Title: A Real Boy, Pinocchio.
Pairing: Sheppard/Weir, Teyla/Rodney
Category: NOT angst fic! WOOT! It is action/adventure. Drama. Romance. Teamfic. Word count: 25k.
Prompt: Written for the S4/S5 Fix It Challenge over at livejournal, "This Mortal Coil" based fic, where Repli!Elizabeth and John's replicator!team survive the end of the episode. What are their stories of adventure? Summary of the episode: In a duplicate city of Atlantis, a rebel faction of Asurians make replicas of Sheppard and his team, as well as Elizabeth, into entirely organic copies built by Replicator nanites and given memories and personalities recorded when the Replicators probed their minds the previous year ("Progeny"). The Replicator!Team Sheppard and Repli!Elizabeth eventually make contact with the real Atlantis, but at the end of the episode, they are captured by the Asurians and presumed killed.
Summary: *points to prompt*
Disclaimer: SGA does not belong to me, otherwise do you think I'd be trying to fix it with fanfiction?
A/N: This fic answers the question of what would have happened if they survived the episode. I took a big dose of artistic liberty in making up a bunch of abilities that the replicator!Team could have, so it may or may not follow canon's so-called science. *shrugs*
A/N #2: This is my last SGA fic EVER. Whoa. Stargate Atlantis will always be my first true love, even if a few of those seasons sucked like a big giant vacuum of suckiness. Still, the fandom rocked and I will miss you! (P.S. Also, I continue to blame Burn Notice for this fic.)
It felt like months since John had a good night's sleep. Imprisonment, nightmares, unsecure locations and rough loggings had pretty much screwed over any sense of normal sleeping patterns John had, once upon a time, in that nebulous period before he was… John stopped short, almost laughing. He was about to say before he woke up to realize he was a half-nanite, half-human experiment, but then he remembered he didn't actually exists before then.
Lt. Colonel John Sheppard did, but he wasn't John Sheppard. Not the real, anyway.
Cursing to himself as old grumblings rose, John threw back the covers and climbed to his feet. An owl-like creature hooted once outside his window and John glared. The thin mattress beneath him sagged as he shifted weight, quickly tying up the laces of his boots before throwing on a pale blue tunic. Damn, but did he miss his Atlantis uniform. Dressing like a Pegasus native in all these backwater planets was really starting to get old.
Outside, it was refreshing cool night air. He braced his elbows on the banister of the front porch, and let his mind wander listlessly. A few minutes passed by, and then John picked up the telltale sign of the door opening and closing behind him. The weight of the footsteps and the direction they came from meant it was only one person: Elizabeth.
She leaned a hip against the railing, turning to face him. "Couldn't sleep again?"
He grunted. "We're gonna have to leave this place in the morning. Nothing of use to us here. They mentioned that planet – what was it called? Evon?""
"Evenlyn," she corrected. "They're a technologically advanced civilization. We could use one of those as a pit-stop."
John nodded silently in agreement. They spent their days moving from one farm planet to another, without any real clue as to where they would go or what they were planning on doing next. It was an aimless existence until they reached Atlantis, and John hated that feeling.
"Hey," Elizabeth mused in a wry voice, cutting into his thoughts. "You ever notice that when you get tense, you have this really angry vein in your neck that pops out?" He turned to glare at her, but Elizabeth kept the innocent act in place. "Relax, John."
"I am relaxed, Elizabeth," he parodied back in the same chiding tone.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, incredulous. "Just a thought. Poker? Not your game. Yesterday, you fought constantly with Rodney over wh—"
"It was a disagreement. We have a lot of them."
"Not like that. It was petty bickering, and don't think I didn't notice that you were getting unnecessarily rough with Ronon during your sparring session either."
"We can't get hurt," John replied flippantly, waving away the topic with a hand. "Nifty little nanites, remember?"
She sighed heavily. "I know you're getting frustrated—"
"Frustrated? Who, me?" He threw her a half-hearted glare. "Of course not."
She went stiff for a beat, probably taking a moment to will composure so she wouldn't snap at him the same way he'd been snapping at everybody lately. He was being an ass. He knew it. Elizabeth didn't deserve his behavior lately. None of them did, not even Rodney on his worst days. Thing was, knowing it and doing something to stop it were two very different things.
They'd barely managed to escape Oberoth, after months of torture, mindfucks and interrogations. Now they were just drifting through the galaxy. Clarification: for four solid months, they'd been drifting. Traveling in only one dinky puddle-jumper, the Pegasus Galaxy being… well, huge. Obviously. They weren't even a quarter of the way to their destination (assuming Atlantis hadn't pulled up stakes and moved again). John still had no idea what they'd say or do once they arrived at the city.
He took a breath, and turned around, settling side-by-side with Elizabeth against the railings. Their shoulders brushed with slight contact, and John tried not to focus on the slim white sleeping gown Elizabeth had on, the sleeveless one that left a lot of skin exposed at her collarbone. He never got to see her dressed like that on Atlantis. One of the very few pluses he got these days.
"I know things are rough right now," Elizabeth said softly after several minutes of silence. "I know we're all agitated, but things will get better."
"I know," John said, because he couldn't think of anything else to say.
He wondered what the other John Sheppard was doing right now, on Atlantis. He didn't relish the idea of seeing his other self again. Things were hard enough to handle without coming face-to-face with the living proof that, hello, you're nothing but a cheap knockoff.
She turned to him and offered a slim smile. "Just… try to relax? Go easy on Rodney tomorrow. He's getting cranky too, and that's a punishment on all of us."
He snorted a laugh. "Yeah, all right."
"You couldn't sleep either?" he asked, even though it really wasn't a question.
She paused, a shadow crossing over her face and John could read her so easily. Nightmare, he called. If what John suffered at the hands of Oberoth was bad, then he knew Elizabeth dealt with twice that amount. He had no idea how she managed to survive those first few months all by herself. At least here, now, with all the things John found annoying and bothersome, he still had his team. He still had Elizabeth. It was probably what kept him sane – as sane as he could keep, anyway.
"It's nothing," she assured him. "I'm headed back to bed now. I'll catch you in the morning?"
He nodded. "Night."
She left without another word and John watched her go.
As John swept his gaze about the landscape of Evenlyn, he could pick up a dozen different things that made this planet stand out from its predecessors. Instead of the usual farmer's market, or a village or a castle or some other third-world civilization, John found that just beyond the steps of the Stargate was a mall – an honest-to-god shopping mall. He nearly blinked in stupefied shock.
A few women brushed passed them, carrying bags of purchases and adorned in far too little clothing. They were dressed in neon halter-tops and short skirts, and John stared for a little too long if Teyla's pointed glare in his direction was any indication. In his defense, at least he wasn't drooling like Rodney.
"Well," Elizabeth said, trying not to beam. "Maybe this place will work out for us?"
Rodney finally managed to pick his jaw up off the floor. "Yes, well, let's not get too excited. They've managed to beat out the last six planets we've visited, but then again, so could certain episode of the Flintstones. I want to see what they have in way of transportation and accommodations before we throw a celebratory party and declare this planet the next Earth."
Ronon grunted, coolly sweeping his eyes over everything. "This place doesn't look like it's had to deal with the Wraith for some time."
Rodney snapped his fingers in quick succession. "Maybe they have some sort of orbital satellite that could keep the Wraith at bay, like we saw on 3XS-4S—"
"First things first," John cut in quickly, slapping his hands together. "I'm gonna see if they have indoor plumbing. If they've got that, then we know we're dealing with some smart folks."
Elizabeth smiled approvingly. "Good idea." She nodded to the others. "Go, spread out. Find out everything you can."
Teyla and Rodney went off in one direction, Ronon broke off and disappeared into the crowd by himself, and John strolled by Elizabeth's side through the mall. "So," John said, lifting on the balls of his feet to peer over the crowds. "Where to, first?"
They met back up for lunch.
"They have their own monetary system here," Teyla explained. "They do not barter."
John frowned, trading a look with Elizabeth. They'd found out as much, too. The really strange thing about the planet was that it was only half-modernized. It had a mall and other modern facilities, but apparently around the corner there were marks of a rural society as well. Taverns, lodgings, people dressed as peasants, the whole nine yards. The planet had quite the dichotomy.
But all of it, apparently, ran on a monetary system called Gwams.
Ronon shrugged. "So, we'll just make money here first."
Rodney sent him a glare. "And how do you propose we do that? Set up a wrestling match between you and random idiots, and profit from the spectacle?"
"Actually," Elizabeth cut in. "We're gonna need you, and John. Both of you."
Rodney looked blankly at her. "For a wrestling match?"
"Yeah, Meredith, exactly," John mocked, reaching over to slap him upside the head. He spoke over Rodney's sputtered indignation, "Elizabeth and I heard about a casino-type place on the outskirts of the city, called Neski's."
"Casino?" Teyla asked, confused.
Elizabeth nodded. "Have any of the boys ever mentioned Vegas to you?"
Teyla arched an eyebrow, and John averted his gaze immediately. "It was brought up once, but I think the reference had something to do with a "stripper named Mandy" that had shown John a good time in his misspent youth."
Elizabeth looked over at him, a dark sparkle of amusement in her eyes, and John's ears turned red. "Misspent youth!" he insisted. "You can't blame me for that!"
Elizabeth cleared her throat, trying to stifle a grin. "In any case, a casino is a place that accommodates certain types of gambling activities."
"Like poker?" Teyla replied, familiar with the game. She'd once bluffed her way through half John's stash of chocolates. "And Blackjack?"
"Exactly." Elizabeth nodded. "And with these two men over here," she looked to John and Rodney, pointedly, "with their gifts for numbers, I'm hoping we could learn the indigenous games and get some money quickly."
Rodney smiled smugly. "I like that idea."
Ronon glanced away, disinterested in the topic of conversation. "This is going to be boring for the rest of us, isn't it?"
John shrugged. "We could always try the wrestling thing, if you want?"
Neski's turned out to be a seedy dive.
John titled his chair on its hind two legs, keeping his face a blank mask as he told the dealer to throw him another card. Across the room, he watched from a distance as Rodney worked a separate table and continued to pile up the winnings. It was late into the night, or early in the morning depending on your perspective, and John scrubbed a hand over his face and suppressed a yawn.
The games weren't all that difficult to understand, kind of a mix between poker and baccarat. They were doing astonishing well, counting cards, but there was also a good deal of luck landing on their side as well. John had never had this type of luck in Vegas, that was for damn sure.
"You are not an aristocrat, are you?" The owner of the place, Neski, had been eyeing John all evening. "I can tell."
The games were even controlled by an automotive machine that recognized the ATA gene. Clearly, these people shared roots with the Ancients. It was probably the reason they were so far ahead of any other planet nearby in terms of technology. Though, apparently, only 10% of the population had the gene, almost all aristocrats.
John smiled back. "Nope, just a visitor from out of town."
The owner smiled tightly. Neski was a short man with a body builder's frame, long blonde hair, and a tattoo on his right forearm of some type of winged animal. Clinging to his left arm was his wife, a redheaded vixen named Sentra that dressed just as provocatively as some of the prostitutes in the room.
John drummed his fingers and waited while the other players at his table finished their rounds. Ideally, he reached out with his thoughts to Elizabeth and Ronon, who were seated at the bar nearby. Their nanite-infused bodies made for interesting side-effects. On top of being nearly impossible to kill, Elizabeth had slowly taught all of them on communicating the Asurian way – through what Oberoth often referred to as their collective consciousness.
It was like talking over internal radios… except not really. It was a lot more complicated than that.
He could pick up messages from the others if he honed his senses and opened his mind up to reception. They didn't often utilize this method of communication because, frankly, it creeped the hell out of John to have another person's voice in his head. Even it was only Elizabeth, Rodney, Teyla or Ronon. He liked boundaries; liked space; liked having the headspace to think dirty thoughts that generally would get his ass kicked by either Elizabeth or Teyla, depending on what day of the week it was.
When they communicated like this, thoughts meshed and jumbled together, a stream of consciousness that sometimes made it difficult to tell one thought from another. Especially if there was more than two other people in his head. Plus, there were major side-affects, mainly headaches, and the connection could only last for a limited amount of time.
Frankly, John found it more trouble than it was worth.
Still, during ops like this one, John could acknowledge the tactical advantage. He kept the "radio frequencies" open, and all night long, they'd been feeding each other information and insights.
Ronon stretched his arms over his head. How much longer is this going to last? he asked.
I don't know, Elizabeth answered. They're on a winning steak. I think it's best to let them decide when to quit.
Ronon slanted her a pointed glance. You're gonna let Rodney decide when he's done showing off?
An indignant reply from Rodney was cut short when Teyla walked back into the room, unusually anxious as she joined those at the bar. "I was just informed by a waitress in the back that John and Rodney should retire for the night. The owners of this establishment aren't known to take large losses with a smile on their faces. At least, not to anyone but aristocrats."
"Do they use intimidation or violence?" Ronon asked.
"Violence," Teyla answered. "The last winner ended up losing his left hand."
Without another word, Elizabeth rose and strode over to John. She dropped a hand onto his shoulders and leaned over to whisper in his ear, breath tickling, "We need to pack up and call it a night."
He turned his face toward her. "But I'm still winning bucket loads."
She locked eyes with him. "Now, John."
After a beat, he nodded then casually turned to the dealer at the table. "Pack it up," John declared with a cheeky grin. "The misses wants to call it a night."
Elizabeth sent him a glare for that, but let it slide. A few more minutes of packing their things up and getting their cash, the five of them walked out of the establishment into the pre-dawn streets. The internal radios shut off, and everybody thankfully went back to talking like normal human beings. As usual, it left behind a throbbing headache for everybody, but no one complained. Not even Rodney.
"Poor losers," John declared in annoyance, sending a scowl in the direction of the casino. "That type of shit wouldn't fly in Vegas."
"I don't care," Elizabeth responded. "We have more than enough money. No need for trouble."
But trouble ended up following them back to their lodgings.
Teyla and Elizabeth shared a room, and the guys took the chambers opposite them down the hallway. The accommodations were head and shoulders above anything they'd seen in the last four months. That thing earlier about his endless stream of sleepless nights? John had been exaggerating about that, just a bit. On occasion, he'd conk out for at least eight hours and wake up feeling energized for the day ahead of him. As he stripped himself of clothing, he thought he was so exhausted that tonight might be one of those nights.
He made it as far as the mattress, and then the abrupt sound of a gunshot from across the hall chased all exhaustion away. In a blind second, John was up and running, reaching for his handgun on the way out the door. Ronon was right behind him, Rodney fumbling to disentangle himself from his bed sheets, but John was already across the hall. He kicked the girl's door inwards, and found Teyla standing near a shattered window. Elizabeth was off to the side, clutching a robe closed.
"What the hell happened?" John demanded.
Teyla explained, "A man tried to come in through the window. He said he wanted the money back."
"John," Elizabeth cut in, faintly.
But John was suddenly livid with fury. Jaw clenched, he threw a searching gaze about the place and watched as Ronon disappeared, then reentered the room, nodding once to assure him the place was clear. Cold anger took over John, at the people that had done this. All for what? Money? Where was the goddamn principle of—
"John," Elizabeth tried again.
"I don't want to hear it, Elizabeth. These people tried to kill for some lousy—"
Elizabeth's knees buckled under her and she fell to the floor. It took a split second to realize it, and the others responded first. Teyla was at her side, Rodney was on the other, and John just stood there, staring, uncomprehending for nano-seconds that stretched onwards for what seemed like hours. Blood began spreading like a puddle over Elizabeth's shoulder, and then the realization finally hit him.
Elizabeth had been shot.
"I'm alright, I'm alright," Elizabeth insisted, but she was deathly pale, trembling and the blood was still pooling through her robe. "Nifty little nanites, remember?"
John clenched his jaw and helped her to her feet, moving the others out the way as he guided her across the hall to the guy's room. It was bigger, easier to defend, and had only one access point – the front door. He helped Elizabeth settle against his mattress, then tossed out orders left and right.
"Ronon, secure the location. Set up guard outside. Rodney and Teyla, go talk with the people in the lobby and make up some story about the gunshot. I don't want anyone coming in here tonight asking questions."
"We should leave," Elizabeth protested, winching as she took a breath. "We're not safe here."
"We're not moving you anywhere when you're like this," John declared, making no room for argument.
Nanites helped heal wounds, but John had suffered enough inflictions to know things weren't that simple. It took a lot out of their bodies every time they had to heal, and the graver the wound, the bigger the toll it took. Elizabeth's gunshot would have killed a normal person; as it was, she looked pale and trembling, and her body was still probably going into shock.
She needed to rest for a few hours, and he wasn't going to force her to run in this condition because of some goddamn sore losers.
John turned back to find that the others were still standing there. "Now," he barked. "While we'll still young?"
They left abruptly, and John helped Elizabeth settle back against the bedpost. "I'm fine," she insisted stubbornly. "We should leave."
He ignored her appeal, turning on the bedside light. "Let me look at the wound."
She was dressed in a light thin robe, and really not a lot else. As he helped untie the robe and peel away the material, he normally would have been awkward and red-faced at the amount of skin exposed. She was completely naked from the waist up, but there was too much blood, and John's head filled with pleasant, violent scenarios of what he'd do to the man that shot her.
"See?" Elizabeth breathed, letting her eyes fall closed in relief. "It's already healing."
John wiped away the blood to realize she was right. A little battle triage had determined that nothing was permanently damaged, but she was clammy, her pulse thready underneath his fingertips. The bullet had gone through and through, and the wound closed up right before his eyes. She was still entirely too pale, though. Slow to respond. He saw a crawl of goose bumps break out over her skin, so as soon as he was done cleaning her up, he rummaged through his bag for some spare clothing and helped her change into a dark tunic that swamped her to the hips.
He had a lot of fantasies over the years about undressing Elizabeth, about seeing her with one of his shirts on and nothing else, but none of them included blood.
"Hey," Elizabeth soothed, catching his hands. "I'm alright, John. I'm fine."
He tried for a flippant tone, "Aren't I supposed to be the one comforting you?"
But the scenario wasn't remotely funny. It brought to the forefront nightmares and garish memories of the months spent where he'd thought she was dead. It was shocking how that sometimes snuck up on him, right from behind, only to blindside him with a sucker punch of familiar grief. It probably wasn't too surprising that the sight of her bleeding from a gunshot wound made him feel entirely out of control.
"How you feeling?" he asked, licking his lips. "You need anything?"
She shook her head. "I'm fine, I'm just… I'm cold."
Right. Shock. Her body just needed to rest.
Gently, he helped Elizabeth pull back the covers of his bed and climb in. He blanketed the thick comforter over her, then stood there with his arms crossed, watching her with a pinched expression of worry on his face. Exhaustion quickly started to win over Elizabeth, but as she shivered from fatigue and shock, John decided to take one further step of action. After a brief second of indecision, he circled around the mattress and climbed on from the other side.
She was tucked under the blankets, and John settled his frame alongside her over the comforter. He didn't want to make this awkward for her, just wanted to provide her with some measurement of body heat, but when he tossed an arm across her waist, she immediately burrowed closer to him. Her hair tickled his nose, and he felt the movement of her chest as she took in a deep drag of air.
"Thanks," she mumbled, as she released a sigh.
He found he couldn't use his voice, so he just nodded, pressing her closer to his body while being as mindful to her sore shoulder as he could be. The wound had already fully healed, but he was still paranoid and diligent. As sleep overtook her quickly, John laid awake beside her.
He was going to kill the bastard that shot her, with his bare hands if he could. That all-consuming rage and frustration that had been steadily building for the last four months finally discovered a new target, and John was only happy to find something worthy to unleash it on.
These bastards had screwed with the wrong people.
In the morning, Elizabeth acted as if nothing was wrong at all.
There wasn't even a scar to show for her troubles, and she'd been insisting for some time on getting the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible. John wasn't willing to let the incident slide so easily.
"They tried to kill you, Elizabeth," he repeated, jaw squared with stubbornness. "That deserves some response."
She signed heavily, and he could tell she was taking a moment to regain composure before she dared continue. He wasn't even sure how this had happened, but the discussion had escalated into fight and Elizabeth squared off against him, both of their stubbornness butting heads.
"We still have the money, and I'm fine. Rodney is going to buy the supplies we need, and then we can move on. Think with a level head."
"I do have a level-head," John retorted. "Yours is the one that stuff would roll off of."
"No. Nuh-uh. Not gonna happen."
Elizabeth closed her eyes for a second, exasperated. "Why?"
"Am I a broken record here? Because you were shot, that's—"
"No," Elizabeth cut in abruptly, rising as her eyes flashed with fire. "What's the real reason, John? You're the military guy. Shouldn't you be saying that we're in enemy territory and have no reason to stick around? So why, John? Give me one good rational reason besides I'm pissed as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore. Why should we stay?"
He couldn't understand why she didn't get this. There were principles and ways of doing something, of reacting, and whenever one of his people got shot, John reacted. The fucking nanites in his body hadn't changed that much.
"You're angry," she accused. "You've been angry, and now you're just looking for a fight, John. I know you. I'm upset about what happened too, but look at the bigger picture. These people have advanced technology, probably derivatives of Ancient technology."
"So we tuck tail and run? We can't die! Or at least not by 90% of the things out there that can kill. We're not walking into mortal danger."
"We're in a world where we don't know the rules, the politics, we don't know what type of trouble we're getting into. For all we can guess, these people are as powerful as the Mafia or a state government. You don't just decide to go in guns blazing at the drop of a hat."
"No, John!" she exclaimed harshly. "We have to keep moving. We leave this planet as soon as Rodney buys what he needs."
He stared at her for a few seconds, ears ringing with her abrupt denial – her order. If it weren't for the fact that he spent the last night worried sick over her condition, he would have taken this fight another six rounds, easily. But he knew that stubborn look in her eyes, and he knew the fight would do nothing but test her patience and nerves. Not to mention tax her energy.
Itching for something to do, he grabbed his handgun and tucked it under his waistband. He pivoted to leave the room without another word, nodding stiffly towards Ronon on his way down the corridor. The big guy would take care of security. Right now, John just needed to work off some energy. He almost ran headfirst into Teyla and Rodney, who were rounding the corner coming back from the lobby.
"Go back and keep an eye on Elizabeth," John ordered tersely. "I'm going for a walk."
Teyla and Rodney traded a look. "John," Teyla spoke carefully. "Why don't you and I get breakfast? Rodney can return to Elizabeth."
"I'm not hungry—"
"That wasn't a request," Teyla cut in, smiling in that serene way that usually meant she was about to kick his ass. "Come with me."
The restaurant downstairs was nearly deserted as John and Teyla sat down for a late breakfast. Teyla ordered for both of them, always more familiar with the Pegasus dishes than he'd ever be. They waited until their orders were taken, and then Teyla swiveled her dark eyes towards John, and he tried not to squirm under the scrutiny.
He'd already had it out with Elizabeth; he wasn't looking for a repeat performance with Teyla. Sure, both women started out with sweet smiles and soft assurances, but John always walked away from a disagreement with either one feeling like his stomach was in knots, whether he won the argument or not.
"John," Teyla began.
"Ah!" John held up a hand. "I know what you're going to say."
"I highly doubt that."
"Please, Teyla. I've known you long enough to know that don't be such an ass, John look."
"And yet, you continue to be an ass. That doesn't say much of your learning curve, does it?" She offered him that amused smile. "Besides, that wasn't what I was going to say."
"Then what?" he snapped.
She paused, then held up a hand. "Never mind. If you are in this mood, there's no use in trying to talk to you."
"Oh, no," he protested angrily. "Now you've started this, then we'll finish it."
"John, lately all one has to do to "start" something with you is wake up in the morning."
And here they went again, the old John-stop-being-an-ass conversation. Didn't he call this? He totally called this. The waiter returned with their mugs, and Teyla settled back in her chair and stared out at the veranda. John scratched the back of his neck, slipped on his sunglasses, and let the silence brew until he couldn't take it anymore.
"I'm just tired," he snapped, without even meaning to. "I'm tired of doing the same thing, day after day, week after week. What are we doing out here?"
Teyla's eyes softened with sympathy. "We all feel disconnected without Atlantis—"
"Fuck Atlantis," John barked angrily. "It already has a John, and a Teyla, and a Rodney and a Ronon. You wanna know the truth? Fine. Here it is: Atlantis doesn't need us. Nobody does. They'll throw us out on our asses, or lock us up, orworse."
It felt like that had been bottled up inside him for too long – way too long. A flood had been opened, and though it stung like hell, it was only the truth. They had to open their eyes to see that.
And now that he had started, he couldn't stop.
"Atlantis doesn't want us," John continued with a hard edge in his voice, "and with good reason. I'm tired of trying to pretend reaching Atlantis will be our saving grace. It won't. It'll be like the last six planets we visited. It'll be like Evenlyn. A quick stop before we're forced to move again, and you know what? Fuck that."
Silence settled in the wake of John's declaration, and he realized his ranting had drawn stares from others nearby. He reigned in his emotions and turned away from Teyla's knowing gaze, taking a steadying breath to calm his nerves.
This was all something he could never say to Elizabeth. They'd all give up their lives in a heartbeat to save that city, but Elizabeth was in love with Atlantis in a way he wasn't sure even he understood. She loved it more than anything, more than anyone. The thought of returning there was what kept her brave face in place after waking up from nightmare after nightmare, after living through the things done to her. He couldn't take that hope away from her; John didn't have it in him to be that cruel.
She is stronger than you think, Teyla's voice filtered into his head.
John snapped his head up, realizing he'd been projecting his thoughts to her over their shared consciousness without even realizing it. Cursing to himself, he slammed the connection shut and replayed his thoughts to see if anything had betrayed emotions he didn't want revealed.
"I know how strong she is," he said at length, looking away. "I know what she can take. Atlantis is everything to her."
Teyla paused. "I think you're overlooking something Elizabeth loves more than the city, and that is her people. That is…" she sighed heavily, suddenly looking tired and exasperated. "John, sometimes you are blind to things staring you right in the face."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
Teyla locked gazes with him, and he squirmed again. "It means you are a blind fool if you think Elizabeth cares only for a city," she said bluntly, "and not for you."
John turned away, suddenly uncomfortable with the implications of what was being said. John didn't want those types of things acknowledged out loud. His feelings for Elizabeth had always been messy and complicated, and he'd always had an inkling that they were reciprocated in kind. Lately, after reuniting with her, it was getting harder to keep those emotions in check. Things kept happening – touches, looks, half-uttered phrases that said too much – they all kept slipping through the cracks more and more.
The fact that he slept in the same bed as Elizabeth last night, and no one had batted an eyelash in response, probably said a helleva lot too.
"It's not like that," he protested, but it was a hollow phrase and Teyla merely arched an eyebrow. "It's not," he insisted, with a tad more force. "We have… we're good friends. Just friends."
Teyla waited a beat, and then her eyes drifted to some distant spot over his shoulder towards the horizon. "I've found that friendship leads to the deepest of loves. Even unexpected love, the type that does not make sense to anyone else. One day, you see your friend, and it can be as harmless as a simple touch and then things change. You see him in a new light, and…" she finally looked back at John, and explained, "everything changes."
He eyed her, because as good as Teyla had gotten at reading him, he wasn't so bad when the tables had turned. "We're not talking about me and Elizabeth anymore, are we?"
She smiled enigmatically, and kept silent. The waiter returned with their food, thus marking the end of the conversation. John wasn't as dumb as he played sometimes; he could grasp emotional complexities as much as the next guy over and Teyla's words evoked curiosity. He wondered if she was talking about someone in her past… or someone right now.
He shook his head, as if to physically dispel the curiosity. He had enough things to worry about without pontificating over his teammate's possible love life. His face scrunched up momentarily, thrown by the mere idea that Teyla could have a love life, and really, that said a lot about how ass-backwards he had become. Of course Teyla could have a love life. She was a gorgeous kick ass woman.
Ronon? he mused briefly.
No, scratch that. They always acted more like brother and sister than anything.
"John," Teyla cut into his thoughts with a smile. "Eat your breakfast before it goes cold."
The rest of the morning proved uneventful. At least, at first.
Rodney and Ronon left to purchase the supplies they needed, and Teyla went up to join Elizabeth in their room. John was too restless to sit still, though. He needed something to do, something that would get his mind off Teyla's conversations and implications he'd rather not dwell on.
John found himself wandering down unfamiliar streets towards quiet neighborhoods. Poor neighborhoods. As he moved through the crowded areas of Evenlyn, he tried to soak up everything he could.
There was a stark difference in the life between of an aristocrat and a blue-collar worker; John quickly read as much in the history of the faces he saw in the local factory workers. Aged faces, with dark hard-earned wrinkles. He kept walking, down and further, passed a residential area into the outright slums of the city. There, John found, were the people that lived the really hard life. Beggars, seedy drug dealers, pimps, people that glared at him for even looking in their direction and failing to cough up any money.
Five minutes after sitting down to rest his feet, a bulky man the size of Ronon approached John from the side. He was sitting atop a carriage pulled by some strange looking domesticated animal, and offered a friendly smile to John.
"You look like you need a ride," the man noted, "And it just happens that this is my specialty. Five gwam for a ride anywhere you please." John smirked and nodded, and a minute later he was settled into the seat beside the driver. "You're not from around here, are you?" the man noted shrewdly.
John shrugged. "What gave me away?"
"You didn't negotiate the fee down," the driver replied, and the carriage started moving. "Anybody local knows that that five gwan is entirely too much to pay for a ride. Anything more than three, and you're being taken for a fool. I reduce my price accordingly."
"Huh," John noted curiously. "Not a lot of men would do that."
"I am not all men," the driver noted with a grin, and John immediately took a liking to him.
John held out his hand. "My name is John Sheppard."
"Karim," the man offered back. "Karim of the Evenlyn Rivers. And where are you headed today, John Sheppard?"
John paused, debating over his options. He should probably return back to the lodgings; Rodney and Ronon would have had more than enough time to purchase everything they needed. Elizabeth wanted to leave the planet as soon as possible, but the more he thought about it, the more he couldn't suppress the nagging voice in his head that insisted on goading John into action.
"Neski's Establishment," he declared.
Karim's face tightened. "A word of caution, my new friend. That place is not known for its hospitality."
John's face darkened. "Tell me something I don't know."
"You are a man who gambles, then?"
John slid on his sunglasses. "Only with my life, Karim."
Later, when Elizabeth was going to yell at him (he can already hear it coming), John was going to insist he always had things under control. Within two minutes of walking back into Neski's place, though, that was a complete lie. Nothing that happened had been part of any game plan, but y'know... he actually didn't have a game plan to begin with.
In retrospect, that was probably his first mistake.
His second had been turning his back on the bouncer at the door.
John's head struck the stone floor and his vision dimmed for a split second as everything went black. He groaned, realizing he'd been clubbed from behind, then rolled, swung his foot out and swept the bouncer's feet out from under him.
A tall guy from behind advanced with a heavy pole in his grasp, smashing it down over John's head. John spun and threw himself forward. He crashed into the tall man headfirst. With an open palm, John slammed his hand into the guy's nose and blood went spurting everywhere.
John only froze when a burst of gunfire narrowly missed his head.
"Move," Neski warned behind him, "and you lose your head!"
Drawing in a ragged breath, John turned around slowly and faced the armed assailant. The freakin' canon-blaster in Neski's hands was aimed directly at John's forehead, and even with his nanite-infused strength, at this close a range the blow would take his head clean off and leave a crater in its wake.
"You shouldn't have come back," Neski said. "A smart man wouldn't have."
"Already got the memo on that," John responded glibly. "But I get annoyed when people try to kill my friends."
Neski shrugged indifferently. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
A woman's voice startled John from the side. "We run an above the board establishment," Neski's redheaded wife, Sentra, announced as she strode into the room. "We don't like troublemakers like you. In fact, I think Neski is within his rights to protect his property with deadly force. What's to stop him from blowing your head—"
"Wait!" John turned to spy Karim barreling into the room. "Wait! You do not have to kill him!"
"Karim!" John called. "Get out of here! Now!"
Karim ignored him, turning to plea with the man holding the canon blaster. "You do not have to kill him. He is from the Ancestor's Ring. He is not of this world. He doesn't understand the rules of this place."
"Ignorance is no excuse for disrespect," Sentra said haughtily.
"Please," Karim said breathlessly. "Just let him go this once. I assure you that he will be of no more trouble to you! You have my word."
Neski scrubbed the back of his neck, inspected Karim for a moment, and then smiled. A laugh escaped his lips as he lowered the weapon, and nodded. "Very well, Karim. Keep him in line. His deeds on your head, and those of your family, I suppose. By the way, how is your son doing these days?
Karim went pale in the face. "As well as can be expected, considering his health."
Neski shook his head as he walked away, and behind John, both the bouncer and the other nameless assailant moved to either side of John.
"Leave," Sentra ordered, as she followed her husband out the door. "And don't come back."
Karim grabbed John by the arm and forcefully escorted him out. There were protests on the tip of his tongue, but John held silent, well aware that he'd managed to get out of a tight bind by the charity of this one man.
When they cleared the building, Karim whirled John around and shouted into his face. "You fool! What was that? You looking to kill yourself?"
"Look, Karim, I appreciate the concern but you shouldn't have gotten involved—"
"If I didn't get involved, you would have ended up dead like the others."
John stopped short. "Others?"
Karim glared. "Leave, and don't come back. For my son's sake. He has enough problems as it is from Neski. I don't need more. Half this side of the city is under his thumb, and you walk into his place like you own it. Fool!"
He probably deserved that and a lot more, but John was already moving on. "What's Neski got to do with your kid?"
Karim glared. "It's like talking to a brick wall with you."
"Yeah. I've been accused of that once or twice before."
"Leave! Stay away from Neski. He is trouble that neither of us can afford."
Karim pulled away, but John snagged him by the arm and stopped him. "Karim, just… you did me a huge favor. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on here. What's Neski's story? What's he got to do with your kid?"
Karim paused, eying John with an expression of utter wariness. "You are going to cause nothing but trouble, aren't you?"
"I've been accused of that once or twice before, too."
John took a moment to brace himself before walking through the door. To his surprise, Elizabeth was the only one waiting for him, with a rather expectant expression on her face. He tossed around a searching gaze for the others, and Elizabeth answered, "They're out searching for you. We were concerned."
John bit his lip. "Yeah, I guess I should have… radioed, or something."
"That would have been nice," she replied, and her eyes traveled over his form. His injuries had long healed, but the state of his clothes was telling. "So… do I even really want to know?"
"It's better if you don't."
There was a long stretch of silence, and to his surprise yet again, Elizabeth heeded his words. She rose, picked up a duffle bag and slung it over her shoulder. Then she roughly thrust a spare one towards John, who caught it deftly and looked up.
"We're leaving," she announced, rather tiredly but in a tone that brokered no argument. "I've contacted the others. We'll met up with them at the puddle-jumper."
"John," she stopped him. "Don't."
She left the room before he could respond, and John had little choice but to follow. The trip out of the building was silent and tense, and he had a gut feeling the others would be just as pissed at him and they didn't even know the full story yet. He knew he had screwed up majorly. Getting into a fight with Neski's men had done nothing except put Karim's kid up as liability. John wasn't willing to let matters go so lightly, though.
Once they all met back up at the puddle-jumper, John slid into the pilot seat and spent a few moments doing pre-flight checks. Rodney grumbled about spending the entire day doing useless tasks like chasing John down, but Ronon and Teyla kept their admonishments to themselves. Elizabeth's silent treatment was the worst; he kept glancing over at her, waiting for the reprimands to begin, but she always had this freaky knack for making him feel like a heel without ever raising her voice.
It wasn't until they'd lifted in the air and he swung the jumper around that the others noticed they weren't headed in the direction of the Stargate.
"John," Elizabeth said. "Where are you going?"
"I've gotta show you guys something first," John answered, and off they went.
Two hours later, Karim's five-year-old son was cuddled up in Teyla's lap playing with toys. John watched from across the room, then swept his gaze to the other side. Elizabeth was talking quietly with Karim and his wife, and the conversation centered around one somber topic. Karim's kid had some sort of lung condition, a rare disease that was slowly shutting down his immune system. There were treatments, even a new one that looked exceptionally promising, but it cost money. Twice the amount that John and Rodney had won at the casino, and those winnings hadn't exactly been chump change.
Karim was already neck-deep in debt to Neski for past loans, for past treatments. Though John preferred to think of it as highway robbery; Neski had been taking advantage of the poor man ever since their first business deal, charging an exorbitant amount of interest that even an aristocrat couldn't hope to pay off. Karim had sold his original home and moved to the slums to make payments, and ever since, he'd been treated like Neski's personal lapdog.
Neski did that to a lot of people. The people who complained or ended up fighting back, he killed. And the local law enforcement couldn't touch him for anything because Neski played it too safe and too smart to get caught.
"He's a bad guy," John finished.
"We could do something about that." Ronon said, clearly already on board with John's way of thinking. He had been since first seeing the kid. "Just point him out to me and I could take care of it."
Elizabeth threw him a warning look. "Not like that."
"Why not?" Ronon asked bluntly.
Karim stared at Ronon with a look of abject horror. "We do not want bloodshed. That will solve nothing. Neski dead will not help my child."
"I don't know," Ronon countered, shrugging. "Could solve a lot of things."
"Will it bring me my son's health back?" Karim demanded, then glanced to John angrily. "I told you that I didn't want anymore trouble, and you bring me a man with blood-thirst in his eyes."
John held up a hand. "He means well—"
"We don't condone bloodshed," Elizabeth cut in, sparring a quick glance at John and Ronon. "And we never will."
John nodded. "No one here was talking about killing the guy."
"Well," Rodney added pointedly, around a mouthful of food that Karim's wife had offered him. "Except Ronon."
John glared. "But he didn't really mean it," he stopped, and turned to Ronon. "Did you, big guy?"
Ronon shrugged indifferently. "Sure."
John sighed. They were losing momentum again. He'd brought everybody here to show them how dire things had become because of Neski and his men. Before, in his anger, John may have acted foolishly. But this was bigger than that now. They could help Karim out, save his kid, and all they had to do was remove a corrupt individual from power.
After dealing with the Wraith, the Asurians, the Genii, and a dozen other forces out there in the Pegasus Galaxy, one man wouldn't be that hard to take down. John knew he just had to convince Elizabeth, and everything else would fall into place.
Elizabeth sighed heavily, and turned away. He watched her leave the crowd to step outside, and though he knew she left for solitude, he ended up following her anyway. The air was crisp and cool outside, almost frigid, but he threw on his jacket and stood beside Elizabeth on the front porch.
After a beat, he said, "You can't tell me this isn't a good cause."
She shook her head, and admitted, "It is. I'm not saying otherwise."
"So you're willing to help them?"
"Of course I am, John," Elizabeth sighed heavily, exasperated. "Not Ronon's way, obviously. But one look at that kid, and how is anyone supposed to say no? You knew that, which is exactly why you brought us here."
John stayed silent for a moment, because he really had manipulated her into this. He felt a little bit shameful about emotionally blackmailing her and the rest of his team into hopping on board with his plan, but this was almost too easy.
If Elizabeth was already willing to risk this op, then why did she still look so uncertain?
She turned to face him, expression pinched with worry. "We have to have a serious conversation, John."
John nodded slowly. "I thought that's exactly what we were doing?"
"You're not going to like this, but I've held my tongue long enough."
Oh. That couldn't be a good sign.
Settling against the banister railings, John gestured wide with his hands for her to start ripping into him. It was obviously going to get ugly, but he mentally tried to brace himself for the worst. Teyla, this morning. Now Elizabeth. Throw in the beating he took from Neski's men, and apparently this was a red-letter day for pounding on John Sheppard.
Elizabeth's first comment was unexpected. "Why are you so adamant about taking on this guy?"
He stared at her, dumbfounded. "Didn't you see the kid in there? He's—"
"You were eager to take this guy down long before you even knew Karim's kid existed," Elizabeth argued knowingly, her heated breath fogging the frigid night air. "You've been itching for a fight, and it's not remotely surprising that you found one."
Bewildered, John eventually said, "These people need help, and we can give it to them. Who cares about my goddamn motives?"
"I do," Elizabeth said fiercely. "I care. Because right now you're so wound tight, you've got everybody anxious. Do you have any idea how… scared I am for you right now?"
"Scared for me?" he repeated incredulous. "What?"
She turned away, striding anxiously across the porch before she faced him again. "One of you greatest qualities, John," she began, visibly struggling for the right words, "is that you're willing to sacrifice yourself for a greater good. It's an admirable thing, but it's kind of disturbing in a certain sense. I'd be a hypocrite if I said I didn't have the same tendency inside me, but you are so cavalier about your life, John. Like it's just a piece of paper you could toss away."
"It scares me," she continued forcefully, overtop him. "Back in Atlantis, that mentality had a purpose. It had its place. I didn't always like it, but it saved our people on more than one occasion so I kept my mouth shut… But now, we don't have Atlantis, and I feel like…"
His eyes flashed. "Like what?"
"Like you're just looking for an excuse," she declared in a breathless voice. "You are so angry, so consumed with self-hatred right now that you don't see straight."
He stared, incredulous at Elizabeth's words and at a loss for his own. Christ, she was making him sound like a head case. Self-hatred? He hated the nanites in his body, would gladly rip them out one at a time if he could, but that didn't amount to self-hatred. He wasn't fucking suicidal, or anything.
"I never said you were suicidal," Elizabeth replied softly.
He realized he'd unintentionally been projecting over the shared consciousness again. "Stop doing that! Why does everybody keep on doing that to me?"
"Because you're the only one of us that hasn't mastered the concept of mental shields yet."
John scowled. "You could just not pay attention."
"It doesn't work like that, and you know it."
He plunged a hand through his hair, cursing the goddamned nanites for yet another thing that screwed up his life.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes as she turned away. "Did you ever stop to think the nanites might not be so bad?"
This conversation was surreal. Entirely fucking surreal.
"Not so bad?" he practically growled at her back.
Elizabeth stiffened, then turned to face his skepticism with a raised eyebrow. "Yes, John, not so bad. It isn't a death sentence. We don't look any different. We don't act any different. We don't even feel any less human."
"But we are!" John barked. "We aren't human. Humans can't mindmeld with each other. They can't stick their fingers through another person's forehead and walk around in it like it's a freaking amusement park! Humans don't do that."
"They also don't survive gunshot wounds like the one I did yesterday," Elizabeth argued softly. Her eyes darkened, a touch of vulnerability peeking through. "I would be dead right now, a dozen times over, if I didn't have these nanites in me."
John kept silent, unable to counter the point.
"I hated them too, at first," Elizabeth admitted, and settled down on the bench near the railings. She looked down at her feet for a long moment, before she gained the courage to speak again. "I hated what I had become, and what they meant. But… I don't know. I don't know what happened. After months of wallowing in self-pity, I just got tired of it – of hating myself. Maybe I've just had more time to process it than you have, but have you ever considered the thought that maybe this isn't the horrible curse we all thought it was?"
Honestly, the thought had never once seriously crossed his mind. Yes, the nanites had their advantages, but he'd give them up freely in a split-second to be human again.
"So would I," Elizabeth said as she looked up, reading his mind. "But that's not an option. It never was. And the way I figure it, we've got two choices. One, we can accept it, and maybe even embrace it so that we can use it to our advantage. Or we can hate ourselves – and each other – forever."
John stared at her. "I don't hate you. I could never hate you. Or the others."
"And what about yourself, John?" she asked.
He struggled to come up with a response. After a long stretch of silence, Elizabeth glanced away as if that was answer enough and John barely caught a glimpse of her profile as it crumbled. John winced, silently admitting to himself that maybe she was right; maybe there was a little self-hatred in him. The sight of her near tears made him feel worse than anything else, though. It, ironically, only fed into his self-loathing more.
Shit. He was really making a mess of things lately, wasn't he? Everything just felt… wrong. Fake. Nothing felt realanymore.
Slowly, he approached the bench and settled down beside her. Elizabeth took a long breath to recover her composure, and they sat quietly for a while. Suddenly, his earlier conversation with Teyla registered in his head, and he found himself unable to look at Elizabeth for fear of what he'd say or do. His hands were suddenly clammy, his heart racing, and he could only think of one thing. He was tired of feeling angry and frustrated; he wanted to feel something else for a change. Something real.
He wanted to feel Eliz—
Rodney popped his head out from behind the front door. "Hey, are you guys done out here?" he groused. "We're already talking logistics and we could use your input, oh fearless leaders."
Elizabeth sighed. "We'll be in after a moment, Rodney."
Rodney nodded and left without another word. The moment was blown, so brief and flimsy that John was now cursing himself for letting it arise in the first place. Elizabeth was right: he wasn't thinking clearly, because he'd just about acted on his feelings, those same ones he'd vowed to suppress for years. Christ, somebody shoot him.
Elizabeth rose. "Just… just be a little more cautious and careful from now on, John? You may not care what happens to you, but we do."
She walked back through the front door without another word.