So John was back on Earth. It hadn't changed much.
After Daniel Jackson had found the second ZPM, and General O'Neill had brought the Atlantis Committee members on the Daedalus as promised, this had been inevitable. And John was completely okay with it. Until he stepped through the wormhole into the SGC gateroom.
General O'Neill, General Hammond, General Landry, Colonel Carter, and Teal'c, plus Dr. Nguyen and the other members of the Atlantis Committee, were all waiting for them. There were SFs, but they were obviously a formality. Everybody was in dress uniforms or suits, and there was red, white, and blue bunting hanging on the gateroom walls. It's not a trap, John thought, not realizing until that moment the lingering fear had still been in the back of his head. He also didn't realize he had said it aloud until Rodney folded his arms, eyeing the group with deep irony, and replied, "True. The bunting is a good indicator. Not even O'Neill would be that diabolical."
There was a lot formal greetings and saluting. The dress uniforms made John feel incredibly self-conscious. Ackers, the supply master, had practically ransacked Atlantis to find John a BDU jacket and pants that didn't have patches anywhere obvious and only small stains. It sort of almost fit him, too. The science team uniforms didn't look much better, but they were civilians. John had the feeling that Elizabeth, Rodney, and Beckett looked like survivors, while he just looked sloppy and hungover. Teyla, in leather and the softly dyed Athosian fabrics, was the only one who looked as if she had dressed for the occasion.
The first thing Dr. Jackson said to O'Neill was, "Of course, I'll have to go back with them. I've barely scratched the surface--"
O'Neill told him, "No, Carter has dibs on being the next hostage."
Elizabeth smiled. "Perhaps we can work something out."
It was all very friendly. John felt cold sweat breaking out all over his body.
When they were walking down the rock-walled corridor away from the gateroom, John had a vivid memory of seeing it for the first time, the only time, joining the others on the embarkation floor and getting his first look at the stargate. Everybody else had been working and training together for months at the Antarctic Ancient site, and he had been That New Guy, and Sumner had made it clear he thought John was a useless and dangerous liability. And they were going to another galaxy through a fucking puddle, and John hadn't really believed it would actually happen until Elizabeth stood on the ramp and talked about what this mission could mean. He had heard it all before in the briefings, but this was the first time it had seemed real.
Still, right up until John had stepped through the gate into Atlantis, he had thought they would either all die instantly, or something would go wrong and it would all amount to nothing.
Behind him, Teyla said, a little worriedly, "This place is underground only to protect the gate, then?"
"Correct," Hammond told her. "It kept the Goa'uld -- or anyone else -- from launching an attack through it."
"I see." Teyla still sounded reserved. "I was a little concerned that since our friends had left here, your people had been forced to move underground."
While Hammond was explaining that Earth did have underground installations, military and commercial, but that most people lived on the surface, John realized that that was one of the reasons he felt so damn jumpy: the SGC looked like a Genii bunker. Teyla must be feeling it too. It was hard to spot unless you knew her well, but she looked uncomfortable and tense in a way she never was when they walked into strange villages or camps offworld.
Offworld, John thought. They were offworld, and there were strangers everywhere with guns. That was the other reason he felt so damn jumpy. The third time Elizabeth took him by the elbow and moved him out of her way, he realized he had been unconsciously herding her, trying to keep her between himself and O'Neill, out of arm's reach of the people he didn't know.
And everyone was staring at them like they were aliens. Or survivors of an expedition thought lost for three years and then dramatically found by SG-1 while in the middle of a war with the Trust, so maybe the staring wasn't that unexpected. He wondered if they looked different, changed by life in the Pegasus Galaxy. He honestly couldn't tell; everybody seemed the same to him.
He wondered what he looked like to the SFs, to the SGC personnel lining the corridor. If they saw anything but a tense guy in a shabby uniform. John was wearing all his changes under his skin, with nothing outwardly dramatic to mark the time, like an eye patch or a big scar on his face.
Or a patch of scaly blue Iratus bug skin.
John put on a fake relaxed smile and started Operation "Try Not to Look Crazy."
John had expected an immediate debriefing of some kind, but they got trooped down to the SGC commissary for a reception. There were party platters with cheese, cold cuts, fruit and veggies, and sheet cakes in three different flavors. He didn't know if this was a normal SGC thing for visitors or if O'Neill, having had a chance to read all the expedition reports, wanted to make sure they weren't starving. He really didn't care, because there was cheese from actual cows, and salami, and cake.
"I'm trying not to embarrass myself," Elizabeth muttered to him, working on her third plate.
"Don't worry, nobody'll notice. Rodney's about to hit the sugar rush stage." John kept remembering the times early on, when the Athosian harvest had failed, and they had made contingency plans to raid the Genii granaries. Because if you had to turn criminal and steal, you might as well steal from people who kept attacking you. They had never had to do it, somebody had always managed to turn up a trading contact at the last minute, but it had been close.
Looking around, he decided that maybe the food was a good idea, turning this from a dramatic event to just another semi-formal reception for VIPs. Nobody was staring anymore, the crowd broken up into groups, everyone talking animatedly. Rodney was with Carter and a crowd of what must be SGC Ancient tech experts, putting away a plateful of cake and basking in their obvious bitter envy. Beckett was sitting at a table with a group including a guy that John vaguely remembered as the doctor who had given him his physical for the expedition. General Hammond was taking Teyla around, introducing her to various people. She didn't look uncomfortable anymore, the food and the more relaxed atmosphere matching both Athosian and Atlantean ideas of hospitality. And Hammond was obviously treating her as what she was, a foreign dignitary, an ambassador from the Athosians.
Daniel Jackson appeared out of the crowd, being dragged along by a short dark-haired guy in a civilian suit. "Dr. Weir, Major Sheppard, this is Emmett Bregman," Jackson said, looking as if he was here under protest. "He's a journalist," he added, with the same expression that he might have used to say "Goa'uld spy."
Fortunately, Bregman shook hands with Elizabeth first. It had taken John more than a year to train himself out of offering to shake hands, and remembering to do it now wasn't coming naturally. Bregman said rapidly, "Sorry to be pushy, but O'Neill only gave me five minutes in here before he has me thrown out, so I wanted to just touch base with you and make sure you saw my request for interviews."
Interviews? John looked at Elizabeth, expecting her to recoil in horror. Instead she said, "Yes, your request was passed along. I'll have to wait until I get schedules for everyone. The meetings with the committee will have to come first."
John didn't like the sound of this. "Interviews? For what?"
Jackson tried to answer and Bregman talked over him, explaining, "For a TV documentary, to be released when the stargate project is declassified. It'll air all over the world." He eyed John. "I'll be interviewing all the civilians, of course, but the personal accounts of the military in the field is what I'm most interested in."
Now John was the one recoiling in horror. But it must have translated into something else in his expression, because Bregman's eyes widened, and he said, "Wow. I bet you've got a hell of a story."
Elizabeth's voice was sharp. "John."
Jackson took Bregman's arm and hauled him away, saying, "Come on, Emmett, I'm going to introduce you to Dr. McKay. He likes to talk."
John set his jaw. "I'm not going on TV." Even if Bregman only asked about Atlantis, it would make John news, and other reporters would drag out every instance of past insubordination right up to Afghanistan. He didn't give much of a crap on his own account; he was pretty good at ignoring what people thought of him. But he didn't mean to cap off his career as a black sheep with something the Sheppard family would consider an unbearable public humiliation.
"You won't have to," Elizabeth said firmly, still holding his gaze. "The documentary hasn't been cleared for release, and it won't be, until the decision is made to declassify. It could be years yet."
John folded his arms, trying to make himself relax. Okay, so it was just one of those horrible things that was going to happen later rather than now. "How many years?"
"A few, at least." Her mouth quirked ruefully and she surveyed the room. "We have other things to worry about first."
"Yeah," he admitted, letting it go. And this was something he should have thought about before he had agreed to go on the expedition in the first place. John was beginning to suspect there was going to be a long list of things he should have thought about in the first place. Across the room, Rodney was talking to Bregman, in full hand-waving, "I am Rodney McKay, physicist-emperor of the world" mode. Colonel Carter was looking on, eating a piece of cake and rolling her eyes a lot. Two SFs were heading toward them, which probably meant O'Neill had decided Bregman's time was up.
The party went on, and the crowd shifted around, people mingling and talking. Various people, including scientists, committee members, and gateteam personnel, kept asking John questions, and he wasn't sure who or what to answer. Some of it was vague enough, along the "what was it like to be marooned in another galaxy with no hope of help from Earth for three years" lines, and that he could fake his way through. But some of the questions were more particular. They were in the SGC so everybody here had to have a ridiculously high security clearance, but John had been introduced to about a hundred people by this point and hadn't retained many names, and most of the time had no idea who he was talking to. Playing dumb wasn't an option; John wanted to be sent back, not kept on Earth because the Atlantis committee thought he had had one too many head injuries.
For a while he managed to get along by looking at Elizabeth and O'Neill for a signal. Elizabeth always gave him a definitive slight nod for yes or a barely perceptible head shake for no, though about half the time O'Neill just rolled his eyes, which John felt could be interpreted as "Jesus, what a stupid question."
Then there was a question where O'Neill shook his head and Elizabeth nodded, and John had to choke himself on a cup of punch to avoid answering.
Finally John ended up on the fringe of a group with Mitchell and General Hammond and some of the Atlantis committee members. Hammond and Mitchell were talking about the next BC-303 in production, so all John had to do was listen and nod occasionally, which was a relief. He realized Teyla had joined their group, and by habit was standing at an angle to him, where she could guard his back. She looked tired, too. This can't go on much longer. He stole a look at the wall clock.
It had only been thirty-five minutes.
John contemplated the clock in shock, wondering if there was a time dilation field in here. Then an older civilian guy in a dark suit caught John's eye and said, "From the initial reports, there are a great number of civilians on the Atlantis gate teams."
Keeping it vague, John just said, "The Athosians were always traders, explorers. They had a lot of experience avoiding the Wraith before we ever got there."
The guy looked at Teyla, lifting a brow. "But it is rather convenient."
Teyla cocked her head, her smile the bland and diplomatic one that meant she was considering throwing a punch. "Perhaps you would care to explain that remark."
He ignored her, watching John. He said, "Your own private mercenary force."
John's eyes narrowed. He didn't quite see where this was going. "Not exactly. They're called civilian consultants."
The guy held his gaze, watching for a reaction. "But it must be helpful to have few official witnesses." He added deliberately, "For someone who was apparently as eager to assume command as you were."
Okay, now John saw where this was going. He smiled, the fake smile he used when negotiating with Genii. "Now what makes you say that?"
A bubble of quiet had formed around them, and Hammond and Mitchell were watching them. His voice dry, Hammond said, "Metford. You seem to know an inordinate amount about the Atlantis reports. I hope you haven't had any other sources of information."
Metford lifted his brows. "I'm just reading between the lines, general."
O'Neill appeared suddenly, eyeing Metford with an opaque expression. He said, "I don't remember inviting you."
Metford said blandly, "I came with the committee."
"Ah." The opacity turned into amiable threat. "Better leave without them."
Metford inclined his head. "Of course. I'll save my other questions for the hearings." He nodded cordially to John, set his drink down on a tray, and left.
"Sorry about that," Hammond said to Teyla, then collected O'Neill with a glance and stepped away out of earshot to talk to him.
"Who was that?" Teyla asked, her face stony as she watched Metford make his way toward the door.
Mitchell's expression was sour. "He's a Trust sympathizer."
Teyla stared and John felt his whole body tense. He said, "A what?"
Teyla frowned at Mitchell. "You told us they were outlaws."
Mitchell shook his head, explaining grimly, "It's not illegal to believe in the Trust's goals. It doesn't make a lot of sense right now, but it's not illegal. If Metford's been in on any of their activities, the NID can't prove it."
John exchanged a look with Teyla, who rolled her eyes.
Rodney appeared at John's elbow, ranting, "This is ludicrous. You wouldn't believe the progress these pitifully inadequate excuses for Ancient technology experts haven't made since I've been gone. The sheer waste of resources--"
Carter caught up with him, handing him a cup of punch. "Rodney, here, put something in your mouth."
Fortunately at that point, Elizabeth and an older woman from the Atlantis committee walked up. Elizabeth was saying, "We'll be returning on the Daedalus as soon as we've received and loaded all our supplies."
The woman asked, "Are you really so anxious to return? From what I understand, the danger is extreme, even compared to what the SGC gateteams face."
Elizabeth lifted her brows, and flicked a smile at John and Teyla. She said, "It grows on you."
"It is our home," Teyla said, smiling back.
O'Neill, wandering up in time to hear the last part of the conversation, said, deadpan, "I'm going to retire to Atlantis."
Rodney, caught taking a swig of punch, did a spit-take.
Then there were the standard medical exams, a formality since Beckett had done them all before they left. The SGC doctors kept finding things in John's scans which apparently horrified them, and they kept going to Beckett for reassurance, but other than that, it went fine.
It was dark when they drove away from the base, in a big black SUV with a Marine driver and Mitchell. John had his 9mm, ammo, and his knife along in a pack, and felt naked without a P-90. Not much was visible beyond the blur of street lights in the cold damp air. Part of John's brain kept trying to access the ATA, to pop up the HUD, check the sensors. This was how reaching for something with a missing hand must feel, restless and empty and wrong. It was weird; this wasn't a problem John had had before, either offworld or on the Mainland. But there were Ancient devices in the SGC, even a damaged jumper found in the Milky Way, and maybe he was picking up something from them. Or maybe Atlantis had left some trace on him, something that their ATA was reaching out to.
And the Antarctic base was here with its dormant weapons chair, buried in the ice at the bottom of the world.
Rodney, tired and badly over stimulated by all the new scientists to berate, ridiculed the highway safety signs all the way down the mountain. It was a welcome distraction.
When the hotel lights appeared out of the dark, Mitchell told them the rooms next to theirs were going to have SFs and Marine Guards for the duration of their stay, just to make sure any loose Trust agents didn't try anything. And that the Daedalus was also keeping a sensor eye on the place from orbit.
"Would it not be easier to keep us at the SGC?" Teyla asked.
Mitchell shrugged. "Yeah, but, we thought that would be too much like--"
"We were prisoners," Elizabeth finished, giving him a bland smile.
It was a nice hotel, but everything seemed weirdly bright and plastic to John, who was used to Ancient metal and crystal, or stone and wood. And the fluorescent lights in the corridor made his eyes water. They all ended up in Elizabeth's room, and she, Beckett, and Rodney spent the entire evening on cell phones borrowed from their Marine guards. John and Teyla sprawled on the bed, ate candy from the vending machines, and watched TV with the sound low. Rodney, in his quest to explain to a lot of scientists all over the world how wrong they were, got loud, or louder than usual, and Elizabeth banished him to the bathroom. Then he called John on the room phone to tell him to bring him some candy.
Delivering the package of M&Ms to the bathroom, John had a moment where it was all just too fucking surreal. He said, "You're aware how freaky this is, right?"
Rodney, perched on the toilet with his phone, just glared at him. "What, they didn't have peanut?"
John ate way too much candy and possibly sent himself into some kind of diabetic coma. He woke up with Teyla standing over him in a strange room, with strange daylight coming through the curtains, and his first thought was that they had been on a mission and been roofied again. He rasped out, "Where the hell are we?"
She smiled sympathetically. "Earth."
Memory returned, and John felt stupid. "I knew that." He shoved himself up on his elbows and looked around, feeling bleary and vague. He had slept in his clothes, on Elizabeth's bed. Nobody else seemed to be in the room. His brow furrowed. Yeah, John, this is a great start. You're really acting like a professional, here. Hopefully today would be less surreal.
Teyla said, "General O'Neill is here and wants us all to go to breakfast with him at something called 'Dennies.'"
John nodded. "Right." Okay, maybe tomorrow would be less surreal.
John wasn't looking forward to the first private interview with O'Neill.
A few weeks ago, when the plans for gating to Earth had become more definite, the military started to panic. Every member of the military contingent had come to John, worried about things they had done, things they hadn't done, and freaking out because they might be forced to leave somebody behind, Athosian or science team member or refugee. Everybody wanted reassurance from John, and all he could do was repeat Elizabeth's reassurance and hope he was faking it convincingly. John and Bates had gone over their reports, trying to decide just how much trouble they were in. After a while, they got down to recent events, where things went from iffy to downright desperate.
After going over it all, Bates finally closed his laptop and asked, "Did you actually threaten General O'Neill?"
"No. Wait." John rubbed his face, trying to remember his exact words. "Not directly. I ordered Deona to threaten him."
Bates slumped back in his chair, rolling his eyes. "Oh, that's all right then."
John felt compelled to ask, "Did you actually say you were going to kill Colonel Carter and fire on the Daedalus?"
Bates thought about it, his expression turning grimly resigned. "Yes."
John leaned back in his chair and stretched, rolling the tension out of his shoulders. Bates didn't know about John's attempt to take the Iapetus, and his threat to kidnap Colonel Carter. John felt that had put him way ahead in the "who went outlaw/pirate the most" contest. If O'Neill wanted to take them out, he sure as hell wasn't going to need to trump up a charge. It just depended on whether O'Neill wanted to take them out or not. But Bates knew that as well as he did, so he just said, "Great. We can share a cell in Leavenworth. If you try to take the bottom bunk, I'll shiv you. And I don't want to be your boyfriend."
"Yeah, don't worry about that, because I'd rather shiv myself," Bates assured him sincerely. He hesitated, rubbing his thumb over a smudge on the laptop case. "What are we going to do about it?"
John just looked out the window, toward the view of the gleaming towers of the South Pier, and the limitless blue of the sea and the sky. If they met with Elizabeth and the other senior staff, put all their concerns on the table, they could probably talk them into telling Earth thanks but no thanks. The Athosians would be for it, no question, and with the new ZPM the science team was feeling confident. They could dial a wormhole to Earth, send Jackson and Mitchell home, and cut the connection. The Daedalus would come back, but with the shield in place, there wasn't much they could do. And John could pretend he didn't know how much new supplies, new personnel, and a BC-303 or two of their very own would help. Pretend he might not be sealing their doom five years or ten years down the road. And Elizabeth would know better, but go along with it, because she was afraid for him, because she felt she owed him and he had never asked for anything before. "Nothing," he told Bates. "We do nothing about it."
Back in Atlantis, it had still seemed like a distant threat. Right now, walking into O'Neill's office with one bead of sweat working its way down John's back, it all seemed very immediate.
Teal'c nodded to John from the other chair. John nodded back, having no idea why Teal'c was here. He hadn't actually been present when John had done the mutiny and treason thing. O'Neill didn't explain Teal'c's presence, just told John to sit down, opened some files on his laptop, and instead of using the intercom, shouted at Sergeant Harriman to hold his calls.
But after he had paged through the files, the first question O'Neill asked was, "So, you're married?"
John didn't make the mistake of blinking. He knew which report O'Neill had gotten to. "Sort of, sir. It was a formality for an alliance."
O'Neill didn't look up from the laptop. "It happens. Major Reilly is married on three planets." He paged down the screen, adding thoughtfully, "Sometimes we try to palm Walter off on 'em." He glanced up, completely deadpan. "Any kids?"
"No, sir." John had to add, equally deadpan, "We thought we'd wait."
Teal'c smiled approvingly. O'Neill said, "Ah," like he thought it was a good idea too. He closed a file and opened another one. "So are these Genii on drugs or what?"
The rest of the meeting went pretty much like that. O'Neill never mentioned the Iapetus. It turned out Teal'c was there because O'Neill wanted to go into more detail on how the Athosians were integrated into the gate and security teams, and how the Mainland settlement was organized and defended.
Rodney had told John that everything John said sounded sarcastic, whether he meant it that way or not. Everything O'Neill said sounded facetious, and John kind of thought the general did mean quite a lot of it. John decided that either a) O'Neill was going to have him killed, or b) O'Neill would be the only CO John would ever have a good working relationship with.
That was pretty much it for the next week.
Every day was the same routine. Get up, eat breakfast with Rodney, Teyla, Mitchell, and whoever else was around in the SGC commissary. Nod sympathetically and huddle over coffee while Rodney ranted about stupid people he was forced to explain things to. Go to assigned debriefing room, answer questions. Repeat, substituting lunch and dinner for breakfast. Most of the time it was easier to crash in the SGC guest quarters than to request a driver to get to the hotel, and staying on the base meant an extra hour of sleep in the morning.
Elizabeth had to fly out for a couple of meetings in the Pentagon, and John managed not to twitch uncontrollably at not being able to go with her, or to personally pick her security detail.
John found out some things he had never known before, like that Teal'c actually lived at the SGC. If John had ever thought about it, he had just assumed the guy had an apartment or house in town like everybody else. Then one night early on when Teal'c had heard they were all staying the night on the base, he had invited them to watch a movie in his quarters.
"You going?" John asked Rodney, while they were alone in the elevator.
Rodney's lip curled in disdain. "Is Mitchell going to be there?"
Rodney, for reasons best understood only by Rodney, couldn't stand Mitchell. John leaned his head back against the wall and rolled his eyes. "No, he lives offbase, like a normal person."
"Oh." Rodney sounded less disgruntled, but he said, "Just what the hell am I going to have in common with Teal'c, anyway? What are we supposed to chat about, his running tally of dead Goa'uld? 'How you too can renounce your false gods'?"
John eyed him a moment, then shrugged. "It's a Batman movie." He added, deliberately casual, "A new one."
Rodney lifted his chin, his mouth held in a tight line as he tried unsuccessfully to conceal an expression of greed and anticipation. "It would be insulting to turn him down, I suppose. Fine. I'll be there."
John was still finding everything really surreal.
A couple of days after that, John also got invited to play basketball with Mitchell, Jackson, and Teal'c. How this actually worked was that you played basketball around Teal'c, until he decided he wanted the ball. "You do not have this game in Atlantis?" Teal'c asked John once, when he was helping him up off the floor. "I believed it to be a traditional pastime."
"We don't have the right kind of ball," John explained. The Athosians made heavier leather balls that could be made to work for volleyball or soccer, but not much else. That was the moment when John realized he had been so focused on the lists of food, ammo, weapons, and other supplies, that he hadn't even thought about bringing back things like sports equipment. Sports equipment for the kids, for the Marines, for the Atlantis intramural sports league. For him.
"Everything seems to be going well, but I am growing tired of being underground," Teyla said, when he found her waiting for the elevator the next morning.
"Yeah, when things calm down, we need to show you something on Earth besides the SGC," John said, as the elevator door slid open. "Maybe we can all get together and go to dinner in-- Crap!"
There was something-not-human in the elevator. John's brain went from I'm unarmed to Teyla's unarmed to wait, that's an Asgard. John realized he had grabbed Teyla to shove her behind him, she had tried to shove in front of him, and they were now clutching each other dramatically. They let go in mutual embarrassment.
The Asgard said, "Going down?"
Before John could answer, Rodney plunged up the corridor, laptop tucked under his arm. He halted, staring at them, baffled. "What?" Then he looked into the elevator. His lips thinned and he said stiffly, "Oh, it's you, Hermiod."
"Dr. McKay," the Asgard said warily, edging closer to the wall as Rodney stepped inside.
"Well?" Rodney demanded, looking impatiently at John and Teyla. "Are you coming or not?"
The Asgard's expressionless gray face tipped up to regard them. It might have been John's imagination, but he thought it looked a little hopeful, like maybe it wasn't looking forward to a private conversation with Rodney in the elevator. "We'll take the next one," John said, abandoning it to its fate.
"As you wish," the Asgard said, resigned, and pressed the button.
The doors slid closed. John let out his breath, aware that his body was humming with unused adrenaline. Fortunately the corridor was empty except for Sergeant Siler, who was pretending to intently study a sign pointing the way to the commissary. John said, "I don't think I'm going to need that second cup of coffee this morning."
Teyla grimaced in agreement. "There are things about this place that I do not believe I can become accustomed to." She straightened her jacket self-consciously.
Still, John was starting to relax. O'Neill had signed off on all their supply and personnel requisitions, and he kept asking John about things like, would the Atlantis messhall be able to hook up a commercial ice cream maker. Equipment that the various science team departments had requested had begun to show up in crates in the storage area near the gate room. They had finished going over the whole Iapetus incident with a room full of top brass and what seemed like half the UN. Rodney and Colonel Carter shouted at each other a lot during the science debriefings, then ganged up on the other scientists, and had reportedly made some people cry. Teyla had had a meeting with O'Neill, Hammond, and Landry to determine if she could be certified as a civilian consultant authorized to recruit other civilian consultants. She reported that she had mostly told them "amusing" anecdotes about her early gateteam missions. John tried not to find her use of the word "amusing" terrifying.
Not long after they arrived, John had asked about making arrangements to visit the families of all the military personnel who had died under his command. The SGC was setting it up, though they wanted John to wait until this round of debriefings and hearings was over.
One day, Sergeant Harriman brought John the list to check over. Ford was at the top, and even after this long, it gave John a shock, seeing his name with the others. He kept his face blank, making himself check the rest of the names. They were all there, except for one. "Colonel Sumner's not on here."
Harriman nodded. "General O'Neill is going to take care of that, sir."
John stared at the list. It was O'Neill's job, after all. But not doing it felt like John was taking the easy way out. So what were you going to say? Just the same lies that O'Neill would tell them. Nothing about how the pain and horror made the bullet a relief, and how John knew that for certain now. He just said, "Right."
John had noticed Rodney was in some sort of insane fugue state. For this first trip back, they hadn't wanted to bring too many key people from the Ancient Tech team. Later, if things went as well as Elizabeth and O'Neill had expected, there would be more trips back and forth, a rotation of extended leaves, but for this trip, they had decided it would just be Rodney. But the science team debriefing had turned into Rodney downloading the entire sum of their research for the past three years raw from his brain. It wasn't the committee's fault; it wasn't like Rodney had ever been able to resist an audience, and he had probably been dreaming of this moment for years. But he needed a break.
Rodney's breakfast rant that morning was pretty intense, and John said three times, "You're crazy. You know you're crazy, right? Are you even listening to yourself?" without making any impression whatsoever.
Later, after the morning meeting, Elizabeth caught John in a corridor, saying, "Can I speak to you for a minute?"
"Sure." John followed her into an empty conference room, sitting down across from her, too tired himself to notice her expression.
"John, there's a problem."
John rubbed his eyes wearily. "Yeah, I told Rodney he needed a break, but he's out of control. Maybe we can--"
"That's not it. It's about you, about confirming you as CO of Atlantis." Elizabeth flattened her hands on the desk. "We knew this might come up, and we're going to fight it, of course. It's--" She gritted her teeth. "It's outrageous."
"Right." John's throat was dry. Yeah, he had known this was coming, but here it was, and somehow he had been caught unprepared. "So it's the promotion?"
"No." She shook her head. John thought he was keeping his face blank, but Elizabeth had that expression. He remembered her looking at him like that when she had had to tell the Genii that she wouldn't trade scientists for his life: suppressed horror at what she was about to do to him. She said, "They'll agree to the promotion, but they want you reassigned."
"Okay." Reassigned didn't mean executed or court martial or even review board, so he wasn't sure he understood... Then he got it. "Not the SGC." This was coming down as a punishment, and from what he had always heard from Ford, from Stackhouse and Bates and the others, people fought like crazy for SGC assignments. "McMurdo."
"Yes." Elizabeth took a deep breath, the horror turning into raw determination. She said tightly, "It's not going to happen. You're coming back with us."
John felt light-headed. He said, "I have to, uh..."
She nodded. "Go."
John walked out, down a corridor. It was all a brown and gray blur. Back to McMurdo, he thought. I did like Antarctica.
The Trust had never been the danger, not here. The operatives left on Earth were the fuck-ups, all the dangerous ones were hiding offworld somewhere with their stolen technology. And the people like Metford who were open Trust sympathizers were just cowards, too afraid of O'Neill and the NID to do anything but talk.
This had always been the thing that was going to get him. His past, coming back to bite him in the ass, three years and a galaxy later.
He had known there was more than a good chance that Elizabeth might be wrong about being able to push through a promotion and an assignment as military commander, and he had known he wouldn't be anybody's choice for 2IC. But he had let himself be convinced that he would be going back, that whoever took his place would want him there for his experience. If he wasn't there...
Rodney. Teyla. On paper, Rodney still looked like a lousy choice for a gateteam. And it took long association to be able to tune out the bitching and the complaints, to know when to push him and when to coax him, and when to listen to him. If Rodney got killed because his new teamleader was too pissed off to listen... Or if one of the teams died because Rodney wasn't there to be listened to... And Atlantis needed the Athosians on the gateteams, but that didn't mean the new commander would want Teyla to keep her position in the command structure. An officer from the SGC should be used to alien civilian consultants, but then Teal'c didn't have to prove he wasn't just there to be O'Neill's girlfriend. Okay, that didn't make as much sense as John thought, but he didn't want Teyla forced into a position where she had to prove herself at all. Her or Elizabeth. They had spent all this time building a structure that worked, civilian and military, and if some asshole took John's place... And yeah, John had never expected to live forever, but Ford had had the training and the experience, and everyone knew he was John's successor, and he was only twenty-seven... Had been twenty-seven, John reminded himself bitterly. Had been.
He found himself in front of the door to the locker room he had been assigned space in. He went in, walked up to one of the sinks, splashed cold water on his face.
He only hoped whoever they sent had enough experience to realize what his men had gone through, who wouldn't judge them as if they hadn't been stationed in an alien warzone that they had come to believe was their new home forever. But Bates is history. He didn't think Bates could pretend to be normal for a new commander, not for long. And Ronon. Crap. Ronon was the only Runner they had found who hadn't gone crazy. They needed him; the guy was a tracker, a hunter, and a Wraith-killing machine. But he needed more work, he still needed to re-learn how to function in a group. So far, John had only been taking him out on his team; he wasn't ready to be judged by an outside authority yet.
What hit him the hardest was that John had known this was coming all along. From the moment he had realized it was true, that the Iapetans were the outlaws and not the Atlanteans, that Earth was still waiting, he had known this was going to happen. He was going to step back through the stargate and as far as the people here were concerned, it would be as if he had been buried under the permafrost for three years. As if nothing had changed. And maybe nothing had changed.
Then the door swung open and Teyla walked in. The four Marines who were changing out of workout clothes looked startled. She said, "Please leave immediately."
They stared at her in blank confusion. She stared back, brows lowered. Then one said, "Yes, ma'am," and they left.
John pulled a towel from the stack and rubbed his face. "Hi," he said, bleakly. He didn't supposed she had just thrown a bunch of half-naked Marines out into a corridor so she could ask him what time he was going down to the commissary for dinner.
She wet her lips. "I spoke to Elizabeth."
"I don't want to make a big deal about this," John said to the mirror.
Behind him, Teyla paced back and forth, her steps deliberately paced, her hands clenched. "I do." Her voice was tight as wire. "How could they expect this of you?"
"There's nothing you can do."
"Elizabeth will not fail you."
"There's only so much she can do." He tossed the towel into the bin, turning to face her. "We need those supplies."
"O'Neill wants to give them to us. They have already sent many of the crates up to the Daedalus. Surely these people cannot force him to--" Teyla read his expression, then pressed her lips together. "You have enemies."
John leaned back against the sink, and folded his arms. "Yeah. My old CO, a few...other people. And the Trust aren't the only ones who think I shot Sumner to take over the expedition." He didn't want to try to explain to her that there were friends of his father who probably thought he was the Antichrist. "With Ford gone, they've just got my word." Ford was the only other person who had seen Sumner's body, who could testify to the fact that Sumner had been fed on, who had seen John pinned to a table with a Hive Queen on top of him. And to these people, John's word wasn't worth crap. "It could be worse. They could press charges for that, court martial me. And after I tried to take the Iapetus away from O'Neill, I'm getting off easy."
Teyla grimaced in exasperation. "But O'Neill wants Atlantis in your care."
John said, "I know." O'Neill really did, too. That would be some comfort when he was knocking around McMurdo, the crazy loner with the black mark who had been kicked out of some important assignment, just marking time. "Look, I know it could be tough, depending on who they send. But just give the guy a chance. If the senior staff stands their ground, they should--"
"What about you?" Teyla waved her hand, frustrated. "You will be alone here, among people who know nothing of the stargate, who know nothing of you. It will be as if we abandoned you on some planet with an orbital gate! How can you..." She hesitated, and John knew, despite his best efforts, it must have shown on his face.
I could lose my security clearance, he thought, and his chest went tight. They could all die out there, and I'd never know. Nobody would be allowed to tell him.
John squeezed his eyes shut, packing all the emotion away, until he just felt tired. Don't be an idiot, John. It could be worse. He wasn't dead, he wasn't a prisoner in a Genii bunker or on some backward hell planet, he wasn't stuck to the wall of a hiveship. Now he had meetings and hearings still to get through, Trust bastards to nail with his testimony. And he had to make sure nobody saw him flinch.
Whoever was behind this, they couldn't know how hard a blow they were dealing. The trick was to make sure they never knew.
Teyla swallowed hard, and finished, "How can you stand it?"
Maybe he didn't have all the emotion packed away, because whatever she saw in his expression made her wince. She stepped toward him, reaching for him, and he shook his head, stepping past her, pushing out the door. He had another five hour debriefing to get through this afternoon. And he was going to be damned if he would let anybody see him sweat.
He rounded the corner and slammed right into Rodney.
"Sorry, dammit." With a grimly harried expression, Rodney stumbled back, clutching a laptop to his chest. Squinting with exhaustion, he focused on John. "Oh, it's you."
"Yeah." John rubbed his chest where the corner of the laptop had gouged him. "See you later."
Rodney eyed him sharply. "You look awful. What's wrong? Are you sick? You look sick."
John couldn't have this conversation again. It was hard enough dealing with his own emotions, he couldn't handle dealing with anyone else's. And Rodney was out of control as it was. He said, "Yeah, I think I'm coming down with something. I got it from Mitchell."
Rodney snorted derisively. "Of course you did." He rolled his eyes and plunged away down the corridor.