete recovery.
So he was surprised, a few weeks after Sheppard had been released from the infirmary, when McKay came to him in a total panic. He couldn't find Sheppard and wanted Ronon to help. They collected Teyla along the way and searched Atlantis. Sheppard had not answered his radio, and they had not found him in his room, the mess hall, the rec room, the gate room, or anywhere along his favorite pier. They'd split up then to search the less familiar corners of the inhabited parts of the city.
Ronon walked quietly down a hallway. This part of the city was dark and empty, and as he walked, he heard a squawk from one of the doors he passed. He paused, ducking his head into the room to see a scaly, purple bird in a cage, chirping and pecking at its food dish. Ronon stepped back into the hall and looked to the last door on the end.
Sheppard was there. He knew it suddenly and with absolute confidence. He walked forward with purpose, passing closed doors before stopping in front of the door in question. "Doctor Lane" was scribbled on a piece of paper and taped to the wall next to it.
Ronon palmed the door open and entered the dark room. The aquariums lining the wall were lit, and Ronon easily spotted Sheppard's silhouette at one end leaning against a set of crutches. Ronon walked over to his friend, noticing that Sheppard's face was pale and tired looking, and he remembered standing in this same spot with this same man so many months before. The aquarium Sheppard was staring into was empty.
"How'd you know I was down here?" Sheppard asked after a few minutes.
"Didn't. McKay couldn't find you and freaked out when you didn't answer your radio. We've been looking for you for the past hour."
"Sorry," John muttered. He stared into the empty tank, hardly blinking.
"You okay?" Ronon asked. He barely caught Sheppard's shrug in the darkness.
Ronon nodded, not sure of what else to say. He'd heard as much of the story regarding Sheppard's ordeal as the man had revealed. Captivity could make you think and worry about strange things, especially with the kind of torture Sheppard had endured.
"What happened to it?" Sheppard suddenly asked.
"That thing—that sting ray thing."
"That doctor dissected it, remember?"
He saw Sheppard nod his head. Lane had dissected the sting ray months ago.
"That's how we found you," Ronon said.
Sheppard finally tore his gaze away from the empty tank. "What?"
"Didn't McKay ever tell you? It was that weird radiation-not radiation stuff that creature injected in your leg."
Sheppard rubbed his forehead. "Maybe. I don't know. I can't remember. I remember that planet messed with our Ancient technology."
"Yeah. McKay figured out a way to adjust our scanners to look for the sting ray stuff. It was the only thing he could get the jumper to pick up on. At first, we couldn't even find that, but then the energy readings or whatever kind of spiked." Ronon paused. "Still took us another day to track you down and get you out of there."
Sheppard swallowed, taking in the information, and Ronon connected the bits of stories Sheppard had told them. One day before rescue, "Pavlov" had thrown open the cage door and shot him with a tranquilizer gun—the tranq that had interacted with the leftover sting ray venom, that had made his leg numb and useless, that had caused McKay's sensors to spike. Twisted.
"So, in a way, that sting ray thing saved my life."
Ronon shrugged. The sting ray, not the dark-haired alien with the tranq gun. Ronon could no more give the cruel alien credit than Sheppard could. He flashed on his friend strapped to the table, looking for all the world like he was dead.
Sheppard looked around the lab, his eyes lingering on some of the other creatures swimming in tanks. "What are we doing?" he whispered.
Ronon winced, hearing the question he had asked Teyla soon after they'd rescued Sheppard, before they knew whether they'd saved him in time. "We're just trying to do our best," he repeated, remembering Teyla's answer.
"What if it isn't good enough?"
He had no answer to that question. He swallowed, not knowing what to say, and felt the rage that had become such a constant companion to him over the last few weeks. Next to him, Sheppard shuddered and ran his hand along the edge of the empty tank.
Damn those aliens, Ronon thought. Damn those bastards that did this to my friend. Sheppard looked suddenly small and vulnerable in the room, and the control Ronon had carefully built around his fury suddenly crumbled.
"Aaaarrrgggghhhhhh!" he screamed and slammed a fist into the empty water tank. The glass around it cracked but did not break. It was enough, however, for jets of water to start spraying out of it.
"Feel better?" Sheppard asked in the ensuing silence.
Ronon glared. "Not really." He shook out his hand, trying to ignore throbbing knuckles.
"I kind of do."
Ronon snorted, then laughed when he caught the grin on Sheppard's face. "We should go find Teyla and McKay," the Satedan said and Sheppard nodded. Ronon clapped his friend on the back, squeezing the back of his neck affectionately before dropping his arm. Sheppard straightened up and took a deep breath.
"Yeah, let's go," he said.
Ronon glanced one last time into the room with the ghostly light from the aquariums, then shut the door behind them when he and Sheppard walked out. Their progress was slow as Sheppard's crutches clacked along the hall, but Ronon was in no hurry. He rubbed his hand.
"Did you break your hand?"
"You should probably have Beckett look at it anyway."
Ronon grunted. They'd reached the transporter and Ronon waited for Sheppard to pass him and carefully turn himself around in the small space. His leg swung slightly as he leaned forward on the crutches.
"You know, maybe you should talk to someone about those anger management issues," Sheppard drawled.
Ronon poked at the map behind his friend's head, taking them back toward the busier corners of Atlantis—back to Teyla and McKay and the clatter of plates in the mess hall as dinner time hit and the laughter and chatter of scientists and soldiers and friends drifting throughout the city.
"I talk to you," Ronon finally said.
The doors swished closed, and in a flash, opened up to a familiar hallway. Teyla and McKay stood in front of them with their hands on their hips.
Sheppard smiled. "Yeah." Same here.
A/N: And that's it! Thank you so much for reading and reviewing. I've enjoyed hearing from all of you and appreciated the support. Now that the story is complete, if you have any remaining questions, I'd be happy to answer them. Thanks again, and enjoy!