John's mom gives good hugs, and she gives them freely: when he and Dave get home from school, when it's time for bed, when John falls off his pony for the first time and sniffles despite his best efforts. She wraps him up in gentle arms and her hair falls across his face, smelling of lavender. He hugs her back tight. It makes him feel safe and warm and loved.
Even so, he doesn't appreciate how much he needs them until she's gone.
He learns not to put his arm around Dave's shoulders or let their thighs rest against each other or curl into his father's side on the rare nights they all settle on the sofa to watch a game. Patrick J. Sheppard does not hug, and he is not raising his sons to be fags. (By the time John figures out what he meant, it's too late to get angry and too embarrassing to explain that that's not what he is. He doesn't know what he is.) The best John ever gets from him is a handshake the day he brings home a medal from the regional track meet.
When everyone at school hits puberty, he quickly learns that none of the other guys are like him. He learns to ward that part of himself off; to laugh with his friends and exchange careful, meaningless touches in the halls and on the field. To never press into a touch or let his hand linger. He tries not to gaze too wistfully at the girls clustered around their lockers and classroom desks, who can hold hands and put their arms around one another without anyone batting an eye. Eyelash. Whatever the hell the saying is.
He learns to get used to it. He can pet his horses out in the paddock, at least, let their warmth soak into his palms when he brushes them and into his thighs when he rides.
He grows so sensitive that it gets to be like a shock when people touch him. He flinches without meaning to. People take it as a hint to keep their hands to themselves. It's sort of easier that way.
He never learns how not to want it.
They get a dog. That's pretty awesome. She's a corgi/dachshund/German Shepherd mix, kind of puny but always happy, which is a nice change in the Sheppard household. John takes her running in the mornings, and he and Dave play Frisbee with her after school. The best part is how she'll lay down next to him when he's doing his homework and let him stroke her back and belly. Her tail wags like crazy. John knows how she feels.
She's one of the only things John misses when he moves out.
His roommate at Stanford gets a girlfriend during their second semester. Sometimes they sleep together when John's in the other bed, because there's nowhere else to go.
He listens. When he dares, he watches with his eyes slitted open in the dark. He's not aroused by the murmurs and gasps or the other sights and sounds of intercourse; it's just that the thought of being that physically close to another person makes his chest ache.
He decides to get himself a girlfriend, too. Her name is Nancy. She's a poli sci major. The sex is… awkward. He endures it for the pleasure of what comes after: lying next to her in the warm cocoon of the covers, pressed skin to skin from shoulders to ankles, his hand on her breastbone and her fingers combing through his hair as his heartbeat calms.
At first she thinks it's sweet that he likes to cuddle, but after a couple of months she catches on that something's wrong. He won't talk about it. Doesn't know how. She breaks it off.
He doesn't try that again.
Contact between men in the Air Force is as strictly codified as John expected. Buddy-buddy slaps and roughhousing, the occasional proud paternal pats from commanders. When they get out into the field, even that much is hard to come by. He's hardly in a state of mind to soak it in when they're grabbing one another's arms to clamber out of ditches or haul ass away from an ambush. The persona John's cultivated isn't the type to sling his legs across another guy's lap on the couch either when they're all in college tees and shorts and chilling out in the rec room.
The most sustained human contact he experiences during his tour in Afghanistan is holding Holland as he bleeds out in John's arms. So.
The first time Teyla leans in to touch her forehead to his, he freezes. It's only for a second, and then he accepts the press of warm, dry skin. But it's enough that she notices. He doesn't know what she sees when they draw apart and she studies his face, but she gets this speculative look that he should probably be worried about.
"Do you prefer men?" she asks one day in the workout room. He drops a bantos rod. She raises an eyebrow as he fumbles it off the floor. It's Teyla, though, so the expression is still kind.
"No," he says, and because it's Teyla, he makes himself keep going. "No, it's not that."
He's pretty sure his ears have gone red. Damn it.
She doesn't say anything else, just gets that thoughtful look again before she kicks his ass to the mat.
Another evening, weeks later, when they're about to part ways by the transporter, she brings a hand up to his cheek.
"Teyla," he manages, heart lodged in his throat. He doesn't want this to go to shit, too. "I—"
"John," she says. He shuts up. If she kisses him, he doesn't know what the hell he's going to do.
But her hand is still and her eyes are calm. "I believe I understand," she tells him. Then, with a twist of a smile: "Do not worry; I intend nothing more than the friendship we already enjoy."
He licks his lips, but no words come out.
Her thumb brushes the side of his mouth as she withdraws. "Goodnight, John."
He watches her go.
And maybe she does understand; after that, she gifts him with small, scattered touches. She'll lay a hand over his when they're talking across a mess table. She'll rest her palm across the small of his back to correct his posture when they work on katas. She'll give his shoulder a light squeeze when she bids him good morning at staff meetings. She'll touch his arm while he's catching his breath after bantos exercises.
She doesn't say a word, so he doesn't have to, either. He just absorbs it all like a plant reaching for the sun.
Ronon gets it. Or maybe he has the wrong idea, maybe it's a normal Satedan brothers-in-arms thing, what the hell does John know. It's not like they talk about it. But Ronon thinks nothing of taking John by the hand to help him up or grabbing him around the waist when he's feeling playful. Every now and again, Ronon'll rest a warm hand across John's shoulder blade or grip him by the back of the neck and shake him gently, like a lioness carrying a cub in her mouth.
He's the kind of guy John wishes there were more of back in the U.S.—into sports and guns and movies with lots of explosions, and totally comfortable touching and being touched by other men without interpreting it as some kind of come-on. When John loosens up around him enough to start reciprocating (except for the body lifts; the guy weighs a ton), Ronon accepts the contact without blinking. John thinks maybe Ronon's more than a little skin hungry himself, after all those years running.
Rodney doesn't get it. Oh, he'll bump into and otherwise manhandle John when John's in the way, will sometimes lay an absent hand on John's shoulder when he's leaning over him to point something out on a console, but in general he's aloof and abrupt. He's apparently thought the same of John since their first days in the city. It makes John restrain himself to vest-grabs and head swats.
It's a shame. John thinks Rodney would be a great snuggler. He's got those big solid shoulders, for one thing, and John's seen the fierce affection he's capable of bestowing on people like Jeannie and Katie Brown. But Rodney doesn't reach out much, and he doesn't invite it. He looks shocked and awestruck whenever a woman lays a hand on him to deliver anything that's not a slap. John supposes it isn't a surprise. From the sound of things, Rodney didn't get much physical affection growing up either.
When Teyla slides her arms around him after they find Heightmeyer, John holds on.
He and Lorne get tortured on PX7-459. Classic trap: a local dissident faction abducts Lorne's team to draw out John's and snatch two officers for the price of one. John would be kicking his own ass about it right now if the Malarians weren't doing such a good job of it for him. He hangs loose in the chains they've strung him up in, Lorne a solid weight at his back, tosses hoarse jokes at first and curses later at the interrogators when they demand Atlantis's gate code and other information they'll never get. He lets the yells tear free from his lungs when they go back to the electric prods. It takes all the training he's got to focus on keeping a semiconscious Lorne alive and their captors distracted until rescue comes.
Later, Keller, Woolsey, the new shrink, a group of fresh and not-so-fresh recruits all want to know how he pulled them both through it without cracking. He cites special ops training and the need to set a good example and makes sure to commend Lorne's fortitude. He doesn't tell them how he threaded his numb fingers through Lorne's above their heads and held on, as much for his own comfort as to offer strength; how he breathed in and felt the sweat-slick skin of Lorne's back along his own, anchoring him.
Lorne doesn't need to ask.
John hangs out in the infirmary with Teyla and the baby while the three of them recover from rebar punctures, abduction by crazed Wraith mutants, and having been delivered by Rodney McKay aboard a hive ship, respectively. Then he drops by her quarters to visit whenever he can find an excuse. He adopts a cool nonchalance about the whole thing, but of course she sees right through him.
Today, she's nursing. Although the breastfeeding thing is still weird, she's so matter-of-fact about it that he hasn't fidgeted since the first time. Much.
"I am very tired," she admits when she's done burping Torren. "Would you like to take him while I try to rest?"
Knowing what he's going to say, she's already rising when he nods. She gives her drowsy, drooling son a kiss on the forehead, transfers him to John's arms and retreats to the bedroom.
It's the first time John's held Torren since he landed the dart, and he hadn't exactly had much opportunity to study him while they were fleeing for their lives. Wearing nothing but a cloth diaper, the kid is tiny—almost too tiny to believe. John gazes down at him, strokes a thumb across the wispy-soft fuzz on his head.
"Hey there, little guy," he murmurs.
Torren fusses without opening his eyes.
"Hey," John whispers again. "It's okay. Your mom's right over there. I'm your Uncle John. Remember me? You're named after me. Well, a little bit. We're just going to have a nice nap, you and me." As he talks, he bounces Torren gently in one arm and leans over to grab one of the finely woven Athosian blankets from the other end of the couch. On a whim, he unbuttons his BDU shirt so the kid won't have to lie on lumpy buttons and pocket folds. Then he carefully swings his feet up, leans back into the pillows against the armrest, drapes the blanket over his shoulder and chest and arranges Torren on top with an arm curled protectively around him.
"There you go," he says. Torren makes a soft, wet noise, squirms once, and falls asleep.
John rests a gentle hand on Torren's back. The baby is a warm weight on his chest, innocent and trusting, his little pink fingers curled in a patch of John's chest hair past the edge of the blanket. John circles his palm over Torren's soft, clean, baby-smelling skin. Their breathing grows quiet and even together, and something inside John that's been restless for almost as long as he can remember just… settles. He can feel his heartbeat slowing to match Torren's contented stupor. He closes his eyes.
He wakes to find Teyla gazing down at them. His brain is still fuzzy, but he thinks there's something fond and satisfied in her expression. The sun is setting beyond the curtains.
"Good nap?" he asks. His voice is rough. He clears his throat as quietly as he can so Torren doesn't wake up.
"Very," she says. "And you?"
It's hard to articulate how he feels right now. "This is…" he tries. "I…" Finally, he just lets himself say it. "I don't want to give him back."
Teyla perches on the armrest beside him and reaches over to stroke the crown of Torren's head. Her fingers brush John's on the downstrokes. "While Kanaan recovers, we will need our friends to help care for Torren," she says after a minute. "I would like it very much if you could come in the afternoons to watch over him while I rest. If it is not an imposition, of course."
"No," he says, and he must not have cleared all the sleep from his throat after all. "I mean, yeah. I'd love to."
"Thank you," she replies, even though John thinks he's the one who should be thanking her. "Please, feel free to stay a while longer. There's no need to wake Torren yet. I'll make some tea."
She touches her forehead to his before she heads to the kettle.
John shifts Torren ever so slightly so he doesn't slide off, and rubs his back some more. Torren's fingers flex and relax. Teyla hums a lullaby as she scoops dried kanna leaves into a pair of cups. John breathes out, long and slow.