Through a Glass, Darkly
by Eildon Rhymer (aka Rhymer23)
When an injured John Sheppard shows up at his door in the middle of the night, David Sheppard finds himself in the middle of a desperate adventure. Hunted by implacable enemies and haunted by past misunderstandings, the two brothers struggle to survive in a world gone terribly wrong.
1. This story is seasonal in setting, but not in theme. Christmas provides some of the background trappings in a few of the scenes, but no more than that.
2. The show hasn't revealed which of the Sheppard brothers is older, and I've read good arguments on both sides, but for the purposes of this story, I've decided to go with the less popular option of making John the elder. I just felt that it provided more interesting emotional issues for the brothers to deal with.
When you hold a wine glass up to the light, splashes of red dance around the room like Christmas lights.
David Sheppard lowered the glass to his lap, cupping it in both hands. When you look into a glass of wine, he thought, it shines like a mirror, but you can't see the reflection of anybody that you recognise. When you drain it down to the dregs, it doesn't make your day seem any better than it seemed when you trudged through the door, threw your jacket over the kitchen chair, and slumped down onto the couch for a few hours of bleak existence before another day's hard work.
He sighed, placing the empty glass on the coffee table. Dad's glass, he thought. Dad's couch. Dad's house. It was a whole expanse of empty rooms, now inhabited by just one person. After one glass of wine, it was a place of ghosts. After half a bottle, it was almost more than he could bear, but he had promised his father that there would always be a Sheppard living in the old place, and that, as they said, was that.
He hadn't gotten as far as to remove his tie yet. He loosened the knot, grimacing at how crumpled his shirt sleeves were. A headache was building between his eyes, too much to let him read. Television, then. He clicked it on. Children were singing about peace and goodwill, surrounded by fake snow and sparkling lights. Dave felt his eyes drawn to the corner of the room, where the emptiness was almost palpable. He remembered when a tree had stood there; when he and Johnny had emerged on Christmas morning to a world of wonder; when it had truly seemed that the magic would never end.
He remembered smiles. But there were precious few of those left in the world nowadays; he could claim no monopoly on misery.
The song came to an end, bells chiming in a false promise of hope and happiness. Dave changed the channel, then changed it again, letting each image linger for just a second before moving on: a lion ripping up red flesh; a space captain flirting with a blue-skinned girl; world leaders speaking with grim faces; black-clad officials telling the populace what they could and could not do…
He clicked the television off, hurling the remote control across the room. Christmas cards scattered, each one with scrawled, impersonal greetings. There was no card from John, of course – never was. At least the cards had obscured the picture frames, each one turned face down so he couldn't see the smiling faces of those who had gone.
Music, perhaps. He stood up wearily, and ran his finger along the spines of his CD collection, starting randomly from the middle of the alphabet. Mozart, he thought – nothing with any emotional association with anything special in his life; nothing he had ever particularly liked. The orchestra started up, and the choir joined in, singing of death and requiem. Huh, good choice, Dave. Even now, so many years on, his mental voice sometimes sounded like John gently chiding him. Way to cheer yourself up.
Was that a noise? Was somebody…? He turned the volume down, and stood there, head cocked, listening. Rain hammered on the window, so perhaps the noise had been no more than that. He wasn't expecting anyone, and a knock on the door after nightfall always meant… Well, it seldom meant well. You heard such terrible stories. Sometimes people went home at the end of the day and were never seen again. It started with a knock on the door, or so everyone said.
The sound came again. It was definitely somebody at the door. It was probably nothing to worry about, he told himself. He'd heard about a group of people – crazy people with a death wish, everyone said – who went from door to door singing Christmas songs. It couldn't be anything worse than that. He always kept his head down; was careful about what he said and what he did.
He could feel his heart speeding up, though, and his throat was dry, the aftertaste of the red wine acrid in his mouth. He moved towards the door, past darkened stairways and empty rooms. He looked at familiar pictures and dying pot plants; at the scuffed patch on the carpet made by two boys' feet scampering excitedly towards all the possibilities of outside. This could be the last he saw of all of this. This could be the last.
The knocking grew more urgent. Dave stopped, let his shoulders slump forward, then drew his head up, ready to face whatever it was that awaited him. The peep-hole showed only one person, leaning against the door with their head bowed and their face obscured. Only one. Dave fastened the chain – as if a chain would make any difference to them! – and pulled at the first of the three bolts.
His hands were trembling as the third one snapped open. He opened the door just a slit, and looked out, slamming the light switch with his left palm as he did so, bathing the porch in yellow light.
His visitor looked up. "John," Dave breathed. If anything, his heart started to beat even faster, and he shook with relief mingled with something else.
"Dave." John's smile was nothing like how Dave thought he remembered it, and yet sharply familiar, both at the same time. "I'm sorry. I…" His smile faded. He looked over his shoulder, peering into the night. Dave tried to look out, too, but the light on the porch turned everything else into featureless darkness.
Dave tightened his grip on the handle. "What are you doing here? I haven't seen you since… God, since--"
"I'm sorry," John said again, but he was twitchy, still darting looks out into the darkness. "Something's wrong. I didn't know… Couldn't think of anywhere else to go. Something's wrong."
Dave felt the old, familiar prick of anger; it was easier, really, than feeling anything else. "Damn it, John, you can't just…" He gestured sharply with his hand. "This. After so long…"
John blinked. "It's not that long." He seemed to struggle for a smile for a moment – that familiar sheepish smile that always made you forgive him when he'd done something thoughtless – but gave it up with a sigh. "No. No, you're right. I'm sorry." He turned to go.
It was raining very hard, Dave noticed, and John wasn't dressed for a New England winter. His clothes were sodden, and as he turned, he swayed, striking the side of the porch with his shoulder.
And Dave hadn't even drawn back the chain. Dave hadn't even fully opened the door to him. Outside was a dangerous place to be after dark, and John was family. John was his brother, for God's sake.
"No. John. I'm sorry. Come in." Dave drew back the chain, the links fumbling in his fingers.
"Shouldn't have come," John mumbled, standing on the edge of the pool of light, looking out at the darkness. "Sorry. Sorry, I--"
"Don't be ridiculous," Dave found himself saying. "Come in."
John's hand crept out to his side, as if that was the only thing keeping him up. "I don't know if… Think I shook them off, but…" He half turned round, light falling heavy on his face. "Everything's wrong, Dave."
When Dave stepped out onto the porch, the cold struck him like a fist. "You're coming in." John's arm was shockingly cold when he touched it, and Dave could feel fine tremors beneath his brother's skin. "I won't take no for an answer."
"You're stubborn." John smiled the ghost of a smile.
Dave's own smile was grim. "I learnt from the best."
It should have felt safer when the door was closed again, bolted against the things that prowled outside. John was drenched, dripping steadily onto the carpet. He looked more out of place inside than he had looked on the porch. It was as if Dave's eyes kept wanting to reshape him, to make him into the boy he had once been. He remembered John coming home with a shattered skateboard, dripping blood from his elbow and his knee. He remembering finding John leaning against the door, his hand covering his eyes, not crying, of course not crying because his first girlfriend had broken up with him.
"You're sick," he said, as John stood swaying in the hallway. "No, you're drunk."
John shook his head. "No. Not drunk." He was twitchy, though, and his eyes looked dazed. Now that he was lit fully by artificial light, his pallor was unmistakeable.
"Sick, then." Dave had no choice now but to complete what he had started. "Let's get you warm, at least."
John hesitated, though, acting as if he didn't know the way. No, Dave realised. Waiting to be asked. Waiting to be invited. Pressing his lips together to keep from saying something that he shouldn't, he led John through the house. John looked at the couch, and then at Dave, clearly reluctant to sit down until he was asked. It's your house, Dave thought. At least, it should be. He didn't say that, either. "Sit down," he said. "Don't worry about getting the couch wet. It's had worse."
John sat down, but kept himself upright, as if he was expecting to have to leap up again at a moment's notice. His eyes flickered around the room. Dave saw him notice the fallen Christmas cards; saw him notice the photo frames behind them, turned face down.
"Laura left me," he found himself saying. "It wasn't me, it was her, apparently. There's no-one else. She just didn't--" He stopped, snapping the words off. It didn't matter any more, did it?
"Laura?" He saw John frown slightly. "I didn't know… Didn't know you…"
"Yeah. Still with her. Until a few months ago, anyway." As you would have known, he wanted to shout, if you've ever bothered to come home. John had met Laura years ago, and had seemed to like her. It had been important to Dave, back then, that John liked his girlfriends. Over time, of course, she had become more than just a girlfriend. He'd kept meaning to ask her to marry him, but they'd both had careers, both been forced to spend whole months apart living in different cities.
Now he would never find out how things would have gone, if life had taken a different course and allowed him to ask the question.
John blinked. "I didn't know."
"Of course you didn't," Dave said harshly. John was trembling badly, he saw, although he seemed to be trying to hold himself still, muscles taut across the back of his neck. He really didn't look well. "I'll get towels," Dave said, pushing the anger aside for another time. "Are you hungry?"
John didn't answer straightaway. Dave decided to take that as a yes, if only because it allowed him to slip away into the kitchen, to lean there with his hands on the table, to wonder what on earth had caused John to come home, and how on earth he was supposed to be reacting. He felt dazed, more than anything else. So many people in the world today looked dazed, as if they couldn't really believe the things that were happening.
The rain was beating on the window. The clock ticked on the wall, counting seconds. With a sigh, Dave started moving, putting together a plate of leftovers. There always were leftovers – just him to feed in a house that should have held a family.
John had moved when he got back, and was standing at the window, looking intently out into the darkness. As Dave approached, he let the drapes fall again.
"Why have you come back?" Dave demanded harshly. "Why come back like this after so long without a word? Is it money?"
John flinched, almost as if he had been slapped. "I thought we were over that," he said stiffly. There was something off about his movements, though. When he stepped away from the window, he almost fell, grabbing blindly for the wall for support.
Dave put the plate down, and tried to offer help, but John seemed to pull himself inwards, withdrawing from touch. "I'm good," he said. "I'm good."
"No." Dave shook his head. "No, you're not. Remember when you climbed out the window one night, to do… I never did find out what you were going to do, just that you fell. You spent three days pretending nothing was wrong. Then we discovered that you'd cracked your collarbone."
John frowned. "I don't… remember that." His hand rose to his brow, fingers pressing between his eyes.
He really was quite shockingly cold. For the first time, Dave started wondering if this meant doctors and hospitals, rather than food, coffee, and a painful, awkward night of family reunion. "Are you--?" he began, but John pulled away.
"Shouldn't have come," he mumbled. Then his head snapped up. A helicopter passed overheard, its thudding sound growing louder and louder, then fading away. "Shouldn't," John said again, as if only seconds and not minutes had passed. "Everything's wrong, and I thought… " He scraped his hand across his eyes. "Maybe I'm the one that's wrong. You'd think I'd remember breaking my collarbone. You'd think I'd remember this." His hand jabbed sharply towards the window, as if encompassing the whole world outside.
"You would remember it," Dave said, still unable to keep the sharpness from his voice, "if you came home more. Six years, John."
"Six years?" John blinked. For a moment, Dave could have sworn that that was fear in his eyes. "But I came home--"
Dave cut him off. "Save the excuses for tomorrow. I'm tired. You need to eat." You couldn't talk so easily when you were eating. Part of him – the part of him who had adored his brother Johnny as a boy – wanted John to do nothing but talk, but the part of him that had turned Laura's picture face down wanted him silent and gone.
Perhaps things would seem clearer in the morning. Perhaps things would be easier if he had that second glass of wine.
Dave walked towards the table, then stopped dead in his tracks. "John?" His voice sounded dry. He swallowed. "Johnny? There's blood."
He turned in time to catch John as he slumped sideways. "No," he heard John mumble, "I'm good. I'll leave. I'm sorry," but Dave shook his head firmly, and manhandled John's semi-conscious body over to the couch.
"You're not good," Dave said. John's eyes were open only slits, his head sinking back into the cushions. "Johnny, there's blood all over the couch."
"Blood, huh?" John gave half a smile. "Didn't know. Knew I'd taken some fire, but I didn't know… didn't think it was… You know how it is: adrenaline. I didn't think…"
Dave felt cold all over. "No, I don't know how it is." He didn't know what to do. You saw these things on medical dramas, but you didn't have to do it in real life. You'd seen so many more terrible things than you'd ever thought to see, but you didn't expect to be in a situation like this. "You're shot. John, you're shot."
John smiled, but his eyes were beginning to glaze over. "'s no big deal. Been shot before." His eyes cleared. "There's worse things. Worse things…"
Dave swallowed hard. "Stay still," he ordered. "I need to see…"
See what? Seeing it wouldn't make a difference, but he had to… He unfastened the top button of John's shirt. John sucked in a breath, held it for a long time, then let it out again. He turned away, too, biting his lip, averting his face. Dave unfastened the second button, then the third. John still wore dog tags, he saw. "I thought they…" Dave began, then stopped, suddenly unwilling to talk about that particular issue when John was hurt and vulnerable and trusting in front of him.
The wound was half way down John's right side, and Dave had absolutely no knowledge of anatomy, to know whether any vital organs were housed there. Blood had soaked through John's shirt, and the skin of his stomach was thick with it. But not thick enough to hide the other scars, one on each side. And when Dave's eyes rose in horror towards John's face, there was no blood to hide the scar in the middle of John's chest, and no blood to hide the thickened skin at the side of John's neck, just where it met the shoulder.
"You went off to fly planes," he found himself saying – stupid words, when you had your brother's blood on your hands. "It was just a game. You were ducking out of the responsibilities of real life. You were playing – trying to go as fast as you could; always trying to go as fast as you could."
John looked at him. His mouth fluttered towards a half-smile, but then it faded again. "Yeah," he said. "It was like that once."
Dave looked at the wound. "I…" He swallowed. "I don't know what to do."
"Pressure bandage," John said. "Stop the bleeding. Stabilise. Fluids. Wait for--" He stopped abruptly, as if he had caught himself on the verge of saying something that he shouldn't have said.
"Or call for an ambulance, like ordinary people do," Dave said, his voice harsher than he had intended it.
"Yeah." John gave a rueful smile. "I keep forgetting…" He frowned, shaking his head. "I walked past a hospital when I first… When I…" He shifted position, his face tightening with pain. "Didn't like what I saw," he said. "Soldiers. Barbed wire." He made as if to grab Dave's arm, then seemed to think better of it, gripping the arm of the couch instead. "Something's very wrong here."
"You've only just noticed?" There were bloody handprints on the fabric. "God, John, you've been shot, and--"
This time John really did grab his arm, his fingers strong on Dave's wrist. "I don't think that a hospital is a good place for me to be."
You heard such hideous things. You heard of people being arrested as they presented themselves, dragged off by the enforcers before the doctors had finished treating them. You heard about people going to the hospital and never coming back, no word ever emerging on what had happened to them. But you also heard of people, crazy people, who saw conspiracies and danger in everything. You heard of people who refused medical treatment because they didn't want anyone to know that they were taking drugs. Even today, not all the dreadful stories were true.
Dave looked down at John's hand. "But I've got to do something."
John didn't appear to hear him. All bleariness was gone from his face, and he was upright and alert, his head tilted slightly to one side, as if listening.
"What--?" Dave began to ask, but then he heard it, too. The helicopter was returning. "It's nothing," he began, but John was already standing up, sliding out from Dave's restraining touch as if that touch was made of no more than water.
Dave watched the clock; saw it pass through two whole minutes. John stood at the window throughout, shirt open to his waist, his skin pale, his hair damp with rain. He held up the edge of the curtain, peeking through a tiny gap, looking out into the night.
And all the while the helicopter grew louder. Its searchlight cut through the house.
"I thought I'd shaken them off," John said. "I'm so sorry, Dave. I've got to go."
It was hard to hear anything over the noise of the helicopter, but was that the sound of shouting? Was that the sound of car doors slamming shut?
Dave opened his mouth to say something, but John was quicker, his face set in an expression that Dave had never seen on him. "I've got to go," he said again.
It was stupid to pretend ignorance, stupid to question. Dave had seen too much on the television news to live in a world of innocence any more. "No," he said, perhaps in denial, perhaps in prohibition; he didn't know which.
John started buttoning up his shirt, his fingers moving adeptly. "I didn't know I'd bring them here," he said. "Stupid. I wasn't thinking. If I go quickly…"
"To protect me." The words felt cold. Dave flashed on a memory – one so old that it was more one of impressions than anything else. He remembered cold earth and scuffed knees, and Johnny standing over him, commanding the bad boys to go away. He remembered years of trailing after his brother, and then remembered the time when Johnny had just gone, leaving behind a house full of shouting and resentment, and an empty hole where he once had been.
"Listen, Dave." John grabbed his wrist. "I know how to deal with guys like this. You don't."
"Like this," Dave echoed. He thought of the board meeting he had chaired just that afternoon – all figures and objectives and strategic plans.
The light outside was dazzling now. John pulled Dave away from the window. "Do you have a gun? They took mine when they…"
"A gun." He barely recognised his own voice. "Yes. Dad's. You know how he was." Illegal now, of course. He'd never really thought to turn it in.
He walked through the house to the study; reached beneath the desk for the key; turned the lock. John took the gun hungrily, and it was as if some invisible switch had been pressed, taking John one more step away from being anyone Dave recognised.
Lights pulsed through the uncovered windows elsewhere in the house. "I'm sorry for bringing this down on you," John said.
"Sorry." Dave was echoing like an idiot. His hand was still sticky with John's blood. "You can't go," he said. "You're hurt."
"I saw enough on the way here," John said. "I don't know who these guys are, but I know what they can do. They're entirely capable of killing. They might blow up the house just because they think I'm in it."
"So you're going to show that you're not." He felt as if he was looking down on his body from above, listening to himself speak. "Lead them away. Lead them away from me."
John did something to the gun, making it click. "I'm going to try."
Dave scraped his hand over his face. Someone started hammering at the door. "You're hurt…" he began.
"I haven't got time for this." John pulled away.
The hammering grew louder. Voices were shouting, calling his name. "No." Dave blinked, and for the first time felt fully there, faced with a brother who was trying to slip away from him once again. "I know what they're capable of," he said. "Of course I do. But I'm not letting you go out there by yourself."
"I can't stay--"
Somewhere on the far side of the house, there was an enormous crash.
"No," Dave said. "But I can go with you. And not outside, either." He grabbed John's arm, half dragging him towards the kitchen, but John broke free, and ran slightly hunched over, one arm pressed to his wound, and the other clutching the gun, ready to fire behind them.
In the kitchen, Dave scooped up his jacket from the back of the chair, rattling it quickly to make sure it still had his car keys. Then he hurled himself to his knees, and scrabbled for the hidden slits, hooking his fingertips through them to raise the trap door. "You must be kidding me," he heard John say, and looked up to see him looking honestly shocked. "That wasn't there… That wasn't…"
Dave looked up at him. "You know how Dad was. He got worse."
John looked at him for a moment longer, then nodded, accepting it. As harsh voices shouted in the far parts of the house, the two of them climbed down the ladder, down into the darkness.
end of part one
The tunnel was entirely dark, and they had to feel their way along the walls. It was strange, Dave thought, how your mind played tricks on you and told you that your next step couldn't possibly find solid ground. It was strange how there were enforcers outside, apparently wanting to kill his brother, but the thing that was most making his heart hammer with fear was a silly childish fear of darkness.
"You're kidding me," John said again. "A tunnel? I've escaped through tunnels before, but not on… Well, not here."
"Dad was always paranoid." Dave ran his hand across smooth cold stone. "You know that. You remember. Always thinking that someone was going to target us because of his money. Sensitive business information, too. He had this built a couple of years ago." Dave remembered speaking up, telling his father how ridiculous it was. "I guess he was right," he said now, "and we were wrong."
Talking helped, but not much. "Where does it come out?" John asked.
"Garage." Dave managed a mirthless smile. "Quick getaway."
John didn't say anything. He isn't there! Dave thought – stupid, irrational fears. He's gone! He remembered holding Johnny's hand, walking through a sea of tall legs and loud, jabbering voices. He remembered following Johnny and his friends down to the lake, then getting stuck in the mud and crying. The friends had laughed, but Johnny had taken care of him, wiping him clean and leading him home.
Stupid thing to remember now, he thought, when he was nearly forty years old, heading up an international company.
"They'll find the hatch," John said. His hand touched Dave's back, urging him forward.
"I locked it behind us." Even as he said it, he knew how ridiculous it was. He was clinging to something that offered safety only in another, softer world. A few rounds of a machine gun or a small piece of explosive, and the enforcers would be bursting into the tunnel, flooding it with light.
Dave tried to run, but stumbled and almost fell. As he flailed for balance, his hands found John, invisible in the darkness. He heard John suck in a breath. "Sorry," Dave gasped. "Did I touch your--"
"I'm good," John said, and led Dave forward, keeping a grip on him, guiding him to the end of the tunnel.
"There's a key," Dave whispered, "on a hook." His hands groped around, but he couldn't find it, he couldn't find it, he couldn't find it.
Then he heard the sound of a key turning in metal. "Got it," John said quietly.
It wasn't much lighter in the garage. Dave climbed the ladder, and scraped his hand across his face as if he could erase the memory of the fear and the darkness. The helicopter was silent now, but he could still hear the sound of shouting voices. His car keys rattled, cold and familiar. "Get in," he hissed at John.
"No. Listen. Dave. I…"
"Get in!" He all but shouted it, even though his voice was no louder than a whisper. "There's no time to argue it. For once, just once in your life, you're doing what I want you to do."
The car's internal light came on when he opened the door. John looked mutinous and dangerous and horribly sick, all at the same time. "Just let me take the car and go," he said.
Dave jerked his thumb at the noise outside. "And leave me alone with this?"
John looked at him for a long second, then nodded, as if he accepted that much, at least. "At least let me drive."
Dave shook his head. "My car."
"For God's sake, Dave…"
Dave climbed in, and put the key in the ignition. "Like you ever let me drove yours?" He didn't dare turn the key, though, not yet. After a few seconds, John climbed into the passenger seat. "And you're hurt, John," Dave said. "I'm not a doctor, but I know that it's… well, it's bad. I don't want to be driven by someone who's likely to pass out at any moment."
"I won't pass out."
John said it like a promise, but Dave just shook his head, and turned the key. The noise would bring the enforcers, he knew, but the helicopter was grounded, and the troops were probably out of their vehicles, ransacking the house. They would have a minute's head-start, perhaps two.
He hadn't expected to feel things thudding into the side of the car. Bullets, he thought. God! He gripped the steering wheel with desperate hands. "Down!" John shouted, and Dave ducked down, not quite driving blind, but almost doing so. John opened the window and started shooting – one shot after another, the sounds sharp and precise. The car struck something – a glancing blow – and skidded around, but Dave fought the steering wheel and managed to keep control. He heard something smash and shatter. A fence, he thought. I've just driven through Dad's fence.
Then he was on the road, tyres squealing. "Go!" John shouted. Cold wind and rain surged in through the open window, hitting Dave like an assault. John pulled the gun in, twisted in his seat, and raised the window. Dave saw his hand on the gun, and wondered if his brother had just killed a man. "Go," John said, more quietly. "They'll be on our tail. You'll have to--"
"I know." Dave drove through a red light, across a deserted intersection, then twisted the wheel sharply, taking them an unexpected left. Two blocks later, he turned right, drifting around the corner, tyres screaming. "Too noisy?" he said. His heart was beating very fast. Was the helicopter rising up behind him? He looked in the mirror, but couldn't see anything. He turned the lights off, and drove for a while in darkness, inching forward, guided only by the lights of the sparse houses. A car raced past him, heading into the opposite direction, its horn screeching fury at him. "Maybe they'll start following him instead," Dave said. He switched his lights on again, and drove sensibly, blending in with the small scattering of other cars on the road. Only when he was finally away from houses did he put his foot down.
John was gripping the handle on the inside of the door. "I didn't know you could drive like that. You've tried to outrun bad guys before?"
"Of course not." Dave watched dark shadows race past outside, speckled with occasional lights. "You're not the only one in the family who likes to go fast."
"Oh." John leant forward, looking at wing mirror on his side.
"I used to race," Dave said, "when I was at College and for a few years after that."
"I didn't know." John slumped back in the seat.
"No." Dave shook his head; looked straight ahead. "I liked it, you know?" But he'd had to give it up, of course – no choice there. Because John had gone by then, and somebody had to inherit, to do the duty that the first-born should have done.
"I'm sorry." John said it quietly. Dave was watching the road, looking straight ahead, so he didn't know if his brother was looking at him.
But this isn't the time to talk about such things. He almost said it, but not quite, because if this wasn't the time, then what was the time? John had been gone for six years, and after this, would probably want to wander off for six years more.
Or after this, we'll both be dead, he thought.
As time went by, and as they drove deeper into the night, John started to drift away. His hand was still tightly gripping the gun, but his responses were growing slurred and distant.
"John?" Dave moistened dry lips. "John?"
"Uh… Yes, buddy, I…" Dave saw John's eyes snap open; saw him look around, taking in his surroundings; saw the moment when he remembered where he was.
"Yeah, it's me." Sweat was warm and slick between Dave's hands and the steering wheel. "Surprised?"
John pushed himself more upright in the seat. "Shouldn't have… Sorry. Sorry." He passed his hand across his face. Was that blood shining on it? Dave wondered if the seat was now thick with it. "What's our status?"
"Our status," Dave said, emphasising the word, "is that we seem to have shaken them off, thanks to my excellent driving skills. There's some things you never forget, it seems."
Some things, he thought, remembering when he would have done anything for his brother, when he would have walked into the fires of Hell for him, if John had only ever given him the chance.
"Where…?" John cleared his throat. They reached the edge of a small town, where a Christmas tree stood in a small front yard, decked with sparkling lights. "I thought there'd be more, you know?" John said, turning to follow the lights. "Last time I was back on… Last time I was, well… here, there were more. Lights everywhere. And cars. There were more cars on the road. Where's everyone gone?"
The town faded behind them, with the last of its lights. At least the rain had finally stopped. "As if you have to ask," Dave said stiffly.
John seemed to be about to say something, but the car hit a bump. John moaned; it sounded like something ripped from him against his will. Dave called his name, but John didn't answer. When Dave hazarded a glance over, he could see that his brother's head was thrown back, his face clenched tight in pain.
"Where…?" John let out a shuddering breath. "Where we going?"
"I didn't know at first," Dave confessed. "I just wanted to get out of there. But there's a guy a work. Was," he corrected himself. "He disappeared in the summer – probably dead now. He was a friend – you know, the sort you play golf with, go out for a drink with, but never really talk to, you know? Anyway, he bought a cabin for hunting, though I don't think he ever fired a gun. He planned to use it as a retreat. A retreat from the wife and kids, I thought, but then the enforcers came for him. Maybe he meant it literally, after all, just didn't get there in time."
"Disappeared," John echoed. Dave wondered if he had even heard anything that came after that.
"Yeah," Dave said. He remembered when it had felt amazing and impossible even to contemplate such things happening in his own country. "But he told me where he kept the spare key – told us all, in case we ever needed a refuge. Under a stone."
"Under a stone?" John sounded incredulous.
"Under a stone." And then Dave was laughing, not really knowing why he was laughing, except that he was on the run from the enforcers, and he was entrusting their safety to a spare key under a fucking stone.
And John… Dave's laughter died, and he just felt cold, so damn cold, because his brother had come back, and was bleeding to death in the seat beside him, and Dave had no idea what to do about it, no idea at all.
It was well past midnight when they reached the cabin. The last few miles were a nightmare of fallen trees and pitted roads. A thin covering of snow lingered in the shadow of rocks and tree trunks, and even before he reached the door, Dave realised quite how badly he had miscalculated. A retreat only worked if you had supplies and equipment and a guarantee that the bad guys didn't know how to find you.
"But there's no time for that," he told himself. "We're here now."
John was only semi-conscious now, his head lolling against the door. "We're here?" he slurred, opening his eyes but not raising his head.
"Yeah." Dave had a whole catalogue of memories of times when John had looked out for him. Those occasions when it had been the other way round were memorable only because they were so few. "Wait here."
He didn't think the key was there at first. The earth was hard – earth stood hard as iron, he remembered, water like a stone; Johnny had had a beautiful voice as a boy, though he had always squirmed impatiently through the singing, eager to explore the world on this year's new bike or skateboard. Music… He hadn't turned the Mozart off, had he? The CD would be long ended, silent in an empty house. Was John…? God! and he had a meeting tomorrow morning – one at nine, and then another at twelve – and here he was, another of the disappeared – another one who went home and never showed up at work the next day. His fingers scraped on pebbles, sharp as glass, and the two of them would be trapped outside, because he couldn't find the key, he couldn't find the key.
Then his fingers closed round an icy piece of metal. Stupid, he told himself. Stupid to panic. He was the dignified one, the composed one, the stiff one – always knew what to say. Too much so, apparently, because Laura said that even after twelve years together, she still didn't know the real David Sheppard.
The key was stiff in the lock, but it turned. It was cold inside the cabin, little warmer than outside, but the lights still worked, revealing windows securely barred from the inside with wood and metal. A quick investigation revealed fire-lighters, wood and blankets, and the kitchen was well-stocked with bottled water and tinned food.
"It really was a refuge," Dave said, his arms hanging loosely at his sides. He wondered suddenly if he had ever truly known anybody at all.
"Yeah," John said.
Dave whirled round, his heart pounding. John was leaning against the door, the gun still gripped in his right hand. He looked terrible, but he was on his feet. "Damn it, John," Dave raged. "I told you to--"
"Never let one of my men go alone into unknown territory without backup." John's gaze, at least, was steady. Then he staggered, and once again Dave had to catch him; once again had to half-carry him to a couch. John no longer felt cold, or maybe it was just that Dave's own fingers were icy. His brother's skin was pale, but his cheeks were beginning to flush. "Got to check…" John said, struggling weakly. "Check the defences."
"I'll do that," Dave tried to reassure him.
"You don't know what you're looking for."
Dave tried to cover John with a blanket, but John grasped it, bunching it up, curling around it at his middle. "I know more than you think," Dave told him testily. "I know I was never as clever as you were, but I can…" He couldn't find the right words, only, "More than you think," which wasn't even fair, because it had been their father, and never John, who had treated Dave as second-best, the solid, plodding one.
"I know," John said. His eyes flickered to his gun. "But you're… free – free from… all this. You don't…" He blinked. "Look in that crate under the window."
Dave did so. There was blood on his hands again. "You need…" he began, but his voice died, because the crate contained a pair of guns – a pistol and a rifle. He lifted the pistol up, and the metal was so cold that it almost seemed to stick to his skin.
John held him with a steady gaze. "You ever fired a gun before?"
"Yes." Dave swallowed. "A few times." You had to do these things – go along and pretend to enjoy the things that your business contacts enjoyed. "I'm not… not good."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that." John stood up and walked towards the window. Every step seemed fragile, but at the same time it seemed to Dave to be the most strong, the most determined thing he had ever seen. As for himself, all he could do was hover, making token protests, because when had he ever been able to stop John from doing something he had set his mind on?
The cabin was small, but by the time John had finished examining it, his breathing was painfully rapid, catching on every inhale. Dave narrowed his eyes. "You done?"
"Yeah." John let himself be led back to the couch.
"It's not enough." Dave crouched down beside him. He heard John's breathing falter; heard him begin to construct a lie. "Don't protect me from the truth, John," he said. "I'm not six any more. It would be enough if we were dealing with opportunistic thieves – people with handguns and crowbars. But we're not, are we? A bomb, a grenade… even gas and a flame… I've brought us to the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to run to. We're sitting ducks."
"Only if they find us," John said quickly, too quickly. "Stay positive now."
Dave let out a breath. The last few hours didn't seem entirely real, but here he was, and this moment, at least, felt more real than all the years before.
"Hey," John chided him, badly hurt, but comforting him, just as he had always done. "I've got people, too. They'll be looking for me."
Dave knew he should be doing something – something with bandages and fluids – but instead he found himself asking, "What did you do? Why are they after you?"
"I don't know," John said. "Don't know who the Hell they are. I was… It doesn't matter where. Flying… home. And suddenly I was here. They shot at me, winged me, but I shook them off. Took too much damage, though. I made a controlled landing…" He grimaced. "Not that controlled. She was busted, and I couldn't get an answer on any of the usual channels. Everything was wrong, and I didn't… Thought I was going crazy. Didn't know where, but I wasn't… wasn't far from... Didn't know where else to go. I ran into some hostiles on the way, and they took… Damn near took.... But I escaped. Stole a car. You know the rest."
It was far too much to process. It didn't make any sense. "Flying?" Dave snatched at one thing he could. John was still wearing his dog tags, he remembered. "They let you back in?"
John frowned. "Who did what?"
"The Air Force," Dave said. John's face was still blank. "You quit. Six years ago."
"I… quit." John went very still, then he leant back against the couch, closing his eyes. He looked quite lost, Dave thought, all of a sudden. "Tell me," John said quietly, without opening his eyes. "I can't remember. Going crazy. Forgot… forgot breaking my collarbone. Can you believe that?" He opened his eyes, and there was something different about his face. "Remind me why I quit?"
"Something about a man trapped behind enemy lines," Dave said. "You wanted go after him, but they wouldn't let you."
"So I went anyway?" John grasped a corner of the blanket in his fist. "I disobeyed orders?"
Dave moistened dry lips. "No. You did what they told you to do, and then you quit a few days afterwards. You said you couldn't do it any more." Dave hadn't been there for the phone call, but he'd seen his father the morning after. Patrick Sheppard's face had been deeply etched with fury and disappointment. For his precious golden boy to walk away from his responsibilities and waste his life playing in planes was bad enough, but for him to walk away even from that…!
"Did he die?" John's voice was faint.
"Yes. I don't know. I think so." Dave clenched his fist. "Why are you asking this? You know this. Is this some sort of game?"
"I can't remember." John's voice was stiff. "Humour me, okay? What did I do next?"
What had he done next? He'd come home for a horrendous weekend of shouting and recriminations, in which their father had bellowed that he didn't want John inheriting the company now, not if this was how he felt about loyalty and responsibility, and John shouting that this didn't change a thing, and he'd never wanted the damn company – never would - and that all he wanted was--
"I don't know," he said bitterly. "You left an address – somewhere in California – but we never heard from you again."
"And you never wrote?" John asked.
"No." Dave felt bleak with old anger. "What have you been doing for the last six years, John?"
John looked at him, and his eyes were shining, almost as if he was fighting tears. "I don't know," he said. "I'm not that John."
"What?" Dave dashed at his own eyes, half expecting to feel unshed tears there, too.
"I can't expect you to understand," John said. "I can't… There's things I can't tell you, but it's why… I should have realised it before. Stupid, John. Stupid. Things don't go this badly wrong, not in a few months. I don't know how it happened, but…"
"What?" Dave demanded.
John sat up, clearly fighting pain every inch of the way. "But whatever world we're in, you're still my brother. I'll get you out of this, Dave.
And Dave had no idea what to say, and his hand reached out uselessly, wanting to help, but not knowing how to. Darkness pressed against the windows. They'll be here by morning, he thought.
end of part two
It snowed at some point in the night – just a light dusting of white.
Before that, though, Dave built up the fire, remembering childhood survival camps and lessons from Johnny out in the wilds. They ate tinned meat, and rice with unidentifiable bits in it. "Worse than an MRE," John said quietly. He didn't eat much of it, though, drifting into something that might have been sleep, and might have been something worse.
Dave had never expected to sleep himself, but at one point he woke up sharply, jerking awake to the crackling sound of a dying fire. John was awake again, he saw, sitting huddled on the couch, his eyes glittering in the firelight.
"You should be resting," Dave tried to say, but sleep took his words and made them little more than a cracked breath.
John didn't respond. His eyes closed and opened again, and he sat there taut beneath his blanket, watching, waiting, lit only by shadows and embers.
There was too much of childhood there. Although it shouldn't have done so, it lulled Dave to sleep again, feeling almost safe.
By morning the fire had completely burned down, and their breath condensed in clouds in front of their faces. John's eyes were still open, but his responses were off when Dave tried to talk to him. "John?" he called, and received only a slow blink in response. "Are you thirsty?" Dave asked, and John nodded slightly, even though he mumbled a "no". He said something else, too – incomprehensible things, interspersed with names Dave had never heard before.
John's skin was far hotter than it should be; Dave's own flesh was as cold as ice. John protested only weakly when Dave pushed off the blankets and pulled up his shirt. Guided by John the night before, Dave had fashioned a make-shift bandage, but even that wasn't enough to conceal how badly inflamed the skin was.
John needed medical attention, Dave realised, or he was going to be in serious difficulties even if the enforcers didn't catch up with them. Not a hospital, though – those places were always monitored. That left… God, what options did it leave?
Not to mention, of course, the fact that John was apparently losing his mind, forgetting things that had happened to him.
Dave looked at his watch. Nearly eight o'clock. Time to arrive at work, ready for his meeting. Time to sit around a table and pretend that the world was the same as it had always been. "I'll build up the fire," Dave said, because that, at least, was something he could do.
"No." John grabbed his arm weakly. "No smoke. Too obvious."
"But we'll freeze." Dave shook his head. "Johnny, you're sick."
"Got to move the car," John said, the words seeming to trip over his lips as they came out. "Hide it. So can't… can't see it from above."
Or use it to get help. There were other cabins out here, and endless miles of wild places across the State border. People said, sometimes, that not everyone who disappeared had been taken. Some had run, they said, to hole up in places where no-one could find them. They were bound to be rugged types, who knew how to take care of themselves, and were not averse to helping people who'd fallen foul of the enforcers.
"I'll go--" he began.
"No." John shook his head, his eyes flickering from side to side. "Be careful. Check… check defences first. Be careful. Don't…"
Dave saw John's eyes following him as he walked to the door. Outside was even colder, with a bitter wind that knifed right through his thin suit jacket. God! he thought, because it seemed quite ridiculous that he was still wearing a suit, as if he was still living in the world that had started to die five years ago, however much people tried to pretend that it still carried on. Board meetings, games of golf, Christmas trees… But the natural world was still the same, and the air was still as crisp as it had been when he was a child, sliding down the hill after Johnny, always trying to go as fast as him, but never managing it, never quite able to touch that magic.
He wasn't quite sure what he intended to do. Move the car? Go for help? Just bring a coat in from the trunk?
A man with a gun took shape from the nearest tree. "David Sheppard."
His mouth went dry. He knew how to talk to all sorts of people – senators, janitors, business rivals – but he couldn't muster a single world. He had never stared down the barrel of a gun before.
Another man stepped forward, so now there were two. He couldn't fight off two – couldn't fight off one; had never been good at things like that. "Where's your friend?" the first man sneered.
"Friend?" His voice didn't sound like his own.
"Blood on the couch in your house," the man said, "and blood on the passenger seat of your car. Don't demean yourself by lying. How did he persuade you to help him?"
A mass of snow fell from a high branch, thudding in stages to the ground. Dave moistened dry lips. "He's… he's my brother." It sounded weak, but he'd intended it to mean everything.
"You're lying," the man said. "A man such as John Sheppard is closely watched, and we know for a fact that he's three thousand miles away right now."
"No," Dave breathed, and then, "No..." again, because the second man was heading for the cabin, was tearing the door open – and Dave hadn't locked it, hadn't even thought to remind John to lock it behind him. "No," he moaned, trying to run forward, but stopped by the barrel of the gun. "No…" He expected gunfire. He expected screaming.
The second man emerged; shook his head briskly. "There's no-one in there, Colonel."
No-one? Dave felt his hands trembling; wanted to scrape the sweat off his palms, but didn't dare move.
The first man, the colonel, moved his gun, pointing it at Dave's leg. "It won't kill you," he said, "unless it strikes the artery, but it'll hurt like Hell. Care to tell me where you've hidden him?"
He was in there. Dave swallowed again and again. He was… God! Perhaps they were lying. Perhaps they'd killed John, and this was a game. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know."
"I'll look round back," the second man said. "He can't have gone far."
Dave moistened his lips. He listened for noises – for gunshots, for shouts. Had John found somewhere to hide inside? Maybe he'd found a way out – but how, because the windows were barred? How? He didn't know, and snow fell from the branches, and the birds were singing, just as if this was a normal day.
The man didn't return. The colonel held his gun steady, tapping his radio with his other hand, opening his mouth to speak.
"Put the gun down," John said, his voice low and deadly, and like nothing Dave had ever heard from him before. "I said now!" he demanded.
The colonel smiled. "Why, you don't think we came alone, do you?" He gave no further command, but two more men rose up from behind the trees, dressed in snowy camouflage. "If you shoot me," the colonel said, "they'll kill Mr. Sheppard here, so why don't you play like a good boy, and put the gun down before anyone gets hurt?"
"Well, I guess that does change the odds a bit." John smiled. God, John even managed to smile! He didn't lower the gun, though. He didn't even look sick, even though he had to be burning up with fever, and had barely been lucid only minutes before.
"So you'll surrender?" the colonel said.
"Perhaps." John shrugged. His gun was steady, though. "See, it depends on what you're planning on doing with Dave, there. He didn't have anything to do with… whatever it is that I did. I showed up on his doorstep, and he mistook me for someone else – helped me out of misguided sense of loyalty. But it's nothing to do with him. Before last night, he'd never seen me before in his life."
John! Dave almost gasped, but the look John shot him was impossible to disobey. Be quiet, it said. I know what I'm doing.
"A stranger, huh?" The colonel's finger tightened on the trigger. "Then you won't care if we kill him."
"No!" John rasped. He took another step forward, but he swayed, his gun wavering, and Dave felt cold all over, knowing that it was over, it was all over. But John recovered himself. "No," he said. "He's innocent, and I don't want him hurt. Let him go, and I'll surrender."
"Or we can just take you, anyway," the colonel said.
"Yeah." John's smile was cold and rueful. "But you won't all survive the attempt."
Who are you? Dave thought. This was his brother Johnny, who had always stood up for him, who had always fought anyone who was trying to hurt him. This was Johnny who suffered scuffed knees and a bleeding nose in order to look out for his little brother. This was the brother who had walked away, had landed Dave with the burden and the prison of duty, and had now returned a total stranger. This was a man who held a gun as if it was as familiar to him as a pen or a computer mouse, and who stared unruffled into the eyes of death.
"You for him, then?" the colonel said.
John nodded. "Yeah. Me for him."
The colonel lowered his gun. John kept his own weapon steady, his eyes glittering in his flushed face. "Let him drive away," he said. "Nothing happens until he's gone." Dave just looked at him, unable to move. "Go, Dave," John said. "Please. Take the keys and go."
And leave you here? Dave thought, but his voice was still frozen, incapable of producing words.
"Please," John urged him. His voice cracked. "Listen, Dave, I'm not who you think I am."
"I know that." Dave found the words at last, but they were little more than a breath coming through barely-moving lips. For years, John had been the disappointment. He'd been the empty chair at Christmas. He'd been the golden boy who'd wasted his potential and thrown away everything to pursue a childhood dream. He'd been the failure who shied away from responsibility and had spent the last six years God alone knew where, surfing, drinking, gambling, perhaps even taking drugs.
"Go!" John ordered him, in desperate command.
The car was as cold as ice, crystals forming on the windows. If Dave drove away, what then? He would always remember, he thought. He would never be free of the image of John surrendering himself to armed men to save his brother's life.
"No." The word scraped out, closer to a sob.
"You had your chance," the colonel said. "I'm tired of this."
Dave didn't even know what happened next, not clearly. Guns were fired. Snow sprayed up. He ducked down behind the car, and saw nothing but its metal flank. Someone screamed. He reached above him, clawing at the door handle, wondering if he should climb in, should start the engine; wondering if that would help. Then he saw the pool of gas beneath the car, soaking into the ice-hard ground. A bullet struck the car, then another and another. He didn't know… He didn't know…
"Dave!" John grabbed him. "Now. Quick."
"The car," Dave tried to tell him, and John nodded once, and then hauled at his arm, and Dave said, "What? What happened?" and "Did you kill them?" and John didn't answer at all, just dragged him into the cover of the trees, and pushed him forward, wading through treacherous ground, as someone screamed behind them, their voice high and shrill, like a voice of nightmare. "Did you kill them?" Dave asked again, but still got no answer, just a pistol thrust into his trembling hands.
"You said you could use it," John said. "You might have to."
Dave wanted to drop the weapon, but he gripped it tight. "Did you kill them?" He thought of all those years when he had disapproved so intensely of John's choices. He saved my life, he thought now. He was going to give himself up. "How…" He ducked under a branch. "How did you…?"
"Three against one," John's voice said. "I've had worse. And getting out of the cabin? Easy. Defences… no good when… can't get out from inside. Keep the bad guys out, not us in."
And it was wrong, it was wrong, it was wrong. He shouldn't be here, shouldn't be alive. Dave's breathing began to speed up, his heart pounding in his chest. "Where are we going?" he panted.
John was clambering over trees, weaving through branches, looking around, always looking around. "They must have a vehicle," he said.
"And back-up." Dave pressed his hand to his chest. "They had radios."
"I know." John ran, if anything, even faster. "But I've got to try, you know?"
They emerged close to the track, but snow covered it in a light dusting. "Damn," John swore, but Dave was a moment slower in processing what it meant. No vehicle had come along here this morning. "How did they…?" John frowned. His hand on his face was bloody. "We have to carry on. Further down, or find… find another cabin."
Perhaps they ran for half an hour. Perhaps it was far less than that, every second amplified until it seemed more like a minute. Dave worked out in the gym – you had to, really; useful place to make contacts – but he hadn't for a few months, not since Laura… Soon he was panting, his chest a clenched fist of agony. His hands hurt from forcing a path, and his face was scratched with branches and thorns. His skin was bitterly cold, but inside he was blazing, on fire with exertion.
But it was John who fell first. It was John whose strength gave out first.
They were in a small clearing then – a place about twelve feet across, where no trees grew. The edges were thick with drifted snow. John's legs just seemed to crumple, and he fell forward, catching himself on his hands and knees, then slumped sideways. His breathing was even more rapid than Dave's, and blood stained the snow where he lay.
Dave stopped; came back to him. "Go," John gasped, waving his hand. "Carry on."
"Don't be ridiculous." Dave tried to pull him up, but John was heavy, as if his limbs had turned to lead. Fresh blood stained Dave's hands, making them slick.
"Please," John breathed. "Please." His lips were little different in colour than the rest of his face.
Dave hauled him up; manhandled him until John's arm was draped across his shoulder. "You saved my life," he forced out past heaving breaths. "I understand now."
"What?" John's breath was warm on his shoulder, even through the clothes.
"Why you left the Air Force," Dave forced out, the words disjointed, only two or three at a time. "Not because you're irresponsible, but because… because you're too responsible."
It had always been there, he realised. This was the John who had spent his childhood fiercely defending his little brother. All that had changed was that the stakes were higher – lives, not childhood treasures – and that he did so with guns, not words. Of course John would feel himself unable to take orders from someone who had prevented him from saving the life of a man he felt responsible for; he couldn't do anything else. And his family had hated him for it, blamed him for it, cast it in the worst possible light. They should have known. No, Dave should have known.
"Sorry," Dave gasped. "I'm sorry," and then he couldn't say anything else, not for several minutes, as snow started to fall from the leaden sky, and the sound of a helicopter crept into the very fringes of his hearing.
John fell again not long after that, and not even Dave could lift him. He curled up loosely, one hand clasped to his middle, and fresh blood splashed onto the snow below him. "Can't…" His eyelids drifted shut.
"No." Dave gripped his upper arm. "You have to…"
"I'm not your brother." John rolled stiffly onto his back, his eyes open and glittering. "I need you to know that, if… if you get out of this."
Dave turned his face up to the sky, feeling snow on his face like cold tears. "What do you mean…?"
"I'm not your brother." There was blood on John's lips. "Not in this universe, anyway. I don't expect you'll believe me. I wouldn't have believed it, 'cept that it's kind of… kind of hard to argue with a chair that reads your mind, and--" His words broke off in a groan. "Hurts like a bitch," he said, then, "Dave. Listen. I came over from another universe, a parallel universe. Don't know how, but it happened, and--"
"You're crazy," Dave told him, eyes pricking with snowflakes and tears. "Delirious. Shh, don't speak."
"No." John's hand grabbed his wrist, his grip even now managing to be strong enough to hurt. "Not delirious. It's true. If I don't make it… go to that address he gave you – my other self, I mean. Your John. Look for him. I…" He coughed weakly. "I don't find it easy to… to say these things, not normally, but you're… not real. No, you're real, but you're not mine. Not my Dave. He… your John… He wants to put things right between you, but he doesn't know how to make the first move. He doesn't think he's wanted."
"But you left," Dave said, and it still hurt, still, after all these years.
"Because Dad made me." Snow was beginning to settle on John's hair, as if he was already dead. "He made the ultimatum, and I couldn't… couldn't be something that I'm not, not even for him."
"Not…" Dave barely got beyond voicing the first syllable.
"Not even for you," John whispered. "I'm so sorry, Dave."
The noise of the helicopter grew louder and louder. Was that shouting behind them on the trail? Dave tried to lift John up. "Stop talking like that," he chided him, barely able to see through tears. "Don't talk as if you're already dead."
"Find him," John begged him. "Find him, please."
The sound filled the whole world, swelling until it seemed as if every tree was vibrating with it. "I have," Dave said. "I have."
And then the enemy found them, the clearing suddenly full of armed men, and every one of them was shouting.
end of part three
Dave looked down on the Earth below him, so peaceful beneath its belt of clouds. "He'll be okay," the big man said – what was his name? Ronon? "Sheppard always is."
In the stories, people always pinched themselves to find out if they were awake or dreaming, but what was that supposed to prove? You might just be dreaming the pinch. Looking down on the Earth, Dave felt as if he was floating in a dream. It didn't even feel real when they let him sit beside John's bed, because John had been gone for so many years that it seemed impossible that Dave could be sitting there beside him.
And he wasn't really John. This man, this Colonel Sheppard, had friends, and they had been quite insistent about that. They had made Dave sign things, made him say that he wouldn't tell anybody about it, and then had revealed the secrets of another universe.
This wasn't John. Or, rather, this was John, but a John from another place. I thought you'd come back, Dave wanted to say to the still form in the infirmary bed, but it wasn't you after all. They'd almost begun to come to an understanding, almost begun to heal the rift of the last few years, but it had all been for nothing. John was a fake.
John could still die.
When they'd found them, or so the talkative one called McKay liked to repeat, Dave had been huddled protectively over John's body, ready to fight off all comers. Dave didn't remember much of that, though. He remembered John's face cracking into a smile, though; remembered how much feeling he had put into the names of the people who were closing on him. Dave remembered fighting, struggling to hold his wavering pistol steady. "Who's that?" he remembered McKay asking, and Ronon had said, "Looks like Sheppard's brother." Someone had slapped something onto his back, then, and the next thing he remembered was being here, on a ship called the Daedalus – a space ship! A fucking space ship! – far above the Earth.
"We don't know how it happened," McKay had explained, some time afterwards. "Sheppard was taking a jumper back to Earth – research into the Ancient tech; though why they couldn't get me to do the research back on Atlantis, and actually believe my report, I don't know, but that's Stargate Command for you. So, anyway, he was heading home, when something happened – and, no, Conan, it wasn't anything I did, not this time – and… well, he never arrived. Not in our version of Stargate Command, anyway."
Dave didn't understand. He couldn't understand. Other universes? It was the stuff of science fiction. But so was the world he already lived in – a dystopian vision of the future, all watchful cameras and thought police.
But the Earth was below him, and John at least had a chance.
"Was it easy?" he asked now. "Finding him, I mean?"
Ronon looked out through the window, not down at the planet below, but up at the stars. "I leave that sort of stuff to McKay," he said. "McKay says it was hard."
"But you did it," Dave said.
Ronon nodded. "Of course." He said it as if no other result had even been a possibility.
Dave wandered through the ship, seeing its crew of people who looked as human as he was, and who spoke with the same colloquialisms and the same range of accents as anyone he had ever known. He remembered how good he was at networking during business lunches and parties, and spoke to some of them. The best way to learn about a person, his father had always said, was to talk to the people that knew them, for they were the mirror that reflected the person's true nature. If that was true, then this was a mirror held up to a mirror. Dave was scrabbling for snatches of insight into his own brother, through the opinions people held about someone who wasn't even him.
This Colonel Sheppard was a good man; this he learnt. He could be cold and ruthless when he needed to be, but he was fiercely loyal to those under his command, and he had risked his life on countless occasions to save others. Everybody on this ship had willingly come through the barrier between universes on the off-chance that they could rescue him. "Because he'd do the same for us," said a young soldier, little more than twenty years old. "We've all heard the stories, you see."
He learnt more, too, on his wanderings. The Daedalus was stranded here, because it had used too much power getting here. McKay said he could fix things, but there was something that he needed first – something that he didn't know how to get. "We're still shielded," he said. "Don't want to reveal ourselves to the natives, because they're… well, they're mean. There's no reason to believe that the Atlantis expedition even exists in this universe, and Stargate Command… They're based in DC, for a start, and they seem to spend most of their time trying to kill people."
"And if you can't get home…?" Dave asked.
McKay started, as if he'd forgotten that Dave was there. "We'll get home. I'll think of something."
"You did it for him," Dave said quietly. "For John."
McKay frowned, as if Dave had said something very stupid indeed.
John woke on the third day. His friends were the ones who saw him first. Dave drifted in a few minutes later, drawn by the news, and stood there out of sight, shielded from John's sight by Ronon's bulk.
Then he heard John speak his name. "Is Dave still here?"
"You know he isn't your brother, right?" That was McKay. "People can be very different in different universes. You remember that, don't you, Colonel Mensa?"
"I know that," John said, as Dave edged forward. John smiled as he saw him; Dave saw that.
"Hey." Dave's throat was dry. The others moved away, Ronon dragging McKay by the sleeve. "You're…"
"On the good stuff." John nodded in the direction of the IV in his arm. He'd been shot a second time, Dave had learnt, in the course of their escape, but he hadn't said a word.
"Yeah." Dave perched on the chair by the bedside.
"I thought…" John shifted position, pressing his head back into the pillow. "…thought you'd have gone by now," he said. "They'll have told you the truth. You didn't believe me when I told you, but--"
"It's kind of hard to argue with a space ship." Dave smiled. He felt fragile inside, as if he couldn't move too much in case something broke.
"I meant it, though," John said. "You should find him. I want you to find him."
"You're not my brother, to tell me what to do," Dave said, and the words hurt as they came out, even though they were true.
"No." John shook his head.
Dave looked down at his clasped hands. "I almost hated him, you know – my John. I'd always looked up to him, and he just left. He said…" He closed his eyes for a moment. "You said you had to do what you needed to do, that you couldn't bow down and be something that you weren't, but what about me? One of us had to inherit. It was supposed to be you. I was supposed to be the one free to do whatever I wanted. You said you'd always look out for me, but you abandoned me, left me with that."
"I'm sorry." John's voice cracked.
"What if I'd wanted to fly, too?" Dave said. Then he held up his hand, stopping John's reply, then pressed his fingers to his brow, between his throbbing eyes. "I resented it, and then when you couldn't even stick with the life you'd chosen…" He let out a breath. "But it wasn't just a choice for you, was it? I understand that now. It would have killed you, living the life Dad wanted you to lead. Minute by minute, it would have killed you, and I…"
"Dave," John breathed, but Dave barely heard it.
"I'm good at it," he said. "Sure, I flirted with rebellion, but I was never brilliant, not like you. I was never meant to fly. I'm good at my job. I thought it wasn't what I wanted, and then I resented you for trapping me in it, but I'm good at it. And I couldn't live the sort of life you lead. I… I don't know how good I'd be at anything else."
"Dave," John began again, but once more Dave interrupted him.
"I know," he said. "You're not him. But it's like you said, back then. It's easier to say these things, you know, when it's not real."
"You should say it to him," John said. He shifted position again, obviously in pain. A doctor hurried over, asked him a few sharp questions, and adjusted something on his IV. "He won't like it," John said, when she had gone, as if there had been no interruption at all. "He'll try to deflect it, but he'll want to hear it. It'll be good for him to hear it. He can be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch at times."
"How do you know?" Dave looked at the old scar on John's neck. What scars had his own brother picked up over the years, he wondered. "He might not be anything like you."
"I think he is," John said, "from the things you said when you thought I was him."
The childhood memories were real. Those expressions, those painfully familiar expressions, were real – this John echoing an expression that Dave's own John had used so many years ago. This John had been willing to die for him, but it was his own John who had walked away from the career he loved because they had refused to let him risk his life to save someone else. This John had triggered the comprehension, but the man he now understood a little better was his own brother, his own John.
"What about your Dave?" he asked. "Are you… close?"
John seemed to hesitate a while before shaking his head. "We… talked, nearly a year ago. Things are better than they were, but…" He looked away, retreating in on himself. "He's more… stiff than you."
Dave smiled. "You caught me on a bad day. Normally I'm…" The words ran out. How could he even begin to wonder what another version of himself was like, over in another universe? "If my John's like you," he said, "and if the circumstances of our lives have been similar, then…" He looked John full in the face. "He misses you, John, and it's all mixed up with resentment and misunderstanding, but he misses you. He just wants to know his brother again, because once… once we were so close."
"I know." John closed his eyes, perhaps drifting towards sleep. "I know. I just wish… wish it wasn't too late with Dad."
"What do you mean?" Dave frowned. "It isn't too late."
John's eyes snapped open. "Dad's still alive?"
Ronon was pacing up and down the parking lot of the nursing home. McKay rubbed his hands together in an exaggerated attempt to keep warm. "I don't know why we had to come."
"Because Sheppard needs us," Ronon said.
"Needs us to stay outside in the cold?"
"Might need us afterwards," Ronon said, "even if he doesn't say anything about it."
Dave had wanted to go in with John, but John had been insistent. "I know he isn't really Dad," he said. "I know that my father's dead, but…"
John still looked exceedingly fragile, just one step away from being ordered into a wheelchair himself. The doctors had tried to refuse to let him come, but John had insisted. As soon as the Daedalus was fixed, they'd be returning to their own universe, and he had to grab this chance before it was taken away. "I have to," he had begged, and from the look of consternation on McKay's face, Dave had deduced that this version of his brother seldom showed such naked need.
And so Dave waited outside, along with these people who, or so Dave was beginning to realise, had taken the place of family for Colonel John Sheppard.
He wanted to peek in through the window. He wanted to burst in to his father's room and explain. Instead, he wrapped his arms around his body, slapping his arms to stay warm. Fake icicles hung from the window, and when Dave had parted from John in the warm lobby, he had heard a radio singing Christmas songs.
"Dad can't cope with visitors for long," he found himself saying now, as if in explanation, but for what? "He's deteriorated rapidly these last few months. It's mostly physical, but he's showing definite signs of dementia. The stress of… all this--" He gestured widely, meaning this world of compounds and disappearances. "Well, it couldn't have helped, could it?"
He had only dared ask a few questions about the world these people had come from. It was far from perfect, he knew, but at least it was better than this.
"I didn't even know Sheppard had a father," McKay said, "until he died."
Ronon jabbed him in the ribs, snapping his name.
Dave looked up at the sky, where a small tear had opened up in the clouds, showing a square of blue. John would have reached the room by now; would have said those first introductions. "I thought there might be enforcers here," he said. "I thought they might have… you know? Got at him. At Dad."
"Oh." McKay flapped his hand, as if it wasn't really important. "Colonel Caldwell had a little chat with the bosses of your Evil SGC. They're all over Sheppard's puddlejumper like eager little beavers, and… I don't know what Caldwell said, but he told them certain things. They're quite ridiculously narrow-minded, you know. They discovered the Stargate five years ago, and it turned them instantly paranoid – alien sympathisers under the bed, and so on. It goes right to the top, of course – the Stargate Project always did – but here it seems to have turned into a military dictatorship. But where was I?" He snapped his fingers several times. "Caldwell. Said a few words. Told them to stop accidentally snagging people from other universes, and, by the way, not to hurt a single hair on the head of one David Sheppard, or… I don't know – maybe the enormous space ship in orbit might blow them into a million pieces?"
"Way to stop them being paranoid," Ronon said.
McKay shrugged, frowning as if it wasn't really important. "Maybe he said something else; I wasn't there. Busy fixing the ship, remember? So we can return home? You know, saving our lives again?"
"You're going soon?" Dave asked, but then a door opened, the music swelling louder. If McKay answered, Dave didn't hear it. The person who emerged wasn't John, though.
Dave hadn't yet gone home. He didn't know if he still had a home to go to. He remembered waking up in the cabin, thinking about the meeting he was going to miss, and realising how supremely unimportant such things were. Now he found himself eager to get back. John and his friends lived in a different world, in far more ways than the literal one. It wasn't just duty that bound Dave to the life that he lived, but aptitude. It suited him. All he had to do was look at things in a different way.
"I wonder what they're saying," McKay said, when they had all been silent a while. "It's freaky, wanting to talk to someone after they're dead."
Ronon looked up, his eyes suddenly burning. "Wouldn't you," he said, "if you could?"
McKay let out a breath, his shoulders slumping. "I just wish he'd hurry up."
Dave began to walk around the side of the building, looking into a place that blazed with lights. Was that his father? Was that John sitting in front of him, holding his hands in both of his own? Then someone came to the window, pulling the drapes, and he could no longer see in. There was a star painted on the window in glitter, slightly lop-sided.
Dave stood there, arms limp at his side, on the outside, not even able to look in.
He was still there when John emerged, his steps slow and weary, his face fading away into the dusk. "You spoke to him?" Dave said. "It was--" He swallowed. "--good?"
"Good." John passed his hand over his face, as if he was wiping away invisible tears. "I know it's not him, but I said things… things I wish I'd said to Dad, to the real one, and he…"
"What?" Dave asked, his voice raw. Once again, he saw, Ronon was tugging at McKay's arm, pulling him to a place far enough away for Dave and his brother to speak without anyone else hearing them. "What?" Dave asked again.
John blinked, and seemed to be fighting for composure, but when he finally spoke, his voice was quiet. "He said everything I would have wanted to hear."
But it was not enough. Dave had to see for himself, to tear open the door, to rush into the stifling warmth inside.
"Dave." His father was smiling. "Johnny's come home. Have you seen him? Johnny's back."
"I know, Dad," Dave said, and for the first time in countless years he was crying, really crying. "I know."
"So this is it," John said. He was back in bed again, still recovering from his premature trip out into the cold. "Caldwell's wrested what Rodney needed from the claws of the Evil SGC, Rodney's done his magic, and…"
"You're going," Dave said. "Back to your own universe."
John nodded. "Yeah."
And Dave wasn't sad, he realised. This John was a mirror onto his own. Whenever he spoke to this John, he saw a reflection of the things he should be saying to his real brother. "I'm going to find him," he said. "He's definitely still alive. Three thousand miles away, that colonel said. That's a clue."
"We can find him for you," John offered, but Dave shook his head.
"No," he said. "It needs to be about us, about mending fences, not about… well, about giant space ships and doppelgangers from another universe."
John chuckled. "I can see how that would be a distraction."
There was a different feel to the ship, Dave realised; everyone was relieved to be going home. "What about you?" he asked. "You're going to talk to your brother?"
John tried to look away, tried to deflect the question just for a moment, and then sighed. "Yes," he said. "Those things you said… They might be true for him, too. I never thought… No. Well. I have to ask him. I have to talk."
"And show him who you are?" Dave asked, remembering how John had been when he had returned from quitting the Air Force: defensive, flippant, miserable. If it hadn't been for this encounter with John's other self, Dave might never have realised the sort of man his brother truly was. Did this other Dave know, he wondered. Did this other Dave know even the tiniest fraction of what his brother did every day of his life?
"Families are allowed clearance," John said. "It's… it's hard, when you can't tell people what you do. It's living a lie. You… you become the mask when… when you're with them. You become what they expect you to be."
Someone came through this door – Dave's signal, perhaps, that it was time to leave. "You'll tell him?" Dave urged. You'll let him see what I saw? You'll let him understand?
"Yeah." John's shoulders slumped as if he was defeated, but he smiled. "I'll do that. I'll…" His eyes flickered over Dave's shoulder, to the place where the escort waited. "I'm sorry I brought all this down on you."
"Don't be," Dave said, meaning it utterly. "If you hadn't…" Well, if he hadn't, then Dave would still be living a bleak existence, resenting his job. His father would still be miserable, missing his best-loved son. "I'm glad you did," he said simply.
John looked at him, swallowed, and said, "So am I."
They clasped hands, brother to brother, separated by worlds and years, and separated by nothing at all. "Goodbye," Dave said, and perhaps it was a cliché, but it felt like the start of things, not an ending.
He walked away, John watching him, and he did look back, but only once. The white beam took him, and deposited him back on his own, familiar earth.
On the night when it had all started, he remembered, he had looked into a wine glass and failed to see any sort of reflection that he recognised. As he looked now into his own unshattered windows, he saw his own self looking back at him.
Sometimes, he thought, it took a reflection to show you the truth of a thing. Sometimes, he thought, as he looked up at the sky and wondered which, if any, of those silver dots was the Daedalus, it took something that was not real to show you the truth about what was.
Was that a star winking out? He put his key into the lock, and went in, scenting the familiar smells of home.
Perhaps he would find his own John by Christmas Day.
Long note: As regular readers will know, I love outsider viewpoint stories. I particularly like outsider viewpoint stories when the viewpoint character initially has a poor opinion of the character they're observing, but has their opinion changed as a result of the character's actions. Additionally, one of my absolute favourite guilty pleasure scenarios is the incognito thing – the Scarlet Pimpernel scenario when someone has a secret life of heroic awesomeness, while their family and friends think they're nothing much at all.
Put all of these together, and it might have seemed inevitable that I would write a story from the viewpoint of John's disapproving brother. However, I also have a rather unreasonable aversion to committing myself on issues that I think that the show (or, now, the movie) might address. As long as there's any possibility that we might learn more about John's background, I'm reluctant to come up with my own version in fanfic. Then I got hit by the perfect solution: make much of it AU. The freedom this gave me was incredible, and this story took over my brain in an amazing fashion. It totally wrote itself.
I did worry a bit that people might feel cheated by the revelation that this was an AU Dave, and feel that this meant that the emotional developments didn't count, but I really didn't want to ruin the mysteries of the early parts by putting a great big AU label on the story. I am also aware that this could, perhaps, have been a much longer story, in which real John and AU Dave went on a long, danger-filled adventure, but the plot bunny that bit me was for a shorter piece focused on the emotions.
I have no immediate plans for a sequel, but if an idea might wander along and hit me one day, who knows? What happens when Real John, fresh from this experience, goes to see Real Dave? What happens when AU Dave finds AU John? In my mind, AU John has been living quite an interesting life these last few years. I rather suspect that he plays an important role in a secret resistance. He's outwardly a very minor trouble-maker, enough for the enforcers to monitor him but not arrest him, but, unbeknown to anyone, he's the… er… the Scarlet Blade – the mysterious masked figure who snatches doomed people from the very clutches of the evil… Well. Ahem. I should probably quit now.
Thank you very much for reading!