Jeannie Draper stands on a broad, sun-lit sidewalk on a wide dusty street and can’t quite believe she’s really made it; that she’s actually managed to piece together enough of the fragments she’d gathered to get here. Two months, dozens of e-mails and three exhausting flights – but she finally made it.
The clear, perfect blue of the Nevada sky stretches out above the rim of her straw hat, reaching out across the horizon. The dry packed earth, the sharp red of it against all that flawless cerulean is far away from the damp green she’d left behind in Vermont, and it’s that more than anything - the taste of the air like a static charge - that makes what she’s doing seem more real now than it ever has before.
In front of her is a small, white painted house set back off the road, plain but well-kept. No. 137, the mail box reads. Sheppard.
The book she has tucked up under her arm feels somehow larger now she’s here; the beaten up ammo box gripped in her damp palm hangs heavier from its handle. The weight of this, of the thing she’s about to do, isn’t lost on her. Taking a deep breath, she walks up the garden path that winds through a parched lawn, steps up the porch steps and reaches up awkwardly to press the bell. This is the right thing to do, she tells herself one last time, before she pushes down and the buzzer sounds somewhere inside the house.
This is the right thing to do.
Slow footsteps sound inside, dragging their heels to the door.
The man who opens the door to her is both familiar and entirely new to Jeannie’s eyes. The shape of him, long and slim, the way he leans his body against the door frame, the mess of his hair and most of all, those eyes are all parts she can match to the smiling young man in her grandfather’s photographs, the ones standing on his dresser. They’re all black and white, and full of men in uniforms.
The cane the man rests his weight on is new, though, as are the lines worn into his face, the silver-grey of his hair. The time between the sepia-toned snapshots and the full color image of the man before her is tangible.
“Can I help you?” he asks, raising one eyebrow. She can see in the tilt of it the heart-breaker she’s always heard about.
The right thing to do, she thinks, tightens her grip on the ammo box.
“My name is Jeannie Draper,” she says, stepping forward and offering her hand. He blinks as he gets a closer look at her, staring like he’s seen something impossible, as white as if she were a ghost. After a moment, he takes her hand, slipping his palm into hers without ever looking away from her face. “I’m looking for John Sheppard.”
* * *
It takes John a moment to gather himself enough to do anything more than just stare at the woman on his porch. “Well. You found him,” he eventually replies as she drops her hand away from his. He might have asked ‘what can I do for you?’ He might have asked her, flushed from the heat as she is, to take a seat on the porch in the shade. But this girl’s eyes are an achingly familiar shade of blue, chocolate curls a riot around a stubborn jaw, thin lips that slant ever so slightly down on one side. All he can ask when faced with shadows of a face he still thinks about is: “Jeannie?”
The girl on the porch smiles, sweet and warm like her namesake. “Yes. After my great aunt,” she says. John has to swallow. “I think you knew her, “ the girl – Jeannie – says with that look, that exact same scalpel sharp look Jeannie Miller gave him all those years ago and an ocean away. So you’re Sheppard. Mer’s friend.
John shakes his head to clear it of the memory. “I met her a couple of times. I knew,” he says, and has to clear his throat. “I knew her brother.”
Jeannie Draper nods, smiles a small, crooked smile that has Sheppard fighting a thousand different memories all over again. “Meredith McKay,” she says. “My grandfather.”
Sheppard shakes his head, scrapes out, “Rodney,” he insists. “I knew... I knew Rodney McKay.”
Jeannie’s looking at him knowingly, like he just confirmed something for her. “Can I come in, Mr. Sheppard? There are some things I need to show you.”
* * *
The house inside is blessedly cool, a welcome relief from the dry, scorching heat outdoors. Sheppard leads Jeannie into an open plan kitchen and family room, invites her to take a seat and barely says three words to her the whole time. A man of few words, she thinks, recalling the stories her grandfather would tell, the way he’d use the word ‘laconic’ to shape the frame of John Sheppard that he’d drawn for her over the years.
The house inside is just as neat as it is outside. It’s full of things, though, that give it a depth, a character that you would never suspect if you took the conventional building at face value. There are framed photographs on every wall. Jeannie recognises the people in some of them: Dr. Beckett and his wife, Laura, before they were married; Radek Zelenka; a picture of Ronon Dex from before he had his dreadlocks, looking younger than Jeannie is now.
There are books, too, hundreds of them in tall wooden book cases pressed up against the walls wherever there’s space. Jeannie can see Asimov and Heinlein shelved next to War and Peace next to Whitman next to Faulkner next to Douglas Adams. There’s a stack of vinyl records and CDs next to a sleek-looking sound system, and a framed print of Teyla Emmagen, elegant and devastating in a red silk gown hanging by it: Jeannie can make out her distinctive signature at the bottom of the photograph, a message that she’s too far away to read. There’s a framed newspaper article beside it: Ms. Emmagen on stage at a civil rights rally, Free And Equal fluttering on the banner above her. Parts of the room have spilled out over the surface of the table she’s at, cluttering the tabletop. It’s fascinating to see all of this, filling in the outline of the man rummaging in the kitchen.
Sheppard returns to the table with a pitcher of water – no lemon, she notes – and two glasses. Jeannie finds a space amid the muddle for the ammo box. When she puts it down, she rests the thick book on top of it, then reaches up to sweep her hat off. She can feel where the sun has pinked the skin of her nose, her cheeks; when she huffs a sigh and presses her fingers there to test the heat, Sheppard smiles. Really smiles, bright and wide and incredibly fond, then ducks his head to hide it away. He’s thinking of another time, someone else with blue eyes and fair skin, and it makes her feel like a voyeur to have seen that grin because it wasn’t meant for her.
“Delicate skin?” he asks, face down-turned as he tips ice and water into the glasses on the table.
“It runs in the family, “Jeannie replies.
Sheppard’s smile turns wistful then, sad. “Yeah. I remember,” he murmurs, looking away. He’s glancing sideways at the box, like he recognises it but doesn’t want her to know that.
Jeannie has to think for a moment to find her words. She’d spent so long trying to find this man, then worrying about getting here that this part – what to say – wasn’t something she’d given much thought to. In the end, she decides to just lay out the facts.
“You knew my grandfather.” Sheppard doesn’t say anything. The clatter of ice as Sheppard sets the pitcher down is loud between them. “You were stationed with him in England from 1942.” This time Sheppard nods. “You knew my grandmother too. Jennifer Keller.”
Sheppard shifts uneasily in his chair, flicks carefully blank eyes over her face then looks away again. “Yeah. I knew her,” he says, then sips at his water.
Jeannie takes a breath, because it’s been a while but these words still hurt. “She died. Last year.”
Sheppard’s fingers tighten around his glass and he looks up to her, dark, sympathetic gaze catching on her own where tears are blurring the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says, softly. Something about him, about the way he holds himself as he sits makes Jeannie think he knows what it is to lose people.
“Thank you,” she says, swiping her eyes dry with the back of her hand. “She did remarkable things. And she was very good to me.” Kind and patient and such a warm person; Jeannie has adored her every bit as much as her grandfather, though she’d never understood the strange distance between them. Not until later. When her eyes are dry again, she looks up at Sheppard again. “I’m not here for her though. I’m here for my grandfather.”
Sheppard goes very still as she speaks. “Do you recognise these?” Jeannie asks, dipping her head to the box and book on the table.
Sheppard nods, slowly and bites his lip. “His journal. He used to keep it in that,” – he gestures at the ammo box – “under his bed.”
“I want you to look at them,” Jeannie says, pushing the box over the table.
Sheppard eyes the box, wary. “Why?”
“He told me a lot about you. Told stories when we were kids.” Jeannie has to smile then, recalling the nights she and Ella spent huddled at his feet, hanging off every adventure. “He showed me this once,” - she taps the side of the box - “and I think you should see it too.”
Sheppard doesn’t say anything, doesn’t do more than stare at the box on the table for a while. Then hesitantly, hands shaking just a little, Sheppard reaches for it.
This is the right thing to do, Jeannie repeats to herself, watching Sheppard flip the latch, pull up the lid.
A barely-audible gasp, then a long pause as Sheppard looks down at the contents of the box. After a steadying breath, Sheppard reaches down into it hesitantly, like he thinks the lid might snap shut on his wrist, and picks up a thin, worn piece of paper.
“Jesus,” he whispers, carefully lifting it into his lap. “This is crazy,” he mutters, hands reverent on the paper.
* * *
September 12th 1942
John folds the paper of his medical chart carefully in half, then turns the angular edges inward, fiddles a little with the shape he’s made. Folding it again, pressing his fingernails to the paper to sharpen his folds, John picks up his airplane and looses it into the air.
He’d been aiming for the open door (hoping it would make a statement because there’s no reason for him to still be here), and would have made it too if it weren’t for the man who walks in just as the plane swerves for the door, perfectly on target.
Wide shoulders, sandy hair just long enough to curl at the ends, eyes so blue Sheppard can see the color of them from his bed across the room, and a mouth that curves curiously even as he speaks, spitting out words like bullets.
“ – because if it happens again I’ll take him apart, I swear it, Zelenka. And the next time that, that pathetic excuse for an aviation engineer wires up anything – I don’t care if it’s so much as a god damn cockpit light – make sure he knows he’ll be testing his connections himself!” The man – fast paced mouth to match fast paced feet, shouting up a storm in the otherwise hushed infirmary – is easily the most interesting thing to happen since John landed himself here. He’s cradling one broad palm in the other; John can see the tips of his fingers curling up from one hand, pink and raw looking. The small, wild-haired man at his side (presumably Zelenka) simply rolls his eyes and mutters something that sounds entirely unsympathetic in a language John doesn’t understand.
“He could have killed me!” the other man yells, eyes flashing. The blue of them hits John low and unexpected. Stop it, he tells himself, dropping his eyes to the white of the bedspread instead. “Never mind the Nazis,” the man goes on, biting out the words, “we should be fighting a war against idiocy. God knows it’s just about as dangerous a force in the world!”
Zelenka rolls his eyes again, gets as far as “I hardly think that this is a comparable circumstance to –“. It’s then that John’s airplane cuts across the blue-eyed man, winging the curve like John hoped it would before crashing nose-first into the side of the man’s face.
Both of the men freeze where they stand, struck motionless and dumb at the unexpected hit. There’s a beat where the man with the blue eyes reaches out automatically with his good hand to snatch the crumpled plane out of its downward spiral to the floor. Then they turn quickly to face John where he sits, propped up against the headboard and trying very, very hard to look like he doesn’t want to laugh at the look they’re giving him.
“Um. Sorry,” he mutters.
Zelenka blinks at John once, then dissolves into laughter he can’t suppress; at the same time, the other man sighs an irritable, put-upon sound and starts towards Sheppard’s bed, tucking the plane into a pocket. “What is it with people today? You could have taken an eye out!” Zelenka laughs louder at this, bracing against the force of his mirth on a side-table.
John opens his mouth to say something – what he has no idea, he’s kinda distracted by the flush rising indignant on the other man’s cheeks – but before he can get anything out, Dr. Beckett bangs through the double doors from the intensive care ward next door.
“What’s all this, then?” Beckett asks, looking questioningly from Sheppard to Zelenka to - “McKay, would you keep your bloody voice down, man? There are sick people here, how many times do I have to tell ye?”
“Many, many more Dr. Beckett,” Zelenka manages through his gentling laughter. “Now that you are safely delivered, McKay, I should go back to work,” he says. His accent sounds Eastern European, which makes John curious. The blue eyed man – McKay, Sheppard thinks, fitting the name to the man – waves him away with a distracted “yes, yes go.” As Zelenka retreats, still smiling, Dr. Beckett turns to McKay.
“What now?” he asks, appearing entirely resigned.
“What now? What – look! Look at this, Beckett!” McKay hisses, waving his hand in Beckett’s face. “That idiot Kavanaugh almost killed me with his amateur attempts at wiring. The hack. I go away for what – two days? – and the standards around here fall right through the floor!”
Beckett grabs McKay’s wrist to steady the palm and looks down at the reddened pads of McKay’s fingers with a quiet ‘hmm.’ When he taps them lightly, McKay whimpers “ow, ow, ow, ow, ow – careful” under his breath, glaring at the doctor the whole time. John finds himself smiling at that though he has no clear idea why. Unfortunately it’s then that McKay looks over at him.
“What are you smiling at? This hurts you know.” Beckett pushes McKay down to sit on the empty bed next to John’s with a firm hand on his chest. John finds himself looking at the fingers spread over McKay’s overalls and decides he likes the look of a hand there. Shaking himself out of the thought, John makes himself nod seriously.
“Electrical burns sting like a bitch,” he drawls, leaning back against his pillows. He finds himself looking up at the other man through his lashes, mouth dropping open into a slight pout, blood thickening in his veins as he flicks his eyes over him. When McKay flushes, John makes himself sit straighter, look away. John is attracted to this man, and while it isn’t a new thing for him - the pull towards a man – he still slips up sometimes.
He has to be careful.
“Now McKay,” Beckett berates, “leave Captain Sheppard alone. He’s new, he doesn’t know about you yet. And he’s banged up enough already without getting into a fight with you.”
“Hey!” John protests, sitting up as straight as he can without wincing. “I’m fine, doc. I told you.”
“Know about me?” McKay repeats, speaking over John. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
Dr. Beckett looks at McKay and raises an eyebrow, then sighs as he fetches alcohol from the cabinet. McKay huffs, then eyes John where he lies on the bed. John tries not to squirm under the curious look McKay is giving him as he waits.
When he gets back to McKay’s bedside, Beckett turns back to John. “I do the telling around here Captain, and I’m telling you, you’re in here until I’m sure you’re not – “
“Wait a moment – “ McKay interrupts, hissing when the alcohol is dabbed out over his fingertips. “Sheppard?” He looks Sheppard over again, glaringly this time; the look makes Sheppard’s gut tighten. It’s not entirely unpleasant. Careful, John.
“It was you!” McKay yells, ignoring Beckett when he shushes him disapprovingly and almost smacking him across the face as he lifts his good hand to point accusingly at Sheppard. “Seriously, two days and everything’s a disaster. You crashed my plane!”
John winces, ducks his head. It was bum rap, but it sure looked bad: he’d taken a hit engaging a raiding party further south, ditched roughly in a field rather than try to get back to base. Given that it was his first time out, it hadn’t made a great impression. “Ah. That was your plane?” he asks, rubbing his hand over his nape. It’s an aw-shucks look that gets him out of more trouble than it should for a man in his mid-twenties. It doesn’t seem to affect McKay.
“Oh, don’t even try that with me, Sheppard,” McKay snaps, slipping down from the bed to advance on John.
“McKay!” Dr. Beckett protests, trailing after him with a handful of cotton.
“I can see right through that stuff anyway. Charm is lost on me,” McKay says, reaching John’s bedside and standing over him, hands on hips.
John blinks. “You don’t say.”
Color rises in McKay’s cheeks again. John lets him see his smile, teasing, the one his mother said made him look like mischief.
“Sit down McKay,” Beckett instructs, shoving McKay down to sit at the foot of John’s bed. “Sorry, Captain,” he says, apologetically.
“He crashed my plane,” McKay repeats, sulkily.
On impulse, John leans forward and plucks the remnants of the paper plane out of McKay’s side pocket. “Yeah, but you crashed mine, so we’re even-Steven.”
When McKay gapes at him, sputtering, John decides teasing him is fun.
“Even? Even? It’s a paper dart!” McKay snatches it back, turns it over in his good hand. “Though if this is the best you can so I’m not surprised you broke the real thing.”
“I did not break it. I was shot down,” John says, then, feeling embarrassed by the admission, he adds, “and anyway, that’s a classic design.”
McKay snorts. “Maybe it would be if you folded it right.”
“I folded it just fine.”
“So fine it flew into my face, Captain.”
“That was not my fault, McKay.”
“Now, if you’d just folded the tail here – “ McKay demonstrates, holding the paper awkwardly under his knee as the fingers of his good hand fumble the fold.
“Oh,” John says, seeing the dynamic the new crease will give the craft, the shape it’ll make, “yeah, I can see what you – here, let me – “
“Right, now if you turn it like that – “
“And maybe... like this?”
“If you want it to lean to the right, sure. I’d say more like this.”
“It wouldn’t lean. And that’s going to slow it down.”
“But it’ll fly further.”
“I know it’s hard for you to believe, but speed isn’t everything. Paper darts are about distance.”
And that’s it. They’re away, folding and refolding and bickering over everything like they’ve known each other years instead of minutes. Dr. Beckett tapes the small bandages to the ends of McKay’s fingers as they work (they don’t seem to smart as much anymore).
“We need a test flight,” John announces, when it’s about as close to perfect as it can be. He lifts the plane up, balances it on his palm. McKay is looking between the plane and John’s face, eyes bright, looking like he’s found something fascinating. It’s John that flushes this time, irrationally embarrassed.
“Hold on a – “ Dr. Beckett interrupts, sounding scandalised. “Is that your chart, Captain?”
Before John can try and explain – not that he had any idea where to start – McKay snatches up the plane and launches it at the infirmary window. It flies straight and almost-perfect, out and up into the pale blue of the English sky in early autumn, catching on an updraft.
“McKay!” Carson admonishes, running to the window. He can’t do anything but watch it go, though.
“Swell,” John says, grinning wide at McKay.
“Hmm, “is McKay’s only response, a pleased sound as he bounces lightly on the balls of his feet, eyes glinting.
John always remembers that moment as the beginning.
* * *
Sheppard is smiling as he turns the thin paper over in his hands, fingers the creases where dirt had drawn the lines dark after so many years.
There’s a bitter-sweet thing dug into the lines on his face.
“I can’t believe he kept this,” he murmurs, hands holding the folds so that shape of the plane stands up in his fingers.
“He looks at it a lot,” Jeannie says, looking away as Sheppard smoothes out the paper again, brushes his fingers over the water stains.
Carefully, Sheppard sets the paper down on top of the unopened diary, then looks down into the box again before reaching in. There’s a pink slip of card between his fingers when he sits back in his chair.
“Know what this is?” he asks, looking up at her.
“A cleaner’s ticket.”
Sheppard nods, turns it over in his hands. It’s a receipt for a jacket, Jeannie knows. On the reverse, in scrawling handwriting, is scribbled: Sorry. S.
* * *
10th October 1942
The rain is like John’s only ever known rain to be in England. A steady, heavy, persistent downpour that has him soaked through to his underwear in mere minutes. It started politely enough (because it is England after all), but turned brutal fast; the gentle drops that had spotted his coat are hard enough to pound straight through it now and McKay’s right: this was really not what the weather guy on base predicted.
“That man – that shaman – makes forecasts from runes and throwing sticks, I swear it! ‘Dry but overcast.’ Seriously?” McKay sniffs, then turns up the collar of his coat and hunches his shoulders to bring the vee of the material up around his ears.
It’s a coat John enjoys seeing him in; it’s long but well cut, shows off the span of McKay’s shoulders, the jut of his hips, and the deep navy of the fabric... it does something to McKay’s eyes that makes John’s breath catch if he look too close. Still.
In the beginning, John had been careful like he’d told himself to be. He’d stayed away despite the way McKay had sought him out. It might have even worked if McKay hadn’t been assigned to his ground crew, if John didn’t spend pretty much all the time he wasn’t in the air with him. If they didn’t have the same ideas, enjoy the same things. If McKay didn’t look at him like that whenever John flashed a bit of intellect. If they didn’t fight like it was foreplay. Had it been anyone else, a pretty face with no substance, it might have worked out. But it wasn’t. It was McKay, and John was sort of helpless to stop himself.
Right now though – coat neck pulled high, hands and cuffs shoved into his pockets – McKay looks a bit like a turtle. It’s abominably cute; McKay would be horrified to hear that. It makes John smile, which makes McKay scowl, which pulls John’s smile even wider and fuels the whole cycle until John is laughing outright, water dripping into his eyes as McKay snaps “As though you look any better.” He shoots a pointed look at the mess of John’s hair, growing out from its regulation cut. “Though really, the rain might help,” he mutters.
John smiles. McKay likes his hair: if he didn’t he wouldn’t complain about it so much. Seeing the grin on John’s face, McKay turns a glare on him. “I could catch something out here, you know. Then where would you be?”
“Lost,” John sighs, with a teasing smile, turning to bat his eyelashes at McKay like he’s seen Nurse Keller do in the infirmary. He leans into McKay’s side as he speaks until they’re hip to hip as they walk.
Behind the collar of his coat, John sees McKay flush slightly, stifle something that’s almost a smile just before he uses his shoulder to shove John away. “Knock it off,” he mutters.
John lets the push propel him away, but not too far. Never further than he has to go to acknowledge that he’d been toeing the invisible lines drawn up between them. Because John might have surrendered to the idea of this thing between them, but that’s when they’d started fighting this whole other war with each other, a very subtle one.
John liked McKay, and it had taken a while to convince him of that before he stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop whenever John was around him when he didn’t absolutely have to be. John wanted his company, to spend time with him: to think up crazy things to do to the planes in the hangars (“six-hundred miles an hour, McKay, I bet,” – “smear in the cockpit more like, Captain, so dream on”); to play prime not-prime in the mess (where John’s math made everyone look at him like he’d just stripped himself naked and made McKay grin, showing Sheppard off); to play with paper airplanes in the Lancaster hangar bays on rainy afternoons (“that was such a cheat, Sheppard” – “don’t be such a sore loser, McKay”). Those were safe wants to have.
Only, John wants McKay in other ways, too. Ways he shouldn’t, ways that are dangerous. Like the way McKay can work an engine, the way his fingers move over the delicate parts. The way John felt when McKay stripped back his coveralls, the top parts hanging while he worked in just his t-shirt, the way his nipples chafed at the fabric.
And, for some reason, the upward tilt of his chin when he was being particularly stubborn, or clever, or feeling unsure and trying not to show it –it made John want to press up against him, mouth the line of it, kiss up it to McKay’s mouth.
And maybe if McKay didn’t look at him, too, if he didn’t catch John’s quick glances and almost smile... If he didn’t watch John’s mouth and flush at the sweep of John’s tongue over his lower lip. If he didn’t do those things, then John could leave it alone.
Except he does.
There’s a line, though, drawn between them nonetheless. They never talk about it, ever. Don’t even allude to it. They have to be careful when they look, how long for, because nobody else can see, can even suspect.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the lines were fixed, but McKay seems to move them everyday – leaning in to John’s hand on the small of his back one day, jerking away from it the next – and John has to push to find where they’re drawn at any given time. The push and pull, advance and retreat, drives him insane, seems more volatile than the push and pull of Germany over France, the Channel.
John can’t let it go, though, for all it’s making him crazy.
“We’re lost anyway...” McKay murmurs after they’ve walked a little further. The rain is easing, at least; out over the countryside John can see patches of sunlight falling through the leaden clouds. He turns to face McKay, walking backwards.
“I am not lost, McKay,” he says, eyeing the grey, mud spattered road twisting away behind McKay, the hedgerows and trees tall on each side.
“Oh come on Sheppard. You have no idea where we are, do you?”
“We’re almost back, McKay, I swear.”
“You said that an hour ago, Sheppard. And none of this is familiar to me,” McKay says, gesturing at the trees.
“Yeah, well. I thought I’d try different route today.”
“The scenic route? Right. Because it’s such a lovely afternoon.” McKay’s mouth is hooked down into a miserable line, pressed thin and pale with the cold. He’s still huddled down in his coat, water curling the ends of his hair. John’s chest aches just a little to look at him.
“We’re almost there, McKay,” he says, softer, stepping closer, “and I promise I’ll make it up to you when we get back. I have hot cocoa, real cocoa,” he tempts, and watches McKay’s eyes get a little brighter, more speculative about forgiveness. “And I cleared Cadman out of a whole – “
Suddenly, McKay’s eyes go wide and snap up to the sky. “Shut up,” he says, urgently. He shakes himself out of the huddle he’d been in, holds out hand to Sheppard: stay still, be quiet.
“McKay - ”
“Shh!” he commands, flapping his hand at Sheppard. “Do you hear that?”
John tilts his head and listens, listens past the drum of the rain on the tarmac. He catches it as he looks up, a sound he knows in his bones, sets his heart racing.
Engines. German engines, they have to be – they’re approaching at too great a height to be their own coming in to land, and nobody’s due out from base this afternoon.
Overhead against the grey of the sky, John can just about make up the distinct shape of a big Heinkel He 111 bomber in the dark clouds, fighter planes flying an escort. “There,“ he says, pointing up like he might take them out with the gesture.
And that’s when he hears it, the other sound built into his bones; the whistle of a bomb making it’s way to a target.
“Do you hear – “ McKay says, eyes wide on John’s.
The rest of his sentence is burned up by the explosion that throws up the earth in the field beside them, a black spray of mud and stone that barely misses them where they’re standing.
John ducks down low, grabs McKay’s still outstretched hand on instinct, then tumbles them roughly into the ditch at the side of the road. The fall is hard, a disorienting break of white then black then grey-brown, limbs and boots and the blue of McKay’s coat that repeats until John’s head is spinning and they land together in the puddles and sticky mud, just as another bomb explodes somewhere beyond the hedgerow above them. Clumps of dirt and broken branches hail down over them; John feels a graze open up over his eyebrow as something sharp catches it.
“Bloody hell!” McKay gasps, somewhere below him. Another whistle, another explosion, further away but still close enough to ruffle John’s hair nonetheless. Another, then another, then quiet.
It’s not over, but John takes the moment between bombs to work out where his body is in relation to McKay’s. They’ve landed tangled up together, John awkwardly splayed out on top of McKay. His arms are on either side of McKay’s head, braced on elbows that are sinking into the mud, and McKay’s knees are pressed up between John’s legs. John winces to think what might have happened had they pressed any further up than they are now.
John thinks for a moment about the lines they have, about choosing battles and about what the pilots above him might see on the ground. As another bomb drops further down the road they’ve just come along, throwing up stone and grit, he shrugs out of his long overcoat (grateful for once for its muddy brown color). He firmly ignores the way the action presses him down into McKay, the way McKay’s breath hitches, and pulls it up over them for cover.
John has to press his face into McKay’s neck to keep them safely hidden. The beige of their uniform pants would be like a painted target to any half-way decent pilot. In the dark, they’re both breathing hard. The sound louder under the thick wool than it has any right to be, a sound that seems more important than the explosions outside.
McKay swallows and John feels his throat move against his cheek.
“Sheppard? What – “ McKay begins, speaking quietly into John’s hair.
“Safer here than out there,” Sheppard whispers. It’s not like he’s worried anyone will hear him, just that this, being so close, makes him feel like a whisper is the only way to say anything.
McKay nods, brushing the stubble along his jaw over John’s temple. Another explosion, closer this time; debris rains down on the canopy of John’s coat and he thinks, absurdly, this wasn’t forecast either.
Below him, McKay shifts his head awkwardly, uncomfortably.
“You hurt?” John asks, going suddenly cold at the thought of that. It’s a war, so John knows it’s silly to think he’s the only one of the two of them who should ever be bleeding. It’s a thought he can’t help, though.
“No,” McKay says, breathless. “It’s just - There’s a rock under my head.”
John blinks in the darkness. “Oh,” he says, then carefully shifts himself so that his forearms are flat to the ground and he can fit his palm to cup the back of McKay’s skull. It’s stupid: the discomfort of the stone isn’t really that important given the bigger picture and the bombs falling not fifty feet away, but it seems equally stupid that McKay should suffer it when it can be easily remedied.
McKay goes completely still and takes a quick, quiet breath. John can imagine the way his lips would be parted on the inhale, all the different ways he might be looking at him right now. It’s absurd to be thinking these things now of all times, of all places, to be so preoccupied with it. John is grateful for the dark that hides it all, and the blush that he can feel heating his cheeks. After a long minute, McKay starts to say something; John can feel the vibration of his voice in his own chest, but he doesn’t get very far.
Another bomb lands, closer still, the closest yet and the force of the explosion, the noise of it cuts McKay short. The rocks and stone that explode up out of the ground as the bomb drives down land with a thud around them, hit John’s back under the cover of thick wool and sting on impact; their strike rattles John’s whole body and sends pain jolting out along his spine.
The ground shakes wildly beneath them, and John feels it shift as the mud around them is forced up, out. He feels McKay’s fingers dig sharply into his sides even as he digs his free hand down into the mud to anchor him. The hand cupped around McKay’s head stays gentle, though the muscles tense up. John drops his own head, presses his forehead to McKay’s as the last of the tremors rattle away and the debris stops falling quite as hard.
McKay’s heart is racing, beating so hard John can feel it in his own chest, like it’s pulsing alongside his own. McKay’s hands are shaking slightly where they bunch in the cotton of John’s shirt and his breath is coming in short, sharp pants that push over John’s mouth.
“Christ,” McKay breathes, “Sheppard, are you okay?” His voice is trembling, but only barely. Another explosion out in the road, and McKay’s hands clench reflexively, pull John down until they’re pressed together tight.
John huffs out something that might be a laugh, then whispers, “I’m fine,” into the dark between them.
McKay immediately tenses. “Fine? Fine? You’re never ‘fine’ unless you’re shot or impaled on shrapnel and bleeding out all over the place,” he hisses. His hands flatten against John’s sides then sweep frantically but gently over the material, the sides of John’s legs, his back. He winces involuntarily when McKay’s fingers catch a tender spot John knows will be well on its way to a bruise already.
“What? What was that? That hurt didn’t it? Oh my god I knew it, you’re – “ McKay is brought up short again when another bomb hits, holds on when there’s a loud crack close by, a sound like wood breaking.
“McKay,” John whispers into the close, fragile silence, shifting up slightly, “I’m fine.”
He wonders about that a moment later, though, after he presses a kiss to McKay’s forehead, another to his temple.
“Sheppard – “
“I’m fine,” his rasps again, pressing his lips to the corner of McKay’s mouth this time, then his lips. It’s a dry, chaste butterfly kiss that came easily here in the dark, with McKay safe underneath him, broad hands on John’s body and the world exploding overhead. John’s shocked only in the sense that he isn’t really; this has been building between them for weeks and it was always going to awkward or dangerous or inappropriate when it came down to it. This fits them, he thinks.
The kiss is a touch of mouth to mouth that John repeats again, softly, then pressing harder when McKay makes a soft sound in the back of his throat. When John draws back to lick his lower lip, he catches McKay’s with the sweep of his tongue. McKay’s body tenses at that, hands flexing against John’s back. He gasps, a desperate sound that’s enough to make John moan above him. The next kiss could belong to either of them; slick, desperate and messy and open-mouthed and Christ, endless. It breaks and repeats over and over, kisses landing hard as the bombs that are still falling, shaking them every bit as much.
Distantly, John hears the alarm of the base siren wailing over the countryside, the stutter of anti-aircraft guns. “Told you we were almost back,” he murmurs into the curve of McKay’s upper lip. McKay doesn’t say anything, just hooks an arm around John’s neck and pulls him in closer.
It’s as good as John thought it would be pressed against McKay, body to body. He’s hard against McKay’s hip; McKay is too, the hot shape of him pressing into the inside of John’s thigh. It’s so completely inappropriate to be doing this now, to be doing this out here. John might have said it was dangerous, but next to the bombs it doesn’t seem that way at all.
They kiss until the calamity outside fades. By the time the bombs have stopped and the whir of engines has faded they’re moving lazily together, molasses kisses that seep from mouth to mouth then slide away completely. John lays his head down on McKay’s shoulder, submits to the hand combing through his hair with a smile into the dark.
They stay that way, reluctant to come out of the darkness under John’s coat until they hear a motor engine somewhere close on the road.
“Damage inspection,” McKay whispers. The whisper really does fit this time; what they are, what they just did is a secret. Has to be.
John nods, then turns his face into McKay’s neck, sighs and presses one last kiss there.
Taking a breath, John throws his coat back rolls himself away from McKay.
The daylight is painful after the darkness they’d sheltered in and it’s colder; McKay’s body heat fades quickly away as John stands, shouts “down here!” to the RAF guys he can see on the road.
He lets himself look McKay over as the men pick their way over the chaos of the bombing towards them. There are leaves and dirt dusted through the slight waves of his hair, a twig poking out from behind one ear, a scratch down his cheek, bleeding a little; John reaches out with his index finger and gently swipes the blood away. McKay’s eyes are brighter than John’s ever seen them, as intent on John as he is on McKay. The arches of McKay’s cheek bones are stained pink, his lips are bruised. There’s mud all down his side, his back.
He looks beautiful, John thinks, then swallows and makes himself move away.
It’s Grodin who reaches them first. “Caught out, Captain?” he asks cheerfully as he gives them both a hand out of the ditch which John thinks might have deepened since he threw them into it.
“Something like that,” he says, wiping himself down and then giving up when all it does is smear the mud deeper into his clothes.
“Not to worry. We were all caught out with this one. They made a right go of the base.”
They made a good attempt at the whole area, John thinks as he takes in the destruction around him. The road is a mess; three blackened craters pock the surface, rough gouges into the tarmac, fresh dirt rock and torn greenery has bled out across the roadway. The fields around him are full of holes like wounds, too. When he turns, he sees a thick oak tree leaning at an alarming angle over the place where they’d hidden themselves.
“So that’s what it was,” McKay murmurs to himself, eyes wide as they take in the slant of the tree, calculate a value to describe exactly how lucky they’ve just been. John remembers the wooden crack he’d heard as McKay had patted him down for wounds and wants to be right back in the darkness again, splayed over McKay. He’d felt safer there than he does now.
Grodin helps them back to the truck that’s parked on the verge, just back from the rim of one of the craters. John finds himself staring at the destruction all the way back to base.
“A bit off the mark, weren’t they?” he says.
“They hit their mark, actually. They’ve made an awful mess of the airfield and hangar one took some damage. But they were going for the roads too. Makes sense, really,” Grodin replies, genially, hands steady on the wheel.
John nods, because it makes good tactical sense. It’s what he’d do: make a mess then stop them cleaning it up.
John flicks his tongue out to wet his lips and is struck by the sense memory of McKay’s lips under his, under his tongue. In the grand scheme of things, he sometimes wonders if any of this really makes sense at all.
Across from him, McKay stares at the red of John’s mouth and doesn’t say a thing.
McKay stares later in the infirmary too, as Dr. Beckett presses gloved fingers down along the line of John’s back, testing the dark bruises and scrapes scored down its length.
McKay stares and presses his lips into a thin, furious line that twists tighter every time Dr. Beckett makes a disapproving sound behind him. John tries to catch McKay’s gaze but can’t, trained as it is on Beckett’s hands, the mottled colors of his back.
“Well,” Beckett says finally, “there’s no doubt you’ll be sore tomorrow but it’s nothing serious, Captain.” He passes John a familiar tub of liniment and a paper twist of aspirin. “Be sure to take those, please,” he says, pointedly. “Nothing noble about being in pain, lad. Now, I’ll see if I can get one of the nurses to apply that for you,” he says with a smile and disappears into the next ward.
The doors have barely closed when McKay steps right up to John on the bed, yanking the privacy screen shut so viciously the loops clang together on the rail.
“You said you were ‘fine’,” he hisses, eyes right on John’s now, hands fluttering around John’s shoulders like he doesn’t know whether to shove him away or pull him in. John had wanted McKay to look at him, but now that he is he finds himself struggling under the weight of his eyes, the things he can see in them.
“I am,” he insists, shrugging one shoulder before he remembers the bruise curving under his shoulder blade; he winces slightly at the way the muscle protests. McKay’s eyes go dark and he clenches his fists then, so tight the knuckles go white.
He spins away from John, then abruptly back again. The look on his face is exactly why it’s dangerous for them to get involved.
More involved than they are already. John should stop this, now.
Instead, he murmurs, “McKay...” softly, leans in close and, with a quick glance to make sure they’re hidden, takes McKay’s hands in his, uncurls his fists. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”
Closing his eyes, McKay takes a deep, quiet breath and steps back from John, pulls his hands away.
“What you are,” he begins, biting out the words, “is insane, Sheppard.” When he takes another step back, he opens his eyes. They look like they might break John’s heart. “You can’t,” he says, urgently; John doesn’t have to ask what he means. He should be agreeing with him. That would be the sensible thing to do.
Then he remembers not much makes sense these days, and slips awkwardly off the bed. “Why?” he asks, “Why not?”
“Why?” McKay repeats, incredulous. “You know why. It’s dangerous, Sheppard. Jesus, if we get caught – “
“You get paid to keep secrets McKay. And I’m pretty good at it too,” John snaps, before he even thinks.
This is another one of those things they don’t talk about. John’s aware he’s not supposed to know McKay is here for safe-keeping, isn’t just another guy who knows his way around an engine. McKay pales at the words, body going slack with the shock that John has actually said the words.
“It’s obvious, McKay,” John says in a low voice not much more than a whisper, “You and Zelenka both. You’re more than what you are here. You’re. Well. You know.”
McKay blinks at the comment, the compliment that’s obvious, even if John can’t actually say the words. “Well. I mean...” he mutters, softening as John feels himself flush.
“I haven’t told anyone,” John says, then promises, urgently: “I won’t. I won’t say anything.”
“I know,” Rodney says, softly. “I know you wouldn’t.” He blinks slowly at John, looks at him like he’s trying to decide something, then shifts self-consciously. “Did you guess why I...?”
John nods. “That experiment at Columbia University,” he says, so quietly it’s almost just a breath, “Nuclear fission. Before the war.”
Rodney gives him a faint half-smile at that, though he pales even more at the words. “You followed that work?”
John goes to shrug again, hisses at the pain. “I read about it. I know they’re hiding people who know about that stuff. I know you used to publish but you don’t anymore.”
“God, Sheppard,” Rodney groans, scrubbing his hands over his face and into his hair.
“McKay, please, just – “
They both start when Nurse Keller sweeps back the curtain. She looks at them both, sitting silent and shaken up, then looks hesitantly between them, like she might see the argument hanging there over the bed.
“Everything okay, sirs?” she asks, setting a tray on the trolley beside John.
“No,” McKay says, then looks at John and says “I mean yes. Yes, everything’s. I was just –“ he stutters and points over his own shoulder. “I was just leaving.”
McKay turns on his heel and stalks off towards the door, almost knocking into Dr. Beckett across the room as he steps away from Miller’s bed. He raises his eyebrows at McKay’s retreating back.
John leans forwards to give Keller room to work, heart racing. As she smoothes the soothing lotion down his back, he notices McKay’s left his coat, muddied all up the back, hanging over the foot of John’s bed.
Keller notices the line of his gaze. “That’ll need a cleaning,” she says.
* * *
Sheppard stares at the ticket in his hand for a long time. His fingers trace the lines of his own handwriting – Sorry,S – then the blocky, angular script in blue biro, pressed hard into the paper beneath it: I’M NOT – M.
Sheppard’s hand shakes a little as he reaches forwards, rests the pink card atop the worn paper of his medical chart, nodding once to himself.
When he looks at Jeannie he smiles, bittersweet all over again.
“Could you – “ he begins, then breaks off, flicks at a button on his shirt front like he needs to think about something before he continues. “There’s a book McKay kept. A blue one, small like a notebook.” Jeannie nods, reaches into the ammo box and passes it over to him. Inside are dates and numbers, names she doesn’t understand, red marks against certain days that her grandfather had never explained, and that she could never figure out or work out how to ask about.
Sheppard’s gaze is intent on her face when she leans back. “You look a lot like him,” he says, running his thumb in circles over the book’s cover.
“I know,” she says, tilts her chin up. For some reason, it makes Sheppard grin.
“He never let me see this, you know,” he says, looking down at the book. A beat, like he expects her to say something, then Sheppard flicks open the cover. A moment, then he turns the page. He leafs through the pages one by one, following the rows and lines with his index finger, tongue between his teeth. Whatever he sees must make sense to him; a smile breaks out as he reads.
“I can’t believe this,” he says. “Son of a bitch,” he whispers to himself, then laughs, quietly, low like he’s sharing a very private joke with someone Jeannie can’t see.
“Son of a bitch.”
* * *
07/11/42 Spitfire – Jumper?! 0530 – 1014 Accomplished Lft wing, superficial OK
The first entry, the distinctive blot of McKay’s handwriting marching bold across the page. The date, the plane he’d been in, the time he left against the time he came back, how the mission went, the damage. And a scrawl at the end of the line, McKay’s own shorthand. That part is John, how he was when they came back.
John remembers that day. Cold, the first chill of autumn shocking the half-turned leaves dotted in the landscape white, delicate crystals of ice lacing the grass in the early dawn light. McKay had downed something hot and black that the mess liked to claim was coffee, pulled on two extra layers before heading off to the airfield with Sheppard and setting himself to the final checks he always insisted on every mission, no matter what the time.
“I thought you were supposed to be from Canada, McKay,” John had teased as they walked, eyes on the covered nape of McKay’s neck where his hair curled over the thick collar.
“I am from Canada. Doesn’t mean I have to like the cold,” he’d rumbled, then muttered, “ And quit staring,” with a smile in his voice.
John had watched him work, tick against each line on his clipboard, then taken him by the fleece lapels of his jacket and pushed him up against the curve of the fuselage where nobody could see them, kissed McKay’s mouth out in the fading moonlight with his flight equipment pressed awkwardly between them, kissing like he’d only ever kissed him in bed, with the door locked.
“Stay warm, McKay,” he had whispered in to the quiet pant of McKay’s parted lips, then scrambled for the cockpit before McKay could come back to himself.
Later, he set back down with the rest of the escort group, two birds down – Stackhouse and Peterson, John remembers - but mission accomplished. His left wing was grazed, but it was superficial stuff, nothing mechanical.
After his debriefing, McKay had found John in the bathroom by the briefing room, taken by the shoulders and manhandled him into a stall. He’d held John next to the flimsy curtain and just taken his mouth, deep and brutal and enough to make John tremble under the fists McKay had made in his shirt.
“Later,” McKay had said, licking along John’s jaw to growl the word into his ear.
John remembered ‘later’ with a smile and a blush for years after that.
18/01/43 Spitfire – Jumper 0200 – 0804 Accomplished Canopy, dashboard Bad
John runs his fingers over the dates, the times. He doesn’t really remember much of that mission, even now. He remembers what was supposed to happen: escort Lorne’s group of B-17s out over the Low Countries, stick around to keep it safe while it completed its mission, escort it back.
The mission had been a success, so John knows at least part of it went to plan. But honestly, his memory is hazy from the time he crossed from the North Sea over the target to the time he’d woken up in the infirmary with a mouth feeling thick with cotton and his left side curiously numb.
Later, John would hear about how they’d found him, cockpit shot through, blood thick in his clothes, his instruments. He’d hear how McKay had been the first there, the one who pulled him out, how he wasn’t breathing when McKay laid him in the stretcher. About his collapsed lung, the bleeding, the rib the bullet had cracked as it went straight through him, the way it had lodged in the plane’s dashboard.
It was a dead-stick landing, Ford would tell him, amazed, voice hollow with amazement.
You were dead, McKay had whispered weeks later when John was eventually released, when they finally had the chance to do more than play cards or chess together and touch hands under the covers when nobody was looking.
“Jesus. John. You were dead,” McKay murmured, desperate, hands so gentle over the puckered flesh of the bullet wound, the stitches where Beckett had cut into him to stop the bleeding.
The touch did more for John than anything else had since it happened; made him feel more like he’d survived something than just lived through it. McKay kisses him, and it does the same.
John couldn’t help but feel it unfair that he’d had to wait for this. So small a comfort, something he could have with a woman – any woman – but not Rodney McKay who’s more than just anybody.
Laid out naked under McKay late at night, tucked together on the tiny cot in McKay’s locked workroom, curtains drawn like they should be ashamed of what they’re doing. It was the only space they had that could be theirs, even for just a little while.
That was the first night they took it slow, moving together like this they had all the time in the world, so slow John ached with it all the way down to his bones. That was the night it got really dangerous, when McKay pushed into him and moved like he never wanted it to end, the first time he called John by his given name, and John stopped caring about what could happen if anyone ever found out what they did. Stopped caring that the whole thing was going to break him one day.
John had stayed until the sun rose on a freezing November morning, woke up with McKay’s mouth on his.
23/07/43 P-47 – Jumper 2 Original, Sheppard 1245 – 1300 First flight Good. Really good.
John has to smile at that. The first time he flew in the P-47. It had made him so hard he’d pretty much jumped McKay the first chance he could, went down on his knees in the tool store of the bomber hangar, came just from the way McKay tugged on his hair, frantically muttering that he couldn’t just, just do that because “ – oh my god this is such a stupid thing to do, Sheppard and I can’t – oh, Jesus - I can’t believe you’re – you’re... but, god, look at you, Jesus.”
30/08/43 P-47 – Jumper 2 0600 – 1350 Accomplished Superficial to tail section ??
McKay used two question marks on the entry, scored so deep into the paper the impressions are still there four pages later. John doesn’t like to think about that mission too much. An airfield raid on a German base, mission accomplished. He had nightmares about it though. Still does some nights.
Because Ford went down that day. John saw the hit coming, shouted at Ford over the radio - five o’clock Ford! Five o’clock! – tried to get there in time but it was too late. Ford’s plane was strafed all down one side, enough damage to send him spiralling downward, smoke swirling out thick and black behind him. Not enough to end it though: John had listened to Ford’s screams as he burned, choking on the smoke and unable to do a damned thing about it. He’d ended it himself in the end, shooting into the canopy, the fuel tank, watched the whole thing explode.
Nobody talked about it later, nobody reported him. Ronon Dex, the new guy in the Squadron with razor sharp instincts for any kind of fight, had nodded solemnly at him when they got back, showed up that night with a jar of Zelenka’s finest then helped him in to the WC later - where John had thrown it all up again.
He didn’t tell McKay about it. McKay didn’t ask.
John avoided him for weeks but he’d never been able to stay away when everything was fine; he had no chance now. When McKay finally cornered him, John had told him everything, then thrown up in McKay’s toolbox.
McKay had simply closed the lid, wrinkling his nose, then held on tight as John shook himself apart in his arms. Lying there hours later, McKay sleepy against him, was the first time John let himself really believe it might be something more than close friendship, more than just fucking. Let himself think he needed it, whatever it was.
The thought had terrified him.
* * *
There are hundreds of entries in McKay’s hand; John has a memory to go with each. Three entries a day for Big Week in ’44, McKay’s hand steady despite the exhaustion John remembers seeing in him. They’d taken five days leave after that, travelled separately to a cottage in Northumberland on the Borders and barely made it out of bed the whole time.
The un-planned flights aren’t logged, though, the dash to the planes at the sound of the siren. There had been a lot of those too. John has the memory of it, of the time between missions and the frantic scramble into the air that are all sunlight and smiles, playing with the engines and getting his hands dirty while McKay looked on, laughing at the smudges of oil John always got on his face.
John closes the book and looks up at Jeannie who’s peering curiously at him. “My missions. Everyone of them,” he says, tapping the cover.
A delicate frown creases Jeannie’s brow. She looks a lot like her grandmother when she asks, “Why wouldn’t he want you to see that? I thought everyone had a record like that.”
“Somewhere there’s a book with every single one of my flights logged in it. This,” John says, waving the book, “was personal.” He pauses, then adds: “We weren’t supposed to be personal.”
That was another battle with himself that John had lost. But then, he’d never really put up that much of a fight, had he? McKay was stronger than John had been. He’d been the one to resist it. John admired and resented him for that.
John lifts the box to his lap, sees what he’s looking for straight away. ADMIT ONE, the small card says, CITY UNDER THE SEA DANCE.
* * *
23rd September 1943
Under the glimmer and spin of the mirror ball lights swirling high above the dance hall, everyone John can see is beautiful and smiling, a dazzling crowd of fluttering skirts and smart uniforms, red-painted lips and carefully combed hair. The band is playing brassy and loud – Little Brown Jug, he thinks, though he’s not very good with song names - and everyone’s glass is full; the stuff smuggled in from the black market in town and the still Zelenka has in the kitchen basement takes up the slack the war has put on the bar’s supply of the finer spirits and wines.
The dancefloor is full of couples. Laura Cadman, the Section Leader from radar, has Carson pulled in closer than is really respectable for an English lady and a Waaf - even one from Newcastle - and he’s blushing bright enough at her wandering hands that John can see it from across the room. Peter Grodin has pretty, sweet Katie Brown held carefully in his arms like the perfect gentleman he is and it’s Katie who blushes, delicate as roses, as he swings her in to curl under his arm. There’s laughter and raucous song from the corner where John can see Cam Mitchell and his crew. Looking around, John would never suspect there’s a war on. But then that’s what these things are for; a little bit of make believe in the madness.
McKay is out there too, amid the painted murals of silver spires that Lorne said were supposed to be the Lost City of Atlantis, amid trailing blue and green and silver streamers Parrish had decided looked like the sea. John can see the pale blue of Rodney’s shirt, the black of his suspenders through the crowd. He’s out of uniform tonight and he looks good: the suspenders curl over his shoulders, meet in a vee between his shoulder blades, emphasise the broad line of his back. Black trousers fit tight to his waist, well cut to show the curve of his ass. The lights on him show off the color of his eyes, the flush in his cheeks and the red of his mouth.
Lips parted, the line of it is smiling down at the woman in his arms, the woman he’s been turning around the dancefloor for what feels like hours. Jennifer Keller, blonde curls tumbling glossy over the daringly bare skin of her shoulders, the pale green silk of her dress, all big brown eyes and sugar-pink lips where she stares up at McKay.
And McKay can dance. John already knew that: McKay had been the one to train the simple steps into him after the disaster of the first dance they’d gone to together, when John had trampled all over Amelia Banks with a very shaky waltz. Dex had laughed, mocked him mercilessly, then led Amelia into a foxtrot that had her leaning on his arm all night (and ever since then, too).
John had shown McKay something new that evening too, pressed down behind the workbench in the room McKay liked to call his office, mouth hot between McKay’s spread thighs, up through the rise of his ass as In the Mood played tinny on the record-player above them. So he knew McKay could dance.
Only this is the first time he’s taken someone out to the dancefloor, someone other than Laura Cadman, anyway, who had to physically drag him out every single time. It’s the first time McKay’s been so wrapped up in someone he’s forgotten that he doesn’t really like dancing, for all he’s good at it, doesn’t like being caught out under the lights.
As John watches, McKay spins Jennifer away from him, pulls her back in until she’s resting against him, her back to his chest. The silk of her skirt shimmers as she moves, the blonde of her hair like gold under the lights. McKay smiles crookedly down at her as she looks up at him, giggling.
Johns is struck by the way they look together, how much they look like all the courting couples out there. How much he looks nothing like Jennifer Keller.
It’s what McKay wants, John knows. To meet a nice girl, to fall in love, get married. Start a family some day. He talks about it sometimes, the perfect blonde, the perfect wife. The perfect life they’d have together. It never seems to occur to him that John might not want that too.
John knows what he wants. A wife, kids – they’re not something he’s big on. What he wants is what he already has with McKay. He’s not stupid enough to think that it would be easy, or that it’d ever be more than a dirty secret between them. He could be happy with that though, he’s pretty sure. He’s not so sure he could find what he has with McKay again. Not sure he’d want it with anyone else.
Up until now, he’s not given much thought to what it would be like to have to share. Looking at McKay and Jennifer, he doesn’t think he’d be very good at it.
John looks sharply away from the dancefloor where the music has slowed into a love song. Up on stage, a beautiful woman with caramel skin and bronze gold hair swept up off her face steps up the microphone. Teyla Emmagen has broken many a heart with her voice and with her dark, sad eyes. She’s the only woman John’s ever fallen just a little bit in love with. When she breathes the first notes of Yours out over the mic, John’s skin tingles, heart aching gently at the sound of her. McKay is looking over the heads of the other dancers, the men and women crowded around the edges of the dancefloor, pressed into the darker corners of the room.
From the corner of his eye, John sees Jennifer catch his hind, the slight frown on McKay’s brow as his mouth shapes John’s name: Sheppard? Jennifer shakes her head, grinning, presses herself closer to McKay than she’s been all night. McKay lets her, hesitating for a moment before settling against her.
John can imagine the way she’d look up McKay through her eyelashes, the way she’d smile: she’d seem shy, uncertain and McKay would like that’s she’s feeling that way too. He can imagine McKay’s broad hands on her slim waist, her head on his shoulder.
If he let himself, John could imagine other things too, fingers fumbling at clothes, pale skin on pale skin. He feels his stomach twists, mouth turning bitter at the suggestion of those things. The things McKay wants.
Teyla shifts her song into a melancholy thing about lost love and broken hearts, a minor key, slowed up version of He’s Not Worth Your Tears that somehow makes Mildred Bailey look like someone who knew nothing about heartbreak. Nobody on the dancefloor seems to notice the shift in mood, but the people on the edges are looking up at the woman with the microphone, their eyes full of the emotion she’s crying out into the song. With a jolt, John realises he’s one of them.
Something in John pulls tight when he looks back at McKay and Keller. Turning blindly on his heel, acting on the sudden impulse he has to just go, anywhere, away, and starts when he turns right into Ronon Dex standing behind him. “Sorry, buddy, I was just...” John says, nodding towards the door.
“Leaving?” Dex asks, eyebrow cocking up. “So soon?”
John shrugs, smiles self-deprecatingly. “Yeah, you know how it is,” he says.
Ronon’s dark eyes flick out on the dancefloor, then back to John where they rest knowingly. “Yeah,” he says, “I know how it is.”
Ronon Dex is different than most people. Sheppard learned that fast after a few awkward conversations he prefers not to think about. He doesn’t see problems or barriers to people where John can, doesn’t understand the things John holds back from, or the reasons why. John’s tried to explain it to him before, but he can’t find the heart for it right now.
As Teyla rasps out the last quiet notes of her song, John turns and pushes his way across the music hall to the doors.
The night outside is cool and damp and doesn’t really feel much better than being inside.
McKay finds him before John can even decide what he wants to do with himself with another hour at least until he stands a chance of catching a ride back with someone.
“Oh, hey. There you are.” He’s still flushed, hair line dappled with sweat that’s picked out by the moonlight.
“Here I am.” John forces a smile for McKay. The other man’s eyes narrow at the sight of it, like he can see the effort John’s having to put into it.
“Dex said you were heading back already.”
“Yeah.” Sheppard averts his eyes as he answers.
“It’s barely ten o’clock.”
“So what gives? You’re usually the one telling me to stay.” Sheppard smiles a hard edged grin at that. It’s true; he’s always the one who asks stay, Rodney, just a little while murmured into McKay’s ear in the pre-dawn light.
“You should. Stay, I mean. You’re having fun McKay. It’s. It looks good on you.” Color rises in his cheeks as McKay looks at John, from the compliment or the tone John had used to deliver it or the alcohol - John can’t tell. He doesn’t think he gives himself away with what he’s said, but McKay blinks at him, cocks his head like he’s trying to figure something out.
Inside, the band strikes up again. It sounds like Benny Goodman, brassy and upbeat and the opposite of what he feels like right then. John shifts restlessly under McKay’s intent gaze, fiddles with the loose button on his cuff.
The band plays to the end of Sing, Sing, Sing: someone misses a note, but McKay doesn’t so much as wince. The silence, especially from McKay, is more than John can take. He risks a glance up at McKay’s face and almost flinches at the sad, guilty slant of his mouth.
“It’s Jennifer, isn’t it.”
It’s not a question. Sheppard knows better than to deny it too. Instead, he swallows and nods.
“Sheppard... John. She - I think she really likes me.” His eyes are pleading, like he wants the words to make John feel better. “She’s pretty and smart and I think I could – I think we would – “
John has to grit his teeth to step back. “It’s okay McKay,” he grates out. “I get it.” McKay is staring back at him wide-eyed and looking so, so sad it’s making Sheppard hurt to look at him. “I get how this works, Rodney,” Sheppard whispers, wishing he didn’t sound so pained. He moves back again until a space opens up between them, too wide for either of them to reach across. McKay looks like he might try anyway.
John can’t let him.
“You should go back inside,” he murmurs. “She’ll be waiting.” Then he turns quickly and strides off into the dark before McKay can say anything, do anything that will make this worse than it already is.
John looks at the road and decides he can see enough of it that he can make it back on foot. He feels numb, but not from the cold. He’s making the break, taking the step back he should have taken months – fuck, years ago. It should feel like he’s doing the right thing, like he’s won the tug of war he’s been playing with himself for what seems like forever.
It doesn’t. It feels like he might be losing everything.
Turning up his collar against the chill, John laughs humourlessly as the band strikes up You’ll Never Know to play him off into the night.
* * *
The ticket doesn’t make Sheppard smile like the other things did. He’s quiet for a long time as he looks at it.
When he looks up to Jeannie, his eyes looked bruised. “He danced with your grandmother for the first time that night. Did you know that?”
Jeannie nods. “She always said it was the night she won his heart.”
Sheppard frowns at that, shakes his head like he might argue the idea if the woman had still been around to argue with. His next question is thrown out casually but Jeannie catches the nervous way the man licks at his lips, the way he doesn’t quite meet her eyes as he asks it. “What did he say about it?” The answer is important to him: he goes entirely still in the chair as he waits for Jeannie to speak.
“He never said anything. Except to say my grandmother had always been a heartbreaker.”
“Yeah,” Sheppard says simply, like he’d had to think about the idea. After a moment, he takes a breath. “We fought that night,” he says. “McKay and me. Didn’t think I’d see him again.”
Sheppard huffs a laugh to himself, eyes rueful but Jeannie gets the impression he’s not at all repentant. “Yeah. We weren’t very good at not seeing each other.” He lapses back into silence.
Outside, the sun has started to slip low in the sky. Through the lace at Sheppard’s windows, Jeannie can see the bright blue of the sky giving way to orange and gold, the blush of color seeping up from behind the other houses on the street, pressing their silhouettes against the sky. Evening is drawing in; Jeannie is startled to see how much time she’s passed just sitting here, watching this man she’d never met go through the things she’d brought him.
She ought to be going soon, but as she starts to say so, Sheppard makes a quiet, startled sound and dips his hand back into the ammo box. It’s steady when he draws it back out, though Jeannie can see the white knuckles of his free hand, fingers digging into the chair arm.
“Would you turn on the light, please?” Sheppard asks in a curious, careful voice. It’s the first thing he’s asked her for help with since she arrived. Jeannie leans over and flicks on a lamp, the glow of it backlighting Sheppard where he sits.
In his hand is a thick piece of sketch paper, frayed where it had been pulled away from the spiral binding. It had always been in the very bottom of the box, tucked up under everything else, folded in half so the drawing didn’t show. Her grandfather never showed it to her. She had only ever seen it once, when she had sneaked the box open one afternoon after listening to her grandfather talk about John Sheppard for hours. Her heart had been pounding in her throat, but she had a theory. The picture had proved her right.
It’s a sketch made in black and white, dark pencil smudged over the page. It shows a man laid across a cot, blankets mussed up around the long, naked length of him. There are clothes drawn in all over the floor: a set of suspenders, a uniform cap. One pair of USAAF pants and one overall tangled up together, economic pencil strokes suggesting folds in the fabric, the texture of it.
The man is looking out of the page, dark eyes drawn fixed on the person with the pencil.
His mouth is smudged dark – red, Jeannie thinks, filling in the color – kiss swollen. The curve of his lips is as soft, as enticing as the promise in his gaze. Dark, mussed hair is scrawled out over the white of the pillow, the rough patchwork of the comforter her grandfather still has, rolled up in the ottoman on the first floor landing. It’s a private moment sprawling across the page in dark lead. Jeannie steps away to the window to give Sheppard a private moment to remember it.
* * *
August 17th 1943
The summer days in ’43 were long, hazy and nothing at all like the California summers John remembers. San Francisco and LA had felt like a half-recalled dream as he lay stretched out on cool concrete, half-under the upward curve of a P-47 fuselage, worn into a damp slump of an officer by the cloying humidity that just would not quit.
He’d been going up in Thunderbolts since March when the whole of the 8th Fighter Command made the switch from the spitfires. McKay still complained about the name – wow, such imagination – with an audible roll of his eyes, but was excited about new engines, new specs, new parts to play with after so much of the same thing for pushing two years.
He was less excited about the holes John kept putting in them, though. John’s last landing was quite literally made on a wing and a prayer: the right wing had been shot to shreds when his flight had engaged a German raiding party at the coast, and had fallen away, piece by piece, on the flight back to base. It’s bad enough for McKay to bring the whole thing into the hangar, try to repair as much of the battered limb as he can so they don’t have to replace it. John was forbidden from helping out (I think you’ve made enough of a mess already, thank you). But it’s marginally cooler in here than out there – some of the off-duty Waafs or the girls changing shifts have already found spaces for themselves in the cool corners - and besides, he prefers McKay’s company to Lorne and Mitchell right now. It’s just too close for their horseplay.
The heat makes McKay flush pretty, too, and he’ll peel back his coveralls, strip down to his t-shirt in the afternoons if John is lucky.
After he’s lain there long enough for his back to start aching, John pushes to his feet and stretches lazily. The tension coiled in all his muscles slowly loosens and John lets his body slant back against the curved body of the plane, spreading his arms out and tipping his head back, smoothing his palms over the cold metal. A thin, fragile skin over metal bones, spreading out into wings. The miracle of flight never ceases to amaze him.
He sighs at the coolness of the hull, rubs his fingers into the rivets.
“Would you two like to be alone, or do you have an exhibitionist streak to go with the aviation fetish?” McKay asks, words colored with amusement and irritation and something that looks like arousal when it’s against the black-red backdrop of John’s closed eyelids.
John opens his eyes and sees McKay on his knees beneath the P-47’s fuselage, clipboard in one hand with the other braced on landing gear. John thinks he sees a slight flush in McKay’s cheeks, but in the shadows cast by the lighting it’s hard to be sure. It’s John’s turn to blink now, because he honestly doesn’t have a clue what McKay’s talking about.
McKay rolls his eyes, something he seems to do a lot around John, and shuffles out from beneath the plane, turning to address the hangar bay at large and saying, “Great show, I know, but you’ll have to pay if he goes any further.”
There’s a pause during which John becomes extremely aware of the spread of his body across the hull of his plane and every single pair of eyes trained on it, while a guilty hush descends on the watching women who really can’t pretend to be doing anything other than mentally undressing him. John feels the blush seep into his face, and quickly gathers himself up, turning his back to the room and trying to meld himself into the metal he’s been leaning against. After a long moment in which nobody moves, McKay spits “okay, that’s enough ladies. Move it along,” a whip to a slave, startling people into motion, sending them scuttling out of the hangar bay.
McKay looks John over with hot eyes, more intimate than the women’s could ever be, and it’s then that the storm starts with absolutely no wanting, hail falling like machine-gun fire on to the tin roof above them.
The noise and cold send everyone running for cover, leaving them alone in the hangar. Slanting him a look that sparks along John’s nerves like the lighting is sparking through the clouds outside, McKay takes John by the sleeve and drags him to the work room off the hangar bay. Blinds drawn against anyone that might pass, door locked and double bolted, McKay pushes John down and the bed and takes his time with everything like they’ve never really done before.
The beige cotton of John’s shirt is pressed flat to his chest, his shoulders, McKay’s palms fitting to the planes of his muscles, smoothing the material, buttons flipped open by engine-dirty fingers, one by one, hem to collar. McKay folds down to his knees in the space between John’s spread legs, reaching out for John’s shirt when he’s settled, leaning in to push the fabric away, down.
John fits his mouth to the shape of McKay’s as he draws close, eyes wide open, but doesn’t tip them into a kiss. He tilts his head instead and just breathes McKay in; the scent of him, engine oil and emulsion and apple juice, the sweat still slick on his skin from the heat.
McKay’s fingers at his waist then, slipping up beneath the hem of his t-shirt, sweeping the damp cotton over John’s head. Sheppard lifts his arms to help move the fabric away, to get more skin closer to McKay’s. When his arms fall, they fall to McKay’s shoulders, pull him in to the kiss they’ve been hovering over, a kiss that take time over every push and of tongue against tongue, the texture of soft lips and the rasp of stubble together. Every single detail of that afternoon: the sound McKay makes when John goes to his knees beside the bed, when he opens his mouth around McKay’s cock and looks up, pleading – the weight of McKay’s palm in the base of his spine, the way it held him steady as McKay’s fingers took him slowly, so slowly apart – the sound of his own voice, taking time over the chance to say ‘Rodney, Jesus, Rodney’ leaving “McKay” behind in the mess of clothes on the floor - the rattle of thunder over the moans Rodney made – the sound of the rain as Rodney moved deep and hard and still so very, very slow inside him, the rasp of the sheets bunched at his waist – Rodney’s taste, his own taste in Rodney’s mouth – the way they had lain together, after, the fit of them. And the words. The thing he’d said to Rodney when Rodney’s body covered his, whispered into the curve of his shoulder.
Three words he’s kept to himself ever since. God, but John remembers every single part of it.
He remembers this sketch, too. Made early the following morning and long after they should have dressed, after John should have left. Waking up to Rodney – still Rodney - tangled with him, then fetching cool water from the spigot in the corner. The way Rodney had angled the pad into the pale morning light, made him lay still as his fingers – agile with a pencil as they were with everything else – traced his idea of John onto the paper. John had felt naked against the sheets, and for once, he didn’t care.
There had been other sketches of him, a third of a drawing pad where Rodney had captured parts of him over the years.
John thought Rodney had given him all of them. That they’d all curled to ash in the trash can out behind the barracks.
That Rodney saved this part of him, of them, feels like evidence of something lost.
John looks at the picture, trace the pencil strokes down the line of his own back until the sky outside flares a brilliant, transitory red, then darkens quickly into blue-black night. The shadows cast by the lamp are inked deep into the corners of the room when he finally looks away, folds the thick paper up again. He doesn’t put it down, though.
* * *
Sheppard looks over to where Jeannie sits back in her seat, eyes bright.
“Thank you,” he says. It’s a raw thanks, gratitude and deep regret mixed up with something else she can’t quite place in the tight expression he wears. He looks old. Pained. The man in the picture is barely recognisable in this man’s face.
This is the right thing to do, Jeannie affirms, then pushes herself to her feet. Sheppard struggles to do the same, so she cups a hand under his elbow to help before he can protest the gesture.
“I’m staying at the Best Western in Fernley. I can drive back here tomorrow afternoon. So, if you’d like, you can keep those for tonight.”
Sheppard looks down at the memories scattered over his table, picks up the unopened books, turns it in his palms. “Yeah. Thanks. That’d be...”
Jeannie gathers up her things, her hat and her bag, and Sheppard walks her to the door. Standing in the threshold, she turns and kisses him impulsively on the cheek. She has the impression that affection has to be a surprise attack with John Sheppard.
When she steps away, he’s wide eyed and blinking at her.
“You should read that,” she says, gesturing at the book.
Walking down the driveway to the car across the street, she can feel in her stomach that this is the right thing to do. It had taken her months to track this man down, but it was worth it. It will be worth it.
She can’t wait for tomorrow.
* * *
The day before, almost three-thousand miles away, night is just falling. It’s raining in Vermont, and the persistent rattle of water on the windows has Rodney feeling nostalgic and melancholy with memories.
When he goes to find the box, the diary, he finds an empty space where they should be. Amid the dust coating the floorboards under his bed, the outline of the ammo box is a dark shape.
Framed in the square of clean oak wood are plane tickets, Reno by way of O’Hare and Denver, plus a car-rental receipt. There’s a post-it note –bright pink – tacked to the ticket card. Jeannie’s handwriting.
It’s time. 137 Davis Road, Silver Springs, NV. 3pm.
* * *
Jeannie is awake absurdly early the next morning. The sky outside is back to a pure smooth blue and she can sense in the seeping warmth of the after-dawn light the heat the day will bring.
She confines herself to the bland pastels of her motel room all morning, pacing from wall to wall as the TV murmurs, nervous. Excited. Feeling slightly ill with it all.
Her cell phone is silent on the dresser: no calls, no messages. Her grandfather has to have found her note by now, the tickets. He’d been taking out the box almost every evening when she’d left. That he hasn’t called to yell at her for doing this, that he hasn’t let her know if he’s coming or not – she doesn’t know what that means. Can’t decide if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
There’s an antique clock in the corridor that chimes every quarter of the hour. Jeannie counts the parts of the hours away until it’s eleven o’clock and she just can’t stand to count any more. She dresses in a rush, cut off jeans and a blue shirt, twists her hair up into clip - that same haphazard tumble of hair that used to make her mother despair - and heads for the car.
On the road she thinks about the book she’d given Sheppard. When she was a child the thick, leather bound journal has fascinated her. So many words and so many pieces of paper in different grades and colors, pushed in between the white papers, opened envelopes feathering the pages at towards the front of the book. The cover bulged at the volume of paper it held, the original bindings straining and coming loose in places. It was careworn, dear and private to her grandfather.
Jeannie had never pried into it, though her curiosity was almost overwhelming at times. She had only once glimpsed a page: the inside cover as her grandfather closed the book one afternoon. Across the paper in her grandfather’s writing: For John Sheppard.
Well, John has it now, she thinks. She hopes he’s read it.
* * *
It’s noon when Jeannie knocks on Sheppard’s door again. Sheppard opens the door with a murmured greeting that she returns just a quietly, then goes back to her seat at the table. His eyes are red and slightly glazed, dark circles pressed under his eyes. He looks like he hasn’t slept at all.
Jeannie follows him to the table they’d sat at the day before. The lamp is still on, she notes, despite the daylight. Everything has been packed back into the ammo box, which is latched shut again in the middle of the table. The book is open in front of Sheppard, pages spread carefully out. The angles of her grandfather’s handwriting, much like the man himself, are difficult to ignore. Jeannie sits in silence as Sheppard flips through the pages one by one, careful to keep the loose papers and envelopes in their place. From the angle she’s at, she can only pick out parts of sentences but it’s enough for her to figure out that she’s looking at letters. Or at least, something that might have been a letter, a whole book of them addressed to Sheppard.
After a while, Jeannie stops trying to grasp the words on the paper and turns her eyes to Sheppard’s face instead. The subtle expressions that reel across it tell her everything: a soft, gentle smile, a quiet rasp of laughter, anger tightening his jaw, sadness relaxing the line of it before fading back into that smile again. He’s just lost in it.
He doesn’t look up when Jeannie rises, or when she clatters around in the kitchen fixing coffee, fetching ice-water and glasses to replace the ones from yesterday. It’s almost three o’clock when he finally looks up from the pages, blinking at the room and at Jeannie like he’s been somewhere else entirely, like he’s surprised to find himself here with her. He looks wrecked, sad, turns dazed eyes on Jeannie. “This,” rasps then has to swallow, look away.
“He took that everywhere,” she says. “ If he had nothing else, he would have that book. I never read it. I just know he meant it for you.”
“It’s. It’s everything,” he murmurs, “everything we did together when we... before he was married. “ The words sound like they hurt a little. “The times we met up after, the places. We lost track of each other after a little while. He just... disappeared. I never knew where. This has everything.” It’s more words than Sheppard has spoken since arrived, even putting all the others together, and it’s kind of shocking to hear, to see so much in his face. It feels somehow indecent to her, like she should look away.
Out in the street, Jeannie hears a car pull up, a car door slam. Footsteps up the path. A knock on the door.
The right thing to do, she thinks, as Sheppard gets up to answer the door.
* * *
For the first still, dead silent moment Sheppard thinks he’s opened the door to a ghost.
He thinks that all the memories playing and replaying in his head had superimposed the idea of this man onto someone else, onto some stranger standing in his doorway. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s done that, caught glimpses of Rodney McKay in other people’s faces, the slant of their shoulders. But the man doesn’t dissolve into someone else, doesn’t change into other features, even after Sheppard blinks slowly, like the black of his eyelids might correct what he’s sure is a mistake.
Only, it’s not a mistake: that first moment passes, then another, and McKay’s still there. Rodney’s still there. Older: hair silver-white and thin over his scalp, softer than he had been under John’s hands all those years ago. Square, silver rimmed glasses frame his eyes but they’re still the same eyes John remembers, the same shade of sky. The person looking out at John from all that blue is familiar. God, so familiar, if a little more lined that he had been, creases in his skin like a map of all the things he’d done.
There’s a lifetime worn into his face. John knows he look the same.
Rodney’s eyes are tracing him, too, trying to find the person, the places he remembers, landmarks he can orient himself to. His gaze catches on a thin, white line, a paper-thin scar above John’s brow. It was never very deep, and certainly not the worst wound a war had given him, but it’s the scar that’s stayed the longest, stubbornly there whenever John looks into a mirror. Bombs were falling around them both when the mark was made.
He feels now like he did then; upended, everything shaking.
Only then, John knew what he had to do. Bombs and guns and dogfighting over the Channel had always been safer than Rodney McKay. Faced with him now – just Rodney, just standing there like it hasn’t been a lifetime and a continent since they saw each other... he has no idea what to do with himself.
1947, the last time they’d seen each other. Durham City in November, frost crisp in the air, hazy white-gold sunlight soft in the sky behind the Cathedral. They’d met there for Beckett’s wedding, spent the night together in the County Hotel where Laura had arranged adjoining rooms. It had been good, John remembers, good like it always was, despite the glint of gold on Rodney’s left hand, the warm of the metal against John’s skin.
They’d tried leaving it – them - behind when Rodney had married. Only, John had never been able to leave someone behind. He didn’t think Rodney was any good at it either, until he’d boarded the train for London the next day and disappeared out of John’s life. Six months later, Norah McKay was born.
Sixty years since they’d last been together and somehow it had never felt further away than when he was standing less than an arms length away from the man.
Rodney looks just as lost as he does, like he’s surprised to find himself here even though he’s the one who knocked on John’s door.
Rodney never could stay quiet, though, even if he had nothing to say. When Rodney takes a breath like he might speak, John feels quite suddenly: just feels.
Everything he’d ever thought and felt about this man, the anger sharp at his fingertips, the sorrow ploughed deep with the regret, the crackling frustration, the love, right down to John’s bones, so much he’s shaking with it and Christ, the fear, so frightened of what Rodney McKay means, what he did – has always done – to him, the way he filled up every part of John until there was barely any room for anything else. The feeling, all of it, ties his tongue, hollows out a place in him that John thinks that might be filled by the fit of McKay’s body with his.
John takes a breath and on the exhale finds himself holding on to McKay, tight, close, arms thrown around his neck, fists clenched into the material of his jacket.
He doesn’t remember moving, can’t quite own to the dry half-sobs he’s gasping out into Rodney’s neck. Rodney is holding him back, just as tight, breathing like it hurts and they’re both shaking, shudders wracking up under John’s skin. It isn’t unlike the feeling he remembers when his plane had taken a hit; the way the whole thing would shake and shake under his hands as he tried for a safe landing, and all he could do was hold on, hold on.
That’s all John can do now, too. Hold on.
John couldn’t say how long they stood there, comes out of it only when Rodney finally speaks, murmuring into the side of John’s neck. “Sheppard, Jesus, Sheppard. John.” The voice hasn’t changed at all, not a bit. John finds himself laughing at that, murmuring “Yeah, yes” into Rodney’s neck, the side of his face, answering whatever question he’s heard in Rodney’s voice.
Then they’re both laughing, breathless, pressing kisses onto each other like it hasn’t been sixty years since they last did this. Rodney’s mouth hasn’t changed either, the twist of it under John’s is still enough to make something in Sheppard twist too.
“John,” Rodney says urgently, pressing John back as far either of them will allow. His face is serious as he says, “I’m sorry, so sorry, I didn’t – that I never – “ John stops him with a finger to his lips. “Me too,” he whispers, “But. Later, okay? We can – later.” John wants to understand, find out why they fell apart. The diary gave him a lot of answers, but there are gaps even in their pages, and he wants to understand it all.
They’re going to yell at each other in the next few days, weeks even, shout and hurt each other with the things they’re going to say. John knows that. There’s been too much time for it to be at all easy.
But he wants to show Rodney the things he’d kept too, things to remember him – them - by, the shoebox in his wardrobe, the pictures. Maybe turn over the good memories in his palms, share them with Rodney again before they have to really talk.
He pulls Rodney in close again. Rodney is breathing a little harshly, hands pressing down hard on the line of John’s back like he’s afraid John might slip away otherwise.
“I was afraid,” Rodney whispers, so low and so raw it sounds like a terrible confession against John’s shoulder. “I was afraid of what might happen.”
If someone found out, John hears. If I wanted you. If I fell in love with you.
John swallows, squeezes him. “I was fucking terrified,” he murmurs, I was scared of all those things too. Then: “I still kinda am.”
When they break away, John looks over to see Jeannie looking at them, eyes damp. He’d forgotten she was there for a little while.
He’d wondered why she came to him like she did. Rodney wasn’t dead, he’d known that. There would have been tears from Jeannie if he was, like there were for her grandmother. John had wondered at why she would bring these things to him. It makes sense now.
She thinks like her Great Aunt Jeannie. John could see her having done something just like this.
“You. So much trouble, young lady,” Rodney says, face still pressed to John’s shoulder. John knows Rodney’s trying to frown. He knows he’s failing too.
It’s strange how it’s all so familiar to him.
“It was the right thing to do,” Jeannie says, standing firm, chin tilted up, crossing her arms. “You’ve talked about him all my life,” Jeannie says, fixing her eyes to Rodney’s, unwavering. “I’d wondered for years if... because you talk about Zelenka and Ms. Emmagen and Ronon, too, but it doesn’t sound the same. There’s always been something else, something more there for him. There are no keepsakes for anyone else,” she pauses, takes a breath. “You love him, grandpa. You always have. I don’t know why you’re so afraid of what it means. It’s not the worst thing you’ve lived through.”
When she’s done talking, she falls back against the kitchen counter, like the words have been waiting to come out for a while and she can finally relax without the weight of them hanging over her.
What she says is true: the things they lived through, the things they did were terrifying. John’s done worse and seen worse since. At the time, it didn’t seem that simple. It wasn’t a paper tiger then; the threat of it was real. It could have torn them apart.
John starts at the thought. It could tear us apart. He remembers thinking that, too, all those years ago. It could rip our lives to shreds.
Something in him goes very still and very quiet at the thought. Because.
Because it did. It split them both up, slit them wide open despite what they did to try and stop it.
It broke them apart, just not like they thought it would.
Instinctively, John tightens his hold on Rodney. Rodney’s fingers dig hard into the skin of John’s shoulders.
Whenever John has thought of this, of Rodney, about what they had and what they might have had, he’d always thought the mistake was doing something that dangerous in the first place, something as stupid as getting involved with this man.
He’d never considered that might be the safer option until now. He feels like he’s bleeding out from the realisation. This is the worst thing he’s lived through.
It just didn’t have to be. God, it didn’t have to be.
“Jesus, Rodney,” John says, choking slightly on Rodney’s name.
“I know. I know,” he says, exhausted, like he’s been fighting with the same thought for years.
But now. Now is different. Different time, different place. Christ, a whole lifetime away from where they had been.
And maybe, John thinks. Maybe now.
“Rodney?” John asks, stepping back enough to cup one frail hand around the curve of Rodney’s jaw. It still fits into his palm, despite the way his fingers curl now, tight with arthritis. “Now? Now can we...”
Rodney swallows, closes his eyes. When he opens them again, they’re bright like John remembers them in the beginning, blue as the sky that dart had sailed up into. “Stay?” is all he asks.
“Yeah,” John murmurs, pressing a chaste kiss to Rodney’s dry lips. “Yeah.”
This, John thinks as Jeannie crosses the room, wraps them both up in a smiling, tearful hug.
This is the right thing to do. It was always the right thing to do.The End