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Cam strode through the lobby of Gram Spire in his full formal dress uniform, feeling uncomfortable in it after wearing his shipboard utility suit for so long. He wore thick, pitch black trousers and matching a synthsilk long-sleeved shirt. Over that went his vest, colored the midnight blue of the space service with a stylized chainmail pattern embroidered in fine silver thread. His nameplate and rank bar sat over his left breast, while a blue-edged scarlet sash holding his medals and ribbons ran from his right shoulder to his left waistline. Filling it out was the unusual addition of a heavy waist-length cape, also a bright scarlet with a golden mjolnir in the center. The cape gave him the most trouble; while he'd had occasion to wear his normal dress uniform for formal ceremonies on a regular basis, he'd only worn full regalia twice before. He'd done it once for graduation from the academy and once for his recent awards ceremony, where he had exchanged a standard blue and black pilot's cape for his current one. You didn't go to this kind of meeting wearing anything less than your finest, though, no matter how worried you were about tripping in front of the great and mighty of the realm. Almost as unsettling was how others were acting around him. The lobby was packed at this time of day, thousands of people coming and going, and yet as he walked they parted around him like water around a ship's bow. He even saw a general swerve out of his way, for God's sake. The natural order of the world was out of whack.

The lift delivered him to the sixtieth floor, which housed the leadership of the UN Exploration Corps. A live human secretary directed him to the special projects office on the east side. As soon as he entered he was struck by the view afforded by the tower's height and the floor-to-ceiling windows. From here he could see well out north into Lake Michigan and to the west distant towers of downtown Chicago, all colored red and gold by the rising sun. Two figures were standing near the window, turning as Cam entered.

Samantha Carter he recognized immediately. He'd known her since they were teens and they had attended the academy together. Of course, since then she had moved up in the world a bit. It'd be more accurate to call her Colonel Doctor Jarl Samantha Carter, Citizen of the Third Circle, Hero of Midgard, Starkiller, et cetera, et cetera. While he had been out flying fighters in the UN Spacy, she had been at Stargate Operations building a legend for herself. Special operations against the System Lords, first contact, scientific breakthroughs, cementing alliances with the Tok'ra, Free Jaffa and other alien states, and perhaps most importantly creating the weapon that had finally defeated the Replicator threat. It almost made saving an army division seem like small change.

Cam had expected her, of course, and possibly a general or two. Instead she was accompanied by a slim, gray form, the sight of which instantly sent Cam down on one knee, head bowed.

"Please rise, Lieutenant Colonel Thane Mitchell," the Asgard said. "Your obeisance is no longer necessary."

"Sorry, m'lord. Old habits die hard," Cam said, standing again. It took him a moment to realize he was speaking with Thor, the Supreme Commander of the Asgard Fleet. It was odd, to say the least. Just a few weeks ago, Cam had been standing beside him at his awards ceremony following the battle over Chulak, but then Thor had been wearing his public face. There was nothing to connect the small alien speaking to him with the tall blond man with bulging muscles who had personally inducted him into the Order of Merit and raised him to the next level of citizenship. That time Thor had been wearing an encounter suit that projected a hologram around him. In fact, Cam had never been in the physical presence of the naked Asgard, and only rarely seen one's natural form at all.

"Understandable," Thor said. His voice was higher than Cam would have expected. "Was your recuperation leave restful?"

"Yes, sir. It was good to spend some time at home and my parents were happy to see me."

"They must be proud," Sam said. "It's not every day your son comes home with a title."

"Very much so, and in a match-making mood." Cam didn't mention the way he'd been all but forced by a gaggle of old men and women to ride as the guest of honor in the county's Memorial Day parade and the subsequent banquets. The news interviews upon returning to Earth had been bad enough. Being shown off like a prize stud in front of people he had known his entire life had been downright embarrassing. It made his mom happy, though.

"Well, let's get to business," Sam said. She gestured for Cam to take a seat on a couch, directly across from an armchair that Carter settled into. An Asgard command throne materialized a moment later beside the chair and Thor nimbly climbed onto it. "I know you requested reassignment to Exploration. Dad's thrilled, of course. He feels that Expeditionary Command tends to horde all the promising officers. I don't suppose you've given any thought to what sort of posting you're looking for? A stargate team, survey ship, low-tech social intervention?"

"I can go anywhere the service needs me," Cam said, "although I'll admit I'm mostly interested in any kind of initial exploration or first contact assignment."

"Good. We've actually been looking to fill a challenging position along those lines, and I think you're a good fit. Supreme Commander?"

Thor made a gesture and the windows turned black. A hologram appeared in the air between them, displaying an unfamiliar structure. It had a vaguely snowflake-shaped base covered with thin spikes, with what looked to be engines on the other side. After a few moment's study, Cam realized those dorsal protrusions were actually buildings, some of them hundreds of stories tall if he was judging the scale right. The most central ones were easily the size of Tokyo Arcology or the Unity Tower in Chicago.

"It's some kind of mobile city, right?" Cam guessed. "Not Goa'uld or Hebridan architecture, though. Maybe Tollan?"

"It is in fact Ancient," Thor said. "Specifically, the city of Atlantis, which was their capital for several million years. Thanks to study of the recently uncovered Antarctic outpost, we have determined its location. A survey team has confirmed it is still extant. Jarl Carter will now be leading a larger expedition to establish a permanent scientific and defense presence, with the oversight of Heimdall."

"There's a catch, of course," Sam said. "It's in the Pegasus galaxy, thirty-three million light-years away. Even for an Asgard-built ship, flight time is a couple weeks, and its longer for a human ship. Given the way the current campaign against Apophis and Amaterasu is going, we can't spare any ships for long. Our current plan is to send a single River-class strike carrier loaded with supplies and personnel to get things running, and then rely on the stargate for communication and transport. If there's trouble, though, there won't be any timely reinforcements."

Cam pursed his lips in a silent whistle. That was a bit of a catch. Interstellar logistics were tricky at the best of times. Stargates helped, but their size and limit of one per world meant your only option for heavy cargo movement was using transporters, and even those ran into timing issues. That made ships the only practical means for resupplying large armies or fleets, and Midgard didn't have enough to spare to take care of every little survey group, especially if it took so long just to reach the destination.

"At that range, you'd need intergalactic dialing capability," Cam mused. "That constrains things even further, doesn't it? Especially if the other end doesn't have the generating capacity."

"Yeah, that is another issue," Sam said. "We have a partially powered zero-point module that we'll take along, but we'll need to find more or install heavy capacitors to reliably dial out. Fortunately, Midgard should have the spare power to send things to us."

Assuming of course that the aforementioned timing issues didn't cause them to be bumped in favor of some emergency, or another snake didn't try to blow up the gate yet again, or something didn't happen to the expedition that left Stargate Operations sending care packages to a bunch of plague-ridden corpses.

"What about the rest of the Pegasus galaxy? Any native life we should be aware of?"

Sam and Thor looked at each other, and the Asgard said, "Yes. There are several thousand worlds, many of which are inhabited by humans with relatively primitive technology, up through early industrial at most, based on the first contact team's report. Also, there may a significant threat from a non-human species."

"We actually have a representative of one of the human worlds here on Midgard," Sam added. "She's been quite helpful in providing information about the state of the galaxy, and I expect we'll be working closely with her people as allies."

Cam nodded toward the projected city. "This must be worth a lot to risk even a low-scale conflict, given how tight things are at the moment."

"We believe that the potential rewards are well worth the risks," Thor said. "Having access to the full Ancient database, with a more... user-friendly interface designed for civilian use, would be immensely useful. Even though the Asgard have matched, and even surpassed, the Ancients in some areas, their overall technological level is much greater. It is not so much a matter of capabilities as ease; things that take significant effort and resources on our part could be done by a handful of Ancients."

"Large-scale wormhole technology," Sam said. "Interdimensional travel. Time manipulation. Ascension. It's all worth gambling a few hundred lives, especially when the humanitarian situation is taken into account."

"And if we occupy the city no one else can," Cam said. He could think of plenty of people the Asgard or UN wouldn't want to have access to that sort of technology. The Goa'uld would be the obvious ones, of course, but groups like the Aschen, the Trust, or the Human Liberation Movement could be just as bad. If the wrong sort of person got their hands on the city, it could be a major shift in the balance of power. "What role would I be playing?"

"You'd be my deputy director and chief of military operations, with a primary focus on city security and peacekeeping missions," Sam said. "I can't promise a big command like you might get if you stuck with the Spacy – I wouldn't be surprised if they offered you a ship soon – but I think it'll be exciting."

"Nah, sitting in a command chair's not my thing," Cam said. "I don't think there's any point in beating around the bush. I'm in."

"I'm glad to hear that, Cam," Sam said. "I'll have a briefing packet sent to you. Look it over, make sure you're still interested. I won't be disappointed if you decide it's a bit too crazy for you."

Cam chuckled. "Crazy just tempts me more. I do have one other question. How much flexibility do we have in choosing personnel? With this small of an expedition, every person is going to count."

"For practical purposes, you have free reign," Thor said. "While we cannot dedicate much materiel to this mission, it is small enough and, as you said, important enough that we can easily transfer anyone willing to volunteer."

"Excellent." Cam could think of a dozen people already, and no doubt there were plenty of others he could find trawling through personnel files from the entire planet.

"Actually, since you bring it up, there is a personnel issue I'd like you to look into," Sam said. "Ancient technology requires a certain gene to use, and while we can artificially induce it, it works best if the person was grew up with it due to changes in neurological development. There's an officer named Sheppard who has an exceptionally strong gene, but unfortunately there were some recent... discipline issues."

"Sheppard," Cam repeated with a frown. They couldn't possibly be talking about John Sheppard, could they? "The name's familiar. That corvette pilot off the Afghanistan, the one who got shot down over the Chel'nai plains?"

"Precisely," Thor said.

"The psychs say you have similar profiles and might get along. I worked with him once and I think they're right," Sam said. "I'd like you to take charge of his remediation, see if he's salvageable. He could be an asset."

"I could do that, sure," Cam said, although in truth he was a bit puzzled. It was odd that such highly placed people would take an interest in a search and rescue pilot, even if he had caused a minor furor in the Spacy. If anything, that problem should have seen him screened out long before he came to their attention. The gene must have more importance than they were letting on. "If you don't mind my asking, just how critical is it to have him along?"

"It would be a significant advantage for understanding and controlling Ancient technology, especially for operating core city systems such as the weapons and stardrive," Thor said. "However, putting that power in the hands of an unsuitable individual would be dangerous. While I do not believe he is a serious risk, others among my kind disagree."

"He'll have to undergo a review board prior to our departure," Sam said. "It'll include a light psych probe to evaluate his mental state."

Cam frowned. "That's not much time to work with, especially if you want him to genuinely reform. Why not..." He tried to find a delicate way to put things and couldn't. Disobedience in a combat situation was potentially a Severity Four offense, serious enough to warrant more direct action.

"Try behavioral adjustment?" Sam finished for him. She shook her head. "Moral and legal concerns aside, Ancient technology does not react well to mentally altered individuals. There was a... a very unfortunate accident with the Antarctic control chair. The Atlantis one will likely be even more sensitive. No, Sheppard needs to come around of his own free will."

That made Cam feel better, at least. "I'll give it a shot, ma'am. I can't make promises, though."

"That's all I ask," Sam said. "I'll have his file added to your packet. Now, do you have any questions?"

"No, ma'am, although I'm sure some will come up once I start digging into the info."

"Very well. Talk with Amelia, she'll get you settled into an office. Our first official staff meeting will be on Monday. Take the time between now and then to get settled in and familiarize yourself with the mission, and don't hesitate to call if you have questions. I'll try to drop by if I have time, but my schedule's a little crazy right now."

Cam stood, as did Sam, and they shook hands. "Good to see you again, Sam," he said. He almost started to bow to Thor and caught himself, nodding slightly instead. "Supreme Commander."

It took a great deal of self-control to keep from punching the air or otherwise expressing the exuberance he felt until he was out in the parking garage and climbing onto his bike. As it lifted from the ground, though, he couldn't help but let out a war whoop. This was the sort of opportunity he'd been dreaming of for years. As much as he'd loved flying and for all the pride he felt for the work he and his wing had done over the years, space exploration had always been what he'd hoped for. The needs of the service had dictated that skilled pilots were needed elsewhere. Now he finally had a chance at it, with a mission more important than he could have wished for. It was frightening, in way, but Atlantis had so much potential that no amount of fear could stop him from going. After reaching his apartment, he spent the rest of the day reviewing the files Sam sent him, only finally giving in to the need to sleep late into the night.

John Sheppard. Born in 1970, not quite a year after Cam, to Patrick and Hannah Sheppard. His father was the director of one of the largest power combines in North America, noted for being able to keep the Virginia grid working even after the Missile War took out D.C. and most of the surrounding area. His mother was a concert vocalist. He had a brother, David, who was a vice president at the company, and a sister, Lillian, who was in Special Frces. He had joined the Space Service at seventeen, was selected for pilot training based on aptitude skills that were, if anything, as good as Cam's, and graduated from flight school with top honors. He selected combat transport specialty for his advanced training despite qualifying for fighter, bomber, and starship courses. (This was the first clear sign Cam had that the man was crazy.)

He began flying combat and support missions in Skyranger-class dropships, before transferring up to command a Sleipnir corvette after his promotion to captain during the Adoracion campaign. His primary specialization was search and rescue, but Cam could find several gaps in time that didn't quite line up with that, indicating he was also doing some other, more secretive work that even Cam wasn't cleared to see. He could see why, since the need to get in and out of tight spaces quickly could apply to both S&R and special ops. There were a string of demerits for minor acts of insubordination and other trivial misdeeds, with a noticeable spike over the last few years. These were outweighed by an even longer list of commendations, culminating in a silver shield with star for valor during the opening invasion of Chulak.

That award was then followed two months later by a board of inquiry regarding disobedience of an order in a combat situation and loss of his ship due to enemy fire. Under most circumstances that combination would have lead directly for a formal court-martial and likely dismissal, but because of extenuating circumstances he had been recommended remediation under the supervision of field grade officer, with the order approved by Freyr, Supervising Envoy for the Expeditionary Force. That was not, as a general rule, a name you wanted associated with a disciplinary action.

Cam didn't know quite what to expect when he entered the Dien Bien Service Detention Center. He had seen the official holograms in Sheppard's personnel file but those rarely did anyone justice. He'd seen the recording of the tribunal as well, but it wasn't any better, as Sheppard did little more than sit like a statute and answer questions like an emotionless robot. If there had been more time, Cam could have dug up more, from cockpit recordings, shipboard surveillance, or personal videos, but as it was he was already getting pulled in a dozen directions by the demands of the job.

An African security captain named Nshombo led Cam into the detention block. The center as a whole was fairly small, as it was mostly concerned with handling the occasional drunk and disorderly and other leave-related shenanigans until the perpetrators could be transferred back to their units. Since the Asgard had arrived, prisons were mostly short-term facilities, particularly for the military. Other methods of punishment and rehabilitation had more humane and effective outcomes.

Sheppard was in the last cell, sprawled across the bed with his arms wide and his legs hanging off the side. His fingers tapped an idle beat on the mattress, either random noise or a song Cam didn't recognize. He was wearing shipboard utilities, little more than a tight but thick skinsuit that followed the curves of his body closely. He was in good shape, maybe starting to put on a few more pounds than he really needed, and the scruffy stubble and wild hair he had gave him a certain rugged handsomeness. Cam wasn't sure if it was a deliberate look or if he had just neglected grooming while in jail. He also had a charcoal-gray thrall collar around his neck. It was maybe two finger widths wide and only a few centimeters thick, looking more like a heavy ribbon than anything else. There was no visible seam and while it was flexible, it would swiftly become rigid if any attempt was made to take it off. Cam himself had a smaller, more discrete version around his own wrist.

Sheppard barely looked up as the force field disengaged, but then shot Cam another glance as he saw the scarlet, medal-covered sash he wore with his formal uniform. He sat up and gave him a more considering once-over.

"Aren't you a little short for a storm trooper?"

"Excuse me?" Cam said. It wasn't the greeting he had expected. For one thing, he didn't have nearly the chest to be mistaken for Leah Stormborn.

"Never mind." Sheppard dusted his pants off and stood. "You Mitchell?"

"That's Colonel Mitchell to you, Major."

"Yes, sir," Sheppard said with a sloppy salute. "What do you say we stop cluttering up the captain's nice, orderly jail?"

Nshombo rolled her eyes and handed Cam a slate. "Do me a favor and get him somewhere far, far away, sir."

"I don't know, maybe I should just leave now while my sanity's intact." Cam signed and thumb-printed the documents officially transferring custody. She did the same with her side and then pulled out a handheld wand. She pointed it at Sheppard and his collar lit up with a series of orange glyphs. She then turned it on Cam, and after a moment he felt his wristband buzz. At the same time Sheppard's collar turned green and then faded back to gray.

"You now have control of the prisoner, sir," Nshombo. "Please remember that while you have broad custodial authority, exceeding or attempting to exceed the limits placed by the terms of his parole may be punishable by law. You have both been given copies of those terms and other relevant regulations. Do you have any questions?"

"No, I'm good," Cam said.

"Major Sheppard?"

"Nope." He was remarkably blase under the circumstances.

Cam had made sure to thoroughly study those documents, especially since he didn't want to get tripped up by differences between the actual restrictions, technical or legal, surrounding a thrall collar and the way they were depicted in popular media. By and large the rules were fairly straightforward. Sheppard could be compelled to obey orders with varying degrees of force, either by stimulus of the pain centers of the brain or by neural override. That could range from a simple mental nudge to full-on direct control. Cam couldn't order Sheppard to break the law, or place himself in physical or emotional danger beyond what was required for his duties, but otherwise it was mostly an open field. Even that legal restriction was somewhat fuzzy on a technical level, as the collar itself wasn't that smart. In practice the main restrictions came down to whatever Sheppard himself considered an Unacceptable Order, something so unpleasant that the collar's safeties would pick up his distress and engage. The classic examples were self-harm or sexual abuse. Sheppard also had an emergency signal in case he was given other illegal orders. Needless to say, even if Cam wanted a mindless zombie or a lusty sex slave as seen on TV, he was not going to be getting one.

"Very well. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Judicial Affairs office at any time. I wish you both the best of luck."

"Come on, Sheppard," Cam said.

"Yes, sir," he said, falling in place to Cam's left. "Take care, Kahambu."

The doors leading out of the cellblock opened automatically ahead of them, detecting the change in Sheppard's status, and within a minute they were outside. It was closing in on local midnight, but a full moon and the road luminescence was enough to see by. Glancing overhead and slight south, Cam could just pick out the tiny swiftly-moving dots of large ships and stations in low orbit.

"So, I have to admit, this is a bit of a surprise," Sheppard said. "I was expecting Colonel Liao to be picking me up, not an official Hero of Midgard."

"Try not to let it go to your head," Cam replied.

"It's not that I don't appreciate getting out a week early, but I kinda have to wonder why you and Carter want with me."

"You'll get a briefing when we get back to Chicago." They stepped into the base transit center, which was all but deserted beyond a few guards. The nearest platform had a green standby light and after Cam told the terminal their destination they stepped onto it.

"I'm just saying," Sheppard said as they waited for a clear receiver at the other end, "that if this is going to involve another giant lizard, I might prefer to stay in jail."

"What?" Cam stared at Sheppard as the transporter engaged and flung them across the planet. A moment later they were in the crowded terminal under Gram Spire, sunlight pouring in through the skylights at the far end. "Giant lizard?"

"You know, big, green, spat acid. You didn't read that report?"

"Please clear the platform," a peevish electronic voice instructed them.

"No, they must have left that report out of your file," Cam said, leading the way to the lifts.

"That's too bad. I put a lot of work on writing that one. Really, just leave me out of anything that'll involve Goa'uld mad scientists."

"Sheppard, where we're going, the snakes aren't going to be a problem at all." They reached Cam's office which, while not quite as stunning as Sam's, was ridiculously large. He had big desk, two couches, and room to shove a small desk for Sheppard in the corner. "Sit down. I want to lay down some ground rules."

"Alright." John settled into a chair across from Cam, not quite sitting straight but not quite slouching either.

"I've seen your record, the tribunal report, testimony, and all that. I can understand why you took your ship in when you did instead of waiting like you were ordered, even if I can't necessarily condone it."

"Those soldiers would be dead if I had stayed put until the escort arrived."

"Maybe, maybe not. You still put your ship and crew at risk."

"Six people aboard versus thirty-four on the ground. I'd say that's a fair trade-off."

"The only reason the end result wasn't forty dead was good luck."

"I'd say the good piloting had a bit to do with it, too."

Cam knew he shouldn't be getting pulled an argument already, even if Sheppard had a point about the piloting, and yet there he was. "Sheppard, there's no point in debating this. Like I said, I've read the transcripts, we'd just be beating a dead horse. My job here is to determine whether or not you're willing to bring your behavior back in line with what is expected for an officer."

Sheppard reluctantly nodded. "Fair enough, sir."

"Now, I don't expect much. Be respectful of your superiors, do what I say, and I think we'll get along perfectly fine. I have no particular desire to use this thing," Cam held up his bracelet, "and if we can avoid it, great. On the other hand, this in an important mission with some very high-level scrutiny, and if you screw around, I'll get angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

"I will be on my absolute best behavior," Sheppard said. "Scout's honor."

"Alright. I've got your mission briefing loaded on your terminal. Officially you'll be leading our flight section, but you'll likely end up pulling exploration duties as well. Our first senior leadership meeting is tomorrow morning, so be prepared to discuss mission plans. Ask me if you have any questions. Oh, and unless something comes up we'll head home about 1800 tonight."

Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "Home?"

"You're stuck with me, remember? Lucky for you I have a spare room, so you won't be sleeping on the couch." Cam had rented a house out in the countryside, about twenty minutes away from the Spire on his bike. He could have stayed in staff quarters, but the apartment he had been assigned had, like his office, been embarrassingly large. The house was more reasonable and had plenty of room outside, something nice to have after a long period in space.

"Oh. Right," Sheppard said. His expression said that he hadn't thought about that bit; he had probably been expecting to go right back to shipboard accommodations, even if under restrictions.

"I don't suppose you can cook?" Cam asked. If anything Sheppard now looked panicked; Cam sighed and shook his head. "Right. I'll cook and you can clean. Go on and start reading."

"Yes, sir."

Sheppard flopped down behind his own desk and activated the holoscreens, and after a few moments Cam brought up his own work. Trying to organize an expedition from scratch was an unusual challenge, since most units being stood up were split off from existing ones, but fortunately he had at least some experience from his days as a wing commander. His unit had temporarily absorbed the remains of several others during the first stage of the Chulak offensive, and at least in this case no one was actively shooting at him. Having a list of people he wanted helped too.

After a few minutes, Sheppard called over, "Do you mind if I put on some music? Sir."

"Go for it," Cam said with a wave. The relative silence was bothering him a little too. Back on the Norway there had always been constant sound, from the air recyclers and footsteps outside his door to regular shipwide announcements. Sheppard's taste couldn't be too bad. Then again, he was a corvette pilot. If you willingly flew a big, slow target, who knew what other mental issues there might be lurking around the corner.

"Who's this?" Cam asked as deep, mournful voice started singing, accompanied by a guitar.

Sheppard groaned. "Come on. It's Johnny Cash. He's a classic!"

"Never heard of him."

"Please don't tell me you're one of those people who only listen to Norse-ripoff metal. Sometimes I think popular music died with the war. Five and a half billion people on this planet, a thousand different cultures, and everyone wants to hear the same thing."

Cam rolled his eyes. "You sound like my mother. The way she talks, you'd think the Beatles were the only people killed when London was bombed."

"Let me guess, you're a country boy? Sad songs about how your girl went off to the stars and left you alone with your truck and your dog?"

"Very funny. More of a classic or blues rock guy myself. Hendrix, Joplin... maybe Rei Watari, although frankly I'm not sold on any of these new guys."

Grudgingly, Sheppard nodded and said, "I suppose you can choose half the playlist."

"You do remember this is my office, right?"

"Two-thirds?"

"Christ." Cam was clearly going to have his work cut out for him.

That feeling only increased when they arrived at the house that evening. It wasn't that Sheppard was a bad house guest - far from it. He was perfectly happy to chop vegetables and wash pots, which was more than Cam could say about other pilots and officers he had known. Nor were there complaints about the bare-walled, terminal-free bedroom or the small selection of plain t-shirts, jeans, and sweatpants that Cam had ordered to supplement Sheppard's uniforms. He didn't even make any off-color remarks about the ridiculous quilt the Shawnee County Military Spouses Association had given to Cam.

No, it was football that was the issue.

"Sheppard," Cam said as they sat on the couch watching the Boise-Wichita game, after several minutes of frowns, grumbles, and sighs, "do you have a problem?" He really hoped it wasn't gas. Maybe chili hadn't been the best idea for a guy fresh off months of synthetic shipboard and prison food.

"Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but frankly I'd rather be watching something else."

"What, you don't like football?"

"No, I like football fine. There's just other games that'd be more interesting."

Cam's brows scrunched together as he tried to process that. "It's the Plains regional finals. Whoever wins is going to the World Cup. What could possibly be more important?"

"The Purdue-Montreal game, for one."

"Really."

"Yes."

"This match is going to determine who represents us in the first Cup of the century, an event so big that the UN Combined Services have basically scheduled entire campaign plans around it, and you want to watch a college game that's a week old."

Sheppard shrugged and stretched, exposing a sliver of belly. "I haven't exactly been able to keep up lately."

"You're insane," Cam said. "I don't know how you got past the psych evals, but you're clearly crazy."

"What can I say? I think the professional leagues are boring. They've got so much high-end talent to choose from that games end up relying more on luck than skill. It's the college and semi-pro games where the real excitement is at."

"Okay, even if I agree that it's nice to see some of the new blood they develop and that they take a little more risk innovating, you can't tell me the Wings' offensive game is anything less than perfection."

"Honestly, I can't say I'm impressed, but maybe that's because Thunderbirds suck." Sheppard crossed his arms and watched the game for a minute, before adding, "Not that it matters who wins this game anyway. We both know they're gonna be eliminated during the round robin no matter which team wins."

"Hey!"

"And honestly, if we're going to be talking professional sports anyway, football doesn't have anything on rugby." He paused, then said, "You know, my dad refuses to call it anything but soccer. Do they still do that out where you're from?"

Cam resolved to ignore anything Sheppard said about sports for the rest of the evening, because the man had no idea what he was talking about.

The next morning the expedition's senior staff assembled in one place for the first time. Sam had chosen well, picking up experts from around the world for her core staff. Admittedly, Cam did have some bias about her deputy director for military operations, but the others seemed solid as well. Rodney McKay had a reputation for brilliant, if loud, work at Stargate Operations, as did Kate Heightmeyer, their medical and biosciences lead. Social Sciences was lead by Camile Wray, who had been recruited from the Peacekeeping Secretariat.

On Cam's side, his first pick had been Major Evan Lorne, a recon and contact specialist from Stargate Operations. He had the gene, gate experience, and administrative skills in one compact package. To Cam's surprise, he also turned out to have experience in the vital area of Sheppard-wrangling, as Cam found out the first time he showed up at the office shortly before the general meeting.

"Good morning, Colonel," Lorne had said as he stepped through the door. "Or is it Thane? Sir Cameron? I can never remember the protocol on that, I don't hang around with members of the Order of Merit all that often."

"Yeah, I'm sure you didn't look it up," Cam said, rounding his desk and shaking his hand. "Been quite a while, hasn't it? Your team was on Littlefield's World while we were resupplying a couple years ago."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm glad to have you on the team." Cam looked at Sheppard, who was standing with his hands in his pockets a few feet away. "Major Lorne, this is Major John Sheppard, my... temporary adjutant."

Lorne smiled and nodded. "John."

"Evan."

That had not been the kind of greeting Cam had expected at all. "You two know each other?"

"He was my upperclassman mentor at the Academy, sir," Lorne explained.

"We've worked together a couple times since then," Sheppard added.

"Rumor has it you got in a bit of trouble."

"Nothing too serious. Just came out of it with a new accessory."

"I'm sure you and the colonel will," Lorne glanced between them, "work that out just fine."

"Right," Cam said dubiously. This seemed like a happy coincidence, but Cam never trusted coincidence these days.

Rounding out the starting military team was a drop trooper Cam had met on the Norway, Captain Lauren Cadman, who had come recommended by the ship's espatier commander. Also with them for now was Colonel Shen Xiaoyi, the commander of the strike carrier Congo, which they would be traveling on. For her it was simply a one-time mission, a good way to work up a crew post-refit before returning to active duty, but her input would be important for planning what they brought along.

"Thank you all for joining us," Sam said after they had settled around a circular table. There was a tall woman with long hair and dark skin next to her who Cam didn't recognize. "I'm sure you're all as excited as I am to get going. If everything goes smoothly, I hope to be ready for departure in about a month, two at the most. Obviously, that's going to mean some long nights between now and then, but we'll have plenty of time to sleep during the flight."

"Sleep is overrated," Cam said.

"Before we go any further, I'd like to introduce the final member of our command team," Sam went on. She gestured to the woman beside her. "This is Teyla Emmagen, daughter of Tagan, and leader of the Athosians. They are the Pegasus natives who our first contact team encountered. She has graciously agreed to help us by providing information and guidance in exploring the galaxy."

"It is my pleasure to be here," Teyla said. "Your world is an amazing place and I thank you for your hospitality."

"Obviously, Teyla's knowledge will be essential to making our expedition a success," Sam said. "I expect all of you to carefully consider any advice she has."

"Please, Samantha. You do me too much credit."

"Don't sell yourself short," Sam said. "I know from experience that off-world allies can be vital to the success of a mission and make the difference between life and death."

McKay, who had been sitting with his arms crossed and looking decidedly unimpressed, sat up a little straighter. "Oh, yes, of course, what she said. I always found it to be very rewarding to work with Anise. And Teal'c of course, and... that other guy. Quinton?"

"Jonas Quinn," Lorne said, trying not to smile.

"Yeah, him."

"Thank you," Teyla said, giving McKay a very skeptical look. He didn't seem to notice, with his attention firmly on Sam.

"I'm sure all of you have already considered many of the more conventional challenges our expedition will be facing due to the distance we're traveling," Sam said. "I thought it would be a good idea for Teyla to illuminate some of the other challenges Pegasus will hold. Teyla?"

"Where to begin? My people are, by your terms, semi-nomadic, and quite small in number. It was not always so, however. We once had great cities, and according to legend even flew among the stars, although how long ago that was I cannot say. The reason we have fallen so far is that no matter what we do, every five or six generations the Wraith come."

What followed was a story that was both disturbingly new and distressingly familiar. The plight of humans faced with superior alien might was something Cam knew intimately, both from the earliest days of school to his personal experiences on liberated worlds. No matter how strong and proud a people were, there was nothing you could do against ships in the sky without even the most rudimentary anti-aircraft weapons beyond trying hide, survive, and preserve what you could. The biggest difference was the shear scale and the intensely primal fear brought out by the nature of the Wraith. For the most part the Goa'uld were satisfied to reign with indifference toward the vast majority of their human subjects, save for those few they used for hosts or who dared defiance. The Wraith apparently had even less regular contact with humans, but when they did come it was far more devastating and ended with the most horrific atrocities. It was all more inevitable, too; a snake was perfectly happy ignoring anything outside its palace, but the Wraith were driven to seek you out and feed.

"Teyla, words can't express my sympathy," Heightmeyer said once she was done. "It's truly incredible that your people have managed to survive. You must have tremendous strength."

Teyla inclined her head slightly. "We prepare as much as we can, and try not to live in fear."

"You mentioned that the Wraith show up in large numbers every few hundred years," Cam said. "Any idea why?"

"They sleep between the great cullings," Teyla said. "It is rumored that they land their ships in distant places, far from stargates, but it is hard to know how much credence to give to those rumors. Few people would seek them out deliberately, and fewer still return."

"Interesting," Sam said. "I wonder if there's a biological origin to that behavior, some sort of hibernation instinct."

"If they're all asleep and can't wake up, it could be a good opportunity to catch them by surprise," Sheppard observed, speaking up for the first time. "Even a battleship can be pretty vulnerable if you catch them on the ground with shields down."

Teyla shook her head. "I think it is a more deliberate choice, to allow the human population to regrow. They also have watchers who remain awake. It is their ships that come more frequently. Most worlds I know of have been visited by darts at least once a generation, more if they have many inhabitants. Rarely more than a handful are taken, but they remind us of their presence. On occasion, they may even come in person."

"Do they arrive by stargate?" Shen asked.

"In my experience, yes."

"I'm surprised no one blocks them, then. Even a low-technology society can bury the gate."

"Travel through the ring of the ancestors is too important to give up for the vast majority of societies. While there are many who do live far from it, those communities nearby rely on it for trade. In particular it is vital to insure sufficient food during the winter. For that matter, dealing in off-world luxuries is highly profitable. Most people regard it as an acceptable risk, although I am sure there are others who have made the other choice. In those cases they generally travel far on a single world rather than block the ring."

"I imagine the Wraith don't take kindly to roadblocks, either," Cam said, "and you can't keep them from coming from space if they get angry enough."

"There is that as well. The Wraith have been known to punish those who interfere with their hunts or fight back too strongly."

"I'm surprised anyone even tries," McKay said. "I mean, what are you going to do, throw rocks at a spaceship?"

"There is a proverb, that fighting the Wraith is like fighting a storm," Teyla said. "That your best hope is to run and hide. Still, as we teach our children, if you can do neither, there is no reason not to try to strike back. Even if all you do is inconvenience them, it gives meaning to your death, and perhaps an inconvenience will be the difference between life and death for their next victim."

"Well, if you need ways to punch a hurricane in the face," Sheppard said, "you've come to the right place. We're pretty much experts at taking on more powerful enemies and blowing up their crap."

"Without getting the locals blamed, I hope," Wray said.

"Yea, we're good at that, too. Deniable is practically our middle name. Names?" Sheppard shrugged and looked at Sam. "I mean, sneaking into places, setting them on fire, and blaming it on another bad guy is pretty much child's play at this point, right, ma'am?"

She smiled slightly. "Depends on how paranoid they are, how many enemies they have, and how much they hate each other."

"Okay, so just to clarify," McKay said, "this is an exploration mission, right? With limited resources? We don't have a lot of room for guns and grunts."

"You'd be surprised at how tiny a naquadah-catalyzed fusion mine is," Sheppard replied with a lazy grin.

"Actually, no, I wouldn't be."

"Then you know we can fit a lot of them into small spaces."

"We can fit a lot of other more useful things, too."

"Maybe your definition of useful is kind of lame if it doesn't include nukes."

Sam coughed quietly. "Since we're speaking about space, perhaps we could move on to discussing our logistical limits for the outgoing trip. Colonel Shen?"

"We'll be traveling without an espatier complement, so our troop bays will be devoted to your expedition," Shen says. "Call it around three hundred people, give or take. Depending on what else you want to bring along, we might be able to set up additional space in our vehicle bay."

"What about your aerospace wing?" Cam asked. "Will we be able to keep some for ourselves?"

"Obviously, I'm not going to string down our force, given that we'll be traveling in hostile space and without our usual destroyer escort. I'd be willing to spare a Valkyrie squadron or two, but no more. The transports and dropships you can have, assuming you can convince UN Spacy Command to let you take them. Of course, you'll have to find your own pilots."

"I don't think that'll be a problem, and we can talk about the fighters," Cam said, glancing to Sam for confirmation. She nodded slightly and made a note on her tablet. "Can we have the corvettes?"

Shen shook her head. "You get three, we keep the other three. I plan to have them fitted out with capital strike modules. We'll need the extra firepower if we get into combat, since we won't have an escort. I can't spare more, and honestly I wish I didn't have to give you the ones I am loosing. Our spare mission module space is yours, though."

"Fair enough." Cam had seen what happened when even an India-class fleet carrier twice the size of hers tangled with gun-heavy warship at close range and didn't begrudge her the desire to keep as much firepower at hand as she could. A strike carrier's above-average shields only went so far and without a proper escort squadron they would be more vulnerable than usual. That too he had seen, over the skies of Chulak when a squadron of ha'taks had unexpectedly appeared in 'safe' space.

Sheppard raised a hand. "Colonel, what class of 'vettes are you carrying?"

"The latest D-98b Centaurs."

"Hyper modules?"

"Mid-range for yours, short for ours. You'll loose the -"

"Number two aft turret, yeah." Sheppard shook his head and looked to Cam. "Honestly, sir, I'd suggest we take Sleipnirs instead. They may be older but they'll work better for our purposes."

"We're offered the latest in cutting-edge technology and you want to go back to the eighties?" McKay scoffed.

"I want us to go back to reliability. The Sleipnirs may not have the same performance, but they're understood, more durable. All the teething issues have been worked out."

"Sure, in the same way an AK-47 is more 'understood' than a mass accelerator. I'm not an expert, but I know which one I'd choose."

"Okay, first, do you even know what you're talking about? The difference between them is not nearly that big."

"I've seen the specifications for every spacecraft built on Midgard, and even if I didn't, a three-year-old can tell when one number is bigger than the other. More guns, more speed, more shields, more better."

"More things to break, which you would know if you'd taken ten seconds to look past the technical stats," Sheppard retorted, voice getting a little louder. "The Centaurs have a reputation as hangar queens, and if you look at the last Sleipnir production block, they're almost as good. We'd spend twice as much time doing maintenance for a small increase in effectiveness. You can manage that with an entire airbase or carrier crew for support, but we won't have that."

"It is easier to find or customize mission modules," Lorne put in. "The older ships may be bricks, but at least you don't have to squeeze around curves."

McKay huffed. "From where I'm sitting, it sounds a lot like you're willing to settle for substandard equipment to avoid a little work."

Cam didn't need to be a mind reader to know how Sheppard was going to take that and decided to nip things in the bud. "Sheppard, since you're our resident corvette expert, I want you to put together a comparison of the pros and cons. Same with our other aerospace craft."

"Yes, sir," Sheppard said, still glaring across the table at McKay.

"Lorne, you may as well take a look at our ground vehicles. There's no point in sticking with a standard deployment pattern under the circumstances."

"That's good advice for all if our departments," Sam said. "As much as we might wish to take everything we can, but that won't be possible, and we shouldn't count on regular resupply via stargate. We will have at least two fabrication units, but again, no guarantees about how useful they will be if we can't find sources for raw materials. Once we have our parameters for mission balance set out, I want everyone thinking of ways to optimize our equipment, personnel, plans, and procedures toward those goals. I especially expect you to work together across specializations. We can't have an attitude that any given task must be someone else's job, or that one area always takes precedence over another."

Sam went on to outline the top-level mission objectives as dictated from above. The primary goal was to study and protect Atlantis itself. Secondary but still important was to explore the rest of Pegasus and find any other examples of Ancient technology that still existed. Finally, they were to evaluate the ongoing humanitarian crisis and do what they could to alleviate it without endangering the security of the city. Otherwise, it was all left to them on the operational level; the UN and Asgard were placing a great deal of trust in Sam and her ability to juggle the different goals with only minimal oversight in the form of Heimdall and Hermiod, the Asgard representatives. Even they were being fairly hands-off so far, apparently far more interested in science and technology than what the apes were up to.

Naturally there was considerable debate over how the expedition should best accomplish those goals, but by the end of the meeting there was an agreement in principle that once the city's defenses were established, the military and any civilian volunteers would be cleared to begin off-world reconnaissance, even if it did mean using a little more space on hoverjeeps and a little less on boson-bombardment base drums or whatever. For the most part there was a feeling that it was worth spending time and resources on aid where they could, either for moral reasons or because it would build up goodwill for strategic purposes, although there were some people who thought that was pointless, and certain other people who took offense to that.

After the meeting, Cam waited until he and Sheppard were back in his office before saying anything. "Hey, Sheppard. I need a quick word."

"Sure, what's up?"

"You got a little riled up with McKay in there. I need you to keep that in check."

Sheppard gave him a disbelieving look. "He was spouting a bunch of bullcrap."

"Sure, and I don't care if you call him on it. I care about how you do it. Don't let him make you angry, or at least hide it a little better."

"Mitchell, if he can't take it, maybe he shouldn't be dishing it out himself."

"That's not the point. Look, I know he's a jerk. Hell, from what Sam's told me, everyone at the SOC thinks he's a jerk. He's got a lot of leeway, though, because he's genuinely brilliant, enough that she's willing to potentially spend years trapped in a city with him. You don't have that leeway. I shouldn't need to tell you that your behavior is being scrutinized on a high level. You want to gripe in private, fine, but out there, especially around Colonel Carter or the Asgard, you need to be a model gentleman."

"Yes, sir," Sheppard said grudgingly. "I'll be on my best behavior."

Cam wanted to believe him, but wasn't quite sure he could. He'd just have to take Sheppard at his word and keep an eye on him. Trying to force his compliance with the collar would probably just end up backfiring against his underlying goal of getting him to settle down of his own free will.

"Okay, I'll hold you to that. Get to work on that comparison. Like I said, I think you're right, but we still need to figure out exactly which sub-models of strike craft we want, in a format that's easier to show the brass than a gut feeling."

"I'll get right on it." Sheppard headed for his desk, and was just sitting when Cam called over to him.

"One more thing. I need a list of possible pilots and crew. Given the personnel limits we probably can't staff every spacecraft at once, so anyone who can multi-task is a plus."

"You want me," Sheppard said slowly, "to choose the pilots."

"I've got some in mind myself, especially for the fighters, but yeah. I want your recommendations for who I should interview first." Cam wondered if he needed to spell it out in simple, short sentences that he had trust in Sheppard's professional piloting abilities, even if not in his self-control. Surely he could take the hint and see the olive branch he was being offered, right? No one could be that obtuse.

"Right. I'll have that for you ASAP." Sheppard seemed a little less sullen and a little more enthusiastic.

For the next couple of days, things seemed to work alright. Sheppard toned down the sarcasm a bit, to levels that while still a bit flippant wasn't much worse than what Cam was used to from other pilots. He was polite with superior officers like Shen and Sam, cordial with the scientists and support staff, and was swiftly becoming good friends with Teyla. Even in a few meetings with McKay, he managed to hold back from anything too biting or at least stick to business.

Until one day he didn't.

It came at the end of an admittedly long and tiring day, mostly spent arguing with logistics and materiel control officers at Spacy headquarters. Sheppard had proven that their best bang-for-buck option were Sleipnir Block 9 Mod C corvettes, the kind used for long-distance special operations missions. The problem was that they were highly customized, highly expensive, and highly in demand. No one in any of the combat fleets or special operations commands wanted to give even three up. Eventually repeating the words "Thor says" like a holy chant against evil got them what they demanded, but by that point they had both spent a ridiculous amount of time talking with everything from subsapient virtual assistants to supply sergeants to generals. Half of them wouldn't even talk to Sheppard, which just made him increasingly annoyed, until he was basically a piece of unexploded ordnance waiting for someone to come along and kick him.

McKay, naturally, was very good at kicking things.

They were discussing off-world missions, just Sam, Cam, McKay, Sheppard, and Teyla. There was so much up in the air still that it was hard to say what they would even be able to do, but that was a classic chicken-and-egg problem, since what they wanted to do would inform what capabilities they would bring. Teyla had a virtual atlas of worlds in her head, and while the contact team hadn't been able to even scratch the surface of Atlantis' city database, they did manage to download a list of gate addresses and accompanying planetary survey data. Comparing notes let them see what places might be worth trading with for things like metal, luxuries, or access to ruins. What was most important among those was a matter of contention.

"Okay, here, what about this one?" McKay said, pointing at an address that they'd matched between Teyla's list and theirs. "Genua. Large amounts of uranium ores in the mountains west of the gate. What's there?"

"The Genii are a simple people," Teyla said. "Mostly noted as farmers. I believe they do have a source of metal and the means to produce tools, but as far as I am aware it's simply steel."

"Do people get horribly sick and die with their skin coming off when they touch the metal?"

"I... no. Why do you ask?"

"Never mind. We can get iron anywhere. Do they have anything useful at all?"

"Their tava beans are nutritious and store well, and they make decent cloth, although in truth I know many better sources for that. Mostly the beans, really."

"Beans. Wonderful." McKay made a show of crossing off the name on his tablet. "Another useless planet."

"I wouldn't say that," Sheppard replies. "Beans are pretty versatile."

"Beans are worthless. We can make practically all the food we want."

Cam shook his head. "We'll see if you're still saying that after living off synthesized food for a few months."

"What's not to like?" McKay said, puzzled. "Perfect nutritious balance, no allergens, no surprise ingredients. No food poisoning because someone can't keep the kitchen clean or mixes things up."

"Someday you're going to have to come over for dinner," Cam said, ignoring Sheppard's horrified look. "Clearly someone's ruined real food for you and you need to be shown how it's supposed to be."

"Okay, fine, occasionally some fresh fruit or vegetables might be nice. But beans? Grain? Those are the simplest things to duplicate and the bulkiest to haul around. Which means, again, useless for trade." McKay crossed his arms. "Look, this is just demonstrating what I've been saying all along. The only thing we really need is an uninhabited planet where we can set up some metal extractors, assuming we can't do that on Lantea, and access to a couple trading hubs or industrial worlds. There, done, off-world planning complete."

"Rodney," Sam said, "that's not helpful."

"I don't see why not. Once we have the full Ancient database to work with, we can find more planets that might have technology on them, but this stuff is pointless. Unless Teyla knows some planets with Ancient ruins, in which case, sure, let's talk."

Teyla said, "I know many worlds with ruins of different sorts, but whether they are ancestral or human is always hard to say. In addition, most people do not allow free access to them to strangers, which is one reason to build relationships through trade and gifts."

"So we focus on bribing those worlds. That's still a lot less work." McKay snapped his fingers. "Actually, doesn't Ethos have old ruins?"

"Athos."

"Right, that's what I said."

"You said Ethos," Sheppard said.

"And you can't say 'zed' properly, but I don't go correcting your pronunciation."

Teyla, who looked like she didn't know whether to be confused or insulted, said, "There is an abandoned city, some parts of which your people believe to be of the first ancestors. My people do not go there. It is said to be cursed."

McKay waved that away. "Curses are just superstition. Nothing to worry about."

"You'd be surprised at how many curses turn out to be real," Sheppard said. "If the locals say some building is cursed, there's a fifty-fifty chance that if you start touching things there's going to be lasers, flamethrowers, or nerve gas."

"That's not a curse. That's idiots mistaking Goa'uld booby-traps for magic."

"So you're saying that there's no chance that the evil life-sucking aliens who suppress technological advances would put traps in Ancient ruins."

"What? No, I didn't say that."

"Oh, so you meant that the Athosians are idiots for using a term you don't like to refer to a genuine threat."

"I didn't mean that either! Stop putting words in my mouth!" McKay protested. A few moments later, he realized basically had obliquely called them idiots and he hastily added, "Look, I was just talking about the average snake-worshiping peasant. Teyla's people are clearly more knowledgeable even if they don't have the resources to put that knowledge to use. They know what technology is and don't believe in spirits."

"We do, in fact, believe in spirits," Teyla said, about as frosty as the cold, merciless vacuum of space.

"Uh."

"Colonel Carter," Sheppard said, grinning like a shark, "maybe this is just a rumor, but didn't one of your friends become a space ghost?"

Sam sighed and pinched the brow of her nose. "This is so completely beside the point."

"Maybe in the major's case," McKay said, "but in my case the point is that we can get most of our raw material needs right there, without spending time roaming the galaxy and putting us at more risk than we need to be."

"Rodney, we are not going to reopen the mission parameters for debate every few days until you get your way."

"I don't get it," Sheppard said. "Why are you even bothering to come on this expedition if you're so risk-averse?"

"Hello, lost city of the Ancients? Totally worth it. Other random planets, not so much."

"That's it, you just want some cool technology?"

"'Cool technology' does not even begin to describe it."

"Where's your sense of adventure? We're going to an entirely new galaxy! There's a thousand worlds to explore. There's people who need our help. We can't just ignore them."

Noticing he was getting increasingly agitated, Cam caught Sheppard's eye and shook his head, hoping he'd get the message and settle down.

"We're having enough trouble helping one galaxy, and that's with the entire UN Combined Services and the Asgard Fleet. We're going to have a few hundred people."

Sheppard's hands were clenched on the arms of his chair, his teeth gritted. "We still have an obligation to do what we can, and that means not sitting in the city like a bunch of turtles pulled into our shells."

McKay scoffed at that. "Every off-world mission puts us at risk of discovery. It seems like a pretty obvious piece of military strategy, even to me. Then again, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that's not your strong suit. Your idea of tactics is to run in, get shot up, and crash your ship. Colonel Ramming Speed here isn't much better."

There was a pin drop silence. It seemed like even McKay realized he'd overstepped a bit, given the way he shrank back in his chair. That probably wasn't so much from any degree of self-awareness as from Sheppard's murderous glare. For a few seconds Cam thought that he'd have to stop Sheppard from jumping across the table and strangling McKay on the spot.

"You know, McKay, it's a wonder you've worked around people with guns for so long without getting shot," Sheppard finally said. "Keep this up in a confined space and I don't think that trend will last."

"Are you threatening me?" McKay said, face pale and eyes wide. "Oh my god, he's threatening me!"

Sheppard rolled his eyes. "I'm not going to shoot you, McKay. I don't kill defenseless people. I might punch them occasionally if they annoy me enough, though."

So much for good behavior. Wearily, Cam said, "That's enough, Sheppard."

"He switches to an even more plausible threat and all you say is 'that's enough'?" McKay squawked.

"Tell you what," Sheppard drawled, "if you're that worried, I'll wait until after you have a chance to take some of those civilian self-defense classes Lorne's arranging. You might even be able-"

"Major, shut up!" Cam snapped, for the first time putting the force of the control collar behind his words. Sheppard reacted immediately, mouth closing mid-word. He stared at Cam in shock, like he was somehow surprised that blatantly disregarding Cam's orders wouldn't get any response. "You're done for the day. Go home and wait for me. Now."

"Yes, sir." Sheppard stalked out of the room, fuming.

"Someone remind me again why we have a felon on our expedition?" McKay asked.

"McKay, drop it," Sam said. "You and I obviously need to have a long talk, because Sheppard's right about one thing: if you keep being as much of a jerk as you are at the SOC, someone's going to toss you out an airlock sooner rather than later."

"Hey!"

Cam stood, because as much as he'd love to hear that conversation he had bigger fish to fry. Teyla did as well and together they left the conference room. As they walked down the hall, she said, "I hope you will not be too harsh on Major Sheppard."

"Harsh? If he weren't a grown man I'd spank his ass."

"I am simply saying that I am glad he feels so passionately about assisting the people of my galaxy. I know not all of your leaders believe it should be a consideration, given your own troubles."

"Look, it's not that I disagree with him about the importance of the non-scientific parts of our mission. Hell, I don't even disagree about McKay needing some sense knocked into him. Sheppard's just not in a position where he can say that sort of shit right now."

Teyla nodded. "I understand, even if some of the reasons for his censure puzzle me. As a leader you must ensure that he follows your orders. If he does not do so now, he may not when it is critical that you be obeyed."

"Exactly!" That was probably the most frustrating thing about the situation. Cam understood why Sheppard would choose to rescue those soldiers, even knowing the potential consequences. Blowing off his agreement to keep his cool with McKay was just pointless disobedience for the sake of disobedience.

"I wish you both luck in finding a solution." Teyla hesitated a moment. "We had intended to begin exercising and sparing together. Would it still be possible for us to do so?"

"Yeah, he mentioned something about that. I'd told him it was fine, but now I'm not sure I should let him out of my sight."

"I think it would be good for him, give him a physical outlet for his anger."

"Worth a shot." Maybe Cam should join them. At this rate he was going need an outlet for anger too.

"Very well. I shall see you tomorrow, then."

Cam returned to his office to check his mail and fire off a last few responses, look over the next day's schedule, and otherwise fiddle around until he wasn't feeling quite as annoyed with Sheppard. That wasn't terribly successful, because half of his work just reminded him that Sheppard would be following him around the next day, including to meetings with a gaggle of diplomats from the Foreign Relations Secretariat, candidates for their battalion's senior NCO slots, and the head of gate defense from SOC. Later in the week there was a meeting with General Carter, who had disliked Cam as a matter of principle for over twenty years. If Sheppard pulled a stunt like like the one today at any of those, both of their asses would be on the line.

With a sigh, Cam gave up on any attempts at clearing his mind. He grabbed his riding jacket and made his way down to the underground garage. He hoped that maybe a nice, long ride out in the country might help. As Cam neared a support pillar, Lorne stepped out from behind it.

"Jesus!" Cam said, nearly jumping out of his skin. "What are you lurking around for?"

"I wouldn't say I'm lurking, sir," Lorne said. "Just hoping for a quick word."

"Sure," Cam said, waving for Lorne to follow along. "What's up?"

"I heard you had a bit of a Sheppard problem today."

"It's been, like, thirty minutes. How can you possibly know that?"

"I have my sources."

What was that even supposed to mean? There were only five people in that room and Cam doubted even McKay could have blabbed that fast, especially if he was getting a lecture. Then again, maybe Cam didn't want to know.

"I don't feel like talking about him at the moment, Major."

"I'll try to keep it short, then," Lorne said, because apparently even Cam's subordinates who weren't on probationary status felt like they could just ignore his wishes. "John's always had some issues with authority. Usually he's able to put those aside, but he's got a tendency to push back when he disagrees with a decision. "

"No shit."

"I don't want to try any amateur psychoanalysis, but I think a lot of his recent problems stem from a personal problem he had a few years ago. I can't say a lot, I swore to keep my mouth shut, but suffice to say someone took advantage of his trust and he got burned pretty badly."

Cam sighed. He had enough things to worry about without wondering if he needed to ask Heightmeyer to help Sheppard with daddy issues or something cliché like that. Lorne's evasiveness about what the hell he was even talking about didn't help. "Lorne, is there a moral to this story?"

"My point is that right now John likes you, even respects you as a fellow pilot and officer," Lorne said. "But unless you push him hard to get past this, he's never going to give you the kind of submission that a review board is going to want to see."

"I don't need submission like he's some kind of dog, I just need him to show a bit of professionalism and obedience for a few weeks."

For a moment Lorne had a hint of a smile. "The two might be more closely related than you think, sir."

Before Cam could ask what that was supposed to mean, he stopped in his tracks. They'd reached his reserved parking slot. His bike was nowhere to be seen. "You have got to be kidding me."

"Let me guess," Lorne said, "you told him to go home and just expected him to take public transportation?"

"I'm going to kill him."

Thirty cramped minutes later, Cam finally reached his house, having squeezed into a staff autocar that was apparently built for either dwarves or unarmored Asgard and had a top speed of 'granny'. He had to walk past his own damned vehicle going inside. Sheppard was in the kitchen, chopping up onions and pepper, with ground beef and other ingredients scattered around the counters. He looked up as Cam came through the door.

"All that bean talk put me in the mood tacos," he said, "and I think I made cornbread. We'll see how that goes when it comes out of the oven."

Cam stared at him, disbelief growing by the second. "That's all you have to say?"

"Thanks for letting me use your bike, it's a nice ride?" Sheppard said. He almost managed to sell the innocent look, except he couldn’t quite stop a smile. Cam crossed the room and got right in his face, so close he could practically feel Sheppard's body heat.

"How about 'sir, I'm sorry I threatened to assault a civilian, I don't know what got into me?' That would be a nice start."

"I know what got into me," Sheppard said. "He's a self-centered asshole."

"He's not the only one."

"Come on, it's not like I was really going to punch him, even if it would do him some good."

"Can you please try to be serious just for a minute? This kind of thing is exactly what you promised not to do. I don't know what makes you think this kind of behavior would be okay even under normal circumstances, let alone right now."

Sheppard hesitated for a moment. He seemed to really consider his options. Then he smirked and said, "It's not my fault people can't take a joke."

Cam took Sheppard's own words to heart and punched him in the face. It felt remarkably good, even if it left his knuckles hurting. Sheppard didn't waste any time in returning the favor with one to the gut. They each managed to land a few more before it turned into a grappling match and they fell to the floor. Sheppard was surprisingly scrappy, but Cam had a little more weight and muscle on him. After a few minutes, Cam had him pinned face-up, one arm across his throat.

"I have tried to be nice," Cam growled. "I've tried to be lenient, I've tried keeping that collar of yours turned off. But if it's the only way to get through to you, I'll use it so much you'll feel like a goddamn robot."

Sheppard tried to buck him off but Cam pressed him down hard until he stopped struggling again. Both of them were breathing hard and sweating, and through the thin fabric of their uniforms Cam could feel every taunt muscle on Sheppard's body. Suddenly he realized that some of that hardness wasn't just muscle.

"Are you getting off on this?" Cam said. Sheppard tried to squirm away again but failed, only managing to confirm that was definitely a raging hard-on pressed against Cam's thigh. His own body started to react in kind. "Is it because you like it rough, or because I'm not taking your shit anymore?"

"Fuck. You," Sheppard spat.

Cam pressed his arm down a little harder and commanded, "Answer me."

Sheppard managed to fight it for a few second before choking out, "Bit of both."

"Jesus." Some of what Lorne had hinted at made more sense. Easy to see why he thought Cam needed to force a confrontation or why Sheppard might be so determined to resist control, depending on his history. Harder to say whether pushing this further was the right idea, with so many ways it could go wrong. It was hard to think, with Cam's heart pounding and adrenaline high, his own dick straining at his underwear. No time to consider options, just to decide whether or not to roll the dice.

Fortune favors the bold, he thought. "I gotta wonder," he said, voice so rough and husky it surprised even him, "just what would you consider an unacceptable order? How far could I push it before the collar stopped working? If I told you suck my cock, would you? If I told you to bend over the couch and take it up your ass? Go on, answer."

Sheppard swallowed, his eyes wide and wild. "Probably, yeah. You might wake up without balls the next morning, though."

After a second Cam chuckled and shook his head. He rolled off him and got to his feet, then offered Sheppard a hand up. Sheppard grudgingly accepted it and once standing made a futile attempt to adjust himself and hide the bulge in his pants. Cam didn't see the point, at this stage it wasn't like either of them could ignore it.

"Go on and finish getting supper ready. We need to talk about this like adults and I'm not doing it on an empty stomach." He wasn't prepared take this any further without some preparation anyway.


Not for the first time, John didn't have the slightest fucking clue what was going on with his life. He was supposed to be back to flying on the Afghanistan, even if he would have been in the metaphorical doghouse for a few months. Colonel Liao was a straightforward man, easy to please. All John would have needed was to keep his head low and fly his missions and eventually everything would have been fine. Hell, even the alternative of running ops with Colonel Titov, terrifying witch that she was, would have been simple enough, just go out and extract, rescue, or kill whoever was the target of the day. Instead, there he was prepping for an intergalactic mission, with people apparently expecting that a slap on the wrist and a fancy collar would make him change his nature, and the UN Spacy's current golden boy had just left John more turned on than he'd been in years. He had a fucking wet spot in his boxers, for gods' sake, like a damned teenager. John should have known something like this would happen from the moment Mitchell stepped foot in his cell looking like he'd come straight out of a recruiting poster.

Also, he was cooking. What the fuck was up with that?

Mitchell had retreated to his office, probably to jack off like John desperately needed to. John was fine with that, needing some time to steady himself. Grating some cheese, shredding lettuce, and making sure the beef didn't burn was sufficiently mindless but attention-occupying to help him relax, although what he really needed was some time in the cockpit. He'd be happy with an ultralight or damned death glider as long as it got him in the sky.

Eventually he had a bunch of tortillas and filling that at least smelled like tacos, and something golden that appeared to be cornbread, although at that point he wouldn't mind too much if he'd managed to screw up badly enough they both keeled over from poisoning. He made his way down the hall to the office, found the door shut, and knocked.

"Food's up," he said. Mitchell emerged a few minutes later and they ate in an awkward silence. Well, it seemed awkward to John, at any rate. There was none of their usual banter about spaceships or old-fashioned airplanes, or any other topic for that matter. Certainly no mention of the elephant in the room.

"That was pretty good," Mitchell said once they'd finished up their meals and packed away the leftovers.

"Thanks," John replied.

"Take a seat on the couch." John did so and Mitchell followed him over, dragging the armchair to face him and sitting. "I think we both know things aren't working right now."

"Yeah, I was probably a little out of line earlier," John replied. At Mitchell's raised eyebrow, he amended, "A lot."

The outburst with McKay probably hadn't been his brightest idea. It wouldn't have been too out of place with fellow pilots or some of the spec ops guys he carted around, but with even the most annoying civilian he shouldn't have gone that far. That he had worried him a little.

"Stuff like that can't happen, Sheppard. There are people who'll be watching this project like a hawk from now until the moment we leave comm range that do take that very seriously. If you slip up around them, it'll give them ammunition to get you removed."

John shook his head. "Let's skip to the real problem. It doesn't matter if I can pretend to be a perfect officer. Before we leave they're going to put me under a probe, and when that happens they're not going to like what they see."

"A light one," Mitchell told him. "No one's digging around in your brain. You go in there with the right attitude and it'll be smooth sailing."

"I used to be able to get into that kind of head space," John admitted. "Haven't for quite a while, though."

"You want to talk about it?"

"Why not?" John said after a few seconds' hesitation. If he was going to do this conversation thing, he might as well go whole hog now and hope to avoid the need for further heart-to-hearts at some later date. "I like guys, right? Mostly, anyway. No one's ever given me any grief about it."

Not since the advent of artificial wombs had renewed his father's hope for grandchildren from his heir, but John wasn't going anywhere near that bundle of issues.

"The thing is, I like other things, too. Not just a bit of rough sex, but being tied up, smacked around a little. Dominated. It feels good to just give up control to someone else. That sort of thing just isn't kosher for a pilot."

Mitchell frowned. "Lots of people occasionally get some handcuffs out. Nothing wrong with that."

John chuckled darkly. "You and I both know there's a difference between a little extra spice from time to time and wanting it as a regular part of sex. That sort of thing gets out and people aren't going to treat you the same. We're told from day one of flight training that the entire reason we still have pilots instead of machines is because of our killer instinct. We're supposed to be aggressive, take charge, be bold. Not want someone to put a collar and leash on us. I admit that and I may as well ask to be put on cargo transport duty."

"I don't know that it'd be as important as for someone with your skill," Mitchell said, pursing his lips, "but I can see that some people'd try to make a big deal out of it."

"They would, trust me."

Mitchell nodded quickly, held up a hand to stop John from continuing. "I'm not arguing with you. It's your life, if you think it matters then that's good enough for me. I'm guessing something happened to prove you right anyways."

"Yeah. Not that many people know, a few close buddies, a couple other guys with similar interests." John took in a deep breath, then rushed ahead. "I was in a relationship for a while, when I was stationed on Littlefield's World running emergency extraction ops for gate teams. I got off on submission, he got off on dominance and a bit of sadism, it seemed like it could work out. He... turned out to be more hardcore than I was. Acted like he owned me even outside the bedroom, wanted to share me with a friend of his. He didn't take it well when I ended things. It got ugly."

"This something I need to deal with?" Mitchell asked, his expression like a gathering supercell. "Maybe drop word to someone in Internal Security or Public Safety?"

"No. No, it's been taken care of," John said. He didn't know how, but it was definitely over and done with, unless he got his hands on a time machine. "That's pretty much the story. Not very interesting, really."

"Doesn't need to be interesting." Mitchell sat there, deep in thought for a minute, then finally said, "The way I see it, you need to get yourself back into that, that head space, remember why you liked it, get yourself grounded again. Best way to do that would be to talk with a therapist, but I think we both know that's not happening."

John tried to imagine himself talking about that with Heightmeyer and nixed the idea immediately. She seemed nice enough and he'd had some good experiences with psychs before, but he didn't know her well enough to open up about something like this. "Yeah, no."

"Guess I'm the next best thing, then. I can try give you what you need, if you're willing to give it a shot."

"Give it a shot," John repeated, not sure he believed what he was hearing. "Do you even do this sort of thing?"

"Not really," Mitchell said, entirely too cheerful. "Other than that one time with the handcuffs, but we're not going to talk about that little disaster. How hard can it be? I give you orders, you follow them, just with a little extra incentive to obey."

"That's crazy. You're crazy."

"My daddy used to tell me that if you believed in a cause or goal enough, you needed to be willing do what it takes to make it successful," Mitchell said. "He was a peacekeeper, joined right when the Asgard started recruiting. Wasn't a popular choice where he was from. Still isn't, really. I don't think he's spoken more than a dozen words with my uncle in the last thirty years. He says it was worth it. I figure compared to that, expanding my horizons a bit with a handsome man isn't too much to ask."

Of course Mitchell's father was some kind of paragon of nobility and self-sacrifice. "God, Mitchell, are you trying to shame me in going along with this?"

"Is shame something that'll get you to behave? A good whippin'? Whatever works, I can give it a shot."

"I'm more likely to die of embarrassment at this rate," John muttered. He knew his face had to be beat red.

"Sounds like I'm hitting the right buttons already." Mitchell's smile faded and his expression grew serious. "If you're not comfortable, now or with something in the future, tell me to stop and I'll drop the idea in a heartbeat. We'll find some other solution."

"This is such a bad idea," John said. "But what the hell, it can't be worse than therapy."

"That's the spirit," Mitchell said. "In that case, your first order is to make me a list. Things that worked for you, things that didn't, things you won't try. Be thorough. I need to know what to expect as much as you do."

"Alright," John said. In for a penny, in for a pound on the entire 'exposing his inner feelings' front.

"Good. I've got some research of my own to do, so I'll let you get to it." Mitchell stood, started to leave the living room, then paused. "One more thing. From now on, when we're at work, I expect a higher degree of decorum from you. In particular, you'll address me as 'sir' or by rank like you're supposed to. Understood?"

"Yes, sir." John looked for some paper, found none, and started taking notes on his tablet, triple-checking that he was writing in an encrypted folder. He started the lists as Mitchell had directed, although there wasn't a whole lot to say. John's tastes had always been pretty straightforward and simple, able to be accomplished without much in the way of equipment or preparation. Some impact play, a bit of rope, the odd improvised blindfold, that sort of thing. He was done pretty quickly, then after some thought added another category of things he had never had a chance to try because he'd lacked opportunity or never worked up the nerve. Better to be thorough, John thought, even if there was little chance any of it would be relevant.

After a while, once he was sure of what he'd put in, he sent the list to Mitchell over the household private network. He received a receipt of message acknowledgment back but nothing else, and eventually he settled onto the couch playing games. It wasn't until a couple hours later that Mitchell poked his head into the living room and told him it was time to hit the sack.

"In here," Mitchell said. He waved John into his own room. John followed him and to his surprise saw a foam mattress and a sleeping bag on the floor. At John's questioning look, he said, "You're gonna have to earn the right to sleep in a bed."

"Right. Sir." John was going to have to do that quickly. He hadn't become a pilot because he wanted the joys of sleeping without a real mattress. While Mitchell used the master bath, John ducked back to his own room and changed into shorts and a t-shirt before brushing his teeth, taking a moment to poke at the black eye he had forming. When he returned, Mitchell was already stripped down to gray boxer-briefs. He was a good looking man, especially for his age, fit in a thick, dense way even if he wasn't a sculpted god of muscles. Certainly John didn't mind to see him walking around shirtless.

"You know," Mitchell said when John was about the lay down, "it occurs to me that I don't think I've ever seen you without a shirt on. Do you always sleep dressed?"

Reluctantly, John admitted, "No, I don't."

"Go on, then. No reason not to be comfortable on my account."

John did as he was told, stripping off first his shirt and then the shorts, not waiting to be asked about those. Mitchell nodded approvingly, giving him a quick once over, and said, "Honestly, half the time I sleep buck naked, but I wouldn't want to offend your sensibilities too much. For today, at least." He winked.

As John laid down, he wondered if Mitchell intended to pioneer a new field of domination by irritation and cheerfulness.

John didn't notice any changes in Mitchell's behavior the next morning, other than some complaints that John snored, a fact that was patently untrue because all the noise had been coming from Mitchell. After a quick breakfast John summoned a car to take him in to the Spire, where he was meeting Teyla for some exercise and training.

"Good morning, John," she said as he entered the private training room they'd booked. It was odd to see her in exercise shorts and a tank top instead of her usual cotton and leather ensemble.

"Morning," he said.

"You appear to be injured. Is everything all right?"

He considered trying to come up with some excuse, but decided honestly was the best policy. "Mitchell and I had a bit of a tussle. Turns out that if you advocate for punching people in the face as a way to deal with problems, someone might do it to you."

"I see. I hope he is equally as bruised."

"Sure, let's say that he is," John said. "Still, this training might be useful."

"I hope so. I've had a few opportunities to see others of your people fight, and I believe there is much we might learn from each other."

"I should warn you, I'm not exactly a hand-to-hand expert. You might be better off asking one of the drop troopers."

"I fully intended to. However, teaching a novice can also be very rewarding." Before John could object to that characterization - he did have some training, after all - Teyla turned to a rack of various training weapons and picked up a pair of wooden rods, each about a meter in length. "I spoke with the base arms master and he was able to make these bantos staves based on my description in less than a minute. It is remarkable how quickly you are able to manufacture goods."

"Funny thing is it just makes people like hand-made stuff more," John said, looking at the staves glumly. Of course she wanted to hit him with sticks. He remembered the last time this happened, when he'd made the mistake of getting out of his 'vette during an op and some old Jaffa had beat him six ways from Sunday with a ma'tok staff.

"We shall begin with the basic forms," she declared, tossing him two staves and picking up a pair herself. "Follow what I do."

John reluctantly raised the staves to copy her. This was already seeming like a bad idea. "Maybe tomorrow I can show you how to shoot. Our guns are a bit more effective than wood sticks."

"Yes, they are very impressive. You can never know too many ways to defend yourself, however."

They spend most of the next hour practicing. John managed to more or less get the forms down, although he couldn't be sure he'd remember them for long, and managed not to completely get his ass beat once they switched over to more actively sparring against each other. Teyla gave him mixed reviews on that one.

"Your reflexes are excellent," she commented as he tried to get past her defense and she effortlessly deflected him.

"I'm a pilot," he said. "Goes with the job."

"However, you rely on them too much. You waste time thinking about how to react," and suddenly she was in his face with a whirlwind of clashing staves, leaving him on the ground in the blink of an eye, "instead of reacting. You will have to practice until the right movements and responses are as instinctive as breathing."

"Ow."

"Also, you are easily distracted by conversation." She helped him up. "I would think that a pilot would need to focus on many thing as once."

"It's different in the air," he said, dusting off his pants. "Simpler. I know what I need to do up there."

"Then you should find a way to bring that clarity to earth. Have you ever considered meditation?"

"Meditation," John repeated. He wasn't even sure what meditation entailed beyond sitting cross-legged and going 'ommm'. "No, not really."

"I shall teach you that as well," Teyla said. "Regular meditation before sleep and after waking can help you clear away the stresses of the day and prepare for those to come, and once you become more skilled the same techniques can be used to achieve higher level of awareness and self-control in your daily life."

"I really don't know if I have time," John told her. "Thanks, though."

"As a matter of fact," she said, arching an eyebrow, "last night Colonel Mitchell discussed it with me over the telephone, and said you could easily fit it into your daily routine."

"Did he," John said indignantly. For a moment he was angry, until he remembered he'd pretty much given Mitchell the okay to make him do anything he wanted, above and beyond his rights as a CO. "Okay, sure, I'll give it a shot."

"Please sit," she said. She did so gracefully herself, folding into lotus position with limber ease. Him, not so much. As he tried to get comfortable she frowned at him and said, "I think we might need to address posture at some point as well."

"No, no, I'm fine." His entire career was centered around sitting for long periods of time. He could manage this.

"Of course. Let us begin, then. In the Athosian practice, we first choose a singular focus for our thoughts, usually something of personal importance that can either represent our thoughts or a way to control them. I think of a flame surrounded by void, in which I burn that which distracts me. Others think of rain, pottery wheels, the ring of the ancestors."

John considered his options. Different planes and ships, Ferris wheels, the beach... "How about the sky?"

"Very well. The first thing I want you to do is close your eyes and imagine it, wide open and blue, with clouds scattered across it. Each breath you take is a gust of wind, slowly pushing those clouds away...."

It was only an hour later that John finally managed to escape and catch a shower, with a cramp and at least a dozen more bruises. Teyla had not taken it easy on him at all, apparently having heard about the miracles of Midgardian medical technology. Still, he felt surprisingly relaxed. Maybe that was because of the meditation, or maybe because he'd basically had an extra bit of nap time. He stopped by the infirmary next to get a nurse to apply some quick-heal, which at least relieved the pain and left his face looking less absurd.

When he reached the office Mitchell was taking a call, voice muffled by a privacy field. He glanced up and John gave him a wave as he walked to his own desk. He pulled up the personnel files he'd need for the day. They would be spending most of it doing interviews with prospective pilots and flight crews, some of them in person and a handful of others via virtual conference over subspace. They'd gotten a fair number of responses to their recruitment inquiries, although John imagined quite a few of those would back out once they heard more than the vague mission brief that had been sent out. That was always the problem with this sort of operation: it sounded so exciting to be invited to discuss a 'classified mission vital to planetary security' right up until you found out it involved sitting around guarding the ass end of nowhere or escorting diplomats who thought leaves in their hair were the height of fashion. The volunteer-only nature of the expedition meant they couldn't even order recruits to just put up and shut up as John had been told so many times.

"You're twenty minutes late," Mitchell said once his call was over.

"Yeah, I had to stop by the infirmary," John said. "My bruises had bruises."

"And you don't have a phone?"

"Sorry, I didn't really think about it. I'll be sure to let you know if it happens again." When Mitchell kept looking at him expectantly, he hastily added, "Colonel Mitchell. Sir."

Mitchell sighed and waved him over. "What you do think about this first set of guys?"

"It's hard to say without talking to the ones I don't know. Fokker, Valca, Soryu, they're just names on a page. Their records all look stellar but that doesn't mean they'll be best suited for this kind of mission. You know what kind of prima donnas and adrenaline junkies aces can be. No offense. Sir."

John was clearly going to take a while to get used to that.

The first round of interviews went smoothly enough, to the point they'd fallen into a routine by the end of the day. Many of the pilots seemed either overly impressed by Mitchell or out to prove they were just as badass, while at the same time few seemed to pay any attention to John once they saw that collar on him. There were some exceptions, people who were more familiar with the situation or been on the receiving end of an S&R mission, but the pattern was fairly reliable. It made it easy to go good cop-bad cop on them, or at least serious cop-weird cop. Mitchell mostly stuck to the questions about flight experience, techniques, and mission requirements; John asked them what they'd do if asked to herd a bunch of vomit-happy space lizards. He got the feeling that sort of thing might turn out to be more relevant to the expedition than the 101 best ways to blow up a death glider.

"So was it just me," John asked that evening, "or was Wallace basically begging you to marry him?"

The two of them were out on the back deck, where John was grilling burgers and baked potatoes. Mitchell had made it clear that John was now responsible for keeping them fed; John hoped he realized that would mean a rotation of about the same ten dishes from now to eternity.

"Don't talk to me about Wallace."

"I bet he has a poster of you hanging in his bedroom."

"Poster?"

"You did know about the posters, right? Did no one from PR tell you about those?" John was going to have to order a dozen.

"I'm going to need another beer." Mitchell downed what was left of the one he had and accepted a replacement John handed him. "Thanks. What about Makinami? Those combat recordings were pretty impressive."

John grimaced. "She looked like she wanted to lick me when she heard about the gene. A bit young, too."

"Aren't you the one who suggested her?"

"Mostly because I forgot how weird she can be," John said. That and having a few familiar and friendly faces around wouldn't hurt. "Still, I guess you can't argue with effectiveness."

"I'll keep her on the short list. I was pretty impressed with Moreau, too."

"You want a good corvette and dropship pilot, he's your man. After me, of course."

"Can't say I'm sold on the beard, though."

"It's not the fifties, sir. Not everyone has to be clean-shaven boy scouts." John shuddered to think of how he'd look in a crew cut.

So it went through dinner, discussing candidates and other work matters, like Lorne's increasingly frustrated attempts to find a tank that would fit through a stargate. By the time they were done and John had finished clearing up the dishes, he was almost expecting them to go right into their previous routine of finding a TV show or game to play, or knowing Mitchell some hyper-excited commentary on the upcoming start of the Cup and the (non-existent) chances of his beloved Wings.

"So, Sheppard. I thought we had agreed that at work you'd be addressing me correctly," Mitchell said, standing and stretching. "You kept slipping up, though. Now I ain't a drill sergeant. I don't expect every other word out of your mouth to be sir or colonel. I do expect them instead of my name."

"Sorry, sir," John said. "I'll do better tomorrow."

"Yeah, you will. Drop your pants and bend over the table."

John blinked, the mental equivalent of a TILT light turning on. "What?"

"You heard me." Mitchell started pulling off his belt and doubling it over. "Pants down. Bend over. Is that too complicated for you, pilot?"

John swallowed hard as he started to realize exactly what Mitchell intended to do. He wanted to object. He couldn't do this there, outside, where anyone could potentially see them, never mind the expanse of woods shielding the back yard from view. That privacy could be broken if someone just came up the drive and walked around the house, which any of their friends might do at any moment. He wanted to call off the entire idea as ill-conceived from the start and stick with just the meditation and more use of the control collar. But he also wanted to see whether those thoughts were because he really couldn't do it anymore or because he was just too scared to test the waters again.

Finally John nodded, turned around, and undid his pants, letting them drop around his ankles. He bent over the table and stretched his arms across it, grabbing hold of the other side. He closed his eyes and waited.

"I counted about twenty-three, twenty-four times you slipped up," Mitchell said, somewhere behind him. "I probably missed a couple, so let's just round it to twenty-five." There was a seemingly endless pause, suddenly broken by a whisper of moving air and a meaty thwack. A sudden sharp pain crossed John's butt, spread across both cheeks, and he had to clench his teeth to keep from yelping.

"One," Mitchell said. Thwack. "Two." The blows kept coming with timing as precise as a metronome, each landing just a little differently, insuring no part of his ass was spared or hit too often. The shock of it brought up old memories, of the first time he'd done this, on leave from the academy; of the last time, not long before the end of that relationship, with things much more effective than a mere belt. That thought almost made him bolt, end the entire thing then and there. He tried to focus on the good times, struggled with it; he turned to what Teyla had show him and concentrated on that instead, until there was nothing but clear blue sky and the sting of the impacts.

Mitchell reached twenty-five and after that last smack suddenly there was an absence. John lay there on the table, breathing heavy, his ass burning like it was on fire. It was a deep, throbbing pain across his entire rear and the very top of his thighs, the overlaid impacts unlike any injury he'd ever suffered in the field. Part of him hated it, knowing he'd be sitting uneasily all night, if not much of the next day, and for the memories it had dredged up. Part of him loved it, both as proof that he could take it and as proof someone cared enough to do it to him, even if that care was a different sort than he was used to.

It was that latter part, along with the part that enjoyed making trouble, that made John gasp, "Thank you, sir, may I have another."

He opened his eyes and glanced back. Mitchell was studying him, belt in hand, a slight bulge in his pants. John's own cock started to firm as the initial shock of the pain started to fade while the adrenaline stayed. Then Mitchell smiled, just for a moment before his expression became stern again, and nodded.

"Since you mention it," Mitchell said, "there was that business with you being late. Pretty insubordinate to keep your CO waiting, wasn't it?"

"Yes, sir. I apologize for that."

"I think we've established that apologies aren't enough. How many do you think? Ten?"

"Maybe... fifteen, sir?" John was probably going to regret that, but why not?

"Right. Count it off this time."

Mitchell kept working him over for a while, finding a few other faults in John's behavior, before finally deciding he'd had enough for one day. As John pulled his pants back up, he felt a little lighter despite the literal pain in his ass, a bit less stressed. It did feel odd to just let things end there, as usually this sort of activity had ended with him sucking cock or being fucked, but separating that out let him focus more on the experience itself.

As John headed for the kitchen to find something cold he could sit on, Mitchell said to him, "Hey, Sheppard. John. You okay?"

John considered it, nodded. "Think so."

"You tell me if you're not. That's an order."

"Understood, sir."

The rest of the evening was uneventful, at least by their standards, and mostly spent using the unfair advantages given by their training to thoroughly dominate multiplayer flight sims. Frankly, John thought the little twerps infesting the metanet needed a good ass-kicking on occasion, just to remind them how good they had it. Back in his day they were lucky to have a football and a properly maintained, fallout-free pitch, let alone high-immersion virtual worlds. He also spent thirty minutes before bed doing relaxation drills as Teyla had asked. Well, ordered. John might was well admit that.

The next day went much the same, with sparring and mediation followed by taking Teyla to the gun range and then more interviews. John mostly managed to catch himself before he broke Mitchell's rules. 'Mostly' was the operative word; that evening Mitchell made it clear that he had expected John to improve more and increased the penalty for each slip. That, however, was merely the beginning.

Now, it wasn't as if John disliked football. It didn't have quite the same visceral feel and beefy muscle as rugby, or as John's father would call it, 'real football', but as a pilot he definitely appreciated the combination of speed, dexterity, and strategy that it required. Mitchell, though, was obsessive, and winding him him up about it was hilarious. It was bound to be even more so now that the Wings were starting their round-robin games at the group level, starting with Spain in a match that was sure to end in tears. Mitchell was already a little grumpy that he was having to watch it from a recording due to the time difference between them and Europe, and had threatended to shoot anyone who spoiled the results.

"Okay, so here's a question," John asked as the teams came on the field. "I think we can both agree that the Kansas City Rams are objectively a superior team to the Wings."

"Excuse me?" Mitchell said, like John had just announced he was actually Ba'al.

"And you're a Kansas boy, so why not root for them?"

"Okay, first off, Kansas City is in Missouri."

"I've always thought that was kind of stupid."

"And second, if the Rams were 'objectively better', they would be the ones competing for the Cup."

That much was true, because the Rams would have trouble beating the average high school team. They were practically walking stereotypes for how bad people from the Plains and Midlands couldn't play football if their lives depended on it.

"Fine, I'll admit they did better than usual this year. I still think you'd be better off assembling an all-star team like most places." John waited a minute, then pointed at the screen. "Just look at that, how can they claim to be professional on a level if their defensive game is that bad?"

"Sheppard..." Mitchell growled.

"Sorry, sorry." John waited a few minutes, then after a missed shot said, "My niece could have made that shot and she's thirteen."

"Okay, that's it," Mitchell said. He paused the game, stood, and headed back into his bedroom. He emerged a minute later with something in his hand. It took John a second to realize what it was, because its presence was so incongruous with Mitchell's general demeanor.

"You have got to be kidding me,"" John said as Mitchell undid the buckle on the ball gag.

"Nope. You brought this on yourself."

"What if I need a drink?"

"Then you're going to get either very thirsty or very wet. Open up."

"You suck," John tried to say once it was fastened in place. "And Kansas isn't even a real place, it's an oversized field." It came out as a bunch of incoherent mumbling. John crossed his arms and sat there, forced to watch the game in silence through the first half. The second half was even worse, because Mitchell returned from the break with a gigantic bowl of delicious, buttery popcorn to eat by himself. Frankly John didn't know where he put it all. By the end of the game and its inexplicable 2-1 victory for the Wings, John had a sore jaw, a rumbling stomach, and a not-insignificant amount of drool on his t-shirt.

"I'd just like to point out," John told Mitchell afterward, "that you can actually make me shut up using the control collar and skip the gag."

Mitchell rolled his eyes. "That would be a crutch for both of us. Then again, I might be able to think of a few interesting uses..."

John decided discretion was the better part of valor and stopped trying to give him ideas.

So it went for the next couple weeks. John spent his days on planning or training. The first slowly dropped off as more and more things were finalized, while the rapid expansion of the expedition's personnel meant John suddenly found himself in charge of a dozen pilots and twice that many support crew, all of whom desperately needed time in simulation together to solidify as a team. On top of that were small unit drills, instruction in gate ops and general exploration procedures, and classes on Ancient technology and language. John slowly but surely spent less and less time with Mitchell, to the point there were some days they barely saw each during the day. Despite their short time together it felt a little weird not to be following him around all the time, even if it was nice to have some alone time, or at least as alone as his increasing pile of duties allowed.

Mitchell still managed to keep him on his toes, even if they frequently barely had energy to eat dinner and slump in front of the TV. He kept turning up other little tricks, like an honest-to-god paddle, probably straight from the one-room schoolhouse he'd attended as a kid. One night John spent several hours tied to a chair because Mitchell wasn't happy with his posture at a meeting with several important colonels and generals from the Army and Spacy. Another night he made John eat some insanely spicy peppers after he'd managed to set dinner on fire. By that point, John wasn't entire sure how well the entire reform program was working, because in all honesty he was starting to occasionally break rules just see what new and creative way Mitchell would find to punish him. It seemed a bit counter-productive. Then again, the line between punishment and mutual stress relief had become so blurred as to be meaningless. What mattered was that John's focus and ability to keep his head clear had improved dramatically and those little provocations were the result of deliberate disobedience, not general disregard for authority or angry lashing out.

John was not unaware of the small irony that this improvement to his behavior wouldn't have changed the decision that had gotten him in front of a tribunal and slapped with a thrall collar. Mitchell's god was probably off laughing somewhere.

Mitchell's masterstroke of underhanded devilry came three weeks into their little game, as the preparations were wrapping up and a final departure date had been set for just under two weeks in the future. The man had left for a conference call, and John allowed himself the luxury of sleeping in a little longer because he didn't have a session schedule with Teyla, as she was off in Geneva at some sort of intergalactic peace meeting with the Nox, Free Jaffa, Tollan, and other assorted hangers-on. When he did get up and reach the kitchen, he found a present waiting for him. Sitting on the kitchen's center island was a gleaming metal butt-plug.

John stared. John boggled. John wondered how he had ever thought Mitchell was anything but perfectly vanilla. It wasn't large by any standard, if anything a little smaller than average. When he picked it up, it turned out to be surprisingly light. There was also a small bottle of lube and a note.

"Something for you to wear today. - Mitchell" was all it said. There was also a little winking smiley face.

John wasn't sure what to think about it, or really even how to start thinking about it. Mitchell couldn't be serious, could he? Maybe he meant later that evening and this was just teasing. Maybe it was a test to see if he would comply without complaining, but in that case was doing so a good or bad thing? Maybe, and this was starting to seem like the most likely answer, John was actually bleeding out on the Chelnai Plains and this entire thing had been a dying hallucination. He could have tried to call Mitchell and get clarification. Eventually, after eating his oatmeal and sausage while staring at the thing, he decided that he'd give it a shot. At worst he'd be a bit uncomfortable for a while and if he couldn't handle it he could always just slip into the office's private restroom, dump the stupid thing down the waste chute, and pretend he'd never seen it.

A little later, John was riding a cab to the base, with a dull pain and slightly full feeling in his ass. It'd been a while since he had anything up there, but he found it was almost like riding a bicycle, so to speak. The pain didn't last long, and by the time he reached the Spire he was reasonably comfortable. There was a moment of panic when he went past the sensors at the entrance but it appeared that the virtual assistants monitoring those didn't care about inert metal inside someone's butt. John himself could almost, but not quite, forget it was there, when he was sitting still. When he moved it was more apparent, especially when walking, a slight throb that kept him on his toes. He quickly realized that it was also just long enough that, if he happened to move or sit just the right way, it'd brush against his prostate and suddenly send a hot buzz up his spine. Between that and the quiet thrill of walking around with no one the wiser, his dick was pretty much constantly at half-mast.

"What is up with you?" Evan said later that morning, eying him suspiciously. He'd dragged John out to the storage facility where their gear was piling up to show off the toys he had acquired.

"I don't know what you're talking about," John replied, studying the M-25 Mako APC in front of them. It was maybe half again as tall as John, not counting the multi-purpose turret at the top, had six gigantic wheels, an armored bow, and four downward-facing thruster nozzles.

"You keep shifting from foot to foot, and you were squirming the entire way over here. Is something wrong?"

"Yeah, actually," John said. He pointed at the Mako. "Is that supposed to fit through the stargate?"

"Well... technically, if you fully deflate and retract the tires and turret, yes."

"For that matter, will it even fit inside the gateroom in Atlantis?" John continued. "You realize it's not nearly as big as the deployment room at the SOC, right?"

"That's not the point of having it," Evan said, exasperated. "We've already got plenty of jeeps, bikes, four-wheelers, skitters, and every other light ground vehicle in existence. A couple of these will round them out perfectly. That turret's got a thirty-millimeter accelerator cannon with a coaxial pulse laser and grenade launcher. It can even jump over obstacles up to five meters in height thanks to the mass lightening and thrusters."

"If it can get out of the city."

Evan crossed his arms. "It'll fit inside a corvette's drop bay easily, and you'll thank me when it comes in handy off-world. Also, you dodged my question."

"I did not," John said. He tried to stand on the tips of his toes to get a look at the cannon, which did sound pretty cool, and immediately regretted it.

"You just winced. Mitchell didn't hurt you or something, did he?"

There was a dangerous tone to his voice, and John hastily said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. No, he didn't. Don't go running off on some kind of crazy revenge thing." He did not need Mitchell disappearing into the ether like Steve had.

"Who's getting revenge on who now?" Sam said from behind them.

John almost jumped out of his skin, the sudden tension bringing the source of his current problems back to the forefront of his mind for a moment. He managed to force a smile and jerked his thumb at Evan. "He thinks Mitchell is mistreating me and thinking about murdering him or something."

"Ah," Sam said with a nod. "Yeah, that's what happens when you spend too long around Jaffa."

"See, Sam thinks you're paranoid, too."

Evan sighed and shook his head. "What can we do for you, ma'am?"

"I was out this way myself and so I thought I'd take a second to see how things were going." She looked around, as if she weren't perfectly aware of where every man and machine in a hundred-meter radius was, before asking, "Either of you running into any problems?"

"Other than the fact that my friends don't take my concerns seriously," Evan said, "and that no one will let me have a main battle tank or heavy artillery? I'm good."

"You, John?"

He smiled. "I'm pretty good too, actually."

Sam studied him for a minute, then reluctantly nodded. "Listen, I've talked to Thor, and while there's nothing official yet you should expect the review board to be scheduled for next week. You ready? We could try to delay it if we had to."

He thought about it, had been thinking about it ever since a preliminary date of departure had been set. Finally he shrugged. "As ready as I'll ever be. We may as well do it ASAP, in case I do need replaced."

"Okay, then. You and Cam should get official notice pretty soon. For what it's worth, I have every confidence that you'll pass."

"Same here," Evan said. "I haven't seen you let anyone down on a mission yet. Hopefully this won't be the first time."

"Thanks," John said. He wasn't quite as sure as they claimed to be. Most of those previous challenges had involved things he could outfly or shoot. No point in worrying about it.

"I'll let you two get back to..." Sam looked between them and the Mako. "Work?"

"Yes, ma'am. Very difficult and important work."

Later, after lunch, Mitchell returned. John waited for him to get settled in and check his mail before walking over to lean against his desk.

"So," he said, "I found your little present."

"Did you now," Mitchell said with a smirk. "Looking forward to putting it to use?"

"Forward?" John repeated. "I've got in right now."

"Wait, what?"

"You said I was supposed to wear it today!" John hissed.

"I didn't mean to work!"

"Well, you should have been more clear!"

"Since when do you take orders that literally?"

The door opened behind John and Mitchell's eyes bugged out wide. John turned, took a second to comprehend that yes, that was Heimdall standing there, and went down on one knee. He quickly realized that was possibly the most uncomfortable position to be when you had a butt plug shoved inside you. Of the three Asgard John had directly interacted with over the years, Heimdall was by far his favorite. Tall, ebony skinned, thickly set, and female in presentation, she had a friendly and cheerful disposition. That did not mean he was at all thrilled to see her then and there.

"Greetings, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell!" Heimdall said. Her voice was surprisingly high and she spoke quickly. "And to you, Major Sheppard. I am glad to see you both here. Are you busy?"

Mitchell glanced at John and said, "Not... precisely, no."

"Good, good. I have need of the major's assistance. Our exploration team brought along a small Ancient spacecraft when they returned. We have been studying it for some time, and we would like to do some tests on it that require a gene-carrier pilot. He is by far the most qualified person." Heimdall glanced down at John. "Oh, yes. Please stand, Major."

"Thank you, jarl." He stood and tried to ignore combination of pain, horniness, and embarrassment he felt. Clear blue skies, he thought. No worries, no Asgard dignitaries, no problems. No chance that suit Heimdall wore had any kind of x-ray vision.

"No need to be so formal, major. I don't stand on protocol as much as some of my colleagues and I expect we'll be spending a great deal of time together. But as I was saying, Colonel, may I borrow him? You are welcome to come along as well."

Mitchell tried to smile, not entirely succeeding. "Of course. Just give us a minute to change clothes and we can join you."

"No need," Heimdall said. "The major's utilities will do fine. Shall we go?"

"Sure thing."

They didn't even leave the office the normal way. Heimdall simply had her own ship beam them directly from the Spire down to flight testing facility in the deserts of northern Mexico. There, she directed Mitchell toward a control room, while taking John into a hangar. Sitting in the center was an odd little ship, with several technicians poking around at it. McKay was one of them.

"This is the Ancient ship," Heimdall said. "What are your first impressions?"

John's first impression was that vague questions were less than helpful. Still, he gave the ship a quick once-over. It was a cylinder truncated on the bottom, with a forty or so degree slope at the front and back. One large window at the front, one ramp door at the back, no sign of any other entrances or even access panels. There was little sign that any attention was given to aerodynamics, and there was an abstract, almost art deco pattern either etched into the hull or made of raised sections, depending on your point of view.

"It's meant to go through the gate, right, like a needle-threader? You'd have maybe twenty, thirty centimeters clearance on each side."

"You are correct. The vessel includes it own dialing device to allow it to travel through the gate network without outside assistance."

John circled around the ship, making sure to glance into the rear compartment to get a feel for its layout. It seemed absurdly small for a space-capable craft. No, not small - empty, with walls barely half a meter thick, if that, with little visible room for systems to be crammed in. The Skyrangers he had flown through much of his career had room for maybe two more people but were easily half again a massive and wider due to the wings housing the engines. Likewise the main body of Valkyrie fighters was much longer, if sleeker, despite it being a single-seat ship due to the need for powerful weapons and thrusters. This thing was barely more substantial than the average civilian airbus.

Two-thirds of the way toward the ship's rear John paused and bent over, barely noticing the twinges that the motion brought. He traced his fingers along a faint seam in the metal. "What sort of propulsion system does it have, ma'am?"

"An unknown type of inertial modification," Heimdall replied, "plus two retractable plasma thrusters boosting straight-line thrust. The energy reserves are more than sufficient for multiple trips to the edge of a solar system and back, in a reasonably timely manner."

"A hybrid system? That's different." While human-built ships used a similar combination of mass lightening and thrusters, the Goa'uld, Tollan, and Asgard all used purely reactionless drives. "Armament?"

"Drone weapons, less capable than usual because of the small power supply but still potent."

A powerful, flexible, but ultimately ammunition-dependent weapon then. It fit with feel of the rest of the ship. It wasn't built for combat, that much was apparent from the lack of an energy weapon and the limited visibility from the cockpit. On the other hand, it also wasn't weighed down by any apparent frills. A utility craft, then, meant for general transport work, able to defend itself but not meant for extended battles. The question was what kind of performance the Ancients expected out of the space-going equivalent of a Jeep.

John said as much to Heimdall, then asked, "What's it called, ma'am?"

"A gateship."

"Oh." John opened his mouth to say more, hesitated, and took a deep breath. Clear blue skies, he thought to himself. Be polite. Don't tell the high-ranking Asgard his choice of names is stupid.

"You object?"

"It seems a little generic. Grandiose, too." John considered the spacecraft. "It's basically just a space-going puddle jumper."

"A pun? How amusing. Your thoughts will be taken into consideration."

"So, what do you need me to do, ma'am? Bring the systems online for study?"

"Initialization has already been achieved. We wish for you to conduct a test flight."

John raised an eyebrow. "Today? That's not a lot of time to study the specs and controls."

Heimdall nodded. "The lack of craft-specific knowledge is part of the test. We believe that the neural interface makes use of Ancient technology extremely intuitive, especially for someone who already has professional training. We wish to study this and your natural gene and piloting ability make you the best candidate."

"Huh." Well, it wouldn't be the first time John had been thrown into a pilot's seat with minimal preparation. At least he had a much better handle on Ancient than he'd ever had with Goa'uld during that tel'tak escapade. "I've never said no to a bit of tricky flying, ma'am. Just tell me where, when, and how."

"Excellent. This will be most helpful. You will conduct a series of pre-planned and free flight maneuvers to test performance, both in atmosphere and in space, while monitored by on-board telemetry and chaser vehicles. In the event of an emergency, a transporter rescue system is standing by. Do you have any questions?"

"No, ma'am. I'd good to go."

"Very well. Doctor McKay will give you the relevant details, while I make sure our tracking systems are ready to do. I look forward to seeing you fly."

John watched Heimdall stride out of the hangar, then turned and entered the craft. Gateship. Hell, puddle jumper. There was a decent amount of headroom for him, although someone in an armored hardsuit might find it a little cramped. McKay was sitting in the copilot's seat, wearing a ridiculously bright orange jumpsuit. He looked over when John sat down beside him. John glanced back. They'd interacted a few times since their little incident, but generally they'd avoided trying to speak directly with each other. So much for avoidance.

"Ah. Major," McKay said. "Um, how are you?"

"Fine."

"Good. That's good."

"You?"

"I'm fine, too."

"Good."

McKay fiddled with his tablet for a bit, then said, "Listen, I haven't had a chance to say this in private, but I was a bit unfair at that meeting the other week."

"A bit?" John said.

"Yes, a bit. I've been told that sometimes I can come across as a little, ah, arrogant. And bullying. Completely unintentional, of course, but I can understand why that feeling exists. What I'm trying to say is I'm sorry."

It was one of the sadder excuses for an apology John had ever experienced and his family was pretty much the royal family of bad apologies. Still, it was something resembling an olive branch. "I'll admit, I was a kinda a jerk too."

"Kinda? You threatened to hit me!"

"It wasn't a threat, but I'm sorry if it was interpreted that way."

McKay frowned at him, then shook his head. "All right. Why don't we just forget it all ever happened, eh? Water under the bridge."

"Fine with me."

"Good. So, we have monitoring equipment plugged into the ship's systems, and I have your flight plan loaded onto this tablet. Hopefully it transferred to the navigational -" A HUD suddenly displayed across the window, illustrating a series of aerial maneuvers over the test flight zone. "-computer. Did you do that?"

"Maybe?" John said. He thought about zooming out further and it do so, showing their planned path up into orbit. "That's pretty cool."

"You're using the interface without touching the controls?" McKay said, glancing from the screen to his computer and back. "That's remarkable. It never did this for that other guy."

"If you say so." John wanted to touch the two handled sticking out of the console, but refrained, not sure what would happen. "You coming along for this flight?"

"Hmm? No. Why would I? Any telemetry I can see in here I can see from mission control."

"You can't ignore first-hand experience," John said. " You've got to get the qualitative feel as well as the quantitative."

"The numbers aren't going to change just because I'm sitting in one place instead of the other."

"No, but their meaning changes when you've seen what they correspond with in real life. Trust me, I've known thousands of pilots and not one would disagree with me. Statistically, that's pretty unlikely."

"It would be kind of cool," McKay said quietly. "Fine, you win. I'll let control know."

"That's the spirit." If John was going to be testing his self-control today, he figured he might as well add some extra challenge. That, and he measure just out sensitive the inertial dampers were based on how green the man got.

A few minutes later they received the okay to take off. The jumper lifted straight off the ground, no fuss or muss, not even the slightest wobble from minutely imbalanced thrusters. It sat there so sedately it may as well have still been on the ground. Maneuvering out of the hangar was the same, smooth as a professional ice skater gliding across the rink. The flight engines deployed and they were off, gaining altitude with speeds John normally associated with a full-power burn but here barely felt like a warm-up.

The HUD blinked, switching to a sensor display showing four approaching contacts. Valkyries in a classic four-point escort formation, probably one manned and three robotic. A wireframe diagram showed that instead of the normal underslung heavy cannon or anti-shipping torpedo there was a sensor pod. The missile racks were full, but the sensors also showed they were only carrying dummy rounds instead of real warheads.

"Jumper One, this is Red Leader," Mitchell's voice said over the radio. "Sheppard, do you read?"

"I hear you, sir," he replied. "Decide to get in on the action?"

"Can't let you have all the fun. You are clear to begin maneuvers."

"Copy that, sir. Starting first run."

John began tracing out curved paths through the sky, both horizontally and vertically. In theory this was supposed to test how the jumper responded to different stresses and maneuvers. In practice, he quickly began to feel like it was all a waste of time. For a comparable Midgard or Goa'uld craft, they might have been something of a workout, even if not near the top level of performance, good enough to get accurate results without risking adverse effects. Here, even making turns at supersonic velocities, it didn't feel like they were really testing the jumper's abilities. He suspected they could easily push it much further, especially in space.

Finally, after about twenty minutes, McKay made a disgruntled noise. "This is pointless."

"You think?"

"I do, actually. The engines aren't even coming close to capacity and the hull vibrations and heating are barely noticeable. There's not even much stress on the drive nacelle struts."

John shrugged. "It's what's in the mission profile."

"The mission profile was clearly designed by idiots. Probably that moron Verner. Why anyone gave him a degree is beyond me."

"Still, the plan is the plan," John said, even if he agreed. This was too public a place to be running off willy-nilly just because he was getting bored.

"Come on. My grandmother would ditch the plan at this point. Put the pedal to the metal! Let's get some useful data! Do your maverick thing!"

"Nope, not going to happen." Bringing McKay along had been a great idea. The tests were boring; baiting McKay was less so.

"Seriously. My grandmother. She won't even let her car drive her faster than fifty KPH. All I want to see is whether in-atmosphere flight is limited by hull integrity or engine output."

John smiled ever so slightly. "I'm sorry, McKay, but I'm afraid I can't do that."

"When did you suddenly become so dull?" McKay paused, frowned, and widened his eyes. "Oh, no. Mitchell didn't turn that collar on and tell you to follow the plan no matter what, did he?"

"I can neither confirm nor deny that."

"Shit. Because you really can't be under the influence while flying this thing. It could, could, scramble your brains," McKay, making a vigorously spinning motion with his hand near his head. "Then we'd crash and die horribly."

"Relax, McKay," John said. "We were both briefed on that." Quite graphically in John's case, thanks to Evan. "Flight, this is Jumper One. Request permission to ditch the planned maneuvers. This isn't getting us anything."

After a brief pause, Heimdall replied, "We are in concurrence, Major. These can wait for a less skilled pilot. You may proceed with more energetic tests at your discretion."

"Roger that, Flight. Mitchell, try to keep up."

John did the mental equivalent of opening up the throttle to full and the jumper leaped into action. The ship started to subtly vibrate, barely noticeable even to his trained senses, but there none the less. It was from the turbulence, though, not the acceleration; at the rate they were picking up speed they would have been splattered across the rear bulkhead if it weren't for the inertial dampeners. The hull was heating up as well. Satisfied with that, he turned sharply upward, heading for orbit and clearing the air-space boundary in less than a minute. Mitchell's fighters were close behind, their variable wings spreading out into exo-atmosphere mode.

John grinned, started dodging like he was under fire from an entire wing of gliders and al'kesh. The jumper responded beautifully, faster and more nimble than any ship he'd flown in his life. No, any ship that he'd flown even in his dreams. Despite being a utility ship it was almost outpacing the Valkyries. In fact, the robots were falling out of formation entirely now, unable to quite keep up and backing off to more distant observation. Mitchell stayed right in there with him, though. There was a sudden alarm from the HUD, not from the flight systems but from defenses. Mitchell was trying to get a missile lock on him. It made John pause, just for a moment, and in that moment a training laser pinged against the hull. The combat computer read John's mind and showed simulated damage on the jumper. Conclusion: total destruction of craft.

"Bang," Mitchell said, "you're dead."

"Oh, it is on," John replied. He stopped flying to show off and started flying to kill. "Training drones?" he thought, and a moment later the HUD showed sim weapons as hot. He had three ready drones in each launcher, plus another four reloads for each. Not much to work with, but he'd done more with less. He just hoped they could replace them.

"Hang on, what are you doing?" McKay said, as the planet, moon, and stars started to spiral wildly. "Oh, god, I'm going to be sick."

John ignored him, too focused on trying to catch Mitchell without getting busted himself. It was almost an even match-up performance-wise, now that they were both pushing to the limit. Out in open vacuum the jumper had superior acceleration but the Valkyrie was marginally more maneuverable, and Mitchell knew how to milk every last bit out of that advantage. His lasers let him take potshots with abandon to force John's movements in certain directions while conserving missiles for kill shots. John deftly jinked around them and his own drones found their way home far more easily, guided in from start to finish by John's own mind and ignoring the spray out flares and chaff Mitchell dropped. It was hard to divide his attention like that, though, and after John lost control of a drone he found himself slipping into the same meditative fighting state that Teyla had been so carefully drilling him on, until it was just their two ships and empty space. Mitchell lased him again; John bounced a drone off his cockpit.

So it went, trading blows evenly, for most of an hour, leaving John drenched with sweat but still strangely relaxed. He fired a last drone, almost managed to hit, but somehow Mitchell manage to catch it with his lasers. Then Mitchell let fly his own final clutch of missiles. They closed in on the jumper, boxing it in on all sides and leaving John nowhere to go. Suddenly, though, they spiraled away wildly and self-destructed.

"Whoa, Sheppard," Mitchell said, confused. "Where did you go?"

John had to check that himself. They were clear around the planet from where they had started, out near the parking orbits used by Spacy ships when they weren't on active patrol. In fact, there was a battle group hovering about a thousand kilometers away. The fleet carrier Australia, a heavy cruiser, a couple destroyers, and a gaggle of ion cannon and assault frigates in escort, plus a few fighters and corvettes hanging around as air patrol. Beyond that was an Asgard battleship, the Vedrfolnir. Mitchell was there too, cruising off at an angle away from John's vector. He glanced over the display and settled on a lit indicator on the dash.

"Huh," John said, without activating the radio. "We're cloaked."

"Cloaked?" McKay said from where he'd retreated in the back. He popped his head up front. "We can't be. You can't fit a cloaking device in a ship this small."

"No, I'm pretty sure we're invisible." The possibilities flooded into John's mind. There was so much you could do with a proper cloaking device, especially with something so much smaller than an al'kesh or even a tel'tak. He looked at that carrier group again, a more devious thought bubbling to the top. They suddenly looked a lot more vulnerable despite all that firepower. Normally he wouldn't dare approach them without permission, in or out of combat. He could imagine getting right in the middle of them, even edging right up to the bridge windows of the flagship, then appearing from nowhere and escaping before their panicked watch crews knew what was going on. He turned the jumper, started to match velocities so he could sneak in...

...and then stopped himself. He didn't really want to pull something like that. Not then, not when an Asgard was watching and the inevitable torrent of complaints would avalanche down at the worst possible moment. No, John had to be honest with himself, he didn't care too much about that. The real problem was that Mitchell would be disappointed.

Not worth it.

"Red Leader, Jumper One," he said. "It appears I have a cloak. Who knew?"

"Only you, Sheppard. Only you could just sit down and accidentally turn invisible."

"I know, I'm pretty special. You see those ships bearing two-two-seven? Think they'd mind if I test just how invisible I am?"

"Hold one." After a brief pause, Mitchell said, "Heimdall says go for it."

"Roger that."

John put on some speed, closing the gap quickly. He didn't want to hang around too long, but it'd also be good to see how well the cloak hid the engine emissions. Pretty damned well, as it turned out, because a minute later he was passing the cruiser, looking right down the barrels of its main ion cannons and mass drivers, the letters KILIMANJARO passing by thirty feet tall to his left. There wasn't so much as a peep from them. The Asgard ship was more attentive, although not much more so. He got within a dozen kilometers before it suddenly switched from standard scans to much more aggressive sweeps that started to narrow down on him. At that point he flipped the cloak off and returned to base. Mitchell followed along behind and they landed not long after.

"Very impressive," Heimdall said, meeting them on the tarmac. "Very impressive indeed. It is gratifying to see that Thor was not incorrect in supporting Colonel Carter's recommendation that you both be recruited."

"Thank you," Mitchell said. "I aim to please."

"Did you get the readings you need, ma'am?" John asked.

"Certainly. This will be most useful. I hope you can elicit a similar response from other Ancient technology."

"I'll do my best, ma'am." He hoped other Ancient technology was as awesome as the jumper. Getting into the control chair might prove a downright apocalyptic moment, in the religious sense. Hopefully not the 'end of the world' sense.

"I will let you get back to your other work, and look forward to seeing you again," Heimdall said. She started to turn away, then stopped. "Oh, major, one last thing. Are you experiencing a medical problem? Your gait seems unusual."

"No," he replied, face carefully blank. Mitchell became so red he looked ready to explode. "Not that I'm aware of."

"I see. Perhaps you should visit the infirmary just in case. It would be unfortunate if you developed some sort of condition before we left."

"I'll do that, ma'am. Thanks for concern, and have a nice day."

"And you as well, Major. Colonel Mitchell."

"Tonight," John quietly said to Mitchell as they headed for the transporter, "you're taking me out for a nice steak dinner. Right after I get this damned thing out of my ass."

"Sheppard, after that display, I'd take you to Paris if you wanted. I think I've had sex that was less intimate."

John chuckled. That brought to mind something that he'd been mulling over for a while. "So, the final Cup match is Saturday. And I understand it looks like some stupid team from the Plains may be going."

"Yeah?"

"You consider going to see it live in Berlin?"

"It's a bit late to worry about that, don't you think? I wasn't sure if we'd have time off, so I didn't even try to get in the lottery for tickets."

John rolled his eyes. In some ways, the man was surprisingly naive. It was almost like he hadn't grown up with more money than the average false god. "You're a thane and an official Hero of Midgard. Ask for entry to one of the VIP booths. In fact, I think Teyla said she wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Say you're bringing along a head of state and you're sure to get in."

"I hadn't thought of that. You'll need to help her get some formal wear, though."

"No. No way," John said. He stepped in front of Mitchell and held up a finger. "Look, I let you spank me. I let you gag me. I even have a piece of metal shoved up my ass because I was too eager to please. But I am not going shopping."

Mitchell looked at him. He didn't say anything, just watched him expectantly. The next night, John and Teyla were in Manhattan. He brought Evan along too, since he actually knew what the hell he was talking about when it came to fashion.

To his surprise, John found himself tagging along when they beamed across the planet to the stadium, stuffed into a dress uniform that mostly hid the thrall collar from sight. Carter came as well, although she quickly disappeared into the crowd of dignitaries. John felt out of place initially, but he quickly slipped back into old form, transitioning like a seal slipping into water. Mingling with the great and mighty was something he'd done since he was born, as was pretending that he liked them. Under-secretaries and generals, industrial magnates and provincial governors, nothing he hadn't seen before during his childhood. There were even a few Asgard, standing out from the crowd with the slight glow of their holograms and their archaic, stylized dress. One of them, a tall, lean-built man in green with fiery hair caught his eye for a moment; John tipped his head slightly in acknowledgment.

"Amazing to see so many people in one place," Teyla said, looking down at the pitch. There were easily a hundred thousand people crammed into the stadium, apparently making it larger than the populations of all but the largest cities in Pegasus. At the center of it all was a seemingly small patch of grass and floating platform where a small ensemble of musicians were waiting, a quartet of vocalists and a handful of strings.

"They say over half the planet is watching it live," John told her, "plus more than a few offworld."

"All for a game? Remarkable."

"Yeah, I'm not sure I get it either, but it brings people together."

There was a fanfare of horns, quiet at first but then growing louder, until all attention was drawn to the pitch. After a moment, Baldur, supreme envoy of the Asgard to the United Nations of Midgard, appeared on the stage with a flash of light. Tall, proud, mixed ethnicity, perfectly crafted for maximum appeal to human aesthetics.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome," Baldur said, voice echoing across the stadium. "It is my sincere pleasure to open this championship game of the World Cup. The first of this new century, and the first to be held in Europe since this continent was so ravaged by war." He went on along those lines for a while, with the usual spiel about the horrors of war being set aside in a new age of human unity and Asgard guidance. Finally, he stepped aside, allowing the singers to come forward. Now John's attention was fully held, as the lead soprano started the opening lines of the planetary anthem.

"Freude, schöner Götterfunken, tochter aus Elysium. Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!"

Much later, during halftime, John and Cam were trying to explain exactly what had happened to a bemused Teyla. Occasionally someone important would drift by and introduce themselves, like the Foreign Secretary, Elizabeth Weir, or the Jaffa master Teal'c. None of them seemed quite as important as when that singer came up to them.

"There you are, John," Hannah Sheppard said. "Someone told me you were up here."

"Mom," he said, pulling her into a hug despite being in public. He figured he could make an exception to his usual policy about displays of affection just this once. "It's good to see you."

"It's good to see you too, honey," she said. "Your sister says you got yourself in a bit of trouble. Nothing too bad, I hope."

"No more than usual," he said with a shrug. "These two have been giving me a hand out of the hole I dug for myself."

"I'm glad to hear it," Hannah said. "You never were very good at letting anyone help you. Or at introducing your friends to me."

At that pointed remark, John did so, and if she was phased at all at meeting someone from another world or a certified hero, she didn't show it at all. Then again, she'd never been terribly impressed by that sort of thing. He was pretty sure he'd gotten that from her.

"You'll need to keep an eye on this one," Hannah said, reaching out to adjust one of the medals on John's sash. "He has a tendency to jump into trouble."

"Yeah, I've noticed," Mitchell said. "I bet you've got some interesting stories about his childhood."

"Colonel, we'd be here all day if I tried to tell them all. Actually, perhaps you'd all like to come for dinner?"

John tried to object, but he was halfhearted at best, and between the three of them they steamrolled right over his protests. After the Wings somehow managed to defeat Brazil, they made their way to the Virginia estate, picking up Sam and Evan along the way. John had to admit it was good to go home, even just for a little while, and to see his siblings. He even managed to have a polite conversation with his father, for a few minutes at least.

Days later, as Sam had predicted, the board of review convened. As part of the process both John and Mitchell were required to submit evaluations of his progress towards correcting his 'undesirable' behavior. It was faintly absurd, given that they had crammed a process that normally would have taken six months or a year into barely more than a month, yet John did feel like there had been some change, a better understanding of himself.

They arrived at the court room late in the afternoon. It was an imposing, echoing chamber, and all but deserted. Most of it was in shadow, save for a lit petitioner's circle at the center and the tall judges' bench. There were only a handful of people in the public viewing area, all of them from the expedition: Sam, Evan, McKay, a couple of the pilots. Up on the bench were an intimidating array of brass. There was a general, three full colonels, and a fellow major, but it the grand scheme of things they were irrelevant to whether or not he was allowed to go. It was Thor and Freyr, sitting at the center, who held the real power, here as it was elsewhere on Earth. They paused at the door, waiting for permission to approach, and at the signal they began walking forward, Mitchell just slightly behind and to the left of John.

"You'll do fine," Mitchell murmured as they neared the circle. "I have complete trust in you."

"Sir," John replied. He entered the circle, leaving Mitchell behind at the edge, and knelt, head bowed.

"This board is hereby called to order," Thor said. "We are here to review the status of Major John Sheppard, UN Combined Service, and determine his suitability for participation in an assignment of the utmost importance. He was placed in remediation due to disobedience of a direct order. The findings of the previous tribunal have been reviewed, as have the documents submitted by the parties. Does the petitioner have a verbal statement?"

"Supreme Commander Thor, Aethling Freyr, and honored board members, thank you for allowing me to address you," John said, reciting a carefully prepared speech. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, and to push away all others, along with all the extraneous feelings. No anger about the charges, no urge to give them the middle finger, no worry about the results of the board or the mental scan that was almost certainly occurring at that very moment, just submission and clear blue skies as far as the eye could see.

"Having spent time considering my crime, I now recognize it was part of a pattern. I was frequently insubordinate, disrespectful, or reckless, and each minor incident contributed to a belief that I could get away with such behavior. In part this attitude lead to my decision to disobey the orders from Afghanistan mission control to wait for a fighter escort before attempting a rescue. I felt that I understood the situation on the ground than they did and the risks involved in entering the combat zone. While I still believe that it was the right course of action, I understand now that much of my reasoning was flawed and based more on emotion and arrogance than fact."

There was a murmur through the human members of the board, a few whispers from the audience. Freyr leaned forward slightly. "Major, are you saying you would still disobey that order?" she asked.

"I think it's likely, my lord. To say otherwise would be dishonest. However, I now understand that in the state of mind I was in, I would have been a likely to disobey in other situations where it was not warranted and in doing so jeopardized the mission and endangered myself and others."

"Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell," Thor said. "As supervising officer, do you have any statement to make?"

"Only that I have am entirely satisfied with Major Sheppard's current behavior," Mitchell said. "While there were some rough spots at the beginning, he has shown rapid improvement and I now have complete confidence that Sheppard will continue to set a high standard as an officer."

"Very well. Are there any who wish to submit evidence to the contrary? Then we shall deliberate."

The sound from the rest of the room was cut off by a dampening field around his circle. John remained kneeling, waiting for their decision. He wasn't sure how much time passed before the silence stopped, although by then his knees were aching.

"Major Sheppard," Thor pronounced. "Based the on evidence before us, this board has decided to release you from supervised remediation status and restore you to full rank and privileges. Be advised that this action does not completely absolve you of your probation and is contingent on your continued good behavior."

"Thank you, m'lord, I promise you won't be disappointed," John said, looking up. He waited for Mitchell to remove the thrall collar and toss it aside before standing up. He turned and grinned at Mitchell, who clapped him on the shoulder.

"See, I told you it'd go fine," Mitchell said as their friends came to join them.

"Congratulations," Sam told John. "You realize this was the easy part."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he replied. Straight on to the next problem, that was the way he liked it. Compared to mountain-sized challenge what they had planned, this was just a little foothill. It still felt good to reach the top of it. "We've got to save the galaxy."

"Technically two, if you think about it," Evan said. "No pressure."

"Enough serious crap for one day," Mitchell said. "Come on, party at my place."

"So, Mitchell," John said, leaning close as they walked out of the court. "Now that I've got that stupid collar off, are we ever going to actually have sex?"

Mitchell scoffed at him and smiled. "Sheppard, I ain't that easy. You're going to have to at least buy me dinner first."