John had done this before, of course--winding down the expedition, reallocating forces and resources, tying up all the loose ends. Sending people off to the rest of their lives. It should have been easy.
But it seemed to involve a lot more meetings and paperwork than last time. He hadn't realized just how much Elizabeth had shielded him from before. Woolsey, on the other hand, didn't have any compunctions about dumping things on him.
"You may have heard that they're naming the new first contact school at SGC after Dr. Weir," Colonel Caldwell had told John impassively over a stack of personnel files.
"Yeah. Teyla told me."
That was technically almost accurate. They'd been cced on the same invitation to the reception, anyway.
"Teyla. That reminds me. You think she'll take the job there? Because, if not, I'd like to talk to her about joining my staff."
He shrugged. "Couldn't tell you."
That was one hundred percent truth.
Caldwell's look was almost sympathetic, and John felt a vague resentment bloom in his chest. Thankfully, he only nodded and picked up a file. "So, about the Marines who want redeployment to the Daedalus..."
He wasn't sure how the decision about Atlantis had been made. It was an IOA call, Woolsey had said in yet another meeting in yet another conference room, stale donuts and sad browned chunks of fruit wasting away in sticky puddles of juice on a tray nearby. They needed the chair on Earth more than they needed a base in another galaxy, a base that had always threatened to bring back more trouble than useful technology, anyway.
"And I wasn't invited to any of the committee meetings?" he growled, even though he'd suspected it was going on the whole time.
"Don't worry, Colonel, it was debated fully. There was dissent." He adjusted his eyeglasses. "Vigorous dissent."
"Not by you," John said, disgusted.
Woolsey blinked rapidly a few times, then frowned. "To be honest, I'm surprised you're surprised. I would have thought you would be...well-informed."
John sat still for a minute, then got up. "I'm done."
"I wasn't implying anything improper," Woolsey said quickly. "She's been working with you for--"
"Yeah," John said, but he kept walking.
The gym on Atlantis was empty. It was always empty these days. Rodney was busy shuttling technology to Area 51, and Ronon was spending most of his free time with Amelia Banks. Though technically his team was all still assigned to Atlantis, at least for now, he hardly ever knew where anybody was anymore. His Pegasus instincts yammered at him non-stop about that, telling him that that meant something was wrong, they were in trouble, he needed to go, go, go...
But obviously his help wasn't required these days.
He'd insisted on staying in the city. That was where the work was getting done. But the decisions were being made in Colorado Springs, most of them, so he found himself gating back and forth, sometimes two, three times a day, until he lost track of where he was.
One evening, he looked up to realize that he was riding a Colorado Springs elevator with General Landry. They stood in silence for a few floors, then Landry said, looking at the lighted numbers, "At this stage in your career, Colonel, there's no shame in retirement."
"Not in retirement, maybe," John said, too tired to wonder if it was going too far.
Landry pursed his lips and said thoughtfully, "Do you really think there's much more you can do here, Colonel?"
Probably not, actually. The problem was what he'd already done.
"John." He looked up from the swimming space between drinks to find Teyla standing behind him in the grimy shadows of the Hob Nob Lounge. He blinked, hoping she was just another unpleasant vision in what was turning into a lifetime of unpleasant visions, but she remained solid. "It is past curfew."
He could hear the suppressed distaste in her voice, like he'd never seen her full of Tallanian wine and dancing barefoot and bare-armed beneath their festival moon. "Well, well. Look who deigned to come into the city," he muttered. "What is this, the third time in four months?"
"I thought it would be easiest if I came for you."
"Oh yeah?" He took a noisy swallow of beer. "You thought wrong."
She shifted to avoid some guy stumbling past her, and he'd never thought of her as prissy before, but seeing her in full-dress business casual, a sweater and chinos, in one of the roughest dive bars in the Tenderloin--she was looking at him with the ever-so-slightly-raised eyebrows that on forty worlds had meant I'm too much of a diplomat to say what an idiot you are, and she seemed to have forgotten that he'd cracked that code. "Regardless, we should go."
"What, you think they're gonna court-martial a lieutenant colonel over curfew? I'm staying right--"
"Last call," the bartender said behind him, selling him out.
Fantastic. "A shot," he said, keeping his eyes on Teyla. "Make it a double. I guess the lady's not drinking, so I'll have hers."
"No," she said suddenly. "I will have the same."
The glasses clattered on the bar. "Cheers," John said, and gulped his down. Teyla eyed him deliberately, then took hers just as fast. She made a face at the taste, and he snorted. "What, not a fan of Earth liquor?"
She shot him a warning glance. Oh, right. Fine. He slapped some cash on the bar and stood abruptly. The floor skidded out from underneath his heels, and he had to grab the bar to stop himself from going down.
"Can you walk?"
Could he walk. He reached to push away her helping hand, only to realize that she was standing a couple of feet away and not offering one at all. "Sure. I'm fine."
Somehow he'd thought closing down a bar here would be more fun.
Outside, the air was heavy and sour. John paused, trying to get his bearings--the Tenderloin seemed to have rearranged itself over the course of the evening just to give him a hard time--but Teyla immediately started down a street he didn't remember as being quite so steep. John fully intended to pass her and take proper charge of the expedition back to base, but nearly pitched forward on his first step. He muttered a curse and began feeling his way down carefully foot by foot. Teyla, of course, realized after about ten yards that he wasn't keeping up with her and, without looking back, stopped to wait, arms folded.
The sight of her stiff little back was much too familiar. It seemed like it was all he'd seen of her for the past year and a half, as she'd turned away to look for her people, then to take care of her family. Things he'd wanted to help with, even if he couldn't, and there was a time when she would have known that. To be getting her back right now was too provoking. He snapped, "What are you waiting for? Tell me how disappointed you are."
She turned her head and raised her chin, just enough to give him her profile, high cheekbones in the streetlight. It was like she was trying to look like a princess in exile on a particularly crappy planet. "I am not disappointed, John," she said evenly.
"Sure you are," he said, stumbling along down behind her. "I got to save my planet. I should just be happy to be back home. I haven't got any problems to be drinking away. Unlike some people you could mention. Right?"
Her mouth drew into a thin line. "I do not think you have less right to be unhappy than...others."
Christ, she sounded so reasonable, like she was talking to a toddler. The way she'd sounded the whole damn time she'd been on Earth, talking to Woolsey, talking to Carter, talking to the IOA, about how she was fine being there, but maybe they might consider sending Atlantis back where they took it from. Since when did he deserve that tone?
Well, if she wanted it to be like that--He pulled up level with her and sneered, "Well, isn't that enlightened of you. Some people, they might mind if they got shanghaied by their supposed friends to another galaxy, away from their family and their people, but not you. You're okay with that. You're practically ready to ascend. Good thing Torren probably isn't waiting for his mom to come back--"
Teyla's punch sent him sidewise into an unanticipated alley, and the blow went through his system better than any shot could. She followed him in, breathing hard, eyes challenging, as he straightened up. "I am sorry that my presence has made your return home uncomfortable for you," she said. "I will return to Pegasus as soon as your people decide to give back what they have stolen."
Not fair! His charge was clumsy but the thud of connection was deeply satisfying, even if the punch ended up hitting her cheekbone instead of her jaw. She swung back, way too hard and wild, but he was drunk enough that he couldn't quite get out of the way. He tried to tackle her, only he couldn't take enough steps in a straight line to get any momentum. She knocked him away with some kind of crazy, half-executed kick and he went reeling along the alley face-first into a chain-link fence. The fence gave a little under his weight and found himself staring straight down into the drop-off to the Bay, hanging dizzily over the lights below. A gust of cool wind blew into his face.
Atlantis was down there, somewhere--invisible, but he didn't need to see it to feel it. Untouched.
He tried to straighten up, and a bolt of pain shot up his thigh.
"That hurt!" he yelped.
For a minute, nothing. Then, behind him, Teyla made a noise like shaky laughter, verging on the hysterical. He had to shut his eyes against the sting of relief. And pain. Mostly pain, he told himself. His whole leg throbbed, and that was with the nine or ten boilermakers in him.
"I think you broke my knee," he continued.
"You have never guarded it properly," Teyla said, her voice breaking mid-sentence. "Never."
"Have too," he muttered.
"At least your injuries will not be visible to the casual observer. I will surely have a black eye tomorrow."
He pressed his face against the metal and let the salt tang of the ocean wash over him. After a while, he let out a long, shuddering sigh. "I guess we're not the type to hug it out."
"No," she said. "We are not."
We. The word, in her voice, warmed him absurdly inside. "Look," he blurted, "what I said earlier...I'm sorry."
He heard his own words on tape delay and winced. Well, that was out now. He turned around gingerly. Teyla was half-bent over, sweater torn, inspecting her reflection in a grimy puddle. She raised her eyes to his, and he braced himself. For a lecture, a ritual Athosian curse, another punch--any of the things he deserved.
When she said gently, "Can you walk?", he had to suppress a stab of ridiculous gratitude.
"I was walking before, wasn't I?"
"Not very well," she said, and came to him. His dignity objected to leaning on her, but his knee told his dignity to shove it. He let her duck under his arm. After all, it wasn't like they hadn't done this a dozen times already, before the baby...
He swayed into her a little, eyes closing involuntarily. He caught a whiff of the grassy-smelling Athosian infusion she used on her hair before he straightened. When they started forward, they nearly lurched into the wall.
"We need a cab," she said.
It took them a little while to get one in that neighborhood at that time of night, especially looking like a couple of Fight Club escapees, but eventually a cabbie took pity on them. Teyla slung him in awkwardly and then settled in next to him. The cab took off, jolting them, and he didn't fight being pitched against her. Just like a hundred puddlejumper rides back to the city. The city blurred past them, neon signs and soft glows from upstairs windows, a million strangers, and he wondered how many of them were far from home. He slipped his arm around Teyla.
"I'm so sorry," he said again, so softly he was almost breathing it.
She turned her face into his shirt. He could feel her shaky breaths. "As am I."
He knew she wouldn't want to cry. He cleared his throat. "Now that you've crippled me, how are we going to smuggle ourselves back onto Atlantis?"
She peeped up at him, blinking, and then smiled faintly. "We will think of something," she said. "We have done it before."