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Two Paths Diverged

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Prentiss arrived at General O’Neill’s office at 0750 because she liked to be on time and prepared. O’Neill was already seated behind his desk, sipping coffee and working his way through whatever emails had trickled in during the small hours. As much as she’d have preferred to be helping Agent Barrett with the interrogations of the Trust officers they’d arrested yesterday, she was Lieutenant Jonathan O’Neill’s control officer first and an investigator second.

She wondered if there wasn’t some kind of protocol against the level of nepotism going on here. Anyone who looked at Jonathan O’Neill and General O’Neill knew they were related. Prentiss would have guessed father and son, for how similar their looks, but everyone seemed to have a tacit understanding that however closely related the two men were, they weren’t related like that. Prentiss wasn’t sure about the relative morality of blackmailing a young man into covert ops by threatening the career of his older, career military lover (and Prentiss wasn’t sure about the morality of a romantic relationship with such a huge age disparity), but young O’Neill had done a fantastic job, and if keeping Major Evan Lorne dangling by a thread was what kept him in line, it was what kept him in line.

The NID had scored a huge victory against the Trust by taking out key board members of Sheppard Industries yesterday. If Collier and Moreland and the rest were smart, they’d give up names of other Trust officers, of their corporate targets.

“Morning, Agent Prentiss,” General O’Neill said without looking up from his computer.

“Good morning, sir.” She was never sure about ‘morning’ all by itself. It wasn’t a greeting so much as a statement of fact.

“Say, Agent Prentiss, given the chance to go back in time and relive your childhood or teen years or early twenties, what would you change?”

Prentiss blinked at him. “Sir?”

General O’Neill glanced at her briefly. “Me, well, I’d get done with high school as fast as possible. GED and done. It’s true, getting a GED instead of regular diploma means that you earn less over a lifetime - unless you get some kind of higher certification. Which I would totally do. Mechanics, maybe. Engineering? I always did like working with my hands. I’m pretty handy with a wrench and an engine, you know.”

Prentiss knew that was an understatement. General O’Neill had graduated from The Academy with honors received in Military Sciences and Engineering, had gone on to get his masters in Aeronautical Engineering. She knew his reputation for being a wry, simple, down-home cabin man from Minnesota, and she knew it was as calculated as his battle tactics.

“I think I’d spend more time on the things I enjoy, too. Fishing. Art. The opera. Did you see the Denver Opera’s production of Carmen a couple of seasons back? It was amazing. Best soprano I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in a long time. Very talented lady.” General O’Neill could type very fast, for a man who preferred the hunt-and-peck method.

“I hadn’t had the pleasure, sir,” Prentiss said. She knew General O’Neill was a fan of the opera; more than one person had tried to buy their way into his good graces with opera tickets, but he always had season tickets for whatever city he was in.

“One thing I’d definitely do,” General O’Neill said, “is spend more time with the people I love. My wife, if I were married. My son, if I still had him. I don’t think I’d be throwing myself into unnecessary peril at every turn for a pat on the back from The Man.”

Prentiss wasn’t sure if General O’Neill required a response. He had no wife, but he’d once had a son?

And then she realized. He’d had a wife and had a son, then likely lost the son and the wife soon after.

There were pictures of a little boy all over his office. Prentiss had never taken the time to notice them before, because she rarely spent this much time in General O’Neill’s office. The boy was young, eight to ten years old, with dark blond hair and dark eyes. He didn’t look much like General O’Neill. He did, however, look like the woman with him in one of the pictures. It was an old picture, judging by the woman’s haircut and clothes.

General O’Neill fixed Prentiss with an assessing gaze. “What about you, Prentiss? What would you change?”

“That’s a very complicated question, sir,” she said, mind racing. Apparently he did expect an answer.

“Think about it,” General O’Neill said.

There was a knock at the door.

Prentiss turned. Lieutenant O’Neill stood in the doorway and with him, Major Lorne. Prentiss’s eyes went wide. They dared appear in public together? Prentiss knew Major Lorne had accompanied Lieutenant-Colonel Sheppard on leave, had been at Sheppard Industries yesterday, but she hadn’t thought -

“Boys.” General O’Neill smiled jovially. “Come on in. Close the door behind you.”

The stepped into the office, Major Lorne closing the door after them. Prentiss noted that Lieutenant O’Neill stood front and center, Major Lorne slightly behind him and to his left, posture and demeanor deferential. That made some sense, given that this was Lieutenant O’Neill’s reassignment briefing, but something about the way Major Lorne deferred to someone junior to him in both rank and age was bizarre.

“Jack,” Lieutenant O’Neill drawled. The utter lack of respect for rank was mind-boggling.

“Jonathan,” General O’Neill responded with the exact same drawl.

“Agent Prentiss over there told me I’m up for reassignment.” Lieutenant O’Neill slewed Prentiss a sidelong glance, as piercing and sharp as any of General O’Neill’s. It was like looking into a fractured mirror, where the man was old on one side and young on the other.

“Yes,” General O’Neill said.

“I want to resign my -”

General O’Neill held up a hand. “Before you get ahead of yourself, hear your options.”

“I plan on doing the same, sir,” Major Lorne said quietly.

“Like I said, boys, hold your horses.” General O’Neill fixed them both with stern looks.

Major Lorne ducked his head. Lieutenant O’Neill looked unimpressed.

“The way I see it,” General O’Neill said, “you have three options. One, you can continue as you have been, Junior doing covert ops, Major Mopey being XO on Atlantis, both of you trading messages through me and Samuel Winchester and whoever else gets caught up in the middle. Two, you can resign your commissions and go fix engines and paint and listen to opera on an exotic beach somewhere. Three, you can return to Atlantis, Major Evan Lorne, XO, and Dr. Jonathan O’Neill, PhD in Aerospace Engineering, on a new project to retrofit UAVs with mini-drones.”

Major Lorne glanced at Lieutenant O’Neill, startled. “You got your PhD in Aerospace Engineering?”

“Masters in Aeronautical Engineering,” Lieutenant O’Neill muttered. “That doesn’t get us out of the mess we’re in.”

He had his masters at such a young age? How was that possible? Nothing in Prentiss's file indicated such levels of genius.

“It’s Atlantis,” General O’Neill said flatly. “You two can hang out with Sheppard and McKay and form a club, or something.”

Major Lorne’s eyes went wide. “You know about -?”

“You know I’m not nearly as dumb as I look.” General O’Neill pinned him with a glare.

Major Lorne swallowed hard. “Of course, sir.”

General O’Neill drained the rest of his coffee in one gulp. “So, boys, what’s it going to be?”

“Just a minute, General,” Prentiss said, “I’m Jonathan O’Neill’s control officer -”

“And Jonathan O’Neill was on loan to the NID from the USAF. Me Air Force, you NID. I win.” General O’Neill smiled, not nicely, and turned back to the two men. “So?”