Prodigal Files: Lorne

by Domenika Marzione

They've been back from Atlantis long enough that routines are more or less on their way to being established. And one of those is that Yoni and Sheppard end up in his office eating lunch at least once a week. He actually ends up eating with Sheppard at least once a day most days, but the inclusion of Yoni once he returned from Israel was part social and mostly pragmatism and, oddly, entirely Sheppard's idea.

"I want him deployable when we go back," Sheppard explains, which is a statement that can be unpacked so that it actually makes sense in context. Sheppard has never stopped speaking of Atlantis in terms of a place they will return to and Lorne understands that there might be specific plans to engineer that return (plans that don't include him because Sheppard wants him to have impeccable plausible deniability). Yoni can only go back to Atlantis if he's still part of the Stargate Program when the redeployment happens. Which in turn means making sure that he neither quits (possible) or gets turfed (more possible) because he's unhappy and he's making others in Medical even more unhappy. Carson can't organize things the way he did in Atlantis, which in turn leaves Lorne to pick up more of the slack because the idea that he is some kind of Safir-whisperer is not a theory that's getting dispelled any time soon.

And so it's a typical Tuesday lunch, the three of them sitting in his office eating out of Chinese food containers -- Sheppard invariably picks something Asian for these events; Yoni's food drama is both magnified and made more elegant by chopsticks -- when there's a knock on the open door.

"Oh, hey, Happy Lotus Garden," Preble says, sniffing the air appreciatively as he reads the side of the plastic bag. "Now I'm going to be craving honey ribs all afternoon and I've got to go hang out with Aparians."

"They're vegans," Lorne explains to a confused Sheppard.

Preble and Lorne go back to his early days with the SGC, when they were both captains wondering what the hell they'd gotten themselves into. It wasn't even the aliens, really -- Lorne was trying to get used to life with Edwards and Preble, poor man, had gotten himself assigned to one of the marine teams. They'd consumed a lot of beer together.

"You want my spring roll?" Lorne asks him.

"They'll smell pork and make me do the ritual bath," Preble says with a frown and a shudder. The ritual bath's in a mountain spring that's got ice floes in it. "I'm just stopping by to let you know that Landry's going to want to talk to you."

"What did you do now?" Yoni asks with a sigh, cashew paused halfway between container and mouth.

Sheppard nearly chokes on the irony.

"I haven't done anything," Lorne tells him, since Yoni is Yoni and thinks Sheppard just ate too big a piece of broccoli.

He hasn't done anything, at least he doesn't think he has. His team's squared away and his lieutenants are in one piece (Bleicher's still mooning about getting dumped, but that's not something Lorne's responsible for) and his paperwork is shockingly up to date because he's got an XO who makes him look like a slacker.

The summons from Landry, delivered by an airman serving as a herald, comes an hour later.

"The Tok'ra asked for you," Landry says with a frown, looking at him over his glasses like he's suspecting Lorne's up to no good. "Azem asked for you by name."

"We go way back, sir," he explains with what he hopes is a reassuring smile. "SG-11 had regular play-dates with Azem's faction and I ended up doing most of the diplomatic work."

Landry, who still has to juggle assignments to make sure Edwards doesn't get sent to planets where he might start a war just by glaring, grunts understanding. "Well, he wants to talk to you about 'something of crucial importance to the Tau'ri,' so go talk to him."

Lorne looks at his watch. His team is scattered hither and yon -- Bleicher and Ostman are off with the Jaffa doing weapons training and Yuan took a personal day. "Is it okay if I go alone?" he asks. "By the time I get my people back to the mountain..."

Landry waves his hand dismissively. "Go find out what's of 'crucial importance.' Your team can help you with the follow-up."

Sheppard manages to run into him on the way down to the locker room to grab his kit and tags along. "You get into trouble a lot more now than you used to," he says as he leans against the next locker. "Earth is a terrible influence on you."

"Undoubtedly," Lorne agrees, checking his pistol before holstering it. "But in this case, I just give good Tok'ra."

Sheppard looks oddly proud. "You snake-charmer, you."

Lorne finishes gearing up and heads off to the gate room, where the techs already have a copy of Landry's orders for him. (Yet another way life at the SGC is different from Atlantis; nobody would've written those up until afterward -- if at all -- in Pegasus.)

Instead of either hiding in temporary quarters or moving to the new Tok'ra home world, Azem's group -- sadly much smaller than they used to be -- is operating off of Thelios these days, which is as much a statement of how badly the Goa'uld are doing as anything. Thelios is a former Goa'uld 'pleasure planet' with a climate like Tahiti and the architecture of a population with unlimited slave resources and it had been fiercely protected back in the day. Now, however, the Tok'ra are letting most of the villas go to seed, a little bit because they have neither the manpower nor the interest in maintaining them and mostly because the Goa'uld aesthetic is no less gaudy and inappropriate in a tropical paradise setting than anywhere else and the overgrown vegetation is a vast improvement.

Lorne is greeted at the gate by a couple of armed sentries - paradise or not, there are still Goa'uld and now there are Ori and nobody leaves the front doors unlocked if they can -- and escorted up to the 'Big House.' The Tok'ra have been taking in refugees from the Ori the way some of them used to take in refugees from the Goa'uld and there are now fields on either side of the road as crops are being sown and reaped for the burgeoning population.

"We've turned the garden pools into rice paddies," one of his escorts explains as they pass by a giant pink palace. "They were the right depth and nobody was going to live here anyway."

"Too ugly?" Lorne offers. The stone looks like marble, but it's the color of Pepto-Bismol and it's been heavily decorated with the usual bling-tastic faux-Egyptian iconography in bas relief.

"Yes, but not in the obvious way," Eirina says. "This was the... recreation house for the highest ranking of the Jaffa. The first room had handcuff stations along the wall. It got worse from there."

Lorne grimaces because this, too, was part of the deal.

Azem's set himself up in a relatively modest villa that also serves political functions as well. Azem is on the Tok'ra High Council -- he could probably run it if he wanted to -- and is the undisputed leader here. It's busy when Lorne arrives, but almost everyone turns to watch him and that's a little weird because the Tau'ri are not exactly exotic among the Tok'ra and those dressed in SG duds even less so.

Azem is currently hosted by a fellow called Uli. (Uli's not his real name, but nobody can pronounce his real name and so he's Uli.) Lorne's had some interesting conversations over the years with him, too -- mostly about food because Uli is a bit of a gourmand and views being a Tok'ra host as a grand epicurean opportunity. "When I'm not getting shot at," he usually amends. Azem jokes that Uli's favorite assignments are when they go 'undercover' as Goa'uld and get pampered and fed delicacies.

Lorne greets them both and is welcomed warmly in return. It's nice for more than just being a pleasant break from showing up on another planet to get shot at or watch the local population get forced into submitting to the Ori -- it's genuinely good to see people (well, snake and person) that he likes and simply can't keep in contact with for a million reasons, valid and not. When he'd gotten transferred to Atlantis, he'd gotten a chance to say goodbye not because the SGC was a community-fostering environment, but instead because it had been deemed prudent for Lorne to go in person to explain why Azem would have to liaise with someone else now.

The Tok'ra know of Atlantis -- or, at least, Azem does -- and he asks general, not-violating-OpSec questions about Pegasus as they sit down to a meal. Uli always 'gets' meals, but he freely passes on Azem's thoughts. Talking to a Tok'ra is like carrying on a three-way conversation with someone on the phone and Lorne suspects Azem chose him to be the Tau'ri envoy because this never bothered him. Azem is curious about the Wraith, but mostly about how the human populations survived and developed once the Ancients left and they were effectively godless.

"Our deprogramming methods could always stand improvement through the wisdom of others' experience," Azem says.

Lorne ruefully explains that the typical Pegasus native is as likely to still be venerating the absent Ancients as not.

Eventually, after a fine meal and a walk in the carefully re-planted gardens, they get down to business.

"I'm dying," Azem says.

Lorne stops short. "Oh," he says, surprised, although he really shouldn't be. Azem is one of the oldest Tok'ra, if not the oldest, still alive. He's only a generation or two removed from the queen herself. "I'm sorry. For you both."

The tears are Uli's, but the eyeroll is all Azem. "I did not bring you here to tell you that," he says. "I have much graver news that I must share."

What Azem has to say is certainly grave. The SGC's picked up another Goa'uld mole, which is not really shocking anymore even if it's still a surprise. Azem has no idea who the host is or how long they have been in place, but he knows that the snake -- Jarilo -- is planning something a little more exotic than the usual 'take over the world' crap. Jarilo is a scientist who spent centuries in the pay of several of the major System Lords ("All of them competed for his services, never punishing his inevitable defections in hope that he would work for them again in the future") and is now, apparently, looking to hook up with the Ori.

"And he'd like to hand over Earth as a sign of his good will?" Lorne asks, already organizing the information in his head because this is going to be one of those briefings and he's learned that Landry likes his really shitty news to be pithily delivered.

Azem gives him a look that says that he clearly expected Lorne to be thinking more creatively than that. The answer is more convoluted, but also incomplete. Because the Goa'uld database on the Tau'ri is probably better than their book on the snakes, Jarilo has apparently realized that the Tau'ri have the makings of a weapon that could turn the tide irrevocably in favor of the Ori -- in this galaxy and any other they chose to conquer. Or, alternatively, save the Milky Way's bacon if the SGC can figure out what it is first or wrest it away from Jarilo, since he's gotten a head start.

"So we've got a Goa'uld working at the SGC trying to put together the finishing touches on a mystery super-weapon," Lorne summarizes. "The bosses are going to love this one."

There's more, of course. There always is. Azem's people have been scouring the ground looking for any clue as to the nature of the weapon, but they've yet to find anything concrete. There's no reason to think that Jarilo's jumped into a scientist, so basically the mole could be anyone at the SGC who has been offworld in the past twenty months (dating back to the last time the Tok'ra had a confirmed Jarilo sighting). Which is everyone, including Landry and O'Neill.

"I do not believe it is Jack O'Neill," Azem says. "Jarilo would not take as host someone who had previously served."

Which also eliminates Sam Carter, but still only narrows the candidates down to several hundred.

Azem is deeply worried about the fate of the Tok'ra should Jarilo get this weapon; his hatred of the Tok'ra is profound and there have been many confrontations over the centuries, including several attempts at genocide. Which is why when Azem says that he has a proposition to help the Tau'ri stop Jarilo, Lorne's ready to hear it.

Until he finds out what it is.

"You want me to what?" He heard it just fine, but the words simply didn't register.

Azem gives him a look. "It would be the most expedient course of action."

Lorne can imagine Landry's face when he tells him that he went and got blended. Or Sheppard's. Or anyone's because... yeah. The SGC does not have a great history with this. He's aware he's babbling in his own mind and wonders what Azem would think if he could hear it and that is its own shock to the system. Because it means that he's even slightly considering not saying no.

"What about Uli?" he says instead of any of the billion other objections he could raise.

"We have discussed this," Uli says, voice not quite steady. "It would obviously be my wish to stay with Azem until the end, but I understand what's at stake."

Uli is, at least biologically, a young and healthy man. Losing his symbiote would be only an emotional trauma and not any physical danger.

"You realize that this is a lot to spring on me," Lorne says, since it is.

"Yes," Azem agrees. "But I would not make the suggestion were I not sure of its necessity. Jarilo is a great danger on his own, but with access to the resources of the Tau'ri, he may be unstoppable unless every effort is made."

Lorne takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "How much time do I have to think about this?" he asks. He knows he can't go home and talk about this with anyone, can't ask to sleep on it, can't ask if there are any other ways that this can be accomplished. He doesn't think Azem is lying, but... this could be Jacob Carter and Selmak or it could be O'Neill and Kanan. Azem's always been a friend to him, but if his time is running out, he might have a Bucket List and Lorne might be the key to it.

"The south end of the garden is very peaceful," Azem says. "You will not be disturbed."

The south end of the garden has a pond with lily pads and marsh grass and is exquisitely peaceful. Lorne's inner thoughts are anything but.

He doesn't know how long he's sitting there with his eyes closed when he hears footsteps in the distance. Uli - he can tell by the loping stride - is approaching with a basket of fruit.

"I think better with good food," Uli says, sitting down nearby and setting the basket between them, taking off the cloth covering and offering Lorne a peach, which he accepts. "I thought you might have questions."

Lorne feels a little guilty that he's never... he's always seen Uli as the cheery one, the enjoyer-of-life, the hedonist half of the pair compared to Azem's age and wisdom and centuries of warrior experience. He's underestimated him and he feels bad about that, especially now when there is every likelihood that they will be bound in ways Lorne never would have imagined or asked for on his own.

"The part I like most," Uli begins, sucking thoughtfully on a plum pit, "is that I am never alone. That will be the hardest to get used to once Azem is gone. We go through life moving closer and away from family and friends and, especially in the life we lead, we lose so many. But there has always been one who has never been lost - until now. And that is a wondrous thing."

"I don't know if I'm ready - if I'm able to lose all of my boundaries," Lorne says. Which is about as close as he can get to verbalizing what is bothering him most about this, at least on the personal level besides the professional are-you-kidding-me aspect of getting snaked for the greater good. Even in his most serious romantic relationships, there has always been distance; he's never gotten any of his girlfriends vetted to be read in, so there were those secrets, plus just the comfort of the privacy of his own mind. All of that would be gone. He's had that stripped away before, but through torture at the hands of the Goa'uld and that's not exactly what he wants to compare this to.

"He's not going to be there to pass judgment," Uli assures. "He has his own weaknesses and insecurities and uncharitable thoughts that he's not too eager to share with you, either. He will be a partner, there to help you without becoming you. Or you becoming him. That is the difference between Tok'ra and Goa'uld. Your blending will be different from ours - he will be a passive partner, a voice looking over your shoulder when necessary and not the animating force. You will always be Lorne."

"What will you do?" he asks.

Uli shrugs and spits out his pit. "I will stay here, I think. Find myself a nice farmstead, cook, eat, get fat, grow old."

"You've certainly earned a nice retirement," Lorne says.

"Azem tells me that, too," Uli replies with a fond smile. "Except he says I should find a wife before I get too fat."

The sun is starting to approach the mountaintops in the distance. It's after ten back in Colorado, which means he'll be able to get back and get home without too many witnesses and none who will be able to tell that anything is different or wrong.

"I'm going to hate lying to everyone," he says. He thinks of Sheppard and Yoni in particular, since his bonds with them are primarily ones of trust that have blossomed into something more. And O'Neill and Preble and even Landry, who has treated him with far more consideration than a major at the SGC generally warrants. And while he knows that they will all understand the greater good, he hates that their faith in him will be yet another thing sacrificed for it.

"Better they live to trust you again than the alternative." It's Azem talking this time and Lorne knows that his procrastination time is up.

The transfer, when it happens, is a little gross and far more intimate and powerful than sex. It takes what feels like an eternity and a heartbeat both and he's still adjusting to the newness and the feelings and the everything when he feels Uli's - just Uli's - lips against his forehead.

"Thank you," Uli whispers. "Come back to me."

Overcome and still aware that this is a moment in which Evan Lorne has no place, he can only nod. Azem, who could use his body to do anything or even just to speak to Uli, does nothing. Lorne understands that this is Azem's way of showing good faith and he appreciates it, but he wishes Azem would do something to ease the heartbreak on Uli's face.

Once his entire body stops ringing like a struck bell, Lorne realized that he feels pretty good - he feels fantastic, actually, energetic and alive in a way he hasn't felt in twenty years - and that his mind is still his own. He wasn't sure what he was expecting, but it wasn't this - there is no echo of Azem in his mind, no shadow over his thoughts, no reverb.

We are two and shall remain two, Azem says and Lorne closes his eyes because it's weird to have someone talking in your head. Azem's 'inside' voice is different from the one carried by Uli's vocal chords. It's mellower and older and not at all sibilant like a snake. I will not pry into your thoughts just as I hope that you would not pry into mine.

"I can?" Lorne asks aloud, since that's about all he can cope with right now.

Of course, Azem replies, sounding amused. I will not take any advantage that I cannot offer you.

Which is a relief because the natural reaction to 'oh, god, someone can read my thoughts' really is to think about sex.

It's sunset by the time they leave the garden. They are alone - Uli had left them at some point - and the walk to the house is long.

"Do you need anything?" Lorne asks. He can feel Azem's chagrin. "You don't need a change of clothes, I guess."

I have made my farewells," Azem says. We may go.

A Tok'ra of Azem's stature's got to have an aura that shines like a beacon, but they've got a version of Ba'al's masking agent and nobody seems to notice their passing.

"I'm going to need something to give to Landry," Lorne warns. "Since I can't exactly tell him the truth."

Azem assures him that he does have actual intelligence on the Ori.

Lorne hesitates before he keys in his IDC at the open stargate. This is his last chance to stop this, although not really - Azem can always take over and be Lorne until someone notices he isn't. He goes home.

It's oh-dark-thirty when they get back and the SGC is running on a skeleton crew; the airmen greet him with the sort of dozy eagerness that comes with working in the middle of the night and nobody notices that Lorne's not quite himself. Which is possibly how they got a mole in the first place. He goes to his office, sends off an email to Landry reporting his return and that there is word on the Ori that can keep until tomorrow, and debates whether or not to go home or just crash for a few hours in one of the temporary quarters. Home is currently an apartment at Peterson that's not very home-like - he hasn't gotten around to finding off-base housing yet, maybe because he hopes Sheppard really is planning on getting them back to Atlantis - and he'd otherwise just go downstairs and crash, but he thinks maybe tonight a little privacy might be in order. He's not tired per se, but drained and wired and so very out of sorts.

"Do I even need to sleep?" he asks, since he's seen enough kelnoriming over the years for it to be a valid question.

Eventually, Azem replies, amused. I find it an excellent time for meditation.

By the time they return to the SGC a few hours later, Lorne has more or less figured out how to 'talk' to Azem in his head and not out loud. He maybe freaks out a little as they pass by each layer of security, but nobody notices anything except that Major Lorne's a little high-strung this morning because he's operating on two hours' sleep.

Lorne writes out the full report on his cover-story meeting with Azem, who dictates his intelligence as Lorne types. He sends it via email to Landry, who'll summon him for a debrief when he's ready, and spends the morning looking after his team, which is back together and a little put out that they didn't get to go to Thelios.

"You three were all in Baghdad and saw Saddam's palaces turned in headquarters offices," Lorne tells them. "It's the same thing, except with more hieroglyphics."

Sheppard is out on a mission and Lorne is relieved because he's not yet ready to face anyone who knows him well. He's still having trouble looking at himself in the mirror.

The day goes by with disturbing regularity. Lorne keeps waiting for someone to notice something, but nobody does. Lorne gets called in to brief Landry on the Ori information and apart from one instance where Azem fills in an answer Lorne otherwise would not have been able to give, there's absolutely nothing out of the ordinary at all. He does tell Landry that Azem is dying and that he has no idea what the future plans of his Tok'ra faction might be.

"A shame," Landry says thoughtfully. "He should have more time to enjoy the fruits of his labor. We'll have to keep tabs on that; he's been the only Tok'ra who's been interested in helping us against the Ori."

It's late in the day when Lorne finally gets time to himself - or as himself as he can get with a symbiote. "And how was your day?"

Azem laughs, a pleasant tickle all over, and says that life at the SGC is really not much like what he had expected. The Tau'ri have a reputation as feckless and maybe a little simple and prone to self-gratification without any grand strategy; this Lorne knows from years of dealing with various races and especially the Tok'ra, who generally see the Tau'ri as newcomers full of bluster and unmindful of consequences and inconsiderate of their allies. But Azem is impressed by how organized the SGC is, how routinized, how dedicated. Which doesn't mean that the Tau'ri are any less prone to disregard collateral damage, just that it's not a result of going off half-cocked.

"Just wait until our first crisis," Lorne tells him, but he's a little pleased by Azem's raised opinion.

There's not a whole lot they can do right this moment about the mole, but Azem has a list of suggestions about the groundwork they can lay for the future.

What I fear is that we will not be able to draw close until something drastic has occurred, Azem says, which Lorne takes to mean that they won't be able to identify the mole until bodies start turning up.

They end up cruising through the files of the science section, looking for subjects and projects that look like they might possibly be able to be weapons components. Azem doesn't want to rule anything out, but Lorne argues that they don't need to waste time looking at the biological or medical studies - the Priors have the plague and don't really seem terribly interested in expanding beyond it on their own even though they must have the means, so they'd be less likely to be interested in some new health disaster offered by Jarilo. They do, however, have an interest in energy production. Logistically speaking, they have been living off of the land - local resupply of food, clothing, converts - but their weapons and whatever they're using to power the ships and, especially, form another supergate are a different story.

The SGC intranet has its own version of Google Alerts, mostly used by the science people to keep up with developments in other units and other sites but also used by the gate teams to track references to certain populations or events or planets. And everyone's got at least one vanity alert. Almost entirely at Azem's direction, Lorne sets up dozens of alerts for various projects and, anticipating the worst, the obituary list. The SGC doesn't make a production out of funerals and deaths the way Atlantis did; the program is too big and, frankly, the deaths too numerous. There isn't a Wall for the fallen; there's a book and it's a thick one. The SGC does, however, do its own version of the newspaper obituaries and it covers anyone who has ever worked for the Stargate Program, whether they died in the line of duty or snug in their beds at home after retiring from the program. Life - and death - at the SGC being what it is, every gate team has a tally somewhere for how many times they have appeared in the obits. (Lorne's team's is taped to the inside of the left door of the supply cabinet; he laps the rest of his team and they are both relieved and a little jealous of that.)

"What are you still doing here?" Sheppard asks from the door and Lorne is too surprised to look guilty. "Don't you have your Mini-Me doing all of your paperwork now?"

"Captain Yuan didn't go visit the Tok'ra yesterday," Lorne says with a shrug.

"Come on," Sheppard encourages. "Mitchell's challenged Siegerfeld to a wings-eating contest at Flipper's."

Sheppard is looking a little tumbled around, like his mission went a little pear-shaped but not actually rating a disaster or requiring assistance. Considering how they're doing against the Ori these days, that should rate as a success. But Lorne knows Sheppard and that's not his reluctantly content look.

"Give me five?"

Lorne wonders if he should feel a little embarrassed taking a Tok'ra to a dive bar to watch a couple of O-5s work out their frustration with the Ori through Coors and piles of sticky wings while he nurses his own pint and a pile of onion rings. It's a little like taking your grandfather to a titty bar, except not. Azem is absent from his thoughts and for entire stretches Lorne can forget that he's even there.

"Here," Sheppard says sometime between Mitchell finishing off the second round and Watson suggesting they use Inferno instead of Campfire sauce. Sheppard hands him a key ring.

"What's this?" Lorne asks, wiping off his fingers and accepting it.

"With any luck, you won't have to worry about it," Sheppard says and Lorne knows. This is about whatever the hell Sheppard is doing to get them back to Atlantis.

He pockets the keys, meeting Sheppard's gaze. He wants Sheppard to notice, but he doesn't. He'd stake his life on Sheppard not being the mole, but he can't stake everyone else's. "I'll hold you to that," he says instead.

The next day, Sheppard, Weir, McKay, and Beckett steal a jumper and fly to Atlantis.

Lorne and Yoni spend most of the rest of the day in Landry's office insisting that they had nothing to do with the plan. Landry doesn't think they didn't suspect something was coming, but he can't prove anything and the fact that they're in his office while Beckett and Weir are in Pegasus speaks to their innocence. Even after he finds out that Yoni's been giving Carson marksmanship lessons every night at the range.

"You couldn't have been a little more subtle than that?" Lorne asks Yoni after Landry finally dismisses them. "Colorado Springs has more ranges than Dairy Queens and you chose to use this one?"

"I was subtle," Yoni replies, rolling his neck. "Landry didn't ask why all four of them suddenly got recertified in CPR last week or how three full emergency medical kits were put together without requisition forms."

Lorne's not sure whether to be amused, amazed, or put out that Yoni got to do more than he did.

The other Pegasus refugees turn Lorne's team room into a sort of information center (Lorne's actual team doesn't mind because this is absolutely the most interesting thing going on at the Mountain today and they get the best seats) and everyone is vastly relieved when Carter shows up to announce that everyone is safe and the city is secure.

Amidst all of the celebrating and talk of redeploying to Pegasus, Lorne wonders how he's supposed to hunt a mole from a galaxy away, if he should offer Azem another host in this galaxy to continue his work, or if he should maybe request to stay on Earth instead of going back to Atlantis.

Azem tells him to do as he otherwise would, since his asking to stay behind would raise more suspicions than anything else. Azem thinks they can adequately monitor the situation from a distance and while they will necessarily miss things by not being local, the SGC is vast and there's no guarantee that the mole is even based at the Mountain.

I am excited by the prospect of seeing another galaxy, he also admits.

The amount of work that goes in to getting everything and everyone back to Atlantis takes up all of Lorne's time and energy. He is too busy to worry about getting 'outed' and after having interacted with so many people since the blending, he's more confident that he won't be. He'd be depressed that nobody seems to notice the coffee's been replaced by Folger's Crystals, but in his less self-pitying moments he understands why - Azem is not influencing his day-to-day actions or interrupting his life and it really is just him almost all of the time.

"Don't you get... bored?" Lorne asks him.

How could I be? Azem replies. This is all new and strange, even what you consider most tedious.

He does try to do at least one thing a day that's for Azem's benefit and not related to the mole hunt. He takes walks in the national parks and goes to the museums, he tries new foods (Lorne's realizing that Uli wasn't the only gourmand of the pair), he goes to places with people living ordinary lives so that Azem can see what the Tau'ri call peace. He tries, in other words, to be a good host as well as a good Host.

There is not going to be much time for that once they're back in Pegasus.

Atlantis is a mess when they get back, but everyone is almost too happy to notice. The first month is almost entirely spent cleaning up the city and re-establishing alliances and trade partnerships. The Wraith and the Genii had both noticed their absence, although thankfully neither seems to have realized that they'd gone back to Earth. Lorne's first mission with his team is one of the apology missions.

When he's not doing crazy amounts of paperwork - Lorne's not above suspecting the SGC of punitive bureaucracy as a way of dealing with Weir and Sheppard's actions - and groveling at their local food suppliers and making sure the marines keep their insanity within reasonable bounds, he's reading about everything that's going on back at the Mountain. Actually, sometimes he's not reading - Azem is. The first conversation they have about Azem taking over for any duration is (in hindsight) hilariously awkward. Azem more or less reads over Lorne's shoulder when he checks the alerts from the SGC, but there are only so many hours in the day - even in Pegasus, where there are more hours than on Earth - and Lorne can't be awake for all of them. (Actually, he probably could, but he'd like to stay as human as possible and Azem never pushes it.) It makes sense from an efficiency standpoint for Azem to continue their investigation while Lorne sleeps, but handing over control is far more difficult from an emotional standpoint than Lorne imagines it would be considering he used to sleepwalk as a child and he's had another consciousness in his head for over a month.

The first time is only for an hour. The second time for two, and after that Lorne just asks that Azem not leave his quarters because everyone in Atlantis knows that Major Lorne is Not a Morning Person. During the day, Azem reports on what he thinks might be useful, some of which might be and some of which is really just the way the SGC does business and always has.

It's a little disturbing to see files on his computer that he knows he didn't create and yet sort of did.

The first 'disagreement' they have is about what to do when they find something concrete. Lorne has already worked out a way to get himself back to Earth - one of his college roommates getting married, he agreed to be in the wedding party back when they were stationed on Earth - but he'd like to at least have his team along with him since he doesn't think Azem will be enough if they have to do this without the resources of the SGC. Azem is not in favor of bringing anyone else in that they don't have to and they're already going to have to bring in O'Neill and probably Carter. They go back and forth on this and finally Azem relents. Coming up with ways to get his team back to Earth - through the SGC, which has to remain oblivious -- is not that difficult for someone as versed in bureaucratic bullshit as Lorne. Coming up with the time and place and nerve to tell them why and what… that's a little less easy. Which is why he maybe agrees a little too easily with Azem to not say anything until they have to.

They have to about three weeks later.

Azem has been putting together a network of events that Lorne couldn't imagine being connected until Azem draws lines between them. (Which is perhaps why Azem designed the monitoring system in the first place.) The lines are sometimes extremely tenuous and even Azem agrees that they could be entirely circumstantial and not causal, but sometimes they are distressingly straightforward. A missing artifact here, an abandoned project's files suddenly getting accessed there, a suspicious arson destroying a civilian research firm, a former SGC engineer dying in a car accident on a snowy highway, a report by an SG team that an old Goa'uld lab has been found destroyed.

Li Feng's death is, for Azem, the missing link. It's not obviously a murder and the local medical examiner declares it a natural, if unfortunate, death. Except that the autopsy ends up at the SGC for completely routine reasons - a study by Medical on the long-term effects of exposure to naquadah and other non-Earth substances. All SGC personnel have essentially agreed to donate their bodies (or at least their medical results) to the study, a line in the paperwork morbidly referred to as the Silkwood Clause, and a copy of the ME's findings ends up in the SGC database and from there, Lorne's computer on the next databurst from Earth. But not before whichever researcher recording the details for the study idly notes in the file that Li Feng's shock-related heart attack bears striking resemblance to Death by Zat.

Feng was doing high-energy physics when he died; back at the SGC he'd been working on the ill-fated body armor mega-project - the SGC's attempt to come up with something that would let SG teams get hit by a zat or a staff weapon and still remain functional afterward. Its bastard son exists in Atlantis as an attempt to nullify the effects of Wraith stunners, but the original had major funding and serious resources and a legendary record for spectacular failure. (Lorne had seen one of the tests and the sight of the armor-wearing dummies engulfed in flames had been enough for him.) It was a project that had ended the SGC careers of a few bright men and women, Feng's apparently one of them as he'd been allowed to get plucked by one of the lower-level research sub-groups before leaving the Stargate Program entirely and going to work for the Army. It is the sub-group, Azem thinks, rather than the armor project, that is relevant. He tries to explain to Lorne how, but Lorne was a history major for a reason; he can do the physics of flight because he is (was) a pilot, but lasers and anything else is completely beyond him and he is ready to trust Azem on this.

Lorne schedules a tech-finding mission for his team on a planet he's fairly certain has no functional tech - explaining the Tok'ra thing is going to be complicated enough without Reletti getting distracted by Ancient baubles whispering in his ears - and puts in notice that he's taking vacation to go back to Earth for a wedding.

Sheppard creates an unintentionally awkward and hilarious moment when he wanders into Lorne's office and asks him who he is and what he did with Lorne because Lorne never takes personal time.

The mission with his team starts off on the wrong foot with Yoni pissy about who-knows-what and Suarez having a chest cold that really should have had him on sick call. And then it takes a turn for the worse when everyone's rifles end up pointed at him because the marines' only experience with any kind of snake is the Goa'uld who co-opted Caldwell and Yoni's just not a glass-half-full kind of guy. Lorne's brought with him print-outs of some of the early official reports on Azem's relations with the SGC and Lorne's part in them (It's a security violation to do so, but compared to everything else, it's nothing.) and he waits for them to huddle around and read - all with at least one barrel pointed at him - and ask questions. Most of which are some variation on 'why?' and 'what the fuck were you thinking?' and 'does the Colonel know, because if he doesn't, he's going to kill you.'

Eventually he gets them convinced enough to move on to how they need to proceed next, which for the short-term involves getting them home in shifts. Lorne has already approved the marines for liberty - it's going over the heads of everyone in their chain of command and possibly screwing up whatever liberty schedule Charlie Company's got set up, but they haven't been back in Atlantis long enough for it to be too onerous and it's not like the marines aren't used to working around Lorne's team's unexpected absences. Yoni's going to put in for his own time, counting on Beckett's guilt at leaving Yoni behind to clean up and reorganize after the Siege to get it approved.

Lorne doesn't mention that this could ruin all of their careers, especially the marines'. Everyone knows that and it is deeply heartening to know that none of them care.

Two days later, Lorne leaves Atlantis through the midway station and shows up in Colorado in the middle of a minor crisis that allows him to slip out of the SGC without stopping to chat with anyone. He has a flight to DC booked under a false name (since otherwise he'd have to go through Oklahoma City, the closest airport to his cover posting, and he's not interested in accumulating frequent flier miles) because his groom-to-be 'roommate' is in Silver Spring - Kev's actually north of Baltimore, in one of those gated communities that double as housing projects for Johns Hopkins staff, and married with three kids - and everything goes as planned except for a weather system in Chicago making the flight connection a little less relaxing than it could have been.

Azem thinks travel on Earth is marvelous in not all positive ways.

Lorne bought a pre-paid phone in Colorado Springs and uses it to call O'Neill at home. O'Neill is surprised to hear from him, but agrees to see him without hesitation. They chose the Lincoln Memorial as a meeting place.

O'Neill reacts about as well as Lorne had imagined to the news - of Azem and of the mole. They walk in silence for almost a mile, surrounded by tourists, before O'Neill sighs deeply.

"Well," he says, "let's get this thing started."

feed me on LJ?


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15 August, 2009