blue flamingos

Coming Up For Air


Category/Rated: Slash/NC17

Year/Length: 2011/11,328 words

Pairing: John Sheppard/Cam Mitchell (background Teyla/Kanaan, Ronon/Amelia and past Rodney/Jennifer


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

Warning: Potential for character death, implications of depression

Summary: Cam goes missing somewhere between Earth and another planet, and for John, this turns out to be his breaking point

Series: dysfunction verse

Author's Notes: Companion piece to No Other Place I Can Surface.

Beta: by the awesome team of broms_lullaby, tesserae and rinkatur

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



John blinked, a little surprised to find himself sitting on a balcony with his laptop on his knees, the screensaver streaming stars at him. "Hey."

Rodney frowned down at him for a moment, then shrugged it off. "What are you doing out here?"

"Working." John nudged the touchpad, pleased to see that he really did have a personnel report form open. Shame he couldn't remember who he was supposed to be filling it in for. "How did you find me?"

"Accidentally, mostly." Rodney crossed his arms, leaning in the open doorway. Probably afraid to come out into the sun without his SPF50; the sun index on their newest planet was higher than either of the old ones, which Rodney still complained about even six months after they'd arrived. "We've been picking up an intermittent energy drain near here, I finally got time to come and check it out."

"You want me to come with?" John asked, one hand already on the lid of his laptop when Rodney shook his head.

"I'm on my way back. It wasn't anything interesting- nothing for you to shoot, Colonel."

"Right." John slumped back against the balcony rail, forcing a smile.

Rodney shuffled his feet on the edge of John's vision, then cleared his throat. "I was wondering if- maybe you'd like to come to movie night tonight?"

"What are they showing?"

"I don't know, some film that came in the last databurst. Something about goats, I think- honestly, I wasn't really paying attention."

That made more sense. "Dr Harrison still doesn't know you're trying to date her?" John's voice sounded weird to his own ears, and it probably wasn't helping that he couldn't look Rodney in the face. He barely ever made it to movie night these days; hadn't since the night he'd been the seventh wheel to his team, an unpleasantly sharp reminder of how things were going to be now.

"She knows I'm trying to date her, but she keeps saying she wants to be friends. I figured if you were there as well, that makes it seem more like friends."

"Tempting as it sounds to be the third wheel on your sort of date..."

Rodney shifted his weight again. "Teyla's friend from the mainland is here, you could bring her."

John closed his eyes, just for a second. "I'm still not interested in her."

"Well, come on, you'll never meet anyone if you keep acting like that. She likes you, she'd probably be flattered."

John took a breath, torn between pointing out that, unlike Rodney, he wasn't trying to date someone mere weeks after his fiancÈ broke it off, and shouting that he did have someone, just not someone he was lucky enough to live in the same city as, or even the same galaxy.

Trouble was, he could imagine all the things Rodney would say to that- starting with, since when are you gay?- and the idea of dealing with all of it just made him feel impossibly tired. Too tired to balance out how nice it would be to have Rodney stop trying to set him up with every woman he ever talked to.

"Thanks, but I'm busy."

"With what?"

John was pretty sure he could blame the disbelief in Rodney's voice for his response, if he wanted to. Not that he would. "I'm giving Jennifer a chess lesson." He gave Rodney his smuggest smile, letting Rodney make whatever he wanted from that. "So if there's nothing else I can help you with, I've got paperwork to finish."

"I- no." Rodney's voice was sharp and hurt, the way John hated, but he wasn't taking it back. He wasn't. "I'll see you in the briefing tomorrow."

"Have a good evening," John said brightly, watching him go.

He'd done the same, not long after they'd gotten to Earth, watching Rodney leave with Jennifer for a few days, Ronon already gone with Amelia, leaving him behind with Teyla, who just wanted to talk about Torren and Kanaan. Not that he begrudged her that- God, of course not, being away from her baby and not knowing when she'd make it back- but it was worse, somehow, than it had ever been in Pegasus, watching her draw closer to her family.

He was pretty sure he could blame all that for how he'd said yes to O'Neill, even knowing that something wasn't right. Not that he'd expected it to be anything like as bad as it had been, anything like as obvious that he was a glorified toy, there for him and Jackson to get off in, not to be with.

He should have known better than to think anything good would come of lonely hook-ups; it never had before, even if it had also never been as hard to pull himself out of the downward spiral as it was this time.

The next time he focused on the computer screen, the screensaver was swirling past again, and he still didn't know who he was supposed to be reporting on.


John was pretty much ready to pack it in when his laptop pinged an email announcement, then twice more before he could click through. He couldn't help smiling- that many emails in a row always meant the weekly databurst had come in.

The first half dozen, as usual, were forwards from Sergeant Harriman, Lorne and Teldy copied in since they were military business. An email from Dave, a couple of what were probably forwarded jokes from ex-Atlantis marines, direct emails from Landry and/or the IOA, a reminder that the annual bill for his storage locker was due, a few All-Officer emails from the SGC which would undoubtedly be totally irrelevant.

John kept watching as the stream slowed to a trickle and stopped.

He hit refresh a couple of times. Nothing.


"Check," Jennifer said, a little uncertainly, and John blinked back to the chess board between them on a table in the mess.

She was right, and probably on her way to mate as well. "Nice job."

She smiled, but it faded into a frown after a moment, making John want to look away. Making him wish there were other people about, because Jennifer never tried to talk about anything she shouldn't with people around. "Are you all right?"


"I don't think I've gotten that much better in the last couple of weeks. So either you're letting me win to be nice to me, or you're not paying attention, and you've never let me win before."

John could have lied. He wanted to lie, but Jennifer was the only person in Pegasus he'd managed to tell even a bit of the truth to, even if it was just that he couldn't sleep. That he missed Cam far more than was reasonable, and being in Atlantis was starting to hurt in a way that felt familiar from a year in Antarctica, the weight of losing his two closest friends and the best person to have happened to him since Nancy, dragging him down.

He turned his remaining rook between his finger and thumb, focusing on the board so he wouldn't have to look at her face. "Did you check your emails today?" He saw her nod on the edge of his vision. "Was there anything about SG1?"

It had gotten to be a code, kind of, after they'd come back to Pegasus, the only safe way John had to talk about the person he missed so much it physically hurt some days.

"Nothing. You didn't hear from them?" Jennifer's voice dropped low and concerned, and John shivered under it. Someone walking over your grave his grandmother used to say. He shook his head. "They're probably just delayed."

John nodded, wishing he believed her. Wishing she sounded like she believed herself, but it was only a month since Lorne had been badly injured during what should have been a routine off-world mission, not long enough for the kind of blind confidence required to believe everything was fine when SG1 went silent unexpectedly.

"Medical's got a dial-in tomorrow for a consult," Jennifer said, her voice still soft. "I can ask Carolyn if she knows what's going on."

John nodded, which was about as close as he could get to acknowledging what they both knew was going on- neither of them ever said Cam's name, the same way neither of them ever mentioned Rodney and the break-up.

It worked, kind of, if John didn't let himself think too hard about the people he really wanted to know this about him, and how they didn't. How much he missed Teyla's verbal prompting to talk to her, Ronon's sparring-and-beer style of emotional bonding, Rodney's presence.

He was sure, most of the time, that he'd heard Cam berating Rodney over the phone, the first night he'd slept at Cam's, telling Rodney that they needed to do a better job of looking out for John. There was a part of him that wanted it to be true, up against two parts that didn't: the part that found it humiliating to be talked about like a child, and the part that wanted to believe he'd dreamed it because if he had dreamed it then it didn't mean anything that nothing had changed.

"John?" Jennifer said quietly.

John tipped his king over, conceding defeat. "I have to go."

And that was another thing that wasn't right here, the way Jennifer leaned away from him and said, "Okay," let him go.

The corridors were quiet, most people probably watching the movie or still working, and no-one stopped John on his way back to his quarters. It was early, but he was tired enough that he thought he might sleep without any of the pills Jennifer gave him, and thankful for it. The last thing he needed was to be trapped asleep while he dreamed all the paranoid thoughts that had been spinning since there hadn't been an email from Cam in the data-burst.

It worked, sort of: John woke up at a little after five in the morning, before the sun was even coming up, but he'd slept without dreams for the few hours he had been asleep. When he finally gave up on sleeping any more just after six and went down to the mess, he only meant to pick up some coffee for the office, expecting the place to be empty.

Instead, he found Teyla sitting at a table in the corner, Torren curled on her knee. She smiled at him when he went over, and murmured, "Thank you," when he placed a fresh mug of tea in front of her.

"You're not usually here so early." He hesitated, one hand on the back of a chair, torn between wanting to sit and wanting to go. Teyla gave him a slight frown, her head tipped back, and nudged the chair out with her foot, making the decision for him.

"Torren did not want to sleep further, and Kanaan's sister is staying with us this week."

"You know we've got a whole city full of spare rooms, she could have one of them."

"Yes. But Kayla is used to sleeping with others. She finds it difficult to sleep alone."

"Right." John looked down at his coffee, overtaken for a moment by the memory of how good it had felt to wake in the middle of the night and have Cam right there, living, breathing proof that he was okay and hadn't died. Atlantis wasn't the same. "Of course."

"John?" Teyla reached for his hand, but stopped at the last moment. "Are you well?"

"Just tired."

"You have said that often lately." Teyla's voice went soft, full of concern. "You know that I am always here, if there is something you want to say. Or not say."

Not say was right. Even if he wanted to talk to her, he didn't have any idea how he'd start, or where. Some days it felt like it would have to be with Holland dying. Some days it felt more like it would start with when he was a captain, coming back from a mission to hear that his mom was dead.

Or maybe it was just that those things were easier to talk about than anything more recent.

"Thanks." John took a too-hot gulp of coffee and stood up. "Too much time sitting still. It'll be better when we go out again."

"On Wednesday." Teyla nodded. "I shall look forward to it."

"Me, too."


John's email pinged just after two in the afternoon, a short message from Jennifer: Are you busy? I have something I need to talk over with you.

It could only be about one thing, and John wanted to believe it was good news, except that, if it was, why wouldn't she have said? Vague messages, in his experience, never meant anything good.

He double-checked the shared calendar: Teldy was out with her team, not due back for a couple of hours, and Lorne was holding their version of office hours for another forty-five minutes in his and Teldy's office. No putting it off, in that case.

In my office.

Jennifer arrived barely ten minutes later, her face perfectly composed in the neutral doctor's mask that John had gotten far too used to seeing in the infirmary lately. She hesitated in the open doorway, glancing both ways up the corridor, until John said, "You want to sit down?"

Jennifer nodded, too fast. She got halfway across the room, then turned and went back to touch the sensor, closing the door. "Sorry," she said, perching on the edge of one of the visitors' chairs. "I don't usually come down here. Well, to your office, anyway. Um."

"It's fine." John went to pick up a pen on the edge of the desk, but stopped himself. Jennifer was nervous enough for both of them. "Did you get your consultation?"

"It wasn't for us, they wanted our advice." Jennifer looked down at her hands, and John couldn't bear the waiting any more.

"Is he dead?" he asked, his voice coming out far more frightened that he'd meant it to.

Jennifer looked back up, her face still expressionless. "They don't know. He went through the gate, he was supposed to be going to one of the Jaffa planets to see Teal'c but he never arrived. Dr Lee's leading the team working on figuring it out, until Colonel Carter's back in range to dial in from here next week. If they haven't found him by then."

"Do they-" John's throat closed up around the words, the memory of waking up to a sand-covered wasteland and thinking he was never going to get home. That couldn't have happened to Cam as well, it couldn't. Except that this was the SGC and of course if it could happen, it would.

"Carolyn said they have no idea what happened. That, um, they're still trying to figure it out, but it's only been a few days."

"Right." John's hand had closed on the pen at some point, without him noticing, because he was gripping it hard, his knuckles white. A few days. It hadn't taken them- okay, it had taken Rodney decades to bring him back after he went missing into the future, but not to figure out what had happened to him. That had to be-

"John," Jennifer said, sudden and sharp. John blinked, surprised to find her standing so close, one hand raised like she was reaching for him. "You've gone- he's probably fine. He's probably sitting on some beach planet waiting for them to rescue him."

"Without his pants." The words sounded very far away, and John couldn't remember why they mattered. He thought they were supposed to be funny.

"I think maybe you should lie down." Jennifer's hand landed on John's shoulder and that helped. Reminded him where he was and what he was doing there.

He took a couple of deep breaths, feeling the weightlessness recede. "I'm all right." He forced his head up to meet her concerned gaze. "Really."

He was already starting to feel the creeping edges of humiliation for over-reacting. It wasn't even like he knew Cam all that well, not really. Not compared to Elizabeth or Carson or Ford, and Cam wasn't even definitely dead. Jennifer could be right, he could be fine.

Even in his head, the words sounded hollow; false reassurance.


John didn't remember what he dreamed about, only that he woke up drenched in sweat, his heart pounding with fear that made it impossible to lie in bed. He got up, turned the lights as high as they'd go, checking the empty spaces and the shadows, not even sure what he was looking for. Whatever it was, it wasn't there, but that didn't do anything for the adrenaline rushing through his veins.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to take a few deep breaths and calm down. A moment later, he was on his feet again, pacing from one side of the room to the other. Cam was missing. Stepped through the gate and just- gone.

Those first few months back, he'd bargained with himself every morning: when all the Wraith are gone, you can go home and home had been Cam's apartment when it used to be Atlantis. It had been enough, just about, on the days when nothing major went wrong, and on the days that something did, it wasn't like he'd had a choice. Military commander of the city, not going wasn't ever an option.

If Rodney hadn't saved you, maybe this wouldn't have happened.

John froze, trying to push the thought back out again, but it held on with claws and teeth, didn't want to let go even though it didn't make any sense, the two weren't connected at all and- He grabbed for his boots and fleece and almost threw himself out of his quarters, into the dimly lit corridor.

He didn't think about where he was going, not until he found himself in front of Ronon's door, hand reaching for the chime.

Atlantis had enough sound-proofing that John couldn't hear anything before the door slid open. Ronon was pulling his shirt over his head, his blaster already strapped to his thigh, eyes dark with adrenaline.

"Oh," John said stupidly. "Sorry, um-"

Before he could finish the sentence, Banks appeared behind Ronon, perfectly ready for duty except for her hair, loose around her shoulders. "Colonel Sheppard," she said, polite and efficient.

John looked away, feeling his face heat, and Ronon laughed, soft. "Social call," he said. "Go back to bed."

John nodded, still not quite ready to look at Banks. He had no idea what time it was; he was going to just believe that they'd been sleeping. It seemed like the safer option.

The door slid closed again, leaving him and Ronon in the corridor. "Sorry," John said again. "You should go back to bed."

He watched Ronon shrug on the edge of his vision. "Awake now. What's up?"

John's residual fear from the dream amped back up again at the question, almost enough to make him tell Ronon about Cam. He'd gotten closer to coming out to Ronon than he had to anyone else in Atlantis, asking if Ronon had a girlfriend or a boyfriend in the city, wondering if Ronon would ask him in return, what he'd say. The problem was, as close as he and Ronon were, some things just didn't translate well across the culture gap, and he still had no clue if Ronon had figured him out or not.

"It's nothing. Sorry I interrupted your evening."

Ronon's hand on his arm stopped him from turning away. "John." And God, John hated that voice, the one that said Ronon was onto him and wouldn't let him get away with anything, the way even Teyla still did sometimes.

The thing was, though, that he'd been waiting weeks, months for that, for someone to pin him down and ask him what was wrong, force him to tell what he didn't want to but knew he should. And now he had it, but he still couldn't tell, because there were some things he and Ronon just didn't talk about. John's disastrous hook-up with O'Neill and Jackson being right up there at the top of the list.

He pulled away, a little surprised when Ronon released him, and forced himself to look into Ronon's eyes, far more compassionate than John deserved. "I have to go."

Ronon held his gaze for a long moment, until John wanted to blink, look away. His nod felt like a string being cut, so much that John half-expected his knees to give out, for him to end up on the floor. "Sleep well," Ronon said. "Run in the morning?"

John shook his head, knowing he shouldn't, knowing he should say yes.

Ronon didn't argue.


Teldy was in her and Lorne's shared office when John got to his the next morning, and she looked up with a nod and a, "Sir," and no comment on the time, for which John was grateful. He'd woken up at 0630, like he would if he was running with Ronon, and been unable to go back to sleep, reaching out for his radio half a dozen times but never actually picking it up.

He'd just about got his laptop switched on when Teldy tapped at his door and came in, her data-pad in one hand, a coffee mug in the other. "Looked like you could use it, sir."

John waved her into a seat, taking a grateful swallow, his eyes gritty with tiredness. "You've got... stuff?"

Teldy twitched like she wanted to roll her eyes but didn't feel right doing it in the office; at least, that was the only explanation John had ever come up with, since she got pretty damn close to outright calling him an idiot in the field some days. "Report from office hours, next week's mission schedule, or fourteen personnel reports, sixteen mission reports, and five re-supply requests to sign off on?"

Just the thought of it made John feel exhausted. "None of the above?"

"This test doesn't have that option, sir."

"Get Lorne to teach you how to forge my signature," John suggested.

"He has." Teldy tapped at her screen. "How about we start small, sir, with re-supply requests?"

Teldy, like Lorne, seemed pretty happy to talk through the various things he had to sign off on while he gave it about fifty percent of his attention, scribbling his signature on his own datapad as Teldy sent the files across.

Or maybe this way of working had been Teldy's from the start. John definitely remembered Lorne making pointed comments when he felt like John wasn't giving enough attention to something, not to mention refusing to do some of the paperwork that he and Teldy now did.

"Colonel Sheppard, sir?" Teldy was frowning, her stylus hovering over her datapad, and when John looked down at his own, there were seven files waiting for him to accept them.

"Sorry." He tapped accept all, and tried to focus. "Go through that again for me, will you?"

"Of course, sir," Teldy said, unusually patient. John figured, yeah, she was responsible for the way his workload had shifted lately, gotten more structured and slid into the hands of his two XOs. He just didn't want to think too hard about why that had happened.


Wednesday morning, John got down to the mess a little past his normal time, only to find Teyla and Ronon sitting at what had been the team's table, with Kanaan and Banks.

"John, please, join us," Teyla said, catching sight of him hovering in the doorway to the balcony, oatmeal in one hand, coffee in the other.

She and Kanaan were holding hands. Banks, who'd had her back to John, turned enough that he could see she had Torren on her knee, and it hit him all over again, that Cam was gone, that this was it and he was going to be the spare wheel for good, now, always being invited to join an existing unit, rather than making the invitation.

"I- paperwork." He forced a smile that didn't feel right at all. "See you in the gate room later."

He abandoned his oatmeal at the cleaning station on his way out of the door, the look of it making him nauseous, and then his coffee before he made it all the way down the corridor. He meant to go to his office, or back to his quarters- anywhere that he could be reasonably sure there wouldn't be people- but he ended up on a random balcony instead, staring out at the empty ocean.

He remembered looking out at the bridge, back on Earth. That first day, when he'd gone out to join the team and found they didn't need him. The last day, before he'd been called down to the chair room to fly the city away. Knowing that Cam was going to be there, waiting, next time John could get leave, and it had only been a few days, but it had felt like the start of something. Something he'd probably started relying on too hard, but there wasn't anything else. Just Cam, and Atlantis.

And now just Atlantis.

He wondered if it was going to be enough.


P3X 519 was clearly in the middle of summer when they stepped through the gate, everything lush and green, the sun bright and hot on the back of John's neck. Rodney immediately dug in his pack for his sun screen.

"Wonderful. Of course you'd bring us to some kind of tropical paradise. I'm probably allergic to half of the plants so gloriously blooming around us, you'd have been better off bringing a botanist. What's the name of that female one you like? The one you went off to the mainland with when the Sekari made us see things?"

Even those two scientists you came with put up more of a fight before we killed them...Just another two you couldn't save, the hallucinatory Kolya said in John's head, as clear as it had been on the mainland, right before he'd hacked off John's hand.

John shook his head, curling his hands tight around his P90 so he wouldn't rub at the phantom pain of the hallucination. "Any energy signatures?"

Rodney switched out the sun screen for his scanner and pointed. "Looks like a number of generators of some kind. Probably a settlement."

They fell into their usual positions, John and Rodney taking point while Teyla and Ronon covered the team's six. Rodney started up with the chatter as soon as they were moving. "I've been meaning to say thank you to you. For deciding not to come to movie night the other evening. Dr Harrison and I actually had a very pleasant evening. She even went so far as to suggest that perhaps she and I could go on a date together in the not too distant future."

"Great." John checked the trees growing alongside the path again, trying not to listen too hard to Rodney, so he wouldn't feel compelled to say anything that would sound like him defending Jennifer, since Rodney had stormed off in a sulk twice when John brought her name up after the break-up. It was sort of funny, the way Rodney swung between thinking John was trying to date Jennifer, and thinking that John was unfairly taking Jennifer's side when she'd been the one to end things with Rodney, for reasons that John still wasn't really clear on. Of course, the bitter way Rodney refused to believe John's claims that he and Jennifer were just friendly made it a lot less amusing.

"I really think she could be the one," Rodney added.

John nodded, tuning out as Rodney started extolling Harrison's virtues again. Not that he begrudged Rodney whatever attempt he chose to make at happiness. It was just that part of him wanted to turn around and snap that, hey, at least Rodney's partner wasn't missing. At least Rodney got to have someone, without it ending in divorce or death or disaster.

Something moved in the trees, Ronon said, "Sheppard," urgently, but it was too late- they were surrounded, men and women armed with what looked like eighteenth century revolvers, emerging from the trees like ghosts.

Teyla and Ronon closed up the gap between them fast, Ronon's blaster whirring to life, John's P-90 coming up ready to fire almost without his thought.

"Great," Rodney grumbled in what he probably thought was a quiet voice. "Trespassed on an ancient site of religious significance? Prisoner colony? Nazi-farmers out to take over the galaxy?"

"Shut up," Ronon said.

"Where do you come from?" one of the women asked, stepping forward.

"We are peaceful explorers," Teyla started. "We came through the Ring of the Ancestors, we are interested in trading with your people."

That sparked the kind of sniggering that didn't usually mean they'd run into the town guards. Wonderful.

"We don't wish to trade."

"Great," Rodney said brightly. "Sorry to have troubled you, and we'll just head back the way we came-"

"We take what we want," the woman continued. Her smile twisted strangely, and John noticed the scar half-hidden by her hair falling over her face. It looked like a knife wound. "And right now, we want your weapons."

"Not going to happen," Ronon said.

"You're out-numbered, two to one, and surrounded. Do you really expect to be able to run?"

"Perhaps we could come to an agreement that does not require bloodshed." Teyla shifted her weight as she spoke, pressing closer to John. A moment later, he saw Ronon do the same to Rodney.

"We've got no problem with bloodshed," the woman assured them.

The sound of her revolver cocking was loud even before it echoed around the people surrounding them. Ronon's gun fired, him and Rodney both breaking for the tree line. Teyla swung her P90 in a half-circle, spraying fire over the heads of their attackers as she started to duck away. John knew he had his own weapon aimed, ready to fire, automatic like he'd been trained, one of their attackers in his sight lines, revolver pointing right at John. He could see what was going to happen, crystal clear, and yet -

Teyla called his name at the same moment as the revolver cocked. He felt her hand on his arm, pulling, heard their attackers start to return fire.

The bullet caught him high on his left arm, spinning him away from the line of fire. He stumbled, caught his balance, Teyla pulling him for real, and then they broke through the tree line, into the shade. Teyla pushed him down, her hands fast and hard as they closed his palm around the wound, and her eyes were sharp as she said, "Stay here."

His arm hurt. Blood was seeping through his fingers already, and he thought he should get up, help Teyla return fire. It sounded like a lot of shots were being exchanged, though the other side was carrying single shot revolvers. That probably gave his team the advantage, even without him. They didn't need him.

The world was going a little gray around the edges, the noise sounding far away. John dug a fingernail into the skin of his wounded arm, trying not to pass out. Team leaders didn't pass out in the middle of gun fights, and anyway, no-one on his team passed out from being shot in the arm. Not even when he shot them, not even- for a second, he was sure he could hear Holland's voice, words slurring as he passed out for the final time- he had to stay awake, he had to.

"Ronon? Rodney?" Teyla's voice sounded closer than the gun fire had, though she wasn't talking to him, John was sure. "Are you all right?"

"We're good," Rodney called back. "You?"

"I am fine, but John is injured. We should leave before they return with more of their group."

John wasn't surprised to see Teyla kneeling in front of him- her voice had gotten closer as she'd spoken, and there she was, reaching into her vest for a bandage, smiling at him. "It is not a serious wound. I'm certain Dr Keller will have you back at work in only a few days."

John knew exactly what he was supposed to say there- a complaint about the time off he'd get for an injury, a joke about it being their first mission in a while and it didn't even take an hour- but he thought about... Well, all right, he'd be on desk duty after the first day or so, and it wouldn't be so different from normal life, but the thought of a couple of days. Of having a legitimate excuse to stay in his quarters and not force his thoughts away from Cam and what could have happened to him.

"John, do you think you can stand?"

John's head spun a little as Ronon and Teyla helped him up- blood loss, probably- but he made it. "I'm okay."


Teyla, when Jennifer asked how John had been injured, said that it had been a lucky shot as they were taking cover, and John didn't think anyone in the room believed her.

When Jennifer handed over three painkillers, lower strength than usual, and told him to report back in the morning for a check-up, he knew no-one had. He felt his face heat, wanted to tell her that she was wrong, it wasn't like that. He hadn't chosen not to move, he just hadn't... Hadn't moved. Hadn't fired.

He shook the pill bottle and wondered if he would have stayed standing there, if Teyla hadn't pulled him away.

It worried him that not knowing the answer to that didn't worry him as much as it should.


John really hadn't meant to get drunk. He'd meant to have one beer, because he was on sick leave for two days and the painkillers that Jennifer gave him weren't doing shit for how he'd been shot.

He'd meant to have the second beer as well, sitting on the pier the team used to go to, before Rodney got the parasite in his head and didn't want to go any more.

He didn't exactly mean to have the third beer, and he didn't even remember when it became the fourth, only that there he was, three empty bottles next to him, one half-full in his hand, watching the ocean churn, way below him. It was hypnotic, in the random way the water swirled and broke against the city. Like the day after that big storm, when everything was calm again. Like looking down into the water after Teyla killed Michael.

He remembered a new year celebration, he didn't know which, sitting with Rodney on the balcony, listening to the party going on inside, and Rodney saying, "Been a hell of a year," sounding exhausted.

"Hell of a five years." He should have said no to O'Neill and Elizabeth, right at the start, when he'd wanted so badly to be allowed to belong again, or at the end of their first year, when he'd been so stupidly proud to have gotten a promotion he'd never have expected. It wasn't like they'd made anything any better.


He started, the bottle slipping from his grasp to probably smash somewhere far below, and turned, surprised to see Teyla so close when he hadn't heard her approach. No, wait, she was wearing the soft boots the Athosians wore for hunting sometimes, not her usual combat boots.

"What are you doing out here?" she asked, crouching next to him, one hand on his shoulder to steady herself, except that Teyla had perfect balance, she never needed steadying. "Jennifer will not be pleased to hear that you have been drinking."

Jennifer usually looked at him with sad, worried eyes. He didn't think he ever did anything that pleased her- unless it pleased her that he was still there- not since they'd come back from Earth, but Teyla was right, she wouldn't be happy when she heard what he'd been up to. "Don't tell her." The words came out too quiet, and he looked away from Teyla.

There was a long pause, then Teyla said, "It is late. You should return to bed."

"Wasn't in bed."

"Then you should go there. Let me help you up."

It didn't occur to John to ask until they were most of the way back down the pier, Teyla's hand on the small of his back, pushing him gently in the right direction. "How'd you find me?"

"I went to your quarters and you were not there. When I could not find you, I became worried, and asked Amelia to check for any life signs where they would not usually be."

"Good thinking." Banks wouldn't say anything, or ask any questions. She'd probably say something to Ronon, though. "Why'd you go looking for me?"

Teyla touched the sensor, opening the door. The city air felt warm against John's skin; he hadn't noticed it getting cold. "With your injury, I wanted to be sure that you were well, and not in need of anything." Teyla's voice sounded odd. Annoyed, kind of, except not that harsh. Something nicer than annoyed. "As you have done for me many times when I have been injured."

John nodded, then had to blink to bring everything back into focus. He wasn't sure where they were in the city; all the corridors looked the same, it was easy to get turned around.

"You should not be drinking alone, John," Teyla said quietly, and John didn't say anything in response, since there was nothing in his head that he wanted to say out loud.

By the time they got back to his quarters, he could barely keep his eyes open, exhaustion, or maybe the combination of alcohol and pain killers, dragging at his limbs like manacles. He managed to kick his boots off, but when he sat down on the edge of the bed to take off his socks, he fell backwards instead, and then it was too much effort to sit up again.

"You cannot sleep like that," Teyla said firmly. "Only a few moments, John, and then you can sleep."

John forced himself to keep his eyes open, to move where she pushed him, too out of it to feel the humiliation at having to be put to bed like a child, by Teyla of all people. He felt more than saw her draw the covers over him, and then the bed dipped slightly. He kept his eyes closed, waiting to see what would happen next.

What happened next was that Teyla's hand brushed his forehead, then through his hair, the way she did with Torren sometimes, when he was over-tired and needed to be comforted into sleep. She did it again, and John kept very still, afraid that she'd stop if he moved.

"What troubles you so very much?" she asked quietly. "You have not been yourself for some time, but I fear for you now, John, truly."

She kept up the soothing motion. John let himself get lost in it, drifting away on it. His own voice, when he heard it, was far away, like it wasn't even really coming from him.

"I thought there'd be time. I thought- one day, and it'll make this worth it. I'll have someone, I won't get left again."

"What happened?" Teyla asked.

"I'm not ready," John said, feeling something inside him cracking at admitting it out loud, finally. "I'm not ready to lose him."


When he woke up, his head hurt enough to make him forget how much his arm hurt, there was sunlight streaming in through the windows, and the light on his headset was flashing to tell him that he had a message, thanks to Radek's latest upgrades.

He pulled the headset close with as little movement as he could manage, and hooked it over his ear, activating the replay function.

"Colonel Mitchell's alive." Jennifer's voice, more excited than John could ever remember hearing her. "He's alive, he's here. The gate brought him here. He's alive, he's fine- he's alive."


John's head spun when he stood up, and bending over to pull on his boots made him feel like throwing up was probably in his very near future. It didn't matter, not even with the way the sun was stabbing at his headache and every step made his bullet wound throb.

He tapped at his headset again, replaying the message. Colonel Mitchell's alive... he's alive. The time-stamp on it was only an hour ago, which was sure to mean Cam was still in the infirmary if he'd turned up in the city unexpectedly after a week missing. Anyway, Jennifer would probably be keeping him there.

He knew he was right when he turned onto the corridor down to medical. Even from that distance, he could hear Woolsey's voice, sounding almost amused- that was good, that meant nothing really bad could have happened and Jennifer had been telling the truth. John hovered near the open doorway, just out of sight, listening: Woolsey, again, and Jennifer, then Lorne. Of course Lorne, because he was in command when John was out of action, and getting shot counted. Woolsey, again, and they didn't sound worried, or like they were arguing, but the slight distance and the other voices muffled their words until John couldn't make them out, and he still couldn't hear-

"Hey." John started and Ronon steadied him, one hand on his shoulder. "Thought you'd hear me coming."

"Yeah." John shrugged him off, since he would usually have heard Ronon coming. "You okay?"

"Twisted my back. Amelia made me come."

"How did you-" John took in the smug look on Ronon's face and changed his mind. "You going in?"

"Waiting for you." Ronon pretty much immediately ruled out any more waiting, pushing John into the infirmary with a hand on his lower back that John couldn't quite bring himself to shrug off.

He'd expected Cam to be behind a privacy curtain, or tucked away in one of the bays for non-critical patients. He wasn't prepared to step into the infirmary and find himself looking right at Cam, sat on the edge of a bed in his SG1 uniform, booted feet not quite touching the floor, looking normal, looking... Alive.

"Sheppard!" John probably would have missed it, if he hadn't been staring at Cam like- well, like the man had come back from the dead- but Cam's grin flickered for a second into a worried frown, and when it came back, it wasn't quite as strong. "Was wondering when you'd show up."

Woolsey turned, just enough to frown at John. "I thought you were on medical leave, Colonel Sheppard."

John shrugged, forcing himself to look at Woolsey instead of Cam. "I couldn't let the leader of SG1 drop in from another galaxy without coming by to say hi." The words actually sounded pretty close to normal. He snuck another look at Cam, just checking. "I'm surprised Rodney's not down here already, demanding to know how you did it."

"He was," Jennifer said darkly.

"She made Lorne throw him out," Cam added, sounding amused, and Lorne gave a mock salute and said, "Always happy to be of service."

John knew he ought to say something, before anyone wondered how he'd even known Cam was in the city- before Ronon, still standing behind him, thought to ask what John had been doing loitering outside the infirmary- but his brain was stuck, couldn't get past Cam in his city, Cam here and alive and unhurt, grinning at him like this was nothing.

He felt the silence start to stretch out, too long.

"Hold on," Lorne said, looking at Ronon over John's shoulder. "Why are you here?"

Jennifer's expression became immediately suspicious. "Why *are* you here? Tell me it's not your back again.

John felt Ronon shrug as he stepped away, and thank God, seriously, for Lorne and Jennifer and Ronon, the way they pulled everyone's attention. "Thought it'd be all right this time."

"You thought-" Jennifer sighed. "Over there, lie down flat. Major, you think you could talk some sense into him?"

"Probably not," Lorne said, already moving to the far end of the infirmary with her and Ronon. "Mr. Woolsey, why don't you and I catch up in an hour? After breakfast?"

"Oh." Woolsey looked between Cam, John, and Jennifer's little group. "Right, yes, of course. Good to see you in one piece, Colonel Mitchell."

"Good to be in one," Cam agreed, and then Jennifer was drawing a curtain around him and John like it was nothing and they were alone. Cam instantly dropped a good half of the good humor routine, reaching out one hand towards John. "You okay? Come here."

John shook his head, but apparently his body knew better than his head, because he was letting Cam take his hand and pull him close.

"What's the bandage? You look terrible."

"I got shot. I'm fine." Cam's hand tightened on his for a moment, and John breathed. "I thought- they said you just went through the gate and..." He had to stop, horrified at the way his voice was shaking.

"I'm fine." Cam tipped his head forward until their foreheads were touching and John closed his eyes, like he always did with Teyla. "I don't know what happened, but I ended up on a planet I didn't recognize. Tried to dial Earth, couldn't get a lock, tried a couple of other planets in our galaxy." John heard the humor in his voice, enough to picture his self-deprecating smile. "Finally figured the gate didn't actually look much like a Milky Way one, so I might as well try Atlantis and what do you know, there's Chuck wanting to know my IDC."

John felt Cam's free hand on his hip, holding him in place, warm through the worn jeans he was wearing. "I'm fine, John." The pause was unpleasantly loaded, the kind that would have made John run if he hadn't been so afraid he'd wake up and find none of it was real. "I'm more worried about you. You look exhausted."

John shrugged and Cam said, "Hey," softly. "Did something happen? Attack on the city or something?"

John shook his head. He'd told Cam most of what was happening in emails- Lorne's run of fairly serious injuries, Jennifer and Rodney's break-up, the gradual reduction in hours the team spent off-world, Teyla spending more time on the mainland, Ronon taking Banks to visit the Satedan settlement. There wasn't anything to add, nothing like Cam obviously thought.

"Thought you were dead," he said, not entirely meaning to.

Cam made a weird, small noise, and pulled John into a proper hug, holding on even when John stiffened, not sure if he wanted to get away or get closer. "I'm not," he said, like he wasn't just stating the obvious. "I'm not going anywhere, I promise."

"Sure," John said, and nodded, even though he knew, even though he thought they both knew, that it was a lie.


News spread fast in Atlantis, and it spread even faster if it was weird or good. Since Cam turning up unexpectedly from another galaxy when rumor had it he was dead was both weird *and* good, it spread through the city before breakfast was even over. It meant the scientists wanted him, trying to figure out how what had happened to him was even possible, and Woolsey wanted him because he couldn't stay in the city, and of course Cam was the kind of guy who had friends everywhere, even in a city he'd only ever spent a week in.

It meant that never letting Cam out of his sight wasn't an option for John, and neither was avoiding people who knew him too well.

Like Ronon, though John could admit that hiding out in the gym the marines used for morning hand-to-hand practice wasn't the stealthiest cover in the world, even if it was empty.

"Keller's looking for you," Ronon said, dropping onto the bench next to John. "Says you're missing your wound check."

Shrugging reminded John that his arm was starting to really hurt and that he'd already taken the three pain killers Jennifer had allotted him, so she was probably less wanting to check on his wound and more wanting to check on his mental health before she gave him any more.

Ronon let the silence linger just long enough that John was starting to think they weren't going to have the inevitable conversation, then said, "Colonel Mitchell."

"One and only," John agreed. He could feel Ronon rolling his eyes- Ronon and Lorne were definitely spending too much time together these days.

"He the reason you've been weird since we got back?"

John shook his head, then realized he probably should have said yes. "Some."

"Could've said something." Ronon sounded as close to hurt as John had ever heard him, and it was almost enough to make up for all the times he'd wished Ronon would ask, wished he had the courage to tell. "What's the rest?"

John shook his head again. It was too much to explain- the way he'd let himself trust Jack and Daniel and regretted it so much, the way it had felt to leave Earth and not want to, for the first time since he'd heard about Atlantis. How everything felt overwhelming in a way he couldn't ever remember it being, and how could he explain that to Ronon, who'd watched his world be destroyed, been hunted for seven years and spent the next four serving Atlantis with the rest of them.

"Hey." Ronon nudged John's shoulder gently. "Did you know he was missing?"

John nodded. "I didn't think they'd find him."

It surged up, for a second, all the hurt of thinking that, all the relief of Cam in Atlantis, safe. He couldn't still the shudder that followed, and Ronon's hand on his shoulder made it worse, like something cracking open inside of him, five years of losses in Atlantis, a year trying to freeze the memory of Holland down in Antarctica, Mitch and Dex, his mom. Ronon, soft, said, "All right," not moving, just waiting for John.


Jennifer, when John finally gave in to how much his arm hurt, looked so pleased for him that he could hardly stand to look at her. At least she drew the privacy curtain around the bed he was perched on before she said, "I'm so glad he's all right."

John dragged up a smile that didn't feel real. "Me, too. Thanks for letting me know."

"Of course." She frowned a little, her fingers cool against his skin as she unwrapped the bandage. "Is he going back through the gate?"

"I don't know." Woolsey and Lorne would have decided by now- or, no, John had heard Lorne on his radio, pushing that meeting back so he could deal with something that had come up with the marines. "Maybe."

"Hopefully not today." Jennifer's smile was back, and she was already rewrapping his arm, covering up the stitches. "That's healing nicely. I'm ready to sign you back onto desk duty only from tomorrow morning."

There was a faintly questioning tone at the end of the sentence. John nodded.

"Good." Jennifer drew a small bottle of pain killers from her pocket and scribbled something on the advice label wrapped around it. "Keep taking these, no more than one every four hours, and I want to see you again in three days."

John rattled the bottle; it contained way more than the three pain killers he'd been trusted with the day before, and he felt his heart sink. He'd thought- Jennifer had always seemed like she got at least part of what a mess his head was, but the pain killers said she thought he was okay again, now Cam was alive and fine and here.

For one absurd moment, he seriously considered giving them back to her, but he couldn't, not and keep his job. Not and feel like he didn't mean it, like he was making a comment on her, not him.


He was drifting vaguely towards his office for want of any idea what else to do with a free day when his radio clicked on, and Cam's voice said, "Sheppard, save me."

John felt something tight ease inside him, and told himself firmly to stop it. Cam wasn't going to be staying in Atlantis; getting used to him there would only make things worse. "Leader of SG1 and you can't save yourself from whatever Atlantis throws at you?"

"Last time SG1 had Dr McKay thrown at them, they threw him all the way out to Siberia. But I guess I could try that."

John heard Rodney's outraged voice even through Cam's radio- real outrage, none of the mock-outrage he used a good half of the time. "Relax, McKay, he's kidding."

"Forgive me for wondering, when this is the same person who threatened me with a lemon," Rodney said, much clearer. "I have a hard time trusting people who are out to kill me."

John let his eyes close, remembering how it had felt to be curled up in Cam's bed, knowing that Cam was looking out for him. How it had felt to get back to Atlantis and be brushed off by Rodney twice in one afternoon. "Give it a rest," he said, the words coming out exhausted in a way he hadn't meant them to. "Just- he's my friend, all right?"

"I know, and don't think I don't know who gave him that lemon, Sheppard."

"Coffee break," Cam said suddenly, loud and clear over the radio link. "I think it's time for one, Sheppard, why don't I meet you down in the cafeteria in a few minutes?"

"Yeah." John shook his head sharply, trying to focus on the switch in topic. "Sounds good."

The mess was unusually quiet, which meant they got a table to themselves, tucked in the corner, away from the handful of other people there. "Here," Cam said, pushing a plate with a chocolate muffin towards John. "Eat this."

"Not hungry."

"Eat it anyway. You're too thin."

"You sound like someone's mother." John broke a chocolate chip off the top of the cake and put it in his mouth. Real chocolate; someone must have a secret stash, since they usually ran out well before a supply run was due.

"You need one," Cam said, frowning. "I'm worried about you."

John looked down, feeling himself start to flush. "I didn't just get lost between two galaxies for a week."

"And come out fine on the other end." Cam reached over, touched John's hand for a moment. John's skin burned with it; he curled his hand up, trapping the feeling there. "I thoughtÖ"


Cam bit his lip for a moment. "I thought your team would be looking out for you better."

That stung in a way that John didn't want to think too much about. "They've got their own lives."

Cam's face, when John looked up, was angry like it had been when John had told him about Jack and Daniel. It made John feel warm in a way he knew wasn't good. "You're supposed to be part of their lives."

John shook his head. "I don't- can we just drop it? Please?"

For a long moment, he really thought Cam was going to say no, but he nodded. "Eat your muffin. When's Sam due with the Hammond?"

"Day after tomorrow. They're only stopping for twenty-four hours, pick up a couple of people heading off for leave, drop off our guys." The Hammond had been in Pegasus for two weeks, out of contact observing some sort of stellar phenomenon that had sent the science department into conniptions and forced a drawing of straws to decide who got to accompany the crew.

"That'll make Sam happy," Cam said dryly. "I guess that means she'll be my ride home."

"Lucky you."

"Yeah, nothing I like better than four days in hyperspace with nothing to look at except, well, hyperspace."

"You like it really," John teased. "She told me about you captaining the Odyssey that time."

"She tell you I had to fight off replicators at the same time?" Cam shuddered hard enough that his coffee nearly spilled. "Not my idea of a good time."

"Wait till you've had one stick its hand in your head." Something must have shown on John's face, because Cam's expression, which had been gradually lightening, darkened again. John wanted to say something reassuring- something to get that look off Cam's face, because it hurt in ways that it shouldn't- but he couldn't think of anything to say.

"John," Cam said quietly, and John leaned in a little, wanting to hear what it was that made Cam look at him like that and-

And his radio clicked on, Woolsey's voice on the general frequency asking Cam to report to his office at Cam's earliest convenience.

"I have to go," Cam said, regret thick in his voice. John nodded. "I'll catch up with you later, all right?"

John nodded again, fighting the ridiculous urge to grab onto Cam's hand and keep him close.

He compromised, eating every bite of his muffin, even though it took an hour. It wasn't like he had anything else to do with his day.


John didn't sleep, not really, though it wasn't like he really expected to. Every time he started to doze off, he'd be hit by a memory, one of the ones he tried to forget, and jerk awake.

By four am, he was tired enough that the bottle of pain killers was starting to look good. Better than the sleeping pills that hadn't worked. Better than the two bottles of beer left in his mini-fridge.

He closed his eyes. Thought about getting dressed and going down to Cam's temporary quarters. He knew Cam would let him in, but God, if sharing meals with the guy wasn't bad enough, going to bed with him would be a thousand times worse, even if all they did was sleep. Especially if all they did was sleep.

Thought about going down to the control room to see what was going on, or over to his office to catch up on some paperwork, except that he was up-to-date on his paperwork, even without Teldy and Lorne picking up more slack than they should have to.

He could have knocked on Teyla or Ronon's doors, but they'd both have their partners there, and he could only really interrupt his friends having sex so many times. He could have knocked on Rodney's, except Rodney had decided to hold a grudge over John defending Cam earlier that day.

He sighed, swung his feet over the side of the bed and brought the lights up just enough to find his clothes. The bottle of pain killers felt heavy in his pocket.

Jennifer wasn't in the infirmary; she was on days for the rest of the month, and the night shift doctor was dozing in the on-call room, didn't notice John slip past him. He left the pill bottle on Jennifer's desk, a note tucked under it that read, Sorry, even though he wasn't all that sure what he was apologizing for.

He spent the rest of the night on one of the balconies in the residential quarters, where no-one in the control room would wonder about a random life-sign. The cool night air and the sea breeze felt good, clearing his head in a way he couldn't remember having in a while, and when the sun started to rise over the horizon, he felt like he might, finally, be able to make a decision and have it be the right one.


"I'm bored," Cam said, appearing suddenly enough in John's office doorway that John jumped.

"I thought the physics department still had you in their clutches."

Cam shrugged, moving to sit opposite John's desk. "They think they figured it out. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what all the excited science babble about decaying stars meant."

"That's good," John said uncertainly. The SGC had been going to Pegasus for five and a half years and not hit on any way of moving between galaxies except with a ZPM, which meant it couldn't be something all that common, and anyway, the ships didn't take anything like as long as it had taken Cam.

"As long as they don't ask me to test it again," Cam agreed. "Did you have dinner?"

"Yes." John nudged his thumb across the touchpad of his laptop, avoiding Cam's eyes until Cam sighed.

"Well, I didn't. Want to come with?"

John hesitated, then shook his head, still avoiding Cam's eyes.

Cam sighed again- it wasn't a sound John wanted to keep hearing. "You still have the chips I sent on the last Daedalus run? We could watch a movie."

"We could." It wasn't that late, and John had said that Cam was his friend. Probably no-one would think anything of the two of them alone in his quarters. People hung out in each other's quarters all the time.

Cam's smile made him feel warm. "Sounds like a plan. Come on."


Cam settled on John's bed, back against the wall, laptop at their feet, like he belonged there; so much so that John hesitated, watching Cam fiddle to get the movie started.

Cam noticed, of course, and held out a hand. "Come here."

John handed over the chips, sitting close enough to rest his shoulder against Cam's. Cam immediately put his arm round John, pulling him closer. "All right?"

"Yeah." John took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Cam knew him. If Cam said watch a movie, he meant watch a movie, not anything else, and what did it say about John that he was worried the guy he was seeing might want to have sex. "What are we watching?"

"Up," Cam said as the Pixar logo appeared. "You'll like it, it's about a man who flies his house away to chase after his dream."

That sounded a little too close to John's real life, but it was a kids' film, so probably there wouldn't be any space vampires.

John only meant to close his eyes briefly- didn't even really mean to do that, actually, but found that he had anyway. That he'd shifted, enough to rest his head on Cam's shoulder, and that Cam's arm was still around him, holding him in place. He could hear the movie playing on, but it sounded far away and he couldn't make out any of the words. Cam was warm against him, and he felt like he was drifting- tethered to helium balloons and floating in the clouds, above everything.

"S'okay," Cam said quietly. "Go to sleep. I've got you."

John let himself slide away, hoping that for once he'd sleep through the night, no dreams.

He didn't.


At fourteen hundred, an hour before the Hammond was due, John knocked at Woolsey's door.

"Colonel Sheppard." Woolsey immediately looked down at the paper diary he kept on his desk. "Do we have a meeting scheduled?"

"No." John forced himself not to fidget, hands clasped behind his back. "I was hoping you might have a few minutes to spare."

"I have fifteen." Woolsey smiled. "Come on in." John did, stopping in front of Woolsey's desk and waiting for the door to slide closed on them. "How's your arm?"

"Getting better, thank you." Jennifer had actually tracked John down to give him the day's painkillers- he'd only kept one day's supply when he'd given the rest back- her face drawn and concerned as she'd asked, Is there anything I can do?

"Good, glad to hear it." Woolsey smiled again. "What can I do for you, Colonel?"

John curled his hands tight enough that the piece of paper in them crinkled, reassured by the feel of it. "I'm requesting permission to return to Earth on the Hammond when it leaves."

Woolsey tapped at his computer, probably bringing up the relevant form. "For what purpose?"

"I want to- I'm owed leave, for the last five and half years out here, and Antarctica before that. I want to take it."

Woolsey frowned. "I'm not sure what that would be in total-"

"It's six months," John said. "Well, five months, twenty-six days." Woolsey's eyebrows went up. "I had a week a year ago, a few days compassionate leave when my father died, and a couple of weeks at the end of the expedition's first year. It adds up."

"I suppose it does. But that's a long time for us to be without our military commander, Colonel, especially at such short notice, I don't know ifÖ"

The paper crinkled between John's fingers again as he drew his hand out from behind his back. "This is from Dr Keller." He couldn't look at Woolsey's face, focused instead on the edge of his desk. "She's supporting my request for leave, on health grounds. I'd rather not submit it officially, but I will."

"I thought you said your arm was healing well."

John felt behind himself for the chair he knew was there, and sat down. "I'm not- I can't- " He should have written it down. Handing Woolsey a letter would have been so much easier than saying it out loud. "I don't think I can stay here. I don't think I should."

"Colonel Sheppard- John." From the corner of his eye, John saw Woolsey's hands shift nervously. He still hadn't taken the paper, lying on the edge of the desk. "We have medical staff here. If you feel that you needÖ supportÖ we can provide that, in Atlantis."

"I'm owed the leave. I want to take it, but you have to sign off on it. If you won't, Dr Keller has authority to over-ride you on anything health-related in her role as Chief Medical Officer for the expedition, and she's agreed to do so." John looked up, holding Woolsey's gaze. "I'm going to be on the Hammond when she leaves. I can't- I can't stay here. Not any more."

Something flashed in Woolsey's eyes, the kind of intuitive realization that John tended to forget he was capable of. "You're not planning on coming back, are you? Or even staying in the Air Force?"

John was pretty sure the first person he told that to should have been Cam, or his team, or Jennifer, or Lorne and Teldy, but he couldn't lie, not when Woolsey was asking. "No," he said. "No, I'm not coming back."

He'd spent five years dreading having to say those words about Atlantis, and all he felt, with them out where he couldn't take them back, was relief.

Woolsey nodded, like he could see it in John's face. "I'll approve the leave. I assume you have a handover plan for Majors Lorne and Teldy?"

John handed over the thumb drive he'd saved it all onto as he'd worked furiously through it that morning, not letting himself think about what it meant.

"Then be in the gate room by eleven hundred tomorrow for beam up," Woolsey said. "I'm sorry that we'll be losing you, Colonel."

John knew what he should say in response; that he was sorry to be going, to be leaving them behind, leaving Atlantis - but the words wouldn't come. They weren't there, not when the truth was, he felt weak-kneed with relief at knowing he was about to go. That he wouldn't be responsible any more, wouldn't have to hold it together any more.

"Thank you," he said instead.

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