The dog came out of nowhere, a buff-colored blur clearly in pursuit of something, or someone. It ran right between John’s legs, knocking him on his ass hard enough to rattle his teeth. John wondered if that was the sign he’d been looking for.
A man chased after the dog, leash dangling from one hand. “Butterbean! Get back here, you mangy mutt!”
The dog ran circles around its owner – tall guy, early fifties maybe, casually dressed – a tennis ball firmly lodged between its jaws.
“Chief!” the guy yelled when the dog stayed just beyond his grasp.
John waited for another dog to show up, but instead there was a high, piercing whistle from the direction man and dog had come. Butterbean immediately heeled, tail wagging as the guy snapped the leash to its collar.
“Sorry about that,” the guy said to John. He held his hand out and helped John get back on his feet.
“Your dog is very…enthusiastic.” John brushed off the seat of his jeans.
“If he were my dog he’d be better trained.” The guy fixed Butterbean with a sour look.
“No permanent damage done,” John said, though a bruise probably wasn’t out of the question.
“Let me make it up to you.” The guy gestured at a nearby cart. “Ice cream?”
John’s automatic response was to say no, thank you, and go on his way. But he didn’t feel like this guy was hitting on him – not that he wasn’t attractive, in an older, square-jawed kind of way –and it would be a good delay tactic for that life-altering decision he was supposed to be making.
“Sure,” he said. He stuck out his hand. “John.”
Butterbean walked placidly beside Jim, and John thought he must be pretty well trained after all if a whistle was all it took to get him to behave.
They each ordered cones and a little cup of ice cream for the dog, vanilla all around. They claimed an empty bench nearby, and John was amused watching Butterbean try to decide between the tennis ball and the ice cream.
“You from around here?” Jim asked.
“Sorta. I guess you could say it’s a temporary posting.” Very temporary.
That earned John a quick but thorough once-over. It might’ve been more intimidating if Jim wasn’t methodically eating his ice cream at the same time.
Jim looked at John’s hair with raised eyebrows, but John refused to defend his cowlicks. He knew he looked even more ridiculous with the standard crew cut.
“Former Ranger,” Jim said, settling back on the bench.
John nodded. Rangers were tough bastards, and now that John was looking for it he could see military echoes in the way Jim held himself. Hell, he practically still had a regulation haircut.
“What brings you to Colorado Springs?” John asked as casually as possible.
Did Jim work for the SGC? Maybe their meeting had been pre-arranged, a way for General O’Neill to keep tabs on him while he decided what to do. John wouldn’t put it past the man, and he very much didn’t appreciate it.
“I’m here with my partner. He’s…getting in touch with an old friend.”
John was pretty good at reading body language, and the way Jim had just closed up said that not only was their visit personal, but he also wasn’t willing to discuss it. Probably not on the SGC payroll, then. Which brought John back around to the reason he was in the park in the first place. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to get a second opinion on his situation before he resorted to a coin flip, especially since Jim was a neutral party with no stakes in the answer.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Shoot,” Jim said amiably.
“If you were given the option of doing something amazing, but you had to give up everything you knew to do it, would you?”
Traveling to Atlantis was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they said. Dr. McKay had been dumbfounded when John hadn’t immediately agreed to join the expedition, raving about the importance of his Gene. John supposed the real sticking point was the trip to the lost city being treated as one way only. It was extremely likely he’d never return to Earth if he went.
Jim gave him a shuttered look and fed the remainder of his ice cream cone to Butterbean. “I’d say that depends. If you don’t say yes, will your regrets outweigh the possible benefits?”
John gave that some thought. What was he really giving up if he said yes to Atlantis? He hadn’t talked to his family in years. He wasn’t in a relationship, and all of his closest friends were dead. So he supposed all he’d really be giving up were things: freshly grilled hamburgers, surfing, and the new season of Doctor Who.
What would he lose if he said no? The chance to travel to another galaxy and fulfill the astronaut dreams he’d had as a little boy. Maybe flying a spaceship. Getting to know Dr. McKay a little better, with his piercing blue eyes and sharp tongue. Saving the world.
“There are some regrets you can never make up for,” Jim said softly. He had a faraway look in his eyes. “And some choices aren’t really choices at all.”
He sounded like a man who’d been through some things. John tried to think of something to say, but a young woman came over, her long hair pulled into braids, and Butterbean was all over her with slobbery dog greetings.
“How’s my good boy? Did Mr. Ellison take good care of you?”
She was accompanied by a man who was obviously seriously ill: he was gaunt and his skin looked as thin as rice paper and twice as fragile. He was wearing an oversized bucket hat that didn’t mask the fact that he was probably completely bald.
“Who’s your friend, big guy?”
Jim slid an arm around the other man’s shoulders, and the affection on his face was almost painful to witness.
“This is John.”
“Major John Sheppard,” John clarified. He shook the man’s hand, holding it as carefully as he could.
“John, this is my partner, Dr. Blair Sandburg. And Cassie Frasier.”
“Nice to meet you,” John said.
Cassie grinned up at him from where she was sitting, Butterbean sprawled happily in her lap. “This is my second dog. CJ died last year.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Where’s Dr. Jackson?” Jim asked Blair.
John perked up at the mention of a name he recognized. Daniel Jackson was one of the scientists working on the Atlantis project, though as John understood things he wasn’t going to be part of the expedition.
“Danny had to go back to work, but he’s meeting us at the hotel later for dinner.”
“You know Dr. Jackson?” John couldn’t help asking, not when it seemed like a huge coincidence.
Blair grinned, and there was a hint of the energetic, healthy man he must’ve been in it. “We did a stint in foster care together. He’s a great guy, and an excellent archaeologist. I wanted to see him one last time.”
John winced internally at that, but Jim physically flinched.
“How do you know him?” Jim asked suspiciously.
“I only just met him,” John replied.
“He have anything to do with that choice you have to make?”
“He kind of does, yeah.”
Jim whispered something in Blair’s ear, and Blair nodded.
Cassie got to her feet and took Butterbean’s leash from Jim. “Whatever Daniel wants you to do, you may as well say yes. He can be pretty persistent. And he’s almost never wrong.”
“It’s the ‘almost’ that worries me,” John muttered. But Cassie was right. And so was Jim. He’d have too many regrets if he said no to Atlantis.
“Thanks, Jim,” John said. He held out his hand, and after a momentary hesitation Jim shook it. “You helped clarify things for me.”
“Dispensing some wisdom?” Blair asked. “Isn’t that my job?”
“Someone’s gotta pick up the slack, Chief.” Jim’s tone was joking, but John could see the pain in his eyes.
“And thanks for the ice cream,” John said.
Blair leaned closer to John. “You’re making the right choice. I have a sense about these things.”
There was something in his eyes, there and gone in a flash, that gave John a sense of great power contained in that fragile body; it was a little creepy.
“Come on, Chief. You need to rest before dinner.”
Jim nodded at John and led Blair away. John supposed he’d better contact the General and find out how long he had to get his affairs in order before he bid farewell to Earth and the Milky Way galaxy.
One Week Later
John strode down the corridors of the SGC, glad the expedition was finally getting underway. They’d be leaving in the morning, assuming McKay’s work-around with the ZPM was successful, and John was more than ready to get out from under the Mountain. Clear blue skies had been in short supply all week.
He rounded the corner and came upon two civilians having a very inappropriate make-out session in the open doorway of what might have been a storage closet. Two male civilians. He wondered if he should say something, then the shorter of the two men peeked around his boyfriend’s shoulder.
“Hey! Major Sheppard, right? I never forget a face.”
John just stood there with his mouth open. It was Jim’s partner. What was his name? Something girly. Blair. Only he looked like a whole new person, a healthy person. His face had filled out, his skin was a nice ruddy color, and he had about an inch of wavy brown hair on his head.
“I see we both said yes.” Jim turned around, one hand still wrapped around the back of Blair’s neck. “Any regrets?”
“Ask me tomorrow,” John replied. He was still dumbfounded. The SGC obviously had access to some pretty powerful alien tech, to bring Blair back from the brink of death. What else were they hiding under the Mountain?
“You’re on the Atlantis expedition?” Blair brightened even more. “Man, that’s so incredible! Just think of the exploration you’ll get to do! Jim and I are going to be consulting with the SGC. I’ll be working with Danny on Ancient text translations, and Jim here’ll be using his special skill set to track down the Goa’uld.”
Blair was practically bouncing with excitement. John wondered what Jim had given up in exchange for his partner’s life, and hoped there wouldn’t be any regrets for either of them down the line now that the government had them on the payroll. At the moment they both looked really happy; Jim was smiling down at Blair with his heart in his eyes. John wondered what that was like, being so loved. What would he have given up in that same situation? All he had was the sky.
“Oh, there you are, Major.” McKay had a coffee cup in one hand and a data pad in the other. “I need you in the lab, if you can stop fraternizing with the civilians.”
He scowled at Jim and Blair, which only made John smile.
“Talking, not fraternizing, McKay. Don’t I get a night off? One last hurrah?”
McKay looked momentarily stymied. “Oh. Well, I suppose there are…people? To say goodbye to?”
“I was thinking more like one last chance for a really good steak.”
“Well, that does sound good.”
John was learning that the eminent, and widely feared, Dr. McKay could be talked into almost anything if food was involved.
“Tell you what,” John said. He leaned against the wall and canted his hips just so, gratified when that drew McKay’s attention. “Half an hour in the lab and then you come have dinner with me.”
“Forty minutes, and that’s my final offer.”
“Fine,” McKay huffed. “Let’s go.”
Jim dipped his head down and whispered in Blair’s ear.
“Yeah, I can see it too,” Blair said. He winked at John. “Good luck!”
“Godspeed,” Jim offered, and he and Blair picked right up where they’d left off. John supposed he couldn’t fault them for wanting to make the most of every minute they had together, not when Blair had seemed on the brink of death just a week ago.
“Get a room,” McKay snapped, coffee sloshing over the side of his cup. “Chop, chop, Major. My forty minutes doesn’t start till we’re in the lab.”
John trailed after McKay, enjoying the view. There was another plus in the Atlantis column: a one-way trip to another galaxy likely meant that DADT and fraternization rules wouldn’t be strictly adhered to. Particularly for a random pilot and a scientist.
Whatever the future held, John was going to do his best to take advantage of every opportunity.