Author's Notes. written for the sparky_santa fic exchange over at livejournal
A pair of standard issue military boots is all that is sticking out from the shadow of the bush. John is lying there, limbs lazily strewn about him, and contemplating the slump he seems to have been pushed into – he is in the process of getting bored out of his mind and, considering that he is a soldier in a strange and hostile galaxy, he deems that quite a feat.
Doing a little tallying in his mind, he comes to the conclusion that this is his fifth consecutive babysitting mission. While he concedes that, even if only to protect them from themselves, the nutty professors do need somebody to keep an eye on them whenever they are let loose off-world, he doesn't quite see why the military leader of Atlantis has to be the person to carry out that task.
John hauls himself into a somewhat upright position to do a headcount – all three scientists are still inspecting the wall covered in Ancient scribbling, an eerie gleam in their eyes. Sergeant Hendricksen is tossing pebbles into the distance with such focused abandon that John, even though he understands where the Sergeant is coming from, gets somewhat worried about his sanity.
Still, a Sergeant can expect his days to be filled with pointless flak that other people can't be bothered to do. A Colonel should already have paid his dues in that regard. Hendricksen didn't necessarily have to have done anything wrong to be warding off sunstroke on this backwater planet right now. Sheppard, John suspects, has some sort of an infraction to his name; one that he is not quite aware of committing yet, but that has warranted this cruel and unusual punishment from his boss.
Said boss herself has been extraordinarily hard to reach as of late. John would really like to ask for an explanation or at least get a chance to show remorse for whatever he has done, but, other than at debriefings and senior staff meetings, they never seem to be on the same planet anymore. Obviously John cannot take the matter of his shunning up in front of his team, but for some time now, it's been impossible to get some private face time with her.
It's damn inconvenient, John thinks, and wonders whether he feels so out of the loop because he can't figure out what he did wrong, or because Elizabeth won't talk to him about it. Rationally, he has no reason to feel excluded – Elizabeth still makes sure that he's kept abreast of everything, and there are no military or security decisions made behind his back. Still, it's more than that, he realizes. Elizabeth will come around, she cannot possibly keep avoiding her second-in-command forever, she is too much of a professional for that. But the fact that all this has even come about, that John has just been summarily pushed away, is hurtful to him on a much more personal level. Elizabeth has always included him in her thought processes, valued his input, and he has felt honored for that. Now he feels that he has somehow lost her trust, maybe even her respect, without even getting a chance to fight for it.
Elizabeth's open smile appears in his thoughts and he is willing to admit to himself that he was looking forward to having that as a permanent fixture in his life. Thinking about it, he still isn't quite sure what he did to deserve it; but it was there, making him feel a part of something bigger and better, and then, suddenly, it was gone and he vows to himself that he will get Elizabeth to reveal where he went wrong. There have been so many things in his life the loss of which he hasn't minded, too indifferent and resigned to life's crap to put up much of a resistance, but in his heart of hearts he feels that this has all been too good to just let go of.
Ushering his collection of sunburned misfits through the Gate, he finds the negotiating team that had been on PX4-M7O organizing their ranks on the Gateroom floor, having obviously come through just moments before.
Ronon sits on the lowest step of the stairway leading to the Gate, and when the three babbling scientists pass him, he raises an eyebrow and looks mockingly at Sheppard. John just points the barrel of his P90 towards his temple and yanks his hand, pretending to shoot himself in the head. Ronon chuckles. John rolls his eyes and sits next to the Satedan.
"So," Ronon nudges him in the ribs, a smirk still playing on his lips, "we had great food, served by pretty girls, and they packed the leftovers for us to go. You?"
John looks at his friend incredulously, "Yes, thank you. Thank you so much for that."
Ronon laughs again. "What did you do to get put in the doghouse, anyway?"
"More like out to the pasture," John shakes his head. "And I have no idea."
Elizabeth is standing to the side of the room, going over something that is on the screen of the data pad she is holding, quite possibly the trade agreement that she has just concluded. She looks calm and self-assured, no indication of things not being quite business as usual, as if his presence by her side, or the lack of it, was completely inconsequential to her. He doesn't think he's ever felt quite as deserted as he does at that very moment – when she is right there, five meters from him, but somehow unreachable.
"I'm going to find out, though," John announces to Ronon and heaves himself up.
Elizabeth's mind is obviously on something else when she turns to face him after he has addressed her. She gets herself together quite quickly, though, sharp eyes focusing on John so that he finds it hard not to look away. He thinks that it is really stupid to feel guilty even if you have no idea what you could have possibly done wrong, but he has never fought particularly hard for the role of the adult in their relationship, so he takes this ambient remorse as something inevitable. He's not really the one to bring up these matters, whenever he feels that he has somehow disappointed Elizabeth, but before, he has always had the luxury of being certain that it will pass. This time is chillingly different; this time he is not so sure, and thus he has no choice but to ask.
"What did I do?"
Elizabeth's brow furrows, "Excuse me?"
"Really?" John asks. "It's that bad?"
"John, I don't…"
"Come on, I just came from my fifth consecutive babysitting mission and you haven't talked to me in two weeks. Whatever it was that I did, I beg for forgiveness and ask to be pardoned for time served." John tries to smile. His lopsided grin has often managed to drag a smile out of her as well, definitely against her own better judgment sometimes, but this is obviously not one of those times.
"Oh," Elizabeth contends instead, eyes flicking towards the screen of the data pad for a moment as if looking for an answer there, "must be some sort of a scheduling glitch. I can assure you that you are not being punished for anything – I don't know of anything you've done wrong." She seems to give it a cursory moment of thought. "Lately," she adds, and he would take it as a jab towards him, except that her somewhat grave expression does not change. "I'll take a look at it," Elizabeth promises, and then turns to leave.
The conversation has left John fidgety and certainly even more confused than he was before. He can't bring himself to believe that Elizabeth is deliberately playing some sort of a game with him, but he can't disregard his own instincts either.
A thought even scarier than anything he has considered before occurs to him. A thought that is, he registers at the margins of his mind, nearly panic-inducing. If it isn't something that he's done wrong, then maybe Elizabeth has just realized that she's been mistaken about him all along – that she'd seen something in him that wasn't really there; that her faith in him had been misplaced. To put it bluntly – maybe she's just completely over him.
John's mind fleetingly refers back to that conversation in the Gateroom as he loads another clip of ammunition (his next to last, he notes) into his P90. It appears that she has, indeed, taken a look at the schedule, as the long-abandoned ruins have been exchanged for a rebel Genii outpost and he is crouching behind an errant boulder, taking heavy fire.
He is back to the missions that have a good potential of thoroughly kicking his ass, but he is also so frustrated that sometimes even he wonders if it is a good idea to give him such ample opportunity to shoot at things at his own discretion.
Despite her assurances that nothing has changed, Elizabeth is still absent from his life and the possibility that this is how things will be from now on fills him with such dread that he just stops thinking and goes looking for something he can use brute force on.
So he doesn't think about why this is affecting him so much or what exactly is it that he is missing and wants back. He doesn't think about how distant and evasive Elizabeth is and thus he also doesn't think about that flickering flame that he sometimes still sees in her eyes and how inconsistent it is with the rest of her demeanor.
He has started to dream about her, but in most of these dreams she is walking away from him; or he can see her on the other side of some thick distorting glass, but when he wakes up he always stubbornly refrains from thinking about that as well.
John yells for Teyla to get Rodney to the Gate and through it while he and Ronon try to offer cover fire and sticks his gun over the boulder, firing off a few counted shots. He hears the charged swishing sound of Ronon's gun going off and uses that distraction to launch himself from behind the boulder and dive into the dust behind a tree a few meters off. Scrambling to get upright and behind the tree, he thinks about sending the repair and dry cleaning bill to Ladon Radim and then darts out to fire at their attackers again. He can see that he hits two of them, the gurgling sounds coming from them confirming this, and sees Ronon's gunblast taking out another two. The attacking fire becomes considerably sparser and he manages to think that maybe they'll make it out of this after all when he suddenly feels a burning sting in his left shoulder. Just before he passes out, he has time to register that it's not really healthy for a guy to be that familiar with the sensation of getting shot.
A similar thought about waking up in an infirmary comes in a much groggier form some time later. Something is beeping and something is swooshing and he hopes that it's not for his benefit, because it was just a shoulder wound. Or at least he hopes it was, because, admittedly, he has no recollection of how he changed venues after getting shot. Presumably Ronon finished off the rest of them and dragged him home, but situations like those are often complication-prone.
The blinding throbbing in his temples lets him know that he's probably had one thought too many (and that he must have also hit his head at some point), so he gives up on trying to re-establish a timeline. Instead he concentrates on the feeling that somebody is looking at him; a nice, single-track, thought.
Very slowly, he begins to turn his head to the right, with the goal of establishing the source of the stare. When the person sitting in the chair near his bed comes into his peripheral vision, his battered brain refuses to believe what his eyes are telling it – Elizabeth meets his uneven gaze with an uneven smile.
"You're here," he contends, with what he imagines to be a kind of loopy grin, and he thinks that the best word to describe the feeling rumbling around his battered body is relief, though he can't be sure.
Elizabeth gets up from the chair and takes a few careful steps closer to the bed.
"I am," she says, and if her reply is somewhat lacking in explanation, he hardly notices, because she really is here and probably has been for some time and that means that she doesn't not care.
"What's up?" he asks, and has to press his eyes shut for a moment, another bang going off behind his forehead. When he opens them again, Elizabeth is right next to his bed and he can feel her hand hovering somewhere near the top of his head as if she is about to slip it into his hair. That feeling, in light of everything that has been going on lately, seems so surreal that, for a moment, he considers the possibility that he has made Elizabeth's presence up altogether.
But then he can feel her thumb brushing along the hairline on his forehead, and that piece of human contact feels more real to him than anything has for a while – more real than getting shot, more real than the throbbing in his temples and in his shoulder. And he willingly chooses not to doubt that.
"I'm sorry, John," he hears her sigh, but by now the exhaustion is claiming its due and his mind is starting to have trouble working out who has what to be sorry for. He just has the overwhelming feeling that it is finally okay for him to fall asleep, to really rest.
Once Carson figures out what John is trying to ask (for some reason he is unable to get it straight out), he confirms that Elizabeth had, indeed, spent the better part of the night at John's bedside. She is gone now, and doesn't return for the whole time he has to stay in the infirmary, and things still certainly seem all wrong and bent out of shape.
But when John uses some of that time he is forced to stay in bed to examine the new object he can feel lodged somewhere in the vicinity of his heart, he is able to identify it as hope.
He doesn't quite get as far as to identify what it is he is hoping for.
Walking down the corridor, he catches a faint mumble coming from somewhere up ahead. The noise comes in cadences, going up and down like human speech, and it seems strange to him that there are people still awake and conversing in this part of the city. He's almost afraid that he is about to catch somebody doing something private and inappropriate around the corner, but then he realizes that the sound is coming from the media room and the speech has a certain mechanical tang to it.
Briefly, John wonders whether he should even bother looking in – he's not interested in watching a movie, or even human company, but in the end, as always, curiosity gets the better of him. Having made it halfway through the door, he halts again – there's only one head showing from behind the high back of the couch and he'd recognize that particular head from a million.
The push and pull that starts somewhere in his gut is beginning to get painfully familiar to John – he hadn't been deliberately avoiding her (he wouldn't have left his quarters if he had; this is her city, she is everywhere), but he had been trying to avoid that particular war in himself. Something big has suddenly gone missing from their relationship, something so glaringly obvious that he hadn't even been aware it existed until it was gone. Something so inherent to it that he can't even give it a name. He's always liked the nearness of her, her calmness and warmth, but all that now somehow seems out of reach, and the sight of her just serves to remind him of that.
The sounds from the speakers capture his attention and he realizes that it's not a movie Elizabeth is watching. Her eyes seem to be glued to a home video of everyday life on Atlantis; short clips from different times of their lives there, edited together. John remembers that at the beginning, it was Ford who always kept sticking the handheld camera rather annoyingly in his face. On the clip playing now, he can see his lost friend Peter Grodin, and another tech, animatedly singing something into a control crystal Peter is holding like a mike; then Ford turns the camera to himself and says something into it, an amused half-smirk dancing on his face, and the sheer vibrant life in these brief spastic images knocks John so that he's not able to concentrate on the words, just Aiden's face and close-cropped curls.
Glancing at the back of Elizabeth's head again, perfectly still, leaning stiffly away from the backrest, John has to wonder why she's dug up these scenes, almost wants to ask her why she'd want to rehash something that is irretrievably gone, but realizes suddenly that Elizabeth still has no idea of his presence. He thinks that it would probably be decent to let her know, but the images on the screen are clenching at his heart, more bitter than sweet, despite the merriness of the scene playing out in front of him, and he suddenly doesn't even quite know what he could say to justify this intrusion into Elizabeth's reverie.
He has almost convinced himself to sneak out, but then another clip begins and he's drawn in, almost mesmerized, even though it's a scene so mundane, so everyday, that he could probably see the accidental re-enactment of it tomorrow morning at the gym. It's of Teyla trying to teach McKay some basic fighting moves – Rodney manages to keep up for the first two steps in the sequence, then falters on the third and by the fourth he has thrown the sticks up in the air and crouched down, his arms covering his head. Teyla has had to change gears rather suddenly, from assaulting to comforting. John smirks quietly when Ford's head pops on the screen again for commentary – it's him wielding the camera again, but apparently, some things hardly change on Atlantis.
John remembers that after they'd lost Ford, he'd seen Chuck around with the camera, doing rather funny nature program voiceovers to candid scenes he picked up around the city. And Zelenka had done some more reflective filming, more, as he said, for the sake of posterity than entertainment. John doesn't think he's ever actually seen the product of those efforts, but here they are now – Ronon, cleaning his gun with meticulous abandon, then probably hearing Chuck's smartass commentary and looking up with a menacing glare, prompting Chuck to drop the camera sideways. Cadman, showing card tricks to bewildered Athosian children. Carson, trying to inconspicuously check his hair on a reflective glass surface of a balcony door and failing miserably; then realizing that he's been caught, smiling openly and bashfully into his reflection and scurrying away.
And John forgets that he wanted to leave.
John never really understood the incessant need to film. The camera always came out at the most nondescript moments, the more substantial stuff being too confidential for filming and the more pivotal times too busy for anyone to be playing around. He'd wondered, even out loud a few times, who'd ever want to watch the stuff that went on around them, live, anyway. But now it's becoming clear – this is the part of Atlantis that they are all most prone to forget, chalk it up to filling the time between one action sequence and the next, and yet this is Atlantis, the real life of it in the middle of all the science fiction and unfathomable possibilities.
But the one who is Atlantis more than anyone else has been missing from the screen so far. Elizabeth herself, who in real life appears to be everywhere, is tied into everything taking place in the city and aware of every nuance, has only been in the background in a couple of shots and it makes John wonder if she is as good at dodging the camera lens as she is with the paperwork and then suddenly a close-up of her profile is on the screen.
John is in the process of trying to determine when this particular clip was made – her hair is a bit longer than it was at the beginning, so it can't be Ford's time; the cameraman must have been the more reflective Zelenka rather than the action-prone Chuck – when he's caught by the expression on Elizabeth's face. She's on the balcony next to her office, the one overlooking the control room, hands resting on the railing, and she is gazing at something or somebody with tender wistful longing, the small smile playing on her lips not really happy, but not quite sad either. He's never quite seen Elizabeth looking like this, or looking at anything like this, and if he weren't so enraptured with the picture now zooming into Elizabeth's face, he'd recognize the pang in the pit of his stomach as jealousy. Now he just becomes preoccupied by the urgent need to find out who has managed to win Elizabeth's affections so completely.
The next moment the camera zooms out again and then its eye turns along her sight line, giving John the answer to that exact question. For a second, the focus is fuzzy, just revealing that it is a person doing some kind of a repetitive movement. Then the lens adapts and John finds himself in the shot, standing on the side of the Gate room floor, trying, and failing, to juggle two flashlights and an apple, over and over again.
Before John can quite grasp the implications of what he has witnessed, the camera's eye jumps back to Elizabeth who, by now, has clearly realized that she was being filmed, because she is giving the camera a toothy grin and saying something, an eyebrow cocked.
From the corner of his eye John can see the present, flesh and blood Elizabeth on the couch leaning forward with the remote control in her hand and that startles him enough to take two quick stumbling steps backwards and turn, resting his head back against the cool metal wall of the hallway. From what he can hear, Elizabeth has stopped the video and in fear of being discovered, he heaves himself upright and hastily retreats into the transporter.
Later, he thinks about how typical of him it was that the first realization to come to him at watching that clip was not "Wow, Elizabeth's got the hots for me!" but rather "Damn, I'm so totally in love with her!"
Even later he wonders whether anybody except Elizabeth and Radek had seen the clip, because in that case he might just be the last person on Atlantis to find out that Elizabeth is in love with him. Seeing as neither the Marines nor the lab geeks are known for their incredible tact, he tends to believe that, he would have heard something by now – their feelings for each other still remain too secret even for words.
Radek is alone in the lab, just as he had thought. Still, John stumbles across the threshold somewhat hesitantly – he needs to voice out loud some thoughts that are running amok in his head and it seems that Zelenka is just about the only person in the Universe qualified to listen to him. Luckily enough, Zelenka is actually capable of some human empathy (witnessed by the restraint with which he seems to have handled being privy to such information), unlike Rodney.
After his little revelation in the media room's doorway, John has pretty much come to accept what it is that he wants. As shocking as it was at first, he knows that his newfound feelings explain quite a lot of things that simply had him confused before.
What he doesn't yet have an explanation for, is Elizabeth. If he didn't know any better, he'd think that she was just scared. John does understand that, should they act on their feelings, the stakes would be pretty high. What he doesn't get is being preemptively scared of something that does not even exist yet, of something that is still hidden deep inside you.
The Elizabeth he knows isn't scared of anything. Sometimes she has been scared for people, fearing for their lives and wellbeing, but her impatience with indecisiveness, her assertion that not choosing is always worse than any possible choice you make, has meant that she has stepped through the Gate all by herself to negotiate for nuclear bombs from people who have tried to kill her; has taken the hand of a Replicator even after having just had one rather painfully jabbed into her forehead; has told a roomful of stuffy officers on Earth to, in so many words, stuff it; and she never wavered from looking him in the eye, telling him that she'd be there, telling him the truth, when he was turning into an aggressive monster that he couldn't control.
Elizabeth always looked him in the eye; now she doesn't even look at him anymore.
"Hey…," John greets, once he has made it the whole way through the door.
Zelenka looks up from his computer screen, glasses perched somewhat lopsidedly on the tip of his nose. "Oh, hi," he smiles, lifting a finger to realign his eyewear. "Rodney is off to induce nervous breakdown in the guys working on that new gravity lab we discovered. I had to listen to him riling himself up for fifteen minutes before he left."
He can picture that so well in his head that it sidetracks John for a second, but then he shakes himself out of it. "Oh, no," he stuffs his hands in the pockets of his pants, stepping a bit closer. "I was actually…," one hand comes out and makes a completely unnecessary sweep through the air. John goes silent for a moment, Zelenka tilting his head to contemplate the Colonel in expectant confusion.
"So," John starts again, furrowing his brow, "The other day I saw some of those video clips you've made…"
"Oh," Radek squares his shoulders, lifting his eyebrows happily. "Which ones?" Seeing John open his mouth, then close it again, biting his lower lip, Radek repeats, "Oh…" but now the intonation is knowing rather than inquisitive.
"Yeah," John admits bashfully, "Elizabeth was watching them in the media room and I kind of… stumbled into it."
"How did she…?"
"… and then I stumbled right out again. She," John shakes his head, "she doesn't even know I was there."
Silence ensues, Zelenka adopting the stance of kindly waiting out whatever it is that John needs help with, giving John space by letting his eyes wander along the walls and ceilings of the lab.
Unable to find the right words, John resorts to musing out loud, "Things have been really weird," he frowns at the sound of the word, looking down at his feet, "and, well, wrong, between me and her lately, and I couldn't understand what had…" Now he looks up at Radek again, "Why haven't you said something?"
The suggestion that he maybe should have seems to take the scientist aback. He huffs, but then smirks kindly. "Why hasn't she?" he asks. And while John is still wondering whether the question was rhetorical, he continues, "Why haven't you?"
"But I didn't know…," John's head snaps up in indignation.
"John, you mean to tell me that you didn't know that you were in love with ?" there is disbelief in Zelenka's question. John just stares at him. "Come on, I'll show you something," Radek finally announces.
He adjusts his glasses again and then delves into his computer, fingers gliding along the keyboard without him even looking at them. "Aha," he mutters, pointing to the screen, and John steps around him to see what is there. It's a picture, of him and Elizabeth in her office. Elizabeth is looking at the wooden statues on her desk and John is looking at Elizabeth, wearing much the same expression that Elizabeth had in that video clip. He looks genuinely happy to be where he is, and try as he might, John can't remember ever actually feeling that happy.
"When was this taken?" John asks, dragging his eyes off the screen to look at Zelenka.
Radek shrugs, "Two, maybe three months after we came."
"Huh," is all John can reply.
"I'm pretty sure I have a few more on this server," Radek offers.
John gives it a moment's thought and then waves his hand, "Could you…?"
The scientist clicks through a few catalogues and on the next picture that pops on the screen he and Elizabeth are standing side by side, elbows touching, looking at each other and smiling as if only they two are privy to a juicy secret and again, though this time he can pretty much pinpoint the period when the picture was taken, John can't remember there being any secret. He doesn't really need to see any more.
"So," Radek asks, clicking the catalogues closed, "I know it's really none of my business, but… Now what?"
"Now…," John begins, but then has to concede, "I have no idea."
Radek lifts his eyebrows again, this time clearly in sympathy. "Well, good luck with that."
"Yeah," John smirks, rubbing his forehead bashfully. "Thanks."
He begins to leave, but then turns back. "Radek, am I the last person on Atlantis to find out that Elizabeth and I are in love with each other?"
Zelenka chuckles, grabbing hold of the tabletop in front of him and using it as leverage to swivel himself around on his chair. "No," he says, "now I believe that Elizabeth is."
There are certain evenings when this happens – usually after another disaster has been averted, sometimes for seemingly no particular reason at all. First it's just a bigger gang gathering around a table at dinner in the mess hall, then others join, pretty soon having to form a second circle of chairs just to fit in, then the neighboring tables get incorporated and eventually a vast share of the city's personnel, almost giddy with exhaustion, is there, shoulder to shoulder, human contact and life in its simplest form.
This is one of those nights when everybody is safe again, but is looking for confirmation of it in numbers. John is sitting to the edge of the crowd, at a corner table, leaning his back against the wall. Ronon is slouching across from him, nursing a beer, the distant look in his eyes revealing how far he's travelled in his mind. The lights are low, big candles that Teyla carried in at some point flickering on tables, and the sea is vast and dark behind the windows.
In the core of the crowd, Carson and his fellow Scot, the biologist Dr McNamara, are singing. Carson's eyes are closed, partly out of self-consciousness, John knows, but mostly because the universe outside himself has ceased to exist for him. Aside from a few people swaying lightly, some even not to the rhythm of the music, everything is perfectly still; the ethereal voices of the two men are echoing back from the high metal vaults of the ceiling and John can feel them vibrating down his spine.
The traditional Celtic song is about a young man going off to battle, saying goodbye to his bride who is left to look at his retreating back until the path under his feet, the one taking him away from his home and his heart, is swallowed by the rolling moors. And the young woman who keeps waiting for him, even when days and weeks turn into months, and seasons change, holding on to hope, trusting that her love will keep him safe.
John's eyes are steadfastly on Elizabeth, who is staring just as stubbornly at the singers, though John doubts she is actually looking at anything. He wonders what she sees right then, sitting on the other side of the crowd from him, near the doorway, back stiff and straight, but head slightly hung so that a few loose strands of hair are falling on her face. He wonders if, listening to that story of a reluctant warrior, she is thinking about him at all.
John understands that boy in the song. He knows why the boy's heart is breaking, he knows how it feels; and yet, he knows why the boy is going. The things that you never want to leave are the things worth fighting for, and it's better to be doing that fighting as far away as possible from what you want to protect. Of course, that is the logic that will end up stranding you on Godforsaken backwater planets, shivering in dark cold nights; or cocooned in a tiny vessel, nothing but empty space and distant stars around you. For you never really know what loneliness and desolation feels like until you actually have something to be cut off from – once you've gained something in life to leave behind. John understands the boy, because he is the boy, fighting an ongoing, gargantuan, fight, to keep coming home to the girl. But now, listening to the song, John can't help but wonder whether being the girl is not worse – at least he knows that she is safe back home and that he gets to actively do something so that she stays safe. If he had to wait around somewhere, knowing that Elizabeth was facing danger, he would lose his mind. In fact, he has, on several occasions, done just that.
He is thinking all that, brow furrowed and gaze fixed on Elizabeth, when she suddenly stirs from her reverie and turns her head, looking him straight in the eye. And he realizes, without any doubt, that Zelenka was wrong – Elizabeth knows. She knows that it's not just her, that he's in love with her, too. Her eyes are shining in the candlelight, a slightly haunted and wary look in them compelling him to reach out to her. Every fiber of his body can feel the pull of her calling for him, making his heart heavy and his head light. And then she suddenly frowns and tilts her head, averting her gaze. The next moment, she is up from her chair and leaving, trying to be nonchalant and inconspicuous about it, the haste of escape in her step.
Instantly getting up himself, he silently curses the haphazardly seated crowd, now forming an obstacle course for him and giving Elizabeth a dangerous head start. Darting around and over people, he thinks that this is going to stop here – he is tired of her running and her completely uncharacteristic wavering is scaring him. He has to make it so that she finds it okay to look him in the eye again – or his own life will become unbearable. He has to make her feel safe or he has failed her. The pain of her love for him hurting her so much is almost crippling to him.
When he finally makes it to the hallway, he can't see Elizabeth anymore, but he can hear the retreating clang of her hurried steps to the right of him. He picks up the pace, praying that she wouldn't have a chance to jump into a transporter. Turning the next corner, he can already get a glimpse of her red shirt as she slips around a bend.
"Elizabeth!" he shouts, hearing his voice travel toward her in an echo. She doesn't even slow down, though, rationally, she can't hope to outrun him. "Stop!" he belts again and is almost surprised when she actually does. She has reached a little hall leading to a balcony and now she is just standing there, hands limp to her sides, head hung. Carefully, as if not wanting to spook a jumpy animal, John steps closer to her. He has reached out a hand, intending to lay it on her hip, when she jolts, starting to move away again. Almost on instinct, John quickly takes the last few steps and his outstretched arm wraps around her shoulders, drawing her up against him.
"Stop," he now says quietly, pressing his cheek into her hair. Then he exhales loudly. "Elizabeth, you're driving me nuts here and I'm pretty sure you're making yourself just as crazy…"
There's something almost panicky about her heavy breathing, her chest rising and falling under his arm. "John, I can't…" she starts unevenly, but he cuts her off.
"Whatever it is you're so scared of, it can't possibly be worse than this."
She goes lax in his arms, leaning her body into his, and for a moment John can't quite tell whether it's because she feels defeated or whether it's relief. The silence she maintains is still incredibly tense, though, so he suspects the former.
"I miss you," he mutters, feeling a bit of desperation scratching at his throat. Turning his head, John buries his face into her hair. "No matter what happens, you're my family and I won't let you fade out of it just because you're scared to love me."
"That is not what I am scared of," Elizabeth quickly announces, and though that isn't exactly the kind of denial John is expecting from her, he is oddly encouraged by the indignation in her voice.
"Really?" he asks and, a moment later, can finally feel Elizabeth truly relax a little.
"Well," she gives a small self-deprecating huff, "okay, maybe it is."
"Why?" The question is out of his mouth before he can contemplate whether bluntness is the best course of action when Elizabeth is clearly in a fragile state of mind.
She turns in his arms. Her brow is clearly furrowed, but he's glad to note that she isn't making any attempt to get out of his hold. The question is out there now and all John can do is shrug. It is a completely legitimate question.
Elizabeth takes a few deeper breaths and then asks, "Is this really what you want, John?"
It's a question that has obtained a shockingly simple answer lately, given the incredibly messy entanglement they're finding themselves in at the moment.
So, now he just looks at her, really looks at her and sees her hazel eyes getting darker under his scrutiny and then just slightly, almost imperceptibly, shakes his head, the corner of his lip lifting for a tiniest of smiles, and touches his forehead to hers. They stay like this for a long moment. John sees Elizabeth's eyes slip shut and, shortly, closes his as well, concentrating on the feel of her; her angles and curves pressed against him; her breathing, intense and solid.
She shifts slightly against him, and then her nose is brushing against his and John can sense her breath on his lips. For a little while, their noses and mouths and foreheads are engaged in a little dance, a choreography of inching closer and angling apart. Then Elizabeth inhales sharply and suddenly her lips cover his and he has to splay his palm on her jaw line in order to hold on to this kiss with all that he's got.
A moment later Elizabeth is looking down at their feet and he is looking down at the side of her face and his hand is still covering her cheek.
He touches his forehead to her hair and says, "Admittedly, there are many, many things that I don't know – like what there is in this to be scared of. But I know, beyond any doubt, that this is what I want."
With a sigh, Elizabeth turns her back to him again, but now she is willingly leaning into his chest and he is starting to get the feeling that there might be light at the end of the tunnel, after all. She's not running away from him anymore, she's slowly coming closer. He just has to try and sustain that momentum.
"You know," he tries to sound thoughtful, "maybe I should be scared, but I'm just not smart enough to see it. You've always been the brains behind the operation – you want to help me out here?"
It wasn't so much a question, but rather a prompt, a wordy indication of what he needs from Elizabeth, and they both know it. John can feel her snort as well as hear it. "Right, Mensa boy," she says. "Dumb as a doornail."
"Come on," John goads, "explain it to me. Why is it so bad?"
"Well," Elizabeth relents. "You know… It's against the rules. It could cost me my career. I've sacrificed quite a lot to get here." It feels almost like a challenge for him, to disprove her reasoning. It is, admittedly, the mother of all excuses, because it seems like a force outside themselves is against them, something beyond their control, something neither of them can do anything about. It nicely shifts the blame from every other obstacle that might come in their way, namely themselves. But John thinks that, even though their relationship would be tricky to explain and, yes, maybe slightly ethically questionable, breaking these so-called rules would not get them court-martialed or anything. Besides, if they've managed to solve the divisions of civilian and military power in the city, kept their people (well, a vast majority of them, anyway) alive, kept the city afloat, and navigate the quagmire of political and military interest and power struggles back on Earth and still be here after all this time, they can surely get away with a relationship. And Pegasus is too cold, lonely and dark a place to not even try.
"What exactly is it that's against the rules, Elizabeth?" he asks, after he's given it a moment's thought. "The way we feel about each other? Well, that ship has certainly sailed already. Besides, you're really not the kind of woman who would let anyone tell you what you're supposed to feel. Even if it should put your career on the line."
"I'm not so sure about that," she says, and he's not quite sure whether she's being self-deprecating or genuinely resigned.
"Oh, yes, you are," he asserts, nevertheless. "Deep down you know that how we feel about each other is nobody's business and what we do about these feelings is even more private. And you know that is how I feel about these things as well. Which is also why our feelings would never affect the way we run this city."
"Might I remind you that they already did? Why do you think you got stuck on those babysitting missions? And why do you think you got shot right after?" He also doesn't know whether her trying to provoke him now is a good sign or not. She's doing it either to make him disprove it or to push him away. It would certainly be of help if he could look her in the eye, but for now he is still stuck conversing with the back of her head and he has to try and make the best of it.
"You're not the reason I got shot, and the way you feel about me most certainly isn't. Just as it isn't to blame for why you ostracized me – this," he taps his finger to her heart, "didn't do it; this," now he gently taps her forehead, "did. You were just driving yourself crazy for no good reason whatsoever. If things were clear and right between the two of us, you'd never have a reason to do anything like that."
Elizabeth is silent for a moment, hanging her head as is her habit when she is trying to quickly think things over. John decides to take that as a good sign.
"You really have an answer for everything, don't you?" she finally concludes with a sigh. "The end justifies the means?"
"It does sometimes," he answers, carefully.
"That's another problem. You have a tendency to behave like a five-year-old, run off and thrash about in the mud, do things just because you want to, consequences be damned." Her words are quick and quiet. "And, God help me, when I'm around you, you start to rub off on me. I also start to think that I can get away with pretty much anything."
He snorts, "Elizabeth, when you're around me, I promise you, you can get away with pretty much anything."
"Ah, walked right into that one, didn't I?"
"Indeed. Also, you know as well as I do that the reasons why I'm bad for you are also the reasons why I'm good for you. I'm not some kind of a monkey-boy. I've just accepted the fact that you cannot control everything all the time." John tightens the hold of his arms around her and supports his chin on her shoulder.
"I know that I can't control everything…," Elizabeth starts to announce, but John cuts him off.
"I'm not so sure you do. Or, if you do, then it freaks you out a little bit every time you think about it."
Elizabeth is quiet and still against him and he thinks that she might actually be at a loss for words. He decides to give her a bit of a nudge. He is actually starting to look forward to the end of this conversation.
"Look," he says, rubbing his cheek against hers, "I actually get why you'd be scared of that, but it's still not a particularly good reason. You trust me more than you're giving yourself credit for right now. You know that, whenever you do decide to let go, I'll be there to catch you. Every time."
"Yes," is Elizabeth's simple reply.
"Yes, I trust you. With almost anything." From the corner of his eye, John can see Elizabeth closing her eyes. He feels the gravity of those three words and understands how they can sweep a person away.
"Anything, except your heart…," he muses.
Elizabeth replies without opening her eyes, "No, I think it's pretty safe to say you've got that as well."
For a moment there is silence between them, their breathing echoing back from the metal walls of the hall. Pressing his lips into her hair, John wonders whether that was a confession she made to him or to herself. He doesn't know yet whether these were really the things that had Elizabeth hiding from him or whether they have just been subterfuge she's been lobbing in his way to keep him from getting too close to her and to the core of the issue.
Either way, this isn't over yet. John straightens and says, "So, now that we've established what really isn't the problem, you want to throw in the towel and come clean?"
Elizabeth isn't a fool, she knows when she's cornered. Besides, even if he hasn't reached the bottom of this yet, he has managed to win her back – she feels safe around him again, she knows that if she absolutely needs to run somewhere, he's the best place to go. And while he waits for Elizabeth to gather up the courage, John manages to ruminate on the irony of him knowing Elizabeth so well that he can tell all that from the way she stands, but still not having had any idea that she was in love with him. Or that he was in love with her.
"I'm crap at relationships," she finally blurts, at the same time turning her head to face away from him.
This announcement takes John somewhat aback, if only because this kind of laconic bluntness is a new side of Elizabeth.
"Yes, you are," he snorts, shifting his body so that he would face her. He's not saying this just to provoke her, even though that definitely is a part of it. He really thinks that she is crap at relationships, mainly because she hasn't had any since Simon and not for a lack of effort on the part of the male population, both in Atlantis and off-world. He has personally witnessed the wall snapping up around Elizabeth the moment harmless flirting starts to show signs of potential for something more. Elizabeth is not crap at relationships because she is a klutz or unlucky at love. Elizabeth is crap precisely because she is a control freak – she can control her work, the stacks of paper on the corner of her desk, the flow of conversation around a banquet or a negotiation table, but she can't control emotions or the depths to which they run. From what he has been able to deduct about her relationship with Simon, it seems to fit the pattern – after all, she left without even telling him that she'd be going anywhere, being fully aware that she might not be coming back. She'd been in control of that relationship and the main reason that Simon's moving on had thrown her as much as it did was that she hadn't expected it, not that her heart had been particularly broken.
Elizabeth turns slightly to eye him incredulously.
"Hey, it's not like you're any better yourself! At least I don't keep arbitrarily stumbling in and out of them." And though this might not be the most suitable moment, he thinks that he's never wanted to kiss the life out of her more than right now. She's not scared anymore, there's fight in her, and though he'd love her any way he could get her, this is how he loves her the best. So, he doesn't let go of this argument.
"No, you like to do both with a bang," he quips, barely able to hold back laughter.
Something flashes in Elizabeth's eyes and he is almost sure that it's amusement as well, though it might also be anger. He can't quite tell in this light.
"You're not helping yourself here," Elizabeth crumbles and he is even more certain that she is amused.
"Well, the way I see it," he lifts an eyebrow and tucks a loose curl of hair behind her ear, "it's as simple as figuring out what makes you happy and going for it; and then holding on to it with all you've got."
"That's certainly dramatic."
"I think it's organic."
Now it's Elizabeth's turn to lift an eyebrow, "How's that?"
"Of all the things to build my life around," he explains, "I think happiness is the best. I just hadn't found it yet."
"And now you have?" She is almost smiling now.
He grins back, "Oh yeah."
Elizabeth shakes her head. "That still doesn't change the fact that we're both crap at relationships."
There's an explanation bubbling up from deep within him, one that will make her understand, perfectly and clearly, why this isn't an issue, why this time it will all be different, why everything that has been in the past is completely irrelevant in this case, but right now he doesn't know how to put it into words yet. Still, he has to try.
"This isn't a relationship, Elizabeth," he tells her. "This is everything."
"Yes, that takes the pressure off," she sighs.
"No, I mean…," he attempts to get a hold on his line of reasoning, but it's hard. The effort is making him frown, his eyes looking for the answers on the ceiling and the walls. "I mean, we're not trying to play house here, go through the stages and motions of a…" He huffs. It's still not coming out right. "Elizabeth, I want to be more; I want to be more for you. That's my happiness," he finally shrugs.
When he looks at her again, he thinks he is seeing a new kind of shine in her eyes. Like maybe she is about to cry, even though that makes no sense at all. But then his own sight suddenly gets a bit blurry at the edges and he realizes that this is it. That this is the moment when everything begins. She was right to be scared, it isn't going to be easy, especially at moments not like this one, at moments when the rest of the Universe comes barging in and demands a place in what they have between them.
But in the end, when she turns to fully face him and lifts her arms to place her palms on his nape and raises to her toes to fully reach him and then kisses him like there's no tomorrow, like there's nothing else except him and her, it's all worth it.
"This love thing," she whispers, lips still touching his, "admittedly, feels pretty good."
"Who'd have thought, huh?" he smiles, not breaking the contact either.
She tries to lean back a little, but his body follows her, inch for inch. "You're not going to let me go anymore, are you?" she asks, laughter bubbling in her voice.
"This is going to be interesting…," she contends and leans back in to kiss him again.