blue flamingos

Recovering An Old Footing

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis/Stargate SG1

Category/Rated: Slash, PG-13

Year/Length: 2010/~11,581 words

Pairing: John/Cam

Spoilers: Daedalus Variations AU

Disclaimer: No, I don't own them, for which I should think they're profoundly grateful.

Summary: When the Daedalus' alternate reality drive goes haywire and they all have to abandon the ship, John and Cam set off into the wilds of Pegasus to find Atlantis and get everyone home.

Prompt: lost in space

Author's Notes: for ubiquitous-girl in the sg_flyboy's Thinga-a-Thon

Beta: Thanks to lyonza for beta'ing.

Feedback: Yes please. Even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad.

hr

Recovering An Old Footing

They can't see the Daedalus from the planet, of course, but Novak set her watch to count down the time to the next jump back when it became obvious it was serious. When she sees everyone watching her, she blinks and starts counting down out loud.

Sitting on the edge of his 302 cockpit, John looks up to the empty sky and counts along under his breath… 5…4…3…2…

The blinding flash that signified the ship disappearing from inside it isn't visible from the planet, and for a long moment, there's nothing. John would bet their diminished supplies that he's not the only one wondering if Sobel made it out of the ship.

He's on the edge of suggesting they start looking for somewhere to make camp instead of all staring at an empty blue sky when their last 302 comes gliding into view. Sobel lands neatly in line with the rest of their fighters, and climbs out, her face resolutely optimistic.

That's it, then, John thinks, swinging himself down to the ground. They're stranded.

hr

Sobel sends out search parties, one each of their small complement of scientists with at least three pilots, looking for any sign of habitation, past or present, or, failing that, somewhere they can make camp. Not that they're equipped to do that particularly well – the Daedalus doesn't come with tents and sleeping bags, just an alternate reality device that's dropped them a couple hundred realities from home.

She keeps John, Cam, Novak and Mr. Woolsey from the IOA back.

"Sit-rep," she says, settling them in a circle on the ground in the middle of their clearing. At least it seems to be summer here. John doesn't want to think about what they'd do if they were stranded on a planet in the middle of winter. What they will do. "Colonel Mitchell?"

"Four 302s," Cam starts. "All the useful supplies we could find on the Daedalus. No injuries."

Sobel nods. "That's good."

"Of course, we're also stranded in the wrong reality, without our ship, and with no idea of how to get home," Woolsey puts in. John's never liked him, even less so after he tried to take control of the ship from Sobel when she first suggested they abandon it, citing his status as IOA observer in justification, as though the entire crew didn't know he'd only gotten on in the first place because the IOA bargained Woolsey's presence for equipment needed on Atlantis..

"So that's a slight drawback," Sobel says cheerfully, not sounding as forced as John knows he would in her place. "No problem's irresolvable."

"Wish Dr McKay was here," Novak says, not for the first time.

"I have every confidence in you," Sobel tells her. John nods his agreement. He's not feeling very charitable to the SGC's favorite scientist it loves to hate, since he built the drive that's abandoned them here. Even less charitable considering McKay was supposed to be on this trip and got pulled off at the last second when his sister and brother-in-law were seriously injured in a car crash and he had to step in to care for their daughter and baby son.

"Yes, ma'am," Novak says, and hiccups.

"Every confidence in her to do what, may I ask?" Woolsey puts in. "Unless it's escaped your notice that your ship is now in another reality, along with our only chance to return home."

"Come on now, Mr. Woolsey," Cam says. "Don't get all overly optimistic on us there."

Woolsey puffs up. "I'm just trying to keep everyone aware of the gravity of our own situation," he starts.

Sobel holds up a calming hand. "I think we're all well aware of that, Mr. Woolsey. But this isn't the first time a team from the SGC has gotten trapped in another reality. I'm sure we can find a way home if we put our minds to it. We have the coordinates for our reality, don't forget, which is more than most teams have had."

Woolsey hmms doubtfully but subsides.

"Dr Novak," Sobel says, turning away from him. "Can you extend the range on your scanner to find us this planet's gate?"

"Sure," Novak says brightly, leaning over it and tapping industriously.

John feels Cam looking at him and glances up to meet his eye. Cam makes a sympathetic face and John nods his thanks. Unlike Cam, squadron leader for the Daedalus' fighters, John's not supposed to be here, but back in his lab at the SGC. He only got drafted when McKay had to bow out. Official dual status as mathematician and pilot, like theoretical math was ever going to help with an alternate reality drive.

"Just to work out the coordinates," Landry had said when he'd ordered John into it. "One day you'll be able to tell your grandchildren you were on the first Earth mission to other realities."

"Yes, sir," John had said, instead of pointing out that he wasn't ever going to have grandchildren, or that, after they broke off their mostly-casual-except-not thing only a few months ago, the last place he wanted to be was trapped on a space-ship with Cam.

Or worse, trapped in another reality with him.

"Colonel Sheppard," Sobel says, looking at him. "You're the only one of us who's spent time in Pegasus, do you have anything to add?"

John's not sure four months working on a project in Atlantis really gives him much insight into the galaxy, even if he did visit half a dozen planets while he was there. Just enough to make him wish he'd had the gene, or that the therapy had worked so he could go out there permanently.

"Nothing that's useful to us here," he says.

They were due back four days ago, which will have put the SGC into panic mode, for all the good that's going to do. When it's the only prototype that's missing, it's pretty hard to come after them for a dramatic rescue.

"Oh," Novak says, looking up from her scanner. It's not the look of someone who's figured it all out.

"What is it, Doctor?" Sobel asks.

"This planet doesn't have a gate," Novak says.

hr

By the time the search teams come back, reporting a forest in one direction and a river in the other – though neither the giant snakes nor the lost city of Atlantis that are on their own reality's version of this planet – they've come to the conclusion that, like in their own reality, Atlantis harvested this planet's gate for the Bridge, but then either didn't flee their first planet or didn't choose to come here when they did.

"Maybe they never met the Replicators," Captain Zhang, one of Cam's pilots, suggests.

"Or they woke up the Wraith somehow," Dr Wright adds.

"Oh good," Cam mutters. "Another optimist."

John laughs, can't help it, and Cam looks over at him again. They're still keeping a careful ten feet apart from each other, but at least they've gotten past the point where they could barely speak to each other. Nothing like a major crisis to get over some post-breakup awkwardness, and John likes being able to joke with Cam again. Cam's the only person he really knows on this whole trip, almost everyone else being regular Daedalus crew.

"All right, can I have your attention please," Sobel calls. She looks one step from clapping her hands for it like a pre-school teacher, even in her flight suit. "Tomorrow, we'll start moving closer to the river and setting up proper living quarters until we figure out our next step. For tonight, we've got MREs, so we'll make do."

There's none of the usual grumbling about MREs, which John figures is probably down to them all wondering what they'll do when those run out. He snags a meatloaf one and joins Novak, reading over her shoulder as she goes through all the specs for the drive again, like that can possibly do them any good.

hr

Most of them curl up on the ground under thin blankets beamed down from the Daedalus and at least pretend to sleep as it goes dark, even Sobel, commenting that they need to ration the flashlight batteries.

John's too awake to even pretend to sleep. Instead, he stays where he is when Novak retires, scrolling through old mission reports stored on one of the handheld computers they beamed down, looking for something that might get them home.

Everything starts with being able to look for what they need somewhere other than what appears to be a pleasant, rustic, deserted planet. Which requires a gate. Which is one of many things they don't have, and they're not equipped to set up home here indefinitely, never mind forever.

He pulls up a new file and types, ‘In event of repeat mission and necessary abandonment of ship, check for gate on proposed planet first.' He's not great at being an optimist, but someone's got to do it.

After a while, he hears footsteps approaching from behind. He keeps reading, assuming it's Sobel – he doesn't know her well enough to know if she's going to say something encouraging or try to off-load her guilt, but he doesn't want to deal with either.

Instead, the person who drops to sit cross-legged next to John is Cam.

"You should be asleep," Cam says. He's closer than he has been since they broke up, looking out at the dark field they're in, the shadowed shapes of their fighter jets.

"So should you," John says, scrolling down a little, though he's lost track of what he's reading.

"Screen light woke me up," Cam says with a shrug.

John waits for something else, but it doesn't come, and he goes back to his reading for real, falling into the routine and the silence until he's barely aware of Cam still there.

So much so that, when Cam says, "Hey," he jumps, making Cam huff softly in amusement.

"What?" John asks through gritted teeth.

"Does that thing tell you how far away the nearest planet is?" Cam asks, ignoring John's tone. He got good at that when they were together. "In this reality, I mean."

"No kidding," John says drily, already pulling up the chart. "Fourteen hours by 302. Assuming it hasn't met a terrible end, of course."

"Of course," Cam agrees. He looks away from John, body gone tense. "So we could fly there."

"We could," John says. Fourteen hours in a 302 does not sound like fun, but it is doable.

And then he figures out where Cam's going with this. "If the planet's got a gate, we could gate to Atlantis. Back to the Milky Way, find a quantum mirror or something…"

"Go home," Cam finishes softly.

hr

Sobel doesn't like the idea.

"What if there was never an expedition to Atlantis in this reality?"

"Then we'll have to think of something else," Cam says. "But at least we'd know."

"Even if they did come out here, and haven't been killed off by anything, there's no guarantee that they'll be able to help."

John bites his lip against the urge to point out that there's no guarantee they'll be able to find anything to help on this planet – he's seen the data on it in their reality, and it basically amounts to a whole lot of nothing much. Since it's a fairly safe bet that the expedition in this reality stole its gate, he can't see that being any different.

"We'd have the entire SGC at our disposal," Cam points out. "And we wouldn't have to stay here."

Sobel looks away, and John can't read her well enough to know if she's close to acquiescing or not. Cam steps a little closer to her, even though they're away from the main camp, likely too far for anyone to overhear. "We can't stay here," he says, voice lowered. "We won't survive it, ma'am, and I think you know that. So our choices are: look for Atlantis, look for somewhere else and hope it's friendly, or stay here and starve."

Sobel shakes her head. "This isn't how I imagined this mission ending up," she says.

"That's the SGC for you," John says, pleased when she looks at him with a small but genuine smile.

"I don't like the idea of splitting up so soon," she says. "And I really don't like the idea of the two of you going off alone."

"I'll keep him out of trouble," Cam says, grinning at John, who glares back. "And we can't take everybody."

"I'm well aware of that, Colonel," Sobel says. Back in the camp, Woolsey's voice rises for a moment, and she grimaces. "Though I wouldn't object to him going."

"Only two seats in a 302," Cam says, still grinning. "Sorry, ma'am."

"You realize that if Atlantis isn't on its original planet, you have no idea where to start looking for it," she says, all business again suddenly.

"If it's not there, the expedition must have moved it," Cam says. "That means they're probably still here, which means we can go through the list of Pegasus gate addresses on Sheppard's handheld until we find someone who knows them. Piece of cake."

"And home in time for tea," Sobel says softly. "All right. But I want a check-in once a week. I'm going to get some of the scientists working on a relay system, so you can send messages from the nearest planet, instead of having to fly back here, but it won't be up and running in seven days."

John thinks she's vastly under-estimating the capabilities of a group of scientists with nothing else to do, but even if it is up and running, he and Cam won't know how to hook into it.

"Ma'am, I think they outlawed torture, even in the air force," Cam says, then, when Sobel frowns at him. "Fourteen hours with him back-seat flying, that's torture in anyone's book."

"Who says you're flying?" John asks.

"Perks of seniority," Cam says airily.

hr

The flight is fourteen hours through deepest, blackest space, in a confined jet to an uncertain end. John flies for some of it, sleeps for the rest of it, and tries not to think about what's going to happen when they land.

It's probably the most boring fourteen hours of his life, not improved by the fact that, when they land, he's so stiff he can hardly stand up, and also, the planet looks almost exactly like the one they left fourteen hours ago, minus the rest of the 302s and plus a gate.

So that's one improvement, anyway.

"Ugh," Cam says, stumbling to the ground and half-falling over to lie flat on his back, eyes closed. "Ow," he adds.

"Shit," John says quietly, reaching for the first aid kit and its selection of painkillers. Cam's leg, lingering damage that kept him from getting into a high-impact gate team after Antarctica, that made him a restless sleeper because he couldn't keep it still for a whole night.

Cam opens his eyes and looks at John, who can't read his expression at all. "It's fine. Other than feeling like someone replaced the muscles with iron bars, then shoved metal stakes into my thigh."

"Oh yeah, sounds wonderful," John agrees. "Here, take these at least."

Cam props himself up on his elbows to swallow the painkillers, looking at the gate. "Dial in the morning? I don't want to have to be carried through."

"Assuming there's anyone there," John says.

hr

They dial in the morning, Cam still stiff-legged, sun barely over the horizon.

It won't connect.

They try three more times anyway, just in case, then once more out of blind optimism.

Then they sit down on the grass and contemplate their options.

"You think they got attacked by the replicators?" Cam asks.

John shrugs. "Or they had to flee the Wraith. If they've come out of hibernation." He really hopes not – he's read some of the reports from Atlantis' anthropologists about what life was like last time the Wraith woke up, and they're not equipped to deal with anything like that.

"Fleeing's better than bombed," Cam says resignedly. "Where's the list of gate addresses? We'll start with Athos."

"Yes, sir," John says, pulling out his handheld.

He can feel Cam looking at him, but all he says is, "John," quietly enough for John to pretend he didn't hear anything.

hr

It's obvious as soon as they set foot on Athos that it's different from their reality. John's been to Athos there, guest of their leader and ambassador to Atlantis, Teyla Emmagan. It should be a lively planet with a clear trail to the village; instead, John half-expects to see smoke over the trees. The planet has that same tragically abandoned atmosphere as a few of the bombed out towns John's had to walk through in his career.

"This doesn't look good," Cam says quietly, raising his P-90.

John shakes his head in agreement, but falls into step with Cam anyway.

Their footfalls sound loud in the grass, and John feels hyper-aware, twitching every time he catches movement on the edge of his vision, feeling Cam's own apprehension next to him.

John's expecting to find signs of hasty abandonment when they reach the village, but the village is clear and tidy, all the tents still standing, their doors roped shut.

"Cover me," John says, unable to shake the sense of wrongness. Cam nods, looking away from John, and John edges carefully up to the nearest tent, easing the door flap aside. The tent's completely empty, and so are the next three.

"Aren't the Athosians nomadic?" Cam asks when they've hit every tent and found nothing.

"Yeah, sometimes, but they'd take their tents." John looks around the village again, suddenly unsure whether he's feeling something wrong because it is, or because he's conflating the emptiness with his own worry. "Unless they've moved somewhere they don't need them."

Cam just looks at him for a minute, then sighs. "Atlantis."

"Atlantis," John agrees.

"Great," Cam grumbles, gesturing for John's handheld. "Let's hope this isn't a pattern."

"Two's not enough for a pattern," John says confidently. "Where now?"

hr

They go to Haptra, one of Atlantis' best allies in their reality, where they only have to wait a couple of minutes before one of the Haptrans helicopters buzzes over the trees.

"Seriously?" Cam asks, looking up and laughing.

"Welcome to Pegasus," John says, smiling, looking away from the helicopter to Cam. Who chooses that moment to look at John, gazes catching, and John can't look away.

"We're going to get caught," Cam had said. "That was too damn close."

"You don't think the SGC would protect us?" John had asked. Just casual. Exclusive for six months, but casual.

"No," Cam had said, troubled and sad. "No, we'd both be out."

"John," Cam says quietly.

John steps back. "Don't."

"I –" Cam starts again, then, when John looks firmly away at the landing helicopter, just sighs. John knows just how he feels.

"Good afternoon," the helicopter pilot says, hopping out. She's wearing the same black boots, black leggings and colored tunic that John's seen from pictures of their Haptra, tunic blue to match her helicopter. "Are we expecting you?"

"No," Cam says, stepping forward and smiling politely. "It's complicated, but we need to speak to your leaders."

"Are you known to them?" the pilot asks.

"Not exactly," Cam says hesitantly. "We're connected to Atlantis."

"Atlantis," she echoes, looking between the two of them. "You know their leader?"

"Dr Weir, sure," Cam says, managing to sound confident, rather than like he's guessing.

The pilot stiffens, and John and Cam share a troubled look. "You do not dress as they do," she says.

"We're sort of an adjunct," Cam hedges.

"Of course," the pilot says. "But without a letter of confirmation, or a representation from an Atlantis resident on record with us, we can't allow you to travel any further."

Cam looks a question at John, who shrugs helplessly.

"Gentlemen," the pilot prompts.

"We're trying to find Atlantis," Cam explains. "The people who live on Atlantis moved there from another planet, and we come from the same planet they do, but in another universe. We traveled here by ship, but now our ship's missing, and we need their help to get home."

The pilot looks at their guns and their uniforms. "You do a good job of looking as they do," she says. "Though I find your story difficult to believe."

"So do we," Cam says. "Maybe we can talk to your leaders."

"That will not be possible," the pilot says, walking over to the DHD. "I'm sure you understand that we have rules. Our leaders are busy people."

"I understand that –" Cam starts.

"I'm so glad," the pilot says, smiling sharply. "Is there a planet I can dial for you?"

They end up back on Athos. "This isn't going well," Cam says.

John shakes his head. "But she's got a point about uniforms. I mean, we're fine if we run into an Atlantis team, but anyone else who knows them is going to do what she did and assume we're faking it, badly."

"All right," Cam says. "Got any Pegasus dollars on you?"

hr

They trade a P-90 for generic Pegasus pants, shirts and jackets on a small trading planet listed in John's handheld.

"Arming the populace," Cam says, fidgeting with his shirt again, even though it's made of thick, cream cotton like John's, and can't possibly be uncomfortable.

"I don't think one guy counts as the populace," John says, dropping their remaining P-90 into their duffel and slinging it over his shoulder. It won't be great in an emergency, but he's hoping not to come upon any emergencies that require more than the pistol tucked in his pants.

"Try telling Landry that," Cam says. He looks up at the darkening sky. "Let's pack it in for the night, start again tomorrow. Can you work through the list, pick out some likely places?"

"Sure," John agrees. He's not sure how much use the list really is, since three planets aren't enough to draw any conclusions, but it's all they've got.

hr

Sitting together after dinner – near the gate, even though they could use one of the Athosians' tents – Cam says, "I wonder how the others are doing."

John's been trying not to think about them, about what might happen to them while he and Cam are gone. "Six days and we can go visit," he says. "Less, if we find Atlantis."

"You think…" Cam starts, trailing off.

John knows him more than well enough to guess what he's not asking. "I think I'm going to hit the sack," he says, before Cam can ask.

"I'll take first watch," Cam agrees.

John's not really tired enough to sleep, but he lies down and curls in on himself under his jacket anyway. It's not as warm on Athos as it was on either of the planets they've spent time on, but it's warm enough. In the dark, he can hear Cam moving around, getting settled, then, when he opens his eyes, see him sitting cross-legged, back to John, facing the gate.

He'd known Cam a little even before they'd met again at the SGC, when Cam had moved down to Colorado Springs on assignment to the Daedalus. John hadn't expected them to get friendly again even with that, since Cam had mostly been off-world on the Daedalus, and John had been supposed to be an SGC-based mathematician. Except that being an Air Force lieutenant colonel had trumped being a mathematician every time, and there was nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of 302 flying in tandem with someone.

It had certainly worked for them.

It's just John's life that, after months of wanting to see more of Cam, now he is, just when he doesn't want to.

hr

They have better luck the second day – no-one shoots them, no-one tries to have them imprisoned, and one person even goes so far as to confirm that the Atlantis expedition is still in the galaxy.

"Though it has been some time since we've seen them," he adds, looking around the nicely medieval tavern they've wound up.

A guy sitting in the corner, working at something wooden with a knife, looks up and nods. "A month, perhaps, or two. Though they do not often come here."

"Here to this planet?" John asks. He recognized it as soon as they stepped through the gate, Captain Ford's favorite on account of the large purple birds that lived in all the trees, though he'd tried to deny it, and a source of all sorts of sociological information about Pegasus. The idea that this Atlantis doesn't send a research team at least every couple of weeks is kind of odd.

"No, no," the first guy says. "To this planet, often, but not to our village."

The second guy nods agreement, even going so far as to put his knife down. "We receive many visitors here, but the people of Atlantis prefer the larger town, to the east of the ring." He sighs. "The manufacturing there has become highly prized, like to put us all to ruin."

"That's a shame," Cam says tactfully. "This town, is it far from here?"

It's not – three hours' walk, assuming they don't get lost, and it's still early – which is how John finds himself walking through a series of fields next to Cam, wishing he could think of something to say to break the uncomfortable silence, before Cam decides to do it by discussing why they're not together any more. Or, worse, why they have to not be together, which is not a conversation John wants to have. Ever.

"It seems like things are pretty different here," he offers finally. Cam looks over, frowning. "I mean, Atlantis is on a different planet, they don't seem to be visiting the same places as in our reality, the Athosians are gone, and I'm pretty sure Dr Weir's not in charge any more."

"You think?" Cam asks.

"Yeah, on Haptra. She was okay until we mentioned Weir." It's been bugging John, on and off, ever since, as much as he doesn't want to think about it. He likes Dr Weir, and the thought of her being replaced, or, worse, dead, isn't one he wants.

"Who's in her place, you think?" Cam asks.

"Maybe Dr Somerset?" John guesses. She's the SGC's current favorite diplomat, and she gets along mostly okay with Colonel Caldwell, Atlantis' military commander. "Or Jackson, if he's still with the expedition here."

"Or they dragged him back from Franzia," Cam adds, then says, "Actually, forget that. Wild horses couldn't, the SGC's got no chance."

"Because if it was you, you'd –" John starts, then stops, before he can say just abandon your partner for your duty, because there's no way it's going to come out like the joke it's supposed to be.

"I don't know what I'd do, in his place," Cam says, looking ahead again, obviously hearing what John's not saying.

John looks away to the fields running endlessly on to his right, and says, "I know."

hr

The manufacturing people of the eastern town supply a gate address that Major Lorne gave them on one visit, in case they needed help urgently. It's not the address they've already tried for the city, and John thanks whoever's listening for unhealthily trusting people, at the same time as he's wondering how they haven't met with disaster by being that trusting, not to mention how Lorne, who's the most level-headed person John knows, can be so unwary in this universe.

He gets his answer when they step onto a planet that looks just like the one they flew to, the one they flew from, and the one they started with that morning, which is to say, green, tree-lined, and perfectly lacking in any sign that the lost city of Atlantis was ever there.

"Okay," Cam says, turning a slow circle.

"That seemed too easy," John says, trying to keep his irritation out of his voice, at himself and the people of the last planet.

Cam's shaking his head. "You said they don't like to lie. There's no reason for that to be different here. And Atlantis wouldn't have given them an address they couldn't use, so there's got to be something here."

"Someone," John corrects. Cam makes an inquisitive noise, and John gestures behind him to the two people approaching. They look like a father and his adult daughter, both of them dressed in simple, old fashioned clothes. "How you want to do this?"

"They've got to be linked to Atlantis, right?" Cam says, turning and coming to stand by John. "I say go with the truth."

"Hello," the man calls.

"Hi," Cam calls back. "How are you?"

"Well," the man says, his daughter nodding her agreement as they get close enough to talk without shouting. "You come from Lizzat?"

"Yes. Good to meet you."

"And you also. My name is Tyrus, this is my daughter, Sora."

"John," John says, stepping in front of Cam before he can say anything. "And this is Cameron."

"A pleasure to meet you both," Tyrus says. "Though we were not expecting visitors."

"We –" Cam starts, but John cuts him off.

"We're not Lizzathians, we traveled there on our way here. We have something to deliver to a man we believe may be your leader."

Tyrus and Sora look at each other. "A package? May we know what it contains?"

John shrugs his shoulder enough to lift the bag they're carrying most of their few possessions in, and gives them an apologetic smile. "For his eyes only. Sorry."

"I see," Tyrus says. "Very well. We will take you to him."

John expects them to keep close enough to preclude any conversation, but they walk far enough ahead that, although he can see their lips moving in obvious conversation, he can't hear what they're saying.

Cam must figure they're safe as well, because he leans close to John and says, quietly, "What's going on? I thought we agreed on telling the truth."

John shifts uncomfortably, not sure if it's from Cam being too close or from what he's about to say. "Something's not right. How did they know where we'd come from? The gate doesn't come with caller ID, and they don't exactly dress like the kind of people who'd have developed that kind of technology."

"You never get told not to judge a book by its cover?" Cam asks, but he looks over to Tyrus and Sora again, faintly suspicious. "Maybe they like to keep their technology secret."

"They're not very good at it then," John points out. "I don't know, I just have a bad feeling."

Cam gives him a long look that John can't read, and he braces himself to be told he's being paranoid, or mocked for his bad feeling. Instead, Cam just sighs and nods. "Okay. We'll go with interplanetary FedEx for now. But we're going to be in trouble if they ask to see whatever we've brought."

"I'm working on that part," John says, relieved and cursing himself for being relieved. Cam's never treated him like that, never treated anyone like that, and he wishes again that they'd stuck to friendship, instead of fucking it up with all the issues that came with being failed lovers.

Sora drops back after a while to walk beside them. "You must have seen many worlds in your work."

"We're very well travelled," Cam agrees. "Though yours is one of the most pleasant we've been to in some time."

Sora smiles, charmed. "You are very kind. Tell me of other worlds – I have never left our home-world."

"You don't travel?" John asks, surprised.

"We are blessed that our trading partners always come to us," Sora says, not entirely sounding like she agrees with that interpretation of the situation. "We Genii are a shy people, not much given to travel to other worlds."

"That's a shame," Cam says. "There are lots of amazing worlds out there."

"Of course," Sora says. "But the Wraith still lurk in some corners of the galaxy, and we are safer here."

"Of course," Cam echoes.

"Better safe than sorry," John agrees inanely. He hopes the Genii's information is good, because that sounds like the Wraith are still hibernating, like in their own universe. One less thing to worry about.

When they reach the village, it's obvious that the Genii are about as technologically advanced as their clothes suggest, a few steps up from the Athosians' tents. "This way," Tyrus says, leading them into a slightly more elaborate tent, where there's an older man sitting behind a bench, flanked by two men who glare at them. Must be the leader.

"Cowen, these are the visitors through the ring, John and Cameron."

"Pleased to meet you," Cam says, smiling.

Cowen gives the two of them a slow once-over that John remembers from COs who really disliked him. Not a good start. "I'm told you have something for me," he says.

John looks at Cam in a way that he hopes says I told you something was wrong, how does he know already? and finds Cam looking back at him in a way that says I hope you meant it when you said you were working on that part. Fast.

"It's a little complicated," John hedges.

"He indicated they carry it in that bag," Tyrus says.

"We need to see some identification," John says, swinging the bag behind himself and stepping closer to Cam. "Proof that you're really who this is supposed to go to."

Cowen smiles in a way that doesn't make John feel any better about this situation. Then he nods to his henchmen, who start forward at the same time as John feels someone tug at the strap of the bag. He half-turns to stop them and finds himself face to face with Sora.

And a knife in her hand, pointing at Cam. Who knew they were that transparent?

"She will use it on him," Cowen says quietly. "Make no mistake about that."

Cam hasn't moved for his gun, tucked in the waist band of his pants, which is probably for the best. "John," he says quietly.

John's got no idea what that's supposed to mean, but he's not letting anyone get stabbed. He lets go, lets Sora take the bag and open it.

Of course, the first thing she pulls out is their remaining P-90.

The henchmen move a lot closer.

"Wait," John says. He turns back to Cowen, both hands up, and finds the Genii leader standing behind his desk. He doesn't look happy. "This isn't what it looks like."

"Really," Cowen says. "Because it looks as though you tricked your way here in order to kill me."

"That's definitely not what this is," John says, though in retrospect, that does sort of make sense. "Look, it's complicated, but we're trying to find Atlantis. The city of the Ancients? We come from the same world as the people living there now, we need their help. We were told you were allies."

"If that is so," Cowen says, "How are they lost to you? Surely you would have their gate address."

"It's complicated," John says again. "We come from another universe, we need their help to get home."

Not completely surprisingly, that's when the henchmen move in and they're marched to jail at gunpoint and relieved of their weapons.

Cam sighs, sitting against the wall of the underground bunker they've been locked into (simple farming people, John's ass). "This is why neither of us is on a gate team."

It doesn't seem the moment to say that John, at least, isn't on a gate team because it turns out his dad was right when he used to say that John was too smart for his own good. None of his skills are any good for a gate team, and the ones he does have are too valuable for them to be willing to let him train. "I told you they weren't what they seemed," he says, sitting down next to Cam.

"You told me you'd figure out the story we were telling," Cam corrects him sharply. "Or did you need more time?"

"I didn't notice you stepping in to help," John snaps back. "You'll have to forgive me for not being able to think brilliantly on my feet when someone's got –" He stops, swallows down a knife at your throat.

Next to him, Cam goes tense and silent, and John curses himself. He's got to stop this – if they're over, they've over, and he needs to move the fuck on already. Their careers – their work – are supposed to be worth more than beers when Cam's on the planet, nights in each others' apartments that they lie about, risky hand jobs on base. John's not even sure he cares about that stuff any more; he just wants his friend back.

There's a window high up on the wall – apparently they're not completely underground – and John can see the sky going dark when he twists to look up at it. He's got no idea what the Genii are going to do with them, isn't sure that the Genii do either. Maybe they'll dial Atlantis, ask if they know John and Cam, tell their story. Lorne's there, he'd probably come and check them out, but John didn't get the impression on Lizzat that Lorne's in charge, so they're at the mercy of whoever is. And John in this universe clearly isn't on Atlantis, or Cowen would have recognized him, so maybe they won't even recognize the names.

Or maybe the Genii have no intention of telling Atlantis about them. They do think John and Cam are assassins, after all. Kind of sucky assassins, but still assassins. They don't seem like they'd be very lenient about that.

John looks up at the window again. It doesn't look barred or glazed. One of them could probably climb out of it, if they could get up that high. Even standing on Cam's shoulders, he's not sure he'd make it, and the walls are too smooth to climb. Maybe if they used one of their jackets as a rope, or both, and loop them over something. If there's anything jutting out to loop them over –

"I've been offered reassignment," Cam says, startling John out of contemplating their escape.

"What?" he says intelligently.

Cam keeps looking at the door, even when John looks at him. "I've been offered reassignment. They're releasing the first 302/F-16 hybrids to the general Air Force, they want someone to head up training the first pilots at Peterson. They offered it to me. I was supposed to give them an answer when we got back from this mission."

"What were you going to say?" John asks, instead of asking why Cam's telling him this. Maybe he's just telling John because John's here.

"I hadn't decided," Cam says. "Now I'm leaning towards yes."

"Your family would be happy," John says.

"Yeah," Cam says softly. He's still not looking at John, and it's not light enough for John to read the side of his face. "It'd be good to be on Earth more. See more of people."

He looks at John then, and it's like all John's anger at what happened slams into him at once. "That's what you're going to say?" he demands. "You're the one who said it was too risky, you're the one who –" He breaks off, jumps to his feet, too frustrated to sit still.

"John," Cam says, and that just makes it worse.

"Stop saying my name like it's supposed to mean something," John says. "I'm not the one who decided it wasn't worth the risk."

"That's not what happened," Cam says, sounding as frustrated as John feels. "Forgive me for not wanting to risk your career on…"

"On what? A fling? Fuck buddies, what?"

"I don't know!" Cam hurtles to his feet, right in John's face, his eyes flickering to the rest of their cell. "And I really don't know why we're arguing about it in a jail cell in the wrong galaxy, not to mention the wrong universe."

It startles John into laughing. "You always said I'd have to be tied down before I'd talk about my feelings," he offers. "Pretty close."

Cam smiles, and he's close enough that John can feel the tension seep out of him. "Every cloud has a silver lining," he says, then sobers. "Look, I…"

"Not here," John says. "Escape, then feelings conversation."

Cam looks like he's going to argue, before the sheer ridiculousness of the situation hits him again. "Right."

It turns out Cam still has his pocket knife. Armed with that, it's a short, undignified struggle up each others shoulders and a quasi-rope made from their jackets, followed by a run to the gate, made easier by the way that, for all they're more advanced than they look, the Genii don't seem to have invented night security lights.

They gate to Lizzat, since that's where they're supposed to have come from, then to Athos in silent agreement that anything that doesn't lead people to their hidden 302s has to be a good thing.

"Sit rep?" Cam asks.

"No weapons, no closer to Atlantis, and the Genii will probably put a hit out on us or something."

"Nothing like looking on the bright side," Cam says. "Come on, at least we stored some food here. Could be worse."

John shakes his head, following Cam down the path to the abandoned tent village in which they seem to be more or less squatting, if people can squat without entering the building. "Face it," he says. "We suck at this."

"At least we suck with style," Cam says, which doesn't make any sense at all, but still makes John smile.

He's expecting Cam to pick up their conversation from in the cell, but maybe John's not the only one who feels like he's had all the emotional honesty he can take for one day, because they make a fire and sit by it discussing possible planets to try tomorrow instead, reading from the handheld that they thankfully decided to leave behind on Athos. It's okay; even knowing that the rest of the conversation is coming, John feels better for having yelled a bit. He hates pretending everything's fine, even if he is good at it.

hr

Although John's not willing to chalk it up to how they've cleared the air between them, a little bit, the next day actually goes well. Not that they get any closer to finding Atlantis, or any of the expedition members, but they don't get chased off the planet, arrested, or threatened.

In fact, it goes so well that, when Cam suggests trying one more planet, before they head back to Atlantis, John agrees.

P3S 819 is, according to John's handheld, an abandoned planet, regularly visited by expedition teams for its ruined old buildings, decorated with murals of early life in Pegasus. The pictures are too old to be of real use, so it's not a structured project, but teams from social sciences went out regularly in quiet periods when John was on Atlantis.

"How far away is this place?" Cam asks when they step through the gate. It's early evening, the long shadow of the gate stretching over them.

"Half hour?" John guesses, pulling up a rough plan on the handheld and tilting it for Cam to see. "That's us, that's the ruin, there's a path through the trees."

Cam makes an abortive gesture, like he was reaching for his weapon before he remembered that they're currently armed with his pocket knife and not a lot else. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," he says. "Let's hope they decided to take a trip."

Compared the other planets they've been on and off all day, buzzing with people and vehicles and movement, P3S is quiet, even peaceful, what with the breeze in the leaves and the sound of birds that they can't see. It's not a bad way to end the day, even if they don't find anyone. At least there might be evidence of whether or not the expedition come out here in this reality, whether it'll be worth leaving a message, or coming back.

And there are worse things to do than stroll through some nice woods with Cam, who seems content to just walk, rather than trying to restart the conversation from the Genii cell. John's not sure if it's tabled till they get somewhere, or if Cam's waiting for John to bring it up again, which is tantamount to admitting they'll never have it.

Or maybe they'll just do what they did the first time around, fall into bed together and go from there without talking about it. Not that that worked out particularly well the first time.

"I was thinking," Cam says, breaking into John's thoughts. "Maybe we should bring another pair with us after we report in. Two teams instead of one, make it go faster."

John hesitates. On the one hand, it would be faster, and it would get everyone off a planet that they can't stay on long-term. On the other hand, it would leave the others with only two 302s, if they needed to defend themselves, and even if the Wraith are still hibernating, that doesn't mean there aren't any, or that there aren't any other people who might drop by and take offence at the crew being there. "Maybe," he says. "We need a ship, bring everyone to a planet with a gate."

"You have one in your back pocket?" Cam asks. "Because I don't know anyone we'd like to ask for one, other than Atlantis."

"Hmm," John mutters. He can think of three people with ships of the top of his head (the Replicators, the Travelers, and the Ancients) but they're all either not someone he wants to tangle with, just the two of them, out of contact, or both. "We should start asking people about the Travelers," he says. "I don't know which planets they use, but they might have links to Atlantis in this reality as well."

"Travelers?" Cam asks.

"Inter-planetary nomads, they've managed to get a couple of Ancient warships running, and they mostly live on them. In our reality, their leader's got the hots for Dr Weir, that's why she keeps coming around."

"That's useful intel," Cam says, grinning. "That why Dr Weir keeps letting her in too?"

John shrugs. He didn't have much to do with Weir, just got the gossip from Lorne, who got it from Cadman, who had a very active imagination. Though he was in the gate room when Larrin was visiting more than once, and she did sit very close to Weir. "You'd play along if a hot woman in leather was offering you favors in the hope of getting sex," he points out, and Cam freezes, not quite looking at John.

For a brief moment, John thinks Cam's taken it the wrong way, some kind of dig at him, then Cam says, low. "How long has it been this quiet?"

"What?" John asks. Except Cam's not usually given to asking stupid questions, and when he listens, he realizes it really has gone not just quiet, but silent. No birds, no movement amongst the trees. Even the faint breeze seems to have died down.

There's no sign of anything in the trees, which does approximately nothing for the shiver of apprehension down John's spine, or the sudden feeling that he's being watched. He takes a slow, cautious step closer to Cam, looking over Cam's shoulder the way Cam's looking over John's, watching each other's backs. "What do you think?" he asks.

Cam twitches one shoulder in a shrug. "Could just be a change in the weather. Thunder storm coming." They both glance up at the blue sky showing between the trees.

"Or not," John says. "Could be people. Atlantis team."

"Or angry, spear-wielding natives," Cam adds. "And if it is –"

"This would be the perfect moment for one of them to shoot us with a blow-dart," John finishes, remembering a hundred action films set in remote forests.

Nothing happens, and John has to swallow down the urge to laugh when he catches Cam's eye, finds him smiling.

"This is ridiculous," Cam says. "We can't just stand here all day, waiting for something to happen."

"You want to keep going?" John asks, though he suspects he knows the answer already.

Cam, predictably, nods. "At least get out from under these trees, see what's happening."

"After you," John says, turning slightly so they're going in the right direction again, and that's when the giant squirrel-bats drop on them.

John throws his arm up a second too late, if it would even have done any good, and gets knocked to the ground under a heavy, suffocating weight of bright orange fur and leather wings. The thing screeches right in his face, showing off its two rows of sharp teeth, rakes its claws into John's jacket, the knees of his pants.

He reaches for his side-arm, remembers he doesn't have it, and aims a punch at the thing's head instead. It jerks back for a split-second, not long enough for John to do anything about it, then screeches at him again, wraps one wing around John's left arm and tries for his right as well. John fights it, tries to kick, but the thing's bigger than he is, has all the leverage from being on top, and it's all John can do to avoid his right arm being caught as well.

He thinks of Cam for a second, sounds of scuffling over where Cam was standing, but he can't spare the time to check, couldn't do anything even if he did look. The thing screeches at him, knocks his hand away with a swipe of its wing. John expects to feel sharp teeth in his skin, kicks frantically, but the thing doesn't bite, just shifts its weight to hold John down better.

He wonders if this means they're going to be dinner later. He really hopes it means their going to be dinner later, because the alternative that immediately springs to mind when he's pinned down is really not one he wants to contemplate. He scrabbles in the grass for purchase, thinking vague thoughts of rolling them, getting the upper hand. Instead, his fingers brush against something rough and solid, and okay, it's as film cliché as being shot with a drugged dart, but it's what John has.

He fumbles his fingers over the branch, gets the best grip he can, and aims for the thing's head. It's not the solid, knock-out blow he'd have liked, since he can only swing from his pinned down elbow, but he hits it with the thick end of the branch, and it rears away, screech gone even more high pitched.

"Yeah, see how you like that," John says, hitting it again. It's still screeching, one long note of anger, and hopefully pain, not loosening its grip on John at all, but John hardly cares, beating it with his stick even as he feels its claws dig in harder, draw blood –

And then it screams out in what has to be anguish, and goes limp, dropping all of its weight onto John. "Gah," John says intelligently, trying to push it off, but his arms are still trapped. "Cam!"

"Hold on," Cam says, far closer than John was expecting him, then John's the one shouting out, as Cam pulls the thing away, dragging its claws out of John's skin. "What?" Cam says, dropping to his knees in front of John as John scrambles up and away from the carcass of the squirrel-bat. "You okay? You're bleeding."

John touches the cuts, which sting, and looks at Cam. His eyes are wide and shocked, he's already got a bruise forming on his cheek, and his hands are slippery with squirrel-bat blood. He stabbed them, John realizes. Armed with a pocket knife, and a high-pitched laugh escapes him. Adrenaline crash. Cam's frowning now. "I'm fine," John says. "Thanks."

Something screeches in the distance, and they both freeze, looking in that direction. "Try again in the morning?" Cam asks, already half on his feet, reaching out to pull John up with him.

"Hell, yes," John says.

They make it to the gate in half the time it took them to leave it, stumble through to Athos out of breath. "Okay?" Cam asks as the gate shuts down.

"Yeah," John says. He can feel the blood running down his arms and legs from the thing's claws, and it's streaking his hands in weird patterns, pooling around his fingernails.

"Hey," Cam says. He's very close, catches John's hand in both of his, somehow free of squirrel-bat blood, and turning it over to look for scratches. "You sure you're okay? You don't feel weird? Light-headed?"

John's pretty sure it's not some sort of squirrel-bat poison making him feel weird and light-headed, but he's not quite ready to say that to Cam. "I'm fine," he says firmly, gently freeing his hand from Cam's and starting towards the Athosian camp. "Nothing a couple of band-aids won't fix."

Cam hesitates, then catches up to John, walking closer than he was on P3S, like he's worried John's going to pass out. John's more worried about the bruise on Cam's cheek, whether he hit his head.

Even more so when Cam laughs out of nowhere.

"What?" John asks.

"Attacked by alien squirrel-bats," Cam says, grinning. "You couldn't make this stuff up."

"Welcome to life at the SGC," John says, same as he did to Sobel. "It can only get worse from here."

hr

That certainly seems to be true when he wakes up in the morning to a gun in his face and a man's voice saying, "What are you doing here?"

John fumbles for his side-arm, remembers he doesn't have it any more, and drops back into his best impression of ‘submissive and harmless,' which isn't difficult when he's only half-awake, the adrenaline rush already abating. He wants to look for Cam, but maybe Cam got away.

He looks up beyond the gun, instead. The sun's behind his captor, silhouetting someone tall and built, dreadlocked hair, and John says, "Ronon?"

The gun nudges close enough to press against his skin. Not a gun, a blaster, Ronon's blaster. John's glad he's lying down, suddenly weak-kneed with relief. "Who are you?" Ronon asks.

"I'm – look, I'm harmless, I'm not even armed, can I at least sit up?" John tries his most winning smile, though the sun's too bright to see Ronon's face and gauge his reaction. "You can keep the gun on me."

Ronon nods, lifts it away by an inch or two, enough for John to push himself upright. He doesn't risk leaning against the tent wall. There's no sign of Cam.

Ronon stays looming over him, shifting just enough for John to see his face. He doesn't look much different to the Ronon John met on his own Atlantis, which John hopes means he got rescued from being a Runner, same as John's Ronon.

"Who are you, what are you doing here?" Ronon says again.

John takes a second to hope that, if Ronon's involved with the Athosians and not a Runner, he's also involved with Atlantis and therefore likely to believe their story. He can practically hear Cam saying because it worked so well with the Genii but Cam's not here, and John's not planning to lie this time.

"You're Ronon Dex. You were a specialist on Sateda until the Wraith came, captured you and made you a Runner," he says, laying it all out there. Ronon doesn't even twitch, and John remembers that, how well trained his Ronon was, more than any of Atlantis' marines, even though he wasn't a soldier any more, lived at the Satedan settlement and freelanced for Atlantis. "I know because I've met another you, in another reality, the one I come from. I was on a ship, traveling through alternate realities, and we couldn't go back. We ended up here, and we're trying to get back to Earth. We need to find Atlantis."

"We?" Ronon asks. His gun still hasn't moved away.

John lays his open hands on his knees. "The guy I'm here with. We're Air Force officers on Earth. Colonel Cameron Mitchell, and I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."

"What are you doing here?" Ronon asks again.

"On Athos?" John asks, getting a barely perceptible nod in response. "We were hoping to find Teyla and the Athosians. When they weren't here, we thought they might not mind us camping out here. The rest of our people are on another planet, one without a gate."

"Where's your friend?" Ronon asks.

John looks around again, but there's no sign that Cam was ever there. He reaches for his radio earpiece automatically, then remembers taking it off when they changed out of their uniforms, and putting it in the bag that the Genii now have. "I don't know. He wasn't here when you got here?"

"No," Ronon says. "Why should I believe you? You could be spies."

"We're not," John says redundantly, trying not to worry about Cam. He's an adult; he's capable of taking care of himself. "We've got the gate address, where they used to be. We've got equipment from Earth." Ronon's expression doesn't change, and John grasps for something else. "If you know the Atlantis expedition, you probably know things about Earth that most people in Pegasus don't. Ask me something."

"Or I could just tie you up and leave you here," Ronon says.

"Yeah, but you won't," John says, risking another smile. He can't believe he forgot the Satedan settlement when they were figuring out where to try. Cam's never going to let him hear the end of it, even if, in his defense, it's not listed in the handheld. He still remembers the address. "Or you would have done it while I was sleeping."

Ronon just looks at him for a long moment, then slowly lowers his gun, though he doesn't put it away. "You wear the same boots they do," he says grudgingly.

"Okay," John says. "Maybe I can stand up now? I need coffee."

"You don't have any water," Ronon says, but he takes a step back, enough for John to get to his feet.

"Perfect timing," Cam's voice says. When John turns, he's just walking into the center of the village, hair still damp, shading his eyes from the sun and carrying a battered looking saucepan that John knows doesn't belong to them. "You're stepping out on me already, Sheppard?"

John rolls his eyes. "Awesome job of keeping watch," he says, gesturing to Ronon's gun, still in his hand. "You're lucky he's not Genii."

"Genii?" Ronon says, at the same time as Cam asks, "He's not?"

"Ronon Dex, from Sateda. I knew him in our universe, a bit," John tells Cam. "He's okay." Cam looks dubious, but nods and starts shuffling through their remaining MREs, presumably for something that might be vaguely like breakfast.

"You know the Genii?" John asks Ronon, sitting cross-legged by Cam. After a moment, Ronon joins them.

"You have a run-in with them?" Ronon asks, looking amused at the prospect. John's not sure why – he looked for them in the handheld the night before, and found nothing.

"You could put it like that," Cam says, shaking his head at John. "You know them?"

"Some," Ronon agrees. "They're allies of Athos, and Atlantis, sort of."

"And the farming thing?" John pushes.

Ronon gives him an innocent look. "They farm."

Cam laughs when John glares, then, when John turns the glare on him, hands over pouches of MRE instant coffee to him and Ronon. Ronon tips his up immediately, one more sign that he knows the Atlantis expedition well. John wants to ask how, if anything's different here to how it is in their universe, but Ronon's not the most willing person to give up his secrets. "Are the Athosians okay?" he asks instead.

Ronon looks around at the tents. "They got a better offer," he says.

"Okay," John says slowly, trying to guess what that might mean. "But they're okay? Teyla's okay?"

Ronon transfers his gaze to John, impenetrable as ever. "Yes. They're well."

Something tight and worried in John eases. "Good. That's good."

Cam drains the last of his coffee with a grimace. "So I guess John told you what we're doing here." He waits for Ronon to nod. "Can you take us to Atlantis?"

"No," Ronon says.

"Just like that?" John asks, hurt. "I thought you believed me."

"I said you wore Earth boots," Ronon corrects. "That's not the same thing as trusting you."

It doesn't escape John's notice that Ronon said ‘trusting' not ‘believing.' He hopes it means Ronon does believe him; trust, they can work on. "Dial the city," he says. "Ask them to send a team to check us out."

Ronon hesitates, but shakes his head again. "Just because you look like you come from Earth, it doesn't mean you do. You could be trying to trick them." His eyes flicker away, just for a second, enough for John to get that, if they were, they wouldn't be the first. He knows just how risky bringing strange people through the gate can be, what it can cost.

"Please," he says. "We're stranded, we just want to go home." He regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth, knowing Ronon won't ever be able to go home for real.

"They're my friends," Ronon says, tiny thread of longing leaking through. John doesn't know him well enough to say for sure, but he wonders if Ronon maybe trusts them a little more than he's letting on, just because they have the same boots as the expedition wears, because they look like the people he does trust.

"We're not asking you to put them at risk," Cam says. "Ask them to dial Earth and verify if we exist as who we say we are there."

John shifts, uncomfortable at the suggestion – what if they're dead in this universe, or criminals, or never existed? He's pretty sure Ronon wouldn't hesitate to shoot them if he thought they were lying.

"I don't know," Ronon says.

"Look," John offers, feeling like their best chance is slipping through their fingers. "Our people are expecting us to report in, day after tomorrow. They don't have anything, no food, no shelter. Take us to the settlement, we'll trade labor for food. That's all. You can think about Atlantis some more."

"The settlement?" Ronon asks, frowning. From the corner of his eye, John can see Cam's matching expression.

"The Satedan settlement," John clarifies. He wonders if he's used the wrong word, insulted or confused Ronon somehow.

"Is that supposed to be funny?" Ronon asks, hand tightening on his gun.

"No," John says immediately. "No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you. The colony, the town. Where the Satedan refugees went after the war."

"What refugees?" Ronon asks. "Sateda was destroyed, no-one survived."

"No," John says again, but quiet this time. He's not good at this, not ready to make this kind of revelation, and what if it's different here? "In our universe, a group survived. I don't know how you found them, but you were living with them."

"You're lying," Ronon says. John half-expects the gun in his face again, but it doesn't come. Ronon just looks stunned.

"I'm not," John says. "Why would I lie about that?"

"To get me to give you Atlantis' gate address," Ronon says. "I give you that, you tell me where they are."

"No. I wouldn't – I know you don't know me, but I wouldn't do that."

"To trap me, then."

"No," John says again. His hands are shaking, and he doesn't know why. He wonders if this is how they'll end up, if they can't go home, not trusting anyone. Even then, they'll still have each other. "I swear, I'm not lying. Here." He grabs a nearby twig, and starts scratching the symbols in a patch of dry mud. "That's where they are in our universe."

"I don't believe you," Ronon says, even as he belies his own words by reaching out to touch the last symbol.

"We'll go with you," Cam says quietly. He's watching Ronon intently. "If we're lying, you can do whatever you want with us. If we're telling the truth, dial Atlantis and ask them to send someone to check on us."

"You're not lying?" Ronon asks. He sounds young and broken, like he doesn't dare to hope.

"We're not lying," John says.

Ronon looks down at the symbols for a long time in silence, then nods. "Okay."

hr

He's like a soldier, mission focused, right up until Cam steps through the gate and Ronon's about to. John's behind him, just sees Ronon's back go even more tense than it was.

"I swear I'm not lying to you," he says softly. "On my life, and Cam's, I swear I'm not lying."

"Okay," Ronon says again, and steps through.

hr

The reunion's exactly like John was expecting it to be, shouting and crying and hugging, fifty people trying to ask questions and get them answered at once, Ronon swinging a laughing, dark-haired woman around in his arms, then two men his own age.

All John can think of, watching him fall back in with his people, is when he was thirty-one, walking up to his base after he went down a week's walk from there and everyone thought he was dead. None of the people who were there to welcome him back are alive any more, and he wants this again, wants to walk through the gate with the Daedalus crew to their own reality, where they're supposed to be, and be welcomed home.

"I gotta," he says to Cam, backing away towards the line of trees at the edge of the settlement almost blindly.

"Hey," Cam says, following him, then again, when they duck under the shade of the trees, one hand light on John's shoulder. "Hey, come on, this is a good thing. You did a good thing."

John nods. He did – they did. Except what about all the universes where Ronon didn't get rescued, or didn't find his people? The ones where the expedition woke the Wraith, or found something worse, where they walked into a city they couldn't raise. Where the Daedalus went after them and there was no-one there, or no-one on Earth to go for them.

He half-turns, reaching for Cam, just wanting, grabs a fistful of his Pegasus shirt and hauls him in, kisses him awkward and intense. He feels Cam's arm go round his waist, holding him close, his other hand settling at the back of John's neck to angle his head better for the kiss.

When they part, John's shaking with something he doesn't have a name for. He can't seem to let go of Cam's shirt, rests his head on Cam's shoulder instead.

He wonders if there are universes where they were always together, or never together, where McKay went on the mission instead of John, and John stayed behind to fret and worry and think Cam had died, unable to do a damn thing about it. He doesn't want that. More than he doesn't want to lose his job, doesn't want to be discharged in disgrace, he doesn't want to be left behind, not knowing.

"Sorry," he says against Cam's shirt.

"Me, too," Cam says. The hand on the back of John's neck slides down to rub his back, and John relaxes a little.

"If we get home," John says, then changes it to, "When we get home, if you take the reassignment…" He doesn't know how to finish that, doesn't know what he wants to ask for, or offer. "The SGC would keep me as a mathematician," he says suddenly. "I know you're a pilot, but maybe…"

Cam tilts John's head so they can kiss again, softer this time. "Maybe they'd keep me as a civilian trainer," he says when they part this time. "If it came to that."

John nods, feeling light and shaky with relief. He feels like he could do anything right now – point him at a ship, and he could wire a new alternate reality drive with his own hands and a screwdriver.

He wonders what Landry will say when he finds out that John's story from this mission won't be to his grandchildren, about traveling to other realities, but to his closest friends, the ones he really trusts, about going all the way to another reality to figure out what he already had.

He hears footfalls right before Ronon clears his throat and says, voice bright with amusement and happiness, "If you two are finished having your deep moment, I thought I might try dialing Atlantis for you."

John laughs against Cam's shoulder even as they step apart. Ronon looks years younger, and he's grinning like he can't help it. John wants to put that look on Cam's face – on Sobel's and Woolsey's and Novak's, Cam's pilots and Sobel's crew and his own fellow scientists.

"Yeah," he says. "That sounds good."


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