John Eric wouldn’t admit it, but he was just a little bit terrified. It was a historic moment. His oldest son and a handful of other young men and women were graduating from the United States Air Force Academy as the first class of cadets specially trained for the Stargate Program. (Aliens. Wormholes. Other galaxies. A year later, and it still made his head spin.) Samuel had just been admitted to the Academy and would graduate in the fifth class of Stargate Cadets. John Eric should have been proud.
He had a seat on the second row in the stadium where the graduation ceremony was being held, right behind a whole bunch of government and military dignitaries involved in the Stargate Program - General Jack O’Neill, General Hank Landry, General Samantha Carter, Dr. Daniel Jackson, Richard Woolsey, Dr. Rodney McKay, Colonel John Sheppard, Colonel Cameron Mitchell. Samuel was sitting beside John Eric, looking sharp in his cadet uniform. Sitting beside Samuel were Lieutenant-Colonel Evan Lorne and Dr. Jonathan O’Neill.
When Jonathan had finally sat him down to tell the truth, truth that most of the government didn’t know and was still highly classified - a lot of the details of the Stargate Program were still classified - John Eric’s mind had been blown. He’d been unable to think for a second after Jonathan confessed: that he wasn’t a teenager, that he was the neurological copy of General Jack O’Neill who’d been crammed into a teenaged clone of Jack O’Neill’s body as the result of an alien experiment carried out against his will and gone wrong. In fact, he was older than John Eric, and he was mentally older than his older-seeming lover by a couple of decades. Evan looked twenty years older than Jonathan. Evan was actually twenty years younger than him.
The ceremony was blessedly brief. Jack O’Neill had the honor of presenting the graduates with their diplomas, and he wasn’t one for long-winded speeches. General Landry welcomed the cadets into the Stargate Program, and Dr. Jackson spoke briefly about how they represented the best and brightest of the future of humanity among the stars. When Dean crossed the stage to receive his diploma, Samuel, John Eric, Jonathan, and Evan had cheered with abandon.
After the ceremony, there was a fancy reception at an upscale restaurant downtown, with wine and cubes of fancy cheese and crackers and everyone being polite, being politic, being ambitious. John Eric knew he cleaned up nice, but he and Bobby lingered on the edges, sipping from a single glass of wine and hoping no one talked to them. Krissy had been very excited to have a chance to dress up, and she was working the crowd of uniformed men and women like a pro. John Eric wasn’t sure what he would do if he lost her to the military as well. After her father had died - he’d battled cancer for years, which was why Krissy took up the job at the garage, to help with medical bills - a weight had been lifted from her, and while she would never be as delicate and sweet as Samuel’s girl Jess, she was a brighter person.
Dean was talking earnestly with Evan and General Carter, sipping wine, and John Eric wondered when his boy had become such a fine young man. He’d shipped off to Vietnam to fight with only his mother’s farewell, and he’d come home to disdain and angry hippies spitting in his face.
For Dean, not even the sky would be the limit.
“You look about as excited to be here as I am.” The man who slid into John Eric’s shadowed corner was none other than Colonel John Sheppard, Commander of Atlantis.
He had unruly non-regulation hair and was clutching a glass of wine like a shield.
“Not really my scene,” John Eric said.
Sheppard nodded to where Dr. McKay had joined Dean and General Carter. “I figured I’d get out of the line of fire.”
“You expecting sparks?”
“Where Carter and Rodney get together, nothing’s safe. Carter blew up a star once. And Rodney took out five-sixths of an uninhabited solar system.”
John Eric glanced at Sheppard. The man didn’t look like he was joking.
“Between your military training of your son and his unparalleled engineering genius - don’t tell Rodney I said that - he can pick any posting he wants in the Program,” Sheppard said. “I think Lorne and Doc O’Neill have been trying to sweet-talk him into coming to Atlantis.”
And that was why John Eric was terrified. Atlantis was in a whole other galaxy.
“What’s it like out there?” John Eric asked.
“It becomes home,” Sheppard said. He took a deep breath. “Earth doesn’t even smell like home anymore.”
“Will I lose him?” John Eric asked.
Sheppard shook his head. “Nah. He’ll just bring you with him, one way or another. Atlantis isn’t just home, it’s family.”
John Eric knew Sheppard wasn’t a man much possessed of sentimentality. What he’d stated was simply a fact of life for him. Atlantis was home, and it was family.
While Dean had inherited much of his mother’s natural charm, he’d also inherited some of his father’s solitary nature, and he retreated from conversation around the same time as Dr. McKay said,
“John, come settle this once and for all!”
Sheppard peeled himself away from the wall. “Duty calls.” And he went to McKay’s side.
“How does it feel, Lieutenant Winchester?” John Eric asked.
Cadets no more, Dean and his classmates had declared.
Dean took a deep breath. “It feels - kind of like a birthday. Everyone expects you to feel older, but you don’t. I don’t feel like a real soldier yet, I guess. I mean, during my internship I went through the gate and even had a run with a - uh, that’s classified. But I was still a cadet, you know? The other guys covered me and made sure I was safe.”
A run in. John Eric swallowed down questions. He understood classified. “So, have you thought about where you want to be posted?”
“General Carter says she could put in a good word with some of the commanders of the battle cruisers, like her old post The Hammond or even The Daedalus, which is support for Atlantis. I’m not sure I could handle all the international politics on The Sun Tzu.” Dean stared down at his glass of wine. He was legally old enough to drink. When had that happened?
And when had Dean even considered international politics?
“I was talking to Jonathan and Lorne, though. And there’s room for me on Atlantis, if I want it.”
“If you want it,” John Eric said, the hardest words he’d ever had to say, “take it.”
Dean eyed John Eric over the rim of his wine glass but didn’t actually drink. “Are you sure?”
“It’s your life, son, not mine.”
Dean searched John Eric’s gaze, and John Eric did his best to look positive and supportive, and Dean grinned. “Thanks, Dad.” He leaned in and, to John Eric’s surprise, hugged him.
Then someone called his name, one of his classmates, and he hurried away.
“John Eric Winchester.”
John Eric turned.
General Jack O’Neill had spoken to John Eric on the phone hundreds of times over the years. He hadn’t sounded like a general, sounded like the kind of man who was up for a good time fishing over some cold beers. The man standing before him had so many decorations on his jacket it was a wonder he could walk. But John Eric recognized the sardonic lift at the corner of his mouth, the brightness in his dark eyes.
“Thanks for keeping an eye on Mini Me. Officially.”
John Eric glanced over to where Jonathan was standing with Evan, one hand in the small of Evan’s back, the gesture a comfort and proprietary all at once, then glanced back at Jack. “I think he’s pretty good at keeping an eye on himself.”
“That he is. But still, I know me, and someone had to keep an eye on him.”
“Why didn’t you just...keep him?”
“He said he wanted out. I get that.”
“And now he’s back in.”
“That he is.”
John Eric eyed him. “How did you do it? Step through a Stargate for the first time.”
Jack shrugged. “I had orders and nothing to lose.”
“Gained a whole lot, it would seem.”
Jack glanced across the room - at Dr. Jackson, who was involved in a fierce debate with McKay, while Sheppard looked on in amusement. “Indeed.”
There was some kind of in-joke about the word indeed that John Eric wasn’t sure he’d ever understand, but he smiled. “Well, I kept an eye on your boy. Keep an eye on mine?”
“Both eyes,” Jack said.
John Eric scanned the room, found Dean deep in conversation with Jonathan, and knew this was the beginning of goodbye, and the rest of his son’s life. An angel had once told John Eric that his son was going to change the world. John Eric was pretty sure this wasn’t how the angel had meant it, but he knew the angel had been right. Dean was going to change many worlds, and John Eric was proud of him, and finally ready to let him go.