"Fine, then. I'll cut it off."
John heard that clearly, and he opened his eyes to see Ronon walking toward him, a nine-inch knife held in a white-knuckled grip. Ronon's eyes blazed. John was still leaning against Teyla's shoulder. He could feel her arms wrapped around him, holding him up, and his chest heaved and stuttered as he breathed.
He was still breathing, though, a little easier even than he had been. He tried to sit up straighter, but nothing responded. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his hand, limp and curled in on itself, resting on a rock next to them. He remembered being able to wiggle his fingers in the cave, even form a weak fist, and he tried to do this again.
Not even a twitch. He took a deep breath again, feeling muscles pressing back against him. The paralysis was worse. His eyes roamed up to Ronon's, who had squatted down next to him. He was still holding that knife.
"You can't cut it off!" McKay hissed. Ronon ignored him, reaching toward the bug with the tip of the blade. "We tried that last time he was bit by one of these things. It almost killed him, and he was a lot stronger then."
McKay was standing off to the side, behind Ronon, and John let his eyes shift over to him. It was the only part of his body he had any remaining control over. The bug jerked and trilled then settled in again. It was now cushioned between his body and Teyla's.
"Then how did you get it off last time?"
McKay swallowed, looking suddenly like he was going to be sick, and Teyla's arms wrapped more tightly around John's chest.
"We had to hit him with the defibrillator," he answered.
"What's a defibrillator?"
"It's a piece of medical equipment. It shocks the heart." Rodney swallowed, before pressing on. "We had to trick the bug into thinking he was dead, so we shocked his heart to…stop it."
"You stopped his heart? You killed him?"
John's heart had started pounding at the first mention of defibrillator. His memory of the actual event was hazy, but his nightmares were always extremely vivid on this point. In reality, he had woken up hours later in the infirmary, his entire body aching and his chest badly bruised. It had taken days for the weakness to finally leave his system, then days after that before he actually felt alive and healthy again. The bite faded a few weeks later. The scar on his neck was still there.
"It was the only way. If we take him through the gate with the bug still attached…we just don't know what that will do to him. It could kill him—permanently."
"We know what the risks are, Rodney, but we must go through the gate," Teyla spoke up. "I do not know how much longer John will be able to breath."
"Sheppard should decide," Ronon said and he ducked down so that he was at eye level. John felt Ronon's hand on his head, and he stared back at the runner.
"Sheppard, do you understand me?"
John opened his mouth to answer, or tried to, but nothing happened. His jaw was pressing into Teyla's shoulder anyway. He couldn't talk, but he swallowed and tried to nod his head. He had no idea if his head moved or not, but his eyes closed slowly and then opened up again.
Ronon nodded, watching John closely, and seemed to understand John's response. "We can't get the bug off, but we need to get you back to Atlantis. We don't know what going through the gate will do to you or the bug. Do you understand?"
John blinked again, slowly and deliberately.
"Are you willing to risk traveling through the stargate?"
Yes, he was. Absolutely. No questions asked. John let out a shuddering breath and blinked again. Ronon smiled, his normally impassive, emotionless face breaking into something almost gentle, and his hand moved from John's head to his back. The skin was tingling, almost numb, but John felt the man pat the back of his shoulder.
Home. He was going home. John didn't know whether he was going to survive or not, but at least if he died, he would die at home among his friends. Ronon stood up and moved around to the other side of Teyla, and together they lifted John up until he was cradled in the runner's arms in a tight grip.
His chest felt tight, and he could hear a slight wheeze every time he breathed. The rocks and fog began to move around him as they crawled out of the little side trail they'd stopped on.
"We are not far, John," Teyla whispered in his ear. "Just a few more minutes."
John could just see Ronon's blaster wedged between him and the taller man's hand, pointing forward and ready to fire. Teyla walked in front of them, a little off to the side, her P90 held up. She stared down the barrel sight as she walked, her footsteps silent. John could hear McKay's feet scraping along the stone behind them, and he imagined the physicist also had his weapon out.
Teyla suddenly froze, and pointed at two spots in the fog in front of them. John couldn't see anything through the haze, but Teyla raised her weapon, taking careful aim. The Iratus bug twitched, pressing its swollen belly into John's chest, and John closed his eyes.
The battle lasted less than ten seconds. John heard four shots from Teyla's P90 and a blast from Ronon's gun, and then footsteps pounded into the stone around him, echoing and disappearing into the white world. The gate erupted into life—a sound so distinguishable John thought he would never forget it—and then voices were yelling and they were running forward.
John felt the wormhole envelop him and whisk him back to Atlantis. There was a second of warm air blasting his skin and then the Iratus bug arched its back with a high-pitched screech. Pain, agonizing and intense, flooded John's numb body, and he felt his muscles convulse. Ronon seemed to stumble, and then John felt the smooth floor of Atlantis underneath him, voices screaming in panic all at once, and then nothing.
That was the last thing he remembered in the jumper. Ford had held the defibrillator pads in his hands fully charged, the fear on his face making him look ten years younger. John had had to yell it at him, half wondering if the lieutenant was actually going to follow his orders.
Then Ford had pressed the paddles up against his bare chest, and the bug had started moving around in his neck again, igniting a sharp ache. The gel on the paddles had been cold, the metal plates of the paddles themselves even colder, and John had wondered if it was going to hurt. And if he'd wake up again.
He'd had to yell it. To convince himself as much as to convince Ford.
He had heard the whine of the machine as it had charged, as the electricity had built up in the tiny box, and he'd closed his eyes a split second before Ford had pressed the paddles a little harder into his chest and unleashed the current.
For months afterward, he dreamed of that exact moment even though there was no possible way he could have actually remembered it—the pain of the current ripping through his chest, burning the flesh and muscles in its way, wrapping around his heart and crushing the organ until there was nothing left. His mind rebuilt the images his team had described of the scene and he hovered over them, watching Teyla pulling the Iratus bug off of him and Ford shooting it all while blood dripped out of the gaping wound on his neck, and his body slumped against the back of the jumper pale and lifeless.
The dream would jump then, and he'd see Beckett leaning over him, pumping his chest and forcing air into his lungs and pushing those paddles into his ribs. His body would jerk and seize as the current ripped through him, and he'd whisper, "Do it!" and Beckett would, again and again and again.
"Oh hey, Teyla, you're back. With dessert."
"Yes, Rodney. They would not permit me to take more than three pieces of brownie."
"Did you tell them you were getting food for other people?"
"For three people, which is why they gave me three desserts. I did not press them on the issue."
John heard the voices going back and forth above his head and was content for the moment to just listen. The chatter was easy and relaxed, about nothing and yet, about everything. He hadn't heard his team talk like that since they'd lost Ford, and it felt good.
"How is Colonel Sheppard?"
"Same," he heard Ronon's gruff voice answer. "But Doctor Beckett says he's getting stronger. He thinks he might wake up soon."
"Well, don't bet any money on that. It's not like medicine is actual science—there are no predictable outcomes."
John smiled, or thought he did. His body felt numb and heavy, like he was on serious painkillers.
"McKay has a picture of K2."
There was a pause, and John heard paper rustling and the sound of a chair sliding forward, then Teyla's voice.
"This is the mountain John spoke of? It is beautiful."
An image flashed through this mind—a silver peak against brilliant blue, wind whipping up snow at the tip like curling smoke. John could almost feel the cold air biting into him, the wind pumping through his veins and spurring him on. It had been a long time since he'd done any mountain climbing. He suddenly wanted to feel cold rock in his hands molding to his fingers as he scaled the side, the thrill of hanging in the air with nothing but a rope between you and gravity, the exhausted satisfaction of trembling muscles when you finally reached the summit.
"What of the other one? In…Africa?"
"Kilimanjaro. Haven't found a picture of that one yet."
His mind shifted, and another, older image appeared, that of a distant, snowy, flat-topped mountain. This one was brown rather than silver, the slope to the summit less steep than K2, with a jungle of trees around the bottom.
In almost all the pictures he'd seen, there were herds of elephants or giraffes or gazelles at the bottom, grazing at the foot of the slope. In his mind the wind was blowing here too, but it was warm and welcoming. He held lists of supplies, plans and preparations for every mountain he'd ever wanted to ascend, in his hands. The wind blew again, soft and warm but strong enough to rip the papers out of his fingers. He spun around and watched them disappear into the jungle, little white specks that receded to nothing.
John turned back toward Mount Kilimanjaro, wide as all the world, the flat summit bright in the sun. The wind reached out for him, calling his name and beckoning him onward, then rushed past him into the dark wilderness at his back, taking with it all the hazards of every mountain peak he'd ever faced.
"I think he blinked," McKay crowed, and the images of the mountains crumbled against the voice that had to be no more than a few inches from his ear.
"He definitely blinked that time, McKay. Back off a little."
The voice was quieter, but still close to his ear. "Excuse me, Conan," McKay muttered.
"John? Are you awake?" Teyla's voice floated over him, soft and calm.
"I'll get Beckett."
"Wake up, Sheppard."
John forced his eyes open and blinked a few times, slowly focusing on the Atlantis ceiling above him.
He'd made it. They'd all made it. John wanted to look down at his neck and chest, to see for himself that the Iratus bug was gone, but his body refused to react to him. He blinked his eyes again, slowly, to make sure he was actually awake, and Teyla's face appeared above him.
She smiled, the lines around her eyes etched with exhaustion. She reached a hand out to brush back a lock of hair from his forehead. Again, John tried to move to intercept her hand, but he could do nothing more than follow her movements with his eyes.
"We were very worried, John. It is good to see you awake."
John tried to speak to assure them he was fine, but the only reaction he got was a tightening of the muscles in his chest. His mouth and throat remained stubbornly closed, and he realized he had no idea if he was fine. There was no pain, but there was not much of anything. His entire body felt muted and distant, reminding him all too much of when the Iratus bug had been attached to him and pumping him full of that paralyzing toxin.
McKay's face appeared in front of him, battling for space with Teyla's. "You've got quite the hickey—again—but Carson says you'll recover eventually."
John's eyes darted from one face to the other, a hundred questions running through his mind. The last thing he remembered was running through the gate. Ronon was nowhere to be seen, but he'd heard his voice before. They were home, they were all okay—or going to be okay—but what the hell had happened?
McKay glanced at Teyla, who nodded and sat down, disappearing from sight for a moment. A second later, John could just barely feel her hand on his face, turning his head toward her.
"We made it through the stargate, but the Iratus bug did not respond well to gate travel—"
"That's putting it mildly," McKay interrupted from somewhere off to John's side. Teyla frowned at him, then continued on.
"Doctor Beckett was correct regarding his predictions of the creature's reaction to traveling through the stargate. As soon as we emerged in Atlantis, the insect—"
"Completely. Freaked. Out. And so did you, by the way."
"The insect flooded your body with its toxin—"
"You went into massive convulsions, then the bug detached itself and limped off, swaying like a drunk for a few feet before Ronon incinerated it with that gun of his. You, in the meantime, died. And by died, I mean no heartbeat, no breathing, nothing—completely dead."
Teyla sighed, closing her eyes for a moment, but John couldn't tell if it was from McKay's continuous interruptions or from the memory his words had conjured. John searched her face, wishing he could do or say something to take away the memories of what had happened to all of them.
His body was mostly numb, but the tingling kind of numb from staying outside in the cold too long. He could feel his body, but it took awhile for his mind to catch on and to realize that the sheet against his leg was resting against his leg, that the warm hand on his arm kept squeezing his arm. He slowly became aware of something pulling at his lip, then felt a plastic tube pressing against his tongue. Awareness of a steady beeping belonging to his heartbeat came next, then the whoosh of a ventilator that sounded in time with the rise and fall of his chest.
"But we got you back, lad," a new voice announced. Teyla stood up, and Carson Beckett took her place. The doctor's hands reached for John's face and throat, and John could just feel the ghost of fingertips pressing against his skin.
"I'll admit you gave us a bad fright. You had so much of that toxin in your system I didn't think we'd ever get your heart started again, but we did, and the latest blood tests show it's slowly leaving your bloodstream. Are you in any pain?"
John blinked, and the ventilator pumped air into his lungs. Pain? He couldn't feel anything.
"Blink once for yes and twice for no," Beckett continued.
John forced his eyes closed twice, and the doctor smiled.
"That's good. You're covered in cuts and bruised from your two tumbles into that ravine, but nothing that won't heal up in a few days. The wound on your neck was pretty deep this time around, but that too will heal."
Images raced through John's mind, carrying with them a thousand questions each. He saw the rugged, foggy world, the weird animal in the trees, the ravine he'd thought he could so easily climb out of, then the bug—the creature that had plagued his nightmares for months after the first incident. He'd thought he was just about over it, hadn't even thought about those things in almost two months, and then it happened again.
John wanted to scream. He wanted to thrash and cry and throw his body to the floor, rip the creature that had latched onto his neck and dug its head and pincers into his flesh. He wanted to incinerate the thing with Ronon's gun—then tear it to pieces with his bare hands and stomp on it with his boots. Then maybe crawl into the back of his closet and cry like he hadn't done since he was six years old.
But his heart beat on steadily, the rhythmic beeping never wavering. His arm rested limply against whoever was holding it—Teyla, he hoped—and his chest rose and fell slowly and in time with the machines all around him. He couldn't scream, he couldn't cuss out the world, he couldn't panic or cry, and that lack of movement, that numbness that stopped all reaction was almost as bad as the bug itself.
"Since you're awake and not fighting the vent at all, the toxin must still have a stranglehold on most of your muscles," Carson said, oblivious to the war waging in John's head. "As soon as you're able to breathe on your own, we'll get that intrusive tube out, I promise."
John blinked, and the doctor smiled again before patting him on the shoulder. "Get some rest, John." He glanced up at the others standing around the bed. "Don't keep him up long. Visiting hours are over in thirty minutes anyway."
A second later, he was gone, and John was left staring out at the empty space to his left. He could see machines crowded around the head of the bed, then a privacy screen behind them that seemed to be drawn all around him. He heard scraping sounds nearby and knew his team was still there, but he couldn't move his head to look at them.
Ronon sat down, sprawling in the chair vacated first by Teyla and then by Carson. He held a piece of paper in his hands up to John's face, and John saw the silvery white peak of K2.
"McKay had it. Think he cut it out of a book."
"Not a book—National Geographic. Everyone cuts pictures out of National Geographic."
Ronon kept looking at John, ignoring McKay and finally letting the picture drop to his lap and out of sight. He stared into John's eyes, and John wondered if the man could look right into his mind, if he could see the panic and anger and despair battling each other out.
He didn't know this man, not really, but the green eyes staring back at him were alive with energy, and John knew the man was fighting his own internal demons. After everything he'd seen and been through in the last seven years, he had to have had a few screaming nightmares.
"Impressive mountain, this K2. What did you call it? Savage Mountain?"
John blinked yes, and Ronon slouched back in his chair. He kept his eyes on John, though, as if he was willing him to look deeper. They were bright—happy and sad, tense and relaxed, hopeful and despairing all at the same time. The eyes said it all.
Ronon really was impressed with K2. John wanted to smile but had to settle for his lip twitching against the ventilator tube. His chest rose and fell, his heart beat on. He could hear McKay eating the brownie and Teyla making little clucking noises in disgust.
K2—the second highest peak on Earth. The Savage Mountain. Did this world have its version of K2? John knew there was a significant mountain range somewhere in the southern hemisphere, but he hadn't looked into it too closely. Every place had its high summit, its ultimate challenges. McKay would balk at the idea of climbing any mountain. Teyla he wasn't sure about. She could certainly handle it physically, but he didn't know if she'd actually want to do something like that.
Ronon seemed to read his every thought. He suddenly leaned forward, staring intently at Sheppard's face and breaking out into a wild grin. He brought the picture of K2 up again and tapped it with his finger.
Oh, yeah. Ronon was definitely a mountain climber.
~ End ~
A/N: Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed along the way! It was encouraging to hear how much you enjoyed the story. This story got into my head so much that I couldn't stop working on it, and it is one of the fastest stories I've ever written. I really loved writing it, so I'm happy that others have liked reading it. Until next time!