To Know You're Alive
In between dodging darts and checking readings and making periodic, fake-calm
reports to Atlantis, John tries not to think about what he’s about to do.
He knows better than to play the what-if game. He’s spent too many nights
reliving Afghanistan, or replaying the scene on the Wraith ship in his head;
he’s seen too many men killed by indecision, caught between doing what was
right and trying to stay alive. He has to do this -- he *wants* to do this,
because not doing it would mean someone else will, and this is bad, this is
really bad, but that would be – a whole lot *worse*.
But it’s hard not to second-guess himself now, with a ticking bomb strapped to
his back and fate creeping across his windshield in the form of the black hull
of a hive ship. The doubts are coming fast and furiously, almost as fast as
the idiotic last-requests his brain keeps coming up with -- although John’s
trying not to dwell too much on those. Most of them are pretty irrational,
like apologizing to the jumper for bringing it on this mission -- which feels
a little like leading a loyal pet to the slaughter -- or trying to send
telepathic messages to any stray Ancients who might be lurking around, hoping
that maybe they’ll understand how *really hard* they had tried.
Because it might not be enough. Nothing they’ve ever tried has turned out to
be enough, and they can call themselves an advanced civilization all they
want, but just about every success they’ve achieved so far has been the result
of luck more than any strategic choices they’d made, and John would never
admit it to anyone but he can’t help thinking they might have had just as much
success if they’d just flipped a coin now and then.
His mind is racing with grim possibilities. The nuke isn’t enough to destroy
the hive. The second hive doesn’t retreat. The Wraith invade Atlantis -- and
John can see this particular scenario as clearly as if it’s happening right in
front of him: there will be those who will die right away, and others who
won’t be so lucky. He can see Elizabeth, Teyla, or maybe McKay, sucked dry or
beamed into storage pods and John won’t be there to save them because he’ll
already be *dead*.
“Major Sheppard?” Elizabeth’s voice is solemn.
“Still here.” John takes a deep breath, clears his throat. “Stand by.”
In front of him, the hive ship looms, dark and forbidding and inevitable. John
reaches into his pocket, and pulls out the quarter. He’s never been exactly
sure why he’d brought it, why he’d felt compelled to bring it through the
gate; maybe for this very reason, so that when the doubts came he’d have a
scapegoat, something tangible to blame.
The coin is cool against his fingertips, the metal worn almost smooth, barely
readable. America. Liberty. 1979. In 1979, John was in the seventh grade,
leaning his head on one hand and staring out the classroom window, while Mary
McMillan recited the Spanish alphabet from her desk next to his. When his turn
had come, Mrs. Rubin had had to call his name three times before he’d pulled
his attention away from the blue sky; even then, what was beyond the glass had
been way more interesting to him than anything going on inside.
Leaning back in his seat, he turns the quarter around in his fingers, and lets
If he’d chosen Iceland, or Alaska, or Spain. If Rogers had been assigned to
transport the General to the outpost, instead of him. If he’d never sat in
that chair. If he’d flipped tails, instead of heads.
He could have been content, he thinks. He would have stayed in Antarctica for
as long as they’d let him; after that he would have settled somewhere else,
somewhere quiet, maybe by the water. He would have fought other enemies, flown
other planes, led other teams. He would never have known anything about
ancients, mutant genes or stargates -- and when his time was up, there would
have been no one to miss him, nothing to regret leaving behind.
“Atlantis, this is Jumper One, approaching target.” He pauses, and then:
But he doesn’t die, and the city doesn’t fall to the Wraith, not this time,
and somehow he ends up back in his quarters on Atlantis, with Elizabeth’s
voice coming over the city-wide comm. She says something about declaring a
national holiday, tells everyone to take twenty-four well-deserved hours off,
and her voice is quiet and subdued, but filled with pride. John thinks about
the way she hugged him when he returned to the city, the way her body shook as
she pressed against him, and he jerks the radio from his ear, tossing it on to
the table beside his bed.
There’s no way he’s going to sleep. He’s wired, wide awake, more awake than
he’s ever been, post-traumatic synapses firing all over the place, and the
silence in his quarters is too much of nothing after the chaos of the last few
days. He takes a shower just to kill the cold sweats, pulls on a pair of
shorts and collapses onto his bed, but all of that just makes it worse.
There’s so much adrenaline flooding his system, he figures his body has
probably forgotten how to calm down.
Or maybe it’s just that every time he closes his eyes he sees Colonel Everett
in the infirmary, watches the stunner slam into Lieutenant Ford, or remembers
those long, agonizing moments aboard the Daedalus, when no one from Atlantis
responded to his call.
He’s up again, pacing the too-silent room, when his door slides open
“So,” McKay says, from behind him. “We were supposed to be *relieved,* is that
John turns to face Rodney, tempted to throw him out just on principle -- but
then stops in his tracks. *God*. John knows he must look bad, but McKay looks
*terrible* -- red-faced and obviously strung-out, his eyes wild, hands moving
a mile a minute. Whatever Carson had given him to keep him awake must have
been the good stuff; John might even feel sorry for him, if he wasn’t so
goddamn ready to climb the walls himself.
“Look, McKay, I’m really tired. So if you don’t mind--?”
“Spare me,” Rodney snaps, holding up one hand. He isn’t stamping his foot, but
he might as well be. “If you think I have any sympathy for you *whatsoever*,
you’re a bigger fool than I ever suspected. And really, that’s saying
John stares at him. “What?”
But McKay ignores his confusion, advancing into the room, hands clenching into
fists at his sides. “You really think it’s that easy? Hmm? Heading out on some
ridiculous one-man kamikaze mission, jaunting off to blow up the bad guys like
some, some big American *hero* with nothing more than a ‘So long, Rodney’ and
-- what? We’re all supposed to feel giddy and glad that the hive ship was
destroyed? Except oh wait, you happened to be *in it* at the time--”
“I wasn’t –”
“Atlantis needs you, you idiot, how can you possibly not get that? You would
have been dead -- do you understand dead? As in, no longer alive? Totally,
completely *not* alive? And they’d brought us a ZedPM, which made your whole
noble exercise in self-sacrifice utterly *stupid* and *unnecessary*--”
“McKay,” John warns.
“-- and don’t even get me started on how you’ll probably get all the credit
for saving us -- which, by the way, you totally didn’t, I’m the one who
figured out how to cloak the city, and we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere
without my ‘fake a self-destruct’ plan—”
John grabs him by the shoulders. “Shut. Up.”
“Oh, God,” Rodney whispers, visibly deflating. He looks at John, aghast. “Oh,
God. You would have been *dead*, and I’d never even--”
“Don’t,” John snarls, and bends his head, cutting off Rodney’s words with a
The bed is behind him and John pulls Rodney on to it, falls down on to it with
him, kinesthetic sensors shifting from vertical to horizontal like flight
maneuvers without the dampeners. He plants his feet on the mattress and slides
backwards, one arm wrapped tightly around Rodney’s waist, the other fisting in
his hair. They have to break the kiss to move, which is wrong in so many ways
because it gives John time to reconsider this plan, and he doesn’t need the
coin to tell him that this, right here, is a bad plan. But then Rodney is
folding around him, kissing him back as if someone’s just flipped on his power
switch, and John gives up and stops thinking altogether.
He hikes one leg over Rodney’s calf, flipping them both over, swallowing
Rodney’s gasp of surprise. His cock is already hard and there’s no way Rodney
can’t notice that, not with John wearing nothing but boxers and not with all
the grinding going on, and John thinks he might be more freaked out by that
whole thing if Rodney wasn’t already thrusting up against him, moaning “God,
“More” apparently meaning “less clothes,” and that’s good, that’s so good,
John’s totally on track with that. His cock, especially, is on track with
that, as if it had known this might happen light-years before his brain ever
figured it out. Their legs tangle on the mattress and their hands struggle
with zippers and cloth and John can feel a heartbeat, rapid and strong like a
storm breaking against his chest, but can’t tell if it’s Rodney’s or his own.
And then, God, *skin* -- so much skin, not enough skin, not nearly enough skin
and Rodney is fire-hot, everywhere, streaked with sweat and *vibrating*
John’s hands are shaking too, shaking with the need to touch, to taste, to
maybe mark Rodney with bruises just to prove this is real, that they’re both
real and intact and *alive*. Silently, he curses adrenaline, amphetamines,
numerous brushes with death and the rush of having Rodney beneath him after
months of purposely not thinking about how that would feel, because he’s not
going to last. And then Rodney’s hand closes over his cock, and all John can
do is groan and drag him closer, holding on as the chaos dissolves into
something focused and pointed and sharp, and everything that was exploding
around them is somehow narrowed down to only *this*.
When he comes, John thinks about fireworks and failing shields, and grips
Rodney so tightly it hurts.
“Twenty-two-point-seven seconds,” Rodney tells him.
John’s barely listening. Rodney’s hand is drifting rhythmically across his
back, lulling him into almost-sleep, and it’s not quite enough but John still
doesn’t want him to stop. “What?”
"Twenty-two-point-seven seconds,” Rodney repeats, slowly, each word clipped
and precise. “Seventeen-point-six between target impact and the moment your
voice came through over the radio . . . add another five-point-one for my
initial shock, awe, and disbelief, and there you have it.
Twenty-two-point-seven seconds, exactly how long it took me to figure out that
there is one thing more frightening than my own certain, imminent death. And
that is the certain, imminent death of someone who - of someone you -”
He stops, abruptly, and John lifts his head to look down at him. “Rodney—”
“I know.” Rodney’s chin is high, his expression mutinous, but he’s blinking
suspiciously, and John feels something painful twist in his chest.
There’s a moment, charged with anticipation and something resembling fear,
like being at the top of a roller coaster just before the world tips. And then
there’s a thought, something along the lines of I should have known this
or maybe, more accurately, this is the thing that I knew. But then it
doesn’t matter anymore, because Rodney is gripping John’s face with both hands
and pulling him down for another kiss, and it’s just one more thing to accept
and assimilate, like hugs from mission leaders and doors that open when he
thinks them to and cities that wake to his touch.
John wants to say things, crazy things, like promising to be more cautious
from now on -- or maybe *less* -- but he can’t. Everything is different but
nothing has changed, he’ll do it all again if he has to, and it won’t always
end like this. It can't. Even the best luck can’t hold out for long.
He pulls back again, just to breathe, and this time he finds Rodney frowning
slightly, his gaze serious, as if he’s doing calculations in his head. John
thinks, good luck with that, and leans down to kiss him again.
“You should sleep,” he says after a time, and drops his head against Rodney’s
“Yes, well. Same to you,” Rodney says, curtly, and John smiles against his
skin. “So. You sorry?”
"Not for this.” Rodney shakes his head. “I mean, not *only* for this -- for
any of it. All of it. For ever walking into that outpost. For letting Weir
convince you to come with us, now that you know there’s a good probability
we’ll end up as chew toys for space vampires or something equally deadly and
John thinks about navigating through stars, and ships that respond as if they
were created just for him. He thinks about Elizabeth’s voice, Teyla’s smile,
Ford jumping gleefully backwards through the gate. He thinks about Rodney, who
feels both solid and impossibly fragile under John’s hands.
He couldn’t have predicted any of it; hell, he’d never even imagined going
beyond the blue.
"I’m not sorry,” he says, quietly, surprised to find that he means every word.
Long after Rodney falls asleep, John lies on the bed beside him, staring up at
the ceiling. Finally, he gets up, puts his clothes back on and heads for the
balcony outside the control room.
Above him, instead of fireworks powered by alien weapons, there is only dark,
empty space. He gazes up at it, silently. Beneath him, surrounding him, he
feels the city like a living presence, healthy and breathing. Alive.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out the quarter, and tosses it into the
His mind still races with grim possibilities, death is no less inevitable, and
he figures that when - if - he ever really does have to go, he'll have a hell
of a lot of emotional crap to deal with. But the thought of never coming to
Atlantis causes a tight ache to bloom in his chest, and he firmly pushes it
This was my first SGA fic. My thanks to Mav and Kite for beta reading, correcting my canon
mistakes, and for being so supportive. Special additional thanks to Mav for knowing exactly how this should end.