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01 August 2012 @ 10:31 pm
Fic: Atlantis, "Flesh and Blood" (1/2)  
Title: “Flesh and Blood”
Rating: NC-17
Category: Sheppard/Weir, AU, episode-related
Summary: How the “Vegas” John Sheppard gets his groove back.
Author’s Note: Really all anr’s fault. More so than usual, because she enabled this fic in person! It’s for her and for peanutbutterer, who watched “Vegas” with us and told me to “fix it.”

***

Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood
and you’re the one I need.

***


John expected to wake up in hell; instead, he’s in a military hospital.

Why bother dying, he thinks as he catalogs everything that hurts. The last time he survived injuries that by all rights should have killed him, he ended up in Las Vegas. He’s always been pretty good at making his own damnation here on Earth.

A doctor rattles off his injuries to him: a trio of bullet wounds, a nicked artery, internal hemorrhaging, a punctured lung, kidney damage. Transfusion. Two surgeries. John feels like he’s been broken into a hundred separate pieces and sewn back together, but at least he feels something. That’s new.

He asks her, “What day is it?”

“Thursday.”

That doesn’t really mean much to him. There are no windows in here, and he’s seen nothing but concrete since coming to. His sense of time and space – not to mention his place in the universe – have shifted since the last time he got any sleep, what with an alien shootout and staring his own death in the face and strangers telling him that if he weren’t such a fuck-up he’d be John Sheppard: Intergalactic Hero.

“When am I getting out of here?”

Her USAF jacket says Fraiser and there are gold oak leaves visible on her epaulets through her thin white lab coat. He hopes she tells him he can leave soon because even if he’s got nowhere in particular to go, it’s uncomfortable being around these uniforms again.

He wonders what happened to the money.

“You’ll be up and about in a day or two,” Major Fraiser tells him. “There are some people who’d like to speak to you first.”

McKay, probably, or that Woolsey guy who wasn’t really with the FBI. John never did sign that confidentiality agreement. “I’m sure.” And another question, probably one he should have asked earlier: “Where am I?”

He’s expecting she’ll say he’s in Area 51, down the hall from those Wraith fighter ships McKay showed him, but Fraiser says: “Colorado Springs.”

“What... in the Academy hospital?” He can’t believe he was moved two states without being aware of any of it – though, for all he knows, their crazy alien technology let them beam him here like Captain Kirk.

Fraiser’s smile is tight-lipped. “That’s something else they’ll go over with you.”

John feels a belated sense of foreboding, like what he probably should have felt when Woolsey ordered him into an unmarked black SUV. John didn’t have anything to lose then except a bag of recently stolen cash. He still has nothing to lose, but it seems like a shame to waste all Fraiser’s surgical work putting his organs back together.

He doesn’t want to show her how much it worries him that she won’t even tell him where he is, so he tries for a flirty smile. “No hints?”

Fraiser raises an eyebrow and walks away. Apparently whatever charm he has left isn’t worth much.

In this dimension, anyway. Doctor McKay had a wild, unbelievable tale of a John Sheppard in another reality who made good, who saves the universe and maybe has his own Flash Gordon theme song and probably gets the girl. It’s a nice story, anyway – somewhere, somehow, he got to be the hero he wanted to be when he used to play with G.I. Joes and pretend to save the world for freedom and the American flag.

A nurse checks his IV and adds something that makes John feel heavy and tired.

An alarm blares, incoming something, but he’s already asleep and can’t move.

He dreams of being shot, of a woman’s hand holding his, of sinking into a pool of blood and water and becoming someone better than he is.

***

“You’re on the mend,” Fraiser says the next time he wakes up, which might or might not be the next day.

He feels better than he did, but he wouldn’t go so far as to say he feels good. He asks again: “When do I get out of here?”

Instead of an answer, she says: “There’s someone here to see you, if you’re up to it.”

There’s no one in his life who’d come to Colorado to see him. For a brief, insane moment, he imagines it could be Lydia, like all these aliens and other dimensions and galactic communication devices can also bring the dead back to life.

It’s sad that in the real world, the best visitor he can hope for is a Canadian scientist he met only once.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he tells Fraiser. The doctor is already stepping back from his bedside, leaving the space open for someone else.

It’s not McKay. His guest is a woman, taller than Fraiser and in a business suit instead of an Air Force uniform. “John,” she says, like she knows him, “I’m Doctor Elizabeth Weir. I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

A strange chill goes up his spine, like he’s seen a ghost. It’s not because he was just thinking of Lydia, even though her hair and complexion were a similar color – this is something else. He can’t remember ever meeting Elizabeth Weir before, but she feels familiar.

He forgets the questions he should be asking. “Not as many as you’d think.”

Of course, there are plenty of nights over the past six years he doesn’t fully remember, but based on first impressions, he doesn’t think his usual dive bars would be her style.

“Well, I’ll do my best to answer them. I’m told the whole world owes you a thank-you.”

That’s harder to believe than everything else these people have told him. Even thinking about it makes him uncomfortable. “All I did was get shot.”

She smirks and, thankfully, lets that topic go. “Are you up for getting out of here, Captain? There are some things you might like to see.”

He feels cold. The last time anyone called him by rank – except when he curses himself in the mirror – was at his court-martial. “Don’t call me that.”

“I’m sorry. John?”

He nods. That’s all he is now – John. He’s not even a detective anymore. Losing that title should be a relief considering how well that career was going, but he feels naked with nothing cushioning his name. Just... John.

It feels like this woman should be able to call him something else.

“Call me Elizabeth, then.”

Maybe she’s coming down to his level, or just trying to put him at ease. Either way, it’s a nice gesture.

He wonders what she wants from him. He probably shouldn’t get his hopes up that McKay’s cronies are planning to keep him around, now that their alien serial killer is dead.

Not that he’d accept if they offered. He wouldn’t trust himself with something as important as the fate of the world.

That thought leaves a bad taste in his mouth. At least, he decides, he can take Elizabeth up on a tour.

“Let’s get out of here.”

***

As it turns out, he’s not in some windowless basement of the Academy hospital. They’re in Cheyenne Mountain, under NORAD. Apparently he was transferred here from a civilian hospital in Nevada after emergency surgery because, “You talk in your sleep.”

“No, I don’t.” It’s been a while since he’s had a steady relationship – and to be honest, the incidents of one night stands have been fewer and farther between than he’d prefer to admit – but someone would have told him.

“Well,” Elizabeth says diplomatically, “this is the first time you’ve been shot by an alien. That might change some things.”

He wants to see her face, but she’s behind him. The only way Fraiser would let him out of the infirmary was in a wheelchair, and the collateral damage from three shots to the chest keeps him from moving around too much.

There’s not much to see facing forward, just a habitrail of concrete hallways and airmen in BDUs who ignore him completely. They nod to Elizabeth, though, like she’s important.

“This is a military installation,” he observes aloud, “but you and Doctor McKay...”

“There are a lot of civilians involved with the Stargate program. Most of them are scientists. I’m one of the commanders of the Atlantis expedition, so I’m in Pegasus most of the time.”

There’s not much he can say to that – he didn’t even know there was a Pegasus galaxy until he met McKay. “And you’re back in the States-” it’s too strange to say back on Earth, “-because of the Wraith?”

“Originally, yes. Now that that’s resolved – thank you again – there’s still a lot of work to do. An alien doesn’t just live on Earth for four months without leaving any trace.” A cover-up. John wonders how many more aliens have come and gone without him ever hearing about it. “Rodney – Doctor McKay – has already been recalled to Atlantis, but he suggested I speak with you before going back.”

“With me?”

She doesn’t answer him, because they enter a room with a giant, spinning stone ring. It explodes into the room with a brilliant blue light that shifts and flows like water. Four men step into it, and when the blue light cuts out a few seconds later, they’re gone.

“That,” Elizabeth says, “is the Stargate.”

For a long moment, John can’t say anything at all.

***

Elizabeth wheels him into what could be any ordinary conference room, except for the wall of windows overlooking the now-dark Stargate ring.

“Where did they go?”

“About twelve light-years,” Elizabeth says, “instantaneously. SG-12 is making a routine visit to a planet called Alaris.”

Alaris, he repeats in his head. Another planet. “I hear it’s nice there this time of year.”

It doesn’t make sense – it can’t make sense – but John suddenly wants to step through the Stargate as badly as he ever wanted to fly. He’s idly wished to get away from the world for years, but this is different. He could actually go to somewhere.

Elizabeth pulls up a chair and sits across from him. Everything looks brighter than it did before he nearly died in the desert, more alive and in sharper focus. She’s pretty – he’s always had a thing for brunettes – but his gaze is drawn away from her face to the mangled skin he can see under the collar of her suit jacket. It looks like she was shot, and from the rough infection scarring all around the bullet wound, she wasn’t near a hospital when it happened.

Elizabeth pulls a PDA out of her pocket. It’s only when she holds it toward him that he realizes it’s not any brand he’s familiar with.

“Take it,” she says.

The screen is off, but as soon as he touches it, it comes to life, flashing lines and dots that don’t mean anything.

When he looks up, she’s smiling. There’s a warmth in her expression that knocks him off-guard, either because his whole world has been upended in the past few days, or because it’s just been so long since anyone has looked at him like he matters.

It hurts, almost like a gunshot to the chest.

John looks away as she keeps talking. “Rodney said he told you about the Ancient gene.”

“He told me a lot of things.” It was easier, talking to Doctor McKay, getting called out for all the ways he’s turned his life into a bad joke. John probably should have freaked out in the face of secret operations and spaceships and life-sucking aliens reaching into his mind, but being on the defensive made it easier to take in.

Elizabeth’s gaze feels like it’s burning through all of that, and he’s afraid of what will happen if he looks back up.

“That’s an alien device you’re holding,” she tells him. “It’s responding to you.

He starts to recognize the lines as the layout of the room they’re in and the nearby corridors they walked through to get here. “Is this-?”

Elizabeth points to the pair of dots in the center of the screen. “That’s me,” she says, “and you.”

“So we’re tagged somehow?” It doesn’t surprise him. They already told him they were tracking his car – for all he knows, the nutters he used to arrest for doing drugs outside the Nellis Air Force Range are right and the government is tracking everyone on the planet.

Elizabeth shakes her head, and when he finally looks up at her, she’s smiling. “We don’t need to be. It’s reading our life signs.”

The dots are pulsing, just slightly. He wonders what that signifies and, like the machine heard him, symbols he doesn’t recognize instantly pop up in the corner of the screen.

Elizabeth looks surprised.

He guesses, “It’s not supposed to do... that?”

“I just didn’t know it could.” She touches his hand to adjust how he’s holding the device so she has a better view of the screen. “This language is ancient. It was last spoken by an alien race ten thousand years ago.”

“And you can read it?” A ten thousand year old language. Spoken by aliens. He can barely order Mexican food the way he wants it.

“It’s giving you my heart rate. Around 110 beats a minute, if I’m doing the conversion right.” She smiles at him, and it’s enough to take his breath away. “I should probably calm down.”

His heart’s racing, too.

***

John rests for a few hours back in the infirmary, and then he joins Elizabeth in the cafeteria for dinner.

She tells him about Atlantis. She describes a city bursting up from the ocean, a living city that responds to thoughts and feelings and wishes of a chosen few. “People like you,” she adds.

There’s a lot to keep track of – aliens, alliances, deadly mistakes – but she tells it well. There’s more wonder in her voice than fear, even when she talks about the Wraith, and John wants to be part of that somehow. Her hand brushes the scarred skin at her neck when she mentions the Genii, and he wants to know more.

“Friendly fire,” she says, pursing her lips. “Colonel Sumner – our military commander – was trying to keep a Genii commander from taking me off-world as a hostage.”

John feels a stab of absurd guilt, like he should have been there. He downs a glass of water to try and center himself, because he’s only just met her, and he’s really not space hero material anyway.

“We ended up getting a treaty out of it,” Elizabeth continues. “The Genii have become our strongest allies. It was worth two months and some rather barbaric first aid.”

“All’s well that ends well?”

He can’t take his eyes off her. Her long fingers have drifted away from the scar tissue on her neck to the diamond charm she’s wearing on a thin gold chain. “We take our victories where we can get them, John. Otherwise you go crazy. Loss is the same out there as it is here.”

John swallows hard with a dry throat and wishes he hadn’t already drank all the water in his glass. There’s something knowing in Elizabeth’s voice, something familiar, like she’s reading into things about the last seven years he’s never told a soul.

McKay knew the dates, the dollars, the facts, but she-

It’s not fair for her to spin a magical yarn of the lost city of Atlantis like he could go there. He can feel the unfriendly looks from uniformed airmen all over the cafeteria, and he thinks the rumor mill must be in overdrive. His dishonorable discharge may have been commuted to a lighter sentence for politics’ sake, but there’s always someone on an Air Force base that knows what really happened.

There’s more bitterness in his voice than Elizabeth deserves. “Why are you telling me all this?”

He disobeyed orders, and twelve people died. Four were soldiers. Two were children. When this little holiday into the bizarre is over, he’ll be back in the desert with only a few memorable scars and a wild story no one would believe. No job. No car. No ill-gotten cash.

No new life.

“I met a John Sheppard once before, from a different reality.” Elizabeth has that same look McKay had when he said the other John Sheppard was a soldier and a hero and a better man.

John’s hands ball into fists. “Too bad I’m stuck in this one.”

***

He sleeps fitfully, dreaming of green eyes and brown hair and the way the sky looked when he was dying in the desert. He asks the nurse to bump up his sedatives, hoping the images will fade.

The nurse goes to check with a doctor, and John can’t stop thinking about Elizabeth.

He’s known her for less than a day, and yet it feels cruel that when his wounds heal and they kick him out of this classified base, he’ll never see her again.

***

Fraiser gives him a prescription for oxycodone along with his discharge instructions, so at least he gets something for his trouble. A Colonel named Mitchell brings him the confidentiality papers he first saw in Area 51, and this time, John signs them without a fuss.

Then he’s cut loose. They gave him a clean outfit that mostly fits and return his watch and keys and wallet. All his credit cards are out of place, but everything’s still there – receipts from bars and convenience stores neatly pressed into the billfold along with a number for a girl he never called and a few slot machine tickets he never cashed out. John used to carry his dog tags around in the change pocket of his wallets as a kind of twisted memento, but he lost them with an old wallet years ago. He doesn’t really miss them.

They give him back his shoes, too, with the blood cleaned off. Not surprisingly, there’s no mention of a black bag and a few hundred grand.

There’s no reason to stay in Colorado Springs, but John puts his credit card down at the first cheap motel he sees. Maybe he’ll stay in town until he heals up enough to do some hiking – it’s been a while since he’s walked under real trees that aren’t in the Bellagio.

It’s as good a plan as any.

***

Fraiser’s painkillers makes him feel numb, but that’s not actually what he wants.

John halves the dose, then stops taking them entirely. He’s reduced to sponge-bathing until his surgical wounds heal more, and the coarse scrape of a cheap motel washcloth on his skin feels good. It’s probably a sign he’s even more screwed up than he thought, but John is enjoying the pain of recovering from gunshot wounds more than he has enjoyed anything in a long time.

He air-dries naked on the bed. His senses still feel hyper-alert from his near-death experience, and he tries to pay attention to every drop of water contracting and then disappearing, leaving nothing but his skin behind.

When the loud air conditioner starts to bother him, he drowns it out with a TV pay channel.

John listens more than watches, because lifting his head to see the screen pulls on his sutures and because something seems wrong about busty co-eds gleefully fingering each other when the whole country – the whole planet – was almost wiped out by Wraith. John takes in the flashes of skin, breasts, spread legs, and then he closes his eyes and imagines a woman who’s probably in another galaxy by now.

He has no idea what Elizabeth Weir would be like, what she’d say or how she’d feel, but that’s less important than his own rough hands and the surge of lust filling his chest. He takes his time, brushing his stomach, his thighs, letting his erection fill warm and heavy in time with his pulse.

He remembers her hair, her smile, the way she looked at him when he lit up that alien life monitor. John closes his hand around his erection and his gut tenses with want. That sharp jolt is enough to remind him of everything that hurts, every bit of flesh the Wraith shot.

He handles himself up and down until he can’t feel his stitches or his bruises or his real life. He squeezes his eyes closed, growing even harder when he shifts his rhythm, and John imagines he took those bullets for her.

One of the porn stars on the TV makes a ragged moan, but he has all but forgotten about them. He’s stroking himself faster and faster until he forgets the motel room entirely in the blind heat of how badly he needs release. He’s some other John Sheppard, he’s in that fantastical city, he’s in Elizabeth’s bed and she’s next to him, touching herself, making those moans he hears on the TV. He faced down a Wraith for her, he saved her from those aliens who took her hostage, he makes her beg him every night until she’s sweaty and spent and can say nothing but his name, over and over, needy and breathy and telling him come on, John-

He’s making noise now in time with the TV, so close to losing himself he can’t breathe, and he jerks his hand and swirls his thumb around the head of his penis, imagining her tongue, her mouth, her body, but something feels wrong. He squeezes his hand and tries to feel only pleasure, tries to ignore the chill that rushes down his spine when he pretends he deserves that life, deserves this rush of feeling churning through his body, deserves to be loved by someone like her. He slams his eyes closed, jerks himself hard, and comes all over his hand with a force so rough it hurts.

He’s left shaking, his vision blurring from water he can’t blink away. He feels empty as he comes down instead of sated. The porn stars still fucking away on the screen piss him off so much he turns it off and then throws the remote at the wall so hard it breaks into pieces.

He’s furious, he wants to scream or explode or break down and cry, and he doesn’t even know why.

***

Elizabeth leaves a message at the motel front desk with her phone number. The motel attendant looks away from Oprah long enough to say she tried to ring it through a few times but there was no answer.

“Was sleeping,” John says, not that anyone cares. After breaking the remote and taking too long to calm down, he reconsidered his earlier position: numb and drowsy on painkillers is the way to go.

It takes him a whole day to call her back. He’s not sure what he’s more worried about – that she’ll already be gone to Atlantis when he calls, or that she’s just reaching out to him to tie up some administrative loose end. A form he forgot to sign, or some detail about the Vegas PD investigation he needs to clarify. There’s no reason, really, for her to be calling just to talk to him.

It doesn’t make sense that she feels this important. He can’t really hope it’s mutual. She travels to other galaxies; he’s a mediocre detective who was assigned to the wrong string of body dumps at the wrong time.

Correction: he was a mediocre detective. Now he’s basically living in a cheap motel with a single set of clothes and a mini-fridge full of discount beer. Sure, he’s definitely got a shot with her.

He shaves before he calls, like it’ll make his voice more presentable.

“You’re still in town,” Elizabeth notes when he identifies himself. That can’t be a surprise to her – they must have tracked his credit card to this motel or she wouldn’t even know how to contact him.

“So are you.” She has far more interesting places she could be, too.

“Well,” she says, in a voice like she’s amused, “since we’re both here and you did save the day, will you let me take you to dinner before you go back to Vegas?”

His heart speeds up. John wants to say yes, but it comes out, “Why?”

In a flash he wonders if his motel room is bugged, if she heard him moaning her name when he brought himself off.

“I think we’ll have a lot to talk about. You and I have some things in common.”

That seems doubtful. “Oh.” He glances between the TV and the day-old Domino’s box on the counter. “My calendar’s pretty open these days.”

“Good. I’ll pick you up at seven.”

***

Elizabeth is ten minutes early. She’s in jeans and a casual jacket, driving a sedan with government plates. Looking at her, he’d never guess she usually lives on another planet.

“Nice place you’ve got here.”

“No roaches yet.” John settles into her passenger seat, sliding the seat back.

She doesn’t ask why he’s still in Colorado, which is good, because he still doesn’t know. He glanced at want ads in the paper earlier when he went out to buy some underwear and clean shirts. He doesn’t really think he’ll choose to stay in such an Air Force town, but a snowy winter would be a nice change of pace.

She asks, “Do you like Thai food?”

He’s a meat and potatoes guy, usually, with the exception of an amazing falafel cart in Lebanon that Lydia once showed him, but he answers, “Sure.”

She has a really great smile. “There’s a little place near here I always try to visit when I’m in the area. The Pad See Ew will change your life.”

John laughs. It makes his stitches hurt, but it’s worth it. “I’ll take whatever works.”

It’s a hole in the wall, with cracked linoleum flooring and dirty menus. Elizabeth takes him to the table farthest from the door and says something to the waiter in a foreign language.

So, she speaks Thai as well as alien. Good to know.

She orders a Singha to drink. “You should try it.”

He sticks with Coors but lets her order the food.

“So,” he starts, to fill the silence. “Are you guys watching me?” He’s out of practice with polite it’s-really-not-a-date conversation, but paranoia he’s good at.

“Of course.”

At least she’s honest.

The waiter drops off their beers. John watches the curve of her throat as she swallows her first sip. “You seem to have taken this in stride,” she says. “When they first told me, it blew my mind. I didn’t know whether it was the most amazing thing I could imagine or just the scariest.”

He used up most of his strong emotions earlier in his life. “A lot of weird things happen in Vegas, but this was definitely... something new.”

She smirks. She’s looking right at him. Again, it seems like she knows him, and for some reason he just can’t remember her. “We’re lucky you came around when you did. If you hadn’t figured out where he was headed...”

“Yeah, look, I’d rather not-” He stops himself, because saying aloud that he can’t handle listening to her thank him seems like he’ll be revealing too much about himself. “Can we talk about something else?”

She pulls her jacket off, revealing a red tank top that hugs close to her chest in just the right way. “I’m from Michigan,” she tells him with an indulgent smile. “And you?”

“You already know everything about me.” He wants to run his hands over her shirt, to see if it’s as silky as it looks. He thinks if he touched her, if he tucked that loose curl behind her ear, she’d smile at him like he’s the only man in the room.

He cools his thoughts with a swig of beer. Maybe he’s still got some strong emotions left in him after all.

“This is the biggest secret in human history, John. A little background research goes with the territory.”

“A little background research?” Hell, McKay knew his favorite gum, right down to the brand. John’s mother probably never knew him that well.

Elizabeth raises an eyebrow like she might tell him to just quit being difficult. He wouldn’t blame her – he’s probably needed to hear that from someone for a while. “All right,” she says instead, holding her hands open as if to make it clear her intentions are peaceful. “Why don’t you tell me about the next weirdest thing you’ve seen in Las Vegas?”

***

He doesn’t love the Pad See Ew, but once he relaxes, he enjoys the conversation. There are very few things he likes about his life in Vegas, but he’s racked up some good stories and right now, he doesn’t mind telling them.

“Wow.” She shakes her head after the one about the fetish club that specialized in life-threatening injuries – and occasional manslaughter. “Sounds like our friend picked the right place to hide.”

He likes making her smile. “They say if you stay there long enough you’ll see everything.”

She shoots him a teasing look. “Not everything.

“I’m sure they’ll build a Lost City casino eventually.” He won three hundred bucks at the Atlantis in Reno when he was first on his way to Vegas. It made him think Nevada would be lucky.

She takes a breath and then pauses for a second, looking him over. “I’d like to find a way to let you see the real one. There are complications, as you know, but I’d like your permission to try.”

Complications. All of a sudden, his Thai dinner isn’t sitting well with him.

Complications, like how he’s still a little surprised Elizabeth’s Air Force cronies didn’t just leave him and his classified knowledge to die in the Nevada desert. He might have, in their place.

Seven years ago, when he woke up in a field hospital outside Ghazni, a full bird Colonel told him that if anyone had asked his advice, John would still be bleeding out next to the four good airmen who died. John didn’t disagree with him.

“I’m not the man you’re looking for.”

Elizabeth folds her hands on the table and leans forward, so close he thinks he can smell her hair, even above the pervasive clouds of curry steam coming from the restaurant kitchen. “Genetically, Doctor McKay says you are. There’s a lot of technology we’re only beginning to understand. He believes you can make a difference out there.”

John stands up so fast his chair falls over, clattering backward on the floor. She starts, drawing back from him, and it’s hard for him to get the words out: “Trust me, I’m not your guy.”

He can’t be trusted with something like that.

He can’t go back in time and just erase the past to try on another, better life. He’s stuck with everything he’s done, and he can’t let her get his hopes up.

He can’t.

They split the bill and walk to her car in silence.

They’re almost to his motel before she speaks again: “I lost someone too.”

Lydia was a long time ago. Sometimes he can’t even remember what her face looked like, or how he felt when she used to say she loved him.

Elizabeth says, “There was an emergency in Atlantis, with a lot of wounded. Simon was our chief surgeon. Things went badly. Four members of the rescue team died, including him.” He hears her swallow. “Inadvertently, I ordered my husband to his death.”

John isn’t good with grief, not his own or anyone else’s. He tries not to sound like a complete jerk when he asks, “What does this have to do with me?”

“When Rodney and I went through the dimensional rift with the rest of his team, I met a John Sheppard who was dealing with a loss of his own. He helped me come back to myself. We helped each other, I guess. I’d like to help you, if I can.”

They come to a stop below the flickering vacancy sign and she puts the car in park.

John wants to bury himself in her, wants to turn her words from a strange job offer into something else, but even more than that, he wants to run the hell away from anything that can make him feel this much.

Before he can, she gives him a cell phone. “Think it over.”

John gets out of the car, his heart pounding like she just held a gun to his head instead of offering him support.

He doesn’t look back until her car is already out of view.

***

There’s one contact number in the phone: hers. He goes four hours without sleeping before he calls her.

“This is Weir.” Her voice is rough and tired, but he’s too inside-out to feel guilty for waking her.

He can’t imagine why he feels like he needs to know this, why he really wants to twist the knife deeper and find out if he let Lydia – or someone else – down in every reality.

“That other John Sheppard... who did he lose?”

Elizabeth is quiet for a long moment, but he knows she’s still there.

“He lost me.”

***

Elizabeth is still on Earth, for classified reasons she doesn’t share with him. They drink coffee and then wander the stacks of a downtown bookstore together. She buys War and Peace in the original Russian. He buys it in translation.

He’s falling for her. It’s crazy, it’s a terrible idea, but he can’t stop staring at her while she thumbs through the pages of dense Cyrillic text. They went from the bookstore to a city park down the street, and the sun lets him see a hundred colors in her hair. He can’t imagine that other lucky bastard John Sheppard who had a woman just like her, and he doesn’t want to imagine what her death would have done to him.

She catches him looking. “What page are you on?”

He grins, feeling embarrassed but also just... okay.‘Well, my prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Bonapartes...’ It’s a terrible first line.”

“It gets better.”

He’s staring again, and she lets him. Her eyes are incredible, like they’re reaching right into him, past all the bullshit he usually puts in the way. If an Elizabeth wanted him in some other reality, if she’s here, maybe he can still do something right in his life.

He doesn’t know where he gets the courage, but he reaches for her hand.

Her grip is strong, constant. She brushes her thumb over his knuckles, and his stomach flips over with something he hasn’t felt in a long time.

She doesn’t let go, and he holds on for dear life.

***

John agrees to go back to Stargate Command for a few hours the next day. He sits in a room full of strange, light-up devices, and a man named Zelenka he remembers from Area 51 keeps telling him to touch stuff and think of things. Alien devices come to life under his hands.

He’s gathering a crowd, too. He meets Doctor Carter, Doctor Jackson, and at least five other people called Doctor who all speak in jargon and look at him like he’s something amazing.

Two weeks ago, he was nobody. Now... well, he’s still nobody, but with some freaky alien genes that let him control things from other planets. It’s a lot to take in.

There’s an armed guard at the door who stands straighter when Elizabeth enters the room. She looks just as good as she did earlier, when she met him at the security checkpoint and he almost thought she was going to greet him with a hug. John puts down the mystery device he’s holding, just in case it’s something that can read his mind.

She smiles at him, then turns to Zelenka. “How’s he doing?”

“It’s incredible,” the foreign man says. “The data we’re gathering is just... look at this.” He hands her a tablet computer, and John can tell from her bemused expression that she doesn’t understand much more than John did when Doctor Carter tried to explain it to him. “If we can get him back to McKay in Atlantis and activate the control chair, we could-”

“One step at a time, Radek.”

“His control over the ATA gene is remarkable. It’s completely instinctive. We haven’t seen anyone else like him.”

It’s starting to feel weird, them talking about him like he’s not even there, so John asks, “Am I done?”

Zelenka looks back and forth between Elizabeth and the equipment in front of him. “Yes, yes, but we’ll need you to come back after we can get the Gateship from Area 51-”

Elizabeth touches Zelenka’s arm. “General O’Neill hasn’t approved that yet.”

“Right. Of course. It’s just... this is important, Elizabeth. He’s special. It could be a real breakthrough.”

John stands up. He doesn’t miss the way the guard watches his every move. “Can I go now?”

Elizabeth walks him out. In the long elevator ride to the surface, she asks, “How does it feel to be special?”

“Wrong,” he answers before he can think of a better response, one that doesn’t show off his insecurities quite as clearly.

He wonders what the other John Sheppard would say.

***

They go to the last movie showing of the night, the Transformers sequel, and it’s as bad as he expects.

He starts whispering funny comments in her ear to hear her giggle, and midway through the movie, she drops her head to his shoulder.

He loses track of the film entirely as he brings his hand up to play with the ends of her hair. Megan Fox’s breasts save the world, he assumes, but that doesn’t matter as much as this quiet personal contact, the weight of Elizabeth’s head on his shoulder, her hand above his knee.

In her car, after, she kisses him. It’s sweet and gentle and all too brief, and then they’re just looking at each other as people and cars move through the theater parking lot around them.

He admits something: “I don’t really remember how to do this.” He wants her, and he doesn’t want to fuck this up. Not fucking up isn’t a thing he does well.

A sad smile flits across Elizabeth’s face, and she looks away from him toward the marquee above the theater doors. “This is weird for me, too. It’s been a long time since I’ve shared popcorn at the movies.”

John doesn’t even know how long she’s been a widow. He definitely doesn’t know how to comfort her.

Somewhere, in some other dimension, he knew. That John helped her enough that she’s here trying to fix him, like she’s working out some cosmic debt.

And he’s grateful. It’s weird as hell, but he’s grateful.

He drums his fingers on the gear shift with his left hand, needing some release for all his nervous energy. “That other John Sheppard must have made a pretty strong impression on you.”

She covers his hand with hers. “So have you.”

***

She disappears on him for three days, with only a quick phone call to assure him she’s still in the solar system.

“I’ve got a lot of things in the air,” she says, and while he’s sure that’s true, it also sounds like she’s putting him off.

“Saving the planet?” That’s as close as he gets to talking about her business on an unsecured phone line. That was a figure of speech long before his life diverted into science-fiction.

She surprises him with the truth. “I need a minute, John.”

“Yeah. Okay.” It should be reassuring, actually, that he’s not the only one caught off guard by this unexpected thing between them.

“Friday, we can go hear a jazz set at the Blue Room, if that sounds like fun.” She says it fast, like she thinks he’ll say no.

“Friday.”

Her breathing on the other end of the phone line calms him. He wouldn’t mind if she didn’t say another word, just left the line open as she goes about her day. He hopes she doesn’t leave the galaxy before Friday.

Before she hangs up, she says: “Don’t go anywhere.”

***

He thinks about renting an apartment.

It’s crazy – he has no money beyond credit cards, no income, and nothing here in Colorado that won’t soon disappear into outer space.

He’ll have to find something to do, eventually. His stuff might still be at his place in Vegas, if his landlord hasn’t already evicted him for the rent he’s been putting off. There were a few X-box games he hasn’t played all the way through; other than that, he wouldn’t miss any of it. It would be nice to have the cash, though, for however much his life’s possessions are worth. He’s pretty sure he never took out the extra shot up by alien policy on his auto insurance, so he’s screwed on that front.

He calls up the Colorado Springs PD to ask if they’re hiring, but hangs up before the receptionist can transfer him to someone who can answer him.

He looks up the casino shuttle to Cripple Creek instead. He got shot three times and didn’t die, so maybe his luck has changed.

***

It’s after 3 AM when he gets back to the motel.

The old man on night duty behind the desk asks, “Did you win?”

John looks down at the shuttle map in his hand that must have given away where he came from. “Nah. Just a few bucks.”

“Better that than nothing. Gotta leave while you’re in the black. And never play the penny slots – those are just there for suckers.”

“Good advice,” John says, and then heads on to his room before the guy decides to share any more pearls of wisdom.

He opens a beer and counts the cash in his wallet. He’s actually up almost $500, though he wasn’t about to share that with a desk clerk who probably has the master motel key.

He left in the black, but he doesn’t really feel like a winner.

***

He’s on page 17 of War and Peace when he gets a call from a number that’s not Elizabeth’s.

An hour later he’s under NORAD again, waiting to see General O’Neill.

When the general calls him in, he tells John to close the door but doesn’t invite him to sit down. After a moment’s hesitation, John sits anyway.

“I’d really rather not be talking to you, Sheppard.”

Nothing like opening with honesty. “Likewise, sir.”

O’Neill gives him a look like he’d prefer it if John just didn’t speak, ever. “Richard Woolsey is the civilian director of our R & D operations at Area 51. Against my strong advice, he’s decided to offer you a position as some kind of Ancient gadget tester.”

John shifts in his chair, trying to look more casual than he feels. “You make it sound so tempting.”

“I’m sure Weir has expressed everyone’s gratitude for your help with our recent problem. That’s her department. My responsibilities are the secrecy of the Stargate program and the security of the planet, and I don’t trust you with either.”

John might agree with him, but the general is backing him into a corner and he has to say something. “Hey, I found your Wraith, didn’t I?”

O’Neill glares at him. “Should we go through a complete list of your military accomplishments?”

John hates himself for his sweating palms, for the way this is getting to him. Even before the disaster in Afghanistan, he was never the Air Force’s golden boy. O’Neill is hardly the first decorated officer to tell him he’s worthless.

He grits out, “No, sir.”

“You know, I like officers who take a little initiative when they get an order to leave someone behind enemy lines. If you hadn’t done such a piss-poor job of it, we’d be having a very different conversation.” There’s a long pause, and then the general’s glare softens, just a little. “I wouldn’t have authorized McKay to tell you anything about the Stargate program, but... now you know. Maybe you can do something useful.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed. Woolsey will be calling you.”

John has his hand on the door before O’Neill adds, “One more thing, Sheppard. We have your money.”

John knows it’s a test. If he looks back, if he even blinks, the invitation to join their secret program – if the job offer was real at all – dries up forever.

He could pay off his debts, get a car, disappear down the open road alone without anyone telling him he’s not a good soldier or detective or a good enough man. He could start over.

John’s fingers clench on the door handle. It’s been seven years, goddamn it, but he still wants to serve his country.

He walks out without a word.

***

Woolsey offers him the job.

He’ll be a contractor, working as needed. The money’s fine – not bag-of-non-sequential-bills fine, but he can make it work if he stays out of the casinos, or at least stops losing so damn much.

They’re unraveling technology in Area 51 that makes the iPhone look like a stone tablet and a Blackhawk seem like man’s first crude wheelbarrow. He never pictured himself in a lab instead of the front lines, but his special genetic makeup might help them find what they need to defend the planet.

If he keeps his nose clean, maybe they’ll even let him inside one of those Wraith darts someday to see if he can figure out how they fly.

He’ll be making a difference.

He can’t stop thinking: It’s in Nevada.

It’s stupid – the Pegasus galaxy is probably a million light-years away. An extra 800 miles doesn’t make a difference.

Damn it, he let himself hope.

By evening, when Elizabeth comes to pick him up from the motel, she’s excited about getting him on board and he just wants to drink until he stops thinking.

“Vegas is bad for me,” he admits over a jack and coke. She invited him to a jazz concert, but they ended up in the dingy bar next door instead. “It’s too fucking hot.”

General O’Neill’s words are still ringing in his ears, and this is the closest John can get to telling her that he knows he’ll find some way to blow this opportunity, too. If he’s really lucky, maybe no one else will die this time.

“You’ll be all right,” she tells him. She’s still nursing her first glass of wine, just watching him get wrecked on his own.

He’s too screwed up for her anyway.

He orders another round and thinks at least she’s about to see the real John Sheppard, drunk and messy and not worth her kindness. Better, he supposes, to have all his shit out in the open early.

“John,” she says, instead of letting him go that far, “let me take you home.”

All the way back to the motel, he’s caught somewhere between whiskey and old wounds and wanting her. She’s so beautiful that his heart races just looking at her, and he wants to believe he can give her something – anything – of value.

She parks. The car makes settling sounds as the engine cools and he still hasn’t said good night. He imagines how she’ll vanish to another planet soon, probably without warning, how he’s ruining this thing when she’s done nothing but try to help him, and he says: “Don’t go yet.”

He watches her swallow, her eyes flicking from his hands to his mouth. Her chest rises and falls with a few short breaths before she speaks. “Invite me in, John.”

***

- Part 2 -
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