Rules of Engagement

Part II: John

By

Mama Jo

Like he'd told the wheezy old guy in the dungeon next door, he'd been in -- and out of -- prisons before. If it came to that (and at some point he was sure it would), he'd even endured torture before.

It was the fact this particular prison belonged to Acastus Kolya that made it so much worse. Ditto, John thought sourly as he stared over his gag at the back of the man who'd become his personal nemesis, for any planned tortures.

Evidently, the proceedings were also going to be televised live to the folks back on Atlantis. Feeling the sore spot caused by the Genii guard's stun-stick on his back, like a bad localized sunburn, John earnestly hoped no one got inspired to be creative in its use. Especially since not just his team, but his fiancee of two weeks, would be watching Kolya's little production.

At least he could trust Elizabeth to understand why, rather than a declaration of undying love, his possibly last words to her had been an order not to yield to the renegade Genii commander's demands. Nancy wouldn't have. In fact, she probably would have been halfway into full-blown hysterics by this point-- And now was a heck of a time to be thinking about his ex-wife, wasn't it?

He heard Elizabeth's voice again: cool, studiously uninflected, giving away nothing of her inner feelings. "I'll need time to consider your offer."

"Allow me to help expedite your decision." The gloating menace underlying Kolya's unctuous tone deepened as he turned and stepped away from the camera. Wondering where the first blow, or the first electrified jab, would land, John steeled himself: Uh-oh, here it comes. But neither of the two guards hovering behind him came any closer to him. Instead, the doors to the bunker opened, and he suddenly sensed a kind of sick anticipation sweep through the dank room. Must be bringing in some kind of specialist.

Then, in a tone of hushed horror but still all too clearly, Elizabeth invoked Deity. A second later, John's eyes widened as he saw what was being half-carried, half-dragged towards him. If not for the gag, he would have echoed her. A cold fear deeper than any he'd felt before cascaded down his spine and made an icy pool very low in his pelvic region.

"Specialist!" my-- Kolya's got a pet Wraith!

Heart rate and breathing kicking abruptly into a higher gear, Sheppard's focus turned inward in a desperate effort to regroup himself against this unexpected development. As the Wraith was positioned to his right, he decided he preferred even a creatively wielded stun-stick to the monstrousness looming over him. Dimly through the shock roaring in his ears, he heard McKay's voice yelling something, and Kolya responding. Methodically, with practiced, economical movements, the guards unlocked the confining manacle from the creature's right wrist, then removed a heavy leather sheath from around its hand and lower arm.

Elizabeth's voice came to him again, barely controlled anguish in her tone: "Don't do this. Don't do it."

John barely noticed Kolya moving to face the camera again, or heard him say, "The choice is yours. Dr. Weir. Do we have an arrangement?"

From his left, a guard yanked John's jacket to the side, holding it out of the way. Although he couldn't muster a coherent thought, denial surged fiercely through him, that old refusal to yield to any assault on his inner integrity, no matter the cost. On some deep level, the silence now coming over the channel from Atlantis, far from dismaying him, only fueled his determination to resist, to be stronger than the coming effort to break him.

"Very well," Kolya said. Turning, he nodded to the guards restraining the Wraith.

Agony, almost unimaginably beyond bearing, ripping outward from his chest into every cell of his body. Somewhere at the back of his mind he heard Sumner's scream. He remembered wondering what could possibly cause a Marine full bird colonel to do that.

He knew now. He felt a matching scream building inside him -- refused with every atom of his being to give voice to it. Not with Kolya standing there waiting to hear it.

Not with Elizabeth at the other end of the open mic.

And then the guards were pulling it off him, dragging it away. Gasping as much from the sudden cessation of intense pain as from the ordeal itself, John fought to keep from sagging bonelessly against his restraints. He was older; he didn't know yet by how much, but he could feel the subtle difference within himself. Weakly, he lifted his head to direct the most defiant look he could generate at Kolya. To his surprise, the outcast Genii stared back at him with a disturbed, almost disbelieving look on his face, before turning back toward the camera.

Elizabeth's voice, hoarse but controlled, came over the open channel. "You just crossed a line, Kolya."

'At's my girl, John thought muzzily, no longer able to hold back the exhaustion. Spit in his eye for me, 'Lizabeth, my 'Lizabeth . . . .

. . .And, no matter what, no matter how many times he does this, don't give in.

((()))

John stayed in the pilot's seat even once his teammates were all on their feet. "You guys go ahead," he said in answer to their quizzical looks. "Do me a favor, though. Tell Elizabeth I'll be down in a minute -- or two."

"Aye, lad, we'll do that," Beckett said from the door to the rear compartment. "But I'll want you in the infirmary for a thorough going over as soon as possible."

"Sure thing, Doc. See you guys in a little bit." He watched them go: McKay already bending Beckett's ear, Ronon casually gathering Teyla into the curve of his right arm as they followed the Canadian and the Scot. His gaze went unfocused and abstracted as he tried to analyze his unexpected sense of -- not loss, surely not loss.

Even though that was as close as he could come to naming what he currently felt.

". . .Our brothers. . ."

John's stomach still wanted to roil with revulsion as he relived that moment. And he still on some level felt vaguely shamed by that reaction. Truth was, somehow he'd arrived at a point where when he'd looked at his recent Wraith ally, he hadn't seen a monster: at least not exclusively. There had been a few moments, especially there at the last, when he'd seen a person; a philosophically inclined someone, with a dry humor to match his own, and, once woken, a will to live the equal of his. As crazy, as incredible as it sounded, he wondered if he and the Wraith had experienced some -- sort -- of male bonding.

"That's just sick, John," he muttered under his breath. Sighing, he swept a cursory glance over the jumper's instrument panel; got to his feet and turned toward the back of the ship.

That was when he heard familiar footsteps coming slowly up the ramp. A tense apprehension suddenly froze all his muscles, locking him in place while he listened to Elizabeth's unexpectedly hesitant approach through the rear compartment. She halted in the doorway to the cockpit, her arms crossed tightly in front of her, like a barricade. Her face wore a bleak, closed expression -- her "lockdown" look, he called it -- as she stared silently at him across the intervening space.

Fear unlike anything he'd felt even while he was being Kolya's Wraithbait coiled up from John's gut, squeezing the blood from his heart and the breath from his lungs. How many times can she acquiesce to my death? he thought, gazing back at her and seeing the telltale signs of strain he'd come to recognize too well. It's too much to expect, even of a woman as strong as Elizabeth.

The silence seemed to have grown into an almost physical thing, pushing them apart. John forced enough air into his lungs to say very carefully, "Elizabeth, I am so, so sorry you had to go through that. If--" His throat tried to close against the words; he made himself say them anyway. "If you're having second thoughts-- I mean, if you want to call off our engagement--" His voice failed.

With no change of expression, Elizabeth took the last few steps necessary to bridge the distance between them. Holding very still, he watched her come. She halted less than a foot away. Still silently, she raised one hand to comb her fingers through his spiky locks. The other hand, the left one, slowly came up to smooth across his temple, along the line of his jaw to his throat; from there to just below where his right collarbone met the top of his breastbone. Her fingers paused over the spot where the feeding wound had been. A long shiver ran through her.

Suddenly, her face came alive as her beautiful jade eyes filled with tears. "John, oh, my dearest, my darling John," she whispered. "If this is the price I pay for loving you -- then I'll pay it. . . ." And then she was in his arms, clinging tightly to him with a wild, desperate strength. Turning his face into her dark curls, he greedily inhaled their clean fragrance even as he cherished the sweet feeling of her body pressing against his; trembling in time with his.

"It's okay," he was eventually able to whisper. "Sweetheart, it's okay."

She nestled an impossible bit closer to him. "This time," came her slightly acerbic, somewhat muffled response.

"Yes, exactly." John slid his hands up to cradle her head, his fingers threading through the silkiness of her hair. "Look at me, Elizabeth," he gently insisted. "Look at me." And when finally she did, "That's what we have to hang on to and believe, 'Lizabeth: That everything's okay this time, and it will be the next time, too. And the time after that, and the time after that. We have to believe we'll always be able to say 'It's okay,' to each other at the end of it, no matter what went before."

He saw the different thoughts chasing themselves through the windows of her eyes; saw the exact moment she gathered enough courage to ask, "And if -- a time comes -- when it isn't--"

John swallowed hard, knowing in the dark corners of his mind such a time all too possibly would come. "We -- somehow -- deal -- with it, when it does."

Elizabeth gazed up at him for a long moment, as if to drink in his intensity and sincerity. Then he felt the tension relax out of her as she slipped her hands up to cup his face and let out a long sigh. "'It's okay,'" she repeated, her lips quirking into the tiniest of smiles. "Sounds like a good motto for our house. 'It's okay' -- even in the teeth of opposition from the IOA."

In the middle of bending his head the slight distance necessary to kiss her, John paused to stare down at her in disbelief. "The IOA? What do they think they have to say to anything?"

"After this -- hopefully nothing much." Elizabeth's smile broadened into a slightly mischievous, if still somewhat tremulous, grin, just before she closed the gap herself. "I think we just took the wind out of their sails," she murmured against his lips. "But it's okay. I'll fill you in on the way down to the infirmary."

((()))

"Send him up, Walter." Major General Jack O'Neill leaned back in his desk chair and fixed his brown eyes on the door that connected his office to the briefing room that overlooked the Gateroom. As he waited, he folded his long hands together over his BDU clad diaphragm and began to rotate his chair gently from side to side. This was going to be fun--

In just a matter of seconds, the shiny top of a head rose into view as its owner mounted the spiral steps leading up from the control room. Jack settled his shoulders even more comfortably against his chair's padded back. He kept his best poker face in place as a nattily suited man made his way around one end of the long conference table and came to a stop just outside his door.

"General O'Neill," the man said, and waited.

"Mr. Woolsey." Jack paused a beat, then added, "Come on in and have a seat." As Woolsey complied with the invitation, the head of Stargate Command halted his chair so he could face the IOA's American representative squarely. The little man, he privately conceded, had a pretty good poker face of his own. Silence stretched out, two pairs of brown eyes striving subtly against each other. Although Woolsey, as a diplomat, was accustomed to outwaiting opposing negotiators, Jack had mastered the skill in much more difficult and dangerous circumstances. He just let his inner enjoyment of the situation build while keeping his face totally blank. After all, he was on his home ground; he had all day. All night, too, if that was what it took.

Eventually, Woolsey seemed to realize that. He dropped his gaze to the single official-looking folder lying on the General's desk, tacitly conceding the point, and spoke. "We both have urgent demands on our time, General, so I won't waste any of it. I take it you have read the IOA's recommendations on the Atlantis command situation?"

"I have," Jack replied.

Woolsey's gaze flashed back up to his face when he didn't say anything else. Was that actually a spark of irritation he detected? He hoped so; he really did.

"Then do I assume you concur with those recommendations?" Woolsey demanded, a great deal of asperity in his tone.

"No, I don't." For the first time, O'Neill allowed a hint of cold steel to show its edge in his voice. "Apparently the IOA has forgotten that Elizabeth Weir spent some time sitting in the big seat." He lightly tapped the arms of his chair with the flats of both hands. "She did a good job, too -- for a civilian," he couldn't resist adding. "As for Sheppard, past black mark aside, I like seeing men like him coming up through the ranks. So, by the way, does the President." He threw that counter out casually, and watched closely to see how quickly Woolsey would pick up the unspoken corollary: The President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief, and the boss of both of us.

A slight frown creased the diplomat's forehead. "Be that as it may." He allowed his eyes to drop again, and appeared to choose his next words with care. "I tried to warn Dr. Weir of the way things were tending, of the negative view being taken of the personal relationship between her and Lt. Col. Sheppard." A note of genuine annoyance crept into his voice. "If they'd only had the sense to be discreet, to keep their feelings," he pronounced the words distastefully, "under wraps--"

Jack felt his eyebrows shoot toward his hairline in astonishment. "Are you saying you'd rather they had an illicit affair?" He didn't even try to keep his welling amusement out of his tone. "Mr. Woolsey, I am shocked by your unconventional attitude."

Woolsey gave him a dirty look. "And once again, General, I am shocked by the inappropriate levity with which you treat very serious situations."

"Yes. I know. But moving on--" Swiveling his chair, Jack lifted a folder from the credenza behind him, and swung back. Laying it on his desk, he gave it a slight shove toward Woolsey. "The reports for the last week in Atlantis came in this morning. For your convenience, I had Walter make copies of the ones I thought you might be particularly interested in perusing."

With the air of a man half expecting an electric shock, Woolsey said dryly, "Thank you," and picked up the folder. After shooting Jack another mistrustful glance, he opened it and began to read. As he progressed, he turned the pages more and more slowly. At the end, he quietly closed the folder and stared down at it for a long moment, before slowly raising his head to look at O'Neill.

Leaning forward, Jack rested his forearms on his desk. "Maybe it's just me, but I think those kids just thrust a pretty big spoke through the IOA's wheels. Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Woolsey?"

"A very big spoke, indeed." Woolsey's lips twitched. "Well, General, unless future events should prove otherwise, I think Dr. Weir and Col. Sheppard have more than adequately demonstrated they're capable of keeping their personal and professional lives separated. In fact, once the committee has had time to reevaluate the situation, they should even be able to, ah, set a date. I may take this folder with me, I assume? Thank you." He started to get to his feet.

At long last, the moment he'd been anticipating had arrived. Jack allowed the corners of his lips to turn up as he rested his chin in one hand. "Just to make the situation perfectly clear," he said, relishing every word, "I've already booked the Cadet Chapel at the Academy for them a month from today. The President is currently clearing his schedule so he can be in attendance, too."

Woolsey froze for the briefest second, halfway between sitting and standing. His eyes once more locked with Jack's. He finished straightening. "I may not pass that particular fact on to them just yet," he said; and even though his voice and expression remained perfectly bland, O'Neill got the distinct impression the other man was pleased with the outcome. "But perhaps I'll see you there. Good day, General." With a nod, he was gone.

Jack looked after him, his brows climbing for the second time. Son of a gun, he thought, bemused and amused in equal parts. Son of a gun. I think he was pulling for the kids all along, too!

The End