"Okay, I think this will work," John says two days later without turning around. Jack had often wondered how John could identify him coming in, at which time John had raised an eyebrow and pointed out that he didn't get that many visitors.
Still, though. He was always right. Uncannily so.
"Oh. You have a guest," John says abruptly, turning in his chair. Jack sees his right hand is resting on his thigh, where his gun would normally be. Slouching in his chair, face blank, John's eyes flicker between them, then rest on Jack, excluding Sumner from his attention. "Sumner?"
"You're going to be a handful," Sumner drawls with amusement, following Jack to the nearest chairs. John's face doesn't change at all, but he's tense all over, evaluating them without bothering to hide it.
But. There's a Johnny Cash poster on the wall, and reports state that John tends to start Johnny Cash whenever he seems agitated. Amazon had provided John with a surprising variety of music--and some stuff Jack isn't even sure qualifies as music--but Johnny Cash is what comes out under stress. It could be an act--and he'd bet John would tell him that if asked. Thing is, he's pretty sure John doesn't even know he does it.
"I *do this professionally*," John had said one afternoon, all the more believable for the cool, impartial delivery. "And I can be whoever I need to be exactly as long as I need to be."
"Then why would you *tell me*?"
"To throw you off! Jesus, you *studied us*. You know perfectly well what I can do. We live our roles as long as we need to, then we discard them. I like this role. But don't make the mistake of thinking it's anything but a role."
"For the rest of my life if necessary, which it is. I might even start believing it. But that doesn't make it any less imaginary."
Jack had nodded agreeably and said, "I think, therefore I am."
John had stared at him. "What the hell does that mean?"
That had been a good night.
Sumner leans forward, elbows resting on his knees. "You're going to be good."
John blinks; for the first time since they met, John is genuinely speechless.
"That's a pretty amazing file. Is it complete?"
Sumner nods in satisfaction. "They left off the stuff they want to keep proprietary. In case we want to start our own unit. Which we could, you know. Bet you could tell us how. Bet you could train them, too."
John blinks, eyes focusing on Sumner. Jack makes himself stay expressionless; John reads him too well. "You won't."
"Why not? If that file is anything to go by, we could use a few hundred men like you."
"The process isn't always very--successful." John's voice is so flat that Jack wonders if it's actually coming from the wall.
Sumner leans back, waving it off. "Trial and error. We have the Asgard, after all. Shortcut a lot of the--"
Sumner straightens. "No?"
"No. You won't."
"There are five of you. If you won't, I'll get one of the other ones. With the files, we won't really need any of you, but I'd like to have an example around."
John's gone dangerously still. "You can't--you can't start that again." Jack can almost see the connections being made; the Asgard, their questions, his own work, jumping to the conclusion that carefully analytical mind should make. "It's--what they do--"
"Volunteers only, of course," Sumner says with a disapproving frown. "My men would sign up."
"Not if they knew what they were going to--"
"Be faster, stronger, smarter than anyone else? Autonomic nervous system control; you can release your own adrenaline when you need it. Minimal sleep, metabolism regulation, high pain tolerance--"
"Endorphin release," John whispers, eyes blank. "Forty seven hours to work out how to make *that* work--"
O'Neill pushes the nausea aside. Not yet.
"Eidetic memory. And conditioned response. Conditioned obedience in your group, or so I heard." Sumner cocks his head. "You think anyone wouldn't want that? Any commander?"
"Obsessive compulsive disorder. Psychotic breaks. Schizophrenia, paranoid and catatonia. Light sensitivity--"
"Small price to pay."
"No sense of self."
"They're soldiers. They'd do it for their country."
"They're *people*," John says suddenly. Both hands clenched into fists. "When they're done with you, you aren't a person. You're not even an animal. You're a *program*."
"You're a volunteer."
"I didn't volunteer for *that*." Jack can feel the snap, and Jesus, it must have been weeks coming, months coming, maybe years, maybe since the day John realized what he'd become. "Serve your country. Save American lives. Avoid a war. Tell that to a man who already took an oath to serve his country and he'll believe it. I believed it. I watched too many men die--too many--I *saw* what war does--" John's hands begin to shake, pressed into his thighs hard enough to leave fist shaped bruises. "You have three people watching me. I can kill you both and get out the door before they can remember how to run. This facility--."
Sumner tilts his head in curiosity. "Why do you care?"
John goes still, eyes flickering to Jack, fixing and focusing, searching his body and his face for confirmation or denial. Then, abruptly, John blinks, slumping into his chair. "Fuck. You."
Sumner smiles. "Like I said. You're going to be good." Standing up, he looks down at John. "I look forward to working with you, Major Sheppard." With a nod and a salute in Jack's general direction, he strolls out the door, leaving Jack alone with a former assassin that's possibly, very likely, still deeply pissed off. Probably not smart.
Jack tries a bright smile. "So. Think you can work with him?"
"What was that?" John asks, voice low and precisely pitched; Jack's pretty sure even the microphones aren't going to be able to pick that up without computer assistance.
John erupts from the chair, and it takes everything in Jack to stay still. "What the fuck were you trying to *accomplish*? I could have killed you--"
"Why does it matter?"
And there it is again; John stops as suddenly as someone running into a wall.
"Those men? You don't know them. And they aren't people to you anyway." Jack watches John take his seat with a lot less than his usual control. "In fact. How did you feel? When you thought we were using you to make a new Treadstone?"
"I." And John stops, swallowing. "It wasn't--"
John doesn't answer, looking at the far wall of observers, but Jack's pretty sure he's not seeing anything in this room. "You aren't going to do it."
Jack sighs. "What gave it away?" John's too good with body language. "I knew I couldn't keep--"
"You did, but no. By the way, did you know when you're thinking, you look like you're trying to listen to a conversation between imaginary people? It's an effective conversational deterrent. No. I didn't," John's eyes narrow, voice grinding like he's pushing the words between clenched teeth, "get that far."
"You wouldn't. Do that." John sits back, mouth a tight, unhappy line. "I know you. I need to finish something." Getting up, John turns his back on John. "Sumner's waiting for you in the observation room. It's irritating."
Jack stands up, feeling shaky but not sure why. "I'll be back."
"Kinda used to it," John answers with a glimmer of sarcasm, sitting down at the laptop and cutting off communication. Jack takes a second to contemplate the ultrastraight back, then nods to himself, going out. It's John. It's not supposed to make sense.
Sumner's waiting for him outside the door. "How'd he know I was in there?"
"No clue. Guess maybe."
Sumner raises an eyebrow, but Jack's not up to working out the motives of their problem child. Gesturing, he goes to the small office he keeps here, looking for his whiskey. It's that kind of a day.
"Please," Sumner says, taking the seat across from him. Jack gives him the glass and sits down, feeling broody and off-balance. "He's ready, Jack."
"Yeah." Jack stares at his glass. "What happened back there?"
"The imaginary conversation thing's true," Sumner offers unasked. Jack gives him a withering look, but Sumner ignores him. "He does it, too. Does now, anyway."
Jack straightens. "What does that mean?"
Sumner gives him an amused look and takes a drink, supremely indifferent to the fact that apparently, Jack's out of the loop. There's no way he can be out of the loop. He *is* the loop. "Marshall."
"Jack." Setting the glass down, Sumner smirks. "It looks like he's decided what kind of man he wants to be. When the Asgard are done, that's the baseline he'll start with. He picked you."
Oh Jesus Christ. Jack takes a drink. He may need more. "You're kidding."
"With some variations that I, for one, am sure will drive me crazy in a few months," Sumner says smugly. "You drove your commanders nuts, too, you know. He's going to be just like that. Won't toe the line, trusts his own judgment over anyone else's, and obedient only up to a point." Sumner looks at his glass thoughtfully. "Jesus. Talk about making a rod for my own back--"
"He said it was a role."
"That's called living, Jack. The Asgard will buy him the time to know himself. When he gets those memories back, he'll know exactly who he is." Sumner picks up the glass. "I'm going to be kicking his ass for a while. I may need to check what your commanders did with you."
"What makes this different from what they did to him at Treadstone?" Jack stares at the glass, thinking of John at the computer, then at Marshall. The smile's gone.
"Because every step of the way, he had to choose what he wanted to take with him. He did eighteen years of growing with his eyes wide open to what every decision means. And he chose not to make it easy." Sumner finishes the glass. "Sheppard is going to have as many black marks and as many commendations as you ever did. He'll wake up at night after making decisions that will end men's lives. He'll have the brass riding his ass because he won't trust them before they earn it. He'll walk though fire if that's what it takes to save those that depend on him. And he's going to fuck up, because that's what you do when you're growing up." Sumner sets down the glass. "Like I said."
"He's going to be good."
Sumner smiles. "Remind me of this conversation after six months with him. I'll need it."
Jack salutes him with the glass, draining it, feeling shaken and more drunk than a double should make him. "I think I might need it, too."
If John doesn't stop pacing, Jack might have to shoot him. It'll be okay. He won't remember, after all. "Sit. Down."
John doesn't stop, not even for a glare, which is enough to make Jack nervous. John's been restless all day, but the last hour has jerked John completely out of his projected calm and into restless, constant action, checking a paper here, reviewing a program already completed there, coming back to glare at the laptop like it personally offended him.
"It's this or fight." John turns a smile on him, stopping so abruptly Jack feels a little visual motion sickness. "I'd like to go one on one with you. Just to see."
"You'd beat me," Jack answers without any shame at all. Even a little. "And you wouldn't even work up a sweat doing it."
John rolls his eyes, turning away to give the laptop another glare. "My life," John says, enunciating each word with such clarity Jack can almost see them in the air, "is about to end."
"Dramatic. It's going to change." Jack slumps further in his seat, knowing that it's making John's irritation worse, but he can't help it. "And only for a few years. Then you get to tell me that I'm right, and I get a very expensive bottle of whiskey."
John frowns. "Role."
"Life and living it." Standing up, Jack closes the laptop, aware of the faint ache that's grown steadily stronger over the last week. John had repeated his own history by rote, word perfect, then his family, his ex wife, his reason for his transfer to Antarctica, the death of Holland, who'd been the closest thing John had had to a friend before.
Friend, Jack thinks, is a word that omits more than it covers. The date of Holland's death had coincided with the day John decided to drop off Treadstone's radar only to resurface on their front door a month later. After Jason's vanishing act, they hadn't been willing to let him out of their sight--at least, not without persuasion. And not without briefing John on exactly what he was supposed to do.
"I can learn a lot in five years," John says suddenly, turning on a heel. "Everything. Eidetic memory. If those blocks come off--"
"Then nothing will change. Well, I'll get my whiskey. I'll have to find a really special bottle."
"I'll go back to them. Conditioned *obedience*, Jack."
"Not noticeably," Jack answers, sitting back down. "Unless that little snit you pulled before you went home to be shot was actually on the schedule. If I remember correctly, you were supposed to help track down Bourne--"
John snorts. "Not if I wanted to survive." Frustrated, he drops in a chair, staring at Jack with resentful eyes. A world away from that first interview. It might be a role, but then again, John has no context for what he's become. Jack will let him keep his illusions a little longer.
"But you didn't want to survive."
John's eyes narrow.
"And now you do. So it worked out." Jack eyes the pile of sudoku puzzles and almost sighs, because really. *Really*, John. The ache is a little stronger.
"I won't remember--any of this," John gestures around the room, eyes lingering on the poster for a second, the CDs in the corner. Jack already gave orders that everything John owns here goes with him. "It feels--"
"You want to believe too much," John says flatly. "It's naïve."
"I prefer optimistic." Jack waits, but John seems done for the second, so he takes the opportunity to call for more coffee. "Coffee?"
When the coffee comes, Jack watches John mix his own, relieved to see it's nothing like he does, but the sudoku puzzles are still making him uneasy. A part of him wants to address it, but how the hell is he supposed to do that? And why, in the name of God?
John goes to his bed, curling in the corner, knees raised defensively. In the BDU's he's taken to wearing every day ("Role," John had said firmly. Jack didn't even dignify that with a response), he looks younger and older both. Jack eyes his hair doubtfully. "You need a haircut."
John, startled, reaches up, then jerks his hand back down. "I wanted something--different."
"It's different." Spikier than Jack remembers. Very non-regulation. Sumner is going to hate it. Jack reminds himself to remind Sumner he can't fall on his sword. He *signed up* for this. Voluntarily.
They've got another hour before the Asgard do the final evaluation, then the slow, careful process of memory arrangement will start. Slow, because what they're going to do is something more complicated than just a flat block.
John had argued about that. "Why in the name of God do I need to keep *temperature regulation*? The physical conditioning isn't--"
"Because it'll be easier for your body if you don't suddenly lose what you've lived with for years. We don't know what was natural to you and what was changed. Besides, suppressing your body memory is tricky and you're a soldier. That means you fight. And I think we'd all prefer you survive. Maybe protect some other people too? It being your *job* and all."
"And be erratic, considering I won't even *know what I can do*--"
"I'll leave that to chance. But I'm guessing when you're attacked, your body will do it's damndest to get you out of it. Now deal with it."
John hadn't said another word, but he looked it for hours until Jack had distracted him with McKay's latest program changes.
"I won't remember this."
Jack takes a breath. He'd seen this coming. "I know. That's the point. If you--"
"I won't remember you."
Jesus. "In five years--"
"Yeah. If you don't have to kill me." At some point, John got up, because he's standing right in front of Jack's chair, leaning against the table. "And it won't be the same, even if it works."
Jack controls his expression, but John can read him and they both know it. "I know."
John takes a deep breath, eyes studying Jack for a long second. "I don't--" Before Jack can respond--or hell, think--warm, callused hands cup his face, and John's mouth is pressed against his, asking like John has never, ever asked for anything.
And maybe it's not that wrong to let it happen. Or maybe he's making excuses, because in less than an hour, John's walking into that room and Major Sheppard will be the one walking out. Curving a hand around the back of John's neck, he licks across John's lips, surprised by the sudden warmth curling around the ache, and John--Jesus, such a fucking bad idea.
Forty five minutes. Grabbing John's hip, he pulls him closer, and John straddles his lap, deepening the kiss into something that should lead to hours, and they don't have the time. And even if they did--
"John." Pulling back, Jack looks into the hazel eyes, surprised by the intensity, flares of summer green and hungry. "This is a bad idea. Really--" John shifts deliberately and yes, that's what they need here, thank you fucking *libido*, "--*bad idea*. John. *John*."
Jack licks his lips and regrets it, tasting John there, and God, why didn't he see this coming? Sumner might as well have written him a road map. "Because you aren't ready."
John straightens. "You have *got* to be kidding me. You *made me*--"
"Exactly." Holding John's eyes, Jack makes himself continue. "That's why."
"Is it Jackson?"
Jesus Christ. "Are you--"
"Speculated involvement for at least five years," John says, staring at him flatly. "You gave me the mission reports. I read between the lines."
Jack pauses, unwillingly impressed. "Really?"
John blinks, then sighs. "Yes, and the fact he's speed dial one and the only person who never calls, which implies, put together with recent mission reports and the surprising amount of time you can get away with spending on this little project, you and he are--" John's mouth quirks slightly. "I think the term is, on a break."
"You are such an asshole." Jack braces his hands and stands up, dumping John on the floor. Sadly, John is a cat; lands on both feet and one hand, mouth curving in a smile. "Get up."
John takes the offered hand, coming up against Jack briefly, and Christ. The little bastard. Then he steps away, putting a perfectly respectable two feet between them, leaning back into the table. "You're going to look back on this and regret it," John says. Jack makes himself look away from the long, lean body and reddened, slightly swollen mouth. He's kind of regretting it already. "A lot."
Jack snorts, sitting back down and wishing he had a drink. A bottle, maybe. "I'm going to miss you less than I thought."
John's silent for a second. "I want you to promise me something," he says finally.
"If it's about killing you--"
"No. That ship has sailed. You are fucked. I accept that. No. I need you to--" John stops. "You know about Bourne, right?"
Jack crosses his arms. "Yeah?"
"I won't remember him. He might eventually remember more. Me." Yeah. John's not the kind you forget easily, even for an amnesiac. "You won't find him, so don't bother trying. If he finds you, make sure he knows--make sure he knows we chose this. That we knew what we were doing. That--that this is who we wanted to be."
Jack nods. "I'll tell him."
Jack takes the last message in his office, one line in a coded message to the SGC about alliances and trade, maybe naquada, who the hell cared.
*Procedure successful* and Jack closes the file on Jonathan Dex for good.
Jack glances down at the older and remembers the first time he met John, before he had a last name or a SGC folder to his name, who stared at Jack with wide, blank hazel eyes and asked if Jack had any idea what he'd agreed to take. "You're going to regret it," John had said, lounging lazily in a cheap plastic chair wearing a suit that cost more than Jack's car. "With all of us."
"Probably." John's eyes had reflected a mocking reminder of what they both knew; if he couldn't handle him, Jack would have to order him killed. It would be necessary and it would be right, and it would be every bit as much of an assassination as anything John had ever done. The only difference would be motive.
Jack had almost considered leaving, but the file tempted him; more, the man did, the slick, glossy image that didn't look any more real than a picture in a magazine who carried himself like a weapon and stared at Jack with burning contempt. He radiated a promise of a very slow death, and that really made Jack wonder.
"Do you even want to survive?" Jack had asked rhetorically, not expecting an answer, and certainly not expecting the way John's back had straightened, the transition from stillness to sudden motion, and it was only the fact he was looking at all that he was almost ready for John to pin him to the wall, fingers wrapped around his throat and into the edges of tendons, ready to rip it out and watch Jack choke to death on his own blood.
Jack didn't fight him, going limp, knowing John couldn't hold his weight with one hand forever, and knowing, too, that John wouldn't kill him.
After a second, he had dropped Jack, hazel eyes wide and glazed, taking a stumbling step backward and hitting the bare table with one hip. Jack barely keeps his balance and doesn't reach to rub his throat, signaling to the watchers to stay where they were. "Why'd you stop?"
John had stared back. "You didn't give me a reason."
"Didn't care?" Jack had asked softly, and a muscle twitches below his jaw in response. "Why do you need a reason?"
John hadn't answered, but Jack saw that split second of something raw beneath. Whether John had been born with that inhibition on taking life or not, it wasn't there now and Jack's not sure how a person gets that back. He leaves the psychology to the experts. What he'd known in that moment was this: whatever else had happened, John had created his own brakes, using the parameters of his training to define them. Objectives and threats were free game; the rest was not. Definition complete.
It was dangerous, but in a way that Jack could live with. "Do you want out?" Jack had said, going back to sit down, knowing John would respect the lack of fear. "Out of this building, out of Treadstone? Out of this room for that matter?"
"If they want to kill me, it won't matter where I am," John had answered, but he'd gone to sit back down, unruffled and calm again like the last two minutes had never happened. Jack had flattened a hand on the table, feeling the implant Janet had put in his palm activate, tingle running up his arm and muffle the microphones that filled the room. John had straightened, eyes widening, and Jack had taken one second to file away the reaction to something he shouldn't have been able to sense before he spoke.
"We have two minutes, three tops. Now listen."
John had blinked, arms uncrossing. "What?"
"You can't continue what you are. Not after Bourne; any one he associated with isn't going to see daylight. You know that. You're in a building you were trained to break out of if you wanted to. If you bullshit about security, I know you're lying. You apprenticed under the best there is, and what he didn't know isn't worth knowing. Now. If you could walk out of here free and clear, what would you do?"
Sheppard had met Jack's eyes then, the first time during the interview. Old bitterness had stared out at him, long festering, and Jack had felt something tighten when he recognized it. It's one thing to be broken. It's another to know you are, and what it makes you. Worse, to know that once, you might have been something else, and know you can never get that back. "There's not anything else. This is who they made me."
Jack had taken a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "What if you could be someone else?"
The first time Jack meets Major Sheppard, he looks pretty much the same way he did the last time.
Jack grins when he gets in the helicopter, watching competent hands move over the controls as John takes them in the air.
"I like it here," John says, watching the wide swathes of snow draped earth. "Peaceful."
Jack just bets it is.