Reading Time: 37 Minutes
Title: Burning Bridges
Author: Keira Marcos
Series: The Vanguard
Series Order: 1
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis, Stargate: SG1
Relationship: John Sheppard/Rodney McKay, Jack O’Neill/Daniel Jackson
Genre: Time Travel, Romance, First Time, Alternate Universe
Warnings: Canon Level Violence, Temporary Character Death, Discussion-Cheating (not within my pairings), Grammarly Beta
Word Count: 9,220
Author Note: See the series page for casting.
Summary: John Sheppard and Jack O’Neill make the decision to time travel after they’ve each suffered one loss too many.
* * * *
May 3, 2006
Maybe if those in power on Earth had understood what John Sheppard was capable of, they’d have tread more carefully. John didn’t know, and he was beyond caring. It had been a slow build for him—he’d gone along, played the part until the very day that the Elizabeth Weir’s machinations got Rodney McKay killed.
The woman had been trying to get rid of McKay since Doranda and John had fought her at every single turn. Even the SGC had come down on McKay’s side because, in the end, all of McKay’s work on the project had been on point. It had infuriated Weir, who’d wanted to use the incident as cause to get Rodney removed from the program. But McKay was a peerless scientific asset, and Weir was never going to succeed in getting him fired. So, she’d gotten him killed, and John was alone in a way he hadn’t been in years.
“I’ve made mistakes.”
John glanced toward Jack O’Neill, who’d eased down onto the pier beside him a few minutes after the sun had set and stolen a beer from his cooler. The older man had been quiet company since his arrival two days before. John appreciated it and had allowed the general to guide him through the process of returning Rodney’s body to Earth for a funeral he couldn’t bring himself to attend. No one had questioned him, and for that, he was grateful.
“Yeah,” John said and took a deep breath as he focused on the stars above him. “One of the worst things about living here was adjusting to the night sky. I mean, it’s bad enough the sun sets in the east, but the stars…not being able to navigate without instrumentation was extremely stressful.”
“I can see it,” O’Neill murmured. “I’m going to tell you something that has been classified at the highest levels.”
“Okay.” John took a deep breath.
“Daniel Jackson is dead.”
John jerked like he’d been shot and turned to stare at O’Neill in horror. “We were told he ascended, sir.”
“That’s the story that POTUS insisted I tell,” Jack said. “Though many would’ve preferred differently, Daniel was the glue that held the program and the IOA together. It was decided that the IOA would react very badly to Jackson’s permanent death, and the US might lose control of the gate. Now, Weir’s gotten McKay killed, and the IOA is questioning…everything.”
“I suppose they should,” John said. “But they’re the ones that put Weir in charge out here. I don’t know what role they played in Jackson’s death, but it could probably be followed all the way back to one of their decisions.”
“He was assassinated within the SGC by a member of the Trust,” Jack said. “The cover-up was happening almost immediately. By the time I got to the mountain…his body had been destroyed.”
“Son of a bitch,” John muttered. “Carter allowed that?”
Jack took a deep breath. “Carter did it. She used a zat—Landry’s orders. I’ve never been so angry with her in my entire life. I trusted her, and she…I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
“Rodney drowned,” John said. “His worst nightmare come true. Elizabeth argued with me for hours about the rescue operation. Her opinion mattered more than the science and more than McKay’s life. She tried to console me.”
“And by console, you mean screw you,” O’Neill said.
“Yeah,” John grimaced. “And since all of my give a fuck’s are broken, sir, I’m gay. I’ve never touched a woman because I wanted to in my life. I forced myself to marry a woman to protect my career and please my father. I’ll never be able to apologize enough for it, really, because she figured out eventually that I couldn’t even go to bed with her without overtly thinking about a man.”
Jack exhaled. “Bi.” He waved at himself. “Daniel’s the only man I’ve ever taken to bed.” He knocked his boots against the pier. “Weir asked me to come out here to manage you.”
“Today or from the start?” John questioned.
“From the start, and she has no clue how much you hate her. I don’t get it because it’s obvious.”
“She’s been trying to manage me with sex since the ancient outpost,” John said. “I’ve never told her I was gay because I figured she’d use it against me.”
“Certainly,” Jack said. “What are you planning?”
“There’s a device on the city,” John began. “When Rodney found it—he realized immediately that it’d been designed to transfer memories.”
“Send memories back in time,” John clarified. “It was some kind of thought experiment based on the research notes, but we know it works because we’ve both used it. I’ve tried to use it three times to save McKay’s life, but I can’t go back far enough on my own.”
“The longest stretch we managed was because McKay and I used the device together,” John said. “So, I’ve been considering forcing you to do it with me.” He glanced toward the older man. “One way or another.”
“Would my memories go, too, or just yours?” Jack questioned.
“You’d get a choice.”
O’Neill nodded and took a deep breath. “How far could we go together?”
“With McKay’s artificial ATA gene, we only ever managed a month,” John admitted. “But you and I are the strongest gene carriers in the program. I can’t guarantee much of anything, but the sooner we do it, the better our position will be in the past.”
“What’s the device called?”
“The Praeventores.” John opened up another beer for himself and grabbed O’Neill a second one. “The Vanguard.”
“Vanguard.” O’Neill accepted the beer.
“When I first realized what it was—I didn’t get why the scientist working on it had named it that way. Because surely it was the last line of defense. But then we used it, and I understood.”
“It puts you in a position of defense,” O’Neill said and drank deeply from the bottle. “An army of two.” He took a deep breath and focused on the dark ocean in front of them. “If we could go back years—we could prevent a lot of bullshit.”
“We’d probably have to do some pretty shady shit,” John warned.
“I’m willing to do a lot of shady shit to get Daniel back.” Jack cleared his throat. “I can live with the consequences if you can.”
“McKay’s the love of my life,” John admitted. “He left me a letter, O’Neill. It was delivered to my email an hour after he was declared dead. I didn’t go back to Earth for his funeral because I figured I’d out myself, and there’s no need to give anyone more ammunition to use against me.”
“Good letter?” Jack asked quietly.
“Beautiful.” John took in a ragged breath. “The only love letter I’ve ever gotten, and it ruined me because until I read it—I had no idea he felt the same. Now I’m sitting here with nothing, and I’m willing to do anything to get him back. That included forcing you to help me activate the device and murdering you, by the way.”
Jack shrugged. “I can’t even resent you for it. Daniel’s been dead for six months, and he left a hole in my life that no one is going to fill. Can we go back that far?”
“McKay believed it was designed to go back as far a hundred years. The ancient scientist who made it said in her notes that often they made mistakes that weren’t clearly the wrong choice until decades after the fact. I wonder how many times she went back trying to fix the situation with the wraith before she gave up.”
“Maybe they stopped her,” Jack said. “Or maybe there are some mistakes that are insurmountable.”
“McKay believed there were fixed points and the limits of technology as it related to time mechanics. There’s this theory—that everything is happening at once and that time is merely a construct built on the human experience,” John said. “The device provides a linear path which Rodney found frustrating because it was constraining. He liked science and technology to fully expand his options. Restrictions pissed him off. Maybe that’s why he never said anything about his feelings. He didn’t want to be a dirty secret.”
Jack exhaled sharply. “It wasn’t easy, and I hurt Daniel repeatedly with it. Sometimes, I felt like DADT was a…weapon, and it was being wielded against us both. The damage it caused was worse than any bullet I ever took. My son died in 1996.”
“That’s a decade,” John murmured. “I don’t know if we’re ancient enough for that.”
Jack nodded. “I tried to save him once. We got thrown back in time via the stargate and a solar flare. I wrote myself a letter and left it with someone. She promised to send it for me when the time was right.”
“But she didn’t?” John questioned.
“Carter confessed recently that she took the letter from the girl to preserve the timeline,” Jack said flatly. “She said my son’s life wasn’t more important than the integrity of the events that led to the defense of Earth against the galaxy at large. Maybe she’s right, but I’ll never forget the look on her face when she said it. She looked at me like I was an idiot for wanting to save my only child.”
“In 1996, I was in my second tour in the Air Force,” John said. “They recruited you to the stargate program because of your son’s death, right? Would they even tap you for what they considered a potential one-way mission if you had a family?”
“The only person on the team that went to Abydos who didn’t have a family was Daniel,” Jack said roughly. “Yes, they would’ve still recruited me. I was the protegee of General West, the man in charge of the original project, and he trusted me to get the job done no matter the cost.” He looked at John. “Can we try?”
“Of course,” John said simply and ignored the small voice in his head that reminded him that his little brother had died in a car accident in 1997. “It’ll be a long haul, but it’ll give me room to make changes in my career—advance myself so by the time you get me into the SGC, I’ll have the record necessary to be useful.”
Jack nodded. “I’ll let Abydos play out as much as I can. Daniel, unfortunately, needs to stay behind because what he learns in that year is instrumental to the development of the program Carter used to dial the gate on Earth.”
“Or, you could steal the data crystals from the DHD on your way out. I mean, seducing Jackson wouldn’t be hard, right? Wouldn’t it be better if he never fell in love with that woman on Abydos? That situation hurt him a lot. Maybe their gate should be buried and stay buried.”
“If I were a better man, I’d let him fall in love with her and make sure she lived.” O’Neill exhaled. “Apophis would still dial the gate on Earth—which would increase the threat profile for Earth and likely activate the stargate program. Hammond took over from West shortly after I came home. But I know, already, that George Hammond recognized me and knew that we’d be working together. Since he met SG1 when we time-traveled to 1969 through the gate.” He paused. “This could give me a headache, Sheppard.”
“McKay always told me I should plan instead of just throwing myself at a problem and hoping for the best,” John admitted. “But we have a goal and a mutual purpose that we’ll both be working toward. How much control would you have over recruitment at the SGC?”
“If I read George Hammond into the situation, it’ll give me all the power I need to make changes for the better. I could recruit you as soon as the SGC is formed.” Jack paused. “But does that serve your career? We need to broaden your appeal as an officer, not narrow it.”
“I’m going to refocus a bit,” John said. “I finished my master’s in political science in the spring of 1995 and married Nancy in 1997. It’ll be good to prevent that—she deserved better. Of course, I only got a degree in political science because she encouraged it. My BS is in theoretical math.”
“A Ph.D. in strategic security would make you a rock star when combined with your talent as a pilot, your history of service, and your gene status. It would also take you out of the circumstances that led to you disobeying orders in the field—which ruined your career. You’re lucky to be sitting here with the rank you have.”
“I know it was all Weir’s political maneuvering.”
Jack snorted. “Is that what she told you?”
John focused on O’Neill. “It’s not true?”
“McKay is the reason you stayed on the city and got promoted,” Jack said shortly. “He made it clear to everyone that removing you from Atlantis would be catastrophic for the expedition due to your supergene and how the city clearly favors you. He said I was the only viable replacement in the program. At that point, Weir stopped trying to get you replaced with Abraham Ellis.”
“Why did she want Ellis?” John asked curiously. “He doesn’t have the gene.”
“Thus, making it harder for him to act against her using city resources,” Jack pointed out. “Weir doesn’t trust you, John, and would’ve already gotten rid of you if not for your gene status. She can’t control you, and that must drive her nuts. Daniel said that Elizabeth Weir was the worst possible choice that could’ve been made for the expedition. I’ll work hard to make sure she never gets near the SGC.” He set aside his beer. “If we’re going to time travel, we might want to knock off the beer.”
John grinned. “It’s barely alcoholic, sir.”
Jack picked it back up and turned the bottle in his hand. “Where did you get this?”
“The Athosians make it—short fermentation process, rich in a lot of nutrients. It’s got a comforting flavor, but I’ve never made a habit of drinking to excess, so it’s my preference when I can get it.” He finished off his own beer and set aside the bottle. “The city is too dangerous for me to get drunk on the regular.” John cleared his throat. “What happens if you get yourself killed before I can be recruited? We won’t be able to control what changes around us in response to our actions.”
“I’ll put your name down for future recruitment with General Hammond as soon as I get settled. I’ll make sure he understands exactly how important it is that you go to Atlantis when the time comes.”
“And if you realize you can’t trust him with all the mission?” John asked.
“I’ll do what I must,” Jack said neutrally. “It’s not just about the people we’ve personally lost, John. Doing this is about preventing the deaths of people who didn’t deserve to die. We can tighten the security of our planet, take a different path to creating allies with the other races. Shore up those we know will fail without intervention. We can create an alliance to fight against the goa’uld and whatever else will come our way.”
John nodded. “Weir has security following me around the city. I haven’t been able to go to the device for a few days. I don’t know what she thinks I’m doing. In the last meeting she got me to attend, she told me that I had a limited time to get over my unreasonable and immature grief for a co-worker.”
“I dismissed the security,” Jack said. “Teal’c and Ronon are on the door leading out here. Ronon’s worried you’re going to do something dumb.”
“He asked me if I was considering ascending,” John said. “And I could, easily. But that doesn’t appeal—not unless Rodney comes with me.”
“Let’s go,” Jack said quietly.
“Just like that?”
“There’s nothing left for me either, John.” He cleared his throat. “I turned down the opportunity to ascend a week ago.”
“You actually got an invitation?” John questioned as he stood and offered the older man a hand up.
“Oma apparently figured out how to defeat Anubis permanently, and she came to Earth to speak to Daniel,” Jack explained as he took John’s hand and stood. “I had to tell her the truth, and she offered me…the embrace of eternity as if that would be a comfort. Maybe to her, it was. I can’t see how I’d want such an existence…by myself.” He huffed and dusted off his ass. “We can’t ever tell either one of them how lame we both ended up being without them.”
“There would be no living it down,” John agreed. “So, I think we should agree to limit who knows about what’ve done—no matter where we land.”
“Hammond, Daniel, and McKay,” Jack suggested.
“No—she has her place, and I won’t kick her to the curb, but I no longer trust her the way I once did.”
* * * *
John took a deep breath as he focused on the Vanguard. It was a deceptively simple device, tucked away in a room not far from the place where he and Rodney had accidentally ruled over two different civilizations through the use of ancient tech. Teal’c and Ronon had gamely followed them across the city, both armed and clearly prepared to do whatever had to be done.
He focused on Ronon. “This device is going to allow me to send my memories back in time. You won’t remember this promise—but I will. I will work on finding you as soon as I come to Pegasus so we can get that tracker out of you as soon as possible. I don’t know how far we can go back or if we’ll have the resources to come here earlier than we did the first time.”
“Could you take me with you?” Ronon questioned.
“You don’t have the ATA gene,” John said and shook his head. “Rodney believed it would be very dangerous for a non-gene carrier to try to use it. We can’t risk the Vanguard going into a defensive mode and refusing to work. This might take some time, so I need you to watch our backs while it happens.” He glanced toward the door and sent a firm order for it to lock.
Ronon nodded. “You’ll do everything you can to make things right.” He paused. “My father’s name was Ewen—it is not something you could learn from anyone but me.”
“I understand,” John said and took a deep breath before focusing on O’Neill. “Sir?”
“Teal’c,” Jack said quietly. “Is there anything you would do differently?”
“I would’ve taken my son when I left Apophis’ service to go to Earth,” Teal’c said. “My wife…she would refuse to come, but my boy needn’t have suffered as he did because of my actions. If we cannot take him at the time, going back for him as soon as possible would be my preference.”
Jack nodded. “I’ll get it done.”
“Telling me about my son will convince me that you know more than you possibly should,” Teal’c said. “Confide in me regarding the time travel if you wish, or not. The moment I met you, I knew that I could trust you. I knew that you would be the one to help me break the chains of slavery that bound my people.”
“We’ll do a better job this time around,” Jack said quietly and focused on John. “If you’re ready, John?”
“I am,” John agreed and took a deep breath. “I didn’t expect this to be so easy. I don’t…want grief to lead us both around the nose, Jack.” The general’s eyes widened slightly at the use of his given name. “If I’m honest, you aren’t the person I’d have chosen to have as a partner in this.”
“No, I agree,” Jack said. “We don’t know nearly enough about each other. There’s nothing we can do about that now.”
“No, the longer we wait, the more time will slip away from us,” John said.
“Jack O’Neill is the best man I’ve ever known, John Sheppard,” Teal’c said gravely. “He hides his heart more than he should, buries his desires for the sake of others, and would pay any price to defend his people. He’s carried a deep, relentless grief in him the whole time I have known him, but he’s never let it lead him down a path of destruction. Over time, I watched him grow and change as a man and as a leader. He is a brother to me. As you have no trust of your own to offer him—take mine and know it will never be a mistake.”
“John’s reckless with his own life and brave beyond the telling of it,” Ronon said roughly. “He doesn’t know how to give up, and that’s so rare in Pegasus some would consider it a myth. He loves without reserve—gives himself over entirely to it in a way that scares the hell out of me. When I met him, I knew I could follow him, and I hadn’t had that kind of certainty in my life since the wraith culled my homeworld. I’ve seen him make one sacrifice after another. Many would say he’s suicidal, but he’s not. If there is a fundamental truth about John Sheppard, O’Neill, it is that he understands that there are some things worth giving everything you have to. If I were walking the path you are about to walk, I’d have no other but him at my side.”
John focused on O’Neill, who looked shaken. “He’s been breaking my heart since I met him. The trauma the ancients delivered on this galaxy with their carelessness seems to know no bounds.”
“Then I guess we’ll be fixing their fuck-ups, too,” Jack said grimly.
John figured that was the story of his life. He put his hand on the glowing surface of the Vanguard, and O’Neill followed suit. He allowed his eyes to close as the device took the full measure of his circumstances. There was a small echo of other versions of himself—copies of memories made during previous transfers. He pushed those away to make room for the newer memories. He didn’t want to lose anything on the backward trip.
The device thrummed with power and embraced O’Neill eagerly. John’s reach into the past doubled, tripled, then flew outward beyond his own birth. He knew they couldn’t go back that far. He prodded mentally for Jack O’Neill to pick the exact date—the date that would allow him to save his son from a terrible accident. There was a fleeting moment when he considered what Carter had told Jack about the timeline and protecting the planet, but he dismissed it. Working together, they would make all the sacrifices they need to compensate for the life of Charlie O’Neill.
“I’m here,” John assured mentally as the room around them started to fade. “Focus on your son, O’Neill. Contact me when you can. We’ll be better prepared to make a plan when we get our bearings in the past and can come to terms with the resources we have.”
* * * *
May 23, 1996
John accepted the drink his father had poured him and ignored the pointed looks from both of his brothers. It was rare that he came home and even more rare that he asked for a family meeting. In fact, he’d gone out of his way to avoid family meetings since he was a teenager.
“Has something unfortunate happened?” Patrick asked.
John shook his head. “No, sir, I was promoted to captain last year.” He took a sip of whiskey and exhaled sharply. “I broke up with Nancy.”
“That’s not…what I expected to hear,” David admitted. “The last time we spoke, the two of you were precariously close to eloping.”
John shed his jacket and cleared his throat. He tossed the garment on the chair he’d originally been sitting in and walked across the room to stand in the large window that looked out over the estate. He’d basically landed a week ago in the past, and he hadn’t heard anything from O’Neill yet, but he knew the mission to Abydos was going to happen within the next six months if there were no changes made.
He focused on his father. “I’ve never used my connections with you to make way for myself.”
“Not even when you should’ve,” Patrick agreed. “There have been times, John, when I felt as if you outright disdained the idea of being my son.”
“No.” John shook his head and leaned on the window sill. “I just wanted to do it on my own. I realized, recently, that I was going about it the wrong way.” He set aside the drink he hadn’t really wanted and rubbed his damp hands against his jeans. “I’m gay.”
Patrick’s mouth dropped open. “You’re active duty military.”
John snorted. “God, Dad, I’m aware of my career choices.”
“Why would you….” Patrick exhaled. “Why would you sign years of your life away to serve an organization—any fucking organization—that would see you put in prison for being who you are?”
“I always wanted it—I thought I wanted it enough that I could fake whatever needed to have it.” He winced at the thunderous look of disapproval that earned him. “Nancy was browsing through a wedding magazine—talking about what sort of dress would be the right choice for a courthouse ceremony. I knew she wanted more. When we first met, she had a whole damn scrapbook dedicated to her wedding day.” He ran a hand through his hair, still surprised by the shortness. “I realized that marrying her would be the single worst thing I could ever do to her, so I broke up with her. I think she hates my guts. I don’t think she’ll ever get over how much she hates me, and I feel like shit. But it would’ve certainly been worse if I’d married her.”
“Yeah,” Matthew interjected. “I mean, that would be douche bag territory.”
John nodded and shoved his hands into his pockets. “So, Dad, I don’t want to leave the Air Force.”
Patrick raised an eyebrow and checked his watch. “Would you rather I put pressure on the DOD or POTUS himself to get rid of DADT?”
“Why not both?” John asked seriously, and Patrick blinked. “David has been trying to get you to move into defense contract work for ages. I think it’s time you do so. Just stick your foot in the whole damned thing.”
Patrick raised an eyebrow. “You know something I don’t?”
Patrick sat down at his desk. “Where should I start?”
“Power is the obvious road—there are projects on the horizon that are going to use an immense amount of power and weapons. Information technology—computer tablets, laptops, smartphones, wireless communication systems. Broadening SI’s reach across the board will give you opportunities that other companies can’t compete with for DOD contracts. The investment upfront might seem daunting, but the payout will be astronomical. If you could buy an aeronautics company to fold in—that would be ideal. Engineering wouldn’t be a bad move, either. If you make it known you want the work, your own service record with the Navy will make you a very attractive option for those in highly classified projects.”
“Are you about to disappear into a black site?” Patrick demanded.
John considered lying, but he’d gone that road with his father the first time, and the results had been horrible. “The very first chance I get.”
“Is this some save the country shit?” Matt questioned.
“It’s some save the world shit,” John corrected and turned to focus on the estate grounds in the silence that followed. It was hard to look at Matt; his youngest brother had died in a car accident with his college roommate a few months after John had gotten married in the first timeline. “Don’t go to Boston, Matt.”
“Pre-med awaits no man,” Matt said flippantly.
He turned and focused on him. “Mattie, don’t go to Boston. You don’t want it and never have. Trust me when I say trying to live someone else’s dream is a misery.” He glanced only briefly at their father as he spoke. “You deserve better.”
“He’s been talking about going to medical school since he was in the fifth grade,” Patrick interjected.
“Yeah, because of mom,” John said shortly, and he watched his father’s expression shutter. “We never talk about her, and it’s a problem, Dad. Matt wants to be an aeronautical engineer. David wanted to be a lawyer but got his MBA because he decided to make sure you didn’t work yourself to death, keeping mom’s dream alive. I wanted to join the Marines, like granddad, but you pitched a fit over it.”
Patrick huffed. “I didn’t want you serving at all!”
“I know!” John took a deep calming breath. “I know, but we can’t live our lives for you, Dad. And we certainly can’t live them for Mom. It’s not healthy—what you’ve done. You’ll work yourself into an early grave, and she wouldn’t have wanted that. We need to do better for ourselves and for our family because above everything else, Mom would’ve wanted us to be happy.” He waved a hand. “Hell, when’s the last time you had a physical?”
Patrick frowned. “It’s been…a while.”
“How long’s a while?” Matt demanded.
“A few years,” Patrick said, and John snorted. “Maybe five?”
“For fuck’s sake,” David muttered. “I didn’t even notice.”
“I’m the parent around here,” Patrick muttered and picked up his pen. “Smartphones, huh? The ones on the market are clunky, expensive messes.” He started to make notes.
“David, get on the phone and make Dad an appointment with his GP for a physical,” John ordered and checked his watch. “Matt, why don’t you start considering your real options?”
Matt huffed a little and set his mouth in a pout only a teenager could accomplish. “When did you get so bossy?”
“The more rank they throw on him, the worse he’ll be,” Patrick interjected.
“As you say, Vice Admiral,” John responded evenly, and his dad blushed.
* * * *
June 1, 1996
It took far more work than he’d anticipated, but he came home a whole week early—unannounced while Sarah was at work and Charlie was at her parents. The handgun was missing from the gun safe. He found it tucked under his own pillow and realized that Sarah must have removed it from the safe for protection. The first time around, she’d claimed to not know how Charlie had gotten the gun safe open. Jack tried to push the resentment aside because, for years, he’d blamed himself—thinking he’d left the safe unlocked and gotten his boy killed.
By the time Sarah returned home with Charlie, he’d searched the whole house to make sure there were no other stashed weapons and moved the contents of the gun safe to his truck for transport to the cabin where he had a more robust gun safe. His son was thrilled to see him—his wife not so much. Once he’d thought them fairly content in their marriage, but hindsight was a real bastard.
Jack focused entirely on his son, listened to one story after another of the boy’s adventures while he’d been gone. The eight-year-old had no shortage of information to share, and Jack just followed him around the house while he did it. They chatted through bath time, and Jack read two chapters of a book he’d never seen before as his son had nodded off. He stayed in a chair beside Charlie’s bed for a very long time. He had a million things to do, but the gift of his living child was all he had room for.
Finally, near midnight, he stood and left the boy’s room in favor of finding his wife. He hadn’t spoken to Sarah in years, and he really wasn’t looking forward to it after what he’d discovered. He found her in the den, curled up reading a book. Jack poured himself a finger of bourbon, dropped down in the chair near her, and she slowly closed the book.
“You’re home early.”
Jack nodded. “I found one of my guns in the bedroom.”
“There was a break-in down the street.”
“You left a loaded weapon, with no safety, under a pillow, Sarah. Also, the gun safe wasn’t locked.”
“Is that why you emptied it?” She focused on him, clearly confused. “Charlie knows better than to touch a gun.”
Jack had once thought that, too. “It was a reckless and foolish thing to do,” he said flatly and stared at his bourbon. “I’m going to put the guns in storage at the cabin since you can’t be trusted to handle them properly.” He ignored her intake of breath. “We can’t depend on Charlie knowing better. Kids die in gun accidents regularly in this country because their parents think they know better. He’s not mature enough to understand the consequences of picking up a loaded weapon.”
“And neither am I?” Sarah challenged.
“You didn’t even choose one with a safety,” Jack snapped in exasperation and rubbed his face. “Sorry—this last deployment was rough.”
“You look like you went through a war,” Sarah said, a frown drifting over her mouth.
“Yeah, sounds about right,” he admitted and drank the bourbon. “I’ve some options on the table—ones that would keep me local. I think something else will pop up soon as well because General West is back in the area.” He focused on her. “I guess that really doesn’t mesh well with the lifestyle you’ve become accustomed to.”
“What?” she asked.
“I don’t need his name,” Jack continued. “But you must know that I’m not going to tolerate a man in my son’s life that would sleep with a married woman. He’s a dishonorable piece of shit, so I hope you’ve not gone and fallen in love with him.” He watched her pale. “I get it—you’ve been lonely, and part of me realized a long time ago that you really weren’t cut out to be a career officer’s wife.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered hoarsely.
That was a better response than the last time they’d had the conversation about her affair. She’d been angry, grieving, and stubbornly unrepentant. Jack hadn’t really blamed her the first time around, but he had been unspeakably hurt over it. Years of experience and the love he carried for Daniel made being furious with her impossible.
“Has he been in the house?”
“No, of course not,” Sarah whispered. “It’s not anything serious—just—I was lonely, as you said.” She took a deep breath. “Have you…gotten lonely as well?”
“I’ve never cheated on you,” Jack said. “There was an opportunity last year—government contractor who didn’t know how to keep her hands to herself, but it wasn’t worth the risk to my career or the way I’d feel afterward.”
“I don’t have room to be angry with you about it if you had,” Sarah pointed out.
“I almost wish I could say I had—maybe you’d feel better about what you’ve done,” Jack murmured and winced when her breath caught. “But, no, I’ve honored my marriage vows.”
“It would make me feel better,” she agreed. “But your honor is one thing I’ve never questioned, Jack. I wish I could be angry with you or feel justified, but I just feel like crap.”
“We haven’t been honest with one another,” Jack said. “Clearly, our marriage has been over for you for some time, and that’s…I can live with it. You can keep this house, and I’ll take the cabin. We’ll split custody legally, but I think he should spend most of his time here due to my work and school. I want all the weekends that I can swing, and I’ll save up leave to have him a lot during the summer. Does that work?”
“Yes, I…of course.” Sarah rubbed her face with both hands and took in a ragged breath that sounded like a sob. “Jack.”
“This doesn’t have to be a hostile, cruel mess,” Jack said gently. “I won’t bring up the infidelity in the divorce if you don’t protest the split custody. We can’t be husband and wife anymore, Sarah, because I don’t…trust you with that kind of intimacy, but I’d like us to remain friends.”
It was the truth, and there was no need to add the emotional element. Jack hadn’t been in love with Sarah for a long time, but there was no need to hurt her with it. He figured he should ask about getting tested, though he knew already that she hadn’t given him anything. “Should I get an STD screening? How long has the affair been going on?”
She blanched. “I…for fuck’s…oh, gawd, Jack. On and off for a year, and we used condoms, but I haven’t used them with you…obviously. We should probably both get tested, to be sure. I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” Jack said quietly. “Me, too.”
“He’s the only one, and I don’t know why I did it,” Sarah confessed in a rush. “He’s not even a good lay.”
“Now that’s a fucking travesty,” Jack muttered. “Maybe I do want his name—he probably needs his ass kicked.”
Sarah snorted and started to cry. “Jack, please don’t make me laugh over this!”
Jack stood and joined her on the sofa. He just relaxed as she all but crawled into his lap and buried her face against his chest to cry. The last time they’d been in such a position was the day they’d buried their son. He wanted to throw all of those memories away because they wouldn’t happen now, but he owed everyone around him more than that.
“I think…I should tell you.”
“Why?” Jack questioned.
“Because…” Sarah trailed off. “I met him at Peterson when I was doing some shopping in the commissary.”
Jack slouched down on the sofa. “Sarah, please tell me you’re not banging some enlisted jerkoff that could end up in my command.”
“You’ll probably prefer that,” Sarah admitted. “Colonel Hank Landry.”
Jack had already planned to derail Hank Landry’s path to the SGC because he hadn’t been good for the program, and now he wanted to ruin the man’s whole entire life. “He’s not even hot. What’s wrong with you?”
Sarah huffed. “Jack.”
“Seriously—I’m a ten, and he’s a two on a good day.”
She laughed, which was his goal, and slumped down with him on the sofa. “Well, you’re not wrong. I don’t know…why it happened.”
Jack had a feeling he did, and that was infuriating. Men like Landry got promoted on schedule and rarely on merit. Jack had the kind of career men dreamt about, and he knew it. Hank had probably been highly amused to bang Jack O’Neill’s wife. He wondered if the asshole had enjoyed befriending him later in life and keeping that secret. He’d been chosen to lead the SGC after him because he was ordinary, and most of the higher-ups had trusted him to do exactly as ordered and never, ever go beyond the call of duty. They’d wanted that kind of predictability after O’Neill.
“He isn’t allowed around Charlie.”
“I won’t see him again,” Sarah said quietly. “I don’t know why…I just…”
“Acted out?” Jack questioned. “Hoped I’d be furious and jealous? I’m sorry I can’t fight for you on this, sweetheart. I’m sorry that any single part of you thought this was a good way to get my attention.”
“What will we tell Charlie?”
“That we love him, but that our marriage isn’t working and it’s not his fault,” Jack said. “He’ll be upset, but we can work through it if we present a united front and avoid trying to blame each other.”
She nodded silently and leaned into him, so he wrapped an arm around her and took a deep breath against her hair. Briefly, his mind drifted to the last time they’d gone to bed together. It had been just before the Abydos mission, and he’d already planned to die, so he’d taken his wife to bed and fucked her half the night. After he’d returned from that mission, she’d admitted that she thought that night meant their marriage might survive the loss of their child. He hadn’t heart to tell her that it had been a goodbye for him.
In the end, she’d figured that out for herself. Their divorce had been final for months before the SGC had formed to explore the galaxy in their efforts to defend Earth from the goa’uld.
* * * *
John finished off his stretches and snagged a towel from the railing as he entered the house. His leave was almost finished, and his next assignment was in flux. He figured Jack O’Neill was to blame. Because he’d gone from his next post being in Afghanistan to a simple pending status shortly before he was due to report for duty. There were some decisions in play that he wasn’t a part of. John was doing his best to work with it, but it was disconcerting.
“John, you have a visitor.”
John turned and found his father standing in the doorway of the formal salon. “Civilian or?”
“Two-star,” Patrick said shortly. “William West, if that helps.”
It did. General West had been in charge of Project Giza before George Hammond had formed Stargate Command. He looked down at his sweat-drenched clothes and winced. “I’m a mess.”
“It’s fine, Captain Sheppard, you’re off duty, and I’m uninvited,” West called from the salon. “Your jacket already made your first impression for you.”
John forced himself to relax and gave his father a nod as he stepped into the salon. He was relieved when the door was shut behind him as he hadn’t known how he was going to kick his father out of his own salon with any sort of grace.
“General West, it’s an honor to meet you.”
West inclined his head. “Jack O’Neill speaks highly of you, Captain.”
John fell into parade rest for lack of a better option. He had no idea what O’Neill had told West about him. “I’m at a loss for words, sir.”
West grinned. “Yes, I see. The thing is, Captain, I’m intimately familiar with Jack O’Neill’s career. He doesn’t have a single professional secret from me, and you’ve never once served in the same command with him. When I questioned that, he told me he couldn’t speak of the details. Would you say the same?”
“I would, sir.”
“I trust Jack O’Neill,” West said simply. “If O’Neill told me the world was in jeopardy of being set aflame, I would organize every single firefighter on the planet to fight that fire.”
“I would have no reason to question him, either, sir,” John admitted.
“Jack’s asked me to take a special interest in your career. If you knew what I’m in charge of these days, that’d probably give you significant pause,” West said. “Mostly because it’s boring as hell, but also because it reveals something about our place in the universe that most would prefer to never know.”
“I understand, sir.”
West hummed under his breath. “I think you do, and that’s concerning all on its own. Your last CO tells me that you’re reckless and could become a discipline problem in the right circumstances. What do you think?”
“It would be inappropriate to say, sir,” John said neutrally.
“Say it anyway,” West ordered.
“General Daily is prone to valuing equipment over people. He doesn’t understand or appreciate what it means to be at the mercy of an enemy without the prospect of rescue. I requested a transfer out of his command because I don’t trust him.” The first time around, he’d stayed in Daily’s command until the very day he disobeyed direct orders, ruined his career, and gotten demoted in the process.
“It might interest you to know that you’re one of seven officers of your rank or higher that have done the same with General Daily over the last five years,” West said. “He’s under investigation as of yesterday by the DOD, but that’s above your pay grade, so I expect you to keep it to yourself.”
“Of course, sir.”
West nodded. “You’ve asked to go to the Air Force Institute of Technology to pursue your Ph.D.”
“I need a year of course work at AFIT, then I can write my dissertation in my off hours in my next post.”
“You’ve been promoted often, Captain. Officers of your talent often are—combat sets you apart from your peers when it comes to such things. Currently, you’re on track to be promoted to major the very day it is legally possible to do so. Taking yourself out of the field for a year will slow you down on the career front even if a Ph.D. will open your opportunities up.”
“I understand, sir. I believe that I’ve earned every single advancement in rank that I’ve been awarded, but General Daily is not the first officer to not take me seriously because of my age. He assumed that my father’s wealth played a part in my career advancement. He wouldn’t be the first or the last to think such a thing. A small pause for education isn’t going to hurt my career in the long-term, and it might make things easier going forward when it comes to how superior officers see me.”
“Agreed, and it’s done. Your orders are being cut as we sit here. O’Neill has asked me to keep an eye on you, Captain Sheppard, and ensure you’re given the opportunities you need to excel. He didn’t give me an explicit reason, but I’ve been led to believe that he considers you a lynchpin player in the security of our country.” West paused. “And O’Neill’s opinion matters to me a lot. I expect you meet and exceed his expectations, Captain.”
“I won’t be a disappointment, sir.”
West nodded. “He assured me the same.”
* * * *
“It’s not often I find myself hosting a two-star of any branch of service,” Patrick said mildly as John slid onto a stool in the kitchen.
“Well, that’ll probably change a lot if you get the contracts SI should get going forward.”
“The government work is important to you,” Patrick pointed out. “Why?”
“I trust you to do the right thing,” John said simply. “There are others out there that might get tapped for projects that would bloat the cost, short change the product, and risk lives along the way. We can’t afford that kind of selfish behavior when it comes to the security of the…country.”
Patrick nodded. “What did West want?”
“I’m heading to Ohio for grad school,” John said. “I’ll get a year of deferment to get my course work done, then I’ll be assigned as needed while I write my dissertation.”
“Strategic Security, at the moment. We’ll see what works best when I get there, but that’s where I’m wanted.”
“Intelligence operations then,” Patrick said. “Not quite the work I was expecting, considering your current PT. I served alongside special forces, John. I know what’s expected from those kinds of assets in the field, and you’re clearly working your way toward that level of physical readiness.”
John couldn’t deny it. He wasn’t out of shape, but he needed to increase his stamina and strength to work at peak performance once he got to the SGC. Neither he nor O’Neill could afford for anyone to question his ability in the field.
“You’re skirting toward an area that I can’t speak to, Dad,” John said quietly. “For a variety of reasons.”
Patrick nodded. “Matt contacted Johns Hopkins and withdrew. How did you know? He said he’s never mentioned it to you.”
“Not directly, but he clearly invested himself in some subjects over others.” John shrugged. “The most excited I ever saw him was the day of his first solo flight, Dad. He almost cried; he was so happy.”
“I remember,” Patrick murmured. “David tells me he doesn’t regret his choices, but I feel like I’ve taken something from him that I can’t return.”
“He’s his own man,” John pointed out. “It was his decision, in the end, and neither of our opinions was a factor for him. He loves you, and he made a choice he could live with. Just let him have the life he wants, and if he brings home a woman you can’t stand—pretend otherwise.”
“Is that likely?” Patrick questioned with a frown.
David’s first wife had been a straight-up nightmare, and John didn’t see how that was avoidable unless he got in his brother’s business in a way that would ruin their own relationship permanently. The second wife was a dream come true, and they had some cute kids, so at least John had something to look forward to.
“He lets his dick make decisions for him,” John pointed out and stood. He really needed a shower. “And honestly, he gets that from you.”
“I’m serious.” John waved a hand and sighed when his father opened the fridge and stared at the contents. “Don’t avoid me.”
“I’m going to start avoiding all of you,” Patrick muttered. “Mattie lectured me for a half-hour yesterday about my blood pressure, and frankly, that was the last thing I needed after enduring a two-hour medical appointment.”
“It was clearly needed,” John retorted. “You’re a mess and on the road to a fucking heart attack if you don’t start taking better care of yourself.”
David entered the kitchen carrying the house phone. “Hey, John, you’ve got a phone call.”
John took the portable phone and tucked it against his ear. He didn’t think O’Neill would be calling him, and no one but Nancy knew where he was as far as personal connections went. He didn’t expect to hear from her ever again. “Hello.”
He went weak in the knees and barely braced himself on the counter. His brother jerked forward and caught his elbow, which made denying his reaction a no-go. “I…Rodney?”
“Yeah, we need to meet. Pick a time and place. I’ll be there.”
“You know where I am.”
“Then come here,” John demanded hoarsely. “Immediately.”
“I’ll have a plane in the air within the hour,” Rodney promised, and the connection ended with a click.
John carefully put the phone on the counter and let his brother guide him back to the stool. He took one breath and then another because he hadn’t expected to reunite Rodney for months or maybe even as much as a year. He hadn’t wanted to manipulate his best friend nor create a false circumstance for them to meet that would cause speculation. He figured that O’Neill would be working on getting McKay permanently assigned to the SGC as soon as he could, and it was certainly something he would’ve asked for if it wasn’t on the older man’s agenda. But it was a year or more in the making if they waited for Apophis to dial Earth’s gate.
“John?” Patrick asked gently. “Who is Rodney?” He put a glass of water down in front of him. “Drink this—you’re pale.”
“I…” John picked up the water and drank the whole glass to avoid the question. He really couldn’t say much of anything, and lying to his father had always made him uncomfortable. “He’s…a friend.”
“A friend?” David asked, clearly skeptical.
“I can’t say more,” John admitted.
David huffed and grabbed the phone. “Right.” He stalked off.
“Where are you going?”
“To start planning my hostile take over of the Department of Defense’s contract office,” David said shortly. “I need a higher security clearance, obviously.”
John winced as the door swung shut on his brother and shifted the glass around.
“Do you need more?”
“No.” John exhaled sharply. “Rodney’s…very important to me. You’ve not said much about the gay thing.”
“What’s to say?” Patrick questioned. “You prefer dick.” He shrugged. “I’ve already had a conversation with the POTUS about the outdated military policies and how it makes me hesitant to work with the government. Some of those boys that work for me in R&D will fuck anything that will agree to it. I need to know they’re safe working on military installations and that there are rules in place to protect them from discrimination.”
“It’s an interesting spin,” John said.
“Dr. Rodney McKay,” John said and pressed a hand against his chest because just saying the man’s name was making him choke up. The last time he’d set eyes on his best friend had been when they’d zipped the body bag shut. “I…he’s the love of my life.”
“And you gave him up to marry Nancy?” Patrick asked curiously.
The judgment was real, so John huffed. “He has no idea. I’ve never had the first clue how to tell him.”
“Well, since you ordered the man to come to the house immediately, I suggest you figure yourself out,” Patrick said and walked away.
John went to his suite of rooms, shut the door, locked it, and slid down to the floor as he braced against it. He pressed his hands to his face and took a deep, shuddery breath as he tried to figure out what had happened. Using the Praeventores had been the only choice for him, and having O’Neill use it with him had given him opportunities in the past that he’d never expected to have. Now, his Rodney was with him, and he really had no idea how it had happened. He figured he should let O’Neill know as it might make things easier.
He got up, went to his office, and booted up the computer. It was state of the art for the period, but it looked like a dinosaur to John. Fortunately, living on Atlantis meant he wasn’t dependent on the Internet or smartphones to make his life work, but the old ass computer was frustrating. At least his dad had DSL because John figured he might lose his mind if he had to deal with a dial-up connection in his current state. He wasn’t sure when he’d gotten an email account through the Air Force; moreover, he vaguely remembered getting a new one in the mid-2000s, which meant it was unlikely that Jack O’Neill had the same email he’d had in the future.
Frustrated, John sat back and stared at the computer screen. He’d have to wait for Rodney since he figured McKay was already working for Area 51 and would have better access to O’Neill. Or at least he could get access. He stood up and left the computer in favor of a shower. His world was new, and Rodney was on his way to him. Nothing else really mattered at the moment.
Series Page: The Vanguard