Today is John's birthday

He is 19 years old. The party is in full swing. The dorm he shares with Steven is quite large, certainly big enough for a small birthday celebration. Steven had other idea. What had started as a 'hey, look, it my birthday next Friday, lets get a few cans, get hammered and play cards', had soon developed into an out and out shindig. John stood by his desk, bottle in hand. He took a long, soothing drink and grinned at Steven where he stood, surrounded by girls. Steven might not have been the most handsome guy in the world, but he did have charm. Buckets and buckets full of charm.

John could be charming too; at least that's what his girl, Nancy says. They have been dating for two years now. She was there for him when his Aunt died. She held his hand and let him be as open or closed off as he wanted. He chose to be closed. A decision he regretted for years after his marriage broke down. He blames himself for keeping her at arms length. What he'll never know is that she blames herself for letting him.

A girl walks over; her hair is blond and shiny. She wishes him happy birthday and touches his arm when she laughs at one of his buddies jokes. He's not interested in the slightest. He's not really listening to anything she says. The music is loud enough that he can ignore her without seeming rude. Thankfully she gets the message and goes to try her flirting with one of the footballers.

He's content to listen to the music thumping as he drinks, his cheeks flushed, until someone suggests a drinking game. The vodka comes out and, as the birthday boy, he's instructed to drink shot after shot after shot.

XXX

He doesn't remember how he got here. Sprawled on his bedroom floor, vomit drying in his hair. He feels like shit. He knows he's supposed to do something this morning but he just can't bring himself to care.

When Nancy arrives hours later, to take him on his birthday date, Steven lets her in. The dorm stinks of booze, smoke, vomit and sweat. John is in his bed, having crawled there mid-morning. Instead of taking him out to the movies or for a meal, she cleans. She cleans the vomit off the floor. She strips him of his filthy clothes and puts them in the wash. She tries to wash the vomit out of his adorable hair with a damp cloth.

Later she settles herself down and snuggles with him. The room smells fresher now. The windows open, the curtains dancing in the light breeze. He whispers "Thank you." as she holds him tight.

"Hope you had a good birthday John." She kisses his neck.

XXX

A trapped soldier is a dangerous beast.

John struggles to free himself from his safety straps. That last shot had taken out his tail rotor. His bird's spiralling in a sickening spin towards the ground. Years later, when he tells Rodney about idiotic pilots trying to fix their craft right until they hit the ground, he'll skip the part where he did it too. He impacted on a sandbank. It saved his life. It cushioned the blow, enough that he was shaken, but not really hurt. It also provided him with a little cover from the Taliban searching for the copter they'd just shot down.

He knew they'd be looking for him. Knew he had to get free. His whole body ached. Later the base Doc will find deep bruising along his spinal column, along with myriad of other small injuries. He removes his helmet and radio. It doesn't work now anyways. The last message he'd received was a tight,

"Sheppard, what the hell do you think you're doing?!" from his CO.

"I can't leave him out there, sir! I'll just fly back, pick him up, then…" he didn't get chance to finish his sentence.

"Sheppard!" the radio crackled.

"Can't talk now; busy!" that was the last contact John had with his CO, until he carried Holland's bloodied body back to base, slung over his shoulders. John had collapsed from exhaustion a moment after.

He managed to worm himself free of the mangled metal and broken glass. The heat is overwhelming. He breaks into a sweat and wiped his brow. There's blood on the back of his hand, and he notices that his face stings. There's a shallow cut across his cheek. He shakes his head and moves in the direction he thinks is Holland's last known location. He is wrong. It doesn't matter though, because Holland isn't there anyway. He knows the guys laugh about his sense of direction on the ground. In the air, no one would be fool enough to question him. He's one of the best, and they all know it.

As he emerges from the crash site, a cloaked figure approached him. The man yells behind him and fires his semi-automatic weapon at John. John throws himself to the ground, adrenaline masking any pain the action might cause. He fires. He does not miss, and the man falls. His blood soaks through his clothes and into the sand.

John runs. He's lucky he's fighting the Taliban rather than a professional military unit. They are vicious, determined and plentiful. They are also, fortunately for John, not that organised. It will take them time to decide what to do about the pilot of the downed craft. He hopes that by then, he will have found Holland and be safely within a rescue chopper.

He walked in the general direction he believes Holland to be. There is an old, busted Russian helicopter on the horizon. He tries to radio Holland, and not for the first time, gets static.

XXX

Holland nodded slowly, as he recalls Sheppard coming across the desert, toward him on foot.

"Did you know," Holland said, "that I come from four generations of military?"

John shrugged. He'd guessed Holland's father had been military, from the way the man spoke about him.

"Yep. I knew how to fire a pistol when I was six. In the morning my father would inspect my bed, actually bounce a quarter on the sheets. At the dinner table it was always, 'yes, sir,' and, 'no, sir'.

"Before I joined, all I did was take orders. Next thing I knew, I was giving them!"

"Do you remember that look the new recruits always had? The one that said, they though we knew something about war. Some big secret. They'd salute us, wanting you to tell them what to do. I could see the fear in their eyes. They though you could keep them alive. Hell, I though you could too."

John's shoulders slumped. He did know that look. It was the look that made him work even harder in the field. He didn't want to let them down. Not one of them.

"You couldn't of course. You took your orders, just like I did. Chain of command; there's always someone above you. I liked how you tried to keep us all together. I guess in the middle of a big war you look for the small idea to believe in. when you find it you cling to it, like soldier with a rosary in a foxhole.

"For you, that idea was what you told us. 'No one gets left behind'. It meant a lot to me, and all the others, that you really and truly believed that."

John nodded. He had meant it, every damn time. He was glad that it had meant something to his old friend.

Holland reached into his pocket, took out another cigarette, and lit up.

"Why did you say that?" John asked. It was nice to know, but he couldn't see the relevance.

"Because Shep, you need to know how all this fits together. I don't know what happened to you after I died, but I can guarantee it wasn't good for you," said Holland, as he blew smoke.

John nodded. It had been pretty bad there for a while. The guys at McMurdo were of the Colonel Sumner breed. He didn't bother to tell his CO while stationed there, but the guys could be quite cruel when the mood took them. He'd never admit it, but he hated that base. Sure the snow was great. He did love the snow, it was pretty, but it also reflected the loneliness he felt. The sheer vastness of the snow, the emptiness, it drew him like a moth to light. The late night beatings were altogether less fun. He never knew who they were, hell, for all he knew his CO was one of them. He never spoke up; they beat him, because they didn't understand. All they knew was that he had disobeyed a direct order; disgraced everything they stood for. Secretly, he though he deserved they're anger.

The day he flew General O'Neill to the Ancient outpost, his body was covered with bruises, but his tormentors were always careful to avoid hitting his face. His life changed so much that day. Gone were the hateful glares and mystery beating. Now he was faced with having an ancient gene that allowed him to be of service to the Atlantis expedition.

In a matter of weeks he went from being 'the heinous one', to the military leader in charge of keeping 200 scientists and military personal alive. He became the guy everyone expected to save the day. He was constantly amazed that he usually did.

Holland continued his explanation, "You see it wasn't my life that altered your, but my death. You can't feel guilty for not saving me, or any of the other you couldn't save, because ultimately it was our time to go. The grim reaper came knocking and we answered the door. Nothing you do or don't do can change that.

"People don't die because of you Shep; they die in spite of you. Do you see the difference?"

John wanted to argue, but could find no holes in Holland's logic. He did try his damnedest to bring his people home. It just made him sad that sometime his best was simply not enough.

XXX

John looked at his old friend and smiled. He stared out at the barren desert landscape. For the first time he wondered why he was here. "You've been here all this time?" he asked.

"Time," Holland said, "is not what you think." He had another drag of his smoke and said, "Dying? Not the end of everything. We think it is. But what happens on Earth is only the beginning."

John smirked, "you can say that again!"

"You know what I think, Shep? I figure it's like in the Bible, you know that whole Adam and Eve deal?" Holland said. "Adam's first night on Earth right? When he lies down to sleep, he's gotta be bricking it! I mean, he thinks it all over, right? Poor guy, doesn't know what sleep is. His eyes are closing and he thinks, oh well, that's it, right?

"Only that's not it. He wakes us the next morning and he has a whole new day to work with, but he has something else too. He has yesterday."

"You've given this a lot of though, haven't you?" John smiles at his friend.

Holland grins, "yeah, yeah I have, the way I see it, that's what you get here, Shep. You get to make sense of your yesterdays."

He took out another smoke, "You following this? I never was all that good a teaching."

John studied Holland's face. He'd always though of the Captain as a lot older than him, in fact there'd only ever been a few years between them. "You've been here since you died?"

"I've been waiting for you."

John looked down, "that's what the old guy said."

"Well, he was too. He was part of your life, part of why you lived and how you lived, part of the story you needed to know, but he told you and he's beyond here now, and in a little bit, I'm gonna be as well. So listen up. Because he's what you need to know from me."

John straightened in his chair.

XXX

"Sacrifice," the Captain said. "You made one. I made one. We all make them. But you were angry about your. Angry and guilty."

"You didn't get it sacrifice is a part of life. It's supposed to be. It's not something to regret. It's something to aspire to. Little sacrifices. Big sacrifices. A mother works so her son can go to school. A daughter moves home to take care of her sick father, a man goes to war…"

He stopped for a moment and looked off into the distance.

"They didn't die for nothing you know. Mitch and Dex, they died for what they believed in. they sacrificed for their country, their families, just like me. Just like you. The day I died, it might seem pointless. I got shot down, lost my crew and bird, but we'd just delivered much needed medical supplies and food. We saved lives that day. My death changed your life. How much good have you done since then?"

John shrugged, "Well… I …"

"You don't have to answer, Shep! I know you did good."

"Yeah, but they still died. You still died," said John.

Holland slapped John on the back, "That's the thing. Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you're not really losing it. You're just passing it on to someone else."

Holland unfolded himself from the pilot's chair, and lowered himself out of the plane. John shrugged and follows him outside. The Captain walked over to the field of graves, picked up his helmet, his dog tags and his weapon. He put the tags on, tucked the helmet under his arm, and threw his weapon as hard as he could into the sand.

"I died and you lost something. But you gained something too. You just didn't know it at the time. I gained something as well."

"What?"

"I got to keep my promise and die a hero." Holland held out his palm. "We good?"

John took his friend's hand and shook it. "That's what I've been waiting for."

"Holland, why here? I mean, the old guy said you get to pick anywhere to wait, right?"

The Captain nodded, "because I died in battle. I was killed in this desert wasteland. I left the world knowing nothing but war. War talk, war plans, a war family."

"My wish was to see a world without war. Before we started killing each other."

John looked around, "but this is war."

"To you. But our eyes are different," Holland said. "What you see ain't what I see."

He lifted a hand and the sun baked landscape changed. The old helicopter disappeared, the graves disintegrated the blood soaked sand was replaced by clean, untouched sand. The dead trees came to life, with new leaves and exotic fruits. It was pure, unspoiled beauty.

John looked at his old comrade, whose face was clean, his uniform replaced with a freshly pressed set of dress blues. "This," Holland said, "is what I see."

He stood there for a moment taking it all in. "By the way, I don't smoke anymore, that was in your eyes too. Seriously, why would I smoke in heaven?" he chuckled as he began to walk off.

"Wait," John yelled. "I've got to know something, the girl. Back on the planet, did I save her?"

Holland turned, looked John in the eye for a moment, "I can't tell you."

John's face dropped.

"But someone can. Don't worry Shep." He threw John's tags at him. John caught them, looked at the details that made them unique. When he looked up, Holland was gone.

AN/ if you find any mistakes let me know. can you guess who John'll meet next?