nondisclosure agreement

1. When John was eleven years old, his father pissed off somebody, or maybe a lot of somebodies, and wound up stuck at Yeager AGS for a year, helping on some kind of reassessment or restructuring or renovation or some other word that starts with a "re". John liked West Virginia more than he liked Kansas but less than he liked New Mexico. The housekeeper was a seventy-year-old Appalachian woman with a missing tooth and a predilection for those strawberry-wrapped hard candies with nougat in the center. It took John two months before he was willing to say more than three words to her, but she used to sing him to sleep every night: old songs, good songs, the kind that have the weight of history behind them. When John is lost in thought, he can still sometimes catch himself humming "The False Knight on the Road" or "The Unquiet Grave" under his breath. It reminds him of being safe. He does not allow himself to submerge enough around anyone who would be likely to hear.

2. John has been stationed in three countries long enough to learn the native language. He can order a beer and ask for the bathroom in a double handful of others, but there are three he keeps enough of: Arabic, Japanese, Serbian. He has never let anyone know, never given himself away even with his eyes when listening to a conversation, because he's not stupid and you don't give tactical advantages away. Sometimes he reads the poetry of Vasko Popa when he feels like his command of Serbian is slipping, but he's pretty sure he's missing all of the nuance. John isn't a poetry kind of guy.

3. After that night in Kosovo, the night nobody who's left knows about, John made a vow -- not a promise but a vow; vows are harder to break and hurt more when you do -- that he would never kill out of anger, only out of necessity. He has broken this vow twice since then.

4. Sometimes when awake and aimless on a Sunday morning, John would slip into services at whatever Catholic church he could find, lose himself in the old familiar ritual. It was his mother's, one of their tiny shared things, and he'd stopped when she'd gone. Died. It took him until after Serbia before he was willing to remember. He can murmur along, every syllable letter-perfect, and he does not believe a word of what he is saying.

5. John received his BS at twenty and his MS at twenty-two. Then, Desert Storm happened. Sometimes, when he can't sleep at night, he summons whiteboard after whiteboard behind the backs of his eyelids and tries to lose himself in the clean pure lines of the math, but he can't remember even the first steps of it. He has a terrible creeping suspicion that he will never again be smart enough to keep going.

6. John's first kiss was Tess Knightley: in the front seat of her mother's Dodge, all elbows and knees and gear shift and steering wheel and it started the trend of him never, ever seeing it coming. John's second kiss was Brad Ramirez: last two in the locker room, lights already off and the distant drip drip drip of a busted showerhead. Tess smelled better. Brad was more fun.

7. John did not speak more than a hundred words to his father from March of 1989 to January of 1990. He gave up when he realized his father hadn't noticed.

8. John doesn't much like most of the people they meet on trading and exploration missions. He doesn't much like anyone until he gets a chance to know them. One of his greatest fears is that someday, someone's going to see through the smile and the banter and notice what he can't keep the rest of his face from giving away.

9. There are entire weeks where John doesn't sleep more than a few hours a night, waking up suddenly and abruptly every forty-five minutes or so, taking what feels like an eternity to drop back off. He doesn't think it's because of dreams, because he can't ever remember them: he will remember dreaming, but not remember the contents, even the feel. He thinks there might be something sleeping in his lizard hindbrain; perhaps his subconscious will not let him rest until he is convinced everyone is safe. After several weeks of living on nerves and whatever substitute for caffeine they're relying on this week, John always considers asking Carson for a sleeping pill, but it usually goes away as suddenly as it came on. Until the next time.

10. The Marines spend a lot of time fantasizing about Earth food, Earth comforts. Bacon, beer, mac & cheese, Mom's apple pie. John nods and smiles and plays along, offers up "Sam Adams" and "Snickers bars", but really, there isn't anything he misses enough to dream about it, anything he couldn't live without so much that he can conjure the remembered taste. He spent too long living on Big Macs and base food. The things the cooks can do with the Athosian staples, with the things they trade for, remind him of day passes and exploring, wearing civvies and smiling his very best aw-shucks-ma'am smile, sitting down in tiny cafes and letting the sounds of whatever city he was stationed in wash over him while people he couldn't talk to brought him food he couldn't pronounce. He always ate everything they set before him, and when he returned to base, the MREs always tasted like plastic and grease.

11. Sometimes John sneaks out to the east pier, to the part where the steps lead down into the water. He takes off his boots and rolls up his pants and puts his toes on the last step, the one covered by an inch of ocean. The water is always cool but not cold, and it makes him think of lemonade and rum drinks with umbrellas and the shining silver joy of catching the one perfect wave. He brings his headset with him, but no one ever calls him. He suspects they watch him on the sensors, wonder what he's thinking about. What he thinks is this: Sky and water are two different things, and John is a child of the air, but he's spent too many years living in a desert and sometimes you just have to wash yourself clean.

12. John really did like Antarctica. Everyone always looks at him strangely when he says that, but it was quiet and calm and the sunrises felt like the first day of the world, each and every one of them. Once he'd been officially reassigned to SGC, in the crazy two months between holy shit we can do this and holy shit we're really doing this, when all the scientists kept staring at him when they thought he couldn't see and whispering him, he's the one, he used to go out and watch the sun rise a few times a week, just to fix the sight in his mind and remember he was more than what others saw in him.

13. John cooks. He'll never be able to turn out a four-course dinner party at the drop of a hat with the contents of his cupboards, even when he's living somewhere that will allow him to have cupboards, but he can choose ingredients and turn out something simple and respectable. He learned it from his mother, from the years when she was a perfect military wife who cooked and cleaned and waited patiently and said all the right things to all the right people and brought John along with her the whole way, teaching him by example as much as by words. He doesn't bother cooking for just himself, because it's wasteful, but sometimes when the currents of life sweep someone into his orbits for a week, a month, a year, he will rise with the sun and find the farmer's market and select five things that should not go together but somehow always do.

14. John likes Virgil because some motivations are universal and Chaucer because it makes him laugh, all the dirty jokes his Western Civ teacher explained in painstaking detail. He thinks Shakespeare is overrated and only made his way through Milton with the Cliff Notes next to him. He has read Candide four times, and each time he brings something new to it, but the one book he reads every year come hell or high water is Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, because it's saying something he can almost grasp, something important, and he can tell that he's almost there.

14. Marianne Martinelli, the girl John might have married in another universe, told him when she ended it that she wanted a man who knew how to be happy. John never understood what she meant. He'll never be one of those people who radiates joy, but he lives for the moments when everything all clicks together, when the universe falls into place and everything makes sense, when every little thing he hasn't been able to understand suddenly makes that one quantum shift and builds a new picture, crystal-clear, in the space behind his eyes. He finds it in math, in fighting, in fucking, in those few-and-far-between moments when every little piece of his worldview makes that eigenvalue jump into something new and strange, but above all else he finds it at 30,000 feet when his hands are nothing more than an extension of the plane's wings and engines. John learned a lot of things in Japan that he understands but can't explain to someone else and a lot of things he doesn't understand in the least but wants to, but if there's any moment when he comes close to understanding zanshin, it's then.

16. John likes being on Atlantis; this part isn't the secret. Atlantis likes John, too, and everyone knows that much. The secret is this: Atlantis kind of creeps John the fuck out. The constant presence in the back of his head, the puppy that cannot be brought to heel. Look at this it nudges him when he walks through the corridors, touch this see this fix this appreciate this let me show you. Never strong enough to be words, but a relentless chatter of sense, impression, feeling. The Ancient technology has a mental component, all the scientists say, but John thinks maybe he's the only one of them Atlantis wants to control as much as they want to control her. Surely if anyone else were feeling this, the sense of intrusion and imposition and never, ever, ever being alone in the confines of your own skull, they wouldn't charge blindly into exploration and discovery the way they do. John listens to Atlantis, lets Atlantis listen to him, because someone has to and he's the best equipped. This doesn't mean he doesn't miss the days when his head had a population of one.

17. The first time John fired a gun, he missed the target completely. The weight of it was unfamiliar in his hand, the smell of it metallic and alien. He spent hours in the range, learning the shape of his body, until it all fell together and buried itself down deep in his muscles. There is a quiet sense of satisfaction in competence and ability, in mastering your own muscles and bending them to your will. When he is upset or angry, when he needs to find his center and there's no plane in sight, he goes to the armory and wastes boxes of ammo he knows they can't really spare. The Marines give him a wide berth on nights like that; they understand the need to keep skills sharp, but John thinks they find him a little touched in the head, hears them whispering about him behind his back. McKay found him there the night after the hurricane, picked up a set of ear protectors and took a position just far enough up-range to be at the very edge of John's radius. McKay still can't hit what he's aiming at more than half the time, but John can already see that changing.

18. John likes Atlantis because everyone there -- or nearly everyone, really, close enough -- trusts that he'll know what to do when they need him. It's the first time in his life he's ever actually been scared of not living up to expectations.

19. A shitload of people have told John that he doesn't belong in the military. Some of them were the people who signed his orders. His ready-made excuse is that he likes the comfort of it, the daily routine, knowing all the rules (even when he ignores them) and knowing what's expected of him. It's easy. Familiar. People usually buy it, and so they never get close enough to the real truth, which is this: he really does believe that he has an obligation to use what he's been given for the greater good, to protect people, to shield them, to make it possible for them to make their own choices. He only ignores orders when the person giving them doesn't understand how heavy that weight can be.

20. People have been trying to pigeonhole John for his entire life. It's like they take one look at him and assign him to one of the boxes, one of the labels, and everything he does that doesn't fit that perception is strange and alien and out of character. John doesn't let himself define himself, walks a narrow and fine line between all of the labels and all of the boxes and concentrates on doing, not defining. His mother always said that it's your actions that make up the shape of who you really are. John thinks that maybe if he's still enough, if he shuts his own mouth and gets out of his own way, someday he might start to see the outlines at last.

21. John has known for as long as he can remember that he will die younger than he should, probably with a lot of things unfinished and a lot of questions left unanswered. He doesn't know how he knows it; he is not a superstitious man, but some things transcend superstition and reach the realm of bone-deep fact. Sometimes it leaves him desperate, scrabbling for understanding with both hands and holding it tightly to his chest, and the harder he grasps for it, the more it slips away. It's like a clock ticking, sand trailing down in the hourglass and trickling towards a deadline he has never been vouchsafed. Lately, though, he is almost beginning to believe he will find some of the answers in time after all. Every time he stares death in the face and feels her patient and terrifying mercy waiting for him, he fits another bit of it into place. Maybe it will be enough.

22. "No man left behind" isn't something the military taught John. It's because every death he's responsible for leaves him feeling like he's lost another piece of something small and precious he'll never be able to get back again, and he doesn't know how much more of it he has to give.

23. When John realizes he has someone whose quarters he can invade at three o'clock in the morning when he needs to know there's something real out there, someone who will bitch and grumble and complain the entire time but whose hands and eyes unfailingly give him, not what he wants, but what he needs, he takes a puddlejumper and some of his banked leave time and goes to sit on a beach on the mainland for three days. He isn't quite sure what scares him so badly about the realization. It's new and it's unfamiliar and terrifying in the way that living under the shadow of near-constant peril can never be. John's never been scared of the unknown, but he's never let it touch him, either. Maybe it's not too late to learn.

24. For the first time in his life, John is beginning to see that maybe high walls don't just defend you. They starve you, too.

25. John has never been attracted to a smart mouth or a bad attitude, but intelligence and competence have always gotten him hot and bothered. He's almost starting to like the mouth, though, and the attitude -- well, the attitude is changing. Atlantis is changing them all, into something new and strange, uncharting the charted territories and leaving behind signs saying "here there be dragons". Someday, maybe even soon, he'll be able to lay out some of the things he keeps guarded under lock and key. Maybe he won't even need to; maybe Rodney will be able to figure it out on his own. John wonders how long it will be until he can learn to read Rodney's roadmap in return.

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