|I Got Soul But I'm Not A Soldier
On September 14, 2011, John beamed down from the Daedalus' bridge into the command room at SGC and tendered his letters of resignation. Three of them: one for the Atlantis expedition, one for the Stargate program, and one for the United States Air Force. He had written them on his laptop, sitting cross-legged on the bed in his quarters in the lost city of the Ancients, printed them out on the battered, well-abused laser printer that Zelenka kept under lock and key in the lab he shared with Rodney, and signed them with the fountain pen that Rodney kept clipped to the inside of his left pocket for the entire six years, four months and 12 days he was in Atlantis.
John handed the first letter to Elizabeth and couldn't meet her eyes; the second to General Landry, and the third to Jack O'Neill, who might have been retired but who was standing there in SGC fatigues welcoming them back anyway. John hadn't meant to give that letter to General O'Neill - he'd thought maybe Landry would get two, or maybe it would go to Sam Carter, a general herself now, a nod to Rodney's always hopeless crush.
Then he hitched a ride with a Marine heading off duty and used the keys he'd strung onto his tags just before they left Atlantis to break into Rodney's apartment in Colorado Springs, which was covered in dust and hopelessly cluttered but paid up on rent and quiet. He dropped his duffel by the door and walked into the middle of the living room, traces of Rodney everywhere he turned.
John sank down into the middle of the living room floor, dropped his head into his hands and cried.
General O'Neill was the first person to knock on the door, 12 hours later. He was in street clothes, leaning against the doorframe with Daniel Jackson, still in his SG-1 gear, behind him. "Missed a briefing," O'Neill said when John opened the door. John had been lying on the couch with his face in the cushions, a Rockies/Astros game he wasn't watching muted on the TV, and the only reason he'd gotten up was because whoever was knocking had been at it for 10 minutes straight. "Missed about 10, actually," O'Neill said, shouldering past John into Rodney's apartment. "Geez, Colonel, you're not much of a housekeeper, are you?"
Jackson followed O'Neill in, shrugging at John with a what-can-you-do-he's-O'Neill sort of smile - the kind of smile John knew intimately, because he had one of those in his own repertoire, a what-can-you-do-it's-Rodney grin, half apology and half affection.
"This isn't my place," John said.
"Naw, it's McKay's," O'Neill said, sinking down onto the couch and propping his feet up on the coffee table, scattering the photocopied articles from physics journals seven years out of date onto the floor. "Had to look it up in the personnel database, and people get pissy when you don't have security clearance to do that and do it anyway. Dr. Weir said you'd be here, when we couldn't find you on base."
42 years of military training, first with his father and then with the Air Force, were almost enough to make John snap to attention while O'Neill was turning up the volume on the ballgame and Jackson was folding himself to a seat on the floor, back against one arm of the couch, but then John remembered the letter and he remembered that he wasn't in the Air Force anymore. So instead he just said, "Why the hell are you here?"
"Not being military is no excuse for rudeness, Sheppard," O'Neill said. "Man, the Astros are ridiculously bad this year. You got any beer?"
"No," John said.
O'Neill said, "Seriously, Sheppard, they're really awful, you can't deny it. The bullpen's a mess since Lidge retired. Beer?"
"No, I meant, no beer," John said. He was still standing stunned in the middle of Rodney's living room, watching O'Neill act like they were buddies, and he thought about the contents of the fridge - half a jar of mustard that hadn't gone bad yet, half a pound of something so molded that it might have been bacon, once, and two white paper Chinese food cartons. A fridge so typically Rodney that when John had opened it, he'd had to sit down on the kitchen floor, hard as if someone had shot him in the leg and he'd crumpled to the ground.
"Oh," O'Neill said. "We could have brought some if we'd known."
"General," John said. "No offense meant, but please get the hell out of my house."
O'Neill leaned forward and looked up at John with a suddenly serious expression. "Sheppard," he said, but John shook his head.
"Get the hell out of here," John said. "I don't have anything left to say to you."
John had to give Jackson the credit, because he was the one who pulled O'Neill up off the couch and shoved him across the room and out the door. O'Neill was already down the hall and John was about to slam the door shut when Jackson stuck his hand back in against the frame, halting John's slam, and said, "He means well. He's just...Jack. He's not very good with emotions. We're both so sorry."
"Yeah, well," John said, and Jackson barely got his hand out before the door crashed shut.
Dr. Jackson's deaths and rebirths and Ascensions were frequent topics of conversation on Atlantis, whenever they had a free moment where something wasn't trying to eat them or blow them up or take over the city, which wasn't often. Everyone had a theory, though - everyone who'd been with the Stargate Program for more than a couple of months knew at least part of what had happened, at least one of the times.
Cadman, who was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, always said, "Hey, I've died twice," whenever the subject came up.
They were sitting in the mess at lunchtime that day, after John's six months but really four hours in exile with the Ascendant hopefuls but before Michael and the treaty with the Wraith. Rodney poked Cadman in the hand with his fork and she scowled at him. Rodney had said, "No, no, it's like - it's like regeneration. He came back the same, but not the same. He was missing memories, so it was like he was Dr. Jackson but he wasn't. Like when the Doctor regenerates." Rodney, who would figure out how to make BitTorrent work in the Pegasus Galaxy and get himself all the episodes of the Tenth Doctor or die trying. "That's how I'd like to live forever," he had said, sounding dreamy. "Like a Time Lord, all the time in the world and that technology. I could solve the whole universe if I had that."
"Yes, like a Time Lord," Zelenka said. "All powerful, the universe at your fingers, and lonely. Everyone you love dies while you sail through time and space."
"The Doctor always had companions," Rodney said. "And he wasn't completely angst-ridden until Russell T. Davies and Eccleston came along, so it wouldn't have to be awful."
"Companions never stayed," Zelenka said. "You underestimate the loneliness of time and space, Rodney."
"What about you, Colonel?" Rodney had asked suddenly, and John realized that he had been staring at Rodney's mouth, right in the middle of the mess, in front of the Marines and God and everybody. Not that, two years in and with death around every corner, anyone really cared who was fucking who, but John had always tried not to be obvious. "You could have had it," Rodney had said. "A higher plane of being, live forever, all that jazz. Regret turning it down?"
"No," John said. "I just wanted to come home."
"This ain't home, Colonel," Lorne said from the other end of the table, but John hardly heard him. Rodney had clearly expected John to say something else, say, Yeah, wish I'd stuck around for all that glowy squid sex, or God, escape you, McKay? Sign me up, and he was staring at John across the table with pupils blown wide and fork hanging in the air, halfway to his mouth and gravy dripping back down to his plate from that week's mystery meat.
"Close enough," John had said, and Rodney had grinned at him.
Two days after he threw O'Neill out of Rodney's apartment, John woke up on the couch with a stiff neck and SportsCenter telling him that the Astros did, in fact, suck. He stumbled into the shower and back out into the living room, the door to the bedroom still closed because John couldn't face it yet. He called a cab - god, leave it to Rodney to keep paying his phone bill even when he lived in another galaxy - and 20 minutes later, a cabbie who wanted to talk pulled up in front of Rodney's apartment complex.
John gave him the address of a car dealership on the south side of the city, and sat back against the seat.
"You military?" the cabbie said.
"Used to be," John said.
"Just back from a tour?" the cabbie asked.
"Yeah," John said. "Something like that."
"It can be tough," the cabbie said.
"Yeah," John said, and the glass of the cab window was cool against his cheek when he laid his face against it.
He had a full bank account; combat pay, years and years of it, and he was a pilot, too, plus some inheritances, and he wrote a check for the full amount on a bright red, brand new Mustang convertible, as tricked out as they came. John heard Rodney's voice in the back of his head while the sales guy rooted around in his desk for a second set of keys, heard Rodney say, You're going to drive that thing too fast and end up dead, and then where will I be?
"Dead," John said, testing out the word in the processed air of the car showroom, and then sales guy jerked his head up from the desk drawer.
"I'm sorry?" he said to John.
"Red," John said. "Just wanted to make I was actually getting the red one."
John hadn't meant to sleep with Rodney. He hadn't meant to sleep with anybody in the Pegasus Galaxy. He hadn't meant to shoot his CO, either, and he hadn't meant to fly more than one suicide mission (and come out unscathed, and Rodney always complained that more than zero was too many, a refrain John remembered at the strangest times, that always made his heart feel a little bruised). But he'd done all those things and at the end of everything, Rodney had turned out to be the least strange of all of them.
John had liked Rodney from the very start, when Rodney was still Dr. McKay and John was just a chopper pilot who lucky to still have rank. You always knew where you stood with Rodney - you were an idiot, you were a moron, you were someone he tolerated grudgingly because you hadn't done something completely stupid yet or recently, or you were John, and you were the guy who Rodney ended up going home to every night for five and a half years.
Rodney shot straight from the hip, metaphorically and all the times he remembered which was the trigger and which was the cartridge release, and the first time he spoke to John, opened his mouth and said, "Major, think about where you are in the solar system," he reminded John of the best CO he'd ever had.
Rodney was blunt and brash and rude, but you knew what you were getting whenever he gave you an order. Rodney didn't play games, and John had spent too much of his life getting jerked around by asshole COs who acted like they were your buddy and then fucked you up the ass, and not in the way that John had been known to occasionally enjoy. Those were the COs who thought John was insolent and stupid and tried to run him out of the Force, ground him for life, and John didn't need any more of that crap in his life.
Everything about Rodney was face value, and John appreciated that.
John slept with Rodney because there was a pretty good chance that they were all going to die, and he hadn't gotten laid in months - Chaya didn't count, no matter how many times Rodney argued otherwise - and he wasn't going to sleep with any of his men, whatever gender they were. The scientists were all too freaked out for John to even think about it, and Rodney was hopped up on stimulants and hadn't slept in three days, but he wasn't any more freaked out about impending death than was normal for a day with Rodney, so he was it.
Rodney had been in the hallway outside the chair room with a piece of Ancient machinery clutched in one hand when John caught up with him, and he said, "Major - " and that was all, because John backed him up against the wall and kissed him before he could get anything else out.
Then John had sunk to his knees and thought that he was getting too old for doing this kind of stuff on hard floors in public places - but Rodney had gotten one hand fisted in John's hair and the other wrapped around the piece of metal, whatever it was, and John had thumbed open the fly of Rodney's pants and pulled Rodney's dick out and wrapped his mouth around it, and that was that. Rodney was already hard, and he'd sucked in a breath and tightened his fingers in John's hair and said, "Jesus Christ, fuck, John," and then he'd come in John's mouth and all over John's chin before John had even gotten one good swallow in.
Rodney had tugged John to his feet - by his hair, which had hurt - and thrust the Ancient doohickey into John's hands and gone down on his own knees, and John had come almost as fast in Rodney's mouth as Rodney had in his, holding a piece of machinery that he didn't understand and didn't want to understand, thinking about his own death and the way Rodney's mouth quirked up at one corner when he smiled.
Rodney had crawled to his feet slower than he'd gone down to his knees and taken his Ancient doohickey back, and he had run his fingers across John's jaw slowly, his eyes wide and fixed completely on John's face, before he'd pulled John down for a long, hot kiss.
"You're not as stupid as you look," Rodney had said, and then he'd stomped back into the chair room and left John with his pants hanging open in the hallway, empty-handed and scared to fucking death of dying, for the first time in his life.
They'd survived, of course, and after the briefings and more briefings and a trip back to Earth through the gate and then even more briefings, Rodney had stomped into John's SGC assigned quarters and said, "God, Major, why are you staying here?"
John said, "Colonel."
"Fine," Rodney said. "Colonel. Why are you staying here? I have fourteen different Chinese takeout menus at my apartment."
John hesitated a little, because he wasn’t sure if Rodney was saying what he thought Rodney was saying, and then Rodney said, "And a king size bed," and John was sure.
"Okay," John said.
"Not as stupid as you act, either," Rodney said, but he'd smiled when he said it, and run a thumb across John's jaw again, and John thought, God, why didn't I see this before?
And that was that.
John drove out of town. Up a steep incline, tight curves, pushing the car to the outer reaches of its power and it was almost like piloting a jumper; responsive and quick and it cornered like a dream, but it still had tires underneath it and not air, and it wasn't really the same thing. When he got as high as he could go, he pulled off into the parking lot for an overlook, and he turned the engine off and sat in the driver's seat and thought, Think about where we are in the solar system.
He thought about it, too, thought hard and waited for the familiar jumper schema to flicker to life between his gaze and the windshield, telling him that he was on top of a mountain outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the United States of America, planet Earth, the Milky Way Galaxy - and then to give him directions home, to Atlantis, like all the jumpers always did when he asked for them, even if they were going home through the gate and it would have taken months if not years to fly a jumper back from wherever they were.
But it was a brand new Mustang and not a jumper, and nothing happened at all.
He unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed out of the car, slamming the door behind him and settling on the hood, feet resting against the bumper. John stared out over the city below him and said, out loud, because it didn't feel real inside his head, "The Wraith didn't get me. I didn't die in a jumper accident, or by touching something Ancient I shouldn't have. Lorne never staged a military coup and shot me in the head, Kolya turned out to be less of a rat than we thought, and Ronon has almost forgiven me for that accidental slur on Teyla's virtue."
It still didn't seem real; the air was too thin, and he suddenly, achingly missed the salt smell of the air around Atlantis. "I am not going to die in a cherry red Ford Mustang," John said. "That would be stupid."
You're not as stupid as you act, he heard Rodney say.
It was dark when he drove back into town. He'd sat up at the top of the mountain long enough that all the lights came on in the city below him, a thousand tiny pinpricks made of light bulbs and neon signs and nothing at all like another city that had lit up below him. It was September, but chilly after dark if not entirely cold, and his hands hurt when he climbed down from the hood and flexed his fingers around the steering wheel.
John drove carefully back down to Rodney's apartment; full daylight, he could take the curves of the mountain road like God had intended the Mustang to take them, but in the dark without much light, he heard Rodney's voice echoing in the back of his head, You'll end up dead and then where will I be?
Then where will I be?
His right hand was aching fiercely by the time he twisted the key in the door, almost too much pain for him to work the lock. He rummaged in Rodney's bathroom with his left hand until he found a microwaveable heating pad, and when the microwave pinged and he fished the gel pack out, his hand was shaking so badly that he dropped the pad twice before he got it wrapped around his knuckles.
Carson had told him that this would happen; Carson had warned him, if John didn't take care of it. The third year they were in Atlantis, he and Ronon had ended up in a prison on PX8-63E while Rodney and Teyla negotiated frantically for their release. John, now, couldn't even remember what had landed them there, or what had landed him in an interrogation room, with all the bones in his right hand shattered.
He remembered gritting his teeth and giving nothing up, though, and he remembered Rodney's pale, scared face when Ronon and Teyla finally broke down the door. Rodney had said, "We'll just be taking him home now," and Ronon had growled, and the torturers had jumped back and let John go.
He hadn't really lost any use of the hand, after therapy and careful re-training - he could still shoot, though he'd never again be the first one tapped for a marksman's job, and he could still write, and Elizabeth hadn't grounded him permanently, only for six months or so. But the further out he got from PX8-63E, the more his hand had hurt when it was cold, or when he was tired, or when he'd been covering their position for four straight hours while Rodney frantically tried to rewire a broken DHD so they could go the hell home.
The pain still surprised him when it came; the only thing that didn't surprise him was the memory of Rodney's face in the jumper on the way home, frightened and fierce and braver than John had seen before, and Rodney who said to him, One of these days you'll end up dead, and then where will I be?
He was sitting on the couch, letting the heat soak the hurt out of his hand, when there was a knock on his door. He struggled to his feet, keeping hold of the heating pad, and peered through the peephole on the door, which revealed a pretty, unfamiliar woman scowling impatiently and twitching. John opened the door, ready to tell her she had the wrong place, when a squalling, furry bundle was shoved into his free arm and his visitor said, "I saw your lights, I know you're home, you can take this monster back. I didn't sign on for seven years, you know. I'll be right back with his food."
John looked down at his new possession; a very familiar, very unhappy, undeniably old tabby cat, who John knew was called Fermat, because he was Rodney's cat.
Fermat's temporary owner - who was at least as grumpy as the cat - had stomped off down the hallway but stopped halfway to the stairwell. She turned around, blinked at John, and said, "You're not Rodney."
"No," John said.
"He coming back?"
"No," John said.
"You living in his place, then?"
"Yeah," John said.
"Well, you want a cat?"
"Yeah, okay," John said, because John was really a dog guy but Fermat had settled into John's free arm and was purring, and he couldn't really stand the silence of nothing but the empty chatter of the television for much longer.
Rodney's neighbor - who introduced herself as Kate, far more friendly after John had agreed to take Fermat off her hands - brought back a litter box, a bag of food and a couple of metal dishes, and didn't stay to make small talk when all she got was one-word answers to all her questions. She didn't ask anything else about Rodney.
When the door swung shut behind her, John set Fermat down on the carpet, and the cat sniffed carefully around the apartment - John's duffel, still on the floor in the living room; the dust bunnies at the base of the refrigerator; the dripping faucet in the bathtub. John sat back down on the couch and turned the sound on a rerun of Law & Order down to almost nothing, and when Fermat started to scratch at the closed bedroom door, crying loudly, John shuddered, feeling suddenly sick.
He got up carefully and pulled the cat away from the door. He said, "No dice, buddy, nobody's going in there." The cat cried more, twining around John's legs, and John thought of Rodney after the first siege, locked out of his labs on Elizabeth's orders that he sleep, instead stomping around the control room, hands shaking, shouting at anyone who'd listen.
John went back to the couch, and Fermat hopped up beside him a minute later, settling into John's lap. John scratched Fermat's head with his good hand.
He felt suddenly, incredibly old.
Rodney was seven months younger than John, which wasn't any kind of big deal except when Rodney made it one. It had been about a year before John came back to Earth for good - they'd been watching a movie, with a couple of scientists and Ronon and Teyla, and John had been sitting on the floor in front of Rodney - and Rodney was running his fingers through John's hair, seemingly looking for something instead of watching Tobey Maguire climb up buildings for the 47th time. "Jeez, McKay," John had said. "Quit grooming me like a monkey."
"Hold on," Rodney said, shoving John's head down toward his chest and pulling something out with a grunt. "Ha!" he said, holding a hair in front of John's face.
"What?" John said.
"Grey," Rodney had said triumphantly. "There are like 10 more back here."
"Like 10 more?" John parroted. "I might be going grey, but that big scientist brain of yours is clearly deteriorating. Can't count a couple of measly hairs anymore?"
"Shut up," Rodney said, yanking another handful of hairs out of John's scalp.
"Ow, that hurt, you jerk," John said, and Spiderman was forgotten while John chased Rodney around the corridors (and Rodney, John's grey hairs still clutched in his hand, had cackled with evil laughter and trampled on several Marines in the process) and Ronon and Zelenka had laughed themselves into the hiccups.
After John caught Rodney, forced him to surrender, and blackmailed him into requisitioning hair dye from the Daedalus next trip around, Teyla had looked serenely over at John and said, "I think that the grey hair makes you look very distinguished."
Rodney joined Ronon and Zelenka in laughing so hard he cried; he leaned his face against John's shoulder, tears soaking through the sleeve of John's t-shirt, and shaken helplessly.
What no one else had seen was what John remembered best; that night, John had been reading and Rodney had been tinkering with some power output flow model on his laptop, and John hadn't even been paying attention, until Rodney had flopped on the bed next to him and actually pulled the book out of his hands. "Hey," John said. "I was - "
"You weren't reading that," Rodney said. "You're never reading that. You've been on page 85 for three years."
"I got to page 86 yesterday," John said.
Rodney snorted, half laughter and half dismissal, and propped his chin on John's chest, idly tapping his fingers against John's shoulder. "I didn't think you were going to get gray hairs," Rodney said.
"What, because I'd dye them first?" John asked.
Rodney frowned, sitting up with his face serious and his shoulders set tensely. "No, you stupid asshole," he said, smacking John in the head. "Because you're stupid and brave and the best leader this expedition could have had, and you would rather die than see anyone else, any of your men, die for you, even when they're offering and even when they probably should."
"Oh," John said quietly, and Rodney had flopped back onto the bed, twisting his fingers through John's and pressing his face against John's shoulder again.
"Stop scaring me," Rodney said. "I'm getting too old to worry this much, all right?"
"Okay," John said, and Rodney turned and kissed him and they hadn't talked about it anymore.
John had been back on Earth a week when Sam Carter showed up. When John stared through the peephole - her knocking, less insistent than either Kate-the-neighbor's or O'Neill's, had interrupted him desultorily watching the Astros lose to the Cubs, at home in the Juice Box, a game that the newspapers told him meant something to the Cubs but nothing to the Astros except their pride - she had turned almost entirely away from the door, but like Fermat, familiar without John having met the cat before Kate shoved him into John's arms, Sam Carter's pretty, delicate profile was familiar to him.
As though five and a half years with Rodney, sharing living space and working space and bed space, had left him with all the memories that weren't his - but seemed so familiar that they almost were.
John left the chain on the door when he yanked it open. "What do you want, Carter?" he said through the three inch gap.
"Sheppard," she said, "can I come in?"
"No," John said.
She was in street clothes, like O'Neill had been a week ago, and when John twisted around to look out of the windows in the living room, he was surprised to see that it was already dark. When he looked back to the door, Carter shoved her hands in the pockets of her coat and shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, without saying anything. She looked tired, dark circles under her eyes; she must have come straight from SGC. They were still fighting the Ori, after all these years - John wasn't stupid, no matter what Rodney said, and he read the databursts when they came through the stargate, every one - and she was still commanding SG-1.
He knew that Jackson was still on field duty with SG-1 and Mitchell had taken over command of SG-2, because having Carter and Mitchell both on the same team was too much of a good thing in one place, and SGC had broken them up a couple of years ago.
John knew that mindset all too well. There was a reason that Rodney stopped going off-world in their fourth year in Atlantis; well, there were two.
One of the same reasons as Carter and Mitchell, separated even though John had heard they were fantastic together, off-world - something goes wrong, you can't afford to waste your best talents all in one place. And the other reason - well, John got to the point where he couldn't stand to see Rodney bleeding, pale and sick on the ground, and know that it was his fault. He bullied Elizabeth into agreeing to ground Rodney. They'd fought for a month about that, John sleeping anywhere but in their quarters, Rodney sleeping in the labs.
Eventually, Rodney had understood.
John saw all that exhaustion in Carter's face, and she didn't smile at him, just met his eyes and stared at him, and didn't leave. He shut the door quietly, slid the chain back, and let her in.
She stood in the middle of the room, didn't take her jacket off and make herself at home like O'Neill had - stood there with her hands in her pockets and her eyes scanning the walls, the shelves, before coming to rest on John, who was still standing by the door.
She said, "Colonel," and then stopped. Carter stared over at him and her face twisted with something that John couldn't read, and she spread her hands in front of her helplessly - a gesture that was so familiar to John that he had to take a step back, pressing his back up against the door, and breathe through his mouth until his heart stopped trying to climb out of his chest.
It was Rodney's gesture, one that they only rarely saw, the one that meant that he'd run out of ideas, this was the bottom of the barrel, and they were all going to die in some horribly messy way. It was a gesture of fear and anger and sadness and frustration, all rolled into one, and John had loved and hated it in equal measure. Hated it because impending death, loved it because it made Rodney so much more human than Rodney ever wanted people to believe he was.
John wondered if they taught it to brilliant, arrogant physicists in grad school. Carter didn't say anything else, just stood there with John's rank on her lips and her hands open in front of her.
"Let me guess," John said, and the words caught in his throat, because he sounded so much more bitter than he'd thought he was. He didn't feel bitter; he just felt tired. "You're here to try and talk me into coming back, for the good of the program. O'Neill was the first wave, for the good of the Air Force, not that he managed to get any of that said. Jackson was just an O'Neill bonus prize. You're here to tell me that I'm an integral part of the Stargate program, and they need me, and you'll be happy to drive me back up to the mountain so I can sign all that paperwork again and head back on the Daedalus in two weeks."
Carter's mouth turned, the sort of quirk that commanding officers know means someone lower rank is trying not to smile, but her eyes stayed sad.
"Sheppard," she said, "we've all lost people. There's no one at SGC who hasn't lost someone, someones, who were important to them. Nobody. We lost Daniel, really lost him, twice, and you should have seen Jack the second - "
She trailed off, and John let her words sit heavy in the air. When Carter spoke again, her voice was tinged with something between fierceness and sadness, which maybe made it resignation. "SG-1's lost more than any one person in the world deserves to, Sheppard. All of us too, made more sacrifices than we should have needed to, more than we should ever have been asked to make. And every one of us would do it again, for our teammates, for the program, for Earth, if we had to."
"Carter," John said, "and because you at least got to the point right off, I'm going to say this as nicely as I can. I'm not coming back. I'm done. Finished. Everybody from SGC has offered appropriate sympathies, and I appreciate them, and now I'm going to go off and have a life that's half empty, but at least no one else will die for or because of me."
Carter shrugged and gave him another one of those sad little smiles. She walked over toward him and stood close enough that she could have hugged him if he'd been sending off signals that it was okay. Instead, she looked up at him, met his eyes, and said, "John, I'm so sorry. Rodney might have thought," and she paused, and smiled again, and continued, "well, it doesn't matter, but I always respected him, and, mostly, I even liked him. I'll miss him, and I'll definitely miss the pages and pages proving all my work wrong that he sent through the databursts."
"Thanks," John said, because he didn't know what else to say, and then he stepped back and let her open the door and cross into the hallway.
She stopped and turned before he shut the door again, and said, sadly, "We'll miss you, too, you know."
John knew every person on the Atlantis mission who had been killed in service in the Pegasus Galaxy. In his office, the paper files were alphabetical by last name, and John could close his eyes and see them all there. On the computer, the electronic files were listed by date of death, most recent first, and John could close his eyes and see them all there too, in order, ending with Sumner, Col. Marshall. No matter where he was - whenever he closed his eyes, the first thing that he saw, always, forever, was the file drawer full of personnel records of dead people.
When John left Atlantis, the list wasn't as long as he had expected it to be. The stupid deaths still happened, but they happened less frequently, and they were contained faster. The Wraith had done damage, but they'd finally beaten the Wraith back and that threat was over, too. The longer the expedition had spent in the Pegasus Galaxy, the better people had gotten at not dying. John thought it was a sign of people adapting and getting smarter.
Rodney had thought it was a sign that all the really stupid ones had already died.
John had closed all the files himself. He had felt like it was the least he could do for the soldiers or the scientists who had died. Rodney had always said that John would rather die a hundred times over than see one of his men, military or civilian alike (by the end, they were all John's men) not come back. Rodney had said it in that way he had, where his tone fell somewhere between mockery and seriousness, and the last time John had heard Rodney say it, to Lorne, in a staff meeting, Rodney had sounded tired and resigned and proud of the fact that John cared so much.
Cared too much, one of John's COs had said, back in Afghanistan, and too deeply, another had said in Iraq before that, but it was John's care - and Rodney's, and Elizabeth's, and Carson's and Radek's and Lorne's and Ronon's and Teyla's - that had kept alive the people who were still alive, and John wouldn't have traded that for a command somewhere less dangerous.
Wouldn't have traded Rodney's exhausted, cranky, proud voice for anything in the world.
There were plenty of people who thought that John was a shitty CO, but none of them were stationed in Atlantis; none of them were at SGC reading his reports.
The last personnel file that had to be closed before John left Atlantis - he made Lorne close that file. John just signed his name to the report, right underneath the space where it said next of kin: Miller, Jean McKay; Sheppard, Colonel John Vincent.
John had liked Jeannie; he'd teased Rodney for weeks after Jeannie's first trip to the Pegasus Galaxy that Jean was just like Rodney, only a little more charming. Whenever John had said that, Rodney had always snapped, "Then why don't you marry her?"
John never had an answer to that question that made Rodney happy; he had always shoved his pudding cups across the table in the mess instead, and after the second year, John had twisted the ring on his left hand whenever Rodney started ranting at him. John never knew where Teyla had gotten them, but she had pressed them into his hand and smiled at him.
They didn't get married; John had still been military, after all, and Rodney had no use for any institution that forced him to mix his money with someone else's, but Teyla had brought them the rings and something in Rodney's face softened when John uncurled his fingers and showed the rings to him, glittering on John's palm.
Lorne had offered to write to Jeannie. John had thanked him, closed his eyes and tried to remember how to breathe, and made a note in his head to recommend Lorne for command of the Atlantis mission.
He wrote to Jeannie himself. Dear Jeannie, the letter started, by the time you get this, I'll be back in the States for good. I wish that I wasn't the one who had to send this to you.
It had taken him three times as long to write to Jeannie as it did to write all three resignations. John had learned a long time ago that quitting was always easier than telling the truth.
He had thought that Jeannie deserved the truth.
John spent two and a half weeks ordering from every takeout place that he could find a menu for in Rodney's kitchen. After Carter had left, the only people John saw for more than two weeks were the delivery guys, who only cared if John had cash and tipped well. He talked to the cat over dinner, about which Chinese place made the best fried rice and which pizza place did the best Chicago style, because when he pretended that he was talking to the cat, John didn't feel like quite as much of a desperate, sad, lonely person.
He missed Rodney desperately. Rodney would have had opinions on every recipe that involved broccoli from the Chinese place over on Orchard.
"I think the peapods in duck sauce is better at Wang's," he told Fermat.
"It's never a good sign when you're talking to yourself about dinner," an amused voice said from the doorway. John looked up sharply; Daniel Jackson was leaning in the frame. John dropped his gaze back to the comfortingly familiar white paper cartons, because he didn't want to know how Jackson had gotten in to the apartment, especially without John hearing the door open. He'd learned years earlier that SG-1 - and the refugees from SG-1, like Cam Mitchell - pretty much went where and did exactly what they wanted, and either they'd tell you what they'd done or they wouldn't, and asking questions was pointless.
"Elizabeth got the spare key from Personnel," Jackson said, sliding onto one of the stools at the kitchen island and scratching behind Fermat's ears when the cat went over to investigate his jacket. "SGC policy; any off-world team members retaining living quarters outside the Mountain must file a lease and key with the Personnel Office, in case of blah blah blah. You get my drift."
The Chinese takeout places always sent John two sets of chopsticks and two fortune cookies, no matter how much or how little food he ordered. Jackson pulled the paper bag toward him and fished out the second set, snapping the thin sticks apart and digging into the container full of John's Mu Shu Beef with relish.
John stared at him, and then said, "Rice?"
"No, thanks," Jackson said, and they ate in silence for 15 minutes. John was tired, tired of feeling wrung out and lonely and alone, and tired of people trying to convince him that he could keep living a normal life in Atlantis - as though his life had ever been normal, as though Rodney had just been an anomaly that was being erased as John sat in his kitchen with General O'Neill's pet archeologist and ate Chinese food.
John's life had never been normal, and Rodney had not been normal, and nothing was ever going to be the same again. John thought that he'd come to terms with that; he didn't understand why everyone else couldn't.
He was miserable and angry and lonely, but he knew that nothing was ever going to be the same, and if he'd been willing to talk to Kate Heightmeyer afterwards, she would have said that was part of the healing process. John thought, yeah, healing, sure, but he had roadmaps worth of scars on his body and things healed over, but they never disappeared.
Living with something, with someone, who had disappeared - but who was still there, still crabbily complaining away in the back of John's mind - was never easy.
Jackson set the carton of beef down on the counter and took off his glasses. He stared at John myopically while he rubbed them on his t-shirt, and the set of his mouth made John nervous, sick to his stomach to hear what Jackson was there to say.
"Tell Elizabeth to stop sending people to try and convince me," John finally said, because he didn't want to hear what Jackson had to say. "I'm not going - back." He'd almost said home, I'm not going home, because Atlantis had been home for seven years, not all of which had been frightening and awful, but home wasn't just the shining city that had loved him like her own beloved son, home was Rodney, too, and without Rodney the city wasn't worth it.
"Elizabeth didn't send me," Jackson said, standing up and stretching. "She got me the key, because she still controls the personnel files for the Atlantis expedition, but she didn't send me."
"I told you to get out of here a month ago, Jackson," John said.
"Jack shouldn't have brought me," Jackson said. He leaned over, put his hands on the counter and kept his eyes trained on John's face. "Jack doesn't think much, before he does anything."
"Jack," John said, spitting the name out, "shouldn't have come here at all."
"For all Jack's faults, he's a great observer of human nature," Jackson said, sounding faintly amused by the statement. John shoveled a forkful of peapods into his mouth and chewed noisily. Jackson rolled his eyes behind his glasses and said, "He saw you, and he recognized your expression."
"General O'Neill is a pretty decent guy," John said, because O'Neill was, and John knew it. O'Neill always had been, friendly and genial and John hadn't known it at the time, wouldn't find out for years, but O'Neill had done John a huge favor getting him approved for the Atlantis mission. "But he doesn't know shit about me."
"He knows something about losing a scientist," Jackson said. He turned his head away from John, pulled his glasses off again, and dropped them on the table. "More than once, actually."
"Jackson, I get that you all mean well," John said, and stabbed his fork into the carton of peapods in front of him on the counter, so that it was standing vertical in the middle of the pods. "But I don't want to talk about my fucking feelings with you, or with Sam Carter, or with General O'Neill, or with anybody other than Rodney's cat, because he doesn't talk back. I am not interested in conversation, I'm interested in -" and he stopped, because John didn't know what he was interested anymore.
Jackson's face twisted up - John closed his eyes, because he didn't want to see pity or sorrow on Jackson's face; John didn't need pity from a guy who couldn't even stay alive - and Jackson scrubbed a hand across his eyes like he was too tired to keep talking. "You're just like Jack," he said to John.
"So what," John said, digging back into the peapods.
"He always ended up okay," Jackson said, shrugging back into his jacket before pushing the beef toward John and flipping a business card, handwritten phone numbers scribbled on the back, onto the kitchen island. "You don't have to talk about your feelings, but Jack's always good for a couple of favors if you need them."
John eyed the card suspiciously.
"In fact, don't try to talk about your feelings at all," Jackson said. "Jack would probably hang up on you if you did." He stuck his hand into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a single key on a silver key ring. "Here," he said, holding it out to John, who took it without thinking. "I don't think that Personnel's going to miss this."
By the time John realized that he was gripping the key so hard it had cut a bruising pattern in his hand, Jackson was long gone and Fermat had eaten all the Mu Shu Beef and then thrown it up in the hallway outside of Rodney's bedroom. John cleaned it up and then sat in the hallway, staring at the door he hadn't opened again since he'd closed it, and said to the cat, "You know, buddy, sometimes I want to barf on the carpet, too."
Fermat climbed into John's lap and started to purr, and when John woke up, it was morning, sun streaming into the hallway, and he had a crick in his neck and a familiar, uncomfortable lump at the back of his throat.
Contrary to Rodney's popular belief, John hadn't actually hated talking to Kate Heightmeyer. After their third year in Atlantis, Elizabeth had made all the senior personnel take standing, once-a-week appointments with her, because it set a good example, she said.
John hated most shrinks, as a rule, because he'd suffered through enough uncomfortable appointments - usually made by overbearing COs after someone in John's unit had died - with idiots who wanted to talk about John's issues with his father and why John had a suicidal streak. John had no interest in talking about his suicidal streak, because he knew he didn't have one, and he had no interest in talking about his issues with his father, because they were boring.
He could only say, My mother died and my father was a grounded pilot because he had to look after me, so many times before he got really, really tired of it. John knew he had issues with his father, he just didn't want to talk about them.
John liked Kate because she didn't make him talk. All Elizabeth asked was that the senior staff showed up to their appointments - once John was there, he could do whatever he wanted. Sometimes he sat on Kate's floor and played solitaire, cards stolen from Elizabeth's office. Sometimes he did paperwork. Sometimes he lay on Kate's couch and slept for an hour, his radio off, the only good sleep he got late in the war with the Wraith. Inevitably John had always run into Rodney after the sessions with Kate that he'd napped through; Rodney had always snorted and sneered and said, "You're the only person I know who looks worse coming out of a session with Kate than going in."
But then he'd always knead his fingers into the back of John's neck, stroking out the tension that even sleep couldn't erase, and John knew that Rodney knew the truth.
He even talked to Kate, sometimes.
Not about his father, and not about all the times John almost died. His first session with Kate after the very first siege, when she was on the Daedalus with them, heading back to Atlantis, Kate had looked John in the eye and said, "I don't think you're suicidal."
John had arched an eyebrow, and Kate had smirked at him, which made her much more like Rodney than she was like any of the other dozen shrinks John had talked to before this.
Kate had said, "I think you're deeply invested in the safety of your team, and of the city. I think that this investment makes you less likely to consider your own safety when it comes to situations like the most recent siege, but I think it's an issue of loyalty and not an issue of suicidal urges."
John hadn't liked that she'd paired issues with loyalty, but he knew that she hadn't been wrong, and Kate had always been more clear-headed than any of the other shrinks that he'd been forced to see, so sometimes, he had talked to her.
John had missed his last four sessions with Kate before he left Atlantis for good, and no one had said anything about it. He had known that if he started talking, he wasn't going to stop, and he had known that his life was over as it was, he hadn't needed to compound the problem by not being able to stop talking about how over his life was.
Kate had been the only person who passed John in the hallways of Atlantis - the hallways that had stopped lighting up for John weeks ago - and who hadn't looked at John with pity and sorrow. Kate had looked at John and smiled at him, because she'd heard all of the good stuff in the last five years, and John knew shrinks well enough: Kate had smiled at John because she was trying to remind John that he'd been happy, once.
It was the one moment when John thought that he really, really hated Kate Heightmeyer and her stupid degrees in psychology.
The morning after Jackson came by, John woke up with a crick in his neck from sleeping sitting up in Rodney's hallway, was a perfectly clear, perfectly cool sort of mid-October day. John remembered them from when he was at the Academy, because the cool, crisp, clear October days had been the best days to fly - sky for miles ahead of you, and the air so light it felt like you'd never come down.
He opened all the windows in Rodney's apartment - all three of them, two in the living room and one in the hallway, facing the bathroom - turned on SportsCenter loud enough that the sound carried to the hall, and sat on the floor outside the bedroom, cup of coffee in his hand. He'd closed the door to that room as soon as he'd been able to get up off the floor the first time he walked into Rodney's apartment. He'd just been going to take a piss, and he'd caught a glimpse through the open doorway, of an unmade bed, a t-shirt thrown across a lampshade, and the memories of the last time they'd had leave together - the last time John had fucked Rodney in that bed - had flooded so strongly through John's head that he'd tasted iron at the back of his mouth, and he'd had to bolt for the bathroom to puke.
When he got up off the bathroom floor, he had taken the piss, washed his hands, washed out his mouth, and walked back down the hallway and closed the door to the bedroom.
John drank his coffee and listened to Dan Patrick talk about the upcoming Bears/Packers game and stared at the door. Fermat walked by with something small and furry in his mouth (he'd been fishing toys out of the couch for a week), and he dropped it when he saw John, climbed straight into John's lap and shoved his face against John's chin.
"Yeah," John said. "Okay, buddy, okay."
The room had been shut up for a month, and the apartment for a year and a half before that, so when John twisted the knob and shoved the door open, little clouds of dust whirled up off the top of the dresser and the windowsills. John stood in the door for a long minute, Fermat winding around his ankles and then leaping into the middle of the bed to knead at the bedclothes. He stared, he felt his heart clench up all over again, and then John opened the windows and turned back to the overstuffed closet.
He tossed Rodney's Mr. Fantastic t-shirt into a pile on the bed, with the I'm With Genius shirt and a shirt that he was pretty sure Sam had sent on the Daedalus a few years back, that said, Physicists Do It In 11 Planes. He shoved everything else, all the jeans full of holes and flannel shirts that wouldn't have fit Rodney's broader, stronger, running-for-his-life-in-the-Pegasus-Galaxy shoulders, into black plastic garbage bags, tying the bags off only when they were so full that they started to rip. He stripped the bed down and tossed the sheets in the washer; he shoved the comforter in another black garbage bag and left it sitting next to the five bags of clothing.
Once he started, he couldn't stop.
Rodney had a heart attack in the botany lab on the sixth sub-level of Atlantis on July 6, 2011. John had been off-world with Teyla, and Lorne's team and AR-4, not a first contact mission but a mission to pick up a whole load of stuff they'd traded for. John went because they needed two jumpers, and because AR-1 had been grounded for two weeks while Childress, who'd replaced Rodney on the team two years before, recovered from three broken ribs.
John had been restless, and he'd been caught up on his paperwork, and during the pre-mission debriefing, when Elizabeth had said, John, we need another pilot, he'd jumped at the chance to go.
He had told Rodney that he was going off-world for two days, and Rodney had flapped a hand in John's face and said, "Yes, fine, try not to sleep with any nubile young virgins while you're gone." John had slugged him in the shoulder and then slid his hand down to squeeze Rodney's wrist, and Rodney had looked up from whatever he was working on - John hadn't even paid enough attention to know that - and smiled at John, peered out from under his eyelashes and smiled slow and sweet, and then he'd winked at John.
John had gone off to Telebra whistling.
They had been loading the jumpers, shifting the stuff they'd traded for around, half an hour from heading home and all the Marines shoving at each other and kidding around, when Elizabeth had dialed Telebra on the 'gate and said, "John, come home."
Not Colonel Sheppard, not bring the teams home now, not emergency here and we need you, but - John. Come home.
As soon as the wormhole from Atlantis had shut down, John was hitting the DHD. He had almost gotten caught in the backsplash of the gate engaging, Lorne pulling him out of the way at the last moment, and John had fallen through into the control room on Atlantis almost at a run. "John," Elizabeth had said. "Oh, John, I'm so sorry."
"What," John had said. "What happened, what happened?"
And then she'd told him.
He was digging for boxes in a dumpster down the alley from Rodney's apartment when Elizabeth showed up, the day after Halloween.
John knew the schedule. He knew that the Daedalus had been scheduled to head back to Atlantis ten days ago, and he had spent the day it was supposed to leave facedown on the couch, watching a Matlock marathon on TNT and not thinking about the city, shining towers and ocean as far as the eye could see and filled with memories of Rodney, Rodney shouting and Rodney sleeping and Rodney lying on the floor of the balconies by the west tower, naming the constellations.
Elizabeth surprised him. He was ass-deep in a dumpster and she was supposed to be halfway to the Pegasus Galaxy.
She said, "John," and John startled, tipped over, and very nearly gone ass-first into a less dry part of the dumpster than he'd currently been standing in.
"Elizabeth," John said when he regained his balance.
"Can we talk?" she said.
There was nothing that John wanted to do less, but it was Elizabeth, and she was his friend. She'd been a good leader and a good friend to both of them for all those years, and John owed her a conversation. Even if it was a conversation that he didn't really want to have.
He climbed out of the dumpster, shaking off Elizabeth's hand, and collected his six boxes from the alley. Elizabeth just walked beside him quietly, while he opened the door to the building and climbed the stairs. John swung the door to the apartment open and waved her in, leaning the boxes against a wall when he followed her. "Oh," Elizabeth said when she saw the apartment, walls stripped of Rodney's photos and art prints, the empty bookshelves and boxes stacked three high against all the walls. "Oh."
"Yeah," John said.
He'd called Jack O'Neill the day before. Standing in the kitchen, surrounded by ten days' worth of boxes and trash bags, he'd called O'Neill and told him that he wanted to get out of the Springs. I can't live here anymore, John had said, and O'Neill had said, I tried to retire when Daniel ascended. O'Neill had paused, and then he'd said, Some days, it stops being worth it to get out of bed.
Yeah, John had said.
Let me see what I can do, O'Neill had said.
O'Neill made a couple of calls, to friends of his and friends of John's father and people who didn't even owe John anything, and it was after dark when he called John back. How do you feel about South Carolina, O'Neill said. John felt okay about it; South Carolina was fourth on Rodney's list of places he would rather die than have to be, right between "not married to Sam Carter" and "on a planet where people are shooting at me", but John had never minded it. (Siberia, John remembered, was number one with a bullet on Rodney's list. John wasn't worried about that, because even the Russians didn't have much use for a washed up ex-pilot with a footlocker full of issues.)
Ravenel, O'Neill said. Base commander learned to fly with your dad. He'll let you teach the grunts that made it through flight school the finer points of bombing the shit out of stuff. Okay?
Okay, John said. You start November 15, O'Neill had said, and Colonel, I'm real sorry.
Thanks, John had said. I know.
Elizabeth was staring openly at the dismantled apartment, and John said, "Anything you want?"
"No," she said, sounding sad. "Dr. Jackson told me about your conversation."
"Glad to know my personal life is the main topic of gossip on base," John said. He was suddenly angry, angry like he hadn't been since the first night O'Neill and Jackson had barged into his apartment, and when he looked down, his knuckles were clenched white.
"Oh, John," Elizabeth said.
"Stop saying that," John said. "I get that everyone thinks that I'm the walking wounded, I get that you all are really sorry, but I'm not some grieving widow, Elizabeth, I'm just trying to get on with my life. I'm trying to not sit down on the floor and cry, and I'm trying not to wonder where the hell I fucked up, that even after all the stuff we did survive, it's the fucking frailty of the human body that landed me in a crappy apartment, by myself, with a cat and a whole lot of regrets."
Elizabeth's face crumpled, and she twisted her hands together. "John," she said. "No one meant to - I didn't mean to."
"I know," John said. "I know, all right? I wasn't the only one who cared about him. I wasn't the only one who lost a whole hell of a lot. I'm not stupid, but I'm selfish, and after 25 years in service of my country, I think I've earned that right. And it isn't personal, Elizabeth, but I know you're here as the last-ditch, get-John-to-come-back-to-Atlantis-no-questions-asked committee, and the answer is no. You shouldn't have held the Daedalus for me."
"I miss him too," Elizabeth said, and she stepped toward John. "I didn't come by to try and change your mind, John. Dr. Jackson was quite clear on the fact that we should all leave you alone, and I respect his opinion. I came as a friend, John, to tell you that I was sorry, and that I miss him, as well. I came to say good luck."
"Oh," John said. Elizabeth stepped forward and wrapped her arms around John's shoulders, and for the first time since Rodney died, John let someone touch him.
Rodney had been dead before they could even radio Elizabeth from the botany lab to tell her to bring John home.
John remembered standing in the 'gate room, listening to Elizabeth say, I'm so sorry, John, and Carson did everything he could, but it was a heart attack and we couldn't get to him in time, and Oh, John. After that, everything sort of grayed out, hazy at the edges, and John woke up sedated in the infirmary with most of a day missing from his memory.
Elizabeth had been sitting by his bed when he blinked himself awake. His head had felt like it had been stuffed with cotton, and his whole body felt bruised. John hadn't felt so miserable since he'd woken up in the GA hospital in Germany and they'd told him that Mitch and Dex were dead and he was being court-martialed for disobeying a direct order.
He'd felt helpless, and angry, and a million other adjectives that shrinks had always wanted him to use about his feelings, and he'd tried to put on his best military commander expression and said, "Tell me what happened."
Elizabeth had - the details and the facts, her face schooled stoically until the very end, when she said, "John, John, I'm so sorry. If we had been able to get you home sooner."
"I could have watched it," John said flatly.
"John," Elizabeth said.
"I don't want to talk about it," John said. "Ever."
John had spent four weeks walking through the halls of the city and knowing that everyone was staring at him. He'd sat in meetings with Lorne while they decided whose team Ronon would move to - the answer was AR-3, Stackhouse's team, who'd just lost their second Marine a couple of weeks earlier - and in meetings with Elizabeth and Teyla while they discussed Teyla's expanded role as diplomat and diminished role as she-who-saves-John-and-Ronon's-asses.
(Lorne hadn't even had to ask if John was going to break up AR-1 after Carson had let John out of the infirmary. Carson had looked at John with sad eyes and pressed a bottle of sleeping pills into John's hand. John hadn't used them; they'd sat on the table beside his bed, and he'd left them there when he'd stepped on to the Daedalus. He hadn't needed them, or wanted them. He'd had a month of nightmares, but whenever he'd woken up sweating from another one, he'd thought, I'm alive. It was still the worst thought he'd had since he'd come to the Pegasus Galaxy.)
John had taken care of business and drunk himself stupid on Zelenka's brain-burning hooch at least three times that he remembered. He'd known from the moment that he woke up in the infirmary that he was going home for good when the Daedalus left in a month, but he hadn't told Ronon and Teyla. John hadn't known how to tell them that Rodney was more important to him than the team, than the Pegasus Galaxy, but they'd been together for almost three years and John thought they'd understand.
He had hoped they'd understand.
He told Teyla while he was lying on his back on the floor in the training room, which was empty of Marines at John's request. All the Marines liked to watch Teyla fight, especially when she was kicking John's ass, but John had cleared the room that day and he had one of Teyla's sticks pressed against his throat when he said, "I'm going home at the end of the month."
Teyla had stepped back and John had struggled up to sitting.
"To Earth," Teyla said.
"Yeah," John said.
"I believed that you considered Atlantis to be your home, Colonel Sheppard," Teyla had said, and she had turned away from him.
"I don't have a home anymore," John had said, and sitting on the floor of the training room, sweaty and sore, John knew just how stupid that sounded. It made Teyla turn, though, and she sank to her knees in front of him. She touched his face, just once, and wrapped her fingers around the back of his neck and rested her forehead against his.
"I understand," Teyla said. "And I am sorry."
John had felt that she really did - and she really was. It hadn't made him feel any less shitty.
John hadn't changed his routine at all, except at night. He went to bed alone, but he had still gotten up and gone running with Ronon every morning, because Ronon didn't want to talk to him about anything, and three days before the Daedalus was scheduled to leave, John had grabbed Ronon's arm when they hit the top of the highest spire in the city and said, "Hold on, okay?"
Ronon had twisted around and stared at John for a minute, and then nodded and dropped down onto the floor of the balcony, legs hanging between the slats of the railing, over the edge. He'd propped his chin on the railing and tilted his head toward John.
John had sunk down onto the floor and said, "I'm not coming back."
Ronon had inclined a shoulder and said, "Figured."
"Stackhouse is a good guy," John had said. "You'll do a good job with that team."
"Sure," Ronon had said. "He's not you."
John had thought, I'm not me anymore, but he'd said, "You'll be fine."
"Sure," Ronon had said. He'd levered himself to his feet and offered John a hand up; six years, and Ronon still moved more gracefully than John could get used to. Between him and Teyla, it had been like having two cats on the team. When John had struggled to his feet, Ronon had yanked him into a hug that almost bruised John's ribs, and he'd squeezed the back of John's neck with one hand. "Thanks."
"For what," John had asked.
"For giving me a chance," Ronon had said. "For giving all of us a chance."
Elizabeth had stripped off her coat and shoved up her sleeves and helped John pack up Rodney's kitchen. She'd told him stories about all the mishaps she'd had in diplomacy before she went to work for the Stargate Program, and halfway through a story about the ambassador from Lichtenstein and a plate full of Greek food and a goat, John realized that he was laughing.
It had felt unfamiliar in his throat, and he'd choked off a snort in surprise, and Elizabeth, elbow deep in Rodney's pots and pans, had looked over at him and smiled. It was a sad smile, but a hopeful one, too, and John had smiled back and gone back to Rodney's five drawers full of kitchen utensils.
Elizabeth left after midnight. They'd split a bottle of wine and a pizza, and they hadn't talked about Rodney at all, but about John's future and Fermat, who was settled in Elizabeth's lap and studiously ignoring all the boxes in the living room, and John had almost felt halfway normal for a couple of hours. She kissed him on the cheek when she left and said, "Don't be a stranger, John. Dr. Carter will be happy to send anything you pass on to her through the monthly databurst."
John kept the most collectible of the DVDs and sold the rest to a skinny kid in the video store down the street, for what was probably half their market value. He set aside two boxes of books he thought that Carter might want, and he put the rest of the books in his own storage unit in the Springs. If he wanted them later, if he wanted any of those pieces of a life that had gone supernova and shattered around him later, he knew SGC would ship them to him.
He paid Kate $500 to clean everything that he left in the apartment out after he was gone; he called Daniel Jackson's office at SGC and offered Jack O'Neill the enormous television.
Jackson, or maybe O'Neill, sent Cam Mitchell to pick the TV up. "Where are you headed?" Mitchell asked, hoisting one end of the TV like he moved appliances out of the apartment of dead civilian contractors to top-secret Air Force programs every day.
Mitchell had been flying in the 302 program when John was shuttling people like Rodney back and forth from McMurdo to the Ancient defense base in Antarctica. Mitchell had done everything right where John had done everything wrong, and they'd still ended up in the same place.
Mitchell was a pretty decent guy, John thought. The only one of them who hadn't come knocking on his door to get him to change his mind. Mitchell might actually be the only one who understood.
"Ravenel, for a while," John said. "I've got ... a third cousin or something who lives out there."
"You going to fly?" Mitchell said.
"Teach," John said.
"Ravenel's Marine Corps," Mitchell said.
John said, "My dad was Corps. Base commander was one of his last trainees in flight school." He could see the question on Mitchell's face; a cross-commission was hard enough to come by, even with Jack O'Neill's help, and a cross-commission to the Marines was almost impossible. "Civilian expert," John said, bending over to hoist the TV up again. "Not a commission."
Mitchell nodded, helped John wedge the television into the back of O'Neill's pickup, and then added the two boxes of books for Carter. When they were done, Mitchell said, "It's like driving a friggin' tank. And Jackson won't even let the General mount rifles under the headlights, so it's worse." He stared at John, who turned away, and then Mitchell said, "Jackson said that I should tell you we're all going to miss you. That it wasn't your fault. And good luck and all that crap. O'Neill wanted me to tell you that the Astros suck. Carter said she'd write."
"What about you?" John said, and then didn't know why he'd said it. It was cold; Colorado in November was cold, and John had forgotten that. Mitchell was in camo pants and a black t-shirt - John could see the leather jacket slung over the passenger's seat in the truck, but Mitchell was standing on the sidewalk in front of Rodney's apartment shivering and blowing on his hands instead.
Mitchell shrugged, and stuck his hand out. John shook it. "You told me it got easier," Mitchell said. "When we came through Atlantis the first time, you told me that command got easier. It didn't, but thanks for lying. And this time, okay, I can tell you, it gets easier."
John started to rethink his opinion of Mitchell, tell him that he didn't know shit, and then he remembered the dark-haired alien who'd come to Atlantis with SG-1 the first time. John had seen O'Neill and Jackson, Carter and Mitchell, and Teal'c and General Landry in the 'gate room before he blew out of the Mountain, but he hadn't seen her. John hadn't been looking, but he would have noticed her even if he hadn't been looking. "Yeah," John said. "I'm sorry."
Mitchell shrugged. "I miss her every day," he said. "It gets easier."
"Thanks," John said.
"Sheppard," Mitchell said, and then looked away from John, up at the steely sky. Mitchell shoved his hands in his pockets, and twisted his head back and forth a couple of times, like he was working a crick out of his neck, before he spit on the ground and then looked back up at John. He was squinting, like the day was bright and the sky was clear for the sun, instead of the threat of snow hanging low in the clouds. "You've been military a long time, right?"
"All my life," John said, because before he was, his father was, and that's how he was raised. He was military from the day he was born.
Mitchell quirked his mouth, just a little, and said, "Yeah, me, too. And look - you know as well as me that there was nothing you could have done, nothing. That's just how life is, you got that? And you can be sorry, and you can have regrets, and there are plenty of things I wish I'd said to Vala before she - but you can't let it eat you up forever, okay? You got to get over it eventually, you got to move on." He paused, and, John guessed, because John hadn't moved to punch him in the face, Mitchell went on. "McKay wouldn't have wanted you to sit around and pine for him."
"He kind of would have," John said.
"Scientists," Mitchell said, sounding fond. "You chose this life, and I chose it, too, I asked for SG-1 when the General said I could have anything I wanted. People die. You just got to keep going."
John let Mitchell's words sink into the early morning. It was really early, the streets still empty and the air quiet in a way it wouldn't be in an hour. Fermat, in the carrier on the ground between them, broke the silence with a yowl, and Mitchell looked down and nudged the carrier with his toe before looking up, meeting John's gaze. "It's okay to be fucked up," Mitchell said, quietly, and as weird as this conversation with Mitchell was, John suddenly got what all his visitors had been trying to do, had been trying to say, because Mitchell just said it straight out. "Nobody survives the Stargate Program without being a little fucked up."
"Survives," John said, trying the word in his mouth.
"Yeah, survives," Mitchell said. "You survived. You're a survivor."
John had read all the reports. He'd watched his men lose friends and teammates to the Wraith, watched Rodney lose scientists to stupid accidents, and watched Teyla lose Halling to the Genii. He'd done the paperwork on all of them. John had spent seven years keeping his head up and his voice steady when he made the tough phone calls and wrote the letters he hated to write.
He'd dug his nails in and hung on.
"Mitchell," John said. Mitchell had been studying John with patient interest while John worked through his fucked-up, exhausted mind, and when John said his name, Mitchell's face softened a little, and he yanked a hand out of his pocket and clapped it down on John's shoulder.
"Yeah, I know," Mitchell said. "I gotta go. O'Neill's up and waiting for that friggin' TV, not that he could be bothered to come and get it himself. Drive safe, okay, Sheppard?"
"I will," John said, and Mitchell hopped up into the cab of the truck, the motor rumbling startlingly loud in the morning silence. When the taillights turned around the corner, John opened the passenger door of the Mustang and settled Fermat's carrier on the seat carefully.
He turned the key in the ignition, turned the radio on. "Ready to go?" he asked the cat. Fermat regarded John suspiciously, and curled on his side and went to sleep.
The haze burned off and the sky was huge and flat and blue, stretching on for miles. They said that Montana had the biggest sky in the world, but he knew differently - the biggest sky on the planet Earth was in Kansas, and the biggest sky in the world was over the lost city of Atlantis.
John was halfway across Kansas, tapping his fingers on the steering while Merle Haggard sang that he'd just stay there and drink, when the radio cut out abruptly and returned just as suddenly, mid-line, with Gloria Gaynor wailing ... survive, I will survive, as long as I know how to love I know I'll be alive. John laughed, and choked, and it caught in his throat. "Survive," John said, and Fermat wailed loudly, complaining or harmonizing with Gloria, John couldn't be sure.
John heard Rodney's voice in the back of his head, sounding a little like General O'Neill and a little like Mitchell, but mostly just like Rodney: you get up, and you drink your coffee, and you just keep going.
He put his foot down on the accelerator, and floored it.
author's notes: title and summary from the killers, "all the things that i've done". pru and asb did all the cheerleading for this story, from the first phone call back in july, where i started talking about the idea before i even said hello to asb after she answered, to the parts where it got hard to stomach and pru told me that was totally normal and i wasn't a freak for being totally wrung-out by this story. i owe both of them big-time; if they hadn't held my hand, this story would never have happened. in addition, keri let me talk about it even when she didn't want to hear about it, the queen told me to keep going when it got hard, and sid doesn't even watch sg:a but she gave me some good advice along the way. pru and resmin did beta duty; all remaining mistakes are mine.