Title: You're a Good Man, John Sheppard
Rating: PG-13? For planes and guns?
Length: 3,700 words
Summary: "The news had come out in the first world war - the bloody Red Baron was flying once more. The Allied Commander gathered all of his men and called upon Sheppard to do it again."
Author's Notes: Many thanks to reccea for everything and the beta, and to miss_porcupine, raisintorte, and lilac_way for humoring me. Research credit goes to Wikipedia's pages on the Sopwith Camel and the Fokker Dr. I, and to these two pages with additional information on the Camel. All remaining mistakes or incongruities are my own fault, through either ignorance or desire to stay true to the "source material" such as it is.
You're a Good Man, John Sheppard
Jack O'Neill looked up from the mountain of service jackets piled precariously on his desk and rubbed at his eyes with the heel of one hand.
"More?" he asked as his aide stumbled into the cramped office, another stack anchored under her chin.
"Twenty, sir," she said, glancing around for a place to put them and finally just dumping them in O'Neill's lap.
"Thanks, Carter. Anything promising?" he asked hopefully.
Carter's face twitched into an apologetic half-grimace and she shook her head.
"Nothing?" O'Neill demanded. "There's nobody we hate more than Sheppard?"
"Sorry, sir," Carter said with a shrug. "He's the best we have."
"He's crazy," O'Neill said, dumping the twenty files Carter had just brought him onto the floor. "They're all crazy!"
"You were one of them, sir," Carter pointed out, crouching to shove the scattered papers back in their brown folders.
"I was crazy! I'm still crazy," O'Neill said, holding up both hands. "Who would want a job like this anyway?"
"Allied Commander is a very important job, sir," Carter said, straightening up with the service jackets. "Somebody has to do it."
"It's a job created for a war," O'Neill said quietly. "Get me a flight to Pont au Mousson, Carter and have them send a car. If I'm sending a man to his death, I want to look him in the eye."
"Did you hear?" Beckett dragged up a nearby chair and blinked expectantly.
"Mm, nope." John Sheppard turned the page of his book. In the ready room around them were a couple of card games going on and a few of the guys were aiming darts at a corkboard, a picture of a dark-haired man with a scarred and pitted face tacked to the center. His large nose had already been peppered by a trio of darts. No one had been in the air for twenty-four hours and they were all getting a little antsy.
Carson Beckett had all the aptitude of a great pilot and none of the attitude. He had perfect eyesight and quick reflexes, ate well and was in fairly good shape, but there was a reason John had privately dubbed him "Chicken Little" and it wasn't his height. How he'd gotten into the Royal Air Corps was beyond John's ken but that was the Brits for you.
"They say the Red Baron's flying again. They're saying he's in the air tonight."
John froze at the Baron's name and forgot to hold his smile. The words on the page blurred and ran together. He closed the book slowly and put it on the table next to him. "Where did you hear this?" he asked, mind already busy.
"It's the word in the mess," Carson said. "Lieutenant Ford said Sergeant Stackhouse went out to pick someone up from the airfield. Maybe we're getting new orders."
"Not if -- "
John and Carson jumped to their feet, Carson's chair clattering to the floor in the resultant silence. A tall, gray-haired man in a freshly pressed Army uniform with U.S. Signal Corps patches walked into the room and faced them. Silver stars glinted from his shoulders. His shrewd eyes passed over them and nodded thoughtfully.
"As I'm sure you know," he said, "I'm General Jack O'Neill. As I'm sure you also know, we've received intel that the Red Baron is back in the air after his crash last June."
The room stayed quiet but John could feel the dart of eyes on the back of his neck. He'd forced the crash that had injured the Baron and he'd hoped the man was dead. John didn't like war and he didn't like killing but the Baron had murdered too many of his friends to take a soft approach on the matter.
"More importantly," O'Neill continued. "We have intel that he's in the air tonight. Major Sheppard, front and center."
"Great," John muttered under his breath and shouldered his way to the front of the room. His traitorous wingmates stepped aside to give him an unimpeded path to the general. "Sir," he said, snapping off a salute he thought was halfway decent. From the look on the general's face, he was giving himself too much credit.
O'Neill saluted him back. "Sheppard. You're sloppy, you're a hotdog, and your hair's unreg. You're also the only person we have to survive a dogfight with the Baron and I expect you to come back this time, too, understand me?"
"Yes, sir," John barked, back stiff and hands curled at his sides.
"It's a hell of a night out there, Sheppard," O'Neill said. "Best of luck to you."
"Thank you, sir." Sheppard saluted again, better this time.
O'Neill returned the salute, then clapped Sheppard on the arm and walked out of the room.
The rest of the pilots fell out of attention with a collective gasp of relief.
"You can't be going out there!" Carson said in John's ear. "They say it's forty below! And the night before Christmas to boot. It's inhuman!"
"It's the Baron," John said shortly. He looped his silk scarf around his neck and picked up his goggles and helmet. "He's not helping the Krauts take another city. Not on my watch."
"Well, here," Carson said crossly. "If you're determined to go off and get yourself killed, at least be warm about it." He held out John's leather flight jacket, lined with lamb's wool and silk.
"Thanks." John shrugged into the jacket and nodded at Carson. "You take care of yourself," he said awkwardly. "And that girl of yours."
"Aye," Carson said earnestly. "I will."
John turned away before Carson could hug him or something else embarrassing. A few guys slapped him on the shoulders and back as he left the ready room, a last hurrah for their hero.
The wooden doors never closed up quite tight and he felt the cold seeping in through the cracks as he hesitated. He zipped up his jacket and pulled on his gloves and had even put his hands on the door before he heard his name called.
"Teyla," he said, turning back to face her. John had been vacationing in Paris when the Germans rolled in to Marne three years back. He had gone to see the tanks and he'd helped her, and other members of her village get across the border. Her friends had found refuge in Paris but Teyla had taken up residence at the little RAF outpost, taking care of paperwork and cleaning and whatever else needed to be done. "I -- "
"The Red Baron, I know," she said quickly. "Here, I warmed these for you when I saw the general enter." She slipped two piping hot turnovers into his gloved hands. "For your pockets."
"Thank you," he said, tucking them into his jacket, knowing they were more valuable for warmth but if he was out too long, or not long at all, they would provide sustenance.
"Be safe," Teyla said calmly, but with concern on her face. She reached up and took his face in her hands, and kissed him on both cheeks. He pressed his mouth against her face in return and flashed her a confident smile when he straightened.
"I always am," he said cheerfully. "I wouldn't miss Christmas dinner for all the tea in China!"
Teyla flushed and laughed because they both knew she'd been banned from the galleys for the preparation of the meal. "You will regret teasing me, one day," she threatened.
"Maybe," John said. "But not today. Stand back. The wind's harsh tonight."
Teyla retreated to the end of the hallway and John opened the door, letting in the swirling snow and bitter cold air. He stepped out into the frozen field and pulled the door shut behind him.
Lights were shining brightly in the hangar, escaping from the open door and the narrow cracks between the lumber of the walls. John tugged his scarf up over his mouth and hunched over against the wind. Snowflakes stung his cheeks like salt and his knee-high boots sank deep in the layer of snow already covering the ground.
Inside the hangar was a cacophony of sound, crew swarming over his Sopworth Camel, getting it flight-ready. Zelenka was standing on a ladder, one leg swung into the cockpit, checking the instruments against a checklist clutched in one hand. He adjusted his glasses and muttered to himself, making a pencil mark on the list.
"How's she looking?" John asked, sidling up to Rodney, who was shouting instructions to someone indistinguishable from the rest of the men scuttling around in heavy leather coats and mufflers to protect them from the wind.
"What? Oh, it's you." Rodney screwed up his face and shook his head. "She's looking terrible. Whose idea was it for you to go flying in the middle of a snow storm? On Christmas Eve! You can't go out there in this."
"Orders," John said, as if that mattered. "General O'Neill came all the way out from London for this. The Red Baron is up there."
Rodney's face tightened. "As if you could find him in this," he said, rubbing his forearms as if trying to warm them up but John knew he was feeling for the scar buried beneath layers of winter clothes. "It's awful out there. Your biggest problem is going to be visibility."
John held up his goggles and helmet. "All ready to go," he said.
"Yes, well, make sure they stay sealed to your face or you're going to have fogging problems with the heat off the engine. Also, if you're up there for too long, you're going to have to worry about ice. There's a bag of salt in your seat but if you have to use it, it's time to turn around and come home because there's no way you'll be able to distribute it evenly and also it'll corrode the wing sheath."
"Got it," John said, nodding as he looked the plane over. "What are those things?" he asked, frowning at the woolen clumps surrounding the Vickers machine guns mounted in the cowl.
"The guys wrapped scarves around your guns to keep them from icing," Rodney said with a roll of his eyes. "They're calling them -- ."
"Huh," John said. "Gun Jumpers."
"Jumpers, sweaters, whatever. It's unbearably cute."
John grinned at him. "Swell."
"Yes, you would think so. Now remember, the engine is sensitive to the fuel mixture and if you stall out, you're going to spin and then it's all over, so just -- just don't, okay?'
"Rodney," John said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. I'll be fine. She's a good plane. She's smaller and more maneuverable than the Strutter." Rodney had been his observer when the Baron had taken down John's Strutter two years back. John could still see the scar on his arm, white in the direct sunlight when it was too warm for Rodney to wear long sleeves.
"I know that," Rodney snapped. "I helped design her."
"Okay," John said, nodding. He looked up at Zelenka, keeping his hand steady on Rodney's shoulder. "Ready to go?"
Zelenka glanced down, then glanced at his checklist and offered up a raised thumb. "She is ready," he declared.
"All right, then," John said, patting Rodney's shoulder one last time before pulling his leather helmet on over his hair and buckling it under his chin. "Let's get her in the air."
Zelenka climbed down and John climbed up, settling into the narrow pilot's seat and strapping himself in. He licked his fingertips and ran them around the inside of his goggles, then affixed them to his face, making sure they formed a seal.
The engine was already running and a team had swept off the runway for John. He gave Rodney, standing outside with his hands tucked under his arms and his face half-hidden by his woolen muffler, his own special thumbs up, and then turned his attention to the takeoff.
Despite Rodney's predictions of doom (and granted, the Camel did give lesser pilots problems) John was in the air inside of a few minutes and setting a heading for northwest, where General O'Neill's intelligence had spotted the Baron.
Miles away from the nearest village, he heard church bells ring midnight. As the first chime faded, John heard a sound cloaked in the wind and twisted around in his seat to see a Fokker Dr. I closing in on his left flank. John cursed and pushed the nose of his Camel down. He applied the left rudder and his plane turned sharply to the right, twisting away from the Baron's guns.
The wind stung his cheeks as he circled around and pushed his aircraft into a steep climb. He angled up under the Fokker's fuselage and moved clumsy fingers to the emmas gees, the RAF pilots' phonetic slang for the machine guns. They looked stupid in their gray scarves but they swung easily when John aimed them at the underbelly of the Baron's plane. He squeezed the trigger but the Baron's plane banked sharply to the right and dove, sliding in beside John's Camel, and the bullets went spiraling out into the darkness.
John made a wide loop, coming back around to face the Baron's plane head-on. He brought his guns to bear on the target, remembering his father's stories of leaning out of the cockpit and aiming at the other pilot with his pistol. John would take a pair of Vickers any day of the week and he fired, the report echoing over the empty ground beneath them. The Baron rolled to his own left, and John rolled with him, keeping one hand on the stick and the other on the trigger. For a moment, he thought he'd hit the Fokker, but then it shifted direction and rolled back and up to the right, and John had to break away.
Gunfire, on his left, and John pulled the stick down and to the right but instead of banking sharply, his Camel rolled sluggishly, tilting too far down.
"Crap," John muttered, yanking her back to level and scrubbing his sleeve against the glass protecting the altimeter. He had enough air under him to get back in the action but he wasn't climbing the way he should and the sinking feeling in his stomach was as cold and desolate as the night air. He peered sideways down the wing, one hand holding the stick steady and keeping an eye out for the Baron as he looked for the slick sheen of frozen water on his wings.
The Fokker came around and John straightened up quickly to pull his Camel away. He glanced down the wing again and this time saw the reflection of the moon on his lower wing sheath. The Baron buzzed him on the left, and John knew he was being corralled right into the sights of the Fokker's Spandau 08's.
He wrenched the Camel away, forcing his hobbled plane to dive below the Baron's line of fire. The Baron followed him down, easily, and John twisted around both ways to confirm. Both the ugly German machine guns were drawn directly on his position and John didn't have the maneuverability to do anything about it. He took a deep breath of harsh, cold, air, burning his lungs and numbing his stomach. He closed his eyes, waiting for the rattle of the 08's and the wrench of his plane coming apart around him.
Instead he heard church bells, the last slow chime fading into the wintry Christmas night.
After a moment, John opened his eyes again and checked behind him. The Baron was still there, guns still targeted, and the Fokker shifted to the left, corralling John's Camel further north.
John didn't know what was going on. Legend had it that Baron Acastus Kolya had silver cups engraved with the place and date of every enemy plane he shot down. He was an ace a dozen times over. Why was he forcing John to land instead of taking the shot and bringing him down on his own soil?
They flew on, wind whipping at the small patches of exposed skin on John's face and pushing against the silk scarf at his throat and the leather of his coat, gloves, and helmet. It was cold, colder than John ever remembered being, but the snow had stopped and the night air was clear and sharp. He could see villages as they passed over, tributary rivers, and a wide valley as they crossed the Rhine and the Baron's plane rose and circled, indicating John should land.
John didn't see much choice, himself. If he refused, he would be undoubtedly be shot down. If he landed, he was behind enemy lines, but alive, there was still a chance for escape.
It was impossible to tell how even the landscape was, buried under a layer of snow. John pulled back on the throttle to cut power, making sure to stay just over stall speed. A hundred feet over the ground, he pulled the nose up and touched the wheels to the ground. He leveled the nose, cut the power, and steered the Camel into a position facing away from the river, a respectable landing despite adverse conditions. Rodney would be proud of him for not tearing up the plane. If John ever got back.
John checked his shoulder holster for his Colt .45 automatic. It had been snug under his arm for the entire fight and the metal was body-warm. He slipped it into the outer patch pocket of his jacket and squeezed it before climbing out of the pilot's seat.
He swung himself out of the cockpit and slipped onto the lower wing, pausing to peer between the struts and sliding sideways to situate himself behind the rocket tubes housing his Le Prieur air-to-air rockets. They weren't much in the way of cover but they weren't nothing. He shifted his weight to one side, holding onto the metal rack that housed the rockets with one hand as he eased the Colt from his pocket.
And that was when his foot slipped and he fell backward off the lower wing into the snow - which wasn't as deep as it had looked. He cursed to himself and reached frantically to his right, trying to snatch up his pistol from the snow and praying it hadn't jammed. Just as his hand closed around the grip, he heard a deep, resounding laugh echoing over the frozen landscape. Oh, no, he thought, scrambling for purchase in the snow as he realized that maybe, just maybe, this really was the end. Sorry, Rodney, he added, casting one last wistful glance at the Camel.
"Merry Christmas, my friend!"
John picked his head up and peered over his chest to see Kolya standing twenty yards away, a bottle of champagne in one hand and two glasses in the other.
"Huh?" he said articulately.
"If you'll join me, Major Sheppard," the Baron said, thumbing the cork out of the bottle with a pop, "I'd like to offer a toast to the holiday. Peace on earth, good will to man." He tilted the bottle toward the glasses, spilling champagne over the sides as he filled the flutes. "Please get up. It must be cold down there."
John snatched up his pistol from where it lay, mere feet away in the snow, and rolled to his feet, finding agility in embarrassment. He held the Colt ready, not pointed at the Baron, but ready to aim, but Kolya just walked forward, his hands full of Christmas spirit.
"Put your gun away," he invited. "I won't be killing you this Christmas. It's only considerate of you to do the same."
John hesitated, pressed his teeth into his bottom lip. But Kolya had nothing pointed at him but champagne, and a benevolent smile on his face. Miles away still, the church bells started up again and John wondered if they would be ringing all night.
He eased the Colt back in his pocket and held it for a moment, then removed his hand.
The Baron handed him a glass and John took it, his fingers clumsy in their thick leather and fleece gloves.
"A toast to the holiday!" the Baron announced. He smiled and it wasn't as entirely unpleasant as John would have expected. "And an end to this war in which you have been a most worthy opponent. I believe, on this occasion, your people say…cheers?"
John inclined his head and tapped his glass against the Baron's. "And as yours say, Prosit," he said as well as he could in a language not his own. He swallowed some of the champagne, the bubbles tickling his nose and dancing a warm path to his gut. "And a toast to you, Baron," he said. "I much prefer a friendly drink to shooting each other out of the sky." Especially when it's me getting shot down, he thought as they toasted again and drank.
"Make no mistake, Major," Kolya said as they finished off their drinks and threw the glasses in the Rhine. "When next we meet, it will be war."
"Yeah," John said, staring out at the water. "I'll be counting on it."
The temperature on the ground was just enough higher than the temperature in the air that the ice on John's wings was melting a bit. He pulled himself back up on the struts and balanced precariously as he threw out handfuls of the salt Rodney had left in the cockpit. By the time he got settled back into the seat, turned on the engine, and adjusted the fuel mix, he was ready to go. He saluted the Baron as they roared off into the night, Kolya turning north and John bearing south, toward France, toward home.
Maybe, he thought, as the church bells began their song once again, Rodney and Teyla would still be up when he got back. Maybe even Carson, and they could all sit down and have a nice root beer together to celebrate the holiday. He could almost taste the thick froth and the welcome sound of his friends' voices.
John flew home with the sound of Christmas bells ringing through the land, bringing peace to all the world and good will to man.
Words to Snoopy's Christmas are here.