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The Measure of Your Touch

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There's no sign when Cam arrives at the Mountain that his world is about to be ripped apart. There should have been a warning, he decides bitterly later on. You'd think that the death of the military commander of Atlantis--one of their own, even if most of the people at the SGC had never worked directly with him--would warrant something. A day of mourning. A respectful silence. A goddamn gesture. But instead the corridors are filled with the focused faces of personnel carrying out their duties as usual, and there's laughter in the commissary where Cam stops to pick up two cups of mediocre coffee, and no indication anywhere that anyone realizes Cam's heart is about to be torn in two.

Cam himself is smiling as he carries the coffee down to the lab that Sam's temporarily occupying when she's not overseeing repairs on the Hammond. He hadn't realized how much he missed her--how much he misses all of them--until she returned.

He pushes the door open with his shoulder and twists around to say hello, still smiling. His bad coffee joke dies on his lips as he catches sight of her face, red-eyed and bleak.

"What happened?" he asks, concerned. He begins mentally running through members of her immediate family who could have been hurt or killed, and hopes it wasn't her brother's family.

"Atlantis dialed in a couple of hours ago," she says, and Cam's heart drops the way it always does when Atlantis calls unexpectedly. He waits for the next words, the ones that will tell him it's all right. That John's only injured, or captured, or that for once it isn't about him at all.

"John...Colonel Sheppard...there was an explosion. In a lab. Some Ancient device that activated when it shouldn't have. They said there's nothing left. The whole room is gone. Rodney's looking into it, but he doesn't know..."

Cam doesn't catch the next few words; he's working too hard on remembering how to breathe. He knows his face is betraying him, but it's too much work to school it into compliance just now. After a minute he takes a shuddering breath and tries to pull himself together, to focus on what Sam's saying, but she's stopped talking and she's just looking at him, realization layered over grief.

"You and John? Oh God, Cam." She steps forward, pulls the coffee from his numb hands and sets it down, then lays a gentle hand on his arm. "I'm so sorry. I didn' long?"

"Four years." He knows he shouldn't be admitting this, but John's dead and he can't bring himself to care. Besides, this is Sam.

His legs suddenly feel weak. He sits down shakily, and leans into Sam as she wraps him in a hug. In the privacy of her lab, he gives way to the only shared bout of tears he suspects he'll get.

* * *

Cam dresses very carefully the day of the funeral, shoes polished and dress blues pressed. He knows John wouldn't care, but Cam values the small signs of respect and this is the only public gesture he can make.

Dave Sheppard, as next-of-kin, had the final say over the arrangements, and so John isn't being buried at Arlington. Truthfully, he isn't being buried at all--the unknown device incinerated everything around it, leaving behind only a thin layer of unidentifiable ash--but the empty coffin will rest beneath a headstone in a Sheppard family plot.

Cam's here as part of the small contingent of official SGC representatives sent for the ceremony, which means he doesn't have to try to explain why he'd really like SG-2 to handle the world-shattering emergency just this once. He's not quite sure how Sam swung that, but he's grateful to her. He's also grateful that the rest of his current team isn't here, because after three years together, they know him pretty well, and he's not sure he could hide his grief from them today.

He finishes straightening his tie, and reaches for his jacket, then turns to check himself in the mirror one last time. He nearly jumps out of his skin when he hears a familiar voice behind him.

"I wish I could talk to you," John says. Cam spins around, heart pounding, and sees John sitting on the hotel bed, healed and whole and dressed in black BDUs.

"You're supposed to be dead," Cam blurts out. He immediately wishes that he could take it back, because that's hardly the way to greet someone who's just returned from the dead. It doesn't matter, though, because John's here and Cam will have a chance to say something else, to say everything he's ever wanted to. He can feel himself grinning uncontrollably as he takes a step toward the bed, relieved that it was all just a mistake, and then the grin fades as he processes John's words and shocked expression, and reality slowly creeps back in. "I didn't hear the door open," Cam says quietly. Which is really the least impossible thing about the whole situation.

John's wide-eyed and staring at Cam. "You can see me?"

Cam nods. Two more steps bring him to the edge of the bed. He reaches out to touch John's shoulder, and isn't surprised when his hand passes through the other man as if he weren't there. John doesn't seem bothered by it. He's looking up at Cam with a wide smile.

"You're the first person who's been able to see me since..." His voice trails off.

Cam sits down beside him. "What happened?" he asks. The first rush of joy has fled, but the grief hasn't come back to replace it. John's here, after a fashion, and therefore not dead. The SGC has dealt with this kind of thing before. "Inter-dimensional shift?" He says it casually, trying to be casual, to treat this as a little thing. All in a day's work. It's hard to hold that attitude after all the days of mourning.

"I don't know," John admits. "At first I wondered, but I think...I think McKay would have found me by now, if that's all it was."

"Did he even know to look?" Cam asks.

John shrugs, which Cam interprets as no. He leaves it alone for now. "What do you remember?"

"We were clearing a new lab...I remember the explosion. And the feeling of...there was pain. And then...."

"And then what?" Cam prompts.

John looks away, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "And then I saw a white light. And I walked away from it. And then I was back in the room, watching while they cleaned up the mess." He looks up. "That's not exactly how you described your trip into another dimension."

It isn't at all like Cam's experience and the differences chill him, but he keeps his tone intentionally optimistic. "Different method, different results," he says. "Once Sam and McKay know to look for you, they'll have you home in no time. We'll recruit Jackson too, since it's probably an Ancient device." They won't have far to go. Daniel's back from Atlantis, here to serve as a pallbearer.

John looks like he's going to say something, but he's interrupted by a knock on the door, and Vala's voice calling Cam's name. Cam glances down at his watch automatically. "I'm supposed to be leaving," he says.

"For my funeral," John agrees with a wry smile.

"I'll tell them. We can cancel it." He's not sure how they'll go about that, or what they'll say, especially to John's family, but letting it go ahead seems unthinkable.

"Better not," John says. "You'll never be able to explain the reasons if you don't manage to get me back."

Cam's used to John's fatalism when it comes to his own life. That doesn't mean he likes it.

"John..." he starts, ready to list all the reasons he knows they'll get him back. But John's looking at Cam with the glee of a five-year-old at the county fair.

"Come on! How many people get to go to their own funeral?"

Sam and General O'Neill are waiting with Vala in the hall when Cam exits his hotel room. Cam explains the situation as succinctly as he can. Vala--back from Atlantis with Daniel--breaks into a broad smile when he finishes and starts teasing John about the lengths he'll go to in order to get out of paperwork. Sam looks both relieved and cautious; the general remains inscrutable. Cam wonders just how crazy he sounds.

They all agree with John that it's better to go ahead with the funeral and announce his miraculous survival later. None of the details of John's death were made public, so it won't be hard to come up with a story, when (Cam refuses to think 'if') they get him back. Cam wants to at least tell John's teammates, but they're already at the cemetery and Cam knows there's no way he'll get them alone before the service, so he resigns himself to facing McKay's fury at being left out of the loop, and counts on relief bringing it down to a bearable level.

* * *

Even with John at his shoulder, Cam finds the funeral painful. It's too easy to imagine that it's for real.

John is amused at first, telling Cam stories about some of the attendees and moving around to eavesdrop as people chat. His amusement fades when his team arrives, sombre and grief-stricken, escorting the flag-draped coffin. Cam can't bear to look at them, so he examines the crowd instead. Most of the people present are in uniform, but there are a few clusters of civilians here and there. He spots John's brother at the centre of one of the clusters, and recognizes most of the people around him as cousins, vaguely familiar from family photos. There's a dark-haired woman with them who John quietly identifies as his ex-wife. Cam studies her for a long moment, trying to discover out what originally drew John to her. He can't quite figure it out.

Dave invites everyone back to the house after the service. Cam doesn't want to go, doesn't want to continue playing along with this painful lie, but he can't think of a way to get out of it without raising questions, so he climbs back into the car with John, Sam, Vala, and O'Neill. Sam spends the ride quizzing Cam on what aspects of the physical environment John can interact with. Cam finds the answers frustrating--why can John stand on the ground and sit in a car, but not touch another person?

"I don't think he's really touching anything," Sam says. "His mind knows that's what he should be doing, so he exists in the appropriate places and feels like he's doing these things."

"So if he thought he could touch people..."

"Then his mind might fill in the gaps and make him think he's touching them, but the people he's touching won't feel anything."

It's not really the answer Cam was looking for. Judging from John's expression, it's not the answer he was looking for either.

They split up on arrival: O'Neill and Sam spread out to chat with the people who looked shocked when they first realized John Sheppard, military rebel, warranted an 0-9 at his funeral, and Vala proclaims she's going to explore the house, and then makes a beeline for Jackson.

"I guess it's just us," John says, smiling. His smile vanishes a moment later as he scans the room. He gestures to his right. "There's Lorne. Do you think you could go talk to him?"

Lorne leads them to the rest of the Atlantis contingent, minus Vala and Jackson. They're huddled together in one corner, Ronon and Teyla looking uncomfortable in unfamiliar clothing, and all of them looking miserable. Cam takes them outside before he explains the situation to them.

"So he's been here all along," Doctor Keller says wonderingly. "He just couldn't communicate with us."

"Is he well?" Teyla asks. "He is not in pain?"

"Nope," John says.

"He's not in pain," Cam confirms.

"How is he...he can't touch anything, right?" McKay says. "Is he hungry? Or thirsty?"

John shakes his head no; Cam relays his response.

"Is that unusual?" Teyla asks. "In this kind of situation?"

McKay frowns. "Maybe. We've never left anyone in another dimension long enough to..."

"But you can get him back," Ronon says matter-of-factly.

"Of course! I just have to figure out where he is. It would be easier if we still had the device that sent him there...."

Cam and John leave the small group looking considerably happier and begin wandering through the gathering. Cam keeps an eye out for familiar faces from the times when his career and John's crossed paths while John plays invisible tour guide.

"My father's sister," he says, pointing to one stately, grey-haired woman. "Aunt Margaret. She was always telling us to settle down and stop running around when we were kids. Dave and I hated her. She's the only family member who congratulated me when I got my commission."

Over the course of the next hour, Cam spots about a dozen members of John's family. It's a bit of a shock considering how rarely John talks about any of them. Cam tends to think of him as being alone in the world.

"I didn't think they'd all come," John says, looking around. "I was always the black sheep of the family. Especially after I joined the Air Force."

Cam navigates a handful of encounters, including a conversation with a pale-looking Nancy, who asks whether he served with John and clearly has no idea who he is. John stands off to the side through the whole conversation, fiddling uncomfortably with his wristband. Cam decides that he and John are going to have a conversation about how much his ex-wife knows.

Cam heads to the bar for a drink after his conversation with Nancy, and runs into John's commanding officer from Afghanistan, temporarily reassigned Stateside. The two of them head outside together.

"Do you know where he was posted? Last I heard, he was still in Antarctica."

Cam says he doesn't.

The colonel shakes his head. "I told them he was burned out. Never should have been allowed back in an active theatre. Damn fine pilot, but he just wasn't Air Force material. Courage, but no discipline."

Cam bites his cheek to keep from replying and excuses himself. John grins at him mischievously and follows his former CO into the crowd.

Cam's beginning to think he might emerge from the afternoon relatively unscathed when he feels a light touch on his shoulder. He turns around to find Dave Sheppard behind him, and silently curses John for choosing this moment to abandon him.

"Colonel...Cam." Up close, Dave looks drawn and tired and far older than Cam remembers.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Cam says, and wishes he could tell Dave what's really happening. Dave had been...if not welcoming toward Cam, at least courteous. Especially considering how little warning John had given him about who he was bringing for dinner. Although Cam thought Dave had suspected John's interest in men even before that.

"Thank you," Dave replies automatically. He pauses, and then asks awkwardly, "How are you holding up?"

"I'm getting by," Cam says.

"It must be hard," Dave says. "I know you can't really talk to anyone. At least not the people you work with...the ones who knew John."

"Yeah," Cam agrees. It's not entirely true, but he doesn't see any reason to correct the man.

"They won't tell me how he died," Dave says. "But John wasn't always...I got the impression he wasn't always as careful as he could be, with his life. He took risks."

"That wasn't what happened this time," Cam says, glad to be able to give Dave something. "He didn't do anything stupid. It was just happened." He wonders if it helps, knowing that this wasn't the result of John's self-sacrificial impulses. It hadn't comforted Cam.

"Yeah." Dave looks down at the glass in his hand, swirling the amber liquid around. "He talked about you a lot, when he emailed me. Well, a lot for John. He never was one for sharing his personal life." Dave pauses and sips from his glass, then looks directly at Cam, clearly building up to something.

Cam's shocked by the next statement.

"If you ever want to...if you ever want to talk about John," Dave says, "you're always welcome here. Or... you can call me too. I know it's a long trip from Colorado."

"That's very...thank you." Cam can't imagine calling Dave up, but he's touched by the offer. He wishes John were here to hear it.

"John was always popular," Dave says slowly, "but he wasn't close to many people. He was...private. It would be nice to talk some time to someone who really knew him."

"Yeah," Cam agrees, and thinks maybe the offer isn't just for his sake. "It would."

He spends the rest of the afternoon waiting to get John alone so that they can talk.

* * *

Sam and McKay get to work as soon as they return to the SGC.

"The first question," Sam says thoughtfully, "is why you're the only one who can see him."

The hunt for the answer involves a broad series of tests, both medical and scientific. At the end, all they have are some pretty lights on a brain scan that Lam thinks might indicate some subtle change to Cam's brain from God-knows-where and God-knows-when that might possibly give him a window into alternate dimensions.

"We need to figure out if he can see other inter-dimensional travelers," McKay says, and so they pull out various Ancient devices and start testing them on various SGC personnel. Cam can't see or communicate with any of them in their alternate dimensions. Neither can John.

"That's a bad sign, isn't it?" Cam asks. Almost as bad as John's complete lack of need for food or water or sleep.

"We don't know much about inter-dimensional travel," Sam says reassuringly. "Maybe the different technologies aren't compatible."

* * *

"Maybe I'm not in another dimension," John suggests on the fifth day. He's sitting on a table, swinging his legs. Cam's still worried about the fact that he doesn't need food or water. He's even more worried about the fact that it's been more than a week since John was able to interact directly with anyone other than Cam.

"Then where are you?" Cam asks, leaning back in his chair. Sam and McKay stay focused on their computers; they're used to his one-sided conversations now.

John doesn't answer, but Cam knows what he's thinking. An explosion. Pain. A white light. The elimination of all physical needs.

"You're not dead," Cam insists. Sam and McKay both lift their heads at this.

"He thinks he's dead?" McKay says. "Tell him he's an idiot." He twists his head to look in the direction Cam's looking. "You're an idiot."

"I might be dead," John says steadily, ignoring McKay. His tone is entirely serious, and just a little challenging. His eyes search Cam's face, looking for...something. A sign that Cam's prepared to abandon him, maybe?

Cam refuses to consider the possibility.

"If I can see ghosts, why am I only seeing you?" he asks. "The world has to be full of ghosts. Why am I not running into them everywhere?"

"Maybe they all chose the light," John says, half-seriously.

"All of them?" Cam asks disbelievingly, and John's lips quirk a little.

Sam taps a pen against the table. "I suppose it's possible," she says reluctantly, "but we have no way to test it."

"Well, we could," McKay says thoughtfully. "They have defibrillators here, right?"

Cam's not entirely sure he's joking. The man's barely left the lab since he realized John was still alive. Sam apparently has the same thought.

"I thought you didn't in ghosts, Rodney."

"Well, he has to be somewhere. If he's not in any of the dimensions we can reach...." He turns back to his computer and starts scrolling through a database. Sam shakes her head and does the same.

"You don't believe in ghosts," Cam tells John firmly.

"I'm beginning to revise some previously held opinions."

Sam and McKay remain worryingly silent.

* * *

"We're not giving up," Sam tells Cam after a month.

"But you're not any closer," Cam says sharply. "And the Hammond is scheduled to leave in three days." He knows that he shouldn't speak that way to her, knows that Sam's doing everything she can, but it's been a month and the only person John can talk to is Cam, and Cam knows he must be getting desperate. Cam's getting desperate.

"I know," Sam replies gently. "Rodney's being sent back to Atlantis tomorrow. He might have better luck there, since that's where it happened. Maybe something in the Ancient database...."

"Jackson and Zelenka have been through the database," Cam reminds her. "If there were something there, they would have found it."

"It's a big database," she says. "Rodney might find something they missed." But she doesn't sound hopeful.

"Do you still think he's in another dimension?" Cam asks. He tries to relax his shoulders, and pretends that he doesn't already know the answer.

"He might be," she replies. But her face suggests otherwise.

"She thinks I'm dead," John says matter-of-factly, leaning against the wall.

Cam swallows hard, and asks Sam if that's true. She hugs him and doesn't answer.

* * *

Cam watches Sam leave, then turns around to look at John. He's startled by the sight. The calm acceptance of a minute ago is gone, replaced by something darker and bleaker.

"They'll find a way," Cam says, trying to keep his voice reassuring. He takes a step forward, reaching out automatically, and then dropping his hand as he realizes what he's doing. "They always find a way," he says instead.

John shakes his head. "I don't think they will this time," he says quietly. "Even McKay and Carter can't always work miracles." He stops and draws in a deep breath that Cam knows he doesn't need. Another illusion leftover from the physical world.

"They will," Cam says.

"What if this it?" John asks, wrapping his arms around his body. "What if I'm just stuck like this forever?" He's shivering as he speaks, and Cam desperately wants to hold him. He moves closer instead, stopping right in front of him.

"That's not going to happen," Cam says firmly. "Even if you are dead, this can't be it. Not forever. It wouldn't be allowed." He believes what he's saying. Believes in a merciful God who wouldn't allow a good man to suffer alone forever. It's a belief he knows John doesn't share.

John straightens up and drops his arms. "I don't want this," he says quietly. "I don't want...I don't want to leave you like this."

Cam blinks back tears. "You won't. You haven't. And I'm not leaving you either."

* * *

John insists on staying on Earth. Rodney resists the idea, arguing that he won't be able to test any new theories unless John's there, but John says he's not leaving the only person he can talk to. In the end, Rodney heads back to Atlantis alone.

Cam goes back on active duty the following day. John goes with him.

"Are you going to follow me to every planet?" Cam asks as he checks his gear in the gateroom.

"It's not like I have anywhere else to be," John replies dryly. He's back to smiling and cracking jokes, saying he's going to take advantage of his status as the Invisible Man by hanging out in the Buffaloes' locker room on Cam's days off. The mask holds well during the day, but Cam's woken up a few times to see John watching him from beside the bed, tears running down his face. Most of the time he closes his eyes and pretends he doesn't see, because he knows that if he sits up, he'll start crying himself.

Ferretti, Choi, and Singh soon get used to the one-sided conversations, and Cam discovers that it can be extremely useful to have an invisible set of eyes and ears along on missions.

On P6X 335, John sneaks off to explore the village while SG-1 sits through endless rounds of pleasantries with the village leaders. Two hours later, he returns and tells Cam that the village has a surprisingly large number of weapons hidden away, and it looks like several members of the Lucian alliance are waiting to ambush them on their way back to the gate.

On P5X 886, John carries messages from SG-6 to SG-1 when the two groups are cut off from each other by gunfire. It would have been more helpful if they'd had two-way communication, but at least Cam's expecting the air cover when it comes.

On P2X 545, John feeds Cam the answers to a series of increasingly difficult mathematical equations that eventually give them access to an entire database that Singh is almost certain was built by the Furlings. Of the four members of SG-1, Cam suspects he's the most surprised by the fact that John has the answers.

"You never told me you could do that," he says accusingly in the car on the way back to his apartment.

"It's not like it's useful most of the time," John replies carelessly, but he looks pleased at Cam's astonishment.

On Cam's days off, John hangs out with him in his apartment, or accompanies him while he runs errands. Sometimes they rent movies, or watch the college football games Cam records when he's off-world. It's almost like being a regular couple, so much so that Cam sometimes finds himself reaching for John's favourite ice cream (coconut or French vanilla) before remembering that there's no point in buying it because John can't eat it. Each incident is a new blow.

"Half of the things I know about you are irrelevant now," he complains one night. "All your favourite foods and favourite colours and favourite positions..."

"I can't do anything about what I know about you either," John replies, eyes on the television as the man in black scale the wall of the cliff. He's curled up at the end of the couch in a position that Cam knows he couldn't sustain if he were corporeal. John's been doing more of that recently, moving in ways that he couldn't before. Cam's afraid that it's a sign he's forgetting what it's like to have a physical body.

"I guess it's the test of true love," Cam says. "Being able to connect purely on a mental level."

And they do connect, better than Cam had thought they would without physical contact to sustain them. They talk for hours, both on and off-duty: about themselves, about the world, about SGC policy and what will happen when the program goes public and when Earth might fully embrace the stars. Cam learns more about John's past in two months than in the previous four years of dating. He's grateful to have time with John that he never thought he'd get.

He still misses what they had.

They try a couple of things early on, Cam jerking off while John watches and whispers suggestively in his ear, but they give it up fairly quickly. The one-sidedness of it doesn't appeal to Cam, and he suspects that sexual desire has deserted John along with the need for food and water and sleep. He's becoming a purely mental creature, a product of whatever plane he now inhabits.

After the early failures, John suggests that Cam start looking for companionship elsewhere, an idea which Cam firmly rejects because it wouldn't help, and because he wouldn't do that to John. It's not really the sex he misses, either. Well he does, but Cam's not seventeen anymore and it's not that a big deal. What he misses is being able to reach out and touch John--to ruffle his hair or touch his hand or curl against him in bed. Every time he absently reaches out for something that isn't there, the situation is brought home all over again. He doesn't think bringing another person into the picture will help with that.

* * *

As the months wear on, Cam starts to see signs that John's drifting away. He's less engaged, and spends a lot of time staring into space. He'll still respond when Cam talks to him, but he no longer comments on what the neighbours are doing, and when Cam asks who he thinks will win the Orange Bowl, he doesn't have an answer. Cam fights back, trying to reconnect John with the world. He takes long walks and points out the way ice covers the trees. Talks to John about football when the games are on. Tries to bring in other people on their conversations, patiently relaying John's replies to whoever he can get to join in. None of it helps for more than a short while.

Sometimes Cam thinks it would have been easier if John had died in the explosion. Pure, raw grief seems like it might be easier to take than this painful process of watching John slowly fade away.

Sometimes he wonders if John feels the same way.

John starts spending less time with Cam, and more time down in the labs. One of the few things that still seems to interest him is watching the scientists work. On the days when Cam wanders down to find him, John's often waiting eagerly for Cam to pass on a message to the scientists, some tidbit that will help their progress. At first it's all math, but then John starts to expand, offering insights into physics and chemistry and engineering that Cam's sure he has no way of knowing. Cam passes this news along to Sam and McKay, hoping it will help.

"We're still working on it," Sam says.

One night John doesn't come home with Cam, opting to stay and watch Dr. Lee work. Alone in his apartment for the first time in months, Cam rattles around and tries to figure out what to do with himself. He knows he used to go out with friends, but he hasn't been out with anyone outside of the SGC in months, and he can't think of who he'd call now. He considers giving Dave a call, just to hear a sympathetic voice, but he's not sure what he'd say. John's still not dead, exactly, and Cam doesn't need to hear about John's childhood from his brother when he can hear it from John himself. He ends up going to bed early, and makes it into work a couple of hours before he needs to be there.

* * *

John still periodically comes along on missions, but he's not with them on P8X764 when Cam gets captured by a small guerrilla band that informs him they intend to collect the generous bounty being offered by the Lucian Alliance for any member of SG-1. Cam's fairly sure the rest of SG-1 made it back to the gate, and thus rescue's probably on the way, but he's not sure they'll make it in time, so when he sees an opportunity for escape, he takes it.

Unfortunately, the escape leaves him with bruised ribs and a sprained ankle, lost on the side of a mountain, in the pouring rain. Cam has a good sense of direction, but the mountain is heavily wooded and forests are hard to navigate at the best of times. When the rain starts threatening to turn into more than a storm, Cam takes shelter in a small cave, and hopes the guerrillas have sought shelter of their own.

Two hours later, he watches in horror as the side of the mountain is brought down by the storm, cutting off the cave's exit.

Cam tries his radio at regular intervals, hoping that somehow the signal will penetrate the rock and alert his rescuers to his presence. Each attempt is met with silence.

There's a gap at the top of the cave entrance, too small to climb through, but big enough that he doesn't think he's going to suffocate. He tries climbing up the rocks, just to see what's out there. He gives up after the third time he falls. He refills his canteen as best he can with the rain trickling down the rocks, and tries not to think about what's going to happen when the rain stops. Then he sits back in the cold cave to wait.

The rain ends late on the third day, depriving Cam of his water supply and doing nothing to bring up the temperature. He huddles against the back wall of the cave, coughing and shivering, and starts wondering if he'll be able to hold out until the searchers find him.

He wishes John were there.

On the fourth morning, Cam starts contemplating what he'll do if he meets the white light. Should he walk into it? Or should he turn away and go find John? Maybe the two of them can spend eternity haunting the world together. It doesn't sound like an entirely bad fate, especially if ghosts can touch each other.

On the fourth night, John shows up.

Cam assumes he's still dreaming when he hears John's voice urgently calling his name. He moans and tries to slide deeper into sleep, but the voice persists.

He opens his eyes slowly and sees the faint shadow of John leaning over him, illuminated by the moonlight spilling through the gap. At first he thinks he's been rescued and is back in the SGC infirmary, then he registers the feel of cold rock beneath him, and the continuing near-dark of the cave.

"You need to wake up," John says.

"I'm awake." Cam coughs and pushes himself up, wincing at the strain on his ribs. "So is the rescue party here yet?"

"Not yet," John says. "They're doing a grid search. They haven't gotten this far yet."

"How long?"

"Sometime tomorrow morning."

Cam leans his head against the rock, an closes his eyes. "It's going to be a long night," he says.

"I'm not going anywhere," John says. He crouches down beside Cam. "You're shivering. You need to move around. Stay active."

Cam groans in protest, but he hauls himself to his feet. He knows that John is right, but moving seems like a lot of work right now, especially with his ankle as swollen as it is. Once he's upright, he leans against the wall for support. "How'd you find me?"

John hesitates. "I don't know," he says finally. "When I heard you were missing and that search and rescue hadn't been able to find you, I just...concentrated on you and then I was here."

"You're adjusting," Cam says. "Evolving." He coughs and swallows, trying to summon some moisture to his dry mouth. "I don't suppose you've evolved enough to go get me some water?"

John shakes his head. "Sorry."

Cam takes a shaky step forward, trying not to put too much pressure on his injured ankle, and then stops as another coughing fit hits him.

"That doesn't sound good," John says, concerned.

Cam shrugs. "A cough's not going to kill me."

"If it gets worse...."

"Either they'll find me and I'll get some antibiotics, or I'll be dead from dehydration in another couple of days. Either way, I don't think I have to worry about pneumonia."

"Right," John says.

Cam takes another tentative step forward. He does feel a little warmer now that he's standing.

"I'm sorry I left you alone," John says suddenly. "I should have been with you."

"Not your fault," Cam says. "It's not your job to keep me safe."

"I know. But I should have been there. If something happened to you, know...."

Cam takes pity on him.

"Don't worry about it. I'm just glad you're here now." And then, because he can't resist, he adds, "I love you, you know." He grins in the dark as John stumbles over a reply, and keeps hobbling forward, guided by the wall. The warmth he's feeling now has nothing to do with physical activity.

* * *

"They should be getting close," John says a few hours later. "We should start trying to get their attention."

Cam's radio gives him the same non-response as his previous attempts.

"The rock must be interfering," John says. "Maybe if you yell?"

So Cam yells until he's hoarse while John stands outside and watches for some sign that one of the search parties can hear him. Eventually John comes back inside, shaking his head. Cam's heart sinks.

"We need to think of something else," John says.

"I've spent the past four days trying to think of something," Cam says, leaning back against the wall in exhaustion. "I've tried everyway of getting their attention that I can. What's left?"

"If they finish this grid and don't find you..." John begins, and then stops. They both know what will happen. Planets are big, and the SGC doesn't even know for sure that Cam's still on this planet. There won't be a second pass.

"Think I'll end up like you?" Cam asks. "Wandering the world, invisible to everyone?"

"That won't happen," John says fiercely, and for a moment he burns as bright and sharp as he had when Cam met him, on his first return from Atlantis. Cam looks more closely, and realizes that it's not his imagination--John is actually glowing, very faintly.

"I thought I was supposed to be the irrepressibly optimistic one," Cam says. "And by the way, you're glowing."

"I always pick up the slack when someone else gives up. Just ask Rodney." John holds out his hands in front of him and turns them over, studying the glow. "Cool."

"You'd think that," Cam mutters. Back on Earth, it would be another thing to worry about--one more sign that John's slipping away from him--but he has other things to worry about here.

John heads out through the rocks a minute later, presumably to see exactly where the searchers are. Not quite close enough, Cam thinks. And soon they'll be gone.

He's surprised to realize that he isn't frightened. He's not in enough pain to actually welcome death, but the idea doesn't bother him as much as he expected. He's lived a full life. Done what he wanted to do. Well, everything he could do, once John was gone.

"I wanted us to retire together," he tells John when John finally returns to the cave. "Thought we could get a little cabin together, out in the middle of nowhere."

John cocks an eyebrow. "The middle of nowhere?" he says. "What's wrong with cities?"

"Too many reporters," Cam replies. "After they finally declassify the stargate, we'll want to get away." He pauses to cough, then adds, "Now we'll be the dead heroes who opened the way to the stars instead."

John shakes his head in denial. "No." He makes the word sound like solid fact and not flimsy hope. He gestures toward the entrance of the cave. "The searchers are as close as they're going to get. We need to get their attention now, before they move on."

John goes back outside, and Cam tries yelling again, but the previous bout exhausted his reserves, and the lack of water quickly sends him into a coughing fit. He feels around for something to throw out the gap in the entrance, something that might make noise, but the floor of the cave is amazingly bare. He tosses his canteen up, but the bottle bounces back into the cave.

John sticks his head through the rocks, to eerie effect. "They're almost out of earshot," he says desperately. "Cam..."

Cam holds his hands out in a gesture of surrender. He doesn't want to die here. He's not sure what else he can do.

John curses and disappears again. Cam sits down. He knows he ought to keep fighting, but he's exhausted and out of ideas, and he just wants to rest. He closes his eyes, just for a minute.

He hopes John comes back soon.

Cam wakes up to the sound of voices calling his name. He opens his eyes, and sees a face peering through the gap at the top of the entrance.

"Colonel! Colonel Mitchell! Are you okay, sir?"

"Yeah," Cam says. He draws in a deep breath, too tired to be excited. "I'm fine. Could use some water, though."

"Yes, sir." The face--Lieutenant Fischer--disappears, and returns a moment later to lower down a fresh canteen.

"We'll have you out of there soon, sir. We can't blast the rocks when you have no cover, so we'll have to bring in some machinery."

"I'll wait," Cam says, raising the canteen in thanks. The face disappears again.

He expects John to return now that Search and Rescue has shown up, but there's no sign of him, so Cam spends the next few hours alone as machines are brought in to crush and shift and move rocks until there's finally a space big enough for him to scramble out.

People begin applauding when he emerges. His teammates surround him, slapping his shoulder and offering support as he limps over the rubble and away from the cave. Someone tries to guide him to the waiting stretcher, but Cam pulls away, eyes drawn up the path where he sees John waiting...and talking to Carolyn Lam.

"We tried to send him back to Earth, sir, but he insisted on waiting here until you were out," Fischer says beside him, following his gaze.

"You can see him," Cam says in amazement. He doesn't hear Fischer's response, because John's already picking his way through the rocks toward him. John stops in front of him, smiling, and Cam reaches out a tentative hand that connects with solid flesh. He runs his hand down John's arm, still disbelieving, then breaks into a smile, and pulls John into a hug.

"What happened?" he asks as he pulls back. "How did you come back?"

John shakes his head. "I don't know. I was following the searchers, screaming at them to come back, and then suddenly they heard me and turned around."

"He just appeared out of the middle of nowhere," Choi says, grinning. "Ferretti nearly jumped out of his skin."

"We need to get you both back to the infirmary," Lam says. "We can figure things out there." She urges Cam toward the stretcher and this time he goes with her, still smiling. John refuses the offer of a stretcher, instead opting to walk beside Cam as they make their way to the truck.

"I felt like I was close to understanding at the end," John says. "Like all I had to do was make one more leap, and I'd know...everything."

"Instead you ended up back here," Cam says, finally understanding. He wonders if John regrets the lost opportunity, passing up his chance at ascension.

"Instead I ended up back here," John agrees, smiling, and the feel of his fingers brushing against Cam's is the sweetest thing Cam's ever known.