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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 wouldn’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

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