Title: The Culling
Author: Keira Marcos
Series title: The Sentinels of Atlantis
Series Order: 6
Fandom: Sentinel/Stargate Fusion
Rating: NC-17 (sexual content, violence)
Pairings: McKay/Sheppard, Teyla/Ronon (many secondary pairings)
Warnings: Explicit sex, adult language, violence
Summary: The Athosians dial Atlantis in desperation—their Guardian has been culled and they need sanctuary.
* * * *
John was convinced that Chuck liked to say “Unscheduled Off World Activation” over the radio in that not quite panicked toned because he was trying to be more like Walter. He sort of missed Walter a lot and wished he’d stolen him on the way through the gate to Pegasus. He and Walter had spent many a crazy ass night dialing the gate when they’d been looking for Vala.
Chuck, the Canadian, had his own charm but he wasn’t Walter. He didn’t smell like coffee and chocolate chip cookies like the tight-assed Air Force man that was Sergeant Walter Harriman.
John trotted down the small set of stairs from his office and entered the command deck area above the gate. “Cameron isn’t due to check in for three hours.”
“I know, sir.” Chuck took a deep breath. “I’m receiving an IDC; it’s the one you left with the Athosians. I’ve opened a channel but there is nothing but static.”
John activated his own radio. “This is Colonel Sheppard, please respond.” The scream of a Guide in distress was one that any Sentinel could recognize and it chilled him to the bone. “Teyla! Teyla, please respond!”
“Lower the shield,” John snapped at Chuck as the Marines on guard duty prepared for incoming. He clicked his radio over to the military channel. “We are Situation Blue.” He clicked over and didn’t bother to actively listen to the Marines as they started to mobilize for engagement. They knew their jobs, and what he expected from them. “Send your people through, Teyla!”
People started to pour through the gate in droves, and John was relieved when Elizabeth appeared on the stairs and immediately started calling out instructions and getting them out the way. She’d visited the settlement several times since they’d finally established communication with the Athosians. They knew enough of her to trust her, it seemed.
Rodney came from one of the side halls and rushed to John’s side. “Teyla?”
“Nothing,” John ground out grimly. “She screamed—she screamed like I’ve heard Guides scream in the field when their Sentinels go down.” His hands tightened into fists.
Rodney clicked his radio. “Teyla, respond.” He waited. “RESPOND. Goddamnit. Right now!”
John flinched at the use of the Guide voice. He’d only heard Rodney use it once since they’d bonded and that had been when McKay basically invaded the Sentinel-Guide Council and called their own to task over the treatment of Cameron Mitchell.
“He’s gone,” Teyla whispered hoarsely. “Culled.” The sound of harsh sobbing was almost drowned out by the crowd of people in the gate room.
“Come through the gate,” Rodney ordered. “Now, Teyla.”
Everyone turned as Teyla stumbled through the gate and she fell to her knees. Her small body wracked with gut wrenching sobs. No one else came after her.
“Chuck,” John said.
The gate winked out.
Rodney hurried down the stairs and pushed through the people that were lingering, staring at Teyla—at as much as loss as she herself was. He dropped to his knees in front of her and after a very obvious hesitation gathered her in his arms. He gasped and took in a horrified breath. “Show me.”
Teyla took a shuddering breath and went slack in Rodney’s embrace as she gave her mind over to him. It took seconds, and John watched with pain curling in his gut as his Guide took on her loss, her devastation.
“McKay!” He stopped just short of touching his Guide. “You’re going too deep!”
Rodney blinked and then slowly helped Teyla stand. He kept a tight grip on her. “Recall Cameron and prep a Jumper. They were in a Hive ship. It could still be in orbit.”
John started snapping out orders and barely acknowledged as Keller rushed past him and took charge of Teyla. Lorne was at his side as he entered the Jumper Bay. “Your Guide stays here.”
“Yes, sir.” Evan turned and went to get some Marines.
John clicked his radio. “Ford, Cadman—report to the Jumper Bay and bring something with a very big bang.”
McKay was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat by the time he had the Jumper flight ready and sixteen Marines in the cargo hold. Lorne took a seat behind him and tapped the back of his seat.
They lowered into the gate room in front of an open wormhole, and Chuck updated him on the Mitchell’s situation—too far from the gate to help immediately even with a Jumper. They didn’t have a lot of time.
“Tell him to haul ass back, Chuck. We’re going to disable the Hive as soon as we can so it isn’t going anywhere if I have to say anything about it. I want him on my six as soon as possible. We’ll need the Jumper if we can rescue any of the culled Athosians. Radek?”
“I’m here Colonel Sheppard.”
“You’re in charge; don’t let anyone blow up the city!” John shot his fellow Sentinel a look through the front window of the Jumper and grinned when the Czech glared back at him.
* * * *
They cloaked as soon as they came through the gate, the small forest that once surrounded the gate was charred black and still mostly on fire. The village that lay ahead wasn’t in much better shape. Fired on from orbit, John thought. He grimaced at the loss. He knew fewer than two hundred of the Athosians had made it through the gate.
“There is a huge ass energy reading in orbit and three smaller ones in the atmosphere of the planet. I’m not reading any life signs beyond animal life. I think those smaller ones must be the Darts Ronon and Teyla spoke of.” Rodney’s fingers danced over his tablet PC. “Ask the Jumper to do a full scan of the Hive—I want any information it can gather for me.”
John nodded as he directed the Jumper to start scanning and then pushed it towards space. He took a deep breath as they left the planet’s atmosphere. He’d been up in an X-302 a few times before he left Earth but this was so much more. The smoothness of it and lack of vibration was beautiful.
Then he saw the Hive. He grimaced. It looked like someone had knocked a chunk of Hell off and tossed it into space. Black, and wet looking – it was pretty much exactly like what an insect would build.
“Can you feel him?”
Rodney nodded. “Oh yeah, alive and feral. Did we bring the ZAT?”
“No.” John glared at him. “Simpson still has it in pieces.”
“I’ll be sure to verbally abuse her most stringently,” Rodney promised.
The hangar bay was full of small craft but empty of Wraith. The pure arrogance of that was a little grating. John growled under his breath as he landed and popped the hatch. “Cadman, study the scans of this thing and plant the explosives. I want this Hive in fucking pieces when we leave. Understood?”
“Blowing up alien ships is my favorite thing to do, sir.” Cadman slipped past him and dropped down into the pilot’s chair to study the schematic the Jumper’s scanner was building.
John glanced over the Marines. “We are searching for Athosians. Anything on this ship that isn’t Athosian moves, you kill it. Don’t let them get close to you—avoid taking fire if you can because their guns just knock your ass out and leave you laying there to be fed on. Aim for the head. Keller says their skulls aren’t much harder than our own and I emptied my entire P-90 into one of their chests before the damn thing stopped moving.”
They all nodded.
“Davies, Jenkins—you’re staying with the Jumper. Do not let them take it from you and watch for survivors. We’ll be sending any we find your way.” John clipped on the P-90 he was offered. “McKay, stay close. We’re going to have a hell of a time when we catch up with him.”
* * * *
Rodney snorted. “Dropped by thirty six in the last twenty minutes. Ronon is two levels down and moving like a berserker. The Marines are moving in squads on the other levels and you’ll be happy to know are kicking much ass. The Wraith weren’t prepared to be boarded.” He took a deep breath. “Do you feel her?”
“Oh yeah,” John admitted. “That’s a Queen, right?”
“That would be my guess,” Rodney admitted.
“Can you keep her preoccupied?”
“She’s very irritated already,” Rodney leaned against one of the nasty slimy walls and studied his scanner. “There are a group of life signs about two meters ahead of us. Looks like two Wraith guards.”
John was suddenly in front of him. He leaned and took a deep breath against Rodney’s neck. “Don’t let her hurt you.”
“I won’t. She’s kind of like a child, really. My little sister’s mind was more complicated.”
John decided as he slid down the hall and turned the corner that he hated the Wraith a whole fucking lot. They were decidedly the biggest assholes he’d ever met in his life and he’d done a six month stint in Washington as an Air Force liaison when he first joined up out of college. Additionally, a bullet in the back of the head killed a Wraith quite nicely. Both drones went down with thumps and the people in the cage started talking all at once.
John frowned at them and held up his hand for silence. “McKay, I need you to open this door.”
Rodney came around the corner, pulling out a fist full of connectors. “Yeah, I’m on it. Looks like there about fifty Wraith left on the ship. They are converging on the Queen near the front of the Hive. They’ve even stopped trying to recapture Ronon. He’s one level down but climbing. Pretty sure he’s heading for these cages.”
“Great.” John took a deep breath. “Who knows him best?” The tall man that John had met briefly more than once came forward. “Halling.”
“He’ll recognize me, Colonel.”
“Great,” John said as the door slid open with a nasty slick sound. “Fuck, this ship is just disgusting.”
“Yeah. It really is.” Rodney put his pack down on the floor, pulled out a plastic bag, and started shoving parts of the ship into it. One of the kids stopped, watched him for a second and then started helping. “Thanks.”
“Why are you doing this?” Jinto asked with a frown as he shoved a piece of the wall Rodney had knocked off into the bag.
“The more we know about them the easier they’ll be to kill,” Rodney muttered and then glanced up in horror. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that to you.”
Jinto offered him a bright smile. “It’s okay. Killing Wraith is great.”
John stiffened. “He’s coming. Halling you’re up!”
Halling rushed out of the cell and put himself in front of John and the rest of his people as Ronon came around the corner, his gun in one hand and a bloody sword in another.
“Guardian, do your duty!”
Ronon paused, and John’s mouth dropped open in shock as his fellow Sentinel seemed to shake completely clear of the mindless rage that had been fueling him for more than an hour.
“Sheppard?” Ronon questioned.
“Here.” John cleared his throat. “Teyla is on Atlantis with Keller. She’s safe.”
“Safe?” Ronon’s voice broke. “I thought… I lost her… I couldn’t feel her.”
Rodney shoved his samples in his pack. “She came through the gate on my order with the rest of your people. Sorry. I couldn’t risk leaving her on the planet to wait for us. She wasn’t herself.”
John looked Ronon over as he motioned the Athosians out of the cage. “Ronon, you’re on point. We have one Jumper in the cargo bay and Cameron Mitchell is in bound with another. My men are doing clean up and we’re ready to blow this joint. Literally.”
* * * *
Vala was standing in the doorway of the hanger bay, a double barreled shot gun at the ready when they came into view. She motioned the Athosians forward and looked Ronon over with a frown. He was covered in blood. “Don’t you know how to duck?”
Ronon offered her a grin that made her blink. “It’s not my blood.”
“Good for you,” Vala’s gaze connected with John’s. “Cameron is pulling back team four. They have an injury and lost radios due to interference. They are two minutes out. Cadman reports that we are ready on the explosives. She said something about celebrating her independence day.” She raised an eyebrow.
“Very big bang,” John explained.
By the time Cameron dragged team four back into the hangar they’d crammed everyone into the Jumpers. It was almost anticlimactic. They left the Hive cloaked and at a safe distance, John turned the Jumper around. “Cadman?”
Laura squeezed into the cockpit between Ronon and Lorne who were both standing. She offered a small control box to Ronon silently. “Sir?”
Ronon frowned at the box, and his thumb grazed over the button. Then he pushed it. The Hive shattered. It was the only way John could describe it—it shattered and burned like black glass glittering the space above Athos. It was pretty damned awesome.
Ronon swallowed hard and looked down at Cadman. “I like you. I like you a lot.”
* * * *
Ronon didn’t even look around the city as he was lead from the Jumper Bay. He connected with her heart beat first, filtering it out of the hundreds he was surrounded by, heard her voice next—saying his name, moving toward him. They met in the hallway heading toward what Sheppard had called the infirmary. She launched herself at him and he hit the floor— falling to his knees and shaking with relief.
Her fingers clenched in the braids she’d patiently put in his hair only the night before, her small body shaking with sobs she was too far gone to control. He hated himself in that moment, because he’d given her this pain. In bonding with her, he’d opened her world up to the kind of pain that couldn’t be recovered from. If he had died on that ship it would have been the most pain she’d ever known.
The life you’ll be saving is mine. Lorne had said that to his Guide that day they’d fought the Wraith together. The guilt Ronon had carried for the loss of his first Consort burned bright for a few precious seconds and then faded gently. He couldn’t carry Jonar in his mind anymore, not and honor the sacrifice Teyla made every day to stay with him.
“Can you stand?”
Ronon opened his eyes and focused on Sheppard. “Yes, Alpha.”
“We don’t bond in public. I don’t know… how that works for your people but we make every effort to do that in private.” John flushed as if he were embarrassed.
Ronon would have laughed if he’d had the energy for it. “No, we prefer privacy as well.” He ran one hand down Teyla’s back, relieved that she’d fallen silent and was trying to calm herself.
“If you’ll follow me, Dr. Weir has set up a room for you and your Guide. It’s in the infirmary due to our mission protocols but you won’t be disturbed.”
* * * *
Laura nodded and shifted under her Guide’s hands with a soft sound of pleasure. Soap ran in thick waves off her body as Aidan carefully washed away the smell of the Wraith Hive. “How about you? Teyla’s distress must have been a little much to take.”
“I’m good.” Aidan dropped a kiss on her shoulder as he turned her under the dual shower heads to rinse her. He would have preferred to take her back to their quarters but protocol demanded they shower in the large communal showers just off the Jumper Bay due to their exposure to the Wraith ship. There were others in the showers, the Marines, Lorne, Sheppard and his Guide, Mitchell and his Guide—all of them intent on each other. If the Marines had any kind of problem with the women being in there they hadn’t voiced it. He figured they probably wouldn’t—at least not now. He and Laura had been showering with SG teams for years with no problems.
The outer door opened and Aidan turned briefly to watch Dr. Jennifer Keller enter. She went to the place where her Sentinel had dropped his gear and efficiently stripped. He took note of the Marines who checked her out and marked them for discussions. Keller was new to the SGC and the men had learned the hard way not to even eyeball Vala when she was clothed much less when she was naked. Keller was a different story all together.
She pinned up hair has she walked to her Sentinel and ran one hand down his back. Lorne took a deep breath and turned for her, his face pressed against her hair as pulled her under the water with him. Aidan relaxed and refocused on his own Sentinel but he knew a discussion about team showers with Sheppard and Lorne was in order.
Laura offered him her shampoo over her shoulder he took it with a little smile. Suddenly, he missed her hair more than ever. When they’d been younger, before they’d joined the Marines she’d worn her hair so long she could sit on it. Now, it barely drifted past her shoulders. He sighed.
“What?” She asked.
“I was just thinking about how long your hair used to be, that’s all.” He lathered her up quickly, taking special care to massage her scalp the way he knew she liked and also to remove any trace smells of the Hive from her skin. “Remember our bonding ceremony?”
“You two had a bonding ceremony?” McKay asked from the next set of showerheads over. “Seriously?”
“Yeah.” Laura turned to rinse her hair out, her hands automatically bringing her Guide closer. She ran one hand down his chest and over the ripped muscles of his stomach. “We bonded at sixteen, McKay. We weren’t even allowed to be alone together for two years after we bonded. We had a Conservator act as a chaperone for all that time. We had to do the full bonding ceremony.” She grimaced. “I had to do my imprint in front of both sets of our parents.”
Sheppard sputtered. “Christ. What?”
“I know.” Aidan groaned and then let his head drop on his Sentinel’s shoulder briefly. “It was mortifying.”
Rodney laughed suddenly. “Wait, a full imprint?”
Laura grinned and patted Aidan’s shoulder. “As much as they would let me get away with which in the grand scheme of things wasn’t much.” She picked up the soap and started to wash her Guide. “But our spiritual/mental bond was fully developed within the first week of our meeting and by the time we were able to complete a sexual bond two years later…” She shrugged.
“Yeah, two years of foreplay,” Aidan muttered and one of the Marines across the way laughed. “That’s okay though—because we didn’t come out of the apartment we got ourselves on her eighteen birthday for two weeks.”
John laughed. “I bet.” He leaned his back against the wall and let the water rush over him to relax. “There was a big difference?”
“Huge,” Laura admitted. “It was like living in the dark with a flashlight that worked on alternate Wednesdays compared to what we developed after sex came into play.”
Aidan nodded his agreement. “I was missing a lot—things I didn’t even know. I had a hard time keeping her shields even and her senses balanced with just a spiritual bond.”
“So, do you think it was because she wasn’t allowed to do a full imprint?” Jennifer asked. “I mean, surely—she wasn’t allowed to taste or touch everything she wanted to during the initial imprint.”
“Okay, wow.” Stackhouse laughed. “Can we call a time-out on the sex bonding talk because some of us don’t have a built in sex partner?”
John grinned. “Yeah, probably should. I just got finished telling Ronon that we don’t sex bond in public but all this talk is making it difficult.”
Aidan was almost too busy telling his dick to behave to even nod his agreement to that. At least with his back to the rest of the room, he wasn’t going to pop wood in front of Sheppard and Mitchell. He closed his eyes when he realized they’d probably be able to smell him. His own Sentinel chuckled softly and slid between him and the wall. She tucked her face against his neck and shook with near silent laughter at his predicament.
“You are evil,” Aidan murmured against her hair. “Just so fucking evil.”
* * * *
“Our people?” Teyla asked softly against Ronon’s neck.
Ronon closed his eyes and let his fingers run down her back as he let his hearing spread out over the city of the Ancestors. He knew each of the Athosians by scent and by the unique cadence of their heart beats. It was easy to push the Lanteans aside and focus on his own people. “We lost thirty-three, but none of the children.”
Teyla closed her eyes tightly and choked back a sob.
“When it is safe,” Ronon whispered. “We will return to Athos and recover anything we can of your people’s…” He sighed when she shook her head. “What?”
“They fired on us from space—the village was destroyed. There is nothing left to return for.” She curled against him, her fingers sliding against his skin for purchase. “I can’t believe the Lanteans went after you. I didn’t expect it… when I called them I only wanted refuge for our people and I hoped perhaps the Wraith would cull me as well.”
“No.” Ronon turned abruptly and pinned his mate to the bed. “No, never wish for that.” He held her in place with firm hands and met her gaze with hard, angry eyes. “I’d suffer anything to keep you out of the hands of the Wraith.”
“My place is at your side,” Teyla whispered.
“I would sacrifice everything—even my honor to keep you out of the hands of a Wraith. If they destroyed my home world to kill the Consorts, Teyla, don’t…” He took a deep breath. “Don’t ever give them what they want.” Ronon watched her mouth firm up in defiance. “Promise me.”
“I won’t let anyone or anything take you from me again,” Teyla returned evenly. “Nothing. I couldn’t survive it again.”
* * * *
“I realize it was an emergency, and perhaps you forgot the chain of command…” Elizabeth took a deep breath. “But I’m fourth in the command structure. After Rodney, I’m the senior civilian on the base.”
John tapped his ink pen on the desk in front of him and wondered for the first time why he had it. He hadn’t seen a piece of paper on the city since he’d gotten to Pegasus. He tossed it aside and focused on Elizabeth Weir. “I’m aware of the expedition charter, Dr. Weir. That being said—we were in what I considered a combat situation and when it comes to such situations, there is no way in hell I’d leave you in charge of the city.”
She flushed with anger. “Are you saying that you’ve no intention of honoring the expedition charter?”
“I will follow General O’Neill’s orders to the letter,” John returned evenly. “And when it comes to combat or conflict situations—you are not suited to make decisions. You don’t have a military mind set. You also don’t deserve to be put in the position of having to determine who on this city can be sacrificed and who can be saved.”
“And Radek Zelenka does?”
John paused and then nodded. “He’s former military and no matter how he feels about it—his Sentinel gifts give him the skill set he needs to make tough decisions about who lives and who could die in the defense of this base. He’s Rodney’s second in command for a reason, and that decision was made before he was changed by the city.” He exhaled sharply. “I like you, personally, Elizabeth. I think you are a strong and intelligent woman with a lot to offer the expedition. But I have to tell you—you have no chance in hell of getting the Marines on this base to follow your orders. They are men shaped by war and loss—some of them have seen more death than they have life. The youngest of them, at just twenty-two, already has over a hundred kills under his belt. When he crossed the one hundred mark he went out and got so stupid drunk that O’Neill had to go bail him out of jail in Colorado Springs.”
“The civilians on this base…”
“Want to feel safe,” John interrupted. “Even you—I see it in you and everyone else. And there is Earth to consider.”
“You don’t trust me?” Elizabeth asked her gaze narrow.
“I think you would hesitate to make the decisions that I know are going to be necessary in the days and weeks to come.” John inclined his head. “Your first instinct when the Athosians came through the gate was to offer to negotiate for Ronon’s release.”
She opened her mouth and then closed it. “Yes. Yes, it was.”
“Tell me, look me right in the eye and tell me you think you can negotiate with a species that considers us food. Tell me you can make deals with them and you can trust them to honor those deals.”
Elizabeth flushed and then shook her head. “No. No, I can’t tell you that. Not after what I read about them in the Ancient database.”
“Yet, your first instinct was to try.” John sighed. “Don’t you see?”
“I see.” Elizabeth nodded, her eyes closed. “I see. This isn’t the mission we thought we had before us. It’s not about science or exploration.”
“No, it’s about survival,” John admitted gently. “I want to keep our people alive. I want to make it safe for you to go out and meet the peoples of this galaxy. I want the botanist to gather plants and find a cure for cancer. I want the anthropologists to travel the worlds of this galaxy and find out about all of these people the Ancients left behind but right now—that isn’t an option. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of alien vampires preparing to leave this galaxy for Earth and they don’t even know they’re coming.”
“I want to be an asset to you, John. Right now I don’t feel like much of one.” Elizabeth stood up and paced away from the desk. “I can’t just sit back and do nothing.”
“You can learn to handle a weapon,” John said finally. “Like I asked you to do repeatedly before we left Earth. You can help us build relationships and alliances with the people in this galaxy so we can form some kind of intelligence network so we can defeat the Wraith before they gather up enough of whatever they need to leave this galaxy and head for our home.”
“You can stop looking at Rodney like he’s a monster for killing that Wraith.”
Elizabeth flinched. “I… it was a shock, Colonel Sheppard. To kill a subdued prisoner—you, of all people, understand how wrong that is.”
“I understand on Earth that it would be frowned upon in some instances and an out right war crime in others. But we aren’t on Earth, Dr. Weir, and we aren’t in a situation where we can allow a Wraith to gather intelligence on us, nor are we in a good position to take a hostage. We don’t have the power to maintain the prison section and live at the same time. No matter how that Wraith died—he was dead. If we’d been able to remove that shield in the field, I would have put him down as soon as it came off.” John inclined his head. “If we’d brought it back, it would have starved to death in the cage. It isn’t like we could have met its dietary needs.”
He watched a look of horror flick across her face and fought back the urge to grin. It would be entirely inappropriate and would not do anything to maintain a healthy relationship with the woman.
Elizabeth huffed. “No, I suppose not. This goes back to that military mindset I don’t have, right?”
“Right.” John nodded. “You’re a gentle person, Elizabeth. You see the good in people and you’ve worked towards peace all of your life. I really don’t want to see you change but I know the situation out here is going to change us all. I need to protect our people, you included, as much as possible. I can’t be different than what I am.”
“The Sentinel imperative?” Elizabeth questioned.
“Yes,” John admitted. “And I see things in you that you don’t want anyone to know. You have no secrets from me and I know how scared you are. I know you aren’t sleeping and I know you feel it’s a weakness to turn to your husband for support.”
She paused and blushed. “I…”
“He loves you, Elizabeth. He loves you so much he gave up Earth for you with absolutely no hesitation. Like most of the people on this mission, he stepped through the gate thinking it was a one way trip. He didn’t do it for exploration, discovery, or even some misplaced loyalty to me like some others did—he did it for you.” John took a deep breath. “He begged Sumner. Did you know that? He practically got down on his knees when Sumner dismissed him from the mission.”
Elizabeth blinked back tears. “I didn’t… I didn’t know that.”
“Trust him and let him be there for you—it’s the whole reason he’s here.” John inclined his head and looked her over. “And get some pills from Jennifer. She has a few things that aren’t addictive. You need something or you’re going to start look like shit and we can’t have you looking like shit in front of the others.”
She glared at him and brushed a tear from her cheek. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re something of an asshole?”
“Yes. My Guide mentioned it a few times.”
* * * *
“You and Weir get things settled?”
John darkened the glass walls of their office and the door flicked lock with a thought as McKay settled in a chair in front of the desk. “Mostly. I think she’s chaffing under my authority but I expected that. She is a strong, confident woman and in other circumstances she’d probably be in an excellent leader for the expedition.”
“If we were still a scientific expedition,” Rodney clarified. “But, I don’t think O’Neill ever thought that was what we would be out here.”
“No, I agree. I think all of those years going through the gate taught him enough to believe that there is something stupidly evil just out of our reach 99% of the time.” John rubbed the back of his neck and frowned. “So, I think we might have a problem.”
Rodney pressed his lips together in a thin line. “It isn’t something we ever had a problem with on Earth. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been in the same communal shower with Samantha Carter.” He grinned. “In case you’re interested in knowing, she’s a work of art.”
John laughed softly. “I just bet. Jackson, too.”
“Yeah, really pretty ass but no one ever bothered her or her Guide in that situation.”
“Keller isn’t a known commodity and a few of the men definitely responded,” John grimaced as he said it. “I can’t blame them really; it’s a natural response to a naked woman. But what bothers me is that it wasn’t a problem until she arrived. They didn’t spare Laura or Vala a second glance.”
“There was a problem early on with Vala but she kicked one of the Marines’ ass for looking at her tits in a briefing. It was all the lesson they needed. Cadman and Vala—they are both soldiers. Jennifer is a soft, very feminine woman who doesn’t look a damn thing like a soldier.”
“Well, Jennifer Keller isn’t in a position to kick anyone’s ass for looking at her considerable and curvy assets.” John frowned. “So, it’s an issue and I’d rather not have Lorne reduced to feral homicide among our own.”
“Options? There is only the one big shower that has the hall from the gate room and the Jumper Bay. There are a lot of female soldiers on the base as well. Either way we cut it we’re going to be having unisex showering going on.”
“I was hoping you could encourage the city to coming up with a solution,” John admitted. “Maybe if you put a few engineers on designing walls that can be moved around and broken down—the city would give you a solution like she did with Radek’s situation.”
“I think she feels guilty about what she did to him,” Rodney admitted. “She caters to his needs very quickly—and Parrish asked me if you had reported feeling like you were being watched.”
John shook his head. “I feel… monitored to some degree but probably no more or less than anyone else on the city. We both know that the internal sensors are always active. It could be that Radek is picking up on them so acutely because his situation is new and he has no refuge from the city itself.”
“We should probably take him off world soon,” Rodney said then. “They could both use some time where it is just them.”
“Yesterday I would have suggested a trip to Athos,” John looked down at his empty desk. “Ronon said there seemed to be no reason or method to their culling. I think we need to investigate that—start mapping the worlds they’ve culled and look at the big picture. They know where Earth is, what we need to know is how long it will take them to get there.”
“We need to do a survey of the mainland,” Rodney said finally. “Radek would actually be good for that. With Parrish’s field being botany they’d make for a good survey team for finding land we can cultivate and if there are any natural mineral deposits we can take from the planet itself. We don’t have the power to maintain the Athosian population within the city itself.”
“I imagine that Ronon and Teyla would want to be a part of the survey team if they agree to settle the people here on the planet. If not we’ll do our own survey and help them get settled where ever they want to go.”
* * * *
Ford dropped into his desk chair and stared at the ten men who made up squad six. “So, let’s talk about Jennifer Keller.”
Most of them colored brightly and averted their gazes and Stackhouse just cleared his throat. “Lieutenant, I believe we all get the fact that she’s off limits but she’s an unknown and today—well we’re used to Cadman and Vala. They don’t even blip on the radar any more to be honest but Keller…” He shrugged. “Some of the men find her very interesting but I don’t believe any of them are a threat to her in any aspect. They know she is both emotionally and physically unavailable to them.”
“I know.” Ford offered a small grin. “The physical reactions aren’t really the problem at this point. I don’t think any man could expect you not to get a little interested physically. I’ve gone round and round with more than one man over Laura—and I’m not even a Sentinel.” He sighed. “It’s the aggression I felt that I have a serious problem with. I’m not going to point fingers but I know that at least three of you had far more than just physical reactions. What you need to understand is that Sheppard and McKay both felt the same things coming off of you—probably in far greater detail that I did because of their ratings on the Sentinel-Guide Scale. I’m only a level 4 Guide and I noticed it. I don’t even want to know what McKay got off of you.”
Stackhouse frowned. “Aggression.” He glanced around the room, taking in the two teams that had been called in.
“Yes, the kind of aggression that leads very dangerous situations.” Aidan took a deep breath. “She felt it too and if anyone of you makes that woman nervous due to your inappropriate interest in her—Lorne will kill you.”
“You think that zoomie could get the best of one of us?”
“Yes, Corporal Keener, I do and if you think otherwise you’re an idiot,” Ford snapped. “What you also fail to understand is that the Sentinels on this base have formed a pride. Which means that not only is Lorne a threat when it comes to Keller—every Sentinel on this base is. You crowd her, make a pass at her, or express any sexual interest in her what so ever – they’ll get in line behind Lorne to kill you.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “And that includes that truly big mother fucker they stormed a Wraith Hive to get back and bring here.”
“I thought Sentinels were supposed to protect the tribe,” Stackhouse murmured a little stunned at Ford’s anger.
“From outside forces and from each other,” Laura Cadman said from the doorway that connected her office to her Guides. “There are protocols when it comes to interacting with Guides—especially civilian Guides. I have to make allowances for Aidan that I’d never be required to make if he wasn’t in the Corps.” Her gaze swept around the room and settled on Keener. “You’ll notice that Sheppard rarely allows anyone to touch his Guide but I’m not so militant about it. Keller is a doctor on the base, she’ll be responsible for your physical care—she will touch you but you are never allowed to touch her back. Vala is as much a soldier as I am—she won’t wait for her Sentinel to avenge her when she’s perfectly capable of kicking your ass and shoving her combat boot up your ass.”
“She broke that guy’s arm three years ago,” Markham muttered. “She wasn’t even breathing hard when she was done kicking his ass.”
Stackhouse laughed a little and relaxed in his chair but he sobered after a few seconds. “I’ll take care of the men. I don’t want anyone forced to defend their Guide, Lieutenant. It would help if we got that Q & A McKay mentioned before.”
* * * *
“And you’re really sure I shouldn’t be there?” John asked, crossing his arms and staring hard at his Guide as he moved around.
“Look, they know that you are all going to listen in on the conversation but I think we’ll get a more honest dialogue if they don’t have to look at you while they are asking me what to do with you if you go batshit insane. Feral episodes are a taboo subject and mundanes know that. I also want to introduce Teyla and make sure they understand what she is so Ronon doesn’t kill half the Marines in order to make his claim. He isn’t nearly as civilized as the rest of you.” He shot the alien Sentinel a look and Ronon just smirked at him. “You’ve ruined him already—he’s smirking, just like the rest of you.”
“Hey,” Cameron frowned. “You can’t blame his smirking on us—he’s only been on the city for twenty hours.”
“Whatever,” Rodney waved him off. “Vala and I are going to conduct the Q & A. I’ll formally introduce Teyla. We’re going to keep Jennifer out of it. Parrish and Ford are going to attend but only answer questions if necessary.”
* * * *
It turned out that one hundred Marines could be eerily silent when put together in a large group. Rodney sighed and glanced towards Vala. They’d both decided to forgo any kind of lecture or prepared statement and to just take questions. Apparently no one had any questions.
“Okay.” Vala reached back behind her into the back pack she carried with her almost everywhere and pulled out a couple packages of index cards. “Let’s try it this way.”
Fifteen minutes later they had a stack of index cards full of hastily written questions. Rodney had Aidan and Parrish organize them into sections and duplicates – even accounting for duplicates there were a lot of questions. He took the first set that was offered to him and he glared briefly at Parrish who shrugged innocently.
He flicked his fellow Guide the bird and then cleared his throat. “Okay, first question—Are bonded Guides the property of their Sentinel? The answer is complicated and I don’t say that lightly. Sentinel-Guide pairs bond for life. The longer they are together the stronger their connection becomes so much so that often elderly pairs die within minutes of each other because the depth of their bond is so profound that they cannot be separated, not even in death.
“There was a time when Guides were considered actual property and were purchased by Sentinels in large auctions at least on Earth. We had some basic rights and could refuse to bond with a Sentinel after purchase and as a result—a Sentinel would often own three or four Guides who helped him but did not actually bond with him. Once a bond mate was found—the Sentinel normally released the other Guides in his care either to another Sentinel or to the government. I say care because once a Sentinel purchased a Guide he was duty bound to protect and provide for that Guide until which time their relationship was severed.”
Rodney paused and looked around the room. “None of us are slaves and even when we were collared and sold like cattle—we weren’t slaves. I guess the best term, though it is profoundly offensive, is that Guides in the past on Earth were considered highly valuable pets. They were used for their mental gifts and for sex with equal measure. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and the Guide Protection Act was put into place to prevent the abuse of Guides even within bonded pairs.” He put the card aside and drank half a bottle of water before going to the next question.
“Okay—why are Guides and Sentinels basically hairless except for head hair?” He grinned at that and then laughed softly. “Actually, that’s a sensory issue. Sentinels at the very least have five heightened senses. That means they feel everything hundred times more acutely than you do. So body hair on themselves or on their Guides can make for uncomfortable or in some cases agonizing sexual contact. Most Guides have their body hair removed permanently in Guide school after puberty sets in. It’s just easier than maintaining a daily hair removal regimen.” He caught the surprise from Teyla and figured she’d be visiting Jennifer in the infirmary after the meeting.
Rodney frowned at the next question and without a word handed it to Vala.
Vala read it then laughed. “Nosy little bastards.” She leaned against the table and cleared her throat. “I’ve heard that Guides are incapable of having a sexual response to anyone other than their Sentinel, is that true?” She ignored the snickers and offered them a smirk. “This is actually a question that our population has wrangled over for quite a while. A Guide within a platonic pairing is capable of having a sexual relationship outside their bond; however, such a relationship can cause problems for their Sentinel. A Guide in a sexual bond with their Sentinel is for all intents and purposes incapable of physically wanting another person as long as they are bound in such a deep empathic way that it can be painful to want another that way. In fact, it is distasteful and offensive for me to even think about it.”
She put the card in the discard pile McKay was creating. “The problem with a platonic bond is that Guides are by nature a very sexual and touch oriented. We want sex, we like it, and we actually like to have a lot of it. It is best for the pairing if the Sentinel just be prepared to give it up regularly.”
Vala grinned at the laughter that elicited. “If the bond is platonic and the Guide is forced to seek an outside partner, the Sentinel is forced to endure their Guide smelling like another person which is very offensive to their natures. That being said, in many cultures in the Milky Way galaxy it is not uncommon to find a strong Sentinel in a triad bond or relationship with two Guides. Or even a mundane female if breeding is a social concern. On my homeworld it is tradition for two Guides to seek out a Sentinel to share. They often form loose mental tethers to one another upon meeting and a compatiable Sentinel is added to that bond at a later date.”
“The smell is why touching a Guide is bad?” One of the men asked from the front row.
“Yes,” Rodney answered with a nod as Vala turned to grab a bottle of water. “As a Guide my first duty to my Sentinel is maintain the foundation of his senses—he grounds himself on my body and if another person, or a Hive or whatever—it’s going to screw with his ability to ground and use his senses effectively.” He glanced down at the next question in his hand with a frown. “Parrish?”
David took the card with a shrug and read it. “Okay—what do the Sentinel-Guides ratings really mean?” He paused and considered that. “All Sentinels, no matter their rating have the same gifts when it comes to the senses. Some, like Colonel Sheppard, have additional gifts but for the moment let’s concentrate on the five senses: taste, touch, hearing, sight, and smell. While they all have the same basic heightened senses—the United States rates their abilities to use those gifts on a scale from 1 to 6. The more control a Sentinel can wield during a situation the higher his or her rating on the scale can go which is why Sentinels are normally evaluated when they first come online and then again after they’ve settled to get a good sample of their abilities.
“The US is the only country that actually rates Sentinels. Contrary to popular belief, the rating system is not used to determine the acknowledgement of an Alpha Sentinel or Colonel Sheppard’s case, an Alpha Sentinel Prime. To put a fine point on it, only Sentinels determine that and they do it within themselves like hierarchy with a pack or pride.” He waved the card around. “In fact, one of the most impressive things about Colonel Sheppard was the fact that he is a very gifted Sentinel and still hid what he was for over twenty years.”
“What reason would a Sentinel hide his abilities the way Colonel Sheppard did?” Stackhouse asked from the front row. “What is an Alpha Sentinel Prime?”
Rodney rolled his water bottle in his hands as he moved on the table he was sitting on. “As much as anyone can say that Sentinels and Guides are free; in many respects we are not. When the Colonel was a child, a Sentinel of his abilities would have been taken from his parents and raised by the government. He would have been considered government property—and that law didn’t change until about ten years ago.
“Even now, Sentinels in the US are all but pressed into military or civilian service of some kind. It’s in their nature to serve and to protect—so it works out but I’ve encountered many Sentinels who would prefer a different life. His ability to hide what he is—well it’s a gift in itself.
“As to his Alpha Sentinel Prime status that has more to do with his additional gifts rather than his rating or his ability to use his senses. The Colonel is as empathic as any Guide on this city. That makes his needs as a Sentinel somewhat unique. There are very few Primes on Earth and we’ve rarely found them on other worlds at all. Ronon knew what John was when he met him; but at this point we don’t know what that means in regards to the phenenomon on his home world.”
Stackhouse raised his hand and cleared his throat when Rodney nodded. “Could he act as a Guide?”
“Not in the traditional sense,” Rodney admitted. “First and foremost, he doesn’t have the training for it and secondly his bond with me would prevent it. He can, however, influence the Sentinels under his command—calm them down or do the exact opposite if the situation called for it. His empathic burden is a heavy one—as heavy as my own but what makes a Prime dynamic in battle is his ability to spread out the weight of his empathy to influence others.”
Mouths dropped open and Stackhouse leaned forward, slightly horrified. “What do you mean exactly, Dr. McKay?”
“In the right circumstances, John Sheppard could lead an army of thousands into battle without speaking a word to them,” Rodney said quietly. “Those suspectible to his influence, Sentinels and mundane sensitives alike, would respond to every unspoken objective. Could he make you act contrary to your ethics? No. Could he force you to act to save your own life in a moment of fear? Absolutely. Could he dull the pain in your body to keep you on your feet? Yes, on a rather grand scale. There is an urban legend that a Roman Alpha Sentinel Prime once took an army of Sentinels into battle and they fought non-stop for five days. And when they won the day, half of them dropped dead from exhaustion. Is it true? I have no idea but I wouldn’t bet against it.”
Rodney glanced down at the next question and frowned. It wasn’t one they should be answering but the problem with promising to be open is the “being open” part of the equation. “Question—what did the city do to Radek Zelenka?”
Parrish reached out and took the card from Rodney and tapped it on his chin. “Dr. Zelenka had a previously undiscovered latent Sentinel gene. The city activated it when he touched the control chair and in turn also activated his ATA gene. We are unsure what the connection between Sentinel genes and ATA genes are. Dr. Keller is researching that carefully and the study could take years. Fortunately, Radek and I have always been friends and in that friendship we were able to find a path to a Sentinel-Guide bond. He is a Level 6 Sentinel and I’m a Level 5 Guide. On Earth, he would have been encouraged to seek his Guide among Level 6 Guides only.”
“Could another Guide challenge you for him if we returned to Earth?” Markham asked. “A higher rated Guide or maybe one who thought he or she was a better match to Dr. Zelenka?”
David shook his head. “No, such challenges on Earth are considered pair-bond interference and that is our highest crime. We are all honor bound to protect the pair-bond. The challenges in our community in the past were among Sentinels; in fact it was common when a Sentinel was allowed to own several Guides at the same time. It was how Guides changed hands and hopefully ended up with a Sentinel they could bond with.”
“There are a lot of female Guides on the mission but that’s a little bit misleading, right?” One of the men in the middle asked. “Most Guides are male?”
“Yes,” Rodney nodded. “Most Guides are male; just as most Sentinels are male. Traditionally, the protection of the tribe fell to men so from an evolutionary stand point it makes sense that it would be males. In the last two hundred years, we’ve records for just 203 female Sentinels registered with the Sentinel-Guide organizations on Earth. Besides Laura Cadman, most of you have probably met or at least seen one of them—Colonel Samantha Carter.”
“I met another one,” Stackhouse offered. “Major Anne Teldy. She’s a Marine. At the time I met her she wasn’t bonded. Can a Sentinel live their whole life unbonded?”
“Yes, while a bond offers them a protection and a foundation on which to base their senses—bonding isn’t required for them to live.” Rodney admitted but he frowned as he did so.
“We’re the icing on the cake, so to speak,” Vala offered and then grinned when Rodney laughed. “Who turns down icing?”
“Okay, what does a Guide get from bonding?” Rodney frowned at the index card and then sighed. “Okay, the easy answer is that a Guide gets everything from the bond but that wouldn’t answer your question. I’m stronger now that I’m bonded—physically, mentally, and emotionally. My Sentinel offers me the kind of mental shielding that I could only dream about before I was bonded. In that way, I am able to balance my empathic burden on our bond.”
“And sex?” Markham asked with a little grin.
“Actually, the sex and the skin hunger are a byproduct of bonding. I had a teacher in Guide School once tell me that the Guide is often just acting out their Sentinel’s aggressions and deep seated desires,” Rodney said, his voice dry and sarcastic. “I just think she didn’t like to admit she liked to be fucked and blamed her Sentinel for it.”
And with that, the last of the tension bled out of the room. Rodney watched the Marines relax and felt himself relax in turn. They all had to work together and survival was their number one goal.
“There are instances when it is perfectly okay to touch a bonded Guide. If we are incapacitated in the field, feel free to throw us over a shoulder and haul our ass home—our Sentinel will eventually thank you for it.”
“What do you mean eventually?” Stackhouse asked his gaze narrow.
“Well,” Rodney inclined his head. “If someone shot me—my Sentinel would lose his fucking mind. Don’t get in his way and don’t try to stop him. The battle drive is the most dangerous feral state a Sentinel can be forced into. They are fed by anger and incited by the smell blood. The prevalent theories among most anthropologists that study Sentinels believe that Viking berserkers were probably Sentinels. The blood will excite them, make them kill more, maybe even in some instances make them seek more of the enemy to kill when common sense would dictate a retreat.”
“And at that point they can’t be reasoned with?” Markham asked with a raised eyebrow.
“No. Your best option is to tuck in behind them, watch their back, and get his Guide on the scene as fast as you can.”
“Can they come out of a feral state by themselves?”
“Yes, but it can be difficult. I’ve seen Sentinels do it—but they were unbonded Sentinels.” Aidan shrugged when McKay looked his way. “I’ve been in the Marines for ten years, sir. Laura and I have seen combat in a variety of ways due to our pairing and our skill sets.”
“And if the Guide is injured and can’t calm his or her Sentinel down?” Stackhouse asked his voice neutral but not soft.
Rodney frowned because there was really only one solution and he didn’t like the idea of giving anyone permission to take his Sentinel down. “We had a Sentinel go feral on us and his Guide was unavailable…” He glanced briefly at Vala and felt the twinge of pain drift over her mind. “We had to stun him to get him back through the gate but not before he killed upwards of eighty Jaffa.”
McKay cleared his throat and continued. “Most of you have not met Teyla Emmagan.” He opened his shields slightly as the woman stood in order to get a good read on the men in the room. “She is the bonded Guide and mate of Ronon Dex, the Sentinel we rescued from the Hive ship yesterday. As far as we know he is the last Sentinel in this galaxy and his continued sanity and survival are dependent on his Guide. It is our hope that Teyla and her people will join us on this world and help us in our fight against the Wraith. If that is their choice, you will see her and many of the Athosians on a daily basis until which time we find them a place to settle on the main land. Due to the primal level of their bond, it is very important that you respect her space and never, ever give her a reason to fear you. You do not touch her unless you literally have no choice—emergencies only. You do not speak to her unless she speaks to you first.”
One of the female Marines leaned forward and took a deep breath. “That seems kind of isolating for her, sir.”
“Yes, it might from your perspective, Sergeant Mehra.” Rodney paused and considered his words carefully. The last thing he wanted to imply was that Ronon or his Guide were primitive. It wasn’t anything like that. “Ronon suffered an immense, incomprehensible loss when his world was destroyed by the Wraith. This loss was recently compounded by the loss of Athos—a planet that he had established as his territory. Territorial imperatives differ for individual Sentinels on Earth to a large degree and due to the transitory nature of our population—mostly especially our military population—it is muted by circumstances. There are always exceptions to this rule but for the most part, Sentinels on Earth can shift their territory at will.”
“That isn’t the case with Sentinel Dex?” Stackhouse questioned. “He appears to be comfortable on the city.”
“I believe he will adjust to the new location, his new mission, and the loss of many within his personal tribe but it will take time. As it stands, the only true territory that Ronon can currently claim is his Guide. Yes, that sounds crude or even barbaric but it isn’t. It’s a coping mechanism of sorts and any Sentinel on this city could be driven to it. If you intrude upon his territory, he may kill you before he can think to do otherwise.”
Mehra nodded. “Okay, how do help the big guy get settled besides what you’ve mentioned?”
“Colonel Sheppard is going to insert Sentinel Dex into the training schedule as time allows. He served in his own military on Sateda until he was forced to accept other responsibilities due to his own Sentinel rank, which was that of a Specialist. This rank is equal with a regional Alpha on Earth.”
* * * *
It had taken exactly eight days for one of the Marines to fashion a rope ladder and attach it to the east pier, shortly after they’d realized that the city’s unique design created a series of sea water pools between the piers that allowed water to flow in and out but no substantial sea life. John didn’t know if they were supposed to be recreational but it wasn’t often that he ventured out to the area the Marines had taken the time to clean up that it wasn’t being used.
“How deep is it?”
Rodney leaned back on his hands. “About thirty feet. Once your men got out here and started cleaning out the seaweed and algae—Atlantis filtered the water and small animal life she’d picked up on our trip to the surface. I’m pretty sure she’s using the pools for hydropower. We are sitting right in the middle of the strongest currents on the planet. The water flows through a series of ducts, straight through to the other side of the city and out into the west pier pool. We’re still trying to figure out where she’s storing the power and what she’s using it for.”
“The water isn’t being pushing into desalination tanks or the sewers?”
“No, she has a separate system for that in the lower levels. It was one of the first things we checked on when we started working through the problems. Fresh water, toilets, and food—remain a priority.”
John nodded and then pulled off his t-shirt. “I’m surprised no one else is out here.”
“Maybe they think you want to be out here alone,” Rodney murmured.
“Yeah maybe.” He’d heard a few people approach and then drift away without coming onto the pier. “How are Ronon and Teyla?”
“Still a little traumatized but they are both making an effort to hide it. They lost people—and they both suffer for it. He feels guilty for the pain he caused her—she is just desperate to never be separated from him like that again. I understand her far more than I understand him—but that’s just our nature. I’d rather die with you than live without you.”
John flinched. “I wouldn’t want that… you know that. I’d want you to live.”
“I couldn’t survive your loss, John. I’ve known since we first bonded that we would be one of those pairs that die together. It’s better that way, for both of us.”
John nodded his chest tight with relief and guilt. At times he wondered if he would have agreed to bond with Rodney if he’d known how deeply their minds and souls would weave together. He wanted to believe that he could be selfless enough to walk away from McKay rather than face everyday knowing that their bond would kill him if John died.
With a sigh, he unlaced his boots and dropped them on the pier. “How about a swim?”
Rodney nodded his agreement. “I bet the water is going to be cold.”
“Nah, not too bad actually.” John said after extending his sense of touch out. “About seventy-four degrees give or take.”
He just grinned when his Guide huffed but started pulling off his clothes. When he was positive that McKay wasn’t going to chicken out, he dived off the pier with practiced ease. He felt the impact of McKay in the water fifteen yards from him just before he surfaced. The water was cool, but bracing and really quite nice. He’d been out on the pier a handful of times to watch or to rest in the sun but he’d avoided the water—not quite ready to dip himself in the salt water of an alien world. The water was rough but pleasant on his skin, slightly abrasive but not painful.
“What do you feel?” Rodney asked as he surfaced beside him. “Can you feel the vibrations of animals in the water? Do we have anything like whales or dolphins on this world?”
“Something whale-like,” John murmured. “I can feel the vibrations of their songs on my skin—it’s familiar. Nothing in the world feels like whale-song. I’ve always been able to feel it more than I could even hear it and the nuances of their language are stunning—musical in ways that I can’t even begin to describe. I don’t sense clicking like you get with dolphins, but there is something else—something mental that I can’t really get a hold of in the water. Do you feel that?”
“Yes,” Rodney admitted. “At first, I thought it might be the city but it feels organic. We’ve encountered aquatic mammals on other planets with telepathic abilities but not often. It could be the same animal you’re getting the whale-song from.”
“Could be,” John murmured. “It’s pretty amazing either way.” He reached out and pulled his Guide close with one hand cupped around his neck. “I love you.”
“I know.” Rodney pressed his forehead against John’s. “And it stuns me. I never expected so much from bonding. I think I forced myself to expect nothing because it was easier to think that I’d always be alone.”
John curled his hands against his Guide’s wet skin. “You’ll never be alone, Rodney, not ever. I promise.”
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