It is 1630 Zulu when he hears his flight called, the lovely, lilting Irish accent as it summons passengers for Aer Lingus flight 109, which is also American Airlines flight 7983, departing for New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport from Gate 42C. Please be prepared to produce identification and boarding passes, the voice goes on, but he stops listening after that. A slow saunter in the direction that has the gate numbers increasing; he has neither first-class nor business class tickets nor small children nor is he needing assistance and he's a firm opponent of hurry-up-and-wait when it's not an order.

There are no calculations involved to know that 1630 Zulu came out to 2000 local back in Kabul. The Joint Coalition Task Force doesn't operate on 'haji time' and so neither does he. (Which is just as well because that extra half-hour difference throws everyone off.) But it felt odd to actually be in the same time zone as his watch is set for, not part of some artificial construct imposed from above.

He already knows that a seven hour flight, plus another layover, plus another flight down to Washington means that he'll be stumbling out of the airport around 0700 Zulu (0100 local), stupid with exhaustion and hunger. Five flights to get from Point A to Point B is just the sort of thing that the schedule monkeys do to Marines and Army and other irritants they don't like on principle and not to their own kind.

He'd said as much when the Airman had handed him the printout of the itinerary. She'd looked at him apologetically and not without interest and if he'd been in any other situation, he'd have tried flirting his way to a better schedule with fewer connections. Or at least one that didn't begin with him showing up in the middle of the night for the no-guaranteed-seat flight from Bagram to Kuwait City.

BAF to Kuwait to Germany to Ireland to New York to Washington to face a hearing that would, if he is luckier than he has ever been, not result in a court martial and a dishonorable discharge or whatever else they do to officers they wanted to make disappear.

Of course, the reason he is on this hemispheric trek in the first place is that he has run out of luck, so the itinerary shouldn't have been that much of a surprise.

He'd spent the last two weeks trying to figure out exactly when fortune had deserted him. Was it the shamal that had come out of nowhere the day before the mission and blown powder-fine sand and dried animal shit everywhere and into everything? It had been his call when the ground-pounders had asked if the birds could take off in the sandstorm. The question had come from an Army colonel who had looked at him as if he were waiting for the Air Force to prove its softness and beg off, waiting for an excuse to call in the Army's helicopters to do a real soldier's job. John had gone up on his own, unwilling to let his smarting pride kill anyone other than himself, just to check. It had been bad, but not so bad. They didn't need the fucking Nightstalkers to get a couple of platoons in to set up a perimeter.

Maybe it was the intel, which had probably come from some guy's grandfather's second cousin's son-in-law who had seen a couple of insurgents with what he thought was a goat laden with RPG launchers... and had probably really been a couple of Kurds shlepping firewood. Army Intelligence being both a paradox and an oxymoron all at once, it probably wasn't even that good. Which is why they had missed the dozen Syrians armed with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles. At least until they'd started firing.

Or was it the stupidest, dumbest bit of non-luck of all: after he'd disobeyed the order to return to base, he'd touched ground to find that there was nobody alive left to save. If he'd come back with even one man, even if the guy had died en route, they'd have let him go with only a stern look and a grumble about how a casevac shouldn't cause more casualties. But there had been no one alive, no one even in enough pieces left to bring back without a Hefty bag, and he'd gotten his chopper shot up in the process. It had been minor damage, already repaired, but a punctured door was the least of his worries.

In the end, however, it wasn't really about luck. Somewhere between Kabul and Kuwait, he'd admitted the truth to himself. Even if he couldn't quite get himself to say the words aloud.

He is standing at parade rest as Colonel Eaves circles around him slowly. It is both ambush and not. Eaves had seen him in the DFAC and told him to show up at 1400, no special urgency and no angry tone in his voice. They meet more days than not to discuss squadron details and upcoming missions and there was nothing in Eaves' face that said 'show up so that I can tear you a new one'.

"I told you that there was nobody left to rescue," Colonel Eaves growls. "I told you three fucking times, but you had to go and look for yourself. Because you don't trust anyone but yourself. You don't trust me and everyone in this squadron knows it. If I have to take that attitude from the NCOs, it is because they are NCOs and are bred to think that their officers are dumbasses who need their boot laces tied for them. But I will not take that shit from one of my officers. Not from the officer who is supposed to be my fucking XO. Did you sleep through ACSC? I know you went, but you certainly didn't learn a thing there. You are supposed to be at my back, not driving a fucking shiv through it.

"I am sick of you undermining my fucking authority, Sheppard. You want to disagree with me, you do so in private. Not in front of the men whose lives are my responsibility. My responsibility. When you demand the fucking spotlight so that you can show off the power of your independent thinking, all you do is make them wonder if they've put their lives in the right hands. You make them doubt me and my ability to keep them safe from harm. And so the next time we're in a shitstorm and I issue orders, someone's gonna hesitate because maybe Eaves ain't so smart and someone's gonna get killed because of a little seed of doubt that you planted.

"The worst part of this is that I know it's not personal with you. I could be anyone and you'd have done the same thing... Which is why I'm not going to take the easy way out and make you someone else's problem. You've made a mess of this squadron, but it stops today. You disobeyed a direct order -- three direct orders -- and you did it in front of a lot of witnesses with stars on their collars. You've been officially reported and I'm not going to block it.

"I'm sorry, boy. I really am. You're the best pilot in this wing, but there's more to being in the Air Force than being able to fly. You've been here too long to not know that."

He's been up, more or less, for 48 hours straight. Not counting the long nap in Germany that was more restive than restful. He is too tired to do more than smile wanly at the airline employee who looks over his paperwork and his BDUs and quietly upgrades him to an empty first-class seat because "it's the right thing to do, sir." His ruck is tucked in between fancy luggage and he's asleep before the pre-flight safety lecture begins and has to be shaken gently awake by the woman sitting next to him because they've landed and his bag is bound to be the first one accessible in the overhead compartment. He vaguely wishes he'd stayed awake so he'd know what first class is like.

Customs at JFK is part zoo and part farce and entirely a sea of humanity all babbling in forty different languages and carrying half of the goods produced in their native countries. He nearly trips a half-dozen times as he is pushed, nudged, bumped into, and pressed toward the narrowing funnel that leads to inspection.

He's still rolling the stiffness out of his neck when he is summoned by an immense black woman in a TSA uniform two sizes too small. He shows his paperwork, but she's unimpressed, demanding a passport he doesn't have and getting belligerent when he tells her that he didn't need one when he arrived in the country he's returning from.

"Ain't no country that don't need a passport to enter legally."

"We were invading at the time. They had more pressing concerns than our documentation." It comes out before he can stop it and he knows as soon as it does that he should have just apologized and let them yell at him until someone realized that he was active duty military and let him go. But instead he's got a hot pink X scrawled across his papers and he's being patted down and then escorted off by two skinny men in TSA uniforms. They are unarmed and he could evade both of them without breaking a sweat. But he has another plane to catch and earning fugitive status before a hearing that could lead to a court martial is not the way to preserve his professional honor.

The room he is led to is off to the side and has a counter and then a waiting room. The waiting room is half-full of people, all looking at him with the glazed expressions of those who have been waiting for hours. He is pushed toward a door and then down a short hallway toward a small room and it takes all of his willpower to not shake off the hand on his arm. He is left in a small windowless room with a table and a chair and yet another dull-looking TSA employee wearing plastic gloves.

He makes the decision that his compliance ends at a cavity search.

"Put your bag on the table, sir?"

He does and it is emptied out carelessly, shaken until nothing else falls from the opening. The contents aren't much and they are rifled through dispassionately and the part of him that really has been enthusiastic about being in the Air Force for the past fifteen years twitches at the mess.

"You aren't allowed to carry this on an airplane, sir," TSA Lady #2 intones, holding up his Swiss Army knife.

The knife, a full-size, deluxe-at-the-time model has been with him for more than a decade. He got it as a present from his then-girlfriend before his first overseas deployment. The relationship hadn't lasted, but the knife had. It has newer memories attached to it, mostly pleasant and some really not, and he doesn't want to give the knife up. Even if he really had known better than to bring it along.

The door opens behind him and he turns. An older man comes in, rolling his eyes at the scene before him.

"Aikeisha, leave the gentleman's things alone," he sighs, waving at the table. "Let him pack them back up. There's someone waiting in Room Six."

"But he's got a knife, Mister Vargas," Aikeisha protests.

"He's a soldier," Vargas replies. "They often do. Go."

Aikeisha is sullen as she puts the knife down on the table and leaves, closing the door a little too firmly behind her.

"I'm sorry about this." Vargas looks up at him with frank dismay. John nods in reply, recognizing the helplessness in the supervisor's eyes. "We have a lot of new people right now and we need to review some of the procedures for... returning soldiers."

It is a meaningful pause and John knows why. Soldiers returning from a deployment via civilian transport are coming for a reason that isn't R&R. Red Cross messages, usually, and most of those are the worst sort of news. He doesn't have the strength right now to tell Vargas that he doesn't have a family emergency, that he is instead returning to get punished for being a bad officer.

So instead, John looks at his watch, then picks up the papers left on the table. He had forty minutes to get to the next flight, wherever it is. "Do you know where Gate E5 is?"

"I'll get someone to show you." Vargas pulls a small yellow envelope out of his breast pocket. He writes something on it, signs it, and hands it to him. "Put the knife in that and seal it."

Five minutes later, TSA Lady #3 is guiding him through the back passages of JFK's international terminal to the shuttle that will take him to the domestic terminal. Twenty minutes later, he is apologetically smiling at the airline employee who turns his itinerary into a final boarding pass. Two hours after that, he is stumbling toward a taxi outside the airport in Washington DC, where he will be officially reprimanded the following day. There will be no court martial, but not from lack of interest in pursuing one. He can resign now or wait until he is involuntarily separated from the Air Force because they will never be promoting him again. A month later, he is back on an airplane on the first leg of a flight that will take him to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Because a lot could happen in the time it takes to fail two promotion board reviews and this way, he can keep his fate in his hands for a little bit longer. Which is how he likes it.