At first, everyone believes Cam.
He’s grinning like a loon when he opens the door of his hotel, and soon Vala’s grinning, too, after Cam tells her and Sam and General O’Neill that John didn’t die, that he’s standing with them in the hallway waiting to go to his own funeral.
“The lengths some people will go to just to get out of paperwork.” Cam shakes his head. “They should take back that Medal of Honor, Sheppard.” Beside him, John ducks his head, scruffs his hand over the back of his neck, and smiles the awkward smile that makes Cam want to kiss him within an inch of his life.
Sam starts smiling then, caught in the irrepressible joy Cam feels with John here beside him once again, even if he does blur around the edges, even if Cam’s hands fall through the space John should occupy and into nothingness.
Sam takes the longest of them all to stop smiling whenever she sees Cam, and in the end, after everything is done, Cam is grateful that her faith in him lasts so long.
But that’s much later. For now, Sam and McKay hole up in a lab and write incomprehensible equations all over everything, bickering the whole time, and every smudge of ink on McKay’s fingers, every half-eaten bowl of jello piled on trays from the mess, is leading up to that inevitable moment when they bring John home to Cam.
Until they don’t.
One night, McKay is alone in the lab when Cam and John get there. McKay is standing before a whiteboard, his arms crossed, and when he turns around, Cam sees an expression on his face that he’s never seen before.
“Is John here with you?” McKay says.
Cam nods. John shoots McKay a little wave even though McKay can’t see. “Rodney,” he says in that whiny drawl that he reserves entirely for McKay. Cam will never understand the friendship between the two of them, but he knows John truly cares about McKay, and Cam can’t find anything to fault in the way McKay has worked tirelessly to bring him back to this plane of existence.
McKay says, “I want John to tell you what he said to me on the pier the day Carson died.” His arms are crossed tightly over his chest, his fingers digging into his biceps. He seems to be holding his breath.
“I don’t remember,” John says.
“He says he doesn’t remember.”
Rodney closes his eyes. His fingers tighten even further on his arms. “What did you say to me about Caldwell when you first met him?
John throws up his hands. “Jesus, Rodney. I don’t know. I don’t remember. I didn’t think there’d be a quiz later.”
“He doesn’t remember,” Cam says, and his voice catches when he speaks. He can see where this is going even if Rodney is wrong, has to be wrong.
“Then tell me what Ronon said about the last time he saw his mother or the joke Teyla played on Halling when they were children or what you caught Lorne and Parrish doing in Greenhouse 1!” Rodney is practically vibrating. He’s breathing now, heavily, like he’s just run a race or like he might be close to tears. “None of those are things you can claim to have forgotten.”
John just shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know. This place must be taking my memories.”
Cam repeats what John says, but he knows that’s not true. John remembers everything Cam ever told him, every secret they ever shared, everything. So when Rodney calls the infirmary, Cam doesn’t fight him.
After John can’t answer a single question put to him about something Cam doesn’t already know, Cam takes a leave of absence. He sees a handful of shrinks, he takes the pills they give him, and finally he learns to pretend that he doesn’t see John anymore. At night, John and Cam talk for hours, the covers pulled over their heads, their bodies so close that Cam should feel the heat radiating from John, should feel John’s breath ghosting along his cheek. He doesn’t. During the day, Cam practices keeping a straight face when John cracks a joke, practices keeping John fixed in his periphery instead of the focus of his attention. He does so well that eventually the SGC welcomes him back into the fold.
“I’ve missed you,” Sam says, hugging him. “I’m so sorry John didn’t survive, Cam. The things we’ve seen, the technology we’ve encountered—it makes sense that you would imagine John on another plane of existence as a way to cope.” She hugs him again. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through.”
Cam says, “You don’t know the half of it,” and doesn’t react in the slightest when John laughs.
Once Cam resumes active duty, John follows him through the Gate, watches Cam’s six, keeps him safe. Cam would rather have the flesh and blood, a body he can touch, but Cam’s grateful to have even this much of John, grateful for his silent and invisible protection.
John’s with him on P8X764 when the team Gates into a village overtaken by the Lucian Alliance. Cam doesn’t notice at first, none of them do, but John is convinced that something about these villagers is, in his words, “hinky.” He stalks the perimeter of the marketplace, pokes his head into tent after tent, and finally identifies a man in a ragged leather cloak as the ring leader. When that man glances furtively at Vala and reaches into his cloak to pull out a weapon, Cam doesn’t hesitate. He shoots him in the chest, and the man falls over into the dust, a piece of blood spattered fruit clutched in his hands.
Cam doesn’t understand. He hears many people screaming, Sam’s voice raised above them all, calming, placating. Cam rifles through the man’s clothes. He finds no weapons. “I don’t understand. John said the man was a threat.”
“Cameron,” Sam says, and Cam rocks back on his heels to look up at her. She isn’t smiling.
Daniel tries to negotiate for his release, but Cam suddenly shot an unarmed man for no reason that anyone can discern. My dead boyfriend told me to isn’t a viable defense on any world Cam’s ever been to, including earth. The villagers chain him in a cave on the far side of the grain fields. They aren’t inhumane; the chains don’t bite into his limbs. They leave him food and water within easy reach, enough for several meals. Cam can stand and walk or sit with his back against damp stone or stretch out on a pile of blankets to sleep. When he walks to the cave’s mouth, he can just barely see Teal’c standing watch over him from the edge of the fields.
“Cam,” John says. “I’m so sorry. I screwed up.” He paces up and down the length of the cave, his shoulders hunched, his hands jammed into the pockets of his BDUs. “I really thought you were in danger.”
Cam says, “It’s okay,” but it’s not. Cam knows he has to stop pretending now, but he isn’t sure he can do that anymore, isn’t even sure exactly what he must stop pretending.
Outside, lightning arcs across the sky, and rain starts to fall in a gray sheet that obscures anything more than a few feet from the cave. John sits next to Cam, close enough to touch, and they watch the rain together until the water rises to the mouth of the cave and rocks start to slide down the mountain from the force of the storm. Eventually, huge boulders block the cave entrance. Cam is relieved that the cave doesn’t flood. He doesn’t relish drowning. But as the days pass, and no one comes to rescue him, Cam realizes he’ll probably starve to death instead.
John refuses to let Cam dwell on that possibility. “Just a little bit longer,” he says. “Just hold on a little bit longer. Now, did I ever tell you about the time Lorne and Elizabeth got married on Terfonna?” John has talked until his voice is hoarse, telling Cam stories from his ROTC days, stories about Rodney and Atlantis, about Teyla and Ronon.
“No,” Cam says weakly and curls up on his bed of blankets to listen.
John lies down beside him. “Well,” he says, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Major Lorne was having an extremely bad morning.” He reaches out to Cam, his hand hovering over Cam’s palm before finally settling, and the feel of his fingers brushing against Cam’s is the sweetest thing Cam’s ever known.