Spoilers: Thirty-eight Minutes, Hide and Seek
Summary: With a little help from a friend, Aiden finds the light at the end of the tunnel.
I've got to hand it to Dr. Weir. She's very clever. I suppose that's how she got to be the lady in charge. She made seeing a counselor a precondition of my returning to duty. Of course, she never said that outright. She made all of us speak with the shrink, from the major on down. But I knew what she was doing and I knew who had put her up to it.
I'd heard that the major refused to speak with the psychologist when he was recovering from that giant bug. He said he didn't believe in them. So he must have been pretty desperate to get back out in the field to have suggested it. And I suppose I should take it as a compliment that he expected me to get a clean bill of health from the shrink. I did; after one session with her I was put back on the duty roster. I didn't tell anyone that I was required to speak with her again after we got back from our mission. It's no one's business, really. And in this matter, my confidentiality was scrupulously protected.
Actually, meeting with the shrink wasn't as bad as I expected. We never discussed the incident that supposedly triggered my depression at all. She seemed to know the score; asked me right off the bat what it was like to be the youngest person on the expeditionary team. How did I feel carrying so much responsibility? Was I taken seriously? Did anyone give me a hard time? It was a relief to talk to someone who could see things from my perspective. It was a relief to speak to someone who listened to me. So I told her exactly how I felt.
She didn't laugh or ridicule me for feeling lonely or unimportant. She said that it was normal for someone in my position to feel a great deal of pressure to prove himself--something I never had to do back at the SGC. She also said it was normal to feel isolated and that I should try a bit harder to make friends. Of course, I have made friends on Atlantis. I consider every member of my team a friend and I've made friends with several others in the military contingent. It's just... Well, it's hard to explain how I feel about those friendships right now. Suffice to say that they aren't enough anymore.
The doc seemed to understand. She even had me going for a while as she explained the social needs of a normal, healthy young man, until she suggested that I find a girlfriend. We both knew the chances of that, unless I violated regs and found a partner among the Athosians. The Earth woman nearest to my age in Atlantis is 33 and has more degrees than I have legs. Not that I couldn't find one who'd be interested --I've had offers, some from rather shocking sources. But I need more than sex. I need companionship. The doc understands that.
I don't think she'd understand how I feel about the major.
Well, she probably would; as a social scientist I suppose she'd be more open-minded than most and she probably wouldn't be squicked by the idea that I fantasize about a same-sex relationship with my commanding officer. But she'd probably chalk my infatuation up to an over-developed case of hero worship or some other psychological bullshit that basically means I should just whack off and get over it.
But I don't want to.
I have to; it's killing me.
Of course, I'm not as sure now as I was a week ago that Major Sheppard and Dr. McKay are doing the nasty. I've been in briefings and meetings with the two of them over the last couple days and saw no suspicious signs. Of course, they wouldn't exactly be advertising themselves, would they? And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't clinging to a tenuous thread of denial. I really don't know anymore.
I must get over this.
"How are you feeling, lieutenant?"
I glanced over at the major and choked back an urge to shout. Over the course of two weeks an innocent show of concern has turned into an oblique accusation that Lieutenant Aiden Ford is feeling delicate. Whenever anyone asks me how I feel I am tempted to bite his head off, and isn't that exactly what everyone wants to see? I mean it's a perverse, self-fulfilling prophecy. Ask someone if he's crazy often enough and you make it so. And the hell of it is, no matter what I say, no one believes me anyway.
"I'm fine, sir."
"You're rubbing your eyes. Got a headache?"
"Are you sure?"
"If I had a headache I would say so," I replied evenly. I'm still getting that look, the one that's been questioning my competence for the last three days. "Look, sir, if you don't think I should have been--."
"No, no, I think you're--."
"Then stop treating me like I'm a basket case," I snapped. "I was cleared to go on this mission; if you didn't think I was up to it why did you let me board this shuttle?"
"Temper, temper, Lieutenant Ford. The major is only--."
"I can speak for myself, McKay," Major Sheppard said. "I apologize, Ford. I didn't realize I was doing that."
"It's all right, sir," I said sheepishly, my anger as gone as quickly as it had appeared. "I shouldn't have said what I did."
"If we are being overly solicitous, lieutenant, it's because we're concerned about you."
"Thanks, Dr. McKay," I sighed. I'd heard that enough times, too.
"Yes, lieutenant," Teyla chimed in. "We have all been worried."
"Why?" I turned to look at her. I looked at Dr. McKay and the major in turn. They all gaped back at me. No one had a ready answer.
"You have not been yourself," Teyla said finally. "You are usually outgoing and gregarious. These last two weeks you have been somewhat sullen and withdrawn."
"Aren't I allowed to sit one out every once in a while? Why do I have to be outgoing and gregarious all the time?" Apparently, I stumped them for a second time.
"Of course you don't have to be outgoing and gregarious all the time, Ford. Teyla's only saying that your behavior was out of character and it concerned us," the major explained.
"How come no one ever worries about me when my behavior is in character?" I muttered to myself. When I looked up the major was giving me that look again and I knew I was screwed. But the sudden appearance of a hostile bandit shifted his attention and we spent the next five minutes engaged with our unknown enemy before deciding to turn tail and head back to the gate.
The briefing was short; there wasn't much to say. The inhabitants of the planet we were planning to visit were obviously hostile; we decided to cross it off our contact list. When the meeting broke up I rose and left the room. I was halfway down the hall before the major caught up with me.
"Got a minute?" he asked benignly.
"Sure," I said. There was no point putting off the inevitable. I knew I was going to be made to account for my earlier remarks.
"Great. Why don't we grab some coffee and have a chat?"
His hand on my shoulder turned his subtle suggestion into a command. I smiled weakly and allowed myself to be led to the mess. We got coffee, but when I turned toward a table, that hand reappeared on my shoulder and guided me out of the mess. We ended up on a terrace and took seats on a sunlit bench. It was midday so everyone was probably working. We had the place to ourselves, which was exactly what the major was counting on.
"Ford?" he said softly.
"You said some interesting things back there on the puddle jumper," he began.
"I didn't mean any of it, sir," I replied. "I'm just fed up with everyone acting strange around me."
"We sort of feel the same way, Ford. You haven't been yourself since the day we got stuck in the gate."
"The shrink and the doc both told me I was suffering from post-traumatic stress."
"Yeah, that's what they told me, too," the major said. He was obviously less than convinced, but I was too pissed to care.
"They told you? Is my life an open book all of a sudden? Whatever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?"
"Easy, lieutenant! I'm your CO, remember? I'm entitled to know anything that affects the performance of my men," the major said in his best tough-guy military voice. "I'm also worried about you, Aiden," he added in a quieter tone. "I was there when you broke down, remember? I'd like to help, if I can."
I felt my cheeks grow hot and I couldn’t look at him.
"Never mind that; talk to me."
"There's nothing to talk about," I said, gesturing at the vast ocean in front of me. It made the perfect metaphor for my life at the moment. Adrift. Lost at sea.
"I disagree. What did you mean earlier when you said that no one worried about you when you're in character?"
"I was talking out of my ass."
"I don't think so."
I set aside my cup and rose to walk over to the railing. I knew that Major Sheppard wasn't going to let me get away without spilling my guts. All I had to do was level with him, right? I could do that.
"I'm depressed, sir."
"Tell me about it," the major said. "And lose the sir. We're off duty, remember?"
"Right." I didn't want to call him by his name. We were on a first name basis, theoretically, but I couldn't bring myself to address him that way. Not now. "There's nothing to tell, really."
"This didn't start that day, did it?" The major set aside his cup and I flinched, but he didn't rise from the bench. He stretched out his legs and folded his arms.
"No," I repeated. "The shrink said that things that have been there all along came to the surface after the incident. It's normal, she said. Given the stressful circumstances, my usual coping mechanisms were inadequate to deal with everything that came flooding to the surface."
"What sort of things?"
"Okay..." the major said slowly." Look, I'm not trying to pry, Aiden, I just want to help if I can."
I shrugged my shoulders as I turned to face him, unable to meet his eyes.
"How can you be so sure?"
"They're my insecurities," I said a bit too hastily. "You can't do anything about the fact that there's no one else here around my age, or that some of the science geeks treat me like I'm a ten-year old." I shut my mouth before anything else came out. I wasn't about to tell him everything that was on my mind.
"How do I treat you, Aiden?"
"How do I treat you? Do I treat you like a ten-year old?"
"I'm going to let that one slide, because I'm a nice guy," the major said as he rose and joined me at the railing. He left some space between us, for which I was grateful. But I knew he was looking at me and I couldn't make myself look into that intense gaze. "So how do I treat you?"
"Fine," I said, swallowing the "sir" before it got me into trouble. The major stared out at the ocean.
"You know one of my favorite things about being here?" he said after a few minutes. I didn't, and assuming that he was going to tell me anyway, I didn't bother to answer. "Every morning, rain or shine, hell or high water, I leave my room and go to the mess or to the gate room or the conference room, wherever. And sooner or later, as sure as the sun is in the sky, I see it."
I was utterly confused.
"The most radiant smile in the universe--or what used to be, before you stopped smiling. Now you're telling me that you've been less than happy all this time. Why didn't you say anything before?"
"Like I said, there's nothing anyone could do about it," I said, turning away.
"Well, had I known, I might have tried to help."
"I could have beat up those geeky scientists for you," the major said. I could hear the smile in his voice. "Say, Rodney's nice to you, isn't he?"
"Yeah, Dr. McKay's all right," I said. I didn't want to talk about Dr. McKay.
"Maybe he could help you with the geeks."
"With all due respect, he's no diplomat," I said, with the first trace of a genuine smile I'd felt in days. Major Sheppard found the remark even funnier and he laughed heartily.
"No, no he's not," he said. "But he's had problems dealing with them, too. I thought maybe if the two of you talked..."
I snorted at the suggestion. Talking to Dr. McKay generally meant being lectured about his superior intellect, my baser understanding, or his need to eat.
"I've been trying to help him with pretty much the same thing, you know. After that encounter with that energy being he sort of withdrew into himself, much like you did. I've been helping him work out of it."
Now I was surprised. I knew that the doctor wasn't the most popular guy on the base, but I never imagined that he'd ever get depressed. It made sense, though. His arrogance was something of a defense mechanism, according to the shrink. She said that everyone copes differently and she used Dr. McKay as an example. She said that he hides his insecurities by constantly bragging, literally using his mouth as a weapon to keep people who might otherwise reject him at bay. She also said that Major Sheppard was just the opposite, using his charm and personality to keep himself surrounded by people, which naturally gave him a strong support network--not to mention a constant stream of admirers.
"I never realized. Guess I was too deep into my own shit to notice."
"That's all right. He didn't want people to know. And he was about as eager to accept my help as you are."
"What's in it for you, anyway?" I asked curiously, turning around to face him. The major seemed slightly offended by the question.
"You guys are my friends. What am I supposed to do, sit around and watch you the two of you suffer?"
"I'm not your friend; not the way he is," I said before I could stop myself. "I mean you two are always talking on missions and...stuff," I added lamely.
"Well, yeah, we talk a lot. I spend a lot of time with him on missions because he needs close supervision and if I can get him talking about his eighth grade science project or something he won't notice that I'm watching his back. Turns out we actually have a lot in common, so it's kind of fun."
"You're a good friend to him, sir."
"I'd like to be a good friend to you, too, Aiden."
I threw up my hands. The major observed me patiently and just waited for me to compose myself. It took a few moments.
"I've got to see the shrink again." I don't know why it felt like such a big confession, but it did. The major just nodded. "Maybe several times; she didn't give me a specific number of visits, but she wouldn't clear me for active duty unless I agreed to further counseling."
"How do you feel about that?" the major asked calmly.
"You sound just like the doc," I replied with a smile.
"Hey, I saw her, too. I know the drill."
"Yeah. It's okay, I guess. It feels good to have someone to talk to about things."
"I know; that's why I offered my services."
"Who do you talk to?" I asked boldly. The major shrugged.
"Oh, Rodney, Teyla, Liz, you--anyone who'll listen, usually; I have nothing to hide."
"And you think I do?"
"I didn't say that, Aiden, though I've got to say your reaction makes me a little suspicious." I looked up and he shrugged. "Look, we all have our secrets, even me. There are things about me I wouldn't tell a living soul, even if--. It's okay. It's even normal."
"You just said you had nothing to hide," I said with a frown.
"All right, so I lied. My point is this: most of my life is an open book. I'm willing to let you read it. Will you let me read yours?"
"That depends. What if you don't like what you find inside?"
"How likely is that?"
"I don't know."
"Maybe you do. Maybe that's why you won't talk to me."
"No, sir, I--."
"Aiden, my name is John. Do you think you could manage to call me that? Just once, prove you can do it."
"Very good. You know, I vaguely recall hearing you call me that before."
"I'm sorry; I just--."
"You just can't call me 'John' when you're depressed?"
"Something like that."
"Why not?" he asked in frustration. "Never mind, forget about that. What's the worst that can happen if we talked? What would happen, Aiden?"
"I don't know."
"I think you do."
"I just feel--. I can't explain it."
"Try." The major deliberately went and sat down. I sighed and joined him on the bench. "Please, Aiden. I have the feeling this is important."
I shook my head.
"Whatever you say, I won't run away. I won't abandon you, I promise."
He reached out a hand and placed it on my own. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Who knew that all it would take for me to get John Sheppard to hold my hand was for me to lose it. But my infatuation with the major was the least of my concerns right now. There was a bigger picture to think about. Our friendship was at stake.
Major Sheppard squeezed my hand and I looked up. He caught my gaze and held it.
"Something happened aboard the shuttle that day," I heard myself saying, but my voice sounded oddly detached, as though someone else was talking through my mouth. "After I got everyone through the doors; I didn't expect to survive when I blew the rear hatch open." I took a deep breath. "I was kind of surprised that I did."
"And I'm very glad you did, Aiden."
"You don't understand. For a moment, I thought... I wanted to... I almost let go. I had to hold onto a beam in the rear of the shuttle to blow the hatch. I thought about letting go."
"But you didn't."
I shook my head.
"Are you sorry?"
The question seemed terribly important to the major and I couldn't face him. I carefully withdrew my hand and began to rub my knees. It was a nervous habit that drove my mom crazy when I was caught doing something I wasn't supposed to. I'd rub my knees and rock back and forth. I wasn't rocking now--the military had taught me to be still; she couldn't.
"I don't know." I did know, so I modified my response. "Sometimes; I mean sometimes it seems as though it wouldn't matter either way."
"It would matter to me. It would matter to Teyla and Rodney and Liz and a whole lot of other people who care about you, Aiden. You do know that, don't you?" He gripped my shoulder and shook it emphatically. It was my sore shoulder but I gritted my teeth and bore it. "You don't, I can see that. Think about this: how do you think I would have felt had I awakened in the infirmary, alive in spite of all the odds, only to learn that you hadn't made it? Do you really think I wouldn't have cared?"
I started to rock back and forth, but the major wrapped an arm around my shoulder and held me still. We both sat back. For a long time we just sat there, staring out at the sky and sea. We didn't talk, didn't even try. After a while, I was actually able to relax. I didn't dare look at him; I knew he was watching me, though. So I just waited.
After about a half hour, Dr. McKay came out onto the deck. He was eating an energy bar and seemed to be lost in thought. He didn't notice us right away; he went over to the rail and looked out at the view. I started to rise, but the major's loose arm suddenly became a rod of steel and I couldn't move. I must have made a noise; McKay turned around and looked at us in surprise.
"Lovely afternoon, isn't it, Rodney?" the major said lightly. "Why don't you join us? Aiden and I are taking in the sunset."
Dr. McKay eyed us suspiciously. Again, I tried to move and was held firm.
"Sunset isn't for another two hours, major," the Doc said evenly.
"I know," Major Sheppard replied. He gestured toward the end of the bench with his head. "Have a seat."
"I've got work to do," McKay said, still missing what he must have thought was some sort of joke.
"Suit yourself. We're just going to hang out here for a while," the major said. He relaxed his arm, but he held onto the sleeve of my jacket.
"Enjoy yourselves," the doctor said. He stared at us a moment. I shrugged, but couldn't think of anything to say. He left and I looked at the major, who smiled innocently.
"What did you do that for?"
"What? Don't you want to see the sunset?" he asked.
"I meant--. Dr. McKay's likely to get the wrong idea."
"What would be the wrong idea, Aiden?"
He asked it so simply I'm sure I blushed as I shrugged.
"So when are you going back to the shrink?" the major asked conversationally. I sighed and sat back, noting that he smiled when he felt me relax.
"Good. I was forced to see a shrink once; after witnessing something pretty awful in Afghanistan. It sucked."
"It's not so bad. It kind of feels good to talk to someone."
The major knocked my cap off and when I bent to retrieve it he ruffled my hair.
"I could have sworn I said that about an hour ago," he said unrepentantly.
"I said it, too; a few times."
"So you did."
"Do you really want us to sit here for another two hours?"
"What, are you tired of my company already?"
"No, no; I just thought you might have other things you'd rather be doing."
"Nope, can't think of a one. You?"
"John. It's 'no, John.'"
"Good. Relax; that's an order."
"Sir, yes, sir," I said as I sat back.
"Wiseass." The major's--John's--arm returned to its resting place around my shoulder. I could get used to this.
"You gave a direct order, John."
"I suppose I did."
"Are you sure you haven't got something else to do?"
"Nah, I could sit here and listen to you talk all afternoon."
"I haven't really said that much."
"Well, feel free to fill in the gaps. I got nothing but time."