Disclaimer: I don't own these characters; too bad, so sad.
Author's Notes: Spoilers through SGA 5.20, "Enemy at the Gate", and SG-1 "The Ark of Truth"
Summary: John never sees it coming.
"We'd like you to step in as a temporary replacement for Colonel Mitchell."
That's pretty much the last thing John had expected to come out of Landry's mouth. He knows the SGC is having a hard time figuring out what to do with him. Atlantis is still sitting in the Bay, and the IOA hasn't decided whether to send the city back to Pegasus. John's promotion to full colonel means the SGC won't put him in anything less than a command position. He's nominally still the military leader of Atlantis, and hasn't been reassigned yet.
John had figured that the worst-case scenario would be for Landry to announce that Atlantis isn't going back, and to encourage John to retire, shiny new promotion notwithstanding. Best-case scenario is for Landry to tell him Atlantis is going back to Pegasus, and John should take the months of leave he's accumulated over the years.
Being offered even temporary leadership of SG-1 comes out of left field.
John clears his throat. "What happened to Colonel Mitchell?"
"He broke his ankle," Landry says, and John can't quite read his expression. "It's not a bad break, but it does mean that he's going to be out of commission for about six weeks. It just so happens that you need something to do for that length of time, so it works out well for everybody."
John perked up at that. "Does that mean we're going back to Pegasus?"
"That's what I hear," Landry replies with a slight smile. "It's causing more trouble sitting in the Bay than it's worth. Still, these sorts of things take time, and you need something to keep you busy."
John has a feeling that the last thing Landry wants is a repeat of the last time John was stuck on Earth, but Atlantis is here, and they haven't left anybody behind in Pegasus, unless you count Torren and the Athosians, and some of their other allies.
And John does count them, but he doesn't think the IOA feels the same way.
"I'm happy to help out, sir," John says neutrally, fully aware that he doesn't have a choice in the matter.
And really, he is happy to help, although he'd given some consideration to taking a long vacation on the beach if that had been Landry's suggestion.
"Good," Landry replies. "You have your first mission the day after tomorrow. Briefing at 0800. You'll leave at 1000."
John nods, and then frowns. "Wait, who's on SG-1 now other than Mitchell?"
It turns out that the answer to that question is Vala Mal Doran and whatever candidates Mitchell is running through their paces. As John well knows, Carter is commanding the George Hammond, but Teal'c has gone back to Dakara, and Jackson is running around Atlantis, cataloging and exploring to his heart's content.
That leaves Mitchell-who, it turns out, broke his ankle after one of the newbies had pulled a seriously stupid stunt-and Vala. John had met her when she came to Atlantis several years before, but she'd spent most of her time with Jackson, so he has no idea what she'll be like to work with.
Which begs the question of why she's not on Atlantis with Jackson right now, instead of keeping Cam company while he tries to fill the team roster.
Of course, that means John has to sort through personnel files and check out new potential members, and he's not at all sanguine about that idea without checking in with Mitchell first.
John wangles Mitchell's address out of the sergeant in charge of personnel and manages to commandeer a fleet vehicle to drive to Mitchell's apartment complex. When Mitchell opens his front door, he doesn't seem surprised to see John there.
"The general told me he was going to give you the new orders today," Mitchell says as he leads John inside, his metal crutches thudding dully on the carpeted floor. "You want a beer?"
"Sure," John says. He doesn't know Mitchell, not really, although he's heard plenty about him. They'd met for the first time when SG-1 had visited Atlantis, and had run into each other in the halls of the SGC after John had been ordered to Cheyenne Mountain for an extended debriefing. He has no idea how Mitchell might feel about John as a temporary replacement.
Mitchell hands him a cold bottle and settles on the couch, his bad ankle propped on a pillow. "What do you want to know?"
"How the hell I'm supposed to pick your team members," John replies, his mouth twisting into a rueful grimace.
Mitchell shrugs and gestures at his cast with the bottle. "Better you than me."
John sighs. "You haven't answered my question."
"You're a smart guy. You'll figure it out," Mitchell replies. "And you can weed out the ones who are totally unsuitable."
"I'm so happy I could help," John says wryly. "So, why would Landry ask me to replace you instead of just putting SG-1 on stand down?"
"Truthfully? I'm pretty sure he wants to keep you both busy," Mitchell said. "Nobody wants to see Vala bored, and I'm pretty sure Landry doesn't want a repeat of the last time you were stuck on Earth."
John grimaces, acknowledging the truth of that observation. "I don't think Landry has to worry about that."
Mitchell suddenly grins. "So, it's just going to be you and Vala."
"What's so funny about that?"
Mitchell chuckles. "You'll see. You definitely won't be bored."
John heads to the commissary for dinner after he returns to Cheyenne Mountain. He expects to eat alone, but he's about halfway through the meatloaf and mashed potatoes-which aren't nearly as good as they are on Atlantis-when Vala plops down in the seat across from him.
Vala looks much as he remembers-her long, dark hair in pigtails, a mischievous smile on her face, her blue eyes crinkled at the corners. She looks him up and down, her gaze frankly assessing. "So, you're going to be the new leader."
"Just until Mitchell recovers," he assures her. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Her smile widens. "I just thought I'd get your measure, since we're going to be working together. Is that all right with you, Colonel Sheppard?"
"It's just John," he replies. "It's good to see you again."
She beamed at him. "At least the scenery is going to be good even if Cameron is out of commission."
John feels the tips of his ears turn warm at her frankly assessing gaze. "Uh, thanks. I think."
Vala takes a large bite out of her sandwich. "What's this mission we're going on?"
"I have no idea," John replies. "I expect we'll find out at the briefing."
Vala hums under her breath. "Did you go see Cam today?"
"I had to ask him about the new guys," John replies.
"There are no 'new guys,'" Vala responds, her voice a little bitter. "There are idiots who occasionally join us and almost get Cam killed."
"Lucky us," John murmurs.
"We need to stick together," Vala says. "Cam and I split up, and he got hurt."
John can see some of her joie de vivre dim, and he senses her guilt. "So, we stick together."
He misses his team, and he imagines that Vala feels much the same way. He wishes he could get Ronon and Teyla to come along, but Landry had been clear on the matter. It's John's job to lead SG-1, and to find replacements for Sam, Jackson, and Teal'c. John's team isn't a part of that, no matter how much he wants them there.
Vala raises an eyebrow. "You know that all the people Cam has tried out so far have been completely useless."
"Which is why we have to stick together," John supplies. "Don't worry about it. I'm used to having to sort through personnel."
Vala smirks. "You know, that's what Cam said."
John shrugs and finishes the last of his dinner. "I'll see you in a couple of days."
"At the briefing," Vala confirms. "Sleep well, John."
That night, John dreams of Atlantis, and wishes he was home.
The mission briefing involves John, Vala, Dr. Brent Corcoran, and Major Chandra Coolidge, in addition to General Landry and another scientist John doesn't catch the name of. They're visiting P9H-411, looking for additional sources of naquadah, as well as any other resources, including potential allies.
As far as John can tell, Coolidge is more scientist than soldier, and Corcoran is a physicist. "Like Colonel Carter," he chirps enthusiastically when John asks.
John has seen Sam in action, and he figures she's at least a couple of steps ahead of Corcoran. "Right," he drawls, and exchanges a look with Vala, who rolls her eyes.
What little hope John has for this mission is dashed when Coolidge adds, "This is my first chance to go off-world, and I'm really looking forward to it."
"Great," John manages. He deliberately doesn't look at Vala again, because he's certain her expression will probably inspire some inappropriate laughter on John's part.
When they go through the gate, John is grateful that Vala remains close by him. The surrounding area is undefended, and there's no one immediately visible.
"All right, people," John calls. "Stay close and stay sharp."
He's grateful that Corcoran and Coolidge know how to do that much at least, and they appear competent, but he's pretty sure that the guy who had gotten Mitchell's ankle broken had appeared to be competent at first, too.
They follow the path leading away from the gate; it's little more than a dirt track, but it appears well worn. A village, consisting of a few dozen wood and plaster homes, appears after about a klick, and a delegation meets them while they're still a hundred yards away. "Welcome, travelers!" the woman at the front of the group says. She's wearing red-orange robes and a matching turban, and her skin is the color of burnished copper. "We are happy to do business with you."
John breathes a sigh of relief. Maybe they'd be able to get out of this situation unscathed. "I'm Colonel John Sheppard. We are traders from Earth, hoping to find allies."
"Please, come," the leader says. "I am Dorala. You will break your fast with us while we talk."
"Sounds great," John agrees, with a sideways look at the rest of his team.
Vala wears a pleasant smile that doesn't quite reach her eyes, and John knows he can trust her to stay sharp. Coolidge and Corcoran are looking around in wide-eyed wonder, and John hides a sigh. They're probably going to be worse than useless on this mission. John is going to have to have a serious talk with them about keeping a cool head and not gawking when they get back to Earth.
Damn Mitchell, anyway, he thinks.
They sit down around a long table under a pavilion in the middle of the village square, and within moments, platters of fresh, warm bread and fruit are set in front of them. John doesn't have to warn Vala to eat sparingly, but Corcoran and Coolidge dig in with serious appetites.
John thinks about warning them off, and then decides it's not worth it. John doesn't want their hosts to know he's on edge. If they're harmless, his paranoia could be viewed as an insult; if they're not harmless, it would be better if they underestimate John and his team.
At least Vala seems to be taking it all in with a sharp focus and a ready smile. She eats sparingly, and she meets John's gaze at frequent intervals as though checking in. When Corcoran goes back for seconds on a kind of sweet pastry, Vala offers John a smirk.
Dorala finishes the meal by offering tiny cups of sweet, strong tea, which John sips slowly. "It is good to have new trading partners," she says. "We are known for our precious metals."
"We're in the market for naquadah," John replies.
Dorala shakes her head. "I don't know what that is."
"I can give you the atomic properties of naquadah," Corcoran offers.
Dorala frowns. "Atomic properties?"
"Let's try it this way," Vala says, pulling a lump of naquadah out of a pouch at her waist. "This is what we seek."
Dorala smiles. "Ah, yes. We have very little use for that."
"We have a lot of uses for it," John replies. "We can trade medicines, agricultural supplies, maybe some other things you might be interested in."
Dorala inclines her head regally. "We can discuss this."
"Great!" Corcoran gushes. "We'd love to get as much as we can."
Dorala's expression suddenly ices over, and John closes his eyes and stifles a groan. "As much as you can?" she queries.
Corcoran seems to have no idea that he's committed a terrible breach of protocol. John doesn't know exactly what offense Corcoran has caused, but he can at least read the signs. "Yes, ma'am," he says. "We-" He yelps, and since Coolidge is the one sitting next to him, and she's glaring at Corcoran, John has to conclude that she has more sense than the physicist.
John clears his throat to direct Dorala's attention to him. "Forgive my friend for his enthusiasm," John says. "He's a scholar, and you know how they can get."
Dorala smiles slightly. "Ah, yes. Our scholar often forgets social niceties in favor of his search for information."
"Then you do understand," John replies. "He'll keep his mouth shut from here on out." John fixes Corcoran with a hard stare, and the man yelps again.
John thinks there might be hope for Coolidge after all.
"Major, maybe you should take Corcoran back to the gate. I'll bet General Hammond will appreciate an update."
He waits as Coolidge ushers Corcoran away from the table, glancing over at Vala, who grimaces expressively.
"I'm sorry about that," Vala says. "He's untried, and he does not think before he speaks."
"This is not a good trait," Dorala observes, a note of censure in her voice.
"I'm afraid we figured that out about the same time you did," John replies. "We're still looking for permanent members of our team. You understand, I'm sure."
Dorala seems to relax a bit at that. "I do see."
A careful application of charm on both John's part and Vala's has Dorala eating out of their hands in another couple of hours. John soon realizes that Corcoran's enthusiasm had been the insult; he had assumed that just because Dorala's people had no use for naquadah, Earth could take possession of all of it.
John and Vala assure Dorala that they will offer a fair bargain for whatever naquadah her people decide they can part with, and then get to the business of negotiating.
They strike a tentative bargain by the time the sun starts a slow descent and head back for the gate. Dorala's people escort them about half a klick outside the village, but leave them to walk the rest of the way themselves.
"That idiot!" Vala bursts out as soon as their escorts are out of hearing range. "The first rule of negotiating is never to appear overeager. I could kill him!"
John grins. "I couldn't agree more. Coolidge shows some promise, though."
Vala shrugs, only slightly mollified. "He'll probably have bruises, given how hard we were both kicking him."
"Is he worse than the guy that got Mitchell's leg broken?"
Vala considers the question. "They're probably equally stupid."
"How many more do you think we'll have to go through?" John asks.
Vala sighs, sounding very put upon. "Far too many."
The debriefing goes about as well as John expects. Corcoran insists he did nothing wrong, and John doesn't bother trying to explain how he'd offended Dorala by pushing too hard.
Landry seems willing to excuse Corcoran's enthusiasm, since all's well that ends well, and it's not like John doesn't understand. He's worked with Rodney for years now, after all, and Rodney has a tendency to get carried away on occasion. But Rodney is part of John's team, and John trusts him to get them out of other sorts of sticky situations.
Corcoran hasn't earned John's respect, and John can tell from Vala's irritated expression, and Coolidge's obvious embarrassment on Corcoran's behalf, that the physicist won't be around long enough to do so.
"You're off the team," John says after the meeting is over.
Corcoran flushes, and then goes white with anger. "That's not fair!"
"Did you not just hear me?" John demands. "Did you not hear what I told Landry about dealing with Dorala's people?"
Corcoran blinks. "Of course!"
"Okay," John says stubbornly. "Then what would you do differently next time?"
"Uh..." Corcoran seems to finally sense how close John is to losing his temper. "But we do want all the naquadah they can provide!"
Coolidge actually drops her head in her hands, Vala stalks out of the room, and John smirks his coldest smirk, the one he'd used to great effect on misbehaving Marines. "And that's why I can't trust you on my team. If you don't like it, you can take it up with Colonel Mitchell when he comes back."
Corcoran huffs out of the room, and John glances over at Coolidge. "He's a bit of an idiot," she offers apologetically. "He always has been."
"How long have you known him?" John asks.
She shrugs. "We worked together a little at Area 51. If he doesn't get a spot on a team here, he'll go back, and he keeps saying how much he hates the desert."
John studies her for a moment, watching as she flushes under his regard. "Is there someone else you'd recommend to take his spot?"
Coolidge brightens at that. "Actually, sir, I do have a recommendation. I think you're going to love her."
"Her?" John queries.
"You don't have a problem with that, do you, sir?" she asks. "If you want a man-"
"No, let's see how she does," John says. "What's her name?"
John doesn't mind being the only guy on the team, but he's not sure what Mitchell's response is going to be when he comes back. As far as John is concerned, though, he's doing Mitchell a favor. If Mitchell doesn't like John's choices, he can shuffle people around again.
And by that point, John will be back in Pegasus. Hopefully.
Coolidge's choice had been someone she'd gone to the Academy with, who had a degree in mechanical engineering and had flown choppers for a while.
John likes her already.
Major Angela Rodriguez has been stationed at the Mountain for a couple of weeks, and she hasn't been snapped up for a team yet. John isn't sure why that is, but he figures that Coolidge, while green, has some sense. John's willing to take a chance.
When he gets back to his office, John pulls up Rodriguez's file and soon figures out why she hasn't been chosen. It turns out the major has a couple of reprimands in her file for questioning orders, and John grins. If he likes her, and she doesn't work out for SG-1, John might take her back to Atlantis with him.
He's putting the finishing touches on his report when Vala appears in the doorway. "Here you are," she says. "I've been looking for you."
"What's up?" John asks with a smile.
"I'm bored," she announces. "I think you should take me out for a drink."
John remembers what Mitchell said about Landry not wanting Vala getting bored. He's still not quite sure what he's getting into by agreeing, but he doesn't have anything better to do. There's no Rodney to bug, or Ronon to spar with, or Teyla to drop in on here. Hell, John even misses Woolsey just a little bit-at least Woolsey had good alcohol and better cigars.
"I assume you have a place in mind," John says after a moment's pause.
Vala grins at him. "As a matter of fact, I do."
Somewhat incongruously, the place Vala directs John to is a honkytonk bar. John can't complain; there's Johnny Cash playing on the jukebox, and it smells of beer and grilled meat. "I'm told the burgers here are exceptional," she informs him. "But I'm partial to the wings."
John's starving, and Vala cheerfully admits that she could eat her way through the contents of the kitchen. They order wings and a blooming onion, as well as a pitcher of beer and a couple of burgers, and John finds himself relaxing, listening to the familiar twang of Cash and Jennings, Twitty and Cline.
"How did you find this place?" John asks, digging into the plate of wings. The sweet-spicy flavor makes his tongue sing, and John stifles a groan of pleasure.
Vala shrugs. "Cam found it. Daniel and Sam liked the food, but the music wasn't to their taste." She grins at him. "I like it."
A grin curves John's lips. "A woman after my own heart."
Vala sends him a smugly satisfied smile. "I thought you might enjoy it."
John is a little surprised to realize that he's going to miss this part of being back on Earth-the chance to go out with a pretty woman, to eat food he'd ordered, to drink beer that wasn't just whatever they happened to have on hand.
Vala turns out to be an amusing conversationalist. She spins stories of her prior cons and adventures that have the ring of truth, even though they're fantastic. John suspects she's embellishing, but he doesn't mind. It just makes things more interesting.
Somehow, between the two of them, they polish off the food they've ordered and a couple of pitchers, and by the time they walk out of the bar, John is loose and feeling happier than he's been in a while.
Vala tucks her arm through his as they walk to the fleet vehicle John has been using while he's in Colorado Springs. The warmth of her body easily penetrates John's jacket and thin t-shirt, and he smiles.
It's been a long time since he had a woman on his arm.
Vala leans her head against John's shoulder. "I think we're going to get along just fine," she confides.
John has to agree.
The next mission, this time with Rodriguez as the fourth member of the time, goes off mostly without a hitch. Rodriguez is properly deferential for about fifteen minutes, and then she makes a rather snide comment about the weather under her breath.
The destination for their most recent mission, P8X-114, is apparently some kind of deciduous rainforest. John is reminded of a trip he took to Cannon Beach as a college student. The waves hadn't been all that great, so John had wound up hiking instead, impressed by the verdant foliage and the misty air.
The weather on this planet is much the same-damp and cool-the kind of cold that seeps into a person's bones.
Rodriguez curses the weather in Spanish, and John has picked up enough over the years to have a pretty good idea of what she's saying.
"Is there a problem with the weather, Rodriguez?" John asks.
"No, sir," Rodriguez replies promptly. "But I was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, sir."
John smirks at Vala. "Too cold for you, then?"
"Sir, no, sir!"
Coolidge's cough sounds suspiciously like a laugh to John.
Rodriguez shoots Coolidge a dirty look over her shoulder. "I was flying choppers in Iraq before I got shot down," she adds. "I just haven't had much of a chance to get used to something other than the desert."
"Let me guess," John says slyly. "You hated the Academy."
"So fucking cold," Rodriguez mutters. Then, immediately, adds, "Sorry, sir."
John chuckles. "Just keep it PG for the natives, Major."
"Yes, sir," Rodriguez replies cheerfully.
This particular mission involves a checkup on some of the SGC's old allies that haven't made contact for a while. Truthfully, John is a little concerned that they haven't been met at the gate, and as they trek towards the nearest village, there's still no sign of life. John is forcibly reminded of planets he's visited that were culled by the Wraith, and he's not surprised when they emerge from the trees to find the village burnt to the ground.
There are a few charred chimneys left standing, but it's mostly rubble and ashes, and John holds up a hand to stop them. "Stay sharp, people. There might be survivors, or we might still have trouble."
John probably doesn't need to give that warning, since all three women are on alert, their P-90s raised, sweeping the area like pros. Without Corcoran there, Coolidge seems to be acting like a little less of a scientist, and a little more like a soldier.
Not that John has a problem with scientists, but as many times as he's been caught in a tough situation off-world, he'd prefer them to be adept with a gun, or at least be able to shoot with their eyes open.
As they poke through the ruins, they find a lot of burned bodies, limbs curled and skin blackened. John is grateful that this is the first time he's been to this planet, because it means he doesn't have to wonder whether he knows them.
John thinks about splitting up to look for survivors, but he doesn't have a good enough feel for Coolidge and Rodriguez to feel comfortable doing that. And he's going to feel like total shit if one of them gets hurt.
They spread out as they begin to search the woods surrounding the village, and John cautions them to stay within voice range.
John moves through the underbrush, wishing he could risk calling out, but that might alert any bad guys that might still be in the area. The ashes in the village had been cold, but that doesn't mean there isn't trouble around the corner.
He catches sight of movement, of tattered brown clothing and dark skin, and he risks calling out, "I'm Colonel Sheppard of the Tau'ri. We're not here to hurt anyone."
The other members of his team come to a standstill, and John figures they're probably wishing as desperately as he is that they'll find survivors.
After a moment, there's more rustling, and a teenage girl approaches John. "You're from the Tau'ri?" she asks, her dark eyes wide and scared.
"That's right," John replies, gentling his voice. "We're here to help. We hadn't heard from your people in a while. Are there others?"
"A few," she admits. "We're running out of food. I wouldn't have risked it, but..." She trails off as Vala, Rodriguez, and Coolidge approach. "You will help?"
"We'll do everything we can," John promises. "Are the people who did this still around?"
She shakes her head. "They left after they burned the village."
"Okay," John says, using the same tone he'd used on skittish foals back when he'd been around the horses on the Sheppard estate. "Let's see what we can do. My name is John, and this is Vala, Angela, and Chandra. What's your name?"
"Kipa," she replies, and leads them through the forest.
No one who escaped the destruction is over the age of sixteen. John keeps a tight rein on his emotions as he catalogues the faces of the orphans, the majority of them under the age of ten. Kipa is the oldest, and it's clear that she's reached the end of her endurance, because she doesn't object when John suggests they take everyone back through the gate. In fact, she seems relieved to hand over control to an adult
There are less than two-dozen kids in all. The older ones carry the babies. John settles a small girl on his back, her thin legs wrapped around his waist. Her name, she whispers, is Ora, and she coughs wetly into John's ear. Vala takes one of the toddlers, settling the boy on her hip for the long hike back to the gate, and Coolidge and Rodriguez take the hands of a couple of the little ones to lead them through the forest.
John feels a bit like the Pied Piper as he leads the procession, keeping his P-90 in one hand, and keeping his other hand under Ora's bottom to hold her steady.
He can hear Vala behind him, telling cheerful, amusing stories of her visits to other planets. Rodriguez and Coolidge chime in on occasion, and he's grateful when they make it back to the gate with no trouble. Coolidge dials the address for Earth's gate and sends through her IDC-and then they're in the gate room, and John is calling for a med team.
"What happened?" Landry demands as he comes down from the control room.
John shrugs. "I'm not sure, but we found the village burned, and the kids were on their own. Some of them need medical attention."
Landry looks over the bedraggled lot of them and his expression softens. "Of course. Welcome to Earth," he says to the kids. "We'll take good care of you."
According to Dr. Lam, most of the kids have nutritional deficiencies, and a few have serious infections of one sort or another. All of them have been cold and scared for the last couple of weeks, and they're all traumatized. From the little they can gather from the reports of the older children, brigands showed up in the village two weeks before. The adults in charge had just enough time to send most of the kids out the back doors and into the woods before the bad guys killed anyone who moved and set fire to the village.
John has always liked kids. They're honest and interesting and often funny, and they like to observe the world around them. Seeing these children in shock and hungry and hurting makes John's heart ache. But they warm under the tender ministrations of the infirmary staff, who tease and cajole smiles out of all of them, in spite of their trauma.
He makes sure to stop by every bedside-some beds contain two or three kids-to offer a quiet promise that they will be taken care of, and John pats each of them on the shoulder or on the head, offering a quiet word of encouragement.
When John finishes, he finds his team waiting for him at the entrance. All three are wearing expressions of pride. "You're good with children," Vala observes.
John shrugs. "I like them. It's not always the same thing."
All three women smirk at him, and John finds himself blushing under their combined regard. "Let's go get the debrief done."
Landry doesn't have much to tell them. The consensus at the SGC is that the Lucian Alliance is probably responsible for the destruction, and that ties in with what Kipa has said.
"What will happen to them?" Coolidge asks towards the end.
Landry smiles, although the expression doesn't quite reach his eyes. "We'll find them all good homes, Major."
No one moves after Landry leaves the conference room. Three pairs of eyes focus on John, clearly waiting for him to confirm the general's assurances. "They've done this sort of thing before," John finally offers. "The kids will be fine."
"For a certain value of fine," Rodriguez mutters.
John sighs heavily. "Yeah, well, we got them out of there. There aren't a lot of things worse than starvation, and whatever placement the SGC finds for them, they'll be well taken care of."
Coolidge sighs. "Well, that's good. I mean, they're not dying, right?"
"No, they're not," Vala says, her tone deliberately cheerful. "They're better off here. And we can always keep an eye on them."
"Good," Rodriguez says. "I'd hate to see them get shuffled into the system."
No one seems inclined to leave, and John clears his throat. "You guys want to go to a movie?"
Coolidge brightens at that. "Like a team outing?"
John glances at Vala, who appears torn between amusement and irritation. "Why not?" she asks.
"I could go for a movie," Rodriguez says hopefully. "And a pizza."
"And beer?" Coolidge chimes in hopefully.
John doesn't have a problem with that plan. "Sounds good. We'll meet topside in fifteen."
He changes into khakis, a white button-down, and a leather jacket. Vala turns up first in jeans, a t-shirt, and a leather jacket, and she hooks her arm through John's. "You know," Vala says in a low voice, "I thought it would be just the two of us tonight."
"I don't think any of us wants to be alone," John offers in apology.
Vala grimaces. "No, I would agree. It was good of you to invite the others. But John? I'd like to end the evening with just the two of us."
John feels the tips of his ears heat. "Uh..."
He's spared from having to offer any concrete answer when Rodriguez and Coolidge show up, Rodriguez in clothes that look like they came from the military surplus store, and Coolidge dressed very similarly to Vala.
Coolidge directs John to a pizza place she swears has the best pies in Colorado Springs, and they order a couple of large pizzas and a round of drinks.
The truth is, John likes women, and more than just to sleep with. Rodriguez is funny as hell, it turns out, and once she gets a couple of beers in her, she's pretty affectionate towards Coolidge. It doesn't take John long to figure out that the two of them have probably been together, on and off, since their Academy days.
Not that they're indiscreet. John likely wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't done the "flying under the radar" thing himself at one time or another. Granted, John likes women as much as he likes men, so he's avoided scrutiny, but he understands.
Holland had been an exception in John's history-John would have broken every rule for him. He had broken every rule, although it hadn't done any good in the long term. John looks out for the people under him, though, the same way certain superiors had looked after John and Holland when they'd been fucking on the sly.
In the end, John ends up walking to the theater from the pizza place with Vala's hand tucked through his arm. If he turns, John knows he'll see Rodriguez and Coolidge walking too close, their hands just brushing, so he doesn't turn around.
It's easier not to ask when John doesn't know, so he focuses on Vala's body heat where she leans into him, her arm linked with his, and he asks, "What kind of movie are you in the mood for?"
"Something with explosions," Coolidge calls from behind them.
"I agree," Vala says. "I'll never understand why your people have so many hang-ups about sex. Your romantic movies make me want to throw things."
"We can't have that," John agrees with a grin. "We'll find something with explosions."
Their best bet turns out to be Zombieland, which everyone seems to enjoy. John ends up sitting next to Vala, and while he isn't sure how it happens, Vala's hand winds up in John's halfway through the film. It's been too long since John's held hands like this. Vala ends up with her head on John's shoulder, her fingers interlaced with his, her dark hair tickling the skin above John's collar.
When they walk out of the theater, John doesn't think anything of slinging his arm around Vala's shoulders, pulling her in tight, and she doesn't seem to mind. In fact, she tucks a hand into John's back pocket, and the strength of John's response probably has as much to do how long it's been since he's been this close to someone-to being this close to having sex-as it does with how much he wants Vala.
They split up in the parking lot. John doesn't ask if Rodriguez is going home with Coolidge, and he doesn't want to know.
He's not surprised when Vala follows him to his room, although when they arrive at his door she says, "I think my bed is bigger."
"After you," John replies, waving her on.
Vala leads the way to her room, sailing inside and trusting John to follow. He closes the door behind him gently and hovers nearby, uncertain about what the next step is going to be.
John has never been very good at reading these situations, and he's even worse at knowing what comes next. Vala smirks at him. "I think we're both overdressed."
"If you're sure," John hedges. There are rules against this sort of thing for a reason, and John probably wouldn't consider sleeping with her if this had been a more permanent assignment. As it is, though, he's just a stand-in.
Of course, if this doesn't go well, the next month and a half could be really awkward.
Vala gives him a sharp look. "Do you have a problem with this plan?"
John clears his throat. "I guess not. I just thought-" Vala drops her jacket to the floor and skims her t-shirt up over her head, and then she slides her jeans down over her hips, leaving her naked. Her body isn't perfect-her breasts sag slightly, and John can see the stretch marks on her belly, but none of it matters.
To John, she's beautiful. Dusky nipples, a thatch of dark hair at the joining of her thighs, long, lean limbs-John can't keep his hands off of her.
His callused thumbs brush over Vala's nipples, but she's not easily distracted. "I'm not going to be the only one who's naked," she insists.
Vala slides John's jacket off his shoulders and it drops to the floor. His shirt follows, and then his boots and pants, and Vala pushes John onto the bed.
It's a little awkward at first-John has no problem with Vala driving, but he's used to taking the lead, and for a moment, they're both wrestling for control. And then Vala starts to laugh, and John chuckles, and everything falls into place.
She rides him with a sort of reckless abandon that John finds incredibly erotic, and he moves with her, his hands on her hips.
It's good to feel connected to someone like this again; it's been too long.
Vala comes with a cry, and John flips them over, thrusting quickly until he comes with a low groan. He collapses next to her, and when he tries to pull away, she clings to him. "Stay," she urges, and there's a hint of vulnerability in her eyes and the set of her mouth that he hasn't seen before.
John brushes her hair back from her face. "Sure, I'll stay."
John spends some time in the infirmary over the next couple of days since they don't have any scheduled missions. The staff doesn't seem to mind when John drops by, since he keeps the kids entertained with stories and simple games.
At one point, John looks up to see Vala standing in the doorway, looking at him with a strange expression on her face. He offers a smile and jerks his chin in invitation, but she stays where she's at, and when he looks up again, she's gone.
But when he goes back to his quarters later, he finds Vala waiting for him outside the door.
"Do you like kids?" Vala asks.
John shrugs. "Love 'em."
"But you don't have any of your own."
"Who has the time?" John asks, although it's not entirely a rhetorical question. The truth is that since his divorce from Nancy, he hasn't had the urge to settle down with anybody.
And now he has Atlantis, which fulfills most of those longings.
Vala doesn't respond immediately. She just follows him inside his room. "Is this okay?" she asks, putting her hands on his chest.
"Yeah," John says, his voice rough with need. "We've got a mission early tomorrow."
"Then I won't wear you out too much."
John is the one who urges her to stay that night. The bed is too narrow, but Vala drapes herself across his body, and he finds he likes her weight, the warmth of her, the way her fingers trace circles on his skin. He sets the alarm early enough to allow her to get back to her quarters and get cleaned up before they have to meet for the briefing.
John sleeps better than he expects, and he wakes up reluctantly with the alarm.
"I have to go," Vala murmurs apologetically. "See you soon?"
"You know it."
If John had been concerned that this new dynamic to his relationship with Vala would have repercussions, they're laid to rest during the briefing. Vala is her usual self, treating him no differently. Coolidge and Rodriguez ask sharp, intelligent questions, and John thinks he might have actually found the right replacements.
Once they're through the gate, Vala walks next to John, bumping his shoulder with her own, while Rodriguez and Coolidge exchange knowing looks.
John tells himself that it doesn't matter. The rules against fraternizing don't apply to them, because John's here only a stand-in. At most, this thing between them could be considered a fling.
The mission turns out to be a cakewalk. The planet is uninhabited-at least the area around the gate is-and they wander around, taking photos and video of the ruins near the gate. Coolidge is in raptures over some of the carvings, but they don't interest John. Vala and Rodriguez appear to be similarly bored, so John pulls a pack of cards out of his pack.
John learned that lesson about a hundred missions ago. Sometimes, a pack of cards is the only thing standing between a team and death by boredom.
Rodriguez turns out to be a card shark, and she collects points like they're going out of style as they play rummy.
"If we have an overnight mission, I'm not cooking," she cackles after her third winning hand.
"That's all right," John agrees. "We'll make Coolidge to it."
Coolidge laughs; John didn't know she'd been paying attention. "I hate to admit it, sir, but we'd all starve. I burn water."
John glances at Vala, who shrugs. "I can cook, as long as I don't have to set up tents."
"I think that can be arranged," John replies, wondering if he should really be making plans like this with a temporary team.
"As long as that agreement holds when Colonel Mitchell comes back," Rodriguez says cheerfully. "I can cook, but I hate it."
"Maybe you should make Mitchell do it," John replies with a grin.
Rodriguez chuckles. "It's hard to believe he'll be as cool as you are, sir."
John feels a surge of pleasure. "Cool only gets you so far, Rodriguez. Just as long you listen to orders."
"Always, sir," Rodriguez says cheerfully.
John doesn't believe her. "We'll see about that."
"I think I'm done here, Colonel," Coolidge announces. "Thanks for your indulgence."
John shrugs. "I've spent worse afternoons, Major."
The walk back to the gate is made under sunny skies, the cool breeze making it just about perfect.
Vala stays close to John, her hand occasionally brushing his, and John allows himself to enjoy a mission gone well, with a gorgeous woman at his side, and the hope of sex again tonight.
John has learned to enjoy the little things, especially when he knows they're not permanent.
( Unexpected - Part 2 of 2 )