Spoilers: Seasons 1 and 2
Author's notes: This is the pinch-hit that got away. Huge thanks to my betas, who know who they are, for arguing, correcting and generally holding my hand through this. It's possible that this is part of a bigger story, but it is also complete as it stands.
Summary: John first runs away from home when he is eight years old
John first runs away from home when he is eight years old. In retrospect, it's his most successful attempt. Always ingenious, he hides in the back of one of the gardener's trucks, hopping out at an intersection and making it all the way to the bus station before someone wonders what a skinny little kid is doing out there on his own.
His father doesn't tan his hide when he gets home, and his mother just shakes her head, turning her tear-stained face away. There's no shouting in the Sheppard household, and John's learned more about silence than he ever will about speech.
John's the first back to the house after the funeral, and he slams the front door as hard as he can behind him. The hallway echoes for a moment, and he stands in the silence, listening to his breathing and clenching his fists so hard it hurts. Then he's moving, taking the stairs two at a time, tugging off his tie and jacket as he goes. In his room, it doesn't take much more than five minutes to shove everything he wants into a bag, then pull his leather jacket on over the funeral suit.
He's not quick enough, though, and when he gets back out onto the driveway, Dave has parked his car right across it, blocking any way out.
"What are you doing?" With his hands on his hips and that look of blank anger on his face, John can suddenly see the family resemblance, not to himself, but to their mother, and he has to look away.
He keeps his eyes fixed on the trees as he says. "Move your car."
"No." Gravel crunches as Dave comes over. "You're going to do this to him? Now? You selfish son of a-"
The punch is a good one, connecting solidly so that pain flares along John's whole arm, and his knuckles sting. When he can see properly again, Dave is still lying on the driveway, looking more shocked than hurt. John's the one shaking out his hand and trying not to wince. He doesn't wait for Dave to pick himself up again, just drops his bag onto the gravel and goes over to his car. That's one birthday present his dad's been regretting for years.
John has to drive over the lawn to get past Dave's car. He figures the tire marks will grow out in a few weeks.
He hasn't put much thought into where he's going; the plan had just been to drive until he couldn't any more. Now, he slows the car on the edge of town, drumming his fingers against the wheel as he tries to think past the rushing in his ears. Carefully, he veers left, trying to act on instinct rather than thought. If he starts thinking now, he won't be able to stop, and that's not what he needs. He needs this, the movement of the car, the distraction of driving as he takes a right, flicking on the lights in the deepening gloom. It's something to think about, something he can think about while he keeps the rest of his mind deliberately blank.
To say that Carrie's surprised to see him would be an understatement, but she lets him in just the same, making him take off his jacket and pushing him down onto the sofa.
John just shakes his head, rubbing his sore knuckles with the fingers of his other hand. She must get whatever it is that he isn't saying, because she disappears for what feels like hours, coming back with a tray of drinks and an ice-pack. The lemonade is too sweet and too cold, and he gulps it fast enough that his head aches. He hisses when she presses the ice against his fingers, pulling away only to have her grab his wrist.
"It's okay, John," she says, thumb soothing over his skin, gentle pressure that settles him as she holds the ice in place. After a moment, the sting eases and he relaxes back into the cushions, not able to meet her eyes any more than he could Dave's. Eventually she releases him, putting the ice-pack and glass back on the tray and lifting his chin to force him to look at her. Her fingers are cold and a little damp and he reaches for them without thinking, turning his face to press his cheek against them, cool and soothing against his hot skin. When he can finally look at her, she's smiling at him a little sadly. "It's okay," she says again, moving closer so that their legs are pressed together. "My parents are out of town 'til Wednesday."
It's not fair, he knows. They've dated a few times, and while he's never learned how to be a half-decent boyfriend, he knows he's a good friend. This comes a little too close to taking advantage for his liking, but it's not like he made the first move. That's something else he's never really learned how to do.
He shifts on the couch, pulling her hand as he sinks down, until they're lying twined together, her head on his chest and their legs entangled. She is warm against him, and he presses his face to her hair and just breathes for a moment. He's been numb for the past two weeks, and for the month upon month of hospitals and sick beds before that. But he can feel Carrie's heart beat, the rise and fall of her breasts as she breathes, and he can feel it all in a bolt of grief that leaves him gasping, clutching at her as she tries to soothe him, holding her tighter as she wraps her arms around him. Then she's moving, pulling free to sit up, and he can't do this, can't take this comfort that she's offering. When she reaches down to stroke his face again, shifting so that she can straddle him, he turns away, reaching out blindly to grasp her hips and pull himself free.
He leaves her sitting on the couch as he bolts for the door, driven by something too big for him to begin to think about, let alone put into words. But he knows that if he lets himself feel this, here and now, he won't be able to stop, ever. It's better not to start.
Driving home, he can see himself in the rear-view mirror, pale face and short-cropped dark hair, like a washed out reflection of his father. He reaches up, turns the mirror away and drives on his side-mirrors and instinct instead. There's only a few months left until college anyway. He'll manage until then. He can last until then. And once he's away from here, he won't have to feel any of this any more.
Of all the guys in his frat house, John had been voted 'most likely to die a fiery death', what with his driving and his flying and his general disregard for his personal safety. He knows what the others say about him, and he doesn't care. The thrills make him feel alive, and a blaze of glory is a hell of a lot better than shuffling off gently into the night. He's not into the same stuff as the other guys, leaving the chemical highs to them and hauling them off to bed when they're too out of it to care. John doesn't like being out of it. Every risk is calculated, every action thought through, so that he can get his kicks on his own terms and no one else's.
But then that's what Craig used to say as well.
The others trickle back to the house one by one, either heading straight up to their rooms or into the kitchen for beer. It's not a wake exactly, but John takes a bottle or two, drinking just enough to take the edge off the lurking darkness in his head. He doesn't get loud like the others, drawing into himself more and more, so that when the singing starts, he has to retreat upstairs because of all things, he doesn't want that to be what pushes him over the edge.
As expected, Neil's waiting in his room, sitting on the edge of John's bed and turning something over in his hands.
"Hey." John's tie disappeared a while ago, and he drops his jacket onto his desk chair. Since he's still too warm, too constricted, he starts on his shirt buttons, concentrating on them so hard that he almost forgets Neil's still there.
"I said I'd take Craig's parents back to the airport tomorrow," Neil says, and John looks up sharply enough that he almost falls over.
"Okay." He's not quite sure what he's supposed to say, not really. There's been a lot of talking and a lot of silence around the house lately; John's a hell of a lot better at the latter. "Do you want-" He breaks off, because damn, he really sucks at the talking thing. And it's not like he and Neil have a permanent thing. But when Neil looks up, even John can read that expression, and he finishes undoing his last button before crossing the room.
John's none too steady on his feet, and Neil puts a hand out to steady him as he bumps against the bed. The object Neil's holding turns out to be a tiny model airplane, a gift from an ex-girlfriend that John's stayed friendly with. He's stayed friendly with most of them, or as friendly as he gets. This isn't the same, and not because Neil's not a girlfriend. He's not even a boyfriend. This is just what they do, when the anger and the pressure and the world's out to get them. They don't talk about it, and John doesn't think about it. This isn't about thinking.
The hand on his hip tightens, and Neil drops the airplane on the floor before pulling John closer, helping pull the dress shirt off over his wrists then undoing John's belt. John lets him, stepping out of his pants before gently reaching for Neil's tie. The silence is what they need, what he needs, and he doesn't ask is this okay or what do you want because neither of them know the answers. They tried the talking thing, once, but then Neil had asked where John was from and the resulting silence had put them both off attempting it again. Both of them know better now, that they're more interested in the here and now and this than in any of the other details.
So John goes willingly when Neil lies back and pulls him down, stretching out against each other, more gently than normal. John's had a few, but not too many, and he's so ready for this, needing the touch and guessing that Neil does too. He doesn't know what Craig meant to Neil - he barely knows what Craig meant to him - and right now he doesn't much care. Because this is comfort, the heat of Neil's body against his as he turns them, moving over John and pressing his mouth to his shoulder, his chest warmth and solace in each touch until John can't stand it any more and he pulls their hips together so fiercely that it almost hurts. Neil makes a choked sound and presses his face into John's neck, hands gripping his biceps with near-bruising force. This is another way to drive it all away, to find that second of oblivion where he doesn't care about anyone or anything and the world shrinks to a moment of pure sensation.
It's never long enough, of course, and afterwards, as Neil rolls out of bed, he doesn't look back. He keeps his back turned as he locates his shirt, his pants, and he tells the wall that he's going home for the Easter break. John watches the taught curve of Neil's shoulders as he slips on his shoes and says, "I don't know if I'm coming back. After Craig and everything."
When he's alone, John stares at the ceiling for a long time, trying not to think. He's not really buzzed from the beer or the sex any more, but even when he eventually rolls onto his side, he keeps his eyes open, not wanting to give in to his exhaustion just yet. The little airplane is lying on the floor, casting its shadow over the carpet. He keeps his eyes fixed on it as the night draws in, until he can't see it any more in the darkness. Only then does he close his eyes and sleep.
He's a long way from home and still running.
John likes Antarctica, right up to the moment it gets interesting. With nothing but white as far as the eye can see, there isn't much for a man to think about and not much to remind him of anything really. Unless he's like Sergeant Grelling, who grew up in Alaska and who, when he's drunk, has to be reminded that there aren't any bears for him to hunt out here. The ice and snow and emptiness can make a man forget, not to mention the beer. With a black mark against his name, John earns himself a wide berth from most of the military personnel, and with his general tendency not to say anything to anyone, he's got his distance from everyone else as well. There are a few people who try to see past the smile and the blank looks, but he sees them off just fine, and gets himself a reputation as someone who keeps himself to himself. It suits him. It had suited him, until the chair. Until Atlantis. Until he's part of a team of nearly two hundred people, then in charge of a team of nearly two hundred people and suddenly his quiet little world just got a whole lot busier.
There's no hiding in Atlantis. Not because the city isn't big enough, but because there are people everywhere. And everyone wants something from him; everyone's calling him on the radio or to meetings or to supervise something or pass judgment on something.
Weirdly, it's easier than he thought it would be, because while he's used to losing himself in silence, in Atlantis he can lose himself in the noise. If he's not signing off on paperwork for Bates, he's writing reports for Elizabeth or sparring with Teyla or checking on gate team rotas. There's always something happening here and it's always a welcome distraction.
And when he's had enough of occupying himself, he can head down and let McKay fill the silence instead. It's never quiet in any of the labs, even when McKay's driven everyone else away. He always greets John with a terse, "Major," then proceeds to explain what he's doing, why his staff are all idiots and how he's going to end up in the infirmary because of their idiocy or overworking or something similar. No response is ever required, and John can just slouch in the corner, watching McKay type or fix something or scribble over the white boards, always animated and loud where John is contained and quiet.
It disturbs John more than a little when McKay locks him out of the labs. Not because he's suprised at McKay's pettiness and not because he doesn't know that McKay's furious with him about Chaya, but because John is actually-
He doesn't really know what he is. He stands outside the lab door for long enough that Zelenka arrives and asks if he wants to come in. All John can do is shake his head, giving him a half-hearted smile and mumbling something that might have been an answer before turning on his heel and heading back to his own quarters. To his relief, Elizabeth's radio call comes halfway there, and he's able to lose himself in negotiating a tricky truce between the marines and the archaeologists (again) for a few hours.
When he gets back to the lab, it's empty, and John resigns himself to a quiet night in his quarters. The room doesn't feel like home yet, which is just fine by him. Nowhere's felt like home in ten years and he's gotten to like it that way. He'll have to move soon, if only to get a bit further away from the main thoroughfare through the city. He doesn't mind Elizabeth knowing where he lives, but to everyone else, his door is most definitely not always open.
Except, it seems, to McKay.
"Did you miss your turn on your way to your room?" John asks as the door slides shut behind him, and McKay jumps to his feet. His hands are already moving as he says,
"Look, if you would just admit that I was right and apologize, this whole thing could just be over with."
As openers go, it's not the best John's ever heard, but oddly it's not the worst either. Trying not to smile too much, he carefully pulls his sidearm from its holster, giving McKay a sour look when he takes half a step back. Still without replying - still not sure what he's supposed to say - he puts the gun on the bedside table and starts unbuckling the holster. He knows that silence is to McKay what a vacuum is to nature, and within five seconds he hears the intake of breath that means McKay's about to start again.
"I understand that you're angry about what I said about Chaya and while I was ultimately vindicated, I will admit that my initial assumptions were based on little more than instinct and that I was perhaps a little precipitate and forceful in my expression of them."
It takes John a moment to untangle the sentence. "Was that an apology?" he says, watching McKay's chin lift and eyes narrow, the way they do when he's forced into an uncomfortable truth.
"I. That is. Yes?" When John just smiles, McKay folds his arms expectantly. "Well?"
"Oh, sorry." With exaggerated emphasis, John says, "Thank you, Rodney," just to watch him bristle some more. It's fun, the way his cheeks flush and his expression twists itself into something between anger and frustration. It twists some more when John adds, "Although if you ask me, you were just jealous."
In the silence that follows, John wonders if it's really safe for McKay's face to turn that color. He'd meant it as a joke, not as the source of spluttering embarrassment, which is what he's getting right now. He'd expected a comeback about some women preferring brains to brawn, or something along those lines. But the look on Rodney's face is that of a kid caught with his hand in the candy jar.
Damnit. One day, John's going to see these things coming.
On the other hand, it's been a really, really long time since John got laid, and if it's not the same for McKay, he'll eat his P90. Without ketchup.
"You alright there, McKay?" he asks, bringing the spluttering to an end. If Rodney was a woman, John's pretty sure he would have picked up on the look in his eyes, the tone of his voice. Hell, most men John knows would have picked up on it too. But for better or worse, Rodney seems to suck at non-verbal clues.
"Fine, thank you, Major," he says, keeping his arms folded and staying firmly on the far side of the room. It's hard to tell if he's really that oblivious or shy (yeah, right) or what, and John's not got the patience to find out.
With calculated haste, he strips off his jacket, then reaches for the hem of his t-shirt. As he pulls it over his head he spares McKay a glance. If the wide-eyes and still-too-red face are anything to go by, it's not embarrassment or shyness; it's sheer surprise. John lets himself grin as he bends to untie his boot laces. He might not see them coming, but he knows what to do when they get here.
"Stay or go, McKay," he says, voice slightly muffled as he wrestles with the left lace. When he straightens up, McKay is still there, although he's dropped his arms and looks about ready to bolt. "Your choice."
This is as far as John can get without at least some response. He's risked this before, flying by instinct and blind hope. It's been worth it, and he's lucked out more than he's crashed and burned. Of course, if this one goes horribly wrong, he's lost a whole lot more than a one - or more - night stand, and he's not sure how he's going to get around having unsuccessfully hit on someone who he's stuck in another galaxy with, but he'll think of something.
It's a relief when the first step McKay takes is toward him not the door, his arms falling to his sides and his mouth possibly trying to smile, although it's hard to tell on that one since he's started talking again.
"I know you're really not meant to ask this kind of question, but I've been told in the past that, uh, I'm not always as sensitive to these things as I might be so I've found it much easier to just go ahead and ask." McKay comes to an abrupt halt as John crosses the room toward him, stopping just before Rodney would have to take a step backwards to retain something of his personal space.
"So ask," he says, tilting his head a fraction. The floor is cool under his feet, and there's a draft from somewhere that makes the skin on his back goosepimple, although admittedly that could also be from the look in Rodney's eyes.
"Uh." Instead of speaking Rodney reaches out and lightly runs a hand down John's arm from shoulder to elbow. It's more of an answer than a question, and John smiles. Because the last few months have been the trippiest ride he's ever taken and this? This is really good timing.
Rodney is solid and warm against him, a little grabbier than John might have expected but just as noisy. This isn't the comfort or distraction he thought he needed, and he tries not to freak out at how good this feels, how right. How much like home.
He manages to keep his freak-out to himself pretty well, even when he figures out that this thing with Rodney is some kind of regular arrangement, and that McKay is starting to expect it. Weirdly, John's actually starting to look forward to it too, and he wonders if he's getting sentimental with age. He's got nothing to complain about, not really, and if he sometimes wakes in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, he can put it down to the pressures of the job or the latest near-disaster that they fought their way out of. He never has to explain it to Rodney - never tries, because the words would get stuck in his throat and while he's happy with silence, he draws the line at embarrassing silences. He's fairly sure Rodney doesn't want to hear it any more than he wants to say it, anyway.
Because that's the way their lives work, it's not Rodney getting Cadman stuck in his head, and it's not them all nearly dying in Ford's insane Hive Ship plan that finally trips a switch in John's head. It's spending six months in that damn hippy commune, and then Rodney going and getting himself stuck at the bottom of the ocean in a flooded Jumper. He hovers outside the infirmary afterwards, feeling that same itch under his skin that he got every time he thought about Atlantis back in the time dilation field. For the first time in his life, he'd wanted to be back somewhere, he'd wanted to be home. It scares him more than a little that at some point, Rodney became an integral part of that home, and that without him, John's lost and adrift again. He used to like that feeling - footloose and fancy free - but now? Now he just wants Rodney to wake up so they can yell at each other for a while.
Leaning against the wall, John tips his head back and tries not to laugh, because if he's even missing McKay yelling at him, then he's really, seriously screwed.
"Colonel?" Carson's standing in the doorway to the infirmary, a chart in his hands and a slightly worried look on his face. "I told you, he's going to be fine."
"Just making sure, doc," John says, with something close to his usual casualness. "He was still shivering in the Jumper."
"Aye, and he's only just stopped. Hours in freezing water will do that to you." There's a gentleness in Carson's tone that helps John calm down a little. "I'm going to keep him in overnight, and off-duty for at least a week, but you can have him back tomorrow."
With an effort, John manages not to start guiltily. Carson's already gone back to marking something on the chart, and there's nothing in his expression to suggest that he meant anything by it. Still, the words sound good, and John doesn't bother trying to hide his smile.
"That's great, Beckett, thanks."
Carson doesn't look up. "All I did was put a blanket on him," he says, although they both know better. "Run along now, lad. You've done enough for today."
Back in his quarters, John paces for a while, hoping the movement will help settle him. The room feels too big just for him, when he's used to it being filled with Rodney's computers or gadgets or just his presence, loud and demanding and always, always welcome. After making his twenty-third circuit of the room, John gives up and heads down to the movie room. He falls asleep on the sofa in the middle of Back to the Future, the imagined echo of Rodney's complaints soothing him to sleep.
When he gets back to his room the next day, it looks like something exploded in there, possibly Rodney. There are clothes on his desk, computers on the floor, plates from the mess hall by the bed and a lump under his blankets. On prodding, the latter reveals itself to be Rodney, bleary-eyed and still too pale, but alive and breathing and warm as John kicks off his boots and squeezes onto the bed as well.
"Hope you don't mind that I camped out here," Rodney says, already trying to get John's jacket off while hanging onto as much blanket as possible. "Beckett said I had to rest, but you know what people are like if they know where to find you."
"Mmm." Rolling so that he can wrestle out of the jacket, John presses his forehead to Rodney's chest. He's rewarded with the slightest of gasps and more urgent movement, as Rodney tries to get him out of his t-shirt and pants at the same time.
John wasn't in a hurry. Now that they have time again, he'd intended to use it, but Rodney seems to be catching, because he finds himself trying to push more of the blanket out of the way, trying to get at more of Rodney until they're skin to skin, hungry and desperate all of a sudden. Neither of them are much for finesse normally, and John really doesn't want to be careful right now, not when Rodney's groaning like that, matching his pace and need. It can't last long, this fever pitch of desire, and John can feel the heat from both their bodies, rising as they move together. Rodney finally finds his mouth and they're kissing like breathing, pushing John over the edge so that he's falling at last, trusting Rodney to catch him.
It's quiet for a long time afterwards, both of them reluctant to move, the touch of lips more gentle now, everything coming back into place. John can almost feel it, the shift of the city around him again, around Rodney, his own personal center of gravity. Carefully, he runs his hands over Rodney's head, down his face, pushing him away a little to see his eyes. The words are still stuck in John's throat, and he nearly doesn't try to force it, except Rodney is looking at him, puzzled and expectant.
John swallows. "Welcome home," he says. And means it.