Jack O'Neill walked into the room where John Sheppard was sitting alone at the conference table. Sheppard was looking stiff and ill-at-ease in his dress uniform and close haircut, much as he had all day. They'd pinned new medals on his chest earlier and Sheppard, whose file was already thick with decorations for valor and bravery, had looked vaguely nauseated the entire time. Jack had seen that reaction before, had had that reaction before, and he'd understood why Sheppard had seemed half a beat behind the congratulations and handshakes offered to him.

Now Sheppard sat half-facing the door but, Jack could tell, not seeing it or him. His thoughts were clearly elsewhere, somewhere in the Pegasus galaxy no doubt. Weir and the others were all still apprehensive about leaving Atlantis so soon after the Wraith siege, even with a week's peace before their departure and two platoons of Marines and a ton of munitions going over as they came in.

Sheppard looked tired -- a little from the time lag, a lot from not sleeping and then spending his days in an unfamiliar place that everyone around him insisted was home and didn't feel like it at all. Of the four who came back from Atlantis, Drs. Weir, McKay, and Beckett all had warm welcomes and eager ears awaiting them, fellow academics thirsty for knowledge of the Pegasus galaxy. Sheppard had superior officers who hadn't liked him before he'd left and were hardly thrilled to see him return. Not to mention the distinct possibility that he was not going back to Atlantis.

Jack was feeling tired and friendless as well, truth be told. He'd hardly set up in Washington when the data burst had come through and dragged him right back to Colorado. There was so much information from Atlantis to process and so many decisions to be made. None of them were pleasant and all of them were his. Some days, it sucked being a general.

Either because of his decisions or in addition to them -- Jack really wasn't sure at this stage -- everyone was either angry at him or leaving him or both. Elizabeth Weir had already expressed her anger at the declaration of martial law in Atlantis that he'd made by proxy and told him that she would seek protection against it ever happening again. She'd get it, too. Daniel had threatened to go over his head if he wasn't allowed to join the Atlantis expedition. Teal'c was gone even when he was physically present. Sam actually was gone and not even the return of the Atlantis team could bring her back to Colorado. Hank was bitching at him undermining his command by being around and giving orders. Even Walter was giving him baleful looks.

Behind Jack, Hank cleared his throat meaningfully and the distant look on Sheppard's face vanished with a snap Jack could have sworn was audible. Sheppard stood up quickly, mouth quirked into an expression of embarrassed apology for not immediately rising for a superior officer.

"As you were, Major," Jack said, gesturing dismissively and frowning at Hank. This was already going to look like an inquisition; there was no point in making it seem like they were keeping track of style points as well.

Nonetheless, Sheppard waited until Jack, Hank, and Marine General Pete Ruczinsky had taken their seats before sitting himself. Ruczinsky, the ranking Marine liaison to the Stargate project, had invited himself along to this pow-wow, much to Jack's displeasure. He and Pete had once been friends, but time and careers had pulled them in opposite directions and then the Stargate project had pretty much ended things. Ruczinsky had been furious that the Marines were, in his view, marginalized. Never mind that the Corps had had representation on the SG teams since the start while the Navy and Army were still locked out. There was no way to win the argument and Jack would have thought Pete would have given up after a decade, but he hadn't and that persistence paid off when the Atlantis expedition was punted through a wormhole with an entirely USMC contingent... plus one maverick Air Force officer.

Jack had wanted to keep this meeting informal, just a chat between the military leader of one Stargate unit and the leader of the other, a comparing of notes between two officers who tended to make their superiors twitch but got the job done. But Ruczinsky being added to the mix meant that Hank had to be invited as well and it felt like piling on.

Especially because Sheppard, brittle and disassociated since his return, didn't need the additional pressure. Jack understood in a way that neither Hank Landry nor Pete Ruczinsky did that you couldn't switch from fighting for your life to fighting for your career in a week and change. The human brain simply couldn't make that leap in such a short time. He'd read the complete version of Sheppard's file before the Atlantis mission had been executed; there was an unclassified version in the database now, cleansed of everything that Jack knew was crucial to understanding both the man and the officer. All the more so because this wasn't the first time John Sheppard had walked away from something he shouldn't have survived and if Pete and Hank knew that, they'd have been coming in to this meeting with a far different agenda.

But they didn't and it would be left to Jack to assess the situation with all of the information in place. It was unfair to Sheppard, blatantly so, but there was nothing to be done about it. That didn't mean Jack didn't feel like crap for allowing it.

Landry looked over at Jack, who nodded resignedly. His initial plan had been to have a quiet talk with Sheppard, get a feel for the man and for how a year in Atlantis had changed him. But the first casualty is always the plan, so he'd adapted. Instead of talking, he'd listen.

They'd all read the reports and remarks before sending Everett and his Task Force Beacon through the worm hole. Both Weir's and Sheppard's reports had been thorough and uncompromising in their honesty, complete in their explanations, and clearly written with the assumption that they would be read after the authors were dead. Weir may have been looking toward history and posterity, but Sheppard's after-action reports had the terse finality of a man who knew that he was marching toward Thermopylae.

"We've been through most of this," Hank waved the thick folder of printouts, "already. There's no point in rehashing what you and Dr. Weir and Drs. McKay and Beckett have already told us. This is just to... follow-up on the military side of things. Away from the politicians and science types whose eyes glaze over the minute we start talking about the details that end up saving their skin."

Sheppard chuffed a quiet laugh. Jack may have wanted this to be a quiet chat, but the sequence of events that lead to it needing a conference room were not known to Sheppard. As far as he knew, specifics and details weren't the real reasons three generals wanted to talk to him away from an audience. The award ceremony had been the public show for the politicians so that they could applaud the man who'd been most responsible for keeping the expedition alive. And this was the private breaking down of that building up, the vivisection of the soldier who'd started off the expedition by killing his commanding officer.

News of Marshall Sumner's early death had been surprising, but not shocking. Sumner had always believed that Marines lead from the front and that's what happened to men who put honor and valor before safety. Jack knew that Sheppard, too, lead from the front and that he'd come back with his shield instead of on it seemed to embarrass him. Especially because of what had happened between him and Sumner.

The initial reaction to that news had been outrage, plain and simple, and the possibility of bringing Sheppard up on charges if he survived the siege. They all knew it wasn't fragging, wasn't ambition, and couldn't have been enmity -- in the lead-up to mission departure, Sheppard and Sumner hadn't gotten on well, but they'd gotten on well enough as superior and subordinate. Jack thought Sumner would have been able to handle Sheppard if they'd had time to work together; he had gotten on with Sumner, who was as hooah as any other Marine but could think out of the box when necessary.

But Sheppard and Sumner hadn't gotten that time to learn each other well. And Sheppard, who wore a Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, had gone after Sumner alone. He'd gotten close enough to set up a shot with time to aim and then re-sight, changing his target from the interrogator to Sumner. He'd opted for a quietus instead of a rescue and there had been no way to draw anything but bad conclusions from that decision if you didn't know of Sheppard's past. Especially with no witnesses and nobody who could convincingly say with certainty that John Sheppard would have known what Marshall Sumner was thinking.

But then Dillon Everett had come back on a gurney, palsied, shaking, and nearly unrecognizable and they'd been forced to re-evaluate, forced to remember that they hadn't been there and that they knew better than to blithely question a combat decision from the comfort of their offices. Even so, Sheppard would never be free of the stigma, would never escape the shaded looks from those who knew and would never get the forgiveness of those who'd found out that their friend had died from a short paragraph in an AAR written by his killer.

"You were very limited in your resources," Landry began, his intense look disconcerting when partnered with his slow drawl, "and had to make do with what you had and what you thought you'd need for the future. With regular supply runs from the Daedalus, a battalion is supportable. Is it sufficient?"

There was talk of keeping Sheppard on Earth, of assigning him to one of the SG teams so that he could be both rewarded for his service while keeping him under close scrutiny so that his next act of insubordination (and there would be one, everyone agreed) could be met with swift consequences. But Jack knew that Weir wanted Sheppard back in Atlantis and that she wanted the interim status removed from his command position. Jack also knew that the only one capable of stopping Weir from getting what she wanted was Sheppard himself.

"We're not looking for a traditional offensive war against the Wraith, Sir," Sheppard said evenly. "It's not about numbers. We can't win that way. We can't even hold our own. Even the Ancients gave up. We're looking at unconventional warfare tactics, Sir. Quality over quantity."

SGC had little ground to stand on to justify keeping Sheppard away from Atlantis entirely -- not with his natural affinity for Ancient technology and not with the President aware of his heroics. The best that they could do in the face of Weir's opposition would be to return him as Executive Officer under a new commander and hope that whoever got the job -- Steven Caldwell making no secret of his desire for it -- could keep Sheppard busy with the administrativa that kept most XOs out of trouble and out of the action. By all reports Sheppard had been miserable in his one previous posting as XO and a chance to stay in the field with SGC versus twiddling his thumbs in Atlantis might win out. That, or appealing directly to Sheppard's guilt and shame him into resigning his position and removing himself from candidacy for the command. Weir wouldn't be able to overcome that.

"Are you qualified to run a Special Operations war, Major Sheppard?" Ruczinsky asked with deceptive mildness that fooled no one.

"Not without help, Sir." Sheppard answered with a matching tone. Jack sighed to himself. Sheppard was confident in his own abilities, very much so. Challenging him on that level was not the way to go.

Pete wanted a Marine in charge of the military complement again, but he also wanted an outlet for the anger that came from what he viewed as his own failure. He had hand-picked every member of the military component save for Sheppard and the Marine deaths tolled on him and he was lashing out. Ruczinsky's anger with Sheppard was more instinctive than actually predicated on anything tangible, but it didn't have a place here.

Sheppard, for his part, seemed almost eager to accept the blows. He had come home without his commanding officer or his own second in command; the data burst had contained his letters to all of the fallen Marines' next of kin and they hadn't been form letters. Sheppard had left the video message for Sumner's family (it had gone to his father). In the debriefs that had taken place since his return, he'd stubbornly refused to let them classify Lt. Aiden Ford as anything but MIA even though Drs. Beckett and Weir could not reasonably promise that they'd be able to capture Ford or cure him if they did. Sheppard had insisted that he could bring Ford back, but it had been clear that he stood alone in that regard even among the Marine representatives on Earth. He had spoken harshly, in fact, to the colonel who'd suggested classifying Ford as a deserter until it could be proven otherwise.

He'd gotten yelled at for that outburst, of course, and it had done nothing to ease concerns that Sheppard was too loose a cannon to be either in command of a distant outpost or (once again) only a bullet away from it. All through the three days of debriefings and hearings, Sheppard had been entirely too reckless for someone who had to know what sort of thin ice he skated upon -- and that concerned Jack more than anything in the reports he'd read. It was as if Sheppard were looking for someone to punish him so that he could stop doing it to himself. Yet another bit of himself that Jack recognized.

Sheppard had been sent to the base shrink, same as the other returnees. They'd come out of a war, albeit a brief one, and the Department of Defense had experience there. There was a little shell-shock all around, survivor's guilt, and the sort of delayed acceptance of safety and civilization that sounded so much like the boys returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody had been flagged, not even Sheppard for all that he'd been intercepted by the Daedalus en route to committing suicide by nuclear detonation.

Jack knew that that decision -- Sheppard choosing himself to fly the ship with its payload into the enemy's belly -- was one that had not sat well with the senior SGC officers. It was a sound tactical decision, but a poor strategic one. It was the decision of a man who'd rather die than send men out to their deaths and while Hank thought it proof positive of Sheppard's command inexperience and was sure he'd grow out of it, Jack was less optimistic. There was a difference between not asking your men to do something you weren't willing to do and then avoiding the hard choice altogether by getting yourself killed. There came a point in a commander's career where you had to send someone to their death and volunteering for the suicide mission yourself wasn't an option anymore. Leading the military at Atlantis was that point and beyond. Sheppard had to learn how to make the hard choice if he was going to become the commander that Atlantis needed.

"...focused on weapon tech," Sheppard was saying as Jack realized he'd been lost in his own thoughts. "They're further behind in other places -- they don't know about the ATA gene and don't understand the effects of radiation. You'll have to ask Dr. Beckett and Dr. McKay for more specifics on that."

"Are they capable of rolling a nuclear bomb through the stargate in Atlantis?" Hank asked and Jack flipped through his notes to find the place that mentioned nukes. He remembered that part. Hank had stormed into his office, waving the printout and yelling that they'd might as well have sent Jack's clone to Atlantis because who else but Jack O'Neill would consider nukes a commodity tradable for beans.

"We're still working on improving stargate security," Sheppard admitted sheepishly, "but even if they got another Athosian IDC, I don't think so. They're not ready to build their own yet, even with our C-4. It took McKay and Zelenka sixteen hours to finish their prototypes. That's probably years for normal people, even as obsessed as the Genii are. And even then, I'm not sure they'd do it. There's too much in Atlantis that they want."

"What is the status of their non-nuclear offensive capabilities?" Ruczinsky leaned back as he spoke. "Assuming 1940's munitions..."

"It's not a straight correspondence between where we were and where they are," Sheppard cautioned. "They've got handguns, but we haven't seen much in the way of SAWs or anything bigger. They have rifles, but not a lot of them and they don't operate with the efficiency of ours. They can't mass-produce anything on a scale we'd consider dangerous because they are limited by what they can build underground and then hide from the Wraith."

"Can they not reverse engineer what they took from Atlantis during the... occupation?" Hank didn't look up from where he was writing.

Jack remembered that report clearly as well. He'd read Sheppard's version first, all straightforward action and details and casualties and accounting for ammunition expended. Weir and McKay's, co-written, had been a narrative of terror and salvation and was the reason Sheppard was wearing one of the medals he'd gotten today.

"It'll be only a matter of time before they do," Sheppard allowed, unfazed. "But they didn't take much out of the armory. Or at least much that they'll be able to use. They wanted the C-4, but they couldn't identify any of our other explosives. They took a couple of P-90s and nine millimeters, but they had already spent quality time examining our firearms and our ammunition is incompatible with their models. The rest of what they took won't be worth much to them or very dangerous to us -- LSA for the Mark-19 they didn't take, a couple of chem lights, fastrope gloves... You have the complete inventory. In all honesty, they took a lot of what we weren't using. We got lucky there. A lot luckier than we did in the infirmary."

The details from the assault on Atlantis were not astonishing, but a little surprising. Sheppard was exceptionally gifted as a pilot and had had a career to match, but even the unexpurgated version of his service jacket only went so far in explaining his competence on the ground that day, certainly not his lethal efficiency.

"What was your reasoning behind choosing the off-world teams as you did?" Ruczinsky asked.

Sheppard blinked at the change in topic. "Our primary objective was to find a ZPM. Teyla Emmagan was the person most likely to know where to look for it, Dr. McKay was the one best equipped to know what to do with it once we found it, and Ford... Lieutenant Ford needed field experience. He hadn't been out of IOC for very long and had spent most of that time babysitting the base in Antarctica."

"That you had also chosen the head of the science division, the leader of a people tenant to you, and the only other officer on the expedition..." Ruczinsky trailed off, implication clear. None of Sheppard's team was replaceable. The Marines never put all their eggs in one basket. It was basic mission planning to divide up such resources so that one accident didn't deprive a unit of all of one component.

"Our priority was getting a ZPM, Sir," Sheppard repeated with a touch of heat. "Having our command structure intact... we had no chance without a ZPM, no matter who was around when it all went to hell."

"And you're responsible for that, too, Major?" Hank asked and Jack could have kicked him. If Pete was pushing for a Marine commander, Hank wanted his old Academy buddy Caldwell in the post. Pete could be excused for harping, but Hank was supposed to be more subtle about things like that. "Waking up the Wraith, getting them all hot and bothered about Atlantis and Earth?"

Sheppard sighed. "With all due respect, sirs, their knowledge of Earth comes from Colonel Sumner's interrogation. I woke them up, true. But..." But Sumner had been the one to tell the Wraith that Earth had billions of people. "But as much as it's anyone's responsibility, it's mine. I accept that."

The Wraith had been a hard concept to grasp, even with a decade of being accustomed to the ever-present threat of whatever came through the stargate. Practically immortal and impossible to placate, they were not opponents in the traditional sense because the battle was not seen as joined by both sides. Humans were not opponents to the Wraith, nor slaves, experiments or toys or trifles. They were food that talked back.

Dr. Beckett had given a talk on what he thought the origins of the Wraith were, but it almost didn't matter. For more than ten thousand years, the Wraith had been an unstoppable menace that the Ancients hadn't hoped to defeat, had instead chosen to flee from and try to forget. The Goa'uld were on their way to finally being overcome, but Jack was quite sure that very little of what they'd learned fighting that threat would prepare them to take on the Wraith.

When the data burst had come, there had been talk of using the ZPM from Giza to perform an evacuation of the Atlantis base, destroying the stargate on the way out. It would effectively seal off the Pegasus galaxy and buy their own galaxy time to come up with a way to protect itself from a Wraith invasion that they knew was inevitable -- even if it came thousands of years from now, it was coming. The proposal to abandon Atlantis had been defeated, but that it had come up in the first place...

"You're eager to accept responsibility, aren't you, Major?" Pete was looking predatory again.

"Who would you have me blame, Sir?" Sheppard asked in return.

"The... Athosians," Hank cut off Ruczinsky's reply. Hank's dislike of the Marines -- no, they weren't disbanding SG-12 -- had been fueling a competition with Ruczinsky since his appointment to SGC. "Do they blame you for their current situation? Cut off from interplanetary travel except with your permission, exiled from their home..."

"I'm sure that there are a few who're unhappy about the way things are set up," Sheppard answered. "Nobody likes to be dependent upon others for survival and the Athosians are a proud people."

"There were some difficulties surrounding a possible... infiltrator," Landry prompted.

"There's always a... hesitation to trust when two sides first meet," Sheppard said after a long beat. "It was unfortunate that it happened and we've been working on putting it behind us. I think it helped that the problem was a result of actions taken on both our parts and that it was more an accident instead of anything anyone did intentionally."

"'Hesitation to trust'..." Ruczinsky was looking at Hank when he spoke. "An interesting choice of words considering your own history."

Jack watched the animation drain from Sheppard's face, replaced by a calm mask of disengagement. This is what Sheppard's commanding officers must have seen, what was on display at the Article 15 hearing and every other time Sheppard had been brought in for a dressing-down. It was a look both belligerent and defensive: blank, emotionless, and practically announcing that anything said would bounce off without leaving a mark.

"Do you trust Dr. Weir?"

"With my life, Sir." Clipped without being disrespectful.

"You didn't during the nanite virus outbreak," Hank said calmly. "You staged a coup, in fact."

Sheppard's eyes closed for a long moment and then opened. He said nothing.

Jack watched carefully. This had been the point of no return for almost everyone who was advocating Sheppard's removal from the Atlantis mission.

"You ordered your NCO-in-charge to ignore Dr. Weir's instructions," Hank went on, "failed to complete the mission you deemed important enough to break quarantine for and, through that failure, got more than a dozen individuals infected with the virus. If you hadn't risked your life again to execute the... drastic solution you came up with, that would have been a very costly day for you, Major."

Sheppard remained silent. Jack decided to wait a few more minutes before calling the meeting to a halt. Sheppard needed to be able to bail himself out of situations like these.

"We are planning on raising Atlantis's military presence to battalion level. There will be an international component as well." Pete was almost smiling and Jack's resolve to wait wavered. "You were recalled from your deployment in Afghanistan for insubordination and gross negligence. But despite being given another chance -- for reasons I cannot fathom -- you have not learned from your experiences.

"At the Article 15 hearing, your CO testified that he felt that you 'didn't trust him and acted in accordance with that distrust'. How can we put our trust in you when it always seems to go unrewarded? How do we tell our allies that their soldiers will be safe when we cannot even guarantee the security of our own forces? It is one thing to be at risk from the enemy. It's another to be in danger from your own officers."

"You're allowed to speak, Major," Hank said when Sheppard continued to say nothing.

"I don't know what you want me to say, Sir." Sheppard's voice was even and devoid of bite.

"I want you to give me a good reason why you should be allowed to return to Atlantis in any sort of command capacity," Hank replied, frustration clear in his tone and his face.

"How about the fact that, at the end of the day, he did his job?" Jack asked, watching everyone in the room turn to him as if they'd forgotten he was there. It was a perverse thrill. Ruczinsky looked irate at the interruption, but Hank was almost smiling, as if he could see what Jack was doing. Maybe he did.

"I think we've been taking Major Sheppard's accomplishments for granted," Jack said, slapping his notebook gently and standing up. Sheppard stood automatically, Hank and Ruczinsky more slowly. "And I also think that if we don't get down to the commissary shortly, there will only be jello and I'm not crazy about the idea of missing lunch."

Pete looked at him murderously, angry at what he undoubtedly thought was a case of the Air Force circling the wagons to protect one of their own. "You'll excuse me from accompanying you, General O'Neill," he bit out. "I have many appointments to keep before I return to Washington."

"You'll be missing out on the best mashed potatoes in the service," he warned. Ruczinsky glared. "Next time, then."

Ruczinsky made his exit and Hank, proving that he understood what Jack was up to, offered to escort him. Jack was left with Sheppard, who looked as impassive as before.

"Let's go get some lunch," Jack said, not making it a request.

"Yes, Sir."

It was an odd hour for lunch and most of the personnel who tended to eat at off hours were attending one of the Atlantis-related presentations being conducted upstairs. As a result, Jack was able to find a table away from prying eyes and ears. Sheppard joined him, his tray not very full. Jack, on the other hand, was starving.

"I'm sure Generals Landry and Ruczinsky have their own ideas for what should happen to you," Jack said as Sheppard began to pick at his salad. "Just as Dr. Weir does. Just as I'm supposed to have, too."

Sheppard looked up, but said nothing, which had been the case for the entire trip down from the conference room. It was beginning to get frustrating.

"The fact is, we either have to keep you here or give you the job permanently," Jack went on, swirling gravy into his mashed potatoes. "Putting you back there in any other capacity... The new commander wouldn't have a chance."

Sheppard stopped chasing a grape tomato around on his plate. "What do you want me to do, Sir?"

"I want you to tell me -- honestly -- whether you think you can handle the post," Jack said, finishing his work on the potato volcano. "Commanding a battalion -- especially of ground forces -- involves a lot more than you've been used to doing and, frankly, it involves a change in attitude that you've so far been unwilling to make."

Something like shame flickered across Sheppard's eyes. He must have sensed that it showed, because suddenly that tomato looked far more interesting than it had been.

"I'm the wrong man to talk to you about how things should be done," Jack went on, "but I do know this: you don't have to play by all the rules to be a good leader, but you have to play by the ones that count."

Sheppard looked about to say something, so Jack waved his fork and he stilled.

"You're a lead-by-example guy, which makes this all the more important. Because what you do, they'll do and they won't even ask why. I've heard your Marines talk, Sheppard. They'll walk through fire for you and they're already in the barracks spreading the gospel."

Sheppard flushed pink with embarrassment. Jack took that as a positive sign.

"But you have to lead by a different kind of example now. And I need you to tell me whether you think you can do this... and if you don't think you can, if you don't think that you can at least make a damn good showing of pretending to respect the chain of command and Dr. Weir's authority even when it's not convenient -- especially when it's not convenient -- then I need you to say so, too. That was a dumbass stunt you pulled with that virus."

"I'm not proud of it, Sir."

Jack rolled his eyes. "I know you aren't, Sheppard. That's the problem with you. You're not some cocky bastard who likes to show off how brilliant he is. It would be so much easier if you were."

Sheppard looked unsure of whether he was being complimented or insulted.

"Dr. Weir believes in you and that counts for more than you can probably imagine," Jack went on, "but I'll be honest here -- nobody else does and her wishes aren't going to be enough. There's a long list of very qualified men who want your job and another long list of very qualified men who want to give it to one of them."

"I know, Sir. And I'm grateful for Dr. Weir's support."

They were quiet for a time, then, focusing on eating. Jack was relieved that Sheppard was actually eating and not playing with his food.

"When they taught you how to be an officer, they told you about the easy wrong versus the hard right and how the good officer knows which one to choose," Jack began as Sheppard was finishing his slice of apple pie. "They didn't tell you that what gets counted as the easy wrong can get turned around, that the obvious becomes a little less so once the shit hits the fan... say, once you've been brought home by the PJs."

Sheppard put down his fork.

"You're not the only one who knows what it's like to be lost and then found again," Jack said quietly, putting down his own fork. "It changes your priorities and, trust me, there's a reason they always offer you retirement afterward."

A ghost of a smile from Sheppard, who nodded in remembrance. Almost a decade ago, he'd probably been repatriated, promoted, and then suggested to enjoy an early retirement and a second career flying civilian craft.

"I tried that once, too," Jack went on. "Didn't work much better than pretending nothing was wrong. It's why I'm not offering it to you now. Apart from the fact that it'd be damned stupid and you'd be an idiot to accept."

A more genuine smile this time.

"They weren't wrong, Sheppard. You still have to make the hard right choice over the easy wrong and the right choice doesn't change. It only gets harder to make when you have a really good understanding of the cost." He paused to let the words sink in. "The reason nobody wants to give you this command is because you've spent the last five years making people doubt your ability to make the right choice.

"Nobody doubts your courage, but almost everyone doubts your judgment."

Jack watched Sheppard carefully, but the other man didn't flinch under the gaze.

"I'm not one of them," Jack continued and he could see Sheppard relax minutely. "Because I've spent too long having my own judgment questioned. I'm proof positive that you can screw-up badly -- and trust me, your diva act in Kabul is nothing compared to my highlight reel -- and still make general. Although, between you and me, I think that making general was really a sneaky kind of punishment.

"But I digress. We're talking about your history of shooting yourself in the foot. Which, for the record, I knew you'd do in Atlantis, too. Although I will admit to doubting that I'd ever have a chance to hear about it."

"Sir?" Sheppard had graduated from nervous to confused, which was an improvement as far as Jack was concerned.

"You got in trouble in Afghanistan for not trusting anyone but yourself," Jack explained. "It wasn't the first time you'd done that and it wasn't going to be the last. I figured that you were due for one encore performance in Atlantis. And I have to say, breaking quarantine during a virus outbreak... "

"Not wise, Sir."

"Extremely!" Jack agreed enthusiastically.

Sheppard returned to confused from his brief visit to contrition.

"You're a slow learner when it comes to this stuff, Sheppard," Jack continued. "But it's time you caught up. A battalion is a lot of people and they're all going to need things to do. You're going to have to learn how to delegate responsibilities and then let your subordinates accept the consequences, good or bad. Some days it'll mean you'll get out of searching a warehouse and some days it'll mean writing notes to next of kin. It's the hardest right choice you'll have to make, but it's the most important one.

"You may get this command whether or not you can make that choice. Dr. Weir is pretty determined and I'm quite sure she can make generals cry."

Sheppard gave a half-smile.

"You may get this command or not you can make that choice... but I'd feel better if you could." Jack shook his head when Sheppard looked like he might speak. "Don't promise me anything. It's like any other kind of combat experience -- you don't know how you'll act until it's staring at you in the face."

There was a pause then. Jack and Sheppard both cleaned up their eating areas in preparation to leave.

"I can do the job, Sir." Sheppard looked straight into his eyes as he spoke. "I can't do it the way Stargate Command wants me to do it, not all the way. But I can do the job."

Jack nodded, wiped his hands on his napkin and stood up. Sheppard rose as well and followed him to the station for depositing trays. "I'll take that as a provisional yes. Don't disappoint me."

"I'll try not to, Sir."

"Good." Jack looked at his watch. "I'm late to do... general things. You go make yourself useful and keep McKay from scaring the lab techs. They're starting to take sick days."

"Starting to feel like home, then, Sir." Sheppard offered a cautious smile.

"Don't get too comfortable, Major. I don't think you're staying long."

Sheppard saluted him crisply. Jack returned it and then watched him leave the commissary. Weir would get what she wanted and Sheppard would get what he wanted and Atlantis would be better off for it.