Title: Heart of a Lion
Author: Keira Marcos
Beta: Chris King
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis/The Sentinel
Relationship: Meredith McKay/John Sheppard
Genre: Romance, Fusion, Rule!63
Warnings: Explicit sex, explicit language, canon level violence, discussion of medical experimentation
Word Count: 134,170
Summary: On Earth, Dr. Meredith McKay wakes up from a dead sleep in the worst pain of her life, and in Pegasus, Colonel John Sheppard has just come online as a Sentinel while being fed to a wraith. While he fights for his life, she wades through emotional trauma and political fallout regarding her departure from the SGC so she can bring her Sentinel home.
The Denver Psionics Center was a modern building—state of the art in every single way as the Burton Foundation spared no expense when it came to creating safe havens for Sentinels and Guides. She’d never been it and wasn’t all that interested in actually entering the building. But when Patrick Sheppard opened her door, she slid out of the SUV and pushed her hair back in frustration.
John came around the vehicle and offered her his hand. She smiled and took it.
“Relax,” he said.
“I already told you not to boss me around,” she muttered as they walked toward the double doors. She huffed a little when security opened the doors for them before they even got close. “I hate all of this shit already.”
“Feel free to let everyone know that,” John said. “Frankly, watching you tell people how stupid you think they are is starting to be the highlight of my day.”
“He always did like them mean,” Patrick said wryly as he motioned them toward an elevator. “Jim and Blair are waiting for us in the executive conference room on the top floor.”
Meredith slouched against the back wall of the elevator and stared moodily at the floor as they were taken up to the fifth floor of the building. She felt Blair’s warm and nurturing presence start to surround her somewhere around the fourth floor. She wondered when he’d felt her. The top floor of the building was mostly administrative offices and a large conference room that could comfortably host as many as 50 people. Not a surprise for a city the size of Denver. She knew that Oliver Cohn wasn’t the alpha of the pride he belonged to due to his unbonded state, but she didn’t know how many prides were based in the Denver city limits.
Oliver Cohn, Blair Sandburg, and Jim Ellison were all standing near the back of the room when they entered. Smart considering John’s experiences since coming online. John led her to the table and pulled out a chair for her, but he didn’t sit as she did.
Meredith focused on Blair after Jonah Dean handled the introductions and raised an eyebrow when he merely stared for a moment.
Blair grinned. “I shouldn’t have favorites, but you proved to be most interesting and talented of any Guide I ever personally trained, Meredith. How is William?”
“Oddly, we stumbled across his Guide during our travels. They are, surely, in the midst of a heated bonding period as we speak. I suspect that they are probably in the 99% range on compatibility. She’s a strong Guide—intuitive, caring, but not the sort to let him get away with deflection which is his favored coping mechanism. I suspect he’ll register with our government in a few weeks.” She folded her hands together in front of her. “But we’re not here about William.”
“He’s part of the reason,” Cohn interjected. “You’ve been using him to avoid bonding for years, even before he was your Conservator.”
“That’s utterly untrue,” Meredith said. “We knew were unsuited for each other within minutes of meeting when I first came online despite our very high rate of genetic compatibility. I made it clear, from the start, that I would need a near perfect match and I was content to wait until I found one.”
“You haven’t agreed to meet a Sentinel in four years,” Cohn interjected. “And now you’re here with a man who was labeled trauma-dormant when he was a child.” He focused on John. “No offense, Colonel.”
“I’m not offended,” John said. “Well, I’m not offended by you demonstrating the fact that you can read.” Ellison snorted as John focused on Meredith. “Is he always a frustrated mess like this?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Meredith admitted. “I’ve only been in a room with him once my whole life and that’s when I declined to bond with him. I don’t make a habit of telling a Sentinel no more than once so I ignored all of his overtures after that and I ignored all of his invitations to attend Guide searches here in Denver.” She turned to Blair. “John’s right. He’s a hot mess.”
“I know,” Blair agreed. “Sentinel Cohn has agreed to enter the search process again. A process he has ignored personally since you rejected him. I’ve made it clear to him, finally, that he has no hope of bonding with a Guide of your individual power. As far as the stats go, you had the best shot with William Bouchard and you couldn’t form a healthy bond with him.”
“It would’ve been…” Cohn trailed off.
“Easier?” Meredith questioned and quirked an eyebrow. “I’m an atheist, Oliver, and I’d rather die in a fire than pretend otherwise. I read the files for every single Sentinel I met during my first and only search so I know about the religious cult you grew up in. Honestly, your parents are never going to get over the fact that you’re a Sentinel long enough to even come close to accepting your Guide, no matter their gender. Trust me, a half hour in my presence and your father would’ve been wishing you’d brought home a man.”
“This meeting isn’t about me,” Cohn said tightly. “It’s about you and your bad judgment. If Sheppard is online, as you say, then he should have a search performed so he gets the best possible match.”
“That’s my choice, right?” John interjected and they all focused on him.
“Yes, of course, but…”
John glared at him and Meredith shifted in her chair to get up. He put a hand on her shoulder, it was gentle, but firm so she stayed put. “The thing is, Sentinel Cohn, you don’t want her.”
“You really don’t,” John said evenly. “She’s not doing a damn thing for you—physically or emotionally. I suspected this was about jealousy, but all you feel is desperate. She was your only female match, ever, right?”
Cohn flushed and averted his gaze.
“Right. Get help,” John said wearily as he lifted his hand and Meredith slid out of her chair. “Dick is great, honestly. You’re really missing out.”
“It’s one of my favorite things,” Meredith agreed. “I mean it’s only been 10 days, but I miss it.”
John sighed. “I don’t know how Bouchard put up with you for three years with no bond. The sex can’t be that good.”
“The sex is definitely that good,” Meredith assured.
“Fantastic, actually,” Jim said. “We really didn’t want to part with her.”
Blair grinned. “And we’ve never come close to keeping a third.”
“Ellison’s old enough to be your father,” John said with a huff as Meredith laughed.
“I was 20,” Meredith said and shrugged. “Getting laid regularly is good for me empathically, John. I have needs. William understood this, but I had to give him to Miko and now I have to train you. This is awful.”
Blair grinned at her, but then sobered as he focused on John. “Do you want to conduct a Guide search, Colonel Sheppard?”
“No.” John pulled her closer and she went without complaint. “McKay’s bossy and too smart for my own good, but she’s mine.”
“Clearly,” Ellison said with a small nod. “Sentinel Cohn, you’re not needed for the rest of this meeting.”
“Of course, Alpha.” Cohn left with one final look in Meredith’s direction.
Ellison walked to the door, locked it and worked with the panel next to the door for several moments before a deep sense of calm and silence descended over the room. John’s fingers clenched in hers.
“It’s a white noise generator combined with a Faraday cage,” Meredith explained. “It provides as much isolation and privacy as we can produce with current Earth-based technology.”
John nodded, but released her hand and walked to stand by the windows. He shoved his hands into his pockets and stared at the mountains in the distance. “The wraith are telepathic—the really old ones can make you hallucinate. The females are rare—a queen or a queen in the making. They live in hive groups, ruled by a queen like bees. There are hundreds of thousands of wraith in Pegasus. Over the last two years, I’ve fought and killed them. I had to invade a hive ship and kill a queen to rescue Marshall the first week of the expedition. She almost fed on him—if I’d delayed even 15 minutes he would’ve been dead.
“But I’d never had a wraith touch me until the Genii tried to use one to torture information out of me.”
“What did they want?” Meredith questioned.
“Atlantis—their so called City of the ancients. What they don’t know and can’t understand is that she’d never tolerate them, not after they almost destroyed her. She resented them before, because they held me hostage once before, and now she hates them,” John murmured. “I felt it when I returned—her relief, her fury at what the Genii had done to me…if she had more power I think she would’ve physically searched for me herself. Elizabeth Weir was lucky that the city has protocols that prevent her from killing those that live on her.”
“You’ve never mentioned your connection to the city like this in any report,” Meredith said. “I read every thing you’ve ever submitted to the SGC regarding your missions and the city.”
“At first, I felt like I was probably going a little nuts,” John admitted. “But then I realized that she was more than technology and deserves to be protected from whatever Earth might due to a living city. I don’t know what she is or how she was made, but her presence is…”
“Organic, but alien,” Meredith supplied when he trailed off. “Distinctly not human which I mistook for artificial when I first arrived.”
“Do you think contact with this empathic and clearly telepathic city is the reason John has a sixth sense?” Blair questioned and they all focused on him.
“I don’t know,” Meredith admitted. “Ascendants are rare and understudied. He clearly needs the extra boost in Pegasus because of the wraith and the city herself. The better we can communicate with her, the easier our lives will be out there. If she could tell us how to fix her, how to give her power then…it would be the difference between life and death for most of the expedition. John?”
“I could feel the city before I came online,” he said. “I connected with her the moment I stepped foot on the city so that’s probably ATA gene related. When I returned after coming online, I had a deeper understanding of her emotional state and her motivations. I really didn’t think it was anything like a sixth sense until Meredith questioned me in the car regarding my father’s emotions.”
John turned away from them and stared out the window. “I know next to nothing about being a Sentinel for obvious reasons.”
“Can you tell me about your meeting with Jack Kelso?” Blair questioned. “The one that led to you being labeled trauma-dormant?”
“He was nice,” John murmured. “I remember being afraid of him and worried that I was going to be sent away. I’d spent a lot of time in hospitals at that point because I couldn’t…make myself speak. Whenever I tried my mouth felt full—like I’d stuffed it with cotton. Mom didn’t die immediately, most people think she did, but she lived for a few minutes. The hardest minutes of my life, not even getting fed on by a wraith compares to it.
“She told me to roll her over, but I was afraid it would make her injury worse, but Mattie wasn’t making any noise so I did it so she wouldn’t suffocate him. He was turning blue already and gasping for air when I pulled him free of that carrier. I’d never even held him to that point. Mom had offered, but I was afraid I’d hurt him. Everything got really quiet. I just listened to them breathe—then after a while it was Mattie. Then there was this explosion of noise and people were everywhere. This police officer tried to take Matt from me and I remember screaming at him to stop—to stop touching him because he was a stranger and mom didn’t like strangers touching the baby.
“I told Jack Kelso all of that—told him how much everything hurt. And he asked me what I did to make it stop. All I really remember was pushing it—pushing everything away from me until it felt better and I could breathe again. I asked him if that was okay and he said it was. He said I protected myself and there was nothing wrong with that.” John turned and focused on her. “I suppressed myself, right?”
“That’s what it sounds like—which is the root of what trauma-dormancy is. It’s an emotional reaction to circumstances that are beyond our control. You were very young so he wouldn’t have framed it that way.”
“I asked him if I was damaged and he said no,” John murmured and leaned against the window sill. “But looking back on it, he seemed very sad.”
“Facing a eight-year-old trauma-dormant Alpha Ascendant would been heart breaking,” Blair said. “I read the report he wrote about you before you arrived—it was clear he deeply regretted your circumstances and his belief that he could not help you.”
“I realize I need to be tested or whatever, but I’m just not in a place where I can tolerate that,” John admitted. “I’d like to go home, now.”
“Then you go home,” Ellison said.
“That simple?” John questioned.
“That simple,” Ellison responded evenly. “If the regional center at home gives you a problem—call us, but I doubt they’re going to pressure their own Alpha Prime to produce his son for testing.”
“Not if they want to keep their fucking jobs,” Patrick muttered. “Do something about Cohn, Ellison, letting him wallow in self-pity and homophobia is not only a waste, it’s a pity. He deserves better than what his parents expect from him.”
“He’s been resistant to therapy for years,” Blair said. “But I’ve made some headway with him.”
“Well, the only person in this room he was remotely interested in boning was Jonah,” John said dryly and shrugged when his father huffed at him. “I’m just sayin’.”
“Time to go then,” Jonah announced. “No need to let that turn into another fixation for him.”
– – – –
Meredith fell asleep before the private plane left the ground. John wasn’t surprised as he had a feeling she’d had less sleep than him since he’d come online. Leaving Colorado helped and he relaxed enough to leave her side and go into the galley to get water.
John nodded. “Sure.”
His dad sighed. “John.”
“I’m fine, really. Just a little frustrated by the lack of knowledge. Meredith helped me build a primary psionic shield to manage my senses before we left the isolation room on Atlantis. Sorry.”
“For what?” Patrick asked.
“For everything, I guess. It couldn’t have been easy for you to be told I’d been declared KIA even if Meredith was right there telling you otherwise at the same time.”
“When a shaman tells you something—you listen,” Patrick said. “I didn’t doubt her at all, which helped a lot. I was frustrated by the process, but knowing what we know now—I’m glad she took the time to figure out the situation on Atlantis before you returned to the city. There’s no telling what Beckett or Weir would’ve done to you if they’d still be in positions of power.”
“I’d have probably killed them both,” John admitted. “I certainly want to kill them and if they aren’t incarcerated for life for what they’ve done to me—then I will find and murder the fuck out of them.” He leaned on the counter and drank deeply from the water bottle.
His spirit animal rubbed up against his leg before she appeared and he dropped one hand to rest on the black jaguar’s head. “This is Zillah.”
“Hello, Zillah,” Patrick murmured and hesitated only briefly to touch her when she approached him. The large cat purred and, butted her head up against his hand so he knelt. “You’re a beautiful sight and one I thought I’d never have.”
“I feel like she’s always been with me,” John admitted. “Just unseen.”
“She probably has been,” Patrick agreed as he stood. “Is she always this solid?”
“Yeah, she’s keen on making her presence known,” John said as Zillah returned to him and leaned heavily on his leg. “Probably because the first couple of times I saw her, I thought I was having a psychotic break.”
“You said the wraith can make humans hallucinate,” Jonah said as he joined them. “Did you think he’d damaged you mentally when he tried to feed on you?”
“It crossed my mind,” John said. “He was clearly overwrought by his own injury.” He rubbed his chest. Alyssa had healed the wound completely, but there was an echo of remembered pain. Meredith said it was a psionic impression and it would fade, but John wasn’t so certain. “I also thought I was dead for a few hours, which I know sounds weird.”
“No, I get it,” Patrick murmured. “I’ve had a few sensory spikes in the past that were so immense that I felt removed from my physical body. If those spikes had taken place in a combat situation it might have made me think I was dead or dying.” He pulled out his phone, but then put it back in his pocket.
John laughed. “Dad, check your email. Please.”
“It can wait.”
“I’m sure, but you’re going to get stressed out and that will only irritate the rest of us who’ll have to put with your stress,” John said and sighed. “I’m going to go stare at my gorgeous Guide. So check your email.”
“You hit the lottery with that one,” Jonah said. “A Nobel Laureate no less.”
John just laughed and walked back to the seats. He slid into his and put his feet up. Meredith shifted under her blanket, but didn’t wake. Jonah picked up a brief case and set up a tray across from them.
“I have a cell phone for you,” Jonah said. “Encrypted so you can set up your email on it if you need.” He offered the Blackberry and John took it. “I already put all the numbers you might need that I could think of. Nothing work related, of course, and I didn’t know Meredith’s.”
“I don’t have one,” Meredith said as she shifted on her side. “I lived and worked in my house in Hawaii. We had a land line, but I kept the lab off the Internet and didn’t allow cell phones due to security concerns. I need to go there and take care of the house. Pack up my lab.” She yawned and pulled her blanket up over her shoulder. “I need my stuff on Atlantis.”
“We’ll take care of it,” John said.
“Plus, William’s stuff and his silly, romantic painting,” Meredith muttered as she closed her eyes.
“Did Bouchard give you any problems?” Patrick asked. “He seemed protective and attached to her when we met with them.”
“Well, no, actually. He was great except for that part where he disarmed me before he let me return to the city,” John said with a frown. “I guess he had a point, but he took my gun and that was annoying. I don’t have a problem with him staying on Atlantis since Miko wants to keep him. I’d rather not cross Miko. I think she’s one bad experience away from being a super villain, but then that’s probably true for every single scientist at the SGC.”
“Fair,” McKay said.
“I thought you could sleep through anything,” John said.
“You’re agitated,” Meredith sat up and frowned at him as she pulled a hair thing from her wrist and using it to whip her hair into a messy bun that should’ve looked terrible, but didn’t. “So I apparently can’t sleep through anything. You don’t like flying as a passenger, right?”
“It’s very annoying,” John admitted. “I vetted all of the pilots that work for us so I trust them.” He paused and focused on his father. “Unless you’ve hired some while I’ve been gone?”
“No,” Patrick shook his head. “No need—I pay well and the benefits are great so we’ve had no turn over in aviation. I did buy a new helicopter—Boeing put out one specifically made for Sentinels—modified Osprey.”
“I look forward to seeing it,” John said. He doubted he’d trust himself to fly it anytime soon. Frustrated at the thought, he turned to McKay who was fiddling with the phone he’d left on the arm of his seat. “Checking your email?”
“Setting up yours,” she corrected. “I have my laptop in my bag. You’ve got a priority email from a General Rampart.”
John accepted the phone and stared at it.
“Who is that?” Meredith questioned.
“The Commandant of the Marine Corps,” John said and glanced at her. “The highest ranking Marine on the planet. I haven’t met him. He was appointed when Hayes was elected—so about six months ago.”
“What does he want?” Patrick questioned.
John reluctantly opened the email.
* * *
I was pleased to receive a report detailing your recovery. I’ve also been notified of your online status as a Sentinel. General O’Neill was less than forthcoming about your bond status, but did tell me you are traveling with a Guide to your father’s home. Considering his words, I’m left to assume that your Conservator Guide is a civilian. If you would like to conduct a Guide search within the confines of the Corps, please let me know.
I’m still getting up to date on the SGC, but I would like to meet with you. O’Neill is aware of this request so I’m not attempting to do a end-run around your CO. Let me know when you’re ready for a meeting.
General Randolph Rampart
United States Marine Corps
* * *
John frowned. “Rampart is offering me a Guide search within the Corps and would like to meet with me regarding my role at the SGC.”
“Is he a problem?” Meredith questioned. “Because I can make that go away.”
John grinned at her. “No, I don’t think he’s a problem. Rampart has a reputation for being hands on when it comes to situations like mine. I’m now considered a POW twice-over and he’s know for taking special care with such things.” He frowned. “I don’t have a uniform. I didn’t even think about it when I was packing.”
“We’ll contact the SGC and get one shipped to the house,” Meredith said. “Or they’ll source one in Virginia for you. You should probably send O’Neill an email about that so he can get that started.”
“I’m not sure of the name of the quartermaster in the mountain,” John admitted. “But such a request is well below O’Neill’s pay grade.” He grinned at her when she shrugged. “I’ll contact Walter.”
“Good thought,” Meredith agreed. “If it’s worth knowing in the mountain, Walter Harriman knows it.” She folded up the blanket and tucked it against her side. “Did you want to do a search in the Corps?”
He frowned at her. “No.”
She quirked an eyebrow at him. “Are you sure? A military Guide would be better for your career.”
“Are you trying to piss me off?” John questioned and noted that his fathers stood and vacated the area without a word.
Meredith laughed. “No, but I do want you to get the best possible choices as a Sentinel.”
“Is it?” Meredith questioned. “We won’t know that for certain unless you do a search.”
“I don’t need a search,” John muttered and slouched back in his seat. “Why are you being difficult? You know we work.”
“I suspect that we’re basically perfect for each other,” she paused and wet her lips, “or at least, you’re perfect for me, but that doesn’t meant I’m perfect for you.”
“Why would we have connected the way we did if we weren’t perfect together?” John questioned.
“I’m a shaman—the most powerful unbonded shaman on Earth currently and you’re an Alpha Ascendant. Psionically, I was the safest possible connection you could’ve made in those circumstances,” Meredith explained.
“Don’t make it complicated,” John said and snatched her blanket as he used the lever to flatten out his seat. “You weren’t like this on Atlantis.”
“I was trying to get you stable and in a good rational place before we had any necessary conversations,” she said as he flicked the blanket out to cover himself. “John.”
“Shut up, McKay, I’m trying to sleep.”
She laughed. “You asshole.”
“Stop trying to dump me—we aren’t even fucking yet,” John muttered and covered his head with the blanket as she huffed dramatically.
– – – –
Patrick Sheppard’s estate was large, gated, and Meredith noted a full security team on the grounds as they drove through the front gate. It wasn’t unlike visiting the White House, which she’d done just once and had no wish to ever do again. The front doors of the house opened before they were in fully out of the car and two men bearing a striking resemblance to Patrick trotted down the steps.
She leaned against the SUV as they both sort of glomped onto John. They had a whispered conversation that she couldn’t hear before separating and all three focused on her.
“Dr. Meredith McKay, my brothers—David and Matthew. Matt’s in the Navy and David’s a lawyer. He took one for the team and works for Sheppard’s Industries as Dad’s second in command.”
She shook their hands in turn, but lingered with Matt. He stilled under her attention. “You’re close.”
“Yeah, I think so, too,” Matt agreed. “I’ve been having the dreams—the blue ones.”
She nodded. “And your spirit animal?”
“Just dreams about flying, but I’m a pilot so I’ve always had those dreams.”
“Or you’re a pilot because you’ve always had those dreams,” Meredith corrected and his eyes widened slightly. “It’s fine—the psionic plane often guides us even as children. I used to dream of running through vast fields of grass, but I had no idea why until I came online and met my spirit animal.” Kepler took that moment to appear beside her and shoulder between them.
She released his hand. “You should start meditating daily. Have you had instruction on that?”
“Yeah, I took a full course load at the local center over the summers during high school.” He looked at John who was watching the exchange curiously then focused on Kepler. “Lion Guide, huh? That’s rare, right?”
“There are 23 of us on Earth as far as the Burton Foundation knows,” Meredith said. “But that doesn’t account for tribes that prefer to live naturally all over the world who want no part of our process or the so-called modern society.”
“How can you tell he’s close?” Jonah questioned.
“Just a little buzz….” She focused on Jonah. “Psionic white noise.”
“I’ve never been sensitive to that,” Jonah said. “Fortunately. It must drive you crazy.”
“It did when I was younger, but most of the time I can ignore it.” She yawned. “I really need a flat surface to sleep on.”
“Let’s get you a bed then,” John said. “I’m still in the east wing, Dad?”
“Of course,” Patrick said. “I didn’t rent out your rooms or anything.”
John laughed. “Just checking. I haven’t lived at home in a decade and haven’t visited in four.”
“Which only proves what a terrible son you are,” Patrick declared.
John shrugged, but offered Meredith his hand.
Meredith allowed herself to be led up two flights of stairs into a suite of rooms. The entrance opened into a living space complete with a small kitchen. “It’s like an apartment.”
“I know it’s ridiculous, but at 16, I decided I wanted space so when we moved into this house we all got individual suites like this. Matt stayed in Dad’s suite until he was a teenager though and just used his space as a play area. There’s only one bed.”
“We should share it,” Meredith said before he could volunteer to sleep on the very nice couch they’d just passed.
“Are you sure?” John questioned.
“Are you sure you don’t want a Guide search?”
He pulled her close abruptly and Meredith barely managed to swallow the squeak he caused. John inhaled against her hair. “I thought I told you to stop trying to dump me.”
She laughed. “All I’m saying is that if we’re going to do this whole thing then we should share a bed—it’ll be easier for me you to imprint on me and I’ll be close at hand if you need me at night.”
“Okay, so we share the bed,” John agreed, he touched her face and she lifted up just a little and he took the hint because his mouth covered hers in a soft, sweet kiss. He shuddered as the kiss deepened and his hands clenched briefly on her hips before he withdrew. “You’re delicious.”
“You’re bias,” she said with a grin. “Your Guide will be pleasant to all of your senses.”
He rubbed his thumb over her bottom lip. “This Guide search thing—why do you keep bringing it up? It wasn’t something you harped on while we were on Atlantis. Do you think we’ll have problems bonding?”
“I think we already have a partial bond,” Meredith admitted. “Based on psionic impressions, but I want what’s best for you. I also don’t want to make you feel like you have no choices, but me. Consent is a vital part of a healthy bond.”
“I want you,” John murmured. “Only you. I’d rather not have to suffer through a parade of strangers to prove that to anyone. I feel like you’re…”
“What?” Meredith prodded.
John flushed and took a deep breath. “A gift—I fought to get off that planet because you were on Atlantis. You gave me a goal with your second visit, but you also gave me proof that you existed. You gave me something to fight for in a circumstance where I’d convinced myself I had nothing left. I felt adrift, separate from everything, and looking back on it I might have been precariously close to ascending which is something I’ve never considered a goal.”
“Letting go the way you did is not…abnormal for a feral episode,” Meredith said. “Your mind isolated you from your emotions in an effort to protect your sanity. I’m glad I provided some comfort.” She kissed him again briefly. “Go speak with your brothers—they’re very stressed out. I’ll be sleeping. When I wake up—I expect to see a coffee maker in that kitchen out there.”
John laughed. “I’ll handle it.”
John dropped down on the sofa across from where his brother, David, was sprawled and rolled his water bottle in his hands. “You okay?”
“Me?” David questioned and laughed a little. “John, I’m not the one that was taken hostage and tortured.” He rubbed his face. “Dad wouldn’t say what kind of torture—just that you were forced online by it and that you killed…your captors.”
“The circumstances are highly classified,” John said. “Dad only got read in because they were afraid he’d lose his shit and Ellison threw his weight around on that topic with the DOD.”
“You seem okay, physically,” David said. “Which means psychological of some sort—I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than getting the shit beat out of you.”
“Waterboarding wouldn’t leave any marks,” Matt said darkly as he joined them. “Sensory overload is a common method as well even for mundanes and would’ve certainly been a trigger for coming online.”
“I got waterboarded in Afghanistan,” John said conversationally. “At the time, it was terrifying, but I barely remember it now.” He winced at the look of horror on David’s face. “I’ve been trained to withstand torture. They didn’t get what they wanted from me with threats so they brought out the big guns. I came online and broke free in a feral combat drive. Memories are spotty for the first 20 or so hours after that. Meredith helped me settle—we connected on the psionic plane.”
“That’s not…normal,” Matt admitted. “How did that even happen? She’s a civilian so she was no where near your mission, surely.”
“She’s a shaman,” John said. “I can’t really discuss her location or mine, sorry.”
“No, it’s fine,” Matt said and sighed. “I get it.”
“I’m glad I don’t,” David admitted and flushed when John focused on him. “I understand your desire to serve, John, but I’m glad it never felt like my duty.” He rubbed his thigh with a shaking hand. “I can’t stand to think about someone hurting you, though.”
“You look like suffered something unspeakable,” Matt said flatly. “And since I know how you were trained and what they put you through before you were allowed to join Force Recon that’s disturbing as hell. You did SERE, too, right?”
“Yeah,” John admitted. “I was offered a few other things after SERE so…” He trailed off. “After Afghanistan, I was down for six months so I did the course work for a modern warfare certification. I wish I’d waited because they have a special sections for Sentinels. Maybe I’ll contact my instructors and try to get the course materials for that. I could’ve done sniper school instead, which would’ve been cool.”
“How many did you have to kill to escape?” David questioned.
“I honestly don’t know,” John said. “Perhaps as many as 40 over the course of several days.” He winced when David sat up abruptly. “It’s…”
“Jesus Christ, John,” David said roughly.
John figured it wouldn’t be a good idea to tell his brother that it wasn’t even his largest body count during a single situation. He’d killed twice that during the Genii invasion, easily, plus the ones he’d closed the gate on.
“I don’t feel anything about it,” John said. “Which I’d worry about, but Meredith assures me it’s just part of my imperative. To be honest, I’ve never dwelled on combat kills.”
“Neither have I,” Matt admitted.
“You’re a pilot,” David said. “What combat have you…”
Matt just smiled. “I’m not a fighter pilot, Dave. I mean I could certainly fly a jet, but I spend most of my time in a Seahawk and that includes combat drops, search and rescue, etc. I spent the last year supporting several SEAL teams.”
“Right.” David stood and went to the bar. He poured himself a generous glass of bourbon. “Why couldn’t you both go to college and get boring degrees and do boring things with them?”
John laughed a little. “I’d have hated it.”
“It sounds like a nightmare,” Matt agreed. “It’s not all bad, at any rate. The Navy has been very good to me. It always felt like the best choice I could make for myself. And I don’t feel differently even 10 years later.”
David grimaced, but brought his drink with him when he returned to his own sofa. “I met someone.”
“Oh, yeah?” Matt questioned. “Where?”
“London,” he admitted. “I kept seeing her in the park near my hotel where I ran every evening. Mostly reading, but sometimes she had a pad and would draw. Anyways, on my third evening—I was stretching and cooling down when she strolled over and told me I was going to buy her dinner.”
John grinned. “Did you?”
“How could I not?” David questioned. “Her gorgeous face came with a lovely French accent. She’s a fashion designer.”
“Name?” John asked.
“Claire Dubois,” David said.
Matt burst out laughing. “You asshole—you didn’t recognize Claire Dubois? She’s fucking famous, Dave.”
David flushed and shrugged. “You know I don’t follow fashion. Anyways, she’s lovely.”
“I’m sorry that you had to cut your trip short then,” John said. “Did she give you room to contact her in the future?”
“She texted me the whole trip home,” David said. “Complaining—about the room service, about the park bench that is now too hard to sit on, and basically being as French as possible so I’m, of course, foolishly in love over here.”
John grinned. “That’s great.”
“It’s not in my plan,” David said. “No where on there did I write down—fall in love with a beautiful French woman who reads Russian literature and acts like the fact that I only speak one language is a deep character flaw.”
“It’s pretty bad,” John admitted. “I speak three.”
David frowned at him. “Rude.” He glanced toward Matt who grinned.
“I’m conversational in Italian,” Matt admitted and laughed when David shot him a bird. “And can hold a very basic conversation in Spanish. I guess you need to work on yourself.”
“Well, she’s still texting him so she’s clearly decided to overlook his poor educational choices,” John said.
“I graduated at the top of my class at Harvard,” David muttered. “Not that she was remotely impressed by that.”
“Well, I adore her already,” Matt declared. “When’s the wedding?”
David stared moodily into his drink in response. “I don’t normally fumble around with a woman, you know? She makes me feel like an idiot. I don’t know where I stand with her or what she wants from me.” He cleared his throat. “But let’s talk about John’s Guide—who is also clearly smarter than him.”
John hummed under his breath. “Not fair since I’m pretty sure she’s one of the smartest people on the planet—certainly in the top 1%. She won a Nobel Prize in physics for what she called a hobby experiment. Thankfully, she kept that part to herself when she accepted the award. She also called that same experiment spite science because she disproved the theory of someone she hates.”
“I guess my only question is—what do you have going on that would make a Lion Guide and a shaman a match for you?” Matt asked. “Alpha certainly, but are you a potential prime?”
“Ascendant,” John said and shrugged when Matt’s mouth dropped open dramatically. “Yeah, I really don’t even know what it means. My sixth sense is empathy.” He slouched on the sofa and took a deep breath. “I have a lot of work ahead of me on that front, but Meredith thinks I’ll have a good grasp within a month and can return to duty.”
“A month?” Matt questioned. “You have zero training, John. You never took a single class at the center.”
“We’ll see how it goes,” John said. “I already have a primary psionic shield which she says some Sentinels don’t master for months after coming online in traumatic situations. I was pretty much entirely numb by the time I was brought in, but within an hour of being in her company my touch sense was restored. I’m in command of an important mission so I need to return to it as soon as I possibly can.”
Matt frowned, but nodded. “Right.”
“How important could it be?” David questioned. “We aren’t at war.”
John shook his head. “War gets made on this planet every single day, David. What politicians allow and what they say are two different things. Every single man and woman in my command entered their current assignment with a stupid amount of combat experience—most of it was in the Middle East.”
“I…” David trailed off and took a deep drink.
“Peacekeeping is a war all its own,” Matt said. “My first commander told me that and I carried it with me since I left OTS.”
– – – –
Meredith woke wrapped up in John Sheppard’s arms. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as she’d expected it to be. While she and William had enjoyed an active sex life, they’d slept separately by mutual agreement. She shifted and propped her chin up on his chest and his eyes flicked open.
“Sorry,” she murmured. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t,” John said and trailed his fingers through her hair. “David’s on his phone talking to his hot French girlfriend.”
“Claire Dubois hot.”
“Wow, lucky him,” Meredith said with a little laugh.
“The asshole didn’t even recognize her,” John told her. “I wonder when he’s going to notice that the winter coat he bought four years ago and adores is from the House of Dubois?”
“Well, I guess that’s good in a way—she must enjoy being wanted for herself rather than for the money or the fame attached to dating her,” Meredith said. “He must be driving her a little crazy, actually. He should probably keep doing what he’s doing.”
“Currently, he’s agreeing with her that her employees are all lazy bastards and she should fire them all,” John said. “Which she is clearly delighted by.”
“Stop spying on your brother,” Meredith told him. “But also good job on focusing so well you could hear her side of the conversation, too.”
“Not hard, he has her on speaker,” John confessed. “It was her voice that woke me up—it was out of place, I guess?”
“It’s a good situational response,” Meredith declared. “Since we’re up—let’s raid the kitchen.”
“Our personal kitchen is empty except for a coffee pot and a very expensive bag of ground coffee. We need to make a shopping list. We’ll have to go down to the main.”
“I’m game for the main. Let’s make grill cheese.” She slipped out of the bed. “And coffee.”
“I prefer tea,” John admitted and shrugged when she sent him an appalled look. “Sorry?”
“It’s not even the worst thing you’ve said so far to me and that’s the terrible part. I don’t even know what other disturbing things are lurking in that head of yours.”
In the kitchen, they rummaged through the fridge and came up with several kinds of cheese which Meredith made him smell individually. None them were overwhelming so she agreed he could taste each during assembly to test his palette. Smoked gouda and swiss were a yes, but he had to put the goat cheese back because it was disgusting.
“Maybe it’s too fresh,” Meredith said as he heated the pan and she started, buttering the bread. “I need to get sense kit from the center so we can start training your senses from the field. And you’ll need to arrange range time at the closest military-controlled facility so we can learn to modulate your hearing around gun fire and any other equipment they might have on hand. If we could take you up in several different kinds of aircraft you might encounter on duty—that would be ideal.”
“I’ll ask Rampart about a visit,” John said as he picked up the first sandwich she’d assembled.
“Are you guys making grilled cheese?”
He looked over his shoulder as Matt stumbled in rubbing his head. “Yeah. Want one?”
“Hell yes,” Matt muttered and headed for the coffee pot which Meredith was watching like a hawk.
“Don’t drink all of that, if you want to live,” she told him darkly and Matt grinned at her. “And don’t look at me like that—I’m immune to that ridiculous smile.”
Matt laughed, but poured two cups of coffee and brought one to her. “Should be cream in the fridge.”
“I take it black like a proper human being,” Meredith informed him as she started making a third sandwich.
“I’ve thought about it,” Matt said as he slid up on a barstool. “I want to join your command, John.”
John’s head jerked up and he focused on his brother. “I…”
“You’re a Sentinel and there are special rules for prides,” Matt continued. “My latent status means I’d qualify to join you as a member of your family pride.”
“Mattie,” John said quietly and focused on what he was doing. The idea of having his baby brother in Pegasus was both a comfort and an agony. He flipped the sandwich out onto a plate and put in the next one. “Let me think about it.”
“I’ve already put a request in the DOD,” Matt said and merely stared when John turned in shock. “I need to be able to watch your back.”
John inhaled sharply and Meredith’s hand trailed along his arm so he turned back to the stove. “I can make that request disappear, you know.”
“Can you?” Matt asked curiously. “That’s a pretty big power move for even a full bird.”
“It’s my command,” John said flatly. “And no one serves on my base without my explicit permission.”
“Interesting set up,” Matt said.
“Stop baiting him,” Meredith ordered as she put a plate down in front of Matt. “He’s barely 48 hours out from a series of feral episodes where he killed dozens with his bare fucking hands.”
“It’s his SOP,” John said.
“Sorry,” Matt murmured. “That wasn’t my intention, really. I just I feel like I need to be with you, John.”
“Let me think about it.”
He figured that Matt would have the ATA gene and that DOD wouldn’t blink an eye at dropping his ass right into O’Neill’s lap. While he certainly could keep him off Atlantis—he couldn’t keep Matt out of the mountain. John didn’t want his brother in the mountain under anyone’s command so that meant if Matt ended up reassigned, he’d have to take him to Pegasus just to keep an eye on him.
“I wish you’d asked me first,” John said roughly. “My mission is highly classified and being read it will change your career permanently. There’s no coming back from it, Matt, and the powers that be won’t be interested in listening to you in the future if you ask for reassignment. Once you’re in the program I’m in, you only leave due to permanent injury or in a goddamned box.”
Meredith plucked the spatula from his hand. “Sit, center yourself, eat, and check your temper. You’re emoting all over the damn place like a 16-year-old boy who didn’t get laid at homecoming.”
“I definitely got laid at homecoming,” John protested, but took the sandwich he’d finished and went to the bar. “Twice.”
Meredith grinned at him. “Homecoming queen?”
“And her boyfriend,” John said and shrugged when she shook her head. “Of course, they’re married to each other now, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m on their yearly newsletter list—it’s not as weird as it sounds. They have some cute kids.”
“It sounds pretty weird,” Meredith said as she turned off the stove and brought her sandwich to the bar. She chose to stand in front of him instead of grabbing a stool on their side. She focused on Matt. “John’s not wrong, you know. The program you’ve just recklessly stuck your foot in is directly managed by the a special, secret division of Homeland Security. The general in charge of it is regularly called upon to answer directly to the President of the United States.
“The work won’t be like anything you’ve ever done before. Most of the assets are Air Force or Marine Corps—never even seen a Navy SEAL or other Navy personnel anywhere near the place.”
“I have a team out of Little Creek on call,” John said. “But nothing permanent—though I’m considering it. I’m the only active Force Recon asset on the base, and one of only 10 pilots. I hope you aren’t attached to the Seahawk, because you won’t be seeing one where I work.”
Matt frowned, but then nodded. “Okay. I’m not going to be talked out of it.”
“Not trying to talk you out of it,” John said. “We’re trying to inform your choice. Plus, Dad’s been read in and you’re going to have to get past him on this topic and he’s not going to be pleased at all.”
“I’m genuinely furious,” Patrick said dryly from the doorway. “And the answer is no.”
“I’m not asking your permission, either,” Matt responded. “I’m going.”
Patrick poured himself some coffee. “I can’t believe you didn’t make me a grilled cheese.”
John laughed, but set aside his empty plate. “Come sit then and glare at your youngest up close and personal.”
Meredith opened the bread for him, but focused on eating as he buttered enough bread for three more sandwiches. “The others coming?”
“David is and I don’t imagine Jonah is far behind,” John said. “David’s still on the phone.”
“Who is he talking with?” Patrick questioned. “I heard her voice, but disengaged when she decided to run herself a bath.”
“Claire Dubois,” Meredith answered when John and Matt said nothing.
John grinned at her. “Tattletale.”
“I’m not going to be involved in any ridiculous ‘bro code’,” Meredith announced. “David had no idea who she was when she picked him up in a park after his evening run. He’s in way over his head and it should be a lot of fun for you, Patrick.”
“You know, I kind of figured you’d be cruel,” David said dryly as he came into the room. “Why are you all up?”
“You were talking to a stranger and it woke John up,” Meredith said. “He’s hyper aware of his surroundings because of everything and I imagine your father responded to his agitation when Matt revealed he’s requested a transfer into his command with the DOD.”
David shot Matt a look. “I told you to ask him first.”
“I made a career decision—I’ve never asked any of you for your input on that.” Matt shrugged at the looks that earned him.
John watched Meredith’s gaze narrow and he almost interfered, but he figured Matt needed the kind of wake up call she was about to lay down on him. They all coddled him a lot, but she wasn’t the sort and everyone might as well get used to it.
Meredith took a sip of coffee. “John came online the day your mother was murdered and suppressed it due to emotional trauma—that’s what it means to be trauma-dormant. As an Alpha Ascendant, he would’ve been bombarded not only with the smell of her blood and gun powder, but also the profound amount of fear she had for you both as she died. Did you know she used her last words to order him to turn her body over so he could pull you free and that you were already blue in the face? His most vivid memory of that event is you gasping for breath as she stopped breathing altogether.
“You’re having an instinctual response to him coming online and to his near death, we all get that. But you’ve actively made an already difficult situation worse. I’m sure you find this conversation frustrating, but the least you owe your brother is a small bit of consideration regarding the fact that you’re potentially putting him in a situation, again, where he will be directly responsible for your life.”
Matt flushed and averted his gaze. “I…” He cleared his throat.
“Breathing wasn’t the only thing I heard,” John said. “It’s just what I remember most.” He put the last sandwich on a plate as Jonah eased into the room. “Her heart continued to beat after her lungs filled up with blood. So, really I listened to mom drown.” He rubbed his face. “I can’t have…I need…” He walked out of the room as his throat and mouth started to feel full.
Meredith watched him leave and shared a look with Jonah who exhaled slowly.
“I can retract the request,” Matt said quietly.
“No,” Meredith sighed. “You can’t ignore your own instincts—it could damage you or cause you undue stress, which could cause you to blow and frankly that’s the last thing we need around here. Tell me about your blue dreams.”
Matt hesitated. “They’re strange—indistinct. Sometimes I’m flying over an ocean, but the aircraft is silent. Not silent like something a glider or something muted for Sentinel comfort, but its a pressured silence. Sometimes, there’s a pool of water. I had several dreams about John last week—based on the timeline—probably around the same time he was kidnapped. I had to take myself off duty because I couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time without waking up.”
“Any pain?” Jonah questioned.
Matt rubbed his chest. “A little? An echo maybe, but it faded quickly after I woke up.” He focused on Meredith. “Was that John?”
“Yes, I don’t know for certain if you were connected to him or if were you picking up an echo through the psionic plane. But it sounds very much like my own experience last week, but for me the pain was agonizing. I thought I was having a heart attack.” Meredith poured herself some more coffee. “Patrick, did you experience anything like that?”
“No.” Patrick shook her head. “It would’ve been…I’d have responded very badly to such a thing. It’s difficult to even hear about.” He glanced up suddenly. “He’s asking for you, Meredith.”
Meredith set aside her coffee cup and tilted her head a little as she studied Matt. “I’ll handle your brother—just lay off being a flippant asshole. It’s not helpful and he’d feel like shit if he lost his temper with you. He’s got a short fuse right now.”
“He’s normally very even tempered,” David said and fiddled with his phone before setting it aside.
“John’s far beyond his norm, right now,” Patrick said roughly. “We’re lucky we got him back at all. He could’ve easily spiraled into a place he could’ve never been recovered from.”
Meredith decided to leave them to it as she figured she’d already said more than she should’ve, but she had a feeling the men in the Sheppard household preferred to be assholes to each other than deal with any sort of emotional response to anything. Unfortunately for them, she could teach assholery at Oxford. She paused in the doorway.
“By the way, David, you should tell Claire how much you like the silk pajamas you’re wearing—they’re part of her fall line.”
Matt burst out laughing.
– – – –
“Matt’s dreaming about Atlantis,” John murmured as soon as Meredith joined him on the bed where he’d sprawled to stare at the ceiling.
“Sounds like it.”
“The flight—that’s a Jumper,” John explained. “The pressured silence and the ocean.”
“The pool of water is probably the stargate,” Meredith said. “I’m glad he hasn’t dreamt about a wraith. What do you want to do about it?”
“You were right—he can’t ignore his instincts so I’ll make sure he comes to Atlantis no matter how much the very idea makes me…” John trailed off and sighed. He couldn’t explain his emotional response to the idea of his baby brother being in Pegasus. “Considering his line of work, I can’t say it would be more dangerous. Maybe it would be better if I was around to make sure he’s safe. I need some space to get used to it. I’ve emailed Rampart about the things we need and O’Neill got a head’s up about Matt. I don’t know how his request was worded or the language he used regarding his own latent Sentinel status.”
“You should send Teldy a head’s up as well,” Meredith pointed out. “So she isn’t surprised when you bring him to the city.”
“Yeah,” John agreed. “I’ll handle it. There should be a databurst exchange tomorrow if everything is running on schedule. Did you want to set up your laptop to work?”
“Not right now,” Meredith said and yawned. “Let’s try to get some more sleep. There’s no telling what’s going to hit us tomorrow.”
She woke up with an erection snug against her ass. Since Meredith wasn’t at all opposed to those circumstances she just stayed where she was until he woke. It didn’t take long, and maybe she wiggled a bit, but she wasn’t going to admit it aloud. John stiffened briefly against her then nuzzled her neck.
“Let’s take a shower.”
“Together?” she asked and turned on her back to stare at his face.
“Yeah,” John said as he ran his fingertip along her jaw line and down between her breasts against her sternum. “I didn’t get to enjoy the last one as much I would like.”
He finger trailed gently over her stomach and he plucked gently at the waist band of her PJ pants.
“Are you looking to fuck me or imprint?” Meredith questioned.
“Do I gotta pick just one?” John asked and met her gaze as she laughed.
“No, you don’t.” She sat up and slid out of the bed. “Move it, Colonel.”
She stopped at the sink to brush her teeth and he followed suit. Meredith pulled her t-shirt over her head and tossed it aside with a grin in his direction when he glanced her way then shimmied out of her pants. John tossed aside his toothbrush and stripped off all of his clothes as she turned on the shower.
Meredith offered him a hand and he took it then laced their fingers together. Meredith pulled carefully and he followed her into the shower. He pulled her close, brushed his lips along her jaw then took her mouth. She released his hand and cupped his shoulders as she surrendered. John’s hands settled on her hips, pulled her close and his cock brushed deliciously against her stomach.
She wrapped one hand around his cock as he released her mouth and stroked the length of him with a little shiver. He was thick and long—she couldn’t wait to have him inside her.
“How does this feel?” she questioned.
“Very good,” John murmured and lowered his head.
“Just remember to keep your touch sense has balanced as possible,” she said and he responded by cupping one breast.
“Everything feels fine,” he admitted. “Even normal. I want to taste you—everywhere.”
She hummed under her breath. “I should probably be more focused on the technical stuff, but I really want you.” Meredith released him reluctantly. “Let’s get this whole shower thing taken care of.”
John pulled a bar of amber-colored soap from the shelf and frowned at it.
“I just prefer shower gel,” he admitted.
“You won’t be able to tolerate a single mass-produced product labeled shower gel. We can try some Sentinel-safe liquid soaps, but they’re not the best on the market.” She took the soap from his hand and grabbed a dark blue cloth. “This particular soap is about 300 dollars a bar and it’s worth every single penny.”
“That’s ridiculous,” John muttered. “What do Sentinels who can’t afford this crap do?”
“There are cheaper products that will serve the same purpose in a basic way in that they won’t damage the senses or cause spikes, but this brand will rinse clean, leave nothing behind to taste or smell. It’s also anti-bacterial without being stringent. No man-made chemicals, etc.” She finished soaping the cloth. “It’s going to feel really good on your skin as well—like silk.”
“I guess we should get some to take back to Atlantis,” John said. “We have to shower before and after missions—it can be hard on the skin even as a mundane.” He trembled as she started to wash his chest. “Do I have to get hair removal?”
“The Burton Foundation will certainly encourage it,” Meredith said. “It will depend on distracting you find the hair brushing against your clothes. You’re still experiencing a little bit of desensitization. We’ll see how you feel about it in a few days.”
“Okay,” he murmured. “When did you get yours removed?”
“Shortly after I came online,” she said. “It’s not a requirement, but most Guides take advantage of laser removal as soon as possible in case a bond is available immediately.”
“For what?” she asked as she met his gaze.
“That you had to wait so long.” He picked up the soap and wet another cloth. “I don’t know where either of us would be right now if I’d come online when I was younger, but it feels like…I missed out on something.”
“Let’s focus on what we can build today,” she murmured. “There’s no need to torture ourselves with what might have been.”
They separated to wash, but he touched her repeatedly, took over washing her hair when the time came, and basically made a total menace of himself. She figured it was going to be par for his course even as they dried off. Meredith pulled her hair up in a bun as he caught her by the hips and pulled her close.
“Come to bed,” he murmured.
“Yeah,” Meredith agreed as she let him pull her from the bathroom and back into the bedroom.
John’s gaze was intent on her as she stretched out on the mattress. He moved over her slowly, pausing briefly to brush his lips across the top of her thigh. Meredith spread her legs further and threw her arms over her head to fist her hands into a pillow. He inhaled deeply and groaned against the flesh of her pussy.
Meredith shuddered as he slipped his tongue into her entrance then licked upward to her clit. “Fuck.”
The wet heat of his mouth on her cunt was a stark, bone-deep pleasure that made it difficult to think and even harder to maintain any sort of empathic control. She came twice in quick hot bursts of pleasure before he had his fill and lifted his head. John’s eyes were dark, focused as he met her gaze. He ran his hands down her thighs and cupped her hips. She felt small, vulnerable in his hands which should’ve been uncomfortable, but wasn’t.
He licked his lips and Meredith took a deep breath as a soft, comfortable silence settled between them. John tilted his head just a little and she took a deep breath before relaxing in his hold. There was a gentle shift in their psionic connection and she felt a rush of sweet affection and longing. She stilled the urge to move—as she didn’t want to throw off the imprinting process. He held her still until her heart rate slowed and returned to normal then he released her.
“I’m glad I didn’t know what I was missing,” he murmured. “It would’ve been agonizing.” He flushed. “Sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for.” She held out her hands and he covered her body with his own and tucked his face against her neck as they settled on the bed together.
The strength and weight of his body was such a relief that she wiggled a little with a pleased sound. He laughed and lifted his head. “I don’t even know if I have any condoms.” He glanced toward the nightstand.
“I have some Sentinel safe ones,” Meredith said. “I did put them in the nightstand. On an instinctual level, you might find condoms deeply uncomfortable to use.”
He made a face. “I’ve never gone without. Ever.”
“You also weren’t an online Sentinel,” she said with a laugh and cupped the back of his neck. “I’ve been screened for STDs so you could take me raw if you want. I know the same goes for anyone going through the gate to Pegasus.”
He shuddered. “That’s…”
“Hot?” she questioned and laughed when he nipped gently at her jaw before reaching over to open the top drawer of the nightstand.
“What about birth control?”
“I have an implant—four years left on it,” Meredith said as she plucked the condom from his hand and tore it open. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”
“Right, your needs,” he murmured and brushed his mouth over hers.
“This is about you,” she corrected as she prodded him onto his back. He went willingly and spread out beneath her with the kind of confidence she should find a complete a turn off. “You’re too attractive.”
He grinned. “Most people don’t seem to have a problem with that.”
She rolled the condom onto his cock, but focused on his face as she did so. “Any tingling? Itching?”
“I feel extra sensitive,” John admitted. “But it’s not unbearable.” He flexed his hips as she finished rolling it down.
“Polyurethane is thinner than latex—so it’s going to feel different. Almost all Sentinels have some sort of reaction to latex so we’ll be very going forward with your exposure. It could be a rash or it could be anaphylactic shock. Allergy testing will be part of your intake process with the Foundation.”
She sank down on his cock with a relieved shudder.
“Fuck,” he murmured and clenched his hands on her hips.
“Relax,” she said and braced herself on his chest. “Think about the last orgasm you had—remember how it felt. Focus on that.”
“Shouldn’t…” He took a deep breath. “I mean…this should be about us.”
“It will be,” she promised. “But a sensory spike in the midst of an orgasm is a straight up nightmare so just keep the memory of how it should feel in the back of your mind.”
He tensed and flexed underneath her as she started to move—breath catching with a groan. Meredith moved against the roll of his hips and tried to avoid seeing it as an experiment. His obvious restraint was beautiful, but it was clear that he didn’t normally allow anyone to exert such control over him. Not really a surprise for an Alpha Sentinel, or a career military officer who had rocketed through the ranks of the Marine Corps with a trauma-dormancy label attached to every single evaluation he’d ever had.
John rolled them over abruptly and Meredith just laughed a little as he pinned her to the bed. He started to move—giving her one deep stroke after another. The pleasure was intense and overwhelming. She got lost in it, physically and empathically. His emotions were bleeding all over her and there came a point where she didn’t know where her empathy began and his ended.
“Meredith,” he whispered fiercely against her jaw. “Give me everything.”
“John.” She clutched at his back.
“Everything,” he urged. “Mer, please.”
She gave in—opened her mind to him and the small link they’d shared since the moment he came online bloomed between them. Orgasm teased along her nerves, but there was an echo of pleasure thrumming through her even as it bled all over and her body rushed wet with it. John groaned against her mouth as his hips jerked sharply.
“Okay,” he said hoarsely. “So the sex is that good.”
She laughed weakly. “Yeah, congrats to us.”
He slid a hand between them, caught the edge of the condom and pulled free of her body. “I’m really glad my dad cleared the whole house while we were in the shower.”
“Well, thank fuck for that,” Meredith muttered and rolled over on her side to watch him walk into the bathroom. “Nice ass.”
John laughed. “Yours is better.”
– – – –
“There’s a Marine at the gate,” David announced as he came into the living room. “Security verified identity. He’s here with a delivery.”
“My uniforms,” John said and stood. “He can come through.”
David fired off a text. “Why do you need your uniform? Aren’t you off duty for the next few months?”
“I’ve given myself six weeks to get up to speed, but I’d prefer four.” John shrugged at the looks that earned him. “And I’ll have at least one meeting with General Rampart while I’m here in Virginia. I’ll also need to work in a firing range at some point. There will also be an eval done by the Corps to access my fitness for duty which is standard procedure for my circumstances no matter my online status. POWs are subject to intense psychological scrutiny before being returned to active duty. In truth, many are discharged.”
“Are you worried you’ll be discharged?” Matt questioned with a frown.
“No.” John shook his head. “I’ve never had a problem with PTSD—which was attributed to my dormancy in the past. More than one psychologist in the Corps told me that I was lucky to have learned to suppress trauma in such a beneficial fashion.”
“I want their names,” Meredith muttered as she stared moodily at her laptop. “I keep a list of people to utterly ruin for when I go off the rails and become a super villain.”
“When?” David questioned and John laughed as she shrugged.
The doorbell rang so he went to answer it and left his brothers to stare at his smirking Guide. By the time he reached the door, his father was greeting a young, pale-faced Marine. John supposed the he hadn’t expected to meet the Alpha Prime of Appalachia when he’d rang the doorbell. The Marine’s gaze snapped to him—he came to attention.
“At ease, Lieutenant.” He motioned with a hand. “Follow me. I want to see what you’ve brought before you’re on your way.”
“I…” The younger man blew out a breath. “Sir, General Rampart assigned me personally to assist you. I’m here to ensure the Corps meets your needs during your transition.”
John stared at the kid wearily and shared a glance with his father who was grinning at him. “Full name?”
“Levi Graves, sir.” He picked up the large duffle at his feet. “It came to the general’s attention that you left Colorado without a proper field kit so he issued you weapons and tactical gear personally. I brought two field, one dress, and a service uniform—they were cleaned and prepared following Sentinel guidelines.”
John took the suit bag from Graves’ hand and inclined his head toward the living room. “Let’s see what we’ve got and you can meet my Guide.”
“I’m to tell you if you don’t like General Rampart’s highhanded management that he’s willing to discuss your preferences,” Graves said earnestly.
“I just bet he is,” John muttered as his father laughed and walked off toward the kitchen. “What are you orders?”
“Frankly, sir, he told me to do anything and everything I possible can to make sure you have what you need to prepare to return to duty at the first opportunity. I’ve made contacts at Fort Myer and Henderson Hall letting them know that you may require facilities for training and testing as determined by Dr. McKay.” Graves glanced around the room and focused briefly on McKay whom he gave a quick smile.
“Levi.” Meredith offered him a bright smile and set aside her laptop. ‘What are you doing here?”
“General Rampart assigned him to be my personal assistant for the next few weeks,” John said and raised an eyebrow. “How do you know each other?”
“We saved each other’s asses about five years ago. At the time, I wasn’t even sure he was old enough to be in uniform,” Meredith said with a smile. “How did OTS go, Levi?”
“It went great, ma’am. I was really disappointed to return to duty and find you’d left the base,” Levi said as he put down the duffle and focused on John. “Did you want to check over your uniforms, sir?”
John glanced between them and took the bag to the desk where Meredith had been working. It was empty except her laptop. She picked it up and set it aside so he’d have room. “Are the circumstances classified?”
“Yeah, of course,” Meredith said as she watched him unzip his bag. “But the public version is pretty accurate, all things considered. We got caught up in a fight between two factions and Levi took the hit.” She glanced toward Graves who was studiously looking at the floor. “In the end, he took three bullets for me. His body armor only stopped one.”
“But this wasn’t the incident that led to you leaving the program,” John said as he unzipped the bag. He was honestly furious by how often she’d been in danger while she worked with the SGC. It made him want to kill a whole bunch of people.
“No, it was a field situation—enemy action. He even managed to get me back to base.”
“Pretty sure that was all you, ma’am,” Levi said with a laugh. “You dragged me back to base, if I remember correctly.” He focused on John. “She’s a lot stronger than she looks, sir. I’m easily 220 in full field gear.”
Dragged him back through the gate, John thought, but couldn’t say. He’d get a more explicit version of the story later.
Kepler appeared and chuffed at Levi.
“Kepler did help,” Meredith acknowledged.
John focused on his uniforms. He set aside the two field uniforms—one was black and the other was a standard set of BDUs that every Marine was assigned. The dark green service uniform came next. He checked the ribbons, rank insignia, and the sizes before nodding and setting it aside.
He looked up and found Matt staring at his service uniform. “What?”
“That’s the Medal of Honor,” Matt said and ran his fingers gently over the ribbon in question.
“What do they all mean?” David questioned and Levi Graves winced and averted his gaze as John took a deep breath.
“The Medal of Honor—going above and beyond the call of duty at the risk of his own life,” Matt supplied. “The Purple Heart—injury during combat. The Navy Cross—exceptional service. Navy Distinguished Service Medal—gallantry in action. Prisoner of War—no explanation needed. The rest are service and training related—overseas, Afghanistan, Antarctica, etc. But this one that I don’t recognize, which is bizarre.”
John glanced over at his brothers and noted the ribbon that Matt was tapping.
“Homeland Security Distinguished Service,” Graves supplied when John refocused on his attention to his dress blues. “It’s the highest honor that Homeland Security can bestow—Colonel Sheppard was the first recipient. As far as I know, it’s only been awarded three times since it’s creation and all three awards are classified.”
“How…” David trailed off as he stared at the collection of ribbons. “Did you save the whole planet or something?”
John wet his lips and glanced briefly at Meredith who’d gone a little wide-eyed. “Something like that, but the circumstances are highly classified. The public story is a total smoke screen so I won’t insult you by repeating it. The actual details probably won’t be declassified in my life time, if ever.” He really didn’t know if anyone wanted to admit that a wraith hive nearly made it to Earth before he could destroy it.
“What’s the cover story?” Matt questioned.
“My team and I averted a global catastrophe,” John said. “There are vague references to nuclear war.”
“Declassification could happen in as little as a year, actually,” Meredith said and shrugged when John looked her way. “It’s a political game, John, and people move in and out of those jobs regularly. It’s a big secret and those kinds of secrets don’t last long in the scheme of things. I mean, how long did the military actually keep Groom Lake a secret?” She shrugged when John laughed.
“Right, well, for now it’s classified and I’m relieved by that,” John said as he moved his uniforms back into the bag. “Shoes?”
“In the duffle, sir.” Levi picked up the bag in question and offered it to John. “Along with your tactical gear and a selection of weapons recommended by Major Teldy. I cleaned and sighted everything personally.”
“Did you bring your own gear?” John asked.
“I left it in the SUV, sir, I’ve reservations at a nearby hotel.”
“No need, you can stay here,” John said. “There’s a guest suite not far from my own. Speak with security about putting your vehicle in the garage. My father doesn’t like it when people park in his driveway for more than an hour.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of that now. Thank you.”
John zipped up the suit bag as Graves left and focused on the duffle. Boots, tac vest, shoes, holsters, three guns, and a combat knife that he unsheathed to check. He’d left his buried in the gut of a Genii—one of his last kills before Ronon had stepped through the gate to join him. The blade had been chipped and broken off at the tip anyway so it hadn’t been worth keeping.
Meredith’s hand clamped down on his wrist. “Are you zoning?”
“No.” He focused on her as she released him and he sheathed the knife. “I was just thinking about the knife I left behind—when I was rescued. I’d broken it a few hours before evac arrived, but I had a gun by then. Well, I had several since I plucked them off the bodies of the ones I’d killed. I picked up a very long blade a few minutes later and kept it on me until I was found. I think Ronon has it.” He made a face. “I wonder if I can make him give it back to me.”
“He didn’t look like the sort who’d part with a sword-like weapon,” Meredith pointed and laughed when John huffed.
“No, you’re right. He seemed delighted at the sight of it and I was too distracted by Bouchard telling me I had to give him my gun to even lay a proper claim to it. Maybe I’ll visit a blacksmith and get something made—Anne might like a sword, too.”
“Sentinels in combat are fond of melee weapons,” Meredith acknowledged. “But Anne Teldy is a brawler. I’d go with telescoping baton over a sword of any sort. Maybe a pair of sais. William trained with those and has a pair. I prefer a quarterstaff as far as that goes, but Jim Ellison taught me Kali during my training as a Guide.”
“What’s Kali?” David asked.
“Weapon-based martial arts,” John explained. “Sticks, staves, knives, swords, and whatever improvised weapon she could get her hands on in a fight.”
“Like the Eskrima that Dad taught us,” David questioned.
“Exactly like, just a different name for it,” Meredith said and picked up the suit bag. “I’ll take these upstairs and hang them in the closet. Most Guides are taught some form of martial art as a mental discipline and for self-defense. Being able to use weapons that won’t distract your Sentinel in a fight can be to your benefit. Modern warfare can be a sense nightmare for a Sentinel/Guide pair, but we’ve training methods that go all the way back to the creation of gunpowder to help with that, but there are limits and sometimes the psychological impact of war can cause deep emotional wounds that even Sentinels are immune to. PTSD is rare for an Alpha Sentinel, but it can happen.”
“How would that happen?” John questioned.
Meredith winced. “I’ve never met a single Sentinel who lost a Guide in a violent situation that didn’t have some level of PTSD related to the event. The destruction of the bond is a cut so deep that it can’t be healed.”
“Is that where Marshall is?” John asked. “Will he always be there?”
“I hope not,” Meredith said. “He’s a good man and an excellent Sentinel. He’s not an Alpha and that helps—I’m not saying his bond was anything less than ours, but Alphas are a breed apart when it comes to emotional and psionic connections. There are some so-called romantic myths about Sentinels grieving themselves to death over a Guide, but that’s not how it works. Most often, if a Sentinel passes with their Guide or very near the death of their Guide it is the result of psionic trauma and not emotional trauma. The longer a pair is bonded, the deeper the psionic impact will be.”
“How long had Marshall been bonded?”
“12 years,” Meredith said and grimaced. “She was lovely and powerful. He called her the calm in his storm. They had to sedate him to make him part with her body.” She cleared her throat and focused on John. “But he recovered and returned to duty just six months afterward. I don’t know if he’ll ever bond again.”
“Graves is latent, right?”
“Yes,” Meredith said. “And I suspect he will remain so unless he has a significant incident. He’s seen enough combat to have brought him online in most normal circumstances so…he’s part of the reserve population.”
“Reserve population,” David repeated. “Like me? I had a Guide say that about me years ago—when I was making a decision about school. I went to the Foundation and asked them about my chances of coming online because I wanted to go to law school.”
“Yes, you are certainly in reserve,” Meredith said. “I get very little psionic feedback from you. I can tell you’re latent, but that’s about it on the Sentinel front.”
“I asked them what it would take for me to come online,” David said. “He had no answer at all for that. What do you think it would take?”
“A global natural disaster, invasion of the country by a foreign force, apocalypse, alien invasion, a tribe of Bigfoot showing up in your backyard,” Meredith listed off and grinned when David laughed, but then she grew serious. “The psionic plane will call on you if there is a need—pay attention to the political climate in the region and the situations around your fathers. As an Alpha Prime, your father could, without trying or knowing, bring you online if there is a significant threat to his tribe or specifically, his Guide.”
Levi Graves appeared in the doorway as Meredith turned.
“Come along, Levi, I’ll show you where you can stay. You can tell me all about your new boyfriend.”
Levi blushed. “I don’t have a new boyfriend, Dr. McKay.”
“That’s not what I heard,” she said and quirked an eyebrow as she snagged his arm and pulled him along. “I’ve received a full social brief for the program, young man, so I know you’ve completed your manwhore phase and that you’re downright close to picking out wedding bands.”
“You’re the literal worst, Doc,” Graves complained. “And there’s no boyfriend.”
“Well, we’ll just have to get you one,” Meredith declared cheerfully.
John laughed and focused on the weapons. He opened the handgun case and pulled the Colt M45A1 from the foam and inserted a magazine. Instantly, he felt better. He opened the second gun case and lifted the P90, but didn’t load it.
“Standard issue for a Marine is an M249 rifle,” Matt said. “The FN P90 is a special forces weapon.”
“It’s the standard issue for my mission,” John said. “You’ll need to be rated for it before any field assignments.”
Matt nodded. “I’ve never used one, but I won’t have a problem getting up to speed on any weapon needed for the mission.”
John nodded and let it go. He really wasn’t ready to talk to Matt about the situtation and was glad that he wouldn’t be part of the briefing his younger brother had to go through before the official transfer to Colorado. He put the P90 back in the case and shut it. The shoes and boots were the right size, not that he’d expected anything different. Levi Graves struct him as a perfectionist. He holstered the pistol and set it aside before packing the duffle back up and zipping it.
“You’re going to…wear the gun,” David said.
John shared an amused glance with Matt. “Yeah, Dave, I’m going to wear it. It’ll help me relax, honestly.” He shrugged out of the hoodie and put the shoulder holster on. “I’ll keep it covered,” he promised as he put the hoodie back on. “To be honest, this isn’t even a Sentinel-thing. I’ve not felt comfortable unarmed since Afghanistan.”
“Where you were water boarded,” David said.
“Yeah.” John glanced toward the doorway where his father was standing. “Rampart assigned Graves to me—personal detail until I return to active duty.”
“Additional security for you or for McKay?” Patrick questioned.
“McKay, certainly,” John said. “Her threat profile is immense and she knows Graves—trusts him.”
“I heard the story,” Patrick said. “She had a Sentinel bodyguard for years. I received a phone call from the Alpha Sentinel Prime of Canada—he offered to pay for additional security for McKay while she’s here. I told him I already had a full detail and wouldn’t need more. Moreover, I wouldn’t want anyone who wasn’t in my pride working on the property as security.”
“Did he agree or does she need to call him?” John questioned. “Because she has his private phone number.”
“He’s also the PM of Canada,” David said. “She can just call the PM of her country?”
“She could probably directly contact the leaders of several countries, including our own,” John admitted. “McKay’s worth as a scientist does more to contribute to her threat profile than her status as a Guide, especially since precious few people know she’s a shaman or a Lion Guide.”
His spirit animal appeared and brushed up against his leg with a throaty purr. John let his hand drop to the jaguar’s head and he rubbed it gently. “This is Zillah.”
“She’s distressingly solid,” David said.
John grinned. “She helped me stalk and kill several enemies near the end of the situation.”
“Is that common?”
“It’s common for Alphas,” Meredith said as she returned. “I’ve put Graves in that empty suite next to yours, John. He’s cancelled the hotel reservation and reported into O’Neill.”
“Why is it common for Alphas?” Matt asked curiously.
“It’s part of that whole psionic resonance thing. It’s also why such Sentinels can call a pride of hundreds to their side in times of conflict and strife. It’s how we came to have the system of leadership we have today. Your father is the strongest Alpha Prime in the region—it’s a position built on instinct and a psionic knowing by those around him.” She focused on Patrick. “But like most primes, he’s not known for toeing anyone’s line. If the governments around the world could control the prime process—they certainly would.”
“I’ve rarely made friends in the White House if that’s your meaning,” Patrick said. “I certainly didn’t with the new one either. I tore him a new one over the failure of leadership in regards to John’s situation before and after he was taken hostage.” He waved a hand and checked his watch. “Jonah and I are due for a meeting so I’ll be at SI until shortly before dinner. John, the household staff will be returning to duty within the next 12 hours. Do you need me to be here when they arrive?”
“Are there new people?” John questioned with a frown.
“Yes, Mrs. Clayton retired three years ago, so there is a new majordomo. She came with a professional chef so I hired her wife as well since Henry was looking to spend more time with his grandchildren. There is a maid service that comes in once a week, but I’ve cancelled them for the week to keep the number of people in the house down to a minimum. Frances Young, the majordomo, and her wife, Alma, have been thoroughly vetted by the Pentagon due to SI’s military contracts. They live in the apartment above the garage—I sent them on a mini-vacation shortly before I left to meet you.”
“It’ll be…good for you to be here when they’re introduced,” John said after a moments thought. “I wouldn’t want to make them uncomfortable.”
Meredith was kind of pissed off. The Marine Corps service uniform was the least attractive of all of them and John looked stupidly good in it. He carried himself very well, of course, but the whole package was kind of infuriating.
She passed her ID over to Levi who was driving and sat back in the seat as the MP guarding the gate at Fort Myer checked it. The young man cleared his throat, dipped down to peer into the window to get a visual and stepped back to speak into his radio. John rolled down the window.
“Is there a problem, Sergeant?” John questioned.
“No, sir,” he said crisply and passed both of their IDs back to John directly. “General Rampart is on base and waiting your arrival. Dr. McKay’s VIP status, as declared by the Pentagon, requires some security rearrangement, but everything will be in place shortly.”
“Has the meeting location changed?” Levi asked.
“No, sir,” the MP said. “Colonel, should I make a note that Dr. McKay is to be assumed as your companion whenever you come on base?”
“She’s my Guide, so yes,” John said.
“Congratulations, sir.” He stepped back as the gates opened and walked away speaking on his radio.
John rolled up the window and sat back. “Levi, what’s your official base assignment?”
“Yours, sir, as of three days ago, sir,” Graves said. “Unless my jacket fails to impress.” He flashed a grin in the rearview mirror that made John laugh. “General O’Neill said you’d receive data on transfers next week. And he expects to get a list of anyone you’d like to transfer out before you come back to the mountain, but I suspect that expectation has been put in an email.”
John nodded, but turned his head stare out the window.
“Are there people on the mission you’d transfer off?” Meredith questioned.
“Probably—I’ll need to think about them individually I guess. I suspect O’Neill thinks I’m going to have some instinctual response to some of the men and women in my command.”
“Certainly,” Meredith agreed. “Good and bad—anyone that makes you feel personally hostile should be removed as quickly as possible to avoid stress. I can help you work through your reaction to determine why they are a problem.”
“What kind of problems could they be?”
“Eh.” Meredith shrugged. “You’ll be protective of your personal territory and anyone who disrupts your space or causes stress within the tribe will make you hostile. Womanizers, habitual liars, abusers—they’ll stick out to you in a variety of ways, but most especially because of your empathy. If someone’s in a relationship and their partner is emotionally or physically abusive—we’re both going to notice. In fact, such a situation will become impossible to ignore. More than half the justified feral homicides at the hands of a Sentinel in the US are the result of some sort of domestic violence.”
“I’d like to think I’d already know if I had someone like that on the city,” John muttered.
“Your senses have always been advanced—you just didn’t have the right brain chemistry or psionic profile to properly interpret the data you were collecting. But it’s likely that Anne Teldy has already done most of that leg work for you.”
“So I’ll discover new information in my own head about people?” John asked skeptically and Graves laughed. “Come on, Mer.”
She laughed. “How does Anne Teldy take her coffee?”
“I don’t pay attention to…” He trailed off. “Cream and sugar.” He frowned when she raised an eyebrow at him. “Right.”
“You’ll also have empathic impressions that we’ll have to deal with—which will be a learning curve for me as well because I never expected to bond with an Alpha Ascendant.” They came to a stop and she focused on the building they’d parked in front of.
“I didn’t have an admin before I came online,” John said and focused on her. “Why now?”
She glanced toward Graves. “Give us a bit of room, Levi.”
“Sure thing, Doc,” Levi said cheerfully and left the SUV. He closed the door and took a position of sentry a few feet away.
“Secret Sentinel stuff?” John questioned in an amused tone.
“Sort of, but I didn’t think you’d appreciate me discussing this in front of anyone, but certainly not in front of an officer in your command. He’s a good Marine so I think you’ll probably keep him.”
“He saved your life, of course, I’m keeping him. I asked about his assignment because I intended on asking O’Neill to offer him a billet on Atlantis. So why do I need an aide? It’s not SOP for the Marine Corps at my current rank.”
“You’ll require a buffer of sorts. You’ll need someone to adjust your schedule on the fly in regards to your sense management and psionic profile. It’ll be even more important in Pegasus when your enemy is a telepathic race. Levi is latent, but he has had a full course load of training at the Foundation and he’s taken the classes that the Corps offer on sense management and working with online Sentinels.”
“Will it damage his career?”
Meredith laughed. “To be the aide-de-camp for an Alpha Ascendant Sentinel in a combat zone in the most highly classified project in the entire US military?”
“Well, when you put it like that.” John sighed and looked toward the building. “Four-man escort. Do you know any of them?”
She glanced them over. “No, but Rampart wouldn’t make a mistake when it comes to either of us. Half of this meeting is taking place because the POTUS wants to make sure I don’t get bent and drag you off to live in a Canadian shack.”
“Does this shack have indoor plumbing?” John asked. “Because there is a standard of living I’d like to remain accustomed to.”
She grinned at him. “I haven’t actually bought one, yet. But I did make a show of researching properties just to fuck with the IOA. I also looked in Alaska because I’m not above buying a mountain cabin as long as I can stick a satellite on top of it.”
John checked his watch. “Let’s go—I don’t want to be late.” He tapped the window and Graves turned around to open the door.
He kept her hand the entire trip inside so she didn’t offer to stay out in the waiting area of the office suite they’d been escorted to. He clearly didn’t want to be separated from her and she hoped that Rampart didn’t request it. Levi stepped forward when John stopped.
“Colonel John Sheppard and Dr. McKay to see General Rampart. They have an appointment.”
The Guide behind the desk quirked an eyebrow. “I have an appointment for the colonel, but not for a guest. She’ll have to wait out here.”
“Let me rephrase, Corporal Ellis,” Levi said pleasantly. “Colonel John Sheppard and his Guide are here to see General Rampart. We can reschedule if the general can’t meet with them both.”
She flushed and stood. “One moment.”
“Problem?” Meredith questioned.
“I haven’t registered our bond with the Corps,” John said. “It could be that simple or it could be because she’s an online Guide and was clearly planted front and center in my face for my arrival.”
“We are encouraged to do a Guide search within the Corps before contacting the Foundation for an extensive search in the civilian population,” Levi said.
“How are you certain she’s a plant?”
“A man of his rank wouldn’t have a corporal as his aide due to security clearances. This isn’t his official office space so the CO of this base arranged the casual meet with probably the only online Guide they have on the whole base,” John muttered.
“Stop acting offended,” Meredith said with a small laugh. “She’s gorgeous and her psionic profile is truly lovely. Maybe we should bring her home for Matt.”
“He prefers men,” John whispered even as the door opened and the young woman returned. “So I really hope he doesn’t encounter a situation where he has to rearrange his entire world view when he comes online.”
“General Rampart will see you and your Guide, Colonel Sheppard.” She smiled hesitantly. “Congratulations on your bond.”
“Thank you, Corporal,” John said stiffly and Meredith offered the younger woman a quick smile as she was pulled away.
“Don’t mind him—he’s territorial,” Meredith said and John huffed a little while the other Guide just laughed.
He released her hand as the door shut behind them. Meredith had read Randolph Rampart’s public bio, after they’d landed in Virginia, so she recognized him. The picture she’d been given didn’t really convey the man’s imposing presence. He had a piercing, knowing gaze that spoke to an intense personality and a latent talent. He inclined his head as he studied her.
John shifted slightly. “Good afternoon, sir.”
Rampart focused on him. “Colonel, I’ve been getting up to speed on the program you’re in. My predecessor was a bit hands off with the entire thing for a few reasons—chief among them that he actively hates Jack O’Neill.”
“That doesn’t speak well of him,” John said stiffly. “General O’Neill literally saved the planet.” He paused. “Three times.”
Rampart nodded and motioned to a pair of chairs in front of his desk. “O’Neill has friends and enemies in Washington because he’s never bothered to play any sort of political games. Like most Sentinels, he has a hard time keeping disdain off his face when he’s being outright lied to.” He sat after Meredith did and John took a seat beside her. “He’s also made it clear that he’ll see anyone court-martialed if they get out of line with him.”
“I would as well,” John admitted. “I see no reason to tolerate liars or criminals.”
Rampart grinned at him and rocked in his chair. “It’s standard for the Corps to ask a newly online Sentinel if they wish to be transferred to a new situation or command.”
“I’m not interested in a transfer.”
“I didn’t think so, but it needs to be asked. Is there anyone in your command above or below your rank that has the potential to make you uncomfortable on an instinctual level?”
“I need to spend some time evaluating that,” John admitted. “General O’Neill is expecting a list, but currently no one stands out for me. I’ll submit paperwork regarding my bond within the week. Dr. McKay would like to see me evaluated by the Burton Foundation.”
Rampart focused on her. “I’ve heard very little about you, but what I’ve heard concerns me.”
“I bet.” Meredith crossed her legs.
“The POTUS called me after you were identified at the gate,” Rampart said. “I was told to extend you every single courtesy. Most government contractors don’t enjoy the kind of privilege you do, Dr. McKay. I admit to finding the situation offensive.”
“In what way?” Meredith questioned and put her hand on John’s arm when he stiffened.
“It was clear to me that if you find me undesirable that I will be asked to resign,” Rampart said. “And I’ve worked my ass to get where I am in life and to have it all at risk because a civilian might not like me is frustrating to say the least.”
“It’s not about dislike,” Meredith said. “Because for the record, I don’t normally like men of your disposition at all. You’ve enjoyed so much authority in your professional life that it nearly always bleeds over into your personal life. I’m sure some would find comfort in your overt alpha male personality, but I do not.”
“You’re bonded with an Alpha Sentinel.”
“If you don’t know the difference between an alpha male and an Alpha Sentinel, then I suggest you set aside time to do a lot of reading,” Meredith said and smiled when he frowned at her. “That being said—the only reason I would say a single negative word to President Hayes about you would be if I believed you guilty of or capable of treason. If you were of such weak character I would be fundamentally incapable of not reporting it as it would make you a danger to John and every other Marine in service. I’m a shaman, General Rampart, and I have a higher duty in life that I must pay attention to.”
“A shaman,” Rampart repeated and sent John a look. “Hell, Sheppard, like you didn’t have enough on your plate.”
“I need every advantage I can get in my current circumstances,” John said.
“You’ve had no training as a Sentinel,” Rampart murmured. “I’ve been told that we’re lucky to have gotten you back at all considering your childhood trauma. Ellison also reported to the Corps that you refused a Guide search. I’ve not received a report from O’Neill fully detailing your recovery or how you were declared KIA in the first place.”
“The civilian leader of the mission declared me dead in an effort to cover up her crimes. O’Neill is having to deal with some pressure regarding oversight for the mission,” John said. “McKay facilitated my return to base…through the psionic plane.”
Rampart just shook his head. “I remember my father being disappointed when he was told that I would probably never come online. His father had been a Sentinel and it had skipped him. My grandson is a latent Guide. I probably won’t be around when he comes online, but I do worry about the legacy of service in my family.”
“Nature will provide,” Meredith said and lifted her hand off John’s arm. “John’s proof enough of that. The psionic energy that moves through the universe carves a path for each of us to follow in life and in death.”
“The civilian leader—what crimes did she commit?”
“Sir, with all due respect, this building isn’t secure enough for me to answer that question,” John said. “You aren’t running any sort of Sentinel deterrents.”
Rampart exhaled sharply. “Of course, I hadn’t considered…I’ll find my answers elsewhere then.”
“I’ll contact O’Neill and take a trip if necessary,” Rampart said. “Your aide has requested private training facilities on this base, but hasn’t given a time period or a start date.”
“I’ve given myself a six-week deadline to return to duty so I’d like to start as soon as possible.”
“Six weeks?” Rampart focused on Meredith. “We normally allot three months to training a Marine who comes online unexpectedly with no previous education regarding potential gifts.”
“Which is certainly reasonable. It’s probably too little time in some cases. John shouldn’t be used as a gauge against the training of future Sentinels or Guides, for that matter. His circumstances are unique.”
“Because of you?”
“Because of him. Alpha Ascendants are rare and his gift of empathy will help me connect with him on a profound level. I’ll be able to build sense shelters within his personal psionic field for management and field use. Inside the next month, he’ll be able use his senses on an instinctual level on par with a Sentinel who’s been online for decades. Fortunately, he had a lot of therapy as a child and young man.”
“Therapy is never fortunate,” John protested.
Meredith laughed. “Well, it did give you a deep level of emotional intelligence that is serving you very well in the empathy department. Many Guides can’t tell the difference between guilt and resentment.”
John made a face. “I should contact Dr. Conrad and tell him that all of that talk therapy he made me do actually turned out to be helpful, because at 16 I told him that it was a real waste of my time.”
“There’s never any need to validate a psychologist,” Meredith said with a grimace.
– – – –
She’d been staring moodily at her laptop without moving for nearly 15 minutes. John was on the fence about interrupting her. He didn’t know how she worked and what she looked like when she was thinking through a problem. There were scientists on Atlantis that could stare into space for hours and emerge with an equal amount of crazy and amazing inspiration.
“Is something wrong?”
He glanced toward David who had asked the question. His brother had spent most of the evening on his phone texting. John was considering having him put on a plane to France. He didn’t normally boss his brothers around, but David was clearly torn between staying close to him and returning to a very new and clearly important relationship.
“My sister is a twat,” Meredith said crossly and huffed at the looks she earned for herself. “Yes, yes—you all have this lovely, supportive family vibe and I’m sure it’s very valuable to you all, but my sister is literally a twat.” She closed her laptop and put it on the sofa.
“John and David has a fist fight the last time he was at home,” Matt said and laughed when John glared at him. “Well, you did.”
John sighed and shrugged when Meredith raised an eyebrow at him. “He was being a dick and not to be childish about it, but he hit me first.”
“I did,” David admitted. “Later, when I was sober, I realized what a dumbass thing that was to do. I’m glad he was clear headed enough to pull his punches.”
John took a deep breath. “Yeah.” He focused on her. “Why is your sister a twat?”
“DNA and golden child syndrome,” Meredith said. “My mother and I made sure she was considered the normal one—smart and pretty, but not a threat to my father’s ego nor a potential resource he could use. Unfortunately, my mother clung to her and spoiled her rotten then she died in a car accident with my father. I was already in the midst of my second Ph.D. and Jeannie didn’t know how to function despite being 20 years old. She couldn’t drive and was in a degree program at a local university that my father had chosen for her. She’d never even picked her own classes.
“I had to go back to Canada to deal with the estate, set up her trust fund, and pick her damn classes for her junior year of undergrad. I told her that she needed to learn how to live because I wasn’t going to take care of her like our parents had. After six months, I had to hire someone to teach her because she wouldn’t accept the fact that I wasn’t going to manage everything for her. I went back to Northwestern to make it clear to her that I meant business.”
“And?” John prodded.
“Three months later, she called me and told me she’d married her history professor and needed me to transfer the management of her trust fund to him. I refused and her husband sued me. The judge decided in my favor for several reasons—the most important being that my sister’s new husband was 15 years older than her and dirt poor. Moreover, neither of them could give a single valid reason to explain why the 5k stipend she received every month wasn’t enough.
“Then a few years after that, she called me hysterical because he’d left her and was suing her for money and custody of their child—citing the fact that she couldn’t even shop for groceries. He’d enabled her helplessness just like our parents, then used it against her.”
“I hope you destroyed him,” Matt muttered.
“He was awarded two hours of supervised visitation with his daughter once a month and no alimony. He never made a single appointment. He calls her once a year to demand money in exchange for visiting my niece. The first year, she actually gave him 10k in the hopes that he would want to see Madison. He never called to arrange the meeting, but he did cash the check.”
“What a piece of shit,” John said. “What did she email you?”
“I offered her my house in Hawaii and a job—there are some research projects for the IOA that she could certainly do with absolutely no problems. She accepted both, but then ended the email by asking me if William had finally dumped me. So I told her we’d both bonded recently to different people and she responded to tell me that our parents told her I’d never bond because I was barely a Guide.”
John’s mouth dropped open despite his best intentions. “They didn’t know about the whole…deal?”
“No, I worked too hard to get away from my parents because they saw my intelligence as a road to make money for themselves. They’d have invested themselves in regaining control of me if I’d revealed my true nature to them. I didn’t have the energy for that fight.” She flicked a hand. “Anyways, Jeannie’s still a frustrating mess. The woman I originally hired to teach her skills has worked for her as her assistant for a decade. I guess she’s happy paying someone to take care of it.”
“Do you think she’d have grown up eventually if your parents hadn’t died?” John asked curiously.
“No,” Meredith said. “She’d have lived at home until she married a man they would’ve picked out for her and lived the utterly normal life they wanted her to have. My father was invested in making sure that neither of us ever proved to be more successful than him unless it somehow benefited him financially.”
John stared in a moment. “When you accepted the Nobel, you thanked your father specifically and said he was the single biggest influence in your life.”
“He was,” Meredith said with a shrug. “Every success I’ve ever had comes down to my immense desire to do well to spite him.” She shrugged as John stood and pulled out his cellphone. “What are you doing?”
“Joining in your assholery,” John said wryly and dropped down beside her on the sofa. He held the phone up in front of her. “Give your sister a smile that will make her furious.”
Meredith laughed, but leaned into him and offered the camera on his phone a little smug grin.
He took several shots and handed it to her. “Tell her she’s welcome.”
“I should probably lecture you about your vanity,” Meredith muttered even as she started composing a text message.
“It’s not vain to know what I look like,” John said with a laugh.
“He was awful as a teenager,” Patrick said from the doorway. “I was grateful that they were all boys until puberty struck then I realized having three sons just made it more likely that someone was going to get knocked up.”
Meredith laughed. “You got lucky.”
“He bought stock in a condom company,” Jonah said as he slid past Patrick and came into the room. “What are you all doing in here? It’s the least interesting room in the whole house.”
“It also has the best wi-fi reception,” Meredith said sourly. “I can’t spend weeks in this house with this crap.” She offered Patrick a mild glare and focused on John’s phone as it started to ring. “Oh, fuck me.” John laughed as she stood. “Laugh it up, Marine, she’s probably going to ask me if you’re an escort. It took an in-person visit for her to be convinced that William wasn’t a whore.”
John kept laughing.
Meredith huffed, but walked through the French doors and out onto the patio as she answered. “Hello, Jeannie.”
“What phone number is this?”
“It’s my Sentinel’s cell. You know I don’t carry one.” She pushed her hair back and walked around the pool.
“Where are you?”
“Virginia, he has family here so we came here for training and I can’t say much more than that.” Meredith glanced over her shoulder just in time to watch John pull the doors shut behind him. He strolled to a lounge chair and threw himself into it with a negligent sprawl. “His name is John.”
“Military? He’s got the haircut for it,” Jeannie said quietly.
“Yeah, Marines. Why did you call? Wasn’t your email insulting enough?”
“Mom and Dad said you didn’t even register on the scale, Meredith,” Jeannie exclaimed hotly. “I thought you were…lying to save face because William found a real Guide.”
“I’m a level six, Jeannie. In fact, I tested off the scale and was trained by Blair Sandburg, personally. I had the Burton Foundation lie to our parents to protect myself.”
Jeannie exhaled loudly. “You couldn’t just let them be proud of you for once? Why did you always have to make them think the worst of you?”
“Because when I was 12 years old our father tried to fucking sell me to the highest goddamned bidder! I had to sue them for emancipation. Dad was furious because he had dozens of R&D contract offers on the table for me—some worth millions a year based on my potential.”
“Is that why you never came home after you went to MIT?” Jeannie asked. “They made it sound like the government kidnapped you.”
“Frankly, it was the best kidnapping I’ve ever participated in,” Meredith said and sighed when Jeannie huffed in fury. “Look we came from the same people, but we had different parents. Your parents loved you. My parents saw me as a potential source of money. Your parents planned you. My parents were forced to get married because they got knocked up with me and they were both threatened with disownment.”
“I don’t think you’re being fair, Meredith. They’re not here to defend themselves and it’s been so long—surely you realize, as an adult, that they just wanted the best for you and contracts would’ve protected your rights.”
“While they continued to bank my money until I was 30?” Meredith questioned and laughed when Jeannie huffed in shock. “Wait, do you still think the money in your trust fund was theirs? They stole my income for years while I went to court repeatedly to stop it. Every single penny they had in the bank the day they died came from residual payments on work I did while under contract with a government think thank in Canada starting at the age of 8. Neither of them worked the last decade of their lives, Jeannie. Think about it.”
“Daddy said that he retired and it was his pension,” Jeannie said. “He was a smart man, Meredith. He worked for decades…” She trailed off when Meredith scoffed.
“Do you remember the day mom sat you down and told you it would be best if you didn’t do well on the tests dad had made? Remember how she told you to get at least at five questions wrong in each section?”
“He gave me those same tests and when I got it all right, he had me tested by the government, pulled me out of school, and hired private tutors for me. I was six. I tested right out of high school a year later and started work on an undergrad degree in engineering—the degree was his choice. He got 16 patents out of me before I turned 12 and you inherited them. Some days I was allowed as little as five hours of asleep. If I complained or fell asleep outside of his schedule—I was lazy and costing him money. Mom begged you to tank those tests so he wouldn’t turn you into a cash cow.”
“He was very disappointed in the results,” Jeannie said quietly and cleared her throat. “Why are we talking about this? You never talk about them—not even when I beg.”
“Because he was a monster and she was weak—they destroyed my childhood and wanted to keep you a child your whole fucking life,” Meredith snapped and waved a hand in frustration. “And I’m taking a mission that will leave me out of contact for long periods of time. I’ll have email transmission once a week, but that’s it.”
“So the job and the house in Hawaii is you managing me,” Jeannie said sourly.
“Yes, and no. I don’t want to sell the house and I don’t want to rent it out to a stranger. It’s beautiful and Madison will love living next to the ocean. The work is good—important and groundbreaking. I have a lot of projects lined up that I can pass to you. I could give you even more if you produce consistent results. It’ll open up opportunities and I might be able to get you a higher security clearance. You’re a co-dependent mess, Jeannie, but you’re brilliant in your own right and it’s okay to show it. He’s not here to ruin it for you.”
“Like he ruined it for you? You thanked him when you won the Nobel.”
“He would’ve probably stroked out with fury to know I won such a thing so, of course, I thanked him. It’s literally the only reason I regret his death.” She winced when Jeannie exhaled noisily. “Don’t expect me to love them, Jeannie. Is Elisa coming with you to Hawaii?”
“Yeah, of course. Living in paradise is no hardship.”
Meredith agreed so she glanced toward John and found him making the appearance of being relaxed. He was anything, but. “The organization I work for will handle your move to Hawaii—my personal stuff is being packed right now so the house will be ready for you inside the next week. I went through the contract you’ll be asked to sign and made changes to protect your intellectual property rights. I’ll send you a copy of the one I approved. There’s a highly rated private school not far from the house and Madison’s trust will cover the cost of her tuition.”
“Okay, you won’t be there when we arrive?”
“Do you need me to be?” Meredith questioned and glanced toward John who shrugged.
“It would be…nice.” Jeannie huffed. “We haven’t seen you in person in two years, Meredith. Madison asks about you all the time.”
“I’ll contact the Alpha Prime for the region and let them know to expect me and my Sentinel.”
“That’s a big deal?” Jeannie questioned.
“It’s a very big deal when an online Alpha Ascendant Sentinel enters the territory of another pride for a planned trip without notification. Allowances are made for emergencies and disasters, but…yeah. There is a process, of sorts, that takes place out of respect.”
“Is William okay? Did he make a good match?”
“As far as I can tell, she’s perfect for him,” Meredith murmured. “You can email him, if you’d like, he’d be happy to hear from you. Ask Elisa to email me with the schedule and I’ll be at the house when you land.”
“Thanks, Meredith. I know you think I’m ridiculous, but I appreciate it.”
“Most adults would find moving to a new country stressful,” Meredith said. “I need to go, but tell Madison I’ll call her tomorrow after school.”
“I’ll put a reminder in your email calendar,” Jeannie decided. “Tell your Sentinel he’s prettier than you.”
John laughed from the other side of the pool and Meredith rolled her eyes as she hung up on her sister.
Meredith exhaled slowly as psionic energy stirred around her. She hadn’t expected their training sessions at Fort Myer to be private, but John clearly had. She’d been in such facilities before so she hadn’t been overly concerned when the observation deck above the room had filled up. John wasn’t interested in being on display for anyone. She wondered if that had always been a problem or if time in Pegasus with such a small population had reduced his tolerance for such things.
She raised an eyebrow. “You like it when I glow.”
He grinned. “It’s not a bad look for you. But why?”
“When I deepen my connection to the psionic plane there is an energy exchange—and it causes the energy that clings to my skin to glow. As your control over your own empathy increases, you’ll create such a connection yourself. Most Ascendants don’t achieve the level of connection that Guides do, but it’s a possibility. The lore is thin on Ascendants for various reasons—chief among them that many hid their abilities.”
She opened up the thin silver case she’d had delivered from the local psionic center. “One of the first things a young latent Sentinel is trained to do is identify scents—the basic kit has just over 5,000 samples. There are specialized kits for various professional fields. Due to experience, you don’t need the basic kit so I’ve decided to focus on a skill set that will help you in combat—pheromones, chemicals used in various weapons, and drug profiles.”
“As the body processes medicines and drugs, it will throw off distinct odors that you can detect. It’ll help you find specific individuals and if a person in your command is using illegal drugs—you’ll know. Additionally, such drugs if taken habitually become a part of a person’s scent profile. Birth control, for instance, will change how a woman smells to you. You’ll also learn the difference between the blood of a wound and menses so you won’t respond inappropriately to a female in your environment.”
John nodded. “Okay.”
“Because of your age and due to the fact that your senses have always been hypersensitive, none of the pheromones I present to you today will be foreign. You’ll have memories attached to each distinct scent profile. It’s why we can skip the basic kit outright—you already know what sweat, blood, toothpaste, etc. smells like. In an urban environment, working as a cop, we might work on brand recognition for products, but you won’t need that for your work so it would be a waste of time.”
He made a face as she snapped open the first scent vial. “What…” He trailed off. “Anger?”
“Aggression,” Meredith said. “The Burton Foundation categorize pheromones into two basic classes based on how they impact your senses. You’ll have an additional benefit of empathy when interacting with individuals—sense linking will allow you to send your empathy across great distances. Basically, if you can see it, you can feel it.”
“Or smell it or hear it,” John said. “I understand. Why just two classes?”
“Evolution has slowly, but surely lessened the impact that pheromones have on humans. As a result, your brain will ignore or dismiss most pheromones altogether. As a species, we largely depend on visual and verbal cues in our social interactions. That being said, our bodies still exude subtle pheromones which have no apparent impact on mundanes. Though, there are several on going studies that question that.” She waved a hand. “Junk science, probably. I’ll believe it when I see it. Human behavior is hard to evaluate in a lab setting, in my personal opinion.”
John leaned back on his hands and smiled at her.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she ordered. “So, two classes—emotional triggers and physical triggers. Emotional triggers—are pheromones that are produced when people feel sad, frustrated, angry, joyful, disgusted and lonely. Most Sentinels can ignore these wholesale, but you won’t be able to due to your empathy. You might even be gently compelled to try to fix the situation or you could find yourself mirroring the other person’s emotions.
“Physical triggers—aggression, fear, anticipation, and pain. Aggression is different from anger and will make you uncomfortable and if it builds—you’ll have a physical response. The others work pretty much the same. The physical pain of others will draw any Sentinel’s attention and depending on the circumstances, it can lead to severe responses. It one of the main reasons that it quickly became taboo for parents to spank their children as discipline as a child in physical distress will draw a Sentinel faster than anything else.”
“Where do sex pheromones fall?” John asked curiously.
“Your brain will ignore them outright almost all the time. Humans throw off too much of that stuff and it would be very distracting—on a sense front—if you had to deal with it constantly. You will smell sexual arousal on people, but you’ll learn to filter it out pretty quickly if it annoys you.” She opened another vial and watched his eyes darken. “Relax.”
“Fear.” His nostrils flare. “But it’s different than I expected.”
“Most of the time fear is tainted by other scents—aggression, sadness, or anger. This has been purified so all you get is the fear. It makes it…innocent.”
“Like a child,” John said. “Yeah.” He blew out a deep breath. “After my dad came online, he was hyper aware of our moods. I used to find it irritating to say the least. I felt like I couldn’t have my own emotions. It was worse, at first, since I couldn’t make myself speak.”
“In his defense, he was dealing with the murder of his wife, single fatherhood, two traumatized children, and infant,” Meredith said. “Fortunately, he had a lot of help whether he wanted it or not and that made all the difference. His aggressive protection and awareness of your every single mood was to your benefit.”
“How?” John questioned.
“John, you have to know that he was probably told multiple times to put you in a mental health care facility. Even 15 years ago, it was a common practice for trauma-dormant children due to the small percentage of cases in our past where a psychosis developed as a result of dormancy. Jack Kelso didn’t advocate that and his influence changed how children like you were treated and handled by the Burton Foundation. But there are adults, your age and younger, who are still in facilities because they weren’t taught to function in society. They’re handled with the utmost care, but the coddling there is a part of our population who live very small, sad lives.”
“It’s worse, now, seeing how such trauma can be overcome. I wonder how many potential Alpha Sentinels are living in the Burton Foundation’s system? That potential wasted by the very process designed to protect and nurture them.”
“I don’t want to speculate,” John admitted. “There was a woman once, a Conservator Guide, who spent about a week in our house before my father had a complete come apart on her because she suggested I be institutionalized. David heard her and started screaming at them both—Dad lost his shit. I was 10 at the time so David was just eight or so. Looking back on it, she wanted to bond with my father and didn’t like how much attention he gave the three of us. I guess she figured there would be room for her if I was gone.”
She dropped the broken vial into a little box in the kit and picked up another.
“She said I was a threat to my brothers,” John said and frowned. “I worried a lot about it when I was younger.”
Meredith pursed her lips. “I can ruin her life, if you’d like.”
“Well, she didn’t get to bond with a rich Alpha Sentinel so…ya know.”
Meredith huffed. “I hate people.”
They moved through the rest of the basic vials then she started on the dual scents. John found the whole exercise agitating, but he understood why it was important and it also highlighted how his brain had worked on his behalf even when he was not online. The crowd in the observation deck didn’t disappear, but people came and went from there area which was only mildly distracting.
He really didn’t like being on display and never had. Maybe that stemmed from the fact that he’d spent a lot of time under observation after his mom was killed, but there was no changing those circumstances. After the pheromone review was done, he had to meditate again which was the least interesting exercise he ever had to do so he’d hoped it would thin the crowd out. It hadn’t, because it turned out the first time he accomplished a genuine meditative state—he started fucking glowing. Meredith had been so startled she’d squeaked and that had knocked him right out of his stupid center.
John watched the psionic energy around him slowly fade as Meredith continued to gape at him in silence. “This look on your face is not helpful.”
“You’re just incapable of being normal,” Meredith said and shook her head in wonder. She leaned back on her hands and stared. “Do you think you can use the Guide voice?”
“I don’t know.” John had only ever heard Jonah use the voice technique a few times and he’d made a joke about the movie Dune once, which had earned him a little glare from his mild-mannered stepfather. “Maybe? The thought of it doesn’t feel outside of my scope and it probably should, right?”
“If I asked any other Sentinel that—they would respond immediately with a no,” Meredith acknowledged. “When you came online, did you at any point project your emotional state onto your captors? On purpose or not?”
“I don’t think I did it on purpose,” John said. “But the one that was torturing me when I came online…” He glanced toward the observation deck. “I do wonder, now, if all of his…emotional response was his?”
“If he was at all sensitive to psionic feedback, probably not,” Meredith said with a mild grimace toward the observers. She clearly didn’t like having to censor herself, either. “Torture is, at its base, a betrayal of sorts.”
“Even at the hands of an enemy?”
“In some cases, most especially in the hands of the enemy,” Meredith said. “Don’t we have significant rules regarding such things?
“The laws of war,” John murmured. “I’ve been in situations where the lines blurred so much that it was hard to know an enemy from a comrade in arms. In truth, Mer, there’s nothing in the human experience like combat. You get stripped bare—sometimes down to your fucking bones and what you’re left with doesn’t feel human.”
“Though it should be impossible, John, I think you’ve probably come close to a feral combat drive many times in your past even when you were considered trauma-dormant,” Meredith said and stood. “Let’s save meditation for home where you can relax. Being treated like a side show is going to wear on your temper.” She sent the observation deck a haughty look that made John laugh. “And mine.”
– – – –
Two hours on the gun range, had left John a little hyped up, but very comfortable with the sounds and smells of the equipment that was on hand. He hadn’t been overly concerned about it, considering his performance in the field before he bonded, but it was good to have documented results. He really didn’t look forward to the whole registration process even in a psionic center where his father was ultimately in charge.
The gun powder on his hands was irritating enough that he’d retreated to a restroom to wash his hands only to hesitate over using the soap provided to the general public. It was an irritating circumstance across the board for various reasons. A small part of him resented how situations that were once normal were now a potential source of pain for him.
“It’s safe to use, sir.”
He turned as another man exited one of the stalls and came to the sink.
“Major Evan Lorne,” the Sentinel said as he started washing his hands. “This whole facility is set up for us, so all products in public areas are Sentinel safe. I’ve been here a few weeks, training. I hope to return to Colorado sooner than later.”
John relaxed slightly as he got some soap. “O’Neill have plans for you?”
“It will depend on my Guide search, sir. I’ve already completed one within the military branches and had no luck. A civilian Guide will require changes and it may mean a new duty station. Not my preference, of course, but I’m told that my Guide’s needs will be important to me after I bond.”
“Truer than I would like,” John admitted as he scrubbed his hands. “I’m stupidly focused on her a great deal of the time and we’ve barely been bonded a full 48 hours.”
Lorne grinned. “Yeah, but McKay’s a whole different story. I was in Nevada for flight training when she was there—she’d be a lot of work even if she was mundane.”
“You know what, Evan Lorne? This door is thin,” Meredith called from outside the restroom. “And I heard all of that. I hope your Guide is a delicate little flower, who faints at the sight of your gun!”
Evan grinned and dried his hands. “Right.” He sighed. “Good luck, sir.”
John just laughed and got some more soap since he could still smell the gun powder. He listened as Lorne greeted McKay and have a short conversation about his training. Despite her cruel wish on him, she asked him good questions about his process and how he was adjusting to coming online. It said more about her as a person than the snark she threw over everything as a defense mechanism. He exited the restroom as Lorne was explaining he’d come to Virginia for training because his parents lived in Richmond.
They parted ways with Lorne and John let Graves lead the way to their next stop in the facility. Meredith thought he could handle getting his senses tested to establish a base level. She’d already told him that the Burton Foundation had already labeled him an Alpha based on his bond with her and his sixth sense. He didn’t think the Marine Corps would care one way or another about his status as an Ascendant. It wasn’t necessarily a skill that would serve him in combat on Earth unless he moved into a intelligence position and that had never interested him at all.
The room looked like a medical examination room. John’s stomach lurched and he backed right out. The Sentinel/Guide pair in the room looked at him in alarm even as he turned to Meredith.
She grabbed his hands and pulled him away from the doorway. “Levi.”
“Got it, Doc,” Graves said quickly.
“I can’t…” He took a ragged breath as Levi opened a door near them and Meredith pulled him into an empty office.
With more strength than he’d have credited her for, she essentially manhandled him into a chair and straddled his thighs then tucked his face against her neck. John inhaled against her soft skin and curled his fingers into her pants.
“Levi, tell them to set up in a different room—imply that his onlining involved some form of medical torture,” Meredith murmured as she trailed her hands through his hair. “Keep the details as sparse as you can. Site a security clearance issue if you find yourself skirting toward insubordination.”
“Yeah.” Graves pulled the door shut.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Meredith promised and pressed a kiss to his temple. “Just relax and concentrate on me. I should’ve…I didn’t realize it would be a trigger. You didn’t have any issues with Dr. Biro.”
“Alyssa is my sister from another mister,” John declared.
Meredith laughed. “Do you need her here? I can contact O’Neill and arrange that.”
“She’s needed where she is,” John said and took a deep breath. “I’ll push through.”
“You don’t have to push through,” she said and sat back so she could see his face. “Look—you’re entitled to your emotions and if there has ever been a single point in your life where everyone else around you should be the ones adjusting and making sacrifices, this is that point.”
“I can handle it.” He purposefully unclenched his fingers and smoothed down the material of her pants. “I just can’t handle the idea of being examined or touched by a doctor, right now.” He wet his lips. “Except you, of course.”
She grinned. “Fortunately, I never had an interest in medicine.” There was a light tap on the door. “Levi?”
“Yeah, Doc, they’re moving the equipment needed into a large conference room at the end of the hall. It has a bunch of windows and space for him to move, if needed.”
“Great choice,” Meredith agreed. “Give us about 10 minutes.”
John wanted to protest, but he swallowed the words. He slouched back in the chair and shifted his legs to balance her slight weight. “I don’t want to look weak.”
“Look, Marine,” she began huffily, “most of those assholes in that observation deck were probably surprised you were verbal. Even the official redacted report probably read like a nightmare. I’ve seen experienced Sentinels brought down for weeks with sensory spikes after a single feral episode. The last thing you are is weak and anyone thinks that is a fucking moron.”
“I’m sure you’ll be happy to tell them so.”
She shrugged and he resisted the urge to kiss her. Frankly, she tasted too good to indulge in that kind of thing in their current circumstances. He hadn’t zoned, as far as he knew, since coming online, but he figured if he did it would be because it was easy to get lost in glutting his senses on Meredith McKay.
“I don’t even think I’d feel a single iota of guilt if I killed Carson Beckett,” John admitted. “And I know that’s dangerous thinking, but he’s a evil bastard.”
“I don’t disagree, moreover, he has no remorse whatsoever for his actions. He considered his work on you a success and didn’t understand how anyone could have a problem with it. Even when he was being transferred off the base, he was intent on telling anyone that would listen that he had permission to do what he’d done. Like such a thing even exists.” She exhaled sharply and her fingers curled over the top of his shoulders. “Just concentrate on me for the moment and let everything else go. I’m your safe space—in every single way.”
That felt like a deep truth so John just relaxed and let his head fall back to rest on the wall. He focused on the beat of her heart and let himself sink into that sound just enough to fully calm his nerves. John inhaled gently—took in her soft, sweet scent.
“You smell great.”
“You’re inclined to find everything about me pleasant,” she reminded with a laugh. “It makes it easier for you to live with my human condition up close and personal. You have natural defenses built into your senses to keep you functional and ready to serve the tribe. We’ll use those natural defenses to build your psionic shelters.”
“And I’ll eventually do that instinctually.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Ready?”
“I think so.” He released her and she left his lap. “I feel dumb for this.” He waved a hand.
“Trust me—I’ll tell you if you’re acting like a dumbass,” Meredith said dryly and he laughed.
John stood and held out a hand. She laced her fingers with his easily and opened the door. Graves was leaning on the wall not far from the door and straightened as he caught sight of them. “Major Coleman wants to know if they should trade out the testing staff as well.”
“I don’t…think so,” John said and glanced toward Meredith who shrugged. “It was room more than anything.”
“Understood, sir.” Graves gave a nod. “We’re six doors down on the left.”
The conference room was large, airy, and had a full wall of tinted windows. The Sentinel/Guide pair from before were near the back of the room. Zillah pressed against his leg as she appeared and both men stepped back. He glanced down and found that Kepler had appeared as well. The lion walked the length of the room, circled the table, and came to stand beside Meredith.
“Jesus Christ.” The Guide shifted closer to his Sentinel. “I mean…good afternoon, Colonel.”
“Sir,” Levi said. “This is Major Greg Coleman and his Guide Captain Neal Parker. Major Coleman is a medical doctor with an specialty in Sentinel/Guide medicine. Captain Parker has a PhD in psychology with an emphasis on Sentinel/Guide dynamics. They handle the intake and testing of all Sentinel and Guide assets here at Fort Myer. Major, Captain—Colonel John Sheppard, Alpha Ascendant Sentinel and his Guide, Dr. Meredith McKay.” He paused. “Astrophysics and aeronautical engineering.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” John said. “Let’s get started, gentlemen.”
– – – –
Meredith accepted the coffee that Graves brought her and watched John as he worked through a hearing test. He’d been a little put off by putting on the headset, but he’d relaxed quickly into the process. John had done very well with sight. She was only a little surprised to find that the Corps didn’t have detailed testing for sense profiles beyond sight and hearing. They would certainly want to shape the Sentinels in the field to use the senses that served them best in combat.
It was limiting, in a way, as an Alpha Sentinel could use all of their senses in tandem to work at the best of their ability. Sense syncing wasn’t something low level Sentinels could accomplish and she supposed that the training and testing done for the Corps was set at a certain standard to be a fit for everyone.
“Is there a problem, Dr. McKay?”
Meredith turned. “No, Captain Parker.” She focused on John, who’d removed the headset. “Just musing on how shallow the testing process is for the military.”
“They don’t require much,” Parker agreed. “It was startling, but also in some ways it’s a relief as they don’t get overly involved in our business either. There is a certain level of safety in that shallowness.”
She nodded. “They can’t ask you to do something if they don’t know you can do it.”
“Exactly,” Coleman said. “And that’s even more important when it comes to an Alpha Ascendant. There are people, in the higher ups, that would love to find a way to use the Colonel’s expanded skill set for their own use.” He focused on John. “You can expect offers from intelligence and anti-terrorism units to head your way once your registration is filed.”
Meredith couldn’t imagine any single offer being enough to lure John away from Atlantis. John looked irritated by the prospect of having to deal with that kind of attention. He’d carved himself out a career in the Marine Corps before coming online as a Sentinel and now many of the officers above him would see only what he could do for them when it came to his senses.
“Fortunately, for you Colonel, your Guide is a well-known pain in the ass that no one wants near those kinds of projects,” she said and John laughed.
“Speaking of,” Parker said as he opened his laptop. “I need to ask you a few questions, Dr. McKay, for his records.”
“Sure,” Meredith said easily.
“Where does the Burton Foundation rate you on the scale?”
“Six.” She sat down next to John and focused on Parker.
“Who trained you?”
“Dr. Blair Sandburg and Alpha Sentinel Prime Jim Ellison,” Meredith said and smiled when his head jerked up in shock.
Parker’s gaze flicked from her to where Kepler was sprawled. She watched him do the math and he took a deep breath. “Shaman.”
“You did the whole…” He trailed off and made a face. “Thing?”
“Yes,” she said with a laugh. “Complete with spirit walk—I’m capable of psionic translocation, astral projection, lucid dreaming, psychometry and a few other things I’d rather not be documented. Dr. Sandburg speculated after bonding that I would be able to use my bond with a Sentinel for remote viewing. I can confirm that he was right—I witnessed John’s onlining experience from his point of view.”
Parker’s cheeks whitened. “He came online being tortured.”
“Yeah,” Meredith said. “I thought I was having a heart attack. We created a feedback loop of a sorts because of his empathy—something I see only retrospect. I had no idea he was an Ascendant until we met, physically.”
“How is psionic translocation and astral projection different?” Coleman asked.
“With psionic translocation, I was able to give Colonel Sheppard a backpack full of equipment packed by his XO over a very long distance. The details are classified because of the nature of his mission.”
Coleman raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“Seriously,” John said. “She was glowing like a star in that cave when she put that backpack down in front of me.”
“It’s not a skill I would use outside of emergency because it put a great deal of stress on my body and it was…agonizing.” John’s hand curled over hers and she offered him a smile. “It’s fine.”
“It really isn’t,” John said roughly and focused on Parker. “Can’t you get this information on her from the Foundation?”
“I tried,” Parker said. “Dr. McKay’s records are locked down and unavailable unless I have a court order.”
“They’re protective,” Meredith said. “Because of my shaman status and that’s for the best because many of my kind were misused in the past. Do you have any other questions?”
Parker focused on the laptop. “Lt. Graves said your degrees were in astrophysics and aeronautical engineering. Which one is your Ph.D.?”
“He meant that I have doctorates in both,” Meredith said. “I did my undergraduate work in mechanical engineering and I also have a masters in aerospace engineering.”
“So you’re a real life rocket scientist,” Parker said in amusement as he typed.
“I’ve built a couple, so you could say that,” she said. “I wanted to join NASA. Unfortunately, I came online and I had let go of that dream. I adjusted.”
“Boy, did you,” Parker muttered. “Nobel Prize and all of that. I read the paper you wrote for that—I don’t understand it, but…”
Meredith laughed and plucked a napkin from a basket in the center of the table. “I won the Nobel for creating a theoretical model and the working prototype of an engine for a subspace travel. Basically, my engine will fold space.” She spread the napkin out. “On this corner is a space ship and the opposite corner is our destination. It can be a few light years or a couple of million light years. But by folding subspace, we can travel between the two points quickly—in some instances instantly with the right technology in place.” She folded the napkin, corner to corner. “A year from now, the engine I built will be put in a test craft. If it works, it will leave Earth orbit and enter orbit above Mars in roughly 15 minutes.”
“15 minutes,” Parker said. “Well, hell, Dr. McKay. That’s right out of Star Trek.”
“A warp drive is superluminal propulsion—faster than light travel—which isn’t the same as folding space. It’s basically a form of hyper velocity that isn’t possible with current technology. Special relativity theory would tell us that it can’t be done, but I learned a long time ago that nothing is impossible. We just don’t know how to do it, yet.” She folded the napkin again. “With just five folds—I could put a craft outside of the solar system. With 50 more, we could enter the star system of Proxima Centauri which is about 270 thousand light years away. Keeping the folds relatively small allows for control when it comes power consumption and speed of travel.”
“I’d have done much better in my science classes if you were teaching,” Coleman said wryly.
“I doubt it,” his Guide retorted. “Teenage you wouldn’t have gotten anything done in class, ever. Beautiful women distract the hell out of you.”
“True, but at least the classes would’ve been more interesting.”
“She strikes me as the type to base half of your grade on an end of year exam that covered only topics she actually discussed in class, half of which wouldn’t have been any text book on the reading list,” John said.
Meredith laugh. “Sounds reasonable—I do expect people to listen to me when I speak. Did you have any more questions for me?”
“Since you’re a civilian, I’m required to ask if you’re opposed to your Sentinel serving in a combat posting, if you’re qualified to carry a weapon, and if you could pass the field assessment for civilian Guides.”
“I’m not opposed, I can use a variety of handguns with no issues and I was trained to carry and use a P-90 during a previous assignment with the United States Air Force, and I’ve already passed the military service field assessment for civilian Guides. My training for that was overseen by Colonel Marshall Sumner, Marine Corps,” Meredith said and fiddled a bit with the napkin as he input the answers on his laptop. “I’ll see that a copy of my pertinent records are attached to his jacket by the DOD.”
“You can do that?” Parker asked with a raised eyebrow.
She grinned. “I can do that. Most of it will be heavily redacted unless you have a top tier security clearance as I’ve worked for the US government in some form or another for roughly 16 years.”
“Do you have any special requirements regarding serving at your Sentinel’s side in the Corps?” Parker asked and focused on her.
Meredith considered that. “I’m going to need a frame of reference, Captain Parker.”
She watched the man shift around in his seat for a bit then clear his throat.
“My only hard and fast rule is that we have separate sleeping quarters in every single situation it can be accomplished in. I can do without the veiled and sometimes not-so veiled comments about our sex life,” Parker said and shrugged.
“I see.” Meredith made a face. “And that would be an issue even at your rank? I assumed officers were housed separately across the board.”
“Sometimes quarters get tight,” Parker explained. “And allowances are made—I make sure that we’re the last allowance made as much as possible considering how many issues it can cause.”
“Okay, so separate quarters—living and sleeping whenever possible,” Meredith said. “I’d rather not be housed separately from him for any single reason. I should be listed as his next of kin so I can make medical decisions. I’ll update my records to reflect the same.” She glanced toward John and he just nodded his agreement. “I’m not available for prisoner interrogation, counterintelligence operations, or any sort of psionic diving.”
Parker stopped typing and looked up. “You can do that? I’ve only ever read about it.”
“I’ve done it in training,” Meredith said. “And I’ve watched Dr. Sandburg dive several times over the years—mostly in instances of traumatized Guides who’ve gone catatonic. Because of John’s empathic sense, I believe it would be ill-advised for me to attempt it. Due to the feedback loop we’ve created within our bond, he would be exposed to the contents of the dive as well. I couldn’t manage his response, the actual dive, and the person’s trauma at the same time.”
“I can see how that would be a problem,” Parker said and resumed typing. “Just listing this as a boundary will draw attention to you, Dr. McKay. Most Guides would never consider the need to list it.”
“I’ll get all the attention I don’t want due to my spirit animal and status as a shaman, Captain Parker. But, don’t worry—I’ve been pushing off attention I don’t want since puberty. Just being female prepared me for that before I ever managed to come online.” She picked up her coffee cup, frowned it and put it back down.
“Want some more, Doc?” Levi questioned.
“She doesn’t,” John interjected and Meredith huffed at him. “You’ve had seven cups since we came into this building,” John said. “And a half a pot at home this morning. Are you trying to replace your blood supply with coffee?”
“I would if I could,” Meredith said hotly. “Any more questions, Captain Parker? Because if I can’t have coffee—I require to be fed immediately.”
Meredith put her laptop down on the counter and headed for the fridge. While their small kitchen in John’s suite was supplied with snacks and coffee, actual food had to be found in the main kitchen in the house. She hesitated briefly, but chose to make tea instead of coffee as she’d had a lot over the course of the day and it appeared to concern John.
Green tea was probably the least appalling option of the ones in the basket so she put on the kettle and grabbed a cup. She checked over the food options and hesitated over all the left over options. The chicken salad was certainly made with a regular mayo which meant citrus. She made her own with a vinegar based garlic aioli in Hawaii often.
She turned and found Patrick Sheppard leaning on the doorframe. “I’m allergic to citrus—I don’t think it was mentioned to your staff when they returned. I’m just looking for something that won’t…kill me.” She shrugged and took a deep breath.
“That’s a difficult allergy to have,” Patrick said and joined her at the fridge. “Citrus is in a lot of commercial products.”
“Yeah, probably a ham sandwich is safest,” she decided.
“I’ll speak with Alma tomorrow about your allergy,” Patrick said sat down at the bar while she pulled out what was needed to make a sandwich. “You’re working late.”
“I have a lot of catching up to do,” Meredith said. “The IOA is going to offer me the Chief Scientist position because Radek Zelenka doesn’t want it and never did. My first order of business will be restructure the entire department because Weir organized it stupidly.” She paused. “Well, not stupidly, actually. She did it so she could compartmentalize research projects and keep secrets. It’s not allowing for collaboration or true progress. Also, because she claimed domain over dozens of projects—Zelenka had no idea what was happening in those projects.”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” Patrick said and nodded when she pulled out two plates. “They’re going to expect a lot from you. How will that impact your work with John?”
“I have no clue,” Meredith admitted. “I’ve never had to manage a project of this scale and a bond with a Sentinel before. Working in the field won’t be a problem for me, but the science…” She huffed and glanced at her laptop. “There’s something off about the entire operation and I have a lot of work to do on that front.”
“Is it related to what was going on with John?”
“No, it’s something deeper and I’m not sure…where it starts,” Meredith put together two sandwiches and pushed the jar of mustard his way along with the plate. “You’ve had a full briefing, right?”
“I would assume so,” Patrick said. “Do you think the Trust has infiltrated the city?”
“I think they’ve tried in the past several times to get a foothold on the city with an operative, including using a Goa’uld whose main goal was to destroy the whole thing.” She looked up as David came into the room holding his phone. “Did you want a sandwich, David?”
“Who is that?”
David hesitated and glanced toward Meredith who just shrugged. “My brother’s Guide. Dr. Meredith McKay.”
“The Nobel Laureate?”
“Yeah,” David said. “She’s been here a couple of days—she came home with John.”
“Give her your phone.”
Meredith laughed as David passed the phone to her with a wince. She focused on the screen and the beautiful face of Claire Dubois. “Hello.”
“You wore one of my suit dresses during your acceptance speech,” she declared. “I had to add a third run for that entire line of casual business attire.”
“Should I apologize?” Meredith asked and laughed when the woman made a face at her. “Most of my work and formal attire is from your label actually. I have a hard time finding clothes off the rack that fit me well. Though I did have that outfit tailored for the event.” She sat down on the stool. “Did you want me to go through David’s closet and make a list of all the designers he’s cheating on you with? I think he was wearing a Hugo Boss suit today.”
Claire laughed. “I saw that atrocity already—he didn’t even get it fitted.”
“It fits fine,” David protested.
“It really doesn’t,” Meredith informed him. “The inseam is too long and it does nothing for your ass.”
“Yes, see! I’m glad you’re there! But, I asked to speak with you—to thank you.”
“You’re a very inspiring woman, Dr. McKay. You’re only the third woman to win a Nobel in physics. My niece wants to be an engineer because you made it look possible to her when before she worried that no one would take her seriously because of her looks and gender. And you’re an online Guide—society puts so much pressure on Guides to set aside their goals and dreams in favor of serving a Sentinel. I was so relieved to be told my status as a latent was likely permanent. My niece was not so fortunate and expects to come online in the next few years.”
Meredith glanced at David even as she blushed. “How old is your niece?”
“16 and pretending to be an adult. She is looking at universities already—I’ve told her she can go to school anywhere she would like. I want the very best for her.”
“I’ll have David text you with my email address. Tell her she can email me with any questions she might have regarding undergraduate programs in the US. I have a few contacts here and there in academia—I’d hate to see her enthusiasm dimmed because of the wrong environment, which can certainly happen.”
“She will be so pleased—thank you!”
Meredith smiled and looked up as John entered. “I’m going to give you back to David—harass him if he doesn’t give you the email address in a timely fashion.”
John rubbed the back of his head, sat down beside her and stole half of her sandwich. “Should you be paying attention to my brother’s inseam?”
“Someone should,” Meredith said. “It ruined the entire the look of those suit pants and he clearly doesn’t care at all which is a tragedy. How’s he supposed to date Claire Dubois looking a hot mess in a 1200 dollar suit?”
Patrick laughed. “Honestly, you’re my favorite.”
“Rude, Dad,” John said.
“I’m everyone’s favorite,” Meredith announced. “I shaped mankind and…stuff.” She waved a hand. “Got a prize and everything.”
“Why are you working late?” John questioned as she shifted her laptop around in front of her and moved the now empty plate out of her way.
“I have years of research to read through on various projects,” she said with a glance in David’s direction. “I can’t begin to manage the resources on the base until I know what’s been done, who did it, and what they plan to do with it. Plus, I’d rather not get bogged down in the administrative work immediately. The more I can do now the better. The current CSO wasn’t allowed to manage all of the scientific assets personally due to upper management interference. It’s created a serious deficit in information and resource sharing. Also, the single super computer on the base can’t handle the current load much less the work I’ll bring with me so I’m going to have to ask for at least two more. Financials aside, I need to write a report detailing the reasons why the single one isn’t sufficient to the needs of the facility.”
“How much money?”
“About 40 million each for the component parts,” Meredith said absently as she opened the document she’d been working on. “We’ll build them ourselves and handle the programming to avoid security issues.”
“You’re just going to ask them to spend 80 million dollars?”
She shot him a look. “That’s the smallest part of my proposed budget, John. I’ve been asked to put my engine in a fighter craft for military use.” She looked up and focused on him. “And no, you can’t test it.”
“I’m gonna fly it,” John told her seriously. “The first chance I get.”
“You’re awful,” Meredith muttered.
– – – –
“How is your engine different from what the asgard gave us?” John questioned as Meredith sat down on the edge of the bed to dry her hair.
“The asgard use hyperspace—they create a bubble of sorts around their ships and the ship they helped the SGC build then use that bubble to create faster than light travel. I was asked by the IOA to create a method of space travel that could be accomplished with publicly available technology on Earth. Hyperspace wasn’t going to be an option with those parameters so I focused on subspace.”
“Is there any significant difference in speed?”
“It’ll depend on whether or not the anchors work,” Meredith said. “If we can create anchor points in various parts of the galaxy and Pegasus—they will work like gates. It would allow for near instant travel.”
“Like the stargate.”
“Yes, like the stargate which creates a wormhole through subspace between fixed points,” Meredith murmured. “But without the immense power consumption which will make travel to Atlantis very easy in the next few years.”
“Why did the IOA ask you to create a new method? Declassification would’ve been cheaper.”
“Certainly, but when we declassify, they want to be able to say that we’ve made great advances because of the stargate, but that we also made great advances based on our own innovation and the human spirit.” She waved a hand. “I was in the position to dedicate the most resources to that endeavor which, honestly, isn’t fair to many of the scientists who have been hindered by the program’s classified status. Much of the work done for the program will probably remain a secret for security reasons for decades.”
“They’ve left O’Neill in charge of the SGC so they can use his Sentinel status for…propaganda.”
“Yes,” Meredith said and focused on him. “It’ll read better for the IOA to say that a Sentinel has been in charge of protecting the stargate and the planet for years. O’Neill was the central focus of the SGC from the near moment of it’s conception for that exact reason. Sumner was sent to Atlantis for the same reason and they’re probably deeply thrilled that you came online no matter what they said. You can expect to be front and center in any press that focuses on Atlantis.”
“I hate the idea of that,” John admitted. “But I’ll do what I’m ordered to do unless it’s unethical.”
“Speaking of unethical, I have a list of questions to ask you about various research projects on the city.” Meredith focused on him as he sat down near her. “Some of it is going to be new to you.”
“I figured as much. Weir kept a lot of secrets, apparently.” He took a deep breath. “And I don’t know how to get closure on that topic. I want to give her a piece of my mind, but if I were ever in a room with her, I’d probably kill her.”
“If you want to ask her or Beckett questions—we can arrange a video conference. You’re certainly entitled to ask them anything you’d want.”
“I’ll think about it,” John murmured. “Ask your questions, Mer.”
She frowned and shifted her laptop around which John took to mean she was agitated. “There are several projects on the city and at Area 51 regarding the wraith. Over the years, six corpses have been brought to Earth for study. O’Neill has slapped down several research proposals around the creation of artificial enzyme on the belief that it could be easily turned into a recreational drug.”
“A highly addictive recreational drug,” John agreed. “It’s how they create worshippers, as obscene as that is. Because not only do they like to suck the life out of us—they like to be worshipped, too.”
“Gross,” Meredith muttered. “Two different scientists on the city, besides Beckett, want a live wraith to study. They submitted proposals directly to the IOA without Zelenka’s approval. He has no idea. The IOA has forwarded me everything they’ve gotten from the city in an effort to kiss my ass. I’ve already marked both of them to be removed from the city because I’m not playing those kinds of games. Plus, Radek’s going to be furious and there’s no need to keep those assholes in his face after that kind of disrespect.”
“Beckett was the only one who ever asked me to capture a wraith,” John said. “I wouldn’t do it for anyone. I don’t actually like collecting the bodies either, but I’ve done it in the past. I’m not sure I could do it going forward. It offends the shit out of me.”
“I’ll take all of that off the table going forward,” Meredith said and made a note. “If they want more bodies for research, they can give that sort of mission to Sumner.”
“He hates it, too.”
“I can’t imagine anyone would like it, but it’ll be up to him to manage his own response to that sort of mission. I hope he’ll agree to do a Guide search in the next year.”
“Could he go without another forever?” John questioned.
“Yes, but it would be…sad.” She sighed and focused on him. “I wouldn’t want that for you, either. That kind of loneliness is overwhelming and far worse than if he’d never bonded at all.”
John didn’t want to think about not having her in his life so he pushed that thought away completely and took a deep breath. “What else is going on in the sciences that has you messed up?”
“The tone of the research has shifted over the last year. Weir has rearranged a lot of projects and departments to lean toward weapons development—some of it is in line with Beckett’s idea regarding curing the wraith.”
“So more than one scientist on the city has been knowingly or unknowingly participating in the development of biological weapons,” John said.
“Yes—from deployment to mass production. Some of them have to know the implications of their research while others might not. For instance, David Parrish is testing an automated crop dusting device developed by Helen Simpson. I doubt either of them have considered the fact that they’re testing the proof of concept for a multi-directional drone capable of spreading a weaponized chemical over a great distance.”
“And Weir’s probably already passed all of that data to the Trust.”
“Certainly,” Meredith agreed. “Some of these people are going to be gutted, John. Helen Simpson only signed a contract with the SGC under the condition that she’d never be asked to make any sort of weapon. They understand that any innovation could be corrupted and used in a terrible way, but Weir designed this entire project with the express purpose of creating a disgusting weapon. She also gave all of that data to Carson Beckett so he planned to use it on the wraith which is…”
“Genocide,” John said. “There’s no way to defeat the wraith that doesn’t include some form of it, but we have to take the most honorable path forward. Would they agree to some form of biological modification that changed their nutrient requirements? Doubtful. Could we force it on them? Probably, but it would be a war crime in my mind. Seeking their extinction is certainly a crime in itself from any moral perspective, but there’s no choice.”
“They’re not a natural species and they disturb the natural order of development in Pegasus,” Meredith said. “I don’t consider their extinction an ethical concern which is probably a potential topic of debate, but at the base level—the wraith are a parasite.”
“A sapient and sentient parasite,” John murmured. “Who can’t be negotiated with.”
“The replicators achieved sapience and the SGC seeks their outright extinction. So do the asgard. It’s the nature of any society to seek to destroy something that is an immense threat to them.” Meredith took a deep breath. “So there is no choice when it comes to the replicators or the wraith as they are a threat to our own survival.”
“Do you think Weir was the only Trust operative on the city?” John asked because the very thought made him want to go back to the city immediately.
“I can’t imagine how she was the only one. They’ve probably come and gone over the years depending on the goals of the organization. Weir’s position allowed them a lot of power over the expedition that they will no longer enjoy which means we can expect them to try to infiltrate on several different levels.”
“Would it be inappropriate for me to simply ask every single person on the city if they’re Trust?”
“No,” Meredith said and shrugged. “The security of the expedition and the city is your duty and no one can fault such a straightforward method. We could knock out the whole expedition in a single afternoon and get rid of the problems that we don’t already know about. I’ve already started a list of scientists who are under performing either on purpose or because they aren’t a fit for the fast pace. I’ll interview them before making a final decision on them.”
“And there are two that I will remove outright for personal reasons—I won’t work with them because previous interactions.”
“Personal or professional?” John asked curiously.
“Dr. James Cohen—decent engineer, but a misogynist. We worked together, very briefly, at Area 51. I had him removed from my project because he very casually suggested that we should take a break and I could suck his dick.”
John’s mouth dropped open. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, and so was he. Also? He was offended that I said no. He didn’t get pushy or anything, but he was just genuinely surprised and offended that I wasn’t interested in blowing him. He did get irritated when I had him removed from my space. He said I was an immature little bitch. The other scientist, Natalie Alstead, is just a moron. She was a political appointment to the SGC and they pass her around from one project to another because she’s a waste of space and no one seems prepared to fire her.”
“Are you going to fire her?” John asked in amusement.
“Yes, I am.” She closed the laptop and set it aside. “I’ve been wanting to do it for years and I’ll have the power to do it and make it stick because of the CSO position. But we do need to talk about that.”
“Why?” John questioned.
She stood and crossed the small amount of space between them then slid into his lap. He caught her hips and pulled her close. Meredith let her hands rest on his shoulders as she stared at him.
“Think about the work you do on Atlantis—on the city and in the field. How do you see me fitting into your work day?”
John considered that. “I’d want you in the field with me—for several reasons as I need a scientist on my team and I imagine Miko will go to whatever team Bouchard is on. I’d also prefer to have you with me because of the Guide stuff.” He shrugged when she laughed. “On the city? I don’t see any reason why I’d need you be with me every second of the day. That seems ridiculous and co-dependent. I would be comfortable with you working in the labs or whatever as long as I could track you with my senses. Is that reasonable?”
“Yeah, it is.” Meredith relaxed on his thighs. “There would be allowances for emergencies for both of us, but we can figure that out. I just don’t want to commit to being the CSO if it would interfere.”
“I don’t want you to sacrifice your career for me,” John said with a frown. “I mean that. You deserve better than that from me no matter what anyone else might say. I heard my dad question you about managing our bond and doing your job at the same time.”
“The bond is a priority for me,” Meredith said. “That’s just instinct, John, and neither of us can control that. I wouldn’t want your ability to function as a Sentinel to suffer, either. You worked hard to get where you are in the Marines and I know that.”
“We’ll just work on it together,” John murmured. “I suppose communication will be a very important thing for us.”
“Let’s go to bed,” he suggested.
“In the middle of the day?”
“Whenever we want,” John said and scooted forward a bit since she hadn’t said no. He stood and she hitched up just a little to wrap her legs around his waist.
“Your dad said we’re having guests for dinner.”
John made a face as he carried her into the bedroom. “Paternal aunt—total asshole. Dad’s too much of a gentleman to curse her out like she deserves.”
“I have no such restraints.”
John laughed and crawled onto the bed with her. “Dinner will be fun, then.”
– – – –
Sandra Harper and her husband had thrown an emotional chill over the entire house within minutes of arriving. It wasn’t a surprise at all that Patrick herded his much older sister and her husband through the house and straight to the formal dining room. Food was being served as soon as they were seated. It was a well-honed operation that spoke of his overt desire to see as little of his sister as possible.
“At least you managed to get a woman to bond with, John,” the older woman flicked a hand. “No offense, Patrick, it’s not like you had any real choice in your unfortunate situation…John just got lucky.”
Meredith ran a finger along her eyebrow because her eye twitched so hard it actually hurt. She glanced toward John who was staring into his wine.
“You’re supposedly quite smart, Meredith. Which is interesting as it’s not been my experience with woman who look like you do,” Sandra continued and took a long swallow from her wine and thumped it down on the table. “Tell me about your work.”
“I don’t make a habit of discussing my work with people who are incapable of understanding it,” Meredith said and flicked her own hand in a direct imitation of the old bitch. “No offense, of course, but women of your generation were taught to be largely…ornamental.” She sat back and took a sip of wine. “And you can call me Dr. McKay.”
She watched fury and shock filter over the woman’s face even the color washed from her cheeks. Meredith had honestly never seen anyone go white with anger before. It was sort of fascinating.
“You little bitc—”
“Madam,” Meredith interjected sternly. “John is in a delicate place due to his coming online as a POW. You will keep a civil tongue and an even temper in his presence or you will leave this house immediately. Additionally, I realize that people in the American south are enamored with putting their crazy on display, but I’m not remotely interested in getting a sideshow with my dinner.” She huffed when John laughed under his breath.
“Patrick! Are you going to let this woman speak to me this way?” Sandra demanded.
“It appears that I am,” Patrick said mildly. “Mother told you, years ago, not to pick a fight you can’t win. I’m sure Humphrey would be pleased to drive you home if you’d rather not stay for the meal.”
Sandra stood, threw her napkin on the table, and her husband frowned her. “We’re leaving, Bradford.”
Bradford Harper finished off his wine and stood. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Dr. McKay.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Sandra hissed.
“It was for me,” her husband said with a shrug.
Alma appeared at Meredith’s elbow and refilled her wine glass as their guests stalked out of the dining room. “We’ll have the main course when you’re ready, Dr. Dean.”
“Thank you, Alma,” Jonah said and shook his head when Meredith raised an eyebrow at him.
“Don’t expect me to tolerate that kind of bigotry and stupidity,” Meredith said evenly as she picked up her fork and focused on her salad.
“She used to be worse,” Matt said. “I mean I haven’t heard her say the F word in years.”
“I promised my parents I’d take care of her,” Patrick said wearily. “She never had children and makes a hobby of marriage and divorce. I can’t say she’s ever been a good person and she only got worse after I came online as a Sentinel—the first in our family in several generations. She’d have preferred if I’d gone dormant shortly after I came online due to her religious beliefs. To her, it’s a choice and I made the wrong one—a sinful one.”
McKay shook her head. “There isn’t enough wine in this whole state to put with her so don’t you dare ask it of me again. I’d suggest you send her to therapy, but she’d probably just turn to her church for that and come out of it more convinced than ever that you’re going to hell for violating her religious principals.” She sat back in her chair. “I also don’t believe in delivering insincere apologies so I don’t expect me to write her a note or anything ridiculous like that.”
Patrick grinned at her. “She’ll get over it. It isn’t often she’s left wrong-footed in a conversation and she expected to dominate you—like the matriarch of the family or something. Sandra likes to think of herself as a well-respected member of high society and practically no one ever points out her rude behavior.”
“She must resent you a lot,” Meredith said thoughtfully. “The late in life child that your parents clearly preferred because you were male.”
Patrick’s eyes went wide, but he slowly nodded. “How did you… know that?”
“Her internalized misogyny, the homophobia, and her investment in acting like she’s the head of your family speaks to deep insecurities installed when she was young. Your sister resents you for your personal freedom, the deep and clearly intimate love you enjoy with your Guide, and, of course, your children. Mrs. Harper doesn’t appear to have any clear maternal desire herself, but she’s overtly jealous of the family you’ve made. She loathes Jonah, of course, but she also probably hated your wife.
“In her mind, you don’t really deserve anyone’s love—which is rooted in your only son and heir status as a child. Just being born gave you everything she wanted from the parents you shared and since your parents had you when she was nearly an adult, she probably assumed that you were produced because she was an immense disappointment.” Meredith shrugged at the looks she was getting. “What? Psychology is awful, but I did pay attention in Guide training—identifying the emotional crap people practically project on me is required to keep my own mental space healthy.”
“You’re in way over your head, son.” Patrick shook his head and sent John a look of pure pity.
John really didn’t care that he was in over his head with Meredith McKay. Everything about her fascinated him and he was too enamored to even deny it. He loved the way she moved, the way she smelled, the way she waved her hands when she was talked about her work, and the soft breathy moans she made against his skin when he fucked her. He’d rarely had a more generous lover in bed and it was a little startling to realize how much he enjoyed the care.
He ran a hand along the length of her thigh as they both settled on the bed—sweaty and breathing hard. “It’s a good thing I’m in shape.”
She laughed and let her legs drop from his waist as he shifted and slid a hand between them to keep the condom in place as he pulled free of her body. “That was great.”
“Yeah.” He sat back on his heels and rubbed his head with both hands before leaving the bed. Disposing of the condom in the bathroom, he paused briefly and shook his head. “I used to go out of my way to never have sex in this house.” He glanced her way when she came in and started the shower. “Not that it mattered, really.”
“No, he certainly smelled it on you no matter how much you might have showered afterward. It takes several days for those scents to fade completely, plus, you’d have been leaking sexual satisfaction all over the place emotionally which Jonah would’ve picked up on easily.”
She slipped into the large stall so he joined her and pulled her close. John brushed his mouth over hers and she relaxed against him with so much trust that it took his breath.
“I didn’t know it would be like this,” he said. “There’s no frame of reference at all. I should be horrified and worried sick over how much I need you, but I’m not. Investing in someone like this is just… it can’t be healthy.”
“It wouldn’t be healthy for a mundane,” Meredith acknowledged. “But instinctually you know you can trust me with every single bit of you—physically and mentally. It is the abiding truth of a psionic bond built between two deeply compatible people. I knew I could have this because I witnessed it between Blair and Jim. I couldn’t fathom ever settling for less after that. They have a primal bond—a full soul merger on the psionic plane and I want that.”
“How do we do it?” John questioned.
“It’ll come to us in time. For most pairs in our circumstances, it is a very natural process. Jim and Blair achieved it in a traumatic situation that nearly saw Blair murdered, but that’s thankfully quite rare. Meditating together, healthy communication, frequent sex, and… love will give us that.” She flushed. “I mean, if you think that’s possible?”
“You mean the love part?” John questioned. “Because I’ve put my back into demonstrating how willing I am to meet your sexual needs.” He grinned when she laughed then kissed her again. “I’m not afraid of it, if that’s your concern.”
“I’m not an easy woman to like,” Meredith muttered. “And I know it.”
“You’re awesome, actually,” John said and picked up the soap as he released her. “Brilliant, the fun kind of mean-spirited, generous, thoughtful, brave, strong, and stupidly attractive.”
“I could make you a list of people who would vehemently disagree with almost all of that,” Meredith told him.
“I don’t want a list of the dumb people you know,” John told her seriously.
– – – –
John finished Meredith’s French braid as his brothers entered the formal living room, aka the room with the best WiFi, and easily wrapped a hair band around the end. “Hey.”
David stared for a moment. “When did you learn to braid hair?”
“When Nancy broke her hand and needed me to braid her hair every single damn morning before I went to work,” John said. “I mean, it was either I braid it or she was going to have it all cut off so that was the deal.”
Meredith slipped off his lap and picked up her laptop. “It was a good deal. I’d wear mine short, but it makes my head look weird.” She dropped down in the love seat, and focused on her work.
“How many reports do you have left?”
“345 for current experiments,” Meredith said sourly. “Plus, Radek gave me his personal research logs, which are all written in Czech. I’ll have a slower time reading through those since I’m barely conversational in the language. Miko did the same, but she did keep her log in English so that’s something considering I can know next to nothing in Japanese. Well, I can order food and ask where the bathroom is, but that’s it.”
“Is it important that you read all of it?” David asked curiously. “Couldn’t your new staff provide you with summaries?”
John watched Meredith consider how to answer his brother’s question without violating a 400 page non-disclosure agreement with amusement. He considered rescuing her, but it was fun watching her work through any sort of problem.
“I could,” she finally said. “And most of the reports do have an end-user friendly sort of summary attached to the front for those people in the program who don’t know the difference between a kilometer and a light year, but those summaries wouldn’t prepare me to manage the resources and people under me.” She flicked a hand toward her laptop screen. “Some of these people are working with equipment and materials that are extremely dangerous. New energy sources, weapons development, etc. Oversight has been spotty due to upper management issues that are now resolved so I’m going to have to… reorganize people, projects, equipment, and actual lab space for over a hundred people.
“Plus, I have to evaluate every single person on the mission to determine their actual skill level and ability since some are political appointments that I’m absolutely not going to tolerate longterm. It’s a mess, but I’ll get it sorted.”
“You’ll have an administrative staff, right?” Matt asked. “Can’t you delegate any of that?”
She focused on Matt. “Since your brother’s life, and yours, will depend on the management of these people and resources—no. Absolutely nothing on this project is going to happen without my oversight going forward. Some of these people could make a weapon of mass destruction in under an hour and they have the equipment to do it. Once you’re read in, you’ll be deeply fucking relieved by the level of micromanagement I’m about to throw at these assholes.” She poked her screen. “I’ve got a scientist on this project precariously close to scientific break through that could create an extinction level event.”
John winced as Matt’s mouth dropped open. “Speaking of, I’m going to set up an appointment for you at the Pentagon. You’ll want to get a hotel room in DC since the brief will take several days.”
“Days?” Matt questioned.
“The program we’re in has a history decades in the making and you’ll get a full historical retrospective after you sign the NDA,” John explained. “Then you’ll have a bunch of reading to do as well. My officers are required to read all mission reports from several different arms of the operation. I’ll lay that all out for you once it’s legal to do so.”
“Would it be easier to discuss this stuff if I wasn’t here?” David questioned.
John grinned. “You don’t need an excuse to haul your ass back to Europe, Dave. If you want to be with her—go be with her.”
His brother flushed. “I haven’t seen you in person in years, John, and there’s no telling when you’ll come home again.”
“Bring her here, then,” Meredith said. “Rent some fancy, gorgeous hotel suite for her complete with a tub she can swim in. I mean—it’s clear you’re going to marry this woman so she might as well meet the three of us that are leaving in the next two months.”
“Marriage?” David paled. “I haven’t even…that’s not…”
“Oh, come on,” Meredith scoffed. “If she’s not already designing her own wedding dress I’ll eat my laptop.”
Meredith raised an eyebrow then set aside her laptop. “So listen—the moment you set eyes on her, you wanted to touch her.” David’s mouth dropped open. “Your mouth went dry and your heart probably started to pound like you’d run a hundred miles. There was sexual want, but there was also this compelling emotional yearning underneath it all that left you breathless and full for the first time in your life. The thing they don’t tell latents is that it doesn’t matter if you come online or not. When you meet a person you can bond with—it will be overwhelming. The more compatible you are the more you’ll be drawn together.”
“It was like that when I met their mother,” Patrick said quietly from the doorway. “I’d have taken a knee on the spot if I hadn’t been terrified and despite her own latent status, she seemed to know it.”
“So she’s as miserable as I am,” David said quietly.
“Worse,” Meredith admitted and shrugged when David took a deep breath. “She has all the needs of a Guide, but none of the psionic tools to manage them. Just being with you must have been the most relieving experience of her life. She slept better beside you than she ever has by herself. It was probably easier to work and think when you were near by. She probably wore your clothes every single chance she got.”
“She kept one of my shirts,” David admitted. “Despite the fact that she complained repeatedly that it was poorly made. She said it was comforting, but refused to say more.”
“That’s psychometry—most Guides have a certain degree of it.”
“Emotional impression through touch,” Jonah said when David looked confused. “I’m not extremely gifted with it, fortunately. It must be distracting as hell.”
“It was until I learned to lock it down,” Meredith agreed.
David took off his watch and offered it her. “Will you show me?”
Meredith quirked an eyebrow, but took the watch. “Are you sure? This could be invasive as hell.”
“I grew up with a Sentinel—I’ve always known privacy is an illusion,” David said.
John shifted slightly and stilled the urge to join her on the love seat. He’d never seen any Guide do what she was about to do, but it felt weird not to be close to her as her psionic profile started to shift. She stood and came back to the couch where he was and sat down with him. He relaxed and flushed at the looks at he’d earned for himself. His dads took seats as Meredith studied the watch.
“Your maternal great-grandfather wore this for decades—it was an engagement gift from your great-grandmother. He wore it in combat, considered it a good luck charm of sorts. It’s saturated with his experiences—he was a pilot and flew many combat missions. He was wearing it the day your mother was born and he thought perhaps that he’d give the watch to her for the man she would marry and he did. He died a few years after her birth, but he was very happy to have had at least one grandchild.”
She took a deep breath. “Patrick wore it until he bonded with Jonah, but then set it aside for years until it was given to you after you graduated law school. He’d considered giving it to John, but they both worried it might get destroyed due to the nature of John’s work in the Marines. They both felt it would be safe with you considering your career choices. You like the watch, but you’ve been considering replacing it with something more modern and you’re worried it’ll upset your father.” She looked up and focused on David. “It won’t—he thought it was terribly old fashioned as well, but he wore it because he loved your mother.”
She offered David the watch and John watched his brother take it with trembling fingers. “Additionally, it has a lot of combat experience attached to it which might be upsetting to Claire or any children you have with her if they’re sensitive to it. It’s best put in a place of safekeeping and there’s nothing disrespectful about that.” She relaxed against John with a grin. “Also, your father doesn’t always take his watch off when he has sex so that was interesting as well.”
John groaned. “Mer.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Patrick muttered and blushed furiously.
– – – –
She felt the shift in John’s psionic profile just a few moments before he fell completely into a meditative state. Nothing in her training had really prepared for an Alpha Ascendant Sentinel, but she really couldn’t blame Blair for that. It wasn’t like such a thing was thick on the ground and Jim Ellison had shied away from his own sixth sense to a damn near professional degree. The large majority of Guides could go their whole life without meeting a Sentinel like John Sheppard. He had a faint glow of blue energy drifting on his skin—it was an enchanting sight, but she made herself slowly stand from her place in front of him as his father came to stand in the doorway of the home gym they’d retreated to for training.
Patrick stared at his son for a long moment then inclined his head in her direction. She followed him out of the room and down the hall to his office. She’d not been in the room since arriving in the house, but John had told her all about getting called onto the carpet in the room repeatedly as a teenager. He found the room itself stressful as a result.
“Something wrong?” she asked as he walked across the room to stand in front of a pair of glass doors.
“His stress levels aren’t getting any better,” Patrick said baldly. “In fact, after that whole conversation about your work and David’s watch, he seemed to get worse. Is there something going on that I need to be aware of?”
Meredith considered that. “John operates at a different level than you do, Patrick. He has far-reaching concerns that literally span two galaxies. We received a data dump from the SGC this afternoon and we’ve been working through a few issues regarding all of that. Nothing life and death, mind you, but stressful nonetheless. I think you know, that our circumstances with the project are precarious and that being able to trust everyone else involved is paramount to our success.”
Patrick nodded. “Certainly.”
“John’s struggling with that even more than he thought possible because of sense memories, the behavior of those who have already been removed from the project, and the potential for even bigger threats from within going forward. We’re going to clean house, of course, but he still has to deal with the betrayal. He trusted Carson Beckett with himself. He trusted that asshole with the people in his command and we still don’t know if John’s the only victim of the experimentation. The entire expedition and everyone on in the program on Earth received the gene therapy—can we trust that therapy even today?”
Patrick took a deep ragged breath. “For fuck’s sake. I was all wrapped up in him and what happened to him that I didn’t consider the rest.” He moved to sit and Meredith sat down across from him on a sofa that proved to be far more comfortable than it looked. “Anything else?”
“He has more to deal with than his senses which he’s actually managing very well with psionic shielding and sense-shelters.” She paused when the older man frowned. “Not something you can do, unfortunately. It’s a function of his empathy which grants him far more control of his psionic profile than even an Alpha Prime.”
“Jonah created sense-shelters for me,” Patrick said quietly. “It was part of our bonding process and he maintains them on my behalf. I’ve worried off and on for years if that’s a burden for him. He always denies it.”
“It’s probably as natural as breathing for him,” Meredith assured. “You have a healthy, lovely bond. Trust me, when I say, that I would’ve already told you about yourself if I sensed something off in your pairing. I can’t keep that shit to myself for love or money. He doesn’t strike me as the type to suffer in silence, either.”
Patrick’s mouth quirked gently. “No, he’s not at all.” He sat back and cleared his throat. “I didn’t see any of my children for nearly a week after their mother was murdered because I came online feral. I know what that feels like, Meredith. I felt unmoored from my life, from my body, and from them. My father-in-laws did the best they could with me and with them, but I did wonder for a very long time if my response only increased John’s trauma.
“I tried really hard to anticipate his every need, but it was difficult when all he would do was stare at me like I might disappear at any moment. He still doesn’t ask for what he wants. It’s like some part of him got used to suffering in silence.”
“He’s not suffering,” Meredith said.
“He has and he will again,” Patrick muttered.
Meredith laughed. “He actually has a healthy emotional landscape, Patrick, despite his service and the medals he earned to go with it. There’s no PTSD, which he as every single right to honestly, and no deep emotional triggers outside of the experience with his mother. There won’t ever come a day when that isn’t part of John’s psyche. Unfortunately, as much as we wish it were different, all of John’s senses were drenched in the events of your wife’s murder the very second he came online. You did well to make sure he had the best care possible as a child and it did help.”
“He always came home miserable,” Patrick murmured. “I almost stopped sending him to therapy…more times that I could count, but I was worried that he would…well you know.”
“We’ve learned a lot about trauma-dormancy in the last decade,” Meredith said. “Enough to know that John’s recovery should be the norm. You were at the local psionic center this afternoon and came home irritated. What happened?”
“The director of the place is upset by the fact that you and John haven’t registered your bond. He demanded to know why John hasn’t been brought in for testing and got pushy with it. I lost my temper.” He waved a hand. “And he wasn’t prepared for that—the whole place got locked down during the resulting argument. By the end of it, we had a team of security standing between us like a wall. But that asshole has always been pushy about John and I’ve never tolerated his interference. I don’t know why he thought it would be different now.”
“How long has he been the director?”
“Just a few years, but he’s worked there for decades. He was, in fact, part of my intake team when I went feral. His Guide is nice, but he’s a real dick and I’ve never pretended to think otherwise. I hate his ass and I’ve only tolerated his directorship because he’s stupidly qualified to do it.”
Meredith laughed. “It must be awful.”
“It is!” Patrick insisted.
“We’ll go tomorrow,” Meredith said. “And he’ll regret all of his life choices.”
He huffed. “Do you promise?”
Kepler appeared and propped his head up on Meredith’s leg.
“Yeah, we promise,” she said and grinned when he laughed. She patted her spirit animal’s head then stood. “Now, I have to go pick a fight with my Sentinel.”
Patrick sighed. “Really? Must you?”
“It’ll be fine. He needs to get out of his head and the best option for that is sparring.”
“What?” Patrick stood abruptly. “Absolutely not!”
Meredith quirked an eyebrow. “Look at you, standing there thinking you’re the boss of me.”
She walked out of the room and wasn’t all that surprised when he followed after her muttering under his breath. John was stretching when she entered the room. He’d pulled two quarterstaff weapons from the wall and placed them on the floor not far from where they’d been working most of the morning. Meredith pulled her sweatshirt off and tossed it on a table by the door.
“How do you feel?”
“Okay,” John murmured. “I’ve been adjusting some memories.”
“There is a person on the mission that has lied to me repeatedly—practically from the moment we met. Weird lies that have no real purpose. It’s clearly pathological and I don’t know what to do about it since the lies are of a personal nature versus a professional concern.” He paused. “As far as I know, I have no idea if their reports have been falsified.”
“There is a moderate amount of fraud in the reporting system,” Meredith said as she used her socked foot to flick one of the staffs off the floor. She caught it easily and watched him do the same. “So personal lies?”
“Well, one of the first things he ever did was overtly hit on a woman in front of me,” John said roughly. “But based on sense memories—his sexual interest was there before she entered the room.”
“Internalized homophobia?” Patrick questioned as he leaned on the doorway.
“No, I mean, he’s dated men and women on the city,” John said. “But he clearly didn’t want me to think he found me attractive. I never made any moves in his direction because he isn’t my type.”
“He probably didn’t want to give you the impression he’d bend over for you,” Meredith said and quirked an eyebrow at John when he gaped at her. “I mean, you don’t strike me as the type of man that would let just anyone on top.”
John flushed and shrugged. “That requires a lot of trust—especially considering my job. I can’t afford injuries and be on call to get into the pilot seat a the same time. In some aircraft, that’s a death sentence. Even a deep bruise could see me grounded for weeks in some postings. So I guess it did become a habit, of sorts, that I don’t allow that sort of intimacy with casual partners. But since I never once hit on him, I don’t see why the lying continued and it wasn’t always about personal relationships.”
“Pathological liars are often incapable of not lying about something—sometimes it’s about the thrill of getting something small over on someone else and other times it’s just pure damn narcissism,” Meredith said. “If he’s lying in his reports then I’m going to remove him from the mission regardless of his personal hang-ups. Anything else?”
“Should I be handling this kind of thing, doc?” Levi asked tiredly and they both looked over to the find the young Marine standing in the doorway of the gym.
“Nah, I got this,” Meredith said with a laugh. “There’s no one else, really. Any one of you could turn into a threat for him. Have a little faith, I’m actually fit and quite capable physically. My Conservator made sure of it.”
“The Canadian Mountie?” Levi questioned with no small amount of disdain.
John grinned at him, but then focused his attention on Meredith. “Bouchard isn’t bad—a few weeks working out with us and we’ll probably forget all about his unfortunate circumstances.”
She let herself fall into a near meditative state as they moved around each other—the smack of wood against wood reminded her of her training with Blair who believed that the role of the Guide in modern society was an ever evolving situation. Meredith had been taught that adaption to any circumstance thrown her way was the key to her success as a person and a Guide. Sometimes, she wondered where her life would’ve led her if she’d never come online and if she’d never met Blair at all. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
She caught John unaware, slid her staff neatly into the bend of his knee and with one fluid motion—swept him off his feet. He hit the mat with a surprised huff then grinned at her as he sat up. Patrick Sheppard shook his head and took Levi Graves with him as he left the gym.
John rolled to his feet. “Gonna play it like that, huh?”
“It’s my job to challenge you when it’s required,” Meredith pointed out. “Exercises like this are about physical training, but they’re also about mental discipline. It’s something you’ll have to focus on a great deal moving forward due to your empathy. Meditation is important, but so is mindfulness and situational awareness. You can’t defend yourself mentally if you don’t have the tools to notice and manage threats.”
“How does this help that?” John questioned as they started again. He caught her in the side, but the blow was barely a brush against her clothes.
“Honing physical responses to your instincts will allow you to actively focus on other aspects of your gifts. The more you trust yourself to respond to various situations that take place around you—the healthier you’ll be emotionally and mentally. It’s the same basic principal as psionic sense shelters.”
“And that whole translocation thing you did?” John questioned. “Is that about mindfulness?”
“That’s a shaman thing,” Meredith said and grinned when he laughed. “I’ll walk you through it later—I don’t think you’d ever be able to do it on your own, but I could probably guide you through it even at range so we could theoretically exchange objects.”
“You said it hurt you a lot,” John said roughly. “I don’t want to train to do something that hurts you.”
Meredith huffed. “John, we weren’t even on the same damn planet. Translocation across an average city or just from different sides of the house would be an entirely different situation.”
John made a face. “Maybe a very small test to start. Bouchard and Teldy both told me that it was a very stressful experience for you and it clearly hurt like hell.”
She shrugged, which made him frown at her. She barely had time to laugh before he used his staff to knock hers out of her hand. Seconds later, she was sprawled on the floor, his hand holding the back of her head as John settled on top of her like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Don’t be flippant about the things that hurt you,” John murmured against her cheek. “No matter the form it takes.”
Meredith relaxed under him when he brushed a soft, sweet kiss against her lips and planted her feet flat on the floor as he kissed her again. In that moment, everything between them felt normal and real in a way she hadn’t expected. She curled her hand against the back of his neck as he lifted his head.
“They talk about false intimacy in Guide training,” Meredith murmured as she stroked her fingers down his cheek. “How the bond can make you feel like you’re closer to your Sentinel than you actually are on an emotional level.”
“Do you think that’s what’s happening between us?” John questioned.
“I don’t think so—but it’s something I have to keep in mind. Communication is key to that and you seem to be good at that.”
“Years of therapy,” John said wryly. “Often I think all of those sessions when I was kid sort of instilled in me the duty to be open about what I’m thinking and feeling even when I really don’t want to or sometimes, honestly, when it’s inappropriate to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a superior officer tell me to speak freely and I actually did it. The more rank I achieved the clearer it became that when an officer tells you to speak freely they really don’t mean it.”
Meredith laughed. “Oh, John.”
He grinned and rolled off of her to lay at her side. “Do you think tomorrow is going to be a problem?”
“I’ve looked up the staff of the center and I found out earlier that your father hates the director and it’s probably mutual. So that’s an issue, but not one that can be resolved quickly enough. As an Alpha Ascendant, you operate outside of the pride hierarchy, in a way. You’d never be tapped to act as a prime for a territory, even if you could do it easily. But in truth, John, you stand above the system. Ascendants are rare, valuable in some very specific circles, and at times polarizing within a pride if they aren’t leading it. Fortunately, your father is the Alpha of your family pride so there won’t be any dominance games.
“I don’t know how many prides there are in the area, or even how many people Patrick has in his own pride. I assume that he has a fairly large pride due to his regional status as many would gravitate toward him for leadership due to his personal power and social standing. It would be considered an honor to be in the pride of an Alpha Prime.
“You’ll garner attention—good and bad—in our community for a variety of reasons. Due to your father’s role, it’s not unknown that his oldest son was believed to be trauma-dormant. Your recovery will be startling for some, fascinating for others, and there will be a small percentage of people who will find it disturbing to be in the same room with you.”
“Because of my sixth sense,” John surmised. “Is it really all that different than being in the room with a Guide?”
“It isn’t any different at all and that’s a problem. Guides rarely, if ever, make Sentinels aggressive, but you will.”
“So I will feel like a Guide, but as a Sentinel I’ll make them aggressive,” John said. “What is this small percentage?”
“Level 2 and below,” Meredith said. “Lower rated Sentinels will find you extremely threatening. You won’t have the aura of a prime which would put them at ease.” She shrugged. “There aren’t many and some theorist believe that on an evolutionary front that our kind are unconsciously breeding away from what could be considered a weakness. Blair thinks that within a hundred years there won’t be a Sentinel alive that will test under level 5 within the current system.”
“Is that a response to external threats?” John questioned.
“Aliens?” Meredith shrugged. “I don’t know because they’ve always been a threat and while Ra’s occupation of Egypt disappeared into antiquity—the psionic plane certainly didn’t forget. It influences us and our development far more than whatever knowledge we gather.”
“How do I manage that?”
“You won’t have to because anyone that finds you a threat will give you as much room as you need. No one at the level would be able to tolerate living and working in a pride with you either as a member or leader.”
“So you’re saying that just by being my father’s son, I could impact the membership of his pride?” John questioned in shock. “I don’t even live here.”
“It won’t matter,” Meredith and shrugged. “It’s not something you can control, John. The evolutionary purpose of an Alpha Ascendant is a mystery—historically Sentinels like you led large armies. They made kings and emperors. Gaius Marius was an Alpha Ascendant—his sixth sense was also empathy. Historical accounts of battles he led, speak to the soldiers under his command falling into a state of bloodlust with him.”
“You’re saying he used his empathy to induce feral combat drives in his men,” John said quietly. “That’s…ugly, Mer.”
“The men that followed him would’ve had to trust him a lot for such a thing to work on a regular basis so he certainly wasn’t abusing them,” Meredith said. “Such a talent could be ugly, but there are no records of people claiming to have been abused by him or any other Ascendant Sentinel. Frankly, due to your empathy, you would find it very difficult to force your will on another person. You’d feel their trauma with them.” She sat up. “Strong and confident Sentinels will be drawn to you. It must have been such a relief to Anne Teldy when she came to be under your command.
“You should know that Teldy was prepared to destroy her career to rescue you from your situation. She was basically going to stage a coup on Atlantis and precious few people would’ve stood against her. I doubt Weir would’ve survived the fall out of it due to what she was guilty of. Teldy is just as likely to kill Weir and Beckett as you are.”
“The moment I met the major, I was relieved,” John said roughly. “I didn’t get a choice about who my XO would be after Sumner left the city. I was relieved to get another high ranking Sentinel on board, but Elizabeth was extremely put out and I think she did complain, but O’Neill ignored her. He was adamant from the start about including a Sentinel in the expedition.”
“With good reason,” Meredith said. “Teldy’s carrying a lot of guilt around, by the way. She felt like she should’ve noticed that Beckett was experimenting on you. Alison is working her through it, but it’s been fucking with her. That’s just a head’s up. On a serious note, the only reason Anne Teldy isn’t here watching your back is because you directly put her in charge of the city. She also protested your removal from the city for training.”
“Should I do something about any of that?” John questioned.
“No, she’s your XO,” Meredith said. “Both on the city and probably within the pride you’ll form out there. Her instincts are priming her for that role and have been since she set eyes on you. It probably fucked with her a lot that you were labeled trauma-dormant. You should email her often—give her a touchstone so to speak.”
“Do you expect any surprises with formal testing tomorrow?”
“No.” Meredith sat up. “At least not from you, but there’s no telling how things will shake out politically because your father is a beast and I have a feeling the people running the psionics center here really don’t know how to handle him and never have. Tomorrow might be a trial for everyone involved, but it won’t be because of you or your abilities.”
The Psionics Center in Alexandria, Virginia looked inviting and warm as it was housed in an historical building that had been retrofitted to serve. Old south charm, Meredith thought, and wasn’t impressed at all. She could practically smell the oppression in the air. Levi had driven them, but Patrick and Jonah Dean had followed in a separate vehicle. She figured the whole day was going to be a giant mess of stress and it really shouldn’t be. Politics were the worst. She’d considered keeping a low profile, but there was a burn of irritation swirling around her from both John and his father.
As they entered the lobby, Kepler appeared at her side. Everyone stopped moving at the same time, spirit animals started to appear en masse and John’s own manifested in front of him with a vicious hiss.
“Easy there,” Meredith murmured and Zillah backed up several steps until she could rest against John’s leg. She focused on the receptionist who was standing staring at her and Kepler in dawning horror. “Dr. Meredith McKay and Colonel John Sheppard, United States Marine Corps. We have an appointment for assessment.”
“You’re…” She took a deep breath and picked up the phone on her desk. “Sir. There is a Lion Guide on the premises—her name is Dr. Meredith McKay. She’s here with the Alpha Prime’s oldest son.”
The former trauma-dormant one, Meredith thought, but let the words remain unspoken. The speculation made John uncomfortable, but there was little she could do about that. The elevator doors opened silently and a man stepped out with an attractive woman at his side. Patrick’s irritation ticked up.
“Director Hodge,” Meredith said. “Dr. Hodge.” She gave her fellow Guide a nod. “You didn’t have to take time out of your day to observe John’s testing.”
“I’m doing the testing personally,” the director announced.
“No, you’re not,” Meredith said firmly. “Alpha Prime Sheppard finds you irritating and that emotion is leaking all over his son due to John’s Ascendant status.” She paused at the shock the pair couldn’t keep off their faces. “As a result, there is no single way either of you can be involved in this process. It would skew the results horrifically and I’d have to seek out another Center for a second round of testing which would be stupid and I don’t do dumb things.”
“An Alpha Ascendant?” Hodge questioned in shock. “Are you serious, Dr. McKay?”
“I couldn’t be more serious and we require privacy for the rest of this conversation,” she responded evenly. “If you are unwilling to meet the burden of his testing at this facility I can contact Alpha Prime Sandburg for a recommendation regarding a better option.”
“We won’t have a problem,” Hodge said tightly and glanced toward his Guide who gave him a tight nod. “At least that explains his previous dormancy.”
“You mean witnessing my mother’s cold blooded murder wasn’t enough?” John questioned and Hodge paled.
The elevator opened again and a second pair emerged. Meredith lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “Mason?”
“Meredith,” Mason Blake smiled.
“You know Dr. McKay, Dr. Blake?” Hodge asked.
“We trained together,” Mason Blake said.
“Guide school?” the director prodded.
“No, we walked the path together,” Meredith said evenly and Hodge’s eyes went wide even as she focused on Mason Blake. “If you work here, why aren’t you in charge of this place?”
“Dr. Sandburg sent me,” Mason explained. “I haven’t made a formal recommendation for the facility as I’m still in review. You haven’t met Sydney. Dr. Meredith McKay, my Sentinel and husband, Dr. Sydney Jamieson.” He turned to Hodge. “I believe it would be best if I handled Alpha Sentinel Sheppard’s assessment, Director Hodge.”
“As I already explained to you, Dr. Blake, you don’t have privileges to operate in this building in any single professional capacity.”
“Then give him whatever he needs,” Meredith said and smiled when Hodge focused on her. “It shouldn’t be difficult and if it is, I’ve already made it clear I can make alternative arrangements very easily.”
Hodge frowned at her, but focused on Blake. “Are you prepared to fully inspect their bond, verify its health despite your personal relationship with Dr. McKay, and give an honest assessment regarding the viability of their pairing during this process? He wasn’t allowed a Guide search and it’s important that we establish that everything is consensual. His emotional instability is also an issue.”
“You’re fired,” Meredith snapped. “Levi! Hand me your fucking phone.”
Levi fumbled briefly before digging a cell out of his pocket to give her.
“You can’t fire me,” Hodge sputtered.
“Oh, you’re fired,” Patrick assured him. “You were told that this conversation should take place in private and yet you still managed to air my son’s private business in front of all of these people.”
“I don’t actually care,” John exclaimed and everyone focused on him. Meredith stopped dialing even as he focused on Hodge. “You’ve got a problem with authority and specifically it chaps your ass that my father is the regional Alpha Prime because you think his coming online feral makes him a primitive son of a bitch. Well, I’ve got news for you, asshole, he’s always been a primitive son of a bitch. He probably came out of the womb that way.
“I’m not emotionally compromised or unstable. I have a host of psychological evaluations dating back 20 goddamned years to back that up and you know it. You’ve been trying to get me tossed in a facility since I was kid because you think I’m dangerous. Absolutely no one is going to be inspecting our bond and the first person who tries will pay for it in every single way I can manage—which is saying something considering how much money my father has to spend.
“I don’t want a Guide search. I don’t mean to be ugly about this, but have you looked at her? Why would I give up an intelligent, beautiful, and powerful Guide in order to get a search done so you can throw a bunch of average people at me? She’s a fucking shaman for Christ’s sake. I won the goddamned lottery and I’m really, really tired of people trying to get in the way of it. The next person who suggests I have a Guide search is going to get a face full of the first weapon I can get my hands on and I mean it.” He held out his hand. “McKay.”
She scooted close and grabbed his hand. “Right.” She handed Levi his phone. “I’ll just call and complain bitterly to Blair this evening, then.”
“Dr. Blake will handle my assessment,” John said evenly and raised an eyebrow when Hodge opened his mouth to complain. “This isn’t a discussion.”
Shortly, they were in a private assessment suite and Hodge had retreated to his office. Meredith exchanged a look with Patrick while she watched John prowl around the room. She’d retrieved John’s phone and fired off a few texts to Blair to get the ball rolling on the whole Hodge issue because he’d seriously put John’s back up.
“You strike me as the relaxed sort,” Meredith said and John focused on her.
He huffed, waved a hand and started pacing again.
“You might as well tell them, Patrick,” Jonah said dryly. “I warned you it would happen. He’s far too sensitive to not have picked it up and probably has sense memories from a kid about the Hodge family.”
John focused on his father with a glare. “What’s he talking about?”
“I went through a series of Conservators before I bonded with Jonah,” Patrick said roughly. “The last that I allowed to live our home was a woman named Carol Monroe. Do you remember her?”
“Yeah, sort of. She didn’t last long—she said I should be put in an institution. David overheard it.”
Patrick nodded. “She was Joel Hodge’s half-sister and until Jonah she was the most compatible Guide I’d encountered. Something about her put me off, however, and it felt unfair due to how well we seemed to connect. I agreed to a conservatorship as a way of testing the relationship. She moved into the house, but it was clear, from the start, that she didn’t want you around her. After about a week, she told me that keeping you in the home with Matt and David was abusive. She said you belonged in a facility because you were broken.
“David threw a complete fit and I thought that his fury was going to make him come online. He’s never raged like that not before and never after once I calmed him down and got her out of the house. He threatened to kill her if she hurt you or made you go away.”
“I don’t…remember that,” John admitted. “I do remember her yelling at you when she was leaving about how you were making a mistake and that you would regret not picking her over your defective child.”
“She filed several complaints about the situation and even claimed that I needed psychiatric care for rejecting her because we were a perfect match. This went on for years until I just got fed up and agreed to a Guide search. I had hundreds of potentials, of course, as an Alpha, but there was only one perfect one.” Patrick glanced toward Jonah. “And it wasn’t her. She didn’t even rate in the top 100 hundred matches. Our percentage was less than 40%.”
“That must have been embarrassing for her and her brother,” Meredith said mildly. “Political showmanship gone wrong.”
“Political?” John questioned.
“Pairing with an Alpha Prime or an Alpha Ascendant can be seen, in some circles, as a victory, John,” Jonah said. “Your father’s political and social power outstrips his financial wealth by leaps and bounds. The President of the United States, no matter the party, has taken his calls since he became Alpha of the region. His wealth was an attractive factor, for certain, but Alpha Primes are and always will be the makers of kings.”
“They must hate you then,” John said thoughtfully. “The son of one prime, the husband of another.”
Jonah shrugged. “My fathers taught me how to play those games years before I ever met your father so I came into this with my eyes wide open. Besides, I already knew he was mine.”
“Seriously?” John questioned.
“First time I saw him—I was just 16 and he was on television being interviewed,” Jonah admitted. “I turned to my father and told him that Patrick Sheppard was my Sentinel.”
“And his response?” Meredith asked in amusement.
“His exact words were—for fuck’s sake.” Jonah grinned when she laughed. “So when the call finally came that he’d agreed to do a Guide search I was in grad school. My fathers were keeping an eye on the parade of Conservator Guides moving in and out of Patrick’s life so they knew it was only a matter of time before he gave up and did a Guide search. I was 20 by then, fortunately.”
“Very fortunate,” Patrick muttered. “But also appalling. I tried to tell him no just because of his age.”
Jonah sighed. “The asshole was real stubborn about it. Being beautiful worked in my favor.”
Meredith grinned. “It often does.” She focused on John. “You need to calm down, John. We can’t begin your assessment until you’re mentally and emotionally focused.”
“You trust this Blake guy?”
“Great Guide, excellent shaman, fantastic lay,” Meredith reported. “Honestly, amazing across the board.” She flicked a hand when John huffed. “Don’t be jealous.”
“I am! He’s gorgeous,” John muttered. “I’d have sit on his lap any day of the week.”
The door opened and Mason Blake entered with a laugh. “Thanks, and I wouldn’t have said no. Dr. Dean, if you’d take your Sentinel elsewhere? My Sentinel is in the observation area.” He inclined his head to the left. “Meredith, let’s get him settled so we can handle this. Sandburg and Ellison are en route.”
“Why?” Meredith questioned.
“Hodge pitched a fit about being fired and claimed that Patrick Sheppard didn’t have the right to fire him so Jim Ellison is coming to do it personally. Hodge stirred up that guy in Denver, by the way so he was going to be a problem even if you weren’t involved.”
“Hodge is barely an alpha,” Meredith said. “And certainly couldn’t attain prime status. What’s his game?”
Jonah glanced briefly at Patrick before clearing his throat. “Revenge mostly—his half-sister ended up bonded with a cop in Chicago. They were both killed on the job five years ago. He believes she’d be alive today if Patrick had bonded with her. I figure that’s true, but they weren’t a fit and she was biased against his child because of her brother’s views on trauma-dormancy.”
“His bias is based on personal experience,” Meredith speculated. “Sibling? Parent?”
“His father has been institutionalized since Joel Hodge was four years old,” Blake said. “His mother remarried and had the sister. She was never online and her second husband was a mundane. John is proof positive that our system is failing the dormant left and right—we have been failing them for years. It isn’t like he’s even the first to recover, but every single time it happens we all get slapped in the face with the fact that we have hundreds of Sentinels and Guides in long-term facilities who will probably never recover because they weren’t given the tools to do so when it would’ve helped.”
“Maybe…” John trailed off and frowned. He looked away from all and took a deep breath. “The world is cruel, Dr. Blake, and maybe some of us just aren’t meant to be exposed to it. If they can’t live in this world then maybe it is the duty of the rest to provide them with a safe and good place where they can have peace. Living in barely disguised prison can’t be what any of them deserve. Over the years, I’ve encountered people while I served who either already knew I was dormant or came to understand it after working with me and it never failed that there would be a thin layer of disapproval or disbelief. They couldn’t believe I was functional most of the time and that disbelief eventually turned hostile.
“I kept waiting for it to happen with my current XO. She’s been online since she as a teenager. I was both relieved and worried to get a Sentinel put under in a command situation. I almost protested her placement on my mission because I was worried that she would react badly to me and it would lead to discipline problems. It wasn’t a fair situation to either of us, but she evened out almost immediately under my command. It was weird.”
“She must have known on some instinctual level you were coming online,” Mason said.
“She certainly suspected that he had come online and was prepared to destroy her career to retrieve him from his circumstances,” Meredith said. She gave Jonah a nod and watched as her fellow Guide prodded Patrick Sheppard out of the room.
“Colonel Sheppard, if you’ll sit?” Mason questioned.
John hesitated and glanced toward Meredith before taking a seat across from Mason Blake. “You’re a shaman like Meredith?”
“No,” Mason said. “She’s unique due to her lack of a psionic tether. I act as Dr. Blair Sandburg’s second as a shaman for North America. We often work in tandem to manage the psionic plane on an instinctual level. We’re also prone to spirit walking at the same time. Meredith and I have some similar gifts, but I’m not capable of translocation. I understand she accomplished that over a great distance in order to facilitate your rescue behind enemy lines.”
“Yes,” John said. “It was helpful in more than one way. Having tangible proof that I wasn’t going crazy made it easier.”
“The goal of assessment is to push your senses to the maximum to get an accurate rating regarding your abilities,” Blake began. “It’ll be less stressful for you due to the fact that you’re already bonded. In this room, we’ll focus on scent, hearing, taste, and touch. These tests will be more about your sensitivity rather than your ability to discern various scents, etc. Once those levels are established we’ll move to a different room in the facility to get a measure on your vision.”
“Sounds boring,” John admitted. “Will you test my empathy?”
“There are no tools for assessing empathy for a Sentinel,” Blake said. “But there are a few tools we use to measure a Guide’s ability. We’ll try out a few of those for your own information, but it won’t be part of your official assessment as a Sentinel.”
– – – –
John watched Matt pacing around in the kitchen for a few moments before he cleared his throat. “You were supposed to stay in DC tonight.”
Matt turned and focused on him. “John.”
“Hard day?” John questioned and went to the cabinet to pull out some cups. “Let’s have some tea.”
“I…” Matt took a deep ragged breath. “Lt. Colonel Davis started with a basic summary of the main mission then focused on the expedition since that’s where I’ll be going.”
“Yeah,” John said and sighed as he filled the kettle and plugged in it. “How far did you get?”
“I kept on pressing until he showed me the video.”
John’s gut tightened. “Hell, kid, I told them not to show you that shit. You should’ve waited for me—I know Davis told you that was my preference.”
“I didn’t think you needed to see it,” Matt protested.
“I lived it,” John said and focused on his little brother. “I dream of it every single night. I probably will for years. I hear that fucker’s voice in my head.”
“Which fucker?” Matt demanded and huffed when John laughed. “Stop laughing.”
“It’s just…honestly, Mattie, there are a lot of them out there. Pick out some tea—green for me. I don’t need any more caffeine.”
Matt rummaged through a basket and pulled out two envelopes. “There’s a green tea with ginger—it’s nice. Would it be too spicy for you?”
“Maybe?” John admitted. “Is there a plain one?”
Matt put on of the packets back and plucked out another. “Yeah. How’s that going? Any spikes?”
“None really—Meredith helped me create sense shelters sort of like psionic pockets that I can tuck them into. It’s hard to explain.”
They put the tea together and John slid onto a stool to stare at it as it steeped. “When’s your next meeting with Davis?”
“He sent me home with a bunch of mission reports to read and said he would come to me for the next one,” Matt said. “I got stupidly upset about the whole wraith thing and I think he was worried I’d blow like you did. He’d already read my jacket and asked me if I was close to coming online. I told him what Meredith said and he made some notes about it. I think the last thing they want is yet another feral onlining on their hands or attached to their mandate.”
“Well, the SGC actually has a history of it,” John said. “We can speak freely, by the way. David is with Claire at the Ritz Carlton. He’s going to bring her for dinner tomorrow night. Frances and Alma are asleep.”
“And the Dads have been read in,” Matt said. “Major Davis told me that. I wasn’t all that surprised. Dad yelled at POTUS over the hold KIA thing. I mean, honestly, who the fuck declares a Sentinel’s son KIA without a fucking body? What did she think would happen?”
“I don’t think she understood at all what kind of hornet’s nest she was kicking,” John admitted. “There are a lot of fucked up things waiting for you to read. Some of the science will be way over your head, but if you have questions you can ask McKay.”
Matt left his stool and grabbed some honey out of the cabinet. “Davis said that I’ll need to go Nevada to qualify to fly the fighter craft built for and used exclusively by the SGC. Also, apparently you’re getting a full squadron of them and I’ll be your flight officer.”
John nodded. “I know.”
“Right.” Matt plucked his tea bag out and poured a stupid amount of honey into the cup.
John pulled out his own bag, but chose a sparing amount of sugar from a little jar already on the bar. “You’ll get some grief.”
“Because I’m your brother?”
“Because you’re jumping ahead of a year-long wait list to go to Atlantis,” John said and raised an eyebrow when Matt’s mouth dropped open. “Some consider it a prime assignment, Matt, and you’re getting preferential treatment for several reasons. It will cause resentment, especially in Nevada when you go to qualify. There are pilots at Groom Lake who’ve been wait-listed for an SGC assignment for going on two years while we build ships. The only on-planet assignment is McMurdo and they only staff four squadrons down there.”
“I’ve dealt with that kind of attitude before,” Matt said. “I’ve had people assume a lot about me over the years—that I’ve gotten as far as I have at my age because of my looks, because my father is an Alpha Prime, and because my brother is a rockstar in the Marines.”
“What?” John questioned.
“Come on, John, I can’t even tell you how many people have introduced themselves to me over the years only to turn around ask me a question about you. Force Recon Marines are a breed apart especially considering you’re rumored to have been part of several big direct action campaigns. You rocketed through the ranks then disappeared into a classified project. I’ve been hearing rumors for over a year, but the SGC will be relieved to know that not a single one I heard bears a resemblance to reality.”
“There is a whole department at the SGC dedicated to making sure the rumors are wrong,” John said. “They’re also preparing for declassification—it’ll happen one way or another. Meredith said you can’t keep a big secret indefinitely and that we’ve been lucky to have it last as long as it has, especially in a world with a lot of Sentinels.”
“There must be a lot of countermeasures,” Matt said.
“Sure, plus a liberal use of NDAs for any Sentinel or Guide that lives within a few hundred miles any classified facility. It would be treason to discuss classified circumstances that I accidentally overhear—Sentinel or not. I’ve always know that and it was even a bigger issue for me when I was active in the field on Earth. I’ll probably have to sign an additional NDA when I return to Colorado because of the Sentinel stuff. How much training have you had?”
“A full course load on the Sentinel front,” Matt said. “They wouldn’t let me qualify to fly in the Navy until I’d done all the work to manage my senses if I were to come online in the cockpit. That would’ve been the worse case scenario for me before…well, I suppose I’ll have to reconsider how those circumstances would change.”
“You’ll be part of a field team—we have some craft on the city called Jumpers that we can take through the gate. You’ll be trained to fly one, but we don’t always use them. Each mission is different. Sometimes we meet a friend and sometimes we meet someone who would happily feed us to a wraith. During our first year, we encountered more than one society that actively worshipped the wraith. It was startling and disheartening to see people reduced to such fucked up circumstances.”
“The mandate in Pegasus is difficult to comprehend.”
“I try to remember that the wraith aren’t a natural species, but a science experiment gone wrong and there is no legitimate way for them to exist without feeding on humans. They can’t be cured and it feels like my duty to end them,” John said quietly. “If you can’t deal with it, Matt, you’d have no problems getting posted in the SGC.”
“I can handle it,” Matt insisted. “I’m still wrapping my head around it all—exploring other planets, stargates, and aliens. The fact that we have alien DNA.”
“Yeah, that was a weird conversation,” John admitted. “Some people have gotten really bent out of shape about it, actually, and it’s caused some psychological issues. The ancients are, objectively, awful. They invested themselves in ascension and ignored everything around them that would interfere with that goal. That included the goa’uld, the enslavement of humans from Earth because of their technology, and the spread of the wraith across Pegasus because of their own fucked up experiments. Honestly, I find nothing redeemable about the ancients and I hope to never actually meet another.”
“You’ve met one?”
“A woman—her name was Chaya. She tried to seduce me, but I found her disgusting to be around and I couldn’t figure out why. She came to the city and tried to…I think she wanted me to ascend and be with her. Maybe she was lonely, I don’t know. She’s being punished by other the ancients and is forced to stay on a single planet. Her visit to Atlantis probably got her in trouble. I’d rather never set eyes on her again.”
“So she realized you were descended from the ancients and thought you had enough going on that you could ascend.”
“Humans don’t need a single bit of ancient DNA to ascend. There’s a guy at the SGC whose done it—you’ll meet him. He came back as soon as he could because of his Sentinel, but yeah, Daniel Jackson ascended.”
“I’m glad he came back of his Sentinel,” Matt said. “It must have been…difficult for them both.”
“He ascended offline and came back online,” John said. “So, it was a miracle of sorts. He thought he’d never come online at all.”
“How did your tests go?” Matt questioned.
John sighed. “Level six across the board—they’ve forwarded the results to the Corps and I’ve already gotten an email confirming my status as an Alpha Ascendant—the only active duty Ascendant as far as anyone knows. I have another official meeting with Rampart next week, but it will be at the Pentagon with the current Director of Homeworld Security. Rampart has also asked to come to the house before that meeting.”
“George Hammond,” Matt said. “I saw him in passing this morning. People responded well to him.”’
“He’s a complicated man with good intentions who’s done some misguided things in the past,” Meredith said and they both focused on her. She came fully into the kitchen and frowned at the tea they were drinking. She hitched up onto a stool and used a little band to tie her hair up. “The meeting with Hammond was always going to happen—O’Neill hasn’t spared him the ugly details of what’s been happening under Weir’s command in Pegasus. I suspect we’ll both get a few surprises during that meeting as she’s probably been thoroughly interrogated.”
“What do you think they’ve found?” John asked curiously.
“She’s legally sane, but also a total fruit loop,” Meredith said and grinned when he laughed. “Someone on Earth is deeply invested in the research being done on Atlantis—biological weapons, potential super soldiers, profoundly addictive drugs, eternal life. The wraith have a lot to offer us on those fronts. A synthetic enzyme alone would be worth millions. The impact it has on the human body—if it could be refined and duplicated without the side effects all the better. They could use such a thing to create the kind of military assets that would be the envy of the whole damn galaxy.
“If they can’t then they can let it loose on the streets and make money hand over fist. It would be all the rage within a month. I’m sure there are several organizations out there dedicated to weaponizing it as well. There are three scientists on Atlantis who are working with wraith tissues in order to figure out how they live so long and how it can be duplicated in humans.”
“That’s terrible,” Matt said. “But they’ve probably been doing some form of that since the beginning of the program right? The goa’uld live a long time as well, right?”
“Many thousands of years,” Meredith agreed. “They can sustain a host indefinitely unless the host takes a mortal injury and they can’t get to a sarcophagus in time. So yeah, that research has been going on for a while and the wraith have just renewed interest and in some cases, redirected people on how to accomplish such a thing. I’d try to shut it down, but I don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding. Jack O’Neill finds all of it offensive, but he’s never succeeded in getting it stopped either. People fear death. Well, mundanes fear death and they especially resent that maybe there is an afterlife, but it isn’t for them because they don’t enjoy the deep connection to the psionic plane that our kind do.
“That’s the root of religious bigotry when it comes to Sentinels and Guides. It’s also why the Roman Catholic Church tried to suppress and destroy our kind when we started to come online in mass hundreds of years ago. It was dumb, really. They should’ve focused on recruiting and converting as many of us as they could instead of trying to burn us at the stake. They could’ve spun the whole thing into a divine gift and that mythology would’ve spread like wildfire.”
“I’m glad you weren’t around to educate them,” John said wryly. “Why are you awake?”
“Because you are,” she said and shrugged when he sighed, but then focused on Matt. “And we’re both awake because of you.”
Matt flushed. “Sorry.”
“There was more than one reason why John suggested you stay in DC for the debrief,” Meredith said plainly. “He knew you’d be upset and wanted some distance from it.”
“Jesus,” Matt muttered. “Sometimes, I really wish you weren’t so bone-deep honest. It’s deeply uncomfortable and it kind of hurts my feelings.”
“Your family coddled you, clearly,” Meredith said dryly and looked up as the dads came into the kitchen. “To your detriment.”
Patrick laughed and slid onto a stool. “Stop picking on my baby boy.”
“He’s supposedly an adult in the Navy,” Meredith said and rolled her eyes when they all laughed. “You’re all terrible.” She left the bar with a huff. “You’re really lucky you fuck like it’s your job, John Sheppard.”
John’s mouth dropped open as she left the kitchen and blushed furiously at the look on this father’s face. “I got nothing.”
“She can’t really help it, you know,” Jonah said as he focused on Matt. “You’re a source of stress for John, right now, and probably will be the foreseeable future since you’re going to Pegasus. Instinctually, she’s going to try to manage his stress and you to make things easier for her Sentinel. Of course, her own personality has some play as well because she doesn’t appear to have any desire to tolerate anything that pisses her off.
“That’s probably two-fold—female Guides are highly sought after due to breeding opportunities they represent. The other side of is that she’s a very intelligent and beautiful woman in a male-dominated field. To get as far as she has means, she had to learn early to assert herself and never give ground in any situation really. Any weakness she exhibits can and certainly will be used against her. It’ll probably be worse on Atlantis due to Weir’s behavior and machinations in the science department. She’ll spend months dismantling all of that crap and it won’t win her friends.”
“I got her back,” John said. “Are my emotions bleeding over onto her because of my empathy?”
“They would regardless due to your bond, but I think they’re probably doubling on her because you project all over the place,” Jonah said. “She’s been focused on prepping the senses that you’d be tested for and she’ll also focus your training in that direction because of your job, but you really need to get a handle on your empathy even if it slows your training down a bit. For her sake as well as your own. She’s probably also doing some management for you, but it has to be exhausting and it will only get more so in stressful situations. Regular meditation would help.”
John winced, but nodded. “She tells me that, but I hate it. It makes me feel…”
“Like you did when you went feral,” Patrick supplied.
“Yeah,” John admitted and relaxed a little in the knowledge that it was probably a normal reaction. “Was it like that for you?”
“Yes, but it’s not a bad thing.”
“When you went feral,” Jonah began, “your connection with the psionic plane bloomed inside you. You were unbonded and that made the plane’s influence on you immense. This is nature’s way of preventing a spiral and insanity in unbonded Sentinels.”
“But spirals do happen,” John said.
“Yes, but only in extreme cases where a feral Sentinel is left on their own and provided no support. Your empathy deepened your connection to the plane which gave you stability otherwise…” Jonah sighed. “John, I think if you weren’t an Alpha Ascendant you would’ve spiraled on that planet and died. When I heard about your circumstances from Meredith, before she left Earth, I started doing what I could to prepare your father for your death.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Matt muttered and rubbed his head with both hands. “Can we not talk about this? Let’s develop some fucking stoic reserve here.”
John laughed and nudged him gently. “For the record, Meredith’s the norm when it comes to civilian scientists and attitude problems. They’re all impatient, rude, and prone to shouting at each other in their native languages. I’ve got two on the city that scream at each other in French and Czech at the same time. I expected one of them to haul ass back to Earth when we reconnected with Earth, but instead they very briefly got engaged then had an immense break up fight in the mess hall and also an immense amount of break up sex from all reports since they were caught more than once in the main lab office by security.”
“How do you put up with that?” Matt questioned. “It must be hard to run a tight operation with civilians in the mix.”
“It’s impossible actually so you have to work around them,” John said and shrugged when his brother looked horrified. “They don’t follow orders without an argument unless someone is shooting at them. On any given day one of them is probably precariously close to tearing a whole in space and time. They’re all brilliant, needy, stressed-out, and regularly exhausted because they can’t be trusted to keep a healthy sleep schedule like adults.
“But on more than one occasion, my life depended on the science department and every single time they delivered. They’ll work themselves to death to solve a problem, to save a life, or to prove a point. The former expedition leader didn’t manage them well and didn’t have policies in place to keep their crazy contained so I hope that the new one will be an ally for Meredith on that front.”
“Sorry I came home and stressed you out,” Matt said and took a deep breath. “It’s just I had to see you after that watching that shit.”
John nodded. “I get it. And for the record, I killed all of those bastards. Not a single one of them made it out of that room alive. Then I basically rampaged through the whole damn building killing every single person I encountered. I also killed the people they sent to check on them—both groups. They were still counting bodies on the planet when I left Pegasus so I don’t know how many that equals. I refused to leave until they were all dead.”
“It’s not our way to leave an enemy behind to kill us,” Patrick said. “I wouldn’t have left either. I’d have probably tried to go their homeworld and finish the job, to be honest.”
John flushed. “My XO dialed the gate for me. I think she worried that I might go to the Genii homeworld and she wasn’t wrong to be concerned about it. If I hadn’t run out of ammo, I’d have finished the ones on that planet then…well, I want to think that I would’ve dialed Atlantis, but I’m not sure. I certainly won’t hesitate to kill them on sight going forward.”
“And you aren’t worried about returning to Pegasus, facing another wraith?” Matt questioned.
John shrugged. “I killed a wraith queen my second day in Pegasus, Matt. There was a situation early on with an artifact that meant we encountered a bunch of wraith repeatedly. It was a device they used to hunt ancients and I activated it because of my ATA gene. Teyla was wearing it—she didn’t know what it was. Anyways, we probably killed upwards of 50 on missions before Sumner started asking questions and we found the necklace which had been her family for generations. There are probably devices all over Pegasus that are essentially traps for ancients. We’ve hit several over the years and had the bastards descend on us like…locusts. It’s a hard life.”
“And not one you can turn your back on,” Patrick said. “I wish…”
“I know,” John said quietly. “But I can’t. Being here—so far away from my territory is disquieting and terrible. I feel on edge, like my skin’s too tight and I’m a hair away from a battle that I can’t see. This isn’t something I can tolerate long-term, Dad, and I don’t see my imperative changing at all, ever.”
Patrick nodded, but frowned. “I understand, better than I would like which makes me feel selfish. I don’t want you to suffer, John, but the fight out there is beyond my…”
“Influence,” John supplied. “I love you, Dad, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a fight within your influence.”
“At least when you were on Earth, I could’ve found you easily,” Patrick said. “I wouldn’t have had to wait here while two people I didn’t know went to find you. McKay’s impressive as a Guide, a scientist, even as a woman if I’m entirely honest about it, but I wasn’t sure of her.”
“Because of her Conservator?” John questioned. “He’s on the city bonding with one of my civilians as we speak.”
“It was clear they had a rewarding and intimate relationship,” Jonah said. “Despite the fact that they couldn’t bond. I’ve heard rumors about…well. They only ever called her the female shaman. But I’d heard plenty of things over the years about McKay, about her refusals to participate in the search system, her power, her influence, and her attitude problem. Sandburg must be so relieved she bonded. He’s been managing the fall out of her lack of a bond for a decade.”
“The Prime Minister of Canada apparently has been doing his share of that management, too,” John said. “She called him in the middle of the IOA meeting because the rep from France was irritated by her decision to bond with an American. Apparently, he wanted her to migrate to France and breed for them.”
Patrick sighed. “They invited me to contribute sperm to their breeding program—three times before I called the Alpha Prime of France told her personally that I’d rather not hear from them ever again.”
“Gross,” John muttered.
“Yes, well, be prepared for them to request it of you,” Patrick warned.
“I will go to France and destroy them,” Meredith proclaimed as she came back into the kitchen. John noted she was dressed for the day. She went to the coffee maker and started setting it up. “They also asked me to donate ovum when it became clear to most of them that I wasn’t going to spread my legs for their prime pairs and act like a breeding cow for them. I told them I’d set myself on fire first. They’re going to pay for their little game of eugenics eventually, because the psionic plane has a sentient force moving within it.”
“You’d think they would’ve learned from China’s example,” Jonah said. “You can’t fuck with powers beyond you and expect to get away with it indefinitely.”
“I’d rather not be subject to a psionic reckoning,” Meredith muttered and rubbed the back of her neck then tilted her head a little to the left and right. “Matt, you should meditate for at least 30 minutes before you start reading whatever Davis gave you. I’ll work on John’s empathy today so we can get a better handle on it going forward. I should’ve already, but I was focusing on senses he’d get tested for.”
“It’s fine,” Matt assured. “You’ve been working your ass off around here.”
She sent him a look before plucking a large coffee cup from the cabinet. “I can handle myself and my work schedule. If I don’t, I’ll pay for it in a variety of ways due to my Guide gifts. You can’t play around with abilities like mine. It could be dangerous.”
“Dangerous how?” Matt asked with a skeptical expression.
Meredith turned, held out a hand and John’s empty teacup jerked across the counter, lifted into the air, sailed to her and smacked against her palm. She put it in the sink. “Involuntary psi-force events are the most common problem—which can happen during moments of incredible distress, mental exhaustion, and physical trauma.”
Matt stared at her gobsmacked. “You…just…what the fuck was that?”
“The power of a shaman,” Jonah said wryly. “There is a reason, Mattie, that there aren’t many of them and never will be. It is been said that they are the living embodiment of the psionic plane.”
“What else can you do?” John asked. “Because that wasn’t on the list you gave the Corps.”
She leaned on the counter and took a sip of coffee as she studied him then grinned. “Did you think the translocation was the most of it?”
“Yeah, honestly, I did. I mean you gave me a backpack full of supplies while you were sitting on another planet. I figured…it was a skill that you had to invest most of your effort and ability into.”
“In the moment, certainly, but Blair Sandburg didn’t spend a year training me for nothing. Each shaman is different, of course, and can have a range of gifts. Mine lean toward telekinesis and translocation is a form of that. Most I’ve encountered are telepathic—with a bevy of abilities attached to it that I’m relieved to not have to deal with.” She checked her watch. “I need an hour or so with my email before we can get started, John. Meditate, Matthew.”
John watched her leave the room then turned to his father. “I really am in way over my head, you know.”
“Oh, son, everyone knows that,” Patrick said and shook his head.