blue flamingos

Paid in Forward Motion

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Gen, PG

Year/Length: 2008/~6435 words

Spoilers: set somewhere between Conversion and Sunday

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

Summary: When John winds up in a cell on a hive ship (again), he runs into someone he thought he'd lost

Author's Notes: SGA flashfic not dead yet challenge

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

hr

John's been through enough traumatic experiences in Pegasus that he's actually managed to forget that he's the only member of his team who's never been swept up by a Wraith culling beam.

It's only when he wakes up in a cell with unpleasant but familiar walls that he remembers, which is, really, one instance where he'd have been quite happy for his memory to have just kept quiet.

He does a quick assessment of his surroundings, as much of them as he can see from where he's sprawled on his back in the far corner of the cell, pretending to still be unconscious, in case anyone's watching (and also because his head is *killing* him, no wonder McKay was so pissy when he got trapped in the dart that time, even if that was undoubtedly partly to do with sharing his head with Cadman).

The cell looks like pretty much every Wraith cell he's ever been in – and what sort of a sad comment on his life is it that he's been in enough Wraith cells to be making generalizations – one of six in a semi-circle at the end of what he assumes is a corridor. It's kind of hard to see, but he's pretty sure the rest are empty, which could be a good thing (they only got him) or a bad thing (they've taken everyone else for the main course, and are keeping him for dessert). John's an optimist though (has to be, on a team with Rodney We're-All-Doomed-To-Die-Horribly McKay and Ronon Death-Before-Dishonor Dex; it's not fair to expect Teyla to do all the positive thinking), so he tells himself that they were pretty spread out, Teyla moving ahead to the gate when it dialed in for the dart, Ronon covering Rodney a little behind John. Maybe the dart only picked up him.

He spares a minute to hope that the Manadarakavans, of whom they found no sign, really are gone. They sounded like an interesting culture, from what the database had to say of them, and John was kind of disappointed to find their town abandoned, but he's not exactly keen to meet them in these circumstances.

There's no sign of any guards, so he risks sitting up. The world rolls slowly when he moves, then settles, like being on a boat in rough seas. It's pretty unnerving, but seems to be a one-time only thing.

"Okay. Plan A," he tells himself, not sure if it's comforting or freakish to hear his own voice echoing back at him. They've taken the knife he wears on his belt, both his weapons, and his radio, not that it would have done him any good out here, wherever the hell 'here' is. "Could be worse. At least you're not in a cocoon."

Somehow, that's not as comforting a thought as it should be; it probably means they recognized his uniform and want to interrogate him before they eat him. Not for the first time, he thinks that there's a lot to be said for abandoning their uniforms in favor of something more Pegasus-like, whatever that might be.

Right. No radio, no gun, no guards. John crosses the fingers of his left hand and slides his right into his boot, sighing in relief when they hit the hilt of the small knife he keeps in there for emergencies. And, honestly, if this isn't an emergency, he doesn't know what is. Just because there aren't any Wraith in the corridor right now is no reason to think that happy state is going to continue.

Of course, last time they did this, it took five knives, but at least two of those didn't do anything. He also had Ronon throwing them, whose aim is indisputably better than John's, but desperate times and all that. John pushes away thoughts of what the Wraith will do to him if this doesn't work (since covering up the evidence will be pretty much impossible), takes another deep breath, aims, and throws the knife at what he really, really hopes is the right point on the locking pad.

It thunks in with an unpleasant squelch (and really, what's with the whole ships-out-of-biological-parts thing anyway? It makes John's skin crawl every single time) and there's a horrible moment in which nothing happens. Then the lights flicker, the door slides open, and John gasps out a laugh of slightly hysterical relief. He doesn't quite pinch himself to check he's not dreaming, but it's a close thing. He can't believe that actually worked.

He grabs the knife back – no sense cluing the Wraith in to how he got away – and starts off in what he hopes is the direction of the dart bay.

Considering he's basically armed with one knife and his own ability to duck, John's pretty sure that the silence and emptiness of the ship should be a good thing. Instead, he can't shut off the little voice in the back of his mind pointing out that this is too easy and that it'll be just his luck to turn a corner and stumble into a Wraith board meeting, complete with queen.

The voice sounds a lot like Rodney, which is oddly comforting. John really hopes his team isn't on the ship somewhere. It wouldn't make sense for the Wraith to have locked them up somewhere else. They always start by throwing everyone in together, after all; John's convinced they get some kind of sadistic pleasure out of watching the distress on everyone's faces when they drag someone away.

John's cell must have been at the far end of the corridor, because he passes a couple of dozen more empty cells before he hits a main corridor, branching off in two directions. Just for a second, he kind of misses the Replicators – at least their ships were all designed the same way, making it easy for John to find his way around. Here, he's relying on past experience of Wraith ships and his own admittedly poor memory for directions, and it's not filling him with confidence. He doesn't even have a coin to flip.

He palms the knife and takes the right-hand corridor.

It's just as empty as the rest of the ship, so quiet that John would swear he can hear it breathing (swear in his own head, that is – he's well aware of how stupid it would sound out loud). He finds himself ducking into alcoves and darting from cover to cover, hyper-alert, and he feels like sort of an idiot for doing it, but, well, *something* scooped him up in a dart and stuck him in a cell, and while he'd like to believe that the Wraith are all off racing each other to see who can get to the sun and back the fastest by dart, he just doesn't have that kind of luck, and he'll feel like even more of an idiot being thrown back into the cell he just escaped from.

He doesn't notice he's reached the cocoon room until he stumbles on his way out from behind his latest patch of cover, and puts his hand on something that gives under his fingers, soft and wispy and, oh, God, whoever they stuck in there is way beyond dead, and half an inch from John's hand. He starts back, knife up in front of him like it'll actually be any kind of protection against, well, anything, and a voice says, "Help us."

Which is the one thing in this galaxy and any other than John has never been able to say no to.

He rips into the cocoon that the voice came from, an older man half-falling out of it. "All right?" John asks.

The man nods. "Yes. Thank you, thank the Ancestors, we have been –"

John shakes him a little, till he stops talking and holds John's eye. "How many others?"

"Three of us were culled from my world. There were others when we were brought here, I don't know..." He trails off, looking round the room, and starts to tremble.

"Okay," John says. "Stay there, don't make a sound. If you hear something coming, yell."

The next two cocoons reveal a younger woman and a boy who can't be much more than thirteen, both of them dressed in similar clothes to the man. The three of them huddle together, their eyes on John as he works his way down the line, finding body after body. So much for the Wraith starving because they were woken up too early – they've just taken these people for the hell of it, imprisoned them in this place to die.

He's ready to abandon it, head for the dart bay, well aware of how long he's been stopped here, when his knife slides into the sticky coating of another cocoon and a warm body falls into his arms, gasping in alarm. "I've got you," he says, pulling the body – the man – free of the cocoon and getting a hand under his chin to look at his face. "It's okay, you're safe now," he lies, and tilts the man's face up.

It's like the first time he parachuted out of a plane, the moment when he stepped off the solid floor and there was nothing under his feet but air. Free fall.

This time, he does pinch himself, and his voice, when he speaks, is hoarse. "Ford."

It's kind of a blur after that – the run to the darts, his little band of rescued captives stumbling with him, Ford leaning into him and letting John practically drag him; talking them into being scooped up by the dart's beam again; the flight to the nearest planet; even rematerializing the four of them when they land. It's a shock all over again to see Ford reappearing – it wasn't hard to talk himself into believing that it was all a hallucination, out in space with the unfamiliar Wraith script flowing by in front of him.

"Everyone doing okay?" he asks.

The older man – John hasn't had time to get their names yet – nods. "This is not our world."

"No, it's not," John agrees. Behind the three of them, Ford has sunk to the ground, his forehead rested on his drawn up knees. He looks thinner than the last time John saw him, but that's all John can really see from where he is. He can't seem to tear his eyes away. "Maybe you should come back with me, get checked over by our doctor. We can send some people with you, back to your world." He doesn't want to suggest that there might not be anyone left – there were only two darts in the bay when he got there, but that doesn't mean anything. Given that he never saw any sign of Wraith on the ship, he's not ruling out the idea that there's a fleet of darts out there somewhere, belonging to that hive.

"We would prefer to return home," the man says. "I am sure that our people will be concerned for us, and we would very much wish to see our families again. We have been many days imprisoned."

"Right," John says. "Well, you're not my prisoners, so I can't stop you. Just – were there many darts? When the Wraith came?"

The woman shakes her head, pushing her long hair from her face. "It was most strange. A single ship came through the ring; we have never heard of such a thing before. In our stories, there are always a great number."

"Same here," John agrees, and doesn't say that they were lucky, even though it's true – he's pretty sure no-one who spends time in a cocoon ever thinks of themselves as lucky, even if they make it out.

The man thanks John, again, for his rescue, and agrees to John dropping by in a couple of days to check on them, then they dial their world and step through the gate. A moment later, it shuts down behind them.

John stares at it for a moment, thinking, then goes back to where Ford is still sitting on the ground. He doesn't look to have moved at all.

"How you doing?" he asks inanely.

Ford shrugs. He's shivering, despite the thick coat he's wearing, kind of like the one Ronon wears when they're going to a cool planet. His hair's longer than before, John thinks stupidly, definitely non-regulation length by now. He thinks about the last time he saw Ford, vibrating with anger and righteousness, hopped up on Wraith enzyme, and tries not to think about watching the Wraith ship explode, thinking that Ford was on it. Now's not the time to ask how he survived.

"You up to standing up?" he asks instead. It reminds him of some 'dealing with the traumatized' course he got sent on, years ago – focus on the practical – and he thinks he might be just a little bit hysterical, and probably not in the good way.

Ford nods, lifting his head from his knees. He doesn't look at John, but he lets John grab him under one arm and haul him to his feet, and carries on leaning into John when they're both standing. Up close, his skin is pale, almost gray, and his good eye is blood-shot. Withdrawal, the bad way.

"Let's go," he says, and they stumble over to the DHD so John can dial the alpha site.

They can't spare the people to watch the alpha site 24-7, but teams end up going through it without their gear often enough that there's now a stash of essential equipment for getting hold of Atlantis left there permanently. John digs out a couple of radio ear pieces, since his IDC has gone the way of the rest of his equipment, makes a mental note to get that changed, and dials up the city. "Here," he says over the sound of wormhole engaging, handing one of the ear pieces to Ford, who fits it into place with a shaking hand, the other still wrapped in John's jacket sleeve, for balance or comfort, John's not sure. Ford still hasn't said a word, and John really, really wants to get him into Beckett's care. He's definitely not the person to be doing this.

"Atlantis, this is Sheppard," he says.

Campbell's voice says, "Colonel Sheppard," sounding surprised, then Elizabeth cuts in, her exclamation of, "John!" somewhere between stunned and pleased.

"You can call off the rescue," John tells her. "Already rescued myself."

"It's good to hear your voice," Elizabeth says, already back to sounding like a calm professional.

"Yours too," John says. "I'm bringing someone back with me."

There's a tiny pause, then Elizabeth says, "Okay. Lowering the shield now."

"Thanks." John knows – hopes – there will be extra security staff when they step through. If there aren't, he's having strong words with Sergeant Fields. "Ready to go home?" he asks Ford, turning to look at him.

Ford's staring straight at the gate, tears rolling silently down his pale face. John kind of gets how he feels; stepping back into Atlantis after six months with Teer and her people, he wanted to fall to his knees and kiss the floor, and that was only six months, with a bunch of people who were, okay, a little weird, but basically harmless.

"Lieutenant?" he asks, the rank slipping out without John meaning it to.

Ford nods, not bothering to wipe his eyes. "Yes, sir," he says, and they step through the gate together, into the familiar, clear light of the city.

hr

Beckett puts Ford in a private room and bans everyone, John included, from going near it. Within a day, the rumors are totally out of hand, and on the second day, Elizabeth actually makes an announcement to the whole city, explaining that they've recovered a missing member of the expedition from Wraith captivity and that he's recuperating but neither a danger nor in any danger. It helps, a bit.

John gets all the marines together to tell them in person, and in a bit more detail, what's going on, figuring a good portion of them knew Ford before he went missing, and that they deserve to know. Not that he can actually answer most of their questions, but they seem to appreciate the gesture, and a number of them ask him to pass on good thoughts to Ford, if he gets let in before they do.

Those are the easy bits, the parts John doesn't mind doing, is even happy to do. The parts where he's allowed to just be glad that they have Ford back.

The rest is less fun.

They dial up the SGC to report the situation, John and Elizabeth and Beckett locked in her office with a video feed they've set up specially, Landry on the other end, his face giving nothing away. Beckett explains about withdrawal, about Ford's various health problems from extended capture (Ford hasn't said anything since his 'yes, sir,' at the alpha site, so they don't know exactly how long he was held for), concluding that, damaged eye aside, he'll be perfectly fine, physically. It goes downhill from there, into arguments about whether Ford is a security risk (no), whether Ford is even still part of the US military (open for debate, since he's currently listed as AWOL and didn't exactly return voluntarily, or at least not the way Landry means the word), whether he should be sent back to Earth for treatment (also open for debate, though Beckett makes a pretty convincing argument for keeping him in Atlantis for the next few days). By the time they cut the connection, John's practically vibrating with the need to be out of the room. He's never hated Landry more than he does in the moment.

Normally, he'd find Ronon and run it off, but things are awkward with Ronon right now: he's still suspicious of Ford, not wholly unreasonably, given that he's only known Ford as the crazy person injecting himself with Wraith enzyme, and also that Ford drugged him against his will last time they met. Plus, he's half-convinced that John finding Ford is a plot by the Wraith to get a plant in the city. He's not the only one who's entertained that theory, John included, but they've got measures in place to deal with that if it is the case, and John really can't see Ford being a useful plant; can't see him being a plant at all.

None of which helps him feel less guilty around Ronon, because he knows just how uncomfortable Ronon is with Ford in the city.

John goes looking for Rodney instead, finds him alone in the smallest lab, the one he claims to hate because he has to go to a whole other room to get coffee. It's a sign of how much Rodney wants to be left alone, but he turns away from his work easily enough when John leans in his doorway, silently asking to come in.

"Any news?" Rodney asks when John sits on the other bench, kicking his boots gently against the drawers underneath.

"Landry wants Ford back on Earth and then probably out of the military," John says.

"Is he going to get his way?"

John shrugs. "Probably. On the Earth thing, at least."

"And I suppose Ford doesn't get any say in it," Rodney snaps. "Typical American military, we know what's best for you, just –"

"Come on, Rodney," John interrupts. Weirdly, given how vocal he was against Ford when the whole thing with the drugged food and the hive ship happened, Rodney is currently one of Ford's biggest champions around the city. John's best guess is that it has to do with Rodney feeling guilty for writing Ford off as dead after the explosion. "Landry's got a point – we're not equipped to provide long-term care here, and I really don't want to risk Ford getting caught up in the next attack on the city, do you?"

Rodney subsides, still tense. John really wishes he had the right answer to all this. Even an answer would do right now, but all he has is speculation and questions. What he really needs is to speak to Ford, which is the one thing he can't do.

"Why do you think the hive ship was so deserted?" he asks instead, hoping for a distraction, for both of them.

Rodney's mouth twists unhappily – reminded of the dart, John assumes. "There was only one dart when they got you," he says.

"And two in the dart day – well, one now," John adds. They brought the dart he used back to Atlantis, and it's down in one of the labs, being picked apart by an engineering team.

Rodney nods. "That's not a lot. My guess is that hive suffered some losses, and there just aren't many Wraith left on it. No-one to spare to guard the place."

"I guess," John says. "So why did they just let the prisoners rot? Seems kind of inefficient."

"Do I look like a Wraith psychologist to you, Colonel? Maybe they didn't taste good."

John can't help a tiny grin at this, ducking his head so Rodney won't notice – it's nice to know something is still normal.

hr

Beckett keeps Ford in isolation for just over a week, just long enough for the knowledge that Ford is back in the city to start to settle into John's head. Even with all the headaches that Ford's reappearance is providing, he can't help the little flair of joy whenever he thinks about it; he knows he's one of a very small number of people who didn't believe Ford was blown up in the hive, but he never actually expected to find him. It's kind of nice to get a good surprise, for a change.

John's going through the mission roster with Lorne when Beckett radios to say that he can go see Ford, if he wants. "Um," he says intelligently, looking at Lorne, who's listening to the message as well, since Beckett's broadcasting on the command network.

"We can finish this later, sir," Lorne says, starting to shuffle his papers together.

John nods his thanks. "Be there in ten minutes," he tells Beckett.

"Any idea what you're going to say?" Lorne asks when John taps his ear piece off.

"Thought I'd start with 'welcome back' and go from there," John says.

What he actually starts with, once Beckett gets through his various warnings, threats, promises and concerns and actually lets him in, is, "Hey, Ford."

He looks better than he did last time John saw him – less gray, his expression clear and focused, and the tremors appear to have stopped. He's sitting up in bed, dressed in infirmary scrubs; when John closes the door behind himself, he looks over and holds John's eye for a second, nodding a greeting.

"How are you feeling?" John hooks a chair with one foot, making sure he keeps a little way back from the bed – apparently, Ford gets twitchy when people get too close.

"Okay, sir." He sounds like Ford, and yet not at the same time; the spark of excitement that Ford always had is gone. "Dr Beckett says the enzyme's out of my system. No more withdrawal symptoms."

"That's good to hear," John says, even though he's already heard it from Beckett. Ford nods, catching John's eye for a second again, then looking away. "I guess Beckett told you that Dr Heightmeyer's going to be coming to see you from today."

"Yes, sir." John doesn't remember them having a lot to do with each other, though it's possible that Ford was seeing her and John just didn't know about it. The two of them have an agreement when it comes to his men, that she'll tell him if she thinks he really needs to know something, but otherwise, they get strict patient confidentiality. It's fine by John – the last thing he needs is to know all the anxieties and neuroses of his people. He has enough of those just from Rodney.

"Good. You're going to stay here for the moment, until things get a bit more sorted." John hopes Ford won't ask what things – both Beckett and Heightmeyer have advised to stick to concrete things for the moment, while Ford's still adjusting, and Ford's potential future is about as far from concrete as it's possible to get.

"Yes, sir, that's fine," Ford says. "Quiet here."

"That a good or a bad thing?" John asks, remembering how it felt to lie in the infirmary after the bug thing in their first year, how he was afraid to open his eyes because it was so quiet he was worried he was dead, still.

Ford catches his eye for a little longer. "Kind of weird," he says, sounding like the old Ford again for a moment. "I wouldn't mind a radio."

"I think we can probably manage that," John says with a grin, and Ford blinks, then smiles back, tentatively.

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It's Heightmeyer who gives John permission to ask for the details of Ford's escape from the explosion, and how he ended up on the ship; John's been simultaneously waiting for and dreading it. On the one hand, he really is curious to know, and they need all the tactical knowledge they can get; on the other, he's still the only non-medical professional who's allowed in to see Ford – even Elizabeth is still banned – and he's not sure he wants to be there for whatever reaction Ford has to telling the story.

"If you want me to come with you," Kate offers. "I can just be there for support, for both of you, to take over if you don't know what to say."

"It's fine," John promises, feeling oddly protective of Ford, even though Heightmeyer has nothing but his best interests at heart, unlike John, who is trying to have the best interests of everyone in the city at heart. "I've done this kind of thing before."

In the end, it's both better and worse than he was expecting. Ford recites his story to his hands, folded neatly on the blankets, his voice and face expressionless. He might be talking about a stranger.

He woke up on a hive ship, no memory of how he got from the exploding ship to this one. Later, he figured he'd probably been beamed out, a last minute rescue attempt from some other Wraith in the system that picked up him by mistake. He was being held down by two drones, and there was a Wraith bending over him. He tried to throw them off, couldn't move. The super-strength feeling from the enzyme was gone and he felt washed out, faded.

The tracker hurt going in and he could feel it for days after, whenever he moved his right arm. They dumped him on an abandoned planet, left him for a week, then came for him. He didn't have any enzyme with him, shaky and weak without it, without much to eat or drink, too tense to sleep. He couldn't fight them off, barely made it through the gate.

Two planets later, he got lucky, found a P-90 in the bushes and managed to take out one of his pursuers. The enzyme kept him going, in small doses, for weeks, made it easier to outrun the Wraith, and he even managed to kill a couple of them. It felt good, like being part of his little crew again. He didn't go back to their base, not wanting to lead the Wraith to them.

The P-90 ran out of ammo after a while, and he couldn't find more. It was a relief, actually; he knew that Atlantis didn't leave guns lying around to be picked up unless their owners weren't around to use them any more.

It went on for months, until it felt normal, like he'd never done anything else. He got good at predicting when the Wraith would come for him, even thought about trying to use some of his half-remembered high school math to write an equation for it, thinking of Dr McKay and Dr Zelenka mocking him for being bad at their prime numbers game. He didn't have any paper though.

In the end, he wasn't captured by the Wraith who were tracking him. He wasn't even captured on purpose.

He thought he had another couple of days before the Wraith came after him again, and that maybe they wouldn't care too much about a planet he just passed through, so he was on a populated planet, trying to bargain for food with a group of people who didn't speak any language he recognized. Even his smattering of Ancient was useless.

He didn't understand the warnings when they started yelling, just that everyone was running. Instinct said to run the other way, to draw the Wraith away from them, even as he was cursing his failure to figure the time right. He was too focused on Wraith coming on foot to notice the dart until the silver light of the beam cut across the grass in front of him, and then it was too late.

He woke up in a cocoon, being leered at by a Wraith he didn't recognize. He figured he was pretty much doomed, even managed to reconcile himself to being fed on, but it never happened. After a while, the Wraith stopped dropping by to look at him. The ship felt emptier, less occupied – maybe a result of the lack of food, culling parties having to go further, though that didn't explain why they kept him. After a while, it stopped mattering.

The next thing he remembered clearly was someone cutting him loose of the cocoon.

Ford lists off the addresses of the places he passed through while he was running; six of them are places that Atlantis teams went to in the same period. John doesn't tell Ford this, doesn't even make a note of it when he writes up his report, but he can't shake the idea that they could have walked right past him and not even known – there are so many people on Atlantis now who've never met Ford – that they could have ended this months ago. He spends an hour in the gym, getting tossed around the place by Teyla, and he doesn't feel better at the end, but at least the burning need to hit something is gone.

He tells Lorne to make up a photo board of people taken by the Wraith and not accounted for, and get the off-world teams to learn the faces. It feels a lot like bolting the barn door while the horse is leaping the hedge and heading for freedom, but it's the only thing he's got left to do.

hr

Although John feels worse after hearing Ford's story, Ford himself seems to feel better, like he's handed off responsibility for this to John. He actually smiles when John walks into his room the next day.

"You know what I noticed?" he says as John sits down, not even waiting for John to run through his usual selection of dumb conversational openers.

"What's that?"

"No more orange scrubs." John blinks at him, kind of lost, and Ford adds, "These are better," plucking at his white scrub top.

"Not many people look good in orange," John agrees, and swallows hard around the ridiculously stupid lump in his throat.

hr

Beckett and Heightmeyer agree a couple of days later that Ford can have visitors, but not too many and not for too long.

Twenty-four hours after that, John draws up a chart with time slots for visits and asks people to sign up – it's the only way to keep the corridor outside the infirmary free of people wanting to welcome back someone they all thought they'd lost.

He knows Teyla and Rodney both visit, separately, but he doesn't ask, either them or Ford, about the visits. He kind of wants to take the whole team along, but he's not sure about that – Ronon's still wary of Ford and it seems too much like it would highlight what Ford doesn't have any more.

hr

Ford's been back on Atlantis for almost a month, long enough for it not to be the first topic of conversation every time the SGC contacts them; long enough for Ford to be wearing clothes rather than scrubs, his hospital room filled with things; long enough for John to allow his team back onto the mission rotation, even, trusting that Ford – that Atlantis – will be all right without him there.

The Daedalus is due in three days, bringing a handful of new scientists, letters from home and, if Mitchell was being serious rather than sarcastic in his last email (it's pretty hard to tell, most days) recordings of football games that are less than three months old. There's a bounce to the city's population that always comes in the week before Daedalus-day, and even Ford's feeling it, without knowing what it is.

When John tells him, he goes quiet for a long time, looking down at his hands and swinging his sock-clad feet gently back and forth. John waits it out.

"Do you think there'd be space for someone else, on the trip back?" he asks eventually.

"It's a big ship," John says. "I'm sure they could find you a corner, if you wanted."

He waits out another pause before Ford looks up at him, and it hits him, for real this time, just how much he still looks like Ford, even with the damaged eye, even with the scars that linger on his face, and how much he looks like a stranger at the same time, older and darker and a million miles away from the kid who leapt backwards through the gate and into another galaxy.

It really fucking hurts.

"I want to," Ford says. It takes John a minute to remember what they're talking about, which is enough for Ford to continue. "I mean, I want to see my family, show them I'm okay. And I guess – General, um, Landry probably wants to talk to me."

"He does," John agrees. Ford's status is still up in the air, partly because the question of what *Ford* wants is still up in the air. John actually thinks that Ford might decide to stick around the SGC, if he gets the option. Of course, if Landry has his way, Ford will probably be booted out of the Marines, but John figures he has a goodish case for arguing that Ford was under the influence of an enemy of Earth and thus not responsible for his actions. Mitchell's promised to keep an ear open, so John can go make Ford's case, if he needs to. "Look," he says, leaning forward slightly. "Whatever Landry or anyone else on Earth says, you helped save Atlantis from the Wraith, when they attacked. You're not – what happened after wasn't your fault." He feels stupid saying it, but he can't stand the thought of Ford going back to Earth without hearing it.

"Once an Atlantis marine, always an Atlantis marine?" Ford asks, a smile chasing the corners of his face.

"Something like that," John agrees.

hr

Ford bids his farewells to those who want to say them in the infirmary, or to almost all of those who want to say them; when John swings by to walk him down to the gate-room, where those who are leaving are gathering to be beamed aboard the Daedalus, he finds Teyla and Rodney hovering outside.

"So you guys are like the farewell version of a welcome party, huh?" Ford asks when he finally comes out of the infirmary. He's dressed in an expedition uniform, bag slung over one shoulder, and John fights down an insane urge to tell him he can't leave. He loves his current team, respects Ronon and feels like he's finally found someone he really gets, who gets him, but God, he's never realized how much he misses his old team still. How much he misses everyone they lost from the first year, the losses that ache more than anything that's happened since.

He misses whatever Rodney says in response, but it makes Ford laugh and Teyla smile.

They walk down to the gate-room in a silence that hovers somewhere between comfortable and awkward; it's the first time they've been alone together in months, and more than likely the last time they ever will be, and even Teyla doesn't seem to have an easy word to break the silence.

The gate-room is buzzing with people, and they hang back in the corridor, in unspoken agreement that they don't want to say their goodbyes in front of other people.

Teyla goes first, her hands on Ford's shoulders, bending her head to his for a long moment, both of them closing their eyes. "Your actions with the enzyme were very stupid," she tells him quietly. "But you will always be my friend, Aiden."

Ford's smile is a little shaky. "Thanks, Teyla. That means a lot."

"Ford," Rodney says, holding out a hand. Ford gives him the same slightly confused, slightly exasperated look that John's seen a million times in the field and hugs him instead, a quick, back-slapping gesture.

"Good luck, Doc."

"Um, you too," Rodney says, pulling back. "With, you know, everything."

"Thanks," Ford says, just a little bit dry, and then it's John's turn.

John doesn't really do hugs, a salute seems a little inappropriate (fitting, but inappropriate), and a handshake isn't enough. Not wholly surprisingly, Ford takes the decision out of his hands, stepping right up to John and putting his arms round John's shoulders, waiting for John to return the gesture.

"Good luck," John says, struggling for something else, something more. "If you ever want to come back..."

Ford nods in a way that doesn't say anything. "Good luck," he says. "Try and keep away from the bugs."

"Could have used that advice a while ago," John says and gets a shadow of Ford's old grin in return.

Ford looks at them all for a long moment, then shrugs his pack more firmly onto his shoulder, nods at them all, and walks into the gate-room. John ought to be up in the control room with Elizabeth, but he doesn't move, figures he's okay since Rodney and Teyla don't either.

After a while, he becomes aware of Ronon's presence with them, though no-one says anything.

When Sergeant Gustav from the Daedalus announces that they're ready to beam everyone aboard, John closes his eyes and doesn't open them until Ford's gone.


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