Sholio (sholio) wrote,

Secret Santa fic for sheppard-hc: "Coming Down"

Title: Coming Down
Author: sholio
Word Count: 8200
Rating: PG-13
Summary: John's been through an ordeal, but getting rescued is just the beginning.
Notes: For radioshack84 in the sheppard_hc Secret Santa gift fic exchange, who wanted John hunted and terrified and having nightmares, with lots of comfort. Elizabeth and Carson were specifically mentioned in the request, so I presume season three or earlier is wanted. Hopefully this fits!

This city is dying, dying, dead. Yellow leaves drift over its crumbling steps and tip-tap softly down its cracked, broken streets.

John feels like the dead city: dry and cracked and falling apart, tumbling to bones under stone walls draped with the skeletal remains of long-dead vines. He hasn't slept in two days and he doesn't dare stop moving. His eyes burn and he can't really feel his feet. He's not sure whether it's good or bad that he's not feeling much pain anymore. Good would mean he's not hurt as much as he thought; bad would mean that it's poison, as well as cold and fatigue, dragging down his limbs and slowing his clumsy steps. He remembers a burning sensation when the hell-hounds bit him, quickly fading to icy cold needles prickling along his limbs. Now he doesn't feel much at all.

The buildings swim, blur, double in front of his eyes. John stops to rest briefly on the steps of an ancient temple, dead leaves drifted in the cracks that time has worn. He gulps the last lukewarm swallows from his canteen, his hands shaking so that some of the precious water spills down his neck and soaks into his dusty, ragged shirt.

Wind stirs the leaves, soft rustles that make him jump, looking over his shoulder. His vision keeps blurring and he sees shadows move, but maybe it's just the bare branches of the hard, thorny desert trees, rattling in the wind.

This is a cold desert; there was frost on the ground this morning, and the wan, pale sun casts little heat.

He's up and moving before he wants to, the cold seeping into his bones, a bitter dry ache. Out of the corner of his eye, he can sense movement among the abandoned buildings, but he's no longer sure if it's the creatures hunting him, or just his fevered imagination.

He can't last much longer like this. Maybe he can find a place to rest, catch a few hours' sleep. He's not sure how the predators that he's dubbed hell-hounds are tracking him -- smell, sound, maybe even some kind of psychic trail; this is the Pegasus Galaxy, after all. But maybe he can find somewhere in the ruins, conceal himself so that they can't --


Too late. Shouldn't have stopped; he'd known it was a mistake at the time, but he'd just been so damn tired.

They are lean and dust-colored, bigger than wolves, slinking out of the shadows between the buildings. There are three of them now. He's managed to kill two, though they don't go down easy, but he's down to his last few bullets and doesn't dare waste them unless he can get a kill shot. The way his hands are shaking and his vision keeps going in and out, he's not sure if he's going to get a chance.

Well, he always knew he'd go out fighting.

Their eyes have a weird reflective quality that makes them appear to glow faintly reddish in the wan sunshine; it's damn creepy, and one of the reasons why John dubbed them hell-hounds in his head. Otherwise, they're really more lizardlike -- lean velociraptors on all fours, covered in coarse stripey fur. They don't have visible ears, but they do have feathery crests along the tops of their heads that seem to express their mood in a similar way. Right now, their crests are erect and alert as they circle him cautiously. They can obviously tell that their prey is wounded, weak.

One of them drops its crest as it crouches in preparation to spring. Their hunting style, John has learned the hard way, starts with a series of fake charges to test their prey's defenses before they make the actual attack. Taking a chance, he squeezes off a shot, the P90 toggled to single-action mode. He hasn't missed a target on the range in years, but his shaking hands betray him and the bullet kicks up a puff of dust between the thing's front paws.

The hell-hound barely flinches. They don't know what guns are, and though they've learned the hard way that he can hurt them, they still don't seem to associate the loud noise with their packmates going down in a spray of blood and fur. It makes them tough to scare off; it means that he really has to hurt them in order to get them to pay attention. Two of the three are limping where he managed to wing them, but it hasn't slowed them down as much as they've managed to slow him down.

"Come and get it," John says aloud, his voice rough and rasping in his own ears. The hell-hounds raise and lower their crests at the sound of his voice, like a wary dog putting its ears back. They've never made any sound that he's heard, and seem to regard his voice more nervously than his gun. He backs up until there's a wall at his back, blinking to clear his vision as the hell-hounds move in like sharks for the kill.

When the puddlejumper uncloaks above them, John's so fixated on the hell-hounds that it takes a minute for his fatigue-rattled brain to recognize it. By then, it's already setting down in the courtyard, scattering dust and leaves. The hell-hounds are clearly uncertain whether to turn their backs on their prey to tangle with the newcomer, and their hesitation is their undoing when John's new three favorite people spill out of the jumper's back hatch -- Lorne, Ronon and Teyla, armed to the teeth. John lets the P90 fall to his side and watches dazedly as they fan out in the courtyard, shooting first over the creatures' heads -- coulda told you that wouldn't work -- and then firing into the lean velociraptor bodies. He doesn't even take much satisfaction in watching the beasts that have tormented him for two days flinch, contort and fall to the cracked paving stones. He's too tired. All he can do is let his head fall back against the wall, watching from under half-closed eyelids.

Maybe he lost some time, because the next thing he knows, Rodney's in front of him -- where did you come from? he wonders -- hovering with typical McKay awkwardness. "What took you so long?" John says, right before the world goes all swimmy and his legs turn to water. He folds forward, and Rodney is there to catch him.

* * * * * * * *

Rodney's half expecting it, and he's braced to catch John as he falls, but it's still a shock to find himself with an armful of lieutenant colonel, and he staggers under the sudden weight. John is shivering, fisting his hands in Rodney's jacket and breathing hard into Rodney's shoulder. His hands are like ice, but heat bakes off him, and all Rodney can say is, "Are you hurt? Stupid, of course you're hurt, look at you --" John's shirt is torn to shreds, and black strips of it have been bound around his arms and legs, makeshift bandages now crusted with sand and blood. Rodney looks down at the dusty spikes of what passes for John's hair, and a surge of sudden fierce protectiveness, anger and guilt leaves him breathless. "It's all right, you'll be -- You know -- Teyla! Ronon! Could someone give me a hand here?"

Ronon shows up out of nowhere, holstering his gun to take John off Rodney's hands. Rodney doesn't think John is completely out of it, but he's definitely not firing on all cylinders, mumbling something that makes Ronon laugh and slide one arm under John's armpit, catching him in a half-hug before helping him towards the jumper. Rodney trails behind, feeling suddenly useless and trying not to look at the dead wolf-things with their brains scattered over the cobblestones.

"I wonder what people lived here, and what happened to them," Teyla says, falling in easily at Rodney's side. "I have never been to this world."

"Dunno. Some disaster or other. Anthropologists'll have a field day." He's already looked around and categorized the place as pre-industrial, no energy signals, not worth his notice. The only important thing here was Sheppard, thanks to a Wraith booby trap that screwed up the gate and spat him out here, and they've got him now.

Thank God.

Lorne vanishes into the cockpit and Ronon tilts Sheppard onto one of the benches with exquisite gentleness. Teyla pulls down a first-aid kit. "Do we need that?" Rodney says, feeling like even more of a fifth wheel now -- Ronon's wrapping Sheppard in an emergency blanket, and Teyla's hauling out handfuls of equipment. "We'll have him back in Atlantis in a few minutes. Let the so-called experts handle things."

Teyla pulls out a bag of saline and a bunch of tubing. "He is obviously dehydrated. It would probably be good to start getting fluids into him." She's been attending every one of the medical division's first aid seminars, and she never balks at an opportunity to stick needles into people.

John wakes up as she's setting up the IV -- sits bolt upright, gasping, his eyes going wide in his sunburned face. "Settle down," Ronon says, and lays a hand on his chest, pushes him back down onto the jumper's bench seat.

John blinks at the ceiling, and Rodney crowds a little closer so that John knows he's there, that they're all there. John's nose is peeling badly, there's a nasty bruise across his cheekbone and his hair looks like something tried to make a nest in it out of dried mud. "Wow, Sheppard, you look like crap," Rodney's mouth says without asking for input from his brain.

John's cracked lips manage something that's almost a grin. "Thanks, Rodney," he rasps. "That puts it all in per— perspective."

Ronon slides a hand under John's head and holds a canteen to his lips. Teyla, meanwhile, has managed to get a needle in his hand -- Rodney decides that one glance is more of that than he really wants to see, so he nudges over John's legs to make a little room on the bench. John is still shivering under the emergency blanket, and Rodney lays a hand on his knee; he remembers the bandages a little too late, but John doesn't try to knock his hand away, and it's still resting there as they pass through the cold blue wash of the gate.

* * * * * * * *

Elizabeth sometimes wonders why she bothered with a degree in poly-sci, when she could have simply enlisted in the Air Force and had a chance to do something, rather than sitting here signing off on mission reports while others find technological solutions to malfunctioning gates, others take part in rescue missions.

"Incoming wormhole," Chuck says, and she's already out of her office and into the control room before he adds, "Major Lorne's IDC," and she nods to lower the shield.

"We got him, ma'am," Lorne's voice comes over the radio, strong and sure. Elizabeth leans a hip on the nearest console and takes a long breath.

"I'll be in the infirmary," she tells Chuck, and he just nods. They'd be more surprised if she didn't go.

* * * * * * * *

John doesn't remember sinking below the ragged edge of exhaustion in the jumper, but he bolts awake, heart pounding and chest seizing tight, when hands touch him, move him, and the world comes unmoored around him. "Gently! What do you think he is, a crate of potatoes?" a voice snaps just beyond the limits of his vision, and then he's drifting again, taking in glimpses of ceiling and snatches of conversation. He knows bone-deep that he doesn't dare close his eyes -- can't sleep, clowns will eat me -- but he can't get his equilibrium back, can't make sense of the freeze-frames that he can catch between bouts of dizziness and what just might be interrupted moments of REM sleep. When he closes his eyes, the hell-hounds loom behind his lids, and they linger when his eyes snap open again. It's the drugs, stupid, he says to himself, or maybe aloud -- there was poison in those icy bites, and he can feel it burning in his veins. But, more, it's the intense awareness that he's cultivated for two days -- can't sleep, can't stop, keep moving, stay alive. Give his team a chance to find him. But they've found him, and he still can't stop, he doesn't dare.

"-- won't calm down," the faceless voices say. "Blood pressure's through the roof -- sedative --"

Warmth rolls up his arm from the site of the IV, and he falls backward into black waters infested with dull red eyes.

Fangs sink into his chest and he wakes with a violent jolt, stiffening and flailing. Something strikes him across the forehead, a hard sharp blow that leaves a bar of cold behind.

"Whoa, John, settle down." The voice is soft, the hands on his wrists small and strong. He opens his eyes, blinks, and eventually focuses on Elizabeth's face hovering over his own, a pale oval framed by dark curls.

"Sorry," he gasps, when his heart is no longer trying to claw his way out of his chest.

"It's all right." She fusses around his bed, straightening the IV stand, which he realizes he must've brought down on his own head in his thrashing. "Oh, that's going to leave a bruise ... another one." Elizabeth smiles at him, but it's strained, tired. "It's a good thing you're hard-headed, John."

"Ha ha," he manages weakly. His head aches with a dry dull throbbing, and his throat is sticky and sore. Elizabeth hands him a paper cup of water, curling her warm hand around his own when, to his shame, he's unable to hold the cup steady.

"Do you need anything? I can call a nurse."

He starts to shake his head, but stops when his brain rattles painfully around inside his skull. "No. I'm okay." He's not okay, he's far from okay, but he can be okay, if he can just pull himself together. "Where's ..."

"Your team? I sent them to get some sleep -- told them I'd keep an eye on you for a while. They've been working around the clock to find you."

"Knew they would." Don't stop, keep moving, give them a chance to find you.

Elizabeth sets the empty cup back on the bedside table and pats his hand with her small, warm fingers. "Get some sleep, John."

Can't sleep, got to keep moving, his body tells him, and he smacks it back down: Safe, damn it. Home. "Yeah. That's a good idea."

Elizabeth picks up a fuzzy afghan off the floor, where it must have fallen when she'd leaped up to deal with John's nightmares. Soon she's curled up on the chair by the bed, feet tucked under her and afghan pulled up to her chin, snoring softly. John stares at the ceiling with eyes that burn from lack of sleep. He knows he needs to sleep. Everything in his body hurts, and he's shaky and nauseous; he just wants to escape from his discomfort, to sink into blessed sleep and not have to think about anything again until morning.

But every time he closes his eyes, red eyes loom in the darkness, and he flinches awake, shaking so hard that his teeth click together.

Safe. Home.

He's still staring at the ceiling when the nurses brighten the infirmary lights for morning.

* * * * * * * *

Rodney walks into the infirmary at half-past ten with a random armload of John's clothes, snatched from his quarters ("What, I'm on Sheppard-underwear-fetching duty again?" "Suck it up, McKay.") and drops them on the cot next to John's, narrowly missing Teyla, who's perched on the edge. "I hear you're being liberated from the fold, so, you know, here you go. Clothes. So you don't have to walk around the halls in scrubs."

"Thanks, McKay, but you didn't have to bring the whole laundry basket." John sounds a little less like he swallowed a handful of gravel than he did last night, but he still looks like death warmed over. The sunburn is peeling nicely and he's white as a sheet beneath it, with bruised purple half-moons under his bloodshot eyes.

"Are you really supposed to be out of the infirmary? I mean, no offense, but you look like a good wind could blow you over."

Carson bustles into view just in time to hear the comment. "There's not much we can do for him here, Rodney. When we brought him in, he was suffering from some kind of mild toxin from those beasties' bite, but it's flushing out of his system on his own, and he's responding to antibiotics nicely."

"Hi, still here," John says mildly, raising a hand.

"Sorry, Colonel." Carson pats his shoulder and then slides a hand under the collar of the scrub top to detach the leads of the monitoring equipment. "In any case, I think the best cure for what ails you now is nothing more complicated than food, liquids and rest, and you can reap the benefits just as well in your own quarters. I'm sure your team can get you there safely." The glance he gives them indicates that he's not quite so sure. "Now, shoo, give the man some privacy."

The three of them retreat behind the privacy curtain so that Carson can give John a last once-over before he gets dressed. As soon as they're at least nominally out of earshot, Rodney hisses, "Is he supposed to be leaving yet? Did you see him? My cat's coughed up hairballs that look better than that!"

"Thanks for the visual, McKay," Ronon remarks dryly.

"You saw him yesterday; he couldn't even stand up on his own. And now they're kicking him out? When did the Atlantis infirmary turn into the American healthcare system?" Sadly, the joke is lost on the two Pegasus natives, who merely regard him with mildly disapproving expressions.

"I am inclined to agree with Carson's judgment," Teyla says. "The way that your people shut their sick away from friends, family and familiar surroundings -- it is unnatural, and cannot promote good healing. He will surely do best in the privacy of his own quarters."

Even Teyla looks a bit uncertain, though, when the curtain draws back and Sheppard wobbles out, looking like he's about two steps from falling over. Ronon starts to reach for him, but he says, "I'm fine," in that deceptively mild "don't mess with me" voice he's got. Carson hands out pills and a long litany of instructions -- no alcohol, no work, small meals on a regular basis and so forth -- along with a threat to come by and check up on him later. Then his team herds him down the hall, clustered around him like three planetary moons in tight orbit.

"Seriously, guys," John says, sounding tired but amused, "I'm not about to tip over like a three-legged chair. What would be really awesome would be if one of you would go get me something from the cafeteria, 'cause all I've had today is a bowl of soup and I think I'm about to eat my own arm."

Rodney is more than happy to excuse himself for cafeteria duty. It's not that he doesn't want to help, but, well, settling Sheppard into bed and tucking him in is really more Teyla's thing, and possibly Ronon's, what with that weird nursemaid instinct he seems to have. Rodney knows it would just be excruciatingly embarrassing to even be in the same room with all of that going on, and if he can be doing something useful somewhere else, he's all over that.

And if he takes the time to pick up and examine all the rolls in the cafeteria bread basket, it's only because he wants to make sure that he doesn't accidentally get one that's burnt or underdone, not because he's trying to avoid going back to the sickroom. By the time the cafeteria staff chases him out with the entirely unfounded accusation that he's groping the food, he has acquired one of pretty much everything in the entire mess hall.

Luckily, Rodney has successfully achieved avoidance of the worst of the fussing-over-Sheppard time. The patient is tucked into bed with a laptop, a stack of books and DVDs and an assortment of towels, glasses of water, hot-water bottles and heaven knows what else. He raises an eyebrow when he sees the loaded tray. "There is only one of me, you know, Rodney."

"I wasn't sure what you'd want," Rodney retorts. "I'm not a waiter by profession, you know. Or a mind reader."

Teyla pats him on the arm. "We know that you do your best, Rodney."

"Well, of course I do," he huffs, not especially mollified. He's taken an entire morning to do fetch-and-carry duty for Sheppard, who is not at death's doorstep, and he hopes they all appreciate it.

"So," Ronon says, as John pulls the tray onto his lap and starts lifting covers off the plates that Rodney's jammed together willy-nilly (and, in some cases, stacked on top of one another). "Guess you'll be wanting some privacy, then."

"Sure," John says, looking wistful.

Teyla stomps on Ronon's toes. "But as we are on stand-down and have nothing pressing to do, we would be happy to stay and watch a movie with you."

John perks up, even his hair looking a little less wilted.

Rodney weighs the relative benefits of also losing an entire afternoon to an idiotic film he's probably already seen, versus the dozens of urgent projects that Elizabeth wants reports on yesterday. Teyla and Ronon are here; there's no reason why he has to be. "Well, I've got a lot to do, so I guess I'll be getting back to the labs."

Two sets of accusing teammate eyes fix on him, along with John's inscrutable gaze. "Look, some of you might have nothing to do when you're not out in the field, but I have an actual job here," he protests feebly. "We're still trying to figure out the Wraith device that threw you halfway across the galaxy. It's important."

Teyla's eyes narrow ominously at "nothing to do", but John says through a mouthful of sandwich, "I know you're busy, Rodney. Swing by later if you can."

John gets him, at least. Rodney flees ingloriously to the lab, where no one expects him to mop anybody's fevered brow.

He holds out for half an hour before guilt sends him slinking back, laptop tucked under his arm. When he slips quietly into the darkened room, John is slumped against a stack of pillows with his head cocked to the side and resting on Teyla's arm. Ronon's sitting on the floor by her feet. There are random screams and car chases happening on the laptop screen -- the sort of imbecilic action movie that John's addicted to.

Teyla looks up, smiles and pats the bed beside her hip. Rodney is not about to join in the puppy-pile they've got going there, and he sits on a chair instead, and lays his computer across his knees.

He hasn't been in the room for more than a few minutes when John bolts awake, his head jerking up off Teyla's shoulder. One of his hands slaps at his leg, and Rodney, even in the middle of flailing to catch his own falling computer, recognizes that gesture -- John is reaching for a gun that isn't there.

"It's all right," Teyla says, catching John by the shoulders. "Just us."

John's breath comes in great gasps. He rests his head in his hands for a moment before raising it. Rodney hopes it's just the blue-shifted light of the laptop screen that's turning John's skin into such an awful corpselike gray.

John swallows a few deep gulps of air before he asks, "Where'd Carson's headache pills get off to?"

Teyla opens the pill bottle and Ronon fetches a glass of water from the bathroom, while Rodney tucks his feet behind the legs of the chair and tries to concentrate on his laptop. This is exactly why he doesn't want to be around for the nursemaiding part -- he's totally useless at it, and he doesn't like being bad at things. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney sees that Teyla keeps one hand resting in the middle of John's back while he drinks the water in a few large gulps; she slides her hand away as John eases back down against the pillows.

"So, all the stuff that happened to you on the planet," Rodney begins, awkwardly, his eyes skating around the room, anywhere but John. "Do you want to talk --"

"No," John says, and returns his attention to the laptop screen, where someone, probably Teyla, had the presence of mind to pause the movie -- not that it makes much difference. "What did I miss?"

"Two more guys just got shot," Ronon says. "I like this movie."

"I have identified a few vexing inconsistencies in the plot," Teyla says, settling back into her place alongside John on the bed.

"A few?" Rodney scoffs, taking advantage of the opportunity to slip into a more comfortable, familiar social role than the crudely-fitting concerned friend. "It's nothing but one big plot hole."

"You've only seen ten minutes of the show, McKay," Ronon says.

"Yeah, and that's more than enough time to pick up everything I need to know about it." As Rodney settles his fingers on the laptop, he catches John's quick grin at the edge of his line of sight.

By the time the credits roll on this execrable nail in the coffin of American cinema, John's fallen asleep on Teyla again, looking disturbingly young and innocent. While Ronon quietly folds up the laptop, Teyla very gently tries to shift him off her shoulder, but he wakes with the same gasp-and-shudder as before, making Rodney jump and very nearly fall off his chair.

John sits with head in hands, panting, while the other three hover anxiously until he looks up and says irritably, "Guys. Not helping."

"Did Carson give you sleeping pills?" Rodney wants to know. "Because, seriously, you look like hell and if you can't sleep for more than five minutes at a time --"

"I can't sleep with other people in the room, all right?" There's a sharp edge to John's voice that isn't normally there except when Wraith are closing on his position and he's down to his last two grenades. Then he looks up at them and whatever he sees in their faces makes him soften -- not just his face but his whole body, tension seeping out of him. "Look, I don't -- it's just -- Thanks. Really. For the movie and the food and the whole ... saving me from hell-hounds thing."

"Hell-hounds?" Rodney says.

John's face flickers, closes, like he's given away more than he meant to. "I had to call them something, and I used up all the good names on the Wraith," he says flippantly, and drags his hands across his face, flinching when he touches fresh bruises. "I think I'm gonna take a nap now."

Teyla rubs his leg affectionately. "One of us will bring you dinner."

"Thanks," he says again, and writhes down into the pile of pillows, turning his back to them and pulling the blanket over himself until there's nothing but a vaguely Sheppard-shaped lump with a tuft of hair on top.

Various "good night" noises are made and Rodney finds himself standing in the hallway, looking at his Pegasus teammates. Rodney, of course, breaks the silence first.

"Yeah, he's doing just great."

"Rodney," Teyla says reprovingly. "He has been through an ordeal and needs time to recover."

All three of them jump at a soft cry from inside the room, going quickly to silence.

Rodney finds himself reaching for the door controls and forcibly pulls his hand back.

"Nightmares don't kill you, McKay," Ronon says softly. "You get past it."

"Yeah? How?"

"Rodney," Teyla says again, more sharply. Ronon says nothing.

All three of them stare at the door for a while. There are no more sounds from within. Eventually they drift off their separate ways, withdrawn into their own thoughts, saying no farewells. Rodney realizes that his hands have clenched until the nails dig into his palm.

If there's one thing he hates more than being bad at something, it's not being able to do anything at all. He's had more than enough of that over the two days of waiting and fretting and searching, racing a clock to unravel gate-disrupting Wraith technology and hoping to hell that John came out on a habitable world and didn't get thrown through a spacegate.

John's back, safe, alive. That's how the story is supposed to end. Everything is supposed to be better now.

* * * * * * * *

After the fourth or fifth time he wakes up a cold sweat, staring at the ceiling with his heart hammering his ribs, John gives it up and gets out of bed.

Carson did give him Ambien, but he's afraid to take it, thinking of stories he's heard from some of the guys; the only thing worse than bolting awake from the nightmares would be getting trapped in them, forced to watch them play out and unable to wake up. He's had two days of that; he doesn't need more.

The thing he has to do is force his body to recognize that it's safe, that he can stop running, can relax. He's had this happen before, but never so bad. Usually it resolves itself when he gets tired enough. Then again, he's been awake for going on four days now, with no more than a few minutes of REM here and there. He's not sure if it's possible to get any more tired than he is right now.

He's already taken a brief shower in the infirmary, but he takes another, long and hot, ignoring how it stings the stitched-up wounds on his forearms and thigh, the cuts and bruises everywhere. Superficial damage, all of it, but he's a mess and the lack of sleep isn't helping; his body can't repair itself if he can't rest. He intends to go for a jog, try to force out some of the fatigue poisons and maybe wear himself out enough to get comatose for a while, but just the effort of drying himself off when he steps out of the shower makes him so dizzy that he has to lean against the wall for a minute to recover.

He seriously needs sleep, but even exhausted as he is, he's still wide awake. He thinks maybe he'd be scared if he weren't so goddamn tired.

The door chimes. "Just a minute," John calls, and slings a towel around his waist, another over his shoulders. The one thing nobody ever thinks to order from Earth is bathrobes.

But it's Carson, and all he does is groan at John's bruised, half-naked body. "Good thing I stopped by. What did I say about getting the dressings wet?"

"Sorry, Doc. I figured I needed the shower more." John sits down on the bed, trying not to notice how close to a fall it is, and leans back as warm, deft hands replace his dressings and check on the various small hurts he collected on the planet.

"Get covered up," Carson says when he's done. "Your temperature's a bit low -- which is good to an extent, it means the fever's gone, but you don't want to get chilled. Poor temperature regulation goes along with sleep deprivation; have you had any sleep since you got back to your quarters?"

"Caught a nap this afternoon." It's not quite a lie. He was asleep, just not for long.

"Hmm. Well, try the Ambien if you need it. I can give you something stronger, but I'd rather not if I don't have to. Natural sleep is a lot better for you." Carson picks up the tray off the bedside table, raising his eyebrows at the amount of food that's left, which is enough to feed two people.

"Rodney," John explains, grinning. "He picks up food like he's packing for an Arctic expedition."

Carson snorts, and transfers a couple of rolls and a muffin to the bedside table. "Want me to have a nurse stop by with something later?"

John shakes his head and then regrets it; his head's still not quite up to it. "Teyla's got that covered."

The look that Carson turns on John is fond and a little amused. "Ah, Colonel. For all the trials of your life, I hope you realize what a lucky man you are."

John is much too tired and his head hurts too much to try to figure out what the heck Carson's getting at. "Not sure if I feel that lucky at the moment, Doc, but it's good to be back."

Carson just smiles. "Well, call me if you need anything, Colonel."

After Carson's gone, John knocks back a dose of the pain pills and stares for a moment at the Ambien. Tempting as it is, it still scares the hell out of him, and he's not sure if it would even do the job. Even after the shower, his muscles are still locked tight, still quivering with the urge to run that he can't quite shake off.

He stretches out on the bed, throws a blanket over himself and closes his eyes. He's not aware of the passage of time; one minute he's sinking in the darkness behind his closed eyelids, and the next he's jerking awake at the white-hot pain of claws tearing through his flesh. Glancing at the clock, he sees it's only been a few minutes, and curses softly under his breath.

Maybe he'll take that run after all.

Carson's right; he's abnormally cold, and he shivers as he laces up his boots, eventually throwing the heaviest sweater he's got over his black T-shirt. It hides the bandages as well, helping to pre-empt awkward questions. Outside in the hall, the lights of the city are piercingly bright, stabbing his pupils and escalating his headache. It's late afternoon and the halls are mostly empty. He exchanges terse pleasantries with a couple of people and then takes the transporter to a far wing of the city.

He tries jogging, but every step sends a spike of pain through his head, and he keeps getting dizzy and having to lean on the wall. Eventually he gives up and just walks, drifting through half-familiar corridors, pausing to stare out through twenty-foot picture windows at the sun setting over the ocean. The sky blazes in a wash of colors, and John leans on the glass -- or whatever the Ancients used in lieu of glass; he's heard the scientists talking about it, and knows it's not quite the same. The painkillers have knocked the edge off his headache and muscle aches, but it's still there, throbbing behind his eyes and making his jaw clench.

So. Fucking. Tired.

He's actually desperate enough that he tries lying down right there in the hallway, bathed in the warm red sunset light, and closes his eyes. This time he slams his elbow into the window when he wakes up flailing. It's definitely more solid than ordinary glass; cursing, he rubs his elbow. Looks like he's added a new bruise to his long list of complaints.

What the hell does he have to do to sleep for more than five minutes, hit himself in the head with a hammer?

As he trudges back to the nearest transporter, the entire corridor seems to throb in time with his heartbeat, swelling and contracting. Shadows appear to flit in the corners of his vision, making him jump and look over his shoulder. John wonders idly if he'll eventually progress to hallucinations if he goes without sleep for long enough. That might be interesting ... or, well, given the general tone of his nightmares, maybe a little too interesting. That's why he doesn't want the Ambien, after all. He can just see himself caught in the grip of a waking dream, walking into the mess hall with his gun and -- no. No sleep drugs unless he's strapped down, not the way he's wound tighter than a coiled spring, jumping at nothing.

He thinks about heading to his quarters, but goes for the labs instead. Most of the scientists have emptied out, but Rodney, unsurprisingly, is still there, typing on two keyboards at once with his nose almost touching the screen. John plops down on a stool across from him, waiting for Rodney to notice him, but his jittery foot taps against the floor and gives him away.

Rodney looks up with his mouth open and some kind of retort on his lips, but he closes it again, and frowns at John. "Have you slept at all?"

"Why do people keep asking me that?"

"Oh, I don't know -- maybe because you're white as a sheet and look like you're about to collapse?" Rodney slides off his stool. "Glad you showed up, though. C'mon. I want to show you something."

John tags along, because right now a distraction is just what he needs, and Rodney's always good for that. They swing by the equipment storage lockers, and Rodney picks up what John recognizes as a set of their euphemistically termed Ancient lasertag gear.

"Uh, Rodney --"

"Hush," Rodney retorts. "Yeah, we're going to the Danger Room. You'll like this. I hope."

John and Rodney call it the Danger Room, after the X-Men comics; most of the rest of Atlantis calls it the Holodeck, to Rodney's annoyance. It's just one of several of the Ancients' teaching rooms that they've found around Atlantis, but this one has turned out to be unusually customizable, with the added bonus of the "lasertag" wands, which the scientists theorized were meant to be used to manipulate holographic objects in the room. Based on the preset modules that the scientists retrieved from the room's memory banks, it was probably supposed to be used for creating giant three-dimensional model molecules and things of that nature.

That is not what they've done with the place, however.

The room is bare when they step into it. Rodney turns and taps some keys -- unlike most of the teaching rooms, this one's console is set next to the door rather than in the middle of the room, keeping it out of the way of the simulations running in the middle. Around them, the room wavers like heat on a Texas road, and then it resolves into one of the lasertag modules that the scientists have programmed -- the one everybody calls "Mad Max", a sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Looking around him, John feels his mouth go dry, his chest tighten. It's not quite the same as the planet of the ruins, but it's too damn close. "Uh, Rodney --"

"Quiet, I'm not done." Rodney presses the lasertag wand into John's hands. It still feels like a smooth plastic cylinder, but now it looks like a P90 -- again, part of the lasertag presets. The room can generate any sort of static surroundings or moving holograms, but it won't camouflage a person; the wands, however, seem to carry their own holographic field while they're inside the room, and can be made to look like anything the programmers want them to.

The Marines often run obstacle courses and mission simulations in here. There's a real obstacle course on the West Pier, because of course nothing in this room can be touched, but it's pretty useful for getting them accustomed to some of the weirder sorts of terrain that they're going to be encountering through the Stargate.

"Rodney," John says again, and then his throat seizes up and he can't breathe, really can't breathe, when an all-too-familiar dust-colored shape slinks from behind one of the Mad Max environment's ruined towers.

"-- used one of the animal presets, and tinkered with it until it looked more like those things on that planet." Rodney's in mid-explanation when the roaring in John's ears subsides enough that he can hear. "I know it's not exact because I only saw them for a minute, but it should be -- hey, where are you going?"

"Out," John snaps, and stomps past Rodney. The door opens automatically for him -- thank God, thank God -- and then he's out in the corridor and he can breathe again, breathe without the reek of dust and the coppery tang of blood. It's all in his head and he knows that, because the Danger Room doesn't do smells any more than it does touch. But it's too close, just too damn close to what he's been living and breathing for the last two days. The lasertag wand has gone back to a gray plastic cylinder in his hand, and he slumps against the wall, trying to slow the hammering of his heart through steady, measured breaths.

"Hey, wait, where did you -- Look, Sheppard --" Rodney's in his face, exactly what he doesn't need, except that Rodney's voice is uncharacteristically gentle and so are his hands as they settle, hesitantly, on John's shoulders. "Calm down, they're not real --"

"Jesus, Rodney!" Frustration and anger bursts out of him; he sees Rodney flinch. "I've spent two days with those things chasing me like a rabbit; I can't fucking close my eyes because every time I do, they --" And this is going to a place he doesn't want to go; exerting a great effort of will, he swallows down the anger, adds another measure of stress to the tension turning his muscles to rock. "Not the brightest idea you've ever had," he finishes harshly.

Rodney pulls his hands back, tucks them under his arms. "Perhaps not," he admits quietly. "But what I was thinking -- see, you couldn't kill them, right? We never gave you a chance to finish it. Watching the movie, idiotic as it was, made me think about that. Whatsisname the action hero goes after the guys who killed his partner, and it wouldn't really be the same if they accidentally blew themselves up or got gunned down in a drug bust before he got to them."

"So?" John's feeling a little better now, though his heart is still hammering spikes of blood pressure into his bruised-feeling skull. "Those things were gonna kill me, Rodney. I don't give a damn that you guys shot them. Hell, I'd've paid you to shoot them." But, at the same time, he's wondering if Rodney might not have a point. The theme his nightmares keep circling back to is helplessness -- his gun jams, or he's out of bullets, or there are so many of them that he can't possibly shoot them all, and then they close in for the kill ...

"Look," Rodney says quickly, "it's probably a dumb idea, and not at all Heightmeyer-approved, but I was thinking that if you could just kill them all, when they can't touch you or hurt you or -- oh, what?" he snaps, slapping his radio. His expression shifts immediately from anger to a pinched, contrite look. "Oh. Teyla. Hi. Sorry. Yeah, he's with me. Yeah, I think he's okay, just ... I'll call you, okay?"

The pinched look is still on his face when he turns back to John, but the brief moment's respite has given John time to think, and he's starting to think that, as stupid as it seems and as much as he would have appreciated a little bit of warning, Rodney might have a point. Maybe there is catharsis to be gained in blowing the little suckers apart, painting the rocks with their blood like they wanted to do to him.

"Open the door," he says. He doesn't realize that he's raising the lasertag wand until he looks down and sees that he's got it up in front of him like a gun.

Now Rodney's the one who falters. "Uh ... are you sure? I mean, absolutely positive? Because psychology might be a pseudoscience, but if I break you, Carson will have my --"

"Rodney, open the damn door." He'd do it himself, but his arms are so rigidly tense that he's not sure he's got the muscle control to activate the door controls.

Rodney nods and the door slides back on the same Mad Max world that they'd left behind. The shadows skulk back and forth, and for just a minute, he wants to tell Rodney it's a mistake, he's wrong, he doesn't need this -- he can shut the door and never have to think about it again.

Except every time he closes his eyes.

He marches resolutely through the door, with Rodney so close at his back that, when John pauses, they bump into each other. The plastic wand becomes a P90 again, as soon as he's inside.

"Remember," Rodney says softly, behind him, "they're not real. They can't touch you, can't hurt you, even if they could get close, and I've got them programmed to stay a minimum of --"

"Rodney, shut up," John says, and he lets them have it.

He'll hand it to Rodney: the spray of blood and brains is pretty realistic. Rodney makes a small choked sound, but John barely hears it, because, yes, this is what he's wanted to do to the bastards for two days. They're just animals, and on some level he knows that it's not really their fault -- they're victims of their instincts and nothing more. But they chased him across the desert for days, they stalked him and tormented him and played cat-and-mouse with him, turned him into a helpless victim and he




them --

Panting, he comes out of a weird kind of trance to find that there's nothing moving, just the disturbingly realistic bodies splattered across the desert landscape. The fake P90 is even smoking a little. John leans on the console, which is visible poking out of a patch of scrubby Mad Max bushes.

Rodney looks green. "Uh, is that enough, or do you want me to release more, um, hell-hounds?"

"No," John says, and he's suddenly, unutterably tired. "I think that'll do."

Rodney reaches around him to tap the console, and the room goes blank again; the P90 is just a naked plastic cylinder. Rodney takes it from John's lax, shaking fingers, and peers into his face. "I didn't break you, did I?"

John huffs a little laugh. "No. I don't think so. Ask me next time before you come up with something like this, okay?"

"That's fair," Rodney says, sounding thoughtful. He swipes a hand over the door controls. John is pretty sure that standing here forever would be okay; he doesn't have the energy to bother trying to decide on a destination. However, he also doesn't have the energy to object when Rodney seizes a handful of his sweater and tows him along. He is vaguely aware of Rodney talking on the radio -- "You are? Why? Oh, all right, I'm bringing him" -- but the words flow past him without settling into coherent meaning. He lets Rodney steer him until suddenly, cool wind hits his face and he stops.

"Hey, this isn't my quarters."

"Coulda been Mensa," Rodney mutters. "Yeah, right."

They're standing in the doorway to a balcony. Dusk has settled over the city, with just a faint glow still lingering in the western sky. The city's lights are spread out below them, and stars spangle the sky overhead, along with a thin fingernail of Lantea's moon.

"Teyla and Ronon's idea," Rodney says, and steers John out onto the balcony, where blankets and pillows and plates of food have been spread around. Teyla and Ronon and, to his muddled surprise, Elizabeth are sitting or (in Ronon's case) lying sprawled on the blankets, eating.

The scene is so surreal that John wonders for a dazed moment if maybe he's fallen asleep and is dreaming.

Teyla springs to her feet. "John," she says, and small hands guide him down onto a soft, thick blanket. He sits, and then goes all the way down and he's lying on his back, looking up at her face framed by stars.

"What the heck are you all doing out here?"

"Carson said that you were having trouble sleeping," Elizabeth says, somewhere out of sight.

John is about to protest the non sequitur when Teyla says, "And when I have difficulty sleeping, I often find that it is helpful to sleep under the stars."

"Works for me," Ronon throws in.

"You people are crazy," Rodney's voice says, moving around out of sight. "Oh, hey! You brought ham!"

Someone, probably Teyla, folds the blanket over John, cocooning him in warmth. He burrows into it, closing his eyes. He has no idea if he'll be able to drop off or not, but it just feels too good to be lying down and warm.

A little closer, he hears Rodney say, "Thought you couldn't sleep with other people in the room." Rodney really doesn't know when to quit.

"Shut up, Rodney," John mumbles sleepily into the blanket. "Ronon, do me a favor and shut him up for me, wouldja?"

"Sure," Ronon says, and there's a yelp and a scuffling sound, and Elizabeth's alarmed, "Not so close to the edge! Watch the railing!"

"Would you like something to eat, John?" Teyla asks him quietly, her hair brushing his forehead as she bends over him.

"I'm good," he manages to say. "Eat later."

There are still nightmares in the darkness, he finds. Rodney's miracle cure isn't, really. But when he bolts awake, heart pounding and sweat drying on his skin, the stars have wheeled overhead, and he knows several hours have passed. His hand brushes his thigh, finding only the bare cloth of his pants, and no holster. He can hear soft, even breathing around him, and raising his head, he sees that the balcony is littered with blanket-wrapped lumps. He can see the slow rise and fall of their inhalations, and a snakes-nest spill of hair from the biggest bundle, which is undoubtedly Ronon.

Only Elizabeth is awake, sitting up by the balcony with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, looking out to sea. When she turns to look at John, her face is serene, and he can see the stars reflected in her eyes.

"Go back to sleep, John," Elizabeth says quietly.

So he does.
Tags: fanfic:sga

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