by Domenika Marzione

Aiden didn't need a memo telling him that the marines were getting antsy all cooped up in the city, pulling guard duty -- which was really babysitting duty, since the only dangers in Atlantis were the scientists -- and getting into trouble. After the incident with Dr. Kim, Major Sheppard, who didn't believe in memos so much as casual comments that really weren't, had suggested that they overhaul the schedule to cut down on the marines' free time. "Since it's obvious to everyone that they've got too much of it."

Aiden knew that it wasn't that the marines had too much free time, but instead that they were really good about using what they had. He didn't say anything apart from "sounds good, sir," because he suspected the Major knew that, too.

He still spent most of his off day re-working the duty roster and trying to come up with ways to make the list of 'suggested activities' into requirements. The list had been Colonel Sumner's, part of the pre-deployment planning, back when Sumner had been busy trying to turn the marines into everything from cooks to orderlies when they weren't doing regular marine stuff. He'd explained a lot of it to Aiden -- why he wanted the marines involved in so many civilian activities, how to balance MWR stuff with the boring shit everyone was going to have to do because they had no support elements -- but he hadn't really expected Aiden to do much more than listen, learn, and keep the paperwork straight. Which was why Aiden now knew what he had to do -- sort of -- but not how to do it.

Major Sheppard knew more about marines than the typical Air Force guy (Aiden had seen his share during his time with the SGC), but he didn't know much about these marines and so he relied on Aiden to come up with ideas as well as just being a sounding board for his own. Aiden, in turn, was trying to fake it until he made it, although sometimes he was sure there wasn't a single person who was fooled.

"Sumner picked you out of everyone," Sheppard told him out of the blue one day.

The Major picked him out of everyone, too, at least for his off-world team. The marines had been a little pissy about that -- said that the Major and Teyla and McKay needed someone with a little more ground warfare experience than a recently promoted O-2 who'd never been deployed to anywhere hot and dusty. But Aiden had taken it as a challenge and, well, the Major hadn't turfed him yet.

Combat exercises had been on Sumner's list of essential activities once they were set up in Atlantis; without knowing anything about the galaxy, he'd sketched out possible scenarios so that they'd know what to pack and if they could justify the extra gear. When Sheppard told him to draw up some kind of exercise for the marines, those notes had been the first place Aiden had looked. Of course, Sumner hadn't known about the Wraith until it was too late, so none of the scenarios really applied -- there were ones based on actions the marines had seen on Earth and that the SGC had seen in the Milky Way and nothing about life-sucking vampires that took most of a pistol clip to stop. But Aiden managed to cobble together enough bits and pieces to make it look like something possibly useful, if not as training than at least for tiring out the marines, and if Sheppard recognized how much had once been Sumner's plan and how little was Aiden's own, he had the generosity not to say.

Most of it was just skills reinforcement -- land-nav when you couldn't rely on GPS or familiar stars was a lot harder and not something they'd had a lot of time for once they'd started ramping up for Atlantis -- and getting used to going off-world. Aiden was one of the 'veterans' in terms of the SGC and he had only been through a wormhole a few times before getting to Pegasus. That he'd only gone on kiddie missions, visits to places known to not be hostile, was something he kept to himself in order to preserve what little cred he had with his marines.

Sheppard tweaked the plan some, mostly little things that reflected points he wanted to emphasize but also a few not-so-little things that Aiden felt stupid for not having come up with himself. The Major was real nice about it, though, always making it sound like it was a suggestion that might or might not be a good one. Aiden had been in uniform long enough to understand that there wasn't much difference between either a good or a bad suggestion from a superior officer -- and that there was no such thing as a 'suggestion' in the first place.

Once finalized, the exercise kept getting delayed. First it was the thing with the Hoffans and then the Genii turning out to be secret fascists or whatever. After that, the Major decided to not run the exercise as one thing but to split it up so that they weren't waiting for a block of uninterrupted time that was probably never going to come. And he wanted Aiden's half to go first, which could have either been a message to him or not -- the problem with Sheppard being so laid-back was that it was impossible to tell when he was pleased or displeased or anything. So it might've been nothing when Sheppard told him to stay in the ship while he took McKay to provide firepower for the Genii... or it might not have been. Aiden wasn't sure and the one time he'd tried to ask Teyla, she'd not understood why he couldn't just ask the Major himself.

His half of the exercise went okay. Not great, but he didn't look like too much of a retard in front of his marines and his experiences off-world with the Major actually helped a little. Not only with the knowing-what-to-do stuff, but also with having anything to say when they were all sitting around eating and unwinding the "so there I was..." stories.

The Major's half got delayed again because of the fog people thing; Doctor Weir didn't want him taking half of the marines off-world in case the Fog General Hammond had been lying and maybe they'd come after them for knowing their secret. But finally they went out and Aiden felt a little proud and a lot scared that he was going to be ranking officer in Atlantis (for all of sixty hours) for reasons that didn't involve the Major being in the infirmary again.

It wasn't sixty hours, though. It was forty-four and seventeen minutes from departure time that the Major radioed in demanding that they drop the shield immediately because they were coming in under fire.

Aiden was in the gym when everything happened; it was early in the morning AST and he'd been getting his bi-weekly lesson in dirty fighting from Doctor Safir, who had plenty of extra 'attention' for him with Eversby and Laganzo off with the Major, when there'd been a summons over the PA system for him. They'd all stopped and Aiden hadn't even paused to grab his towel before running balls-out to the nearest transporter.

He showed up in the gate room to find it full of exhausted and muddy marines -- and one exhausted and muddy Air Force officer -- in various states of standing and sitting and flat-out-on-their backs.


"Wraith," Sheppard replied, getting to his feet from where he'd been sitting on the platform, legs sprawled. "Stackhouse?"

Stackhouse, who'd been standing with his back to the room, turned around after a long moment. "Everyone accounted for, sir. Nobody's missing any parts."

"Good," Sheppard said, rubbing at his face before he realized that he was only making the mess worse. He gestured vaguely at Aiden. "Tell Doctor Weir that we're all fine and will report to Medical and wherever else is required in due course."

Doctor Weir wasn't in the room, although he was sure she was en route. "Where are you going to be, sir?"

"Showering," the Major answered, like it was the obvious thing to do after having gotten attacked by the enemy while on a training exercise. "I'm a pilot, lieutenant. We don't like to get dirty, remember?"

Once upon a time, Aiden had gotten a talking-to from Colonel Sumner because their marines had a penchant for not forgetting that fact. Aiden, too, had wondered what Sheppard was all about, although he'd made sure to keep the chatter from the men to a minimum after Sumner had made it clear how little he regarded the activity.

Here and now, though, Sheppard wasn't that man anymore. Or, at least, not in Aiden's eyes. Maybe not in his own, either, but that wasn't a question he could ask or answer. What he could answer was that the marines, still mostly sitting down wherever they'd landed, were looking differently at the Major, too. Early on, the chatter they'd been warned about by Sumner had flared again after Sumner's death, as if they knew that neither Aiden nor Sheppard could do anything about it. It had gotten a little better as time had gone on and Sheppard had become a more constant presence in their lives, but Aiden knew what sort of conversations had gone on when the lists had been drawn up for who was going with which officer. Most of the ones who'd been assigned to the Major had relished the opportunity to remind him that he was Chair Force and they were fucking US Marines.

Except now none of them were staring daggers at Sheppard's back.

The Major turned around, giving the marines a once-over, and nodded. "Gentlemen, it was fun. Make sure you return all of your toys to their proper toyboxes in appropriate condition. Anyone who is nursing anything that requires more than a single band-aid, head off to Medical because nobody's taking sick call tomorrow unless they've seen a doctor today. Everyone else is dismissed."

With that, he stepped off the platform, handed his muddy P-90 to Aiden, and headed off.

Aiden braced himself to quell a wave of bitching at the Major's brass balls routine, but nothing happened. They all started talking to each other, giving each other crap for what someone did or didn't do and, since none of them had seen the Wraith in action before, sowing the seeds of their own Pegasus big fish stories.

"Lieutenant?" Doctor Weir prompted from the catwalk outside of her office. She looked a little damp, like she'd rushed getting dressed when she'd heard the PA summons.

"The exercise was abbreviated, ma'am," Aiden said, shrugging a little. "Wraith."

"And where is Major Sheppard? Was he hurt? Has he gone down to Medical?" Because that was usually what happened.

"No, ma'am," Aiden replied, holding up the muddy rifle as if that answered anything. "Went to go clean up, he said."

Doctor Weir gave him an 'are-you-kidding-me' look. Behind him, Aiden could hear the marines' amusement, both at the steam coming out of Doctor Weir's ears and at him, for having to stand there and say that their CO has brushed off his boss to go take a shower.

"I look forward to the full story," she said tightly. There was enough in her tone of voice that Aiden knew that he hadn't escaped her irritation. Doctor Weir sometimes thought he had more pull with the Major than he actually did.

"Me, too, Ma'am," Aiden agreed.

The full story, however, was pretty bare. The Major didn't do much more than explain that they had been in the middle of doing their thing when three darts had shown up, at which point the land-nav became an evasion exercise. He had no idea how the Wraith had known that there'd be people on the planet ("We didn't really stop to chat with them.") and didn't seem to care in the wake of everyone getting back safely.

"Place is actually kind of nice," he said instead. "There are apple trees."

Aiden heard more from the marines, who weren't exactly chatty about it, but had more to say than the Major. Who'd apparently acquitted himself acceptably during the land-nav portion of the exercise but had surprised everyone once the Wraith had shown up.

"Must've been one of those crazy fuckers at SERE," Teague was saying to Laganzo when Aiden showed up to the Ordnance room to use one of the jeweler's screwdrivers. "You know the ones?"

"We've been chased by the Wraith a few times here," Aiden pointed out. Because he didn't want the marines coming up with any new fictional backgrounds for the Major; that's what had gotten things so bad the first time that Sumner had had to step in.

"All due respect, sir," Teague replied, shaking his head. "This wasn't no choose-your-own-adventure in one of their ships with one of those Ancient Gameboys."

The marines had nothing but dislike for the PDAs.

"It was pretty hardcore, sir," Guttierez added, not looking up from the rifle he was repairing. The marines had nothing but dislike for the P-90's, too. "There's running full-tilt to safety and then there's evasive maneuvers that you don't just improvise. He wasn't a fucking ghost or anything, didn't clean all our clocks, but that shit wasn't new to him's what I'm sayin'."

If the Major was aware that his actions on M4K-32L had done anything other than help keep his marines alive, he wasn't saying. Aiden didn't even ask him about the exercise beyond whether they should plan another; it wasn't his place to press for details beyond professionally useful ones and he certainly wasn't going to bring up the rest. Sheppard instead focused on whether they could justify a game of Wraith stunner tag in the city if they stayed away from the civilians -- Aiden thought it was a kick-ass idea, but neither of them could come up with a way to convince Doctor Weir, who was horrified at the thought.

And then came news of the storm and the goat rope of an evac and what came after. Aiden had been stuck in the damned jumper for most of it, but he'd seen some and McKay, desperate to talk to someone who'd been there but knowing that the Major wasn't the one, had told him and Teyla the rest, at least as far as he'd understood it.

Aiden finally understood what the marines had been jawing about when it came to the Major.

He helped Teyla retrieve the bodies of the Genii dead before they brought everyone back into the city; he didn't know how they were going to tell the marines what they'd missed while they were gone or why Boscanti and Lewis were dead.

"The Genii came and attacked us on our own turf," the Major told the assembled marines once the city had been put back to order. "Our breaking-in period is over, our cherry's been popped, and now it's time to take this galaxy as seriously as we take our own."

Six months ago, Sheppard was the platoon joke. Today, if he wasn't the platoon hero -- the Major hasn't said jack about what he did, but the marines knew who had been in the city and that Beckett hadn't been driving off any assault team -- he was at least their undisputed leader.

Aiden knew that there was more to the transformation than a couple of kills and some good ground moves, knew that he could learn a lot from the Major if he just paid attention even if all it ever seemed like was that he was chasing behind. But he did learn; when the time came for him to put together his own team, forge his own unit, he looked back to Sheppard's example and saw it for the positive experience that it was. No matter how it had ended.

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11 October, 2008