Two days before he was scheduled to leave with the Atlantis expedition on a one-way trip to the Pegasus galaxy, Major John Sheppard got a phone call from his brother.
He accepted the information with a little frisson of unease. Dave would not be calling him unless something was seriously wrong. He followed as Sergeant Harriman patiently directed him to the phone that had been set up for him, unconsciously tensing his shoulders as he walked down the long, dimly lit corridors of the SGC. Harriman showed him into a small room, a bank of telephones set up for the use of personnel, presumably screened and rerouted so whatever cover story had been given out would hold up under scrutiny. John stared at the blinking light on the phone in front of him, unwilling to answer it.
"Will that be all, sir?" Harriman was looking at him oddly, glancing over to the phone like it was a kettle about to boil over, obviously itching to simply pick up the receiver and shove it into John's hands.
"I've got it, thanks, Sergeant." He continued to stare at the blinking light when Harriman left the room. Coward. He mentally shrugged. Not a coward per se, just that he'd made up his mind to go on the expedition, he'd put his whole life in storage, cut all his ties. This was going to be a complication, he just knew it.
"Dave," he said into the phone when he finally picked it up and clicked on the outside line. "How'd you find me?"
"It wasn't easy." His brother's voice filtered through the phone line, remarkably clear considering they were so far underneath Cheyenne Mountain. "But then, that's the way you like it, isn't it?"
"You got a point here, Dave, or are we just going to go around in circles poking at each other?" John traced the grooved top of the desk with his fingertips, where someone, failing to find a pad and pen, had carved the number they wanted into the wood.
"Dad's had a heart attack."
John went still with the shock of the news. Well, of course his dad had a heart attack. Everyone who'd ever met Patrick Sheppard knew he was the classic type-A personality, a real shark in the business world, an over-achiever whose idea of relaxation was a round of golf that ended with the takeover of another company. At the same time, John's breath was taken away at the idea that this same man could ever be vulnerable in any way. Mortal.
"John? Are you there?" Dave's voice, sharp with irritation, made him realize that he had not said anything in response.
"Is he okay?" John asked at last, suddenly feeling very small, like a twelve-year-old boy again.
"Okay is a relative term," Dave said briskly. "He's stable for the moment. His doctor says it wasn't a bad one, but it could have been and that lifestyle changes are in order."
John gave a brief laugh. "Well, good luck with that one."
Dave cleared his throat. "As a matter of fact, he's asking for you. He wants you to come home, John."
"Dave…" John said slowly. "I've been re-assigned. I'm due to ship out in 48 hours."
"Well, can't you take a short leave of absence or something?" The irritation was back at the surface again. "For god's sake, John, can't you put family first for once in your goddamned life?"
The profanity shocked John almost as much as the news itself. He realized he really didn't know his brother all that well any more.
"It's not that simple, Dave," John's own irritation made him drawl. "This mission has a narrow launch window. When this ship sails, it's not coming back. And it sure as hell isn't waiting for me."
"Well, the same holds here, John." Dave sounded harsh. "This is a one-time offer as well. Dad wants you to come home. Not just to see him. He wants you to take your place in the company. He says he needs you."
John noted the nice distinction in the manner in which Dave stated his case. "But you don't think that's true," he told his brother, feeling his own shark-like smile curling at his mouth.
"It doesn't matter if it's true or not," Dave said sharply. "Come home or go on the mission; it's all the same to me."
There was a long pause while John digested the information.
"Well?" Dave asked at last.
"I don't even know if it's possible," John said quietly. "And I'll have to think about it."
"Don't take too long," Dave said as he hung up.
It turned out not to be as difficult as he'd thought, which was disconcerting in and of itself. One minute he was a valued member of the expedition, the next he was someone they could readily do without. He'd tentatively approached General Hammond about applying for an early discharge, grateful that O'Neill had gone back to DC and at least he wouldn't have to live with the notion that he'd somehow disappointed the man. He'd had enough of that in his lifetime.
The General had been oddly reluctant to let him go. "The people of the SGC are a special bunch, son." He'd fixed a kindly eye on John at the time. "We tend to prize traits here that perhaps are not so highly…appreciated…in other areas of the armed services. You came here with General O'Neill's recommendation. He doesn't do that lightly."
"I'm sorry, sir," John had said, and for once, he really was. "It's just…my father's not the sort of man who asks for anything."
Hammond had nodded. "I do understand. I've put family over duty before myself when necessary. No one will think less of you for it. But you have to understand, while there might be a place in the future at the SGC for you, Pegasus…well that's a one time deal."
"I know that, sir," John had said, his level of respect for this man far greater than that which he usually felt for his CO. "I haven't entirely made up my mind yet."
But he had. He knew that he had to go home. It was weird to think of returning to the house of his childhood as 'going home' but he really could not think of any place on Earth that represented home to him. In the end, he took an extended leave of absence over an early discharge.
"Stupid not to stick it out for your twenty when you're this close," Hammond had told him by way of an excuse. "That way you don't lose your benefits. Can't guarantee someone won't try to call you up and send you off to Iraq or back to Afghanistan, but we've got first dibs on you. You find you can't stick it out in civilian life, you just give us a call, son."
He'd bet Hammond had made a pretty decent father.
He couldn't help but feel he was making a huge mistake. Colonel Sumner signed off on his paperwork without even requesting to see him; no love lost there. He made a point of telling Dr. Weir in person that he would not be going with the expedition. She seemed initially disappointed while at the same time understanding. She was also distracted, her mind elsewhere as she contemplated everything that needed to be done before the expedition was to leave, trying to foresee every possible circumstance and plan accordingly in the supplies and personnel she was taking with her. John left her to it and wandered back down to the temporary quarters assigned to him, no longer part of the bustle of the expedition.
His rank had gotten him a small room of his own, hardly larger than the cubicle on an overnight train, but a private place just the same. He pulled his duffle bag out from under the small bed frame and hefted it onto the mattress. It was nearly bursting at the seams in order to comply with the regulations limiting what he could have brought with him on the expedition. He needed to remember to have his footlocker removed from the queue of boxes lined up to be sent through the gate with all the other supplies. Unzipping the bag, he checked the contents yet again. With the exception of his shaving kit and toothbrush, which he'd need in the morning, he was already packed. Had been for days now, in the expectation of leaving the galaxy. The thought of actually leaving the galaxy made him snort to himself and then sigh. He'd been sorta looking forward to going through the Gate, if only to see what Jack O'Neill had been talking about. That damned book sure took up a lot of space though. He shoved it more deeply into the duffle. Why hadn't he just put it on a flash drive?
There was a knock at his door. He turned to see Dr. McKay standing in the doorway, frowning at him. "Hey," he said, peering into the room curiously and looking a little uncomfortable at the same time. John wasn't sure if McKay actually remembered his name or not. The man usually referred to him as 'Major' or spoke without using a name at all.
"McKay," he said easily. On some level he knew it bugged the astrophysicist that John never called him by his professional title, which was why he did it.
McKay stepped in the room without asking for permission and blurted out, "Elizabeth says you're not going on the expedition. That you've changed your mind. Tell me that's not true. That can't possibly be true. That's crazy."
He was wearing what seemed to be the standard uniform for the science branches of the expedition, a long sleeved blue crew-necked tee over khaki pants. He had on the matching khaki jacket as well, with the blue breast panels that distinguished it from the military version. On his right shoulder there was a patch that read "Atlantis". On his left was the emblem of a Canadian flag. He seemed unusually flustered. McKay was generally loud in his self-confidence.
"Yeah, well she's right," John shrugged. He gave a little grin. "Looks like you'll have to find someone else to be your light switch."
"Be my light…" McKay puzzled over that one, frowning, before snapping his fingers and tossing his head back slightly as he got it. "Oh, right. Well. Yes. You are extremely useful for that sort of thing." He looked at John, a worried expression haunting his eyes. "I thought you were okay with that. I mean, look, I know I can be difficult to work with and I'm not saying that's going to change, because, yeah, right, not. But, I thought you understood that."
"McKay," the drawl came easily to John, light amusement along with it. "I know you're like, really important to the expedition and all, but rest assured, the reason I'm not going has nothing to do with you."
"It doesn't?" McKay managed to look both relieved and unhappy at the same time. He wandered further into the room without thinking and sat down heavily in the only chair. "Well, that's good. Only damn, that means I can't talk you out of it, then."
"Make yourself at home," John said dryly and then just shook his head when McKay nodded and made a little 'thanks' movement with one hand. He sat, briefly lost in thought and looking dejected before suddenly flashing eyes upward at John.
Damn, it was startling to be at the sudden focus of those blue eyes. Eyes that narrowed sharply at him. "So why aren't you coming with us, Major?"
"Family stuff," John shrugged, turning away from the scrutiny, zipping the duffle with difficulty, shoving recalcitrant items back down as they wanted to ooze their way upwards. "My dad had a heart attack." He fiddled with the zipper, avoiding eye contact.
"Oh." McKay looked resigned. "That's too bad. Yeah, I guess I could see where you would want to go home under the circumstances."
It was suddenly important to make things clear to McKay. "I don't want to go home. I have to."
McKay just stared at him a long moment, before he gave a little knowing nod, like he got it. Then his expression fell again. "Well, I guess this is it then, eh, Major? I really stink at goodbyes." McKay's face suddenly bloomed into a painful flush. "I mean, well, we're headed out tomorrow and I presume that you are as well?"
"I got a car taking me to the airport in the morning."
"So, like I said. This is it." McKay stood up abruptly, wiping his palms on the front of his pants. "It's been a pleasure, Major. I'm only sorry that you will not be joining us. I…well…it's going to be amazing." McKay's face lit up with the anticipation of the scientific discoveries to come and John wondered if he had any idea just how attractive he was like this.
John was sorry not to be going as well. He'd enjoyed getting to know the quirky scientist and had hopes for continuing their odd, developing friendship. "Try and stay out of trouble, McKay," John offered, tossing the duffle back down with a thump on the floor.
McKay suddenly began snapping his fingers. "I know! Give me your email address." He promptly began patting his pockets, looking for pen and paper. Unsuccessful at locating either, he started to empty his pockets on the small table by the chair.
"My email address? Because you're going to be able to send email from the Pegasus galaxy, right?" John felt his eyebrow quirk upwards.
"Well no, not right away, but we will eventually establish communications with the SGC again and you already have clearance and then, well, how cool will that be? To get an email from Atlantis?" He beamed at John and then happily produced a sharpie from an inner pocket.
John had to admit—it was pretty cool to think about. He couldn't resist a poke though. "You're that sure? That you'll be able to contact Earth one day?"
"Oh please," McKay made what John had come to think of as his 'you moron' expression. "Does this look like the face of a man who would willingly take a permanent one-way trip to another galaxy?" McKay pointed to his face; both eyebrows raised, and then frowned when he failed to find any paper. "Never mind," he said inexplicably, uncapping the sharpie with his teeth and pushing up his sleeve to expose his forearm. "Shoot." He managed to speak clearly around the cap.
John hid his laugh and spoke his email address slowly as McKay carefully wrote it down on the inside of his arm. "Perfect," McKay said with simple pleasure, recapping the pen. "Now don't be surprised when you hear from me."
McKay's face suddenly got a far away expression on it and he reached up to touch an earpiece that John had not noticed before. "What? No. You're not serious. Well, stop it. No, I'm on my way. Just don't let those imbeciles…what? No!" McKay began scooping up the debris he had scattered on the table while emptying his pockets and shoving it carelessly back where it belonged. He made a 'can you believe this? I've got to go' face at John, backing out of the doorway and motioning with his hands at the same time, somehow conveying an apology and a goodbye at the same time.
The room was a lot quieter after he'd left. Lonelier too. John put that thought away, as being fruitless. Even if Rodney had any leanings that way, Sumner hated John's guts and would have been just begging for an excuse to bust his chops. John knew some people speculated that so far from home the military might be a little more relaxed in some of its rules, but he knew that just the opposite could occur as well. If the expedition found itself in a hostile situation, martial law could be established. A lot depended on the personality and character of the CMO. Anyway, it was all a moot point. McKay was leaving for another galaxy, for crying out loud. And John was going 'home'. It was just…well, it had been a long time since John had been even tempted into breaking that particular regulation.
The thought teased the back of his mind that he was leaving the military, no matter how 'temporary' it sounded on paper. Soon, he would not have to play by those rules. He gave a mental laugh. Like it would be any different under his father's rules. John had learned a long time ago to hide this aspect of his life. To pretend it never existed in the first place. Going home wasn't going to change that; that's where he'd perfected his skills in the first place. He came around the end of the bed to shut the door and noticed a small object lying on the floor by the foot of the chair.
It appeared to be made out of some dull metal, such as pewter, but after having spent so much time messing around with the few Ancient artifacts in the possession of the SGC, he recognized it as being Ancient in origin. He turned the small ring-shaped disk over in his palm, roughly the size of a silver dollar, noting its similarity in design and markings to the Stargate. The object appeared inert however. He thought 'on' at it a moment, but nothing happened. No glowing blue light. No map lighting up the room over his head. No magic.
He started to drop it over on the table, but then thought better of it, shoving it into his pocket. He'd have to return it to McKay in the morning before his car arrived, if he could find him, that is. Oh well, if push came to shove, he could always find Harriman and give it to him.
Only he forgot all about it. The strange object lay in his pocket until he emptied it at the airport security checkpoint, dropping the disc into the bowl along with his change and the keys to his storage unit. "What's this?" The TSA guy said with a frown, fingering the disc.
"Oh that." John thought quickly. "That's my good luck charm."
Dave met him at Dulles International Airport. They exchanged a stiff, perfunctory greeting at the gate.
"How's Dad?" John asked as they caught the escalator down to the luggage bay.
"You'll be able to see for yourself," Dave said cryptically. John was wearing a black sweater over a white button-down oxford cloth shirt and jeans; beside him Dave was elegant in a business suit, the Wall St. Journal folded under one arm. John sometimes wondered if he was a changeling when he looked at his brother. Dave was taller, with hair not quite as dark that lay obediently in neat lines upon his head, nicely shaped ears that no one would ever make fun of and he always managed to look smoothly shaven no matter the day or night. John always felt slightly scruffy in comparison, like he was the TV repair man or the car mechanic instead of a Sheppard.
"What, is he home already?" John was startled at first, but then realized how quickly the American health system worked to discharge patients these days.
"He's actually been home for over a week now," Dave shrugged, glancing over at John as they came to a halt in front of the circling luggage carousel. "They performed the angioplasty a few days after his heart attack and then sent him home. He didn't want me to contact you at first."
John frowned. "I thought my coming back was his idea in the first place."
"It was, it was," Dave hastened to reassure. "I think it just took him a little time to process everything that had happened to him and the changes he needed to make in his life."
Dave said nothing when John snagged his duffle and began to move away from the carousel; he merely raised an eyebrow. John didn't see the need to explain he'd sent his locker on ahead to the house. They caught a shuttle out to the parking lot, the silence stretching loudly between them. Dave walked them up to a sleek, silver Mercedes and punched in the key code on the door panel, opening the trunk shortly thereafter. When the duffle was secured and the trunk shut, John got into the passenger side and closed the door on the world outside. The car was practically like a sound-proofed booth. While John could appreciate the engineering, he found that he actually missed the engine noise, the sensation of the road underneath of him.
Dave seemed to be concentrating on getting out of the heavy traffic and John let him drive in silence until they reached the interstate. John watched the scenery roll by, noting that the fields beyond the highway were just starting to be touched with that bright, emerald green that heralded spring in Virginia.
"So, Dave," John drawled into the silence. "What kind of role do you see me playing in the company?"
Dave shot him a sideways glance and then brought his eyes studiously back to the road, hands carefully placed at ten and two o'clock on the steering wheel. "You will be Vice President of Public Relations and Marketing. A purely perfunctory title, mind you."
John half turned to face his brother, hitching one elbow back so he could turn in the seat of the car. "VP? Of Public Relations?"
A smile almost twitched on Dave's face as he looked straight ahead at the road. "I figured you could do the least amount of harm there. Lord knows, you have that weird little charm thing going that could be just right for the job."
"Well, it's not like you have any experience running a company. Flying planes doesn't exactly prepare you for much in the real world, now does it?"
John wondered if Dave really meant to sound so condescending, whether he really believed that the day-to-day aspects of running a major business conglomerate were really all that important in the grand scheme of things. John thought inexplicably of Rodney McKay and wondered what the two men would have made of each other.
"You'd be surprised at the similarities between the USAF and big business," John said dryly.
Dave briefly looked askance in his direction. "Oh sure, and you did such a good job of that, too. What was your last posting—Antarctica? That where they send all the poster boys for the military these days?"
His tone was light but it stung John just the same.
"What was I supposed to do, Dave?" John's voice was silky; carrying a quality that would have made anyone who knew John well start looking for a bomb shelter in which to hide. "Leave Captain Holland wounded, behind enemy lines, to die alone?"
Dave turned his head fully to stare at John, eyes round with shock. "What are you talking about?"
"The reason I got sent to Antarctica. For disobeying orders. For going back to help a fallen buddy."
"Christ." Dave swerved abruptly and straightened the wheel, eyes back on the road again. "I thought…Dad said…I mean, I didn't know. You almost got court-martialed and dishonorably discharged for that? They should have given you a medal."
"Perhaps if Holland had lived, they would have." A cup of hemlock could not have been more bitter than John's voice. "History is usually re-written in favor of the victors."
Dave shot him another sideways glance, hands gripping the wheel tightly. "So. Um, were you and Holland…?"
"No, Dave," John sighed, all at once overwhelmingly weary. "Not everything is about my sexual preferences, you know."
An embarrassed flush crept up Dave's neck. He kept his eyes dead on the road. "I didn't mean…I'm sorry."
You and me both. Not sorry he went back. Not that. Sorry that despite everything, it wasn't good enough to save Holland.
Dave got off 66 and picked up Rt. 7, passing mile after mile of subdivisions, shopping malls and high-end sports car dealerships. The road eventually became more rural and more familiar as well. The car ate up the miles smoothly as the late afternoon sun slanted its rays across the highway. Dave filled the silence by updating John on the situation at the house. Their father had allowed, even encouraged, Dave and his wife Beth to set up their household in the east wing of the family estate, with Patrick Sheppard living in the west wing. Beth was expecting again, a much anticipated grandson for Patrick. Dave's daughter Bettina had just turned five. John listened without much comment, wondering what he was going to do about transportation and a place of his own. He could not see himself moving into one of the many guest rooms on a permanent basis. Some rents were just too high. He wondered if Dave had really thought about what it would be like for his son to grow up on the Sheppard estates.
Finally they turned off the highway onto the old country road that John remembered well. He was strangely pleased to see that, other than the occasional odd subdivision that had mushroomed on what had been former farmland, the old road hadn't changed much. He steeled himself mentally when the sleek car slowed and turned into the long, paved drive, the entrance through the gate flanked by two stone lions. Stately Bradford pear trees in full bloom lined the drive, petals falling gently like snowflakes in the afternoon breeze.
Dave pulled the car around to the large garage behind the house, popping the trunk latch and then sitting a minute before getting out. "Dinner's at 6:30. Drinks a half hour before then, but of course, you know that." He frowned at John's attire. "You do have something to change into, yes?"
John laughed. "You're joking, right?"
When Dave merely raised an eyebrow, he sighed. "I'll find something."
John was a little disconcerted to be told by Henry, his father's major domo, that his father was resting before dinner and would see him for cocktails at 6 pm. John dumped his bag in the first of a series of sterile guest rooms, tempted to check and see if the furniture was bolted to the floor before he wandered restlessly out into the main living area again. His booted feet made little sound on the great expanse of tiled floor as he passed a sunroom and then paused to look out, mouth open, at the pool enclosed by a greenhouse where the terrace garden used to be. A Hispanic woman in a grey and white maid's uniform nodded shyly at him in passing as he made his way beyond the library and out the side door into the garage.
The lights were on. Seven gleaming cars stood in careful alignment, like boats in their slips at the marina. Dave's car was among them, a young man in a chauffeur's outfit was polishing the fender with a chamois.
"Good afternoon, sir," the young man looked up, speaking with a melodious accent that John could not place right away, his hair a sandy red-brown with a smattering of freckles across his pleasant face. "You must be the Major. Mr. Dave told me that you would be coming by at some point. He said you would probably be wanting a vehicle."
"And you are?" John drawled, surveying the room at large before bringing his eyes back to rest on the chauffeur.
"Begging your pardon, sir. I'm Gregory." John pinned the accent in that moment, not Irish as he'd first thought but Scottish instead.
"Well, Greg," John grinned, deliberately shortening the man's name to see what his reaction would be. "I'm not in the military at the moment, so call me John, not 'sir' or 'Major'."
"Yes sir, John," Gregory said smoothly, tossing the chamois over one shoulder with a cocky smile.
"Soooo." John began to walk slowly among the cars. A black Mercedes to match Dave's silver one. A white Lexus SUV (no doubt Beth's). A red Ferrari. A dark maroon Expedition. An older, but still in excellent condition, brown Volvo. A navy blue BMW. He looked up to find Gregory watching him. "What would you suggest?" He half expected him to point out the Ferrari, or perhaps the Beemer.
"I don't think your car is in here. If you would follow me." The unspoken 'sir' was clearly audible, if suppressed, and John enjoyed the view from behind as he followed the slim young man out of the main garage and down the driveway towards some smaller outbuildings. John watched as Gregory fished some keys out of his pocket and then tried them one at a time in the lock on another garage door. The young man was easy on the eyes, but just that, John thought ruefully, as Gregory got the door unlocked and bent over at the waist to grab the metal door by the handle and raise it. Too young for you, Sheppard. Or maybe he'd just gotten smarter with age.
The door lifted slowly, rolling back overhead to reveal several large objects covered in protective cloths. Gregory gave a sly smile over one shoulder before whipping off the shroud from the nearest object. Underneath was a dark green 1976 MG. John's first car. He remembered the perverse pride he'd taken in purchasing the old thing second-hand with his own money, made from his knack of reading the stock market. His father had frowned on the purchase, encouraging John to buy the latest model if he really wanted an MG, but John had loved this car with a passion and spent hours reconditioning it that summer.
"Ohmygod," he breathed in sheer pleasure, mild flirtation with the boy-chauffeur forgotten. "That's my car."
Gregory looked terribly pleased with himself. "She's a good little car, even if one does have to be a mechanic to own an MG and keep it running properly."
John began to notice other things of his here in storage. His snow skis. His tennis rackets. His first set of golf clubs. His motorcycle helmet. Feeling odd, he walked over to the other covered object and whisked the cloth back, revealing his 1984 Kawasaki 1100 LTD. They were all his things; things he'd left behind when he joined the military, things he'd put aside as irrevocably lost without a backward glance.
Gregory's voice pulled him out of past memories. "I found these things when I first started a few months back. I asked who they belonged to and I was told you'd been deployed overseas and that your father was keeping them for you until you came home."
It struck John all the sudden that his father was keeping John's things for a person who no longer existed.
"Welcome home, John," Gregory smiled, holding out the keys.
John felt silly, skulking in his room until dinner. He'd thought about walking over to the stables or taking the bike out, but realized there was not enough time for either before he was expected to be presentable and waiting in the den for drinks. For the first time he seriously questioned what he'd set himself up for and then snorted at the notion that he was more nervous now than he'd been before his disciplinary hearing.
At least he'd known what to wear to that.
Everything in the duffle was either a uniform or casual clothing—all of it was crushed from his packing job. He doubted he'd given more than a passing thought to his clothing since he'd joined the military, beyond having the right uniform, cleaned and ready to go for the appropriate situation. Suddenly he was thrust back into a world where clothing…where appearances mattered. He'd just about resigned himself to going into dinner as is, the hell with the consequences, when another maid appeared at his door with a sport coat over her arm, compliments of his brother.
He thanked her, shut the door and pulled off his sweater, picking at the black lint left behind on the white shirt before sliding the dark blue pinstriped jacket on. It was a little tight in the shoulders and long in the sleeves. John shot the cuffs up his arm, causing the material to bunch at the elbows and realized once again he looked like the scruffy member of the Sheppard family. Oh well. He was going to have to resist letting his family make him feel like a gawky teenager again. He thought it only fair that his father retained the ability to push his buttons however; after all, he'd installed them in the first place.
Pretending an insouciance that he did not feel, he sauntered along the passageway to the living area at about five minutes after the hour, entering the den to find Dave pouring lemonade for Beth, who sat prettily and obviously pregnant in one of the wing-backed chairs.
"John!" Beth cried with pleasure on seeing him, and lifted a cheek to be kissed. John brushed her soft skin quickly with his lips and told her she looked well.
"Pregnancy agrees with me," she preened and Dave smiled benevolently at her. John agreed and then went over to the bar to make himself a nice, strong drink.
She was telling him happily about Bettina's remarkable achievements for so young and delicate a child when Patrick Sheppard entered the room. All previous conversation ceased on his entrance.
"John," he said expansively, moving into the room to take John by the hand and pump it, forcing John to rapidly shift his drink over to the other hand. "I'm glad you're back, son."
Patrick Sheppard did not appear to be ill at all. He looked much the way John had remembered him at their last meeting, when harsh words were exchanged and John had been invited to leave the house and never return. His color was good, he looked hale and hearty. He had also not changed for dinner, wearing a pale blue Lacoste sweater over a white, collared polo. John found himself shooting a dirty look at Dave who merely shrugged as if to say, 'like I knew?'
"Thank you, sir," John returned the handshake. Years of military protocol served him well now. If he simply treated his dad like a four-star general, he'd be fine.
"Henry got you settled in? Good." Patrick didn't wait for an answer. His eye flicked up and down John's form. "We'll have to see about getting you some clothes. I've set you up an appointment with my tailor tomorrow morning. And you can contact my personal buyer after that to see about your other needs. Dave, a glass of cabernet for me."
"You know that red wine contains antioxidants and reservatrol, which can actually reverse heart damage," Beth began brightly.
"Yes, dear," Patrick said with a smooth smile. "I've sure you'll get that medical degree from Good Morning, America in the mail any day now."
Ouch. John glanced at Beth, whose face crumpled as she fell silent and then at Dave, who said nothing but radiated tension from where he stood, his back to the room as he drove the corkscrew with vicious twists into the bottle of wine. It occurred to John he'd heard similar insults fly from McKay's mouth, only Rodney never attacked anyone who couldn't fight back.
Patrick didn't allow the silence to last for long. "Has Dave been telling you about your position at the company? We felt it was best for you to start off slowly, to sharpen your teeth so to speak, before throwing you in with the wolves."
"So does this mean you're planning to throw a lot of dinner parties?" John said mildly, only to be surprised when his dad threw back his head and laughed.
"Oh, good one, son. Yes, ahem. That would be one way of re-introducing you to the real world." He accepted his glass from Dave without looking at him. "I think I can put together the right sort of people for you to meet." He smiled calculatingly at John.
"Thank you, sir," John said, before turning back to Beth and asking her when she was due, a question that made the light come back into her eyes again as she burbled about her son-to-be.
They chatted for a time in this fashion, Patrick repeatedly taking direction of the conversation and steering it where he wanted it to go, until the subject of transportation came up. By this time they had gone in to dinner, sitting down to a heart-healthy meal of lemon-braised salmon on a bed of wild rice with greens. John had placed his hand over the wine glass when the server brought the white wine around, requesting water instead. This got him a small lecture on social graces to which John had responded that it was surely far better to ask for water than to spit out white wine because it reminded him of rat piss, yes?
In that stiff silence, Dave suddenly said, "So, you started to say something about a car."
John gratefully picked up on the thread of conversation again. "Well, as a matter of fact, I was out in the garage this afternoon and Gregory showed me where the MG was stored."
"Gregory, eh?" Patrick said from his end of the table.
A different sort of strained silence fell over the room. John wondered what he had said wrong.
"Well, I personally would be lost without a DVD player in my car," Beth cut in quickly. She turned to face John, causing him to look at her in return. "The MG is a convertible, isn't it? Won't you find it too cold in the winter? Or how about airbags? I mean, I wouldn't think of driving a car without airbags."
John toyed with his rice. "Winter's a long way off," he smiled. She smiled back.
"Beth's right," Patrick said almost grudgingly. "You should think about another car. Plenty here to choose from."
"Yes," John said pleasantly. "But they wouldn't be mine."
John took his whisky and soda out on the terrace after dinner, wishing it were a cold beer instead. He placed the glass on the stone balustrade and leaned on his hands, staring into the night, the sound of spring peepers filling the air. The lights from the pool house reflected off the water within, creating a greenish, glowing luminescence within the small building, reminding him of some alien horror flick. He found himself for once wishing that he smoked, for the ritual that it would entail, for the excuse to linger outside. It would have been easy enough a habit to pick up after all his years in the military. So many young men smoked as a means of dealing with the tension of their dangerous profession, imitating their more experienced comrades. It was a small act of defiance, a soldier's way of saying, 'you think these are going to kill me?' John always thought that one cigarette might mean the difference between a hard run to safety or not and so had discouraged it among his men in his usual, backhanded way. But tonight, he could see its appeal.
He glanced over his shoulder as Dave stepped through the French windows. He soon joined John at the rail, a glass of merlot in his hand. John raised an eyebrow at his brother. "Since when did we start going to church again?"
Dave sighed, staring down into his glass. "Since Dad decided that God was a corporate sponsor that he should be cultivating," he said dryly. "Besides, Beth thinks it's good for the kids."
John gave a little snort. Dave was already talking about his children in the plural sense of the word. He wanted to tell Dave that faith in a higher being and organized religion were two separate things, to describe to him some of the horrors he'd witnessed in the name of religion but he didn't think Dave would understand. The God of the Country Club could not possibly be the God of the Desert. Anyone who thought differently was obviously wrong.
"I'm going to need to find someplace to stay." His comment seemed apropos of nothing, but Dave just nodded, understanding the leap in thought completely.
"Don't be too much in a rush to move out, John," he said, sipping from his glass. "You don't want to tie yourself down to a lease just yet. One of the corporate apartments might open up soon. Or you never know, maybe you'll be happier in our New York or London office."
John picked up his own drink and turned to face his brother. "You think I should stay here in the house?"
Dave shrugged. "For a little while at least. You've been gone a long time and back less than 6 hours." He gave a sudden smile. "It's good to have you back, Johnny."
Really? It seemed to John that Dave resented his presence more than he was glad to see him and part of him wanted to call Dave on it, but it didn't seem to be worth the effort.
"It's good to be home," he lied.
He spent several hours in the family library that evening at the computer, looking over the company website, comparing the public face to the information granted to him through Dave's access codes. Dave chided him about taking at least 24 hours to settle in before diving into work, but promised him he'd get his own codes and laptop as soon as possible. When John failed to find a really concise statement that outlined the purpose of the company, other than to take over other, failing companies, strip them of their assets and sell them off again, he gave up and pulled up Solitaire.
By 11 pm, he was bored out of his mind. He thought about finding a TV and searching for some all night monster movie channel, but he'd seen nothing that resembled a television in the main living areas and he was reluctant to search out Henry to ask where the 'home entertainment center' was located these days. The hallways were empty and quiet as he made his way back to his room. He was tempted to stop by the den and pour himself another stiff drink, but he suspected that would be a bad precedent to start now.
He discovered his locker waiting for him when he entered the room and wondered briefly whether it had been sent initially to another room first and moved only after he'd made his choice apparent. He couldn't help but feel that the placement of the trunk itself radiated a sort of disapproval of his room choice and he angrily shook off those thoughts. He busied himself putting his things away, uniforms and the accoutrements of his former career that he would no longer need. The finality of moving these items to the back of the closet and hanging up his few civilian clothes in the front made him suddenly realize he was still wearing his dog tags.
Removing them felt weird. He fished them out from under his collar and pulled the chain off over his head, an act he had done thousands of times before, but this time was different. This time he was shedding his military skin and seeing what lay underneath. He suspected that whatever it was, it was too pink and raw to handle much scrutiny tonight. He abruptly pulled open the drawer of the nightstand and dropped the tags inside, shutting the drawer without another glance. With a sigh, he surveyed his closet, realizing that his father's plan of a visit to a tailor or buying some clothes was necessary. He just wished he could have been allowed to make those plans himself.
He tried to read for a while, gave it up as a lost cause and then finally got ready for bed, stripping down to just briefs, laying his clothes over the nearby chair. As he laid his jeans over the back of the chair, his spare change fell out of the pocket on the floor and he thought fleetingly of the advantages of pockets that velcroed shut. He stooped over to pick up the change, noting Rodney's artifact among the scattered coins. He picked up the disc, turning it over thoughtfully in his hands. He was going to lose it if he wasn't careful.
He made his way over to the nightstand, opening the drawer to toss in inside, when his eye caught the dog tags and he had an idea. The disc scarcely weighed more than the tags. He removed the tags from their stainless steel chain and threaded the chain through the small metal device. It didn't hang straight; it would need an eyelet to do that, but there was something satisfying about placing it around his neck. Satisfying, that is, if you're a twelve-year-old girl. He ignored that voice and went to bed.
That night, he saw Atlantis in his dreams. He watched in fascination as the expedition members came through the Gate in twos and threes, their faces alight with the excitement and trepidation of entering a city that had been abandoned for probably thousands of years. The city seemed to acknowledge their presence, lights and power coming on as more people entered the city. He saw McKay walking up a flight of stairs with a dark haired, blue-eyed major at his side, P-90 at the ready. Major Lorne, he thought as he watched the action, another ATA carrier. His replacement, no doubt. As their feet touched the treads, the panels on the stairs began to glow, anticipating their movement.
He saw McKay uncovering control panels and questioning why they were not functioning, even as the rest of the city continued to move restlessly before the advancing expedition, panels opening, doors sliding back, air systems starting to re-circulate. Excited voices radioed in to Dr. Weir, describing what they had found, while she urged caution and ordered McKay to see about restoring power to the control systems.
He watched as Dr. Weir responded to a radio call from Colonel Sumner and left McKay to his work, heading down to a lower level where she stood looking out one of the tall windows in awe at the wall of water surrounding them. Even in his dream state, John was aware of a sense of glee. Atlantis. It was the real thing. How cool was that?
Things rapidly shifted, the way dreams do, from pleasant exploration into full blown nightmare. John watched as a distant observer, not able to participate in the action at all, as McKay announced that the city's power to operate the shields was nearly diminished and that catastrophic collapse was imminent. Even as he spoke, Dr. Weir radioed Sumner to inform him to fall back, only to hear over the channel the roar of water and the screams of drowning men.
He focused on McKay's efforts to find a solution that could save as many people as possible, battling against time and a continuing cascade of bad news as the city began slamming bulkhead doors closed, trapping people as the water breached the walls and came pouring in. He saw Weir telling McKay not to wait too late to follow as she, that little Czech guy and Lt. Ford made their way to some sort of flight bay where a series of boxy, cargo-type ships lay in docking bays. The look on McKay's face made John realize that he knew he was not likely to make it to the bay in time. He had to find a way to make the Gate work and leave via that route with the remaining survivors or not at all.
In the end, he ran out of time. While Weir and Co. tried to figure out how to operate the little spacecraft, the bulkhead doors crashed shut in the Gateroom, even as sirens wailed overhead and water sprayed inward under high pressure through the seams of the doors and windows. McKay stood on the balcony overlooking the rapidly flooding Gateroom, telling Weir to get the craft airborne, trying until the last minute to open the overhead bay doors so it could escape the city, until the water rose up to the level where he stood watching it helplessly.
In the flight bay, Weir, the Czech guy and Ford just barely managed to get the rear hatch of the ship closed before water came crashing in around them, battering the small ship and spinning it out of its moorings. It bounced off one wall and then came to rest on the floor of the flight bay when the water finally equilibrated. Despite the Czech guy's best efforts, he determined that only someone with the ATA gene could actually operate the flight systems.
"What does that mean?" Dr. Weir looked exhausted, beaten and frightened, but though her mouth trembled, she lifted her chin to ask her question.
The Czech guy sat down in defeat on a small bench at the rear of the ship. Ford sat down in the pilot's seat in a similar manner. "It means," the Czech scientist said slowly. "That first it will get very cold in here and then we will run out of oxygen and then we will die."
John woke with a start, gasping for air as though it was he who was drowning, his hand clutching the ring on the chain around his neck. He was shivering and cold. He got up stiffly and pulled out a sweat shirt and pants from his drawers, sliding them on and then huddling down in the covers, tucking them in tightly around his chin. He told himself that is was just a bad dream; that the eerie light from the pool house made him think of a city under water and dream of drowning. But somehow he didn't believe it.
The next morning at breakfast, Dave came over to the west wing to suggest that John ride into the city with him. John had already been out for a run, mapping the best course for future reference depending on time and weather. He'd come back for a quick shower and shave before heading into the breakfast nook to find a buffet-style breakfast waiting in an empty room for him.
"We expecting a battalion of marines?" John had raised his eyebrow at Henry, who brought in a pot of fragrant, steaming coffee to set on the sideboard.
"Your father wished that you have a nice selection of foods this morning, as your exact preferences were not known." Was it his imagination, or did Henry lay a slight emphasis on the word 'preferences'?
John had chosen to ignore his own insecurities and looked around the room instead. On the sideboard, silver chafing dishes revealed scrambled eggs, sausage links, stacks of Texas-style toast, and fresh waffles. A basket of rolls and another of Danish pastries completed the array. Several jams, jellies and syrups were also available along with a dish of butter, the design of a leaf imprinted on its soft, pristine surface. "Will my father be joining me?"
"Your father will be dining in his room this morning." Henry had offered no further information.
"Well," John had drawled, irritated that he was having to pull information out of the major domo. "What's my dad having to eat?"
Henry had really looked at him then, a small frown furrowing his otherwise bland expression. "Your father has a dietitian who has prepared a list of meal choices for him. Today, he is having oatmeal with raisins and a fruit salad."
"Well from now on," John had said with a sigh, "I'll have whatever he's having. No point in all this food going to waste."
"Very good, sir," Henry had said on his withdrawal from the room, leaving John with a great empty expanse of table.
John was relieved to see Dave when he entered the room and gladly took him up on his offer. Dave was nattily dressed in an expensive-looking chocolate brown suit, Italian no doubt, probably Firado, with a crisp white shirt and cream and brown silk tie.
Dave seemed pleased at his acceptance. "Well, this way you can come into the office, I can show you around, introduce you to some people, get you set up for next week. Then you can meet with the tailor and head over to see the buyer Dad mentioned as well. You should probably get a cell phone. Maybe a haircut too. You can come back and pick me up after 5 pm."
"Are you sure you trust me with your car?" John teased, throwing one arm over the back of his chair, lounging as he toyed with the remains of his breakfast. He totally ignored the haircut comment. If the military could overlook it, so could Dave.
"If the Air Force can trust you with one of their Black Hawks, then I guess I can let you drive the Mercedes," Dave said dryly.
"Good," John grinned. "If Dad doesn't need him, I think I'll have Gregory take the MG into Ferguson's, if they're still around, and go over the engine with a fine toothed comb before I take it out on the highway next week. Wouldn't want to end up broken down on the side of the road."
Dave's face became a careful blank.
"What's up? Ferguson's closed down?" John frowned.
"Dad decided to let Gregory go. He felt the boy was a bit too young for the position."
"What?" John was seized with the sudden certainty that it was due to his mentioning his interaction with the chauffeur the night before that the kid was inexplicably jobless this morning. He sat up straight in his chair. "That was fast. What did he think, I was going to ravish the kid in the hayloft?"
"John." Dave looked sympathetic, irritated and weary all at the same time. "It's already done. Just let it go, okay?"
"I'm not staying in this house, Davy. Let's get that straight right now." John half-rose, as though he were headed out the door as he spoke.
"I know, I know." Dave raised a placating hand and gave a weak smile. "But hey, I hear the chauffeur's quarters over the garage will be available by tomorrow. The new guy is married and has a place of his own so he won't need it."
John dropped his duffle bag on the floor of the small apartment and glanced around. The chauffeur's room was a neat little affair, painted white with accents in light celery green, windows opening out over the paddocks and bathing the room in a glowing light that emphasized the newness of the redecorations. The furniture was sparse: a sturdy, second-hand couch that John suspected doubled as a folding bed. A white table and matching chair. Thankfully, no carpets, but a laminate flooring that could have passed for hardwood. In the bedroom, a small framed bed, also in white. The stark whiteness of the tiny apartment gave it the feel of a summer rental cottage at the beach. The kitchen was compact, reminding John of a galley on one of his father's boats. He was used to living in small spaces. It would do. He didn't see the need to fill it up with furniture—he could leave most of his things in storage. It would be easier to buy what he needed for now anyway. Because who knows how long he would stay this time?
He wandered over to one of the windows and looked out on the paddock below. Several yearlings were grazing quietly—bodies unformed, still looking like the babies they were, with shaggy winter coats. Beyond the paddock lay a winding gravel drive—gravel because it was safer for walking the horses than the asphalt drive in front of the house. Outside, the day appeared deceptively balmy, sunlight dappling the drive beneath the centuries-old trees, the patterns of light and shadow shifting with the early spring breeze. A few brave daffodils were nodding their yellow heads in the beds around the house itself, but John knew that at this time of year it could be sixty degrees one day and thirty the next, sometimes both in the same afternoon. In a few weeks, when spring was more certain of its welcome, the yard would be a riot of color: blooming dogwood, redbud and cherry trees, great banks of phlox like Easter candy in the grass, a wall of brilliant yellow forsythia in its untidy hedges, the lilacs sending their fragrant scent wafting into the air. He could not help but contrast the gentle beauty of a Virginia spring with some of the stark landscapes he'd seen in his time—each as beautiful in its own unique way.
The drive opened out into a parking lot in front of the stable, several people in the process of unloading a horse from a van as he watched. The animal was led into the darkness of the barn doorway and was lost to view. The call of the stable was strong.
John quickly changed into jeans and threw an old green sweatshirt on over his white oxford cloth shirt—having no other more suitable 'barn' shirts until his clothing arrived from storage. Maybe Dave would have a polo or two he could borrow. His military boots were good enough for the barn for now. He hurried down the stairs towards the stables with a lightness he hadn't felt since his arrival back home.
Slowing down to a walk so as not to startle any horses, John crossed the driveway and ducked into the wide, open barn door, stopping briefly as he decided which way to go. The barn was laid out with a row of stalls, wash racks and offices on either side of an indoor arena which could be closed off by gates when in use. John closed his eyes for a moment, taking in the rich smells of the stable: the odor of leather and hay, of sawdust and the sweet clover smell of the horses themselves. To his right, a groom was bringing a horse out of the wash rack, the comforting clock of hooves on the matted floor bringing back a rush of memories as the large, gleaming animal passed, coat dark with water. His handler gave a shy nod to John in passing, but led the horse down to a far stall without comment. Faintly, from some point off to his left, presumably out of the open door of the nearest tack room, John could hear the sound of Josh Turner singing about that long, black train; the song reminiscent of the country music of the thirties and forties. John gave a half-snort of surprise, suddenly making the connection as to why he liked country over classical. He doubted there was a barn in the United States that did not have a radio tuned into a country station twenty-fours hours a day, no matter what the discipline. How could he have forgotten? Because this…this was the nearest thing he had to call home.
He glanced up the long aisle where the groom was shutting the horse in its stall and thought briefly about heading towards the little cubicle that served as the staff office, but he knew that no one he was looking for would be inside at this time. Checking for riders before entering the indoor arena, he crossed the soft, pliant footing to the other side and went out the other door. There before him lay the outdoor arena, as well as the main pastures, the small dry lots for the fatties on a diet (or the pregnant mares that needed to be off fescue grass before delivery) and the riding trail that led to the cross country course. His eye was drawn to the arena, where a large bay horse was being worked on a lunge line, while a man and a dog watched from the outer rail.
In the arena the bay moved at the command of the young woman at the end of the lunge line, trotting quietly in a circle around her. John walked over to the fence. The dog, a little blue merle heeler bitch, stood up at his approach and started to come forward, but a negative noise from the man at the rail had her dropping into a sit again, butt wiggling on the ground in happiness as John came to a stop beside the rail. John carefully ignored her until the other man said, "okay". With a bound the dog shot forward to wiggle at John's feet, pushing up against his legs until he reached down to fondle her ears. He joined the man at the rail in watching the young horse being worked, leaning on his elbows against the fence.
The man at the rail was tall and lean, dressed in a denim work shirt open at the throat and rolled up at the sleeves to reveal tanned arms. He was also wearing rust-colored breeches and worn paddock boots, his weight canted onto one hip as he rested his other foot on the lower rail. He wore a battered Yankees ball cap that shielded his eyes from the sun. He glanced briefly in John's direction but continued to watch the young horse being worked. "Well," he drawled at last, "I heard you were coming back, but I said I'd believe it when I saw it."
John gave a rueful grin, nodding at the truthfulness of the comment. "I had to flip a coin," he admitted.
The man looked at him fully then, snorted, and then went back to watching the horse, but John could see the amusement laughing in his steel-blue eyes. He hadn't changed a bit that John could tell. He looked just the same as when John was growing up here nearly twenty years ago now, spending nearly every waking moment down at the barn. John looked down at the little dog. She seemed pretty young. Jim Banks had been training horses and running his dad's stable as long as John could remember and he always had a dog of some sort. Cricket was the one he remembered from his last summer at home, a small Border collie mix. He realized with a pang that there must have been at least one other dog between now and then. "What's her name?" John indicated the dog.
Jim glanced down at the dog and then went back to watching the horse. The mare was a nice mover, with a long sloping shoulder and natural suspension to her gaits. "Toad," he said briefly.
John threw his head back and laughed. "Why Toad?"
"Look at her." Jim said over his shoulder, glancing down at the dog again. The dog sat between them, sturdy little body, mouth open wide in a laughing grin and John could suddenly see the resemblance. They both fell to watching the mare once more. The mare was huge; at least 17 hands and not a mark of white on her that John could see, her body a rich, blood-red bay contrasted by her black points—legs, mane and tail. She'd been trace-clipped so that she wouldn't overheat in her winter coat as she worked and the clip job just accentuated her neat lines. She was awesome to look at and John was more than a little in love.
"Nice mare," John said casually. In the arena, the woman had clucked and popped her lunge whip with a little crack in the air and the horse picked up a rolling canter. "What's her breeding?"
"You tell me, Hotshot." Jim did not take his eyes off the mare but he smiled, and John saw lines that he had not noticed before crinkling at the corners of Jim's eyes and along the sides of his mouth.
John frowned, watching the mare again. As he did, the wind picked up a plastic grocery bag from some errant trash can and blew it in a little tumbleweed across the arena. The mare started violently, came to a sudden halt and shifted her butt abruptly sideways to lower her head and look at the offending object, releasing her breath in a giant snort. The handler wisely let her stand and look at the bag a moment as it rolled across the arena to the other side of the fence. As she turned to follow the movement of the bag, John caught her face in profile. The coloring was completely different, but he recognized that face. "Oh wow. She's a Dagny baby, isn't she?"
Jim's smile told him he was right. Dagny was a Belgian cross mare that had produced a series of successful competition horses for the Sheppard farms. Her chestnut coat with flaxen mane and tail were typical of her draft horse heritage and she tended to throw chestnut foals as a result.
"What the hell did you breed her to…a caribou?"
Jim snorted and just shook his head. At that moment, the handler asked the mare to move forward into a trot again, but the mare floated off in a perfect passage, each foot suspended in the air gracefully for a moment before striking the ground. "Oh my god," John breathed, remembering the bay stallion from years past. "That's Ruthless all over again."
Jim's look of approval warmed him inside. "She's bigger—she got that from Dagny, but that movement is something else altogether." He paused, looking over John in assessment. "She's got your name all over her. Want to try her out?"
John felt his face close off. There was nothing he wanted more, but…he sighed. "Probably not such a good idea, Jim. It's been years since I sat on a horse."
Jim looked at him with a faintly incredulous expression. "You're telling me," he said, turning to face John fully at last, "that you haven't ridden at all since you left home?"
"I don't think you can count those little Afghani mountain ponies." John had gone native a few times in Afghanistan, being one of the few people in his squadron who knew how to ride and could head out into the hills with the locals on a border patrol.
Jim frowned. "What were they like?" Not, what was your time in Afghanistan like? Not, what was it like to watch your friends die? What were the horses like?
The question was so Jim-like that John felt a sudden, great weight lifting off his chest. "Too much Arab to suit me. But amazingly sure-footed in those rocky hills."
Jim removed his cap and scratched at his head and John could suddenly see the passage of time, marked in the change in Jim's hair from red to silver over the years. It was startling, all the more so because it took him so long to see it. Jim didn't seem to notice his sudden glance, replacing the cap with a frown as he contemplated John's lack of riding over the years.
"So what are you calling her?" John indicated the mare, which had settled down and was once more moving obediently, the previous excitement lending a touch of pizzazz to her gaits.
"She doesn't have a name." Jim sounded disapproving. "Your father hasn't named her yet. No matter that she's five coming up on six now. What do you think of her?"
John pretended to study the mare. "We-ll," he drawled in a reasonable imitation of Jim, "if you put antlers on her, she'd look just like a moose."
Jim gave a short bark of laughter. "I can just hear your father now. Remember the fuss when you wanted to name Dancer? What was it you wanted to call him?"
John laughed too, memories rushing at him suddenly like he was approaching a fence at a gallop. "Puddlejumper. I say it was a perfect show name for an event horse, don't know why Dad vetoed it in favor of Cloud Dancer."
"Maybe it wasn't dignified enough for a Sheppard horse," Jim said dryly and he was the only person that John knew who could get away saying that.
"Dad said I wasn't allowed to name anything after that. Dancer was still PJ to me though," John felt a little half-smile pull at the corner of his mouth. "You know, when it was just the two of us going cross country."
Jim stared at him a long moment, a slight frown furrowing his brow before he said abruptly, "Come along then, let's get you outfitted up." He called out to the woman, "Bring her inside and get her tacked up—jumping saddle, not dressage. Meet us in the indoor arena." The girl gave a nod over her shoulder and went back to concentrating on the horse, giving the vocal command to slow to a walk.
Jim kept talking as they walked back into the barn. "The mare doesn't have a mean bone in her body, but she's young and strong. Stay alert on her. She's not so green any more but she needs polishing. She's got the foundations for her dressage, but we're just now starting to pick her up and put her in a frame. She's been free jumping and is doing the beginning level gymnastics. We had a tough time convincing her that she could compact herself in the usual distance, but she's coming along nicely now."
They talked horse shop as they walked companionably down the aisle, Toad following closely at Jim's heel. Jim opened the door to the show office and stepped aside, motioning John within. "Wait here. I'll go get you something to change into." He flicked his eye disapprovingly over John's footwear. "Boots too," he frowned. "Is there a particular reason why you are walking around with your laces undone?"
"Because I can," John said smugly.
"Not in my barn," Jim laid down the law. "It's not safe."
He left John to wander the opulent show office, the thick carpet muffling any sound as he moved around the room, glancing idly at photographs of people and horses he didn't know. He did spy his ex-wife Nancy in one photo, sitting on a glossy chestnut the color of a new penny, blaze showing off its handsome face. The photo looked fairly recent, which was good to know—now he wouldn't be blindsided by her sudden appearance at the stable. Nancy, with whom he'd re-kindled a relationship when home once on leave and had impulsively married her. He wasn't sure who he'd been trying to fool at the time—his father or himself. Eventually the strain of living with a foot in two different worlds had been too much for the marriage. She looked good in the photograph and he thought of their failed relationship with a moment of passing regret, which he quickly shrugged off. What's done is done.
He was startled to see a photo of himself and Dancer in a prominent position on the wall, ornately framed and spotlighted with a single light from above. He remembered it now, the time he won the Large Junior Jumper division at Devon, as well as the championship that day. In the photo, he stood beside the rangy dapple grey gelding, stiff and blank-faced as his father held up the gaudy champion rosette and silver trophy. He hated having his picture taken. All his life he'd been told how photogenic he was, but truthfully, he thought the only decent pictures of him were the ones where he never saw the camera at all. He was surprised that the photograph held such a place of honor in the show room. Devon had been the beginning of the end, the beginning of his battles for the right to choose how to lead his life.
Jim opened the door and came in bearing an armload of clothing and carrying a pair of tall boots in one hand. Toad stopped and waited outside the door. "I brought you some of David's old things," Jim said without preamble. "No," he said to John's raised eyebrow, "he doesn't ride anymore. Well, except maybe to hack out on the occasional weekend with some friends. He prefers to go out on his boat on the Bay if the weather's nice. Bought himself a weekend place down on the river. Gone most of the time from Friday night to Sunday evening. You look pretty fit." Jim's eye flicked over him critically. "Even though he's taller than you, these should suit you well enough."
Jim left him to change clothes and John felt weird at the idea that Jim knew more about his brother Dave than he did himself. It struck him too that a critical assessment from Jim was always about whether or not he could do the task he was about to perform—not whether or not he measured up. Such a fine line between what Jim expected of him and what his father demanded of him and John suspected therein lay the difference in how that made him feel.
He kicked off his boots and shucked out of his jeans, pulling on the form-fitting cream colored breeches and fastening the snap before sitting down at the table to put on the boots. He removed the trees and found the boot pulls down in the toe of one boot, hooking them in the small straps inside the boot for that purpose and attempting to pull the tall, slim boots up over his runner's calves. There was a bad moment when he was sure he could not push his leg down into the boot, nor could he pull it off his foot, but eventually he pushed his foot into place. The tops of the boots cut into the backs of his knees, if he was going to get serious about riding again, he's need a pair of his own boots. It amused him to think that once on, these boots might not come off without being cut off, and he wondered how Dave would feel about losing a set of $400 custom boots.
Jim was nowhere in sight when John left the show room and he headed down the aisle towards the tack room. Row after row of gleaming bridles and saddles used to hang on neat racks, but John noted many of the racks were now empty. The stalls as he passed were empty as well and John realized that without anyone in the family really interested in competing, the hobby horse business had largely become a breeding operation: a source of horses with the Sheppard name and reputation, much like the mare he was about to get on.
He found Jim and the mare in the indoor arena waiting patiently next to a mounting block. John breathed an internal sigh of relief: mounting was going to be difficult enough until he limbered up without trying to get on this Goliath from the ground. He walked up to the man and horse, taking the reins from Jim and offering a palm for the mare to nuzzle, soft, velvety muzzle exploring his hand briefly before deciding there was nothing there of value. "Sorry, old girl," John smiled. "Sugar next time."
He led her beside the mounting block, placing the reins over her neck and then checking the girth from habit, an internal grin registering at the automatic response. He knew that Jim would have already done the same, but it was good to know that some lessons were still ingrained after all these years. Jim handed him a hard hat, the design substantially changed from the old velvet hunt caps he'd worn as a kid. This one was more like a motorcycle helmet in construction, a reflection of how potentially risky the sport of eventing could be.
Telling the mare to stand, he stepped up on the block and placed his left foot in the stirrup. He swung his right leg lightly over her back, settling gently down into the saddle so as not to startle her. He waited a moment to make sure she would stand quietly without moving off and then closed his leg around her. The mare stepped obediently away from the pressure and out into the middle of the arena. Well, that went better than expected.
He lost all sense of his surroundings as he focused on the mare, concentrating on opening the lines of communication between her and his legs and hands, testing her responsiveness and her willingness to obey. After a few circuits at the walk, still checking her out, he put on his leg again and she willingly stepped forward into a big trot, the movement of her back easily lifting him after all these years into a posting rhythm. Something felt slightly off though, and he glanced down at her outside shoulder to see that he was on the wrong diagonal. He sat a beat and suddenly the rhythm felt right. He made a couple of rounds at the trot, crossing the ring at the corner and changing direction and bend a few times, noting the mare tended to lean on the left rein. He tried a little two-point, and was pleased that the position and balance came back readily to him, but was less happy with how quickly his muscles fatigued. After losing his balance and making unpleasant, painful contact with the pommel of the saddle, he was forced to grab mane to hold his position like the veriest of beginners. He sat to the trot a few beats, then moved his outside leg back and clucked her into a canter, smiling at the rolling gait beneath his legs. The two-point was easier in the canter as well.
The mare got harder to turn though, her greenness showing through when she swung wide instead of allowing herself to be boxed in by his hands and legs. He applied pressure with his inside leg to bend her around it on the circle while his outside hand and leg contained her within, defining the outer edge of the circle. "I think you should call her Inertia," he called out, laughing as he dropped all finesse and hauled the mare around back on track when she refused to bend. "She's like turning the Titanic."
"You should have seen her when we first started," returned Jim from his position at the gate.
He forgot to sit first before closing his thighs the first time he asked for a downward transition, but the mare responded anyway, dropping from canter to a wobbly trot, ears flicking back and forth sharply, as though trying to figure out why he spoke with such a bad accent. The next time was better, as was the turning at the canter. Tracking left, she leaned like a motorcycle on the turns; he pulled her head around, forcing her to take several strides in a straight line and then he turned his shoulders to match the path he wanted her to make on the circle. She was better that time, though he had to lift his inside rein at times when she tried to lean again. All the while, the push-pull, give-take of the ride was engaging. There was a lot here to work with.
Before he knew it, forty minutes had passed. Reluctantly, John circled back around towards the mounting block where Jim was waiting. The mare halted quietly at his command and he kicked his feet out of the stirrups, giving her a pat on the neck before swinging his leg over her hindquarters and jumping to the ground. His knees complained slightly at the distance to the ground, but he knew that he was going to be sore all over by tomorrow. Riding used muscles that simply were not used at any other time; it would take him a while to get fit for this again.
Jim was smiling as John walked the mare over. "What do you think?"
"She's a very nice mover. She's got a willingness about her which is nice too." John loosened the girth and patted the mare on the neck again. "She's strong as an ox though and she still needs some refinement, but she's going to be very fancy one day." He paused and then found himself grinning at Jim. "I think we should call her The Moose."
"Your father will have a fit," Jim snorted.
"Doesn't matter, if we do it often enough now, it'll catch on. Then no matter what her show name is, everyone will call her The Moose, just the same."
"You've become a sneaky fellow, Johnny-me-lad." The old nickname made John smile. "I could use some help with her, you know. You were always good with the young stuff."
John started to decline but then realized this was his life now. He was here for the duration, not imminently about to be deployed somewhere else. He might as well enjoy what he could. "Sure," he shrugged. He began to walk the mare back towards the stalls.
Jim fell into step alongside him, glancing at him with a discerning eye. "Was it worth it?" he said at last.
John turned a questioning frown in his direction.
"Giving up everything to go fly planes." Jim spoke as though John had become a cat burglar or a serial killer.
John felt the half-smile on his face, even as his eyebrow rose. "Flying is a lot like riding," he said, "only much, much faster." He thought about how it felt to be at the controls of a fighter jet, to feel the responsiveness of the engine and to be able to read the individual characteristics of each flying machine as though it were a living creature. The mare pushed against him with her head, wanting to be scratched. "Don't do that," he admonished mildly, scratching her neck anyway. Planes didn't do that.
Jim was shaking his head. "I never could understand it, you walking away like that. You could have had a serious career as a rider if you had chosen it. You were a natural."
John felt the bitterness rise up in him, after all these years, still as sharp as the taste of bile. "I didn't have much choice. When I turned eighteen, Dad took me aside and said the riding was all very well and good when I was a kid, but now it was time to turn my attention to college and more serious pursuits. He'd sold Dancer and had already planned what school I was to attend and what I was going to major in. I'd had enough, so I joined the Air Force and there was nothing he could do about it. They picked up the tab for my education and the rest is history."
Something in Jim's face made him stop walking, pulling up the mare as well. "What?" he asked. Jim also stopped, turning to face him.
He looked flabbergasted. "He told you he sold Dancer."
Something in John's heart twisted, not wanting to hear what was coming next.
"Johnny, Dancer's at the farm in Middleburg. Your dad retired him there when you left for the military. He's doing well; as a matter of fact you should come see him sometime."
Dad, you prick. Granted, the times that he had come home since he'd been in the military were few and far between, but not once in nearly twenty years had his father mentioned the fact that Dancer had never been sold. It struck John as suddenly funny that both Sheppards might have cut off their noses and wound up spiting their faces. He nodded carefully, as though in agreement with Jim's suggestion. So much time had past. If there was one thing he'd learned over the years, it was to live with your regrets and move on. "So," he drawled, "what time should I be out here in the morning?"
And so his days fell into a sort of pattern. He got up early and ran his usual five miles before breakfast, where he ate alone. He went into the office, casually draping himself over people's desks and asking endless questions in the name of ignorance, amassing information that he produced at odd intervals with astonishing results. In the evenings he had dinner with his father, where they would discuss the day's issues. He began riding The Moose when he got home or swimming in the pool on alternating days. Most nights he holed up in his rooms over the garage and pored over the reports he would need for the next day's work before heading to bed.
The first Friday night after his arrival, he dressed in a black tee over jeans, donned a leather jacket, his motorcycle helmet and boots and rode into town to the local bar. After that, his father frequently had guests to dinner on Fridays, and John found himself discussing the war in Iraq or the current economic crisis with a wide variety of interesting and clever people with whom he had nothing in common. He did not fail to notice that each Friday gathering a different attractive, available young woman was included in the party. He liked one enough to ask her out himself, but the very act seemed to bring out a smug superiority in her that he soon found irritating, and so he did not ask again.
His ex-wife Nancy came to one such dinner party. The evening was moderately uncomfortable as she attempted to skewer him with sharp barbs carefully hidden behind an elegant smile and a toss of her long, brown hair. He had to admit, she still looked great after all this time. She was due to get re-married shortly and for some reason John could never remember whether the fiancé's name was Granby, Grant or Graham, a fact that annoyed Nancy to no end. They ended up talking horses however, and the conversation finished on a much better note than it started. He told her about The Moose and she chatted about her old gelding, on the verge of retirement.
One weekend he went down to the Bay with Dave and his family. Although he enjoyed sailing again, he felt a bit like a fifth wheel amongst Dave's happy family and he realized what he'd rather do was fly. On his return, he began checking out the small airports nearby where he could rent a plane or buy hanger space for his own, if he had one. After picking up his first paycheck, he realized that if he stuck it out in the chauffeur's quarters for a year, he'd have enough to easily buy his own plane.
At work he lounged negligently in his chair during board meetings and presentations, toying with his pens, creating the odd doodle on his notepad. After the first of such presentations, he went to Dave afterwards and told him exactly how the product manager was embezzling from the company he was managing and how to catch him in the act as well as recover the lost funds. In no time, John developed a reputation as a trouble shooter with an eye for numbers and several under-producing assets made some big recoveries on his watch.
He struck up an unlikely friendship with a slightly older woman, an ad-exec with impossibly red hair that should have clashed with her purple, retro-style glasses, but somehow did not. Mary Jane Beckham was funky, funny, sarcastic and seemed to understand instinctively that the mild flirtation between them would never lead to anything more. She showed him the ins and outs of the business without the natural bias that Dave seemed to hold and John simply enjoyed her company. Together they discussed (agreeing to disagree amiably) politics, religion, the latest gossip and movies, both recent and classic.
His father sponsored his membership to the country club. They began having dinner most Saturday evenings there, a night when Patrick Sheppard would ignore doctor's recommendations for one night a week and eat what he wanted. He joined a regular foursome for golf Sunday afternoons after church. Dave made noises about challenging him to tennis when the weather got warmer but somehow was too busy to play racquetball now. He told himself that he had a good life. It was nice to not be shot at for a change, to not have to deal with a life or death crisis on a daily basis, to have regular work hours and meals, to eat good food and sleep in a decent bed and ride his horse and dream about owning a plane.
It was a good life.
The Saturday that everything changed, it had rained in the morning but by noon, the sun was out and the highway was beckoning, glistening in the afternoon light.
"Where are you off to?" Patrick Sheppard frowned at him as he got up quickly after lunch and said he was going out for a few hours.
"I thought I'd head over to the farm in Middleburg," John said easily, heading for the door.
"I would think you'd rather head over to the country club. I'm sure you could find someone that needed a forth for golf. Or perhaps you could just practice your drives. Or, I know, Amy Whittaker was telling me she would very much like to learn how to play. Why don't you invite her to the club?"
John couldn't tell if his father simply wanted to dictate John's activities for the day or whether he truly believed John was in ignorance of Dancer's retirement to the farm. "I'll be at the club tomorrow afternoon. I'd rather take the bike out today." He left before his father could argue some more.
This was how it was meant to be, he thought as he drove down Route 50 towards Middleburg. The motorcycle's roar would have been deafening without the sound protection of the helmet, the engine of the bike throbbed between his legs. He was tempted to open the throttle up, to push the speed a little, but he knew that was stupid after so much time away from the bike and on today's rain-slicked roads. He wasn't in a hurry anyway; the journey was just as good as the destination.
He slowed on entering the town of Middleburg, past the antique stores and funky cafés, noting the location of Dominion Saddlery and thinking at some point he'd have to come back and get those custom boots ordered. But not today. Today was not a day to be spent indoors. He turned off Rt. 50 onto one of the side roads leading away from the town, the rolling tarmac revealing long rows of white board fencing as he passed various farms and large stables, carefully slowing as a large rig passed him the opposite direction, hauling horses home from a show, no doubt. Middleburg was horse country.
The turn to the Sheppard farm was identified only by a small white placard on a post by the highway that read "The Fox's Den". John turned his bike up the long gravel drive, moving slowly as not to startle any horses or spin out on the gravel. A woman came out of the stable almost as soon as he came to a stop, a large shepherd bitch at her side.
"Can I help you?" Her light blonde hair was pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail. Despite her slim physique, John realized she was closer to his age than the young girl that she seemed on first sight. Her tone was polite, but wary too. The shepherd stood in a state of alertness.
"I'm John Sheppard," he said, almost apologetically, pulling off the helmet and tucking it under one arm. With his free hand he ruffled up the top of his hair where it had been smashed down in the helmet. "I came to visit one of the old retirees. Dancer."
The woman's face lit up, but at which name he was not sure. "John Sheppard," she smiled. "It's good to meet you. Come with me, I'll take you to him." The dog glanced up at her and visibly relaxed, moving forward with a slow tail wag to sniff his proffered hand.
They walked together down a pleasantly shaded path away from the barns, between rows of fences, out to the back pasture. They passed a small arena on the way, where a solitary rider was trotting a fat chestnut in a circle.
"I lease the property from your father at a very reduced rate, in turn for taking care of his old retired horses. I run a lesson and show barn here. Your father's been very good to me."
"He can be," John said mildly. When he wants to be.
The woman glanced over at him, seeming to hear the unspoken words just the same. "I'm Karen, by the way." Her tone was slightly less warm than before.
He nodded briefly and then decided to move into safer waters. "So how's the old boy doing? I've been out of the country or I would have been by sooner."
Karen launched happily into updating him on Dancer during her tenure as farm manager, complete with stories of how the master escape artist was not only still opening latches and letting himself out, but letting his friends out as well. They crested a small hill and overlooked a hollow where some ten or twelve horses were grazing in a field. "There he is," she pointed.
It was unnecessary. Dancer was the only grey in the field and despite the fact that he was whiter than John remembered; he recognized that profile when the horse lifted his head at John's whistle. There was a moment where the gelding simply stood there, uncertain as to what he had heard, until John repeated the very precise, two-note whistle that he had used for years to call the horse in from the field.
Dancer whickered, a soft 'huh-huh-huh' sound, and then began ambling slowly over towards the gate. John turned to flash Karen a smile. "I know that doesn't mean anything—he'd come to anyone rattling a bucket of food, but I can't help but like it just the same."
Karen seemed to have forgiven him for not being a member of his father's fan club because he was obviously the president of Dancer's. "I'll leave you to it then," she said with a smile, patting her leg to indicate to the dog that it was to follow her.
John met Dancer at the gate, slipping between the gap in the board fencing and fishing out from his pocket his bag of goodies. He wished he'd thought to bring a halter so he could lead PJ out of the field, he knew they were likely to get mugged if the others realized there was food to be had. He doled out the carrots first, listening with a smile to the thoughtful crunching on the part of the gelding, using both hands and eyes to check the horse out as they stood there.
The old man looked good for his age, John realizing with a shock that the horse was at least 28 now. He had hollows over his eyes and his back was starting to sway, but he was in good flesh and his teeth seemed to be holding up well. John pulled out the peppermints, and he swore the horse's eyes lit up. The soft, grey muzzle began to push greedily at his hands, trying to snag the hard candy before John could get the cellophane wrapper off. He picked at the chestnuts on Dancer's legs, overgrown and projecting like warts. He found a small patch of rain rot on his rump and picked at that too, the hair coming off in little clumps like the end of a paintbrush. "Next time I'll bring a curry comb," he promised.
PJ tolerated his attentions, dozing once the treats were gone, resting his weight on one hip as he lazily flicked his tail at flies and occasionally an ear in John's direction as he spoke to the animal. Mostly they enjoyed each other's quiet company until John felt it was time to leave. With a sigh, he gave the gelding a pat and made his way back up to the stables. Karen and the dog were nowhere to be found, so he got back on his bike and headed for home.
His mind was full of pleasant memories he rode back towards the town. He was just approaching the turn back onto the main road when he topped a hill to find two cars side by side bearing down on him as one tried an illegal pass on the narrow road. He had a split second to react: the road dropped off sharply on either side of him, but if he gunned the engine forward, he might just be able to make the section up ahead where the shoulder widened.
He almost made it. The engine roared as he opened her up and the bike leapt forward at his command. The drivers of both cars seemed to recognize imminent disaster at the same time, both slamming on their brakes. The passing driver's car began to fishtail with the hard braking on the still wet roads, bouncing first off the other vehicle and then sideswiping John just as he was clearing the back end of it, clipping the back of his bike, sending him airborne. He had just a moment to think, 'shit, this is gonna hurt' and then nothing.
"Let me explain to you the nature of your injuries, Mr. Sheppard," Dr. Samuel Hammersley began after introducing himself. "You have a spinal cord injury or SCI for short, at the C6-C7 root level. We describe injuries in this fashion because the root level determines your level of function. This means different things for different people. An injury at C6-C7 usually means that you will likely regain some use of your arm, from about the wrist up, but that you will not have normal use of your hand and you may not be able to extend your elbow. There will be braces and extension aids to help with hand and arm movement as you progress in your recovery. Your right hand and forearm were crushed by the accident and were not salvageable, I'm afraid, and that arm was amputated at the elbow. There was some discussion as to whether or not to remove your right leg as well, but the decision was made to remove the more severely damaged tissue and spare as much of the limb as possible in order to make sitting in a chair more feasible at some future point in your recovery. This is also important in terms of a more even distribution of your weight in a wheelchair. Over time, you will discover that your biggest enemy and our biggest fear are the infections and pressure sores that can occur through reduced mobility."
"Damn it," said John carefully, without heat. "It would have to be my right hand."
The surgeon blinked at him a second and then carefully continued with his, no doubt, well-practiced speech. "Your thoracic muscles are affected to a certain degree, but because your injury is below C4, you can breathe without a ventilator—however, you are using your diaphragm to breathe, with reduced expansion of your chest wall. Your postural muscles are also affected; you can expect to have difficulty in sitting upright in a chair. For now, you will have an indwelling urinary catheter. Perhaps with time and regaining some use of your remaining hand, self-catheterization can be learned. Urinary infections are common for people in your condition and a serious problem with which to deal. Quite often the bowels will regulate around a schedule to empty fairly regularly, but manual evacuation will probably be necessary. You will be taught all the skills that you can manage and will likely find that you can manage more than you thought over time."
The doctor paused again, seeming to check to see that John was actually following what he was saying before he went on. "You will not be able to regulate your body temperature. You will also be prone to a serious, life-threatening condition called autonomic dysreflexia. This condition results in sudden spikes in blood pressure which can result in a stroke. It is very, very important that you report any abnormal sweating or the onset of a severe headache to me or one of the staff members here. Ironically, much of the time, you will have to deal with the reverse problem of hypostatic hypotension. This means that your blood pressure can bottom out easily with changes of position and you will have to learn to deal with this during the healing process as you progress from bed to chair. You may experience uncontrolled muscle spasms. This is not an indication of returning motor function but an involuntary response on the part of your body. You may have to deal with episodes of severe pain or even chronic, irresolvable pain."
He paused to take a deep breath, still seeking some sort of reaction before he continued. "You will be transferred to a rehabilitation center once you've sufficiently recovered from your surgeries to work with a team of physical and occupational therapists, which can help you adapt to your new life. You can expect to be hospitalized for many months. Our goal, of course, is to prepare you and your family for your eventual return home."
He paused again, frowning this time at John's blank silence. "I see from your record that you are a former military man. I assume you are accustomed to getting your information with blunt honesty. This is your life now, Mr. Sheppard. You probably think of yourself as an independent person and you will now have to rely on others to assist you in the most personal of ways. With re-education, you can experience a life of much higher quality than you probably think you can at this moment in time. But nothing that you knew before holds true for you now. Everything has changed. Do you have any questions?"
"Sure," John drawled, allowing his eyelids to drop to a sleepy, half-open position. "What's for lunch?"
He awoke conscious that someone was staring at him. He started to move his head, felt the restraints necessary to keep his neck immobile post-surgically, and stopped fighting the movement. Not once had he ever awoken and forgotten for an instant what had happened to him. The idea seemed ludicrous—he was more aware of his body now since he had lost almost all communication with it than he'd ever been aware of it before. Cutting his eyes sharply towards the door, he spied his father.
Patrick Sheppard finally looked as John had expected to find him when he first arrived at home: washed-out, his color grey and a little bluish around the edges of his mouth, his hair white and limp against his skull. He looked deflated, half the man he was in his prime. He said nothing for a long moment when he saw John looking at him. Finally he spoke.
"John." He paused, struggling with some undefined emotion before his face hardened and he spat out his next words. "Look at you. Your coming home was supposed to make things easier."
"Get out," John said slowly and deliberately. He closed his eyes. "Don't come back."
His father made a small noise, almost like he was in pain and John opened his eyes to see him standing there, two bright spots of color suffusing his cheeks, as though he had a fever. Patrick Sheppard turned abruptly on his heel and stomped out of the room.
Josie, his primary day nurse, was annoyingly cheerful and optimistic. She was also full of useful information as to what to expect. She told him things that no one else would mention. "Forewarned is forearmed, I say," she would smile sunnily at him. "I know some people think too much information at this juncture is bad, it's too depressing, but if you know what's normal and what to expect, then that takes some of the surprise out of it, right?"
So he was prepared for his muscles to waste away at an astonishing rate and his abdomen to pooch out like a starving Ethiopian child. "Tetratummy" she called it, noting that without abdominal support, his organs simply wanted to puddle. She assured him that when he began working with the PT, some of his muscle mass would improve. She discussed quite frankly with him other things he could expect, and her very matter-of-factness caused John to trust her opinion more than that of the doctors. They decided quickly that a beard was more practical than trying to keep him shaved—Josie referred to him as Kudzu Man, comparing his hair growth to the ubiquitous non-native plant that covered entire mountain sides in Virginia. It was Josie who had the frank talk with him about what he might be able to expect as far as a future sex life.
"It varies," she'd shrugged. "Loss of bladder control means loss of sensation to the genital area. Most guys say that while they can have an erection, they can't necessarily achieve orgasm. I think, like everything else, a lot of it has to do with attitude. I mean, I hear a lot of guys speak of their frustration, that there's just nothing there, and then I hear about someone with the same injury that's scoring big time with the ladies at the local bar. One guy told me he learned a lot about giving his partner pleasure when having an orgasm himself was taken off the table, so to speak. But yeah, a lot of guys just give up because it's not the same."
It was really odd having this conversation with a perky young woman during the course of changing his urinary catheter but again and again, John was learning to have his boundaries invaded because he simply had no other choice. It wasn't like he could throw a temper tantrum and heave his belongings across the room, smashing furniture and the like. The worst he could do was get pissy and short-tempered and a little voice in his head told him that it wasn't smart to piss-off the people that had total control over you. It also led to visits from the psychologist, a heavy-set brunette named Carolyn Oversby. Dr. Oversby saw it as a personal mission to jolly him out of a sour mood and it became easier for him to just to turn on the charm and be the epitome of the well-adjusted tetraplegic.
His lack of appetite led to dramatic weight loss on his part and there was talk of a feeding tube.
"You can't heal if you don't eat, John," Josie said practically. "You need the protein to make new bone and prevent infection and get strong enough so that you can move to the next phase of therapy. Eat even if you don't want to do so."
Not all the nurses were as nice. Many were simply too rushed, with too many patients in their care. Some handled him roughly, as though he was a slab of meat and honestly, sometimes he felt that way about his body himself. He learned to recognize a certain feeling of fullness as needing to evacuate his colon. He discovered that being paralyzed and not being able to feel sensory input was not the same as feeling no pain, but thanks to Josie he was not shocked by the onset of weird, intense pains in his limbs or the impression that his legs had swollen to twice their size when a visual check proved they were still normal.
The worst part about the pain was there was no getting away from it. It hammered at the base of his skull in a constant ache and sizzled down his arms and he just had to lie there and take it. Medication didn't seem to help; he discovered this was often the case with neurological pain. He couldn't even get up and move, shift position, anything to distract him from the feeling that something was gnawing at his spinal cord. On the nights he could not sleep, he thought of the things he could no longer do. If he'd gone down behind enemy lines and ended up in this condition, at least he would have been allowed to die.
His secondary injuries were slow to heal. His right leg in particular kept getting infected and talk of surgery to remove more of it would come up and subside as things slowly got better. The hardest thing for him to deal with some days was the overwhelming sense of fatigue. He spent long hours staring at the surface of whatever wall or ceiling he was pointed at, deciding whether or not it was worth even making the effort to attempt the small tasks and actions the medical team wanted him to do. When he realized he was basically deciding whether to live or die, he spent twenty-four hours in silence, refusing to speak even to Josie, before deciding to try harder at the tasks.
Dave came to visit on Thursdays after work. John tried yelling at him, kicking him out, even ignoring him, but he still came every Thursday evening like clockwork. Eventually, they settled into an uneasy relationship with a long list of taboo subjects looming in the background. John wondered why Dave even bothered. It became simpler to pretend that everything was fine, that he was adjusting to his new existence. Anything else was just too much work.
Nancy came to visit once. He almost refused to see her but in the end the idea of seeing a new face proved irresistible, and maybe, just a little, he wanted to torture himself.
"Grant and I got married last week," she said, frowning as though she expected some outburst on his part. "And I bought The Moose."
He looked at her, really looked at her then and she beamed at him, mouth trembling, tears threatening to spill from her eyes. "She was up for sale and I loved her so I bought her. I want Jim to keep working with her though; I don't have the time to bring a young horse along like she needs."
"Thank you," he said, and he meant it with all his heart, trying to show with his expression what he could not convey in words.
Jim came twice weekly, Sundays and Wednesdays. He ambled in on the first day, looked around the sterile hospital room and pulled up the only chair close to the bed to sit down. He opened a heavy tome without a word, slipping on reading glasses as he did so.
"What do you think you're doing?" John had asked, but without his usual sharpness.
"Reading War and Peace," Jim had said blandly. "Where exactly did you leave off?"
John had been able to tell him the exact page and Jim turned to it with a mild snort at his head for numbers before starting to read aloud thoughtfully. John had let the words roll off him peacefully, supporting him in a way that nothing else had done so far.
Jim also read aloud the dozens of cards that John received from co-workers and friends. Or at least, he would tell John who the cards were from and John would decide whether or not he wanted to hear what they had to say. The only card he kept was from General O'Neill. It read simply:
I owe you one. If there is ever anything I can do to help, this number will reach me.
John was tempted to reply to that one. Hey, have you heard from McKay? You don't by any chance have one of those sarcophagus-thingys lying around, do you? Oh by the way, I still have one of your Ancient artifacts. In the end, he did not respond. But he kept the card.
John gave Jim a hard time about leaving Toad in the car on these visits, citing the fact that even though it was in the evening, the summer heat and humidity levels were still high. After a few weeks, Toad appeared in the ward sporting a Therapy Dog tag and was a huge hit among staff and patients alike.
It was Jim who gave him the talisman back again. They had progressed beyond a mere reading of W&P during his visits and Jim had been poking around in his things when he came across it.
John was sitting up in a wheelchair, with supporting straps to keep him from falling out. When he had first begun sitting up, he kept passing out because of the blood pressure issues. Initially it had taken him several hours before he could manage to sit upright at all. The first time he'd sat in a chair, it terrified him. He'd felt both claustrophobic and unsupported at the same time. He was getting used to the feeling now, but was only allowed to sit up for short periods at a time. He'd already developed one deep decubital ulcer and that had set back his transfer to the rehab facility for weeks now.
"What's this?" Jim lifted up the disc. The chain was no longer present—likely deliberately broken and discarded when being removed from his inert body by the Trauma One team.
"Oh that," John had answered. "My lucky charm."
He proceeded to tell Jim as much as he could about the disc and how he acquired it, somehow managing to convey the slightly illegal nature of his ownership without going into great details.
"That McKay sounds like a real character," Jim said at the end of his recital. "Do you ever hear from him?"
"No." Something in his face must have given him away because Jim got up and fished around in his pocket, pulling out a narrow length of rawhide, obviously a bootlace. He threaded it through the talisman and knotted the end, placing it in John's left hand.
"Seems to me you need all the luck you can get."
That night, he dreamt of Atlantis.
It was just like the dream that he'd had that first night he'd been back home in his father's house, so vivid and clear, as though he were watching it on television. He thought for a moment that it was some form of recurring nightmare. He saw the expedition members enter the city as before, but this time instead of Major Lorne mounting the stairs beside McKay, he was the one wielding the P-90. The stairs lit up for them just the same, and the city was every bit as underwater. John felt tense as he watched; sure that disaster was a moment from striking.
Excited voices radioed Dr. Weir with news of their discoveries, even as she urged caution. But when McKay began uncovering the consoles, they had power. John still felt tense—waiting for the other shoe to drop, the screaming of the sirens, bulkhead doors crashing shut, the crush of the surrounding ocean smashing the city. But it didn't happen that way.
Instead, he saw himself escort Dr. Weir to meet with Sumner, watched his own face take in the fact that the city was underwater. In this dream sequence, they were joined by McKay as well and there was no venting of atmosphere in a distant section of the city as they looked out the window. Instead they followed McKay to where the medical man, Carson Beckett, had discovered a hologram that told of the city's abandonment in the face of a terrible enemy.
It was only then that they learned of the nearly depleted ZPM and the power drains on the city. Sumner delegated a team to head out and search for a ZPM immediately, Sheppard wouldn't have even been included if Weir hadn't insisted. John found that he was thinking of himself in the third person, unable even in this dream world to imagine himself, crippled as he was, exploring a new galaxy.
It was odd watching the interaction with the natives on Athos. What was wrong with Sumner anyway? John had spent enough time among the natives in Afghanistan to know that you listened to the people who lived in the hostile environment where you had just arrived. You didn't just dismiss them as ignorant cave-dwellers. And it certainly looked like, provided they didn't all die in the next 24 hours, the expedition members would need some friends in Pegasus. He could see the frustration, though well-hidden, in Sheppard's body posture. He could see the young lieutenant Ford was torn between following his CO's lead and acknowledging that Sheppard might be right. It was curious to see the man Halling and the leader Teyla both respond to Sheppard as though he were the leader of the team.
Teyla was amazing. She was strong, intelligent and stunning to look upon. She was all shades of brown and copper, from her dark eyes to her bronzed skin to her tawny hair. John recognized her type, lessons carved out of sweat, blood and tears, leaving her the sort of serenity that he associated with the Eastern religions. He liked her instantly and was pleased at the connection between her and Sheppard.
When disaster struck, it was not what he had expected. Sure, the Athosians had mentioned the Wraith several times and he had mixed feelings about Sumner's plan to take a team into the Old City. But when the Wraith attacked…ships shrieked overhead with an angry whine that cut right into your heart, ratcheting up your fear. Perhaps that's why they did that. The Wraith also caused you to see things on the ground that were not there, swept up their victims from the sky with culling beams, and then sucked the life right out of you with their hands.
Sheppard butted heads with Elizabeth right away on his return with the survivors through the Gate. The ZPM reached critical depletion levels then, but to everyone's astonishment, the city rose from the surface of the ocean floor before disaster struck. He wondered at Sheppard's recklessness in wanting to go after Sumner and the other captives, but he knew that it had as much to do with feeling that it was their fault that Halling and Teyla had been captured as it was his desire to get Sumner back so that someone else could be in charge of this whole mess. To watch Sumner be painfully drained of life, as though the years were being pulled physically from him from the inside out…John felt the horror with Sheppard, even as he realized what had to be done. The Wraith bitch was seconds away from finding out the location of Earth. Already she knew that the planet held more souls than the Wraith had seen in one place in millennia. 'Do it,' John thought, as Sheppard pulled the trigger that ended Sumner's life.
Later, much later, Sheppard sat in his quarters on an unmade bed, his duffle and footlocker to one side. John could almost hear him thinking, 'What have I done?' as he cradled his head in his hands.
The door chimed. Sheppard lifted his head wearily and stared at it a long moment. It chimed a second time and he got up, moving stiffly to the door to swipe his hand over the control panel.
"Ah, there you are, Major." McKay looked tired but pleased to see him as well.
Sheppard did not look pleased at all. He leaned in the doorframe, blocking McKay's entrance to the room. "You need something, McKay?"
Everything in Sheppard's posture screamed that he'd just had enough for one day, thank you and if it wasn't a life or death crisis then McKay had better run.
McKay, as socially dense as he could be, did at least have the survival instincts of a wild animal sensing a non-specific threat. He looked slightly warily at Sheppard. "Um, there's a party in the Gateroom. I thought you might want to know."
"I'm not in the partying mood."
McKay gave a great sigh, shoulders deflating suddenly. "Yeah," he said, "me neither. But as CSO, I'm expected to put in an appearance, pretend like I know what I'm doing, you know, so that everyone else will be a little less freaked about the whole marooned-in-a-distant-galaxy-with-space-vampires thing."
John watched as a half-smile teased the corner of Sheppard's mouth. "Pretend you know what you're doing?"
McKay huffed a bit. "I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before I do know what I'm doing, hello, smartest man in two galaxies, here. It's just that everything here is completely eons ahead of what we're accustomed to working with. And don't forget, you've touched half a dozen things today with absolutely no success whatsoever in turning them on, Major Light-Switch, so don't sit there and look so smug. Well, are you coming or not?" He scowled in a most uninviting fashion.
For some reason, this persuaded Sheppard to go with him.
"Soooo, McKay," John mentally winced as he heard Sheppard's exaggerated drawl. McKay stepped back as Sheppard uncoiled himself from the doorway and joined him in the hall. "Find me any other cool toys like the jumpers today?"
McKay made a face that John knew instinctively was a reaction to not getting to name the jumpers and it made him snort with internal amusement. "Pardon me, I've been busy trying to save all our lives here this afternoon, while at the same time trying to learn how to access an alien database as well as integrate our Pleistocene-level equipment with that of the Ancients, all the while avoiding a catastrophic systems failure. But rest assured, I will put finding you cool toys at the very top of tomorrow's to do list."
"Cool," Sheppard briefly, a smile playing around at his mouth.
McKay rolled his eyes.
They entered the Gateroom where the party was in full swing. McKay left his side to join Beckett. John realized that he had been right; Sheppard really did need to put in an appearance. Sheppard seemed to be the only one who was concerned about what his actions had stirred up that day—even Teyla seemed sanguine about what the future held. John could sense Sheppard's embarrassment over the Athosian greeting that she gave him and noted shortly afterwards Sheppard's eyes seeking out McKay again, only to remain on his side of the room, watching as McKay interacted with his people.
Oh-ho. So that's how the wind blows, eh, Sheppard?
The sharp metallic sound of blinds being opened woke him abruptly. John blinked in some confusion as Josie said brightly, "Rise and shine, gorgeous!"
Dave looked around curiously as he entered the room of the rehab facility. He seemed to note the pale, sunny walls, the green plants sitting on the window shelf, the ivy border stenciled around the top of the room. He was wearing a light blue windbreaker over a yellow polo shirt and jeans and carrying a laptop bag. He looked so healthy, so virile that John could easily picture him in a Nike ad, and at that moment he hated his brother with an intensity that both shocked and appalled him.
"Like what you've done with the place," Dave smiled at John.
John was sitting in his motorized chair. He would have liked to have adjusted his position to face Dave more squarely, do have done anything to show that he was not completely helpless or immobile here, but he had not yet mastered the use of the toggle switch with his left hand and to been seen fumbling for it was somehow worse. It took a great degree of concentration to even sit upright. It was taking some time too, to get used to the feeling of disembodied floating as he sat up, as though he were just hovering over the seat of the chair.
"What do you want, Dave?" His words sounded harsh even to his own ears and he tried modifying his tone. "I thought you'd be down at the Bay by now, isn't it Saturday?"
Dave nodded, like he expected John's reaction and John had to clamp down on the seething anger that threatened again to crack through something inside of him, like he was Mt St. Sheppard or something, a volcano about to blow.
"Yeah, though we won't get too many more nice weekends this season. It will be time to close the lake house for the winter soon. I just wanted to drop off some things I need you to look at sometime in the next week. How's that table work—does it just rotate up over your lap?" Dave indicated a folding shelf that was attached to the side of John's chair.
"Yes," John admitted grudgingly, "But I can't do it myself, someone else has to put it in place. And what the hell do you expect me to look at? I'm not exactly on the payroll anymore, am I?" The bitterness crept back in his voice as he finished his sentence.
Dave ignored him, coming over to the chair and tilting his head sideways to look at the folded desk top before lifting it up and locking it into place. He unzipped the bag and set the laptop on the desk, opening it up and turning the power on. "The hell you're not," he said mildly as he set things up. "Can you imagine the howl of protest from the ladies in the secretarial pool if I canned your sorry butt? Not to mention the potential lawsuits I would set myself up for. Besides," he frowned at John. "If I fired you, then you'd lose your health insurance and no doubt I would get stuck with that bill too. So don't even think about quitting unless you really want to end up in a VA hospital."
John tried not to wince. He knew how strapped the VA system was with all the injured vets returning from Iraq. Because medicine was so advanced now, more seriously disabled men and women were entering the system than in any other previous conflict, precisely because they were surviving the wounds that would have killed them in the past. Coming from a family with the financial resources that he had, John didn't want to add to the VA's woes, whether or not he believed Dave would cut him off.
"And to top it off, you're still the best trouble shooter I've ever had." Dave placed a fist on one hip as he looked down at John. "You might think I'm just humoring you here, John, but the truth is, you're good at this. I need you to look over the Anderson fund and tell me why it's not performing up to expected standards."
With an effort, John moved his left hand slowly towards the laptop. Gritting his teeth, he lifted his arm from the shoulder only, flopping his hand up onto the desk after several tries, concentrating until the shaking hand in its brace came to a fumbling halt on the controls. Ironically, he had better use of the stump of his right arm, though at times he was seized with an inexplicable pain where his hand should be. He struggled to take in more air, and had to wait until his breathing slowed in order to speak again. "You really think I'm going to be able to do this?" He glared up at Dave, who could not mask his dismay at watching John's efforts.
Dave bit his lip and something in his expression hardened as he nodded. "Yes, yes I do. The guy who would not leave one of his men behind is not the man who would give up now."
"That man no longer exists." It occurred to John even as he said it that he was constantly killing old versions of himself to make way for the new. This is not the first time, and it won't be the last.
"I don't believe that," Dave said harshly, showing the first signs of anger since John's injury. "I think it will take everything you've got, but I think you will master the use of this equipment. Everything you need to know will be made available to you. If you need specialized equipment to make things work better for you, we'll get it. Hell, if you need a full-time PA, you'll have that too. Voice recognition software, whatever."
"What does Dad have to say about this?" The words lay cold and heavy in the room between them.
"This is my decision; it has nothing to do with Dad." Dave looked down at his feet briefly before lifting his head again. "John, Dad hasn't been to visit you because it is literally killing him to see you like this. Can you understand that? He's always been a hard man, someone not comfortable showing emotion. He's not going to change, you know."
"No," John ground out harshly. "No, that's my job isn't it? I'm always the one who has to change and adapt to suit him, right? Well, screw him."
Dave sighed. "The things he said when this first happened, that was because he was so afraid for you. I think too, he wanted to make you mad, make you fight him, to say 'fuck you, I will live.' He just doesn't know how to deal with this."
John waited before speaking, knowing the anger would cause a tremor in his voice that he could not control and hating this weakness in him. He took several ragged breaths before something in him relaxed and calmed down. When he finally spoke, it was with more curiosity than anger. "Why are you always taking up for him? Why are you the one telling me what he's thinking or what he really wants? Why do you have to speak for him?"
"Because," Dave said dryly, folding his arms across his chest. "Apparently I'm the only Sheppard capable of articulating his feelings."
It took him thirty minutes to enter his password and position the cursor over the mail option. He had to take a break then, sweat rolling down the sides of face, hand trembling. Carefully he deleted all emails wishing him well and kept only those directly relating to work—dropping the list of mail from sixty to five. He found himself wishing just one was from McKay and then glad that there were none along those lines instead. The only exception to the deletion list he made was a post from Mary Jane.
I will not come see you unless you beg me to, because I will likely burst into tears on seeing you and frankly that will just destroy my reputation for being a hard-assed bitch, a reputation I've worked very hard to achieve, thank you!
However, I am asking you not to delete this (like I know you've already done for everyone else). Please keep talking to me. I am counting on you to keep me sane. You're the only thing that makes work tolerable. Besides, I know all the cool internet porn sites. Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.
Laboriously, stylus fixed in his hand, he typed out a single sentence, "what r u trying to do, get me fired?"
He was grinning when he hit 'send'.
There seemed to be a conspiracy on the part of the physical therapy team to keep John completely occupied all day long. He didn't mind, for at night he fell into an exhausted sleep, during which time he dreamt of another adventure in Atlantis. He watched himself get attacked by the Iratus bug. He snorted with glee at the shooting of McKay and subsequent tossing him off the balcony during the testing of the personal shield. He'd cringed with Sheppard when he realized that it was his act of picking up Teyla's necklace that activated the Wraith homing device on it and placed them all in such jeopardy, even though he hadn't meant to do so. He thought they were all going to get killed by the ultimate in Peter Pan disciples on M7G-667 and was creeped out by the experiences on M5S-224 with the fog people.
Sometimes he just followed Sheppard around in his off-duty hours within the city; at no time did he see any events that took place without Sheppard's presence, unlike that very first dream he'd had the night he'd returned home. Though not as thrilling as the adventures that took place most of the time, he took an odd comfort in seeing Sheppard knock golf balls off the pier into the ocean, or try to scare the Athosian children with the plotlines from teen slasher movies, or sneak off to play some sort of combination Sim City and Risk with Rodney in an Ancient game room.
It wasn't until he watched Sheppard get pinned down by the SuperWraith on that abandoned planet, when he saw McKay step out behind the Wraith with nothing but a handgun and begin firing, that he realized something. He'd fallen for Rodney McKay. Hard.
He was pretty sure that he was going to watch the two of them die at the hands of the SW, McKay emptying his clip and then asking plaintively what to do next, as though they were out practicing golf rather than fighting for their lives. McKay reloaded with shaking hands at Sheppard's direction, never taking his eyes off the gun even as the Wraith continued to bear down on his position. When Rodney ran out of ammo and Sheppard body-tackled the Wraith, he was sure it was all over for both of them. Only to his delight, Sheppard had baited the Wraith with food, causing the glowing bugs to amass over him, marking him as a huge target for Ford, bearing down in a jumper from above. The Wraith exploded in a well-aimed salvo from the jumper.
Yes! John wanted to high five someone, to grab Rodney and give him a fierce hug, to shake himself by the shoulders and call himself an idiot. His elation faded when he saw the exhausted Sheppard explain to Ford what had happened to the rest of their team and a silent McKay take his place in the jumper beside Sheppard for the long flight home.
He woke without seeing any of that flight, not knowing what was or was not said between the two men on that fifteen hour trip with the bodies of Gaul and Abrams in the rear compartment.
Several days after what came to be known as the Great Wheelchair Race Incident, John received an email from MJ that was an exact mock-up of a page from Wikipedia. Under the definition of "Unrepentant scallywag" it read "see John Sheppard." The accompanying photo of himself was one that she must have taken unbeknownst to him with her cell phone—one hip perched on the corner of a desk as he laughed at something someone off camera had said. The email made him smile, but it also shot a small dagger through him as well. Such a short time ago. A lifetime ago, it seemed now. That was him and now it wasn't anymore.
He was contemplating the appropriate response when Becca Lee, the night nurse, came to stand, arms akimbo, in his doorway.
"John Sheppard!" She thundered, as best someone only five feet tall with delicate Asian-American features and chin-length hair as dark and shiny as a raven's wing could do. "What on earth possessed you to teach that Stevens boy how to pop a wheelie?"
Dave also had a thing or two to say post-GWRI. He had just locked the wheels on John's chair and was holding it by the handles to brace it as John pulled himself up by the lift bar suspended over his bed, hooking his forearm around it as he swung himself out over the chair, using the padded end of his amputated arm to catch one side and allowing Dave to ease him down into the chair. He'd tried getting in by himself again and again, but was unable to keep from slamming down into the seat without the use of both hands to hold him steady. In the end, his medical team told him that the risk of another decubital ulcer was too great and John finally accepted that he would just need help.
As John settled into the chair and tightened the support strap that kept him from listing too much to one side, Dave unlocked the wheels and stepped back.
Out of nowhere, he suddenly said, "You know, I can really see you as a leader."
"Excuse me, what?" John laughed, making a wry face.
"No, seriously. I've watched you here with the other patients. You tell the new people what to expect. You cheer up the young guys who think their lives are completely over. You lead by example, but you also stick up for people."
"Only after I get them in trouble in the first place," John snorted, wishing he could turn the conversation to another topic.
Dave shook his head. "That kid…what was his name? The one that came in with the violin."
John felt his face go blank. "Peter."
"Yeah, Peter." Dave's mouth twisted for a moment and then he went on. "His mom wanted to take the violin away…said he needed to be realistic. I saw what she was doing and I knew why she was doing it, but it was brutal. I watched you take her on. You said he wasn't ready and that everyone needed something to hang onto for a while and that eventually he would let it go, but she couldn't rush him, he was just a kid. And she listened to you."
"Yeah, but only because I played the 'cripple' card." He thought of the talisman around his neck. John knew his smile was more of a grimace but he couldn't help it. "It was hard for her to look me in the eye and ignore me."
"Exactly," Dave said seriously. "It was more important to you that you protect that kid's feelings than your own. I…I was really proud of you."
"Um, yeah, well, whatever." John squirmed his shoulders.
"Oh my god, you're an emotional cripple as well." Dave gave him a light, exasperated whack on the back of the head.
"You're just noticing this now?" John grinned.
Dave rolled his eyes. He pulled out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and opened it, handing it to John who took it carefully, flexing his wrist which allowed his fingers to close in an approximation of a grip. "What's this?" he asked.
"I saw it online. It's called a tracker. It's a three wheeled chair that turns with hand cranks. I'm pretty sure we can adapt it to your right arm somehow. I figured if you're going to take up racing, then you should at least do it under your own horsepower," Dave finished dryly.
John looked up with a grin. "Cool. I have a website for you to look at too. It's on the laptop—just pull up the screen."
Warily, Dave crossed over to the laptop on the nearby table and woke it up out of standby mode. He stood blinking for a moment at the screen before he looked at John in mild horror. "An ultralight airplane?"
"I thought you'd like it," John smirked.
Dave just shook his head. "You know, I think it's about time we found you a place of your own. I think you're ready to move out of here."
John took as deep a breath as was possible and nodded. "Yeah, I've been thinking about that too. Pull up the spreadsheet marked JS expenses. I've figured out what I need to live on per year, with the greatest financial outlay being in the first year, what with the refittings to an apartment and car, full time caretakers and whatnot. Fortunately the stock market has been good to me this year and I sold the MG on Ebay—someone will be coming to the house this weekend to pick it up." John knew he was lucky to be so well-off financially between his pension and his paycheck—he was determined to do this without taking a penny of his father's money.
"Well, okay then," Dave said faintly, looking over the numbers in disbelief. "What say we go apartment-hunting?"
In the end, a nasty kidney infection sidelined John's plans to leave the rehab facility once more. He was okay with that, the restless urge to get out of the clinic was tempered by the fear of re-entering the outside world, a world where he no longer belonged. He could afford to be patient before embarking on that particular voyage. Odd that it would be more frightening to him than the prospect of entering the wormhole to another galaxy. He found himself drawing a weird sort of strength from watching 'himself' participate in series of adventures each night. He watched as he took off on a would-be suicide run for the Hive ship over the city, saw as they lost Ford and found Ronon, and had hysterics over the merging of Cadman and Rodney, even as he felt stirrings of jealousy over discovering Rodney's interest in Katie Brown. Sometimes at night, when sleep would not come, he allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy of touching and being touched by Rodney. Sometimes. More often the indulgence proved more frustrating than anything, to have the desire but be unable to achieve release. It was just another on his long list of things he wanted but could not have.
He'd mentioned the dreams once to Jim when the subject of dreaming in general had come up and Jim wanted to know if he ever dreamt of riding or doing any of the things he used to take for granted. He'd been a little shy about sharing them at all, simply telling Jim that more often than not he dreamt of a strange, alien city called Atlantis where he had the most astonishing adventures, flying spaceships and whatnot. He made a joke out of it, but he could see that Jim recognized its importance in his life. He recognized there was something abnormal about the dreams themselves—they seemed too structured, too real to be dreams, and yet the fantastic experiences and amazing, last-minute hail-mary saves did feel like something his subconscious would come up with. He didn't question their presence in his life too deeply; he'd come to depend on them too much.
Until they stopped altogether.
He'd been watching himself and Teyla returning from a mission to M2K-345 where they had formalized a trade agreement for the upcoming year. The people of Seeton divided both their population and crops into several different camps, so that if one camp were lost to the Wraith, not all would starve. The smaller areas of cultivated land made for smaller visual target from the air as well. All this meant that ferrying Teyla from one camp to another was an all day affair.
As missions went, it was fairly routine. John had watched with envy the easy relationship between Sheppard and Teyla, even as he wondered for the umpteenth time what it was like to fly a ship that practically read your mind. He'd let his thoughts wander ahead a bit, wondering what Sheppard had planned on his return to the city, when he re-focused as Sheppard and Teyla began discussing the Wraith they called Michael and whether or not they'd seen the last of him. John had shuddered mentally here, recalling vividly Sheppard's conversion to something less than human during his chance encounter with the retrovirus earlier in the year and he still felt horrible over the deaths of Walker and Stevens during that incident—even though it wasn't him for whom Walker and Stevens had sacrificed their lives.
Out of nowhere, a blast rocked the jumper sideways.
"What the hell was that?" Sheppard complained, fighting for control and calling up a data display.
"Wraith Darts." Teyla was succinct. "Two of them on our six."
Sheppard said, "Speak of the ugly, pasty-faced devils…hang on." He spun the jumper in a combination dive/turn that had one Dart overshooting them. A drone fired from the side of the jumper and nailed the Dart in passing, sending it down in flames. A second blast hit the jumper from the other Dart.
"We cannot let it escape back through the Gate," Teyla said calmly, one hand braced on the control console, the other holding onto her seat. "They will have recognized the jumper."
"I know," Sheppard said grimly. John recognized his own expression; the one that said he'd hold it together as best he could but he may not have a choice here. "We just lost weapons control." C'mon, Shep, John urged silently. You can do this.
Sheppard abruptly shut down propulsion, slamming the jumper into a mid-air halt. The pursuing Dart clipped it from the rear, sending the Dart, missing a wing, spiraling out of control to the ground.
Unfortunately, the jumper was out of control as well. "We've lost our stabilizers!" Sheppard yelled. "Brace yourself!"
"Mr. Sheppard, you need to wake up."
What? John looked up blearily at the nurse standing above him.
"I'm sorry, but we have to change your catheter. You've developed phlebitis from this one and it's starting a secondary infection." She clucked at him, touching his forehead with her hand. "I think you're running a fever as well. I'll go get the doctor."
Just let me go back to sleep.
But when several hours later, sleep finally came, for the first time in nearly two years, John dreamt of nothing.
By the time the second night had passed in a state of utter dreamlessness, John had reached a level of despair that he'd not felt since the early days post-accident.
"It's the infection," the nurses told him, eyes trying unsuccessfully to hide their concern. "It's got you feeling down."
No, he thought. Atlantis is gone.
The morning sun was coming in on his face and he squinted into it, dimly aware that something wasn't right. Since when did his bed catch the morning sun? With a mental groan he turned his head away, stretching out a leg as he did so.
He stretched out a leg. The realization of what just happened staggered him. He took a deep breath at the realization and felt his chest fully expand without the restriction of thoracic muscles that didn't want to work. The sensation was so startling that he bolted upright in bed with the shock and then sat gasping at the fact that he did so. Stunning too, was the release from the grinding pain that he had lived with over the last 18 months. It was simply not there. What the fuck?
He was in a hospital bed, but that was the only thing familiar about his situation. He was not in his room at the long-term care facility. This room had ceilings that were at least fifteen feet high, with long panels of blue, green and yellow glass etched with geometric patterns that let in the light from outside. He felt a growing excitement burgeoning within him. It wasn't possible…was it?
An IV catheter ran fluids from a bag into his left arm, he was wearing a pale blue hospital gown and had some electronic leads of some sort attached to his forehead. He lifted his right hand to stare at it in disbelief, turning it back and forth, flexing his fingers as he grinned like a monkey. It only took him a moment to disconnect and cap the IV line, silencing the pump before an alarm could sound.
There was a door to a cubicle to his left, in which he could make out part of what might be a sink, so probably a bathroom. Clear glass doors led to a balcony off to the right and in front of him the room was crammed with a wide variety of equipment, some of which he'd never seen before. He tossed back the covers and watched as he wiggled his toes. Unbelievable. He went to swing his legs off the side of the bed and winced at the pain in his head. A touch to his forehead revealed a healing scab near his temple as well as the sticky leads. He pulled the neck of the scrubs aside and squinted down inside at the impressive bruise he had on his right deltoid muscle. A glint of silver caught his eye and he pulled out the set of dog tags that he had not worn since leaving the service.
John Sheppard, Lt. Colonel. Holy shit.
Who the hell are you? A voice inside his head demanded angrily. What's going on? How the fuck did I get here?
John froze. That's odd. He was pretty sure that there was some rule somewhere that said 'only one consciousness per body', unless of course, your name was Sybil. Or perhaps Colonel Sheppard of the Pegasus galaxy.
Oh, funny. A regular wise-guy. A real…shit. You're me.
Oh boy. It was the only explanation that made sense. Somehow, he was in Colonel Sheppard's body in Atlantis. Unfortunately, the Colonel seemed to be there as well.
Damned straight. I live here.
Images of the puddlejumper coming under fire came suddenly into John's mind and he could feel the effort it took to keep the bucking craft in the air as surely as if he had been flying it himself. Without warning, the jumper was knocked sideways by a violent blow and then the horizon outside the viewscreen began to spin wildly as the ship careened out of control for the ground below. Somehow, he pulled the jumper out of its fatal roll and was almost able to stabilize its course, but the treeline came up too fast. The impact snapped John abruptly back into the present.
Yeah. John could sympathize.
So…what, I'm dead?
John gave a mental shrug. You don't seem dead to me. Why would they go to all this trouble to set you up here if you were dead?
He could feel the Colonel digesting that one. In the meantime, he saw no need to stay in bed. He started to get up when he realized he had a urinary catheter in place. He pushed aside the gown and fiddled with the cuff, deflating it. Gritting his teeth, he ripped off the tape and pulled the tubing.
Ee-yow! The Colonel complained. What do you think you're doing?
John grabbed the leads by their wiring and popped them off his forehead. "Going to see the city," he said aloud. His legs felt wobbly underneath of him as he tried to stand and he wondered how much of it was due to the Colonel's probable head trauma and how much of it had to do with the fact that he himself had not walked in nearly two years.
What do you mean, you haven't walked…oh. Oh. Christ.
John grimly acknowledged the wave of shock that swept over him and moved unsteadily towards the balcony doors, realizing for the first time he was actually limping on his right leg. Something in his knee wasn't all that happy and the thought made him almost giddy. The glass doors slid open at his approach and he could feel his grin split his face. In the background, he could sense the reluctant agreement on the part of the Colonel that it was sorta cool. He stepped outside on the balcony, closing his eyes as he lifted his face to the sun, spreading his arms wide as though to embrace the salt air. His back and shoulders were sore, probably from the crash. He stretched like a cat, reveling in the ability to do so, savoring the pull of too-tight muscles and then he opened his eyes again. As far as he could see, there was ocean in all directions. He walked to the railing and looked down.
The city of Atlantis rose from her platform on the sea, tall needle-like spires reaching for the sky, sunlight reflecting off windows. From his current position, he could see one other 'arm' of the city, knowing from his previous dreams that the general layout resembled that of a starfish or a snowflake. Overhead, wheeling seabirds flew with a keening cry while down below, the sunlight sparkled off tiny whitecaps in the water. It was breathtaking. He couldn't believe he was actually here. He felt like he was going to jump right out of his skin with all the sensation flooding him suddenly. The possibilities that lay before him suddenly seemed endless. He wanted to run, he wanted to fly, he wanted a big juicy cheeseburger with all the fixings, fries and a cold beer on the side. He wanted to wrap sweaty arms around someone and pull them up close to his body so he could smell and rub and push and taste and fuck his brains out.
Hey! Don't get any bright ideas here. The Colonel sounded miffed and resentful.
Behind him, he heard a door whoosh open. He returned to the balcony doors to see that the outer door to the room now stood open to the corridor beyond. He could hear the sound of someone approaching at speed, running footfalls echoing in the hallway.
"No!" The loud voice carried sharply up the corridor. "I don't know what happened, Carson, I'm on my way now." The speaker sounded out of breath. "I'll call you back when I know. Because. Because I can't run and talk at the same time!"
John felt an irrepressible grin take over his face as Rodney barreled into the room, catching the doorframe with his hands to slow his progression and swing himself to a sliding halt inside the door.
"Rodney!" John was really pleased to see him. He could feel the Colonel's 'it's about goddamned time' as well as a sense of 'what are you so pleased about?' only to be followed abruptly with another sense of shock.
You think he's dead, don't you? In your reality. Because you didn't go to Atlantis.
Colonel, John thought nastily, do you mind? You're really distracting. Shut up.
John could feel the Colonel's building anger, but then they both were captivated by Rodney's reaction.
"John!" Rodney's mouth dropped open in surprise at seeing John standing there and then his mouth curved into a crooked smile. John couldn't recall Rodney ever using his first name before, though he had been using Rodney's for some time now. Rodney stepped forward, grin on his face as he reached for John and then he suddenly clapped his hands together and crowed, "I knew it! I knew you weren't dead." He bounced up on his toes. He began to punch the air with his index finger, vigorously emphasizing his point. "Hah! Wait 'til I tell Carson. HAH, I say."
He was in the process of reaching up to touch his earpiece when John staggered forward. "Rodney, wait!"
He stumbled a little and before he knew it, Rodney had him by the arm, easing him back towards the bed. "Easy there, Colonel. You got banged up a little in the crash. Though probably less than you deserved. I'm sorry, but you'd think the Ancients would have conceived of the possibility of a potential air-crash and designed the jumpers a bit better, because hello, no seatbelts." Rodney was still beaming at him.
"Teyla," John suddenly blurted out and felt himself starting to rise before fully understanding why.
Rodney took hold of his arm again and forced him to sit back down. "She's fine. Okay, so she has a broken arm, but otherwise she's fine. You're lucky she was with you, you know. She kept you alive until help could arrive. We got you back to Atlantis as fast as we could, but there was still brain swelling anyway."
John was distracted both by the feel of Rodney's grip on his bicep as well as the muttering Colonel insisting that there was nothing wrong with the jumper design and thank god Teyla was alright and before John knew it, Rodney was speaking with Carson over the radio, triumph ringing in every word.
"Well, I assumed you were already on your way down here. No, not an emergency, but you'll just have to see it for yourself." He was wearing his 'I was right' face and John didn't know how to tell him he wasn't entirely correct about the Colonel. He hated to have to let him down.
You'd better tell him. The Colonel's voice in his head was threatening and before he could stop himself, he shot back, or you'll do what? And then instantly regretted it. He knew exactly what it was like to feel impotent in his own body.
Sorry. Of course, I'll tell him. The Colonel seemed slightly mollified at his contrition.
Rodney still had him by the arm, giving him a little shake, as though he couldn't quite believe John was there and John realized that he was speaking a mile a minute, explaining what had happened to the Colonel over the last few days.
"…and so when Carson said you were brain dead, I didn't buy it because why else would those energy waves register on the Ancient scanner? And you were breathing on your own, which he could not explain to my satisfaction, or his either, I'm betting. He actually turned off the respirator, you know, can you imagine that? Said that's what you would have wanted, something about a medical directive you signed?" Rodney paused here to shoot John a typical 'are you insane?' look that seemed to imply that any document signed back on Earth was meaningless here in the Pegasus galaxy as long as Rodney McKay, PhD was around. "And damned if you didn't start breathing on your own. He said it was autonomic, but I could tell it bugged him. But he argued that dead was dead, something about you not having any something or other waves on your EEG, which meant it was highly unlikely you would ever recover from a vegetative state. You'd think that a medical doctor would at least get that part right, wouldn't you? And then he said even a potato could give off an electrical charge and I said that there was a big difference between a potato and a degrading puddle of goo, which is what your brain would have rapidly become if indeed, you were brain dead and he said…"
Somewhere in the back of his mind, the Colonel was repressing hysterical laughter and John felt it trying to bubble its way up to the surface. He placed his hand over Rodney's where it still gripped his arm and squeezed to interrupt the rapid flow of words. "Rodney," he rasped, trying to control his erratic emotions. "How long has he…um, that is, how long have I been here?"
Rodney let his hand slip out from under John's as his face fell. "Two days. We talked it over in detail: me, Carson, Elizabeth. I thought it was worth a shot at seeing if there was something among the Ancient artifacts not yet cataloged to see if you could be revived. It was either that or put you in stasis and after you started breathing on your own, I won that round. We moved you down to this room." Rodney glanced around the room briefly before locking his eyes back on John's face, a crooked smile lifting one corner of his mouth again. "Some of the equipment was too big to move and an integral part of the room anyway, so it was easier to set up here than try to relocate everything to the infirmary—besides, it would seem that the room was set up for someone to actually stay in it—there's a bathroom and everything." He paused, leaning over to bump John with his shoulder. "Carson is gonna freak when he sees you!" The glee was patently obvious in his voice.
Tell him. The Colonel's voice was insistent. It was a voice that brooked no argument and it annoyed John, even though he knew the Colonel was right. He had just opened his mouth to speak when Carson came hurrying into the room.
"Guid lord," the doctor breathed as he stopped cold, mouth open and Scots brogue very much in evidence—the way it got when he was excited. John found himself trading grins with Rodney.
Carson seemed to shake himself and he stepped forward, even as Rodney hurled himself off the bed and rushed over to Beckett's side, the better to gloat, John suspected. "How is this even possible?" Carson turned towards Rodney. "What did you do?"
Rodney puffed his chest out, looking so much like a Banty rooster that John had to swallow another laugh and he could feel the reluctant amusement on the part of the Colonel as well. He could also suddenly feel a hesitation in the back of his mind.
You don't want me to tell Carson? He found the change in attitude hard to believe.
You can't prove that you are who you say you are. The Colonel's voice seemed contemplative, like he was thinking fast and furiously. He might think you're an alien entity…
Like Thalen. John nodded mentally.
How do you know about…? Oh fuck me. The Colonel seemed really pissed now. Just how long have you been spying on…
"Colonel?" Carson was frowning at him.
John was tempted to answer 'hang on, I'll go get him'. To the Colonel he said mockingly, 'Showtime'.
"Yeah, doc?" The words felt right coming out of his mouth. I can do this. He grinned again, foolishly he knew, but it just felt so good to be sitting here, talking with these people that he could not help but think of as friends. He felt the Colonel shift and mutter at this particular thought, but at least Sheppard had the grace to stay quiet and let John do his thing. Carson was smiling as he began his exam, testing certain motor skills and his ability to track movement while he asked John what he remembered. With the Colonel's help, John was able to supply most of the answers—right up until the crash.
Meanwhile, Rodney was grinning and explaining in great detail what he had been doing the past 48 hours, hands flying as he moved back and forth from where John sat on the side of the bed to the bank of equipment, pointing out readings and pulling up displays on the monitors for Carson to see.
"Well," Carson said at last as he eyed the data Rodney had collected and then over at John again. "I canna explain it, but you seem fit as a fiddle to me. I don't want anyone to have too great an expectation at this moment, however." Carson shot a narrow-eyed look at Rodney before turning back to John. His expression softened, looking both kind and worried at the same time. "I'll be blunt, Colonel. There've been cases where people have miraculously revived from injuries such as yours, only to have severe problems later. Memory loss, personality changes, even sudden death. I want to make sure you really are okay. I'd like to take you down to the infirmary and run a few tests, if you don't mind."
John thought it interesting that Carson's words made it a question and his tone made it an order. "Not dressed like this," he said firmly. "I went out on the balcony earlier and the wind did a Marilyn Monroe number on me."
Carson laughed, sounding somehow a little relieved. "I'll see about getting you some clothes first, then. I'll send someone down with a uniform and a wheelchair and meet you in the infirmary." He headed for the door, speaking quietly into his headset as he left the room.
John turned to Rodney to find him staring at him with an odd expression on his face. Rodney suddenly looked embarrassed to be there and began to sidle towards the door as well. "You must be exhausted. I should let you get some rest, well at least as much as you can get before Carson and his vultures swoop in. And I've got, well, you know, stuff I should be doing down in the labs. I just…well, welcome back, Colonel." He looked up at those words, a tremulous smile breaking through the nervous babble that he'd been rattling off.
Oh shit. John felt a sheer, protective anger blast through him from Sheppard and he felt a corresponding irritation in return. Like I want to hurt him, asshole. The Colonel subsided, like a grumbling bear back into its den.
"Yeah, um…Rodney?" John winced in anticipation of where this was going next and rubbed the back of his neck as he marshaled his words. "See, I'm not really Colonel Sheppard, okay?"
"What?" Rodney's voice was flat, and when John looked up he caught the edge of shock in Rodney's expression before his face fell only to remold itself into anger. His blue eyes narrowed and his hands tightened into fists. "What are you saying? Who are you?"
John marveled at the very fluidity of Rodney's facial expressions, even as he realized he had done a poor job of setting this up. "It's okay!" He held out a placating hand in Rodney's direction. "I mean, the Colonel's still here." He pointed an index finger at his head. "And I am John Sheppard. Major John Sheppard. Only I suspect I'm from another reality. One where I didn't go on the Atlantis expedition."
Rodney stood staring at him with a stupefied expression on his face and then he smacked his forehead and wheeled back towards the machinery, muttering to himself as to the extent of his stupidity and roughly pulling out a laptop, clacking away furiously on it with his back turned away from John.
John felt an internal sigh on the part of Sheppard and he too had to acknowledge that Rodney was being a little too oblivious as to his own personal safety. He slipped off the edge of the bed and padded over to Rodney's side, his bare feet making no sound on the decking of the floor.
Rodney barely looked up at his approach. "I misread the Ancient text. I thought it was a communication device. I thought it was something that would allow me to reach the Colonel. But instead it must have opened a portal in the space-time dimension. What I don't understand," and Rodney turned here to give John the full force of his glittering glare, "is how the hell it snagged you."
On the viewscreen behind Rodney's head, an image of John's talisman appeared, floating in space and rotating for a complete view of the object as some sort of gibberish language appeared alongside it. "Hey," John pointed, "that's my good luck piece."
"Your good luck piece?" Rodney snarled. He pointed to a similar ring-shaped device that was attached to the main unit of the console in the room, glowing in a cheerful, neon blue sort of way. "You have one of these? You just happen to be wandering around in your reality carrying a piece of Ancient equipment in your pocket?"
Rodney's testiness with him was starting to annoy him. "I accidentally picked it up," he drawled.
"Of course you did." Rodney continued to glare at John and then all the fire suddenly went out of his eyes. "How do I even know who you are? How do I know he's still in there?"
The Colonel's pithy retort echoed in John's mind before he could reply and he snorted and choked, catching Rodney's incredulous expression and trying even harder not to laugh.
"What?" Rodney's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You can hear him, can't you? He said something to you, didn't he? What did he say?" Rodney seemed suddenly menacing.
John forced himself to look over Rodney's shoulder at the uppermost corner of the room as he spoke. "He said, 'gee thanks, Rodney, you've made me a zombie'."
John flicked his gaze back to check out Rodney's reaction. It was everything he could have hoped for. Rodney's eyes grew round as saucers and his mouth formed a perfect little 'oh' as he processed the words, and then his eyes became all squinty and his lips folded into a narrow line, even as an enraged flush crept up from his neckline.
"I'll have you know everyone else gave you up for dead! If it weren't for me…"
John couldn't help it. He lifted his arms out in front of him; letting his hands drop at the wrists into an appropriate zombie mode and incanted, "John want braaaainssss…"
"Not funny, Sheppard." Rodney snapped, putting his hands on his hips and glaring at John. His mouth screwed up in an effort not to laugh and then he looked away, shoulders shaking silently. He pulled himself together and turned to glare at John again. "I'm trying to be serious here."
John began to snicker. This proved too much for Rodney and he lost it completely, laughing in little wheezy false starts. Eyes filled with mirth locked on John's and Rodney began to laugh in earnest, face turning red with the action. Every time it looked like Rodney might regain self-control, John would raise his arms zombie-style, reducing Rodney to gasping, "Stop it, stop it," as he laughed even harder, so hard, he had to sit down at the console and wipe his eyes.
Finally, Rodney snorted and poked John in the ribs. "Okay, Colonel Wise-Ass. For the moment we'll concede that Sheppard is present and you're who you say you are. Can I speak directly with the Colonel?"
John tilted his head, concentrating. "Nope," he shook his head at last. "I can hear him. I can feel what he feels, remember what he's done in the past, but he has no control over his body at the moment."
"Why is that?" Rodney frowned.
John could feel the Colonel's confusion as he tried to work out the reasons himself, felt the moment that the answer came to him and the resignation that came with it. Oh shit. "Yeah, um, about that. Seems the Colonel thinks he might be partially Ascended." What, like that stuff with Chaya? And Teer? He could feel the Colonel gritting metaphorical teeth.
"What? You mean he's stuck between planes of existence? Like a ghost in limbo? Crap."
Suddenly nothing seemed so funny any more. Rodney looked crestfallen, like he'd just lost his best friend and in a way, John thought maybe he had, at least as far as he understood this Ascended shit. He could feel Sheppard's discomfort as well and wished there was something he could do to make the situation better. Rodney suddenly got a determined look on his face. "Well, partially Ascended in my book means mostly alive, so unless the Colonel wants to be fully Ascended, then I say there's a way to bring him back."
Atta boy, Rodney. The thought crossed John's mind with a spark of pleasure and John was disconcerted to realize he couldn't tell if it originated with Sheppard or with him. He was just telling himself it didn't really matter when a wave of weakness washed over him. His head swam and his knees buckled and he heard Rodney's alarmed "Sheppard!" even as Rodney jumped up to grab him by the arm again.
He leaned into Rodney's support, barely able to stand. Rodney grasped at him, grip slipping as the hospital gown bunched up, but finally slung one of John's arms over his shoulder and half-hoisted John on his feet, walking him over to the bed and heaving him up onto it ungracefully. They sat on the edge, John leaning heavily on Rodney's shoulder.
"Are you alright?" Rodney's voice came from somewhere very close to his ear and John opened eyes he had not realized were closed to see Rodney's bright eyes fixed on him up close in concern. Without thinking, he reached up to touch Rodney's face with his right hand, noting that Rodney hadn't shaved recently, tracing the stubble of his jaw gently with his fingertips. Because he could.
Rodney stared back at him with startled eyes and then suddenly flushed, releasing him so abruptly that John threatened to spill off the bed and had to right himself. Rodney bemusedly touched his own face where John's fingers had trailed and then began a detailed inspection of the bedspread.
"Sorry," John said hoarsely, his smile feeling tight and brittle. "It's just been a long time since…" he trailed off. No point in getting into that with Rodney. He didn't need to know.
Rodney however, looked up at him as though seeing him, the real him for the first time. "We never finished discussing how it was that you came to inhabit the body of the Colonel," Rodney said seriously and then, as the thought occurred to him, his pupils dilated in panic. "Ohmygod," he breathed, "what's going on with your body right now? What if someone thinks you're dead?"
"I doubt anyone will even notice I'm gone," John surprised himself at the bitterness in his tone and Rodney's eyes managed to get even wider. John shrugged, realizing he had to allay Rodney's fears or he'd never hear the end of it. "I was in an accident. I'm paralyzed, Rodney. Have been for a while now."
"Oh. Well. That's just…well, frankly it sucks." He looked down where Rodney's fingers suddenly closed on his forearm, watching in fascination as the tendons of his hand moved with the gentle squeeze before it edged away. Rodney cleared his throat. "So. Tell me how you got hold of this Ancient artifact," he began, obviously changing the subject.
A slight cough from the doorway made Rodney flinch and jump. "Haven't you ever heard of knocking?" he thundered at the hapless young med tech standing there with the wheelchair, a change of clothing stacked on its seat. He blew off her protests of coming in without announcing her presence because, well, the door was open, and John took the pile of clothing and retreated into the bathroom to get dressed.
He was momentarily diverted by scars he had never before seen and it was a little disorienting to have the memory of receiving them supplied at almost the same instant that he noted them in the first place. The bruise on his shoulder was matched with one on his knee as well—even though it was smaller, it was very sore to the touch and he knew it went down to the bone. A little fluid in there too, no doubt. He hoped he hadn't torn something and then shook his head at the thought. He couldn't help touching—pressing on the bruise to make it hurt, exulting in the fact that it did. Even the small act of putting on pants made him grin foolishly and he dressed quickly, pulling on socks, shoving his feet into boots, leaving them unlaced as he pulled on a black t-shirt over his head.
He glanced up in the mirror then, startled at seeing a face that was his but somehow not his just the same. The motorcycle accident had prematurely aged him; on the rare occasions these days when he looked in a mirror, he'd noted how haggard and drawn he'd become, his beard shot through with grey. The face staring back at him now looked tired, but it was as though he were looking at a younger version of himself. His right eye was blackened, days old now and turning a sickly green and yellow at the edges. The beard was only two days old and only a few threads of silver were present here and there at his temples. The gash on his forehead he had felt earlier was uglier than expected, and as he turned his head in the mirror to inspect it, he saw that it crawled into his hairline. The hair itself was something else altogether. He'd have to ask Sheppard how he got it to do that stylishly disheveled thing. It obviously had to be a little shorter on top to let the cowlicks run amok. He'd been trying to let the weight of his hair suppress them by leaving it longer. He grinned at himself in the mirror, realizing that for the first time in years, he cared what he looked like. He drew a hand thoughtfully over his whiskery cheeks, relieved at the idea of being able to shave once more.
Don't get too comfortable here, buddy.
The Colonel's face seemed to stare back at him from the mirror for a moment and John glared back, watching his eyes narrow in the glass, not giving any ground. Of course he wasn't staying permanently. He didn't doubt that for a moment. Didn't mean he couldn't enjoy himself while he was here. Don't worry. I'm sure Rodney will come up with something. He meant to be reassuring, but the words in his head sounded dryly bitter to him.
You leave him alone. Definitely threatening now.
Excuse me? What are you getting at, Colonel?
You know what I'm getting at. Rodney's off limits.
An unreasonable anger boiled up in John—unreasonable because he couldn't exactly hide his feelings from Sheppard while at the same time pissed that the Colonel would think he would take advantage of Rodney. And then illumination struck him suddenly as he got what had crawled up Sheppard's ass and died.
Fox. Grapes. He shot the words smugly at Sheppard.
I have my reasons! Good ones. Leave him alone. Suddenly John was overwhelmed with a feeling of incredible weariness, as though a two-ton boulder had been attached to his back when he wasn't looking. He felt Sheppard's loneliness, carved out of his sense of duty and responsibility and hidden from everyone by his easy charm. He felt the black despair at having woken the Wraith and Sheppard's need to try and absolve himself by protecting the city and its inhabitants at all costs. He sensed Sheppard's appreciation for Rodney not only as a person, but also as a crucial component of the expedition, one they could not afford to do without.
It was too much. John felt himself pushing Sheppard away, even as he felt the Colonel withdrawing and slamming shut the equivalent of a mental steel door. With a sigh, John exited the bathroom. The med tech was nowhere in sight.
Rodney looked down at his bootlaces and rolled his eyes. "Well, c'mon then. We don't have all day, Colonel." He brought the wheelchair forward.
John eyed it sourly. "I'm walking, McKay."
Rodney opened his mouth to protest and then shut it with an audible snap, a painful looking flush marking his cheekbones. John figured Rodney had just remembered why walking was important to him. Rodney surprisingly said nothing more about it, pushing the chair to one side and motioning towards the door with a mocking flourish.
As they entered the hall, John's stomach growled loudly, prompting a disbelieving look from Rodney. John felt laughter surging up again. Rodney was just so damn expressive—he was fun to watch because he was so animated, so alive. "Can't we stop by the mess for some food?" John whined, knowing the answer would be 'no'.
"You know very well we can't," Rodney began primly, though John could see the desire to be talked into it shimmering in his eyes.
John started to suggest 'pudding' in his most seductive voice, when he suddenly felt weird. He staggered to a stop, placing a hand on the wall for support. He felt an odd thrumming under his hand where it touched the wall, but he could only focus on this sudden disorientation.
"Sheppard?" Rodney was at his side at once. "What is it? Do you need to sit down? I knew we should have taken the chair."
"No," he said slowly, but gripping Rodney's arm for support anyway. "This is different. Not so much weak as…"
Disconnected. Crap. I don't think you can leave the equipment room. I can feel you slipping away.
"We gotta go back," John said grimly, pushing himself up off the wall and heading back towards the room they had just left. He could feel the connection between himself and Sheppard growing stronger again with each step he took. Rodney was on his heels, hammering him with questions, but it wasn't until he was back in the equipment room that he could take a deep breath and try to answer them.
"It's because you're not really here," Rodney said tersely when John finished explaining what had happened.
"Huh?" He could tell he looked confused, especially when Sheppard got it first.
You're basically just a signal. It's like walking too far away from the radio base with a mobile phone. It's like the hologram on…
"I know, I get it," John said aloud. "I need mobile hologram emitters like the Doctor on Voyager."
Did you ever notice how much that IOA guy looks like…?
Oh yeah, seriously, we should ask him to 'state the nature of the medical emergency' the next time we see him. There was a mutual, if somewhat juvenile, appreciation of this humor.
Rodney opened his mouth to question the apparent non sequitur but then made the leap himself and nodded. "Yes. So for now, you would appear to be tied to this room."
The next few hours passed in a combination of unbelievable tedium and more stimulation than John could remember experiencing in a long time. He was used to the tedium of hospitals and their endless testing. It was the bustle and commotion around him that was wearying. When Rodney informed Beckett of the problem, a whole army of medical personnel began to appear in the room, transporting as much of the lab equipment from the infirmary as could be moved. Carson arrived to direct it all and John went through a battery of tests, as much as could be performed there locally. Carson was disturbed by the fact that he was unable to run an MRI and had to rely on a hand scanner to utilize the Ancient diagnostic equipment. He also didn't like Rodney's waffling explanation as to why John was restricted to a relatively short radius around the Ancient console in order to be functional, sensing there was more to the story than Rodney was letting on, but not being able to prove it.
Elizabeth showed up at one point, and John felt oddly shy, as though a visiting dignitary or royalty had come to pay him a visit. The Colonel snorted at that, but otherwise seemed to be maintaining a low but watchful profile. John could read both relief and worry in her posture towards him and he wished he could tell her everything was going to be all right. She had enough to worry about. After she left, John had to struggle to keep his eyes open, exhausted by the overwhelming sensory input swamping him since his arrival in Atlantis. He sat propped up in the medical bed, reluctant to lie down fully or get back under the covers, dozing lightly.
"Hey." John opened his eyes to see Rodney standing beside his bed, looking anxious. "Teyla and Ronon are here to see you, but I can just tell them that you're too wiped out."
"Nah, that's okay." John pushed himself slowly into a more upright position, "I want to see them. Let 'em in."
Rodney looked pleased at his response and then John saw his expression change even as he felt himself falling backwards towards the bed, darkness closing in like a velvet cloak around him.
When he awoke, he knew at once he was back in the long-term facility, back in his own body. The stink of diseased, decaying bodies and disinfectant assailed his nostrils; he felt once again the struggle to breathe, the leaden weight of his useless limbs. The pain of returning to this existence now was worse for having briefly enjoyed the freedom of movement. Worse than the first time he'd had to acknowledge that he'd never walk again. His mouth opened in a silent cry of protest and tears stung his eyes, threatening to spill. Gritting his teeth, he clamped down on the emotion. Tears were not merely a luxury he could not afford. Tears threatened breathing when one could not easily brush them away, or clear nose and throat.
Of course it was just a dream.
After all that time fantasizing about the Atlantis that might have been, had he only chosen to go on the expedition, it was not surprising he should manage to escalate his fantasy by actually placing himself there. Anywhere was better than here, and Atlantis was not just anywhere. Atlantis was his magic place where he could go and leave this withered, rotting corpse of a body behind. It all made crazy kind of sense—the wild adventures he'd envisioned this alternate version of himself as having. A bug that bites you on the neck and paralyzes you? C'mon, it didn't take a psychologist to figure out where that one came from. A personal shield to protect you from bodily harm? Nope, not that one either. A vicious enemy that feeds on your very flesh, rendering you an impotent, feeble old man? A shrink would have a field day with this material. Would tell him that he had to accept what had happened to him and that his life was irrevocably altered before he could truly begin to experience the fullness of the life he now had. He'd been told about the phantom memories and hallucinations that people with limb amputations and severe SCI such as he had could experience. That his body would substitute the sensation of something actually occurring to him at the time for a real memory or a vivid fantasy. He'd just had no idea that they could feel so real.
And then there was Rodney. There was no doubt that John had built on the framework of the man he'd met briefly and been attracted to in some odd way. He'd created the Adventures of John and Rodney in his head and had played out that fantasy too—the one where cute best friend and colleague suddenly realizes there's a mutual attraction, regs be damned. Everyone gets together and lives happily ever after.
It made him sick inside. Sick that this was all he had. Sick that this fantasy was more real to him than his own life. Sick that he wanted it back so desperately; even though he knew it was just a sham. Sick that he couldn't find the key back to Atlantis because the artifice of it was too clearly etched in his mind.
"Oh good," the chipper voice of the nurse finally caught his attention and he looked up at her as she smiled down aggressively at him. "You are awake. Now c'mon, John, we need to eat a little something. You have your doctors worried about your level of nutrition. How about some nice rice pudding?"
He closed his eyes.
It was the cry of seabirds that woke him. He took a deep breath, afraid to open his eyes, thinking that he only imagined that he smelled the faint tang of salt air. The scents and sounds persisted though and he reluctantly lifted his lids at last. He knew even before he'd opened his eyes though. Everything felt different. He was back. Thank god.
He shifted his head and could tell by the way the light slanted in through the open balcony doors that it was late afternoon. He started to sit up when he noticed Rodney seated in a chair, back turned towards him and planted face down at the console, a faint buzzing noise catching John's ear. John looked around the room. Most of the hospital equipment from before was still there, as well as at least half a dozen scattered coffee cups, several extra chairs and a couple of duffle bags.
John tossed back the bedcovers. He was wearing pale green scrubs this time. The IV catheter had been removed. He placed his feet on the floor and stood up, pleased that his balance seemed better this go round and that he felt somewhat stronger too, even though he was still sore all over. Knee was still a little pissed off too, but then all this enforced bed rest was probably what it needed. He automatically straightened the sheets, making the bed with somewhat less than military precision. If his hands shook just a little, it certainly had nothing to do with the overwhelming relief he felt at being here again.
Curiosity drew him over to the duffle bags. The first was haphazardly crammed with clothing, power bars, a PDA and a rolled up scientific journal. The topmost t-shirt read "Please Note: Some quantum physics theories suggest that when the observer is not directly viewing this person, he may cease to exist or will exist only in a vague and undetermined state."
John was sorely tempted to put the shirt on himself, just to see Rodney's reaction. Still smiling, he opened the other duffle, only to recognize his own things, including his ipod. His shaving kit was right on top. Well, okay, Sheppard's things. Someone, at least, had been optimistic about his eventual return. Or, if this was still all a dream, maybe his subconscious knew just how badly he wanted to be able to shave.
A muffled snort sounded behind him, the sound of a snore interrupted. He turned, bag in hand, to find Rodney staring at him blearily, hair rumpled up in fuzzy tufts, a yellow post-it note stuck to one cheek. A fierce burst of some undefined emotion expanded in John's chest at the sight.
"You came back," Rodney said stupidly. He peeled the post-it note off the side of his face and stared at in some confusion before folding it carefully and placing it in his pants pocket.
"Is it still the same day?" John felt one eyebrow rise. "Or did you sit in that chair all night?"
Rodney glanced at his watch, seeming to take a long time to focus as he rubbed the corner of one eye. "The latter. I was afraid I'd miss you if you returned but I'd left. What happened? Where did you go? We may not have much time, I need more information." He struggled to his feet, yawning and then rolling his neck from side to side before wincing and massaging it with one hand.
"First things first." John headed for the bathroom, taking the duffle with him. He was pleased to note a stack of towels on the counter. There was also a stack of scrubs in various shades of blue and green.
Rodney fell in step behind him. "Didn't you hear me? I don't know how much time we have before you collapse like a marionette whose strings have been cut." Rodney followed him to the bathroom, hesitating at the door.
"Can you at least wait until I take a leak?" John dropped the duffle and began undoing the drawstring of the scrubs as he stood in front of the toilet. He glanced over in the mirror at Rodney's expression and was amused to see him look embarrassed.
"Um, well, yes, of course. Though I have to tell you, it was pretty freaky when you just checked out like that yesterday. One minute there and talking and the next…" Rodney's hand mimed something falling over and then a flat-line. In the mirror, John could see that Rodney had adopted a posture of public restroom behavior, studiously looking anywhere but at John.
John dropped his head forward as he began to urinate. Rolaids had it wrong. This was relief. He smiled as he tucked himself back in and retied the scrub bottoms, reaching over to the sink to wash his hands. Turning to Rodney, he said, "How about some breakfast?"
"Breakfast? More like dinner now. And can you please stay on track here? I'm trying to determine what happened yesterday so that it doesn't happen again. We don't have time to go get food."
John's stomach growled embarrassingly loudly. "But I'm hungry," he whined. "I was hungry yesterday."
"Oh for…" Rodney's mouth tightened in apparent disapproval at John's lack of scientific dedication. "I've got power bars…" He turned to look vaguely over his shoulder at the bag in the other room.
"Rodney," John complained. "I want food. Real food."
Rodney looked askance at him for a moment, as though he might be some sort of pod person, and then touched the earpiece of his radio. "Ronon. He's awake again. Yes. And hungry. Ravenous even. Yes. Bring whatever you would eat. Only cooked."
Looking sharply back at John, Rodney raised an eyebrow at him. "Happy now?"
"Cool," said John, pulling the scrub top over his head and dropping it to the floor. He collected the dog tags in one hand and pulled them off over his head, tossing them to the counter with a small chink of sound as they slid to a stop. He turned away from Rodney's gaping expression and reached into the small shower stall, swiping a hand over the controls. Hot water began gushing out of the overhead faucet. He fished a bar of soap and his shampoo out of the duffle and placed them on the shelf inside the stall as steam began to rise. He started to untie the scrub bottoms again.
"What are you doing?" Rodney said in a strangled voice.
John looked back over his shoulder as he let the scrub pants drop to the floor and stepped out of them, kicking them aside. "Taking a shower, what does it look like?"
Rodney opened and closed his mouth several times, looking somewhat like a startled goldfish. "But…but…" his glance wandered down to John's ass and then was forcibly wrenched upwards again by sheer willpower. "What if you…you know, pass out again?" His voice squeaked with the question. The red flush over his cheekbones only accentuated the sharp blueness of his eyes.
"Well then," John grinned as he opened the shower door wide enough for him to step inside, "you'll just have to scrape me up off the floor and put me to bed." He winked as he stepped under the glorious spray of hot water and shut the shower door.
What do you think you are doing? The Colonel's voice almost startled him; he'd gotten used to not hearing it. It was there in full force now however and he could feel the waves of anger roiling off Sheppard like the steam from the shower.
Whatever. John basked in the feel of the slick soap sliding over his skin, the pounding of the hot water against his flesh. It's my dream, I can do whatever I want.
To emphasize his point, he turned his back into the spray and slid soapy hands over his cock. God, that felt good. He shuddered at the first stroke, unconsciously spreading his feet wider apart to better brace himself, head dropping forward. His hips began to rock infinitesimally with each slick pull and he felt his breathing pick up. He placed one hand on the wall in front of him, leaning into it as he felt the muscles in his back and thighs start to tighten. God, yes. He suddenly wondered if Rodney had ever left the room, or if he was still there, watching him through the pebbled glass door.
Unbidden, an image of Miss Watson, his sixth grade teacher, complete with little grey cardigan sweater and a look of profound disapproval, appeared in his head. She had a ruler in one hand, which she smacked sharply in the palm of the other. What the hell?
Pissed, John concentrated and with an effort, managed to envision Rodney in the room with him. He peeled off fantasy Rodney's clothes and had him step in the shower alongside him, water beading on his pale, slightly freckled shoulders as he ducked his head under the spray and turned to face John.
Wearing a clown nose.
God, you are such a prick. Almost two years, he reminded the Colonel. Mood effectively killed, John shot a mental glare at Sheppard. What's your problem?
There was anger and resentment yes, but a small measure of sympathy as well. This is not some dream in which you can play around. This is my life. This is real.
A door opened in his mind, and he could suddenly feel the truth of what Sheppard was saying. Without putting it into actual words, he seemed to be able to understand what the connection between him and Sheppard was about. The fact that they had both lost touch with their bodies, the alien device that brought them both here but under tenuous circumstances, the inability of either one of them to move on from this existence. He could feel too, Sheppard's conflicted emotions as though they were his own, and he knew that it was a personal sacrifice on Sheppard's part to allow this window into his psyche to open.
Shit. We're both fucked, aren't we?
Sheppard's rueful agreement felt like an old familiar friend. Without further ado, he finished his shower and exited the stall. The outer door was closed, no Rodney in sight. Toweling efficiently, he hung the damp towel over the stall door and then shaved with pleasure, taking his time, glad to rid himself of the itchy days-old beard. He debated whether or not to get dressed in the uniform provided. The scrubs seemed more practical. After a brief hesitation, he chose the scrubs, selecting a set of dark green ones.
"Ohmygod," he could hear Rodney grumble outside the bathroom door. "How much longer are you going to be in there? Can you possibly stop primping and hurry it up here? It's not like you're going to the Prom."
John opened the door on Rodney's final words and stepped out, sliding past him where he was standing in order to yell through the door more effectively. John noted that Rodney's eyes fluttered half-closed as he passed, and Rodney also took a deep breath, nostrils twitching in John's wake.
John walked barefoot over to the bed, seating himself near the head in a cross-legged position. Oh please. You can't tell me you've never noticed that before? He could feel Sheppard's uncertainty and it was all he could do to keep from laughing out loud. Oh c'mon, he checks you out all the time! Sheppard's n'uh-uh sounded doubtful. John snorted. You really don't ever see it coming, do you? He felt Sheppard's startled reaction to his thoughts.
Rodney likes girls. Sheppard seemed determined to get in the last word.
So do you. That's never stopped you from liking boys too. John tried not to feel too smug.
Rodney had gone over to the console and was now approaching the bed with the laptop in hand, an earnest look upon his face. He sat on the end of the bed, facing John, supporting his weight on one hip while his other leg hung off the bed, foot resting on the floor. He had the laptop between them, opened and facing him so he could enter information if needed as John spoke. "No fooling around now. I need to know everything."
John knew that he couldn't entirely keep a smile off his face at Rodney's words. However, before he could respond, the door chimed. Without thinking, John willed the door to open and was faintly surprised when it did so. Well, that's new. He could feel Sheppard's smug pleasure at the new skill hovering in the background. Ronon entered bearing a heavily laden tray in one hand, with Teyla right behind him.
"Food!" John said cheerfully, patting the bed in front of him and forcing Rodney to move the laptop back. Ronon dropped the tray a little roughly on the bed, food spilling sideways from its stacks as he did so. Oh wow. John noted that there was nothing green on the plate, which presumably meant Ronon didn't let Teyla help with the food choices. Chips. Pudding. Mac and cheese. And sloppy joes. Something about the meat didn't look quite right but John decided not to examine that too closely. He grinned up at Ronon. "Thanks, big guy."
Rodney neatly intercepted the cold beer that Ronon had also brought along, handing John the bottled water instead and then mouthing 'head trauma' at him when John protested, making little 'crazy' circles around his temple with his free hand. John gave him a dirty look when Rodney opened the beer and began drinking it himself.
He picked up a fork and glanced over at Teyla, who had a neat row of stitches under one eye and a colorful cast on her left arm. John could see it already had dozens of signatures.
"I see you've encountered another one of our weird little customs," John said, waving the fork at the cast. He felt his forehead furrow. Scenes of the jumper crash ran through his mind again; Teyla frightened but calm in the face of impending death. "You okay?"
"I am well, John," Teyla said serenely, her alien beauty unmarred by her recent injuries. "I am glad to see that you are better as well."
"Thanks to you." John was still smiling at her when he flashed his fork in Rodney's direction, narrowly missing pinning Rodney's hand to the bed in the act of stealing a muffin. Rodney withdrew his hand hastily, holding it protectively up close to his chest.
"Hey! You really almost got me that time." He sounded wounded.
"Really hungry," John smirked around a mouthful of macaroni. "Man trapped in a room here, get your own."
"You're in a good mood." Ronon's grumble seemed to suggest that this was somehow wrong. John had to remind himself that he really didn't know this guy standing beside the bed. A quick glance over his deceptively loose-limbed form made him realize that Ronon was not someone he wanted pissed at him. Sheppard's memory supplied sharp images of strength and speed and flashing blades. John found half-lidded tawny eyes watching him in a silent face and realized that with the dreads, Ronon reminded him of a sleepy-eyed lion. Sizing up its prey.
"Well, why wouldn't he be in a good mood," Rodney hurriedly jumped in. "I mean, not dead, not in a coma, well, at least not at the moment, what's not to like about that?"
Ronon turned thoughtful eyes on Rodney and then back to John. "I dunno. How about 'man trapped in a room'? Or maybe, 'just crashed a jumper'? You sure you know how to fly, Sheppard?"
"You sure you know how to shoot a gun, Ronon?" John countered. He dipped his head down to take a huge bite out of the sloppy joe, glancing up at Ronon through his eyelashes as he did so. He then had to close his eyes and groan, licking the thick tomato sauce off his fingers as it oozed out of the bun and watching as chunks of his sandwich splattered back to the plate. He wiped his chin with the back of his hand and then licked it as well. Perfect.
"I'm working on the trapped part," Rodney said testily. "Or at least, I was trying to." His steely blue-eyed glare seemed to imply that everyone in the room was hindering him in this course of action, lingering just a hair longer on John than necessary. Or perhaps, more specifically, John's mouth.
"I am sure that you will arrive at a solution eventually," Teyla said smoothly.
Always the peacekeeper, John thought. He looked up at her tranquil features, her dark eyes smiling at him from underneath a fringe of toffee-colored hair that framed her face attractively and brushed past her shoulders. He found himself smiling back.
So, Sheppard. How come you and Teyla never…?
Oh, riiiiight. Has nothing to do with the fact your attention lies elsewhere.
He could feel Sheppard's indignation and merely glanced over at Rodney, who was in the process of explaining something to Ronon, gesticulating wildly as he did so. John smirked internally and thought 'hands' at Sheppard. Funny. Who knew that the partially Ascended could still be so clueless when it came to themselves? He thought there was quite possibly some sputtering on Sheppard's part.
Ronon and Teyla pulled up chairs and stayed until all the food was gone; John finally relenting and letting Rodney have the muffin, as well as the pudding cup and some of his chips. Teyla started to point out that he was sending mixed messages and that by giving in, he was setting himself up to always have Rodney stealing food from him before she caught John's grin and rolled her eyes. "We should leave you to get back to your work." She cast a significant glance at Ronon, who stood as well and followed her out of the room, casting an unreadable look in John's direction as he left.
"Now can we get down to business?" Rodney said with a frown.
So John told him all that he knew about the artifact. He told Rodney how he came to have it in the first place, how he stayed behind from the expedition, that he'd never seen it glow blue like the one in the console, how after the accident he began seeing images of Atlantis in his dreams, only he now knew they were actual events being played out in a parallel universe instead of dreams. He described how he had followed the events in Atlantis over the past 18 months and how everything stopped when the Colonel crashed the jumper. He did not tell Rodney of his belief that everyone in the Atlantis of his reality was dead. He did not mention that he had longed for sleep each night so he could live vicariously in this world or the devastation he felt when his nightly connection to this reality had been lost. He could feel Sheppard at the back of his mind, silently acknowledging what John had chosen to leave out and why. It was both irritating and comforting at the same time.
"Where does the Colonel go when you're not here?" Rodney's eyes on him were intense, concerned and held a hint of something John could not quite define.
He shrugged, unable to put it into words. "I dunno. 'Somewhere else.' Not here."
Rodney shot him a sour look.
"There has to be some connection though." He was thinking out loud, eyes unfocused and looking inward at something else. "Something to do with the artifact and maybe to do with his disconnect from his physical body. Some reason why you can only see this reality or come through to it when you are sleeping. I'll have to ask Carson about this—voodoo is his specialty not mine. Circumspectively, of course. Maybe it has to do with theta waves? REM sleep?" His eyes snapped into focus as he looked straight at John. "What I don't understand is why it would bridge to an alternate reality. Why didn't you connect with the corresponding artifact in your Atlantis? Why connect with the Colonel?"
"Um, yeah, about that, Rodney," John waffled, feeling uncomfortable, though he was not sure why. "See, before the accident, I did have a dream about 'my' Atlantis. Or it least it seemed like a dream at the time. It was shortly after the expedition launched—the same day even. That night, I saw the shields fail, and everyone drowned."
"Well but that happened to us too," Rodney blithely waved off the destruction of Atlantis in John's reality and frowned. "Only Elizabeth went back in time and got Janus to alter the shields, install a failsafe so the city would come to the surface if the power levels got critical."
John shook his head. "Yeah, I know, but in my dream, I wasn't there to fly the DeLorean. Elizabeth never made the jump back in time. She and Radek and Ford died in the jumper bay because there was no one left with the gene that could pilot the jumper. And I never 'dreamt' about that Atlantis again."
Rodney processed this, eyes momentarily round with shock, before he began snapping his fingers and looking around vaguely.
"What?" John frowned.
"Okay, okay, this is what I'm thinking." His focus locked on John again. "The device must operate in pairs. Maybe yours was in standby mode or something, which is why it didn't light up when you handled it. Did you have it on you the night you 'saw' the shields fail?"
John thought about the talisman and how foolish he'd felt placing it on a chain to wear around his neck, like some schoolgirl. He nodded at Rodney.
Rodney nodded as well, eyes lighting up like the surface of the ocean touched by the sun. "So, you connect with your Atlantis, but then it's destroyed. And you have no further connection of any kind until when? Your…um, accident?"
John nodded again. He'd somehow expected Rodney to be more disturbed by what probably happened to his counterpart in John's reality, but then realized Rodney was in single-track mode.
"Meanwhile, we were playing with a bunch of stuff early on, trying to figure out what it did."
John grinned. "Like the personal shield."
Rodney suddenly looked like a twelve-year-old boy with a shiny new toy at the remembrance. It was an engaging expression and one John wanted to see on his face more often. "Yeah, like the shield. We must have activated our device, allowing the connection with yours, only we didn't know it at the time. Or maybe, simply by coming through the Gate, we turned it on with a lot of the other equipment." His face fell. "Then later, something about the Colonel's situation must have allowed your device to transmit your consciousness as a signal here as it were, or our device to pull you in. I don't know."
"How does that help the Colonel?" John studiously ignored the fact that helping the Colonel was not really in his best interests and he felt Sheppard somewhere behind him, looking over his shoulder but saying nothing.
"I don't know." Rodney sounded defeated. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, looking exhausted.
"Why don't the timelines match up?"
Rodney at least, seemed reassured that he could answer this one. "Oh, that's no big deal. It would be odd if they were exact. Even small decisions can have a big impact on the outcome of things. Some upper level quack probably consulted his horoscope and decided to alter the launch date of the expedition in one universe over the other, or maybe there was a funding issue. There are always funding issues. There are probably some universes that don't have a Stargate program at all."
John thought about his own decisions and the impact they may or may not have had on the expedition in his reality. It hurt something deep inside him to think maybe his Rodney and Carson and Elizabeth were all dead, but on some level he was certain that was so.
"Speaking of Carson, what did you tell him about me? And don't you think he'd want to know that I'm awake now?" John braced himself for the worst.
He was surprised by the way Rodney dropped his head and mumbled.
"What was that?"
Rodney looked up with a glare. "I said, I didn't tell him anything. I didn't tell anyone about you. You, the alternate universe you. It seemed like it would open up a whole can of worms that would only complicate things and I didn't want you waking up in restraints or something."
"Rod-ney," John began but Rodney cut him off abruptly.
"No, I know what I'm doing. I know you. Even if you're another you. You are constitutionally incapable of being a threat to this city."
"Hey, that's logic at its best. Next you'll be telling me you know I'm not from the evil universe because I don't have a goatee."
"Whose side are you on? Do you really want me to rat you out or are you just arguing with me out of sheer habit?" Rodney shifted angrily on the bed, placing a fist on his hip.
"I want you to think a little bit more in terms of protecting yourself and the city and not acting entirely on your gut instincts when it comes to trusting people." John folded his arms across his chest, leaning back against the headboard.
"Well, thank you, Colonel Pot. When I see Dr. Black, I'll pass on the message."
"My instincts are good," John insisted.
"Ohmygod, are you listening to yourself? Am I to ascertain from this inane conversation that you think I should tell the others who you really are? A combination of a partially Ascended Lt. Colonel and the cell phone version of a Major from an alternate reality? That only functions a) in this room and b) when the major is asleep in his own reality?"
"Well, when you put it that way…" John said lamely. Rodney shot him a 'you moron' look so full of utter disdain that John felt an odd moment of pride. And then noted Rodney looked as though someone had pulled all the stuffing out of him.
"Hey, you should get some rest."
"We can rest when we're all dead," Rodney groused. He squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them very wide, blinking rapidly, stifling a yawn. "Maybe I shouldn't have had that beer."
"My beer," John amended, just to see Rodney make a face.
Rodney obliged with the 'you are such a big baby' face, which sent of ripple of amusement through John, echoed in Sheppard as well. Rodney then grimaced and scratched the top of his head, teasing his short brown hair into standing up in perplexed shock before he smoothed it back down again. He opened something on his laptop screen and studied it without speaking. He rested his chin in his hand, elbow propped on one knee, lost in thought as he reviewed the screen.
The door chimed. Rodney made no move to get up; he didn't even seem to register the sound. The door chimed a second time. John was oddly reluctant to play Ascended Sheppard for some reason and unfolded himself off the mattress to swing his feet to the ground, deciding to open it manually and greet whoever it was at the door. He flicked Rodney a worried glance as he headed over for the controls.
Major Lorne was standing on the other side, arms full with a stack of files precariously piled onto the laptop he was using to carry them. His face lit up at the sight of John. "Oh good, Colonel, you're up." He shoved the whole mess into John's startled hands, making a brisk, hand-brushing gesture with his own now empty hands. "These are for you. And frankly sir, the 'I've been in a coma' excuse isn't going to hold water anymore."
John looked askance at the stack of paperwork threatening to spill out of his arms and felt the Colonel's 'uh-oh' in the back of his mind. "Well, Major," he drawled. "I have been in a coma. Might be in one again too, you never know."
"Oh please, sir, don't say that." Lorne's expression was pained. The normally youthful looking man sported dark circles under his eyes. John remembered what it was like, the weight of acting CMO heavier than the actual command itself, knowing that you were only temporary, and the fact that every decision you made was certain to be scrutinized in agonizing detail somehow making it worse. With a start, he realized that he hadn't actually ever been in Lorne's position; that was Sheppard.
His momentary distraction was good enough for Lorne. The major leaned around John slightly, one eyebrow raised as he tilted his head for a better view. John turned to look over his shoulder to see what it was that caught Lorne's attention.
When John looked back, he saw that Rodney had fallen forward into the mattress, face turned to one side and mashed into the pillow, arms protectively cradling the laptop as though it were a teddy bear, one leg folded underneath him, causing his hips to twist to one side so that his left leg still trailed off the bed, his foot dangling in space. It never ceased to amaze John that for all his grousing, an exhausted Rodney could sleep just about anywhere. He turned back to share the joke with Lorne, but the sneaky bastard had taken advantage of the moment and bolted like a rabbit. He was just rounding the corner out of sight when John stuck his head out the door. He decided to let Lorne think he'd won this round. This time.
John piled the untidy stack of materials on the floor next to the console and walked back to the bed, lifting Rodney's hands and prising his fingers open to remove the laptop to a safer venue. Rodney muttered and pulled back on the unit slightly, causing John to nearly burst a gut trying not to snort in his ear. He finally wrested the laptop away, hit 'save' and closed it, setting it on the floor by the console as well.
He returned to the bed, looking critically at Rodney where he lay. That could not be comfortable and Rodney was sure to complain if, indeed, he really did have a bad back. John hefted Rodney's other leg from where it hung in the air and tried turning him on the bed so at least his spine wasn't twisted, but Rodney's dead weight was harder to move than he thought. He ended up having to grab him by the hips to flip him around and he couldn't resist brushing the curve of Rodney's ass as he did so. Rodney made a small snuggling motion deeper into the pillow, a small smile lighting his face, and John froze. He could feel Sheppard holding his breath as well. After a long moment, in which Rodney did not move again, John let out his own breath and unlaced Rodney's shoes, pulling them off and dropping them to the floor.
He then stood there for a long moment, wondering what the heck he was going to do next. He eyed the narrow space beside Rodney. It wasn't like there were any really comfortable chairs in the room. The sound of the sea from outside the open balcony doors was almost soporific. He glanced over at the stack of files left by Lorne. He could be a good little Lt. Colonel and do his paperwork. He felt for Sheppard's reaction and snickered silently at the response. Apparently paperwork was pretty meaningless to the partially Ascended. John suspected 'I'm on a higher plane of existence now' was a truly unique excuse as far as getting out of duties went. With a sigh, he dug out his laptop from the bottom of the stack of papers and settled in alongside Rodney, his legs stretching out against the back of Rodney's thighs where he lay on his side. He opened his laptop and pulled up Minesweeper.
The voice seemed to be coming at him from far away, and he didn't really want to acknowledge it. Damn, he'd been comfortable, Rodney's warm presence at his side tempting him into drifting off into sleep himself.
He felt himself drop back into his body—seep back into it was more likely. He felt as though his body weighed several tons and the mass of it was slowly sinking into the mattress. One day the mattress would just swallow him whole, he just knew it. He found himself gasping for breath.
He felt the grip on his shoulder, meant to be comforting but painful instead. "It's okay, John, it's me. Dr. Richardson. Can you wake up for me? I need to speak with you."
John opened gritty eyes and longed for the ability to be able to wipe them easily. The effort of lifting his left arm clumsily to his face simply wasn't worth it.
Mark Richardson's face swam into focus. "Good. There you are. Listen. I need to stalk with you about your leg."
John scrunched up his face and blinked several times. The man was making no sense. "My leg?" His voice sounded scratchy, like it hadn't been used in days.
A look of irritation was quickly replaced by patience and sympathy. "Yes," Richardson spoke, a note of long-suffering suppressed in his voice. "You know, we've had problems with it ever since the accident. I'm afraid we've got an infection again. I'm a little worried about this one. The culture came back as a particularly nasty bug. There appears to be some circulatory compromise as well. The short version here is that we're going to be starting you on a course of some pretty potent antibiotics—I'm sending a nurse in to start another IV catheter."
John tried to imagine Carson saying 'a wee nasty bug' to him with his delightful accent and failed miserably. He looked up at Richardson, waiting him out.
"I'm sure there is no cause for alarm at this point, but we can't let this infection spread, John. We must contain it by any means necessary. Amputation if need be."
"Damn," John said slowly. "You'd better cancel my entry for the Boston Marathon."
Richardson chuckled, leaning in closer, speaking almost conspiratorially. "You know, I'm not supposed to say things like this, but you really are my favorite patient, John."
John gave him a tiny salute with his index finger and closed his eyes.
"Just what the bloody hell are you and Rodney playing at, Colonel?" Carson's very ticked off face was looking down at John when he awoke with a start. Wow, this was starting to become very disorienting.
"Um, I dunno?" John said uncertainly, struggling to push himself upright in bed. He watched gratefully as his legs shifted underneath the covers, pleased at the slight twinge of knee pain.
"I expect the courtesy of being informed on the progress of one of my patients," Carson's brogue was thicker than ever, "especially since for all of his doctoral degrees, I happened to notice that none of Rodney's are in medicine."
John had the grace to wince. "Um, about that, doc. See, Rodney seems to think what's going on with me is not exactly a medical problem."
"Oh really," Carson's voice dripped with sarcasm and he crossed his arms over his chest with precision.
Tell him about the partial Ascension.
What? Are you sure?
It'll get him to back off without giving you away.
John realized it was a lot like giving up a somewhat important piece of information under seeming duress and making your captor think he'd wrung something really vital out of you. Sneaky. He felt Sheppard's silent acknowledgement of his approval.
"Well, it's like this, doc." John made a small shrugging movement with one hand. "See, all this equipment here, Rodney's using it to making a connection with my consciousness. Cause, I'm kinda not really here. I'm sorta, you know, Ascended. Sorta. Not quite."
"You're Ascended?" Carson's voice was incredulous.
"Well, no. I mean, not completely. I'm sorta stuck halfway, okay?"
Carson rocked back on his heels, stunned by the revelation. He opened and closed his mouth several times and then looked around the room like he needed to share this information with someone.
John reached out a hand as though to stop him, even though Carson was not moving. "Look, doc. I don't want to be Ascended. I want to come back, all the way back if I can. Can you, I dunno, just cut Rodney a little slack here? Give him a bit more time to come up with a permanent solution?"
Carson looked torn. "Suppose there isn't one, lad?"
John felt a half-smile touch his lips. "You gonna tell Rodney that?"
Carson sighed. "Well, if there is anyone who can figure this out, it'd be him. I'll have to tell Elizabeth though."
John hunched down in his bed, pulling his knees up towards his body, crossing his arms and frowning. "Yeah, well, just make sure she knows I don't have the key to the universe or anything."
Carson laughed and patted him on the shoulder.
"Where've you been?" John asked crossly when Rodney showed up later.
"Trying to solve a weird systems glitch that I can't quite get a handle on. I don't exist solely for your entertainment, you know." Rodney looked around at the room full of people. He shot a furtive look at Carson, who was talking with Elizabeth over near the balcony doors while several med techs packed up their gear and at least a pint, if not two, of John's blood. "What did you do?" he hissed.
"Threw him a bone," John said quietly. "I told him about the glowing bit."
Rodney frowned as he tried to work out what John meant and then his face lit up with unholy glee. "Oh. Oh. Cool. Very sneaky."
The Colonel's smugness wasn't nearly as irritating as it should have been.
He was a little disconcerted when Dr. Kate Heightmeyer came to see him. He'd thankfully gotten tired of the scrubs and had chosen to dress in his BDU's today. The knee was better and he was bored out of his mind, doing calisthenics in the room and wondering if he could clear enough area for him and Teyla to spar. He would have felt much more vulnerable had he been dressed in the scrubs when Kate arrived, which was stupid, he knew.
Kate sat quietly in one of the available chairs and he stood uneasily by the balcony doors so he could look out on the sea. The skies were overcast today, the waters a dull gray in color, the wind frothing up whitecaps and teasing his hair as he stood by the open door. A storm was coming; he could feel it.
"Dr. Weir tells me that you do not wish to be Ascended." Kate began without preamble.
"Oh, c'mon," John felt irritated. "Would you?"
"This isn't about me," Kate said smoothly, flicking a strand of Dana-Scully-red hair over her shoulder. He wondered how women could just so blatantly change their hair color overnight and pretend that nothing had happened, that it was the color with which they were born. John had liked her better as a blonde. "However, there are many among the expedition who would give anything to be Ascended, to have the knowledge of the universe at their fingertips. To be free of the constraints of time and body. To be immortal."
"Yeah, well from my position, it ain't all it's cracked up to be." He leaned one shoulder into the doorframe, crossing his feet at the ankles, looking out at the city skyline.
"Perhaps because you feel that this was forced upon you by the accident? That it wasn't a path you got to choose? Face it, John. The path to Ascension has been offered to you before and you've always turned it down. Perhaps subconsciously you chose Ascension now because you didn't want to die in that accident."
"I didn't die in that accident." John ground out, glaring at Kate and remembering his own accident at the same time. The oncoming car, the decision to leave the road, the moment when he thought he might just make it, the searing impact. These seemed to be overlaid with the spinning jumper and the viewscreen filling with trees as the little craft hurtled down to meet the ground. John closed his eyes and gave a little mental shake.
"Which may account for you being stuck right now. Tell me, John. If your body had died, or perhaps was so badly injured that you could not function in your current duties, would you still want to return to this existence, or would you move on to full Ascension?"
John was silent a long time, trying to decide what he would do if Ascension was offered to him as he lay in his crippled body back on Earth. He couldn't get a grasp on what Ascension would entail; he only knew that the life he wanted was here, and he was not likely to be offered that either. He shrugged at last, unable to answer the question.
"Well," Kate said gently, standing in preparation to leave, "perhaps you should really think about that, John." She exited quietly.
This isn't working.
Rodney isn't going to give up.
This isn't living, you know.
If I let go, you could just move on.
The thoughts ran through his head with no clear delineation as to whether they came from Sheppard or him. The last one made him shudder—was it him saying by not coming back, Sheppard could be released to full Ascension or was it Sheppard saying that by not pulling John in, John could get on with his life? What life?
There was no answer.
John felt the smile start first, before he opened his eyes. "Jim," he said with a croak. His mouth was dry and he seemed to have trouble swallowing. He blinked, feeling the frown gather between his brows. "Is today Sunday?"
"No." He could hear the concern in Jim's voice now. "No, it's Friday. You're not confused. I…I just wanted to be here. John, the doctor needs to talk to you."
John now realized that Richardson was standing next to Jim. He was surprised he hadn't noticed that earlier. "Hey, doc." His voice sounded weak to him.
"John." Richardson laid a hand on his shoulder. John wished he wouldn't do that, though he could hardly think as to why. Maybe it was because he had no choice but to accept it, whereas in Atlantis, he could chose to move away if he wanted. Though by having the option, it seemed he was less likely to want to pull away. Or maybe it was the people there that made the difference.
"John," Richardson said again, and John struggled to pull his attention back from wherever it was wandering. "I'm afraid the infection is not responding to treatment as we had hoped. We have no choice. We need to amputate your leg. It's the only way to contain the infection now."
John shifted his glance over towards Jim. For the first time since he'd been back home, John thought Jim looked old, really old.
"Everything's going to be okay, Jim." He felt the need to reassure him but from the look on Jim's face, his words seemed to cut through him like one of Ronon's knives.
"John. Do you understand what the doc's saying? They need to cut off your leg."
"Yeah. Got it. Leg off." He turned his head slightly so he could look at Jim squarely. "Be sure and tell Rodney, okay?"
He closed his eyes.
The need to move, to do something, was so strong when he woke up back in Atlantis that he almost threw himself out of bed to stalk around the small room. He saw that he was in scrubs again, a royal blue set this time. Night had fallen; the balcony doors were closed. They opened silently at his command and he went out by the rail. The city at night was breathtaking, thousands of lights reflected back in the dark water of the sea around them. The sound of the ocean seemed louder now, though he knew that was an illusion. This far from shore there was no noticeable tidal effect. A large, orange moon was rising low on the horizon. He knew later on it would be a bright silver disc high overhead. He stayed out on the balcony until he started to feel the chill of the night breeze, goose bumps beading on the flesh of his arms as he came back inside. The doors shut automatically behind him and the warmth of the room seemed to wrap around him like an old, soft blanket.
He made use of the bathroom, running water into the sink afterwards to splash his face, pushing wet hands through his hair. He knew it was stupid to be upset over what was happening to his body back on Earth. He was already missing part of one arm and his legs were useless: what difference did it make if he had one or two? But knowing and accepting were two different things and he returned restlessly to the main room, circling the perimeter, lightly touching the equipment in passing, unable to stop moving.
He wondered where the Colonel went when John was not present in Atlantis, when his body was not 'awake'. He listened carefully, but did not seem to feel Sheppard's presence, though he'd come to learn that didn't mean much. It was getting harder to distinguish between his and Sheppard's thoughts as it was. Did he hang out somewhere in the ethereal plane, doing Ascension-y things? What kinds of things did the Ascended do anyway? He stopped beside one wall, placing his hand on the smooth cool surface and feeling it warm beneath his touch. He could almost picture his hand merging slowly into the infrastructure, could feel the tingle and buzz of the circuitry within the walls, like the words of a conversation that you could almost, but not quite, understand.
Yeah, I've been checking out this little programming glitch of Rodney's…Sheppard started to show him what he meant, but suddenly stopped cold. John could feel the mental intake of breath and something that felt like a tight band of pain seemed to grip his chest before turning into an unexpected warmth.
They are going to keep cutting me up into little pieces until there is nothing of me left.
Oh shit. Shit.
The doors to the room slid open and Rodney bounced in, waving a hand scanner. "Hah!" He chortled gleefully. "It works! I programmed this thing to send me a signal if you got out of bed, presumably indicating that you were up and mobile, which, ta-da! You are." He glanced out at the night sky before turning a beaming expression back on John. "Huh. Kinda late for you. Are you hungry?"
John turned to look at Rodney, all lit up with the simple pleasure of having something he'd designed work according to specs. "Rodney," he said, not knowing what he wanted or meant by that.
Something in his face must have shown though, because Rodney's smile faltered into a look of concern. He took an involuntary step forward. "Sheppard?"
John closed his eyes, screwing up his face against the tide of emotions swamping him. When he opened his eyes again, Rodney had come all the way to him, taking him by one arm.
"What is it, John? Crap, it's something bad, isn't it? Tell me what it is. Let me help you."
John just shook his head, standing with his eyes closed, swaying slightly. He allowed himself to be pulled into a tentative hug. He stood stiff limbed and resistant as Rodney folded his arms around his body. He ducked his head into Rodney's neck. "There's nothing you can do. I'm being stupid, that's all."
He could feel the scanner in Rodney's right hand as it bumped up against the back of his head, Rodney's left hand stroking his back. The heat of Rodney's body began to seep through the thin cotton scrubs, warming him all the way through. With a little shuddering sigh, he relaxed slightly into Rodney's arms and let his hands creep around to the sides of Rodney's waist.
You're being really stupid.
You know you want this.
You know he wants this.
This can't go on much longer.
This could be your only chance.
He lifted his head to look into Rodney's face and Rodney's 'you mean me?' expression made him want to laugh and smack the person who made Rodney doubt anyone could want him at the same time.
"Rodney," he said again, digging fingers into Rodney's flesh. He knew what he wanted now and he could hear it plainly in his voice. "Please."
Rodney seemed to be able to hear it as well, meeting John halfway as they brushed lips in a kiss, the first contact so soft that John almost doubted that it took place. Then Rodney suddenly seemed to take charge, dropping the scanner to the floor with a clatter and quickly bringing his hand back up to John's neck, diving in for brain-melting kiss that took John's breath away. Rodney's mouth was very much like him, all push and arrogance and sheer brilliance. John inhaled sharply and thrust his arms up around Rodney's back, pulling him in closer, not breaking contact with Rodney's mouth, wanting and needing more from him.
Rodney suddenly broke off the kiss, holding John back at a distance of about 6 inches or so, John chasing after his lips even as Rodney pulled back. "Wait a minute," Rodney said breathlessly, a pained expression in his eyes, like he could not believe he was going to say what he was about to say. "Who's with me here now?"
John blinked, uncertain how to answer. There seemed to be no difference between what he wanted and what Sheppard wanted right now. "Does it matter?" he said slowly, watching Rodney's eyes.
A sad, crooked little smile lifted the corner of Rodney's mouth. "No."
He took John's face in both hands, turning his head slightly, mouths locking together as Rodney kissed him thoroughly while pushing him back towards the bed. John came to a stop when the mattress hit the back of his thighs and he would have sat down, only Rodney's hands slid down his chest, around over his hipbones and across his ass, holding him upright, pulling John into full body contact.
John gave a shuddering little gasp at the press of their bodies together, Rodney's broad hands kneading his muscles through the cotton material of the scrubs. The scrubs did nothing to hide his erection and the rub of material against it only made him harder. He felt Rodney chuckle into his mouth, craved the warm slide of Rodney's tongue over his own and then Rodney broke free to move his lips down the side of John's face and neck, causing him to tip his head back. Rodney pulled his hands away from the curve of John's bottom to sweep them across his waist and push up under the scrub top to lay warm fingers on his abdomen. His very touch caused John to shudder and the light of discovery was in Rodney's eyes when he pushed John down on the bed, John pulling his legs as Rodney climbed up with him. He thought for an instant of Katie Brown, and started to say something, only to hear Sheppard growl at him to shut the fuck up.
Rodney loomed across John, bracing his hands on either side of John's head, his knees on either side of John's hips. He kissed John one more time before slowly sitting up, straddling John's thighs with his own heavy weight. It felt glorious to be weighted down like that, so different from the inert weight of his own body, every fiber of his being alive with the sensation of Rodney touching him. His cock pushed up against Rodney's ass as Rodney leaned back slightly, Rodney's hands moving as though mesmerized up and down along his body.
Rodney suddenly made an impatient noise and shifted his weight off John's thighs, moving to one side on his knees as he grabbed John by an arm. "Sit up, sit up," he demanded and John let himself be pulled up into a sitting position. Rodney grabbed the hem of his scrub top and began pulling it up over his head, John lifting his arms obligingly for the ease of removal. When the top was tossed aside, Rodney pushed John back down again, practically falling on him in his need to kiss him again. Rodney's hands moved over John's body as his mouth moved against John's own, fingertips mapping, exploring, cataloging as fingers curled into his hair, or nails scratched lightly across his skin or thumbed a nipple. It was too much and not enough and John could not even reciprocate, could only lie there with his eyes closed and absorb all the sensory input.
"You've been making me crazy with these scrubs for days now," Rodney complained, nimble fingers loosening the drawstring and hitching down the scrub bottoms so that John's hip bones were exposed. Rodney closed his mouth around one bony prominence while sliding a hand up the inside of his thigh, surprising John into rocking his pelvis forward. Rodney hooked a finger in the waistband and edged the fabric of the scrubs, tugging them a little lower still, causing the muscles in John's stomach to tremble and contract as he did so.
When Rodney cupped him through the scrubs, John gave out a breathless 'oh', which made Rodney grin and move his thumb across John's erection several times before starting to strip the scrubs off of him. John half sat up so he could brace himself on his elbows and lift his hips as Rodney peeled the scrubs the rest of the way off, dropping them to the floor. John stared hard at the door for a moment, thinking 'lock' at it until there was an obvious click of sound. He lay back down on the mattress, wearing nothing but his dog tags.
Rodney looked suspiciously over at the door and then turned incredulous eyes on John. "Did you just lock the door? With your mind?"
John let his eyebrow shrug for him.
"Fuck," Rodney said softly, still disbelieving as he glanced over at the door. When he looked back at John, his eyes were dilated, irises a thin blue rim around black pupils. "Fuck, that's hot." He smoothed a hand over John's abdomen, smiling at the way John fisted the sheets and pushed his legs restlessly further down the mattress.
Placing a hand on each of John's knees and slowly pressing his legs apart to make room for him between them, Rodney shifted his position again. "You're just so damn hot like this," Rodney sounded admiring and incredulous at the same time.
No, you're hot. He thought he was hard before, but his cock seemed to swell even further when Rodney turned his attention to the lower half of his body. There was something really hot about seeing Rodney before him, still fully clothed while he was naked, hands moving over his body like he just couldn't help but touch, Rodney's eyes registering every reaction for future reference. Rodney lightly gripped him behind each calf, barely drawing fingernails upwards over his skin. John's mouth dropped open at the touch, skin crawling with sensation, his very hair seemed sensitized. Rodney, grinning like a fiend, ran his hands up John's legs and out over his thighs, thumbs pushing into his flesh, making his toes curl. Satisfied with some unknown criteria met, Rodney turned his attention at last to John's cock, grasping it firmly, sliding his hand upwards from base to tip, dragging his thumb across the leaking head.
John felt his eyes flutter close and his breathing hitch as he pushed up into Rodney's touch. He quickly opened them again, fascinated by Rodney's actions. Rodney quirked an eyebrow up at him, looking so deliciously intent on evil that it made John grin back at him, only to make a shuddering little noise when Rodney closed his mouth over the end of his cock. Oh god, his cock was made for Rodney's mouth. The furnace of heat and slick that moved over the end of his cock made him lean up and gently take Rodney's head in his hand, fingers moving restlessly alongside his face as Rodney worked his mouth up and down over John's dick.
Rodney's lips stretched wide to accommodate the increase in John's cock as it engorged to maximum fullness and his cheeks hollowed out as he applied suction.
John could not keep his pelvis from jumping forward. Rodney's eyebrows smirked at him and he held John's cock steady with one hand as he fluttered his tongue around the tip before engulfing the head into his mouth again. John curled forward at the action, then sagged back on his elbows as he felt his orgasm coming, building slowly as Rodney teased and then relented only to tease again. Another tongue flutter had John rounding forward again, only to collapse back when the sensation shifted to suction again. John felt his balls start to tighten, his back arching and his legs pulling in involuntarily as his orgasm raced to climax.
"Rodney," he gasped in warning, but Rodney took this as encouragement and applied even more pressure with his mouth, sliding wet fingers behind John's balls and pressing in to make him buck and come. John continued to empty himself for what seemed like an eternity before collapsing back on the bed, his chest heaving and little flickers of sensation twitching along his nerve endings. Rodney pulled himself up on the bed alongside him, lying on his stomach, elbows folded beneath him, looking decidedly pleased with himself, a smear of come along the edge of his mouth.
"You," John said, pulling Rodney across him and licking clean the side of Rodney's lips, kissing deeply, his tongue moving languidly in Rodney's mouth.
"Very articulate," Rodney said smugly, before dropping his head to nibble, lick and suck at John's neck. He hummed with pleasure before pushing himself up on his elbows so he could sit up. He froze suddenly, a look of disbelief crossing his features. "You've got to be kidding me," he groaned. He shot John an agonized look and sat up, touching his radio headset.
John had been in the process of shifting over on the bed to make room for Rodney to lie alongside him, but when he saw Rodney activate the radio, he let his head drop back to the pillow again.
"Yes. What. Again? Now? Fine. I'm on my way." Rodney barked out the words as he spoke. John felt a little sorry for the hapless person on the other end of the radio who'd been delegated the role of contacting Rodney to report the problem. "I've got to go," Rodney said in a small, angry voice.
"I know." John pushed himself upright, leaning forward to pull Rodney into a kiss. Rodney came to him hungrily and broke off only with an effort a moment later.
"This is so fucking unfair," Rodney complained, making John grin. "Oh right, laugh it up."
"Do you see me laughing here?" John raised innocent eyebrows. "It was the cursing that amused me. I don't think I've ever heard you say anything stronger than 'crap' before tonight."
"Oh." Rodney seemed slightly mollified. He reached out to stroke up John's arm, trailing his fingers out along his collarbone and across his chest. He seemed lost in a fascinated study of John's skin when he suddenly looked up. His expression became worried. "Be here when I get back?"
John felt his lids half-close, his face turning blank. "Probably."
"Right." Rodney nodded, accepting the fact that it was beyond his control. He hesitated and then added, "I…I won't be long."
We're such good liars, he thought as he watched Rodney leave, quietly unlocking the doors as Rodney approached them.
He let himself fall back to the bed. He gradually became aware of the thought that he'd really overstepped the line here and he consciously sought out the Colonel. When he found Sheppard, he was in the same relaxed, blissed out state that he himself was in. He started to apologize, but Sheppard cut him off. He was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of embarrassment, regret and something that felt oddly like admiration.
You're braver than I am.
No, John thought, chest tightening at the thought. I just have less to lose.
A few hours later John was trying to figure out where he and Jim had left off in War and Peace and reassuring himself that it was still a long way off before he needed reading glasses when Rodney blasted into the room, carrying a small bag.
"It was that stupid systems glitch again," Rodney dropped the bag on the nearest chair and began toeing off his shoes. "Only not quite the same, the patch I created earlier still held, but this time the desalination units were acting up. The whole unit threatened to burn out and I don't have to tell you how quickly we would run out of fresh water if that happened. It's crazy, I can't get a handle on it. It makes no sense." Shoes off, he turned to face John.
"You're naked," he said, mouth dropping open.
John looked at him from over the top of the book. The room was pleasantly warm; he'd felt no need for a blanket. "Yes."
"You're naked and in bed and reading a book." Rodney ran the words together like he couldn't believe what he was seeing and John felt a slow smile forming over his features.
"Yes, Rodney," he drawled.
"Naked reading," Rodney said in an awed, 'fancy that' tone.
"What's in the bag, McKay?" John lifted an eyebrow, tossing the book aside and uncrossing his legs.
Rodney shook himself, like a big dog coming out of a pond and snatched up the bag. He was staring into it thoughtfully when he stopped by the bed. "Well, I brought some food, just in case you got hungry. And I snagged some soda from the mess. And…" he fished out some items from the bag, holding them up with a wicked gleam, letting the bag drop to the floor. He was holding a fistful of condoms and a tube of lube.
"Interesting items you can pick up in the mess at this time of night," John commented.
Rodney waggled his eyebrows, practically bouncing, and John growled, "C'mere you."
Rodney instead tossed the lube and condoms on the bed and rapidly began peeling off his clothes.
"What do you plan to do with these?" John flicked the tube of lube with one finger, licking his lips as Rodney's pale stomach and then shoulders appeared and his head disappeared underneath his shirt. Rodney had a moment's struggle to pull it off over his head, and then stood grinning slyly as he pulled the shirt off over his arms, his hair standing up in short, light brown tuffs.
"I plan for you to fuck me into the middle of next week," Rodney said matter-of-factly. Somehow the big watch on his bare wrist only accentuated the impressive build of his arms. He couldn't match Ronon for muscular development, but Rodney had naturally well-formed shoulders and arms, especially for someone who avoided regular exercise at all costs. A nice chest too, a spattering of hair with small pink nipples just begging for John to take them into his mouth.
John blinked, distracted from his first real visual exploration of Rodney's body (as opposed to short glimpses when changing for a mission in the locker room), by processing what Rodney had just said.
"Excuse me? What did you just say?" Had he heard Rodney right?
"You. Me. I want you to fuck me." Rodney was undoing his belt with uncharacteristic fumbling, not taking his eyes off John. "I've wanted this since…I dunno, the day you sat down in the Chair."
John rolled off the bed to help, his cock filling and jutting out from his body at Rodney's words. Goddamn. All this time. He batted Rodney's hands away and got the belt undone, tugging it out of the loops with a sharp snap before tossing it on the floor behind him. He undid Rodney's fly, but then stopped Rodney's hands when he would have pushed his pants down, grabbing the waist band himself and sliding both pants and boxers down Rodney's legs. Rodney leaned on John's shoulders for support as he kicked off his pants and then stood smiling when John rose to stand in front of him again.
John reached around behind him, grabbing two handfuls of muscle and thrusting himself up against Rodney. "This ass?" he murmured against Rodney's ear. "This is so mine."
He felt Rodney quiver beneath his hands and something very much like triumph surged greedily through him. He thought the doors locked again and then carefully removed Rodney's headset before tossing it on the pile of his clothing on the floor. Rodney was pushing himself mindlessly up against John and it was tempting to think about just pulling him in and grinding up against him as well, but John thought of the blowjob he'd received from Rodney, the best blow job ever, and he wanted to make Rodney feel that good as well. Not to mention, the thought of sliding his cock home into that perfect ass was rapidly making him hard again and then there was Sheppard in the background, his desire making itself known and somehow intensifying John's. He closed his mouth almost savagely on Rodney's.
Get him in bed and fuck him.
He maneuvered Rodney so that he had his back to the bed and then John began walking the two of them over towards it, mouths still locked and pushing against each other. Rodney broke it off first, realizing he'd bumped up against the bed and smiling devilishly at John he turned and climbed on the bed to position himself on his hands and knees, knocking the book to the floor, his heavy cock swinging forward between his thighs as he rocked slowly. He shifted his weight off one hand so he could give his dick a long, slow pull and then he looked back over his shoulder at John, eyes lazy with lust.
"Get over here," he demanded. "I've been waiting for hours. No, make that years."
John snorted at the words and settled himself on his knees behind Rodney. He snapped open the lube and applied a generous amount to his fingers, sliding down Rodney's crack and circling his hole, making Rodney groan and rock back against John's hand. With his free hand, John stroked Rodney's broad back, taking a hand up to his shoulder and down to his hip again, around to his chest, to run through the hair there and flick over a nipple. He pushed a slick finger into Rodney's hole, feeling the ring of muscle clench and tighten around it, picturing in exquisite detail what that would shortly feel like around his cock. With a hand that was almost shaking in anticipation, he pulled out his finger and slid in two, pumping and scissoring as Rodney pushed against him. John leaned forward to mouth the back of Rodney's neck, his dog tags first brushing then pooling on Rodney's back. Rodney seemed to be sensitive to the slight swing of the tags, arching his back downward and then rounding up into the tags, lifting one hand off the bed to pound the mattress.
"For god's sake, Sheppard, I'm not made of glass. Sometime this year would be nice."
"I like doing this for you," John whispered into the back of Rodney's neck and he felt the shudder that his words caused all the way down in Rodney's ass, muscle closing on his fingers. He pulled out, added more lube and pushed in three fingers, smiling as Rodney gasped and feeling almost as if he were already fucking him. He dropped his head to rest his forehead against Rodney's back, his own body rocking with the movement of his hand. Rodney dropped down to his elbows, pushing his ass up in the air with a heartfelt groan.
John pulled out his fingers, wiping them on the bedspread before rooting around for the scattered condoms, Rodney still swaying with the need to feel something inside him. John snagged up a condom and opened it, quickly rolling it down over his begging cock and then he began to lube up, almost losing himself in the sensation of his slick hand sliding over his stiff cock. With a shaky sigh, he repositioned himself to line up his cock with Rodney's winking hole and with a steadying hand on Rodney's hip and another to guide his cock, he pushed his way slowly but firmly into Rodney's willing body.
Fuck, that was good.
Rodney was all tight rings of muscle that gripped at John's cock and made him bend over Rodney's back with an open mouth before he pushed through into that velvet heat. A film of sweat broke out over Rodney's back at the breaching and John slid his hands through it, unable to resist stroking and touching Rodney as he slowly began to move inside of him. John began to pull back and thrust forward, long, smooth strokes that made Rodney start to grunt and mutter with each press, wordless noises that rang in time with the rhythm of John's balls slapping up against Rodney's ass. A slight change in position had Rodney cry out, "oh, oh, oh" and John knew that he'd hit Rodney's prostate.
There was no stopping him now. He straightened to grab Rodney's hips in both hands, pistoning his body into Rodney's, slamming his pelvis against Rodney's ass, feeling once more his orgasm coming towards him. He leaned forward again, bracing himself along Rodney's shoulder, freeing up one hand to reach around and pump Rodney's hard and leaking cock.
At the first touch, Rodney's breathing began to stutter and John felt Rodney's cock pulse in his hand, warm come coating his fingers even as Rodney's ass clenched down and spasmed around his own cock. The combination of sensations was too much and John was coming too, feeling the warmth and tightness of the condom around him as they both collapsed on the bed.
John rested his forehead on Rodney's shoulders while Rodney repeatedly said "oh god" into the pillow. John finally pulled out, removing the condom and letting it fall with a small, wet splat to the floor, rolling off Rodney onto his side.
Rodney rolled as well, turning on his side to face John, suddenly an octopus of arms and legs as he enfolded John into his embrace.
"Fuck. Shit. Goddamn. Jesus." Rodney muttered damply into the side of his neck until John was laughing quietly.
Rodney lifted his head at the sound, looking into John's eyes for a long moment before grinning and leaning up for a kiss. John suddenly felt Sheppard's overwhelming desire to lie here like this in Rodney's arms and he felt awkwardly like an intruder that was not allowed to leave a private party. Rodney ended the kiss sleepily and John felt Sheppard's gratitude wrap around him, feeling every bit as real as Rodney's arms encircling him. Sated, relaxed and comforted, he fell asleep.
John woke, dry mouthed and with a head full of cotton to the sound of beeping monitors and the lead weight of his body once more. It struck him as unbearably wrong that Rodney should wake somewhere in Atlantis, with Sheppard's body inert against him, Sheppard himself unaware or 'somewhere else' and he wanted to rail against the very wrongness of it all. Instead, he lay consumed with fatigue, a single track of moisture trailing out the corner of his eye and into his ear.
"Sea-diff." Jim voiced the nonsense words just to his right. John tried very hard to concentrate on what he was saying.
"Sea-diff, sea-diff," Jim said again, his tone angry and confused. He saw that John was tracking the sound of his voice and he continued. "That's what the nurses keep saying. Over and over, shaking their heads. I finally had to ask them what the fuss was about." He leaned over the bed, brushing an overly long lock of hair out of John's eyes. "It's a bacteria. Clostridium difficile. It takes over your gut when you've been on the kinds of antibiotics that you've been on. I looked it up online. This stuff's bad, John. It could kill you. I know the nurses are worried."
"What's it do?" John mumbled thickly, wishing for some water.
"It can cause septicemia," Jim frowned. "But diarrhea mostly."
"Makes a nice change from constipation then," John smiled weakly.
Come with me.
The voice in his head was authoritative, brooked no argument and was his, damn it. He couldn't just let that pass without a challenge.
I'm sorta busy working on breathing here. Maybe some other time.
Rodney's in trouble.
The problem unfolded in his mind as though he'd been involved in every step of figuring it out—the continued unexplained systems failures, the discovery that the programming left behind when the Wraith tricked them into allowing access to their database didn't end with the theft of the Aurora mission records or the addresses of all the worlds with which they had contact. The program hadn't self-destructed the way that they'd thought—instead it left behind an insidious worm as well, dormant and undetected until it began sabotaging the city's mainframe, popping up here and there like the errant varmint in the Whack-a-Mole game at a county fair. The jumping around from system to system had kept Rodney and the other scientists on the run, hiding its true purpose—the complete destruction of the Atlantean database. Once it had become apparent what was going on, action was taken, only this seemed to trigger a defensive response on the part of the wraith-virus. And now people were isolated in various parts of the city and the clock was ticking as the virus behaved malevolently to protect itself until its goals were met.
The part of him that still cared sat up and took notice of this statement, but the rest of him suggested there was little he could do. It was too late. He was too weak. What exactly did Sheppard expect the two of them to be able to do from the confines of the equipment room anyway?
Sheppard had a plan.
He was being a little squirrely about it, which meant it was either incredibly dangerous or didn't have a snowball's chance in hell. Or both.
John felt so utterly drained of energy. Sheppard's understanding was there, like a strong, supportive grip to his shoulder, but it wasn't enough.
Rodney needs you.
You don't get it. It's not that I don't want to help; it's that I don't think I can.
I need you.
The thought startled him, but Sheppard's feelings were clear-edged and sharp in his mind, like taking in a frosty breath on a cold winter's morning. I need you/I can't do this without you/I know what I'm asking of you/You know I'd do the same for you/Come with me. It all ran together in John's mind along with the certainty that he was dying anyway. If leaving now meant that he died sooner rather than later, so be it.
Let's do this. Tell me what you want me to do.
Get me to the Chair room.
Sheppard's plan was illuminated in his mind. He had just enough time to think 'that's your plan???' before everything shifted.
John bolted upright in the bed of the equipment room and swore at the internal silence. That bastard. Where the hell was he? Without taking the time to change out of the scrubs he was wearing, John sprang out of bed, slammed his feet into his boots and made for the door. It did not open at his approach and he angrily waved his hand over the controls. The door made a grinding noise, as though trying to comply, but still did not open. John started to reach for the wall, to feel the circuitry and bend it to his will, but he stopped mid-movement.
Sheppard had gone to great lengths to bring him here, as some sort of ace in the hole. It wouldn't do to tip his hand too early. He went over to the control console and called up a status report. Uh-oh.
The word 'quarantine' was silently flashing in bright red letters on the viewscreen. He tried calling up communications, but they were down as well, despite the fact that he knew that wasn't part of the normal quarantine protocol. The computer virus no doubt, isolating them so they could not come to a solution. He stared at the screen, frustrated to be rendered impotent by circumstances. As he searched the screen for more information, a winking icon began blinking in the upper right hand corner. He zeroed in on it. From what he could tell, it looked very similar to the sorts of beacons he'd seen before, once on Teyla's necklace and once on the Peter Pan planet. It was a Wraith homing beacon.
With a snarl of frustration, he headed for the balcony. At least those doors were still functional. Leaning over the railing, he surveyed the side of the building. If he climbed down seven levels, he should be able to access the corridor that would eventually take him to the Chair room.
Sheppard had assured him just prior to pulling him into Atlantis that he knew why they'd been unable to leave the equipment room—why John had been present as a 'signal' only. Sheppard's theory was that as a partially Ascended being, he was still partway present in his body—just enough to interfere with the 'complete' transference of John's consciousness. Rodney had theorized that the communication device was meant to allow instantaneous communication across galaxies—a means of relaying information first hand between two people, complete with impressions and memories intact. If Sheppard had not been Ascended, nor John injured, Rodney theorized that the link would have been short-lived and able to be activated or terminated at the will of either party as long as they each had one half of the pair of devices needed to operate the link. It was the disconnected state that each of them experienced with their own bodies that made the link deeper. Sheppard believed that if John just 'let go' of his dying body, then the two of them could leave the equipment room. There hadn't been any time to discuss 'then what?' John had the sneaking suspicion he was not the only one who had surrendered to the inevitable here, since Sheppard was no where to be found.
John looked down off the balcony's edge. Hell of a way to test a theory. It would serve Sheppard right if he fell and broke his neck. The irony of this thought caught him at that moment and he gave a sharp bray of laughter before abruptly choking it off. Focus, Shep.
He didn't have a choice. He had to get to the chair and somehow stop the beacon as well. Kicking off his boots, he swung one leg over the railing and reached for the first foothold with his toes. He cautioned himself not to think about the reasons why he needed to climb down the side of the building in the first place, or what would happen if he did not reach his goal in time. He focused on the here and now, slowly and steadily inching his way down to the next level, thankful that the Ancients were so keen on geometric design. The metal sides of the tower were hot in the morning sun and he began to wish he'd kept his boots. He pressed himself up against the walls, flattening himself to remain balanced over his footholds, feeling for edges with his fingers and toes, sparing a passing thought for how easy this would have been if the retrovirus had been allowed to convert him into the BugMan. The disadvantages of that condition seemed to outweigh the short-term advantages of the moment and he let the thought go.
He felt relieved when his foot reached the top rail of the next balcony down and he lowered his weight down onto it, only to have something 'ping' in his knee, causing his leg to buckle. He twisted as he started to fall, grabbing at the railing as he came down. He landed hard against the metal rail, knocking the breath from him temporarily as he bounced off it and then cracking the side of his face against it for good measure as he slithered to the balcony deck.
Fuck, that hurt. He lay there for a moment, sucking in air that would not come, feeling for a panicked moment like he was paralyzed in his bed on Earth once more. All at once his chest expanded and he pulled air in with a whoop. Rolling over and coughing, he clutched at his ribcage. Not good. He couldn't have done this at the end of the climb? He touched his cheekbone and pulled away fingers marked with blood. He wiped his hand on the side of his scrub pants and stood up again.
In the end, it took him twice as long to get down as he'd hoped. Once he got back to his feet and swung over the next rail, he found his reach and the ability to hold his weight was diminished by the pain in his side and knee. Grimly he pursued the only course of action he had and continued to climb down. He was limping as he landed on the last level, the terrace doors opening as he approached, temporarily blinded as he entered the building by the sudden contrast between the bright sunlight outside and the dim corridors within. Once his vision adapted, he broke into a lopsided jog towards the main corridor.
Fortunately he was not going at top speed when he ran full tilt into the force field. Cursing as his head snapped back, he clutched his nose and hobbled in a small circle until the pain stopped making his eyes water. "Goddamn it!" he yelled, tempted beyond all measure to kick at the field, knowing that would be plain stupid.
A noise behind him made him whip around. Two people approached in hazmat suits; a second later, to his relief, he recognized Ronon and Teyla.
"Hey, guys," he said by way of greeting them as they walked up to him. "There's not really a quarantine, is there?" He indicated the suits.
Ronon and Teyla turned their heads to look at each other through the bulky helmets and then began pulling them off.
Teyla tucked her helmet under one arm, latte-colored hair tied back in an uncharacteristically messy pony-tail. "I had told Ronon of the nanovirus incident last year and when the quarantine lockdown began today, he thought it was worth seeing if we could navigate the city while wearing protective gear."
"It worked too, at first," Ronon said gruffly, tossing his helmet aside. "How'd you get here?"
"Climbed down from above."
Ronon raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"What's the sit rep? Do we know what's actually going on? Where's Rodney?"
"You know about the Wraith virus?" Teyla asked but did not question how he knew when he nodded in affirmation. John wondered himself how Sheppard knew some of the information that he'd been given and guessed there might be some advantages to being partially Ascended after all.
"Rodney successfully disabled the Wraith homing signal," she went on and John let out a breath he did not know he'd been holding. "However, this seemed to cause a direct response against him on the part of the virus. He and Dr. Zelenka were on their way to the Chair room when they were cut off down on the lower levels here. We lost radio contact with them shortly after that and then access to this whole level closed down. Ronon and I are no longer able to traverse freely. I am very concerned about Drs. McKay and Zelenka. Before we lost radio communication with them, they indicated they were in a room with standing water in it."
"This damn virus keeps altering its programming," John complained. "Look, I've got to get to the Chair room. You say this whole floor is cut off?"
The whine of Ronon's weapon powering up silenced all conversation. John glanced over to see that Ronon had stripped off his haz mat suit until it hung at his waist and he was pointing his large handgun at John.
"Ronon?" John frowned. "Is there a problem?"
"Damned straight there is. Who the hell are you?"
"Um," John began, but Ronon cut him off.
"Don't give me any crap. I know you're not the real Sheppard."
John felt his mouth fall open and then he snapped it shut again, scowling. "Thanks a lot, buddy."
"Don't buddy me," Ronon snarled. The barrel of his gun never wavered. "All the sudden you can leave the room with all that Ancient crap in it when you couldn't before? And like we're supposed to let you go to the Chair room."
"Ronon." Teyla's voice managed to sound mild and yet forceful at the same time. "Perhaps we should hear him out."
"Thank you, Teyla," John couldn't help exaggerating the drawl. She merely raised an eyebrow at him as if to say, 'well?'
"Um. Okay. Well. I would just like to state for the record, I am John Sheppard." Ronon's sneer only hardened. Teyla's expression did not change at all. "Only, not the Sheppard that came with the expedition."
"I knew it." John wanted to tell Ronon that this kind of 'I told you so' was no more attractive than when Rodney did it, but then again, Ronon did still have the gun pointed at him.
"And the part about Colonel Sheppard being partially Ascended, is that true?" Teyla continued to direct the questioning.
John nodded. "I don't know where he is at the moment, though. I got drafted to come help him get to the Chair. It was the only way he could leave the room. Teyla, I've got to get to the Chair. Every other access point to the computers has been cut off, but Sheppard thinks he can directly access the city through the Chair."
"Directly access…" Teyla frowned, a small furrow marking her forehead.
"What will that do to Sheppard?" Ronon growled.
John looked him squarely in the eye. "I think he thinks he can merge with the city. I don't think he plans on coming back. "
There was a small gasp from Teyla.
"Leaving you in control of his body? I don't think so." Ronon's mouth twisted like he'd tasted something sour.
"Look, Ronon, he tricked me into coming, okay? He made me think that by dying on my end, I'd be able to completely enter this reality and allow him to leave the room where he was trapped. I get here and he's nowhere to be found. I can't go back. I'm going to the Chair room. If you plan to shoot me, then get on with it or get out of my way." John hated that he had to explain so much, it made him testy with Ronon when he should have kept his cool.
"I don't have to obey your orders," Ronon bared his teeth, lifting the gun higher towards John's face. "I don't know you."
"No, you don't," John snapped. "But I know you. And you know what? You've never had to obey Sheppard. You're stronger, you've got a bigger gun and you fight dirty. You obey him because you choose to do so. He could never force you to do that."
They faced each other for a long moment and then the gun powered down as Ronon lowered it.
"How do you propose to get to the Chair room?" Teyla said calmly, as if nothing had occurred between the two men.
John walked over to one of the long, narrow windows letting light into the hallway, his bare feet making no sound on the tiled floor. He tapped on the glass. "I plan to swim over to the east pier. That section was closed off for repairs after storm last year; there's a good chance I can move there undetected until I reach the sewage containment area. If I climb the scaffolding there, I should be able to access other corridor to the Chair room."
Teyla only partially managed to hide her dismay. John caught the quick glance she flicked down at his gimpy leg. "I'll be okay," he said, as though she had spoken. "I need you to keep trying to get through to Rodney and Radek. If this thing keeps mutating and adapting at its current rate, we're gonna need all the help we can get to cut it off at the knees."
"What about me?" Ronon still sounded distrustful.
John turned to Teyla. "You said Rodney disabled the beacon?"
She nodded. He turned back to Ronon. "If Rodney only managed to disable it, then it could be reactivated again. I need you to take it out entirely, Ronon. It's all the way back towards the Gate room."
A small smile appeared briefly on Ronon's face. John suspected he'd just given Ronon carte blanche to blow up anything in his way between here and the beacon and he guessed in a way, he had.
"Everyone be careful," John offered. "If this is anything like the virus we had on board the Daedalus, then it won't hesitate to kill if it feels threatened."
Ronon traded a silent communication with Teyla and then glanced at John before he took off back in the direction from whence he'd come.
Teyla moved swiftly with John back to the balcony area.
"I will head through the halls down this way and see if I can locate Rodney," she said, watching as he gingerly swung his right leg over the rail. "The water is cold and the distance is far. Are you sure you can make it?"
John measured the distance to the east pier visually, shading his eyes with one hand. "About two miles. Nothing I haven't done before. Would have appreciated a wet suit, but I don't see one lying around, do you?" He shot her a wry grin.
She acknowledged his statement with a nod and a worried expression as she started to move off.
She turned abruptly, frowning.
"I know you're even more observant than Ronon. You knew I was different somehow. Um, what gave me away?"
A look crossed her face as though she could not believe he wanted to have this discussion now but it was important to him. He needed to know and he wasn't sure he'd get the chance to ask again.
"You were….excessively grateful for the little things. The quiet things. It is a trait that I have seen develop after a near-death experience in some, but then you experience life-threatening circumstances nearly every day, so that seemed unlikely. I could not account for the pleasure you took in the smallest of acts. Perhaps some day you will tell me why."
He felt his face flush. "Um, right. So, the thing I don't get is that you weren't going to say anything until Ronon forced the issue—why?"
She folded her arms. "Because Rodney was very determined to solve whatever the problem was, and it was clear that he knew there was something different about you as well. And because I've never seen Rodney so happy as when you were here. So, if you…"
John raised a hand. "I know, I know, if I hurt him, you'll kill me."
"I was going to say, if you deliberately hurt him," Teyla said mildly. "I will, how do you say it—cut you slack—for unintentional hurting. That is a given." She sighed and then seemed to be taking his measure. "Did you really die in your reality to be here?"
"Probably." John gave a little shrug. "I was going to anyway, so no big deal."
He was startled when she suddenly came forward at took him by the sides of his arms, tilting her head forward to touch his in the Athosian manner. "Good luck then, John Sheppard."
John touched her forehead with his own briefly, taking in the warm, floral scent of her skin before he made a face at her at her and swung off the end of the deck to drop into the water some 15 feet below. The cold shock of the water nearly drove the air out of his lungs and he re-surfaced sputtering. He gave a small wave to her as she leaned over the rail to watch his progress and then he headed out with a steady overhand stroke towards the east pier.
Fifteen minutes into the swim, he knew he'd seriously underestimated the effect the cold would have on him. He'd spent hours surfing in cold water before, along the California coast in the off season, but always with a wet suit and the choice of getting out and standing next to a fire barrel set up on the sandy beach. The muscles he'd strained with the long climb down the tower were threatening to seize up now. He continued to force leaden arms and legs to move through the water with increasing difficulty, the scrubs plastered to his skin and offering no protection against the cold. He might as well be naked for all the good they did him. A little insidious voice began to whisper that he wasn't going to make it and that even if he did, by the time he got to the Chair room, it would be too late. He began to chide himself for the minute his conversation with Teyla had taken, as though those 60 seconds were somehow more damaging to his goal then the way he had begun to flounder in the water, scarcely making any headway.
C'mon, Shep. One hand in front of the other. At first, he'd come up for air every fifth stroke, gradually losing his rhythm and now having to come up every stroke to gasp at the surface. He had to pause more frequently than he liked to tread water and shake the hair out of his eyes so that he could re-fix his target in his sights. He was disconcerted to find that the current seemed to be dragging him further away from the city than he needed to go and he had to keep adjusting his course so as not to add unnecessary distance to his task. He could feel both weariness and confusion setting in and he didn't know else what he could do about either except to keep swimming. Cold. Cold. Too damn cold.
His heart stopped dead when something sinuous slid past him in the water. A split second later his heart was pounding, threatening to burst out of his chest. He found himself getting angry. Oh, come on! He couldn't catch a break today, it seemed. He held himself in one place in the water, treading carefully so as not to make any big splashes, wondering what was swimming with him. At some distance from the city, he saw the breaching tail flukes of one of Rodney's whales. Whatever it was with him couldn't be the same; it was much smaller.
As if to disagree with him, a long grey body broke the surface of the water beside him, water running off its side in sheets as is rolled to show John its belly, sliding past him for what seemed like several minutes before disappearing under the surface again. The wake of its passing nearly swamped him, and he had a moment of panic as he tried to keep his head above the surface. The biologists had pointed out that these creatures had sharp pointy teeth, not the typical baleen of plankton feeders, which had led to the speculation of what something that monstrous in size would eat.
Surely not people. If we weren't meant to eat people, than why did God make us of meat? The nonsense line from a Flanders and Swann song floating in his head made him realize how dangerously stuporous he'd become. He began to swim harder in the direction of his goal.
And flailed up against the firm, warm body of the whale as it rose from underneath him, lifting him up out of the water. He clutched at the surface of its broad back, the skin of the animal feeling like the wet shell of a watermelon under his fingers. He could feel too a sort of electrical sensation buzzing against his skin where it had contact with the whale in the water. Its sonar, he realized, awed and stupefied at the same time. He looked around wildly at the animal under his knees as it lifted him completely out of the water. A creature at least twenty feet long was skimming the ocean's surface at speed beneath him; he was just hanging on for the ride. The animal began to swim faster; undulating through the water effortlessly and John recognized the young playfulness of an adolescent. Jesus, this behemoth was a baby.
John had a moment of giddy joy, riding the creature like you would a young horse on its first cross country course, or taking the waves with your board when nothing seemed like it could go wrong. And then he realized: he had absolutely no control over the animal at all. It could dive. It could take him out to deep sea. He had to get off, right away.
Only the pier was looming just up ahead. In just a few minutes, the whale-creature had brought him almost to within reach of the pier. Just when John thought he'd have to bail off the side, the whale abruptly slowed and then sank, leaving him floating in the water where he could make his way to the dock. Teeth chattering as he hauled himself up on the deck, he climbed out wearily and looked over his shoulder at the departing whale, a saucy fluke waving at him in passing as it headed out to sea. He knelt on his hands and knees, catching his breath, water dripping from all parts of him, his wet scrubs molded to him like a second skin.
God, I love this galaxy.
With a laugh, he struggled to his feet and made his way into the building.
He made his way damply down the corridor towards the sewage containment center, leaving wet footprints behind initially that subsided into small puddles whenever he paused to figure out his bearings. The scrubs clung unbearably to his body, starting to chafe with the movement of his legs. Not to mention they were clammy with cold. He darted quickly through the large open area, filled with tanks and piping, towards the scaffolding at the far end of the room. The metal framework was meant to allow access to the containment tanks for a visual inspection and servicing, but at the very top of the scaffold, John knew there was an access panel to the corridor beyond, which would allow him a sort of backdoor approach to the Chair room and very little electronics in his path to hinder him. As he reached for the first rung, it occurred to him that it was a good thing he knew this part of the city like the back of his hand. He then noted it was with his right hand that he started to climb, and that made him snort again.
The scrubs pulled and dragged across his skin as he lifted his leg to place his foot on the rung and his bare foot slipped due to the water still coming off his clothes. With a sigh, he stepped down and quickly stripped, using the scrubs to mop up any water remaining on his body and tossing them down to the floor. He really, really hoped that once he had stopped the lockdown, he would be able to find some other clothes before the city became fully accessible again.
He ran into another force field just outside the Chair room. It took him about 3 seconds to realize there was no way around this one and it was time to show his hand. With any luck, he'd have just enough time to make it to the Chair before the virus became aware of his actions. What he would do then, he had no idea.
Remembering what it felt like to push his hand into the wall, to pick up the circuitry within, John placed the palm of his right hand flat on the wall next to the force field and concentrated on making it collapse. He could feel the lines of code that made up the programming holding the field in place almost like the delicate silk threads of a spider's web, and for a moment, it seemed like he might get trapped in the complexity of the problem, just like a struggling fly. Realizing this was no time for finesse, he cut through the code with a flash like one of Ronon's knives, already pushing through to the other side as the field wavered and collapsed.
Ahead, he could see the door to the Chair room starting to close from the ceiling down. Wincing in advance, knowing it was going to burn like a son-of-a-bitch, he dove for the floor, sliding across the threshold and pulling his feet in sharply behind him, just as the door came down. He barely made it in.
He scrambled to his feet and threw himself in the Chair, the seat rocking back and the surrounding console lighting up like a Christmas tree when he locked it in position.
It's about goddamned time.
Where the hell have you… John broke off, even as Sheppard shot him a wordless, negative reaction to his enquiry. He felt the power surge up suddenly through his body and arc out through his hands into the panels of the Chair, the force of it slamming his head back into the headrest. He felt a sense of recognition and relief and it wasn't coming from him or Sheppard. It was coming from the city…and how cool was that? His body wanted to arch up out of the seat and he had to force himself to sit down again. There was amusement and determination in Sheppard's admonishment that he hang on, and he closed his eyes against the roller coaster-like sensation that rocketed through him as he felt Sheppard take them in deeper into the system than he'd ever experienced before. Like flying in a fighter, Sheppard whipped them in and out across the landscape of circuitry and electronics, while the virus seemed to be like a thousand tiny spiders wrapping them in code as fast as it could generate new configurations. Sheppard was fast and unpredictable, but John could tell that the virus would overwhelm him without help.
We need Rodney.
John left Sheppard to his private battle with the virus as he sought out the communications block with his mind, tipping over the mental equivalent of trash cans in the alley as he went, making noise and distracting the virus as he careened through the system. It was weird; he could clearly see the circuitry of the city as he traveled through it but at the same time, his mind put a virtual spin on it that made it seem more like he was moving through the corridors as before. He knew he'd found the communications nexus because something in his head seemed to resonate with the sonorous tones of very large wind chimes.
"Rodney?" He wasn't sure if he had spoken aloud, until he heard the response.
"Sheppard? Is that you? Listen, I…"
"Shut up and listen, Rodney. I'm in the Chair. I need your help. How did you plan to contain the virus once you got here?"
Thankfully, Rodney was sharp enough not to ask needless questions, like how John had gotten to the Chair in the first place. "I took a fake back up copy of the systems database and built a firewall around it—the idea being that we would entice the virus within, thinking it was the real deal, and then lock it down while we purge the entire system and reboot from a clean back up copy. It'll take hours to complete and we're going to end up losing some data, but hopefully nothing too important. I have the whole thing set up on a non-networked laptop that I have with me here. I was planning to hook it up directly to the Chair."
"Kind of like the mousetrap for the energy creature that time you used the shield to save the city," John mused aloud. "Where are you now?"
Rodney gave him the location of the lab in which he and Radek were trapped, forced into it by a wall of rushing water that had been headed in their direction. "We're about waist deep in water now, but at least it no longer seems to be rising. We've been lucky. The Atlantean database is so much more complex than that of the Daedalus and this virus was designed to cover its tracks more thoroughly, limiting what it would do at any one time, otherwise, I suspect it would have proven more lethal by now."
"Okay, you're not going to be able to bring the laptop to us. We'll run interference on this end and try to get you computer access in your location."
"We?" Radek questioned, but both John and Rodney ignored him.
"When I give the word, Rodney, be ready to implement your program. What will happen when the systems shut down?"
"Either we will remain in lockdown, but no further active measures will be taken to contain us or else the system will reboot on its own, releasing the lockdown measures." Rodney's dry tone indicated he was not happy with not knowing the answer to the question himself. "There's still the matter of getting the virus to fall for the trap."
"Oh please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in that briar patch," John murmured.
"What was that?" Rodney said sharply.
"Stand by," John replied. "On my mark."
Struggling to maintain a tenuous hold on the communications system, John began reaching back towards the Chair room, seeking contact with Sheppard. It felt much like travel through the wormhole, like being stretched as though he were made of India rubber and the fleeting image of the Fantastic Four skated across his thoughts before he suddenly felt like he was being picked up and carried again, just like with Baby Sam.
Only this time, he was riding the back of the city and he felt every bit as exultant as he rode it out. Suddenly he was there—with the city, with Sheppard and still in the communications center. It was time. Now.
"Now, Rodney," Lt. Colonel John Sheppard of Atlantis said.
He found himself standing in the center of a small room with only two access points: the first being the open corridor in front of him, and behind him, a small door stood closed and barred, a force field in front of a steel door bound with several heavy chains and massive locks. The words "Do Not Enter" were printed in large angry red letters on a banner above the door. It made him want to laugh. Briar patch indeed.
A small skittering sound caught his attention and he whipped his head around to face the corridor, suddenly dressed in combat fatigues, a P-90 in his hands. As he watched, an Iratus bug rounded the far corner of the corridor and began making its way towards him, the 'ticky-tick-tick' of its legs on the metal decking almost mesmerizing. It seemed to catch sight of him and paused, the red sac of its abdomen inflating and deflating at a greater rate. The hard shell-like coverings on its back opened and closed with the movement, more like shutters than wings. Its long tail thrashed angrily. It seemed to be staring at him.
"Bugs," he said. "I hate bugs."
The creature lifted its tail over its back in a very scorpion-like manner and a shifting, chitinous sound reached his ears, just before a wave of Iratus bugs came swarming around the corner like a black river.
He tilted his head slightly and narrowed his eyes. So be it. He began firing.
Iratus bugs spattered and disintegrated under the hail of bullets released from his weapon, but they continued to come forward in a raging black tide, climbing over the bodies of the ones that had died, swarming up the walls and down the corridor and literally sweeping him off his feet. They surged over him, most passing him as though he were of no concern, making a beeline straight for the protected door, slamming their bodies repeatedly against the force field, crackling and exploding until the field itself collapsed. The ones behind swept forward and began chewing at the chains binding the door.
But not all of them. At least half a dozen, maybe more, latched on to him as he continued firing from his fallen position on the ground, until the combined force of their bites rendered him useless. Searing pain took his breath away as Iratus bugs gave up their preferred feeding position at the neck and attached themselves firmly to whatever part of his body was available. He felt the cold numbness creep over his body, watched as the P-90 fell from nerveless fingers, struggled for each breath, knowing that in a matter of minutes he would have breathed his last. As he looked over at the door one last time, the chains fell away and the door burst open, the Iratus bugs boiling through it like floodwaters breaking though a levee. They continued to pour into the outer room until the tide slowed down to a trickle, and finally the only bugs that were left were the ones still attached to him.
"Close the door, Rodney," he said in a breathless wheeze. "Purge the system."
His world exploded in a bright, hot flash of pain and light.
The first time John awoke, it was to the sounds of beeping monitors. His head snapped up and then he let it fall back with a groan as the crushing vise of a headache tried to keep him pinned to the bed. Slowly, with an effort, he began to push himself upright, throwing back the covers in preparation to getting up.
"Where do you think you're going, lad?" Carson took a firm grip on his arm, leaning across the bed from where he was standing on the other side.
"The city…Rodney." His voice was hoarse, as though he'd been yelling.
"Everyone is just fine. Including, I suspect, you. Only I'd like the chance to prove that, thank you very much." Carson tugged on John's arm and he allowed himself to be pulled back down into bed again. John glanced around the room. The medical staff was attending several other expedition members, treating a wide assortment of minor injuries. A fair number of people seemed to be cutting a glance over in his direction only to smile and look away, which made no sense to John at all. There was no sign of Rodney.
Carson seemed to be able to read minds. "Rodney has radioed in to check on you several times. He's a bit peeved that the Chair seemed to have taken some damage. He said to tell you he's tied up with repairs at the moment and to stay out of trouble until he can come and yell at you personally. I told him he'd have to take a number and get in line."
John rolled his eyes before dropping them to watch his hand pick at the thermal blanket covering him. He glanced back at Carson and indicated the room in general with his eyebrows. "What's everyone looking at me funny for?"
Carson chuckled, his blue eyes twinkling merrily. "It might have something to do with the state you were in when you were found in the Chair room."
John frowned. "You mean unconscious?"
"Oh aye, that," Carson waved a hand airily and then leaned in with a leer. "And naked."
John groaned and hid his face in the palm of his right hand as Carson laughed heartily and walked away.
The second time John awoke, his head was much better. The sound of murmuring voices caught his attention and he opened his eyes to see Elizabeth speaking quietly with Carson. When she noted that he was awake, she squeezed Carson's arm and came over to the side of his bed. Carson smiled from where he stood and moved off to check on someone else.
"How are you feeling?" Elizabeth was her usual calm, collected self, despite the dark circles under her eyes and a general flatness to her hair that suggested she hadn't had time to style it recently.
"Better," he replied, moving his feet restlessly under the covers as he sat up and then adding with a grin, "Pretty good, actually."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and then seemed to anticipate his next sentence. "Carson agrees, however, he says he'd like to keep you overnight for observation. If all goes well, he's planning to release you in the morning. I've scheduled a meeting for all department heads at 0900 to discuss ongoing repairs and to give a status update."
"But the virus is contained." He made it more of a statement than a question but Elizabeth nodded as though he'd asked it anyway.
"Yes, it would appear that Rodney's trap worked." She tilted her head to stare at him with a frown. "Rodney said you tackled the virus head-on yourself? From within the Chair itself? Something about the Tar-Baby?"
"Rodney exaggerates." John ignored the memory of the battle that he and Sheppard had fought, almost certain now that it had in fact, Ascended or not, destroyed Sheppard. "I just figured the harder I tried to protect the trap, the more certain the virus was to try and enter it. And I was right." He couldn't help but feel very alone. He missed the sardonic presence of Sheppard in his mind.
"Well you must have gone kicking and screaming into the briar patch," Elizabeth said dryly, "because it looks like the Chair room took a big electrical charge. It seems as though the force of the explosion knocked you right out of the Chair. We found you in a heap on the floor. So," Elizabeth traced a nonsensical pattern on the blanket beside his hand before looking up to finish her sentence. "So you are unAscended now?"
"Huh?" John blinked.
"You've Descended? You're fully back on the corporeal plane?"
Oh. Right. "Um, yeah, I guess so. I mean, what made you ask?"
Elizabeth raised both eyebrows this time. "We assumed that's why you were found…um, without any clothing in the Chair room."
John nodded his head, shaking an index finger at the same time. "Yup. That's it. Exactly."
The next time John awoke, it was late at night, the infirmary lights were dim. He was lying on his side and he opened his eyes to see Rodney sleeping in a chair beside his bed, head tipped back, mouth hanging open, laptop threatening to slide off his lap onto the floor. John reached out to take hold of the computer before it fell, causing Rodney to lurch and startle awake with a snort. Rodney's bloodshot eyes snapped open in surprise and then he dove forward to catch the laptop as well, his head brushing John's as he leaned in.
There was the briefest of pauses as they touched, and then Rodney said softly, "I've got it," as he disengaged the laptop from John's hand. He sat upright in his chair, folding the laptop across his chest like protective armor. "You blew up the Chair." His tone was accusatory as he scowled at John.
John rolled back in the bed, letting his head fall back to the pillow. "You can fix it, right?"
"Yes. That's not the point. The point is, you were in it at the time."
"Sorry. The next time I blow up the Chair, I'll make sure I reach a minimum safe distance first." The look Rodney shot him was just plain nasty. "Why don't you go to bed?"
"I just wanted to make sure you were alright." Rodney's eyes were suddenly tired but there was a sadness there as well. He looked like he'd been up for days. "You are alright, right?"
"I'm fine." Well, as near as he could tell, he was. Carson had told him that he'd have to give the knee a few weeks rest, but aside from the scrapes, bruises, and feeling a little singed around the edges, he was fine.
Rodney just continued to stare at him with those large, expressive eyes and John knew he wanted to say more and he had a pretty good idea of what Rodney wanted to ask. Instead, Rodney dropped his eyes briefly before saying quietly, "So, we're good, right?"
"We're good." John tried to imbue his words with all the warmth that he possessed, to let Rodney know somehow that they were really good.
Rodney's eyes flicked up sharply at his words and a pleased smile slid over his features before he repeated, "We're good." His head and shoulders made the little back and forth movement that John recognized from the 'in-vul-nerable' song he'd sung for Elizabeth the day they tested the personal shield and John had to suppress a laugh.
A thought suddenly occurred to him and he sobered quickly. "Hey."
Rodney quirked an eyebrow at him.
"You'd come and see me in the hospital, right?"
He got the 'you moron' expression. "What do you think I'm doing now? Of course I'd come see you in the infirmary. I'm always coming to see you in the…oh." His voice trailed off. John felt his face turning red and wished he'd not brought it up.
Rodney's fingers tapped on the back of the laptop a moment before he spoke. "You mean if something really bad happened to you, right? Like it did…to you." Rodney hesitated, then took a deep breath. "You have to know right now, I would handle something like that really badly. I'd be in denial, I'd fight against it, I would try to find a way around it. I would try to fix it."
"And if it couldn't be fixed?" John's voice was quiet.
Rodney's expression was very serious. He clutched the laptop more tightly to his chest with his one arm as the other hand began to punctuate his sentences. "I would do everything in my power to make it better. But we would fight. And if you sent me away, I would go. I might stay away for as long as, I dunno, a week? Ten days? But I'd be back. Because you'd be, well, you know, you. And I couldn't stay away." His hand echoed 'better' and 'fight' and 'you'. When he finished speaking, he looked faintly ill, as though he could not believe he'd just spoken those words.
"Cool." John smiled at him. If you say 'ditto' back to him, I will have to hurt you.
Mindful of the headache, John sat up slowly, certain that a bewildered grin must be on his face. The awareness in his head was somehow right. It made him complete.
"Sheppard?" Rodney laid the laptop on the floor and reached for his arm, giving it a little shake. "John?"
"Yes," John answered. He rapped his knuckles lightly over Rodney's hand as he grinned broader. "We're good, Rodney."
He knew the moment Rodney found full comprehension. "Oh. Oh hey! Hey, that's great. Really great!" Rodney beamed at him and his expression held relief as well.
John opened his fist and let his fingers slide over to cover Rodney's hand, stroking the back of his hand with a thumb before withdrawing to casually yawn. He stretched his shoulders back with only a slight wince, pulling his arms up alongside his head to do so, scrub top pulling up to expose a line of skin along his abdomen. "So," he said lazily, "Carson's gonna let me out of here in the morning."
Rodney stared at him with a stupefied expression on his face, before placing a hand over his open mouth and wiping it closed, slowly dragging his palm over his whiskery chin and down his neck. "That's good. Very good. Nice," he said at last, before rising creakily to his feet. The look on his face became determined. "I know one thing though. Before you get out…?"
"Yes?" John drawled suggestively, glancing up through his lashes as Rodney leaned over him.
"I am going to hunt down every last photograph of you in that Chair room." He ignored the startled jump John made at the words and continued in a scary voice. "Because naked pictures of you? They're all mine."
Oh great. We've created a monster. John was torn between utter chagrin at the thought of such pictures even existing and being both amused and stirred by Rodney's streak of possessiveness. He couldn't help but grin in the end anyway.
John hadn't been seated in the mess very long before he was joined by Ronon and Teyla. They came to stand by his table, not yet having gone through the line to pick up their food.
"You didn't meet me to run this morning." Ronon's eyes were still leonine underneath his shaggy dreads. John could tell he was being sized up again.
"Give me a break, Ronon," John continued to build his breakfast sandwich without looking up. "Carson only released me like thirty minutes ago. Besides, no running or sparring for two weeks—doctor's orders—until the knee calms down." He left out the part where Carson had added 'and no climbing down the walls of the city!' in a huff when he'd found out that part.
"And how are you feeling?" Teyla reached out to him with her good arm, laying a gentle hand on his forearm briefly.
"I'm fine, Teyla." He smiled up at her, touched by the concern on her face, knowing it was for both John Sheppards. "We're all fine. Each and every one of us."
He held contact with her eyes, willing her to get it, knowing that she would. Her eyes widened and then she truly smiled at him, the happy smile that she so rarely shared with anyone other than the members of the team. They both turned to look at Ronon, who glared back at them a moment before finally speaking.
"What's that?" Ronon indicated the odd mix of ingredients that John was putting into his sandwich.
"This?" John was astounded. "You've never tried this before? Seriously? Ronon, this is right up your alley." He pushed the loaf of bread over towards Ronon and waved his knife at the rest of the supplies. "Go on, help yourself."
When a bleary-eyed Rodney came stumbling past the table, clutching nothing but a coffee cup, he wavered in his path and seemed pulled inexorably towards the rest of the team, like a planet in orbit around the sun. He stood looking down in horror at the mess John and Ronon had left behind in their wake. "What is that? That is just so wrong." He looked helplessly at Teyla, who gave a little shrug and kept eating her yogurt cup. "That's disgusting," Rodney complained.
"Don't knock it 'til you've tried it," Ronon crunched around his mouthful of sandwich.
"Peanut butter and Cap'n Crunch? No thank you. And you." He turned accusingly towards John.
"Mine's Fruitloops. Though Sugar Pops aren't bad either." Several open boxes of cereal surrounded the jar of peanut butter and the decimated loaf of bread.
"You are a Fruitloop," Rodney groused. "Who are you and what have you done with the real Sheppard?"
A sort of horrified silence fell at the table and then suddenly John burst out laughing. Within seconds, the entire table was in a state of mild hysterics, drawing the odd stare from others in the room. John realized that he was finally home at last.
John stepped into the lab and paused at the doorway, surveying the scientists at work. He was dressed in his usual uniform of black tee and BDU's and it felt so right, especially after all that time in scrubs. The room itself radiated an air of tension however, emphasized in the hunched positions of the various scientists at their work stations, the absence of all chatter and the haunted expressions that met him when everyone looked up at his entrance. Everyone, that is, except Rodney.
Radek got quickly to his feet and rushed over to meet John at the door, casting a furtive look over his shoulder where Rodney was engrossed in an open laptop. "Please," Radek hissed as he grabbed John's arm and pulled him down so that he could whisper in his ear, "you must take him away. For all our sakes."
John thought for a moment that Radek looked like the frazzled mother in a Calgon commercial and started to say so, but wasn't sure if the Czech was likely to have seen American television commercials from the eighties. John could understand how he felt. Ever since he was released from the infirmary twenty-four hours earlier, he'd been on the go himself. After the briefing with Elizabeth and the priorities for recovery and repair had been set, he had delegated teams of military personnel to assist the science department in any way they could, be it on survey sweeps or actual physical labor. He had managed to sneak out on a jumper patrol himself at one point, Elizabeth later questioning archly if he really thought the jumper's sensors were more sensitive than the long range scanners of the city.
"Never hurts to have a second pair of eyes look at something," he'd said blandly.
"Hmmn," Elizabeth had said noncommittally, her eyes brimming with laughter.
She, of course, had no idea it was actually the first time he'd ever flown a jumper. The merge between him and Sheppard was so seamless now that aside from the thrill of flying in general, he almost forgot it was his first time himself.
He had, at least, managed to get a decent night's sleep last night, Carson finally laying down the law and sending him packing off to his quarters after hearing from someone that John had been working for hours down in the Chair room helping Rodney and Radek try to get the Chair back online. Judging from what he saw before him now, he doubted Rodney had been to bed at all last night and he was beginning to wonder how long it had been since Rodney had last slept.
Giving Zelenka a nod and detaching Radek's fingers from his arm, John made his way over to Rodney's workstation.
"Hey, Rodney." It took a second before Rodney looked up, and when he did, it was not encouraging. Rodney looked even more scruffy than the last time John had seen him, now sporting a two day beard, hair flat and oily against his head, eyes red-rimmed and glaring.
"If you don't have coffee, go away," Rodney snarled.
"I think maybe you should call it a night, buddy. Let your people go to bed, get some rest. You can come back to all this with a clearer head tomorrow."
"I bet you believe in Santa Claus too," Rodney said nastily.
"Give me pi to the tenth decimal place," John said casually, leaning against the corner of the work bench, crossing his arms.
"3.1415926…89…no wait, 73, no, 2657…oh god, I'm too stupid to be here." Rodney started off snappily enough but trailed away as his recitation got more progressively muzzy. "I shouldn't be here." He looked up at John with something like despair and John had to stifle a laugh.
"I think we'll all be okay if you take a break. Say maybe 12 hours sleep? A hot shower, some food?"
"Now you're just being cruel," Rodney closed his eyes and swayed slightly, speaking in the tone of a man dying of thirst who has just been tantalized with a canteen of water out of reach. His eyes snapped open at Sheppard's clap on his shoulder.
"C'mon, Rodney. You're with me." He waited patiently as Rodney hauled himself to his feet and then said over his shoulder as they were headed for the door, "No one radios Dr. McKay unless it is truly an emergency, got it?"
"Got it," Radek nodded several times, taking off his glasses to wipe them with the hem of his shirt and mouthing 'thank you' to John at the same time.
"When was the last time you slept?" John asked with a little concern as he watched Rodney slightly weave his way down the corridor as he walked beside him; Rodney occasionally bumping into his shoulder and correcting his path.
Rodney gave a jaw-cracking yawn. "I actually got a few hours last night. Then I got a call that long-range sensors were down, and given the fact that we had a homing beacon blaring our location, for however brief a period of time, I had to get the sensors up and running again. The real problem is I've been running on short sleep for a long time now."
He blinked and then frowned at John. "It turned out that the sensors had been damaged when Ronon took out the Wraith beacon. Did you know he had access to C-4? He took out at least three bulkhead doors in order to get to the beacon to destroy it permanently."
"Desperate times…" John murmured. He would have liked to have been able to point out to Elizabeth right now the justification for using the jumpers as a back up to the sensor array. Rodney just looked at him askance and then snorted.
"Yeah, I thought as much. When I said something to Ronon about it, he said, 'Sheppard told me to take out the beacon. He didn't say how.'" Rodney turned his head to give John a crooked smile, and this time when they bumped shoulders, it was deliberate.
Rodney's feet began to drag with each step the closer they got to his quarters and John ended up steering him into his rooms with a hand on the small of his back. Rodney came to a standstill in the middle of his quarters, and John shifted his touch to the back of his neck and shoulders, adding a second hand and massaging the tight flesh beneath his fingers. Rodney groaned and leaned back into John's touch, letting his body rock with the rhythmic movement of John's hands and allowing John to lend him some support as well.
"You should take better care of yourself," John murmured into his ear before ceasing his massage and reaching around in front to take the hem of Rodney's shirt and peel it upwards off over his head. Rodney wriggled out of the shirt and then turned in John's arms.
"You're a fine one to talk, Colonel No-That-Doesn't-Hurt-Besides-I-Have-Another-Kidney." John grinned at Rodney's latest manipulation of his rank and Rodney smirked suddenly, oozing into John's space, placing his hands on John's shoulders, flexing his fingers and pushing suggestively against John's pelvis. "Is this the part where we have shower sex?"
"No," John shook his head, noting the flash of disappointment across Rodney's face and filing that information away for later. "This is the part where I go get you something to eat while you take a shower by yourself and try not to drown in the meantime."
"That's no fun," Rodney pouted and John nearly relented on the spot.
Instead, he carefully disengaged himself from Rodney's clutches. "What you need now is a hot shower, food and then sleep, in that order. You'll be okay while I'm gone?"
"I think I can manage," Rodney was suddenly testy. "I've been undressing and showering myself for oh these many years now."
"Now that's an image," John said with a smile, leaning in to place a kiss on the corner of Rodney's crooked mouth. He was amused by the blush this triggered in Rodney, who ducked his head, looked embarrassed and then took refuge in scowling. John bit his lip to keep from laughing.
"Right then. You hit the shower while I go to the mess. Back in ten."
It took him a little longer than that in the end. He got waylaid by both Lorne and Elizabeth and had to discuss the ongoing city repairs. Elizabeth was concerned about the degree of damage the database had taken, but John could feel the city humming just in the background of his mind and he knew somehow that everything would be okay in the end. He couldn't really tell Elizabeth not to worry based on the fact that 'the city said so' however, and had to talk her through her fears. Lorne's concerns were simpler to deal with, but still necessitated some discussion. In the end, he chose to pick up some sandwiches, chips and a couple of apples: food that would keep until Rodney woke up again.
He stopped short on entering Rodney's quarters with his tray of food. Rodney lay completely naked, sprawled face down on his bed, skin rosy from prolonged exposure to hot water. One arm dangled off the side of the bed. His ass was right there in all its heart-shaped glory, perfectly rounded globes leading down to strong, slightly hairy thighs and calves.
He's dead to the world, John told himself sternly. You will not jump his bones.
He moved instead over to the table, carefully placing the food on its surface and releasing his breath with a small huff of frustration. When he turned back towards the bed, Rodney was lying with his face turned towards John, one blue eye open in sleepy speculation.
As though drawn against his will, John moved over to the bed, placing his knee on its surface (and wincing just a little) as he leaned over and slowly traced the curve of Rodney's spine, sweeping his hand out over the contours of his ass.
"Rodney," he said aloud, not recognizing the dark and needy voice with which he spoke.
A slow, sly smile transformed Rodney's face as he looked back over his shoulder at John. He bent one leg at the knee, rotating his ankle towards the nightstand and pointing with his foot. "Lube's in the drawer," he said.
John leaned across him, placing a hand against the heated skin of his back as he stretched for the drawer, snagging the lube and some condoms, dropping his forehead to rest it briefly on Rodney's back, smothering laughter as he did so.
"What?" Rodney questioned with a mixture of a frown and answering laughter. "What's so funny?"
"Oh god, Rodney," John laughed even as his hands began stroking Rodney's warm, slightly damp skin. "Even your feet talk."
Rodney buried his face into his pillow briefly to laugh at that himself and then rolled onto his back, his expression one part smug superiority and two parts shy wonder. "You find me irresistible, don't you?"
John looked down at him, spread before him like a banquet, one leg raised so that his foot was flat on the bed, his cock red and flushed rising up from a bush of light brown curls, nipples peaked and begging for John's attention from among the smattering of hair that covered Rodney's chest. "Yes," John said simply, leaning down for a kiss.
Rodney's mouth opened to meet his, tongue pushing into his mouth in a languorous fashion, sending a pulsing beat straight to John's cock. His hands were moving of their own volition over Rodney's chest, causing him to arch slightly, inhale deeply and murmur into John's mouth as they tweaked a nipple.
John broke away long enough to strip off his own clothing, eyes never leaving Rodney's face where Rodney lay looking back at him, lips parted and slightly swollen, eyes dark with lust and one hand lazily pulling at his cock as he watched John undress. It was the hottest thing in John's memory. When he finished stripping, clothes scattered with abandon around the room, John knelt back on the bed, gently pushing Rodney's knees apart so that he could fit between them, his hands rubbing down Rodney's thighs and back to his knees again. He snatched up the lube, flipping the top and squeezing out some one-handed, slicking his fingers and dropping his hand down to trace Rodney's hole, feeling the puckered flesh react and wink at his touch. When he pushed in with a single finger, Rodney's thighs dropped open and his head arched back, exposing the long line of his neck, his face reflecting the sheer bliss he felt in that moment. John crooked his finger, searching, and was rewarded when he found the small nub he was looking for and Rodney's mouth dropped open and his neck muscles tensed. He pulled out, added more lube and pushed in with two fingers, feeling the ring of muscle grab as he entered, even as everything else dilated, begging for more.
With his left hand he pushed into the muscles of Rodney's abdomen, flexing his fingers in the soft roll of flesh covering Rodney's belly, sliding sensuously up towards his nipples, rolling and teasing the sensitive nubs between his fingertips. Rodney signaled his pleasure by writhing under John's touch, his cock bouncing against his stomach as his body moved. Rodney began to rock his pelvis to the pumping of John's fingers, a breathy 'ohgodyes' could be heard at various intervals. Rodney continued to draw his own hand up and down his cock. John carefully lifted first one and then the other leg to his shoulders, maintaining his rhythm the entire time, adding a third finger and thrilling at the way this made Rodney arch and pant.
"Oh god, John, now, please, please, please." Rodney's words released something wild and primal in John and he pulled out his fingers, wiping them on the bedspread. He gripped the foil wrapper in one hand, tearing it open with his teeth and hastily rolling the condom down over his weeping, aching cock. He fumbled for the lube, almost losing his mind as he applied the slick to his cock and then gripping his dick firmly, he lined it up with Rodney's hole, pushing in steadily. When the head of his cock popped through the first ring of muscle, Rodney groaned loudly and John had to stop, open mouthed and panting at the sensation gripping his cock. Ohgodhotslicktight. Rodney suddenly relaxed and John was able to push all the way in, balls snug against Rodney's ass. He tried an experimental thrust and Rodney grunted, reaching down to grab at John's ass, trying to pull him in tighter, his toes curling and unfurling above John's ears.
John began to slowly thrust in and out, rolling his pelvis with each thrust, letting his head drop back as he gripped Rodney's thighs pressed up against his shoulders. Rodney shifted underneath him, lifting his hips even more and then began to utter a series of wordless cries that let John know he was hitting Rodney's prostate at least most of the time. John wanted desperately to kiss him and tried folding down to do so, earning a grunt from Rodney. "Not a pretzel, John," he ground out.
John smothered a laugh while at the same time was vastly turned on by Rodney's use of his first name, and he stopped trying to lean in, instead straightening, gripping Rodney's thighs and beginning to pump his hips with purpose. Rodney grunted softly with every thrust, dropping his legs off John's shoulders to hook them around the small of his back. John closed his hand over Rodney's where he begun to stroke his cock in earnest and together they sought to bring Rodney to completion.
Rodney's come was unbelievably warm as it spurted over their combined hands and the way his body shuddered and clenched around John had him coming soon after. He pumped hard, one, two, three times and then froze as his cock thrummed its release. He pulled out carefully, Rodney's hand reaching up to caress his face and then trailing down his neck and to his heaving chest, dog tags swaying slightly between them. He removed the condom and tossed it aside; crawling up the bed to lie alongside Rodney, a sleepy, crooked smile greeting him as he settled himself in place.
It was ridiculous how perfect this felt and a part of John reminded him that there was some cleanup involved but right now, he couldn't be bothered. All he wanted to do right now was lie as he was, limbs messily entwined with Rodney's, feeling the beat of his heart slow and match that of the man lying beside him. He was just drifting off to sleep when he felt the slow slide of Rodney's hand up his back and into the hair at the back of his neck, fingernails scraping lightly at his skull. He opened his eyes and met Rodney's smile with one of his own.
"Teyla says you died to be here," Rodney said softly, his eyes luminescent in the low lighting.
"No big deal," John said by way of confirmation. "Here was more fun."
Rodney huffed quietly, his fingers tightening briefly in John's hair. "I'm glad you're here. Both of you. I…I couldn't do this without you." Rodney's fingers never stopped moving along John's scalp, but his eyes dropped as he spoke, shuttered by ridiculously long lashes that brushed his cheekbones. He opened his eyes suddenly, his gaze boring into John as they lay face to face. "Any regrets?"
"A few," John admitted and then immediately wished he'd phrased it differently when Rodney's face became pinched and tight. "I wish I could have said goodbye," he hastened to add, releasing his breath as he saw Rodney's face relax once more.
"Maybe we can do something about that," Rodney said, his expression morphing into thoughtful scientist mode.
"Sure," John agreed for the sake of peace. "Just not tonight."
Jim Banks turned the key in the lock and tiredly pushed the door open. At this moment, he felt each and every one of his 63 years like he never had before. Toad hopped down off the couch and came over to greet him, her little nubbin of a tail wriggling with happiness. He stood at the door as he let her outside to pee, waiting patiently for her return. She seemed to sense his mood when she came back into the house, jumping back up on the couch and curling herself into a little ball at one corner. She watched him with dark eyes, head resting on the arm of the couch, as he moved about the room.
Tossing the keys on the table next to the couch, he loosened his tie and shrugged out of his jacket, folding it over one arm before laying it carefully over the back of his easy chair. He didn't wear a suit often; in his line of work it made no sense, but the suit he had was a nice one and it served its various purposes well. Weddings, special celebrations of one of Mr. Sheppard's winners, business meetings on behalf of the bloodstock…and funerals.
He leaned for a moment on the back of the chair, closing his eyes as he saw the events of the day replay in his head. John, Johnny-me-lad, Hotshot. Gone. Dead and buried. He couldn't stop the images in his head. John as a young boy with a mop of hair. John as a striking young man with all the promise of life before him. John as an adult, reflecting back only what he wanted others to see. John in the hospital, eyes turned inward and thoughts somewhere else, slowly leaving everyone behind. The emotion was overwhelming for a moment and Jim felt the tendons in his neck tighten as he struggled against it.
He recalled the shock/not-shock he'd felt when he got the news. His conversations with John and his own observations had left him feeling somehow that this day would come and yet the news drove the breath right out of him when he'd heard it. In his mind's eye he could see quite clearly the face of the young John Sheppard when he'd first started hanging around the barn—a thin, gangly boy with an impossible shock of dark hair. Shuttered hazel eyes, even then, already learning how to keep secrets, awkward in his body and yet captivating with his charm when he chose to show it. For seven years, John had the run of his barn, and Jim had watched the boy grow up and mature before his eyes. Those years stood out in radiant color amid a lifetime of black and white memories. John, his face a study in concentration, struggling with a water bucket and refusing to admit it was too heavy for him to lift. John with a cheeky grin saying 'yes' every time he was asked if they should raise the jumps higher. John and his quiet ability connect with even the rogue horses, bringing out the very best in them. John and Cloud Dancer, training together, becoming a team, winning event after event. He loved John like the son he'd never had, had watched him grow up with the pride of bringing a promising young colt along into maturity. Watched as he'd learned to hide his emotions under that easy-going charm, to present to the world a smooth façade that offered no toehold that could be used against him. And had somehow found the strength to let him go when John had stood that day in the aisle of the barn, face dark with anger at a father who didn't understand him; telling Jim that he couldn't stay another moment.
Squaring his shoulders and giving a deep sigh, Jim released his hold on the chair. Coffee. That's what he needed. He moved towards the kitchen, stiff and slow like an arthritic old man. He went through the motions of filling the coffee maker on autopilot, scooping out the aromatic coffee and placing it in the filter, pouring the water in at the top and starting the button, watching as it started to drip into the pot. He stood, mesmerized by the slow, methodical drips into the glass coffee pot below, as rhythmic as a metronome.
John at eleven had been fondly referred to by Jim as a 'bag of bones and a hank of hair'. He was a shy and ungraceful boy to whom the horses gave wings, growing into the athletic young man he'd become, confident in his body and his ability to take on the world. Jim knew that had John not been winning so spectacularly on Dancer as he approached his eighteenth birthday, Patrick would have pulled him out of the barn long before then, having planned John's life out in detail. An excellent prep school, football, enrollment in Harvard's Business School when he turned eighteen. John was 'going places'. Jim shook his head. Patrick never could not see how ill suited John was for the life he'd planned for his son. It was like hitching a Derby winner to a plow.
John had excelled in math and enjoyed literature, but was an indifferent student in the rest of his subjects at school. His lean form lent itself better to track than football and business bored him. It infuriated Patrick that John seemed to have a gift for the stock market and could care less about it. With each passing year, Patrick seemed to lean harder on the boy, trying to mold John to his will. With each year, John became harder to hold.
He remembered vividly the moment he realized that John Sheppard was going to be a heartbreaker, catching the fifteen-year-old boy as he re-appeared after an unexplained absence at a horse show, lips lush and kiss-swollen, hair more disheveled than usual, bits of straw clinging to the shoulders of his bright green polo shirt. Jim hadn't said anything at the time, but that night had taken John aside and given him a lecture on safe sex and the use of condoms, knowing it would never come from his own father. He emphasized that John should use one with every sexual partner, no matter what; until he found someone that he could be in a permanent relationship with, someone who was his partner in life.
John had looked up at him then, a faint flush overlying his cheekbones and spreading to the tips of his ears. "No matter what," he'd repeated slowly. And then looked uncomfortable.
Jim had waited him out.
"And if that person can't get pregnant?"
"It's not about preventing pregnancy, John. It's about preventing STD's. And if you're trying to tell me that you don't think it's necessary because we're talking about another guy here, I'm saying it's even more important."
John stood then, ramrod straight, face blank and already shielding itself from an expected blow. "And it if is another guy?" His voice had trailed away, defiance fading and looking painfully worried about disappointing Jim. Patrick Sheppard had a lot to answer for.
He had chosen his words carefully. "I think there are more important things than the gender of your sexual partners, John." Lord knows the horse show world had its share of prominent gay competitors. "I think it's more important whether or not you respect each other. I think at your age, it's hard to know what you really want because it's all about sex any way you can get it." John's real smile had lit his face then, briefly but intensely, and Jim had known. Heartbreaker.
He just didn't know at the time that John would break his own heart one day.
Suddenly coffee seemed woefully insufficient to his needs.
He took a glass from a battered cabinet, noting not for the first time that nothing in his house even remotely compared to the splendor of the Sheppard home. Not that it had ever mattered to him: home was a place he came to at the end of a long day, a place to heat up a frozen dinner before sitting down in his chair and doing a little reading. The days started early for a horse trainer—he'd been going to bed before 9 pm for years. But not tonight, he thought. It was possible that he'd never sleep again. He moved tiredly into the living room and opened the cabinet beside the elderly stereo. His eye glanced briefly over the antiquated vinyl albums; old friends that had kept him company in the evenings along with his books. Shortly after John had returned home, he tried to convince Jim to use an ipod. He had always been playing with the latest gadget, thrilling to what he could make it do.
Everything was going to remind him of John tonight.
He glanced up at the wall above him where photos of various horses were arranged. That Liberty colt, the one that went on to compete in the Olympics in Barcelona. That homely little dun mare who went Prix. St. George. Dagny. Kenya. Ruthless. All horses that he had raised, trained, loved and let go when they were eventually sold. In the center of the collection was a professional photograph of John and Dancer at the water jump at Rolex—the grey gelding taking the fence with enthusiasm, captured on film as his legs reached out for the water below, a grin of sheer joy splitting John's face as he leaned back in the saddle, bracing for the drop, beads of water scattered in the air around them like diamonds in the sun.
He poured a generous helping of Crown Royal into his glass and debated going back to the kitchen for some Coca-cola before abandoning the idea, bringing the bottle with him as he unbuttoned the top of his dress shirt and sat down in his easy chair. He took a sip of the smooth whisky and closed his eyes. Unbidden, his thoughts turned to the funeral service today and the paucity of arrangements. A small service, Dave had said, nothing fancy, John wouldn't have wanted that. But Jim had seethed inside at the sheer lack of acknowledgement of the passing of one John Sheppard. It was as if as far as his father was concerned, John had died nearly two years ago, the day of his accident.
A small, impersonal service performed by a minister that had never even met John, a few words from Dave. Patrick hadn't even bothered to come; Dave cited health reasons, but Jim knew what that meant. Beth had taken Bettina, dressed in her pink Easter suit and black patent leather shoes and little Johnny, not yet two, home after the church service. Nancy had come, with her new husband Grant, who kept checking his watch and then at the first opportunity left the church to use his cell phone. There were a few people from the company, including a woman with red hair of a shade that could not possibly be natural, who wore purple glasses and a vibrant, yellow dress and outrageous purple shoes in defiance of typical mourning garments. Jim was tempted to go speak to her, but there was something in her expression of such tightly controlled emotion that forbade such contact, and he could appreciate that. He felt the same. The graveside service was even smaller, with a scant handful of mourners standing in the heartlessly bright sunshine, who scattered as soon as reasonably possible. There was no reception planned at the house later that afternoon.
Jim had turned away from the gravesite, lost in his own thoughts, when he was approached by a good-looking young man in a very nice suit. Armani, he guessed from his time among the wealthy. The man moved as though he were comfortable in his own skin, hair the color of wet sand, intense blue eyes behind scholarly glasses. He had stepped forward and extended a hand towards Jim.
"Mr. Sheppard, I'm Daniel Jackson. General O'Neill would have liked to have paid his respects today, but duty elsewhere prevented him from doing so. He sent me in his stead. I am so sorry for your loss." The young man smiled sadly, as though certain he was a poor second choice.
Jim had accepted the hand held out to him automatically before the words registered. He let go of Jackson's hand abruptly. "I am not Mr. Sheppard," he snarled. "I'm the hired help." He knew in that instant with crystalline clarity that he could never go back to work for Patrick Sheppard again.
Jackson studied his face carefully, as though he were some precious document that needed translation, and then reached out and briefly gripped Jim on the shoulder. "My mistake. I am so very sorry."
It had become suddenly very important to make this man understand, to have someone understand. "John was no quitter," he said fiercely. "I know what they're saying about him and they're wrong. He was no quitter."
Jackson's face took on an expression of sympathetic pain and understanding. "I didn't know him well myself, but he didn't strike me as the quitting type."
"Jim Banks." Jim had thrust out his hand abruptly and felt it grasped in a clasp much like his own, strong, with calluses from hard work, not some desk job. It had felt like he was conducting a secret handshake, an induction into a private club that few knew even existed.
"You must have cared about him very much," Jackson had then said carefully, head tilting slightly as he studied Jim closely.
"The years I knew that boy were the best years of my life," Jim ground out, feeling the sting of tears in his eyes, mouth and jaw working tightly to stay in control of his emotions.
Jackson had smiled at him then, the sad smile of someone who had also loved and lost. He had paused, and then his expression shifted, an engaging look that warmed something deep inside Jim's worn soul. "Did you know Major Sheppard once saved General O'Neill's life?"
Jim had shaken his head slowly. John never talked about the things he'd done right; only the things he'd done wrong, and rare was the time he'd done even that.
"Oh yes," Jackson had continued to smile, a gentle warmth radiating outward from the man like sunlight coming through an open window. "Major Sheppard was flying Jack into a military base when they came under attack. To hear Jack tell the story, they were saved only by the Major's extraordinary flying skills. And that's high praise indeed, Jack's a pilot himself."
Jim had nodded. That was his John. He didn't say the words out loud, but somehow the young man before him heard them all the same. Jackson had smiled quietly at him a moment longer, lending Jim a strength that came from a brotherhood of loss. He then looked out across the cemetery, verdant green lawns interspersed with white headstones. He gave a small sigh and had looked back at Jim again. "Mr. Banks," he had said at last, "it was a pleasure meeting you." With a light touch on his arm once more, the man called Daniel Jackson took his leave, making his way through the cemetery back towards the line of cars.
Jim did not know how long he had sat in the chair, nursing his drink and his thoughts, when he finally looked up. The light outside was fading; it stayed light until nearly eight pm these days. It was time he thought about some dinner and then bed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. He would have to make arrangements to see that the horses were taken care of before he gave his notice. And Nancy—he would have to tell Nancy. Somehow he hoped that she would understand, that she would move her horses wherever he ended up next; that he would get to continue to train The Moose. Somehow by doing that, he could keep a small part of John with him. Dave had given him John's lucky charm at the gravesite, still on its worn string of rawhide. It felt like it was burning a hole in his pocket right now.
He moved slowly towards the kitchen, only slightly unsteady on his feet. He rinsed the empty glass and set it in the dish rack to drain, toying with the idea of going to bed without eating verses grabbing a sandwich. His body traitorously suggested food; a lifetime of eating his main meal at night had left him predictably hungry, despite the fact that he felt as though hunger were somehow inappropriate. With a sigh, he pulled out a loaf of bread on the counter and went over to the refrigerator to take out some cold cuts. Toad had followed him into the kitchen and now sidled expectantly at his feet.
Beside the fridge was a cork bulletin board where Jim frequently pinned notes to himself—when the next farrier visit was due, reminders to get copies of Coggins papers for horses scheduled to travel to a show soon, entry forms for upcoming events. On it, he had also pinned the few notes or cards he'd received from John over the years—scant missives that said basically that he was still alive and in some other exotic location for the moment. There weren't many, but Jim had kept every one. Sometimes he'd answered them back, sending a post card of the Blue Ridge Mountains, or a photo of a particularly hot show prospect he was bringing along. But Jim had always been reluctant to expand on the carefully allotted parameters of contact that John had set up—he'd been afraid that to do so would cause it to disappear. His glance flicked over the collection of correspondence now as he reached for the handle of the fridge door.
When he closed the fridge door and turned around with the sandwich makings in his hands, John was standing in the kitchen behind him. Jim started violently, like a spooky horse, dropping the bologna and mustard with a clatter on the floor. Toad snapped forward, snagged the wad of meat and bolted from the room. Jim stood stupidly for a moment, still holding the package of American cheese, his mouth hanging open before shutting it with a snap. He thumped the cheese down on the counter and turned back to glare at the apparition.
"Goddamn it, John! Scare an old man to death, will you?"
John blinked, looking dumbfounded. "Um…sorry?"
"Well you should be," Jim snarled, folding his arms across his chest.
A slow smile spread across John's face until his expression split wide open and his shoulders began to move helplessly as he tried to hold his laughter in check. Jim began to chuckle as well, until soon he was laughing so hard tears spilled down the lines of his face. He caught his breath with a sob, sobering abruptly.
"Um, no offense, Jim, but you don't seem particularly surprised to see me."
Jim shrugged. Damn it. Toad had made off with the better part of his dinner. "I'm either drunk or you're a ghost. Either way, tonight was the only night I was ever going to see you again."
"Well, you're right about at least part of that," John said cryptically, and for a moment sounded more cynical than Jim was accustomed to hearing. Jim noted for the first time that John appeared to be dressed in some sort of military uniform and he was surprised at how well it suited him. There was a confidence to him that he had not seen except when John was on the back of a horse. He radiated a vitality that Jim had not seen in years.
"Look, Jim, I don't have much time—it's sorta under special circumstances that I'm here at all. I just wanted to let you know, I didn't give up."
Jim felt himself blinking owlishly back at John. "You didn't give up," he repeated dumbly.
John's expression suddenly became devilish, the same look he used to get whenever Jim would raise the jump height. "No. I went to Atlantis."
"The city you were dreaming about." Jim frowned.
"Not a dream," John shook his head with a grin, hand resting casually on the holster of his gun as he leaned against the kitchen counter. "Look, I can't really explain it, it's sorta of complicated. But I'm not a hallucination and I'm not a ghost. If I were a ghost, do you think I'd come back pushing forty?" John's brow furrowed as he raised an eyebrow. "Hell, no. I'd be eighteen for sure." He gave a wicked grin. He straightened abruptly, expression suddenly earnest.
"Atlantis really exists, just maybe not in this reality. It's not some sort of Elysian fields, okay? Bad things happen, good people die. There are some serious bad guys. But they need me there and it's where I want to be. I just…I can only…" he broke off, struggling for words. He took a deep breath and began again. "I just wanted you to know I'm okay. More than okay. Happy even."
"Because you're fighting serious bad guys and you might die and you're not eighteen." Jim felt his own eyebrow rise.
"Yeah," John's face lit up again. "Screwy, huh?"
"I won't be seeing you again, will I?"
John's face fell, his lips tightened. "No, Jim. I don't think so. But you never really know." He gave a little shrug, smiling again, the fingers of his right hand splaying a little as they said 'maybe.'
"Well," Jim huffed a little. "Thanks for stopping by. Go on then, Johnny-me-lad. Take care of yourself."
John took a half-step forward, making an abortive gesture to reach for him before stopping to raise a hand in a silent farewell. Jim was distracted as Toad snuck back in the kitchen and attempted to make off with the bottle of mustard. When Jim looked up again, John was gone.
The room seemed darker somehow. Jim wrested the bottle of mustard away from the dog and watched as she licked all around the floor where the food had been dropped. He gave a great sigh and replaced the cheese in the fridge, appetite gone. When he shut the fridge door, he glanced over at the bulletin board and the odd jumble of notes and cards from John. It didn't make any sense. How could what he had just experienced feel more real to him than the reality of attending John's funeral today? But somehow it seemed that John wasn't dead, merely on another long deployment, one in which he would be out of touch for a long time. And Jim could live with that.