Title: Straight On 'Til Morning
Rating: It's practically on the show anyway. Set right immediately post 1.06: Childhood's End and might have spoilers for that episode.
Assorted Ramblings: reccea walked me through this story every step of the way. She weathered my fits, fixed my tenses, rearranged my paragraphs, and pretty much ignored my temper tantrums until I just sucked it up and fixed whatever it was that was making me mad. All the good lines belong to her. She is fantastic. Thanks also go to kerithwyn for fixing my lingering tense issues even though she doesn't watch the show or know who anyone is, and greenygal for making me watch "Siege, Part II" last spring which left me going, "Dude, that guy with the dark hair is cute. He's not really going to die, is he?"
Straight On 'Til Morning
Nobody had ever accused John Sheppard of acting mature for his age. In fact, he'd heard just the opposite, more times than he could remember. In the grand tradition of the self-fulfilling prophecy, he met and exceeded expectations.
When he was sixteen, he quit his summer job at the base exchange and joined the carnival. For three spectacular months he traveled with the carnies, putting up and deconstructing the Ferris Wheel as it went from town to town. He ate hot dogs and popcorn all summer and in the sticky heat of the night, he had his friends stop the Ferris Wheel on the top so he could charm whichever local girl caught his eye. He hitchhiked home a week before school started to find his father had already returned from Panama and was unhappy at finding his son AWOL. John's punishment was six months of KP and PT with the base Marines every morning, but his father was gone a month later and too preoccupied by the summit in Geneva to enforce his mandate.
His first year at the Air Force Academy, John went over the wall and into town for a drink. He wasn't twenty-one and the barkeep knew it, but it was the kind of place where no one asked questions and no one told lies. He nearly got caught on his way back in and when his squad leader asked where he was during the bed check the night before, he said the men's room. It wasn't a lie -- he had been in the restroom, but not the one down the hall, and he hadn't just been taking a leak. In the end, though, John wanted to fly, and that was more important than proving how stupid the rules were.
In flight school, John was at the top of his class. His mathematically oriented brain made short work of the classroom assignments and every machine he touched became a natural extension of his will. That was where he met a girl named Theresa who he was going to marry, but then he volunteered to go to Iraq and that was the end of that.
His chopper was shot down in Bosnia in the midst of a rescue mission and everyone died but John. He spent weeks on the run and lied about them to the psychiatrists. He spent days in captivity and swore to himself that he'd never burden another living soul with the memories. He broke his promise once but she left him two months later, telling him that he was closed off and emotionally inaccessible. He never made that mistake again.
The black mark came from Afghanistan. He'd refused, with single-minded stubbornness, not to leave those three crewmen behind. He thought of them on the ground in the dust, like he'd been once upon a time, and ignored a direct order. This time, though, his baby face failed him. His casual countenance, his quirky smile, his dimples, his usual defenses failed him and he had nothing to put between himself and the consequences of his actions. He requested McMurdo, because humans who put regulations before the sanctity of human life weren't people John Sheppard wanted on his continent. He didn't get to choose where they went, but he did get to choose where he went, as long as it was miserable. He was ok with miserable.
No one cared what John did in Antarctica until he sat down in the wrong chair. Antarctica was a purgatory between freedom and abandonment where nobody cared what he did or what he had done in the past. Then suddenly Elizabeth Weir wanted him on her mission and so did General O'Neill, and Rodney McKay and Carson Beckett. John knew Beckett only wanted to get out of sitting in the chair and McKay only wanted him to make the machines work, but he was ok with that. He knew Colonel Sumner didn't want him but he went anyway. Miserable wasn't good enough any more.
The first week on Atlantis, Rodney McKay ambushed him and said, "Look what I found." He showed John the personal shield and invited him to do the manly equivalent of "come out and play." Together, they put the shield through its paces, in the boxing ring, with a quarterstaff, with John's 9mm Beretta, and finally from the balcony in the Gateroom. Elizabeth's glare was disapproving but John couldn't remember when he'd last had so much fun. All his friends on Earth were dead.
John first realized how much Rodney wanted him when he had a Wraith bug stuck to his neck. He didn't have time to deal with it then and he never really got around to doing it later. McKay didn't seem inclined to deal with it, either, and John wondered if he had been imagining things.
John first realized how much he wanted Rodney when Rodney took a Wraith stunner to the face. After weeks of jokes about what it would take to shut McKay up, he finally found out and it made him a little sick to his stomach. The catch in his throat that had been lingering since Rodney walked into the sentient darkness finally resolved with a name and place.
John asked Teyla to teach him the sticks the next day. When he finally collapsed into his rack hours after sundown, he was too exhausted and achy to think of anything but sleep.
It was a pretty sad day when John Sheppard was the most mature person on the planet. It made him weary even though he kept telling himself that Teyla was absolutely more of a grown-up than he was. Ford was barely older than those kids on the planet and Rodney had never played well with others.
John stood in front of the mirror in his quarters and frowned at the dark circles under his eyes. Not just circles, but lines, etched in the corners of his eyes. He thought maybe there were lines shadowing in around his mouth, too, and his shoulders ached when he stripped off his shirt. His hair was still dark, still uncooperative, and at least his chest hair still matched. The day a man's chest hair turned gray was the day he was -- should be, anyway -- ineligible to make any more James Bond movies, he had always told himself, and he hadn't yet gotten to star in a single one. But there was still time left, should he ever get back to the Milky Way. He frowned at his gut, tightened his abdominal muscles, and promised to do crunches until the slight swell under his navel flattened out. He was almost thirty-six and the last five years weren't yet apparent.
"Major!" Rodney's voice was faint and accompanied by a series of hurried taps. With no further fanfare, the door opened, admitting Rodney and his ever-present laptop. "I was thinking," he said by way of greeting. "We should go back to that planet."
"Elizabeth said no," John said automatically, deciding that if Rodney wasn't going to comment on his state of undress, neither was he.
"The ZPM was nearly depleted," Rodney said as if John hadn't spoken, and John quashed a little thrill when Rodney said 'Zed.' He was too old for a sexual identity crisis.
"And it was the only thing keeping those kids safe," John added in case Rodney had forgotten already. It wasn't outside the realm of possibility.
"Right, but if we could replace the power source while we...borrowed the ZPM...I figure three naquadah generators would do it, not for so long, of course, but we could worry about that later, and Zelenka and I should be able to boost their power output. And if we had the ZPM up here for more than two hours, we could figure out how to recharge them, I'm sure the Ancients invented reusable batteries millennia ago, and then when we found another one, we could recharge that, and return this one to the kids so you don't have to go getting your shorts in a bunch -- by the way, is this what good-looking people do when they get bored? Strip naked and stare at themselves?"
"I'm wearing pants," John replied, thinking that really, Rodney should be grateful for that much, considering he'd barely waited ten seconds between knocking and walking straight in. Then what Rodney said sunk in and suddenly the little stir John always got when Rodney said something completely Canadian flared to life again. "Good-looking people?" he asked, lifting an eyebrow.
"Yes, Major, your features are symmetrical, you're within the desired weight range for a man of your height, and your hair..." McKay screwed up his face the way he did when someone mentioned physical activity. "...it does that boyband thing."
"Boyband thing?" John asked, blinking.
"Look, do we have to make everything about your hair? You meet society's expectations for male attractiveness. Can we get back to my ZPM now?"
Rodney was clearly flustered under his baleful glare and launched into his ideas for how John was going to charm Elizabeth into going along with Rodney's plan.
"You can't spare three naquadah generators," John pointed out when Rodney stopped to take a breath. "You can't, Rodney."
Rodney had stored up a huge lungful of air for his next round of frantic explanation but left with nothing to say, he had to let it out in one deflating sigh.
"You're right," he said dully, his eyes tracking around the room and finally landing on War and Peace. "Dammit."
"Do you ever miss being a kid?" John asked when Rodney showed no signs of leaving and the little furrow in his brow kept deepening. He tucked his hands in his pockets to keep from reaching out and smoothing Rodney's forehead with his thumb. "Y'know, when the biggest thing you had to worry about was English Lit or getting your chores done?" Or where your father was that month, if he was even still alive. Or who to talk to when you find another boy's tongue in your mouth and all you want to do with your life is fly. John Sheppard's childhood had fallen away from him in tiny, painful pieces.
"Ah. No," McKay replied, the thoughtfulness clearing from his face. "You see, I was never a kid, certainly not in the way you experienced childhood. I was four when an IQ test indicated that I was, well, undeniably a genius."
"You mean you didn't play or anything?" John asked, thinking that he suddenly understood McKay a lot better. He certainly understood his atrocious inability to interact with the children on M7G-677.
"Oh, of course I played," McKay said cheerfully. "Just at a much higher level than my peers. I learned chess at six, blew up the tool shed when I was eight, and did I ever mention my sixth grade science fair project -- "
"Yes." John crossed his arms and lounged against the desk. "Many times."
"Oh. Right. Well. Anyway." For a moment Rodney's eyes shadowed and John realized that he would have hated to have Rodney's childhood.
John knew what it was like to be smarter than everyone else in the room. But he'd had the tools and the sense of self-preservation to hide that. Moving from military base to military base taught him to make friends with whoever was willing to talk to him. His mother's younger brother, who lived with them for a few years, taught him to throw and catch a baseball and a football. He even learned how to sink hoops playing HORSE and other games they made up when John was small, so joining in pickup games of basketball hadn't been difficult, either. His uncle died in Iran but the lessons he'd passed on had served John in good stead.
Rodney, John was sure, hadn't had any such escape. Rodney had only his own brain to rely on and there was no room, anywhere, in which Rodney was not the smartest person. His sense of isolation and dissociation were far beyond anything John had ever had to experience. He wondered if that meant Rodney had grown up more quickly than anyone John knew or if he'd never grown up at all. He thought maybe he should have let Rodney tell the story of his nonfunctional atomic science fair project again.
"My parents, they uh." Rodney's gaze had shifted to Johnny Cash and he fiddled with his laptop. "There was a lot of yelling where they were involved. I couldn't wait to grow up. Being alone, living away from them...it seemed like it would make everything better."
John pushed himself away from the desk and sat on the bed next to Rodney.
"Did it?" he asked.
Rodney lifted both eyebrows and nodded. "I had no idea," he said softly, his mouth relaxing into a smile. John was intrigued -- he was sure Rodney's default expression was a frown. "I mean it sounded good. But to be able to do whatever I wanted, eat whatever I wanted...it was a whole new level of autonomy. It was the best thing ever. I wouldn't have given up at 24 for anything. College was great but my life really didn't start until I was 24."
"When you die at 24," John said thoughtfully, looking down at his folded hands, "you grow up faster. You have to fit an entire life into a quarter of the time." He shrugged. "Keras had...'young' and heck, he was leading a whole village there."
In his peripheral vision, he saw Rodney tilt his head. "You want kids, Major?" he asked, sounding as honestly curious about the matter as he ever did about something without a power source.
"Well, they weren't really on my to-do list," John drawled, wishing that subject away as soon as possible. He liked kids, but no one in their right mind would ever make him responsible for one, and besides, his life expectancy on Atlantis might very well be a lot shorter than he'd originally anticipated. This Wraith problem didn't look to be going away any time soon.
"Yeah," McKay admitted, finally setting the laptop aside. "Me either." The silence between them was starting to develop a density. "I think I would have been braver."
John looked over at McKay, his eyes sketching quickly over the other man's mouth. He'd learned over the years to indulge his attractions in compressed packets. "What do you mean?" he asked, secretly pleased to have an excuse to watch McKay's face openly.
"I think, if I knew I was going to die before I turned 25, that I would have...said a lot more things," McKay admitted. "I would have done things I was too scared to do. I definitely would have asked Sam Carter out."
John's heart thumped in his chest and he looked away. The first time he'd narrowly escaped death, he'd gone to a bar, done six shots in quick succession and gone home with the first man who'd approached him. It wasn't something he would have risked any other time, but he needed something to make him forget.
"You realize," McKay said, his voice tremulous, "that if we don't come up with a way to contact Earth, we might not live out the year."
John ran his tongue along his bottom lip and thought about risk. He thought about the steady thrumming of his body since sitting down on the bed next to McKay and he thought about feeling another man's -- McKay's -- hands on him, body over his. When he went to the Air Force Academy, homosexuality was actively disallowed and he'd seen more than one witch hunt that ended ugly. When he left Earth, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, was in full force. It wasn't a solution, but it was a giant sigh of relief for anyone with any sense of discretion. He'd celebrated that decision a bit himself. When they got home, if they got home, who knew what strides might be made, who knew what permissions might be given. It was enough to make him want to go a little crazy.
"Is this something you get used to, Major?" Rodney asked, his voice strained. "This...this...wanting to do things even though they're statistically guaranteed to disrupt, well, our entire lives?"
"Feeling a little reckless, McKay?" he found himself asking, his eyes lingering on McKay's expressive eyes, his hard slash of a mouth.
Rodney looked too nervous for it to be sexy but John's heart skipped a beat anyway. He opened his mouth but then McKay was there, right in his space, pressing lips hard against his. A little reckless and a little brave. John thought maybe he was in love.
"Have you ever done this with a guy before?" he asked against Rodney's mouth, flushed and breathless, running two knuckles along Rodney's jaw.
"I, uh. I kinda skipped that part of high school," Rodney admitted, leaning back and mirroring John's gesture. "And college, too. I wasn't actually very good at figuring out when I was supposed to kiss a girl, and trying to kiss a guy seemed like a very good way to get my nose broken. Not," he added hastily, "that I wouldn't, you know, want to. After all, that line about teaching an old dog new tricks is largely a fallacy."
"I'm too old to deal with sexual identity crisis," John murmured, cupping his hand around Rodney's chin. "And so are you. So let's just skip that part, ok?"
"Was past that ten minutes ago, Major," Rodney said, eyes bright, just before John kissed him.
When John Sheppard was nine years old, his father took him flying. It was thrilling and scary and choked him with his own breath. John had never wanted anything else so badly in his life.
And everything else he might have wanted paled in comparison to a life of thrust and drag, lift and gravity, machinery humming under his hands and a career doing exactly what he loved, all the time. It hadn't been a hard choice. He had no regrets.
The black mark would have ended his career if it weren't for Atlantis, but he never held a grudge. He knew he had done the right thing and his commander knew his pilots couldn't go around disobeying orders, so McMurdo had been a convenient answer for all. John could still fly and that was all that mattered. The phantom pains of the severing of his career subsided after a few months.
Atlantis and Rodney were inextricably tied up in each other, both part of John's life in ways that couldn't and wouldn't ever be trivial. Rodney moved against him and pressed strong hands to John's hips, and John couldn't help but remember that Rodney had saved the city as often as John had and then some. Rodney gave as good as he took and nothing John could say would ever make McKay less than his equal. Rodney had proven as immutable as the laws of physics, providing lift and gravity in equal measure to keep John aloft, thrust to keep him speeding forward, and enough drag to keep him in check.
Rodney's mouth was hard, the stubble on his skin is rough and made him ache. This was flying too, somehow, or closer than John had ever gotten with just his body before. It was reckless, yeah, and maybe a little stupid, but no one had ever accused John Sheppard of playing by the rules. He wanted it and Rodney wanted it, and even if they waited until they were in the shadow of impending death to admit it, even if they cloaked their motivation in panicky adrenaline rushes, John knew it was real.
Atlantis was different. Everything he did on Atlantis, in the Pegasus Galaxy, every single thing counted. He made the right decisions and even when they turned out badly, he slept well at night. And in his room, with Rodney McKay spread out under him, he knew that wasn't going to change.