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Flyboys

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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.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Damn it all to hell: running with Steve Rogers had forever screwed up Sam’s sense of an appropriate distance per hour. As a normal human he’d been used to clocking in around an easy ten-minute mile; now Sam felt like if he wasn’t pushing eight minutes he was slacking.

He hated hill workouts, but they were crucial if he wanted to keep up his speed. Sam made a face, because Steve wasn’t there to see it, then upped the treadmill’s level of difficulty, concentrating on keeping his form while moving out a little faster. He preferred to run outside on the flat gravel Seabrook trails—they were part of why he’d rented the summer condo—but an early cold summer rain was spitting outside, and he didn’t feel like dealing with it until he had to make the drive into Houston to the VA hospital.

Even after he’d left DC, he hadn’t been able to stop himself from volunteering again, a couple evenings a week. The LCSWs at DeBakey were grateful to have another social worker on hand, even an unlicensed one, with just a BSW, and Sam thought it was good for him to keep leading groups. Kept him out of his head; kept him steady.

His phone buzzed, on the treadmill cradle, and despite himself he looked at it. Hill, so he didn’t answer. Steve, now, or more rarely Natasha when she bothered to call, they got an automatic pick-up, no matter how little he felt like talking. He lifted the hem of his t-shirt and wiped his face, sweating even in the air-conditioned gym. Htown wasn’t that different from DC, in the humidity department. The food was maybe worse, except for crawdad boils, and Shipley Do-Nuts; and the trainees were okay, but nothing was ever really going to compare to the solid gut-clenching thrill of an EXO.

Back on the flat again, he caught his breath and thought about the guy at the club on Tuesday. Wary, cautious; your average wounded bird—he’d been trying so hard to hold his cards close to his chest, too. Probably would’ve killed him to know how easy Sam had found him to read. Definitely punched out, which would explain the limp; definitely lost someone, probably during some furball of a knife fight—a wingman, hell, maybe his whole squadron—which would explain the stare. Afghanistan, Iraq; maybe OIR? Something experimental, probably.

But why still on leave? Even if he couldn’t fly, he could be at weapons school. And why the hell McMurdo—which sounded like deliberate punishment, like an Article 15. It occurred to Sam he could ask Nat or Tony, but he pushed that thought away and concentrated on the next hill, trying to bounce off his midsoles, moving his upper arms and elbows economically, breathing in fours.

Something about the guy, though; something off. Military posture, but his hair was…putting it politely, a disaster: long on top, spiky and floppy and dark on its way to steel gray, nothing regulation about it. Either some kind of dirtbag airman, or maybe that con leave taking its toll. He’d seemed a little more unhinged than most of the recently discharged Sam worked with, maybe, if not by much. Sam saw vets like him every week, looking like if they didn’t talk they were going to fly apart into pieces, but also terrified by what might come out if they opened their mouths. He felt a little bad—he’d probably pushed him too hard. But sometimes these guys needed the shove.

Sam had noticed him right away but wasn’t going to approach him; Sheppard had been leaning self-consciously against one of the tall circular tables, sleeves rolled up, forearms crossed, looking defiant, like he was expecting to be dressed down. Was he even kinky or just there for the two-dollar beer? He definitely wasn’t straight, but maybe he didn’t know that. He’d gone pliant under Sam’s hands when Sam had moved him off the dance floor; his jaw set but there was something about the way he held his mouth, the careful shape of it, an unexpected softness in his eyes. Sam hadn’t been able to tell what color they were, in the dark of the club, but light-colored, maybe they were gray too—

He shook his head. “Can it, Wilson,” he muttered under his breath, and inhaled deeply before one last sprint. Not here to get messed up with yet another messed-up white guy. He’d learned his lesson. Not here to think about the goddamn color of some closeted asshole officer’s goddamn eyes.

(Steve’s: unsettlingly, unnaturally blue. Riley’s: rich brown, the same color as his own. Fuck.)

It all begged the question of what he was here for, though, and that was a little dicier. Sam wiped his face with his t-shirt again, and slowed the treadmill’s pace for a cool-down. He needed to text Sarah back about dinner with her in the kids, now that there was a Sarah.

Because, of all the things he hadn’t expected in the aftermath of the helicarriers, with Rogers still in the hospital, he definitely wouldn’t have anticipated a voicemail from someone claiming to be his half-sister. His parents had been dead for so many years he’d just gotten used to thinking of himself as without family; and when Sarah and he started chatting over Skype, it turned out they had more in common than Sam would’ve guessed, not just a dad with a wandering eye. Genetics, maybe. Or some particularly Wilson brand of gutsiness, crossed with a predictably unerring instinct for finding trouble.

Because Sarah served, too: Texas National Guard, and was also enrolled full-time in the University of Houston School for Social Work. She had the wide, easy Wilson smile and a nose piercing with a gold hoop, a thick cloud of tiny braids all over her head, and a habit of standing with one hand on her hip while dispensing a level of snark that made Sam have to fight back a grin. And when she invited him to come down to visit, “just, you know, clear out of that place, Sam—get that whole superhero nonsense off your shoulders for a while,” Sam found himself giving his notice at the VA and subletting his apartment till September, while splitting his phone time between Stark and Johnson Space Center, as the former finagled him a temporary instructor posting at the latter, just through the summer, until he’d made up his mind whether to go back in the USAF or stay in DC for Cap. But he wanted to get to know Sarah, and the kids, since they were his only surviving family members. Sam made a face and wiped more sweat off his face with the hand towel, nudging up the already steep angle of the hill he was running.

And of course he’d misdirected Sheppard, more than a little; he wasn’t just training astronaut candidates to stay reasonably calm while fumbling with equipment under forty feet of water, but currently flight-testing the next generation of EXO versions—now bankrolled by Stark and designed by someone he’d never met named Shuri, who’d together kicked in a slew of new designs for what they called ecstatically in the emails, “living vibranium.” (Sam tried not to think about the living part too much, just focused on the schematics and feeling out how the prototypes flew: maneuverability, recovery from whatever abuse he could inflict on them, like too-steep dives and displacement rolls and, best of all, wingovers. No Fear of Death, alright. He had a six-figure life insurance policy with Sarah and the kids named as his beneficiaries.)

Steve had been so floored by Sam’s announcement that he’d not only stammered but cursed. Sam had actually felt kind of proud of him.

“I don’t get it, Sam. We all thought you would be sticking around. We’re down by two, with Bruce and Thor out, and I thought, after what happened—we need you. Tony needs you. Shit, I need you.”

He’d shaken his head, sifting through the piles of mail that had accumulated during Steve’s hospital stay, trying to relegate bills to some kind of order in an accordion file. “I know, man, and I would, I really would. But you’ve got Bucky. And I’m good to fly, for the first time in a really long time. I got you and Natasha to thank for that, for getting me back in the air. And now I need this. At least,” he amended, “For now. Just to be sure I’m really doing it, if I get back in the mix with you.”

Steve had deployed the eyes then, huge wounded pools of blue, and Sam figured he wasn’t doing it on purpose but still had to fight not to look at him, frowning exaggeratedly instead at a copy of his new motorcycle inspection before filing it under K for Kawasaki. The Z-1000 was a bit of a crotch rocket, sure; but when Stark had offered a one-off paycheck “for services rendered,” Sam wasn’t about to say no, especially since it now meant he had a hotter bike than Steve’s preposterous Harley.

“Bucky’s not the only one I care about,” Steve had finally said. “I can care about more than one person.” Like Sam didn’t know this. Like Sam didn’t see the way Steve and Natasha could communicate silently without even looking at each other, like he didn’t make Steve dinner and all but wrap him in blankets and pet his hair every time he crawled back from seeing Peggy in the goddamn nursing home.

Sam gave up at that point. He dropped the stack of mail on the table and looked back at Steve, resigned. Stupidly pretty as usual, Rogers was also totally unconscious about the effect he had on other people, his white t-shirt practically painted onto his ridiculous flawless body. And that was it, or part of it—Steve didn’t know the effect he had, needed him purely as a friend, and Sam got that, he did, and that was fine. It was great. But he knew exactly how Bucky fit into the picture, now. He’d seen the same look on Steve’s face that he was pretty sure he’d once had on his own whenever he turned to watch Riley touch down behind him, exowings shimmering, everything slightly unreal in the heat and light of the Registan. Like something blurry and distant as a desert had suddenly come into sharp, riveting focus.

Because now, for Steve, there was Bucky again. Because just as they were preparing to mount a full-scale manhunt across Eastern Europe for a brainwashed Barnes, Bucky had turned up at Steve’s apartment door in Brooklyn around sunset, the evening before they were supposed to ship out. He’d been a little unshaven and a lot confused, speaking mostly Russian and trying to tell Steve and Natasha something urgent about the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Nat sat up with him most of the night, and by morning Bucky has mostly stopped shaking, and started trying to eat one of the muffins Sam had brought over from Amy’s, though he could mostly only sip at the coffee.

When Bucky was in the room, he was the only thing Steve could see. Sam knew what that was like.

“No one’s saying you don’t, Cap,” he finally replied, using the nickname deliberately. “We’re always gonna be tight and if shit goes sideways, you call me first. You know that’s how it is. Bucky decides to, I don’t know, go full-tilt on HYDRA, or you and Natasha have to go on the lam, you can hide out in my bathroom, use my hair products.” Steve laughed, unhappily. “It’s Houston, not Asgard. I can fly back in a couple hours. But this is about family, okay? Don’t act like you don’t get that. It’s just for the summer, just for right now, but I’m doing something I have to do.”

And it’s finally not because of Riley, he thought. But Steve hadn’t ever asked much about that, and Sam didn’t volunteer. Plus how do you explain, to Captain freaking America of all people, your pre-DADT-repeal kinky interracial gay relationship with someone almost ten years your junior? Steve knew about the part where Riley’d been shot down, and about the part where Sam couldn’t stand the thought of going up without him; but even Sam wasn’t ready to share the rest. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

He kicked off his running shorts, stripped off the soaked t-shirt and stood in one of the gym’s slate-tiled shower stalls, letting the water pound down on the top of his head, eyes closed, wondering what he really was doing here. Spending time with Sarah and the kids; that was good. Flying again, without anything in hot pursuit trying to kill him—that was good, too. Threading the Kawasaki illegally through the parking-lot standstill traffic of I-45; standing on the Kemah boardwalk watching as brown pelicans skimmed the tops of waves; sitting in a circle of punchy over-caffeinated vets as one of them started to tell their story for maybe the very first time, halting and brave.

He still kept Riley’s picture; it was underneath clothes in a drawer now, not framed by the side of the bed, but also not hidden in a classified file folder. And he’d just started, just started to think that maybe, as freaky as it was, he could have that or something like it with another person, could find someone else willing to go there with him—

He opened his eyes, looking down at his own wet chest and stomach, and frowned a little. Hanging out with Steven Grant Rogers did no one any favors in the self-esteem department, but Sam didn’t skip ab days, and he figured he could still hold his own. He felt his hipbones with both hands, and then a little lower, letting his head fall back and sighing into the touch, water pulsing down against his throat. The Sheppard guy had tanned forearms, except for a wide pale strip of skin around one wrist, like he’d worn a watch there; only the watch was still there, on his other hand.

Might as well try Tuesday again, next week. See who was there. Didn’t hurt just to see.

 

 

Chapter Text

John approached his email most days with something not unlike pure metallic-taste-in-the-mouth adrenaline, which turned out to mean that most days he didn’t approach it at all. He’d stuck an auto-reply on both his SGC and USAF accounts, and hadn’t had a personal email address for a decade. Somehow this didn’t stop people from contacting him repeatedly, despite the fact that he never wrote any of them back. Not even Beckett. Certainly not Woolsey, or Carter. Jeannie hadn't been in touch, of course, and neither would Keller. He hadn’t even bothered to tell Dave or Nancy he was earthside; didn’t want to deal with condolences from anyone who wasn’t Lantean, who hadn’t been there, who didn’t already know.

Zelenka’s, though—those were the only emails he opened and read. Radek usually included pictures of Teyla or Ronon or the kids, and sometimes stories about them or the city. Sheppard usually had to get drunk to open the attachments, and the jpgs were blurred, but it was mostly worth it.

He missed running, on those days. He missed running most days. The VA hospital had him doing physio and working an arm bike; and he put in dutiful laps in the apartment complex’s pool, even when it was raining. But it wasn’t the same. Swimming was slow. John was slow, now, and it maybe wouldn’t have hurt so much if he didn’t have such vivid, visceral memories of being swift and deft. He still felt it, that speed, feet gripping his surfboard charging a swell on the mainland; he could feel it when he went booming through the needle’s eye of a gate without even trying, whole body at the speed of warp heat, shifting his weight involuntarily in sync with the stick like he was in an F-302 instead of a blocky jumper that didn’t need hip movement to pick up on his desired trajectory.

A few hours ago, though, Radek had sent a longer message, this time clearly expecting a reply. The subject line was terse; his English still got more formal when he was annoyed, apparently.

From: Radek Zelenka <zelenkaradecek@atlantis.sgc.gov>
To: Col. John Sheppard <jumper1@atlantis.sgc.gov>
Date: 1 July 2014, 17:03 PGT
Subject: John, this is enough.

I do not wish to disturb your convalescence, but now we have not heard from you almost for the whole two months since you arrived back on the planet, and Teyla asks weekly on her supply trips what you have written me. (Ronon has said nothing but he just looks, you know how.) I know this must be very difficult for you, believe me I know. But if you send only a few words I can at least tell them and we would understand.

Everything else here is fine. I work on the ZP3Ms with new equations. We have plenty of power and very few away teams anymore, mostly everyone comes here to trade now that they are not afraid of the culling. In short it is much as you left us. Ronon shows the children over and over the two cartoon movies you sent, that have the brave girls in them, both the Scottish movie and the Scandinavian one, and to be honest I think he now knows all the songs himself. Also Teyla sends this picture and says thank you again for your room that they use when they stop over. Torren has been trying to teach Chuck’s daughter how to play football. I will read to them anything you write us.

Radek’s emails always stopped abruptly, often in mid-thought, and in fact this one was more completed than most. Sheppard took a deep breath and opened the attachment. It was a picture of Teyla outside, presumably taken by Kanaan, with the littlest one wrapped up against her chest, standing in front of a wooden fence covered with some kind of fruiting vine climbing up it. Her hair was pulled back and there was a smudge of dirt on her forehead, but she was smiling and radiant and John immediately had to click on one corner to close it.

That still didn’t feel like enough of a gesture, so he slammed the laptop shut, which was more gratifying but also not quite satisfactory. He needed to move—tried to stand, reaching for the cane that he’d left by the front door and suddenly, blind with anger, could taste blood in his mouth—

A moment later he stood leaning on the granite fake fireplace of his apartment, looking down at the computer’s smashed halves; he’d apparently thrown it. One half still had a silvery-white Atlantis logo but it was peeling off, he noted distantly. The thing reminded him of Rodney and he wondered why he hadn’t destroyed it sooner.

“That would be, let me guess—right, because you miss me, you unmitigated idiot,” said McKay, and John stood motionless, rooted to the spot, a cold sweat gathering at the back of his neck, because this needed to stop happening and it had been almost a week, no, over a week, and he had thought he was finished. Like when you had the stomach flu, and went longer and longer between throwing up, and felt like you were better until you got incautious and drank too much water too fast.

He bent stiffly at the waist to try to collect the laptop pieces, immediately bashing his knee into the corner of the coffee table. The apartment had come furnished, and badly at that, all the angles and corners of it wrong—not accommodating, nothing fitting itself around his goddamn genetic code. Hopping to keep his balance, he grabbed for the bottom part of the laptop, which somehow slid just out of his reach. Sheppard straightened up and viciously kicked both halves under the sofa.

“Oh, that’s just excellent. Very mature. You know your PT might be going better if you’d stop chucking objects around like a caged primate, and honestly though you were always kind of a big inarticulate lugnut, this is petulant and prepubescent even for you. It’s not bad enough that you left Atlantis to fend for herself and now you’re in Texas, which, I don’t even know where to start with that horror, so I’ll confine my observations to noting that you’re avoiding your friends, pushing away the very people who might be able to help you, and more or less basting your internal organs in ethanol, which is an especially suspect choice of coping methods because you’re the cheapest date I ever met.”

Rodney was right, of course; Sheppard was usually flushed and slack-jawed by the third beer, more or less. Although he’d been using that to his advantage lately.

There was a long silence and John fervently hoped that was it, that it was done for now. He turned away, pulse hammering in his ears, and stood pretending to look out the glass doors at the patio, which was entirely paved over with cement and had nothing in it except a beer can holding his cigarette butts.

“Also since when has trying to ignore me ever worked in the entire time you’ve known me—it’s like going earthside has somehow reformatted your hard drive, and frankly I’m more than a little wounded that my actual personality has apparently been this easy to forget,” Rodney went on, and the familiar peevishness of it made John’s chest hurt a little.

I was never able to ignore you, John thought. He didn’t have to say it aloud. I can’t forget anything.

McKay was silent for a moment in that way that meant he was actually thinking. Sheppard used to feel a small thrill of triumph, which he was of course far too cool to show, whenever he’d actually made Rodney stop talking and have to think.

“Look, Colonel,” McKay began again, in that peremptory way John had once found intensely irritating. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, especially given that my chances of having you actually listen to me are significantly worse than usual. I’m only telling you that what you are doing isn’t working.”

That’s because nothing works, John wanted to say, but he was too tired to argue. Nothing works, you died and it’s my fault and and wherever I go you aren’t there and it’s not Atlantis and nothing works, nothing works, nothing works.

“Oh for god’s sake, stop being so melodramatic,” snapped Rodney. “It’s one of the things about you I love least.”

Fantastic. Not only was his dead best friend still talking to him but now he was making posthumous love confessions. John leaned his head against the cool glass of the sliding doors and figured he was going to have to tell his caseworker about this, which probably meant some kind of horrifying weekly therapy appointment during which he would be expected to talk about his feelings, and retell the story of what happened, in all its ghastly detail. And then, more likely than not, he’d be prescribed a nauseating cocktail, an assortment of drugs which would make him wade through consciousness as if it were mud, while somehow also ensuring he’d never sleep again.

Okay, so he couldn’t sleep anyway. But on medication he also wouldn’t be able to drink.

“True, Brando, but you might not need to drink if you were properly medicated,” Rodney remarked tartly. Sheppard huffed, rolling his forehead back and forth against the glass, feeling insane.

What if he tried talking back to the voice? Would it go away? Or would he just be indulging it, making it worse? “Rodney,” he said carefully, “I told you, we’re done having this conversation.”

“Not even close!” McKay said, with that note of triumph that John knew too well, from Rodney getting you right where he wanted you. The weirdest thing was not being able to tell what direction the voice was coming from. “And by the way, yes, talking back to me means you’re even more in need of qualified mental health assistance than I thought.”

Sheppard swallowed, then closed his eyes. “Come on—what if this happened to you, McKay. You wouldn’t go to therapy. You wouldn’t have feelings. You’d die before you’d take anything that…” might interfere with your mind, he was going to say, before he remembered that McKay had died. It had been almost six months, John wasn’t even in Pegasus anymore, why was it so hard to remember.

“Because we didn’t finish our story,” McKay said, as calmly as if he weren’t being unbearable.

This was—no one should have to put up with this. John felt around in his back pocket for the pack of Marlboros, then slid open the screen door and stepped outside. It was starting to rain a little so he stayed under the eaves, cupping his hand around the match until the end had lit. He took a drag, then a longer one, exhaling and flicking a bit of tobacco off the end of his tongue.

“You know what? Fuck you, Rodney. If you’re going to haunt me at least stay in character. Don’t get romantic all of a sudden.”

“That’s exactly why dead people haunt the living, and you know it. We weren’t finished.”

We were as finished as we were ever going to be, John thought, flashing back to the alien-flowered chuppah in the mess hall, the day McKay and Keller had gotten married, almost two years after they’d flown Atlantis back to the Pegasus galaxy. Teyla had helped make Jennifer’s dress; it was some mysterious shiny Athosian fabric that was green when you looked at it one way, gold from another angle, and she was beautiful in it, pink-cheeked and laughing tearfully. Rodney had been so nervous he’d hyperventilated in the lift and Ronon almost had to carry him the rest of the way. John hadn’t lost the ring. It was 2013 and Sheppard had had almost three whole years during which he could have asked, and he could have told; but he wanted Rodney to be happy, and he wanted them all to stay together, and never talking about any of it had seemed so clearly the only way to have those things that he barely even registered the thought, just leaned into it like some kind of foregone conclusion.

“And yet you, who routinely bill yourself as semi-intelligent, apparently never once thought I might have wanted something different,” Rodney said wonderingly, and John flinched. He stubbed the cigarette out against the side of the building, only half finished, and stuck it back into the pack.

“I mean it, McKay. I’m done talking to you today.” He sharpened his voice, made it a little mean. “Honestly I almost prefer you dead to this.”

If Rodney had been there he would have lifted his hands and taken a placating step backward, looking nervous. “Fine. Suit yourself. Enjoy your misery. I’m just saying.”

Sheppard slid the door closed again and started looking for his keys; he was going to be late for PT. “Yeah, and that’s the fucking problem. You were always just saying. You were talking right up until the last goddamned—”

The living room went noticeably drafty and silent. Sheppard looked around at the textured yellowish walls, curious. He waited. Still nothing.

And now he would have to drive to the hospital, where he would check in at the clinic, do leg presses and stretch giant rubber bands until he was shaky and exhausted, agree with some cheerful, repellently in-shape physical therapist that he was definitely getting better, grit his teeth through stim and hydrotherapy, promise to do exercises at home that he was never going to do, and then drive back again and pretend to eat something that went straight from freezer to microwave, and pretend to watch something that he wouldn’t even be able to remember later, and then maybe worst of all pretend to sleep, lying in the darkness as the pale greenish-grey luminous numbers on his wristwatch ticked past, slow hour after hour after hour, and then somewhere around dawn fall asleep for brief fitful snatches, if you could call it sleep, waking sometime before noon, if you could call it waking, usually coming to consciousness crawling off the foot of the bed clawing at the air trying to reach him, grab at him, pull him back, McKay, no, wait, I’ve got you, fuck, Rodney no don’t no please no—

He figured he’d more or less completely lost his mind.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

If Sam dressed a little more carefully this Tuesday, no one needed to know that but him.

He skipped the usual lowkey Dolce & Gabbana tee in favor of a Thomas Pink button-up dress shirt, and stood at the mirror threading a necktie, the one Sarah had given him, through the collar. It was a dark charcoal silk, embossed with diamond shapes, and he thought it looked okay with the pale dove-gray shirt, although—he bit his lip and redid the knot. It was probably too much, but why not. He could watch the suspensions, have his beer, be in bed with True Detective before midnight. He wasn’t even on the roster until Thursday at 0600.

He looked in the mirror a second longer, then snapped off the bathroom light on his way out. Sarah had excellent taste, for which he was grateful—and also grateful, in a strange way, that she hadn’t gotten in touch with him before now. He wasn’t sure how he would have handled, as a kid, the news of Paul’s infidelity, of his having, in another state, a daughter only a little younger than Sam himself.

As it was he’d taken off for basic and then pararescue training fueled by mostly moody orphan loneliness, the desire to be part of something larger than himself, any feeling of family or sense of belonging. And then met Riley at parafoil school, the two of them bonding right away over the dizzy exultation of being dropped, and then opening the sail and catching wind rather than ground.

Sarah sort of reminded him of Riley, sometimes, or he found himself wanting to tell her about him, and this was off-center and unnerving. Because he couldn’t talk about Riley Huel Aucoin—that sly narrow-hipped Southern boy from Lake Charles, Louisiana by way of Hope, Arkansas, skinny kid who’d enlisted to get out of his homophobic hometown and wound up in flight school when it turned out that literally nothing made him puke or pass out; Riley, who attributed this to his yokel cousins performing various acts of cruelty on him, including putting him in a 50-gallon oil drum and rolling him around the pasture. That Riley, the one with the teasing smile and slow wink and a walk that almost but not quite got him in trouble with the XO, and his trick of catching Sam off-guard with an under-the-breath barb or a catty but completely accurate aside—because that Riley had to be his secret, still, after all these years. Because Riley had asked him to promise, and he’d promised.

All that was left of Riley now were the few things Sam had looked at too often, until they’d lost their meaning, until they weren’t infused with him anymore and had become only emptied objects. A few postcards covered in Riley’s cramped cursive, him trying to fit everything onto too small a space; and one letter that Sam never read in full because it was from before they were together and was mostly Riley retelling the plot of a movie. His one photograph of them together, the day they’d first successfully tested the EXO-5. A few things he’d bought Riley to wear when they were off-base: mostly t-shirts, except for a pair of silk boxers and a purple flannel shirt that was (sort of) a joke. Things he’d handled so much they’d never even had the chance to smell like him. It was the smell Sam still missed most, keenly sometimes, or the taste of his skin. The side of his neck, all sweet salt-spray, where Sam would lick and bite when Riley trembled in his arms, head thrown back, hands clutching at Sam for dear life.

Riley’s medals had gone to his mother, whom Sam had never met (“oh my god no, the last thing I’d ever ask you to do is breathe the same air as my white-trash racist-ass family, we’d have to flee for our lives and then probably be followed by the sound of banjos for weeks”)—and so had the canister of ashes, whatever was left of Riley himself. Which hadn’t been a lot, between the RPG and the cremation. Pretty much just twisted dog tags and grief.

Sam had kept his rope, portioned neatly by color and diameter and wrapped into precise hanks, soft and pliable. He took it out from time to time just to handle it, which calmed him, to work it back and forth and keep it flexible. The cuffs and collar he’d destroyed, quietly, privately one night; those were Riley’s, and thus his, because Riley had belonged to him, and so no one else should ever be allowed to touch them. He didn’t remember where the rest of their things had gone—the gags, a blindfold, a few toys for sensation play—but in the same duffle with the rope he’d kept one of the floggers, his favorite, a handcrafted, woven-handled one, with buttery-soft deer suede fringe. The tails hissed as they sang through the air, and Sam appreciated drawing noises out of it almost as much as out of his sub.

Out of…one of his subs? That didn’t sound right. Probably wasn’t ever going to. Not like he could exactly make a profile on FetLife, anyway. Username: The_Falcon. Internationally notorious semi-Avenger, quasi-criminal, classified test pilot and experienced top seeks someone who won’t be completely freaked out by all that for mostly monogamous, mostly long-term situation. Me: devilishly good-looking, laid-back style, and able to wind your hair in my fist and dom the shit out of you. You: male, preferably pretty limber or at least not averse to being put where I want you and left tied up there while I do terrible things to you (that you’ll love). No racists, homophobes, libertarians, Reddit atheists, vegans, MRAs, closet cases, starfuckers or people who are rude to wait staff.

(On the other hand, how hilarious would it be to find one of the New York crew on FetLife. Sam considered each of them in turn, discarding Tony and Natasha as too obvious, Steve as too oblivious, and finally deciding it’s always the one you least expect: probably Clint.)

He found himself sitting on the edge of his bed, fully dressed with his wallet in his hands; one last piece of Riley. Sam flipped open the billfold and pulled out the creased half-piece of paper on which they’d hastily handwritten their first contract, thrown together in a motel room one leave in Fayetteville. They’d mostly just been making out, Sam still left breathless by the feeling of Riley’s skin under his hands, when Riley had pulled out a roll of silver duct tape and looked up at Sam through the fringe of his lashes, and Sam felt his heart stop beating in his chest. After that things had moved fast, but not too fast, and by the end of their three-days-and-a-wakeup, Riley had tiny feathery purple-red bruises around his wrists and ankles and a blissed-out expression that Sam couldn’t bring himself to tease him about, mostly because he suspected he might be wearing the same one. There had been a full-length mirror on the wall opposite the motel bed, and Sam would take to his grave the memory of holding Riley upright and naked in his lap, pulsing around him, Riley’s wrists and mouth taped, Sam’s hands lightly around his throat, tears standing in his eyes, commanding look at yourself, look how beautiful you are like this.

He hesitated a moment, holding the paper loosely, then crossed the room to open a drawer and place the contract carefully under the photo of them at Nellis. He could keep it without dragging it everywhere; he didn’t need to haul around a piece of writing to know who he was. Sarah would probably say this had to do with improved object permanence but for once Sam didn’t care about the psychological theory. He just knew that after meeting Steve, after finding out he could still want things, still feel things, he no longer needed the physical tangible reminder of his identity.

He pulled on his motorcycle jacket for the ride into Montrose, thinking for the millionth time that in a way, he was lucky his dad hadn’t been around. Having an unbeliever for a son would have been the least of it. Having a flagrantly gay, routinely-risks-life-and-limb son would have probably broken up the damn family; though in the end random urban violence had done a pretty good job of that.

Outside Sam hesitated for a second—if he drove the bike, he couldn’t bring anyone home. He laughed at himself a little and buckled on his helmet. He wasn’t going to bring anyone home.

When he got to Numbers, the DJ was playing the Smiths but no one was dancing yet. Jasper was already on stage, though, in his usual silver-studded chaps and leather arm bracers, with some fully-dressed newbie clinging to the big St. Andrew’s cross, and she was yelping with every (extremely careful and utterly non-injurious) crack of the bullwhip. Sam caught a grim expression on Jasper’s face and thought he’d leave that scene to its hasty conclusion.

He wandered over to the main bar, asked the new bartender for a bottle of water, and while she was making change, turned back to case the room. Which is how he caught Sheppard stalking in, radiating aggravation and already trying to pull off the wristband they put on at the door, signifying that you were old enough to drink. His dark hair was, if possible, even more dishevelled, and he wore a white shirt open at the collar and a black jacket, no tie. Despite his height he seemed oddly fragile, not just slender but a little lost or in need of assistance, and Sam found himself taking an extra breath.

Sheppard had paused just inside the door and leaned his cane against the wall, tugging at the wristband with increasing frustration, apparently trying to rip it off with the force of his irritation, which Sam knew couldn’t be done. He left the bar, crossed over to Sheppard and held out his hand.

“Here—let me.” Sheppard hesitated, then extended his hand. Sam slid up the cuff of his shirt enough to see the narrow papery band, and then he pulled his Swiss army knife out of his pocket, flicked it open and cut through the thing. Sheppard’s wrist was startlingly fine-boned, almost delicate, with thick black hair, and Sam could feel his pulse; and something started going off in his head, some kind of shrieking claxon he ignored, as Sheppard stood completely motionless and let him pull off the bracelet.

“Tyvek,” he explained, letting go of Sheppard’s hand and holding the bracelet out to him. “It’s some space-age plastic fiber, you can’t tear it. Unless you’re—” Steve Rogers, he’d almost said.

Sheppard reached back for his cane before accepting the bracelet and stuffing it in one pocket. The white shirt open at the collar did really good things for him. “I don’t go to a lot of clubs.”

Sam tried not to laugh. “That’s kind of…um. Yeah. Sorry. At least tonight we’re both overdressed,” he added randomly, as a pair of girls in leather bras and rubber shorts walked past them.

Sam could have sworn Sheppard had almost smiled, but his eyes remained expressionless.

“Looks like you’re not drinking, then,” Sam observed, when Sheppard said nothing.

“I can’t,” Sheppard began, and then stopped.

Maybe Sheppard was drying out. He wouldn’t be the first vet Sam had met who needed to sober up. (He worried about Tony, sometimes, honestly.) Sam held up his own bottle of water, indicating acceptance. “Hey, I get it, it’s fine.”

Sheppard shook his head like he needed to get the next part out, and said it all in a rush. “No, just—you’re not supposed to drink when you scene.”

Sam felt his eyebrows climb all the way to Chicago. “You’re planning to scene?”

Sheppard shrugged and began making his way past the dance floor. “It’s not a sports bar.”

Sheppard had already leaned over the cash bar to order by the time Sam caught up to him. Sam rested one foot on the railing as Sheppard ordered, zoning out a little, watching Obama on the wall television, where the subtitles said something about ISIS rebranding itself as the Islamic State; he knew they were moving in troops for something big. The other half of his brain was imagining Sheppard stripped to the waist so Jasper could work him over with his masterful two-handed cyclic Florentine flogging style until his back was gleaming with sweat and striped with welts. Sam shook his head a little, took a gulp from his bottle of water. Alternatively: why wasn’t he already negotiating to get Sheppard on the back of his bike so he could take him home and strip him down himself?

Instead he heard himself saying, to his surprise, “First name or last?”

This time Sheppard did quirk a half-smile, leaning back from the bar with his own bottle of water. “Well, I sort of assumed Sam was a first name....” He had a drawl, dammit.

Sam laughed, startled. “Yeah, you’re right. Sam Wilson.” And now would come the puzzled expression, the searching eyes as someone invariably tried to remember where they’d heard that name.

Sheppard didn’t register anything, though. He just stuck out a hand. “Colonel John Sheppard.”

Sam took his hand for the second time that night and felt vaguely woozy, like he’d been putting back shots. “And me a lowly sergeant. Still not saluting.”

“Spare me,” said Sheppard, and there was that drawl again. “Like we don’t both know NCOs who can outwork, outshoot, and outfly any given number of canaries. Off the record, of course.”

He held out his water bottle and Sam tapped his own against it. “Absolutely off the record.” This whole damn thing had better be nowhere near the record.

There was a pause but it wasn’t uncomfortable. They turned without comment away from the television, where some talking head from Defense was explaining the new threat, both stepping back from the bar and facing the stage. Jasper had finished with the yelping woman and now Viola, in a deep plum vinyl dress that almost matched her skin, was leading an uneasy-looking frat boy to the cross. He was wearing pleated khakis and a pink polo shirt.

“That…that can’t be right,” Sheppard said, frowning, and Sam coughed through his water.

“There’s nothing right about it,” he admitted. “But Viola doesn’t really care. She likes vanilla straight white boys and she doesn’t hide it.” He’d seen real submissives trailing around after her, trying to get her attention, only to be heartbroken when she selected some douchebro with a popped collar.

Sheppard narrowed his eyes but said nothing. Sam twisted a little and pointed overhead with his water bottle. “Have you been upstairs? There’s…a smaller cross. It’s quieter.” Suddenly there was too much saliva in his mouth. Since when was he so pushy at Numbers? With a career officer?

Sheppard took a drink, throat working as he swallowed. He looked down at the floor and there was that expression again: a little soft, something painful around the corners of his eyes. Sam studied his face and it wasn’t hard to witness the entire cycle, as watchful blankness shifted through real fear to a flicker of longing and then ended with some kind of angry resolve. Sam was good at faces, good at reading them, attuning to the feelings of submissives the same way he did clients at the VA. And this guy—John Sheppard—he wasn’t in the right place to do this.

Jasper probably wouldn’t have cared; the wiry Latino dude who hung out upstairs, with the thuddy flogger and his inability to keep from wrapping the tips, maybe he wouldn’t have cared either.

Sam suddenly cared. And it was probably a really bad idea, but he wasn’t going to let this guy use kink as another way to hurt himself, or tear himself up over whatever the hell had gone wrong. He leaned toward Sheppard a little more closely and spoke with no sense of what he was about to say.

“If you want, I could demo with you. Just give you a idea of it, what it’s like. Up to you.”

Sheppard finished his water and put the bottle down on the bar before looking directly at Sam.

Green, then. His eyes were green. John didn’t speak, but nodded once, shortly. And Sam felt that old familiar upwelling, the strength of it surging, a siren song: take, take, take; protect, protect, protect.

He walked upstairs behind John, telling himself not to stare. It wasn’t—look, no mortal ass was ever going to compare to Steve’s bounce-a-quarter situation. But Sam had no complaints about what he saw, or the long legs in dark slacks, the way Sheppard’s narrow shoulders moved under his jacket.

In the little alcove, recessed lights shone down a dim cold blue on the black-carpeted floor and walls. A long carpet-covered bench ran along one side, where tired players rested and spectators spectated. Sam needed to learn the name of the Latino guy but he mistrusted him, so he never had. Dude was taking a break and vending, pointing out to a radiant, clearly just-whipped young black woman in white bra and underwear, holding hands with her boyfriend, what toys they might be interested in purchasing for themselves. Sam made eye contact with him and, with a questioning tip of his head, indicated the saltire cross. The guy nodded without breaking his schpiel and Sam turned to Sheppard to say they could either wait for another break a little bit later, or maybe talk about what—

John was already halfway out of his shirt, jacket and cane tossed off to one side, dark chest hair visible.

“Whoa there, just—wait,” Sam said, putting out his palm, not touching him, and Sheppard froze, hands on buttons. Sweet fancy Moses, was he really about to flog a full-bird colonel. Okay, yes, sort of. But. First.

(What was it about this guy, he was middle-aged and ordinary, he shouldn’t be beautiful, but there was something about his mouth, his wrists, the curve of his throat, the dip of it into his chest, the rumpled hair, the—)

“Come here a second,” Sam said. John took an uncertain step forward, then another, like he thought Sam was going to try to kiss him; and Sam made a face, impatient with himself. “No, not like—over here.” He hadn’t even intended to touch him, but there was something blind and anarchic on Sheppard’s face and it reminded Sam of a throttle-jockey about to launch unprepared into a senseless maneuver, hoping instinct and jet propulsion would maybe save him. He put both hands on Sheppard’s shoulders, and just kind of held them there, steady, until he felt him take a breath.

“We go through a checklist, okay? Do a walkaround.” John nodded, lower lip between his teeth, cheeks flushed. Sam’s stomach lurched but he kept his voice low, to cut under the music and chatter. “First, it’s hard to safeword, because of the noise, and you’re facing away from me. So if for whatever reason—and I mean any reason—you need to get my attention, put up your hand. It’s not about tapping out, or trying to gut it out to prove something. Stuff comes up, people take breaks. That’s how it works. Got it?”

Sheppard nodded and Sam tightened his hands briefly on John’s shoulders, and then let go. “Second, it’s not your fault, you don’t know this yet, but I need clear verbal. Yes or no.”

John arched an eyebrow at him and there was that younger, more asshole version of him again, the classless one with the drawl. “Copy that.”

Sam bit back a laugh. Even tormented and miserable, dude could clapback. “Three, and there’s more but we’re keeping it simple: this isn’t impact, this isn’t pain. Not tonight. This is about sensation. See what it feels like giving up a little. Not controlling everything, letting go of it for just a few minutes.” John looked away at this, an involuntary flinch that he checked halfway through, as if to hide it, but Sam saw. He deliberately reached out, touched the side of Sheppard’s face, turned it back toward him. “Just a demo, not a scene. Nothing heavy.”

Sheppard met his eyes then, and there was something so stripped-down and undisguised in his face that Sam was shocked by how badly he suddenly wanted. Wanted exactly what he’d just said he wasn’t asking for; wanted to spend hours pulling this man apart into disparate unravelled nerve endings, until John was hoarse and exhausted and couldn’t cling to decorum in protection anymore and just gave it all up, everything, whatever it was, let Sam have it in a drowning wave of surrender.

Sam forgot there were other people there; stopped hearing the music. John stripped off his shirt the rest of the way, let it fall to the floor. His chest was pale, sunburn stopping at his neck. He stepped up to the cross, hands uncertain, and Sam moved forward to show him where he could hold on, behind it. The muscles of his back were long and fluid and down his right side, starting at the base of one shoulder blade and curving low around his ribs, was what Sam guessed was only one of a number of scars. His biceps flexed as he held onto the cross, and Sam already wanted to bite at them.

The vendor was still talking to the young couple but gestured agreeably to Sam with one hand, so he looked down the neat rows of whips, took up a short-handled long-tailed flogger—undyed, the color of wheat—and dropped a couple twenties on the table, because it shouldn’t be used on anyone else. John deserved that, as completely vulnerable as he was right now, hands clenched around the holds, shoulders tense. Sam rolled up his sleeves, undid his top button, and loosened his tie, still watching him. And he kept watching Sheppard for a long moment, testing the flogger slowly in the air in front of him for feel, but mostly studying John’s skin, the way his muscles bunched and shivered, the points of his vertebrae (he was too thin, Sam would have to be even more careful).

The back of John’s neck already looked vigilant somehow, and a little flushed. He was hyperalert; Sam could work with that. It was a matter of being where John didn’t expect, and moving in ways he couldn’t anticipate, and shifting his attention to where Sam wanted it to go.

Take, take, protect. Protect; take. Give it to me. Let me hold it for you.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

He’d come here tonight on purpose, wanting if not exactly this then something like it; but Sheppard still couldn’t stop shivering. It was infuriating. He clenched his jaw, wrapped his hands more tightly around the grips, pressed the soles of his feet down more firmly into the ground. He was being ridiculous. Teyla routinely delivered more excruciating pain and literal contusions during a half-hour warm-up than what he was about to feel. But this was—it just was different, even though he didn’t want it to be. He couldn’t see. Sam was behind him, and he couldn’t see, and he was already fighting panic—

All of the tension was knotted up in his hands and neck and shoulders, so he wasn’t expecting the delicate rush of the whip’s tails where he felt them: in a trickle of warmth along one side, down low, and then the other: cautious, soft as water, like petals unfurling, tracing the back of one thigh, then the other, stroking, exploring. He felt movement in slow circles and cycles, eddying and pulsing against his skin, with the leather swishing through the air and making the crushing, slushy sound of waves. Nothing hurt.

It didn’t hurt. The adrenaline washed out of him so fast he nearly went limp and would have fallen; and now he understood the cross, that it wasn’t just for tying you down but it also held you up. It was strange, he could feel Sam through the leather, feel his intention and his thinking and his mood; and with every stroke, he felt a gossamer yet tensile connection to him, something starting to build and complicate and evolve between them, something inquisitive, something he couldn’t yet call trust.

The room had gone quiet; there was no one in it but Sam, and him, and the movement, its light sting now a little faster, a little more pressing, on the meat of his thighs, only to gentle down to a whisper again and drift across his shoulders, the nape of his neck, asking questions to which he didn’t know the answers. As soon as he got used to one pattern it shifted, intensified; stung, bit down harsh like the teeth of a zipper, and then slipped and lapped at his skin, soothing right where it had pinched. His whole body softened and—he couldn’t help it—listened. Became ready to feel whatever needed feeling, in whatever place Sam chose to awaken and talk to and request things of.

He became aware that he’d been holding his breath, and tried to inhale and exhale more regularly, as if he were running; and the mind on the other end of the flogger seemed to sense this, and moved in rhythm with him: now right, now left, now singing across the tops of his shoulders, just barely, now thickening and demanding, sinking fingers into the long muscles of his back, and then shifting again to the tops of his thighs, and his ass. And now staying, and going deeper, and not stopping, and not stopping, and his entire self was suddenly ready for that; that what might have seemed like pain had it come at the beginning wasn’t pain at all, it was something rich and entire and he needed it, his flesh pulled toward it, he arched against the cross but it wasn’t in discomfort or apprehension, it was because Sam’s mind reached out to him with every strike and his body was trying to reach back, wanting to tell him yes, wanting to know that he was still there and he wasn’t leaving, and with hit after hit after hit after hit, stinging moved through throbbing moved through pounding blows that shook through his whole self until he felt like a bell being rung; everything present, everyone accounted for. His mind was utterly empty. He didn’t know if he was making sounds or not. Nothing mattered but Sam, and the movement, and anything it pulled out of him was okay, every one of those reactions was for Sam and he wanted him to have them all.

In this place of undilute blown-open sensation John had no idea of time or decency, he’d given all that over, just waiting to be told if he needed to do anything differently or when he should expect it to stop. Very gradually, as if unwillingly, the shush and hiss of the flogger began to slur; he could feel the points of the tails tingling again rather than existing as an undifferentiated rush of feeling.

He couldn’t have said how he could tell that Sam wasn’t really finished, or that he knew John wasn’t finished either, but he could also tell that that Sam was winding them both down anyway, because of where they were and because of John’s inexperience. He felt the movement lull even more, longer and longer pauses between touches, lingering brushes of its tips against the still-sensitive backs of his thighs and his arms like promises. He was barely able to wonder how the same leather could be both fierce and melting, how it could convey all that; but he know it wasn’t the tool, it was the man wielding it, with generosity and attention and patience, and the realization that someone was doing this for him crashed over him and left something like grief in its wake, something frightening and icy. And it was at that instant the flogger fell away and Sam stepped forward as if asked and held him from behind, just wrapped his free arm firmly around him and held on.

John couldn’t help what his body did; his head tipped back into the curve between Sam’s shoulder and neck, and both hands flew to Sam’s solid forearm and clung there, as the empty feeling melted into a surge of pure gratitude that someone would give him this and expect nothing in return. And that Sam somehow had known this was exactly what John needed, and held him tightly, unashamed, without moving, for a long unending moment, the damp heat of his body seeping through his dress shirt into John’s throbbing skin, the sweaty scent of him something safe and male and good, his lips pressed against John’s temple, not a kiss but an anchor, a sheltered place to rest. John leaned against him, folded, boneless, let Sam take his weight, until something unspoken had passed between them—what, John didn’t know—and then it was okay again, and Sam let him go.

Still reeling, he bent to fumble toward his shirt and jacket; behind him, he could hear voices again, people talking, and then Sam was in front of him, saying, “No, Sheppard—John, stop. I’ve got it,” facing him with a private quiet expression on his face that John hadn’t seen yet. John’s fingers were too nerveless not to let him, so Sam did up the buttons of his shirt and then folded the jacket over John’s arm, smoothing the fabric carefully before reaching up and brushing his fingers through John’s hair. “You’re incredible,” he said, so softly that Sheppard thought he must have imagined that; but Sam threaded his fingers through John’s and started to lead him back downstairs.

People had gathered, apparently; quite a few people. They parted to let them pass through, and behind him John caught murmurs and snatches of praise—“So beautiful,” “Amazing demo, man,” “That was really hot,”—but he stayed focused on the feeling of Sam’s fingers between his, and kept moving.

They were at the cash bar downstairs again and John blinked as Sam put a red Solo cup into his hand. “But I’m not supposed to—”

“It’s pineapple juice, Sheppard. Down in one.” Here was another part of the mystery to try to fathom: somehow the juice was exactly what he wanted and he did drink it nearly in one swallow. When he set the cup down, still catching his breath, Sam was in front of him again, this time holding John’s cane.

“I forgot that?”

“It’s fine,” Sam said, and leaned it against the barstool. He studied John’s face. “How you feeling? You tracking?”

Jumper One, come in. This is the Daedalus, do you copy, go ahead. This is Jumper One with no visual, I’m tumbleweed, over. John felt the urge to crack up laughing in a way he usually only did horsing around with Ronon. His skin didn’t hurt at all; felt glowing, warm and alive. He raked his hands through his hair, trying to get a grip. It was a lie, it couldn’t be what this felt like; that had to be wrong.

“Flying,” he blurted out, and Sam’s face was suddenly really serious.

“Yeah. Yeah you are. Okay, give me your phone.”

John managed to fish it out of his pocket and Sam concentrated for a moment, his face lit up by the light from the screen, muttering something about who even still uses a goddamn Blackberry.

He finished, and handed it back.

“Look, that was a lot more than I planned on, and I’m—honestly, I’m not sorry. I just had no idea you would…respond like that. But here’s the deal: I need you to be careful, Sheppard. Driving home especially. Which you’re not going to do until you’ve had more water and I’ve walked you to your car, but then you have to promise me you’ll drive home really slowly, with the window down.”

Sheppard didn’t say anything, just reached again for Sam’s hand. He knew he wasn’t quite himself because he didn’t feel a trace of uncertainty. Sam’s hands were strong and did strong things. He liked these hands and he was willing to do whatever their owner said.

So he let Sam bring him more water, and walk him down Mason Street to his car. And when Sam said that if John was free tomorrow (which he was, he was free every morning), Sam wanted to meet for coffee because they should probably talk about what had just happened, Sheppard agreed and said noon would work for him. And when Sam warned him that he might crash later, he listened, he did, he really listened, and when Sam said so if you can’t sleep or you wake up and you’re not okay, my number’s in your phone and you’re gonna call me, right, or text even if you can’t talk, don’t worry about the time, John promised and said yes he would, he understood, he absolutely promised.

The moon was coming up, half-full; he took the feeder road instead of the freeway, and left the radio on a staticky country classics station, humming even when he didn’t know the song.

And when he got home safely, wrapped in a snug wash of endorphins and glorious numbness, he just had time to pull off his belt and kick off his shoes and fall face-down on the mattress, thinking euphorically that for once he was about to sleep, really sleep, when it came to him in a lacerating flash like an icicle shearing off a rooftop, impaling him from crown to root: I didn’t think about Rodney even once the entire time. And then pain seized his whole body in a spasm so totalizing and entire he couldn’t cry out or even breathe, his open mouth pressed wet against the pillow in an infinite gape, unable to move away from it, radiating anguish and just waiting it out dumbly, like a dumb animal.

 

 

Chapter Text

Coffee, huh? Sounds like somebody met someone, Sarah texted back, accusingly, and Sam rolled his eyes at the exposed brickwork of the café walls. It was still too early in the day for this nonsense, only coming up noon. And what the hell was that, some kind of eldritch kid-sister juju? It wasn’t like he was some big player; how did she already know?

He paused, then just went with: Have not, hoping the sibling retort would be enough for now; because he really hadn’t. Like, be real: one admittedly galvanizing and spellbinding demo did not a meet-cute make. But Sarah also wasn’t wrong. Sheppard hadn’t been up there even twenty minutes but time had dilated in that strange slowed-down-molasses way, and there had been vast amounts of space in which to sense his most minute shifts and respond to them with equal precision. Sam hadn’t felt that kind of connection to someone in—maybe ever. It shouldn’t have been possible, but Sheppard’s body had been talking to him, telling him where to move and with what kind of texture and how intensely; and the whole thing had proceeded with the kind of comfortable relational back-and-forth that characterized scenes by couples who’d been playing together for years.

It was a freaky-ass mess and probably really wrong and he wanted to do it again as soon as possible.

The coffee here was Greek, strong black and so thick it came with a little spoon, and a small round butter cookie he couldn’t eat, because what in the what, Sam Wilson was kind of nervous. Despite its killer coffee, Agora was a little too Montrose, what with the brickwork, and the Bon Iver, and the UH kids reading their graphic novels. He hoped Sheppard wouldn’t judge him for it. In addition to the coffee, however, there was also always someplace semi-private to sit. He’d been thinking all summer that if he found someone he wanted to scene with, he’d ask them to meet here.

He took a table in a corner on the first floor, though, rather than the more private ones upstairs, for the sake of John’s injury, and felt glad of this when John stopped abruptly in front of him, face ashen, eyes more grey than green, looking desperately terrible. Sam half-stood up before he could think.

“Sheppard, are you—shit, you didn’t call.”

The bottom half of John’s face tried to smile, but his eyes looked past Sam a few thousand yards. He was wearing dark gray BDUs, almost black, and a matching black shirt that looked vaguely like a uniform, except made out of a silky fabric Sam hadn’t ever seen, halfway unzipped at the throat. He hadn’t shaved and his stubble was silvery and rough. Sam took a risk and pulled out his chair for him, figuring he’d ignore it or say something tart, but John sank down into it without comment.

Okay, that wasn’t good. Sam took a breath, trying to figure out the right way to approach this. John was looking anywhere but at him and Sam decided not to get fancy with it. Being direct had always worked with Steve, even at his cagiest. No point coddling someone taller than he was.

He sat down again and leaned back in his chair. “Okay. So you hit the wall and you thought you could handle it by yourself, you didn’t even text me, and now you look like you spent most of the night on the bathroom floor. Did you at least take something? Did you sleep at all?

John finally looked up and there were circles beneath his eyes. Didn’t sleep, then. “They gave me Trazodone, but if I take it I can’t move, so that doesn’t really—” He made a negating sound. Sam knew. If you can’t get up when the sirens go off you can’t do your job and you can’t take care of your crew.

“They really will let just any motherfucker be an officer now, won’t they,” said Sam, shaking his head in feigned wonder, and this forced some kind of sound out of Sheppard like a laugh. “You too committed to the dark inner torment of your soul for some coffee, or can I get you a latte?”

This time Sheppard did laugh, even if it sounded like it was scraped from him, and he put his cane in the chair next to him. “Yeah, okay. I’d take a mocha.” He dropped his face into his hands, yawning.

Sam reared back a little in mock surprise. “So it’s true what they say about brass, y’all’s caviar tastes.”

Sheppard almost grinned at this, rubbing at one of his eyes. “Bet I’ve eaten more and worse MREs and bag nasties than you, we can go toe-to-toe on that one.” The shirt’s sleeves were snug around his biceps, and Sam’s heart rate slowed down to a perceptible thunk. He pushed his saucer across at Sheppard, the cookie still perched on its edge, before heading to the barista. “Eat that, you dumb jock. Most of this is just your damn blood sugar.”

He was as pissed at himself as he was at Sheppard, he realized, as he came back, plunked the mocha down on the table in front of him, spoon jangling against the cup, and another saucer with an almond croissant on it. “Here’s how it’s gonna go,” he said, and John’s eyes widened, “I’m asking questions, and you are gonna put that away.”

To his surprise (and secret pleasure), John didn’t even bother nodding, just started ripping off pieces of croissant methodically and chewing them. Sam crossed his arms and didn’t quite glare at him.

“So, you’re new to this,” he began.

Yes, Sheppard was new to kink. Yes, he’d dropped, and hadn’t called. (Sam made a mental note to send a check-up text, next time; the guy had probably gone nonverbal.) No, he hadn’t read much about it online, just enough to make a guess. Yes, he’d gone to Numbers that particular night on purpose. Yes, he was pretty sure he was…that word Sam had just said. (Submissive. Sam didn’t feel like going into fine distinctions right now, though after that demo he had an intuition Sheppard was almost certainly also a masochist, and Sam could already tell, definitely kind of a brat.)

He shifted a little in his seat, eyes not leaving John’s. “Been with a guy before?”

“No, not—no,” he said, a little muted. “But I’m…I’m bi. Probably. I mean, I am. I just.”

Sam took this in without comment. “What about you,” John asked suddenly. Sam grinned.

“Pretty clear I was into dudes in grade school when I made my GI Joes fall in love and get married,” he said, rewarded by Sheppard spluttering around a mouthful of pastry. “So why now?” he asked, since he had him off-guard.

Sam could see him trying to figure it out: not what to say, not how to package it, but the actual truth.

“I was,” he started, and then stopped. It took him another full minute to work up the nerve again. “I lost someone,” he finally managed. Sam didn’t move a muscle. “It was my fault, I didn’t—I should have known, and…I didn’t do anything. Never said anything, because I didn’t want to mess it up. And I—I realize that doesn’t explain it. There’s just. So much I can’t talk about. What happened.”

Sam nodded. “Classified.”

“Yeah,” said John with evident relief. “Really classified.”

“You weren’t at McMurdo,” Sam said.

“I can’t t—”

“You don’t have to. You didn’t know who I was.” He could see John trying to parse this out.

“Should I…know who you are?”

Sam shrugged. “Was on the news way more than I wanted to be, a couple months ago. That’s how my sister found me. Well, half-sister, here in Houston.”

“Yeah, we didn’t get much news. Or by the time we got it, it usually wasn’t very new.” He pushed away the saucer now covered in crumbs and picked up his mocha.

Sam wasn’t sure how John had missed hearing about three massive helicarriers falling into the Potomac, much less a man flying around them; but that was a conversation for later. “Better?”

John nodded. Sam already liked feeding the guy. This was some next-level nonsense he was getting himself into. He ignored that thought.

“So here’s what I’m going to suggest,” he said, stomach suddenly in his throat, and John squinting at him over the rim of his cup. “That we try this, and I mean try—but we do it totally by the book. Which, going out on a limb here, is not something either of us specializes in. I’ll send you a link to a checklist. We do contract, ground rules, the whole nine. Before any colorful actions. Before we fucking goon up.”

John frowned a little. “No flathatting.”

Sam gave him full-on side-eye. “Oh, there’s gonna be flathatting. You have no idea. That’s kind of the point. Just, we both need to be on the same page about it.” He hesitated; the next part was touchy.

“You go to a VA group? Get any kind of counseling?”

John shook his head, lips compressed, mouth mutinous. This worried Sam more than anything.

“Sheppard, on the level. You got stuff buried—not just about whatever mission went south, but stuff about Dad, Mom, hell, the family dog? That shit is gonna surface. And we can deal with some of it as it comes up, but I’m not gonna lie, it can get ugly fast and…how am I gonna say this. You seem like a nice guy, okay, and I don’t want to see you eating dirt. They call it playing for a reason—it’s not supposed to be work. Anyway, not all the time,” he amended, then took a deep breath.

“Couple more things. This’ll probably sound weird but it’s best to just get it out there. So if you have other play partners, scene with other people, that’s fine. I can even give you some names, set you up,” Sam went on. What he didn’t add, because Sheppard already looked spooked, was that if they wound up having sex he’d want to talk about exclusivity. No reason to freak him out even more. Instead he cleared his throat and stuck with, “If we decide to have sex, we can talk about that then.”

John opened his mouth and shut it a few times before coming out with, “Isn’t sex…the whole…?”

Sam laughed, but there wasn’t any mockery in it. “It doesn’t have to be. Only if we both want that. Just—read through the list I send you, okay? See what you feel interested in. Besides, sex means a lot of different things to different people; it’s worth specifying what you mean.”

They were silent for a minute, Sheppard slouching and fiddling around with his coffee spoon, somehow giving off the impression they were in dining facilities. What was it about the stubble? Sam tried to think if he’d ever been with anyone this much older, before. Steve really didn’t count. Mostly he tried not to look at Sheppard’s mouth, the soft shape of which did things to him. He wondered what Sheppard looked like when he wasn’t strung up tight and wretched; those little glimpses Sam kept getting of someone loose-limbed and sarcastic and probably annoyingly cheerful.

He could also hear him thinking. Sam raised an eyebrow. “Something on your mind?”

“Fraternization,” said Sheppard, after a long hesitation, and the word itself was an entire argument.

Where to even start. Because sure—even without the gay kinky part, John actually had the most to lose, as an officer. Someone in Sam’s position could come after him for harassment and Sheppard wouldn’t just be on leave, he’d be dishonorably discharged.

“I know,” said Sam, who’d already been thinking about it. “But here’s the deal.” He took a deep breath and started ticking things off on his fingers, one by one. “Met in a civilian context. Not in the chain of command. Not in the same squadron—not even in the same wing.” He and Riley had pretty much blown straight past the first three, but at least they were both enlisted. And no one had seemed to care, as long as they kept pulling wounded soldiers and kids out from behind the lines.

He indicated Sheppard with his chin. “Also, not on active duty. And, not going to compromise morale.” If anything, frankly, morale was about to be improved through the fucking roof.

Sheppard said nothing; kept playing with his spoon, apparently accepting this rationale. But there was still something bothering him, Sam could tell. He waited.

“It’s possible—I’m not sure if.” He took a breath. “I might be asexual.”

Sam relaxed; was that it? That couldn’t be it. “What makes you think you might be?”

Sheppard looked out the window, but Sam knew there was nothing out there but parking lot. “I don’t…have a lot of relationships. The ones I’ve had, people get disappointed. They always want more than I seem able to give.”

Sam studied him for a second, stroking his beard absently. “Does sex turn you off completely, make you feel repulsed?”

Sheppard shook his head. “No, I just don’t much...look for it. It’s okay when it happens.”

“So we’ll leave that as a question-mark for now.” Sam thought there could be a couple things going on. He was also describing the way kinky people often felt about vanilla sex. He might just be a really confused bi guys who was secretly into pain. “If you are, that’s totally fine. You wouldn’t be my first ace partner.”

Sheppard shot him an eyebrow, all skepticism. “Doesn’t sound like much fun for you.”

“You’d be surprised. I bring fun wherever I go.”

Sheppard’s mouth twitched, and Sam discovered that he really wanted not just to break him down to little shivering pieces, but also to make him laugh. And to cook him dinner. In his head Sam was making an ingredients list for his amazing tom kha gai when Sheppard spoke again, startling him a little.

“Do I get to ask for stuff,” Sheppard he said, voice low, eyes down.

Sam shook his head, half-amused, half-frustrated. “You better. What is it?”

Still not looking at him, in a rush like it was all one word, John said, “Do you think you could kiss me?”

Sam stared at him in disbelief. “Jesus, Shep, you’re breaking my heart here. I’ve wanted to kiss you since you tripped over a beer bottle at my goddamn feet. I’ve wanted to kiss you for the last hour.”

John finally looked up at this and Sam couldn’t take his eyes off him. It was mystifying. This ordinary-looking white dude, more than a little beat-up, probably closer to fifty than forty, all unkempt grizzle and likely with so much baggage it was a matched set, and all Sam wanted in the world was to peel off his clothes and hurt him until he was wet-eyed and trembling and had forgotten his words.

“But not here,” he continued, feeling a little wobbly. “Do you like seafood?”

Sheppard looked suspicious. “Is it the kind that comes in foil pouches?”

“Come over for dinner,” Sam said, reaching over to cover Sheppard’s hand with his own, coffee shop filled with college students be damned. “Come to my place this Saturday. Bring whatever you need to stay the night, and tell you what, I’ll kiss all that stupid right out of you,” he promised; and you could have lit an entire airfield by the abrupt gleam in John Sheppard’s eyes.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sheppard had made it through about half a metric fifth of Dewar’s before McKay apparently decided he had more things he needed to say. John fumbled the bottle onto to the coffee table, where it landed with a clank, liquor sloshing inside. He wasn’t sure if the booze suppressed McKay, or brought him out—in that respect, this Rodney was very similar to the real one: unpredictable and more than slightly out of anyone’s control. Especially Sheppard’s. Always, out of Sheppard’s.

“I like him,” McKay said, without preamble. John was lying on the couch, which like most couches was slightly too short for him, so he either had to bend his knees, which was agonizing, or hang his feet over the sofa arm. He tended to alternate between the two. Right now he was sort of curled up, face buried in the crook of his arm, although it was stuffy and hard to breathe that way.

“Didn’t ask,” he responded curtly, and flailed around with one hand for the bottle. It wasn’t quite dark outside yet but it was already dim in his apartment and he knew what was coming, and he’d worked very hard to get a head start on being something approaching anaesthetized.

He didn’t even like liquor. The night of the memorial he and Ronon had gotten as drunk as possible on some nasty clear Satedan stuff and even that felt wrong and strange, because John was only used to getting buzzed with Rodney on a couple of watery six-packs. Even drunk he’d never told him how he felt, much less kissed him, or tried to touch him; and now he never would.

“In actual point of fact, Colonel, you can’t actually know that with any certainty,” said Rodney, in his I’m-about-to-science-you-to-death voice. John groaned without lifting his head. “For one thing, you and I ourselves have had literal, empirical evidence of the existence of the multiverse, and firsthand experience of other versions of reality. But that’s not all,” and at this point John could almost see him grabbing at his hair until it stood on end, fluffed-up and crazy, “Greene’s work on the Calabi–Yau n-folds tells us that the six spatial dimensions of string theory can be compactified, leaving the original supersymmetry unbroken, and when fluxes are included—”

“Not in the mood, Rodney,” said John with difficulty, twisting over onto his side and taking another belt from the bottle. “Also Brian Greene is a crank. Isn’t he the one who believes in ESP?” Wait—Brian Cox?

“You’re thinking of Brian Josephson, please keep up,” Rodney corrected, and Sheppard realized with dismay that he was right. Confusing the contributions of key twentieth-century theoretical physicists was, however, probably a good sign that he was well on his way to being sufficiently unconscious. He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling spackle, which had sparkles in it.

“But to return to the topic at hand: while obviously he doesn’t have my level of intelligence, because how many intergalactic genius astrophysicists could there be, this Sam guy is handsome, young, experienced, seems possessed of your particular flavor of irrational derring-do, e.g. Armed Forces hero-complex idiocy, did I mention is rather incredibly handsome, and for inexplicable reasons seems to be attracted to you,” McKay continued, oblivious to the faces John was making.

“And it’s obvious why you’re drinking tonight, you know,” McKay went on, and Sheppard closed his eyes. Fine; he would go to the VA, he would ask his case manager to find him a counselor. He would do it, okay? Anything to get rid of this most insufferable version of Rodney from beyond the grave. “Which is why I think you should call Sam. Wilson, not Carter. Or text him. Since you’re on Earth again and have access to those powerful new technologies, which, patently I’m being sarcastic, nothing really compares to the immediacy and simplicity of the Atlantis comms, and you’re welcome for those by the way, not sure anyone ever really properly thanked me, for the stunning application of binary relations necessary for that technology alone I should have been given my first Nobel—”

Also John’s fault. McKay would have swept Stockholm of every last krona (or euro, or whatever currency they used when you won Nobel Prizes). He wouldn’t have been able to stand up under the weight of all the medals. Another part of Rodney’s life cut short. Another way John had fucked up.

“Besides, if you’re not going to text Sam, you’ll definitely be stuck with me, and I can tell you it’ll be only another two-point-five minutes before they start going off, so please reconsider cancelling or at least postponing your current alcoholic pity-party and getting into contact with an actual real, live, non-dead, corporeal entity who can get you through tonight.” His voice suddenly softened, grew urgent. “For chrissake, John. Let someone help you, because God knows you never let me.”

Sheppard wanted to scream, or maybe throw up. Instead he did what he always did, what he seemed hard-wired from birth to do, and just did what McKay told him. “I hate you,” he said, lurching to his feet and moving to the kitchen, feeling around in the dark for his phone; should be somewhere on the countertop. His fingers closed around it and he heard Rodney laugh, a little bitterly.

“Keep telling yourself that, Sheppard. Clearly you’re wrecked over the death of someone you hated.”

You get wrecked,” he muttered nonsensically, scrolling through the five numbers in his contacts list (at least two of them belonging to McKays) and finding “TSgt Sam Wilson” among them. How is he training on T-38s? John wondered again. Have to ask him that sometime. Probably classified.

I hate tonight, he texted, just as the first firework went off, and he jumped nearly out of his skin, pulse racing, mouth filled with the taste of metal. Instantly it was like he hadn’t had a single drink—all his senses were on high alert and he found himself off the sofa and on his feet again, restlessly pacing, dragging his injured leg alongside him, fists clenching and unclenching. They didn’t have fireworks on Atlantis, so he’d only half-remembered, had mostly forgotten how bad they always were.

You’re not kidding, Sam responded immediately. Then: You home alone?

Yes, said Sheppard. He thought it best not to mention McKay.

Can you keep the curtains open? Sometimes it helps to see them. I could have given you some headphones, the carrier deck kind. Cancels out the noise.

John took one tentative look outside, underneath the edge of the blinds, and saw a coruscating green light dripping down like tracer fire. He shuddered and backed away toward the center of the room. All he could think about was finding a weapon.

Nothing. There was nothing in the house, he didn’t even have a sidearm or service handgun. An M11, a 9mm—even his old Beretta. How had he let this happen, he understood not keeping a P-90 in an apartment in Houston but—

The Blackberry buzzed in his hand. He looked down. OEF?

He forced himself to type, fingers shaking. Kandahar.

Bagram. Well, mostly. Classified.

Sheppard heard himself laugh, to his surprise, a half-bray that sounded rusty. “I told you,” said McKay, sounding pleased with himself. John didn’t bother telling him to fuck off.

Instead he wrote: Ever get the feeling we have similar security issues?

A short pause, then Sam: I can neither confirm nor negate that.

A particularly bad volley went off and Sheppard retreated to the sofa, twitching. After a mouthful of Dewar’s, he picked up the phone again, typed: Plausible deniability. It wasn’t easy to spell either of those words, and he had never bothered learning how to use a smartphone, though he knew they had something called autocorrect that people mostly seemed to hate but used anyway.

We’ll see about that, answered Sam cryptically. Sheppard furrowed his brow trying to figure it out, which almost distracted him from the next-door neighbors joining in with jubilant shrieks and what sounded like—just bottle rockets, he told himself. He tried to remember being a kid and being thrilled by sparklers and poppers and cherry bombs and everything that made light and noise.

It wasn’t only the explosions, either—there was a long slow ominous hiss just as they went off, that especially reminded him of—

Fucking RPGs, Sam texted, and John stared at the phone.

How did you know?

That sound when they launch. Then the wait.

Sheppard paused a moment, trying to keep his thighs from trembling, pushing down on them with both his hands. Finally he picked the phone back up. Lost two guys to one in a medevac. Whole helo bought it.

Nothing for a minute, two minutes. He fought not to flinch every time a fresh shriek split the air, or the deep booms that sounded like anti-aircraft. It was only fireworks. It wasn’t actually fire.

Lost my wingman. Just a regular run, then it wasn’t.

John stared at the words. What do you say back to that? What the fuck do you even say?

“Tell him you’re sorry,” McKay said, his voice close to John’s ear.

I’m sorry. Another long pause. (Wingman? Did he mean, another PJ?)

I’m sorry for your guys, too, Sam texted back, and Sheppard could hear his voice in the words; the warmth, the genuineness. He closed his eyes. Sam’s voice should be illegal in most Southern states, the plush richness of it, and John wondered what it would be like to hear that voice telling him what to do. Beyond just eating breakfast, or clicking on a link. Which reminded him.

After a moment’s confusion, he opened the webpage Sam had sent him. He scrolled down a little, then faster, then even faster, disbelieving, until he finally hit the end. There had to be at least a hundred items on it, and he was supposed to know which of those he wanted to do, didn’t want to do, or was willing to try, as long as he could also stop if he didn’t like them? This was going to take a while.

Another bloodcurdling whistle and John nearly dropped the phone. Fuck this. He clutched it more firmly, grabbed the Scotch, one of the sofa pillows, and headed for his bedroom. He knew when he was whipped.

Going back in the closet, he texted to Sam, hoping he’d take the joke.

Sounds like a plan, Sam responded. Say hi to Tom Cruise.

John was on the verge of making a hair-on-fire reference, but another volley decided him against it. The clatter of reports echoed in his ears, and they weren’t anywhere close to the aerial salutes yet, which were the worst. He shouldered open his closet door and dropped the pillow on the floor; for a brief bewildering instant he almost called Rodney to come in with him, like a dog. But McKay had shut up for the time being and that was fine, he had enough to deal with at the moment.

At least there was no firework equivalent of the sound the gate had made that day. Nor any other equivalent, period. Not like it was ever far from his mind. He heard it in his sleep, he heard it when he woke up, he heard it at random points through the day, he would probably hear it on his deathbed. McKay being McKay, he had no doubt made a recording of the moment, somehow.

“Isn’t this nice,” John said aloud to no one, lying on his back and sticking his legs up the side of the closet wall, crossing them at the ankle. “Comfy. Like a tornado drill.” He remembered those happening at school in Irving, when they lived there when he was a kid, and they’d all leave their classrooms, go to the library and obediently put textbooks over their heads. The high-end treble sounds were more muted in here; mostly now all he felt were the vibrations. He took another mouthful, carefully, raising his head off the pillow and then flopping back down to swallow.

Out of nowhere he had a vivid memory of throwing Rodney off the balcony to test that goddamn personal shield emitter for the first time—what the fuck had they been thinking? He’d shot him in the leg, for chrissake. They’d been children playing with space toys and nothing had seemed quite real. He remembered McKay triumphantly sing-songing “Invulnerable!” to Weir and that’s what they thought they were—Jesus Christ, had he really thrown him off the balcony? Years later they’d reenacted it for Ronon and he’d thought it was the funniest fucking thing he’d ever seen.

You had to be careful with laughter, Sheppard had learned, especially the hysterical uncontrolled kind. Way too often it could turn, on a dime, into crying, some bizarre biological flip of the switch. He drained the last of the Dewar’s, then opened the list Sam had sent him, scrolled to the bottom just to be ornery, and starting clicking the tiny radio buttons with difficulty.

“Wrestling; whips; watersports,” he muttered to himself, clicking no, yes, and maybe (it wasn’t going to do anything for him, but if someone else was really into it, he didn’t want to be a dick about it).

Next was “Unusual semen,” which confused him thoroughly, so he went with no. Was there any chance that meant, like, aliens? He really didn’t want to think about Wraith jizz, which, he suddenly had mental images of spawning salmon—definite no. Okay. Back to being serious.

But then he got to “Uniforms.” And just as abruptly, the hysterical laughter was back.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sam stayed late at the hospital that afternoon, long after the Saturday noon men’s group had ended, because Korean Brian (as opposed to Jewish Brian and gay Brian, and yes, this was how they differentiated themselves) had started having an epic meltdown about something that had happened to him on the university campus the day before, and he would only talk to Sam.

(“It’s the burqas, the burqas,” he’d said over and over, teeth chattering. “I know I’m a racist, I know that, I see the girls just, just carrying their textbooks and talking, but all I can think is what’s underneath, like I know not every goddamn person is Daesh but it was—it was a stairwell, really crowded, okay, and too many exits and there were—in my head I saw kids there, Wilson, little kids, and I don’t know what to do to not fucking freak out everytime I see normal American college students—”)

By the time Sam had Brian set up for weekly visits with Misbah Kaur, one of their best trauma therapists, and had finished his paperwork and hit the 610, traffic was already what Sarah termed “the tooth-chipper,” more stop than start. He decided on the 225 over the I-45, which added a little more distance but was more scenic; he should still have time to shower before starting dinner.

John had sent him the list early in the morning (god o’clock, implying that once again he hadn’t slept), and Sam had studied it over breakfast a few hours later. Most of it seemed pretty standard, with a few exceptions that caught his attention (John’s openness to edgeplay, including non-consent scenarios, surprised him), and with hard limits that included, in addition to the usual, no humiliation, nothing medical or scientific, nothing pet- or food-related, and (not a surprise) nothing military. Sam figured that meant not being called “sir,” which was fine with him, because it mostly just reminded him of the chain of command in an utterly non-sexy way. (Riley’d always had a trick of using the honorific that was simultaneously breathlessly reverent and also completely sassy, but that was utterly unique to them.)

Other than the non-consensual stuff, Sheppard didn’t seem very interested in role-playing, which worked for Sam; he had an intuition that Sheppard would be more undone by praise than he probably realized, but that was something they could investigate first-hand later.

He sent him back “A Field Guide to Creepy Dom,” figuring if nothing else, that at least was essential reading for anyone new to D/s, and then spent another quick half-hour going over Sheppard’s list more methodically. He’d enthusiastically greenlit pretty much everything physical: all forms of bondage, impact, pain, and anything sexual, which Sam had his doubts about, seeing as how Sheppard had spent apparently his entire life lurking if not outright cowering behind DADT. But okay. It was a starting place.

And it wasn’t a neutral, clinical starting-place either. Some of Sheppard’s yes selections had Sam’s pulse hammering and his mouth going dry. Since his own primary orientations were around bondage and pain, anything that Sheppard had agreed to along those lines—well. More than once that day, while supposedly nodding along to something a coworker was saying, Sam had caught himself spinning out elaborate scenarios involving precisely those things. John had said yes to face slapping, biting, leaving marks, hair pulling, scratching, every kind of restraint or impact play listed, hot wax, knives (Sam bet there was a story there), gags, blindfolds, hoods, nipple play, orgasm denial, begging, toys, cock rings, ball stretchers, and even marked maybe for CBT. Sam hadn’t done a good third of that, nor was he prepared to; but Sheppard’s feverish willingness was…okay, it was pretty fucking hot. And something to be held carefully, with a lot of thought and awareness.

He pulled up in front of his house, pushed down the kickstand, and left the helmet slung on the back of his bike without putting it under the seat. There were clean sheets and towels in the dryer but he needed to make up the bed, hopefully while not getting lost in fantasies of unmaking it.

This is not a big deal, this is just like the demo, Sam told himself firmly, flapping out a clean top sheet but not making hospital corners, just leaving it loose. Sheppard probably thought tonight was going to be full-on penetrative craziness, was likely angling for blood and lacerations and ragged bitemarks, and it was up to Sam to hold him back from whatever cliff he wanted to fling himself over, while also making sure at least some of his buttons got pushed really definitively and thoroughly and well.

He thought he could pull that off. Hell, he knew he could. He was good at things, Sam Wilson was, and he knew exactly what those things were. He could fly an exosuit that would have made most people pass out the second they were off the ground, and he could move with it like it was part of him, and exfil injured soldiers and civilians before they ever knew what hit them. He could mysteriously somehow second-guess the insanity that was Steve Rogers, anticipate the next balls-out move he was about to bust out, and be right there the instant Steve needed him to be. He could talk wild-eyed vets down from whatever ceiling they’d glued themselves to, and get them laughing and wiping their faces, sheepish but fundamentally okay, within a half-hour. He was great with kids and dogs, he could dance without looking like an idiot, and he made a peach cobbler so good it brought tears to your eyes. And he could utterly undo a certain kind of beautifully compartmentalized, compromised, tightly-wound guy, the kind who wanted nothing more than to give up his death-grip on self-control but didn’t know how to let go until Sam’s capable hands took it from him.

He surveyed the bedroom. Dim light, dark blue sheets, a heavy smooth black walnut headboard that he’d bought not least because of the strategic gaps between its slats. He had this. Sam went into the kitchen, dug out his largest cast-iron pan, and put on the dinner-making playlist.

He wasn’t surprised to see Sheppard in his usual great shape when he arrived: jumpy, on-edge, and at the same time emotionally blunted (that would have been Sarah’s grad-school therapeutic term for it, Sam thought, but it was accurate—everything about him just that little bit muted, like the volume had been turned down). He was gripping a bottle of Italian mineral water in one hand and trying to wrestle a pair of aviators into his shirt pocket with the other, when Sam opened the door.

“That your smoking hole?” he said, nodding at the dusty red Camaro. John scowled, apparently not pleased at having his ride compared to a crash site.

“Hey, the ’78 is a classic—I’ve hung onto that car through more tours than I can count,” he said defensively.

“Huh. Is that because you’ve done a lot of tours, or because you can’t count very high?” Sam offered, and that was it, they both started grinning, and it was all going to be okay.

“Come on in, I’m burning dinner,” he said, and opened the door wide enough for Sheppard to move through with his cane, took the bottle of mineral water from his hand, and left John to his own devices as he went back to throw the vegetables into the pan with the shrimp.

John made it as far as the edge where the foyer tile turned to carpet and then stopped, listening. Sam looked up from sautéeing, asking with his eyes.

“I didn’t expect—”

“A black guy to like Johnny Cash?”

“I didn’t think anyone under fifty liked Johnny Cash,” Sheppard allowed, accepting a glass of water. He was wearing a black t-shirt and dark jeans, and had shaven but still had some five o’clock shadow. His waist was narrow and the t-shirt clung to it just enough.  This time Sam was going to pay a lot more attention to what was underneath that shirt.

“Yeah, well, the Benny Goodman comes next,” said Sam, and was rewarded with Sheppard’s rare husk of laughter. “Reminds me—how old are you, anyway.”

“Forty-three, no, four,” said Sheppard, after a beat. “Just had a birthday.”

“About to turn thirty-six,” Sam said, flipping the contents of the pan over the flame, showing off a little. “But because of Steve—” Oh, fuck. “Just, ah. I got a friend who doesn’t know much about music. So I’m always trying to educate him.”

“And you’re educating him with the sad ballads of JC?”

“Among other things,” said Sam. “Dude had no idea who Marvin Gaye was. Or Miles Davis. Or Radiohead. Or Amy Winehouse. Or Jack White. Or Kanye. I could go on.”

“I get that, though,” John said, leaning back against the countertop in a way that made his slim hips tilt forward distractingly. Sam repressed the urge to hook his fingers through the belt loops of Sheppard’s jeans and proceed with the kissing portion of the evening. Why wasn’t he just going ahead and doing that? This deep instinct he had, to be incredibly deliberate with John. There was a crack, a rift, a bright fault running right through the middle of him; Sam could see it as clearly as he could the points of his ears or the stubborn lift of his chin. At some point, Sheppard was going to break, and he wasn’t going to break clean.

Sam turned off the flame, opened the cabinet, and took out plates. “Because of where I was, um, stationed,” Sheppard said, stumbling over the words a little, “We didn’t have much access to new stuff. It was one of those, read the same book over and over type situations.”

“Classified,” said Sam, looking at John’s mouth and not thinking about much else.

“Really, really classified,” agreed John, licking a drop of mineral water from his lower lip. His hair was its usual disaster, and his arms were slender but somehow his biceps still stretched out the sleeves of his t-shirt. Sam blinked. Okay, he wasn’t sure he was going to make it through dinner. Besides, they’d already talked about and agreed on this one. No reason not to enact it.

“Sheppard,” he said, first checking to be sure nothing was going to fall off the counter or catch on fire, and then turning to him, moving up into his space slowly, putting first one hand, then the other, on either narrow hip, and gently tugging him closer, feeling the heat of his body through his jeans, “remember how I said—”

“Yeah,” said John, his voice rough and suddenly really close to Sam’s ear, as he pushed away from the counter and let Sam’s hands pull him in. “I remember. I can’t—stop thinking about it,” he said, shakily, closing his eyes. He was so slight Sam hadn’t registered that John was that much taller than him, by a good several inches, but when he wrapped his hand around the back of Sheppard’s neck and pulled his mouth down, there wasn’t any doubt about who the fuck was kissing whom.

There was that pliancy, again; wherever Sam’s hands were, John yielded to them and moved wherever he was put, and stayed there until he was moved somewhere else. It was heady and Sam kind of forgot to stop after that first, closed-mouth kiss, letting go of Sheppard’s hips to bring both hands up to either side of his face, licking at his lower lip until John let his mouth fall open on an inhale, then pressing in, feeling the warmth of John’s chest against his and the softness of his mouth. A little helplessly, a little aggressively, Sam slid his tongue inside, pushing for more. John made a small broken sound then, in the back of his throat, and moving for the first time on his own, slid his arms around Sam’s waist and held on, pressing against the muscles of his back, almost clinging. A deep wild space opened up under them and Sam just barely caught the lip of it, knowing he had to reel this back in or it was going to turn into making out and then into other things and there wasn’t going to be any dinner, much less negotiating; and he did not want to skip that part. But for a second longer he let Sheppard have it, holding his head still and just dragging what he wanted from his mouth, tongue-fucking him, kissing him senseless, until finally he let go, mostly for air. Oh, he still had it going on, alright.

“That’s…we’re doing that some more,” he said, surveying Sheppard’s face, which looked satisfactorily stunned, and squeezing his hips once, hard, before letting go.

Dinner happened but Sam didn’t pay that much attention to it, more focused on John’s body language, how he moved and slouched and held his fork, and how his eyes lit up when they talked about flying. Turned out that both of them had been completely out of control as kids; John’s nose was broken (Sam wanted to touch the almost invisible bend in it) because he’d tried to do BMX off a homemade plywood ramp. Sam rolled up his pants leg to show off the crooked silvery burn from his first attempt at a rooftop jet engine (later attempts had involved better fuel sources).

“Holy shit,” John said, impressed, “I don’t want to know how a ten-year-old gets hold of napalm.”

“It’s not hard to make, it’s just any colloidal agent mixed with…you know what, never mind,” said Sam. “The point was, it doesn’t really ignite in any kind of propulsive way.”

“That’s what I found out when I was seven, and stole some TNT from one of my dad’s railyards,” Sheppard said, leaning forward, and Sam kind of fell for him a little, just then, those moments when he forgot himself and became the jackass airman Sam knew was still in there.

“I’m sorry—railyards, plural?”

Sheppard looked only a little abashed. “The family business is, uh, highly diversified.”

“If diversified means more money than God, I’m starting to get that.”

“Look, don’t lose the point of the story here. After I dug a hole and lit the fuse, I told my brother Dave we had to hide behind the garage and wait for the explosion, which of course…never came. I finally looked around the corner, and basically the entire yard was on fire. The Reno FD had to come put it out. They weren’t too thrilled about that. Neither was Dad.”

Sam was appropriately tickled. “Remember to keep you off bomb disposal. Did you think it was like C4, it was just gonna go boom without a detonator? Fire in the hole?”

John opened his mouth and then closed it, as something passed over his face. Sam watched this little drama unfold (right: mysterious painful piece of personal history with plastic explosives, check) before easily changing the subject to his other childhood obsession: racing pigeons.

“Wait, you can race them? I don’t believe you. How fast does a pigeon even go?”

“Fast. Faster than your tits-up Chevy out there, I’ll tell you that much. That thing should be returned to the taxpayers. And actually, now I think about it—aren’t you having a hard time driving stick?”

John sighed, with genuine regret. “Had to swap out the transmission for an automatic. Worth it, though.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m genuinely impressed by your level of commitment to that automobile…truly an opportunity to excel.”

“Fuck you, Wilson.”

Sam let his eyebrow fly up. “So that’s how you think it’s gonna go?” He could tell he’d landed on something by the way Sheppard bit his lip and visibly blushed. He’d done that before, at the club; a tell. Sam smiled at him then, the wide slow deliberate one.

“Guess we’re done with the war stories for now. Go wait on the sofa, I’ll be there in a minute.” If Sheppard had an objection to being told what to do, he didn’t voice it, just pushed his chair back from the table and moved with difficulty into the living room.

(Sam had already been thinking for days now about ways to restrain him around that injury. He cleared the table slowly, still going over different rope configurations in his head, ways to wrap and pin and frame….)

When he flicked off the kitchen light and came around the dining table into the living room, John was sort of curled into the corner of the sofa, good leg half under him, bad one stretched out straight. But he looked better than when he’d arrived: alert, and more relaxed, and not like he was about to bolt for the door, all of which Sam considered good signs.

“So I read through your list,” Sam said, before putting both their water glasses on the coffee table and flopping down opposite him.

John’s expression was determined. “What the hell is unusual sperm?”

Sam had just taken a mouthful of mineral water, but swallowed it before it came up through his nose. “Um, I think we can probably forget that one for now. Mostly what I noticed is we’re pretty much on the same frequency, with a couple of exceptions.” (Okay, a few stunners; but one thing at a time.) “So we can either go down the list and talk about each of those now, if you want, or you could just…” Let me, he didn’t say. Give me the green light. Trust me. Take, take, protect.

John dropped his face into his hands, then looked up again, clearly fighting for composure. “Honestly, how much more talking do we have to do, here, because it’s not really my best thing.”

“Not that much more,” Sam said, because he was personally nearing the end of his ability to not have John’s skin under his hands. “There’s this, though, and I think it’s important.” He slid a piece of paper across the table towards Sheppard. “Consent form. Double-sided. I told you, by the book.”

John shot him an incredulous look and then picked it up, reading swiftly, one end of his mouth twisted down. Sam wasn’t sure if he disapproved or if that was just his paperwork face.

“I don’t have an emergency contact,” was the first thing he said, voice tight. “Not stateside.”

Sam thought about this. Trying to get hold of someone at Really Really Classified wasn’t going to help John in a pinch anyway. “What about next-of-kin?”

John nodded, looking a little less distant. “My brother’s in Virginia. Miraculously still alive after some of the shit we pulled. He grew up a little more…normal.”

“Whatever normal means. So, put him down,” he said, offering John a mechanical pencil out of a cup on the end table. John took it, smiling almost invisibly as he clicked it to bring the lead forward.

“None of this list applies,” he continued slowly, reading down the medical conditions, “except for, um, obviously, joint or mobility problems. Left knee, hip. And, uh, broke my wrist in Kandahar, too.” He looked up, face unreadable. “Missing a kidney.”

Sam nodded. “Then mark those down. I’ll be careful until we really talk it through.” He hesitated, then asked anyway. “It’s probably stupid even to ask this, but PTSD?”

Sheppard shrugged, but it looked elaborate, calculated. “Just the usual vet stuff, I guess. I don’t really sleep. Wake easily. Don’t touch me when I do fall asleep, unless you like chokeholds.” He sounded a little apologetic about this last part and Sam wondered who he’d throttled in the past, body awake before mind, and wondered all over again just what kind of action this guy had seen, or if he’d really be okay with being tied down.

He could tell when Sheppard got to the main part, though, because he pressed his mouth into a line and his cheekbones went pink; and again, when Sheppard got to the part where Sam had been pretty sure all along he was going to choke.

“Yeah, no, I can’t do this,” he blurted, and shoved the piece of paper away from him on the table, throwing down the pencil. The submissive/bottom would like to experience the following things during the scene.

Sam took a deep breath. “Want to talk about why?”

Sheppard looked at him incredulously, then drawled, “Well, first of all, I have no fucking idea.

Sam fought not to laugh. “I think you have more of an idea than you’re letting on.” Somehow he was sitting closer to John than he’d been just a second before, and pulled one of John’s hands into his lap, holding it between both of his. “Look, I don’t mind taking point on this one, based on your list. I’m not gonna overwhelm you, I’ll keep it to a few things. So I think we can just about be done talking, as long as you sign off, and promise me something. The most important thing.”

John moved fast when he wanted to, a quick sideways shift and a twist, enough to cup his hands around the back of Sam’s neck, and then he did something strange: leaned his forehead against Sam’s, close and intimate, looking straight at him without guile, long-lashed and flushed. Suddenly they were both breathing harder. Shit, this guy was gonna be a brat. Sam didn’t care. “What’s that?”

He let himself get serious for a second, searching Sheppard’s face to make sure he was reading everything right. “Just—don’t be a zipper-suited sun god here. It’s like in the club: same rules. You need it to stop, you say stop and everything the fuck stops. I mean it. And because we’re not agreeing beforehand, I get your verbal consent for everything, this time, before I do it. Every single thing.”

“Don’t we need a word,” John said, not looking away from Sam’s mouth.

“If you want,” said Sam, reaching up to pull down the collar of John’s t-shirt, like John was his to touch, because he was, now, slipping his hand inside to glide along the length of John’s collarbone. There was another scar there, a recent one, ropy against the smoothness of his skin; he brushed the tips of his fingers against the beginning of the wiry hair, watched John’s eyelids flutter shut. His fingers tangled around the chain holding his dog tags and he tugged, a little, experimentally. He wondered why John hadn’t been wearing them at Numbers, watched the adam’s apple of his throat move up and down, promised himself he was going to wrap his hand around it at some point. “But you can also just say no or stop or ouch and that’s pretty much—for tonight we don’t need anything special to—”

“Awesome,” breathed John, and Sam didn’t have time to tease him for being a valley girl before they were kissing again, mouths clinging and pushing, only this time Sam didn’t hold them back, he let them both fall over the edge of it and everything got heated and fraught and complicated, fast. Without really thinking about it he wound Sheppard’s hair in his fist and wrenched his head backward for better access to his mouth, licking into it just for the sheer pleasure of taking. John moaned at that, a high startled sound, and his body went rigid, which snapped Sam out of it, and reminded him what he intended to do. He bit Sheppard’s lower lip, once, sharply, then pulled back.

“I can tell you need this,” he said, catching his breath. “And I get that. But you also need to do what I tell you, and you can start to believe me when I tell you I’m going to take care of you.”

John’s eyes were mostly pupil, lips wet, chest heaving, but he nodded, just once, pulling against Sam’s fist at which his eyes got even wider; then he held himself still, clearly waiting to be told what to do next. Sam finally let go of the fistful of hair, reluctantly, and picked up the pencil to sign neatly across the bottom of the contract (The dominant/top would like to experience the following during the scene; Sheppard had clearly read what he’d written there, and apparently had no objections).

He put the mechanical pencil back in John’s hand before pointing toward the bedroom.

“Sign it, Sheppard. Then in there. Clothes off. All of them. Sit at the foot of the bed.”

Kneeling was out of the question for now, and Sam knew keeping a distinction between the two kinds of pain, injury versus deliberately inflicted, was going to be crucial, in the same way that rope bondage had to be distinct from, could never equal, being in captivity. Why am I always topping soldiers, Sam wondered, before answering his own question. It was all he did, all of his life purpose wrapped into one; the whole damn maroon-beret directive, still, after everything, to this day.

“These things we do,” he whispered under his breath, following John into the bedroom. Take, protect. Protect, take. Cherish, cherish, cherish.

 

 

Chapter Text

Maybe it was because of McKay. Probably a lot of things wrong with him were because of McKay. But John had honestly had it up to here with talking.

His entire pathetic romantic and sexual history had been the subject of endless discussion, usually coupled with either disappointment (“but why don’t we have sex since we got married…aren’t you attracted to me anymore…am I not pretty enough for you…we can’t go on like this, I have needs you know…I mean, do you think you might be gay?”) or sublimated frustration (“yes, yes, Colonel, we’re all very impressed with your manliness, now are you going to hand me the soldering iron or just keep pointing it at me, like it’s a surrogate for something unspeakable and Freudian?”).

And Sheppard wasn’t a talker to start with. He flew things, he blew up things, he ran toward things other people ran away from.

Fuck this. He stopped at the bed and stripped quickly to skin, clothes in a pile on the floor, dog tags on top; eyed it for a second and then moved the stack to a chair, limping back to the foot of the bed just as Sam stood in the open doorway, arms crossed, looking at him, backlit by the light from the living room.

Sam hadn’t said he couldn’t move, but he felt like he shouldn’t. He gripped the edge of the bed with both hands. He hadn’t been told not to talk, either, but he was done fucking talking.

“That’s good,” said Sam quietly, in his voice of wet velvet, and Sheppard felt the muscles in his thighs relax, that he hadn’t realized were tense. Sam crossed over to John and buried his hand in his hair again, not touching him anywhere else; and now John’s shoulders went limp, and he almost sagged, but Sam held onto him by the scalp. What the hell, he couldn’t even hold himself up—

“Don’t fight it, don’t fight me,” said Sam in his ear, and pushed him backward onto the bed, so John went with it, and a fine trembling started in his arms and the muscles of his chest.

Sam pulled his own shirt off over his head and for a dizzying second John couldn’t believe this was happening to him. Sam’s skin was glowing and beautiful and his dark eyes were filled with something wordless and burning, he wanted John, and this didn’t make any sense, this wasn’t the kind of thing he could understand. Sam propped himself up on an elbow, then, looking down at him with total attention and concentration. He traced the shape of the collarbone scar again, and the long jagged ugly one that started below John’s right nipple and curved around his rib cage to the back. He didn’t seem to notice John’s hip and thigh, where the burns and skin grafts were still puckered, angry and obvious. “Were these all from the same fight?” he asked, his voice so low John could barely hear him. John nodded, swallowing. It hadn’t really been much of a fight, more of a total shitshow, but John didn’t think Sam wanted to hear about that just now, so he kept it to himself.

Sam’s fingers curled briefly around his throat, urging him to slide a little higher up the bed; just the suggestion of a real grip, but it was enough to remind John that he was naked and miraculously half-hard and in Sam’s bed. He inhaled as Sam let go of his throat and then grazed his hand lower, fingers curled, combing through John’s chest hair, and John had always been kind of embarrassed about how much of it there was, but Sam laughed, a throaty pleased thing, and said, “Hold still, this is for me, not you,” and John forced himself to open his eyes, and let him. He just let him.

Sam touched him everywhere, and John let him; he wasn’t ticklish, and Sam’s hands were strong and insistent and exploring, and did what they wanted, and John let him. Sam dug his nails into the thin skin over John’s hipbones, carefully skirting the burn grafts, and the insides of John’s thighs, and left little red half-moons there, and John had to choke back a whine. Sam leaned closer and bit along the length of his collarbones leaving bright marks, each burning like a small star. He twisted John’s nipples with his fingers, and then bent over to bite at them, his tongue warm and soft and his teeth sharp, and this time John struggled to stay quiet, until Sam said, softly in his ear, “Let me hear you, let it feel good,” and John heard himself making sounds he’d never heard himself make before.

He was vaguely horrified, and flung an arm up to cover his face. Sam pulled it away again, and held his wrist down at his side, then moved to straddle his hips, careful as he swung his leg over John’s injured one, the denim of his jeans rough against John’s crotch. Sam pressed his other wrist down against the mattress, then bent over him again to take one nipple between his teeth, then the other, flashes of fierce pain that went past perfect into some other, darker, more bone-deep place that hurt and was therefore even more perfect, and John’s hips moved abortively underneath him, tender skin scraping against denim, another kind of wincing discomfort, but he couldn’t help it, he wanted that too, he wanted everything Sam would give him, and when Sam held him down it was easier, somehow, it made it okay to move and let out the sounds tangled in his throat.

“Sheppard, look at me,” Sam was saying, and somehow he focused on his face, and nodded. “I want to tie your hands. Just your hands, this time. Is that okay?” and he remembered he had to say it aloud, so he said “Yes,” his voice scratchy, and Sam seemed to like this answer because he kissed him for a long time, one hand pulling John’s hair and the other gripping softly around his throat again like it belonged there.

John didn’t know where the rope had come from but Sam was already winding it carefully around one wrist, then the headboard, then the other wrist, running two fingers around the inside of the cuff he’d just made and twisting, John guessed to make sure it wasn’t tied too tightly. He couldn’t really have formed words beyond yes or no at this point if lives had depended on it, but he sensed tenderness in the way Sam tied him, the caution and the softness of the rope, as well as the tension of it, and that it was done for him, and he felt grateful for it in a way that translated directly into making his cock start to fill and twitch, like it hadn’t in months.

He thought about pulling against the rope, to feel it, but somehow everything had slowed to the speed of cold honey, and he couldn’t move. And now, tied this way, he also couldn’t cover his face, or himself. Sam could see everything.

“Hey, no, it’s okay,” said Sam, taking John’s face in both hands and kissing his eyelids, then the tip of his nose, then his mouth again, deeply and thoroughly. Not knowing what else to do, John just let himself be kissed, but this was all proceeding, he thought, very weirdly, and he wondered when there was going to be more of something, or less gentle, because the memory of that flogging was still surging hot and needy inside him and he wanted, god help him, he wanted Sam to hit him—

He’d said that last part aloud because Sam was laughing, a little. “Oh, Shep, did you really think I was going to get you like this and not hurt you? Do you not know me at all?” And without warning Sam grabbed John and flipped him over, with a strength John somehow hadn’t anticipated, and the ropes holding John’s wrists were now crossed and much more taut, and his shoulders were pulled tight, and he wasn’t quite sure where to put his face, but Sam’s hands were gliding down the skin of his back, passing over his shoulders and his lower back to his ass and the tops of his thighs, brushing for an instant between his legs over his balls and the back of his cock, making him shiver and flinch.

“I want you to look at something, and tell me if it’s a yes or a no,” said Sam eventually, and John twisted his head to one side to see what Sam had pressed against his upper arm: it was a leather strap, or a paddle, about three inches wide. It looked flexible but he could feel the thickness of it on his skin, and the coolness of the dark brown leather, which looked new and polished, and gleamed in the dim light. “Fuck yes,” he said, his voice a rasp. He heard Sam huff a laugh, and then his hands were warm on John’s shoulders again, easing and rubbing away some of the tension from the ropes.

“Rules of engagement,” said Sam, in that same low voice, kneading John’s lower back, and then at the globes of his ass, and he struggled to reconcile what had basically been a deep-tissue massage, so far, with what was incredibly about to happen and wasn’t going to be nearly as benevolent. “Physically or otherwise, you tell me the second we need to stop. And I’ll do the same—tops get to safeword out too, if we need to leave a scene.” John tried to nod, then remembered: “Yes,” but the word sounded wrong just on its own, so he said it again: “Yes, Sam.” Sam’s hand tightened on his uninjured hip for an instant. “That’s so good. You’re doing good.” John was grateful he was lying facedown; he didn’t know what was on his face but he knew he couldn’t control it and that he didn’t want Sam to see it, not yet. Making noise was bad enough; John didn’t make sounds, ever.

Sam kept stroking down his back, long slow sensual pulls of both hands, and John was lulled by it despite himself, and therefore not ready when Sam abruptly said, voice tight, “Starting now,” and followed it with a resonating crack against John’s ass that made his entire body jolt, and stole his breath completely.

After the initial strike they came in a soft accelerando, warm at first and then faster and harder, and then so fast together until there was almost no pause, John had no chance to catch his breath as the leather flew over his skin, raining down pelting blows that moved around in a flurry of increments, almost as if Sam was using the paddle the same way he had the flogger, circling and brushing past his skin rather than striking down and staying in one place. He heard Sam behind him, exhalations coming in short, hard puffs, and sensed the sheer physical effort this was taking, and felt that same wordless wash of gratitude he had felt in the club, that someone was doing this for him, and he didn’t understand what Sam was getting out of it, all this work and no endorphins, that John was the one feeling all the pleasure.

The leather slid off his body at the end of each blow and came down each time in a slightly different spot and just when he’d dealt with the feeling of that slap it had already shifted and come down elsewhere, and it wasn’t like he’d thought it would be, less of a feeling of being paddled and more of a feeling of just being beaten, worked over like a speed bag. They weren’t discrete, weren’t identifiable as individual blows, they were rain, they were hail, they were a white-hot flood of sensation and the minutes went by, and became some kind of time not measured in units, and it went on and on until he stopped trying to control his response to it, it was impossible to guess where the next stripe of pain would fall and he just gave up and went slack and then rigid over and over, let himself flinch from each slap, let his body twist and rise and jerk, wrapped his fists around the ropes holding up his arms, let them hold his weight and he thought he was saying something but it didn’t matter what, he just let Sam take whatever he wanted from his spasming flesh.

And it was right at that instant it happened again, and this time he felt it: his mind plunged from its usual place to somewhere deeper and yet brighter, ears filled with a loud humming sound, where there was nothing to fight against and nothing to defend. It was an almost empty place except for the hot feeling of the pain, and he thought it was probably okay for him to stay here where it was simpler, where he didn’t have to say or do anything, just exist. There was a pause, and he wondered if it were already over, but Sam had only switched hands and the torrent of pain happened all over again only from another angle. John dimly thought he might be about to come but couldn’t really tell, just that his hips moved helpless against the sheets with each slam of the leather, and he concentrated on trying not to beg, mostly because he didn’t even know what he wanted to ask for.

Then the blows slowed, and slowed more, until they pattered out like the end of a drum solo and finally ceased, with the cool flat of the leather still caressing him though John could hardly feel it as an individual sensation, everything was just undifferentiated fire; and then Sam’s strong fingers were laced around his throat again, and he became aware that he was sucking in air desperately, and Sam’s touch settled him, he cleared his throat and tried to drag in air less frantically, more deliberately.

“That’s right,” said Sam, quietly, “Just breathe.” And John felt his heart rate drop perceptibly as Sam started raking slowly through his hair with the other hand.

He zoned out again, then, but after a long time he was—somehow turned over again onto his back and curled up, arms still tied, but now mostly in Sam’s lap, and Sam kissing his face over and over, brushing back his sweaty hair, smoothing through the tangles and telling him how good he was, how well he’d done, how perfect, how beautiful, how good. Everything hurt. John felt amazing.

Sam untied him without dislodging John from his lap, which seemed talented and wonderful to John, and then he was holding a bottle of water to John’s mouth so he drank from it, coughing a little when he swallowed, and Sam was wiping his face so apparently he had been crying, but that was okay, just this once he knew it was okay because Sam said it was. Sam pulled the sheet up over both of them, him with his jeans still on, and held John against his chest in a way he thought no one had ever held him before, or maybe he had never let them, arms around his shoulders, protecting him, Sam’s chin pressed against the top of his head, murmuring nothing; and then just when John thought he’d gotten through the worst of it and was safely out the other side, all he did was think: goddammit, Rodney. And there was that dense wave of anguish again, he was in completely over his head and drowning, and he turned his face into Sam’s chest and sobbed. And Sam, like some kind of idiot angel, just held him, wrapped his arms more tightly around him. “Yeah, I thought so. I thought so, beautiful. It’s okay, you’re going to be okay. I’m here and I’m not letting go. You’re okay.”

“Fuck this,” John choked out, before a fresh surge of it pulled him under. It was like being gutshot, or stabbed; it was so entire he couldn’t see anything, just held onto Sam like it could save him and, during one bad moment, he couldn’t help it, pressed his face against Sam’s skin and opened his mouth to shout but couldn’t even make a sound, raw with grief, and Sam held him tightly and just let him, just fucking let him.

“I know. You’re doing it, you’re doing okay. It’s almost over,” and John wasn’t sure how Sam knew that but he seemed to know so many other things about John, about his body and about how it worked, that he believed him, and held on, and just let the pain beat him from the inside like a drum.

And like with other kinds of pain, there was a pause, just an opening, enough for him to drag in an inhalation before it descended again in a clench; and then another, a little longer this time; and another. Gradually John became aware of Sam’s lips on his forehead, his voice—he was singing? Or talking. His chest vibrated, and John held on, and tried to stop. It was better now. It was a little better. He started to be able to hear things. “There you go, you’re okay. Stay with me. In—good. Out—again.” He was in Sam’s arms, and he did what he was told. Rodney was dead, and he didn’t know how to keep living. But he was alive. He was alive and he was right here. He was still here. “Good, that’s good. There you go. So good.”

Something soft against his face—a t-shirt. Sam held it to his nose and said, “Blow,” and John laughed, a tremulous bleak thing, and did. Sam wiped his face again and threw the t-shirt over the side of the bed. “You’re amazing, you did so well.” John tightened his arms around him, though Sam was clearly insane, and couldn’t let go for anything.

But after a while someone was shaking him in the dark. “Shep, wake up. You need—here, take these.” Three oval pills in his hand. “You’re going to have a motherfucker of a headache, not to mention your ass got beat into next week, so just take them.” He swallowed them dry, was handed water, drank it. “Okay, one more thing—slide the fuck over, you’re taking up the whole bed.” He tried to laugh again but couldn’t, just went where the hands pushed him, wound up on his stomach with one foot hanging off the edge and was unconscious almost before he’d finished moving, just barely aware of Sam’s hand, pulling the sheet up over him and drawing soothing circles on one shoulder, until he dropped off, and slept like he hadn’t remembered sleeping in months.

  

  

Chapter Text

Sam woke early, because the goddamn Air Force never lets up, went to take a piss, and then stood in the kitchen yawning for a second, thinking indeterminately about coffee and watching the sky go different shades of orange and fuchsia, before deciding fuck it and heading back to bed.

He snagged his phone from the coffee table on the way.

Hey, Sam texted, after shooting a glance at Sheppard, who was still totally racked out. He lay sprawled on his stomach, cheek pressed slack into the pillow, dark hair going fifty different directions, one wiry naked shoulder pale and vulnerable against the sheets. Trouble Man.

Sam doubled the pillow up behind his head, moving carefully; pulled the sheet up around his waist. At some point in the night he’d been smart enough to shed his jeans, so was down to boxer briefs. He only had to wait maybe a minute before Steve texted back. Got your six. What’s happening?

“‘What’s happening?’” he mouthed, rolling his eyes. Oh my fucking god where do I start.

There was a pause. Language, Sam.

Sam glared at the phone. So I met someone. He’s funny, and good-looking, and I already like him. (Goddammit, he thought. He really did.)

The little bubble with dots in it rose and fell several times. Finally: Is that the problem?

Sam bit his lip. Yeah, it was. Not exactly.

So you like him, but?

He’s military. Kind of messed up. A lot messed up. Maybe Bucky levels of messed up.

More bubble with dots. Brainwashed, or just, what do you call it. Traumatized?

Sam thought for a second. Probably just trauma. (Jesus—“just trauma.”) Won’t talk, says it’s classified. Flew in Afghanistan but I don’t think that’s it.

If anyone can handle that, Sam, you know it’s you.

You’d think so, wouldn’t you, Sam thought, but didn’t text. Then Steve again:

Do you want me to try to talk to him?

Wow. That was a thought Sam hadn’t had. He considered this, lowkey taking another look at Sheppard, who was still completely unconscious, not even twitching or appearing to breathe. Sam studied the way one hand was folded up beneath him, probably having fallen asleep. For the first time Sam could see the gray mixed into his hair, there on the nape where it was cropped shorter.

If I can’t get him to talk to me, or someone else. Yeah, maybe.

He hesitated before typing the next part. Everyone there okay? You and Bucky?

Steve sent back the hearteyes emoji. Disgusting. How was Natasha even friends with this loser.

Happy for you, Gramps. A pause. Seriously, everything cool?

Hate to break your heart, but we’re fine. Go flying. Hold hands with your pilot. Just let me know if I can help.

Sam sighed, relieved. He really didn’t want to go back to Stark Tower anytime soon, though he knew he’d probably have to at some point, because wherever Steve was, disturbing kinds of trouble tended to follow, the kind Sam tended to be good at helping with. You too. If anything comes up.

He waited for it. Sure enough: On your left.

Go to hell, Rogers.

Sam caught his weekend 8 a.m. alarm just before it went off, slid the volume all the way down, and twisted to put his phone on the nightstand. When he turned back around, one eye was watching him.

“Okay, Sheppard, you know that’s creepy, right.”

Half-a-smile, slow, blinking. Then that drawl: “Maybe I’m a creepy guy.”

“You sound like you ate a Brillo pad. Drink this.” Sam handed him the last of the water.

Sheppard pushed up on one elbow to down it, then winced, apparently just realizing the extent of his damage. Sam let himself be a little smug as he took the bottle back.

“Yeah, you’re gonna be sore.” He lifted the sheet to double-check: no broken skin, which he knew. But John’s ass and the backs of his thighs were beautiful, purple and blue and already yellowing. Sam wanted to touch them, go over every bruise, but didn’t know how long John could stay, didn’t want to start something they couldn’t finish. Although if he was being honest, the whole thing was starting to turn into something he wasn’t sure he could finish anytime soon. He liked the look of those marks. He liked that he’d put them there, that they were his. He liked the thought of making more.

He lowered the sheet, reluctantly. “I can get you something to put on those.”

“I, it’s…no, it’s fine,” said John, stammering a little. That pink flush high on his cheekbones. Damn, white folks were pitiful. “I like it.”

Sam hadn’t expected Sheppard to be able to admit that. “That’s really hot, and also, no. Be right back.”

He returned from his bathroom with a tube of hydrocortisone 2.5 and another of aloe gel. It’d be nice if they came mixed together, but oddly enough the pharmaceutical industry seemed uninterested in compounding salve for the kink community. He lifted up the sheet and didn’t make a big deal out of smoothing on a thin layer of hydrocortisone, then a thicker one of the gel, ignoring John’s hissing intake of breath and rubbing it in carefully but thoroughly.

Sam wiped his hands on a corner of the sheet, then draped it over Sheppard more loosely and lay back down again on the other side of the bed. “Go back to sleep. It’s Sunday.”

John stretched, carefully, then smiled at him, and it was so simple and unexpected it made something in Sam’s chest turn over. “No, I’m awake. Don’t you have brunch with your sister?”

“Usually, but it’s a drill weekend,” Sam said, unable to stop himself from running a hand through Sheppard’s hair. John groaned and closed his eyes, and when Sam tried to move away, Sheppard’s own hand flashed up and caught his. “No. Don’t stop. Not allowed.”

“Knew you were gonna be bratty,” muttered Sam, but he left his hand where it was, raking out the tangles gently, massaging John’s neck with his thumb.

John’s eyes were still closed. “So I. Acted like a fucking freak last night.”

“Freak in the sheets, you mean?” said Sam, all innocence. “That say that’s a good thing.”

“You know what I mean.”

Sam sighed. Okay, they were doing this, and he hadn’t even had breakfast yet. He reclaimed his hand and scrubbed at his own face, stroking his moustache back into place. “Yeah, so. Don’t act too surprised—you had that coming, Sheppard. Whatever it is, you’ve been shoving it down in there for what, three, four months now? Whenever you went on leave from Really Really Classified.”

Both eyes regarded him now, alert, cloudy gray-green. John’s mouth was set, and Sam was starting to be familiar with what that particular expression meant. “I still can’t tell you. About what happened.”

“Don’t take this too personally, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened.”

Sheppard barked a laugh that was so full of pain, Sam almost hated himself for what he’d just said.

“Well, that much I can tell you: he was a genius. Best mind on our project. More than that—he was the project.”

Sam twisted onto his side and propped himself on one elbow, watching John’s face. If he was actually talking, Sam was listening.

“Shit, you’re—how am I in bed with someone like you,” John said, moving to touch Sam’s chest. Sam shook his head.

“Don’t get distracted.” He tried to think of a question he could ask, that wasn’t going to invoke the very secret secret status of whatever secret secret bullshit John had been up to. “How long?”

“What?” said Sheppard, still preoccupied.

Sam closed his hand over John’s and pulled it away from his chest. “How long was this project? I’m guessing not just a tour or two.”

John shook his head, hair falling into his face. “Ten years. Coming up on ten years exactly. I mean—it’s still, it still is. Just, I’m not there.”

“Because of what happened?”

“Pretty much. I tried to stay and keep going. I did try. It didn’t work.”

“Because, let me guess,” said Sam, brushing back John’s hair again, wondering when was the last time he’d had it cut, “Your coping skills mainly involved alcohol and stone-cold denial.”

“That and getting into fist fights with subordinates,” Sheppard admitted. He rolled over on his back, which must have hurt, and looked up at the ceiling fan. “Sometimes breaking stuff. Your condo is nicer than mine.”

More distraction. Sam felt a flash of something not quite like anger, but close. Frustration maybe. “At the risk of sounding like an asswipe, people die on missions, Sheppard. You can’t do shit about it.”

“No,” said John, and his voice was so small and hurt Sam wanted to spank him and cradle him all over again. “I’ve lost people before. This wasn’t…he was a civilian, Sam. And it was my job to—he was my job.”

“I get that. And, we can’t always be perfect at our jobs.”

John shook his head, and then his mouth was on Sam’s so fast he didn’t have time to react, just opened, startled, and let him in. Sheppard was a good kisser, not too fastidious about it, not too sloppy. His tongue slid against Sam’s, licked along the roof of his mouth and ignited a soft fire at the base of his spine. He gave in and pulled Sheppard on top of him, their legs tangling, bare skin against skin. Closed his eyes, let himself grind up against him a few times. Fuck, this guy was good at not having feelings.

“I just—want to not think about it, anymore,” John gasped, as Sam’s fingernails finally found the bruises and scraped delicately at the skin there, long slow strokes up from his thighs to his lower back, making John shiver and hide his face against Sam’s shoulder.

“And I can help with that, up to a point,” Sam said, breathing on his neck and then biting down just below his ear. “But it won’t go away. And it won’t stop coming back until you deal with it.”

“I kind of I thought did that, last night.”

“Not how it works, Shep. You gotta log your hours.”

John’s voice went cold. “What do you know about it.”

“My boyfriend died,” said Sam flatly, lips barely moving against the skin of Sheppard’s neck, and he felt rather than saw John go still. “I already told you. But Riley wasn’t just my wingman. Went down and I couldn’t do anything but watch. Like a horror movie, only it was real and we were in it.”

John didn’t move. Then: “An RPG.”

Sam drew a breath, went on. “Like I said. Normal night extraction. Then out of fucking nowhere. Nothing anyone could have done.”

“You were dropped?”

Sam mouthed John’s neck where he’d just bitten it, thinking. “Not exactly.”

John rolled off him to one side. “Classified?”

“So classified. The most classified.”

They lay there on their backs for a beat, not looking at each other.

“This is bullshit,” said John, at last.

“Yeah, and the worst part is, we’re not even eating pancakes for this conversation.”

John looked at him again, and the hazel eyes definitely had more light in them, today, and Sam did kind of wonder if last night had shifted something for him, maybe. Maybe. Or maybe now that the scab was off, the wound was about to start bleeding for real this time.

Sheppard lowered his voice suggestively. “I know a place that makes chicken and red velvet waffles.”

“You do not,” said Sam, marveling.

“I do.”

“What the frickin’ piss, airman? Why are you not driving me there right now, in your piece of shit Camaro?”

“Because I can’t sit down,” Sheppard complained, and Sam gave him true, official, unadulterated side-eye, flexing his fingers in exaggerated preparation.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you asking me to stop last night—you really gonna bitch about this now?”

John opened his mouth to argue and Sam pounced. “Oh, it is on.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

From: John Sheppard <jumper1@atlantis.sgc.gov>
To: Radek Zelenka <zelenkaradecek@atlantis.sgc.gov>
Date: 7 July 2014, 12:03:47 CST
Subject: Re: John, this is enough.

Hi Radek. Sorry I didn’t write before. Like you guessed I wasn’t doing too great for a while.

John stopped, took another gulp of coffee. Thanks to McKay always thieving it, he was now used to drinking his boiling hot, about the only way to get it down before it was stolen straight from his cup. He guessed he could let it cool a little now, maybe even add cream. What a world to live in.

He started a sentence, then backspaced. Come on, it was just Zelenka. He could do this.

PT is going pretty well, tell Ronon he’ll have to work to keep up with me.

That was a lie on like four fronts at once. Forget running—at this point, John just hoped someday he’d be able to walk without the cane. Or, hell, even walk with the cane.

(And Sam hadn’t even touched his leg. John knew what the scars looked like, the original ones as well as those from the graft surgery, and was glad Sam hadn’t examined them. Just positioned John carefully so he wouldn’t be in any pain, anyway not the injury kind, and then gone to fucking town on him. John shifted in his chair, still feeling the welts from Saturday night, letting it take his breath away a little.)

Thanks for the pictures and news. I’m glad the ZP3Ms are working out.

He paused again, looked at the tiny Blackberry keyboard. Was this the part where he was supposed to say something about when he would be back? How the hell was he going back? Being away from Atlantis was like having part of his body gone, a cavernous hollow empty space hanging out inside of him where important internal organs used to be. But Atlantis without Rodney couldn’t exist.

The truth was that of all the people to be dead, Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD, seemed the most unlikely. He was the least dead person John had ever met. He was alive enough for several dozen people, all stealing John’s coffee and taking the last cookie and kvetching about their hypoglycaemia and their food allergies and their misunderstood brilliance and the terrible loneliness of their tormented genius minds.

He wasn’t surprised Rodney was still yelling in his brain, months post-mortem. Actually he was more surprised Rodney hadn’t yet found some way to rematerialize and chew them all out for having a funeral without him, and probably saying all the wrong stuff in praise of his intellect.

See, this is why John never answered email. He didn’t know what else to say.

It was okay. It was Zelenka, for chrissake. He didn’t have to get fancy with it.

Take care of each other. Will write more soon—JS

He hit send, listened for the pinging sound, then tossed away the PDA. Enough already, for one day.

John thought, standing up to stretch, that maybe he should be freaking out more, or, more accurately, at all; but he just…wasn’t. Not about the gay part, or the other part either. Sam made everything seem normal. Or maybe after all John had just finally gotten used to out-of-control, unpredictable experiences, after approximately ten years spent visiting assorted planets in another galaxy and having shit go sideways usually within minutes of stepping through the gate.

He decided swimming trunks were long enough to hide most of what bruising was left, and the water would feel good on his skin, so he changed fast and then stood at his front door, looking outside through the spyhole to make sure no one else was at the apartment complex pool, which he could barely see if he craned his head just right. It seemed deserted, which made sense for a Monday morning.

He still wasn’t used to being able to look through the door; the Ancients apparently hadn’t thought about maybe not wanting to run into people, and it was one of John’s least favorite things about his quarters, that when the door opened he had no idea who was there, it could be anyone waiting to waylay him about anything—though it was almost always McKay, which was fine. He’d gotten over any desire for privacy from Rodney pretty much in the first year, when it became clear that his sleep schedule and, frankly, all of his waking hours as well, were all entirely at Rodney’s mercy, should the chief science officer have an idea in the middle of the night or at any other time.

Shepherd had never been much of a pool swimmer; the water was inevitably over-chlorinated and stung his nose, but he rarely stayed in very long anyway, just enough just stretch out his tense muscles, wash away the night sweat, and clear his head a little from the dreams.

This morning’s had been somehow worse than usual. He was in an F-302, coming back from a mission with McKay, everything fine, only this time when he turned around to ask Rodney a question, he wasn’t there, and John started flying in frantic circles, looking all around the clock face trying to figure out where the hell he’d gone to. He radioed desperately for backup, for someone to check his blind spots, and when he checked the GIB seat again in sheer disbelief, this time Keller was back there, pale and splattered in blood, saying what did you do to him, where did you put him. I don’t know, I don’t know what happened, John kept repeating in bewilderment, as he lost control of the stick and started spiralling, and woke with both hands clenched into fists, croaking I don’t know into the empty bedroom.

Sheppard finally decided the coast was clear and walked without incident around to the pool, kicked off his flip-flops inside the iron gate, and slid into the water using the metal ladder, lowering his leg carefully, rather than diving, which was fine, because the water was surprisingly cold for July.

He eased into the water up to his neck and did a measured breaststroke from one end to the other, turning slowly when he reached the end, using his arms to push off from the side. There was a dead palmetto bug floating belly-up in the middle of the pool and he cupped his hands under it and flung it off into the shrubbery; even treading water for that two-second interval was exhausting.

He twisted around again, did another lap. Sam had been surprised John hadn’t known who he was. John gripped the tile at the shallow end and stood up for a second; flung his head back, scattering water. McKay always made fun of him for it, but it was true—he wasn’t the best at Google-stalking, and “Sam Wilson” wasn’t a very good name for it anyway. Maybe if combined with his rank? He pushed off from the end, switching to a slow flutter kick.

Once, early on, he had made some dumbass comment about seeing two Athosian guys together, a comment that had Teyla smiling the special bright angry smile she only used when she was clearly trying really hard not to punch you so that she could educate you instead. John had gotten to know that expression well, but at the time he thought she was being very polite and charming. Of course, colonel, she had said, I am sure you do not mean to imply it is unacceptable for adults to be in a relationship of their own choosing? John had said something vacant in reply, only sort of getting it, but this was in those first uneasy days, when he was still vaguely trying to uphold the UC, and also way before they all knew about Ronon’s three moms.

Since then, John had seen nearly every permutation of adult partnership it was possible to see; Pegasus inhabitants didn’t seem to care who you made it with, as long as there were babies involved at some point, and he had come around to that point of view pretty quickly himself.

Still, it was probably a big step for him to go from tolerance to guarded curiosity to feeling that way himself about another guy and not trying to hide it. Rodney always noticed who was interested in John, no matter what their gender, and didn’t hesitate to make elaborate sarcastic comments about it; since most of the time John hadn’t noticed himself, it was actually kind of handy to let McKay be his portable gaydar, even as he spluttered about John getting all the space babes (an outraged complaint he continued to make even after he himself was married and getting some on the regular).

John reached the end of the pool, and instead of making the usual messy turn, let himself float on his back and drift into the middle of the water, staring up at a milky gray sky. He’d thought it would be a lot sunnier here, where there were palm trees and giant flying insects, but it had turned out to be overcast more than not, and rained more days than he expected. It made him miss the mainland, where an afternoon summer monsoon might hit hard on midday but had always blown over by sunset, leaving waves tall and translucent like the Pacific, light shining through them like clear green glass.

He sighed, flipped over again, and went back to the flutter kick.

Okay, so he liked the way Sam looked. Big deal. It didn’t mean he had to marry the guy. He thought about asking if they could fool around more. He thought he could handle it; they had already kissed, and if John had stood that without freaking out—the sudden memory of it made something curl hot and throttled inside him—then he could probably handle more touching. And definitely more hitting.

He thought about how he had never been great at doing the underwater flip at the end of the pool, but didn’t really care, because he wasn’t swimming for speed and anyway this way he didn’t have to snort water out of his nose. How he preferred swimming in the ocean even though breakers knocked you in the face, and seaweed got in your board shorts, and your rash guard rode up and left you with skin pebbled by gravel. The shaky marvel of staggering out of the surf, everything bright and wonderful, feet digging into wet sand.

How he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to surf again, or how he would cope with that. How with perfect pearling clarity he remembered afternoons on the mainland, balancing Torren on a boogie board, showing him how to hold his arms and where to put his feet, then later handing a sandy, wriggling kid back to Teyla—the casual, easy way their foreheads touched, her eyes creased with sun, face relaxed—and something in his chest squeezed tightly then, so he stopped thinking about that.

How in the middle of being spanked, he’d actually gotten it up. How that was astonishing and unexpected and also nice. How Sam hadn’t said anything about it, and that helped.

How Sam had kissed him, and held him and how that suddenly felt scary (he swam harder, put a little more shoulder into it, grimacing), a lot scarier than the rest of it, because he could become a junkie for that, that feeling of being sweat-drenched and high on endorphins and letting Sam pull him in, letting himself wrap his arms around Sam’s bare chest and just breathe there, skin to skin.

John stuck his face under the water, to clear his head, and made it maybe three more laps before Rodney started in on him.

“So, you liked that,” McKay said brightly, out of nowhere. John was proud of himself; he didn’t even flinch, just kept methodically stroking through the water, movements steady, face held carefully still.

“I’ll be honest: I’m surprised,” Rodney went on blithely, as John switched to a slow crawl and focused more or less grimly on the tiled depth markings on either side of the pool. Four and a half feet; five feet. Five and a half feet. Six feet. “Especially given the fact that, owing to my superior powers of observation and deduction, I rather assumed I already knew everything there was to know about you, not that you’ve ever exactly been an open book, Colonel Strong Silent Type, but—”

Okay, that was just—“Rodney, I’m not strong or silent. Jesus, it’s like you never heard of Han Solo.”

John could hear him putting his head to one side, mouth twisted up thoughtfully. “Good point. You’re far more rakish-hypercompetent-daredevil-who-deflects-everything-with-sarcasm.”

“No, Han was a hot mess,” John parried, using a phrase he’d learned from Chuck. “Leia was the competent sarcastic one.” Because you were—he stopped himself from finishing the thought, which presumably Rodney would hear anyway, and spun at the deep end of the pool, going back to breaststroke, already tired. “Besides, so what. So, I liked it. Whatever.” He tried not to let himself think about the fact that he was talking out loud, to himself, while swimming, because that was—

“Ah, but that’s just it,” Rodney said, pouncing. “You admitting that you liked something. Something that isn’t on ESPN. Anyway I assume bondage isn’t on ESPN? It’s certainly not a Canadian sport—”

“Is there a point to this?” John interrupted, feeling the sudden need to be elsewhere. The sky stayed overcast, and the low gray clouds made him feel chilled despite moving through the water.

“Only that you should let yourself have this,” Rodney said, after a beat. “Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” John said automatically, as he hauled himself out of the pool dripping. He sluiced most of the water out of his hair with one hand and headed through the iron gate back to his apartment, limping more without the cane but suddenly bent on getting away.

“Oh, obviously,” snapped Rodney, “Forgive me for noticing anything out of the ordinary, of course after one night you’re completely comfortable with the fact that the smell of his skin already makes you feel safe, and—”

John slammed the door to his apartment and stood there panting, wet and barefooted on the tile, having forgotten his flip-flops by the pool, as usual, because he didn’t ever wear them on the mainland. He stood there for a long time, confused, key still in his hand, not sure why the door-slamming had worked, only grateful that it had, and thinking again of that moment when Sam had pulled him close against his bare chest, trying to work out why it was both primally reassuring and also, fine, terrifying, and goddammit was any of this ever going to make any sense.

He shook himself out of it, crossed over to the sofa and looked blankly down at his phone to check the time, dripping down onto the cushions. Better start driving to therapy. But for another long moment he was still pinned in place.

Afterward, it had only been a little awkward, not nearly as bad as he’d thought it might be.

He’d dropped Sam off back at his place after the promised chicken and waffles, which they’d mostly wolfed down in silence, with some discussion of whether the cream cheese maple syrup was overkill (John) or vitally necessary (Sam), and a brief but intense discussion about Jason Collins joining the Brooklyn Nets, and Michael Sam being with the Missouri Tigers, and the relative importance of both these events, which John hadn’t actually known about but was interested to learn. And then, in Sam’s driveway, there’d finally been a vaguely stilted morning-after moment, which to be honest he had expected earlier, so he wasn’t too surprised by it when it finally showed up.

The noon light had beaten down on them as Sam had stood leaning in the driver’s-side window of the Camaro, clearly wanting to ask him something but maybe not sure of the right way to ask it. To be honest the whole situation was so FUBAR that John didn’t think there was a right way to ask anything. Or anyway no perfect way. John fiddled with his keychain and squinted out the windshield.

“Sgt. Wilson,” he’d finally said, looking at him over the tops of his aviators, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would appreciate it if you could see your way clear to a repeat performance. I mean, not exactly. But more or less.”

Sam gave him the joyful smile, then, the sexy gap-toothed one. “Already way ahead of you there.”

John had regrets. He’d been so, so floored by the whole thing he hadn’t really been able to reciprocate much. That didn’t seem fair. He shook his head. “I feel like I, um, kind of owe you one. Or several.”

Sam was still looking pleased with himself. “Beautiful, you don’t owe me a thing. You were perfect. But if you’re not busy on Tuesday night, you can find me right here.”

Sheppard squinted harder. “Not at Numbers?”

“Nothing against that fine establishment, but I’d rather have you all to myself.”

John felt a shiver go down the back of his neck. The backs of his thighs were screaming against the hot vinyl of the car seat and he didn’t care. “That…that works for me.”

“Cool,” said Sam, and hit his fist once on top of the car. “Door opens at 8 pm. No cover charge.”

John had driven away with a genuinely stupid grin on his face, and turned up the radio as far as it would go. At least for that moment, and for the rest of the afternoon, Rodney had had nothing to say.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sarah wasn’t impressed when she heard about Sheppard; but then not much impressed her. Sam figured he’d have to be going out with, like, Daniel Craig to get her to sign off on it. Maybe Idris Elba.

“We’re not dating, okay, not really. We only had dinner once. Just seeing each other.”

Sarah tilted her chin down and looked up at him through her eyebrows, legs crossed at the ankle, one sandal swinging off the end of her foot. “Seeing. Mm-hm. Is that what they call it these days.”

Sam was about to respond when he got hit in the back of the head by a little pastel foam airplane. He snagged it from the floor, then glided it again toward Peri, over the back of the wicker loveseat. She caught it this time and started doing a victory dance, a surprisingly complicated one for a six-year-old. It had a lot of hip movement and looked vaguely familiar.

Sarah sighed. “When it’s not airplanes it’s old MTV videos. She’s into Janet right now. Mostly Rhythm Nation.”

Sam let out a low whistle. “Girl’s got taste. Those are not easy.”

His niece finished busting her move and half-crawled over the back of the loveseat, sneakered feet kicking in the air, shoving the plane insistently at Sam. “Do it again, Uncle Sam, again!”

“Periwinkle, what did I say about the uncle word,” Sam reminded her, taking the plane and straightening out a bend in the wings.

“It makes you think of the government?” Peri struggled a little with the word.

(Uncle Sam. Jesus, if that wasn’t the perfect sidekick name.)

“Right in one. Now go back for a long pass,” and he extended his arm all the way, gliding the plane to her as she tripped backward, grabbing in the air for it, and Sarah yawned.

“She’ll literally do that all day if you let her.”

Sam thought for a second. “Peri, do you wanna be the airplane?”

“You mean fly like you?”

“Sort of. You can always say put me down if you don’t like it.”

“Oh now you’ve done it,” said Sarah, who nonetheless couldn’t help laughing as Sam picked Peri up and tossed her a couple of times in the air just for fun. He then proceeded to fly her daughter up and down the length of the screened-in porch, arms securely around her middle, making various whooshing and thwapping noises, not entirely sure what airplane he was even trying to be (a helicopter?). Peri gasped in delight, grabbing at Sam’s hands with her own but not stopping him, only clutching at him while shrieking, “Faster! Go faster!”

“You got an airman on your hands, sis,” said Sam finally, catching his own breath as Peri ran out into the back yard and immediately flopped down on her back in the grass, dizzy. Joey was out there already, waging strategically complicated war games in the dirt with various figurines, and he left them to wander over and stare down at her, puzzled by his sister.

“God I hope not,” Sarah said, shaking her head. “Remind me why I wanted you down here?”

“Free child care on weekends, I think.”

“Which you won’t able to deliver if you’re busy with this white boy.”

Sam winced. “He’s…not a boy, exactly. Little older than I am.”

Sarah stared at him. Sam could see the picture she was forming in her mind, and it wasn’t a flattering one. “Wow. So you’re taking up with some sad old drunk veteran? After boning Captain America?”

“It’s not like that,” he said automatically, in his best talking-to-journalists voice, even-toned and reasonable. “Steve’s just a good friend.”

Sarah remained unimpressed and frankly Sam couldn’t blame her, that hadn’t exactly been his best effort. “If you say so.”

“I do. And Sheppard’s not…” He couldn’t think what part of that to deny. Sad? A vet? White? Alcoholic? He tried again. “You might like him. Not bad to look at, got a weird sense of humor. Despite being broody and…sort of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

“Like that’s what you need in your life. You do like to mess shit up, don’t you.”

“And you wouldn’t know a thing about it,” Sam shot back, which netted him a pillow thrown at his head.

Sarah smoothed her maxi skirt down over her calves, bracelets clinking. “Look, my life is good now, okay. I like being single. I only go on an OKCupid date once every six months just to remind myself why I don’t do it. Last guy turned out to be Ted Cruz’s childhood best friend.”

“Wow, that’s—girl. What are the odds?”

She pushed back her hair, making a face before reaching again for her spritzer. “Houston’s a small town, I guess. At least he paid for sushi. But I’m over sad white men, so don’t wind me up. Have fun with yours.”

Sam had a vivid flashback to Saturday night, one that brought a wave of involuntary heat to his face; yeah, they were having fun, alright. But it did make him think: what did this mean to Sheppard, right now? He was in an unbelievably busted-up, broke-down place, and Sam was pretty sure it wasn’t just fun, to him. Maybe they needed to have that conversation about sex and exclusivity sooner rather than later. He felt in his pocket for his phone, wondered how rude it would be to use it.

Sarah gave him full-on sister-face over the top of her drink. “Jesus, just text him. Ask him to brunch next weekend. We’ll go to Baby Barnaby’s.”

“Not the Breakfast Klub?”

“He worth standing in line for?” It was always wrapped around the block, most weekends, by those craving the best soul food in the Third.

“Ate his way through his chicken and waffles and part of mine, on Sunday.”

Sarah hmp’d, but her face softened. Sometimes she was so pretty Sam couldn’t quite figure out how they were related, but there was a lot of strength in her face, too, and he also couldn’t imagine what it had been like for her: growing up without a dad, raising kids without one, and still getting up every day to grind like she was three women rather than one. He wished she didn’t have to be so strong. Wished there were better straight dudes on OKCupid, and fewer Tea Partiers.

“Was the Ted Cruz guy at least good-looking?” he asked, as he gave in and dug out his phone.

She took a swallow of her wine and shuddered dramatically. “God, no. Looked like an octopus in a car salesman suit. Maybe you can explain it—I don’t understand the way men age. I get the hair loss, and the belly, I guess; but why the clothes? Like can they try? It’s like they don’t even try. And I’m out here trying, you know what I’m saying. I go to the gym, I eat my baby kale.”

Sam flashed back again to his up-close view of Sheppard’s flat stomach, tensing as Sam flipped him—

“Yeah, no idea. Hang on a sec,” he said, looking for their last text.

It was from Sheppard to him, a couple hours ago: Sorry again I freaked. Sam hadn’t had a chance to respond yet, as he’d been pushing around queasy astronaut candidates on the flight line all day, in between his morning run and a glorious late-afternoon test of Tony and Shuri’s latest EXO iteration. His shoulders were still sore and his cheekbones felt windburnt.

He hesitated, then typed: Told you, we’re good. Wondered how to stop Sheppard’s embarrassment from coming up again; thought for a second about Bucky. Look, you didn’t try to hurt me, or yourself. So it’s really okay. Still think you should talk to someone, though.

Then, since it was almost five and he’d had a drink and all bets were off: Just curious…how do you feel about handcuffs?

He’d expected a longer pause; Sheppard wrote back immediately, Better than zip ties, I guess.

Sam frowned. Shit—had John been a POW, was that part of his deal? He should have pressed, should have asked more questions about bondage styles. Well, he could damn well ask them now.

“I’m just gonna—” he gestured with his phone at Sarah and she waved him off, already engrossed in her Kindle. Sam closed the screen door behind him and sat on the back step. The kids were way down under the trees “watering” them with the garden hose, mostly drenching each other.

Sounds like you’ve spent time tied up in not-so-fun ways, he started. A minute; two minutes.

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

Try me.

Sam leaned back on the step, feeling the heat of the concrete soak into him, figuring he was about to get chased off with “classified.” Instead, to his surprise, Sheppard wrote back two full sentences.

We met pretty often with the locals. Locals weren’t always friendly.

Where the fuck had this guy served, the eighteenth century? That was it; he was talking to Tony. He needed intel, not to indulge his curiosity but to make sure there wasn’t some fresh HYDRA-shaped hell they didn’t know about just waiting to pounce when they least suspected it.

He and John also hadn’t talked about why Sam had been plastered all over the news in April. What a Charlie Foxtrot. On top of all the usual negotiating, to have to deal with…whatever this was.

SERE? he asked.

Hell yeah, how do you think I survived the locals.

So John wasn’t just a pilot, but had classified-level training in survival and evasion, resistance and escape. Which made sense, given his rank. And yet here he was, letting Sam—okay. Deep breaths. He hadn’t made Sheppard do anything he hadn’t been into. Been really, really into. This was fine.

Sam wrote back, feigning calm. No reason for us to recreate the greatest hits, then. But you seem okay with rope?

It’s fine. A beat. Actually better than fine.

A pause, then Sheppard seemed to have abandoned punctuation (finally, Sam thought, pleased).

somehow I can tell it’s not
that you’re not
it’s hard to describe

He waited to see if Sheppard would try to describe it anyway, then threw him an easy one. Not doing it to you, but doing it for you?

yeah exactly

Then, to Sam’s surprise:

it’s holding me
keeping me there for you

Sam closed his eyes and swallowed. Every time he thought he could run a circle around Sheppard, he turned around to find him there. Whatever else the guy was, he was also way nervier than he liked to let on. Smarter, too. Must have been a strange career trajectory. Sam decided to take another risk.

Leather cuffs?

Another pause.

I think okay
but through the rope I can feel you
it’s
wait

be right back

Sam wasn’t sure he’d ever seen someone type it out before, instead of abbreviating it. John often didn’t know how to do certain things, obvious things; they stood out like small but bright flags. On top of a ten-year deployment; and Sam had thought his service record was eccentric. Honestly, the only thing he could think at this point was space travel; something to do with Thor, maybe. He didn’t know much about that particular big guy but after the Incident it was pretty clear other universes were involved, and since Sheppard obviously hadn’t been doing milkruns over Somalia—

Natasha would know. Or Tony. Nothing could be that classified.

But then at some point, didn’t that mean he was going to have to broach the subject of how exactly he’d come to be Captain America’s part-time sidekick? Sam dropped his face into his hands, feeling sweaty and a little woozy. These were the kinds of things you didn’t think about, when Steve Rogers showed up at your door, scuffed and dirty, and asked if he and his hot Russian assassin friend could hide out in your house. Sometimes it was hard to think, around Steve.

He didn’t guess either he or Steve had thought it through, or even been thinking at all, at the time.

They’d stepped out briefly into a fire-safety stairwell at Stark Tower, maybe a couple days after Steve had gotten out of the hospital and Natasha had given them the intel, taking a hasty break from one of the endless Avenger team meetings about how to quote neutralize unquote Bucky. Since Steve’s role at these meetings seemed mostly to be repeatedly losing his temper and raising his voice at Tony, Sam had dragged him out the second they’d adjourned for lunch. Steve was chafing to leave, to get started, and Sam didn’t blame him. Frankly, if it had been Riley, he wouldn’t have waited for permission or equipment or tactical super-support, just set his alarm for the middle of the night and fucking left.

Which is precisely what he suggested to Steve in the stairwell, grabbing his forearm and pulling him down to sit next to Sam on the narrow steps, their hips and thighs brushing together. Steve was wearing khaki pants which would have looked hopelessly nerdy on anyone else, and a close-fitting dark green button-up. Sam didn’t let go of his arm. “Come on, man—you really need the whole A-team to be in on this thing? Can’t you just bankroll it yourself? You must’ve had a savings account in the forties with like, I don’t know, a whole dollar in it. Gotta be worth something by now.”

Steve looked down, sheepish. He still had a piece of tape on his cheek, holding together a cut, but he looked better than when he’d woken up in the hospital by a factor of many. He’d been too pale then, almost yellow-green, but now he was back to his usual Rogers all-American color scheme: flushed cheeks, blue eyes, dazzling smile.

“I made some money from the war bonds thing. Went to Bucky’s sister when I died, though. And Tony keeps trying to put me on the payroll, but I can’t see my way clear to—”

He shook his head at himself, rueful, and a strand of blonde hair flopped down, almost into his eyes. Sam had more or less gotten used to just ignoring shit like that. Sometimes it was like Steve’s main superpower was being pretty.

“To hell with it. Let’s just go, Rogers. Fly standby to Minsk tonight, stay in a damn youth hostel if we have to—just long enough to shake off the jet lag, throw together some gear and start tracking. We’re losing time here. Yeah?”

Steve finally met his eyes and nodded, the beginnings of a look on his face Sam maybe hadn’t seen before, his expression usually clouded and grave even when he was smiling. But this was like some kind of hope was glimmering for him, and it made him look lighter, and impossibly young. Sometimes it was easy to forget he was barely even thirty, still just a kid.

Sam found himself looking at Steve’s lower lip; reminded himself not to be getting any ideas.

Then time did that thing it sometimes does, where everything got slow enough so that when Sam hauled his eyes back up to Steve’s, it was just in time to see him look down at Sam’s mouth. Which was clearly the reasoning behind his next brilliant decision, which was to hook his fingers mindlessly into the collar of Steve’s dress shirt and pull him closer. Steve’s breath was cool across his face and he seemed to be having a hard time keeping his eyes open, because they kept fluttering shut.

“Is this okay?” Sam tried, before Steve leaned against him and kissed him full on the mouth.

Steve’s lips were as lush and petal-soft as he’d known they would be, and Sam didn’t hesitate, this wasn’t the moment to get coy or weird about things, he just swayed toward him and kissed back, hard. And when they pulled away from each other for air, Steve looked very much like he’d prefer not to be stopping and maybe crawling into Sam’s lap instead.

Sam blinked, tried to take stock of where they were, what was going on. Steve’s lips had parted without hesitation, letting Sam inside, and he tasted like watermelon, because Tony had brought in a fruit tray with the coffee, and none of this made any sense; but Steve still had one hand cupped around the back of Sam’s head and the other hand grabbing the iron railing of the stairs, apparently to get leverage so he could kiss Sam better, which he had been doing really, really well.

“Holy shit,” said Sam, dazed, and then they kissed some more, and Steve was biting just under his jaw and nearly was in his lap by the time they heard a door clang shut, overhead somewhere, and jerked apart, startled and, in Sam’s case at least, impossibly turned on.

He stood up and backed away, trying to pull himself together. Steve made a brief inarticulate sound but let go; sat sprawled on the stairs looking up at him, both of them winded.

“I don’t—really don’t like what I’m about to say, but that was probably a bad idea,” Sam admitted, between gulps of air, which was a completely terrible thing to have to say because it hadn’t felt like a bad idea, at all. But this thing with Bucky. And—just, Bucky.

Steve clearly wanted to argue, but knew the same thing. He was too smart not to get it. They stared at each other for a long moment, breath slowing down, before Steve finally laughed, the bitter sad one, and dropped his head into his hands.

Sam immediately moved forward and put a hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t mean it like that, man.”

“I know you didn’t,” said Steve, not looking up. “Just…you have no idea how bad my luck is.”

Sam thought he might have some idea. “It’s not only about Peggy Carter, for you. I know that much.”

The bitter laugh again, short and a little jagged, like it took something out of his chest along with it. “No, it’s not. Although, don’t get me wrong, that’s bad enough. But I don’t know how to do this, Sam. What if I can’t—what if he can’t come back from this. What if he never—”

Sam tightened his fingers on Steve’s shoulder. “Don’t start thinking that way. We’re gonna try, okay.”

The thing was, even when you were working your hardest to be good around Rogers, to be your best self, he was always better; not because he was trying, but because somehow he just couldn’t be anyone besides who he was. And whatever had had a hand in making him be that person—brave, generous, painfully honest, impossibly compassionate—Sam knew it had included Bucky. Now Steve had glimpsed the mouth-watering possibility of having back a part of his life that he’d thought was gone forever, that he probably woke up every day missing and went to bed still missing, feeling the incessant desolation of it being lost, gone, but still hurting, aching like a phantom limb.

Sam had pretty much felt the exact same way when he gave Steve and Nat the EXO-7 briefing folder, and Steve picked up that picture of him and Riley—like he’d innocently reopened the laceration and Sam was bleeding out all over the floor. But then it had happened: Sam had wound up in the mix with them, getting his wings back, actually being useful. He could still fly without Riley; he could still live—not just a small, carefully selected, rationed-out and bounded existence, but the whole deal.

Steve’s hand came up and covered his, pressing down gratefully, saying all the things Steve couldn’t say. Mostly I’m sorry, and I still really like you, and but also thank you for getting it.

If Steve’s luck had always been shitty, Sam owed it to him to try to make it better for once.

He pulled away, slowly; stuck his hands in his pockets just to put them somewhere.

“So. We good?”

Steve looked up at him, that glimmer of hope back again. “Yeah. We’re good.”

Sam nodded. “Let’s go find homeboy.”

Sam sat still for a second on the back steps, keeping half an eye on the kids and half on his phone; but whatever had interrupted Sheppard, he didn’t return to the conversation. After several minutes, Sam went back inside and made Sarah a fresh spritzer, then himself one too. Go hard or go home.

She flicked an eyebrow at him and he settled back down on the loveseat, wicker creaking under him. “So? It a date?”

Crap, he’d completely forgotten. Sam shook his head. “So you remember the, ah, the Incident?” It was a rhetorical question; Sarah’s unit had been sent there in the weeks following to help deal with clean-up (and Sam had been there himself, doing social work stuff for Médecins Sans Frontières).

She laughed then, head thrown back, and it was clearly at him, not just near him. “Samuel Wilson, you did not somehow find another one of those assholes all the way down here.”

He could feel the chagrin visible on his face. “Are you gonna keep laughing at me if I say, maybe?”

“Yes, yes I am.”

“Alright then.” Prepare to laugh, he thought, dismayed, like, probably, a whole lot.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sheppard had jumped when his name was called, nearly dropping the phone. He just had time to type hastily “be right back” before the bored-looking tech in purple scrubs said “Follow me,” and John limped after her down the ugly tile hallway to have vitals taken and sign whatever release forms he needed to sign, leaving Sam in mid-sentence.

Back in the waiting room, he was reaching for his pocket to explain to Sam where he was when he heard his name again. This time a middle-aged woman in a lab coat stood smiling at him warmly. “I’m Dr. Kaur, it’s nice to meet you,” and John managed to shake her hand without dropping his cane. “Please come on back, Colonel,” she said, and this time they went the other way down the hallway.

Her office was dimly lit by an assortment of incandescent floor lamps, the glaring fluorescents turned off completely, and John felt his shoulders relax despite himself. “Nice lighting,” he said, selecting the plumpest-looking chair, and settling down into it carefully, still feeling every inch of the skin on the backs of his thighs. But he had zero intention of bringing up his suddenly kinky sex life on day one, or ever at all, if he could possibly help it.

“I hate the overheads here,” Kaur said conspiratorially, pulling out her rolling desk chair and sitting down. “They make my head hurt after half-an-hour, and I have to be here all day, so.”

Atlantis, John realized. The soft lights reminded him of Atlantis; and instantly he felt hunched and miserable again. It was one of those things you didn’t think about until you were stuck here, how the lighting on earth was all wrong. He caught himself tensing his bad leg, and forced himself to let go.

Dr. Kaur didn’t say much, other than giving him some more paperwork on a clipboard and noting that their first session was, unfortunately, going to be mostly questions and forms. Filling out humiliating checklists was starting to be a bigger part of John’s life than he preferred, but he squared off and set to it. When he got to the end of the questionnaire, he laughed out loud.

“Most pilots don’t find queep that funny,” said Kaur a little dryly, and he started liking her.

“Yeah, I’m no exception. It’s just that I realized, uh, the guy on here—” he gestured to the clipboard “—seems really fucking depressed.”

Dr. Kaur reached for the clipboard and stuck her glasses on her nose, presumably the better to see that John had circled almost exclusively threes on something labeled “Beck Depression Inventory.” I feel the future is hopeless and that things cannot improve. I feel I am a complete failure most of the time. I feel guilty all of the time.

She turned to the last page, where nothing had been circled for the last question, because Sheppard honestly had no idea which one was correct:

0 I have not noticed any recent change in my interest in sex.
1 I am less interested in sex than I used to be.
2 I have almost no interest in sex.
3 I have lost interest in sex completely.

Why wasn’t there a negative three, for I have suddenly become extremely interested in sex for maybe the first time in my life? That wasn’t an option. He thought she would hand it back to him to finish, but she just looked up at him with the kind of clinical curiosity he was used to seeing on Carson’s face. “Well, at least not everything is terrible,” she said mildly, and John almost laughed again.

Kaur turned out to be alarmingly easy to talk to, and fortunately reminded him nothing of Heightmeyer. She’d graduated from Uniformed Services, had worked at the Academy for most of her career, and though she was using her medical title, John figured out from his casually discreet study of her desk, walls, and bulletin board that she was a major. For her part, she somehow asked him questions cleverly enough to get answers for almost twenty minutes, before inevitably fetching up with a clang against the steely wall of “classified.”

They sat there for a minute in silence, not uncomfortably, but he felt bad. He should have thought this through. Why hadn’t IOA provided him with a therapist? Stupid question. Like they cared. He couldn't even find a doctor on base, because there really wasn't a base, just Johnson, so he'd had to turn up at the VA like a veteran. Which he guessed he was, or about to be.

Kaur wrote something in the margins of his paperwork, then took off her glasses and looked at him again. She reminded him a little bit of Weir, but not in a bad way. Just, she wasn’t going to let herself be stopped by unforeseen complications. That kind of person.

“It actually doesn’t matter where you were deployed, Colonel, or what the mission was,” she said, head to one side. “What matters is what happened to you. There was an accident.” She nodded toward his cane. “Someone you cared about died. And you feel that it was your responsibility. The details aren’t as important as you might think. It could have happened in Kabul or it could have happened in your living room.” It had practically been John’s living room, was the thing.

He couldn’t say anything. Kaur waited for him like they had nothing but time.

“He was a civilian,” he got out eventually, starting with the last thing he’d been able to say to Sam. “And it was my—it should have been me. I was always first through the—” gate, fuck, he couldn’t say gate.

“This time, you weren’t the first through. There must have been a reason for that.”

Sheppard could feel a trickle of sweat run down the hollow of his back. Everything in the VA was insanely air-conditioned; he couldn’t possibly be hot.

“Not a good reason. Not good enough.” His throat closed up. They were only supposed to be running tests, just tests. It wasn’t even a mission, they weren’t going anywhere, McKay and Zelenka had just been messing with the ZP2M because they needed to calibrate something and—

They sat there again for a while. She had a sweater on the back of her chair, a bowl of dark chocolate squares on her desk, and a framed photograph of an enormously overweight gray tabby cat above it. Sheppard exhaled, and indicated the picture with his head.

“What’s your cat’s name?”

Kaur smiled. “Eloise. Do you like cats, Colonel?”

“No. Well, I don’t not like them.” He exhaled again, carefully. “The, uh, the civilian guy, he had one. Gave it away, to join the mission.”

Another silence. “It was strange, because he was allergic to everything. Everything. But not cats, apparently; so we used to tease him. Just, I always blew him off about the allergies, thought he was being a drama queen. But then I saw it happen. We—we were—” on an away team, he couldn’t say.

It was the most he’d said about Rodney in months. He raked a hand through his hair, swallowed.

“We were having dinner with some locals and someone, there was citrus in something they gave us, a drink. And he, my friend, he—” stopped breathing, why the hell had he started talking about this in the first place. It was strange, Sheppard had always assumed people in anaphylaxis would turn red, or their faces would swell up dramatically, but for whatever reason Rodney had coughed exactly once, turned white as a sheet, and then gone down in complete silence, clutching at Sheppard’s arm. And John’s heart had turned to ice water in his chest as he fell to his knees next to him, frantically searching for an entrance wound, then, unable to find an injury, shouting for Keller—

“He had a reaction,” finished Kaur, her head on one side. Then, quietly: “That must have been very frightening for you.”

Sheppard twisted his neck, rubbing at it with one hand, trying to shake out the tension. “I mean, I don’t—I only have field training, I’m not a medic or anything. We were lucky, because his w—a doctor was with us. She had an epipen in her kit, and he was okay. But that was one of the times I screwed up. And I knew I couldn’t screw up again, because we couldn’t lose him.”

“He wasn’t just important to your mission,” Kaur said. “He was important to you.” Why did she keep restating things he’d said and making them worse.

For a second he couldn’t see anything. Fuck this. “So do you think I need psych meds?”

If Kaur noticed the complete change of subject, she didn’t let it throw her. “We can talk about that later. I’d like to get to know you a little before I start throwing prescriptions at you.”

Sheppard nodded, blotting sweat off his upper lip with his sleeve. Kaur didn’t say anything about that either. “How often do we have to meet?”

“We could do every week for a while. It helps, I think, to have the same day every week. Our kind tends to thrive on routine.” She pulled out a business card and started writing on it. “Do Thursdays work with your PT schedule, Colonel?”

“I’m five days a week there so it doesn’t really matter. In the afternoons, though.”

“Thursday morning, then, at ten,” and Kaur handed him the card. Sheppard put it in his pocket next to his phone, and then remembered he’d been halfway through a conversation with Sam.

“I, um, I sort of met someone,” he blurted out, before he had a chance to overthink it. “He volunteers here, actually. It was his idea that I should maybe talk to to a counselor.”

Kaur folded her glasses and smiled at him again. “It’s good to make a new friend. I’m glad he’s concerned about you, and that you decided to listen to him.”

Later, many weeks later, she would tell him that was what they called, in her line of work, a doorknob confession. Apparently “I met someone, he’s a he” was John’s painfully closeted verbal equivalent of running down the hallway waving a giant rainbow flag and throwing glitter. But at least he’d gotten it out, in some form. At least he was still in the game. Still using his words, still trying.

 

Chapter Text

Sheppard pulled into Sam’s driveway, parked the Camaro behind his bike again. It was Tuesday and he was early, so this time he sat in the car for a long moment, fidgeting, fiddling with his keychain.

It had been a birthday gift from Lorne, a riff on their running gag about forgetting the keys in the jumper. The fob said TROPHY WIFE on one side, letters stamped into heart-shaped stainless steel, and the other side had a place where you were supposed to slide a picture. Of course Lorne had stuck in a picture of McKay, because he was a jackwagon. It was the grainy photo from the database, the one on Rodney’s SGC ID card, in which he was younger maybe than Sheppard had ever seen him.

John looked in the rear-view mirror, raked a hand through his hair pointlessly. He wasn’t nervous, he was just a little early. He checked his Blackberry again. It was 7:48. Okay, he was pitifully early.

He was still staring at it trying to figure out if he should drive around the block a couple times and then come back when it lit up in his hand. Stop being creepy and get your ass in here, Shep. He gulped and got out, swinging his left leg out before standing up on his right. He was getting pretty good at that.

He didn’t even ring the bell, Sam just let him in; and then there was an odd complicated moment in the darkened space by the door, during which John couldn’t figure out what to do with his hands or cane or face, or what he should say. Sam was wearing dark gray track pants and a v-neck purple t-shirt and immediately all John could think about was maybe getting to take it off, maybe getting his mouth on Sam’s warm skin.

They eyed each other a moment in the dim coolness, neither speaking, John now uneasily wondering if he’d made a mistake, if it had been just a one-time thing and, shit, maybe he should leave—

Sam had him pressed back against the wall before he knew what hit him. “Thought you might have changed your mind,” he said, hips tight against Sheppard’s, one arm across his throat pinning him down, the other fisted in his shirt, eyes dark and soft and studying John’s face, his cheekbones high and frankly beautiful. John licked his lips, tried to inhale and speak without his voice giving anything away. Sam might be shorter but he was built like a brick house stud and John kind of couldn’t figure out now how he’d ever thought he was straight. The muscles of Sam’s thighs pressed against his, the heat of him seeping through their clothes. John wanted everything, all at once, was dizzy with it; it made him feel almost sick, not knowing what to do first.

Maybe he didn’t have to figure it out. Letting Sam handle things had worked out pretty well last time. He felt his stomach lurch with something maybe like relief.

“I’m not that dumb,” he got out, before Sam’s mouth was on his, hot and demanding, and John proceeded to lose his mind a little, arms finding their way around Sam’s neck and just hanging on, clinging to him, body going gratefully limp under Sam’s weight. Sam’s mouth was firm against his, wet and lush and incredible, and his chest heavy and sweet against John’s. They were kissing and kissing, and it only got better when Sam brought up both hands to tangle them in John’s hair, making a half-frustrated, half-amused groaning sound but not stopping, whispering into his mouth between kisses.

“This wasn’t really—what I—but you look so—” and then more kissing, until John felt his hips rock up on their own, grinding up against Sam without any input from him, and there was a burst of fractionated light behind his eyelids. Sam’s hands dropped unhesitating to John’s ass and he grabbed hard and thrust right back; and everything paused, suspended, in that wide-open half-breath right before the beat drops. John couldn’t breathe. He wanted to touch Sam, but he wasn’t sure where.

This time Sam did pull away, brushing John’s bottom lip slowly with his thumb, as John chased after it with his tongue and tried to focus on Sam’s face, panting.

“Desperate is a good look on you, Shep,” said Sam in that voice of dark honey, sounding satisfied, and nothing about this was fair, it was like John had never commanded an entire city full of marines or barked out orders, stone-faced and sardonic, yelling at Ronon when he got too pushy, hauling Rodney around by the front of his tac vest when he moved too slowly. He felt adrenaline course through him and crest, heart pounding, and tried to remember who he was; gave up and wound his arms around Sam’s neck, held on for dear life. I used to be a superhero, he thought, dazed, somehow filled with too much blood, mouth throbbing and his whole body shamefully needing.

Suddenly it wasn’t okay. He reached down clumsy, almost angrily, to fumble open Sam’s belt buckle, to pop open his top button in irritation and scrabble for the zipper, not taking his eyes off Sam’s, deliberately curling his tongue around the tip of the thumb in his mouth and biting down, hard.

Like a flash Sam’s hand snapped down and encircled his wrist; he pulled it up over John’s head and slammed it against the wall. They stayed poised like this for a half-second, Sam watching him closely, calm but unblinking, as if waiting to see what John would do. He flailed out once, and again tried to twist free before shoving at Sam’s shoulder with his other hand to unbalance him. Without effort Sam caught the other wrist too and held them both up, one in each hand, throwing off John’s own center of gravity so that he was arched against Sam, chest heaving.

Sam coming on to him like this—was a lot. Maybe too much. John wondered if his eyes were as wild as they felt, wanting both to scuffle and to yield. He could probably take him in close quarters. Sam was bigger, and apparently fast; but John was agile, and he fought dirty.

But in one sinuous movement Sam curled his whole body around John, somehow, boxing him in, holding him firmly against the wall, thigh tantalizingly between his, taking the pressure off his wrists. Sam leaned in to kiss him again, a solid warm press of lips that he cut off before it could get interesting, and tightened his fingers around John’s wrists when he made another abortive lunge.

“Do you need to fight me, beautiful?”

Fuck. John’s entire body went slack, like his strings had been cut. He turned his face to one side, trying to hide it. Sam’s free hand came up and turned John’s face back toward him, like John had known he would, but he couldn’t look at him. “Does it help? Does it let you know I’ve got you?”

“Goddammit,” John whispered, cheeks burning, and it was too early for this bullshit.

“Because I have an idea,” Sam said, as unruffled as if they’d been arm wrestling, peeling Sheppard away from the wall and into the curve of his arms. “Come here. Just—hey. Just come here.”

Somehow he let Sam move him, and for the moment didn’t fight it. There was more kissing, with Sam’s arms around him; John’s boots and cane stayed in the hallway, and by the door of the bedroom he’d lost his socks and jeans. Sam tossed him easily onto the bed in nothing but boxer briefs, John bouncing a little on the mattress, wincing, and wondering where his t-shirt had gone.

Sam was still wearing all his clothes, belt hanging open suggestively. He followed John’s gaze and laughed a little, snaking it off and throwing it to the floor before picking up something off the chair and holding it out to him. “If you want, but only if you want. I thought you might like it.”

It was a thick coil of plain white rope, a little thinner and softer-looking than he’d used before. John’s entire face felt fuzzy. “But we already, last time—”

Sam shrugged, dropping onto the bed next to John. “That was last time. This is this time.” He traced the line of John’s collarbone, pulled one end of the rope free and just laid a length of it against the skin of John’s upper arm, as if letting him feel it.

Weirdly, this calmed him, out of nowhere, his head drooping and him fighting to stay—what; something, vigilant, alert, against the desire to let go, stop struggling. He nodded, barely, once, then remembered, and managed: “Okay.” His voice was a croak. He shut his eyes.

“I was hoping you’d say yes,” breathed Sam, kneeling up to move behind John, lips on the skin of his shoulder. “Same rules, though: I tell you what I’m going to do, and you say yes every time, or it doesn’t happen. This—won’t take long, and I’m going to keep talking to you. Give me your arms,” and Sam held them together by the wrist again, only this time in the middle of John’s back, and John wriggled forward a little, to give Sam access as he wound cool loops of rope around his wrists repeatedly. It felt like he was making a cuff, like last time, only this time around both John’s wrists, they were being tied together and he waited for panic to crowd up in his chest and cut off his breath, but it didn’t. He concentrated, eyes closed; felt Sam’s fingers, dexterous, working fast, slipping the coils snug and then tying knots without fumbling, like the rope was made out of liquid, like he’d done it a thousand times and John supposed he probably had. Maybe with Riley; with other men.

“It’s called takate kote, it’s a basic box tie,” he said, voice low and soft and thick, hands moving over John’s head to pull several strands together around the upper part of his chest and back to his wrists, then around again in the other direction, slipping a finger underneath the rope several times to check for tension without even slowing down, instinctively. When Sam passed around a second, lower coil, wrapping John’s upper arms and pressing them snugly against the side of his ribcage, a long shaky exhalation came out of him and he slumped forward, involuntarily, but the rope was already holding him upright. “That’s right, you can let go,” Sam said softly, lips against the back of John’s neck, and a shiver moved through him, remembering Sam’s teeth there the last time. But this was this time.

Loops of rope kept slipping around him, lining up along the same two places, above and below his pectorals, but going around and around again and again, thicker and stronger, somehow taking more weight off his spine and holding him more and more firmly in place. “This can be the first part of a suspension,” said Sam in his ear, “but that’s for later, depending.” Depending on what, John wanted to ask, but Sam was doing something complicated around his wrists again that felt skittery and graceful, and honestly John had kind of started losing track of things. “Wait, your leg—move up a bit,” and he scooted forward obediently, until he was on the edge of the bed and his bad leg could rest on the floor, his good one bent underneath him, and that was better. His head sagged and he felt hands pulling him gently back against Sam’s chest, checking tension again, then arms around him, half holding him up, which, he thought dimly, was a good thing, everything had gone hazy around the edges and again he wondered why this wasn’t hurting, wasn’t sadism supposed to hurt.

He slurred as much out loud and felt Sam chuckle. “Give me half a chance, Shep.”

An indeterminate length of time passed before Sam let him go and John swayed a little, off balance, until he felt Sam’s beard grazing the side of his neck, then fists solidly gripping the tie in the middle of his back, knuckles brushing against his skin. John’s hands slipped off his elbows and he let his wrists flop, but Sam brought them back up and repositioned them again. “No, keep them here, it’s better. Okay, you ready? Up just a little, now, just so you can feel it—” and John hadn’t really moved, but somehow Sam held him slightly lifted, not really off the surface of the bed, just enough that he could imagine what it would be like, no part of him having to keep the rest of him upright, no decision, no effort, all of him wrapped securely and just held. He hovered there, listing forward, head still drooping, and tried to think why he wasn’t sitting up by himself but then gave up and accepted it, the fact that for whatever reason someone else was doing all the work for him, that his body could just stop, and he didn’t bother fighting the rope, just fell second by second more deeply into it, like slipping into a pool of clear, unmoving water, like gliding a puddlejumper into the bay for a landing, he just coasted on the air and let it hold him up.

It was yet another way, he decided vaguely, of getting to that place where everything held still and got so quiet and perfect. Gradually Sam lowered him back all the way to the surface of the bed, and John felt the sheet cool against his shin, his good leg crumpled underneath him. Then Sam’s palms on his shoulders, gliding down to the check the ropes again, and him saying something John couldn’t understand; but after a moment he was lying on his side, which was perfect because he didn’t have to hold his head up anymore but the rope still had him, and he felt Sam lie down behind him, one hand warm on his hip but otherwise apparently content to watch over him while he flew.

Time went away somewhere and he couldn’t be bothered to search for it. After an eternity, or maybe just a few minutes, Sam pressed a kiss against his forehead and he opened his eyes. Sam was in front of him, grinning the cute shameless grin, and running one finger suggestively around the waistline of Sheppard’s boxers. “You’re obviously limber, which is…lucky for you. Because you might be spending a lot more time this way, now that I know how pretty you look tied up. But even flexible people’s circulation—we’re not risking it. Few more minutes. Fifteen at the most.”

Sheppard squinted at this, trying to work out what it meant in terms of him having to move. Nothing, apparently; Sam stood up and rolled John over onto his other side, gently but firmly, then relocated so that he was propped up on one elbow, flirting with the edge of John’s boxers again.

“My god, you’re incredible,” Sam murmured, touching his chest where, to be fair, the rope was, now that John became aware of it, biting a little into his skin, probably reddened, and John remembered Sam had said the same thing at the club. Which, okay, he had questions about that, and about all of this, and he opened his mouth to ask them only to discover that it was already open, and he’d apparently drooled on Sam’s expensive-looking high-thread-count sheets. Classy, Sheppard.

“I’m not that,” he finally slurred, trying to wipe his chin off onto his chest. Sam caught his face in one hand and did it for him, then kissed him, a long wet slide of tongues that made Sheppard see stars. Sam pulled away, a little reluctantly.

“Not what?”

“What you keep calling me.”

“Uh-huh. Only I think that’s exactly what you are, and no one’s ever told you.”

Sheppard tried to think. Nancy used to call him, teasingly, hot stuff, and sometimes, in the throes, lover, which always made him have to smother a laugh; but that was before. Rodney had only ever called him names, but he knew now what they meant. That every insult was an endearment.

“His name was McKay,” he whispered, out of nowhere, and Sam held perfectly still for a second, before he resumed stroking Sheppard’s hair out of his face, nails pressing into his scalp reassuringly.

“Are we doing this now, Shep? Cause we can do this now, but I need to know.”

John tried to shake his head. “I just wanted you to know his name.”

“The genius,” said Sam, eyes flickering over John’s face. “Your Riley.”

“Yeah,” said John, “Only we weren’t—I never told him. I never said anything.”

“Oh, beautiful,” Sam breathed, stroking the side of his neck, his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

John felt his mouth twisting into a grimace, trying to wipe away whatever expression he had on his face. “It’s alright, I don’t want to—just his name. You can know that.”

“Yeah, okay,” answered Sam, hand still cupping his face. Then: “John, what’s going on. Talk to me.”

“What?” He didn’t know. Was something going on?

“You’re pushing, here.” If he concentrated he could feel Sam’s hand on his upper arm, and he was right, his arms were flexed, and John was fighting, but not much, just a little.

“It’s fine. I think it, it maybe helps me feel it.” Which didn’t make any sense, but Sam seemed to understand anyway. He rolled John over to his back, slid a pillow behind him, checking the ropes yet again. Through the stupor Sheppard felt an abrupt flare of annoyance, out of nowhere, sudden and hot, at the tenderness of the gesture.

“I don’t need a fucking—”

“It’s not for you. Hush, be quiet.” And John subsided as fast as he’d become angry, because Sam had reached down to pull off John’s boxer briefs, not particularly carefully; his dick slapped back against his stomach, leaking, and when had he gotten hard? He swallowed, abruptly hyper-aware of how close Sam’s hands were to him. He wanted them on him. Fuck—he actually wanted.

“I wasn’t going to touch you at all tonight, but I didn’t know you’d look like this.” The quiet click of a bottle cap. “I have to ask again, though, especially because of what you’ve said—is this okay? Is it something you want?”

He surprised himself, blurting out, “Jesus, yes.” He felt Sam shift above him. John tried to raise his head to look but couldn’t, it felt inordinately heavy. Sam half-laughed, then wedged another pillow underneath his neck. “Figures you’d want to see. Pilots, man. You’re all control freaks.”

Sheppard was trying to assemble a joke about that when the first tight glide brought him arching up off the sheets, gasping. When he could open his eyes again Sam had gone down on his knees between John’s thighs, shirt finally off, all warm rounded angles and planes, looking up at John through his eyelashes and not even trying not to look like sex on legs, his grip wet and slick and snug and slowly speeding up, John’s cock disappearing, flushed and swollen, into his fist, a string of clear precome trailing from the head, and John could feel himself getting wetter, the sounds of them together sticky and slapping, faster and faster, driving every other thought from his mind. He couldn’t stop his hips from jerking up into Sam’s hand until Sam put his other palm down low on John’s belly, pressed him against the mattress to keep him still, and god help him but it was good, being held down like that, Sam’s weight against him keeping him from thrashing. Sam was watching, his mouth open a little, looking down at Sheppard’s cock, the head turning dark red as his hips kept stuttering, trying to thrust, and Sam shifted his wrist angle, did something inexplicable and twisting, and the slow gradual speeding-up turned into Mach fucking 3, Sam just working him over fast and taut and incredibly perfect, and John let out a strangled sound, balls drawing up tight against his skin.

“That’s—Sam, I’m going to—”

“No you’re not,” said Sam, and just took his hand away without ceremony in mid-stroke, criminally, cruelly, spreading Sheppard’s legs and palming the insides of his thighs, then leaving short stinging slaps, hands careless and rough where they’d just been competent and assured. For a second John thought he would still come untouched, insides of his thighs throbbing, just from the memory of Sam’s fist around him, but then felt himself incrementally backing away from whatever ledge he’d been dangling off of. He slumped back on the pillow, trying to catch his breath before Sam had him again, this time leaning up over Sheppard, one hand gripping and pulling him half-upright by the rope around his chest, the other around his dick again but slack, just playing lightly up and down, teasingly slow, one finger trailing along the sensitive underside, then a few loose strokes before abruptly letting him go again, and John moaned, flat-out straining against the knots.

“I’m not going to let you come, so you can just put that out of your mind,” said Sam in his ear, and John moaned again, chest expanding against the loops of rope, barely feeling them digging into his skin, because all he could think was that he needed to be touched, was burning up with it, hips snapping forward again and again trying to reach Sam’s skin, breath a high whine in his throat.

Without warning Sam grabbed him by both arms and flipped him over, John’s face shoved into the pillows and ass high in the air, and he didn’t have time to be embarrassed about this because immediately Sam’s smooth palms were there, warm and skimming over the three-day-old bruises, gentle until they weren’t anymore.

The first slap rang out in the room, rang into John’s bones, and the sound he made was somewhere between a choke and a sob, his whole body suddenly alight and at attention, gear down and locked, ready for landing. “Look at you,” he heard Sam saying with what sounded like astonishment, fingertips apparently tracing the outline he’d just made, and then another blow, and another, each one spraypainting the insides of John’s brain with spangled colors and spirals of shuddering light.

Sam was clearly swinging from the shoulder and each slap drove John’s face further into the pillow, which helped with the noises he was making. He bit down on one corner, the wad of cotton filling his mouth and giving him something he could clench around, could control, until Sam let go of his grip on the rope in the middle of John’s back and reached up to yank the pillow away. “If you want me to stop you have to tell me, so I need you able to talk,” he said, sounding winded, and John was a little gratified to hear that Sam was struggling to get words out as well. He tried to say please don’t stop, keep going, I don’t want you to stop, but all that came out was a pleading, drawn-out “Sam—

“That doesn’t sound like no,” said Sam, his voice a soft burr, and then he was holding John by his wrists again, bearing him down into the bed and striking him, again, and again, each impact flaring and settling into John’s skin like molten heat, making his cock fill, impossibly harder, slapping up against his belly with each blow. Another, another another, he couldn’t keep track of them. He thought he was probably crying now but wasn’t even going to try to stop; felt an unexpectedly soft, cautious touch at his hip, and then Sam’s hand closing around him, hot and firm and good, he was already going to come and he wasn’t supposed to, he wasn’t supposed to—

“No,” said John, and immediately Sam wasn’t anywhere, there was just empty air, and the loss of his touch was terrible. “Wait,” he tried again, turning his head, “I didn’t mean everything, just—”

Sam paused, midway through backing off the bed; shifted forward a little to clench a hand in John’s hair and drag him upright, eyes searching his face, his own skin gleaming with sweat. John sucked in air, felt tears dripping off his chin. “Fuck, you’re perfect,” Sam said wonderingly. “You’re trying not to come.”

“Well you told me,” John started to explain, and Sam closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them there was something blank and vicious there and it made John’s insides melt, which made no sense, but was true. This was all a true thing, it was turning him inside out, but it was somehow okay to be here, okay to let this happen. He swayed a little in Sam’s grip, pain sparking from the roots of his hair, blinking at Sam, wondering why it had all stopped and how to make it start again.

“You told me not to,” he tried again, dizzily.

“There’s only one thing I have to say to that, beautiful,” Sam said, voice gone husky, and he drew back slowly, enough to telegraph the movement, and slapped John, hard, across the face. John felt it jolt through his spine straight down to his dick; he reeled and would have gone down except for Sam’s fingers around the ropes, holding him upright. Apparently needing symmetry, Sam did it again on the other side, and this time John felt his balls draw up and his entire body strain to come.

“Oh my god,” he rasped, ears ringing, trying to understand, “why is it so fucking good—”

“It just is,” said Sam simply, and took John’s face in his hands and kissed him, hard. They knelt there on the bed for a long moment, Sam carefully straddling his bad leg and just kissing the spit out of him, John’s eyelashes clumping together, his cheek throbbing, wrists starting to go numb, his erection poking Sam in the stomach in what must have been an uncomfortable way, Sam’s own cock pressed between them, heavy and neglected inside his jeans. Sam reached between them to touch John again, grip just this side of painful and dry, callouses catching on his skin (freeweights, John thought, irrelevantly), holding him upright almost entirely with his fist curled around the rope, and stopping the exact instant the muscles in John’s thighs went rigid.

This time John made a sound like he was dying, and Sam laughed, eyes still holding whatever that blank indifferent look meant, and let go of the rope, pushing at his chest just enough to shift him off balance, making him fall backward. John hit the mattress squirming, cock slapping up against his stomach, and fought not to thrust up into empty air. “Maybe later,” Sam said, voice dark and amused, before following him down and kissing him again. And yet when Sam sat him up, and moved behind him to begin unfastening the knots, John started laughing and couldn’t stop, even with blood rushing back through his arms down into his fingertips like pain made of water, Sam’s hands rubbing tenderly at the rope marks and him just laughing, helpless with it, until again, like last time, Sam was massaging his hands and brushing tears off his face and telling him to breathe.

“I can’t not breathe,” said Sheppard, pretty sensibly, he thought, considering.

“Yeah, you say that,” Sam responded, skeptically, and half-dragged, half-shoved John back against the headboard with one arm, sticking a pillow behind his head, which was good, because John couldn’t hold it up by himself. “Here—” and he dampened a washcloth with water from a bottle beside the bed, and John presented his face like a child and let Sam wipe it clean; he was exhausted and trembling a little. Sam tossed the washcloth on the floor and made John drink the rest of the bottle before he pulled him in tight against his chest. It was the best John had felt in months. Or since Saturday anyway.

“What about later,” he managed, and felt the rumble of Sam’s amusement.

“Nothing against how hot you are, but I think we need a breather,” Sam told him, tucking the top of John’s head against his chin, which shouldn’t have worked as well as it did but was mysteriously perfect. “Shit, I didn’t even ask if you’d had dinner. Have you had dinner?”

He thought about it for a second. “Probably not?”

“What the hell does that mean, probably not.”

“It means I don’t understand any of this,” was the last thing he remembered saying, before the cool spinning circles of Sam’s ceiling fan and the arm slung around his shoulders pulled him under.

“I have questions,” was the next thing he said, as they were sitting on the floor of Sam’s living room, putting away rotini with red sauce like their lives depended on it, half-watching the Women’s British Open on ESPN with the volume down low, although John found the background noises of golf reassuring. It turned out Sam played, too, and John thought for a second about finding a course before realizing his backswing would be trash, given that he had only had one working knee. Mo Martin was tied with six other players; John watched her sink a neat eagle on the last hole.

“Shoot,” said Sam, still distractingly bare-chested, reaching for his wine glass. He’d waved the bottle at John questioningly but John had shaken his head, not sure about drinking around him.

Martin drove what was almost an albatross, but the ball hit the flagpole and bounced about five feet back out onto the green. There was a low sympathetic sound from the spectators.

Sheppard put his plate down on the coffee table, then leaned back against the sofa and crossed his arms over his chest. He’d put his t-shirt back on and felt slightly less defenseless.

“Okay,” he said, just as Martin sank the putt. “Mostly, what are you even getting out of this.”

Sam’s dramatic reaction would have been comical, if John had been in a laughing mood. They stared at each other for a beat. There was polite scattered applause from the television.

“You’re really not kidding.”

John heard his voice get grouchy and mean, take on that nasal pitch that Rodney called whining, without his really intending it. “No, Sam, I’m not kidding.”

“But seriously?

“Yes, seriously! I’m getting—endorphins, and, and, chemicals, but you’re doing all the work and I didn’t even get you off either time, and this seems like the worst hobby in the world.”

Sam burst out laughing, shaking his head in disbelief. “Shit, okay. I guess I gotta explain this one.”

John kept his arms crossed, mouth pressed in a straight line.

“You’d look a lot more intimidating if your hair weren’t standing straight up,” Sam observed, and moved up to the sofa, combing his fingers through John’s hair like he had a right to do that, then switching to his shoulders and digging in with both thumbs. Sheppard’s eyes threatened to close but he fought it. He deserved answers.

“So, try this. Imagine what it feels like to want to hurt someone you care about. Not a bad guy; not a bandit, not someone shooting at you. Someone you like, someone you’re close to.”

“Why…would I want to do that,” John said, immediately thinking about sparring with Teyla. He tried to get hits in, sure, but it was for the fun of it, not because he wanted to see her in pain (and also, maybe, a little bit, to prove he still wore the pants around the place. Which was idiotic, because even in a tiny leather skirt Teyla could still kick his ass eight ways from Sunday.)

“Exactly. Think about it for a second: you’re dating a woman and you want to hit her. What does that make you?”

“An asshole?”

“Pretty much. How about—if she lets you, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t fight back—does that mean you can?”

John stretched out his bad leg, relaxing into Sam’s hands despite himself. “But I fight back.”

Sam’s fingers were back in his hair, sifting through the strands; it was maddening, how good it felt. “Yeah you do. But stay with me for a second. If she doesn’t say stop, can I hurt my partner.”

John had a vivid mental image of Teyla pressing the delicate arch of her bare foot down on his neck, laughing and laughing while he wheezed in frustration, palms still stinging, sticks having been flung like toothpicks to opposite sides of the room. “Of course not.”

“Okay, so how do I know if she really does want to be hurt? Even if she’s saying no?”

John eyed him. “A double-sided contract signed in mechanical pencil?”

“Getting there. Try another gender, now. Say there’s this pilot; white guy, little older than me. Thinks he’s badass, scowls and limps around all dramatic. Drunk hair, can’t dress himself. Pointy little goblin ears.”

“Fuck you,” said John, but since his eyes were closed again and Sam was massaging behind each of the ears in question, there wasn’t any heat in it.

“Legitimately bad shit has happened to this dude, though. So you’d think he’d need, like, a blanket and movie night and a box of doughnuts, not to be spanked raw.”

John opened one eye. “I don’t even like doughnuts.”

Sam’s fingers arrested in mid-movement. “I’m sorry, what did you just say?”

“You heard me. Too sweet.” He always gave his to Rodney.

“That’s just not—okay, tabling the doughnut thing for another time. My point still stands: you get off on something that most people don’t get off on, at all.”

That seemed to be true, new and disorienting and degrading as it was. John kept his eyes shut.

“And because you like it—no, actually: because you really like it, I get to let a part of myself out, that normally everything in the world tells me is bad and wrong and scary and should probably be thrown in jail.”

At this John tilted back his head and tried to look at Sam upside down. “Being black, is that part of it?”

“That too.”

It was quiet for a minute, but it wasn’t a bad silence. On the television Shanshan Feng was struggling to stay under par. She missed a ten-foot birdie putt and the audience didn’t make a sound.

Sam sighed, let go of John’s shoulders after one last squeeze, and flopped down lengthwise on the sofa, shading his eyes with one hand from the kitchen light. “Gotta be honest with you, I thought you would keep wrestling me but as soon as the first loop went around, you went down like timber. I’ve seen rope-stoned subs before but you were perfect.”

“Subs,” Sheppard asked, trying the word out in his mouth. It made him think of sandwiches.

Sam shrugged. “Technically, rope bottom, but I don’t know how much you really care about terminology.”

Rope-stoned. He remembered drooling, and flashed back to sophomore year. That sounded about right.

John stood up, which took a bunch of extra, complicated movements, and sat down awkwardly on the edge of the sofa; Sam scooted back obligingly to make room.

“Has it started to make sense? In conclusion, colonel, I get more out of this than you apparently realize. Orgasms aren’t the point, for me. Real talk? I can have those all by my own damn self. You letting me do what I want with you, though, it’s a rush, it’s like—” Sam stopped, then visibly redirected. “It’s amazing. You have no idea what you do to me.”

John felt himself blushing, turned to say something flippant about his great beauty being famed across galaxies, before he realized the joke would fall flat without the stargate part. Sam cut him off anyway.

“And don’t—be sarcastic, or throw it back at me. Just take it. I like you, Sheppard. You can handle that.”

After the initial shock, Sheppard thought he could deal with it. “Then I want to have sex.”

Sam fumbled the remote. “You—you want to have sex.”

“With you,” he clarified.

Sam looked at him blankly.

“Before I turn fifty would be great.”

Sam turned off the television, and put the remote down on the coffee table. “Okay first of all, I don’t think you’re allowed to say you haven’t had sex when I just—”

John folded his arms again, which had long been his first line of defense against Rodney. “Reciprocal sex. With orgasms in it, even if they aren’t the point.”

“What about maybe being asexual?”

“What about it? I can still want to have sex. If I don’t like it I’ll tell you.” John wasn’t sure about this, at all. But he felt stubborn and pig-headed about it, like if he was doing this, he wanted to do it thoroughly. Besides he’d never really been bothered by sex, before; just hadn’t ever gone looking for it. But the way Sam had kissed him in the hallway—it was scary enough, that pulling-Gs feeling in the pit of his stomach, to make him want it even more, perversely.

Sam cleared his throat, still looking skeptical. “You already know what I’m gonna say, right.”

“Sure—you want to talk about it for a few hours, do some more queep, make sure our horoscopes match, maybe write a poem….”

“No,” said Sam, slowly, “I just want to know if we should use condoms. I’d rather go down on you without one.”

Oh. Oh. John couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d had sex, which was beyond tragic (that lieutenant from the Daedalus? that other lieutenant?). Atlantis had been all-consuming, and Rodney more high-maintenance than an actual trophy wife. But Keller had done a full panel on him before he’d come earthside. Aside from having alien genetics, a missing kidney, and a bent leg, he was boringly healthy.

“Disease-free,” said John, spreading his hands invitingly. How sad was it, that these days that was his biggest selling point. “And,” he added, because Sam had mentioned it before, “I’m not really dating, and I don’t plan to, um, start sleeping with anyone else. Or letting them hit me, for that matter.”

Suddenly Sam was all up in his space, both hands gripping his t-shirt, mouth at the hollow of his throat. “Same here,” he said, breath hot against the skin of John’s neck. He dragged Sheppard up alongside him on the couch; their mouths found each other and they lay there making out furiously, long enough for John to get hard again and try to rub against him. Sam cupped his ass, groaning, and then slapped it, just once, hard enough for Sheppard to startle and curse. “Not tonight, though.”

John looked at him like he was insane. Maybe he was. Maybe all doms were. John didn’t remember having that level of self-control in his thirties, or ever. Maybe Sam was normal, and John really was a slut. He’d never been Captain Kirk, contra Rodney’s jealousy, but there had been…various women, on various planets. All he really knew was that Sam made him feel frantic, and wanting everything at once. It was terrifying and exhilarating, like things that usually only happened to him in a cockpit, and he felt it pushing at him from inside, the need to move, get past that first jolt of pure fear, the pucker-factor of being thousands of feet up in the air with nothing beneath you, and hurry on to the good part, the part that would be all skin and hands and mouths and breath and soaring.

But Sam was shaking his head, albeit a little ruefully. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but you look exhausted, Sheppard, and I have trainees at 0800. I want to go to bed with you but mostly what I want to do with you in that bed is shove your snoring ass over to the far side of it and pass out.” Fair enough; he’d been almost weaving on his feet when he walked in anyway, was currently clutching feebly at Sam’s belt loops, and he was forty-four, not twenty-four. His boner could wait.

“Besides, I want you fully conscious when I fuck you. Come on, beautiful,” said Sam, and slid an arm around him, standing them both up and steering John back toward the bedroom.

But this time, under the ceiling fan, even with Sam breathing evenly next to him, one hand curled over John’s hip, he couldn’t stop thinking. It was the usual, except he wasn’t drunk. He watched the dark ceiling, and scenes from Atlantis played out, scrolling across it in lurid color across it like a silent movie on a shitty small-town cinema screen. Teaching Torren how to throw a football, showing Ronon how to play barre chords on the guitar. Standing behind Woolsey the day they’d left the Milky Way and set out on their own again, because Atlantis had never belonged anywhere but Pegasus. Working on the farm with Kanaan in a cheerful, days-long silence that never got awkward, no matter how little they had to say to each other. Sitting on the pier with Rodney, grimly starting on their second six-pack, a few days after Jennifer had miscarried again, Rodney drunk and bewildered, saying the same things over and over, John having no idea how to respond, mostly just opening beers for him and hoping listening was enough. Making eye contact with Teyla over the heads of some particularly sketchy locals and communicating wordlessly that this formal dinner was about to go completely soup sandwich, and just about the time the village leader had turned to him and said sweetly that they liked Lorne so much they intended to keep him, everyone’s swords suddenly drawn in his startled face, John diving under the table and rolling out the exact second that Ronon tossed him his P-90, like they’d coordinated it beforehand. Arguing with Beckett about soccer, which John actually secretly liked. Arguing with Teyla, but politely, passive-aggressively, about dumb stuff that didn’t even come close to disguising how obvious and blatant it was that he just didn’t want her to leave Atlantis. Arguing with Rodney, always, about everything. Waking up with his face stuck to an unfiled report, Zelenka handing him a fresh cup of coffee and the two of them standing at the window and watching it rain outside, one of the silvery slow ones that lasted for days and days.

 

Chapter Text

Sam woke, and it was still dark, but he knew something was wrong, he just didn’t know what. It was familiar, though, that feeling, so he knew enough to just to lie still, and wait, and figure it out.

After a long moment he opened his eyes. Ceiling fan. Slats of streetlight slashed across the wall. Stateside, then. Not Bagram. Riley was dead; that had happened. Steve and Natasha were okay.

He waited another minute or two before turning his head and realizing: Sheppard had peaced out sometime earlier. The sheets were rumpled on his side and there was a dent in the pillow, but the bed seemed somehow empty, which didn’t make sense since Sam was still in it.

He rolled over and found his phone on the floor, next to a crumpled plastic water bottle. He lay there for a minute with his face hanging over the edge of the bed. There were messy coils of rope all over the floor, because he’d thrown it every which way and not dealt with it before racking out. He hadn’t dealt with some other stuff, too. Like he was going to have to rethink that entire scene, and the way he’d come dangerously close to losing it a couple of times, as well as their wholly unexpected conversation afterward. But first, he’d check on John.

Too bad you punched out, I have bacon.

No response, probably because—he double-checked—it wasn’t quite 5 am yet. John might still be driving home.

But that meant 6 am on the East Coast. Fuck it. He’d leave a message if he had to. This had gone on long enough and he wasn’t sure why but suddenly the need to know was urgent.

He sat up, turned on a light and called Tony, who picked up before it even rang.

“Don’t you soldier-type people refer to this as oh dark hundred?”

“Nice to hear your voice, Stark. Sort of thought you might be up.”

“Actually I seem not to have maybe ever…quite…gone to sleep. How’s it hanging, Toucan Sam.”

Steve had said Tony wasn’t doing so hot these days, so Sam sighed inaudibly and told himself not to take the bait. “Gonna cut to the chase, here: I need intel. The classified kind. It might be…our kind of thing.”

Tony made a garbled noise that Sam thought must be unrelated to their call; in the background there was hysterical beeping, followed by a metallic crushing sound and then abrupt silence. “You do realize I’m a scientist, not an intelligence analyst.”

“You can’t tell me you don’t have access to military files. Because I won’t believe you.”

Tony hummed and Sam could almost hear the 3D browser tabs opening. “I could in fact tell you that, but yes, I’d be lying my face off. Go ahead.”

This was bad. Sam put his face in his hands for a second, before getting out of bed and starting to pull on jeans; he’d change into his flight suit at Ellington. “Colonel John Sheppard, USAF. Says he’s a pilot, definitely seen action, but I can’t figure out where or when, after Afghanistan. Just came off a ten-year tour—says last posted at McMurdo, but that doesn’t sound right. Something’s off. Way off.”

“McMurdo? Yeah there’s no military presence there, definitely no base. But, come to think of it, huh,” said Tony, then wandered off mentally somewhere, his voice distracted enough that Sam could tell he had the internal equivalent of a hundred tabs open, hands snatching and flinging around various scraps of information in his freaky sci-fi transparent user interface.

“Unsurprisingly, I’m correct,” he started again. “The Air National Guard provides logistics support down there, but that’s it. There is something connected to McMurdo that I’ve always wondered about. JARVIS, pull up records on the Area 51 bombing…right. That’s what I….”

Sam rooted around in the drawer for clean socks; tried to be patient while Tony went wherever it was he’d gone in his glowy mind palace. After a couple of minutes, he tried clearing his throat. Nothing. He counted to a hundred before he spoke, tying his running shoes. He’d hit the gym after work.

“Listen, Stark, I can call back if this isn’t a good—” at which point Tony hung up on him.

Sam looked at his phone and made a face that started out as disbelief but fetched up somewhere near the end as resignation. Fair enough; they’d barely met in person. Stark would be in touch when he had something. Sam had given him Sheppard’s name, rank, and last known assignment—way more than he should have done, anyway, and yeah, he was kind of nauseated about that.

But what if Really Really Classified was SHIELD, or HYDRA; or the Chitauri, or worse? He felt like they needed to know, like he owed it to Steve to find out.

“Still shitty,” he informed his phone, and threw it facedown on the bed away from him, frustrated. He couldn’t just ask John, was the problem. Not if he wanted an answer this century.

He coiled the rope; methodically tied off each bundle before storing them back in the duffle. In the bathroom he ran his head under the cold tap, then toweled off, frowning at his fade, which needed cleaning up. When Sheppard had finally texted on Monday, after his be right back, explaining his appointment at the VA, Sam had surprised himself by almost going limp with relief. He really didn’t mind John’s initial emotional meltdown; at no point had he thrown punches or tried to take Sam on—he’d known who he was the whole time, who they both were. Sam wasn’t bothered by people having feelings, especially when he’d just spanked the shit out of them. But he already cared, goddammit, and he didn’t want to see John in that kind of pain if it could get better.

Would knowing more about him really help? What if Sheppard’s last mission turned out to be just regular classified? Sam would feel like a paranoid asshole, and silently make it up to him with pasta, backrubs, televised golf, judicious applications of endorphins, and motorcycle rides.

Suddenly that didn’t seem like enough. He sat back down on the bed and got Tony’s incredibly annoying outgoing message.

“Stark, me again. While I’m calling in markers.” He took a breath, then went on. “If you don’t come up with anything, can you get me clearance to get someone on a T-38 at Ellington? Same, uh, same guy. He’d be O-6, multiple combat missions—shouldn’t be a problem with someone else in the front seat. Let me know, okay. And if I need to put anything on lockdown for you guys.” He hung up, still feeling squirrelly and vaguely queasy. Maybe he should have gone through Steve? But Steve already knew he’d caught feelings for this idiot—or something like them—and that was just gonna complicate shit.

He ran his hands over his face, grimacing. Come the fuck on; this was already complicated. Like John out of the blue announcing he wanted to have sex. Sam didn’t trust it. It seemed too much like the kind of thing a jockey like Sheppard would pull out of nowhere just to fuck with himself, like he wasn’t already clearly fucked up enough as it was. One therapy session was a start but Sam knew he’d better throttle back on that whole idea before stuff got out of hand. As out of hand as it had nearly gotten last night, with him first accosting (nearly mauling) Sheppard in the hallway, and then adding a couple of under-negotiated activities to the scene without clear verbal. Not that Sheppard hadn’t obviously been more than okay with it, but it still wasn’t cool. Sam knew when was on tilt. Not a lot, but enough to make him pissed off at himself, because he goddamn well knew better. Maybe he needed to be back in therapy himself, given the way things were going.

He wondered how Bucky was really doing; if Steve could reliably get anything out of him that wasn’t in Russian. His phone buzzed, and he grabbed for it. Tony was already in mid-sentence.

“—about just one thing: how, in the alligator-strewn and Nile-virus infested rural wilds of the deep South, did you manage to find this particular guy?”

Sam refrained from correcting Tony’s geography, which was fine because JARVIS butted in smoothly before he could respond. “The population of Houston is actually 2.2 million, Mr. Stark.”

“You know what I mean. It’s still bucolic.”

“The population of Manhattan is, for purposes of comparison, just over 1.6 million.”

“Why are you spouting census statistics at me, I’m perfectly capable of—”

Stark,” said Sam. “This particular guy?”

“Right,” Tony said. “First of all, he wasn’t lying; his last time in the air really was support to McMurdo, out of Stratton Air National Guard Base in Schenectady. Mostly cargo, some transport. Charmingly enough, by the way, it’s called Operation Deep Freeze. Only run missions during the summer, though. Over the winter, scientists and staff have to survive without regular shipments of candy bars and—anyway. Here’s the thing: that was ten years ago, and that’s the last time he shows up on any flight plans, anywhere. After that he’s been stationed at Peterson, but according to this hasn’t flown a single mission.” Tony went quiet again for an interminable moment. “No, not that one, JARVIS; the other one. Okay, so here’s the really weird part, and I hope you’re sitting down.”

“Go ahead,” said Sam, through his teeth.

“We hit a security wall JARVIS couldn’t breach. Which, totally not your fault, buddy, I get it.”

“Thank you, sir,” said JARVIS sonorously.

“But here’s why we couldn’t get access: it’s not military, it’s CIA.”

Sam thought about this. John could have been recruited, maybe, if he’d been special ops—which of course he had been, or still was, that wasn’t even the question. But Sam knew field agents; hell, he knew Romanoff. It didn’t fit. John wasn’t the type. Stark seemed to read his mind.

“I don’t think your guy’s a spook, Wilson. To be honest, he got tasked with McMurdo because of some cowboy shit he pulled outside Kabul, so he clearly doesn’t work or play well with others.”

Oh, he played well with others alright. Sam cleared his throat.

“What kind of shit?”

“The kind where you disobey a direct order and go back for your men, but then fuck it up and get your Pave Hawk shot down, and also everyone but you dies. And by the way he did that twice.”

Jesus. Okay. That would definitely get you sent to Antarctica to fly cargo. “So why the CIA wall?”

“I think his real project’s hidden there. There’s an entire set of files I shouldn’t have even known existed, except that I know everything and in particular I know a guy from Kuwait: Major General Hank Landry, whose extremely attractive daughter—”

“It might be unnecessary for Sgt. Wilson to be made aware of this part, sir,” interrupted JARVIS.

“What is this, a conference call? I’m putting you on mute. The point is: if I can’t open them, I shouldn’t even be able to see them. But someone’s attached data to an old CIA op called the Stargate Project—total bust, one of those pointless boondoggles that someone got approved just because the total budget was a drop in the Cold War bucket compared to defense contracts.”

Sam didn’t say anything; just listened, mind racing.

“Anyway, Stargate officially folded in 1995, it’ll probably be declassified any minute now. Mostly magic-trick stuff, experiments in whether ‘remote viewing’ could be useful for gathering intel, and the answer was patently no, because it’s pseudoscience, as even the Senate Intelligence Committee had to acknowledge. But. Beginning around 1994, someone started appending all these files, which, may I repeat, aren’t actually there, to the original project, and Sam, we’re not talking terabytes of data, this is several hundred thousand exabytes, and I know birds can’t count that high but it’s—”

“A lot of zeroes, got it,” said Sam heavily. “How does Sheppard connect to this.”

Tony hesitated, an almost inaudible hitch, but Sam heard it nonetheless. “You know how in spy movies they always say, if I told you I’d have to kill you?”

“You said Area 51,” Sam pressed.

“I literally have no idea how to explain this, and I’m never going to tell you how I figured it out or the size of the favor I just had to call in, so I’m just going to say it and you’ll have to cope however you can: Sheppard was—I’m pretty sure he was behind the bombing of Area 51.”

Sam closed his eyes, seeing John’s face: drawn with pain, pinched, closed-off, except for those few moments when Sam had caught him with his guard down, relaxed and softened by sleep. When Sam had asked, he’d said he flew mostly helos. Was that because he got sick of dropping payloads?

“I’m sure even you are old enough to remember—it was about six months before the Incident. Pursuant to which attack that part of St. Elsewhere was evacuated, if there was anyone left, which I…sort of doubt given the aerial photos I just saw. Then they just blocked it off. Anything still in those buildings, they must’ve moved out to Nellis. Maybe a broken arrow kind of thing, a black project gone horribly awry—if they called in an aerial strike on their own damn selves, I don’t know.”

Sam’s mind went blank, and he heard himself blurting out, “Tony, I was stationed at Nellis.”

“Oh. By which I mean, of course you were: that’s where you tested the EXO. Of course.”

Sam blew out a breath. “Yeah, it stayed fenced off. None of us even wanted to ask about it. Weird debris, too.” You just learned, where the Site was concerned, not to ask too many questions, not to get too far afield of your own project. He and Riley had been busy anyway, only there half the time, the rest of the time at Bagram, pulling as many people as they could.

“But this is where it gets weird.”

“Okay,” Sam said, rattled. It seemed plenty weird enough.

(How could a lone fighter have dropped a payload there, though, without being chased down? The Box was right in the middle of Nellis, wall-to-wall carpeted with Vipers and Eagles and two dozen other kinds of unnamed lethal flying objects. They would have scrambled before Sheppard had even hit the edge of their airspace. Why not shoot him down? What the hell had his target been?)

“Around the same time, as in, later that same day, something, and I’m being deliberately vague here because I genuinely have no idea what the fuck it was, landed in the Pacific, just outside the San Francisco Bay, and it stayed there. For several months. And I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that’s your pilot’s Really Classified assignment.”

“…something,” echoed Sam.

“A big something,” Tony elaborated.

“I don’t remember this being on the news.”

“Have we taught you nothing about controlling information?”

Sam held out his hands, though Stark couldn’t see this. “Something bigger than an aircraft.”

“Bigger than several dozen aircraft carriers. At least a kilometer across—almost bigger than the widest part of the goddamn Golden Gate Bridge. Made one hell of a splash.”

Sam still wasn’t getting it. “And no one could see this…big something, because…”

Stark made an unpleasant sound. “Presumably because it was cloaked, and also because they would have stabbed out your eyeballs if you’d caught a glimpse of it? I don’t think you’re appreciating how difficult this information was to come by, Orville. Fortunately the California governor owed all of us approximately eighteen squillion favors, and someone in the EPA was horrified enough by the volume of displaced water and coastline damage to write a report, which obviously got promptly buried. But still. I’m not saying bribery was involved, but I am saying that Pepper and I now have to appear at the mayor’s fancy dress ball in October, and she’s going to be thrilled about that…for several reasons, not least because she’s supposed to be at her favorite yoga retreat in Bali, so you can imagine my—”

“What happened to it?” Sam interrupted, standing up and starting to pace. “The really big something.”

“Air Force quit obsessively hovering over the shipping lanes just outside the Bay in mid-July, which is also when they started allowing recreational craft inside an area that had been a no-fly zone. It clearly went somewhere, though, because if something that big had been destroyed, we’d all know about it. And also because these invisible-yet-annoyingly-still-present files keep being appended all the way through to, um, let me see—yeah, about fourteen hours ago. They’ve never stopped.”

Sam exhaled and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to sort through all this. “Okay. I—thanks, Tony. I owe you.”

“And I’ll remember that, believe me, next time Steve needs you to commute to your day job up here. Which brings me to my final point, and then we never had this conversation and I’m not even quite sure who you are: no T-38 rides for the full-bird colonel. He’s flown half-a-dozen different fighter jets, as well as pretty much every helicopter in service, but sorry, Woodstock, your boy couldn’t get clearance for a paper airplane at this point, thanks to this ten-year business.”

Suddenly, Sam put it together. “He’d have to requalify?”

“I don’t know what he has been flying, but as far as the USAF is concerned, he’s lost currency.”

“So—classroom instruction…”

“…ground trials, test flights, the whole nine. Circuits and bumps.”

Jesus, Sam thought, no wonder the guy’s depressed. Sam felt depressed just imagining it. He’d been grounded for so long it had almost stopped hurting, but it never really went away, the need to move in three instead of two dimensions.

“Word of advice? You could use the expensive special forces training for which I and other citizens of this fine country paid through the nose, and get him to talk to you. Whatever he’s up to, it’s clearly our wheelhouse, or adjacent. But I need better information if I’m going to try to access those encrypted files, and it would be nice to know more about…whatever it is, preferably before it bites us in the ass. So, you know. Little candlelight, bottle of red, some Drake, maybe Sade, I personally like Massive Attack—what the fuck,” Stark said, indistinctly, and then: “No!—ugh, okay, fine.”

“Hey, Sam,” said Natasha, her voice husky and amused. “Is Tony being a dick?”

“I’m standing right here,” said Tony, aggrieved.

“Nah, I got this,” Sam reassured her. “Everything okay there? Everything that’s not Stark, I mean.”

“We’re good,” Natasha said, laconic as ever. Sam could never tell if things were really good or if she were maybe strangling someone with one hand and ironing her hair with the other. “Steve’s still hopeless. SHIELD’s pretty fucked up. Bucky’s a lot better. He only sleeps in the hall closet sometimes.”

That was…one hell of a sitrep. “No one trying to kill anyone?”

“Not since Thursday,” she reported. Sam figured that was a win.

“I suggest a reputable Malbec,” Tony said, voice raised, out of breath, apparently scuffling with Natasha for proximity to the speaker, though somehow Sam visualized her just stolidly holding him at arm’s length. “Even affordable Willamette Valley pinot noirs have their good points.”

“What? Australian Syrah, all the way,” said Clint out of nowhere, and, okay, this call was officially too much for Sam.

“All y’all are assholes, and I’m hanging up now,” he informed them, then flopped back on the bed, thinking. Looking up at the ceiling and trying to figure out how he could sink a big enough eyehook in there, in a weight-bearing beam, and still be able to remove it when he eventually moved out. If he painted it white, no one would even notice it was there.

But Area 51? And why? That was a story he needed to hear, before things went much further. He couldn’t put off asking the questions anymore, no matter what the answers were. Something had fucked Sheppard up and it hadn’t been in Antarctica. Maybe in Nevada; maybe San Francisco Bay. Maybe somewhere else, in the years since then.

Honestly, he was more of a pinot gris guy, himself. Plus it was hard to go wrong with Jill Scott.

 

Chapter Text

AFI—technically Air Force Instruction (separate, documented sets of regulations), but privately used to mean Another Fucking Inconvenience

airman—any serviceperson in the USAF, though it can refer particularly to pilots

Aluminum U—nickname for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs (also known as the Blue Zoo and the Colorado Home for Wayward Boys)

Army proof—idiot proof; not even IOA could fuck it up

Article 15—an extrajudicial punishment, far more mild than a court martial, meted out by one’s CO

back to the taxpayers—where you send a dead aircraft

bandit—a known bad guy spotted in the air (cf. visual)

BDUs—Battle Dress Uniform, still slang for fatigues even though the USAF has replaced them with the ABU (Airman Battle Uniform)

bent—damaged, broken; see also tits-up, down

bingo, bingo fuel—when your fuel tank indicator starts blinking but you like to live on the edge, and so keep driving without stopping at a gas station; i.e., minimum amount of fuel needed to get back to base

black projects—extremely sekrit weapons/aircraft/things that the military is developing, in sekrit

blue on blue—air engagement between two USAF planes/friendly fire resulting from same

blues—Service Dress Uniform, or full uniform

booming—when you’re flying very, very fast (can also refer to wild partying)

bag/box nasty—lunch that dining facilities gives you when you have to fly/can’t eat on base

broke-dick—having an injury or medical condition that prevents you from serving (can also refer to equipment that’s down, or someone who’s deliberately malingering)

broken arrow—military suicide strategy in which you call down friendly fire on your own position

buddy spike—code notifying an aircraft that has locked onto you that you’re a friendly, don’t shoot

canary—unflattering term for a full-bird colonel (who, it is assumed, no longer flies actual airplanes)

Chair Force—Army idiots thinking they’re being funny about USAF members’ supposed laziness

Charlie Foxtrot—call letters for clusterfuck

CO—commanding officer/unit commander/first in command (cf. XO)

colorful actions—obnoxious showing off while flying; see also flathatting

con leave—convalescent leave (only up to 30 days in usual circumstances)

DADT—repealed in 2010, thus allowing American LGB military to serve openly for the first time

to depart—to lose control of one’s aircraft; also departure or DNF (departure from normal flight)

dining facilities—what the USAF has instead of mess halls, because they’re fancy (and yet another way that Atlantis is weird, in addition to having Sheppard being CO to a bunch of jarheads)

dirtbag airman—that one asshole in aviators and without a regulation haircut who shows up to meetings twenty minutes late with Starbucks (but doesn’t bring you any)

dirt nap—the big sleep, aka dying (can also refer to passing out)

displacement rolls—a particularly lunatic form of barrel roll along two axes at once (roll and yaw)

down—broken, not-flying (whether said of an aircraft or a pilot)

downrange—far away from base/in a hostile or combat situation, i.e. somewhere you don’t want to be

driver—a pilot

to eat dirt—pretty much what it sounds like, e.g., Sam after Scott gets through with him in Ant-Man

E-6—technical sergeant

exfil—exfiltration, also extraction; to get someone the hell out of hostile territory

flathatting—stunt flying, usually too low to the ground and colossally stupid, see also colorful actions

flight line—where airplanes are parked and serviced (both on the airfield and in hangars)

flight risk—sarcastic; a person of excessive rank (O-6 or higher) if they’re allowed behind the stick

football bat—someone who is out-of-place, unusual, or fucked-up (not to say, queer)

FUBAR—fucked up beyond all recognition/repair/reason, i.e. extremely fucked indeed

GIB—Guy in Back (of a two-person fighter), usually responsible for weapons; also RIO, R2D2

to goon up—you have made a great big mistake

grape—a pilot or aircraft that’s not hard to shoot down; easy pickings

grounded—what you are when you can’t fly, i.e. more or less not an entire whole person

helo—the real name for what jarheads and dogfaces insist on calling “choppers”

to hit the silk—to abandon your aircraft and hope to god your parachute opens

to jink—to maneuver around wildly and chaotically in a desperate attempt to avoid a threat

jock—a pilot

maroon beret—headgear traditionally worn by pararescuemen

milkruns—super boring patrol missions over neutral, non-hostile airspace; implies multiple stops

MREs—Meals Ready to Eat, additionally known as Meals Refusing to Exit; see also bag nasty

mustang—an officer who entered via the enlisted ranks; can be respectful or pejorative, depending

my fun meter is pegged—extremely sarcastic way of saying that this is the most "fun" it is possible to have (because the arm on the dial is pegged, i.e. can’t move over any further/go any higher)

NCO—non-commissioned officer; an enlisted person who has been promoted up through the ranks to a certain level but doesn’t actually have a commission and therefore isn’t technically an officer

NFOD—No Fear of Death

O-6—a colonel (“full bird” because of the accompanying eagle insignia)

OCS—Officer Candidate School, which one usually enters having finished an undergraduate degree

ODS—Operation Desert Storm/Shield, aka Gulf I (1990-1991, mostly Kuwait and Iraq)

OEF—Operation Enduring Freedom, aka Gulf II (2001-2003, mostly Iraq)

OIR—Operation Inherent Resolve, aka Gulf III (2014-present, mostly Iraq and Syria)

opportunity to excel—extremely sarcastic; a disastrous situation you have no power/resources to fix

parafoils—high-tech parachutes that behave more like ultralight airplanes and can be flown for some distances (rather than just dumping you on the ground); pararescuemen train on these at Ft. Bragg

PFM—pure fucking magic; refers to complex inner workings (as of, for example, fighter jets) that can’t be understood by most people, even if carefully explained; sometimes FM, fucking magic

PJ—parajumper, slang for a pararescueman (male gender unfortunately still appropriate)

pop tart—pilot who’s only had a few weeks of training but already thinks they know everything

punching out—hitting the eject button, bending over, and kissing your ass goodbye; heavily discouraged as it tends to cost taxpayers upward of a few hundred million dollars per fighter

qualifying—what you have to keep doing in a certain kind of aircraft in order to be allowed to fly one of that type: namely, log a certain number of flight hours per month

queep—annoying, tedious ground duties (usually paperwork) which prevent pilots from flying

roll, pitch, and yaw—the three axes of aerial movement, on an x/y/z grid: roll is top-bottom (longitudinal), pitch is forward-backward (lateral), and yaw is left-right (vertical); easy to picture if you make your arm be an airplane and think about usual meanings for roll and pitch (as in, forward)

RPG—rocket propelled grenade; actually intended and primarily used for blowing up vehicles/tanks, but more recently (and fairly effectively) also used as anti-aircraft weaponry, mainly against helos

secondment—temporary transfer to another assignment/base

six [as in, got your/on your]—gentle reader, I give you a dialogue between me and my mother.

my mom: In the war movies, why do they always say “on your six”?

me: Because you give directions as if you’re standing on a clock face facing noon, so someone who has your six is behind you.

my mom: [doubtfully] Hm, maybe that’s where it comes from…

me: No, that is where it comes from.

my mom: It does sound kind of plausible.

me: [increasingly irked] Mom, I’m not making it up, I’m telling you. It’s called clock position.

my mom: [very long pause] …well, I guess that could be it. [/scene]

smoking hole—all that’s left after you crash your very expensive airplane

speed of heat—when you’re flying very, very fast

state—request by the controller to know how much fuel you have left before you “splash” (run out)

tac vest—tactical vest, worn by Marines but not Air Force (yet another way Atlantis is anomalous)

Tango Uniform—see also tits-up

TDY—temporary duty; being assigned outside one’s usual posting, typically between 45 days and 6 months (any longer than that is considered a PCS, permanent change of station)

“These Things We Do, That Others May Live”—the USAF pararescue slogan (sometimes given just as “That Others May Live”)

throttle back—laying off the throttle; slowing down, dialing it back

throttle jockey—pilot who likes things that go much faster than 250 mph (by about a factor of 10)

tits-up—an ex-airplane, one pining for the fjords; a piece of equipment that is broken/messed-up/ completely cashed out (sometimes referred to by its call letters as Tango Uniform)

trap—aircraft carrier landing in which the jet is snagged and stopped by the arresting cable

up & locked—not paying attention, as when your landing gear is stowed and yet you still…try to land

Viper—affectionate nickname for the Lockheed Martin F-16 Falcon (no relation to Sam); based on the fighters in Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), because pilots are not-so-secretly giant nerds

visual—a friendly aircraft spotted while flying (cf. bandit)

War in Afghanistan—dozens of operations, still ongoing; longest war in US history (2001-present)

warp one—when you’re flying very, very fast

waveoff—when the controller tells a pilot not to touch down, to abort the landing (usually on an aircraft carrier); you can come around and try again, if you’re not up and locked

what the piss, airman/what the fricking piss—phrase angrily shouted at new pilot trainees

white rocket—nickname for the Northrup Talon T-38, because…it’s white and goes very fast

wingnut—member of the USAF

wingovers—ridiculous (and really beautiful) acrobatic maneuver in dogfighting and paragliding, in which the pilot makes a 180º change of direction along two axes at once (both yaw and pitch)

XO—executive officer/deputy commander/second in command (cf. CO)

zipper-suited sun god—my absolute favorite piece of airman slang; refers to how fighter pilots start to think of themselves, all grandiose in their flight suits and annoying the shit out of everyone else

zoomies—can refer specifically to Academy graduates/cadets but also more generally to anyone in the USAF; see also airman, wingnut