THE PATH NOT TAKEN
He was confused.
The last thing John could remember was going to join his friends, but the familiar smells and sounds told him he was in the infirmary. What the hell had happened?
His leg was throbbing, but that particular pain had been a constant companion for a while now. The sharp, raw ache in his shoulder and back was something new. The incessant dull pain notching up to full blown agony, as the heavy weight pressing down on his chest threatened to take his breath away. "Gah…Nnnnghnn."
"Easy, John. Carson is coming."
The calloused hand took his and he grabbed hold, just like he'd done the first time they'd met. He was in misery, but prised open his eyes to see the woman by his bed – Libero. She smiled at him. It was a watery smile, her expression full of relief as she swept away the hair sticking to his face.
"Welcome back, Colonel." Carson appeared in his line of vision and Libero patted his hand before relinquishing him to the medic.
"Wha…what happened?" John croaked before wincing and moaning.
Carson sat down on the recently vacated chair, so he could make eye contact without John having to move his head. "A drink first, you must be thirsty."
He was. With the rest of his combined aches the rough dry throat came way down the list. The cold water tasted damn good as it extinguished the flames.
The Scot gently took the straw from his lips, and put the glass on the cabinet. He prepared a syringe while he started to talk. "The leader of the rebels put a bullet in your back as a reward for your interference." Carson turned round and gave the old lady standing off to the side a smile. "If it wasn't for Libero, you would have bled out before I had a chance to repair the damage. You owe her your life."
John nodded and locked eyes with the woman who'd been his salvation not once, but twice. Libero had saved his life. More than that she'd also saved his sanity, when he'd arrived on her doorstep blind, injured and had lost all sense of who he was.
He was home, John knew that now. Except in returning to Atlantis he would be leaving behind something priceless, something he never thought he would find again - a mother's love. Libero cared for him. Her love was unconditional regardless of what his did. She accepted him for who he was, and didn't try to change him. His memory of his own mom was still patchy at best, but he reckoned that lady would be happy he'd found someone who cared for him. A woman who treated him as if he were her own.
John felt rather than saw Carson inject the contents of the syringe into his IV, the icy tingle seeping through his veins immediately getting to work, dousing the fire, and starting to mute the pain coursing through his body.
His eyelids grew heavy and with his fuzzy brain, even trying to form the words was hard. John clenched his fists struggling to stay awake. He wanted desperately to sleep but couldn't rest. Not until he found out what he needed to know. "Ro…nnn?"
"He's going to be fine. In fact he's better than you at the moment. Once I'm happy you're not going to give me any surprises, you can buddy up in the ward." Carson told him as he checked the machines around the bed.
"He has a minor concussion. We kept him in for observation, but he's been released to rest in his quarters." The doctor stopped what he was doing, and sat back down again. "Look, John, everyone is on the mend – it's you we need to get back on your feet. This has been a setback. The bullet fractured your shoulder and your left arm is going to be immobilised for quite a while. We got lucky in so much as it didn't hit anything vital, but you lost a helluva lot of blood. The bottom line, you need to regain your strength before I even consider working on your leg." He gave John's arm a pat. "The good news is I think we'll be able to give you full mobility back…but it's still going to be a long haul, son."
John contemplated what Carson had just told him, and swallowed. "I'm alive…that's good enough for now."
"Aye you are, thank God." Carson smiled, and rose to his feet. "Now get some rest. There are a lot of folks desperate to see you, but they can wait for a wee bit longer."
"Thns…Carsn." John mumbled. As his eyes closed he felt the familiar touch as the gnarled hand took his. It was warm and reassuring. There was a smile on his lips as he went to sleep.
Survival had come at a price. He hurt like hell, and even muted by good drugs John knew he was going to be miserable for the duration. There was also the small matter of another surgery to come. Libero, Teyla and Rodney had all been frequent visitors, but he'd been pretty out of it. When they left, he only had his pain for company. He was relieved when after a couple of days he was transferred from the ICU into the main ward beside his friend.
Doped and in pain both men weren't really fit for long conversations, but John was worried. He knew Ronon wasn't inclined to say more than a few words at the best of times, but the big guy was never this quiet. He barely looked at him. When he did, John saw guilt written on his face before he turned away feigning sleep. He wondered what the hell was wrong.
When his friends came to visit John pushed his pain aside and gave them a smile. "So I hear someone didn't have a sweet tooth?"
Without asking, Rodney grabbed the chair next to his bed. Teyla came over touched her brow gently on his, then took the seat next to Ronon. The Satedan was sitting back perched on a mound of pillows, and John was happy to see he seemed to be on the mend.
Rodney leaned forward in the chair and grabbed the uneaten desert from John's tray. "I know – weird huh? Not liking muffins, that's just not normal." Rodney took John's leftover orange juice, and gulped it down. He choked on it, and when he started speaking again his voice had a high strangled sound. "If there was proof he was seriously deranged, that was it."
Ronon's face clouded over. "I'm sorry."
Teyla turned to her team mate looking confused. "I do not understand, Ronon. What do you have to be sorry about?"
Ronon balled his hands into fists and slammed them on the bed, causing him to flinch. "I should have seen it coming…I was taken down like a damn rookie. You guys got taken, and Sheppard nearly got killed cleaning up my mess."
"It was not your fault, Ronon." Teyla told him in a quiet but firm voice. "They had the element of surprise and when Lorne was attacked, we had very little time to react. It was you who killed two of their men. "
"Still my fault." Ronon mumbled, squirming down the bed.
John wanted to go over and give his friend a few home truths, but he could barely move. He gritted his teeth as he turned round in bed, so he could catch his eye. "Look, Ronon, you're a tough guy but you're not Superman and…in a weird, warped sort of way there is a silver lining to this."
"Oh, yeah. How do you figure that out?" Ronon's gruff voice had a cynical edge to it.
"When I saw you lying there, wounded, I knew I had to do something. I'm sorry you got hurt, buddy, but if you'd saved the day, then I wouldn't have had to." John paused for a moment, and licked his dry lips. His voice cracked as his looked at his friends. "What happened to you made me realise what you guys, and this place mean to me. It forced me to man up and remember who I really am."
There was silence for a moment before Ronon asked the question John had been expecting. "So you're coming back?"
John flushed red. "Yeah…I supposed I am – if they let me. I'm not commander here anymore, but when I eventually heal I hope they'll let me stay in some capacity." He smiled. "If not, I suppose I still have my teaching job."
"If they don't take you back then they are fools." Libero's voice filtered into the room as she entered the ward with Elizabeth by her side.
The old woman came over and stood by his bed. "Teaching the young is important, but this is the life you were meant for. This is a wonderful city, John, and over the last few days the more I've seen, the more I've heard – the people here need you. I always knew you were a fine man, but here is the place where you really make a difference. Still…I won't deny I'm going to miss you."
John was going to miss Libero too, but didn't want to think about that now.
He raised an eyebrow, and his lips twisted. "If you think you're going to get rid of me that easily, you're delusional." John was feeling emotional but was glad he managed to keep his voice steady. "I'll come visit whenever I can. When I can't, I'll send someone to keep an eye on you."
Libero's expression turned indigent, and she gently nudged Elizabeth. "Do you hear that? Look here young man, I don't need looking after. Besides, I'll have you know Massin has been calling by since you left."
"That creepy old man?" John knew the guy. Everyone in the village was nice, but the way the old carpenter stared at Libero, made his skin crawl. He couldn't contain his irritation and felt his blood pressure start to rise. "Tell him from me to back off. If I hear he's been bothering you -"
The old lady's face broke into a smile. "Relax, my boy – he never got in the door. I only have one man in my life…you."
When he saw all his friends smiling, his face grew scarlet. He was saved any more embarrassment by Elizabeth.
"The new coalition in Suvang is calling you a hero, John, and that's what I've told the SGC and the IOA." Elizabeth stood with her hands on her hips, and used the tone John remembered when she was getting ready for a fight. "Lt Colonel John Sheppard belongs here and I need a military commander I can work with. So… I'm going to knock on every door, break them down if I have to - until I get the answer I want. You're coming back. I'll make sure of it."
Broken bones hurt like crazy. They didn't feel much better when they were mending either. So despite Carson's optimistic prognosis, there were days John felt too wretched to care. He did of course. It was a relief knowing he would at the very least regain flight status, even if his future in Atlantis was still in question.
Caldwell returned during the first week of his rehab and the fleeting glimpse John saw of him, he wasn't a happy man. Libero returned home the same day and while they'd been saying goodbye, Elizabeth's slamming door grabbed their attention. The atmosphere was tense, almost electric in the 'gate room, as the two leaders broke into a thinly veiled argument.
Elizabeth looked stained, but determined. Caldwell just looked pissed. He could remember snapshots of run-ins he'd had with the stony-faced colonel, but John respected the guy. None of this was Caldwell's fault. It wasn't his either. John felt a little guilty as he knew he was the cause of their row, but all he could do was sit on the sidelines and wait until his future was decided by bureaucrats he'd never met.
As time passed his memories gradually returned. Some were good – others not so much. Mission reports filled in the blanks and for a while Carson prescribed sleeping pills to help him deal with the nightmares.
On the day of Kammel's wedding John was able to stand by his side. The crutches pulled on his shoulder but it felt good to be on his feet, even if it was just for the ceremony. The blacksmith looked nervous, his eyes darting anxiously to the door whenever someone came in. When Arell appeared in the small chapel only then did his big friend relax. They looked happy, and when John handed over the rings he thought of Nancy and his own wedding. He'd loved her, but theirs had been doomed to failure almost from the moment she'd agreed to be his wife.
Unlike this simple but moving affair, theirs had been a circus. He had wanted just the two of them, with family and maybe a few friends. In the end to try and make peace with his dad, over six hundred of his father's close friends had attended the social event of the year. Neither of them had really enjoyed the orchestrated event, but just like the remainder of their marriage, their parents did their damnedest to interfere. Yet John couldn't relinquish responsibility for its ultimate demise. It was him who screwed it up. Too much time away from home. Too many secrets, missions he couldn't discuss left Nancy suspicious and disconnected. He'd put his job first and it had killed his marriage. The sad thing was, given a second chance, he would probably do the same thing again.
His team along with Carson and Carol attended the celebration that followed. The doc and his girl looked happy, and John was glad to see all the people he cared about enjoying themselves. Only Elizabeth was missing. She looked strained as she'd left to attend yet another meeting in Washington. He wished she could have been there, as the break from routine would have done her good.
It felt good being back in the village again, but while John felt a strong connection there, it could never again be his home. Atlantis was where he wanted to be - although he missed Libero. Caldwell might have his job but John was prepared to do anything, even if it meant a demotion to stay. He just hoped he got the chance…
"Something smells good. Do you have enough to share?" John stood in the door way of the kitchen.
"John!" Libero came over and gave him a hug. "I wasn't expecting you until next week." The old lady broke away and took her time looking him up and down. "You're back in uniform…but where's your cane?"
John chewed his lip. "I don't need it anymore."
Libero narrowed her eyes and stared at him. The woman was like a human lie detector and John squirmed. "Okay, I left it in the jumper, but it's really not necessary, my leg's fine now."
The stare continued and he knew it was pointless lying. "Okay…so it aches a bit - but only a little. Anyway, I'm back on light duty now, hopefully back to active duty in a couple of weeks, which is why I wanted to see you." He put his hands gently on her shoulders. "I've got my old job back."
"That's wonderful!" The old lady beamed.
John smiled. "Yeah, it is. Elizabeth pulled a lot of strings, but I think it was the Suvang coalition that swung it," he told her. "It turned out they have a large mine containing something my people at home badly need – naquada – but they would only deal with me. To be honest I still didn't think it would happen, but the guy who replaced me didn't protest as much as I thought he would…I think he missed his old job. Still, I feel a little sorry for Caldwell as he didn't have a choice in the end. The powers that be made the decision to reinstate me so…I'm staying in Atlantis."
"Well that is cause for celebration." Libero moved away and took a bottle of mead off the shelve along with two glasses. Before she could pour it out, John forestalled her.
"I want you to come and live with me." John smiled as he took her hand. "You would have your own room, but if you didn't want to stay in the city Teyla said you could live with her people on the mainland." At her surprised expression he continued. "Look, I know you don't need looking after, but you're family and Libero…I'd really like to have you close by."
The old lady slumped down on a chair, poured out a glass of the mead and downed it in one. "Well…that's something I didn't expect." She looked at him sheepishly, before pouring another glass.
"Please say yes." John said quietly, feeling suddenly nervous.
She reached over and took his hand. "Nothing would make me happier, and it has filled my heart with joy just to hear your offer, but…I can't. My place is here with my people, just as your place is with yours. I am no Carson Beckett but I am their healer. Without me, they would have no one to care for them."
"I understand…" John's heart sank. He felt like he'd been gut punched, but deep down he knew Libero was right. They each had a role to fulfil, an obligation to the people they cared for. It wouldn't be right to take her from the village.
There was an awkward silence for a moment, only broken when Libero poured him a glass of mead. "Here's to our people." She raised her glass.
John clinked the rim of her glass with his own and took a gulp. He then raised his own. "And here's to my second home." He smiled at her.
A knock at the door made them turn round. Rodney was standing there, looking edgy.
"Rodney – come in. Share a glass of mead with us to celebrate John's good fortune." Libero went to get another glass, but Rodney shook his head.
"Good fortune?" The scientist's looked puzzled, then his eyes grew wide. "Oh, I get it… You're talking about Sheppard getting his job back." He stood back on his heels and folded his arms. The scientist wore a smug smile on his face. "Of course, you do realise that was partly down to me."
John raised an eyebrow and gave him a sardonic look. "It was? I though it was because of my brilliant plan that saved the leaders on Suvang. Not forgetting all the strings Elizabeth's pulled."
"The brilliant plan that nearly got you killed -"
"Rodney…" John shot him a warning glare. He knew his buddy didn't mean it, but his careless remark had caused the colour to drain from Libero's face.
Rodney went scarlet. "Sorry…" His face twisted, but his discomfiture didn't last long as he started to bluster. "Well of course you both had something to do with it, but the real reason why Caldwell agreed to leave so easily was to get away from me." He whispered to Libero in a conspiratorial tone. "I think I was finally getting to him."
"Oh, yeah…that I can believe." Incredulous, John winked at Libero.
John rose to his feet. "We have a visit to make to the school, but we'll be back to say good bye before we leave." He told Libero.
"Don't think you're leaving without having some dinner. I've made stew – your favourite." Libero told him in a manner that brooked no argument. "There's plenty, enough for all of us." She glanced at the scientist who was looking a little uncomfortable. "That means you too, Rodney."
"Are you sure? I mean…I don't mind if you want Sheppard to yourself." Rodney shuffled his feet on the floor, and John suppressed a smile. The great Rodney McKay looked unsure of himself, but John could see he was happy at being asked.
John slapped him on the back, and Rodney jumped forward. "Of course you're coming. After teaching a bunch of kids, I reckon you'll have worked up quite an appetite."
Rodney's face fell. "You never said anything about teaching." He glowered at him and John knew his buddy was trying to work out if he was kidding.
"All you said was 'come with me when I go and see the kids, Rodney, '" McKay said in a high pitched squeaky voice trying to mimic him. He scrubbed a hand through his hair and his mouth twisted. "I don't even like kids."
When they both drew him a look, he stuttered. "Don't look at me like that! Its not that I don't like them, I've just never felt comfortable around kids…even when I was one." He let out a long sigh, and his lazy eye started to twitch. "It's just that they're so unpredictable. You never know what they're going say and some of it…"
"Can really put you on the spot," John interrupted in an amused voice. "That's what kids do, Rodney. Anyway, it's not really like teaching. It's a game with numbers. Similar to prime not prime – and you can play your part sitting at the back of the class…beside Garmend. I'd like you to meet him."
"That kid who reminded you of me? Oh, come on, Sheppard, you've got to be kidding me!"
"He's a good kid and he's smart, really bright." John looked at his team mate with regret. "I kinda thought you might want to take an interest. A brilliant guy like you could really make a difference in his life."
"Wait a minute…I know what you're doing – you're playing me!" Rodney snapped his head back, and glared at him.
"Fine." John shrugged. He put on his best disappointed expression, and sighed deeply. "If that's the way you feel I'll go by myself. You can wait for me here."
Rodney's face grew redder, and he folded his arms. "Okay…I'll meet him – but I'm not promising anything." He glared at John through hooded eyes. "You're a real piece of work, Sheppard. Do you know that?"
The expression on Rodney's face was comical, but John didn't feel the least bit guilty. It was good being back to normal, and snarking with Rodney had always been part of his life since they'd met. That's what they did. It was their thing to take a rise out of each other, just like he always complained when Ronon beat him on their morning run, which he hoped to start again soon. As for Teyla, John reckoned he would never match her skill with the bantos sticks, no matter how much he practiced.
He would continue to challenge Elizabeth - if he felt she was wrong. She would expect it. It was what made their partnership strong. They each considered the other's point of view then make the best decision, for their people, Atlantis. When John learned he'd once defied her orders and put others at risk, he was ashamed. He didn't remember the incident, it was one of so many memories still lost in the void. Like pieces of a jigsaw they were gradually fitting into place, and what he'd forgotten, close friends and mission reports filled in the gaps.
As he walked into the classroom the children rushed towards him, calling his name – Jolin - but he didn't correct them. In this place he'd been another man, and John felt lucky to have had the change to walk a different path. Of course, he wasn't naïve. John and Jolin were different sides of the same coin, and the only thing to really separate them was circumstances and opportunity.
Circumstances had taken him to Antarctica, and it had been Elizabeth who'd given him an opportunity to change his life. On that grassy mound in San Francisco John had taken his coin and flipped it until it gave him the right result – go to Atlantis.
Jolin too had also made the best of the hand he'd been dealt. He'd accepted his memory loss and disability as something he would have to live with, and regardless of the obstacles, he'd built a good life for himself.
Sometimes it was a life he missed. The slower pace was at odds with his life in Atlantis. Yet despite the hectic days and nights disrupted with memories he wished he'd forgotten, John knew he was where he was supposed to be. It was his destiny, and he would follow the path where ever it would lead. Today, he would be the teacher one last time.
"Okay kids, say hello to Dr McKay. He's going to help us with our game." He nodded to Rodney at the back of the room, and almost as one the small curious faces followed his gaze.
"Just…just call me Rodney." Rodney blurted out, and threw John a scathing look.
John suppressed a smile. His buddy was well and truly out of his comfort zone, and looked like he was going to puke. John started to feel a little sorry - but only a little. He wanted to share his old life with his friends, and had genuinely believed Rodney would enjoy the experience. He hoped he wasn't wrong.
"Okay…Rodney. How about you and Garmen take on the rest of the class?" John didn't wait for an answer and the game commenced.
As the other kids grabbed John's attention, Garmen dug an elbow in Rodney's ribs.
"Ow…what did you do that for?" Rodney rubbed his side and glared at the young boy.
Garmen ignored the scientists black look, and whispered in his ear. "How does he get his hair like that?"
Rodney watched John's spiky hair bob up and down as he wrote on the blackboard. A smile grew on his face. "It's one of the mysteries of the universe, kid. But you like him, don't, you?"
Garmen nodded vigorously. "Oh yes, sir, I do. I really missed him when he went away."
Rodney met the intense blue eyes, and he looked over at his friend who smiled. "So did I, kid…so did I. Now what say we show the others how this game should really be played…"
Well that's the end of the tale and I hope you enjoyed it!
I want to thank all of you for reading, and a special thanks to those who reviewed. I am really thrilled at the response to this story - your support and encouragement mean a lot. And please let me know how you enjoyed the chapter.
I'd also like to thank the birthday girl Libero for letting me use her name! And of course a special thanks goes to my fabulous beta and friend, Sterenyk Strey for all her help. You're a star pet.
Finally, I'd like to wish all of you a very merry Christmas, and a healthy, happy New Year for 2012!