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John lay on his back on the cooling sand and thought, Way to go, asshole. Way to bring a pea-shooter to a machine gun fight. Good thing the good ol' USAF was there to once again to bail John's sorry ass out, because he'd been next to useless, just a gnat on an elephant's butt.

Too bad trying didn't count for anything.

The planes wheeled around somewhere high up, then went Mach one, punching through the sound barrier with a blast he felt in his chest, and he coughed up something wet, his throat tight with a forgotten feeling. Not forgotten—it just hurt to remember.

After a while, the pain went, too, in a flash of white.

:::

He was pretty sure he was dead, so it didn't make sense that he heard something, a humming sound, and a woman's voice, light and ironic, and he felt this pleasant buzz under his skin, so comforting and warm and familiar it brought tears to his eyes.

"He's in pain. Should he be in pain when you use that thing?"

Great. That sounded like that asshole McKay. Just the thought of him brought John right out of the happy place and more nearly awake, and he realized he wasn't dead after all.

:::

Weird though, because when John opened his eyes, his coroner was standing over him with a concerned frown pulling her eyebrows together.

"Not dead yet," he said, just in case she had any ideas.

"Not really a coroner," she returned, a smirk settling on her face. "And you should still be under. Hurting much?"

John was damned surprised to be awake too, but then stranger things had happened in the last couple of days. A lot stranger things.

He checked in with his body, but he was pretty much numb below the neck. He panicked a little at that and heard a monitor somewhere tattling on him.

"Not in pain," he said. "Can't feel much of anything."

"You can thank the healing device I'm using on you," she said. "And really, you should be saying thanks, or you'd be missing a kidney and a lung right now, Detective."

He didn't mention he wasn't a detective anymore; she'd probably get wind soon enough. "So you're a regular doc, too?"

"Yup. You should be glad I was around—Dr. Beckett wanted to crack you open, but I have the gene, so I can operate this handy-dandy tech." She waved something below his neck, and it gave out a series of bleeps, just like on Star Trek. "We'll give it another day to work on your left lung, and then you should be out of the danger zone."

"Seriously?" John's voice broke like a busted guitar string. "That's kind of awesome."

"It is, isn't it?" Her cheeks dimpled, and he decided right then and there he was in love.

:::

The numbness went away after a while and then he just ached, his whole body feeling drained and stretched like a tired inner tube, with occasional, vicious cramps that made him ball up and grind his teeth while he rode them out.

The doc—Jennifer Keller—put her cool hands on him, did something with his IV, and he drifted off again.

He dreamed of a sky so blue it looked like the sea.

:::

McKay showed up in the afternoon to glower at him. Also, he dumped a stack of legal papers on John's blanketed lap thick enough to choke a horse.

"I thought I told you not to engage," McKay said, and John just rolled his eyes.

"Right. That's why you told me all that stuff—so I'd leave everything to you. Because you had it all in hand."

McKay made a disgruntled sound. "Well, as it turned out, your timing was impeccable. The Wraith was just opening a subspace transmission that could have brought every last hive ship from Pegasus straight to our doorstep."

John stared. "You're shitting me."

McKay twitched a little. "No. No, I am not. So, thanks for your help in saving the world. We don't waste our finest medical resources on every washed up LEO that crosses our path."

It should've stung, but it didn't, really. For the first time in a long time, John had made the right choice. He'd followed his gut, and he'd been right. It had been a long fucking time since that had happened.

He looked down at the NDA in his lap and started signing. It didn't much matter that he'd never be able to tell a single soul what he'd done. He knew the truth.

"Aren't you even going to read those?"

"Nope."

"Well, if you're interested, it's a pretty basic NDA with security clearance. The clearance is for the second packet."

John finished signing and snapped open the seal on the second folder. It looked like an Air Force contract form for a tour of duty.

"What the fuck?"

"My sentiments exactly, but the general said now that we're stuck with you, we might as well get some use of you."

"General?"

"General Sam Carter. Welcome to the SGC, Major Sheppard." McKay said the last with a vicious snap to his voice, as if he knew exactly how much it would hurt and how deeply. John was just grateful he wasn't still hooked up to the monitors, because he could feel the blood draining from his face.

He heard the door open and looked over to see Dr. Keller walk in.

"Rodney," she said, her voice flat. "What're you doing here?"

"I'm getting Sheppard squared away."

Keller glanced at John and then came over to him quickly. "John. How are you feeling?"

He swallowed harshly and then said, "Peachy keen, Doc." But he could tell he fooled her not a bit, because she pressed her lips together and rested her fingers against his wrist, her eyes on her watch.

"I think he's had enough of your company for the time being, Rodney. Take a hike."

"Uh, excuse me, but we still have a stack of paperwork to get through."

"So? It's not like he's going anywhere."

"Fine. Bossy as ever." McKay stood up and left. The temperature in the room felt like it went up about ten degrees, and John relaxed.

"He's a piece of work," John commented as the doc fussed with her stethoscope before laying it on his chest.

"Deep breath for me?"

John tried, but it felt like a heavy rubber band was wrapped around his rib cage. He let the air out with a whoosh and tried again, getting a little more in that time.

"Sorry," he said when she pulled away.

"Not bad. It'll get better," she said. "I'll be setting you some exercises. That's brand-new lung tissue in there."

"Wow." The whole thing was freaking him out. "Guess I really messed up."

She gave him a narrow look. "You were manipulated. Rodney knew exactly what to say to you to get you to jump into that situation."

John raised his eyebrows. "I make my own choices."

"Right. And do you always face down an alien while carrying nothing but a handgun? I read the report." She shook her head. "He has a history of pulling crap like this. You have no idea."

John didn't know why he was bothering to defend the smug asshole, except he didn't much like being painted like a victim. "I kind of have a history too, you know."

"Yeah, I know; he told me," Keller said, and John went cold.

But there was sympathy in her eyes when she said, "People screw up around here, trying to do the right thing, trying to save people. McKay blew up nine tenths of a solar system once—bet you didn't know that." She shook her head, "He just used your history against you. Believe me, I've been there," she said bitterly. She put her fingers back on his wrist. "Listen for a sec, because this place can be kind of brutal, and I don't want you getting sucked into another one of his little schemes. Watch out for him." She paused and tilted her head. "I feel a little responsible for you, you know?"

"Yeah, sure," John said. He couldn't believe she gave a damn. "Thanks."

"All right." Her cheeks dimpled in another smile. "Let's go over those exercises, shall we?"

John groaned.

:::

Standing up was a chore. It helped that Jennifer was there to make fun of his spindly old man legs beneath his gown. He liked having her around.

"I used to be a runner," he protested. "But it's been a while."

"Uh-huh. I'll be happy if I can get you to do a lap up and down the hallway."

"What do I get? A beer?"

"Yeah, no. A bottle of orange juice, and you get to do it again in a hour."

"Spoilsport."

He wasn't laughing when he realized how crappy it felt to be upright, like all his bones were strung together with guitar strings and his muscles were cheap rubber bands.

"What the hell?" he muttered as he hung over the aluminum walker, his arms trembling.

"You have to realize," Jennifer said. "The device healed you, but it only repaired the torn tissue, and it used your own body's resources to do it. You'll have to rebuild your muscle mass." She patted his shoulder. "It might take a while," she added, sounding apologetic.

"Terrific." John shuffled the walker forward and took a couple steps. "Least I ain't dead."

"That's the spirit."

John took a couple more steps. "But you'll definitely owe me that beer when I'm up to snuff."

"It's a deal."

:::

Jennifer turned out to have a vicious sense of humor and she wasn't afraid to use it. She also played a mean game of chess.

"Maybe I should bring in a hundred monkeys to play me; they'd probably have a better sense of strategy."

"I'm pretty sure it's unethical to give your patient a beating when he's still in recovery," John said, tipping his king.

"You do look a little demoralized," Jennifer said. "Tell you what: you win the next one, and I'll let you take a shower."

"You're on." God, he wanted a shower. He could still taste the desert.

After a couple of days of PT, John was released on his own recognizance to roam the corridors of the infirmary wing to work on his endurance. There were no windows on this level—it had a deep, dank feel to it, with heavy, cement construction and exposed fixtures.

He was in the infirmary cafeteria trying to work up an appetite for the boiled chicken and slimy green beans on his plate when Rodney McKay settled down across from him and started talking.

"You look less like death warmed over, Major," McKay said.

"Thanks lots." John said.

"I'm glad you're making progress; we have plans for you, Sam and I—that's General Carter," McKay said archly.

John stuffed a piece of chicken in his mouth and started to chew.

McKay frowned. "Of course, it would be a problem if your heretofore sealed record were to become unsealed for some reason and your nice, clean start here were jeopardized."

John stifled his reaction and took a sip of water. "Yeah. Unfortunate."

"So, of course, you'll cooperate."

John gave him a fake grin. "Hey, do you know if my car survived the bombing? I had something—"

"Oh, right," McKay interrupted. "You're interested in that bag of cash you had stashed in the front seat—"

"Actually, I was wondering if my Johnny Cash poster made it," John said, smirking at McKay's surprise. Apparently, McKay wasn't wrong very often, and didn't much like it when he was, because his eyes narrowed and he stood up.

"I'll see what I can do," he said, and left John to his lunch.

"Score," John said softly.

:::

"More blood tests?" John said. He'd passed his breathing test with flying colors this morning and was feeling pretty chipper. "Anyone ever see you walking around in sunlight?"

"Ha-ha. You're lucky I can find a vein under all the hair," Jennifer said as she wrapped an elastic band around his arm. "Sure you're not a werewolf?"

"Guess that makes us enemies."

She curled her upper lip at him as if she were showing off her fangs, startling a genuine laugh out of him.

God. How long had it been since he'd laughed? Since Martina died. Or since he'd heard about her situation, trapped behind lines, and his stomach had turned into one grinding knot of fear, his heart to granite.

"John?"

"Sorry. Just...you got what you need?"

"Yup." Jennifer tugged the band off his arm, one finger pressed deftly over the wad of gauze stuck to the needle site. "Just put your finger here for a second."

He swapped his finger for hers, and got a Band-Aid for his trouble a moment later.

"All done," she said cheerfully. "And you really are all done—I don't need to see you anymore. Not that I don't want to," she added hastily. "Just not in a professional capacity. You'll need to check in with Dr. Beckett once a week for the next month. But otherwise, you're off the hook." She gave him a pat.

"Great." John couldn't explain the sense of loss. Was it just that Jennifer had taken care of him like Martina had the first time they'd met? All a woman had to do was show him a little compassion and he'd fall for her like a prized chump? "I guess I'll see you around."

"You will," she said.

For some reason, it sounded like a promise.

:::

Now that John had been released from the infirmary, they gave him a stack of ABUs and assigned him quarters with the other personnel, with a pass that allowed him access to the gym and the mess. His day consisted of powdered eggs for breakfast, a stint of rehab in the gym, and then a briefing session with Major Griff, who clicked his clicker and showed John PowerPoint slides of real live, godforsaken aliens, snake-worms that crawled into people's heads; bug-eyed aliens with naked, gray skin; mechanical aliens that looked like nothing so much as Lego robots. And most of them were trying to destroy the Earth. The one that John had killed was just the tip of a very large, scary iceberg.

"You fight these guys?" John said at one point, gesturing at the screen and the pasty-faced guy with the golden eyes.

"Not anymore. They've had a...change of heart, you could say." Griff grinned. "We've done a lot of good these past few years. Defeated a lot of bad guys."

"But not the Wraith."

"The Wraith are in Pegasus. Not as much of a threat. At least," Griff amended, "not to Earth."

"That wasn't true two weeks ago."

"Well, we got 'em though. I heard you helped out with that." Griff gave John a nod, and for some reason, John's throat hurt.

"Not much," John said.

Griff turned back and clicked on to the next slide. "These folks are called Unas. They look kind of rough, but they're allies..."

:::

"You really shouldn't be eating that crap," Jennifer said at breakfast. "I recommend the fresh fruit and cottage cheese."

"I hate cottage cheese. And that fruit is more wrinkled than my Uncle Charlie's ass."

Jennifer laughed. "Do I want to know?"

"He liked to skinny dip up at the lake." John gave an exaggerated shiver. "Ruined my childhood vacations, I'll tell you that."

"I believe it." Jennifer peeled her orange and offered him a segment. "The oranges tend to be okay. And the bananas. Just stay away from the fruit cups and you'll do okay."

"Thanks for the tip."

She grinned and nodded, then looked up with a frown. "Hello, Dr. McKay."

"Here you go, Sheppard," McKay said, and dropped a rolled-up tube on the table next to John's tray.

John picked up the tube and unrolled it enough to see it was his Cash poster. It smelled a little smoky, but looked like it was in pretty good shape.

"Hey, thanks." He looked up to see Jennifer craning her head and eyeing McKay suspiciously. She turned back to John.

"What's that?"

"It's my Johnny Cash poster. It was in my Camaro. Pretty much all I had left that didn't get burned up."

"Why did you have it, Rodney?"

McKay crossed his arms. "Sheppard asked for it specifically."

"But it already belonged to him," Jennifer said.

Bemused, John watched the interplay.

Rodney responded, "Our cleanup team retrieved it from the site where the Wraith had parked its trailer."

"Uh-huh," Jennifer said, going back to her breakfast. "Well, that was real nice of you, McKay, giving him back his own stuff and all."

McKay narrowed his eyes. "Your point being?"

"Oh, nothing. Just that I imagine it was in a locker somewhere with his name on it." She smiled sweetly and bit into a slice of orange.

McKay sidled away. "I'll speak to you later, Sheppard." He walked off.

"What the heck was that about?" John said.

"I warned you about him, didn't I? He's trying to get you to feel you owe him. Well, you don't."

John finished up his eggs and wiped his hands. "He did save my life."

"Did he tell you that?" Jennifer stared at him. "Director Woolsey instructed the Daedalus to beam me on-site. I stabilized you long enough to beam you to the infirmary here. It was Woolsey who had the satellite tracker planted on your car or they wouldn't have known where you were." She pointed her spoon at him. "You really should take anything McKay tells you with a grain of salt, John."

"I'll keep that in mind."

:::

"And this is the artifact lab," the dumpy scientist, Lee, said. "This is where we experiment with devices that can only be activated with the ATA—the Ancient Technology Activation gene. You have that gene, Major!" Lee waved his hands. "We're so fortunate we found you, really. You should be able to activate any of these devices and advance our progress light-years, really, probably, well, we'll see. We'll see. But that's why you're here."

"Uh-huh."

"Let's start with this one," Lee said. "It's my favorite. I've been working on it for a while, ever since Major Lorne had to leave us unexpectedly."

"Lorne? Evan Lorne?" John asked with disbelief.

"Yeah, that's him. Nice guy. Too bad about...well, anyway. This should be a life signs detector. Give it a whirl." Lee handed it over.

John took it, still thinking about Lorne—Christ, he really didn't want to run into Lorne here—and jumped a little when the Game Boy-like device lit up in his hand. The screen showed him two glowing dots on a grid, and then a bunch more scattered around them.

"See? Fantastic," Lee said. "These are us, and those must be the other scientists on this floor. Now focus on widening the scope."

"Focus? Focus what?"

"ATA devices are controlled with your mind, Major. I mean, think at it." Lee waved his hand at John's head.

"You're kidding." John looked down at the screen and thought, wider. The screen zoomed out, turning slightly, and suddenly showed more of a 3D representation of the floors above and below them, with smaller dots speckling the grids. One of them on the floor below glowed red instead of blue.

"What's up with that," John said, pointing.

Lee leaned over to look and said, "Oh. That must be the Wraith. They show up in red."

"Right. That guy," John said, the hair on his neck rising. He heard the thing's voice again. I'll show you your destiny...John Sheppard.

"Stay away from the Wraith," Lee said suddenly. "He can get in your head, you know? That's what happened to Lorne. Supposedly. He lost maybe fifteen years of his life before they stunned the Wraith off of him."

"Jesus. How did he get out of his cage?"

"He didn't. Lorne went to question him. No one knows why he went inside the cage. Lorne doesn't remember."

"The guard?" John remembered an SF standing reassuringly by the door.

"The chat was supposed to be top secret. Poor Lorne," Lee said. "All right, let's try this one; what do you say? It's supposed to be a welding device, but for Ancient metals. And we just happen to have some pieces right here." Lee handed him a pair of yellow-tinted goggles. "Safety first."

"Right," John said doubtfully. He was playing with 10,000 year-old technology. "Goggles, but no gloves?"

"Well, of course, you need skin-to-skin contact with the device."

"Of course," John said with a sigh.

:::

John was getting his weekly check-up with Dr. Beckett when a tall, blonde woman with a short, no-nonsense hair cut and stars on her shoulders stepped into the infirmary. John was torn between clutching his uniform blouse closed and hiding behind the curtain.

"General," he settled for saying as he stood at attention and held his shirt together.

"Hello, Sam. We were just finishing up here," Beckett said.

"Sorry to interrupt," General Carter said, waving John at ease.

John sat back down and started buttoning up.

"Sorry I haven't had a chance to come out for a visit sooner, Major. Are you healing up all right?"

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am." John wiped his palms on his tails as he tucked them into pants. He couldn't believe he was dressing in front of his female superior officer, a general, no less. He buttoned up quickly and then stood at rest. "Everyone's been real swell here, ma'am."

"That's good to hear." She walked over and stood in front of him. She was only a few inches shorter, and her clear blue eyes assessed him—of course, she had to be beautiful, too, and John swallowed dryly as he waited for her appraisal.

She turned abruptly and said to Beckett, "We feeding him enough, doc? He looks like he hasn't recovered yet from the healing device." She said as an aside to John, "I know the signs, believe me."

Beckett chuckled. "John was just complaining to me about the food in the mess, General."

"Well, so. We'll just have to get you out for a nice steak. It's the least we owe you for saving the planet, don't you think?" Carter grinned at him, and John found himself smiling back.

"Yes, ma'am." He relaxed a little.

"I know just the place, too. I'll have someone take you—not Davis, though. I don't want to get you banned from the place this early in your tenure." She smiled again and then nodded. "Keep up with the PT. We're going to need you in that chair." And with those cryptic words, she left.

"Chair?" John said to Beckett. "Does she mean the big silvery thing Lee had me sit in?"

"Aye. That would be the one. O'Neill was the only other person who could use it, and he's in stasis."

"Huh."

Food for thought.

:::

"I heard you met Sam," McKay said, appearing in the gym while John was in the middle of his cardio workout.

"Yup." John kept his eye on the treadmill's dashboard and the timer blinking down his remaining minutes. He usually loved running, but outside, where he could feel the air and distract himself with the view.

"What did you two talk about?"

"Steak."

"Ahh. I suppose you have plans to go to Rocco's, then."

"I guess." John hoped the general wasn't kidding about that steak.

"Anything else? Did you two discuss your assignment?"

Interesting. John could swear Rodney already knew what plans Carter had for him, them being so tight and all.

"A little," John said. "Look, don't have a lot of breath for talking here, McKay."

"Right. Right, well. I'll catch you later. I have some interesting news for you. I've dug up something from the incident in Afghanistan that I'm pretty sure you aren't aware of. Those 'political reasons' I spoke of? Well, turns out they go deeper than I thought. And it might very well be why your court martial was so hasty." McKay leaned closer, until his expensive cologne hit John's nose and drowned out the old sock smell that permeated the gym.

"I'm done with all that," John said.

"This information could be very useful to you, John. We should talk."

McKay took off, leaving John with a cold feeling in his gut, and eight minutes left to slog through.

:::

Jennifer leaned in the doorway to his quarters with a knock. "So, General Carter says we owe you a steak. And I still owe you that beer, so...got any plans?"

"Are you kidding?" John tossed his comic book aside and rolled to his feet. "Lead the way."

John hadn't been above ground since he'd been shot. As the doors opened and the dry, afternoon air hit his lungs, it felt a little bit like being born again. He coughed and saw Jennifer's concerned look but just smiled, because there was the sky overhead, blue and limitless, and he was alive.

Somehow, that didn't feel like the crime against God that it had always been, ever since Afghanistan. Those people would still be dead, probably, or running, terrified for their lives, from the aliens coming in waves to devour their souls, if he hadn't found that one.

And John had died in the sand for that. Jennifer could talk about healing devices all she wanted, but he could see in her eyes how close it had been, in the way she'd hovered those first days.

John rubbed a finger over his mom's cross and followed Jennifer to the car.

"So this Rocco's—it's good?" John said. "Because I was promised the best steak in Nevada."

"Well, it's not as good as O'Malley's, but it's pretty good."

It was, too—thick and rare and warm in the middle, bloody enough to satisfy him. He saw Jennifer raising an eyebrow at the speed he was chowing down, but John just grinned and kept on chewing. Man, he was hungry.

She was no slouch, either, putting away a thick filet mignon of her own, and he watched her mouth curling around the lip of her beer—no glass for her—and if his thoughts strayed, well, she had a real pretty mouth, pink and lush, and pretty eyes, big and brown. He was a sucker for big brown eyes, and smart comebacks, and a cheeky grin. He wasn't thinking about Martina, either. He was thinking about Jennifer's hands on his chest, gentle and caring, and what her mouth could do to him, and about getting his mouth on her—what sounds he could get her to make.

"You're staring," she said, her voice low, and John nodded.

"I expect I am." He took a sip of his beer without moving his eyes, and her face flushed slowly, her tongue coming out to swipe a drop from her lower lip. "I've got a great view."

"Cheesy," she remarked, her dimples coming out.

"I'm out of practice."

"Now that's a real shame."

"I think so too."

She ran her fingers up and down the neck of her bottle before raising it to her lips again, and John had to close his eyes for a second. When he opened them, she was smirking at him.

"That was low," he said. "Get you back for that."

"I surely hope so. You done?"

John nodded.

Jennifer waved for the check, still staring at him with that same half-smile.

They made it to the parking garage and into the car, but that was it. As soon as the doors closed, John turned in the driver's seat and reached for her, her cheek warm beneath his palm as he pulled her in. Her lips were soft and plump, sliding sweetly against his, but her tongue was sly and nasty—she kissed like a sailor on leave, and John should know; he'd kissed a few sailors in his time. John gave back just as good, forcing her head back and kissing her deep while sinking his fingers into her hair. The soft, warm strands curled around the back of his wrist as he stroked her earlobe with his thumb. She shivered and then started groping at his belt buckle.

"Really?" John said, "'cause I have strict orders not to get banned from Rocco's just yet."

"This isn't Rocco's," Jennifer said breathlessly as she yanked his pants open. "This is the parking garage at Rocco's. There's a difference." She grinned at him, victorious, as she shoved his boxers down and freed his dick.

"Oh, fuck," he said. "Very different. I agree."

"I thought you'd see it my way," she said, and then she slid back in her seat and went down. And fuck if she wasn't right, absolutely right, her mouth was right, perfect in every way as her lips played with the ridge of his cock, sucking him harder, her tongue lapping over the head. Her fingers, working his shaft, so strong and sure, were totally right, especially when they dipped into his pants to lightly squeeze his balls—how did she know he loved that? And then she went back to jerking him in that perfect rhythm, and he started talking, because he couldn't believe how lucky he was.

"You're so right, right, God, Jennifer." He stroked his hand down her golden brown hair. "Right like that, like that." Just the right amount of speed and stroke and pressure from her warm lips and—"Fuck, okay, wait…wait, stop." But she just shook her head, and because she was right, he closed his eyes and tensed and let the pleasure arc through him, coming in her mouth.

"Fuck," he said, trembling a little in the aftershocks.

Jennifer raised her head and swiped her hand over her mouth before giving him a sweet grin. "So, I take it I'm right."

"Jesus, yes," he said, pulling her up for a kiss. He could taste himself in her mouth, could feel her smiling into the kiss. He heard some laughter echoing through the parking structure and some car doors slam, and pulled away. She giggled and leaned against his chest as a car started up and then drove by them.

"You like living dangerously, huh," John said, and pushed her back into her seat. "Well, hang on, lady; you ain't seen nothing." He ran his palms down her chest and found her nipples with his thumbs—they were already stiff with excitement—and circled them a few times before reaching for the button fly of her jeans.

"This is crazy, you know?" she commented. "I don't usually act this nuts. You're a bad influence."

"Uh-huh. I don't believe you." He unbuttoned her fly with one strong wrench and grabbed the waist of her jeans. "Lift up."

"Oh, Lordy," she said, but did as he asked. He stripped her jeans and panties down to her shins in one move. "Oh, my God," she said. "This seat feels like sandpaper."

"Turn a little. I promise you won't be worrying about the seat much."

"Funny man." Jennifer turned, sprawling awkwardly against the door with one knee tangled under her leg. Her bush was a tantalizing triangle of golden brown beneath the edge of her T-shirt, and he must have been staring with his mouth open a little too long, because she tapped his jaw and said, "Maybe I should have bought you another steak."

John nipped at her finger before leaning all the way down and nosing at her cunt. She smelled sweet—one hundred percent girl, musky and clean—and he spread her open with his fingers, flattened his tongue and floated it over her clit, soft as he could.

Jennifer made a lush, happy sound that shot right down his spine, so he did it again, soft and wet where she was already slick with wanting him, and he slipped his thumb inside her to give her something to squeeze against while he stroked her clit.

"Oh, you're good. Like that, just like that, maybe a little harder," she said, so he gave her a little more, and sucked a little to see if she liked that, and she squeezed around his thumb, so he sucked again, and swirled his tongue around some, grinning to himself when she made a high, breathless noise and scratched her fingers through his scalp in approval.

It was definitely love for him. Which was a serious problem, because he could do this all day, make her sound like this, just to feel her hands petting him, happy on him. He loved her taste and her pretty brown eyes and her humor and the way she ate her steak.

He was a goner, especially when she tried to clamp her legs around him and said, "John, oh God, keep, keep, ohhhh," and fluttered around his finger, so sweet.

He rubbed his face against his shoulder and gave her dreamy face a kiss. The rumble of a truck starting up had them both scrambling a moment later to get her pants back up, which was a shame, but Jennifer didn't stop dimpling, and John couldn't help touching her—tucking her hair behind her ear, straightening the tag of her T-shirt, pulling the hem down in the back.

"Do I pass muster?"

"Yeah," John said, suddenly embarrassed.

She reached out and did something to his hair. He looked in the mirror, but it looked the same as always: plumb stupid.

"Better," she said.

"Okay. Guess we should head back." John felt heavy at the thought of those walls closing him in again.

"One more thing," Jennifer said, and she grabbed his shirt and kissed him again. "I like you, John. A lot. Okay?"

"That's okay by me," John said. He could feel a stupid grin overtaking his face. "The feeling's mutual."

"All righty then. Let's go."

:::

John was finally returned to active duty with a clean bill of health, which seemed to mean exactly nothing except he no longer had PT. He still went to briefings with Major Griff and lab sessions with Dr. Lee, but he'd received no other assignments, and so spent most of his free time pestering Jennifer into quickies at lunch-and-other-times.

"I really don't have time for this," she'd say while simultaneously dropping her pants so John could get at her pussy. Or, "You have the refractory period of a teenager. I really should bring you in for more tests," while giving him a blow job in a supply closet.

Breakfasts, though, Jennifer was generally too busy to eat with him, so John usually found himself in the mess eating breakfast with Griff, Beckett, or Dr. Lee. They turned out to be pretty fun guys.

Today he was alone with his oatmeal when McKay showed up, dressed to the nines as usual in a dark blue suit and burgundy shirt and tie.

McKay thumped down across from him and said, "Rumor has it you're getting cozy with our Dr. Keller."

John eyed him over his coffee cup and said nothing.

"Of course, you realize she's just using you for your gene."

"My what, now?"

McKay looked smug. "Your gene. Your fabulous, magical gene. You remember—the one that lets you light up pong games and fly spaceships and such? Jennifer is working on developing a gene therapy from your blood samples that would let anybody to do the voodoo that you do. A fruitless cause, frankly, so I don't put much stock in it, but some people appear to be betting on it." McKay smirked. "Oh, did you think she wanted you for your ready wit and pretty face?"

John planted his chin on his hand. "Actually, I'm pretty sure she keeps me because I'm great in the sack."

The way McKay's face collapsed into a thunderous scowl confirmed John's suspicion: Jennifer and McKay had been involved, somehow. John wasn't sure what the gene thing was about, but at this point, he trusted Jennifer enough to wait for her explanation.

Hell, he was a chump. He trusted her even if there wasn't one.

McKay seemed to retrench. "Have you given any thought to my offer? I could do you a lot of good with that…information we discussed."

John sighed. "I don't know what you're getting at, McKay, but I've learned enough over the years to let sleeping dogs lie. Especially when it comes to the military." He stood and picked up his tray. "Excuse me. I've got a meeting."

By weird coincidence, when he returned to his quarters, he found a lackey waiting to inform him of a meeting he had scheduled that afternoon with General Carter—she was on base and wanted to speak to him directly.

John put on his cleanest uniform, spit-shined his boots, and went up to the conference room precisely on time. It had been a long time since he'd reported to the head brass, but the sinking sensation hadn't changed any, even though he hadn't done anything wrong this time, that he could tell. All he knew was the general was probably about to hand down his big assignment, and with McKay stopping by to give him vague threats just this morning, there was no telling what was up.

"Major John Sheppard reporting as ordered, ma'am," John said.

"At ease, Major Sheppard," Carter said, waving him in. "Please have a seat."

John took a chair at the big conference table catty-corner to the general and folded his hands in his lap.

"Thank you for coming, Major," Carter said. "I'm glad to see you're looking better."

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you for the steak," John said. "It was great."

"You should come to Colorado Springs sometime and try O'Malley's. Actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about." She paused and squinted a little. "Major Griff says he's completed most of your SGC briefings, so I'm sure you're aware we have a lot of enemies and not that many resources to combat them. The planet is more vulnerable than most people realize. Right now, our greatest enemy in the Milky Way is a group called the Lucian Alliance."

"Right. The pirates."

Carter smiled. "In a word. Some factions in the IOC—the International Oversight Committee—believe the Wraith are more of a threat, and want to have a strong gene carrier in Atlantis to attack the Wraith more powerfully on that front. However, there are those of us who believe that a solution to the problem can be found with a gene therapy developed from your genetic strain. I'm not sure if you read all the paperwork you signed, but you did grant permission for the effort." Carter nodded in sympathy when John shrugged. "In fact, Dr. Keller has already developed a therapy that successfully worked on lab animals, and she's applied for FDA approval for a human trial. In that case, it wouldn't be necessary for our strongest gene carrier to go to Pegasus. It is, after all, a volunteer mission, and we couldn't compel any member of our armed forces to go there, in any event."

"Right. Volunteer," John said. A whole lot of things were starting to make sense.

There was a knock at the door, and McKay burst in. "Sorry I'm late," he said.

"Dr. McKay," Carter said. "You weren't invited, actually."

"Yet here I am." McKay dropped some folders on the table and sat down across from John. "What did I miss?"

"I was just explaining to Major Sheppard the volunteer nature of the Atlantis mission."

McKay glared at Carter before shifting his focus to John. "Well. That, of course, all depends on the incentive." He tapped the folders in front of him and gave John a nod.

"What is that, McKay?" Carter said sharply.

"Just some historical data I collected for Sheppard's benefit, General. Nothing of interest to the SGC."

"Ma'am," John said. "Do I understand that if I remain on Earth I'll be able to defend her using the chair?"

Carter nodded, a smile growing on her face.

"I could have fought against the Wraith using the chair, too?"

"It's a very powerful weapon. The most powerful we have."

"Next to Atlantis," McKay broke in. "A flying city with the same capabilities as the chair." He sat back smugly.

"But Atlantis is in Pegasus, right?" John said. "The chair is here on Earth." Where Jennifer was, and Beckett, and Griff. And his new life he'd just started. And, apparently, a new CO who'd taken a shine to him.

"Ma'am, if it's all the same to you, I think I'd like to stay on Earth."

McKay made a sound. Carter just smiled and nodded. "All right, Major. Your duties will have you traveling back and forth between the SGC and Area 51. I'll put in your permanent assignment."

"Thanks, General."

"Dismissed."

McKay trailed John out the door—no surprise—and started yelling in his ear as soon as it shut behind them.

"Do you have any idea what opportunity you're wasting? We're doing such amazing things in Pegasus. We could achieve so much more. I told you about the other Sheppard, didn't I? He was the military commander of Atlantis. He had it all, Sheppard. He was the Man. You're going to be a nobody, a minor player on a gate team, hopping to one backwater Milky Way planet after another for trade negotiations until you get knifed by an angry Unas or something—"

John had had enough. He swung around and used his forearm to shoved McKay against the wall. McKay stared him, bug-eyed, while John wrenched the file folder from his hand.

"You think you know everything. Well, let's see what you know, McKay—"

"That's proof. Proof you could use to sue the Air Force for back pay—it was friendly fire, Sheppard. Friendly fire! All this time, they've been blaming you for their own fuck-up—" McKay grabbed the folder back just as John was reading the truth of it—the AAM that took out his Pavelow was Air Force. One of their own had shot them down. Sure, they'd been behind enemy lines, but they were clearly marked as a medevac. What the fuck had happened?

McKay waved the folder. "I was going to offer you this," he said. "A fair exchange. But you threw this away, too." He straightened his suit and walked away, throwing over his shoulder, "Once a loser, I suppose."

As if John wanted money, his pension, his back pay. As if any of that meant anything in light of the fact it wasn't his fault. It wasn't his fault. He'd known the area was clear. There'd been no enemy activity in the area when he opted to make the rescue run. He couldn't fucking understand where the surface to air missile had come from.

But it had come from the air. From behind.

He walked toward the infirmary in a daze, barely aware of it when Jennifer touched his arm until he heard her voice.

"John? John, are you okay? Come here."

She dragged him into a treatment room and sat him down. The smell of antiseptics mixed with the scent of her hair, and he tugged her in for a hug.

"It was friendly fire," he said, his voice rough.

"What was?" She pushed him away and tapped his cheek. "Hey, eyes on me."

He focused on her finally and saw the concerned crunch of her brows, so familiar. So loved. "I love you, right? You got that? Because I heard some weird shit today, and I need you to—Jennifer, I need—"

She smiled suddenly, a trembling smile. "Hey. I love you, too."

"That's good." He kissed her, grateful when she kissed him back without question. "The missile that took out our helicopter—it was friendly fire. I didn't know. It makes all the difference, you know?"

"Oh, my god." She pulled him into a hug, and John went with it.

"I don't care if you're making love potions out of my blood or whatever, I'm staying here on Earth, I'm going to man the chair. I don't want to go to Atlantis. I want to stay here with you, okay? If that's all right with you, I mean."

She laughed, shaking against him. "That's what I want, too. I didn't want you to go, but if you wanted to—"

"I don't want to. It sounds like a nice city and all, with the flying, but McKay is kind of a dick."

"Yeah."

"He said he met another me in another universe, a better me." Maybe there was a better McKay out there, too.

She squeezed John harder. "I like this you just fine."

"Yeah? I guess I'm getting there. I guess I finally am."

He finally was.

 

……………………….
February 21, 2015
San Francisco, CA