Teacher's Pet: 11

by Domenika Marzione | story concept by Jenn

Series Index

Almost since his arrival in Atlantis, Lorne had been regularly meeting with Doctor Weir. First at her request and then when mutually convenient, they got together in her office to handle the routine business of maintaining a military base in a civilian-run city in another galaxy. In the beginning Sheppard had joined them, but he'd slowly stopped coming once it had been apparent that Lorne and Weir could function on their own without either chaperone or Sheppard's pretense of paying attention. Lorne's lingering awkwardness with Weir had nothing to do with power or command issues.

It could have gotten political to have the XO meeting alone with the civilian commander -- Atlantis was not bereft of the sort of games that plagued every organization on Earth -- but the personalities made it nearly impossible. Weir and Sheppard were fiercely loyal to each other and Lorne didn't even think he could fake being so ambitious as to convince anyone that he'd submarine his CO.

He wasn't bereft of ambition, far from it, but everyone here was used to Sheppard, who for all of his secrecy was not a man who considered guile a tool in his arsenal. Lorne didn't play games per se, instead he simply held his cards close to the vest. Where, apparently, no one in Atlantis thought to look for them.

And so, in hindsight, it was both completely unsurprising and terribly ironic that the biggest fight of his career started in one of his routine meetings with Weir, sometime after agreeing to continue to let Stackhouse's team handle the grain negotiations on Enar and before they worked out the details of the regularly scheduled This Week in Baffling the SGC.

"I think it might be a good idea to let John spend some time working with the marines," he said, not looking up from where he was still taking notes on his pad because Stackhouse had forgotten to bring the ritual gifts last time on Enar and while once was a faux pas, twice was an intentional insult. "Maybe regular PT in the mornings, a couple of hours of training every day."

Beckett had given them the big talk yesterday, confirming what was by then completely obvious: the Little Colonel was finally growing up. Lorne had wanted to take notes during Beckett's monologue, make a list of the important points that might be useful later, but hadn't so much as opened his pen. Not when any overt motion on his part could -- and would -- be taken as preparations for action.

The gamesmanship so far had been low-level and he'd let most of it go for the sake of cultivating the image of not being either aware or concerned. To the point where he sometimes wondered whether he'd given too much away to be able to catch up, to have a stake in what happened next. Even though Lorne suspected that, for all of McKay's arrogant dismissal of the military, he had never forgotten that Lorne led the armed portion of Atlantis's population and there'd already been a military coup in Atlantis. This awareness was, Lorne believed, an underlying reason for why he'd gotten visiting time with John in the first place. Not that Lorne had ever really entertained the idea of taking over the city, but he was content to let McKay's biases against the military be useful for a change.

"Are you sure that such a move would be wise?" Weir asked, sounding very much like she was looking for a polite way to say no. "Both Teyla and Ronon are stepping up their sessions with him and--"

"And with all due respect, ma'am," he cut her off with an apologetic expression, "it won't be enough. Doctor Beckett was very clear about how fast John's physical development is progressing. He is growing in hours what normal boys would grow in days."

Beckett hadn't been very clear at all, actually, frequently getting interrupted by various listeners for layman's translations that he was at a loss to provide. But Lorne had gone over everything with Yoni, who didn't so much dumb things down as smarten Lorne up. They'd covered muscle stress and hormones and bone density and what kind of damage could occur on the physical and chemical levels with such an accelerated pace. ("While we'd all have loved puberty to have been over in a fortnight, there's a very good reason it takes longer than that.")

Beckett had sounded a little dire, but according to Yoni the danger to John wasn't really that great, certainly not with the constant monitoring. Yoni thought that John would suffer minimally so long as he was kept active, which was the natural state for growing boys anyway. He'd be in some physical discomfort -- growing pains magnified by the rapidity of the growth -- but it was Yoni's suspicion that the bigger trouble would be emotional. Boys developed slower than girls and yet John would be developing far faster than nature had ever intended for either gender. All of the awkwardness and misery of the changes wrought by adolescence and teenage years compressed into weeks -- it would be as hellish for John as it was for the rest of them, Yoni assured with no trace of ironic humor. Tiring John out through copious physical activity would probably be a blessing for everyone.

"Doctor Beckett suggested that we keep John active for as much of the day as he could stand," he pressed on when Weir didn't say anything. "And, frankly, working out with Teyla and Ronon won't be enough to accomplish that. Training with them is what he did, more or less, as a maintenance workout -- as a forty-ish man with a lifetime of physical conditioning. He needs to replicate that conditioning as best he's able to as he matures physically and exercising with the marines will certainly accomplish that. I'm sure Doctor Beckett would agree that you're not going to find a more complete training regimen for John."

If all other things were equal, it would be dirty pool to count on the fact that Weir wouldn't have gotten a tutorial from Beckett, that she was instead just surfing on the explanations from the briefing. But all other things weren't equal, hadn't been for the entire duration of this in loco parentis experiment, and Lorne was done with biding his time and playing nice. They were no longer playing for small stakes.

He hadn't spent all this time in Atlantis learning how Sheppard worked to not also pick up enough of a clue about how Weir operated as well. With dozens of scientific projects going on at once and countless military exercises and missions planned, she necessarily relied on executive summaries and the heads of the respective units to handle the actual details. Weir trusted Beckett implicitly and Lorne was betting it all on that being the case here.

Weir still looked skeptical, but nodded slowly. "They're certainly in the best shape of anyone in Atlantis," she agreed ruefully.

"They're also as close as we can get to people his own age," Lorne said, putting down the pen and closing the pad. "Something that's going to become increasingly important in the next few weeks and months."

Puberty was going to be hell on the half shell, but if anyone could get John comfortable with the male body and human sexuality, it would be a class of young men for whom muscle tone was an obsession. Masturbation was a basic skill along with rifle maintenance and spoken of with the same lack of embarrassment -- hell, pride. Not that he was going to use that as a selling point.

"He's done very well with adult companionship so far," Weir replied with the merest hint of defensiveness that sent a spike of fear through Lorne before she grimaced in acknowledgment. "But he's also been eight years old. I'm sure it will be different when he's physically and emotionally in his teens."

Lorne understood the horrified expression on Weir's face as she contemplated John Sheppard as a teenager. He was kind of dreading that, too. But as much as he would have loved for that to be the development stage where McKay and the others kept John from everyone else, it was more important that John be using those awful days (weeks?) to be working on becoming Sheppard.

"I'll set something up with the captains this afternoon," Lorne said, collecting his things. "And I'll broach the topic with John tonight when I see him."

Weir sat back and Lorne thought he might have moved a little too quickly. "I think we should discuss this with Doctor McKay and Doctor Beckett at least," she said.

"Doctor Beckett is the one who suggested increasing John's activity level," Lorne reminded her in the soothing voice he'd once only used when trying to convince her that Sheppard hadn't just done exactly what he'd just done. "And I can talk to Doctor McKay later, if you'd like. I'm not trying to snatch John away from anyone, ma'am--"

"I know you're not, Major."

"But we have to keep the ball rolling here. We don't have time to waste, not if he's growing like he is," he finished calmly. "We'll start him on morning PT and some non-combat related drills and if he's unhappy or not flourishing as well as everyone would like, then whatever you come up with as an alternative, I'll support it wholeheartedly."

As if his support mattered.

He let his breath go slowly once he realized that he was holding it. This was the single goal of his plan, the end purpose to which all else was geared: get John started with the marines. Because once he did, then everything else would fall into place. Possession was ninety percent of the law, but as for the remaining ten? John would love it with the marines, who in turn would be fighting for the chance to work out with the Little Colonel. Once among the military who adored him, John would never want to try an alternative and he was too stubborn to be swayed by McKay's and Weir's wheedling or interdictions or bribes. At least that was what Lorne was wagering on. Because even if this John enjoyed doing arcane theoretical physics and hanging out with the chemists, there was a part of him that was still John Sheppard and knew where he belonged.

"You're afraid we're going to get bogged down in committee, aren't you?" Weir asked, smiling knowingly.

I'm afraid of fighting Rodney McKay because I'll lose, he didn't say. Because getting Weir to agree was easy, relatively, while getting McKay's permission would be impossible. So he wasn't going to try. I'd rather ask forgiveness than seek permission. Sheppard taught me that one.

"I don't mean to imply that you're a bureaucrat, ma'am."

He'd always respected Elizabeth Weir. Still did. But the last six months-plus had taken a lot of the shine off of his relationship with her. He'd gone from seeing her as an effective-if-beleaguered administrator and occasional co-conspirator to someone whose weaknesses could be found and exploited. He'd always known that part was there -- he'd watched McKay and Sheppard get their way far too often for him to have not -- but he'd never imagined that he'd be the one looking for the chinks in her armor.

"It would be sadly true some days," Weir said. "All right. Go ahead. Set up a workout schedule with the marines and I'll talk to Doctor McKay."

It was a dismissal and Lorne stood. "Thank you, ma'am."

He left her office, nodding at the lieutenant on gate room duty and heading straight for the transporter back to Little Tripoli. The plans had been designed months ago, back before they realized that they'd have no say in the daily care of young John Sheppard. All that had to be done was update and implement them.

This was the right move. He'd repeated that to himself over and over, hoping that it wasn't just a case of him convincing himself for the sake of convincing himself. John needed this. Sheppard needed this. And, ultimately, Atlantis needed this. And that had to be enough.

Little boys loved cars, planes, and guns. Except John, whose GI Joes acted more like UN peacekeepers than elite forces, frolicking uselessly in Botany's gardens instead of trapping and killing bad guys because his returning memories warred with the imagined scenarios that were every kid's right and rite of passage. John needed to see that his memories were wrong -- or at least incomplete -- and where better to learn it than among dozens of young men who could hold both a rifle and a Playstation and suffer from neither?

"It'll be fun," Lorne assured John as they exited the transporter in Little Tripoli. He got a raised eyebrow in return. "Trust me, you used to love getting up at the crack of dawn to exercise."

Before they'd known that John was getting his memories back, they'd been very careful about how they explained why people knew him or knew his likes or dislikes. Which in turn were often so completely wrong that it made them wonder if they'd ever really known the man or if this boy simply was different. Sometimes Lorne thought that it was just a matter of John essentially being a Pegasus native, but most of the time he wondered how Sheppard had gone through his day letting everyone else's (invariably wrong) assumptions stand on everything from his intellect to how he liked his hamburgers.

Now that the cat was out of the bag, however, they were a little less careful. Especially with the good memories, the ones that had been formed by camaraderie or fortuitous happenstance because now they understood that those were the ones John didn't remember and the ones he clung to most desperately in his wish to believe in his own goodness.

"You're not just saying that because we're getting up at the crack of dawn, are you?" John asked. He was dressed in kid-sized USAF t-shirt and shorts, wearing the new sneakers he probably wouldn't use long enough to break in because he was suddenly outgrowing everything at a pace that made them grateful that they'd had months to acquire supplies for John's re-aging.

"Would that I were," Lorne replied as they entered the stairwell that led down to the gyms and the running tracks. "You used to invite me to go with you all the time."

He had already made captain before he'd accepted that just because the Air Force had inculcated all sorts of habits in his person, they couldn't actually turn him into a morning person.

"Why'd I stop?" John asked, not tripping over the pronoun this time. He seemed to be hit and miss with accepting and acknowledging that he used to be someone else -- that he'd be that someone else again. Reletti had suggested Flowers For Algernon as possible related reading material until Yoni had pointed out that they didn't want to give John the idea that he would be returning to idiocy as he aged. (Through his tone of voice, Yoni had also managed to convey that he thought that that was precisely what was happening, but they all knew better than to believe him.) Until John got comfortable with his fate, Lorne simply went where John led -- if he said "I", Lorne would go with "you"; if he said "him", that's what Lorne would use as well.

"I believe the phrase you used was that I was 'not a happy camper first thing in the morning,'" Lorne replied, holding open the door for John to exit the stairwell. The adult Sheppard had eventually realized that while Lorne got up at the same time everyone else in Little Tripoli did, he preferred to work in his quarters for a little while before heading down to PT and interacting with other humans.

John stopped and grinned up at him, a miniature version of an all-too-familiar troublemaking expression. "Is that what I really said, or just the kiddie version?"

Lorne frowned down at him. "No, that's what you said," he replied, gesturing with his hand for John to keep walking and nodding at the marines who were walking the other way. To no one's surprise, everyone in Little Tripoli had known by sundown that the Little Colonel was joining them the next morning without there being any sort of announcement. "I'm taking you to hang out with the marines. I've pretty much given up on protecting your sensitive ears."

The grin widened.

"Don't get too excited," Lorne warned, waving his hand over the crystals for the door to the main gym area. "If I hear that you've been repeating anything naughty, I'll wash your mouth out with soap myself."

"Rodney lets me curse," John said a little too quickly.

"No he doesn't," Lorne replied, realizing that the quiet thap-thap-thap noise was John's untied shoelace hitting the ground with each step. "He let you curse once, under extraordinary circumstances. Tie your shoe."

John gave an aggrieved sigh and knelt, double-knotting the lace.

Lorne was actually more worried about the adult content than the adult language. John was getting rotated through the platoons, everyone getting their chance to work out with the LC, and there'd been a strict warning to all senior NCOs to watch what came out of their men's mouths. The female population of Little Tripoli was essentially Cadman and a few other hardy souls, none of whom had much truck with sensitivity training, so between that and the distance from Earth and its PC Police, the result was that Little Tripoli bred a culture closer to that which had been scrubbed out of the Marine Corps a generation ago. And Lorne really didn't want John singing some of the cadences that got used for morning trots down the running paths.

They continued on, but John's quick gait slowed noticeably as the sounds from the various gym rooms grew louder. He'd been thrilled with the idea of working out with the marines last night, all eager to pick out his clothes (and shyly concerned that the marines wouldn't like it that he would be wearing Air Force gear) and, judging by Teyla's expression, that excitement had carried over into this morning. But now he had slowed down, not quite lagging behind but no longer running ahead. Lorne would have offered to take his hand, but that would have only made things worse. John understood, in some incomplete fashion, that this was his domain. He didn't comprehend all of it, partially because this had been kept from him and mostly because he was a child and didn't have the ability, but he understood that there were expectations and the weight of those had settled on him like a ton of bricks. Or, rather, the anticipation of that weight.

"No one's thinking that you're going to be him, you know," Lorne said as he knelt down to re-tie his own shoe. There was nothing wrong with his laces, but John clearly needed a minute. "You're you. You'll be him eventually, but right now, you're just you and everyone's really excited to meet you. I think they're probably more nervous than you are."

"I'm not nervous," John replied. Lorne cocked an eyebrow and John blushed a little. "I just don't want to look stupid."

Lorne snorted. "Not a problem," he assured. "The marines have pretty much raised stupid to an art form and tend to appreciate it. But don't tell them that. It's an Air Force secret."

John looked scandalized and pleased all at once, like he wasn't sure if he was being let in on a joke or a secret.

"C'mon," Lorne said as he stood up. It was close enough to 0600 that the odd marine in the hallway had graduated to groups of three or four as they straggled in from the barracks in their green-on-green gear.  All of them were grinning, a respectful smile for him and a more mirthful one for John. A few managed a little wave or a "Hey, it's the LC!" and John's nervousness seemed to first magnify and then dissipate as they entered the main facility together.

The murmur and quiet that swept through the collected marines wasn't as bad as Lorne feared and John didn't do more than take a half-step back before steeling himself to be the focus of everyone's attention. Lorne looked for Kagan, who'd been chosen for the first day mostly by random and partially because he had a gunnery sergeant who could be trusted not to push the envelope of what was acceptable around an eight-year-old boy.

Kagan's platoon was congregating at one end of the basketball court and Lorne led John in that direction, accepting a slew of "good morning, sir"s and watching John absorb the environment and adjust to it. Sheppard had always been an officer of the people and Lorne was completely unsurprised to see how quickly and how much John took in. By the time they got to Kagan, John was looking almost at home -- or at least faking it exceptionally well. Just like the grown-up version. Lorne introduced John to Kagan and Gunny Preston and left him with the latter to talk to Kagan privately.

"You'll be okay with this, Lieutenant?" Lorne asked once they were out of immediate earshot.

Kagan gave him a wry, bemused shrug. "Under the circumstances, sir, I think so. The marines know to keep the chatter rated PG, we'll keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't get hurt or start looking ill, and the rest we'll just play it as it lays."

"I know you can handle it, Kagan," he replied, because this was essentially a baby-sitting job and John at his worst was an easier charge than some of the marines. "I'm just checking to make sure you're not too weirded out."

The marines had had limited exposure to John since the get-go, but Lorne and the captains had intentionally kept the lieutenants away because they were the ones who'd feel the role reversal most acutely. Kagan's smile was genuine, however.

"Am I worried about saying something to the LC that might get me in trouble later on?" he asked. "Absolutely. But it's good to have him back where he belongs, sir. And that's what's important."

Lorne nodded; that's what he'd wanted to hear. "I'll be on radio if you need me."

"Yes, sir."

Lorne went back to John, who was grinning from some joke he'd been told by one of the marines. "You'll listen to Lieutenant Kagan," Lorne told him quietly, knowing that John would resent being given instruction in front of others. "What he says goes."

"Even though I'm going to be his boss later?"

It wasn't a challenge, more John being eight, so Lorne just gave him a look. "Especially because you're going to be his boss later. You have to learn how to follow orders before you can give them. That's the most important thing an officer can learn."

John tilted his head, not expecting the serious answer, but accepting it thoughtfully. "Do I have to call him 'sir'?"

"You can," Lorne replied, knowing that it would cause a reaction but figuring that they'd all better get used to it sooner or later. He'd discussed this with the captains and they'd decided that it would be better if John didn't assume the privileges of rank before he assumed the responsibilities that came along with it. "Go, have fun, and don't overdo it. You're going to be back here tomorrow and it's going to be very not fun if you're too stiff to move."

John rolled his eyes and sighed, as if the burden of interacting with adults was more onerous than anything else he had to put up with on a daily basis. "I know."

Lorne didn't watch them head outside.

"Why does this feel like we're waiting for the judge to return a verdict?" Weir asked nobody in particular as they stood on the balcony overlooking the stargate. The Daedalus had entered orbit less than an hour ago and all of the stores, materiel, and new personnel had already been beamed down and were being sorted away. The ship's crew who were on liberty this shift were already in the city, so all they had left to do was wait for Caldwell.

"Because we are?" Beckett asked, just as rhetorically. "All of the reports and video don't mean a thing until someone from the SGC sees it with their own eyes."

This was originally supposed to have been a handing-off ceremony of sorts, the point where Caldwell came to accept command of the military in Atlantis and Lorne got a new boss. Except that sometime before the Daedalus crossed out of the Milky Way and out of range of Earth's ability to communicate with them, McKay had had his revelation and John had had his first growth spurt and suddenly everything was in flux again. The SGC had relented, at least as far as giving them time for John to grow up. They made no promises for once he was an adult again, which Lorne had chosen to take as a challenge instead of a threat.

The imminently arriving Caldwell knew about the change in plans, knew that he'd once again been thwarted in his pursuit of the Atlantis command. (Frankly, Lorne didn't know how much Caldwell really wanted the job anymore or how realistic he thought his chances were of getting it. Even Wile E. Coyote gave up chasing the Road Runner after a while.) But knowing that Caldwell was here for a visit and not to stay didn't make anything less tense for anyone involved.

"He can't do anything," McKay announced with a confidence the rest of them didn't feel. He turned away from the railing to look over the control room. Lieutenant Eriksson was doing his best to appear invisible, sitting quietly at the officer's desk, typing at the laptop there, but McKay's attention was not on him. "Colliard, what are you doing to those sensors? They were perfectly calibrated until your mental astigmatism kicked in."

Beckett sighed and mumbled something about making sure all of the new supplies were put away, leaving Lorne with Weir.

John was off with Ronon; they'd decided to keep the interruptions to his schedule to a minimum. Caldwell would want to see John, of course, if only to verify with his own eyes what he'd been hearing for weeks from both the SGC and Atlantis. But that could wait until there was a break in John's routine, both because it was politically expedient and because the Little Colonel was much more a creature of habit than the Big one had been. John didn't like being being under observation in general -- Lorne stayed away from the gyms where John frolicked with the marines for just that reason, although he told John it was because it was too early -- but John could get extremely difficult if he thought that he was being shown off.

"You'll be okay?" Weir asked quietly.

Lorne nodded. He'd been dealing with Caldwell since the beginning, especially in the role of buffer between him and Sheppard, balancing the necessary show of respect with the equally necessary show of fearlessness. But now that Sheppard was gone and John was in their care, Lorne had had to be that much more delicate in the balancing act. Caldwell didn't have to get appointed military commander in Atlantis to hold sway; he was still a bird colonel and Lorne was still a major. But Lorne had long ago perfected the passive-aggressive sort of deference all good officers require and had had more than enough practice working with Weir, even before there had been a cabal to monopolize John Sheppard. As a result, his contact with Caldwell in particular and the SGC in general had not substantively changed during the current 'crisis' -- it had remained civil, if not necessarily something he looked forward to with relish. He accepted every suggestion that didn't contradict his (and by extension Sheppard's) vision of Atlantis's mission, he went along with even the most ridiculous request for paperwork, and he found a thousand other ways to look obedient before his masters without actually giving an inch.

"It's the same as it has always been," he said when she didn't turn away.

"An uneasy detente," she elaborated, a rueful smile on her lips. For all of his unrepentant attempts to manipulate Weir in the matter of custody of John, Lorne respected her and what she'd accomplished in Atlantis. So while they were on opposite sides of the table when it came to John, they were united on almost every other front. It was a little disorienting, actually, since or all of her blithe dismissiveness of his standing when it came to John, she treated him with the highest respect otherwise. It had taken him time to separate out his resentment of the one from his gratitude for the rest. As far as Elizabeth Weir was concerned, Lorne was the acting commander of the military in Atlantis and that was the end of it.

Caldwell beamed down about five minutes later, unobtrusively -- except for the fact that the marines on guard duty weren't about to take an O-6 materializing in the middle of the gate room casually -- and carrying a duffel bag. Lorne followed Weir down to greet him; she did her usual slightly formal routine (in the past, Caldwell's visits had been considered something between a state visit and a cousin showing up; Weir's calculated effort to not change anything was just that) and then left Caldwell with Lorne after first inviting him to dinner with the rest of the senior command.

"How is... Sheppard?" Caldwell asked once they were alone.

"We're calling him 'John' for the duration, sir," Lorne replied wryly, because Caldwell knew that it wasn't just him who wasn't on a first-name basis with Colonel Sheppard. "And he's doing fine. Growing noticeably overnight, which is a little disturbing until you get used to it."

"How long is this duration likely to last?" Caldwell gestured toward the north doorway and the transporters. "There were only very vague estimates before we cleared the Milky Way."

Lorne followed a step behind. "We're looking at another six months total, we think, until he's back at his actual age. It'll be less time than that until he's able to take up his duties. It depends on how quickly all of his memories return."

They stopped in front of the transporter and Lorne waved his hands over the crystals.

"And how quickly is that coming along?" Caldwell asked as the doors opened.

Lorne made a face, both because it was difficult to estimate -- when not in the grips of a nightmare, John was really not much more forthcoming at eleven than he'd been at thirty-nine -- and because telling Caldwell of John's traumas felt traitorous. "It comes in spurts. There's no way to quantify it. The nature of what was done to him and how, which we don't understand at all, plus our limited understanding of how the human brain works..."

Caldwell made a face as he stepped into the transporter. "So we're playing it by ear."

"Yes, sir," Lorne agreed.

"Will I be able to find you in your office later?"

Lorne looked at his watch. "I have a mission in two hours, but it's just a short check-in, so I'll be in this evening."

He had to be back for the dinner Weir had planned. Which, if Mister Murphy and his Law had any say, meant that the Falestrans would suddenly go rabid and hold them hostage and Caldwell would end up leading Atlantis's military by default.

"I'll see you this evening, then," Caldwell said, and the transporter doors closed.

The Falestrans didn't go rabid, his marines didn't discover any more unexploded Ancient ordnance (Sheppard would love that story when he was himself again), and he was back in time to get cleaned up before he had to put in an appearance at the commissary.

Atlantis didn't have waiters or a special menu for visiting dignitaries, but the Daedalus always brought fresh supplies and surprising treats, so Lorne didn't mind the fuss of what ended up being a cross between a state dinner and a dining-in. They set up in the room adjacent to the main commissary, but everyone brought their own trays.

In accordance with his elevated position, Lorne found himself moved up to the 'important' side of the table, next to Elizabeth and across from Caldwell, instead of his usual spot down at the other end with the deck officers and Yoni and Zelenka. McKay was to his right and John was between him and Teyla and the two of them managed to keep the worst of John's burgeoning impishness at bay. Caldwell kept his questions to matters not related to the obvious topic of conversation and so the meal was about as strange and strained as every other meal with the Daedalus's officers always was, but with the added weirdness of a very bored eleven-year-old deciding to play with his mashed potatoes. Which nobody else seemed to remember that Sheppard had done anyway, just with more subtlety.

This was supposed to have been one of his nights with John, but Lorne and Teyla had worked out coverage so that Lorne could get him tomorrow and she'd watch him for the evening. John was nonplussed, something that probably had less to do with wanting to spend time with Lorne than the fact that he had an unfinished novel waiting in Lorne's quarters, but he'd been bought off with a bag of dark chocolate M&Ms and the promise of more illicit junk food, including Lemonheads. (Sheppard wasn't a big candy eater, but John was getting enough lectures on proper nutrition and the perils of high fructose corn syrup that Lorne felt obligated to nurture his sweet tooth. Especially because he didn't have to deal with the hyper effects of a sugar-laden child.)

After bidding John goodnight, Lorne went to check in with the lieutenant who'd have overnight gate room duty and then to his own office. He was most of the way through his AAR for the day's mission when Caldwell appeared at his office door.

"John seems well enough," Caldwell said after they'd both sat down. "If a little bored by the proceedings."

Lorne allowed himself a smile. "He's eleven, sir."

Caldwell gave him a look that made it clear that he wasn't fooled into thinking that that had anything to do with it.

"You've been handling this well," Caldwell said instead. "They've noticed."

No need to mention who 'they' were.

Lorne frowned. "For better or for worse, it's not the first time Colonel Sheppard's been incapacitated. But thank you."

Captain Radner appeared in his doorway, realized who was there already, made his apologies, and disappeared.

"John mentioned that he'd been training with the marines?" Caldwell prompted after the interruption.

"He goes to PT with them in the mornings, then spends a few hours doing non-combat drills," Lorne replied, capping his pen. "So far, it's not much beyond running the obstacle course, but it's done a world of good for him and the marines. They needed to get used to each other again."

Caldwell was ambitious, a little ruthless even, but he was good to his airmen and the Daedalus was a contented crew. For all that Caldwell might disagree with what went on in Atlantis, he would understand the importance of what Lorne was doing. If Lorne had chosen to tell him. Which he hadn't, for the same reasons that he'd talked himself out of every other time he'd thought of enlisting the SGC's aid.

"What are the chances we can get him back to earth for officer training when the time comes?" Caldwell asked, leaning back in his seat.

Lorne shook his head. This wasn't a new discussion, although it was now less theoretical than it had been six months ago when it had first come up. The SGC's idea of sending John back to the Academy or OTS or to the SGC had been and still was a catastrophically bad idea, an opinion that Lorne and the cabal had agreed on wholeheartedly, if for different reasons. They'd successfully kept the SGC from firming any plans -- or issuing any orders -- by pointing out that it was all guesswork until they better understood John's growth rate. For all they had known at that stage, John could simply have woken up one morning fully grown, like Tom Hanks in Big. Lorne had hoped that the discussion had been permanently shelved, or at least forgotten, but apparently not.

"It's impractical, sir," he replied, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. "John is growing too quickly -- he'd age years in just the time it took to run through a regular course, which he'd have to do alone for security reasons. We don't know how much of it would be really necessary anyway; his memories are returning, so all of the lessons learned, from the Academy to Atlantis, will be there. Eventually."

Caldwell nodded. "I expected as much, but it didn't hurt to ask," he said, not sounding either frustrated or disappointed. "Separating John from Doctors McKay and Weir would be difficult enough and I'd rather save that fight for something more productive."

"Is that fight upcoming?" Lorne was pleased at how casual his voice was considering the panic welling up inside. The IOA was necessarily closed-mouth about their plans, both in general and for Atlantis in particular. But Caldwell, as one of the SGC's favorite sons, would have his ears closer than Lorne did for reasons that went beyond intergalactic geography. And for that same reason he would undoubtedly be their instrument as well. There was no guarantee that Caldwell would tell Lorne anything, especially if Caldwell (or the SGC) considered Lorne part of the problem instead of part of the solution, but it didn't sound that way and it couldn't hurt to ask.

"It depends," Caldwell sighed, looking more tired than eager for a fight. "The SGC and the IOA are both... concerned about the various facets of John Sheppard's development. About whether he'll be fit to command even when he's been medically cleared. Things have already gone off the wire and he's not yet a teenager. What happens when he's fully grown?"

Of course, Lorne sighed to himself. They couldn't get him as a boy, so they'll get him as a man. Find some reason, any reason, to remove Sheppard from the command they didn't think he should have had in the first place.

"We'll just have to see in five months, sir," Lorne replied.

And the pressure to make sure John successfully transitioned to Sheppard just got increased manyfold.

"Can I go to Movie Night?"

Lorne looked over from his desk to where John was sitting on the beanbag chair that had somehow migrated its way into his quarters over last year. John had his books, his bottle of water, and his snack bag settled around him like a maharaja on his throne. The marines had gotten him started on John Harriman's novels, which was no real surprise considering the subject matter. Lorne suspected that they were too mature for a normal adolescent, but they were probably more benign than John's nightmares and certainly had happier endings, so he let John keep them with the rest of the material he stashed in Lorne's quarters. Lorne thought the marines were also responsible for the supply of pop rocks and the other contents of a sack that looked like what would have been a good haul on Halloween, but none of them were about to confess that to him.

"Movie Night in Atlantis or Movie Night in the barracks?"

John wouldn't be asking him about the former -- he'd be asking McKay or Weir or Teyla -- unless he'd already asked and been turned down and was hoping for a reversal on appeal. John's guile was increasing as he aged, but he had thus far not picked up on the fact that Lorne had comparably little authority in Atlantis outside of Little Tripoli.

"The barracks," John replied, reaching out for his snack bag and retrieving a piece of fruit. Lorne really hoped that he hadn't already finished his marine-provided stash. "The marines asked if I could come."

John had, as predicted, quickly become enamored of his time in Little Tripoli. The marines doted on him, also expected, showering him with attention in true marine fashion -- roughhousing and humor at a level so low that even John rolled his eyes. The admixture of unwavering discipline and unrivaled crudity was certainly not something John would have seen in his sheltered existence around the labs and he seemed to thrill to it. The marines took pride in physical abilities and skills and while they respected intelligence, they were also quick to dismiss someone who was too much in the head and not enough below the shoulders. Lorne had worried that John would react badly to the usual barrage of jokes aimed at the scientists by the marines, but either the marines had toned it down or John was choosing to live and let live; he hadn't heard either a complaint from John or a report of a tantrum from anyone else.

"What are they showing?" Lorne asked warily, putting down his pencil. He knew what Little Tripoli's Morale, Welfare, and Recreation budget went toward and there wasn't much that was appropriate for a boy John's age. Or anyone else under the age of twenty-one. He knew the marines wouldn't be as deranged as to show something like Black Hawk Down, but they had had to re-order Caddyshack twice already and that was ultimately not much better.


"Shrek," Lorne repeated, looking down so that John wouldn't see him grinning. The marines made up in heart what they lacked in subtlety. "Sure."

The Little Colonel was part favorite toy, part mascot, and part kid brother to the marines, who had pretty much gotten over the moebius strip that was the chain of command now that John was spending time with them and calling the lieutenants "sir." The marines were careful with him, less so than at the beginning, and it was completely unsurprising that they'd go out of their way to make time with John. Because Lorne had been fairly sure that this month's movies in Little Tripoli included American Pie and a few John Woo flicks and nothing rated PG.

"Cool," John said, then went back to his book. Lorne watched him for a moment, waiting for a follow-up comment, but there wasn't one so he went back to his own work. Their evenings now were often just each sitting quietly with their own activities, sometimes talking and sometimes not, and usually ended with Lorne having to wake John up to take him back to his own room to go to bed.

John at twelve-ish (it was hard to guesstimate his age when he was outgrowing his clothes almost daily) was a voracious reader, an even more voracious eater, and a prodigious sleeper. How much of this was a repeat of the first time John Sheppard had grown up and how much was simply the effects of his current condition was unknown. Beckett had revised John's nutritional requirements twice already this week and John had been carrying around a backpack (the lovely embroidered Athosian cloth satchel Teyla had given him had lasted precisely until the next visit to Little Tripoli) full of food for weeks. John was thankfully omnivorous -- Pegasus didn't lend itself to picky eaters -- and mostly past the point where he'd yawn and then deny that he was tired.

As far as the cabal was concerned, they seemed pleased enough with the arrangements. Keeping John occupied with the marines in the mornings gave them a few hours of freedom and that, too, had been factored into Lorne's plans. The command element of Atlantis was busy enough without full custody of a child; none of them had had much in the way of free time since John had returned to Atlantis as an eight-year-old and what few attempts they'd tried -- McKay's dates with Dr. Brown, Teyla and Ronon's "excursions" -- had ended badly. A few hours' freedom a day -- especially first thing in the morning, thus freeing up the nights as well -- would be a luxury that would be hard to give up unless John was truly unhappy. And John was far from unhappy.

The anticipated -- feared -- fight with McKay over John's time in Little Tripoli hadn't happened. McKay had made it clear that he knew that Lorne had done an end run around him, but he hadn't either threatened retribution or promised that it would never happen again, so Lorne was counting it as a win all around. Speaking of....

"How are your sneakers?" Lorne asked before John got too drowsy to give an informed answer.

John shrugged, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and then grinning cheekily when Lorne frowned at him. "They still fit, but maybe not after this week."

Lorne nodded, making a mental note to tell Teyla. John had initially been embarrassed and reluctant to admit to his constant need for new shoes, but that, too, had improved with his time in Little Tripoli -- at least after the first time John had tried to run with too-small sneakers. "How about everything else?"

"I'm good," John replied, picking at his shirt to show that it still had some room in it. They'd started dressing him in clothes that were almost too big so that he'd get some wear of them before they became definitely too small. John had initially been loath to part with certain favorite items, but after the first few weeks, he'd apparently stopped getting attached to clothing. "The marines still say I'm not dressed properly, though."

Lorne smiled back at John because this was not a new bit of information. The marines had been something between disappointed and frustrated at being outfoxed by John's supply of USAF gear -- they were just dying to get him in USMC togs and treated each growth spurt as a chance to do just that. Lorne thought it funny, especially because he knew that the SGC had given them enough kid-sized USAF clothes to dress half of the Athosian children on the mainland. "Tell them that your 'I'm with stupid' shirt is in the wash."

John beamed at him and Lorne knew that the retort would be making an appearance come tomorrow morning. The marines adored the Little Colonel, but they had made a regular routine of maintaining the inter-service rivalries when John had been an adult and were no less inclined to continue it now that he was a still-impressionable minor. So far, there hadn't been any real crises of confidence -- Lorne had emphasized "different" over "better" when distinguishing between Air Force and Marines and John himself seemed to take it as a kind of Harry Potter sorting hat thing, which worked well enough for now.

Lorne was finishing up a bizarre-yet-professionally-relevant conversation with Captain Radner about ketchup and paintball when he saw Teyla waiting at a polite distance. He caught her eye and she indicated that she was in fact waiting for him and he nodded, agreeing with Radner and promising to fix things with Medical before he could join her at the top of the gate room stairs.

"May I have a moment with you, Major?" she asked, tilting her head slightly in greeting.

"Sure," he replied. "What do you need?"

It was either about John or about one of her upcoming missions. He suspected it was about the latter because most of John's daily trauma these days involved issues he was most absolutely not discussing with Teyla. Or Weir. Or anyone else if he could help it, but most certainly not with the ladies serving as part of his in loco parentis team. As for the missions,with both Sheppard and McKay not active for off-world duty, Lorne had been sending along various lieutenants and marine teams to actually have an Earth person representing Atlantis in any negotiations that might occur in addition to the getting-chased-off-of-planets part of missions. Although that seemed to happen with far less frequency without Sheppard and McKay. (Lorne was pleased to note that his own team was just as calamity-prone whether he was there or not.)

Teyla took a deep breath, like she was centering herself before gently breaking it to him that Lieutenant Murray was an unacceptable traveling companion, and Lorne braced himself in turn. But instead, what she said was "I believe that it has become necessary to increase John's physical activities."

"Hunh," Lorne chuffed out, leaning back against the railing. That wasn't what he'd been expecting. "What did you have in mind?"

Still looking cautious, Teyla smile nonetheless was a little amused. "I believe that John would prefer to spend some more time with the marines, if that would be possible. The diversity of training would prove both beneficial physically as well as stave off boredom."

"Getting sick of him, too, huh?" Lorne asked, mostly rhetorically. John's new emotive discovery for the week was a discontented sigh coupled with a baleful look as if the world owed him entertainment in bountiful quantities and endless varieties.

Teyla, however, took the question seriously. "He is growing increasingly... uncomfortable with aspects of his current training."

Lorne couldn't help but laugh -- at the situation, not at the boy or at Teyla. Puberty had hit John like a bullet train the previous week and the physical immediacy of stick fighting with Teyla was no doubt adding to John's emotional stress. John's moods were all over the map as it was, led by an acute self-consciousness that came with about fifteen pounds and four inches in a few days, plus the more intimate physical changes that were not allowed to even be referred to in John's earshot. Lorne honestly felt bad for John -- puberty was bad enough, but puberty under such close scrutiny, with everyone paying such close attention and knowing exactly what was happening despite John's preferred if-I-don't-speak-of-it-then-it-isn't-happening approach... They all bit their cheeks and stuck to discussing shoe sizes and calorie consumption when John was anywhere around, saving those discussions for either the first or last few minutes of command staff meetings because it was actually safer to be amused by Ronon's (surprising) embarrassment than John's.

"What did you have in mind?" Lorne asked, growing serious again. Because whatever it was would require planning. Teyla had remarkable sway within the cabal, all the more for being able to impose her will upon Ronon, but that wouldn't be enough.

"The marines have been speaking to John about something called 'boot camp,'" Teyla began, forehead creased with unfamiliarity. "He has seemed intrigued by the idea. I do not know if it would be appropriate for him, either because of his physical immaturity or for more complicated reasons...."

Complicated meaning the various shadings of command structure of the military, something Teyla still only grasped in broad generalities because she'd learned it mostly from Sheppard, who only practiced it in broad generalities.

Lorne took a deep breath and let it out slowly, buying time to consider his words. This was a gift, a genuine gift -- Lorne and the captains had made plans for just such a program months ago, but they'd had little hope of implementing it. Certainly not after John spent his first months isolated from everyone in uniform. And here was evidence that he had Teyla (and probably Ronon) on his side without a shot being fired or a threat being issued.

"I'm more worried about his emotional maturity than what his body's doing," he replied carefully, preferring to sound dubious instead of gloating. "He's still a little young to be able to grasp most of what he'll need to learn, but that can be held off until he is ready."

They had a few JROTC books already that had been worked into the unofficial curriculum of John-related material. John read what he was asked to read, asked surprisingly relevant questions, and tried very hard to look like it was all a purely intellectual activity instead of something much more visceral and complex.

"The more basic elements, perhaps?" Teyla suggested. "The marines seem to believe that John would be capable of performing adequately at this 'boot camp' in his current state. At least that is what he has apparently been told."

Lorne made a face. "He's not much younger than most of the marines were when they enlisted, but it's still a bit of a gap." John was around fifteen biologically, which was both very close and very far away from the seventeen-eighteen of most recruits. And while John had been the latter age when he'd gone to the Air Force Academy, the Blue Zoo had been four years of finely honed crafting of an officer and not a crash course to prepare him for what he'd remember on his own. "Regular marine boot camp is probably not a good idea. First, it's for marines and second because it's for enlisted personnel and not officers. But there's an equivalent training for officers and something like that would be possible, I'd think."

He did more than think. He knew. They'd spent hours discussing the details. Who would run it, who else would be there, what combination of Air Force and Marine doctrine, everything except how to make it happen because that was Lorne's job alone. Once John had actually started growing, they'd refined their plan, tweaking it to accommodate the disparities between his already-developed intellectual capacity and more age-appropriate emotional state. (None of them ever said anything, but all of them were a little disquieted by how smart John was -- they all knew that Sheppard had played dumb to fit in, but they felt embarrassed at possibly how dumb.)

"Would this require much preparation?" Teyla asked.

"He's essentially already started," Lorne answered. "His mornings with the marines are a good way to get introduced to military culture. If we play it right, then it would just be a matter of turning that from a sort of fun day care to something more goal-oriented -- at least more goal-oriented than tiring him out."

Teyla smiled knowingly.

"Have you spoken to Doctor Weir or Doctor McKay about this?" Lorne asked, eyebrow cocked. Because they both knew that nothing was getting done without their approval and agreement. And if Teyla didn't know what boot entailed, he was quite sure that both Weir and McKay did -- whether they had an accurate knowledge or not being almost irrelevant. And that at least one of them would have a problem with the idea.

It was Teyla's turn to pause to organize her words. "I have spoken with Doctor McKay," she admitted. "He does not like the idea, but he appreciates the necessity of adapting John's training to his changing needs."

Lorne smiled wryly, as much for Teyla's masterfully understated description as for the challenge which was before them both. "Appreciating to the point where he'll go along?"

They both knew that Rodney McKay was the most stubborn person in the galaxy, that the months of his surrogate fatherhood of John (and, perhaps more importantly, of months of John's unwavering worship and camaraderie) had brought out McKay's possessiveness as well as his unshakable belief that he knew best what John needed. And they knew that he had been willing to destroy his own career rather than see his vision for John's future disrupted. This was not the rock they wanted to dash themselves against.

Teyla sighed very quietly. "He will have to, whether he wishes it or not. John cannot continue as he is."

There was nothing to say, so Lorne just nodded sad agreement. McKay could make almost anything happen, but even he couldn't stop time forever. John wouldn't be a boy for much longer -- hell, another week or two and they'd be teaching him how to shave -- and John's growth would be the irresistible force colliding with the immovable object that was McKay. McKay was going to lose -- time would take care of that if nothing else did first -- and that loss wasn't going to be pretty no matter how graceful the concession.

"How do you want to handle approaching Doctor Weir?" Lorne asked instead. "Would you like to do it, would you like me to do it, should we do it together?"

Teyla tilted her head. "I believe that Doctor Weir would be a useful ally," she said slowly. Ally in what against whom understood. "And, since it is my suggestion, I shall 'handle' speaking to her about this. Now that I know that some sort of training is possible, then I am comfortable making a more formal suggestion."

Lorne nodded, neither surprised nor especially disappointed that he was being told "don't call us, we'll call you." It was how things had gone and how they would go, at least for a little while longer. Here and now, it wouldn't be such a disadvantage -- any sort of boot camp suggestion would be better received not coming from the military (and if that wasn't a statement on how screwed up things were here, nothing was).

"Then I'll go pow-wow with the captains and see what we can't come up with for John," he said. "And I'll await your word."

Teyla agreed with a smile. "Thank you, Major."

Lorne called the captains for a meeting later in the afternoon.

"Operation Welcome Home may be back on the table," he said, noting with pleasure how thrilled the captains looked at the news. "I don't us want to get ahead of ourselves, but Teyla is taking a proposal to Doctors Weir and McKay for John to attend boot. Which means that we have to update our plans in hopeful anticipation of them agreeing."

The fight, when it came, was everything Lorne had feared that it would be. Part Kramer vs Kramer, part Mommie Dearest, part Iron Eagle and all filtered through the weirdness that was Atlantis, the SGC, and everything to do with aliens and Ancients, it was... apocalyptic. It was angry, it was calculated, it was personal, and it was cruel. It had people saying things that had been building up for months, things that they'd never intended to make public, that they'd never wish to be held against them. It changed the way all of them would interact in the future because there was no way to retract the harsh words and harsher truths. Even if they put on their best faces for John, who was already at the age when he could tell that everyone was fighting and that they were fighting about him. It was a watershed. It was also completely necessary and Lorne would not have regretted that it had occurred even if he hadn't ultimately gotten what he'd wanted.

Months of preparation, of seething, of plotting and planning and being patient when all he'd wanted to do was scream, and Lorne gave the briefing of his career. He'd wargamed this meeting with the captains over and over again, anticipating arguments and objections and alternate proposals and coming up with a way of shooting them all down without making it look like an ambush.

It wasn't a clean victory, even beyond the harsh words and ugly (if true) accusations from and against all sides. He'd gone in hoping for a month and settling for two weeks, but in exchange for a shortened duration he'd gotten what was truly the necessary component: isolation from the cabal.

John would have two weeks to be immersed in the military culture without interference from or protection by well-meaning civilians who understood that John needed the training but did not comprehend what watering it down or otherwise reducing its effectiveness would do. They'd said that they appreciated the necessity of teaching John to use the skills and memories that would return to him, but Lorne could still hear in their voices that they really still believed that he was taking John away to teach him to embrace his inner demons.

All of which meant that Lorne had every reason to be on edge when McKay showed up at his office door one evening.

"Can I come in?" McKay asked, awkward and halting.

"Sure," Lorne said, surprised as much for the visit -- McKay did not come to Little Tripoli, not before Sheppard had become John and not afterward -- as for the fact that McKay didn't come barreling in already issuing orders or demands or whatever he'd come here to do. Their last words had not been pleasant ones and Lorne hadn't expected any change for a while. He'd called McKay selfish and more interested in creating a perfect playmate than in restoring John Sheppard to the man he'd chosen (mostly) to become on his own and that... was not something anyone could easily forgive, no matter how much truth there was in the statement or how much McKay had landed his own shots in the exchange.

"It's about John," McKay went on, entering the room but not sitting down. He stood, hands restless and flexing at his sides. "But you probably guessed that."

Lorne half-grimaced in agreement. They'd never really had anything else to talk about.

"Do you know the grandfather paradox?" McKay asked. "You'd think that more than a decade of quantum mirrors and parallel universes and time travel would pretty much put all of that on its ear, but....  We screwed John up by doing exactly what the priestess wanted. We made him hate the man he had been and even after we figured that out, we still tried to change him. But we can't change him, can we? Novikov's self-consistency principle in action."

Lorne had no idea who Novikov was, so he said nothing.

"I don't like him being separated from the environment that has nurtured him for, as far as he remembers, his entire life," McKay continued. "I know that that is exactly what happens to normal men at a normal boot camp, but there's nothing here that's normal. I know you've factored that in, know that there will be a doctor around, know that everyone will make sure that John comes back safe and better prepared for what lies ahead. That doesn't mean I like any of it."

"But," Lorne prompted, since this was simply a summarization of the previous arguments, just at a more reasonable decibel level.

"But John is starting to become aware of my... hesitations," McKay said, staring straight at the Rubik's cube on Lorne's desk, the one Sheppard has slowly been working on for the past few years to no great success. Lorne didn't know if McKay understood its relevance to the conversation. "He isn't mature enough to understand that my dislike of the military and disapproval of it as a career choice for anyone with the intellect to be much more isn't the same thing as a dislike of him. He thinks I'm disappointed in him, that I'm trying to keep him from becoming the man that he was because I didn't like that man."

"What do you want me to do, Doc?" Lorne asked, since he really had no idea what was going on here. He hadn't seen John all day, hadn't heard of any particular blow-up or blow-out, and John had been more or less himself the last time they'd hung out -- for values of 'himself' that included being unpredictable, moody, high-strung, and desperate for a balance that was still weeks and months away. They'd spoken about boot camp, but only briefly because it had sounded like exactly what it was -- a bitterly-contested custody agreement. John was amenable, but his eagerness to hang out more with the marines had been alternately tempered by the very obvious disapproval of his 'parents' and aided by the fact that John was at the age when spiting ones parents was a right and an obligation.

"I don't want... no, I do want," McKay said. "I want him to understand that I've made the choices I did out of respect for him and not the opposite. I want you to understand that I'm not changing my mind, just my ways of expressing my opinions. I want him to come out of this less scared of who he is and not just more able to match his muscles to his memories."

Lorne wondered if this was what recruiter duty felt like. The brittle parents, scared for their children and bridling at the fact that the first step of military training was to undo everything the parents had done to mold their child and then put them back together in a way that was useful to the service. He went back and forth on whether McKay was scared to put John in Lorne's custody or just afraid to have him in anyone's but his own. McKay had made it quite clear that he considered Lorne among those who were 'stuck' in the military because of the lack of better options and Lorne ultimately didn't think that he was the kind of man who could forgive and forget that.

"It's what we all want, Doctor McKay," Lorne said, holding back his own lingering anger and resentment. "That's why we're all fighting so hard."

If anyone in the cabal was suspicious about just how quickly Lorne was able to present a complete plan for John's two weeks in Marine custody, they didn't say anything. John's continued growth -- physically, mentally, emotionally -- was putting a new urgency into every action and reaction. Nobody was really in a position to critique details; Ronon was the only one who'd been in any kind of organized militia and he seemed to approve of the schedule, which was a compressed combination of ROTC and regular old boot camp, and that had had to be good enough.

The boot camp part would be handled first, a week of intense physical training and a rough introduction to the sit-stay-heel of military life beyond what John had become accustomed to in the gym and in his other adventures in Little Tripoli. Lorne had underplayed to the cabal how rough it would be -- he had agreed with the captains that the Corps way of doing things was better suited to the quick pace they had to keep.

The camp had been put together in one very long day on the mainland -- they already had facilities out there, so not that much beyond supplies had to be imported and there was very little new construction required. The compound was several days' walk from the Athosians' settlement, so there was no worry about interference on their part or the marines scaring the Athosians with their yelling and routines at odd hours.

Populating the camp was something Lorne and the captains had gone over in detail many times. Whoever went would be privy to secrets that wouldn't necessarily be either proper or useful for enlisted men to know about their CO. Let alone someone as fanatically (if seemingly artlessly) private as Sheppard. On the other hand, the captains all agreed that there should be some purpose for the marines selected other than to fill out John's training unit. What they'd eventually decided on was a compromise: the platoons each supplied two men -- one selected by the platoon command (lieutenant and gunnery sergeant) and one chosen by the marines themselves. It gave them a decent cross-section of personalities -- most of the marines considered the assignment a reward, but a few of the marines chosen had been selected as punishment with the camp serving as a sharp refresher for skills or ethic deemed otherwise lacking.

Drill Instructors were easier -- they had four marines who'd served as DIs back on Earth, Lorne's Ortilla being one of them, and they'd split the duty with two handling the enlisted men on the mainland and two handling the second part of the course in Little Tripoli.

That second week would find John working with the lieutenants in addition to keeping up with the more intense physical training. They knew John would get his memories back, but not how or in what order or if they'd all be complete. Re-learning leadership and command skills couldn't hurt and it would help John transition into someone who could maybe assume his duties before reaching his full age. It would also help the lieutenants, both as teaching tool and to minimize the inherent weirdness of their interactions with their rapidly-growing once-and-future CO.

Lorne himself was mostly staying out of things -- barring a disciplinary problem, he was not going to be on the mainland and his time with John during the second week would be restricted to two hours a day of Air Force-specific teaching. He, like everyone else John had gotten comfortable with, would not really be allowed to interact with John on any kind of a personal level. That had actually been a selling point during the negotiations, effectively limiting the accusations, veiled and overt, that Lorne was 'stealing' John.

The object of contention himself reported to Little Tripoli the morning of with exactly what he'd been told to bring -- practically nothing. All of his clothing and other needs would be met by his DIs. Who immediately took control of the situation, demanding proper posture, a proper salute, and for John to submit to a haircut. McKay, Weir, Teyla, and Ronon looked alternately amused and aghast -- McKay was pretty much stuck on aghast -- as they watched John obey with a crispness he'd never displayed as an adult.

After John had been changed and shaved near-bald ("Is that necessary!?!?" "It's a standard indoctrination cut, sir."), his limited possessions were searched for contraband and there was a mild to-do after some kind of small communicator was found. The DIs went to town on John, who came close to tears but did not actually break down, before determining that John had actually not known anything about it and it had been planted by McKay, who had not been pleased by the limits on communication established by the marines beforehand.

"You've lost your call to Doctor McKay," Staff Sergeant Reynolds told John, who looked straight ahead and did not reply. "You are responsible for your things at all times. That could have been a Wraith tracker and you would have gotten us all killed. Is that what you want?"

"Sir, no sir!"

Intentional or not, it was a direct reference to John's -- Sheppard's -- history and not a pleasant one at that. Everyone had spent so much time treating John's memories as landmines to be avoided and carefully maneuvered around that it was almost shocking to witness those memories being used as grenades, meant to do damage to John's fragile composure.

John withstood the attack and, along with the other marines about to relive some of their least-cherished memories of their time in uniform and the various training staff, was boarded on to one of three jumpers to the mainland. As the last one disappeared into the horizon, Lorne turned to go back toward the transporter.

"Major?" Weir called after him and he stopped, waiting for her to jog up to him. McKay was still out on the pier with Teyla and Ronon; it had been an obviously private moment and Lorne hadn't belonged there.

"This is going to sound terribly hennish of me, but... " she began, trailing off. "Is all of that really necessary? The verbal abuse, the punishments..."

"It's what he saw when he arrived at the Air Force Academy, ma'am," Lorne told her with a shrug. He knew she understood, at least intellectually, but her heart and her eyes were on the trio silently consoling each other close to the water. "It's what every airman, soldier, sailor, and marine sees when they go to boot camp. All the bonds of childhood replaced by the one between you and the service. He's going to come back to us changed in many ways and they're all necessary. What we saw was a warning and a reminder. For him and for us."

"I know," she sighed. "But I wish it were easier on all of us."

Lorne didn't say that that was the reason why John had to get away in the first place.

He got a call early in the evening from Captain Radner saying that John had already had a couple of unpleasant 'breakthroughs', some obviously triggered (his easy handling of the rifles) and some not (face down in the mud in the obstacle course after tripping, he'd hyperventilated). Traumas aside -- and John, Radner reported, had been extremely Sheppard-like in his refusal to either discuss or even acknowledge his troubles -- the first day of camp had gone well. The marines were embracing their roles easily, forcing John to work harder and learn faster to keep up and he was. Learning, not keeping up, at least not consistently, and the DIs had ridden herd to keep his frustration from getting the better of him as well as reminding the marines that keeping one of their brethren from falling too far behind was part of the point, too.

The same reports, more or less, followed for the next four days. John was growing, physically and in ways not so visible to the eye. His memories were returning, sometimes so suddenly that it stunned him, but nobody could discern any pattern or even if there was one. Neither Doctor Plato, the endocrinologist who'd drawn the first half of the mainland duty, nor Yoni, who'd drawn the second, could force much in the way of detailed confessions from John, who was apparently taking refuge in the formality of military discourse. One word answers, two if you counted the 'sir', were the norm.

On the fifth day, Lorne was already back in his quarters for the evening when his radio chirped. "Lorne," he answered.

"Good evening, sir."

Lorne sat up, as unused to the honorific coming from John as surprised by the call. John had been allowed one call each to his various 'parents', minus the one to McKay, but Lorne hadn't been sure that John would use this one. Lorne wasn't on the same rung as Teyla or Ronon, wasn't sure how much John would have to say all considering Lorne's role in his current status and the fact that they'd be seeing each other the following week. "How's it going?" he asked.

"Well, sir."

The voice was sounding more like Sheppard, had been doing so ever since John's voice had broken, but while the pitch and timbre were passing familiar, the tone was not. It was proper, respectful, and utterly devoid of all of the many ways the adult Sheppard had been able to pack so much information into one word.

"You making friends yet?" Lorne asked, not unfamiliar with prying information out of recalcitrant interviewees. "It'll make a rough week easier."

"I'm getting help, sir," John replied. "It's a lot different than hanging out with the engineers," he added wryly.

Lorne snorted back his own laugh. "No kidding," he said, then changed tacks since John was sounding more like himself. "You dealing with the memories okay? Nothing too weird?"

No answer for long enough that Lorne figured he should ask another, safer question to keep John from clamming up completely.

"I scare myself," John said in a small voice, hushed like it was a secret. "He scares me. I know how to do things that normal people aren't supposed to know how to do and now I remember doing them..."

"And everyone there with you remembers doing them too," Lorne said gently, cutting John off before he said too much. Before he said something Lorne wasn't prepared to hear. The line between 'John' and 'Sheppard' was blurring fast and Lorne needed to be able to help the man as much as he'd tried to help the boy and that meant not knowing certain things. Ignorance wouldn't be bliss, but it would be one less thing Sheppard had to be embarrassed by or wary of once he was himself again. "You look around that barracks of yours and find one guy who hasn't had to do the sorts of things you've done. This is part of the reason you're out there -- not just to teach your body how to do stuff all over again, but to teach you how to carry your burdens again. The marines you're with all figured out how and, hell, if marines can learn..."

A half-chuckle from John and Lorne exhaled with relief. There was no easy way to tell someone that it was okay to have killed, to know how to violate the laws of man and God.

"Listen to me," he began again. "John Sheppard is an honorable, brave man who did many difficult things because he had to. He wanted to do those things not because they were fun, but because they were the right things to do and he knew someone had to do them. It's a lot, especially to have to deal with all at once, but just remember that we all knew you, too. And none of us are embarrassed by that or regret it. The marines wouldn't have been fighting to hang out with you otherwise."

This wasn't news; Lorne wasn't the only one to have been repeating these words to John since the memories had started returning. But it was important now, so very much more so, because now John was coming into his memories more fully and would have countless more reasons to wonder if people were just saying things to make him feel better.

"Some of them are here for punishment," John told him, but he didn't sound like he was challenging Lorne's version of the story too much.

"You were a trial sometimes, too," Lorne told him.

"I---" noise from near John, voices it sounded like. "I have to go."

"Go get some sleep, John," Lorne said. "I'll see you in a few days."

He ended up taking a long walk that evening, unwilling to be alone in his room. Talking to John had made him uncomfortable not because he'd said anything he didn't believe -- he hadn't -- but instead because it had brought home just how guilty he was of everything he'd accused McKay and the others of doing. He was shaping John to a purpose, one he believed to be in John's best interest, and... it was a little terrifying. Back when he'd been fighting the cabal to simply allow him and the marines contact, this part had been the end, the goal. But now it was the means and Lorne was feeling the weight of what he held in his hands.

"Oh my god."

Lorne spared a look over to where McKay was standing as they watched the jumpers empty out, eighteen marines and John. Or, maybe, almost, Sheppard.

It had been a week, which even in John's slowing-but-still-ridiculous growth arc was still not that long. But it looked like far longer because the changes in John weren't just in his height or breadth or in the fuzz on his head. It was in the way he carried himself and his duffel bag, the expression on his face and the strides he took from the jumper's rear to the pier where he fell into formation with the marines.

"He has... developed," Teyla said and nobody bothered to either react to or elaborate on the understatement.

They were standing in Weir's office, watching the large plasma monitor on the wall. McKay and the others had asked to be present for John's return and Lorne had apologized and said that that wasn't possible, that the marines had forbidden it as part of their training. The truth was closer to the fact that Lorne had agreed wholeheartedly with the marines, but it was easier to make it sound like it wasn't his decision. So, instead, they watched the security feed of the northwest pier.

If John knew he was being watched by more than just his temporary overlords, he gave no indication. Lorne wouldn't put it past him to have figured out that there was a remote audience -- John knew that McKay was extremely devious, extremely pragmatic, and more than a little upset that he had been separated from his charge for longer than at any point since John had become his charge. The two of them had spent six months re-arranging Atlantis to their whims; it wouldn't take much imagination for John to know that McKay was there in spirit. Which perhaps made John's performance all the more worthy of consideration.

How much John appreciated or anticipated how things would change between himself and McKay, Lorne had no idea. He'd never fully understood the dynamic of their relationship before this had started and, well, since that point all prior experience had become almost irrelevant. It was mostly not his business except for how it affected Atlantis, which in itself was nebulous because everyone understood that John's already-peculiar connection to the city had been changed and expanded by his regression. He'd now grown up in and with Atlantis, who had shown John all of the affection of a besotted grandmother, and Lorne fully expected a broad array of changes to come with that once Sheppard was back in control.

"We should send this in the databurst, ma'am," Lorne said to Weir, who was sitting at her desk with her hand over her mouth in subdued awe. "It should get them off our back about sending him back to Earth to teach him 'properly.'"

Weir nodded absently, unable or unwilling to take her eyes off of the screen. She, like McKay and Ronon and Teyla, had only ever really seen Sheppard's military background as a pretext for his abilities, not as an essential part of who he was. To civilian eyes, the crappy posture and not-quite-regulation haircut and complete refusal to adhere to anything close to military formality were all proof that Sheppard was as much 'us' as 'them.' To anyone who had spent time with Sheppard in his capacity as a commander, however, they were essentially a ruse. Even Caldwell had come to appreciate how looks were deceiving and that Sheppard hadn't spent the better part of two decades in the Air Force just because he didn't want to have to worry about what to wear to work. It was a good ruse, though, one carefully constructed over time to hide much more than a love of service and duty. And so to Weir and the others, this was a John Sheppard they had never seen before and weren't sure had ever existed before a week on the mainland under the tender mercies of USMC Drill Instructors.

But Lorne knew this wasn't a new creation, instead a return of the proud young man who'd come out of the Air Force Academy near the top of his class. And since Lorne had spent the week praying that he'd made the right moves, seeing John now made him feel nothing but relief. He hadn't wanted to mold Sheppard into the ideal officer or merely even a better one than he'd been, but he had wanted and did want John to be grounded (re-grounded) in the fundamentals of obedience and obligation. This was how John was going to be able to withstand the process of becoming Sheppard again -- duty and pride carried you when you had nothing else to give. Enduring the barrage of memories and dealing with the realities and ramifications of what had happened were going to take all of John's strength and it would be his training that sustained him when he had no energy left for that fight.

They watched the marines (and John) march down the pier and out of range of the cameras. The procession was headed for an isolated corner of Little Tripoli, a building across from the nominal border of the compound that would serve as a temporary barracks for the week. The rest of the marines had been told to treat the training platoon as exactly that and the marine officers seemed to think that that would work out fine -- the marines understood how important this business was. Also, John hadn't been wrong -- some of the 'recruits' had been assigned as punishment and this sort of ostracism would only reinforce that status. The rest of them... marines pretty much thrived on abusing each other, so they'd deal.

After the plasma screen on the wall had shown the empty pier for a minute or so -- not quite empty; other marines were there to unload gear from the jumpers and the training and medical staffs were still in the picture -- McKay abruptly turned and left Weir's office through the back entrance. He didn't say a word, just left, and Lorne saw a complicated look pass between first Teyla and Ronon and then Teyla and Weir.

"I should go speak to him," Teyla said. "Excuse me."

She left, Ronon tagging along behind her, and that left Lorne with Weir.

"Doctor Heightmeyer is meeting with him this week?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Lorne replied. He wasn't sure how much Heightmeyer was going to get out of John -- she hadn't been having a whole lot of luck, first because of McKay's influence and then because Sheppard's reticence had apparently started quite young -- but there was still a session scheduled. "Maybe he'll be a little more cooperative this time."

Weir's expression clearly stated how likely she thought that was. Lorne shrugged because she probably wasn't wrong.

He didn't get back to his office right away -- just because Operation Welcome Home (not a code name used outside of Little Tripoli) was the most important business in Atlantis didn't mean that it was the only business in Atlantis. Or out of it. But by the time he did get back, Lorne could sense the change -- everyone knew the 'recruits' were home and, he was willing to bet, most everyone who could have come up with a means of seeing them had done so. The atmosphere was charged in a way it hadn't been since the first days of the Little Colonel's visits to the gym; it wasn't giddiness, but there was certainly a current of optimism coursing through Little Tripoli. The marines had gotten a glimpse of their commander for the first time in the better part of a year.

"With all due respect, sir, this is wrong."

Lorne took a deep breath before answering, partially to rein in his frustration and partially to rein in his mirth. Trying to compress four years of Air Force ROTC training into fourteen hours of class time had been hard enough. Trying to actually teach the material to a young man whose memories gave him ample reason to question the substance of the lessons...

"It's not wrong," he said carefully. "It's a theoretical concept. How it gets applied is what is important. If you go straight from the book, then, yeah, it won't do you much good. But if you combine it with common sense, situational awareness, and input from your NCOs, then it absolutely works."

John gave him a very dubious look, the one that Lorne was used to receiving from enlisted marines who were very politely wondering what sort of lobotomies they gave officers with their commissions. "Yes, sir."

Lorne had chosen to give very short shrift to Aerospace Studies 101-102 and AS 201-202; they covered material that John could and was reading on his own. AS 301-302 and AS 401-402 were the real focus, the preparation for life as an Air Force officer, and Lorne had known with dread certainty when he'd been putting together his lesson plans that the former, which focused exclusively on leadership, was going to be the more challenging of the two. "The role of discipline in leadership situations" was a topic just asking for trouble.

"You're putting too much stock into the actions part of your memories," Lorne went on, watching John's eyes flash at the mention of what made him unique and what made these class sessions both absolutely essential and completely unnecessary. "You're forgetting the thought processes that went into your decisions in favor of the consequences of those decisions. You had these concepts drilled into you and they were a part of how you arrived at your choices, even if you didn't consciously go through the checklist as you were deciding."

John's skepticism, present since the start of the unit, faded just a little and Lorne took his opportunity. "Let's find an example to prove my point. We can choose something you remember doing or we can go from one of the case studies in the book if that's too much."

It was a challenge and not a fair one at that, but Lorne didn't have all that much time to ease John into the willful accessing of his returning memories. John wasn't freaking out anymore, at least not when either the DIs or anyone else monitoring could see him, but the reluctance was still there and they had no choice but to trample over it.

"We can use a real-life example, sir," John said quietly.

They ended up picking something relatively benign, a mission in Bosnia that got a little screwed up without anyone getting killed. Lorne, who had no real knowledge of the incident in question, worked John through first remembering the event in sequence and then reinforcing the book's points on personnel management by showing John where he'd essentially followed the steps described, if in a different order. The first task was much harder than the second.

"Do you want to do another one?" Lorne asked, knowing that John would have to say yes.

And so it went for the rest of the lesson time. They didn't get through quite as much of the book material as Lorne had scripted, but they got through the important parts (John wasn't all wrong; some of the texts' dictums made Lorne boggle, too) and the time spent working John through his memories was not time lost. They were at a point where they could afford no steps backward and not even any temporary halts -- John's body and John's mind were racing to the finish and he had to be ready. The alternative wasn't really something they could imagine, but nobody thought it would be anything good.

"Make sure you pay closer attention to the history sections in your reading," Lorne told John as he was packing up his things to leave. He held up the folder with John's test from earlier today. "I don't care if your memories tell you that the year the Wright Brothers flew won't help you in your career -- you still have to take the quizzes. If you've done something like confuse Billy Mitchell and Curtis LeMay again, there will be hell to pay."

The look he got back from John was so very Sheppard-like that it took his breath away.

"Yes, sir."

When he got back to his office, Teyla was waiting outside.

"Can I help you with something?" he asked as he waved his hand over the crystals. While it could have been something related to the off-world mission she had scheduled for tomorrow, he doubted it.

"I... I would like to know how John is faring," she said, following him in once the door opened. "He has not spoken to anyone since his return and that concerns me. Concerns us."

Lorne turned around, surprised. "He hasn't called you or McKay?"

John had the same privileges as last week, one call to each 'parent' including McKay. He hadn't called Lorne, but Lorne saw him for two hours every day and wasn't expecting contact outside of that time. But that he wouldn't call McKay...

"He has not spoken to anyone," Teyla repeated with a frown. "We do not know if this is his choice or if he has been punished for some infraction. Either way, we still care for his well-being."

"Of course," Lorne said, gesturing for Teyla to sit down and sitting himself after she did. "John's not under any restriction. He hasn't said anything about who he's contacted or not. Should I say something to him tomorrow?"

"No," Teyla replied quickly. "Not unless this would retard his progress in any way. This is his choice and he must have his reasons. He is now of an age when we must accept those reasons whether we like them or not. That does not mean that we cannot seek other sources of information."

She ended with a wry smile and Lorne felt himself answer it in kind.

"He's fine," he assured. "Within the boundaries of how very not-fine everything is. He's still a little freaked out by the memories, but he's stopped treating them as pieces of someone else's life."

John hadn't referred to the star of his memories as 'him' again since that once last week.

Teyla nodded thoughtfully. "Have they all returned?"

"Not that we can tell," Lorne said with a frown. "This is still John Sheppard and getting a straight answer out of him is not that easy. He has access to a lot more than he did before, but there are still gaps and I'm not sure how extensive they are or if there's any pattern to them."

John remembered combat and most of his professional life, although parts of his time in Atlantis were obviously still not fully restored. His real childhood -- or his first one, depending on how you looked at it -- was both harder for John to access and much harder to get him to talk about. Lorne suspected that his memories of his two childhoods were all muddled together and that John wasn't prepared to admit that he wasn't sure how much of what he remembered of his birth parents was accurate or even real.

"Do you know if he is still having nightmares?" Teyla asked.

"He is," Lorne confirmed. Recruits were watched during the night and there had been reports. "Either they're not as bad as they used to be or he's just dealing with them better. I suspect the latter."

"Me, too," Teyla agreed. "He is a young man now."

"That he is," Lorne said.

The next day, Lorne did ask John -- who had done fine on yesterday's quiz except for a very loose interpretation of the Nixon Doctrine -- about why he hadn't called anyone. He waited until the end of the lesson, knowing that it would probably kill any further academic usefulness of the session.

"I'm not... I'm not someone they know right now," John said reluctantly and directly to his shoetops. "I'm not the kid I was before boot, I'm not the man they knew before I got de-aged, I'm not anyone they'd recognize. I'm not sure I recognize me."

"Do you think that you're someone they wouldn't want to know?" Lorne asked. This was the crux -- was John embarrassed by who he was, by what he thought they'd see him as being, or was it something else entirely?

During class time, they were covering societal attitudes toward the armed forces and that in and of itself would be enough to cause a crisis in John's already-shaky confidence. Lorne had been especially careful with this section in light of the younger John's extreme sensitively and bouts of abject self-loathing, but there was no way to pussy-foot around things entirely, especially when it came to how some American universities had banned ROTC programs and other highlights of the academia-military cold war. All of it was very relevant to Atlantis and the command John would be reclaiming sooner than later; Lorne had tried to be generous of spirit, but it was hard to portray the open disdain in any positive light.

"Do they want to know? Sure," John said with surprising bitterness. "But aren't I already living proof of being careful for what you wish for?"

There were too many ways to take that, most of which would exacerbate John's distress. So Lorne ignored the question entirely.

"I'm not going to tell you to call them," he said. "That's your choice alone. But I will remind you that once upon a time, they trusted you with more than their lives and you returned the favor. Give them a little credit and give yourself some, too."

Lorne may have resented how McKay, Teyla, and Ronon acted while they were John's guardians, but they had been Sheppard's friends and would be so again once this was over. They cared about him deeply, however warped that affection had become, and Sheppard would need them. Lorne didn't want John driving them away before that could happen.

John didn't reply and so Lorne packed his books and left.

The next morning, he didn't ask if John had called anyone. He instead asked John how he could possibly have confused elements of SDI with elements of the SGC on yesterday's quiz.

John looked unabashed. "They both have rail guns, sir?"

"I'm going to cancel your flight sim time," Lorne said, watching John's face fall. The simulator had been a treat cloaked in the careful terms of reacquainting John with formerly possessed skills and John knew it. "Since apparently it, like Earth's nuclear strategy, is irrelevant to your current position. You can't choose what to take seriously, John. We've already cut away too much that's integral for you to disregard any more."

"I'm sorry, sir," John said, sounding genuinely contrite and sitting up straight. "I'll stop goofing off. I promise."

John got a perfect score on the last two of his quizzes, but they ended up having to reschedule the sim time anyway because Lieutenant Morrison's team required rescuing from the Wraith. Lorne was actually quite proud that John didn't complain once.

At the end of the second week, there was a small graduation ceremony for John -- who was regaining the status of officer -- and his fellow 'recruits'. While it was traditional for friends and family to be involved in a graduation from boot camp, this one was just military, which while still John's family was really not the branch of such that would be most surprised by the changes he'd undergone.

Lorne watched John interact with the marines -- both his former fellow 'recruits' as well as the others -- with interest. John wasn't nearly dopey-looking as Lorne had been (or as Sheppard had probably been) when he'd gotten his butterbar. Lorne remembered the awkwardness of his own early post-commissioning days, the mixture of arrogance and sheer terror that he now held the lawful command of other human beings. Other human beings who typically had far more experience than he did and who didn't so much obey his orders as humor them. There was nothing so callow and ridiculous as a second lieutenant issuing orders to an NCO and Lorne could see a bit of that recollection in John's face as he circulated the party after the ceremony.

John was still younger than any officer, commissioned or otherwise, but he was starting to carry himself a little differently, a little removed, then he had before he'd gone to the mainland. He unofficially had the status of a lieutenant -- a move agreed upon by both Lorne and the captains, since it would allow John to re-learn the practical aspects of leadership without drowning him in either the history or obligations of an O-5 on restricted duties. They'd gone back and forth over whether the marines should actually call him Lieutenant Sheppard, but the consensus had been that the marines were going to stick to "sir" as much as possible, so it was probably a moot point.

'Little Colonel' had been officially retired, however. As had 'John' for all but the officers. Lorne wondered if anyone was going to call him 'John' at all, however. With the changes in physical appearance and comportment, it was getting harder for Lorne to do so in even his own head and he was pretty sure none of the lieutenants had the balls to try.

After some schmoozing and cake and the soda saved especially for the occasion from the last Daedalus visit, Lorne found John listening with amusement as Lieutenant Murray gleefully relived his apparently disastrous commissioning ceremony, complete with bobbled Mameluke.

"You ready to go to your next shindig?" Lorne asked.

He didn't miss the flash of something close to terror in John's eyes. "Sure," he said easily, sounding very much like Sheppard.

The opacity was another reason it was harder to see John in this young man's form.

They made their farewells and left the still-going-strong party together.

"I'm never going to confess it in front of them, sir," John said as they walked to the transporter, "but I'm kind of disappointed that the Air Force doesn't get swords."

The marines had been a bit smug about that.

Lorne escorted John to Weir's office, where McKay, Ronon, and Teyla were also waiting to take John to some small civilian affair down in Engineering. Lorne had been invited, too, but he'd declined. It wasn't really his 'crowd' and he suspected the invitation had been extended out of politeness and duty and not any sense of camaraderie. He wasn't sure how much of a shared sense of accomplishment he'd have with them -- or even if they'd see what John had become as an accomplishment. There were also still fissures to heal -- on both sides -- and there was no point in pretending that there weren't. Best to let John enjoy tonight without any underlying tension.

"Don't go too crazy," Lorne warned John as he took his leave. "You are reporting to my office at 0800 ready to work."

This was part of the next phase -- easing John into Sheppard's responsibilities as well as Sheppard's life.

"You're going to make me do paperwork, aren't you, sir?" John asked a little cheekily.

"I have years of payback on that front," Lorne promised.

"Here, sir."

In uniform, even with the honorific and without the everpresent threat of stubble, it was pretty impossible to think of the young man in front of him as anything but Sheppard.

Lorne accepted the proffered cup of coffee and a complexly-folded paper towel that opened up to reveal lace cookies. "Cookies for breakfast?" he asked.

"They're from last night," Sheppard explained with a shrug, like it had been a complete accident that he'd saved some of Lorne's favorite cookies. "Milk, no sugar, right?"

"Yeah," Lorne said, re-covering the cookies as best he could before settling on a less complicated folding style. "Thanks."

While the plan was, in fact, to get Sheppard back on the hamster wheel that was military bureaucracy, Lorne had no intentions of paperworking him to death. While he caught up on the overnight emails and other first-thing business, he left Sheppard to update the mission calendar and read all of the accompanying proposals and security briefings.

"Why did we assign a full platoon to the geology mission to M3J-426 but only a squad to the plant biology excursion to M9F-3QZ?" Lorne asked after he'd gotten rid of the work he couldn't in any good faith foist off on the captains. He was still doing all of Sheppard's work and most of his own, but he'd shifted more of the latter to the captains so that he could spend some more time teaching John -- Sheppard -- what he needed to be able to fully assume his old duties. But before they could get to the executive decisions, they had to start with the more basic ones.

"Uh..." John hemmed as he flipped through the folders in front of him. "M3J-426 had signs of Wraith activity the last time anyone was there, sir."

"Good," Lorne replied. "Why else?"

Sheppard looked at him a little wide-eyed, then bent down over the paperwork again, shuffling folders but not bringing up the single piece of paper that would provide the answer. "The geology group has fewer civilians, less equipment, and will be closer to the stargate, sir. All of that would indicate that a smaller military presence would otherwise be required if it weren't for the threat of Wraith."

"Look at the bigger picture," Lorne prompted. "Not everything revolves around the particulars of the mission itself."

It took Sheppard only a minute to get around to digging out the calendar for the week and another minute to find the answer. "Weapons Company's bored off their ass, sir," he announced with a grin.

"There you go," Lorne said, nodding. "Although the phrase we'd like to use here is 'underutilized.' Especially if we're explaining it to anyone not from Little Tripoli."

The look he got back was vintage Sheppard.

Lieutenant/Colonel Sheppard's first week back on the job was spent in Lorne's office, which was arguably not that much of a change from the way things had once been. By the second week, however, both of them were ready for some more variety and a little time apart.

"You're going on Zoology's safari on Thursday," Lorne told him on Monday afternoon.

"What's wrong with Lieutenant Gillick, sir?" Sheppard asked, concern warring with excitement on his face.

"Nothing's wrong with Gillick," Lorne replied. "But he's going to be on Ipetia doing his diplomacy thing and it's a good first mission."

It had been carefully selected on the basis of several criteria. A platoon without a lieutenant was convenient, but equally important was the fact that Gunny Tommasso would be able to handle both Sheppard and the contracted task itself. The fact that it was Zoology was also key -- McKay's loathing of Life Sciences meant that Sheppard's team had had very little to do with Zoology over the years and thus the civilian scientists wouldn't be a problem because there was no past history.

"Cool," Sheppard said, almost illuminated with anticipation.

Lorne was relieved that Sheppard hadn't thus far asked about when he'd be rejoining his own team. That wasn't scheduled to happen for a good while; neither Lorne nor the captains (nor Weir, when Lorne had briefed her) thought it was a good idea. McKay, Teyla, and Ronon were still accustoming themselves to the changes boot camp had brought about and while he was sure that all three would insist that that had no bearing on how they functioned as a team, Lorne and the captains believed otherwise. It wasn't safe for far more reasons than just that McKay hadn't been off-world in the better part of a year and would need re-training both in terms of physical fitness and marksmanship before he went anywhere without an escort.

Sheppard's adventures with Gillick's platoon went off without a hitch apart from the scientists bitching about not getting more time than they'd been allotted on the planet, which was something they would have done with any lieutenant or any off-world team. Gunny Tommasso reported that Sheppard handled things well after a quiet start, his early passivity fading in favor of a more hands-on management of the mission.

"They were bitching to him and not to me, sir," Tommasso summarized. "They knew who was really in charge."

The next mission, a humanitarian one involving flood relief and a passel of doctors for medical care, also went well. Sheppard wasn't the lead officer -- Captain Hanzis was there with most of Weapons Company, since they were the de facto combat engineers in Atlantis -- but it was a mission of such a large scope that all of the officers ended up heavily involved. Sheppard received a positive report card on that, as did Weapons' actual lieutenants.

Lorne had considered taking Sheppard out on one of his own missions, but nobody seemed to think this was a good idea.

"With all due respect, sir," Polito said, laughter in his eyes, "Are you sure? We just got him back."

"He's not a real lieutenant," Lorne retorted, aware that Polito was only partially kidding -- arguing against military superstition was next to impossible.

"And you'll recall that there was a very good reason we tried not to send you two out together no matter what his rank, sir."

In the end, Lorne won mostly because Weir didn't care about either superstition or Lorne's track record with lieutenants and partially because the Daedalus was coming in and getting Sheppard some outside-the-city time had just become a priority.

This was the Daedalus's first visit since before the boot camp; a hyperdrive problem had delayed the return an extra month. Everyone in Atlantis knew that for as much as the trip was about bringing in overdue supplies and new personnel, it was really about Sheppard.

The focus of the impending scrutiny bore the pressure well in the days leading up to the ship's arrival. Sheppard had graduated to independent work -- still a few pay grades below his prior load, but all of the military in Atlantis was doing work at least a grade above what they'd be doing on Earth -- and a regular, if not yet frequent, mission schedule. They were still cherry-picking his missions, but not nearly as much as before.

Professionally, Caldwell would have to dig hard to find any fault or problem with Sheppard's progress. Personally... that was a little less concrete. Biologically in his early twenties, Sheppard was in possession of most of his memories but was still having problems synthesizing them with his post-regression experiences. Especially when he was tired, he'd confuse places and people -- always realizing it right away, even if he wasn't immediately sure what the right answer to "who am I?" or "where are you?" was.

There were counseling sessions, which Heightmeyer said were sometimes helpful and sometimes just an outlet for Sheppard's frustration. There were occasional half-conversations or seemingly-offhand-but-not-really remarks in Lorne's office and talks with Teyla and McKay that Lorne was not privy to beyond the fact that he knew they existed. Everyone pushed the same line -- patience, patience, patience -- but everyone (especially Sheppard) also knew that time was the one thing they didn't have.

The six-month mark -- the second one, the one that would make a year since an eight-year-old boy had come back to Atlantis -- was fast approaching.

Since Polito couldn't find anything "safer", Lorne's team ended up going on a routine find-the-Ancient-technology mission with Sheppard three days in to the Daedalus's visit. It was a much-needed break for both Lorne and Sheppard; Lorne had always run interference between Sheppard and the SGC, but it was harder now with so much more at stake. Sheppard knew it, too, and he was on his best and most diligent behavior even when there was no one else watching.

("Thanks," he'd said one afternoon after Lorne had come back to his office drained from having to argue with Weir against Caldwell, who was serving as proxy for a rapacious and over-eager SGC. "If I didn't say it before all this, I should have.")

The mission itself actually was routine -- apart from the fact that there really was Ancient tech on the planet and both Sheppard and Reletti were both completely transfixed by it while the rest of them had to both herd the pair as well as pay attention to their environment. They found the tech in question -- some doohickey that Sheppard murmured happily to in what may or may not have been Ancient -- and took it home, depositing both Sheppard and the device (which turned out to be some component of a weapons system that had been missing too many parts on the planet but could be useful in Atlantis) with the impatiently waiting McKay. Which one he was happier to see was debatable.

With nothing more to show for his excursion with Lorne's team than wet pants from when he'd forded a stream at the closest point instead of the most logical point, Sheppard was nonetheless awarded the coveted Green Alien Purple Heart by the lieutenants in honor of his surviving a mission with Lorne's team.

"Their standards have dropped, sir," Ortilla sniffed. "Two years ago, that wouldn't have even gotten him a sympathy cookie from the commissary."

The Daedalus departed as scheduled with all hands aboard and no additional passengers apart from the previously scheduled returnees to Earth. Caldwell had been unable to find fault in Sheppard's professional development, privately congratulating Lorne on the transformation and wondering if the more orthodox mien would stick. If Caldwell had any doubts as to Sheppard's mental progress, he didn't share them with Lorne.

The relief at passing this 'test' was tangible, but none of them could afford to bask in Caldwell's praise and promise of a good report to the SGC. This was only an intermediate report, not the final grade, and it wouldn't matter in the end if the SGC and IOA decided against keeping Sheppard in his post for reasons real or imagined. Their only choice was to make that action all but impossible.

"C'mon," Lorne said, passing Sheppard down the corridor from his office on his way back from one of the "we survived!" round-up meetings. "We have work to do."

feed me on LJ?

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10 June, 2008