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The last time Jack O'Neill saw John, it went like this:

"General O'Neill, they're ready."

It's a short eternity before Jack sees John respond. Setting the ipod aside, John stands up, paler than even winter should account for, but there's no other sign that this isn't any other day in his life. Jack feels slightly shaky as he follows John to the door where two MPs wait patiently, both guns trained on John. "Hey," Jack starts, frowning.

He doesn't have time to say more. John's uncharacteristically meek as he allows himself to be searched and cuffed--and that's so insulting to Jack that he kind of wants to court marital them on principle--then looks at Jack. "It's been fun," John says, almost sounding like he means it. The MP touches his radio, the words, "We're ready for transport--"

"Wait."

The MPs frown. Court martial. Definitely. "John. I need you to promise me something."

John looks back, face blank. Then. "What?

When you remember, remember this. "Trust yourself."

The blankness dissolves into utter shock. "Are you crazy?"

"Yeah." Jack rocks back on his heels, smiling around the sharp ache. "Also. Remember. You owe me a bottle." Before John can respond, Jack radios up. "He's all yours."




Six Months Earlier:

Jack never trusted a man in a good mood before eight o'clock. Especially before coffee. Staring over the rim of his mug, Jack considers the variety of situations that would put Marshall Sumner in a good mood. "Coffee?" he asks warily; it's too early to deal with Marines. Noon is too early to deal with Marines.

"Sure," Sumner says with terrifying ease, making himself comfortable in a chair that Jack chose specifically to discourage long visits. Marines. Jesus. Calling Walter, Jack fixes his eyes on his laptop screen. His sudoku score is going to be shit.

Walter comes with coffee and a disturbed look when Sumner thanks him with rare enthusiasm, putting Jack even more on edge. The coffee's good, but it's not that good.

Taking a sip of coffee, Jack evaluates the man who will be leading Atlantis' military contingent. Wouldn't have been his first choice, but definitely in the top five, and there are worse balances for a diplomat than a Marine who's fought in every war since Vietnam. Elizabeth can handle him. And he can handle her. And better yet, very much not his problem once they go through the gate.

"So," Jack says finally, closing the window; his time's too bad to even start to try and salvage it. "What brings you here this morning?"

"Personnel," Sumner says pleasantly.

"Not Daniel."

Sumner stares at him blankly, and Jack can almost read the comment on Jack's mental function and fitness for duty before Sumner leans forward, placing the cup a precise inch from the edge of the desk before sitting back and pulling a folder from under his arm. Jack watches him slide it across the desk with a feeling of incipient doom. And he's right--flipping it open, John Sheppard looks back at him.

"How did you get this?"

Sumner shrugs, looking calmer than a man should who is carrying around a file classified to exactly three people in the SGC.

"Colonel."

Sumner looks up. "You're not the only one that worked joint missions, General. And not the only one that got word what happened when Bourne jumped ship."

Jack closes the folder with a snap. "No."

"He'd be an asset--"

"He's not going from an assassin for Treadstone to an assassin for us."

Sumner blinks, staring at Jack like he just spoke a language that doesn't exist. "You think I just want a weapon?"

Jack waits, letting his expression speak for himself. Sumner sighs.

"Jack," Sumner says slowly, "you know me better than that."

Maybe he should; Sumner's an old school Marine, hard but fair. Before today, he'd never have believed it; then again, before he'd heard about Bourne, he hadn't really believed what Treadstone was doing either, even when he'd worked with them. The last thing they needed was someone getting the bright idea to recreate it; Jack knows once something is done, it'll be tried again.

But not on his watch. And John won't be the prototype for a new secret program. "They're not going to be assassins when we're done," Jack says slowly, holding Sumner's eyes. "They'll be soldiers because that's what they are and what they were before they were acquired, but we aren't Treadstone. They're not going to be--"

"I don't want the weapon. I want the man who sat in that interview and told you that he wanted more." Sumner's eyes flicker to the wall. "You aren't the only one that worked with them and decided that you didn't want to know what you were seeing until it was shoved in your face."

Jack swallows.

"The pilots who remember working with him before say he's the best they've seen. I don't take that lightly from men who live on their own egos. He's exactly as good as that file and better than anyone else we could get. And we need him."

Sumner's not wrong, precisely. "Atlantis may be one way," he says carefully, turning his cup absently and picking it up. "You're right; you could use him. That doesn't change the fact he's not ready to be integrated into the chain of command."

"He'll be ready by the time the expedition is ready to leave."

Jack sighs. "There are reasons they let him go. Reluctantly, but they did it."

"They did it because Bourne scares the shit out of them and they think he'll recruit." True. The subtext is interestingly complex where that comes up; Bourne's not just their first and their best, he was Conklin's number one and personal favorite. If anything gave those men nightmares, it was their assets realizing they were the equal of their handlers. What they hadn't said during the exchange is as loud as what they did; Jack got four handed off on a silver platter, but John had been the hardest, and he's the one Jack had wanted most. "Amnesia or no, he's still the best they've ever had. If he wanted to break them, he could."

True.

"Atlantis is perfect for this," Sumner continues, leaning an elbow on the desk. "It's isolated, it's far away from earth memory triggers, and our force is small. No one will think anything of him being outside the chain of command as an Air Force officer and working him in slowly. I'll have every reason to devote personal attention to him if they think I'm grooming him to take over duties as my executive officer. You can't oversee him like I can, and you can't afford to show you're doing it anyway once he's out in the field."

Jack leans back, studying Sumner. "Give me your plan."

"I read his file; he has trouble with authority that none of your work so far has managed to break--" Sumner stops, mouth tightening before he says anything else, but Jack can see the flash of anger, bubbling up from somewhere deep and very old. Vietnam and straight through to Afghanistan and Iraq before he was tapped for the SGC, Sumner's seen everything. They've both sent good men to death for reasons both good and bad, interrogated prisoners outside the Geneva Convention standards, and gone to bed with faces that will haunt them until the day they die.

They demand obedience, but not the way Treadstone enforced it. Watching the Treadstone employee engage John's obedience compulsion is something that Jack never wants to see again.

They're commanders, who may not always be right, but always try; the people who had John in their custody had never known right well enough to recognize it if it gutted them before their own eyes. And the worst part, the part that wakes Jack up at night, makes him wish he'd pushed for more of those men, is the suspicion that there'd been an element of deliberation in how John was conditioned and trained that's not there with the others. A dozen different psychological tests--from before, from during, and from their own, interview and observation--had revealed a skew on the charts that makes Jack think that it wasn't any kind of mistake. John was their loose canon, their mistake, by accident or design, and too valuable to discard before they got their money's worth. They weren't scared of him like they were of Bourne--and Jesus, what Jack wouldn't have done to get his hands on him--but they were scared of him. Not what he could do to their organization, their lives; John scared people in that reptilian leftover in the back of the brain that wakes up when it feels something coming that can't be stopped once it starts.

"He has exactly what I need," Sumner continues, staring over Jack's shoulder. "He's trained in every weapon we have and some we don't. Better, he's used to using what's at hand when he can't get what he knows. He thinks on his feet, knows how to evaluate a situation to stand his ground or to cut and run. He's used to a regular mission schedule and autonomy during. And he works without collateral damage."

That's the stickler that Jack's still working through; was that training or inclination? More importantly, was there any natural inclination left after Treadstone? There'd been interviews with his family and friends, his old commander, his professors and old roommates; hell, Jack had hunted up his ex-wife and first girlfriend himself, sitting through a hideous conversation to get jack shit. John had been a good Air Force officer, moving up the ranks at the usual rate of an up and coming man the brass wanted to keep an eye on. A good student with a relatively high GPA who was liked by his teachers. A divorce almost painfully friendly before he vanished off the map. A long standing feud with his father that wasn't any more unique than that of any son.

They know this; either John Sheppard had been born acting a part, or no one had bothered to get any further than the surface for most of his life.

Closing the file, Jack thinks through all the angles; there aren't any bad ones, and Sumner's right, the asshole. On Atlantis, John will get exactly the level of attention he requires, and with someone more than competent to handle his expertise in what an Air Force officer shouldn't ever know. By the time they get back--when, Jack thinks firmly, not if, when--Jack will have a man with field experience who won't be questioned about all the talents that right now, there's no way to hide.

A still for God's sake, and their luck is that it's engineers who think everyone's base instinct is to take apart anything they see and put it back together into something new. That shit's just showing off, even if John has no idea he's doing it.

"Command experience," Jack says slowly. "That means--"

"Trusting him with my people." Sumner's eyes flicker to the folder. "And with the base, should I be incapacitated. With civilians."

There's not much Jack can say to this; few people may make the distinction between soldier and sociopath, but in the ranks, you learn the difference and the places to put them. One of the places the latter shouldn't be is command. There's a lot of things about John that are negotiable, can be bent this way and that, but not this one thing; John's targets aren't any more people to him than the coffee cup on Jack's desk. Few humans are born without the brakes that stop them from handing out death with casual assurance, but if John had ever had them, they're not there now, and that's not something six months will do a thing about. Six years won't.

"And?"

Sumner stares at his cup. "Like you said. No collateral damage. He's never taken out anyone that wasn't an order or wasn't a direct threat--and they may be lying about a lot of shit, but that much I got from the interviews as well. He didn't hide how little he cared, so he wouldn't bother hiding that."

Jack looks at Sumner now, who knows everything Jack does and then one thing more; Sumner's a Marine from head to foot and lives Semper Fi as religion and philosophy. He'd worked the field and sent his men to death; but he also brought them back. There are a lot of risks Sumner would take, but this wouldn't be one of them.

"You're that sure," Jack says slowly.

"He chose this way," Sumner says. "The rest doesn't matter."

Jack shuts the file, sliding it across the desk. "Approved. When he's--when we're finished."

Sumner smiles, getting to his feet, folder tucked under his arm. "Thanks, Jack."

Jack salutes him with the nearly empty coffee cup. "Your funeral."


The first week isn't encouraging. "Things. You like. That aren't related to assassination."

Jack takes a breath and thinks about patience and forced meditation and what he wouldn't do for a bottle or two right now. John, folded neatly on the plain military cot, rests his chin on his knee, eyes fixed on Jack's every move. Jack can't quite shake the feeling John's searching for his weak spots, marking the places he'd shoot for injury, maim, or kill. He's just that kind of company.

"Music. Art. Books."

"The Marquis de Sade appeals."

Jesus. "Now you're just being difficult."

The thing is, he's not. They did a good job on him, Jack has to admit. First day, he got the recitation of fatal wounds by the book. It degenerated from there; he's got to wonder what passes for conversation in John's world.

"I saw your ex," Jack says, leaning back in his chair. John doesn't so much as flicker an eyelash. "She said you liked Johnny Cash." She hadn't known shit. It was like to them, John had never existed in anything but a physical presence. Jack's in the general habit of making snap judgments, and he'd made one when he left the room, ordering that John's family be denied any and all access. It didn't seem possible before, but introducing them to John could actually make this worse.

"Why?" For a wonder, he looks interested.

"Why what?"

John's eyebrows raise in polite disbelief. "Motive, O'Neill. Why should the objective--"

"That being you."

John rolls his eyes, waving it off. "Why would I like it?"

Jack has no idea, but John's an actor; he's lived his life as a hundred people, so he's used to knowing the motive. What's scaring Jack is that John's trying; he's done everything Jack's asked. He knows military protocol like he'd been born reciting it, had the history they'd made for him memorized until it was instinct. John's been to observe on three bases and had at least four normal conversations. People like him.

Motive, Jack thinks, tapping his fingers against the table top, where John had written out the UMC in flat, anonymous print so tiny you needed a microscope to read it. He'd been started on a Russian translation when Jack came in.

Picking it up, Jack looks at the clear Cyrillic and shakes his head. "You know, this proves something I wasn't sure of before. You do have a sense of humor." Lying it back on the table, he picks up the first page in English; side by side, he can see the similarity in handwriting.

"What?" John's voice sounds oddly surprised.

"The UMC in Russian."

He meant it as a joke; the silence, however, stretches too long. When Jack looks up, John's studying the papers. "John?"

"Actually. I was thinking about--well, the irony I suppose. Cold War, UMC--"

"Yeah. That's what makes it funny."

John hesitates. "French doesn't have the same connotations."

"I'm shocked."

John stands up, going to the table, fingers dragging over the pages and pages of the UMC that he probably has memorized. He uncovers a sheet that's stopped in less than five sentences. "I wondered why it didn't work." After a few seconds, he piles them back together, careful to keep his hands from touching the table directly.

Fingerprints, right. They have to do something about that.

After a few seconds, John goes back to the cot, settling himself cross-legged. Jack might not know psychology, but he knows body language. John's just figured something out. What, Jack's not entirely sure, but he's waiting for more. "Johnny Cash, entertainer. Also a pilot."

Jack sits back, arms crossed. "And?"

"I want to hear it." John tilts his head thoughtfully, but there's something else hovering behind his eyes. "I think the irony would appeal to me."


John stares up at the plane. "Did anyone tell you--"

"I know what they told you. They also told you the word for funny is irony. You really trust them?"

John gives him flat look, combined irritation and something hovering near wistful. He'd been a good pilot, his commander had said regretfully. The best we've had. Could have been the best the Air Force ever produced.

He is the best the Air Force ever produced. "Get up there," Jack says, pointing. John slow blinks a negative, but his body carries him up. Loved to fly, the commander said. Had to drag him out to eat. Would have stayed there all day and night. No one better.

"You're the best pilot we've ever produced," O'Neill says once they're buckled in. It's a private plane; O'Neill read the file on John's air missions for five pages and stopped, too nauseated to continue. "You've served on six continents. Went down in Afghanistan."

"Holland." John's hands tighten on the controls.

Shit. He should have read farther. "Get us in the air."

John blinks at him. "This is a little beneath me." Kid was given stealths to play with, search and destroy with. At Jack's look, though, he turns it on, as tense as a cat walking over a running river, even if he's perfectly still. "I can fly--"

"Anything with wings or a propeller. I read the notes." For both their sanity, he'll have to get through the rest. It'll be a whiskey night. Maybe doubles all the way. "Get us in the air, airman. That's an order."

John stiffens slightly--right, authority, welcome to hell, O'Neill, this was your bright idea?--but finally he's doing it, even if it's instinct and habit. Jack watches the body language; he's used to doing this for a reason. Bomb something, kill someone, crash somewhere and do all three. It's got to say something about the men that trained him; they might not have done it deliberately, but they sure as fuck weren't watching what they were doing when they sent him out.

Hell, as long as he performed, they might not have even cared.

In the air, John's not any more relaxed. Slumping comfortably in his seat, Jack catches the faint lines of strain around his mouth. "What did you think of Johnny Cash?"

The strain eases slightly. "I'm still calling it irony."

Jack supposes that's fair enough. "But it works for you?"

"I don't feel homicidal listening." John favors him with a sharp smile. "At least, no more than usual."

Jack doesn't smile, but it's hard. "I bet you were a handful when you were a teenager." John tends to follow the cues of his audience; Jack tries to give him as little to work with as possible, but the fact he's starting to like John is probably proof he's not doing it well enough. It's too easy to forget what he is until he reminds you. And he tends to do that a lot.

Jack watches the sky, keeping John in the corner of his eye. "You don't have any objectives." Not human ones, anyway, and he's burned through the ROTC handbooks like toilet paper. And threatened to use them for that too, going so far as to shout, "Perfect memory. Jesus, all the works of a fuckload of world literature and you think I'll forget how to salute unless I'm clutching a fucking book?"

Jack kind of thinks that's progress. Of what kind, he has no idea. He leaves that to the shrinks that John is allowed to mock only out of their hearing.

Trying, Jack reminds himself. He's just bad at it. Really, really bad. "I like it up here," Jack says. It's not a lie. Not really. "Peaceful."

John doesn't answer, but he's all reflex right now, so his mind's on its own. And John left to his own devices right now isn't necessarily a bad thing. He pays attention, hears everything anyone says and carries it around with him like a dog chewing on a bone. It's the analyst in him--and Jack has to smile, because that's pure Rodney McKay, and Jack didn't need a file to tell him who was responsible for his esoteric knowledge of theoretical physics or the careful, methodical patience beneath the restlessness--puts facts together, drawing conclusions. Good ones, too. He's not a bad tactician at all, and on paper is far beyond competent. Seat of the pants thinking, not trusting plans because circumstances change, adaptable. He'll get in, get out, and while it might be messy, he doesn't fail. Strategy though--long term and short, multiple targets, using one circumstance for multiple purposes, some of them contradictory--Jack's never seen anything like him before.

He'll be good in the field. Best they've ever had. If they can keep him, but Jack wants more than just to keep him.

"I don't know what I was like," John says abruptly. John's not so much as changed expression, but there's something oddly unfocused about his eyes. "As a teenager. I don't remember."

"Drove your parents nuts," Jack says with utter certainty. He can see it now; kid with messy hair, suddenly finding girls (and boys, for that matter) and pretty as all hell. Jesus, he must have been some kind of heartbreaker in his teens, all big eyes and high cheekbones. Clear skin, Jack decides. Braces when he was a kid, so the attention when he got them off was disconcerting. Overwhelming to hit fourteen and puberty and be every girl's fantasy, too.

"You have any tattoos?"

"No identifiable permanent marks. I had to have scars surgically reconstructed. Luckily, I heal fast." John shifts in the seat; the tension, despite John's best efforts, is easing off. "Also, flying over snow? Not so much with an interesting view."

"It gives you time to think. You'll see when we get there." The Rockies are a dark purple shadow in the distance, blurred edges melting into the blue of the sky. "Besides, you'd be surprised. Stole a chopper ride or two. They tend to not want to tell Generals no."

The corner of John's mouth curves up, then back down, so quickly Jack wouldn't have seen it unless he was watching for it. "I wouldn't. Sir."

Jack leans back more comfortably. "Just keep thinking that. I'm betting you drive your commanders nuts, too."


"So you want to know your assignment?" Jack asks, coming into John's almost-just-like-officer's-quarters except for the laptops lined up on a table against the wall. Jack had given him a few of the projects that will protect his new identity, not least of which to rewrite his own file to match the public story.

John looks up from the first one. "Antarctica?"

Jack frowns, sitting down on the chair beside him, glancing at the second screen. Their security protocol is up on one. "Why Antarctica?"

"That's where you took me for my first field trip."

Interesting. "I took you to Florida, too."

"You were tired of the chilblains," John says absently. He's correcting his service dates. John had read through their packet carefully, then asked for as much as they could give him on the last fifteen years of Air Force missions and history. "Because," John had said with unassailable logic, "you lived it. I didn't. I need to know more than when and how. I need to know how it felt to wait."

Granted. "I don't get chilblains." He rubs his fingers together involuntarily. It was nice in Florida. Sunny. John had run half the beach, at some point discovering surfing from a tall brunette who obviously had thought the lessons would lead to something else. Maybe John had too, right until the second he become one with the water after wiping out.

Four hours later, Jack had finally ordered him back to shore, and John had come, flushed and panting, sunburned and looking drunk. Jack had felt something tighten in his chest looking at him: finally, he hears in his own startled breath. Finally. And John didn't even know it yet. "That. That I like."

Jack had stared at him, then at the pounding surf. Of course. "Because if it isn't dangerous--"

"It's not a challenge. Exactly." Picking up a towel, he frowns. "I know my body. I'm not--"

"You know. Most people don't. Even a Marine would be tired after all of that." Most of them, anyway, and John doesn't have the build to pull off what they can. Later, he can get away with it; once they know him, the quirks will be dismissed or ignored. "Seriously. What the hell do they feed you up there?"

John had wrinkled his nose, getting towel and surfboard, but hadn't said a word.

"Add some potassium to your diet," John says absently. "And yes, they were chilblains. You also went over survival in arctic conditions in monotonous detail. Two plus two rarely equals five."

"Depends on the base," Jack drawls. "What's with the security code?"

John hesitates, tongue pressed against his upper lip. There's something odd about his expression, and Jack feels that tightness again, something a cross between surprise and relief all at once and so much more. "I have to be sure."

"Sure?" Jack's no genius, but he can read what's written on the screen. "It looks like you're making failsafes." Two plus two does equal four. "To stop yourself."

"If this doesn't work, the order will be given to shoot on sight." John takes a breath, staring at his screen. "You can't afford for me to defect. And I can pretty much guarantee that I will. This authorizes my commanding officer to dispose of me in whatever way necessary. I set it with an override so you can't overrule him. Sumner, I assume."

Jack studies the expressionless profile, the fingers limp on the keys, completely unsurprised. Treadstone tended toward underestimation. "What were your orders?"

"Everything. Up to and including assassination of the head of the SGC and the five of the team leaders. Create confusion. The usual. But primarily information, as much as I could find out. By the way, aliens. Really?"

Jack tires not to smile at the question at the end. "Welcome to the SGC, John. Antarctica."

John's fingers go back to typing, then pause again, mouth curving into a smile. "Star Wars. Cool."

Jack gives him a few minutes, then turns the laptop. "Why these?"

"It had to be someone I know how to imitate," John answers. "I know McKay's patterns. He's more complicated than the others, but that also means that there aren't many who can tell the difference between what he did and what I changed. That also means that there aren't many people who can alter it."

Jack gives him a second, taking in the quickened breath, the hazel eyes too blank to hide something else, the slight flush. This is very possibly what could be considered John's version of a panic attack. "You're scared."

"I'm practical," John says shortly. "You're the one sending me into the middle of some other galaxy. I'm just the one who will take advantage of it. You know exactly what I can do. You'll be lucky if one of your men is able to kill me. All this does is give them the advantage of time." John snorts softly. "Trust me, if I could figure out a way to set this to read my mind, I'd do it."

"Right. You're scared."

John turns on him. "You--"

"Exactly. You're afraid for us."

John stops short, staring at him. Fear--terror, maybe. He must have read every line of McKay's programs to start trying to add in those changes subtly enough that no one would notice. The panicked responses of a very practical man.

"I'm not too worried about it, actually," Jack says, leaning back. "I am, however, worried that one of the active operatives will get in. Which you know wouldn't be impossible, not if they know we're here. And that's what I wanted to talk to you about. Your commanding officer is coming this week to meet you."

John's hands fall away from the keyboard; its fairly rare Jack can get that kind of reaction, and he sits back to enjoy it. "I won't remember him by the time--"

"Exactly. That's why it's got to be now. He needs to know you now. The blocks won't last forever, you know that. They're just going to buy all of you time."

John's eyes flicker down.

"Which is where you got the bright idea to plan your own assassination." Jesus. Jack feels himself starting to grin. "Now. Our problem won't be you. It will be someone else. And that, we want to plan for."

"General--"

"Jack for one more week," Jack says. "Give me a threat assessment. They gave me five of you. Do all of you have the same orders?"

"No. Maybe. Not exactly."

Jack stares at him. "And that means--"

"That means," John says calmly, "that whether or not they do is irrelevant. Even if the Asgard blocks fail, even if they want to, they can't do anything. They won't even think it. Not everyone was meant to be Jason Bourne and actually think. He was the first one, and it wasn't until they put him in the field that they realized what they'd done. The rest of us have brakes built in. Some more than others."

"And that means--"

"They'll need an operative to give the order. In the SGC. You want my assessment? You should get rid of us."

"How long have they know about the SGC?"

John hesitates. "Three years. Maybe four."

"If I get rid of you, will that stop them?"

John leans his head on one hand, chair swinging in slow, tight arcs, eyebrows drawn together. "McKay's work's been picked up by MIT--unofficially," he says, which sounds like a change of subject but Jack goes with it. "People with any vague interest in AI are reading his results. He's not there yet, but from I've read, he's edging the line closer to genuine independent thought. Security programs aren't usually flexible; there are reasons for that. McKay doesn't think like a security consultant. He thinks like a theoretical scientist who gets hard when he gets to turn theory into practice. His programs are flexible."

"And I ask again, Treadstone or it's not so invisible successor?"

John blows out an impatient breath. "Yes, they'll try. And they'll work out who else knows and wants in and work with them."

"Then getting rid of you would be pointless, wouldn't it? Since the only guaranteed way to stop an operative is--"

"Another operative. I thought of that." John's been thinking about this more than Jack had thought. "So get me McKay. I can mimic his work, but I can't create like this. I know what we need to do, but he's the only one who can tell me how to design it." John hesitates, looking away suddenly. "I don't want him to meet me before--" John gestures awkwardly: the Asgard thing. Right. "I just need to listen while he describes what I need to know to someone who can question him. I'll provide the questions."

"That I can do." Standing up, Jack watches John go back to the files. "Oh, almost forgot." Going back to the door, John picks up the poster, handing it to a mystified John. "Irony," he says deadpan, walking out with a spring in his step.


"I can't believe you're making me explain this," McKay yells. Jack bites his lip, glancing at John, currently watching McKay through the observation window with the same kind of calculation that he uses to study McKay's programs. It used to be disconcerting, but now, not so much; Jack has a bad feeling he's completely forgotten what normal is.

"He's going to throw that laptop at them," Jack observes as five people that before today had never spoken to Dr. Rodney McKay (and for good reason, it seemed) act as John's voice.

"Nah. He has his high scores on that one. Worry about the other one." John types something in, then touches his radio. "Ask him about the conditionals. And Jesus, the man's a genius. Suck it up and suck up. Thank you." Flipping it off, John types something else. "Morons."

"He can be a little abrasive."

"You live through one hundred years of mathematical theory in three days with him, then you can tell me he's abrasive," John retorts, still typing. "Compared to that, he's practically warm and fuzzy right now."

"So why are we doing this again?"

John pulls the pencil from behind his ear, making another post it note to stick on the cover of the folder at his feet. Jack has no idea what's up with that. "Conditional statements."

"And those are hard because--"

"This is more complicated than a binary yes/no or switch. The computer has to make a judgment based on each condition and apply priority compared to the other conditions being triggered. Then it has to decide the number that need to be filled before say, my passwords are revoked. Until they're needed, these protocols shouldn't even be known to exist--for this scenario, anyway." John gives him a sideways look. "Or the others. I suppose."

Jack cracks a smile. "Interesting."

"Actually, this will help your overall security; you should ask him to rewrite some of the requirements before the expedition leaves." John listens to McKay, frowning, before he types something new. "The computer has to out think a person and out think random chance. More than that, it has to outthink me. All of these have the possibility of coming up, some more than others. And I don't want to randomly lock down the city due to bad luck."

Jack normally would be fairly bored with proceedings--being a general meant learning to play chess with yourself in your head or gain some imaginary friends--but John is fascinatingly animated. Staring at him, Jack begins to pull things together.

When McKay finally threw the (other) laptop in a fit of utter disgust with what Jack has to admit was a fairly dumb question, Jack sees the corner of John's mouth curve up and stay there as he bends his head over the screen.

"You're--smiling," Jack says suspiciously. "And it's not at the violence. Though I suppose that could be part of it."

John's expression blanks.

"You like him." Of course he does. John likes things that are hard, things that make him work. A challenge. "I don't believe this."

"It's not--"

"That muttering about his flexible code--is that foreplay?" Jack has a horrible feeling. "John. Tell me I did not have to pull favors I'll be paying off for years for you to have a teenage crush. Does he even like guys?"

John's eyes narrow. "I don't have any idea what you're talking about."

"Wow." Jack turns around and stares straight out the window, because looking at Rodney McKay's red face is the only thing that's keeping him from laughing himself into a stroke. He can feel John's eyes boring into the side of his head and keeps his face straight, arms crossed, trying to look interested in McKay talking about something that he could swear isn't anything like any form of English.

"I admire his mind," John says, finally, with the faintest--very faintest--trace of sullen irritation. Jack has heard it before. In the voices of teenagers everywhere because their parents don't understand them.

Jack doesn't answer and spends the rest of the presentation hoping to God he can make it to his office.


"Okay, I think this will work," John says two days later without turning around. Jack had often wondered how John could identify him coming in, at which time John had raised an eyebrow and pointed out that he didn't get that many visitors.

Still, though. He was always right. Uncannily so.

"Oh. You have a guest," John says abruptly, turning in his chair. Jack sees his right hand is resting on his thigh, where his gun would normally be. Slouching in his chair, face blank, John's eyes flicker between them, then rest on Jack, excluding Sumner from his attention. "Sumner?"

"You're going to be a handful," Sumner drawls with amusement, following Jack to the nearest chairs. John's face doesn't change at all, but he's tense all over, evaluating them without bothering to hide it.

But. There's a Johnny Cash poster on the wall, and reports state that John tends to start Johnny Cash whenever he seems agitated. Amazon had provided John with a surprising variety of music--and some stuff Jack isn't even sure qualifies as music--but Johnny Cash is what comes out under stress. It could be an act--and he'd bet John would tell him that if asked. Thing is, he's pretty sure John doesn't even know he does it.

"I do this professionally," John had said one afternoon, all the more believable for the cool, impartial delivery. "And I can be whoever I need to be exactly as long as I need to be."

"Then why would you tell me?"

"To throw you off! Jesus, you studied us. You know perfectly well what I can do. We live our roles as long as we need to, then we discard them. I like this role. But don't make the mistake of thinking it's anything but a role."

"For years?"

"For the rest of my life if necessary, which it is. I might even start believing it. But that doesn't make it any less imaginary."

Jack had nodded agreeably and said, "I think, therefore I am."

John had stared at him. "What the hell does that mean?"

That had been a good night.

Sumner leans forward, elbows resting on his knees. "You're going to be good."

John blinks; for the first time since they met, John is genuinely speechless.

"That's a pretty amazing file. Is it complete?"

"No. Sir."

Sumner nods in satisfaction. "They left off the stuff they want to keep proprietary. In case we want to start our own unit. Which we could, you know. Bet you could tell us how. Bet you could train them, too."

John blinks, eyes focusing on Sumner. Jack makes himself stay expressionless; John reads him too well. "You won't."

"Why not? If that file is anything to go by, we could use a few hundred men like you."

"The process isn't always very--successful." John's voice is so flat that Jack wonders if it's actually coming from the wall.

Sumner leans back, waving it off. "Trial and error. We have the Asgard, after all. Shortcut a lot of the--"

"No."

Sumner straightens. "No?"

"No. You won't."

"There are five of you. If you won't, I'll get one of the other ones. With the files, we won't really need any of you, but I'd like to have an example around."

John's gone dangerously still. "You can't--you can't start that again." Jack can almost see the connections being made; the Asgard, their questions, his own work, jumping to the conclusion that carefully analytical mind should make. "It's--what they do--"

"Volunteers only, of course," Sumner says with a disapproving frown. "My men would sign up."

"Not if they knew what they were going to--"

"Be faster, stronger, smarter than anyone else? Autonomic nervous system control; you can release your own adrenaline when you need it. Minimal sleep, metabolism regulation, high pain tolerance--"

"Endorphin release," John whispers, eyes blank. "Forty seven hours to work out how to make that work--"

O'Neill pushes the nausea aside. Not yet.

"Eidetic memory. And conditioned response. Conditioned obedience in your group, or so I heard." Sumner cocks his head. "You think anyone wouldn't want that? Any commander?"

"Obsessive compulsive disorder. Psychotic breaks. Schizophrenia, paranoid and catatonia. Light sensitivity--"

"Small price to pay."

"No sense of self."

"They're soldiers. They'd do it for their country."

"They're people," John says suddenly. Both hands clenched into fists. "When they're done with you, you aren't a person. You're not even an animal. You're a program."

"You're a volunteer."

"I didn't volunteer for that." Jack can feel the snap, and Jesus, it must have been weeks coming, months coming, maybe years, maybe since the day John realized what he'd become. "Serve your country. Save American lives. Avoid a war. Tell that to a man who already took an oath to serve his country and he'll believe it. I believed it. I watched too many men die--too many--I saw what war does--" John's hands begin to shake, pressed into his thighs hard enough to leave fist shaped bruises. "You have three people watching me. I can kill you both and get out the door before they can remember how to run. This facility--."

Sumner tilts his head in curiosity. "Why do you care?"

John goes still, eyes flickering to Jack, fixing and focusing, searching his body and his face for confirmation or denial. Then, abruptly, John blinks, slumping into his chair. "Fuck. You."

Sumner smiles. "Like I said. You're going to be good." Standing up, he looks down at John. "I look forward to working with you, Major Sheppard." With a nod and a salute in Jack's general direction, he strolls out the door, leaving Jack alone with a former assassin that's possibly, very likely, still deeply pissed off. Probably not smart.

Jack tries a bright smile. "So. Think you can work with him?"

"What was that?" John asks, voice low and precisely pitched; Jack's pretty sure even the microphones aren't going to be able to pick that up without computer assistance.

"Well--"

John erupts from the chair, and it takes everything in Jack to stay still. "What the fuck were you trying to accomplish? I could have killed you--"

"Why does it matter?"

And there it is again; John stops as suddenly as someone running into a wall.

"Those men? You don't know them. And they aren't people to you anyway." Jack watches John take his seat with a lot less than his usual control. "In fact. How did you feel? When you thought we were using you to make a new Treadstone?"

"I." And John stops, swallowing. "It wasn't--"

"Betrayed. Right?"

John doesn't answer, looking at the far wall of observers, but Jack's pretty sure he's not seeing anything in this room. "You aren't going to do it."

Jack sighs. "What gave it away?" John's too good with body language. "I knew I couldn't keep--"

"You did, but no. By the way, did you know when you're thinking, you look like you're trying to listen to a conversation between imaginary people? It's an effective conversational deterrent. No. I didn't," John's eyes narrow, voice grinding like he's pushing the words between clenched teeth, "get that far."

"Huh?"

"You wouldn't. Do that." John sits back, mouth a tight, unhappy line. "I know you. I need to finish something." Getting up, John turns his back on John. "Sumner's waiting for you in the observation room. It's irritating."

Jack stands up, feeling shaky but not sure why. "I'll be back."

"Kinda used to it," John answers with a glimmer of sarcasm, sitting down at the laptop and cutting off communication. Jack takes a second to contemplate the ultrastraight back, then nods to himself, going out. It's John. It's not supposed to make sense.

Sumner's waiting for him outside the door. "How'd he know I was in there?"

"No clue. Guess maybe."

Sumner raises an eyebrow, but Jack's not up to working out the motives of their problem child. Gesturing, he goes to the small office he keeps here, looking for his whiskey. It's that kind of a day.

"Please," Sumner says, taking the seat across from him. Jack gives him the glass and sits down, feeling broody and off-balance. "He's ready, Jack."

"Yeah." Jack stares at his glass. "What happened back there?"

"The imaginary conversation thing's true," Sumner offers unasked. Jack gives him a withering look, but Sumner ignores him. "He does it, too. Does now, anyway."

Jack straightens. "What does that mean?"

Sumner gives him an amused look and takes a drink, supremely indifferent to the fact that apparently, Jack's out of the loop. There's no way he can be out of the loop. He is the loop. "Marshall."

"Jack." Setting the glass down, Sumner smirks. "It looks like he's decided what kind of man he wants to be. When the Asgard are done, that's the baseline he'll start with. He picked you."

Oh Jesus Christ. Jack takes a drink. He may need more. "You're kidding."

"With some variations that I, for one, am sure will drive me crazy in a few months," Sumner says smugly. "You drove your commanders nuts, too, you know. He's going to be just like that. Won't toe the line, trusts his own judgment over anyone else's, and obedient only up to a point." Sumner looks at his glass thoughtfully. "Jesus. Talk about making a rod for my own back--"

"He said it was a role."

"That's called living, Jack. The Asgard will buy him the time to know himself. When he gets those memories back, he'll know exactly who he is." Sumner picks up the glass. "I'm going to be kicking his ass for a while. I may need to check what your commanders did with you."

"Marshall."

"Jack."

"What makes this different from what they did to him at Treadstone?" Jack stares at the glass, thinking of John at the computer, then at Marshall. The smile's gone.

"Because every step of the way, he had to choose what he wanted to take with him. He did eighteen years of growing with his eyes wide open to what every decision means. And he chose not to make it easy." Sumner finishes the glass. "Sheppard is going to have as many black marks and as many commendations as you ever did. He'll wake up at night after making decisions that will end men's lives. He'll have the brass riding his ass because he won't trust them before they earn it. He'll walk though fire if that's what it takes to save those that depend on him. And he's going to fuck up, because that's what you do when you're growing up." Sumner sets down the glass. "Like I said."

"He's going to be good."

Sumner smiles. "Remind me of this conversation after six months with him. I'll need it."

Jack salutes him with the glass, draining it, feeling shaken and more drunk than a double should make him. "I think I might need it, too."


If John doesn't stop pacing, Jack might have to shoot him. It'll be okay. He won't remember, after all. "Sit. Down."

John doesn't stop, not even for a glare, which is enough to make Jack nervous. John's been restless all day, but the last hour has jerked John completely out of his projected calm and into restless, constant action, checking a paper here, reviewing a program already completed there, coming back to glare at the laptop like it personally offended him.

"John."

"It's this or fight." John turns a smile on him, stopping so abruptly Jack feels a little visual motion sickness. "I'd like to go one on one with you. Just to see."

"You'd beat me," Jack answers without any shame at all. Even a little. "And you wouldn't even work up a sweat doing it."

John rolls his eyes, turning away to give the laptop another glare. "My life," John says, enunciating each word with such clarity Jack can almost see them in the air, "is about to end."

"Dramatic. It's going to change." Jack slumps further in his seat, knowing that it's making John's irritation worse, but he can't help it. "And only for a few years. Then you get to tell me that I'm right, and I get a very expensive bottle of whiskey."

John frowns. "Role."

"Life and living it." Standing up, Jack closes the laptop, aware of the faint ache that's grown steadily stronger over the last week. John had repeated his own history by rote, word perfect, then his family, his ex wife, his reason for his transfer to Antarctica, the death of Holland, who'd been the closest thing John had had to a friend before.

Friend, Jack thinks, is a word that omits more than it covers. The date of Holland's death had coincided with the day John decided to drop off Treadstone's radar only to resurface on their front door a month later. After Jason's vanishing act, they hadn't been willing to let him out of their sight--at least, not without persuasion. And not without briefing John on exactly what he was supposed to do.

"I can learn a lot in five years," John says suddenly, turning on a heel. "Everything. Eidetic memory. If those blocks come off--"

"Then nothing will change. Well, I'll get my whiskey. I'll have to find a really special bottle."

"I'll go back to them. Conditioned obedience, Jack."

"Not noticeably," Jack answers, sitting back down. "Unless that little snit you pulled before you went home to be shot was actually on the schedule. If I remember correctly, you were supposed to help track down Bourne--"

John snorts. "Not if I wanted to survive." Frustrated, he drops in a chair, staring at Jack with resentful eyes. A world away from that first interview. It might be a role, but then again, John has no context for what he's become. Jack will let him keep his illusions a little longer.

"But you didn't want to survive."

John's eyes narrow.

"And now you do. So it worked out." Jack eyes the pile of sudoku puzzles and almost sighs, because really. Really, John. The ache is a little stronger.

"I won't remember--any of this," John gestures around the room, eyes lingering on the poster for a second, the CDs in the corner. Jack already gave orders that everything John owns here goes with him. "It feels--"

"Feels? Really?"

"You want to believe too much," John says flatly. "It's naïve."

"I prefer optimistic." Jack waits, but John seems done for the second, so he takes the opportunity to call for more coffee. "Coffee?"

"Sure."

When the coffee comes, Jack watches John mix his own, relieved to see it's nothing like he does, but the sudoku puzzles are still making him uneasy. A part of him wants to address it, but how the hell is he supposed to do that? And why, in the name of God?

John goes to his bed, curling in the corner, knees raised defensively. In the BDU's he's taken to wearing every day ("Role," John had said firmly. Jack didn't even dignify that with a response), he looks younger and older both. Jack eyes his hair doubtfully. "You need a haircut."

John, startled, reaches up, then jerks his hand back down. "I wanted something--different."

"It's different." Spikier than Jack remembers. Very non-regulation. Sumner is going to hate it. Jack reminds himself to remind Sumner he can't fall on his sword. He signed up for this. Voluntarily.

They've got another hour before the Asgard do the final evaluation, then the slow, careful process of memory arrangement will start. Slow, because what they're going to do is something more complicated than just a flat block.

John had argued about that. "Why in the name of God do I need to keep temperature regulation? The physical conditioning isn't--"

"Because it'll be easier for your body if you don't suddenly lose what you've lived with for years. We don't know what was natural to you and what was changed. Besides, suppressing your body memory is tricky and you're a soldier. That means you fight. And I think we'd all prefer you survive. Maybe protect some other people too? It being your job and all."

"And be erratic, considering I won't even know what I can do--"

"I'll leave that to chance. But I'm guessing when you're attacked, your body will do it's damndest to get you out of it. Now deal with it."

John hadn't said another word, but he looked it for hours until Jack had distracted him with McKay's latest program changes.

"I won't remember this."

Jack takes a breath. He'd seen this coming. "I know. That's the point. If you--"

"I won't remember you."

Jesus. "In five years--"

"Yeah. If you don't have to kill me." At some point, John got up, because he's standing right in front of Jack's chair, leaning against the table. "And it won't be the same, even if it works."

Jack controls his expression, but John can read him and they both know it. "I know."

John takes a deep breath, eyes studying Jack for a long second. "I don't--" Before Jack can respond--or hell, think--warm, callused hands cup his face, and John's mouth is pressed against his, asking like John has never, ever asked for anything.

And maybe it's not that wrong to let it happen. Or maybe he's making excuses, because in less than an hour, John's walking into that room and Major Sheppard will be the one walking out. Curving a hand around the back of John's neck, he licks across John's lips, surprised by the sudden warmth curling around the ache, and John--Jesus, such a fucking bad idea.

Forty five minutes. Grabbing John's hip, he pulls him closer, and John straddles his lap, deepening the kiss into something that should lead to hours, and they don't have the time. And even if they did--

"John." Pulling back, Jack looks into the hazel eyes, surprised by the intensity, flares of summer green and hungry. "This is a bad idea. Really--" John shifts deliberately and yes, that's what they need here, thank you fucking libido, "--bad idea. John. John."

"Why?"

Jack licks his lips and regrets it, tasting John there, and God, why didn't he see this coming? Sumner might as well have written him a road map. "Because you aren't ready."

John straightens. "You have got to be kidding me. You made me--"

"Exactly." Holding John's eyes, Jack makes himself continue. "That's why."

"Is it Jackson?"

Jesus Christ. "Are you--"

"Speculated involvement for at least five years," John says, staring at him flatly. "You gave me the mission reports. I read between the lines."

Jack pauses, unwillingly impressed. "Really?"

John blinks, then sighs. "Yes, and the fact he's speed dial one and the only person who never calls, which implies, put together with recent mission reports and the surprising amount of time you can get away with spending on this little project, you and he are--" John's mouth quirks slightly. "I think the term is, on a break."

"You are such an asshole." Jack braces his hands and stands up, dumping John on the floor. Sadly, John is a cat; lands on both feet and one hand, mouth curving in a smile. "Get up."

John takes the offered hand, coming up against Jack briefly, and Christ. The little bastard. Then he steps away, putting a perfectly respectable two feet between them, leaning back into the table. "You're going to look back on this and regret it," John says. Jack makes himself look away from the long, lean body and reddened, slightly swollen mouth. He's kind of regretting it already. "A lot."

Jack snorts, sitting back down and wishing he had a drink. A bottle, maybe. "I'm going to miss you less than I thought."

John's silent for a second. "I want you to promise me something," he says finally.

"If it's about killing you--"

"No. That ship has sailed. You are fucked. I accept that. No. I need you to--" John stops. "You know about Bourne, right?"

Jack crosses his arms. "Yeah?"

"I won't remember him. He might eventually remember more. Me." Yeah. John's not the kind you forget easily, even for an amnesiac. "You won't find him, so don't bother trying. If he finds you, make sure he knows--make sure he knows we chose this. That we knew what we were doing. That--that this is who we wanted to be."

Jack nods. "I'll tell him."




Jack takes the last message in his office, one line in a coded message to the SGC about alliances and trade, maybe naquada, who the hell cared.

Procedure successful and Jack closes the file on Jonathan Dex for good.

Jack glances down at the older and remembers the first time he met John, before he had a last name or a SGC folder to his name, who stared at Jack with wide, blank hazel eyes and asked if Jack had any idea what he'd agreed to take. "You're going to regret it," John had said, lounging lazily in a cheap plastic chair wearing a suit that cost more than Jack's car. "With all of us."

"Probably." John's eyes had reflected a mocking reminder of what they both knew; if he couldn't handle him, Jack would have to order him killed. It would be necessary and it would be right, and it would be every bit as much of an assassination as anything John had ever done. The only difference would be motive.

Jack had almost considered leaving, but the file tempted him; more, the man did, the slick, glossy image that didn't look any more real than a picture in a magazine who carried himself like a weapon and stared at Jack with burning contempt. He radiated a promise of a very slow death, and that really made Jack wonder.

"Do you even want to survive?" Jack had asked rhetorically, not expecting an answer, and certainly not expecting the way John's back had straightened, the transition from stillness to sudden motion, and it was only the fact he was looking at all that he was almost ready for John to pin him to the wall, fingers wrapped around his throat and into the edges of tendons, ready to rip it out and watch Jack choke to death on his own blood.

Jack didn't fight him, going limp, knowing John couldn't hold his weight with one hand forever, and knowing, too, that John wouldn't kill him.

After a second, he had dropped Jack, hazel eyes wide and glazed, taking a stumbling step backward and hitting the bare table with one hip. Jack barely keeps his balance and doesn't reach to rub his throat, signaling to the watchers to stay where they were. "Why'd you stop?"

John had stared back. "You didn't give me a reason."

"Didn't care?" Jack had asked softly, and a muscle twitches below his jaw in response. "Why do you need a reason?"

John hadn't answered, but Jack saw that split second of something raw beneath. Whether John had been born with that inhibition on taking life or not, it wasn't there now and Jack's not sure how a person gets that back. He leaves the psychology to the experts. What he'd known in that moment was this: whatever else had happened, John had created his own brakes, using the parameters of his training to define them. Objectives and threats were free game; the rest was not. Definition complete.

It was dangerous, but in a way that Jack could live with. "Do you want out?" Jack had said, going back to sit down, knowing John would respect the lack of fear. "Out of this building, out of Treadstone? Out of this room for that matter?"

"If they want to kill me, it won't matter where I am," John had answered, but he'd gone to sit back down, unruffled and calm again like the last two minutes had never happened. Jack had flattened a hand on the table, feeling the implant Janet had put in his palm activate, tingle running up his arm and muffle the microphones that filled the room. John had straightened, eyes widening, and Jack had taken one second to file away the reaction to something he shouldn't have been able to sense before he spoke.

"We have two minutes, three tops. Now listen."

John had blinked, arms uncrossing. "What?"

"You can't continue what you are. Not after Bourne; any one he associated with isn't going to see daylight. You know that. You're in a building you were trained to break out of if you wanted to. If you bullshit about security, I know you're lying. You apprenticed under the best there is, and what he didn't know isn't worth knowing. Now. If you could walk out of here free and clear, what would you do?"

Sheppard had met Jack's eyes then, the first time during the interview. Old bitterness had stared out at him, long festering, and Jack had felt something tighten when he recognized it. It's one thing to be broken. It's another to know you are, and what it makes you. Worse, to know that once, you might have been something else, and know you can never get that back. "There's not anything else. This is who they made me."

Jack had taken a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "What if you could be someone else?"


The first time Jack meets Major Sheppard, he looks pretty much the same way he did the last time.

Jack grins when he gets in the helicopter, watching competent hands move over the controls as John takes them in the air.

"I like it here," John says, watching the wide swathes of snow draped earth. "Peaceful."

Jack just bets it is.