Author's Note: For the sga_saturday "Tattoo" Challenge! Thanks to Lim for speedy beta!
When John Sheppard comes to, he's in a car on Route 90 heading into Chicago - and he's driving. Years of flight training kick in (he once passed out for two minutes when there was a snag in his oxygen line; thank fuck for Riggs, who fixed it and saved his life) and so he doesn’t slam on the brakes. He just takes a breath, checks his instrument panel, and keeps going. Objects in motion stay in motion. It isn't until his adrenaline ebbs a little that he flips his signal and takes the next exit.
He looks for a place to pull over and freak out, and finds it up a run-down residential street: faded yellow clapboard houses with the shutters hanging off and overgrown yards. Only a couple of other cars parked: old ones with dented fenders and scuffed bumpers. John pulls up, switches the car off, and collapses over the steering wheel. How the fuck did he get here? What the fucking fuck is going on?
The last thing he remembers - and then he winces because it's like a spike driving through his head. He squeezes his eyes shut and grits his teeth. One, two... The pain recedes and he's able to lift his head off his arms. He's just seen the signs - Route 90, Chicago - so he knows where he is. He just doesn't know where he's going.
He looks around the car. Boring beige interior, fabric, cheap, not the sort of thing he would drive at all. He pulls the key out of the ignition and looks at the plastic fob: a rental. There's an open can of Coke in the cupholder beside him, and he picks it up. It's sweating: still cold. He takes a sip, and then chugs it. He feels better when the sugar and caffeine hit his system, and turns his attention to the glove compartment. It's stuffed, and he yanks everything out and dumps it on the passenger seat.
A map of Chicago with an intersection circled and an address scrawled beside it. His handwriting. John can't remember having done it, and he doesn't know the intersection. He sighs and moves on. A wallet - his wallet. Drivers' licence, some kind of government ID card. Colonel John Sheppard - Colonel? He stares at himself, at the eagle pinned to his lapel. O-K. Whatever. It's there in black and white - well, green and white - but he wouldn't have thought he'd forget that.
Underneath that, there's an envelope full of cash - he counts it quick, snapping the bills over his fingers: four thousand dollars - and a roll of fabric that he knows, he knows, is a gun. He glances up to make sure that there's nobody coming up the street before picking it up and unrolling it: Glock, two extra clips. He's about to roll it up again, then changes his mind and arches to tuck the gun in at the small of his back. If Colonel Sheppard thinks he needs a gun, who the hell is he to argue?
John cautiously backtracks to the highway and takes Route 90 another couple of miles until there's a rest stop: he wants a place with lots of people, where he won't be remembered. He buys a Big Mac and supersizes his fries, then asks for a couple of singles' worth of quarters and meanders over to the back of the squat brick building, where there are two battered looking pay phones. The first one doesn't work, but the second has a dial tone. He dials home - his home base, that is: AFSOC, Special Ops, Florida. Weirdly, the number doesn't go straight through: a machine says that he's reached a nonworking number at MacDill, please press star to be connected to the operator. John does, and tells the operator to put him through to Connelly - and he's totally unprepared when the operator says, "Connelly who?"
"Connelly," John says, sounding angrier than he means to. "Major General Joseph H. - " but the operator cuts him off.
"Sorry," the operator says, apologetically. "I should have realized who you meant. But General Connelly retired more than a decade ago: in the late '90s, I think. I can put you through to General Franks's office," he adds politely, but John doesn't know what to say to that. He's still munching his fries, but his blood has run cold.
"No, I - no," John says finally. "Thanks," and hangs up. He thinks for a moment, wondering who he should call next. He's got a million questions, but they're stupid questions. He slides another quarter into the slot and dials Nancy. We're sorry. The number you have reached has been disconnected... He hangs up, fishes the quarter out of the slot, and then, gnawing nervously at his lip, he calls the house he used to live in: calls his dad. We're sorry - and this time, John bangs the receiver hard into its cradle.
He clings to anger, because anger feels a lot safer than fear. He hurls the paper cone of fries into the trash and stomps back to the car. It's a mission, he decides. He's on some fucking special ops mission and somehow he's wandered off the goddamned reservation. Where the fuck was his control agent? The whole thing was goddamned irresponsible. John gets in the boring beige egg of a car and wonders if he consented to have his mind wiped - you can't give up information you can't remember - or if the other side did this to him. Wiped away ten years of his life - and instinctively, John unbuttons his left sleeve and turns up the cuff to look at his watch: the big-ass fucking chronometer with date and compass and assorted stopwatches, and holy fuck, it was 2011. That wasn't possible, was it? Surely that wasn't -
It's then that he sees the first black lines of the tattoo. For a moment, he thinks it's dirt, or a marker, and then he pushes up his shirt sleeve and sees the thick black lines on the inside of his forearm. It's an elaborate pattern of interlocking triangles, and it's sort of like a stellated dodecahedron, except there's something alien in the geometry. John stares at it, unnerved. It's not right, but he can't figure out why.
Finally he scrubs his hands through his hair and decides, fuck it: he's just got to keep going, fake it till you make it, and get more information. He rolls his sleeves up to the elbow so that he can see the tattoo, then consults the map one final time and gets the car going. Traffic's picking up, but he can probably be at the address on the map in about an hour, and hey, he's got a wad of cash and a gun. Things could definitely be worse.
He parks a few blocks away, thinking that if he needs to make a run for it, better to be able to disappear down one of Chicago's endless alleys or hide in a dumpster. He can work his way back to the car later. He circles the building on the map twice, stopping in a corner shop across the intersection and buying a snickers bar and a newspaper. It's the least sinister place he's ever seen: a five story apartment complex, each with a verandah out front and - he knows this from peering down the alley - a back door that gives out onto to a rickety wooden staircase leading down to the garage. John likes this: it means there's more than one way out if it comes to that. The apartment he wants is the top one - #5 - and he decides to go up the back stairs instead of ringing the bell in the front: maybe he can sneak a look through the window first, get a sense of what the hell is going on.
He switches the gun from the back to the front of his jeans for easy access and yanks the tails of his shirt out to cover it. He easily climbs the fence that blocks off the bit of courtyard in the back, then moves up the rickety wooden steps as swiftly and silently as he can, keeping an eye out for tripwires, trying to avoid steps that look like they'd creak or break. Once on the fifth floor he tries to peer through the small high window in the door, but doesn't see anything; then he carefully positions himself to look through the nearest window without being seen. It's the kitchen window and he can just make out a small, round table beyond that. There's two people sitting there, coffee cups at their elbows, hunched down over some large sheets of papers: maps or blueprints.
He takes a breath and tries to set his face in its most relaxed expression: dumb, he knows, is in the eyes. John rolls his shoulders and then lets them slump down, licks his lips: hey, he's just here to ask about that dinette set you guys advertised in the paper. He knocks on the door, cocks his hip, and impatiently starts flipping through the paper to the classifieds.
Hey, where are the classifieds? Are these it?
When he looks up - not too fast, best way to seem normal is not to give too much of a shit - he finds himself looking at a neat, attractive woman with short blonde hair. She smiles at him pleasantly, and the man at the table looks up, and for a moment John's sure he's made a mistake: that he's just barged in to this nice couple's apartment. But then the man leaps up and shoves past her and says, "Oh, thank god, I thought you'd never get here," and grabs him by the arm and all but yanks him into the apartment. "What is this?" the man demands, grabbing the newspaper out of his hands. "You stopped to read the paper? You're buying snacks?" and he's snatching the snickers bar out of John's breast pocket. He tears off the end, bites, and continues, still chewing, "Any other stops? Did you go to the Apple store, or ride the Ferris wheel? It's not like this is important or anything."
The woman looks at John sympathetically, but she's clearly amused. "Ah, normality," she says, and then adds, with mock seriousness, "Rodney's been very worried about you."
"I was not," Rodney says, rolling his eyes. "I knew he'd be fine. He's always fine."
John, half-flattered, half-irritated, snatches the newspaper back. "It was just cover," he said. "I was going to try to buy your kitchen table. And you owe me a snickers bar."
Rodney ignores this; his attention's already drifting back to the blueprints. "Yeah, we do that on Craigslist now, dumbass," he says, and then suddenly his head jerks up and he says, "Oh my god." A moment later Rodney's up in John's face, staring into his pupils. His own eyes are very, very blue. "What year is it?" he asks, and John hesitates - 2011, he just read it on the front page of the newspaper, he's pretty sure - but the hesitation is long enough. "Oh my god, you're still half-under the influence. Do you know who you are?" he asks worriedly, and then, as if it's much more important: "Do you know who I am?"
"I," John says, and he doesn't but he does. Rodney's his friend - a really good friend, maybe a best friend. Maybe even more than a friend: it all, everything, depends.
"Sam," Rodney says warily, "get the medical kit," and the woman - Sam - nods and disappears into another room. Rodney clutches John's biceps and says, rapidly but clearly, as if he understood John's desperation for information and wasn't going to waste time, "You're Colonel John Sheppard, United States Air Force, and the military head of the international expedition to the city of Atlantis in the Pegasus galaxy. I know that sounds nuts," he adds hastily, "but it's true. I'm Rodney McKay, I'm - " and it's like John can see all the words backing up in his throat, and like little tiny jabs to his brain, John realizes he knows what they are: Astrophysicist. Engineer. Genius. And then Rodney waves his hands in frustration and blurts out, "I'm your head scientist," and then it all comes flooding back: The Stargate. Atlantis. Teyla. Ronon. Sam. Wraith. Earth. San Francisco Bay. Pegasus - Christ, they have to get the city back to Pegasus - and he doesn't realize he's saying this out loud until Rodney grabs hold of him and says, "Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes: we're working on it," and yes, right, of course they are.
Carter comes back with the medical kit, and for a moment he's fussed over by two doctors of something that's totally not medicine, and it shows. Rodney shines a light in his eyes in the most irritating way possible, and Carter gives him the most painful injection he's ever had, swerving around before finding a vein and muttering, "sorry, sorry."
She goes to get him a beer while John mops up the blood splashed all over his arm and looks again at the tattoo. He remembers it now: Ronon doing it for him, Rodney, all of them, in the cells in Area 51 while they huddled together and Teyla sang to them, softly, over and over, all the details of the plan, inscribing the information (Carter explained) on an area of the brain that the SGA's mindwipe probably wouldn't reach.
John grabs Rodney's arm and shoves his sleeve up - and there's a matching mark to his. Carter, bringing his beer over, pushes up the sleeve of her own pinky-peach sweater and shows him hers. "You remember?" she asks gently, and John says, "Yeah. I remember everything now." He looks at Rodney. Rodney's mouth slants into a smile.
"Where," John says, and then clears his throat; there'll be time for that later, he hopes. "Do we know where they're keeping Teyla and Ronon?" because of course they couldn't wipe Pegasus from Teyla and Ronon: there wasn't enough Earth-knowledge underneath.
"Yeah," Sam says, going over to the kitchen table. "We got the blueprints, and I think I've found a way in," and then they're crowding around the table and planning the mission, and it's old times: it's old times all over again.
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