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Author's Chapter Notes: AN: Once again, thanks to Elgin, who helped me draw up a plan regarding some of the more military-specific details I had to tackle in this chapter, as well as writing some of the training scenes and offering some interesting suggestions for other details that John could deal with now or in the future…

As he sat in the back of the car that had been assigned to drive him to his current destination, Elizabeth sitting alongside him as General O'Neill sat up front with the driver- the SGC had apparently felt that it would be best if he had official representatives along for this trip, and General O'Neill had volunteered so that they could better assure John's family that they were being serious-John couldn't believe how intense the last few weeks had been.

His training with SG-1 had been shockingly intense, when he actually got started. With SG-1 as his teachers, John had spent the last few weeks going through a particularly intense period of training that somehow pushed him to limits he hadn't known he possessed. Even when training to fight Wraith, he'd been setting his own limits, and even if he'd been hard on himself, he'd never had any real incentive to push himself that far…

That wasn't to say that he hadn't enjoyed it all, of course; on the contrary, he appreciated every moment that SG-1 had decided to spend with him, considering how much they were in demand in the rest of the galaxy. Mitchell and Carter had been his primary instructors in the theory side of things, but Jackson and Vala had also done what they could to help him ensure that everything he learned was 'trimmed down' to a point where he understood it in case the two lieutenant colonels got too caught up in the technical details. However, the weapons training had been particularly easy; John had already picked up a fairly good grasp of what the SGC's Earth-based weapons were capable of from his observations of training sessions back on Atlantis, and he'd demonstrated a few tricks involving Wraith weapons that nobody else knew even back on Atlantis, although he'd appreciated the chance for a crash course in Goa'uld weapons such as zats that hadn't been brought to Atlantis in large quantities.

With the essential background covered, John had found himself coordinating various teams in simulated battles, whether dealing with a roleplay scenario in a briefing room as John relayed orders from a superior officer to his various 'subordinates', simultaneously taking in what they told him about their opposing forces and adapting his previous plans to coordinate any new orders, to live-action implementation of a previously drawn-up battle strategy on training facilities established on other worlds (The last had been kind of fun, particularly when he was able to order an air-strike against his 'enemies', even if he'd also enjoyed the chance to show off his skills at hand-to-hand and his gun-slinging skills). It had felt strange having to wear something other than his masks and robes in combat- he'd been ordered to wear standard SGC combat fatigues in training, along with body armour and multi-pocketed vests filled with equipment- but he'd been allowed to keep his familiar energy weapon, along with the other weaponry he'd been issued with.

Besides, regardless of his fears and issues, training had been very interesting at times; John still remembered one of his personal favourite 'missions'…

For the current mission, John was lying prone in a patch of long grasses near the top of a small hill: Cam Mitchell was in similar cover a couple of feet to John's left. Their position overlooked a small valley: on the opposite side was a cluster of buildings that had been simply built from cheap-looking wooden panels, and had a simple dirt road running between them.

Cam had told him that the planet had been nicknamed 'Erehwon' by a visiting British soldier, and the name had stuck; it was certainly easier to use in conversation than the alternative name of 'P9B-447' (He didn't know how anyone managed to keep track of those things; he'd always settled for the native names of planets or naming them after something interesting that happened there if they were uninhabited). Erehwon was home to the SGC's current Alpha Site facility, and had evolved over the last couple of years to become a minor training facility in its own right.

Erehwon's value in this role primarily stemmed from a complete absence of any civilian population whose interest could be piqued by the sight of spacecraft hurtling past overhead at high speeds. This allowed the SGC to conduct training exercises that would be completely impractical on Earth, for fear that someone with a camera-phone could shoot footage of, for example, an F-302 in flight and then post it on YouTube (John still couldn't believe how his own homeworld had progressed; it might not be capable of recreating Atlantis yet, but it was still impressive work by most standards).

Off in the distance, John could just about hear a low rumbling sound, almost like traffic on a main road a few miles away.

"Ho-kay, then, John," Cam said cheerfully from his position, "looks like you're up."

"Right, right," John said, nervously licking his lips; most of the time he was used to dealing with the threat right in front of him, but having to plan in advance for an attack was something else altogether…

"Just do it like we roleplayed it and you'll be fine," Cam assured him. "There's nothing to it, really."

Reaching up to where his tac radio was in a pouch mounted on the shoulder of his vest, John thumbed the Push-to-Talk button. "Mongoose, Mongoose, this is Phantom Six, requesting immediate fire mission, over," he spoke into the radio's microphone.

A voice crackled out of the speaker in response: an Englishwoman's voice with what John remembered having heard described as a 'cut-glass' accent: Cam had mentioned how the RAF had a few pilots on exchange programs with the US Air Force who were members of the F-302 wing, so she was likely one of them. "Phantom Six, this is Ugly Five Zero: one Mongoose with two Paveways on board. Ready for fire mission, over."

John glanced down at his notebook, quickly refreshing his memory to confirm his next step before he spoke again. "Fire mission: target grid four zero quebec, charlie hotel, seven zero eight, zero one eight. Target elevation: four five eight feet. Target description: small building. Friendly forces: five hundred twenty metres south. Read back, over."

"Fire mission; four zero quebec, charlie hotel, seven zero eight, zero one eight; four five eight feet; small building; friendlies five hundred twenty metres south. Over."

John's mind raced: what was he supposed to say now? "Correct. Uh… call when visual, over."

The sound of the 'traffic' was much closer now, before John's radio crackled again, the RAF pilot's voice emerging from the speakers. "Phantom Six, Ugly Five Zero is visual: the target is a small building to the northwest of an east-west track with one building to the south of it and one building to the north of it."

"Correct, your building is the middle one," John agreed. "Confirm time on target."

"Time on target thirty seconds…"

At that moment, the F-302 Mongoose rocketed past directly overhead, engines shrieking like enraged banshees: a glance upwards revealed to John that a hatch in the belly of the starfighter's fuselage had opened, exposing the internal munitions bay's contents. The sheer force of the noise physically shook John from head to toe, setting his teeth on edge.

"Phantom Six, Ugly Five Zero… Impact two zero seconds," the RAF pilot reported.

"Ugly Five Zero, Phantom Six, copy that!" Releasing the radio's switch, John promptly threw his hands up and protectively clamped them down over his head and cap, burying his face into the grass beneath him.

A deafening cracking sound smacked into John's ears as the pressure wave of the explosion hit him. Wincing, he looked up, picked up his compact pair of binoculars, and trained them on the fake settlement.

A big black dust cloud mushroomed high into the sky. Debris and timber spiralled through the air, until the dust cleared and John saw that the target building had disintegrated. A black scar on the ground was the only sign that it had ever existed. Scattered around the edge of it were wood splinters and nothing else. Half of the other buildings had been partially demolished by the blast: the others were barely standing. Climbing high over the hilltops opposite John, the F-302 was banking to the east, the twin exhausts of its sub-orbital jet engines glowing brightly.

"Hell, yeah!" Cam said, laughing and whooping in exhilaration. "Woooo-hoo! Now that's what I'm talkin' about!"

His hand trembling, John keyed his radio again. "Ugly Five Zero, this is Phantom Six. Delta Hotel, Delta Hotel, end of fire mission. Target is destroyed; repeat, target is confirmed destroyed."

"Roger that, Phantom," the RAF pilot replied. "Do you have any further trade for us at this time?"

"Uh, negative, negative for further trade," John said, unconsciously shaking his head.

"Have that, Phantom; be seeing you. Ugly Five Zero is RTB."

The F-302 hurtled back past overhead, shaking John once more, and quickly vanished into the far distance as it headed back to the Alpha Site's airfield.

"See?" Cam said, reaching out to give John a hearty clap on the back. "Like I told you; nothing to it."

John didn't exactly think there was 'nothing to it'- going from flying on your own issuing commands mentally to surrounding drones was a lot easier than having to remember all these code-words and appropriate terms when issuing orders to other living people while under fire- but he was getting the hang of it; he'd just have to wait and see what happened when he legitimately came under fire.

As well as training using SGC-sanctioned tactics, he'd also spent some time explaining how he came up with battle strategies when dealing with Wraith hives, combining his own hands-on experience with the hives with information acquired from the SGC's own encounters with the massive ships, and both colonels had approved of his approach and even offered some suggestions into how he could adapt his methods to operate on a larger scale with more people available.

It had all been exhausting, but to hear the heroes of the Milky Way galaxy praise his efforts at the end of it all had made that effort more than worth it…

As well as his own training, he'd had the chance to hear more about what the SGC was planning to do regarding wider-scale plans for Atlantis and the SGC alongside his own assignment, and he had to admit that the plans sounded interesting, particularly for Colonel Sumner.

Apparently, during his time away from Atlantis after the Ancients returned and he was re-assigned to Earth, Sumner had come up with some interesting ideas based on his past in the USMC and some of his previous command experience. Utilising and adapting those tactics, he had devised a new plan that was basically an adaptation of the classic 'Marine Expeditionary Unit', where marine troops were sent out to distant areas equipped with various essential resources needed to maintain their equipment. Sumner had been working on the plans more as a theoretical idea, but once it had been established that he wouldn't be returned to Atlantis, he had applied for funding to put the plans into action and the offer had been accepted.

From what John had covered as part of his training in Earth military tactics, the traditional MEU included tanks, assorted artillery, hovercraft and similar vehicles, transport and gunship helicopters, and even aircraft carriers, which could all be deployed on enemy coastlines to operate without external support, dealing with lighter enemy infantry groups without confronting the main armies. Obviously, this kind of approach wasn't practical for the Marine Expeditionary Unit-Space concept, considering the size of the 304s and their limited life support capacity. Instead, an order of battle for a smaller force had been devised: such a unit's purpose was to board other spacecraft or rapidly deploy to a planet from a 304, and then operate without any further external support for a fortnight or so. Unlike a regular MEU, the MEU-S would not operate amphibious vehicles; and instead of tanks, other armoured vehicles, and artillery pieces, the MEU-S would rely on Humvees fitted with heavy weapons to provide fire support. Similarly, all other vehicles and weaponry in the inventory of an MEU-S would be kept as lightweight as possible, so as to reduce the unit's overall requirements for fuel, spare parts, and other necessities, which would make it easier to keep it operational. This method of deployment would allow the MEU-S units to launch a comparatively large-scale offensive against any Ori or Lucian Alliance forces stationed on those planets that were expecting to face nothing larger than another SG team, taking the enemy by surprise without requiring more resources than the Earth soldiers could comfortably deliver.

John had heard a few details about what the planned MEU-S would consist of when the plans were completed- something like three hundred personnel with up to twenty armed Humvees and assorted weapons- but that wasn't immediately relevant to his training and would take up to a year for Sumner to have the first few units ready for active deployment, so he'd filed it aside to look up later; with the Pegasus Galaxy in general and Atlantis in particular relying on him to save them, he couldn't afford to get distracted.

Still, regardless of the time it would take to get it all together, considering Sumner's age and experience, the SGC had willingly provided him with the resources needed to put his proposed unit into action, along with a fair amount of the Marines previously stationed on Atlantis. That decision had the advantage of allowing John to select a new wave of recruits to bring the city's military complement up to the numbers needed for it to operate on a daily basis, selecting a staff based on what he looked for in soldiers rather than what Sumner preferred, with only a few senior members needing to be replaced even if a fresh wave of 'rookie grunts' had to be called in (Not that he'd chosen people who couldn't think for themselves, of course; it was just a convenient figure of speech).

As fascinating as it was to see what Sumner was doing now that he was no longer in charge of Atlantis, John was naturally more concerned with events back in the city he still considered his home. With Elizabeth remaining on Earth as moral support and to discuss the wider issues of his assignment with potential dissenters among the IOA, Teyla and McKay were in charge of Atlantis back in Pegasus, so off-world expeditions had been put aside for the moment apart from what was necessary to tell their allies that they had returned, but there was still quite a few changes taking place on Atlantis itself. According to the latest reports the SGC had received from Atlantis, the only problem the expedition had faced since returning to the city was a brief close call with some kind of solar flare that nearly struck the planet, but they'd managed to stop it by transferring Atlantis's remaining ZPM to the visiting Daedalus and using it to deflect the coronal pulse as it left the sun.

ZPM-wise, Earth was actually in a pretty good place at the moment even without John's assistance. Two of the ZPMs that the Asurans had left in Atlantis following the destruction of their own shiphad been transferred from Atlantis back to Earth, one being used to power the Antarctic control chair and the other being sent to the Odyssey for additional power, while the third was staying with Atlantis. John was intending to go to his asteroid storage facility when he got back to Pegasus to acquire some of his surplus ZPMs and use them to bring Atlantis up to its peak, as well as offer a couple of other ZPMs to Earth for their other ships- Orion in particular could benefit from a power boost- but he wasn't going to reveal just how many he'd acquired yet; those ZPMs should be kept in reserve in case Atlantis ever needed them, considering that it was the only ship Earth had that actually needed ZPMs to operate rather than just having been designed with the option of getting them installed to provide a boost.

Thinking of Orion reminded John of the news regarding that ship's own progress since it had been sent to Earth. Apparently, during its time in the Milky Way to 'hide' it from the Ancients, Orion had received a full-time crew. Some of them had been members of the Atlantis Expedition who'd been working on restoring her, and chosen to stay aboard when Helia had evicted the Expedition from Atlantis, giving the new crew a solid core of experience. The Orion's crew was under the command of Colonel Dave Dixon, a former SG team leader who had proven his worth under fire; considering the power and strategic value of the Orion, they wanted a leader who had demonstrated an ability to think on his feet without too many commitments to either galaxy or significant training in how to control such a vessel, allowing him to adapt his command style with greater ease than he might have done otherwise. There was apparently a colonel waiting for the opportunity to command the next 304 battlecruiser who had expressed an interest in the Orion, but he was being reserved for the new ship, and nobody was willing to delay the deployment of that fourth 304 any more than they had to. Apparently, America's next 304 had already been pushed back a year after the Russians demanded the last 304 constructed as 'payment' for America keeping the Stargate, and since then most of the new ship's crew had been reassigned to Odyssey or Daedalus after various battles resulted in casualties, requiring the unfortunate commander to recruit a lot of new crewmembers while the latest 304 was being built…

With Orion now able to return to the city without fear that the Ancients would demand it back as well, the expedition's science teams were looking at the possibility of taking parts from what remained of the Asurans' shipand using them to repair areas of Orion that were damaged beyond their ability to fix themselves, as well as carry out a few upgrades to the ship. There was also some talk about heading back into the void and picking up the discarded Tria, still locked on its original course after the crew abandoned it, so that it could be towed back to Earth and preserved as a training vessel for soldiers preparing for duty on Orion after using it for additional salvage, along with some speculation about seeing what the Orion and the Tria's own individual databases had to offer them that they hadn't found yet in Atlantis, but John wasn't that concerned about that; whatever they decided to do with the Tria wasn't anything he needed to worry about, so long as they kept Orion in rotation. According to some of the theories John had heard, Orion would be particularly useful in that regard as it was the same make and model as the Tria, allowing them to use various command codes in Orion's databanks to disable the Tria so that they could actually board it rather than just flying alongside it and hoping for the best.

John just hoped that the plan worked; some of Orion's databanks had been damaged during whatever battle had caused it to be grounded in the first place, and while what he'd found in Atlantis had been able to help the Taranians get it working again, there were obvious gaps regarding Ancient resources in Pegasus that he hadn't been able to replace. Most of the ship's personal codes were intact as they had been stored in the bridge computers, but there was always the possibility that the codes they needed had been in the damaged components that the Taranians couldn't reconstruct…

Still, as much as he found the possibility of salvaging the Tria interesting, it wasn't something that really mattered to him; his priority was ensuring that he was trained to do the job he was needed for back on Atlantis. His training sessions with SG-1 had been difficult and extensive, but they had definitely been worth the effort, regardless of how exhausting it had been at the time; he'd gone over so many different military tactics and codes, but even Samantha Carter had been satisfied with his abilities in the end. He'd also had the chance to talk with his chosen second-in-command, Major Evan Lorne, and the man had more than lived up to John's expectations; Lorne was willing to accept John's command, but was also happy to serve as a military consultant who would be able to tell John if he risked making any mistakes, taking orders without being afraid to question him.

He'd had a chance to talk with his prospective unit heads about his plans for the city, and so far none of them had objected to his proposals. The various divisions of the city's military staff included infantry units trained for close-quarter combat, the city security forces drawn from military police groups, the F-302 and gateship division (He was really going to have to see about getting those renamed to 'puddle jumpers'; he just didn't like 'gateship' as a name) including both pilots and support staff, the air defence unit responsible for manning the railguns and other city defences, the intelligence and tactical research division headed by Captain Satterfield- a relatively young recruit, but she displayed exceptional potential that John and others felt should be encouraged- the combat support unit of medics, engineers, and similar operatives, as well as the obvious Atlantis Recon teams.

Once they were back in Atlantis, John and Lorne would have more direct authority over the recon teams sent through the Stargate, but otherwise everything else was independently coordinated by someone else, with John's opinion only being required occasionally; with around three hundred military personnel active in the city at any one time, it would be ridiculous to expect even a professional to be able to coordinate individuals' actions on that scale all the time. The F-302 unit, the air defence unit, and the combat support units were all commanded by different majors, but each of them had only recently received their current ranks, while Lorne had three years' experience as major under his belt; he hadn't quite done enough to merit promotion yet, but the potential was there nevertheless. In a crisis situation where John was unavailable, command would default to Lorne due to his greater experience, and then fall to each major based on their seniority in rank, regardless of whether the difference was a matter of days or less.

He still couldn't be sure how they'd react under fire, of course, but he was confident in their ability to pull together and follow his orders if push came to shove; if the SGC could adapt to Teal'c and his authority, than his new subordinates could do the same for him (Even if he was entering into a higher position of authority than Teal'c, he'd been around longer in an unofficial capacity before getting his rank).

The concept of official leadership was still an intimidating one- he'd spent years saving people, but there was a difference between keeping people safe from the monsters and being expected to lead them against the monsters- but he'd had an interesting talk with General O'Neill during his training that helped him

"Hold the elevator!"

John promptly thrust his left arm in front of the sensor halfway up the lift doorframe; the half-closed doors automatically trundled open again, and General O'Neill darted inside.

"You okay, there, sir?" John asked.

"Peachy keen, Sheppard," O'Neill jovially replied as he pushed the button for his floor. "How's the training coming?"

"Pretty well, sir."

"Cool. Anything I can help with?"

"Actually…" John said, briefly uncertain if he should answer that question before he bit the bullet and went for it; after the stories the 'original' Elizabeth had told him about SG-1's victories under this guy's leadership, he'd be an idiot to turn the offer down. "I was wondering a bit about… well, how to actually lead people? I mean, it's one thing for me to come up with a plan for an operation, but it's a completely different ballgame for me to convince a couple hundred people that it's a good idea for them to put their lives on the line to carry it out."

O'Neill slowly nodded, looking thoughtful. "There's a lot of different schools of thought about that," he began. "To be honest with you, Sheppard, 'how do I lead people?' is one of those questions that's in the same league as 'how long is a piece of string?'; there isn't really a right answer to it, or at least not like there's a right answer to, say, 'what does two plus two equal?', know what I mean?"

"Yeah, yeah, I get you," John said, not quite able to keep himself from sounding somewhat disappointed as he grimaced under his mask while giving Jack a grim nod.

"Now, way back when I was an officer cadet at the Air Force Academy, we were taught about a concept called 'The Mask of Command'," O'Neill continued, apparently oblivious to John's reaction. "The basic idea behind this is that you should lead your subordinates by authority; familiarity breeds contempt, you should keep yourself apart... Anyone come to mind who you know uses that technique?"

"Sounds like how Sumner and Everett led their men," John said, looking curiously at Jack, wondering where the other man was going with this.

"Right," O'Neill agreed. "Now don't get me wrong, the Mask of Command idea does work; it's not ideal, but it usually gets the job done. I've served under officers who used it, I've commanded officers and non-coms who used it, and I've seen the results; it's not perfect, but it'll do in a pinch.

"Thing is, even back when I was a snot-nosed cadet, the Mask of Command didn't seem like a system I wanted to use; I was pretty sure there had to be something better, but I didn't have a clue what it was. So, in between daily PT, lectures, chow, studying and writing one essay and term paper after another, I busted my ass every minute that I could to research that particular problem."

"And… did you find it?" John asked. "The alternative?"

"Sure did," O'Neill said cheerfully. "You ever heard of Bill Slim?"

"Nope," John replied, shaking his head.

"Yeah, guess spending two decades in another galaxy limits your chance to read up on military commanders," Jack acknowledged. "Anyway, Bill Slim- also known as Field Marshal Viscount Slim- was probably one of the best damn generals and officers who ever lived, and is definitely one of the most underrated. Slim masterminded Britain's campaign in Burma against the Japanese invasion, back during World War Two: he turned things around from what was certain defeat into victory. He came out with some pretty damn daring and crazy strategies; he made only a few mistakes, none of them serious; and just about every man in his army loved the guy. You ever get a chance, study up on that campaign: you'll learn a lot. I sure did, and most of those lessons helped me out a lot after I got my first star.

"Now, as far as leadership is concerned?- and I do mean leadership, not command, here- Slim wrote: 'Leadership is simple; it's just plain being you.' Leading at the front is largely intuitive; there's no magic formula behind it. You gotta lead by instinct and example, and use your people to do so."

"You're saying… either you've got what it takes, or you don't, really," John said, slowly nodding as he took in what he was being told.

"Right," O'Neill agreed.

"Or rather, either I've got what it takes, or I don't."


"Uh…" John said, pausing for a moment before he voiced his deeper fear. "How do I know if I do? Y'know, if I can do it?"

O'Neill sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Honestly, Sheppard, the only way we'll know for sure is when we send you back to Pegasus after your training's over."

"What… Uh, what happens if it turns out I don't have it?" John asked, suddenly allowing himself to consider the possibility that he'd be forced back to Earth now that he'd made himself part of the SGC command structure; he'd impressed Elizabeth with his skills, but he was still changing how he'd operated for years…

"Oh, I figure we'd transfer you back to Earth, assign you to help out with training the next rotation of personnel for the Expedition, then send you back to Pegasus after a couple months, only this time with the job description of 'consultant'," O'Neill replied.

"Consultant?" John repeated.

"You'd be asked to offer your input on stuff like Wraith tactics or how Atlantis works, stuff like that, but you wouldn't have any authority over anyone else," Jack explained. "You wouldn't catch any grief from the IOA over the change, and you'd still make a very useful contribution."

"And… I'd be allowed to actually leave Atlantis, right?" John asked (The one thing that had really frustrated him about the expedition's arrival was how it left him confined to the city; his brief flight away to deal with those upgraded Hive-ships might have been nerve-wracking, but it had been nice to see something different).

"So long as someone was with you, yeah," Jack said, turning to face the younger man with an encouraging, reassuring smile. "Look, if it simply doesn't work out, or if you honestly don't think you can handle the job, then that's OK, alright? Most folks simply aren't cut out for it. If that's the case, let me know, and I'll give Major Lorne a brevet promotion and move him up to command the garrison, so at least you'll get along just fine with your replacement, right?"

"True," John said, nodding in acknowledgement at the general's statement without saying any more; he wasn't that prepared to open up to anyone yet, no matter how much he trusted General O'Neill, but he was committed to assuming his new role in Atlantis.

"Good. Now," O'Neill continued, his tone of voice turning rather more serious, "while we're on the subject of leadership, here's something that every military academy on this planet that's worth a damn drums into officer cadets at every single opportunity: the men and women under your command are always your first concern. You look after them, you manage them, you lead them, you motivate or shout at them… BUT!" O'Neill held up a finger for stern emphasis at this point: "You absolutely one hundred percent do not ever, ever, EVER regard them as cannon fodder."

"I'd never do that," John said, looking pointedly at Jack. "Trust me, I've seen what the Wraith can do to people; I wouldn't leave anyone in a position where they'd have to face that unless I had absolutely no way to save them."

"Had to say it," Jack said. "My point is that when you get right down to it, the purpose of leadership is about all the people who you command. They need you more than you need yourself. Your feelings, your emotions, and your thoughts are all irrelevant; it's your people's that are important.

"So, no more of the Batman routine. When you go back to Pegasus, you will make yourself accessible to your people: if they got a problem, they need to be able to talk to you whenever they need to, not just whenever you deign to stop lurking in the air ducts."

"That was more a matter of personal security than a matter of being anti-social; it's not like I could have set up an office when I was officially wanted for questioning," John countered with a slight smile.

"Just so long as you always make sure someone can contact you now, that's the main thing," Jack said. "Doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing; there are no acceptable excuses for hiding from your subordinates. I don't care if you're sitting on the can with your pants around your ankles undergoing your daily bowel movement, you keep your radio switched on and its battery charged, and you make sure you can talk things through if someone needs you."

John gave a dutiful nod. "Okay…"

"And stop scaring members of the Expedition all the time," O'Neill continued. "You literally wouldn't believe how many personnel transferred out 'cause you were giving them a case of the heebie-jeebies."

"Uh…" John said, taken aback at that unexpected news. "People really did that?"

"Oh, yeah," Jack nodded. "Once we got back in touch with Atlantis, about a third of the original Expedition left just 'cause you were creeping them out. All told, a little over three hundred people have gone out to Pegasus, then left the first chance they got and said it was on you."

"I… I didn't know that," John admitted; he knew that some people had gone back to Earth when the first ZPM had been installed, but he'd assumed that most of them had returned with the Daedalus when it came back a few weeks later, it wasn't like he could keep track of every face in the expedition…

O'Neill snorted, amused. "What did you expect? The only people you ever bothered to talk to were Elizabeth, Sumner, Beckett, and AR-1; you weren't exactly the heart and soul of the Expedition, y'know."

"When you spend two decades dealing with people who'll try and shoot you if they see your face, you learn to appreciate your privacy," John pointed out; getting defensive in hindsight might have been pointless, but he wanted to make sure his reasons were understood now that he was actually part of the command structure. "I knew that I could trust Elizabeth because I'd met her, and I made contact with most of the senior staff through necessity, but I wasn't comfortable talking with a wider group…"

"Fair enough, but we didn't know what made you tick at the time; you could have been keeping quiet for several reasons, most of which weren't good," Jack pointed out. "And don't get me started on how many female personnel filed complaints about how they thought you were spying on them in the shower… oy! I could fill a fricking room with the hardcopies of those."

"But… but I didn't do anything like that!" John heatedly protested (Even if he'd thought about it with Elizabeth, he would have never gone that far, and his access routes didn't cover the showers anyway).

"And… exactly how was anyone supposed to know?" O'Neill rhetorically asked. "You hardly ever talked to anyone, so no one really knew what your deal was. I was willing to take a chance on you, which is why I gave Everett the orders I did, but I also told him to stay sharp in case it turned out you were a Wraith agent of some sort with a real convincing sideline in theatricality or something. If you don't talk to people, if you shut them out all the time, then they can't begin to understand what's driving you, never mind trust you."

John grimaced under his mask. "I've really got a long way to go, don't I?" he said quietly.

"The first step towards dealing with a problem is acknowledging that you have a problem in the first place," Jack said, shaking his head in a contemplative manner. "Or so I got told after the first Abydos mission…"

John turned to face the older man, puzzled. "What problem did you have?"

O'Neill looked uncomfortable, and looked down at the lift's floor. "I… I lost my son." He was barely audible. "There was an accident, a couple months before the mission."

"God…" John hissed. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"And when I came back… When I came back, my wife had moved out of the house and filed for divorce," O'Neill continued. "I resigned my commission, took early retirement." He shrugged and met John's gaze again. "I started going to counselling sessions, and it was there I picked up that little pearl of wisdom."

They lapsed into silence for half a minute or so after that.

"I honestly think you have what it takes," O'Neill finally said. "But just having the raw materials is not enough on its own."

"Like how just having a big pile of bricks doesn't mean you've automatically got a house," John suggested.

"A little simplistic, but yeah, that's the general idea," O'Neill agreed.

John slowly nodded.

"So long as you remember to always give your people your very best effort at everything, you can't go too far wrong," O'Neill advised. "You'll make mistakes now and again- after all, you're only human- but one of Lorne's jobs is to help keep you from screwing up.

"Something else you need to bear in mind is that there is a difference between honest mistakes and outright incompetence," O'Neill continued. "Sometimes you'll just make a bad call, and sometimes you'll do your best and still get your ass kicked 'cause the bad guys really are that good. If either of those happen to you, you'll have my every sympathy.

"But if you screw up because you got complacent or careless or started trying to play god, and any of your people are hurt or killed because of what you did?" O'Neill's voice hardened, taking on a quietly stern and menacing air. "That is beyond the pale. You're not in any country's military, so I won't be able to court martial you if that happens, and the IOA will never let you be tried in a civilian court, 'cause the press might catch on no matter how classified the case was designated. What I will do is catch the next wormhole to Pegasus, hunt you down, and spend the next hour straight doing nothing but kick your ass, and I'll be wearing steel-toed jump boots while I do it; I will then drag your butt through the 'Gate back to Earth, kick you to the curb, and blackball you from the Stargate program for life. Are we absolutely clear on that?"

John rapidly nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, we're clear."

O'Neill visibly relaxed at that. "Good," he said, and was suddenly back to his usual amiable self. "So, other than training, what's new with you?"

It had been an… interesting conversation, to say the least. John might have been left with some concerns about his abilities in the field- it was thing to be worried on a general level, but another thing altogether to have something specific to worry about- but on the other hand, General O'Neill had seemed to want him to succeed, so he'd been able to focus on the good parts of the talk rather than spend too much time worrying about things going wrong.

Of course, before he could begin any of his duties as Atlantis's military commander, John had to prove that he was capable of upholding the responsibilities of the position in the first place. Even with all the training he'd received from SG-1, the recommendations he'd received from Elizabeth, Richard Woolsey and General O'Neill, and his own experience in Pegasus, some of the IOA had expressed concerns about his lack of practical experience as a commander. John had conceded to a trial period of a few months acting in this capacity in Atlantis while under observation by the IOA- although they had consented to Elizabeth's request not to send a full-time observer to the city, Elizabeth arguing that they wouldn't get to see John operating normally if he had someone looking over his shoulder the whole time- but he was privately hopeful that he'd do well; he was fairly sure that Doctor McKay and Doctor Beckett would be in his favour, and he knew that Elizabeth was on his side…

Looking over at Elizabeth as she sat beside him, dressed in a professional suit that managed to give her an air of authority while retaining the approachable nature that made her such a great leader back on Atlantis, John knew that he would never be able to express how much her presence these last few weeks had meant to him. Officially, she had told the IOA that she was there to keep an eye on her new military commander and make sure that he was settling in, but John knew that she was really there to provide him with moral support, and he'd done what he could to show her his gratitude without actually saying it…

"John?" Elizabeth said, her voice bringing him back to Earth in its usual manner, calming and grounding him just with the know that she was there. "We're here."

Looking out of the car window, John was almost disappointed that the house hadn't changed much; a few additional electronics on the outside, but otherwise the same as it had always been.

Adjusting the hooded top he was wearing to conceal his face- his mask wouldn't really do for going out in public, and the hood at least looked natural even if it was a strange choice of attire for the warm weather- John got out of the car and took a deep breath, trying to prepare himself for what he was about to face.

It wasn't something he wanted to do- he hadn't exactly left on good terms, and he wasn't about to tell them all the details of what he'd been up to since he vanished- but Elizabeth had made a valid point when she'd suggested he do this; if he didn't do it, he'd always be left wondering what their lives had been like without him.

After over two decades, he was going to see his family again…

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