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In Slow Reverse

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The retrovirus took a long time to work. It was really only a couple of weeks, but it stretched out. The end of summer on Sateda had been like that: a few days when the air was like water that felt a full season long before the rains broke it.

They didn't leave Sheppard alone for that whole weeks/season time. It wasn't a safety thing. The medical staff and the marines dealt with that. It was because he was still trying to remember what it was like being human.

Ronon knew something about that. He'd spent years instead of just days, but he'd never actually been turned into a bug, either. That was probably worth a couple of years on the run. Maybe more. He'd pretty much stopped talking after three, lost the habit. Sheppard didn't talk enough to lose words.

McKay was there almost as much as Ronon. "Radek probably won't completely destroy Atlantis in a few hours," he said to Weir when she sounded surprised to see him out of his labs so often. "Probably." He sounded so sharp about it that Ronon figured he wasn't quite sure why he was there himself.

Teyla came in around middays, and often when one of the others was going. As the blue faded and the pupils rounded, she came earlier, stayed later, didn't care if she was alone. She'd woken up screaming one night offworld: I am not a Wraith! This had to've been hard for her.

Weir always looked worn-out when she showed up. Ronon tried not to listen when she talked, but the infirmary wasn't that big. Even if it were, he had good hearing. "I'm sorry I'm not here more often," she said to Sheppard once when he was aware. Awake, partly alert. "It's just—Col. Caldwell requires supervision." She said supervision like she meant stabbed up the ass with a burning stick. "And there's everything I usually have to do, too. I hope this is over soon." ("Believe me," Sheppard rasped, "so do I.")

Beckett spared as much time has he could from his other patients when he had any. Lorne came by once or twice a day with status reports, mission news, chat. One evening there was an accident in one of the far wings that took everyone who might have been there to deal with it. A tiny woman with huge glasses spent almost four hours there that evening.

Zelenka showed up with an ugly burn across the back of his hand and spent a few minutes talking to Sheppard ("Rodney insists one of us be supervising the minions at all times, and has been here so often himself that I have had no time. So. How are you?…") until McKay showed up and kicked him out.

And Ronon filled in a lot of the gaps. There were always nurses, but they weren't the same. They didn't know Sheppard. Well, they knew the hero: that didn't mean they knew him.

Weir came in after dinner one day early in the second week. Sheppard was asleep, clawed fingers twitching. "Hello, Ronon," she said. She probably thought it was quietly. Wasn't bad, for someone who'd never had to speak low. Sheppard didn't wake, anyway.

Ronon nodded a greeting back.

"Has he been asleep long?"

"Since I got here." She raised an eyebrow: So…? "15:30."

She took the chair next to Ronon's. "I was wondering—would you be interested in learning to play chess? It's a game of strategy from Earth, and I thought maybe it might be…something to do?"

"Sure," Ronon said. He and Teyla had noticed most of the Terrans always felt they had to be doing something.

Weir started to explain the rules: this piece always moved like this, that piece always moved like that. It made too much sense to be military strategy, but from what she said she seemed to think they worked the same.

"Battles aren't fought like that," he said.

He was glad when she didn't take it as a complaint. He hadn't meant it that way, but with these people you never knew. "Really? Col. Caldwell told me that being a military man helped him with chess."

Most people's titles she used to keep them at the kind of distance the Terrans expected their leaders to. Caldwell's she used like a couple of sticks to nudge aside a dead animal in her path. He wondered how many other people had noticed that. "He would. So does it?" he asked instead.

She shrugged. "We were interrupted before we finished our first game—Dr. Zelenka noticed a problem with one of the naquadah generators and wanted to know if I knew where Rodney was, and right after that John found the first patch of chitin."

She did something a little different with Zelenka's title, too. He couldn't quite figure it out. Protection, or something, but not exactly.

"Problem with the naquadah generators, right," Sheppard said hoarsely from the bed. "Can someone get me some water?"

Weir got up and went over to the bed. There was a cup with a straw on the side table. She held it so Sheppard could drink. "I don't see why they won't unstrap your hands, at least, even if they're still keeping you strapped down just in case the—in case."

"Because the damn—sorry, Elizabeth—the chitin itches coming off, and these nails are sharp. It's for my own protection, Beckett says, and I'm fine with not scratching myself bloody."

She looked disturbed when she turned to put the cup back down. "We do like you better in one piece."

"Me too." Sheppard shifted. "Hey, Ronon. Sorry I interrupted your lesson."

"How long were you awake?" Weir asked, surprised.

"Think I woke up when you mentioned Caldwell. You do this—thing, you know?"

Weir shook her head. Ronon nodded.

"Never mind," Sheppard said.

She took him at his word and went back to Ronon. "What did you mean when you said Col. Caldwell"—Sheppard opened his mouth but closed it again without saying anything—"would say military strategy and chess strategy were the same?"

"He leads an army of men like an army of those." Ronon pointed at the display of pieces on Weir's tablet. She didn't tell him it was obvious what those were. Right: diplomat. "Knight can't move in a straight line, rook can't go diagonal, get a pawn to the far side and it gets to be a queen. Do everything you should, you get a city. You can't make people work like that. People are weird."

Both of them were staring at him now. He couldn't remember the last time he'd said so much all at once. Last time he'd said that much at once about something that didn't matter was probably Sateda. Or maybe when he got roaring drunk with Solen Sincha the day McKay blew up a solar system.

"So, uh," he said. Distract, then escape. Or just distract. "Wanna actually play now, or…?"

Weir nodded and started the game screen. Sheppard lay back and watched, looking like he felt safe.