Summary: Quantum mirror universe. Pirate!Villain!John. What, that doesn't make you want to read all by itself? This is Elizabeth/John.
Feedback: cherished, appreciated, generally adored.
It wasn't any of the usual signs that worried her. She wasn't having trouble sleeping, or eating, or having nightmares when she did sleep. She didn't feel guilty, or like she ought to explain herself to anyone. Elizabeth Weir felt fine. She slept soundly, ate well, and every day she went to work, and did her job to the best of her ability. She was good at it, and getting better all the time, with every new crisis.
She had no problem making the tough calls, and ordering her friends into nearly certain death. They made it easy. Courage, she thought, was not in short supply around Atlantis. Well, perhaps Rodney was a little short, but she could always count on John or Teyla to make up the difference. It had almost become routine. The Pegasus Galaxy would find itself in dire circumstances – the details of which Rodney was only too happy to expound upon in horrifying statistical detail – and Rodney, or Zelenka, or even occasionally John, would find some slim-at-best hope for salvation.
At first, those situations had made her sweat, everyone looking at her to decide which way to jump. Too many of them had thought her incapable of this job. The military expected her to be too soft, an expectation she knew she had to defy. The scientists expected her to protect their interests, and often, Elizabeth hadn't known which was the better call. But time and experience had smoothed away all the jitters; now, she barely blinked before tossing out commands that affected hundreds – if not billions – of lives.
And if anyone balked at following those commands, Elizabeth knew just what to say to get them moving. Her years as a negotiator served her well, here. And did she feel even a qualm at manipulating colleagues and friends? She used to. She wasn't so sure, anymore.
Which was how she found herself in Dr. Heightmeyer's office one evening.
"Elizabeth, this is a natural progression, an expected response to the constant pressure you've been under for over two years, now," the other woman explained patiently. "You're protecting yourself."
Elizabeth sipped her tea and said nothing. Dr. Heightmeyer sighed.
"Ask any General who's ever led men in war. You've distanced yourself emotionally from your subordinates so you won't feel their loss so deeply, because your subconscious has figured out that loss is inevitable."
Elizabeth shook her head, lips pressed together tightly.
"I'm not a General," she said, contemplating her cup of tea.
"Dr. Weir…" Heightmeyer waited patiently until Elizabeth looked up. "You hold a position of command which places you superior to those around you, people who – military and civilian alike – you've ordered into battle, time and time again. You are the very definition of a General."
It was hard to argue that. Impossible, really.
"But I don't want to distance myself," she said, finally, sidestepping the General argument for now. Only fight the battles you can win.
"You don't have a choice; your subconscious will continue to create that detachment for you." Dr. Heightmeyer held up a hand to forestall Elizabeth's automatic objection. "You could make a concerted effort at reconnecting with people, but it will take time and work, in addition to making your job that much harder, emotionally. You could find yourself unable to make the tough choices when the worst situations arise. Or…"
Elizabeth didn't like what she was hearing. It was a solution, just not a good one.
"Or," she prompted, when Heightmeyer didn't continue. The doctor shrugged, leaning back in her chair.
"Or, you could resign your command of Atlantis."
No, not a good solution at all.
"So," she said after a long moment, "how would you suggest I try reconnecting with people?"
Get back to your roots.
It was the only thing Heightmeyer had said all evening that resonated with Elizabeth in a positive way. She should have thought of it herself. Necessity had dictated she give up the more hands-on approach of scientist or scholar for the loftier position of command. She'd been so excited, so honored at the prospect of the Atlantis expedition, she'd barely even noticed the change.
She didn't plan on anything too drastic. After all, the last thing she wanted was to give up command of Atlantis for a position as linguist and negotiator. She'd stepped through that door long ago, and there was no going back. Just…a side trip or two.
John would argue, and he could be infuriatingly stubborn, so it was sheer serendipity when the perfect opportunity presented itself while he was away. She'd have felt more comfortable with his team, but the pros outweighed the cons. Besides, Major Lorne's team was perfectly capable.
Even if the Major did feel the need to say something in Colonel Sheppard's stead.
"Dr. Weir, this is inadvisable at best."
She raised an eyebrow, looking at him coolly.
"Are there hostilities on this gateworld you've failed to mention in your report, Major?" she asked.
"No, ma'am, but –"
"Then I fail to see the problem. In fact, I believe the word you used in your debriefing was 'deserted'."
"Yes ma'am. I –"
"You also mentioned that scans found the air breathable and the structures sound."
"Yes ma'am, the –"
"And that there appear to be several artifacts crafted from naqahdah which require examination."
"Yes, ma'am, and I was hoping Dr. McKay would be available to look at them." Lorne seemed pleased at being able to get a whole sentence out, rushed though it was.
Elizabeth dismissed this possibility with a wave of her hand. "Dr. McKay is with Colonel Sheppard's team currently, and can't be recalled."
"Then Dr. Zelenka –"
"Is on his first leave in over a year, visiting family. I won't interrupt that, especially when I am more than qualified to go in his place."
Lorne expelled a breath, his usual military stoicism giving way to desperation.
"Dr. Weir," he said, "I mean no offense, but how, exactly, are you qualified? You're a language expert and politician, not –"
"I believe the salient words in that statement are 'language expert', Major. You did say several of the artifacts in question had writing?"
"Yes, ma'am." A barely perceptible slump of shoulders. She hid a smile.
"Then let's go."
Elizabeth didn't travel through the Gates often, and when she did, it was more often than not to the familiar destination of Earth. She had to admit to a certain amount of excitement this time. She could feel the anticipation, the adrenaline coursing through her veins, accelerating her pulse. I have to get out more, she thought ruefully, rubbing sweat dampened palms against the legs of her BDU's.
"Everything all right, ma'am?"
She gave Lorne a professional nod, forcing herself not to smile foolishly, like a giddy schoolgirl snuck out for a night on the town. He eyed her for a moment, then turned back to his team, issuing orders to make sure she was kept under watchful guard at all times. She suppressed a sigh. Well, not quite so much freedom as that giddy schoolgirl would have, but at least she was here.
Not that 'here' was much to see. The Stargate was erected on a plateau, flat in any direction she cared to look, surrounded by dry red soil with the occasional tuft of brownish grass waving in the breeze. No structures. No real vegetation. No sign that sentient life had ever existed here. She slanted a look at Lorne.
"Ah, the settlement is two clicks northeast of here, ma'am."
Her excitement dampened. A nice long walk, in boots she wore only a handful of times each year. Lovely. But she said nothing, merely nodding and taking the first of the few thousand steps ahead of her.
After the first hundred meters, she suspected they were keeping a slower than normal pace for her sake. By the first kilometer, she knew it, and consoled herself with the knowledge that they probably did the same thing for Rodney or Zelenka. But she also resolved to step up her gym program when she got back to Atlantis, and to make sure her field boots were nicely broken in before her next excursion.
By the time they made their way off the plateau and the first buildings came into view, Elizabeth was hiding a grimace and a limp with every step she took. The site of the first structures at least renewed her earlier anticipation. Once they crested the small rise overlooking the city to see its full breadth laid out before them, her breath caught.
They were coming upon it late in the evening of this planet's day, the sun low in the sky. Tendrils of light and shadow spread out over the red earth, and lined the gray and white remnants of the vanished city in a silvery glow. Crumbled spires rose into the sky, majestic and sad all at once. Towering columns lay in pieces where they'd fallen, an untold time ago, and the jagged edges of scattered rubble jutted here and there in the fading light. It was a sparkling jewel, now gone lackluster and cracked. A once flourishing city gone to ruin. And more, so much more that for a moment, Elizabeth couldn't speak. Her throat closed tight. Her mind took what it knew this city should be, and juxtaposed the ghost of what had once been over the abandoned shell before her.
"It's…Atlantis," she said finally, having to work to get the words out.
She gestured to the tallest spire, the familiar arches and swells of the architecture.
"Well, not exactly, but close enough. It has to be an Ancient city." Her heartbeat sped up as new excitement hit her. Those artifacts she was going to examine…Ancient artifacts? "This could be the most important discovery we've made since Colonel Sheppard found the Orion."
"And Dr. McKay," said Lorne.
"What?" Elizabeth blinked, looked at him.
"Since the Colonel and Dr. McKay found the Orion. Not that we were able to keep her long." Lorne grimaced, and Elizabeth belatedly remembered that Lorne had been commanding her when the Orion had met her end, at the hands of the Wraith.
"If not for you and the Orion, Major, we'd have lost far more than a ship that day," she said softly.
"Right you are, ma'am."
But she could sense the false cheer in his voice. His first serious command, and he'd lost the ship. It was a wound Lorne still carried, and probably would carry for some time to come.
"We'd best get moving again, ma'am. We're about to lose the day." Lorne was right; the sun was fast slipping below the horizon.
Elizabeth started forward again. Briskly, the Major nodded to one of his team, who moved forward to take the point position while he continued to pace her.
"The artifacts are in the main structure of the settlement, basement level," he told her. "For the most part, the buildings are intact, which will allow us to set up a decent base camp where you'll be working. I'm going to send out my team in pairs to collect soil and water samples, and investigate the other structures more thoroughly."
She got the impression Lorne wasn't quite sure how to treat her. She doubted he ever explained his orders to Rodney so thoroughly.
"I'm subordinate to you on this mission, Major. You just do whatever you feel is best, and I'll do my job to the best of my ability." She smiled. "Deal?"
He hesitated, then nodded.
"Deal, ma'am. I hope that means you'll do what I say without question, if it proves necessary."
"Necessary? Are you expecting trouble?"
"Always. Just because this place was empty last time doesn't mean it will be this time. This world does have a Stargate, and who knows what these artifacts are capable of." He paused. "You should exercise extreme caution when examining them, Dr. Weir."
She agreed with him, even if she found his caution a little overboard. Wasn't it usually the military who leapt first and asked questions later? She was only going to examine the artifacts, not try to use them. Besides, she didn't have the gene that would allow her to operate Ancient devices, if these proved to be such.
They reached the outskirts of the ruin as the last of the sunlight fled, and Elizabeth fumbled with the light attached to her belt. Five other beams pierced the darkness, Lorne and his team lighting the path ahead.
"Be careful, Dr. Weir." Elizabeth was really starting to tire of Lorne's constant litany of cautions. "There are a lot of sharp edges to the debris we're walking through."
"Major," she said after a moment, "do you think you really need to remind me not to step on broken glass or shattered metal?"
"Er…no, ma'am. It's just—"
He wouldn't quite meet her gaze, sweeping his light off to the left so he'd have an excuse to glance away.
"It's just, I don't want to think about what the Colonel would do to me if anything happened to you on my watch."
Elizabeth pressed her lips together to keep herself from blurting out just what she thought of that statement. It wouldn't do to undermine John to his subordinates by calling him overbearing, overprotective, and reactionary. Even if he was all of those things.
"I've gone off world before, on more than one occasion," she said finally.
Lorne swept his light back her direction, and gave her a look.
"With Colonel Sheppard's team, ma'am."
She didn't say anything, because she had no response to that; it was true.
"Here's the main building," Lorne said a beat later, and directed his light up the length of a tall spire still mostly standing, where it erupted up through the ground. It bore a striking, though not identical, resemblance to Atlantis' central tower. "The artifacts in question are below ground, on the bottom-most level." He gave a hand signal, and two of his team went into the building. "We'll wait out here until they give the all clear."
They waited. And waited some more, until even Elizabeth started feeling a sense of foreboding – was something here, that hadn't been here the last time Lorne's team had been through? They'd seen no sign of Wraith in the system, but that didn't necessarily mean—
"All clear, Major."
The voice over the radio made her jump, and then flush with embarrassment. Damn it, now Lorne's paranoia was getting to her. Without a word, she adjusted her pack and stepped into the building.
Lorne set up a base camp on the main floor, and sent his team out in pairs, as he'd promised. He accompanied her personally down into the lower levels, but Elizabeth didn't care one way or another. Excitement was bubbling up within her again, overriding her annoyance, and even the pain of her blisters. What new artifacts or technology awaited them on this forgotten world?
As it turned out, a great deal. And much of it she couldn't even begin to identify. Small, large, dusty, unglamorous pieces of…junk. No, no. Not junk. Surely not. Scans of the…stuff…indicated a certain low level energy emitted by most of it. The chair she recognized as a smaller, broken version of the control chair on Atlantis. A couple of larger, console shaped items could be similar command posts. She considered having Lorne touch them to see if they responded in any way, and then tabled the idea for later, after she'd completed her initial examination. She was starting to fear that this was, indeed, where the Ancients of this city had stored their old, defunct, or broken items.
"I'm going to check in with my team, and send a status report to Atlantis," Lorne told her after more than two hours had passed. "I'll be right back; don't wander off."
She bit off a response to that last admonishment – where did he think she was going to wander off to? – and merely nodded as she input more scans.
It wasn't until she got to the mirror that she encountered any of the writing Lorne had mentioned. And it was definitely made of naqahdah. Some of her ebbing excitement returned. She frowned. She couldn't recall any Ancient mirrored technology on record, and it seemed odd that they would keep a mere looking glass in the same storeroom as a control chair. It was taller than her, roughly seven feet by five feet. She stepped in front of it, and stopped, frowning. She looked behind her, then back at the reflective surface.
"Odd," she muttered to herself.
It reflected the wall behind her perfectly, but not her. She waved her hand, feeling foolish as she had no reflection to wave back. Nothing, not a flicker of movement. Something, some memory tickled in the back of her mind, but she couldn't place it.
Maybe it only reflected inorganic materials…but if that were true, the scanner she was holding, her belt, her weapon, and myriad other tools and things on her person ought to have shown up. She studied the writing along its frame, hoping to recognize some of the characters. They did look familiar…they reminded her of the chevrons on the Stargate, but not quite the same. Of course, the similarity might begin and end with how they encircled the mirror, as the chevrons did the gates. They could merely be decorative. Reaching out, she hesitated for a brief second, then lightly touched one of them, running her fingers over the smooth edges of the etched character. And they were smooth, likely carved into the naqahdah frame with some sort of laser.
She reached for her datapad to make a note of her observations, only to have the floor suddenly shift and lurch beneath her feet. She stumbled, tapping her headset.
"Major?" she demanded. "What was that?"
"A tremor, ma'am. 5.4 on the richter scale." His voice sounded clipped and unhappy. "Looks like we may have discovered what leveled the city. I'm picking up some major seismic activity happening here…I'm sending to Atlantis for a Jumper extraction."
"Major, I'm not done here yet. I've found something very interesting that may—"
"Ma'am, you promised you'd follow my orders, and my orders are we leave. You have three minutes to finish up whatever scans or notes you're taking, and then we're packing it in." He paused. "The last thing we need is to be buried under what's left of this city. I told you, a major quake is coming."
"Fine, then get the rest of your team down here so we can box up and take with us whatever we can manage." She was not going to lose what could be the most important discovery since the Orion because of an earthquake.
She clipped her datapad to her belt and fished through her pack for her standard issue thermal blanket. She didn't want the surface of that mirror getting cracked during transport.
She unfurled the blanket just as she heard the telltale tread of military boots coming down the stairs. Good, they could help her tie the blanket around the mirror, and—
The second tremor was much worse than the first. She reeled crazily, like a drunkard, as the floor tilted and the walls shook. Dust and debris rained down from above, and she was pitched to the right, her shoulder impacting the wall hard enough to bruise. Elizabeth berated herself for not getting the hell out the second Lorne said seismic activity. She knew better, could only kick herself now and hope the whole place didn't come down on top of her.
"Lorne!" she coughed, inhaling dust, hoping he was near enough to hear, to see her.
She pushed away from the wall and started moving toward his voice. She'd barely taken a step when the world lurched again and threw her in the opposite direction. Except now the floor was littered with obstacles in her path, giving her no where to go but down. She flailed, reaching out wildly, and her fingers brushed something cool, smooth, and metallic feeling. It didn't stop her fall. There was a flash that momentarily blinded her, a second of disorientation, and she went down hard on her knees.
Instinctively, she covered her head with her arms, expecting even more debris to come from above. Except nothing did. It took her a moment to realize the world had stopped shaking. Thank God.
"Ouch," she muttered, her knees screaming at her for the impact they'd taken. "Don't worry, Major." She felt it best to reassure Lorne after all the concern he'd displayed even taking her on this mission. "I'm fine. Just a little bruised." Her body and pride, both.
The silence made her open her eyes, scratchy and dust filled though they were, and blink them clear. How…odd. A moment ago the air had been so thick with dirt and debris she hadn't been able to see more than three feet in any direction. She was still surrounded by debris, but the dirt and dust seemed to have settled. And more alarming, there was no sign of Major Lorne or any members of his team, even though she'd heard them coming down the stairs only moments before this last quake.
Elizabeth hurriedly got to her feet, ignoring the twinges of pain from her bruised and battered body. She tapped her headset.
"Major? This is Dr. Weir; please respond."
Silence, followed by static. Alarm kicked up another notch, Elizabeth started carefully picking her way toward the stairs, praying the ceiling hadn't collapsed and buried Lorne and his team. But she found the stairwell was intact, and empty. Her heartbeat started thudding painfully in her chest, her breath coming fast and uneven.
"Major Lorne," she tried again, "please respond."
She climbed her way up the stairs to the main level, hoping against hope to find them. But there was no sign, nothing, as if they'd simply vanished, or never been there. Elizabeth considered herself a cool head under pressure, someone who could keep it together under dire circumstances, and had, time and again. But a fine trembling started all over her body as she searched the building thoroughly, only to confirm her worst suspicions that she was, indeed, alone. Not even their equipment had been left behind, which left her with no way to contact Atlantis. Had Lorne finished sending for the Jumper before…before…
Before what? Before a Wraith ship had appeared out of nowhere, sweeping everyone but her up in a culling beam? She suddenly remembered the flash of light she'd seen right after she'd last heard Lorne's voice, and a chill swept through her. The culling beams were bright. They might have missed her, what with half the building coming down. Lorne was an efficient military man; it was quite possible he and his team had packed up base camp in the moments between the two quakes, and been en route to collect her when a Wraith Dart had shown up – God knew why – and found the unexpected presence of food on this wasteland of a planet.
She wanted to sit down for a minute, her legs were shaking so badly, but she couldn't afford the time. If the nightmare scenario of a Wraith Dart was true, every second counted for Lorne and his team. She had to get back to Atlantis and tell everyone, let Rodney come up with some genius way to find and retrieve them.
John and his team could be recalled for this. They'd have to be.
She forced herself to move, to get outside, get her bearings, and start hiking toward the Gate. She didn't know if Lorne had gotten through to Atlantis and ordered a Jumper, as he'd said he was going to. Until one showed up looking for them, she had to assume no one was coming, and get herself to that Gate as quickly as possible.
It was a grueling trek back, in the dark, stumbling over unfamiliar terrain in boots that gave her blisters. But she made it. Exhausted, hurting, and afraid it was already too late for Major Lorne, Corporals Hyatt and Schultz, and Privates Banning and Lee, she punched in the code for Atlantis, and watched the Gate light up. She nearly closed her eyes in relief. Part of her had feared that for whatever reason, it wouldn't work; she wouldn't be able to get home. But it had, and she could. She limped her way up to the Gate, and through it.
The disorienting journey was a welcome jolt that barely registered. When she stumbled through the other side, she was already gasping out orders.
"Dr. Weir!" She didn't recognize the voice right off, but she heard the surprise in it well enough.
"I need Colonel Sheppard and his team recalled immediately. Major Lorne—" A hard hand closed over her arm, jerking her upright in a sort of rough support as she slipped and almost fell. "Thank-you, I—" She looked up, froze when she saw Ronon, wearing the glower that meant things had not gone well for Sheppard's team. "Oh."
"Yeah," he said, smirking in a way that made her wonder just how much bad news she ought to prepare herself for. "I knew you'd be back. McKay owes me fifty."
He and Rodney had been making bets on her return? That was…she shook her head; it wasn't important. She took a breath, collecting herself.
"Where's Colonel Sheppard?" she asked.
Ronon shook his head, dreadlocks falling into his eyes. "You know he hates it when you call him that. So do us all a favor and don't, ok?"
She just stared at him, nonplussed. Was Ronon drunk? Drugged? Something was definitely going on.
"Look, I don't have time for guessing games. Lives are in jeopardy. I need to speak with John right now!"
"I'm sure you do." There was no missing the sarcasm or sneer as Ronon jerked her forward, leading her off the platform.
"I can walk without your help," she snapped. She'd had just about enough of his attitude, or whatever it was up Ronon's ass.
"I just want to make sure you don't change your mind, now that you're here. He'd be real disappointed if you ran away before he had the chance to see you."
"Ran away?" she echoed. "Ronon, are you feeling all right? Maybe you should see Dr. Beckett."
He jerked to a stop and yanked her close to him, his grip leaving fresh bruises on her skin. She gave a small cry of protest, stunned, but he ignored it.
"Rubbing it in that the good doctor went with your side, are you? Like we need that bleeding heart Beckett around. McKay's bad enough, some days."
What was he talking about? This was ridiculous! She drew herself up, ready to order Ronon taken into custody until they could sort out what was wrong with him. It was then that she realized there were no personnel on duty. Or at least, none in uniform. What was going on around here? She was gone for a few hours, and Atlantis went to hell in a handbasket.
Of course, this might explain why no one ever responded to Lorne's request for a Jumper. Time to proceed with caution.
"Look," she said calmly, "I don't know what's going on around here, but I need to see John right away. And McKay."
Ronon laughed, an ugly sound.
"Like McKay wants to see you. He's still pissed about your last little visit; though it was pretty ingenious, tricking him into letting you go. Bruised his ego. And seriously pissed John off."
She closed her eyes.
"I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about. If you would just—"
"Take you to see him? Don't worry; he already knows you're here."
Thank God. Unless John, too, had been infected with whatever seemed to be ailing Ronon, in which case she was in serious trouble.
"Yes," said his thankfully familiar voice from behind her. "I do."
She'd never been so happy to see him. She spun around as Ronon obligingly loosened his grip.
"John, thank God. I—" She faltered, stopped, and stared.
John was…he had a beard. Closely trimmed, carefully groomed – a goatee, like some villain in a low budget TV show. She'd seen him just yesterday, and he'd been clean shaven. He was also out of uniform, his usual BDUs exchanged for – dear God, were those leather pants? With a gun like Ronon's strapped to his hip. His wore his black, military issue jacket, at least, but it looked as though it had seen better days, scarred and missing his rank insignia. And…was that an earring, that glint of gold at his ear?
She was aware her mouth had dropped open, her eyes widening in shock. As she watched, he drew that gun and pointed it at her, dead center. She took a half step back, but Ronon's hand tightened again. Yes, she was in serious, serious trouble.
"Welcome back," said John, and he pulled the trigger.
"What do you mean, 'gone'?"
John Sheppard was clearly pissed. Lorne took a cautionary step back. Colonel Sheppard didn't generally resort to physical violence amongst his own people, but it didn't hurt to be prepared.
"Sir, one moment Dr. Weir was there – I couldn't see her through the dust and falling debris, but I could hear her clearly – but by the time we reached her position she was gone. As in, not there."
"Yes, I do know the definition of the term, Major. Care to hypothesize on where exactly she went?"
"Um…" Lorne tried desperately to come up with an answer that might appease his commanding officer, or at least offer some explanation for Dr. Weir's disappearance, however small. "We searched the entire building, top to bottom, and the surrounding area. Scans from the Jumper showed no life signs but my team—"
The slap of John's hands striking the table cut Lorne off, and had the two marines in the room glancing at one another nervously.
"Dr. Weir was a member of your team for however long she was in your care, Major! She has to be somewhere. What, did the earth open up and swallow her during the quake?"
Lorne didn't answer. He found he couldn't. The possibility was too real – he'd heard of similar things happening, before. The earth opening up a fissure and closing it again almost seamlessly just didn't seem too far fetched, even though he'd searched the floor where she'd disappeared meticulously. He just looked at John, who seemed to have been struck mute by the horrifying suggestion he'd just vocalized. An awful, endless few seconds ticked by, and then Rodney burst into the room, saving both men from the horrible visualization of Elizabeth being swallowed and crushed by an earthquake.
"Jumper's ready. Ronon and Teyla want to know how long we should wait for you." Rodney slowed and stopped, glancing from John to Lorne and back again. "Um...unless you'd rather stay here and beat up Lorne, instead of going and finding Dr. Weir."
"Rodney," said John without looking away from Lorne. "How likely is it that the earth could actually open up and swallow someone, without leaving any trace?"
Rodney rolled his eyes.
"Is that what's keeping you? A whole lot less likely than one of those artifacts she was examining teleporting her somewhere."
Now John focused on him.
"Elizabeth can't operate Ancient technology. The gene treatment failed on her."
"Yes, but according to the information Lorne's team originally brought back, not all of those artifacts were Ancient. And it's possible the seismic activity inadvertently triggered one of them." He looked at Lorne. "Or Dr. Weir did, when she was examining them. She's not qualified in alien technology, you know. Linguist and negotiator, her resume says. She—"
"McKay!" John was already moving out the door. Rodney broke off, and followed Sheppard with one last glare at Lorne. "Major," the Colonel called back over his shoulder. "Get moving – you and your team are coming with us. You'd better hope there haven't been any more earthquakes. We need every damn one of those artifacts intact."
Oh, God, she hurt.
Elizabeth didn't slide back from oblivion gradually; she slammed back to consciousness with a shudder, her nerve endings protesting each and every injury she'd suffered in the past several hours, from the smallest bruise to the ZPM sized headache the stunner had left her with.
At least she was alive. She woke remembering every second of what had happened – no mercifully oblivious disorientation for her. Ronon, John, the gun pointed at her chest. For one horrible second when John had pulled that trigger, she'd actually thought she might never wake up. That he might kill her. It was an image she was certain she'd have for the rest of her life, John and that gun. For however long that might be.
She stayed where she was for the moment, her eyes closed. Her stomach rolled with nausea, no doubt a response to the headache currently making her head feel like it was on a self destruct countdown. She took shallow breaths, listening. She didn't hear any rustling cloth, booted feet, or voices. Her face and hands pressed against a cool, smooth surface, convincing her she was lying on the floor. Probably in one of Atlantis' holding cells.
Which begged the question, why? At first, she'd assumed the usual suspects – drugs, mind control, alien possession – but there was no explanation for the marked and impossibly sudden change in John's appearance that any of those things covered. And she couldn't shake the feeling that the inexplicable changes here had something to do with the disappearance of Major Lorne and his team.
There was that maddeningly familiar tickle in the back of her mind again; something she could almost remember, but not quite. If only her head would stop pounding, maybe she could concentrate on it.
"Don't bother pretending. I know you're awake."
The deeply cynical voice made her wince, fresh pain stabbing through her skull at the sound. But she was afraid of what he might do if she didn't respond, so Elizabeth forced her eyes open.
Yep. A holding cell. With a bearded, leather clad John leaning up against the opposite wall. At least he wasn't pointing any weapons at her. His gun was holstered on his hip. Too bad she didn't stand a snowball's chance of getting it away from him.
"Sleep well?" he asked.
There was an edged, mocking tone to his voice that she'd never heard John use before. Cautiously, she eased into a sitting position, and hoped she could keep from retching at his feet. She didn't need to be at any more of a disadvantage than she already was.
"Not particularly," she said dryly. "Which shouldn't surprise you, given you're the one who stunned me."
He pushed away from the wall, his eyes burning with a fury she hadn't know him capable of. The room seemed entirely too small, suddenly, as he came at her. She scrambled to her feet, her headache inconsequential next to the need to get away from the palpable rage, the unmistakable threat radiating from him. Dizziness swept her and she reeled against the wall of her prison, struggling to stay upright. That was all the time she had before he was on her, his hands closing over her arms, his fingers digging in painfully. At least his grip kept her on her feet.
"What did you expect," he asked, "after your last visit?"
His voice so close made her flinch, but Elizabeth grit her teeth against the fresh stab of pain and forced herself to look him in the eye. Searching for any remnant of the John she knew in the identical green eyes of this man. She chose her words carefully.
"I don't remember what you're talking about," she said. "I have no idea why you're acting like this, Colonel, but—"
He practically spit the word. He leaned in, those eyes inches from hers, so that she could see the specks of gold in the green she'd only been close enough to notice twice before. Once, when they'd both been possessed by alien entities fighting the last, bitter battle of a war. She felt a weird sense of déjà vu; this felt all too similar to the burning hatred of Phoebus and Thalen.
"I've told you," he said with deceptive softness, belied by the intensity behind the words, "not to call me that. I will never be Colonel John Sheppard again."
She couldn't help it; she had to ask, though her voice came out barely above a whisper.
"Then, who are you?"
He frowned, pulling back. His fingers eased their painful grip, and she could breath more easily for a moment. He studied her, as she had him a moment before, his gaze searching. The light glinted off the gold stud in his ear as he reached up a hand to finger the ends of her hair. It took everything in her not to flinch away.
"You've cut your hair again." His tone seemed conversational, even idle, but she wasn't fooled. Tension still screamed from every line of his body. Even someone unskilled in the art of negotiation could have read that. "It looks like it did…before."
She had to clear her throat and wet her lips before she could speak.
"Before?" It came out weaker than she wanted it to. The question focused his eyes back on hers. His frown deepened.
"Yes, before. There is only one 'before', Elizabeth, for any of us. Before the Wraith fell upon Earth and sucked it dry. Before we used nukes to destroy our own world, our own people, and what was left of our planet, to destroy them. Before we failed in our duty to protect all of humanity." He paused, and for the first time since she'd seen this strange new John, the anger seemed to drain from him utterly. "Before," he said softly, and stepped away from her.
Shock robbed her of breath, of the ability to move or speak. He stood with his back to her, his shoulders hunched, and his head down. Any other time, in any other circumstance, she'd have wanted to go to him, to offer some sort of comfort. But she couldn't get past what he'd just said. Earth…destroyed…Wraith…her mind reeled. This couldn't be happening, this couldn't be true! It had to be a horrible dream, one she would wake from. She wasn't really here; she was lying beneath a pile of debris back on that world with Lorne and his team, and they were digging her out while she was stuck having this…this nightmare.
"You might cling to the way things used to be, Dr. Weir," John said. "You and the rest of your little camp of followers." He turned, facing her again. "But for the rest of us, there is no yesterday. Only tomorrow, and survival, and whatever it takes to make that happen."
She shook her head, still denying the truth she could see written all over him.
"No," she breathed, shaking her head.
John, of course, mistook her meaning. A single step, and he had her by the arm again, but she had a new perspective now; whatever he threatened to do to her, dream or no dream, paled next to what she'd just learned. She wasn't afraid of John Sheppard anymore.
"If you're so certain of yourself," John said, "why are you here? You should be with your pack of delusioned followers." He laughed, unpleasant and almost cruel. "I'll bet Caldwell still lets you call him 'Colonel'. You two deserve each other."
She closed her eyes.
"None of this is real," she said, more to herself than to him. "You're not John Sheppard. This isn't really Atlantis. Earth is not destroyed."
"And you're not really Elizabeth Weir?" The sarcasm was back again. "I beg to differ."
She wasn't expecting him to touch her, or at least, not the way he did; she recoiled when his finger traced the back of her hand, feather-light, following the barely visible scar she'd carried there since the negotiation in the Middle East six years ago. A zealot with a knife had tried to end negotiations permanently. Fortunately, the UN had provided her with very good bodyguards, and the cut had been superficial instead of life threatening.
"You're real enough," he said, as if her scar were proof. "And so am I."
She pulled her hand free of his, straightening.
"No," she insisted stiffly. "You can't be. The real John Sheppard would never cling to such a defeatist attitude."
"Not the first time you've told me that, Elizabeth. Please tell me you didn't come back here just to sing that tired old tune."
She shook her head and pursed her lips, refusing to answer. There was simply no sense arguing with someone who didn't really exist.
"No?" said John. "Then why are you here? Miss me?"
She looked at him, drawn by the sardonic tone, sensing some underlying current to his words. He arched an eyebrow, clearly expecting a response.
"No," she said firmly, and looked away. This John was definitely not her John; she couldn't imagine a circumstance where she'd miss him, if all of this were real.
"You never could lie to me, Elizabeth," he said "You can't even look me in the eye while you deny it."
She sighed irritably.
"This is ridiculous. I can assure you that my reasons for coming to Atlantis had nothing whatsoever to do with you. Satisfied?"
"Hardly." He gripped her chin, forcing her head to turn so her eyes met his. "I don't believe you."
Of course he didn't; this new and darker John was apparently insufferable as well. She opened her mouth to deliver a scathing diatribe on everything she absolutely would never miss about him; she never got the words out. Because his mouth was suddenly, roughly covering hers.
It hit her like a punch in the gut. Hot, wet, shockingly erotic, his lips and tongue moved aggressively, pulling her under before she had a chance to resist. He kissed like a familiar lover, like he knew exactly what to do to draw a response from her. No hesitancy, no exploration – just heat, raw and out of control, rolling through her gut in a wave that left her stricken, and aroused. She was breathless and scrambling for some semblance of control, fighting not to fist her hands in his jacket, or pull him closer. Her reaction to him was instantaneous, like nothing she'd ever experienced, or could have predicted. From zero to fully aroused, wet, and ready in seconds. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
Her headache was gone, eclipsed by the sound of her own heartbeat thundering in her ears, by the rush of almost painful desire through her veins. Had he drugged her while she slept?
His beard scraped her skin as he moved from her mouth to her neck, ruthless in his use of tongue and teeth. She bit back a moan, forced words past lips swollen from his sudden assault.
"John, stop," she said, but her voice trembled and hitched when his hand slipped under her shirt, his fingers splayed against her abdomen.
"Don't lie, Elizabeth," he breathed against her skin, sending a fresh quake of heat straight to her groin. "You don't want me to stop."
But his hand was already slipping inside her BDUs, and like the kiss, he knew exactly where and how to touch her. Her hands fisted in his jacket now, because her grip on him was the only thing solid and real. His fingers slid over her, into her, so fast, so easy because she was already so wet…and oh, God, she couldn't believe it, the way he touched her, like he knew her body, his thumb grazing her clit as his fingers moved inside her, perfectly angled with just the right level of penetration. The orgasm hit her like the kiss had, hard and fast, the pleasure pulsing and intense, nearly doubling her over, a cry escaping her lips before she could stifle it. Her body trembled with the aftershocks while John held her upright.
"You can't tell me you didn't miss me, Elizabeth," he said, his voice low and hard as he pulled his hand away from her. "Not now."
Oh, God, what had just happened? How had he done this, made her react so intensely, so fast? This was…she covered her face with her hands, feeling how hot and flushed her skin was…terrifying and mortifying all at the same time.
"Don't be embarrassed, Lizzie." Had he seriously just called her Lizzie? He leaned close, until there was no space between them, until she could feel the hard length of his cock pressed against her beneath those ridiculous leather pants. "I've missed you, too. I'd fuck you right now, if I had just a little more time."
She sucked in a breath, her pulse kicking up a notch; the worst of it was, she couldn't decide exactly why. Because his blunt words shocked her, or because the image of him taking her right now, up against this wall had her impossibly aroused again. She closed her eyes.
"But I don't have any more time," he continued. "I have to go – what was it you called it? -- 'plunder' another planet."
He kissed her, hard and fast, and then he was gone, out the door before she'd recovered, her lips still swollen and her whole body alive and tingling. She slid down the wall, pulling her knees up to her chest. This couldn't be happening. It couldn't be real. She closed her eyes and fought the urge to cry.
If this was a nightmare, she wanted badly to wake up.
The planet had not remained stable in Lorne's absence. More quakes had clearly rocked the area, leading to more debris, more damage. It was slow going, digging through the rubble to extricate all the artifacts Dr. Weir had been studying. And trying to ignore the thought that while they were digging, they might just find her body. Even though Lorne had previously searched the area thoroughly and found nothing, even he couldn't shake the idea completely from his mind.
They worked steadily through the day, hoping to be gone before any future quakes hit. Ronon and Sheppard were tireless, John digging as if his life depended on it, and Ronon with an unflagging, nigh superhuman stoicism. Lorne and his team did their best to keep up.
Teyla was conducting a second search of the area. Lorne didn't take it personally; if he were in Sheppard's shoes, he'd have ordered the same.
Rodney and Beckett stood by to examine each of the artifacts as the rest of the team unearthed them. Examine, tag, and box up for the trip to Atlantis, unless they could say unequivocally that the artifact in question couldn't have had anything to do with Dr. Weir's disappearance. And there were damn few of those.
"Here's another," Ronon said suddenly. "It's big, and heavy. I'll need some help lifting it."
Sheppard helped him maneuver it, a large, bulky frame made of naqahdah. It triggered Lorne's memory. He stepped forward to help, and get a better look before opening his mouth. Unfortunately, that look confirmed all of his fears.
"This used to be a mirror," he said finally. Sheppard turned, pierced him with a look.
"Used to be?"
"The last time I saw Dr. Weir, she was standing beside it. Getting ready to examine it."
"Well, that's fantastic," Sheppard said sarcastically, gesturing to the empty frame. "The last artifact you remember her touching, and it's broken!"
Lorne didn't know what to say. He was saved from saying anything by Dr. McKay. Again.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," said the scientist, picking his way over the rubble. "Did I hear you say this used to be a mirror?"
"Yes," Lorne said, and felt dread fill him. Rodney was not looking pleased, or smug, or any of the other things that would indicate good news. As a matter of fact, he looked more like a guy holding a sign saying the world was about to end. Which, for Rodney, was a good indicator of disastrous news. Catastrophic, even.
"These symbols…not quite the same as the one back at SGC, but the principle is probably the same…there should be a separate control station." Rodney looked at Ronon expectantly.
"If there is, I haven't run across it yet." Ronon gestured to the pile of things accumulated over by Carson. "That I know of."
"Control station?" echoed Sheppard. "For what?"
Rodney brushed that aside.
"No, no – you haven't found it yet. Keep looking. If I'm right – as I usually am – this is almost definitely the reason for Dr. Weir's disappearance."
"Rodney." Sheppard frowned impatiently. "Care to share with the rest of the class?"
"Well, I have good news, and I have bad news."
"Bad news first."
"The bad news is, the mirror is broken. Actually, that's really bad news. Because without the mirror, it may not matter that we've found this."
"Ok," said Sheppard with some trepidation. "And the good news?"
"The good news is, Dr. Weir is probably still alive."
"Well, I can't say for certain what kind of parallel reality she ended up in. With the mirror broken and no control station, it'll be nearly impossible to find her."
Everyone was staring at Rodney now. Only Sheppard spoke.
"Parallel reality?" he asked grimly.
"I'm fairly certain, yes. See, I think this is a quantum mirror – they had one at Stargate Command for awhile, but people kept accidentally triggering it, so General Hammond ordered it destroyed. It's kind of like a Stargate, but instead of dialing chevrons to create a wormhole to other places, this dials parallel dimensions, and the surface of the mirror is always active. Which is how people kept accidentally triggering it. By touching it."
John looked at the broken mirror, then back at Rodney.
"If it's broken, how…" he couldn't finish. He didn't have to.
"I don't know," said Rodney sadly. "Maybe, if we find the control station, and all the broken pieces to the mirror…I might be able to figure something out. Maybe." He didn't sound particularly hopeful, but slim or not, he'd offered them a chance. Sheppard turned back to Ronon.
"Keep looking," he said. "We're going to find that control station, and every single piece of that mirror."
No one said anything. But they dug faster.
No one came to see her, other than the guard who delivered a tray of tasteless food. Of course, she couldn't be sure who was actually here. She'd only seen Ronon and John, so far. From comments made, she could extrapolate that Rodney was somewhere in Atlantis, and Carson was not. Nor, it seemed, was Colonel Caldwell, which was a real pity. In this twisted version of Atlantis, he might have made a good ally. Or not.
No hint of Teyla, Zelenka, or Lorne.
Tallying people in her head kept her from thinking too hard about other things. Like the apparent destruction of Earth, or the fact that her closest confidant had turned into some sort of sinister pirate who couldn't make up his mind between bitter rage and the hard on he apparently carried for her.
She veered her thoughts away from that. When she woke up – or escaped back home – she wasn't sure she would ever be able to look the real John Sheppard in the eye again.
The sound of the door opening had her scrambling to her feet, tense and wary. Seeing a familiar face didn't reassure her overly much. She was learning not to trust familiarity.
"Dr. Weir," Teyla said neutrally. "How are you?"
Several responses occurred to Elizabeth, most of them impolite as well as verging on hysterical. So she just shook her head and said nothing while the other woman studied her.
Teyla looked the same. Her hair, her clothes, her body language – all like the Teyla she knew. Not that it meant anything. Ronon had looked the same, as well.
This Teyla cast a quick glance at the door before hurrying across the room toward her.
"Sheppard and the others will be back soon, but I wanted to speak with you while we had the opportunity. Elizabeth, why did you come back?" she asked, her voice low and furtive. "I've done exactly as we agreed; there was no need for you to return and place yourself in danger."
"As we agreed?" It seemed Elizabeth spent half her conversations here repeating the words of others. She cleared her throat. "Maybe I should ask, just what sort of danger do you think I'm in?"
Teyla frowned, her eyes intent on Elizabeth's.
"Dr. Weir, whatever is wrong with you? We agreed you had to stay away – John is no longer stable. He could hurt you, if he hasn't already." She paused. "Has he?"
Elizabeth flushed, unable to hide the mortification heating her face. Teyla rocked back, looking thoughtful.
"I see," said the other woman quietly, a wealth of meaning in those two small words. "Well, perhaps we misjudged your influence with him, then. He had feelings for you, before. Maybe that hasn't changed as much as we thought."
Elizabeth didn't have to ask what 'before' referred to. She remembered John's explanation word for word. A dozen things she wanted to ask Teyla competed in her head; unfortunately, too many of them would give her away as a stranger here. She bit her lip, debating. This Teyla seemed to be a friend. Maybe she could confide in her, get some answers. She didn't see she had much of a choice.
"Teyla…I'm having some trouble remembering things," she said finally. "I didn't break whatever agreement we had by coming to Atlantis, because I don't remember making any agreement with you to stay away. In fact, I don't remember any of this."
The Athosian woman frowned. "What do you mean, 'any of this'?"
"This…Atlantis. Earth being destroyed. John being…" Words failed her, and Elizabeth gestured helplessly. "I remember leading Atlantis. I remember Colonel Sheppard being my staunchest ally and supporter. I remember you, Ronon, Rodney, Carson -- all of us working together for the common good." She ran her hands through her hair. "I just don't – this is all wrong, foreign." She took a breath, tried a different tact. "I came to Atlantis for help. I was on a mission with Major Lorne—"
"Elizabeth." Teyla touched her shoulder gently, stopped her flow of words. "Major Lorne died in the assault on Earth."
Stunned, Elizabeth could only stare at her, mouth open. Slowly, she closed it again. What else was there to say?
"You really don't remember?"
She shook her head, and Teyla blew out a breath.
"This is…" she appeared to search for a word "…unfortunate."
"You're telling me." Some of her old humor crept back into Elizabeth's voice.
That ghost of a memory tickled at the back of her brain again, and she frowned, concentrating.
"I think…" She remembered reading a mission report at SGC, something about a mirror, highly classified. Like the mirror she's been examining, perhaps? "I think maybe I'm not supposed to be here, in this Atlantis."
The more she thought about it, the more resolved Elizabeth became. It explained everything.
"Yes," she said firmly. "This Atlantis is not my Atlantis. I came here through a—" she searched her memory for the correct term, "—a quantum gate, from a dimension parallel to this one, but not exactly the same."
Teyla raised a skeptical brow. "A parallel dimension? Elizabeth, that sounds—"
"Crazy, I know. But it has to be true. These artifacts exist, like the Stargates, called 'quantum mirrors'. SGC had one, once. I skimmed the mission report when I was preparing myself to take command of the Atlantis expedition." Along with a hundred others. It was a wonder she remembered it at all. "These mirrors are links to parallel realities, each one a divergence of our own, as if fate took a different turn somewhere along the line, changing the path of history." She talked as fast as she could, not sure how much time she and Teyla had, wanting desperately to gain an ally in this place. "In my world, the Wraith didn't attack Earth. We stopped them. We saved Earth, and none of this," she gestured wildly around her "has happened."
"So you're not the Dr. Weir I know," Teyla said slowly. "But a different Dr. Weir. And you come from a reality where Atlantis hasn't failed, where we all still work together."
"Yes," Elizabeth said gratefully, relief at finally understanding all this insanity nearly overwhelming her.
Teyla was quiet for a long moment. Then, "Does John know this?"
"Good. I wouldn't tell him, if I were you. As I said, he's unstable these days. I'm not entirely sure how he'd react, but I know it wouldn't be good." She shrugged. "I'm not even sure I believe you."
"Whether or not you believe me, it's true. And I have to get out of here, so I can get back home."
Teyla was already shaking her head. "Are you asking me to help you escape? Elizabeth, I can't. If what you say is true, then my Elizabeth Weir is still here, in this reality, and she needs my help. I can't risk John's anger and loss of trust to aid you. What's left of us – Athosian and human – are depending on us, on what we're doing."
"But my Atlantis needs me just as much – maybe more. In my reality, Earth is still a world full of lives, dependant on us to keep the Wraith from finding them."
But Teyla was already leaving, walking away. Desperate, Elizabeth went after her.
"I am truly sorry, Dr. Weir," Teyla said, genuine sympathy in her expressive eyes. And she shut the door to Elizabeth's prison with a horrible sounding finality.
It wasn't that he didn't trust Rodney to come up with a solution. If anyone stood a chance at finding Elizabeth, it was McKay. But John wasn't good at sitting idly by while a friend was in trouble.
He'd checked on Rodney's progress every hour, on the hour since returning to Atlantis. He knew that, because he watched the clock obsessively until it was time to go and check in again. Well, time in his estimation. Rodney seemed to feel a little differently.
"I will call you when I know something," his friend told him testily the fourth – and the last – time John had shown up to hover while he and Zelenka worked. "These repeated interruptions are seriously hampering our progress, so if you don't mind…"
Feeling irritated and chastened both, John had left. He'd already contacted SGC and apprised them of the situation, basically demanding that they send him everything they had on these 'quantum mirrors', and then spent the next several hours pouring over the classified documents – in between pestering McKay for updates.
But now he was at loose ends, waiting. He hated waiting. If this was what Elizabeth had to do every time she sent them out on a mission, he had new understanding and sympathy for her.
He tried sleeping for a few hours, so he'd be rejuvenated and ready if McKay called with news, but he ended up tossing and turning, and imagining all of the terrible realities Elizabeth might have ended up in. The mission reports from SGC had not been encouraging. He could easily picture a Pegasus Galaxy overrun with Wraith, or under the thumb of the Genii.
Giving up on sleep, he settled for coffee, black, and pacing the halls of Atlantis. If his pacing led him past the doors to Rodney's lab more than once, well, he was only human. And patience wasn't John's strongest trait.
"Hey." Ronon leaned against the wall next to him, staring at the closed doors across the way. "Any news?"
"It's going on ten hours since we got back – they've got to be making some progress, right?"
"I sure as hell hope." John took a sip of his coffee.
"You look like shit." Trust Ronon to be blunt. "Have you slept at all?"
"Some. If you count tossing and turning while lying prone on a flat surface."
"So, that would be no, then."
John felt the statement was rhetorical, and thus needed no reply. They stood together in silence for a time, long enough for John to finish his current cup of coffee. Waiting was only a little easier with company.
"You know," Ronon said casually, as if he hadn't been thinking up how to introduce the subject for the past fifteen minutes, "Lorne's beating himself up pretty good over this."
John looked into his empty coffee cup, scowling.
"Good," he said flatly. "He should be."
"You think it's his fault Dr. Weir was lost to a parallel reality, by an artifact that he doesn't have the security clearance to know dick about?"
John straightened up from the wall, feeling the frayed edges of his temper snap.
"Too damn right it is. His team, his responsibility. It's called command, and if Lorne can't take the heat, he should get out of the fucking kitchen."
Ronon shrugged, indolent, as if John's temper were of no consequence. Which only pissed him off more. "So, if you had been leading the team, Dr. Weir would have been fine."
"No," John bit off, furious, "if I'd been leading the fucking team, she never would have fucking been there. She'd have stayed here, in Atlantis, where she belongs. Where she's safe. But I wasn't. No, I was too busy trying to talk sense into yet another fucking village too fucking blinded by their own fear to stand up and do anything. And because I was, Elizabeth steamrollered Lorne into letting her tag along. Goddamn it, she knew I would never allow it. So she waits until my back is turned, and goes off to get herself fucking killed!"
"Maybe if you say 'fuck' a few more times, you'll feel better," Ronon said contemplatively.
"Maybe I will. Fuck!"
It didn't help, not even a little. Bitter, angry at Elizabeth and himself both, he threw his empty cup into the wall, shattered it into a bunch of ceramic pieces, the SGC logo broken and littered across the hallway. Fuck. He sagged against the wall, and stared up at the ceiling until he could regain control of himself.
"Feel better?" Ronon asked after a minute.
"Good. Now, why don't we go harass McKay and see how things are going?"
John closed his eyes, expelled a long breath, and pushed away from the wall.
"Why don't we."
As if being a prisoner in an alternate version of her own Atlantis wasn't enough, figuring out where she was and what had actually happened gave Elizabeth something new to worry about. Because if John and Teyla were any indication, it seemed there was another Elizabeth Weir running around in this reality.
One, she thought, who appeared to be involved in some sort of clandestine effort with Teyla opposing John Sheppard, a man it seemed she was at odds with, despite an evident and intense sexual relationship. Which was something she kept coming back to, regardless of all of her efforts not to think about it.
But whatever her other self's personal choices were, they paled in comparison to what awaited both of them, if she stayed trapped in this parallel world. Elizabeth couldn't recall the name they'd given it, but she knew that Sam Carter had experienced some sort of…quantum illness by existing in the same reality with one of her other selves. A sickness that could have killed both Carters if one of them hadn't gone back to her own dimension.
How long did she have? She tried her best to remember the symptoms, and failed. But she was sure that whatever awaited her, it wouldn't be pleasant.
By her best estimations, she'd been here for almost a day. That was long enough, surely, for her own people to figure out what had happened. John's team would be back by now, and Rodney, at least, had read the same SGC records she had – surely he'd recognize the mirror for what it was.
And then what? John would come riding to the rescue with Teyla and Ronon? She wouldn't put it past any of them. And, oh, wouldn't that be fun? She tried to picture her Sheppard meeting this reality's version.
The image was just ludicrous enough to make her laugh, a sound half humor, half hysteria.
"I'm glad to hear that again."
She jumped, adrenaline kicking in, making her pulse leap erratically as she scrambled to her feet. She knew her posture was defensive, and couldn't help it. How had she not noticed him in the doorway?
He stepped into the room, arms crossed, light glinting off the gold at his ear even as it shadowed his face, hiding his expression from her. He'd sounded…like her John. For just a split second, when she'd heard his voice, she'd wondered…but it wasn't.
"I haven't heard you laugh in a long time," he said.
He didn't look angry anymore, she realized. For the first time, he looked like the old John Sheppard, even if he was wearing leather and a beard.
"Maybe I haven't had anything to laugh about," she said cautiously.
"Maybe you haven't." He walked over to the cell's version of a bed, a narrow slab that folded out from the wall, and sat down. "Do you remember the last time we laughed together?" he asked.
"I do. That first night, after we made the call, ordered the nukes to hit Earth." He closed his eyes. "On the balcony, looking out at all we had left, this place, we finished off a bottle of bourbon toasting everyone we knew, everyone we could think of. You and I, looking at the stars above Atlantis, knowing we would never see the stars above Earth again."
She didn't say anything. She couldn't, because her throat had closed up. She could see it all too clearly, the two of them on her balcony, where they always seemed to end up after the hard decisions. Silently, she crossed the room, and hesitantly, gingerly sat next to him on the bunk. His voice was flat, without emotion, but she wasn't fooled. Whatever reality he was in, John Sheppard shouldered the blame, the guilt, and the pain of the decisions he made. It had to have destroyed him, making that call. Destroyed them both.
He opened his eyes and looked at her.
"I was furious, remember? Yelled at the stars for not being ours, for not having our constellations in the fucking sky. I damn near fell off the balcony, I was yelling so loud, too fucking drunk to see straight. I fell on my ass, instead."
"I remember," she lied, and reaching over, took his hand in hers, squeezed it tight.
"You laughed at me, laughed so hard you fell on your ass." She smiled, because his words painted the picture so plainly, she could see how it was. "And we both laughed at our sad, drunken selves. Laughed ourselves sick – until we cried." He rested his head against the wall, and though his face was still shadowed, the light slanted across his eyes, turning the gold flecks in them to green flame.
Her breath caught at the look in those eyes, the memory of grief shared. She knew, suddenly, what had happened next.
"And then you kissed me," she said quietly.
"And then I kissed you." He smiled, almost a grimace, and touched her cheek. "I always told you I was too drunk to remember that first time, Lizzie. Too drunk to remember how we gave each other comfort under stars not our own. But I lied."
She sucked in a breath, unable to look away from the intensity of his stare, or ignore the soft flutter in her gut at his touch.
"Because everything else about that night is nothing I want to remember. So I try my best to forget it all. But it doesn't matter, because I can't. Never will."
"John, I'm so sorry."
"You know, it's really fucking annoying how you do that." His words sounded harsh, but his tone was anything but. Soft, intimate, it made her pulse beat hot beneath her skin. She tried to pull away, but his hand tightened on hers, held her still. "That had to be the most awful night of your entire life. I know, because it was mine. And here I sit, wrapped up in myself and my own pain, and here you sit, ignoring what you must be feeling, so you can offer me a shoulder to lean on."
"John, I —" He cupped her face with his hand.
"Shut up, Elizabeth."
And he kissed her. Again. She could have stopped him this time. She saw it coming. But she let it happen, let his lips cover hers, part them, his tongue sweeping inside her mouth with a taste that was suddenly, achingly familiar. She pulled back, touched his face, felt the stubble of his beard beneath her hand.
"You've been drinking," she said. "Bourbon."
"So I have."
Empathy was part of what made her a good negotiator, a good leader, a woman able to see all sides of a picture and act on it. Most of the time, it was a boon. But sometimes, like now, it worked against her. It didn't matter that this wasn't her John, or that she'd been afraid of him only hours before. Whoever else this man was, whatever else – thief, pirate, dark villain – he was also John Sheppard. A friend, who had survived something terrible, and been marked by it. She understood that, empathized with it. And for this one moment, wanted to help him forget it.
She leaned into him and took his mouth with hers, kissed him until she could taste bourbon like she'd been drinking it herself. His hands moved from her arms to her face, into her hair. And she knew she was lost. That she'd taken a step into something she would never be able to step back from. It didn't matter.
Her lips trembled against his mouth. His breath was uneven and warm where it mingled with hers. She moved until she straddled him, her arms around his shoulders, her legs on either side of his as she pressed down against the hard length of his cock. He thrust up against her, an involuntary movement, and she bit her lip and moaned. It was nice to know she could get him hot and ready as quickly as he did her.
He bit off her name as she ground herself against him, his hips thrusting in a parody of fucking that nonetheless left them both breathless, ready. She pushed his jacket off his shoulders while he kissed her neck, open mouthed, grazing skin with teeth, tongue, and the rasp of his beard. She made a sound, low in her throat, one she didn't recognize as herself. But he apparently did, smiling against her neck and nipping lightly with his teeth.
"That's my girl."
His hands skimmed up her ribs, under her shirt, pushed aside her bra until her breasts filled his palms. He circled her nipples with his thumbs, and she shuddered. When he bent his head and took one with his mouth, stroking his tongue over the hardened nub, she said his name, breathless, like a prayer. She could feel the tug of his mouth all the way to her groin, a wave of heat through her belly.
Her hands were fumbling with his belt; to hell with the rest of their clothes. But he covered her fingers with his own, stilled them, waited until she looked up, met his eyes.
"I want you naked and wrapped around me," he said, barely a whisper, and pulled his shirt off over his head.
Oh, well. When he put it that way…she pulled off her shirt, her bra, and shimmied out of her pants while he unbuckled his.
She hadn't seen John shirtless since his last stay in the infirmary, but still she could see that this John had scars hers didn't. Ragged, long wounds carved into his flesh as though with claws. She traced them with her fingers, followed them down the length of his torso until she reached low enough to wrap her hand around his cock. He jerked, moaned, and she kissed him again, hot and deep, while she squeezed just hard enough to have him thrusting into her hand.
Like a plea. She took it for one, dropping to her knees in front of him, taking him into her mouth. His fingers threaded through her hair, surprisingly gentle, as she adjusted her angle, got used to the length, the width of him. John Sheppard wasn't a small man, not that she was surprised. He moaned, cursed, his breath coming in short gasps while she swirled her tongue over the length of him, using her hand and mouth both to bring him close, so close. She could feel it in the tense line of his body, in his breathing, and stopped just short of release.
"Fuck, Lizzie, are you trying to kill me?"
She smiled, straddled him again.
"Not yet," she said, and slid over him, onto him, felt him arch beneath her, his hands gripping the edge of the bunk until he was white knuckled.
She held still, waiting, watching his throat work as he swallowed. When he'd relaxed, just a little, she wrapped her legs around his waist, gripped his shoulders, let him take control. His hands, warm and rough, slid up her back, raising goosebumps all along her spine. He held her there, his eyes intent on hers, and raised his hips, thrusting up into her. She bit her lip, legs tightening around him. She moved with him, found a rhythm, grinding her hips down as he thrust up, over and over, until her breathing was as ragged as his.
As before, he knew her body, knew the right rhythm, the angle, the perfect spot on her throat to goad with tongue and teeth until she gasped his name, fingernails like claws on his back.
And when he tongued her earlobe, whispered raggedly, "Right now, Lizzie, right fucking now," she came, the orgasm taking her like a thief, stealing the air from her lungs, leaving her shuddering and dizzy and panting, still wrapped around him. He was still moving inside her, each thrust keeping the wave of pleasure alive. She bit her lip until she tasted blood, to keep from crying out. John had no such inhibitions, his voice a rough bark in her ear when he finally tensed and shuddered beneath her.
Sweat slicked, hard of breath, they stayed locked together until the rapid staccato of her heartbeat finally slowed, and John, his voice muffled where his head was buried against her shoulder, spoke.
"I knew you missed me."
She didn't say anything. Couldn't. Her fingers stroked sweat dampened hair back from his face as she stayed curled around him, still and silent. Some nameless emotion, akin to loss, sadness, or grief swept through her, had her blinking back sudden tears.
This was not her John. She wasn't his Lizzie. This thing that had happened didn't belong to her, not really.
"Lizzie? You ok?"
She cleared her throat, opened her mouth to say…something…and suddenly gasped, doubling over. Pain, like nothing she'd ever known stabbed her in the gut, like hot knives slicing through her skin, her organs, spreading outward to her limbs.
Somehow, she ended up on the floor, shivering, John crouching over her. She tried to answer him, and bit her tongue when her body convulsed. Dimly, she heard him shout her name, and then it all spiraled away. She had a moment to wonder if she was dying, if another Elizabeth Weir, on some other planet in this reality, was also wracked with convulsions as paradox ripped her apart…
"What do you mean, you think this'll work?" John rubbed a hand over his brow, wishing his stomach would stop rolling from all the damn coffee he'd been drinking.
"You know, lack of sleep does not improve your disposition."
"All right, all right. When I say I think this'll work, I mean I'm about ninety-eight percent certain it won't blow us up, and maybe seventy percent certain it will actually succeed in bridging the gap between realities."
"More like fifty-fifty," Zelenka cut in, earning a glare from Rodney.
"No, seventy-thirty, because—"
"Guys, guys!" John just couldn't take it, he really couldn't. Three solid hours of listening to the two of them squabble over theories and numbers, and whatever-the-hell else, was just too much. "Enough with the odds, ok? Let's just get this thing going."
"Colonel," said Teyla doubtfully, handing him a fresh cup of coffee that he hadn't asked for. "Are you quite certain you want to try this? Dr. Weir would not approve of risking our Stargate to rescue her, no matter how well meaning the attempt."
John set the cup aside, watching Rodney and Zelenka work. He wasn't sure on all the details, but he knew their plan had something to do with hooking what was left of the quantum mirror to the Stargate, temporarily hijacking their wormhole for parallel dimensional travel.
"Do you think she'd hesitate if it was one of us?" he asked Teyla.
"Elizabeth always considers the good of Atlantis in her decisions as—"
"Teyla." He turned, really looked at her. "Do you really think she wouldn't do everything in her power to get me back? Or you?"
"I didn't think so. Let's just sit back, and let the smart guys do their thing, ok?" He looked back where the two scientists had degenerated into bickering. Again. "And pray," he amended. "A lot."
It took another two and a half hours. It wasn't pretty. And there was a reasonably good chance it would end up destroying the Stargate and blowing them all up in the process, according to Zelenka. Rodney disagreed, but what else was new?
"Not now, Major." John was busy suiting up to travel across dimensions. He didn't have time to hold Lorne's hand.
"Colonel, I want to go with you and your team."
"Well, I'm sorry. You can't." John still wasn't feeling particularly sympathetic towards Lorne. He nodded to Ronon and Teyla as they joined him on the platform, and looked up at Rodney.
"Colonel," Lorne persisted, "Dr. Weir was my responsibility. I allowed her to go on a dangerous and unnecessary mission, and she paid the price." He paused. "Please let me fix this."
John opened his mouth to tell Lorne exactly what he thought of that, and Ronon coughed. Loudly. He looked over, caught the other man's pointed gaze, and Teyla's raised eyebrow. Damn. If even Ronon felt he was being too hard on Lorne…maybe he was being too hard on Lorne. He sighed. Wrestled with himself for another few seconds. And finally decided that if this somehow failed, and he and the others ended up trapped in some parallel universe, Lorne deserved to be trapped right along with them.
"Fine," he said unhappily. "You can come."
"Don't mention it." He looked up, met Rodney's worried look. "Let's do this."
This time was a slow slide back to consciousness, a fuzzy replay of images, feelings, memories she wasn't sure were her own – until it all solidified into a single crystal clear thought. That's right; I was dying.
"Not yet, you aren't."
She opened her eyes, recognized the scratchy gown she was wearing as infirmary garb, and the bed she was in as a sickbed. John – bearded John – was sitting next to her. He was back to wearing his clothes, leather pants and all.
"I'm not?" she asked. She felt…achy. Like she had a bad head cold.
"No," he said. "You're not." He waited, searching her face, and sighed when she didn't say anything. "You are, however, very ill. I'm sure this comes as no surprise to you."
She hesitated, but he didn't seem angry. "No," she admitted softly. "It doesn't."
"It's called temporal entropic cascade failure. It happens when two identical pieces of living matter exist in the same dimension, or so Rodney tells me." He paused, then, "You're not my Elizabeth."
"No." She picked at the bedcovers with her fingers, unable to meet his gaze.
"We never ordered Earth destroyed," he said, "or split a bottle of bourbon at the funeral, or made love on your balcony."
"You never called me a pirate, and ran away with half our personnel in the middle of the night, to get away from me and my survivalist, selfish ways."
She looked up, startled.
"I – she did that?"
There was a small silence, and Elizabeth wondered what she ought to say, to break it. There should be something appropriate for situations like this. A negotiator who could speak five languages, had handled apartheids and cease fires, and religious zealots with knives, ought to be able to come up with words for this.
She looked up, startled. John looked uncomfortable.
"For how I treated you. I didn't – I was angry. Not at you, at her."
"I understand," she said quickly. "John, I—"
"Sheppard." The tinny voice was coming over his radio.
"We have an unscheduled off world activation. Ah…I think you should come up here."
"I'll be right there." He looked at Elizabeth, expressionless. "We'll continue this later."
"Right." But she was talking to his back; he was already gone.
It was definitely surreal, watching Ronon square off with himself. The two Ronons held identical guns, wore identical expressions of mixed disbelief and distrust, and even dressed alike. It was uncanny.
"Let's just everyone keep a cool head," John said firmly, hoping he had his own gun trained on the right Ronon.
They'd known, theoretically, what they might be up against going through the Gate. But it was a whole lot different coming face to face with the reality, so to speak.
"Yes, what an excellent idea."
Oh, God, that sounded like…it couldn't be. He turned his head - it was. John's mouth dropped open and he did a double take. It was himself, all right. But unlike the nearly mirror image Ronon double, this John Sheppard was nothing like that John Sheppard.
"…is that an earring?"
Thank God Rodney wasn't with them to witness this. He's never live it down.
"Uh…Colonel Sheppard, I presume," he said, hoping his other self had his sense of humor. Though that was definitely in question, what with the earring, and the beard. And the leather pants. What the hell? His counterpart smirked.
"Not anymore," his double said. "Though it's definitely safe to say that you are, Colonel." He looked them all over, but rested his gaze back on John. "If I had to guess, I'd say you're here looking for Elizabeth, yes? Your Elizabeth?"
John could forgive him the beard. Maybe even the earring.
"She's here? She's all right?"
"Here, yes. All right? Not exactly. She's suffering from a temporal illness derived from existing in the same dimension as her other self, a sickness we would all be likely to experience if you remain here for too long." He paused, and John couldn't quite place the emotion that flashed across his face. "I imagine that will pass, once you take her home."
"Well…good. Where is she?"
"Our infirmary. I'll…take you to her, if you like. Though the rest of your team can wait here. I don't want you running all over my facility."
Your facility? But John curbed the question. Some things it was better not to know.
"Fine," he said. "Let's go."
His counterpart led him through Atlantis – an Atlantis identical to, yet very different from his own. John wasn't sure what to think of that. Best, probably, to ignore it. Just think about Elizabeth, be glad she's safe.
And then they came through the last doorway, and there she was. Pale, bruised, but alive and well in a white hospital gown. She looked up, saw him, and shock and confusion flooded her face. He saw her take him in, notice his counterpart, and put it together.
"Oh my God, John?"
"My John, right? I mean, Colonel Sheppard?"
She was already scrambling out of the bed. By the time he replied – "Last time I checked" – she was throwing her arms around him in hug that almost knocked him over. She was careful, he noticed, not to tangle up his gun hand, and he lifted his MP-5 well clear of her, returning the embrace with his free arm.
"I'm glad you're all right," he said after a moment. The words were a serious understatement, compared to the flood of relief he felt at finding her, actually whole and able to return home. Well, he hoped. If Rodney had done his job right.
She stepped back, smiling, and they shared one of those awkward moments that usually happened after John returned from MIA or 'presumed dead' status. There had been times, in those moments, when John felt words were simply superfluous, and that was why neither of them could think of anything appropriate to say. Times when he thought he should throw caution to the wind and just kiss her senseless, right there on the Gate platform.
As it usually did, the impulse passed, and he settled for smiling in return, and saying nothing. Except instead of her usual bland response, this time Elizabeth blushed and slid her gaze away. He wondered if he ought to be embarrassed about something. Had his thought been that transparent?
"Um…so let's get you out of here."
"Yes," she said. "Let's."
She went behind a screen to change into her clothes. This occasioned another one of those odd blushes from her, making John wonder if she wasn't having some sort of emotional reaction to whatever medication they might have put her on. In his experience, Elizabeth Weir didn't blush easily.
He glanced over to find his counterpart watching him with an unusual amount of intensity.
"Ah…do you have Dr. Weir on any kind of medical regimen?"
"You mean pills?"
"No. There is no medical treatment for temporal entropic cascade failure."
"Okay." John was a bit uncomfortable with the other Sheppard's scrutiny. "Look, if one of us should be staring, it's me, cause I gotta tell you, the beard? So not us."
"Really?" His counterpart smiled, that smug smirk again.
Do I smile like that? He didn't think so, but made a mental note to check, next time he was near a mirror.
"Elizabeth seemed to like it."
John rocked up on the balls of his feet, then back onto his heels. "Really," he said blandly.
"I can say it with reasonable certainty, yes."
This John didn't talk quite the same way, either. It was…trippy. And kind of annoying how he said her name, 'Elizabeth' with that drawl, like it was…intimate.
He turned, found her dressed and waiting, and looking back and forth between the two of them surreptitiously. Making comparisons? He lifted his gun, adjusted his grip, tried to shift uncomfortably from foot to foot.
"Let's get you out of here."
His other self escorted them back to the Gate Room without any more conversation. Teyla and Ronon welcomed Elizabeth back warmly, while Lorne tripped all over himself apologizing for the entire situation. That is, until Elizabeth put a hand on his arm and told him not to worry, it was her own fault for not listening to him. She shot John a glance when she said it, but he wasn't about to reprimand her until they were all home, safe.
"Well," she said, with what seemed to him a rather brittle smile for a woman being rescued. "I guess we'd better be leaving."
"Right, then," he said, more than happy to comply. "Rodney's holding the Gate back to our dimension open for us, so this should work. I hope."
John jerked his head, and Teyla and Lorne went through. Then Ronon, with one last look at his other self. John put his hand on Elizabeth's arm, to walk her through himself.
"Elizabeth." It was the other Sheppard, smiling at her in a way that inexplicably made John want to walk up and hit him. "Please, allow me to apologize again, for my behavior."
More interestingly, Elizabeth was blushing again.
"Please," she said, a note of...something in her voice John had never heard before. "Don't. You don't owe me anything. I'm…I'm very glad to have met you. And more sorry than I can say for what's happened here, to you and the rest of humanity." She hesitated, then, gently, "Good-bye, John."
They had just turned to walk through the gate when the other Sheppard got in the last word.
The disorienting journey – tumbling down the rabbit hole – and a blinding flash of brilliant light, kept John from commenting until they'd staggered through the other side. Then there were those disconcerting few moments when everyone made sure they'd stumbled through the right Gate, into the right Atlantis. And then Rodney and Carson, and fifty other Atlantis personnel were crowding around Elizabeth, welcoming her back.
Carson insisted on a check up, just to make sure all was well, and Elizabeth could hardly refuse. So all in all, John never got to ask her about that last, parting good-bye. But he didn't forget it.
The stars above Atlantis had never looked so beautiful. Elizabeth took a deep breath of fresh, salty sea air, glad for the 100th time that day that she was here to enjoy it.
She was tired. Who wouldn't be, after the day she'd had? Debriefing SGC had been a cakewalk after Carson's twenty questions and countless blood tests, 'just to make sure' there weren't any lasting effects from her cross-dimensional jaunt. But no matter how tired she was, Elizabeth just couldn't make herself go to sleep yet. Her mind was too active.
She couldn't stop thinking about what had happened. About everything that had happened.
"How was SGC?"
She kept herself from tensing up at the sound of John's voice, but barely. She made herself turn, smile.
"Not bad," she said. "But then, I didn't tell them everything."
She shook her head.
"I didn't think they'd react well to the idea that we might, someday, have to deal with the Wraith actually getting to Earth and feeding on all of humanity. And exactly how we'd deal with it, if we had to."
"You mean ordering the nukes?" She might not have told SGC about that, but she'd told him, and Teyla. In case it ever actually happened, she'd wanted them prepared.
"Exactly. My position here is tenuous enough, often times."
He came to stand beside her, leaned on the railing.
"How're you doing?"
She looked away, out at the ocean, brushed her hair behind her ear with nervous fingers.
"Good. Tired. I think I might head in to bed, actually. You look tired, too. You should get some sleep, John."
She started for the door.
"You keep this up," he drawled, "you'll give me a complex." She stopped, hesitated. "You've been avoiding me pretty carefully since we got back. Any particular reason why?"
She turned back, trying her best to keep her movements natural, not let her tension show. He was watching her carefully.
"That other me – he apologized there at the end, when we were leaving." He paused. "That just for shooting you after you got there, or for something else?"
All good negotiators knew how to lie. She walked back to the railing, leaned on it as casually as she could.
"Shooting me wasn't enough?" she asked, a light humor in her voice.
"It just seemed like it might be…more personal, somehow."
Thank God for the cover of night. She could feel mortification heating her face.
"Ah, you see," she managed, "he and the other Dr. Weir have something of an…antagonistic relationship. He said some pretty angry things when he thought I was her."
"Antagonistic. Funny, that wasn't the impression I got at all."
"It wasn't?" Damn and double damn.
"No." He turned, so that he was facing her. "He called you Lizzie."
"Ah, hmm, well…" Great, Elizabeth. Choke and stammer like an idiot so that he knows there's something you're not telling him. "Hmm. I can assure you, they do have an antagonistic relationship. She called him a pirate, and left Atlantis with half their personnel."
"Yes. But they also had…well, they were very close, before that happened."
"Yes. Good friends. Close."
She tried not to place too much emphasis on 'friends'. He looked back out at the ocean, and she could hear the wry smile behind his words, though she couldn't quite see it in the darkness.
"You are I are good friends, Elizabeth, but I don't call you Lizzie. Hell, I only use your given name when we're alone. Mostly."
"Well, you don't have a beard, either. Or an earring." She paused deliberately. "Or leather pants."
"Sure, you just had to bring that up."
"What, you thought I'd let that one go?"
"I was hoping."
The shared a smile, and just like that, everything was back to how it should be. Elizabeth relaxed, felt the tension drain from her.
"So, he and I are really that different from each other, you think?" he asked after a moment.
Different, and painfully the same. But she only said, "Different enough."
"Too bad you didn't get to meet yourself."
"To tell you the truth, I'm relieved. I'm not sure I would have liked her, abandoning you – him – like that."
"We don't know the whole story. Maybe he really deserved it."
"Maybe he did."
The stood together for a long time in the silence, staring up at the stars. They'd become familiar, she realized. She could pinpoint constellations of the Pegasus Galaxy, recognize shapes flung across the heavens.
"This sky, it isn't strange anymore," she said softly.
"No," John agreed. "The last time I visited Earth, I remember looking up at night, and thinking all the stars were wrong. Took me a minute to figure out why, and then I felt guilty as hell."
"It's becoming home here, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is."
She took a deep breath, let it out again. Enjoyed the smell of the sea.
"It's good to be home."