blue flamingos

Traveling the Line

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Gen, PG

Year/Length: 2007/ ~4750 words

Pairing: Lorne & Sheppard

Spoilers: The Return I & II, Echoes

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

Author's Notes: Things still feel off: his team, the city, Sheppard; like he stepped back into the wrong version of the city, or maybe of his life.

Beta: Beta'd by the lovely [info]domtheknight.

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

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Pick up my bag, run right home
Then I find I've got the number wrong

Colonel Mitchell was loitering in the corridor when Lorne stepped through Security on Saturday morning and into the Mountain proper. "Morning," Lorne offered, surprised when Mitchell pushed off the wall and fell into step with him.

"Landry's going to want to see you," Mitchell said, and opened the door for Lorne.

"Okay." Lorne didn't really know Mitchell that well – he sometimes tagged along when Sheppard and Lorne went out after work, but not often – and he was sure he hadn't done anything to incur Landry's wrath. "Thanks."

"No problem." Mitchell glanced both ways along the corridor then nudged Lorne into an empty office and closed the door.

"Um," Lorne said stupidly. It was way too early in the morning to have to deal with meetings with Landry and Mitchell coming onto him in an empty office. "I, er..."

Mitchell waved his stuttering away. "General O'Neill sent a message last night to say that Atlantis was under attack from Replicators. Colonel Sheppard took Doctors Weir, Beckett and McKay in the jumper and went through the gate bridge to try to take back the city."

"Oh," Lorne said, fighting a surge of inappropriately timed hurt. It must have been a sudden decision – it wasn't like Sheppard would have *chosen* to take Dr Weir with him in a fight against the Replicators – and it was a typical Sheppard thing to do, never mind that Lorne and any number of their marines would have gone with him in a heartbeat. Not that going in against a city full of Replicators really appealed, and oh, that was reality catching up to him.

"Is there any word from them?" he asked, and Mitchell shook his head silently, his face full of sympathy.

"Okay." Lorne pushed himself away from the desk he was leaning on and smiled at Mitchell. He'd had months of practice faking the belief that Sheppard was fine when he went missing, and there were plenty of Atlantis personnel still based in the Mountain, sure to find out what had happened and come looking for him. "Thanks for letting me know."

Mitchell shrugged. "Figured you deserved a bit of warning. He's not too thrilled."

"Great," Lorne said dryly, and followed Mitchell out of the office so he could at least put his uniform on before he faced Landry.

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Landry had a lot to say about Sheppard's actions, most of which didn't require an actual response from Lorne. He didn't seem inclined to answer any of Lorne's questions.

He also didn't seem inclined to change his mind about nuking Atlantis. Lorne's team wasn't too impressed when he had to tell them they'd come in on a Saturday morning for nothing, since Landry had pushed back their mission so Lorne could stare at blueprints and figure out a way to blow up his city *and* his CO.

It wasn't exactly Lorne's best day ever, made worse by the stream of people who just 'happened' to stop by his office, wanting news that he didn't have. He didn't remember the duty list for Saturday being that long, but one thing about Atlantis that hadn't changed since they'd been summoned back to Earth was how fast news spread.

After two hours of staring at the blueprints for the city and wishing for Dr Zelenka, he gave up and went down to the control room. It made a change to be looked at sympathetically by Sergeant Harriman, instead of by his marines, though not enough of a one that he hung around for very long.

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"All right," Mitchell said, and Lorne looked up from his paperwork to see him standing in the open doorway – apparently Mitchell was trying to be Sheppard, right down to appearing at random in Lorne's doorway while the man himself was still missing, presumed captured at best. The Daedalus was still three days away from Atlantis. "You're done for the day."

"Tell that to General Landry." Landry had finally accepted that Lorne didn't know enough about the shield to know how to bypass it, and handed off the project to the SGC's scientists; Lorne was being punished for not helping by being made to do his backlogged paperwork, or at least, what was left of it from Atlantis.

Mitchell shook his head. "Give Walter your cell number; he'll call if anything happens."

Mitchell, it seemed, knew him about as well as Sheppard did; he didn't say a word when Lorne put his cell on the table between them when they got to his and Sheppard's preferred bar. He didn't say a word about Atlantis either.

That was definitely like being with Sheppard.

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Lorne's team's mission got pushed back again, a tacit acknowledgement that he couldn't go off-world without knowing what had happened to Sheppard and his team, and by Tuesday afternoon, he was beginning to regret keeping up-to-date with his paperwork. Even with Mitchell appearing occasionally in his office doorway, twelve Atlantis marines and ten Atlantis scientists wanting to know what he knew, and pre-mission paperwork to run through, his internal clock had still counted down the hours left on the Daedalus run. Assuming it didn't have to go up against the Replicators, it was due in scanning range of the city some time in the next hour.

He'd been banned from the control room, again, sent down to the mess for coffee that he didn't need; his hands were already shaking, lack of sleep and too much coffee, fear that made him feel sick.

Sergeant Reed waved him over to the group of Lanteans. "Any news?"

Lorne shook his head, taking Andrews' seat when he stood up; after two years of being the second part of the control element, he'd learned it was easier not to argue and to just take the offered seat. "Daedalus is still too far out."

The marines who'd been kept at the Mountain had been split up from their Atlantis teams, so Lorne hadn't seen much of Reed, other than an occasional pass in the corridors. There'd been talk, lately, of starting some kind of displaced Lanteans social group, but it hadn't happened yet. Too early, Lorne had offered when Sheppard had mentioned it, and Sheppard had nodded, eyes dark. Lorne wondered if it would ever get under way, now. He'd go, he knew, because he'd have to, him and Dr Zelenka, what was left of the Atlantis command, but he kind of hoped it didn't, because he couldn't stand the thought of sitting somewhere and rehashing their loss; he'd always done his grieving in private.

"You think they might still be alive, sir?" Andrews asked, standing at ease at Lorne's shoulder.

"If anyone knows how to save the city from Replicators, it's Dr McKay," Lorne said. It was true, as far as it went, but they weren't gathered to hear good news, and they all knew it.

"I've seen him and the Colonel pull off a rescue against longer odds," Stackhouse said, looking down at his coffee mug. Oddly, the SGC hadn't hung onto many of the original expedition staff, beyond the command element; Lorne still didn't know what to make of that.

He was saved from carrying on the conversation by his ear piece; it took him a moment to realize what it was, just about used to being tracked down in the Mountain in person rather than by radio. "Go ahead."

"General Landry requests you report to his office," an unidentified voice said.

"Did he say what for?" Lorne asked, already standing up. As if it could possibly be anything else.

"No, sir. As soon as possible, he said."

"On my way." Lorne looked at the table of expectant faces and shrugged. "Landry wants to see me."

There wasn't a lot else to say beyond that; walking to Landry's office, he wasn't sure if he wanted to hurry up and get it over with or slow down and put it off.

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In the end, he got ten minutes to tell the rest of the Lantean refugees that they weren't likely to be refugees for much longer, before being summoned to a meeting to discuss getting everyone back from the postings they'd mostly only just gone to. Not that anyone was particularly inclined to listen to what he said; apparently they still believed that he'd somehow been involved in the Colonel's plan, even though he'd been out of town at the time.

Colonel Sheppard and Dr Weir, Lorne heard, came back through the wormhole with General O'Neill and Mr. Woolsey, leaving the Daedalus crew, along with McKay, Beckett, Teyla and Ronon, to run Atlantis in their absence. Landry hadn't looked particularly pleased when he'd informed Lorne that Sheppard had managed to save the city and General O'Neill.

He was checking his email for the last time, getting ready to leave for the night, when there was a tap on his door-frame and he looked up to see Sheppard leaning there, freshly showered, exhausted but elated. "Major."

"Colonel." Lorne definitely wasn't a hugger, but if he was ever going to turn into one, this was the moment, shaky with relief because he'd known Sheppard was in the building, but that wasn't the same as seeing him there, looking at Lorne with the half-smile he'd got used to over the last six weeks and clearly, indisputably alive. "Good to see you again."

Sheppard's faint smile turned into a full-on grin. "You too," he said, then sobered up. "Which didn't seem all that likely for a few minutes."

"We never had any doubts," Lorne lied smoothly. Technically, they hadn't; Sheppard didn't need to know that they hadn't had any doubts that he'd be killed or captured by the Replicators.

Sheppard looked like he knew what Lorne wasn't saying, mainly because he'd been thinking much the same thing. "Glad to hear it." He took a couple of steps into Lorne's office, which, Lorne's office being approximately the size of a small broom closet, brought him up against the edge of the desk, where he immediately leaned one hip. "I hear there's a number of our scientists and marines lurking around here waiting to go out and celebrate our city not being blown up. You want to make a break for it before they catch up to me?"

Lorne hit the keys to power down his computer. "Escape and evasion's what they pay me for," he offered. They mostly seemed to pay him to rescue Sheppard's team from hostile alien cultures, lately, but he figured it was much the same thing. "Are we taking Dr Weir with us?"

Sheppard shook his head. "I think the IOA are set to keep her all night; apparently rescuing the Head of Homeland Security from being nuked is no excuse for stealing an ancient artifact and taking it into a confirmed hostile zone." He sounded like he was quoting, and probably not from the IOA.

"Definitely time for a strategic retreat," Lorne said, instead of asking the question he wanted to: Are they going to let you both come back? Are they going to let *you* back?

"I knew I liked you for a reason," Sheppard said, and followed him out.

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It was a week before the first dial-in to Atlantis happened, sending back roughly two thirds of the marines and around half of the scientists – they were harder to whisk out of their new jobs, since 'confidential redeployment' didn't work so well as an excuse – but it felt more like a day. Lorne hadn't even managed to arrange to sublet his apartment again, had ended up handing the keys to one of the people at the SGC whose job it was to sort out those kinds of things and hoping he'd pick someone tidy, at least.

"Huh," Sheppard said, appearing at Lorne's side and looking round the gate room. "Reminds me of the first time we did this."

Lorne had been in the control room when McKay and Landry had gone head to head over the three ZPMs the Ancients had found, McKay insisting Atlantis needed all three. No-one had said anything when he'd finally caved at the offer of using Earth's new ZPM to send most of the expedition back before sending it to Antarctica; Lorne wasn't sure he'd want to be one of four Lanteans in a city of Daedalus crew either.

"Aside from the potential for an unpleasant death on the other side," he offered.

Sheppard cracked a dark smile. "Ah, c'mon Lorne, it's Pegasus; there's *always* the potential for an unpleasant death."

"Thanks for the reminder, sir," Lorne said dryly. Sheppard had been weirdly tense for days, turning up in Lorne's office for no obvious reason, inviting him out for drinks and just generally being *there*, even after General O'Neill brow-beat the IOA and General Landry into sending him back. Lorne had no idea what was causing it, but it appeared to be catching – too much time together – and he was looking forward to getting back to Atlantis at least in part for the chance that Sheppard would relax back to his normal friendly but slightly distant self.

"You're welcome," Sheppard said brightly as Dr Weir came over to where they were standing at the bottom of the ramp up to the gate, packs at their feet. Along with the rest of the returning expedition, and a handful of new recruits, the Daedalus would bring most of their gear on its return trip to Pegasus.

"Everything ready?" she asked. Unlike Sheppard, Weir was relaxed and obviously happy to be going home, almost bouncing with eagerness for the trip. Lorne hadn't seen her during their exile, but it said something that she hadn't left Colorado Springs.

"Sure," Sheppard said, looking over at Lorne for confirmation. Lorne nodded; they'd just done this less than two months ago, not long enough for people to forget how. "Unless Landry's changed his mind."

"Doesn't look like it," Weir said with a nod up to the control room, where Landry had just appeared.

"Dialing the gate," Walter's voice announced over the intercom system, sending the three of them off the ramp to a safe distance.

Lorne watched the chevrons lock, fighting to keep the grin off his face, well aware that he was only partially successful. Even with the gene, he didn't have the connection to the city that Sheppard did, hadn't missed it the way Sheppard and some of the others with particularly strong expressions of the gene had, like a physical presence, but he'd missed everything else with an ache that hadn't had enough time to start fading, even with Sheppard around a lot more. He was even looking forward to being thrown around the gym by Ronon Dex when he couldn't escape fast enough to avoid a session. Mostly.

The wormhole whooshed into existence and a moment later, Colonel Caldwell's voice came through: "Atlantis base receiving transmission."

"Colonel," Landry said. "We're ready to send your people back."

Next to him, Lorne felt Sheppard tense, not sure if Landry's word choice was deliberate, a reminder that, although he and Sheppard both thought of the marines and, most days, the scientists, as belonging to them, that would always be at Landry's discretion.

"Send them through," Caldwell said, words they'd been waiting for all week. Lorne shouldered his pack and followed Sheppard home.

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Caldwell decided to stick around for a few days, for reasons that Lorne never entirely managed to find out, so their home-coming wasn't quite the way he'd have expected it to be; he could practically feel Sheppard's urge to shoo Caldwell out of the city and back onto the Daedalus, to remind him that the rest of their people couldn't come home until he took his ship back to the Milky Way and picked them up. Just because they sometimes thought of the Daedalus as an intergalactic taxi service, didn't mean it was a good idea to remind Caldwell of that fact.

He still wanted to sigh with relief when he and Sheppard watched the Daedalus lift away from the south pier.

"Finally," Sheppard said under his breath, his gaze sliding over to Lorne, who raised his eyebrows. Sheppard shrugged; Lorne knew better than to say what he was thinking, even around Sheppard, who made his dislike for the SGC and Colonel Caldwell pretty clear, but Sheppard still knew. "Let's go see what problems he's left us with this time."

It was an excuse to walk through the city, now it was their's again, no-one but Lanteans in it, but Lorne was happy to take Sheppard up on the offer regardless. He'd missed Atlantis more than he'd realized, until he was back, the hum of the city in the back of his head and the way things lit up for him; more than that, he'd missed walking through it with Sheppard, discussing next week's off-world mission roster and the bizarre things that had shown up in the latest mission reports. His replacement SGC team hadn't been particularly talkative, and the really bizarre shit that happened in the Milky Way all seemed to happen to people who weren't either of them.

"You know I would have brought you with me if I could," Sheppard said abruptly, as Lorne tried to come up with a moderately tactful way of saying that his team and Sheppard's couldn't be off-world at the same time, because he'd have to be in the city for rescue missions. It took him a minute to figure out what Sheppard was even talking about, helped along by the way Sheppard wasn't really looking at him, his hands stuffed awkwardly in his pockets.

"Of course," he said, which he had. It was still nice to hear, not that he intended to admit that any day soon.

"Good." Sheppard pulled his hands free of his pockets, then shoved them back in again, apparently not knowing what to do with them, and Lorne found himself wishing for a gate activation to rescue them. "Just, you know – didn't want you to feel neglected."

"I'll try not to, sir," Lorne offered with as much sincerity as he could manage, relieved when Sheppard looked over at him and laughed.

"If it helps, next time we have to face almost certain death at the hands of the Replicators and/or our own nuclear devices, I promise to bring you right along with me."

"Thanks," Lorne said dryly. "That really means a lot to me."

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He didn't really notice it at first. The scientists set about turning off everything the Ancients had turned *on*, since they only had one ZPM instead of three; the marine captains grumbled about trying to fill the holes left by the people who were coming back on the Daedalus; and Sheppard slouched in his office doorway to talk about football, or the possibility of setting up dedicated city-wide exploration teams. It was pretty much like things had been before they were sent away except...

Except no-one went off-world, waiting for the rest of the teams to come back, since Sheppard's was currently the only full team in the city, and the itchiness of cabin fever started to crawl across his skin at odd moments. It was ridiculous, since Atlantis was bigger than Colorado Springs, but there was so much of it that they hadn't cleared, all of them confined to a relatively small area.

He didn't even have the excuse of flying over to the Athosian settlement to check on them; according to Teyla, who'd spent a couple of days there while he'd still been on Earth, they weren't planning on moving back until they'd harvested their new crop, having already sacrificed one on the mainland.

"Figure they're planning on staying there permanently?" Sheppard asked, turning his empty coffee mug in widening circles in front of him; he was just as sick of being inside as Lorne was, if his increasingly desperate-sounding suggestions for off-world trips were anything to go by.

Lorne shrugged. "They've got access to the gate without relying on us to bring them over first, and they're not likely to be thrown out again any time soon. I'd probably stay."

"Me too," Sheppard agreed.

It seemed wrong to want to get out of the city after spending two months wanting to be back in it, but something just felt – off. Lorne chalked it up to the missing personnel, or the way he hadn't been required to put together a rescue mission for weeks, but the feeling wouldn't go away.

Sheppard caught him coming out of the gym – for all the things that *had* changed, being tossed around by Ronon during PT had stayed depressingly the same. "Apparently Rodney's never seen The Rock. Teyla and Ronon will watch anything that involves explosions, and I don't think I'm ready to sit through another round of what's-wrong-with-Back-to-the-Future. You want to come?"

"Since you've sold it so well..." Lorne said, but he went anyway. Sheppard's team was always doing that kind of thing, watching movies or skipping off to the mainland for an afternoon, or, on one memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons occasion, attempting to make brownies, but it was always just the four of them, or, very occasionally, Dr Weir. Lorne's team was much more independently-minded, and his few attempts at team-building events had been met with well-concealed dismay (Reed and Coughlin) or outright refusal (Parrish).

He figured he'd have to make a better effort at persuading them, though, once Coughlin was back, watching Teyla's eyes light up during the car chase, listening to McKay disparage the bio-hazard containment protocols. Parrish would probably have something to say about that, being a botanist, and he was sure his marines would enjoy the explosions as much as – well, as much as every other marine he'd ever met.

Sheppard, unexpectedly, sat quietly on the floor, leaning back against Lorne's chair, so Lorne felt it whenever he turned his head to grin up at Lorne or make an infrequent comment. Lorne would have assumed he'd have more to say, egging McKay on in his complaints, or explaining the references that Ronon and Teyla didn't get. It was a little weird, but not in a bad way (other than the weird urge to pat Sheppard on the head); companionable. He figured maybe he wasn't the only one who wished, occasionally, that he wasn't the only person on his grade in Atlantis, one of only two non-marines.

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The data burst from Earth came, as always, at ten past eleven, Atlantis-time, on Tuesday morning. Lorne had no idea why it didn't happen on a Monday, but there was frequently no accounting for the SGC, and he'd given up asking.

At twelve minutes past eleven, before Lorne had had time to do more than scan down the subject lines of his emails, checking for anything marked Urgent, Sheppard appeared in his doorway, giving him the look that never meant anything good.

"How far have you got with your emails?" he asked, pushing away from the door and sitting in one of Lorne's visitors' chairs when Lorne shook his head. "Fifth one down? Or sixth – from Sergeant Cox?" Sergeant Cox had been attached to the recall of Atlantis personnel, making calls to people who wouldn't take much persuading to come back and keeping on top of the endless amounts of paperwork it seemed to produce.

Lorne opened the message, once it became obvious that Sheppard wasn't going to tell him what it said. It contained a bland "please see attached" message, and an attachment titled "Daedalus passenger manifest", which Lorne opened. It was split into returners and new people, then again by marines and civilian staff, and he scanned it quickly, counting up numbers of returners as he went – maybe a tenth below what they'd had before, but not everyone was going to want to...

Sheppard was watching him when he looked up, his expression twisted.

"Did you know already?" Lorne asked. It usually took at least fifteen minutes for Sheppard to appear after the data burst; he must have been expecting the message, and that was weird in a bad way, because Sheppard wasn't one for keeping secrets about their personnel.

"Kind of." Sheppard shifted. "They were batting Coughlin's name around as a possible non-returner before we left, but I figured they'd talk him round. I guess they didn't manage it."

"Guess not," Lorne agreed absently. Coughlin had come through with the post-siege personnel, like Lorne, from a gate team back on Earth. Lorne had assumed the SGC would hold onto him when they went back, but instead he'd been sent to sniper training with a view to attaching him back on a regular marine unit.

"This is what you want?" Lorne had asked; Coughlin had been with the SGC for nearly four years, highly praised in his evaluations.

"Yeah," Coughlin had said, looking genuinely pleased by the prospect. "Atlantis was great but – I've done Milky Way gate team stuff, and it doesn't compare."

"I assumed," he said, focusing back on Sheppard, still watching him like he was waiting for Lorne's reaction. "I don't think it occurred to me that he wouldn't come back." Although he was wishing it had, so he could have talked to Coughlin while he was still on Earth, tried to change his mind.

"Yeah," Sheppard said sympathetically. "Always said marines were crazy."

Lorne nodded. "So who else did we lose?"

Most of the non-returning personnel were civilian, seduced away from Atlantis and all its danger by the prospect of academic labs and the chance to publish some of their work; a handful of marines had also opted to remain on Earth, in return for which they were getting almost double the number in new personnel.

"Plenty of choice for your fourth team member," Sheppard said, getting up to leave.

"Yes, sir," Lorne said. At least he was replacing someone who'd left by choice; Ronon fitted into Sheppard's team like he'd always been there, but Lorne knew it hadn't stopped Sheppard from regretting the way he'd lost Ford, as evidenced by the way he still chased down the infrequent rumors of his whereabouts, even after the hive ship explosion.

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Bizarrely – or not, this being Atlantis – it didn't feel like they'd really settled back in until they'd all nearly been killed by the psychic whale warning system, a feeling that promptly evaporated when Lorne took his team through the gate with Sergeant Henderson in Coughlin's place.

He fit fine, and the mission went off without even a minor hiccup, but it still felt off, the way Atlantis had when they'd first come back, the way his relationship with Sheppard still did, closer than they'd been before they went back to Earth, but not in any way Lorne could hold up as an example, like he'd stepped into a slightly wrong version of the city, or maybe of his life.

He wasn't surprised to find Sheppard in the gate room when they came through the gate, hanging back to let the rest of his team move ahead, out of earshot. "Everything go okay?"

"Fine," Lorne said. He let Sheppard take his P-90 so he could pull out the sample of vaguely cracker-like, if it hadn't been orange, bread they'd been given.

"Henderson's okay?" Sheppard pushed. Henderson had come from a non-SGC background, which was relatively rare on Atlantis, and Lorne had been a little hesitant to take him on, even with his Special Ops experience on Earth.

"He's fine," Lorne said. "I guess we'll keep him."

"Good." Sheppard watched him for a long minute, then nodded. He swapped Lorne's P-90 for the bread and paused, looking ready to head back to the control room. "Almost forgot – we're having movie night again tonight. Ronon's choosing, so it could be anything, but you're welcome to come along."

Lorne got the distinct impression he was missing something that Sheppard was trying to say without actually saying it, but that was pretty much par for the course with Sheppard. He'd come out with it eventually – or not. "Sure. Thanks."

"Good," Sheppard said again, with a bright smile, and flipped the bread, catching it one handed. "See you at dinner?"

"Sure," Lorne said, sounding as much like a broken record as Sheppard was. He watched Sheppard walk off, definitely missing something, then shrugged it off and went to check his weapons back in.

They were back on Atlantis, their own, familiar, ground; whatever it was, he'd find out eventually, and until then, he was happy enough to just enjoy Sheppard's company.


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