Little Boxes

by Domenika Marzione

"Put all those with the rest of the extras," John tells Ford, who is waiting for instructions. "Whoever gets his personal effects isn't going to care if there's no underwear."

Ford separates out the socks and shorts and undershirts and everything else that Marshall Sumner won't need anymore and one of them might. They've got a small crate that will hold Sumner's truly personal things -- his bible, his photos, the mementos of a life back on Earth that mean both nothing and everything to the ones packing them away -- but John knows that most everything else will need to be redistributed if they're out here by themselves for too long. Better that it's separated now and not at some future needed point when it'll feel like grave-robbing.

He's still not sure whether it's a good idea or not to have Ford here helping him with this, but it's a moot point now. Ford's been attached to his hip all morning and there was no good way to say "buzz off, kid, I need to go through the belongings of the man I killed and then replaced."

On the other hand, having Ford here -- blissfully ignorant, permanently optimistic, so fucking young Ford -- keeps him from getting too maudlin. And he really does need to spend some quality time with the kid and start building both a professional and personal relationship if the guy's going to be his second in command.

They've been pulling opposite shifts the last two days, trying to have one officer around at all times, and their interactions have been as much handing off command as anything else. John's pretty much decided that that's not a pattern worth continuing -- there's too much to do during the day and not enough at night and if something (anything) happens during the latter, everyone's getting up anyway. That much John will tell Weir when she asks. What he won't necessarily add is that it's also becoming obvious that Ford... is intelligent and capable and enthusiastic, but he is also looking out of his depth, which is less satisfactory than simply being out of his depth (they all are) and faking it well. Their marines are already extremely skeptical of their command; no need to fuel that.

"Doctor Beckett wants to ask you if he can rent out some more marines to help re-organize the infirmary, sir," Ford says as he piles socks. Sumner's ruck is as tightly and expertly packed as one would have imagined; John's a little apprehensive about the state of the personal items crate they haven't opened yet. "He asked me what I thought you'd say. I told him to wait until everyone was quartered first before asking for manpower to redecorate."

They finished clearing the spaces they'd chosen as housing last night and allowed everyone to bunk in their new homes if desired. The frames for the beds and the mattresses and everything else that were packed in the hopeful anticipation of being able to live in permanent spaces, however, are still piled in the large rooms off the gate room that they are using for storage. The marines will be kept busy for the day moving all that around, saving John the bother of coming up with some way to waste their time and energy in a manner that doesn't involve him fighting with McKay about human resources. Not even Emperor Rodney is going to bitch about what got pushed back in favor of getting beds and personal effects delivered.

"Sounds like a plan," John says, since Ford's obviously waiting for some sort of reply. "What happened to the ones he's already got?"

Once things like housing and security are settled, the marines will be slipping into roles varying from orderly to cook to lab tech. Sumner had worked hard to integrate the military into all aspects of this civilian expedition and that, at least, is one action about which John doesn't have to wonder what the hell Sumner had been thinking. (Most of the others were turning out to be either the peculiarities of the care and feeding of marines or in the amorphous category of "it'll hopefully make sense once I view his orders. When I find his orders.") Sumner knew and John knows that the marines need more to do than play security guards, both for their own morale and to keep a decent footprint on the expedition map; even with life-sucking humanoids out there wanted to kill them, most of the civilians still act like the marines are an unnecessary encumbrance. Sumner made sure that the marines would be anything but unnecessary.

"He's having trouble keeping them," Ford replies with a shrug, leaning against the stack of crates. "Science keeps grabbing everyone they can find."

John nods. He's been the victim of McKay's press-gangs before and wonders if Sumner anticipated this side effect of his plan to integrate the marines into the infrastructure. "Start telling both Beckett and the marines that if they were assigned to Medical, then they should stay by Medical unless ordered elsewhere. Doctor McKay is not in their chain of command."

"Is Doctor Weir?" Ford asks, not to be cheeky but instead because that's pretty much the question everyone wants to know, including John and Weir: where does his authority begin and end and where does hers? It's not the same places Sumner and Weir had worked out on Earth, both because he's not Sumner and this isn't Earth.

"In an emergency, yeah," John says. "But doing anything just to get Doctor McKay to be quiet does not qualify as an emergency."

Ford giggles. "Understood, sir."

John finishes his run and drops down gracelessly to the lip of the fountain. At least they think it's a fountain; Atlantis is full of architecture that's strange and beautiful and too ugly for words and this could be a traffic light for all they know. The social scientists and Humanities types are making progress on identifying what things are, at least according to the paperwork they produce, but it's only ever in areas that John doesn't encounter until they blow up or terrorists try and assault the city.

There are marines running by -- this fountain is a landmark on the running trail -- and they greet him with various degrees of enthusiasm depending on whether this is the 5K or 10K mark on their circuit and who got assigned to what on the duty roster that came out yesterday. (Which everyone knows John doesn't make up, but CO's are supposed to have some sort of mystical power that assigns the crap rotations to the unfortunate marine named Not Me.) John finished earlier than everyone because he started earlier than everyone, less to avoid the competition than to avoid the noise that is squads of marines running to cadences each more obscene than the last. But he's done now, having enjoyed the peace that comes from running in solitude, and can be entertained by the cacophony. Besides, the marines like to show off for him and it's easy enough to pretend to be sitting on a grandstand taking time out of his day to survey his men instead of simply being too tired to move yet.

Eventually, Ford drops down next to him, still bouncy and energized. John wants to radio Safir and tell him that whatever exercises he puts his students through, it's obviously not enough. But then Ford stills and John knows that he's got an Important Question, one that he doesn't think John will be happy to answer.

"Doctor Weir asked me if I'd be interested in going to M7G-677," Ford begins nervously, since he apparently thinks that Weir has bypassed John and he's not sure how to break it to his CO. "Help them with... I don't know."

Elizabeth hadn't been too specific about what she expected Ford to accomplish on Kid World, but she'd smiled ruefully and suggested that Ford, as probably the youngest expedition member, would perhaps be the best ambassador solely for that reason.

"They've got no idea what to do with themselves," John says with a shrug. Ford relaxes when he realizes John's not upset. "They've never really had to plan out their lives or their cities or anything."

"Doctor Weir wants me to help them think about the future?" Ford asks, dubious.

Put it like that and it sounds a little ridiculous to John, too.

"I think she's expecting that they'll take whatever advice we offer better from you, since you're less of an old geezer to them than, say, me," is what he says to Ford, who smiles because when you're twenty-five, that's still mostly what you think. "You can tell them that they've got plenty more living to do, come up with a few options, maybe convince them to start teaching the kindergarteners how to read and count and not how to fletch arrows and practice attack formations."

They've gone back once since the initial adventure. The kids have thankfully made progress on the No More Ritual Suicide thing -- Keras is apparently doing a lot of traveling and speaking -- but it's not as easy as just pointing to the shield and saying everything will be just fine. It's taking time for the message to sink in, for everyone to believe that these strangers know better, for Keras to convince his suspicious successors that he's not a coward but instead a visionary.

Ford sighs. "It's a big job, sir."

"Yeah," John agrees, because it is. It's hard to tell anyone, let alone a group of kids, that they've been needlessly killing themselves. That if Atlantis had only visited sooner, then their friends (nurturers, lovers, siblings) wouldn't have died. That they have most of their lives ahead of them and have to figure out how to adapt their society to deal with it. "But you're up to it and you'll get help."

Ford rewards the pep talk with an infectious grin, like getting praise from John is a rare gift. John is used to equating favor with responsibility -- the ones you trust get the important jobs -- and he's not sure if this reliance on verbal affirmation is a marine thing or a Ford thing. He trusts Fords with their team, with their city, with his life and he sometimes wonders what he's doing wrong that Ford doesn't always seem to recognize that for what it is.

"Hey, sirs, wanna join us?" Stackhouse calls out gleefully as he makes the turn around the fountain. For a guy built pretty much like a turnip, Stackhouse gets where he's going in a hurry.

Ford looks eager. "Wanna go, sir?"

"I already went," John says, since "Are you fucking kidding me?" would not be an appropriate reaction. The marines have accepted his command, but they've done so by deciding that John can be trained to be marine-like, at least to the point where they can squint and maybe pretend they're being led by a leatherneck. John sometimes wishes that he'd packed a pair of blue tiger stripe BDUs just to make that impossible. But the rest of the time he remembers how ugly they were and that a galaxy isn't too far away to travel to never see them again.

At some point earlier, someone had deposited a neat stack of plastic crates in the center of the room. Could've been last week, could've been when John had been on Earth, probably wasn't any time in between. The marines have been respectful of his wishes, if not necessarily understanding them or agreeing with them.

This isn't the first time John's had to box up someone's quarters, although this is the first time he's done it when that someone hasn't been dead.

There's no such thing as an ex-Marine, but he knows that his men are not sure what to think of Ford. Without encountering the Wraith or even leaving the city, they have learned that Pegasus is more complex than it sounds like in briefings and on PowerPoint slides. Maybe they appreciate that Ford's situation is more complicated, too. They don't know John well, don't know Ford at all except for Radner and the few others who met him briefly during the siege. They can only go on stories, on AARs, on what gets filtered down to them through the layers of bureaucracy and bullshit, and on the fact that everyone from Atlantis just wants Ford to come home and get well.

The SGC and IOA are not interested in character references or tales of past heroics. They have forced John's hand -- another block in the wall between him and Caldwell, who helped that cause -- and so now Ford has been officially branded a deserter. He's been stripped of his honor, stripped of his rightful place along the wall of photographs of men they've lost, stripped of the recognition of the job he did here. And John's got one more black mark on his record for trying to save someone who couldn't be saved.

Someone's been through already and John wonders if it was Teyla; out of the five boxes, one is already packed and it has been done with care and not expediency. John hasn't really been in here, at least not farther than the doorway, so he can't tell what's missing without looking over what's in the box. Photos (grandparents, cousins, friends from home), CDs, comic books, a couple of action figures, something that might be a diary and John sighs at that last one because if it is, then someone's going to have to go through it for OpSec violations and he really, really doesn't want that someone to be him. There's a New Testament that's dog-eared and worn, probably from Ford's childhood judging by the condition and the embossed church address on the back cover, and trinkets that are obviously from Earth. This is everything Aiden -- not First Lieutenant Ford, USMC -- came to Pegasus with and it will be what is returned to his family.

What Aiden Ford found in Pegasus will stay here. Photographs of Teyla, of John, of Rodney, of the smiling little girls on that planet with the waterfall, of the marines splashing around off the west pier, of the stained glass windows in the gate room at sunset, of a dozen other moments in a year that wasn't entirely about death and loss and terror and fear -- all of these must stay behind. Rocks that Ford picked up on missions, one of those tiny dolls the Athosian kids play with, an Ipetian dagger, and a wooden box of those weird lavender candies they were gifted with... they can't go back to Earth and John can't make himself throw them out or give them away. He starts a second box and puts all of them inside. He'll find a place for it in Atlantis, so that if -- when -- they get Ford back, he'll have something to remind him of what was once important, more important even than driving out the Wraith or proving himself to John.

The bed's already been stripped and John knows that the sheets are long gone. They were running out of bandages and bedding both during the Siege. He's sitting on the naked mattress when the door chimes and then opens and Teyla is there, along with a vaguely nauseated-looking Rodney.

"Fancy meeting you here," John says, since he isn't expecting company. Isn't sure he wants any and he knows that that's possibly selfish and definitely not-productive.

"Major Lorne said that you would be here," Teyla tells him in a tone that is both defiant and sympathetic.

John is seriously going to have to borrow a scanner or something to check for trackers or bugs or whatever the hell Lorne is using to keep tabs on him because John knows that he gave Lorne no indication that he'd be taking care of Ford's effects at all, let alone today.

"There's not a whole lot left," Rodney says, a little relieved, as he looks around. "Of him, of this."

Rodney's been jittery since they got back to Atlantis -- Wraith virus on the Daedalus was fine, but not this. Not returning to the daily reminders of dangers past and present. And that was before they got shanghaied by Ford and Ronon.

John looks at his watch; Ronon should still be plowing through the marines in the gym.

"Once it was obvious that Aiden would not be returning to us," Teyla begins, crossing the room to where a small tapestry is still attached to the wall with duct tape. She reaches up and fingers the bottom tassels, "I asked permission to start sorting his belongings. I do not know what your traditions on Earth are, but among my people, we do not wait long."

There's an entire etiquette for scavenging in Pegasus, one that John knows he doesn't understand in full or even in part. But time is of the essence, that much he does know.

"You did the right thing," he says. "We were pretty hard-up for supplies, too."

"They're going to go through his things at the SGC," Rodney says, looking down into the crate going to Earth. "Make sure it's all clean."

Teyla's brow creases in confusion.

"Most people on Earth don't know about the stargate," John explains before Teyla can ask if she was supposed to wash things. "We can't send back anything that's obviously not from Earth."

She nods. "Captain Radner and Doctor Safir both helped me sort items accordingly," she says.

"Safir?" Rodney makes a face.

"With you two gone, there were not many people left who knew Aiden well at all." She picks up one of the rocks out of the crate. "Aiden was Doctor Safir's pupil. Captain Radner made sure that no secrets were hidden in anything we chose to send to Aiden's family; it was a sensitive and difficult task and I am grateful for how he handled it."

She puts the rock down and dusts her hands off on her skirt, looking at John as if waiting for him to comment or criticize. He just nods at her and she nods once in return.

"There's something very humbling about having your life reduced to plastic crates," Rodney says. "You can be a great scientist or a lowly lieutenant and you're still just boxes with what people are allowed to remember you by to be decided by their security clearance."

John leans over and picks the Athosian doll out of the box. Ford had carried it around for a week in his tac vest before John had finally given up and suggested that it wasn't very professional. "I'm pretty sure we got the full Aiden Ford experience," he says. He doesn't add that he'd rather remember Ford by the contents of the two boxes and not the wild-eyed man who chose a scoopy beam over returning to Atlantis.

Teyla closes the lid on the crate before John can put the doll back and shakes her head when he gestures for her to open it up again. "Then we shall honor his memory well."

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10 February, 2008