Title: An Empty Coffin
Series: Hold My Coffee
Series Order: 2
Author: Keira Marcos
Betas: Ladyholder & Jilly James
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Relationship: Meredith McKay/John Sheppard
Genre: Romance, Rule 63, Alternate Universe
Word Count: 14,940
Warnings: Explicit Language
Author’s Note: DADT never existed in this world, and LGBT people can serve openly in the military with no real issues to be had. I just didn’t feel like dealing with that utter bullshit. There is no major character death in this story. I don’t do that.
Summary: John deals with family and Meredith makes a discovery about Carson Beckett that forces her to return to Colorado.
John couldn’t really say why he’d left the Mountain and driven to a small park in downtown Colorado Springs to have the conversation he was about to have. It was the middle of the day, so there were a few people having lunch but school was in session, he thought but wasn’t entirely certain. He figured smallish children were in school the first part of May at least. It was in the high sixties, so he’d left the base in a lightweight jacket.
He’d been staring at his phone since he’d sat down. The first few days back in Colorado, he’d been focused on settling details including recruiting a Marine Captain by the name of Laura Cadman to his officer corps. She’d been at Area 51 with him briefly earlier in the year but then had been transferred out. He’d discovered she’d been sent to Washington so he’d asked O’Neill to get her back as he figured the only reason a munitions expert had been transferred to the office in Washington had something to do with how good she looked in dress uniform. He hated sexist shit like that, but more, he really liked people of any gender who liked to blow shit up.
He scrolled through the address book on his phone and selected his father’s name. It rang twice before it was answered.
“This is Patrick Sheppard.”
John’s stomach tightened at the sharpness of his father’s voice.
“Hey Dad,” John murmured and exhaled sharply. “How are you?”
“John, where are you?”
John grimaced. He hadn’t told his father or brothers about his assignment in Nevada because it was classified, and his current situation was no different. “I can’t say, Dad.” He listened to his father’s sharp exhale. “It’s classified, and, no, I’m not being a smartass. I just wanted…to touch base, I guess. I’m going into an assignment in a few weeks that won’t allow me to communicate with anyone outside of command for the next year or maybe two.”
“You were…” Patrick took a deep breath. “Don’t they care that you were a POW? That you were MIA for so long they declared you dead.”
“I can do my job, Dad,” John said. “I had some therapy—I’m fine.”
“I’m not,” Patrick snapped. “I haven’t seen you in over a year, John! You don’t answer emails…and your brothers. Matt says you haven’t called him at all.”
John had no excuse for that. His relationship with Matt had always been good—even when he’d run full tilt from the house to escape his father’s expectations and their mutual grief over the death of his mother. “I needed space.”
“I know you’re hurt,” Patrick murmured. “John…will you come home?”
“I can’t right now,” John said. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. “I have to concentrate on getting my people ready for the mission. There are lots of moving parts and personalities in play.” He focused on the bustling water fountain in front of him.
“You could be so much more…”
“Dad, stop, please. I really don’t want another lecture about my potential and how I’m wasting my life in uniform. Sure, I could have some cushy job in academics or research, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I never wanted it, and I’m way past the age where I’m required to even pretend that I’d be okay living your dream.”
“I just want you to be safe,” Patrick snapped then sighed. “Fuck, I promised myself I wouldn’t argue you with the next time you called.”
John laughed abruptly. “I’ve never wanted to argue with you, but it always happens.”
“You’re too much like me,” Patrick murmured. “Your mother always said so. David wants to talk to you.”
“If he’d like to apologize for fucking my wife, again…I’d rather he didn’t,” John admitted roughly. “I get it, they thought I was dead. I was never really angry about that part, you know.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I don’t even know what part I was angry about. Maybe I was just angry in general.”
“Nancy told me that you didn’t…that you just sent her the papers already signed without even a phone call.”
“It was what she wanted,” John snapped and huffed. “Fuck.” He stood from the bench and started down a sidewalk toward a nature walk. “What should I have done? Stayed married to her and watched them pine after each for the next decade?”
“No, of course not, but,” Patrick began then paused. He huffed a little as if he were frustrated, and John wondered what he’d interrupted. “They hurt you, John, and you have every right to be hurt, but you cut us all out of your life and frankly, son, after burying an empty coffin in Arlington that was a bit much for all of us.”
“They, hmmm, took up the headstone and stuff,” John said. “In case you were concerned about that, but the plot has been assigned to me so I’ll…”
“Get there eventually,” Patrick snapped. “Goddamnit, John, can you not be so fucking casual about your life?”
“Dad.” John stopped on the path and lowered his head slightly. “I’m not casual or reckless with my life. My job is dangerous, yes, but I’m not suicidal. Maybe that was in me at the start for a lot of reasons, but it’s not here now. I fought like hell to live, to get home.”
“I wish I’d known then what I know now,” Patrick murmured. “I wish I hadn’t let you go so easily, but I thought if I let you have the freedom you were demanding that you’d find your way.”
“And I did.”
“You chose such a hard and unforgiving path, John. It’s not what your mother would’ve wanted.”
“But it was what I wanted,” John said defiantly. “And maybe if I didn’t have to constantly defend my choices to you it wouldn’t be so fucking difficult to call!” He stepped off the path and up a worn dirt trail and walked as his father breathed heavily in his ear. “It’s always got to be your way.”
“Like you’re any different,” Patrick said tartly.
John laughed as he came into a natural clearing and took a seat on a little ledge of rock that led to what looked like a small creek.
“You really can’t tell me where you are?” Patrick questioned.
“No, I’m sorry,” John murmured. “It’s a highly classified situation, but I’ve got some great people with me, and my CO is a good man. Heroic as fuck actually. He really understands loyalty and what it means to serve. I trust him.”
“You trusted that asshole in Afghanistan, too.”
“That asshole in Afghanistan moved heaven and earth to rescue me when he found out I was a hostage, Dad,” John reminded him. “He came for me when many would’ve hesitated because of the regional politics, and he saw me home all the way to fucking Virginia, so perhaps you could cut him some slack.”
John just shook his head and sighed. “How is Matt?”
“He finished medical school a few weeks ago and is starting his residency next month. Right now he’s at home sleeping a lot.”
“Well, school was pretty rough on him,” John murmured. “I don’t know what to say to either of them, you know. I don’t know how to tell Matt that I’m okay and that being held hostage really didn’t fuck me up the way he thinks it should’ve. The therapist assured me that I’m not a sociopath.” He grinned when his father laughed a little. “As for David, I’m not ready to talk to him because, eventually, I’m going to have to tell him the truth of it.”
“What’s the truth of it, son?”
“That I was kind of relieved when Nancy told me she wanted a divorce, which makes me feel like an asshole. I love her and I always will, but somewhere along the way, I stopped wanting her, and I don’t think I was ever in love with her. I didn’t know it, Dad, because, Christ, if I did I’d have never married her to begin with.”
Patrick groaned. “The amount of guilt the three of you are carrying around is ridiculous, and not to be an asshole about it, John, but if you’re going to be deployed and out of contact for another year…”
John closed his eyes as he considered the mission to Pegasus. His father was right, he needed to make peace with his brother because it would be a fucked up situation to leave unsettled if he were to die in another galaxy. “I might be able to arrange a few days of leave in a couple of weeks. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll call David. Not today, but soon.”
“This number that you called me from is it your personal phone?”
“It’s my assigned cell phone for the next four and half weeks, but I’d prefer to call David. I just need to prepare for that conversation, but Matt can call the number whenever he wakes up and becomes a human being again.”
“I can’t give it to one without giving it to the other,” Patrick said. “Call Matt when you’re ready to talk to David because he will give the number to David the moment he can.”
John sighed because that was true enough, Matt couldn’t keep a secret from David or their father for that matter.
“How are you, really?” Patrick questioned.
“A little tired,” John murmured. “A lot of traveling recently and I hate flying when I’m not at the stick. I slept little on the plane, and my schedule is tight. I’ve got a great executive officer, and my admin is a force of nature, so they’re getting the mission in order with my questionable oversight.”
Patrick laughed. “Seeing anyone?”
“No, I mean…” John sighed. “There is a woman, but she’s complicated, and I don’t know what I’m doing with her.”
“Complicated, huh?” Patrick questioned in amusement. “Not quite like you, actually. You’ve always preferred the straightforward type.”
“Oh, she shoots from the hip,” John said. “And the mouth actually. She’s pretty intolerant of anything remotely stupid or what she thinks is stupid which would cover a wide variety of topics. I’ve never met anyone as smart as she is.”
“Interesting considering how much of your life you spent around some of the smartest people in this country,” Patrick pointed out.
John hummed under his breath. “She’s from Canada. At any rate, I’m taking it slow because I’m not sure what she wants on the relationship front and I don’t want to crowd her because I’ve got a feeling she’s encountered that a lot in her life.”
“Well, I hope your patience is rewarded,” Patrick said with amusement. “I’m glad you’re considering a relationship.”
John sighed. “Yes, please tell them both I’m not off in some backwater corner of the world pining after Nancy. I hope they’re happy.”
“I honestly can’t tell if they are. You know they’re both very good at putting up a front.”
“Thanks, Dad, just pile on the guilt,” John muttered and thumped his heels against the rock he was sitting on.
“Honestly, John, you’re the only one in this situation who has nothing to feel guilty about,” Patrick said. “No matter your feelings for her, you aren’t the one that violated the sanctity of your marriage.”
“I really hope you haven’t said that in front of her,” John said with a small groan. “They both have enough on their plate without dealing with your Puritan thought process.”
Patrick huffed. “I’m not a damn Puritan.”
John checked his watch. “I should go. I have a meeting in about an hour that I haven’t bothered to prepare for.”
“Take care of yourself,” Patrick said. “And come see us before you deploy.”
* * * *
Meredith left her quarters in the outpost putting her hair up in a hair tie. She was considering having it cut above her shoulders before the mission, but Miko Kusanagi was good at cutting hair so she knew that she could get it cut whenever needed and going to a salon wasn’t really an option at the moment. Reining in Carson Beckett and the gene research project had become a genuine pain in her ass, and she wasn’t entirely certain she could blame Weir for all of it.
Beckett was a smart man, but he was stubborn and more than willing to step over ethical lines to get results. The peer council she’d created for him was floundering a bit regarding the amount of information he had thrown at them in a temper. She’d culled two-thirds of it almost immediately and reset their priorities. He’d lodged several complaints with Weir, but the woman had taken the lesson Colonel Sheppard had delivered to heart.
After fixing herself some coffee, she used the elevator to go up to the dome for the meeting she’d scheduled between herself, Helen Simpson, Beckett, and Weir. Simpson was the leader of the peer council she’d set up for the gene research, and she’d pitched a truly unbecoming fit over the animal experimentation. Meredith wasn’t fond of mice, but he’d already killed over forty with his research experiments so far, and the man was currently lobbying for a primate of some sort to use as a human analog.
She snagged a muffin from the canteen and settled in at the conference table in the room across from Weir’s office. Simpson was already seated at the table and frowning at something on her laptop. Meredith split her muffin as she watched the other woman and finally sighed.
“He’s…” Simpson’s mouth firmed up as the door opened as Beckett and Weir entered.
Elizabeth took a seat at the end of the table and offered Meredith a nod. She’d known going into the meeting that Weir expected her to do the heavy lifting, and, really, it was her job so she only sort of resented it. The mess with Beckett was Weir’s fault, and McKay felt like she was entitled to be a bit peeved about the whole thing. That her own assumptions had gotten them to this point was a bitter pill to swallow. She should’ve paid more attention to Elizabeth Weir and the work the woman had done before joining the SGC.
“The peer council I assigned to review your research has some serious concerns about your methods, Carson.” Meredith set her tablet down on the table in front of her. “First and foremost, your request for a small primate to experiment on is denied. The SGC has a long-standing policy against experimentation on primates specifically. Dr. Simpson, as the head of biology, has some serious concerns about your animal experimentation as you’ve killed every single specimen you’ve used as a test subject.
“During your last phase of testing on Therapy 2D, you injected forty mice with your gene cocktail, and all forty died.”
“I needed a large sample group,” Carson protested. “I’d like fifty for the next phase of testing. I need to be able to measure the success of the new therapy I’ve created with Colonel Sheppard’s gene.”
“And what would you consider a success?” Meredith questioned and raised an eyebrow when Simpson’s foot knocked against hers under the table. The woman fidgeted a lot, so she didn’t think that Helen specifically wanted her attention but shot her a glance anyway. Helen was staring pointedly at her laptop.
“If seventy-five percent of the specimens survive then I would consider it a success.”
“And at that point what would be your recommendation?” McKay questioned, and she could already feel dread building in her gut.
“The next phase would be human trials, of course.”
“On a therapy that is successful with mice seventy-five percent of the time.” She cleared her throat. “So if you injected fifty marines with this gene therapy and thirty-eight of them survived then you would consider it a success?”
“All experimentation comes with risk, lass, you know that as well as I do,” Beckett admonished. “I would certainly work toward eliminating human casualties but I can’t and certainly wouldn’t promise a hundred percent survival rate.”
She wanted to throw up, and Weir was as pale as a ghost. Meredith cleared her throat and curled one hand into a fist against her thigh. “Thank you, Dr. Beckett, I believe that’s all we need to discuss this morning.”
He frowned at her but gathered up his computer and left the room. The door slid shut behind him. Weir lowered her head to the table, and Helen Simpson lurched from the table to grab a bottle of water from a small fridge. She brought back three and passed them out. Meredith took the one she was offered and rolled it between her hands in silence.
“Can we replace him?” Weir asked in a low voice.
“I don’t know,” Meredith admitted. “There are several geneticists at Area 51 and at the SGC who would qualify for the mission, but they haven’t volunteered. You have to know that neither Colonel Sheppard nor General O’Neill will approve of his research plans, Dr. Weir.”
“I don’t approve,” Elizabeth exclaimed hotly and ran her hands through her dark brown hair in frustration. “Is that my fault? Did I encourage that kind of behavior?”
“You didn’t help it,” Simpson said before Meredith could respond. “You were more focused on his results than his methods, but the issue is deeper. He doesn’t appear to have any sort of ethical boundary on a personal level. If we can’t replace him in the genetics research, you must make a different decision for the CMO, Dr. Weir. Moreover, I think you need to seriously consider a doctor with experience in a combat situation, because you haven’t made any consideration for the men and women in uniform who’ll be protecting us.”
“Combat…” Elizabeth murmured. “Yes, you’re right, of course. The history of the SGC doesn’t lend itself to peaceful contact. We probably need a talented surgeon for injuries.”
“And a doctor with orthopedic experience wouldn’t be out of place either. A physical therapist…” Meredith trailed off. “We haven’t assembled a medical team that could truly take care of a wounded soldier, and that’s short-sighted.”
“And ungrateful,” Weir said in a small voice. “I wouldn’t want them to think that we don’t care about their health and safety.” She pursed her lips. “I’ll speak with Dr. Brightman at length about staffing the medical department of the expedition and accept whatever recommendation she makes for CMO.” She took a deep breath. “And, Meredith, you need to go back to Colorado and find a replacement for Carson on the ATA gene project.”
She wanted to protest, but she’d already done all the research she could really do at the outpost and John was in Colorado Springs.
“Just try not to alienate Colonel Sheppard,” Elizabeth continued. “His gene makes him uniquely valuable to us. If I can put up with his high-handedness, then you can, too.”
McKay raised an eyebrow. “Has he made a decision that he shouldn’t have? I’ve been watching his mission plan come together, and nothing appears out of place.”
“I’m the leader of the expedition,” Weir said in exasperation.
“And the military contingent is responsible for the logistics, right?” Meredith questioned. “That’s outlined in the charter the IOA created and we all signed.” She stood and picked up her coffee and the uneaten muffin. “I’ll go pack and request transport to McMurdo. Would you contact O’Neill about my travel back to Colorado?”
“Yes.” Weir stood and took a deep breath. “Let’s get this resolved as quickly as possible.”
* * * *
Of his four choices for junior officers, two were adequate, and that was being polite. The youngest of them was Aiden Ford, a Marine who’d come out of Annapolis just two months before being recruited to the SGC. He’d been on six off-world missions before Sumner had marked him off as his choice for second in command of the entire military contingent for the expedition. It was the stupidest thing John had ever seen and he’d grown up in Virginia. He’d seen some seriously stupid shit in his life. It quickly became clear that Ford was very aware of Sumner’s intentions because shortly after Teldy had been announced as the second for the mission, he had taken on a sullen demeanor. That personality shift had John striking him from consideration entirely.
Sumner was lingering around the Mountain whenever he wasn’t on a mission. The older man made no bones about how much he resented being replaced, but he hadn’t gone so far as to criticize O’Neill in public for it. John figured the other Marine was waiting for him to fuck up so he could step back into the place he thought he’d earned.
Now he was sitting in a meeting where Sumner and another officer in the Mountain were complaining about John’s cherry picking. O’Neill was seated at the table but hadn’t engaged in the conversation at all. John figured that was permission to be an asshole about the whole thing and he fully intended to. Colonel Sam Carter was seated near the general, and she hadn’t joined Sumner and his partner in crime, an Air Force colonel named Frank Geralds.
“I also believe, General O’Neill, that it’s a mistake to allow Major Teldy on the expedition. At the most Sheppard needs a couple of lieutenants and maybe a captain but not the major he’s accepted for his roster. It’s a waste of resources.” Geralds folded his hands in front of him as O’Neill cleared his throat.
“John, your thoughts?” O’Neill questioned.
“You said I could have my pick of the volunteers,” John said. “And that is exactly what I’ve done. While Captain Cadman wasn’t originally a volunteer, she did volunteer within twenty-four hours of coming to Colorado. Frankly, she’d be in Pegasus already if she had a way. Anne Teldy is an experienced officer with over fifty gate missions under her belt, and I need that kind of experience. The two junior officers I chose, Wilkes and Granger, were both enlisted before going to OTS. They have a great deal of combat and leadership experience, yes, and I understand how valuable that is which is why I picked them. But more to the point, General O’Neill, how I staff my mission isn’t their business, and this meeting is a waste of your time and mine.”
“Agreed,” O’Neill said dryly. “Across the board.” He waved a hand. “Sam?”
“I figured they were both upset that Colonel Sheppard chose two female officers instead of honoring the suggestions that they and half dozen others have sent Sheppard’s way. Anne Teldy is easily the most qualified officer who volunteered for the mission at her rank, and she deserves the place Sheppard has entrusted her with. She’s an excellent field asset who has often been sidelined because of her gender. It’s been gratifying to see Colonel Sheppard staff his mission based on qualifications rather than indulging the caveman gender politics that are so pervasive even in a program dedicated to the exploration of other worlds.”
Geralds looked confused.
John snorted, and the older man focused on him. “She thinks you’re a sexist pig, Geralds. And I agree. Not a single argument you’ve given me regarding Teldy’s placement on my team has any genuine merit. Now I realize you said you’d pull some strings for his Daddy but I’m not taking Captain Ridges to Pegasus. He’s an arrogant little prick who gets by on his father’s amazing service record. I don’t have the time nor the patience to teach him how to be the kind of officer he needs to be. I certainly don’t intend to do it in what is going to be a remote operation in another galaxy where I might see a resupply in twelve months.”
He turned to Sumner. “And frankly, I don’t know what possessed you to tell Ford he would be your second if you were the CO for the mission. He’s so green and inexperienced he might as well be a fetus.”
“I should’ve been chosen,” Sumner snapped. “You’re here because of your genetics. You don’t have any gate experience at all. I’d be surprised if you’ve seen a day of combat.”
“Watch your mouth, Marshall, he might be younger than you, but he has four times your combat experience,” O’Neill said silkily. “He was too busy fighting for his country in other countries on this planet to come play with us before now. You’re looking at a goddamned hero, Colonel, and you’d best not forget it. If there is a medal for bravery to be had, Sheppard has it. When you were on vacation in Hawaii two years ago for a month, he was entering his fourth month as a POW.”
Sumner flushed and cleared his throat. “I had no idea.”
“No, that’s obvious,” O’Neill said and stood. They all stood with him. “And for the record, I gave him the mission before I bothered to have his DNA checked. His gene status is just an unexpected bonus.”
John watched the general leave and gathered up the files he’d brought to the meeting but hadn’t bothered to open.
“You’re a bastard,” Sam Carter said out of the blue, and all three men turned to look at her. John was just a little relieved to see she was staring at Marshall Sumner. “And you don’t respect women. Have you ever met a single woman you didn’t treat like they were weak and inferior? I told General O’Neill from the start that you were the wrong person for the mission because you’d never respect Weir’s leadership or McKay’s intelligence.
“You dismiss anything science related if it isn’t a weapon, and on several occasions, in the last two years, you’ve put civilians at risk in the field because you don’t seem to care if they live or die. The expedition to Pegasus will have over a hundred civilians on it. You were the last person that should’ve been considered for Atlantis, and that’s why you were replaced.”
Carter turned on her heel and left at that.
Geralds snorted. “You might as well request a transfer out of the program, Sumner. If O’Neill’s golden girl hates you—your career is going nowhere fast.”
“This is bullshit,” Sumner growled.
John left before he could get drawn into another argument with either man and only sighed when Sumner followed him out and right into the elevator. He pushed the button for the floor for his office and said nothing when the other man picked a destination.
“I’m going to file a complaint with the IOA.”
“I don’t care,” John said and checked his watch. “It’s really none of my business what you do.”
“You were really a POW?”
“Long enough that my old man put an empty coffin in a grave in Arlington,” John said shortly, and the doors opened. “The next time you waste my time with complaints about my mission, I’m going to drag you into a gym and kick your ass.”
Sumner laughed. “You think you can take me?”
“I know I can, old man,” John said airily and offered the other man a half-assed salute as the doors shut.
He entered the office he was sharing with Teldy a few moments later and dropped the folders on his desk. “Sumner and Geralds apparently think my XO should have a dick.”
Teldy focused on him and smiled brightly. “I could go buy one, sir.”
John grinned at her and dropped down in his chair. “Issues, problems?”
“Not sure actually,” Teldy admitted. “I’ve heard a rumor that McKay is coming up from the outpost nearly two weeks before she was scheduled and that there is some upheaval in the civilian positions. I had lunch with a friend whose girlfriend works in the infirmary, and apparently, Dr. Brightman has been scrambling for most of the afternoon to get people in from various places for conversations.”
“Anyone else leave Antarctica with her?”
“No, but O’Neill sent a private jet for her. McKay doesn’t travel military transport, ever, as far as I know. She threatened to buy her own plane two years ago because they tried to put her on a cargo plane.” Teldy leaned back in her chair and rocked a little. “Also, I’ve heard that two people specifically were pulled from Walter Reed for Brightman to speak with.”
“A former Navy surgeon named Thomas Grant and an orthopedic specialist who was recruited from the private sector about five years ago to deal with vet rehab by the name of Allison Porter.” Teldy took a deep breath. “It’s nice, though, that they realized they weren’t really prepared to deal with a field injury.”
John nodded. “The people from Area 51?”
“No clue what they do but their names are Waltmen and Deacon.”
“Gene research—specifically they’re both part of the team studying the cloning problems with the Asgard,” John said. “I read a report my first week here about it, and their names were mentioned. The research guy at the outpost used to be part of that team, but he was moved to study the ATA gene shortly after it was discovered.”
“Maybe he pissed McKay off. Getting on her bad side is a good way to get fired around here,” Teldy confided. “Everyone was really surprised you lasted as long as you did with her in Nevada.”
“Well, I’m not an asshole,” John said. “I mean, I can act like I’m not an asshole.”
Teldy laughed and straightened up in her chair when there was a knock on the door. Stern expression in place she called out, “Enter.”
Lt. Wilkes poked his head in the door. “Colonel, Major, we just received a huge delivery of supplies. It’ll take most of the afternoon to sort it, and SG3 brought about four hundred pounds of naquadah for the science people. Where do I stick it?”
“Weapons-grade or regular?” Teldy questioned.
Wilkes opened his mouth and closed it.
“You don’t know,” she accused.
“I wasn’t told, ma’am,” Wilkes said then grinned. “But I’ll go find out.”
“You do that, and I’ll meet you down in our storage area shortly.” Teldy stood as the door shut. “Unless you need me, sir?”
“No, go babysit Wilkes and Granger. Grab Cadman, too, unless she’s content petting bullets and boxes of C-4,” John said and picked up a pencil. “I need to have an unfortunate conversation with one of my brothers anyway. I don’t need an audience for it.”
She laughed. “I’ll just lock the door on my way out.” Anne picked up a tablet and went to the door then turned to him. “And I’ll keep an eye on McKay’s travel and get you an ETA ASAP.”
John started to deny he wanted that information but then gave it up when he noticed Teldy smirking at him. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, sir.” She flicked the lock and shut the door with a little laugh.
John picked up the phone on his desk then set it back down. He needed to be able to move, so he dug his cell phone from the front pocket of his BDUs and checked the signal. He had three bars, not a surprise considering the nearest cell booster in the Moutain was two floors down. He dialed his brother David’s number. He barely had his recently purchased headset in place when the call connected.
He sighed. “Dad gave you the number.”
“Yeah, but in his defense, he’d had a few bourbons by the time I talked him out of it. He’s been worried sick about you. We all have, and you just disappeared into a classified assignment without a word. It was a dick move.”
“I figured I was due one or two,” John retorted and stood from his desk. He rubbed the back of his head with both hands and stretched. “How’s Nancy?” There was a lengthy silence. “What? I can’t ask about her?”
David sighed. “I don’t know how to answer that question now, John. I don’t want to hurt you and I feel like anything I could say would be like throwing salt in an open wound…she was the first person you asked for when they got you settled into Bethesda. You were hurt and drugged up, and she was all you wanted…and…”
“Hey, stop,” John murmured. “She happened to be my best friend before she was ever my wife, okay? I’d have asked for her even if hadn’t been married to her. Nancy has been part of my life since I was fifteen years old, and I realize I handled the divorce badly, but it felt like failure, and I’ve never dealt with that well. I was mad, but it wasn’t about…I was just mad, David. It wasn’t aimed anywhere specific. So how’s my ex-wife?”
“I asked her to marry me, and she said no,” David admitted roughly. “She said she couldn’t marry me as long as you were mad at us, and she broke up with me, but then she changed her mind and told me to shut up.”
“She does that,” John said with a small laugh. “She dumped me three times on our honeymoon. I’m sorry about the proposal thing—I’ll talk to her. I’m really not angry with you for banging my wife while you thought I was dead so get over it already.”
“That was…a terrible way to put it,” David said in a frustrated tone. “You’re entitled to hate my guts, John. I betrayed you.”
“No, you didn’t, and not even the memory of me would’ve been betrayed if I’d been dead. I’m glad she’s with someone I trust, and it’s kind of sordid how it all started but only because I had the bad taste to actually be alive. Though for the record, Dave, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comfort a woman with your dick in every situation, so be careful how you deploy that particular technique.”
David sputtered. “You’re a jackass.”
“Better,” John said. “I’m serious about not being mad. It hurt, yeah, but not the way you think and I’d rather not say more than that. I’ll be happy for you both as long as you’re happy together, but if you hurt her, David, I’ll put you in a full body cast, which would upset Dad.”
“She’s pissed at you for sending her the divorce papers in the mail and for giving her the house. She sold it and donated the proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project.”
“I never liked that house,” John confided. “But she wanted it—she has terrible taste actually.”
“She hates my condo and keeps bringing home sales fliers for houses that I wouldn’t live in for free,” David said. “I suggested we build something, but she insists she wants a historical home. I’m not going to live in a house I can’t change or renovate without permission.”
“Good luck with that,” John said with a laugh and dropped down in his chair. “Dad yelled at me a lot during our conversation.”
“I don’t think I can ever yell at you again,” David said. “Your memorial service was one of the worst moments of my life.” He cleared his throat. “At least until I had to look you in the eye and tell you I slept with your wife.”
“I already knew,” John said.
“I knew she was in love with someone else. It took me about two days to figure out that it was you. I almost asked her for a divorce before she brought it up, but then I realized that it would just allow you both to keep it a secret. And keeping something like that buried would’ve been toxic for all of us. Maybe I didn’t handle it the right way, but I needed to get out of the way—I needed room.”
“It’s your MO, actually, to retreat and avoid the emotional fallout. It’s what you did when Mom was killed. You were out the door and in college as soon as you could arrange it,” David said. “You were in summer courses when you weren’t even scheduled to start until that fall. And we let you get away with it, so it just became part of your fucked-up coping mechanism.” He paused. “Maybe that’s why you did so well being held hostage. I bet you stonewalled those bastards the whole time they had you.”
John laughed. “Yeah, that about sums it up actually. They didn’t even bother to kick my ass much after the first month.”
“Sometimes I regret that Dad turned down all of those DOD contracts. I’d like to feel like I built something that helped destroy that place where you were held.”
“I’m glad that he didn’t,” John admitted. “It’s nice knowing that you’re all focused on making the world better. So keep building green technologies and lobbying for windmills, okay?”
“I told Nancy I wanted to put solar panels on the roof of the house I’m going to build, and she said it would be ugly.”
“Then make it pretty,” John suggested. “Function and design—surely you can accomplish that.” Then he laughed. “But don’t expect her to live in that modern marvel you’ve got in mind. She’s no man’s futurist.”
David cleared his throat. “This new assignment for you—is it dangerous?”
“Yes, but it’s not in a combat zone.” John couldn’t actually imagine anything more dangerous than a potential one-way mission to another galaxy. “I can’t tell you more than that so don’t ask.”
“They don’t send Lt. Colonel’s to do wet work, right?”
“I was promoted to full bird about six months ago,” John admitted. “And I’ve never done that sort of work, Dave.”
“I hate that I can’t tell if you’re lying or not,” David said. “I’ll stop asking questions, but you know Matt will ask them, so you should probably practice being more reassuring before you call him.”
“If you have the number then he has the number. Is he that pissed at me that he won’t call?”
“He’s learned some patience, I guess. We agreed it was best to let you reach out to us on whatever schedule you had planned. You handle things better when they’re on your own terms.”
“I don’t need to be handled with kid gloves,” John said with a frown.
“No, of course not, but you’ll have to accept a little bit of coddling on this front, John, we barely got used to you being alive before you bailed for a new assignment.”
“You don’t get to ever give me a guilt trip about anything,” John announced. “You banged my wife.”
“I’m going to tell her you said that,” David warned. “Repeatedly.”
“That really isn’t the threat it used to be,” John admitted and stretched. “She’d probably get mad at you since she can’t put me on the couch.”
“That…” David trailed off. “I’ve just realized how horrible this situation could become.”
John laughed and put his feet up on the corner of his desk.
* * * *
Twenty hours on a plane and twelve hours of solid sleep hadn’t done much to put McKay into a good frame of mind, so when she dragged her butt into the main conference room, she just a bit surprised to find Sheppard at the table with O’Neill. Iona Brightman and Sam Carter were there as well. She put her travel mug of coffee down on the table and took a seat.
Her fingers trembled slightly as she wrapped them around her mug and took a deep breath. “Right.”
“Have you eaten since your arrival, McKay?” Jack questioned. “You’re pale even for you.”
“I ate,” she murmured and took a deep breath. “Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I had a difficult time saying something.” Meredith took a deep drink of coffee and exhaled. “Right.” She set the cup aside. “As stated in the email that Dr. Weir sent, we need to replace Carson Beckett on the mission, and it is my recommendation that he be returned to Area 51 in a non-supervisory position. He should not be given any further information regarding the ATA gene project nor should he have access to Ancient technology.”
“Take it from the top,” Carter said. “Because this seems extreme—I know he experimented with Colonel Sheppard’s blood without a permission form which was a breakdown in procedure and more of a clerical error…”
Meredith shook her head. “In retrospect, I think it was a mistake done more out of arrogance. Beckett honestly didn’t care about getting anyone’s permission for experimentation. Moreover, I took a moment to review the records regarding the project before I left the outpost and he hadn’t bothered to check to make sure a single sample was made available to him with permission. He’s done a startling amount of research on his own DNA and performed some genetic experiments in his lab at the outpost that violate international laws regarding human cloning.” She winced when Carter’s mouth dropped open. “I let Dr. Weir supervise his project, you see, and I didn’t know she wasn’t…qualified to do it. The IOA made her the leader of a scientific mission for the love of physics, and she’d been in charge here as well. I feel like an idiot.”
“What sort of cloning has he done?” Brightman questioned.
“He’s duplicated the ATA gene repeatedly with mice ovum. It was his first avenue of research regarding creating an ATA gene therapy. When those experiments failed, he requested and somehow received human ovum from the genetics lab at Area 51 and made ten clones of himself for testing. All of the specimens were eventually destroyed in his experiments as his main goal is replicating the ATA gene. I didn’t know any of this until after I met with him and realized that he’s pretty much Josef Mengele reincarnated without the Nazi part.”
Meredith paused when several of them made horrified noises.
“You see,” she continued, “I refused to get him a primate for experimentation and asked him what his next phase of testing would include. He admitted that once he created a therapy that produced a seventy-five percent survival rate with the mice he was using that he’d be ready for human trials as he would consider it a success.”
“Why in the hell aren’t you recommending he be fired and put in jail?” Brightman demanded.
“Because he knows too much,” McKay snapped and took a deep breath. “About the program, the Ancients, the outpost in Antarctica, and about various technologies we’ve gathered off world. It’s too dangerous just to let him trot off back to Scotland, Dr. Brightman. So there are two choices—we keep him close or he disappears. Since he’s not an American, putting him in jail for doing a bunch of illegal crap in the midst of a classified project would be profoundly difficult.”
Meredith slouched back in her chair. “When I asked him about human casualties, he made it clear that he expected some to die and I shouldn’t be surprised by that since experimentation comes with risks.” She waved a hand. “Weir sent the emails to Dr. Brightman about our medical needs and put me on a plane so I could replace Carson on the mission. I think we’re both prepared to go to Pegasus without any hope of the therapy rather than take Carson Beckett with us. It boils down to ethics, and he clearly has none. I’ve created peer committees as I should’ve done from the start to deal with departmental research projects, and Dr. Weir has taken a firm step back from the entire process to ensure that there is no question regarding the chain of command going forward as far as the science department goes.”
“Is Weir also a problem?” John asked.
Meredith grimaced. “Yes and no. She’s going to push the limits in a lot of areas, but I think it will be with you and your authority over the military that is more of an issue. She can boss me around and in turn boss around all the scientists under me. But you? She knows already she can’t boss you around, and it’s pissing her off, but she’s prepared to put up with it because of your gene. You handle Ancient technology naturally which is unique to you so far.”
“Why do you think that is?” O’Neill questioned. “Is it the strength of his gene?”
“I think it boils down to…” She pursed her lips and leaned forward a bit. “He’s not leery of the technology because he hasn’t had any of it backfire on him. Maybe he won’t ever have that problem because his first experience wasn’t getting grabbed by the head and getting mind-fu…messed up.”
Jack snorted. “Oh, you were going to the right direction the first time. Carter?”
“She’s right—we can’t put him in jail, and we can’t fire him. I’ll be leaving a research team at the outpost after the expedition leaves. I’d like to keep Beckett in place down there as a gene carrier, but I’m worried about the weapon’s chair.”
“I’ve put a security protocol in place,” Meredith explained. “It takes two sets of command codes, currently me and Weir, to activate the weapons part of the chair. You have admin access, Sam, and can change the codes at will.”
Carter nodded. “Okay, that works. Keeping him isolated at McMurdo is optimal at present. Eventually, I’ll move him back to Nevada but not until I have someone with a strong personality in place to run him.” She pursed her lips in thought. “And a replacement?”
“Carson wasn’t the only scientist at Area 51 interested in the gene therapy and the expedition, he was just the only one that had the ATA gene himself,” Brightman said. “It made him the logical choice to head that project, and it put another carrier at the outpost which we thought was a good idea considering the technology research going on down there at the time.”
“While his approach has been horrific, I did make a copy of all of his data,” Meredith pulled an USB drive from her pocket and put it on the table. “To be perfectly frank, I don’t think Elizabeth should handle telling him that he’s being replaced on the mission. I’ve never seen or known him to be violent with a woman but he’s got a temper, and he has close to seventy pounds on her.”
“I’ll take care of it personally,” O’Neill said. “Start pulling your people out of the outpost, McKay, and replacing them with the ones that Carter has chosen. Weir will stay in place until her official move date, and I’ll go down to escort her back up to Colorado. I’ll inform Beckett of the decision at that point. What is our game plan if he quits in a temper?”
“You can tell him that the IOA considers the gene research too valuable a project to be taken on the expedition and that they’re insisting that he finish it here on Earth,” John suggested. “They probably would think that if they’d bothered to consider the ramifications of not having enough gene carriers on the planet to run to the outpost. I’m taking most of them with me to Pegasus. You’ve launched a weapon from the chair, Beckett did it by accident, but could any of the other gene carriers accomplish it?”
* * * *
“Pointing out how valuable your gene is was probably a mistake,” Meredith said the moment the elevator doors closed on her and Sheppard.
John snorted. “Being in the military doesn’t equal slavery, Mer. If my superiors do something I don’t like or attempt to force me into a position I don’t approve of—I’ll resign my commission. It isn’t my preference, but they couldn’t do a damn thing about it.”
She relaxed a little and ran a hand through her hair. “How did I miss it?”
“You operate with a personal code that is concrete,” John said. “And you don’t deal well with people who don’t. Like that Rush guy who visited your project last summer.”
“He’s slimy,” Meredith muttered. “I don’t know why Carter lets him stay in the program. He’s smart, okay, brilliant in fact, but he’s pretty much a comic book villain waiting to happen. I’m talking death rays, island stronghold, and mutant minions he shaped out of rock and seaweed.”
John laughed. “Come on.”
“Mind-controlled sharks would patrol his border, and he’d have the kind of air defense system that would make the DOD weep in envy,” Meredith continued. “He probably already has a personal satellite launched for spy and communication purposes. Maybe it has lasers—space lasers.”
“I don’t think you got enough sleep,” John confided as the doors opened and they exited onto the main science research floor where she had an office and a full schedule of interviews already planned for her.
She used the code Sam had given her for the office and the door unlocked. “I got too much sleep to be honest. I actually feel hung over from it, and I don’t think it’s jet lag since I don’t normally get that and there is only a four hour time difference between here and the outpost.” Meredith slid into her chair and frowned at her desk. “I need to get my stuff from my quarters, I guess. I didn’t even notice if my luggage had made it there.”
John leaned on the corner of her desk. “What time will your last interview end?”
“Should be done by 3:30,” Meredith answered and pulled a hair tie out of her pants pocket. She whipped her hair up into a messy bun. “Why?”
“I thought we could have dinner tonight if you’re not still hung over.”
Her gaze narrowed slightly. “A date?”
John paused and looked so startled that Meredith wondered if she was wrong to ask for clarification. “Yeah, Mer, of course a date.” He rubbed the back of his head. “Maybe I’m a little rusty with this stuff, but I thought it was pretty obvious that I find you attractive.”
Meredith bit down on her lip. “Yes, well, a lot of men want to fuck me. That’s not me being arrogant or anything. I know what I look like, and I’ve got a body type men seem to like despite the fact that my tits are kind of small so I mean…well.” She shrugged and looked up. His eyes were dark, and he looked furious which she didn’t understand. Men were so confusing, and she kind of wished she were a lesbian.
John took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose which she’d only see him do when he was trying to avoid yelling at Marines in Nevada. It was amusing every time he did it, and she couldn’t help but smile at him. He exhaled sharply.
“It’s just that you were so standoffish when you got to Nevada,” Meredith pointed out. “And I figured you just got used to my personality enough that you put fucking me on the table recently.” She shrugged. “Most men stop wanting me once they get to know me, you see.”
“You’re really pissing me off,” John said in a calm, clipped tone. “But as much as I don’t appreciate being judged on the actions of a bunch of assholes you’ve known, I realize that I don’t have any room to be offended by that part. When I came to Nevada last year, I was three months out of being held prisoner in a terrorist camp and about a week divorced. You see, my wife fell in love with my older brother after she buried an empty coffin in Arlington, then I returned from the dead.” He waved a hand in frustration.
“What?” Meredith sat up. “You were what?” She stood and got in his space before she could think better of it. Her hands curled around the back of his head. “You were a POW? How is that possible? You’ve got a Ph.D. in math. What exactly were you doing for the Marine Corps before Rampart gave you to me?”
John relaxed in her hands. “Mer.” He took a deep breath. “I’m Force Recon. Rampart assigned me to Area 51 to give me a breather of sorts to recover from being held hostage and presumed dead for fourteen months.”
She blinked back shock and unexpected tears. “I thought all those black lines in your file were classified research projects.” Meredith bit down on her lip as she felt her cheeks flush. “You must have been pretty insulted to be given babysitter duty for a bunch of geeks in Nevada.”
“No, but Rampart told me he’d pull me whenever I was ready.” His hands settled on her hips, and she realized she’d managed to put herself between his legs. “Maybe I got too comfortable.”
She let her hands slide down the sides of his neck to rest on his chest. “So you want to date me.”
“I pretty much want to do everything with you, but if you’re not game for that, I’ll back off and never bring it up again.”
“Would you really?” she asked curiously.
“Yeah, really,” John murmured, but his hands tightened on her hips. “It certainly isn’t the outcome I want, but what you want matters more in this particular circumstance. I’m not one of those stupid bastards who doesn’t know how to take rejection.”
“No, I mean, you’d have to be better than average at accepting rejection if your wife left you for your brother,” Meredith said wryly and grinned when he blinked in surprise. “Seriously, you probably earned a gold medal in ‘being a grown up’ for not pitching a prison term level fit about it. In your place, I’d have probably commissioned a few voodoo dolls at the very least.”
“It hurt but not…I mean it hurt the most because I used the idea of her and the life I had with her to focus on while I was a prisoner. It kept me sane and centered. Coming home to find that the life I relied on to survive was pretty much gone hurt, but I adore Nancy, and I want her to be happy, so when she confessed to the relationship they’d engaged in while they thought I was dead, I agreed to a divorce and walked away.”
“Are you in love with her?”
“No, and I’m not sure…I’m just not sure that kind of love was ever there, to be honest. She was my best friend, and we’d been together pretty much since we’d started college together. I sort of let myself drown in that friendship so I could ignore my mother’s death and the problems I had with my father. He never wanted me to serve and made that clear from the very first time I told him I was going to join the Marines. I was ten, and he was completely adamant against the idea of it. I guess he thought I’d outgrow it, but I never did.”
“Why did you?” Meredith questioned. “You’re obviously very intelligent and ambitious and…why the military?”
“There is a long history of military service in my family. My grandfather served, and my own father spent ten years in the Navy before he was injured. I always considered it the best path I could take in my life despite my intellectual potential. I wanted to serve—it’s like the desire for it is in my bones. I knew going in that I was a career officer, and I don’t think my father will ever forgive me for it. Maybe I could’ve ignored it, but my mother was killed. She was an embedded reporter and died when the transport she was traveling in hit an IED. Three months later, I turned fifteen and arranged to start college classes. I demanded my father hire someone to live with me in an off-campus apartment so I could start school.”
“Young to be on your own.”
“I had Louise, and she was a complete nightmare, to be perfectly honest. Dad couldn’t have hired a better boner-killer if he’d tried.”
“But she was a great lady, actually, and she took care of me and Nancy who was in the same program I was. Louise ended up playing Mom to about ten of us, and we moved to a house eventually. Most of us stayed together all the way through our Ph.D. programs. Nancy works at Sheppard Industries in R&D. It’s the job my father designed and wanted for me actually, but eventually, he offered it to Nancy about six months after we got married. I was already in the Corps at that point and was deployed a few weeks after the ceremony.”
“So you sort of used your wife/best friend as a surrogate kid to placate your father,” Meredith said dryly and grinned when he huffed. “Kiss me.”
“That usually comes after a date,” John said.
“I don’t care,” Meredith declared.
John pulled her closer and pressed his lips softly against hers then did it again as she slid her arms up around his neck. She was in way over her head, Meredith thought, as his mouth pressed against hers repeatedly in a sweet brushing of lips. He tasted like coffee and chocolate which was distracting as hell.
“Chocolate,” she said as he kissed her jaw. “Why do you taste like chocolate?”
“The coffee in my office is a dark mocha,” John murmured.
“You…have chocolate coffee in your office, and you didn’t share it with me?” Meredith questioned. “That’s utterly dickish, Sheppard.”
John laughed as he pulled her close and kissed her gently. “I’ll get you some.” He lifted his head. “Dinner?”
“Dinner,” she agreed.
He released her as there was a sharp knock on the door. “Your first interview, I believe. I’ll send someone around with some coffee for you.” John pressed another quick kiss to her mouth. “And you can borrow one of my people if you need help with coordination. You don’t have an admin that I noticed.”
“Do you think I need one?”
“Of course you do,” John said gently. “Weir has one assigned for herself already for the mission. You don’t want to give anyone unfettered access to you, Mer. They’ll run you into the ground without someone to coordinate and manage the crap you don’t have time for.”
“I don’t have…any idea who to pick for that,” Meredith confessed. “I can’t task one of my scientists for administrative management—they have their own work to deal with. I think Weir sort of designed the diplomatic group underneath her so that Grodin was automatically put into that place. I don’t have that kind of option.”
“You could ask Carter about it. I’d approve an additional Air Force lieutenant if that would help—someone in my chain of command that is sourced out to you for department management. Would Weir question it?”
“No, I doubt it. I’ll ask Sam.” Meredith relaxed and motioned toward the door when there was another knock. “Get that?”
John unlocked the door and opened it. “Dr. Grant.”
The former Navy Commander smiled. “Pardon me, sir, I have an appointment with Dr. McKay.”
“Not a problem, Doctor,” Sheppard said and turned to focus on her. “I’ll send one of my baby officers by with some coffee. Feel free to keep him on standby if you need anything. I’ve got a clear deck on the supply front today.”
“Thank you, Colonel.” Meredith took a seat and motioned Grant to enter.
John shut the door behind him, and McKay frowned a bit. The Marine’s attention was flattering and exciting, but men made things messy. Also, he was entirely too hot not to be a complete distraction on a regular basis, so she wasn’t sure she should indulge in anything serious but she’d never really been good at denying herself. She pushed all thought of John Sheppard and his interest to the back burner as she settled into interview Iona Brightman top pick for the CMO for the expedition.
“Is there a problem, Dr. McKay?” Thomas Grant questioned as he took the seat she’d pointed him toward.
“No, well, not unless you count that whole thing where I sort of wish I were a lesbian,” McKay blurted out then blushed. “Forget I said that.”
Grant laughed. “Men can make things complicated.”
She grinned and picked up her coffee. “How do you feel about space travel and living on another planet, Dr. Grant?”
“It’s crazy and dangerous. I can’t wait to get started. I was briefed yesterday and barely got any sleep at all last night,” Grant admitted. “And you can call me Thomas.”
* * * *
John went in search of Sam Carter after he sent Ian Wilkes off to deliver an entire carafe of coffee to McKay. He found the Air Force colonel in her personal lab, so he entered and shut the door behind him. He sat down on a stool directly across from her. She had the parts of a naquadah generator spread out in front of her.
“Do I look like an asshole?”
Carter lifted an eyebrow. “Is that a trick question?”
John huffed. “McKay thought I was…I shouldn’t discuss this.”
“Ah,” Carter warned as he started to stand. “Keep your butt on that stool. Here.” She shoved the energy regulation system at him spread out on a piece of paper. “Put that together and tell me what’s got you all worked up.”
“You know Meredith pretty well, right?”
“Yeah, we’ve worked together since we were both at the Pentagon researching the stargate after the Abydos mission. She went to Area 51, and I came to the Mountain once the program was reinstated. At one time, I was the hunter and gatherer of technology, and she was responsible for figuring it out. That’s how a lot of the major advancements the SGC uses today were done until we stumbled across more Ancient technology and she refocused. I stuck with Goa’uld and Asgard tech, and she moved into the Ancients full-time. What’s going on?”
“She thought I only wanted sex from her and she didn’t even say it like it was a problem but like something she was used to. She actually told me that men stopped wanting her after they got to know her.”
Sam winced. “Yes, well, she’s…that’s pretty common for us both, you see. For Meredith, it’s because she’s brutally honest and comes off as abrasive. For me, it’s because I’m a workaholic and sex is sort of like a sport for me.” She blushed when John gaped at her. “It’s true. And no matter how frank she tried to be with it—she’s been hurt when she let herself get invested in a relationship that was going nowhere fast.”
John frowned and focused on putting together the regulator. He’d studied the plans for the generator and helped Carter build two for the expedition since coming to the mountain. He liked the work and found it relaxing all things considered. “I don’t operate like that, you know. I don’t play games with women to get laid.”
“I can’t see how you’d have to,” Sam said wryly and grinned when John felt his face flush. “But seriously, Meredith isn’t used to any man wanting her for herself rather than that fantastic body that she doesn’t even work to maintain. She eats like a trucker and doesn’t gain an ounce, it’s a travesty.”
“She looks great, but it’s not all about looks,” John said roughly. “I really have to like the whole person to want them genuinely. I’m not saying I’m incapable of a one-night stand, because that would be a lie, but I certainly wouldn’t do dumb crap like that in my own working environment. It’s kind of insulting that she thought I would.”
Sam sighed. “An Air Force captain named Dave Kleinman was at Area 51 two years ago. He did a three-month rotation in security for the R&D unit that McKay runs. McKay challenged him, I guess, because he pursued her, but she brushed him off without a thought because she thinks he’s an idiot. He’s not dumb, but he certainly isn’t the sort of man she’d give the time of day or a ride, if you get my meaning.”
John sighed. “If I said shit like that I’d end up in a sensitivity seminar.”
Carter shrugged. “Regardless, he found her refusals insulting and apparently got aggressive with her. So aggressive that she had him removed from her office by base security. She made it clear to O’Neill and me that Kleinman wasn’t welcome within a mile of her location as long as he lived. She threatened to quit the program entirely if she ever sees him again. The general sent him off-world, and he’s been at the alpha site since. In fact, O’Neill made it clear he wasn’t coming back to Earth until McKay leaves on the Atlantis expedition. It’s pretty much destroyed his career, and previously, he’d been slotted to be stationed on one of the ships we’re building.” She paused. “Also, Teal’c kicked his ass in a sparring session because Teal’c thinks Meredith is hilarious and she saved his life once when he got stuck in the gate.”
“I read that report,” John murmured. “About Teal’c getting stuck in the gate, I mean.” He reached out, grabbed the housing for the regulator and put it together. Carter handed him another to work with, and he set the first one aside. “General O’Neill said there hadn’t been any incidents of sexual harassment with McKay at Area 51.”
Carter flushed and sighed. “Honestly, Colonel Sheppard, women in McKay’s position don’t often report sexual harassment. She often phrases issues and problems with male co-workers, regardless of their profession, in terms that look like personality conflict. General O’Neill doesn’t know that Kleinman had a sexual interest in Meredith, which was her decision and I don’t agree with it. I’ve made it known among the women I serve with and those at the alpha base that he’s not to be trusted.”
“O’Neill doesn’t strike me as the kind of man to sweep that kind of behavior under the rug.”
“No, he would’ve caused a complete shit storm, which is exactly why Meredith under reported the incident officially.” Carter frowned a little and sighed. “It’s a political thing really—the more waves a woman like Meredith makes in the military ranks the more flak she could get from other men in uniform. I understand you had to reprimand a Marine at the outpost for bullying her about her food allergy.”
“He said that Meredith needed to be taught her place,” John admitted roughly. “He’s lucky I didn’t kick his ass.”
“The kid might not know why his sergeant has a problem with McKay but he was more than willing to play along with it, right? That’s the kind of thing she has to deal with when she merely demanded Kleinman be separated from her. Imagine if he’d been court-martialed for conduct unbecoming.”
John grimaced and decided to change the subject before he requested permission to go to the alpha site to kick Kleinman’s ass. “Are you just not interested in a relationship?”
Carter shrugged. “It comes and goes. My job is time-consuming, and the sort of man I would prefer isn’t readily available to me in this environment because I’m in uniform.”
John hummed under his breath. “Yeah, but your value to the program is enough that you could retire your commission and stay in the Mountain as a civilian. Then you can ride all the military dick you want.”
“I’m going to send you to a seminar,” Carter told him gravely then laughed when he sighed.
He put together four regulators before he settled down enough to do his own work. John left without saying anything since Carter was on the opposite side of the lab reading something with a frown. Teldy was at her desk when he entered their shared office space.
“Major, the best dining option in town?”
“Complicated question,” Teldy began as she turned in her chair to face him. “There’s O’Malleys which is excellent with a great atmosphere, but it would be crowded with people from the Mountain. There’s the Summit, but it’s attached to a hotel which isn’t the right choice for a first date, and if it were me, I’d be waiting the whole meal for you to mention you’d reserved a room, too.” She grinned when he laughed. “I’d go with the Willow Tree. It’s business casual, and the food is excellent. Moreover, the food is cooked tableside so Dr. McKay would be completely comfortable with the preparation and eating the meal since she’d know for certain she won’t be exposed to an allergen. If you’d like, I could make reservations and request that your chef be educated regarding her food allergies before you arrive.”
“That’s probably an abuse of your position,” John pointed out.
Anne grinned and turned to her laptop. “Just don’t ask me to buy your condoms, sir, and we’ll be fine. Seven o’clock?”
“Seven is good. Speaking of condoms—we included an adequate supply for the mission right?”
“Four hundred for each man assigned to the mission,” Anne admitted as she picked up her phone.
John laughed. “Major, our supply mandate is for a year.”
“I’d rather there not be a question on that issue, sir.” She sent him a small grin as she started to dial. “Also, lube. I packed plenty of lube and…”
John just held up his hand, and his XO concentrated on her task.
* * * *
She had a little black dress tucked in her trunk so when she’d gotten the email from Sheppard with the name of the restaurant, Meredith had darted off to her quarters to get her dress out and hung it in the bathroom with the shower on the hottest setting to steam out the few wrinkles in it. Somewhere between kissing Sheppard and making a mess of her face, McKay decided she was sort of nervous about the whole thing. She knew how to handle men who just wanted sex but John wanted everything, and it had been a long time since she’d had to navigate that sort of relationship minefield.
By the time she fixed her face, he was at her door. It crossed her mind just before she opened it that she’d never seen the man out of uniform. It was really too much to hope for that he’d look awkward in civilian clothes. He was wearing black slacks and a crisp white button down shirt. He had a coat folded over his arm.
“You look great.”
“So do you,” she admitted with a flush. “Which is annoying. I think you’re probably prettier than me.”
John laughed. “Not likely. You’ll want a jacket—it’s pretty cool this evening.”
She picked up a thick red sweater she’d tossed on the chair near the door. “I have this. It’s cashmere so it should be warm enough. My sister sent it to me.”
They barely got any looks at all on their way out of the Mountain which she attributed more to his rank than anything else. Meredith put on her sweater as they exited the elevator into the parking garage at the top of the facility. He guided her to a black standard-issue SUV, and she wondered where the silly muscle car he’d driven in Nevada was. She settled into the passenger seat after he opened the door and put on her seatbelt while he rounded the vehicle.
“Where’s that shiny dick replacement you were driving in Nevada?” she asked the moment he got in the SUV.
John turned to her with a little laugh. “You mean my classic 1969 Boss 429 Mustang? The car I rebuilt myself with all the original parts I could find? The car I had a custom paint recreated for?”
“Yeah, that one,” Meredith said with a hand wave.
“It’s in storage,” John said with a sigh. “You wound me, Mer, seriously.”
“Will it be okay in storage while we’re gone?”
“I shipped it to a facility in Virginia that deals exclusively in storing classic cars and my father will take care of her,” John explained as he navigated the garage.
“Her? Your car’s a girl?”
“June,” John said. “Her name is June.”
Meredith bit down on her lip. “June? Why on Earth is your car named after a month?”
He blushed which was honestly charming, and she found herself relaxing. Hot or not, the man was kind of a dork, and she could work with that. “Actually, I named her after June Carter, Johnny Cash’s wife. My mom loved Johnny Cash so we grew up with it being played in the house and I bought the bones of the car when I was sixteen. It was a mess and needed a lot of work, but it kept my hands occupied when my mind wouldn’t be quiet.”
“Oh.” Meredith’s fingers drifted over the small purse she’d shoved all of her stuff into. “My sister knits when her mind races.”
“Like that sweater?” John questioned.
“Yes, she’s always sending me things like this since she thinks I probably work in Siberia, but I’ve only been there once for six months because I lost a coin toss with Sam.”
“What do you do?” John asked.
She shrugged. “I learned a long time ago not to let my mind meander like that because it feeds my anxiety and makes me a neurotic mess. When work isn’t available, or I should be resting, I tend to write down my theories, and sometimes I work on math problems like the Hodge conjecture.”
“Cool, I like to play with the Riemann hypothesis. I’d love to see your work.”
“If you’ll show me yours,” Meredith said immediately. “I’m working on the Riemann in a professional capacity. Proving or disproving could impact my study of Zero Point Modules.”
“You mean how it relates to thermodynamics,” John said. “That’s…ah. Storing power in a vacuum—theoretically impossible as far as the public goes but that’s what a ZPM does, right?”
“Yes, and the problem is that we don’t know how to fill it back up or how the ZPM keeps the electrons still and charged when the ZPM is not engaged. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in any other alien technology. Even the Goa’uld have never successfully replicated or recycled a depleted ZPM. They managed to scavenge a lot of Ancient tech thousands of years ago, but their power choices tend toward naquadah in all of its various forms.”
“What power options are you exploring for the expedition? I didn’t notice anything related to that beyond naquadah generators which aren’t an infinite resource or even one as powerful as a ZPM. What if we find a powerless city?”
“It’s a nightmare scenario,” Meredith said. “And you’re right—naquadah generators won’t be enough if we find a city. Nuclear power is an option, but I don’t like the idea of taking nuclear material through the stargate no matter its purpose.”
“No, agreed,” John murmured. “And I’d rather not have something that dangerous around the expedition. The risk of radiation poisoning aside, if we had some kind of incursion, it could be used against us.”
“I’ll put my people on it, and we’ll figure out some alternate solutions to power.”
“Solar might be viable. We could probably add twenty-five panels to each of the MALPs, which would give us a hundred and twenty-five,” John murmured.
“We can grow our own cells with the right equipment and supplies which would be a better use of the space. Maybe carry fifty with us and leave the rest of the space for the equipment to make our own,” Meredith said and smiled at him. “I picked you because you were smart—I mean you were smart on paper, and I figured that would be a step up from what the Marine Corps had sent us in the past to keep the project secure.”
John laughed. “Well, I’m glad I was enticing on paper.”
“You’re not all that bad in person either.” She relaxed in the seat and glanced out the window. “It’s weird being back in civilization. Between Area 51 and the outpost, I’ve been living in isolation conditions for two years. I haven’t even gone to see my sister…well, I could’ve, but I don’t want to show up with a unit of Marines, and she’d never understand the necessity of the way I travel.”
“I’ll take you to see her,” John said.
“That’s not necessary.”
“You’ll be leaving Earth, Mer. You should go see your sister before you go and I can provide the security you need to travel there. O’Neill would approve it, and she doesn’t need to know that I’m there as a bodyguard.”
Impulsively, she reached out and took his free hand. He laced his fingers with hers in a loose little hold that spoke of experience holding a much smaller hand than his own in a casual way.
“Tell me about your ex-wife.”
He glanced at her before returning his attention to the road. “Not exactly first date conversation material.”
“Eh, I don’t care.”
“She’s a year older than me,” John said. “We started college at the same time, and we were pretty much instant best friends. Her name is Nancy, and she has terrible taste in music, movies, and houses. Her focus was mechanical engineering. She’s practical and straightforward. Despite what most people that know us both think, we were just friends through undergrad and most of postgrad. I kissed her impulsively one day, and it snowballed from there. She supported my choice to join the Marines, which is probably the only thing my father has ever held against her in any genuine fashion. We had a lovely but small wedding surrounded by our family and friends.”
“And you don’t wish you had all of that back?” Meredith asked.
He squeezed her hand gently and shook his head. “No, it just isn’t…I miss her but not like I should. It was a mistake to get married, and I think we both realize that now. We let familiarity and comfort make a decision for us, and it’s good that we only ended up hurting ourselves and not a kid or two in the process.”
“Do you want kids?”
“Sort of,” John said and shrugged. “It’s never been a priority, but I’m not completely opposed. You?”
“The same. I mean, I don’t know how I feel about sharing my body with what amounts to a parasite for ten months, but my sister seems to enjoy the two she’s managed to push out so I figure it can’t be all that bad. And of course, there are drugs and stuff because there is no way on this entire Earth that I would do something like that without a copious amount of chemical assistance.”
John laughed. “I don’t blame you at all.”
He turned into a parking lot and found a spot easily. “We’re a few minutes early for the reservation, but I wasn’t entirely sure about the drive itself.” He shifted around to focus on her after he turned off the SUV. “Figured me out, yet?”
Meredith felt her face flush, and she brushed her thumb against his. “No, it’s weird.” She focused on the sign of the restaurant. “I’ve never eaten here, but I’ve heard it’s good.”
“Teldy recommended it because they prepare the food at the table.”
“Oh.” She smiled. “That’s cool…I had no idea.”
He released her hand and pulled the keys from the ignition. “Let’s see how much damage we can do. I haven’t had a real steak since I was in Virginia last. I get why they chose the location for Area 51, but you’d think that by now there’d be a decent place to eat within fifty miles of the place.”
Meredith hesitated when he slid out of the vehicle and started to open the door, but he was already around the front to open her door before she decided. She turned and swung her legs around to get out. “I never know if I should get my own door. I’m supposed to be all modern and independent.”
John offered her hand and helped her from the car. “My Daddy raised a gentleman, but I won’t pitch a fit and act like you’ve destroyed my pride if you prefer to do things for yourself.”
Meredith grinned as she shut the door. “That’s not helping me at all.”
“You’ll just have to make a decision, Dr. McKay.” He guided her toward the front door with a hand at the small of her back.
“What if you don’t like my decision?”
John turned then, his hand on the door, and stared at her. “That’ll be my problem. You’re entitled to all of your decisions, Mer, and you don’t have to defend them either.”
“I need to meet your ex-wife,” Meredith blurted out and flushed when he raised an eyebrow. “She did a remarkable job training you.”
Sheppard laughed and opened the door. “My Mom took care of that long before I met Nancy. She told us she wasn’t going to let three men loose in the world who didn’t understand the rights of other people but most especially women.”
They were seated immediately which John appreciated. Having Meredith McKay’s personal attention was turning out to be kind of daunting. Her intense focus as a scientist had always intrigued him, but he hadn’t exactly been prepared for all of that to be directed at him. He kind of felt like an idiot for it.
“Good evening, Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay,” a young woman said as she came to stand at the table. “My name is Julie, and I’ll be serving you this evening. Your personal chef is Elinor. You have our personal assurance that tonight will be a delicious and safe meal. Please feel free to order anything on the menu, Elinor has already worked out substitutions for any citrus products.”
She handed them both menus. “I’ll return shortly with water and bread. Would you like order an appetizer?”
“Shrimp cocktail,” Meredith said immediately. “I mean…if it’s safe.”
“It’ll be safe,” Julie assured and turned to John. “Colonel?”
“I’ll have the stuffed calamari,” John answered and put his menu down in front of him. “Thank you.”
Meredith shifted her place setting around briefly as the server left. She touched her menu. “Thank you—a lot of people treat my allergy like it makes their life difficult. Even my sister can get a little frustrated with me, but she’s a vegetarian of all things, so she has no room to talk.”
“Jeannie. She’s married to a man who teaches English.” Meredith grimaced. “He’s boring, but I guess she likes boring. They have two kids—Madison and Max. I avoid visiting as much as possible which has gotten more difficult now that Madison is older. Max is just…hmm…he’s eighteen months old, but Madison is seven, and she’s always asking me to fly up. I send her presents, but I guess that isn’t the same.”
John watched her open the menu, and a small smile flitted across her generous mouth. “What?”
“I just…I’ve never had the opportunity to order anything from a menu before.” She looked up and offered him a bright smile. “Thank you.
John figured that he owed Anne Teldy a big one as Meredith got settled and started to study the menu. He browsed the menu himself, made a choice and set it aside. Her pleasure in such a mundane thing was lovely, but it also highlighted how often she was used to being an afterthought for the people around her. It was irritating because he realized exactly how easy it would be to seduce her with simple courtesy. Not once since he’d met her, had John considered Meredith McKay vulnerable, but she was in the most unexpected way.
* * * *
His cell phone went off twice on the drive back to the base, but he ignored it since he had it on vibrate. Meredith was languid and chatty after all three glasses of wine and what had turned out to be a perfect steak Diane. He’d had the same—it was the best steak he’d had in a decade. It was a bit of a disappointment when he parked the SUV in his assigned parking spot and turned off the engine.
John turned to look at her and found she was staring at him a soft, warm smile. “Hey.”
Meredith reached out and brushed her fingers over the top of his hand. “Hey, yourself. You’re really pretty, did you know?”
Sheppard laughed. “I’m not pretty.”
“Oh, you are,” Meredith said with a laugh and leaned toward him.
He met her half way and pressed his mouth against hers. One of her hands drifted in his hair, and he let himself get a little lost in the pleasure of kissing her. His phone started vibrating again, and he sighed as he pulled his mouth from hers. “Someone really wants to talk to me.”
She rubbed her thumb over his bottom lip. “I really enjoyed tonight.”
“Me, too,” John murmured. “I think you have an early day tomorrow so we should go inside.”
“Did you want to…” She bit down on her lip. “I mean…”
He watched her cheeks flush. “Oh, sweetheart, you had way too much wine to make that sort of offer.” John leaned in and kissed her again just briefly.
“Most men wouldn’t care about a few glasses of wine,” she pointed out with a little huffy sound as he retrieved the keys and moved to open his door.
John raised an eyebrow at her. “Perhaps that’s true but would you really want to be involved with a man that would take advantage of an intoxicated woman?”
“No,” she admitted and sighed. “Come open my door.”
John laughed and slid out of the vehicle. She teetered a little bit on the ridiculous little shoes she was wearing, but he steadied her and just swallowed back a groan when she moved right into his space and pressed against his side as they headed inside. The cell started humming again as he pressed the number for her floor. He pulled it out and winced as he recognized that it was his father’s house line on the caller id.
“Important?” Meredith questioned.
“My little brother probably,” John admitted. “But it’ll wait a minute. He’d be texting and calling if there was a problem.” He put the phone back in his pocket because that wasn’t a conversation he wanted to start in front of Meredith.
She took his hand as they left the elevator and kept it all the way to her door. Meredith turned to face him. “I don’t know what to do with you.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” John murmured and glanced toward the camera on obvious display in the hallway.
“Right,” she said and smiled before releasing his hand. “Goodnight, John.”
“Goodnight, Mer.” He took a step back to keep from reaching out for her and took a deep breath as she slipped into her quarters and shut the door.
John walked down the hall and turned to the left toward his own assigned quarters, pulling out his cellphone as he walked. He dialed the number just short of opening his door and closed it as it was answered.
“John, you bastard,” Matt snapped immediately before John could say anything.
John laughed and dropped down on his bed. He toed off his dress shoes and shrugged out of his jacket. “Hey, kid.”
“I’ve been calling you all night.”
“I know, Mattie, but I was…” John sighed. “I was on a first date, and I figured if you were having an emergency you’d have started texting me.”
“A first date,” Matt repeated. “As excuses go, that’s a pretty good one. The last guy that answered his phone while on a first date with me didn’t get a second one. Though he did chat with his ex for ten minutes right in front of me.”
“Want me to kick his ass?” John asked and grinned when Matt laughed.
“Nah, never getting a piece of this was punishment enough,” Matt declared. “You’re an asshole, John.”
“David said you deal with shit through isolation and repression, but that’s not healthy, you know.”
“I do know. I’ve had my share of therapy over the last year.” John dropped back on the bed and stared at the white ceiling. “Things are better now.”
“I’d say so if you’re dating again,” Matt said. “What’s she like?”
John hummed under his breath. It was hard to sum up a woman like Meredith McKay. “She’s beautiful and too smart for her own good. She prefers coffee to food and science to people. I love to watch her work, think, and complain. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever know all there is to know about her—not if I spent every day of the rest of my life with her and that’s kind of amazing and scary all at once.”
Matt cleared his throat. “Wow, John.”
“Yeah,” John said and took a deep breath. “Exactly.”