Recipient: for roo1965 in the sheppard_hc Secret Santa exchange
Word Count: 13,000
Rating: PG (mostly for language)
Summary: John is dealing with the fallout from the disastrous mission in "38 Minutes" in his own way -- which is to say, not very well.
Notes: roo1965 asked for an early season one fic with John adjusting to his new situation on Atlantis. I hope this suits! Thank you very much to kristen999 for her patient and insightful alpha-reader comments. (Title is from the Josh Ritter song "Girl in the War".)
Crossposted: on one page at Dreamwidth
It's been raining on Atlantis for three days.
All the balconies are treacherous and slippery, and the piers are awash in puddles. John figures it's a miracle that no one's slipped off anything and drowned yet. He wonders whether the city has some kind of safety protocol to stop people falling off the towers. The thought crosses his mind to ask McKay, the next time he sees him. Then he remembers that he's not so sure about McKay right now, and he remembers why. The thought makes him vaguely unhappy. He reminds himself that two weeks ago he didn't even know McKay, and that helps a little.
He misses flying. He's been able to take out a puddlejumper (not gateship, no matter what McKay says) twice so far, but the first time was the rescue-that-wasn't, and the second time, he got a bug stuck on his neck. Neither was exactly what you'd call a fun excursion, and the last one is the reason why he's stuck on light duty now, watching the rain glissade down the window of the room he's claimed as his office, more because Dr. Weir says he has to have one than because he actually wants one.
What he really wants right now is his next Percocet, but the doc's tapering him off, so all he gets is a half-pill, and even that won't be until bedtime. Intellectually, he knows it's a really good idea not to get hooked on the damn things, even leaving aside the fact that the supply on Atlantis is incredibly limited. But that doesn't make it any easier to be stuck behind a desk, with an indefinable twitchy something crawling under his skin. Mostly, he just wants to get up and go for a jog or something, and it's driving him crazy that he can't.
John's had an active enough life to have messed up his neck and back more than once, so he recognizes that this is a similar feeling -- not so much acute pain as acute caution, the knowledge that a sudden twist of his neck, an incautious movement as he reaches to catch a dropped pencil or turns his head to wash his hair, could send a bolt of hot lightning from his collarbone to the top of his ear. Or, say, slipping on a water-slick balcony.
This uncomfortable awareness is made worse by bone-deep fatigue and shakiness. When he was first out of the infirmary, he could barely sit at a keyboard for half an hour without falling asleep. Doc Beckett had some kind of explanation involving whatever that damn bug did to feed on him -- depleted electrolytes, overstimulated mitochondria, and so forth -- but all John cares about is that he feels like he's recovering from the world's worst case of the flu. At least now he can go over paperwork without having to lie down in between opening each file.
And there is a hell of a lot of paperwork. He's been trying not to think too hard about his current situation, but it's hard not to when the reality of it is staring him in the face from personnel files and equipment inventories and requests for quarters reassignments. He's in charge. And it's scaring the living shit out of him, and right now, he can't even run to get away from it.
There is a small, morbid corner of John's brain that can very easily envision this as his life from now on, stuck behind a desk, running the administrative side of the city's military while other people get to fly gateshi -- dammit, puddlejumpers and go explore the galaxy. So far, he's organized six more teams, and all of them have been through the gate at least once. John's happy for them, really he is, and he's even happier that they've already made contact with two planets that might be interested in trading with Atlantis. But if his entire day is going to consist of doing paperwork, going to meetings, and staring at the rain on his window, he might as well have stayed on Earth.
God, he misses flying.
"Why did you join the Air Force, Major Sheppard?" the shrink had asked John, fingers poised over her keyboard.
He'd expected a whole battery of tests before they'd allow him through the Stargate (and, wow, the Stargate; he couldn't get used to that). He'd heard stories from other SGC personnel: multiple interviews, weird stress tests in white rooms, the works. But for him, there was just the one interview. Apparently they wanted this alien gene thing a whole lot more than they worried about him slipping a gear in another galaxy.
The psychologist was a civilian, with neatly styled hair framing a pretty, heart-shaped face. John sprawled in his chair and turned on the charm. "That's in my file already, isn't it, Doc?"
"I'd like to hear it in your own words," she said, smiling.
The answer was easy. Simple. Direct. "Because I wanted to fly."
She nodded, and noted it down. "What about the risks of a military career? There are plenty of civilian occupations that would have enabled you to fly without risking your life in war zones."
"Not many that let you fly F-22s and Pave Hawks, Doctor --" He'd forgotten her name. Something long. He took a quick peek at the nameplate on her desk. "Heightmeyer."
She typed briskly. He wished he could see what she was typing, and wondered, not for the first time, if he really cared whether he washed out or not. It would be kind of nice if he flunked the psych eval, actually -- would take the decision out of his hands. He slouched in the chair a little more, letting his spine mold to the lumpy cushions.
"Is it worth it?"
"Huh?" John said intelligently. He'd been watching her hands on the keyboard.
"Is it worth it?" she repeated. "All the sacrifices you've made for your country, and now, for your world. The cost to your personal life." Of course; Nancy would be in the files, too. "Do you feel that you made the right decision? If you had it to do over, would you make that decision again?"
The smell of jet fuel and burning meat.
Mitch, drunk off his ass: Shit, Shep -- there were kids down there. And his own voice, rough with booze and lack of sleep: You can't think about that, man. Just don't.
Holland, under the desert sky.
But, as always, there was a right answer. John had always been good at knowing the right answers.
"Of course it's worth it, Doc," he said, and grinned at her. "Best job in the world. Have you seen the things I get to fly?"
She smiled back. "You'll have to ask Major Carter to show you the F-302s while you're here."
John frowned, not sure if she was putting him on. "That a joke, Doc? I've flown just about everything Uncle Sam has out there, but I haven't heard of that one."
"Ask the Major yourself." She typed some more, and then raised her head and held out her hand. "I think we're done here. Thank you for your time, Major Sheppard."
"That's it?" John said, accepting the handshake. "I was expecting, well. Inkblots at the very least."
Heightmeyer laughed. "No, those are packed already," she said, nodding to a stack of heavy-duty bankers' boxes on the floor. "I could get them out if you really want me to, but then I'd just have to pack them again."
He'd figured that the bare walls of her office and the boxes everywhere meant that she was either moving in or moving out; personnel rotated all the time on bases like this one. "Where's your next assignment, anyway? Maybe we'll see each other again. Professionally, I mean."
"I'm quite sure we will, Major," she said. "I'm shipping out to Atlantis."
Figures, he thought. I gotta talk to a shrink on one of my last days on Earth, and the one they send me to is the one who's going with me to another galaxy. That just figures.
There is a light tap at his door, along with a woman's voice. John's first thought is that it's Dr. Weir, so he's braced to make excuses about why he still hasn't finished the second set of gate team rosters (and he's not about to tell her that it's because he was staring out the window at the rain, woolgathering).
But instead, it's Teyla, smiling at him from the open doorway.
"How the heck did you find me?" She's never been to his office, as far as he can recall. In fact, nobody's been to his office except for Weir and --
Teyla smiles sweetly. "I asked Lieutenant Ford."
Damn. Ratted out.
"In any case, Major, I wanted to talk to you about the quarters reassignments for my people. Have you considered my request yet?"
"Um," John says.
"I sent you an email."
Teyla has taken to the city's technology like a duck to water. She already has her own computer -- though John knows she's been locked out of the sensitive areas of the network -- and her own email account on the intranet.
"Right, yeah. I've been -- busy." John wishes that his desk was cluttered with files to make more of an impression, but a severe paper shortage has forced them to adopt a paperless office. His computer desktop is cluttered, but, well, she can't see it from where she's standing.
Teyla smiles and slips into the room. "To be honest, Major, I prefer to conduct business face-to-face anyway."
Personally, John hates doing business face-to-face and is convinced that email is the best thing ever invented for that sort of thing, whether it's paying his credit card bill or communicating with superior officers. But, well, to each their own. "Yeah, face to face is ... good," he says, hoping it doesn't sound as stilted coming out of his mouth as it does in his head. And, great, now he's also wondering if he remembered to pay his last credit card bill before leaving his home planet forever.
He becomes aware that he's stopped talking and Teyla is frowning thoughtfully at him. "Major, I hope that I am not overstepping myself, but I hope that your recovery from your injury is going well?"
"Oh yeah," John says. "Doing great."
Teyla glances around his office, and John wonders suddenly what it looks like to an outside observer that he's basically been spending 24/7 in a bare gray room with one small window. Maybe he ought to put up a picture or two. If they have any on the whole base. Ford gave Teyla a digital camera, and she loves it; John can see it peeking out of the pocket of the loose BDU pants that she's started wearing lately instead of her own high-cut Athosian pants. Maybe she'll take some pictures for him.
"On the other hand," Teyla says, offering another of her bright smiles, "perhaps we might speak of this matter over lunch? I expect that you would appreciate a change of scenery."
John has a brief moment of frozen terror when he thinks she might be asking him out on a date. But, well, she's on his team, right? Teammates do stuff like that -- eat together, and so forth. He catches himself doing a quick mental spot-check to make sure that he's not breaking any regs, but she's a civilian, and not even an American civilian -- and, besides, he's the final authority who'd determine if he was breaking regs in the first place.
Most importantly, he needs to get out of this office before he goes stir crazy.
"Sure," John says, pushing himself back very carefully. "Let's go."
The halls of Atlantis are dim and cool, lit by the soft glow of the hallway lights. Outside the tall windows, rain continues to fall in steady gray sheets. John can't help noticing how the Atlantis expedition have already begun to put their stamp on the place. The dead plants have vanished, and the 10,000-year-old chairs in the hallways have been dusted off and arranged into cozy conversational groupings. At one of the corridor intersections there's a corkboard -- he wonders if it was brought from Earth, or if the Ancients had them too -- with a handful of notices tacked up on their very limited supply of paper. Weir must have loved that.
John's still tired, but not the dragged-out exhaustion that's been dogging his steps ever since he got out of the infirmary. As long as he doesn't rotate his neck too much, he feels almost normal.
There are a scattering of people in the halls, both military and civilian. Almost without exception, they offer him a smile and a nod (the civilians) or a salute (the military). After being just another uniform in Antarctica, the notoriety freaks him out -- the fact that it's friendly notoriety is, in a way, even worse. Or, at least, weirder.
People like him here. He can't get used to it. He disobeyed orders in Afghanistan to save a fellow soldier's life and became a pariah; then he shot his CO and turned into some kind of hero. That's seriously fucked up.
The thing John never told his father or Dave, through all the fights and recriminations, was that becoming a pilot wasn't his main reason for joining the military. It was a big part of it, sure; he'd been in love with aviation ever since his uncle took him to a flight show at the state fair when he was six. But the real reason, the reason that had grown in him through high school and crystalized in college, was that he wanted to help people.
Somehow, saying that to Patrick Sheppard would have opened him to the bone, and given his father a toehold that John didn't dare allow him. I did it because I wanted to fly -- it was a simple reason, an easy one, a fundamentally selfish one: a soundbite to be thrown back and forth in the inevitable arguments. It was a wall to hide behind.
And most of all, it was a reason that couldn't be ground into the dirt through failures, through mistakes. It couldn't drain away like blood spilled in desert sand.
He was a pilot. There were planes to fly. It couldn't be simpler.
And then there was alien blood flowing through his veins, and another world under his feet, and it wasn't simple anymore. If it had ever been.
He doesn't know when the lie became reality. He doesn't know if that might change here. And he doesn't want to think about it. He feels like he's climbed and climbed, run and run -- pushing the stick all the way forward, until now, inevitably, he's reached the top of the climb and he's about to begin the dive. And he's fucking scared shitless and he doesn't know what to do about it.
The thing about lunch with Teyla is that he can't drag it out too long without things getting, well, weird. There's this one moment at the end when he really wants to ask if she'd like to go and do something, but there's not really anything to do -- he's pretty sure she's not going to be up for watching the one football DVD in the entire city of Atlantis a second time. Besides, he's also fairly sure that asking her if she wants to go watch a movie or something really is inappropriate. And she probably has stuff to do, as well. It was nice of her to spend her lunch hour with him, but he doesn't want to push it.
Once he's away from the mess hall where there are no witnesses, he tries jogging a bit, but only makes it a few steps before the sharp, jarring pains under his collarbone force him to slow to a walk. He finds himself wondering about that half-Percocet. Maybe if he took it now, he could take a nap and wake up with enough energy to get something done with the rest of the afternoon.
He suspects that's a bad direction to go. Besides, then he'd have to ask Carson for more pills without sounding like a druggie. On the other hand, he can't do anything with his neck like this -- can't spar, can't fire a gun, can't even sit at his computer for very long. Maybe Carson's got something else that'll help: stretching exercises, anything.
The corridors leading to the infirmary are more well-trafficked, and he keeps running into people who have questions or requests for him: two team reassignments, three requests to explore various areas of the city ... he wonders if maybe he ought to pawn those off on Bates, who he'd put in charge of domestic security a few days before the bug thing happened.
The infirmary is pretty quiet. A nurse directs him to Carson, who is bent over a row of microscopes on a table set up against the far wall. John scans rows of disturbingly greenish tissue samples: Wraith, he guesses.
He's still not entirely easy with Beckett. There's a nagging feeling that he should be -- that the DNA they have in common ought to mean something more than just that a random ancestor got up to hijinks with a human ancestor in the distant past. It's almost like it ought to make them, in a weird way, kind of family. But then, John's never been good at family either, and he thinks maybe that's why Beckett's harder to talk to than almost anyone else on the base.
You're trying too hard, he tells himself. A small part of him answers back: Or maybe not hard enough.
He hasn't spoken to his blood family in fifteen years. Accidents of genetics, that's all.
"Doc? Got a minute?"
Being part alien, in John's opinion, ought to mean something. It should come with cool powers, other than making some sort of alien dentist's chair light up. John had actually spent some time on the interminable flight from New Zealand to Colorado thinking about it. Flight was, of course, the first and most awesome power that came to mind. But it would also be pretty cool to shoot laser beams from his eyes. Or maybe turn invisible -- people who thought that Sue Storm was the weakest member of the Fantastic Four obviously hadn't spent enough time thinking about all the things that an invisible superhero could do, especially with the whole force-field thing too. He'd take Sue's power over Reed's or Ben's any day of the week. The Human Torch, though -- okay, that was flying while on fire, which, yeah, pretty hard to top it.
And then he had to shut his eyes, because he didn't really smell smoke and charred flesh, he knew it was his imagination, and all he had to do was convince his body of that so that his heart would stop pounding. After a minute or two, he pried his fingers off the armrests, and pushed the flight attendant call button to have her bring him a beer. Damn, he hated flying in planes with other people at the controls. And thinking about superpowers was stupid.
But then he was in the Pegasus Galaxy, where it turned out he actually did have alien superpowers. Well, sort of. Making lights come on and flying spaceships with his brain wasn't exactly the sort of thing that made good comic books; instead it was --
-- cool, yes, but also kind of creepy. Maybe a lot creepy.
It was one thing to question who you were. Everybody did that. But questioning what you were ...
He didn't normally get this urge, but for the first time in years, John thought it might be nice to talk this over with someone. Someone who'd been there. Or, at the very least, have a beer and not talk about it; mostly he just wanted to know that this whole thing with the alien ancestors and the weird powers and stuff was something that other people had gone through, and wasn't going to end in ... blowing up, or turning into a godlike being of pure energy, or maybe just going crazy and evil.
Colonel O'Neill was the first person who came to mind, but O'Neill, besides outranking him, was a galaxy away.
Eventually he decided the next best person was probably Doc Beckett, one of the few other natural ATA gene carriers in the expedition and, next to John, the one who could manipulate Ancient technology most readily. It was easy to forget, since Beckett never actually did anything alien-ish if he could help it. But, in addition to having the same ... well, condition, he was also the foremost expert on it. At the very least he ought to be able to tell John if there were any strange symptoms lurking in his future.
He wasn't able to catch a quiet minute to talk to Beckett until a week or so after they'd all walked through the Stargate into a new galaxy and a very old war. At least he was too busy most of the time to think about the bigger picture, what with a million organizational details that he'd never even thought about: assigning quarters, assigning duties, trying to figure out how to reconcile traditional squad command structure with the SGC's autonomous, independent fireteams; and that wasn't even considering the really weird stuff, like adjusting to the length of a twenty-eight-hour day, or debriefing the Athosians for all the information on the Wraith that they could offer. Plus, there were interruptions for things like stopping a sentient, life-eating energy monster. Everyone was running on four hours of sleep and a rapidly dwindling supply of coffee.
He finally ran into Beckett in the big room they'd designated the mess hall. It would probably be a more meaningful term once they had actual food to cook and serve, rather than crates of MREs, but Dr. Weir -- "Call me Elizabeth" -- had wanted to have a place where personnel could socialize over their food rather than grabbing an MRE and eating it on duty, as most of them had been doing. John had every intention of just picking up a bag and leaving, but then he caught sight of Beckett sitting at one of the growing collection of mismatched tables they'd gleaned from various abandoned rooms.
Now or never. John braced himself, got a cup of coffee from the machine perking quietly in a corner -- they were really going to have to figure out a substitute, because the idea of two hundred people going through caffeine withdrawal at once made him wish they'd brought a few elephant tranquilizer guns -- and headed over. "Hey, Doc. Busy?"
Beckett looked up absently from the laptop in front of him, and smiled when he recognized John. "Major. What can I do for you?"
And that's where he balked -- just balked, just stood there, his mind gone blank. After a moment, he covered with a quick smile: the easy, empty smile he'd cultivated over the years. "I'd like to talk about medical exams for gate teams. I guess the SGC must've had something like that?"
Beckett nodded, and pushed over his laptop to make room for John on the table, and for the next hour they talked about schedules and the SGC's insanely paranoid security procedures. At the end of it, they had a plan drawn up and John felt accomplished, if also a bit of a coward.
He just couldn't -- open up like that. couldn't tell a relative stranger about his fears, his concerns, when he knew they were irrational, knew Beckett would've told him if there were any medical risks he should be concerned about.
You try too hard, John, Nancy had said, and sometimes he could still see the disappointment in her eyes, so much worse than anger would have been. You're so artificial. It's like I can't ever get to know the real you.
This IS me, he'd wanted to say. I don't know how to be anything else.
But in the end he'd just shut his teeth on his protests, swallowed his anger and hurt, and signed the divorce papers on the dotted line.
"This doesn't really make any sense," Beckett says. "Medically, I mean."
John, stripped to the waist behind a privacy curtain, grits his teeth and painfully turns his head to look at the doctor as Beckett probes his shoulder. "What d'ya mean?"
"There's no reason you should be having this much pain and fatigue. You're almost completely healed." Beckett frowns at him, more thoughtful than accusing. "Are you taking your pain medication on the schedule I gave you?"
"Word of honor, Doc." He's glad, now, that he didn't succumb to the temptation to take more of those little pills than he was officially okay'd for.
Beckett hops up on the gurney next to John's, and begins to strip off his gloves. There's a sort of little-kid effect to the way his legs are swinging above the floor, especially combined with his cherubic face; it makes it hard to take him seriously as a medical professional, but John's seen him in action.
"I'm wondering," Beckett says slowly, "if at least some of the symptoms you're experiencing might be psychosomatic."
John stares at him for a moment, a slow anger building in his chest. "Are you saying this isn't real? That it's all in my head? 'Cause I'm telling you, Doc, it feels pretty real to me."
Beckett holds up his hands placatingly. "No, no. It's very real. It's just that I'm starting to think the underlying cause might be due to lingering psychological effects of the trauma you experienced, rather than the physical ones. You should be over those by now. You'll always have a scar there, but the tissue's nearly healed, and I'm not seeing any signs in your bloodwork of the chemical imbalances that you had the first day or two."
"So what do I do about it?" But he thinks he knows the answer, even before Beckett says the words.
"Well, if I were you, I'd make an appointment with Kate."
"I already talked to her," John says shortly. "Before I was even out of the infirmary."
"Did you talk to her?" The blue eyes are a little too penetrating, like they can see right into him. John doesn't like the feeling.
"Of course I did."
How are you feeling, John?
Like I had a bug on my neck, Doc, he'd said, smiling at her. Otherwise, fine.
How are you coping with the experiences you've had?
And your team is meshing well, now that you've had your first mission together?
Yes, we're fine ...
Beckett slides down off the gurney, dusts his hands on his pants -- a reflexive, nervous gesture. "Look, Major, I'd love to give you a pill to make this all better, but I can't. The best I can do is prescribe some anti-depressants, maybe something to help you sleep."
"That's going in my file if you do. Isn't it?"
Again, the blue eyes assess him. "Yes."
"I don't think I need 'em." John musters up a quick, lopsided smile. "I think I'm feeling better just for having this talk."
You don't get to be a pilot in the U.S. Air Force by being anything less than perfect -- and that means keeping a constant eye on what you put into your body, especially if someone is writing it down. And doubly so when the brass has it in for you.
He may be in another galaxy, but sooner or later they're bound to re-establish contact with Earth. He's not even sure how much he cares about his career anymore, but old habits die hard.
"Uh-huh," Beckett says. "Well, at this point I can't clear you for heavier duty until your symptoms clear up, but what we're doing doesn't seem to be helping all that much. I'd suggest making an appointment with Kate, taking it easy for another couple of days, and if you're still in pain and having trouble sleeping, then we'll try another round of tests, see if we can find anything we missed the first time."
"Thanks, Doc." He wonders if it sounds insincere. He also wonders how Beckett knew he wasn't sleeping well, since he hadn't mentioned it. Maybe it's that obvious, written across his face.
He struggles to get his shirt back on without jarring his neck. Beckett moves as if to give him a hand, then, tactfully, seems to think better of it.
"Carson!" a sharp voice says from behind the curtain, and John stiffens, tugging at his neck painfully.
Beckett's face settles into an odd expression, half amusement, half annoyance. "I'm with a patient, Rodney," he says around the curtain. "I'll be with you in just a minute. I'd ask what you want now, but I can guess."
"As if it isn't obvious," McKay says, somewhere out of sight. "I can't believe you used me as a test subject in experimental gene therapy. If I die, I'm making sure that my heirs sue the SGC for gross medical negligence."
Beckett sighs, pats John on the knee and goes around the edge of the curtain. "What symptoms are you having now, Rodney?" His tone implies that this conversation is a daily occurrence.
John slides down off the gurney and wonders if McKay is focused enough on the conversation that he can slip out without being seen.
"Well, first of all, I've discovered a very peculiar rash across the backs of my knees. I saw it in the shower this morning. I've also been experiencing a sort of recurring malaise."
"Malaise?" Beckett sounds like he's trying not to laugh.
"Yes! A general, overall feeling that something is just not quite right. Like I'm coming down with something."
"I know what malaise means, Rodney, but it's not actually a recognized symptom of anything specific."
"Well, of course there's nothing in the medical literature about an experimental gene therapy, Carson; that's why you shouldn't have been testing it on me in the first place," McKay is saying as John rounds the end of the curtain and attempts to slip quietly toward the door.
"You asked me to!" Beckett protests, just as John, with one eye on the argument and the other on the door, walks into a tray of instruments. He catches it before it falls, but any hope of quietly disappearing is completely out the window.
For a moment he and McKay stare awkwardly at each other. The last time John saw him, except in passing in the hall or the mess, was right after he'd regained consciousness, loopy with drugs and the relief of having that damn thing off his neck. Take care of each other ...
Except they hadn't, had they?
McKay clears his throat, and tilts his chin up, pride combined with an unexpected vulnerability. "Major, do you have a minute?"
"Not right now," John lies artfully, shamelessly. "I have a meeting. Sorry."
"Can we talk later, then?"
"Sure," and he escapes the infirmary into the hall. His heart is pounding, every beat sending a piercing pain down his shoulder and into his hand.
It's stupid; he doesn't know why it bothers him so much, this conversation he knows he'll have to have. McKay screwed up on that first mission. John, whether he wants it or not, has been a leader of men and women for years now, and he knows that there's no place in the field for soldiers who lose their heads, who panic, who waste others' time keeping them on task.
Elizabeth would probably say He's not a soldier. But what Elizabeth doesn't understand, what none of the civilians seem to understand, is that they're in a war zone here. And John is the one who's been tasked with keeping him safe. There is no higher power to appeal to. There's just Elizabeth, who had to be shown how to shoot a gun, and handled it with distaste even as her hands reluctantly learned the movements.
The creeping, restless feeling under his skin is back, throbbing in his pulse-point, the tension in his neck dragging his head to the side unless he makes an effort to hold it straight. He walks, avoiding others if he can. He considers going back to his quarters or his office, but shies away from the idea of being trapped with nothing but his thoughts and the sound of the rain.
Eventually he finds himself down at the West Pier, where they've set up their open-air shooting range. There's a smaller one inside, in a closed-off hallway on the twelfth level of the main tower. But this is a good place to bring the new people, where they can work through their self-conscious anxiety, or to let the boys and girls play with the big guns.
Today, because of the rain, no one is outside. John leans against the doorframe and watches the rain fall on the gray ocean. In the first couple of weeks, he'd been down here almost every day, supervising the civilians as they got their first look at the realities of what they'd signed up for. But lately he's been either busy or indisposed. Brass shell casings gleam in the falling rain; he makes a mental note to send someone down to collect them. Right now, they're wasting nothing if they can help it. They may have to start trading for lead and making their own bullets if they keep running into bad guys.
He'd brought Teyla here in those early days, and a couple of the other Athosians. And McKay, though under a certain amount of duress.
"I really don't think this is necessary," McKay said nervously, holding the handgun at arm's length as if it might bite him.
"Space vampires, McKay."
"The key word being space. Vampires in space. Not a problem as long as I stay here, right? If they actually attack Atlantis, I can assure you that I will be far too busy to shoot at them."
"No one goes offworld unarmed, and no one goes offworld without attaining a minimal level of competence with their weapon." As he spoke, John took the Beretta out of McKay's hand and sighted it on the target, which had been painted on the side of a bulkhead leading to a damaged and sealed-off section of the city, before handing it back to him.
"I don't plan to go offworld at all if I can help it."
"Come on, McKay. Aren't you the slightest bit curious about what's out there?"
"No," McKay said flatly, but only after a slight hesitation.
"So you're perfectly fine with other scientists beating you to all the vital, Nobel Prize-winning scientific discoveries. Arm up." John took hold of McKay's shoulder and elbow, adjusting his stance. They'd already had the standard "meet your handgun and know its parts" orientation back in the city. McKay had been pretty good with that, which John had expected, since a gun, after all, is just a kind of machine. He hadn't expected, however, that any suggestion of competence would vanish once the scientist was actually pointing the gun at a target. McKay held himself rigid, and if John didn't constantly correct him, the gun slipped into a position that made John think of someone holding a dead rodent at arm's length. He didn't get the feeling that it was any sort of political objection -- they'd had that problem already with a couple of the scientists -- or ingrained distaste. It was more the sort of nervousness that people get when they've convinced themselves ahead of time that they're bad at something.
McKay followed along with John's firm tugging, like a reluctant dance partner. "You're not seriously thinking about implementing Elizabeth's idea of recreating the SGC teams here, are you?"
"I don't think it's a bad idea, no. Turn your body a little more my way." John kicked McKay's foot gently to get him to shift it back. "Come on, McKay. You need to have some give to your body. There's not a lot of recoil on a small-caliber weapon like this, but if you can't absorb the kick, you're going to feel it, and your aim will be crap."
"Look, no matter how hard you try, Major, I'm never going to be Rambo."
"I don't even expect you to be able to hold your own in a firefight. That's not your job." John lifted McKay's elbow a hair, stepped back and examined his handiwork, while McKay eyed him nervously. "But I do expect you to know which end of a gun is which, and to avoid shooting yourself or your teammates. All right. Go for it."
McKay screwed his eyes shut and snapped off a few quick rounds at the target. The recoil jerked the Beretta wildly, and not one shot came anywhere near.
"Eyes open, McKay! Never shoot unless you can see what you're shooting at."
"I need my eyes, Major!"
"Yes, you do. For shooting."
McKay cracked an eye and glared at him. Despite his own annoyance, John had to struggle to suppress a grin at McKay's put-upon expression.
"This is useless," McKay said. He heaved a sigh and let the arm holding the Beretta drop. "All we're doing here is wasting my valuable time. And yours."
"Come on, McKay. Don't tell me you just picked up a physics textbook and understood it at first glance."
McKay's head came up, defiant. "Well -- yes, actually! That's what being a genius means, Major. Math and science were easy. Music --" He clamped his lips shut for a moment, then continued. "There's no point in wasting my time on something I'll never be good at when there are so many things I am good at."
Watching McKay in the hammered bronze light of afternoon, John saw his eyes dart sideways, and the thought occurred to him that those words might just have summed up McKay's life to date -- and, in some ways, John's own.
You just don't try, John. His father's voice is clear and cold, and so real that John could almost turn around and see him standing there. You never did try.
Maybe that was what wrung a moment of unexpected sincerity out of him.
"I wish you had a choice, Rodney. But you don't. It's life and death out here." John nodded at the gun, pointing at the deckplates and the handful of scattered shells. "It doesn't actually matter if you're good at it or not. You have to get good at it, because there are going to be other people depending on you."
"I don't -- I didn't --" McKay's bravado drained out of him. "I came out here to learn," he said in a small voice. "But I didn't come to learn this."
John didn't think he was talking about the gun.
"Do you think you get to choose?" he asked. "Do you think any of us get to choose?"
Of the next clip, two bullets hit the target. None came especially close to the center, but it was a start.
A sound behind him draws his attention away from the rain. John reaches for the gun he isn't carrying. Listening, he recognizes the sound of footsteps on the metal floor, although he can't tell who it is. He steps quietly to one side, so that he isn't silhouetted against the dim light filtering in from outside.
"There's no point in hiding, Major," McKay's voice says out of the darkness. He comes a few steps closer, and John can see the blue glow of one of the life signs detectors. "I know you're here."
John heaves a sigh. He's much too tired to deal with this, and his neck hurts. He's been avoiding McKay for the last three days because he doesn't want to have this conversation. "Did the thought ever occur to you that going way the hell out on the West Pier, I might not want company, McKay?"
From McKay's expression in the reflected glow of the LSD, it probably didn't occur to him. "Uh, I thought you were doing -- military things, of some kind."
"No." Since McKay doesn't look like he's going away, John leans in the doorway again, trying not to shiver in the cool damp breeze. "Just looking at the rain."
"Yeah, because the rain looks so different down here than it does from anywhere else in the city. Where it's warm."
"McKay, what do you want?"
McKay clears his throat, and his back stiffens, his chin tilting up. "I suppose that I wanted to talk about -- the other day. When you were -- you know. In the jumper."
Yep, it's that conversation. "Yeah?" John says. If McKay wants to talk about this, then he's damn well going to do most of the work.
McKay fidgets for a moment before speaking. "Look, I know that I didn't handle myself all that well. It's just -- I've never worked in a field situation before. I'm a theoretical physicist, all right? I told you that when you told me you wanted me on your team."
John doesn't say anything. His lips taste salty, from the waves breaking against the pier. He wonders if McKay will just go away if John lets him talk himself out.
"So, yes, I panicked. I panicked and, and -- I fucked up, all right?" McKay stares out at the dark ocean rather than looking at John. "I hope you're paying attention, because I don't admit that very often. But in this case -- it's true. I've spent the last few days trying to convince myself that it's not true, that I did everything I could to get us out of that jumper and get us home. But I didn't. The first time I got out in the field, I panicked, and the day had to be saved by Kavanagh, of all people." He turns to look at John. "Major, I can't honestly say that I won't -- do it again. But here's something you'd better know about me: I don't make the same mistake twice. That's not arrogance, it's just -- Major, are you even listening to me?"
John licks the salt off his lips. "Yeah," he says. "I'm listening."
"So will you at least give me a sign here? Look, you've been avoiding me, Ford's been avoiding me ... give it to me straight, will you?" McKay straightens his back and looks John in the eye. "Do you want me off your team?"
This is why John's been avoiding this conversation: because he doesn't know the answer. Given what he's seen of McKay so far, he hadn't expected him to admit it. He'd expected excuses and explanations. He wasn't expecting this kind of honesty, something that almost comes to an apology, and certainly a recognition of what went wrong.
While he's trying to figure out what to say, his radio gives a sharp pop of static. "Major Sheppard?"
John draws a deep breath and taps it. Since he's been on restricted duty, Bates is the go-to person, not him. This can't bode well. "Sheppard here."
"Major, this is Campbell in Ops. Dr. Weir wants you in the gateroom."
"On my way." John looks up at McKay, who meets his eyes for only an instant before turning away.
Continue to Part 2