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Second Time Around by Madison

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Jim Banks paused at the entranceway to the barn and squinted into the brilliant sunlight outside reflecting off the snow. It was the first time the sun had broken through the clouds in days and it was blinding. He briefly rested the bale of hay against one hip before hefting it into the wheelbarrow alongside the bale he'd previously stacked there. Once he set the hay down, he fished out the aviator sunglasses he'd tucked into the neck of his parka on entering the barn. His hands, in their heavy winter gloves, fumbled a bit to unfold the sunglasses and put them on. After he got them settled on his face, he grabbed hold of the wooden handles of the wheelbarrow and trundled it out of the barn.

Even with the shades, the sunlight was so bright that he squinted as he carefully made his way over the ice-crusted path toward the paddocks. Beneath his hard-worn boots, the ground crackled under his weight. Sometimes, his foot slipped a little as he placed it down, reminding him that barn boots weren't made for winter wear and that he'd feel pretty foolish if he fell and broke a hip at his age.

The sunglasses were a concession to John's urging, and Jim had to admit, it was easier to work outdoors while wearing them. He hadn't been very good about remembering to do that until John had died. Somehow, after John's death, everything he'd ever said and done seemed engraved upon Jim's heart.

It helped that the sunglasses he wore now were one of the few personal effects that John had left to him. The sunglasses, the copy of War and Peace, his iPod, and that odd medallion that John had worn ever since his return from Antarctica. They were pretty much the only things that John had in the world and no one had minded when John had left them to Jim.

Well, that, and the four hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which had been a surprise to everyone. It seemed that, after his divorce, John hadn't spent very much of his military salary over the years and he'd had a good head for investments. His salary had tripled when he'd come home to work for his father's company, and the miracle of compounding interest had increased John's material wealth significantly. Patrick Sheppard had been pissed to discover that his son had left such a significant amount of money to Jim, but there was nothing he could do about it. Dave, on the other hand, had told Jim he should take the money and retire.

Jim had thought about retiring briefly, but he'd had other ideas. For years, he'd dreamt of having his own training stable—a place where he could pick and choose his clients and the horses he wanted to work with. A place where he could have total control over how the horses were managed and a central location where his clients could come to him. An all-in-one training facility. Maybe he'd even add a breeding program in a few years. Dave had thought he was crazy and said Jim was simply throwing his money away, but oddly enough, it had worked. When people found out that Jim Banks no longer worked for Patrick Sheppard, but was available to train their horses and riders, they began to compete for the coveted slots at his barn.

John would have appreciated that.

Jim set the wheelbarrow down outside the paddock and reached in his pocket for his folding knife. The horses crowded the gate; they knew what was coming next. With their heavy winter coats and the way they blew plumes of vapor from their noses, they looked like some kind of mythical, arctic beasts. There was some pushing and shoving before a sudden pinning of ears and the little knot of horses scattered as someone squealed and kicked.

"Cut it out," Jim warned as he cut the baling twine. He wrapped the twine carefully into his hand and tucked it back in his pocket along with the knife. Picking up a quarter of the bale, he walked the fence line, chucking several bats of hay over the fence every few yards. The horses soon settled themselves out to eat in order of rank—the dominant horses chasing off the lower ones on the totem pole until each was at their own pile of hay. With the horses now safely occupied, Jim was able to unlatch the gate and push the wheelbarrow through. He scattered the remainder of the bale at intervals far enough apart to limit fighting and then went back to open and spread the second bale in the next field over.

His face burned with the cold as he brought the now empty wheelbarrow out of the second paddock. This December cold snap was unusual; the bulk of the country was in a deep freeze. The wind chills were below zero and the wind was the main reason why he could only put so much hay out at a time for the horses. Several of the boarders could only eat square-baled hay—the mold in the round bales made them cough. The wind had a tendency to scatter the distributed hay before the horses could eat it, however, which was why he had to put some out twice a day.

He checked the water in the troughs as he headed back to the barn, making sure that the tank heaters were working and that the troughs held enough water. He had to top the tank in the second field, and while it was filling, he squeezed through the railing to walk through the herd and do a blanket check on those horses wearing them.

He stepped up to each of the blanketed horses, running a hand alongside their necks, and making sure that the blanket was still fitted properly, not causing pressure sores or rubs. When he approached The Moose, she lifted her head from her bat of hay and gave him a low whicker.

He couldn't help it; he felt down in his pocket for the hard horse cookies he kept there and held one out for the bay mare to eat. Normally, he only gave out treats when he caught the horses to bring them in for work—it kept them from being rude about begging at other times. He had a soft spot for The Moose, however. She snuffled his hand delicately, the pressure of her nose making the cold nylon of his glove crackle slightly. She took the treat with precision, folding into her mouth and crunching it solemnly. He checked her blanket carefully; she was one of the horses that had developed a pressure sore the previous winter and her hair had never entirely grown back over her withers. It was rare for such a problem to occur on Jim's watch and every time he saw the small bald spot on her withers, he thought of what John would have said.

He'd been thinking about John a lot lately.

As soon as she was done with her treat, she nosed back for more.

"You know better than that," Jim said sternly, even as he leaned into the deep velvety fur on her neck and smelled her sweet, clover-like scent. Her winter coat was a rich mahogany; in the summer, she would develop the faint suggestion of dapples. She was a magnificent mare. He'd been lucky to have Nancy place her with him when he'd started the training facility.

"She's too much horse for me, Jim," Nancy had said, handing him the lead rope when he'd brought the van to collect the mare. "I can't do her justice, not at this point in my life. Find a rider for her that is fearless and reckless and wants a horse that can jump the moon."

"Not reckless," he'd said, as he took the lead rope and patted the mare under her silky black mane.

Nancy's eyes had been bright with unshed tears. "You know what I mean."

He had. She'd meant someone like John.

On some level, he knew Nancy felt as though she'd failed John again: both by the divorce and by not being able to ride his horse after his accident and subsequent death. Jim knew how she felt, but knew also that she was right to let the mare go. The Moose was too forward to be used as the occasional weekend ride—she was a horse that needed to be ridden four or five days a week to keep her head screwed on right.

Not that she had a mean bone in her body. He gave her a pat on the shoulder as he turned back toward the fence. The Moose was strong and could get lit up under the right circumstances, but even when she was misbehaving, it was in a predictable manner. Jim crossed under the fence and turned off the spigot to the trough, but in his mind's eye, he saw John lunging the mare in the indoor arena at the Sheppard stables.

It had been a cool, rainy day in early spring. The Moose had been blowing and snorting in the crossties as John saddled her up. Jim had thought about warning John that she was going to be a handful, but it hadn't been necessary. John could still read a horse, even after all his years away, and he'd wisely chosen to warm her up on the lunge line before mounting.

She'd started out with a snort and trotted off with a big, impressive gait. John had patiently asked her to walk, and when she'd refused, let her get the trot out of her system until he could ask for obedience and get it. He'd just gotten her settled into a quiet walk when something landed with a 'whump' on the roof and The Moose had exploded. She'd dropped her haunches almost to the ground before launching herself forward into a gallop.

Jim had watched as John had leaned back on the line and braced himself to control the runaway mare. He'd almost laughed at John's expression when the mare had bucked and galloped madly in a perfect circle, all within the confines of the lunge line, never once threatening to break loose from his control.

"What a goofball," John had said when he finally got the mare working quietly again. Jim had heard the pleased admiration in John's tone and had been relieved that John was finding reasons to like being home again. He'd had some hope, then, that John would learn to be happy in his father's house; that he would find a way to make things work this time around.

That had been two weeks before the motorcycle accident that paralyzed him.

Jim shoved the memories of those days out of his mind. He collected the wheelbarrow and headed back for the barn, whistling up the dog as he did so.

Toad came trotting into view from around the side of the barn, proudly carrying a frozen deer leg in her mouth. Jim sighed, but didn't see any point in taking it away from the little heeler just yet. She'd simply go back to her hidden stash and find another one. He ignored her as he pushed the empty wheelbarrow back into the barn and tipped it so that the handles could lean up against the wall. He took the baling twine out of his pocket and added it to the long strands already hanging on a nail just inside the door. The old twine had its uses around a barn and he seldom tossed any out.

Toad lay down in the aisle and began to crunch with determination on the leg. Jim stepped past her and went down the row of stalls toward the office. The facility was small, but with the money he'd inherited from John, Jim had made it into the place he wanted it to be. He had a client base now that listened to him and did things his way. He could have hired someone to do the barn work, but this way, he checked on all his charges himself and knew that things were done according to his rules. Besides, on a day like this, it was best the youngsters stayed home. The weather would break soon, and the barn would fill again with riders complaining about the cold while they warmed their horses up. He'd already lost one person he cared about to a road accident—no sense tempting fate with any of the others.

The warm scent of coffee from the coffeemaker greeted Jim when he opened the door to the small office. Jim took off the sunglasses and gloves to pour himself a mug. He savored it as he glanced over the bills and made sure the order for sawdust would be delivered on Monday, weather permitting. His face began to heat up in response to the warmer air in the office and he suspected he had windburn. Hopefully, that was all. The conditions were right for frostbite if he wasn't careful. The radio played quietly in the background as he sat at the desk—he didn't even notice it at first until Solitary Man came on.

Jim looked up at the sound of the opening cords to the song. It wasn't often that the local country station played the old classics. He couldn't help but think of how John used to refer Johnny Cash a national treasure. John had been a Cash fan, but hadn't limited his tastes to country music, as evidenced by his choices on the iPod. Jim had never thought an iPod was something he'd ever want or use, but he'd found peace in those early days after John's death through listening to John's music. It made him seem closer somehow.

That and the medallion. He'd taken to wearing it after John died because it had been something very important to him. John had always had it with him; if he hadn't been actively wearing it, he'd hung it from the side of his wheelchair. The cold metal was oddly attractive: the markings were inexplicably alien and yet familiar at the same time. He hadn't waited for John to bequeath the medallion to him; he'd taken it that night from the hospital, the night John had died. He'd needed something tangible then, a physical marker to indicate John's existence in this world, even as the world declared him dead.

He pushed that thought away from him as well. John was dead and buried, no matter what fanciful notions an old horse trainer might have had the night of John's funeral. An old horse trainer who'd had too much to drink, he told himself when his thoughts insisted otherwise. If he'd imagined the medallion had lit up in a blue-green glow of light, if he thought that he'd spoken to John alive and well and whole again, well then, he was an old fool. If the medallion around his neck, tucked inside his shirt, felt hot and heavy against his skin at times, then it was only because the heat of his body was warming it.

He unplugged the coffeemaker as he stood to go, turned off the radio, and collected the sunglasses, tugging his gloves back on as well. On his way out, he spent a few minutes in the feed room, setting up the buckets for the evening feeding, and then toured the barn one last time to make sure there were no problems.

Toad joined him, wagging her little nubbin of a tail as she trotted along, stopping every few feet to lie down and chew on the deer leg, only to leap up and shy off out of range if Jim got too close. He eyed her, knowing that before they loaded up in the Jeep to head back to the house, he'd have to persuade her to leave it behind.

"That'll do, Toad," he said. "Leave it here. We're going now."

For an answer, Toad shot him what Jim thought of as her 'shit-eating grin', the one that said she knew she was willfully disobeying him but couldn't help it, and trotted in the direction of the indoor arena with the leg in her mouth.

"Toad," he called after her warningly. He felt around in his pockets for the treats, separating the dog ones out from the horse cookies, and went in search of the heeler. He'd have to play a game of trade up to see if she would leave the leg for something of higher value.

As he approached the indoor, he thought he could hear the sound of Solitary Man playing again and it made him pause. Hadn't he turned off the radio in the office? He frowned, looking back over his shoulder. Nope, the sound was definitely coming from the indoor. Puzzled, he continued in that direction. Just before he reached the entrance, the music stopped.

As he walked toward the entrance to the arena, he was struck by how bright the light was from within. He didn't understand it at first, and wondered if there was a hole in one of the skylights. He slowly came to a halt as he stood at the gate leading to the arena, staring in dumb confusion at the scene before his eyes.

Sitting to one side of the arena was an old silver trailer hitched to a dark 4x4 pickup truck, so covered with road dust that Jim couldn't tell if it was blue or green. The sun was burning down out of a bright sky. In front of him, the air wavered with the heat of the desert, and though Jim knew that was impossible, the sand-covered floor of the arena now seemed to be sporting scrubby little plants. The walls of the arena were just visible at the edges of his vision, but this... scene... was superimposed upon it.

Confused, Jim looked down the road that now lay before him, winding its way out through the arena doors. Beyond the confines of the barn, he could see the snow-crusted ground and the horses milling about in the paddocks, eating hay. Inside the barn, he saw a dusty red Camaro parked just over a small ridge. The car was old, but a classic. He guessed late seventies or early eighties—like the pickup, the drive across the desert had caked it in dirt. As he took in the view in front of him, he realized that the medallion around his neck had been getting warm for some time, and was now beginning to throb and burn.

Cursing, he tugged at the chain that held it, pulling it out from under his heavy clothing. Stupefied, he stared as the medallion pulsed and glowed with a blue-green light.

"What the fuck?" His words came out surrounded by the vapor of his breath, still at subfreezing temperatures. Even though he appeared to be standing at the edge of the desert, there was no heat there. Ahead, seemingly on the rocky ground, Toad lay in the center of the arena, gnawing determinedly on her deer leg.

He looked up at the sound of an engine, and saw the Camaro was on the move again, pulling up closer to the trailer.

"Toad!" Jim called out urgently when he realized that the blue heeler was lying in the path of the oncoming car. The little dog glanced back at him and took several stabbing grabs at the flopping deer leg, picking it up in preparation to run.

The car was coming too fast—Jim stepped forward into the arena, waving his arms. He watched in consternation as the car drove right through Toad as though she wasn't there. The car pulled sideways to a stop at a reasonable distance from the trailer, and Toad took a few short steps to lie down and chew on her prize again.

The medallion began to emit a low, humming sound.

It was then that he realized that what he was seeing must have something to do with John's strange medallion. John had told him about the weird circumstances under which it had come to him, and his belief that the person who had given it to him originally was no longer alive. He also remembered John's vivid dreams of another existence in another galaxy, and the night of his memorial service, when he stood in Jim's kitchen and spoke of other worlds, other universes.

Jim was a big sci-fi buff. He'd read Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, and Asimov back in the day. He read Scalzi, Flint, and Weber now. He'd watched all the Star Trek series, Babylon 5, and Firefly. His heart told him what he was seeing now had to be some sort of weird juxtaposition of universes, probably through some sort of rift in the space-time continuum, but his head told him he was out of his fucking mind. Was he hallucinating?

He sucked in the cold air with a sharp gasp when he saw John get slowly out of the car.

It was John all right. There was no mistaking that unruly hair or the way he made even a good suit look slightly rumpled. Even behind the shades and with the days-old stubble, Jim knew beyond a shadow of a doubt he was looking at John Sheppard. A John Sheppard that was more battered, perhaps. A little seedy looking. A John Sheppard who wasn't loved.

A John Sheppard who was armed and cautiously approaching the trailer with his gun drawn and pointed at the entrance.

The hair went up on the back of Jim's neck. His heart began to race; he wondered if he was having a heart attack. He had the same sort of anticipatory dread that he got while watching a television program and knew that Something Bad was about to happen and he wasn't sure if he could bear to watch it unfold in front of him.

The sound of the single gunshot echoed loudly in the arena. Jim saw John look down at his chest where a small point of red was starting to blossom outward over his shirt. Jim glanced over at the trailer—there was a bullet hole in the window.

"John!" he shouted, just as John was galvanized into running back to the shelter of the car. He took a sliding dive across the hood of the car as gunfire erupted from the trailer and began to riddle the side of the Camaro with bullets. Impossibly, John came up firing back at the trailer.

He emptied his clip at the trailer window. The glass was shot out now and someone within was shooting at John with some sort of automatic weapon. Jim watched as John scrambled back into the car.

"Get the hell out of here!" Jim yelled, causing Toad to look up sharply and pin her ears. With a worried expression, she picked up the deer leg and scooted out the door. It was then that Jim fully realized that neither John nor the shooter could see him.

What was John doing? Jim couldn't tell; he was down behind the dashboard. The door of the trailer slammed back on its hinges and the nose of a weapon poked out. The shooter laid down a line of suppressing fire alongside the body of the Camaro, causing sparks and glass to fly in all directions.

Jim watched in horror as the shooter emerged from the trailer: a tall man dressed in black, with hair and skin the color of a corpse. Jim's first thought was that he was looking at a zombie. His next was that John was hopelessly outgunned and had nowhere to go.

The shooter walked with purpose toward the Camaro, with no obvious concern for his safety. His stride was so relentless, so cavalier, that Jim couldn't help thinking, what the fuck is he?

Jim wanted to cheer when John stood up suddenly from behind the car and pumped his entire clip into the chest of the shooter. His elation turned to dread when the shooter kept coming forward.

No body armor. Jim saw fluid splatter outward from the shooter's chest as the bullets struck. Not human. Jim knew with a sudden clarity that the shooter was one of those aliens John had told him about—the ones John was fighting in his detailed dreams of a city called Atlantis. He'd thought John had been making that stuff up—the imagination of a paralyzed man taking him on marvelous adventures every night.

He knew now it was all true.

He also knew he was about to watch John die again, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

The Alien took aim and opened fire, even as John slid down behind the car again. The bullets tore their way through the vehicle at that range. After drilling holes through the car, the Alien ceased fire and walked around the nose of the car with casual deliberateness.

Jim could hear John wheezing and realized he'd been hit again. He followed the Alien around the front of the car and a voice in his head began a litany of 'no, no, no' when he saw John lying propped against the side of the Camaro.

John looked up at the Alien as he cleared the front of the car. The Alien stood facing him calmly, with an automatic weapon in each hand. John lifted his hand slowly. His gun wobbled as though he were drunk when he took shaky aim and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked; the clip was empty. John pulled the trigger again, as though he didn't believe his luck. The gun clicked futilely again and he let his hand fall to his lap, still hanging onto the gun.

The Alien spread his arms and let both weapons drop to the ground. He began furling and unfurling the fingers of his right hand and something about the action triggered a memory in Jim. What had John said about these Aliens? Something about them sucking the life out of their victims with their bare hands?

John took off his sunglasses and squinted up at the Alien. Jim could see it all there in his face: the hopelessness, as well as the desire not to give up just yet. The need to keep trying because the mission was not yet complete.

Jim opened his mouth to yell, to do something, anything. The sound of engines roaring overhead made the Alien look up at the sky.

Jet fighters were wheeling in their direction on an attack vector.

The Alien turned and bolted for the trailer, hitting the door off-center and having to clutch at it for support as he scrambled inside.

Jim looked down at John. He didn't look so bad. Okay, so maybe he was lying to himself here, but if John got to the hospital right away, maybe there was still a chance... Jim let the train of thought fade. How could that possibly happen? Even if the Alien didn't return to kill him, how could John possibly get to a hospital in time?

A force wave of some sort rippled outward from the trailer, distorting the air around them.

Moments later, the jets came screaming in and laid down a line of fire with tank-busting cannons, causing the trailer to blow up in a spectacular fashion. The trailer turned into a fireball, raining bits of hot metal and flaming plastic all around. The jets continued their flight in an arc back in the direction from which they came with no further action.

Jim reflexively ducked when the trailer exploded, even though he couldn't feel the resulting blast of heat. A large piece of debris hurled though him to land on the other side of the car. He watched as John moved feebly behind the shelter of the car, struggling to get to his feet.

The blast had somehow turned on the radio, and Jim could clearly hear Johnny Cash singing Solitary Man again. The light was fading fast now, the way it did in the desert when the sun started to go down. John got to his feet and took a few lurching steps before he stumbled and fell hard, face first into the dirt.

Piles of debris were on fire all around as John rolled slowly onto his back and faced the dimming skies.

Jim crossed to his side, afraid of what he might see.

It was worse than he thought. John had one wound up high over his heart; he had series of bloody holes marking his shirt along his side. Gut shot, Jim thought. Maybe his kidney as well. Lungs filling up with fluid now. And the pain—oh, the pain.

He could see it in John's face, the pain and the confusion setting in. He could see the light fading in John's eyes even as the sunlight dwindled into twilight around them. Jim knelt beside John, grunting a little with the force needed to bend his heavy clothes. He reached out to smooth away the hair from John's forehead, but his hand passed through John as though John were already a ghost.

God damn it. What was he here for if he couldn't change the outcome? What good did it do to have him watch John die again if John didn't even know he was there? He felt tears of rage sting his eyes and he suddenly snarled out, "No! Not again!"

More softly, he added, in voice full of sorrow, "What happened to you, John?" He couldn't understand how the boy he'd loved had come to be the man dying alone in the desert.

The medallion thrummed and he briefly placed a hand over it. Inspiration struck him, and he hastily pulled off his gloves with his teeth, digging his cell phone and his wallet out from his pockets.

The number had to be in there still. He laid the phone down in the sand and picked through his wallet, tossing aside business cards and old receipts until he came across the card he was looking for—the one Daniel Jackson had given him the day of John's funeral. He wasn't sure he could put his line of reasoning into words—it was more the leap of logic made when he suddenly, intuitively, knew what was wrong with a horse and how to fix it. All of this had to be tied into that hush-hush project John had left when his father had asked him to come home. Daniel Jackson had been a part of that. Jim's fingers were stiff with cold as he punched the numbers into his cell phone.

While the phone rang, he deliberately took hold of the medallion in his bare hand. The metal felt warm and comforting and he let his fingers close around it.

"Hello?" The voice on the other end seemed uncertain.

"Put me through to Daniel Jackson. It's an emergency." He wasn't sure what he would say to Dr. Jackson once he reached him, but he couldn't think of anything else to do. There was a pause, and the sound of voices in the background.

"This is Dr. Rodney McKay," a crisp voice spoke in his ear. "How did you get this number?"

Jim knew that name. It was the name of the man who'd given the medallion to John. He wasn't a gambling man by nature, but he placed his bet anyway and began speaking.

"It was given to me. Listen. You've got a man down in the desert. He needs immediate medical assistance. You need to come get him. His name is Sheppard. Got that? John Sheppard." McKay was also one of the names John had mentioned when he'd spoken of his adventures in Atlantis. Hopefully, he was the sort of man who could get things done without asking a lot of stupid questions.

"Sheppard's alive?" Rodney McKay was incredulous. "After engaging the Wraith? After an air strike?"

"He's alive, but not for long. He's been shot up pretty bad."

"Wait a minute..." McKay's voice suddenly became wary. "You're telling me you're on the scene? Who are you? We're not reading a signal on..." McKay suddenly broke off.

Jim thought about the logical explanation and decided to give it a shot. "I'm calling from another universe. You've got a medallion, right? Well, so do I. That's how I can contact you. My boy's dead. I figure I've got a shot at saving this John Sheppard, but only if you act fast."

"You've got a medallion," McKay breathed. Jim could hear the light of discovery in his voice. "You're speaking to me from another universe—no one has ever managed that before. It has to be because of the rift the Wraith caused when he began his transmission. You must have the ATA gene in spades, Mr. Sheppard."

"I'm not Patrick Sheppard," Jim growled. "Stop trying to figure out how this works and get a rescue team out here pronto." He glanced down at John, whose expression was becoming distant and unfocused. "If I find out you pointed him like a loaded gun at this so-called Wraith—that you played upon his sense of honor and duty and then left him here in the desert to die—so help me god, McKay, I'll find a way to come to your universe and kill you."

"I wouldn't do that!" McKay sounded flustered. "I mean, I thought he was dead already, otherwise I would've...you know what? I don't have to explain myself to you." He hesitated and then went on. "Just so you know, Sheppard saved all our asses just now. Saved the whole bloody planet. We're sending a team, okay? He's a fucking hero, we know that."

"Then treat him like one." Jim said. He disconnected the call and pocketed the phone. He suspected that few people hung up on Rodney McKay and it gave him a perverse satisfaction.

"Help's on the way, Hotshot," he said as he looked down at John. He placed a hand near John's shoulder even though he knew John couldn't tell he was there.

John licked cracked lips and swallowed. "Jim?" he asked in a small voice.

It broke Jim's heart.

"I'm here, Johnny-me-lad," he said, wishing with all his heart he could take John's hand. He didn't like the way John's white shirt was gradually turning crimson with blood, or the way he had his hand placed over his abdomen, as though he were holding his guts inside.

"Jim," John said again, but he was looking up at the first glimmering of stars.

"You listen to me, John." Jim leaned in to speak fiercely. "There are people out there who care about you, you hear? I don't care what you have or haven't done. I don't care that you think you're good for nothing or that the world would never miss you if you were gone. I'd miss you. You got that? I'd miss you. And I need you to live right now. You heard me. You and me; we're not done yet. You think about that. When you get better, I want you to come see me. I'm expecting you, you hear?"

A beam of white light enveloped John, causing Jim to squint with its intensity. When it was gone, so was John. Jim looked around the arena. The car and the remnants of the trailer were gone as well. It was just a riding arena one more.

"I'll be damned," Jim said to the empty barn. "Just like fucking Star Trek."

He knelt that way for a long moment, taking in the barren arena and the cold, dry footing underneath his knees. His John was okay. He knew that now. Knew that the vision he'd seen the night of John's funeral was real and that John was somewhere else in another universe, doing the job he was born to do. He'd done his best by this John, this lonely man who lay dying in the sand. He suspected he'd never know what happened to him.

It was a hard thought to bear.

He rose stiffly to his feet and glanced around. Well, time to find Toad and convince her to ditch the deer leg.

****

John Sheppard felt pleasantly warm. In fact, he felt damn pleasant all over; he couldn't remember the last time he felt so damn good. Afghanistan, his brain helpfully provided, before the crash. Don't be an ass, he told himself. We're not talking about memories that haunt you; we're talking about feeling good. It was as though all his endorphin receptors were open for business and determined to put a goofy smile on his face.

That alone set off warning bells in his head. The last time he'd felt this good, he's woken up to find his body a wreck, his career in shambles, and people he cared about were dead. It had all been his fault too.

It was the last time he cared about anything.

Just relax and enjoy it, his mind suggested. The idea had merit. He could just lie here and absorb the heat, and the isolation, and the delicious feeling of free-floating for another hour, another year, or another ten thousand years. It didn't matter. He didn't have anywhere he had to be.

Don't you want to know what happened to that alien? The whatchamacallit, the Wraith?

Sometimes he really hated the way his brain worked. The very part of him that wouldn't completely let go of the past was the same part of him that still kept him alive when he had nothing to live for. What kind of fucked up situation was that?

Annoyed, he opened his eyes. He appeared to be in some sort of tanning bed, which was strange because he had no eye protection and was wearing all his clothes. The warm glow was the wrong wave intensity as well, though how he knew that, he wasn't certain. At least, it wasn't a coffin. He'd had a split second moment of doubt when he'd first regained consciousness, but the glow dispelled that worry almost as soon as it had entered his head. He reached up and pushed on the upper surface.

At his touch, two panels separated at the bottom, sliding back from a central anchor point at the top near his head. The light bled out into a darker room; he could see nothing at all of the room outside. He still felt warm all the way to his bones. He looked down at his shirt, which was black with dried blood. Cautiously, he shifted a bit, but to his surprise, nothing hurt. He carefully poked at his chest, finding the holes in his shirt and following them through to his skin.

He couldn't feel any corresponding wounds underneath.

"Well, that's weird," he said aloud.

He propped himself up onto his elbows and looked over the rim of the box-like container. He appeared to be in some sort of small room painted in battleship gray. There was a console to one side with a wide array of monitoring devices and controls that Sheppard had never seen before. A little ripple of unease niggled at the back of his skull. He'd spent enough time in the military to recognize the dcor, but that was all he recognized. There was a door at the far end of the console and another one on the other side of the room.

The room was empty. Where the hell was he?

He grabbed hold of the sides of the container and pushed himself up so that he could pull his legs out from under the closed portion and gather them underneath him. As he did so, something fell out of his clothing behind him and he glanced back around, expecting to find loose change where he'd been lying.

He saw a scattering of misshapen bullets instead. He picked one up, rolling it in his fingers, remembering the look on the Wraith's face as it marched inexorably toward his car, blasting rounds from his submachine gun.

Sheppard felt a pang of regret for the car. He doubted that it was salvageable. On the other hand, he would have said the same about himself. He glanced down at his watch. That couldn't be right. The time and date indicated that almost twenty-four hours had passed since his shootout in the desert.

Time to move on. He hadn't felt that restless itch in a long time, but he recognized it just the same: the first inkling that he was coming up out of the anesthetic plane that he'd tried so hard to maintain over the years. A new place, a new job, and he'd sink back into his oblivion again. Somehow, he didn't think it would be that easy this time.

First things first—out of the coffin. He placed both hands on the sides and lifted one leg out at a time, reaching for the floor with his feet before he hopped down. He'd anticipated that the action would twinge his bad knee, but for once, the impact of the short jump didn't cause any pain. He moved with an ease he hadn't felt in years and it suddenly dawned on him that he didn't hurt anywhere. He experimentally rolled his left shoulder, the one that had never worked right since the helicopter crash. It moved smoothly and without the usual dull, throbbing pain. He turned his head to the left, as far as it would go, and discovered he could look over his shoulder again. He hadn't been able to do that in years.

He looked back at the container out of which he'd just climbed. The panels that had opened to let him out looked as though they should have been too heavy to move so easily. They met at the head of the box in a hinge that was part of a larger circle; the two panels had opened to the side like wings to release him. Ornate carvings resembling hieroglyphics decorated the entire box. It looked like a fricking museum piece. He rapped the lid with his knuckles, but he couldn't tell whether it was made of wood or metal.

The light inside the box went out. Sheppard stepped away from it cautiously, but when nothing else happened, he shrugged and turned away. He was just heading for the door on the far side of the room when it slid open sideways. A small woman, wearing a lab coat over a uniform he didn't quite recognize, stopped abruptly before running into him.

"Just like Star Trek," he said to no one in particular.

"Whoa! Where do you think you're going, mister?" The woman might have been small, but her demeanor was firm and authoritative. She wore her honey-brown hair pulled back in a serviceable bun and he recognized her as being a medico. She tapped a small communications device in her ear. "Colonel, Detective Sheppard is awake."

She tilted her head, bird-like, as she listened to the response. "No, not just waking up, he's already out of the sarcophagus and walking around." She sounded disapprovingly amused somehow. "Right," she said shortly, glancing at him with a raised eyebrow. "I'll convey that to him."

She straightened her head, lifted her chin, and spoke. "Colonel Carter asks that you remain here until she can join us. I'm Dr. Frasier, by the way. If you will step this way, I'd like to check you out and confirm healing." She indicated the door by the console with an extended hand.

"I feel just fine, Doc." Sheppard didn't move.

"I'm sure you do," Dr. Frasier said dryly. "Humor me. Or shall I call the SFs?" Her smile became slightly evil.

He followed her to the other door. "Guess that answers my next question. So, we're on a military base?"

"In a manner of speaking," Frasier was deliberately vague. As they approached the door, she touched a button on a side panel and it, too, slid open to one side. On the other side of the door was a typical military infirmary. Several personnel were performing ordinary tasks: restocking supplies, cleaning a small scrape on the forehead of a patient, making notes at a computer terminal. Everyone looked up when she and Sheppard entered the room.

Frasier moved briskly to an exam table and indicated that he should sit down on it. Reluctantly, he hopped up on the side, swinging his feet and feeling oddly like a small boy again.

"Why's everyone grinning at me?" He squinted and frowned when Dr. Frasier shined a pen light in his eyes.

"Jacket and shirt off," she said crisply, as she stuck a thermometer in his ear and got a reading within seconds. "Not every day someone saves the entire planet. People are just grateful, that's all."

"Overstating it a bit, aren't you?" He shrugged out of his jacket, laying it beside him on the padded table so that he could unbutton his shirt.

"You really should have signed that disclosure agreement." Frasier sounded openly amused now. She snapped her fingers when Sheppard just let the shirt hang open and he sighed, removing it entirely. He couldn't help but notice how shredded and stained it was.

She pocketed her radio so that she could lean in with her stethoscope and listen carefully to his chest. He looked straight over her head and ignored her. She straightened, draping the stethoscope around her neck as she began to probe with her fingers.

"This hurt?" she asked as she pushed over the place where he'd taken the first bullet. He remembered that vividly: the cautious approach to the trailer, the sudden popping sound, and then the burning sensation in his chest. He hadn't believed it at the time and if the adrenaline hadn't kicked in, he probably would have fallen down on the spot.

"No," he said, still looking straight ahead.

Frasier came around to his right side, poking and prodding some more. "How about this?"

"I dunno. If you put a little effort into it, maybe."

"Thank god I love smart-asses," Frasier said, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling. "Otherwise, my work would be one pain-in-the-ass moment after another."

Sheppard decided that, for a military doctor type, Frasier wasn't half-bad.

The door on the far side of the infirmary slid open and a tall blonde in uniform, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, strode unerringly in their direction. He was beginning to have the sneaking suspicion he was looking at a branch of the armed services that he'd never seen before.

"Detective Sheppard, I'm Colonel Samantha Carter. You're on board the spaceship Daedalus. I'm afraid that's all I can tell you at this time, but Dr. McKay felt it was important to tell you at least that much so that you wouldn't inadvertently walk out of an airlock." She also sounded amused, damn her.

"He doesn't think much of my intelligence," Sheppard said, wishing he could put some clothes back on. He glanced down as Frasier continued to poke at his skin.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Carter said, sounding irritatingly as though she were leaving some part of the conversation out. "Looks like your clothes are a write-off. When Janet gets through with you here, I'll have a crewmember take you someplace where you can get a shower and something else to wear."

"That won't be necessary." He knew he was being abrupt but he just couldn't make himself care.

"At least a clean shirt then. We can't have you running around like this. No one would get any work done." She indicated his current state of undress. Frasier snorted to herself softly.

Carter glanced over her shoulder, caught the attention of one of the medical staff, and indicated they should come over with a flick of her fingers. "See that Detective Sheppard gets some clean clothes," she said when the orderly approached. "When he's dressed, have him escorted to the bridge."

"Yes, ma'am." The orderly flashed a megawatt smile at Sheppard as he turned away.

Carter chuckled at his expression. "Get used to it." She turned to Frasier, who was entering some notes on a data pad. "I've got to get back to the bridge." She smiled at Sheppard. "Detective, let me be the first to officially thank you for saving the Earth." She gave him another lovely smile before turning for the door.

"Wait a minute." Sheppard hopped down off the exam table. Behind him, Frasier gave an exasperated sigh. "I want to speak to McKay."

"All in good time, Sheppard." Carter was pleasant, but firm. "I'll see you on the bridge." She left the room.

"Play nice," Frasier scolded as the orderly returned with a stack of clean clothes, socks and underwear neatly folded on the very top. "The colonel didn't have to invite you to the bridge, you know. In fact, someone is likely to fuss about it since you haven't signed on."

Sheppard took the clothing handed to him and set it aside, choosing the black t-shirt out of the stack to slip on over his head. He automatically ruffled up his hair after he pulled the shirt on. The shirt felt too familiar, as though he had stepped into a second skin. He ignored the rest of the clothing and picked up his jacket.

"Look, yesterday I was bleeding to death in the desert and today I'm walking around on a spaceship, for fuck's sake. No one's telling me anything and you want me to play nice?"

Frasier wrinkled her nose briefly in disapproval as he eased back into his jacket. He slipped his hand down the right side and poked his fingers through the new ventilation, waggling them briefly. In his head, he could hear the rat-tat-tat of submachine gun fire. The expression on the Wraith's face as it dropped its weapons and started toward him was too awful to contemplate.

"Sheppard." Frasier's perky expression suddenly became solemn. "I've known a lot of men just like you. I don't know what put that chip on your shoulder and I don't care. People are going to cut you some slack right now because you're the big goddamn hero. That won't last forever. Most people don't get a second chance at life, you know. Don't blow it by being an asshole."

"Wow, Doc," Sheppard said as he checked his pockets for his money and keys. His cell phone was gone. "That's some mouth on you." He knew a ghost of a smile must have crossed his face when she smiled back at him.

"Don't let me catch you in here again, Detective," Frasier admonished as the orderly began escorting him toward the door. "When I heal people they stay healed."

"Don't you mean when the magic Egyptian box heals them?" He couldn't help but laugh when she flipped him the bird.

In the corridor, the crewmember turned him over to a young marine.

"Captain Ford will take you to see the Colonel now, sir." The orderly nodded to the marine and headed back in the direction of the infirmary.

"Detective Sheppard. It's an honor to meet you, sir." The marine was a young black man, probably in his late twenties, with an engaging smile. He held out his right hand for Sheppard to shake.

He just stared at it. "You're taking this hero thing way too seriously."

Ford laughed a little uncomfortably, withdrawing his hand to indicate the direction they were to take down the hall. The two of them fell in step together. "I don't think so, sir."

Sheppard felt compelled to stop. "Look," he said sharply. "I'm not your 'sir'. You got that? I'm no hero. I just...followed an impulse, okay?"

Ford had halted with a frown when Sheppard stopped, but now he grinned. "Followed an impulse, huh? One that led you to take on a Wraith single-handedly when you were outgunned and had no hope of backup? Because of your 'impulse' those A-10s were able to destroy the target before the Wraith got a chance to send out his homing beacon." His expression sobered. "You really have no idea what you've done, have you, sir?"

"I didn't know I was outgunned. My impulses get people killed. Don't you forget that." He wanted to wipe that look of admiration off the kid's face. No one should ever look at him like that. Not after what he'd done.

It seemed to have worked. Ford assumed a look of politeness, and with a jerk of his head down the corridor, indicated that they should move on.

When the doors opened to the bridge, Sheppard found the spaceship's command center was similar to every other command hub that he'd ever seen. There was the usual bustle that seemed to prevail in all such settings: the low hum of equipment and conversation, people moving from one station to the next, the flicker of lights on consoles as data streamed in. He'd never seen anything quite like the bridge of the Daedalus, however.

For one thing, there was the view.

All of the central command stations faced toward the commander's station, which in turn took center stage in front of a huge window. Support braces for the window rose up from the floor, which reminded him of the strands of a spider's web. He couldn't help it; he took several steps closer toward the window, compelled to look out at the panorama beyond. Outside, just below the bow of the ship, Sheppard could see out the curve of a planet. He'd seen enough photos to know it was Earth. The blue and white planet at his feet was serenely beautiful, and something tugged at his heart and begged him to appreciate the moment.

I'm going to wake up any second now and find out I'm still bleeding to death in the desert.

Colonel Carter stood up at his entrance and stepped down off of the dais supporting the command chair to welcome him. "Thank you, Captain Ford," she said by way of dismissal to the marine. Sheppard watched him go and thought the space cowboys were remarkably lax about military discipline. He briefly wondered what it would be like to serve on such a crew. Briefly.

"Take a good look, Sheppard," Carter said, glancing out the window with a fond smile. "Everyone down there owes you a debt of gratitude beyond their wildest nightmares."

He made a sound of disappointment. "I thought it would be bluer somehow."

"Pollution," Carter said, in a tone that suggested she knew why he was changing the subject. "You're thinking of the original photographs taken from the first moon missions. A lot has changed since then, which is only one of the many reasons why we've ventured into space."

"Without telling anyone?" He shot her a sharp look.

This time her smile was ironic. "The Wraith would be an example of one of the reasons we've kept to ourselves on the subject."

The bridge lighting was dim in order to facilitate reading the electronic information, but behind the command chair, Sheppard could see lighted grids and schematics for plotting flight courses and battle plans. Something inside him lifted its head and tugged at the bit at the thought of flying in outer space, but he ignored it.

"I'd like to speak to McKay now."

If Carter thought he was being rude, she didn't say anything out loud. She merely indicated that he should join her as she returned to her command chair. He noted, as he came to stand beside her chair, that despite the seeming lack of concern about the possibility of him being a threat, Captain Ford had taken a position of watchfulness by the bridge doors. He found himself approving of this and he shook his head a little—like his approval mattered here.

Besides, what was he going to do? He couldn't get off the ship if he wanted to.

"McKay." Carter sounded amusedly tolerant as she spoke the name. In looking around, Sheppard had missed seeing whatever she'd done to contact McKay; presumably, she'd pressed some button on the console of her chair. "Detective Sheppard would like to speak with you."

"It's about time." The smugly superior voice sounded comfortingly familiar and Sheppard angrily pushed that notion aside. "What did you do? Re-grow him from just a few skin cells inside a gauntleted glove?"

"Let me guess," Sheppard drawled. "This is the part where you tell me I'm out of points on my license."

"This is the part where I tell you I knew you were a fan of the Fifth Element. I can see the similarities. I hate to tell you, but there's not enough of your car left to fill a shoebox. Sorry." He didn't sound sorry in the slightest.

"What about the money?" Sheppard wasn't in the mood for McKay's mind games.

"The money?" McKay sounded honestly confused for a moment until Sheppard heard the light dawn in his voice. "Oh, the money. You mean the duffel bag full of confetti. Yeah, ah, no. Nothing salvageable."

Sheppard cursed under his breath. So much for that plan.

"That was an awful lot of confetti, by the way." McKay sounded arch now. "Amazing how much confetti you can make out of just a couple of thou, isn't it?"

"It was more than that and you know it, McKay," Sheppard growled. "I want my money."

"Forget the money. I've got a better offer. How about a job?"

"What?" Sheppard was honestly taken aback. That was the last thing he expected anyone to say to him.

"You heard me. We can use someone with your unique set of skills."

"You're forgetting my history." Damn him, if McKay made him spell it out in front of everyone... On the other hand, that would certainly put an end to this hero worship crap, now wouldn't it?

"I forget nothing." McKay sounded as though he really meant that. "If the LVPD can overlook such details, I'm sure we can too."

"I want my money. All of it. Last time I checked, it was in my car. Intact. So, the way I see it, you guys owe me."

"Money? Seriously? You want money. Fine. Name your price."

"McKay!" Carter sounded scandalized. Sheppard could see that he'd already sunk in her estimation of him and something inside of him laughed unpleasantly.

"I'll deal with this, Colonel." McKay's voice was much colder now. "Have you an exact figure, Sheppard? Have you set a price on the cost of saving the world?"

"Yes," Sheppard said before he could change his mind. "Four hundred and fifty-seven thousand dollars and sixty-two cents."

"That's it? That's your price? Almost half a million dollars? Why not go bigger?"

"It's what was in the bag. Don't forget the sixty-two cents."

To his amazement, McKay laughed. "Fair enough. I'd say you earned it. We'll need a little time to get that together. In the meantime, where would you like us to put you down?"

"Put me down?" For an instant, Sheppard could only think about how the phrase was often used to describe euthanizing an animal, particularly a horse.

"On the planet. Since you don't want to stay for the party, the least we can do is drive you home."

Sheppard thought about it for a moment—there was nothing left for him in Vegas now. Just debts and no way to pay them. Better that everyone think he died in the desert.

Inspiration struck him. It must have been his earlier train of thought because he suddenly thought of Jim, the man who used to train horses for his father. He wasn't even sure Jim was still alive, but as a destination point, it wasn't a bad start.

"I need to find a man by the name of Jim Banks," Sheppard said slowly, conscious that, for the first time, he sounded as though he was asking instead of demanding.

"Jim Banks." McKay sounded almost bored. "Horse trainer. Worked for your father until a few years back, correct?"

"You need to get a life, McKay," Sheppard said, and someone on the bridge smothered a laugh. Sheppard didn't bother looking around.

"Right. Got it. Banks, Jim. Virginia. You sure you want to do this?"

"Just get me there and send me the money."

"Keep your shirt on. I hear it's distracting when you take it off anyway. Okay, I have the coordinates—I'm sending them to the Daedalus. Sam? You can beam Detective Sheppard down at any time."

Carter did something at her console and looked up sharply at Sheppard before speaking to McKay again. "Rodney, you can't be serious... Have you—"

He cut her off. "I'm deadly serious. He doesn't want to stay—he wants to go to Virginia. Well, then, let's be off with him and move along. I've got a huge mess down here I have to contain and clean up, no thanks to Detective GunsABlazing. I've just got one question for you, Sheppard. How do you know I won't stiff you for the cash?"

Sheppard let the silence hang in the air for a moment. "Because you're a dick, McKay, not a cheat."

"Yes. That I am." There was the suggestion of an evil chuckle in his voice and Sheppard wondered what that was all about.

Carter ended the connection and stood up abruptly. "Detective Sheppard, if you'll come with me." She turned to a handsome man with brown hair and intense, blue eyes seated to her right and said, "Major, you have the bridge."

The major acknowledged with a brisk, "Yes, ma'am," and got up to take her seat. He shot Sheppard a curious look in passing, but immediately picked up a data pad and began scanning it.

Carter's long strides took her quickly out the door and down the corridor toward the elevator that Ford had brought him up on earlier. It took him but a second to realize she was pissed, and he thought he could guess why. He wasn't surprised when she stopped the elevator almost as soon as they got into it.

"I don't know what stick you've got up your ass, Detective, but I think it takes a lot of nerve to demand money for saving the world."

He looked at her carefully, assessing her as she stood with her arms folded across her chest, glaring at him. She was tall for a woman, and in fighting trim. He didn't wonder about the sort of woman that would enter an elevator with a man she didn't know and then begin to tear strips off him. He knew that she was well versed in unarmed combat and had probably been to the gym more recently than he had. She obviously was a woman who could take care of herself.

He said nothing.

"You were offered a job, Detective. With a very select organization. Because they saw something in you. Something that, perhaps, you don't see yourself. You have a chance to be a part of something here, something important. You should re-think McKay's offer."

She leaned forward and started the lift again. "I hear you're a pilot. McKay also said you have the ATA gene. I find that combination makes for the best pilots here in outer space. We could use you, Sheppard."

"I have the gene?" He felt that tug again; that wild, yearning desire to say 'yes!' and throw himself at the feet of anyone that would let him fly. The beauty of the calculations it would take to fly in space called to him like a lover ready to forgive all.

Like the major on the bridge, Carter now turned a curious look upon him. "Rodney didn't tell you?"

He shook his head, waiting a beat before speaking. "Colonel," he said slowly. "I was a part of something important once. My mistakes got people killed. You don't want me here." And I don't fly anymore.

"Don't be too sure of that, Sheppard." She smiled sadly. "You know what's the biggest factor in whether or not you get dishonorably discharged when you disobey orders?"

He shook his head slightly.

The doors to the lift opened and Carter stepped out, looking back over her shoulder at him with a sly expression. "Whether or not you save the world."

He had to hurry to keep up with her.

"Where are we going?" he asked, when she took him into what was obviously a supply room. She opened a locker and took out a rainproof parka, handing it to him.

"Here, you'll need this. I checked the satellite weather map on your destination in Virginia—they've got the remnants of a tropical storm blowing through there right now." She opened another locker and took out a pair of gloves to give to him.

He looked down at them in confusion.

She sighed. "McKay wasn't going to tell you. He wanted me to beam you down in the middle of a torrential downpour without a coat or anything."

"And you didn't..." He left his question dangling in the air.

She grinned. "Because Rodney really is a dick sometimes. And you are a hero. Even if you're a bit pricey."

****

This is a mistake, he thought, when the beam of light surrounding him faded.

He was standing outside in an open, muddy field. It was after dark and the rain was coming down so hard the ground had standing water on it. Even with the rain gear, the downpour was so heavy he was getting soaked. McKay, he decided, wasn't a dick; he was a fucking bastard. Sheppard, his blood thin after years in the desert, pulled the hood of his parka up over his head and cursed McKay's Canadian ancestry.

Across the field, he could make out the shape of a small house, lights gleaming out of several windows in a warm and welcoming fashion. It was at least a half a mile away.

What are you doing here?

He didn't know. All he knew was that he couldn't stay out here in this driving cold rain. He slopped his way toward the lighted house, slipping a little as he squished through the mud with each step. He shoved gloved hands down into his pockets for warmth; he had to duck his head and squint against the rain, but he never took his eyes off the target.

It seemed to take him forever to cross the open field. Spikes of grass from the summer's last cutting of hay rose unexpectedly like stalagmites from the ground, tripping him at times. The rain felt like little white-hot needles as it pelted into exposed skin and he silently thanked Carter for her sense of humanity. The wind cut through his jeans as though he was wearing dress slacks, and his boots were meant for walking on sand or pavement, not Virginia red clay. The mud squelched under his boots and threatened to suck them off his feet. You're out of your element here, buddy.

Nonsensically, his brain provided him with the song lyrics from one of those animated Christmas specials. Put one foot in front of the other. And soon you'll be walking 'cross the floor. Put one foot in front of the other. And soon you'll be walking out the door.

Oh, great. That made him Mr. Winter. You've done your fair share of walking out the door, too, his brain reminded him evilly.

He fucking hated everything and everyone right now.

He'd just left the hayfield, and was navigating the easier surface of the mown lawn surrounding the house, when the exterior lights sprang on. The yard lit up, highlighting the fall of rain like bright diamonds all around him. Suddenly uncertain of his welcome, only the drenching cold kept him from turning away.

A rectangle of light appeared on the front porch as the door opened. A dynamo of energy came hurtling onto the porch, barking furiously.

Oh, shit. He had enough sense not to move. The heeler, her blue merle markings a patchwork of grey, white, and black, came to a stop at the top of the porch stairs. Her head dropped low and she began to growl.

"Pig! That'll do!" The bellow from the doorway took both Sheppard and the dog by surprise and John felt relieved when he looked up and saw Jim.

He looked much as John had remembered him, as he stood silhouetted against the light. Still long of body and all lean muscle and sinew. John was startled at how relieved he felt on seeing him. He hadn't realized that, on some level, he counted on Jim Banks as being some sort of unchanging bedrock.

Jim called the dog to his side and the heeler came meekly, scooting back to the door to plant her haunches by his right boot. He raised a hand to shield his eyes and squinted out into the darkness.

"John?" he called out. "Is that you?"

He hesitated, uncertain how to respond. He stepped forward, tipping back the hood of the parka so that Jim could see his face. The rain was coming down so hard that it bounced off the surface of the ground.

"How'd you know I was here?" he called out above the wind and rain.

"Some asshole named McKay called and said you'd be out here getting drowned. I see he was right. Get in here, boy."

Jim didn't wait for him, but turned and headed back inside the house, Pig trotting close behind. Inside the doorway, the small foyer was well lit and inviting.

With a sigh, he crossed the remaining distance to the house, took hold of the railing, and carefully mounted the slick stairs.

Jim waited at the entranceway for him to enter. Pig wiggled and danced excitedly at his entrance—her demeanor had completely changed once Jim had given Sheppard permission to come inside the house.

The old farmhouse was much as he remembered it from his youth, though it seemed smaller and more cluttered somehow. To his right, a staircase hugged the wall, leading to the upstairs bedrooms. The foyer continued down a narrow corridor that ran along the staircase, back to the kitchen and living room. The hallway had dark paneling and bookcases that filled one wall that made it even narrower. They overflowed with paperback novels, but also gloves, hats, a dog leash, and assorted odds and ends wedged into the shelves because of the convenient access on entering or leaving the house.

Sheppard stuffed his gloves in the pockets and shrugged out of his coat in silence, hanging it on the tree by the door. Jim stood in silence as well, assessing his appearance.

"Boots off too. What the hell are you doing here on a night like this, John? How'd you get here anyway?"

"Long story," Sheppard said shortly. He placed one hand on the wall for balance as he used the other to pull off his boots one at a time and leave them in the stack of muddy shoes by the door. His socks were soaked so he pulled those off as well, and laid them over the boots to dry. Pig came forward to investigate.

"You leave those there," Sheppard told her firmly as he straightened.

"That blood on your jacket?"

Jim's question made him look down, and he could see the black stains on the dark grey linen. "Yep." Another jacket ruined.

"You injured?" Jim's voice was sharp and Sheppard looked up at him for the first time. He was startled to see now that Jim had indeed aged in the twenty years since he'd seen him last. He felt foolish for thinking that Jim wouldn't, but in his mind, Jim had remained as he'd always been—it was a bit of a shock to see his face lined with creases and that his red-brown hair was mostly silver now.

What did you expect? He felt like an idiot. Jim had to be in his sixties now. Everything changes. He was no longer the young boy who spent all his days at the barn, following Jim and hanging on his every word.

"Well?" Jim prompted with a frown, which made Sheppard realize he'd been asked a question.

"No," he said. He gave a little shrug. "Another long story."

Jim eyed him for a moment before making a small snorting noise, like one of his horses. "Then it will keep. Come on in here where it's warm. I was just sitting down to supper."

He followed Jim and Pig down the hallway to the kitchen. Long before he got there, he could smell the aroma of a grilled cheese sandwich and his mouth watered.

Jim indicated the table. "Sit. Eat while it's hot."

He went over the stove and came back with a cheese sandwich on a plate, the bread browned to a crisp perfection and gooey cheese melting out of the sides. Sheppard hesitated at the door to the kitchen, wanting to come in but not being able to bring himself to do so.

"That's your dinner," he said, when Jim set a steaming bowl of tomato soup beside the plate and looked expectantly at him.

Jim snorted. "It will take two minutes to heat up another can and grill another sandwich. I'll go get you some dry things while you eat." Without further ceremony, he came past the table toward the door. Sheppard had to enter the kitchen or leave in order to let Jim pass.

He chose to enter, sliding around the table to take the seat. The food smelt heavenly. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten and his appetite suddenly roared to life from its sleeping state. It took him back to the times that he'd spent days at the barn from dawn until dusk, usually with nothing more than a Mountain Dew and a PB & J sandwich. Somehow, the food of his youth was the only thing that seemed to have any flavor in his memory as he recalled those early morning snack runs on the way to a horse trial before dawn, and the late nights eating breakfast at Denny's. Or the times Jim had taken pity on him and brought him home for a hot meal when Sheppard's parents were out of town and, once again, he was alone in a houseful of servants.

He bit off one corner of the sandwich and almost groaned. Kraft singles grilled between two slices of not-wholesome-at-all white bread and cut diagonally into triangles. It didn't get any better than that. He chased the mouthful of sandwich with a spoonful of soup, conscious that he was dripping rainwater on the tablecloth. The soup, rich and hot, began to warm him just a little from the inside out. He couldn't remember the last time food had tasted this good.

Pig, torn between staying where the food was and following Jim, went as far as the kitchen door and whined before running back to Sheppard. She ducked under the table and thrust her nose into his lap.

"Whoa," he said, pushing back from the table far enough to look down at the dog. Her ears flattened ingratiatingly against her skull and he could feel her body wiggle as she wagged her short tail.

"Sorry, old girl, but this is mine." He took another hearty bite of the sandwich and closed his eyes as he chewed. Nirvana.

He opened his eyes at the sound of Jim's footsteps in the hall. Pig lifted her head and trotted over to the door to greet him. He entered the kitchen carrying a stack of clothing topped by a thick, white towel. He set the items down at the end of the table and moved around behind Sheppard toward the refrigerator. Sheppard folded the remaining half of the sandwich in his mouth and started to get up, but Jim waved him down.

"Finish eating. Sandwich is best when hot. You can have another if you like after you've put some dry clothes on."

Sheppard nodded, continuing to chew.

Behind him, he could hear the comforting sounds of Jim opening another can of Campbell's soup and adding it to the saucepan on the stove. Without looking, he knew that Jim was buttering two more slices of bread and placing them in the frying pan. He listened to the sound of Jim opening the cheese papers and heard the sizzling of frying grease. He knew from memory that Jim was using his spatula to mash the sandwich down in the pan. The clock on the wall above the kitchen door ticked loudly. Nine p.m.

What are you going to tell him?

There had been no taboo topics with Jim, no landmines of conversation to carefully navigate the way there'd been with Patrick Sheppard. They talked mostly about the horses, but there had been other important conversations as well. Conversations about books, life, school, friends, and sex. Sheppard had almost forgotten the talks about sex. Jim had given John permission to be the person he wanted to be. It was Sheppard who had taken away that right—he'd made a conscious decision and acted on it. And all for what? It hadn't made a difference in the end. He was still the son that had disappointed and disgraced his father.

His thoughts shied away from his father. The last time they'd spoken, Patrick Sheppard had made it quite clear what he'd thought of his oldest son. He hadn't spoken to anyone in the family since. He'd lost contact with Jim as a result. That was wrong of him, he knew, but in the aftermath of Afghanistan, Sheppard had been filled with such self-loathing he couldn't have borne it if he'd seen that same disgust in Jim's eyes as well.

It wouldn't have been like that, a part of him insisted. You're sure about that, huh? The predominant voice in his head mocked him.

For the first time in years, he felt a sliver of doubt about the validity of that voice.

Jim came around to the far end of the table, pushing the items of clothing in Sheppard's direction to make room to sit down. He sat without speaking and began to eat. It was so restful to not have to explain himself to Jim or make conversation. Sheppard finished his meal in silence as well. When he was done, he took his dishes over to the counter, coming back to the table for the clothing. Jim let him leave the room without a word.

He made his way into the downstairs bathroom, stripping his damp clothes off and letting them drop to the floor. He toweled himself briskly, avoiding looking into the mirror as he hurriedly pulled a Christmas-red turtleneck over his head and followed that with a black sweatshirt. Not surprisingly, Jim had provided him with an old pair of britches, spotted with bleach stains and green blotches of Coppertox from treating horse feet. His boxers wouldn't fit without bunching under the britches, so he went without. The last item was a pair of thick, cotton socks. He couldn't help but curl his toes with pleasure at the warmth when he pulled them on—Jim must have taken them right from the dryer.

When he came back to the kitchen, Jim was washing up. "More?" he asked Sheppard, indicating the food still on the counter.

Sheppard shook his head. Jim nodded and continued to put things away. "Wet clothes in the laundry room," he said, without looking at Sheppard.

Sheppard went back to the bathroom and collected his wet things, taking them into a small room at the back of the house where the washer and dryer sat. He dropped his clothes into a laundry basket. When he came back to the kitchen, Jim was wiping down the counters.

Sheppard stood in the doorway, uncertain what he should be doing.

When Jim was finished, he rinsed out the sponge and looked up at Sheppard. "I think this calls for a drink." His smile was ironic and Sheppard felt himself give a little half-smile in return. He followed Jim into the living room, breathing a sigh of relief at the way the atmosphere opened up and welcomed him. There were more bookcases in here, stacked floor to ceiling with books. Sheppard could see some more recent additions: a shelf full of DVDs and a laptop on the old, battered desk.

The room was warm, almost uncomfortably so, due to the wood stove attached to the fireplace. Gone was the old black box Sheppard remembered from his youth; instead, a sleek, shiny affair with a glassed-in front allowed viewing of the cheerful fire inside. Jim crossed over to the stove and opened the door, adding a log from the neatly stacked woodpile.

Sheppard took a seat in the chair covered with the least amount of dog hair and waited while Jim adjusted the fire to his liking. The warmth soaked in slowly down to his bones and he could feel himself getting sleepy and relaxed. He was suddenly reminded of the weird Egyptian box he'd woken up in earlier that day, and he shifted with a start when he realized Jim was holding out a drink toward him.

He accepted it silently, afraid to look up, afraid of what he might see in Jim's eyes. He looked instead at the dog, which had climbed up on the end of the couch, curling herself in a ball there, so she could rest her chin on the arm and watch the activity in the room.

"So," he said, pausing to take a sip of the drink. He recognized that it was Crown Royal, as smooth and mellow as he'd remembered, back when he could afford it. It felt a little odd sharing a drink with Jim and he went back to his planned diversionary question. "Why Pig?" He indicated the dog.

Jim snorted and took a seat on the couch next to the dog, which wiggled her little tail, but did not move. He took a sip of his own drink, looking as though it brought him the same kind pleasure Sheppard had felt when putting on the warm, dry socks. "I got her as a little speckled puppy. She didn't look like a dog; she looked like a piglet. Ate like one too. Never seen a dog so chow-motivated."

Sheppard gave a little laugh. He could do this. This wasn't going to be that hard at all.

****

The next morning, Sheppard woke to the smell of frying bacon wafting up from downstairs. It took him a moment to get his bearings and remember what had happened the night before. He frowned as he stared at the stuccoed ceiling above. Maybe he'd had a little too much to drink. The whiskey had gone down smooth, the room had been warm, and he'd felt...safe. Which was stupid. There was no such thing as a safe place.

He sat up, conscious of how chilly the room was and making a firm decision to dress rapidly and head downstairs. He saw that he was lying in a narrow, twin bed barely big enough for a grown man to sleep in. The light poured in from the window under the eaves, glowing in great beams across the wooden floor. Sheppard redressed in the clothing from the night before, hoping his boots would have dried overnight.

The whole room was small with the unfinished look of a guest room. Only the photographs personalized it. Scattered about the walls, the pictures took Sheppard back to his childhood once more. There was the dog that Jim had the summer before Sheppard left home—a little Border collie mix he'd called Cricket. The names of horses and ponies came back to him as he glanced around the room. Sierra (also known as the Devil Pony), Rebel, Ostentatious... He recognized with a start a photo of his mother and that ugly chestnut gelding she'd loved so much. The one his dad wanted her to get rid of because he was so homely. In the photo, his mother beamed at the camera with a smile that lit up her face. Sheppard couldn't remember her looking so happy before. She'd braided green and red pom-poms into Wimsey's mane for Christmas and, for once, the gelding actually looked handsome.

It was odd to think that she'd been dead for over twenty years now. He presumed the horse was dead as well, and it left him with a weird, unsettled feeling.

Like your past. He tightened his lips against the sardonic voice in his head and headed down the stairs.

"Good, you're up." Jim glanced up from the stove without ceremony when Sheppard entered the kitchen. He placed a heaping ladle of scrambled eggs on a plate already piled with bacon and set it on the table where Sheppard had sat the night before. "Help yourself to coffee," Jim suggested, pointing to the mugs on the counter in front of the coffeemaker. He caught the slices of bread as they popped out of the toaster and began to butter them. Sheppard poured two mugs of coffee, collected the silverware, and carried everything to the table, taking his seat.

"Eat up." Jim said, as he brought the bread to the table and set the plate halfway between him and Sheppard. He took his own slice and spread some jam on it, taking a bite, and chewing as he continued speaking. "How long you gonna be here? Are you headed out today?"

Sheppard thought about the night before. They'd caught up on the last twenty years, Sheppard giving Jim an expunged version of his life, and Jim carefully avoiding asking him anything too pointed. They'd spoken of horses and played 'whatever happened to...?' Sheppard had discovered that his father had sold all the horses a few years back, thus freeing Jim to go into training for himself. Without a facility of his own, however, he was having a hard time making a go of it, especially in an economy that was making everyone cut back. Jim hadn't asked him why he'd come, and for that he was grateful. He owed Jim some sort of explanation now, however.

"I'm meeting someone near here in a few days or so. Think you can put me up until then?"

He almost missed the smile on Jim's face—it was there and gone in an instant—but it warmed him just the same.

"Good." Jim said. "I could use some help around the barn today. Got a mare I want you to see."

Sheppard chuckled in spite of himself.

"What?" Jim looked puzzled as he held up his mug of coffee.

"Nothing," Sheppard smiled. "It's just some things don't change, I guess."

After breakfast, Jim found a spare pair of Wellingtons for Sheppard and the two of them went out to the small barn behind the house. Jim pointed out the uncovered outdoor arena and complained of how he needed to add several tons of sand and bluestone gravel to replace the footing that was washing away. They paused while Jim looked gloomily over the soggy arena.

"Bad enough before last night's storm. It's getting down to the bed now. Without the proper edging, however, what I add will just wash away as well."

Sheppard knew what a problem this posed for someone like Jim, who had no indoor arena and only one place to work the horses. In fact, he'd have thought Jim's priority would have been to build an indoor arena, as that would be the only way he could guarantee the ability to work year round, no matter the weather. He listened in silence as Jim spoke of his dreams for the farm, and introduced Sheppard to the boarders and horses in training.

"Where's your help?" It seemed odd to Sheppard that Jim was doing all the work himself.

Jim shrugged. "I've got a couple of horse-crazy girls that will help out so they can ride. There's one kid, Jenny, who's real promising—she reminds me of you at that age. Truth is I can't afford to pay anyone. Not when I'm capable of doing the work myself."

He left Sheppard filling the water troughs as he went into the barn and came out with several bales of hay in a wheelbarrow for distribution over the fence. The horses, which had come over to check Sheppard out as he topped off the tanks, left as soon as they saw Jim and the hay.

He went over to the gate once he'd finished with the troughs. Jim was just coming out of the field from checking all the horses.

"What do you think of her?" Jim indicated an enormous bay mare quietly cropping hay.

It was hard to appreciate her underneath the heavy mud and the rain-flattened coat, but Sheppard could see the slope of her shoulder and the beauty in her form. "Nice," he said. "She's got to be, what? Seventeen hands? What's her breeding?"

Jim sighed. "Yep. Seventeen, or near enough. But you tell me, Hotshot? Who's her dam?"

Sheppard mentally flinched a little at the use of his old nickname. Just then, the mare lifted her head in their direction and whickered.

"She's a Dagny baby," Sheppard said with true delight, recognizing the face of one of his father's champion mares.

"Yep," Jim drawled, a note of satisfaction in his voice, but for what reason, Sheppard couldn't tell. Jim whistled and the mare came trotting slowly over, making her way carefully in the mud.

He watched the power and suspension in her movement and remembered the bay stallion that stamped his get with those traits. "Ruthless. She was sired by Ruthless." Sheppard turned to look at Jim curiously. "How'd she end up here?"

"You mean, why isn't she on the eventing circuit?" Jim raised a sardonic eyebrow at him and he felt chagrined at his implication that the horse deserved better surroundings.

Jim didn't seem to mind. "She colicked two years ago. Rotated her colon 720 degrees. Almost died. Had to have surgery." He fed the mare a treat out of his coat pocket, which she obviously expected.

"That's too bad." Sheppard felt an irrational spurt of disappointment.

"Don't you write her off just yet." Jim took hold of the wheelbarrow and began pushing it through the mud back toward the barn, leaving Sheppard to follow in his wake. "She recovered from the surgery just fine, but when your dad sold the stock, she went to a woman who had good intentions but not enough time to ride. I ended up buying her for a song. She's a little high maintenance, but that never bothered me any."

"What are you going to do with her?" They entered the barn and Sheppard watched as Jim propped the wheelbarrow up against the wall.

"She's going to make a nice project for Jenny," Jim said, bending down to collect some of the buckets from the morning feeding. Sheppard took half of them and they made their way toward the feed room, Pig trotting eagerly ahead of them. Inside the feed room, Sheppard waited patiently for Jim to set up the buckets for the next feeding, remembering how hard it was to put the right amounts of grain and supplements in the correct buckets while talking.

"That mare reminds me a lot of PJ. She's coming back from an injury right now, so I need to bring her along slowly, but she's a horse that needs to work." Jim set each bucket down inside bins marked with the horse's name on them. When he was done, he eyed Sheppard in assessment. "Come to think of it, you could help me out today by riding her for me."

Sheppard felt himself backpedaling before he'd even spoken. "I'm no trainer, Jim. I haven't ridden a horse in years. Decades even."

Jim snorted. "I'm not asking you to school her." Sheppard could hear the note of derision in his voice. "I need a warm butt in the saddle to walk her around the property. The outdoor's too wet to lunge her."

"Oh."

Somehow, he found himself detailed to go catch the mare and bring her in to the cross ties while Jim found him boots and a helmet he could wear. He was surprised at how things came back to him: the latching of the cross ties to little loops of baling twine tied to the halter to serve as breakaway straps, the picking out of feet, the fitting of a saddle and assorted tack. There was something supremely soothing in the mechanical details of getting ready to ride. It reminded him of the pre-flight checks he used to do and that realization snuffed out all the joy he'd been starting to experience.

"What do you call her?" he asked while drying off her back with a heavy towel. The mare had tipped her long neck sideways and leaned into him as he rubbed.

Jim made a 'tsking' noise. "Her previous owner called her Robin. Damned silly name for a mare like this, if you ask me."

Sheppard snorted, drawn into the conversation despite the voice inside his head reminding him he was only going to be here until the money arrived. "Robin! That's a name for a plump little pony. She's no dainty bird. She's a caribou. No, a moose. You could stick antlers on her and no one would know the difference."

Jim chuckled. "You might be right there."

"Of course, I'm right." Sheppard spoke with a confidence that surprised him. Don't start congratulating yourself. It's just a name.

Jim ended up making him use the mounting block near the outdoor arena. "No sense in you straining something on the first day," he'd grinned.

The sky was threatening to turn overcast again and the air had that blustery, post-storm feel with winds that suddenly blew up out of nowhere. The mare was restive and kept shifting her weight, swinging her hindquarters sideways and pulling at the reins as he lead her to the block.

"Make her stand." Jim was suddenly stern. "She's a bit fresh. She's not mean, mind you, but she's strong. She doesn't like having the girth tightened either—not since the surgery."

"Right." Sheppard concentrated on staying in the saddle when he swung his leg over and took his seat. The mare flattened her ears, humped her hindquarters, and kicked out when he leaned down to tighten the girth.

"Stand," he said firmly, at the same time Jim said the same. The mare stood still, flicking an ear first at Jim and then back at Sheppard. It made him grin as he finished adjusting his stirrups. He collected the reins and closed his legs with gentle pressure on the mare's sides.

She launched herself forward with more energy than he would have liked. He shortened the reins, causing the mare to lift her head and hollow out her back, stepping out with a springing gait.

"Holy crap, Jim, she's doing a passage. I thought you said she didn't have much training?"

Jim seemed to wipe a grin off his face before speaking. "Get your hands out of her mouth. Reins on the buckle. Relax your seat; sit deep in the saddle. Leave her be and she'll settle."

As counter-intuitive as it seemed, Sheppard let go of the mare's mouth. She relaxed at once, dropping into a walk when he closed his thighs, though her gait continued to have a lot of suspension to it. Her fuzzy ears swiveled back in his direction before popping forward again.

"Thirty minutes of walking only," Jim said when it became apparent that the mare was going to remain calm. "Stay near the barn and arena; the woods are too wet and she's a little too fresh for you to try her out there today anyway."

Sheppard agreed wholeheartedly. He had visions of seventeen hundred pounds of horseflesh exploding out from underneath him should they suddenly encounter a deer or a turkey in the woods. The mare, which he was already calling 'The Moose' in his head, remained on her toes during the ride, so he never completely relaxed on her. She had a comfortable, swinging gait, and part of him longed to know how she'd feel underneath him if he urged her into a gallop.

The thirty minutes passed sooner than expected, and before he knew it, it was time to head back to the barn. The clouds had scudded across the sky during his ride, alternatively dappling the ground below the mare's feet with sunlight and shadow. The sky had turned completely overcast by the time the ride was up, however, and it looked like it might rain again.

"That's all we can do for now," Jim said at last and Sheppard was startled when he realized how much time had passed. He'd groomed The Moose, applied hoof dressing to her feet before turning her out, and wiped down the tack before putting it away. He'd helped Jim toss down some hay from the loft for use over the next few days, and he'd followed and listened as Jim had spoken briefly about each of the horses on the farm.

He looked around. It really was too wet still to use the arena; he could see where Jim's hands were tied for the moment.

"I might as well go into town and pick up grain." Jim frowned, obviously revising a schedule in his head. "You're welcome to come with me..."

Sheppard thought about it and shook his head. "Nah, I'll stay here. Do some laundry."

Jim nodded as though he'd expected that response. He hesitated before speaking again, choosing his words carefully. "You're not in any trouble are you, Hotshot?"

It was a fair question. "No," he said slowly. A grin stole over his face. "Not that I know of, anyway."

Jim's expression turned wry, as he knew that was the best answer he was going to get. "Right, then. You need anything from the store?"

"I'm good," Sheppard answered. Best if he didn't use his ATM card right now. The more people who thought he was dead, the better.

Jim left him to his own devices and took Pig into town. Sheppard made himself a PB & J sandwich, added a banana as an afterthought, and took himself into the living room. The wood fire needed a bit of poking, but he was able to get it going again. He ate his sandwich and wandered over to the laptop, taking a seat at the desk.

Jim didn't have a password—why would someone who lived alone need one? He ignored Jim's personal files and connected to the internet, glad that Jim was able to get broadband in this part of Virginia. Twenty minutes later, he had a good idea of the kind of power the people McKay worked for possessed. There was no mention of the people who'd died at the hands of the Wraith, save the poor schmuck from the motel, who was presumed to have died from food poisoning. No mention of the A-10s. No mention of exploding trailers or ships that could beam you up into outer space. No mention of a sardonic guy in a suit from Area 51, or a shot up Camaro in the desert. The power outage that occurred when the Wraith flipped the switch and lit up his homing beacon was put down to excessive use during the unusually hot September afternoon in Nevada. He did find a report of his abandoned car and that an investigation into his disappearance was being conducted. The article suggested that perhaps he owed some money to the wrong people and that foul play was suspected.

Nice touch, McKay. Nothing like making sure he couldn't go back to Vegas. He wondered what it would be like to have that kind of power. Surely, nothing good could come of it.

Having discovered all that he could about the events a few days ago, he turned off the laptop and wandered around the living room. Like the room that he slept in the night before, the dcor was simple, except for the photographs. The photos here were professional quality—many of them taken during events that Sheppard remembered well. Some of them were personal, and he remembered those events too. The water fight with the hoses in the barn, the time he and PJ fell in the mud at Green Hill Park. These scenes were interspersed with gorgeous still-life shots—a black and white photo of a horse shaking water off post bathing, a red fox crossing a field of snow. Sheppard had never realized how talented Jim was with a camera.

He also hadn't realized how many photos Jim had of him. Oh, sure, there were plenty with Dave as well, but most of the photos in the living room featured Sheppard in some way. The centerpiece was a shot of him and PJ taking the water jump at Commonwealth Park. The big dapple-gray gelding was leaping down, legs extended as he reached for the water. John was leaning back in the saddle, bracing for the drop with a ridiculous grin on his face at the sheer exhilaration of the moment.

You should leave now. Before Jim figures out you're nothing like the person he thinks you are. The urge to leave before Jim came back was strong, very strong. It lasted but a moment, however, when Sheppard realized the futility of trying to run when he had no transportation, no money to speak of, either. Be patient, he told himself. When the money comes, you can go anywhere you want.

He pictured himself on a beach somewhere down in Mexico. Where no one knew his name and he could surf all day and drink beer all night. Where no one expected him to live up to anything, let alone his 'potential'.

****

On the morning of the fifth day, Sheppard started down the stairs, dressed to ride The Moose, when he heard the sound of conversation in the kitchen. He slowed as he approached the door, pausing to listen.

"You mean to tell me, he hasn't said anything to you? Nothing at all about what happened to him in Vegas?" There was no mistaking the superior tone of voice. McKay. Finally. Even as he thought the words, part of him regretted that his time with Jim was at an end.

"He said it wasn't his story to tell. You trying to tell me otherwise?" Jim had his 'polite' voice on, the one that told Sheppard that he was irritated but determined not to show it.

"No, no," McKay said, bemusement creeping into his voice. "It's just that secrets are very hard to keep. Sheppard almost seems to embrace them." There was a pause, and then McKay continued. "And he said nothing about me, either?"

"Only that he was meeting someone." Jim's answer was abrupt.

Sheppard was a bit surprised, actually, that McKay had brought the money himself. His instincts immediately whispered that McKay was up to something and hadn't brought the money at all.

"Tell me, Dr. McKay," Jim said, in speculative voice, one that Sheppard knew well. "Are you the one who beat him up so bad?"

"What? No. I don't know what you mean." McKay sounded a little flustered and Sheppard, behind the door, grinned.

"He came here on foot in the middle of tropical storm, his jacket full of bullet holes, and closed up tight like a turtle in its shell. I can barely get him to say two words." It hurt Sheppard to hear the pain in Jim's voice. "So you tell me. What the hell is going on?"

"I didn't beat him up—he did that to himself." McKay's voice was sharp. "I'm not here to batter him—I'm here to offer him a second chance."

"He's not ready. Whatever it is you want from him, he's not ready. You leave him with me for another couple of months—six would be better—and he can do whatever it is you need him to do. But he needs to stay here right now."

Sheppard caught his breath at Jim's words. Something inside him surged forward at Jim's suggestion, begging to stay at Jim's house a bit longer. He could see it so clearly in his mind's eye: days working horses, nights reading books, Jim's quiet approval. He couldn't remember the last time he wanted anything so badly.

"I can see your point, though I don't entirely agree with you." McKay sounded almost sympathetic. "Men like Sheppard need to be tossed in the deep end so they can show you what they're made of. You know he's eavesdropping behind the door, right?"

Sheppard sighed and stepped forward, pushing the door open to enter the kitchen. "McKay," he said, pretending that he hadn't heard what had transpired before. "You brought my money?"

He made eye contact with Jim. Whatever Jim saw there, it made him relax slightly.

"Yes." McKay pushed out the chair beside him to indicate the black duffel bag sitting in it. The bag looked remarkably like the one that he'd lifted from the Wraith's hotel room.

He didn't take McKay at his word. He crossed over to the bag, opened it, and checked the contents, satisfying himself that it did, indeed, hold his money.

"Good," he said shortly. "You can go now."

McKay laughed. "I have business here with Mr. Banks. Seems he might possess the ATA gene. May be even a stronger carrier than you." McKay took a small object out of his pocket and held it out toward Jim. "Mr. Banks, have you ever run across anything like this before?"

Sheppard looked down at the medallion and chain that McKay held in his hand. An irrational surge of protectiveness and anger leapt up in him. "McKay," he snapped. "I'd like a word with you in private, please."

Jim glanced from the medallion in McKay's hand to Sheppard's face and back to McKay again. "I suspect you boys have a thing or two to discuss. I'll leave you to it." Jim turned and left the kitchen, heading in the direction of the living room.

"You. With me." Sheppard spoke abruptly, before heading toward the front door. He didn't wait to see if McKay followed and it was only later that he realized that he'd ordered McKay to come with him, instead of asking.

McKay did follow him, however: outside, down the stairs, and across the yard to the barn.

"Horses," McKay said, with a sniff, as they entered the narrow aisle of the barn. "Great dumb beasts that are dangerous to boot. Figures you'd like them." He seemed taken aback when Sheppard whipped around to face him.

The aisle was dark in comparison to the sunny day outside. McKay was backlit by the open door and he looked out of place with his slick suit and dress shoes. Sheppard wanted to punch him in the face.

"You leave Jim alone. He's got nothing to do with this and nothing to do with me, got it? So you take your alien gizmos and you get the hell out of here." He got up in McKay's face as he spoke.

He had to give the guy credit. McKay didn't move. "You won't help us," he said calmly. "I don't know if I conveyed it to you adequately before, but the ATA gene is really quite rare. We need every person who has it. You think this attack on Earth was an isolated incident? How nave are you?"

"What makes you think he has the gene?"

McKay laughed softly and stepped back this time, so he could pull the medallion out of his pocket again. "Well, now that's an interesting story. Remember when you lay dying in the desert?"

Sheppard folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against a wall of stacked hay.

"Sardonic suits you," McKay said with a sly grin. Sheppard was startled at how something inside him reacted to that crooked smile and he firmly squashed it.

"Anyway," McKay continued more briskly. "When we lost contact with you, I knew you'd engaged the Wraith. As it turns out, it was a good thing you did because while you were playing Shoot Out at the OK Corral, you distracted the Wraith long enough that the jet fighters were able to take out the trailer before he could flip the switch and turn on the beacon. He was ready, you know. He did turn it on, just before the fighters targeted the trailer." McKay watched him, gauging his reaction. He held up a hand as if to forestall Sheppard's next words. "The signal didn't make it through. Not in our reality, at least. But the shock wave he created tore a rift through several realities and we feel certain the signal did get through in other universes."

Sheppard felt sick inside. "So, those other universes, those other Earths..."

"Could be in big time trouble right now." McKay nodded. "Point is, you really did save this planet. I know you think everyone's been exaggerating that fact, but we're not. Just for the record, we don't bring back everyone from the dead in a sarcophagus, you know. Think what havoc that would wreak if word got out such a thing even existed. Negative side effects notwithstanding. No, the President had to give his okay on that one."

"The President?" Sheppard could feel his anger ebbing away.

"Yes, the President." McKay looked at him with an odd expression. "He wants to meet you, by the way. What? You didn't think you could just take the money and run, did you?" McKay continued, thankfully not dwelling on the whole hero thing, "Anyway, between the Wraith and the fighters, we presumed you were dead. Until this medallion lit up and my phone rang."

Sheppard knew he was supposed to ask what the connection was and felt compelled to play his part. "Let me guess. It was the Verizon guy."

McKay snorted and bit his lip. His grin sneaked out anyway. "No, it was Jim Banks." He said the name with suppressed glee, looking very much like a demented elf when he did so.

Sheppard straightened out of his lean against the hay bales. He glanced involuntarily at the house.

"No!" McKay's glee became even more pronounced. "Not that Jim Banks. A Jim from another universe. Calling me. On a cell phone. Using the medallion to boost the signal across realities." McKay paused here, his expression turning thoughtful. "For that to work, he must have had a medallion himself. I'm not certain it would have worked regardless, if it hadn't been for the rift in the space-time continuum caused by the Wraith. That's neither here nor there. The point is that Jim Banks somehow saw that you were in trouble and called to let me know you needed help." McKay's expression became delighted again, as though he was a small boy finding something cool under the Christmas tree.

He held up the medallion for Sheppard to see. It was a small circular object made of some pewter-like metal and decorated with tiny carvings. Sheppard also noted that McKay was no longer wearing his wedding ring. With one swift move, he snagged the medallion from McKay's hand.

"Hey!" McKay protested.

Sheppard turned the object over with his fingers. "This? This somehow turned into an inter-dimensional cell phone? Pull the other one, McKay." He held the medallion up to one ear. "Hello? Can you hear me now?"

"Very funny," McKay said. He reached toward Sheppard, who leaned back out of range.

The metal felt as though it was becoming warmer, and as he opened his mouth to comment on it, McKay's eyes widened. "It's lighting up!"

Sheppard pulled it away from his ear to look at it. Yep. It was glowing blue all right. "Pretty," he said, starting to hand to back to McKay. "Would make a nice Christmas tree ornament."

A sound behind him made him turn his head. At the end of the aisle, beyond the stalls where the barn opened up into the tack room and office, he saw a strange light. Frowning, he turned, still holding the medallion.

"What is it? What do you see?" McKay was suddenly behind him, pressing in over his shoulder. Sheppard resisted the urge to shove him away and instead concentrated on the image at the end of the barn.

"It's a room of some sort." He began walking to the end of the aisle with McKay following closely behind.

"What kind of room? Do you see any people there? Lights? Consoles?"

Sheppard spared McKay a quick glance over his shoulder. The medallion in his hand seemed to be getting hotter.

"Whatever you're seeing, it has to be because someone else there has a medallion, get it? Do you see one anywhere?" Up close, McKay's eyes were an electric blue. They flicked back and forth as they scanned his face, trying to pull more information out of him.

"It's a room, McKay. It looks like someone's private quarters." He could see the room superimposed on the aisle—the entrance to the office and the tack room shimmering off to the sides. On the other side of the image, he could see the stairs leading to the loft, but directly in front of him was someone's bedroom.

"Well, what do you see? Can you describe it? Some detective you are, Sheppard." The return of McKay's sarcasm was somehow reassuring.

He scanned the room, describing its contents as he went. "Okay. There are some large windows facing out toward bright light. It looks like it's up high, a skyscraper maybe, or maybe overlooking the sea. It's a small room with a table for a desk and a laptop on it. There's a bed...someone's in it, covers pulled up over his head." He could see the top of someone's dark head under the covers and he felt an odd frisson of sensation when he saw the person under the blankets start to stir.

He leaned back a little, bumping into McKay.

"What? What?" McKay's breath was warm and excited in his ear.

"I think he's waking up. Can he see us?"

McKay's eyes went wide with shock and then narrowed as he thought quickly. "No, I don't think so. I couldn't see Banks when I spoke to him, but then there was a phone involved...no, I don't know."

"And you can't see anything at all?" Sheppard found that hard to believe.

"No," McKay's response was sharp, as though he'd been asked the question many times before and didn't like the answer. "I wouldn't be asking you if I could see for myself. What else? Go on; finish describing the room. It sounds suspiciously like the rooms on Atlantis and I want confirmation."

Sheppard nodded, turning back to study the room. "Okay, some curtains made out of a weird sparkly material...a single book on the bedside table... a poster of—" He broke off as he recognized the poster of Johnny Cash as being the same one he used to have in his office at work. He flicked his gaze back to the sleeping man and a creeping suspicion came over him that he was looking at himself. He became aware of the sound of running water nearby and realized that someone was taking a shower behind the closed door.

"What?" McKay asked irritably. "A poster of what?"

Sheppard started to tell McKay to shut up when the man in the bed rolled over and stretched.

No fucking way. Even though he'd been half suspecting it, Sheppard was still startled to see himself yawn and push down the covers to scratch at his bare chest. There, with the dog tags, the doppelganger was wearing a medallion, just like the one he held in his hand.

"It's me." He said in disbelief.

"Really?" McKay was delighted. "Hah! You in Atlantis. I knew it. Go ahead, try to make contact."

"How am I supposed to do that?" He frowned at McKay.

"I don't know; you're the one with the gene." McKay sounded as though that were a sore point and Sheppard suddenly got it.

"You don't have the gene, do you?"

"I have the gene; it's just inactive, the way it is in over fifty percent of the people who have it. Focus on contacting the other Sheppard, would you?"

As he watched, the 'other' Sheppard turned his attention on the closed door with a grin and tossed back the covers, rising from the bed. He was completely naked. Sheppard couldn't help comparing this man to himself—recognizing from his fitness, if not the presence of the dog tags, that this man was still in the military. He moved easily toward the bathroom door, where the sound of running water had suddenly ceased.

His cock was fully erect, and as he flattened himself against the wall, the better to surprise whomever was on the other side of the door; he fisted it lazily a few times with a slow pumping action. His expression was sleepy-lidded and pleased and Sheppard found himself feeling like a voyeur.

He was also getting hard himself, which was just weird. It wasn't the sight of himself jacking off, though; it was the anticipation of needing to know who was about to come through that door.

The door slid sideways, and McKay walked through it, pink and damp, a towel around his waist and using another towel to dry his ears. Sheppard let him completely enter the room and then launched his attack when McKay paused to take in the empty bed.

"God damn it, John!" McKay yelled as he landed against the wall with a thump, Sheppard pinning him up with his body. He dropped the towel in his hand. "You know I hate it when you do that!"

"Yeah, but you love it when I do this." John demonstrated by trapping McKay's hands and nuzzling the side of his neck. McKay sighed and twisted underneath him, curling his toes in pleasure.

"Oh god," he murmured. "Promise me you won't shave again today?" John grinned and claimed McKay's mouth with purpose, lips meshing so that he could push his tongue inside McKay's mouth. McKay clenched the skin at his hips and Sheppard watched as his doppelganger began to rub and grind against McKay.

His mouth fell open. He felt a thin layer of sweat break out between his shoulders and his cock throbbed in longing as he watched the two men kiss each other against the wall. Shit. Holy shit.

"What is going on? Why aren't you saying anything?" McKay poked him in the back.

Sheppard turned to face him, nostrils flaring. "Not now, McKay. Just shut the fuck up."

McKay looked at him with startled eyes, and for a couple of heartbeats, Sheppard could feel the heat of attraction between them. He forcibly dragged his gaze back to the action in the other room.

McKay was reluctantly ending the kiss. "We've got work to do."

"I know." John looked suddenly morose. He turned back toward the chair, where his clothes were stacked in a neat pile.

"Hey." McKay smacked his ass in passing. "It's not going to be so bad, I promise. They won't leave Atlantis here on Earth. They can't. We're needed in Pegasus. We came, we saved the day, we'll go home as soon as you can fly us there. Wormhole drive!" McKay spun his hand in a little flourish.

Sheppard found himself assessing this McKay and looking for the differences between him and the man behind him. That McKay seemed more volatile, more intense, but somehow more approachable. His hair was longer and standing up in fuzzy disarray from having been toweled. He seemed softer, a little rounder, too, and more relaxed. The broad expanse of his chest and shoulders was pleasing to the eye, and Sheppard forced himself to turn away.

The other Sheppard had put on socks and boxers and was zipping up black BDUs. "I wouldn't count on that. It's going to be a bureaucratic nightmare and you know it. I'll be surprised if they let us go home at all." He'd been in the process of picking up his boots—now he threw one with violence across the room.

"Hey. Hey. Come on, John." McKay came over to him soothingly, the way Sheppard would have spoken to a fractious horse. He slowly folded that John into his arms and held him.

Sheppard, watching from the sidelines, caught his breath as John relaxed into his embrace.

"It won't be that bad. Hey, at least we're outside San Francisco. They're gonna repeal DADT, you know. Soon."

"Which won't go into effect for another year or so. God, Rodney, if we're here that long... You know what will happen. They'll start reassigning people. They'll start taking the city apart piece by piece."

"Long before that happens, you'll steal the city and run away with it back to Pegasus." Rodney was very matter of fact. "And I'll help you. Ditto Ronon and Teyla. And most of the people in the expedition, for that matter. We'll...we'll declare independence and raise our own flag. Something black, no doubt, with pirates and Johnny Cash on it." Rodney gave John that that impish, crooked smile and John grinned back at him like a dork.

Rodney suddenly frowned. "Hey. Your medallion is glowing."

John looked down at it as well. "I thought it felt warm."

"Well?" Rodney suddenly looked and sounded much more like the McKay that Sheppard knew. "Can you pick up on anyone?"

"Well?" McKay said behind him, in a creepy echo.

John took hold of the medallion hanging around his neck. He glanced up quickly in the direction of where Sheppard and McKay stood on the sidelines, looking in.

Sheppard opened his hand and dropped the medallion to the floor of the barn. The image of the room from Atlantis vanished. McKay dove on the medallion, scooping it up.

"Well?" His voice was sharp. "What happened? What did you see?"

This was going to take a little editing. "I saw into someone's quarters. I think they were mine, or at least, they belonged to another version of me. You were there, too, and we were discussing the fact that Atlantis was on Earth—in San Francisco, it would seem. There seemed to be some concern that they wouldn't be allowed to go back to Pegasus. Something about a 'wormhole' drive as well."

McKay stood in front of him frowning as he listened, his face suddenly clearing when Sheppard came to the end of his recital. "Wormhole drive? Their McKay must have gotten it to work. Genius! They must have come to Earth in response to the Wraith homing beacon. Well, it's nice to know that, at least in one other universe, once again, we saved the day."

Sheppard continued to stare at him. As he did so, he thought he could perceive a slight flush over McKay's cheeks.

"What?" McKay said, this time sounding a shade defensive. "We make a good team. I've been trying to tell you that all along. Why'd you drop the medallion?"

"The other me realized we were there. I...I didn't want him to know we'd been listening."

"Why not?" McKay was curious.

"You're not wearing your wedding ring." Sheppard surprised himself by saying.

McKay did flush this time. "Oh. That. I'm not really married. I just find it easier to pretend that I am when I'm on Earth." He shrugged as though the reasons for that should be self-evident. "Don't think I didn't notice that you changed the subject, because I did."

"I thought you had something going on with that doctor, whatshername, Keller?"

McKay rolled his eyes. "She wishes. That's why I wear the ring."

"You think about just telling her that you're not interested?"

McKay's expression got cagey for a moment. "Sometimes in my line of work, it helps to have... the appearance of keeping your options open."

Sheppard let his face remain blanks as he moved back toward the house. McKay dropped into step alongside him.

They paused at the end of the aisle to look out into the sunny yard.

"What are you going to do now?" McKay asked, a wary note entering his voice.

Sheppard suddenly grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around until he had McKay pressed up against the stacked hay. McKay's eyes went wide and dark. His mouth dropped open in surprise. Sheppard gave into temptation and kissed him, punishing and hard. McKay squirmed and made a little noise of protest but relaxed when Sheppard softened the kiss.

He released McKay as abruptly as he'd grabbed him in the first place. "Bet you didn't see that coming." He gave McKay his most wicked grin and waited until he saw McKay's face turn red in reaction before moving off in the direction of the house.

He smiled to himself as he left McKay sputtering in anger behind him.

"What the hell was that about?" McKay said when he caught up with Sheppard on the porch.

"Just wanted to wipe that smug smile off your face." Sheppard continued inside without looking back to see if McKay followed him.

He did, however.

Pig barked once as he entered the house and then followed him down the hall to the kitchen. McKay entered behind him. He heard Jim's boots on the stairs and waited until Jim came into the kitchen as well before speaking.

"You want to know what I plan to do next, McKay?"

McKay nodded, apparently having regained his composure. He looked at Sheppard as though he were a piece of equipment that had exceeded specs, however. Sheppard found himself looking forward to rattling that self-possessed attitude as frequently as possible.

"That job offer still available?"

"Yes, but realize this. Once you sign up, you're ours. You can't just walk away any time you feel like it."

It was Sheppard's turn to nod. It was a fair warning.

"What's going on here, boys?" Jim's question made him want to burst out laughing. He hadn't felt that way in a very long time.

Instead of answering directly, Sheppard picked up the duffel bag and opened it to check the contents. Yep. Full of cash, all right. Looked like it was all there, down to the pocket change. He took out a stack of bills and set it, along with the bag, on the kitchen table. He pushed it all over toward Jim.

"This is for you. I want you to take it and use it to finance the kind of training facility you've always wanted. Consider me a silent partner."

Jim looked aghast. "I can't do that, son. Where'd you get that kind of money, anyway?"

"Does it matter? What if I told you he made it selling government secrets to foreign nations?" McKay jumped in quickly with a sneering response. Sheppard frowned at him, wondering what had prompted him to say that.

Jim shot him a filthy look. "Tell me something I might actually believe." He turned away from McKay to look at Sheppard. "Well?"

"I won it gambling. In a manner of speaking. It's legally mine, Jim. And I want you to have it. I won't need it. I'm going to work with McKay."

Jim frowned, even as McKay's smile became more impossibly smug than before. "I appreciate it, Hotshot, but I can't accept this kind of money. It's too much. Sorry."

Sheppard ignored McKay's delight at hearing his nickname. "Jim, I want you to take this. I want you to set up the stable. The only thing I want in return is a place to stay when I'm in town and a horse to ride while I'm here. Please."

"Surely you need some of this money for yourself."

Sheppard smiled, knowing that he'd won this hand. "I do. Some. I've got some debts to pay off. But the rest is yours."

McKay coughed. "I wouldn't worry about those debts if I were you."

Sheppard leveled a long look at him.

McKay just shrugged. "We can't have some Vegas mobster out for your blood. We deemed it a necessary expenditure."

"You were that sure I was going to come back with you."

"Vegas mobster?" Jim looked very worried.

McKay grinned. "I had a substantial bet riding on the fact that I believed you were coming back. Carter and Zelenka owe me big time now." His grin was infectious.

He glanced at his watch. "Well, come on then. We've got a plane to catch. I'm assuming you have something else to wear other than something out of a Dick Francis novel?"

Sheppard glanced down at the britches and tall boots, turning one leather-encased ankle over at the side as he examined his attire. "Well, no, not really."

McKay nodded, as though he'd expected that answer. "I've got a suitcase in the car with some clothes for you. Hope you like black."

This time, Sheppard did laugh. McKay's eyebrows shot up toward his hairline.

"My god, he sounds like a dying donkey!"

Jim just looked as though he'd won the lottery. Sheppard was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the money, either.

~fin~