Steven Caldwell was never one to hold vigils in the infirmary. He made an exception today for a certain injured pilot, perching on a stool next to the only occupied bed. The colonel watched the younger man in a fitful sleep. Caldwell couldn't imagine the things Sheppard would dream about; even as a full-bird colonel, he wasn't sure he had seen as many terrifying things as John Sheppard.
The man woke with a start, narrowing his eyes at his visitor. John's sharp eyes softened when he recognized the officer. "Sir?"
"Sorry, Colonel. I just dropped by to deliver this." Holding out his hand, Caldwell revealed a tiny digital recorder. "I realize this has been an ordeal for you. And I apologize for asking you to do this when it's evident you're not ready. However, the IOA –"
Shaking his head, John held out his hand for the recorder. "Is there quarters available?" He threw back the blankets, and marched out of the infirmary.
"Here, Colonel. Use guest quarters. I'll notify Doctor Lam of your location."
"Thank you, sir. Give me about thirty minutes." John entered and shut the door before Caldwell could answer.
Colonel Caldwell took a deep breath. There weren't many who could get away with slamming a door in a superior's face. He made an exception.
Just this once.
Rodney flipped another page of a graphic novel, marveling at the violence. But the story was strangely engrossing, and he finally understood why Sheppard liked them. He made notes in the margins for his friend to read later.
The radio beeped twice before Rodney answered it.
The colonel's raspy voice made Rodney freeze. "Sheppard? Are you okay?"
There was a long pause before John answered. "Is there anyone around?"
"No, everyone's in bed. And you didn't answer my question."
Another pause. "I'm tired. I don't want to be here anymore."
Alarm bells rang in Rodney's head. "Tell Hermoid to use the same coordinates he used last week to beam me out. You should land right next to the bed."
The radio went dead. In the next moment, Sheppard appeared next to the bed. Without the bruises, he was white as a sheet except two spots of color in his cheeks. His eyes were glassy as he stood shivering.
Standing slowly, Rodney approached the colonel cautiously. "John? What happened?" In the back of his head he knew the answer. He raised his hands to touch John's shoulder; the colonel jumped three feet to the left. Rodney tried a different tact. "I see you finally got your wish. One cast to go."
Glancing quickly around the room, John flexed his fingers on his left hand. Sidling over to the chest of drawers, he placed a hand to steady himself. He had changed back into the loose-fitting sweats, looking rumpled and exhausted.
"John, would you like me to help you?" Keeping his eyes on his friend, Rodney pulled back the covers, tossing magazines and books onto the floor.
Moving stiffly to the other side, John lay down closing his eyes. When Rodney tucked the covers around him, the colonel curled into a tight ball.
"Well, at least you got a haircut."
As Caldwell listened to Sheppard's report, he shifted uneasily. He had never heard the colonel speak without inflection before. No lazy drawl, no smart ass remarks. A dead, monotone voice droned on about his kidnapping and escape.
Halfway through, the colonel stopped the recording. "I can't take this," he said, rubbing his face.
He remembered how he found Sheppard in the guest quarters. In the darkened room, the colonel was curled in a corner breathing heavily. Caldwell thought he had fallen asleep, but as soon as he came near, Sheppard leapt upright, swaying against the wall.
The man had flinched at his voice, and squeezed further into the corner. Sheppard hugged himself tightly, rubbing his still injured arm with his free hand. He suddenly moved, snatching the recorder off the desk. Shoving it into Caldwell's hand, Sheppard had quickly left the room.
Shaking his head, Caldwell rose from his desk to return to the bridge. On the way, he saw Carolyn Lam walking toward him. He winced at the woman's expression. "Doctor. What can I do for you?"
"I was told Colonel Sheppard would be in guest quarters. He's not there."
"Well, I'm sure he's somewhere on the ship. Have you paged him?"
The doctor crossed her arms. "I would, except we haven't issued him a radio."
Caldwell tapped a comm panel. "Hermoid, can you locate Colonel Sheppard?"
"Colonel Sheppard has returned to the surface."
"What?" The colonel and doctor chorused.
"He appeared to be in distress. He contacted Doctor McKay, and calmed."
Caldwell glanced at the shorter woman. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I didn't think he would leave without your consent." As soon as he spoke the words, the colonel realized of whom he spoke.
Sighing, Carolyn turned back towards the infirmary. "I'll stay until morning, and check on him then. Then I'd like to return to SGC."
"Will do, Doctor. Good night." Caldwell resisted the urge to shove his hands in his pockets. Instead, he lifted his head and continued towards the bridge.
Rodney lay there staring at the ceiling. Whatever happened on that ship undid everything he had worked so hard to alleviate. He listened to John's harsh breathing; heat radiated from his body, making Rodney curse all medical doctors and their sticks and rattles. Turning out the lights, he waited for something to break.
At some point, he may have dozed off. The colonel's shivering became tremors, shaking Rodney to alertness. Turning to face John, he was surprised to see him awake.
"Sheppard? Are you cold?" There was no answer; Rodney feared the worse.
"A day after I was captured, the people sent me to a Genii-occupied world. They were looking for me, to activate a chair."
John's voice was barely above a whisper. Rodney froze in place, fearing sudden movement would silence the ailing man. Making a quick decision, Rodney opted for normalcy.
"Really?" Rodney answered, hoping for maximum sarcasm. "I'm sure that went over well."
"The commander," John continued. "He was like some kind of Kolya wannabe. It was weird. This guy seemed to think the more drugged and sleep-deprived I was, I'd do what he said."
"Well, that was dumb. Doesn't he know anything about you?"
"He should've." John shifted around to stare at the ceiling. "They had my picture, so they obviously knew about the gene."
"Sounds like trouble."
The colonel forged ahead. "The weapons outpost they brought me to buzzed in my head like a swarm of bees, like it was new, or something. My guess is the Replicators were there recently, with a fresh ZPM."
"No wonder it buzzed. All that new tech along with the old," Rodney wistfully stated. He hoped the noncommittal comments would merely spur John's recollection.
"On the fifth day, the commander – Lonen – broke my arm. Twice. They thought I couldn't tell night and day, but there was a crack in the ceiling of my cell."
"Because you're such a pleasant person when you don't know the time." Rodney heard his heart pounding in his own chest; he hoped John would overlook the sound.
"The head Genii scientist was a total ass-kisser. Yes, Commander this... Yes, Commander that. He was the first one I killed. The second one thought of new and interesting ways to cause pain. Three days after my arm was broken, this guy whacks me with a pipe or something, right across my face. But the third scientist thought if I rested and was fed, I'd be more useful."
"Lonen must've loved that."
"I almost felt sorry for him. The commander had him beaten," John said thickly, reaching for a glass of water. After several swallows, he pulled the blanket up under his chin. "But I had to get away, and he was an obstacle."
"The outpost was so eager to operate; it was like a two-year-old with a new toy. We hatched a plan, then I took out the scientist and a guard. I told the outpost to arrange a distraction. It was so cold, and my hands wouldn't stop shaking. Whatever drugs they gave me were wearing off, so everything hurt."
"What a surprise."
"When I passed the chair room, the outpost lit up every display. I got to the main hall without anyone seeing me."
"You're pretty stealthy when you want to be."
"I was so dizzy from everything, I ran straight into a pillar. Re-opened my head wound. All I could see was red. When I got to the entrance, I told the outpost to lockdown until I came back."
"And, of course, it obeyed."
John turned to meet Rodney's eyes in the darkness. "Don't be jealous, Rodney. I made it back to the 'gate by some miracle, trying to block out the hallucinations of my dead team."
"I was a zombie? Interesting."
"I'm not kidding. These were by far the worse ones I've ever experienced. Everything was hyper-real. Everything I touched was enhanced, all the pain I felt tripled. On instinct, I may have doubled back, or just wandered so aimlessly I lost them."
"It sounds like a horrible experience, John."
After a long pause, the colonel continued. "By the time I got to the DHD, I was so tired. But I remembered a space 'gate address, and dialed. Six Genii ran through the 'gate. Then I dialed a Wraith planet. Lonen and the rest went through."
"I bet he was surprised," Rodney said breathlessly. "You really are smarter than you look."
"Then I dialed M49-2471."
"Uninhabited. Good choice."
"I wanted to make sure I could get to the Alpha site. That 'gate platform had shifted; I fell a long way down." John's voice started to slur.
"And that's how you broke your left arm," Rodney surmised. As evidenced by his newly healed arm, Rodney knew this arm had a clean break and healed quicker.
"By the time I woke up, I was soaked. It was raining and very cold. Everything was so numb, it was the only way I could dial the Alpha site with two broken arms. Sergeant Meade almost shot me. He asked me a lot of questions, but I couldn't stay awake. After that, it gets hazy."
Turning on his side, Rodney conjured up the memory of that day. It came in Technicolor, with vivid detail. "The sergeant came with you through the 'gate. You were babbling on a stretcher. I think you were speaking a few different languages, Ancient included. But it was difficult to understand you. Meade told us how they found you; even when you're out of your mind, you're still stubborn. The other guy holding the stretcher – um, Crystal, Cranston –"
"Creighton, I think."
"Anyway, Creighton said you refused assistance and walked to the med tent. He also said it took twice as long since you insisted on stumbling off the trail."
John frowned. "I'll add them to my growing list of apologies I have to make. All I remember is pain and cold."
"You were nearly hypothermic, in fact. They thought you were brain damaged, for God's sake!"
Taking several more sips of water, John cleared his throat. "Really? I admit things were scrambled, but I don't remember much after the Alpha site."
Rodney turned to lay on his back and sighed. "Are you sure you want to know?"
"That bad, huh?" John put his hand over his eyes. It was good to have a free hand! "Can it get any worse than slamming a door in Caldwell's face?"
"You what? You are in so much trouble!" Laughing, Rodney placed a hand behind his head, feeling the tension drain away. "If you want, I could set up a closed-circuit broadcast from a remote part of the city. Just announce your apologies, and escape the mob."
"Ya know, that's not a bad idea, Rodney." John yawned greatly, turning on his good side. "Tell me what happened."
"You had to see me, like, all the time. Jennifer finally just set up the next bed for me. While you wouldn't talk about what happened, your dreams seemed quite vivid. I dunno, Colonel. The things you dream about..." Pulling the blanket tighter, Rodney plowed on. "Every time you saw me, you asked the same questions. 'McKay? Why are you here? Why didn't you leave? Where's Teyla?' Honestly, it was a little unnerving."
John stilled for a moment, then shifted. "Sorry. But I was probably still hallucinating. While I was drugged up, all I saw was your bloody body. Worse, I saw you a few times in a dark corner like a ghost telling me to leave that place."
"Oh, now see? I thought you were gonna be sane for your escape."
"Deep down, I knew it wasn't you, but I was so out of it... There was whispering all around me, and I couldn't make heads or tails of anything." John shrugged helplessly. "You told me how to escape, in fact."
"Then you definitely went with crazy."
John felt a grin crease his face. "Do you know what happens to skittish Genii when you start speaking Kurdish and Berber? I only know a few words, but it was enough. That commander guy went all kinds of crazy. I didn't want him to hurt me anymore, but it was inevitable."
"Is that what happened to your right side?"
"Mmm. I don't think I've been kicked that much in my life." The colonel fell silent, wondering briefly if he should continue. Gathering the blankets in his sore hand, John glanced at Rodney. He couldn't tell what kind of expression his friend held, but Rodney deserved the whole story. "On the last day, the tenth day, I asked the outpost for layouts and schematics. I wasn't staying there another day. I used a few tricks I deem worthy of your approval, and went on a drug- and pain-fueled rampage. It was hard aiming those Genii peashooters with one eye, but I needed to get the hell out of there. The lab had a biohazard failsafe. I convinced it there was an emergency and vented the air. Pretty sure all the scientists died, maybe a guard or two. I was never quite sure how many Genii were actually in the outpost."
This time, Rodney fell silent. For nearly two weeks, Colonel John Sheppard had endured beatings and drugs and hallucinations. He still managed to escape, even though his team couldn't come back for him. And he survived. A little worse for wear, but survived nonetheless. "I don't know what to say."
"Holy crap! Stop the presses! Doctor Rodney McKay is speechless."
Rodney sat upright, twisting his body to face his friend. "I'm just saying that I can't believe you kept going."
Yawning again, John stretched a bit. "No choice. Besides, you and I came up with an excellent plan, and I escaped."
"Then you come back to Atlantis twelve sheets to the wind, communing with a city that I swear to everyone isn't sentient, and then you proceed to scare the hell out of my staff and everyone around you."
"Sorry, Rodney," John murmured. "I didn't mean to."
"Yes, yes, yes. So you say. I told you once to stop scaring the medical staff with your screwy genetics, and now I have to extend that command to my staff as well."
"What?" the colonel asked breathlessly.
"You locked my people out of vital systems and insisted on repairing problems. I can't even tell you how many times we found you sitting on the floor whispering to yourself like a crazy person."
John squirmed a bit. "For how long?"
"Three days. You are not only stubborn, but evil. You bypassed every sensor and scanner Jennifer conjured up. Once your bloodwork came back almost normal, she put you in a coma."
"Then you sent me away." As much as he wanted to be angry, John couldn't find it in him. "I don't blame you."
Rodney reached over to the lamp. "Close your eyes. I'm turning on the lamp." Turning to fully face the colonel, Rodney collected himself. "We really had no choice. When Sam came banging on my door in the middle of the night, I thought you'd finally given up."
"What?" John stopped blinking at the sudden light, and narrowed his gaze.
"Look," Rodney began, raising his hands to stop the protest. "When you got to the SGC, you were in bad shape. Your injuries weren't life-threatening, but according to Jennifer, you'd worn your body out. Like, down to nothing. You weren't getting better, and I really didn't know what to expect."
"I'd never give up, Rodney."
"I realize that now. By the way, I never want to see that look on Sam Carter's face ever again. I thought she was going to tell me my cat died." Sighing, Rodney scooted until his back was against the headboard. "When I got to the infirmary, you were sitting up and alert. Doctor Lam was smiling, so it seemed you were improving."
"And you say no one appreciates your presence."
Rodney snorted. "I was just glad you recognized me. No one knew if you were firing on all cylinders, especially since you wouldn't speak."
Clutching the covers, John shivered again. "I wanted to say a lot of things. Something. But everything was all jumbled up, like I forgot to stop pretending with the gibberish. My head hurt so bad, and I couldn't sort through it all. So I hid in Atlantis, I guess."
Rodney nodded thoughtfully, finally understanding. "Atlantis is just numbers and logic. And people think I'm crazy for engrossing myself in nothing but numbers." He reached over to turn off the light. "I'm glad you told me, John, but something tells me you better get all the sleep you can right now."
Yawning in agreement, John snuggled back under the covers. "Lam is going to kick my ass, isn't she?"
"The likes of which you have yet to see, Grasshopper."
Jeannie woke the next morning to prepare everything for Smoothie Day. She was up to her elbows in fruit when Rodney emerged from his room. This time he seemed more cognizant of his surroundings. Jeannie flicked on the coffee maker.
Jeannie blinked at the greeting. "Uh, morning."
Rodney smiled as he snatched a mug out of the cabinet. He placed it under the coffee drip, getting the first cup. Opening his mouth to say something, Rodney was cut off by a knock at the door. "Punctual as always, Carolyn." Walking briskly across the living room, he opened the door, squinting against the bright morning sun.
"Doctor McKay. Nice to see you again." She stepped inside, waving a reluctant hand at Jeannie. "I hear my patient came back some time last night?"
"Yes. He did. I'd grill you about what happened, but he told me. He's asleep now; I think the ordeal along with the fever took a lot out of him."
Carolyn frowned. "I was afraid of that. Sometimes a low grade fever is a side effect of the healing device." She followed Rodney into the bright room. Digging in her small bag, she fished out a stethoscope and a leather bound journal. "Thank you for your detailed notes, Rodney. If I'm right, I won't need them anymore."
"You know what? I think you may be right."
The doctor gently examined John, making notations in her own journal. Rodney thought he'd be more concerned when the colonel barely flinched as she touched him. Instead he felt relieved. The only time John slept that deeply was when he felt safe.
"Well, Colonel. You're lucky I don't beam you back to the infirmary, and make you stay there for your last week on Earth."
"That would go over well, I think." Rodney sat on the edge of the bed. "Is he all right?"
Replacing her stethoscope in the bag, Carolyn smiled briefly. "Ask him yourself."
Glancing up at the man in question, Rodney saw a hint of green under dark lashes. "Well?"
"'M good. Just sleepy." Sitting upright, John ran a hand across his face and through his hair.
"Great." Rodney turned his attention to the doctor. "Anything else? Can I interest you in a fruit smoothie?"
"I'll take a raincheck," she said, placing her hand on Rodney's shoulder. "You could use some additional rest too, you know."
"Yeah, McKay. Go back to bed."
The doctor tapped her radio. "Colonel Caldwell? This is Doctor Lam. Yes, sir, I'm ready." Nodding at both men, Carolyn gave a reluctant smile. "Good luck, gentlemen." In a flash of light, she was gone.
After toeing off his slippers, Rodney climbed into bed. "How about you? It's smoothie day."
John's brow raised in askance. "Just today?"
"Well, every Sunday, actually. You were a little out of it last weekend."
Falling back to the pillows, John stretched a bit. "Don't tell Vala, but I never want to lay eyes on that device. Not ever."
"That bad, huh?"
"I'm completely worn out. The best thing? I'm not in as much pain." John wearily lifted his right arm, wiggling his fingers.
Yawning, Rodney turned over. "Just keep the delirium to a minimum."
"Do my best, buddy."
When John woke again, he was alone. Pulling on a thick pair of socks, he padded out of the room into chaos. The blender was going, Jeannie and Rodney were arguing, Kaleb tickling his daughter, reducing Maddie to giggles.
"Hi, Uncle John!"
"Hey, Maddie." John continued to the kitchen and slumped down in a chair. "Rodney? Did you sleep at all?"
Jeannie stepped forward, planting a kiss on John's forehead. "He woke up about ten minutes before you. How do you feel?"
"I'm good." The colonel ignored Rodney's steely gaze. "Got one cast off, and a haircut."
"I thought something was different. Now I want you both to sit down and have some food. Or would you like a smoothie?"
"Smoothie," both men chorused.
"Comin' up!" With a flourish, Jeannie went back to the blender. "Maddie? Yours is ready."
"Yay!" The little girl escaped her father's clutches and skipped into the kitchen. "Uncle John wants strawberry and banana."
John smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "How did you know that's what I want?"
Madison scrunched her face in thought. "Mommy says I'm a genius."
"Come on, let's go for a walk." Rodney nodded toward the front door. "I need some air."
Rising from his chair, John stretched his stiff body. "I could totally use a walk." The last time they took a walk, John was too tired and hurting. Now he felt he could go anywhere and do anything. He could walk to the park, maybe even the store six blocks away.
"No, we are not walking to the store."
"What? I wasn't–"
"Whatever. You just got that wistful look in your eye."
"I did not have a wistful look. Why would I?"
Snorting, Rodney shrugged into a light jacket. "You get the same look just before you escape the infirmary. And every time it's a clear day; you think about flying a 'jumper."
"I guess I'm getting a little predictable in my old age." John smiled as he stepped off the porch, breathing in the cool air. "The park then?"
When they reached the park, John made a beeline for the pond. Sitting down heavily on the bench, he watched ducks floating on the water. "Wish we had some bread or something."
"What? No!" Rodney squirmed on his side of the bench. "What is it with you and disease-ridden animals?"
John laughed, and they fell into a companionable silence.
"I guess I'm coherent enough to call my brother," John murmured, squinting up at the late afternoon sky.
"You know," Rodney began. "I really thought I lost you for good this time. I mean, you were there, but you weren't."
Waving a hand, Rodney leaned forward, elbows on knees. "Not your fault. Thing is, I'm not sure what Atlantis would do if you didn't come back."
John squinted a skeptical eye in his friend's direction. "Atlantis, huh?" Grinning, he gently punched Rodney's shoulder. "Yeah, Mer. I kinda like having you around too."