He was just standing there, hands on the railing, eyes closed and face leaned into the setting sun and he looked so peaceful that she didn't have the heart to let him know of her presence. She just supported her back against the wall and waited for him to notice her himself. When he finally looked at her, it was with the kind of serene smile that one came by very rarely in that galaxy.
"Where were you?" she asked, taking a few steps closer to him.
"Hmm," he slowly looked back at the sea again. "I'm not sure that place even exists here. A little strip of rocky beach near Dubrovnik."
"You were in former Yugoslavia?" she asked and she wasn't even quite sure why she was surprised. She just kept forgetting what a small place her home planet was. Not so long ago, it had been the measure of everything.
"I was in Bosnia," he nodded, "at the end and after it. We kept finding these mass graves. And there were apartment buildings in Sarajevo with their whole facades missing and some people still continued to live in them, so they looked like these eerie nightmarish doll houses. And all those nervous children that had been robbed of their childhoods. And I had been married for only two years and it was already all falling apart and the fact that I was always away was only part of the reason." This didn't really sound like a story that would make him smile serenely.
"So when I got a week's leave," he continued, "I decided that I had to get away, anywhere. I hitched a ride on a UN truck that was going to Dubrovnik. It was pretty badly damaged as well, but at least there was a sense of it being over. Took a room at a seaside hotel that looked like it had simply forgotten to shut down in the middle of all the commotion. The proprietor spoke only Croatian which created a bit of a communication hitch because the closest thing I could offer was just some out of practice Russian, which was actually pretty useless." He smiled at the memory. "Slept all day, got up in the evening for food, reread some Hemingway, listened to the sea till the sun came up. That's where I was right now, a week of calm between all that heartache."
"Did it help, going there then?" she prodded, wanting to know the end of the story.
"Kind of," he shrugged. "It's not really possible to think the aftermath of these atrocities away. Decided to give my marriage another chance. When I got back to Sarajevo, there were divorce papers waiting for me."
"Ouch.""Nah. From there it just seemed a sacrilege to voluntarily give up something that so many people had been robbed of. Not really a good reason to stay with somebody. She always was more perceptive than me."
She also had her memories, sometimes more vivid, sometimes seemingly less relevant.
"I was there, too. At the UN mission in Sarajevo." It took her a moment to conjure the time in her mind. "As inexperienced as they come. Totally lost and overwhelmed by everything I saw around me, I couldn't sleep properly for months," she rubbed her brow at the memory. "I think I was trying to convince myself that it was normal. Not normal as in everyday, but normal for a place that has just been through hell. Didn't take me long, though, to realize that there is nothing normal in being through hell." Trying to remember her Dubrovnik, her moment of sanity in that madness, she ended up recalling something else instead. "I was seeing a French photojournalist whose name completely escapes me right now." She didn't even realize she had said the last part out loud.
"Oh, so you like them scruffy, huh?" he asked teasingly and for a moment she didn't understand what he meant. Elizabeth wondered whether her unintentional openness had pushed them over that barrier between professional and personal they desperately hung on to, but decided to go with the flow.
"No," she chuckled, "I used to like them with bleeding hearts, actually. Except this one didn't even have that, he just had a death wish. Which I actually should have realized from his annoying habit of calling me 'Lizzee'," she shuddered. "When the daily body count dropped below a certain level, he was off to some other place where human beings were doing inhuman things to each other. "Sorree, cherie, I 'ave to go. You understand, no?""
"Used to like them with bleeding hearts?" he asked carefully, prodding the limits.
"Yes, well, at some point I realized that when you actually want to get things done, they are very ineffective. Which can get really frustrating. Which can put a certain strain on a relationship, you know, if one party constantly wants to strangle the other. " She seemed to be in an open mood, so he took another tentative step.
"And now there's nothing," she shrugged. "But theoretically? Well, I've made concessions about the "saving the world" thing, sometimes I even think that one idealist is sufficient for a relationship. I guess a man who is good and confident enough in what he does that he doesn't feel the need to bring his work into the relationship. There is nothing more off-putting than men who get fidgety around professionally successful women."
He was really expecting her to pull away, escape behind the curtain of professionalism at any moment now. They were close, but hardly ever with words and he knew why that was, but at the same time, in the place where the burden of being human ached and prodded him on, it didn't make any sense at all. When she didn't stop, instead seeming to welcome this detour into personal, John realized that this might just be one of those evenings that he would never forget.
He turned to catch her eyes, "Elizabeth, you're not an idealist. You're a pragmatist, just grounded by principles, which is smart when everything else is shifting around you."
"I don't know," she sighed. "It just sometimes seems to me that I see too much potential in people and things… Not only here, but in general. That my expectations are just impossibly high." Realizing that he didn't quite understand, she tried to explain herself in another way. "Back on Earth, I saw it over and over again, what people were prepared to do for money or simply for power, how they clung to those things at terrible, terrible costs to everything around them. Leaders who were willing to condemn their whole nations to misery just because of some petty insult. Men who sincerely announced that it was their God-appointed right to do whatever they damn well pleased." She shook her head at the memory. "And yet every time I got in the middle of a situation like that again, I couldn't believe it. He looks like you and me, he smiles, is polite, shakes your hand, asks about your family, and then he goes and takes everything – money, home, dignity, life – from the very people he claims to serve."
"I have never understood," he replied quietly when it seemed that she had finished, "how people like that manage the calculation – that one human life is worth more than another. How you can do that and never put yourself in that position. How the finality of death just doesn't overwhelm you. I never had much regard for that whole "exporting democracy" concept, and all these different societies I have seen over here has done nothing to change my mind, but one universal value I refuse to budge on is human life." She looked at him, clearly puzzled about something and in response he raised his eyebrow as if to challenge her.
"Sounds strange to you, doesn't it?" he asked. "For someone who chose to be a soldier, whose job it is to carry a weapon and shoot to kill?"
"Why did you choose to be a soldier?" she replied with a question of her own.
"Well, at 17 I just wanted to fly and see the world," he released half of his trademarked flyboy grin. "And I guess I would have come to it eventually even as a regular. But I got accepted to the Academy and besides teaching us how to flip an F16 and launch a grenade, they also made us read Sun Tzu and Machiavelli and all those other guys who had pondered over why we fight and then when I chose to stay it was because I decided that I have to stand up for what I believe in." The conversation was becoming too heavy for his preference, bringing out too much baggage, but there was at least one more point he wanted to get across.
"All of these guys that go about risking their lives on a daily basis must have a reason to do it and, granted, some of those reasons might not be quite the correct ones, but..." He hesitated, trying to select the right words. He didn't want to ever take this topic up with her again, didn't want their personal relationship, the very core of it, to become saturated with the horrors of everyday. Somewhere in the back of his mind there was the unspoken hope of being able to hold all of that at bay when there was just the two of us.
"Look, you can be kung ho and naive when you start out, but only until the first time you actually shoot to kill another human being. I am absolutely certain that the men who committed those unimaginable horrors in Bosnia," by the way he closed his eyes for a second it was clear that to him they would never be unimaginable again, "were just as shaken up after the first time. They just saw it as a weakness they needed to overcome, not as a part of being human, and they went about squashing that weakness in them, destroying the inner compass." And that was that. He consciously shifted gears. "I just resent the stereotype that most soldiers are dumb tools with dangerous toys. Which, I guess, is the reason I blurted out that Mensa thing to Rodney. I hardly ever use that fact conversationally, but it shut him up pretty well back then, so I guess it was for a good cause."
"Oh, yeah, what is up with the Mensa thing anyway?" she shot him a curious smile, distracted by him creating an opening to the topic she had wanted to explore for a while now. "You know it's been killing Rodney."
"That I passed the test or that I didn't join?"
She shrugged, "I'm not sure, but knowing Rodney..."
"...both," they nodded in unison.
"Yeah," he continued, "well, it was a complete accident."
"Oh, come on, now you're just bragging!" There was that sparkle in her eyes that he, consciously or unconsciously, always fished for. "You accidentally passed the Mensa test?"
"Swear to God," he raised both his hands, holding back laughter. "As part of somebody's senior year Social Studies project everybody in the class had to take an IQ test. Wasn't even a real test, just some sample from some textbook." He rubbed his chin, almost managing to look bashful. "But I guess I got a maximum on it, which apparently took some people by surprise, because the next thing I knew accusations were flying and my father had to come to school – I mean, how do you cheat at an IQ test, anyway? – and I had to take another one at the principal's office and I aced it again. And then I had to go to the Mensa thing."
"Wow." If he was that off-handed about the whole thing, she could see why Rodney was so irritable on the subject. "But why didn't you join?"
"I never had any intention of joining. I mean, I couldn't, I wanted to join the Air Force." He seemed quite serious about that explanation. It also seemed quite obvious to him.
"How are the two things mutually exclusive?" she had to ask.
"Oh, come on, you have been around us military types for quite some time now," he appeared genuinely surprised by her ignorance. "You know that the commanding officer's authority is absolute. How do you suppose an officer would react if some punk under his command was basically waving around a certificate stating that he was smarter than everybody? He'd have had no choice but to either fail me or break me and why would I have wanted to set myself up for something like that?"
"It's a rigid world you live in, isn't it?" It wasn't an accusation and he knew it. He had pretty much given his own attitude away with that last sentence – John Sheppard, regardless the rank, would abide by the rules that suited him or that he couldn't avoid, but had no particular qualms about completely bypassing the others if he could get away with it. And sometimes even if he couldn't. Tonight, when she caught his eyes, there was a spark in there that should have made her careful.
"Yes, but it seems to work," was his uncharacteristically diplomatic answer. "Besides, I don't really believe in that shit anyway."
"What shit would that be exactly?" The tone of her question showed that it was partly a mockery of his liberal choice of vocabulary.
"That solving some picture puzzles at 17 actually determines that you are the top dog," he shrugged. This was not a night to regret the occasional rash choice of wording. "For starters, because intelligence without experience is just smartassery. And secondly, I think that people's brains work in different ways, process information differently and produce results differently. The test format just happened to go with how my brain works, but the results are not absolute and to claim that they are just seems pompously elitist to me."
"Rodney's in Mensa," she pointed out.
He smirked. "There you go, then."
"You know, we might have met each other," she said after a moment of silence. "In Bosnia."
"True," he contended. "It's actually highly likely we did and just walked on by without any connection." The "look at us now" thought was all but implicit in his tone.
"It's all just a big game of chance, isn't it?" she sighed, trying to grasp the immeasurable dimensions of all the things one meets in life that have the potential of changing its course for ever. If John had not accidentally stumbled into the station in Antarctica, turned out to carry the gene, joined the expedition, saved everybody from that hive ship and ended up having to mercy kill Colonel Sumner, none of them might not exist anymore. Atlantis might not exist.
"Yes," he replied, seeming to understand perfectly where her thoughts had turned. "And I am damn glad it all ended up having a purpose after all. I have never been that lonely in my entire life." He gripped the railing of the balcony and hung his head, silently wondering how that last confession had escaped to the surface.
She had read his file, several times, in fact, so she knew how he had ended up in McMurdo. She also remembered the way he was that first time they met – somehow weary and distant and careful around people, so much so that she had had strong misgivings about taking him along. After that everything had started happening so fast that she hadn't even had the chance to give it any further thought, she now realized. She knew loneliness, the kind stemming from the distance a leader must put between herself and those she leads, but she suspected that she had never felt as lonely as he did then – the grudgingly self-maintained loneliness of an outcast whose sole source of dignity is the delusion that he chose to be where he is. She reached out and touched his arm, not quite knowing what to say.
"Hey, it's all good now," he smiled, but there was gratitude in his eyes. "Nothing like a little desolation to make you appreciate things, is there?" And that weak attempt to turn his own lowest moments into a joke made her wonder whether that "no surrender" attitude was something his years in the military had carved into him or whether it was just a part of his nature. She suspected the latter.
"Not all good, surely?" she said with a smirk, willing to follow him down the easier path.
"No, but getting there," he replied, and the suggestion, almost a promise in his eyes made her see that the easier path might be booby trapped.
He let the smile on his face fade before saying, "I am just worried about how detached everybody is out here."
"We're not detached, John, we have each other." And at that moment she really believed it.
"Yeah, but not really, do we?" he frowned. "I don't think people quite acknowledge yet how much they need each other. The gate robs us of reality, all those usual things that we have to tell us where we are. When you travel on Earth you might end up in a different time zone and the air might be a bit more humid, but you can still count on the morning to come. When you travel through the gate, the days are different, the seasons are different, there might be two suns in the sky and you can't use any of that to pinpoint yourself on the bigger picture."
"So all we have for that are other people," she quietly nodded.
"Except that we are so used to "staying professional"," he didn't use air quotes, but he might as well have, "that we don't let them near. Either because of the constant danger of losing the person you have made your anchor, which to me seems all the more reason not to waste time – we might all die tomorrow and I somehow think that knowing you have stayed professional is of little consolation then. Or because of some stupid protocol, because it's been established somewhere that we cannot remain objective if we get too close. Which is just bullshit, because we are already too close and we have never been objective – it comes with the realization that our very survival depends on the survival of those around us. Letting one person closer than the others does not mean that you are more willing to risk with the lives of the others. Not out here."
"John," the look in her eyes was intensive, almost burning. "Are you talking about you and I?"
He looked aside for a moment and furrowed his brow, considering the question. "Probably," he nodded and she felt a lump forming in her throat. She turned away from him, resolutely staring at the sea.
"I can't...," she started, not sure what exactly she couldn't, just aware that somehow they had stumbled into this moment she had feared and anticipated for a while now.
"Elizabeth, you are not telling me that you haven't thought about this yourself," he took a step closer to her.
She closed her eyes, desperately trying to figure out what the right thing to do would be and who exactly she was trying to be loyal to. "I understand you, I probably even agree with you," she finally said with a sigh, "but we can't forget what's at stake here."
"That they won't approve?" She could hear the sneer in his voice. "By their standards we're already too close, Elizabeth," he murmured and, as if to illustrate, took another step, now physically closer than he had ever been, burying his face into her hair. Her breath caught and she leaned into him, almost without realizing it. "You're the one that makes me strong. You're the one that I come back to. You're my compass," even in their simplicity, said as if it was obvious, his words vibrated back from her skin. "We couldn't be any less objective, but we can be happier."
"John, this is not us against them," she tried to reason. "We're all on the same side here."
"I know," he pressed his cheek to the back of her head, looking out on the water again. "But if we let them have control of every single aspect of our lives then all we have is work and danger and uncertainty. And they might not be aware of this, but human beings can't survive like that." He let out a frustrated sigh, leaning his forehead against her. "Look, I am not trying to seduce you here, or talk you into anything -- I doubt if I am even saying something that you don't already know."
"You're not," she contended, because who were they kidding? They had been living off of each other's strength and the low-burning fire between them for a while now. "But," she continued, reaching back to catch his arm and wrap it around herself, linking her fingers with his, fully aware of the contradiction between her words and her actions, "as you said yourself, what we do affects the survival of everybody. If the IOA thinks that it's wrong then it won't matter how right it feels to us. The city can't afford to lose us both."
"It does feel right, though, doesn't it?" he asked, wrapping his other hand around her as well and she could feel his smile against her skin, just before he lightly kissed her neck. Her head snapped back against his shoulder and she allowed herself a moment of bliss, before turning around determinedly and getting back on message.
"John...," was all she got out before being completely thrown off by the proximity of his face, his eyes, his lips.
"Elizabeth, this...," he said, laying a light kiss on the corner of her mouth, "...is none of their business...," a kiss to the other corner, "...it's not anybody's business...," another slight peck to the top of her nose, "... but ours."
"So what do you suggest?" she squinted slightly to focus on his eyes. "That we sneak around like teenagers?" and as if absentmindedly touched her lips to the edge of his smirk.
"No, I am suggesting that this...," he now kissed her top lip, "has nothing to do with the gate and the control room and the reports, the security issues, shields, jumpers, labs and research. This...," a kiss to her bottom lip, "is outside the Colonel-and-Doctor realm. If you haven't noticed, Atlantis is not exactly a dinner and a movie kind of a place anyway. This...," and this time, just for a moment, he took in her whole mouth, "is for when there is just us, a man and a woman." He leaned back slightly, a smile on his face, "And if you think that anybody who has been paying a slightest bit attention has not already realized what we mean to each other, you are seriously underestimating your staff."
The look that she gave him was almost... sad, but he could see that she knew -- now that they had finally been brave (or desperate?) enough to reach out, to release the avalanche, there really wasn't any choice left.
"Hey," he whispered, trying to take some of the burden from her, "Elizabeth, this is bigger than us..." he lifted one hand to stroke her forehead.
"I know," she dreamily smiled, tying her fingers into the soft hair at the back of his head. "It's still so going to end in tears," she shook her head. "But I guess it would have anyway. At least this way it might be worth it..."