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“This is patently unfair,” Dean said as he and Miko handed off their secure case of magical water samples to a lowly airman who had no idea what was in the case but was under strict orders to make sure it was delivered to Cheyenne Mountain immediately. “Team Carter gets a mission in Hawaii and we’re getting shipped out to A-stan?”

“At least Afghanistan is warm this time of year,” Vala offered. “That’s where Afghans come from, right? Like the kind Mitchell used to make.” She watched Dean and Evan closely. How they’d managed to keep their relationship a secret for as long as they had was impressive. It had been less of a secret, that Evan and Cam were sweet on each other.

Evan had been pretty wrecked when Cam died, though in his own special Evan sort of way, which mostly meant wearing no colors and being terribly efficient and clean around the Bunker and making all kinds of tasty things. How well would Rodney and John keep their relationship quiet?

“Well, afghans don’t come from Afghanistan,” Sam said. “But in the 1700s, when knitted and crocheted and otherwise yarn-made blankets became a household item, Afghanistan was the yarn and textile capital, so the name just kinda stuck.”

Dean stared at him.

Sam hunched his shoulders, defensive. “What? I listened when Cam talked, unlike you.”

Dean glanced at Evan, but Evan didn’t flinch at the sound of Cam’s name like he had before. Before Dean, Vala realized.

The little airman ducked out, secure case in hand.

“What’s in Hawaii?” Miko asked.

Rodney didn’t look any more pleased at the notion of going to Afghanistan than Dean did. “Fire. From a volcano, or rather, a volcano goddess.”

“Then what’s in Afghanistan?” Vala asked.

“Also fire,” Rodney said. “From an ifrit.”

Sam nodded slowly. “Possibly a class of infernal spirit, inhabiting shadows and caves, or the underworld. Also a kind of revenge-spirit, born from the blood of a murder victim. The infernal spirit types can be dismissed by a prayer, like a regular demon - although it’s a prayer in Arabic. The exorcizamus te wouldn’t work. A du’a, I think it’s called. I can get a transliteration queued up, maybe even a recording to be safe.”

Vala had worked very hard to learn all the lore she knew, but she would never know it the way Sam and Dean did. They’d grown up learning lore the way Vala had grown up learning to dance and cook and make rope and flint arrowheads.

Dean added, “Driving an unused nail into the blood of a murder victim is supposed to stop the formation of an ifrit. Could be useful in other contexts.” When Sam shot him a look, he said, “I boned up up some Middle Eastern lore in case I got shipped out there.”

Cam, Evan, and John had had regular military careers before joining Project Orion, but Sam had been recruited into it before he’d even finished college and received his commission. Dean had been in officer candidate school when he and Sam had both been recruited - in the wake of Sam’s girlfriend’s death by demon, which Rodney and his team had been sent to investigate. Vala knew Evan had been a cargo pilot and also a surveyor, helping teams of engineers dig about in places. She knew John had been a helicopter pilot and his helicopter had been brought down by gremlins. What was with gremlins and military pilots, anyway?

John was the last to arrive in the hangar office. Once again he’d been dealing with the base commander and other higher-ranking officers, smoothing the way for them to make it onto a transport on rather short notice.

“Everyone packed up and ready to go?” He rested his duffel bag briefly on the edge of a desk, hitched the strap higher on his shoulder. “Dean - you need something to get you through the flight?”

Dean slewed a glance at Evan. “Nah, I’m good.”

John nodded. “Let’s move out.”

John Sheppard was handsome on a bad day. On a good day, when he was being all military and authoritarian, he was unfairly sexy. Of course, all the men on Vala’s team were ridiculously handsome. There were worse teams to be on.

“Ready to get back home?” John asked Rodney quietly, heading for the door. “Inasmuch as the bus is home.”

“Not home, actually,” Rodney said. “Afghanistan.”

John went still. “What’s in Afghanistan?”

“Fire.”

John’s jaw clenched, and he stared into the distance for a moment. Then he nodded. “All right. Orders are orders. Bagram or Kandahar?”

“Kandahar,” Rodney said.

“I was stationed at Bagram,” Evan said quietly to Dean.

Once again they were going to be flying with some airmen who didn’t have clearance for Project Orion, so they had to do a bit of juggling and rearranging so the entire team could sit mostly together and converse with one another if needs be. John, Sam, and Dean were all back in their uniforms, and once again John was the ranking officer, and he didn’t hesitate to pull rank so the team could be seated together as much as possible, which meant he was sitting with Rodney, Dean was sitting beside Evan, and Sam was sitting with Miko.

Vala didn’t mind sitting next to the Mundane airmen, as it were. She liked talking to them. As much as she liked her team - they were her family - she liked getting to know new people, even if briefly. So she plopped down beside a young-looking one - smooth-faced, still a bit narrow in the shoulders - and smiled.

“Hello, Lieutenant.” Sam had worked hard to teach Vala to recognize rank insignias on sight. The little lieutenant was what the others referred to as a butter-bar lieutenant, a second lieutenant the lowest-ranking commissioned officer. Sam had single silver bars to mark his rank - first lieutenant.

He turned to her, startled and a little wary, but because she was smiling, he smiled at her. “Carl Grogan,” he said, and offered a hand.

Vala shook it. “Vala Mal Doran.”

“You a civilian contractor?”

“Yes. I specialize in security systems and logistics. And yourself?”

“I graduated from The Academy,” Carl said. “Majored in Economics. This is my first overseas posting.”

“You nervous?”

Carl glanced at the airmen on the other side of him, but they were all asleep. Vala would always envy soldiers and their ability to just sleep. Across the way, John, Dean, Sam, and Evan were all asleep. Miko was poking at a handheld video game system.

“Little bit,” Carl admitted. “You?”

“I’ve never been to Afghanistan before,” Vala said, which was only partially true. Her body had been to literally every part of the Earth before - and some parts that were no longer accessible to ordinary humans - but she had only experienced a tiny fraction of the world while her body was still her own.

“But you’ve seen combat before?”

“I have.”

Carl smiled at her. “So, was it nice, being back in England to visit?”

Vala nodded. “Oh, yes. I mean, I live in the States these days, so I don’t get over here as much as I’d like, but I get over here whenever I can. What were you doing over here?”

“Just a brief training stopover for me,” Carl said. “Didn’t get out to see much.”

“That’s a shame,” Vala said. “England’s a lovely country, even at this time of year. So much history - and so much good food. People always say English food is terribly bland and boring, but if you know the right things to get, it’s delicious.”

Carl looked rueful. “I was stuck with the food on base.”

“Well,” Vala said, leaning in, tone conspiratorial, “next time you come through, you definitely want to try the Cornish pasties, the sausage rolls, the scones and clotted cream, the trifle - and the Irn Bru.”

“Irn Bru?” Carl asked.

“Orange soda. But not like anything you’ve ever tasted before.” Vala sat back. “Also, say what you want about English food, but English chocolate is - well. American chocolate is brown wax in comparison.”

Carl’s eyes lit up. “That’s true! I got this one candy bar out of a vending machine on base. Purple and yellow wrapper. A...Flake? I have a bunch in my pack. To get me through the hot days ahead.”

“At least you won’t be freezing anymore,” Vala said.

Carl shook his head. “Give me cold over heat any day. When you’re cold, you can bundle and bundle and bundle and get warm, but if you’re hot, well, there’s only so much you can take off before you’re naked and there’s still no relief to be had.”

“Well, there is a certain relief in being naked,” Vala offered, and Carl promptly blushed.

Vala laughed softly. “No need to be such a prude, Lieutenant. We’re all soldiers here.”

“I’m supposed to be an officer and a gentleman,” Carl said, looking a little discomfited.

“And you have done nothing ungentlemanly so far.” Vala patted his hand. “So, tell me, where in America are you from?”

Carl told her all about growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, going across the river to Iowa to learn jujitsu, wandering around Old Market, sledding down the hill at Memorial Park, getting tacos in South Omaha and pizza in North Omaha and toilet papering fancy houses in West Omaha.

Both of them had snacks in their pockets, and they ended up sharing, Vala’s Smarties (not like American smarties, more like M&Ms) and Carl’s sunflower seeds. Vala told Carl some stories about herself - mostly about her missions, carefully edited to avoid classified information - which Carl accepted gracefully, being a trained airman and all.

“What was your childhood like?” Carl asked. “I mean - how did you happen upon being a security consultant? Like - what major would even lead to that?”

Vala chose her next words carefully. “Well, I had a rather - nomadic childhood. As long as I did my daily chores and contributed to the household, I was quite free to wander about, so I developed something of an adventurous spirit, and I traveled quite a bit, expanded my cultural experiences. Didn’t go to college, though - everything I know I learned on the job.” She’d spent a couple of years learning to be a high-end thief after the team had freed her from Qetesh. Only after she’d attempted to steal a cursed artefact had their paths crossed again, and rather than go to prison, she’d agreed to join their team.

“That’s pretty cool,” Carl said. He glanced over his shoulder at the other airmen beside him, then across the way to where the entirety of Vala’s team had also fallen asleep. “Hey, listen, what’s it like, working with Major Sheppard?”

Vala blinked. “John? You’ve heard of him?”

Carl nodded.

“Well, I’ve been posted with him for a few months, but - he’s sort of like family, really. My whole team is. Why?”

“Is it true, what they say about him?” Carl eyed John with undisguised curiosity.

“I don’t know. What do they say about him?”

“They say he was the best chopper pilot in the skies over Kandahar, that he was the guy you wanted at the stick when you needed to take to the air.”

It was Vala’s turn to eye John. He slept with his head bowed. Rodney was slumped over onto his shoulder. Sam slept with his head tipped to the side. Dean slept with his head tipped back and his mouth open, snoring. Miko was propped up against Sam and looked to be the least likely to have an awful neck ache when she woke up.

“I’ve never actually flown with him,” Vala said.

Carl raised his eyebrows. “Really? What is it you -?”

“Classified, darling,” Vala said, and Carl ducked his head, nodded.

“Right.” He cleared his throat. “I heard he disobeyed a direct order, though.”

“I had heard that,” Vala said. “I heard he did it to rescue a fellow airman. Leave no man behind, right?”

Carl nodded. Then he cleared his throat. “You know that’s not always true. I mean - tactically. If you’ll lose more men than you’ll rescue -”

“I know,” Vala said, “but you all also work hard to bring a fallen soldier back, right? Repatriate his body so he can be buried on American soil?”

“True.”

“I once watched John jump into freezing water in the dead of winter to rescue some teammates who were going to drown,” Vala said.

“How did that turn out?”

“Well, all of my team is here, all fingers and toes accounted for.” Vala said, “It’s war out there, isn’t it?”

Carl nodded again, his expression solemn.

“I don’t want to fight, and I don’t want to die, but it’s easier to go out there, knowing someone like John is on my six.” Vala patted Carl’s hand gently. “You should feel better, knowing that men like John are in your Air Force.”

Carl flicked a glance at John. “I kinda do.”

“So,” Vala said, in a deliberate attempt to lighten the mood, “do you have a lovely lady waiting for you back home?”

Carl blushed. “Um, no. I mean, there was this girl, when I was at the Academy, we’d go out sometimes, but - she’s never going to write me or anything.”

“Well, until you have a girl of your own, I can write you.” Vala preened and posed. “I’ll even send you photos. Your friends will be jealous.”

“I’d like that,” Carl said, and he smiled. “That’s - thanks, Vala.”

“Anything for the US Air Force.” Vala winked at him. Then she nudged him. “You ought to sleep. We’ll all be boots on the ground soon enough.”

Carl nodded, still blushing, but then he closed his eyes and tipped his head back, and like that, he was out.

Vala studied him. He was so young, younger even than Sam. She wondered what Evan, John, and Cam had been like when they were that young, if they were afraid, if they had someone writing to them and sending them pictures. John had been married once, though who knew when or how long (save perhaps Evan). Would Cam and Evan even have had girls writing to them, being as they were?

Had Vala been born into this era, would she have loved a soldier, written him often, sent him pictures, waited for him to come home? Or would she be more as she was now, a soldier all her own? Would a boy or girl have written to her when she was young and fresh out of training, in a shiny new uniform?

Finally she closed her eyes and drifted off into dreams of Atlantis, of a city among the stars, of magic and science and mysteries unfolded. She hoped the sands of Afghanistan would bring them that much closer to their dream.

*

As it turned out, Kandahar in January wasn’t actually all that warm. It was certainly warmer than Glastonbury, which had mostly been freezing and more freezing. They landed in the late afternoon, so it was about fifty degrees by American reckoning. John said it’d get down to about freezing at night, though. Kandahar was dryer than Glastonbury by far. When John told her that this was the humid time of the year, Vala shuddered to think about what summer would do to her skin and hair. Although her hair was definitely less curly in the arid air.

Compared to Hill AFB, which was small and nestled at the foot of lovely snow-capped mountains, and RAF Lakenheath, which had been set in the middle of lovely green meadows and fields frosted and yellow in winter, Kandahar was - massive. Barracks and hangars and low, squat, uniform buildings as far as the eye could see. Vala scanned her surroundings - everything seemed to be the same shade of yellow-gray, like all living color had been drained out of the world - and knew she’d get lost if she wasn’t careful.

An airman in dusty desert fatigues rolled up beside the Hercules where Vala and the rest of the team were standing with their luggage in hand. He hopped out, made a beeline for John, saluted him.

“Major Sheppard, sir, Lieutenant Chang reports as ordered.”

John saluted him in return. He, Sam, and Dean had donned little military caps as soon as they’d stepped into the sunlight, and if Vala wasn’t careful, she’d lose them among all the other identical uniformed men.

“Lieutenant. You here to show us where we need to go?”

Chang nodded. “Yes, sir. Colonel Dixon asked me to escort you to him immediately.”

“And our gear?” John asked.

Chang paused, blinked, obviously unsure.

Because they were on a military base on what was essentially military soil, they were allowed to have all their usual weapons, and Central Command had informed them that they’d had some of their better weapons shipped over to be picked up.

Sam cleared his throat. “Sir, it should be ready for us after we’re done with the briefing with Colonel Dixon.”

John nodded. Even though Vala, Miko, and Rodney had been on a team with soldiers for, well, a long time, it was still a bit strange, to see them in being actual soldiers.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Winchester. Lay on, Lieutenant Chang.”

“Of course. This way, please.” Chang helped Vala, Miko, Rodney, and Evan get their gear into the back of the jeep, gave Miko and Vala hands up into the back. He went to help Rodney, but John said Rodney was the chief civilian officer in the unit and he’d be riding up front as well, so Sam, Evan, and Dean joined the rest of them in the back.

Vala had obtained Carl’s official mailing address from him before the plane landed, so she handed her phone to Miko and said,

“Take some pictures of me. Make me look sexy.”

Miko, who had accepted the phone, paused. “What? Why?”

“To send to a lonely airman, of course.” Vala tilted her head and pouted.

Evan said, “You should send him at least one of the pictures of you in the hippie outfit.”

Miko snapped a few photos, but then Evan said, “Let me. This light is difficult to work with, especially given the angle you’re shooting from,” so Miko handed him Vala’s phone.

“By the way,” Vala said, “who’s Colonel Dixon? I mean, apart from Team Carter-O’Neill, Team Ferretti, and Team Edwards, I’ve never met any other Colonels.”

“Colonel Dave Dixon,” Evan said, “is one of the project liaisons we have in place on bases all around the world. It’s how we get leads on something like what we’re after here. He also keeps an eye out for possible new recruits for the project.”

Vala nodded. “Okay. So he knows what we’re looking for?”

“Well, he doesn’t know about the endgame, most likely,” Evan said. “But he knows to keep an eye out for things that are up our alley.”

Out the windows, Vala could see that the base was similar to others she’d been on, in that there were people in uniforms everywhere, and everyone had a purpose - they were running or fixing things or checking on things or having intense discussions as they walked from building to building. Did professional soldiers never have fun? Probably not on base, at any rate. That was what leave was for.

The jeep trundled along a dusty road that had barely any traffic, past rows upon rows of identical hangars to some more boxy-looking buildings that had windows and looked like offices. They also had more vehicles parked in front of them. Lieutenant Chang parked at the end of a row of identically dusty jeeps and cut the engine. He hurried around back to help people out, but Miko and Vala had already vaulted over the tailgate by the time he got there.

“You can leave your things here,” Chang said. “No one will take them. I’ll be transporting you to your barracks after the briefing is complete.”

John nodded, and the team followed Chang into the building. They passed an open space where people in uniforms were doing clerical work - so much paper and writing, for the digital age - and headed for an office in the back.

As they drew nearer to the office, they heard voices, voices that grew louder and louder the closer they got. Vala craned her neck, curious. A man and a woman, arguing. Drama was always a fine way to start the day.

“ - Safety and security of the men and women on this mission,” the man was saying. “I refuse to compromise that short of orders from General O’Neill himself, and since his orders were that this mission maintain classification, you don’t get to ride along. You can take the next one.”

“You’ve been saying that for three weeks. This is the first mission that’s come up that’s even come close to the security level I’m supposed to review. I am not riding the pine,” the woman snapped. “If I have to get on the phone to the Pentagon, I will, but some paltry one-star is not going to trump my orders from the Secretary of Homeland Security.”

Colonel Dave Dixon was tall, didn’t look much older than John. He was handsome enough with even features, military-short brown hair, and brown eyes. He also looked incredibly frustrated.

The woman he was having words with was shorter than Vala but taller than Miko and wearing an impeccable black dress suit, expensive pearls, and expensive and stylish yet sensible black pumps. She had dark brown hair tied up in a French twist, and even though every single strand of hair was in place, she looked utterly out of place in the dusty, dim office.

Dixon snatched the receiver off his desk and held it out to her. “Go ahead. Make that call.”

The woman snatched the receiver from him and tucked it between her ear and shoulder, dragged the phone closer and stabbed at the number pad.

Dixon swallowed hard, then turned. “Yes?”

“Sir,” Chang said, “I brought Major Sheppard and his team straight here.”

“Give us a minute, Lieutenant. Get the good Major and his team some coffee.” Dixon went to close the door, then paused, smiled. “Captain Lorne.”

Evan inclined his head politely. “Retired now, sir. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“Retired, but still with the program?” Dixon asked.

Evan nodded.

“I thought you’d be up for a promotion by now - spot on O’Neill’s team?”

“I’ve been given the honor of still serving with Dr. McKay,” Evan said, “and now Major Sheppard.”

Evan was scrupulously polite at the best of times. Seeing him be military polite was almost painful.

The woman lifted her head, startled, and said, “John?”

Vala immediately nudged Miko, but Miko shook her head. She didn’t recognize the woman.

“Nancy,” John said, and he sounded a little strangled.

Dixon raised his eyebrows. “You two know each other?”

“John and I were married,” Nancy said.

Vala looked at Rodney. He looked poleaxed.

Nancy cleared her throat. “What are you doing here?”

“Mission,” John said.

Nancy looked at Dixon. “This is the mission you’re running next?”

“That’s classified,” Dixon said.

Nancy looked John up and down. “You’re looking good, John.”

“Thanks.” John inclined his head politely. “So are you. Still with Homeland Security?”

“I’m a director now.” Nancy cast Dixon a pointed look.

“Congratulations.” John’s expression was tense. “How’s Greg?”

Nancy winced. “Grant. He’s the lead AUSA in his district now.”

“Sounds like he’s doing good.”

“Yes, he’s doing good.”

The tension in the air was palpable. Vala wondered if she reached between John, Nancy, and Rodney and poked, the tension would pop.

“Sorry I didn’t make it to Patrick’s wedding,” Nancy said.

“He appreciated your gift. Very thoughtful.”

Vala was pretty sure that this polite, frosty, stilted exchange would have been perfectly at home in an Austen novel. Cam had advised her to read all of them, and he and Evan had been kind enough to sit through a couple of the movie versions with her. Vala sort of wished she had tea and scones, because they were better than popcorn, and this scene was definitely popcorn-worthy.

Nancy smiled, her expression a little wistful. “Your father has always been very good to me.”

“Well, in his mind, marrying you was the best thing I ever did,” John said.

Nancy winced. Sam, Miko, and Evan winced. Dean had a sudden coughing fit. Rodney’s face was very pale.

John addressed himself to Dixon, saluted.

Dixon saluted him back. Then he offered a hand. “Colonel David Dixon. Friends call me Dave.”

“Sir,” John said, “Major John Sheppard.”

“Glad you made it,” Dixon said. “Hopefully this will be a run-of-the-mill salt-and-burn, as it were. Get some coffee, and then I’ll brief you on the op.”

“Thank you, sir. This is my team - Evan Lorne you already know.”

“And Dr. McKay.” Dixon nodded at Rodney, who nodded back, still pale.

“Captain Dean Winchester, United States Marine.”

Dixon raised his eyebrows. “Marine?”

“Semper Fi, sir,” Dean said, grinning.

“Lieutenant Sam Winchester, also Air Force.”

“Any relation?” Dixon looked back and forth between them.

“Brothers, actually,” Sam said, expression rueful.

“Dr. Miko Kusanagi,” John continued, and Miko shook Dixon’s hand.

“And Vala Mal Doran, also a civilian contractor.”

Vala beamed at Dixon and offered her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Colonel.”

Judging by the way Dixon’s gaze flickered over her, he was aware of her history.

John added, “And this is Nancy Sherman.”

Vala smiled brightly at Nancy and fluttered her fingers. “Hi!”

“So,” Dixon said, “coffee, and I’ll sort things out with Director Sherman here.”

John nodded. “We appreciate it, sir.” He lifted his chin, and Vala, who’d been bringing up the rear, immediately backed up.

She cast about for a coffee machine, but Chang shuffled past the rest of the team and led them to the break room. He helped them find mugs to use, made sure they all had at least half a mug full, and set a fresh pot brewing.

“What is your ex-wife doing here?” Rodney asked in a low voice.

John’s shoulders were tight. “I have no idea.” He sipped his coffee. “Won’t affect the mission, though. We get in, we get out. Same as last time.” He glanced at the rest of them, and they nodded.

They went through three rounds of coffee, Chang darting back and forth to Dixon’s office, before it was time for their briefing.

Nancy Sherman swept out of the office, expression professionally blank but fury snapping in her gaze, and Vala made sure to close the door securely behind them.

Since Chang was no longer in the office, they could speak freely. Dixon spread a map out on his desk.

“We’ve been receiving reports of sightings of an ifrit,” Dixon said. “At first it was just from the locals. Sometimes the insurgents spread rumors of the presence of some kind of malevolent supernatural creature to keep locals away from a training ground or firing range or camp.”

John nodded.

“Some of our people have reported seeing the ifrit as well - or at least some kind of humanoid figure made of fire.”

Sam and Dean exchanged glances.

“Some ghosts can appear in flames,” Dean said.

Getting rid of a ghost was a simple task, so long as they could locate all of the ghost’s mortal remains to purify and dispose of them. Out here, in the desert, which was sort of covered with the scattered remains of soldiers and civilians and insurgent fighters alike, combating a ghost would be much harder.

“We’ve got a body count,” Dixon said. “Just locals so far. All burned to death.”

“Send us pictures and autopsy reports,” Miko said, and Dixon nodded.

“We’ve mapped the entire area of the sightings, even the outliers.” Dixon tapped the map.

John traced the dotted line marking the sightings and deaths. “I know the area pretty well. We’ll handle it. We’ll need some supplies from you, though.”

“Anything to protect my men and women from bad juju,” Dixon said.

“We’ll need a crate of unused nails,” John said, “lighter fluid, and the assistance of a local.”

“A local?”

“Preferably the religious kind. We need a prayer on tape.”

“Right on.” Dixon folded up the map, handed it to John. “How long do you need?”

“We all slept on the flight,” John said, “but we could use some prep. Need to check our gear, make sure we have the weapons we need. And - whatever list of fatalities you can rack up, for the sighting zone. In case it is a ghost.”

Dixon frowned. “That’s going to take a hot second.”

“You can put some of my people on it, if that helps,” John said.

“However many you can spare would be great. Chang can help out.”

John scanned his team. “Rodney, Miko, Sam, Evan - you’re on deck to help Chang. Dean, Vala, you’re with me.”

They all nodded obediently. John handed the map off to Evan, told him to get started. Chang would show them to their weapons and then to their temporary barracks, and then he’d join them.

Vala was a little disturbed at John’s casual appropriation of Chang, but where Chang was a lieutenant and John was a major, Chang had to obey orders from John - so long as they didn’t conflict with orders from Dixon. Vala assured Miko that she’d make sure Miko could bunk closest to her, and then she followed Chang out to the jeep.

Where Nancy Sherman was waiting.

“John,” she said, starting toward them.

At a look from John, Dean, Vala, and Chang went to rearrange people’s luggage in the back of the jeep and otherwise make themselves look busy to give John and his ex the illusion of privacy.

“John, you have to let me ride along with you.”

“What? No.”

“The Secretary of Homeland Security sent me to assess operational efficiency of top secret-level operations,” Nancy said. “I was given very specific criteria about the type of mission I’m supposed to observe, and in my three weeks here, yours is the first one to meet that criteria.”

“The Secretary of Homeland Security isn’t my boss. General O’Neill is. Under no circumstances will a civilian compromise my team’s op sec.” John’s tone was unyielding.

Nancy sucked in a sharp breath. “You know, this is so typical.”

“How? How is this typical? I never took you with me in the field before, and I’m not about to start now.”

“You always put your job before people. Before your own family, before your wife.”

Vala flinched. Dean looked sympathetic. Chang looked like he desperately wanted to be somewhere else.

“Well, I don’t have a wife,” John snapped.

“And whose fault was that?”

“You were the one who filed, not me.”

“You hadn’t even tried to be a husband for months and you know it.”

“I was trying.”

“You wouldn’t talk to me!”

“About what, Nancy? Look where you are, what you’re doing. How much of this can you tell Greg?”

“Grant.”

“Say I take you out there in the desert with me. Say we cross into enemy territory, we shoot some guys, we blow some guys up, we hopefully find what it is we’re supposed to find. What are you going to tell Grant? What a man looks like when he dies? How mama really does sound the same in any tongue? How the smell of blood from your first kill takes days to fade from your nostrils?”

“I’m not a child, John.”

“I’ve never treated you like one. But you’re not a soldier, either.”

“I have the necessary clearance.”

“Op sec isn’t about keeping secrets, about making things inconvenient. It’s about security. You’re not trained. On a mission like this, you’re dead weight. I’m not putting my team’s lives at unnecessary risk when they have to split their focus between the mission and protecting you.”

“I’ll stay back in the jeep, monitor the radio chatter.”

Chang’s shoulders were practically up around his ears. He had unfastened and re-fastened Evan’s duffel bag nearly a dozen times. Dean had given up pretending to be busy, had bowed his head and was staring at his shoes, waiting for his next order.

Vala checked her cell phone. Once again Miko had done some serious tech magic to make sure they all had mobile data and could use their phones as radios to stay in contact.

John said, softly, “No.”

“Is it because it’s me? If it were Brenda or Heidi or anyone else at Homeland, would you have said no?” Nancy’s voice was equally soft.

“If it were anyone else, I’d have said hell no and had Lieutenant Chang escort them to the brig till my op was done.”

“You didn’t used to be like this. What happened? You’re so - lost.”

John huffed. “You have clearance. You want to see my SRB, look it up.”

“Your SRB is black and white. Politics.”

“Those are rarely black and white.”

“Whoever writes your SRB doesn’t know why you became a pilot, why you’ve always chased the stars. I know you, John.”

“Not like you think you do.”

“I know where this mission is supposed to go down, in the same zone where you lost Lyle, where your chopper went down -”

“You don’t know anything, Nancy. Stop playing games with me. I’m tired of it.” John cleared his throat. “Lieutenant, Captain, Vala, let’s go.”

Chang spun around. “Sir, yes, sir!” He practically leaped into the driver’s seat, fired up the engine. Vala hoisted herself onto the bench and slid into the middle so John could sit beside her, leaving Dean to ride in the back.

Nancy stepped back from the jeep and watched it pull away, expression grim and determined.

Vala hadn’t been included in the joint op to investigate John Sheppard’s chopper crash. Rodney had taken Sam, Dean, and Evan with him to Afghanistan with Daniel Jackson, Sam Carter, and Teal’c Chulak, leaving Miko and Vala behind to help break in Jennifer Hailey and Carolyn Lam on a good old-fashioned salt-and-burn. Surely the rest of the team was familiar with the circumstances of John’s chopper crash, knew what this mission would mean to him. It had only been a few months since John had been back here.

John stared out the window, saying nothing.

At the logistics office where their weapons had been delivered, one of the airmen recognized John, saluted him respectfully, expressed surprise to see him again. John informed him, shortly, that he’d moved on to a new posting, had business in the area, wouldn’t be staying long. The airman had nodded, eyes wide, said he understood.

It was Dean who told Vala, softly, under cover of helping her load weapons into the back of the jeep, that the airman had been one of John’s regular chopper mechanics. Dean remembered interviewing him.

Their team was bunking in what had been an empty barrack for the duration of their stay, which gave them lots of room to spread out.

Vala put Miko’s suitcase on the bunk beside hers, and then each bag of weapons got its own bunk as well. John and Dean would head off base together with a local interpreter to get a recording of a du’a and also source some lamb’s blood while Vala figured out what weapons everyone would need. Vala considered insisting on going with them, but she’d have to cover her hair and a bunch of other things she didn’t want to do, and someone did need to handle the weapons, so she agreed to stay behind.

Anti-ghost supplies in one kit: shotgun, shovels, salt, salt-loaded shotgun shells, consecrated iron weapons, lighter fluid, lighters. Anti-ifrit supplies in another kit: palo santo stakes, silver blades, holy water, holy oil, some jars of lamb’s blood that John and Dean would have to source from the locals, and unused nails.

Vala would have to source those nails from somewhere on base.

John and Dean had taken Chang with them to find an interpreter, and Vala had no way to call for Chang, so she texted Miko for help. Colonel Dixon had requisitioned a supply of unused nails. Vala would have to go collect them. It took Vala a moment to suss out the meaning behind the directions Miko had sent, but finally she figured them out, and so she snagged her jacket, an empty weapons bag - empty after she’d shuffled weapons around - and set off.

She supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised that she ran into Nancy Sherman, although this time Nancy was wearing an olive tank top and khaki cargo pants and could be mistaken for a soldier of some sort.

“Vala Mal Doran,” Nancy said, falling into step beside her.

“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.” Cam had taught Vala all manner of strange modern American idioms. Some of them made zero sense but rolled off the tongue delightfully.

“You’re a thief.”

“And a good one, if I do say so myself.”

Nancy looked surprised.

Vala arched an eyebrow at her. “You think my superiors are unaware of the nature of my previous employment? My skills are useful, in my current employment. And legal. More or less.” She kept on walking, occasionally pausing to check her phone and remind herself of Miko’s coordinates.

“Before you were a thief, you were no one,” Nancy said.

Vala shrugged. “Not that you could find.”

“Come on,” Nancy said. “One woman to another. You know what it’s like - they give you a promotion with an impressive title and then stick you with a dead-end assignment, like being trapped in the armpit of the world with little to no hope of completing the assignment in a timely fashion, far from family and friends.”

“My family and friends are always available to me. Just a phone call away.” Vala waggled her phone for effect.

“Look, all I need to do is get enough data from this op that I can write a report and a coherent eval, and then I get to go home, to my husband. Don’t you have someone you want to go home to?”

“Home is where the heart is,” Vala said loftily. “And my heart is with my team.” And sometimes somewhere else, but that was neither here nor there, or so the saying went.

Finally, Nancy said, “Fine. Your loyalty to your team and your mission is commendable. This mission is going to be rough on John. Take care of him, all right?”

Vala said, firmly, “We take care of each other.” But she would keep an eye on John.

Nancy continued, “John’s always been a little lost. Just a - a lost boy.”

That was hardly how Vala would describe her teammate and sort-of commanding officer. “However lost he might have been before, he’s found us.”

Nancy smoothed a hand over her belly absently. “I’m glad he’s found something, then.” She looked Vala up and down. “Or someone?”

Vala laughed. “No. Not me. Never me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to pick up some supplies.”

Nancy nodded and slowed down, let Vala carry on alone.

The engineers in the workshop that was the destination of the coordinates Miko had sent to Vala were unamused by Vala’s extensive quizzing about the history of the nails they were giving her. Were they sure that none of them had been used? Vala needed virgin nails. Some of them looked a bit rusted. This was the desert. Why would any of them be rusted? They’d better give her a double batch, and she’d pick all the rusted ones out if she had to. Better safe than sorry.

“Better safe than sorry for what?” the mechanic asked.

Another mechanic said, “Colonel Dixon’s orders, Finn.”

Vala loaded up the original supply of nails, an extra, smaller carton, and then wended her way back to the barracks.

Just how tough would this mission be for John?

*

John and Dean returned to the barracks with lamb’s blood and recordings of several prayers, which Dean immediately sent to everyone else’s phones so anyone could fire one up in a pinch. Vala decanted the lamb’s blood into smaller containers so everyone could have a supply, should they need it. Sam and Dean knew, from prior hunting experience, that a silver knife dipped in lamb’s blood would end a djinn, and some said ifrits were a variety of djinn, so having silver knives and lamb’s blood to hand could be useful. Better safe than sorry and all that.

The rest of the team was still compiling a list of possible ghost sources. John told them all to take a break. They’d had to actually buy a lamb from a local farmer to get the lamb’s blood. The butcher had been decent enough to capture the lamb’s blood when he slaughtered it, so they were having lamb for dinner that night, special team dinner.

Evan shrugged off his jacket, took off his waistcoat, removed his tie, rolled up his sleeves, and even put on an apron. Lieutenant Chang somehow found them a barbecue and other supplies to make fire-grilled lamb. Since they were going to have an extravagant meal - seasoned lamb, pita bread, saffron rice, grilled tomatoes, and rose-flavored drinks - they invited Colonel Dixon to dine with them.

For a man who outranked all of them, he was friendly and cheery and not at all stern, unlike Ferretti and Edwards and some of the other colonels Vala had worked with, though Vala remembered O’Neill’s sarcasm and humor and how it was a facade for something sharper, more dangerous. Dixon regaled them with tales of his four children, and some of his own antics as he was coming up through the ranks. Despite having been stationed at Kandahar for most of his tours, he’d never run into John, though he’d heard about what had happened. He offered his sincerest apologies to John, for the death of his friend, Captain Lyle Holland.

“I heard about Mitchell, too,” Dixon said, mostly directing himself to Rodney. “Damn shame.”

“Cam’s death wasn’t in vain,” Sam said. “We learned, and we learned some more, and now all military-issue craft come standard with anti-gremlin wards, so.”

They must have learned some more in the wake of John’s crash.

John glanced at Evan. “You mean Major Mitchell -?”

“Was on a regular flight exercise, to maintain his cert, get his annual hours,” Evan said. “Gremlins attacked his squadron. He unleashed some mojo, to get them to focus on him.”

Dean added, “They tried to write it off as pilot error, but in the end it went down as a mechanical failure.”

Dixon’s expression was grim. Then he smiled at Miko. “So, how did you end up with these ruffians?”

Miko said, “I was better at shooting things than Bill Lee.”

Everyone burst out laughing.

“It’s true, though,” Evan said, and there was more laughter.

Then it was time to get back to the research.

By the time the sun had gone down, they’d compiled the best list possible about who the ghosts could be, personnel and locals alike, not including anyone who’d died after ifrit sightings had begun. In addition to the list of names, they had information about where all the locals were buried, and also where each person had died.

Of course, there was every chance that the ghost belonged to someone who’d died long before anyone started keeping records.

Vala wasn’t sure if she hoped they were dealing with an actual ifrit or a ghost.

The entire team was fitted out in tac gear, desert camo uniforms, body armor, tac vests, P-90s for Sam, Dean, John, Evan, and Vala, pistols all around, plus their comm system and their hunting weapons and phones. Colonel Dixon would be patched in to their comms in the event that they needed back-up. For obvious reasons, though, they couldn’t have a team of Marines with them from the outset.

All of them were wearing helmets, had been outfitted with body cams for research purposes, be it ghost or ifrit they encounter. Chang gassed up a jeep, gave them the keys, and then scurried away.

John had them all do comm checks before they set out, and they coordinated with Dixon, made sure he had a read on the feed from their body cams, and then it was time to go.

Sam had the wheel, John in the middle, Dean riding shotgun. Vala and Evan were guarding their six while Rodney and Miko huddled in the middle, operating a thermal scanner, alert for any signs of a flaming ifrit. They all had IR goggles, but given that the ifrt burned bright, no one was wearing them till John instructed.

They were patrolling the perimeter of the known sighting area, a space northwest of Kandahar proper, at the foot of some mountains over a flat, mostly uninhabited place. The locals deemed the place relatively safe, but the mountains were riddled with caves, and where there were caves, there were -

Dean shouted, “Incoming!”

Sam swore. The jeep swerved.

Vala’s world turned upside down and burst into flames.

For one moment, her world was nothing.

Then it was - fire. Broken glass. Shouting. Colonel Dixon in her ear. John in her ear. Miko beside her.

Miko. Vala heaved herself up on her hands and knees. The jeep was on its side. Quick check - no pain. Vala could move all her limbs. No trouble breathing. No real injuries. Miko looked half-conscious, dazed. Vala grabbed Miko under the armpits and dragged her out of the fallen jeep.

Evan was crawling out of the jeep, towing Rodney with him.

The ground was on fire. The jeep was not.

“What the hell happened?” Dixon demanded.

“RPG,” John said.

“From our two,” Evan said.

John clapped him on the shoulder. “Good quick thinking with that ward.”

And then gunfire burst from the distance.

Evan swore in a dozen different languages and threw up another ward. John ordered everyone to take cover behind the fallen jeep.

“The supplies,” Miko said, clutching her ribs. “We need the supplies.”

John, Sam, and Dean were returning fire while Evan maintained a shielding ward.

Vala tugged on Rodney’s arm. “Come on!” And she crawled back into the jeep. She handed the hunting kits to Rodney, and the crate of nails, and the smaller carton of nails, and once he was hunkered down with Miko and the supplies, Vala assessed the firefight, crawled into position beside Dean, and opened fire.

“What now, sir?” Dean asked.

“IR on,” John said, and Vala tugged her goggles into place.

Now the world wasn’t just chaos, burning desert scrub, and a storm of muzzle flashes. It was a dozen men on foot, charging toward them, guns blazing. One of them had an RPG launcher, paused, knelt. He was going to reload.

Vala aimed at him.

He toppled backward with a spray of blood before she could squeeze the trigger.

“Good shot,” John murmured, and Dean said, “Thank you, sir.”

“Do you need backup?” Dixon asked.

“Any time now, sir,” John said.

And then Vala went blind.

She squeezed her eyes shut, turned her head, wrenched her goggles away.

Dixon said, “Unholy shit!”

“It’s the ifrit!” Rodney said. “It’s here!”

Vala blinked rapidly to clear the bright afterimages away, and there, in the middle of the crowd of screaming, burning insurgents, was an ifrit. Ten feet tall, humanoid but for its curling ram horns, its blazing body. It was laying about, roaring, spewing fire onto the insurgents, and they were screaming.

The scent of burning flesh made Vala gag.

Dean reached out, curled a hand around Evan’s arm, and the ward that had been shielding them from insurgent gunfire blazed brighter. Stronger.

One by one, the insurgents went down in flames.

Miko and Rodney had been poking through everyone’s tac vest pockets, finding their silver knives and dipping them into lamb’s blood. They were all ready. Sam was the best at throwing knives. He would go first.

They watched as the ifrit turned toward them. It had cloven hoofs, ram legs, like some kind of fiery faun, and it wasn’t touching the ground. It drifted toward them, flames flickering and dancing across its iron-red skin.

But it stopped, well short of the ward Evan had cast.

“Lower it,” John said.

Evan obeyed, and the ripple of magic vanished.

“Remember the sylph,” Miko said softly, and John nodded.

He rose, hands raised in a gesture of surrender. “Mighty spirit,” he said, “we mean you no harm. We come seeking a simple boon, just a tiny measure of your flame.”

Sam, Rodney, and Miko had engineered their own version of an Olympic torch, to capture the flame and keep it burning perpetually till it was time to cast the spell.

John nodded at Rodney, and Rodney scrambled to fetch the torch jar.

The ifrit just hovered there, unmoving.

“In exchange for your boon,” John said, “we offer you fine wine -”

Miko had a bottle.

“Gold -”

Vala had donated some of her own personal hoard from her thieving days.

“And silk.”

Miko had donated some she’d planned on sewing into a kimono. She handed John the bottle, and he laid it slowly at the ifrit’s feet.

It lunged at him, blazing.

Only Sam’s quick reflexes and Evan’s quick magic saved John from being burnt alive. Evan cast a shield around John. Sam threw his knife.

The ifrit roared in fury, wrenched the knife out of its flesh, threw it right back at Sam. Sam dove out of the way.

Vala let loose with a water pistol full of holy water, because holy oil on a fiery being was a poor choice.

No effect.

Vala threw her silver lamb’s blood dagger.

Another roar of pain.

“No, wait,” Miko said, “maybe it’s just a misunderstanding! Don’t hurt it!”

“It nearly killed John,” Rodney snapped.

“Binding circle,” John ordered. “Now!”

They’d only talked through this, hadn’t actually done it. Vala scooped up a handful of nails, a mallet, and drove one into the ground. Beside her, Sam was doing the same, only in the other direction. Dean and Rodney joined in, and they were making a circle of unused nails, all around the ifrit. When the ifrit made a move toward a side of the circle that was incomplete, Evan menaced it with another silver dagger dipped in lamb’s blood.

Once the circle of nails was complete, Evan drew a complicated-looking ward in the sand in lamb’s blood, something in Arabic letters.

The entire time, Miko was holding the bundle of offerings and fretting, and John was clutching his P90, ready to open fire.

The ifrit roared and lashed against the edges of the binding circle, fire spiraling higher and higher, a column of flame, like something out of the Bible. Everyone backed away slowly, warily.

And then the ifrit lunged for John, broke through the circle. John hit the deck, and a gout of flame passed over him, right where he’d been standing.

Rodney fumbled for his phone, and a recording of a du’a spilled across the night air.

The ifrit froze. Stumbled. Actually sank to the ground. Sam started to play another du’a on his phone.

The ifrit - shrank. Its body literally shrank, collapsing in on itself, down, like an adult reversing into a child, the flames guttering, going out.

Dean fired up a third du’a on his phone.

The ifrit shrank more and more until it was - a man.

The size of an ordinary man. A man in a familiar military uniform. A ghost of a man, wreathed in the faintest flames.

He reached toward John. “Hey, Shep.”

John lifted his head. “Dutch?”

Vala didn’t recognize the name. And then she realized. Holland.

“Stop it - stop the prayers,” John said, and the others shut off their phones.

So it was a ghost after all, not an ifrit. Ghosts could manifest as non-human beings, then.

The ghost said, “Johnny,” and the expression on his face was sad, wistful, fond.

John’s gaze was fixed on the visage of his dead friend. “Holland -”

Lyle Holland smiled. “Hey.”

“What are you -?”

“They were the ones who shot me down. Shot you down, too.”

John’s eyes were wide, and he looked - agonized. “I didn’t come all this way just to leave you.”

“I know. Whatever happens, thanks for coming for me.”

And then Holland vanished, swallowed in flames, as the ifrit rose again.

Evan threw his knife.

Vala fired up a prayer.

The ifrit writhed and roiled, and Vala could see, amid the flashes of flame, the ghost of Lyle Holland.

“No - don’t! Stop it! You’re hurting him!” John pushed himself to his feet.

“He’s dead,” Vala said flatly. She turned her phone up louder.

John reached for her. She danced away, keeping her phone out of reach.

The ifrit collapsed in on itself once more, became Holland.

“Shep,” he said. “You gotta let me go.”

John turned to him. “Dutch -”

Holland threw back his head and roared, flame streaming from his eyes and mouth.

Rodney flicked lamb’s blood at him like some kind of infernal blessing, and Holland was human once more.

“Shep, please. Don’t make me stay like this. I’m finished. I’m done. My war is over. Please.”

John reached toward the soul of his dead friend. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

John’s eyes were wide and wet, his jaw clenched. “I’m sorry. I tried. I tried!”

“I know.” Holland reached out, and his fingers nearly brushed John’s.

John jerked back reflexively. He’d been burned.

Holland said, “Next two rounds in Kandahar. On me.” He turned to look at Vala. “You might have to help me out.”

For one moment, she was hypnotized by the fire dancing in his eyes. But then she nodded.

John was breathing fast and shallow, and any moment he was going to hyperventilate or pass out or, worse, cry. But then Holland turned to Rodney.

“Take care of him,” he said.

Rodney nodded dumbly, eyes wide.

Holland gestured to Sam. “Here.”

Sam unstoppered the container for the fire, and Holland leaned in, blew.

Fire streamed into the bottle, lit the fuel aflame, and Holland was nothing but a ghost once more.

“Goodbye, Shep.”

And then he was gone.

The world was dark.

“ - Hear me? Are any of your radios working?” Dixon’s voice broke the silence.

John took a deep, shuddering breath, tapped his radio. “We read you, Colonel. Sometimes magic interferes with the radios.”

“I’ve dispatched Marines to your location. Stay there.”

“Yes, sir,” John said, and he sounded exhausted.

Rodney caught Vala by the elbow, tugged her back toward the overturned jeep. He beckoned, and the others followed.

“Ow, let me go.” Vala twisted out of Rodney’s grip.

Rodney’s expression was grim. “This is the place where - where Holland died. Give John a moment, all right?”

Dean said, “He took down about a dozen armed Taliban before rescue teams reached him. All by himself. Guarded Holland’s body the entire time.”

John was kneeling in the sand, hand pressed to the ground, unmoving, eyes squeezed tightly shut.

Sam clutched the bottle of fire close, staring into the blue heart of the flame. He said to Dean, “Go get some more sterno. Don’t want it to go out.”

When Marines arrived, the flames from the ifrit attack and RPG blast had died down. Between Evan’s magic and the sheer strength of the entire team combined, they managed to heave the jeep back upright. Most of the windows were smashed and the body was dented. Dean, who was the team’s mechanic, said it looked mostly all right, nothing that a hammer and some paint couldn’t repair. He and Sam were tinkering under the hood when the first jeep full of Marines rolled in.

“Major Sheppard!” Lieutenant Chang was leading the Marines. He hopped out of the jeep and scurried over to John.

John had knelt quietly in the sand in the spot where Holland had died and died again. He rose, dusted himself off. “The worst of it is over, Lieutenant. Got some dead hostiles. Some of my people need checked by a medic - a few bumps and bruises when the jeep flipped. Otherwise we’re fine.”

Chang nodded, started toward the dead bodies.

John said, “You might want to rub some vaseline under your nose.”

Chang paused.

Vala knew she’d be tasting human ash for weeks. Miko and Sam made faces, too.

“There was a bit of a fire,” John said, and Chang blanched, but then he nodded, turned to the nearest Marine, started issuing orders.

That was the last John said, on the ride back to the base.

The Marines were looking at the team askance, because Miko and Rodney were scientists, Vala wasn’t particularly physically imposing, and apparently they’d been outnumbered nearly three-to-one, and they’d prevailed.

Except they hadn’t.

Holland had saved them.

They reported in to Dixon, turned in their gear, and Dixon told them they had twenty-four hours of libo before they had to ship back stateside for their next gig. Judging by the look on John’s face, he didn’t want to be in this place for another twenty-four hours, but he nodded, thanked Dixon, and then it was back to the barracks.

*

The next day, John was quiet. Rodney was quiet. Evan had instituted a round-the-clock flame-watching schedule, so someone always had possession of the ifrit flame and it was given more fuel on a regular basis. Miko, Sam, and Vala, in a fit of boredom, had decorated the torch-bottle to make it festive, mostly with paper accessories. They made an ifrit costume, with paper flames and curling horns. They made a Fantastic Four uniform, for the Human Torch. At Miko’s insistence, they also made cuter costumes, like a kitten, a bunny, and a fox.

Dean and Rodney refused to participate in the costume madness, but John would dutifully change the costume every time a fuel refill occurred. Even though Dean and Rodney refused to make costume changes for the ifrit flame torch bottle, they did at least submit to the photo shoot that Miko and Evan wanted to stage.

“It’s for posterity,” Miko said earnestly. “This could be one of the key ingredients to opening the stargate to Atlantis! We need to make a visual record of our history.”

Dean, posing with the bottle decorated with bunny ears, a cotton tail, and a pink nose, cast her an unimpressed look. “Because this is so historical and dignified.”

Vala huffed. “What makes you think history is always dignified?”

There were some officers on base who Evan had served with at Bagram, and they wanted to talk to him. Some of Dean’s friends from the Naval Academy and Sam’s friends from the Air Force Academy were stationed there as well, and they’d all gone out for drinks.

Rodney and Miko did their best to repair the broken thermal scanner. Vala made some casual inquiries, found out where Carl was bunking, and also found out where on base a girl could score a couple of bottles of beer.

And then she went to find John.

He was sprawled on his bunk, his laptop on his belly, poking away at his AAR.

Vala leaned against the bunk frame, hands in her pockets. “We’re in Kandahar,” she said.

“I know.”

“You are owed two rounds of beer.”

“You don’t have to -”

“I want to. C’mon. I know a place.”

“So do I.” John closed his laptop, set it aside, rolled onto his feet. He tugged on his jacket and grabbed his cap, and he led Vala out of the barracks.

There was no drinking on base, so they borrowed a jeep, headed off-base to a bar that was frequented by American military personnel. Vala had the currency of the realm - a bright smile and cold hard cash - and she bought the first round, bottles for both of them.

John had picked up the habit from Sam and Dean of opening bottles with the back edge of his knife. He drew his knife, popped the cap off the bottle. The cap rattled on the bar top and John flattened his palm over it, stopped it, set it aside.

Vala, however, had a bottle opener on her keychain, which she used to open her own beer. They clinked bottles.

“To another mission survived,” John said.

“I’ll drink to that.” Vala took a cautious sip. She wasn’t much fond of beer, not the way Dean and Sam were. She liked finer things, like wine and champagne.

John took a long pull from his bottle, then rested it on his knee, rolling it between his palms.

Vala said nothing. They didn’t have to talk. John wasn’t a talker, and Vala didn’t know what to say anyway.

John took another sip of his beer and said, “I met Lyle Holland at flight school.” He sipped again.

Vala nodded for him to continue.

“We were playing this stupid game in the mess hall after hours. Zoomies and Babes. For all the new guys. One guy collects pictures of everyone’s girl - girlfriend or wife or otherwise - and shuffles them up. Lays them on the table. And some other guy has to guess which girl is whose. So I put my picture of Nancy in the mix, and this combat zoomie named Ferguson, he starts making matches. He puts Nancy in front of Holland, and Holland nods, smiles, like the guy’s got it exactly right. I ended up with someone’s sister, and at the end of it, it turns out Holland doesn’t even have a babe. He just claimed mine. And he said - he said, You’re damn lucky, with a woman like waiting for you back home. Had to claim her though. Scrub like you doesn’t deserve her. You with that hair. And I said, If you think you could hold onto her, I’d buzz my hair to see you try.”

Vala sipped at her beer.

John picked at the edge of the label on his bottle. “I lost Nancy, out here in the desert sands. Lost Mitch and Dex and finally Dutch, too. When I saw those gremlins, I thought I’d lost my mind.” He looked at Vala.

She looked back at him.

“They called me the best chopper pilot in Kandahar, but they were wrong. Some of the things Dutch could do at the stick - they threw us into sim scenarios, sometimes, ones where we were designed to fail. They were supposed to inoculate us to stress, get us to think, or get us to learn when to bail out. But he’d survive. That bastard would survive.” John chuckled to himself, and Vala leaned in, listened.

John talked for seemingly hours about all the fun times he’d had with his best buddy Dutch, with the guy he was supposed to look out for. Dutch and he and come up through the ranks together, but Dutch was a bit of a prankster, and John was a little more reserved, and so John got promoted below the zone. Dutch was up for promotion in the zone. Had he succeeded at the mission he had died on, he’d have gotten his bronze oak leaves, just like John.

After a while, John ran out of words, and he sat in silence, rolling his beer bottle between his palms and staring into nothing.

Finally Vala cleared her throat, flagged down the bartender. “I think it’s time for our second round.”

The bartender looked at John, but Vala shook her head, opened her mouth to tell him Second round’s on me.

Another woman beat her to it.

“Next round’s on me.”

John turned.

Vala turned.

Nancy stood behind them, hands tucked into the pockets of her cargo pants. John looked at her. She looked at him.

Vala slid off the barstool.

“See you back on base, John.” She patted him on the shoulder and then swept out of the bar. When she got back to the barracks, the rest of her team was asleep.

She didn’t sleep. She sat down on her bunk, opened her pack, found a pen and some paper, and started writing a letter to little Lieutenant Carl Grogan.