John glanced around. He was sitting in the food court of Eaton Centre, surrounded by happy, relaxed people enjoying a day of shopping. If he'd wanted to he could have lowered his primary shields a bit and soaked in their warmth and happiness, letting them soothe the turmoil inside him for a while.
He didn't though. It didn't feel right to John to make use of his gifts that way. He'd never shared anyone's emotions unless he had been explicitly invited to do so – not since he'd learned how to shield himself at the age of three. John sighed. He pushed the damp cup with his melted iced coffee around on the table, wishing he could push away all the depressing thoughts that threatened to take hold of him again as easily.
He'd lost the sky. He'd lost the men he'd called brothers. He'd lost everything he'd fought so hard for all of his life. It was a sickening thought. Civilian life just didn't hold that much appeal for John. Sure, he could settle down somewhere. Fly for some civilian company. Maybe even start his own business – the trust fund his mother had left him sat untouched, gathering interest. It was more than enough to lead a comfortable life, if John had been inclined to just retire and do absolutely nothing. Only problem was that was a kind of life he'd never wanted for himself.
A feeling as if he was being watched had John turning his head in search of the source, the little hairs on the nape of his neck standing on end. It made him twitch and reach for his service weapon, which of course wasn't there. John was prepared to let the feeling go, sit back and ignore it, when a movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. It was a man, maybe in his mid-thirties with light brown hair, and a mouth that tilted downwards slightly on one side. He wasn't all that remarkable overall, save for the fact that he was walking straight towards John, his eyes fixed firmly on John's face, completely ignoring his surroundings. He looked a bit like he was sleepwalking.
John frowned. Something was going on, he wasn't entirely sure what exactly it was. He got up, turning towards the stranger who was still approaching determinedly. "Can I-" help you, Sir? John had wanted to say but broke off abruptly, aborting the movement he'd made to keep the man out of his personal space. A presence pushed against John's primary shields, bright and intense and completely intoxicating.
The realization of what the other guy was hit John like a ton of bricks. He relaxed and held himself perfectly still as the Sentinel stepped up close and with a muttered 'Mine!' and buried his face in the crook of John's neck. The Sentinel's hands came up to tangle in John's hair and John could feel him inhale deeply before his tongue flicked out, tasting John's skin. A shiver ran down John's spine, making his skin tingle. When the Sentinel pressed his face harder into John's neck with a needy sound John wrapped his arms in a loose embrace around the man who was pressing up to him.
"It's okay buddy, I've got you," John soothed, running calming hands up and down the other man's back. The insistent push against his primary shields grew, but John held them up firmly. They couldn't very well go and bond in the middle of a shopping mall surrounded by prying eyes.
"Mer! What's gotten into you? What are you ... oh my god!" The horrified voice of a woman drew John's attention away from the man in his arms.
The woman was a little younger than the Sentinel, with blond curls framing her face and the same blue eyes he had. It was obvious that she had to be his sister. A little girl was clinging to her arm, half hidden behind her legs, looking completely terrified.
"Meredith Rodney McKay, you let go of that man this instant! Are you out of your mind?" She looked about as horrified as she sounded.
"I'm very sorry, Sir. I have no idea what is wrong with my brother. He usually doesn't just go and ... touch ... people. Maybe if you could just ... push him away or something. I'm sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation-"
"Yes, in fact, there is," John said, taking pity on her. "Your brother is a Sentinel, isn't he, Mrs ...?" John looked at her to provide her name.
"Miller, I'm Jeannie Miller and that's Mer. Well, Meredith Rodney McKay. But he prefers to be called Rodney. And yes, he's a Sentinel. Although saying that is more theoretically than practically speaking. He's rejected every Guide that ever wanted to bond with him and suppressed all of his gifts until he was little more than practically offline. He's made it perfectly clear that he doesn't want to be a Sentinel and has no intention to take a Guide – ever. But what does this have to do with anything? You're not saying-" She broke off her nervous rambling and looked at him suspiciously.
John took his hands away from the warm back he'd been rubbing and pushed the sweatband around his right wrist out of the way. He turned his hand so she could see the tattoo of the 'Eye Of Horus' on the inside of his wrist. The symbol was surrounded by three glyphs that all represented the letter 'G' for 'Guide' in one way or the other.
It was one of the universal signs a Guide could choose as identification. John had never held much love for the other possibilities like charms or bracelets since they got in the way when one was fighting in a war. And going completely without identification was – even though it was possible – not really a smart idea in his opinion. Too much could go wrong in case of an emergency. EMTs and doctors who didn't know they were dealing with a sensitive could cause serious physical or mental damage or allergic reactions, all of which were a pain to deal with. All things considered, the tattoo had been his best option and had saved his ass quite a few times already.
Right now Mrs. Miller was staring at it as if it was about to bite her. She'd gone from upset and flustered to pale and worried in ten seconds flat. Not that John could blame her. If her description of her brother was correct, the Sentinel's current behavior was just that bit more worrying if not surprising to John. He'd seen it happen before in those who ignored their gifts and tried to suppress rather than embrace them.
"You're a Guide." She stated the obvious, still sounding completely horrified.
"Mine!" McKay mumbled against John's skin and tightened the grip on his hair.
John suppressed a sigh. If the situation hadn't been so dire, he'd have laughed. "Yeah, I'm a Guide. And judging by the way your brother is acting right now, he seems to think I'm his Guide. Believe me, he's trying his hardest to tear down my primary shield and plaster himself all over me in a way that would lead to speed-bonding if I gave in," John said in as calm a voice as he could manage. He wasn't trying to spook her; he was merely stating the facts.
"He's trying to bond with you?" Mrs. Miller asked, voice high pitched and stressed. "What did you do to him? He's never acted like this. He doesn't want to be a Sentinel and he sure as hell doesn't want to bond. You must have done something to him that he is suddenly reacting that way," she accused, voice growing louder and angrier by the second.
"I didn't do a thing to him, Mrs. Miller. He's the one who started it. Did it ever occur to you that maybe the Sentinel in him is just fed up with taking a backseat? With being ignored? That suppressing his real nature has done more harm than good and it was bound to happen at one point? Right now your brother isn't thinking. His instincts have taken over and believe me, when he finally comes out of it, he won't be happy at all." John tried his best to calm her down while simultaneously keeping up his primary shields against the onslaught of the needy Sentinel in his arms. It didn't help that McKay had begun to press himself against John in a very unmistakable way.
"The Sentinel in him?" Mrs. Miller echoed, looking at him as if he'd lost his mind. "You're talking like Mer is two different people. Like there's someone else inside his head. He's not schizophrenic, you know!" Defensive now.
This time John did sigh. "Mrs. Miller, I know that most people who are not actually sensitive themselves don't understand what it feels like to deal with these kinds of instincts. The primal part in us that's responsible for territorial behavior, bonding drive, essentially everything that makes up a Sentinel or Guide – it's nothing you can infinitely ignore or suppress. Nor should you try to." John really didn't feel like lecturing this stranger on the basic workings of Sentinels and Guides but apparently it couldn't be helped. Mrs. Miller continued to stare at her brother, who had begun to purr contentedly as he pressed his face into the crook of John's neck.
"It's a primal part of us; it's what sets us apart from the non-sensitive population. To have these instincts and compulsions is part of our nature and we need to accept that no matter how inconvenient it seems to be. Trying to ignore an integral part of oneself is never a good idea, no matter the reasons. Your brother has spent years denying himself the support his primal nature demands and now it's come back to bite him in the ass."
They'd gathered a crowd and John was getting desperate for privacy. Prying eyes on top of a horny, bonding-crazy Sentinel who was rubbing up against him was something John could only deal with for a limited time. Keeping McKay out of his primary shields was proving to be harder by the minute. It wasn't often that Guides had to resist a Sentinel with a bonding-drive in such a direct way. Most Sentinels didn't let it go that far – they sought help with finding a fitting Guide way before their brain short-circuited from lack of a bond-mate. John knew they needed privacy – the sooner the better, so he could take control of the situation, maybe allow a surface bond and settle the needy Sentinel that still was wrapped around him like an octopus.
Mrs. Miller didn't look like she bought a word of what John was saying and John hazarded a guess that she would be less than inclined to help him get a bonding suite for them. Not that it mattered. John was also pretty sure by now the gathering crowd and two men standing in the middle of the food court like they were glued on the spot had to have drawn the attention of the mall security.
As if on cue a security guard made his way over to them. Before the sour looking guy could say anything though, John addressed him. "Ah, it's good you're here. Sentinel McKay and I will need to access your bonding suite, please. He's in a bit of a rough spot and I need to settle him. Can you arrange that or should I see about contacting the manager of this facility?"
Surprise flittered over the guard's face, followed swiftly by professional politeness. The poor guy had to be terrified. John knew that their status as Sentinel and Guide would assure that they would be treated with the utmost respect and courtesy, which was exactly why he always tried to keep a low profile. He was a soldier – in his book respect had to be earned, not given for something he hadn't had a say about because it was based on a random genetic mutation.
"I will show you to the bonding suite right away, sir. If you would follow me, please?" the guard replied. John changed his grip on McKay and managed to gently push him so McKay was plastered against his left side instead of his front. Still, walking around like that wouldn't be easy. John momentarily considered carrying him, but even with all the adrenalin currently coursing through him and his military experience in carrying wounded comrades, this was a bad idea. It would be more than a little humiliating for McKay and John wanted to avoid any more complications at all costs. So John tucked McKay closer to his side and slowly followed the guard.
John heaved a sigh of relief when the door to the bonding suite finally clicked shut behind them. McKay was getting more desperate by the minute, pushing against John's primary shields with a ferocity that made it hard for John to keep him at bay. Thankfully the suite was furnished with one of the more spacey bonding platforms – a circular almost-bed with a dozen huge, firm pillows and a high headrest that went almost all the way around so a pair in need of bonding would be able to feel secure and sheltered within. As far as John was concerned, the platform was perfect.
Gently nudging McKay towards the platform, John ignored the murmured protest of the Sentinel who wasn't really inclined to let go of him. John sat McKay down on the edge of the platform and took off his shoes before he toed off his own and climbed onto the platform himself.
"Come on, buddy, let's get comfortable," John said and tugged at McKay until he'd arranged them to his liking. McKay's face was pressed against his chest, just above John's heart, his hand tangled in John's shirt. He was breathing in John's scent and was obviously listening to John's heartbeat. The pressure against John's primary shield still grew steadily. The Sentinel's mind was searching for shelter as much as his body did.
"It's gonna be fine, don't worry," John promised when McKay started keening in distress at not being able to bond. Carefully John lowered his primary shield a fraction while simultaneously guiding the Sentinel's searching mental presence to a secure place in his mind. The surface bond sprang to life instantly and John could feel McKay relax both mentally and physically. "Sleep. I've got you," John whispered and McKay's eyes drifted closed, the last of the tension leaving his body as his breath evened out in sleep.
John used the break from the mental onslaught to sort his thoughts. He'd found himself unexpectedly confronted with a compatible, intriguing Sentinel who was obviously in need of help. McKay's presence was bright and inviting, his aura intoxicatingly beautiful as it pushed
against his own. There were wisps of emotions being transferred through the bond – a whole array of conflicting emotional fragments that didn't make much sense to John just yet.
How could any person be so confident yet insecure, so full of love and capable of compassion yet feel so inadequate and undeserving? It was strange for John to be able to partly access those emotions but unable to understand or sort them. His instincts told him that the Sentinel in his arms needed all the help he could get, yet some part of him also shied away from the enormity of the task at hand and the intensity of feelings John could feel bubbling just under the surface. What would a full-fledged bond with McKay feel like? What would it be like to be pulled into that bright, iridescent and warm presence that was McKay's mind? Would John be able to merge with him, guide him, and soothe his fears and insecurities? Or would the whirlwind that was waiting to be uncovered pull him in and make him drown? Was John willing to take that risk?
And, above all, would McKay want John as his bonded Guide? Would the rational part of McKay that was bound to take over again once the Sentinel in him was cared for sufficiently want to bond at all or would he stubbornly refuse to accept the help he so desperately needed? Would he ignore the part of him that had already claimed John as the perfect bonding partner, in favor of getting help at a Center? Would he prefer drugs or counseling to being bonded to John permanently? What kind of life would they have if John decided he was willing to take the risk and McKay actually wanted to bond?
John didn't know how long they lay on that bonding platform, McKay asleep just soaking up John's calming presence and John lost in his own thoughts. A couple of hours must have gone by when McKay stirred. He lifted his head from John's chest and looked at him, bleary eyed and obviously confused.
"Where am I? And who are you?" he asked as he pushed himself upright. He didn't look scared, just thoroughly disoriented. John was grateful he wasn't panicking – yet.
"My name is John Sheppard and we are in the bonding suite of the Eaton Centre. You had a primal episode out in the mall and latched onto me. I've brought you here to settle you. I'm glad to see you're feeling better." John kept his voice as neutral as possible. He had no idea how McKay would react to the news of having let the Sentinel in him take over, after having suppressed that part of him for such a long time.
"I had a primal episode?" McKay asked and he sounded so horrified John winced. "How the hell did that happen and what do you mean I latched onto you? Why didn't you just push me away or something? You brought me here and then what? What did you do to me? What do you want from me? I've never had a primal episode before. I'm just not Sentinel material. One moment I'm basically offline and then I wake up in a bonding suite. You must have done something, triggered something – what the hell did you do that for?"
A bright wave of fear and anger travelled along the surface bond they still shared and John reacted instinctively. His gut reaction had never once betrayed him and so he did what came naturally – he gently pushed against the panic that was bubbling up inside McKay. John had learned a long time ago how to soothe high tempers and stave off panic attacks just by wrapping someone's mind up in the mental equivalent of a heavy comforter and the calming presence of a meticulously ordered and infinitely calm mind. He knew that this was one of the main purposes of a Guide – to be the rock in a stormy sea and a beacon of light in the darkest moments.
Sentinels tended to get lost in their own mind or caught up in the onslaught of constant input on their senses. It was his job to provide a buffer and a place for the Sentinel to feel safe and protected. Until this very moment John hadn't been sure he could do it for McKay, that he'd be strong enough to give McKay the succor he so desperately needed. But it was even easier than John had expected. Within seconds John could feel the wave of panic recede, and the feeling of calm and content that replaced the fear surprised even John.
"Oh." McKay's voice was soft, the startled sound barely more than a breathy exhale. He looked at John with something akin to awe in his eyes. "Wow, that ... how are you doing that? Is that ... is that a surface bond? That's ... that's absolutely amazing." He smiled at John brightly and John had to suppress a laugh at his childlike wonder.
"Yeah, that's a surface bond. I used it to settle you. You were pretty desperate for bonding earlier so I gave you a bit of what your Sentinel side was pushing for. You've never experienced it before?" John asked, surprised. "Your sister said that you rejected every Guide that ever wanted to bond with you – surely you've had surface bonds with them to see if you get along? She made it sound like you're not really all that happy about being a Sentinel."
"Jeannie? You talked about me with my sister? What else did she say?" McKay sounded surprised but not angry. He settled back against the pillows, making himself more comfortable. It was amazing how relaxed and open he seemed, how at ease he was with the whole situation.
"She was confused and pretty angry at me. She said that you had suppressed your Sentinel skills almost completely and she wouldn't believe me when I told her that I wasn't the one who triggered your sudden primal behavior. She also said that you rejected every Guide that ever proposed bonding to you and that you don't want to be a Sentinel. Is she right?" That was what everything hinged on, really. Would McKay want to bond? Would he want to even consider using his Sentinel skills after having denied himself the experience for so long?
"Hm, yes. I never really wanted to be a Sentinel, that's true," McKay admitted with a small smile. "I came online and was pretty much constantly in pain afterwards. Every Guide I came across, even if we were supposedly compatible, only made it worse. Their mental touch was like sandpaper to my insides, chafing me raw. Their presence felt intrusive and alien to me. Being subjected to them and their horrible auras only made it easier to shove the primal part of my personality into the deepest corners of my mind and lock it there. I was basically offline afterwards."
"That's weird," John said and frowned. It was rare that a Sentinel was genetically compatible with a Guide but still unsuited for bonding. A bond should make Sentinel and Guide feel happier, more balanced and overall more satisfied with their life, not cause pain. That McKay had experienced it not once but several times was a mystery to John.
"Not really," McKay disagreed and nudged his foot against John's thigh. "See, I have a theory as to why boding with these Guides could never work out. I'm a genius. Smartest man on the planet. My brain works differently than most other people's brains – Sentinel or not. Those Guides the Center shoved at me were tools. They were about as intelligent as a brain damaged chimpanzee and quite frankly, their minds were even more unorganized and chaotic than my own. I think if we'd managed to bond they would have driven me completely crazy within a week or less. I don't suffer fools lightly so I'm glad it didn't work out. That way I could tell the Center off and concentrate on my work. And believe me, it's important work." McKay sounded proud now and somehow John didn't doubt the truth of his words or his sincerity for even a second.
John grinned. "Oh, I do believe you. I just wonder why the Center insisted on sending you more and more Guides when you obviously didn't even want to bond. It was making you miserable so why keep trying?" John asked, finding he genuinely wanted to know. McKay was fascinating, the bond between them pulsing bright and warm and alive. John had never felt as comfortable and at home with just a surface bond between himself and a Sentinel before.
"Well, because with the right Guide I could have been a Prime, obviously," McKay said and he sounded only slightly offended. "A mind like mine is capable of many amazing things and if I would have used my enhanced senses ... well it would have been extraordinary."
"And scared you to death," John said. It wasn't a question.
"Well, who wouldn't be?" McKay asked and John thought he had a point. Primes were rare and considered a valuable commodity. They were the most talented of all Sentinels, capable of things an average Sentinel could only dream about. McKay wouldn't have had a peaceful day in his life ever again if he'd turned out to be a Prime for real. Somehow John was glad that the opposite had happened instead.
"Fair enough," John said. "Being a Prime sucks. There's no such thing as a private life for a Prime. I know I would hate it."
McKay looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, a small smile playing around his lips. "I bet you would. You know, you're pretty impressive yourself. Being near a Guide, being connected to a Guide has never felt like this. If I'd known there's a chance that it could feel this good I might have looked for a Guide myself. I've never met one who had that much control over their shields or the discipline of mind you're showing. I feel so comfortable with you, it's almost scary. What's your IQ level? I bet you're way above average yourself." McKay looked smug now.
John ducked his head and rubbed his neck. That was a topic he tried to avoid as much as possible.
"I see," McKay said, when John took a moment too long to answer. "You really have no idea how amazing you are, do you?" McKay asked in a low voice and to John's surprise moved in close against him again. He tucked his head in the crook of John's neck and inhaled deeply, a wave of deep contentment washing over the bond.
John chuckled. "You only think that because your bonding drive is working overtime and you're still feeling the aftereffects of that primal episode you had. Settling you released all those nice endorphins into your bloodstream and you're still a little high on them. And don't forget that the bond is pretty much taking all of the strain of having to keep your Sentinel side locked up off of you. No wonder you think I'm the best thing since sliced bread."
McKay made a dismissive sound and pushed his nose against a spot right underneath John's ear. "I could stay here forever, wrapped up in you, you know," McKay said and sighed happily. "It's like you've been made to fit my every need. Like someone designed the perfect partner for me and it feels so good. Can I keep you?"
At that, John grinned. "I'm not a stray kitten, McKay. You can't tuck me into your shirt and smuggle me home, hoping mom won't notice. If you're serious about 'keeping me' we need to talk about a couple of things."
"Sounds awful. Do we have to?" McKay's words sounded dismissive, almost careless, but the bright, hot flare of fear that travelled across the bond belied his tone.
"Yeah, we kinda do. What you're suggesting is a life-changing decision. It's as if you proposed to a perfect stranger, only to get out of this relationship you'd need drugs and months of psychological aid. If this goes wrong you won't be able to decide that it's not what you want after all, you know that, right? Once we bond the chemicals in your brain will change, making me your baseline in order for you to use your gifts to the fullest. There is a reason why Sentinels usually search for a mate ahead of time and with the aid of a Center. It's so they at least get to spend a little time with each other in a neutral environment; see if they fit, and all that. Of course we could bond, but I'm not sure that's something you should consider right on the heels of a primal episode," John said, because it was the right, responsible thing to do. He instantly hated himself for it.
McKay tensed visibly and the bright, inviting aura that had been brushing against John's shields was receding rapidly, almost as if it was crumbling into itself. The fear that transmitted through the bond mixed with pain, hopelessness, desperation and so much resignation that John felt like he was choking on it for a moment. He hadn't been prepared for that kind of reaction at all. He'd expected upset or even anger, maybe indecision or confusion but not this. Not this absolutely devastating hopelessness, the overwhelming certainty of being rejected.
McKay's chin jutted forward and his whole posture suddenly screamed arrogance. Only his expressive eyes and the pain still coming over the bond gave any indication how much it cost McKay to appear unaffected by what he perceived to be rejection on John's part. "Of course you're right. It's never good to make hasty decisions on such important matters. I should go now. My sister must be worried sick and I have places to be, things to arrange. I think I will be calling the Center tomorrow for some counsel and advise on how to proceed from here on out. Thank you for assisting me in this matter, Guide Sheppard. Your help is much appreciated, I assure you." He smiled a tight smile that made John shiver. But before John could get a word in McKay was rambling on.
"If you leave your contact data with the local Center, I'll make sure to show my gratitude in a more substantial way. No, don't thank me; I'm the one who has to thank you for your time and patience. Maybe we'll meet again in the future to discuss a less ... permanent arrangement that will benefit us both. A temporary contract perhaps? I am sure a man of your talents will have no problem at all sustaining a surface bond over a defined period of time. Now, if you'll excuse me-" McKay pushed to his knees and made to leave the bonding platform altogether. "As I said, my sister will be very worried about me and the mall must have closed for the day hours ago. I should really go now."
For a second John just stared at him, completely thrown by the display in front of him. He wondered how many people McKay had fooled with this little act of indifferent arrogance over the years. Wondered if anyone had bothered to look more closely, to see the pain that was visible in McKay's eyes, the tenseness of the shoulders that was not arrogance at all but bone deep hurt, loneliness and despair.
How often had he played this charade already? How often had he hidden behind arrogance and businesslike talk while inside of him there was pain burning so brightly John had to suppress the urge to rub his own chest at the second-hand agony he was experiencing over the bond? McKay had turned his back to John but he must have caught on because he whipped around, panic all over his face and a second later in an impressive display of mental control, McKay pulled all of his defensive shields up at once, pushing against the bond as if to stave it off, dimming the connection to a barely there hum in the back of John's mind. John knew physical separation of more than a few miles would eventually sever it completely if he didn't release it voluntarily. Not that John had any intention of letting that happen.
"I don't want your money, McKay," John said and watched him flinch. "I'm not for sale."
"What? Of course not! That's not what I meant! I just want to show you how grateful I am for your help and I thought ... Hell, I don't even know if you're working. If you have a job other than being a Guide, that is. I've heard you can live quite well on that if you do it right ... Oh god, this is ridiculous. I don't even know you, why am I even ..." McKay rubbed his face with both hands, shoulders slumping. "Great, now I insulted you on top of it all. I should just go before I make this situation even worse." He bent to pick up his shoes, completely avoiding John's gaze.
"You claimed me out there today, Rodney," John said softly, watching the Sentinel in front of him closely. McKay stood there, frozen in shock. The emotional reaction to the use of his first name was instant and so powerful John was glad his instincts hadn't failed him on this.
"What? What do you mean? I had a primal episode. You said it yourself. You can't hold me accountable for what I said when I wasn't in my right mind. I mean-"
"You claimed me in front of your sister and a whole bunch of strangers." John interrupted the nervous rambling in the same soft tone he'd used before. "You insisted I'm yours. You know, if we'd been born a hundred years ago I would be on my knees in front of you right now, submitting my life to you and offering my Guidance to you because the Sentinel in you picked me to be your mate. There'd be no argument, no hesitation, no doubt. That was how it was done – how the Sentinels found their perfect match. No DNA tests needed. Just allowing the Sentinel's instincts to take over."
McKay snorted. "Yeah but you wouldn't have had a choice back then. They wouldn't even have asked you what you think about the whole thing. They'd have made you accept me. Lovely tradition and so ... civilized. You wouldn't have had the right to reject me." He took a deep breath and John looked at him, willing him to understand that he wasn't being rejected at all.
John stood slowly, never taking is eyes off McKay who looked absolutely terrified. John dropped his primary shield, allowing the surface bond that had thinned and begun to deteriorate to sink deeper into his mind. John relaxed, accepting the connection to his Sentinel readily, feeding all of the joy and contentment he had felt at discovering how perfect they were for each other into the weakening bond. Taking another step closer, John raised his right hand to Rodney's face, giving him every opportunity to get away if this was not what he wanted. John cupped Rodney's face tenderly, thumb stroking his cheekbone. "Does this feel like I'm rejecting you, Rodney?" John whispered.
"No," Rodney whispered back and swallowed hard. John could feel him shaking under his touch. "It feels ..." Rodney's voice broke and his grip on his shields lessened, the bond blooming between them stronger than before. "God, this sounds so stupid but ... it feels like home. Like ... like I belong. Like I'm finally where I'm supposed to be ..." He broke off, chin tucked towards his chest and closed his eyes in defeat, his lashes damp with tears. "Just listen to me. I sound like a fourteen year old girl. I'm certifiable."
John smiled. "Not certifiable, no. Just overwhelmed. It's actually perfectly normal. You don't find your perfect match every day, Sentinel McKay. You're allowed to be emotional about it. How about we lie down some more? Don't worry about a thing. I've got you and I'm not gonna leave you again. Looks like you get to keep me after all."
There was a surge of happiness and disbelieving excitement coming over the bond and then Rodney opened his eyes and gave John a watery smile. He exhaled shakily and then asked in a low voice, "Does that mean we can bond? I mean, not right away, obviously, but ... but can we complete the bond once I'm a bit more ... levelheaded again? And, you know, we actually know more about each other than just ... names? I want to learn everything about you, everything that there is to learn and I want you to know me, too. I want to share all of it with you. No secrets. Your mind is such a peaceful place. I want to stay wrapped up in you forever."
John pressed a soft kiss to Rodney's forehead, allowing himself the small comfort of a more intimate physical closeness. "You've said that before," John whispered. "That you'd like to stay wrapped up in me. It's what a Guide does, Rodney. I'm your shelter from now on, you're safe with me. You just need to let go of that tight grip on your shields and trust me to take good care of you. It will be okay, I promise." John wrapped his arms around Rodney's shivering form and tucked his head back into the crook of his neck, just like it had been earlier in the day.
Rodney all but melted in his arms, face pressing against the side of John's neck. The bond pulsed between them, bright and shiny and charged with happiness and contentment. Rodney's defensive shields fell away completely and John knew, if they wanted, they could have bonded completely in that moment. But for now it was safer to just keep the very solid surface bond active. The whirlwind of emotions that John had glimpsed when he had settled McKay earlier travelled along the bond – a mixture of excitement and joy and happiness, but also deep rooted fears and insecurities and an overwhelming sense of Not good enough. Never good enough.
This was something that they needed to address right away, John realized, before it had the chance to manifest and ruin everything for them. He gently pushed Rodney away a bit and lifted his chin. "Hey buddy, look at me. I need you to listen to me carefully, okay? No matter what anyone tells you, no matter how much other people might try to bring you down, to tell you that you don't deserve this, don't listen to them, okay? You are worthy. You are worthy of a Guide, you are worthy of trying to be the best Sentinel you can be. You have nothing to be ashamed of and no one should try to make you feel guilty for finding happiness or making full use of your gifts. You're a Sentinel. You were born a Sentinel and, no matter what other people think, this is what you're supposed to be. You deserve it. You've earned it. You are worthy."
John could tell that Rodney's first, instinctive reaction was to try and pull up his shields again so John pushed at the bond and charged it with his own happiness, his confidence, his absolute certainty that this was the right thing for them, that they fit. He'd happily stick with McKay till the end of his natural life, of that John was absolutely certain. He didn't know the guy yet but he trusted his Guide instincts, and Rodney's Sentinel instincts. Nature had a habit of providing Sentinels and Guides with what they needed – if they would just allow her to take the lead. John had every intention to do so and he hoped Rodney would go along with it, too.
"Can I kiss you?"
Of all the things John had thought Rodney would say this certainly wasn't it. John grinned and said, "Hmm, I don't know. Can you? Why don't you try and find out?" A moment later Rodney's soft lips pressed against John's own in a first tender kiss.
"Seriously, let me handle her. It's gonna be messy enough as it is, no use in getting her angry at you, too. You should just ... wait in the car." Rodney was nervous. It was after 11 pm and they were standing in front of Jeannie Miller's house.
"Not a chance, McKay," John replied in all seriousness. "I'm your Guide now, your partner. You better get used to having me around all the time because that's what's it gonna be like from now on. But if you want to, I'll let you do the talking. She's your sister, you know her better than I do."
"Well, thank you for stating the obvious," Rodney groused and knocked on the door softly to not wake his niece, since it was past her bedtime.
The door was pulled open suddenly and Jeannie flung herself at Rodney. "Mer, thank god! I was so worried about you! Where the hell have you been? You didn't spend the whole day in that ... suite, did you?"
Rodney pushed Jeannie away gently and John winced in sympathy. She'd have to learn not to be as touchy feely with him as she had been. Touching an online, unbonded Sentinel always required a certain amount of consideration, and once he and Rodney bonded completely neither of them would tolerate being touched without permission. John had no problems with that; he'd never been one to be very tactile outside of a bond, so it had never really been an issue. What had John worried was the fact that Jeannie seemed to be completely oblivious to those standards and rules.
"Jeannie, can we not discuss this out here in the street? Unless you want to give the neighbors a show, that is," Rodney said snidely.
Jeannie made a face but went inside without a word, Rodney and John following behind her. When they arrived at the kitchen John decided to give Rodney and his sister some room, so he leaned in the doorway instead. He'd be there to offer support to Rodney if necessary, without crowding them.
"Alright, shoot," Jeannie started and folded her arms. She looked more upset than John thought was reasonable, given the fact that she had known that Rodney was in the bonding suite with him when she'd left. It wasn't as if Rodney needed a babysitter.
Rodney seemed to either not notice or not care about Jeannie's state of mind because he beamed at her, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "It was awesome! John was awesome! You can't imagine how great it feels to be connected to him. God, Jeannie, if I had known that it could be like this I might have gone searching for a Guide myself." Rodney's hands were flying and he was grinning from ear to ear. "I can't believe that it took me so long to find him. To think what I missed out on by denying my gifts ... We're going to bond, Jeannie. A real bond. As soon as my head is a bit clearer after the primal episode I had, we're going to bond permanently and then no one can take him away from me ever again. It's gonna be so great!"
John smiled at Rodney's excited rambling. It was fun to watch him finally embrace his Sentinel side to the fullest and John was happy, and a little proud, to have been the one to help him. Rodney's Sentinel side had been neglected for far too long if it had led to him sensing John all the way across the other end of the mall. All of his senses had zeroed in on John and nothing and no-one else had mattered. Scientists would have had a field day had they witnessed his behavior in the mall.
"Oh Mer, what have you done?" Jeannie said and pulled a startled looking Rodney into a tight embrace. There was so much sorrow and outright pity in her voice that John wanted to grab her and shake some sense into her. How could she act like this? How could she not support him?
Predictably, Rodney was devastated by her reaction. "What do you mean what have I done? I told you I've finally found my Guide. I thought you would be happy for me. You know, you could show a bit more enthusiasm and support." One side of Rodney's mouth tilted downwards unhappily and John had to suppress the urge to go to him and hug him. But Rodney deserved the chance to sort this out with his sister in his own time.
"Mer, this isn't you!" Jeannie hissed and threw her hands in the air. "You said it yourself, you're not Sentinel material. You're not some ... stupid, instinct driven grunt who's built like a brick wall and who takes out enemies with his bare hands. You're a scientist. You're smart. A genius. You spend your life in the labs and you like it. You're not a soldier, you're not a fighter, hell you'd probably faint if you'd have to do the stuff normal Sentinels have to do. What the hell brought this on now?" She stared at him, a furious gleam in her eyes, before she suddenly whirled around and zeroed in on John.
"You! This is all your fault!" she hissed, stabbing a finger into John's chest. "You did this to him. You made him think he can be a real Sentinel." There were red blotches appearing all over her pale skin and she looked close to hysterics. But underneath it all the fear for her brother was suddenly clearly visible. She was terrified for Rodney. She was terrified of what the changes he was going through would mean for him.
"He's a real Sentinel, Mrs. Miller," John said with as much patience as he could muster under the circumstances. Rodney just stared at them, open mouthed.
"Oh please, spare me that drivel. I have eyes, I can see that a guy like Mer will never be a proper Sentinel, no matter how much you insist he is. What is it you really want from my brother, huh?" she asked and shoved John. "Is it his fame? His money? His connections to the big players in the industry? What does a man with your looks and attitude want from someone like my brother? And don't give me that crap again about helping him be a Sentinel. I know-"
The bond that had been muted suddenly flared with red hot fury and then Jeannie was yanked back by her arm, quickly and forcefully. Rodney stared her down, furious anger focused solely at her. John knew in an instant that he was looking at an enraged Sentinel who was about to protect his bond mate. Rodney backed his sister up against one of the kitchen counters and before John could react he said in a cold voice, "Don't you ever touch him again, you hear me? Don't touch my mate. He's mine. Leave him alone."
"Mer?" Jeannie whispered, obviously completely terrified by her brother's unusual behavior. "Mer, you're scaring me."
John stepped up to Rodney slowly and placed a steadying hand on his arm, pushing at the bond to stave off the surge of territorial instinct Rodney was battling with. "It's okay buddy, no harm done. Come on, you can let her go now. She's not a threat, see? You're scaring her. She didn't mean to upset you, it's just a new situation, that's all. Let her go."
Rodney blinked, obviously as taken by surprise by his own behavior as his sister was. "She has no business touching you," Rodney said, mulishly. He sounded like a stubborn child now, but let John tug him away from Jeannie.
"You're right," John agreed. "She will need to remember that. But this is a new development, okay? She'll need some time to adjust, and so do we. She didn't mean to cause any pair-bond interference. She's worried for you." He took Rodney into his arms and rubbed his back. "Your sister is a good person, Rodney. She's just scared and confused right now."
"Mer?" Jeannie asked, voice thin and filled with tears. "Mer, are you-"
"Arrgh!" Rodney jerked in John's arms, his hands coming up to cover his ears frantically, eyes squeezed shut in pain.
"What's wrong with him? What's happening? Mer?" Jennie's shrill voice made Rodney cry out once again. He convulsed, trying to curl into himself.
Quickly John lowered him onto the kitchen floor and leaned him against one of the counters.
"Mer?" Jeannie asked again and John moved instantly. He pressed a hand firmly over her mouth, preventing her from saying anything more. Then he lifted a finger to his own mouth, signaling her to stay silent. She nodded her understanding and John slowly took his hand away again.
John crouched down next to Rodney and took a closer look at his Sentinel. The bond was pulsing with pain, fear and disorientation and John shoved as much calm and reassurance at Rodney as he could. "Rodney, you're having a sensory spike. You need to focus on your dials. Dial your hearing down. All the way down to four, Rodney." John whispered so low a regular person probably wouldn't even have been able to make out any words. But Rodney heard him loud and clear, of that John was absolutely certain.
Rodney took a shuddering breath and closed his eyes, hands still firmly clasped over his ears. John could see the moment he managed to get his hearing under control when the pain and stress lines on Rodney's face lessened and he slowly let his hands sink. The pain that had been travelling along the bond subsided, replaced by a wave of gratitude and exhaustion.
Moving between Rodney's outstretched legs, John gently tugged Rodney's head forward and settled him against the crook of his neck. Rodney's arms came up around him, clutching at John's shirt in the small of his back; the tension that had still been lingering in Rodney's body slowly seeped away and he relaxed against John. The bond between them was wide open and John fed calm and comfort into it in an attempt to strengthen Rodney's control over his wayward senses. The more secure his Sentinel felt, the less he was bound to have any problems – with his senses or otherwise.
"What happened just now?" Jeannie Miller asked in a whisper. She sounded terrified and looked pale as a ghost.
"Your brother had a sensory spike, Mrs. Miller. His hearing got out of control and it hurt him when you talked. Don't worry, he's fine now. Just exhausted and a bit shaken from the pain. I'll settle him again once we get to a hotel room. I think it's all been a bit too much for him today. Things should look much better tomorrow after a good night's rest." John used his most reassuring voice on her, glad that the majority of people unconsciously trusted a Guide, whether they were sensitive or not. It was as if the inherently protective and caring nature of a Guide was tangible even for non-sensitives.
"He's never had a sensory spike before," Mrs. Miller said, still whispering. "Not even when he first came online. Are you sure he'll be fine?"
"Yes, I'm absolutely sure," John said. He could feel over the bond that Rodney was getting drowsy. All of his senses were latching firmly onto John, imprinting as much as the surface bond allowed. John stroked a hand down Rodney's back and said with a slight smile, "We really should be going now. Rodney needs to rest and you look like you could use some sleep, too. I promise we'll come by tomorrow so you can ask all those questions you didn't get a chance to ask right now."
"You don't need to go, we have a guest room you can use," Jeannie said hastily, clearly panicked at the prospect of John taking her brother away again.
"Mrs. Miller ... Jeannie. I know you mean well but you said it yourself – Rodney was practically offline until today. No offense but I doubt that your guest bedroom is suitable for a Sentinel, much less one that just experienced a sensory spike. Rodney will need a Sentinel friendly environment until he has had a chance to get used to the new situation. That means he needs a room cleaned with Sentinel friendly products, high thread-count sheets washed in Sentinel approved detergent, an air filter and white noise generator. Somehow I doubt that you're equipped to provide all that for him, am I right?" John gentled his voice to take the bite out of the bitter truth he'd delivered but Jeannie still looked stricken.
She swallowed hard and nodded, her hands balled into tight fists at her side. "Yes, you're right of course. How stupid of me not to think about that. You'll come back tomorrow?" Her voice almost broke, her eyes now red-rimmed and glassy in her overly pale face.
"Yes, we'll be back tomorrow. I promise." John suppressed a sigh and shifted slightly so it would be easier to get up. Rodney was almost a dead weight against him by now, soaking up John's closeness with all of his senses.
"I know you have no reason to trust me when I tell you that I have no intention to harm your brother in any way, but I'm a Guide. We're protectors. He is my Sentinel, his well-being and safety is my topmost priority. I would never let anyone or anything harm him – not if I can prevent it. I will protect him – as he will protect me. Please don't alienate him from you by forcing him to choose between his sister and his Guide. It's not a battle you can win."
Jeannie gave him a tight nod. "I understand. I'm worried for him, but it's his life. If that's what he wants, I'll support him," she said with a shaky smile.
"Can we go now, John?" Rodney asked around a yawn. He was bleary eyed and barely awake . John suspected he'd fall asleep in the car before they even reached the hotel, but that was fine by him. Rodney needed the rest.
"Yeah, we're leaving now, buddy. I was just saying goodbye to your sister." John said softly and smiled when Rodney pressed closer, all but snuggling up into him.
"Hm, okay. Bye Jeannie," Rodney mumbled, eyes already drooping, and John hurried to get him back to the car.
John bolted upright in bed, heart racing and nausea welling up in his gut. There was so much terror and panic coming over the bond that John frantically sought out Rodney's form on the bed. They'd fallen asleep in each other's arms, Rodney contentedly snuggled up against John's bare chest. What the hell had happened that his Sentinel was in so much distress now?
John reached over to the nightstand and slowly turned the small dial to bring up the light of the bedside lamps gradually. Rodney was lying on the far side of the bed, curled up in a fetal position, arms wrapped tightly around his own body. Tremors were running through him and he was obviously fighting tears.
"Rodney?" John asked gently, slowly moving forward towards the completely shaken Sentinel. "Rodney, what's wrong? What happened? You okay there, buddy?" Of course John knew that Rodney was far from okay, but he needed to know what had caused this state of distress in his mate.
"I can't do this," Rodney whispered, his voice almost breaking at the last word. "I can't ask this of you. You don't even know me. And when you do, you won't want me anymore. I'm not a nice person. I'm sarcastic and rude, egoistic and petty. I make people cry. Jeannie was right. What was I thinking? How could I ever believe that this would work out between the two of us? I don't deserve you. I don't deserve someone as nice and gentle as you, someone so caring. I'm not a nice person. I'm really not," Rodney mumbled. His eyes were glassy and he wasn't even looking at John but was staring at a point at the far wall.
"You're not asking anything of me that I'm not willing to give, Rodney," John reminded him in a low voice. "And I know you already, Rodney. I know who you are, deep down. I can feel it over our bond. I'm not worried. I'm not afraid. You're my perfect match and I trust your Sentinel's instincts as much as I trust my Guide instincts. You said it yourself: it's as if I have been made to fit you and your every need. Believe me, I can take whatever you decide to throw at me. There's nothing you can do or say that would make me want you any less. I'm yours, if you'll have me." John hoped that he was getting through to Rodney, especially since it had been John who had said they shouldn't bond so soon after Rodney's primal episode. Sometimes John hated his protective instincts. They had told him to give Rodney an out and time to consider his options. John hadn't foreseen that Rodney would take his cautiousness as rejection, or precaution from being taken advantage of.
Confusion and wonder were battling for dominance on Rodney's face. He sat up slowly, his gaze never leaving John's face. "You mean that?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Yeah, Rodney, I mean it," John said. Then, out of impulse and because he doubted Rodney would make the first step, John whispered, "Bond with me."
Rodney stared at him, wide-eyed and open mouthed. He looked like someone had pulled the floor out from under his feet. Then apparently his big brain kicked into action and his hands began to flail through the air agitatedly. "What?" he asked sounding panicked and breathless. "You want to bond? Right here, right now? But ... but earlier you said we should wait. That we need to get to know each other better first. That we shouldn't bond right after the primal episode. I know you said that. I have very good memory, I'll have you know. I am absolutely sure you said -"
Rodney's rambling was cut short by John's finger pressing over his mouth, gently. "I know what I said, Rodney," John said softly and smiled at him. "I was wrong. It happens on occasion, you know?"
When Rodney didn't react to that John decided that it was probably best to just keep talking.
"This is the right thing to do. I can feel it. Can't you feel it, Rodney? Can't you feel how perfect we are together? Trust your instincts. Trust yourself. Bond with me." John had never in his life felt so desperate to be heard, to be understood. He pushed at the bond, charging it with his confidence, his happiness and his unwavering belief that they had found something truly special and rare with each other. Then, in an attempt to not only close the emotional but also the physical gap between them, John carefully took one of Rodney's clammy hands in his own and placed it flat against his chest, right over his own heart. "I'm yours, Rodney. All you have to do is take the chance. Say yes."
"You really mean it." A blinding smile suddenly spread over Rodney's face and then the bond between them was flooded with warmth and happiness and anticipation.
"Yeah, I really do," John whispered and grinned back at him.
"Then yes. Yes, I'll bond with you," Rodney said. He leaned forward and hesitantly pressed his lips against John's, the kiss soft and warm and welcoming rather than heated and needy.
John tugged Rodney forward, settling him against his chest again as they kissed. There was no urgency, no rush, just an overwhelming sense of rightness that swept through John as he let all of his shields fall away, opening his mind to the searching presence of his Sentinel.
"Let go, I won't let you fall," John whispered into Rodney's ear when Rodney's presence in his mind didn't immediately merge with John's own. Rodney's shields were still partly up, the bond between them strong but nowhere near permanent yet. They couldn't bond completely as long as Rodney was still holding back a part of himself.
Rodney sucked in a small breath and John could feel the fine tremors running through his body. "I'm scared," Rodney admitted. "I'm scared I won't be ... enough. You mind is so perfect, so peaceful. I don't deserve to be part of this," Rodney whispered.
"Yes, you do," John said softly. "It's only perfect for you. It's perfect because we fit. Now claim your place, Sentinel. It's been yours all along. All you have to do is trust me to take care of you. I won't let you down. I'll always keep you safe, I promise."
There was a second of hesitation but then John could feel Rodney's last shields melting away. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Rodney was everywhere inside John's mind, merging with him, flooding the bond with happiness and excitement and so much gratitude it left John aching. The Sentinel part of Rodney anchored himself into John completely, strengthening the bond, making it solid and durable. In a fraction of a second John learned things about Rodney no-one ever had before, things he couldn't voice: emotions, thoughts, memories, fears. At the same time John worked on strengthening the solidifying bond, wrapping Rodney's searching mental presence up securely into a nest of warmth and protection, giving him shelter.
In that instant there was no room left between them. Noting unknown, nothing unsaid, nothing hidden. Their minds merged completely and John's breath caught from the intimacy of it all. They were one – mind and soul. At that moment John felt sorry for the non-sensitives, the people who would never be able to feel the intimacy and the closeness he was experiencing as he welcomed Rodney inside of his mind. Others might try to find a fraction of it in the only way they could, physically, but it would never come close to what the merging of his mind with his Sentinel was like.
Rodney shuddered in John's arms and tears were leaking out of his closed eyes. John wiped them away softly, the bond telling him that Rodney didn't cry from distress but from happiness. The feeling of finally home resonated through the bond and John couldn't agree more. He felt, for the first time in his life, like he was whole. Like he'd been made complete and Rodney's presence in his mind had chased the darkness out of the last corners of his soul – a darkness he hadn't even been aware of until now.
Rodney kissed him, tender and careful, not heated or rushed, just savoring the moment and allowing his senses to imprint on John more and more. Even if he wasn't consciously aware of it, his mind had begun to catalogue everything about John. The sound of his heartbeat, the texture of his skin, his smell, the way he tasted on Rodney's tongue. Every detail was being sorted and registered, setting a baseline for Rodney to work with. From this moment on John would be the center of Rodney's life.
"I love you," John murmured into Rodney's hair and it was the truth. He loved a man he'd only met a day ago. Rodney was his missing puzzle piece, the reason why every surface bond he'd ever initiated had felt somehow off and just not quite right. John had never felt the urge to fully bond until Rodney had stepped into his life and had laid claim to him in the middle of a Toronto shopping mall.
So what if they didn't know much about each other yet? They'd learn. They'd deal. They'd make it work. John didn't regret his decision for a single second. He knew all would be just fine.
Epilogue – 8 weeks later
"And I'm telling you that I didn't have the time to check the structural integrity yet, Rodney," Dr. Radek Zelenka snapped, throwing his hands in the air in agitation. "You don't want to get his hopes up over a possibly broken piece of machinery, right?"
John paused in the doorway and watched the interaction with interest. He'd been down at the cafeteria to grab a bunch of chocolate muffins for Rodney, who had once again opted to skip the coffee break to work on some new project.
Atlantis Enterprises, the company Rodney owned, had several contracts with the military and John had been signing confidentiality agreements the size of New York phone books by the dozen. It was a necessity really, since he had complete access to Rodney's mind and his knowledge. His Sentinel couldn't keep anything important from him. Not for a long period of time in any case. Not that Rodney ever tried. He'd settled into the bond with John like he'd never known any other life and he was happier and more content than ever before.
This was one of the reasons why he currently wasn't ripping Zelenka's head off for withholding the strange cylindric device from him.
Rodney just rolled his eyes and held out his hand again. "Give it to me, Radek," he said with a bit more insistence.
"No. I still need to put it into the scanner and under the microscope. I need to check for structural integrity and you're just gonna use it for another test and then the results will be all wrong," Zelenka all but huffed at him. "I know you. You are too impatient!"
John grinned and walked over to the two arguing scientists. He placed the plate with the muffins on a nearby workbench and grabbed the cylindrical device out of Zelenka's hands; he released it without much of a fight, most likely worried about it getting damaged.
"Oh, not you too, Sheppard," Zelenka said, sounding offended. "You will ruin the work of the last three months if you let him have it before it has been analyzed."
John didn't comment on that but placed the object carefully onto Rodney's outstretched palm. Then he slipped his left hand under Rodney's collar, fingers wrapping loosely around Rodney's neck, grounding him.
"Tell me if it's structurally intact, Rodney," John said softly and he could instantly feel Rodney focusing his senses onto the device in his hand, studying it. Rodney ran his fingertips over the cylinder and focused his gaze on it as he carefully turned it around.
Zelenka watched them wide-eyed and open mouthed.
After a moment Rodney frowned. "There's a hairline fissure, about 1.2 millimeters in length right there." He pointed at a place on the cylinder. "But I don't think it's gonna be a huge problem. We can work with this." He grinned and handed the object back to a dazzled looking Zelenka before turning around and going for the muffins.
"I think we should take some time off, maybe go to Canada and visit Jeannie. We promised her we'd come by soon, anyway," Rodney said around a mouth full of muffin.
"Sounds good to me," John replied. "I've solved that math problem your geeks were mulling over for the last three days, so I'm all out of challenges for now."
Rodney grinned. "I'm sure by the time we come back there will be another riddle waiting for you," he said and pulled John close to give him a tender kiss. John came willingly and wrapped his arms around Rodney, holding him tight.
Life was pretty damn good after all.