Fic: Human Vacillation
Title: Human Vacillation
Length: ~4300 words
Summary: He had seen something that he was not likely to forget for a long, long time.
A/N: I’m indebted to so many people for help with this fic: stellahobbit, wikiberry, stillane, wychwood, jarsy, and siriaeve all provided essential science, story, and moral support. Huge thanks to all of them; any remaining mistakes are of course my own.
Strange things, unusual things, were so much par for the course in the Pegasus Galaxy that John didn’t even blink when the alarm signifying an unscheduled off-world gate activation sounded. He’d been in a meeting with Elizabeth, and together they got up and walked to the control room. “Lieutenant Cadman’s IDC,” Campbell told them, and though John immediately ran through a mental list of where Cadman had been and who she was with--M3L-198; Major Lorne, Sergeant Shelmerdine, Doctor Parrish--he was not particularly concerned.
Then Cadman and Shelmerdine came through the wormhole carrying a limp body between them and shouting for a med team, and John only felt the weary sadness of a good day gone wrong.
Parrish stumbled through the event horizon when John and Elizabeth were about halfway down the steps; the front of his uniform was covered with blood, though from the look of things, none of it was his own save that leaking from a shallow wound in his left arm, gripped by thin, pale fingers. There was an all-too-familiar vacantness to his gaze: he had seen something that he was not likely to forget for a long, long time.
“Doctor Beckett is on his way,” Elizabeth assured them as she and John approached. Behind her, the wormhole vanished. For the first time, she appeared to take in the full scope of the scene before her: Parrish’s hollow shock, the exhaustion and terror on Cadman and Shelmerdine’s faces as they supported the unconscious woman between them. “What happened? Where’s Major Lorne? Who is that?”
John had been focused on Parrish, who looked in danger of collapse. Now he turned back, did what he should have done in the first place: relieve his men. But neither Cadman nor Shelmerdine would relinquish their load. Alarm bells went off in John’s brain, a shrieking siren superimposed over the already steady hum. He didn’t know this woman from Eve, but her face looked deathly pale--sweat-damp hair sticking to her cheeks and the sides of her neck--and her black t-shirt was soaked, pasted to her chest with drying blood.
“Lieutenant,” Elizabeth said, sharp enough that Cadman had no choice but to look up, meet her gaze. “I need to know what’s going on. Where is Major Lorne?”
Cadman’s mouth opened and closed without sound, her arm tightening around the unconscious woman’s waist. Behind them, John was dimly aware of Parrish sitting down on the dais, staring ahead as if he wasn’t sure where he was. John forced his attention back to Cadman’s face. “Lieutenant,” he said, trying to strike the right balance between command and sympathy. “Answer Doctor Weir.”
“Carson,” Cadman said, and indeed, Beckett and his team had finally arrived, bringing gurneys and needles and reassuring words. To Beckett, only to Beckett, would Cadman and Shelmerdine finally release the limp body under their protection; John grabbed Shelmerdine’s arm as soon as he let go. “Sergeant,” he said, “report. Where’s your CO?”
The Sergeant’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “That’s him, sir,” he said, looking after the departing gurney. “That’s Major Lorne.”
John’s fingers slid numbly off Shelmerdine’s wrist. “What?” he heard Elizabeth say. “Sergeant, I’m not sure I understand...”
John turned away. He walked over to Parrish and drew him gently to his feet. “How you doing, Doc?” he asked. “You’ve got some blood on you there.”
“His,” said Parrish, weakly. “It’s his--” the last word exploding into hysterical laughter.
John took Parrish by his unwounded arm and led him toward the door. “John--” Elizabeth called.
“Gonna take him to the infirmary,” John explained, and he felt Elizabeth’s eyes on him as they left the room: bewildered, confused, shaken.
It was just a graze; John sat with Parrish while one of the nurses cleaned and bandaged it. “It’s my fault,” Parrish kept repeating. “He pushed me out of the way. It’s my fault.”
“It is not your fault,” John said firmly. Discreetly, he radioed Doctor Brown, sitting tight until she arrived; then he slipped away and went to find Beckett.
Carson was in his office, talking to Elizabeth. They accepted John joining them without comment, without a break in their discussion. “Nothing?” Elizabeth said, clearly not for the first time. “But--the blood--”
Carson shrugged, shook his head. His fingers twitched at his sides, like he’d been jolted by an electric current. “Laura--Lieutenant Cadman said that he was shot in the stomach, but once we cut away the bloody clothes, there was no sign of a wound at all. As for--as for the other, I’m running a DNA test, but...”
John figured he should say something. “Somebody want to catch me up?”
Carson looked to Elizabeth, somewhat pleadingly; after a moment, she straightened her shoulders and said, “Major Lorne’s team is claiming that they came under attack on M3L-198, that the Major was wounded, and that--that he is the woman they brought back through the ‘gate.”
“Claiming?” John said.
“Well, I don’t think they’d lie,” Carson said. “But this is--nothing in my experience has--”
“Is he,” said John, “is the injured person going to be okay?”
On firmer ground, Carson nodded. “She--well, physically we’re talking about a person in almost perfect health. There are the last traces of a rather severe fever, and some lingering musculatory weakness, but that’s all.” He looked back and forth between Elizabeth and John. “No wound,” he repeated.
“Assuming,” Elizabeth said, and John was impressed with her ability to process all of this. “Assuming that that is Major Lorne out there, what do you think could have caused this? Something on that planet? Whatever he was shot with?”
“I’ll talk to Cadman,” John said, because that was his job.
“Aye,” said Carson. “And I’ll run some more tests. Not that I have any bloody idea what sort of tests to run in a situation like this...”
He coughed, feeling Elizabeth’s stare. “Is he going to wake up soon?” she asked. “I should be there.”
Carson nodded. “As I said, there’s nothing physically wrong with...” A pause, and then he said, “him. He could wake at any time.”
“It would be good for him to see a familiar face,” John said, exchanging a look with Elizabeth, the implication clear to both of them. Because his own won’t be. Not anymore.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll wait with him. But please, both of you--let me know as soon as you find anything.”
“Of course,” said Carson.
John echoed him. “Of course.”
“A gun,” Cadman said. “It looked like a gun.”
“Okay,” John said. “Thanks.”
He got up to leave. “That’s it?” Cadman said. Her hair was still damp from the shower, and her eyes looked red, tired. “You’re not going to ask me if it was some sort of...alien transmogrifier ray?”
John scratched the back of his neck. “Was it some sort of alien transmogrifier ray?”
“No,” Cadman said.
John quirked a brow. “Then no,” he said, “I’m not.”
He started to leave again. “Colonel,” she said. He turned around. Cadman was picking at the hem of her jacket, tugging on a loose thread. “I don’t think what happened was an accident.”
His face neutral, “Which part?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes, just a little. “Well...none of it. The inhabitants of M3L-198 meant to shoot the Major, and the Major’s body meant to...”
After a minute, John said, “Yes, Lieutenant?”
Cadman’s eyes were sharp in spite of their weariness. “Meant to fix him, sir. By any means necessary.”
John looked at her; then slowly, he nodded. “You should tell Doctor Beckett that,” he said. “You should tell him--him and Doctor Weir--exactly what you saw, and what you think it means. All right?”
He smiled at her, tried to radiate relaxation he didn’t feel. “Thanks, Lieutenant.”
Out of habit, he held the door for her as she passed.
That John was there when Lorne awoke was not intentional; was, in fact, a complete coincidence. He wanted to check on Parrish and needed to report to Elizabeth, so he walked Cadman back to the infirmary. When he got there, he was pleased to see that Parrish was looking better, sitting vigil at Elizabeth’s side. Less pleasing was the fact that Brown was still with them--and Shelmerdine--and now Cadman-- It would be good for him to see a familiar face, John had said: a familiar face, not an army of them.
“Elizabeth,” he said, hoping to have a private word; but of course that was when Beckett came back, announcing, “Well, the DNA test is conclusive--”; and of course that was when Doctor Brown gasped, pointing at the bed: eyelids were fluttering, the sleeper was waking.
Along with the rest of them, John found himself holding his breath.
Lorne opened his eyes. That was all it took: if John hadn’t already been sure, this would have been enough to convince him that any DNA test was redundant, because the eyes didn’t change, the eyes didn’t lie. Lorne’s gaze passed silently over the people around him; he subtly arched a brow. “I’m happy to see--” he said, then stopped.
Taken alone, John couldn’t think of a finer reintroduction to the world. Truncated, the words carried an entirely different meaning.
It was painful to watch, the inevitable denouement. Lorne’s fingers went to his throat. “What’s wrong with--” Then he looked down, and John could see every muscle in his face convulse as he forced himself not to panic.
He could relate.
Elizabeth stepped forward: still no master of bedside manner, but willing to try. “Major,” she said, “you gave us quite a scare--”
“I’m a bit spooked myself,” Lorne said, voice perfectly flat, but nonetheless high-pitched, higher-pitched, and it must seem alarmingly so. “What the hell happened?”
It was Beckett’s turn to take a shuffling half-step toward the bed. “We’re not quite sure,” he said. “But the good news is you’re perfectly healthy--”
“Healthy,” Lorne said, still so flat. “Healthy.”
“You were shot in the stomach, sir,” Cadman said. “You--”
“Died.” Parrish uttered the word, distinct though it was barely more than a whisper. “You died.”
John could have identified down to the second the moment that Lorne remembered. He froze, breath hitching; then his fingers were scrambling over his stomach, mindless even of the new rise of breasts, feeling the smooth, unmarked skin. “How did--” he said, and finally there was a stirring of emotion. “How am I alive?”
All around him, people shook their heads: eyes full of bewilderment, of wonder. John didn’t move a muscle.
He sat on the edge of his bed, unlacing his boots. There was a knot in one of the ties; he wasn’t sure how it had gotten there. He tugged, working a nail under it; when the door opened he didn’t look up, but waited, patiently, for the load of verbiage he knew was coming.
“Well,” Rodney said, after a sufficiently dramatic pause, “this has been an interesting day, hm? So nice that someone finally saw fit to inform me--four hours later.”
John raised his eyes; Rodney was divesting himself of his jacket: too quickly, catching his fist in the cuff. There was nothing he could say. John knew better than anyone that what had happened that morning was none of Rodney’s business; that it was utterly Rodney’s business. He waited, waited to see what Rodney would do.
Rodney, finally free of the jacket, tossed it over a chair; then he sat down on the bed next to John and began working on his own shoes. “Carson’s finally making progress, though,” he said, addressing his right ankle. “Once I arrived,” of course making that seem like the impetus, “he theorized that the gene--”
“The gene?” said John, surprised.
“Yes, the gene, the ATA gene,” Rodney said, too excited to be really snappish. “It must have some sort of last-ditch safety mechanism to protect the carrier, like...”
“An airbag?” John suggested.
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Yes, thank you, Colonel Simile. And actually, it’s better than an airbag; if Carson’s right--and admittedly, there’s a distinct possibility that he’s completely out of his gourd--but if he’s right--”
He got up again, unable to help pacing as he talked. “It makes sense, actually. The Ancients needed to maintain their physical bodies until they could achieve Ascension, but in the meantime they weren’t afraid to play around with them, experiment on them, improve them--not if it meant a chance of sustaining them long enough. So this...this is a little like a failsafe or...or...”
He snapped his fingers, seizing on the appropriate comparison before John could slip in and steal it from him. “If there’s a bug in one of the programs you’re running on your computer and it’s threatening to crash the entire system, this is like a way to reboot! Only,” he said, pausing his feet while his hands continued to make gestures that could be considered vaguely obscene, “only when it starts up again, the, erm, operating system is different.”
“The operating system,” John said.
“Yes,” said Rodney, lifting his chin, clearly pleased with himself. “The concept of gender is fluid--when you get right down to it, it’s all zeroes and ones. Alleles are switched on or off on the chromosomes. Zero zero--two X chromosomes. Zero one--an X and a Y. Sometimes the system is modified--when I left, Carson was theorizing that there might be something programmed into the gene to cause an excess of prostaglandin--which, hm, might explain why stubbed toes have been increasingly painful since I...”
He must have noticed that John looked unusually glazed, because he quickly pulled himself back on track. “Anyway, the chemical imbalance generates a whole set of cascade reactions, which boost the immune system but could also trigger a hormone change: one to zero, Y to X, male to female. At least on the outside,” he added, a pensive twist to his lips. “Hmm, I wonder what his insides look like?”
John sighed. “You’re handling this remarkably well,” he said, dryly.
“Well, it’s fascinating!” Rodney said. “And of course I’m glad that Lorne is okay,” he added, just a little too late. Something about the faux pas made John smile, however; he was so, so screwed.
Besides--“Is he, though?” John asked. “Okay?”
Rodney sat down again, bumping their shoulders. “I dunno, he’s probably in for weeks of mental trauma and years of sexual confusion. But he’s alive, and he’s going to have Carson jumping through hoops for months--”
“Well, that’s what’s really important,” John said.
Rodney’s hand was on his thigh. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “I mean, I can’t believe you’ve actually let me talk this long--normally, we’d be making out by now.”
John snorted, arresting Rodney’s restless fingers. “We’re not fifteen, you know.”
“And thank God for that,” Rodney said, sincerely. He twisted his leg, looping it over John’s; in another moment, he’d be in John’s lap, or more likely, splayed out on top of him on the bed. “Though I’d have liked to have seen you then. I bet you were all knees.”
John thought about what he had looked like at fifteen. “Not quite,” he said, and closed his hand tight around Rodney’s arm, pulling him up. To his surprise, they didn’t overbalance, and Rodney shifted his other leg so that he was properly straddling him, gripping John’s shoulders. John reached up and rubbed the back of Rodney’s neck, but neither of them finished the movement, took the logical next step. John stared at the lips he wasn’t kissing, watched them form the words. “You can tell me, you know.”
He shook his head. “Nothing to tell,” he said. “Guess I’m just...more freaked out than I thought.”
Rodney smirked, his fingers brushing over John’s collar bone. “Masculinity challenged?”
“Yeah,” John drawled. “I’m really insecure.”
Rodney opened his mouth, probably to make a remark about John and guns or John and phallic-shaped spacecraft or John and loose alien women; instead, his tongue clicked against his teeth, and a moment later he said, “You look really tired.”
John let out a breath. “Yeah, I am, a bit,” and then Rodney was awkwardly dismounting and equally awkwardly trying to pull John up the bed, to undo his fly, jerk his pants down his hips. “Stop,” John said, batting at his hands, “you don’t have to--”
“Oh no,” Rodney said, pressing a kiss to his thigh, “not insecure at all.”
John watched as Rodney took off his own pants then crawled into bed with him, boxers and t-shirts. “We’re such studs,” John said, rolling his eyes, but he accepted the arm Rodney threw over his back, accepted Rodney’s warm breath and his face pressing into the crook of his shoulder. The lights dimmed with a thought.
“It’s funny,” Rodney said, a few minutes later, voice a quiet rumble. “I hear, ‘Major Lorne’s been turned into a girl,’ and I don’t think, ‘Huh’ or ‘That’s odd’ or even ‘Is she hot?’ No, it’s all, ‘How can we use this? Does this help us?’ I’ve become all pragmatic! And...and blasé!”
The idea of Rodney being considered blasé was really frickin’ hilarious; John swallowed his laughter. “But what about Lorne?”
For a moment, John was terrified that Rodney was going to say, “What about Lorne?” Instead, he could feel the subtle shifting of Rodney’s body, restless movements as he thought. “Well, like I said, I’m sure it’s going to be a bit traumatic.” A bit? John stopped himself from saying. “But give him a few weeks or months or whatever,” his hand spiralling against John’s back as he spoke, “and I’m sure he’ll find that it doesn’t make that big a difference.”
He stilled, suddenly. “Why are we still talking about this? You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
“You started it,” John said, because sometimes they really were fifteen.
“There’s something--” Rodney said, “you’re making me nervous.” He pulled back, squinting at John’s face. “Are you worried that what happened to Major Lorne could happen to you? Because--” Then his hands went slack, his eyes wide. “Whoa. Actually, if Carson’s right, it could happen to you. It could happen to--to anybody who has the gene. Me--”
John tired not to take too much pleasure in saying, “I’m sure you’d find that it wouldn’t make that big a difference.”
“Shut up,” Rodney said, swallowing; then: “And I’m right, it wouldn’t. Bodies--they’re just annoyingly fragile vessels for the--ungh.”
John licked his lips, raising his mouth from that spot on Rodney’s neck. “Hypocrite,” he said, and bit down again.
Rodney clutched at his shoulders. “That--that has nothing to do with sex,” he said, and when John laughed, “with gender! Sex, you know what I mean!”
“So you’re saying,” John said, moving down Rodney’s body, feeling the hard press of his nipples through the soft t-shirt, “you would still want me, want this, if you were a woman?” He paused, mouth hot against Rodney’s belly. “If I was?”
“Hell yes,” Rodney said, fingernails against John’s scalp. “What part of bisexual didn’t you understand?”
John left the potential pun alone. “So you’re telling me,” John said, “that you’d like it if I...” His hands slid downward, inexorably downward. “...If I slipped my fingers between your legs, teasing your clit, making you wet, steadying myself against your thighs before thrusting into your hot, tight cunt--”
“Unnngh,” Rodney said again, then with a great deal more coherence: “If you wanted to fuck me, you could have just asked.” He swivelled, grinding back against John’s dick. “Hell, you don’t even need to ask--”
“But what if I couldn’t?” John said, stilling his hips with forceful hands. He pushed against the cleft of Rodney’s ass: held himself there, not moving. “You like me hard, don’t you?” he whispered. “But what if I wasn’t? What if I was soft and weak and...and vulnerable...”
“Don’t be stupid,” Rodney panted. He struggled against John’s grip, twisting. “I’m in love with you, not your cock.”
John let go. “Jesus, Rodney”--staring, because how could he just say something like that, like it was an everyday thing, and not--
“Sorry,” Rodney said, mollified. “No disrespect to your cock intended. Here,” pushing himself down, and with him, John’s boxers, “allow me to make it up to you. To it.”
This was really not where John had imagined the conversation going, but he was having difficulty lodging a formal complaint. Instead he found himself stroking over the top of Rodney’s head, his face: gentle, just the kind of touch he tried to pretend he didn’t want. He felt himself pulse in Rodney’s mouth, and he had to bite his tongue to stop his own mouth from moving, spilling all its secrets.
Rodney always looked a little too pleased with himself after a blowjob; it didn’t take that much work for John to coax him up the bed, to kiss that broad, smug mouth. He tasted like come, as John had known he would, like John’s come; and John shuddered against him, stroking his tongue into his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut tight. Rodney responded hungrily, and when there was a slight hiccup--a slight pause, Rodney going momentarily still--John barely even noticed. The world had realigned itself, even if it was only temporary: this was the way it should be.
“Rodney,” he said, and opened his eyes to see the other man looking at him, studying him with wide, blue eyes. “Yes. John,” Rodney said, and John smiled, slow and lazy, already reaching for Rodney’s cock, to show that he loved it, him, too.
Rodney’s fingers tangled with his. “No, no,” he said, “it’s okay. In the morning. I’m really--” He yawned, theatrically. “--Really tired.”
John blinked. He could feel Rodney against his thigh: he was hard. Not painfully, but not insignificantly, either. “You sure?” he said, feeling another flicker of panic that he quickly forced away.
“Yeah,” Rodney said. His eyes held a somewhat distant, thoughtful cast, but he readily leaned in again, inhaling John’s scent. “I’m sure.”
“‘Kay,” John said, and breathed, and breathed.
“John,” Rodney said quietly, just as he was once again on the verge of sleep; he really needed to stop doing that. “John?”
“Yeah?” John said, voice rough as if he’d already been drowsing. “What?”
Rodney’s chest was still pressed against his, his face tucked into John’s shoulder. John could feel him take a breath. “What did it use to be?” he asked. “Your name.”
For a brief, blissful moment, John didn’t understand the question. For a few seconds longer, he could pretend that he didn’t.
Then he said, “How long have you known?”
Rodney’s heart rate increased--he was excited, excited. “About ten minutes.”
Flatly, “How did you figure it out?”
They were so close that John could feel Rodney roll his eyes. “Hello?” he said. “I’m not stupid. You’ve been dropping--it makes so much--I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner!”
John would have taken offense at that, but he was still too busy waiting for the moment when Rodney pulled away.
Rodney didn’t pull away. He did raise his head so that he could look into John’s face; raised his hand, too--telegraphing his movements, clearly intending to touch John’s cheek. So in the end it was John who flinched, pulled back. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t act like this is nothing--like it doesn’t change everything--”
“It doesn’t! Why should it?” And John couldn’t tell if Rodney was oblivious or in denial or just really fucking naïve. “John--”
“But that’s not my name, you said.” Voice dark. “I’m not who, or what I said.” Fingers curling in, the sharp bite of nails against his palm. “Don’t you see that this makes everything, all of this--a lie?”
Rodney’s eyes met his and didn’t waver. “Does it?” he asked.
That was all either of them said for a while.
“Fuck,” John said finally, the first to speak. He pulled the back of his hand over his face, roughly wiping his eyes. “That was--what a fucking stereotype.”
“Please,” Rodney said. “Have you seen me when I get a--a splinter? Don’t be an idiot.”
John rolled his eyes. He felt better and couldn’t, didn’t want to believe it: in his experience the truth walled you in, it didn’t set you free. “I’m not an idiot,” he said. “I have seen how you react to a splinter, and this--this is a hell of a lot bigger. You can’t not care.”
“Of course I care!” Rodney said. “I’m burning with curiosity over here! I want you to tell me everything, and then I want you to tell me again, because I know you, and I bet you can’t even help leaving all the good stuff out.”
“The good stuff,” John said; thinking, know me?
Rodney reached out, tentative; his hand looked so pathetic, shaking and unsure like that, alone: so eventually John reached forward and took it, fingers threading through fingers.
“The good stuff,” Rodney repeated. “The bad stuff. The hard-and-the-stupid-and-the-messy stuff.” He smiled, staring up at John through his eyelashes--delicate, like a girl’s. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
John took a deep breath. “Where should I start?” he asked. “The day that I died?”
“No,” said Rodney, lying there before him, open and ready and waiting. “The day you were born.”
ETA: Additional inspiration and credit for this story must be given to Neil Gaiman's short story "Change" and Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando. Read those one right after the other: that'll set your head spinning.
So, um. Sequel? I’m thinking sequel. Hopefully soon.