Return to Sender

by Domenika Marzione

He was in the commissary watching Yoni dissect both his lasagna and Doctor Lam's theory on vectors of transmission (at least that's what he thought that they were arguing about) when an airman came up to the table with the 'bearer of bad news' look about him.

It had to be about Atlantis. The entire Mountain knew about Sheppard's stunt by now; Lorne had been getting sidelong glances since he'd shown up for work this morning (early, since he hadn't been sleeping anyway) and former Atlantis personnel had been finding reasons to run into him. Out of the people he actually didn't mind seeing, which was very few considering who was currently in Atlantis, Radner (who had carefully not asked any direct questions) had been in and out of his office all morning and Yoni (who seemed content to assume that Lorne had been an accomplice) had come to him for lunch instead of Lorne being called by someone from Medical and and being asked to stage an intervention.

"Major Lorne," the airman began, drawing himself up. "General Landry would like to see you, sir."

Yoni and Lam stopped arguing. Pretty much everyone else in the commissary stopped talking, too.

Lorne exchanged a look with Yoni, then stood and picked up his tray.

Five minutes later, he was escorted into Landry's office. Landry was on the phone -- the red phone -- and Lorne stood quietly waiting for acknowledgment.

"He's crazy, you know that?" Landry said as he hung up the phone and Lorne felt almost giddy with relief because he was pretty sure Landry wasn't talking about the President.

"Yes, sir," he answered, because Landry wasn't wrong. "But in a good way."

A grunt that was probably agreement. "Stop smiling, Major," Landry warned with a wag of his finger. "I'm still trying to figure out your part in this."

Lorne bit his lip, but he couldn't quite school himself to perfect seriousness. He'd been wound up like a spring ever since he'd found out that Sheppard had left, convinced that he'd seen the last of John Sheppard and the others and wishing that he could have gone along nonetheless. He'd understood why he couldn't have gone alone, was honored that Sheppard was essentially trusting Atlantis to him, but that hadn't changed how he'd reacted once he'd found out. And that the plan had worked, as batshit insane and impossible as it was... he felt like doing a fist-pump or a victory dance.

"I take it everyone's okay, sir?" he ventured instead.

"Yes, they're okay," Landry agreed, sounding annoyed at the news even though he obviously wasn't. "Including General O'Neill and Mister Woolsey."

"That's good, sir," Lorne said, part prompt and part honest reaction. "Does this mean we're returning to Atlantis?"

The scientists were mostly still around, or at least in the employ of the Air Force -- Yoni had explained that everyone with a doctorate was busy preparing journal articles and conference papers, all of which had to be checked for classified material before they could be submitted to outside reviewers. Recalling all of the marines would be a bitch and a half, although not nearly as bad as it would have been a month from now. Most of them were either still on or just off of block leave -- everyone had been owed at least a month's time and most had opted to take all of it before going to their new posts. They'd piss off the Pentagon big time by yanking marines out of billets they'd only been in for a couple of weeks, but that was much easier than going through the selection process to get new ones and so Lorne had little doubt that that was what would happen.

"The expedition will be re-established," Landry admitted grudgingly. "Who goes back has yet to be determined."

Lorne didn't say anything to that -- if Sheppard's team had managed to defeat the Replicators, save Atlantis, and save the bacons of the head of Homeworld Security and the IOA's most powerful member, then of course they'd be rewarded with a long twist in the wind. It was how things worked.

There were a few more things said after that, but nothing else could match the importance of the news that had already been imparted and Landry quickly let him go with the exhortation to go get the rumor mill started. Lorne was completely unsurprised to find both Radner and Yoni waiting in his office, although the addition of SG-1 probably could have been anticipated as well if he'd been putting any energy into foresight and not into concentrating on one-foot-in-front-of-the-other.

"Everyone's safe," he announced as he went to his desk, sitting down heavily as his legs gave in and became jelly. The shock was starting to set in, he suspected. Knowing that Sheppard had set off on suicide missions before and returned from them was entirely different from actually planning one and having such a fine appreciation for just how slight the chances of success were. "The city's good, everyone's in one piece, and they'll know more after the Daedalus finishes its survey."

There wasn't so much applause as a collective sigh of relief and congratulation.

"I suppose this means I'll have to return everything," Vala sighed and nobody dared ask for details.

To the victors go the spoils only in the movies, so Sheppard and Weir were both ordered home straightaway so that their fates could be decided. Everyone else followed, leaving Atlantis in the temporary custody of Teyla, Ronon, and the crew of the Daedalus. It took four days -- and a lot of yelling by General O'Neill -- before they were told that there would be no disciplinary action taken against either Sheppard or Weir. On the fifth day, everyone got down to work.

"What's the tally?"

Radner typed a few keystrokes and squinted at his laptop screen. Lorne suspected that Radner would finally have to give up and get glasses before they packed up to return to Atlantis. "Provided the SGC doesn't change their mind and fire Colonel Sheppard, we've got all of the officers accounted for. I spoke to Hanzis and Polito this morning; they're both still waiting for travel orders. Although Matt would probably pay his own way if he had to."

"I think he'd walk from Lejeune if he had to," Lorne agreed. Upon his return to Earth, Polito had been named staff secretary to a marine general and his reaction to the phone call asking him if he wanted to go back to Atlantis had been "Sir, I'd hug you if I could."

Radner grinned. "As for the lieutenants, sir, we've got about half of them already processing back into the program. Osgeny, Eriksson, Kagan, Patchok, and Murray are confirmed. Gillick and Salker are waiting to see what the decision is going to be regarding promotions. Paik hasn't refused the assignment yet, but he's got a chance to get back into a Harrier and I don't think we'll see him again unless he screws that pooch."

Both Gillick and Salker had sufficient time in grade that they had to seriously consider their career trajectories before making any decisions. Special Ops was usually more satisfying than a career in the regular service, but it wasn't always great when it came time for awards and promotions. Lorne suspected that Gillick would rather be a lieutenant in Atlantis than a captain on Earth, but he wouldn't be surprised if Salker chose to stay behind for a chance at a better spot once he got promoted.

"So we're down between one and four lieutenants," Lorne said, unashamedly counting on his fingers. They hadn't ever gotten a chance to replace Cadman before they'd bugged out for Earth, letting her gunnery sergeant run the platoon in her place. "I'm sure the SGC has a whole pile of replacements to suggest. Are they going to see if Cadman wants to come back?"

Lorne didn't think Cadman wanted to come back -- at least not in a military capacity -- and he wasn't sure that they even wanted her back. It wasn't a gender thing per se -- she had designed and trained their EOD team and all of the marines who'd taken the combat engineering course with her were better for it, but in a city where a quarter of the scientists were engineers of some stripe, they needed infantry officers more than they needed explosives experts.

"No, sir," Radner replied. "Lieutenant Cadman is off getting her Ph.D."

"Good for her," Lorne said, since there wasn't much else to say. "How are we with the rank and file?"

"Pretty much the same boat as with the officers, sir," Radner answered, not looking up. "We're keeping all of our senior NCOs and the retention rate's hovering around 80% for the E-5s and E-6s. We've got a handful of sergeants who are enrolled in schools and will be allowed to finish before being asked to decide on returning to Atlantis, so I'm not counting them. We've also got more than a dozen E-5s who have requested and received command recommendations so they can submit their jackets for promotion. We don't know yet if we get them until the board convenes or if they stay behind."

Lorne wasn't sure if any of his trio was coming back. Suarez was one of the marines off at a school; he had another three weeks of sniper training out in Hawaii and Lorne wouldn't be at all surprised if Suarez chose to stay on Earth -- he was the least acclimated of the three, always a little uncomfortable with the constant, low-level weirdness of not being on Earth. Reletti, currently somewhere near Ramadi, had received a letter for promotion and a waiver to apply for the program to go to college and get commissioned. And Ortilla was living in the same city as his kid for maybe the first time ever (Ortilla didn't tell and Lorne didn't ask). Yoni was already griping about having to break in new marines for their off-world team.

"We getting an Alpha Company?" Lorne asked hopefully.

"I believe that's still scheduled for when hell freezes over, sir," Radner replied with a perfectly straight face.

"So no delays, then."

On the home front, things ended without either a bang or a whimper. When he'd first gotten back -- to Earth, to the Mountain, to Michelle -- Lorne had wondered if he'd return to Atlantis if given the chance. He wasn't on the cusp of promotion, but he was closing in on it and presumably he'd end his stint as XO at the same time he ended his stint as a major. The SGC had plans for him -- Landry had said as much and the fact that they'd given him his own team when he was still an O-4 had said it louder -- and with job security came options.

Actually getting down to the business of building a life beyond the service wasn't a bad idea. Certainly not when things with Michelle picked up almost right where they'd left off. He had a job he could grow to love, a girl he already loved, and what else was he supposed to be waiting for? He had never especially considered himself one of those hardcore careerists, the guys who counted alimony merely as the dues required to continue in their profession. He'd enjoyed his time in SG-11 and with the Stargate Program in general, but if push had ever really come to shove, he'd always suspected that he'd choose people over planes if there wasn't a way to get both.

And then had come Atlantis, where all of the rules and all of the expectations no longer applied. It was, bar none, the must satisfying job he'd ever had in uniform and he hadn't realized how much he was willing to trade to keep that. How much he was willing to sacrifice.

But when Sheppard had come to him and they'd started speaking -- in necessarily vague terms -- about what would be required to get a jumper back to Atlantis, he'd known. When his mind had immediately started calculating how they could get resources and personnel back to the city with the least amount of loss and fuss, when he had only later realized that he hadn't even stopped to consider Michelle, he'd felt ashamed, but not surprised.

He almost wished Michelle had been angrier, that they had actually fought about it. She was angry, but not necessarily at him and he didn't want that kind of forgiveness. He'd used her -- as back-up plan, as rebound -- and was prepared to leave her now that he could get back what he really wanted. At least that's how he saw it. She saw it differently, told him that he'd never really come back to her and it was her own fault for wishing so hard that she had started believing it.

He spent the last two weeks before they boarded the Daedalus for the trip back to Atlantis -- back home -- living in base housing at Peterson.

"There's a certain element of deja vu all over again about this," Sheppard said with a hint of a smile as he dropped down into the chair across from Lorne. Across the room, a still-scowling Caldwell, having finished with Sheppard, took out his frustrations on the coffee urn.

Lorne couldn't help but grin back. Sheppard was right, of course, They'd spent the last trip to Atlantis -- Lorne's first trip to Atlantis -- getting the marines in and out of trouble with the Daedalus captain and crew, too. "Are the marines confined to quarters yet?"

The same problems that had plagued the first voyage were present this time and experience hadn't earned them much forgiveness or any leeway. Caldwell wanted the marines out of the way and out of trouble and Sheppard and Lorne were trying to accomplish the latter by encouraging the former. There was no topside to run around on, the PT facilities were designed to accommodate the ship's crew and not a couple hundred additional personnel (let alone, judging by the breakage reports, any marines), and there was still another ten days to go.

"Not yet," Sheppard replied cheerfully. "The officers, on the other hand, are maybe a little closer. I think we're going to have to ditch the rest of the javelin toss."

Caldwell had forbidden another scavenger hunt before they'd even cleared the Kuiper belt, so Lorne, Sheppard, and the captains had ended up designing the Post-Modern Pentathalon to keep the marines occupied and trained.

"They're worried we're going to scratch the paint job on one of the 302s?" Lorne scoffed. They were using one of the fighter bays for most of the events as well as everyday training. The crew chief was very close to dropping the force field and spacing them all, but it was the only large, empty space on board. "I guess we can go with the weightlifting."

"And maybe move the marathon up a day or two," Sheppard agreed, adding with false solemnity, "I don't think the stunner tag is going to go over well at all."

That they were using modified Wraith stunners -- enough to hurt like a bitch, not enough to actually paralyze -- was not going to matter when they had to face the music on that one. The marines would enjoy getting shot -- hell, they were already having too much fun testing the pistols out on each other -- but a crew member would invariably become an innocent victim and that's when all hell would break loose. It was why they had initially scheduled it near the end of the voyage.

"Probably not," Lorne agreed, then pushed back his chair to stand up as Doctor Weir approached their table. She waved him back down before he could stand.

"Why do I think that the two of you are up to no good?" she asked, a wry smile on her face as she took one of the empty seats at the small table. "Could it be the matching innocent expressions? Or the fact that Colonel Caldwell has already asked to speak to me regarding the comportment of our passengers on his ship?"

"Do you ever notice that they're only ours when they're misbehaving?" Sheppard asked instead of replying.

Weir gave him a cock-eyed look that was more irony than warning. "Just don't do anything that's going to make it difficult for us to ever get another marine transported aboard this vessel."

"We're just exercising them," Sheppard promised.

Lorne kept his eyes on his cruller and his smile mostly to himself.

feed me on LJ?

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30 July, 2006