There's a world of difference between drowning and floating.
When the drowning was finally over, for a long time, John floated, exhausted and depleted. He was disconnected from his body again, but this time it wasn't frightening, it simply was. He knew, somewhere at the back of his mind, that he must be on some pretty heavy duty drugs. If he really concentrated, he could feel things like the tickle of the oxygen feed under his nose, and the tug of the IV port on his hand, and… other things… that he never liked to think about. But mostly, thinking was hard work, so he didn't. He floated.
People came and went. There were fleeting concerned smiles. Sometimes the smiles came with bright lights shining in his eyes, that hurt him. Sometimes they came with soft cloths that felt laced with razors, to wipe his skin. At those times, the beeping sound speeded up, and the tug on his hand brought sweet relief.
Sometimes when he closed his eyes the darkness brought unwelcome, disjointed memories of pain and violence, and he would start to drown again. The memories felt real, and yet they made no sense. A pale face, framed by dark hair. Elizabeth. Blood on his knuckles. Ronon's gun, but no Ronon. Was he alright? Silver trickles sparking across a jumper dashboard. Crashing. Red light, pain and darkness. Again and again.
Perhaps he'd called out, or shouted. Sometimes when he became lost in these flashes of memory, he would hear someone calling his name, or holding his hand, and he followed them out, but always an overwhelming weight of unexplained remorse clung to him like wet clothes on a drowned man. More than once he felt a hand brush across his cheek as if to wipe away a tear.
Perhaps there was a very fine line indeed between floating and drowning.
"I have to go and see him, Carson. I have to talk to him." Elizabeth had been discharged from the infirmary, with strict instructions to rest, but she was back again, leaning tiredly against the doorframe of the doctor's small office.
"He's still very weak, Elizabeth," the Scot replied, with a shake of the head. "The latest scan shows he's free of the nanites, so it's quite safe for ye to be in there with him, but he's nae gonna be up to a long conversation."
"I won't tire him out, I promise," she replied, with a wan smile. "I just need to see him for myself. Maybe say a few things myself."
Carson relented, taking pity on her. She was crucifying herself over this, and though it was unlikely that Sheppard would get much out of a visit, perhaps seeing first hand that the Colonel was improving might help her come to terms with it all.
"Ye can sit with him a wee while, love. But I cannae tell you when he'll next be awake and aware."
"Thanks, Carson," Elizabeth smiled, standing straight and squaring her shoulders as she turned towards the cubicle where Sheppard now lay. He was no longer in isolation, but instead was occupying the last bed in the far corner of the infirmary where it was relatively quiet, and where there was room for his team to watch over him.
Teyla was there, sitting by the bed, and reading what looked like a book of poetry.
"Elizabeth," she acknowledged, eyes full of understanding. Although she had still been with the Athosians when it had all happened, someone had clearly filled in the details for her.
The Athosian woman stood gracefully. "If you are able to sit with Colonel Sheppard a while, I can return later?" she offered, giving Elizabeth the chance for privacy.
Torn between gratitude and trepidation, Elizabeth nodded her thanks, and took Teyla's seat.
Sheppard was dreaming. At least, there was movement of his eyes behind the bruised-looking lids. He looked unguarded in sleep, and it almost felt like a violation to watch him in such a state of vulnerability. On impulse, she reached out a hand, intending to hold his hand as it twitched on the blanket. But she drew back at the last second, resting her fingers on the edge of the bed in hesitation.
She closed her eyes again, trying to compose herself. God, this was hard, and he wasn't even awake yet.
Something drew Sheppard from the dream – he was sleeping less deeply than before, now, so perhaps it was simply a breath of air, a movement, a voice… He cracked his eyes open a fraction. The blurred shape by the bed became a figure, and one more blink allowed his vision to clear fully. Elizabeth.
Even with eyes open, flashes of memory rose to the surface, and his breath and heart quickened in response. God, Elizabeth!
It took all his concentration, but John made his fingers crawl painstakingly across the blanket until they made contact with hers. She looked up, meeting his eyes.
Sheppard sucked in a breath. He took in the livid purple bruising, the neat line of stitches above her eyebrow. The haunted eyes.
"S'real," he managed, finally, his voice scratchy from disuse. He swallowed. "Hoped it was a nightmare."
"Yeah, me too."
"God, 'Lizabeth." His face was a portrait of horror and remorse.
"It wasn't you, John. But what I did… that was me, and I could have killed you."
"Better that than…" he trailed off, blinking rapidly and turning his gaze to some point across the room. But he left his fingers intertwined with hers.
"Christ, Kate's going to have a field day with us," Elizabeth muttered.
"Lizabeth. 'M sorry."
"You've nothing to be sorry for, John," she assured him, looking back and enjoying again the natural hazel of his eyes. Perhaps if she kept looking at them the reality would erase the memory of the blank, silver stare of the man who had tried to kill her.
"Sorry," he repeated, eyes closing of their own accord. The slurred whisper was spoken with such intensity, and had clearly taken a lot out of the injured man.
His hand went limp in hers, and sure he was once more asleep, she finally replied, "Yeah. Me too."
It was a full week later that Elizabeth was officially cleared for duty. The bruises on her face had faded to a mottled green, but it would take longer for the psychological scars to heal. She'd been to see Kate, of course. No way to avoid that, and she wasn't so proud of her own resilience to believe that all this would just conveniently go away and leave her unscathed.
The wind played with her hair as she leaned on the balcony rail outside the control room. Perhaps she was still hiding. She found the constant sympathetic glances difficult. She found the sidelong glances from the military personnel harder still. Did they blame her for what had happened to their commanding officer? Or was it some sort of macho collective guilt that they seemed to take on every time a civilian was injured?
She hadn't heard the approaching footsteps when a shadow fell across her face, and she turned to see Sheppard, leaning next to her and staring out at the ocean. Seeing him properly in daylight, it was clear that he was still far from well. She knew from Carson's memo that he'd only been released to his quarters that morning. The sunlight that usually brought out his healthy tan today bled him of colour, and his already lean frame was clearly a few pounds lighter. But he was alive. God, he was alive! And by all accounts, well on the way to a full recovery.
He turned towards her, and she opened her mouth to say something – anything – then closed it again, unsure of where to start.
"I came to say thank you," he said, finally, and there was warmth and integrity in his eyes, as well as exhaustion.
"Thank you?" she repeated.
"That, and sorry," he added, looking away again, out to sea.
"You said that already, in the infirmary," Elizabeth pointed out. "And I still say you've nothing to be sorry for."
"Look," he said, keeping his eyes forward, "my memory's full of holes, but I've read the reports, and I've put a few things together from the bits I can remember to know that whatever hell I went through, you went through worse."
"John, I – "
He turned towards her. "What I'm saying is that nobody should ever have to do what you had to do. God, if our positions had been reversed? I don't even want to think about that. I'm supposed to protect you, and instead –" he broke off, and looked down, scuffing the toe of his boot against the floor.
She looked down at her hands, now empty, and almost felt the weight of the energy pistol again.
"I guess we both have some issues to resolve," Elizabeth offered. "Have you been to see…-"
"Yeah," Sheppard answered the unfinished question. "Gotta go again before I can get back on active duty." There was no hint of complaint in his voice, however.
Sheppard pushed himself away from the balcony rail and turned to go.
"Seriously, though, thank you," he said, half turning back. "If you hadn't done what you did…"
He turned again and walked slowly back inside – not yet fully healed, but very much alive - leaving Elizabeth alone with the wind and the sunshine and the spray from the sea.
Author note: Well, folks, that was it. Don't worry, they'll be OK now, at least they will be until the next time I get my sadistic hands on them! Thanks again for reading, and especially to all of you who took the time to review.