Disclaimer: I do not own or have any rights to Stargate Atlantis and its characters.
Summary: John needs help dealing with some memories. This was written in response to the Loss of a Child prompt/challenge at the Sheppard hc community at LiveJournal.
John startled awake for the third time in an hour. Sitting up, he could just make out the twisted lump of blanket rolled up to his side. Grumbling, he rolled out of bed and headed for the shower, giving up the idea of sleep entirely. He was hot and sticky and wired, despite the early hour. He felt marginally better after the shower and pulled on some light training pants, intending to go for a run. Hesitating at the open drawer, he looked down at the neatly folded shirts for several seconds.
He finally reached out with a trembling hand, pushing it under the garment in the front right corner of the drawer, feeling until his finger hit the edge of the photo. Taking a deep breath, he pulled the picture out and gazed at it sadly, fighting the burning in his eyes. He carefully touched the people in the picture with the index finger of his other hand. "I'm sorry I wasn't there," he whispered. "I miss you."
Dropping the picture on top of the dresser, he grabbed a shirt and pulled it on, almost racing to get out of the room and away from the picture. He ran and jogged for the next hour, finally stopping to rest on the east pier. Sitting and watching the water, he tried to let the sound of the waves and the cool breeze ease his tension, but his mind kept going back, kept reliving memories he didn't want to remember. He finally gave up and ran some more, forcing himself to concentrate on his steps and his breathing.
He arrived back at his quarters to find it was almost 0500. Peeling his sweaty clothes off, he took another shower and got into a fresh uniform, ignoring the photo staring at him from the dresser top. He left and went to the mess hall, trying to think about coffee and breakfast foods.
John looked up suddenly as someone touched his shoulder. Teyla, Rodney, and Elizabeth were standing there looking at him, frowns on their faces as they set their trays on the table.
"I was getting worried when you wouldn't answer. Is everything okay?" asked Elizabeth, sliding into the chair beside John. She looked at his tray, noting that it didn't look like he had eaten more than a bite or two. His fork hung limply in his hand, the prongs dangling down to touch the table top. His coffee cup was full, but the film on top said that it was probably cold. She was getting more worried by the minute.
"Did you not sleep well, Colonel?" asked Teyla. "You look tired."
John let the fork slide out of his grip and rubbed his eyes as he yawned. "I'm okay, just . . . couldn't seem to relax." He resumed staring at the plate of food, but no one there thought he was actually seeing his cold, uneaten breakfast. He suddenly stood up and grabbed his tray.
"Where are you going?" asked Rodney. "You haven't eaten anything."
"Not hungry," he said shortly as he walked across the room to dump his tray.
"What's with him?" asked Rodney grumpily as he took a bite of his eggs.
"I don't know, but something is definitely . . . off," said Elizabeth, watching as Teyla nodded in agreement.
The marine watched as Colonel Sheppard emptied his gun into the target, continuing to fire even after the clip was empty. The clicking seemed to get his attention so that he finally lowered the gun and reloaded.
"Okay, Mark, I'm here to relieve you," said the dark headed marine walking back behind the counter. "Who do we have out there?"
"Colonel Sheppard . . . and he's acting . . . strange."
The marine stepped up beside Mark, joining him to watch Sheppard. "Define strange."
"Just watch." The two stood side by side and watched Sheppard aim the handgun and fire until the clip was empty. He stood in his firing stance for a few extra seconds and then slowly lowered his gun, robotically reloading and then firing again. His face remained emotionless during the entire process and he almost seemed to be operating on autopilot.
"It's like he's not there . . . not really. I think something's eating him."
"Why don't you ask him?" asked the dark haired replacement.
Mark just grinned and shook his head. "Not on your life. He's your responsibility now, I'm outta here."
"You don't think he'll . . . go postal or anything, do you?"
"Not my concern any more," said Mark as he walked around the counter. "Good luck."
"Yeah, thanks," he answered sarcastically. He jumped when he turned around to find Sheppard almost right in front of him. "Uh, good morning, Sir."
Sheppard nodded and checked the gun back in, never speaking to the young soldier. He turned and left, leaving the marine to wonder if Sheppard would even remember being there.
Carson set his tray down next to Elizabeth and Rodney. "Hello, all." He slid into the chair and looked at the worried expression on their faces. "What's the matter?"
Elizabeth and Rodney exchanged a look before Elizabeth proceeded. "We don't actually know that anything is wrong. We're just a little concerned about John. He was acting strange at breakfast I haven't seen him the rest of the day, which is very unusual."
"I contacted him on the radio earlier," said Rodney. "When he finally bothered to answer me, I told him I needed him in the lab and he told me no. He didn't offer a reason or to get with me later or anything . . . just said no and signed off. Completely ignored me when I called him back."
Elizabeth looked anxiously at Carson. "He looked really tired and distracted this morning and he didn't eat anything on his tray. I asked the mess hall personnel while ago and he hasn't been back all day. Something's wrong . . . this isn't like him."
Carson sighed. "He's probably just working too hard or something, but we can stop by his quarters after we eat to check on him if you like."
"Thank you, I think we should."
"All right, lass, we will. Now eat up." Carson thought it best not to mention the conversation about Sheppard on the firing range he'd overheard at lunch. No need to add to the worry, but he was beginning to think a check on the colonel was definitely in order.
After supper, Elizabeth, Carson, and Rodney headed for Sheppard's quarters. Elizabeth tried to reach him on the radio as they walked, but got no response. Upon reaching his quarters, Rodney knocked loudly several times. Still getting no response, the three became uneasy.
"Perhaps I should use my medical override," said Carson.
Elizabeth nodded. "Use it. For all we know, he could be sick or hurt and unable to respond."
A few seconds later, the door slid open to reveal an empty room. They slowly walked inside, carefully looking around. Rodney went to the bathroom to make sure it was empty.
"He's not here," he said as he stepped back in the room.
They all saw the broken mirror at the same time. Glass shards littered the top of the dresser and surrounding floor. Elizabeth picked a piece up, rubbing her finger through the almost dry smear of blood on one corner. "He cut himself," she said absently.
"Look at this," Rodney said quietly, picking up a picture from the bed. Elizabeth and Carson looked over Rodney's shoulder at a photo that was slightly off color and bent at the corners. A younger John Sheppard stood in his air force uniform holding a boy of about three. The eyes and hair of the child were almost identical to that of the pilot holding him, but the mouth and chin were more like the woman standing at John's side. She was turned sideways, her arms wrapped around John's waist and her long hair cascading around her shoulders. Although John held the boy in his right arm, his left arm could just be seen curling around the woman's very pregnant waistline. All three were smiling brightly, as if having the best time of their life.
Rodney flipped the picture over to see writing on the back. John, Jennifer, and Joshua – you guys are much too happy (must be all those J's). Love, Mac and Ellen.
Three shocked faces stared down at the message scrawled on the back of the picture. Rodney finally turned the photo back over. "Does this mean . . . " his strained voice trailed off before he could finish. He thought the meaning was abundantly clear and it didn't take a genius to figure out.
"What are you doing in here?"
All three jumped and turned around at the voice to see Sheppard standing in the doorway staring at them, anger filling his voice, his eyes, and his stance.
"We were worried, John," stammered Elizabeth, trying to explain. "You wouldn't answer and no one's seen you in a while. I was afraid you were sick or something, so I had Carson – "
"Get out." John strode over to where they were standing and pulled the picture from McKay's hand. "I'd appreciate if you'd refrain from going through my stuff in the future," he said coldly.
"Colonel, you've cut your hand," observed Beckett.
John looked down at the dried blood covering several cuts on his right hand. "They aren't deep. I can clean them up by myself. I want you all to leave."
"John, if you need to talk –" began Elizabeth.
"I don't need to talk, I need to be left alone." John looked at the picture for a moment before laying it on the dresser. "Please . . . just go." His face had gone from angry to pleading and they fought the urge to argue with him.
"If you change your mind . . . " offered Rodney.
John had turned away from them to face the wall. "I know where to find you," he said quietly. They watched him another second before shuffling out of the room.
The three of them stood quietly in the hall, trying to make sense of what was going on. "We need to help him," said Elizabeth.
"Oh, and what would you have us do? There's no next of kin listed in his file and that was obviously his wife and child. That leaves a messy divorce or they're dead, and they looked a little too happy for the messy divorce thing."
Elizabeth and Carson wheeled around to look at Rodney. "How do you know his file has no next of kin listed?" asked Elizabeth.
Rodney shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "That's not important. Does it say anything about him previously having a next of kin, because that was obviously an air force uniform."
Carson sighed. "Rodney, we can't just go snooping through the colonel's file just to satisfy our curiosity."
Rodney's mouth dropped open and then he looked offended. "Am I the only one who can see he needs help with this? He's falling apart. How can we help if we don't know what happened?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "I don't know, that was obviously a long time ago and he's handled it up until now. Something probably reminded him of them and he's just having a bad day. I'm still not sure this warrants snooping through his file."
"Fine. Let me know when he has a breakdown and then we can revisit the whole should we peek in his file thing again." Rodney stormed off down the hall.
Elizabeth watched him and then looked at Carson. "What do you think? We could take just a peek, maybe to see if we can figure what set him off?"
"But we keep it confidential," stressed Carson.
"Agreed," said Elizabeth as they headed for her office.
John paced around the room for several minutes, his mind racing at what they had seen and were probably figuring out. These thoughts were interlaced with memories, making his head swim and his eyes water. He found himself racing for the bathroom, retching until his stomach muscles ached and the tears flowed freely down his face. He allowed himself to do something he hadn't done in ten years. He wept for his family, the giant hole within him feeling like a monstrous cavern that could never be filled.
John lay on his bunk holding the photo out in front of him, carefully running his finger along the face of his son and then his wife, moving down to trace the outline of her expanding belly. He smiled, hearing Josh in his head as told his daddy to be careful in a serious voice that defied his age. He could almost feel the squirming youngster in his arms, telling him he was a big boy and would take care of momma while John was away.
"When's she due?" asked Collin, leaning against the bunk as he looked at the picture.
John grinned. "Day before yesterday. They should be calling me in to tell me I'm a daddy again any time now. I wonder if she's having contractions yet?"
Collin watched John stroke the picture for a moment. "Man, you've got it bad."
John just continued to grin and nodded. "Yeah," he breathed. "I know."
"Got a name for the new one yet?"
"Jacelyn Nicole," said Sheppard.
"Staying with the J thing, I see."
"Hey, it works for us, and besides, half the base calls us the J's. I've already started calling her Jace and Jen is about ready to kill me. She says I've got to quit shortening all their names. I told her I was just lazy and she'd better get used to it." He snickered. "I don't think she really minds though. I've been calling her Jen since our first date."
"Hey, Shep, Colonel wants to see you, pronto," someone called from the front of the barracks.
John sat up and grinned. "This is it! Jacelyn must be here." He hopped off the bed and dug down into his foot locker. Pulling out a box of cigars, he set them on the center of the table at the end of the room. "Don't touch these until I get back and make it official."
Several of the men slapped him on the back and shouted congratulations as he walked out into the desert heat. He walked quickly to the officer's building and was ushered into the Colonel's office. He was startled to see the serious look on the man's face.
"Lt. Sheppard, please have a seat."
John sat down, starting to get nervous. He was trying to remember if he'd done anything to get himself into trouble lately, but nothing came to mind. The Colonel looked uncomfortable for a second before lifting his eyes to make contact.
"Son, I'm afraid I have some bad news. We've just received word that your wife and son were killed in an automobile accident. We don't have any more details other than it was sometime last night. As soon as you're packed and ready, we'll get you a transport out of here so you can be on your way home. The Air Force will of course allow you some time to take care of things and deal with this tragedy before reporting back."
John sat there stunned, unable to move or speak. He was unaware the Colonel had moved until he felt the man's hand on his arm, gently pulling him to his feet and guiding him to the door.
"I'm sorry son, I know this wasn't the news you were expecting. I'm deeply sorry for your loss." John nodded as he slowly moved out of the office and into the desert heat. He wasn't sure how he got back to the barracks, but suddenly he was there, standing in the doorway as people smacked him on the back and laughed.
The box of cigars on the table caught his attention and he found he couldn't take his eyes off the pink words,"It's a Girl", written across the top. The room disappeared and the words being spoken became white noise as his vision tunneled in on the box. Then a hand appeared on the box and opened it, revealing the cigars inside.
"No!" he yelled as he ran to the table and slammed the lid shut. He stood looking down at the box as fury and confusion and grief exploded inside him. He began pounding the box, crushing the box and its contents. He smashed his fist down on it again and again and again, screaming "no" over and over. And then he was on the ground, his limbs being pinned as he struggled to hit something, anything.
John lifted his head off the floor and struggled to his knees, leaning over the toilet as his stomach rebelled once again.
Carson rubbed his face and sighed as he leaned back in the chair. He looked across the desk to Elizabeth as they sat in her office. "No wonder the lad is out of sorts."
Elizabeth just nodded, eyes still focused on the file in front of her. "My college roommate lost her first child when he was just baby. She told me a parent should never outlive their child, that it just wasn't meant to be. At least she still had her husband." After a few minutes, she looked up at Carson. "What should we do . . . or should we do anything?"
Carson shrugged his shoulders. "According to his medical report, he had an . . . episode . . . shortly after they told him and had to be sedated. When he woke up from that, he seemed fine, back in control. The doctor, however, noted that he acted detached, like he was just repressing the whole thing, and suggested that he might need counseling in the future. There is nothing in his record to indicate anyone ever followed up with that."
"Should we call Kate?" asked Elizabeth, growing more worried by the minute.
Carson shook his head. "Not yet. I have a feeling that Rodney will be checking on the colonel and trying to get him to talk. We both know how much he resists any efforts that Kate makes on that front. Maybe he'll open up to Rodney. I think sharing this with a friend would be less threatening and more beneficial for the colonel. Let's wait until tomorrow and talk with Rodney before we do anything."
Elizabeth nodded. "Okay." She sighed heavily and shuddered, wondering if anything or anyone could help him after suffering such a loss.
John walked out onto the east pier, sitting down at the edge near the water. It was dark now and he watched the moonlight dance across the rolling waves. The cool air felt good on his hot, sweaty skin. He sucked in lungful after lungful, allowing his mind to just float, thinking of nothing. He had no idea how long he sat there, just being, but he slowly began to tune back into the movement of the water. He concentrated on the motion of the ocean as it ebbed back and forth against the sides of the city.
Jumping to his feet, he shed his shoes, shirt, and pants. Dressed only in his boxers, he ran and dived off the edge, the shock of the cold water both painful and exhilarating at the same time. He swam out what seemed to be the equivalent of a pool length and then dived under and flipped over, surfacing to swim back towards Atlantis. When he reached the pier, he flipped and turned, pushing off to swim out away from the city. He had no idea how many laps he swam, his movements fluid and distracting. He concentrated only on his strokes and on not swimming out too far. The water and motion numbed both his body and his mind, making him reluctant to leave it. But he was starting to tire and he had no desire to drown, so he finally hauled himself out of the water, rolling over on his back to look up at the moon.
He lay there dripping onto the pier until he began to shiver in the cool night air. As he was sitting up, he heard the sound of movement several feet to his right and then was struck in the side with something soft. Reaching his hand out while searching the darkness, he saw the figure at the same time he found the blanket with his hand. "McKay?"
"There are easier ways to give yourself pneumonia."
John grabbed his t-shirt from the pile of clothing and pulled it on. His skin was pretty dry, but his boxers were still dripping and he almost wished he'd gone skinny-dipping. Reluctantly, he pulled his pants on, squirming as the cold wet fabric was pressed up against his skin. Shuddering, he pulled the blanket around his shoulders, not entirely sure it would help.
"What do you want?"
McKay sighed as he stepped closer. "This is gratitude for you. I bring you a blanket and you're insufferably rude."
John sat down and began putting on his socks and shoes. "I told you, I don't want to talk. I just want to be left alone."
"No offense, but you're a danger to yourself. You're out here swimming in a cold, unexplored ocean by yourself in the middle of the night. What would have happened if you'd gotten into trouble? I'll tell you, you'd be dead. You'd have been fish food by the time we figured out where you were."
"How did you find me, McKay?"
Rodney shrugged his shoulders, the action lost in the darkness. "I got worried when I couldn't find you, especially since you were upset. I looked for life signs outside the main part of the city. I thought I'd find you running or sitting in the dark, not swimming. I'd have brought you a towel if I'd known . . . and maybe some dry boxers. That's got to be uncomfortable."
John looked down as he shifted his legs, trying to get the legs of his wet underwear off his skin. "It is." He quickly abandoned the effort since his pants were now soaked from the waist to the knees.
"Serves you right." They stood in silence for a few seconds. "He looks like you."
John felt the knot in his stomach tighten. "McKay . . . "
"Look, I know you said you don't want to talk about it, but not talking about it seems to be eating you alive. Surely it can't be worse than what it's doing to you now. Have you ever even tried?"
John pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders, but he doubted the trembling in his limbs had much to do with the temperature. He walked over and leaned against the wall, allowing his back to slide down the surface until he was sitting, his knees drawn up to his chest. Rodney waited until John was settled and then joined him. They sat in silence, looking out across the moonlit water. John finally pulled the blanket off his shoulders and spread it out over both of their legs.
"Mostly I just try not to think about it."
McKay nodded, not surprised. "That seems to be how you handle all trauma, both physical and emotional. Just shove it into the back corner of that slightly warped mind of yours and ignore it. That doesn't always work, you know."
"Yeah, I'm figuring that out."
"Your wife and child?"
"Yeah," John replied sadly.
McKay rubbed his hand across his face, not sure how to say the next part. "You know, in a way, by refusing to think about them . . . you're leaving them behind."
John closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to control the emotions threatening to well back up. "I know," he whispered so softly, McKay almost didn't hear him.
"What happened to the policy of never leaving people behind? If you're going to preach it, you're going to have to live by it."
"Please, McKay . . . this is different . . . you don't understand, I can't . . . "
Rodney looked at Sheppard, the moon lighting up the side of his anguished face as he struggled with his memories.
"Yes, you can. It won't get any better . . . any easier, until you face it and talk about it. Sometimes memories hurt, Colonel, but if you ever want to be able to remember the good times, you have to deal with the bad times first. Talk. Remember them."
John opened his eyes and turned to Rodney. "What, did Heightmeyer give you an internship or something?" His voice was almost angry, his brow furrowed.
McKay refused to rise to the anger, his voice instead getting softer. "No, just trying to be a friend. I'm kind of new at this, so you might think about cutting me some slack."
John sighed tiredly as he leaned his head back against the wall they were sitting against. He was almost unaware of what he was doing as he started talking. "Jen and I got married shortly after I went into the Air Force. Her dad was career Army, so she had a good idea what she was getting into. She . . . was my soul mate. I never once felt uncomfortable around her; I could just be me. We had Josh a few years later and he was . . . amazing." John chuckled lightly, but it quickly became strangled.
"The picture you saw was taken by the people who lived next door to us on the base. Mac was career military and almost old enough to be my father. They didn't have any kids of their own, so they kind of took us under their wing, like a surrogate family. Ellen and Jen used to bake cookies together and they loved to baby-sit Josh for us when we got a chance to get out. Shortly after Josh turned three, Jen got pregnant again."
McKay watched as John leaned his head forward to rest against his knees for a moment. His breathing sounded shallow and ragged as he lifted his head and wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands. Rodney could see the moonlight reflecting off moisture in his eyes and felt his own eyes getting misty at what he knew was coming.
"Jen was so excited when the doctor told her it was a girl. We had to go from the doctor's office to the commissary to buy a baby dress. She kept dancing around the store singing it's a girl, it's a girl. When we got home, she and Ellen holed up planning the baby's room for the rest of the day while Mac and Josh and I talked about how silly women were." He smiled in the darkness, even as tears streamed unhindered down his face. "I shipped out to Saudi Arabia six weeks later. I wasn't going to be home when the baby was born, so Ellen and Mac promised they'd take care of her."
Rodney listened as John took a long, shuddering breath. He heard him breathing hard, trying to keep it together and he didn't know what to do. He'd never been the comforter before and he was totally lost.
"Two days after the baby was due, the commander called me into his office. I was expecting him to tell me I had a daughter. Instead, he told me my wife and child . . . children, had been killed. They were giving me leave time to go home and bury my family. I found out when I got home they were hit by a drunk driver on the way to the hospital. Ellen was killed too and Mac was critically injured."
Rodney looked over at John again to see him lean his head back down against his knees. John's muffled voice drifted up. "They died ten years ago today." John chuckled, but it was dry and humorless. "That's why I'm having a bad day. I haven't let myself think about it for years. I looked at the calendar last night while catching up on reports and realized . . . "
Rodney lifted his arm hesitantly and gently laid it across John's shoulders, not sure if that was appropriate or not. He waited to see if John would yell or pull away or make fun of him. Instead, to his surprise, John just leaned against him a little bit, seeming to accept the comfort. Rodney relaxed a little and patted John on the shoulder.
"I'm not good at this . . . but I'm here for you," said Rodney uneasily. "I know we can't make up for the loss, but you aren't alone . . . not any more."
It was so soft, Rodney barely heard the reply.
They sat in silence for almost an hour, just listening to the waves. John finally lifted his head and rubbed his neck. He stood, almost staggering as he got his stiff muscles working again. Rodney stood up next to him.
"Ready to go back? Maybe we could find some coffee."
John nodded. "Not til after I find some dry pants."
They picked up the blanket and walked across the pier, entering the door to the corridors of Atlantis. Rodney glanced at John. "I'll get coffee and meet you in your quarters. By then you'll have had time to change into something a little drier."
John nodded. He seemed hesitant, as if he wanted to say something, but was afraid to. Rodney just gave him time and John finally took a deep calming breath. "I have more pictures . . . if you want to see them. I haven't looked at them in years. I just didn't feel like I could."
Rodney smiled. "I think I'd like that. Maybe later, you could show the others."
John rubbed the back of his neck. "Maybe later. I think I'll have to do this one step at a time for now and . . . I'm not ready for that yet."
It was almost an hour later when Rodney entered John's quarters carrying two mugs of coffee. He set them on the table next to a large photo album and sat down in one of the chairs. "Okay, are you ready for this?" he asked, watching John as he eased himself into the other chair. The pilot ran his hand through hair still damp from the shower.
"No, not really. But I can't keep leaving them behind. I want to remember them, to be able to think about the good times and how happy we were. You were right . . . you have to get through the bad memories to be able to enjoy the good ones. I want . . . I want my family back . . . even it's only in my thoughts." John looked at Rodney and nodded, feeling more afraid than he remembered feeling in a long time.
John turned the cover of the photo album, opening a segment of his life he thought he'd lost long ago.