It's been eight months since Liz was introduced to the multiverse theory of quantum mechanics (she'd looked it up immediately upon returning home) and she is two-hundred and thirty-seven days into Project: Live Life to the Fullest (sometimes referred to as Project: Oh, For Heaven's Sake, Sac Up and Do It Already).
So far it has been a raging success.
Two weeks after returning to Earth she started calling people she worked with during her time at the United Nations. Five months after that she handed in her resignation to the dean. When the semester's paperwork had been completed she accepted a job as a foreign liaison and consultant in D.C.
Then she bought a dog.
Last month she signed up for cooking classes – emphasis on pastries (they haven't gotten to frosting yet, unfortunately).
She even managed to convince Rodney McKay to be her ballroom dancing partner.
On her way home from the office this afternoon she saw a billboard advertising the Maryland State Fair and its special guest: the world's largest pig. While it wasn't originally on her list of things to do, she didn't have a hard time convincing herself that it was an opportunity that someone living life to the fullest simply wouldn't pass up.
Two hours, forty-eight dollars, and one corndog later she and her recently acquired friend (Medium Scooby Doo) are standing in line for the Ferris wheel. She tugs at a wisp of her pink cotton candy, dropping it into her mouth and rolling it over her tongue as it dissolves. Life really does hold a sweetness now that it hadn't before.
"The Ferris wheel?" a young boy whines from his place in line behind her. "Can't we go on the rollercoaster again?"
"Please?" another chimes in with a plaintive tone so perfectly charming she's sure he must practice.
"I've let you two drag me around this madhouse for the past three hours. We've been spun, hurled, flung, twirled and tossed."
Her heart actually stops beating and she's unable to move. She knows that voice. She squeezes her eyes shut and battles back the overwhelming tide of adrenaline that sweeps through her.
"Uncle John gets to pick the ride this time," he continues patiently. "Then we can go be flipped to your little hearts' content. Deal?"
The response is unenthusiastic at best, but she barely registers it because it's John. God, John.
The warm August breeze ghosts across her face as her cheeks burn with a nervous blush. It blows her hair and pushes at her skirt, wrapping around her legs. She shudders, but she's certain it isn't a result of the wind.
She would be lying if she said she hasn't thought about the possibility that there's a John Sheppard walking around on her particular plane of existence. She'd be lying if she said she didn't think about it every single day. But she never once thought she would actually see him.
And now that she's found him she doesn't know what to do. She feels like she's fourteen again and Tommy McPhadden is walking behind her in the hall after Geometry. Does she turn and say something? Does she pretend she doesn't notice him? If she opens her mouth will words come out?
Sac up, she reminds herself, sac up!
She drops the remainder of her cotton candy in the bin, combs her fingers through her hair and pivots on her heel. "Why don't you boys like the Ferris wheel?" Okay, yes, it's cheating to break the ice with the children first. She's only slightly ashamed of herself.
"Because it's so slow," the first boy answers with an adorable little huff.
She tries not to smile as she crouches down to his eye level. "Do you know why it's so slow?"
"Because it's for old people?"
"Hey!" John exclaims with mock affront. He points a finger to his chest. "I am not old." He glances down at her and she wonders how she's remembered so much about him – the breadth of his shoulders, the spiky texture of his hair, every crease of his face.
The second boy rolls his eyes. "Please, Uncle John."
She meets John's gaze and holds the contact. She can practically hear the crackle of the spark that flares.
11He raises an eyebrow and she smiles sheepishly, turning back to the children. "It's so slow because they don't want boys like you to ride on it." Her lips twitch as the boy's brow furrows in confusion.
"They don't?" 1he asks, doubt creeping into his voice.
She shakes her head. "Nope, they don't."
She leans in as if divulging a secret. "Because you're not ready for it."
"I'm ready for anything!" the first boy says quickly and the second nods his agreement.
She frowns and hopes she looks stern. "You're too young. You'd be scared."
His lips pucker into a frown. "I'm not scared!" he defends before pausing, his thoughts catching up to his words. "Why would I be scared of the Ferris wheel?"
"Because it goes so high you can touch the clouds."
"The clouds?" The boys look to their uncle for verification. "Really?"
John nods knowingly. "Really. It's the highest ride in the fair. Why do you think it's my favorite?"
The ride operator calls for the next passenger and Liz deflates slightly. She stands up, giving John a small smile before turning and handing over her tickets. The voice in her head reminds her of her new outlook on life and berates her for letting the very opportunity she's been waiting for – pining for – pass her by. She bites her lip, disgusted with herself. She knows she'll regret this – in the morning, on the drive home, two minutes from now – but she can't think of what to say. How do you ask a stranger to join you?
"Excuse me," his voice stops her movement, "I was wondering if you'd be interested in some company." He tilts his head, indicating the ride. "I know how frightening the Ferris wheel can be."
She bites back a grin. That's how you do it. One eye narrows suspiciously and she half-turns to look up at him. "And you think I can't handle it?"
"No, no," he counters easily. With a guileless shrug he gestures to her arms. "You've got Scooby to protect you. I was thinking for me."
1She laughs and turns fully to face him. "Ah, well then I suppose company would be all right. I wouldn't want to leave you alone and scared."
"My knight in shining armor," he drawls with an arched brow and a smile before extending his hand. "I'm John."
She takes it and her skin burns on contact, heat searing a path from her fingers to the tips of her toes. "Liz."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Liz." 1He smiles at her, a full smile that is so genuine she feels one of her own blossoming in return.
The operator clears his throat and they both jump a little. "Would you mind if the boys cut?" John asks.
She shakes her head. When he offers a hand again she takes it automatically, letting him draw her up the short steps and lead her to the ride.
"Thanks," she replies, a bit shaky. As John helps the boys she takes a deep breath to calm her nerves. An entire ride with John. Just her and John. She can handle this.
She just hopes she doesn't do anything stupid like tell him that she's in love with him.
The ride jerks into motion, sweeping up the boys and bringing the next seat to a stop in front of them. John steps aside, gesturing for her to go first and ushers her in with the faint brush of his hand on the small of her back as if it's the most ordinary thing in the world.
"Cute kids," she says as they settle into the ride.
"Yeah," he looks to the car in front of them where two blonde heads are bobbing excitedly up and down. "They're my sister's. We spend time together when we can." He reaches up to pull down the metal bar, taking care to not squish her stuffed companion. "So, did you win Scooby with your charm or do you have other skills?" He smiles at her and it's enough to set her heart pounding.
"Well I do have surprisingly good aim, but I think the charm helped." She laughs softly remembering the fumbling, freckle-faced kid that had been behind the booth. "Teenage boys can't seem to resist me when I put my mind to something I want. First: Scooby. Next: intergalactic domination." The Ferris wheel rumbles to life and they begin their ascent.
John lets out a low chuckle. "Shouldn't there be a step in between? Like, I don't know, Large Scooby?"
"Well, you do have a point there." More of a point than he realizes, probably. "I'll have to work on my ring toss." She had actually been trying for the large one, thinking it would take her new puppy longer to chew through. But after eight dollars she finally admitted that medium would have to suffice. Now she's pretty sure that she's going to spare the little guy – maybe even build him a glass case – as he's proving to be quite a good luck charm.
"I happen to be an excellent instructor," he says with a hint of teasing superiority.
"Is that a fact?" She raises one eyebrow, eyes sparkling with amusement.
He nods sagely. "I actually had a ring tossed at me once." He points to his forehead. "Hit me right here. You can still see the scar."
She winces sympathetically and leans forward to verify the claim, squinting in the evening light. "I don't see it," she says after careful inspection.
He tilts his head up, his hot breath on her face sending tremors of electricity coursing through her. She knows immediately that she's in trouble. "Huh," he breathes. She can't – won't – move, worried that any action larger than a breath will break the spell that's wound around them.
"Huh," she echoes, aware only that the world has stopped turning. After what seems like an eternity she manages to engage her brain long enough to remember that she's only just met this man ten minutes ago and she pulls back, suddenly too embarrassed to meet his eyes. For a moment John looks as if he wants to say something, but with a bashful shrug he settles back into his seat. Liz drags Scooby onto her lap and toys absently with his ears. The wheel ceases its slow revolution, halting to exchange passengers a few cars back and affording them a view of the fair. The night sky is painted by the colorful glow of lights and music from the amphitheatre is faint in the distance.
She turns and catches him watching her intently. John clears his throat and asks in a voice that's not quite steady, "So, Liz, I know your name. Do I get to know anything else about you?" 1
"Hmm…" She 1contemplates him for a moment, watching the way the light plays across his face. The way it reflects in his eyes. She considers telling him that she's recently returned from another universe, that she played matchmaker to their alternate selves. One side of her mouth tilts in a half-smile at the thought, but ultimately she decides she'd rather not scare him to death at 100 feet. She settles on something a little less revealing. "I was married once, back in my other life," she says softly.
He studies her, eyebrows raised and his gaze is playfully wary. "Your other life?"
Nodding, she tugs her sleeves over her fingers and looks up at him from under her eyelashes. "I recently rebooted. I wasn't operating like I should have been."
John laughs and 1braces one arm against the bar, twisting in the seat to face her. "I do that with my computer when it starts acting up. I've never considered applying the concept to life." He tilts his head, curious. "How's it working?"
She brushes a strand of hair back from her eyes, a grin faint on her lips. It's working better than she ever expected. "Really well." She taps the chair with her knuckles. "If this ride flew to Pegasus, I'd say things were perfect."
"Pegasus, huh?" he asks with eager eyes and thinly veiled excitement. If he were a dog, his ears would have perked up and his tail would be wagging. "So, your adventurous streak extends beyond heights?"
She can't help but laugh. "I like to live dangerously."
He laces his fingers together at the base of his neck, leans back in his seat and tilts his head skyward. "I've been there, you know."
She's not sure why this surprises her, but it does. "You're military?"
Nodding, he turns to her. "Air Force. I spent four years in Atlantis before I came back."
She can't imagine the other John ever returning to Earth. "Why'd you leave?" He sits up and looks away, hooking his chin on his shoulder, and she instantly regrets the question. Chiding herself for being so insensitive she attempts to salvage things. "I'm sorry, that was an inappropriate question. I shouldn't have –"
He drops a hand to her forearm, cutting off her apology. "No, that's all right." His voice falls flat and he studies the space that separates them. "My CO and I didn't work very well together." He pulls back his hand and shrugs his next statement as if it doesn't carry the weight she knows it does. "I'm not very good at following the rules."
She lets her eyes sweep over his silhouette, searching for hints as to how the return has affected him. She thinks about the other Atlantis and the fact that John's inability to follow the rules was the very thing that saved Elizabeth. She imagines that hers wasn't the only life he changed by doing what he felt was right rather than following orders. "That isn't always a bad thing. 'Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.'"
For a long minute he looks up at her, gratitude evident in his features. Then his lips curve into a wry grin. "Which one of the X-Men said that?" He frowns and rubs his chin thoughtfully. "Wolverine?"
Liz shakes her head and fights the urge to roll her eyes. "F.D.R."
His smile is back and he points at her, shaking his finger. "That was my next guess."
She laughs with him and their humor slips comfortably into silence. People mingle in the park below and the stars shine brightly above. Somewhere in between the voices of John's nephews carry but the words lose shape and distinction as they drift across the night air.
1She lets her breath out slowly and stares up at the night sky, her brain clawing desperately for some suitable way to slow time and capture this moment indefinitely. The motion of the wheel is slowing now and she knows the ride is coming to its end. "Thank you for the company," she says, soft and shy.
"I should be thanking you," John responds with a satisfied hum, his shoulder brushing gently against hers, making her skin tingle. "If you two hadn't agreed to join me I'd be up here in the sky all alone."
She sighs happily and lingers in the sensation of being this close to him. "That's what we're here for," she says, dropping a pat on Scooby's head. A glimmer of doubt sparks unpleasantly. "You don't have anyone else to share the skies with you?" The second the question leaves her lips she fears she's being to forward, too obvious, but he elbows her ribs playfully and she can't do anything but smile.
He shrugs and glances at her out of the corner of his eye. "Well, Jake and Andy don't think it's cool to ride with their uncle." He grins. "They are, of course, completely wrong – but you know how kids are."
Her smile softens, deepens in response to his. "Their loss is my gain."
She thinks she sees him blush and she can't help herself. Ever so slowly she leans over and presses a gentle kiss to his reddening cheek. The contact feels warm and exciting and incredibly right though it's only a wisp of her lips on his skin. She pulls back carefully and at his questioning look explains, "Just taking some advice. Someone very wise once told me that I should take each day and do something I've always wanted to do."
"I think I like this someone," he says as the chair comes to a halt a few feet from the ground. The boys are released from their seat and an older couple takes their place. "Did he or she have any more advice?"
"Plenty," she breathes the words into the night sky. She can't remember ever feeling this happy.
They jerk forward a few feet before stopping and John lifts the metal bar, sliding out and offering her a hand. 1 Her fingers curl around his and grip. "Anything along the lines of 'go to dinner with a handsome stranger?'" he asks with an undertone of suggestion that turns boyishly hopeful.
She struggles to keep her heart in her chest, but fails even a token effort to keep the smile from her face as they walk off the ride and into the crowd. "I'm pretty sure that falls under doing something I've always wanted to do," she answers, soft and sincere.
"Uncle John!" one of the children yells as the pair race up to meet them. "Uncle John, I touched the clouds!"
John ruffles the boy's hair and his eyes turn to Liz. He squeezes her hand. "I did too, Jake. I did too."