Title: A Life Less Ordinary
Rating: PG-13, for language
Summary: For wildwestlantis au over at livejournal. It was suppose to be a brief acquaintance that lasted the length it would take him to escort her to the outskirts of town. It ended up turning into a life and death situation, and along the way, John Sheppard discovered something he never realized he was missing.
Author's Note: My first attempt at this 'verse, and thanks to AngelQueen04 for beta'ing
John Sheppard had been to many towns in his life, and planned to visit many more.
Atlantis was just another stop on the trail for him, and he and his partner, Ronon Dex, would have been out of here some time ago . . . if only it hadn't been for the two broken ribs, the internal bleeding, and various wounds of an inflicting nature that kept John shackled to a bed like a prisoner under Doctor Carson Beckett's overbearing care.
Now, yes, the Doctor's clinic made a better environment than the original place he'd been hauled up in. He had the extremely vague recollection of being placed in the basement of some store, mainly because the townfolk feared reprisal from the Wraith for choosing to help John out and had to subsequently hide him for the first two nights until the coast was deemed clear.
There were certain things in life John never liked much, and taking orders for any extended period of time was one of them. Carson had a problem with this, and John had a problem with that. Don't get him wrong - he liked the doc, he really did. Most of the townfolk here looked like decent and hardworking people, at least as much as he'd seen in the last two weeks since he'd been forced to recuperate here. Mayor Hammond and his Deputy, Jack O'Neill, had even been kind enough to drop by and inquire of his health a few times, although John had a gut feeling it was more to make sure he was leaving sometime soon.
People in these lands liked strangers well enough, as long as they didn't stir up trouble. And unfortunately for John Sheppard and everyone around him, trouble was one thing that always chased him around like a stray puppy dog.
"Take these twice every day, lad," Carson said, walking into the room with his white coat flapping every which way, "Don't skip any meals, and rest up, or you run the risk of the infection coming back. The last thing you need is to fight off a fever while you're traveling in the middle of God-knows-where."
John gave a mock salute. "Yes, sir. It's nothing but bed-rest and warm meals from here on out."
Carson snorted, not at all amused. "Don't give me cheek. I know your type. Aye, you're a bunch of gunslingers that couldn't stop moving if your britches were glued to the floor."
"Believe it or not," John replied, cheekily, "that actually happened to me once."
Carson narrowed his eyes, and huffed something under his breath that John didn't quite catch. He gave him the medication in one hand, and then handed him a brown bag. When John tossed a furtive glance inside, he found a slice of homemade apple pie and a turkey sandwich that must have been garnered from the local café - the proprietor of which was a saucy maiden named Vala Mal Doran that had made even Ronon blush with some of her innuendos.
"Thanks, Doc!" John said happily, taking a whiff of the apple-pie.
Carson sighed, muttered some more, and then walked away.
And just like that, John Sheppard was a free man. One that was eager to hit the trail and leave the good town of Atlantis behind within hours. The Wraith were still out there, and despite recently taking a harsh beating from them, John wasn't planning on tucking his tail between his legs and running. Not after all he'd seen. Not after they'd killed the whole Indian encampment up north, and slaughtered a farmer's entire family he'd seen on his way here.
He'd already warned the townspeople of Atlantis of the threat, but few had given him the time of consideration he thought he deserved. He got the feeling that most of the people here believed that the outside world wouldn't intrude onto their little town, and while he hoped this was true, he knew better. Whether they heeded his words or not and took to protecting themselves against the Wraith, well, John had the foreboding feeling that this was no longer within his power to influence.
Ronon met him outside the clinic, eager to get moving again after such a long stay of inactivity. John knew the feeling, as neither one of them was the settling-down type. That was probably why their partnership worked so well. Neither asked the other of anything that they weren't willing to give.
"I got pie," John said, holding up his bag with a certain smugness.
Ronon looked over at him with boredom, but John Sheppard wasn't called his closest friend for nothing. He saw the glint of interest that flickered in his eyes - well, not so much flickered as... did nothing whatsoever. Alright, so there was absolutely no visible change in his appearance at all. Ronon Dex had a great poker face, but then John knew him well enough to know he had a particular weakness when it came to food, especially good food.
Ronon grunted, "We finally ready to go?"
"Contain your enthusiasm," John replied, wryly, walking over to fasten his belongings onto the saddle of his horse. "We're leaving soon enough."
"Why not now?" Ronon asked.
"Because," John began, exasperated, "I've got one thing to take care of before we leave. It won't take long.
Ronon mounted his horse. It was a big black beauty of a thing; it had to be to carry a man the size of Ronon. He looked off into the distance, squinting against the sunrise, and then turned back to John impatiently. "Finish up whatever you have to do. Meet me at the edge of town on the east side. You know, the place we stopped over at on our way here."
John nodded. "Meet you there in a couple of hours."
Ronon nodded back, and pulled his horse away and started idly treading down the center of the street, right past the town-square and into the blinding glare of the horizon's sunrise. John watched him go for a moment, before he turned around and stared at the Town Hall that stood a few yards away from the centrally-located market. He glanced over at the large clock tower and saw it was just about time for the local meeting with the Town Council.
He sighed. He supposed he had to give it one last shot.
The Town Council consisted of five people, only four of which he'd met so far. The two sitting to the right were the most familiar to John. George Hammond and Jack O'Neill had seemed like truely decent men, the latter of which even had a unique sense of humor that John keenly appreciated. Next to him was Jacob Carter, a man John had only come to know by reputation as the retired Sheriff of Atlantis, but unfortunately, the same know-by-reputation deal didn't hold true for the last gentlemen of the group - Robert Kinsey, the local banker who encapsulated every cliché of the greedy businessman to the "T". In the two weeks since he'd been here, Kinsey and the current Sheriff, named Caldwell, had been the only individuals in the town to be outright rude to him and Ronon.
Kinsey had even gone as far as to suggest they were outlaws, and while John admitted to bending a rule or two whenever it seemed like the prudent thing to do, he'd never done anything that should warrant the stigma of being called an outlaw. John didn't pride himself on much, but he did pride himself on being an honest man.
That last member of the council, however, was what caught John's eye the most. Elizabeth Weir, the woman who owned the store in which John had hid out in for some time after he'd been shot. He recalled a bit of the conversations that he had with her, but really, most of everything those first few days were bogged down in a feverish haze. He had no clue that this woman had also worked her way onto the Town Council, and apparently held it with few objections. He didn't know much about her, but that in and of itself already made him take note of her.
Whatever the case, John thought, she was certainly easy to look at. While he always had a thing for brunettes, this one seemed to hold herself with a certain poise that made John want to sit up straight and brush down his wayward hair.
"Mister Sheppard," Mayor Hammond called, grabbing John's wandering attention, "The Council is ready to hear your address now."
John stood up and awkwardly cleared his throat, never one to like being the center of attention. "Sirs, Ma'am," he tipped his hat at them before realizing he should probably take the thing off. He quickly secured it under his arm, and started again. "I just wanted to reiterate my earlier warnings regarding the Wraith," he said, trying to imbue a certain amount of class he knew he didn't have. "I know you think this gang is nothing but a new threat that will die within the year, but I assure you, it's gained an incredible amount of influence in a short period of time. Atlantis needs to consider how it's going to handle the situation–"
"What situation?" Kinsey asked, derisively cutting in. "The Wraith are nothing more than a few punks that like to make noise, and they haven't even come down this far south. There's no reason to think they will."
"I beg to differ, Sir," John replied, holding in his impatience with the man. "My partner and I have been tracking the Wraith now for over two years. We followed them just to your outskirts, and I think the rest of you know we stumbled onto them two weeks ago. You local doctor was kind enough to take me in and heal me after that incident, and your town's been nothing but nice and neighborly to me," he cast a quick glance over to Kinsey, "mostly anyway. So I feel it's my duty to press the severity of this threat to you. The Wraith is not your average gang. They don't know the meaning of mercy, and if they come around these parts, you're looking at a disastrous outcome."
Jacob Carter spoke up, "Our town has handled gangs before, Mister Sheppard."
"Not like this, you haven't," John countered, firmly. "The Wraith are a whole new breed of filth."
Jack cleared his throat, "I have heard a word or two about them from the Indian Tribe down south. Skaara said he'd heard the Lenape tribe was nearly wiped out because of a few of these idiots."
Kinsey sighed, exasperated, "We're not Indians, and so they don't have any reason to have any quarrel with us."
Jack narrowed his eyes. "You think they had a good enough reason to kill off an entire tribe of Indians, though?"
"Gentlemen," Elizabeth Weir interrupted, speaking for the first time to calm the two, "Let's not go down that road again. I believe Mister Sheppard was saying something."
John nodded his head at her, appreciatively. "Like I was saying, you need to prepare your town for them. The Wraith are the type to attack without provocation or warning, and I'd hate to see this town get torn apart like some of the others I've seen..."
An hour later, John emerged from the Town Hall feeling like he hadn't accomplished a damn thing. Despite the sympathy he'd garnered from four of the five members of the group (Kinsey, unsurprisingly, was the one who still regarded John as nothing but a cockroach), he still had a feeling that this town wouldn't truly mobilize its defenses until they really felt the threat right at their doorsteps.
It was like this all the way west of the Mississippi. Isolated settlements that believed no one would bother to harm them, only to be defeated with barely a struggle when the Wraith swung by and no one came to their aide precisely because they were an isolated settlement.
He sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair in frustration, and then clamped his hat back down. He casually nodded his head at the other older gentlemen as they left the Town Hall, and silently wondered how long it would be before they even forget a man like John Sheppard ever stumbled onto their lands, wounded and crying wolf about a gang of hoodlums.
They probably thought he was over-exaggerating, and John hated being overlooked like that. It was largely responsible for his style of life. No one could look down on you for long if you kept moving.
"It's no offense to you," he heard a feminine voice say from behind him, and he turned around to spot Elizabeth Weir walking down the steps with a parasol open to shade her from the sun. "It's just hard to believe that there's a threat looming," she told him. "Atlantis has known nothing but peace and quiet for as long as I've been here. It's hard imagining that changing."
John smiled politely, although inside he barely held back his exasperation. "I've found change comes, whether you want it to or not."
She smiled. "Truer words have never been spoken, I suppose."
He shifted in his stance, and while he'd like nothing more than to strike up a conversation with a pretty lady, he knew he had already tested the Ronon's patience long enough. "Miss Weir," he said, grasping hold of one of her hands and bending down to kiss it. He felt incredibly smug about the fact that she blushed slightly. "I believe this is farewell."
"You're leaving already?" Elizabeth replied, somewhat surprised. "I had assumed you'd rest up some more before venturing out again. You were in a pretty bad shape when you and your partner stumbled into Atlantis."
John held back an instinctual flinch at the reminder. "I'm better now."
He wasn't sure if Elizabeth was just more astute than the average person, or if his poker face was waning, but she thankfully changed the topic. "Can I ask," she said, "which direction are you going in?"
"Plans were to head east," John replied, "But truthfully, we go wherever the Wraith are. Lacking that, we go whichever way the wind blows, I guess."
Elizabeth nodded. "Any chance the wind is going to blow towards the Cheyenne settlement that's just beyond the outskirts of Atlantis?"
John raised an eyebrow, intrigued. "The one near the Indian reservation? Not sure. Any reason for asking?"
Elizabeth brushed an unruly strand of her long, dark hair out of her eyes. "I'm headed there myself. Janet Fraiser - you know, the local midwife - asked me to deliver some medicine for her to the Indian Shaman that lives nearby."
"You're traveling by yourself?" John asked, hiding his surprise and the touch of disquiet that accompanied it. He truthfully didn't like the idea of any woman traveling by herself, especially with the Wraith hovering not far from here. It just wasn't safe enough for his taste.
"Well," Elizabeth replied, amused, "I have done the journey a couple of times now, and it's nothing compared to the monthly supply runs I make to Denver for my store."
John nodded. "Well, it would be downright ungentlemanly of me to not offer my services now, wouldn't it? Do for some company?"
She smiled, "Actually, that was what I was hoping you would say."
Alright, John thought with a charming smile, he was sure Ronon could wait for just a little while longer anyway.
He rode his horse alongside hers in comfortable silence, marred on occasion with small talk and a get-to-know-you type of conversation. Despite having stayed in Atlantis for an unusually extended period of time (for him, anyway), John still knew only a handful of the people here, and it was certainly a nice change of pace to have a conversation with someone that wasn't constantly trying to gleam information from him - whether it was regarding his health, welfare, or the nature of his affiliation with the Wraith. Elizabeth seemed content to fill the conversation when John didn't feel up to talking too much, and he'd be lying if he said he didn't enjoy the lilt of her voice.
They continued this way for a solid twenty minutes, but plans abruptly changed when they approached an old mill on the outskirts of town and the natural rhythm of their journey was suddenly interrupted. On the far horizon, John made out the outline of several riders in the distance.
He recognized the red sash they wore tied to their saddles, and he felt a spike of adrenaline work its way up his spine as he abruptly stopped, forcing Elizabeth to stop not too far ahead.
"What is it?" Elizabeth asked, concerned. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Not a ghost," John replied, waving her back, "Just some ghouls."
The group of Wraith suddenly turned their heading, and rode straight towards them.
"Goddamn sons of bitches!" John swore, then fired off a couple of more rounds. He glanced over at Elizabeth, who was crouched down next to him behind the large overturned metal shack, and had the grace to look slightly abashed. "Sorry."
"Apologize for profanity later!" Elizabeth screamed, slightly high-pitched. "Figure out a way out of here, first!"
"Yes, Ma'am," John replied instantly, and looked around.
Elizabeth's horse lay wounded and incapacitated not too far from them, and his own horse had taken off for the horizon when John had jumped off in order to reach Elizabeth. Other than that, they were a good twenty feet from anything that would provide any decent amount of cover. The side-turned shack they were currently using had already spilled all its content onto the ground, but John didn't see any use for the various things that had tumbled out - a lantern, two stacks of hay that had broken loose and now fluttered freely on the ground, and a few other pieces of stray equipment, such as mining hats that had rusted over with old age.
He glanced back at the group of Wraith - three men, as far as he could make out, and one of them John knew pretty damn well - but thankfully, their cover was even more meager than what John and Elizabeth had been forced to hide behind.
"Just come out, Sheppard!" Steve taunted, overly-confident. "We promise we won't hurt the lady. We just want you."
"I'm flattered," John yelled back, keeping his head low. "But I'm going to have to decline. Nothing personal - oh wait, yes it is. Your word means less than horse manure to me!"
"Oh, come on, Sheppard," Steve teased. "We're three to your one. You're outnumbered, outgunned, and handicapped with a woman! There's no way you're going to get out of this one!"
Elizabeth muttered something under her breath that he couldn't hear, but he was pretty sure there was profanity involved. He'd stop and admire that about her later, but right now, he needed to prove Steve wrong somehow. He just had to figure out how.
"I've got an idea," Elizabeth said, and then grabbed the fallen lantern that lay littered on the floor nearby.
He eyed the object in her hands with bewilderment. "Don't know if you've noticed, but it's broad daylight out here. We don't need a lantern."
Elizabeth gave him a dirty look, exasperated. "Do you have a light or not?"
John fumbled for his pack of cigarettes tucked in his shirt pocket, and removed the lighter that was hidden underneath it. "Here."
"You know," Elizabeth said nervously, while she lit the oil in the lantern, "Smoking is really a filthy habit. Janet tells me it's actually quite bad for your health."
"I'll keep that in mind," John replied sarcastically, and then gestured wildly with his hands. "If we don't die from the bullets whizzing by our heads!"
Rather than respond, she tossed the lantern over their heads, arching the object into the air right towards the Wraith with surprisingly good accuracy. A moment later, he heard Steve let out a string of curses, and John decided to peak out from the side of the shack to see what was happening. The lantern had crashed to the floor and started a small fire around the Wraith that was quickly spreading to the surrounding loose strays of hay on the ground.
"Did it work?" Elizabeth asked, slightly wide-eyed.
Steve snarled, "You idiots! Dowse the fire! Quick!"
But the two other Wraith instinctively pushed back instead, attempting to avoid the small flames, and gave John a clear shot that, two expertly-aimed bullets later, resulted in evening the playing field a bit. They went down with two chest-wounds, leaving only Steve to deal with. John grinned in victory. He turned back to Elizabeth, and flashed her a quick flirtatious smile.
"Marry me?" he joked, half-serious.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Get me out of here!"
He turned back to see Steve pulling one of his buddies away from the fire, and realized their best opportunity for escape was now. Normally, he'd stay and fight, but with Elizabeth, he didn't dare stick around the Wraith for any longer than necessary. Hoping they would just take their wounded and leave. John turned back to Elizabeth and gestured towards the mining cove that lay a few dozen feet from them.
"When I create a distraction," John said, "Make a run for the mine. Don't look back, and don't stop for anything. Just keep running as far in as you can! Hide."
Elizabeth nodded. "What about you?"
"Don't worry about me," John replied. "When you get the chance, run!"
This was a bad idea, John thought as he made a mad dash for open fields that left him with no cover whatsoever. He blindly fired off a couple of rounds at Steve, rolled out of the way when he shot back, and generally did a whole lot of maneuvers that were either dangerously stupid or incredibly inventive.
When he finally ducked behind an overturned metal feeder, barely big enough to cover his crouched size, he glanced over at the mining entrance just in time to see Elizabeth run inside.
One damsel-in-distress safe, John thought sarcastically, now he just had to save himself!
"Hey, Steve," he said, almost conversationally. "I don't suppose we could just talk about this? I can be a pretty understanding guy when I want to be."
"You killed two of my men, Sheppard!"
"Yeah, well," John replied, annoyed. "You tortured me two weeks ago and left me and my partner for dead out in the desert, but you don't see me complaining!"
"I should have killed you while I had the chance!"
"Yeah," John agreed, darkly. "You probably should have."
More firing ensued.
And then he was out of bullets.
Son of a bitch, he was out of bullets! Where was Ronon when you needed him? The man was never out of ammuniation. John had seen him produce weaponry from his hair once!
"Hey, Sheppard!" Steve shouted. "Who's the girl you're with? Seems too high-classed to be with a roughneck like you. Perhaps she'd enjoy being with a real man."
"Well, when you stumble upon one," John retorted, childishly, "Make sure to tell her about it!"
There was only one thing to do, John thought now, glancing at the entrance to the mine. He'd have to make a run for it, and somehow figure out a way to defeat Steve if he followed in. Considering Steve was the vindictive type, John had little doubt he would. He waited for a moment for Steve to fire off a few wayward rounds, and just when there was a lull in firing, John made a break for it.
There was an immediate piercing hot pain that flared up in his right arm, and John instinctively knew he'd been shot.
He still continued his mad dash towards the entrance with determination, however. He ran into the cove, one hand covering the bullet wound that marred the other arm. Blood seeped in between his fingers and dripped onto the ground, but after he stumbled his way further down the cave, he gave it a closer inspection and realized the bullet had only grazed his arm.
As he made his way further down the mining cave, however, he noticed the a trail of blood it left behind. Perfect for Steve to track his way by, all the way into the twisted turns and right to his location.
He kept an eye out for Elizabeth, attention split thinly between her and the threat of Steve. Considering the light in here was pretty bad, he could have already run right past Elizabeth and not even known, but he optimistically decided that Elizabeth was smart enough to follow his orders and would venture as far down the cave as she could.
He quickly worked his way down the twisted footpaths, avoiding rocks and puddles of water alike, and tried to get his bearings straight in the damp darkness that the cave's environment provided. He dropped any debris he could find onto the pathway behind him, and made as little noise as possible while doing so. He made it another twenty feet down the tunnel before Elizabeth popped out from behind a corner and nearly plowed his head in with a shovel.
"Whoa!" John shouted, hands drawn in surrender. "Good guy, here!"
Elizabeth's shoulder sagged a bit, and she at least had the decency to look abashed. "Sorry."
He rolled his eyes, grabbed the shovel from her hands, and cast a quick glance back at the direction he came from. No sign of Steve, yet, and truthfully, that didn't sit well with John. Steve was the type of guy who was unrelenting when you pissed him off, and John had the scars on his back to prove it.
"Are there any other people here?" John asked, looking back to Elizabeth. "Any miners?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "When they all went on strike a few weeks back, the Genii just shut down the mill with no notice. Figured the small profits of this place weren't worth the hassle."
John sighed. "Terrific."
"Hey Sheppard!" Steve shouted from somewhere down the tunnel, his voice echoing off the walls in a low timbre. "Here's a riddle for you. You wanna know what a mine has plenty of, besides rocks?"
John paused for one second, and then instant comprehension dawned on him with alarm. "Get down!" he shouted to Elizabeth.
A second later, the tunnel exploded somewhere down the line with dynamite.
When John came to, he was half covered in rubble and fighting off a headache that pounded away behind his eyes. He slowly glanced around, disoriented and annoyed by a slight ringing in his ears, but the mining tunnel had collapsed around him and he was left in pitch black darkness. It took a moment for his eyesight to adjust, but before he could even see beyond the black abyss of darkness that encased the entire place, John remembered Elizabeth.
"Miss Weir?" he coughed.
The room swam circles around him, but he forcefully steadied himself and continued to call out her name. No one answered, and after the third time, John began to get more than a little worried.
With a slight sense of panic that gave him newfound motivation, he started to push the debris off of him, hands slightly coated over with blood he realized was seeping from several small cuts on his arms. It did nothing to help the sting of the earlier bullet graze on his forearm, but John gave all of this little attention, too focused on finding Elizabeth in this chaotic mess.
He removed the last of the rocks and boulders covering him with nearly more effort than he had to spare, and began crawling on all fours in the indefinable space that surrounded him. His hands were his only guides in the darkness, grazing over and touching the clutter around him, growing desperate to find something softer and smoother than the rough jagged rocks that surrounded him in every direction.
He stumbled onto her hand first, sullied and buried under a pile of rocks. He gripped her fingers, coming to instinctively curl around them for a moment, and then traveled up to her wrist to check for her pulse. It was faint, but the relief it gave him to feel the steady beat was ridiculously overwhelming.
He quickly started pulling the rocks away, faster and faster, until he finally managed to uncover her unconscious body under what had been a pile of suffocating debris. He couldn't see much, but his eyesight had adjusted better than before, and he could make out the dingy face and closed eyes vaguely enough to cause him concern. He reached out to wake her.
She refused to cooperate.
He leaned over her, and tried desperately to shake her as much as he dared. "Miss Weir! Miss Weir! Come on, open those pretty green eyes of yours. You gotta get up. Wake up, Miss Weir. Wake up! Elizabeth!"
Her eyes fluttered slightly, and managed to track him. "Wha– What's going on?"
He sighed, "You're giving me a heart attack, that's what. Open your eyes fully, Miss Weir."
She did, although it took a moment. He wished there was enough light in this place to get a better look at her, especially to see how cloudy and unresponsive her eyes were, but all he could make out was the dirt that covered her face and... "Son of a bitch," John muttered, wiping away at a trail of blood the ran down the side of her cheek.
"You, Mister Sheppard," Elizabeth said, slightly fumbling with her words, "n-need to mind your language more."
He slowly lifted her up to get a better look, and even with the extra care he took to be gentle, she still winced. He apologized, almost inaudibly, and then tracked his fingers over her scalp to discover a small head wound. Her hair was already matted over with blood, and coupled with her disorientation and the amount of time it had taken to wake her up, John quickly realized the severity of the situation.
"We gotta get you out of here."
"Yes, please," Elizabeth muttered, "Been thinking that for some time now."
He laid her back down as softly as he could, and then looked around again with a more intent scrutiny of his surroundings. They were trapped from a cave-in that caused both ends of the tunnel to collapse, and while they'd been lucky not to trapped under the larger piles of rubble, the space they were afforded to wasn't all that big. The oppressive air in this mine was made all the more worrisome when John factored in the fact that they might only have a limited supply of it.
He glanced back at Elizabeth again, only to discover her eyes were fluttering closed again. "Whoa, hey!" he said, coming back to her. "No more sleeping! Eyes open, missy!"
She coughed, and then whispered cheekily, "Don't call me... missy."
John rolled his eyes. "You gotta love a woman that can complain even when she's nearly unconscious."
Elizabeth glared at him, but John was more than willing to take it as long as she kept her eyes open. He ran a hand through his disheveled hair, and looked around the place with a sense of forlorn desperation. He forced himself to his feet, ignoring any indications of pain and injuries that he might have sustained himself, and staggered over to one end of the tunnel.
He experimentally started lifting some of the smaller rocks away, but a few minutes later, he came to a blockage of rubble that was too heavy for him to lift. He tried anyway, and managed to exacerbate the flesh wounds on his arms to the point where his eyes involuntarily watered. He had no earthly idea how he was going to get them out of this one, he thought dejectedly, and then glanced back at Elizabeth when he realized that silence had reigned for too long.
He found her asleep again, and reacted without even thinking. "Elizabeth!" he said, rushing over to her. "Elizabeth, open your eyes. You can't fall asleep!"
Her eyes opened, with difficulty, and then she looked at John wearily. "I'm sleepy," she muttered, eyes falling closed again.
"No," John replied, hands brushing against her cheek to keep her lucid, "You can't sleep right now. Not with a head wound."
"But I'm... so tired."
"I know, but you have to stay awake."
Elizabeth sighed, but her eyes stayed open with resoluteness. She glanced at him, and weakly raised an eyebrow. "Talk to me, then. Keep me engaged."
John nodded, licking his lips. "What do you want me to talk about?"
"Anything, just keep me preoccupied. Tell me about yourself."
John's mind immediately went blank, and he struggled to come up with anything even remotely interesting and appropriate to say under the circumstances. He bit his lower lip, and then dove in with the first thing that came to mind. "Uh, me, I like fast horses, anything shiny and worth selling, and a good hot meal. Really nothing more complicated than that."
Elizabeth simply replied, "And?"
"And," John answered, honestly, "I really don't like talking about myself much."
She sighed. "Fair enough, I suppose. Tell me about something else, then."
John opened and closed his mouth, and then finally thought of something to say, "Ever been to France?"
Elizabeth glassy eyes showed a small bit of surprise. "N-no, although I am fluent in French. Why? You've been there?"
John nodded. "I've been pretty much all around the world. I'm something of a nomad."
She gave him a look that he couldn't decipher for the life of him, and suddenly John felt like he'd told her too much without telling her anything at all. "That makes a lot of sense, actually," she muttered, half-drowsy, half-forcefully attentive. "You don't seem like a man who'd stop and settle down for much."
John expertly redirected the conversation back to France.
Sometime later, in the middle of talking about the one time he'd ordered a dish of snails at a restaurant without even realizing it, he decided to get up and try shifting the rubble again. He kept glancing back at Elizabeth throughout his labor, paranoid that if he left her unattended for too long that she might slip back into slumber, but Elizabeth coped better with the situation now that John had reiterated the importance of staying awake to her several times over.
She questioned him about France and England, and the half other dozen places he'd been to in his life, and while she must have been bone-tired and exhausted, behind the weariness, John actually detected a fair amount of genuine interest in the stories of his travels.
"Atlantis is the farthest to home I've ever been," Elizabeth said, almost forlorn. "Well, actually, Atlantis is more like home to me now, I guess."
He turned back to her, flashing her a smile to encourage her to continue talking. "Where were your raised?"
"Pennsylvania," Elizabeth replied, "I lived there until five years ago, when we decided to head west and settle down in Atlantis. It's seems like a lifetime ago."
"We?" John questioned, pointedly.
Even in the darkness, he saw Elizabeth's brief yet telling pained expression. "My ex-fiancé and I. Simon Wallace."
He hated offering any tidbits of his life to strangers, and he had no reason to believe that Elizabeth would be any different, so he wisely decided not to push the subject. He was, therefore, slightly surprised when she continued to tell him about it without any prodding whatsoever.
"He was a doctor," she said. "The plan was that I move down here and set up my store and he'd follow me within the year, but... he decided not to."
Idiot, John silently thought, wondering how classless a guy would have to be to leave a woman like her in a manner like that. John may never have been in love in his life, but he knew that if he ever found the right woman, he'd do everything in his power to make sure she was happy and keep her that way.
Of course, considering the turn his life had taken the last couple of years, it was probably best he'd never fallen for a woman. God knows what type of anguish he'd put her through with his lifestyle. He was a gunslinger, after all, and unlike the life of a doctor, his life didn't exactly afford the chance for any flourishing relationships.
Elizabeth sighed, visibly pulling herself out of a funk. "I stuck around Atlantis anyway. There's a lot of good people here. Good friends."
John nodded, seeing an opportunity to guarantee her ability to stay awake while he continued to remove rubble out of their way towards freedom. "Tell me about 'em."
Talking was good for her, John decided, because it put color back in her cheeks and allowed her to actively fight the fatigue that plagued her because of the bump on her head. She still faltered in her speech a lot, and showed a type of disorientation that worried John whenever she shifted a little in her position. Still, once she started to show enough improvement, John stopped casting thinly veiled looks of concern her way and actually started listening to her instead.
She talked about nearly everybody in town, some more than others, and John could easily pick up on the tone of affection for this group of people laced throughout her words and storytelling.
He learned Janet Fraiser was her best friend, and while the midwife could be intimidating when she wanted to be, Elizabeth's friendship with her was one of the strongest she had ever possessed. The frequent conflicts, however, that Janet found herself in with Doctor Beckett often tested Elizabeth's patience.
For some reason she claimed not to understand, Elizabeth had become something of a mediator in the small town. This role was largely responsible for her appointment onto the Town Council, where she not only mediated the numerous negotiations and treaties between the townspeople and various outsiders, but also the frequent head-butting that occurred between Robert Kinsey and Jack O'Neill.
Daniel Jackson was the local schoolteacher, and also a close, personal friend of Elizabeth's. John remembered hearing lots of gossip from his stay here, as much of it ran through the town like tumbleweed. He had to bite down on his tongue to keep from voicing the question that fluttered around in his head unexpectedly.
Rumor had it that Elizabeth Weir was either wanting to court Daniel Jackson, or she was the subject of some very inaccurate idle speculation. He wanted to know if any of those rumors were true, but honestly, what difference would that make? He had no right to pry into her life like that, and had no justifiable reason to be curious about who she was or was not courting. Elizabeth was pretty, yes, but John wasn't looking to seriously romance her. He had a bad habit of flirting with every pretty girl on his trail route, and if he did so with Elizabeth, even more so than usual, that was certainly nothing surprising.
All of this seemed to be proven mute when Elizabeth mentioned the fact that Vala Mal Doran had her eyes set on Daniel, and John felt absurdly relieved to note that Elizabeth looked incredibly amused by the possibility of that pairing.
He'd met Vala already, one of the few women in town that had caught his eye, but when she'd flirted more with Ronon than him, John had simply sat back and watched. Now, Elizabeth told him, while Vala basically flirted with every man in town, her true interest laid entirely upon the schoolteacher alone. Daniel often found himself the center of a great deal of attention when he had fight off her overt advances. Elizabeth found it entirely amusing and endearing all at the same time.
John smiled, wiping a trail of sweat away before it stung his eye. "You're a hopeless romantic, you know that?"
"Well, you might be just as hopeless," Elizabeth teased, weakly pushing herself into a more upright position. She winced in pain, but determinedly continued onwards in a softer voice, "Otherwise you certainly wouldn't let me prattle – Oh dear lord," Elizabeth muttered, sounding embarrassed. "Listen to me go on and on like those gossiping ladies in the Quilting Circle."
John smirked, rubbing the dirt off his hands before picking up the next boulder and heaving it towards the pile he'd set aside. "I don't mind. It's a nice change of pace from my usual conversation. Ronon might be the best partner in a gunfight, but his conversational skills tend to leave a little to be desired."
Elizabeth smiled, indulgently. "Still, gossiping has to be tedious for you."
"I had two older sisters," John offered, before he even thought about it. "Trust me when I say I was well accustomed to listening to gossip."
"Two older sisters, huh?" Elizabeth teased, then turned apathetic. "That has to be better than growing up the middle child in a family with four brothers - two older, and two younger."
John whistled. "Bet you were coddled like no one's business."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, starting to get color back into her pale cheeks. "Actually, quite the opposite. I learned to live like one of the boys. It was a liberating atmosphere to live in, for a girl. I suppose that's why I bought my own store. I always hated the idea of being looked after, and that's probably because my brothers never let me get away with begging off on anything that wasn't "appropriate" for a woman to do."
John turned back to the boulders that blocked his pathway, and hid his appreciative smirk.
An hour later, his exhaustion had worked its way up to such a level that the room swam circles around him. He whiped the sweat off his forehead, and did his best to keep the dizziness inconspicuous to Elizabeth. While her condition had improved marginally to the point where she could stay awake without him constantly pestering her, she still seemed slightly dazed and disoriented. The constant reminder of this was what kept John motivated for the last hour, but now he risked taking a dive into a pile of rubble in exhaustion.
"Mister Sheppard?" Elizabeth asked, concerned. "I've been telling you to rest. You can't go on like this."
John stifled down the automatic protests on his lips, and for once didn't argue the fact that he was working himself too fast and too hard. He nodded, walking over to Elizabeth's position and stumbling onto the ground beside her with less grace than he would've liked to demonstrate. He landed on the ground with an audible "oomph", and when he recovered and the room stopped spinning circles around him, he glanced over at Elizabeth to see an undisguised look of concern on her face.
"God," Elizabeth said, looking worried, "Why didn't you tell me you were so tired?"
He attempted a smirk. "Just give me a moment," he assured her. "I'll be fine."
Elizabeth eyed him in disbelief, and then did something that surprised him. She pulled him down closer to her, and purposely brought his head to rest on her shoulders. He would have normally protested, but the sudden level of comfort inherent in such an action allowed him a moment to breathe in and out without complete weariness soaking into his bones. He closed his eyes, completely unaware or uncaring of the impropriety of the situation, and let himself lean heavily against the support of Elizabeth while she leaned back.
He didn't even realize when he fell asleep.
He woke up sometime later with his head in her lap, breathing in the scent of her even through the layers of clothing and the smell of the mine surrounding them. It was a soft feminine fragrance that lulled his senses and made him instantly think of a time when his world wasn't constantly surrounded by the smell of gunpowder instead, but he quickly pushed this thought aside as he stirred, sheepishly, and glanced up to find Elizabeth's eyes intent upon him.
"Hey," he said, throat conspicuously dry.
"Hey," she replied, smiling down. "Relax, you were only asleep for about fifteen minutes."
Fifteen minutes, John thought, surprised. It felt a lot longer than that, and when he slowly moved to sit up, he found himself feeling considerably better than before. He glanced back at Elizabeth, almost forcing himself to look her in the eye, and spotted the amusement on her face just as easily as she must have spotted the embarrassment on his.
She smirked, showing an interesting sense of humor, and raised an eyebrow. "Relax, Mister Sheppard," she said, impishly, "Your honor was safe with me. I assure you, I kept my hands to myself the entire time."
He choked back an appreciative laugh. "I'm almost saddened to hear that, Ma'am."
Her smile morphed into a small bout of laughter. "God help me, you do know how to flirt."
"It's one of the things I was born for," John deadpanned, then glanced around and fully remembered their grim situation again. "My other talent, as I'm sure you've figured out by now, is getting into trouble."
He helped her to stand on her own feet, wobbling and looking so incredibly frail that John immediately suggested that she sit back down. She silenced him with one long, hard look. Her grip around his fingers and forearm tightened though, and when she finally released her hold a moment later, it looked like it was taking every bit of energy she had to remain standing on her own two feet. John stayed with arm's reach the entire time, eyeing her with concern and a fair amount of annoyance at her stubbornness.
She took a deep breath, and then glanced back at him. "Alright, let's start removing the rubble."
"Miss Weir," John said again, trying to keep his voice level. "I can do this myself. I'm rested now."
"As am I," Elizabeth replied. "And I can certainly help you move some rocks out of the way. We're both in this mess, so we both should try and get us out of here."
"You wouldn't be in this situation if it wasn't for me," John replied, almost growling. "Steve was after me."
"You think that would have stopped him?" Elizabeth began, pointedly. "What if he had come across me traveling by myself? Mister Sheppard, you probably saved my life by coming along. I don't even want to imagine what would have happened to me if those three men..."
She trailed off, but before John thought to follow her lead, he pictured the gruesome images of what the Wraith had done to others he'd seen along the course of his journies.
He glanced back at Elizabeth, the protective streak in him rearing its determined head, but he bit down on the sudden surge to forcefully tell her to sit down and let him figure a way out of here himself. He didn't think giving a woman like Elizabeth orders would be too effective, and quite frankly, he also didn't want her to think of him as an overbearing ass.
"Fine," he said, forcing his voice even. "You wanna help lifts rocks while you probably have a major head injury, be my guest."
He waited for her to venture towards the end of the tunnel first, watching as she situated herself into a sitting position nearby the pile of rubble. He continued to watch in silence as she stubbornly and determinedly started picking up rocks and boulders, and let out an exasperated sigh when he realized that she wasn't going to quit as quickly as he'd been hoping for.
He made his way over to her, and together, begrudgingly, they worked to remove the rocks that blocked their passageway. They worked quietly for several minutes, until Elizabeth decided to break the hush with a question that John actually preferred the silence to.
"Did you know the man that was after us? The last Wraith? You two looked like you knew each other."
John cleared his throat, and tried not to be terse in his response, "Yeah, Steve and me go way back."
"Was he the one that..." Elizabeth began, awkwardly, "You know, caused you those injuries recently?"
John nodded. "If you're asking if Steve was the one that nearly tortured me to death out in the desert two weeks ago, then yes. He and a couple of his good-natured friends can be really lively with a couple of drinks in them." When Elizabeth didn't respond, understandably hesitant about replying to such a statement, John felt like a total heel. He sighed, and then gave Elizabeth a sheepish shrug. "Sorry. Sore subject."
Elizabeth nodded, the large rock in her hand momentarily forgotten until John helpfully pried it from her hands. A pregnant silence fell for some time as they continued to dig themselves out, and its wake, John found he couldn't stop thinking.
It decidedly put him in a foul mood.
Despite Elizabeth's earlier protests, John started to feel an engorged sense of guilt at her presence in this situation. He felt like he had only himself to blame for their current predicament. This really wasn't a place for a woman like Elizabeth, and if she hadn't been traveling with a roughneck like him, he was positive that trouble would have avoided her.
"So," John said, breaking the strained silence. "How long do you think it'll be before the townsfolk notice you're gone longer than necessary and think something's up?"
Elizabeth sighed, brushing back an unruly hair from her face and succeeding in only smearing a line of dirt across her forehead. He had the sudden urge to wipe it away, but she spoke before he could put that unexpected thought to action. "I was supposed to be home just before sunset, and I had dinner plans with Samantha Carter and Janet tonight. I guess when I don't show up, they'll get concerned and round up a search party."
"You think anyone will take their concerns seriously?"
Elizabeth's lips twitched upwards. "You obviously don't know the sway the women of Atlantis hold over the town, especially Samantha and Janet. If they yelled fire, you can guarantee the entire town would be grabbing buckets of water before they even stopped to check for smoke."
John could think of few towns he'd been to that had such a presence of women. From what little he'd seen of this town, and the more he learned from Elizabeth, John realized that there was probably an abundance of special ladies occupying this place. Still, John liked to think he had the companionship of the best of them. Say what you will of the current circumstances, John silently reiterated to himself, but he really couldn't knock the company.
Fresh air seeped through the small pocket they had managed to uncover, and while it certainly didn't manage to do much to alleviate the stuffy condition of their small temporary adobe, the worry of a lack of oxygen had been thwarted. It also gave hope to the possibility that they may be able to dig themselves out of here, and that, John decided, was certainly news to celebrate. He pulled a few more rocks loose, allowing the small hole no bigger than his fist to slowly grow larger by inches, and then turned back to Elizabeth and flashed a grin.
"See?" he said, adopting a self-satisfied tone. "There was never anything to worry about. We'll be out of here in no time."
She gave him a quelling look, picking up a rock and weakly tossing it behind her. "I'll get excited when the hole is big enough to crawl through."
"Relax," John replied. "You take everything too seriously, Miss Weir. Nothing's going to go wrong."
"I really wish you hadn't said that."
"Why? Think I just jinxed our situation? Didn't take you as superstitious woman."
"Not superstition," Elizabeth replied. "But there's no reason to tempt fate."
"Oh," John replied, becoming amused. "So you're not superstitious, but you believe in fate?"
Elizabeth paused for a second, then conceded, "I suppose. There is a difference. Let me guess, though, you don't believe in fate? A man makes his own destiny."
"And pees standing up, too," John added. "Yup, those are the two fundamental truths of the universe regarding men. The rest is just gravy."
Elizabeth gave a short laugh, but let the subject drop. They started digging faster at that point, eager to finally get out of there, but this turned out to be a bad idea as exhaustion soon threatened to overwhelm John again. He was soaked in sweat and dirt, and by the time they had the hole about half the size necessary, he was nearly out of breath too.
Elizabeth eyed him in exasperation. "Mister Sheppard, slow down. If you pass out on me now, I swear I'm going to think of something cruel to do to you."
John smirked. "You have a funny way of showing concern."
"You have a funny way of taking care of yourself," Elizabeth replied, pointedly. "You need to slow down."
John nodded, and decided to rise to his feet and walk over to the other side of the tunnel. For a moment he breathed in deeply, and just wished the temperature in this place to drop a few degrees just to give him some respite. Their small environment had turned absurdly stuffy and unbearably warm over time, and the effect was now beginning to turn John claustrophobic.
Forget propriety, John thought recklessly, and started to pull his shirt off. His normally white shirt had lost its original color and now was so dingy and dirt-sodden than John was equally glad get the thing off for hygienic reasons as well as cooling purposes. He crumbled up the shirt in his hands and tossed it uselessly to the corner. He turned back to find Elizabeth staring at him, eyebrow raised in surprise.
While normally he would be a bit more hesitant about remaining shirtless in the company of a lady, John had been momentarily beyond caring. So much for being a gentlemen, John thought, and tried to ignore the voice inside his head that sounded eerily like his mother, reprimanding him for being so uncivilized.
"It's hot," John said, weakly and a bit defensive.
Elizabeth nodded, averting her eyes, and quietly resumed removing the rubble. John stood there for a moment, at an uncharacteristic loss for words, and then cleared his throat. He suddenly didn't feel exhausted anymore, and refusing to scrutinize precisely why, he made his way over to Elizabeth and crouched down to resume his work. They worked quietly side-by-side for a few moments, but John was acutely aware that Elizabeth was taking a lot of effort to avoid looking at him. The thought paradoxically pleased and annoyed him. He wondered if it was simply impropriety that kept her eyes averted, or something else.
He would be lying to himself if he didn't entertain the hope that maybe she liked what she saw, but that was a rather childish way to look at things, and Elizabeth was the type that struck him as a woman, and not a girl. Surely she'd seen–
Then he felt Elizabeth's hands trailing over his back and nearly dropped a large rock on his own foot.
"Oh, Mister Sheppard," Elizabeth said, but there was a touch of horror in her voice.
Her turned around to find Elizabeth staring intently at his back, and then he realized what had her undivided attention. The scars on his back, so fresh and new that even he had momentarily forgotten about them. Her hands trailed lightly over one of his wounds, and it sent a shiver straight through John that he couldn't repress. He pulled away from her touch, unnerved by the sensation, and she immediately withdrew her hand in self-reproach.
"I'm sorry," she said, eyes-wide. "I didn't... I was just–"
"It's alright," John said, awkwardly. "No need to make a big deal out it."
Elizabeth's eyes seemed to travel back to the hideous wounds on their own accord, and he could only imagine what she saw. He never had the privilege to see for himself the leftover evidence of what the Wraith had done to him two weeks ago, but he could imagine enough from the reaction it had garnered from Carson and even Ronon that the sight wasn't pretty.
"I heard it was bad," Elizabeth whispered, almost hesitant to say anything. "But this is..."
John opened his mouth to say something glib that would reduce Elizabeth to nothing but silence, or force one of them to quickly change the subject. The truth came out instead. "Ten lashings," he said, voice hollow, "and then I passed out."
She placed her hand on his shoulder that time, and John felt it difficult to breathe for a second. His throat unexpectedly closed off and he suddenly had to fight down the unwanted memories of being tied down and beaten like a dog. He wanted to think of something else - anything else - and when he looked at Elizabeth, he found a distraction quite easily enough.
In that moment, John had the overwhelming urge to kiss her, to rid the look of concern on her face and to erase the horrible memories swimming around his own head. He looked at Elizabeth then and saw everything his life should have been about, if it hadn't been for the Wraith.
He would have settled down with a woman just like her, John realized, and he would been satisfied to live the American life with a wife and children that ran amok on a couple of acres of land that he could call his own. He looked at her, and realized the man he could have been. He suddenly wanted to claim a part of that life with a kiss, fierce and possessive.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, and pulled him into a tight hug instead.
It was for the best, John decided later, when they resumed their work. She was too good for him anyway, and any stray thoughts of something more between them should have been trampled on repeatedly and excessively. It was a tense situation, John tried to convince himself. He just needed to get out of this cave and once he left Atlantis, all thoughts of Elizabeth would be put into instant perspective. There was nothing between them. She would probably look back at this day and remember it as nothing but the worst day of her entire life. That was all he would be to her - a reminder of the day that she nearly died.
The thought left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth.
When they finally removed enough rubble to open up a hole big enough to crawl through, John didn't find the enthusiasm and elation he'd been expecting to feel at finally being released.
"Who goes through first?" Elizabeth said excitedly.
He plastered on a casual smirk. "Well, normally I'd say ladies first, but I hope you don't mind if I take the lead on this one?"
She waved a hand, obviously eager to get out of here. "By all means. Just stay safe."
He smirked, more genuinely this time. "Yes, Ma'am."
"And stop calling me Ma'am."
"Yes, Miss Weir."
She paused. "Actually... I prefer it if you'd call me Elizabeth. All my friends do."
He stared at her for a moment, overwhelmed by an emotion he couldn't yet define but had already started to associate with her, and cleared his throat. "Only if you call me John."
When they finally emerged from the mine, it was nighttime outside.
Elizabeth leaned heavily against him for support, and John snaked his arm around her waist to keep her standing up. Now that they were free, John thought, he just had to figure out a way to make it back across the ten or so miles that lay between them and Atlantis. Civilization never seemed so far away in that moment, and as they started trudging their way through the lonely night, John was oddly conflicted in whether that was a bad thing or not. Then he remembered Elizabeth's condition, and decided he was just a selfish bastard sometimes, plain and simple.
"Oh, no," Elizabeth breathed, horrified.
John caught the source of her despair immediately. Her horse, which had earlier been wounded, lay dead in the middle of the road, creating an ugly reminder of the events of earlier today. He looked around and failed to see the bodies of the two Wraith he'd killed before, and John faintly realized that meant Steve had probably come back with some more of his buddies to recover the bodies.
"I've had that horse since I was thirteen years old," Elizabeth muttered against his chest, slightly choked-up. "It was a gift from my father."
John squeezed her shoulder once, but couldn't think of anything to say. His own horse had fled the gunfire as soon as it began, and while at the time he'd been a little upset with the beast for abandoning him when he was looking for a way out, he couldn't blame the animal for being smarter than he was. He was almost glad now that the horse got away.
He silently urged Elizabeth to start walking, equally to pry her away from the sight of her dead horse as to start the long journey towards Atlantis.
"I suppose this means we'll have to take your warnings of the Wraith a bit more seriously," Elizabeth murmured. "We can't ignore them if they're so close by."
"No," John agreed, sympathetically, "You can't."
Their pace was too slow, but John didn't dare tell Elizabeth to speed up. Instead, he matched whatever pace she adopted, and didn't so much as let her move more than an inch from his side the entire time. She leaned heavily on him, and with one arm protectively wrapped around her, in the dead of night, the sight would have almost been romantic if it hadn't been for the truth of reality.
"John," Elizabeth said, voice soft. "What are you thinking?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. I don't usually have much thought in my head if I can help it."
Elizabeth gave a huff. "You're a terrible liar."
"Well," John said casually, casting a cheeky grin down at her. "I've always been an obvious type of guy."
She looked at him then, eyes turning unexpectedly serious. "No, you aren't. You, John Sheppard, are a mystery to me."
John raised an eyebrow. "Not really. I'm pretty much an open and shut case."
"No, you're not," Elizabeth refuted, emphatically. "When you first stumbled into town, I had you pegged as your average gunslinger."
He liked to think his aim was better than the average gunslinger, but he couldn't otherwise argue with the description. "I am."
Elizabeth's eyes narrowed up at him. "You actually believe that, don't you?" she asked quietly.
"Of course I do," John replied, bewildered. "Why? What do you think I am?"
She gave him a serious look of contemplation, and then settled upon three words.
"A good man."
Jack O'Neill found them about two miles from the mine, and John had never been more glad to see a few horses in the distance in his entire life. He waved them down, and when the search party came closer, John was surprised to find Ronon among them.
"What the hell happened to you?" Ronon asked, gruffly.
John rolled his eyes, knowing there was concern somewhere in that question. "Long story. We need to get Miss Weir to the Doc."
"Not just Elizabeth," Jack commented, looking at him pointedly. "Been a bad couple of weeks for you, huh?"
"Gentlemen," Elizabeth cut in, "If you don't mind, we're both exhausted and–"
She didn't need to finish. Everybody worked quickly at securing them a ride after that, and it was soon decided that she would ride with Jack O'Neill on his horse. John released Elizabeth and watched as she clumsily climbed behind Jack onto his horse, and while he had his eyes glued to that sight, one of the other men in the search party got down from his horse and was gallant enough to offer it to John.
"Thanks, buddy," John replied, gratefully climbing on.
He smiled. "Call me Lorne. Marcus Lorne."
They immediately set off for Atlantis, and by the time they arrived at the settlement, a large crowd had gathered to greet them at the edge of town. Among them, John could now guess at the various identities of the people.
Thanks to Elizabeth's numerous stories and descriptions of the townspeople, he was immediately able to pick out Samantha Carter and Janet Fraiser from the group, standing next to Sheriff Caldwell. A man John presumed was Daniel Jackson stood to the side, only apparent because Vala Mal Doran conspicuously clung to him. The three remaining Town Council members stood in front, the personification of the age and experience of the town.
John wondered which among the group proved to be the other people he'd heard stories about. Elizabeth had mentioned her store worker, Laura Cadman, and Rodney McKay, the local inventor with too much steam for anyone to keep up with (except, apparently, Samantha Carter). He wondered if the annoying Saloon owner named Kavanaugh that Elizabeth despised was amongst the crowd, or the newcomers in town: Paul Davis, Cameron Mitchell and Jonas Quinn.
He never realized he'd been paying so much attention to Elizabeth's stories until that moment, when he felt more familiarity in this town than he had for the last two weeks staying there.
"Why is everybody gathered here?" Ronon muttered, trying to keep his deep voice low enough to avoid eavesdropping.
"Because," John answered, knowingly, "It's a community," he looked back to Elizabeth then, and whispered, "and they look after their own."
Carson had been ill-tempered to learn John had gotten into trouble so quickly after being released from his care earlier that day. John listened to the tirade of the Scottish doctor for a good thirty minutes, before he was diagnosed with two bruised ribs and a severe case of dehydration. Other than that, he was the picture of perfect health, especially compared to Elizabeth, whose condition John had finally been able to wheedle out of the Doctor. Her head injury had been labeled severe, and she was ordered mandated rest and supervision for several days.
Carson grumbled a bit at this point, and started to say something about Janet Fraiser horning in on his patient, but when he turned back to leave the room, he cast John a weary look that gave him his undivided attention.
"Bed rest!" Carson ordered, and meant it.
John nodded. "Can I see Miss Weir first?"
He shook his head, though his expression softened. "She's resting, lad. You can see her in the morning."
John licked his lips, nodded again, and then sat down on the cot that had been designated his for the last two weeks, and would be his again tonight. Carson walked out, white coat fluttering about him again in an energy that just made John weary by looking at it. He sighed, and looked across the room to the wall that divided him from Elizabeth's room.
He came to a decision then, and when he settled into his bed and folded his arms as a pillow behind his head, he knew exactly what he was going to do.
When morning came and Carson went in to check on his patient, John Sheppard had left Atlantis behind without so much as a farewell note in his wake.
John and Ronon traveled far enough away from Atlantis that the town didn't even appear on the trail maps they were currently using anymore. He figured the tried and true adage of "out of sight and out of mind" would help him shake off any unwanted thoughts, and he figured a hundred miles of distance between them would do the trick. He was determined to refocus on his duty, or so he told Ronon as they headed west to track down Steve and tie up the loose ends left unfinished.
They eventually came upon an old beaten-down town that had a big reputation for welcoming outlaws. John knew informants were a dime a dozen in places like these, and since he needed someone to point them in the right direction if they were serious about tracking down Steve, he decided to make a stop at the local saloon. Before entering the town, though, John made it a point to remind Ronon that they weren't stopping for either of the town's regular entertainment of low-class gambling or prostitution.
Ronon flashed him a grin. "I'm not the man that's had a woman batting eyelashes at him in every town and settlement this side of the Mississippi."
John rolled his eyes. "None of them were prostitutes. They were all high class ladies, thank you very much."
Ronon turned away and muttered something that suspiciously sounded like Chaya, but John let that one go, mainly because he didn't want to get into another conversation about how that woman had nearly been the death of both of them. Ronon still harbored some anger when it came to her (not completely unjustified, mind you), but still, John was currently trying to forget about a certain brunette, and talking about another one wasn't exactly his idea of a solution.
They rode into town, the epitome of every gunslinger cliché one could imagine. Normally, John felt in his element adopting such a role, but in the last week he'd found a sort of apathy in things he normally enjoyed. He pushed forth with a flippant smile, though, because that was what was expected of him. When they reached the bar of the local saloon, John ordered a drink first and let the bitter liquid pierce his throat before he even thought about doing what he came here to do.
Ronon gave him a sharp look. "You planning on getting drunk now?"
John smiled, trying to inject humor into his demeanor. "We are at a bar, Ronon."
That answer seemed logical enough for his partner. Ronon straddled the stool beside him, and ordered a shot of whiskey from the bartender. They sat in silence for a few moments, John too engrossed in the stinging taste of alcohol to mind much of anything at first. When a few more patrons entered in through the swinging doors, and the bar's lounge singer - a dark-skinned woman of striking beauty - leaned against the piano while a companion of hers started playing the mahogany instrument, John was content enough to just sit back and listen to the harmonic voice of the singer.
That is, until she sang about regret and love and of things that made John's head swim of thoughts that circled around Elizabeth, even against a constant effort to think otherwise.
He couldn't get her out of his head. Every god-damn thing he tried, anything he looked at, made him think of one thing. It was getting to be too much, and just when John realized he was getting drunk over a woman (an action he had never committed in his entire life - he'd gotten drunk over his family, poker, a few bad days, and sometimes because of loneliness, but never because of a woman), Ronon spoke up.
"If you miss her so much," he asked gruffly, "why did you leave without saying goodbye?"
John's head snapped up, but he recovered a second later. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he replied defensively.
Ronon gave a rough laugh that normally had other men cowering in their chairs. "Don't pull that bullshit with me, Sheppard. You've done nothing but mope around like a lovesick schoolboy since we left Atlantis."
"I have not!" John protested, indignant.
Ronon just gave him an incredulous look.
John's heckles rose. "It's none of your business anyway."
Ronon chugged back another shot of whiskey. "Normally, I'd agree," he said after swallowing the liquid. "But since we're partners, and I've been looking at your mug for more hours than any sane man should be forced to endure, it is my business. Your head's not in the game, Sheppard. That's dangerous for the both of us."
"I'm not slipping in my game," John protested, eyes narrowed in rising anger.
"Alright, then," Ronon replied, "Prove it. How many people are in the bar right now? And how many of them have guns? – Don't look. Just do it off memory."
John paused for a second, unable to answer.
Ronon leaned forward, intent on delivering his message. "Whatever you gotta do, just do it. I owe you, Sheppard, and I'm willing to let you slide on a few off days, but figure out what you have to do. Life's too short to fuck around like this."
Ronon got up then, and dropped a few coins onto the counter for the bartender. He then wandered over to talk with the sultry singer standing in the corner. John watched him go for a moment, then turned his attention back to the empty glass in front of him. His eyes skidded past the pile of coins next to it, and he idly picked up one of the silver quarters amongst them. He gave it a scrutiny undeserving of the intensity it garnered, and then sighed.
"Heads, I do the stupid thing and head back over to Atlantis," he muttered, eyeing the coin. "Tails, I never go back again."
He tossed the coin high into the air and caught it on its' way down.
Elizabeth Weir idly played with the chain of her father's old pocket watch while she sat in the seclusion of her office.
Up front, the store was being minded by Laura, so Elizabeth knew she didn't have to rush the stack of paperwork that had accumulated during her bout of sickness. Usually, she was one to pounce on any work that had remained unattended to for any extended period of time, but a full four days had passed since Elizabeth had been given a clean bill of health by both Carson and Janet, and she still couldn't get herself running on all cylinders.
She was never one to be lethargic or lazy, but her motivation to work seemed to have seeped out of her during the last two weeks and Elizabeth often had to force herself to pay attention to even the simplest of things.
She was beginning to make people talk, she knew, not that the townsfolk here needed much of an excuse to stir up the latest dishes of gossip. But this time, while Elizabeth hated being the center of attention like that, she couldn't bring herself to work up to indignation. All she wanted to do was be left alone. All she needed was just a few days to pull herself out of this latest funk, and she'd be fine.
It was easier said than done, and even the little pep-talks in her head were getting less and less enthusiastic as time went on. She knew exactly what the problem was, and that was an even bigger problem.
John Sheppard had blown in and out of Atlantis faster than the wind, and not been in her life long enough to make an impact. At least, he shouldn't have been. She had no reason to be hung up on the fact that he left without so much as a goodbye. It stung with lack of decency, yes, but it shouldn't have hurt this much. Instead of moving on with slightly bruised feelings, Elizabeth had been nursing something far more taxing and she hated herself for it.
"Miss Weir," Laura called, startling her out of her thoughts. "Should I close the shop up for the day?"
Elizabeth glanced at the time, and realized with a start that she had accomplished only a small amount of work that she had set out for the day. She cleared her throat, and stifling the self-reproaching voice in her head, she glanced up at Laura and nodded.
The store closed within minutes, and Elizabeth waved Laura off with forced enthusiasm as she said good-evening for the day. Laura had made her way out to have dinner with some of her friends, which left the entire place empty. Elizabeth decided the silence of the store would only make things worse for her, so she settled on a quiet walk through the town.
She wrapped a dark red shawl around her shoulders tightly, fighting off the chill of the cold Atlantis weather that had seemed to come in before its season. She started walking down the dusty roads of Atlantis. She waved at a few of the people still out about town, and nodded her head at Catherine Langford who was still knitting some winter clothing out on the front porch.
The day grew dimmer as the sun set, and just when Elizabeth had her own store back within sight, something - or rather someone - caught her attention instead. She abruptly stopped walking, and just stood there in a state of utter surprise.
"Hey," John Sheppard said, standing in the middle of the road like some apparition that was summoned up by her thoughts.
She recovered, a faint smile growing of its own accord on her lips. "Hi."