John had slipped into sleep far from home (or help) and covered in his own blood. One really didn't expect to wake up from that. But what did surprise him was how much death (he assumed) felt like an afternoon nap – you know, the kind where you're exhausted, but your brain is too awake to really sleep so you rest and have weird dreams about laying on your couch sleeping and wake up not really sure if you did.
Once he let go and let himself hide from the pain and –he wasn't too big to admit it – fear, he sank into a place of dreams where he heard voices around him and then the feeling of floating and pressure – always incredible pressure – against his chest that almost became pain if he drifted too close to it. And then had been nothing. Absolutely nothing. He was a bit disappointed. He'd been curious about that white light and tunnel thing.
Then the dreams began again, to his utter confusion. There were more voices and a deep deep ache that pulsed, then throbbed inside him. He tried to hide from it. He wanted it to stop. That was the only point of dying, after all – to stop the pain. He was dying here, right? Right?"
"Sheppard, you stubborn ass. You need to stop playing around and just come back. If you die now, who's going to keep me in line? Who's going to bring the clever the next time we're running for our lives?"
John wasn't sure if he was really hearing words, but he was curious. He could come back? There was a choice here? Briefly, he tried, but any dancing towards the dreams only brought the pressure and pain and, dammit, he'd had enough pain. Enough for a lifetime.
"You're tough, Sheppard. I've seen it. You can do it. You can fight it."
No. No, he couldn't. No more pain.
"We are here for you, John. You are not alone. You do not fight alone. Please come home."
He felt a surge of longing. He did want to go home. To Atlantis. To his life. The word-dreams he floated in were constant, urging, nagging.
The words continued, cajoling, daring, testing him. He reached for the pain and fought with it, but he was so tired. He'd fought for so long.
"John, you need to come back because I've never told you yet how…proud I am of you."
Dave? Why the hell was he in the dreams?
"Give me a little more time. Let me be your brother for a little longer and I promise I'll try to do better at it."
The fight was hard. Even trying his hardest, he wasn't certain he'd win. But as one of the voices kept reminding him, he was a stubborn son of a gun. And he didn't fight alone. Lifted by a surge of joy, he rose through the pain and became aware of weird sensations, cold and heat on his flesh. The pain localized – side, back, chest. He also began to choke and gag at something lodged in his throat. When he tried to cough it out, his chest shrieked and the gag reflex grew stronger.
"Damn it to all hades, he's conscious!" he heard a voice bellow very close to his ear. "Jennifer! Get him sedated, he'll need the breathing tube for another 12 to 14 hours at least while that lung heals."
The voice then went very soft and drew very close to his ear, "I know you're uncomfortable, lad. Just sit tight and we'll help you out with that. Try to relax, just let the machine breathe for you."
John tried and the voices around him sounded happy, relieved. Just when he wasn't certain he could avoid coughing again, a heavy drowsiness began to pull him deeper into the warm surface underneath him, and he felt himself slipping towards the dreams again, but this time it was like bobbing along on a boat rather than drowning in them.
There was a warm, firm pressure on his hand and the voice whispered again. "Welcome back, son. Ye've been missed."
It took a supreme effort, almost harder than fighting the pain, but John concentrated until his fingers contracted and he squeezed back.
Carson leaned against the edge of the bed, idly thumping his thumbs against his thighs as the fretful movement of the Colonel started and stopped in fits and starts behind him. They'd just removed the breathing tube so he was watching the blood oxygen levels closely as he waited, but there was no alarming dip, and the Colonel's chest continued to rise and fall in easy, if a bit raspy, breaths. The curtains had been drawn around them and the infirmary was quiet outside the sheets.
When the lad finally stopped twitching and let his eyes flutter open, Carson was ready. He had a cup of ice chips and a supportive hand ready to soothe the man's abused throat. By the time he'd coaxed John to take a few chips, try a few swallows, John was fully awake, if groggy.
"Don't try to talk, Colonel. You'll be feeling very sore for a good while. Just shake your head to answer a few wee questions before you nod off again."
John's eyes managed to focus on Carson's face, and he nodded in answer.
"Do you recognize where you are?" John nodded yes. "The infirmary on the USS Enterprise?" The smirk that the Colonel managed was impressive, and the no was hardly necessary.
Carson chuckled. "Just checking your cognitive awareness. Next question: Do you feel cold?" The nod was sheepish, and not very enthusiastic, but getting the stoic Colonel warmed up on some easy personal questions usually worked to prime him for the tougher ones.
"I'll have some warm blankets sent over when we're through here. Bear with me for a few more minutes."
Carson prodded and poked the Colonel through the post-op tests he needed to complete with a conscious patient and felt his own shoulders tense as the necessary but uncomfortable tasks, (take a deep breath, does it hurt when I press here) took their toll. Carson could see the pain creeping over the Colonel's face, turning it from sleepy, still-drugged bemusement to teeth-clenched endurance, and still it grew.
He finished hastily. His own hands were shaking in sympathy when he administered pain-killers into the Colonel's IV line. John's fists were clenched on the bed, his head was thrown back into the pillow, and his eyes were screwed tightly shut.
Carson sat on the edge of the bed, put his hands firmly on the Colonel's arm, and he murmured encouragement during the long minutes of waiting for the blessed drug to take effect. At last John gasped and relaxed with a heartbreaking, choked sigh. A single tear escaped one tightly closed lid.
"Aye, I know it's hard, lad. Your body's angry with what we've done to it and you'll find it complaining loudly for a while. We'll keep you as comfortable as possible. Just ask for anything and you'll have it."
John nodded, then, to Carson's surprise, opened glistening eyes a slit to favor Carson with a fierce look. S'OK. It's bad now, but it will get better, Carson. Just you wait.
"We'll have you on your feet in no time."
Teyla entered the infirmary and was pleased to see John sitting up in his bed, looking more alert than he had at any previous visit. He was smiling so smugly when she drew close, she felt her own heart leap with his joy. She threw him a questioning glance, then sat lightly on the edge of his bed.
"Chest tube's out," he rasped, patting his side. His throat was still sore and his voice hoarse so he'd developed the habit of speaking in short phrases.
"That's wonderful, John. I am sure you will feel much better very soon, now."
He nodded, choosing not to speak. She was considering whether he would enjoy hearing about the news of Atlantis, i.e. talking to fill the silence, when he took a breath as if to say something, then hesitated, then scrubbed at his hair with his hand indicating he was feeling shy or anxious.
"What troubles you?" she prompted mildly, when he seemed to be having trouble working up the courage to say what was on his heart.
"What…happened?" he croaked at last. "On outpost. After."
She nodded, then laughed out loud, mostly at herself. "Of course. We have all been so relieved that you are recovering, we have not thought to tell you your own story!"
John looked a little nervous, then shrugged. "Thought…gonner."
"We thought we'd lost you as well," she answered softly. Even today, five days after his miraculous return to life, she could feel the terror and uncertainty and grief of those twenty-five days before, during John's incarceration in the stasis pod. She had felt like life had stopped during that time; like her own heart started beating again when John's did.
"Can't believe…four weeks," he added looking more disturbed than skeptical.
"It is four weeks I am happy to put in the past," she agreed. "Let me get a chair, and then I will tell you your story. But do not be afraid, it has a happy ending. Except for the part where Rodney realizes he has lost four weeks of work."
John chuckled appreciatively, and Teyla felt the warm glow of his presence, his vibrant aura. She settled into her chair and made sure John was settled as well.
"Once upon a time," she began, teasing him with the phrase he used when telling Torren stories, "There was a foolish Colonel who walked into a very nasty bullet."
"Hey! I did not walk into that bullet. We were ambushed." His voice gave an impressive squeak as he protested such that he did not sound intimidating at all. She grinned mischievously and continued.
"And his friends were very worried and felt very helpless. But they loved the Colonel, and he loved them. So they put him in a magic box to keep him safe and brought a magician to heal him when the box let him go. The magician magnified the power of the friends' love and brought the Colonel back to life."
John was blushing deeply and trying not to squirm. "Seriously," he muttered. "I want to know what happened."
So Teyla told him. But she liked her first version better.
Rodney could tell John was in a snit the second he walked into the infirmary. It didn't really happen often, but when John was cranky, you could almost see the thunderclouds over his head.
"What's eating you?" Rodney asked by way of greeting. "You're out of bed. You should be happy or something!" John was sitting in an arm chair beside his bed, dressed in surgical scrubs (thank God, Rodney could not bear the thought of seeing Sheppard's scrawny legs sticking out of a gown.) A laptop was propped on his knees and his bare feet slapped against the tile floor as his knees bounced in agitation.
"I am happy," John snapped.
"Of course. Happy is that thing where you scowl a lot and kick puppies. I always get that confused with surly which is something else entirely."
"I am not surly."
"Yes you are."
"Rodney, why are you here?"
Rodney grinned, so thoroughly enjoying the mere presence of his friend – awake and kicking puppies – that he was not derailed by the annoyance in John's tone.
"I need a reason to come see a sick friend? The friend whose life I saved, by the way with a bit of engineering brilliance beyond even my usual ken. Carson's been going on for days about the benefit to mankind that the McKay/Beckett stasis surgical procedure is going to make."
John chuffed, slapped his laptop shut and looked like he was at least trying to be pleasant. "Thanks for that," he said at last.
"You're welcome. So, I came by because I need your help."
"I thought you came by to see me."
"I did. Here's the problem – I've been thinking about the outpost and those bandits."
"Been thinking about that a bit myself," John groused very, very softly.
"We sometimes need some way to dial out when we're cut off from the DHD. If we could have called Atlantis from where you went down, we could have had them bring help and reinforcements. As it was, it was a hell of a fight to get out of there even without carrying your carcass."
"So, make us a remote dialing device."
"I thought of that. The problem is that the dialers in the DHD and the jumpers take too much power. They're too big to lug around. Not to mention all the symbols and some way to key them."
"We don't need all the addresses, just two maybe," John said, looking interested despite himself.
"I suppose we could limit the outbound wormholes dialed through a remote to just Atlantis or the Alpha site."
"Speed dial," John agreed.
"But the size problem is more involved with the power requirements."
"It's not the size that matters, it's how you use it," John retorted waggling his eyebrows.
"Oh grow up and help me here. I do not want to have to go through something like this past month ever again."
John chewed his lip, thinking, but it was that kind of thinking where you weren't sure if he was thinking about the problem, or about how he was going to make your life miserable because he'd already figured out the answer and you hadn't.
"Make the remote dial the DHD," he said at last.
"I already told you, we can't carry around enough power to –."
"No, I mean, let the DHD do the dialing using its own power and everything. Can't you create some kind of interface that would take a simple radio signal and trigger a program on a crystal or something that would do the dialing?"
"The DHD's are fairly dependent on touch activation -."
"Then fool the DHD into thinking someone's standing there punching keys. I've seen you do it from a laptop when the keys were busted. Like that time on 446 when the tree limb fell on the 7th symbol during that freak wind sheer."
Rodney grinned and John smirked. Rodney wasn't even very annoyed. "If we only need two addresses, I can figure out the specific frequencies for the keys in those sequences and then send them to the buffer that activates the stargate…"
"Sure. That," John agreed.
"We'd have to plug in a hybrid radio receiver/crystal each time we arrived on a planet, then remember to take it with us when we left."
"I'd add that to the gate-team checklist."
"I think that might work!"
Rodney was so enthusiastic about the idea, he started to turn and run from the room to his lab on the spot. But John's face had returned to a glower and his eyes were turning inward again, so Rodney paused, realizing he hadn't yet cheered up his friend.
"I repeat my query – What's eating you?" he demanded, really wanting to get to the remote dialer programming.
"Nothing," John sulked.
"Don't make me call Carson in here and force him to give you sponge baths until you tell me. Spit it out." John shuddered, presumably at the threat, but almost looked like he'd take the option until Rodney added, "COLD water sponge baths."
"Dave took off, OK! You dragged him all the way to Atlantis to butt into my business, then he couldn't be bothered to stay long enough to say hello."
A slow flush of chagrin heated Rodney's face, and he felt his shoulder's slump in embarrassment. "Um, yeah about that. I'll be right back."
He dashed to his lab, snatched a tablet computer off his workbench and dashed back to the infirmary where John's thunderclouds had mutated into tornado wielding death clouds.
"Here," he said and shoved the tablet into John's hands. "I, um, the video was too large to send through the email servers and with all the catch up work and you being too sick to watch it, anyway, I haven't got it compressed yet or put onto a thumb drive, and I'm sorry. Don't be mad at Dave."
John's expression flickered from surprise to suspicion so Rodney added, "You should also know that I didn't ask Dave to come. I needed more time before they took you out of the stasis pod and I gambled on him to press for visitation, and to side with me. With all of your family's connections, I figured he'd be able to bully General Landry into letting him call the shots, and he did. He…came because he wanted to, John. Because he was concerned about you. Hear him out."
John's expression had gone from suspicious to confused, so Rodney figured he'd better scram and let him figure out the rest on his own. He left, his mind once again on the remote dialer.
"Clever," he said aloud with a chuckle, admiring John's quick solution. Rodney would have gotten there, eventually, of course. But why waste the time when John did clever so much faster.
John held the tablet computer in his lap for a long time before he punched the power button. Teyla had told him the whole story, from the moment he'd lost consciousness on the outpost to the moment he could remember opening his eyes and looking at Carson in the infirmary. She'd taken all afternoon to tell the tale, bless her.
But in the dim, chill quiet of the infirmary last night, he'd felt annoyance turn into real anger. He'd spent his whole life fighting his family, trying to convince them that his place was in the Air Force and that he didn't need them to tell him what he should do with his life. Eventually he'd given up trying – until his father died, and John had realized that life was fragile, time was short.
Even then, though, Dave wouldn't let go of him. Dave, like their father, seemed to think the "family" had some say in John's life. Even though John had managed to find patience for his brother, he'd left David's home after the funeral with a hollow, melancholy feeling. Dave still didn't get it. But at least John had tried, and he was rather proud of himself for that.
But then Teyla told him about the three weeks he'd been blissfully frozen in the pod and he'd learned that Dave had bullied his way through Landry – John's CO! – and butted into John's Top Secret life at the worst possible moment. He daydreamed now and then about buzzing Dave's house in an F302 someday, just to say See! What I do is cool and worth a damn. Instead, Dave showed up thinking he had to rescue John from himself; He showed up seeing only their father's worst fears realized.
He looked at the laptop. Rodney had said "video". A prickle of anger twisted his stomach. Not only could Dave not be bothered to stay around until he'd woken up from almost dying, he'd left a video no-doubt chewing him out and insisting he give up this crazy Air Force detour from a respectable life.
Finally, deciding he was angry enough that it wouldn't matter what Dave said in the video, he punched the power button and jammed his finger into the menus to call up the player.
The thumbnail gave John pause, even before he hit the play button. Dave looked awful. He was haggard with deep circles under his eyes and never in his life had John's he seen his brother looking so unkempt, despite the Armani golf shirt.
A bit more wary, John looked around to make sure no one was nearby (in case he threw the computer) and punched play.
The Dave in the video looked mildly bored, in a freaked out kind of way.
"It's recording. You can start," came Rodney's voice from offscreen. John was going to kill him for sitting on this.
Dave jerked, drew his shoulders back and suddenly looked a lot more like the brother John was used to. John felt his hands grip the edges of the tablet even tighter.
"John. Dr. McKay is recording this for me because, unfortunately, I must return to Earth tomorrow morning. Mr. Woolsey and General Landry have decided that Atlantis has used up its allotted intergalactic dialings for this particular crisis and that my choice is to return tomorrow or wait until the next weekly status report. While I would like nothing better than to stay and greet you upon your recovery, I have responsibilities that can't wait another week. Though you have never shown an interest in Dad's business, I'm certain that you would not wish it to fail. If only because it has the benefit of keeping me busy!"
The joke was lame, but John found himself smiling. Knowing that Dave had been bullied by Woolsey and Landry made him feel a lot better, somehow. The Video Dave chuckled and shook his head.
"Never in my wildest imaginations did I ever believe I would utter the words return to Earthin a non-metaphorical context." Dave lifted his eyes and peered into the camera as if he was looking at John directly and John squirmed in his chair. "You have a remarkable job, John. Terrifying, I must add! But I can think of no better person on Earth to represent our people to another galaxy.
"And while I must express my pride in you and the men and women you are serving with here on Atlantis, I am more…afraid for you than I have ever been." Dave's face went nervous and – another first for John – as frightened as his words indicated. "You may not know this, or even believe me, but I always thought Dad opposed your enlistment not out of disappointment, but out of fear. Fear for the life of his son. I know now, what he did not see, though – that the risk you take is worth it.
"Dr. McKay and Teyla were both instrumental in teaching me this, so please give them my regards and my apologies. It was a lesson firmly taught and hard learned. You have very loyal friends, brother. I am envious." Dave paused, using the pretense of a cough to gather his composure. John felt his own eyes stinging.
At last, Dave looked John in the eye again, and this time John did not flinch. "Heal quickly, John. And while I long to beg you to come home and leave the danger for others, I know I can't. I know, now, that would be selfish. So I simply ask that you…be careful. And to write once in a while."
Dave finished with a smirk that was pure Dave and John had to "cough" himself even as he was trying to laugh.
Long after the tablet had powered down into sleep mode, John sat, staring at the blank screen, wondering what the hell Rodney had said…and how he could ever thank him.
When Colonel Sheppard finally decided to arrive for their meeting – three minutes late – Richard found himself strangely unable to work up much annoyance.
"Colonel Sheppard. It is good to see you on your feet. I trust you are feeling up to your duties?"
Sheppard was grinning broadly, though Richard noticed he was rather more eager to sit in the chair opposite him than usual.
"I'm feeling up to anything that isn't my room or the infirmary. What we got going on?"
Richard stared at the Colonel, slouched easily in the chair, one heel thumping idly against the floor. "There is a great deal going on, Colonel. The Pegasus galaxy did not see fit to pause on your behalf. Although a lot of work around here did," Richard felt compelled to add.
"Sorry 'bout that," Sheppard said, sounding not at all sorry.
"Yes, well. It is good to have you back on your feet. Now, perhaps, we can get back on schedule."
Though as he said it, Sheppard was grinning and Richard felt certain that on schedul was not very likely with this man.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
John was tired. More tired than he thought he should be after two weeks of bedrest and one of learning how to dress himself again. But the day had been good – you know, for a day of nothing but paperwork. There had been that interesting intel from their agent embedded with the Genii. And that gate team that had come in hot had been exciting.
His side was aching and he still felt short of breath when he walked farther than a couple of corridors or up more than a few steps. Even still, it felt damn good to be pushing himself. He was looking forward to crashing in his room, but he had one more thing to do, today.
Ronon was throwing Marines around when John reached the gym, so he sidled in, not wanting to interrupt, but eager to see someone moving their bodies in the way he really wished his would, but couldn't, right then. Unfortunately, Ronon spotted him, and mopped them up to finish quickly. John threw an apologetic shrug at the men who limped out the door because of it.
"Hey," Ronon grunted after wiping his hands on a towel.
"Hey," John replied.
"You going to dinner?"
"Gonna hang in my room," John said, using man code for I'm hurting and plan to fall asleep as soon as I hit the door.
"Cool." Man code for Sucks you feel like crap.
"Maybe tomorrow, though." I'll get better soon.
"I'll count on it." I know you will. Don't sweat it.
"Good. Tomorrow then. And, hey… Thanks." For saving my life. For staying with me when you could have run. For not giving up.
Ronon guffawed, slapped John on the shoulder so hard he almost fell over, then ruffled the hair on his head when he was too off-balance to duck.
Thanks for all the kind comments on the way! I've haven't replied to many yet 'cause I wanted to finish, so I'll get to it very soon. But know they are read and very much appreciated - they keep the fuel on the creative fire.