by Domenika Marzione


John is in Elizabeth's office, half-assedly trying to get out of authorizing a couple of missions that he doesn't actually object to except for a greater-than-usual disregard for the logistics, when the gate alarm sounds again. He notices it in the background, not paying attention because they're a few years past the point where every wormhole is an adventure and it's already sounded twice since he sat down to let Elizabeth strong-arm him into letting Engineering and Geology go on day trips.


Eriksson's standing in the open doorway and John gets to his feet because he knows that expression. Elizabeth stands, too.

John spares a quick look back at her; she nods and John follows Eriksson out into the gate room, which is both louder and quieter than it should be.

"Wraith," Eriksson says quietly, stopping in the control room and letting John continue on alone.

It's not the nervous relief of a close call; something happened. John's eyes go first to Patchok and Gunny Haumann, whose backs are to John as they talk quietly to each other and look over their marines and the civilians they were escorting, and then he looks for Ortilla, since while he loves all of his marine children equally, he loves a few more equally than others. Ortilla should be the easiest to spot, but he's not because he's crouching down with a hand on someone's shoulder whom John can't see until he gets to the bottom of the stairs and then it's Suarez. He looks around for Reletti, but the crowd on the platform is in a jumble and there's a blond marine kneeling over on the other side tending to an injured civilian and that's all John can get before Patchok and Haumann jog over to him.

"Four darts came out of nowhere, sir," Patchok begins. He's shocky, but covering it well. Lieutenant or Lieutenant Colonel, you don't get used to this; you just get better at dealing with it. John's method is to just not feel until it's safe to do so, which isn't necessarily healthy or comforting, but it's efficient. He's had plenty of experience to know that grief has an indefinite shelf life; it'll keep. "We got everyone up and moving, but we were pretty exposed."

A medical team comes running in and Clayton's looking over the scene and for Doc Stohr, who makes his way to her.

"Who's missing?" John asks, since there don't seem to be any life-threatening injuries or stretchers covered by makeshift shrouds.

"Staff Sergeant Reletti, sir," Haumann replies and John looks over at him sharply. "He pushed a couple of the civilians down a hill and got scoopy-beamed."

John takes a deep breath and lets it out quietly. "Okay," he says, looking past them and seeing that the blond marine is in fact Gustafson. "Get everyone over to Medical for a look-see, then take your boys back to Little Tripoli. I'll talk to Captain Polito."

He stays on the bottom step as Haumann and Patchok begin rounding up their marines and making sure the scientists are being escorted. He makes eye contact with the ones who look over at him, aware as they are that he can't do anything to make this suck any less. To lose anyone hurts; Reletti is not the most popular guy in Little Tripoli, but he's generally well-liked and, more importantly as far as the marines go, he's respected as a warrior. Losing someone as competent as Reletti is a reminder of how random this all is, and it's disquieting. Ortilla is not one of the ones who looks over at him; his attention is wholly on his squad and he's talking quietly with Roarke. Suarez looks back, though, and John isn't sure if it's just pain or if there's accusation in his eyes, too.

Eriksson has summoned marines from elsewhere to see to the equipment that First Platoon brought back when them. Once everyone's in motion, John heads back up the stairs. He taps his radio for the channel that'll get him Lorne.

"Find Matt," John tells him once he answers. "We've got an MIA."

He doesn't say who it is or what platoon, aware that Lorne will read everything into that lack of disclosure. But it's not news one delivers over an earpiece.

Elizabeth bites her lip when John tells her. He asks her to talk to Rodney about Zoology's people; Rodney has little love for Life Sciences as an intellectual branch of study, but they're still his people and he's still going to want to trek down to Medical with Gorshuk. She readily agrees.

He leaves her office through the back door, since it will put him out in the hallway closer to the transporter and he won't have to go through the control room again.

Polito and Backman are waiting in Lorne's office. They're sitting, but stand when John enters.

"Reletti got scoopy-beamed," he announces without preamble. "Nobody else seems to be hurt too badly, but I told Rudy to take 'em all to Medical just in case."

Polito nods, then gestures in the direction of the door. Backman takes a first step, then pauses.

"Go," John tells them. "I'm sorry."

Lorne is still standing, but he sits down heavily once they go. "Fuck," he sighs, shock all over his face. "He was going home next month. How are--"

"Coping," John answers. "Unhappy."

Same as everyone else, just to different degrees.

It's all over Little Tripoli within the hour. Yoni probably found out before Lorne did, but Lorne goes down to Medical to talk to him anyway.

It's Tuesday; they have a Wall Ceremony on Friday. There are more civilians present than usual; Reletti's ATA gene and place on Lorne's team meant he interacted with a greater cross-section of Atlantis's population than most marines and his good-natured goofiness meant that fewer than usual disliked him.

After the formal ceremony with the addition of Reletti's framed photo (still wearing sergeant's stripes; he hadn't taken a new photo with the added rocker) to the row of missing men, there's the informal reception. It's a lot like a wake with everyone sitting around telling stories and reminiscing. Reletti being Reletti, there are a ton of tales that have everyone laughing heartily. John understands that it's the nature of command that he winds up learning more about his marines as people only after it's no longer possible to interact with them, but he doesn't like it. Especially someone like Reletti, whom he'd interacted with on many levels over the years. But he can still add a story here and there and appreciate the others.

"What are we telling his family?" Yoni asks him by the table laden with soda and cookies.

"Taken captive in Afghanistan," John answers, shrugging helplessly. "The marines are officially assigned to MARSOC, so there's a reasonable expectation of lies and half-truths."

Yoni shakes his head, understanding the necessity and disliking it just the same. John can't argue.


The first mission without Reletti is a disaster. Not a disaster in the way Reletti's last mission had been, but it's awkward and miserable and Lorne is just happy it's quick and meaningless because he just wants it to end. So does everyone else.

He and Sheppard have talked about bringing someone else in, especially someone with the ATA gene, but neither of them are sold on the necessity of it. There's enough to do in this galaxy without both senior teams hunting Ancient tech (and Lorne's still got his artificial gene) and he's really not interested in bringing someone else aboard just to have five. There can (and will) be a re-division of labor among the four of them and the maneuvering required to get another ATA carrier marine out of another platoon won't be worth it. Also, eventually the SGC will get around to sending them another marine to take Reletti's billet in the platoon and he will take Reletti's spot on the team.

By the time Sergeant Jeremy Weimeier arrives in Atlantis, they are more or less over the worst of the adjusting to Reletti's absence. Weimeier's got the gene -- Lorne doesn't think it's any kind of accident that Ortilla's team was given the ATA-positive marine -- and both Suarez and Ortilla are energized by the fresh blood, someone to tease and to teach both. Weimeier's a good kid, young for sergeant's stripes and young for Atlantis, and whip-smart. Smart enough to realize that he's got big boots to fill. He's a good shot, a crappy field cook, and it's like trying to housebreak a puppy when it comes to anything related to Ancient tech because Weimeier can't tune anything out. Lorne ends up asking Sheppard for help after Weimeier starts speaking Ancient once they get near an outpost on an abandoned world.

Which is perhaps the turning point in Weimeier's acceptance within the team and the platoon because everyone starts calling him Damien.

Life in Atlantis was never interrupted by Reletti's disappearance; it might've felt unfair at the time, but AJ's not the first marine they've lost and he isn't the last. The city's work goes on, the expedition's mission both within Atlantis and without continues, and they have their victories and, inevitably, their losses. Nagley and a team are killed by Michael and there's another Wall Ceremony, this time with four portraits joining the list of the fallen and four downturned rifles and pairs of boots bathed in the afternoon sun.

There's always a fair bit of lingering after Wall Ceremonies as marines 'check in' with their lost colleagues. Lorne sees Ortilla, Suarez, and Weimeier pause by Reletti's portait. Lorne stops by Leonard's, among others, and Sheppard seemingly stops at them all.

A few weeks later, Lorne's team ends up escorting Doctors Clayton and Grebner on a MEDCAP, which is mostly an opportunity for Grebner to make Weimeier blush and squirm until everything goes pear-shaped because the Migal didn't refuse a platoon-sized MEDCAP because they were afraid of so many men with weapons, but instead because it would be easier to trap seven than three times that. Because they want to sell them to the Genii for the bounty that had been on their heads a year ago.

"Haven't we been through this already?" Suarez asks, annoyed, as they are crammed into a prison cell. "Damien, you start puking and if we have to turn cannibal, we're eating you first."

They don't have to turn cannibal. Getting free isn't so much a matter of waiting for rescue as it is waiting for the most cockeyed diplomacy Lorne's seen in a while to resolve itself. Rather than sending in a marine assault force, Weir opts to send an envoy to the Genii to get Radim to send someone to the Migal to explain that the offer is no longer valid and there's no more bounty. (Lorne's pretty sure that the 'and you should release the Lanteans before their buddies show up and kill you all' is Hanzis's additional instruction and not part of Weir's original message.)

Lorne watches the shenanigans outside and inside of their prison with the sort of slack-jawed disbelief that not even the better part of a decade in the Stargate Program can cure. But after two days, they're set free with no violence and the assurance of no hard feelings.

"Okay, so that was not quite the awesome co-ed camping trip I'd have chosen," Grebner announces as they squint and blink in the unfamiliar sunshine. "But the company could have been worse, even if the conditions were lacking."

When they get back to Atlantis, Sheppard tells Lorne that he gets points for creativity for finding new ways to get out of staff meetings and he assures him that he agreed to nothing that Lorne will have to undo later. He's wrong, of course, but it's not really anything that qualifies as seismic on the scale Lorne uses to judge his CO's ability to unintentionally turn his command upside down.

Which means it's a week after New Year's when Atlantis's calm seas are next thoroughly rocked.

"Sir?" It's Murray on the telephone. "We've gotten an emergency call from Ipetia."

Lorne puts the phone on speaker, since Sheppard's here, too, and mouths 'Ipetia' when Sheppard quirks an eyebrow at him. "Have they been attacked?"

"No, sir," Murray replies. "Valarn says that they've found something by the stargate that looks like its ours. A message; he thinks it's written in our language and it's attached to one of our toy balls."

Sheppard shakes his head in confusion. The Ipetians aren't literate; they can recognize Ancient, even if they can't read it, and wouldn't know written English from Sanskrit. "Is Gillick around?"

Lorne looks at the schedule on the far whiteboard. He should be in the city somewhere.

"Get someone to Ipetia to check it out," Sheppard tells Murray. "Lieutenant Gillick if possible, whoever's on QRF if not."

Gillick's gone to Ipetia and back again inside half an hour. He shows up looking stricken, holding a rubber ball in one hand and a water-damaged piece of paper in another.

"Here, sir," he hands the letter to Sheppard. "It's from Staff Sergeant Reletti."

Lorne freezes.

"Did you read this?" Sheppard asks, turning the paper right side up.

"Yes, sir," Gillick replies. "Reletti's alive as of a week ago. He's been turned into a Runner."

"Jesus Christ!"

Sheppard is skimming the letter. "Activate the QRF and get them to Lejeune now," he says to Lorne. "Tell them that if they're lucky, they'll find Reletti, but he might not be alone. If he's there, take him to the Alpha site and radio in; we'll get a medical team out there to clean him up."

Lorne picks up the phone and does just that. Sheppard stands up, handing the letter to him. "I'm going to talk to Weir. Set up the medical team; we might be lucky and he's still there. If he's not, I want a battalion meeting in an hour."

He leaves, taking Gillick with him. Lorne looks at the letter, which is short and most definitely in Reletti's handwriting. His eyes tear up and he puts the letter down, getting up to go down to Medical.

Keller's not in her lab, but Yoni's in his. Lorne tells him to summon her without explaining why and Yoni does.

"What's wrong?" Yoni asks gently. "What happened?"

Lorne takes a deep breath because he needs to stow the emotions for later. Yoni watches him, but doesn't press.

Keller shows up, takes one look at Lorne, and closes Yoni's lab door.

"Reletti's alive and he's a Runner," Lorne says, the words coming out even and calm despite his own racing thoughts. "We're sending out a unit to see if he's where he said he would be. If he is, we'll need an emergency surgical team to get the tracker out of him."

"Oh my God," Keller gasps, hand over her mouth, then recovers. "Of course we'll have a surgical team ready to go as soon as you've got confirmation."

Yoni pushes off of the table he's been leaning against. "I want--"

"You want to be there," Keller cuts him off. "But we've got surgeons-by-training and not just surgeons-by-necessity. I wouldn't dream of stopping you from going, but Chung should do the procedure."

It turns out a moot point. Lorne's still in Yoni's lab when Kagan radios in from Lejeune saying that Reletti is gone and there are three Wraith corpses lying in the snow near the equipment shed and a trail of blood leading to the stargate.


Sheppard materializes by the gate platform ten minutes before Matt's departure time. Gillick, who will be forced to actually act as company XO in his absence, goes over to where Backman is waiting, leaving him and Sheppard alone.

"Are you sure?" Sheppard asks him.

Back before he knew about aliens and wormholes, he'd used leave to visit the gravesites of marines he'd lost. A reminder of how many ways his job was more than a boy's dream turned reality, a reminder of the cost of a salute. This would be easier in a way -- and much harder in many others.

Matt nods. "Yes, sir."

Sheppard hands him a sealed envelope and Matt quirks an eyebrow in question.

"It's not the original," Sheppard says with a shrug. "But she probably won't mind."

It's a copy of Reletti's letter -- or at least the part of it that refers to his mother, since the rest is, of course, highly classified. Matt's quite sure that even this part is probably not supposed to see the light of day, either.

"See you in a few," Sheppard tells him, pats him on the shoulder, and heads off.

Matt calls up to Cardejo, who tells the sergeant on DHD duty to dial the first step of the bridge. He gestures at Kenny and Gillick and tries to look stern. "Keep him out of trouble," he says, knowing that the two of them will wonder which one he's talking to. "I want a functioning company when I get back."

The trip back to Earth is painless, as is escaping the SGC. The folks at the Mountain are used to Atlantis personnel coming in for leave by now, so there's just a few layers of bureaucracy and the mandatory search for classified material (despite knowing that he's been searched in Atlantis already) before he's set free.

If anyone thinks it's weird for a Marine officer to be riding the Air Force shuttle to Denver Airport, nobody's going to call him on it.

The flight to Tucson is short and he's able to keep himself from reacting to anything that's completely normal if you live on Earth but gets unfamiliar pretty quickly when you work in another galaxy. He has a book -- he's supposed to be doing research while he's on Earth -- and people are generally friendly to someone in uniform. He finds a taxi and gives the driver the address and tries not to get nervous. Whether she knew it or not, Colleen Reletti entrusted him with the care and safety of her son and facing up to failing to live up to those expectations is never easy.

AJ Reletti looks a lot like his mother, who invites him in and offers coffee while trying to pretend that this isn't at all uncomfortable or unnerving. She's been told that her son was grabbed on a mission to escort civilian contractors, that they have received proof of life (as of January), that they are doing everything they can to bring him back alive, that they must ask her to keep as low profile as she can about this because everything is propaganda. But it's not Taliban they're working against, just the existence of extraterrestrial life, and while nobody can argue that it's not necessary, it's still a lie being told to a woman whose child is being kept from her by force.

There is a yellow candle in the window and a small black MIA/POW flag on the mantle. It'll be a year next week, four months and change since they got that message from Ipetia. They've set up the drop box on Lejeune, have been sending marines there every other week even though they know the box is still untouched, that Reletti does not know about them waiting for him, and that they don't know if he's even still alive. They might never know. But the letter was enough to keep the SGC from declaring Reletti KIA, to keep him forever on the MIA list until there is proof one way or the other. It's not the easier path.

"I've gotten asked for interviews," Mrs. Reletti says when she sees him looking at the flag on the mantle. It's next to a framed photograph of AJ, the same official portrait that's up on the Wall back in Atlantis. "Even if I hadn't been asked not to, I wouldn't. How do you explain this kind of pain to anyone?"

"I'm sorry," he says, following her back to the dining room.

"You said that in your letter, too," she tells him, gesturing for him to sit down. She goes into the kitchen and returns with a coffee pot and service on a small tray. "And so I'll tell you now what I wanted to tell you then -- unless you whistled for a Talib to come over and take my son, you have nothing to apologize for. Did you?"

"No, ma'am."

"Then don't apologize for putting AJ in harm's way," she says firmly, putting out the cups and pouring the coffee. "I don't believe you were reckless with my son's safety, Captain."

Matt must look disbelieving, since she smiles.

"I've gotten a lot of carping about officers in letters home over the years," she tells him. "Which made me wonder why he wanted to become one, I'll admit. But he thinks the world of you and I suspect you're a bigger reason than you know for why AJ decided to go mustang. He trusts you and I haven't seen anything over the past year to give me reason to question his judgment. If you've come here for forgiveness, I can't offer you any because you've done nothing to need it. At least as far as AJ's concerned."

Matt's not sure his voice would come out the way he wants, so he doesn't say anything, instead turning to the duffel he brought with him. In it are the items he did come for, or at least to deliver.

In addition to the bit of Reletti's letter, there is a larger envelope of photographs. The marines take a lot of pictures of each other; the Little Tripoli website has photo sections, including a weekly caption contest that is riotous in its humor. There's also a handful of marines who can 'scrub' pictures in Photoshop to make them safe to send home -- wipe out the background of Atlantis, stick in some unspecific background from Iraq or Afghanistan or some khaki-colored tent, get rid of any Ancient artifacts, etc. -- and that's what's been done with these. Every photo of Reletti in the database, carefully examined and edited, and winnowed down to remove the ones that weren't scrubbable or were obscene or both (a few, especially because of Reletti's heretofore unrealized-by-command propensity to make orgasm faces while trying to activate Ancient tech, which his platoonmates most certainly picked up on and liked to document) or had people in them that had no good reason to be in a Marine encampment in a war zone (Doctor Safir and Teyla, among others). What's left is a partial picture of his last few years, but it's something. Better than nothing.

"My son is such a dork."

Matt coughs out a laugh. He's seen the pictures; Reletti did have a knack for not getting caught at his best moments.

"He always has been," Mrs. Reletti sighs fondly as she looks at the photos, placing them down on the table as she finishes. She holds one up. It's one of the ones that didn't need to be scrubbed, a picture from the rocky planet (that might as well be Afghanistan) that they use for mountain warfare training. Reletti and Suarez are sitting against a large boulder surrounded by MRE parts; Suarez is looking off-camera, probably in conversation, and Reletti has a look of determined mischief as he reaches over to drip hot sauce on to whatever Suarez is holding and not paying attention to.

"That one probably didn't end well," Matt says, since it's the truth.

"No," Mrs. Reletti agrees with a wry smile. "Probably not."

He waits for her to finish looking through the pictures before he hands her the envelope Sheppard gave him. In it is a letter from Sheppard, which she skims, eyes filling with tears, and then she looks at the photocopy of the last part of Reletti's letter.

"Excuse me," she says, putting them both down and disappearing into the kitchen. He hears one gasp, then some nose-blowing, then a splash of water. Then she returns. "I'm sorry about that."

"No need to be," he assures her.

He stays to finish his coffee and for Mrs. Reletti to show him a few photos of her son before Matt met him. AJ Reletti before there were aliens, before there were two open warfronts, before there was the Marines. He looks the same except not, the same goofy grin whether wearing a baseball uniform or in his dress blues at a Birthday Ball.

"Your Air Force Colonel Sheppard said that you'd bring him back to me," she tells him as he leaves. "I'm going to hold you to that."

Matt's first reaction is that this is one hell of a burden Sheppard's laid on him. His second reaction is that he's grateful for it.

"Yes, ma'am."


Manny's in the Quiet Library slaving over his coursebooks for his history class -- he's got all the promotion points they'll count, but it can't hurt -- and trying hard to keep all of the Vietnamese names straight when Gunny appears next to him.

"You and Suarez get your asses over to Emerald City," Gunny tells him grimly. "Something just hit the fan."

Suarez is getting out in the summer and doesn't need to worry about PME, but he's taking Pre-Calc because he's going to go to college once he's cut loose. Manny goes upstairs to the classroom where that's being held, knocks on the door, and waits for Doctor Braunstein to pause before gesturing to Chris. Everyone perks up, knowing that if Major Lorne's team is getting activated than something's possibly coming up for them, but Manny's got no news and so he pretends not to notice.

"Shit," Suarez gripes as he stows his pencils as they walk. Manny waves his hand over the transporter crystals because Chris is still organizing the contents of his bag. "Which is worse? The fucking Wraith or fucking math class? And why does shit keep happening when Damien's on leave?"

Weimeier's been waiting for months for his first real leave since getting to Atlantis. He's from Alaska, which is too far to get to on the 48-hour passes they sometimes pick up. He left a week ago and they've had three missions come up when only one had been on the schedule before he departed, plus their platoon keeps getting sent out.

"Because the Boy Wonder really is the key to the fucking galaxy," Manny tells him, tapping the map for the admin building. Suarez is re-arranging the contents of his bag, which has at least a dozen interior compartments and separators. "Do you have an exact place for everything in that thing?"

It's a rhetorical question -- of course he does, because he's Chris fucking Suarez and there's a picture of him in the dictionary next to 'OCD.' He spent three weeks going through catalogs and reading specs to find one he liked. After weeks of comparison shopping and benefits-weighing, Roarke was disappointed to realize Suarez was ordering a backpack and not a Russian bride.

When they get to the Major's office, Doc is already there, with Doctor Keller, which means that whatever's going on is not good because Medical heard it first.

"Sit down, guys," Lorne tells them. They do.

Manny's first thought is that the Colonel's gone UA again, but Sheppard walks in with Captain Polito a couple of minutes later. Captains Hanzis and Radner jog in a minute after them and Colonel Carter a couple of seconds behind them. Manny meets Suarez's look with a grimace. Whatever this is, it's big.

Everyone sits down at the conference table.

"Okay, folks," Sheppard begins, pulling a yellow rubber ball out of his jacket pocket. It's got writing on it and Manny knows immediately what it is, even if he can't read what it says from here.


"This got tossed through a wormhole to Ipetia in the last twenty-four hours," Sheppard says. "It's a message from Staff Sergeant Reletti, who has finally checked in on Lejeune."

The box has been there all year. So have the marines, twice a month like clockwork. The first couple of months, it was always First Platoon, but by March it was decided that it should be a rotating gig, so it was put on the schedule like KP and gate room duty and QRF and, eight months later, everyone's had a crack at it by now. But Reletti's never been back to Lejeune, at least not long enough to find the box and the instructions. At least not until now.

"We've sent a team out there," Sheppard continues, handing the ball to Polito, who sits to his right. Polito looks it over carefully, squeezes it, and passes it on. "He's not there now, but he's clearly been and gone. I think we can perhaps dare to hope that we'll get a chance to grab him on the next meet date."

Manny follows the ball's progression until it gets to him. It's just a rubber ball, one of the ones they use for scavenger hunts and land nav, and there's not much written on it. But it's still communication from Reletti, whom they hadn't heard from in almost a year, and it brings powerful emotions. He's spent a year and a half praying for the bastard, first for his soul and then for his life and soul, and now it looks like maybe those prayers will be answered.

"Should we try to station a team out there in the interim?" Radner asks. "Get him if he shows up early?"

Manny forces himself to look away from the ball, to hand it off to Suarez, who takes it like he's not sure if it's a baby or a bomb.

Sheppard makes a face. "I'd like to have people camping there from now until then, but I don't think we should," he says. "We've had a very busy couple of weeks and I don't want to take a platoon off of the roster when we've been running everyone ragged as it is. Especially if there's any chance the Wraith are watching the place or, God forbid, if this is some kind of trap. Barring real chaos, maybe we can get teams out there closer to the date and leave them there for a couple of days after if Reletti doesn't show."

The rest of the discussion is mostly updating the protocols that were designed back when they got the first rubber ball from Reletti -- how and where to evacuate him, who should do the surgery, what they'll need in the city and on the mission and what will they need to prepare both Atlantis and Reletti for the reunion. It's all well above Manny's and Suarez's pay grades, but Manny understands why Sheppard wants them there and appreciates it.

When it's over, there is a plan and Manny and Suarez have tacit permission to spread the good news in Little Tripoli. But Manny's not quite ready to run off to the gym or the library and shout out that Reletti might be coming home. Instead, he goes outside, heading to the park across the street from the southern end of Little Tripoli's compound. It's a nice park, popular with the civilians because it's got the ocean on one side and it's been the beneficiary of a very bored Botany department. He bypasses the fountains and the benches and the blocks of flora and marsh grasses and goes straight to the railing so he can watch the ocean.

Suarez tags along, but doesn't say anything for a while as they watch the waves come in. It's a cool and windy day, what passes for wintery in this new planet with many moons and no real change of seasons.

"They think we're gonna get him back in pieces," Suarez finally says as the mist is starting to dampen their blouses. "They don't want a platoon there, not even our platoon."

It's to protect Reletti's dignity, they said. So nobody will see what he had to become to survive is what they didn't say. Everyone knows that Ronon won't go visit the Satedan settlement and it's not hard to guess why. So the new plan involves just those who have to be there -- the docs to do the surgery, enough muscle to fight off any Wraith, someone to drive the jumper. That's it.

"We are going to get him back in pieces," Manny says, eyes still on the horizon. "It's been eighteen fucking months of kill-or-die."

There is no way to guess what mental shape Reletti's going to be in. He's been through SERE and he's been through captivity in Pegasus before, so the assumption that everyone (including Manny) is making is that he can take a lot without cracking. Manny never did SERE -- they ran a short classroom program for the Atlantis marines, but that's not the full C course. But he's been studying the Vietnam War for his class and he's read about the Hanoi Hilton and all of the fucked-up shit the NVA did to the Americans they captured and he also remembers what Ronon was like when he first came to Atlantis. And he remembers that that's not the same man Ronon is now. Which means that whatever condition Reletti shows up in, they can hope it won't be permanent.

"Timing's all fucked," Suarez says after another long silence. "Damien's gonna show up in the gateroom and..."

Weimeier's due back on the second; if they're lucky, Reletti will be home on the first. Jeremy's earned the right to be a part of this; he's on the Major's team as much and as permanently as anyone else. But at the same time, the empty space next to Manny and Suarez'll be one more thing that might be familiar to AJ. Even if that space is Weimeier-shaped and not Reletti-shaped, it won't be immediately obvious.

"He'll have time to adjust," Manny says. "It's not like he'll be going anywhere once he gets in."

No matter what shape Reletti's in when he gets back, he's not being given his old billet. Manny's not sure they'll even let him stay in Atlantis as anything other than a patient. AJ was almost out the door anyway, on his way back to Earth for college and a commission, and they'll probably grease the wheels for that as soon as they can. At least the college part, although he wouldn't be surprised to see them let AJ take a commission if he still wants it.

By the time Manny lets Chris drag him back to Little Tripoli, the news is already out. They're free until 2200 -- night runs with the zodiacs -- and when the platoon gathers to get kitted up and haul out the boats, everyone's got a spring in their step. Manny appreciates the caution Sheppard and the commanders are taking, just in case Reletti's really fucking broken, but everyone's aware that Reletti's not going to be the same man he was before he got taken, even if they aren't really focusing on how different he might be. They've been at war and in Pegasus -- and at war in Pegasus -- long enough that getting someone back from the Wraith still feels like a big victory.

As if to prove a point, the next week is one fucked-up mess after another. Pegasus does its best to take before it gives anything back. It fails.

They meet at 0800 on 1 December. Nobody's surprised that Sheppard's flying the jumper, although Manny's privately surprised that Ronon's not along. Maybe that was Ronon's choice. They get to Lejeune, park and cloak the jumper, and wait.

When the stargate activates, Manny keeps his rifle ready, holding it at an angle that won't scare Reletti but will still be useful in case he's not alone. It's not necessary; AJ's by himself and Manny's sure he doesn't even see the P90s in their hands.

AJ looks better and worse than Manny imagined; leaner and scarred and there's a wildness in his eyes that just doesn't belong. He's got a couple of days' worth of beard and his hair is shortish and shaggy and uneven and Manny almost wants to laugh because AJ has clearly gotten no better at giving himself haircuts during his time in the wild even if he's apparently figured out how to shave. (In the squad, it's Spike who handles the clippers; if it's just the three of them, it's Suarez. Nobody let Reletti cut his own hair or anyone else's.)

AJ's overcome, either at familiar faces or just seeing anyone who doesn't want to kill him; they have to handle him carefully, gently, slowly to keep him from panicking or possibly drawing a weapon. Manny gets close enough to pull him into a hug and he has to hold on tightly because AJ's vibrating tension and fear and twitching with the urge to fight back. He doesn't think it's out of the question that if he lets AJ go, he'll turn around and bolt for the stargate.

"Not letting you go, bro," he says, first in Spanish and then in English, fighting back his own tears. AJ finally stops shaking and Manny hears a hitched gasp. He gives AJ another squeeze and turns to guide him (slowly, carefully, letting him see exactly where he's going) to the jumper so that they can get out of here.

"Let's get that fucking thing out of you so we can go home."

feed me on LJ?

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22 November, 2009