“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Cameron Mitchell looked down at the open folder in his hands, staring at the list of names. He recognized most of them but under chief scientist, he had noted the decided lack of alphabet. “You’re giving me an unknown who doesn’t appear to have received any education. Are you sure I can’t just take Sam?”
Jack O’Neill, head of SG-1 and the man who had been tasked to fill up Cam’s Atlantis roster, shook his head. “You can’t have Sam. This was her pick, though. In the wake of the amount of scientists that were taken on the first foray through the gate,” and that died there, he left unsaid, “there weren’t many left that would be able to do what you need them to do. Be thankful we found Sheppard.”
“Sam likes him?”
“Sam loves him.” There was a grimace on Jack’s face but that could have meant anything. “Says he’s the only one that you need. He’ll fill McKay’s shoes.”
“No one can fill McKay’s shoes.” It was still an ache to think of the life that had been lost on Atlantis. A bare bones crew was keeping the city going, holed up in one of the few areas that hadn’t been flooded or destroyed in the first few months of the expedition. The last message Elizabeth Weir was able to get through was grim, as the list of those that had lost their lives was long. Now was not the time to mourn their loses but to look to the future. “If Sam likes him, I’ll take him but I’m not going to be happy about it. I’d rather have her.”
“Wouldn’t everyone,” Jack muttered as he walked from the room which made Cam smile. To take Sam, he’d need to take Jack and he didn’t think Atlantis was ready for that sort of military leader. They would have to deal with him, instead.
“Get me the Hair,” Cam yelled to his second in command as the alarms of the city began to blare. The very last thing he wanted was another panic. The people left in the city were still gun shy of alarms after the trials and tribulations they’d been through. If they could have figured out how to stop the noise altogether, he would have had them do it.
The only person who seemed to have any idea what was going on with the city was John Sheppard, or the Hair, as Cam liked to call him. No geek should have hair that cool. It gave them all a bad name. There wasn’t much about Sheppard that seemed geek-like until he opened his mouth. Even the other scientists looked at him blankly when he started talking. The problem was really that he used such simple words that, when no one could understand the complex concept, his easy recitation only made it worse.
He had a theory about the city, one that not even Elizabeth believed. When he said that the city talked to him, it was hard to believe yet he got things done that no one else could do. Some of the things that he claimed were intuitive were just a little too good to be true. It was eerie and, at times, downright distracting. Cam wanted to be objective but there was this way that John had of smiling when he was “communicating with the city” that made Cam’s heart drop into his stomach in the most disturbing way.
“Heard you were looking for me, boss.” The infernal man popped up as if from nowhere, his brightly colored surf shirt a glaring difference from the military BDU's that everyone else wore. “Got a problem?”
“Something like that.” Cam’s drawl got more pronounced when he was nervous or irritated which meant he sounded like a good ol’ boy most every time Sheppard was around. “Think you can fix it for me? I’d appreciate it.”
“You would, would you?” John smirked, taking in the tense faces of the rest of the people in the room. With a snap of his gum, he walked over to a panel on the wall and began to type along the Ancient runes as if they were a QWERTY keypad. “She’d like to know why you turned off the internal dampers.”
Everyone looked around blankly as Cam thundered, “Who turned off the damn internal dampers?” Until this moment, none of them even knew the city had internal dampers. “Can you fix it?”
“Doing my best, boss.” The alarm quieted as he pressed a couple more buttons. With a few more, he turned back to the room, crossed his arms over his chest and blew a bubble with his gum. “There. All done. Don’t do that again, though. She doesn’t like it.”
“Tell me where it happened and we can make sure we don’t.”
“The report will be on your desk by tomorrow morning. I think I’m going to go back to the quandary of the city’s water supply. Sound alright with you?”
There was nothing that Cam could do but nod and watch as the head scientist walked out of the room. That man was going to be the death of him.
“Because I said I need to go with you. Isn’t that enough of a reason?”
Cam scrubbed a hand over his face. So far, he’d gotten off easy, not having to take a scientist with his team when they went off-world. Sheppard didn’t ask to go often but, when he did, it was for a good reason. It would behoove him to listen to the man and accept him onto his team for this excursion. The thought of Sheppard in a pair of tight military pants and the flack vest instead of the khaki shorts and surf shirts he normally wore made Cam instantly hard. That was the real reason he didn’t want him along. He needed to keep a cool head on this trip, not get distracted with a member of his team.
As if reading his mind, Sheppard began smirking. “I’ll make it easy on you, boss. I’ll stay out of your way, at the back of the pack, if you let me get a good reading at the ruins.”
“No, I’m not going to let you lag behind. You’ll stay up front with me.” Or I’ll worry the entire time and never remember that I need to be paying attention to what’s in front of us. “We’ll go the ruins, take the readings, and head back.”
“But don’t you need to-“
“We’ll head back as soon as we get the readings. Lorne can take the pass through the village.”
Sheppard gave him a look that Cam might have categorized as concerned on any other face. On this one, he was never completely sure. Half the time, the expression on his face didn’t match his words or sarcastic inflection. “Fine,” the man said, as dead pan as he’d said anything before.
Cam found that he was sad that there hadn’t been more of an argument. Sometimes it was hard to be in charge, where everyone did what he said without another word on the subject. He liked that Sheppard gave back as good as he got. This didn’t appear to be one of those times and Cam wondered if he’d broken the man in some unrepairable way.
An hour later, he was ready to break him because it appeared as if Sheppard had just saved his argument for another time. “We’re almost there. We might as well go into the village.”
“He’s got a point,” Adam Banks said. When Adam had been his RIO, sitting behind him in whatever plane he flew, he’d been the voice of reason. Now, he fulfilled the same position on Cam’s away team. His twin sister, Amelia, ran the gate room with a precision that even Elizabeth had to respect. Now, though, Cam didn’t want his voice of reason. He wanted to turn around and head for the gate.
It would be unreasonable to end the mission now because they really were within reach of the village. Lorne would already be there but it wouldn’t hurt to swing by, see what they could do to help relations between the two groups. Atlantis needed some good neighbors to help offset their first couple of months. Sumner had made more enemies than he’d made friends.
Besides, Cam was appreciating the time he was getting to spend with John. When they were away from the city, they were both different people. Cam knew he got more relaxed the further away he got from the responsibilities of the city. When he was on an off-world mission, he only needed to worry about his team. It changed a man, all the added responsibility of a civilization constantly on the brink of annihilation. He much preferred just having this tight-knit group around him.
Sheppard, on the other hand, got less relaxed. He shifted away from the strangely calm demeanor he employed as a mask to a thoughtful man who had a lot to say about a variety of different things. While they'd all known he was intelligent, this expedition was proving that he was also well-rounded. There was a part of Cam that was hoping for an excuse for an overnight stay so that he could see if the looks Sheppard had been shooting him all day might go somewhere.
John opened one blood-shot eye, staring around the room with a look that said he might not remember what had happened earlier. “You doing okay?” he automatically asked through a grimace of pain.
So he remembered. Cam touched the bruises along the side of his own face, glad that it didn’t hurt enough to draw his attention to it all the time. “Well enough. You?”
John tried to sit up but it seemed as if his body was refusing to follow instructions. Instead, he fell back against the cot with a groan. “Not as good as I’d like. Guess they didn’t figure I needed to be tied down.”
“You won’t be escaping any time soon,” Cam agreed, straining against his bonds. There was very little give but his position wasn’t too much of a hardship on his body. Still, the last place he wanted to be was across the room while Sheppard needed help. The scientist was his responsibility while he was part of his team. This time, Cam had nearly gotten him killed.
John turned his head, a huge smile splitting his lip so it started to bleed again. “Don’t count me out just yet.”
Obviously, he’d hit his head harder than Cam had thought but he wasn’t about to talk him out of his delusion. Better he kept his spirits up while the rest of the team figured out what to do. Pitching his voice a bit louder, Cam got back to what he’d been doing before John woke up. “Banks, you still there?”
There was a series of knocks on the wall near John’s head which made him wince. It only seemed to take him a minute to figure out what he was hearing. “Having to resort to morse code now?”
“He’s right next to the guard station. They have him all alone so any conversation will be noticed.”
“How many guards?”
“Three. They rotate every two hours.” As if John had asked, Cam proceeded to lay out the building the best he could figure between the information Adam had been able to give him and what Cam had seen when they brought him in. He’d been the only one conscious so it had been up to him to remember everything he could about the way they’d come in so they could get back out again. It hadn’t been easy to watch the rest of his team being manhandled through the doors as if they were nothing more than bags of fertilizer. Even harder was seeing John thrown onto the bed and then not knowing if he would wake up. Hope was a fickle thing, leeching out his strength as he’d stared at the unconscious man.
Now, he watched the wheels and cogs roll around in John’s head, his mind already fifteen steps ahead of where Cam was. John, he realized, was his hope. He’d saved the city countless times and now, if he could get his battered body up off the cot, he would save the team.
“Where’re the rest of the guys?” John asked, as he rolled to his side. His color was horrible but he actually looked better than he had just moments before. Not so much like death warmed over as only almost dead.
Cam lifted his chin to the right. “Best as I can tell, they’re across the hall from us. All we have to do is get our bonds off and we can work on getting everyone else free.”
“So, you have no real way out?”
“You don’t have to rub it in.” Cam’s voice was soft as he strained against the strange, twisted metal that kept his arms at parallel with his head. “It’s not like you’re going to be any help.”
Almost before Cam realized what was happening, the prone scientist was off the bed and standing on two feet, albeit rather unsteadily. The important thing was that his gaze was steady and he could move without toppling over.
“Seems I was wrong. Help a guy out?”
But John wasn’t listening to him. He was feeling along the wall beside the door, mumbling to himself about hitting just the right sequence of bricks with his wand to find the way to Diagon Alley. The Harry Potter reference gave Cam pause as he wondered if the bad guys really had rattled his brain around in his skull a little too hard, but a panel slid out of the wall after a few tense moments. He pulled up some schematics of the building, traced his finger along the screen and gave a low whistle.
“We’re nowhere near where I thought we’d be. Any ideas on how we can get off this planet?”
“The gate’s always my answer.”
John shook his head. “It’ll be guarded. They’ll be expecting someone to come through and rescue us. We’ll need a plan if that’s our only way.”
“Get us out of here and I’ll come up with a plan.”
Cam’s team shared a round of beers that night in the infirmary but only because Doctor Beckett agreed to turn a blind eye after he was done attending the wounded. None of them were allowed to leave just yet now that all of them sported a fresh batch of bruises and contusions. It was probably for the best, Cam decided, as he found that laughing too hard was making his ribs ache. Twelve hours ago, he’d been unsure that he’d ever get to laugh again, though. He’d take the ache.
“I see you’re in high spirits,” Elizabeth gently chided as she stood in the doorway, her head tilted at the angle that always meant she was happy even if her small smile didn’t get any wider. She never really smiled. Not anymore. Too many people had died under her leadership for her to ever be happy again, she’d confided to Cam one night after he’d first come to Atlantis. She’d assumed they would send a replacement for her but Cam had convinced her that the city still needed her. Even though she stayed and worked like a whirling dervish to make sure that no more of her people died, she carried the burden of all those first deaths.
Whenever she searched him out, Cam always made sure to include her in the group. She’d lost her initial command team and had never really accepted anyone else’s help. Cam did what he could but it was John that drew her out the best. Now, the head of the science team patted the bed and she came to perch beside him, albeit not in a way that could be translated to anyone that she was going to stay for any length of time. Still, it was pretty remarkable.
“I read your report, Cam. I’ve also talked to the other prisoners you brought back with you.”
“Wasn’t my idea,” he responded almost instantly. If he’d been left to make the decision about who they’d freed as they ran past, it would have been his men and no one else. Sadly, it hadn’t even been on his mind to look for anyone else. “Was all Sheppard’s idea.”
“Trying to get me in trouble? They weren’t any harder to get out than Everett and Levine. Figured it was the right thing to do.”
Cam couldn’t help but stare at the way that John took Elizabeth’s hand, rubbing his fingers over the scar tissue that puckered her knuckles. He did things like that. Things that spoke of a deep enough friendship that they were allowed to touch each other. Something so simple yet something that made Cam burn with jealousy.
“Whoever came up with the idea, I’m glad you were all able to get them here. Their leader, Teyla, seems more than willing to help us with some of the other treaties we’ve got in the works. I think she and her people will be a welcome addition to the city.”
“What about that big guy? He wasn’t part of their group. Think he’ll stick around?”
Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled as she thought about the unique problem that was the sole Satedan. His world had been destroyed by Wraith and he’d been turned into a Runner before the Athosians had found him and helped him get rid of the strange device that the Wraith had implanted along his spine. He was devoted to Teyla even though the rest of the group ignored him as if he wasn’t even there.
“He was a big help in getting away from the Genii. If he wants to stick around, I’ll put him to work.” Cam sat the bottle of beer down on the table beside his bed. His energy was low but his mind was jittery from the stress of the day. The last thing he wanted to think about right now was what the Athosians were going to do with their future.
His own future was up in the air right now because it was plain that John Sheppard had become part of his team somewhere in the last few hours. If that was going to happen, he and Sheppard needed to come to some sort of agreement. Either something happened between them or it didn’t but they needed to find some groove where they could work together because this Does he? Doesn’t he? that he felt every time John’s gaze snagged on his own was starting to wear on him.
“Guess I should leave you all to your rest. Carson did want me to turn out the lights on this party when I left. I would hate to have him think that I don’t know how to follow orders.” Elizabeth stood, straightening her shirt before giving each of them one of her small smiles. It was like a benediction, a thank you for coming back to me that graced the end of each mission. “I’ll expect to see you all at breakfast. No laying down on the job after the stellar prognosis that Carson gave each of you.” And then, in a more serious voice, “Sleep well.”
Cam tried. He really did. As he listened to each member of his team drop off into a deep sleep, aided by the single beer, the medication that had been pumped into them earlier, and the depleted adrenaline from the mission, he tried to find a bit of peace that would allow him to sleep. Try as he might, all he could see was John’s battered body being flopped onto the cot. He knew that image would haunt his dreams for weeks to come.
From across the room, he heard John shift in his bed. “You can’t sleep either?” the man whispered.
“Don’t think I want to.”
“It must be hard to wind down after you come back from this kind of mission.”
“What? The kind where the line between life and death gets a little too thin for comfort?” His voice was pitched low but he found that he was eager for this conversation, even if it was across a room instead of face to face.
“This happens a lot, doesn’t it?”
“Scare you out of coming with us next time?”
There was a pause, as if he was taking the possibility of not coming back seriously before he answered. Instead, he threw Cam’s words back at him. “Thought you didn’t want to be having to watch my back all the time? Thought I would slow you down?”
“You slow me down because I’m watching your back entirely too much when I should be paying attention to what's going on around me.” There. He’d said it. He was as honest as he knew to be and John could take it or leave it. He had his opportunity right now to tell him to back off.
“I thought the US Military frowned on that sort of thing?” The way he said US Military as if he held them personally responsible for a great many ills, told Cam a lot. It was one thing to read that John Sheppard had turned them down on numerous times over the years when they’d knocked on his door, asking for help on one problem or another. It was another to hear the apparent malice he held the entity as a whole. Nothing, not even Samantha Carter and her world class smile, could have induced him to join up with them. She had told Cam once that it had only been after she'd explained the situation and told him about the man who was going to be the head of the military on Atlantis that he had finally relented. In a way, he'd only come because of what he'd read and deduced about Cameron Mitchell, ex-flyboy for the Air Force. He'd finally found someone who was affiliated with the military that he couldn't despise.
In a moment of clarity, Cam realized that he’d been running from John all this time when he’d thought it was the other way around. His own insecurity, fueled by years of being told that he couldn’t be the man he was, had crept between them. John had always been right there, waiting for him to stop running away. Waiting for him to be the guy he'd read about.
He picked his next words carefully. “They do. But they aren’t here right now, are they?”
“I thought, maybe, you and… Adam here…”
“Banks? No, he’s engaged to a girl back home. With any luck, he’ll get to bring her over some time in the future. Levine’s got a girl, too. Everett, much to the consternation of Banks, is sweet on Amelia, his twin sister.”
“And you don’t have anyone?”
“I don’t have anyone,” he answered with a sigh. It was a sore spot that was pricked every time he went home to see his mom and dad. They didn’t need any more grandkids but they were keen on Cam settling down, to find someone that made him happy. “So, you and Elizabeth? Are you an item these days?”
John’s chuckle was low and filled with enough mirth to make Cam feel self-conscious for asking. “Me and Elizabeth? You don’t hear much gossip, do you? Elizabeth has been seeing Carson for some time now. She won’t make it public, don’t know if she ever will, but they’re an item. He’s good for her. Makes her smile. He’s the only reason she got through this as well as she did.”
Now that he mentioned it, Cam did remember hearing something to that affect. “So,” he started to say before he had to clear his throat. Levine’s snore stuttered and stopped, as if he might be waking up, but the noise started up again in a few seconds. “So, are you attached?”
Cam could have sworn he heard John smile even though he knew that there was nearly complete silence from the man. Part of him knew he thought he was hearing it because he wanted there to be a happy grin on the man’s face, as if he could force him to like the idea that Cam was asking him without saying the words.
“I don’t like it when you going off-world without me. You would be dead right now if it wasn’t for me. I may not carry a gun but that doesn’t mean I’m not helpful out in the field. You need me.”
“I need you,” Cam repeated as if he was held under a spell. It wasn’t like it wasn’t the truth, though.
“And I need you. The city… well, she’s got ideas about how she’d like things to work but I know that she’s full of Ancient knowledge and she needs a strong hand guiding her away from some of the stuff that’s bound to get us into trouble. She listens to you. She likes you.”
“Should I be happy that she likes me? That seems kind of creepy.”
“Tell me about it. You should hear what she’s saying to me now.”
Did he want to know what a non-sentient being was whispering to the man? It was bad enough that he acknowledged the whisperings. “What?”
“She thinks you’re cute.”
“Atlantis knows what the word cute means?”
“I sort of taught it to her. She got into my journal one day and we had to discuss what some of the more awkward Earth words were.”
“So the city approves of me? What else is she telling you?”
A yawn smothered the words as they started to come out of John’s mouth. As close as he’d been to death today, Cam was surprised he was still awake. Maybe they’d both been looking forward to this talk. “That I should kiss you. It’s how all good love stories begin.”
“Is that the drugs talking? Beckett did pump you full of a lot of them.”
“Nope.” Another yawn. “But they are making it hard for me to stay awake. She’s pretty insistent that I get this out of the way tonight, though.”
It was easy enough for Cam to undo the few wires hooked up to his chest. They’d taken out his intravenous drip earlier in the day so it was only the heart monitor that Cam needed to get rid of. Once he was free, he made it easily over to John’s bed. His brain knew the way even if his eyes had a little trouble in the dark. “If I give you that kiss, think she’ll leave you alone long enough to get some sleep?”
John’s eyes were wide in the gloom. “It might be worth a shot.”
“I’m willing to do anything I can to help out.” Cam bent low but the kiss was barely a touch of their lips. It unnerved him how good it felt, though. Careful of all the wires hooked up to John, including the needle in the juncture of his arm, Cam lay down on the narrow bed and pulled the other man close. “Think you can sleep now?”
Almost instantly, John sank against his body with the most comforting of weight. His only answer was the air in and out of his nose as sleep quickly captured him. Cam let out the breath he’d been holding in as he waited to see what John did, how he responded. This was a pretty good start to whatever this turned into. A good story to tell his parents when he took John back home with him. A moment for just the two of them.
Just as he had that thought, a warm breeze blew past him. No, he decided. Not just the two of them. Darn it if the city wasn’t making herself known, too. Guess it was going to be the price he paid for finding John Sheppard so irresistible.