Wild Horses

by Domenika Marzione



"Do you need these?"

AJ looked up from where he was sitting in front of the couch surrounded by vacuum cleaner parts. His mother was holding up a handful of papers.

"They were on the dining room table," she went on. "I was going to clean it off so that we can eat dinner."

He grimaced. "I'll help with that," he told her, moving to get up. She waved him back down.

"I can do it," she told him. "What I can't do is fix that vacuum."

Honestly, he wasn't sure he could, either. But he'd broken it down like he would an M16 and examined each part for wear or damage and thought he'd spotted the problem and it wouldn't even need duct tape. Well, maybe a little. Duct tape made everything better.

"Should I put these on your bed?" his mother asked, gesturing with her head to the papers in her hand. "Do you need to bring them back to San Diego?"

"Um. Maybe?"

The look he got was the affectionate version of the "You were my challenging child" look he'd gotten used to over the years. Which was better than the "problem child" look Laura usually got, but still made him feel six instead of twenty-six.

He reached out for them and she handed them over. He put them on the couch behind him, fighting the urge to place them face down. He wasn't sure he was ready for this conversation yet, but hiding the papers would just be a red flag for his mother to quiz him about them.

"Are you thinking of going back to school?"

Or maybe he didn't need to make it look like he didn't want to talk about them because she was his mother and she could tell. Not that that was so hard; there was a reason he stuck to dice when it came to gambling.

"'Back' implies that I left and would be returning," he answered.

That got him the "problem child" look. Never split hairs with a paralegal and never duck a question from your mother.

"I'm thinking about it," he admitted slowly, because this was the first time he'd ever said it out loud to anyone. Thoughts sounded entirely different when someone else could hear the words. Such was the source of most of his troubles. "Haven't made a decision yet," he added quickly, seeing the way his mother was starting to react.

"Your enlistment will be up soon, won't it?" she asked, head tilted thoughtfully, as if she knew the date and just needed to remember it. "You've got your GI benefits. You could go anywhere. Even the fancy schools back East have to take them."

He didn't miss the note of fretting about whether he would disappear across the country just when he'd returned back home. After more than a year and a half without so much as a phone call, he knew she had a maternal right to be clingy. He'd been home (Tucson home, not 'Earth' home) for four days and she'd barely let him out of her sight for the first two. Which was why he didn't tell her that he'd actually reenlisted two months ago, taking the oath with three others before his commanders and fellow marines. [Captain Polito had officiated, but Major Lorne and Colonel Sheppard had been there, as had Doctor Weir (out of curiosity) and Doctor Safir (because Ortilla mentioned it, AJ suspected).]

"The Corps will pay for me to go to college," he said instead, looking down with newfound interest in the end of hose he'd been idly playing with. "If I'm doing it to get a commission. I'd still be active duty."

Surprise replaced concern in her voice. "A commission? You're going to become an officer?"

He looked up with a frown. "Way to sound supportive, Mom."

"You know that's not what I meant," she retorted, free hand on hip. "I'm just... a little taken aback, that's all. I seem to remember quite a few letters griping about officers and politics and not joining the marines to do paperwork."

He shrugged, not sure he could explain that this was different from just assuming he could do a better job. "The paperwork is pretty crappy once you pass Staff Sergeant, too. And I've been thinking about it on and off for a few years."

"So why have you waited so long?" Curious, because his mom's a smart lady and knew that there was more to his life than what he told her in letters.

"Something always came up."

First getting into Recon and then getting sent to Atlantis. But now that he was back, part of the fastest bug-out in Marine Corps history (if they could put a redeployment from another galaxy in the official history), he had nothing else to 'come up' and, even if it did, he was maybe a little more sure that this might be more important to him than other 'distractions' had been in the past. The Major had asked if he'd wanted to stay in the Stargate program, but the thought of sauntering through stargates and then coming home at night to turn on the television and see all of his brother marines fighting here on Earth... he thought the Major understood.

"Does this have anything to do with you shipping out again so quickly?" his mother asked, concerned again. She'd been furious when he'd told her that he only had two weeks off. It wasn't fair, she'd insisted, and it couldn't possibly be good for him. He'd told her that it had been his choice -- get a slot in force recon (all that time in a highly classified billet counted for something) and absorb an immediate deployment or get some time off and wind up anywhere in recon, including the East Coast. She was still blaming the Corps out loud, but he suspected that she knew it was as much him as them. He didn't disagree that it was a crappy choice, as happy as he was to be getting back into the action as opposed to four months of training up first.

"It doesn't have to do with my mobilization date," he assured her. "Even if I get accepted into the program, it wouldn't be until next fall anyway."

She was about to say something else, but the timer in the kitchen was sounding.

Chicken and Black Bean Taquitos with Chipotle Sour Cream, something his mother had found in a charity cookbook she'd picked up, and a fancy salad. (He wasn't the only one who'd noticed that his mother had become a much more sophisticated cook after she no longer had four children to feed; his sisters had been telling him to buy cookbooks for Mother's Day for the last few years.) Even before he'd enlisted, he'd never been a picky eater and if the Marines had taught him to eat almost anything, Pegasus had reinforced the lesson with its endless supply of MREs, near-deer, odd vegetation, and the fact that nobody in Weapons Company knew how to boil an egg. Nevertheless, while he'd never been particularly homesick for his mother's cooking, every visit always reminded him of how different it was to have someone picking out a menu based on what he liked instead of what could be gotten cheap and in bulk that month. It felt a little like pampering and that embarrassed him a little.

"Megan wants to take us out on Thursday," his mother said as she refilled his glass of iced tea from the pitcher. "I told her I'd talk to you first, see if you had plans."

This was the first night that it would be just the two of them for dinner. His sisters had shown up over the weekend, variously bringing babies (his newest niece was eight months old; holding her for the first time, he wondered how Ortilla was faring with his son), boyfriend (he gave James his best 'I'm a Recon Marine and I can kill you before you know I'm there' grin and handshake), and Blackberry ("Megan, put that thing away; your brother is more important than work"). But tonight it was just mother and son, which was a bit of a relief.

"I think it'll be fine," he replied. He had friends from high school still in the area, but there weren't that many whom he still talked to and he knew Megan was getting crap from their mother for going away on a business trip during his visit. "Not that much on my calendar."

Plus, frankly, a restaurant would make things a little less uncomfortable. His family was used to him not talking about what he actually did when deployed -- they knew that there were things he couldn't tell them as well as things that he didn't want to tell them -- but they'd always known where he was before, at least in some general way. Be it Iraq/Afghanistan/Africa/Japan/San Diego/part of an aircraft carrier group in the middle of the Pacific, they'd always known where he was calling 'home' for any length of time, if not necessarily what he was doing there.

But he'd been gone for more than a year and a half and he couldn't say where (or why or what he'd done or seen) and that made for very awkward lulls in the conversation on both sides, far more so than usual since he didn't even have stories of base camp hijinx to fall back on. He'd been warned about this during the (endless) debriefing at the SGC before they'd all been formally returned to the Corps, but he suspected that he wasn't the only one who'd underestimated the weight of the silence.

"I'm glad you're considering going to college," his mother said, slapping his fingers away from where he'd been picking cranberries out of the salad. They'd finished eating and he was doing it more because it was there than out of hunger. He smiled, as much for the chastisement as for his mother's tactics. Three daughters and she'd learned to save the important talks for after the food was consumed. He didn't want to consider that she thought he was as prone to flouncing from the table as his sisters had been.

"I always said I'd go." He made sure to start clearing the table before she got up.

"I know," she agreed, "but... you enjoy being a marine. I guess I figured that that would be your path."

He'd enlisted straight out of high school, choosing the Marines because the Army recruiter showed up with an armful of glossy pamphlets and a whole lot of bullshit about what the Army could do for him while the Marine recruiter had looked him straight in the eye and wanted to know what a stupid fuck like him thought he could do for the finest fighting force in the world. AJ had always liked a challenge.

"It still is," he called out from the kitchen as he tried to figure out the dishwasher. A month ago and he could mentally control super-advanced technology made by aliens and now he was confused by appliances made by Kenmore. Which was also pretty much par for the course with him. "I'm pretty sure the Corps has me for at least twenty."

When the Marine recruiter had visited, his mother had been wary but supportive. It had been another time, back before the curtain had been peeled back to see how the world really was and, in 1998, she had been more worried about him spending four years on the opposite side of the globe than that he would actually get himself killed. Plus, the Marines would pay for college, even if they didn't use it as a selling point, and he hadn't had the money otherwise -- if UA was gonna take him, they weren't going to pay for the privilege. Perhaps most importantly, however, he'd known (and his mother had quietly agreed) that he hadn't been ready for college yet. He'd been restless in school, a good student but too easily distracted, and giving him the sole responsibility of going to class and doing his homework instead of sitting around drinking beer with his buddies... maybe not the wisest idea.

"Do a lot of enlisted marines become officers?" his mother asked as she took the glass from his hand and put it in the right place in the dishwasher. He frowned at her and she shrugged.

He'd done so well on the ASVAB, they'd wondered aloud if he didn't want to look into ROTC scholarships and go to college so that he could become an officer -- UA had a nice program and open slots. But ROTC still meant college and he'd already found himself relieved at the idea of not going to classes in the fall. So, instead, they'd started talking to him about all these fancy MOS that involved long titles and specialized training that would serve him well once he became a civilian again. It had sounded like good advice, given by men who'd seen far more of the world and the Corps than he had, and he was joining up to learn how to be practical after all.... But he'd still been not-quite-eighteen and not practical yet and so the only Occupational Field he'd ever focused on was 03 (Infantry). The recruiters hadn't been that surprised.

"Some do," he answered, putting the other glass next to its mate. "My first platoon commander was a mustang."

Lieutenant Vickers had looked awful lonely on those night patrols and training missions when he'd be sitting there with his canteen and flashlight while the fire teams huddled together to swap stories and MRE parts, a little apart like he was remembering all of the good times he'd had as a grunt and couldn't be a part of anymore. At least that's how it had looked then.

"You've been thinking about it that long?"

"Hell, no," he snorted, thinking as much of the kids he'd been responsible for before he left for Atlantis as about what he'd been like at that age. "Eighteen-year-old privates do not consider their futures."

At least not without plenty of beer and whiskey chasers.

"No," his mother agreed blithely. "Which is why they get tattoos."

That, too, had come with plenty of beer and whiskey chasers.

"It's been almost eight years," he told her. "You could maybe forgive me for that?"

"You weren't eighteen in Japan." His mother slipped past him to fill the tea kettle. "So what would be the excuse for the second one?"

Sake. Lots of sake.

"My current employer doesn't care," he said, which wasn't quite true, but the tats were documented and hidden by his uniform, so it was almost as good. "And unless I was working as, I don't know, a stripper, I don't see what sort of job I'd have where they'd matter. Is that the sort of post-military career you envisioned for me?"

She made a show of looking at him appraisingly. "You could maybe pull it off. Now that you've gotten rid of that awful mohawk."

"It was a normal recon haircut," he sighed, feeling the conversation slip away from him. "And I'm getting it again once I go back to San Diego."

There'd been a dozen or so recon guys in Atlantis; it had been suggested before they even arrived that they lose the recon cut because they weren't in a recon unit anymore and it might be perceived as showing off. Once he'd found himself chasing Major Lorne through the galaxy, he'd ended up with a kind of medium regulation cut because Pegasus natives tended to stare at high-and-tights.

"I like you with hair."

"Be happy you never saw me right after my induction cut," he told her, peeling back the saran wrap on the tray of brownies Kathy had brought over. There was a knife still in the pan, so he cut himself a piece and pretended that he didn't notice his mother glaring at him for not using a napkin and for eating over the tray.

After tea was made, he ended up back at the dining room table with the papers he'd gotten from the UA ROTC office that morning. There was a checklist of things he'd need for MECEP (including the waiver for being six months too old) and he was pretty sure he that he could rustle up most of them without a problem. He'd been fairly obsessive about keeping his paperwork in order and he'd only had the PCS to and from Oki to worry about losing stuff in moves. (The move to Atlantis had been halfway between deployment and a change of station in terms of what they could bring.) Recommendations shouldn't be that hard to come by -- Major Lorne all but promised them letters from both himself and Colonel Sheppard for whatever schools they wanted (although he had probably been thinking more along the lines of Suarez eying sniper school) and he was sure Captain Polito, wherever he was now, would help out. Would probably get a good laugh, along with everyone else, but would help out.

"Would you like to check your email?" his mother asked, gesturing toward the room that had once been his sisters' and was now a sort of rec room. He and his sisters had all chipped in to buy their mom a big television and she'd bought herself the lounge chair; the computer and overcrowded bookshelves had migrated in at some point when he'd been in Japan. The books had come from all over the house -- the Reletti children did not own video games or watch TV before dinner (and AJ almost never because he'd get outvoted 3-1 on programming) -- and the computer (or, rather, it's predecessor) had been in the living room when he'd been in high school, ensuring equal access to the word processor for school and no surfing for porn. Or, at least no surfing for porn when anyone else had been home.

"Are you going to be watching Lifetime?" he asked with exaggerated wariness.

"When that happens, you and your sisters have permission to toss me in a retirement home," she replied with a frown. "I rented the new Pride and Prejudice."

He wrinkled his nose and stood up, rolling his neck. "I'll check it now. Don't want to interrupt your contemplation of heaving bosoms and tight breeches."

"Be happy it's not the Bollywood version," she said mildly as he passed her where she was sitting on the couch with the newspaper.

His .mil account had the usual sort of post-redeployment avalanche of bullshit, plus carefully worded memorandums regarding his past assignment to the Deep Space Telemetry program (why the Pentagon hadn't come up with a better cover story was beyond everyone) and a separate stream of memos and announcements from his new unit with regard to their imminent departure. The logistics of shipping out were pretty simple on his end; he hadn't been gone long enough to forget what items he'd want and would have to provide for himself.

In between the bureaucratic crap were a couple of personal emails, most from guys from Atlantis and a few old buddies from prior assignments he'd wanted to let know that he was back. There was one from Suarez, complete with his crappy Spanglish, to Ortilla and carbon copied to him, announcing that Suarez could have told Ortilla that Guillermo Mota was no good. (Ortilla would have a reply, in perfect and foul Spanish, sooner or later.) There was one from Lieutenant Patchok announcing that he had chosen his last official act as their platoon commander to be failing to pass on the housing-and-MWR survey because why the fuck did it matter if they liked their barracks or not if they couldn't go back?

Patchok had been a good lieutenant; he'd always been respectful of the fact that he had a platoon of NCOs, but he'd never let them use their greater experience to take advantage of him. Plus, he could pretty much kick all of their asses on the PFT and that carried a lot of weight. Patchok had handled the fact that one of his fire teams was seconded out as an off-world team as best as anyone could -- it was an awkward situation by nature -- and, from the very start, he'd quickly put his foot down on any civilian scientists 'borrowing' either AJ or Spelcher, the other ATA-positive member of the platoon. More than once AJ had found himself watching Patchok (and the other lieutenants, except for when they were out with his team, at which point they stopped being good examples and started being object lessons) and wondering how he'd do in the same position, with the same information and same decisions to be made.

Enlisted men were trained to do and not to think -- if you couldn't operate on instinct, it got the marines around you killed -- and that was built into every aspect of the culture. They weren't paid to look at the big picture -- or to look at any picture at all, which is why pages-long orders got reduced down to "we're going here and we're going to get there by this time." Coordinating the orders from above with the reality on the ground what the officers did, even if it always seemed that they were doing it half-crocked. (Common grunt wisdom: past the platoon level, you were lucky if the officers weren't idiots. Past the company level, you were lucky if they weren't trying to get you killed on purpose.)

But as much as he understood the need for the division of labor, as much as he loved what he did, as much as he appreciated what he'd learned and was proud of what he could now pass on, sometimes he wanted nothing more than to be able to pick his head up and look around and see what was beyond the narrow furrow a grunt had to plow. He wanted a better view than the ass in front of his and, even more, a chance to shape the future -- his and everyone else's. Atlantis had only brought that further to the fore. Enlisted marines had always been doing officers' work there -- including flying -- and Colonel Sheppard had told him once that he could be more than a door-kicker if he wanted. Sheppard had meant it in terms of serving Atlantis and he'd ended up doing plenty more than that as part of Major Lorne's team, but it was now that he was back on Earth that he realized how much he wanted that sort of challenge on a more regular basis.

Watching the Major -- and getting to see him and Colonel Sheppard (and, to a lesser extent, Captain Polito) in contexts other than officers up his chain of command -- had been a bit of a revelation at times. Lieutenants were there to be shat upon, but so were privates and eventually they got with the program and became sergeants. Never-quite-forgotten Sergeant-turned-Lieutenant Vickers was a captain now, a company of marines in his care. AJ wanted that kind of responsibility, too.



Glossary
ASVAB
mustang (if you're curious: here)

AJ = Andrew John. Because some of the suggestions were terrifying.

feed me on LJ?


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26 December, 2006