Marshall is running late.
Memories of his Marine father’s disappointed face every time Marshall was late when summoned flicker through his head. His pace quickens as he storms across the tarmac at McMurdo to the helicopter.
He’s aware that Ford, (fresh out of training, wide-eyed and green as grass), is desperately trying to keep up without running. The stalwart Sergeant Bates, already seasoned by serving with Marshall in Afghanistan, is smirking inwardly at the young officer.
The pilot is seated, earmuffs on and the rotors are already turning.
Marshall huffs. He’s torn between being pleased that they don’t have to suffer through the flight checks and displeasure at the pilot’s potential disrespect in not waiting. He wishes they didn’t have to settle for McMurdo pilots taxiing them to the Ancient outpost, but it’s not his call.
Major Sheppard nods as Marshall climbs aboard taking the front seat, leaving Ford and Bates to stow the duffle-bags and climb into the back. Marshall competently straps himself in and puts on his own headset.
It’s only his name but it’s enough to capture Marshall’s attention as a latent Sentinel. He’s long ago accepted that he was unlikely to be chosen by a spirit guide, to come online and be a Sentinel in truth. But he’s latent and he can recognise an online Guide as easily as breathing.
“Major,” Marshall acknowledges briefly.
“We’re ready for take-off, the tower is on stand-by for our departure,” Sheppard reports crisply, “we’re awaiting your order, sir.”
Marshall looks over at him.
Sheppard belongs on an Air Force poster; he’s classically beautiful; dark hair (a touch longer than even the laxer Zoomie regulations allow), tanned complexion, a faint hint of stubble along a strong jawline; his eyes are hidden behind his aviator glasses. His cold weather jacket is zipped up tightly over his flight suit. The uniform is in good condition; Sheppard’s hold on the stick speaks of his familiarity with the aircraft.
“We’re not waiting for your Sentinel?” asks Marshall brusquely.
Ford gasps; Bates stills. He wonders if it’s the fact that their pilot is a Guide or is alone that causes their shocked reactions.
Sheppard’s lips quirk upward before his face settles back into a professional mask. “No, sir.”
“Then, let’s get on with it,” Marshall states briskly, his latent Sentinel unhappy that a Guide is alone.
Sheppard communicates with the tower and less than a minute later they’re in the air.
Marshall relaxes abruptly once they’re flying over the white landscape, steady and stable in the air as though they were driving on a highway. Not only that but they eat up the distance with speed; enough that Marshall estimates they’ll arrive on time at the Antarctica outpost.
Sheppard is a good pilot, Marshall acknowledges. He wonders if the Guide’s spirit animal is a bird.
They’re ten minutes out when the outpost radios a warning; a drone is loose and has targeted their transport.
Marshall stiffens; he’s seen the damage one of those Ancient drones can do to a Goa’uld glider and their own F302s. A barrage of them had ripped apart Anubis’ mothership. He can imagine what they’ll do to the Earthly Apache helicopter.
Sheppard frowns. “Nature of threat, sir?”
“Highly advanced missile,” Marshall snaps out, pleased Sheppard has thought to ask, “with speed and flight precision targeting capability.”
And then the drone is on them…and Sheppard evades it with a sharp left manoeuvre. He lowers altitude, darts into a nearby canyon Marshall hadn’t even realised was there.
The drone is on their tail.
Sheppard sweeps right around a column of ice, darts back left; he’s forcing the drone to evade, to slow. He heads to the wall of the canyon and increases their airspeed.
Marshall stays silent, trusts Sheppard to know what he’s doing even as his own heart pounds in his chest, sweat breaks across his brow. He can hear Ford mumbling prayers under his breath and prays himself that Sheppard isn’t distracted by it.
Sheppard maintains course. They’re close enough to the wall of ice to see the fissures and fractures. He yanks hard on the stick; the helicopter skims the wall vertically, flying upward in a move which shouldn’t be possible and yet…
There’s a distant explosion behind them and the wall starts to shatter…
Sheppard gets them clear and horizontal. He checks his course and corrects almost absently. “Outpost,” he radios, “we’re clear of the drone and our updated ETA is seven minutes.”
Marshall changes his mind.
Sheppard is an exceptional pilot and if Marshall is commanding an Expedition to the lost city of Atlantis, he wants Sheppard on his team. He’ll even accept Sheppard’s absent Sentinel because everyone knows Sentinels and Guides come as a pair.
There is no Sentinel.
Sheppard has no Sentinel.
Marshall sits in his office at the SGC and stares at the line in the file as though it has personally irritated him. Truthfully, the entire file irritates him. It’s a mess of blacked out lines. There is a list of medals which speak to Sheppard’s bravery under fire, but there are two instances of disobeying orders which are absent of any kind of context or explanation, and absent of the black marks which would normally accompany them.
A single sheet provided by the Sentinel and Guide Authority notes Sheppard’s status: he’s an online Guide with no Sentinel. It’s equally absent of any kind of explanation.
There’s a rap on the open door and Jack O’Neill saunters in and closes it. Marshall swallows his irritation and rises, acknowledging Jack’s new rank.
“I see you got the official file,” Jack comments, hands in pockets and if it wasn’t for the stars on the lapels of his BDUs, nobody would ever think he was a General.
Marshall looks back down at the folder in disgust.
Jack sighs. “We did some digging.”
He means he had SG1 do some digging, Marshall notes. Jack’s team is a force of nature.
“John Sheppard is Special Forces, specialty is search and rescue, air infiltrations and extractions, and his record speaks to his ability to get in and out of trouble,” Jack lists off dispassionately, wandering the small space, peering at the bookshelves. “The mission before Antarctica, he disobeyed orders and went to rescue a two-man team trapped in enemy territory. His helicopter had a mechanical failure and he had to set down. One of the men died while Sheppard was hiking to them; the other died five hours after Sheppard got him back to base.”
“Sheppard fought his way through the enemy for forty-eight hours. He came online in the same incident,” Jack says, stopping to turn and look at Marshall. “Jim says that they think one of the men would have been his Sentinel.”
There’s a note of grief for a lost brother in Jack’s voice which resonates with the latent Sentinel inside of Marshall. Marshall figures Jim Ellison, Alpha Sentinel of the United States, probably had the same note in his voice when he told Jack.
“That’s not all,” Jack continues sadly, “there wasn’t a spiritual selection.”
Marshall freezes at that. How can Sheppard have come online if he wasn’t selected by a spirit guide? “What?!”
Jack shrugs. “Beats me,” he says, “and Jim says Blair is equally stumped.”
For a Shaman Guide like Blair Sandburg to be stumped by a spiritual matter is shocking. Marshall’s knees weaken and he wants to sink into his seat; only his training keeps him standing.
“They both agree the kid is one of the good guys,” Jack says, “he trained hard with the Shamans to get control of his Guide gifts and he fought to stay in service.”
Marshall tells himself not to poke at the fact that Sheppard has been trained by Shamans. It suggests that if Sheppard was bonded, he’d be a Shaman Guide himself. It’s sad to think Sheppard’s been denied that.
“So the Air Force sent him to Antarctica?” Marshall frowns heavily.
“The Sentinel and Guide Authority approved it as a safe assignment for him,” Jack replies. “Luckily, Jim and Blair have overridden everyone to approve your request to transfer him to the Stargate programme.”
Marshall lets out a breath he wasn’t even aware he was holding. “How soon will his orders be cut?”
“Yesterday,” Jack says with a hint of his usual smirk.
Marshall wishes Jack was still a peer so he could roll his eyes at him. Jack’s smirk widens as though he’s read Marshall’s mind anyway.
“You still want him?” Jack asks casually. “If you don’t, I have open positions and…”
“I want him,” Marshall cuts in. He realises a heartbeat later what that sounds like and refuses to let himself blush. He knows Jack knows Marshall wants Sheppard because he’s an exceptional soldier, one that deserves better than to be buried in the snow of Antarctica. His own appreciation of the man is irrelevant.
Jack drops his act, his face sobering into the lines of a military man Marshall respects more than he can possibly say. “It’ll be difficult, Marshall. You’re latent and he’s a Guide without a Sentinel. Your instinct will be to protect him.”
“I can handle it,” Marshall states firmly.
Jack looks at him sceptically and Marshall appreciates it’s the Sentinel examining him, not the General or the man.
Jack finally nods and his sobriety melts away into mirth. “He’s going to be trouble, you know.”
Marshall accepts that.
Still, the next day when Sheppard reports to his office, Marshall realises that maybe his own confidence in being able to treat Sheppard as just another addition to his command is not as unshakeable as he thinks.
Without the aviator glasses, Sheppard’s eyes are chameleons; brown in some angles, green when the light hits them. They meet Marshall’s icy blue gaze without hesitation. Marshall bites down on the rush of want all muddled up with an instinctive protectiveness; he tells himself briskly that Sheppard is a capable officer and Marshall will treat him as such. He certainly looks the part.
His service blues are pristine with his medals neat and lined up in order; his shoes shine. The Guide pin sits on his crisp collar. Even the hair has been trimmed to Air Force regulations.
Formalities over, Marshall dismisses him, and instructs Sheppard to go for orientation with Ford (and dear God he hopes Ford drops the visible hero-worship for Sheppard soon).
Sheppard pauses in his turn for the door. “I just want to say that I appreciate this opportunity, Colonel.” His gaze holds Marshall’s. “I won’t let you down, sir.”
“I know you won’t, Major,” Marshall replies before he can stop himself. There’s another beat between them and Sheppard nods.
Marshall breathes out in his empty office and reminds himself he can do this.
With one blood test, Sheppard becomes the most important military asset to exist on Earth since he has the strongest expression of the Ancient Technology Activation gene ever seen.
It’s been forty-eight hours since his arrival.
George Hammond, the Director of Homeworld Security sits at the top of the table, with his aide, Major Paul Davis. He’s laid out the official opinion that given Sheppard’s new status, there is a concern that Atlantis is not the right placement for him. Hammond looks unimpressed with the ensuing argument.
At the other end, Jack glances across the crowded conference table to Marshall with a very blatant ‘I told you he was going to be trouble’ expression.
Marshall remains silent, as does John and the rest of SG1 who sit on their side of the table.
To be fair, Richard Woolsey, one of the IOA representatives opposite Marshall, is also silent. However, the other representative, Shen Xiaoyi, is arguing furiously for Sheppard to remain on Earth.
The Director of the Sentinel and Guide Authority, Steven Ellison, is protesting against the characterisation of Sheppard as fragile due to his online but not selected status, but he’s not the loudest voice in the room.
That belongs to Rodney McKay.
Marshall appreciates the scientist’s brutally blunt honesty, but he’s not the right person to argue for Sheppard to stay on the Expedition, especially when McKay only seems to highlight Sheppard’s value as a light switch.
Next to him, Elizabeth Weir, the IOA’s appointed Expedition Director, chips in with carefully phrased remarks which at least note Sheppard’s skills.
As the military commander for the Expedition and ostensibly Elizabeth’s peer, Marshall has come to respect her skills as an experienced diplomat and administrator. He thinks she has no place in any kind of military business. It makes for an interesting working relationship.
Jack whistles loudly. It cuts through the overlapping voices and silence falls. “Thank you,” he says with thick sarcasm. He turns to Sheppard. “What do you want here, Major?”
Marshall tries to keep his expression even; to allow Sheppard this courtesy of a choice in his destiny.
“Are the Ancient Outpost defences able to be operated without one of those download things?” asks Sheppard crisply.
There is some surprise at how informed Sheppard seems to be, but Marshall knows he’s smart.
“The chair is initiated by the ATA gene not by the Ancient knowledge download,” McKay says stridently, missing the point of Sheppard’s question which Marshall figures was to underline a fact that everyone else already knows.
“So, if Anubis comes calling, Earth can be defended if I’m off-world,” Sheppard stresses, his eyes darting to McKay with a ‘get with the programme’ look.
Surprisingly, McKay does.
“Exactly!” McKay says. “Anyone with an ATA gene can operate the chair.”
Shen looks deeply unimpressed. “We should not send a broken Guide on such an important mission.”
Before the table can erupt again, Sheppard cocks his head. “Exactly how much is the Trust paying you to disrupt the Expedition?”
Shen freezes and glares at him. “I am not being paid by the Trust!”
But she is being paid by someone, Marshall realises and sees the same knowledge register with everyone else at the table.
Sheppard blinks innocently at Shen. “Really?” He holds up the folder in front of him. It is entitled ‘Logistics: Atlantis Expedition, version four, IOA Planning Committee.’ “Then why aren’t you more concerned about the fact that the Expedition will run out of food before we would be resupplied rather than whether one individual should be on the mission?”
That makes everyone sit up straight.
“What?!” Rodney splutters out.
“We run out of coffee in one week,” Sheppard leans over the table and confides in Rodney in what would be considered a stealthy tone except for the fact that he’s doing it in full view of everyone. “Colonel Sumner pointed that out in his review of the first version.”
And suddenly everyone is clamouring for a copy of the document Sheppard is holding.
An hour later, Marshall walks out side by side with Sheppard, feeling wonderfully vindicated. Sheppard might be trouble, but he’s also the right kind of trouble.
Atlantis is indescribable.
Marshall stops as he walks out onto the balcony; the impressive towers surround him, the sheer scale is breath-taking, the ocean and alien sky a stunning backdrop. They’ve had less than two weeks in the city and the view gets him every time.
He wonders what would have happened if they hadn’t had the ZPM found in Egypt just a month before their arrival. The city had been almost out of power when they had come through the Stargate.
He breathes in the salty air of the sea and tries to find peace in the steady lap of the waves before resuming his path.
John stands at the railing; his forearms resting on the Ancient metal, hands clasped. His gaze is set on the horizon and the first hints of dusk.
And it is John now rather than Sheppard, or Lieutenant Colonel since Sheppard was promoted just before the Expedition shipped out.
Marshall sighs as he settles in beside John. The Sentinel instinct to protect the Guide only increases the more time Marshall spends with John but he can’t regret it. And for all John is like a spooked feral animal who is wary of any genuine care aimed at him, he’s slowly starting to respond to Marshall.
They’ve established something of a friendship; a camaraderie. Marshall likes John and he thinks John likes him; they share the same sense of humour (dry and a little dark), interests (they’re both crazy for football) and appreciation of each other’s skill sets. They’d spent two months planning the mission together…and like all plans it hadn’t lasted its first engagement with the enemy.
“I’ve reviewed all the reports on the rescue mission,” Marshall begins. “I am formally clearing you of any crime and returning you to full duty.”
John’s head dips a touch before he catches himself. He nods. “Thank you, sir.”
“I’m also ordering you to talk to Heightmeyer,” Marshall continues.
John looks faintly horrified at that, enough that he moves, stepping back from the railing and looking as though he intends to bolt.
“What you experienced…” Marshall sighs. “I can’t imagine the horror of having to end someone’s life and then use your gifts to take the measures you did against the Wraith to safeguard Earth and the Expedition. You need to talk about it with someone.”
John visibly vibrates before he turns back to the railing, subsiding. He settles his gaze back out to sea.
Marshall thinks he’s probably looking more at the sky. John belongs there. He’s thankful that they’ve found the puddlejumpers. His lips twist at the name momentarily.
“How is…how are the survivors?” asks John suddenly.
“Lorne’s still unconscious but Doctor Brightman thinks he’ll wake up soon. He’s likely going to have a major concussion and he’ll need time for his ribs to heal. He was beaten up pretty badly.”
John nods. “And the rest of his first contact team?”
“Ford’s fine, a little shaky,” Marshall states, “Doctor Porter and Sergeant Mehra are handling him. They’ve set up shifts to stay with Lorne.”
“That’s good,” John says, relief shining through his words. “What about the Athosians?”
Marshall hums at the mention of the aliens.
According to everyone on the initial contact mission, Elizabeth had offered them sanctuary as soon as the Wraith attacked. Teyla, their young Sentinel leader (and hadn’t that been a surprise to find selections occurred in Pegasus too), had also been recovered in the rescue mission and had asked if Marshall would honour Elizabeth’s word. He’s promised her a decision.
“The Athosians are…going to be problematic,” Marshall admits. “I feel for them but I’m not entirely certain keeping them here with us is the right thing to do.”
“They could provide useful intel,” John counters. “They have native knowledge of this galaxy which we lack.”
“We’ll discuss it tomorrow at the senior staff meeting,” Marshall says.
They fall into silence once more.
Marshall clears his throat. “I’m also here if you need to talk, John.”
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” John admits in a rush.
They’re silent as they watch the creeping lilac sweep across the sky.
Marshall’s content to simply stand and offer John silent support; the knowledge that he’s not alone and someone is there who cares for him.
It’s almost dark when John speaks again. “I wish I could have saved her.” His voice is paper thin; a whisper that drifts across the air, almost as though John had hoped not to have been heard.
“Elizabeth and I may not have had the best relationship,” Marshall begins. “I’m sorry she’s gone, but she knew the risks of going off-world when she insisted on going to Athos, and both Ford and Teyla were clear she insisted on being the one taken to see the Wraith, uh, Queen.”
He suppresses his own heavy sigh. Maybe if he had insisted Weir’s place was in Atlantis and to let Lorne and his team handle it…he snorts a little. If he had tried to convince her not to go, Elizabeth would have done the exact opposite anyway.
“Bates stated she begged for mercy and you shouldn’t feel guilty for giving it to her,” Marshall continues. “He would have taken the shot if you hadn’t.”
John blows out a breath. “She didn’t deserve what happened to her.” He presses a hand against his chest and Marshall thinks he doesn’t even realise he’s doing it.
“At least you stopped that Queen and the rest of her brood,” Marshall comments. He doesn’t know how John's Guide gifts had managed to suppress the mind of the Queen as he killed her and the Wraith on the ship; he figures it’s not something John did easily or without cost to himself. “It gives us some time to prepare.”
John nods. He looks up at the night sky, where stars are beginning to poke out from the blanket of darkness.
“I’ll be surprised if there isn’t a selection or more,” Marshall notes. “The danger we face here from the Wraith is likely to warrant Sentinels and Guides to meet it…”
They only have three Sentinel and Guide pairs in addition to John.
“Maybe,” John says, “but sometimes even imminent danger isn’t enough.” His chameleon eyes swim with memories.
Marshall can’t help himself. He puts a hand on John’s shoulder to comfort him, to give him support. And no-one is more surprised than him when John carefully leans into the touch.
Marshall sits on the balcony of his small apartment and savours his first and only cup of coffee for the day.
The apartment building adjoins the control tower. The more luxurious suites have been turned into guest suites for visiting alien allies or important Earth guests for when they have a firm transport link created. But his apartment is large enough to house a bedroom, bathroom, living and dining area. The balcony with the sea view is what Marshall most enjoys.
His door chimes right on schedule and he mentally asks Atlantis to open the door. He’s glad that the genetic treatment worked for him even if it isn’t as good as the gene itself. Atlantis all but sings for John.
John greets him cheerily.
Marshall notes how good he looks in the t-shirt, uniform pants and boots; he also acknowledges he finds John’s work ethic and the sharp mind under the mop of hair just as attractive before letting all of his attraction slide back to the box in his mind where he keeps it locked away. Just as he locks away the worst of his Sentinel instincts to protect and shield John.
Working with John so closely over the past five months of the Expedition has been the best and most difficult time of Marshall’s career.
Trying to stick with any kind of distance has been futile and Marshall has found himself fully in friendship with John. Isolated as they are, as his second, John is his confidante, his sounding board and his comforter. In return, he has made himself available to John for the same and it’s not unusual for John now to seek Marshall out when he needs to talk or, more typically, simply sit in silence.
Their breakfast meetings in Marshall’s apartment are part of their routine. He makes sure to invite other members of the senior staff regularly too to ward off any murmurs of favouritism, but he suspects that ship has already sailed.
They dig into the food; neither of them likes heavy breakfasts and their meal consists of poached eggs, toast and a couple of slices of crispy bacon, followed by fresh fruit.
Marshall sits back and smiles as John lifts his face up to the sunlight. “Are you ready for the mission to the Genii?”
“Apart from the final checks on the puddlejumper this morning,” John states confidently. “Rodney wants to see me to go over some data we got from the drone we sent through yesterday.”
Marshall taps his fingers on his almost empty mug. “Are we being too cautious sending a cloaked puddlejumper?”
“I don’t think so,” John says, sipping his juice, “Nyan was clear at the briefing that there are competing accounts of the Genii from our allies. The Athosians talk of them being nothing but farmers, but we’ve seen uniformed men in the trading markets identified as the Genii.”
“Camile thinks that they’re altering their appearance to suit the world they’re trading with,” Marshall notes. Elizabeth’s deputy had stepped, up although Marshall sometimes finds himself surprisingly wishing for Elizabeth instead. It had at least been easy to convince Camile that the military needed to take the lead after they’d encountered the Wraith.
“She could be right,” John accepts, “or they could be hiding technology to ensure they maintain a military advantage.” He shrugs. “I should be able to get a read on them once I’m on their world.”
Marshall hums and suggests one of the Marine Sentinel and Guide pairs joins John. He’ll need someone watching his back while he extends his Guide gift. Marshall hates allowing another Sentinel to protect John, even a bonded one like Stackhouse, but he shakes his unease away.
John agrees readily before he checks his watch. “I best get going if I’m going to meet Rodney.”
Marshall pulls a face which John laughs at. He doesn’t get John’s weird friendship with McKay, but he can’t deny that they work well together. “I’ll radio Lorne to let Markham and Stackhouse know about the mission and to brief them.”
John leaves him alone on the balcony. Marshall rubs a hand over his face before he radios Lorne. He has to get a better handle on his latent Sentinel instincts. Even if John is surprisingly accommodating, Marshall is unlikely to ever be John’s Sentinel.
Marshall begins his day. He heads to the small office which overlooks the control room. It’s sparse but Marshall has never been one to mind that. He meets with Brightman and goes over their inventory and the latest bumps and bruises she and her medical team have handled in the past day.
It feels like no time at all before the Genii mission is due to depart. He heads swiftly to the conference room to head up the final briefing before they set off, Camile beside him holding a clipboard which seems to be her talisman against chaos.
Lorne’s team takes up one side of the room, and they’re joined by Teyla and her Guide Kanaan. The Athosians have long since left the city to live on another world with only a small group remaining on Atlantis as part of their alliance agreement.
Stackhouse and Markham are with John on the other side of the room. McKay is also there debating something with John on a tablet.
Marshall heads over to them, standing next to John. “Are we ready to start this…”
And everything seems to just stop.
The air grows heavy.
It’s difficult to breathe under the pressure…
Suddenly, there’s a crack of lightning across on the conference room table…
When the light dies, a dragon lies there.
A god honest dragon.
Everyone stares at it.
Marshall’s pleased that everyone knows enough about a selection to refrain from bringing weapons to bear; the Athosians kneel which is apparently their custom during a selection.
It’s as big as the table.
Four legs tucked under it like a cat.
Bat wings which flex out before folding into its sides.
Black scales gleam darkly green under the lights.
Its lizard like face has a prominent snout, a mouth opening to reveal rows of deadly sharp teeth.
Its cat like chameleon eyes peer at only one person…
Marshall swallows hard.
John takes a hesitant step forward.
And then another.
His third takes him in front of the beast.
Marshall wants to shout out to John, wants to put himself in front of the dragon and shield John…but he won’t because this dragon, this impossible dragon who commands the sky is John’s. It’s John’s spirit guide who has finally come for him.
John’s hand trembles as it pats the dragon’s snout tentatively and then with more confidence.
“God…” John whispers, “where have you been?”
The dragon gets to its feet and bumps John’s chest with its head.
Marshall opens his mouth to speak, to say something…
The air crackles again.
Another snap of lightning shivers through the room…
A huge Alpha wolf this time, silver grey in fur with icy blue eyes, is left standing on the floor by the table.
Marshall’s hit with a rush of grief because how can this be anything other than the spirit guide meant for John’s Sentinel. But then the wolf’s eyes roam the room and land on Marshall.
Marshall swallows under the weight of that stare.
He can feel his skin beginning to tingle, his senses beginning to sharpen…his Sentinel roars in the back of his mind and he…
He looks desperately at John.
Does he…is he…
“Marshall,” John’s voice is shaky, but his eyes on Marshall are filled with nothing but certainty, “only if you want…”
“I want,” Marshall states bluntly.
John still has one hand on his dragon but his other reaches for Marshall and…he can’t deny him, could never deny him; Marshall clasps John’s hand and between one blink of an eye and another, he’s a Sentinel.
Everything clicks into place within him like the final puzzle piece in a jigsaw.
“Sentinel,” John breathes out.
“Guide,” Marshall says, possessiveness surging up as he tugs John forward to finally kiss him.
The dragon roars, the wolf howls…and nothing has ever felt so right in Marshall’s life.