It was one of those mellow exploration missions, on a planet that hadn't been inhabited in centuries and where the wildlife mostly consisted of curious birds. No pressure today. Keep the vigilance up, sure, but they were here so that Michèl could examine the small, round temple a surface scan had revealed, and he would be at that for a few hours more.
Brad didn't mind. He liked the excitement of first contact and SRE missions, but it was nice to have a break. They'd left the jumper behind on the edge of the forest, about six clicks away. The hike to the temple had felt more like a weekend stroll like he used to take with his parents when he was a kid than a military mission. Wide-spaced, shaded forest thrumming with bird calls and clicks, the temperature comfortable. He'd walked point, listening to Michèl's quiet chatter with fond amusement.
The route they had taken through the forest had led them to an odd-shaped clearing, wide at the forest edge where they first entered it, then going up a steep hill and growing narrowed until at the top the lone little temple-like building stood in the V-shape. They could probably have landed the jumper at the bottom of the slope, but it was a bit marshy, and they'd felt like a walk.
He finished walking the perimeter and nodded to Captain Avery, who was standing over Michèl while the doctor lay flat in the tall grass to film the inscription on a lintel.
"Thank you Brad. We're listening to the Jumper's scanners, so feel free to just relax for a while."
He nodded and headed over to the huge flat stone Lt. Brittner was using as a combination of table and bench. She had set up a little cooking stove with a pan of water for coffee and tea. And probably later there would be lunch cobbled together from various MRE components and the berries and leafy greens she'd foraged on the way.
The team often 'ate native' - with allies, on markets, in local grub houses - and he'd had to use the Imodium a few more times over the past few months. He'd pieced together that the Lieutenant owed her iron cast stomach to an upbringing which hadn't been big on food hygiene; he suspected that meant 'The Dented Mystery Can Diet' he'd heard Stafford mention once or twice. She went for fresh food when she had the chance, and the rest of her team were the beneficiaries of her habitual foraging on foot missions.
Brad had always been okay with eating MREs cold, but he'd come to like these little cooking sessions on missions. They faced plenty of crap offworld, but these were usually the moments where everybody seemed most themselves, clicking together in their little circle, blocking out the world. Even last week, when they'd been huddled in a miserably cold and damp cave, he'd felt like he was in the right place. It was good to know these people, and be known by them.
He knew that Michèl still missed his ex-wife, and that sometimes he had nightmares about a Go'auld captivity he'd been through when working with an SG team. Brad had learned how to say 'Michèl, it's a dream, you are safe' in French. He knew that Captain Avery ran both the Dr Who and Firefly watch-a-long groups on Atlantis, that his accent lost most of its BBC air when he was angry, that he missed seeing his little niece grow up, and that he'd gotten together with Dr Ingadottir due to the debrief sessions he'd had with her after he and Lt. Brittner had ended up married on a mission. And he knew that Lieutenant Brittner had emancipated into the Air Force on her seventeenth birthday, loathed being the centre of attention, always carried at least four energy bars on her person, and was finally relaxing around him because she'd stopped feeling she had to prove herself all the time.
That last thing had slowly happened as he'd tried to dump his ideas about what a woman in the military could or should be like. It had helped that they'd exchanged knowledge - she helped him with his Gate Warfare report, he'd been teaching her about covert assault. She was probably never going to have the aggressive attitude to match, but her skills were coming long.
(He wouldn't realise until much later that maybe she'd deliberately asked him to teach her something in return, to level them out somehow. After all, she could have asked Captain Avery or Gunny Warszawski to teach her a long time ago.)
They knew about him too, and that felt strangely liberating - about how his ex-fiancé had left him for his best friend, about how he'd ended up in Military school, about his despair in Iraq. About his deep seated need to feel like he was making the world better, not worse. They even knew what he meant when he said he was going to crawl under the jumper for a bit, even though you couldn't actually crawl under a jumper. But maybe he'd gotten lucky with a team that already understood the LTs need for alone time, because as long as Brad maintained a line of sight, they were generally happy to give him some space.
Not right now though. Right now he was happy to watch his sector on this peaceful planet and listen to Michèl's excited speculation about the little temple. Brad dug out his collapsible cup - a new one, because they were popular trade items and the team often gave them away on first contact missions - and put it next to the three the LT had already set out. He dug around in the pack of communal supplies they'd brought from the mission crate in the jumper and prepared the cups. Black coffee for himself, teabag and UTH milk for the Captain, coffee with creamer and sugar for Michèl, black with sugar for the LT.
* * *
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
He half expected the LT to give him shit for asking to ask a question, but she just turned to him with an expectant look. He cleared his throat, suddenly awkward.
"Dating," he finally said. "Female members of the military here. How.. do you..." he gestured, frustrated.
"Oh." She looked at the horizon, a tiny smile playing about her lips. "Dusty, huh?"
He grimaced, unsure if it boded well that she knew about his interest in Mehra. Despite his efforts the feelings hadn't faded, though he thought he mostly had them under control. He enjoyed her company, and hoped he could be content if that was all it ever would be. She sparred with him sometimes now in BJJ class, and he was grateful for how good she was - there was basically no time to focus on how the very hot woman was pressed up close against him, because he was too busy trying not to get armbarred or choked the fuck out.
"I used to take lunch with her a lot, but the last few months I've felt that would be intruding on sergeanty bonding time," she explained. "That's personal observation, it's not big around the base or anything like that."
"That's a relief."
"It is, isn't it?" she said, searching his face. He had the odd feeling she was drawing some new conclusions about him. "Well, that's good."
He waited a moment, but there wasn't going to be a free explanation for that comment. If he wanted more, he'd have to ask.
"Any specific reason for that..." he hesitated. "Ma'am?"
"We're not having this conversation if you're going to call me ma'am, Brad," she said mildly.
"Lee. I'm sorry, still getting used to that."
"All right. Well, because the main thing I would be looking for, if I was her, would be 'can this guy be discrete, or is he going to blab to his mates about getting some'. There's a lot on the line for her. You'd better damn well be worth it."
"It wouldn't be against the regs," he said, but hesitantly, because as the words left his mouth he got an idea of what she'd meant.
"It's a dicey issue for any of the military women in the city, but she's the Semper Fu instructor."
Her position. That hadn't really occurred to him before, that if things crashed and burned, for him the repercussions would be social, but for her they might be professional. Hell, even if things went well, word got around that sergeant Mehra was sleeping with a Marine, the level of shit she got in the classes she taught could compromise her position of authority. If she ever agreed to date him, she automatically made herself far, far more vulnerable than he did.
He was really glad that he'd changed his mind about asking her out, when he'd first thought about it. He was only just beginning to understand just how hard people like Lee, Laura and Dusty had to fight to prove their worth. He'd been part of that; he distinctly remembered deciding that he'd wait for Lt. Brittner to prove herself to him. While as the newcomer, it really should have been the other way around and that had never even occurred to him at the time.
The water boiled, and she busied herself with making coffee and tea. As she walked past him with the cups for Michèl and the Captain, she said
"Just... let her gather the evidence of who you are, okay?"
He made a little hum of acknowledgement, settling down with his legs stretched out. It occurred to him that that was what had ended up happening with her. As far as he could tell, no one single moment of working with him had changed her mind. She'd needed time to observe him, gather the evidence of who he was and what kind of teammate he would be. He remembered how he'd considered confronting her about accepting him, and was glad he hadn't. She'd had sound reasons for taking her time - pressing her would probably have resulted in the exact opposite of acceptance.
She returned and sat back down, at an angle to him so they could each easily oversee their sector. They had a device with them that was linked to the Jumper's long range scanners, so they'd know if anybody breached airspace, but vigilance was a deeply ingrained habit for both of them.
He had half expected an 'If you break her heart' speech, and chided himself - it didn't work like that. Dusty was responsible for her own heart, and things would play out between them as they would. If word ended up all over the base though, he was pretty sure then somebody would want to have a Talk with him.
The silence stretched comfortably. In the distance a bird made a vaguely owl-like sound.
"Bryan's a good guy," he offered eventually.
She made a non-committal sound that might have meant 'uh-huh' or 'oh yeah?' - he couldn't tell. It wasn't more than he'd expected, though he'd vaguely hoped she would give him something to go on. He'd seen the odd look to suggest there was interest there, but that was it. Maybe it was just a field medic kind of bonding. He wasn't actually sure if anything between them would be against the frat regs, and how much that mattered on Atlantis. Then again, she was private enough that he probably wouldn't ever know more than that.
Still, he suspected that her opinion of him meant something to Dusty, and if his opinion of Bryan meant something to her, maybe he'd just given her a nudge.
* * *
In the weeks after that conversation, Brad wondered if it was even possible to have a relationship on Atlantis if nobody was allowed to know. On Earth you could at least go out somewhere nobody knew either of you. On Atlantis? Not possible. And even if it were, he wasn't sure that was something he was interested in, having to be a secret. Being discrete was one thing - he wasn't ever going to offer the details of a relationship up as barrack talk, and he didn't particularly want to hold hands in the mess hall. It was a whole new step to outright subterfuge though.
Dusty didn't seem to behave any differently, so maybe the LT hadn't talked about him at all. Which was a relief. Mostly. Probably.
He was just beginning to think it had been the LTs way of telling him to forget the whole idea, when she sent him and Dusty to take care of the gear after a Rescue Diving training session. Changing filters and doing the full gear check would take at least an hour, and the rescue gear storage space was on Maker Street. He wasn't sure if he should thank her or curse her for having him spend an hour of unguarded time with the woman he was trying not to feel more than friendly feelings for. She was surprisingly easy to talk to when they were alone.
Dusty had an ex husband, also a Marine - "He was going on deployment, marrying seemed like the thing to do". Apparently he had grown more and more unpleasant when she got promoted to sergeant ahead of him. When she was selected for the Stargate Program the relationship had crashed, the guy unable to accept that he wasn't the superior Marine in their relationship. "It was better, anyway - no way would I have been able to keep all the amazing new shit I was seeing a secret."
It was becoming easier to tell somebody about his ex-fiance and his best friend.. or ex-best friend. He hadn't had contact with them since before he'd left for Atlantis, and so far removed from them, he no longer felt the pressure to be okay with what they'd done. It may not have been their purpose to hurt him, but they'd treated him pretty poorly, and not forcing himself to be a good sport about it anymore felt like a liberation.
They traded funny mission stories - Dusty hadn't heard about the weird orgy ritual, which surprised Brad, he'd been sure the LT would have shared that one. She didn't seem to have told Dusty about Brad's interest in her either, and he wondered what the two women did talk about. He'd always thought that talking about men was an essential part of female friendships. He couldn't imagine them talking about shoes or handbags either. What did that leave?
She laughed when he came to the part about the Tetris tournament, and confirmed that rituals involving nakedness weren't all that rare, though teams could usually negotiate their way out of them.
In her time at the SGC Dusty had come back on "an OS31 and several OS32s" - which apparently referred to the medical symptom codes of 'stoned' and 'drunk', and that made a lot of sense with just how amused Bryan had been about some of the symptom lists he'd had to memorise. She'd also once nearly been snaked, and told him in graphic detail about what a Go'auld larvae looked like. He thought he might see the thing in his nightmares a time or two. She liked fighting the Wraith better than the Ori war she'd been involved in at the SGC - which made sense. Religious fundamentalists vs. inhuman lifesuckers? He had yet to meet the Marine who didn't prefer the moral simplicity of fighting the Wraith.
The door was open, and the general noise of Maker Street gave them privacy to talk without making it feel like an illicit meeting. Blow torch, hammering, the distant rumble of the garbage compactor, everything underscored by ABBA on the radio (and HOW had it come to him recognising ABBA songs of all things?) Even when people walked past the open door - Ops/Tech was its own self-contained little universe with a far more civilian culture than the Anthill, and he doubted that anybody here would care.
Until today he'd mostly encountered Dusty's hard edges, but away from the ever present audience of the mess hall she was also funny, smart and surprisingly sweet.
He was still, even after all this time, sometimes struggling with how to relate to the women in Atlantis. He'd started out with the categories 'women' (to be protected) and 'professional military' (gender ignored as much as possible). Getting to know his LTs. had lead to a third category: 'team', which had its own rules altogether. Rules that were becoming increasingly transparent as LT Brittner grew more comfortable with him and he was coming to trust that she would tell him when she needed backup.
Dusty wasn't team though - thank fuck for that, because falling for a team member really wasn't ever a good idea even in Atlantis. And he didn't work with her, but she was still professional military and entitled to all the respect that came with it. He just wasn't sure where that left him, because there was definitely no way to ignore her gender, nor did he want to.
As they finished up the diving gear check and - reluctantly, he thought, and not just from his side - parted at the transporter, it occurred to him that Dusty might still be figuring this out, too.
Jesus Christ, Sergeant Brad Colbert is mooning. He is standing in line for chow, eyes on the NCO table, where Dusty is telling the group about the Chemistry vs Medical screaming match she sorted out that morning. And he might not be easy to read, but Laura Cadman spends plenty of time with people who are hard to read, because she sees a serious lack of detachment when Brad looks at Dusty Mehra.
She suspects that while Brad gets plenty of female attention, the point where any of it involves feelings might actually be relatively new to him. And from what she sees, there are definitely feelings involved here.
The thing is, she's pretty sure it's reciprocated. Given how outright hostile Dusty started out toward Brad... it had been partly because Dusty had really wanted that position on AR4, and partly because Lee didn't want him on the team and Dusty was BFF-obligated not to like him. Given all that, the way Dusty looks at him now? These two totally should get a table for two.
It's not happening though.
Possibly Dusty is taking too much of a page from Lee's book, who considers relationships to be something akin to OpSec - which makes sense when you know that there are solid reasons for Lee's relationships to have to stay under the radar. Dusty and Brad? Not so much. No regs against them getting together. Sure, discretion is the way to go when you live in a place like Atlantis, and Dusty deals with enough crap from the Marines she teaches hand-to-hand that she shouldn't skip around the messroom with Brad, holding hands.
Laura snorts at that mental image. Yeah, Brad totally seems the type to spread the details of his love life all over the city.
The funny thing is that Lee has, in her own way, done a bit of matchmaking. Okay, maybe not matchmaking, but Laura knows her teammate has given the lovebirds a few opportunities to spend time together. Lee being Lee though, she won't go further than create some space for the two of them to figure out of they like each other, and it's becoming increasingly clear to Laura that that isn't going to be enough.
That's okay, that's why Laura likes being on a team with different personalities. They supplement each other. The subtle approach clearly isn't doing it, and now it's her turn to step in.
She's still pondering if there's any way she can use explosives to bring those two together, just because it would be an epic entry to the list of 'Things Lt. Cadman Accomplished With C4' she knows is being kept by Sgt Meyers.
But seriously, if they don't get on with it and stop mooning she is going to shove them together and lock them into the very special room they recently discovered in sector 4E. Those Ancients were seriously kinky fuckers.