The familiar whump of a helicopter penetrated the fog of pain that was gradually dragging him under. He fought against the darkness encroaching on all sides, focusing instead on the familiar sounds of the past--the helicopter and the raised cacophony of voices shouting med-evac orders. Even the sting of sand whipped up by the blades added to the memory of Afghanistan. A blurry shape above his head took on form and he recognized Doctor Keller. Another voice that ought not be so familiar after only a few days of acquaintance caught at him too--Rodney McKay.
"Is he alive? Jennifer?"
"Yes, but you need to leave me to work on him."
"Yes. Yes. Leaving you alone now."
"Stay with me, John," she demanded and John tried to oblige if only because he was too stubborn to let go. It was why he hadn't eaten his own gun after the incident in Afghanistan--or after the disinheritance by his father, whose parting gift had been the political machinations that had kept him out of Leavenworth.
The rest passed in a blur of pain, comforted only by the rhythmic whump of the helicopter blades that had always sounded like a heart beat to him--steady and sure.
When he awoke hours, perhaps days later, he felt like crap. His chest hurt to the point where even breathing didn't seem like a great idea. A different arrhythmic sound had replaced the helicopter and he recognized it as someone tapping at a keyboard, typing really fast. Forcing open his eyelids, he blinked groggily until he could focus on the profile of the man sitting at a small desk in the corner of what looked to be a hospital room, judging by the bland walls and the amount of medical paraphernalia scattered around his bed.
The typing stopped abruptly and then McKay was rising, taking the two steps between the desk and bed.
"Ah. You're awake at last."
He opened his mouth to say, "No shit, Sherlock," but nothing came out except a hoarse, unintelligible croak. He was grateful though when a straw was pressed against his lips, greedily sucking in the tepid water. John tried speaking again and this time he made some sense.
John raised an eyebrow hoping McKay would get the hint and answer the damn question with a little more information; the message seemed to get through and McKay sighed heavily. "Two days. Satisfied?"
"And the money stashed away inside the trunk? Are safe..ish."
McKay looked a little embarrassed. "Woolsey confiscated the cash to pay off your debts." He winced. "At least the ones we know about anyway."
"Great," John stated sourly but in some ways he was relieved as Mikey had gone easy on him when he could easily have set his goons on John when he hadn't paid up last week. A punch in the gut and face was nothing compared to a knee capping or a bullet into the base of his skull, or expecting him to pay back the money by less than legal means, like turning a blind eye to some criminal offense, or prostituting himself. All he'd come away with was a cut beneath his eye and pulled stomach muscles that had made eating a not so pleasant experience. However, playing hero for the good guys brought a lot more pain and trouble than a losing a few hands of poker. Problem was, if he was going to pay anyone off with that money then it would have been Palmer, who could probably figure out a way to the Pegasus Galaxy just to get his money back or a piece of John--or probably both.
"So. Is the planet safe?"
"For us? Yes."
"I mentioned alternative universes? Well, that signal got through loud and clear to who knows how many alternate realities."
"Can you...warn them?"
"I--No. We don't have the power, not without exposing our Earth to the same risk so... No." McKay looked pretty upset at having to let go of sending a warning and John wondered if he was concerned for the alternate versions of himself and others that he had mentioned meeting.
"That John Sheppard...in the alternate reality. Where did...our paths separate?" It was surprisingly hard to talk but John wanted to know. Hell, he needed to know.
"Hmm. Difficult to say. He disobeyed a direct order and went back for a fellow pilot behind enemy lines--alone. Got shot down but probably would have been considered a hero if the other guy had lived. No Leavenworth, no dishonorable discharge. Just a transfer to Antarctica where... Well. That's his history."
John nodded, letting his memory flow back to Afghanistan and recalling a particular decision he had made one night that could have been the fork in their road.
"She was drunk when I first met her. And I actually walked away...when she propositioned me. Some guy...shoved past as I was leaving and I glanced back to see...another guy hitting on her. Still tempted to keep on walking. Not my problem. Not when she wanted it. But I went back. Did the gentlemanly thing. Saw her back to base safely."
John sagged back against the pillow, exhausted by just those few words and hoping McKay understood. He suspected the other John Sheppard had walked away that night and had not known of Andrea's fate--less than three months later--until long after it was too late to go and save her. Or perhaps it was just pure luck that when that other John Sheppard's time came to disobey orders, he had not taken a shit-load of passengers along for the ride. Twelve dead, and all for nothing if he added Andrea and his career to the list of the lost.
John shook his head. "No."
"Hmm. Then why?" McKay circled his hand at the wrist, but John knew he was wondering why John had put so much at stake to save her.
"Hmm." McKay gave that noncommittal hum again as if he knew something more but wasn't planning on telling John.
Words from John's first meeting with McKay came back to haunt him. You never married. If McKay had been comparing alternate lives then that statement had to have some relevance. The only person he'd ever come close to marrying was Nancy, and they'd almost made it to the altar before he realized what a monumental mistake he was about to make just to stay in his father's good graces. That was about a year before he was shipped out to Afghanistan, and if he had been married to Nancy at the time then he would never have gotten involved with Andrea. He didn't do adultery, not after seeing how his father's infidelity had fucked up his parents lives and sent his mother to an early grave. Perhaps that had been the turning point, marrying Nancy--or not in his case.
Despite everything, he couldn't find it in him to regret that decision. He would have made both of their lives miserable and it would have ended in divorce eventually because he had stronger needs that couldn't be satisfied by a woman--not even one as beautiful as Nancy. Not that he'd satisfied those needs in the intervening years despite no longer being bound by regulations that forbade same-sex liaisons.
Since Afghanistan, he'd had a hard time getting out of bed each morning, barely scraping through each day as the ghosts of his past mistakes haunted him, sucking the life out of him as surely as one of McKay's wraiths. Certainly, he'd had no energy to pursue male companionship, or female either despite the many offers that came his way from both genders. He pushed that thought aside to concentrate on the here and now, glad that his mind was not clouded by the fog of pain killers.
"Why are you here?"
"I've come to offer you a chance at redemption."
John snorted softly. "You mean saving the planet from...life-sucking aliens...wasn't enough?"
McKay stared hard before the slanted side of his mouth curled up. "Surprisingly, no." He waved a hand. "All in a day's work for some of us," he added airily, and John was strangely inclined to believe him after all he had seen and heard over this past week.
Several more days passed before he was allowed to get out of bed and walk around. The bullet had deflected off a rib--missing any vital organs--but the cracked rib was a bitch, pulling painfully with every movement. In the past they would have taped up his ribs but not these days. As long as he wasn't coughing up blood or finding it hard to breathe then they would leave the rib to heal by itself.
McKay had stuck around. Apparently, this Stargate device that took people to other worlds didn't have the power to reach the Pegasus galaxy so he was waiting on an old-fashioned hitch-hike back on-board a spaceship. John felt his lips quirk as he recalled McKay's rant because this was so fantastical to him and yet so commonplace that it bordered on contemptible to McKay. McKay might as well have been waiting for the Greyhound bus by his lack of enthusiasm.
John had always wanted to pilot the Space Shuttle, but having a rich father meant he had earned his helicopter pilot's license before his eighteenth birthday, and the USAF had chosen to hone that skill to perfection rather than let him fly jets. He'd flown them all though: Apache, Black hawk, Cobra, Osprey as well as a number of commercial helos, before they took away his pilot's license.
Losing the sky was the hardest part of the past five years; the part that cut into his soul.
"Don't suppose I can get you to sign those papers now, can I?" Rodney asked nonchalantly.
John stared hard, aware of what he would be signing away but he had a feeling that his future lay with McKay, and he'd only gain that if he complied with the Government's demand for secrecy. If he didn't then merely knowing about spaceships and Stargates would be all he ever had. Signing the papers meant he would get to see it all too--be a part of it--though only because McKay was holding onto some belief that he and the Sheppard from an alternate reality were close enough a match to make this John--him--worth the effort.
For the first time in over five years, John didn't want to be a disappointment. He held out his hand and took the papers from McKay, and a pen, quickly scrawling his signature in all the relevant places. He felt the weight of McKay's eyes on him, knowing that if he was to look up quickly then he would catch more than simple intrigue in the man's eyes. He signed the last page with a flourish and handed the whole lot back to a now-smiling McKay. It was a nice smile.
"Seeing how you took all my money," he carried on over McKay's objections, "I need to go back to my old apartment and repossess all my clothes from the landlord."
"Or you could buy new. All expenses paid...within reason. Or you could consider it a loan on your first pay check."
"Or I could go get my own clothes," John reiterated because he wasn't a charity case.
McKay gave a pained sigh. "Fine. I'll go with you."
"Or not!" John exclaimed because he really didn't need a babysitter, or someone poking into his business, but McKay gave him this crooked half-smile that made John feel like a recalcitrant child. "I'm not planning on running out on you," he added softly.
"Again," McKay added.
"Hey, I didn't run out on you the first time."
"Semantics." McKay waved a hand haphazardly, but John knew when he was beat. Maybe if he played along then he could ditch McKay at the first rest-stop along the way.
Of course, McKay had to be contrary and refuse to leave the car even though he stared at the flashing neon display offering donuts and coffee with liquid blue eyes of abject want and misery. John couldn't explain why he found himself paying for the damn coffee and donuts and dropping the bag in McKay's lap. Perhaps it was the kicked-puppy expression, or perhaps it was because McKay's faith in him was the only reason why he'd turned around when he could have kept on driving all the way to the casinos in Miami.
In another alternate reality, they saved the galaxy together, and they weren't doing so bad in this one now.
Eventually he pulled into the driveway of a shabby one-story house that seen better days. The garden was untended, mostly dirt with a few hardy weeds struggling to survive. The screen door had several tears and the door beyond looked like it needed a fresh lick of paint. For the first time John felt embarrassed by his fall from grace.
"I'm not here much," he murmured.
Perhaps if he had been less preoccupied with retaining his dignity in front of McKay then he might have noticed the slight movement before a gun was pressed against his temple. McKay blundered in behind him and was grabbed and slammed up against the wall by another man. The door was kicked shut behind them.
"Oh, you got to be kidding me," McKay exclaimed as a gun from the second goon was shoved towards his face.
"McKay? Shut up!" John growled, well aware that Palmer's men worked on a hair trigger.
"Was beginning to think you skipped town Johnny-boy."
"Hey Jethro. I know I'm a little late but I was planning on dropping by to see Palmer with a down payment--"
Jethro whipped the barrel against John's cheek, re-opening the healing cut on his cheek. "That's Mr. Palmer to you."
"Hey! There's no need--" McKay's concerned words ended on a small cry of pain.
John felt the cold bite of anger because McKay had just saved the whole goddamn planet and didn't deserve to be pistol whipped by some heavy-handed goon with a gun. Not when this was all John's problem.
"Do yourself and your boss a big favor, Jethro." He shrugged towards McKay as Jethro snapped a handcuff around John's right wrist. "Give him the keys and my car and tell him to start driving. You really don't want the trouble he'll bring."
Jethro had grabbed John's left forearm but he paused, smirking. "Oh, I got a better idea." Moments later, McKay's left wrist was snapped into the other bracelet, locking them together. "Now ain't that cozy."
McKay straightened, eyes full of bravado. "You're making a really, really big mistake--"
Jethro leaned right in until his fetid breath made McKay wince, speaking slow and menacingly. "Boss wants him alive. Won't give a damn about you, buddy, so if you want to keep on breathing then I'd suggest you do as Johnny says... and SHUT THE FUCK UP!" McKay's head jerked back at the force of the words, eyes impossibly wide in fear. "Now, about those keys, Johnny? That piece of shit ain't worth much but it's a start."
John winced as Jethro's grinning henchman dug into the pocket of John's jeans and pulled out the car keys. Jethro grinned back before nodding towards his henchman. "You take his car 'cause they won't be needing it. I'll take these boys for a little trip out into the desert to see the boss."
John didn't like the sound of that idea because it seemed a little too final. He'd heard rumors on the street that people who crossed Palmer tended to go missing, never to be found, and the desert was a big place to hide a body if you knew how to do it. The wraith had been overconfident as he moved closer to his goal--transmitting the exact location of Earth to his kind--and so he'd stopped being so careful when he disposed of the drained bodies; it had led to his downfall. But Palmer had been in this game a long time, and he wouldn't be so arrogant.
"Hey, watch it! My brain's extremely valuable," McKay protested as Jethro shoved his head down; they were forced into the back seat of a black sedan with dark-tinted window. McKay had no option but to scrabble across the seat as John was pushed in after him. The door locking mechanism was engaged, leaving no escape route even if John was able to get free of the handcuffs. He turned to McKay, offering a silent but futile apology because McKay was terrified and angry in equal measure.
"This is all your fault," McKay hissed.
"Hey, you invited yourself along, remember?"
Jethro turned back in the passenger seat, his eyes glinting with menace. "Both of you shut the fuck up NOW."
McKay actually managed to keep his mouth shut for the next twenty minutes but as the streets of Las Vegas thinned out and the desert took over from the urban sprawl, he began to get agitated.
"Where are we going? Is it far because I have really important work to get back to--?" The gun was waved menacingly in front of McKay's face and he subsided back into silence for another twenty minutes before leaning into John. "People will be--"
"Oh." McKay straightened and glanced out the side window but John knew that all he would see was a seemingly endless stretch of desert as all the action looked to be on John's side of the car. McKay must have figured that out as he leaned slightly across John as the car came to a stop. Jethro and the driver climbed out as two of Palmer's goons approached; the rear door was opened and the heat of the desert slammed into John like a brick wall after the relative comfort of the air conditioned car, sweat beading on his forehead instantly. Beside him he heard McKay's verbal protest as John was pulled out and McKay was forced to follow. They stood beside the car with McKay rubbing his left wrist--where the handcuff had chafed the pale skin--throwing glares at both John and the henchman.
"My wrists are very delicate," he complained but John could only wince in sympathy, focusing instead on the slickly-dressed man swaggering towards them.
"Detective Sheppard. So good of you to join me."
"I didn't exactly have a choice," he stated, unhappily noticing how Palmer's attention had swung to McKay.
"And you brought a friend."
"Again. Not by choice. Though I did warn your guy that--"
"Well. I have no use for your friend, Sheppard." Palmer turned to Jethro. "Kill him."
"Wait, wait!" McKay exclaimed, yanking on John's wrist as he threw both hands up defensively.
"Palmer, wait!" John shoved McKay behind him. "You might want to take a moment to think about that."
"Oh, I assure you, I have thought about it...and about the money you never seem to pay back. Forty-two. Thousand. Dollars." Palmer pulled off his shades so John could see the calculating look in his eyes. "Sheppard Industries could afford more than ten times that amount...if Patrick Sheppard wants to have his son returned to him alive."
John stiffened. He should have known Palmer would figure out his family connection. It wasn't as if he had hidden it after all. For a moment, John considered mentioning that his dad had disowned him but Palmer was psycho enough to use that as an excuse to simply kill both him and McKay where they stood. He licked his dry lips as an idea came to him.
"Let McKay take the ransom note."
"Oh, that was always my intention, Sheppard. I've found a dead messenger tends to sharpen the focus on the family meeting the ransom demand, that or a piece of their loved one."
John licked his lips again. "He's worth more than I am," he stated, ignoring the way McKay straightened behind him, possibly in surprise, but John's words had made the necessary impact as Palmer cocked his head questioningly. "He's a world famous physicist and mathematician, working for the US government on...restricted research projects. I'm willing to bet they'd negotiate far more for his release than you'd get for me."
Palmer stared hard for a moment between the two of them, and then he threw back his head and laughed. "Funny, Sheppard. If you weren't such a loser I'd take that bet."
But it was all the distraction John needed as he whipped around and grabbed the gun arm of the goon who'd moved in to kill McKay. Directing the shots was not as easy as it looked in the movies but still effective, and John felt momentary pity for Jethro as blood blossomed across his white shirt in two places close to the heart. Behind him McKay was yelling as, by necessity, he was pulled along by John as their former driver went down. Palmer had already run for cover and John took the opportunity to shove McKay into the front of the sedan and across into the passenger seat. The engine gunned smoothly; he pushed down hard on the gas, the wheels spinning under them on the fine desert sand before gripping and sending them flying forward.
"Down!" John yelled as bullets tore up the side and back of the car. He felt the heavy resistance as he tried to use the cuffed hand to shove McKay down into the passenger foot well but McKay got the message and dropped as far as his broad frame would allow, keeping his head well below the dashboard.
The litany of "Oh god!" fell silent as the car outstripped the flying bullets but fifteen minutes later, the car began to shudder and John swore when he noticed the fuel gauge dropping. The gas tank must have been hit, and they were probably lucky the damn car hadn't gone up in a ball of flame. He nursed it along as best he could but, eventually, the engine cut out altogether and the car slid to a halt in the middle of nowhere.
"Come on, we need to get to that outcrop."
McKay stared towards one of the small masses of rocks dotted around them before looking back at John in horror, and John didn't need to be a mind reader to know what he was thinking. It was hot out here and the outcrop John had selected was slightly further away than some of the others--and probably a greater distance than it looked due to the optical illusion of the desert terrain.
Dragging McKay from the car was the easy part but the man held his ground when John started to walk away, the handcuff pulling uncomfortably against his own chafed wrist. He hissed at the pain and stared hard.
"We don't have time to debate this." He knew Palmer's men could be only ten minutes behind them and if they didn't reach some form of cover quickly then they didn't stand a chance but he could bet they'd start searching the closest hiding places first.
McKay seemed to slump and he nodded in resignation, finally understanding their predicament. This time he followed without protest, verbal or otherwise. Moving as fast as possible, they covered the distance to the outcrop with John trying to hide their tracks as best as possible, barely reaching it before the car appeared on the heat-wavering horizon. He shoved McKay into a gap between the rocks that offered a little shade from the unrelenting sun, watching through a gap as the car pulled up alongside the sedan. Three men got out and John watched as two scanned the horizon while the third checked out the car.
They conversed for a moment before one of them pulled out what had to be a radio. With one last scan of the area, all three climbed back inside the car and turned around, heading back the way they had come. John had already figured out that he'd inadvertently driven them deeper into the desert rather than back towards Vegas. He gave a wry grin because he knew what those men had been thinking. Two men on foot, handcuffed together with little or no water, in this part of the desert? The chances were slim to nonexistent that they'd walk out alive. As a gambling man, even John wouldn't normally bet on them but some chance was better than no chance at all, and John had an ace up his sleeve.
"There's always a ch--"
"NO! You don't get to make stupid platitudes. We are well and truly screwed. They knew it and you know it." He had yanked up their joined hands to point after the car, causing both of them to hiss.
John knew he ought to have found the situation terrifying but, in truth, he felt almost happy. It was if his life had turned full circle back to the desert of Afghanistan, and this time there was someone he could save because all the military had been given desert training. Lying trapped and injured in his downed helicopter among the bloodied bodies of his passengers, he'd been given no opportunity to save anyone--not even himself. Problem was, now he had the chance he wished it was just his own life at stake. He liked McKay--Rodney. He liked him a lot; liked the fact that Rodney had put his faith in him purely because another John Sheppard had shown his worth as a leader--and as a human being.
As it was, all they had was the gun John had liberated from one dead goon but, more importantly, they had two three-quarter full bottles of water that John had found in the glove compartment. It would have to last them until the temperature had dropped sufficiently for them to travel in a cooler part of the day.
"We wait until the temperature drops, and then we head east."
"Do you even know where east is?"
John slid his free hand to the back of his neck, rubbing away the sweat that was building there before trickling down his spine, uncomfortable because he didn't actually have a clue. All he knew for sure was that they had left on the west-side of Vegas.
Rodney huffed. "Then it's lucky you have an astrophysicist with you."
"Yeah, lucky me," he murmured.
Looking up into the blue sky, John knew they had a couple of hours to kill before they could move on. When he glanced back down he noticed McKay watching him closely. Rodney looked away immediately and it was hard to tell if the increased flush on Rodney's face was because of the hot sun or whether there was another reason for the flare of heat in his eyes. Certainly it was not the first time he thought he had seen Rodney look at him with interest but now he wondered whether that curiosity was mere speculation, hero worship, or something more pleasurable in nature.
Perhaps it was the renewed sense of self-worth after helping save the planet but for the first time in years John realized he wanted to return any interest. Rodney was a good looking guy. Perhaps not a classical beauty but John liked all the little quirks in both his physical and mental make-up--the expressive eyes; softly inviting mouth; broad, strong body, and that exceptionally brilliant mind.
He felt a bubble of laughter building up inside him because he'd chosen the wrong time and place for deciding he was interested in McKay. He caught McKay looking back at him with a perplexed expression, and that made John crack up even more. Before he knew it he was reaching out, cupping the back of Rodney's neck with his free hand and dragging him in for a kiss. McKay tensed for a moment--his lips too dry from the moisture-sapping heat of the desert--before melting into the kiss with a murmur of words that sounded like he was thanking someone or something. He tasted of stale coffee and donuts, of desert heat and dust, and yet it was still the best thing John had tasted in years. He wanted more, pushing insistently against the dry lips and slipping inside, tongue dragging roughly across Rodney's until they had to part purely to try to force some spit into their dried mouths.
Rodney looked glazed. His eyes were already incredibly blue with the pupil quickly shrinking back to a pinpoint in the intense light from the afternoon sun. He leaned in again and John moved to meet him halfway only to pull back as a brighter light engulfed them. He blinked rapidly as a darkened world formed around him.
Rodney was blinking hard too but recognition lit up his eyes and he grinned. "The Daedalus!" He turned that incredible smile on John. "We're saved!"
Rodney looked across the small room as a USAF major stepped forward. "Major Lorne! How did you--?" He smacked his own forehead. "The subcutaneous transmitter, of course! But how?"
Lorne took a deep breath before looking at John. "A neighbor phoned in a disturbance at your property, Detective. Later, when Doctor McKay didn't answer his cell phone, we discovered the police report and set about locating him."
"Took you long enough, Major!" Rodney seemed to have recovered quickly, with the joy of being saved from heat exhaustion lost beneath a layer of irritation. He waved off the medic who was trying to take his temperature by sticking one of those electronic devices in his ear but accepted the bottle of water pushed into his free hand. John sipped slowly but gratefully at the tepid water the other medic had handed over to him.
"The Daedalus only made orbit twenty minutes ago," Lorne stated wryly. "I think we found you pretty quick all things considered."
"Yes, well, they were going to kill me."
Lorne raised both eyebrows. "Well, they won't get a chance to try that again," he stated ominously and John had a feeling that Palmer was going to be the one who disappeared in the near future. "Let's get you both back to the SGC."
In response, Rodney held up his handcuffed wrist, dragging John's arm up with it, and spluttered in indignation at the smirk they gained from Lorne.
They were released after a quick medical. Doctor Keller had treated the chafing with an antibiotic cream and made sure they were sufficiently hydrated before allowing them out of her domain but, afterwards, they were free to go wherever they pleased. Except John couldn't think of anyplace he'd like to go and, instead, found himself hovering in the corridor just outside the infirmary. Rodney hovered with him, looking just as reluctant to move on. Eventually Rodney caved in.
"The..." He waggled a finger above his lips, "Was that just an..." Before forming air quotes, Oh god we're going to die moment or...or..."
"Or," John murmured, hoping Rodney would get it.
The hands stilled. "Really?"
Rubbing the back of his neck, John forced himself to meet Rodney's desperately needy eyes. "Yeah. Really."
"Oh thank god!"
Rodney stepped up and wrapped his arms around John's waist, kissing him soundly, and this time it was John who melted into the pleasure of those now-moist lips against his. He moaned in appreciation, then questioningly when Rodney pulled back suddenly.
"I have a perfectly good room with an admittedly narrow bed, but I'm willing to bet it's more comfortable than up against a concrete wall in a public corridor." He started to walk off but stopped when he realized John wasn't following. His impatiently snapping fingers made John grin when he couldn't think of a single reason why not to obey that particular order.
Hours later--sticky and sated in Rodney's small bed, and with Rodney draped over him, snoring softly--John realized that his luck had finally turned for the good.