"I have loved none but you."
It could not be denied that when Elizabeth first heard John's voice echoing from the great hallways, a flood of both relief and pure fear shot through her. While previously, she had been apprehensive in the extreme for her own fate, she now realized that John's seemed much more important to her. Though she knew he was somewhat trained, she did not really think that trying to combat five armed men was a prudent decision.
He was here and that in itself was a miracle. However, the prospect of now losing him to these base ruffians seemed almost unbearable. The panic she felt at even the idea seemed so insurmountable that she could almost detachedly wonder at its magnitude, until the uninvited realization settled upon her that somehow, between an awkward, stilted business proposal and hearing his voice coming to her rescue, she had fallen in love with her husband.
The knowledge was almost too much to bear, as it was both untimely and unwelcome. Apparently, her visage was so altered with dread at the prospect of it that even Mr. Kolya could easily note it. "You are concerned for your husband."
"Yes," she admitted, almost without thought. To be fair, it could be excused if she was a little more scattered than usual – she had never before had this oppressive sense of trepidation and realization overcome her.
"How touching," Mr. Kolya said, in atone that implied he thought it was anything but. "Did you hear that, Sheppard? Your wife is pale with concern for you. It is my understanding that she has already been widowed once. For a young woman to have to suffer such an affliction twice seems almost unforgivable. Perhaps, if you die, I shall just have to comfort her myself."
The crude insinuation nauseated Elizabeth to such an extreme that she was in very real danger of being ill. Surprisingly, Dr. McKay took a moment to brush a hand along her arm in comfort, and though he was not John and was thus inferior, it did help soothe her frayed nerves a bit.
In a few moments, John's voice echoed through the room once again, most definitely from a different location and slightly winded. "You lay one finger on her Kolya, and I will kill you." It was stated calmly, as though it was a matter of fact, and something about it made her smile in spite of the situation. "Also? You are now down to three men, besides yourself."
A livid rage quickly overtook Mr. Kolya's visage, and he spun to face his captives once more, studying them with care. "Mr. Sheppard, I must warn you that if you persist in this ill-advised course of action, I will be forced to take my own. The next time I discover that one of my men has been incapacitated, I will have to kill either Mrs. Sheppard or Dr. McKay. Would you like to select your first victim, or shall I surprise you?"
There was silence for a long moment, and when John's voice finally echoed through the room once more, Elizabeth was quite certain it was from yet another location. "Now you are down to two."
This revelation angered Mr. Kolya so much that he face flushed with ire, drawing his pistol. "Congratulations, Mr. Sheppard. You have just killed Dr. McKay."
There was a rush of movement, the loud crack of a gun, and next to her, Dr. McKay's shriek echoed in her ears. When Mr. Kolya took pause, it was over Dr. McKay's now prone body. "You shot him?" she asked, a bit dazed due to the commotion that had just occurred.
"He fell into a swoon," Mr. Kolya corrected, disgust lacing his tone.
With those words, she suddenly understood – Rodney's nerves had failed him right as his captor had shot the pistol, conveniently causing the nervous doctor to fall out of harm's way. "Thank heaven," she muttered.
"I would not be too thankful if I were you, Mrs. Sheppard," Mr. Kolya warned. "Now, you are my only useful leverage."
John was some distance above the central room, and as such could not clearly see the results of Kolya's threats. Still, Elizabeth seemed remarkably calm, and he believed that even she would be flustered if a coworker had just been murdered right in front of her.
Trying to slow his pounding heart, John took a moment to lean against the wall. Perhaps fueling Mr. Kolya's anger was foolhardy, but John had never taken well to being threatened. When backed into a corner of any kind, his immediate response was to fight his way out of it. The fact was, he had an entire company to think about. The puddle jumper's unique design was one of the main reasons Atlantis was proving successful, and its loss would be a blow from which the company very well may never recover. While the loss of income would certainly not disturb John overmuch, he had almost a hundred employees whose futures were entirely dependant upon the regular wages they earned at Atlantis.
So really, giving up had never really been an option.
Now a bit more calm, John checked the ammunition and weapons he had gathered from the two young men he had already disposed of – they were both unconscious, gagged, and tied together somewhere on the third level of the building. That left two more on the prowl that must be dealt with, and this was the most logical place to lay in wait for them.
Sure enough, he could soon hear the approaching footsteps of one more mercenary, and when the time seemed right, John sprung out of his hiding spot and tussled with him. If there was one thing his somewhat dysfunctional childhood had taught him, it was the art of wrestling.
To his credit, the other man fought well, landing more than one painfully placed elbow in John's chest before he could completely manage to overpower the intruder. Eventually, however, the scuffle ended with John victorious, and with another piece of rope he had lifted from the docking area, quickly tied the man up. He briefly considered flaunting this victory to the smug Mr. Kolya, but almost as readily dismissed it, reminding himself that now, Elizabeth was in even more danger than she had been before.
Instead, John considered his options. Obviously, there was one more man that must be dealt with before he could pursue Mr. Kolya himself. There remained a question of tactics, however – any way he considered the situation, Mr. Kolya had far too many opportunities to harm Elizabeth before John could definitively put a stop to it. If only he had paid more attention while in the Army to strategy, this might be more easily done.
Before he could judge himself too harshly, the sound of a second set of footsteps reached his ears, and John prepared for one more brawl.
Still a bit dazed from events both physical and mental in nature, Elizabeth sat motionless, wondering how things had managed to escalate this quickly. Much like the now raging storm outside, the situation seemed to intensify exponentially with every passing moment. "You know that you shall never get what you came for now, don't you?" she asked Mr. Kolya quietly. "John will not stop until he has disposed of you and your men entirely. It is not in his nature to give up."
"Nor is it in yours, I suppose," Mr. Kolya snarled.
His obvious disdain merely caused her to raise her chin a bit defiantly, refusing to showcase the fear that she was barely keeping at bay. "I do not believe it is, no."
"More is the pity for both of you, then," Mr. Kolya retorted.
"Perhaps," she acknowledged. "But allow me to inquire as to your plan now. After all, you are now significantly short-handed, and are likely becoming even more so as we speak. Soon, you will be all alone here, with a very angry man and an uncooperative hostage. You are surrounded by a countryside with which you are not acquainted and an ocean wild with the weather. How do you suppose to extract yourself from such a precarious position?"
"I could kill you all," Mr. Kolya threatened.
"You could," Elizabeth acknowledged. "But the problem of extraction would remain. How do you think our many employees would react to finding our corpses here, with you, unable to leave, alive beside them? While you may outnumber us right now, Mr. Kolya, I assure you that you cannot possibly overpower even the comparably small number of Atlantis employees remaining here in England."
It was obvious that this line of questioning was irritating him to the extreme, and while he was certainly more volatile in such a condition, Elizabeth sensed that he would also be more liable to make a fatal error.
Wildly, Mr. Kolya looked around him, as though he was already trapped. "I will take a ship!" he proclaimed triumphantly after his eye had landed upon the docks outside.
"How?" she asked simply. "You do not know how to operate our ships. Perhaps you could manage in fair weather to not kill yourself, but in a tempest such as this, I very seriously doubt you'd have the same success."
Her captor's eyes slid to Dr. McKay, who was still blissfully unconscious, then returned to her, studying her carefully. "Ah, but you know how to sail those infernal ships," he stated certainly, as though she had somehow unconsciously broadcasted the information.
Denial seemed like her first, and only, option. "No, I…."
"Ah, hush now, Mrs. Sheppard. You have been so collected until now that I would hate for you to lose your composure at this late juncture. The very fact that you are so close confirms my belief." He looked outside once more, then up at the floors surrounding them. "Report!" he yelled.
When no reply came, he sighed. "It seems that it is time for our departure, then, Mrs. Sheppard," he stated. Thoughtfully, he disarmed himself of his pistol. "This will hardly be of use to me out in the wet. Perhaps it is past time to rely on old-fashioned methods of persuasion."
With that, he drew his sword, pointing it in her direction. "Now, stand."
Reluctantly, she acquiesced, glaring at him. "If you touch me, I will scream," she warned.
Rather than making him hesitate, this information seemed to please him. "All the better," he assured her, reaching out his spare arm to draw her closer to the blade.
Following her pure instinct, Elizabeth responded by darting forward and managing to bite the heel of his hand, drawing blood and a yell from Mr. Kolya. Then, keeping her word, she let loose with an ear-piercing yell.
Elizabeth's scream filled John with a momentary panic, and an opportune strike of lightning let him see that down on the main floor, Mr. Kolya was leading Elizabeth, at the point of his sword, out onto the docks.
Realizing his plan, John rushed down the remaining steps, knowing that anything and everything must be done to keep Elizabeth out of the mercenary's clutches. Realizing that his pistol, like Mr. Kolya's, would likely be useless in the cascading rain outside, John made a quick detour to the training room, where Miss Emmagan had left several different swords for John to practice with on her last visit.
He grabbed the first sharp one he could see and then wasted no time exiting onto the docks. The storm had increased a thousand fold since his own arrival, and John could barely keep his eyes clear from the pounding rain, angry wind, and roiling black sea. Still, he could vaguely make out the two figures of Elizabeth and Kolya down the dock, beginning the process of untying one of the puddle jumpers.
"Kolya, halt!" he yelled over the shrieking of the wind.
Instead of complying, Mr. Kolya responded by grabbing Elizabeth and drawing her in front of him, his sword held to her pale throat. "She has tried my patience most exceptionally, Mr. Sheppard!" My. Kolya called back. "I would not give me an excuse to kill her."
Trying to remain calm even as Elizabeth's eyes widened in panic and fear, John advanced slowly down the dock. The boards beneath his feet were uncommonly slick, and walking with a sure foot took a certain amount of concentration that he could not help but hope Mr. Kolya would lack. "Why are you doing this?" John could not help but inquire.
"Why does anyone do anything in this age? Money, Mr. Sheppard. It always returns to money."
It was with no small amount of satisfaction that John noted Mr. Kolya backing up, inching his way away from John even as John managed to advance more quickly toward him. "Someone paid you to invade our establishment? Who?"
"Does it matter? Trade is a prosperous business, Mr. Sheppard, and where there is money, there is treachery. Now, do not come any closer, or I will slit your wife's throat while you are powerless to do anything but watch."
The threat froze John on the spot – he could not have moved even if he had wished to. "Mr, Kolya, please. Unhand her and we will let you leave. There is no cause for bloodshed."
"How chivalrous of you, Mr. Sheppard. Unfortunately for you, I have quite a fondness for bloodshed." With that, Mr. Kolya increased the pressure on his blade ever so slightly, and Elizabeth flinched as a thin line of blood emerged across her throat.
The sight of it, rather than filling John with fear, freed him from his paralysis. Infuriated, John lunged forward, managing to exert enough control over his blade to avoid Elizabeth entirely and embed it deep in Mr. Kolya's right shoulder. The force of the blow caused the other man to cry out and stagger back, quickly losing his footing on the slick surface of the wooden dock.
For one horrible moment, John could only watch as both Mr. Kolya and Elizabeth fell back, off of the dock and toward the angry ocean beneath them. John leapt forward, and it was only at the last possible second, with desperate fingers, that he managed to pull Elizabeth to safety while Mr. Kolya, with one long yell, fell into the water below.
Safe in his arms, he could feel her shaking with repressed emotion and chill, and John found himself unable to let her loose right away. For one moment, he had believed her lost forever, and found that recovering from even the idea was no easy task.
Eventually, he managed to distance himself a very little, enough to brush long locks of sopping hair away from her face, studying every inch of her. "Are you all right?"
Her nod was hesitant, but present. "I believe so," she replied faintly. "Thankfully, you have remarkable reflexes."
He laughed, and if it had a tinge of hysteria in it, she was kind enough to not notice. John just pulled her close once more, her head resting on his shoulder with one of his hands tangled in her hair. "You're fine," he said softly, reassuring himself more than her. "Just fine."
As she seemed amenable enough for the moment, John just held her, needing to be near her, to reassure himself that he had been successful in adverting disaster. She had just given him the fright of his life, and it took him a moment to accept that he was so affected not because his business had been compromised, or because his friend had nearly died, but because Elizabeth, just Elizabeth, had been in danger.
He did not know when she had come to mean more than a mere partner should, and really, he was not certain it mattered. The fact was that he had fallen in love, deeply in love, with the woman he now held in his arms.
This knowledge was accompanied by the very real awareness that there was nothing to be done about it.
While for some men, loving their wives was a source of lifelong joy and fulfillment, for John, it was a decided inconvenience. He was married to a woman whom he had promised nothing but friendship. Love had been left entirely out of their arrangement, and while now it seemed like a most garish oversight, at the time, it had not been a relevant issue.
So, he was in love with Elizabeth. And his honor, blasted though it be, would never allow him to act upon those emotions he now realized were most dear to his heart.
Gathering himself, he pulled away, studying her one last time with new eyes. She was crying and soaking wet and deeply shaken, but still, she was beautiful. And he would not tell her.
"Come," he said, standing and helping her. "Let us go dry off before we both catch a fever."
She nodded, smiling a little, and hand in hand, they headed inside.
Due to the lingering remains of the storm, a constable could not be sent for until morning at the earliest. As such, John merely collected the remaining intruders in one of Atlantis' empty storage rooms, checked to make sure their bonds were quite secure, and locked them there. The valet, Mr. Grodin, was summoned to attend to Rodney, who was still unconscious is the main hall. Elizabeth watched this all with a strange sense of disconnection, and it was not until it was finished and John turned his attention to her that she realized how violently she had begun to tremble.
With great care, John took her arm once more and led her to her private rooms, where she was left to change and gather herself. And though she was still extremely shaken, Elizabeth had to admit that being warm and dry brightened her mood considerably. With the now very much awake, but thankfully imperturbable Miss Simpson's help, Elizabeth managed to struggle out of her sodden dress, after which she entered the parlor to see that John had not only lit a fire before changing his own drenched apparel, but started a pot of tea as well. His consideration touched her deeply, and she poured two generous cups before tightening the sash of her dressing gown and curling into her deep, soft chair by the fire.
It was not five minutes before John emerged from his rooms, looking considerably better outwardly, but, she suspected, still quite shaken in all other aspects. She offered him a wan smile, trying to calm him as best she could. "Thank you for the fire. And the tea," she remarked softly.
His gaze had been trained on her so intently that he looked almost startled to remember the actions he had taken. "Oh, it is nothing," he said dismissively, crossing the room toward her. "Elizabeth, are you quite sure you're all right?"
Feeling no need to lie to John, who was if nothing else, one of her dearest friends, Elizabeth sighed. "No, I am not."
She immediately regretted her words as his face paled even more drastically. "Shall I send for a physician?"
"No, there is no need. I simply meant that…I am ill at ease," she clarified, hoping to allay his worries. "It will pass, I'm certain. Come, drink your tea."
He sat across from her with a heavy sigh, lifting his own cup tentatively, as though it required Herculean effort. "I must admit to still being a bit unsettled myself," he muttered. "When I think of the nerve of Mr. Kolya, invading our business, our home in such a manner…."
Elizabeth silently agreed, staring into the fire. "He certainly must have been promised a substantial amount of money to undertake such a mission. It makes me wonder who would have the means and motive to order such a thing."
John frowned, anger settling heavy on his face. "Whoever it is, they have made an enemy in us that they will come to regret."
It was probably foolish of her to relish John's simple, innocuous use of 'us'. The night had been one of great turmoil and confusion, but amidst it all, her wonder at the revelation of her feelings seemed to be the most lingering feeling. In retrospect, she could not even place exactly when her feelings had grown beyond the terms of their arrangement, although she suspected that they had always been greater than she had blindly assumed.
Knowing her own heart now could not change anything, and yet, it altered even the way she looked at him as he sat sipping his tea. "Would you like me to start asking our contacts for any gossip they may have heard?" she offered.
He considered this carefully, and then shook his head. "Unless you think it is imperative we do so, I would wait. Asking questions now will only attract more attention."
She agreed, finishing her cup of tea and staring blankly into the flames for a few more minutes before standing. "Well, I think sleep is the only thing for me now," she said, ignoring the instincts that were so reluctant to leave his side after such on ordeal.
Because he was, despite his protests, a gentleman through and through, he stood as well. "And you are certain that you are well?"
Touched by his concern and wishing it could be more, Elizabeth simply smiled. "I will be. Although I shall be certain to thank providence for inclement weather tonight."
John looked at her, seemingly confused. "Why? Without it, they might not have invaded tonight."
"Perhaps. But without it, you would not have been here to stop them, either," she pointed out.
That particular realization made him smile for the first time all evening, and he nodded. "Well, goodnight then."
Wishing things could be different – and knowing that they never would be – Elizabeth began the lonely trek to her own rooms. "Goodnight."