Title: This to me is how to leave matters unresolved
Word Count: 9,945
Summary: Sheppard becomes ill while returning from a mission.
Rating: PG-13, gen
P3M-634 started out as a boring, standard mission and ended locked out of database, in part because of how that mission had gone and in part because there were far too many people on Atlantis who wanted to send a nuclear bomb through and knew how to build one.
The Alvani were like the Pegasus version of corporate sharks, except instead of power suits they wore long brown togas cinched by leather belts. Once they realized that Teyla was the one doing the talking, they completely ignored the rest of the team. McKay felt slighted, but it meant that he couldn’t interfere with intense conversation Teyla was engaged in, and in Sheppard’s book that was a good thing.
“The Alvani are notorious,” Teyla had said before they left Atlantis, pausing with a frown. “for striking a hard bargain,” she had finished, diplomatically. “They want all trade relations to be to their advantage.”
Sheppard watched with a curious eye: The Alvani elders were crouched on the ground in a circle around Teyla. Periodically, someone would move a pile of small, multicolored stones towards her. Sometimes, she moved it back with a polite but firm rejecting headshake. Other times, she counted out the stones and put some back, or left the offer as it stood. They talked and moved these stones for nearly two hours. Sheppard couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could see Teyla’s face get tighter and less patient. He wondered how her legs felt after squatting for so long.
Ronon and Rodney, fortunately, were nowhere near the negotiation table…er, ground. They’d found the buffet table – also on the ground – and occupied themselves. Sheppard watched them, occasionally, since if the Alvani were tetchy about getting their fair share, he wasn’t sure how they’d like being eaten out of house and home.
Eventually, Ronon had his fill and wandered over to Sheppard, swinging his large frame down on to the bench. His hands were stained with the red juices of the small, purple berries that had filled a large ceramic bowl among the other offerings. The bowl was empty, now, and Ronon was pushing the last berry into his mouth, the juice dripping down his chin. He looked like he’d just murdered and eaten someone.
“Are they done yet?” Ronon asked, pointing at Teyla with his chin.
Sheppard shook his head and watched the juice spill down Ronon’s neck. Wordlessly, he picked up a cloth from the bench top and put it into the big man’s hand. Ronon blinked at it, and Sheppard guided his hand up towards his face.
“You look like you just ripped someone’s throat out,” he said.
“And didn’t share,” Rodney said, hotly, arriving at the bench and dropping his weight heavily.
Ronon wiped at his face, and Sheppard thought the cloth was probably covering a pleased smirk.
“They’re citrus,” Ronon said, but his cheek jerked upwards.
“No, they aren’t.” Rodney said. “He punched me, Sheppard, over a berry!”
“Wasn’t a punch,” Ronon said, dropping the rag in a ball on the bench surface.
“It hurt,” Rodney snapped. “I hope you get sick off those Pegasus galaxy raspberries, and throw up all over the Jumper.”
“That’ll punish you,” Ronon pointed out.
“And me,” Sheppard said, sharply. “There will be no throwing up and there will be no punching McKay for stealing your food.”
“Who said anything about stealing?” demanded Rodney, and he was probably going to say a lot more even louder, except that Teyla was finally rising and moving towards the bench, followed by the Alvani elders. Sheppard elbowed him in the side and he snapped his jaw shut.
“Colonel,” Teyla said. “Our negotiations are concluded. But the elders require that you confirm the terms, as the leader and the,” she smiled grimly, “senior male of the delegation.”
“Oh.” Sheppard had no clue what the terms were.
Teyla recited the conditions, the tone of her voice clearly communicating which were acceptable and which were not. She looked at him from beneath her eyelashes, waiting for him to catch on.
“Okay,” Sheppard said. “That all sounds good, except for that last bit, where you keep 50% of the harvest, that’s a no-go.”
“Twenty-five percent would be acceptable, would it not?” Prompted Teyla.
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, cheerfully. “That sounds good.”
Behind Teyla, the Alvani frowned and grumbled to one another.
“That’s our final offer,” Sheppard said, quickly. “Take it or leave it.”
“We accept,” said a gravel-voiced, grey bearded Alvani, still frowning.
“Good.” Sheppard grinned widely. “Let’s exchange presents and get out of here, shall we?”
“Yes,” mumbled Ronon, boredom etched on his face.
Rodney toddled off to collect his precious mineral specimens, while Ronon and Sheppard moved the crates of supplies out of the rear of the Jumper and some younger Alvani males arrived with the bartered goods. Teyla stayed behind to politely conclude the meeting. When she finally arrived at the Jumper, the Alvani with the beard was behind her.
“The Alvani elders wish to ritually part,” she told Sheppard. “They must bid you farewell, according to their customs.”
“Okay,” Sheppard said, casting an eye at the grim faced old man. He stuck out his hand. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
“It has not been,” countered the Alvani. “In the future we wish to find you friendlier and more generous. Next time your people must send more pleasant envoys.”
But his hand, wrinkled and cold, closed tightly around Sheppard’s own and squeezed hard.
“You’re welcome,” Sheppard said, anyway. The Alvani let go of his palm, inclined his head, and immediately turned around. He walked away, his gait stiff with age, without another word. “Well, wasn’t he nice?” Sheppard remarked to Teyla.
“No,” said Teyla, completely missing the sarcasm or choosing to ignore it. “He made negotiations unpleasant and unnecessarily lengthy. The Alvani are not generous but expect all their trading partners to be so. It is bothersome.”
“Good grip for an old guy, though,” Sheppard said, flexing his hand. The center of his palm stung.
“Can we go?” Ronon yelled from the front of Jumper.
Five minutes later, all Sheppard could think about were the berries Ronon had eaten and Rodney’s childish prediction that’d he puke. It wasn’t Ronon, though, but Sheppard, who vomited in the Jumper cockpit. The only warning was a sudden wave of nausea, accompanied by pain cracking against his skull, as the watery ‘Gate horizon loomed before the ship.
Rodney must have taken over piloting, but Sheppard didn’t see it. He was vaguely aware of falling from his seat, eyes clenched shut and his arms wrapped helplessly around his head as he tasted bile.
It was unrelenting; his gut rebelled, clenching in time to the waves of pressure in his temples. He could hear the voices of his team, alarmed and shouting. But their words were indistinct and muffled by his own pulse, throbbing increasingly loudly in his ears. Sheppard opened his eyes for a second, in time to see the familiar leather stitching of Ronon’s pants pressed into his cheek. Dark, red-stained palms were holding either side of his face, and then Sheppard actually felt his heartbeat pitter erratically, and he passed out in Ronon’s lap.
He woke up in the infirmary, long enough to throw up again, but nothing was in his stomach and it made his lips burn. Keller rolled him on to his side, anyway, and he remembered doing this in college when his roommates were drunk so they wouldn’t choke.
Then the headache came back and the doctor might have been trying to talk to him, but he had his eyes shut again and the world spun away.
It went on like that. He woke up, occasionally, usually when he was being touched. It was a nurse or Keller or one of the other doctors. The head ache kicked in within seconds of being conscious, and then he would be gone again. Each time he woke, there were more medical machines around the bed, more tubing and wires attached to his body. Last time, there was a thick plastic tube in his mouth, and a respirator wheezing at the bedside.
He reached out with a hand and a wrist full of IV leads, trying to grab Keller. She leaned over him, her lips moving. The cracking in his head blocked out her voice, and there was only helpless, stabbing frustration as the world went black.
The next time, there was something cool and metal against his face. It moved smoothly down his cheek, skimming against his skin. The sensation was nice – it was nice to feel anything – and Sheppard turned his face into it. Immediately, it stopped feeling nice and became all about slicing, burning pain. Blood was pouring down his cheek, dripping onto his neck. He could taste a bit in the corner of his mouth.
Somebody was yelling and he could hear frantic movement nearby. What he couldn’t do, was open his eyes or move his arms or legs. Or speak, but at least he remembered that he’d been intubated before, and that wasn’t as terrifying. Everything else was, but it was also beneath a heavy, deadened weight that made it all feel slightly distant.
Hands pressed against his face, increasing the stinging on his cheek. He tried to jerk away and more hands held his head still. Finally, fingers pressed near his eyelids, scrabbling to pry something sticky up off his skin. He could open one eye, and then the other, as white filmy tape was peeled away.
Keller’s face, blindingly brightly lit, appeared in his line of vision. He slammed his eyes shut, immediately, expecting the crippling pain in his head to resume any second. He would be gone again, and it would hurt so much.
But then he heard her voice, the first time she’d been able to get out words before it started all over again.
“Sheppard, stay with me. Are you here? Naito, push 10 more milligrams.”
He only opened one eye, the rest of him tensed for the pain to hit.
“Okay,” Keller said, and she gave a giant, worried smile. “Hi there, Colonel.”
He felt his lips move, pointlessly around the breathing apparatus between them. He opened both eyes, squinting into the bright room. The infirmary, one of the private long-term stay rooms in the back.
Keller looked sharply over her shoulder. “Step back, Ronon. I’m sorry, but not now. Naito, get him out of here.”
Sheppard blinked and peered down the bed. His arms and legs were each in soft restraints, and there was a band around his torso. In his peripheral vision, someone small and pale was trying to force someone large and dark to leave the room. The big person wasn’t budging and the little person finally stepped back, throwing blurry arms up in surrender. He squinted; the big person was Ronon. He would have grinned, but there was medical tape around his mouth, and his lips felt cracked and dry.
The bed dipped slightly and Keller was shining a penlight in his eyes. He followed it, obediently, then did the same with her index finger. She still had one hand pressed against his jawbone.
“Colonel,” Keller said. “You’ve been in the infirmary for three months, since your mission to P3M-634. This is the first time you’ve been conscious for more than a few seconds.”
Sheppard could agree with only that last part; he couldn’t wrap his mind around having been out of commission for three months. It couldn’t have been that long.
“You’re intubated because of repeated respiratory distress,” Keller said. “I can take it out, but it might have to go right back in.”
He lifted a hand and waved it at the end of an arm still pinned to the bed. Go for it. If it came to that, he probably wasn’t going to be awake to experience it.
It didn’t come out immediately. There was lots of activity – more medical staff came in, adjusting the machines, staring at read outs. Somebody bandaged up the cut on his cheek. Someone else – who he was going to kiss when he got better – smeared Vaseline across his parched, peeling lips. His hands were released, and he tried to move them around. His arms felt heavy and weak, but he was able to get one hand up to his face. A little patting located another plastic hose in one nostril, taped in place. It had to be a feeding tube. Sheppard was beginning to understand that this was a lot worse than a bad headache.
The activity around his bed cleared a little as Keller began setting up to extubate him. Ronon took the opportunity to slink over and settle right by his elbow, on the other side of the bed out of Keller’s way. Sheppard tried to grin at him, but he wasn’t sure his mouth did anything recognizable. He raised the arm nearest Ronon and tried to give him a manly high-five. His hand didn’t really cooperate and it turned into a pathetic little squeeze. Ronon eyebrows jumped curiously, but he kept hold of Sheppard’s hand.
“Sorry I cut you,” Ronon said, pointing at Sheppard’s cheek. “You moved.”
What? He must have made a face because Ronon dipped his hand out of view briefly and then held up a long, thin metal tool. He flipped it open and a long blade that looked like a straight-razor appeared. It was pink-tinged and Ronon abruptly wiped it off on his own pant leg. “Sorry,” he said, again. Ronon didn’t sound particularly sorry, he kind of sounded like Sheppard shouldn’t have moved. This was actually sort of calming, since if anything were really wrong with him, Ronon wouldn’t be messing with him.
Unsure how he was supposed to feel about Ronon taking it upon himself to shave him while he was in a coma, Sheppard decided once he could talk he’d tell Ronon about the wonders of the safety razor – or even better, the mach-5 – and leave it at that.
Keller interrupted then, looming over him and taking hold of his jaw with a steel grip. More tape was peeled up and the tube in his mouth jostled as she took hold of it.
“On the count of three,” Keller said, “I want you to take a deep breath and blow out, okay?”
She was holding his neck such that he couldn’t really nod his assent, and then she was counting, anyway. He didn’t think exhaling as she pulled the hard, unyielding plastic out of his throat actually helped. It felt like he was choking and even though it passed his lips, he couldn’t stop coughing as his body tried to dislodge what was no longer there. He gagged a little, realized he was still holding – now squeezing – Ronon’s hand. Keller cranked the bed up, gave him a tiny paper cup of water and a basin.
“Spit,” she said, and he obeyed. Ronon took the opportunity to step back, which meant this whole procedure was as disgusting to witness as to experience. A nurse moved into to wipe his mouth.
“Wha…wha…what.” Sheppard tried to find his voice. It sounded hoarse and weak to his own ears, and Keller leaned closer to hear him. “What’s wrong with me, Doc?”
She put one hand lightly on his head. “I really wish I knew, sir.”
A trail of nurses came through, each armed with a needle and wanting his blood. Another doctor came over with a scanner and did basically the same thing, running it from his pinky toe and on up. Keller confessed she had no idea why he awake, which was really incredibly creepy to hear.
She rattled of the list of symptoms he’d been experiencing, mostly in medical gibberish. The headaches were apparently followed by coma, seizures, heartbeat irregularities, dangerous spikes and drops in blood pressure, respiratory distress, compromised airways, and unpredictable breakouts of rashes and hives.
“Eww,” Sheppard said. “What gives?”
Ronon moved back to his bedside when the doctor with the scanner got out of the way. “You’re awake now,” he said. “He’s better, right, Doc?”
“Maybe,” Keller said. She looked faintly hopeful. “Anything you want to add, Colonel?”
“Headaches,” he said. “Migraines. And then I pass out.” He didn’t exactly mind missing out on the other stuff, though.
“I want you to tell me if you feel one coming on,” Keller said, making a note on his chart.
“It usually happens pretty fast,” he warned her.
“I’ll keep the vent ready to go,” Keller said. One of the other doctors called her name and she took a step away. “I’ll be right here.”
“You really feel okay?” asked Ronon, still perched on the side of the bed.
“Not sure I’d go that far,” Sheppard muttered, unless exhausted, kind of drugged, and full of plastic tubes counted as okay. “I miss anything interesting the past three months?”
“The ‘Gate broke,” Ronon said. “Well, that was yesterday.”
“Yeah?” Nice to know crappy things happened even when he wasn’t around to enjoy them.
“Teyla’s stuck offworld,” Ronon added. “McKay’s trying to fix the ‘Gate. I told him you’re awake.” He gestured at his earpiece. “But he just yelled at me.”
“Good to see nothing’s changed,” Sheppard said. His throat itched and he coughed. “Can I have some water? Being intubated sucks.”
Ronon reached for the paper cup still sitting on the medical tray. “Yeah.” He looked intently at Sheppard. “You don’t look so good.”
It happened more slowly this time. A wave of nausea, growing pressure against his sinuses. One of the monitoring devices starting beeping loudly behind Sheppard’s head.
“Shit,” he managed to say. “Get Keller.” It came out as a really sad whimper, but Ronon heard him.
“Keller!” Ronon bellowed, not moving from Sheppard’s bedside. The headache was back, not the little one but it’s very angry mother. Sheppard’s hands squeezed the blankets. He tried to keep his eyes open, tried to stay just a little longer. The last thing he saw was Ronon’s totally freaked face, and then he went willingly into the darkness.
The cycle continued as it had before. It was maybe a little less scary now, since he knew that he’d wake up again every time the pain drowned him out. More frustrating, since he never managed to stay conscious, either. His life had become flashes of IV’s, syringes, and invasive medical procedure. It felt like every time, Keller’s face was darker and more serious. She always tried to speak to him and he could never hear her. It sucked.
The next time Sheppard woke up, he wasn’t in the infirmary. There was natural light, humidity in the air, and he couldn’t feel the city. He was surrounded by beige fabric walls. For a few short seconds he was never going to mention to anyone, Sheppard had thoughts about death, an afterlife, and wondered just which God he might have seriously pissed off.
But then he looked down, and everything else was exactly the same. He was on a gurney, strapped down with soft restraints. There was an IV in his arm, and two more plastic tubes disappearing under the sheet draped over him. One was a catheter, the other was taped to his abdomen. The ventilator was back, and there was a cluster of medical machines surrounding him. But he wasn’t in the infirmary, he wasn’t even on Atlantis, and it felt like he was outdoors.
The same vague, heavy sensation of sedation weighed him down, and for a few seconds he was just really confused. Then he realized his left hand was wrapped around an earth-style call button and after a little bit of fumbling he managed to depress the sensor.
Keller arrived instantly, literally running into the room.
“Hey,” she said, and for once she smiled. “He’s awake,” she said, turning her head to speak into the headset.
Quickly, she undid the straps on his hands, simultaneously checking the pulse in his wrist even as she peered at the heart monitor.
“Good to have you back with us,” she said.
It was hard to lift his hands, as it had been before. He raised one hand to his face, so uncoordinated he nearly jabbed a finger in his own eye. His face was stubbly and he immediately planned on asking Ronon why he’d slacked off. Sheppard felt the ventilator taped to his mouth, and Keller apologetically shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “If we have to put you back on a vent, I’d have to do a tracheostomy. You won’t like it, so I’d rather not do it unless absolutely necessary.”
She read the question on his face. “Cut a hole in your throat, sir.” She launched into a complicated explanation of why, something to do with irritated tissues. He had trouble following and didn’t really care. He rubbed his throat with one hand while she continued.
“You won’t be able to talk,” she said, “so we came up with something so you can communicate. Rodney wanted you to know it was his idea.”
She produced a laptop from a nearby chair and set on the half-table that could swing over the gurney. Her movements were fast and it took a lot of energy to focus on her. Sheppard didn’t mean to, but he let his eyes drift shut while she went about opening and turning on the computer.
“Shit,” he heard her whisper. “Are you still here?” She tapped him on the shoulder, and he opened his eyes again.
Falling asleep almost naturally, without feeling that his head was going to explode, was something he hadn’t done in recent memory. He tried to smile around the vent, but he didn’t think she saw it.
“You scared me,” she said, peering worriedly at him. “Please try to stay with me.”
He felt really sleepy, which was a vast improvement over almost everything else. He tried to nod, forcing himself to focus on her and the computer screen now blinking before him. Keller lifted his arm for him, resting it on the table top.
“If you try to type something,” she said, “the computer will try to guess what you’re saying and fill in the word so you won’t have to write whole sentences.”
Immediately, Sheppard moved his finger to the W, and the laptop screen filled with the words ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘who’. He moused over to the second word. Where?
“Oh, right,” Keller said. “You’re on the mainland. Actually, as far from Atlantis as we could get without putting you on a raft in the ocean.”
Sheppard hit the W key again. Why?
“We’re testing a theory that your condition is dependent upon your proximity to the Stargate.”
Well, that sounded absolutely nuts. The W key got another strike. What?
“Proximity and use,” Keller continued. “My staff observations correlated the frequency of your seizures and arrhythmia with the ‘Gate being in use. It was the only variable that seemed to have any influence on you. Teyla did a little, um, investigating and found a couple of legends about the Alvani making their trading partners really sick when they thought they’d been cheated. I haven’t made any other sense of it, but your vitals have gone crazy, corresponding with ‘Gate activity.”
Sheppard hit the I key. He was vaguely amused when rather than the personal pronoun, the first option was actually what was on his mind. Insane.
“Corellation isn’t causation,” Keller continued. “Rodney was the one that suggested it, actually. You woke up after the ‘Gate had been deactivated for almost 36 hours, because it was offline. As soon as Rodney fixed it and tried to come see you in the infirmary, you were back to being tachycardic and unconscious.”
Carefully, Sheppard searched for other letters, ‘til the computer screen flashed something closer to a sentence. Allergic to the Stargate?
“Um, that’s one way to look at the hypothesis,” Keller said, slowly. “We’re running an experiment. We moved you as far from the ‘Gate as possible, and it’s been deactivated for –” she checked her watch – “just over 24 hours.” She gave him a considering look. “You woke up and stabilized faster than when you were in the infirmary and the ‘Gate was off. That suggests there is something to proximity.”
Sheppard found the C key. Crazy. It was considerate of Rodney to understand his first response.
“Maybe,” Keller agreed. She sat down on the stool by Sheppard’s bed. “Believe me, if I had any other options besides moving my critical patient to a tent outside and sitting around hoping he’d get better on his own, I’d have taken it. You haven’t responded to anything else.”
He focused on the key word in there. C was for crazy and for cookies, and why the hell would Rodney think he wanted cookies at this particular moment. Finally, the proper word came up. Critical?
“Occasionally,” Keller said, her voice staying cool and worried. “Coma is a response to severe trauma, sir. Your heart’s been under a lot of strain. I’ve given you dangerous levels of narcotics trying to stop seizures, regulate your blood pressure, and stabilize your pulse. You haven’t just been napping.”
For a moment, Sheppard couldn’t think of anything to say. Then he went for the letter T, through Teyla and Try. He wasn’t surprised that it took forever to find the word; it wasn’t very frequent in Rodney’s vocabulary. Thanks.
Keller patted him. “Don’t thank me,” she said. “I might kill you, yet.”
Sheppard thought of a new question. How long?
“It’s been about 5 months since this all started,” Keller said. “It took a while to set these conditions up. Closing down the ‘Gate like this is hard to do without trapping a team off world or pissing off one of our allies.”
Sheppard repeated the same question. How long?
“5 months,” Keller said again. “Oh, wait, you mean how long did we shut down the ‘Gate for?”
“Weir gave me three days,” she said. “The Daedalus arrives on Friday to take you home. I wanted to have something to tell the Doctors at the SGC.”
For a moment, Sheppard froze. He was being sent back to Earth.
“I know,” Keller said, looking down at him. “Rodney threw a tantrum on your behalf, if it makes you feel any beter.” It kind of did. Rodney was good at those. “You got like this in the Pegasus Galaxy, it doesn’t make much sense to send you to the Milky Way to get cured.” She shrugged. “But if my theory’s right, being here might be why you’re so sick.”
Sheppard found a few more keys. This was way more tiring and demanding than it should have been. When Friday?
“Tomorrow.” She didn’t pause long enough for him to type anything in response. He didn’t know if Rodney would have programmed ‘shit’ into the computer, anyway. “I want to talk to you about your condition, colonel. I don’t know the doctors going with you on the Daedalus, and I want you to understand what’s happened, okay?”
Sheppard tried to pay attention. It was hard. And everything Keller was saying was some form of awful. He was allergic to the Stargate. He was being shipped out of Atlantis. The medical stuff was worse. The thing in his nose was gone because they’d put a feeding tube directly into his stomach. The threat to trache the ventilator was real, since his throat was so irritated from being intubated.
Keller stayed with him for the next few hours. She’d brought only two nurses to this strange little campsite, and they came in periodically to draw his blood or check various readings. He fell asleep a couple of times, only to wake because Keller would immediately put a hand to his throat to feel his pulse.
“I’m sorry,” she said, after the last time. “The machines will tell me if something goes wrong.”
Sheppard didn’t need the machines. He felt it, roaring pain in his head picking up like a tidal wave. He tried to reach for the computer, ending up knocking it from the table and smashing it on the floor. Keller was over him, easily pinning his arms back in the soft restraints while the machines wailed. She cupped one hand to her earpiece, staring at him with huge, wet eyes.
“Lorne’s team is coming in hot,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
And then he was gone.