blue flamingos

Reorientation

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Gen, PG-13

Year/Length: 2009/ ~13,937 words

Disclaimer: No, I don't own them, for which I should think they're profoundly grateful.

Prompt: Statistical significance

Summary: The more things change, the more they stay the same (goes au from the end of season 1)

Author's Notes: Supporting character appreciation day, sga_genficathon

Beta: by 10pmpacifictime and miss_zedem

Feedback: Yes please. Even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad.

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Back to the army again (Rudyard Kipling)

Aiden's first look at Atlantis in four months is from the bridge of the Daedalus, waiting with the last of the newly recruited scientists to be beamed down.

"Wow," one of the chemists — Dr Stafford, he thinks — breathes next to him. "It's amazing. I've never seen anywhere so beautiful, have you?"

Aiden smiles, still looking down at the city, spread out beneath them in a way he's never seen, not even from a jumper. He hasn't spoken much to any of the scientists on this trip, mostly hanging out with the flight engineers, who might be more like scientists but are still SGC officers, like him. He's pretty sure only Caldwell knows that he's been on Atlantis before, though he's sure there's gossip, him being the only marine on this trip.

"I can't even imagine what it'll be like to work there every day," Stafford goes on. Aiden glances at her from the corner of his eye — she's staring down at the city, eyes wide, bright with excitement. She can't be much older than him, but her innocent excitement makes him feel ancient. "Are you okay?" she asks, turning suddenly.

"I'm fine," Aiden says. He makes himself stop rubbing at his fixed eye, self-conscious. It still feels wrong, even if it looks fine now.

"Sure..." Stafford says, slowly, shifting away from him slightly, looking uncomfortable, and then Caldwell announces that they're ready to beam down.

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Aiden's pretty sure Atlantis hasn't changed since he left, but his clearest memories are of the first time he stepped into the city, everything dim as Sheppard made it light up, and of the last time he was in there conscious, running for the open gate, high on enzyme, before they stunned him. It looks a lot different now, twelve shiny-eyed scientists around him, sunlight streaming in the windows, people buzzing around.

"Welcome to Atlantis, everyone."

Aiden looks up, sees Dr Weir coming down the steps towards their group, Major Sheppard a couple of steps behind her. Sheppard's eyes skate over the scientists until they reach Aiden, and he smiles, just slightly. Aiden grins back, suddenly light with relief.

"Lieutenant Ford," Dr Weir adds, coming to a stop in front of him and smiling, warm and open. "Welcome back."

Aiden nods. "Thank you, ma'am. It's good to be back. Sir," he adds over her shoulder when Sheppard joins her.

"Ford. Hang out while we run through the introductions then you can come with me."

"Yes, sir."

Dr Weir gives him one more smile, then turns to the rest of the group, who are all looking at him with more curiosity than he's comfortable with, like they're wondering who they *really* spent the journey out with. They're probably only just realizing what 'delayed for medical clearance' might mean. "Welcome to Atlantis," she says again. "My name is Dr Elizabeth Weir, I'm the civilian leader of this expedition, and this is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, the military commander. I'm sure you'll be seeing a lot more of us during your time here, but for now, I'm going to hand you over to Dr Zelenka, the deputy head of the science department, for your initial tour. I'm looking forward to working with all of you and getting to know you over the next few weeks, and, please, don't hesitate to come to me with any of your concerns that can't be dealt with by your department heads."

Zelenka swoops in as she finishes, gathering the new arrivals and herding them down towards the main labs, all of them gawking at the city like tourists. Sheppard watches them go, then nods at Aiden and starts in the opposite direction. Aiden hefts his pack more firmly over his shoulder and follows.

"Congratulations on the promotion, sir," he says.

Sheppard smiles, but it's distant, not the glee that Aiden's used to seeing from people with shiny new ranks. Maybe it's because he must have received it before coming back to Atlantis, which means it's been three months, but Aiden thinks it might have more to do with the way McKay isn't around, when he always used to be Sheppard's shadow.

"How's everyone?" Aiden asks, stepping around two marines he doesn't recognize, who nod to both of them.

"They're good," Sheppard says, returning the nod. "Teyla says hi, she's on the mainland but she'll be back this evening. The guys are pretty keen to see you again."

Aiden rubs at his eye before he thinks about it. His memories of being on the enzyme are fuzzy, but he's sure he hit someone, and no-one on Earth would give him access to the reports about the siege. "Me too," he says. "And McKay." It's true, to his amazement. Bonds of team, he guesses.

Sheppard's smile this time is tight, making Aiden regret mentioning it. "He's down in the labs, I think. I'm sure he'd like it if you visited."

They've fought, Aiden thinks, and not like they did when Sheppard brought Chaya back to the city, but over something more serious, more personal. Sheppard doesn't show much, but Aiden thinks he's looking at Sheppard hurt. It's not a good feeling, especially combined with his own low level nervousness at being back, after what happened before he was evacuated with all the other medical cases.

"So, um..." This probably isn't the best time, but he might as well get all the bad stuff over at once. "When General Landry offered to let me come back, he said you'd make the decisions about, um...About what I'll be doing here." About whether I'll be back on your team, he means.

"Right." Sheppard looks along the corridor, the groups of scientists and marines they've been passing. "Come into my office." Aiden follows him with a sinking feeling. Nothing good ever comes from being invited into his CO's office.

Sheppard leans on his desk, too tense to pull off casual. "I'd love to have you back on the team," he says. "But there's — it's complicated, but we found a guy on a planet Major Lorne went to, he was taken by the Wraith and made a runner for seven years." Aiden doesn't ask what a runner is; he can guess, and, fuck, seven years. Seven years ago, Aiden had barely started college. "His planet's been destroyed, so he's come to live with us."

Sheppard looks away, awkward. "I understand, sir," Aiden says, putting him out of his misery. It hurts less than some of the options for being removed from the team, at least. Not a lot less, but less.

"Good. There's a spot on Major Lorne's team, he's the new XO here, and he could use someone who knows Pegasus. I'd like you to take it. Keep him out of trouble out there." Sheppard looks up again, and Aiden sees the hint of like with me around his eyes. Not that Aiden managed to keep Sheppard out of much trouble, even with Teyla to help him, but he's got a year of experience now.

"Sounds good, sir."

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Major Lorne, when they find him in his office, is somewhere between Aiden and Sheppard in age, easy-going and more apt to smile than Sheppard ever has been, though Aiden thinks it's probably at least partially faked. He obviously knows he's getting Aiden, comes round his desk to shake Aiden's hand. "Just what we need, someone else who knows this galaxy," he says, sounding sincere.

"Yes, sir," Aiden says. He returns the smile, hoping he's not showing what he's thinking: woke up the Wraith, nearly let my CO get his life sucked out of him by a bug, made an enemy of the Genii, lost the ZPM that could have saved everyone's life. Who wouldn't want him on their team? Other than Sheppard, apparently. "Happy to help."

"Great," Lorne says and yeah, the smile's definitely faked, because it's fading out to leave worry that looks so much like Sheppard's that Aiden wonders if they train it into them in the Air Force. "I'd like to take Ford to meet the rest of the team, if you're done with him, sir."

"Go for it," Sheppard says, waving them away. He makes a face. "I gotta go make sure the new scientists aren't blowing up anything important."

"Good luck with that, sir," Aiden says, and Sheppard just shakes his head as he leaves.

Lorne watches him go, then turns back to Aiden. "Come on, the rest of the team's got to be around here somewhere."

As they walk, they make small talk about the guy Aiden's replacing (apparently, he couldn't hack his first run in with the Wraith, when they found the runner, and asked to be transferred back to Earth. Aiden's kind of disappointed in the guy, even if he has never met him — what kind of marine freaks out over a dead Wraith? He helped rescue a man on the run, flying the jumper that did the life signs scan which picked the runner up. Aiden's glad he's leaving). Lorne doesn't say anything about Aiden being gone for four months, getting his eye fixed up, detoxing from the enzyme, for which Aiden's grateful. He kind of wants to just forget any of it ever happened, and one more thing he likes about Atlantis is that most people are perfectly happy not to talk about anything.

The rest of the team ends up finding them while they're still looking, a woman barreling round the corner and catching herself on Lorne's arm, followed by a second woman, younger than Aiden, head ducked slightly.

"Major!" the first woman says.

"Cadman," Lorne says warily, then, more warmly, "Pernia."

"You will not *believe* what I just —" Cadman starts, then looks at Aiden and stops. "New friend?"

Lorne takes a deep breath, like he's really trying hard to hold onto his patience, but Aiden grins back at Cadman. She reminds him of the three women in his class at OCS, bright and forceful and confident. "Lieutenant Aiden Ford, Lieutenant Laura Cadman, Pernia Raeferne of the Athosians. Ford's going to be joining our team."

"Thank God," Cadman says fervently, coming over to shake his hand as Aiden takes another look at Pernia. She looks kind of familiar, but he never spent much time with the Athosians, and most of them are a blur of barely recognizable faces. "Stackhouse says you were the explosives expert last year, you can help me convince Sheppard that we'd be best off with a controlled explosion over on the south-east pier. Have you seen the —"

"He hasn't even been in the city an hour, Cadman," Lorne reprimands, but he's smiling at her fondly. Aiden realizes, abruptly, that though he's never actually spoken to either of them before, he's seen them both, back at the SGC before he came to Atlantis the first time, in the mess or on the shooting range, relaxed in each other's space. Back then he'd thought they must be sleeping together, fraternization rules or not; now he thinks he was mistaken, no hint of anything other than friendship between them, more like Sheppard and Teyla's brother/sister vibe than anything sexual. "At least let him unpack first."

"This is Pegasus," Cadman says dismissively. "He'll be lucky if we're not attacked by space squid first."

"Space squid do not live in this part of the galaxy," Pernia says. She sounds completely serious, but when Aiden looks at her, she catches his eye and smiles, the way Teyla used to sometimes when she was teasing Sheppard or McKay and they didn't realize. "Though if you would like to see some, I can suggest several worlds where they are indigenous."

"I — don't even know what to say to that," Cadman says, smiling at her. Pernia laughs, brown eyes bright until she ducks her head again, dark curls falling over her face.

"We should definitely go," Aiden says, even meaning it a little. Space squid sound pretty cool.

Lorne groans. "God, what did I do to deserve you lot?"

Cadman puts a hand on his shoulder, using it to turn them in the direction of the mess hall. "Clean living and a virtuous past," she says solemnly.

"Shouldn't have bothered, then," Lorne says, and Aiden thinks he'll be just fine with this team.

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It's actually pretty cool being back on Atlantis, like going home after his first tour, everyone wanting to say hi, welcome him back, ask about Earth. McKay's his usual dismissive self when Aiden winds his way down to the labs — "Oh, you're back, how nice for you. You'll excuse me if I don't participate in this ridiculous fest of hugging, trying to ensure the city doesn't sink." "Yeah, I missed you too, McKay." — but Zelenka and Simpson both hug him, and Kavanagh nods at him, which is the equivalent of a jubilant hug from him.

"Don't mind the grouch," Simpson says with a quick glance over her shoulder to McKay, muttering over some Ancient device. "Lovers' spat between him and the Colonel."

Zelenka shushes her more seriously. "You should not speak of Colonel Sheppard like that to his men."

Simpson rolls her eyes. "It's Ford. Ford doesn't count."

"Um, thanks?" Aiden says, not sure if he's just been complimented, insulted or both. He wonders if Cadman knows what the fight's about — or rather, he wonders if she'll tell him. He gets the impression she knows pretty much everything that's going on around here.

Aiden's not sure about going down to the infirmary, but he'd promised Dr Lam, and her even newer assistant Dr Keller, that he'd report to Beckett within twenty-four hours of arriving back, and they'll know if he doesn't, even if they are in another galaxy.

Beckett's exactly the same as always, patting Aiden on the arm and hustling him over to a gurney. "Now, you're a sight for sore eyes, aren't you lad. I've been reading Carolyn's notes on your treatment, remarkable really, and lucky Miss mal Doran was there." He steps in close to Aiden, flicks on his penlight. "Let's take a look, shall we? Just look straight ahead..."

Maybe not quite the same as always then, because the stream of medical patter is new. Aiden's not sure if it's for his benefit or Beckett's, only that he remembers, now, heaving Beckett up against the glass wall, hand round his neck, wanting to kill him when he tried to stop Aiden leaving. You just don't want me to tell anyone that your DNA treatment didn't work on me and this one did, the enzyme fuelling the old disappointment of the ATA gene therapy not taking for him, one of a minority of people it had failed on.

"Look to the left, now, for me," Beckett says, and Aiden blinks, does as he asked. Everything's fine. He wouldn't be back here otherwise.

Beckett eventually lets him go with a clean bill of health and instructions to come back for another check-up in a week. Aiden curbs the urge to apologize — discretion's probably the better part of valor here, let everyone forget, or pretend they have — and goes out into the city. He's not on duty till the morning, he doesn't need any of the orientation briefings, his things are in his quarters — new quarters, a corridor away from where he was before — and he has nothing to do.

He winds up in the gate-room, not really sure what he's doing there. His involvement in the command meetings was always tenuous, but he's already clear that he's not going to be doing much of that any more, not with Major Lorne and two captains above him. He knew before he left Earth again that the population of Atlantis had grown, the lost military personnel replaced and then some, but it hadn't seemed real. It's only now that he realizes how weird it was for him to be the de facto military second-in-command of an entire base, when he was a lieutenant and twenty-five. Not that he was supposed to be, same way Sheppard wasn't supposed to end up in charge, but Captain Reynolds was killed their first day, and no-one said but everyone understood that Aiden couldn't take over.

"Help you with something, sir?" a tech asks, looking up.

Aiden shakes his head. "I'm fine." He's tempted to ask for an update on the teams, but even before, that wasn't really something he did. "Just passing through."

"Yes, sir," the tech says, turning back to the Ancient equipment. Aiden takes the hint and leaves.

He's heading vaguely towards the mess, wondering if he can run into Cadman or Pernia, when a door to a side corridor slides open a few yards ahead of him, and Teyla walks out.

She looks exactly like Aiden remembers, in a mix of uniform and Athosian clothing, head up, purposeful. She was the one thing that made him feel like they might be okay, the first few times he went through the gate on Sheppard's team, and he didn't even realize that the last time they went on a mission together would be the last time.

He shakes his head at himself — this is what he gets for spending too much time in the SGC, too used to things not changing — and speeds up. "Teyla!"

She stops, turns, and her face brightens in a smile. "Aiden. I thought you were not supposed to arrive until tomorrow."

"Daedalus made good time," he says. Teyla's always been kind of untouchable, but it feels so good to see a familiar face, one that's not caught up in anything else at that moment, that he lets go a little, gives her a hug. She makes a surprised noise, then laughs, hugging him back.

"It is *good* to see you," she says firmly against his shoulder. "It is good to see you well again. We were all very worried, even when it was reported that you would make a full recovery."

Aiden doesn't remember much about his last couple of days on Atlantis, drugged into oblivion, but he remembers the sense of someone standing by his bed, different someones. Same way he knows one of them was Sheppard, he knows Teyla was there as well. "Missed you," he says.

Teyla draws back slightly, sliding her hands up to his shoulders, and rests her forehead against his. Aiden closes his eyes, soaking up her warm presence.

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Bullet in a sand storm, looking for a place to land (Bruce Cockburn)

Watching Sheppard slowly turn into some kind of human-bug hybrid is pretty much the worst experience of Aiden's life so far, though only because he was unconscious for most of his own experience with funky Wraith stuff in his blood stream. He can't seem to stop himself from drifting back to the infirmary, even if he does get kicked out again every single time.

"I just want to see him," he says, every time. "I don't even want to talk to him, just —"

"No," Beckett says firmly. "There's too many risks of infection, for both of you."

"Come on," Lorne says, catching Aiden's arm and pulling gently. He looks tired, Aiden thinks, too many hours of Caldwell harassing him, of coming by the infirmary to be told Sheppard's getting worse. It's supposed to be better than him walking around, changing, but Aiden thinks Weir doesn't realize how much everyone needs to see him. Lorne's there every time Aiden goes down there; they usually end up being kicked out together. He's not sure this is what his old instructors had in mind when they talked about building up a team, but there's nothing like knowing the other guy is as worried as you are to build up a bond. "I need you to come look at some of Colonel Caldwell's proposed changes to the gate team structure, tell me what you think."

"Yes, sir," Aiden says. Lorne lets him go after twenty minutes, and he goes looking for Teyla. She's the only person on base who's clued in enough to the command structure to know what's going on (unlike Lorne, who's been pushed way out, though he won't say why) and actually likely to tell Aiden (unlike Weir, who just tells him that Beckett is trying).

He finds Teyla on a balcony off the mess hall, with McKay and Ronon. Whatever they're talking about, they stop when Aiden steps out there, and he has to fight down a sigh. He remembers when they trusted him, when he was one of them, and he's getting there with his new team, but he misses his old team, being allowed to know things. It doesn't help that there's a tiny part of him that's jealous that whatever McKay and Sheppard fell out about, they've clearly made up, just as tight as they used to be.

"Any news?" he asks.

Teyla shakes her head. "I am certain that Dr Beckett will find a cure before it is too late."

"Of course," McKay says, too quickly. Ronon leans next to him against the balcony, his face impassive, his gaze firm on Aiden. Aiden really doesn't know how to read him — he doesn't seem like he trusts anyone except Sheppard, but he seems like he trusts Aiden even less, enough to make him wonder if someone's told Ronon about the Wraith enzyme. "It's his retrovirus after all. And let's face it, if there's anything that calls for some witch doctoring, it's people being infected with bits and pieces of wraith."

Ronon shifts and Aiden looks away, forcing his hands to stay at his side. Witch-doctoring's a good word for Vala mal Doran and her healing device that fixed his blown out eye. Not so much for the weeks of withdrawal.

He looks up again to see a look passing between Teyla and McKay; she gets it, even if he doesn't. There's an awkward silence, enough to make Aiden wish for Cadman and her ability to talk through any silence.

Weir's voice in Aiden's ear, summoning them all down to her office, is a relief.

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"You're not going," Lorne says, catching Aiden and Cadman as they're about to leave the ready room, pushing them back into the relative privacy. On the radio, Beckett's telling Weir that he's on his way down to the gate room, McKay grumbling about how it's not like they're in a hurry or anything.

"What?" Cadman asks. "You're going."

"Yeah, with two marines for back up."

Cadman gestures sharply between herself and Aiden. "Two marines. Back up."

"We're a team," Aiden says, surprised to realize how true the words are as he says them. In a warped way, it's one good thing to have come out of the last few days of being outside his old team, how easy it makes it to fall in with his new team, knowing they still want him, even if he doesn't know them well yet.

"Major, when you're ready," McKay grumbles on their headsets.

"We're the best two marines for this job," Cadman says. Aiden can't see her face, but Lorne's looking right at her, expressionless. "The best," she says again, dead serious, and Aiden knows, for absolute certain, that there's something the two of them know in that moment that he doesn't, something that's going to make this decision. Something in her words that isn't what she's saying, like the way Sheppard would always take Markham and Stackhouse if they needed extra marines, because they'd both been marine pilots for a while, and to Sheppard, that made them more predictable.

Lorne looks down and away, shaking his head. "Fine. Let's go."

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The blast from the grenade wipes out all other sound for a minute, so Aiden and the others scramble up in near silence. It's only once they're back on their feet that sound filters in again, the chittering died down. The screaming's stopped.

"I think that stopped them," Ronon offers, gun still pointed at the cave entrance.

"We're not sticking around to find out," Lorne says firmly. When Aiden looks over, he's staring at the cave as well. "I'm pulling the plug on this mission. Let's get back to the gate."

"We can't just give up," Beckett says. He's got his NVGs pushed up on his forehead, making him look like a four eyed bug.

Lorne turns round, obviously ready to say no again, and Aiden finds himself saying, "The Doc's right."

"Ford..." Lorne starts, sounding tired.

"Let me do it," Aiden says. "Toss in a smoke grenade, I can be in and out before they even —"

"No." Lorne stalks over to him, and Aiden feels Cadman step up close next to him, on his side now, not Lorne's. "We just lost two men in there, I'm not sending you in as well."

"It'll be different for me," Aiden says, willing him to understand without Aiden having to say it. Lorne just glares back. "The enzyme..." Aiden says, his voice dropping without him meaning it to. "It's similar to what the bugs secrete, they'll sense it in me, it'll confuse them."

"No," Lorne says again. He sounds more than tired now, defeated. "We're not risking it. Head back to the gate."

"Sir —" Aiden starts, but Cadman catches his elbow, shakes her head, and Aiden has to swallow against the urge to say Sheppard would say yes. It's not even true — if anyone was going in, it'd be Sheppard.

When he breaks away from the group, running for the cave entrance, the last thing he hears is Cadman shouting out in pain, the thud of her body as she goes down under his half-intentional shove, buying himself the few seconds he needs to get back into the darkness.

There was no time to throw another grenade, but the smoke from the first one is still lingering, and Aiden's armed with salt water. It's like clearing a room — aim, shoot, step — only with water, and much faster, eyes on the egg sac, not thinking about what — who — he's stepping on. There are bits of exploded bug running down the walls, and the chittering is picking up again. Not as fast as before, but too fast for Aiden's comfort, thinking of Sheppard, paralyzed and dying on the floor of the jumper.

There's no time to mess around with Beckett's egg collection device — Aiden fires for the top of the egg sac, grabs it as it falls, and runs, feet skidding on desiccated bug and things he never wants to think about.

Most of the two teams are still surrounding Cadman when Aiden races back into the light, but she sits bolt upright as he does, P-90 pointed straight at him. Aiden ducks out of her line of fire and she sprays bullets back into the cave until Lorne lobs a second grenade in.

"Is that it?" McKay asks when the explosion dies down. He waves a hand vaguely at the egg sac that Aiden's still clutching, like he doesn't want to get too close to it.

"Aye, that's it," Beckett says.

"Then let's get the hell back to the city, before anyone else does anything equally stupid," Lorne says, not even looking at Aiden.

Aiden feels his face heat, even knowing that he's just single-handedly accomplished their damn mission. Cadman reaches down, offers him a hand up. "Nice work," she says, grinning, and Aiden feels stupidly reassured.

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Ten minutes after word comes down that Beckett's retrovirus appears to be working, Lorne radios Aiden to his office. Pernia, who'd been trying to explain the rules of a nine-balled Athosian sport she used to play, over coffee in the mess, pats his arm with a sympathetic look. "I'm certain he won't be too harsh," she says.

"Yeah," Cadman says, tilting her chair back on two legs. "He'll probably make your death relatively painless."

"Thanks a lot," Aiden says dryly, and goes to meet his fate.

Lorne, in the couple of months Aiden's known him, has always seemed like a fairly laidback person. Not like Sheppard, who fakes laidback until he goes all intense and ends up killing sixty people, but actually laidback, like things really do kind of roll off him. When Aiden knocks at the door to his office, he's practically vibrating.

"What the hell were you thinking?" he demands, before the door's even finished closing. Aiden decides discretion is definitely the better part of valor here, and goes to attention in front of Lorne's desk, silently. "I gave you a direct order, twice, not to go into that cave, and you disobeyed it. At considerable risk to your life, and the lives of everyone else on that mission, against an enemy that had just killed two of our people." He pauses, takes a deep breath. Aiden doesn't blame him — Williams and Stevenson are the first people they've lost since he got back, and he'd forgotten how much it hurts. "You had no way of knowing that you'd be any safer than the rest of us, none, and yet you did it anyway, against orders."

Repetition usually marks the point in a lecture where it's okay to start talking — not that Aiden's been lectured many times by his COs, but enough to learn. "Yes, sir."

"Yes, sir, what?" Lorne demands.

"Yes, sir, I disobeyed a direct order to go back," Aiden clarifies. "I believed I'd be safe undertaking that mission, sir." He doesn't add that he was right, mostly, or that Sheppard is going to be okay because of that. No-one's saying it, but it's pretty clear that, without the eggs, no-one had any other bright ideas.

"I should have you thrown in the brig for that stunt," Lorne says, but he leans back against the desk and sighs. "At ease, for God's sake."

"Thank you, sir," Aiden says, following the order this time.

"That can't happen again," Lorne says. "I understand that you know this galaxy better than anyone on the team but Pernia, but I have to know that if I tell you not to do something, you won't go running off and do it anyway, because you think you know better."

"Yes, sir," Aiden says meaninglessly. The truth is, if it's something like the cave, something important that'll save people, he will, even if it means disobeying orders, being kicked off the team, risking his life. They all will, it's why they're in Atlantis in the first place, because no-one who won't risk everything to save someone else goes through a wormhole to fight space vampires in another galaxy.

Lorne's face is hard, and it makes him look old. Makes Aiden feel very young, hyper-conscious that this is his team leader, the base XO. "Colonel Sheppard gave me absolute discretion over this team," he says. "Free choice of who's on the team, no questions asked. I understand that if this was Earth, you'd have your own team, but here, you answer to me. If you think you can't do that *whatever* your feelings about the mission are, then this is the time to say so."

Aiden wants to look away. He wouldn't have expected the threat — the threat, not even the event — to hurt as much as it does. He tries to imagine being in Lorne's place, dropped into an on-going, tight-knit mission, in charge of the guy who used to more or less be doing his job, reporting to Sheppard, who's not like any commander Aiden's ever even heard of. "Yes, sir," he says again, meaning it this time, ashamed of talking back earlier.

"Yes, sir, what?" Lorne asks again.

"I want to stay on the team. It won't happen again."

Lorne gives him a long look, which Aiden meets, trying not to flinch, trying to make Lorne see how much he means it.

Eventually, Lorne nods, still looking tired, but also easier. It makes something in Aiden relax, a little. "Okay," Lorne says. "Let's give that a try for a while." He smiles, a little. "Dismissed, Lieutenant."

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Beckett forbids anyone but Sheppard's team — his new team — from visiting until Sheppard's ninety per cent human again. Aiden doesn't go; whatever it was he wanted from Sheppard before, when Beckett wouldn't let him in, he doesn't want it now. Not like Lorne, who goes down there every day, though only when none of the rest of Sheppard's team are there.

"He says McKay looks at him funny," Cadman tells Aiden and Pernia over lunch, three days after Beckett starts allowing visitors again.

"McKay looks at everyone funny," Aiden says. "It's nothing personal."

"Not me." Cadman leans over and steals a couple of fries from Aiden's plate, then a couple more when he points his fork threateningly at her.

"You do not count," Pernia says. "He does not look at you at all."

"Probably because you made him kiss Beckett," Aiden suggests. He's heard all about Cadman's little vacation in McKay's head, which she treats as a huge joke but he thinks would have been incredibly weird. He's pretty glad he wasn't around for that.

"I thought I was about to give my life for his," Cadman says, fake-wounded. "It was my consolation in the face of my noble sacrifice."

Pernia snorts into her coffee, then flushes. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to suggest —"

"Relax, seriously," Cadman says, patting her arm. "There's only room for one paranoid, twitchy person on this team, and it's not you."

Pernia laughs. "I should not ask who it is?"

"No," Cadman says firmly, "You definitely shouldn't."

Aiden's pretty grateful; he's got a nasty feeling it might be him.

hr

The first few days after Sheppard's released back into the general population, he sticks with Ronon nearly all the time. Either that or Ronon sticks to him, but whichever, Aiden never sees Sheppard on his own. He looks completely normal, other than being out of uniform, strolling around the city, quick words of hello to everyone, and Aiden thinks that only people who know him well would be able to tell that he's trying to make up for everything he did when he was changing, how much it freaked them all out.

Or maybe it's just him who can see it, after his first two weeks back, wanting to say sorry to everyone, even though he didn't do much more than fail to escape and get sedated.

Sheppard's first day back in uniform, Aiden drops by his office, just to say hey and welcome back. Sheppard's got three piles of paper lined up on the edge of his desk and is eyeing all of them warily until he looks up at Aiden's knock.

"Tell your team leader that he can stop trying to impress me with his ruthless efficiency any day now," he says, waving Aiden to a seat.

"Yes, sir," Aiden says. He should have brought coffee — he always did, last year, or whatever they were using as a substitute that week — but it doesn't feel right any more, like there's more distance between them than there was before. "I just came by to say it's good to have you back."

"I hear you're somewhat responsible for that," Sheppard says, leaning back in his chair and looking at Aiden.

"I just collected the eggs," Aiden says. "It was Dr Beckett who —"

"Lorne told me," Sheppard says, which marks the first time Aiden's ever heard him interrupt someone. "And, reading between the lines, I don't think he's too happy about it."

"No, sir." Aiden forces himself to keep his mouth shut, not to rehash his and Lorne's conversation when he doesn't know what Lorne's told Sheppard.

"Explain this to me," Sheppard says, leaning forward suddenly, expression intense as he looks at Aiden. "Two marines dead, iratus bugs all over the place, and I know you know what they can do, every indication that the next person to go into that cave wouldn't be coming out alive."

"Beckett needed the eggs," Aiden says. This is the one part that still annoys him, a little; that he did it for *Sheppard*, to save his life, and no-one seems to get that. "Without them you were going to die."

"So you decided you'd die in my place," Sheppard says. "You didn't used to be much for suicide missions, Ford."

"I'd do anything for the people of this city, sir," Aiden says, too sharply for his CO. "Including give my life."

"I didn't mean it like that," Sheppard says. "I just want to know what's changed."

"No-one trusts me any more," Aiden says, and he has to look away, because he can feel his face burning and his throat getting tight, and he doesn't want to be having this conversation. There's not even anything he can really point to, other than maybe Ronon. He just can't shake the feeling he'd had ever since he got back here, like everyone's looking at him, waiting for him to do something wrong. Waiting for him to call the Wraith to them, like Bates thought Teyla was doing. Waiting for him to do something to show why he's been replaced.

"What?" Sheppard asks. Aiden glances up, and Sheppard's looking back at him, stunned.

"You took me off your team," Aiden says. He's not going to mention Ronon. He's not.

"Ford..." Sheppard rubs his forehead, sounding the way Aiden feels. "Elizabeth and I fought to get you back here. Landry wanted to keep you on Earth, put you on a gate team at the SGC. We wanted you back here."

It's completely pathetic, but just hearing it makes Aiden feel a little better. Sheppard wouldn't make something like that up. "Thank you," he says, belatedly.

"You're welcome," Sheppard says dryly. "Try showing it by not risking your life when you've been ordered not to."

"I already got that lecture from Major Lorne," Aiden tells him, risking a smile, dumbly pleased when Sheppard returns it.

"Knew I kept him for a reason," Sheppard says, turning back to the paperwork. "Get out of here, before I borrow you to go through some of these for me."

hr

We'll always be ready because we'll always be there (Three Doors Down)

They all agree, later, that it's Cadman's fault. She's the one who says, as they're forming up in front of the wormhole, that they've won the 'fewest rescues needed' stakes for the third month running out of their six months as a team, then follows it up by pointing out that, statistically, they're due at very least a run in with some mildly hostile natives.

"It's only been a few months since we were taken captive by the Genii," Pernia says. "Does that not count for more?"

"I don't think statistics work like that," Aiden tells her.

"They don't, though an interesting data point is that you've been involved in every altercation with the Genii since Atlantis first met them," Cadman says.

"At least I haven't been accused of trying to blow up our people," Aiden points out.

"Low blow," Cadman says, glaring. "I'm just identifying trends."

"Oh," Pernia says abruptly. "You went out with Dr Hasler again."

"The mathematician?" Lorne asks, to Aiden's surprise. He tends to stay out of the team gossip.

"Yes, the mathematician, and no, I didn't go out with him. He leant me a book, I've been reading it."

"You've been reading a book about statistics, voluntarily?" Aiden asks despite himself. "Why?"

"There's no such thing as too much knowledge," Cadman says loftily.

"That is not what you said last week," Pernia says.

"That's because your kinky evenings with —"

"God, please, dial the gate," Lorne calls up to Campbell, sounding desperate. Aiden adds his own pleading nod. He likes his team, he really does, but sometimes he really misses Teyla, who never tried to share anything about her sex life, and, even if she'd been suddenly overcome with the urge to do so, would never have done it in the gate room, with five guys on security detail listening in.

So, yes, they all agree that Cadman — or possibly Hasler and his stats book — are to blame for jinxing them — and also for making Aiden, at least, imagine things he never wants to about his team mate. Not that it's any consolation when the gate activates ten minutes after they step through it, Cadman and Aiden already heading away from it to recon the area, Lorne and Pernia staying behind in case the planet does turn out to be hostile after all.

"Stay down," Cadman hisses, one hand on Aiden's arm.

He drops back behind the shabby cover of the bushes beside her. Out in the clearing by the gate, one of the men has his hand over Pernia's mouth, the other round her waist as he drags her. Aiden can't tell if she's knocked out or not; Lorne, pinned down between two more men, definitely is.

"We could take them," he says. There's only five of them that he can see, three of them occupied with the other half of his team, and the gate's closed again.

"Maybe," Cadman says. "Or maybe they one of them shoots Pernia. Do you want to explain to Teyla how we got one of her people killed?"

About as much as he wants to explain to Sheppard how he got Lorne killed. "Who are they?"

Cadman shrugs. "This planet's supposed to be unpopulated."

"Let's hope not," Aiden mutters. If they take Lorne and Pernia through the gate, rescuing them is going to get a lot more difficult, even assuming they don't gate to another planet right after. "They're leaving."

Cadman nods, watching the five of them move away, still dragging Lorne and Pernia. No guard, no message through the gate, and a clear path through the trees. It'll be easier than last time, when Cadman and Pernia were kidnapped in the night and taken away on boats.

Aiden wonders what it says about them that this is starting to feel routine.

"Grab their weapons," Cadman says as they come out from behind their cover, crouched low.

"And if they come back?"

"And if they come back and take them, and use them on us?"

"They're armed with knives, and they left them behind. Why would they change their minds?"

"Why would they grab Lorne and Pernia in the first place?"

Aiden doesn't have a good answer to that, and they're going to lose the trail. As usual, it's a toss-up between calling for help and risking someone noticing the gate activating, or forging on alone and hoping for the best. Aiden doesn't really need to ask Cadman which one they'll be doing, when they've still got the element of surprise. Cadman clips Lorne's P-90 below hers, shoves his 9mm in the back of her pants; Aiden tucks the tiny pistol Pernia carries into a pocket on his vest, and grabs the radio earpiece lying next to it. "Find the other one?"

Cadman shakes her head. "Someone's still got theirs."

Aiden nods. It'll probably turn out to be more harm than good, unless they can see who has it, but it's something. "Let's go."

hr

For once, the Ancient database is mostly correct: they follow the men back to a village, where it's obvious they've set up some kind of base, complete with three guys they can see on the perimeter, and a couple with bows and arrows on the roofs, but there's no civilians. On the downside, the men drag Lorne and Pernia into a small, single storey building right in the middle of the village, and all the buildings have the shutters closed.

"Could be empty," Cadman offers. The village is built in a dip between a ring of hills, less than a half hour from the gate. The hill makes for a good observation spot, the two of them mostly concealed by the curve of the rise. What it doesn't make for is any kind of cover to go down into the village, the trees that kept them hidden coming in stripped away on the village side.

"Could be full of armed men who want to kill us," Aiden counters.

"That kind of day," Cadman says. They've got two hours before they're due to check in, which means three hours before help comes from Atlantis.

"That's if we get past the men with bows and arrows and the guards."

Cadman turns away from watching the left hand archer to glare at him. "You're just a ray of sunshine this morning, aren't you?"

"At least no-one's thrown anyone down a well."

Cadman rolls her eyes, but she's smiling. "You two have got to start letting that go."

"Talk to me when *you've* spent twelve hours at the bottom of a very narrow well in two feet of water with your team leader," Aiden tells her. At least Lorne gets the whole 'we shall never speak of this again' thing. "Someone's coming out."

The five men file out, the last one stopping to lock the door behind himself, looping the key back round his neck and tucking it under his shirt, before following the others a couple hundred yards down the street, and into another, larger building.

"Command center?" Aiden suggests. Both of them are back to watching the village, but he feels Cadman nod. "No guards inside, not if they're locked in."

"Shouldn't be too hard to blast our way in."

Aiden can't help grinning; it's one of the things he likes about Cadman, their shared love of explosions. "Just the guards to get past, then."

"We could shoot the two on the roofs from here," Cadman suggests.

"Only if you've got a sniper rifle concealed in your kit." P-90s are great for making lots of noise, or shooting at running targets close by. For long-distance accuracy, they suck. Hard.

"You've got a better idea?"

Aiden eyes the path going down the hill and right into the village, and the scattered tree-stumps. They're useless as cover on their own, but if the observers are looking at something else... "Yep."

hr

He gets to the bottom of the hill before anyone says anything, feeling naked without his vest or P-90, just waiting for someone to put an arrow through his chest, or to notice Cadman, darting between tree stumps too far across the hill for him to see her.

It doesn't help that his own fake-drunk singing is making his throat hurt, or that he keeps forgetting the words.

It's the middle of the three ground level guards who comes out to meet him, the other two hanging back but moving out of position. No-one else shows up, and Aiden cautiously hopes that means this is it. Ten's a lot of people to be hiding out on a planet without many natural resources. Any more probably means big trouble.

"Halt, friend, stay there." The guy's got a couple of inches on Aiden, not to mention a couple of pounds, but it's fat, not muscle, and Aiden's got the element of surprise. Hopefully.

He weaves a little, but cuts the singing. It's really starting to annoy him, anyway. "Who're you?"

"That's not your concern," the guy says, coming a little closer. There's a knife on his belt, but his hands are open at his sides. "How did you get here?"

Aiden waves back in the wrong direction for the gate, turning in a circle as he follows his hand. He thinks he sees a flash of movement coming down the hill, but it might just be wishful thinking. Both the archers are watching the horizon. "Through the ring," he says, waving towards it again. "But someone moved the — the — thing."

The lead guard looks over his shoulder, the other two shaking their heads, looking amused. "The village?" he suggests.

"Yes," Aiden says, nodding firmly. "Yes, the village. But I found it." He stumbles forward a few steps, the guards taking a couple of steps back automatically. Three more feet, and they'll be under an overhang, hidden from the archers. Aiden can't see Cadman, but they've been working together for months now. Long enough to have a little blind faith.

"I don't think this is your village, my friend."

"No." Aiden takes another couple of steps. "Because my girl is here, I know she is."

The guard shakes his head. "You're definitely in the wrong place. No girls here."

"She's here," Aiden repeats. He grabs the guard's shoulder, forcing him back the last few necessary steps. "I saw her go through the ring, with a man, and I know he brought her here."

"My friend —" The guard puts a hand on Aiden's arm, his two friends stepping closer.

"And I'm gonna find her, and then I'm gonna give her my ring..." Aiden slides his hand towards his pocket, and Cadman steps out from behind the building, knife flashing at one of the rear guard's throats. Aiden steps in close to his own guard, knife in hand, watches Cadman over the guy's shoulder as she steps away from the first man, the second already turning. Aiden's guard gasps, eyes wide, and Aiden twists, listening to the man stop breathing.

When he steps back, Cadman's wiping her knife on the second guard's shirt. "Come on," she says, holding out a hand for Aiden to pull her up. "I've got our weapons, but we need to move."

"Anyone else out here?" Aiden asks, shoving his knife away in exchange for his P-90 and following Cadman down the hard-packed streets towards Lorne and Pernia, tucked in the shadow of the building.

She shakes her head. "Just the two on the roofs. And all those in the other building."

"Right."

"Nothing to worry about," Cadman says, grinning. "That one." They tuck themselves against the side of the building, Aiden watching the so-far empty streets as Cadman taps the door softly. "Major Lorne? Pernia?"

"Still out?" Aiden suggests, lowering his voice again. Even knowing the village is — hopefully —mostly empty, it feels too quiet.

"Maybe." Cadman knocks again. "Lorne? Pernia? It's us." Still nothing. "Try the radio?"

"Guards might have it." Aiden looks both ways up the street again. They've got to be running out of time. "Blow the lock?"

Cadman's already reaching into her vest pocket. "Blow the lock," she says in agreement, pressing a small charge against it. "If you can hear, stand back, we're blowing the lock."

The charge goes off with a loud pop, leaving behind a neat hole where the lock was, the door swinging gently inwards. "There goes the element of surprise."

"Yeah, yeah," Cadman says, waving him away and pulling her 9mm. "Major?"

Someone groans in the far corner. At the end of the street, a door slams open. "Time to go."

Pernia's passed out in a crumpled heap in one corner, but she groans and bats weakly at her hand when Cadman crouches over her. In the other corner, Lorne's struggling to sit upright, the left sleeve of his jacket damp with blood. "You two need remedial lessons in subtle," he says.

"Yes, sir," Aiden says, crouching down to get his shoulder under Lorne's and drag him up. "You can do it when we're back in Atlantis."

"Pernia?" Lorne asks.

Aiden glances over at Cadman, who's got Pernia in a fireman's carry over her shoulder, one hand holding her in place, the other swinging her P-90 up. "Still breathing," she says.

"Go," Lorne says, and then they're running, Lorne leaning into Aiden, still off-balance, guards behind them. Aiden takes a minute to be grateful that they're armed with knives not guns.

Right up until an arrow thuds into the ground less than a foot in front of him and Lorne. Both of them shout in surprise, and a second arrow whistles past his ear. "Just when you think it can't get worse," Lorne mutters.

"Yes, sir," Aiden agrees. The hill's right ahead, no cover, straight up.

"Give me your weapon," Lorne says, pulling away from Aiden.

"No, sir." Aiden drags him close again, nearly tripping over the next arrow to land in front of him.

"Damnit —" Lorne starts.

"Ford!" Cadman's hand on his back shoves them all behind a rock that's big enough to cover two of them, maybe. She's already shifting Pernia off her shoulders. "Take her, I'll cover you."

They both look at Lorne, who nods. "I can run," he says, which is as close as Aiden thinks he'll ever get to hearing Lorne admit he's not well enough to shoot accurately at anything.

Aiden feels the burn of the next arrow as it slices a couple layers of skin from his arm, bare skin where he's not wearing his jacket. The guards are stopped at the edge of the village, knives in hand but not coming after them. If they can get out of range of the arrows, they might just make it. "Let's go."

The run up the hill is enough to make him wish for his ridiculous descent of it: Pernia's heavier than she looks, and the arrows are somehow more unnerving than bullets would be. Add in the way Lorne stumbles three times before they're halfway up, obviously worse off than he was making out, and Aiden's really wishing they'd been next but one on the mission roster. At least they have the constant rattle of Cadman's P-90, small speck of reassurance, until they're halfway back down the other side, and Cadman comes tumbling over the crest of the hill, sliding down to a stop with her feet in the small of Aiden's back.

"Ow," he says, shifting and sitting up. Lorne's leaning against a tree, eyes closed, but Pernia's stirring, finally. "Anyone following?"

"No, but don't count on it lasting." Cadman drops her P-90 in favor of her canteen as she crawls over to Lorne. "They went back into the village, my guess is to pick up reinforcements before they come after us. Major, take your jacket off. Drink this."

So, another run for the gate. Just when Aiden was getting used to the quiet. He digs out his own canteen, eases Pernia up to lean against him. "You okay?"

She blinks, raises one hand to rub at her eyes, then her head. "What happened?" She gets one hand on the canteen when Aiden raises it to her lips.

"The usual," Cadman says, busy wrapping Lorne's bleeding arm. Knife wound, from the ragged edges. "Kidnap, head wound, heroic rescue."

"Not a heroic rescue till we're back in the city," Lorne says. He's blinking a lot, like he can't focus, but he still catches Aiden looking at him. "Tipped the knives with something. Everything's blurred."

"And the rest," Aiden says under his breath. "Pernia, are you injured? Can you walk?"

"I am fine," she says firmly, pushing herself away from Aiden. "My head hurts, but that is all. I wasn't stabbed."

"Then we should go," Cadman says. "Before they marshal their forces or whatever they're doing back there."

Aiden plucks Pernia's weapon from his pocket and hands it back to her, then grabs Lorne's P-90 from the collection on the grass. "Here, sir. Just don't aim in our direction."

Lorne cracks a smile, but his hands are shaking as he clips the weapon to his vest. Beckett's going to lecture them all for letting him and Pernia get knocked on the head again when they get back, Aiden just knows it.

Cadman pulls Lorne's uninjured arm over her shoulders and drags them both to their feet. "Up and at 'em, sir. Unless you want to tell everyone how the Air Force needed the Marines to rescue them. Again."

"At least Air Force rescues don't involve nearly blowing up the building," Lorne says.

Aiden offers Pernia a hand up, and they set off for the gate. It almost feels like a regular mission, except for how Lorne's bleeding and there'll soon be men with knives and arrows after them.

So, really, pretty close to a regular mission anyway.

"Wouldn't have been the whole building," Cadman says. "Just that wall, if we'd really gone overboard."

"No more explosions, for either of you."

"Any idea what they want?" Aiden asks Pernia.

She shakes her head. "They spoke of money. I think perhaps they intended to ransom us back to the city, if they had been able to tell where we came from."

"Or get it out of us," Lorne adds. "Think that was still to come."

"Averted by heroic rescue by Marines," Cadman says, but her cheerfulness sounds forced. "What did we stumble on this time, then?"

Pernia shakes her head again. "I do not know. There are many abandoned worlds where those who would harm other make their home. It's hard to know what they do there."

"We'll find out," Lorne says darkly, which kills the conversation.

hr

Aiden strains for sounds of followers the whole way back to the gate, but either they've hidden their tracks incredibly well (unlikely) or the kidnappers have better things to do. If it's the latter, it's strange, but Aiden's all for people who know when they're beaten. Since they make the last of the walk to the gate with Aiden carrying Lorne, who passed out between one step and the next, dragging Cadman down with him, he's just thankful they don't have to worry about defending themselves as well.

Pernia goes over to the DHD as soon as it's in sight, and Cadman backs up next to Aiden, P-90 raised. "Atlantis, this is Pernia. Please lower the shield so we may enter."

It's only when Aiden hears Chuck in his ear, asking if they're okay, they're early, that he realizes Pernia must still have her earpiece. "There was some trouble," Pernia says. "Please, let us through, Major Lorne is hurt."

"Lowering the shield," Chuck says, just as Cadman shouts, "Incoming!" accompanied by the clatter of her P-90. Aiden gets a glimpse of men in the trees, bows raised, before he turns and sprints for the gate, Cadman behind him, Pernia ahead, both of them shouting for the gate to be shut down almost before they're through.

There's a second of stunned silence as the gate winks out, then someone calls for a med-team, and there are hands against Aiden, lowering Lorne to the gate-room floor.

Sheppard comes down the stairs, Weir and Teyla with him. "What the hell happened?"

Aiden shakes his head, stepping out of the way of the med team as they cluster round Lorne, unconscious and bleeding, and Pernia, pale and wide-eyed.

"What happened?" Beckett asks, looking up from Lorne.

"He was drugged with something when he was stabbed," Cadman says, pushing her hair out of her face. "Is he okay?"

Beckett gives her a reassuring smile. It helps that Lorne chooses that moment to groan, his eyes flickering open. "Everyone okay?" he asks, sounding a lot more with it than he did. For the first time, Aiden notices the IV going into his arm — he always forgets how fast the medical staff can be. "Pernia?"

"I am fine," she says, shifting away from Teyla's hand on her arm to look at Lorne, who smiles. "We are all fine, apart from you."

"And he'll be quite fine as well, as soon as we get a chance to stitch up that gash. It looks like the drug might already be metabolizing in his system, but I'm going to take him down to the infirmary. You as well, my dear," Beckett adds, nodding to one of his nurses to give Pernia a hand up.

Sheppard watches them all leave, looking somewhat more reassured. "What happened?" he asks again.

Aiden looks at Cadman, who's half-smiling, looking back at him.

"Heroic rescue by the Marines," he says, just to make her laugh, even if it does sound rusty with relief.

hr

Is there somewhere else to be (Vast)

They end up in the lounge at the bottom of tower seven, where no-one ever goes because the closeness of the other towers makes it gloomy all the time. It's not planned, but Aiden's not surprised when he gets down there and finds Lorne and Cadman sitting on the couch, Pernia curled up on the floor, leaning against Cadman's legs. A year and a half as a team means getting to know each other pretty well.

"Hey," Cadman says, turning to wave halfheartedly at him.

"Hey," Aiden snags the other chair, dragging it closer to the rest of the team. "Anyone want a beer?"

"Still on duty," Lorne says without opening his eyes.

"No-one's going to care," Cadman says, reaching for a bottle when Aiden offers it to her. "We don't work here any more, remember?"

"We still work for the US military," Lorne corrects.

"Not me," Pernia says, coming up on her knees to take her own beer, then leaning back into Cadman again. "I'm not one of you any more."

"None of us are," Aiden says. They're all getting a few days leave when they get back to Earth, but Sheppard doesn't seem to know anything beyond that. All three of them belonged to the SGC before they came to Atlantis, but they've all been replaced since.

"They'll keep Lorne," Cadman says. She glances at him quickly, then makes a gimme gesture in Aiden's direction. He hands over the fourth bottle, and Cadman taps Lorne's hand with it till he opens his eyes and accepts it. "For the ATA gene."

"Not much use on Earth," Lorne says. "The Ancients aren't letting us take anything."

"They'll need you to fly the jumper," Cadman says.

Lorne shakes his head. "They'll keep Sheppard for that."

"Would they really send you all away?" Pernia asks. "You've been together for so long."

"Doesn't matter on Earth," Aiden explains. "It's more normal for people to get reassigned every couple of years, not like here."

"I thought —" Pernia stops, turning her face into her knees.

Cadman frowns down at her, then sits forward and touches her shoulder. "What?"

Pernia shakes her head, hunching further into herself. Cadman slides down onto the floor next to her and touches her shoulder again. "Hey, come on."

"I'm sorry," Pernia says, muffled and damp, and it occurs to Aiden for the first time that he doesn't really know how old she is, only that she's younger than the rest of them.

Cadman wraps an arm round her, pulling her close, and Aiden shifts down to sit with them, one hand on Pernia's ankle. Above them, Lorne leans forward, elbows on his knees, looking more upset than Aiden's ever seen him.

"Don't cry," Cadman says. "You'll make Lorne cry too, and that'll just be embarrassing for everyone."

Pernia laughs wetly, still not looking up.

"We won't be gone forever," Aiden says, trying not to sound like he's making a promise. "The Ancients said they might negotiate to let us back eventually."

"He's right," Lorne says. "We can..." He trails to a halt, shakes his head. Cadman gives him a pleading look over Pernia's head, then sighs.

"I'm sorry," she says, ducking down to rest her head against Pernia's. "I wish you could come with us."

"Why won't you stay?" Pernia asks, finally looking up. Her face is streaked with tears, her eyes red, and it makes Aiden's heart ache. He can't stop thinking about the Wraith, the Genii, the Replicators, all the things that could hurt her. It's not like she can't take care of herself, or like Teyla won't be looking out for her, but she belongs with them, and them with her. "Teyla would let you live with us, at the settlement."

"We can't," Cadman says. "We've got a duty to our commanders on Earth, we have to go."

"General O'Neill, he'd find us," Aiden adds. "Send us back, and we'd all go to jail."

"We'd hide you," Pernia says. "We wouldn't let them take you."

Lorne rubs his eyes, moves to sit on the floor with the rest of them. "We can't," he says. "I'm so sorry."

"It's not fair," Pernia says, her voice cracking, and flings her arms round Cadman.

"I know," Cadman says, hugging her.

They fall asleep sitting there, and when they go through the gate in the morning, Pernia's not there to say goodbye.

hr

Cadman's waiting just inside the mountain when Aiden reports back for duty after a week with his grandparents. She shoves away from the security desk when she sees him, claps him on the shoulder and falls into step with him.

"Good vacation?"

Aiden nods. "You?"

"Spent it in Colorado Springs," Cadman says with an exaggerated grimace of distaste. "I'd rather be on security detail here."

"That what we're doing?"

Cadman shrugs. "Hope not. SG-29 just got relieved of duty en masse."

"Really?" Aiden pats down his pockets, looking for his ID until Cadman pulls hers out and swipes for the elevator. "Why?"

"No idea. But they'll need a team to take over..."

"Lorne's still here?"

Cadman grins, bright and real, and Aiden realizes how miserable she looks when she isn't. "Yep. Sheppard too."

"Yeah?"

The elevator dings its arrival and they both step in, Cadman hitting the button for Landry's floor. "Maybe they'll let the team stay together."

"What's left of it," Aiden says.

Cadman sighs, sounding worn out. "Yeah."

"How do you think she's doing?" Aiden asks.

"Teyla'll look after her," Cadman says, sounding confident, but when Aiden looks at her, she's looking down at her feet. "Maybe we can ask General O'Neill to send a message to New Athos."

Aiden nods, and the elevator doors open on Lorne, dressed in the same green BDUs as the rest of them. "Sir."

"Welcome back, Lieutenant." Lorne offers them both a faint smile, looking as tired as Cadman does, as Ford feels. He's been reassigned a couple of times in his career, he knows this shouldn't feel as bad as it does, and it's kind of reassuring to know the others feel the same.

"Good to see you again, sir. Any news?"

"New assignments in twenty minutes with General Landry."

"That's gonna need coffee," Cadman says firmly.

There're a few familiar faces in the mess, some from Atlantis, most of them people Aiden still recognizes from the few weeks at the SGC before they all went out to Atlantis. No-one comes over to talk to them, and Aiden feels the empty seat at their table like a physical presence. The strained small talk about Aiden's trip home, and Cadman and Lorne's time kicking around the Springs gets them through their coffee, but it's almost a relief to head up to the conference room, picking up a couple of other Atlantis officers as they go.

Sheppard's already there, standing in the far corner with Colonel Mitchell. He gives them a brief wave, looking at Lorne, who heads over to join him.

"What's that about?" Aiden asks, watching the three of them close in together.

Cadman shrugs, but there's something on her face, a flicker of knowledge.

"What?" Aiden asks again. "Shouldn't keep secrets from your team-mates."

Cadman just smiles, watching Lorne, and Landry chooses that moment to walk in.

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"This *sucks*," Cadman mutters, pressing close to Aiden for a second as they file out of the conference room an hour later.

Aiden nods, looking round for Lorne, who's coming up behind them.

"Fifteen officers and NCOs from Atlantis, and there's not one team with more than one of us," Cadman carries on, still low-voiced now they're back in amongst the general population of the mountain.

"It could be worse," Lorne says.

Aiden shakes his head. It's stupid, but he feels like this is the last time he's going to see the two of them, even when they're all working for the SGC. He can't stop thinking of Pernia, huddled against Cadman and sobbing. "Only if they'd sent one of us back to Antarctica, sir."

"There you go then," Lorne says. He's obviously trying to be reassuring, but Aiden wants to tell him to stop, because he's just as obviously upset by what's happened. Plus, he's got no say over them any more, so he doesn't need to try. "None of us has been, and none of us have been reassigned out of the SGC."

"I'm going to be a glorified *clerk*," Cadman says, loud enough to get a couple of people looking over at her. "I've been with the SGC for three years, I was on an off-world team before I went to Atlantis, and now they're going to stick me behind a desk —" She breaks off, breathing hard.

"It's not going to be forever," Lorne says. "You've got skills they need for the teams, General Landry will —"

"General Landry will do whatever he thinks will make us all suffer most," Cadman corrects, back to whispering. "Did you see who he put with Sheppard? He's the military commander of the city, and Landry's —"

"Not any more," Aiden says, cutting her off. He pretty much hates his assignment as well, second officer with a team of anthropologists, which means safe, boring planets, and he'll be the bottom of the heap, but at least he's going off-world. It beats Cadman's assignment, and probably Lorne's as well, five days out of seven heading up security at an off-world research station. "Now he's just like the rest of us."

Cadman sighs. "Did you hear they sent McKay to Area 51?"

Aiden did, feels guilty for having forgotten. McKay and Sheppard and Teyla used to be the most important people in his world, and now they're more like distant cousins or something. He didn't even say goodbye to Teyla properly when they left, or McKay. "So I guess we're lucky," he says, though he doesn't feel it, even when Cadman and Lorne nod.

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As nice as the anthropologists and even his team leader, Major Blane, are, Aiden hates his new assignment. There's nothing for him to do for one, and no-one ever gets kidnapped, in any way, shape or form. None of the rest of his so-called team wants to talk about explosives, or try to persuade him that they should visit the planet of the space squid, or over-share about their sex lives. There's no-one to share a look of pain when the girls on the team start talking about who was hottest in the movie they just saw (and no-one to talk about that, either).

He misses Dr Weir coming down to check on them when they go back through the gate, misses Sheppard showing up in the infirmary to make sure they're really okay, misses Teyla fussing over Pernia. He even misses Beckett's lectures about keeping themselves safe and not getting shot at so often.

The fact that his assignment sucks less than most of the ex-Atlanteans' is not much comfort.

"Death by a million paper cuts," Cadman says, same way she has every time he's asked her how it's going for the last four weeks. "Either that, or being bored to death."

They're having lunch together, like they do most days that Aiden's not off-world, and she steals a couple of his fries while he's occupied trying to get his coffee to taste right. He's pretty sure it's got nothing to do with the right combination of milk and sugar.

"Is it a bad thing that I'm starting to hope for an alien invasion?" she asks. "Seriously — I'd even take being accused of trying to blow everyone up again. Anything to alleviate the boredom."

"Landry'd probably lock you in a bunker at Area 51," Aiden warns.

"At least I could be bored without being expected to produce more statistics or file another report. This is not what I went through four years of college and OCS for."

There's something off about the way she says it this time, more than just frustration. "What?" Aiden asks.

Cadman shrugs. "I'm thinking — I don't know, maybe of asking to leave."

"The SGC?" Aiden asks, surprised. She wouldn't be the first one, not by a long-shot, but he'd thought she was like him and Lorne and Sheppard, that she'd stick, wait for a chance to maybe go back.

"Maybe." She sighs, dragging one of Aiden's fries through the puddle of ketchup on her plate. "It's all right for you two, you're not here all the time. You notice how it's always the two of us having lunch? Or the two of us and Lorne? No-one wants to talk to the Atlantis rejects."

"Mitchell and SG1 —" Aiden starts.

"Mitchell talks to Sheppard," Cadman corrects. "And Jackson just wants to hit us up for information. Do you really want to stay where we're not wanted?"

"It's not that bad," Aiden says uncomfortably. She's got a point, the rest of the SGC staff aren't that friendly to the Lanteans, but they've only been back a little over a month. With Lorne off-world most of the time and Sheppard doing his best to keep his distance from all of them, Aiden's not ready to lose Cadman as well.

"Lorne hasn't had lunch with us for two weeks," Cadman says bleakly. "Even when he's here." She leans her head on her clenched fist, staring down at her empty plate.

"Maybe it's worse for him, having the gene," Aiden suggests. Cadman just nods. She makes Aiden want to pat her hand or something, like his grandma would do. She reminds him of how he felt when he went back to Atlantis, like he'd been cut out of the bond he'd had with McKay and Sheppard and Teyla, except Cadman doesn't have a new friend to take Lorne's place, the way he had his new team. She just has Aiden, and he doesn't think that's going to be enough. "Don't go yet. Give it some more time."

"How much more?" Cadman asks, and Aiden doesn't have an answer.

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A week later, he steps through the gate with Blane and the anthropologists to find three marines waiting for them. "What the hell?" Blane asks, looking up at the control room, then back to Aiden. "You think we've been taken over again?" she asks quietly.

"Stand down," Landry says over the intercom. "Lieutenant Ford, these gentlemen will accompany you to my office."

"Yes, sir," Aiden says, swallowing down his worry. It's nearly 2200, long past Landry's usual clocking off time, and between that and the welcoming committee, he's busy casting his mind back to the last couple of days, trying to figure out what he might have done wrong. "You should probably take this, ma'am," he adds, handing his P-90 over to Blane.

She nods, brown eyes worried. "Report back to me when you're done, if you can."

The walk through the SGC is weird — something's obviously happened, something that everyone knows about, from the way people look at him, the buzz of knowledge in the air, but Aiden can't figure out if it's good or bad.

When the marines walk him into Landry's office, Landry's not there, but Cadman and Lorne are, both of them on their feet, in uniform and unarmed.

"The General will be with you shortly," one of the marines says, pulling the door closed as he leaves. Aiden doesn't hear footsteps moving away, which means they've got a guard. Worse and worse.

"What's going on?" he asks, stepping closer to Lorne and Cadman so they can talk quietly.

Lorne shakes his head. "I got grabbed on my way down to the gate-room to go back out, about an hour ago. Cadman got pulled in from duty, we figured they had to be waiting for you to get back."

"And here you are," Cadman says. "You think this is about Atlantis?"

"Maybe," Lorne says slowly. "But then where's Sheppard?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Landry says, sweeping in and closing the door firmly. All three of them come to attention, turning towards the desk as he sits. "Or rather, how he managed to get there, since I suspect I know where he is."

"Sir?" Lorne asks. He sounds professional and respectful, distant, but Aiden can hear his own worry reflected in Lorne's voice under everything else.

"Colonel Sheppard and Doctors Beckett, Weir and McKay stole the puddle jumper, took control of the gate, and fled the galaxy earlier this evening," Landry says. "I'd like to know what you three know about this."

Aiden slides his eyes over to Cadman and Lorne, finds his own confusion in their faces. "I was off-world, sir."

"Yes." Landry looks at him, and Aiden wishes he'd kept his mouth shut. "But the three of you were thick as thieves on Atlantis, or at least that's what I've been led to believe, and amongst Sheppard's senior officers, all of whom will be answering the same questions as the three of you as soon as they can be recalled from their own missions. I have a hard time imagining none of you knew what Sheppard was planning."

"Sir —" Lorne starts, then stops and just stares ahead. Aiden doesn't blame him — he can't think of a respectful way to ask what the hell Landry's smoking either.

"Sir, I think I speak for all three of us when I say we've had almost nothing to do with Colonel Sheppard since we came back," Cadman says. "And while we'd do anything we could to help him, in this instance, we really don't know anything."

Aiden nods, wishing she hadn't said the part about doing anything for Sheppard. It's true, but it's probably best that Landry doesn't know that.

"Have they gone back to Atlantis?" Lorne asks.

Landry gives all three of them a long look, and Aiden tries not to squirm. He feels like he's been called to the principal's office. "Apparently, they believe that they can fight off an army of replicators before the Daedalus gets there," he says finally, standing up. "You're confined to base until I say otherwise, and relieved of duty. And if I find out any of you were involved in this, you can be sure that will be a permanent state of affairs."

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"Did you know?" Cadman asks Lorne, the moment the door to her quarters swings closed behind them. It's probably not a good idea for them to be behind closed doors together now, but Landry's already suspicious of them, and Aiden's not going to sit in his own bare quarters contemplating all the bad things that could be happening to Sheppard and the others right now.

Lorne sits in Cadman's desk chair. "No," he says, sounding hollow. Aiden thinks back to that first year, how hurt he would have been to know that Sheppard went off on some daring mission without him.

Cadman goes over to Lorne, gives him a one-armed hug that makes him look up and smile a little. "I'm sure he'll be fine," she says.

"Of course," Aiden agrees, trying to sound as confident as she does. "He's good at surviving the improbable."

"Takes one to know one," Cadman offers, grinning over her shoulder as she messes around with an electric kettle and three mugs.

"Takes three," Lorne corrects. When Aiden looks at him, he smiles. He doesn't look happy, but he does look more pulled together, more like their team leader, and less like their absent friend.

It's only much, much later, when they're all jittery with too much caffeine and not enough sleep, that Cadman says, very quietly, "Maybe this means we're going back."

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Here comes the sun (The Beatles)

"All week," Lorne says, right behind Aiden and making him jump, "All I've heard from her is how much she can't wait to get home, and now we're ready to dial, where is she?"

"Cadman?" Aiden asks, not that it's exactly a wild guess. Her pack's there, sitting at his feet with his own, right where she left it when she dashed out of the gate-room ten minutes ago.

"Cadman," Lorne agrees, sighing. "When we get back, I'm getting Zelenka to make a tracker we can put in her neck."

"Fine by me," Aiden says. Not that Cadman's exactly prone to wandering off, but he'll threaten to lo-jack her quite happily when it's a sign that things are going back to normal again. "But only if we get to do you too, sir."

"I'm not the one who's gone missing ten minutes before dial-in."

"No, sir, but we do have to rescue you nearly twice as often as anyone else." Lorne looks at him and Aiden shrugs. "Cadman leant Pernia Hasler's stats book. She made a chart."

"And a thing of beauty it was too," Cadman declares, stepping round Aiden to crouch down by her pack, a small brown shopping bag crumpled in one hand. "Color-coded and everything."

"So glad you could rejoin us, Lieutenant," Lorne says dryly.

Cadman grins at him. "Forgot something in my quarters." She stuffs the bag deep into the bottom of her pack, hand carefully covering the logo.

Lorne groans. "I really don't want to ask, do I?"

"It's a present for Pernia," Cadman says cheerfully.

Lorne holds up both hands. "Stop talking. The less I know about you corrupting impressionable Athosian youth, the less chance there is of Teyla beating me with sticks for it."

"I wouldn't count on it," Aiden says. Not that he won't deny all knowledge of Cadman even taking a gift to his death-bed if necessary, but it's only fair to warn Lorne.

"Teyla's as liberated as the next woman," Cadman says, fastening her pack and standing up.

"The next woman's you," Lorne says.

"And?"

"Hey, look, there's Sheppard," Aiden says a little desperately. He must be going crazy, there's no other explanation for how he could have missed this part of life with his team.

Sheppard stands on the ramp next to Dr Weir and claps his hands once for quiet. "Okay, we're dialing Atlantis in a minute, so make sure you've got everything and everyone you're supposed to have, because we're not coming back unless we have to."

He gets a round of applause that makes Weir smile delightedly and Sheppard duck his head and flush as they both step off the ramp, but it's quickly drowned out by the sound of the gate starting to dial. Aiden grabs his pack, settling it over his shoulders. He feels like he did that first day, leaping into the gate like a kid — something that got him a reprimand from Sumner, in the five seconds of *not* fighting for their lives that they had before Sumner died — except this time it's all much more familiar.

The gate locks, Landry gives a reluctant sounding go order, and then they're filing through, Aiden following Lorne, Cadman right behind him.

He half-expects to come out in the gloom of the sunken city, enough that the bright lights are a surprise. The gate-room's already half full, between Daedalus staff left over from when they went to blow up the city, and returning Lanteans. Aiden catches a glimpse of McKay, who stayed behind with Beckett when Weir and Sheppard were recalled, over to one side, standing with Ronon and Teyla, and Caldwell up on the control balcony, then there's a body slamming into his and arms going round his waist.

He returns the embrace automatically, helpless against his own smile. "Hey, Pernia."

She pulls back, flings herself at Cadman instead. She's in traditional Athosian dress rather than her uniform, and her skirt tangles round her legs as Cadman hugs her back.

"You're home," she says, sounding young and happy, turning to hug Lorne as well, who looks surprised, but pleased. "Oh, you're home."

 

Sequel: Better When We're Together


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