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Stop the Bleeding

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Will you kill what's left of me to stop the bleeding?

John Sheppard didn't hesitate stepping in front of Ellie when the guy charged. He'd followed her out of the bar because it was a shitty night of cold and snow flurries, the culmination of a shitty day – a shitty week, really – and Ellie and her bar had been the only good thing he'd found on this shitty planet, with her mutual fondness for Johnny Cash and college football. Ellie also poured a mean Kentucky Straight, her bar's specialty and the basis for its name, not that John had intended to get drunk.

Even though he deserved it.

Kentucky whiskey was a second good thing about this planet, not that he should be comparing planets any longer. And not that he'd known any differently as little as three and a half years ago. Back then he'd had no idea there even were other planets and people. He supposed, to be honest with himself, he wouldn't be minding being back here on the planet of his birth so much, if a couple of those 'other' people had been able to come with him. People and Atlantis herself, not that Earth deserved her, only the ungrateful bastards of Ancients who'd kicked him out deserved her even less.

Contemplating whether or not to get drunk at least beat sitting through more inquisitions disguised as debriefings from people who had no clue, and the night was definitely looking up with this opportunity to pound out a little of his on-going anger on this asshole who was hassling Ellie.

From somewhere behind him, John could hear Ellie talking to the 911 dispatcher as she explained that John's opponent was her ex, violating both his parole and a restraining order. That helped John feel less guilty in having busted the ex's nose upon stopping him from reaching Ellie, or from putting the guy down on the ground, his face and a couple of other places bleeding into the snow bank and turning the yellow into red after they'd exchanged a few blows. Ellie's frantic warnings also told John that maybe her ex was a little more invested in something other than getting his ass kicked, so he wasn't really buying it when the guy stopped struggling and gave up in hopes of being let go.

John did let him go, though not before suggesting that Ellie go back inside. He was completely unsurprised when she didn't listen, nor when her ex pulled a knife and charged.

Had the ex managed to put up much of a fight from the start, John might have considered prolonging things since a good mix up was a lot more satisfying than even premium whiskey. The appearance of the knife changed things, however, and John wasn't about to put Ellie at risk. He stepped into the guy, blocking the first swipe, and got a punch into the ex's throat even as that left him open for a follow-through and the guy tagged John down his arm, from elbow to wrist in a cut deep enough that it might be a problem if the guy wasn't also doubling over and choking from having his air cut off. Grabbing the arm holding the knife next, John twisted, dislocating the ex's shoulder before he popped the ex's elbow with another punch, dislocating it too. The knife dropped, as did the guy to his knees. John followed him down, his own knee knocking the guy prone and back into the snow, before John dug in and grabbed both of the guy's arms.

"You're done," he warned, then turned to look over to Ellie. "If you've got any of those zip ties left over from putting up the light along the bar railing, I could use a few."

No doubt they'd be too small, even linked, to do the kind of job the security restraints he was use to, but he should at least be able to pin the guy's thumbs behind his back which should be enough to keep him compliant. Well, that, or a kick to the guy's head if he didn't stop threatening and struggling.

"It's over," John hissed again. "You keep this up and I'll do more than just put you down."

"You're dead, motherfucker! You don't mess with me. I know people, inside and out, and I'll find you. Kill you dead."

John leaned heavier and tugged the guy's arms upward until he yelped and started panting and groaning.

"Bring it on, asshole."

*******

Cam Mitchell had just sat down from bringing in the beers to go with the pizza Sam had brought with her when his cell rang with the Close Encounters ring tone, meaning it was from the SGC. As far as he knew, Jackson was still trying to convince O'Neill to let him help out with the Ancients in Atlantis, and Teal'c was off planet doing Free Jaffa stuff. Landry wasn't the type to call Cam's private line, so that left only Vala to have gotten into trouble. Just once Cam wanted to ignore his high maintenance team member, but as team leader he was responsible for her. He couldn't just let her stew or, worse, call Landry next because he'd ignored her.

The last time they'd lost track of Vala, she'd ended up slinging hash in a greasy diner, sans memories.

As if she'd read all of that in his expression, Sam leaned over to grab his cell and thrust it at him, her own expression one of gentle mockery. He scowled at her but flipped the phone open and answered: "Mitchell."

"Colonel?"

Not Vala, but Walter's night time counterpart, which might be more alarming.  He didn't know Sergeant Bersters even had Cam's private number. At least it was unlikely it was a alien based emergency; those calls came on a completely different line.

"My apologies for interrupting, sir, but we have a delicate situation here and I wasn't sure who else I should call," the sergeant was saying quickly, but without an underlying tone of panic.

Cam breathed out in relief; no duress phrase in the sergeant's statement – and an apology – so most likely not a foothold situation or other pending invasion. Which led Cam back to his first assumption, not that delicate was a word he associated with Vala Mal Doran. "What has Vala done now?" he asked without bothering to disguise the resignation in his voice, nor the renewed glare he shot Sam for her quiet laughter as she didn't even try to pretend to give him privacy.

Fine. She was so getting dragged along.

"Miss Mal Doran? Nothing. Well, nothing to my knowledge, although she did check out of the Mountain earlier this evening in the company of Colonel Dixon's team. But no, sir, I'm calling about Colonel Sheppard."

Hearing that Vala and Dixon were doing something together gave Cam another gut shot of panic and adrenalin, but Dixon matched him in rank and if he wanted to take over responsibility for their resident kleptomaniac alien friend, Cam was more than happy to let him.  He –

Wait a minute.

"Sheppard?"

As his brain caught up to reality over his assumptions, Sam matched Cam's involuntary coming to attention, all traces of amusement on her face fleeing. Last Cam had heard, Sheppard had split like the rest of the recently kicked out Atlantis expedition, sent on leave while Landry tried to figure out what he was going to do with the abrupt influx of unanticipated personnel.

"What's happened?" Cam asked.

"I'm not completely sure, sir," Sergeant Berster answered. "We received a forwarded call from a civilian looking to reach Major Lorne, claiming she was calling on Colonel Sheppard's behalf from a local bar. There has apparently been some sort of altercation and the colonel is being taken to the emergency room at Pikes. You, well, you're a lot closer than we are, plus I wasn't sure whether I should send out one of the MPs, one of Dr. Lam's people, or call the General, and –"

"No, you did right contacting me, Sergeant," Cam interrupted. God, Sheppard did not need Landry on his ass anymore than what was already going on between the two of them.  Cam couldn’t say he wouldn't have gone out first chance he'd gotten and ended up in some kind of drunken brawl himself, not if he'd lost his command like Sheppard had. Being kicked out by the very people you saved …

"She give you any details, or at least her name?" Cam asked as he got to his feet and headed for the bowl in the foyer that held his keys. He took a moment to twist and point to the pizza, the beer and the couch while raising a brow at Sam, but she shook her head and got up to join him, reaching for her own coat when they got to the front door.

"Ellie Parker. She said she found us by going through Colonel Sheppard's cell phone and hitting the first number with a local area code. When Major Lorne left on his leave to San Francisco, I guess he forwarded his calls to the general number, which flips to me after hours."

Cam had never given much thought to the phone system in the Mountain, but obviously someone needed to handle certain calls when personnel were off world. He gave props to Ms. Parker for looking for a local contact. No doubt Dr. Weir was number one on Sheppard's new speed dial, with McKay most likely being second, and maybe Lorne's on leave number being listed before his office one. He also wondered if Landry's was on it all; Dr. Weir was still technically Sheppard's boss, but Landry was Sheppard's CO on record, at least to the Air Force.

Too, Cam found himself wondering what Ms. Parker was doing with Sheppard's cell phone in the first place, but figured the sergeant wouldn't know either.  "Anything else?" he asked instead, momentarily distracted from the conversation and his thoughts by the good inch of snow that covered the top of his truck.

"Negative, sir. I could call her back?"

"Forget it.  We're on our way and can get the rest of the details ourselves.  Just log it that Sam – Colonel Carter – and I are dealing with it and one of us will call back if there's something more that needs to be done."

Sam was scraping off the windshield with the snow scraper she had clipped to the zipper of her coat by the time Cam finished the call and tucked his phone – and his freezing hand – into his pocket. Where his own scraper was missing from. Like his gloves.

"Sheppard's been taken to Pike's Peak Regional after what sounds like a bar fight, but I've got nothing else about possible injuries," Cam filled her in as he stuck his de-icer key fob in his door then reached in to also unlock hers.

She gave him a nod and an encouraging smile in return and climbed in, brushing the already accumulating snow from her head and shoulders.

The good news was that the hospital was only ten minutes away on a normal day. Yeah, it was snowing again, and snowing briskly, but there wasn't enough yet to make driving particularly hazardous or slow on the way out. Well, except maybe for other drivers. Or black ice.

Better news: the truck cab still contained residual heat from his drive home. Not that Sam looked bothered in her fleece coat, wool scarf and sleek gloves. Cam should have taken the time to find his cap and gloves, but it wasn't like he meant to stand outside while they found out about Sheppard.

"Do we know if the cops were called?" Sam asked.

Cam shrugged once he cleared his driveway and got the truck moving forward. "I suspect so, if a trip to the hospital was involved, but maybe this Ellie Parker drove him. Or he drove himself."

"If they were, Landry's going to get the call anyway as his CO – Shit, Cam, watch out!"

He had been, not looking her direction for more than a second at a time while she spoke, but it wouldn't have mattered; his attention or her warning. Cam wasn't fond of snow or snowy regions, but he'd lived in Colorado long enough, as well as on other snow prone bases over his Air Force career, that he knew how to drive in it, and bought both this truck and its tires with snow in mind.

The sick feeling of losing control, of the vehicle sliding under its own momentum no matter what you did with the wheel or the brakes was never fun. That was the other guy's problem this time, his car sliding at an increasing speed in Cam's direction, a victim of black ice and, no doubt, his own recklessness or inexperience. Cam called for a little speed of his own, saying a silent pray that his confidence wasn't simply hubris, and put his truck into a shallow, accelerating turn that was only possible because there was no other traffic near the intersection. He got past without getting hit, his breath and Sam's coming out in a gust of relief as Cam then carefully slowed and put them back on the proper side of the road before coasting to a halt. He hated the idea of wasting time, but while the other driver had missed them, he hadn't missed one of the cars parked alongside the curb, nearly hidden under the day's full accumulation.

The driver might need their assistance more.

Sam was already on her phone as they both climbed out. Several more people were spilling out of a nearby business, no doubt attracted by the noise.  The other driver was also getting out of his car, looking shaken but uninjured.

"I've called 911," Sam let everyone know. "Are you alright?" she then addressed the driver. "They may be a while since they're dealing with more serious accidents and, um, well we're heading to the local hospital ourselves if you need to get checked over."

The driver nodded with a frown and started moving to take in the damage between the two cars. Cam frowned himself; three in the cab would be cozy, though at least it wasn't with Vala this time. She'd used the pretence of wanting to learn how to drive a stick as an opportunity to feel Daniel up when he'd volunteered to teach her after Cam declined.

"I'm good," the driver waved them off before gesturing toward the crumpled pieces of shattered fiberglass and bent steel. "I missed you guys, right?  So it's only my insurance and this car's I've got to worry about? Anyone know whose car this is?" he then asked of the still milling bystanders.

"It's mine, and we might as well wait inside where it's warm," someone piped up, not sounding as angry as Cam probably would have been. A native then, undoubtedly, and Cam admired the panache even if he was also a little miffed that suddenly he and Sam were standing out in the snow alone.

"Well, I guess they don't need us," Sam said brightly. "I'll call the cops back once we're settled with Sheppard to find out whether we need to file witness statements.  Do you need me to drive the rest of the way?"

Cam figured the last was a dig for the fact that he was still standing there, staring between the smashed cars and the closed door that, when open, had spilled the sounds of a party or some sort of revelry going on. A party that the other guy had been partaking in for hours given the amount of snow piled up on his now undriveable vehicle. No wonder he hadn't been pissed.

"Cam?"

Cam shook himself. "I'm good." And he was, really, surprisingly not pissed to be cold and wet, and stuck checking up on someone he barely knew. Sure beat spending the night futilely going over Daniel's incomprehensible notes.

*****

John blamed not being able to contain his wince on the adrenalin come down, since he hadn't been given anything stronger than some Tylenol along with a local along his forearm. Then, because he had winced and been noticed, and because he didn't want the doctor to think it was her fault (she could teach Carson a thing or two about deft hands and a bedside manner), he had to apologize and make sure she knew it wasn't because of anything she was doing, even if he didn't want to explain why he'd really winced. Complaining about someone having come to check up on him would only make him sound ungrateful.

The drawl of the SGC's golden boy was unmistakable, however. John hadn't a clue as to why SG-1's team leader was – oh, good, Mitchell and Samantha Carter – coming down the hallway toward his alcove, inquiring after John's status with the duty nurse. It could have been worse, John knew, not that Landry would have bothered himself, even if John had been the one here pending arrest instead of Ellie's ex.

Hearing Mitchell and Carter was just as disconcerting as not hearing Rodney, though, who would have worked himself up into a state, bitching about the weather, then about John for being the reason he was out in it, as well as at John for managing to so easily to find trouble. As if John had purposely gone looking. It was weird, too, not to have Carson being the one treating him, giving him a different kind of lecture from Rodney's, along with the stitches.

While it was nice to be fussed over, even in Rodney and Carson's backhanded ways, it was also nice, every so often, to deal with someone who seemed to understand why and what he'd done instead of castigating him for the unnecessary risk, like this young Doctor Keller. Not that John was looking for a medal or anything, but the one thing he regretted when it came to the otherwise exemplary medical care he'd received in Atlantis was that no one got that sometimes getting hurt was part of his job. Elizabeth and Carson had staffed the infirmary with folks who had backgrounds as much in medical research as treatment, with nary a military or ER specialist to be seen, even though Atlantis was, essentially, a war front. Something that should probably change since things were even more –

Oh. Right. Not his concern anymore. Not about the infirmary, Carson's decisions – or Elizabeth's – just the SGC's and the way Landry liked things. Here on Earth he was just a spare colonel, one that John figured Landry would be hard put to find a place for, even if Landry had wanted him. Which, again, begged the question as to what Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia were doing here.

Not that he was feeling sorry for himself, or anything.

"So here is where the hero of the night is hiding," Mitchell's next words boomed as the curtain blocking John was drawn back by a nurse escorting Mitchell and Carter.

Mitchell sounded so damn cheerful that John wanted to punch him on general principles. Carter, at least, was looking a little embarrassed, or that's how John chose to interpret her expression. Sure, John had met the two of them before this, had even hung out a little socially a couple of nights during their brief stop in Atlantis on their search for an Ori stopper. But it wasn't like he actually knew them enough to know when one of them might be joking, serious or just being an asshole. Rodney's alternating praise and rants about the only person he considered a rival and, therefore, the woman he wanted as the mother of his babies notwithstanding.

"You sound jealous," John's doctor shot back at Mitchell, with a wink at John as she snipped off the last thread.

"Of him?" Mitchell snorted, then smoothed out his expression when he caught a look at John's good looking Nightingale. "Only that he's in such lovely hands," Mitchell then poured it on.

"Peddle it elsewhere, flyboy," the doctor retorted with a roll of her eyes. "Peterson, really?" she asked of John, her face filled with disappointment. "I suppose you're a Zoomie then, too?"

John had joined Carter in laughing at Mitchell being shot down, only stopping to shrug and offer the doc a sheepish smile. "Not his kind, but I suppose I should be happy you've finished?"

 Mitchell was saying at the same time: "You've got a problem with the Air Force, ma'am?"

"Doctor Ma'am. Or Doctor Keller.  Jennifer.  And only with you pilots," she rounded back on Mitchell, before nodding to the nurse who'd stuck around to watch the floor show.

Screw it. He'd mention Doctor Keller to Elizabeth and Carson anyway. They might not be heading back to Atlantis, but what with Ori plagues and all, the SGC might be looking for new doctors themselves, and someone who understood and could stand up to the military mindset was a good start.

"Eve, tetanus and antibiotics, please," Keller ordered the nurse before turning back to John. "Sorry, but you're still due a couple of shots. Out of sensitivity to your … friends, I think we can forgo making you drop trou."

John grinned back at her, and was surprised to note Mitchell was the one blushing.

"We can go back to the waiting room," Carter offered.

Keller shook her head. "We'll be done after the shots, then you can take him home," she reassured them. "I'll give you a copy of the treatment to turn into your base doctors when you have them check on everything tomorrow.  Oh, and here," she added as she bent over to grab some scrubs from the bottom drawer nearby. "I can offer you this to replace your shirt."

Even though only the sleeve had been sliced, his shirt had been soaked by the time he'd been brought in, from slush, the snow, blood and most likely sweat. It and his dog tags had been removed by the paramedic in the 'bus, and tucked into a clear bag that had been set down next to the mobile storage unit the doctor had gotten the scrubs from.

"Where is your jacket, John?" Carter asked. She was nearest and bent over to pick it up; John and Mitchell weren't the only ones openly looking at her fine ass though Keller quickly busied herself with jabbing John with her needles.

"I've gave it to Ellie when the fight started. The guy had a couple of inches and maybe fifty pounds on me; I figured I needed maneuverability on my side."

Mitchell gestured to John's arm. "Please tell me he's looking worse."

John nodded. "Broken nose, a couple of things dislocated."

"Along with bruised ribs and trachea," Keller added. "Don't worry, your reputations as bad asses are safe, boys."

Carter started laughing again as Mitchell blushed once more. For himself, John asked, "So we're good?"

Keller nodded. "Until the next time."

John grinned.  She even sounded like Beckett.

**********

Another day, another trip to check up on Sheppard, and Cam was beginning to wonder. No hospital this time, Cam hoped, but if Sheppard didn't start being careful he could end up dead, and for what? The news always went on and on about how guys made it through Iraq or Afghanistan without a scratch, only to buy it on Main Street.  Some of it was just pure, dumb luck or bad timing, but sometimes Cam wondered if it was just not giving a damn? 

Cam hadn't even been called to come get Sheppard this time; no, Cam was doing this all on his own. He still wasn't exactly sure why; something Daniel had laughed about when Cam had called him to tell him it looked like neither he or Sheppard would be making it to O'Malley's for their planned night of 'wings and the Tampa Bay-Carolina game.

Cam guessed he'd taken a proprietary interest in Sheppard after Sheppard's trip to the Emergency Room a few days ago. He'd taken Sheppard to his apartment for the rest of that night, while Sam had gone with the bar owner to pick up John's loaner car. Although John had protested he could take care of himself, Cam thought he'd secretly been grateful for the offer in lieu of having to head back to the Mountain and its on base quarters or dealing with checking into a hotel. Sheppard had been cordial come the morning, even going so far as to make breakfast for them while Cam took his morning shower. They'd ended up spending most of the day together, watching a couple of the football games Cam had recorded, and when Sheppard left, Cam felt they were working toward friendship instead of simply friendly co-workers.

Cam's private number had been programmed in. Before Lorne's.

So when Sheppard had called to say he'd be late coming back from his weekend skiing at Breckenridge, Cam was a little more disappointed than it warranted. He didn't know Sheppard all that well, so he'd been little insecure in wondering whether Sheppard was blowing the team  – him – off. Maybe the burgeoning friendship Cam had been imagined was one-sided. He was not a thirteen year old girl, however, and so his brief idea of calling Lorne or even McKay to find out if he'd messed up, he'd put right out of his mind. Then put Sheppard out of his mind.

Until he'd caught the news report that some skiers had gone out of bounds and gotten injured up on one of Breckenridge's peaks, and caught sight of the pilot heading into the rescue chopper. Cam still wasn't sure how Sheppard had talked the locals into letting him fly their bird or why he was flying instead of their own rescue pilot. Actually, Cam was surprised that anyone was flying, since the weather was turning and night was coming on. When he'd checked the local conditions, Cam thought any rescue had only a window of a couple of hours.

The same couple of hours he figured it would take him to get to Breckenridge himself to make sure his new, obviously crazy friend wasn't doing anything even more stupid.

 

The trip took him a little over two and half hours. Somehow, Cam wasn't surprised to find out the helicopter wasn't back yet. At least the base team still had contact and was receiving regular reports, both from one of the rangers on board and of the local weather updates.

They let Cam in their command post when he flashed his ID and mentioned Sheppard, then let him come along with one of the ground crews when Sheppard radioed in and let them know he was going to have to set down shy of the camp. He was going for a landing between the Trinity and Bronc trails and the closest "flat" surface area on Peak Ten.

Cam was reconsidering his idea to come up and lend support when he found himself riding bitch on the back of a snow mobile in what was rapidly becoming white-out conditions. He'd come fully bundled up this time: thermals underneath, with sweater and a coat over, plus a wool beanie cap, scarf, and mittens over a pair of his shooting gloves (just in case he'd end up needing fine dexterity for something). His driver was insane, taking moguls as if he was on a snow board scoring for points. It was nearly as exhilarating as going through the 'gate, not that Cam was about to admit to enjoying it. Their trip was supposed to be somewhere between three and six miles, and Cam had to hold on and hope they didn't lose the way themselves, but apparently the snow mobile had a GPS tracker as well as it's own RFID chip and had a solid ping on the helicopter.

Between getting Sheppard's no joy call and actually finding his LZ a good forty minutes had passed. Cam was with the scouts and first responders, those responsible to map the trail in and pass on warnings to the EMTs and the 4-wheel drives that might be needed to get the injured out. There was also supposedly a group of volunteers coming up with hot food and drink for the rescue teams. Cam was really hoping they'd make it.

Sheppard, too, by Cam's first look at him climbing out of the cockpit, seeing as the crazy-ass pilot had taken off while still in his ski suit, and not one of the bulky, obviously warm suits, but a racing one, black with white flame work up the legs and down the sleeves, with no additional jacket. He had something like a blanket around his shoulders, but smaller and as Cam approached, he could see that all of the real blankets had gone to the three people carefully laid out across the back floor. Cam was pretty sure Sheppard's lips were blue in the shielded light thrown out by the semi circle of snow mobiles.

"You got a death wish, man?" Cam had to ask, seeing not only Sheppard, but the chopper, well enough to note that it was listing because one skid was about three feet shorter than the other from being snapped off at some point between initial take off and this landing – no doubt during his initial landing to reach the injured skiers. The tail had some serious gouges in it too, on the port side, which Cam didn't remember seeing from the news footage. Obviously the first part of the rescue had had its own problems.

"I flew SAR in Antarctica, Mitchell. Colorado snow is nothing."

Sheppard's tone held a little bit of teeth chattering with the disdain. He sounded dog-tired though, having been grounded and waiting long enough for the adrenalin crash to have hit. Not tired enough that he didn't smirk and light up at least a little at seeing that Cam had come.

To hide his own sudden onset of emotion, Cam turned to accept one of the bigger blankets from his driver, only closing the distance to Sheppard once he'd gotten his weird, out of place feelings under control. "You're still an idiot," he said as he got Sheppard wrapped up and chivvied over to one of the arriving vehicles they could climb into to get out of the storm. "This was supposed to be your leave for another couple of days. You know, a vacation?"

Sure, Sheppard had flown search and rescue in a lot of places; some even worse than Antarctica Cam recalled, from having read over Sheppard's Air Force record. Yet good pilots got screwed sometimes, through no fault of their own. Cam was having a few flashbacks to his own time in Antarctica; the one that had started as a dog fight and had ended with him undergoing almost a year of recovery and physical therapy, with nearly twenty hours stuck in a wreaked 302 on the ice somewhere in the middle.

Sheppard gave Cam the bird in lieu of answering. He did, however, accept Cam's help in getting into one of the vans, as well as the thermos full of what smelled like hot soup. By the time their driver determined they weren't going to be stuck on the mountain for the rest of the night and got them turned around and going, Sheppard had finished enough of the soup to stop his teeth from chattering and get rid of his shakes. Before they made it back to the base, Sheppard relaxed enough to fall asleep against Cam's shoulder.

Those weird feelings flared again, though Cam tried very hard not to ascribe any meaning to them. Hell, he was tired enough to sleep himself, and he hadn't been the one skiing all day, then piloting a dicey search and rescue. It was probably a good thing that he'd asked Daniel to book them a room to stay here tonight and drive back in the morning.

*******

Working at the SGC was probably as close to hell as John had come, and that included being fed on by a fucking wraith. He'd told Rodney just that, the day before, when Rodney had called him from Switzerland and CERN. Although Rodney was slated to take over one of the labs at Area 51, he and Radek had been drafted to go to a few of the renown labs to see if they could tweak a few of the research studies more toward reality without giving away the source of their knowledge. Rodney hadn't laughed at him, which probably said more than John wanted to know about Rodney's own situation – about the situation of too many of his Atlantis people. Even the expedition members that had spent time in the SGC before a rotation on Atlantis, the people Landry actually liked or held respect for, were pretty much spinning their wheels now that their leaves were ending. There simply weren't places for everyone who'd returned, certainly not

in similar tasks or capacities, and not just for the senior staff.

John hadn't seen nor even heard from Elizabeth beyond one phone call the day after their debriefings had ended, three days later than everyone else's, including Rodney's. She'd said she'd been asked back to DC, to give a personal report to the President. John figured Hayes was looking to bring Elizabeth into his government again, though she'd promised him she wouldn't consider taking Woolsey's place in the IOA if the US's current representative somehow earned the chance to stay in Atlantis as Earth's liaison. God, if anyone should get that position, it would be Elizabeth, though even John wasn't sure she'd want to be in Atlantis alone. Not that he'd ever get the opportunity, but John wasn't sure he could be in Atlantis without someone else from Earth with him (or Teyla, Ronon). At least not at the beck and call of fucking Helia and her crew.

John wasn't sure he was going to make it at the SGC, either. It wasn't just being hundreds of feet underground, though that had given him his own form of claustrophobia. Nor even having to work directly under Hank Landry, who certainly wasn't the worst CO he'd ever had, but also nowhere near the top ten. He was trying to take being given the task of training new gate team members as something other than a punishment detail, and if maybe the assignment had come from O'Neill, he'd believe it and work harder at accepting it gracefully. He'd gotten through a nonsense posting before, after living too long and losing too much in a war zone, and had actually come to enjoy being in Antarctica. But after Atlantis, even more than having had his own front line command… He thought it was a bit like the astronauts who'd gone to the moon.

How could anything on Earth ever live up to that kind of moment? To living on Atlantis?

"Hey, Sheppard. You up for a little off world travel?"

Mitchell stood in John's office doorway, his stupid genial smile too fucking annoying for John's current mood.

"Just waiting for the nuggets to get assigned," he managed to not quite snarl since Mitchell wasn't at fault here, and he'd actually turned out to be a decent friend, as genial in personality as his smile.

"Yeah, but no. I mean today, now. Sam and I figured that you should get a taste of our galaxy before we unleash you on our allies."

"Landry –"

"Signed off on it as a good idea, but then Sam and Daniel were the ones who pitched it." Mitchell shrugged and leaned more comfortably in the door frame. " We've got three planets where the Sangraal might be hidden that we've been putting of checking until Teal'c comes back from Dakara, but with you here, well, you're the closest thing to an Ancient we've got outside of General O'Neill. Daniel thinks having you along will give us a better chance of finding it, or at least finding better clues, so were not even going to wait for Vala to get done playing with Dave Dixon's team. Assuming you're game?"

"Ah…"

It was obviously no more a question than when O'Neill had guilted him into going to Atlantis, and like then, John wasn't actually going to decline. He'd been praying for a chance to go through the gate, to get out of the Mountain and go elsewhere.  To go somewhere he didn't know and where he wouldn't be watched like he was expected to go postal or something. The thought about being a fifth wheel on SG-1, though…

"Oh, right," Mitchell coughed as if trying to mask a laugh. "Daniel promises to listen to you this time about any Ancient tech. He's very sorry, and wants you to know that in our last exchange with Atlantis, he got O'Neill to admit that he'd just been blowing Daniel off when he said that the thingamabob was some kind of useless toy.  O'Neill said he is also going to apologize directly to you and Dr. Kusanagi next time he's around, and that he's also sorry about the concussion, but he commends you on your reflexes."

It wasn't hard to find a smile for Mitchell, even though he had it wrong about why John had been hesitating. It had been a very mild concussion (the resulting headache making the one he'd had ever since coming back to Earth only a little more annoying), and the device had just been a toy, only one that someone had done some unauthorized experimenting with; probably the Ancient kid's parents hadn't realized junior was a tinkerer the way Cadman and Rodney's love child would have been, since the fault had only come up after Miko had activated it. It wasn't as if John hadn't done the same as O'Neill to Rodney a time or two himself, claiming something was broken or out of power only to later remove it from the useless pile and take it to Radek or Miko and do the necessary testing with the folks who never took him for granted. 

 "You guys do know that once Rodney's back to get wind of what happened, he's going to come and confiscate every piece of Ancient tech Jackson is hoarding in his office, properly identified or not."

"Daniel's already asked Miko to help him pack it all up. He appreciates that you didn't go tattling on him to McKay right away."

John shrugged. "Rodney prefers to earn his righteous indignation. Not that he's the type to skip making people pay when it is dropped into his lap. But I think Jackson is protected by the Carter… thing, so if something does happen in retaliation, it's not going to be anything that might diminish McKay in Carter's eyes."

For a moment it looked like Mitchell was going to say something, about Rodney or maybe about Carter, but from what little John knew of her, Samantha Carter did not need anyone to defend her – against McKay or anyone else. John was also pretty sure Mitchell knew that John wasn't going to put up with him trashing Rodney. Certainly a handful of the SGC marines and Air Force personnel had found that out in the gym since the expedition had been exiled. Not always of John's doing, either.

"So can I tell the team that's a go on the mission?" Mitchell asked instead.

John nodded. "Don't suppose we could take the SGC's puddle jumper?"

While just going through the gate might be enough, flying a puddle jumper would go a long way toward letting John bleed off his restlessness.  He hoped. Fuck if anything else had.

"Beside Bill Lee having removed a couple of parts for study now that McKay's back, Landry's concerned such overt use of Ancient tech would draw the Ori. Sorry."

Mitchell really did look sorry, which was weird since Mitchell didn't have the gene, so he didn't have the connection (the current lack there of was probably the real cause of John's headache and jitters; the Ancient tech here at the Mountain mostly was just toys and bits and pieces and Atlantis was addicting in her own way). Obviously Mitchell had the empathy gene, which wasn't so much weird, although his worrying about John was since  Mitchell wasn't his CO, or his subordinate. They were casual friends, with Mitchell being something of a godsend, maybe, even if his means for keeping John distracted and involved were more gadfly than savior.

John would take it for now.  The rest of this thing with Mitchell, well…

******

Cam still got a buzz every time he went through the stargate. His teams knew this, gave him a hard time about it sometime, but it was just so monumentally cool that there were aliens and wormhole passages and so much more to the universe than the best of Hollywood or literature dreamed. That this time they were searching for the Sangraal – the Holy Grail (and it didn't matter whether it was part of the Arthurian mythos or Christianity or an alien weapon) – was beyond cool. His job was the stuff of legends all its own, and Cam had always wanted to be one of the those guys sent on a quest who finds not just the object needed, but that he's a better person than he imagined he could be by the end.

Carter and Jackson, they were both in it for the big picture, for the discovery and a little bit of the legacy and validation, and that was okay too, because exploration and discovery were the very things that defined humanity, Earth humanity, and Cam hoped to God that they never went 'gentle into that good night', not against Ba'al, not against the Lucian Alliance or not before the crazy, crazy Ori. Sheppard, though… Cam didn't have a handle on him yet.

He did put his hand on Sheppard, though, when Sheppard stumbled coming through the gate. Disorientation was common the first few times, but Sheppard had probably logged as many if not more trips through than Cam had, and as far as Cam knew, there wasn't any sort of difference between Milky Way and Pegasus gates, other than the Pegasus ones were prettier.

"You okay, Shep?" Cam asked, because he was the team leader and knowing the truth was more important than protecting an ego or coddling a vulnerability. Sheppard didn't look embarrassed, though, or as if he'd been hiding some residual malady from his too many trips to the infirmary since returning to Earth, and he nodded.

"Yeah, it's…" Sheppard paused and shook his head before straightening and pulling casually away from Cam's aid.

He was prickly about being touched, Cam knew, had been warned by a couple of veteran SGC people during his visit to Atlantis as well as having observed it himself, but Sheppard wasn't reacting as if he was bothered or unappreciative. Good to know the guy wasn't stupid about hiding weaknesses or refusing help.

"There's Ancient tech here," Sheppard explained, his words slowed by his greater attention on trying to pin down what he was feeling, Cam suspected.

"ATA tech nearby, and a lot of it, only there's something off about it."

Jackson made a face that was all about stuff that was probably interesting and maybe even useful if they were back in the lab or something.

"Off how?" Carter asked, beating Cam in cutting Jackson off. Or asking the important question.

Sheppard shook his head. "Not sure," he responded, then pulled out something from a pocket in his tac vest that certainly wasn't standard field issue and held it up. It looked something like an early version Gameboy.

Jackson moved to look at it more closely, crowding out both Cam and Carter since it wasn't any bigger than a Gameboy either. Except maybe for its screen.

"Is that Ancient?"

John grinned and flipped it so Jackson can see whatever he'd been reading off of it, the grin turning more wicked when Jackson reached for it and the gizmo went dark when Sheppard let go.

"Also ATA tech."

"You smuggled that out of Atlantis?"

Carter's tone and expression was a mixture of dismay and envy, and after a beat, she made her own grabby hands even though Cam knew she didn't naturally have the ATA gene either. Landry had been on the fence as to whether he was going to allow Carter to take the gene therapy before Earth had been kicked out of Atlantis; Cam figured that was probably moot know, since it was likely McKay and his gene active people would most likely be taking over most of the research on what little Ancient tech they had on Earth.

Sheppard was shaking his head, though, and accepted the device when Carter handed it back, holding it so she could look without having to be asked.  "I stopped by the puddle jumper before we left. Most of the jumpers have them behind a panel near the pilot's station. We first found it when we needed a life signs detector, but it picks up a variety of energy readings. Hey, you're not going to let Lee take the girl completely apart, right? You're going to make sure she can still fly?"

Whatever response Carter was planning on giving, she stopped when she looked up to see Sheppard's expression, and her own softened. "We're not having much luck reengineering more than a couple of its systems anyway, though I'm hoping that will change with McKay and Radek Zelenka on site. Anything that's inoperable is only temporary, I promise."

Sheppard didn't smile, but he looked as if he was taking Carter's word seriously, and a little of his tension seemed to disappear. Not all of it, though, making Cam wonder again about whatever Sheppard was sensing. Whether it somehow hurt.

Sahal was an arid world, flat and dirt covered as far as the eye could see, but obviously there was something close by if Sheppard was picking up on it. So Cam supposed, since he hadn't thought people knew from Ancient tech until they touched it.

"So you got anything on that thing?" he asked instead of pushing for more. What little experience Cam had with people and Ancient tech, which was mainly O'Neill when Jackson bullied him into fondling something, led Cam to believe all the gene holders were a little hinky about talking about their connection, even if they enjoyed having it.

"Sporadic energy readings, starting about half a mile behind the gate."

Looking that direction, Cam couldn't see anything beyond dirt and scrub.

"Underground, or maybe cloaked, though if it is a cloak, it's not working right," Sheppard continued. "Cloaks normally keep out all EMF readings."

"Any reason not to go check it out?"

Sheppard shrugged. "Isn't that why we came?"

Cam kept his smart ass accusation to himself and instead led the way around the gate. It was funny how most of the worlds they visited built out on the open side of the gate instead of behind it. He wondered if it meant anything that on this planet it was different.

Carter kept Jackson from wandering ahead as Cam and Sheppard counted out the range, all of them coming to a stop about three hundred feet out. Since Sheppard was the one with the spidey senses as well as the detector, Cam signaled for him to go ahead, and Sheppard surprised him by reaching down and picking up a rock instead of waving his dohick or his hands. Sheppard then took a few steps forward and tossed a perfect split-finger fastball that would have just kissed the bottom of Cam's strike zone. The rock dropped fast, which is why when it rebounded off the energy field, it didn't hit one of them.

"Walking face first into a forcefield once is enough," Sheppard said and grinned with a look over to Cam.

"I hear that. But what do we do now? Does your gadget come with an off-switch? For something else?"

Sheppard answered by waving his Gameboy, then stepping forward slowly, angling away from where he'd pitched his rock. Another hundred or so feet forward and he stopped to bend down again, this time placing his hand flat on the ground instead of picking up anything.  A few seconds passed and then he began to rise again. So did a thin pedestal from the ground, something like a DHD but on a much smaller scale and with only a couple of symbols raised on its top.

"Atlantis has one of these. We didn't know a thing about it until the Ancients showed up, raised it and then shut down pretty much the whole city."

Sheppard's tone turned flat, his expression blank but for his eyes which had a curious lightness to them despite fine lines of tension framing them. He pressed one of the glyphs and suddenly a damn building was revealed in front of them. Right in front of them, like less than twenty feet away.

"Whoa," Cam exclaimed. Stepping back a few, he decided it was a castle, one formed from the same material and with a similar aesthetic as Atlantis, without the balconies but strewn with several flying buttresses.

"So it was a cloaking field," Carter commented from where she'd gone to look at the pedestal.  "Should we wait, knock, or just try to find a way in?"

Sheppard stepped forward and placed his hand against the nearest wall. His face took on an expression of concentration, with his eyes closing. Cam hadn't stayed in Atlantis all that long, but it had been long enough to see the way Sheppard interacted with the ATA tech there, and this was obviously not as easy.

"Hey, Sheppard," Cam called out softly. "Your feeling of something off, did it go away when the cloak disappeared?"

Sheppard shook his head, but he didn't look worried and even offered a smile that presaged a portion of the wall to Cam's left irising open.

"This is why we came, why you brought me, right?" Sheppard asked with a touch of exasperation when Cam and the others just stood there.

Predictably, Jackson was the first to get moving and stick his head in, Cam having to rush to make sure his overeager scientist didn’t get too far ahead of them and into some kind of trouble.

"Hello?" Jackson then called out, before saying something else Cam didn't understand, though it sounded a little like Latin, which is how his brain tried to translate Ancient.

"Welcome, descendants of the Alterans. Do you come in peace?"

The speaker was a woman, maybe their age or a little younger. Cam hadn't noticed where she'd come from before she spoke, and from the checked reactions of the others, he wasn't sure any of his team had either. The huge, rounded entryway before them did hold several doors, however, and they certainly could be like those on Atlantis, which didn't make much noise and often only seemed to open as wide as needed when people with the ATA gene moved through them.

"We do," Jackson stuck with English this time, which Cam decided was his way of letting the team know he didn't think this planet's inhabitants were actually Ancients themselves. "We are travelers and story tellers," Jackson put forth the cover story they'd come up with. "We were hoping to be able to exchange tales. To learn about you."

"To strip us of all our secrets?" a second woman, older than the first, questioned and accused all at once, this time from atop the galley overlooking the entrance, framed by two stairways again, similar to that which dominated Atlantis' gateroom, though once more on a much smaller scale.

Although the words and her tone held an edge, neither woman was brandishing any weapon or making any threatening gestures. Unfortunately Cam didn't know if that meant they knew they'd have no chance against the Earth weaponry his team couldn't exactly camouflage, or if they were supremely confident in their own protections.

"No, no!" Jackson spoke reassuringly. "We hope to learn histories, not secrets. We've entered your home because we knew of no other way to gain your attention since activating the stargate – the chappa'ai, or maybe you know it as the ring or gateway – didn't bring you forth. Now that the hold of the Goa'uld had been broken, many worlds are connecting or reconnecting, and our people partake in journeys to collect tales of history and myth. Your world is known to us as Sahal. Maybe you still have memory of us from long ago, a traveler known as Arthur and his warrior poets?"

Warrior poets were maybe stretching things, but the point was to make a connection here, and that generally didn't work too well from behind a gun. Maybe Jackson knew something about how things would be translated by the stargate and had chosen his words deliberately instead of winging it. Intentional or not, it seemed to work, as the two women were now all smiles.

"Children of Altera and Arthur! We are twice blessed," a young girl now cried out, appearing from behind them. "So pretty. Come, come. See how we have preserved your legacy." She moved between the team, spinning around each in turn and clapping her hands before moving to her… sister?  "Come," she then repeated herself, this time with a touch of impatience.

Considering this is what they'd come for, Cam shrugged and started forward.

"The Fates?" Jackson quietly questioned himself from behind Cam.

"I was thinking more like Macbeth." Carter whispered in response. "The three witches."

"Same thing." Daniel replied. "And it's bad luck –"

"We're not inside a theatre."

Ah, Sam, ever the rationalist.

"You wanna bet?" was Sheppard's contribution.

*******

Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table had never really been John's thing. When he'd been a kid, he'd never quite understood why someone would betray their best friend over a girl, and that betrayal had been the thing that had stuck with him even when he'd had to read Malory as part of a study on how societies co-opted other peoples histories and legends in one of his Humanities classes. Of those types of adventure stories, he'd always preferred Robin Hood or Aladdin.

Having Jackson along was as good as having access to Wikipedia, of course, since the man was another Rodney, only about myths, civilizations and languages instead of physics and engineering. Carter could pull her own on the science end too; frankly she reminded John a lot of Jeannie McKay – which might explain a lot about Rodney's mixed feelings over her. At least John wasn't alone in his general ignorance, though he suspected that Mitchell had been doing some research into the legends of the time ever since he'd done his bit in Camelot. This obviously wasn't the Grail Castle, though, not unless the Fisher King had had a sex change.

What it was, was Ancient, from its floors to its ceilings, including water columns (that weren't really water according to Radek) and doors that responded to his gene. To the young girl, too, who reminded him in some ways of Hedda, though she was nowhere near as serious, and was possible a little batshit crazy. John wasn't sure about the other two women having the ATA gene, but he thought it likely, just as he wasn't sure they hadn't crossed through a time dilation field, though entering the castle hadn't been anywhere near as painful as his previous experience with one.

If it was a time dilation field, he'd probably end up having to murder Mitchell, but somehow John was pretty certain that whatever time passed in here, once they left, they'd be back to their own time. He didn't bother mentioning any of this, however, since whether he was right or wrong, there wasn't a damn thing they could do to change things outside of leaving, and that would mean losing.

No one spoke much, except in answer to the various questions their hosts posed as they were led further into the castle and, if John's perceptions weren't lying, further down. Carter, he noted, was keeping careful watch on their surroundings and path, and he'd caught her more than once dropping something small when they'd taken passageways that branched out from multiple choices. He didn't have the heart to mention that if this really was built along Atlantis' lines, the likelihood was that whatever she was surreptitiously using to mark their trail would be disposed of by the time they'd need it.

After a good five or more minutes of being led, their young guide (Jackson had had no luck in getting her to tell them her name) brought them to the end of a corridor and a set of ornate, double doors. She clapped and they opened inward, the lights beyond coming on at that signal or her presence. Or John's. 

Inside was a room about half the size of Atlantis' gateroom. Lining the upper two feet of the walls were friezes that Jackson was immediately drawn to, or maybe it was the elaborate tapestries that hung below the wall carvings. The images being depicted were combinations of Ancient and Earth art forms, scenes and symbols that John might have figured out had his attention not been taken by the two pods off center and to the left, with rows of seats for maybe forty people arranged out so the pods were the focal point. The thirty-something woman stood beside one of the pods, one hand resting on the darkened top, implying there had been a quicker route to this room, and certainly the tapestries could be hiding any number of doors, even if the doors they'd entered from weren't hidden by anything.

"You say you have come as seekers," the child taunted, again from behind them. "Many have made that claim, yet few have proven worthy."

The doorway was still open behind her and if she took up two feet of the opening's twenty, John would be surprised, but he had no doubt that they weren't going to be able to leave the room without permission.

"Now hold on there a minute, little lady," Mitchell said in an overly calm voice. "We're not making any claims. If you don't want company, or to exchange tales of friendship, we can just be on our way, no harm, no foul."

"You do not want your answers?" the woman asked from her position across the room.

"We're not sure we want to pay the price," Jackson said in a thickening voice.

When John looked, he could see Carter had tensed up too, as well as taken up a strategic position to keep both women in sight while Mitchell confronted the girl, Jackson the big sister. Mother. And Maiden. John knew he should help, should move to a position to support at least one of them and be as concerned as they were, but the siren call of the tech was much louder in this room. As was the sense of wrongness. No, of error and fuck that was reason to be concerned –

"Then you forfeit?"

"No," John forced out, wresting down the clamoring and his own ache of desire to lose himself inside it anyway.

"Sheppard!"

"We do not forfeit," John said as he ignored Mitchell and turned to face the woman.

She smiled.  "Then come forward, brave knight."

The child clapped again and giggled in a laugh a little too close to the kid's laugh in John Boorman's Excalibur, and probably that wasn't an interpretation of Arthur and the Grail he should be remembering right now, but a more immediate worry was Mitchell, who had twisted enough to grab John by the arm, and was really, really pissed.

"What do you think you are doing, Sheppard?" Mitchell growled in a low voice.

He just stopped himself from rolling his eyes. "Obviously one of us is going to have to accept their challenge," he responded, lowering his own voice when Mitchell's glare deepened. John was positive anything they said was being overheard

"That's probably true, but it should be me," Jackson whispered himself as he moved closer to join them, as did Carter, though she at least was still keeping an eye on the two women. 

"Yeah? Why is that?" John challenged.

"How many of the challenges do you remember the Grail Knights had to endure? Or how many didn't actually survive?" Jackson shot back.

"Well, there's the one where Galahad was about to get it on with all the maidens until Lancelot cockblocked him."

"Monty Python, Sheppard?  Seriously? That's what you know of the Grail legends."

John smirked back at Mitchell and shrugged. "It came in pretty handy saving Indy's father, too."

Mitchell snorted and raised his hands in the 'what could he do' gesture before turning his head to the side and sighing. John thought Mitchell was hiding a smile. Or he hoped the boy scout was. Humor was the only way to deal with a fraught situation.

Carter didn't have any such problem, making John like her all the more than because she vexed Rodney so. "Guys, I think John's figured something out, right?" she sobered up quickly, though.  "Something to do with the tech?" she asked and encouraged in a manner eerily like Teyla might have had John been arguing with Ronon or Rodney.

All the more reason for John to make sure this went his way.  "Those pods are stasis pods," he said and gestured to the head of the room. "Connected to a VR environment. Most likely past… petitioners weren't conscious when they were dropped in, and whatever challenges they experienced were really just in their heads. The –"

"Neither the stasis pods or the VR require someone to have the gene," Jackson interrupted. "Your report about the Aurora confirmed that, and it is unlikely all of the Grail Knights were ATA positive. Besides, it's not like I don't have a different kind of affinity with Ancient things."

From having died and ascended before; John had read reports too.  He was expressly trying to avoid the part of one of the others dying, though, whether they could ascend or not.

"And like on Aurora, it's better if I go in first so if I screw up, you'll have a better chance."

"How do you figure that?" Mitchell asked, not sounding at all convinced.

"It's pretty obvious that the seats are to let witnesses watch the action, right? So you guys get to see what's in store. If it's legend stuff, Dr. Jackson fix things and save the day, and if it's fucked up in other ways, like being a thousand or ten thousand or a million years old or something, Colonel Carter can do her fu and fix it."

"So why not me first, smart guy?"

Somehow, pointing out that Mitchell looked like he was pouting more than asserting his authority wasn't going to help matters, John figured. At least Carter and Jackson looked to be considering his arguments instead of just dismissing them out of hand.

"You're the leader –"

"Exactly. And the ranking officer –"

"Leader of SG-1, Mitchell.  Colonel. Besides Landry having mutant kittens and insuring I'd lose even my team of nuggets, there's the reality that if something happened to you, I'd have the entirety of the SGC on my ass, for jinxing Luke, Leia and Obi-Wan. I'd have to resign, or let Landry and O'Neill ship me off somewhere more punitive than Hoth –"

"Landry doesn't hate you that much Sheppard –"

Luke, Leia and Obi-Wan?  Really, I'm Obi-Wan?"

"I think our hostesses are getting impatient."

"Hell, they're just holograms," John dismissed Carter's warning. "They can't –"

"Seriously?" Mitchell started. "Then why don't we just leave?" as he moved purposely toward the kid and the exit.

"Forcefields!" John, Jackson and Carter pointed out, not soon enough unfortunately, to stop Mitchell from impacting against it and getting tossed back.

John took advantage of Carter and Jackson moving to assist Mitchell back up, moving to pods and ignoring the yells and entreaties coming from behind him.

"Does it matter which pod?"

The darkened one lit up, showing the missing part of the trinity, the Crone. For a moment John wondered if there really was someone left alive in this mausoleum, but it was likely just more smoke and mirrors, the original programmer's idea of making the challenge appear fair to the witnesses, even though John already knew he'd be going up against a sophisticated program, an AI, or he supposed it could be an Ancient inhabiting either artificial form, since that seemed to be one of their tricks.
"Sheppard, I fucking order you not to get in that pod –"

Hey, he'd gotten the boy scout to curse. "You're not in my chain of command, buddy," John called back over his shoulder before climbing in as the lid slid back. He kinda hoped Carter would know enough to caution Mitchell from opening the pod back up while John was immersed, but then he wasn't sure he was going to survive whether this was the program that was FUBARed or not, so…

The steel glove landing at his feet didn't surprise John, nor the fact that the crone didn't wait more than a few seconds for John's brain to integrate into his new surroundings before charging. John reached for the sword in the handy nearby rack and pivoting in time to block the crone's first swing. Not that she was looking too much like a crone in here. More like Keira Knightly but in a Xena costume, instead of her Guinevere role, and wasn't his brain a stupid, scary place and if he stopped to remember this was likely being watched by three of SG-1 –

He'd have his freak out later.

Instead John grinned at his opponent's frustrated expression and blocked her next blows too. "No chivalry, grandma? Well, sorry, but you're going to have to try harder," he taunted. "I spent three years as a knight in the No Cal Renaissance Faire while at Stanford, not to mention that one of my best buds for the past year and a half still uses a sword as a primary weapon. Oh," he added, pressing his blade to bring hers down into the ground, "I also don't believe in chivalry, when fighting for my life. I don't give a damn that you're a woman."

With that he let go of his blade with his right hand and slugged her as she leaned in, hitting her square on her funky jaw.

"Blackguard," she cursed from below his sword resting on her neck from where he'd laid her out on the ground. "You have no honor –"

"Granted. So do you yield?"

"You deserve no mercy," she continued as she kicked out, catching John just above his ankle with something steel and sharp and piercing through his greave, which was really the wrong type of armor for this to be something medieval.

"So that's a no?" John asked as he hoped back, barely keeping his feet and resolutely not looking down to see how badly he'd been cut. It hurt like a bitch, but wouldn't stop him and while he was disappointed this hadn't ended with the first take down, he wasn't surprised. He supposed he should be grateful it didn't look like it was ended at first blood, either.

"I will yield only in death… yours," she hissed, the hiss turning all the more elaborate as she changed as she rose to her feet, morphing from Xena Knightly into a cross between his ex-wife Nancy and his first Wraith Queen. With a fucking Wraith feeding hand on the flat of her sword, no doubt meaning she'd only have to graze him to do damage.

Fine, if that's how she wanted to play it. It wasn't like he hadn't lived through that a couple of times too.

John let himself stumble as he moved to block her next strike and let her blade slip between his arm and side, not surprised either that he suddenly wasn't wearing any armor. He managed to keep the blade from cutting too deeply, and twisted, using his body and arm to pull the blade from her grip, even as it tried to pull life from his body. Knowing it wasn't really happening, that he was only remembering the pain and imagining the rest didn't keep it from hurting. Didn't keep him from thrusting his own blade into her stomach, his sword morphing to knife and then the pointed end of a wraith stunner as he pushed against the environment.

"Sorry, but I don't dance with women without names," he hissed back at her as they basically embraced. "And the wraith stopped scaring me after the first fifty kills or so. Now they just piss me off."

She broke away with a cry, blood gushing from her chest and her mouth. John let her fall once more and twisted to bring his restored sword down against hers, splitting it into shards.

"Well done, JohnSheppard."

"Oh, fuck you," John growled. "You have to cheat? The challenge isn't rigged enough?"

Seeing what Todd would have looked like if he'd been a queen instead of consort (or whatever), really was making him pissed off. Seeing Toddette standing with no trace of injury and him not being able to ignore his own fake ones was getting John a little nervous. If the tech error had resulted in a computer program that couldn't be defeated, he was truly fucked. So, too, would be the rest of his team when they were forced to take their own turns, or die a slow death of dehydration.

"Pick something else, grandma, because I refuse to call you Toddette. Or grandma anymore. I liked my grandmas. How about… Shelob? You look –"

"Fuck! Way to go, John," he berated himself as he threw his body to the side to avoid one of her sudden multitude of legs – pincers – and then her damn mandible or whatever they were called. "You couldn't think of calling her Smurfette or Clarisse or Pikachu? No, not Pikachu since they shoot electrical – "

"Jesus fuck!" John swore as he mostly dodged the lightning bolt coming out of a bright blue – smurf blue – Wraith's fingers. The burn ignited his shoulder instead of his heart, and he still managed a semi-decent backward somersault from the momentum of being blasted backward, putting a little more distance between them. Not that distance was going to help if she had ranged weapons now.

Turning blue and shooting lightning... well, obviously it was his thoughts driving this environment, which meant he should be able to control it consciously as well as subconsciously. As he dove from her next attack, the ground below him dipped, not enough to throw him off, and when he reached out, his hand closed around something small and rounded beneath his palm that he slapped on his chest as he finished his roll and gained his feet.

"Yeah, suck it," he coughed and laughed as her follow up splashed off a sheet of green that sprang up around his body. "I hereby dub you Helia," he then told her, spitting out a mouthful of blood.

She morphed again with a wail, turning into the Ancient he liked least at the moment, though she still had the lightning coming from one hand, and a wraith feeding mark on her other.  "You will not win," she warned him as he stopped avoiding her attacks and let Rodney's shield shrug them off as he limped toward her with maybe a little too much of his blood having been spilt.

"You cannot win. I am the embodiment of those long gone and millions of years above you. I am this place, The Morrigan, the Erinyes, Nimue –"

"No, see, that's where you're wrong, sister. I've met a few Ancients, and damn if they're not just as flawed as anyone else," John growled at her, dutifully ignoring how the green of his shield was fading as her attacks grew more frequent. He'd need it to come down to touch her, anyway.

"As far as this place? This place is nothing. I lived in fucking Atlantis." John laughed as he blocked her feeding hand with his arm, still jarred to the bone when she cheated and switched which hand held the slit, or maybe it was just because she was forcing her palm into his burn. "And you? You're just my bitch!"

She might have cheated, but she'd not lied.

I will yield only in death

Not her avatar, but the computer driving her.

John slammed his own hand into her, not thinking to emulate a wraith but finally realizing he was dealing with just a piece of tech, like the control chair.

Around him, the imagery faded into the black nothingness that always greeted John when he sat in the chair, before infinity and potentiality expanded around him. This he knew, and all sense of his body and pain faded as he focused his mind, looking for information on the Sangraal before shutting everything down.

And you? You're just my bitch! John heard repeated as the lid of his pod slid open. He wanted to laugh, embarrassed to hear his Sigourney moment replayed, or maybe the outside transmission had been on a delay, just in case someone out here could have done something to affect things, but insuring that although they had the ability, they wouldn't have been able to use it.

"John!"

Mitchell was moving before the other two, having heard the hiss of the lid, or more likely John's groan. None of his injuries had actually happened, but his brain still thought they had, and the headache he'd been living with for weeks had turned into a mega migraine.  Fortunately Mitchell figured out that he was having trouble getting up and called Jackson over to help.

"The Grail isn't here," he rasped as the two of them they got him out and to his feet, though he couldn't keep them under him. When the room then fell into darkness, John found himself hoping, for SG-1's sake, that it was just him losing consciousness instead of him having turned the whole damn castle off.

******

Coming into the infirmary after receiving the call that Sheppard was finally awake, Cam was surprised to see Carolyn Lam working in her office. He figured she'd be back with Sheppard, rerunning those interminable tests she kept on hand for when things went wrong on the other side of the gate, but as he stepped further into the front treatment area, he figured it out. While he could only make out the intonation, pitch and inflections since Sheppard had been given one of the private rooms with a door and everything, there was no doubt that Rodney McKay was on scene.

Carolyn caught sight of him and came out to meet him; caught sight of his expression and nodded, her own face turning sour. "Yes, Hurricane Rodney has blown in, demanding to know what we've done to Sheppard." Her thinned lips turned upward in a bit of mischievousness. "I made sure he knew whose team he went out with –"

"Gee, thanks –"

"– and sent the rookie in to check on Sheppard, since he's actually had more interaction with and seems more comfortable with her than with me. Did you know McKay yells at people even when they're unconscious?"

Cam shook his head, not in disagreement but bemusement. "I am not surprised. I still don't see how Sheppard puts up with him."

"Because they're team, Cam," Sam chided him from behind, directing her tone of great disappointment at him.

"Yes, it’s the same as how we put up with you, darling," Vala chimed in before gliding past with Daniel in tow, thanks to the superglue hold she had on Daniel's arm. "Come on, I want to go watch."

Before Cam could respond, Sam and Carolyn both clamped on to his arms. "You do know that the show's going to end when you get there?" Cam directed to Sam, not balking at being dragged along.

Sam nodded. "I think it's already winding down. McKay wasn't supposed to have stopped here first, and while Landry was willing to cut him some slack, McKay really needs to be part of the reallocation meeting the IOA's called at Area 51 this afternoon, so he has to be on the next hop. He'll need to leave in the next five minute to make Peterson in time."

"What is this, Grand Central Station?" McKay was ranting at Vala and Daniel as Cam and his lovely ladies made their way to John's door. "Maybe feeding time at the zoo?" he amended with waving hands upon seeing the rest of them. "The Colonel is obviously in pain here and needs his rest."

"Which he was getting before you stormed in here and woke him up, Dr. McKay," Carolyn pointed out nastily as she moved away from Cam and gestured for Doctor Keller to hand over John's chart.   

"Hey, Doc, it's okay," Sheppard began. "Rodney's –"

"Team, yes I know and, yes, despite what you may have heard, I do get what that means. As you can see," she then gestured to the lot of them. "But from what I've heard, Dr. McKay needs to be on a plane or lose his projects, and now that's he's seen for himself that we haven't gotten you killed, he should probably be thinking about his own future."

Cam watched as Sheppard started to blush and McKay started turning red for an entirely different reason, only to break off mid-splutter when Sam put her hand on his arm, ostensively to lean over in the crowded space to give Sheppard a kiss.

"Good to see you finally awake, John," Sam said with a smile that grew as Sheppard's blush deepened. She still had her hand on McKay and now turned to him, giving him a little tug. "Rodney, I'll walk you up. I understand you and Radek got a chance to look over the work on the LHC and I was wondering what you thought?"

Cam was pretty sure the only one in the area who didn't see what Sam was doing was McKay himself, as she neatly maneuvered him up and moving.

"Right. Good. Of course I have an opinion," McKay started in response to Sam, then turned, last second at the door.  "Hey, Sheppard, I'll call you when I get in. Take you meds and let them take care of you, so I won't be wasting my time coming back here next week."

"Take care of yourself, McKay," Sheppard growled. "Don't forget your sunscreen."

Cam caught Daniel's eye, who nodded at his expression and did his own pulling on Vala's arm.

"We need to get moving too, Colonel," Daniel suggested, loosing his hold on Vala when she also leaned over to kiss Sheppard, on his mouth of course, as wet and sloppy as she could manage between Daniel and Doctor Keller trying to pull her off and her own laughter.

"Well I thought everyone was doing it," Vala protested even as she let Daniel pull her along this time, and she in turn tugging Doctor Keller with them.

"Mom and Dad are going to talk now," Vala's fake, stage whisper came back to them as the trio moved out of sight.

"Colonel, I am sorry," Carolyn began. "I assure you, this is not how my infirmary is normally run."

"Vala was on Atlantis for three day, Dr. Lam. I saw – and experienced – much worse." Sheppard actually looked amused instead of shocked or bothered, which was definitely Vala's superpower.

While Cam raised his brow because how hadn't he realized that or heard about Vala on Atlantis, Carolyn gave a stiff nod and then tapped a fingertip against the chart she was still holding. She turned to look at Cam, to most likely dismiss him too, but ended up not doing so.

"Is what Dr. McKay said true, Colonel?" she asked upon turning back to Sheppard instead. "Are you still in pain?"

Cam could see the calculation start behind John's eyes, the weighing of what he could admit against what she'd, in turn, demand.

"Rodney said I'd been out for about thirty hours?" Sheppard temporized, collecting more data points, Cam decided, and included a look Cam's direction.

While Carolyn might figure Cam had a right to know about Sheppard since he, more or less, was still responsible for Sheppard until he was cleared to get his own team again, if Sheppard wanted him gone, Cam wasn't going to push.  He'd be able to get enough of a report from Carolyn if he had to.

Carolyn was frowning at Sheppard's obfuscation. "So you still have the headache."

It was not a question. John met her gaze and finally nodded.

"Anywhere else?"

When Sheppard shook his head – more carefully this time – Carolyn nodded as if she'd expected his answers.

"Good. Colonel Mitchell filled me in on what happened, and what it might have felt like had happened, so the period you spent unconscious isn't surprising. While your post mission scans confirm there were no sustained, physical injuries, the cortical scans indicate you'll be in pain nonetheless, certainly more than your baseline headache before you left on the mission. If you actually tell me now whether this headache is better, worse or the same as the one you've been sporting, I'll consider not subjecting you to a noisy MRI and definitely making it worse."

"More than before I left, significantly less than what I remember from the planet," Sheppard responded, a little sullenly.

"If I've give you meds to take on your own, will you take them?"

"You'll let me out of here?"

"If I get your promise. And," she added when it looked like Sheppard would be willing to do almost anything for his freedom. "And, if you promise to call in every four hours for the next two days, and to come back in if the pain gets worse."

"If he's got someone to check in on him to make sure he's not slipping into a coma on that schedule, do you think you'd be okay with letting him sleep? I know I'd get a headache if I had to wake up to an alarm every four hours," Cam offered.

"Mitchell, I don't need –"

"Sheppard, you've been here for three weeks and already you're bucking to take over Sergeant Siler's record for the most infirmary visits in a month's time. You do need a keeper, obviously, and if I have to call McKay back here, well, none of us are going to be happy," Cam told him. "It so happens that I'm volunteering."

When Sheppard started to object again, Cam overrode him. "You saved my team, which won't be going back out for a few more days since Daniel's decided we have to reevaluate our whole game plan. If every trip going after the Sangraal has the real likelihood of losing someone to a stupid test and we still end up with nothing, we're going about it wrong." He took a deep breath. "So I have the time. I have more football taped than we can ever get around to watching, and I'd like to do a little something to maybe help convince you being stuck on Earth isn't a death sentence!"

Okay, the last went too far, and had probably been said too loudly given the open door, but from Carolyn's expression, Cam's assessment wasn't exactly something her people weren't thinking either. Not that Cam had put it together himself before this moment, since every injury Sheppard had sustained since being kicked out of Atlantis had all been obtained in causes that Cam would have volunteered to take on himself. The volume of them, however, and the frequency…

Sheppard wasn't looking amused now. Carolyn held up her hand before anything more could be said, holding the silence until, maybe, he and Sheppard both got themselves a little more under control.

"The answer is yes," she finally said, switching her gaze from Sheppard, to Cam and then back to Sheppard. "Colonel… John, I think you should seriously consider his offer. It is quite possible the source of your continual headaches is here in the SGC. Maybe some piece of tech or all of them or maybe it's simply a bad reaction to living underground in crappy one-room quarters. Quite possibly, it's totally psychosomatic and you're torturing yourself on purpose. I am leaning to it being a combination of all three, and yes, I have scheduled you an appointment with your Dr. Heightmeyer on the day after tomorrow."

Again she'd held up her hand, but to Cam, Sheppard didn't look like he'd been about to say anything. He didn't look like he could say anything at the moment, instead overawed… overwhelmed… something.

"The session is mandatory and I'm not going to clear you for duty until I get her feedback," Carolyn continued with a fierce glare that abruptly softened. "But it's also listed as a follow-up to what happened to you on Sahal, not for anything else that might affect your record." Her concern showed through for a second before the glare returned.

"Do not make me regret cutting you that slack. Now, I'm going to leave and prepare your 'scripts and your discharge papers, coincidentally giving the two of you the opportunity to yell at one another or work things out. Do not make me regret that, either."

Even Cam felt a little shell-shocked as Carolyn pulled the door shut behind her. He had no idea what to say after that.

Sheppard eventually broke the silence, looking and talking to the ceiling. "Why the fuck do you care, Mitchell?"

Hell if I know, Cam was tempted to say, but that was neither true nor productive. He moved to sit down on the chair McKay had undoubted dragged in.

"I guess it started because Helia and her people really did give you guys a raw deal. Because she told all of us off. I've been fighting the Ancients' other goddamn war for a couple of years now myself, and there are times I want to do nothing more than find a way to give the ascended assholes over to the other ascended assholes." Cam laughed at himself for a second and gestured Sheppard's direction.

"With you walking around as the poster boy for the dog kicked to the curb, I guess I thought if I could make you feel better, I could get a little of my own back on all the assholes."

He was happy to see angry and bewildered disappear from Sheppard's expression. Unfortunately, awkward and uncomfortable wasn't much better.

"It's also because there aren't that many colonels around here," Cam continued, feeling awkward himself as he'd never admitted any of this even to himself before. "Sam's cool, of course, but like everyone keeps saying, she's team, so the friendship is pretty much a given whether it's earned or not. And the F-304 jocks? Like Caldwell, Emerson, and Ellis? Well they're kinda assholes themselves, you've probably noticed."

That observation got a soft snort from Sheppard and Cam paused to give him his own opportunity to rag on Caldwell. It had never been much of a secret that Caldwell had wanted Sheppard's job from the instant the SGC had learned that Marshall Sumner hadn't survived the expedition's first year. Sheppard, however, remained silent and guarded, and Cam couldn't really blame him. Cam might have opened a world of trouble for himself, if this little confession was being overheard by the wrong person. He trusted Carolyn to give them their time, though. Like he hoped Sheppard might eventually come to trust him.

"The guys like Dixon, Edwards and Young? All I seem to have in common with the other gate leaders is the job, and all they want to talk about is the missions or what we did in earlier postings. Or I get to hear how great Jack O'Neill was, and how I was given command of SG-1." Cam stopped again, horrified that he'd admitted that, and fully expecting Sheppard to call him on his whining.

"Try earning respect when you've killed the guy whose command you took over."

"Yeah, man, sorry," Cam apologized, relieved to note that Sheppard was only laughing at him, and laughing at himself instead of shutting the conversation down. "I'm just trying to say that I guess I'm tired of living under everyone's judgment and expectations, but that I don't feel that way with you. That I know you're feeling the same thing and, well, misery does love company."

"Hallmark does it with classier clichés. Beer, on the other hand, makes even clichés sound profound, and is much easier to shop for."

Cam found a smile, but he recognized what Sheppard was doing, realized that he'd been wrong and Sheppard was indeed shutting down the conversation. Just without throwing a fist or otherwise staying angry. Only Cam couldn't just let it go, not if he wanted to mean something to Sheppard. What he wanted was probably not in the cards, but he at least had to try to be what Sheppard needed.

"Is being on Earth really that bad?"

For a moment Sheppard met his gaze and Cam almost gasped at the raw pain he saw there. Then Sheppard seemed to realize what he'd given away and the mask returned, the mix of indifference and bravado that Cam was beginning to hate.

"No, Sheppard, don't." Maybe taking his life into his hands, Cam reached out and put his hand on Sheppard's arm, tugging him until Sheppard had to look his direction if only to glare.

"I'm not asking you to bare your soul, but I'd like to understand. It's not like Atlantis was destroyed, or half of your command was left be –" 

He stopped, and winced, because the latter wasn't exactly true. From what Cam understood, Sheppard had left a two-digit percentage of his command behind over the two and a half years the expedition had been in the Pegasus Galaxy, along with too many scientists and other civilians as well. But he and Sheppard were soldiers and sometimes that was what happened. If you left too many pieces of your soul back there in the sand too –

"It's not Earth, not really." Sheppard was talking to the ceiling again, but he was talking.

"It's not being given a shit assignment or even losing Atlantis. Because, like you said, the city is still there as are more of the people than we had any right to hope for."

Sheppard took a long breath, Cam too. He suspected Dr. Heightmeyer wouldn't hear a word of this.

"It isn't any of that, except it totally is. All of it, plus lbandoning the two people – more, since even the ones who came back with me are already scattering to the winds ."

Damn. Cam hadn't realized Sheppard hadn't just lost his command, but he'd lost his family.

"It's leaving an entire galaxy plunged into a war, no a slaughter, that they don't deserve and that I had a hand in accelerating."

Suddenly realizing he'd never let go of Sheppard, that Sheppard hadn't pulled away either, even though now Cam was squeezing hard enough to bruise, he released his grip. He left his hand there anyway, curling his fingers into his own palm and maintaining some of the connection. Sheppard didn't seem to notice, but it had to make some difference.

"It's knowing there are beings out there, who I despise for running away and leaving the chaos behind for someone else to fix. Knowing I've done the exact same thing –"

"Jesus, no, Sheppard." Cam leaned over and took hold of Sheppard's chin with just enough force to make him turn. As if he could make him see.

"It's being alone, all over again."

"John… John, you're not." Cam let everything show on his face, needing Sheppard to understand that he knew about guilt and responsibility and feeling alone. That while maybe he wasn't family, he could be a real friend.

He probably wouldn't need to push Sam into making sure McKay worked with her in person some times, instead of by email or phone. Or work to make sure the rest of his family didn't have a problem when Cam included Sheppard in some of their outings or, better yet, had no problem when Cam begged off to do something else with John alone.

But if that's what it took, then that's what he would do. Along with refusing to be pushed away. Or letting John give up.

"You're not."

– finis –