blue flamingos

Gray Skies Surround Me

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis/Stargate SG1

Category/Rated: Gen, PG-13

Year/Length: 2009/ ~13,293 words

Pairing: John/Cam

Spoilers: post-SGA 519 Vegas so *major spoilers* for that episode, and it won't make much sense without seeing it.

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

Warning:

Summary: He still thinks he's maybe dreaming, because there's a man, sitting by his bed. A man in Air Force dress blues, smart, blond, head bent, still pretty, even half turned away.

Series:

Author's Notes:

Beta:

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

hr

John's listened to – God, more people than he wants to remember – talk about a light, when they thought they were going to die. He's always mocked them, in his head, sometimes out loud, but his last coherent thought, cutting through the litany of fuck, fuck, this hurts, did it work, it hurts, let it stop, please, God, did it work is, Fuck, they were right.

hr

He wakes up, briefly, to more lights, hands touching him, voices, and then someone touches the wrong place and he hears himself screaming as he passes out again.

Not over.

hr

He wakes up, wakes up, wakes up, wakes up, light and noise, and voices he doesn't recognize, a fog of incomprehension over everything. All he knows is that he isn't dead, and he's never conscious for long enough to feel anything about that.

hr

He doesn't even realize, at first, that he's awake for real this time. He's in a hospital bed, not a surprise, private room, which is, a little, but not that much, since he was shot by an alien. Sunlight, machines, normal, expected, he's done this all before. None of it is anything but normal and expected, signs that he's awake.

He still thinks he's maybe dreaming, because there's a man, sitting by his bed. A man in Air Force dress blues, smart, blond, head bent, still pretty, even half turned away. It makes John's throat hurt, sudden flash of memory so sharp he's blinking back tears from the smoke and the sand. There's no-one in the Air Force who cares enough about him to come sit by his bedside, wait for him to wake up.

There's no-one at all.

Doesn't even matter if he's awake for real – he's already fading out again, before the guy can look up.

hr

There's a part of him, as he drifts up, and that's new, coming up slowly, a part of him that expects the guy to be there still, expects that this is the same dream. There's a part of him that expects the guy to be gone, no more there than the crashed chopper was.

There's no part of him that expects the guy to be there, still, only dressed now in blue BDUs and a black t-shirt, leaning back in the visitor's chair reading a battered paperback. He thinks his brain could maybe conjure an Air Force officer, after McKay dredged up all the memories, but he's not sure it could conjure an impeccable officer into this guy, relaxed and casual in what's obviously a base uniform, but not one John's seen here.

The guy looks up, almost absently. His eyes fix on John's face, lighten. "Hey, you're awake." He's got a touch of southern in his voice, half-familiar, maybe. A guard? One of McKay's people? John's brain is fuzzed out on painkillers, coherent thought somewhere that isn't here. He was dying in the desert, ready to let go, done his duty, and maybe someone, somewhere would be a tiny bit proud of him, for once, and now he's not – not in the desert, not dying, not making anyone proud, probably. Not sliding away, and the pain of being shot is gone, but the rest's still there, dug up and swirled around by McKay and quitting and aliens and being shot.

Not over.

"Lie still," the guy says. He leans over John, not quite long enough for John to find the energy to twitch away, then straightens up. "The doctor's on her way."

John thinks of the young, blonde coroner, who wasn't really a coroner at all, maybe, and it's not the first time he's wondered where his own coroner really went, but now he's wondering what these people really do to people who stumble over aliens on Earth. The beat of one of the monitors kicks up, and the guy's face goes tight. He looks back at the open door, then to John, worry on his face.

John thinks he's going to touch, thinks of half-forgotten moves, trained and not, but he can feel the tubes going into his body, and he knows he can't fight.

"It's okay," the guy says, low and reassuring. "Try to calm down, you're okay now, I swear. It's over, you're safe. You're safe."

And then the doctor's there, hand on John's arm, something cold in his IV line, and John hears himself say, "No," pleading, as he slides away again.

hr

He's surprised to wake up. Surprised to wake up more coherent, surprised to wake up in the same place, surprised to wake up when there's still sunlight... Surprised to wake up.

Not quite surprised to see the Air Force guy there again, but not quite prepared to not be surprised, either.

"Try not to panic this time," the guy says, and yeah, that's definitely southern in that voice. John grew up in Virginia, but his mom grew up in Kansas, and the guy's accent is close enough to John's memories of hers to be comforting on some level he can't fight. "Dr Lam hates having to sedate her patients before she gets to talk to them."

John laughs, scratchy and dry. His brain thinks it's always too soon to start relaxing around people, but he can't quite fight off the instinctive good vibe enough to believe this guy is waiting around to kill him. They could have just left him there, could have injected him with something while he was incoherent.

He's done a lot of stupid and not-so-stupid shit on instinct, but never because he hadn't already worked through the logic first.

The guy grins. "You want to try this again? Lam's gonna be pissed if you pass out on her."

John knows he's still drugged up – has to be, pain turned right down – but he doesn't have the same tug of unconsciousness as before. "Yeah," he says.

Lam – Carolyn Lam, not Keller, not the coroner who isn't his, not one of McKay's people – is distant and professional and thorough. She doesn't remind him of anyone, doesn't ask him anything he's not ready to answer. Tells him everything he needs to know, about serious injury, and multiple surgeries, prognoses eventual full recovery. Promises him food if he's still awake in an hour's time.

Leaves Mr. Anonymous – Colonel Anonymous, from her greeting – behind when she goes.

John wonders if it's medics he has a thing for, except he's spent more time in the same room as the colonel than he has with anyone he wasn't fucking since Afghanistan, and the crawling urge to be away hasn't come on yet. Has to be more than the accent, and he's sure as hell not a medic.

The colonel walks Dr Lam to the door, closes it behind her. Comes back to sit by John's bed, leaning on the edge and looking at him.

"Who're you?" John asks. He tries to put a little tough detective into it, but it just comes out curious.

"Colonel Cameron Mitchell." Mitchell tilts his head, kind of like a field salute. "You know, you're lucky to be alive."

"If you say so, sir," John says, and wants to bite it back immediately. Fucking ingrained habits, and he thought he'd shaken that one years ago.

Mitchell winces. "Please don't," he says. John wonders if he means the sir or the bitterness. Maybe both. John doesn't feel lucky, and he doesn't want to feel inferior. "Cam, or Mitchell. Sir is when I've had to yell."

"Okay."

There's silence. The crawling feeling is coming up on him after all. He wants to leave. Can't. Even if he discharged himself, took out the tubes himself, he's got nowhere to go. Car's probably destroyed, no job. Left the keys to his apartment behind. Mikey will have been there by now, taken anything worth having.

He wonders why they bothered rescuing him.

"If it wasn't for the Daedalus beaming Dr Lam and her Ancient machines over here, you'd be dead," Mitchell says bluntly. His expression isn't blunt, it's twisted, anxious. Guilty, maybe, or maybe John's just too used to seeing guilt.

"The Daedalus," John repeats. He knows the memories are there, the detail of what McKay told him, but he's got layers of cotton over them. He's back in the same base McKay brought him to before, he knows that. Wonders if the Wraith is still there as well. It's probably starved by now.

"Yeah, one of Earth's interplanetary ships," Mitchell says. "Beamed you here, beamed Lam up from the SGC, and don't ask me how all her Ancient things work, but they sure did the trick on you."

John nods. Ancient races on other planets, and the chair that John had felt trying to pull him in. Nearly killed by one race of aliens, saved by another one, and if it wasn't for McKay's idea of who John should be, none of it would have happened, and John would be somewhere else with the Wraith's money, starting over.

Or being fed on by a Wraith with a sucker in its hand. Can't quite believe he's maybe saved the world.

"The device –" he starts, unsure. Needing to check.

"We destroyed it," Mitchell says. That guilt again. It's not just in John's head, it's on Mitchell's face.

Mitchell's a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force. There's no reason for him to be hanging out at John's bedside.

You're a detective. Use your powers of deduction. McKay said that. Maybe. Maybe someone else. Maybe no-one.

"Why're you here?"

Mitchell looks down, back up. Determined expression. "I was flying one of the planes in the air strike on the Wraith's trailer."

He still looks guilty. Doesn't get it. Doesn't know.

He's not responsible for John being hurt. He's responsible for John being alive.

*

John falls asleep again not long after that, and when he wakes up, Mitchell's gone. That's that, then. See John, make sure he didn't fuck him over any worse than the rest of this godforsaken operation, duty done, back to his life.

Just like everyone else.

hr

Except that, halfway through the next morning, just as John's started to get really pissed off with being pretty much tied to the bed by all the tubes Lam refuses to take out yet, there's a knock at the half-open door.

"Hey," Mitchell says, leaning round it and grinning at him. "Feel up to a visitor?"

John wants to want to say no, but he doesn't want to say no. He doesn't want to be alone here, where no-one knows how to find him and he's far from sure that anyone really has his best interests at heart. He's been alone for years, but never so far away that no-one could find him.

Mitchell's still lizard brain reassuring, even though John doesn't want him to be.

"Sure," he says.

Mitchell grins, slides inside. "I would have brought you some grapes, but they're kind of hard to put my hands on all the way out here."

John doesn't know what to say. Mitchell's joking, obviously, casual banter that John kind of remembers from before, but tough Vegas detectives don't do banter, they do sharp, sardonic smiles. John can make himself not do that, but he can't remember how to do the rest.

Mitchell doesn't seem to care, just drops into the chair by John's bed again. "You need a radio, at least. Doesn't the quiet get to you?"

John shrugs. The drugs blot out everything that usually creeps into the quiet. He'll worry about it when Lam starts lowering the dose.

"Well, it's getting to me," Mitchell says firmly. "I'll see what I can do."

"You don't have to keep coming back," John says, not sure why he does, what he's expecting.

"I know," Mitchell says. The guilt flickers on his face for a moment. "But you're just about the only person here other than Lam who'll actually talk to me, and she'll only do it when she's not harassing the other docs for trying to take over your care."

John doesn't know what to make of any of that.

Mitchell grins again. He has a nice smile, open and friendly. John wonders how much of it is put on, if any of it's real. "So, you a sports fan? Football? Basketball? Baseball?"

"Football," John says. Whatever's showing when he can't sleep, really, but given a choice, football.

"You definitely need a radio," Mitchell says.

hr

Mitchell never stays long – twenty minutes, half an hour, maybe forty minutes – but he's never gone for more than a few hours either, keeps coming back. He brings a radio, digital, because John can't twist for long enough to tune any other kind. He doesn't bring grapes, but he does bring chocolate, once, and rolls of different candies. John can't imagine where he's getting them at the base, wonders if they're Mitchell's private stash. Maybe he's picking them up on his way in, because Mitchell never comes by after nine in the evening, or before eight in the morning.

For five days, Mitchell, Lam, and two nurses are the only people John sees. He's not sure if it's on purpose or not, but he finds himself relaxing fractionally, unable to stop it. The most they want from him is for him to take a deep breath or offer up his favorite football team. They're easy, and nice to him, and it's been too long since he had either. He doesn't have any defenses left against it.

On the sixth day, the door to his room opens and McKay walks in.

John was expecting Mitchell, who usually stops by to torture John with the coffee he still isn't allowed, about this time. The surprise of seeing some else makes his breath catch, and he coughs, halfway to choking, his rapid-healed lungs not up to the strain yet, even with the tubes gone.

McKay stands there, dark suit, neat hair, and waits until John falls back against his pillows, wipes his eyes. Then he moves to stand at the foot of John's bed, still watching him.

"Detective," he says finally.

John shakes his head. "I quit."

"I know," McKay says. Of course he does. He knows everything about John. Probably knows about Mitchell, whatever there is to know about him. Maybe even sent him. "Mr. Sheppard, then."

John's had some kind of rank behind his name since he was twenty-two. His name sounds wrong without it. "Come to thank me for tracking down your alien?" he asks.

McKay's mouth tilts up, like he'd be smiling if he every managed something like happiness. John knows how that feels. "That was good thinking," McKay says. It sounds more like an insult than a compliment, but John suspects most of what he says does. He wonders if the flash memory of McKay asking if he was okay, near the end of the weirdest tour he's ever been on, is real. "You're lucky to be alive."

It sounded nicer when Mitchell said it.

"That's what they tell me," John agrees, neutral. McKay turns him back into the guy who slid along the edge of insubordination, same tone, same words. The guy who got a lot of people killed, going back... Somehow you've managed to live with yourself since then. Though I'm not sure other people would, if they knew the truth. "What do you want?"

McKay just looks at him for a long moment. John fights not to look away, doesn't succeed. No-one knows as much about him as McKay, and John knows nothing about him. He doesn't want anyone who knows all his secrets.

"To see you, I suppose," McKay says eventually. "I wasn't sure I would again."

It could mean anything. He thought John would be killed. He thought John would run, take the money. The money. Still in his car, if it wasn't destroyed. They have to know. He thought he'd go back to Atlantis.

"Still here."

What do you want me to say? and it had felt like – like something was coming, like McKay was going to offer him something. John had tried twice before he could ask the question, not sure if he didn't want to turn it down or didn't want to accept it. For the moment, nothing.

"So I see." McKay doesn't even blink. "Congratulations on that." Long pause. "The device the Wraith was using created a small rip in the fabric of space-time. It's fixed now, but if we'd been much later – well, let's just say there's a very good chance neither of us would be here now."

John breathes. McKay closed the door, and the room feels too small.

McKay looks at him, then nods slightly. "Not so different from that other John Sheppard," he says, like he's making some kind of pronouncement. Some kind of statement of intent. Something unpleasant crawls under John's skin. "I'll leave you to your recovery. I'm sure you need the rest."

John nods. Doesn't take another breath until McKay's footsteps fade away.

He doesn't sleep any more that morning.

hr

"Everything okay?" Mitchell asks when he wanders in that afternoon.

"Sure," John says. It sounds too easy, too relaxed. Faked, but he's not good with people, hasn't been in years.

"Okay," Mitchell says, slow. He sits down though, lets it go. Mitchell is better at people than almost anyone John's ever met. "You feel up to a movie?"

"Galaxy Quest?" Mitchell's been insisting he has to see it once the tubes are out and he can sit up for more than ten minutes, ever since John admitted to never having done so.

"Damn straight." Mitchell shifts slightly. John picked up a few observational skills as a detective, enough to brace himself for whatever's coming next. "I'm leaving tomorrow."

It's not exactly what John was expecting, as much as he was expecting anything, but it's not so far off. Mitchell flies, and, sure, this place could have planes hidden somewhere, but there's no way a pilot of Mitchell's rank who also flies has nothing to do but hang around a secret base in the desert. "Okay."

Mitchell shifts again, turns the dvd case in his hands. "I'm going over to the Mountain, the SGC. Stargate Command." He looks up, flash of a grin. "Finally got my chance with them."

"Good for you," John says. He doesn't sound too bitter, to his own ears. Doesn't know what he has to be bitter about, anyway.

"Thanks," Mitchell says softly. He shifts closer, looks worried. Looks like he's going to confess, and John hates confessions, the litany of wrongs, of excuses. "A friend got me into the program, flying F-302s. My flight was nearly shot down, helping SG1 fight off an attack on Earth, five years ago. I've been trying to get a spot with an SG team ever since. They promoted me right before the air strike, I don't usually do that. I was just handy."

"Okay," John says again. He wants to ask why Mitchell's telling him this, as much as he understands of it, amongst the acronyms. Wants to ask why Mitchell's telling him now. Wants to know how he spent a week with the guy and never thought to ask any of it. "You're not based here."

"No. I've been screening scientists for the team. It should have been at the SGC, but it was attacked a couple of weeks ago, they needed the space while they rebuilt."

He says it like it's nothing. Maybe it is. Base blown up, alien nearly destroys Earth, typical week.

John doesn't do regrets, unless he's been drinking. John doesn't drink. He doesn't wish he'd never picked up that case file.

"I'm sorry," Mitchell says. Maybe he even means it. He looks like he does.

He works on a top secret program. He's probably a good actor.

"I wanted to stay here longer, but you know the Air Force." He smiles, inviting John to share the amusement, but John can't. He's frozen. Mitchell's smile slides away. "Sheppard? What's wrong?"

"How did you – I didn't tell you that." John sounds frightened, to himself, curses his slipping control. He doesn't belong with these people. When he's better, they'll cut him loose, if he's lucky, if they don't do something worse.

Mitchell looks awkward. "No, I'm sorry. I looked up your file."

"You –" His file. The rescue mission. All the people who died. John's dishonorable discharge. Maybe even the sealed record.

Though I'm not sure other people would, if they knew the truth.

"Sheppard." Mitchell's on his feet, looking down at John, anxious, tense. "I'm sorry, I should have said before. I wasn't trying to pry, I wanted –"

John turns his head away, closes his eyes. "I don't think I'm feeling up to the movie," he says. It's stilted, polite, like he learned in his parents' house. "Can you shut the door behind you?"

Mitchell does.

hr

Mitchell doesn't come back. It's quiet in John's hospital room, the radio turned off. He's not drugged enough to doze off again.

He's not surprised that Mitchell doesn't come back. Still doesn't really know why Mitchell kept coming anyway. Mitchell was always going to go off back to his shiny new career; he doesn't need John as a friend.

John doesn't need any friends. Sure as hell doesn't need friends who pity him. He's been alone for years, and he's been fine.

Mitchell left the dvd behind, on the little cabinet by his bed. Blue cover just on the edge of John's vision, constant distraction.

John should ask one of the nurses to take it, but he doesn't.

hr

A week and a half later, Dr Lam sits down in Mitchell's chair when she gets done with her examination of John, and leans her elbows on her knees.

"You're healing much better than I'd expected, given how little we know about the Ancient technology I was using on you, and how serious your wounds were."

John locks down his expression so it doesn't show any of the cold, swooping feeling in his stomach. This is it.

"That said, you're still not a hundred per cent." She gives him a significant look, not that she needs to. John was there for yesterday, when he tried to lift his right arm above his head and nearly passed out from the pain. "I'm not ready to release you back into society yet, but people are starting to make a fuss about us having all this equipment out here, instead of back at the SGC where it's more likely to be used."

According to the male nurse, who likes to prove to John that he knows everything going on in the place, they couldn't risk beaming John even the slightly further distance to the SGC, brought him here instead. Beaming Lam and her equipment was apparently highly irregular. John suspects McKay's hand.

"What does that mean?"

Lam smiles slightly. "You and I are going to take a little trip," she says. John waits, not sure what she's trying to tell him. "My equipment and I are being recalled to the SGC. You're not well enough for me to discharge, so you're coming with me."

The SGC. The stargate. The general in charge of the project. The project, which he barely understands from the little bits the nurses have told him since Mitchell left.

Mitchell.

hr

He expects to be back in an infirmary room, but, after they beam in – which, for the record, is the fucking creepiest thing that's happened to John all month, including the Wraith – Lam sticks him in a wheelchair and gets an orderly to wheel him along a corridor as she walks next to him.

John's not sure why he was expecting this place to be more... alien. Different. Strange... but it's a surprise to find himself being wheeled down gray corridors populated by people in various colored BDUs. It's so normal, it makes him feel more disoriented.

Lam opens the door to a room around the corner from the infirmary and nods for the orderly to wheel John in. It's small, basically-furnished, with an odd triangular print of a blue planet on the wall. Base quarters.

"You'll stay here until I'm satisfied with your recovery," Lam says. "Someone will be by to check on you every couple of hours, and to bring you food. You need a pass to get off this level, but the corridors loop. No more than two loops every hour. The infirmary's down the hall and left – come and get me if you feel worse. The red button is an emergency call button." The orderly parks the wheelchair by the bed and John stands up, takes the handful of steps, and sits down on the edge of the bed. The orderly kneels down and unfastens the running shoes Lam brought for the trip. Apparently, he gets to keep the sweatpants and t-shirt.

"Anything else you need?" Lam asks, watching him.

A book. A way out. Someone to tell him something, anything, about this place. Some idea of who else – what else – is on this level. The drugs he was on right after getting shot, the ones that made all the weirdness seem normal.

"No," John says. "I'm good."

"I'll be back in an hour," Lam says, and leaves, taking the orderly and the wheelchair with her.

John's allowed – encouraged, even – to walk around, get his body used to moving again after so long lying around. Apparently, the technology which rapid-healed him can't do anything about how weak being shot twice left some of his internal organs, and the walking is supposed to help build up to him not being a panting, ragged mess if he ever has to move at more than snail's pace again.

With all that in mind, John ventures out into the corridors – barefoot, because bending over to fasten his shoes makes him lightheaded. He goes left, the opposite direction to the infirmary. There are still people in the corridors, most of them moving with purpose. They don't really look at him, though they do step aside for him. They're mostly in green or blue BDUs, a few in all-black uniforms. A couple in dress blues. Apart from those, John can't tell whether they're military or civilian. There must be a system to it, but it's not one he can pick out.

A few of them are wearing jackets, with SGC patches on the sleeves. No flags.

John tries not to look at them too much, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The corridors have metal floors, but they're not cold, even against his bare feet. Moving feels good, though he misses the light from his old room's window. He's underground, no natural light anywhere.

Somewhere in this building is a gate that people use to travel to other planets. Could be using to travel to other planets right now.

Other galaxies.

McKay didn't come back after that one visit. No-one mentions him, and John hasn't asked. He hopes McKay's gone back to Atlantis, hopes he stays there. Whatever he had to say about the other John Sheppard he met...

John turns right at the end of the corridor, keeps going. He might as well see as much of this place while he has the chance, even if all he gets to see are identical corridors and closed doors.

hr

The SGC is no more boring than the other base, the name of which John still doesn't know, not sure if he could ask, but John is more bored. Maybe because he's starting to feel better, maybe because he feels closer to what's happening. He doesn't care why, not really.

He still has Mitchell's dvd, but he doesn't ask for a dvd player. It doesn't sound funny, from the back cover, just dumb.

He walks the corridors over and over, never quite pushing past what Lam advised. He sees some of the same people, mostly different ones. They still don't acknowledge him, beyond stepping aside for him. He doesn't see anyone else injured. They probably get to recuperate somewhere else.

He's getting better, but that's all that changes. He feels like he's in the world's longest holding pattern, round and round, corridors, nurses' visits, his own spiraling thoughts, every day. There's not even any weather to watch change, and his radio doesn't work this far underground.

He thinks: what next? When he's healed, doesn't need to live close to a doctor. When they send him away. He's got nothing, literally. Couple of thousand dollars in his bank account, maybe the wreck of his car. No job, no money, no home. There's Dave, except that John missed Dad's funeral. Dave's voicemail message had been angry and bitter, after, just like Dad's used to be. There are people in Vegas, but – But. John's always known that wasn't working, and the thought of going back...

He wishes, for a moment, for McKay, so he could ask: why did you bother coming for me, if this is all you're willing to give?

hr

Lam usually comes to him, not the other way round, but she also comes strictly every two hours, on the hour, and apparently she's trained John into the routine, because when she hasn't come by ten past, he goes looking for her.

She's not at her desk in the infirmary, but she has an office at the back. John heads back there, wondering if she's maybe gotten caught up in something, let time get away. He doesn't exactly look around as he walks through – he always hated people looking at him when he was in the sick bay – but he can't stop the way his eyes flicker to the sides.

And light on a familiar figure in one of the beds, just turning to look in John's direction. John turns away, looking at the empty bed on the other side of the bay.

"Sheppard," Mitchell says, so he has to turn back. Mitchell's shifting awkwardly, obviously trying to push himself further into a sitting position. "I didn't know you were here."

John can see Lam's office, the door open. He can also see Mitchell, looking at him expectantly. He gives in, goes over to Mitchell's bedside. "Dr Lam brought me back with her and her equipment."

Mitchell smiles. Still pretty, even with the bruises. "We're pretty happy to have her back," he says. He shifts again, then gives up, sinking back into the pillows. "Well, I am anyway. Least she doesn't have cold hands."

"What happened?" John asks. Can't not. He's always wanted to know things – it's why he got two thirds of the way through his doctorate in math, why he became a detective. Partly why.

Mitchell shrugs, winces. "Accident on a mission. Turned on something we couldn't turn off, and it blew up a bit of a building. Could have been worse."

John's still recovering from being shot by an alien, he doesn't need Mitchell telling him this. He's opening his mouth to say goodbye, when the door to the infirmary opens and two women in green BDUs come in, straight over to Mitchell's bedside.

"Hey, guys."

"Cameron." The one with black pigtails swoops in and kisses his forehead. "Better?"

"Oh, much," Mitchell says, rolling his eyes. He looks behind her to the redhead who's hanging back slightly. Military, John thinks. "Cadman."

"Sir. You're not supposed to get hospitalized until you've been with the SGC for at least a month."

"I'll take it under advisement, Captain. Dr Anderson?"

The other woman sits on the edge of Mitchell's bed and steals a couple of grapes as Cadman shakes her head. "I think the blood freaked him out. He requested to be reassigned back to the base."

Mitchell sighs. "Great. Dig out the list of off-world qualified scientists with the gene, would you?"

Cadman's eyes flick over to John for a second. "Sure, sir."

Mitchell looks at him as well, and John realizes he's still standing there for no reason. "Captain Laura Cadman, Vala mal Doran, John Sheppard."

"Ah –" Vala starts knowingly, but Cadman pokes her shoulder and she stops. "Pleasure to meet you," Vala says instead.

"You too," John says hesitantly. "I should..."

"Looking for me?" Lam asks behind him.

"Yeah," John says, relieved, and flees to her office.

hr

"What gene?" John asks Lam the next day when she comes by to see him. He's been thinking about it all night, trying to make sense of Mitchell's comment, but he just doesn't have enough context.

"Excuse me?" Lam asks, ripping off the blood pressure cuff and making a note.

"Mitchell said he needed an off-world qualified scientist with the gene," John repeats.

Lam gives him a long, silent look. John's sure she knows something about him that he doesn't, but he's not going to ask. He's not ready. "Some people have what we call the ATA gene – Ancient Technology Activation. You need it for things like the weapons chair, back at Area 51, and for the technology in Atlantis."

The chair that McKay showed him, the one they used to take down the hive. The one that John couldn't stop looking at. "Why does Mitchell need someone with it?"

"You should ask him, it's his team," Lam says, mildly chiding.

John used to have a charming smile he used at moments like this. He remembers using it, he just can't remember how to make it look real any more.

Lam gives in. "The teams have started finding more Ancient technology in this galaxy in the last few months. Part of SG-5's remit is to look out for more of it. No-one else on his team has a strong enough expression of the gene."

"Right," John says. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Lam says, still looking at him strangely. She must have it, if she fixed him with Ancient technology. "Actually, that's something we need to talk about. Now that you're regaining your strength, there's a device in the infirmary that I'd like to use on you. It should help speed up your overall recovery. Get you back up to full strength much faster than currently."

John knows the answer he's supposed to give here. "Sure. Hook me up."

hr

Things are hazy for a couple of days after Lam does whatever it is she does with the Ancient machinery, or maybe it takes a couple of days, John's not clear. He can't even tell if he's dreaming or not, McKay's voice, Lam's, Mitchell's. A man he doesn't recognize. The two women from Mitchell's team. A voice he knows isn't real.

It takes another day after the haze starts wearing off for it to disappear completely, so he's still in the infirmary when Mitchell comes in. His cheek is still bruised, but he's got the bounce John remembers in his step. He's in blue BDUs this time, making his eyes look really blue.

"Welcome back," he says, stopping at John's bedside.

"Thanks." John sits up, surprised by how much better he feels. That Ancient technology is some good stuff.

"Still got the dvd?" Mitchell asks.

John feels himself flush, not sure if it's the memory of his reaction or the memory of what Mitchell knows. Both, maybe. "Yeah."

Mitchell smiles. "Great. Lam's talking about releasing you in a couple of days, you should come by my place and watch it. I'll get the rest of the team over."

John's brain stalls on 'rest of.' He's pretty sure he's missed something. "You replaced your scientist?" he asks.

Mitchell's smile freezes, then slips away. "I'd hoped so," he says, looking at John expectantly.

"Great," John says. He wants to ask what Mitchell's expecting from him here, like he did McKay, but he's just as afraid of the answer now as he was then.

Mitchell sighs. "General O'Neill hasn't been by to talk to you?"

"No, I thought he might like more than twenty minutes to recover from being zapped by Ancient medical equipment before I put a complete career change to him," a voice behind Mitchell says, and a man in actual uniform steps round him.

Mitchell winces slightly. "Sorry, sir. I've been told I can be impatient."

"Oh, I'm well aware of that, Mitchell," the other man – the general, John realizes, from the stars on his shoulder, presumably O'Neill – says. "So you're John Sheppard."

"Yes, sir," John says. He ruthlessly quashes the flare of hope that's trying to rise.

"You're quite the hot topic of conversation around here," probably-O'Neill says. "Honestly, at this point I'd agree to their proposals just to get five minutes to actually spend on running this base."

"Sir?" John says.

The general turns an accusing look on Mitchell. "You haven't told him yet?"

"No, sir," Mitchell says. "I thought you had."

The general sighs. "Sometimes, I really wish I'd stayed in Washington after Landry had his heart attack," he grumbles. "Fine. Mitchell, off you go and do some paperwork or something, would you? I can't take another minute of you giving me puppy dog eyes."

John bites his lip, wants to laugh. Mitchell just shakes his head. "Later, Sheppard."

The general waits for him to leave, then sits down at John's bedside. "I'd like to assume Mitchell told you who I am, but clearly making assumptions about his ability to pass on information would be a mistake, given the display I just witnessed, so – my name's General O'Neill, I'm in command of this base and the stargate program in general. Again," he adds, half to himself.

"Good to meet you, sir," John says.

"I'm sure," O'Neill says dryly. "I've been told that Dr McKay gave you quite the crash course in the basics of the program, so I'll skip it. What is important is that you've been tested for the ATA gene, and found to have one of the strongest expressions of it that we've seen in some time. That makes us quite keen to have you."

John opens his mouth to say something, he's not sure what, but O'Neill keeps going. "On the other hand, you fucked up your Air Force career quite spectacularly, and convincing the president that he should reactivate your commission is going to be an uphill struggle."

He goes quiet for a moment. John waits. "On the third hand, which I could really use this week, that stunt with the Wraith suggests you're just like half the people here. Crazy, a little suicidal, and stupidly lucky. So that's working in your favor. And we could certainly use you in Atlantis."

John's stomach drops. This is what he was afraid of, when he wasn't afraid that they were just going to send him back out into the world, knowing all this but not allowed in. "Yes, sir," he says, knowing it's next thing to meaningless here.

O'Neill gives him a penetrating look, like he can tell what John's thinking. He says, "Hmm. But Mitchell seems very keen to have you on his team, and he's surprisingly persuasive. So I'm proposing that we stick you with him for a few days, give you a taste of what this place is really like, try out this gene of yours, and I can have a chat with the president." He makes a face like he's just bitten into a lemon. "Which is sure to be a fun experience. And then we'll talk again."

"Yes, sir," John says, more of an affirmative this time. Not that O'Neill's really asking him. Not that he needs to be asked: there are aliens, there's a secret project defending Earth against them. It's the first thing John's wanted to be a part of in years. The first chance to try to make up for what he did in Afghanistan. "Thank you, sir."

"Don't thank me yet," O'Neill says, standing up. "Report to Colonel Mitchell when Dr Lam releases you."

"Yes, sir."

O'Neill gets to the foot of his bed, then comes back. "The money we found in the trunk of your car," he says. John feels his face go hot. He's done a few stupid things as a detective, things he regrets. He never thought he'd get caught. "I assume you were on your way to bring that to us when you got waylaid by thoughts of power lines."

John clears his throat twice, but he can't make any words come out. He thinks if he has to speak, he might find himself sobbing instead. He feels more homesick than he ever has since his mom died, and his throat hurts.

He'd give a lot for Mitchell to walk in right now.

O'Neill just nods. "That's what I thought," he says, and walks out.

John turns his head to the wall, and breathes.

hr

Mitchell turns up twenty minutes later, looking at him expectantly.

John nods, still feeling wobbly with relief.

Mitchell's face breaks into a huge grin. "Oh yeah," he crows.

Lam pokes her head out of her office. "Colonel," she says reprovingly, but she's smiling, a little.

"Sorry, Doc," Mitchell says, not sounding very contrite. "Just got some good news."

"Clearly," Lam says. "Try to keep it from disturbing the entire floor, please."

"Sure thing." Mitchell comes over to sit by John's bed. "SG-5?"

John nods again. He's still not sure he trusts himself to speak. A handful of weeks ago he was accepting his death in the desert, and now he's halfway back into the Air Force. It doesn't feel real.

Mitchell's still grinning. "Great. We're definitely doing movie night in that case. I'll talk Lam into letting you back to your quarters here, we can do it on base."

"I heard that, Colonel," Lam calls from her office.

"By which I mean, bow to Dr Lam's superior medical judgment, which I'm confident will include allowing Sheppard to spend a couple of hours outside the infirmary," Mitchell calls back.

John tries out a smile that feels strange on his face. He still feels a little like crying, has no idea what he has to cry about. He refuses to do it here, where anyone can see.

Mitchell hitches his chair a little closer, rests one hand firmly on John's shoulder. "Hey," he says softly, looking right at John. "Get some more sleep, okay? It's gonna be fine."

He sounds so certain that John relaxes, lets his eyes slide closed. The last thing he feels is Mitchell's hand still on his shoulder.

hr

He's much more together by the next night, when Mitchell collects him from the infirmary and hands over a visitor's pass. It helps that he's dressed in actual clothes, jeans and a shirt. Not that he has any idea where this stuff is coming from, since it isn't his. He's not going back to his old apartment, even if this doesn't work out. If there's anything left there, it's nothing he wants.

"Just temporary, till O'Neill gets your status sorted," Mitchell explains, clipping the pass on John's collar. His fingers brush against the skin of John's throat, and John can't quite contain his shiver. "Sure you don't want to join us, Doc?"

Lam looks up from where she's writing on the chart of the guy in the bed next to John's. "I'm washing my hair," she says, completely deadpan, and John cracks up.

"Your loss," Mitchell says. "Come on, Sheppard, before Vala eats all the popcorn."

It turns out they're going to Mitchell's quarters, not John's. It makes sense, since John has a single bed and no dvd player. Mitchell's quarters don't look much more lived in, but he does have a small couch, which currently contains Cadman and Vala, in civvies and fighting over the remote control.

"The trailers are the best part," Vala's insisting when the door slides open.

"The trailers are all for movies we've *already seen*," Cadman complains.

Mitchell mutters, "Welcome to SG-5," in John's ear, then says, louder, "What did I say about trying to act like normal people?"

"That it was a lost cause?" Cadman suggests, smiling at both of them. "Evening, Sheppard."

"And it's really very unfair of you to expect me to act like a normal Earth person," Vala adds, "Since I don't even come from this charming little planet."

John blinks. Sure, he was wondering why Vala didn't have a title, but... He can't help the instinctive scan he does for some sign that she's not from Earth.

"You've been here four years," Cadman says. "That's plenty long enough to get acclimated."

"Perhaps I'd rather not conform to all of your Earth expectations just because I'm living here," Vala says loftily.

"Just try for one evening, okay?" Mitchell says, slightly pleading. "I'd rather not scare him off until we've been on even one mission together."

"Since you ask so nicely, darling," Vala says, looking up at John from under her eye lashes. "Why don't you come sit by me, John? Laura will move."

"Laura still has bruises from our last mission, she needs something more solid than that bed to sit on," Cadman corrects.

"Well," Vala says, standing up. "I suppose it'll have to be you and me on the bed then, Mitchell."

John's not sure whether to laugh or be alarmed. Mitchell just rolls his eyes. "No using me as a head rest this time," he says.

John watches the two of them settle, a good foot of space between them when Vala slides onto the bed next to him. "Sit down," Mitchell prompts, taking the remote from Vala and starting the movie.

John does, and Cadman holds out the bowl of popcorn to him.

The movie is pretty dumb, but funnier than it sounded. Even so, with the lights dimmed, John can't stop himself from dozing off. He doesn't quite fall asleep – never does in a room with people he doesn't know – but the conversation seems to be coming from a long way away, and when someone shakes his shoulder, he starts.

Mitchell takes a step back. "Vala and I are going down to the mess, she wants ice cream. You want anything?"

"Coffee?" John suggests, rubbing his eyes. Actually, ice cream sounds pretty good, but it's like there's some block on his tongue, keeping him from asking for it.

"Coffee ice cream coming up," Vala says cheerfully. John looks at her, not sure if she's deliberately misinterpreting or not.

He feels even more awkward left alone with Cadman. She's got to be at least ten years younger than him, and the couch isn't big enough for there to be much space between them. He should say something, but he doesn't know what.

"You're the one who saved Earth from the Wraith then?" she asks abruptly, twisting round to face him.

"I just found him," John corrects. He can feel his face getting hot, hopes he isn't blushing. He wishes everyone would stop talking about it. "Mitchell and the other pilots destroyed the machine."

I just went out there and got shot.

"Wouldn't have known where to aim without you," she says, then shrugs. "He's pretty keen to have you on the team."

"Yeah," John says, not sure what she's getting at. "I thought you were supposed to be getting a scientist."

"Guess I'm going to be doubling up," she says, grinning. "I'm nearly done with my PhD. I'd tell you the topic, but there's about three people in the world who'd understand it, and I guess you don't have a background in advanced physics."

"No," John admits. She seems too young to be nearly done with a PhD, as well as a captain in the armed forces. He's starting to realize just how dedicated the people around here are.

Her grin brightens a little more. "Not just a dumb marine," she says.

John smiles back awkwardly, not sure what to say, a little surprised to hear that she's a marine. He'd assumed everyone on the project was Air Force.

"Sorry," she says, maybe picking up his discomfort. "I was on Atlantis for a while, McKay ended up supervising some of the work I was doing, he used to tell me I had a couple more brain cells than most marines when I'd done something well."

John stiffens at the mention of McKay's name, can't help it. It feels like the man's everywhere.

"Sheppard?" she asks, frowning. "You need me to call Dr Lam?"

John shakes his head. "I'm fine. Sorry. Just –" He wants to ask if a lot of people do what she's doing, academia and the military. He gave up his PhD when he was deployed, never went back to finish it. He carried the notebook with his equations for months. Doesn't remember where he left it. It was just one more thing to be sacrificed for flying, until he had to sacrifice that as well.

"I'll get you a glass of water," she says, disappearing into the little bathroom and closing the door.

John takes a few deep breaths, figuring that's the real reason she left.

He hasn't got the money to pay to go back to school, even if it's some kind of correspondence class, and he can't ask the SGC to pay for it, even if they take him, but... It's something, maybe.

hr

He spends the night in the infirmary, wakes up tense and nervous. He's going to travel through a wormhole to another planet, with an alien, a marine, and the guy who nearly blew him up. The guy who's fighting a brigadier general to keep him, and John still doesn't know why.

He's going to put on a uniform and probably a gun, and be a representative of Earth to the people of another planet. He's going to use the gene he didn't even know he had to try to find 10,000 year old technology.

He's still moving the cold eggs around his plate when Mitchell shows up. "Ready?"

No.

"Sure," he says, bright as he can. Mitchell's expression flashes with worry for a moment.

"Nervous?"

John shrugs, not wanting to say yes. Not wanting to lie.

"Don't worry." Mitchell takes John's tray, puts it on the cupboard by the bed. "I've got your back."

Just like the first time he heard Mitchell's accent, John feels better.

Mitchell hands over a green uniform, combat boots that need to be worn in. Empty thigh holster, when John finishes putting on his uniform. John's hands stumble on the straps, the burn of familiarity.

"You passed your firearms recertification with the Vegas PD at ninety-seven per cent three months ago," Mitchell says quietly.

John nods. Thinks about all the things this job brings with it: automatic weapons. Regularly being shot at. Being expected to shoot back. Combat injuries. Losing people behind enemy lines. Losing people.

Rank behind his name. Uniform. Flying, maybe. A chance to go back to his math, to the safe familiarity of numbers. The Air Force, the feeling of belonging.

"You mean you don't carry some kind of advanced alien stun weapon?" he asks, almost sounding normal.

"Sometimes," Mitchell says. "Come on, before Cadman starts bitching at me about being late."

They stop by the armory, where Mitchell gets a tac vest, a nine mil, and a P-90, and John gets a tac vest and a nine mil. Mitchell gives him an apologetic look as he clips his P-90 to his vest. "You're not checked out on it, O'Neill doesn't want –"

"It's fine," John says. P-90s are as simple to shoot as it gets. He highly doubts he's forgotten how in the last five years.

He suspects that's at best only part of the reason O'Neill doesn't want him carrying one.

"Okay." Mitchell stops fiddling with his own weapon. "Want to go see the stargate?"

John's smile feels normal for the first time he can remember. "Lead the way."

Mitchell takes him down in an elevator, along several corridors, and through a set of blast doors that require Mitchell's ID card to open. John's expecting more corridors. He gets a large room with a huge metal ring in the middle of it, armed soldiers ranged against the walls. The ring is glowing with something that looks almost like water, except for how it's rippling vertically in a ring.

An artificial stable wormhole. Used for traveling to other planets. John feels a little weak-kneed.

Mitchell shuffles him back into the corner of the room, where Cadman and Vala are waiting. "What do you think?" Cadman asks, smiling.

"It's big," John says dumbly.

Mitchell laughs softly. "That's what I said."

"Are we –" John starts, gestures to the stargate. He's going to walk through that, walk on another planet. Somehow, it seems much less believable than aliens who want to feed on their life force being on Earth.

Vala sighs, exaggeratedly put upon. "SG-1 is coming in hot. We have to wait for them."

"How unreasonable of them to inconvenience us by getting caught up with people who want to kidnap Major Teldy and shoot Quinn," Cadman says, deadpan.

"Exactly!" Vala says, apparently serious. She turns to John. "You know, I worked with them for a while. Well, not this new SG-1, the original one. Back when I first came here."

"Yeah?" John asks. He's gotten the impression that SG-1 is some kind of big deal, beyond just being the number one team, but he hasn't figured out what the big deal actually is yet.

Vala sighs again, wistful this time. John thinks this might be more serious. "Of course, they all left in the end. Colonel Carter went off to be brilliant at Area 51, Teal'c went back to Dakara to be a political genius, and Daniel went off to Atlantis to do whatever it is that Daniel does with all his books. Leaving poor little me at the cruel mercy of General Landry, bounced between teams like a little match girl."

John's pretty sure that's not the same little match girl story he read, but he's not going to say anything.

"Yeah, but if they hadn't gone, you wouldn't be with us now," Mitchell points out.

"True, I suppose." Vala looks dubious, but her tone is warm.

The gate makes a strange sound, like something big and sticky popping. John looks over, and there are four people running through the blue ripples, a woman and three men. They come to a halt at the bottom of the ramp, and the blue flashes then disappears.

"Everyone okay?" O'Neill's voice asks over the PA system. John looks up when the members of SG-1 do, sees him leaning on a console behind a plate glass window.

"Yes, sir," one of the men – Major Teldy, maybe – says. "Quinn took a couple of blows to the head, though."

A scrawny looking man gives O'Neill a wry look. "I've got a hard head, sir."

"I'm sure. Let Dr Lam have a look at you anyway. The rest of you go with him. We'll debrief when she lets you go."

"Sir," the first man says, and the four of them troop out of the room.

"SG-5, you're up," O'Neill calls down. "Walter, dial the gate."

The middle band of the gate starts turning. A moment later, one of the triangular insets in the outer ring flashes orange with a thunk. "Chevron one encoded," a male voice says, and the band starts spinning again.

"Come on," Mitchell says. John follows him up to the yellow and black Keep Clear tape a couple of feet from the bottom of the ramp. Cadman steps up on John's left, Vala on her left, a fourth light flashing on.

"You ready?" Mitchell asks quietly.

John's hands feel empty without a weapon, even if they are going to a planet that's already been cleared as safe by another team "As I'll ever be," he says. He's not sure that's very ready.

"Chevron seven locked," the voice says. There's a moment when nothing happens, then a burst of the same water-like substance shooting out towards them. When it collapses back, the middle of the stargate is filled with the rippling surface it had when SG-1 came through.

John makes a mental note to ask if he can look at the theory behind this.

"Well?" O'Neill's voice asks. "Chop chop, Ancient technology to find, missions to complete. Off you go."

"Yes, sir," Mitchell says. He pulls on his cap and steps up onto the ramp. "Sheppard, with me. Cadman, Vala, take our six. Let's go."

John takes a deep breath and follows him.

hr

The mission's kind of a blur, between half-remembered tactical instincts coming back online, the shock of being on another planet, and the buzz in his head that Cadman says is the Ancient technology responding to his gene. It's like the chair was, only much, much stronger, and it leads them to something that makes Cadman's eyes go wide with glee.

"This used to be an Ancient weapons station," she says, walking round the almost empty room, Vala at her side. "It's empty now, of course."

"Of course," Mitchell says dryly from John's side, both of them just inside the door, where Cadman insisted on John staying until she'd checked out the room with the PDA she produced from a pocket in her vest. John can feel it, distinctive against the background hum of the technology. Apparently, Cadman has enough of the gene for the very basics, but that's it.

Cadman looks over her shoulder at him. "Because the Ancients didn't hang around long enough to set up any kind of network of bases in this galaxy," she explains. "But maybe..." She touches something on the console that makes John gasp, and it opens, something red and crystalline rising out of the middle.

"Is that what I think it is?" Mitchell asks.

"If you thinks it's a half-charged ZPM, then yes, it's what you think it is," Cadman says, lifting it free and cradling it close.

"That's what I thought it was," Mitchell agrees. "How come no-one picked it up on the first visit?"

Cadman gives John a look that makes him want to look away. "The station was powered down. Sheppard –"

Turned it on with his brain, goes unsaid.

They're back at the SGC not long after, where they're greeted with a level of enthusiasm that John finds more than a little overwhelming. He's incredibly grateful when Lam sweeps in and steals him away to the infirmary for a checkup, leaving behind Cadman and a group of inappropriately interested scientists.

John's pretty sure this counts as a good first mission. He just wants to be left alone until his hands stop trembling. Or at least until he figures out why they're shaking to begin with.

hr

His temporary ID gets him around some of the less classified parts of the base, including the mess, which is where he heads when he finally escapes the debrief, looking for food, and somewhere that no-one knows him well enough to ask about the mission and the ZPM.

He manages three bites of surprisingly good chocolate cake before someone sits down in the chair opposite his.

He's not sure why he's surprised that it's McKay. The man's in a grey uniform with blue panels in the jacket, his hair ungelled and fluffy about his head.

John wonders if anyone's ever pointed out to these people that the point of a uniform is for everyone to look the same, not for there to be a dozen different variations on a not-that-common theme.

"Still here, I see," McKay says.

John nods. He's not going to get up and walk away. He's not going to wish Mitchell or Cadman or Vala was here. Doesn't mean he's going to talk.

"I hear Colonel Mitchell took you off-world with his team," McKay adds. "We were only back in Atlantis for a couple of weeks."

John nods again, doesn't ask. He doesn't need to ask why McKay's back on Earth, and he doesn't want to know why he went back to Atlantis.

McKay leans in, sudden and intent. It takes everything John has not to jerk back, out of range. "The other John Sheppard," McKay says. "The one I met in another universe. He's been in Atlantis since the beginning, went on the first trip when we didn't even know if we'd be able to come back to Earth. He's the military commander of the city, leads a team through the gate. Flies Ancient spaceships. His marines think he's the best CO ever, the scientists think he's a hero. He's saved the galaxy, more than once." John holds McKay's gaze, waits.

"He's *you*, he's what you could – what you *are*. Don't you get it? He belongs in Atlantis, it's like the city recognizes him, and you could *have* that, John, don't you see?"

He's too intense, nothing like the guy who showed John round a secret base, so removed that he didn't seem real. That's not what gets John. What gets him is the way McKay uses his name, like a secret, like a tool, like the key to McKay getting what he wants.

Like some kind of trick, a hook, one last piece of the everything that McKay thinks he's offering, an indicator of something more, so unconscious that it has to be conscious. McKay's called him Detective every time, not even Sheppard, and John sounds weird. Too intimate. Trying too hard, for something McKay wants too much.

"You have to come back with me," McKay presses. "You nearly died trying to stop the Wraith, you can't tell me you're going to give all that up to run around the Milky Way looking for toys with SG-5. This is your chance to be a hero, to save the world, the galaxy even. You can't seriously be thinking of saying no."

"I would have thought, from your reports, that you'd think of a ZPM as a little more than a toy," Mitchell's voice drawls, faux-casual, from behind John. John feels the tension start to edge out of him immediately. He's afraid he's never going to lose the comfort of that accent, or maybe just of Mitchell in general.

McKay's mouth turns up in something that should be a smile, if it wasn't so hostile, as Mitchell steps out from behind John, lingers at the end of their table. "Of course I don't mean the ZPM, Colonel, but really. Compared to what Atlantis has to offer –"

Mitchell's smile is outwardly more friendly, but John can see the hint of steel under it. "I read the reports, Doctor, I'm well aware of what Atlantis has to offer."

"Well then –" McKay starts.

"In fact, I'm sure there are plenty of scientists here who'd be eager to hear more on the subject," Mitchell adds, cutting him off. "I'm afraid you'll have to bend Sheppard's ear about it another time, I need to steal him away." McKay opens his mouth, and Mitchell's smile sharpens. "To which I'm sure you have no objections."

McKay gives him a look that could melt rock, but shakes his head.

"That's what I thought," Mitchell says. "You done, Sheppard?"

John actually feels a little queasy from lack of food, or maybe from the tension. He doesn't even know what Mitchell wants him for.

Doesn't matter. He nods, stands up. "McKay."

McKay doesn't even bother to acknowledge their departure.

hr

It turns out that Mitchell wants to put John in his mustang and drive him down the mountain, into Colorado Springs and out the other side, to a bar on an otherwise empty road. It's the first time John's been outside in a month, and the cool air feels strange against his face. He remembers sand and heat, desert breeze, and has to breathe deep to wipe it away.

Mitchell fiddles with his car keys, taking far longer than reasonable to lock the door, until John nods and stands up straight. He's far from sure this is where he wants to be, outside a poorly lit bar as the sun starts to set, but he's not sure he wants to be anywhere else either, and this is where he is.

The bar's nicer inside than it looked from the outside, dimly-lit on purpose rather than through disrepair, a mix of booths and open tables, jukebox playing Reba McEntire. Guy and a girl behind the bar, the place maybe half full, couples and groups, not noisy but not hushed either. Darts board at one end, pool table at the other, and no-one playing cards.

John takes a deep breath, follows Mitchell up to the bar, where he orders a coke from the woman. "Sheppard?"

"Same," John says. "I shouldn't be drinking with the painkillers." It's true, and Mitchell knows it. He doesn't need to give a reason.

The coke is cold and too sweet, but Mitchell smiles at him across the table, half-shadowed in the booth, when John raises the glass to drink. It should feel weird – it does feel weird – but it's a better weird than John's felt in a while.

"O'Neill's talking about sending the ZPM you found out to Area 51," Mitchell says after a while. "Sam's got some big experiment running out there, and the IOA doesn't like her keep borrowing the one powering the chair."

John takes another sip of his drink. Wonders what they're doing here. Mitchell's not a regular, still new in town, and it's not really convenient, but John can't see any sign that it's anything but a bar. He may not be good at picking it up with people, but he's always been okay with places.

"Course, with Sam, sometimes you're better off not giving her enough power for whatever she wants to do," Mitchell adds. His smile is affectionate, familiar. Old girlfriend. Old friend. Bit of both, or maybe neither. Just a crush. "Actually, she's brilliant. Smartest woman I ever met."

John nods, doesn't have anything to say. He's never been good at small talk, has only gotten worse.

Mitchell doesn't seem to mind. He detours to his youngest niece's birthday a few weeks ago, his trip home for it, because he's her godfather, has to be there, and from there to his younger brother and a favorite cousin, a story John doesn't follow. He buys them both another drink, asks John's opinion on a present for a good friend of his father's who's retiring soon, then drifts into Thanksgiving, proposed team celebration thereof. John doesn't have to do anything but drink his coke and look interested. Neither one is hard, because he is interested: in Mitchell, in his stories, in the reminder of what normal life is like for other people, even other people who work for a top secret project fighting aliens.

He doesn't have to think about McKay at all, which is why there's no explanation for him saying, "McKay wants me to go to Atlantis, join the expedition." Mitchell falls silent, just looking at him. John looks down at the table, rings of condensation from his glass. "The other Sheppard, he was there. Doing a lot of good."

"You don't want to go," Mitchell says, soft, but so certain that John's shaking his head, no, he doesn't, before he even realizes it. Shouldn't matter: it's the truth, a truth he's wanted to speak since McKay showed him round the base and didn't ask. Who's he going to tell, if not Mitchell?

It's the rest that he can't say: the indefinable, instinctive mistrust of McKay. The way his skin crawls at the thought of all those people, expecting him to be amazing, to be this other Sheppard who's a hero. The way he feels sick at the thought of all the people who won't expect him to be anything but the fuck-up in his record. That he should want it, the redemption McKay thinks he's offering, but that he'd rather be dying in the desert. If he needs redemption, that was it, himself for everyone on Earth. Atlantis would be for other people, and he doesn't have enough left to offer bits up to a city full of strangers and a galaxy in need of saving.

Mitchell's hand is on his arm, thumb rubbing softly against the grain of the hairs there. John doesn't remember him putting it there, wants to twitch out from under it. Forces himself not to, to let the reassurance soak into his skin instead. "No," he says, because maybe he needs it to be out loud, where he can't take it back. "I don't want to go."

Mitchell smiles, smooth and easy, and says, "So don't. Stay with me. Us."

John shakes his head, unsure what he means. "You shouldn't..."

"Shouldn't what?" Mitchell asks. His hand is still on John's arm. Maybe this is more than just a regular bar, because no-one's even looked at them.

"You saved me," John says. It's worse than the end of what he started, but it's what he *can* say, drawn out like lies when it's true. "The air strike – the Wraith was getting ready to feed on me, he saw the planes and..."

Blood, and pain creeping up faster than the numbness, and how much worse could it be to be fed on? If it meant the end came faster, except the Wraith would be stronger, do more damage, and it would have been for nothing, just like everything else. And the roar of the planes, like something out of a movie, and John remembers trying to run for help, doesn't remember why he tried. Remembers wanting to live, and lying looking up at the sky and feeling a strange sense of peace, with the trailer burning, knowing he wasn't going to see anything else, ever.

Mitchell's hand tightens on his arm, and John comes back with a gasp. One thing to love about drug-laced sleep: no flashbacks, no dreams.

"Did you read my record?" he asks. One more thing he didn't mean to say. He wants to be drinking, so he could blame it on the alcohol. Thinks if anything's to blame it's the way he can feel something coming, the urge to slam on the brakes. He's not ready. "Afghanistan, what happened out there, the people who died. Who I got killed. And other stuff. There's been – other stuff, since I got discharged, things that – that I shouldn't –"

Except the truth is, he'll never be ready, and he's not sure how much longer he can go on waiting for a day that's never coming. He's always been better at action, and maybe he just needs to find a speck of trust and jump.

"You must be really desperate to want me," he says, low to the table, and wonders if Mitchell will hear the real meaning: I need you to tell me why you do.

"I'm not desperate," Mitchell says, just as low. "And I read your file, the real version. The Air Force one and the Vegas PD one. Look at me." John forces his eyes up, sees nothing but open blue eyes. Mitchell won't lie to him; he trusts that, at least.

"What happened in Afghanistan was a tragedy," Mitchell says. "You are lucky you didn't end up in jail. But if it had gone slightly differently, you would have been given a medal instead." He shakes his head, at himself, John thinks. "The SGC's not like the Air Force. People get too personally involved, and they take huge risks for something they probably shouldn't, and usually it works and sometimes it doesn't. The Wraith should still be hibernating, but someone on the first wave to Atlantis woke them up, and they nearly destroyed Earth. Except the guy who did it was just trying to rescue some of his people. Bad things for good reasons."

John takes a shaky breath. Whatever this is making him feel is too far away for him to actually feel it.

"I won't let you do any of the stupid shit you've done in the last few years," Mitchell says. "That's not you, and you know it. You wouldn't have gone after the Wraith otherwise. That's why I want you on my team."

He gets it, for all that the explanation comes with an element of disapproving team leader. Not like McKay, who's offering John redemption, a chance to make up for his mistakes. Mitchell's offering John a chance to have his life back, a chance to do the right thing, sure, but not because he should or because he needs to. Because he can, and he wants to.

"That's why you want us, too," Mitchell says, and John nods, barely meaning to, because it's true.

hr

Two days after that conversation – two days of hanging around the SGC, almost always accompanied by Mitchell or Cadman or Vala, turning on Ancient devices, submitting to Lam's medical tests, writing a report on a mission he hardly remembers – O'Neill summons John to his office, a little after 0900.

"Still here after all," he says from behind his desk when John presents himself there, at attention and in the blue uniform that most Air Force personnel wear around the base. He doesn't look for McKay, but it's a near thing.

"Yes, sir."

O'Neill gives him a long look, then waves at a chair. "Sit down, would you? You're making me nervous, all stiff and proper."

Stiff and proper means class A uniform, or a suit and tie, not combat boots that are still stiff with newness and a uniform that makes him think of wide open skies and trust. He sits down anyway.

O'Neill shakes his head. "I've had a number of very pleasant chats with the president in the last couple of days," he says dryly. "And it seems that you're easier to get reinstated than previously assumed. Welcome back to the Air Force, Captain Sheppard."

It's like his vaguest memories of being sick as a kid, his mom drawing fresh sheets up over his too hot skin; instant comfort, instant relief. He knows he's missed being in the Air Force; he hadn't realized, maybe, how much he's missed belonging to it. "Captain?" he asks.

"Condition of your reinstatement. The president feels there should be some sign that they still disapprove of you quite strongly." John can't tell if it's a joke or not. He's not going to risk smiling, because if it's not true, it should be. He didn't want to leave, but he knew they were right when they told him to.

"So, since you're one of us again, we need to talk about your posting. McKay wants you for Atlantis. Colonel Caldwell is somewhat on the fence about the subject, and Mr. Woolsey is surprisingly willing to go along with whatever gets decided here." O'Neill looks at him like any of this will mean anything to John. John just looks back, because it doesn't. "You've got one of the strongest expressions of the Ancient gene that we've seen in years. There's a lot you could do on Atlantis."

He sounds like – like he's asking. Like he's making an offer, not an order. He's not like any CO John's ever served under. He's not like anyone John's ever even met.

"Could I stay here?" John asks, and he doesn't even sound like himself. He sounds like himself twenty years ago, off at college on his own, three months after his mom died, back before he got all the confidence that came with being a pilot and being good at it. Back when the world was strange and unsettling, and something that he couldn't be sure of. Maybe that's what finding out they're not alone in the universe has done to him – remade the world into something unrecognizable. Remade *him* into something unrecognizable, back to the beginning, start over without the mistakes and the tragedies and the years on his own, sliding further and further into someone he didn't want to be, without the strength to reach out for something to hold onto.

"Here?" O'Neill asks.

"Here," John says. He means Earth, Colorado Springs, the Mountain, the SGC, SG-5, the team that wants him. Math, Ancient technology, gate travel, other worlds, rank in front of his name again. Vala's weirdly innocent flirting, Cadman who's brilliant and tough and tones down her exuberant friendship with him without seeming to think about it. Mitchell.

"There are a lot of people who want you on Atlantis," O'Neill says mildly.

"I'd rather go back to – rather be out of the Air Force again than go there," John says, hot with embarrassment, too much truth, but it's the first time he's asked for what he wants in longer than he can remember. The first time he's done something that's just for him, and he knows that if O'Neill says no, he'll give it all up and walk out, because he can force himself to trust in some things, but he's never going to be ready for Atlantis and everything that it means.

O'Neill just looks at him, completely inscrutable. John looks back. O'Neill went to the president to get him, and there's no way that was as easy as O'Neill is making out. He just doesn't know if it means that O'Neill really wants him on Atlantis, or that O'Neill is willing to go further for him.

"They have a point about needing you out there," O'Neill says finally. "Not as much as McKay likes to make out, but there's a lot of technology out there that they can't get working with the gene carriers that have." John waits. Finally, O'Neill sighs. "Maybe we can work out some kind of time share agreement. A week there for every three weeks here or something. It's not like we couldn't use you here next time we need the chair. It's unseemly for the base commander to be beaming around the country to shoot at some fifth-rate alien invader."

"Yes, sir," John says. He risks a smile this time.

"And it wouldn't hurt the rest of your team to get some extra time with the Ancient tech experts," O'Neill adds.

John says, "Yes, sir," automatic, before he realizes what this means. That he'll be going out there with the rest of the team, with the buffer of security he's had ever since he met them. "Thank you, sir," he adds, hoping some of it comes across in his voice.

"Save that until after McKay finds out," O'Neill suggests. "Go on, get out of here. I do have other things to think about than you, you know."

"Yes, sir." John stands up, wonders if he should salute, but neither Mitchell nor Cadman does, and O'Neill's already looking down at his paperwork again.

He's not really all that surprised to find that Mitchell's leaning faux-casually against the opposite wall when he steps out of O'Neill's office. Mitchell, more than Cadman or Vala or even Dr Lam, is getting to be a constant presence in John's life. It should be cloying, but it's not, and it's just gotten more charged since Mitchell took him out to the bar. John's not sure what the charge is, but he kind of likes it.

"So?" Mitchell asks.

John feels himself smiling, can't help it. "Reinstated, demoted, staying here," he says, hitting all the vital points.

"Demoted?" Mitchell asks, frowning.

"Captain," John clarifies. He really hopes that means that Cadman's the second in command on the team. "Staying here, on SG-5."

Mitchell's smile is slow coming, but brilliant when it arrives. "Good," he says, incredibly satisfied. He slings an arm round John's shoulders, turning him down the corridor. "Come on. Team's meeting for coffee to look over the next mission briefing."

Not over, John thinks. Just beginning, really, and John's never felt like this before, starting over.

Maybe it's what hope feels like.

Sequel: Breaking Clouds: 12 Moments In The Life Of SG-5


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