If something had been wrong with Lorne after he came off of his last round of libo on Earth, there was something even more wrong with him after Atlantis had been freed from the Replicators. John couldn’t begin to pinpoint it, because Lorne was a damn fine officer, was practically a model officer, completed his duties with nary a whisper, so when John wanted things done, they were already done and Lorne was waiting beside his desk, ready for his next order.
But there was an emptiness behind his eyes that John couldn’t explain. He still had regular team meals with his team, and if reports from the Archivist were to be believed, he was still requisitioning art supplies on the regular, so he was engaging in his normal hobbies. John knew Lorne was probably a little cranky at him, because SFs had kicked in his door and dragged him to the SGC in the middle of the night to interrogate him about his helping John with his crazy plan to get Atlantis back. The way Coughlin told it, SFs had gone to Lorne’s apartment, and when he wasn’t there but with his girlfriend, one of his roommates called him, and then the SFs went and kicked down his girlfriend’s door, caught them in nude, and his girlfriend broke up with him.
No wonder he was upset. He’d been dumped because duty trumped life, always.
Except...except John was pretty sure Lorne had no such girlfriend. He remembered that non-conversation he and Lorne had had after Rodney insisted John go talk to him, and he remembered the opera singer.
The male opera singer.
And then John realized. Lorne had been in bed with his lover, and SFs had kicked down the door.
And yet somehow Lorne was still a major, still serving.
So John watched Lorne, and he asked questions, and he listened, and he waited.
It was Parrish, Lorne’s botanist, who came to him first.
“Look, everyone knows about you and McKay.” Parrish was fumbling with the edges of his tac vest, which he hadn’t even taken off, as he’d come to John straight from the gate.
John said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Right. Of course. Look, Lorne had someone back on Earth,” Parrish said. “Someone like...McKay. Not a scientist, but like McKay all the same. I think he knows I figured it out. And I think Reed did, too. I’m not sure how okay Reed is with it. But I don’t think Lorne actually wanted to come back to Atlantis, but...something happened. And I think it had to do with his - someone.”
“What makes you say that?”
Parrish bit his lip. “I - I looked through one of his sketchbooks one time, and he’d drawn a picture of someone that made me think - anyway. When were on Earth, I ran into Evan and the person from the picture, and by all accounts that person was a civilian. But - I saw that person. At the SGC. In uniform. Talking to General Landry. Like they knew each other. I think maybe - maybe the person was a...a mole, or something? I don’t know. But -”
“Get to the point, Doc.” John didn’t need supposition, he needed hard facts, needed something he could work with. Something he could punch or shoot or disable so the light would return to Lorne’s eyes, because Atlantis didn’t feel right.
“I think Lorne’s upset, and it’s affecting his judgment.”
John sat up straighter. “How so?”
“He’s more reckless. Throws himself between us and danger more. Usually he takes point back to the gate, has one of the Marines stay on our six,” Parrish said. “But lately he’s been sending Reed ahead with me, and the number of times the natives have almost gotten him - it’s been scary. Check with Beckett. You’ll see.”
“I appreciate your concern about your team leader’s performance in the field,” John said. “I will investigate the situation thoroughly.”
Parrish looked disappointed, so John cast him a pointed look, but Parrish didn’t get it, so John just waved him out of his office.
As soon as the door was closed, John contacted Beckett, asked for numbers on Lorne’s injury rate since the return to Pegasus, and then he contacted Heightmeyer, because what was going on was far beyond John’s skill or purview as base commander.
Heightmeyer promised to schedule a time to see Lorne. Beckett promised to have numbers to him soon.
It was Reed to who came to John next.
“What can I do for you, Sergeant?”
“It’s about Major Lorne, sir.”
“What about him?”
“I believe his judgment in the field has been compromised.”
“By his mental or emotional state, sir.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He’s been - overreaching in combat situations, sir.” Reed wet his lips nervously. Was he uncomfortable with ratting out his team leader, or was it something else? Seeing how everyone on base knew about John and Rodney, and Parrish suspected Reed knew the truth about Lorne’s love life - or lack thereof.
“Not to belabor interservice rivalries, sir,” Reed said, “but Coughlin and I are both riflemen, and recently Major Lorne has been taking firefights himself, ordering us to retreat. He’s had more than one near-miss, including one that almost prevented us from returning to the gate during an exchange of fire.”
John really needed those numbers from Beckett. “Anything else, Sergeant?”
“It’s just a gut feeling, sir, but I think - I think he just doesn’t care anymore.”
John nodded. “Anything further?”
Reed shook his head.
“If you think of anything else, report to me immediately,” John said. “I’ll be sure to address your concerns with Major Lorne.”
“If you could just not tell him it was me -”
“Discretion, of course, Sergeant. You’re dismissed.”
Reed looked relieved. He saluted before he departed.
John wondered what the hell had happened to Lorne. John wondered what he’d do, if someone took Rodney from him.
(He knew what he’d do. When he’d heard how Kolya had tortured him during the Genii incursion, he’d nearly started an interplanetary incident. An incident with fatalities.)
Because he was pretty sure this wasn’t Lorne moping about someone dumping him. This was something else.
The numbers came back from Beckett. Lorne’s injury rate was up a hundred and fifty percent. No real increase in severity, but he was getting hurt more often offworld.
Heightmeyer reported that she’d scheduled a time to meet with Lorne, but due to Lorne’s schedule it would be about four weeks before she saw him. When John checked Lorne’s schedule, it was a wonder the man was even still alive. He’d filled every minute of every day, some of it with regular meetings and offworld missions, but also with things like work out and food and draw and write home.
Lorne would dodge Heightmeyer like a greased eel, and she wouldn’t be able to stop him, because he was Lorne. Atlantis ran like a well-oiled machine (hurtling down a mountain at a hundred miles an hour with Wraith, Replicators, and Genii after it) because Lorne made it so, and John was damn glad.
John also knew he was one of the few people Lorne wouldn’t dodge.
So one night, on what he knew was Lorne’s designated Saturday (but not Team Movie Night - he checked with an anxious but grateful Parrish), John swung by Lorne’s quarters.
The door opened for John with a thought, and he was hit with a wall of sound.
Same opera singer as before. Different opera, though.
Lorne was shirtless in a pair of sweats, and somehow he’d managed to rig up a massive canvas against one wall. He was painting.
John had seen Lorne’s work before, usually of architecture or landscapes, and also lots of plants for Parrish, who was compiling some kind of illuminated botany manuscript. John hadn’t realized Lorne did portraits, or that he was good at them.
John wasn’t much for the newfangled pop art or abstract stuff, though he’d learned to make appreciative noises about it at gallery openings when he was escorting someone or other to the event. He was awed at how Lorne could paint people who looked ready to walk off the canvas.
Just one person.
A boy, maybe eighteen, with bright dark eyes and brown hair, neatly symmetrical features and a bright smile. He’d painted the boy in coveralls, leaning on a car that had the hood up. He’d painted the boy in a tux and bow tie, standing on the steps of a theater, one John knew was in Colorado Springs. He’d painted the boy in the throes of passion. He'd painted the boy innocently asleep.
He’d painted the boy wearing Air Force blues marked with a lieutenant’s butter bars.
He’d painted the boy wearing SGC-style olive BDUs with an SG-1 patch on one sleeve.
“Well,” Lorne said, stepping back and eyeing the canvas, all of the scenes he’d managed to blend into each other, blurred around the edges, like snatches from a dream, “I’ve had enough to drink, and it’s making me think that if I’m going to paint you, I’m going to paint you bright. And I’m going to paint you right.”
And John realized Lorne was pretty damn drunk. He could see the empty bottles lined up neatly on Lorne’s desk, and the way Lorne was swaying on his feet. Did Lorne even know John was there?
“Major,” John said.
Lorne turned around slowly, blinked at him. Smiled. The expression was all wrong, because there was nothing in his eyes at all. “Sir. Colonel Sheppard. Come to join the party? Have something to add?”
“Party of one, I see,” John said. The door hissed shut behind him.
“Two,” Lorne said. “Me, and him.” He pointed at the canvas.
“What’s going on, Major? Your team is worried about you.”
Lorne blinked. “Worried about me? But I’m fine. Doing great at my job. No complaints, right? Everything’s fine on Atlantis.”
“You’re drinking alone on a Saturday night, painting pictures of some boy -”
“Not just any boy,” Lorne said. He sighed and set down his palette and brush, picked up another bottle of beer, took a long pull.
John took a deep breath. “What happened, Major?”
“Landry found out about us. Didn’t have me drummed out, because the boy talked fast. Sacrificed himself for me. So now I’m out here, and he’s somewhere, scattered across the earth, the stars, the stardust and moonbeams, other planets and other galaxies, doing unspeakable things to keep me safe. And I can never see him again. But I remember what he looks like. See?” Lorne gestured grandiosely at the canvas. “Isn’t he beautiful?”
John wasn’t into jailbait, but the kid was good-looking enough. What he wondered was how a kid that young had fast-talked Landry into not having Lorne dishonorably discharged for literally getting caught with his pants down.
“Lorne, if you don’t want to be here -”
“If I go back to Earth, I’m finished. If I stay here, finish out my twenty, I’m fine. Can retire quietly afterward.”
“Maybe you’ll get to see him again once you retire,” John offered helplessly.
Lorne’s smile was amused and sad. “No. They got him back, and they’re never letting him go, and he has another lifetime of service ahead of him.”
“You need to go see Heightmeyer.”
“She can’t help me.”
“Anything I can do to help?” It was a long shot, but John was fumbling pretty badly.
“Can you help me forget?”
John really never did see it coming, because Lorne was across the room and pulling John into a kiss before he could blink. Lorne tasted like beer and tears, and John wrenched himself backward so fast his hair must have curled.
“Whoa, hey! I’m with Rodney. You know that.”
Lorne blinked big, wet blue eyes at him.
This had gotten out of control far too quickly.
Then Lorne swiped a hand over his face and sighed. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m incredibly drunk. I know it’s no excuse. I just need to sleep it off. I’ll be fine in the morning. Landry told me I needed to be a model soldier, and I will be, I promise. I’ll do better.”
That wasn’t what John wanted to hear, and it wasn’t at all reassuring, but he had to leave now, talk to Rodney, because he knew Lorne would go apologize to Rodney tomorrow for laying one on Rodney’s precious flyboy, and yep, definitely time to go.
“Thanks, Major. Glad to hear it.”
Rodney was upset at Lorne kissing John, but then Rodney turned on an Ancient machine and it was ascend or die, and when everything shook out again, Lorne seemed perfectly fine.