Some things that fly there be –
Birds – Hours – the Bumblebee –
Of these no Elegy.
Some things that stay there be –
Grief – Hills – Eternity –
Nor this behooveth me.
There are that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the Riddle lies!
[Dickinson, F68, 1859]
Sheppard leaned the weight of his hip against the bar table, freeing up one hand to hold the bottle of Corona. He shoved a tiny lime wedge into the neck with his left hand, awkwardly, everything slippery and wet with condensation. His cane rested against his thigh, but when he moved it slid, and he grabbed for the handle again before it could fall, shifting his weight back onto it and taking a quick swig of beer. Safely off to one side, he watched the action out on the decently-sized dance floor, its couple dozen inhabitants sweaty and to all appearances very happy, or at least vocal. The club lit up in a blare of bright purple, with a blast of illuminated dry ice. Unseen hands from the DJ booth above flung out neon glow sticks, which scattered on the booze-slick floor and were grabbed up by the dancers. They didn’t seem to care whether the pastel plastic sticks were damp or sticky, just locked them into circles, dangled them around neck or wrist, and kept moving.
He wondered again why he was at Numbers, on a Tuesday night of all nights—“Kinky Tuesdays,” the club billed them, but Sheppard hadn’t seen anything particularly kinky yet, even though there was a large bright red X-shaped cross on the stage, presumably for tying people down in some kind of fancy way. Earlier, an elderly man had energetically suspended a very curvy, very pretty, frighteningly young woman in athletic wear above the same stage, with the overall effect being more like a gym workout than anything sadomasochistic. Maybe it was still too early? It was just coming up on twenty-one-hundred.
When he’d gotten his beer at the cash bar in the back, he’d stolen glances at the many folding tables draped in black felt and displaying various wares, mostly what he guessed were floggers or whips of some specialized kind—Sheppard had to admit he didn’t actually know anything about the kink scene, or kink at all, really, other than the porn that freaked him out almost as much as it turned him on. The truth was, it was almost impossible for him to get turned on ever since he’d gone on convalescent leave. Or maybe for a long time before that. The long scar down his leg pulled and grabbed, and he winced and tried to stand straighter, to take pressure off his thigh and knee.
The dance music had been rigorously ’80s, so far: he’d heard Erasure, New Order, Joy Division, and now a sped-up triphop version of “Psychokiller.” Back in its day, which was apparently no longer, Numbers had brought to Montrose a staggering variety of real bands, from The Cure to Jesus and Mary Chain, from Siouxie and the Banshees to Soundgarden, all of which had probably been amazing shows in its modest square black room, banked on all four sides by bars; but now they were mostly content to host a burlesque night once a week, Kinky Tuesdays, and something on Fridays called “Classic Numbers” that Sheppard figured was probably more of the nostalgic same.
The crowd was eclectic, though, and in good spirits, and he mostly enjoyed watching them. There were a few elderly couples, dancing pressed up close to one another even during the fast songs; one bald angular white guy out in the middle of the floor, who hopped straight up and down and mouthed all the words; a drunk couple weaving unsteadily on the fringes, more making out than dancing; a group of gorgeous young guys (too young, faces anxious and self-conscious) in booty shorts and Vans; several isolated vaqueros in studded leather jackets and cowboy boots; and a collection of flawlessly made-up young women (also too young) he referred to in his head as “kinky ballerinas,” because of the stiff pastel tutus that stood out from their gleaming PVC bustiers. He wasn’t sure how they’d actually be able to do anything kinky, though; they seemed frail, delicate in a way, eyeshadow unsettlingly winged and perfect, far too flawless to mess up. Occasionally, on the stage, someone would jump up to dance while facing the small crowd, gyrating and lip-syncing in a slightly more performative fashion. A muscular, heavy-set black guy with swinging locs danced all by himself and seemed to be completely content.
No one looked his way. John drank his beer. He could feel the bass line in the palms of his hands when he rested them briefly on the table top.
The DJ had just shifted into “Head Like a Hole” and Sheppard found himself involuntarily nodding along—his lazy, middle-aged version of a headbang, he supposed—when he saw an empty beer bottle rolling around on the black floor, glittering dangerously near the dancers’ heels, kicked aside and gaining momentum as it spun in circles. He looked away; whatever, he wasn’t going to go get it.
Which is why, of course, clenching his cane, rubber tip gripping the floor, he strode out quickly, tucking in his elbows and sidling in sideways to evade oblivious dancers—only to reach the bottle and realize he’d have to bend down, which he couldn’t really do. He stuck the cane out far to his left side, for balance, and attempted an ungainly downward swoop without bending his knees.
The wet bottle skittered out from under his fingers and rolled to a stop against a single Nike Air Pegasus, charcoal gray with a white swoosh. Sheppard only knew the model because they were what he ran in, himself, when he wasn’t just wearing his boots. Used to run in. Whatever. He gritted his teeth in pain, raised his head: dark jeans, closely fitted to lean, muscled thighs. Definitely a runner. Trying to straighten all the way, he wobbled and nearly fell over about the time he came eye-level with the person’s waist (belt of plain black webbing, thick silver buckle that looked familiar but he couldn’t think why). A strong hand shot out and grabbed him by the bicep.
“Hey, careful,” the guy said, close to his ear, with an unfairly velvety voice, soft yet still cutting through Trent Reznor’s repeated vows that someone was going to get what they deserved. John’s cane flew out of his grasp, and seemingly without any effort the guy caught that too, and pressed it back into his hand. “Hang on,” the man said, and bent down to pick up the errant bottle himself, still holding to Sheppard’s arm; then: “Let’s just—” and Sheppard didn’t protest as the guy all but manhandled him off the dance floor; slipping once, because John was stupid and had worn his dress oxfords, which didn’t have any tread to speak of. He knew better.
The guy steered them into the back of the club, into the relative quiet of the cash bar, and arced the beer bottle into a trash can, only then letting go of John’s arm to offer his hand. “Hi, I’m Sam. Look, man, I’m sorry I grabbed you, that’s pretty rude, I just—”
“Sheppard. It’s fine,” he was astonished to hear himself saying, when nothing about it was fine, when normally anyone even looking at the cane made him want to knock out their brains with it. He shook Sam’s hand, which was warm and solid and brown, and he held it longer than he should. Something else about him, though; the belt buckle—Sheppard looked up again.
“Air Force?” he asked, on a guess, and Sam threw back his head and laughed. He had a gap between his front teeth that made him seem probably younger than he was (early thirties?), and a trimmed moustache and hint of beard that made him seem a little older (late thirties?).
“That obvious, huh.”
John shrugged, settling his weight back onto the cane under his hand. It had started feeling comfortable, something he felt a little lost without. He didn’t much like that, but there it was. “Off we go, into the wild blue something.”
“Shit, you too?” Sam pulled a bar stool closer without taking his eyes off John, and Sheppard nudged himself back onto it, hardly noticing. Sam was wearing a grey t-shirt made out of some silky material that did nothing to conceal the movement of his shoulders or the way his waist narrowed down into his hips. Sheppard swallowed, wondering vaguely why he’d left his beer behind.
Sam tapped the counter meaningfully and the bartender nodded, came back uncapping two Shiner Bocks. “How often am I gonna meet another airman here? Drink’s on me, man.”
“Fair enough,” said Sheppard, and they tilted their bottles together. It was weirdly easy to sit next to Sam without talking, but he was curious.
“So what do you fly?”
Sam smiled and it was kind of ridiculously dazzling, like the sun coming out. “I never said pilot.”
Sheppard took an experimental swallow of the Shiner, which was earthen and malty. He liked it. He wiped his mouth and tried another angle.
“Where’d you start out, then?”
“Man, that was a million years ago,” Sam said. He took a drink of beer, looking thoughtful. “After basic, all over. Just the pipeline, for pararescue anyway. Indoc at Lackland. Mostly Kirtland, Benning. Few weeks at Fort Bragg.”
Sheppard’s eyebrows shot up. “Jesus—you’re a PJ?”
Sam’s face went neutral, like he got this reaction a lot. “Well, someone’s gotta do it. Save the rest of y’all’s sorry asses.”
Sheppard had once seen a brigadier general scramble to give up his place in line at dining services so a parajumper could go ahead of him. The pipeline, Sam had said, offhand, like he wasn’t describing two years of pure torture, which airmen respectfully called Superman School but which most civilians would probably consider something that could legitimately be tried in a court of international law.
And Fort Bragg—John felt an unfamiliar stab of pure envy. “You got to train on parafoils?”
Sam smiled, a little ruefully. “Yeah, if there’s something that can kill you I’ve probably tried to crash it at least once.”
“NFOD, huh,” said Sheppard, and took another drink, reaching inside himself for some former social skill he’d surely once had, the ability to be casual and teasing. “I don’t know—if it doesn’t go at least two thousand miles an hour, is it even worth getting out of bed for.”
“Okay, I see how it is,” said Sam, amused. “You drivers all alike, think you invented danger.” He studied Sheppard, openly, not hiding it, face speculative. “So…obviously not enlisted. I’m gonna say, Aluminum U.”
Like Patrick Sheppard would have let his son do something as gauche as attend the Air Force Academy. Even Stanford had been a laboriously achieved series of compromises, if “compromises” meant John ripping apart the acceptance letter, storming out of the house, seventeen and furious, and nearly wrapping his Ducati around a tree.
He laughed, a little shortly. “No. OTS at Maxwell, right after college.”
At this Sam visibly suppressed a double-take, but Sheppard had no idea why. “Where they have you now? Haven’t seen you around Ellington.”
John tried to look noncommittal but he knew he was a horrible liar. He’d qualified on so many fighters and run so many missions that his list of actual assignments looked like a flight map of several continents, but they were all…somewhat dated. He went with his last real posting, for some reason, rather than the fake one. “Just left McMurdo. Helos, mostly; transport.”
Sam let out a long whistle and John told himself grimly that at least it was true. It had just been…almost nine years. Shit, no. Ten years. He needed to change the subject. “So you’re still in?”
“Yeah, I’m in. Tried to leave, once, but probably gonna be in until I go down. You retire?”
John shook his head. “Con leave,” he said, and left it at that. Sam regarded him a little speculatively, and then he nodded.
“Guess that explains why I haven’t seen you on the flight line. You gonna be teaching?”
Sheppard took a long tilt off his beer. It had more bite than the Corona, which he realized was basically watery Bud Light and he couldn’t think why he’d ordered it. Or put a lime in it.
“Yeah, at some point I’ll be,” and he waved his hand to indicate: later, whenever, something, never, fuck it. Closed his eyes for a second and took another pull.
When he opened them Sam was watching his face as though he were in some way interesting. He seemed to be listening closely, even though John had stopped talking.
Sheppard felt himself flushing. This wasn’t—he wasn’t. He cleared his throat. “So what’s a PJ doing with a bunch of astronaut trainees anyway?”
Sam smiled, a slow easy thing and it settled something inside Sheppard. “Mostly hanging out underwater. They’re all jockeys, they literally can’t handle the pressure. Me, I spent what felt like most of my goddamn life in the Pool; I just swim laps around them while they panic. Shove their heads back down when they try to come up for air. Do CPR if they drown.”
Sheppard almost laughed, but bit it back. “They let you have any hours in a T-38?”
Sam sighed, and his eyes went a little out of focus as he stared dreamily at the bottles lined up behind the bar. “Yeah, been up a couple times—just the GIB, but so I know what my cones are up against. Those birds, man. They’re stupid little, but they can move, you know? Nimble.”
John nodded. It had been a couple decades, but you never forgot your first fighter. He could still feel it through his hands, the way the Talon handled: light, kind of squirrely, not that fast but able to accelerate at a thought. “Not called white rockets for nothing.”
It wasn’t a bad nickname, as fighter jets went. Worse than Viper; way better than gateship.
Sam pulled back his gaze from middle distance and turned to grin at Sheppard just as he took a drink, looking mischievous. “Hey, it’s not their fault they’re white. Yours either, probably.”
John coughed up some beer.
“Uh, yeah, I don’t know. That’s—maybe on me, somehow, too. I’m….” He didn’t know how to finish that sentence, or why he’d even started it. A disaster? A fuck-up? A murderer, his brain supplied unhelpfully, and he shut that down as fast as he thought it. “Uh, I guess not a team player,” he allowed stiffly, turning his bottle in his hands, having literally no idea what he was talking about.
(His team. He’d had a team, with the best people in the—he couldn’t finish that either. Jesus Christ.)
Sam kept looking at him steadily and something about his attentive regard, those clear deep brown eyes made Sheppard feel—what. He didn’t know what. Oh shit; he’d managed to forget completely, somehow: they were at Kinky Tuesdays. Did that mean, was Sam, what did he think was—
“Hey—whatever went down? I’m pretty sure you did your best.” Sam’s hand was on his wrist, warm, and John could feel the strength in his fingers, even resting lightly, just against the skin.
“Yeah, well, you weren’t there,” Sheppard began, more or less automatically, trying to remember why he should pull away.
“Didn’t have to be,” said Sam, gesturing with his other hand toward the bartender again. “I’ve seen enough shit. You got the limp. And the stare. Looks like it’s killing you to be grounded.”
Okay, yeah; no. Suddenly Sheppard had a sharp pain in his throat and his face felt hot. He fumbled for his wallet, dropped a ten. Stood up too fast and had to grip the edge of the bar. Sam let his hand fall away.
“It was—nice to meet you. I should get back.”
Back the fuck where—he wasn’t even on base; he was TDY, was on some ridiculous interminable fake secondment in an anonymous too-new apartment complex in fucking Pearland. But Sam didn’t push him, just held his gaze, looking thoughtful, and then nodded carefully, like John was something jumpy he didn’t want to startle. He also didn’t—didn’t lower his eyes or lick his lips or say anything suggestive, or any of the stuff John dimly remembered was part of the way things worked between people, back when he’d cared about it, wanted it. Back before.
Ears ringing, Sheppard somehow found his way out of the bar and out of the club, before things went completely blank. He didn’t lose time that often, anymore. Or not for very long. But when he came to, he was standing all the way down on Mason Street, out beside his beat-up dirty red Camaro, driver’s side door half open, hands digging into its top edge and forehead pressed uncomfortably against the metal ridge, an indefinable burning in his mouth and throat. He wondered what Sam’s last name was; his rank, his tours. Had he seen action in the same places Sheppard had? How had he wound up training astronaut candidates at Johnson? He said he’d flown—did he mean besides R2D2 on a Talon? Could someone even go from parajumper to ATEF, qualify on fighters?
Maybe; just because John didn’t know anyone who had, didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. He was living proof of that shit.
There was a long airless moment before he could get himself in the car, knees still unsteady, toss his cane into the passenger seat, and shift the automatic out of park. Jesus, what a broke-dick. He couldn’t drive stick, because of the clutch; and he apparently couldn’t maintain a normal social interaction for more than ten minutes; and he couldn’t fucking fly; and he couldn’t keep his team members from—
He was a walking AFI: Another Fucking Inconvenience. Sheppard didn’t understand why he was even still alive.