It was over. Just like that.
John was always prepared for death. It was what lessened the fear of it. He'd accepted the risks of his career since he'd signed his name on the Air Force application his recruiter had handed him. Back then, the unquenchable optimism of youth combined with pride and stubbornness had driven the ability to laugh at his own mortality. Back then, death in the line of duty seemed noble and important, and he'd so badly wanted to be seen as noble and important.
Then had come real combat. Real missions FUBAR from the start. A tour in Afghanistan where you didn't even know who your enemy was. He saw lots of death, most of it meaningless, and none of it noble. That was when being prepared for death became being at peace with himself. He could do what needed to be done because he had no regrets. OK, that wasn't exactly true – he had no regrets he could do a damn thing about: He had plenty of wounds on his soul that his death would relieve at least, make amends for at best.
It wasn't until Atlantis that he almost began to think, just maybe, he could cheat death. He was still prepared, but preparedness came with a kind of arrogance. A bit of that youthful pride began to creep back. With experience and skill and luck, he escaped death so many times that, somewhere deep down, he came to believe he would be able to choose when it caught him – and that in the choosing, he would be able to make it noble and important.
So when one moment he was careening down a hallway in a newly discovered abandoned, useless, Ancient outpost, blasting away at yet another gang of normal Pegasus bad guys, and the next moment he was slammed against the wall spitting blood, he was surprised: No choices. No noble acts. Just a bandit shuddering from the impact of his team's return fire. It was over. Just like that.
John watched, fascinated, braced against the wall, as the bandit who'd finally gotten a bead on him flopped to the ground. At least, his own death had already been avenged.
When the dull ache in his side and chest and back exploded into a spike of pain, John gasped, then coughed, spraying a salty mist into the air as his punctured lung expelled the red leak. He slid to the ground, his back still against the wall, his knees drawn up to his chest.
"John." Teyla spoke his name, her voice so choked and broken that he looked at her, afraid that she, too, was injured. Her eyes were wide and her face was contorted in concern, but he smiled when he saw that she was whole.
"Oh my God, Sheppard," Rodney whispered as he knelt on John's other side. John rolled his head. He watched Rodney glance at the wall above John's head and then swallow hard. His friend's hands found his leg and gripped harder. Teyla was fumbling at the zipper on his vest.
Another tickle in his chest flared when he took his next breath – only then realizing that they were coming few and far apart. The coughing fit that followed brought tears of agony to his eyes and a cold sweat to his brow. He gulped for air, only to cough again and he began to panic. He couldn't breathe. Breathing hurt.
"Be calm, John. You must be calm. Slow your breath."
John concentrated on Teyla's soothing voice that penetrated the terror and he stubbornly forced calm, felt the sensation of drowning ease as he controlled his breath. With control came a moment of tranquility. He opened his eyes, realizing that they were shut against the screaming pain in his chest.
Teyla was back to fussing with his zipper. She had it down to the catch before John lifted a shaky, bloody hand and grabbed hers tightly, stopping her.
"Stop," he whispered, the word a mere ghost of breath against his lips. "Doesn't...matter."
Teyla froze, horror stricken. Rodney's breath hitched on his other side, his hands tightened on John's leg. Ronon appeared in the frozen moment and dropped to one knee at John's feet.
"This section is clear. I blasted all the doors shut. There are still bandits guarding the Stargate," he growled, as if he expected John to answer. As if he expected John to hop up and fight the rest of the way out.
No one listened to the order. Ronon looked at Teyla. "Get him ready to move. The doors won't keep them out for long. McKay, when we get to the gate, stick with Sheppard. Teyla and I will neutralize the guards, then I'll hold the rest back while you and Teyla get him through."
Ronon's voice grew louder, more brittle. "Teyla you take point. I'll carry him. McKay you keep scanning for life signs while we travel."
"Go," John whispered one more time before Ronon finally whirled on him.
"Damn you, Sheppard. Shut up. We're not leaving you, so keep your damn mouth shut!" Ronon spat the ferocious rebuke, then turned to Teyla. "I told you to get him ready. We're going. Now."
With that, Ronon stood and turned his back on them, a gun in each hand pointed down the hallway in both directions, a human scarecrow protecting his small patch of family.
John closed his eyes in defeat and let them do what they needed to do. Teyla wrestled his vest off of his shoulders and he grit his teeth at the movement that was both excruciating and unnecessary. She next pulled out one of those chest seal things and slapped it against the hole in his side where the bandit's slug had slammed into his chest through the strip of unprotected lacing.
And all the way through, he discovered, when Rodney, working in tandem, leaned him forward and pressed another seal against his back.
"We're ready," Teyla announced at last. John just concentrated on staying still. Though the seals did seem to reduce the feeling of pressure on his left side, he could feel his lung filling up with more blood and the urge to cough was growing desperate. Even so, he knew the lung wasn't really the problem. He could feel his heart pounding, trying to compensate for a leak that wasn't explained by the plugged up holes in his chest. Something inside was...broken.
When Teyla heaved on one arm and Rodney on the other, he tried, he really tried to just pass out and let them haul his carcass home where they could mourn him feeling like they'd done everything they could. He understood that. He could try to give them that, at least.
Instead, as their efforts jostled his ribcage, his chest screamed in agony and he spit blood violently across the hallway when his throat tried to voice it. His feet flopped bonelessly against the tile as he gagged and coughed and groaned, and in the end, they lowered him back against the wall. Teyla was openly weeping. Rodney gripped his leg so hard it hurt. Ronon knelt at his feet again, his shoulders slumped, the anger gone.
"Go," John said again when his body gave up even trying to cough. A deep lethargy, shock, was settling over his whole body. This time, his team, his friends stilled at the command. They looked at him and he could see the grief and hurt in their eyes. "I...love you...guys," John whispered and then closed his own.
His heart thumped with the last bit of fluid it had to work with, then began to race. He'd never cheated death, John realized as he faded away. Death had been toying with him, biding its time, laughing at his arrogance. But John had gotten the last word, anyway.
He realized, in the end, that you can't choose the how or when of your death, but you can always make it important.