Title: The Numbers
Pairing: really Sheppard gen, with a bit of McKay/Sheppard subtext if you’re so inclined
Spoilers: Through ‘McKay and Mrs. Miller’
Length: ~3200 words
Summary: He works hard, erasing the failure of the old John, turning himself almost overnight into a whole new person.
A/N: MENSA-verse; companion piece to Irony (you don’t need to read that first, but it helps). With thanks, again, to siriaeve.
After John finds out, he's hysterical for two days. Every time he closes his eyes he sees the look of pity on the doctor's face and the disgust on his father's. He sees a swirl of colored dots that, no matter how hard he looks or tries not to look, stay just dots. He kicks the trash can across the room. It's fitting, right? He betrayed the numbers and now the numbers have betrayed him. They're gone.
At the end of two days, he's numb again, left with nothing but a quiet desperation. He can't bring himself to leave his room, to face his father or the open sky. He knows he'll find nothing there but questions, and he doesn't have the answer. What is he going to do now? What is he going to do?
In the end he goes back to the numbers like a repentant child. He's lost a year but he uses it to study, takes his SATs again, uses that little card with its circle of colored dots to write a great brave-in-the-face-of-adversity essay. He's always known he was smart, and hidden it to have the kind of friends he wanted to make, be the kind of person he wanted to be. Now he doesn't give a shit.
He works hard, erasing the failure of the old John, turning himself almost overnight into this new person. It's almost worth it to see the look on his father's face when John walks into the room waving an acceptance letter from MIT.
"You wanted to join the Air Force?" people ask him, tones incredulous, noses crinkled, eyes full of judgment. So he stops telling that part of his story. He talks about being bored in school (which he was, always staring out the window and doodling planes on his notebook), and about how numbers changed his life. He studies extra, extra hard, because he's smart but he's not quite a natural, and he joins lots of academic clubs on campus because these are the people he needs to learn to fit in with now, and John is nothing if not adaptable.
It gets better. He gets better—not a natural but the next best thing. A true believer: numbers are everything, a strong mind can make up for a weak body, I am smarter than you. If he believes it, it will become true.
John's enjoying all the job offers that are coming in—several prestigious universities, a few more that are overambitious and seriously kidding themselves, and a couple of think tanks, including (creepy) the RAND Corporation—but when a letter arrives bearing the seal of the USAF, he has to sit down for a minute. For a second he's completely convinced that they're writing to apologize. Dear John Sheppard, we have made a grievous mistake. Our doctor was a moron and you are not, in fact, colorblind. We would like to take you on as soon as possible and in fact have several F-16s specially picked out. Would a starting rank of Colonel be agreeable to you? Sincerely, the U.S. Air Force. Then he realizes how ridiculous this is and has to take several deep breaths to keep from being sick.
He almost throws the envelope away unopened. He almost does a lot of things, including kick the trash can across the room. In the end, though, he stares at the ceiling for a while, calculating digits of pi, before groping for the letter and opening it with hands that barely shake at all.
It's a job offer. A hysterical laugh almost burbles out of John's throat, but he swallows it down. A job offer. The Air Force wants him. As a Doctor of Mathematics, they want him.
He has to sign a confidentiality agreement if he wants to know more. John isn't sure yet what he's going to say, whether he's going to tell them to all go fuck themselves or throw himself gratefully at their feet. But one way or another, he has to know.
They pick him up in a helicopter. John physically stops himself from caressing the side and clambers in. "You gonna be all right?" asks the sergeant who's riding in the back with him. "Civilians sometimes get nauseous."
John gives him a look that says exactly what he thinks of the sergeant's brain capacity; in other words, that he doesn't have much of one. "I'll be fine."
If he closes his eyes, he can pretend that he's flying.
The base is inside a mountain, and from what John can see (not much, with his current level of security clearance) it goes way down. He signs a lot of papers and basically promises that he won't go on Oprah or start a website entitled Cheyenne Mountain Exposed! He fidgets while he waits for this Captain Carter person to come talk to him.
He pauses when he learns that she's a) a woman, and b) an astrophysicist who's no slouch in the brains department. By the time she's really started talking, he's not moving at all.
He takes the job, in the end, because he's willing to put pride behind the chance to do some really cool math, and because he may just be, on some level, an utter masochist. Could there be any sweeter torture than being around planes all the time, the most cutting-edge planes; and not just planes, spaceships? He's glad of those few engineering courses he took, and glad that he still remembers something of how to make fast friends, of how to be ingratiating. They may think he's an arrogant asshole the rest of the time, but they know he'll sit quietly in the presence of an exposed engine, or even a canopy being washed. So sometimes the engineers, and even the ground crew guys he makes fun of—sometimes, they let him watch.
John puts his name in for the Atlantis expedition because he's getting those tension headaches again, the really bad ones that make him want to run run run. He's tried actually doing that—jogging around the corridors like he's seen some of the other guys doing, but his body is not his friend (it betrayed him), and the few times he attempted it, he quickly ran out of air and had to rest with his hands on his knees while little circles of color burst behind his eyes.
Out. He wants to get out. Usually he likes his dark little corner of an office, buried beneath the Earth; he thinks sometimes it's a good thing that he doesn't have a window, because otherwise he'd be tempted to beat on it like a trapped and panicked bird, splintering its wings to nothing, pounding against the impenetrable glass.
Anyway. Lost city of the Ancients? You can't get much more out than that.
He knows he's a pretty good candidate to go, although he also knows he's in no way a lock; SGC, it seems, employs a surprising number of people willing to go on a potentially one-way mission to another galaxy. But then Doctor Beckett does what John thought was just another routine blood test and starts stuttering like crazy. John tenses, prepared for a repeat of last time—We're sorry, your blood's just not compatible with the Pegasus Galaxy. You see, it ought to be able to detect a big number 7 in this circle right here—and he's so ready for bad news that it scarcely even registers when Beckett starts clapping him on the back and congratulating him like he just won the lottery.
He knew medicine was all voodoo anyway.
John packs for Atlantis very carefully. He folds his shirts and his khaki pants and tucks his special podiatrist-recommended sneakers (they help correct the slight misalignment of his arches) into the corner of his suitcase. He doesn't take the book he's reading, even though he's halfway through, because there isn't enough room and he won't have time to read once he's there anyway.
He does pack a small, travel-sized game of Go, though. If they don't all die horribly the second they step through the wormhole, he could set up an Atlantis branch of MENSA. It might be nice, even on the most superficial level, to have friends again.
They get there and they do almost die horribly (drowning, God). There's a lot of scrambling that John doesn't have much to do with (and when he sees Sergeant Markham come back from apparently having watched his commanding officer get his life sucked out of him, unable to do anything to stop it or even ease his pain, John's sure glad of that); and then they're not all gonna die quite yet, and there are all these very hot alien refugees milling around, and all the military people are freaking out because suddenly the highest-ranking person on base is this young, baby-faced Lieutenant.
John sits with some of the other scientists while they mock the U.S. Military's typically brain-dead lack of sufficient planning, but he knows they're all secretly really scared; a race of evil space vampires was not something they'd counted on ("Nobody expects the vampire inquisition," John says lamely, and nobody laughs), but they were all counting, in the backs of their brilliant minds, on the military to protect them.
There are a lot tense meetings that John isn't important enough to attend, but already the base rumor mill is running, and everyone's talking about how Doctor McKay, who's supposed to be leading the science team, has also logged more offworld hours than almost anybody else, now that Sumner's dead. And while the Marines would surely riot if a scientist were actually put in charge of their side of things, they all like him. John hears a lot of, "Luckily, Rod had shown me this really wicked move he learned on PX4-892," and "He got him to fold, but it turns out Rod was totally bluffing!" and "But Rod said my theory about the Heisenberg Principle was really interesting!" John has, of course, heard of the great Rod McKay before; he's seen him jogging around the mountain and sucking up to Colonel Carter and high-fiving Marines. He'd always thought McKay was an attention whore and an idiot—who else would waste so much time doing all that stuff when he could be doing important things?
But the decision comes down: McKay's going to "help Lieutenant Ford out" until contact can be reestablished with Earth. (Listening to the announcement, John notes that Doctor Weir is careful never to say if contact can be reestablished with Earth.) Further, Ford and McKay are going to lead the primary offworld team. (Doctor Weir says Lieutenant Ford will lead it, but unlike the Marines, John's far from stupid; he can read between the lines.) No word yet on who the other two members will be. Duty rosters will be drawn up soon.
Whatever, John thinks. The Ancients did some of the most beautiful and complicated math he's ever seen, and John has a whole database of it to explore.
John is exploring, in the comfort and safety of his own room for once (he found and activated a device that projects seemingly random sequences of numbers across your field of vision; they change as soon as you recognize the pattern, and it's the most wonderfully relaxing thing John's ever experienced, to see all those numbers like that) when someone rings his door bell. "What?" John snaps, sour at the interruption, and then he sees it's McKay standing there and he says, "Oh."
He figures he's broken some kind of protocol, that he was supposed to report the device as soon as he found it. He hands it over with a nasty, "It won't work unless you have the gene," but it stays bright in McKay's hands. "Therapy took," McKay says easily, and there goes the only other possible reason John can think of for McKay to need him: something to turn on, something to shut off.
"What is it?" he asks impatiently, but McKay's attention has been seized by the device. He holds it to his eyes with a little May I? look at John; John waves him on, thinking, You're head of the damn science department. McKay slips the device on over his ears; it makes them stick out funny, John notes gleefully.
McKay's face goes kind of slack, tracking the numbers no doubt. John's about to say, Notice anything yet? snarkily, because any moron ought to be able to see— But McKay's slipping the device off again and grinning. "Patterns," he says, breezily. "That's oddly relaxing."
"Hmph," says John, feeling sulky. McKay even gives the device right back to him, like it's John's personal property, so he can't even complain about that.
"So," says McKay, after a silence that, if it's awkward, is only awkward for one of them, "have you given any thought to joining an offworld team?"
John snorts a laugh. "You're kidding, right?" he says, although it's really not that funny.
McKay smiles as he shakes his head. It's the smile of someone who smiles a lot, maybe a little too often, and it disturbs John in particular because he recognizes it, remembers it. "I think someone with your background could be an asset," McKay says, smiling smiling smiling, and it hits John like a punch to the gut as he realizes, Holy shit, he knows.
He takes a deep breath and calms himself. It's not that surprising, really; the Air Force of course knew about his previous, aborted attempt to join their ranks when they hired him, and of course McKay, as head of sciences, reviewed all the personnel files before they left. But why, but why...
McKay doesn't give him time to think about it; he's blathering on about math, and John has to pay really close attention in order to keep up. John hasn't felt like this since freshman year: like a big phony, on the verge of exposing himself with every breath.
Yet McKay doesn't seem to be trying to trick him, or trap him—not into anything other than saying yes, at least. "Oh and by the way," he says suddenly—all slouched and easy-looking, and yet moving so fast—"Have you seen the gateships yet?"
"Gateships?" says John stupidly.
"They're ships that go through the gate," says McKay with a wink. "C'mon. I'll show you."
As John follows McKay through the city, he starts to feel his old doubts creeping up on him, like a black cloud. The thought, I'm really not worth all this time and attention, tries to slip, insidious, into his consciousness; John slams down on it. No! he thinks wildly, It's my time that's invaluable, why am I wasting it on this military brown-noser who'd rather be shooting hoops than spending time in his lab? Why should I even humor him; everything about him is fake, and I, I have real work to...
Then he's there in the room with them, and his mind goes blank.
"I know, I know," says McKay, and he sounds a little like a used car salesman now, but luckily his voice has blurred to a dull buzz in the back of John's mind, "they look a little bit like flying Winnebagoes, but they handle beautifully, and—"
John snaps to attention. "Wait. You've taken them up?"
"Yeah." McKay smiles broadly; it looks almost genuine. "Wanna go for a test run?"
It's going to be torture, sitting in the co-pilot's chair (or God, the back—there's a back, isn't there? Maybe that's where they secure civilian scientists) watching McKay of all people fly across the great blue ocean, through the vast blue sky. And so maybe John is a masochist, because it's without hesitation that he says, "Yes. Oh, yes."
McKay clears it with the control tower within a matter of seconds. Plopping down in the pilot's chair, he gestures for John to take a seat beside him, so that's something at least. Then the roof's opening up overhead and the sky's opening up all around them and—they're flying. They're flying.
McKay's still plodding along with his sales pitch, going on about the inertial dampeners this, and the HUD that, and the blah blah blah is oh-so-intuitive and jeeze, John kinda feels sorry for the guy, 'cause he'd have to be a pretty big idiot not to realize that John doesn't care, that none of this means anything to him in the face of the sky wide and welcoming all around him and—his breath catches—space, space, visible as they push through the outer reaches of the atmosphere, glittering and glistening above.
He realizes that McKay is watching him, a quiet, calculating look—the first honest expression John's ever seen on him. This is a test, John realizes, but he doesn't care; even if he fails, they can't do anything worse to him than show him this and then take it away.
Congratulations, we are pleased to inform you of your acceptance to the United States Air Force Academy, pending a routine medical examination.
He's staring, losing himself in the vast swirl of stars, like colored dots, like an endless series of numbers that is almost a pattern, when he feels a warm touch on his arm. John looks over, but McKay has already let go. "So," he says, and there's another smile, a different smile, one John doesn't recognize. "Would you like to give it a try?"
John's throat goes dry. It must be some cruel joke, the cruelest yet, because he can't, he can't really be offering...
But he is. McKay sets the ship on autopilot and gets up from his chair. "Don't worry," McKay says, offering it to him. "If you have the gene it's really easy. It wants you to fly it."
That's stupid, John wants to say, but instead he laughs, high-pitched and a little hysterical. Laughing, he sits down in the pilot's chair, slides forward, grips the controls. And then all sound in him dies down to a wonderfully awed hum, just like the ship, the ship that he's flying, twisting and twirling through the stars, like his entire life up until this point has been spent soaring.
He knows that his expression is unguarded, that he's projecting nothing but naked, open joy. He doesn't care. He doesn't care, because he was born to do this, he has the right to be arrogant about this—he's such a natural that it is in his ever-loving genes.
Beside him, he can feel McKay's eyes on him, looking on with something that may be close to envy. For a second, John wants to ask him, Is there anything in the world that could mean as much to you as this? But it passes. He concentrates on flying.
Yet he listens the next time McKay opens his mouth, when McKay says: "So. Are we a team?"
And "Yes," says John, "absolutely"—because from the moment McKay offered up his chair, he had John's number; John would follow him anywhere.
1. I remember someone else (I don’t remember who; I’m sorry) used colorblindness as the reason John didn’t join the Air Force, and we talked about how we had the same inspiration. Watch Little Miss Sunshine, and you’ll see what we mean.
2. I’m pretty positive I messed up the Air Force Academy’s application procedures in this. Um. It’s AU?