water4willows: (Tea & Book)
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Title: The Secret Language of Grief, Book One
Characters: J. Sheppard, R. McKay, C. Beckett, E. Lorne, R. Woolsey, and various OCs
Pairings: None
Warnings: Violence, Mentions of Major Character Deaths
Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis and her characters are the property of MGM.  All I lay claim to is my passion for the show and the original characters within this work of fiction
Summary: 20 years after the Wraith decimated Earth in The Great Culling, the SGC is once again ready to resume the Atlantis Expedition. Top brass wants only one man for the job, unfortunately for them John Sheppard has been MIA since the end of the War. A slip-up reveals John's current location, but will he be able to forgive the ultimate betrayal and return?

Chapter 23 - Collateral Damage
Part Two


TJ McKay (or McLaren, depending on who you asked at any given moment) had always had this list inside his head of the things he would do before he died. It was a good list, too. One filled with all the normal things a kid his age should have: skydive, see the world, meet a girl... The list went on to stranger things, but as he sat in the quiet of the nearly empty Atlantis infirmary with a forgotten book propped up against his knees, he found he really didn't want to examine the rest of that list. Whenever he did, the anger at the center of him would flare to life, and he was getting pretty tired of trying to beat back the flames that constantly tried to devour him.

It was quiet in the Atlantis infirmary right now. Things had only finally just begun to settle down after Colonel Lorne's latest visit... though Atlantis still quivered around him like she was as angry as any of them over what was happening.

Everyone in the room had dealt with Colonel Lorne's news in a different way. Pops, per usual, had gotten pissed and belligerent. Doc Beckett had gone internal and Carrie Sinclair had followed Colonel Lorne's lead and fled just as soon as the message had been delivered. TJ had decided to stay behind and for the past hour or so he'd been attempting to lose himself in the familiar book that now sat heavy and unread in the space of his lap. But it had been in vain, and not even Tolstoy's heavy prose had been enough to spirit him away as he sat wallowing in the pile of ash which was all that was left of that last strange half of his bucket list.

There were no windows in this part of the infirmary - no path of the sun or the moon through the sky to tell the passage of time by - but TJ still knew it was late. The evidence of that late hour was there in the heaviness that had settled down around his bones and, judging by the blank numbness of it all, it had to be three, maybe four o'clock in the morning on this, his third day in Atlantis. TJ would never understand why things like this always happened in the early morning hours when he was at his weakest. Why they decided to plow through him with no mercy at the exact moment he'd lost all energy to fight. It never happened gradually either, or after a good night's sleep. Tragedy was more often cruel than she was kind, blindsiding them out of nowhere as if the universe were correcting itself swiftly and angrily for some transgression they didn't even know they'd made.

And what was happening, it was tragic, because for as long as TJ could remember he'd been dreaming of returning to Atlantis and traveling with the expedition back to the place where he'd begun, and now all of it, every single bit of it, was slipping through his fingers like water.

John Sheppard was going to die, and he was going to take with him everything TJ had been working towards for the last 18 years of his life.

Shifting restlessly in his chair, TJ let the boots he had propped up on the edge of one of the infirmary beds fall. They hit the pale linoleum with a dull thud and the cover of his book followed suit a moment later as he moved. TJ cast careful eyes over to the sleeping men at his right, but the noise hadn't been enough to wake either of them. It was Pops in particular he was worried about waking, but his adoptive father slumbered on, lost in some dream TJ had half a mind to wake him from. It was something TJ had done before. Pops had always struggled with the things he'd seen and done over the years with the SGC and TJ had woken him from his fair share of nightmares, but he just couldn't bring himself to wake Pops now, even though his eyes darted beneath their lids ceaselessly. He needed the respite, no matter how cruelly earned. They'd all been awake for the past 72 hours or so and his father would need all the rest he could get. Especially if...

TJ glanced back down at the book lying closed now in his lap and fingered one frayed edge of the book's ancient cover. He'd lost his spot in the story, but he really didn't care. He'd been trying to disappear in its pages for a while now, but mostly he just ended up reading the same passages over and over again until they blurred or his mind simply wandered. He flipped the heavy cover open again, wincing slightly as the binding gave a precarious groan, then let a fingertip linger over a name inked into one soft corner of a page.

The book was old. It was a forgotten relic from a bygone age yet as integral a part of TJ's past as the man who had once owned it. Publishers didn't even make books like this anymore. People still wrote, it was just all digital now and the public used personal computers to read it all. The dusty old book shops and their crotchety, bespectacled old caretakers were a thing of the past now. Pops was always going on about how he thought that was a travesty. TJ just figured it was one of those unforeseen casualties of progress, but even he had to admit there was something to be said for the feel of an old book in his hands. Something substantial and real about the smell of old leather and the musty delicateness of a publisher's original typeset.

The ink used on the name in the upper hand corner of this particular book had all but faded, but TJ's fingertips could still make out the indentation left behind by the heavy hand. The name had been scribbled quickly, like the man who had written it had been in a hurry, and memories wicked up into his finger to form pictures in TJ's mind: a messy-haired Airman fresh out of training, inking his name onto one front corner of his book so that it would always find its way home, the tome sitting on a shelf or the corner of a table always watching its owner... the day that owner had disappeared and the book was saved by a scientist determined to give it back to him someday. All of it played out in his mind and he ran the pad of his finger over the name and contemplated its meaning.

John Sheppard.

The legend himself.

The superhero that had been as big a part of his childhood as Superman and Batman and the other heroes of the comic books he'd coveted.

He'd spent countless nights as a child falling asleep to the stories Pops would tell him about the adventures he'd gone on with that man and TJ forced his eyes open and up. He made himself look over at all his childhood adventures made flesh and tried not to get discouraged by what he saw there.

John Sheppard looked broken. His face was a highway of cuts and puffy flesh left over from the beating he'd gotten at the hands of Sean Fitzpatrick. Yet despite all the trauma and the fact that he was lying in an infirmary bed close to death with little chance of survival (if the doctors were to be believed), TJ could still see evidence of the man he had once been... the man he still could be.

Uncle John, as Pops had always called him, had always been this Indiana Jones type figure in TJ's mind - complete with iconic fedora - swooping in on jungle vine to save the day each and every time. He could see that possibility in the thin, muscular frame Sheppard still maintained from his youth. He could sense it in the constant stream of visitors to the infirmary door, none of whom came to gawk, but to pay their respects to a man who had touched their lives in some way or another.

And it didn't seem fair.

TJ and the other members of the expedition were about to be denied it all because of some psychopath with a gun. Sean Fitzpatrick had managed to single handedly wipe out an entire lifetime of dreams and plans with two well placed slugs to the center of John Sheppard's chest and now TJ's world was in the process of imploding in around him. The cornerstone had been yanked from his very foundation and he was teetering on the brink of complete collapse... one breath of wind in any direction the only thing standing between his destiny and total annihilation.

Everything in his life had been building up to this one epic moment... this one chance, and he was losing it. He was watching it fall disintegrate right before his eyes and the worst part about it? There was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it. TJ had spent the better part of a year training to be a soldier and now the first battle he was going to be faced with was one he couldn't even fight in. It was an internal, solo mission he couldn't have joined, even if he wanted to because there was nothing countless months of training could do to help a body heal or fight off a massive infection. There were no orders to be given to organs that simply couldn't function on their own any longer. TJ didn't even have the luxury of going after those responsible. Sean Fitzpatrick was already lying cold and dead in the Cheyenne mountain morgue, taken out by Colonel Lorne and his team long before TJ had even arrived.

He was being denied everything, and it was enough to set his blood to boiling over for the first time since he'd arrived. TJ had been trying to keep his cool on account of Pops, and so far he'd managed to keep himself under control, but the closer things got to the end, the harder and harder it was to keep the lid on securely. He'd made the mistake of visiting his mother's old quarters the day they'd arrived on Atlantis. He'd gone alone, something he probably shouldn't' have done since Pops had wanted to come along with him, but he'd made that trek up to the space he'd shared with his mother for so short a time, alone.

There was nothing left of her there. Atlantis had long ago been sanitized of any hint of the people who had come before, but TJ still felt a presence there. Echoes could be like that sometimes, the energy of the past so strong that some of it stayed behind no matter how hard someone tried to scrub it all away. He could feel her there in that bare room with him, only it was as if she were watching him from the other side of some veil he couldn't see through, some barrier separating him from the one thing he wanted most in all of this. All his life he'd been trying to break through barriers like that and in that moment, he'd made a pact with himself to do whatever was necessary to make sure he made it back to Pegasus.

Only he wasn't going to make it back to Pegasus now, and not only was he going to lose his chance at finding his parent's people again, but he was going to lose his last untapped source of information about his birth parents.

TJ knew a lot about his mother. Pops had always been up front with him about who she was and where she'd come from, but when it came to his father, Kanaan, that's when the normally loquacious Dr. Rodney McKay shut down like a steel trap. TJ didn't think his adoptive father meant to do it. Maybe Pops took the careful questions TJ asked as a betrayal of some kind, he couldn't be sure, but he knew next to nothing about the man who had given him life.

And John Sheppard was supposed to have been the answer to all that.

Rodney and Diane McKay had been fantastic parents. TJ had grown up in a safe and loving home, but there were things he knew his adoptive parents had kept from him. He figured he could understand Pops wanting him to protect him, but TJ had been banking on the chance to pick John Sheppard's brain about the past. Everything he'd learned about the man as a kid had led TJ to believe that this long lost uncle of his would finally give him the answers he craved, only now that opportunity was slowly fading away. It was circling the drain along with the man in the bed beside him and TJ balled his hands into fists, that anger inside of him forming his fingers into ineffectual balls that could do little more than crumple the delicate paper beneath his hands.

It really wasn't fair. When Pops had called him with the news that John Sheppard had been found, it was like getting everything he'd ever wanted handed to him on a silver platter. Suddenly it wasn't a question of if he would ever make it back to the galaxy where he had been born, but when. And for two straight weeks after, he'd cataloged all the things he'd say and ask John Sheppard when they finally got the chance to meet.

It was perfect. Too perfect, really, and he had been a fool to think that he would actually get what he wanted.

Death had been following Torren John Emmagan around for his entire life. She stalked him from the shadows like easy prey, toying with him at times as if he were some plaything and not her next meal. But death always managed to get her claws into him eventually, and this time would be no different. General Hank Landry had shown up on his base and the dreams he'd so carefully constructed broke apart around him in an instant.

At first TJ had thought the general was coming to tell him that something bad had happened to Pops, but even through the haze of relief that washed over him when he realized that wasn't the case, TJ had still been cut deep by the story General Landry had told him. For most of their 4 hour flight across the western United States, the seasoned military officer had laid everything out for Torren: Atlantis, his own connections to the SGC, and though he wasn't quite sure what it was, something changed inside of TJ during that flight from his former base to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. For the first time in his life, he found something that felt a little like belonging. The world he was being offered, it was strange and convoluted and dangerous, but it was his world - his mother's world - and he was finally going to be a part of it.

Trouble was, there wasn't much good going on in that world at the moment. He was headed straight into the storm and he'd been brought on board not so much because he deserved it, but because Pops needed an anchor. TJ was okay with that, he understood it even, so he'd changed, right then and there, into the son Pops would need and the solider John Sheppard probably wouldn't. That feeling of belonging stuck around, but it was pliable now and it was no match for the other things that forced their way inside his brain, like sadness and that all encompassing anger still simmering away inside of him.

Realizing he was still crumpling the pages of his book, TJ released the tension in his hands with a sigh and smoothed back the pages with the palm of his hand.

Anger was useless.

It wouldn't change what had happened and it certainly wouldn't save John Sheppard's life. If death was going to take this last hope he had at finding out the things Pops wouldn't tell him, TJ knew enough about loss to understand there would be no stopping her, though his heart still ached at the thought of it; for Carrie especially. Hers would be a grief that none of them would understand because none of them had known John Sheppard for the past 10 years... not the way she did. When the doctors had come in and told them it wouldn't be long now, she'd run, and TJ didn't think he couldn't blame her for it. News like that had to be processed and some people handled that subtle art very differently. Pops... he normally talked incessantly, and TJ had been relieved when his old man had finally been able to drop off into something resembling sleep a little while ago.

Then there was Doc Beckett.

TJ had only known the man a for few days now but already liked him. He was sharp as a tack and had this way with Pops TJ had never seen before. He could handle him almost as well as Torren could, and that fact alone was enough to earn TJ's respect for life.

Their initial meeting had been a strange one. As soon as the doc had gotten a good look at him, his eyes had gone wide with shock, then suspicion; realization next, until they finally narrowed and settled on Pops with a mixture of contempt and hurt. TJ had a feeling that was going to be happening a lot in the coming weeks and that any hope they'd had at keeping TJs anonymity intact would probably be futile. Still, once the silent argument between his dad and the good doctor was over, TJ and Doc Beckett had settled into a friendly report that TJ had already grown to love. It was sad that they hadn't been able to meet before. Carson Becket was a riot and TJ sometimes caught himself imagining what life would be like on Atlantis, living and working beside that man and Pops. For a few brief moments the possibilities would spread out before him, infinite and endless, until the crushing realization that all was not to be swept through and burnt it to ash.

TJ would never know what life on Atlantis was like, not if John Sheppard died, and if the Brigadier's condition was ever in question, all he had to do was look to Doc Beckett.

The physician was smart. His intelligent eyes tracked every single doctor and nurse that visited their space and TJ learned fairly early on that if he ever wanted to know if a staff member was bullshitting them or not, he need only look over at Doc Beckett. The man picked up on everything. He understood the meaning behind every update given, and he wore the results of that intelligence on his face like a banner for TJ to read. There were moments when that face would harden - others when it would soften to the point his eyes filled with tears - and TJ played a kind of game with the infirmary staff for a while after that. They would come in and give their updates with cheery smiles, and TJ would look to Doc Beckett to see if what they were saying was true. Pops must have picked up on all of it too because he'd exploded in true Rodney McKay fashion on one poor internist who'd smiled just a little too brightly. It wasn't long until he'd had every member of that infirmary staff quaking in their scrubs, and TJ couldn't help but laugh at it. Pop's outburst had been arrogant, but it had helped, and, in the end, the infirmary staff dropped their attempts at optimism.

Chuckling a little at the sudden lightness the memory brought, TJ closed the book in his lap again and set it on the end of his uncle's bed. A blanket one of the now terrified nurses had brought Pops was staring to snake it's way off his lap and TJ pulled himself out of the uncomfortable infirmary chair to readjust it, careful not to disturb his dad.

If felt good to stand up for a moment. The chair he'd been occupying for the past several days was one of those hard, uncomfortable jobs he was pretty sure the infirmary only kept around because it discouraged guests from staying too long past visiting hours. The thought of plopping himself back down into nearly made him shudder. His muscles were too angry at him now for the treatment they'd received over the past several days to be still again and he yearned suddenly for an nice long run. For 14 months he'd done nothing but train religiously and his body wasn't used to going days without so much as a workout. He hadn't seen much of the city just yet, but something told TJ that the places to jog in Atlantis would be epic. He needed the feel of her unyielding metal beneath his feet, and he contemplated leaving for a while to go get it.

But something was holding him back.

There was hint of finality in the air... a feeling that things were beginning to come to a close, like that moment in a movie just before the credits rolled. It was that feeling that kept him confined to the space of their little curtained off world and, eagerness to leave forgotten, TJ shuffled over to the seat they normally kept open for Carrie and collapsed himself down into it.

Maybe it was the late hour and the constant fatigue of the past several days. Maybe it was just the calm before the real storm hit, but TJ lost whatever forward momentum he'd had going and scrubbed his palms down over his eyes.

"I had plans, Uncle John," he blurted out suddenly, surprising even himself with the words. "I was going to take this damn place by storm and now it's all going to shit."

He laughed into his palms then raked them the rest of the way down his face.

"I don't even know if you can hear me or what all Pops' told you about who I am, but I could really use a miracle here, Uncle John. You know, pull one of those good ol' Atlantis Hail Mary's out of left field three points down in the 9th."

He snorted at the absurdity of what he'd just said, then shook his head.

"But seriously, you and me, we were gonna go places. I was going to get the inside scoop from you about my birth parents and you were going to impart all that patented Sheppard wisdom on me, right? So why'd you have to go and get shot? Why couldn't they keep you safe?"

TJ thought about the remaining ATA gene carriers then with a derisive snort. Even though the threat against them had seemingly been eliminated, they were still shepherded around Atlantis like messiahs; heavily guarded and protected around the clock. He got angry sometimes when he watched them pass, a dwindling group surrounded by armed guards, shuffling down the hall at a quick pace as if the devil himself were at their heels. Where was his uncle's protection when everything was going down with Sean Fitzpatrick? Why hadn't someone seen through that animal's charade and put a stop to it before they all ended up here.

But nobody had, and now John Sheppard would die.

Even as a kid TJ had always known that he would join the USSF and follow in his uncle's footsteps. Pops had spent those formative years of his trying to push science on him, but TJ had remained steadfast to his military dreams until one day Pops had finally just thrown up his arms and given up.

"Just tell me why," his dad had asked angrily one morning as he cleared away the college applications he'd laid out in front of TJ at the breakfast table. "Why would you choose that path when you know where it could lead?"

"You know why," TJ responded, trying to keep his cool. They'd been having this particular fight for a while now. "I want to be a part of the Atlantis Expedition, Pops." There was more to that - TJ knew it and his dad knew it - but he couldn't bring himself to speak of it.

"So go to school!" Rodney exclaimed, tiptoeing around TJ's response too and waiving the collected pages in the air. "You have an amazing intellect, son. Go to college, get a degree and join the SGC as part of my team. Leave the machine guns to someone else."

There was a look Pops got in his eyes sometimes and it was shining full blast at TJ now. It both spoke of the past and worried for the future and part of TJ wanted to just cave and promise his father that he would go to college like the good little boy Pops apparently still saw him as. But there was something burning in TJ's veins. It hid right beneath the surface of his skin. The something was just hot enough that it never let him be and he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he would never be happy in the life that Dr. Rodney McKay had envisioned for him. It was nothing against his adoptive father - TJ loved the man more than anything - it was just that he'd been suppressing who he really was for so long that he just couldn't do it anymore.

His mother had been a warrior. TJ felt that same fire racing through his own blood, and he knew there was only one place for him.

TJ sighed heavily and for a moment, his father's face changed. It held a hopefulness that he'd finally convinced his young, adoptive son to choose the path of least resistance. Too bad he was about to be disappointed yet again.

"I can't do it, Pops," TJ answered carefully, watching his dad's gaze fall away. "If the SGC never gets the Atlantis Project back up and running again, I can't spend the rest of my life chained to a desk.

...That's your world, not mine."

Resentment filled Pops' downcast eyes at that but TJ ignored it and kept going.

"Doing this, joining the SGC, you know it's something I've got to do."

The old man's gaze snapped back over to him at that.

"You'd serve in their military?" He questioned heatedly. "Even after what they did? What they would have done to you had they known who's son you are?"

"Oh Jesus, Pops!" TJ exploded in spite of himself as they finally came to the heart of every argument they'd ever had about this particular subject. "You gotta stop seeing the enemy around every corner! You stoppedthem, remember? Anyone at the SGC who would have had a problem with you keeping me here on earth is gone now. So please, stop trying to protect me all the time!"

"You're joking, right?" Rodney McKay laughed mirthlessly. "You don't know what it's like out there in that galaxy, son. I do. You've never had to watch a Wraith suck the very life out of your own best friend or race against time to stop some alien technology from killing everyone around you. I was just a scientist and that place still managed to nearly kill me daily. And you want to go out there and lead your own off-world team? Well, you can forget it, TJ! I won't have it!"

"God, would you listen to yourself? I'm not eight years old anymore, Pops!"

'Pops' was something TJ had only recently begun calling his adoptive father and, judging by the look he got next, his dad was still trying to decide if he liked it or not.

"I know you're not," Rodney grumbled, looking away.

"Well, then stop treating me like I am! I'm not going to sit around here and let my life pass me by just because you can't handle the idea of me getting hurt! People die, Pops. And I'm sorry you lost Teyla and Ronon, and I'm sorry that Uncle John is gone, but I won't let you smother my life just because you think the same thing's going to happen to me!"

It was a soft spot he'd just poked at and that fact was clearly displayed in the storm that broke out across his adoptive father's face. TJ braced, ready for that maelstrom to be unleashed on him directly, but Rodney McKay remained uncharacteristically quiet.

Their sightlines had converged in the center of the room: one pleading, the other, unreadable. It had been a standoff, and one that would never fully resolve, and it's memory still plagued him even to this day.

John Sheppard was a loss his father had never fully recovered from and now he was being faced with living through that same loss all over again. Then to top it all off, TJ was here now and about to head down that same path John Sheppard had chosen for himself so many years ago. He could see why his adoptive father had always had trouble grappling with the decisions TJ made about his life, but it was just no use, because for all of Dr. Rodney McKay's efforts, TJ had always known it would never be enough to change who he was inside. Change who he was at his core. He was always going to be the son of Teyla Emmagan, no matter how much he tried to fight it.

TJ forced his eyes back over to his dying uncle, hating himself a little for what he was about to do. The demands he was going to make, they weren't fair, and maybe he was a terrible person for wanting them in the first place, but he was tired of playing the patsy. If death was to be his bedfellow for the rest of his life then he needed to get in a good 'screw you!' every so often to maintain the balance.

Otherwise, what did it all mean?

"You can't die," he said a little too forcefully, lowering his voice as Pops stirred, but didn't wake. "Because if you do, then it's over for me. I'm never going to get another chance like this and you're fuckin' it up!"

If Pops had been awake he would have smacked TJ right upside the head for what he was saying, but he just didn't care anymore. They might have turned him into a soldier, but part of him would always be that little boy, alone and different in a world that wasn't his, just trying to find a way back home.

"So I need you to get a handle on this thing and come back. I don't care how you do it or where you have to go to do it, just get your ass out of that bed, stop scaring the shit out of people, and wake the fuck up already!"

Loss was making him cruel. He didn't mean half of what he said, but anything seemed better than the alternative.

"Did Pops tell you I did all this for you?" He tried again, swallowing back down some of the heat. "Did he tell you about all the knockdown, drag out fights we got into over me joining the military just so that I could get the chance to serve under you? I worked my ass off to get here and now some punk with a gun is going to end it all? I don't think so. I mean, come on, you're the legendary John Sheppard for christ's sake! Since when do you get taken out by some psychopath and a couple of bullets?"

Without even realizing it, TJ had taken hold of one of the bedside rails so tightly that his knuckles had gone white. Angry tears had begun to gather at the corners of his eyes and he chastised himself for the weakness. He inhaled to go on, but then stopped. Realization flooding his system and making him let go of the bar.

He was an idiot. He'd let himself climb too high, too far above the cloud cover, and now he was stuck on the precipice of a mountain with nowhere to go but down. Only every escape route available to him was obscured by the gathering clouds. He had no idea how far the drop would be or if he would even survive it...

And he was terrified.

His dreams, they were all he had, and he didn't know how to exist a world where they were no longer a possibility. No one had been back to Pegasus since right after the Wraith War and he doubted he could talk Landry into organizing a mission back there on the Daedalus just for him when the ship got back. Earth was still trying to recover from the decimation left behind by the Wraith War and what few ships had been developed in the 18 plus years since the war were already in play and off trying to keep the galaxy safe. Atlantis was his only shot and John Sheppard was taking it with him to the grave.

He had a right to be angry, but as he turned hostile eyes back towards his uncle's still form, he paused, shamed almost immediately by his abject selfishness.

A man was dying, and here he was, sitting beside that man's bed and whining about how his death would ruin TJ's life. John Sheppard deserved better than that. Rodney and Diane McKay had raised him better than that, but the deep dark truth of it was, TJ was in mourning.

And it wasn't just for the loss of this unknown uncle.

He was mourning for everything.

Growing up had been lonely business. Pops' family had been taken that day by the Wraith and Diane was an only child with no extended family. Ever since TJ had spent the night at a friend's house once and had seen firsthand what it meant to have a large family, he'd craved one of his own. John Sheppard was not his blood, but TJ had always known that, if they ever found one another again, he would get that family he'd always craved. And that didn't just go for Sheppard. Carson Beckett was a big part of that too. So was Colonel Lorne, though he seemed to be a little tougher nut to crack. These people were what he'd been searching for his entire life and TJ would have gladly given up all hope of returning to Pegasus if it meant that he could have that family again.

So there it was.

"I'm s-sorry," TJ stammered, clenching his teeth to keep from coming apart. "I'm sorry, Uncle John."

TJ reached a hand out to thread it through the bars, but stopped suddenly when a noise to his left caught his attention. It was faint at first and for a moment, TJ wondered if his uncle had somehow heard what had just been said and was responding. But then the noise began to grow and before TJ's brain even had time to register what was happening, the sound had morphed into a wail and rough hands were pulling him up and away from his uncle's bedside.

"Oh shit." He wasn't even sure it was he that had cursed but there was no time to find out. Chaos erupted in the small space they had been occupying for days now and TJ realized with a sinking feeling that John Sheppard was not trying to wake up.

John Sheppard was dying.

...TJ had pushed too hard.

Panic sped everything up. People called out to one another across the room and TJ thought he might have heard his own name called from within the din, but he kept his eyes trained forward. The chaos was converging into one, sense dampening blur around the still figure at its epicenter and it wasn't until two strong hands whipped him around that he was able to wrench his eyes away from his dying uncle at all.

Pops was squeezing his arms - so hard he would leave bruises - and TJ tried to pull away to look back over his shoulder at what was happening behind him. But Pops' hold on his arms remained steadfast and he finally forced his eyes up to meet his father's.

"TJ, I need you to go find Carrie. Do you think you could do that for me?" He asked seriously, searching TJ's face with concern.

"Y-yeah, Pops," he stammered, trying get his stupid brain to focus. "Anything you need."

"This is important, TJ. Okay? I think this is it."

It? Did he mean the end? That moment when the clouds parted and he realized there really was no path down the mountain and he was stranded forever?

That moment?

"TJ?" Pops repeated his name warily, shaking him slightly. "Please son, I need you to go do this for me."

Maybe it was the way Pops said it, or something inside of TJ himself finally snapping back into place, but reality came crashing back down around him in an instant and he stiffened under his father's grip.

He was a soldier. He'd trained for intense situations like this, and here he was, losing it and letting the panic drag him down with it.

"I'm on it, Pops." He said determinedly, shrugging off his father's hands but squeezing a shoulder before he rushing past him.

TJ took off for the exit of the infirmary without looking back, calling out to anyone on the airwaves who might be listening.

"Anyone got a 20 on Carrie Sinclair?" he asked.

"She was up at the top of tower 9 last we saw her. Should still be there," someone answered back and with the klaxon wail of death following him down the corridor, TJ McKay threw himself into the first transport he came to, and prayed he would reach Carrie Sinclair in time.


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October 2015

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