by Domenika Marzione

The first time they go off-world after Reletti leaves, it's a softball mission. Lorne isn't crazy about being catered to this way; he dealt just fine with the rotating junior members of SG-11 and Suarez and Ortilla have been working around the hole in their team all day every day since the Daedalus left. Sheppard pretty much insists, however, and since he rarely insists on anything, Lorne accepts his fate. It's not completely about him and his team anyway -- Sheppard is clearly thinking back to the time after he lost Ford and before Ronon filled that space. Lorne really wasn't paying attention to that aspect of his commander back then, but knowing Sheppard as he does now, he can see that Sheppard considers this a small mercy and so he treats it like the gift it's supposed to be.

It turns out actually to be a gift after all. Going out without Reletti feels like they're missing a limb. They're off-balance in ways that go beyond not having Reletti's ATA gene or his scouting skills or his tendency to speak first and consider afterward. They are too quiet and too loud, hypersensitive to covering Reletti's duties while trying to make it seem like they're not and failing on all counts, and they come too close to blowing the mission entirely because nobody wants to say what is completely obvious. Nobody says Reletti's name at all.

Lorne doesn't want to try having a caring-and-sharing moment for their mutual man-pain, but if they keep ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room, one of them is going to get hurt for real.

"First person to let slip to Reletti that we screwed the pooch with him gone is handling logistics from here to eternity," he announces as they stand in the armory stripping off their gear. "And don't think I'm above hacking in to the databurst to check."

Everyone laughs, even Yoni, who's been sullen and cranky since they'd kitted up for reasons that only partially relate to the same funk that's captured them all.

The next mission isn't perfect, but they're no longer a danger to themselves.

His radio chirps twice. "Major Lorne?"

"Go ahead, Lieutenant," he prompts.

"Doctor Weir has requested that you bring your team back in as soon as possible, sir."

Lorne grimaces in apology as he stands and steps away from the table where he's been leisurely negotiating a trade agreement with the Haryani for olive oil, figs, and cheese. Murray doesn't sound anxious, which only means that a hive ship isn't hovering over Atlantis (again). That still leaves a wide choice of disaster options.

"Wilco, Lieutenant. Can I get a hint?"

Sheppard's team is out on a mission and Lorne really hopes that this isn't one of those Find the Colonel kind of days.

"Wish I could offer one, sir," Murray replies. "But she didn't say, just requested that you and the Colonel get recalled. The databurst was sent about an hour ago, so it might have something to do with something we got back."

Lorne's not sure if that's going to be better or worse news than Sheppard going missing again.

The weekly databurst to Earth has been more about getting news from Earth than sending news from Atlantis since the beginning. Atlantis personnel know what's in the reports getting sent to Earth and how little it ultimately matters to the SGC beyond informational purposes. That means that everything that comes back, from sports scores to baby announcements to election results and publishing schedules to new movie and music releases, is of more novelty and interest. The news on the Ori front (Lorne's guess, unless the SGC has word of another spy in Atlantis) hasn't been at the top of the list, although it's been creeping up the more it impacts day to day life in Atlantis -- why the Daedalus is delayed, why materiel or supply requests can't be met, why so-and-so isn't being transferred to Pegasus.

Apart from that, though, it's been business as usual and if it looks like the Ori are going to be a longer-term, more-visible kind of enemy, well, maybe the folks at Homeworld Security aren't that broken up. Everyone knows how miserable the Pentagon was after the Soviets imploded and they had no one left to strategize against.

He gives Murray an ETA and then returns to the table. The explanations are necessarily vague, but Lorne knows how to make it sound like he's being recalled over something minor and they were mostly finished with the negotiations anyway. The Haryani are a very laid-back people and he hasn't ruffled any feathers by leaving before he's finished his wine.

Promising not to depart the village before accepting a selection of gifts to bring back to his people, Lorne strolls over to where Ortilla is sitting under a grape trellis, sharing a joke with the head of the local gendarmerie. Ortilla sits up when he sees Lorne, preparing to move because he knows Lorne's not just stopping by to say hello.

"Problem, sir?"

"We're going to have to cut our visit short," Lorne tells him. "Why don't you track down Suarez and Doc and meet me back here."

Ortilla gives him a "You're gonna tell us later, right, sir?" look and then heads off. Suarez and Yoni are both on radio and Lorne could summon them that way, but Yoni is occasionally hard to pry loose from the clutches of children and interesting medical case studies and here he's got both. Suarez still hasn't learned how to tell Yoni "now" and "no" so that he'll listen and so Ortilla will have to do it himself.

They're underway inside ten minutes, Yoni still holding his fig blossom bouquet and Ortilla carrying a large ball of cheese among other edibles.

Atlantis, when they return, is a little tense, but the energy hasn't been ratcheted up the way it is when Lorne has returned to casualty counts and missing marines (or Colonels). Sheppard is already back, up in Weir's office with McKay and Beckett. Zelenka is in the control room puttering around as if he were waiting for something and Lorne wonders what the hell happened on Earth.

"Doc," he begins, not looking over at Yoni. Ortilla hands over the cheese to a nearby marine and takes his rifle.

"Right," Yoni sighs. He gives Suarez his rifle, but not his fig blossoms, and follows Lorne upstairs. Zelenka follows them into Weir's office. Nobody, not even Weir, is sitting.

They've known for a while that the battle with the Ori isn't going well, but in last decade there have been many closer calls -- the Goa'uld, the Replicators, the half-dozen times someone's brought a virus through the gate and the quarantine order was issued too slowly. But aliens are still science fiction outside of the SGC, so they have reason to be confident.

Lorne is aware that things are a little different this time, that the Ori are more menacing an opponent than the Goa'uld -- they're a far more cohesive and confident entity than the snakes, for all that they both base their support on the false premise of godhood. But the good guys are still fighting and they haven't lost yet and Lorne can't bring himself to panic.

"Gentlemen," Weir greets him and Yoni, waiting for the door to hiss closed before she continues. "Two days ago, over the course of nine hours, the Ori bombed Beijing and Dhaka. Early count is somewhere between ten to twenty million dead. The war has come home."

There's more, but that right there is enough to wish that maybe Sheppard had gone missing again instead.

In the course of an afternoon, Atlantis becomes part sanctuary and part prison. There has been a complete stop-loss instituted -- everyone in Atlantis is staying in Atlantis, military and civilian. The news hits hard in Little Tripoli, where two hundred marines have to be told that they cannot go home to defend their families and their country from attack.

Sheppard calls the entire battalion together and doesn't so much give a speech as carry on a somewhat one-sided conversation. It's short and to the point: they are warriors, men of action, and they are being ordered to inaction, far away from the battlefield and those they love and it's ridiculous to forget that. But while they are a galaxy away from combat, they are not out of the fight -- Atlantis was founded not to be the playground of the scientists, but instead to develop and discover weapons that would defeat Earth's enemies. They aren't Earth's first line of defense, but they may be her last hope and they will act accordingly.

The marines leave the assembly dour and still angry, but it's far better than the seething, pent-up frustration from before. Nobody's expecting them to just deal with it. Lorne isn't just dealing with it and he doesn't think Sheppard is, either.

Everyone in Atlantis is here because they want to be on the pointy end of the spear and, suddenly, they find themselves the permanent blunt end. The marines get restless when they're cooped up in the city too long even when nothing's going on; this is just that writ large. Unsurprisingly, the next few days see a spike in 'training injuries', fights gone too far in the gyms, and a couple of incidences of public intoxication. And then, all of a sudden, it stops. Completely. Lorne doesn't know what the captains and senior NCOs did, but they did something and they're not willing to share.

Lorne is too relieved to press the matter. And also too busy. He and Sheppard are been in command staff meetings every day, then retiring to his office to figure out what actually involves them and what they need to tell the marines, which is another daily meeting. An Ori attack on Atlantis is a possibility, albeit not a strong one right now, and plans have to be made to figure out how to defend it. It's all so much useless conjecture and everyone knows it, but it's something to do when their inability to do anything on Earth dominates their thoughts. It still feels like busy work.

The Daedalus arrives, late and loaded. In addition to supplies and materiel come scientists and equipment with projects deemed too important to risk being disrupted or destroyed by the Ori or the preparations to defend against them. This reinforcement of Atlantis's place as the safe haven, removed from the fight, sits well with no one.

Both Lorne and Sheppard try to schedule missions so that they're not on the day of or day after a databurst. There's too much news to process and too much fallout to prevent or minimize to just dump in the captains' laps and hop through the gate. But sometimes it's unavoidable and this is one of those times -- someone has to go to Estande today and it can't be Sheppard for a half-dozen stupid-but-valid reasons.

The mission launch time is two hours after the databurst in order to accommodate Estrande's difference in daylight time, which means that Lorne's still in his office when they find out that Jerusalem has been bombed. It happened a few hours before the databurst was sent, just enough time to pass on the information and not enough time to have any actual facts beyond that.

Lorne isn't sure if getting Yoni out of the city right away is a very good idea or an extremely bad one; Yoni won't deal well with the pity and the questions, but asking him to play diplomat in a delicate situation an hour after getting that kind of news... They don't know how much of the city has been destroyed, just that the attack was "pretty bad." Yoni's family is from Tel Aviv, but he's got at least one sister in Jerusalem and Israel's just not that big. A blast like the one that took out half of Beijing municipality would decimate Israel and probably take out part of Jordan as well.

There's no real point of offering Yoni a chance to skip the mission. If Yoni doesn't think he should go on the mission, he'll say so. But Yoni might not be the best judge right now and Lorne prepares himself for the ugly blowout that will result if he has to tell Yoni to stay home.

He goes down to the armory early and is not surprised to see Ortilla and Suarez already there and already worried. The news made it around Atlantis at light speed; Jerusalem is a city important to almost everyone for various reasons and Yoni isn't the only Israeli. Nonetheless, it's different this time than the reactions to Beijing and Dhaka; those were out of the blue, the first strikes against an ignorant planet. Jerusalem seems almost obvious and the reaction is less shock than profound sadness. Lorne wonders if Yoni has been bracing himself.

"Doc coming, sir?" Ortilla asks, loading up his tac vest.

"Hasn't said he wasn't," Lorne replies, getting out his own. He's still half-expecting Beckett to send a messenger telling him that Yoni's staying home.

Yoni shows up with five minutes to go. On any other day, Lorne would have already sent a search party, but this isn't any other day.

"You're late," he says, since Yoni is. He also wants to take Yoni's temperature -- if he can't handle this, then Lorne's not letting him out of the city.

"My apologies," Yoni says quietly, pulling out his gear. "I took the scenic route. Nobody was bothered when it was mufsidun from Gaza, but now it's aliens from another galaxy and suddenly everyone's sorry for my loss."

Yoni's got his attention focused on his medical kit and Lorne can feel Ortilla and Suarez watching and waiting. Yoni's not radiating anger or grief or anything else Lorne would rate as a potentially explosive emotion. He's less worried about causing an interplanetary incident, but Yoni does not have a history of internalizing and this subdued version perhaps has him more concerned than if Yoni had come in snarling and ready to lash out.

Suarez takes his usual sweet time, but Lorne gets the sense that he's dawdling for Yoni's sake and not out of his usual particularity. Ortilla must, too, because he doesn't ride herd and the only noise in the room come from the guys next door in Ordinance listening to music as they do their repairs.

Finally, Yoni zips up his kit and stows it in his ruck and they're ready to go. They're almost at the door when Suarez speaks.

"We'd have been sorry whoever it was, Doc," he says.

Everyone freezes.

"I know," Yoni finally says with a sad smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Thank you."

Lorne doesn't realize he's holding his breath until he exhales.

"They're either going to save the galaxy or blow up the city," Sheppard sighs from the doorway, coming in to Lorne's office and sitting down without ceremony. Or without asking if Lorne was doing anything important, but Lorne's pretty much used to that and he wasn't. "Maybe both, in which case I hope they save the galaxy first."

Lorne doesn't need to ask who Sheppard is talking about. The Daedalus is in port and it has brought Jonas Quinn and his latest stash of Ancient and Ori devices. Jonas seems more than happy to hand over the former to McKay and Engineering in return for space and tools to play with the latter, but that still leaves Atlantis with maybe one too many mad geniuses with a lot of toys and poor impulse control.

"There's an MTF test tomorrow," Lorne says, since it's actually related to McKay and Jonas and their projects.

"I know," Sheppard replies with a grin. "Laser cannons'll be cool if they work."

Lorne grins back. The cannons are supposed to supplement the cool-but-delicate-and-constantly-in-need-of-repair rail guns in a prospective defense of the city. They have drone weapons and the chair, of course, but one of the most important lessons learned from the first siege of Atlantis was that depending on the chair was a bad idea, even with a ZPM, and diversity was key. Also -- and maybe especially -- it was important for both pragmatic and morale reasons to have a broad array of tools that didn't rely on the ATA gene.

That, and when the cannons are deemed safe and effective enough to begin training with them, it'll give the marines something big and destructive to play with. There's only so much traditional artillery they can waste and the rail guns can't be used too often until they figure out how to either repair or replace the rails themselves; they pretty much have Earth's entire stock but that wasn't much to start with and nobody's making any more.

"Quinn's been putting in twenty-six hour days, I think," Lorne says. "He's got something he wants to get a working prototype of before the Daedalus heads back."

Neither of them are quite sure what Jonas is doing for the SGC; it's high-level research and maybe some industrial sabotage and definitely weapons development and Jonas sure as hell isn't doing it out of love for the SGC, which he still blames for not helping Langara against the Ori. Lorne was casually friendly with Jonas back when they were both on SG teams and Jonas still greets him with a ready smile now, but Lorne can see how much the last few years have changed him, how much he has paid. Sam Carter recruited him to help her and he accepted, determined to defeat the Ori even if it means freeing Earth first.

"Whatever it is," Sheppard says, "McKay's letting him have tools and people, so he's obviously interested in it, too."

Lorne knows McKay's micromanaging tendencies have only gotten worse since they started getting scientists from Earth and refugees like that Galarans who can be put to work in the labs.

"Do you know what it is?"

Sheppard shakes his head. "I don't want to ask. If I ask, Rodney'll know I've noticed his behavior and he'll change it and then Doctor Weir'll yell at me."

From there, they digress into the usual casual-but-not-really discussion on the state of Little Tripoli and the city as a whole. Sometimes Sheppard has something he wants to bounce off of Lorne, sometimes he just has questions and sometimes Lorne isn't quite sure what Sheppard is fishing for but can usually tell when he catches it. This is how their command of the battalion has always gone and it's a bit of a relief that it hasn't really changed while practically everything else has.

Today, Sheppard seems to be content to just be reassured that everything is functioning about as well as it can be under the circumstances. It more or less is -- a week of heavy rains and high winds did some damage to the construction on Mars, but that's back on track and nobody seems to think that the nascent crops will be too adversely affected. The locals are restless but not restive, and Science is usually too busy to cause trouble in the fortnight after the Daedalus shows up.

It feels a little bizarre to say that they're settling in to the new routines forced on them by Earth's war against the Ori, but they kind of are. There are entire days when Lorne doesn't think about Earth and he always feels guilty when he notices. He's got family and friends and people he cares about there and he wonders how it's even possible to forget what they're all going through, what their planet is going through. He still gets the occasional email from his sister assuring him that their relatives are still okay -- the SGC, headquarters for a galactic war, still sends any personal emails that come to the addresses set up for the databurst -- and he rereads them as a penance.

With the influx of refugees, they have more than a dozen religions represented in Atlantis and if the policy had always been that faith was something you didn't talk about, well, it's still the policy but less carefully observed, There's still a healthy skepticism, especially among the civilian scientists, and a few instances of lost faith. But there's also been a kind of quiet revivalism. The Ori want belief in their divinity and that has caused many in Atlantis to evaluate their own concept of such. As have the stories that have filtered back from Earth, stories of the faithful returning to destroyed holy places in defiance, of the Ori attacking these places again and again and failing to break the wills of the believers even as the numbers of the slaughtered grew into the thousands, the tens of thousands, the millions.

Lorne isn't sure where he falls anymore. He's always been able to easily sit in chapel once a week, but his comfort has always come from the ritual and the familiarity of it all -- letting his mind drift as he listens to stories he remembers from Sunday school and hearing them again with an adult's ears -- and not genuine belief. It's not that he doesn't believe; he doesn't consider himself an atheist. An agnostic, maybe, with a skepticism that dates back to before he got a job fighting the Goa'uld.

Atlantis has both increased his skepticism and made him more uncomfortable with that change. The Ancients didn't actively promote themselves as gods, but Lorne doesn't think they get a free pass because they're still around and they know what they've done -- and what they've failed to do. He's spent almost three years listening to various supplications and entreaties to the Ancestors and his cynicism has only grown because the Ancients are crappy, selfish gods. Technically, he's a demi-god and all he had to do was get a shot in the arm and a sore throat; he's not worth praying to and neither are the Ancients.

Nobody thinks the Ancients are going to save either Earth or Atlantis from the Ori.

His bitterness is checked by his associates, however. Not so much Sheppard, whose faith seems firmly limited to humanity, but his team and the world of Little Tripoli as a whole. Countless overnight missions and imprisonments and Lorne knows he's the only one who doesn't pray, who doesn't carry some sort of religious artifact with him. It used to be just Ortilla with a rosary, but Suarez has one, too, now and Yoni's always had his phylacteries and prayer book. Lorne used to feel vaguely uncomfortable while everyone else did their thing, like he was a voyeur. Now, it's maybe more that he feels left out, that he's missing something. He wishes he could be buoyed by whatever faith seems to bring the others.

(Sometimes it seems like faith is the only thing holding Yoni together; Lorne is grateful for that even as he feels his own lack of same.)

They have chaplains now, a Catholic priest and a few kinds of Protestant, and he's considered going to talk to one of them, asking what he should be doing, what he's doing wrong now that he can't simply let go and believe. He's been battling false gods for so long and he can't explain why now it feels like it's been for the wrong reasons, like he's been missing the point. Like he still is.

They aren't quite in a groove as a quartet, but they can fake it well enough most days. The marines let Lorne and Yoni do more and they themselves do more and it works. Suarez in particular has... Lorne doesn't want to say blossomed, but he's the one who has changed the most. It's not entirely attributable to Reletti's absence and their inability to replace him, although that is undoubtedly a large part of things.

Suarez had been less than three months from going home for good when the freeze was ordered, a double-digit midget who'd turned down ridiculously large re-enlistment bonuses just to be able to go home to rural Ohio and stay there. Instead, he's been stop-lossed into becoming the career marine he'd never wanted to be. Lorne was surprised to see his name on the list of marines re-upping in the ceremony Little Tripoli was having.

"It's what I would've done on Earth, sir," Suarez says with a shrug when Lorne mentions it.

They've known for a few months that Reletti is on SG-3, that his road to a commission got derailed as surely as Suarez's dreams of civilian life. It's not something they talk about, although Lorne knows that Reletti's considered lucky in Little Tripoli -- he's actually fighting the bad guys up close. There's a three-week window when they think he might have been killed in action -- SG-3 was one of three teams badly outmatched in a mission-gone-wrong in Côte d'Ivoire and when it and SG-5 are merged and Reletti's name isn't on the list, they think the worst -- but it turns out he's merely being sent to Antarctica to work the weapons control chair. Suarez expresses all of their relief by muttering about Reletti's ass getting saved by the Ancient pixies. The logic doesn't follow except that it does -- the SG teams are losing members daily and Reletti being in Antarctica maybe won't save his life, but it'll probably extend it a little.

Contact with Earth grows sporadic after the SGC is scattered throughout Earth and even the galaxy. Most of what they get comes with the Daedalus, fragmented and outdated and not enough. They still dial the Milky Way, but to addresses given to them by Caldwell in the hope that they'll still be valid. Most of the time they are. Sometimes nobody's home and that's when they wonder and pretend they don't worry more than usual.

They don't find out about the Antarctic strike until almost two months later, included in the message from Earth that their planet has fallen. They're all still reeling -- it's not a surprise, but still a shock -- three days later, when the Daedalus shows up carrying what may be the last batch of refugees from Earth.

Caldwell knows what he's doing when he sends Reletti down with the first wave. Reletti looks worn and like he's recovering from injury and very much as if the last year has taken more than weight and time from him. The expression he gives Lorne is both vintage Reletti and proof of how much he's changed and Lorne doesn't bother to pretend he's not relieved to see him.

"Couldn't stay away, could you, Staff Sergeant," Sheppard drawls as he follows Lorne down the stairs from the concourse. It's both wildly inappropriate and yet the situation is so surreal, it's probably as good as anything else anyone could say.

Reletti grins wryly. "Apparently not, sir."

They end up sending Reletti down to the infirmary -- officially to update his records, unofficially because he looks drawn and pale and Lorne doesn't think Reletti's gotten any better about the self-reporting. There are other marines to welcome and welcome back, civilians to place, equipment to store, and news to catch up on and post quickly because the rumor mill has become Atlantis's newest nanovirus.

It takes another week for everyone to finally come to terms with what has happened. There are meetings, endless meetings, to get started on the re-orientation of Atlantis from supporting effort to main effort. Lorne and Sheppard both end up scheduling missions because there's not really all that much Little Tripoli can do that they haven't done already.

The first mission with Reletti back doesn't go all that smoothly -- they've all changed too much to fall into old patterns. But it, like everything else that will follow, is the start of something new.

feed me on LJ?

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5 April, 2008