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Fanfiction: Broken Wings, Chapter 11

For author's note and disclaimer see Chapter 1

 

Part 3: Turbulence

John collapsed onto the hard wooden seat at the small table he and Mitchell had appropriated in the bar and reached for his beer. He was breathless from dancing with a very athletic brunette with a very pretty smile. Mitchell smirked at him from behind his own tankard of amber liquid. John had been inveigled into dancing by a matronly woman who could have been his grandmother before being passed off on the dance floor to the younger crowd. The attempt at match-making was obvious enough that even John could see it. Mitchell had gotten out of it by rubbing his knee and claiming an old injury. John thought that it might not be just an excuse.

'She's cute.' Mitchell commented, waving in the direction of the gaggle of women over in the far corner where John had escorted the brunette after declining to dance for a fifth time.

'She's in love with Billy Ray,' John lifted a hand from his beer, 'or Billy Bob or something. But he's cheated on her with her best friend, Amber or Jade or something. She's looking to make Billy Whoever jealous; I told her she should find someone else.'

Mitchell spluttered with laughter. 'You made that up.'

John shook his head and smiled. 'Go ahead; dance with her; she'll tell you the same thing.' He took a long swallow of his beer and settled back, surprised to find that he was relaxed and having fun. He looked around. The bar was country – not surprising since they were in Texas, Clancyville to be exact. It had been his mother's hometown and Sheppard International owned the place pretty much.

He and Mitchell had originally been scheduled to fly to Houston after New Orleans but since they'd needed to change up the flight plan, Mitchell had suggested the ranch in Clancyville after spotting it on the list of properties John owned. The other man took his responsibility of holding John's power of attorney seriously.

It was a good suggestion. Clancyville was in the middle of nowhere; secure; the town was ten miles down the road from the ranch and small enough that strangers got noticed. The bar had even paused for a moment of silence when he and Mitchell had walked in. They hadn't looked at each other for fear of laughing.

It had been Mitchell who had suggested heading out to a bar instead of staying at the ranch. John had readily agreed. They knew they had to be careful with the threat of the Lucien Alliance hanging over their heads but they'd gone places and done things anyway; walking the line between being sensible and being sensible.

John thought he'd suggest riding in the morning instead of their usual run. He wanted to check out the stables and the stock; talk to the manager, Jeff Hart. He'd been oblivious that his father had actually kept the ranch, assigning Hart to run it and run it well; the ranch was making money raising horses for cattle-work and rodeo. It was a sprawl of a place; ten bedrooms each with their own bath, two dens, games room, two formal rooms, a huge kitchen, and a library. It had been in his mother's family since the West had opened up; John's heart had kind of stuttered when Mitchell had pointed it out on the list of assets because, maybe, just maybe it was something that John actually wanted.

He remembered when his mother had been alive how they'd spend a week every winter and a week every summer out at the ranch visiting with his grandparents until they'd both died; his grandmother when he'd been eight and his grandfather only a year later. John had loved every minute of every stay; the horses, the wide open spaces, freedom from his father who never came with them. His father had never sent them after his mother's death, and it seemed better to forget than mourn something as nebulous as a place. And then there had college, the Air Force, Atlantis.

John was already thinking that he could make the ranch his home for the rare occasions he was back on Earth. He'd sold his apartment in San Francisco before taking the Atlantis position and he didn't have another place; his stuff was in storage. He'd probably need to look into a better communication system for when Rodney visited, because listening to the litany of complaints about no Internet and how was a civilised person expected to live that way would get old very quickly, but he thought Ronon and Teyla would like the place.

He swallowed down another mouthful of beer. Mitchell pointed towards an empty pool table on the other side of the bar, away from the dance floor. John nodded his agreement and they sauntered over to grab pool cues and chalk. The local guys gave them friendly enough nods; they weren't intruding on anyone's territory, and John relaxed.

John let Mitchell set up and take the first shot. He was good but John was better. It was all mathematics to him; the calculation of angles, force and velocity. John won the first game easily.

Mitchell sighed and glared at him. 'I might have known you'd be a hustler.'

'Hey, I'm not as bad as Sam.' John pointed out as he set up again.

'That's because you're not as good as her either.' Mitchell grinned broadly and pushed John back from the table gently. 'And loser gets to break.'

'Want to make it interesting?' John asked with an answering grin of his own as he watched the balls spin and slide across the green.

Mitchell lifted an eyebrow in mute query, moving back so John could take his position to shoot. 'What?'

'Winner gets to go first in the story-telling tomorrow.' John calculated the angle on the first ball and it sank into the pocket with a satisfying thunk.

Mitchell had won the story-telling the day before because John couldn't find a 'pretended to be bad guys during a first contact' story in response to Mitchell's tale of pretending to be terrorists and taking a museum hostage. Mitchell's story had ended up with John in fits of laughter especially at Mitchell's description of the alien John McClane and Vala's multiple attempts to break into a display cabinet to get to a Goa'uld bomb.

'I can honestly say,' John had replied when Mitchell had pressed him for a response, 'my team has never gone on a first contact mission, pretended to be terrorists and held people hostage.' There had been a small voice inside him suggesting it was only a matter of time.

He had ended up telling Mitchell about Teyla pretending to be a Wraith Queen which was the closest they'd come to pretending to be bad guys that he could recall. If the story terms had been different, John was sure he would have won. After all, Mitchell hadn't had to undergo extensive surgery.

Having lost that round, John had been determined over the latest competition. After some discussion with Rodney at their daily check-in, he'd gone for the Genii invasion of Atlantis. Mitchell had countered with a story of how the SGC had taken over by multiple copies of Ba'al. They'd agreed John had won before Mitchell had gone on to tell a couple more stories from before his time at the SGC; one where Sam had saved the day from aliens with mimic devices, and one where the SGC got invaded by invisible insect-like creatures. John was torn between fascination and the idle thought that he wasn't certain he wanted to know how many times Earth had come close to being completely wiped out by invading aliens. Either way, four days of swapping stories had established one thing in John's mind: whoever went first definitely had an advantage.

'You're on.' Mitchell agreed with another one of his easy smiles that reminded John of his late friend, Holland; one of the friends he'd failed to rescue in Afghanistan.

Holland had always been the easy-going one in the team; not as loud as Mitch and Dex, not as quiet as John. He'd been military through and through. Somehow, Mitchell's Hollandesque solidity was healing; bringing back fun memories of stupid competitions, games and camaraderie instead of sand, heat and blood.

John was distracted by the raised voices in the other side of the bar by the dance floor and fluffed the last shot he needed. Mitchell gave a small murmur of triumph and moved in as John stepped back only to stop sharply at the sight of a group of men approaching them.

John's tension translated straight to Mitchell who straightened. Somehow it took less than three seconds for John and Mitchell to turn around and for their grips on the pool cues to shift denoting the subconscious change of use from game-tool to weapon. They were sizing up the opposition automatically.

It wasn't the Lucien Alliance, John deduced quickly; all three men wore variations of worn jeans, shirts and cowboy boots. Locals. Angry locals. He swapped a 'what the hell' look with Mitchell that was only moderated by their disbelief and the disconnected feeling they'd fallen into the plot of a bad movie.

'Now, boys,' the bartender, a grey-haired old guy named Lou, ambled over, 'let's not be hasty here, Billy Lee. These folks are visiting the Sheppard ranch.'

Ah. Billy Lee. John belatedly saw the gaggle of women rushing up behind the group of local men.

His former dance partner put her hand on Billy Lee's arm, which John catalogued as bigger than his own but not nearly as muscular as Ronon's. 'It's none of your business, Billy Lee!' She said stridently, but there was a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes that told John that she was pleased with unfolding events.

John barely managed to restrain the eye-roll. 'What appears to be the problem?' He asked, trying for friendly.

'You've been hitting on my girl!' Billy Lee sneered, his dark eyes bulging.

'No,' John drawled slowly, 'we danced. Twice. Once to Shania Twain.' Which he thought should prove the inanity of the accusation because who hit on someone when they were dancing to 'I Feel Like a Woman.'

'You big time executives think you could show up here and hit on our girls all the time!' Billy Lee shoved a finger in the direction of John's chest. 'Well, I say enough is enough!'

'My friend's telling the truth.' Mitchell said firmly. 'Look, I'm sure none of us want to fight here. Why don't we just head on back to the ranch and leave you folks to it?'

'Not this time.' Billy Lee took a step toward them.

John's grip tightened on the pool cue. 'You really don't want to do this.'

'Oh, I think I do.'

It was the only warning they got. John sidestepped the punch that Billy Lee aimed for his face, far too aware that the guy's friends had both gone for Mitchell – probably they'd been told to keep him out of it while Billy Lee took care of John.

John had the pool cue up before Billy Lee recovered from the forward momentum of the punch. John moved with the grace drummed into him by Teyla over years of bantos fighting, his heart racing but his breaths even; he smacked Billy Lee's legs out from under him; issued another blow to his gut as Billy Lee tipped forward and as John ended up behind him, smacked him lightly on the back of the head; enough so that Billy Lee lost consciousness but not so there was serious damage.

There was a shocked murmur as Billy Lee collapsed on the wooden floor in a heap.

But John wasn't finished. He spun around to assess the threat to Mitchell. One guy was on the ground clutching his groin; the other was like Billy Lee – out for the count. Mitchell's lip was bloodied but he looked undamaged otherwise.

The whole encounter had taken less than a minute. The bar was totally silent with shock.

Billy Lee's girlfriend gave a shriek and ran forward to kneel beside her fallen beau. 'What did you do?' She glared up at John furiously.

Mitchell dabbed his lip and shared a bemused look with John.

'Maybe someone should call a doctor or an ambulance.' John suggested loudly.

'No need.' A strong voice called out from the front door. A mature man wearing a sheriff's beige uniform, walked over with a young deputy scurrying in his wake.

'Ah, Nate; good of you to show up.' Lou greeted him.

'Well, isn't this the clusterfuck?' Nate said.

John had a horrible feeling that they were going to get arrested and sent to prison without trial. It occurred to him that maybe he'd watched too many episodes of The A-Team.

Nate kept a hand on his sidearm and nodded at both John and Mitchell. 'I'd be putting those pool cues down now.'

John left his on the table and Mitchell did the same.

'This isn't what it looks like.' Mitchell began awkwardly.

'They attacked Billy Lee!' Billy Lee's girlfriend yelled. 'Look at him! He's unconscious!'

And drooling, John noted.

'He attacked us first.' John felt compelled to point out.

'That true, Lou?' Nate asked casually.

'It was.' Lou sighed. 'Tiffany here danced a couple of times with this fella,' he motioned towards John who attempted a smile as though to indicate he was harmless really, 'and I don't know how Billy Lee found out,' Tiffany flushed prettily and looked at the floor, 'but he came in looking for a fight and started one.'

Nate hummed. His hair was white; his pale blue eyes flinty. 'He may have started it but he didn't end it.' He looked over his shoulder at the hovering deputy who barely looked out of high school. 'Well, what're you waiting for? Call the Doc.'

The deputy scuttled off.

'Names?' Nate asked, taking out a notebook and looking at Mitchell expectantly. 'I hate arresting people if I don't know their names.'

John looked over at Mitchell; they were definitely in trouble but it would be fine. Maybe a night in a jail cell before Nate got hold of Sam, they argued about jurisdiction, and the whole thing got referred back to the Air Force. He was fairly confident Sam wouldn't court martial them for self-defence but Rodney was never going to let him forget this. Ever.

Mitchell cleared his throat and tugged out his dog-tags. 'Colonel Cameron Mitchell; United States Air Force.'

A hush of whispers broke out at that. Nate paused in writing, pencil poised about the paper. His eyes moved to John and narrowed.

John was already pulling his own tags out from under his t-shirt. 'Colonel John Sheppard; United States Air Force.'

The hush stopped abruptly at his name. Tiffany looked mortified.

'Don't know why I didn't recognise you, son. You have the look of your mother.' Nate heaved a sigh of his own and put his notebook away.

The hurt that slid in like a butter knife under his ribs at the mention of his mother was swiftly followed by a rush of embarrassment. John didn't look at Mitchell. 'If you're giving us a free pass because of my name, Sheriff, I'd appreciate it if you didn't.'

'Oh boy.' Mitchell lowered his head into his hand.

John felt a sliver of guilt but he wouldn't be the rich boy trading on his father's name; that had never been John.

'Well, now; I'm giving you boys a free pass because you're military, and with your ranks I'd just end up talking to some General, and I don't need that kind of hassle and paperwork to give you a slapped wrist for the violence especially since it's clearly a case of self-defence.' Nate announced briskly. 'Least you didn't kill them. I reckon you pulled your punches.'

'God!' The man with the bruised balls spluttered out. He was still curled up on the floor with his hands over the sensitive area. 'That was him pulling his punches?'

Every man in the bar wore a look of sympathy.

John pinned on a smile. 'We'll, uh, pay for the medical bills.' God knew he had enough money, and John knew exactly how much because Mitchell had insisted on going through it all with him.

'That's mighty fine of you, son.' Nate's blue eyes warmed from flinty to amused. 'Why don't I give you boys an escort back to the ranch?'

'Sure.' John said brightly, recognising the command under the suggestion. He cast a questioning look at Mitchell who nodded. Their quiet night in the bar was over.

Billy Lee stirred and moaned. Tiffany got to her feet. She reached out to John as he went to move past her.

'Mister Sheppard…'

Before John could say anything, Nate stepped up to her with a frown.

'Tiffany, gal, you don't go calling a Colonel Mister, and I think you've done enough damage for one night, don't you?'

Tiffany flushed red again.

John gifted her with a tight smile that he knew didn't reach his eyes and waved a hand magnanimously because he could tell she was worrying about her home or her work or whether he'd be pissed off at her enough to kick her out of both since he owned the town and all. 'Don't worry about it.'

They retrieved their discarded jackets and Nate walked them out. A battered Ford pickup arrived and a doctor jumped out barely acknowledging Nate who gestured for them to get in their car, a sensible four-wheel off-roader.

Mitchell climbed into the passenger side and John took the wheel. They pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main road.

'So that was surreal.' John commented dryly.

Mitchell's teeth flashed white in the dark. 'And definitely not sensible.'

John could tell Mitchell was smiling without looking at him.

'Nice moves, by the way.' Mitchell added.

'Thank you.' John said wryly. 'And I should say the same about you. You had two to deal with.'

'Sodan training and hours of sparring with Teal'c.' Mitchell explained, brushing off John's praise. He touched his lip ruefully. 'Possibly this should go on The List.'

John frowned. 'The fight or your lip?'

They'd established The List as things they've sworn they won't talk about outside of their vacation; a twist on the 'what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' theme. The skating they had ended up watching the night of the bug nightmares was the first item, swiftly followed by the bug nightmares themselves, and getting hopelessly lost on the way back from their morning run in New Orleans and having to get a taxi back to the apartment.

'Both.' Mitchell replied with a short laugh.

They were back at the ranch without any trouble and Nate pulled up alongside them. John invited him in for a coffee but Nate declined. Mitchell excused himself seeming to sense as John did that Nate wanted a word privately.

John let the smell of horse manure, grass and dust fill up his nostrils. A tug of wind tried to mess with his hair. He thought he knew what this was about. 'You've had problems with the execs that have been staying here.'

Nate sighed. 'Some. They think because the company owns the town that gives them privileges.' He rocked back on his heels. 'Doesn't excuse how Tiffany used you though and if you want to press charges against Billy Lee, I'll certainly pursue it.'

John wasn't happy that his suspicions were confirmed; what it said about some of the company's people. He was as pissed off and furious about it as he had been at finding out one of his men had sexually harassed one of the scientists. It was unacceptable. His lips thinned and he nodded decisively. 'Forget the charges and you should know I'm taking back the ranch as a homestead for when I'm stateside.' He informed Nate. 'There'll be no more trouble.'

'Don't make promises you can't keep, son.' Nate said cheerfully. His eyes swept over him. 'I really should have recognised you, John-boy; your hair always was an unholy mess.'

And just like that, John could remember a younger Nate; a deputy with a smile as warm as the summer sun calling in at the ranch to check on things and taking tea with his grandmother. The memory rushed in and blinded him.

Nate tipped his hat. 'It's late. You should get inside.' He got into his car and drove away.

John breathed in deeply, shoved his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket and looked up at the stars. They were bright and shiny in the indigo sky. He tracked each constellation before his gaze aimed towards Pegasus. If he closed his eyes, he could feel Atlantis; the hum of her presence deep in the back of his mind. It felt wrong to feel her on Earth; she belonged in Pegasus. And he belonged where she was. He shook off the melancholy and headed inside.

The next morning brought heavy dew on the ground and a cold wind blowing in from the North. The mare John rode, Willowtree, was a beautiful bay. John took it easy; it had been a long time since he had ridden a horse. He walked her for a while before he let her have her head. She was fast over the open ground. John brought her to a halt still in sight of the ranch house.

Mitchell had declined the riding experience, claiming he was sore from the fight. John had sensed something more in the way Mitchell's eyes hadn't met his but he let it go. He thought it was probably a good thing the two of them had some time alone. Mitchell hadn't complained since their initial conversation on the balcony in Panama City, and it helped that they got along great, but John knew if it was him, he'd be frustrated at the restriction of never being out in public without a bodyguard. John brushed a finger over the ubiquitous earpiece and tried not to resent that.

John wondered if Rodney had gotten any further on finding out why the two week leave period was so all-fired important. He tried to be patient. He knew Rodney was working on hacking into Landry's files in between trying to fix the city, and the latter was more important. John steadied the horse as she fidgeted. He and Mitchell had agreed not to pressure Sam after Rodney had told John about the briefing on Atlantis that had hinted at the two week issue, and Sam's nudge in the right direction. It was clear that she'd been given a direct order not to inform them.

His cell phone vibrated in the inner pocket of his jacket and John reached for it gingerly, trying to remain balanced on the horse at the same time. He barely remembered to slap it against the other side of his head from the earpiece.

'Sheppard.'

'John.' Dave replied. 'My assistant said you left a message about the Clancyville ranch.'

They hadn't talked since the discussion on the Trust and the unintended segue into their mother's death. Dave's assistant had texted John with the details for their meeting up in San Francisco and John had spoken with her regarding changes to the flight plan and accommodations. It had been Marcie who he'd spoken to that morning with the instruction to cancel all corporate visits to the ranch; that he was designating it family property again. He hadn't expected Dave to call.

'John?' Dave said impatiently.

John cleared his throat. 'Yeah, I want the ranch to be family only from now on.'

'Yeah, I kind of thought you might say that.' Dave agreed with surprising ease. 'You always loved the place when we were kids.'

'It's, uh, more than that.' John said defensively. 'I talked with the Sheriff last night. Some of our company guys have been making pests of themselves with the locals.'

'Seriously? Who?' Dave sounded pissed off and John couldn't determine whether it was affront at the suggestion or a mirror of John's own anger that anyone who worked for them would be such a dick.

'I don't know.' John muttered. 'He didn't name names.'

'I'll look through the records and send anyone who's been there in the last year on sensitivity training.' Dave said decisively, and John breathed out at the assurance that Dave's anger was the same as his own.

'You might want to send a reminder note on sexual harassment being grounds for firing too.' John suggested, thinking back to the Marine situation he'd handled. 'That is our policy isn't it?'

'If it's not, it soon will be.' Dave agreed.

They fell silent.

'You know I haven't been out to the ranch since…' Dave finally murmured.

'Yeah.' John cut him off.

'It's good to make it for family again.' Dave said. 'I don't think Dad ever understood, well, he never came with us, did he? I always wondered why.'

John knew the answer to that. 'He and Gramps didn't get along.'

'They didn't?' Dave said, surprised.

'No.' John swallowed around the lump in his throat. 'I, uh, overheard Mom and Grandma one day talking about it.'

'You remember those chocolate chip pancakes Mom used to make for us when we stayed there?' Dave sighed. 'I loved those pancakes.'

'I remember.' John said, his throat closing up unexpectedly as memories pressed in at the back of his mind. He had to get off the phone. 'Dave…'

'I'm sorry.' Dave blurted out abruptly. 'About the last call; about…everything I guess. I never really considered how it was for you after…after Mom died.'

John felt the sting of tears and pretended it was the wind. He patted Willowtree's neck. 'Dave…' he had to stop him talking somehow.

'I always…' Dave sighed heavily. 'I mean, I was eight; you stopped talking to me. I thought you regretted saving me.'

'Never.' The word was out of John's mouth without thinking. 'Geez, Dave.' The horse shifted under him and John clutched onto the saddle horn for a moment before she stilled again. 'I never regretted saving you.' He said carefully. The rest tumbled out unexpectedly. 'At least I saved you…I just…I couldn't save her too.' He hadn't been able to save a lot of people; Ford, Elizabeth, the original Carson, and a host of others; their names clamouring in his mind one after another.

'You tried.' Dave replied softly.

'It wasn't enough.' John said tiredly. He wasn't enough. He really wanted this conversation to end. 'Look, Dave…'

'I know; I should let you get back to your leave.' Dave said briskly. 'I'll, um, see you in San Francisco?'

'Yeah. See you.' John ended the call and rested the warm plastic against his forehead for a long moment before stuffing it back in his pocket. He turned back for the stable and urged Willowtree into a full on gallop.

John waved the stable hand away when he got back and took care of Willowtree himself. He let himself get lost in the routine and methodical process of cooling the horse down, grooming her and seeing to her needs; his mind blessedly blank as it filled with details he'd half-forgotten about preparing the mash and how to hold the tail. He was sweaty and looking forward to a shower when he was done.

'Sheppard, are you there?' Rodney's voice right in his ear almost made him stumble on the stairs up to his bedroom.

He took a breath and tapped the earpiece. 'I'm here, and can't you call me on the phone like normal people?'

'Why?' Rodney asked briskly. 'This is a much quicker and more efficient use of my time.'

'Speaking of which,' John's head creased a little and he started back up the stairs, 'shouldn't you be asleep?'

'It's that late?' Rodney suddenly seemed to realise it was night in his time zone. 'Oh. I was working.'

'Why am I not surprised?' John quipped. He made for his room. 'Rodney, is this a social call because I've been riding and need a shower.'

'A bike or your skateboard?' Rodney interrupted.

'A horse.' John retorted.

'As in a real horse?' Rodney asked. 'Isn't that dangerous?'

'I'm going to take my shower now.' John said with exaggerated patience. 'I'll call you later.'

'No. Wait. This is important.' Rodney babbled. 'I, uh, finally got that information I was looking for.'

And John stopped in the act of peeling his t-shirt off and sat on his bed. 'You did?'

'And actually looking at this, I think I should probably call you on your landline and tell both you and Mitchell together.' Rodney conceded. 'Twenty minutes?'

'Twenty minutes.' John agreed. The earpiece went dead. John tossed it on the bedside table and ran for the shower because from the serious note in Rodney's voice, whatever Rodney's found out, it was important.

Chapter 12

 

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