Once in a Blue Moon – Chapter 3

John was too exhausted to move. His bruises hurt. The ribs he was beginning to think the guards had cracked when they beat him hurt. Every muscle ached and felt like lead. His head throbbed and his back was on fire. On top of everything, he was hot. Not weather related hot, but the muscle-aching, hot-from-within due to a fever hot. Summary – he felt like crap.

He was lying on his stomach on Teyla's bunk – again. He'd offered to take the top and she had just shaken her head sadly and given him a very firm 'no'. In retrospect, the offer had probably seemed pretty silly since she had practically held him up all the way back to the bunkhouse from the fields. When Ronon had quit laughing, he'd helped him get cleaned up and then the girls had changed his bandages again. He'd even managed to make it to supper. His stomach wasn't thrilled, but it didn't seem to be about to reject the food offering, so he was happy. Mostly he was happy to be lying down.

"What are we going to do about tomorrow? There's no way he'll make it through another day like that. He could barely walk when you got him back here."

Rodney's voice startled John a bit, making him aware that he must have dozed off. Opening his eyes, he realized it was darker than it had been.

"I will stay close to him and try to help. He did all right in the morning, but seemed tired when we returned to work after the mid-day break. If they put us in the karookna fields tomorrow, he will have trouble. Those must be dug from the ground and it requires much getting up and down."

"Maybe we could talk to Calais . . . ask him for another day," said Rodney.

"No," John said, his dry mouth and throat making the word come out rough.

"John?" Teyla was kneeling beside the bed in a moment. "We did not know you were awake."

"Yeah . . . I'm 'wake. I'll be fine . . . just need some sleep."

"Just need some sleep," Rodney parroted sarcastically. "Right, and all I need is an LSD to get us out of here."

"John, would you like some water?" asked Teyla, ignoring Rodney's outburst.

"Yeah . . . water would be good."

Rahda grabbed the cup on the bedside table and returned a few moments later, handing it to Teyla. John decided he wanted the water badly enough to move, so he pushed himself up on one elbow and accepted the cup. He was grateful that no one commented on the slight tremor in his hand as he drank the water. "Thanks," he said, handing the cup back to Teyla. "Look guys, I'll be fine. It's not like we have a choice here."

John hated the way they looked at him. He saw sympathy and worry in their eyes, but he also saw guilt. He'd meant it when he told Rodney not to feel guilty. He held no bad feelings for his team, knowing any one of them would have done anything to trade places with him. In a way, he had it easier than they did. Thinking about what had happened only made him burn with fury towards Glendon.

"I believe you have a fever," Teyla announced.

John lowered himself back to the mattress. "I know. Nothing we can do though. I figure Lorne will be here before too much longer. We just need to hang on until then."

"Lorne?" asked Rahda.

Crap, he really was out of it. He hadn't meant to say anything in front of her. He figured they could trust her, but he shouldn't have been so careless. "Uh, yeah . . . he's my second in command."

Rahda didn't ask any more questions, but she did look curious, and maybe a little hopeful. It was silent for a while and John let his eyes droop closed.

"Hey, look at the moon," Ronon said. John was a little curious, but couldn't bring himself to move again.

"It is a strange color . . almost blue," said Teyla. "Is this the blue moon you and John spoke of?"

"No . . . the one we talked about was all in the timing, not the color," explained Rodney. "It wouldn't look any different than any other full moon. It's just the second one in a month. It does look kind of blue though. Smoke maybe?"

"They set some of the stumps and trees they had cleared out on fire," offered Ronon.

"Our people call a moon of this color a shahacahn . . . a light of good fortune," said Rahda.

"Well, we could sure use some of that," Rodney muttered.

Ain't that the truth, John thought. Their voices became muffled and soft and soon faded away to nothing. The next thing John knew, he was startled awake by a loud noise. His head up and his heart racing, an explosion rocked the building, followed by rapid weapon fire. Amidst the sudden motion and loud screaming that surrounded him, it occurred to him that Lorne must have found them and he smiled to himself.

As adrenalin hit and John pushed himself up, he heard Rodney mutter, "About time," from somewhere nearby. By the time he got to his feet, he was awake enough to see his team standing beside him.

"Sounds like they finally found us," said Ronon.

"Yep, that it does," John agreed. "Come on," he said as he began the fight to get down the aisle amongst the throng of scared slaves. The staccato of P-90 fire in the distance was like a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Okay, people, listen up," he shouted. "That will be our people here to get us out of this God-forsaken hole in the ground. Just stay here and remain calm. Once things have settled down and they've secured this place, we'll see that all of you get home."

The crowd had parted to let them by so that by the time John had finished speaking, they were at the front of the building beside the door.

"You'll . . . your people will just let us go?" asked Baruch, who had stepped to the front of the crowd. His expression said that he didn't believe John.

"What else would we do?" asked Teyla.

Baruch grimaced and glanced around. "Take us for your own slaves. Sell us."

John's mouth tightened into a thin line. "We don't buy and sell people and we don't keep slaves. Ever. Once the gate is secured, everyone will be allowed to return home."

A thin woman who probably wasn't as old as she looked gave a timid wave, catching John's attention. "What if we aren't sure where home is any more? I've been here a long time."

John frowned, his gut clenching in pity and anger at the same time. "We'll try to help you find home. And if we don't . . . we'll find someplace better than this."

With a smile, the woman nodded, obviously relieved that she wouldn't have to stay here. John dipped his head once in her direction. He would make sure no one got left behind in Glendon's clutches.

Ronan opened the door and peeked outside for a few moments before turning to the rest of the team. "Okay."

John followed him out the door and Rodney and Teyla followed him. It was darker than he expected, with the moon behind a cloud at the moment. They crept close to the ground across the compound until they reached a clump of bushes next to the building where a lot of the farming equipment was kept. John was thankful for the adrenalin that was masking the pain that should have kept him from doing what he was doing.

"There," Ronon said, pointing to a large group of people. Squinting, John's view was suddenly enhanced by the clouds moving to let some of the moonlight shine down on the team from Atlantis, reflecting off their weapons as they bound a small group of guards.

They stepped out from the tree cover, their hands raised. "Lt. McDaniel," John called out softly, having seen the face of the marine in the lead. "It's Colonel Sheppard and my team." They stopped and waited on the group to reach them, giving the men time to see that it really was them.

"Colonel Sheppard, sir," said McDaniel, lowering his weapon. "Good to see you . Is everyone here?"

"Yes, we're all here," responded John as the group lowered their hands. "I have to tell you that we're pretty glad to see you."

"Took a while to track you down, but we just kept looking," said the young man with a smile. "What's back that way?"

"The big building on the left is the bunkhouse for slaves," John said, not bothering to cover the bitterness in his voice. "They should be fine for now. There may be a few guards scattered around back that way, not sure."

The young lieutenant nodded. "We'll check it out. Sir, maybe you and the others should wait in that bunkhouse until we have the area secured."

John bristled at the suggestion he should just get out of the way, but he refrained from commenting, knowing the soldier was just trying to protect him and his team. "I need a radio before we do anything so I can find out what's going on. Is Lorne in charge?"

One of the men handed John a radio almost before he had finished speaking. "Yes, sir, Major Lorne is leading the mission."

"Major Lorne, this is Colonel Sheppard. Good of you and your men to drop by. I need a status report."

"Colonel Sheppard, sir, good to hear your voice. We've got one more pocket of resistance to clear up and then we'll have this area secured. I'll just need Lt. McDaniel to confirm that he has his area under control and that'll button down this whole place."

"He's here with us now, so I'll let him get back to his job. My team and I are going to make our way up to the main house."

"We'll be out here on the front lawn waiting," Lorne drawled.

Smiling, John glanced at Rodney, who rolled his eyes. "See you there. Sheppard out." He handed the radio back to the solder. "Thanks. Let me borrow a sidearm in case we encounter any resistance."

"Sgt. Hanson will be accompanying you," said McDaniel.

"I just asked for a weapon," John responded. "We don't need a babysitter."

A tall soldier next to McDaniel handed John his handgun, which John checked over before testing the feel of the weapon in his hands. "Thanks."

"I'd still like Sgt. Hanson to accompany you," suggested McDaniel.

"That's fine," John said, moving over to stand in front of one of the guards. He stared at the man for a while, placing him in his mind. "You, where's the guard that shot the old man?"

The guard continued to stare straight ahead. John placed the barrel of the gun to the middle of the man's forehead and pressed it into the skin until he was sure it would leave a mark. "Where is the guard who shot the old man? If you won't tell me, I'll find someone who will. And I will have no reason to keep you alive."

Taking a deep breath, the guard let his eyes move over to John, studying his expression. After a moment, he must have decided John was serious. "He's back there . . . dead."

John looked over the man's shoulder and then to McDaniel. "We did kill a few of them," the lieutenant said with a shrug. "They're over there." McDaniel pointed behind them and in a few moments, John could just make out several bodies scattered across the ground.

"Did we lose any of ours?" John asked, his voice tight.

"No, sir." John nodded, ignoring the looks he was getting from both the soldiers and his team as he walked toward the dark lumps. Using his foot, he rolled the bodies over one at a time until he found the right one. Sure enough, the man who had taken such pleasure at tossing aside the life of an old man and had then taken things farther by shooting him in front of John lay in the dirt, his unseeing eyes staring up at the night sky.

John studied him for several minutes before turning away. "Let's go," he said as he headed for the house, his team silently falling in place behind him. John stumbled once as they neared their destination, the fire in his back building to a level that made him want to scream at someone. Teyla caught his arm and kept him from face-planting on the ground.

"Thanks," he muttered, probably not nearly as sincerely as he should have. Teyla, being Teyla, didn't say a word. A few seconds later, he made out Lorne and a large group of people standing around in front of the huge residence. As they got close to the crowd, he could see several of them on their knees with their hands clasped on their heads.

"Lorne," John said, wiping away some of the sweat beginning to bead along his forehead and run down his neck. "About damn time you got here."

Lorne shifted a little awkwardly. "Yeah, sorry about that. Your kidnappers left a trail, but it wasn't necessarily a clear one. We hit a couple of snags that took us a while to figure out. Is everyone all right?"

John said "yes" at the same time as Rodney said "no", resulting in the pair glaring at each other.

"John has been injured," Teyla reported dutifully, leading John to turn his glare in her direction. She responded with a small smile and a tiny nod that said "I'm sorry, but I'm not sorry."

"We have a medical team in one of the jumpers," Lorne offered, studying his CO a little more seriously.

"I'll be fine till we get back," John said, not really sure if that was true or not. "What's the plan?"

"Well, mostly to get you back, sir," responded Lorne. "Which we seem to have done."

"Yeah, well we aren't done yet. There's a bunkhouse full of slaves down there that I promised could go home and I'm betting there are some more in the house. We aren't leaving them here."

Lorne just nodded, as if he was expecting something like that. "Yes, sir, we'll take care of it." He frowned at John and took a step closer to speak softly. "Sir, you really do look like crap, sir. I wish you'd check in with the medical unit on Jumper Three. We've got everything under control."

"I'll get him there," volunteered Ronon.

John hesitated. On the one hand, if the medical people got a look at him, he wouldn't be leaving that jumper any way but on a stretcher in Atlantis. On the other hand, he could feel his energy draining quickly away and his vision had begun periodically graying at the edges. Passing out in front of everyone would not really send the message that he wanted to send. He glanced at Lorne and was a little disturbed at what he saw. The major had served under him for several years now and he was reading John like an open book.

"That jumper doesn't leave the ground until I know every slave has been taken care of," John said firmly.

Lorne looked like he might argue for a moment, but John's team closed rank around him and they stood in solid support of their leader. With a small sigh, Lorne shook his head and agreed. "Fine, sir, but I'm not responsible for the fallout from Woolsey or Keller."

"Agreed," John said. "Keep me informed."

"Yes, sir," Lorne said and then added, "Really good to have you back, sir."

"It's going to be really good to be back," John said sincerely. "I don't think we're good slave material."

Rodney snorted loudly. "That's an understatement. As soon as we get back, I'm heading straight for the mess hall for the biggest plate of food I can pile up. Then it's a hot private shower and a soft bed," he said, almost moaning in pleasure.

"Infirmary first," said Ronon.

"And it's the middle of the night, so the mess hall will have fruit and maybe a few pastries," pointed out John.

At Rodney's crestfallen expression, John added, "And coffee of course."

Rodney's eyes widened. "Coffee? I haven't had coffee in forever."

John grinned until his eyes met those of Glendon, kneeling on the ground amidst a group of his guards. John diverted his path to walk over to the scowling man.

"Ah, Master Glendon. Do you remember our little talk when we first arrived? I told you our people take care of each other and I told you that we would never be your slaves. I'll bet you're wishing you'd listened about now."

"You cannot do this! They are my slaves. I paid for them. You have no right to take them." Glendon's face was red with anger and spittle flew as he talked.

John bent down to get in his face, ignoring the pain that almost landed him on his butt. "Yes, I can do this and what's not fair is the way you've treated these people. You can't buy and sell people. What makes you think you are so much better than any of them? Money? Good fortune? More weapons?" John straightened and swayed, fighting the growing darkness of his vision. He wasn't done with this yet. "You know what's a shame? Some of the food you grow is pretty good. Under other circumstances, we might've wanted to work out a trade agreement, help you with some things that you forced us to do, like fixing your irrigation pump. But not like this. You're lucky we don't shoot you and dump your body in the river like you did to Uther. Who knows . . . maybe we will still yet." John just smiled darkly at the way the color drained from Glendon's face as he turned and walked away.

After they'd walked a few steps, Rodney leaned in a little closer. "You wouldn't really shoot him in cold blood like that would you?"

"Nah, not worth it," John replied. "But he doesn't know that."

oOo

"John?" It took a few seconds for it to register that the quiet voice was addressing him. When he opened his eyes and lifted his head a bit to see Teyla's face next to his, he realized he'd dozed off yet again. Lying on his belly across one of the benches in the back of the jumper, John sighed and scrubbed at his face.

"Yeah? Is everything okay?" Using the arm that didn't have an IV stuck in it, he began pushing himself up to a sitting position. Heavy pain immediately flowed down his back, from his shoulders to his waist as the blood shifted in the tissues. Wincing, he let Teyla help him get turned around to face her, careful of the new bandages that had been wrapped around his torso. "What's going on?"

"Only a few of the slaves . . . former slaves have yet to be returned to their home planet. Rahda wanted to say goodbye to you before she left."

Glancing past Teyla to the open hatch, John noticed how much lighter it was outside. Early morning had apparently descended while he'd slept and that annoyed him. He'd meant to keep watch over the activities outside, but the medic that had accompanied the jumper had insisted he lie down for a while after they'd bandaged him up and started him on fluids. It hadn't taken long for exhaustion to combine with the pain meds they'd given him to knock him out.

"John?"

Looking up at her, John nodded. "Yeah, okay, sorry. Guess I kind of drifted there for a minute."

"I think you are entitled, after everything that has happened," she said with a smile. "I will tell Rahda."

He watched her leave and his mind blanked out again until the sound of footsteps on the ramp jarred him back to reality. "Hey," he said as Rahda and Teyla stepped up to stand beside him. He started to get up, but Corp. Bellick, the medic, drifted by about that time and clamped a firm hand on his shoulder.

"You shouldn't stand right now, sir," he said firmly. "You're dehydrated and still running a fever, on top of your injuries. I don't really want to have to pick you up off the jumper floor."

"Fine, I'll sit," John conceded with a frown. He wasn't happy with how weak that made him look, but it was probably better than actually passing out in front of his guest, which he could admit to himself was a real possibility.

"It is all right, Colonel Sheppard," said Rahda. "I just wanted to say thank you before I left."

"I really think I'm the one who should be thanking you," said John. "I'm really sorry about your grandfather. Do you have family left on your home planet?"

Rahda smiled. "Yes, my parents and two brothers still live there. I will be so happy to see them again. I'm sure they think me dead, so it will be quite a shock."

"But the good kind of shock," said John, returning her smile.

"Yes, the good kind," she said. "I wish you and your people well, John Sheppard. Thank you for freeing all of us and not just taking care of your people. Many would not do as you do."

"Hey, I'm not leaving anyone here to serve Master Glendon that doesn't want to stay."

"John has taught us all that we do not leave people behind," added Teyla. "It is a philosophy I respect and agree with."

Rahda nodded. "I will not forget either of you or how you have helped me. Peace be to you always."

"And to you," said Teyla.

Rahda hesitated a moment before leaning over to give John a quick kiss on the cheek. Blushing furiously, she turned and hurried down the ramp. John was still trying to recover when he noticed Teyla grinning at him.

"What?" he snapped.

"Nothing," Teyla said, her voice as innocent as her expression.

With a short snort, John glanced around the jumper, finding that he was alone with Teyla. "How about a hand?" he asked, pushing against the wall in an effort to stand. Teyla grabbed his arm and steadied him as he reached his feet.

"You are not supposed to be standing."

"Yeah, well, it isn't going to kill me and I need to see how things are going. I'll have plenty of time to lie around once we're back in Atlantis." He grimaced at the IV line taped to the inside of his arm and followed the tubing with his eyes to where the bag was wedged into an upper compartment. Reaching up with his other arm, he removed it and looked around for something to do with it. Finding nothing and not particularly wanting to face having it reinserted later, he cuddled the bag against his chest and began tottering toward the hatch.

"John, what are you doing?" asked Teyla, moving quickly up beside him and taking his free arm as if she thought he might fall.

"I'm going outside to check with Lorne and see where we're at. You don't have to hold me up, Teyla."

"I can send Major Lorne in here to report to you."

"I want to go outside and see things myself," John insisted as he led them down the jumper ramp.

"Sometimes you can be so stubborn," Teyla said, her voice bordering on anger.

"Yeah, I've been told that a time or two before," John muttered, spotting Lorne as he stepped off into the grass. Lorne finished talking to one of the soldiers and then turned their way, his eyes widening at the sight of his approaching CO.

"Major Lorne," John said.

"Colonel. Uh, are you supposed to be up, sir?" Lorne asked, eyeing the IV bag John had nestled against his chest.

John sighed heavily before commenting. "Not really, but I'll worry about that later. Where are we in this little operation?"

"That's the final group," Lorne said, tipping his head towards a group of about a dozen people. "They're just about to go through and then we're done. Well, except for that Glendon guy and his people. Man, he's a piece of work. What should we do with them?"

John had been thinking about that. He kind of wanted to dump them out on a planet with a space gate, but that seemed pretty harsh. He really hated the whole keepers of the Pegasus Galaxy thing they seemed to have going. "I guess I'll give him a stern warning about buying and selling people who have been kidnapped and then advise him that we'll be keeping a check on him. Maybe offer to help him figure out a way to hire people . . . either pay them or let them keep a percentage of the crop. People who want to be here working of their own free will and without guards and whippings and sweat boxes."

"Think he'll go for it?" asked Lorne skeptically.

"He will if he isn't really given much of a choice," said John. "I'll take Ronon with me."

"Good plan."

"Maybe," John said, hoping it would work but not really expecting it too. Ronon walked up with Rodney trailing behind, both of them chewing on power bars. "I see you've discovered food."

Brushing crumbs from his lips, Rodney frowned and pointed to John with his half-eaten power bar. "Are you supposed to be walking around carrying your IV?"

"Yes, I am," John lied without flinching. "What are you two still doing here? I thought you'd have gone back by now . . . you know, attacked the mess hall and laid waste to the food stores."

"Funny," Rodney deadpanned. "I see you haven't lost your sense of humor."

"Sheppard, we've got company," said Ronon, looking over John's shoulder. Twisting around was definitely not an option, so John had to slowly shift his stance to physically turn his body around. Three men approached, with Baruch in the lead.

"Wonder what he wants?" asked Rodney softly.

"Baruch, are you and your people about ready to leave?" asked John.

"Yes, we are. I saw you and wanted to extend my thanks once again for keeping your word and allowing everyone safe passage to their homes." He glanced around the grounds, now becoming visible in the morning light. "I have been here for many cycles, but I still remember my home and my family. I am anxious to see how they are . . . to sit in my home . . . to see if my wife is still . . . " Shaking his head, he turned back to face John and his team. "Well, enough of that. You are an honorable man, John Sheppard. I wonder . . . where are you from? I do not recognize the clothing of your people."

Now that was a difficult question to answer. "We're from a long way away. We came here to explore, to learn." John glanced at Ronon and then Teyla. "We made some good friends. We also made some enemies. I'm afraid our first encounter with the Wraith was . . . let's just say I riled them up a bit. But we found a home here, so we thought we'd stick around and try to help with the Wraith problem. We have to move around some, to keep our people safe."

Baruch smiled and nodded. "Yes, I understand." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a folded scrap of tan cloth. "I have written the address of my world on here. I heard some of your people mention you trade with some planets and share knowledge. I believe we would be interested in discussing such things if you desire. You have shown that your people have a strong and good heart."

"I'd like that," John said, accepting the cloth. "I'm guessing I'll be tied up with our doctor . . . uh, healer, fussing over me for a little while, but when I'm back on my feet, we'd like to come visit. I'd be interested in seeing how you were doing."

"I would also like that." Baruch waved his hand in front of the team. "You should all come and we will celebrate being free again. We will eat until we are sick of food!" he said, laughing loudly at the concept. John felt himself smiling and he noticed even Lorne was enjoying the man's enthusiasm. Baruch gave a short bow. "Until then, Colonel Sheppard. Major Lorne, we are ready to return to our home now."

With a nod, Lorne nodded to the two soldiers next to him. "Make sure they get safely to the gate." Turning back to Baruch, he said, "These men will escort you, just in case we missed any trouble-makers."

"Thank you," Baruch replied as he waved his people forward. With a final nod to John and his team, he followed behind one of the soldiers as the man led the way to the gate.

"Colonel Sheppard!"

John flinched, recognizing the voice of the medic that had told him not to get up. At least it wasn't Keller or Carson or he'd really be in hot water. He shifted around to find the man striding quickly over to him, his face dark with anger. "Oops," John said.

"Uh, I don't think oops quite covers it," commented Rodney. "You're toast, my man."

"Sir, I told you to remain sitting or to lie down," huffed the corporal, pulling John's arm out to check the IV connection.

"It's fine, Corp. Bellick, I was careful. See, I still have the IV bag," John displayed proudly. Surely not disturbing the man's handiwork would count for something.

"You need to get back to the jumper, sir, now. Dr. Keller's going to have a fit if she finds out I let you walk around in your condition."

John didn't miss the smirk on Lorne's face, nor did he plan on forgetting it. "Hold on just one second," he said firmly, planning his feet on the ground. "Lorne, what's left to do?"

"Well, that was the last of the slaves, so just dealing with Glendon. I can take care of that so you can get back to Atlantis."

John opened his mouth to protest, but Ronon took him by the arm and began pushing him toward the jumper. He was a little disturbed by how easy it seemed to be. "Ronon, I can walk there on my own, thank you."

"Just because you can doesn't mean you will. You need to be in the infirmary, so just cooperate and make this easier on all of us," the Satedan said.

The next thing John knew he was being manhandled down onto a bench. Pushing his shoulders forward, he made sure to keep his back a safe distance from the wall of the jumper. The painkillers had dulled his senses some, but not enough to actually let his scoured spine touch anything. "Watch it, guys!" he warned as they tried to push him into leaning against the side of the jumper. The pressure let up immediately as they stepped away from him.

"Oh, gosh, sorry Colonel," Rodney sputtered. "You wouldn't have this problem if you just let go and take it easy like a normal injured person."

Rodney continued his monologue, complete with cliché name-calling, but it had all faded into an annoying buzzing noise as the inside of the jumper began a lazy tilt to one side. The lights seemed to fade as well, but John realized about that time that it was him tilting sideways, not the jumper. Teyla was over him looking worried and then a soothing darkness slid across his line of sight and everything faded completely away.

oOo

John knew where he was even before he opened his eyes. The distinctive smell, the feel of the narrow bed, the cloth of the scrub pants against his legs . . . infirmary. He was lying on his stomach again, the IV still in his arm. Yawning, he blinked his eyes open and let his eyes wander around one end of the room. All he could see from his vantage point was two empty beds and the wall.

With a grunt, John managed to lift himself enough to turn his head and look the other direction. Dr. Keller was talking to a nurse. Meeting his eyes over the top of a data pad, she finished her discussion and headed his way with a broad grin.

"Colonel Sheppard. Good to see you awake. How do you feel?"

John considered the question. "Kind of like Godzilla kicked my butt. On the plus side, my back is only smoldering at the moment instead of flaming."

Keller nodded. "You've still got a bit of fever, but the fluids are helping and we've got you on IV antibiotics."

"How long have I been here?"

"They brought you in early the day before yesterday , so about two and a half days ago. We had you up a couple of times, but you may not remember. You were pretty drugged at the time and we were having trouble keeping your temperature down."

Thinking about it, John had a vague, dream-like impression of being walked around the infirmary and helped to the bathroom. "Hmm, weird." Shaking it off, he glanced around the room. "Where is everyone?"

"Mr. Woolsey sent them back to the planet to, uh, persuade the man who kept you captive not to buy slaves any more. I think they're showing him how he can operate his farm with legitimate workers. Ronon and the others went along to make sure he knew it wouldn't be a good idea to buy any more people. He said something about having Lorne give a weapons demonstration."

"Cool," John said, wishing he could see the look on Glendon's face when they hit something with a drone. Sighing, he realized he'd have to settle for the Cliff Notes version.

"Don't worry, they'll be back in time for supper. Rodney said to be sure you were awake enough not to drool on your pillow while they were here."

Narrowing his eyes, John snorted. "I don't drool."

Keller just looked at him for a moment and then turned her head away. "If you say so."

John shifted around on his elbows and eyed his pillow, trying to see if it looked damp. "Well, if I did, it was the drugs."

Keller smiled at him. "Get some rest, Colonel."

"I want to see Lorne when they get back," he said firmly, purposely not posing it as a question.

"We'll see how you're doing," she responded, gently pushing down on his shoulder until he lowered himself back to the mattress.

"I'll be fine," John said, unhappy about the way Keller seemed to be patronizing him. "Look," he said, pushing back up as soon as she removed her hand. "I'm still the ranking officer of this base and I need to know what's going on . . . what threats are out there."

Keller smirked at him, making John even more irritable. "Oh, please, Colonel. We've managed for the last few weeks, I think we can make it until you're back on your feet. Now lie down and rest or I'll make sure you have no visitors until tomorrow."

John harrumphed, but lay back down as directed. "I had a nice talk with Corp. Bellick, by the way," Keller informed him.

Crap, he really was screwed.

oOo

Jerking awake, John tried to sit up, quickly abandoning the movement when his back pulled painfully. Dropping his chest back to the mattress, he squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in the pillow for a moment, stifling the scream he wanted to emit. He had to move his face to the side, however, to accommodate his rapid breathing, a product of the nightmare that had startled him out of his slumber.

"Colonel Sheppard, are you all right?"

Opening his eyes again, he looked into the face of Amy, one of the nurses. She was leaned over to put her face at his level, a frown wrinkling the skin of her forehead.

"Sorry . . . nightmare," he said a little sheepishly.

"No problem. I was just on my way to check on you anyway. How do you feel?" Her fingers slipped around his wrist, feeling for his pulse.

John blinked a few times, noticing the low lights for the first time. "What time is it?"

"It's almost three a.m. and you didn't answer my question," she said, wrapping a blood pressure cuff around his arm.

Three a.m.? He must have dozed off after talking to Keller. "Kind of hot and achy." He was relieved when the band around his arm finally began to loosen with a hiss.

"Hmm, pressure's still a little low. How's your back?"

John considered the question for a moment. "Hurts, but not too badly. Did I miss my team earlier? Jennifer said they were coming by after they got back from the mission." The next thing he knew, a thermometer was pressed snugly against his ear.

"Uh, well, actually that was yesterday, or rather day before yesterday. Your fever went back up and you've been pretty disoriented the last thirty hours or so." At the sound of a beep, the pressure in his ear was removed and the nurse sighed. "Still over 100. You just hang tight, Colonel, while I check with Dr. Strauhan."

Tired of lying on his stomach, John tried to shift more onto his side, but the sudden flash of pain left him panting and sweating. He hated being this weak and losing so much time.

"John, we can help you if want to try to lie on your side." John looked up to see Nick Strauhan come around his bed to the side, Amy beside him.

"Yeah, sure . . . kind of tired of this position."

Nick chuckled. "I'll bet. Just let me get your pain meds on board and then we'll see if we can prop you up a little, make you more comfortable." The nurse handed Nick a syringe and he injected it into John's IV port, handing the empty back to her.

"I'll just grab a couple of pillows and be right back," she said.

"Anything hurt besides your back?" Nick inquired. "The rest of you is pretty bruised up as well."

"Everything else just kind of aches. The pain in my back is more like a fire . . . sharper."

Nick frowned a bit. "We've been having a bit of an infection problem with a couple of places on your back. That's probably keeping the pain level up and I think that's what's making this fever so hard to get rid of. Alien bacteria seem to respond to our Milky Way antibiotics for the most part, but sometimes on their own schedule, not ours. This is one of those times."

John grunted. "Is that why I'm so weak and keep falling asleep for so long?"

"Partly," Nick said, turning as Amy returned with some pillows. "Okay, let's get you on your side. The bruising is much more extensive on his right side, so let's put him on his left. John, just let us do the work and let me know if it hurts too badly."

"Kay," John said, tensing for the anticipated movement. A small groan escaped as they rolled him to his side, but they had him settled against the pillows in record time. Once his body adjusted to the new position, he felt better.

"How are you doing?" Nick asked. "Is that going to be all right?"

"Yeah . . . better," John said. He was sweating again and his heart rate was up some. He was also noticing how dry his mouth was. "Water?"

"Just a little," Nick said. "Thanks Amy, we should be okay now." As the nurse left, Nick placed a straw up to John's lips and he immediately began to pull in the cool liquid. He'd barely started when Nick pulled it away, leading John to groan in protest. "Not too much at one time or you'll get sick. You know the drill by now. You can have a little more in a few minutes."

John watched as Nick pulled up a chair and turned it backwards before straddling it so that his face was eye-level with John. "How are you really?"

Hating those kind of questions, John sighed. "You tell me. I've apparently been back, what . . . almost four days now and I don't seem to remember much of it."

Nick nodded. "Well, first of all you've lost weight . . . you all have. From what we saw and what the others told us, they fed you enough to keep you alive, but not much else. Especially with the type labor you were doing. Dr. McKay lost the least, but I think that's because his work wasn't quite as physical." Nick cringed and leaned forward. "Just don't tell him I said that."

With a small chuckle, John nodded. "I won't."

"Thanks. That would probably get me in all kinds of trouble. Anyway, you were also suffering a rather nasty case of heat exhaustion, on top of the trauma and blood loss from the whipping and the beating they gave you. There was a little internal bleeding, but it had already resolved itself by the time you got back here. Other than that, a lot of severe bruising and signs of a mild concussion. Add infection to that and it's going to take your body several days to recover. Weeks if you're looking for full recovery."

"How long in here?" asked John.

Nick shook his head. "Oh no you don't. That's Keller's decision, not mine. I wouldn't look for it to be anytime real soon though."

"Yeah, I figured."

Nick smiled at him but it was kind of a sad smile. "Truthfully, if we let you out today, could you make it to your room?"

John considered how drained he felt just from their short talk. "No, probably not."

With a nod, Nick reached out to quickly grip his upper arm. "Point taken I hope. Now get some rest."

"Okay. Thanks for the update and helping me get into a different position. Can I see my team tomorrow . . . if I can stay awake long enough?"

"Sure," Nick replied. "One more sip before I go," he said, grabbing the cup and putting the straw to John's mouth. Once again, it was removed all too soon. John closed his eyes and heard the doctor moving around putting the chair back. He was asleep before Nick's footsteps faded away.

oOo

The next time John awoke, it was midmorning. Kelly was in the middle of taking his temperature when his eyes fluttered open.

"Hey, sleepyhead," she said with a bright smile.

"Hey," John said around a yawn. "Thought you were on nights."

"I am," she said, writing on his chart. "I'm just filling in for Carrie today. She has a hot lunch date with some guy in Engineering."

"Lucky her," John said. "How'm I doin'?"

"Better," she said with a small head-bob. "Your temperature's been hovering right at a hundred today and that's the lowest it's been." She looked at her watch. "Feel up to a few visitors?"

"Yeah," he said quickly, glancing around the infirmary. "Is my team here?"

"They will be in a minute," she said. "They sat with you for a while this morning and then they had a meeting with Mr. Woolsey. They said they'd be back around 1030 hours to check on you and it's almost that now."

"Great," said John. "It'll be good to finally get to see them."

Kelly set the chart down and poured some water in the plastic cup on the nightstand. "Would you like a drink?"

"Reading my mind, Kelly. Definitely reading my mind."

Grinning, Kelly popped a straw in the cup and held it to John's mouth as he edged up on one elbow. She let him drink several big swigs before pulling it away.

"How long before I can drink an actual glass of water?" John moaned.

"You can now if you do it slowly. You can have some more in a couple of minutes. Just take it slowly and not too much at one time. I think Dr. Keller was hoping you felt like some soup later on."

"That sounds great, actually. I'm kind of hungry."

"Hey, look, he's awake!" Rodney said loudly as he burst into the infirmary.

"Dr. McKay," Kelly hissed. "This is an infirmary and I'll need you to keep your voice down."

His eyes wide, Rodney stammered a second. "What . . . I . . . oh, . . . voice down, right. Sorry."

"Thank you," Kelly said. "You can visit with Colonel Sheppard, but don't tire him out too much. Let me know if you need anything." With a smile, she nodded at his team and left.

Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon lined up on the side of the bed John faced and were soon joined by Major Lorne. With John on his side instead of his stomach, he had a better view of them all. "So, how did it go when you went back to the planet? Jennifer told me about the mission."

Lorne and Ronon exchanged a small smile that could only be described as devious. "Well," Lorne drawled. "I think it's safe to say that Glendon guy won't be getting into any trouble any time soon. We convinced him that when we came back to check on him periodically, he'd better not have anyone working for him under any type of coercion."

"Or else," added Ronon.

John looked at the two smirking men for a second. "Or else what?"

"We may have left that up to his imagination," said Lorne.

John felt a grin slide across his face. "Sounds good. I probably wish I had been there, don't I?"

"Yep," Ronon said simply.

"Yeah," John sighed. "I kind of thought so. Unfortunately, I've been kind of out of it lately."

"We noticed," said Rodney. "Has Jennifer scolded you yet? I told you not to be walking around carrying an IV bag."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," he mumbled, shifting positions against the pillows. Noting the weapon strapped to Ronon's leg, John perked up a little. "Hey, Ronon, you got your gun back."

Patting the handle almost lovingly, Ronon grinned as big as John had ever seen. "Yeah, Lorne and his men got her back when they found Batair and his group. Don't think they'll be kidnapping anyone any more either."

"That's good," John said, mentally promising to get the full story later, when he had more energy.

"How are you feeling John?" asked Teyla.

"Fine, mostly. Fever keeps me hot and I'm still kind of sore. Nick helped me shift positions a little, but I wish I could turn over. The whole laying on my stomach thing is starting to get old." John instantly regretted the comment when looks of guilt crossed his teammates' faces. "Hey, I didn't mean . . . look guys, I meant it when I said you did what you had to do. I wouldn't change it if I could. My back will heal. We will heal. Hey, it beats turning into a bug or being fed on by a Wraith any day of the week."

"And how sad a commentary is that of our lives?" asked Rodney. "I guess it's probably better than getting high as kite on Wraith enzyme."

"Or getting shot in the butt with an arrow," added John with a small smile.

"You just can't let that go, can you?" asked Rodney. John just laughed.

"How about being hunted by Wraith for seven years, only to escape them and then be recaptured to run again," offered Ronon.

"And then there is being kidnapped by Michael and experimented on before being forced to give birth on a hive ship in the middle of an escape," said Teyla, adding in her own pet experience.

"Wow," Rodney said. "We really are a sad bunch."

"I feel kind of left out," commented Lorne. "All I have to offer is being kidnapped and drugged by Ladon and having my death faked. Oh, and the broken leg when the building collapsed on us. No biggie."

"Boring," Rodney sighed, leading Lorne to shrug his shoulders.

"See," John said. "Just another day in the Pegasus Galaxy." As heads nodded in agreement, John was glad to see the tension from before had faded from the expressions of his teammates . . . his friends. And that was the real point. Not all the bad things that had happened, but that they had stuck together through all of them. They had been there for each other, supported each other, and they were all alive and together as a result. A team that clicked like they clicked in every important way came along only once in a blue moon.

THE END