SUMMARY: My own take on the somewhat common 'What was John's childhood like?' story.

NOTE: I had so much fun writing my last fic that I decided to do another outsider's perspective piece. But this one switches POV every other chapter and focuses on a much younger John. Be forewarned: this whole story takes place in the past, so it might not be to everyone's taste. (I needed to get this one out of my system before making my first attempt at an adventure fic!) If you hate it, feel free to let me know.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own the characters/ story plots of Stargate Atlantis. This is just for fun.

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"If you've lost all your hope, if you've lost all your faith
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe"

'Down There by the Train'- Johnny Cash

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Introduction: OC's POV

I remember the first time I saw John poking around the fence outside the airfield. He was scruffy, wild, and had his right arm tucked into a sling. The young boy squatted boldly at the edge of the treeline, concentrating on the runway with unbridled fascination.

John was small for his age. He was probably about average height, but definitely underweight, and he looked even smaller with shoulders bowed and hunched against the wind. If I'd guessed I would have thought he was about ten.

My first reaction was how strange it seemed seeing a kid out alone by the runway without parents or friends nearby. The other guys didn't seem to notice, but when hours passed and he was still there I edged closer to the chain link fence.

Seeing me approach, John crossed his arms defensively. He warily peered out through the slats from behind a mop of unruly, long dark hair. As he brushed it back, my breath hitched at his suspicious gaze. There was more experience behind those eyes than any kid should rightfully have.

Even later, when I found out that he was actually closer to twelve than ten, I still flashed back to that instant and John's piercing hazel scrutiny. But the moment of honesty was quickly hidden behind a mask of indifference and punk attitude. I knew right then that I had to find out his story.

He kept coming around the airstrip, but he never made a sound and didn't bother anyone. At first I just watched. I didn't want to scare him off, and had already grown accustomed to his little shadow slinking around the base walls. The kid was in his own world when watching the takeoffs and landings, and I didn't want to take that away.

Little by little I worked up to talking to him. I'd found out from one of the guards that John lived nearby in the county group home. So there I was, a decorated Colonel in the U.S. Airforce, nervous about approaching a prickly twelve-year-old orphan.

John tried his hardest to look tough; which wasn't easy for a gawky preteen that still hadn't grown into his hands or feet. He had this habit of angling his chin with a cocky smile, tucking his overgrown hair behind his ear, and slouching with his hands shoved into pockets. But his fabricated, casual image was a bit too perfect. Beneath his cool 'rebel without a cause' attitude, there was obviously a lot more going on. It took me longer than I ever would have expected to get to know the real John, but I've never regretted the effort.

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Taking Off: John's POV

I can clearly remember the first time I visited the Air Force base. I'd just been transferred back to state care after the last nightmare of a foster placement they'd forced me into. I could only hope it was the last one they tried. All it took to get me out that time was a broken arm. It certainly wasn't the worst I'd gotten from that SOB; but the social workers only stepped in when they couldn't ignore what was in their faces any longer.

I'd given up on the system a long time ago. To be fair, I actually didn't mind the latest group home. It might have been institutional, but at least they mostly left me alone. I liked being on my own- no one to answer to, no one to disappoint or make angry. I had once seen this poster of a place covered in snow and ice. Whenever things got to be too much, I used to picture it in my mind… a far away place where I could truly escape. But reality wasn't anywhere near as exotic.

Back then, I didn't have a past, and my present wasn't looking so hot either. Even now, I don't remember anything about my birth parents. No one in charge seemed to know any more than I did. Apparently, I'd been found abandoned as a baby, and was labeled a 'John Doe' for the first few days. They decided to keep the first name. But while I guess I should have been grateful they'd done something about 'Doe', it would have been nice if the government workers had gotten a bit more creative than 'Smith'. There's irony for you- while that ridiculously bland name got me lost in the system or mixed up with other kids too many times… it also kept me from standing out.

After arriving at the latest in a chain of group homes, I was definitely trying to blend in. The first few days they always watched you like a hawk. But the first chance I got, I grabbed my skateboard and took off to explore. That's how I ended up at the Air Force base. Standing outside the chainlink fence that ran around the runways.

I've always had a thing for flying. It probably started with the toy helicopter a nice old lady had once given me. I loved watching old war movies, and on the good nights I'd dream of flying and the freedom of the sky.

I probably looked pathetic crouched outside the fence, watching the organized chaos on the busy airfield. When I first showed up, I'd gotten a few typical looks… But when I didn't back away, they mostly ignored me. I couldn't get over my luck. From that spot by the tarmac, I could see all the planes and helicopters that I wanted. It would have been perfect, if I hadn't noticed a senior officer approaching from my right. The graying man had a slight limp and definite air of authority- something that hadn't been my strong suit in the past. At that moment, I just wanted him to leave me alone; but found out fast that was definitely not this guy's MO.

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Abandonment Issues: OC's POV

Before I even spoke to John for the first time, I got the clear impression that trust was going to be an issue. This was a kid that had too many promises made to him broken. Betrayal and abandonment haunted his wary eyes

Not only was he deserted at birth, but he'd been subsequently passed off from one foster placement to the next, until he became a casualty of the system. It made me angry that this kid had been left behind and forgotten like a puppy when a family moves away.

As the weeks went by, we began to talk- not that John really opened up. Out of curiosity, I started bringing him off base to grab cheeseburgers or milkshakes at the diner nearby. Some of the guys really took to him, and joined us for lunch or trips to the movies. (I still remember the look of awe that lit up his face when we watched the aerial battles of 'The Empire Strikes Back' on the big screen.)

I quickly learned that John took things day by day. Any time I tried to make plans, a furtive hint of doubt would crease his brow. He'd try to play it cool, and brush off the offer, suggesting instead that we just meet up by the airstrip and go from there. Despite his nonchalant act, it didn't take long to recognize the rules to his game: as long as he kept everything casual, he couldn't be left alone and waiting.

Sure, I understood the motivation behind not planning too far ahead. As a soldier who'd lost too many friends, I'd felt the same way myself on enough bad days. Life doesn't always work out the way you hoped or expected. But it still hurt to see that kind of disillusionment and loneliness in a kid that should be running wild with his friends.

I didn't know too much about John's life when he wasn't hanging around the base. He never brought anyone by during his visits, and only occasionally mentioned names. But his real feelings were slowly revealed in the few stories he shared about his friends. A lifetime of rejection had made John fiercely loyal to the handful of people that had given him a chance. Sensing the depth of this carefully placed trust, I hoped that he might someday count me among that small group.

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Protecting Them: John's POV

My mouth has always gotten me into trouble, but being cocky with a flair for saying stupid things does have its uses. Looking back, I might not cherish all my memories, but I also don't have many regrets.

Over the years, I'd been placed with a series of 'winner' foster dads- mostly drunk, mean, unemployed losers. The sort of guys who make themselves feel better by beating up on anyone that gets in their way. The bullying type that feels tough because they can belt or burn someone smaller than them.

I had this bad habit of getting stuck with the families who'd take in a whole set of orphans in exchange for a larger paycheck. That meant I was often placed with kids who didn't know the ropes the way I did. So, when angry met whisky, I kind of saw it as my responsibility to protect the smaller kids if I could. I was bigger and could take the hits.

It's not like it was tough to draw attention to myself or make the 'drunk of the moment' angry. I had a couple of staple techniques. Name-calling was usually effective. Threats worked if you got desperate. Hey, sometimes, you could even piss them off enough just by staring them down.

By that time, I'd already realized that I was going nowhere fast. But some of those kids were still young enough to beat the system. They were smart, funny, innocent, and didn't deserve to be crushed by some sad excuse for humanity. So, if I could protect them by taking the brunt of the old man's rage, I'd do it without a second thought. My only regret each time I got inevitably pulled out of a foster placement- was worrying about what would happen to the kids that I was leaving behind.

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Always the Comedian: OC's POV

John was a puzzle of contradictions. Whenever we were alone, he did everything possible to take the attention off himself. But get him around a group, and he seemed determined to become its center.

The younger guys on the base loved John- a few of the pilots had adopted him as their mascot. Once he let the tough guy act slip a bit, the kid was a riot. He could deliver biting wit with dry ease and a charming smile. And what a smile… I was willing to bet that in a few years there'd be a chain of heartbroken girls pining over the sarcastic youth.

He seemed intent on never being taken seriously, always quick with a joking-insult or prank. I could only imagine his teachers' impressions. The other senior officers on base certainly weren't too keen on John. But their reactions never seemed to bother him; he was used to being looked down upon, and had his own reasons for what they saw as impertinence.

The first time I saw John's turnaround act, I mistakenly thought he was trying to impress the other guys. But as I got to know him better, I realized that he used humor to distract. The days he arrived shaken or upset were often the same days that he smiled the most.

I sadly understood that this was a kid who'd learned early how to pretend, and not in the fanciful way that every child should. Instead, he'd learned how to tuck his feeling away and put on a show for the people around him. If he could get somebody to laugh, then he could share in the moment of happiness or acceptance. So, knowing it was what he wanted, I played along, smiling and laughing even when it was the last thing on my mind.

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Pretend your Dumb: John's POV

School had always come easy to me. I'd never had to make an effort the way the others in class around me did. So, I'd just finish my work quietly, then slouch back in my chair or draw in a notebook. Seeing my lack of attention, teachers quickly wrote me off as stupid and lazy, which was fine by me.

Before, when I'd been even younger, I used to really love school, especially math class. But the only thing that good grades had ever gotten me, was another round of punishment for being a smart alek, or thinking I was better than everyone else. I was smart enough to learn my lesson- and perfected my slacker routine down to an art- doing just enough work to get by. I finished all my assignments, but threw in enough mistakes to escape anyone's notice.

Once I started hanging around the base, I was careful to hide it from the guys there too. A few of my foster dads had been washed-out vets, and had told me exactly what the military thought of brainy, weak pipsqueaks. Even though I really didn't think that the Colonel and the guys would respond the same way; I wasn't ready to risk their reactions if they found out the truth. Despite being sure that I'd never be good enough to be a real soldier, I still didn't want to lose the wavering hope just hanging out around the pilots had given me. I especially didn't want to see the disappointment in the Colonel's eyes.

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Trouble-maker: OC's POV

One weekend, a few months after I'd first met John, he didn't show up at our usual spot by the airstrip. Surprised by my own disappointment, and aware that I was probably overreacting, I decided to stop by the group home. I told myself I just wanted to see where John lived. When I arrived, I struggled not to wince at the rundown institutional facility.

The woman sitting behind the front desk seemed surprised by my visit. She looked shocked to discover that John was spending time at the Air Force base, and explained that he was off meeting with a prospective foster placement. She frankly confessed her doubts that anything would come of it, explaining how difficult it was to find families for older children- even the 'good' ones.

She obviously didn't place John in this category; the words she used to describe him still hang in my mind: 'Doesn't respect authority'…'Reckless'…'Always in trouble'… 'Thinks the rules don't apply to him'…

She coldly summarized her opinions by labeling him as not worth the effort- predicting that it was only a matter of time before he was sitting in front of the juvenile boards.

I vaguely remember backing out of the front office, and must have thanked her for her time. I'd started out that day worrying about John, but ended up worrying about his future for entirely different reasons.

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Don't get Attached: John's POV

It goes without saying that I'm not very good at letting people in. I'd learned early and hard that everyone leaves and it's better to stay distant. If you don't give away anything personal, then you can't get hurt… well you can… but at least not as badly.

Until a certain Air Force Colonel started talking to me, I hadn't seen my view as anything unusual. I can still remember his surprised reaction back when I used flinch at every hand on my shoulder or pat on the head. I hadn't exactly grown up being hugged and held; from my experience a raised hand usually meant something else.

But he knew me well enough not to comment, and even managed to keep the sympathy out of his eyes. I hate pity. As much as I loved hanging out at the base, I would have been out of there in the second if they'd started treating me like some kind of charity case.

It made me nervous to realize how hard it would have been to walk away that time. It wasn't just about the helicopters and planes anymore; and I was freaked out by how quickly I'd gotten attached- breaking all of my own rules.

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Breaking Through the Walls: OC's POV

I never told John that I'd stopped by the group home, and if he knew he never said a word. The few times that he had talked about where he lived, he'd mentioned how much happier he was not to be staying with another foster family. After meeting the frigid woman at the desk, I could only imagine what his earlier experiences had been.

John had a strong sense of pride, so I could certainly understand his distance when it came to his personal life. Unfortunately, the story he told through body language and other clues, was enough to set my teeth grinding.

My wife had died from cancer a few years earlier. While we'd never had any children of our own, she used to spoil her nieces and nephews rotten. I knew better than to try and buy John's trust. But, I tried to make it up to him by always being honest and respecting that he could handle the truth. Despite being a kid, he'd been through too much to be babied or patronized.

He still had enough brazen curiosity to ask about my limp, and seemed to have endless questions about my time in Vietnam. While I never got into the specific details of my time as a POW (some things even I'd like to forget) I tried to share the life lessons that I'd learned from my experiences during the war. For his own sake, I wanted to teach him the importance of not giving up, the value of teamwork, and most importantly the necessity of getting past a trauma.

Once I'd run out of Vietnam stories, I started dredging up all the old war tales I'd ever heard thrown around a locker room or mess hall. Sometimes I'd catch a glint in his eye, and get the feeling that I'd made a real impression. Other times, John sulked and fidgeted like the boy that he was… He never did like the stories where the hero couldn't save the day.

But even when he didn't like the endings, he always seemed to enjoy hearing the soldiers' anecdotes. It was the one time you could guarantee that the pinched look would fade from his eyes, and he'd flash that contagious grin. He could even weasel the odd story out of our surly, old NCO who didn't seem to like anyone on base. John made such a habit of closing himself off, that he'd probably never have realized it himself, but he had a real talent with people.

The two of us had gotten to know each other pretty well over that past year, and I'd started to spot the cracks in his carefully constructed façade. My decision made, I just hoped that I was up to the challenge of breaking down some of those walls.

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A Chance: John's POV

Looking back over all my memories, bad and good, one of the strongest and brightest is my first trip to a Carnival. One summer weekend, the Colonel had stopped by on a surprise visit to bring me to the fairgrounds- just the two of us. When the other kids at the home found out, they were jealous as hell. I can still recall putting on my 'too mature and cool for a Carnival' routine, while at the same time trying to figure out the Colonel's unexpected visit. But despite my act, I was secretly psyched.

We must have ridden every ride-- the roller coaster, haunted house, tilt a whirl… The Colonel almost seemed more excited than I was. I still smile remembering how impressed he was, when I racked up a high score at the shooting arcade. But he'd saved the absolute best for last.

Overlooking the fairgrounds was a massive, brightly lit Ferris Wheel. The first few loops around we just sat back and enjoyed the view. When I looked over the rail, I could almost believe I was flying. It was only the next time, once we rounded the top, that he broke the news that changed my life forever.

I was beyond shocked when he told me he'd talked to the state and wanted me to come live with him. At first, I just figured he didn't really mean it. Then, I was struck by a wave of panic, convinced this would ruin everything: he'd change his mind, find out I was trouble, and it was only a matter of time before he'd get rid of me too.

The fears must have shown on my face, because suddenly the Colonel got very serious and mumbled something that I couldn't understand. With grave sincerity, he promised that he wasn't going anywhere. It was halfway through his speech on how he wouldn't try to rush me into anything I wasn't ready for-- that I realized this wasn't just another foster placement, he'd actually filed for adoption!

Already overwhelmed by my shock, I almost choked when he'd ended by saying he'd like me to take his last name, and even call him 'dad' when I was ready. In the quiet that followed his announcement, the career military officer's face was creased in a look of timid uncertainty that I never saw before or since.

Now, I'm not going to lie and say that we cried or launched into a father-son hug. Neither of us was the sentimental sort, and I wasn't ready to let go of my distrust that easily. But we both recognized that moment for what it was: a beginning. After that life-changing ride, I never saw Ferris Wheels the same way again. In fact, that day at the Carnival would have been absolutely perfect if it hadn't been for the clowns….

THE END

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NOTE: Okay, so I realize I've come off as pretty much bashing the foster care/ state care system… But I've heard enough horror stories, and in fairness, I'm pretty sure that modern standards weren't in place in the 60's-70's.