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Learning The Hard Way

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Carson looked up from his computer several hours later when he heard a soft tapping on his door. "Elizabeth," he greeted, and cleared his throat. "I wondered when you would be along."

"Carson," Elizabeth said with a nod. "Shouldn't you be resting?"

"I'm fine," Carson assured her and stood from his desk. "As are the Marines and Major Lorne. We didn't inhale as much smoke as Colonel Sheppard and his team. An hour or so of supplemental oxygen saw them all much improved. I sent all of them back to quarters a few hours ago with instructions to take things easy for the next day or so."

"Good to hear," Elizabeth replied, and followed as Carson led her back to the corner of the infirmary where four beds, two on each side, held Sheppard's team.

Carson frowned when he realised not all of his patients were asleep.

"You're supposed to be resting," Carson said in a low voice as he stopped at the end of Sheppard's bed.

"Too many people," Ronon replied from the bed opposite Sheppard's. He sat up and started to remove the nasal cannula.

Carson shook his head and stepped over to Ronon's bed. "Leave that be." He glanced at the monitor next to Ronon's bed. "Your O2 numbers are still a little low. Let it do its job."

Ronon grumbled under his breath but left the cannula alone.

"Ronon," Elizabeth said, her expression neutral and her tone more formal than Carson was used to. "Thank you for helping to get them home safely."

Ronon studied her face for a moment. "You're welcome," he replied, his own expression unreadable.

Carson watched their exchange with interest. He knew Elizabeth was still wary of Ronon. She still insisted he had an escort if he left his quarters, including after their return from the planet. Carson had refused to let the guard stay in the infirmary. He'd told the Sergeant politely, but firmly, that his presence wasn't required. Elizabeth, thankfully, hadn't fought him, and the Marine had been dismissed without further comment.

Ronon eyed her a moment longer then looked back at Carson. He nodded toward Sheppard and Rodney in the beds across from him and Teyla asleep in the bed next to him. "They going to be all right?"

Carson nodded. "Oh, aye." He smiled and tapped Ronon on the foot. "Assuming you follow doctor's orders and rest, I'll be releasing you and Teyla tomorrow morning. My main concern for the pair of you was the smoke inhalation. The good news is, you seem to be responding to the oxygen treatments so there shouldn't be any lingering problems."

"What about Teyla's hand?" Elizabeth asked with a glance at the bandage wrapped around Teyla's right hand.

"It needed a few stitches," Carson replied. "The cuts on her arms were superficial."

Elizabeth nodded. "And John and Rodney?"

Carson stepped between Sheppard and McKay's beds, where he could see both of the monitors. "Aye, well, that's a bit of a different story. On top of the smoke inhalation, they've both had a bit of a rough time of it."

Carson stepped closer to Sheppard's bed and adjusted the IV line running into his arm.

"Aside from the damage done when the arrow pierced his leg, Colonel Sheppard has a slight fever and the beginnings of an infection. We cleaned out the wounds and stitched his leg. He had another, less serious, gash in his shoulder that we cleaned up and stitched as well. He'll be here a few days to give the IV antibiotics time to work. Once the infection is under control, I'll release him, but he will need to use a cane for a few weeks until his leg is fully healed."

"And Rodney?"

Carson glanced at the other bed where Rodney's left leg and foot were elevated on a couple of pillows. His ankle was wrapped, and there was an ice pack strapped to his lower leg.

"Rodney went and twisted his ankle right well, indeed," Carson said with a grimace. "I had to cut his boot off before I could run a scan, but thankfully the daft bugger didn't rebreak the bones."

Carson shook his head as he checked the ice pack and adjusted Rodney's foot on the pillows. "As it is, he strained several ligaments. Which means he will need some physical therapy and he'll be on crutches again."

He came back to Elizabeth's side. "They took a fair bit of punishment, but other than the Colonel's infection, which should be under control in a day or two, there's nothing to be too worried about."

Elizabeth gave Carson a tight-lipped smile and turned away.

"Elizabeth?" Carson asked as he followed her back to his office.

"This whole mission was a mistake," she said and glanced back at the corner with Sheppard's team.

Carson rested a hand on her arm. "There was no way to know the local population would be so bloodthirsty."

"We could have waited. Did they really need to go today?"

Carson pursed his lips into a thin smile. "I know you were worried, but they really are going to be fine. As for whether we should have waited," Carson shook his head, "we both know the Wraith will be coming back, we have to be ready for that."

Elizabeth stared at the four beds for another moment. She took a deep breath, clasped her hands in front of her, and turned back to Carson. "Speaking of the Wraith, you told me a few weeks ago, you had an idea about altering Wraith DNA to make them less of a threat. Has there been any progress?"

Carson stuffed his hands in the pockets of his lab coat. "Aye. Some. I think I have a handle on the genetics, finally. Now, it's a matter of figuring out how we can use that information.

"We're pretty sure the Wraith evolved after those bug creatures fed on humans, slowly merging the insect's DNA with humans over hundreds or thousands of generations. I'm hoping to find a way to suppress the Wraith characteristics in favor of the more human ones."

"Sounds promising. Keep me informed," Elizabeth said as she turned toward the infirmary exit.

"Certainly," Carson replied. "And Elizabeth?" He waited until she turned back around. "They are all going to be fine. That's the important thing."

She gave him a nod and a tiny smile before the door closed behind her.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Rodney sat in the infirmary bed the next afternoon, his foot propped up on a pillow, glaring at the mangled boot in his hand.

"Would you get over it already?" John said from the bed next to him. "I'm sure we can find you another pair of boots."

Rodney glanced up from the shredded boot. John's expression was a curious mix of irritated and exasperated.

"That's not the point," Rodney replied brusquely, "I had these boots broken in perfectly. Now I'll need to start over again."

John shook his head. "If you'd gone back to the 'gate instead of trying to follow us, you'd still have your boots."

Rodney dropped the boot on the floor and glared over at Sheppard, not bothering to hide his surprise. "What?"

John glanced over at him, and Rodney could tell he wasn't joking, Sheppard meant what he was saying.

"You should have gone back to the 'gate for help," John told him, his tone suddenly serious.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. "What about leaving no one behind? Hmm? I thought that was rule one, Colonel."

John sighed. "What would you have done if Ronon and Lorne hadn't found you?" John asked, his own expression stony. "You were injured. You shouldn't have been out there alone. Hell, Ronon told me he shot one of those villagers just as he was aiming an arrow at your back."

Rodney started to snap an angry reply but stopped when he saw the underlying concern in John's expression. He uncrossed his arms and looked down at the boot on the floor. "I wasn't going to leave you and Teyla," he said in a near whisper.

He looked up and found Sheppard watching him. "You do know if Ronon hadn't found you when he did, you'd be dead right now, right?"

Rodney knew that. He was all too aware of how close a call he'd had. A part of him had known at the time his actions weren't logical. Another part, and frankly the more substantial part, hadn't cared. John and Teyla were in trouble. His job as their teammate was to try and help. Sheppard had spent more than a year telling him they did not leave people behind. Did he really think Rodney would have run away, abandoning them?

"There's a difference between leaving us and getting help when you need it," John told him gently as if reading his mind.

"Would you have gone running back to the 'gate if it was me and Teyla captured?" Rodney challenged, not willing to concede he may have been wrong.

Sheppard, at least, had the grace to look away. "That's different," he replied.

Rodney shook his head. "Not to me, it's not." He focused on the empty bed across from him. Teyla and Ronon had been released that morning, leaving Rodney and John alone in the infirmary.

"Besides," he added in a whisper, "it was my fault you were captured in the first place."

"You want to explain how?" John replied, and Rodney saw the puzzled look on his face. "You weren't even there."

"That's just it, we weren't there," Rodney told him, not bothering to hide his frustration. "You were alone because I didn't want to leave that building. I was so wrapped up in what we could learn --"

"Stop," John interrupted and held up a hand. "This was not your fault. I seem to recall Teyla stayed behind, too."

"Only because I didn't want to leave."

Sheppard frowned. "There was no reason to suspect any danger," John told him patiently. "We hadn't seen anyone on our way to the archive, and the scanner didn't show anything, either."

Rodney thought back to the group of life signs on the scanner when they'd first arrived. Had that been the villagers watching the 'gate? he wondered.

"And by the way," Sheppard added, interrupting Rodney's train of thought, "it was my choice to go and let both of you stay there."

"But --"

John shook his head. "If I didn't think the area was safe, would I have left you and Teyla while I went back to the 'gate?"

Rodney stared at John as his brain processed Sheppard's words. That was a point he hadn't considered. Sheppard had told Ford more than once he would not leave civilians, namely Rodney and Teyla, in a situation where they didn't have back up. If John had been willing to let them stay at the archive …

"Not your fault," John said at the same time Rodney reached the end of his thought.

"We still should have been with you," Rodney insisted.

John smiled. "I appreciate the idea, but even if we had all left together, chances are we still would not have held off those villagers. They've killed Wraith, remember. We all would have been captured, no one would have been around to rescue us, and we all would be dead right now."

Rodney quirked a smile of his own. "Well, when you put it like that."

"My point still stands, however," John told him. "If we are ever in that situation again, you need to find help. We were lucky this time. We may not get so lucky if there's a next time."

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

John sat on the balcony near his quarters a few days later, watching the planet's two moons slowly rise as he listened to the crash of waves far below. He had mentally set the lights on the balcony to their lowest setting, both to enjoy the stars scattered across the sky and to hopefully go unobserved by anyone inside. He absently twirled his silver challenge coin in his fingers as he thought about everything that had happened the week before.

The trip to Mendar had been a disaster, to say the least. He'd been shot in the leg, Rodney was back on crutches, and for what? A few books? John scrubbed a hand over his face. The only reason any of them were still alive was because Ronon had overheard the right conversation and had convinced Elizabeth to send someone after them. That was a lot of luck to try and swallow.

He looked down at the coin in his hand and thought back to a hill in California and deciding whether or not to accept Elizabeth's offer to join the expedition.

"You should tell him, John. If it was important enough for Rodney to know of your decision and what it meant to you after you died, it is just as important for him to know now that you survived."

Teyla's words echoed in his head as he flipped the coin in his palm. Another close call. Another skin-of-their-teeth escape.

"If it hadn't been for Ronon …" He let the words trail off. Teyla was right. He needed to talk to McKay, tell him exactly what he'd found in the Pegasus galaxy, thanks to the flip of a coin.

He heard the door behind him open and pursed his lips. He glanced up, ready to tell whoever it was to find another balcony, when he saw Elizabeth walking toward him. He forced down his irritation and smiled up at her. "Elizabeth," he said with a nod.

"John," Elizabeth greeted as she walked over and sat in the chair beside him. "I'm a bit surprised to see you out here. You aren't usually the stare-at-the-ocean type."

John smiled slightly and pocketed the coin. "Not much I can do at the moment," he said, and nudged the cane leaning against the chair.

Elizabeth gave him a tight-lipped smile and let the silence return as she looked out at the rising moons.

"I assume you saw Major Lorne's report about the destruction of the archive?" Elizabeth said a few minutes later.

John nodded. "From what he could tell, it looked like the fire did most of the damage."

"So many of the cultures we've met here in Pegasus seem to revere the Ancients," Elizabeth said, and John could see her puzzled expression in the dim light. "I'm surprised these people did nothing to try to save the building. According to the Major's report, they actually tore down anything still standing once the fire was out."

John shrugged. "I guess the no outsiders rule applies to the Ancients as much as the rest of us." He glanced over at her. "Rodney told me he'd had an idea that the Ancient who'd built the archive encouraged the human sacrifice stuff as well, sort of an extra security measure. Guess that wasn't the case after all."

"It has been ten thousand years," Elizabeth replied. "Maybe they've forgotten why they make those sacrifices." She looked down at her hands resting in her lap.

"Or the two things are completely unrelated. Without going back and asking them, we'll never know for sure."

"No, I guess not." Elizabeth clasped her hands in her lap, and John could tell there was something else on her mind.

"This whole mission was a mistake," she said after another pause. "Everything about it went against my better judgement, but I agreed anyway. I won't make that mistake again."

"Elizabeth," John started to say, but Weir shook her head.

"No, John, you know I'm right this time." She stood and leant against the railing. "Your team was a man short, and Rodney wasn't ready for fieldwork. I never should have authorised this mission."

John sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. On the one hand, he knew she was right. The payoff of the books and data Rodney managed to save was small compared to what had happened to them, what had almost happened to him and Teyla.

On the other hand, he knew they didn't have much choice. Their continued survival depended on going through the 'gate, exploring new worlds. This was one of those times when their exploration backfired.

It wasn't the first time, John thought, remembering the mission out to the Ancient weapons platform where Abrams and Gall had been killed. And it likely wasn't going to be the last.

"I'm not saying this will go down as a mission success," John replied, "but it wasn't a total loss, either."

Elizabeth turned to stare at him. "How can you say that? You and Teyla were injured and nearly sacrificed to who knows what god. Rodney re-injured his leg. Carson thinks he may have set his recovery back weeks. Not to mention, Lorne damaged a jumper rescuing all of you."

"That's part of the job," John said quietly.

"You can't be that blasé about this," Elizabeth countered.

John carefully stood and stepped over to her side, leaning on the cane. "I'm not. But I also know we can't sit here, wait for McKay to somehow fortify the city, and hope for the best. We have to be out there." John pointed at the sky. "Looking for new allies, and yes, looking for any other caches of information the Ancients may have left hidden. And sometimes that means we're going to run into people who don't want us on their planet. We still have to try."

"But was it worth it this time?" Elizabeth's tone was a combination of worry, exasperation, and maybe a little fear. "All three of you almost died. Would have died if not for Ronon and Major Lorne. Face it, John, we should have waited. Waited until Rodney was ready, waited until you had a fully manned team."

"Maybe," John finally admitted. "But as Teyla said recently, what's done is done. We survived, that's what matters."

Elizabeth looked down at her hands. When she looked up, her expression was serious. "You need to find a fourth for your team, Colonel. We don't know when or even if you will find Lieutenant Ford again. I won't authorise any more solo missions through the 'gate for your team until you do."

John sighed. He knew she was right. He also knew precisely who he wanted to fill that fourth slot. Would their recent trip to Mendar help convince Ronon to join the team, or push him farther away? he wondered. Would Elizabeth be willing to consider the idea after what Ronon had done to rescue them?

Only one way to find out.

"I'll take care of it," he promised.

Elizabeth studied his face for a moment, then nodded. She went back inside, leaving him alone with his thoughts and the stars. He pulled the silver coin out of his pocket and twirled it in his fingers. No, he wasn't blasé. He knew exactly what he'd almost lost. Maybe Teyla was right, he needed to talk to Rodney, sooner rather than later, and give him the coin.

He watched the two moons reflecting off the water for a moment longer, then carefully made his way down to Rodney's lab.

The hallway outside the lab was deserted at that time of night, which was a little odd. Rodney wasn't the only night owl in the science division, and John wondered where everyone had disappeared to. He knocked on the closed door to Rodney's lab, and when he didn't get an answer, he waved his hand over the sensor.

The door opened on a darkened room. John hobbled inside and looked around. A computer on Rodney's desk hummed softly as it ran some sort of program, data streamed across the screen too fast for John to read. The work table held one of the disassembled Ancient weapons Ronon had found in the archive. There was no sign of McKay, however, and John left the lab.

He wandered up to the mess hall and even tried Rodney's quarters on the off chance McKay had followed Beckett's orders and was resting. Not finding Rodney in either place, he took one last shot and headed for the rec room.

He was a few steps away from the door when he heard the soft music coming from the room.

John stood in the doorway watching Rodney, who sat in front of the battered keyboard, his foot awkwardly resting on a crate, playing a familiar tune.

"Don't hover," Rodney said a moment later with a glance behind him.

"Didn't think you'd be much for wedding music," John said with a smile as he came in the room. He took a pillow someone had left on the reclaimed jumper bench and limped over to McKay. "Pick your foot up," he ordered, and stuffed the pillow under Rodney's wrapped ankle.

"Thanks," Rodney replied. "It was hard enough managing the crate." He glanced at the crutches leaning against the wall.

John nodded and pulled out another crate. He sat with his back resting against the wall listening to Rodney play. "Seriously, what's with the wedding music?" he asked as the tune started again. "You and Katie Brown haven't even had a first date yet."

Rodney scowled. "Oh, ha-ha. For your information, this isn't wedding music, it's Pachelbel's Canon in D Major. Palliard's version," he glanced over at John with a sour expression, "your wedding music, is an abomination. The tempo is too slow, and he embellished it in a bid to make it more popular. The original," Rodney nodded at the keyboard, "is much better."

John knew better than to argue. He sat listening to the music for a few minutes, then changed the subject. "I went looking for you in your lab. Thought you'd still be poring over everything you got off the database on Mendar."

Rodney shrugged, and the music changed. It was another piece John recognised, something Rodney had played before, but he didn't remember the name.

"The computer is still decompressing everything. Some of it looks promising, though." He glanced at John then back at the keyboard. "'Prelude in C', by the way."

"What?" John asked, confused by the non sequitur.

"The music." Rodney looked over at him. "You've heard it before, you know."

"I knew that. Classical music never has real names. Hard to keep 'em all straight."

Rodney snorted and focused on the keyboard again.

John pulled the coin out of his pocket. "Rodney --"

"John? Rodney?" Teyla called from the hallway. She entered the rec room and stopped just inside the door.

Rodney jerked his hands away from the keyboard as if he'd been burnt and John watched his shoulders hunch slightly.

"We did not mean to interrupt," Teyla added with a worried glance at Rodney as Ronon slipped into the room behind her. "Ronon has been showing me some of the hand-to-hand techniques used by his people. We were on our way to find something to eat when we heard the music."

She looked over at McKay. "Rodney, I did not know you played such an instrument. The music was beautiful."

"Yes, well, umm," Rodney stuttered, and looked over at John.

To Sheppard, McKay looked ready to bolt, and John thought he probably would have if he didn't have the crutches to contend with.

"McKay is a man of many hidden talents," John said with a smile as he thumped Rodney on the back.

Rodney scowled at him, but John noticed he had also relaxed.

"Kinda slow," Ronon said from where he stood near the door with his arms crossed over his chest.

Rodney glared at him, and John held his breath. He'd thought McKay and Dex were getting along better these last few weeks, and he hoped Ronon playing music critic didn't set their relationship back.

"Know anything faster?" Ronon finished.

Rodney stared at him for a moment, then glanced at John. Sheppard could tell Rodney was more than a little surprised Teyla and Ronon had accepted his secret hobby so easily.

"Umm." Rodney looked down at the keyboard for a moment then started to play.

The song was undoubtedly upbeat, and John easily recognised it as a tune by Scott Joplin, though he didn't know what it was called; it was another one he knew well, thanks to movies. He watched as Rodney's fingers danced over the keys, marvelling once again at his friend's talent.

Rodney finished the piece with a flourish, and sat back, flexing his hands.

Teyla gave him a wide smile and squeezed his fingers. "That was wonderful. Does the song have a name?"

Rodney glanced at John with a wry smile. "Maple Leaf Rag."

John snorted a laugh.

"What's so funny?" Ronon asked. "I liked it."

"You do know the song has nothing to do with Canada, don't you?" Rodney told him, and went back to softly playing 'Prelude' as John continued to grin.

"I do not understand," Teyla said as she looked from Rodney to John.

John scooted forward and pointed to the patch on Rodney's sleeve. "That's a maple leaf," he explained, tapping the red and white patch representing the Canadian flag.

Teyla smiled as Rodney shook his head. She waited until he finished what he was playing and said, "We will leave you to your music, Rodney. That is unless you both would like to join us?"

"I could eat," Rodney replied. He awkwardly pulled his foot off the crate and reached for the crutches leaning against the wall beside him.

John smiled to himself when Ronon stepped forward, took Rodney's arm, helped him stand, and held on to him until McKay had the crutches situated.

Rodney nodded absently, and Ronon let go.

Maybe there was hope for his idea, after all, he thought as Rodney crutched out of the rec room with Ronon beside him. Teyla followed a few steps behind, and John heard Rodney say, "The history of ragtime is interesting. It's considered by some to be the modern equivalent of Mozart and Brahms."

John waited until the others were out of the room, then pulled the coin out of his pocket and flipped it over in his hand a few times. Maybe the conversation could wait a little bit longer, he thought to himself. He looked up to find Teyla watching him from the doorway.

"Colonel? Is everything all right?"

"Yeah, everything's fine," John said with a smile as he dropped the coin back in his trouser pocket and limped into the hall.

Rodney and Ronon were almost to the end of the hall and John could hear Rodney telling Ronon about the history of ragtime. John wasn't sure how much Ronon was paying attention, but he must have made enough of the right noises to keep McKay going.

John smiled and followed the others, followed his team, into the transporter.

FIN