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Imaginary Boys

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We are waves whose stillness is non-being.
We are alive because of this, that we have no rest.
Abu-Talib Kali (Shah 275)


April 2012

Shannon hears her name over the PA and is glad to have an excuse to get away from Rachel Tan and her gleeful techno-babble. Shannon loves having big alien guns, and she's looking forward to spending the next few days dazzling the representative from the SGC with the reverse-engineered Ancient weapons platform they've developed for the experimental gate-planes (she loves the gate-planes; they're her babies). But she's not on the geek team because she makes the technology happen. She just flies fast, blows shit up, and persuades the big spenders to stay generous.

"That's really great," she tells Rachel, and puts a hand on her shoulder, trying to look sorry and not clueless. "But I need to -- "

"Go, have fun at your meetings," Rachel says, with a roll of her eyes. She looks Shannon over and circles her finger at the corner of her mouth. Shannon knows by now that this means she has lipstick on her teeth. While she's rubbing it off, Rachel gives her hair a critical study. Rachel put herself through college with beauty pageants; Shannon always figures she can't really help herself.

Shannon detours to the locker room on her way up to Dr. Sharifzadeh's office. She pulls off the coveralls that all the women hate, with COL on one side and SON on the other, the Os circling breasts like targets. She hangs them in her locker, pulls her dress on over her t-shirt and jeans, and switches from steel-toed boots to sandals. With an eye on the clock, she re-clips her hair, still not managing to keep all of it down. She crosses her eyes and makes a face at the mirror over the sink. As if the SGC cares what she looks like.

She jogs up the stairs and knocks twice on Nasrin's door before walking in.

Nasrin's in the middle of a spiel; she's been head of Colson Aviation's Alien Tech Division for nearly ten years and is passionate about her work. She pauses just long enough to introduce Shannon to Colonel Cam Mitchell before returning to the subject of increased access to materiel at Area 51. Shannon tunes her out and tries not to look like she's studying Cam.

He hasn't changed at all. Short hair, earnest intent expression, respectful posture. His uniform makes his eyes gorgeously blue -- and she's not going to go down that path again, she tells herself.

Cam recognizes her. Those pretty (damn it) eyes flick over at her more than once, but he doesn't say anything. Shannon kind of hopes that they can keep pretending they just met. A new beginning. It worked for the Friday the 13th movies, why not her life?

But Cam gives an apologetic grimace at the first lull in Nasrin's sales pitch and confesses, with an expression that's the facial equivalent of scuffing a toe guiltily, to being starving.

"It's almost suppertime where I'm coming from," he says, and raises an eyebrow at Shannon.

Against her better judgment, Shannon really wants to take that bait. "We have good Thai food here, or vegetarian, whatever," she tells him, and tips her head at Nasrin. "I wouldn't mind an early lunch."

Shannon's flown everything Colson Alien produces and most of the prototypes as well. She's good with unconventional methods of convincing people to commit to research funding, and she works best outside the tedious constraints of PowerPoint presentations. Nasrin knows this, and says, "Be back by one," with a significant raise of her perfect eyebrows as she mouths Area 51 at Shannon over Cam's shoulder.

Cam follows Shannon, through security and out to parking. She walks a pace ahead so she can look helpful while making any conversation awkward. Cam doesn't say anything about the crappy car Shannon drives; he just gets in and buckles up. The stereo comes on, Dolly Parton singing loudly about her nine to five job. Shannon turns it down some but is grateful for the noise. She's never been one for talking.

"Jesus Christ, John," Cam says as Shannon pulls out onto the access road.

She jabs a finger at him. "Next time you say that, I hit you. Fair warning."

Cam drops his head back against the seat back and shuts his eyes. "Been looking for you for three years," he says. "In between boldly going and making new alien friends, you know how it is."

"I really," Shannon says, snagging her sunglasses from the divider and sliding them on, "do not want to talk old times. With you," she clarifies.

"I owe you an apology," Cam says, turning to face her.

There's no good reply to that. Shannon doesn't want his fucking apology, except for the traitor part of her that does.

"You look good," Cam offers, like they're on an awkward first date. Shannon laughs, short and sharp. "You look. Um," and yeah, Cam gets the wisdom of not ending that sentence with like a real girl or whatever. "Good."

Shannon looks good because she spent twice what she paid for the car on her face. "Tell me about Atlantis," she says, more of an order than a request. Cam blows out a breath and nods, clearing his throat.

Shannon heard a while back that Cam had her command; she's mostly over her irrational anger at that. Cam talks about the training programs that are being run out of the Delta site on Sateda, and the morass of political alliances that bring out the Machiavelli in Woolsey. He tells Shannon about the changes in Atlantis; now that the Wraith aren't a threat, scientific personnel outnumber the military nearly three to one. Shannon still exchanges e-mail with a lot of people in Pegasus, but hearing Cam talk like he was there yesterday -- that makes her yearn in a way she's been careful not to. Cam's talking about Teyla and the university she's founding with Zelenka when Shannon turns onto Battleground. Cam sits up straight and points out the window at the steak house sign, grinning like a kid.

"Please?" he says, dragging the e out, and Shannon sighs and flips on the turn signal.

"You're predictable, Mitchell," she says.

"That's me," he says, and sighs noisily. "I missed you so bad," he goes on, and Shannon's glad to be in the parking lot. She's not sure she could hear this and not crash the car. "When Atlantis disappeared, and we thought you all were dead -- and then after you came back, to Earth, and I was over there. . . . I tried to find you. Landry said you retired."

"I did," Shannon says, yanking too hard on the parking brake. Taking retirement was part of O'Neill's deal; it's a leash, so the SGC can recall her to active duty whenever they feel like it. She tosses her keys in her bag, leaves the sunglasses on the dash, and gets out of the car. The nice thing about her old car is that the doors really do slam, making a satisfying bang of outrage. "Of course I fucking retired."

September 2006

Cam should maybe have told John that he has a set of keys to the SGC apartment John was assigned to when the Ancients kicked the Atlantis expedition out. It's the same apartment Vala uses occasionally, though she prefers hotels with thick carpets, room service, and pocketable amenities. Vala must leave clothes here, Cam thinks at first, because John's sitting on the sofa with his bare feet up on the coffee table, and he's wearing a dress.

"Hey there," Cam says into the awkward silence. "Nice, ah, dress."

"I thought so," John replies evenly. He's reading a beat-up airport thriller, his thumb holding his place, and there's a gently steaming mug of tea set where he won't kick it over. Cam's glad he didn't walk in on John masturbating, but on the other hand he has no idea why John's wearing that, if not because it's a turn on.

It's six-thirty, too early for his brain to make sense of a coworker who spends his Sunday mornings in a housedress.

"I just," Cam starts. John pulls his feet down and smoothes the skirt fabric over his knees. "Vala gave me her key, and I think she has my pressure cooker, and I didn't want to wake you up. Should have knocked. Just thought I'd nip in and --" He ends the sentence with a shrug. The SGC and SG1 in particular are close like family, and Cam's so used to that lack of personal space that he forgets how weird it is until he finds himself the intruder.

"No problem," John says, standing and walking to the kitchen. He's moving stiffly -- his gate team is infamous for incurring minor disasters -- which makes the hem of the skirt catch around his knees. The dress is typical of Vala's on-Earth style -- very wholesome girl-next-door -- but it can't be hers, Cam realizes. Sheppard's taller and broad-shouldered, and the dress fits him fine. "The drain pan was full of, ah, personal stuff when I got here. You might want to wash it -- " he waves at the pot, sitting with gleaming malevolence on the stovetop -- "maybe with bleach."

"Our Vala's a spunky gal," Cam says while John digs a heavy plastic bag out of a drawer and settles the pot inside, handle jabbing upwards. He hands it over. Cam says thank you, and John shifts his weight to his hip. Up close like this, Cam can see that John's clean-shaven everywhere: arms, legs, face, even the bit of chest that shows.

Cam hasn't had much to do with any of the Atlantis expedition; he met John once when he first came to the SGC and once that time on Atlantis, and he's passed him in the corridors a couple of times in the past weeks. But he feels like he has to make a gesture to let John know he's not going to turn him in for the off-duty crossdressing, so he invites John down to his apartment for the team lunch and the Patriots game. He's a little surprised, though he knows he shouldn't be, when John shows up in boots and cargo pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. John brings beer and a salad, and sits on the sofa with Sam and Teal'c. Cam for some reason finds himself looking at John's ankles all afternoon.

Two weeks later, John's back in Pegasus, miraculously not fired for his crazy-ass insubordinate rescue of Woolsey and O'Neill. Cam checks Vala's closet for John's dress. It's not there.


John gets on a first-name basis with Kate Heightmeyer the first week in Atlantis. Elizabeth supports John's assumption of Sumner's command, but she insists on psychiatric counselling and evaluation. The first thing Kate tells John is that she's a civilian and that outside of anything which affects the safety of the expedition or anyone on Atlantis, what John says will be kept confidential.

"I won't even take notes if that bothers you," she says. "But that'll mean I'm listening twice as hard."

John requests the no-notes option.

When she asks for background, John starts with the nice, sanitized family story that always gets told during psych exams, finishing with a shrug and a half-smile and a self-deprecating, "I was a stupid rich kid with an expensive education. I even had my own horse."

Kate smiles. "What was your horse's name?"

Everyone else has always circled the conversation back to ask about John's mother and her death. John wonders if Kate had a horse phase, collecting Misty of Chincoteague books and those dolls with the brushable tails. Maybe she's being polite, or laying a trap, though Kate refuses to admit her mindgames are traps. The first time John flew was on horseback; talking horses until the hour's up will be easy.

Except -- "I can't remember her name," John manages to get out after a minute of blind irrational panic. "I loved that horse, why can't I remember her name?"

"Tell me about her," Kate says, and John snaps, "She got sold when I left home."

John stares at Kate. She stares back. John shoots up from the chair, saying, "I need to go," pointing at the door, needing to move.

"Stay," Kate says. And John hates being out of control just enough that, for once, staying wins out over running.

The appointments become a weekly thing. Kate never does write anything down. She's one of the few people who gets what John's silences mean, and she never uses force or coercion to make John speak. Sometimes, a whole session passes while Kate sips at her herbal tea, thumbing through a magazine, and John paces, watching the ocean.

Nearly a year later, Kate is still exploring John's self-destructive tendencies, or something like that, when John blurts out, "I wear women's clothes." What John wears is mostly underwear, but that's only because it's the easiest thing to hide and to explain, even if John were so careless as to leave a camisole drying in the bath.

Kate, of course, refuses to see this as a problem; all she cares about is why. The only answer John has is that the clothes keep the lie John tells every day about being John Sheppard, a man, from aching as much. It takes John a few months to figure out how to say that, the words hard to separate from Patrick Sheppard's voice, which has been a mental soundtrack -- more like an avalanche -- rolling over John since childhood, not a son of mine and cut your goddamn hair and well, you get that from your mother and stop crying or I'll give you something to cry for and get up, Johnny, and do it right this time.

Right after that, John nearly dies along with the Wraith, and after that John winds up back on Earth in a mall with about ten bags of presents bound for the Pegasus galaxy. In among all the pretty jewelry and the Benchmade knives and the soccer balls, there is a lipstick and a makeup compact and a large-size dress from the sale rack at Victoria's Secret which John just grabbed on impulse, hoping it fits.

The promotion to Lieutenant Colonel is a sweet vindication, but it also makes things difficult. Instead of getting kicked out of the military and being free to move on, John's back to a state of uneasy equilibrium, made all the worse by the fact that talking with Kate has woken up something in John that refuses to get beaten back into hibernation.

Three weeks after returning to Atlantis, John mutates into a bug-creature. It's like being on speed and on steroids; it's like turning into the Incredible Hulk, all power and anger and uncontrollable sex drive. John hauls blue ass into Kate's office as soon as possible afterward, curling up on her sofa under the afghan that she knit over the first year and keeps draped over the sofa back.

The first thing John says is, "I nearly raped Teyla. And Elizabeth." Kate's gaze is steady and not without sympathy, but she makes John do the work. "I wanted to," which is true, and, "I didn't," also true. The next thing John says comes from out of the blue, but it feels like the root of all truth: "I hate being John Sheppard."

John's never been able to cry; that feeling's been rewired to the urge to punch out windows and shoot things. But Kate holds out her hand, palm up, letting John choose whether to accept touch and comfort or not. After a minute, John reaches out, fingers bruise-blue and scaled, two sharp claws torn off and one broken. The red blood that's scabbed over is a comforting promise that there's something human under the scales.

Kate doesn't ask for an explanation, but John's mind is stuck on that one statement like a gerbil on a wheel.

"I make bad decisions," John says, remembering the naked way it had felt when O'Neill ripped John apart for the mistakes made that first year, just before the promotion. "When I write myself out of equations."

"Well, you're not a zero. Whoever you are." Kate smiles. "Did you talk about your gender dysphoria with any of the people I recommended?" she asks. "When you were on Earth."

"One," John says. "And I looked at the internet." John's head feels too heavy; the fever that came with the metamorphosis left a lingering full-body ache and feeling of sluggish stupidity. "I can't do that and stay here."

"No," Kate agrees. "But if it's what you want, you can start the journey now."

"I want," John says, and stops. "Fuck."

"Why don't we work out a plan," Kate says. She gets up, crosses to her desk, and collects a clipboard with paper and a handful of colored pens. She sits back down and then quirks an eyebrow. "I brainstorm better if I can see the words," she says, half in apology. "Do you mind if I --?"

It's another trap, because somehow it's John who ends up writing almost everything down. The words almost seem possible when they're scrawled in purple and pink and green, a flowchart with the final promise of a goal attained.

June 2007

The Ori terrify Cam like nothing ever has. He sees every converted or defeated world as a warning of what will happen to Earth if he fails and the Ori come. He goes back home for his high school reunion because Landry has a bee in his bonnet about not letting SGC personnel isolate themselves from their families and friends. Landry doesn't say it outright, but everyone knows to say their goodbyes and get their affairs in order. Landry's a good man, and Cam's kind of glad for Landry's habit of calling him son, because that's a turn-off. It would be awkward have a crush on yet another general.

He's glad to run into Amy Vandenberg when he's back home in Auburn. She's fun and smart and pretty and has the naively charming idea that Earth's perfectly safe so long as Cam's out there. She's the sort of person he should fall for, he tells himself. His parents like her, and she fits comfortably into a future with a picket fence and a swingset in the front yard. They exchange e-mail; Cam promises to come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In September John Sheppard is called back to the SGC to give his report on the current situation in Pegasus. He doesn't need to be on Earth; in the past he simply sent all the necessary documents back in the databurst. But the McKay-Carter Intergalactic Gate Bridge is the SGC's shiny new toy, and the IOA likes having Atlantis personnel finally under their thumbs -- sorry, accountable, Cam always gets those mixed up.

This time, John's put up in the empty apartment just above Vala's. Cam offers to drive him there after a meeting that drags on for hours. No one wants to hear about Pegasus' problems with Wraith or Replicators, that's the thing, and no one wants to commit resources unless there's an immediate threat to Earth. John got his security clearance about five minutes before walking through the gate to Atlantis, so he doesn't know about the Goa'uld or Ori threats except through mission reports. The things he asks for. . . well, even Cam could have told him to save his breath.

In the car, they argue about whether enemies who feed off your devotion and faith are worse than the ones who feed on you, period. John kind of wins when he brings up that he has been fed on by a Wraith.

"This is a crappy segue," Cam says, "but you want to come over for dinner?"

John's laugh is loud and braying. Cam's taken by surprise because he thinks of John as quiet and self-contained, wary. He has no idea what John's hobbies or habits are, or what John does for a good time besides flying.

There're really only a couple of things about John that he does know. This is probably why, after eating one of the casseroles Cam keeps frozen and drinking most of a six-pack, Cam grins over at John, stretched out on his sofa, and asks, "So, you still like dressing up?"

John's drunken sprawl doesn't change, but Cam can see the tension snap into his every muscle, like one wrong word and John's going to kick Cam's ass. John very deliberately puts his beer can down on the floor, looks cold at Cam, and says, "You hitting on me?"

"Maybe," Cam allows, meeting John's eyes and trying to look like the roar of his heartbeat in his ears isn't loud enough to drown out everything but fear. He knows a couple of bars a discreet enough distance away that he can pick up strangers and stay a stranger; he doesn't do this with people he knows and works with. But John lives in another galaxy, and has just as much to lose. "Just. . . I like sex sometimes," he goes on, and he feels the embarrassment lines on his forehead crinkle up. He should be married by now; he shouldn't still be fucking around like a teenager. He knows it'd be easier to explain the lost city of Atlantis to his parents or to Amy Vandenberg than the way he gets something from sleeping with men that he doesn't want to relinquish.

John nods slowly, the look in his eyes changing into something more like defeat. "You into guys who dress up? Because I could do that."

"Usually I like older guys," Cam says. "Always got crushes on my teachers." He shrugs.

"That figures," John says, and he smirks now, obviously trying to imitate an O'Neill expression. Cam kicks the sofa cushions and makes John laugh, quieter this time. "You have a boyfriend?" John asks. "Or a girlfriend?" In the lamp light and not the harsh fluorescents at the Mountain, his face looks softer but the lines on his face are harsher, an odd distortion. He shrugs, quirks an eyebrow. "It matters," he adds, almost in apology.

"Nah," Cam says, not really lying. He tries to keep his voice casual, but he probably fails. Every word feels reckless. "You?"

"You're kidding, right?" John says with a twist to his mouth, and sits up, stretches, and gets to his feet with a loose easy unbalance.

Cam stands as well, hitches a thumb at the bedroom, and then leads the way. "I had the impression you were popular with the Pegasus ladies."

"I heard that SG1 has orgies," John counters. He looks around Cam's bedroom once, and then sits on the edge of the bed, bouncing a bit to test the mattress. Cam's bed pretty much fills his bedroom; the closet is walk-in, so he stuck his bureau in there and got a massive oak bedframe that reminds him of the bedroom suite set his grandparents bought for his parents when they got married. Cam's nearly lost toes by stubbing them on the footboard legs, but he loves his goddamned bed.

Cam grabs the box of random condoms and a tube of slick from the bathroom and kicks off his jeans. He's not really turned on or drunk enough to be able to be smooth about this. He stands for a moment, just looking at John in the faint light that falls through the doorway. He's had sex in his bed before, but never with a man.

"We don't have to," John says, and that unfreezes Cam. He pushes John back on the bed and crawls over him, drops the supplies up by the pillows where they'll be handy, and curls one arm around John's head.

"Sure," Cam agrees, and bends his head to nibble down along John's jawline. "We could play Monopoly." He looks up to give John a grin, and John raises up to kiss Cam right on the mouth. Cam's off-balance, unsure about kissing, not quite sure what he doesn't do with guys because he doesn't like it and what's just because he's never had the time to take it slow. But John shuts his eyes, leaning a little to the right to fit their mouths together better, and Cam's always liked kissing women, so he goes with it.

There's no hurry. John takes a long time before even starting to touch Cam under his shirt, and Cam's half-hard before he has time to worry that his dick won't be on board with sex, another reminder of his crash, along with the scars. John gets Cam's t-shirt off and rolls him over on his back so that he can work on Cam's nipples, soft little flicks of tongue and the sharp pinch of fingernails that find sensitive spots Cam didn't know he had.

"That's good," Cam says, stroking restless lines down John's back, rucking his shirt up to press his palms over the curve above John's hipbones before reaching down to pull John's ass towards him. He needs to get rid of John's unattractive baggy pants, he decides.

"Yeah?" John says, snagging the condom box and sliding down Cam's body, his other hand already pushing Cam's boxers down and freeing his dick. "Any objections to blowjobs?"

Cam manages a Nuh-huh while John strokes him until he's hard enough to roll a condom on. Cam can smell the artificial strawberry flavoring even before John licks, wrinkles his nose, and then slides his mouth right on down. John sucks hard, working the base of Cam's dick with one hand. Cam feels John's own hard-on against his leg, and he pushes up, enough to give John some friction. John groans, dropping his head, tongue firm and hot and restless along the length of Cam's dick.

Cam reaches down and tangles his fingers in John's hair. John stiffens, and that bit of resistance makes Cam want to reassure John that he's not one of the bad guys; he's not about to ram his dick down John's throat. "That's perfect," he says, and John's eyes flick up from under an amused arch of eyebrows. "A-mazing," Cam goes on, and he says other stuff while he touches John where he can, the curve and weird points of John's ears, the softness behind his jawbone, the roundness of his cheeks. He feels himself about to come and barely has time to get out a warning before his body's shaken apart with pleasure.

He can't bring himself to do anything but watch as John kneels up, heel of his hand pressed hard against his dick, and bends forward with his own release.

John takes a minute to gulp in shuddering breaths and then grins and rolls out of bed, taking the condom with him when he tucks Cam's dick away.

"Don't go," Cam says, reaching out and snagging a couple of fingers in the waistband of John's pants.

John gives him a serious, guarded look, face mostly in shadow, and then shrugs. "You have any --"

"Sweats are in the closet," Cam says. "Grab me a pair, too. Extra toothbrushes are under the sink." He kicks the comforter down just enough that he can slide under, and puts the condom box and slick on the nightstand.

"God, you're lazy," John says, twisting out of Cam's grasp.

Cam's tired and he just had a great orgasm so he says mm, hm; John tosses him his Property of Air Force sweats to sleep in before disappearing into the bathroom. Cam spreads out over as much of his bed as he can, stretching his whole body loose, and then shifts to the right, the side that's his when he's sharing. He's mostly asleep when John joins him.

"Night," John says. Cam mumbles at him and falls asleep.

Cam wakes up to the feel of a warm hand on his dick and the smell of --

"Pancakes?" he asks through a yawn, sliding from sleep into awareness with an arch that pushes his hips up. He lifts his head just enough to see John give him a slow, dirty grin, lick his lips, and pick up the pace with a smooth sweet twist that makes Cam groan and press a foot hard to the mattress to give himself leverage.

He comes before he's even really awake, and John laughs at him as he wipes up the mess with a handful of tissues. He pulls Cam out of bed and says something about zero to sixty in thirty seconds flat. Cam hauls John around with an arm circling his waist and kisses him. John's stiff, probably thinking more clearly than he'd been last night, but after a moment of awkwardly bad kissing John goes limp and relaxed and opens his mouth against Cam's and then -- well, if Cam hadn't just come this would be enough to get him hard. He reaches around for the front of John's pants (and when the hell had John got dressed?) but John grabs his wrist and pulls back.

"Breakfast'll get cold," John says, and rests his head on Cam's shoulder in the sweetest and weirdest way. Cam's not sure he's comfortable with the way he finds almost everything about John weird. Cam's reminded of his high school days, when he played football and had popular friends and never questioned that anyone weird. . . well, he'd kind of thought they'd deserved what they got for standing out and being different. He fights against that impulse to pass judgment nearly every day; the SGC seems to require weirdness as a hiring criteria. Cam puts his cheek against the top of John's head and thinks about what a bad idea this is, and about how John's hair is soft and smells like Cam's shampoo.

"You don't want --?" Cam starts, and John shakes his head.

"I was up at three, went for a run, and cooked," John says. "I'm starving."

"I guess I could eat." Cam nudges John with his hip, making him stumble and take a step which turns into Cam pushing him out towards the kitchen.

John makes really, really good pancakes.

He's cooking a third batch when Vala pounds on the door. She has Bill Lee and Walter Harriman in tow -- Cam's smart enough not to ask why -- and announces that the building smells heavenly and she brought her own fork.

John makes Stargate-shaped pancakes, and ones that he says are dinosaurs, and a few muscle cars that Cam and Vala race around the table before eating. John has to be at the mountain by seven; Bill Lee offers a ride that John accepts easily. Bill and John have a rapport, talking movies and RPGs and cool alien tech like geeky thirteen-year-olds. Walter's quiet, he usually is, but Vala is intent on trying to get him to explain why some stupid TV shows are more popular than others. Cam gets sucked into that discussion when he says he doesn't mind Japanese game shows, and Vala laughs at him.

Vala also teases Cam about being the only one wearing pajamas at the table, and he's arguing that it's his house, damnit, when John leaves, tossing an insincere apology about the dishes over one shoulder.

That night, they make out in John's apartment, but his bed's small and John says he hates small beds, so they sneak upstairs. They have sex, and John kicks Cam's ass at Crash Team Racing, and then they have sex again, and the next day John leaves.

Cam sees John two more times before the gate bridge falls. Once is right after the Jeannie Miller kidnapping, and John seems to want Cam to be rough. Cam figures he wants to be punished -- it's an open secret what went down with John's close personal friend the Wraith -- and Cam won't do that. But he fucks John hard, pushing him down on his knees just inside the front door and coming on John's face and in his hair. He's pretty sure John doesn't sleep that night at all. John moves stiffly the next morning, and Cam wants to tell him that everything's okay, except he knows that's stupid and John didn't come to him for empty false reassurance.

The next time he sees John is when John's walking down the red line from Off-World Personnel Support Services carrying a suitbag, with Ronon Dex at his back. Cam offers his condolences on the death of John's father (seriously, there are no secrets at the SGC) and thinks about how small John looks, as if the act of going home has called a younger, uncertain John to the surface.

John's given seventy-two hours of personal time to spend with his family after missing his father's funeral to track down Replicators. When John returns to the SGC, he's sent to Carolyn Lam first and then put through an obstacle course of meetings and debriefings. Cam collects John that night at half-past eight from the anti-replicator geeks in Lab 9, who want to know how their weapons worked in an urban combat situation. Cam smiles in a way that strongly suggests they don't want to argue with him, and says he's sorry but he promised John a steak dinner.

"You're such a liar," John says, as they're walking through the parking lot, icy wind sweeping down. His voice is soft, almost a whisper, like he's trying not to strain it; he has a dark ring of bruises around his neck.

"I'm the liar who's going to buy you dinner," Cam says. "Unless you already ate?"

"I don't think I can swallow steak," John says, and Cam tells him that's okay, he also knows where the best milkshakes in all of Colorado Springs are sold.

John drinks two shakes, one strawberry and one vanilla, while Cam eats a burger and fries. The shop décor is straight out of Happy Days, complete with a jukebox that plays forty-fives by The Hollies and The Crystals and The Royal Guardsmen. John doesn't say anything, but he digs change out of his pockets and gives Cam all the quarters for music. Afterwards, Cam drives back to the apartment building on automatic, and then realizes that he hadn't asked if John is even staying here.

John gets out of the car stiffly, holding his ribs, and Cam swings John's duffel over his shoulder easy, before John can protest.

"Look," John starts, and rubs his hair. "I -- "

"Do you want to be alone?" Cam asks. "Because if you don't, I don't mind you staying over just to stay over."

John bites his lip, looks over at Cam, and then nods. "Appreciate it."

John sits down on Cam's bed for a moment, maybe planning on doing something stupid like bending over to pull his shoes off, and falls asleep. Cam watches him nod off and slowly sag back across the foot of the bed, feet still planted on the floor.

Cam feels cruel as he shakes John awake and makes him change into sweats before getting into bed properly, but he's pretty sure John won't remember in the morning. John's wearing a sleeveless girls' tanktop under his t-shirt, and Cam gets a good view of John's ass in the matching underpants. Cam's kind of used to John's choice of underwear by now and kind of still freaked out, but he gets ready for bed and settles in next to John and tries not to think about all the ways he keeps breaking his own rules. John needs the comfort, Cam tells himself, and he almost believes it by the time he falls asleep.

John sleeps solidly for six hours before he flails awake with a shout. He lets Cam soothe him back to sleep. He wakes again when the sun comes up. Cam gets up and brings John a glass of water, and helps John sit up to drink it all down. John sighs, gives Cam a sidelong glance, and says, "I'm sorry," as he sets the glass on the nightstand. Cam must look confused, because John nods back at the bed.

"What are friends for?" Cam says. He grabs the neatly-folded pile of John's clothes and hands it over. He's been trying not to think about how much he loves his own father; his eyes sting even just imagining what it'll be like when his old man passes. "Jesus, John, I don't even know how you're holding up. Are you holding up?"

"I'm good," John says. He takes too long to pull his t-shirt on, working in pained little increments. "Never been that close to my family."

"If you want to talk," Cam starts. John laughs and tells him McKay made the same offer, and his answer's still no. "Breakfast, then."

"I could go for breakfast," John says. He has trouble bending to get his pants on, and Cam finally says, "For fuck's sake, Sheppard, let me," and puts John in order.

John politely refuses Cam's help in the bathroom, though he does ask if he can borrow a razor. While he's waiting for John to freshen up, Cam scrambles some eggs and serves up bowls of yogurt. John says thanks when he appears; Cam says de nada and puts the Tylenol bottle on the table. John has seconds of both eggs and yogurt before leaning back, gingerly, with his hands wrapped around his coffee mug.

"I have to tell you something," John says, serious-sounding, his eyes dropping to the tabletop.

"Okay," Cam says, and tries to keep his face blank and open. He figures that seeing his family has John thinking about priorities and responsibilities and the risks of illegal sex, or he's thinking about his own mortality, or maybe John's got a boyfriend or a girlfriend on Atlantis now. Cam thinks that there was too much risk in even sleeping together once; it really would be best to finish this thing now. Cam's braced to be dumped, and relieved not to be the one doing the dumping, and feeling guilty for that.

Except that what John tells him, in short words so efficient they have to be rehearsed, is that he thinks he's a girl. Or that's what Cam hears. He asks just to make sure, feeling his forehead wrinkled up in confusion.

"No," John says. "I know I'm a woman."

"Uh-huh," Cam says. He's looking right at John and everything he sees adds up to guy. He's seen drag shows and he knows some of the girls performing are transsexuals, though he could never figure out which ones. They were all just as pretty as regular girls -- and fuck, Cam's been through the SGC's interplanetary-diplomacy-strength sensitivity training program, so he winces that he even thought that. "And you decided this because?"

John takes a breath. "Born like this? Like you liking guys."

"Uh-huh," Cam repeats. He thinks about John dressing up, wearing panties under his jeans. "You're serious? There some reason that you. . . . Because if you didn't say anything," and he kind of wishes John hadn't said anything, "no one'd ever think that."

John does that thing with his mouth, biting his lips together, and then says, "I'm not you." He pauses, and then adds, his voice flat and factual, "If I have to keep hiding, it'll probably kill me."

That makes Cam flush hot with anger, but he doesn't know why, and that makes him angrier. "The Air Force," he starts. He has to press the heels of his hands against the table to keep them from shaking.

"When the Wraith are no longer a threat," John says, with a narrow feral smile that goes pretty well with the coldness in his eyes, "I plan on quitting. I'm not you," and this time it doesn't sound like an insult. "My time'll come and I won't be promoted and I'll be out a job. Everyone knows that." John swallows; he's not saying anything that Cam hasn't heard said about him, but Cam figures it has to hurt. "It makes decision-making easier." Another false smile. "But you're on the O'Neill track."

Cam grimaces. He's heard that, too, and it makes him feel pretentious, like he's inherited a legacy instead of earning it. "So, what? You want to dress like a girl all the time? Are you talking surgery?"

John gives a one-shouldered shrug. "Finishing surgery, yeah. Um. Hormones."

Cam knows John's got a dick and no boobs, so he's not even going to wonder what surgery John's had, because he thinks he knows and the idea freaks him out. John smirks at him over the rim of his coffee cup.

"I heard that Pegasus was where medical ethics went to die. I guess it's true," Cam says, wanting John to be hurt and off-balance, level the ground some. "Why the hell would you do that to yourself?" He can hear his own voice, a little too high.

"Well," John says, "you think I'm fucked in the head. I think I'm fucked in the body." He looks over at the clock on the microwave. "I need to get to work. I'll call a cab."

"Who knows?" Cam asks, fast, and he can't help the stab of fear that someone maybe saw him and John together, someone who knew. He knows it's irrational and mean-spirited, but he's not going to let John's weirdness expose his own. He's not. He takes a breath and then another before he's able to meet John's eyes.

He's pretty sure everything he just thought was written all over his face.

"Heightmeyer, Beckett, Biro," John says, with only another convulsive swallow after to acknowledge that two of those three are dead. "On Earth, Lam, the psychiatrist I talk to. My surgeon. You're the only one who's not a doctor."

"I can give you a ride," Cam says. "It's no problem."

On the car radio, the morning DJ plays oldies, and Cam hopes to God that Lola doesn't come on in the next half an hour. He's tempted to go for the safety of full geezerhood and put on NPR like his old man.

"I'm not gay," he says to John when the car's stuck at the fourth red light in a row.

John looks sideways at him, his fingers on the car door tapping along silently with Stevie Nicks. "Okay," John says.

"I'm not usually this much of an asshole, either," Cam has to add. Coming down on the other side of the adrenaline rush of anger now, he feels guilty, especially when John's bruised and in mourning and probably needing some validation or comfort or something.

John looks out the windshield and smiles just a bit. "I know. You're one of the good guys."

And that's when it hits Cam just how utterly different John is from the person he thought he was. "Holy shit," Cam says; it's like when he found out about the Stargate and the aliens all over again. "What the hell are we doing?"

"I thought we were breaking up," John says carefully.

"Are we?" Cam asks. He thinks this is a bad time to ask when the hell they started dating.

"I got a real break-up vibe." John sounds annoyed.

Cam wants to argue the point that he's a decent person, but he suspects he'd be arguing himself right into a relationship that he doesn't need. He's going back home in eleven days. Maybe he'll take Amy out for a walk down by the pond, or go catch a movie, and kiss her on the porch when he takes her home. John is never going to be the girl Cam takes home to his parents. He hasn't even told them he's. . . whatever he is. Bi, he guesses, even though that sounds stupid to him. His father will be disappointed. His mother will feel like he doesn't trust her, even though he knows she's open-minded. Cam knows exactly what people in Auburn, Kansas -- population one thousand and a bit -- would say if John Sheppard walked down Washington Street in a dress, and what words Cam'd find scratched into his car's paintjob if people saw him kissing John good night.

"You live in a whole other galaxy," Cam says, as if that's an explanation, or the only reason.

John sighs and lets the conversation drop, and he gates home sometime that afternoon without saying goodbye.

Cam has a great holiday season. He sees Amy three times, including one long make-out session in the car while snow gusts down all around. His mother likes Amy; Cam likes her. He tells himself that he's taking things slow because he wants it to be right, and that not feeling the electric current of lust is a sign of respect. Now that he's not too tongue-tied to actually talk to her, she's funny and clever and directly honest. The last bit is what gets him into trouble.

He feels like he's lying every time he has to tell her that he can't explain this, that, or the other thing about his job, about where he goes and what he does. He knows he's lying when Amy gives him her bright all-American smile and asks if he's missed her; because sure he has, but he's also been fucking John, and the neat compartments he has for his sex life and his love life aren't working so well these days. He's acutely aware of this dishonesty with Amy and his parents, but that's always been the admission price for good food and presents under the tree and sweet kisses and family warmth. He doesn't want to live without any of that -- well. He could do without presents. He's not greedy that way.

He sees Carter at the de-snaking of the last Ba'al clone and catches up with her afterwards over well-done steak and locally-brewed beer at Jack O'Neill's expense. He hears all the latest news from Atlantis, gossip about Teyla's baby and Richard Woolsey.

"Your friend John's kind of crazy," Carter says, her cheeks pink with the alcohol buzz. Cam wonders how she knows he knows John, what she's heard. O'Neill brings up the story about how John rescued him when he was on Atlantis with Woolsey; or rather, he tells about how he had to pretty much rescue John as well as save his own ass. "Sheppard's got a rescue complex, sir," Carter says, laughing. "He went after Teyla with a bloody hole in his side packed with Iodoform gauze."

"And you let him go," O'Neill says, voice mild and curious, picking at the microbrewery label on his beer bottle, but there are undercurrents in his tone.

Carter winces, and Cam admires O'Neill's team-building all over again, for all that he still feels left out around the original SG-1. "Hard to stop him," she says. "He was being wheeled into surgery when I left. Dr. Keller assured me he'd be back on his feet in a week or so."

Cam goes straight back to the SGC after that, hoping there's still time to send John something on the Daedalus. The cargo has all been loaded, weighed down to the gram, and sealed, but Cam persuades Novak to carry out 2GB of college football and basketball games on her hard drive.

In the first data-burst after Woolsey arrives, John sends a polite bread-and-butter note to Cam's work e-mail, adding that he's laid up again so much appreciated. Cam gets a copy of Woolsey's report and finds out that John was impaled by a hive ship tentacle that was part of a creature mind-controlling Dr. Keller. Keller's embarrassed assessment of John's injuries is appended. Sometimes Cam thinks Pegasus is just about the most fucked-up place in the universe.

Over the weeks until the Daedalus returns with the latest news, Cam hears a couple people expressing doubt that John will recover fully. Cam looks at the report's embedded color photographs and tries to imagine these new scars on John's body. He calls Amy one night and realizes that there's absolutely nothing he can tell her. He asks her about her job instead, listens for a full thirty minutes while making the right noises in the right places, and after he hangs up he doesn't remember a word of what she said.

He tries to imagine being married to someone and having that be what you did every day, the wall between work and home impenetrable and the secrets turning in on you until you broke, one way or the other. He drunk-dials his father one night and asks, and his dad, understandably, chews his ass out.

He has the let's just be friends talk with Amy a week later. She apologizes to him, saying she wishes she could be more trusting, but being cheated on has left her suspicious. Cam says God no, it's not her, it's him, and his job, but mostly him.

Cam writes to John, telling him to take it easy seeing as he's over forty and all. He feels a little like a hypocrite; John used to only be a year older than he is, though it's eighteen months now, and Cam is still heading up SG1 and not taking things easy himself. Trips through the gate aren't less dangerous even with the Ori and the Goa'uld taken care of, and Cam comes back with his fair share of scrapes, bruises, and weird alien stomach viruses, not to mention death threats from the Lucian Alliance.

Found an awesome planet for surfing, John writes back. Can't wait for my annual vacation. Cam likes how John manages to say so much in those innocuous lines. It's two elegant fuck yous that no censor will catch, but it makes Cam wish he could talk to John. He has Daniel Jackson give John more video files instead.

Following the sloppy air defense of Area 51 when the Wraith attack Earth, the President orders an extensive, invasive, and furious investigation. In the resultant shake-up all the SG teams are grounded. Teal'c goes to New York and Washington with Landry. Sam takes the George Hammond on a mission so secret she can't even hint to Cam. And Daniel hops off to bury himself in the labs and database of Atlantis, which has been relocated to a great patch of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean and turned into a temporary training camp for a modern multinational military fighting against and with alien technology.

"It's like Universal Studios, sir," says the jumper pilot who ferries Cam to Atlantis from Soto Cano. "Except that all the rides are trying to kill you."

"I'm sure the SGC won't let Colonel Sheppard kill anyone," Cam says, but apparently this is the wrong thing to say. For the next two hours all he hears is how terrifying John is. Most of it, he thinks, is to impress the Marines seated on the benches at the back, who are one-third of John's latest batch of trainees. They'll be learning how to fight Wraith, Goa'uld, and Replicators, but most importantly they'll be learning the skills necessary to assess new threats and adapt, and the crucial ability to work with even unlikely allies.

"You ever fight the Wraith, sir?" the pilot asks, and Cam admits that he hasn't and doesn't want to. "The Wraith called Todd is one of our instructors," she says. "He about killed Colonel Sheppard once. It makes you think --" she shrugs and twists her mouth -- "how complicated things are."

Cam has seen the barely-there scar that marks where John's life was sucked away and then spat back. He isn't sure what his reaction would be to meeting the Wraith that put it there. He doesn't think he could shake hands and play nice.

He plans to mention this to John, but the first thing he says when he walks out the back of the jumper to where John's waiting, arms crossed, is, "Hear you nuked one of my 302s, Colonel."

"Hear your ass was stuck offworld while the planet was nearly wiped out," John snaps back, but not loud enough to be overheard. He nods, indicating he wants Cam to walk with him. "Colonel." John sets a fast pace, but Cam doesn't have trouble keeping up. Behind them, the Marines are being sorted into groups.

"They found the Trust operatives who were responsible for the air defense communications breakdown," Cam offers. "The Goa'uld operatives here on Earth seem to think that we'll bow down if they save us from the Wraith. A couple of IOA suits got nailed to the wall for the whole chair thing."

John gives Cam a sideways sneer. "I told Landry we haven't found the Ancient IKEA yet, but I might have a lead on another chair. With drones."

"I suppose you want to swing by Pegasus to pick it up."

"Atlantis can't stay on Earth too long. They had to make up some story about a weapons test to alter the shipping lanes, and now we've got Greenpeace circling the area. And some conspiracy-theory nuts in rubber boats."

"I'd been thinking of how to get out to see you," Cam says; not really meaning to, but it's so damn good to see John again. John's hair is long enough in front that his bangs curl, and he's thinner than Cam remembers, his black uniform hanging loose from his shoulders. Despite this, Cam registers all the unchanged little details about John with a kind of satisfaction: the same watch and wristband and sloppy boots, the same loose walk and wary eyes. He reaches out, puts a hand on John's shoulder, and tugs him to a stop. John tenses, looking Cam in the eyes for one second before turning his head to stare down the corridor. "Sam told me what you did -- what you were prepared to do. I'm real glad you're still with us."

"Nothing you wouldn't have done if you were there," John says, fast, like it doesn't need talking about. "Did you want to check out our new 302s now, or take some downtime first? You hungry?"

"I could eat," Cam allows. "Should drop my stuff at my room first. I'll need a map, too, or I might wander into one of your training sessions and get shot."

"Like I let them have real bullets in the house," John says, with a scornful jerk of his chin. "Kids'd just mess up the decorating." He turns quick down to the left and then into a narrower branch of the hallway. There are windows all down the right, opening onto a balcony with a dizzying view over the city and the ocean.

"Whoa." Cam tries to walk and stare at the same time and just about smacks into a jutting decorative wall sconce. John yanks him to safety and mutters something about babysitting. "Do you ever stop being amazed by all this?" Cam waves out at the towers and the jumpers doing some kind of VTOL exercise out in the distance.

"Wait till you see the view from your room," John says offhand, but his hands are shoved deep in his pockets and he's rocking back on his heels, eyes crinkled up at the corners with real pleasure. Cam's grandmother would have said John was houseproud; Cam figures he deserves to be.

Cam really hadn't been looking forward to working with John. He'd anticipated awkwardness and strained politeness, but his first week on Atlantis turns out to be ridiculously fun. Meetings are daily but short and efficient, and work consists of teaching pilots how to play with the bizarre alien tech. John has access to a freaky number of weird ships parked on the dark side of the moon; Cam loves watching the new kids try to keep a serious face the first time they see one of the pyramid-shaped al-kesh. Sure, there's no need for a spaceship to be aerodynamic, but damn, those things are ugly.

John has one that's mostly non-functional, already gutted by the Area 51 people, and one day when it's rainy and everyone's antsy, he lets Cam take his brighter students up to blow the thing to smithereens. Hard not to like someone who understands just how much fun that is.

In his off-time, Cam hangs out with Daniel when he's not overdosing on Ancient documents, or with John and his team. Cam had feared for his health around McKay after the whole plastic lemon death-threat thing; he follows Sam's recommendation and brings offerings of Canadian beer and expensive coffee. "Don't think you're getting off that easy," McKay warns him, but Cam just says, as sincerely as he can considering that he still thinks it was funny, that he's sorry. "Ha," McKay mutters. "I know all about people like you." It isn't so much the words as the knowing, cynical look he gives Cam that quite unexpectedly stings.

Ronon and Teyla are cool, though. Teyla's tiny and she beats Cam to his knees the first time they spar. John laughs his ass off from where he's watching on the sidelines. After, Ronon asks to learn some Sodan fighting techniques. Teyla remarks loudly to John that it's strange Cam has no problems fighting Ronon.

"Well," John says, a little breathless and pressing a hand to his side, "it's not polite to hit girls."

"If Colonel Mitchell is polite," Telya says, spinning and feinting and nearly taking John out at the knees, "what are you?"

"Alive," John says, bringing one stick up sharply and knocking Teyla's left stick out of her hand; it flashes end over end across the room, and Teyla calls, "Veyt," which must mean heads up because people scatter.

That night, Ronon invites Cam over for a cookout and bad eighties movies. There are a bunch of regular Atlantis personnel crammed into his quarters, scientists and military, and they have a stack of DVDs that are heavy on wacky teenaged antics. Cam mostly hides out on the balcony, taking over the grill when Bill Lee has to go watch the end of Labyrinth.

"You have stupid-looking hair as a kid?" Ronon asks Cam, emerging for thirds. He goes right for the steak Cam was thinking of for himself, spearing it on a wicked-looking knife and ripping off a bite.

Cam shrugs. "Everyone had a bad haircut in the eighties."

"You don't like movies," Ronon says, raising his eyebrows even as he chews another bite.

"Saw most of these back in high school. They were good for taking girls to on dates."

Ronon aimed the point of his knife at Cam, apparently expressing agreement with meat. "On Sateda, we had gardens, with music. Hard to get a girl to come without an auntie tagging along, though."

"We had chaperones at our dances," Cam says. "You mind watching the barbeque?"

"Nah," Ronon says, and accepts the official apron even though it's tiny on him. "Have fun. Mingle."

Cam goes looking for John. He's never been a good mingler. There seem to be even more people than before, and everyone's drinking the bright green fruit punch that's made with some nasty alien alcohol. Ronon's giant TV screen is playing Real Genius now, or maybe Weird Science. Geeks taking over the world and getting the girl isn't really Cam's thing. Someone has set up a Wii in the corner, but the first open timeslot on the sign-up sheet taped to the wall isn't until half past twelve. Cam was up for predawn PT, and he figures he'll be asleep by eleven.

John's sitting on the game corner sidelines holding a beer and looking mellow. Cam leans down and says, quiet enough that only John can hear, "How about blowing this popsicle stand?"

"Smooth," John says, with a sideways look that suggests Cam couldn't possibly be dorkier. But he gets up and follows Cam to his room, and once they're there Cam doesn't really feel like there's anything stopping him from kissing John.

He's had a few beers himself and his judgment is maybe impaired, but he's been orienting himself to John's position since arriving on Atlantis, always looking for John or listening for his name or watching him. In retrospect, Cam may have been a bit obsessed by how well John seemed to have erased whatever had been between them.

But by the way John is stripping Cam and touching him, John's been wanting this, too. As they cross the room to the bed, Cam's jacket hits the floor, and his shirt, and his undershirt.

"Hold your horses," Cam says when John pops the button on his jeans. He pulls at the hems of John's flannel and t-shirt. "My turn."

He tugs up until John's stomach is visible, and the scars there. John's either even more religious about shaving these days or he's having some kind of hair-removal done; Cam's noticed a real lack of five-o'clock shadow, and without chest hair to hide in the harsh lines of newly-healed skin look raw and vicious. His face must show something, because John yanks his shirt down and says, "Let's leave that on."

"Yeah, right, no," Cam says, and scratches his fingernails against John's skin, not light enough to tickle, hopefully a turn-on. "Then I'd get self-conscious about my scars, and we'd never get to naked." He leans in for another kiss. "And naked is more fun."

Under the shirts, Cam finds, John's wearing a bra. It's a really cute bra, the kind made to compensate for being flat-chested with detailing and design, and it's plenty enough to distract Cam from scars. Cam rubs his fingers over the bra cups until he gets John's nipples hard, and then he sucks them through the fabric. He's known women who like that.

And John's not any different.

Cam had thought he'd just ignore John's whole thing, seeing as how it had never been an issue before. He keeps trying to change pronouns in his head when he thinks about John, but it feels forced. Now, though, with John spread out under him in bed, nipples hard and visible through wet fabric and a sweet triangle of lace-edged panties showing in the V of unzipped pants, Cam finds himself calling John baby.

"Baby?" John says, giving Cam an incredulous look.

"Mm, hm," Cam says, lips against John's, licking his way into John's mouth. He wants this, he really does, but his dick's only half cooperating today, so Cam's dragging the foreplay out. He rocks his hips, and John's breath comes short, in little gasps, as John arches up. "Yeah?" Cam grins and nudges John's legs open a bit more; John's eyes fall shut, and the hands that have been stroking Cam's back are suddenly curled with impatient pressure at his waist. "You need to lose your pants. Baby."

Cam kneels up, making John grumble. He hooks his fingers in belt loops and tugs down. He's been trying to remember if he ever has seen John naked. All his memories involve pretty underwear and no hands-on participation in John's orgasms. From the way John's head turns away to the side even as Cam's pulling off first one pants leg, then the other, somehow it seems not so much devious as shy, and shyness is kind of adorable. Cam gets up and drops his own jeans and boxers on the floor. John slides one knee up, self-consciously. Cam gives it a shake and tells John to budge over.

He settles in on his side, and John curls up against him. Cam nudges his leg between John's and scratches John's back, thinking about whether he should unhook the bra, until he hits another patch of scar tissue to the side of John's spine, and John hisses and flinches.

"The fuck?" Cam says, trying to soothe away the sting by rubbing gentle circles with his palm. "I didn't -- what the hell did you do to yourself?"

"Tentacle, through and through." John's voice is soft and off-hand.

"Sucks to be you," Cam says, and plants a wet kiss in the center of John's forehead. "I'd have baked you cookies when you were laid up, you know that, right?"

"Wasn't eating much anyway," John says.

"I noticed you got skinny," Cam says; John gives him a suspicious, narrow-eyed stare and says, "Yeah?" as if there's an invisible you wanna make something of it attached. Cam shifts, pulling John closer. John has to reach down and adjust himself, so Cam's dick's rubbing against John's, only the slippery fabric of John's underwear between them. "Like this okay?" Cam asks. John kisses him in answer. The friction is good; not enough to get Cam off, but John's nearly there. Cam feels his dick start to wilt, and he says, "Aw, damn," one second and the next John's got a hand around him and it's like that's all Cam needs, he goes off like a bottle rocket.

He rallies enough to get his hand over John's, working John's dick now. Cam's a bit fuzzy on the details, but he thinks he says all kinds of stupid things. He's almost positive that when John's dick jerks and spills, he says, "That's it, sweetheart, I've got you."

John doesn't call him on it afterwards, when Cam's pulling off the messed-up panties. John just makes small annoyed noises until Cam's curled up around him again, and then stretches out one hand to slap something on the headboard that turns the lights off.

February 2009

Shannon wakes up the way she always does, with a gasp and the feeling of falling. She's warm all the way down, except for her feet, which are sticking out from under covers she doesn't remember being there when she fell asleep.

She gets drunk too easily these days, but she doesn't know if that's due to lack of opportunity or hormones. She has a list in her head of things she thinks were caused by testosterone. The doctor she saw in San Francisco was polite but disbelieving of her suspicions. She liked him anyway. He called her Ms. Sheppard, Shannon when she said he didn't need to be formal.

She wants Cam to call her by name -- it would be better than Cam's arsenal of ridiculous endearments, at any rate. She wants Cam in a way she knows is irrational, and blames that on hormones, too, in the same way she blames the alcohol for the fact that all Cam had to do was look at her and she fell into bed.

Cam's sound asleep, flopped over on his stomach and with a tight grip on the blanket. She knows he doesn't have anything on until seven. He can sleep in.

Shannon slides out of bed carefully. She's wearing her bra and nothing else. She tries to hang onto the warm feeling she had when she woke up, but as she picks her clothes up off the floor there's a familiar voice in her head saying, Seriously, Johnny, what do you think he sees in you besides an easy lay? You're not even half as pretty as he is.

She pulls her shirt on to hide the scars and finds her underwear completely unwearable; not only does she feel retroactively embarrassed remembering that Cam touched her down there, but she's going to be doing the walk of shame commando. She's glad she knows the city well enough to get back to her room unseen.

It's going on five, so she throws on sweats, meets up with the early-morning runners, and does the ten klicks to the west pier and back. It's hard for her to keep up. Keller keeps telling her that she didn't lose any lung capacity with her recent injuries, even though she skirted pneumonia after the last surgery. Keller uses weasel words, but what she means is, You're just not young any more.

Shannon takes a long hot shower and hopes her body isn't going to hurt all day because she overdid it. She does her handwashing and hangs it out on the side balcony to dry. Under her t-shirt and BDU pants she puts on her favorite camisole and a pair of black panties, the support kind that let her tuck her dick back so she looks normal. She's taking the opportunity of being on Earth to get laser hair removal done on her days off. She's not sure how much will be finished before she has to leave, and she's already paid a huge amount of money, but Shannon loves not having to shave as often. It almost makes looking in the mirror to do her hair bearable. She can feel the tendrils of a bad day trying to catch her and drag her down, but she doesn't want to give in. She practices voice with a video on her computer every morning, and she doesn't let herself skip today. Afterwards, she puts on Johnny Cash and sings along -- badly, but there's no one to hear.

Someone bangs at her door, and Shannon grabs her jacket, which she's still buttoning when she waves the door open.

"What?" she says, anticipating Ronon, who hardly ever calls her over the radio. But it's Cam. He walks right in, frowns at the door controls for a moment, and then shuts and locks the door.

"I overslept," he says, and gives her a wry look. "How come you aren't hung over even the least little bit?"

"Clean living," she says.

"You eat breakfast yet?" he asks, snaking an arm around her waist and bumping his hip against hers.

"Not yet," she says, and Cam leans over to kiss her. He tastes like mint toothpaste, which is nice, and Shannon's barefoot, so there's no height difference. Shannon hates being tall.

"So, let's go eat," Cam says. "I'm starving."

Shannon goes to grab socks. "Yeah, okay," she says, and it's so easy and good to just go along with Cam that it doesn't feel wrong.

The whole rest of the week is like that. Despite what McKay implies constantly, Shannon knows she's not stupid. Cam's got problems and issues. She can see him marrying some Midwest farmer's daughter, just to make his family and his commanding officers happy.

But right now, he's interested in her and her city, and it feels like having a boyfriend. Shannon's so damn tired of being the only one of her friends who hasn't got someone. She likes being able to go to her room after dinner and put on something comfortable, knowing that there won't be any disasters in the night, and she likes knowing that Cam'll come around and probably stay the night. They don't have awkward silences; Cam loves talking about football and video games and crappy action movies and flying.

Shannon supposes that she's shallow to fall for someone who's basically the man she's been trying to be all her life. She has a type, apparently.

"Wish you didn't have to go," she says the night before Cam leaves. She's lying on the sofa with her head in Cam's lap. She could really get used to this.

"I'll be back in two weeks," Cam says, playing with her hair. Shannon's exactly one week overdue for a haircut, but it's worth the risk. She wishes she could just keep growing it out, so that the next time she sees Cam -- except that with her hair it'd probably just be a bigger mess, she reminds herself. "I don't think you're going to disappear before then."

"Knock on wood," Shannon says.

When Cam comes back the next time, he's there for five days. He brings Shannon presents: cookies his mother baked, comic books and DVDs. They have dinner in her room one night, and she locks the door and asks Cam if he'd mind if she wore makeup. He blinks at her and then says Sure, go ahead. She feels knotted up the way she does when he sees her naked, and she's only ever put on makeup when she's alone, so she's pretty sure she's doing it wrong, using too much. Cam watches her, leaning in the doorway, bringing her a tissue to blot her lipstick. After they eat, she says she should go wash her face and Cam says Don't, I want to mess you up. He sounds turned on, and Shannon gets a rush out of doing that to him.

On the fifth day, the George Hammond drops out of hyperspace with a whole pile of ZPMs in various stages of depletion. Sam acts modest about the discovery, giving all the credit to Daniel Jackson, who says the information was all in the database, if you knew where to look. Rodney caresses his new ZPMs in the gate room with an enthusiasm that makes Sam cover her eyes and tell him to get a room.

Cam beams up with Sam, more or less on the spur of the moment, and Atlantis lifts off two days later with Shannon in the chair. Shannon thinks that the city feels heavier, somehow. Rodney says of course: "We're probably carrying the equivalent of ten Wal-Marts worth of consumer goods, not to mention all our new personnel."

The ZPMs are a limited resource until Sam figures out how to recharge them (she's pretty sure she can, she just needs to reinvent a branch of Ancient physics), so contact with Earth is kept to once a week. Shannon waits for a letter or an e-mail or some word from Cam for two weeks before she assumes that she's been dumped again. She sends Cam a two-word note, and gets no answer.

Either she looks depressed or Rodney reads her e-mail, because he shows up on her doorstep after the most recent databurst, with a big bag of Doritos and a Ghostbusters DVD.

Rodney waits until after the haunted refrigerator scene and then says, "He's not worth it."

Shannon agrees that Sigourney Weaver can do better than Bill Murray.

"No," Rodney says. "The guy I didn't ask if you were dating and you didn't tell me? So technically I don't know anything? You can do better." He pauses. "He's a dick."

"I'm pretty sure the problem's me," Shannon says, and then because she must have a thing for pain, "Did Jennifer say yes?"

Rodney looks as emotionally conflicted as possible for him. "I was supposed to ask you to be best man last week, but I thought it might seem insensitive if you were in the middle of a painful breakup."

"I don't think there was anything that could be broken up," Shannon says, and drops her head onto the sofa back to stare at the ceiling. "Just a lot of convenient sex. Hard to do that long-distance."

"I can call in a few favors." The line comes straight from cheesy Mafia movies, but Rodney sounds calculating. "Do you want his car blown up? His dog kidnapped?"

Shannon's touched, but disturbed by how sincere she thinks Rodney is. "I'm good. Thanks," she adds.

"I already sent an e-mail telling him he's a rat bastard," Rodney says. Shannon's heart misses a beat. "I threaten everyone, don't worry." He pulls a fistful of chips out of the bag and dumps them in the turned-up hem of his shirt. "So. Best man?"

"No tuxedo," Shannon says.

"Jennifer wants you in your blue uniform. She says it's hot. Try not to look too hot," Rodney orders. Shannon promises to keep the hotness down.

The wedding is huge and joyous. Shannon gets a brutally bad haircut right before to assuage Rodney's insecurity. The ceremony is short, the cake is delicious, and the whole city turns out for the party. People are still dancing at dawn. The only improvement Shannon can think of is for every last surviving hive ship to not drop out of hyperspace on the second day of Rodney's honeymoon.

Rodney's t-shirt is on backwards when he stomps through the gate in a huff of righteous anger.

"What's the situation?" he demands, and then holds up a hand. "How many hiveships? ETA?"

"Five and three hours." Shannon matches Rodney's pace as he stalks up to the conference room. "Best estimates for drone capabilities are that we can probably take out one. Shields will hold indefinitely. We have two nukes."

"Nukes?" Rodney snorts. "Who did you sl-- never mind. Your best scenario still leaves a couple of hiveships and a lot of really angry Wraith."

"Your brains and my bombs have worked for us in the past." Shannon stands to the side at the doors, letting Rodney surge past her on a beeline for Zelenka and the four computers set up in front of him.

"We need to start evacuating," Woolsey says. Shannon doesn't like his priorities or the way he phrases them -- too often, he sounds pragmatic, or cowardly -- so she has to take a calming breath before considering the idea. She hates it, but he's right. The Atlantis population is the largest potential feeding ground not contaminated by the Hoffan drug.

"Yeah," she agrees. She'll need soldiers, but non-essential civilians will be a liability. "Send them to the Alpha site." She looks over at Rodney. "If the evacuees take a ZPM, can they contact Earth from the Alpha gate?"

Rodney's head pops up, his eyes unfocused. "Um, maybe? They'll need the dialing crystal. But then Atlantis won't be able -- that's your plan?"

"It seems safer," Shannon says, keeping her face blank. After a moment, Rodney huffs and shrugs and goes back to his argument.

Shannon takes a breath. "Mr. Woolsey, the evacuees will need your leadership." He nods; she knew that would be an easy sell. She looks at Teyla. "If Atlantis falls and the Wraith win, you'll have to coordinate a counterstrike, work with our allies. Todd's people. Larrin's. The Genii."

"My place is here," Teyla says, narrowing her eyes and lifting her chin.

"Today you're more valuable as the Athosian leader." Shannon leans forward, palms on the table, willing Teyla not to fight her on this. "I don't want to lose Atlantis any more than you do. But right now," she jabs a finger at the big-ass display of long-range sensor data, "it doesn't look so good."

"I'm staying," Ronon says.

"You suck as a diplomat and killing Wraith is your idea of a good time," Rodney says, eyes fixed to a computer screen as he speaks. "Of course you're staying."

"We may have an idea," Zelenka says. He's wide-eyed with either excitement or fear.

Rodney crosses his arms. "You have a terrible idea."

"It's the only idea so far," Woolsey says, cutting off any incipient name-calling. "What is it?"

Rodney and Zelenka's simple explanation takes five minutes, a lot of graphs, and some advanced physics that make Woolsey blink like an owl.

Shannon tries to think of the analogy that will make Rodney splutter the most. "We can expand the shield out around the hiveships and take everything inside the shield out of space-time. We can trap the Wraith like bugs on flypaper."

Rodney's glare speaks depths of annoyance. "Basically, yes."

"Even if the Wraith kill us all, they won't be able to pop the bubble and get back into normal time?"

"We can arrange that," Zelenka says. "You have to understand that we have no idea how fast or slow time will pass inside the bubble."

"I know a thing or two about time dilation," Shannon deadpans. She still wants her lost six months back, damn it. "If the Wraith will still be trapped and starving until the end of time, I'm happy."

"Hopefully," Rodney mutters. "Just try not to nuke them inside our only breathable atmosphere."

"I'll do my best," Shannon says, trying not to sneer. Rodney always sucks her into his weird competitive space somehow. She raps her knuckles on the table. "I need lists of essential civilian personnel within the next thirty minutes, and everyone else off Atlantis in the next hour. Rodney, keep in touch about the miracle-working." She nearly dismisses everyone before she remembers Woolsey. She looks at him expectantly; he says they can all go, and is the first out the door.

"Colonel. I need to talk to you," Rodney says. He looks nervously constipated. "In private?"

No time like the present, Shannon thinks, and says, "Me, too." She shuts the doors and sits down on the table. "You first," because she's just not that brave.

"Jennifer's pregnant," Rodney says. Shannon can literally feel her jaw drop, and she shuts her mouth hoping she didn't look incredibly stupid. "Thirteen weeks, more or less."

"Wow," she says. Her head spins with everything that will have to change. "Congratulations. I, um. I'll miss you guys." She hopes like hell that she can handle Zelenka under pressure.

"What?" Rodney says, over-loud and annoyed. "No. No no no. I'm staying, of course I am, but Jennifer can't. I mean -- she can write herself a doctor's note if you try and make her, but you won't, right? Because I don't have a plan for our long-term survival."

"Not yet," Shannon says. Her voice is all scratchy with emotion, and even swallowing doesn't help. "You're going to be a dad." She grins and raises an eyebrow. "Cool."

""Malfunctioning prophylactics are not really what I consider cool, Colonel, but there is something to be said about passing on the genes and the whole circle of life." Rodney coughs.

"Well, my mind is officially blown," Shannon says. "The kid going to get saddled with Rodney, Junior?"

"Not if it's a girl -- and you can't talk, you stole Teyla's baby, don't think I forgot."

"Any kid named for you would never stand up to the pressure of comparison. It'd be unfair."

Rodney blinks. "Really? Maybe. I can kind of see that."

"He'd grow up to sing country music," Shannon says, nodding. "Songs about shotgun weddings."

"We decided on Elizabeth for a girl," Rodney tells her. Shannon gets a lump in her throat and mumbles yeah, that'd be really nice down at the floor. She slaps Rodney on the shoulder and jogs off to see how many cigars Woolsey will sell her so that they can celebrate properly when the time comes.

When the last group of evacuees are heading through the gate, Shannon hugs Keller goodbye and says she'll take care of Rodney.

"I know you will," Keller says. She's crying, but pretending that she isn't. "I'm sure you'll. . . pull something out of the hat."

Shannon hands her over to Rodney before she makes even more promises she's afraid she can't keep.

The Wraith are close enough to engage in the next half hour. Shannon has every jumper and 302 in the air. The nukes need to be smuggled through the dart bay doors into the hiveships, and the remaining hives lured close enough to trap. Her ass is parked down in the control chair, and she can barely sit still for wanting to be part of the action.

After a four-hour battle that only manages to take out two hiveships, damn it, Rodney tells her that the remaining three are in range. Shannon pushes the shield out until it engulfs the hives, and feels a tingling kind of nausea wash through her as Rodney jerks them into a time all of their own. Brigadoon in space, she thinks, and tells herself that she's not allowed to crack up.

No one has died yet. She counts that as a victory.

Three days later, when her people have established a temporary hideout in NW tower 17, Rodney follows Shannon up the service stairs to the balcony overlooking the pier where the darts are lined up in lethal numbers.

"The darts are kicking our asses," Shannon says. She's so tired that she can't sleep. She has binoculars, but she doesn't even know what to look for. There are a lot of Wraith. "I need some good news."

Rodney slides his palms back and forth like the pistons on a locomotive. Shannon nearly grins, except that she knows he gets paranoid when his life is in constant danger. He doesn't need to think she's laughing at him.

"Zelenka is refining a glop program," Rodney says. "If it works. . . I hope it works."

"Glop?" Shannon has to ask.

Rodney smooshes his hands together. "Scramble their beaming-down transmitters so they turn into glop o' Wraith instead of warriors bent on our destruction. This would be bad if any of our people got sucked up in a culling beam, of course -- we wouldn't be able to get them out without reprogramming the dart -- and once the Wraith figure the program out, they could -- so probably will -- use it to make the transporters glop anyone taking them."

"We can't use them anyway," Shannon reminds him. For now, they are managing to stay one step ahead of the Wraith by using the stairways and the occasional rope ladders tossed out of tower windows. "Glop away."

"What was your big news?" Rodney asks, after a long minute of dead silence. He sounds brusque, but Shannon knows him well enough to recognize a defense mechanism. There are too many Wraith, and there's no escape; he's looking for a distraction. "I told you about Jennifer, you wanted to tell me something in return. Did your asshole boyfriend come crawling back?"

"Nah," Shannon says. She wishes he'd forgotten about that. "You know I saw Kate every week, until she died." Rodney is strategically silent, but he nods impatiently. "I have gender identity disorder, do you know -- " and Rodney nods again, slower, looking at her like she's an unknown device that just turned on and might blow up. "Keller knows," she adds. "Medically, at least. I don't know if she understands," and Shannon points at her head with a twist of her mouth.

"Well, that's different," Rodney says. "I thought you were finally going to admit you're gay." He hangs up on that thought, and his eyebrows drop in a mean looking glower. "I could have destroyed Mitchell's credit rating in less than five minutes."

"I really kind of need you to be okay with this," Shannon says. She can keep her voice level, but it sounds flat and strained. "Or at least fake it."

"I was mentally rehearsing a little speech about how open-minded I am and how many gay people I know and ruthlessly browbeat without prejudice, with a tangential rant about trust and friendship, but my brain's occupied with this desperate plan for survival and I don't have the energy to think up a new lecture on the spot. I actually only know one trans man, a scary, scary cryptographer at Area 51 who never blinks when he talks and has those demotivational posters plastered all over his lab, which is beside the point."

Shannon's listening, but she's also amused by how many words Rodney can get in between breaths.

"I probably will yell at you about your obvious trust issues at some point in future, but. . . you've kept me alive so far, despite the occasional lingerie, which by the way everyone on the team knows about, we just don't care." He pauses. "I don't know if our biologists can synthesize whatever drugs you're taking. They're food-source specialists."

"I'm not taking anything," Shannon says. "It won't be a problem." She raises an eyebrow at Rodney. "You've done your share of keeping me alive, too."

"If you need me to reassure you that our mutual whatever won't change, then we have a big problem." Shannon shakes her head and mumbles something reassuring. "Do you need a hug?" Rodney asks. "I have to keep in practice. I don't want to be a distant father."

Shannon thinks that maybe yes, she does need a hug, but she's never been good at that sort of thing, and it's certainly an offer that's easy to refuse.

"You're the best mutual whatever a girl could wish for," she says, with just the right amount of smirk to make it sound insincere.

Rodney stares until he realizes what he's doing, and then he looks away guiltily. "What I really need is some way to get onto the hiveships," he says, and Shannon knows Rodney so well she knows what he's thinking. It's as clear before her as if it was outlined in neon, with arrows.

"Their what-do-you-call it, the hibernation units, you could," and they're speaking simultaneously, "glop." Shannon grins ear to ear, the sleep deprivation giving a manic edge to her excitement.

"It's like when we did the Replicators, though," Rodney warns. "We'd have to run the program simultaneously on the hiveships and on the darts, and in stealth, because once they figure it out it'll be useless."

"We'll need four teams," Shannon says, planning out loud. "We have the jumpers."

It takes a few days to get everything coordinated. The mission is code-named Sleeping Beauty, because apparently Lorne's mother worked for Disney before she got married and he has a thing for princesses. Ronon and the other Pegasus natives insist that they free any captives on board the hiveships; aside from the humanitarian aspect, taking away the Wraith food supply seems like a good thing to do. Parrish and the other botanist (McKay calls her Lukas, but Shannon's pretty sure her name is Matthau) say that food production can be increased easily. Dr. Biro cautions that they don't have the resources to deal with extensive post-culling trauma and depression. "Put guns in their hands," Ronon says. "Killing Wraith helps."

Zelenka kicks the party off with an attempt at disrupting ground communications. In the resulting confusion, which looks like an anthill kicked open, Shannon has the 302s start a run on the hiveships, providing the distraction she needs to get her cloaked jumpers inside. Her team is just Amelia and Miko, and Shannon packs up and locks down her issues about working with strong, confident women. She doesn't plan on dying or letting anyone else die because she's having awkward moments of desperate envy.

Plus, she's the one who knows hiveships best, the general layout and the hiding places and the lazy-ass way the Wraith patrol, because they somehow still believe that their ships are inviolate. She doesn't have to kill anyone until they've uploaded the virus into the hibernation systems and are doubling back for the prisoners in cocoons. She and Amelia are carrying Zats as well as P90s; she doesn't want to make a lot of noise, and the disintegration feature is useful for covering their tracks. The first firefight ends pretty quickly, but Shannon's sure that their period of grace is over. Other Wraith will know that they are here.

"Get a move on," she tells Miko, who's breathing fast. "You didn't get into Kyoto University just so you could be eaten by space vampires," she adds in the Japanese she picked up during those classified years in Misawa. At the time she'd thought she was too cool for the room, but it turned out she'd learned to speak with a thick country accent.

Miko pulls the Velcro straps across her chest to hold the tablet tighter and puts a hand on her holster. She's a bad shot, but Shannon gets the reassurance that comes from knowing you have the option of fighting back. "I got into university so I could find a good husband," she says, or that's what Shannon thinks she says. "When I left ten years later there was no one good enough for me."

"Geek girls will take over the world," Shannon agrees, back in English so Amelia doesn't feel left out.

"You bet your ass, sir," Amelia says. "Which way now?"

There are nearly thirty people in the cocoons, aged from toddlers (Shannon fucking hates the Wraith) to wary grey-haired elders. Shannon hands out the knives she brought and the weapons confiscated from the dead Wraith, and does not let herself think about how impossible logistics are going to be with an additional hundred people to protect, not to mention provide day-care for.

Back in the main corridor heading for the dart bay, they are sandwiched between two patrols, and the Wraith drones just keep on coming. Shannon's sure she's going to run out of ammo, but then Amelia yells for people to follow her. Shannon finds herself covering their six as they retreat, right back to where the jumper is, thankfully, still parked.

"We don't have all day," Amelia yells at Miko, who's wired her computer into a wall-mounted Wraith terminal.

"I do not," Miko shouts back, "work well under pressure," and she's sweating as she types.

The doors are shut and locked, but Shannon covers them anyway. She can hear the thump of weapons fire. "Take your time," she says, heart beating fast and steady and seeing everything sharp and clear, so high on fear and danger that she knows she'll be shaking in her sleep tonight.

"Do not condescend to me," Miko snaps. "Colonel." And she starts unclipping wires quickly, her fingers fumbling. "Done."

"The dart bay doors?" Shannon asks, and Miko throws up her free hand in annoyance. "Thanks."

The jumper is heavy and standing-room only. People are crying; one woman keeps asking for water, but there's no way to open up the storage compartments with people standing on them. Shannon hears Amelia taking charge, assuring them that safety is only a few minutes away. She's being optimistic; the jumper is cloaked, but it still needs to land, and with all the darts in the air that's going to be tricky.

Her team is the last one back. Ronon meets them in the sub-level corridor that accesses the tower, reporting total success, and Shannon lets him take charge of the new people. There's a storage room that's been converted into emergency quarters, and everyone is given a blanket, a hot meal, and a bottle of boiled and filtered water when they arrive. Shannon can't help counting each MRE, but she doesn't begrudge them.

Ronon stands in the center of the room and addresses the crowd. When he says that he's from Sateda, people look at him differently; with respect, Shannon thinks. He says he knows everyone wants to go home, but that until all the Wraith are killed they're stuck here. "So deal," he says, talking over sharply raised voices. "Fight with us."

That's Shannon's cue to stand up and talk. She's terrible at this, and what she has to say doesn't make anyone happy. She keeps it short and factual. She doesn't expect Rodney to take the floor after her, but he does, hands on his hips and looking annoyed.

"Since the siege began, no one under Colonel Sheppard's command has died, and we've killed at least a fifth of the Wraith. Also, we have hot water for baths, there's a sign-up sheet, women and children and old people first." A murmur goes through the crowd at that. It's not quite bread and circuses, but as evening falls and everyone gets cleaner, they seem to be more accepting.

Later, right before bed, Shannon slumps down next to Rodney and says, "Tell me we are not really, really fucked."

"Post-mission blues," Rodney says. "You need a bath. Sleeping Beauty, ha. I'll take you to watch the Wraith glopdown tomorrow. Disgusting yet oh-so-satisfying."

"Hot date," Shannon says, trying to work up the energy to smile, but she falls asleep first.

June 2009

Cam finds out that Atlantis is gone maybe a week after the fact. He's offworld, bored out his skull at an interplanetary summit on education, mass media, and law enforcement. His orders are to listen and not let Jackson make promises they can't keep, but mostly he just sits in his uncomfortable chair and gets prodded with Daniel's pen when he starts to nod off. When the Apollo beams them out of the mind-alteringly bland alien conference center, Cam grins wide at Ellis and rocks up on his toes, bouncing a little, feeling the metaphorical sense of intergalactic adventure flowing back into him.

"Anything exciting happen while we were delegating?" he asks, and Ellis replies, brows down and mouth solemn, We lost Atlantis. We're headed to Pegasus now.

At first Cam thinks Ellis means it's been destroyed, but what Ellis means is lost like three-little-kittens' mittens lost. "How the hell do you lose something as big as Atlantis?" Cam asks, even though it's not like Ellis has a clue. Sam's belowdecks in a lab with Bill Lee and Jeannie Miller; Cam asks all of them, still kind of bemused with relief, like it's Pegasus April Fool's or something.

Jeannie crinkles up her eyes like she's holding back tears. Sam gives Cam that big-sister look, like she can't believe he's that dumb.

"Well, it was the Wraith attack, of course," Bill says. His lab coat is unbuttoned; underneath he's wearing a black t-shirt with sword-fighting stick figures all over it.

"Pretend I haven't heard anything about the Wraith attacking Atlantis," Cam says. "Like maybe I've been off in Daniel-land for the past few weeks."

"All we have is the message that came through the gate from the Pegasus Alpha site," Sam says. She opens the video file on her laptop; it's Woolsey, looking stuffed and uncomfortably casual in his uniform, summarizing the situation and reading the list of personnel who stayed on Atlantis. "I have all of McKay's notes and things," Sam adds. She starts to explain, catches Cam's blank stare of incomprehension, and breaks off. "Jeannie's most familiar with his work. Plus, you know, family. We're all pretty concerned."

"So like, Atlantis is out of phase?" Cam leans back against one of the lab tables and crosses his arms.

"It's in a different kind of time," Jeannie says, enunciating clearly, like she's explaining to a five-year-old.

"I get that much," Cam says. "But our people are trapped in there -- can they eat and all?"

Bill hands Cam a tablet with the Atlantis mission report on the planet where John lost six months in a couple of hours. "Dr. Keller says they have food production capabilities. It's not like that episode of Wormhole X-Treme where Major Monroe was trapped out of phase. That's not the problem. Think more like. . . The Thunderdome."

Cam's starting to feel cold at the back of his shoulders. "But they could all be dead by the time we get there. I mean, if time's going faster. . . ." Jeannie wipes her eyes on the cuff of her sweater, and Cam's sorry he opened his mouth. He'd apologize, except he's imagining all the horrible ways John could be dead right now, not even sure if sucked dry by a Wraith would be worse than dying of old age after years and years of waiting to be rescued.

"The situation on the planet in that report was different," Bill says, and Cam hands back the computer, not really wanting more details. "The people Colonel Sheppard met were accelerating human evolution, so time in their bubble passed remarkably quickly. All McKay wanted to do was to nudge Atlantis out of normal time just enough to make escape impossible. Maybe he even slowed time down." Sam makes an argumentative noise, and Bill spread his hands. "We don't know."

Sam sucks in a breath, and Cam gets the feeling that they've been arguing this back and forth since leaving Earth. He holds his hands up. "I'm in the room with the smartest people in this space-time reality universe whatever," he says. "I have faith that you can fix it."

"It's us versus McKay," Sam says, and gives Jeannie a weary smile. "Piece of cake."

They spend a week at the Alpha site and still don't have an answer when Woolsey dials in to Earth.

"Okay then," Landry says. He sounds as if he's at the end of his rope; probably the IOA and the President have been pressuring him over the situation. "Colonel Ellis is to remain there, along with Colonel Carter and Dr. Lee, and provide military leadership in the Pegasus area. Colonel Mitchell, you'll be in charge of bringing the Apollo home."

"Yes, sir," Cam says. He must sound hesitant, though, because Ellis takes him aside afterwards.

"I know you outrank me, sir," he says. "And I know there's been talk of you taking over the Atlantis command." Cam hasn't heard that, though he wouldn't be surprised. People talk about all kinds of things. "I think the General is considering that I have participated in several operations in Pegasus. I know our allies. And I've made mistakes," he adds, pulling his chin up and looking Cam in the eyes. "Bad judgment calls. From which I have learned."

"It's not that," Cam says. "I don't envy you the political pit of vipers or mopping up the last of the space vampires." Or trying to work under Sam's watchful eye, he does not say, even though he senses that there's friction between Ellis and Sam. "I just figured Carter would have solved this thing by now." He shrugged. "Our people are. . . right there, but we can't help or anything."

Woolsey had allowed the alpha site's jumper to make the eighteen-hour trip from the nearest Stargate to Atlantis. Cam's seen the video footage of the shield pushing up through the atmosphere like a blister, an opaque layer of clouds concealing the inside due to something-or-other atmospheric something, Cam hadn't paid that close attention. Carter says that even if they could get through the shield -- Daniel swears the Asgard know how to do that, he's checking their database -- the tidal forces of the time dilation field would rip them apart.

"Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay have been in tight spots before," Ellis says, which is a polite way of implying that it's really none of Cam's business.

Officially. . . it's not.

When he beams aboard the Apollo that night, Cam spends several hours bringing himself up to speed on his new ship and his crew. By the time he returns to his quarters, his head hurts and he's restless and angry with himself for no good reason. The filled-out Sudoku books that were on the nightstand when he came aboard get on his last nerve all of a sudden, and he throws them as hard as he can at the wall, and then feels like an idiot.

"Math anxiety?" Daniel asks, and Cam about jumps a foot in the air, because he hadn't even noticed that Daniel was in his bunk.

"Well, you just scared a year off my life," Cam says, and under the circumstances it's the worst thing he can say. He rubs the heel of his hand hard against his forehead and says, "Sorry, I'm just -- didn't mean to wake you."

"No, I understand you're worried," Daniel says, sitting up. He puts his bare feet on the floor, legs spread, and plants his elbows on his knees. "You know you can talk to me, right? I'm not military," he adds, and arches his eyebrows up over his sleepy myopic squint.

Daniel has a way of staring that makes the truth rise up from locked down depths, unstoppable, like an artesian well. It reminds Cam of his grandmother, God rest her soul.

"I met this girl," Cam says, with an angry twist to his mouth and wishing he had something else to throw.

Daniel drops his head and sighs, a great disappointed sucking in of air let out with an irritated huff. "Look, I know about you and -- "

"And that's who I'm talking about," Cam snaps. "You don't know what you think you know, Jackson."

Daniel's quiet, digesting this, and then he shifts over on the bed. "Sit," he says, less like it's a courtesy and more like he doesn't want to get a crick in his neck from staring up. Cam wants to run. He hates not being able to move. He sits, feeling his body fall into a copy of Daniel's posture, and thinks he's a dam about to break.

"I didn't just say that," he has to say. "I don't. . . have any right to say that." He swallows. "We broke up," he adds. "Kind of."

"It's not really cool to out people," Daniel agrees. "You know I'll keep my mouth shut."

"You're probably the most trustworthy person in two galaxies," Cam says. It's true; it's also why Daniel drives him nuts sometimes. "If I knew what the hell I was trying to do with my life, I'd ask you for advice. Seriously. I'm just turned around."

"Because you're not attracted to Sheppard after finding out she's female, or because you're confused about your own sexual orientation?"

Cam's watched Daniel dissect and rebuild whole sections of alien societies. He really should know what's coming when he's the focus of Daniel's attention.

"I'm bisexual," Daniel adds. "If it makes it easier to talk. Or if you have questions."

Cam covers his face with his hands. "I am not an easy person to get along with," Cam says into his palms. Daniel snorts. "Always knew I should get married and settle down, but there's this part of me I never could reconcile. And then. . . I think Sheppard's in love with me. Or. He -- she could be." Cam can feel a headache building at his temples. "I really liked that. I mean. Really, really liked that. And it's -- " he jerks his shoulders up -- "if it wasn't impossible it'd be perfect."

"I'm sorry," Daniel says after a moment. Cam feels relieved that he's not trying to offer solutions, but then Daniel goes on, adding, "There are gay and lesbian generals, even in the US. And the SGC has a track record of promoting people indecently fast and overlooking some of the more. . . traditional social criteria."

"It's not like there's a network I can tap into," Cam says, not sure if he's angry or bitter. "People who can help without taking a big risk themselves." Jackson just looks at him, placid, squinting slightly. "You want me to admit I'm a coward?"

"Have you considered the possibility that you love John as much as she loves you?"

"Oh, hell no," Cam says, feeling his face harden. He can talk queer with Daniel, but he's not talking emotions. "Doesn't matter anyway, because I dumped her, and oh yeah, she'll probably be dead before we can rescue her."

"You might get a second chance," Daniel says.

"What you think." Cam flops backwards onto Daniel's bunk. "She gave me a second chance and I broke up with her, again."

There's a long, guilt-full, painful pause. "You suck as a boyfriend," Daniel finally says.

Cam laughs because he doesn't have the energy to throw anything else and says, "Tell me about it."

Fortunately for Cam, Daniel decides to stay in Pegasus and do diplomatic stuff, ostensibly, but probably, Sam suggests with a wink, mostly research. Cam takes the Apollo back to the Earth, and then on its regular rounds in the Milky Way. The months go by fast. He gets regular e-mail from Sam; reading between the lines, her priorities are being gradually restructured. She hasn't given up looking for Atlantis, not entirely, but life in Pegasus is moving on.

She sends him the birth announcement for Elizabeth Keller-McKay, who came into the world twenty inches long, weighing six and a half pounds exactly, two hundred eight days after her father went missing in action. The baby looks squinty-eyed and big-mouthed, but Sam insists she's a dead ringer for Jennifer Keller.

Cam gets to meet baby Elizabeth when she's two months old and the SGC finally holds a memorial service for the families of the Atlantis personnel. He says polite things to Jennifer about her child, and she smiles at him and says, "Here, you can hold her."

Cam's brother has kids, but Cam is still unnerved by the fact that Elizabeth's neck isn't strong enough to hold her own head steady. He tucks her up along his arm, close to his chest, and trails after Jennifer as she works the crowd. He says hi to Rodney's sister, but her husband takes one look at his uniform and walks away.

"It's just that we keep getting screwed over by the US military," Jeannie says, playing with Elizabeth's little fingers. "Look, Madison, it's your cousin Elizabeth, Auntie Jennifer and Uncle Mer's baby girl."

"You should take her," Cam says, holding Elizabeth out, very gingerly. He nods at Madison, who is wearing black corduroy trousers with matching ribbons in her hair. She's hanging onto Jennifer's hand, her face solemn. "You're obviously good with kids."

Jeannie doesn't need much persuasion, and Cam takes advantage of his freedom to move away from the milling families at the back of the room, heading for his seat at the front. He's almost there when everyone is asked to be seated, please, and he's grateful not to have to make small talk with more people who hold him responsible, in some way, for their loss.

General Landry thanks everyone for coming and explains what he can about the Pegasus expedition. Everyone listens respectfully, hoping to get answers, but mostly what they get are variations on we don't know and our best people are working on the problem.

Cam expects Sam to be the next speaker, but it's Daniel. The first thing he says is that his wife was kidnapped and killed by one of the program's enemies. "I have been where you are now," he tells them. "I understand." He looks down at his notes, clears his throat, and then proceeds to explain why the Stargate program is worthwhile. He talks about the quest for knowledge and the hero's journey. He says that it's a Grimm fairy tale, and the monsters are real, but so are the treasures. The Pegasus project has yielded information that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and led to advances in medicine, botany, physics, history, linguistics, aeronautics, technology. He says that every one of the missing volunteered, and that their sacrifice will not be in vain.

Daniel adjusts his glasses and then reads the names of the missing. Cam feels a jolt when he hears Lt. Col. J. B. Sheppard. He thinks that Landry was devious to put Daniel in front of everyone, like a warning that whatever ending might come is not guaranteed to be happy or last ever after. He wonders how long it will take the Air Force to give up the search for Atlantis.

The Apollo's due for an overhaul in November, so once they're in Earth orbit Cam lets his crew take time off on rotation. On American Thanksgiving Day a group of fifty politicians and diplomats arrive for a tour of the ship and a traditional turkey dinner served in the mess. Cam thinks he does a pretty good job of not offending people, even though he'd much rather be watching the Thanksgiving Classic live on the biggest screen possible. The IOA sends Shen Xiaoyi on the tour, and while Cam doesn't trust her any further than he can throw her, and vice versa he figures, she keeps making straight-faced joking asides to him in Chinese. He has the feeling it's an acknowledgement that she's not in as much control as she wishes she was, and is perhaps looking for an ally. Or maybe she just appreciates a low sense of humor.

Cam has no idea when he became the kind of player other teams scouted. Or spied on. He reports it to Landry when he beams down on Friday, and then takes his own days off. He abuses alien technology for his personal use and has Marks beam him over to Forbes Air Force Base so he can make it to his parents' house for leftovers.

His rental car is a Honda; he knows he'll get crap about it later, but when he pulls up he's drowned in people who are glad to see him. Every Mitchell, Parker, and Lovell in a five-hour radius has turned up, which is something that doesn't happen every year. Cam wonders, as his duffel is grabbed away by a gangly kid he barely recognizes as cousin Mel's youngest, if they're going to pump him for information the whole time. Apparently there's a whole Office of Controlled Leakage in Washington; O'Neill hates it with a passion, but now if Cam says he's with the Stargate Program, most people are either scared or respectful. Except for his family, they're going to ask him all about aliens and spaceships, he just knows it.

Cam flows with the crowd into the house, where lunch has been held, waiting for him. There's leftover turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce, and Tofurkey for the long-haired vegetarian college kids, and a mountain of leftovers from mashed potatoes to pie. Cam has to shrug and say that's classified over and over while trying to eat, though he does admit that out of all the strange new food he's tasted there's nothing in two galaxies to beat his Grandma Lovell's blueberry pie. He's missing a lot of family news, so he asks his fair share of questions and files away the answers with a kind of disbelief that so much life went on while he was away.

When the destruction is as complete as it's going to get without anyone actually bursting at the seams, Cam goes into the kitchen to help Aunt Emma with the washing up. They push everyone else out; "Your mother," Emma says, tying on an apron, "has been cooking since Monday, bless her soul. Not to mention cleaning for all the houseguests."

"Feels good to be home," Cam says, and asks, "Am I washing or drying?" even though he always dries, being tall enough to get the fancy dinner dishes put away without a stepladder.

"Clean towels are on the counter," Emma says. She folds Cam's mother's pink rubber gloves at her wrists because they won't go around the width of her arms. As they work, Cam catches up with the goings-on of various cousins and relatives, the sort of news that's not mentioned over dinner. There's one new divorce being bitterly fought out, a couple of arrests, Bill Lovell and his brothers-in-law all laid off from the bottling plant, and one messy bankruptcy and foreclosure. "And Lee's drinking again," Emma says. "Hasn't paid a lick of child support in who knows how long. Annie's taking him to court."

Cam sets the last of the salad dishes on the stack and hefts it up into the china cabinet. He watches his aunt working on the wine glasses. He knows what people say when they think she's not listening, hoping she'll overhear and somehow see the WeightWatchers light. He's ashamed now that he's said his share over the years; it's always felt different than being racist or sexist or making fun of people for being handicapped or slow. Because fat's a choice, or a lack of discipline, except of course if it isn't.

He rings two glasses together clumsily picking them up from the drainboard, and Emma tsks him.

"I," Cam starts, holding the glasses one-handed, stems perpendicular, and drying the rims with exaggerated caution. "You know I love my parents."

Emma rinses the sink, fishing the scraps out of the drain and into the trash, before setting the big dinner plates in the dishpan. "Well, Cameron Mitchell, what did you do?" she asks, snapping water from her hands as she turns to look at him. Cam shakes his head, wordless. "Come here, then," she says, and barely gives him a second to put the glasses down before giving Cam a hug that takes the breath out of him. "You go talk to your father," she says, releasing him with a whack between his shoulders. "It's like pulling off a band-aid, thinking about it's the worst thing you can do."

"He's going to be disappointed," Cam says, busying himself with the glasses again. That's been all he can imagine, the look on his father's face.

"Probably," Emma agrees. "Frank's been rooting for the Cleveland Browns all these years, you think a little disappointment will break him?"

"Might break me," Cam says, meaning to joke but thinking as soon as the words are out that he wants to stay perfect in his parents' eyes forever.

"Just put those up for me and then go on," Emma says. "I can finish up just fine."

Cam puts the glasses back on the top shelf, where they'll stand waiting for the next holiday. He ducks to kiss Emma on the cheek as he heads out the door. She takes the dishtowel from him and snaps him in the ass, making him jump and grin and feel a little less like throwing up.

Half the family is in the living room watching ESPN on the huge new television; the other half are outside on the lawn, gossiping and playing catch and football and chasing the barn cats. Cam wants privacy, so after he's collected his dad from the never-ending discussion about insurance with Uncle Dan, he points down towards the lake. He figures there won't be anyone there, so long as the teenagers have the good sense not to have snuck off to neck in the tall grass with so much family around.

"We can talk and walk," his dad says after a minute.

"Right," Cam says, and shoves his hands in his pockets. "The reason," he starts, and then thinks band-aid and says instead, "I kind of swing both ways. There's been girls, but guys, too. Over the years."

There's a long empty pause where the rhythmic sound of his dad's crutches is louder than anything Cam's ever heard.

"Your mother once warned me you might be," and his father cuts himself off short, while Cam's still trying to work up to how to say something, anything more. "That's a hard thing for a man to hear. No father wants to think of his son going down on his knees."

And there's cocksucker written over every medal and accomplishment that Cam's ever earned. His ears burn.

He wants to walk away -- he wants to run -- but he thinks of Aunt Emma in the kitchen, and thinks the next time he's on his knees he should be asking her forgiveness.

"I'm talking, like, my whole life here," Cam says, as mild as he can manage. "I'm sorry you're getting hung up on sex, but I'm the same person I've always been."

"We hoped. . . we thought it would work with Amy."

"She's got issues about trust from her divorce, and I've got nothing but secrets. I like her. We're friends. Me and Darrell and her are getting together tomorrow. But we're not. . . ." He waves a hand. The backs of Cam's eyes feel dry and gritty.

His father gives him a sideways glance before looking back towards the end of the path. "All those times you had friends over, did you, were any of them -- ?"

"No, sir," Cam says. "No. No, I wouldn't," and he shakes his head. He can't imagine introducing his father to any of the men he's fucked over the years, not even the few whose names he knew at the time.

His father's quiet a bit after that, then says, "Poor sort of home you have, then, if you don't feel we'd make room for one more."

"Hell." Cam scrubs at his hair. "If there'd been someone serious, I'd have told you. There just wasn't."

"But you're telling me now." Cam's dad still has his pilot's reflexes, the lightning-quick grasp of a situation. "So who is he?"

Cam can tell that his father doesn't believe that any boyfriend'll ever be good enough to touch his son.

"Actually," Cam says, "I had kind of a girlfriend. A lieutenant colonel. I never even thought a future was possible, we were just screwing around and I, ah, I ended it," and as soon as he says it he hears how bad that sounds. "She's been MIA almost a year and a half now," he adds. Cam hasn't slept with anyone since John. He feels like it's been a long time, but it's still too short for him to give up.

His father sighs, shakes his head, stops walking and turns back towards the house, very carefully not looking at Cam. "You need to figure out what the hell you want."

"I know."

"You're just this side of forty, Cameron."

"I figured out who I want," Cam says. "Kind of wish that was enough. And not too late."

"Hmph," his father says, and that's where the conversation ends. When they get to the yard, Cam's father heads back over to Uncle Dan. Cam goes up the porch steps and through to the kitchen, where Emma's scouring the pots now. The radio's playing inspirational country. Emma's singing along, and Cam could too, though he doesn't remember when or where he learned the lyrics.

"Let me do that," Cam says. "You go put your feet up."

He can see that she nearly waves him off until she gets a good look at his face. Her eyebrows go up and she steps back. "That bad?" she asks, passing him the hard plastic sponge. "Your dad's still my little brother, you want I should knock some sense into him?"

It's a great mental image. Cam finds himself grinning. "He'll come around," he says. He wants to ask her how she feels about gay people and queer people in general, but he's not going to push his luck. The baking pans have got grease crusted on hard, and he puts his back into getting them clean, and pretends that's enough good work for the day.

His mother sends him a ridiculous cartoon e-card a week later. He opens it at work over his lunch break, and then realizes that she's writing about some PFLAG meeting in Topeka she dragged his father to. Cam closes GMail fast and erases his browser history, even though he knows he's being irrational. He should have brought John home, he thinks; he could have tried. He should have had the brains to realize that love when you find it can't be turned off like a faucet; that love should be taken care of because God only knows, nothing in the world is certain.

May 2010

Shannon misses the MREs when they're finished. Dr Parrish and Dr Ofoi manage a sustainable food supply, but it's mostly sea-worm pulp and kelp, with hydroponic tomatoes and tava beans. Everyone agrees that a worm-based diet is disgusting, but at least they're better off than the Wraith.

The Wraith are starving.

Shannon makes sure every Wraith corpse is burned. Many want the Wraith beheaded and unhanded, their defiled corpses strung up as a warning, but she gets Ronon to agree with her that they need to hang on to their humanity. They'll need it if -- when -- they go home. Immolation also removes the temptation to use the enzyme.

Six months into the operation, Shannon hasn't lost any of her people. She's proud of that, and superstitious enough that she won't let anyone talk about it.

They've done the Pegasus thing and formed pseudo-family units, each a mix of military and civilians and refugees, each with at least part of a secure room that's all their own. Rodney's in charge of administration, but he delegates most of the domestic management to Biro, who keeps the whole circus running with minimal fuss. Psychological problems are endemic -- her whole population is traumatized -- but with everyone sleeping in puppy-piles and practicing meditation as well as mandatory PT, somehow no one has come completely apart at the seams.

They are hungry, and fucked-up, and trapped, but every night there's a sing-along accompanied by Shannon's guitar (most of the Pegasans learn to play in about a day), or a game of golf-ball floor hockey, or magic tricks with broken crystals and Sgt. Waller's Tarot cards.

Shannon's instincts scream to do something, anything, hit the Wraith hard and fast. She ignores those impulses, and forces herself to believe that slow and steady is good. Keeping everyone alive is good.

Shannon started calling herself Shannon in her head after Kate died. Teyla was the only one who knew how close Shannon was to Kate, and she insisted that even if Kate died in a nightmare about John, John wasn't responsible. Shannon thinks that John has to be held accountable for awakening yet another horror and unleashing it on Atlantis. Taking a new name is like a promise that she's not going to make the old mistakes any more. She's not going to be who she was, ever again.

The way John stops fitting is like something sliding into place in her head, or something falling away. It's a little like peace or shelter in a storm; more like strength than weakness, which surprises her.

Trapped out of time on Atlantis, a similar thing happens with her voice. She wakes one morning and doesn't even notice that she's not using her male voice until she's on a small catwalk in the early dawn light with Rodney, double-checking their rappelling gear.

Rodney asks her something, and she answers, and Rodney peers at her face as if she might be sick and asks, "What's with la femme accident today, Sheppard?" Shannon stares, not too sleep-stupid to suspect an insult. Rodney taps his neck. "Your voice."

Shannon clears her throat, which doesn't work. "Huh," she says, but Rodney's already moved on to more interesting puzzles, like breaking into the Wraith security systems on SE tower 9. He has a box of preprogrammed crystals in a box strapped carefully to his chest; they've been over the plan every day for a week now, but he still looks unhappy when he hands Shannon the tablet and lets her get him into the harness. "I'm not going to let you fall," she assures him. "Not today."

Later, when radio silence is lifted and Shannon's shouting orders to direct the movements of her teams as they take the tower one floor at a time, she realizes that she's probably outing herself. They still get the whole tower under control, blow up at least seventeen darts, and kill dozens of the demoralized Wraith who are unable to return to the hiveships because the darts' dematerialization beams are still fucked up. When the tower is secured, the dead Wraith are stripped of weapons and added to the pyres. Shannon has a chunk of crystal sticking out of her left bicep that bugs her, but she still has Rodney patch her through to the PA system so she can deliver the same damn message to the Wraith as always: surrender and take the cure, or die.

Back home afterwards, Shannon gets reports from each team while Biro stitches up her arm. Shannon's trying not to shake; she sometimes finds it hard to breathe under the weight of not wanting everything to go south. She doesn't have the energy to fight the Wraith, outsmart them, protect her people 28/6, and still be John Sheppard. She expects some kind of fallout for the way she's talking, especially since her hair is long enough by now to be tucked behind her ears. She gets a sling for her arm and goes looking for Lorne to see if he wants tentacle duty tomorrow. She finds him in the armory, with a Marine who's accusing her of being a fucking faggot. She hangs back; Lorne puts down the P-90 he's inspecting, and asks the man if he hasn't seen Sheppard in close combat.

"Is that some kind of a threat?" the man asks. "Sir."

"Not at all," Lorne says, pulling his shoulders back, going for intimidation by bulk if not by height. "Just you might want to keep in mind that even if you called Sheppard that to his face, he'd still put his life on the line to save yours. Without hesitation," Lorne adds. "It's best not to confuse queer with weak, or stupid, in my experience."

Shannon drifts away, not wanting to hear the rest, but she thanks Lorne later, when they're alone in what passes for her office. She's given up trying to talk like John; what were her years of practice for, if not to eventually make this her real voice?

"De nada," Lorne says.

"Do we have a lot of gay American soldiers?" she asks, because honestly she doesn't have a clue.

Lorne wrinkles his nose, the expression more rabbity than boyish. "I have terrible gaydar."

"Enough that I should make a statement?" she presses him. "There are straight couples already. Biro's worried about contraception."

"What would you say, sir," Lorne asks, except it's not a question, more the implication that there is nothing that can be said. "What happens in Vegas?"

Shannon gestures grandly with her free hand. "Within these walls, why not?" She needs to maintain military discipline and she needs to keep morale up, and it'll be a hell of a lot easier if the two aren't contradictory. "I'll ask Ronon if he'll explain the, um, looser sexual mores and stronger family ties in Pegasus thing at the next town meeting."

Lorne bites back a yawn and stretches. "He'll love that."

"Oh, yeah." Shannon looks sideways at him. "Speaking of things in Vegas, are you -- ?"

"Ah, no," Lorne says, a little too quickly, and then turns red. "My mother has a lot of gay friends. I grew up thinking it's no big deal."

"I'm not hitting on you," Shannon says dryly. "I respect the chain of command. Vegas or not." She wants to trust Lorne, and knows she needs his trust. "Allowing gay relationships will be my decision. I'm ordering you to overlook whatever you might notice, and you're under duress, or something." She catches Lorne's eye. "I expect this to end my career one way or another, but I have it on authority that you make general in the future."

"I'm not going to -- "

"Yes, you are, Major." She sighs. "I'll tell Biro and, um, McKay."

Lorne snorts and half-grins. "That'll take balls. It's as good as admitting Canadian superiority."

Shannon can't help herself. It's been a long day and she's limp from stress. She starts laughing, and then Lorne starts cackling himself. Shannon's trying to get her wheezing under control when Rodney bangs on the door and lets himself in, saying with loud, self-righteous sarcasm that it's so nice she has such a good time in her downtime, nevermind that other people are working their asses off.

Lorne's painstakingly awkward around Shannon for the next week, but it coincides with the tacit permission to be openly gay, so it looks more like he's trying to model good behavior. Shannon can live with that.

It does make her wonder about Rodney, though, who hasn't treated her any differently except for a sudden, much appreciated cessation of jabs about Shannon's supposed success with women.

Shannon plans on using their new tower as a base from which to take over the control tower. She takes a group of Marines to escort Rodney, Miko, and Radek to the captured Wraith lab on level nine, and once the geeks are set up she orders the Marines to go make sure the Wraith didn't leave any unpleasant surprises behind, like booby-traps or mutated insectoid monsters.

"See if you can find defensible living quarters," she adds. "Preferably with mattresses." She misses mattresses. She'd settle for even one of the child-sized ones; her back aches constantly from sleeping on the floor.

Rodney grumbles about the loss of his own special mattress, the one he never let anyone sit on even for movie night. Shannon just grins and stays silent until Rodney distracts himself with his data. Every part of the tower that she's seen so far has been Wraith-modified, with slimy walls and dead tentacles. It's off-gassing the way hiveships do, the faint acrid-sweet smell burning in the back of her throat and making it impossible to relax. She paces, checks out the rest of the rooms on the level, and props open balcony doors in an attempt to get a cross-breeze.

She's grimly trying to strip tentacles off what used to be a table with matching chairs when Rodney finds her.

"Hey," he says, and then, "eww," as she throws another handful of severed tentacles to the floor.

"Please tell me you've found a way to get hot running water in here," she says. Her hands are disgusting.

"Wraith security codes, yes; evil plans decrypted, no problem; fatal weakness, working on it; but what does she want? Showers." Rodney shakes his head sadly.

"Simple mind, simple pleasures," Shannon tells him. "Course, if you don't mind sleeping with someone who smells like decaying glop. . . ."

Rodney makes another gagging noise and goes to stand over by the open window. "No one told you to go touching that stuff. Order your minions. You're getting good at that, you know. Giving orders."

"Why, thank you," Shannon says, voice dripping with insincerity. "I just hate having my city slimed." She kicks at more tentacles. They swing sullenly. "What evil plan?"

"They were trying to grow a reproductive center, raise up a bunch of baby drones, and make their own hive ship."

Shannon frowns. "I thought the point of Wraith was that you need a queen to, um, do something repulsive to lay the eggs." Rodney heaves a sigh. They attended the same lecture on Wraith physiology and life-cycles; Shannon just counts it as her natural talent that she can summarize the content in entirely non-scientific terms. Which gives her a flashback to her childhood, and she raises an eyebrow at Rodney. "Boys, raise giant mushrooms in your cellars!"

He snorts, and fails to repress a grin, but there's something bugging him and Shannon's just going to have to ask. Which she does, moving to stand next to him, looking out over the vista of the city. Her question sounds just as awkward as she feared it would.

"If everything in the outside world is going according to how it should go, though probably it hasn't, then Jennifer," and Rodney stops and gulps; he hardly ever talks about Keller, but he's never taken her ring off. "According to my calendar, she's passed the due date." He looks at Shannon, then away. "Of course, who knows how much time has passed out there. I don't think I'll mind missing the diaper years, but it'll suck if the kid's already twenty when we get back."

"You could be a granddad," Shannon says, and pokes Rodney with her elbow. He looks even glummer at that. "You know it wouldn't take Carter twenty years to figure out how to bust us out of here. Between her and you, I'm not worried." She leans forward, looking up at the sky, the very faint shadow there of the hiveships, and the dull opaque glitter of the time dilation bubble. It makes her feel a little queasy, as if she let down her guard claustrophobia would close in. "You could do that solar-flare thing."

"Oh, shut up," Rodney says. "Do you know how insanely impossible that would be? I'd need a supersized super-gate, for starters," and Shannon grins as he starts detailing everything wrong with the plan.

She gives Rodney his cigars when they get back to home base. He turns them over in his hands, and then gives her a wry look. "I've never smoked anything in my life," he says. "I appreciate the gesture, though." He tucks them into his jacket's inside pocket. "We'll save them for when the fat lady sings, okay?" He gives Shannon a wry look. "I always thought you'd make a good parent. I mean -- "

"I know what you mean," Shannon says, trying to shut him up.

"You're good with kids," Rodney goes on, and then blinks. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"No," Shannon says, not really entertaining the hope that Rodney won't ask anyway.

"What's the most important part of being a father? Or a mother," Rodney adds, and blows out a breath. "My parents fought and they overvalued achievement and their social skills were pretty lacking, and Jeannie's done a good job of overcoming that, but. . ." Rodney lets his voice trail off and shrugs unhappily.

Shannon's not good at this. "You just, it's a matter of loving the kid you get no matter what," she says. "Don't force the kid into a mold of your own expectations. Don't make everything a question of do this or else, because when the kid's old enough to take a chance on or else, it'll be too late and you'll be out of options."

Rodney studies her in a way that makes Shannon's skin itch, although part of that is contact dermatitis from touching the Wraith slime. "That sounds like your bizarre take on command and diplomacy."

"So shoot me," Shannon says. "I was sent to boarding school after my mother died, parenting's not a concept that really impressed itself on me."

"That sucks." Rodney's face pinches as if he's genuinely sympathetic, which Shannon doesn't need.

"Nah," she says, easy. "I got to wear a school uniform. Uniforms are cool."

"Hm," Rodney says. "Because they're a tangible symbol of belonging to a group, or because it's easier to hide when you look just like everyone else?"

"Sometimes I hate you," Shannon says.

"You really don't." Rodney's quirked half-smile is both bemused and confused. "I don't know how, but you and me, we -- "

"Just don't talk about it," Shannon says. She can feel herself blushing. "You playing in the near-hockey game tonight?"

"Fine," Rodney says, huffy, walking away, and Shannon could kick herself, because he was reaching out and making an effort and she ruined it.

"Hey, Rodney," she says, and he turns back just enough to look at her over his shoulder. "When I change my name, it's going to be Shannon. Not quite as classy as Elizabeth, but."

"Shannon," Rodney tries, looking at her, and Shannon has no idea what to do, whether she should wave or raise her hand or smile or what. "Very. . . Immigrant Irish of you."

"My grandmother used to sing about the River Shannon. She was from County Clare. Always wanted to go home before she died. Never did." Shannon will never admit it, but when she first heard about Atlantis, she pictured it as a stone castle among emerald-green hills dotted with sheep.

"That's, um," Rodney starts, and finishes with an awkward bounce.

"It's kind of a secret," Shannon adds, apologetic. "I don't expect you to -- "

"No, no." Rodney turns all the way around, takes a step, and for a moment Shannon's afraid he's going to hug her. But he claps her on the shoulder twice and then says something about his gnawing hunger, and she jokes about how does monsieur want his worms today, baked, fried, or mushed into sausage links?

A few months after that, while Shannon's trying to not fall asleep sitting watch in an air duct that has sharp ridges which dig into her ass no matter how she shifts, Rodney clambers up and says, "How quickly can you finish the Wraith off? Because I know how to get us home."

Shannon blinks at him in the lantern light, thinking, and then says dryly, "Let's schedule that for next Thursday."

It actually takes twenty-seven days to work the kinks out of the science and make a viable plan, but the news is fantastic for morale.

Neither Shannon nor Rodney talk about the time difference. There's no sense in borrowing trouble.

Lorne deviates from Disney and wants to call the mission Operation Wizard (as in, of Oz). Shannon says sure, as long as he can figure out how to explain to Landry why the decoy jumpers are Monkeys one through five. She wants to be code-named Dorothy, just because she's going after the two surviving hive queens, but Rodney announces that that's the dumbest thing he's ever heard in his whole life, and that includes Creationism. She thinks he's just bitter because after Ronon explains the movie to the refugees, pretty much everyone refers to him as the great and powerful Rodney McKay.

When the last hive ship is under Atlantean control (captured, not destroyed, because Rodney needs the Wraith hyperdrive systems for his plan), Shannon's strung out on adrenaline and fear and go/no-go pills. She asks Biro five times if any of her people were killed, simply because she cannot process that she has beaten the odds, that they have all survived.

She wants a hot shower and a hot meal, but instead Lorne comes running, saying that there's a bunch of Wraith who want to surrender. The process takes hours. Each Wraith has to be stunned, given the cure via intravenous injection, and put into suspended animation until Atlantis is back in real time and Shannon can hand them over to Todd.

Shannon's the one standing at the door, sending the Wraith through one at a time. "There's no turning back here," she tells them. She doesn't even need to raise her voice; the Wraith are silent in their starved defeat "You change your mind, we're enemies, I kill you here and now."

Four of the Wraith, all drones, try to rush her. The other Wraith rip them to pieces -- literally, the heads ending up kicked in a pile at the end of the room. None of them make a protest after that.

Shannon's never paid much attention to what the anthropologists or the entomologists had to say about Wraith eusociety, but she has a lay grasp of the way the hierarchy works. The drones are stupid; they protect the hives and take orders. The workers therefore must be the ones who chose to surrender, since there hasn't been enough time to generate a new queen from the body of her dominant mate.

She sees a worker she knows at the back of the queue. She's always called him Homer. For a Wraith, he's funny-looking, with bugging eyes and thinning hair. "So," she says, pointedly standing out of arms' reach, her P90 at the ready. "Why surrender now?"

He bares his teeth at her, and then lowers his head. Shannon doesn't get it for the longest moment, but when she does she's torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to snap Homer's neck. "Bow deeper," she finally gets out, "and thank me for letting you live."

The other workers are watching. Shannon wishes she could tell, by their markings or clothing or whatever, which ones of them are at the top of the hierarchy. She hopes Homer isn't a lower-echelon nobody. His shoulders tighten, but he bends further, nearly double, and says, "We thank you," at which the other workers also give her the teeth-and-nod display.

"Acceptable," Shannon says, trying to sound like Teyla at her most imperious, which is hard because Lorne, on the other side of the room, is barely holding in his amusement.

By the time all the Wraith prisoners are safely on ice, McKay and his teams have landed the hiveships and slaved them to Atlantis. He is itching to burst the bubble as soon as possible. God only knows Shannon wants to get back to normal time as much as anyone, but she orders all the science teams back home for a mandatory twelve-hour rest period, followed by mandatory testing or simulations or whatever.

McKay looks betrayed; Shannon knows it's not professional, but she gives him a hug anyway.

"I just want to get you home safe," she says, and he's leaning into her so heavily that she suspects he's napping on his feet. "Tomorrow, okay?"

"Designated driver," Rodney says, completely randomly. Shannon lowers him down onto the blankets in their luxury sleeping quarters (they have pillows, who cares if they're on the floor?). She means to go and talk to Lorne, or at least take off her boots because she can smell her socks so she figures they're due for a wash, but instead all of a sudden there are small children running through the room, laughing, and there's sunlight pouring through the windows, and Shannon can't hear gunfire anywhere. It's morning and the war is over.

She's slept so long that her body's stiff and heavy and her brain's clearer than it has been in weeks. Possibly months. She peels herself up from the floor, trying to ignore the way her back and shoulders and knees crack, and thinks about what food she wants to eat first when they're back in contact with Earth. Maybe sourdough bread. Maybe steak, and oh God real coffee because ground-up roasted tava beans make a bitter, unsatisfying substitute. Definitely not worms, not ever again.

All the system checks and double-checks take long enough that Shannon nearly wishes she hadn't been responsible the day before, but it turns out that there had been bugs in the calculations that Rodney dismisses as probably not entirely fatal.

Shannon addresses everyone before she heads down to the command chair. She doesn't think any of her words are adequate, and finally she just bites her lips together and lets Rodney take over talking.

"We are all still alive," Rodney says, chin up, obviously proud. "The Wraith are not a problem any more. Tonight we dine on real food." The applause echoes, and Rodney raises both arms in a dorky victory pose.

The transition back to real time is like a flume ride: slow and smooth and then suddenly a sensation of dropping and rocking and bobbing as the placid water inside the bubble merges with the outer ocean and Atlantis' motion regulators kick in after -- how long has it been? -- nearly three years of inaction. The menus that come up one after another make Shannon's head hurt, and she transfers as many as she can over to Zelenka's workstation. He wants to know about potential flooding or structural failure.

When Shannon gets a minute free to breathe, she finds the subspace systems. They're heavily altered by the Wraith, who'd apparently been working on a way to break out of the bubble, but all Shannon needs is a way to open a channel and -- there, thank you, Rodney.

She clears her throat and starts transmitting her message, saving it so that it will repeat in a loop until someone responds. Providing that anyone is around. This is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, authentication code Romeo Foxtrot Sierra Juliett Niner Six, please respond.

She doesn't know if her code has been invalidated. She'd certainly understand if it was. Rodney's trying to figure out how much time has passed by checking with the weather satellite that Dr Francis sent up when Atlantis arrived on its new planet. Apparently, finding one satellite in the vastness of the sky is difficult. The moons get in the way.

Shannon listens to her message a few more times. It's relaxing. It reminds her of her grandmother saying the rosary, and she wonders if it's blasphemy for her to think of her people as the banished children of Eve.

She needs more sleep, she thinks, and she should get up and go help -- or bother -- Rodney, but with the chair, there's always one more thing to look at, one more decision to make. It's like one of those lanterns that leads travelers off the path to certain ruin, and Shannon's confronted with the question of whether to put long-range sensors back online (hell yes) when not one but two subspace signals come in.

She puts them on the PA. One's Ellis, saying that the authentication code is no longer valid, and one's Keller, telling Ellis to not be an idiot and asking for Rodney.

"Jennifer?" Rodney croaks. He looks devastated, and Shannon realizes that she hasn't asked about the time difference. She sits up, worried that Keller will say it's been ten years, or twenty.

"She just started walking," Jennifer says, in a rush. "She looks just like you."

Shannon hates seeing Rodney cry, but he's grinning through the tears. "I didn't miss the diapers?"

"Plenty of diapers," Keller assures him. "We have a gate bridge and a ZPM, how soon can you -- ?"

"Just need to get our gate back in the system," Rodney says. "Can you handle dinner for, um, one hundred seventy four people?"

"Sure," Keller says. She sounds so happy. She'd probably agree to anything. "No problem."

A couple of hours later, Ellis sends teams in to clean Atlantis up and take care of the Wraith; Shannon brings her people through to the Alpha site. After a few days, when everyone is mostly settled, she's summoned back to the SGC. Rodney volunteers to go with her, but she says hell no. He hasn't put baby Elizabeth down since he met her. He's not even disgusted by her diapers.

Ellis offers Shannon clean clothes, which she refuses, but she does ask him if he can put a word in for her with O'Neill. She'd rather get any bad news from him than from Landry.

So. She walks through the gate, into the gateroom so far below the surface that she feels crushed and trapped on some instinctual level. There's an Air Force captain waiting for her, with a very official request to follow after her; and where she's taken is a closet of an office. It has one desk and one chair on either side. The desk is dusty. The far chair is occupied by Lieutenant General Jack O'Neill, and he stands when Shannon walks in.

She comes to attention and salutes him, and he waves her into the chair and sends the captain off to go bother Davis. The captain's yes, sir sounds cheeky, as if she's grinning as she shuts the door.

"We're off the record here," O'Neill says. "I'm trying to figure out what to do with you, Sheppard."

"Sir," Shannon says, and wonders if she should make an effort to sound more masculine. Keller French-braided her hair before she left, so the length's not that obvious, but O'Neill's not an idiot.

"I read your report," O'Neill says, pushing a manila folder halfway across the desk. "You've had a remarkable however-many years," he adds, with an impatient wave of one hand. "Time travel, gotta love it." He steeples his fingers and looks at Shannon over them. "You won. You're the hero of the week. You get to collect your two hundred dollars and pass go. The SGC wants to put you in the spotlight, have you wear out your shiny black shoes doing meet-and-greets. Maybe go on Oprah."

Shannon's really wishing that there was a window in the room. She's breathing, but the air in here seems to be broken.

"I think," O'Neill goes on, his voice a little quieter, almost gentle except for the ever-present edge of mockery, "that you deserve better than that." He leans back in his chair. "The SGC has an actual office that does nothing but forge identities for aliens and the occasional accidental clone. Or inconvenient employee." He shrugged. "If you want John Sheppard to retire and go get lost somewhere while you walk out of this room as somebody else, that's a limb I'm prepared to go out on." He frowned. "If that makes any sense to you."

Shannon swallows twice before she can manage to get out, "Why?"

O'Neill raises his eyebrows. "Because I'm a nice guy?" Shannon tries to smile, but she suspects she just looks carsick, because O'Neill tells her to put her head between her knees and asks if she needs a paper bag. Shannon glares. "How about because my ex-boyfriend says you deserve better than what the Air Force will do to you? He just about talked my ear off. It gets to the point I say yes to anything to get him to shut up. There will be conditions," O'Neill goes on. "You have the gene, and the stuff you know? We can't afford to lose that. I'll still want you to go through the gate even if you're a civilian, but we can spare you six months or so to, um. Um."

Shannon's brain is stuck on trying to figure out when (how? why?) O'Neill could have dated Rodney McKay, and how the hell Rodney made an intergalactic phone call. There's no good way to ask. She's got to be wrong. She hopes.

"I'll need doctor's letters for surgery," she says, thinking this is what an out of body experience must feel like. "And -- I've been saving money, I've been saving for years."

"Whatever," O'Neill says. "The people will manage the. . . details." He gives her an uncomfortable look.

"On Atlantis, there were -- are out gay couples," Shannon says, in a rush. "I said it was okay -- we didn't know," and she cuts her hand through the air. "It was the right thing to do. Some of them are military. Also, the Wraith think I'm their new queen."

"Great." O'Neill gives her an exasperated look that somehow makes her feel better. "I'll send my ex out to deal with that. He owes me." O'Neill shrugs, but the look he gives Shannon is penetrating. "They won't be your people any more, Sheppard."

Shannon can't really hold that thought in her head; it's too big. What she focuses on is, "I got them all out alive."

O'Neill nods. "Not one casualty." He gets up, stiffly, holding his weight on his left leg more than his right until his knee straightens finally, and reaches over, holding out his hand for Shannon to shake. She does. His hand is cool and dry. "Let's go see the people, then."

When Shannon leaves the SGC a week later, she's driving a crappy car that she's paying for from her brand-new bank account, to build brand-new credit. She has a driver's license and a passport under her new name, and while the pictures are so bad she can barely look at them, they say F for sex and that's important. Carolyn Lam has given her referrals to doctors so she can start on hormones and make appointments for surgery; O'Neill's lined her up with a job starting in a few months, and an apartment. She pushes her car for as much speed as it can manage, turning west into the sun, feeling lonelier than she has in years, and old, and like she did when she went through the gate for the first time. Like it's an adventure.

February 2011

Cam gets the subspace message that Atlantis is back and the Wraith are defeated when he drops the Apollo out of hyperspace near one of the worlds that's suspected of having a Lucian Alliance base. Diaz is working communications; she puts the message on the overhead at Cam's signal, so he's watching with everyone else on the bridge as General Landry makes the announcement.

"That's. . . good news, sir," Cam says. Around him, he can feel the excitement going out like a wave. When Landry ends the message, people whoop and slap hands. Diaz, on his order, puts Cam on the PA system. Five minutes later, he hears from the mess that tonight's dinner menu has been changed to shepherd's pie and McCake, whatever the hell that is. Probably chocolate.

No one died on Atlantis, and that's the best news possible. It's like a good-luck charm that gets him through his mission with no loss of personnel, minimal damage to the ship, and enough intel to help their allies bring down the Alliance in a whole network of solar systems.

Cam wants to get back to Earth as soon as possible, wrap all this up and then head on out to Pegasus himself. But when he gets home and asks if he can send his congratulations to Pegasus, he's told that he certainly can, but most people have taken leave to be with their families. The Keller-McKays are staying with Rodney's sister up in Vancouver; Lorne, Biro, and the other people Cam knows, by sight at least, are scattered around the globe.

"What about Sheppard?" Cam asks, because she's a damn hero and no one's even talking about her.

John Sheppard retired, he's told, and there's no forwarding address, no cell phone number or e-mail address. Carolyn Lam knows something, Cam's pretty sure, but he can't bring himself to pressure her. The general impression he gets is that John must have had a nervous breakdown or something post-traumatic, and is in some hospital. Somewhere.

Cam writes to McKay, and calls, but Jeannie Miller finally tells him to leave her brother alone.

So at the end of a long week full of frustration and dead ends, when General Landry suggests to Cam that he's the best person available to take over the military command of Atlantis under Richard Woolsey, Cam says yes.

If John can't take care of her own city, at least for the time being, Cam figures, then he owes it to her to step in and look after it for her.

Atlantis is a wreck. Cam's got his work cut out for him. Whole towers have been devoured by three years' worth of Wraith occupation. Just getting rid of the bulk of decaying tentacles takes months of work in hazmat suits.

The parts of the city that were occupied by the expedition Cam keeps as intact as possible. In the gymnasium-sized hall where nearly a hundred people had lived, separated from each other by the flimsiest barriers and curtains, there's a mural that runs for almost half the length of one wall. There are Disney princesses, and magic castles, and a pirate ship, and an ocean with mermaids and clownfish. There are rainbows, and a banner that reads What happens in Vegas. The bottom of the mural is smudged by children's hands; over the top fly little cartoon puddlejumers and F302s. It's a shrine of sorts. People leave flowers there, and take pictures, and Major Lorne says that he's sorry he signed his name; he hadn't planned on becoming famous for his fanart.

Cam asks Lorne if he hears from John. Lorne says no. Cam asks again, after the weekly databurst, and Lorne gives him a lowered-brows stare.

"I waited," Cam says, blowing out a breath. "Two years not knowing. . . and I still don't know."

"I can't help you," Lorne says, and then his eyebrows scrunch up, making him look like he's trying too hard to appear guileless. "I haven't heard from John." He shifts, angling himself at the door. "Dr McKay's arriving on the Hammond. You should ask him."

"Thanks," Cam says. Something about this job is making him more sarcastic by the year.

April 2012

"I looked for you," Cam says, after the waitress has taken their order and cleared away the menus, leaving Shannon nothing to hide behind. "Despite being off the grid, no one who knew you seemed that broken up by your mysterious disappearance. McKay, no surprise, won't talk to me."

Shannon breathes in, holds it a moment, and breathes out. "I'm not masochistic. Even if you'd given him a message for me, I'd've ignored it. I don't want to hear about how your life has moved on."

"Never did move on," Cam says, and takes a sip of his water. The condensation on the glass collects on his fingers, and Shannon watches drops fall on the table, and into his lap. "Turns out I'm the one who puts the long-distance into a relationship. Plus dating someone without clearance sucks. The secrets feel like lies soon enough."

"I don't feel all that sorry for you," Shannon says.

"No," Cam agrees. "I missed you like hell." A flash of blue as Cam glances up, and then Cam's staring off into the distance, like the salad bar fascinates him. "So you're in witness protection or something?" And then Cam shakes his head, dismissing the question, and asks instead, "You're happy?"

Shannon raises one eyebrow. "There's people I miss. Places. Planets I'll never see again. But it's an infinite universe and at some point you just have to. . . live with what you have." She shrugs.

"Are you done transitioning?" Cam asks, looking uncomfortable, like someone starched his underwear and he itches in unscratchable places.

Shannon smiles, but can't stop her chin from jerking to the side, mean. "Wikipedia is a wonderful resource," she says, and takes a sip of her water. She hopes the food comes soon.

"Hey," Cam says. "That's unfair." Before Shannon can figure out if he's serious, and seriously needs his ass kicked, he grins and adds, "I went to this place in Topeka. I have pamphlets, printed on purple paper." He grimaces, studies the table, and shifts in his chair. "This was after I told my parents I wasn't straight, back when I didn't want to believe you were dead."

Shannon's not going to touch that, not for all the tea in China. "I'm out at work," she says instead. "Nasrin's like McKay, all she cares is that you're smart and can do things for her."

"Think she'd hire me?" Cam asks. He manages to meet Shannon's eyes but his mouth twists like he's bit into something bad but is too polite to say so.

"In a minute," Shannon says, because it's true, but she sounds too damn sympathetic to her own ears. She doesn't want Cam to think -- "Talk to O'Neill. I mean, he probably knows everything, but he appreciates honesty." Cam fidgets more, and Shannon wonders if his ass really is itching. She wonders if Cam's ever fantasized about O'Neill. . . scratch that; not if, but how many times. She wonders if he knows O'Neill dates guys. Wonders if it would be wicked (but satisfying) to tell Cam. Not that she would. "A thing for older guys, huh?"

"And you," Cam says, not missing a beat, and Shannon wants to look away from the sudden tight focus of Cam's gaze, but she can't. She can feel her breathing speed up, despite her training. Cam stretches out one hand, palm up, reaching across the table like a supplicant. "Living without you taught me that I don't want to live without you."

"Living without you," Shannon echoes back, and watches herself put her hand over his. Cam's fingers curl up, not tight, but steady. She wants to say something mean, just to make him hurt; she wants him to hold her and say he's sorry. "I'm not who I used to be," and she means it as a warning. She used to trust him, for one. "I kind of thought you chose to end us because there just wasn't a future."

"You've been thinking all these years that I was a total dick."

"A realist."

"A dick," Cam insists.

"Whatever." Shannon pulls up one shoulder, lets it drop, and then thank God the waitress arrives with the trolley. Shannon reclaims her hand and collects a serrated knife and a fork from the basket plonked down between them.

"I was scared," Cam says. "And that's no good excuse, because don't try to tell me you weren't scared to -- " and he gestures, all-encompassing. "But you did it anyway. Pulled up your big-girl panties and saved the galaxy. Took hard losses but you're here."

Shannon spears one of her carrot medallions and spins it in a circle, go me, before eating it in one bite.

"I have no idea how this could play out," Cam says, slicing his meat with a precision that Ronon would be proud of. Hell -- for all Shannon knows, Cam and Ronon hang out all the time in Atlantis, playing with knives. She misses Ronon; all her friends. "I would love for you to come to dinner with me tomorrow night, and the night after that. I want to talk to Landry about getting you back on Atlantis, and if he says no I'll ask for a transfer, move out here." He puts the knife down. "Because it about broke my heart to think that you were dead and gone forever. Please," he adds. "Please." He looks away, back at the damn salad bar.

"It'll all end in tears and pain," Shannon tells him.

"But until then," Cam says, "we'll be incredible."

And Shannon wants to believe that so very much that she says, yes.

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