Author: Little Red
For: phrenitis (who is awesome) for the swficathon challenge.
Challenge: off-world, a sense of infinity, no character bashing/rape. And there was something about sand, too.
Summary: There's something different this time.
Spoilers: Passing nods to "The Eye," "The Real World," "The Siege," "Common Ground."
Beta: lyssie. Thank you!
Author's Note: I conducted a poll. The completely official results said that "no character bashing" means that I'm not allowed to make characters look like morons on purpose. So infirmary stays and minor surgeries are totally okay.
When McKay tells him they only have six minutes to live, John Sheppard doesn't believe him.
He never believes him. They've done this before, and there's always a last-minute long shot, a hidden release valve, the Daedalus, something. That's the way it goes. They dangle over the jaws of death, McKay points out that they're dangling over the jaws of death, and they're snatched back and get home to Atlantis in time for dessert.
There really isn't anything different about this situation. They're running out of air, in this case. Not in a gasping, gradual way, but in the way like they tripped an ancient (small 'a' ancient, not Ancient ancient) security system on a no-longer-populated planet and the whole hermetically sealed compartment is going to be completely vacated of air in five and a half minutes. "Complete and total vacuum," McKay elaborated, to differentiate the means of their impending doom from every other kind of vacuum.
It's a bad way to die. A horrible way to die. John can't think of too many pleasant ones, unless it's croaking peacefully on an island somewhere surrounded by beautiful women when he's a hundred and ten, but this one is certainly not in his top five.
Still, they've done this before. Four minutes, three minutes, two minutes, and the Daedalus' surprise arrival or McKay's suddenly brilliant solution or the alien system shorting out still has plenty of time to materialize. He's not worried.
Of course he's worried, because they're in danger and all, and yelling and worrying often seems to help, but he doesn't actually think for a second that they're going to die.
Until six minutes and one second have passed with a sudden blinding rush of air emptying out, and McKay squeezes his eyes shut and Ronon yells something into the empty space and Teyla looks up at the ceiling in something like anticipation and Elizabeth grabs his hand, and something about this seems very, very different after all.
The first thing John thinks, when conscious thought comes back to him, is that he might be dead.
Seconds are drawing out like hours between beeps from something next to him that sounds like a heart monitor. His eyes won't open, he can't move his hands, and he feels as though he's been flattened into a perpetual, painful state just below reality, where he can vaguely hear the outside world, but he's not really part of it.
Voices. Familiar ones. He hears Beckett, Caldwell...
He struggles to sit up, to find the missing voice that's always there when he comes to in the infirmary, but the best he can do is a pitiful, quiet moan.
"Colonel." The voices get closer, Beckett's in particular. "John, can you hear me? Do you know where you are?"
He manages to moan a little louder in response. Sensation is seeping back into his body, and not much of it is good. He can see, but everything's foggy. His lungs burn like he sucked in something terrible, his lips feel split, and his whole body aches, like...
He can't think of a metaphor. His brain hurts, too.
At least he hurts too much to actually be dead. That has to be a good thing.
He opens his mouth and says, "Doc? What happened?" but he can barely even hear himself.
Colonel Caldwell must have guessed at his question, because he chimes in, "We got your message. We beamed you out of there as soon as we could cut through the interference."
He can't remember what happened before then, and tries to come up with which horrible mission they've been on ended with this exact set of injuries. They were... an Ancient settlement taken over and changed by some other race, something new... was it? Or was it that time they ended up in a frozen tundra? He sort of remembers coming back from that mission already, last month, but he feels too hot and too cold, the same way he did then.
"Just in time, too," Beckett says gravely. "Thirty more seconds, and none of you would have survived."
He tries to ask after his team, but the air comes out in a sandpaper cough that makes him twist in pain. His head falls to the side, and then he sees Elizabeth in the bed next to him, intubated and bound to the table with tubes and readouts. Her skin is a mess of red spiderwebs, in sharp contrast to the white hospital sheets and the tape holding the medical equipment in place.
His heart thuds once so sharply it hurts against his tender ribs, and then keeps pounding like they're all still in danger. He remembers the security room now, and the awful hiss of air, and how the inside of his mouth started to boil and everything started to distort and whoosh in and out and Elizabeth was holding his hand.
"What happened to her?" he demands. She doesn't look like she had a bad run-in with a mucked-up alien security system. She looks like she was hit by a car.
Beckett doesn't answer him right away. "Teyla and Ronon are doing surprisingly well. They seem to have adapted better to the sudden changes in pressure, for reasons I'm still exploring... Rodney regained consciousness half an hour ago. He's experiencing some temporary vision issues due to vacuum-induced hypoxia, but he's already showing some improvement, and he's otherwise his charming self so I'm not overly concerned with-"
Beckett looks worried. He always looks worried, John reminds himself. That doesn't mean anything. "She suffered a severe pulmonary barotrauma, causing both her lungs to rupture. It appears she attempted to hold her breath."
John's head is pounding, and he has no idea what Beckett is talking about. "Is she all right?"
"She will be fine, most likely," Beckett says. "Blood flow to her brain seems to have been sustained, though there's no foolproof way to know if any damage has occurred until she wakes up. We've reinflated her lungs and so far there's no indication of a repeat collapse, though we're keeping her sedated and on a respirator for a few hours as a precaution."
"But she's going to be okay," he presses. She's always okay.
"She'll have to remain here for observation for a few days," Beckett answers, and John takes that to mean she'll be fine, just cranky.
He can live with cranky. He'd just prefer it if she were awake. She looks fragile and small in infirmary beds, especially with tubes coming out from her hand and her mouth and under her arms, and when she's unconscious like she is. He hates seeing her like this.
He's not worried. He isn't. They've gotten out of worse.
Beckett fusses over him for a while, but he's okay. John doesn't remember breathing out, but he must have, because his lungs are intact, if feeling a little like sandpaper. His vision clears up, his headache dies down, and he's discharged and cleared for light duty the next day after he gets a good night's sleep.
He must still look concerned, because Teyla walks with him to the mess hall, and twice she looks at him and says, "Everything's going to be fine, John."
He knows that, and he can't explain why he feels so strange.
"McKay's right," he decides aloud. "Hard vacuum sucks."
John takes a power nap after dinner, but wakes up feeling like an icy hand is choking his throat and he tears off his sheets and his clothes and runs a hot shower for five minutes before he can breathe normally.
His bed is too flat, he thinks. Too much like the infirmary. Maybe he's not quite recovered from the airless air earlier, because he feels like if he falls asleep here in the dark, alone, he'll choke.
He walks around the city for a while instead, in a meandering path toward the infirmary, and arrives just as they're pulling the tube out of Elizabeth's mouth. It always makes him want to gag, seeing that done to anyone, and this time he gets the irrational urge to shove away the helpful medical hands that seem to be manhandling her. He doesn't look away, though, only holds his breath along with her until she breathes on her own.
She doesn't wake up right away, but that's okay. That's normal. She'll be out until the sedatives wear off.
Her skin is a red mess of burst capillaries still -- as is his own, and everyone else's, from being trapped in that room-sized bell jar for sixty-five seconds after their six minutes ran down. Elizabeth looks the worst, though, because she's so pale.
Nurse Keller explains that the tubes under Elizabeth's arms will have to stay for a few days, to keep doing the medical something they're doing -- John loses the details -- that keeps all the air on the inside of her lungs. She'll be able to move around with them, Keller explains, like the ordeal is mostly over.
John's not worried, but he stays in the infirmary most of the night anyway, watching her breathe in case the medical monitors miss something.
He wakes up to Carson scolding a nurse for letting John sleep in an infirmary chair for half the night when he's supposed to be resting, and Elizabeth's eyes are open.
"Hey," he says, untwisting himself so he's sitting up and then leaning toward her. His hand ends up near her face, somehow, and his fingers brush her cheek of their own volition. "Welcome back."
"John," she rasps, and his stomach drops out, from her voice, from lack of breakfast, from something. "How is everyone?"
She's whispering, though he thinks she's trying to speak aloud. He's been on a respirator before, so he knows exactly how much that's going to hurt her for the next day or so. "We're fine. Everyone's fine." He saw McKay last night, and the genius who thought he had the security room 'all figured out' is no worse for the wear, temporary blindness gone in everything but McKay's dramatic retelling of events.
"Good," she mouths.
His fingers have ended up in her hair, just the edges of it, and something still feels wrong, even though she's breathing and talking and ghosts a smile at him.
Beckett and a nurse turn up to bring her some water and look her over more closely, so John pulls his hand back and scrubs it across the back of his neck.
"You gave us quite a scare," the doctor tells Elizabeth.
"I knew you'd be fine," John brags, but he can't quite make the grin reach his face.
She is fine.
One more day in the infirmary so that Carson can do his due mother-henning diligence, one more on bed rest in her quarters doing paperwork, and then she's better.
The only time she even hints at her near-miss is when she puts on a serious face and tells McKay and Zelenka she's too tired to have their regular marathon project report meeting, the one she calls the "ego session" whenever she and John are alone and she's snarky from lack of sleep.
Zelenka hustles out agreeably, muttering get-well sentiments, and Elizabeth turns to John with a smirk.
"How long do you think that excuse will hold up?" he teases her.
"Hopefully through next week's mandatory quarterly crew evaluations," she says sweetly. "You'll handle those alone, won't you, John?"
He gives her a dirty look. "You seem relatively un-traumatized by... you know," he points out. Normally, she gets pensive and withdrawn after any major stumbling block. It takes a week or two for her energy to fully return and for her mind to be focused on the present.
Elizabeth shrugs. "It was an accident. I'm fine, John. We all are, and the next time we go back there-"
"You want to go back?" In all fairness, he'd figured they'd go back, they being him and McKay and the team members who throw themselves into off-world danger as a matter of course, but Elizabeth wasn't part of the plan. She went along the first time in the hope of deciphering the roots of the alien languages used in the technology and surrounding ruins. That isn't exactly top priority in John's world. He'll bring her some polaroids.
"The next time we go back there," she repeats, "we'll take a lot more precautions. Rodney is certain he can find a way around the security systems, and until he does, we'll steer clear of the interior rooms. There's an incredible wealth of technology there -- not to mention indications of a highly advanced species in this galaxy besides the Ancients -- and we have to at least try. McKay agrees."
He'll have a talk with him later. "Oh, so now McKay wants to take precautions." Not before, say, Beckett had to stick plastic tubes in Elizabeth's lungs.
"Be nice. None of us expected anything to happen."
"And I'm not about to make the same mistake twice!"
She frowns. "John, are you okay?"
He paces to the door and back. "Fine. I'll take a few teams there and secure the area before I allow you anywhere on that planet, though."
She gives him an odd look, though John doesn't think his declaration is that out of the ordinary. "That's... very sweet."
There's a moment of awkward silence before John makes up a training session and leaves.
He has this dream, one that starts out great, normal, fine, and then Elizabeth collapses wherever they are -- this time it's his quarters -- and turns blue, and he tries to give her some kind of CPR, but there's no air. All he breathes into her lungs when he kisses her is vacuum.
It's a new dream, but they're all variations on a theme.
They're back on the planet of Unknown Alien Security Systems of Doom -- officially called M97-244 until Elizabeth can figure out what the non-Ancient aliens were actually called -- and it's sunny.
Not glaring sun, even. It's nice, tropical-beach sun, complete with the sound of water from the actual tropical beach less than a kilometer away.
Oceans in general are a lot less impressive after living on Atlantis, which might be why he's spoiling their perfectly nice beach day with his bad mood.
"Do you have to stand so close?" McKay snaps at him from, admittedly, about half an inch away. "These power systems aren't going to magically override themselves if you breathe down my neck, you know."
"Sorry. Could you try not to almost kill us this time?"
"Oh, because it's totally my fault that you wanted to check out the basement levels, even after I clearly stated that the power readings were iffy-"
"I said I was sorry!" John stomps off to go bother the perimeter for a while, something that's a lot less necessary here than usual, since the planet's Stargate was long ago cannibalized for the intergalactic 'gate bridge. The Daedalus is in synchronous orbit, actively scanning for any unexpected creatures larger than opossums.
He passes Teyla and Elizabeth lounging on a pile of rocks, like the planet is a health spa and not a chamber of horrors. They're all waiting outside the complex for McKay to detect and override all internal power cells that are still functioning. They'll hook up their own generators to systems only after they've been isolated from the main, etc, etc. It's a good plan, and he should be enjoying the unexpected goof-off time.
He reaches the perimeter and then keeps on going, telling Ronon on the radio that he's going to check out the water.
It is a nice ocean. The planet is moonless, without tides, so the water is calmer than the oceans back home. He picks up a rock and tosses it, hoping it'll skip, but it plonks in.
"Weak," Elizabeth comments from behind him.
He had a feeling she'd come after him, to scold him for blasting McKay. That's the other bad thing about having her on away missions, besides the part where she's put in unnecessary danger.
"I don't see you trying."
She picks up a rock, blows off the sand, and flicks her wrist toward the water. Her rock sinks, too.
"Must be the water," he says generously, excusing them both.
"Or the rocks."
"So what's going on?"
He picks up some more rocks and throws them one by one at the water, overhand, like misshapen baseballs. "Nothing. McKay's just bugging me. You know how he gets."
"Not about McKay." Elizabeth moves closer to him, and though she's still a good three feet away, it feels too close for comfort because of how she's watching him. "Since the accident... something hasn't been right. Did something happen?"
He wants to ask, Besides almost asphyxiating in a vacuum?, but doesn't, because that seems like giving too much away. He feels nervous in the pit of his stomach, like he needs to prepare for something, some attack, something more than just talking with Elizabeth.
They talk all the time.
"I've just been in a bad mood. It's not a big deal."
It's not a complete dismissal, though -- he has a different tone of voice for that, and she usually respects it. He knows her well enough to be sure she'd walk away if he pushed the right buttons. "Oh."
She crouches to collect more rocks. Something about the angle it gives him -- looking down at her -- makes him remember one of his dreams where she's choking or bleeding or just wasting away from him and there's nothing he can do to help. "Maybe something happened," John admits. "I don't know. It's not a big deal, though. The accident wasn't a big deal for any of us except you."
"I'm fine, you know," she says, looking up at him. She stands and hands him her rock finds. "I've almost died before, and you were okay."
He puts muscle into his next throw, but the horizon is so far off that it still seems to fall shallow. He was in absolutely no way okay when Kolya nearly blew her away, or when nanites invaded her brain. "It's not about that."
She steps closer, touching his throwing arm gently. "You've almost died before, too," she reminds him.
"I'm okay with that." The words seem to be coming out at random, like they're not really what he wants to say, but he wants to say something. It always feels good, talking to her.
"That scares me a little, you know, how cavalier you are with your own mortality."
He looks straight at her for what feels like the first time since she was lying in the infirmary. "You weren't there, though."
The skin between her eyebrows crinkles. "I don't understand."
"Maybe it is about you." His throat feels like it's closing again, like the other dreams he's had since the accident, the ones where he's choking and no one notices. "Or not... about you you. All those other times, no one would have been with me."
In the jumper over Atlantis, flying a nuke straight into the heart of a hive ship, no retreat and too many seconds between ground and target to think about what he was doing. Dying inch by inch to a Wraith in Kolya's twisted prison. In Afghanistan, crashing his chopper into a sand dune and two other guys in the cockpit with him, but everyone was doing something and he would never even have thought he'd want someone to hold his hand when he goes.
But he does. And the only face he sees in that fantasy, the one where he doesn't die alone, is hers.
So maybe it is about Elizabeth after all.
Her face is serious now, searching his eyes with hers. "It doesn't work like that here," she promises, her voice catching. "You don't get to die alone. You don't get to die at all."
He's about to laugh at how unlikely that is, but she pulls him into a hug, one of her death defying, all-in, squeeze-you-like-you're-hers hugs that he's only been lucky enough to experience twice. This time he hugs her back and buries his nose in her hair.
He feels like he could stay here forever, with Elizabeth breathing in his arms, her chest rising and falling against his. A fantasy life pops into his head, one where they're still on Atlantis and he still nearly dies on missions every other week, but he gets to come home to her. To really come home to her, more than the way she's always waiting in the control tower for him.
The power of that unexpected feeling scares him, and ultimately, he's the one to let her go.
"Are you going to be okay?" she asks, her palms trailing down his arms until they're almost holding hands.
"Are you going to not touch anything dangerous in there this time?"
She gives him a twisted smirk. "Cheeky," she chides. "I'll be careful."
He wonders what she'd do if he kissed her, right here in the middle of galactic nowhere. He's not ready to risk that.
"Ready to go back?" she asks.
He shrugs. The ocean is nice here. "Maybe in a few minutes."
He expects her to head off without him, but she asks, "Want some company?"
He nods, and she stays, and he feels better.
Things are different now, maybe, but they'll probably be all right.