Title: Blank Slate
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Pairing: Sheppard/Weir
Rating: NC-17
Summary: In an alternate reality where Major John Sheppard has never heard of the Stargate program, he's assigned to protect Dr. Elizabeth Weir during a diplomatic mission in the war-torn regions of Iraq. Things go sideways, setting off a chain of events that will eventually bring to surface life-shattering truths.
Warning(s): Sex, violence, language; vague spoilers for the entire series
Beta: peanutbutterer, who also spent the last two months holding my hand while I wrote this fic, and listened to my writer's block rants, my random plotbunnies, and never, ever once told me to STFU. That's a dedicated beta, yo.
Disclaimer: SGA does not belong to me.
A/N: After a year of not writing Sheppard/Weir, I come out of retirement for Sparktober! 'cause the idea of this celebration is awesome. This fic is three different types of trippy because honestly I didn't even know where I was going with it, half the time. But finally, I finished the thing. Don't worry. It's got a happy ending. ;)

It's 2002, and their diplomatic convoy takes a hit outside of Fallujah.

Scenes flash before his eyes - a lifetime of images that aren't his own. Water, a blur of alien shapes, a scrap of text, chaos that he can't make sense of before he's back to reality again, watching the car ahead of him explode. A helicopter crashes, killing its crew and gutting the ground on impact. He sees Lt. Raymond's body half-shredded by the side of the road.

There's only one VIP left, the most important, and she takes a hit to the shoulder, blood splattering her nicely tailored suit.

"I'm fine," she insists, later, hunkered down in the sand, and John is pretty sure he's supposed to be encouraging her and not the other way around. "They'll come for us, won't they?"

He thinks, given it's her here instead of just him, they might actually get backup before they're dead rather than after. His answer is drowned out as an F-16 flies overhead and the enemy fires again. Sand whirls, and John tucks her swiftly under him. She's small and slight, and he thinks he's never actually laid over a woman like this before without at least making it to first base.

Silence descends, for nearly a minute, and then she lifts her head. "I don't think we've been formally introduced," she says, prone under him, "I'm Elizabeth."

He almost laughs.

Nearly thirty-five hours later, the concept of laughter is a distant memory. His hand is slippery and wet with her blood, being tugged free from hers as she's led away on a stretcher, and he reminds himself that they're strangers. They're two lone survivors out of three dozen dead, and he thinks this is probably the last he'll see of her. She's Dr. Elizabeth Weir, high-ranking UN diplomat, and he's Major John Sheppard, US Air Force fuck-up.

This isn't the beginning of anything, he tells himself.

As it frequently turns out, he's wrong.

In a mission that went so very, very wrong, he's surprised that he managed to make it out unscathed. Physically, anyway. The sun hasn't even descended yet, but he feels exhausted and pale, even after two days of recovery. He visits Elizabeth only once that first day before she was medevacked to Germany. John watched her sleep, white and pale and so, so small. The beep of her heart monitor was a cold comfort.

A truce has been drawn, mainly to reopen the general hospital which had been forced to close after US Marines took positions on the roads leading to them. Iraqi officials in Al-Fallujah report 600 Iraqis have been killed in the fighting there so far and that more than 1,250 people have been injured. More than half of the dead are women and children.

His CO tells him new orders are coming through, and he might be shipped out within the week. John welcomes it; with his unit decimated, he needs a new place. He's expects a post down south, or maybe a little east in the chaos that's Baghdad. That's when word comes back: they want him in the US.

Apparently, he's become a bit of a star in a media-frenzy.

The headlines go something like this: Hero Soldier Saves the Day.

The bylines go something like this: Lone soldier, Major John Sheppard of the US Air Force, dove into crossfire and single-handedly protected the life of injured UN diplomat, Elizabeth Weir.

John never actually reads the text of any of the articles, but he can hazard a guess at the content. He personally thinks classifying his actions as heroic is as outlandish as claims of Bigfoot, but he doesn't comment, doesn't quote, doesn't return the dozen calls for interviews and exclusives, even from 60 Minutes.

Out in Florida, the Air Force totes him out in front of the camera for a press conference and John stands there in his dress blues. He nods and smiles, and even waves once, but there's a bitterness to the actions. He thinks of Lt. Raymond's ravaged body; he thinks of the boys under his command; he thinks about the CO that never made it out. He thinks of blood and bombs and gunfire, and damn if he had gone through all of that by himself.

Lone soldier, his ass.

"Dr. Weir is recovering nicely back in her hometown," a reporter states. "Is there any message you'd like to give her?"

He freezes, on live air, and god help him, he hopes no one can see the weight of the question as it hits him.

Eventually, he smiles. "Hope you're doing better," he offers lamely.

He wakes that night, covered in cold sweat with the suffocating feeling that he failed Elizabeth and she's dead. She's gone. Like Gabe and Andrews, like Jacobson and Mikey, like everybody else in his fucking unit, and he can't breathe – he can't think. His feet hit the ground, hands shoved through hair as he cradles his head.

Before he realizes it, he's sobbing like a fucking pathetic mess.

He doesn't know how to handle these emotions; doesn't want to analyze it too much. His apartment is half-boxes, half-trash, and he stumbles through the cluttered hallway to the kitchen. He flips a switch, and the light is glaring in his eyes; he thinks about the Iraqi sun, the blazing heat and unrelenting brightness.

He orders from that all-night pizza place around the corner, flipping through channels until he settles on reruns of old X Files episodes, more for noise in the background than anything else.

He thinks about Elizabeth Weir the entire time.

Weeks pass without a single word from her, and he knows she's moved on and he should do the same. The nightmares continue, and he always pauses the TV when pictures of Elizabeth come on, lowers the voice of the anchorman when they talk about her tale and road to recovery. But the story's getting old now, and his fifteen minutes have been up for well over five, and she isn't on TV as much anymore.

Which is why he's so damned bowled over when she's suddenly standing at his doorstep.

"Hi," she says, hesitantly. "Can I come in?"

They order Chinese food, and she eats both their fortune cookies.

They never broach the subject of Iraq. He refuses to talk about himself. They don't discuss her injuries too much unless it's to talk about the latest annoyance of her recovery. The TV interviews, the press conferences, the media frenzy are joked about, but only briefly and then they move on. He doesn't draw attention to the fact that she's in Florida all of a sudden, a full two-hour flight from Washington D.C.

He sits there in his cluttered living room with a woman he barely knows, talking for hours about absolutely nothing of importance or consequence – and this is the first time in weeks he's felt sane.

"Thank you," she mumbles sometime before dawn, groggy, curled up on his couch. She's facing him, legs tucked under her and she's borrowed one of his sweatshirts to fend off the chill. "I think I needed this."

He lifts an eyebrow and pops another chip in his mouth. "It's my favorite sweatshirt," he jokes, like he doesn't know what she really means. "Don't spill anything on it."

She opens her eyes, a little more alert, then reaches over to brush a crumb off his lower lip. Her touch warms his skin, and then there's this moment, when he's staring at her and suddenly all he can see is Elizabeth from that day, covered in dirt and sand and her own blood. He can feel her body against his as he'd sheltered it from gunfire, can hear the way her breath hitched with pain and how her eyes watered with tears and how she never once broke down, not once, not even when they both were convinced she was going to die.

When she leans forward to brush a small kiss to his lips, his breath lodges in his throat. It's light and sweet, and she simply smiles softly at him when she pulls back, sleepy again.

"Thank you," she repeats.

This time, he doesn't make a joke out of it.

Silence descends, and Elizabeth glances at her watch, startled to find the time. She has a red-eye flight back to Washington in less than eighteen hours and she's booked a hotel. When she makes a protest that she won't take up anymore of his time, he overrides that quickly because in the back of his head he's thinking, eighteen hours, just eighteen hours. That's a little more than half the time they spent together in Iraq.

"You can crash on my couch," he offers, making it clear he doesn't expect anything more from the idea of her sleeping over at his place - kiss, or no kiss. "Or, y'know, I can take the couch and you can take the bed and we'll just—"

"I'm not kicking you out of your own bed," she protests, incredulous. "Besides, I get the feeling you need the rest more than me."

They never discussed his insomnia, but he's not surprised that she's guessed.

She eventually falls asleep on the couch, almost in the middle of speaking, and John maneuvers her into a more comfortable position, then drapes his only blanket over her. After a pause, he goes to crash on the chair opposite her, even though his bed is less than twenty feet away. He falls asleep watching her as the sun rises, and he wakes in the early afternoon just moments before she does.

There's a bad crick in his neck, but it's his first sleep without nightmares in weeks.

They pick up ice cream, decide to see a matinee movie at the local duplex, and walk out two hours later having been subjected to the most outrageous, badly written science fiction movie ever. They can't stop making fun of it.

"I suppose it's good to know as a linguistics major that aliens across the universe all speak English," Elizabeth offers, almost giggling. "It would make my life just so much easier as a diplomat."

He slants her a look. "That wasn't nearly as unforgivable as the exploding tumor thing."

"True," she agrees, as they enter a Mexican bistro for dinner.

Apparently, their idea of a relaxing day includes eating hordes and hordes of food. From snacking on chips, to movie popcorn and hotdogs, to eating ice cream, to going out for Mexican or staying in for Chinese, he thinks he's eaten more food in the last day and a half than he has all week.

He doesn't want this day to end, but soon, too soon, she's glancing at her watch and announcing that they have to go back to her hotel to pick up her things. The trip is less than twenty minutes from his place, and on the way there, he finally works up the courage to ask her something.

"Why did you come?"

She looks over, holding his gaze. "I don't know. I guess I just… I just had to see you."

He nods, driving on, and a few hours later he's standing outside the airport, waiting by the trunk of his car as she pulls her luggage out. There's this feeling in the pit of his stomach he hates. He doesn't know how to do goodbyes, and thinks it's wrong that he has to say it so soon to Elizabeth.

"Next time, come for more than just the weekend."

She lifts an eyebrow. "Is that an invitation to come back? 'Cause, y'know, Washington D.C. is nice this time of year, too."

He gives her a look.

She rolls her eyes. "Okay, so it's really a blizzard wrapped up in a snow globe, but it's pretty. You should come."

He gives it half a thought. "Maybe. I don't know. It depends on when and if I get leave. They're probably going to send me back to Iraq soon."

Her face falls, but after a moment, she leans up and just kisses him. Most women in his life have waited for him to make the first move but he could get used to this. His hands move to her hips, tight and possessive, and his tongue strokes her mouth slowly, sensually, taking the moment to draw this out. This stings a little, he thinks. He wishes now they'd used their time more wisely, exploiting the last few hours doing things that involved little more than his bed.

She forces a smile. "Take care of yourself," she says. "And keep in touch."

Phone calls, texts, e-mails, even – God help him – Facebook. The latter is been done under protest, but he makes a bet with Elizabeth and loses, and John is nothing if not a man of his word. The bet, incidentally, had been about the results of a football game, to which Elizabeth had guessed randomly and blindly and still somehow managed to win. He considers it unfair on several different levels.

More to the point, though, they keep in touch. They do more than that. Phone calls turn into a daily three-hour long thing, and usually the only time John manages to get sleep is if he calls Elizabeth just before he goes to bed. Weeks pass and there aren't many days were he deviates from this routine.

Then, the talks begin of the Bronze Star, a prestigious medal that the Air Force hands out for acts of "heroism in ground combat." John flinches when he first hears that. Every single member of his unit is dead, and he's getting a medal? He can't be the only one to see the faulty logic in that. But the award is as much politics as anything else, and John Sheppard is a poster boy for the Air Force right now. Oh, how the tide has turned since the previous year. The suggestion of a medal had apparently been percolating since his return from Iraq, and it had taken this long before reaching John's ears.

"Would it really be so bad?" Elizabeth asks him, just once.

Silence descends, and then John, for once, answers honestly about the touchy subject. "I'd think about the dead every time I pinned that thing on."

After a pause, Elizabeth says, "Or you could think about the one person you saved. Me."

He's never really thought of it that way.

They change the topic quickly, and somehow an hour later it lands on how the wedding season is fast coming up on them and Elizabeth is receiving invitations from the oddest places. "Next weekend, there's one for my aunt's friend's cousin, twice removed. We met once at a cocktail party, but I think she's just trying to make her wedding into one giant networking event." She sighs, disgusted. "Everything in Washington is politics, even weddings."

"You going?" he asks.

"Depends," she says, rather pointedly, "on if I have a date."

Blatant as it is, he was looking for any excuse to get him up to D.C. "Next weekend, huh? I think I've got it off."

Turns out, they almost don't make it to the wedding.

As soon as he steps off the plane and they make it back to her place, plans sort of unravel at the seams. She gets her key in the door, pushes it open and enters first. By the time they finally have it closed again, without entirely knowing who initiates it, he's kissing her.

Maybe they're making up for lost time? Maybe they've done enough talking over the last three months? Maybe she's been anticipating being alone with him nearly as much as he has? (He doubts it, because he's been thinking about it a lot.) In any case, the embrace isn't just pent-up passion or self-denial bursting through. Her palms rest flat against his chest as they kiss, and there is this gradual, unhurried exploration; a discovery with deliberate intent and seduction. He wants to make this good for her.

He holds her steady against him with a hand tangled through hair at the back of her head and her body lines up feet-to-hips-to-chest almost perfect with him. Unquestionable heat rises in what becomes a series of shallow kisses, but it's more like a slow burn that reminds John that not all his favorite things in the world go fast.

"John," she moans, just once, and he starts edging her back, body pressing into hers.

The steady, drugged excitement builds up until he realizes his body has responded with full attention, and they've managed to reach the couch, making out like teenagers with his body sheltering hers. She shifts underneath him, his hands on her slim waist, and her head tips back to allow him better access to her smooth neck.

"We're going to be late," she murmurs.

John just hums in response, nuzzling her neck. He hadn't come here for some damn wedding, and she knows it. He reasons there's no point to pretend otherwise.

The heady kisses continue, and John's hands have a mind of their own, snaking under the hemline of her red shirt to crawl up her belly. He feels the lacy contour of a bra under his fingertips, and Elizabeth shivers. It hadn't been his intention to go this fast; they've barely been in each other's company for an hour now, and already he was rounding second base with her. John just can't seem to make himself stop or slow down.

But Elizabeth makes the decision for him. She plants a hand against his chest, and gently pushes back with pressure until he stills, lifting his head. He can read the hesitancy clearly on her face, mixed in with lust and a little bit of breathlessness, and John takes a steadying breath.

Right. Slow down. Stop.

It takes a second before he can command his body to obey. He rises and she follows after until they're resting on the couch side-by-side. There's a beat of silence, broken only as both get their heavy breathing under control. Her cheeks are flushed and red, and her hair is in such untidy disarray that John has to clamp viciously down on the urge to nudge her back down again so he can kiss her senseless.

"We should get dressed," Elizabeth says.

He bites down on the rush of disappointment, mustering a smile. "Right. Dressed. Got a bathroom?"

She points down the hallway, and John lifts to his feet, grabbing the bag that was tossed aside unthinkingly when his mind had better things to focus on. He makes his way to the bathroom, closes the door, and thinks – well, hell, time for a cold shower.

The ceremony is tasteful and brief, and the food turns out to be a little bland, but he came here for the company anyway. They watch the newlyweds take the first dance, and within the next song Elizabeth has managed to drag him up to the dance floor despite his protests. He isn't the best dancer. In fact, he's fairly sure he's in the bottom third of the population as far as that skill goes. Still, he tucks an arm around Elizabeth's slim waist, keeping her close enough to smell the whiff of her hair or perfume or whatever it is that has Elizabeth smelling like flowers.

"You were married once, weren't you?" Elizabeth asks, almost breaking the mood.

He goes stiff for a beat, then tries to shrug it off. "Six months. It wasn't an epic romance or anything." He pulls back to study her eyes. "How'd you know?"

She smiles, admitting in an impish voice, "Your personnel files. I got curious."

"Checking up on me?"

"I research. It's what I do."

He has to smile, because the idea of Elizabeth researching fits. He can picture her so easily as a bookworm, absorbed in her laptop or thumbing through page after page after page of some dusty old book. He can picture that almost as clearly as he can imagine her with one of his shirts on and nothing else. The latter is more wishful thinking, but he likes to believe the odds are improving.

"And?" he goads, forcing his mind away from lewd images. "What did you find?"

"Nothing that told me enough," she answers with a sweet smile. "I was hoping you could fill in the blanks."

It may be the understatement of the year, but John really doesn't like to talk about his past. It's done and over with and often riddled with awkwardness or pain, so he figures it's better to focus on the future. Just move on. He did that with Nancy, and he's trying to do the same with Iraq.

But, he supposes, Elizabeth deserves a little background.

John sighs. "We were too young to know what we were getting ourselves into. She moved into my place just as I left for the Academy, and I came back only once, and that was to find her packing her bags. Apparently, we sucked at commitment."

She winces in sympathy, staring up at him.

The music ends, but he stays on the dance floor with Elizabeth for the next two songs, swaying to a beat that he likes, hands settled low on her hips. Her fingers twine behind his neck, and he thinks more than once about kissing her senseless right there on the dance floor. But if he starts, he won't be able to stop and he doesn't want an audience for that type of thing.

He thinks there'll be plenty of time for that later on in the night, in the privacy of her home.

But then the chime of her cell goes off, and she answers the call quickly. "Hello?" she greets, and then John watches, slowly, as her face pales three shades.

The George Washington University Hospital is big, but John has spent too much time in hospitals lately and so has Elizabeth. They maneuver easily through the empty hallways, stopping only once to ask a nurse on the graveyard shift what room number her father is admitted to.

When they arrive, Elizabeth embraces an elderly woman that he can only assume is her mother, but his attention quickly turns to the patient in bed. John holds back a wince. Elizabeth's father suffered a heart attack earlier in the evening, and the sight of so many machines and monitors hooked up to the frail figure in bed creates a bleak image.

"How is he?" Elizabeth asks her mother.

"The doctors say it's bad. I don't… I don't…" her face crumples, and Elizabeth rushes forward to soothe her mother with a tight hug. John watches from the corner of the room, standing awkward and silent, until his presence is finally noticed. "Who is this, Elizabeth?"

"Oh," Elizabeth says, blinking back tears. "Mother, this is John. Major John Sheppard, of the United States Air Force. John, this is my mother, Dr. Catherine Weir."

"You?" Catherine begins, searching her memory. Surprise brightens her eyes. "You're the man that saved Elizabeth's life?"

Elizabeth nods, and John feels his face heat up. Before he can temper some of the unbridled gratitude shining in Catherine's eyes, the doctor comes through the door. Introductions and diagnosis are conveyed, and John watches, helpless, as the two women receive the worst prognosis they can get.

"At this point," Dr. Beckett says, "all we can do is make him comfortable. I'm sorry."

His third cup of coffee into the night, and John feels wired. The night is gradually edging closer to daylight, and the news is only getting worse. He retreats to the lobby, giving Elizabeth some time alone with her mother and bedridden father, but John feels like he should be doing something else. Something more. Elizabeth hasn't broken down and cried yet, but he can tell she's on the verge and that just kicks John's overprotective streak into high gear.

Hours tick by, and without knowing it, John falls asleep sitting upright in an uncomfortable chair in the lobby, his neck at an awful angle. Elizabeth nudges him awake, and hands him her car keys.

"Why don't you go home?" she tells him. "Take my keys and crash at my place. There's no need for you to be here—"

"No, no," he insists. "It's cool. I'm fine."

"This wasn't your idea of a vacation this weekend, and we both know it."

"I wanted to spend time with you," he answers without thinking. "The rest doesn't matter."

She smiles, and it almost reaches her eyes. "You're a hopeless romantic, you know that?"

He gets a strange flutter in his stomach, like he's heard that somewhere before.

"What?" she asks to his look.

He shakes his head. "Nothing. Just… déjà vu." He looks to her. "You ever get the feeling that we've had conversations before? I mean, thesame conversations before? I feel like I…" he trails off, suddenly self-conscious.

Elizabeth settles down into the spot beside him, curling up against his side. It's an unusual display for somebody as private as Elizabeth, but it's nearly four in the morning, and the nightshift is on duty with better things to do than to gawk at a couple in the waiting room. He slides am arm around her shoulder, and for the first time notices the frail freckles on her skin.

"You feel like you've what?" Elizabeth goads, because John's nearly forgotten his line of thinking.

I feel like I know you.

It isn't meant to sound as sappy as it does, which is why he doesn't say it. There's something about Elizabeth, something elusive and indefinable since the moment he met her that felt familiar. Like he's known her, or knew her in a previous life. For a moment, he entertains the notion that maybe they met before Iraq. Maybe they crossed paths before he joined the Air Force, and the memory has just been lost in the shuffles of years interceding. He feels like he knows her, far better than what should be reasonable for the matter of months their relationship has lasted thus far.

A quiet sound escapes Elizabeth, distracting John from his thoughts and it's then that he notices her mind is running a completely different track. Her body is warm, her breath on his neck hot and unsteady, and when he wraps his arm tighter around Elizabeth, he can feel her sobs break out.

"I wish my father had the chance to know you," she breathes into his neck. "He would have liked you."

He doesn't know how to answer, so he just holds her tighter.

He flies back to Florida the next day, and it's another week before word trickles down from the higher-ups that he's being called back to Iraq by the end of next month. He doesn't immediately mention any of this to Elizabeth because she's busy making funeral arrangements. Her father passed away four days after John left D.C., and he's been on the phone with her every night since for three hours or more, listening to her pretend to be all right.

This has been a shitty year for her, he realizes.

Eventually, life returns to some sort of normal routine. The talk of the Bronze Star proves to be just that – talk. But when he's putting his stuff away in his locker one day, his C.O. approaches him from behind and hands John a letter.

"Congratulations," the colonel says with a grin. "You're getting promoted."

Two weeks later, he's a Lt. Colonel of the United States Air Force. He likes the sound of that, and whenever he calls up Elizabeth, he greets it with a formal, "Doctor," and gets a pathetic amount of glee from having her greet him back with an amused (and entirely indulgent) "Colonel."

"You are such a dork," she teases.

"You love me for it, and you know it." He says it jokingly, but it's more like he's testing the water.

Another few weeks pass, it's less than six days before he's deployed back overseas, and he still has yet to tell Elizabeth. At first, it was because she was too busy dealing with her father's funeral. Then it was about avoiding bringing down their nightly talks when she obviously needed to unwind. Now, it was just about the fact that he hadn't told her thus far, and didn't know how to broach the topic without having her explode about keeping a secret like this for so long.

Also, there's a little part of him that worried she'd find this a reason to move on, forget about their nightly calls and the one time he'd managed to get passed third base with her in the storage room closet of the hospital. He figures all of that can be written off. Iraq is halfway around the world, but it may as well be halfway across the universe because he doesn't really know how much they'll be able to communicate.

Nancy had been a shining and brutal example of what could happen because of that distance, and John panics at the thought of going through that again with Elizabeth. In a way, these intense and rapidly increasing feelings for Elizabeth are a type of condemnation for John, because he's never navigated through emotions with any sort of grace. A clusterfuck of landmines and abandonment issues is what one former girlfriend had called it.

He doesn't even know what to call Elizabeth. She's not his lover, at least not technically. She's not his girlfriend; that isn't a good enough label for Elizabeth. She's not just a friend. They aren't hooking up, hanging out, or even making out on frequent occasion. Friends with benefits, booty calls, and a one-night stand had never even been options.

What does that make her to him?

It doesn't matter, he supposes with a scowl. In less than a week's time, she'll just be a memory anyway.

He chickens out, and sends her an email. It's sad – no, it's beyond sad. It's fundamentally pathetic that he can't work up the courage to just say it to her, but he figures an email will give her time to cool off or regroup or whatever. It'll give her a chance to calm down before she's forced to respond to the news of his deployment.

But, really, he isn't remotely surprised when he hits the send button and three minutes later his cell phone is ringing and Elizabeth's ID is popping up on the screen.

He takes a deep breath, and answers it. "Hiya."

"Why didn't you tell me you were being deployed?!"

He flinches and holds the phone to the other ear. "Just, y'know, didn't want to bring the mood down during our conversations."

He hears her scoff, harshly. "How long have you known?"

He scratches behind his ear. "A while?"

"How long is a while?"

"Two months."

The silence is long and heavy, and he can hear Elizabeth breathing heavily on the other end. After a moment, she finally continues. "You're leaving on Monday?"

"0700," he affirms. "I didn't want to make it a big deal."

"It is a big deal," Elizabeth counters, forcefully, sadly.

A not so small part of John feels something swell inside of him. The last two times he was shipped overseas, nobody had cared. He tries to calm her down, tell her it's no big deal and that since this is his third tour in Iraq, it'll probably be his last, but Elizabeth remains unusually silent and docile on the other end. In that moment, he wants nothing more in the world than to just to be able to hold her and tell her everything is going to be all right.

It might be a lie, though. He knows better than to tell her a lie.

Two weeks later, he's flying a CH-53 Sea Stallion in chopping air over the city of Karbala and sets down in the green zone near his camp. There's not much to do lately, so he reports in and then quickly wanders towards one of the back tents along the dirt road. On the way he salutes back to a new kid, a lieutenant named Aiden Ford, and then grabs his backpack and quickly crashes on his cot.

He's been writing a lot lately. Unsurprisingly, John thinks, because what else is he supposed to do? The days thus far have been filled playing football or one of the three pocket video games in the unit. John is itching for something to do – heck, he's being paid $225 a month in hazard pay for a reason, right? He's knows it's stupid to think that, but he's always been an impatient man and tempting fate seems to be a pastime of his when he's in a warzone.

His infamy has died down, thank God. The story of him rescuing Elizabeth has become a story passed along by the campfire, re-imagined each time into a more spectacular telling of the tale until at some point the story sounds more like a scene from Rambo than the fear-laden, gut-wrenching experience that actually transpired. He got poked and ribbed as being the Air Force's golden boy when he first arrived, but now it's died down to practically nothing.

It helps that he's a Lt. Colonel now and outranks the majority of men in camp.

"Sir." Aiden appears in the flap of his tent. "You've got a letter."

John doesn't mean to jump up like a jack-in-the-box, he really doesn't, but his excitement gets the better of him. It's kind of pathetic, or stupid, or sappy, or whatever, but he consoles himself with the thought that there isn't a man in this camp that doesn't react similarly when a loved one writes a letter. He tells himself not to be too embarrassed, even when Ford wears a shit-eating grin.

"Girlfriend, sir?"

John throws a half-hearted glare. "Dismissed, Lieutenant."

Ford's smile doesn't budge as he leaves the tent.

He doesn't rip open the letter. Instead, tearing the battered envelope at the seams, he slides the letter free and unfolds the papers carefully. Elizabeth's familiar cursive handwriting stares back at him.

Dear John, it reads.

He crashes on his cot, one arm pillowed behind his head.

You would not believe the day I've had today, and yes, I mean that quite literally. I've seen a lot of crazy things in my job over the years, but today I was introduced to something that defies all reason and logic and treads straight into the territory of science fiction. I wish I could share the details with you, but it's classified and, well… that's all she wrote. But when I heard the news today, my first thought was of you. I wanted to share my day with you so badly.

I miss you. I knew I would, but I think I underestimated the intensity of that emotion. I miss our nightly talks, and especially after a day like the one I've had. I have so much to tell you, and I can't. It's… frustrating.

But, I promised myself I'd keep this letter light and happy, so…

In marginally unrelated news, I met a man the other day named Rodney McKay. He's a contractor for the United States government, a scientist of a certain esteem. Or, at least, his own esteem anyway. He's got a bit of an ego, but he's funny and smart, and something about him makes me think you'd like him. Or shoot him. Either, or. He started talking about Back to the Future for some reason (don't ask me why, he rambles a lot), and it reminded me of our first "date." You know, that day in Florida just after I arrived where we saw that awful science fiction movie?

I've since reconsidered the merits of that movie. Maybe it isn't as outrageous as we originally thought."

John doesn't know it, but he has a shit-eating grin of his own as he spends the next half an hour reading and rereading Elizabeth's lengthy letter.

The dreams start that night and continue on for months.

Complete with hi-def and surround sound and director's cut added violence, images haunt him. Elizabeth's remark about science fiction movies apparently seeps into his subconscious, because he dreams strange things – alien things. A ring of metal of some type, with strange hieroglyphics along the rim. He dreams of Ford jumping backwards with glee into blue shimmering water, and another man with dreadlocks fighting hand-to-hand combat with a petite woman, sticks flying with a chorography that blows John's mind. His imagination conjures up Rodney McKay, elaborating on Elizabeth's details until he can picture a short man in a blue jacket, impressive smugness in every word that falls from his mouth.

He sees rising water and falling towers and spaceships. He dreams of Elizabeth standing on a balcony overlooking the ocean, her face alight with wonder at the beauty surrounding her. She looks breathtaking at twilight.

Some nights, though, the dreams aren't so pleasant. Storms come in, monsters creep up, and he awakens gripped by a horrible feeling like he's forgotten something. Missing something. That he's supposed to be doing something important with his life and he can't remember. It's frustrating and maddening, and more than once he's a little alarmed at the potency of his subconscious imagination.

Weeks fly by, and his demeanor changes, subtly, but enough so that they get noticed by the others. He awakens one night, with sweat-soaked sheets wrapped around his torso. The Iraqi air is cool at night, but he feels suffocated and one of his men peeks over to glance at John.

"You all right, sir?"

He scrubs a hand through his hair. "Yeah, yeah. Go back to sleep."

He spends the rest of his night cleaning his weapons and eating a stale MRE from the day before. By morning, he feels close to human again but for some reason he can't shake the specter of his nightmare. This one had been of Elizabeth, lying bedridden and comatose behind biohazard signs and anti-contamination plastic. The panic follows him through the day, shortening his temper until he's snapping at his subordinates for slight and imagined offenses.

Elizabeth, he writes eventually, breaking down. I'm starting to have the strangest dreams…

"Incoming!" John hollers before the next boom.

He veers the helicopter left, dipping under the halo of the bright Iraqi sun. In the back, two of his men grab the machine gun bolted to the floorboard and swing it clockwise toward the assailant. John's eyes catch movement in the field below, and he cranes his neck to follow the blur of something small scurry between two broken houses.

Shit! "We've got civilians down there! Children!"

His warning is drowned out by a burst of ammunition, the barrage of bullets biting into the crumbling walls of buildings down below. He hollers his warning again, but it's hopeless to be heard in this chaos. The injured marine down below is trapped in the second of the smaller buildings, and John swerves the helicopter and descends lower.

"Get them!" John screams, when he sets the helicopter down.

He watches his men jump out to retrieve the marine, one laying suppressive fire while the other dives into a ditch pathway and scrambles towards the building. John has just enough time to follow the movement of his men before a splatter of bullets strikes the windshield and breaks the glass. Spider-web cracks spread out, and a bullet lodges into the headrest near his ear.

John swears, ducking low. "We've got hostiles at two o'clock! Two o'clock!"

The radio crackles. "Under fire! Under fire! Man down! Man down!"

John grunts out, "Just get Morelli and get back here! I'll get us out!"

"Can't make it! Too much crossfire!"

John never manages a response.

Somebody swerves a truck in front of him, and the next thing John knows, a small grenade is launched clear into the air and strikes the dirt road next to him. The grenade detonates, exploding – and the helicopter rocks, upended, and John is thrown. He gets slammed against a hard surface, the impact violent and jarring.

"Sheppard! Sheppard!" someone screams in the distance, but he can't answer.

He loses consciousness just as the fire spreads.