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Title: The Secret Language of Grief, Book One
Characters: J. Sheppard, R. McKay, C. Beckett, E. Lorne, R. Woolsey, and various OCs
Pairings: None
Warnings: Violence, Mentions of Major Character Deaths
Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis and her characters are the property of MGM.  All I lay claim to is my passion for the show and the original characters within this work of fiction
Summary: 20 years after the Wraith decimated Earth in The Great Culling, the SGC is once again ready to resume the Atlantis Expedition. Top brass wants only one man for the job, unfortunately for them John Sheppard has been MIA since the end of the War. A slip-up reveals John's current location, but will he be able to forgive the ultimate betrayal and return?


Chapter 16 - Acceptance

When John returned to the SGC later that evening it was in a far better mood then when he had left. Yeah, Lorne mentioning DC had managed to bring him down a bit, but he'd gotten to cross something huge off his bucket list, got his ass back in the cockpit of his favorite jumper and had even managed to solve at least part of a mystery that had been plaguing him for the past 20 years. He knew now that Lorne and his men were responsible for keeping him safe at the hospital. Well, them and the random ER doc that had apparently set security on his would-be assassin. Now there was just the question of who had transferred him out of the hospital in San Francisco and into the trauma center all the way in Denver. While the fact that he was still alive made John suspect that the transfer had been done to help him, he couldn't help but be angry with his mysterious benefactor. If it hadn't been for them, he wouldn't have spent the last 18 years of his life on the run from a threat that had been quickly quashed thanks to the efforts of his friends. And speaking of his friends, John was going to have to remember to pay Carson Beckett a visit in the next day or so to thank the man for letting Lorne know about the man sent to kill him. That quick thinking was probably what had saved his life that day and John had a new motto to live up to: give credit where credit was due.

What a fickle thing fate was, dooming him one moment then changing the course of the stars to save him the next. When John thought about it though, his life was full of moments like those but he figured the day he finally got the answers he was looking for was going to be the day he died. For now all thoughts like that seemed to do was give him headaches and he made his way back to his bunk still riding the high of his jumper flight, but utterly exhausted from everything he had been through the past few days. His first thought was to just to collapse onto his bed in a heap and sleep for a week but before he afforded himself that luxury, there were a few things he needed to take care of.

John settled himself into the chair at his desk and captured the phone's receiver between shoulder and ear. Blue River had been on his mind a lot lately, especially now that he knew what Lorne's man had found on his visit there. Nothing out of the ordinary to report, but John was still itching to talk to Eddie and to find out, once and for all, what the visitor to Blue River had looked like. Even if it just ended up being Richard Woolsey pulling some stupid-assed stunt, John still needed to know, and suspected he wouldn't get another moment's peace until he at least had a description of the guy. His brain just wouldn't leave it alone, despite his best efforts, so John reluctantly punched the "0" on his green plastic phone to reach the base operator and held his breath. He hadn't forgotten that irritated voice from before that had greeted him the last time he'd tried this but was relieved when a friendly enough male voice came over the line instead. The older gentlemen who helped him found the numbers John was looking for easily enough and read them off slowly so he could scratch them down onto the pad of paper he'd managed to find in one of the desk's drawer. When it was all said and done they cordially wished each other a good evening and John set the phone's headset back into its cradle feeling a little better about things. It was kind of refreshing to speak with someone who didn't know who he was and who wouldn't turn to the person sitting next to them and whisper about him the second he left the room. People were always turning to others to whisper about him now that he was back and John had to admit, it was getting kind of old.

John sat back in his chair and stared at the piece of paper clutched in his hands. There were two numbers written over the pale blue SGC watermark inked into the center of the page and he couldn't for the life of him decide which to try first. It was like trying to pick the lesser of two evils, though he desperately wanted to talk to each of them even though he knew they both were going to pepper him with questions he wasn't sure he was ready for. Figuring there was no real way to decide who to talk to first, John just chose the first number on the very short list and lifted the phone again with a shaky release of breath.

"Crabby Girl Bar," a gruff voice came over the line after only a few rings and John knew immediately that it wasn't Eddie. Part of him had been hoping that his old friend would answer but the big man was probably still visiting his family in Chicago. Hopefully John could get the number off of whomever was running the bar for him.

"Is Eddie there?" He asked, even though he already knew the answer.

"Nope, sorry friend. Mr. Nostrand isn't in today."

"Well can you tell me if he's back from visiting his family in Chicago yet? I've been trying to reach him." The unknown person on the other end of the line paused for a moment.

"This John Evans?" They asked and John nearly dropped the phone.

"Who the hell is this!"

"Shit, John! It really is you! It's Davey from New Horizons!" the kid on the other end of the line exclaimed and John let the tension out of his frame in an instant. Davey Callahan was a local kid who normally worked at Blue River's only working fuel station and who apparently was filling in for Eddie at the bar while he was away.

"How's it going, Davey?" John asked, and regretted it almost instantly. The people of Blue River knew that unless you wanted to get trapped in the little store that sold cigarettes and a sorry selection of candy bars at the fuel station for hours, you never ever asked Davey Callahan how it was going. He was the town chatter box and he descended down into a diatribe that would have given Rodney a run for his money, about how Blue River was still as boring and as small as ever. John sat through it all, unable to get a word in edgewise, and finally just gave up a few moments later to hold the phone away from his ear and wait for Davey to eventually run out of steam.

"So how have you been?" Davey finally asked when he had to pause to suck in a few replenishing breaths and John put the phone back to his hear before the kid could start in again.

"Can't complain. Hey, Davey, you wouldn't happen to have the number for Eddie in Chicago would you? I really need to get a hold of him but Carrie said he wasn't going to be back for another couple of days."

"Oh man, John," Davey stammered, "Well, I guess you wouldn't have been around to hear. Eddie's not gonna be back for another couple of weeks, man. That's actually why I'm filling in for him. His dad just died."

Oh crap. John knew how close Eddie was to his family out in Chicago, even if he hadn't really bothered to ask the guy much about them over the years. John could only imagine what his old friend was going through.

"Did he leave you the number there? I should really give him a call."

"Sure thing, Evans. Hold on a sec. I know it's around here somewhere..." John listened as Davey shuffled through some papers and nearly smiled when the kid bellowed down the bar at someone hollering for another beer.

"I'm on the goddam phone!" Davey yelled back, right in John's ear, and he would have laughed had he not been worried about Eddie in that moment. His friend's father had just died and now John was going to have to pester him with questions about the man who'd shown up in town asking after him. But Eddie had talked to him, had run him off even, and while John wasn't looking forward to what he had to do next, it couldn't be helped and honestly, he just wanted to settle the matter once and for all.

"Here it is!" Davey finally exclaimed a moment later and John scribbled the new number down below the other two he'd gotten from the base switchboard operator.

"Thanks, Davey," he said and recapped his pen.

"Sure thing! Hey, when you comin' back to town, huh? Eddie's back to being the worst bowler on the league and he's a pain to be around anymore. Won't shut up about it."

"Hey," John cried in mock outrage, "I was not that bad!" He'd made the mistake of subbing for someone on Eddie's team a few times at the bowling alley in town and the people of Blue River were apparently never going to let him live down that particular debacle.

"Are you kidding, Evans? You were terrible," Davey laughed and John bit his tongue to keep from saying something about his old hometown that he would regret. "But seriously, when are you coming back, man? I know Carrie sure misses you." Davey snuck the last bit in stealthy enough but John didn't miss it. Nor did he miss the tone the kid's voice took on as he said it.

"Listen buddy, I gotta go," John said instead of taking the bait and Davey chuckled on the other end of the line. "You take care of yourself kid, okay?"

"I will. You too, John," he said in farewell and the line disconnected.

John set the phone back into its cradle and glanced at the little alarm clock on his nightstand, eyes lingering for a moment on the photograph he'd placed there the other day. It was still early in the evening and Chicago was only an hour ahead of Colorado if he remembered correctly, but he was still leery of calling Eddie should he interrupt the grieving family while they were sitting down to dinner or something. But in the end concern over his friends trumped any reservations he'd had about being disrespectful and John punched the number Davey had given him into the phone with the tip of his pen. The line rang for several moments until an answering machine kicked in and John had to decide if he would leave a message or not. It was one of those automated greetings with a cold computerized voice and John wondered for a moment if perhaps Eddie's father had been the last one to leave a personalized greeting but the family had taken it down in their grief. He wanted to leave his friend a message, even if it was just to offer some comfort (as bumbling as his particular brand would be) but just as the shrill sound of the beep to leave that message filled his ears, John hung up the phone.

Truth was, while he had wanted to leave a message, he'd realized suddenly that he had no number to leave for Eddie so his friend could call him back. John figured the SGC had to have some sort of secure line in place so the families of the people living in the mountain could contact their loved ones, but John had never had any need for such a thing. There had never been anyone on the outside who cared enough about his whereabouts to ask after a way to contact him, not even Nancy, so he had no idea what the procedure was for something like that... though he figured Eddie could track him down easily enough through the USSF Headquarters in New York City if he tried hard enough. Then again, it wasn't exactly common knowledge that John Sheppard was back or involved with the Atlantis Project for that matter. He would have to remember to bring it up with Landry when he went to see him tomorrow.

John looked back down at the slip of paper resting on the desk before him and glanced at the last number on the list. This was the phone call he was going to make not because he needed to warn her of the things happening on periphery of her perfect ordered little world, but because he simply missed the sound of her voice. He'd made a promise to call again if he could but now that the time had come to make good on that promise, John found himself hesitating as his hand reached for the phone. For years he'd relentlessly pounded into his brain the need to steer clear of attachments, and yet here he was, about to call the woman he was pretty sure he'd fallen in love with and admit to the mess he'd gotten her involved in. John pulled the hand reaching for the phone back away and raised it to his mouth so he could chew at his thumb nail, something he hadn't done in years, then reached it back out again to make the call before he could chicken out again.

"Tamed Tiger, this is Audra," a high pitched and whiney voice answered and the blood in John's veins turned to ice as his very skin began to craw. Christ almighty, was he ever going to catch a break?

"Is Carrie there?" He asked warily, resisting the urge to just hang up the phone then and there.

"Who's asking?" came the haughty reply and John sighed.

"It's John, Audra. Is she around?"

"Weeeeeell, if it isn't the Lover Boy? Did you finally come to your senses and decide to run away with me?" Audra Pettigrew tried to sound sultry as she said it, but her words only managed to make John shudder. Audra was the owner of The Tamed Tiger and Carrie's conniving and manipulative bitch of a boss. She was, quite possibly, the only other person on the planet besides Richard Woolsey that John could claim to actively detest. She was a sad old crone of a woman with nothing better to do with her time then go around Blue River ruining people's lives.

"Audra, I don't have time for this," he said shortly, pinching the bridge of his nose and hoping she wouldn't just hang up on him for it. "Is she there or not?"

"Oh relax, lover boy. She called in sick for her shift today. Oh god, you didn't get her pregnant did you? Is that was this is? She kicked you out for knocking her up and now you're trying to get her back? What'd you do, Evans, try and talk her into getting rid of it?"

"No, Audra." He spat and if he he could have he would have reached through the phone and throttled that woman. "And I swear to god if you give her a hard time about what you incorrectly assumed I'll come back there and make sure you never do it again." John didn't often make threats like that but thankfully Audra got the hint and backed off.

"Now now, no need to be an asshole about it, lover boy. Why don't you just try her at home?"

"Do you have the number?" he asked brusquely and Audra read it off to him in irritated monotone but without further embellishment. He hung up the phone on a terse goodbye and resisted the urge to slam the phone receiver back into its cradle. God, he despised that woman.

John took a moment to calm himself back down before lifting the phone one final time to try Carrie at the number Audra had given him but when her voicemail activated even before the line could ring, John really did slam the phone back down and all his attempts at calm flew out the window.

"Get a grip, Sheppard," he muttered to himself, resting his elbows on the desk and rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Carrie was at home nursing a bad cold, nothing more. She had probably fallen asleep and forgotten to charge her phone and was not being held captive in some lunatic's basement like his traitorous brain kept trying to suggest. And Eddie was home in Chicago, surrounded by his family, burying his father in the ground and not being kept from Blue River by some conspiracy to get Carrie on her own.

John glanced at the clock on his nightstand to check the time but pulled his eyes away from it a second later reminding himself, once again, that Lorne's man had not found anything out of the ordinary on his trip out to Blue River. John was going to get a good night's sleep and wake up refreshed and ready for his early morning visit with Landry to once and for all officially notify the SGC that someone had been in Blue River asking after him. He was going to, discretely, let Landry know of his personal connections there. The General was then going to treat the information with the upmost discretion and the next time he called Eddie he was going to catch the man and finally get the description of the mystery visitor that had been causing him so much grief. And then when Eddie described Woolsey to a T John would look back on that one awful night he spent tossing and turning in his bed worrying over nothing, and laugh.

That's how it would all go down because there was nothing wrong with that plan.

...right?

..

\oO0Oo/

..

When morning dawned on his sixth day back at the SGC John Sheppard made his weary way to General Landry's office to finally clear the air about the mystery visitor to his old hometown. A night of restless sleep had left him tired and he was dreading what he was about to do.

It wasn't his decision not to tell the General about Carrie's phone call the other day that had him shuffling his feet a little as he walked, but more of a betrayal of sorts. Maybe he was making too much of it, but John had asked Rodney if he could trust Landry and Rodney had told him that he could. Yet at the first test of that trust, John had opted for not letting Landry in on what was going on with him. Thankfully nothing of consequence had turned up in Blue River but John had let concerns over what Landry would do with any information he gave him get in the way of that trust. Truth was, Landry needed to know what was going on and John should have brought it all up in the meeting they'd had the other day, but he'd been so concerned with keeping those two very different worlds as far apart from each other as possible that he'd never stopped to entertain the idea that Landry really could be trusted. John had made a pact with Rodney in the hallway that day before his reenlistment ceremony to open up the gates he'd used to shut out the world. They were on the frontlines under heavy fire and John was trying to save his own ass. No one made it through to the end when a team operated like that and John was the weak link, something he wasn't used to being. So he would go to Landry's office and clear the air like he'd promised Lorne and trust the general like he'd promised Rodney. See, he could do this!

John continued his trek towards the Gateroom and the General's office located nearby. He was happy to see that he was starting to blend in again and there were hardly any lingering gazes or all out stare as he made his way. Quite frankly, John was about ready for some friggin' normalcy again. You know, whatever normalcy one could find in a mountain containing a Stargate that lead to other worlds. Truth was, John was yearning for some structure and was actually looking forward to his training sessions with Fitzpatrick to start up again later in the day. Now that they'd gotten all the head games out of the way, they could focus again on the physical and John never was happier than when he was pushing the limits of his endurance. Maybe that was why he liked running so much. There was a moment just before he hit his stride where his body would try to talk him out of continuing. What he lived for was the exact moment he pushed through that resistance and settled into the headspace where he could run for hours and not even realize he'd done it. He was ready to get his face bloodied again, too (without the emotional breakdown this time, of course). He was ready for Fitzpatrick to build him back up again now that he'd been broken apart and down to his most basic elements. John Sheppard was ready for a fight and he took that feeling into the office with him when Landry admitted him a few minutes later with a soft 'come on in'.

John stepped into the office he'd only seen one other time and Landry, in early and already lost behind a sea of paperwork, rose from his seat to greet him.

"Morning, Sheppard," he said with a genuine smile and John shook the hand the general offered to him. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"If you've got a minute, General, there was something I wanted to talk to you about."

"By all means! Please have a seat." Landry waived him toward the two chairs in front of his desk and John chose the same one he'd sat in before, settling himself down into the warn leather like a baseball finding the perfect place at the center of the catcher's mitt at the end of a no hitter. "So, what can I help you with?"

Without preamble or excuse, John launched into his story about his phone call with Carrie, leaving out as much personal information as he could while still painting an accurate picture for the general. He told Landry about the mystery man who had visited his town a few days after he left. He told him about asking Lorne to check it out before he worried anyone and what Lorne's man had found. He told Landry everything he needed to know and at the end of it John was relieved to find that all of his fears had been unfounded. He'd somehow forgotten what kind of a man Hank Landry Jr. was (he knew he had his past to thank for that mostly) and the first words out of the general's mouth weren't to question John about why he'd chosen not to share with the group information that might be relevant to the sabotage investigation. No, the first thing out of Landry's mouth was a promise.

"We'll get someone out there to watch the town straight away. That way your friends are looked after and we can have eyes on anyone else who might come looking for you."

"I'd appreciate that General," he said genuinely, surprised that the man would offer such a thing given their already thin numbers. "But if we could just..."

"Don't worry," Landry cut him off, "utmost discretion. I can imagine you don't want your friends getting caught up in the middle of all this." John smiled and chastised himself for ever thinking General Landry wouldn't understand his reluctance or that he would take offense to being kept in the dark.

"I appreciate that you came to see me about this," the general finished and John ducked his head.

"I almost didn't," he admitted sheepishly.

Landry's eyes came to life with that vague look of amusement he had down to an art. "Oh?"

"I don't want anything about Blue River going on official record. Can you make that happen?"

"Of course, Sheppard," Landry promised, sitting forward. "Consider it done. Ever since we lost the ATA gene carriers, we're very careful around here about who knows what."

"And I believe it, General. I really do. But someone managed to find out where I was living and according to everyone around here, there are only a handful of people who were supposed to know that information."

"You have your suspicions then?" Landry asked with a glint in his eye.

John sighed. "There's only one person I can think of who would be stupid enough to go there and stir shit up... pardon my French, Sir."

"Understood," Landry nodded without even needing any further details on who John thought that stupid person might be. "I'm headed to New York later this week. While I'm there I'll have a talk with Mr. Woolsey and his people and find out myself if any of them have visited your town."

"I'd appreciate that."

"It's no problem at all. And rest assured, Sheppard, if there is a breach, it did not come from behind this desk. Not intentionally anyway."

"I believe it," John said with as much conviction as he could saturate the word with, because he did. Landry was going out on a limb for him, protecting the people he cared about in Blue River and as far as John Sheppard was concerned, Hank Landry Jr. was good people; just like his uncle.

"So, besides the drama in Wisconsin, how is everything else going for you? Are you all settled in now?" Landry asked but something in his eyes told John he was well aware of the trouble John had already gotten into. He wondered then if he should mention his impromptu jumper flight yesterday afternoon with Evan Lorne, but decided against it.

"Same as yesterday, I guess." He answered with a shrug. "It's manageable."

"Well I'm glad to hear it. My door is always open if anything else pops up."

"Actually, there was something I was wondering about General."

"Fire away."

"Is there a number I can give to people so they can reach me on base? There are a few friends in Blue River that might need to call me back should anything else happen out there who want it and I didn't know what to tell them." It was only part of the reason, but Landry didn't need to know the rest.

The general retrieved a sheet paper from one of the drawers of his desk and slid it over to John between the stacks of paperwork.

"This explains all the procedures. Just don't give the number out to anyone who doesn't need it or Agnes from the Switchboard will be all over my ass." John couldn't help but wonder if the general meant the lovely lady he'd had the pleasure of speaking with the first time he'd called to get the numbers he needed. Judging by Landry's comment, they were probably talking about the same woman.

"Thanks."

"You start your training with Fitzpatrick back up today, right?" Landry asked and John nodded. "If you don't mind, when you're finished there I'd like to sit you down and get your opinion on the man's effectiveness. I think he could be a real asset around here with some of our more seasoned returning reenlisted and I'd appreciate any input you can give me on his methods."

"Yeah! Absolutely," John agreed eagerly. Fitzpatrick had managed to get him talking about what had happened with the Wraith ships, something no one had managed to do in nearly 20 years his keeping it all so close to the vest, and that in itself was a praise worthy feat. John figured the least he could do was give the kid a glowing reference and help secure him a job at the SGC and a possible place on Atlantis. The kid was built like a tank, would be a valuable asset, and if John could just get him to reenlist as well, then that would be icing on the cake. He'd have to remember to bring it up to the big Irishman again later.

"Thank you," Landry said with a nod. "Now, don't you have a USSF seminar to attend this morning?"

John smiled at the not so subtle dismissal. "I do, but there's one last thing I need and if you could keep this between us as well, I'd appreciate it."

"What's that?" Landry asked with that amused look back in his eye, the one John was coming to realize meant the General knew more than he was letting on.

"Rodney put in a request for a young man finishing up his ROTC training in New York to be involved in the Atlantis expedition. I'd like for that to happen if possible."

"Consider it done," Landry said almost immediately, and John couldn't decide if the General was just amused that he'd asked such a favor, or if he knew exactly what was going on. Regardless, John left Landry's office feeling better than he had in the better part of a week and made his way to his first meeting of the day.

..

\oO0Oo/

..

Things were finally looking up. He hadn't been able to say that in nearly 20 years, but they really truly were. Blue River was being looked after. Landry had been true to his word and had sent a few men out to keep an eye on things and John had finally settled into a routine that was just on the right side of normal. He was even getting a kick out of his training sessions with Fitzpatrick and over the past several days the red headed firebrand of an Irishman had been kicking his ass in ways John didn't even know his ass could be kicked. He still hadn't managed to reach Eddie but Carrie he knew was getting over the stomach flu under the careful watch of her elderly aunt Eileen. Even the extra company John noticed following him around lately (most likely tasked by Landry) managed not to bother him, even though he was rarely ever allowed to be alone anymore. Things were secure for the moment and all that seemed left to worry about was the proverbial other shoe to drop because it just wasn't like the universe to leave him alone for so long...

The only thing that sucked about it all going right for once, were the insufferable classes on the USSF that he was being forced to sit through. Shit, it was like watching paint dry during those things and he'd nearly crawled out of his own skin the other day when he'd finally attended his first one with a handful of other reenlisted. It was important for him to understand the inner workings of the USSF, he got that. As leader of the expedition on Atlantis it would be imperative that he know how to navigate the choppy waters of military rank and all of the politics surrounding it, but it was hard work reprogramming his brain like that. The new structure he was learning about was just enough like his old Air Force way of doing things to be familiar to him, but different enough from what he had known to make memorizing all the new shit downright maddening. The one thing that got him through it, made any of it worthwhile, was the weapons training.

He never would have thought it possible, but the feel of that P90 in his hands was rapturous. He hadn't had another panic attack since that near one in the helicopter on his way to Atlantis and they'd stayed away even as he destroyed paper target after paper target with automatic weapons fire, though he knew the real test would come when he would need to shoot at an actual living thing. And it wasn't like he could go out and find something alive to shoot at, either. His mettle would have to wait to be tested on the battle field with a whispered prayer that it wouldn't completely abandon him when the time came to stare down his scope at an actual living target.

"Hey, I was thinking about something," John brought up as he weaved away from a surprise jab Fitzpatrick threw at him.

They were down in the training facility today, packed into boxing gloves and protective headgear and circling each other in the elevated boxing ring located in one corner of the gym. Fitzpatrick had put a lot of power behind the punch and the big guy had to stumble forward slightly to keep his footing. He had a big smile on his face though, because John had seen the attack coming from a mile away. He was getting better at this.

"What's up?" Fitzpatrick asked and raised his gloves up to protect his face as they resumed their circling.

"I was just thinking about Atlantis and what might happen the first time I get into a fire fight."

Fitzpatrick feinted suddenly and John tensed, ready to knock it away, but the blow didn't come.

"You expecting to get into a lot of those? Firefights, I mean?"

"Well, no, I guess not, but when I used to try and go hunting with this buddy of mine back home I'd choke up every time it came down to actually shooting something..."

"What would happen?" Fitzpatrick asked and he easily blocked John's next pathetic attempt at a jab as his thoughts began to wander.

"I'd get one of those damn panic attacks."

John made another move, glove connecting with the side of Fitzpatrick's jaw, but the Seal threw his head back at the last second and John's glove glanced off. He recovered quickly though and they resumed their prance around the ring.

"Oh, you mean one of those panic attacks I haven't seen you have in days?" Fitzpatrick smiled, feinting a hit the next moment and getting John to put his gloves back up to protect his face. "One of those panic attacks?"

"Hey, just because I haven't had one lately, doesn't mean I'll never have one again."

"Said the patient to the psychiatrist," Fitzpatrick snorted with a smirk. John threw an impressive right hook, but Fitzpatrick ducked and landed a blow to John's midsection as he spun around on the momentum of his missed swing, doubling him over for a moment.

"Come on Sheppard, stay on your toes! Pay attention to body language. I know I have a tell. Find it and I'll never take you by surprise again."

"Speaking of taking me by surprise," he said, straightening up and keeping his eyes on Fitzpatrick to watch him closely, "have you given any more thought about reenlisting? I hear the Atlantis Expedition leader is a great guy and that the USSF is oh so much fun to be a part of."

Fitzpatrick chuckled. "I've given it some thought."

"And?"

"And, I'm still giving it some thought."

Fitzpatrick lunged, but John had been paying attention while he was talking and thought he'd caught the tell the former Seal was talking about. Right before he made a move, he paused ever so slightly to inhale.

"Gotcha," John mumbled, not meaning to say it out loud and Fitzpatrick smiled wide before launching into an all out attack that ended with John in a head lock and Fitzpatrick sniggering above him.

"Say Uncle!"

"Alright!" John laughed. "Uncle!" and Fitzpatrick released him.

"Close, but no cigar," the kid said with a glint in his eye but John just acted like he didn't even see it. He brought his gloves back up near his face, but Fitzpatrick shook his head and started for the edge of the ring. Apparently they were finished.

"So, have you figured out what's causing your panic attacks yet?" Fitzpatrick asked once they'd reached the corner where the water and the rest of their gear was sitting. John tossed his gloves into his duffel and thought about how best to answer.

"I don't know… some kind of PTSD, I imagine?" He guessed with a shrug. He'd seen guys effected by it. Had a problem with it himself for a while after that crap in Afghanistan even, only this time around it was coming with a big side order of involuntary mass murder.

"So you really are as smart as everyone keeps telling me." Fitzpatrick smirked as he peeled off his helmet. His red hair was sticking up at every angle imaginable and John would have ribbed him about it had their conversation not just taken a turn in a direction he was no longer comfortable with.

"I'm a soldier," he said simply and Fitzpatrick nodded.

"And yet most of us are never man enough to admit that it's an actual thing we deal with." The way Fitzpatrick said it had John wondering if the former Seal had personal experience with it himself.

"But don't worry, John," Fitzpatrick continued, mistaking John's silence for worry. "You're doing exactly what you need to do to work through it. What I think we need to do is figure out some way for you to be able to live with the past but not have it overwhelm you every time you close your eyes or get into an intense situation. That's what seems to cause it, right? Stress?"

John nodded. "Seems to."

"So what we need to do is put you into some kind of stressful situation with your firearm so we can see how you're going to react."

"Any suggestions?"

"We could try paintball," Fitzpatrick suggested thoughtfully. "That would give us an environment that's not going to put you in any real danger, but can still simulate battle. If I can organize it, would you want to try?

"Hell yeah!"

It was a really good suggestion, actually. He wasn't comfortable with the idea of going to Pegasus unprepared and this way he'd have a way to test himself. A way to find out if he really was on the mend like Fitzpatrick seemed to believe. Plus, if the former Petty Officer could convince Carson and Rodney to go along, that would make it all the more interesting... but then again, maybe not. He could just imagine what they would look like: a bunch of old farts running around a paintball arena hitting each other in their arthritic joints... He kept forgetting he wasn't 35 anymore.

"Excellent," Fitzpatrick was saying, "I'll set it up." John nodded and started to unwrap his hands, but the Seal stopped him.

"Why don't you leave them wrapped? You can work the bag for a while." John wiggled his sore fingers for a minute, apologizing to them for the continued abuse, then shoved them back into his gloves to head over to the punching bags.

Everything on him was sore these days. Fitzpatrick wasn't pulling any punches and he didn't dare argue as the former Seal lead him over to the corner of the gym where the bags were kept. Fitzpatrick chose one and stood behind it and John went through the various drills the former Seal threw at him from around the bag. It was one of his favorite exercises and he had a sneaky suspicion that it was why Fitzpatrick had him on it so often. The sand filled bag before him wasn't something he could hurt and he could wail away at it with all the anger and frustration he had in him without ever having to stop and say he was sorry.

"So, you seem to have the panic attacks under control. What about the nightmares you were having? Any more of those?"

"No, actually," he replied with surprise coloring his voice.

He really hadn't. In fact, he'd slept the last few nights all the way through without even dreaming and hadn't even bothered to notice. He knew a lot of it had to do with the insane physical demands he was putting on his body at the moment, but he thought he had an idea on what it really boiled down to. That big, ugly thing that used to live at the center of him was slowly being chipped away by Rodney and Carson, Lorne and Fitzpatrick, and sometimes, when he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that it had never been inside of him in the first place. There were still things that blindsided him every so often. Memories that would reach up from the past and choke him when he least expected it, but John could no longer deny that he was starting to feel something that looked and felt a little like - dare he say it and tempt fate further - peace.

"I haven't had a nightmare since my first day back," he mused and landed another heavy punch to the bag that sent Fitzpatrick stumbling back half a step. As nice a revelation as being nightmare free was, John couldn't remember ever telling Fitzpatrick about the dreams that plagued his sleep at times.

The fact the former Seal had brought it up meant that he was talking to people behind John's back and he wasn't sure how he felt about that. The kid who was on watch by the VIP room the morning he'd woken up screaming must have said something and Rodney himself admitted to talking to Fitzpatrick about him. He understood that the former Seal needed to know about what was going on with him, especially the things no amount of prodding was ever going to get John to admit to unless ambushed like he was being now, but he was having a hard time not seeing it as an invasion of his privacy. The IOA and the SGC, they needed to know he could handle all this, so John would endure it and let Fitzpatrick play his head games, but it didn't mean he had to like it. John had been keeping people at arm's length for nearly 20 years, and even before that (if he was perfectly honest with himself) so he could see why he was having a problem with all of this. There were a few people over the years that had managed to break through his defenses and he let one such person's face swim up in his thoughts as he pounded away at the bag.

Carrie, despite all of his best efforts, had seen through all the bullshit and though things had never passed between them verbally, she'd picked up on it other ways. As much as he would love to see that woman again and share everything that had happened to him these past few weeks with her, there was another part of him that didn't want her anywhere near it. If Lorne's man had found that the individual responsible for sabotaging the Atlantis Expedition was going after people John cared about to get at him, and Carrie had to be brought into protective custody, he wasn't sure if he could handle it. She would want to know about the events that had lead them all to that moment and he would tell her because he owed her that much at least, and then she would know that he had been involved in one of the most devastating events in human history... and she would hate him for it.

'But maybe not.' that little voice in his head said suddenly and without warning, and the rhythm of John's fists against the bag nearly faltered. It was surprising, hearing that little voice sound so optimistic when for so long it had been nothing but dark and foreboding.

Maybe Carrie would be able to forgive him like everyone else on base seemed to be able to do. Maybe...

"Hey! Sheppard! Where are you dude?" Fitzpatrick called to him a second later and John caught the former Seal's eyes from around the bag before resuming his assault.

"Just thinking shit over," he mumbled and redoubled his efforts at trying to destroy the sand filled bag hanging from the ceiling in front of him.

"You wanna talk about it?" Fitzpatrick offered, face taking on an amused expression as he silently acknowledged how clichéd the question had sounded. The Seal stepped away from the bag and John stopped its momentum with a shoulder when it swung back his way. He was sweaty and out of breath and he leaned against it heavily.

"So, there's this woman…" he started, not really believing that he was about to share it all with the likes of Fitzpatrick so soon after deciding he was pissed at the kid for wanting to know everything.

"The girlfriend in Wisconsin?" The former Seal asked and John narrowed his eyes.

"How'd you know that?"

Fitzpatrick smiled. "I'm not stupid John. And I can't imagine someone like you going 18 plus years without having a relationship."

John looked away.

"Were you guys close?"

"I suppose…"

"You don't sound very convinced."

"It's just... she doesn't know anything about what I do here and I'm just wondering how she'd react if she ever found out."

"You mean if she knew you had been involved in what happened with the Wraith." Fitzpatrick stated, seemingly reading John's thoughts and calling it what it was despite his best efforts at dancing around what he really meant.

"Yeah."

"Do you blame yourself for everything that happened, John?"

Jesus. "...for a long time I did, I guess."

"Even though you had no knowledge of what they were making you do?"

"I don't know…" he said, exasperated with the questions already even though he knew he needed to face them. He punched idly at the bag beside him again and it swung noisily on its chain. "I was still the one in the chair. It was my drones that destroyed all those ships."

"You and that kid in the control chair at Area 51, right?"

"I guess," he'd nearly forgotten all about that.

"Do you think that kid they stuck in the chair is to blame at all?"

"Couldn't tell you, never met the guy." He deflected a little flippantly and Fitzpatrick let out a frustrated sigh which was pretty out of character for the normally unflappable formal Seal.

"Alright then, look at it this way," he went on in spite of John's attitude. "Would you have blamed, let's say, Dr. McKay if he had been the one flying the city that day?"

John had never really stopped to think of it that way and the answer was, of course, absolutely not. In fact, he'd probably be the first one to grab Rodney's shoulders and tell him that none of it was his fault the moment he tried to say that it was… just like everyone was going to him now...

"Well shit," he muttered, knowing he'd been bested and Fitzpatrick let out one of his rare laughs.

"See, sometimes all it takes is a different perspective," Fitzpatrick said, coming over to pound him on the back with a good-natured palm.

"There are people out there who really are to blame, John. And they are certainly not you or that poor kid they stuck in the chair down on Earth. It was the decision makers and those that let it happen, not the poor souls they tricked into executing that decision, that are the true villains of our story, wouldn't you agree?"

"I suppose there's something to what you're saying..."

Fitzpatrick smiled crookedly. "Well then maybe there's hope for you yet, Sheppard."


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