Title: But There Is Neither East Nor West (1199 words)
Pairing/Rating: Sheppard/Woolsey, G
Richard's in his office, and the door is shut because Friday afternoons are sacred. He has Mozart on the stereo and neat piles on his desk: files to be closed, pending cases, requests, classified reports. He knows his is a classic case of a fulfilled wish becoming a curse. He'd always pushed the people in charge of the Stargate programme to be publicly accountable, but he had never wanted the nightmarish, thankless job of making it so. The lawsuits, the international outrage, the media exposes that he deals with every day — if he didn't give himself the gift of private time, down-time, time to reflect and find the very few silver linings in the storm clouds, then he'd be headed for an ulcer, a heart attack, or a mental breakdown.
Someone knocks at his door, two raps followed by three, and his first thought is that his secretary must have a damned good reason for disobeying and letting someone get through; and his second thought is that he knows that knock. He remembers it from another life, in another galaxy. He grabs his overcoat and opens the door to see that it is Sheppard, looking older but well, wearing casual clothes and with short-cropped hair. He tells Sheppard and his secretary at the same time that he's going out for coffee. His secretary looks startled but makes compliant noises. Sheppard falls into step behind him, exuding amusement, as Richard heads for the elevator block.
Richard hasn't seen Sheppard in years, now: maybe once or twice since they left Atlantis. He doesn't even know where Sheppard works, or for whom. They communicate by untraceable e-mail, all routed through Colorado and occasionally censored, which makes Richard suspect that Sheppard isn't on Earth. Sheppard occasionally sends Richard messages encoded in their ongoing chess games or in sudoku puzzles. Richard mails Sheppard tasteful presents at Christmas and for his birthday. Sheppard replies with dutiful thank you notes, but Richard suspects that all he gets are digital photos of gifts that are stored in a locker somewhere in Stargate command.
Richard's office building is surrounded by discreet coffee shops; he takes Sheppard to the one he trusts the most. They sit in a booth at the back, away from the windows, and order identical cups of six-dollar coffee from the same waiter Richard's had for the past four months (who knows both his name and preferred blend, and who once had winked at him, maybe). Sheppard asks about the job, and about the secretary, and life in D.C., while using something that looks like a cell phone to check the shop for bugs, spy cameras, alien tech — Richard isn't sure — but after a few minutes Sheppard puts it away and gives him a reassuring smile.
Richard tells him the latest about people Sheppard knows: O'Neill, Carter, McKay, Beckett. The news from the U.N. embassy in Atlantis. The coffee arrives, served with a square of foil covered chocolate each. Sheppard wraps his hands around his cup and gives Richard a small smile, tucked in at the corners.
"So," he asks, "are you seeing anyone?"
"No." Richard doesn't think that needed to be qualified. "Yourself?"
Sheppard snorts. "I fly alien spacecraft in another galaxy," he says lightly. "I don't have time for a social life."
Richard's coffee is rich and smooth, and he can feel its warmth spreading through him. "You shouldn't tell me that."
"Who better to tell?" Sheppard's mouth curls more, teasing and secretive. "I think about you," he says abruptly. "Remember how it was, when we were together. Sometimes I think I'd be lost without you."
"Well," Richard says, his mouth filling with nervous, pompous responses that he discards, one after another. They'd known better than to make promises, but sometimes Richard wishes they had, just for the sake of the pointless gesture, just to have something anchoring. "I'm — I'm glad to know that. Glad to see you," he adds, which is true. He can't really stop looking at Sheppard, cataloguing the new lines on his face and the hair now half-grey, seeing that he is a bit thicker in the middle and moves more stiffly, as if he can feel joints that used to move with effortless ease.
"Still in one piece," Sheppard says, holding his hands out and turning them over, as if examining them for flaws. "Body and soul."
Suddenly Richard wants nothing more than to see for himself. "Where are you staying?" he asks, and is then struck by a dampening thought. "You are staying, aren't you?"
"As long as I can," Sheppard says with quick ferocity, and then looks taken aback by his own intensity. "I have a reservation at the Comfort Inn." He raises his eyebrows to invite Richard to be amused.
"Come home with me," Richard says. "I need to talk to you. I want. . . I want to wake up with you." He never has, and it's a thought that bites at him like a guilty conscience. There has never been time for them to be more than sometime-lovers and intergalactic pen-pals, but he thinks now that they need to make that time, steal it if necessary, because — because maybe they won't be seeing each other again.
Sheppard ducks his head, hiding his face as he studies the table (tasteful, black matte formica), and for a horrible moment Richard is afraid that he's embarrassed himself and misinterpreted Sheppard's intent. But Sheppard reaches out and covers Richard's hand with his own, and when he looks up his eyes are clear.
"I left my bag back with your secretary," Sheppard says, standing and not letting go. Richard gets up as well, knowing the waiter is watching him in curiosity. He's always come here alone. When Sheppard leans over to kiss him, part of Richard is, he knows, showing off: Sheppard's handsome and self-assured and old enough not to be mistaken for a rent boy, Richard thinks. And it's not a desperate, hungry, passionate kiss; it's definitely the kind of kiss that shows comfortable familiarity. It's the sort of welcome home that Richard would like to have, and he imagines that Sheppard feels the same way, because he lingers as if he doesn't want to break the moment. Richard touches Sheppard's cheek, and Sheppard steps back, his dazed look hidden by manners as he fumbles his wallet out and picks up the check and heads for the cash register. Richard leaves the tip (Sheppard's been off-world, he can be forgiven for forgetting the little things) and follows Sheppard out into the late afternoon.
The road back to the office is lined with ginko trees, their leaves flashing like gold in the breeze, and Sheppard looks up, his face looking softer in the lowering sunlight. Richard puts one hand on Sheppard's arm, ostensibly to keep him from walking into people or post boxes, and leaves it there for the rest of the walk. He knows that there is a war impossibly far off that will take Sheppard away from him again; there is always a war. But he hopes; he always hopes; and holds onto that hope as they walk, in the sun.