Here's how it begins (one)

He'd like to see through her eyes. When she is standing up there on her balcony, overlooking the Gate Room, silent and still.

He doesn't want to be her, doesn't want her position – being himself is just about all he can handle right now – but he wants to see what she sees the way she sees it. When she's standing there, taking in all that is going on below her, she looks as if the Universe is on her shoulders, and she loves it.

She never lets being a leader seem anything other than privilege, so he wonders whether the way she regards the city is in any way possessive. Atlantis is like a pesky family member for John, a fancy toy for Rodney, a slow boat to somewhere for Teyla, but Elizabeth… Elizabeth *is* Atlantis, *was* even before she had ever set foot on it.

Even though she never quite lets on, John knows that, by now, quite a lot of her identity is wrapped up in it. She wouldn't be able to help it, even if she wanted to.

The kind of single-mindedness required for doing her job as well as she does it takes quite a lot of passion and before you know it, you've lost a bit of yourself to the cause and if you don't get a hold of yourself, you lose a bit more. Until the line between you and your cause gets all muddled and you can't quite be sure yourself, which is a part of which. He's been there. Or at least he has taken a walk in that direction.

Somehow, he muses, life never turns out quite the way you thought it would – it has a way of luring you off the track you had set out for yourself so thoroughly that at one point you can't even remember where it was that you were headed.

You dream small and what you get is so big that sometimes you wonder how you're supposed to handle it all. As a kid, he had wanted "normalcy"; more sincerity, less of an emotional minefield, definitely more warmth. He's trying to remember now what exactly he had had in mind for himself, but there's been so much sand and snow and whole galaxies in between that he can't quite recall. It was probably something suburban, delightfully, naively middle-class, involving picket fences and children's laughter.

The thing is, in a truly twisted way, he now has all that he wanted. But never in a million years would he have thought that he'd have to travel across the Universe to find it.

You dream big, like Elizabeth must have done, have ambition and principles you want to fight for, and life delivers royally. Yet, wherever Elizabeth had thought this was headed, it couldn't have possibly been this.

She's so poised and in control that sometimes John forgets that she is as stranded as the rest of them, as cut off. That the whole getup is as unprecedented and as far beyond any possible wild dream for her as it is for everybody else here.

And now that he thinks about it, John realizes that, unlike many other people in the expedition, she must also be painfully aware of all this. The scientists can lose themselves in their gadgets and funky plants. With the soldiers, at one point or another, what they've been conditioned to do, their training, kicks in. But while everybody else slinks off to their own corners, she is left to measure and balance and navigate, to try and carve out a life for them here.

For Elizabeth nothing is impossible. It's as simple as that and this trait makes John admire her a great deal and love her a little. There are things that she unabashedly declares unwise and scenarios she considers unlikely, but she never dismisses an idea or a phenomenon outright just because it doesn't fit with her beliefs.

Thinking back as far as he can, John tries to remember if he's ever felt that he's being accepted the way he is. There's always been a pressure to change, to suppress or hide parts of himself in order to get a pass. From his father, from the Air Force, from his wife. From the society.

Elizabeth's openness to the nature of things around her extends to him. Parts of him are still hidden, stuck in the caverns of his mind. But being himself is ok now (she's made him feel that way almost from the moment he met her).

For reasons he doesn't quite care to probe yet, Elizabeth's acceptance of him almost seems to give him wings.

He'd like to see through her eyes,

For Elizabeth, everything is possible.

-x-

Here's how it seems (two)

Nell, about four years old, is making ever faster circles around her. Shyness and excitement are clearly battling inside the girl, but the glee seems to be just about edging ahead. Every time, Elizabeth is pretending not to notice the kid approaching, despite the hysterical giggle bubbling out of her and then, every time, just at the last moment, Elizabeth makes a grab at the girl, snatching up a bit of her dress and letting it slip through her fingers, making the little runner screech with excitement. And Nell escapes again, only to circle back a moment later.

Nell must be about two dozen loops into the game and all the hypnotic repetition of it would start to make John, who is just watching the spectacle from across the lawn, sleepy, if it weren't for the screeching, louder and earlier with each round. Elizabeth seems completely unfazed – the leader of mighty Atlantis, fooling around with a four-year-old.

When Nell's young mother finally calls for her to stop bothering the lady, the girl suddenly sobers and gets back all her bashfulness. Grabbing at her mother's skirt, she eyes Elizabeth through her auburn bangs, and, when prompted, says thank you and goodbye. Elizabeth waves at her and when the mother and daughter turn to leave, she is left contemplating their retreating backs. Nell slips her hand into her mother's palm.

John wonders if it was ever a conscious choice for Elizabeth. She's a leader, strong and mighty, and so incredibly smart, but, and this is something John isn't bound to forget, she's also a woman.

On one hand, it would be really patronizing to think that just because a woman has a fulfilling career, she can't be a good mother. On the other hand, knowing Elizabeth, it was never about a career. Or about being a mother. For Elizabeth, being who she is, it's a calling. For all her diplomatic prowess, Elizabeth has never been good at compromises when it comes to herself.

John thinks that he has seen this before – glimpses of a woman living without. They are fleeting and hidden well, but they're there.

There are women who don't want to be mothers, he knows. There are those who mother everybody around them and therefore don't have the space in their hearts to be a mother to anyone specific. Elizabeth is not one of those women. The space in her heart is infinite.

He wonders if there are times, when she is alone and has a moment to spare on herself, maybe in the dead of a night, that she blames Atlantis for taking bites out of her womanhood.

He wonders if she ever regrets making having a family that much more difficult for herself. Really, truly, regrets, in a way that would make her want to change something.

Nell and her mother disappear from view and Elizabeth's eyes, still turned to the direction they were walking in, glaze over in a moment of introspection. Then, almost imperceptibly, she smiles, an intimate and knowing little grin, so easy to miss if you're not paying close attention.

The determination this woman has is leaving him breathless. Any change is only choice away.

-x-

Here's how it is (three)

"Oh, good, Elizabeth! You're here."

Rodney is clearly just building up for a full-out assault. John freezes for a second, then starts to inch out the door. Just glancing in his direction, Elizabeth shakes her head, almost imperceptibly.

("I'll just…"

"Don't even think about it!")

"There's a hum in my room," Rodney announces with defensive briskness. Confused, Elizabeth glances at John for confirmation.

("A what?)

John forwards the look to Rodney. "A what?" he asks, resignedly slouching against the doorframe and crossing his arms on his chest.

The scientist's eyes dart from John to Elizabeth to John again, his tone getting more and more high-pitched. "A particularly annoying humming sound in my living quarters. Constantly going off, day and night. Nothing is being done about it and I don't know how much longer I can take it."

The slight curve of the eyebrow John gives to Elizabeth is gone in a microsecond. ("You're on your own with this one...") A moment later, the perfect mask on general boredom is firmly in place on his features.

She is silent for a moment, clearly scrambling to find any sort of reaction to this. "Rodney, who… would you suppose could do something about it?" She finally manages, demonstrably turning her back to John.

("Thank you very much, dear friend.")

Rodney's exasperated sigh comes out with a loud hiss. "Yes, I know, it's me."

"But…?" Elizabeth is trying really hard not to sigh herself, knowing full well that any sign of a lack of commitment would only egg Rodney on. Strangely, for someone who has been driving the whole exchange with such an overwhelming force, Rodney suddenly gets pensive.

"Zelenka thinks that I have lost my mind."

Before John can even gather himself for the obvious zinger in this, he can see Elizabeth raising an index finger at him, her eyes still steadfastly on Rodney. For a moment John almost pushes himself upright in indignation, but the finger goes up again, so he slumps back.

("Hush!"

"Oh, come on, that one was just too good to let go!"

"Hush.")

"Why would he possibly think that?" Elizabeth asks and even a less astute observer could detect the distinct lack of sincerity in her voice.

("Oh, so it's all right for you to…") The finger goes up for the third time.

Rodney's head is starting to achieve a dangerous tilt, his eyelids blinking at an almost impossible speed. "You're not taking me seriously. You know, you people are always storming my lab, demanding that I save Atlantis or the Universe or whatever and I always do, without any complaint."

For that John finally does push himself off the doorframe. Even Elizabeth, with all her barely maintained composure, can't quite let this one go, turning her whole upper body towards John, as if she'd been dealt a body blow and theatrically rolling her eyes.

"Ok, so maybe I sometimes complain a little," Rodney relents slightly, "but that's just because I am clearly underappreciated. Still, the things that need to be done, I get them done. And now, when I turn to you with a problem I have, you don't even bother to hear me out." By the end of that statement, the righteous indignation is back in his voice and it becomes painfully clear to everyone involved that the only possible course of action is to humor him.

"You're right, Rodney, I am sorry. Please, go on."

("This is going to take forever."

"Yes, it is."

"You're going to take me down with you, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am.")

Rodney resumes where he left off. "Zelenka doesn't hear it."

John resumes his slouch, beginning a rhythmic tap with his foot for good measure.

("I wonder what they have for desert at the mess today…"

"For crying out loud, John, concentrate!")

"Hear what?" The question slips out before Elizabeth can stop herself. The tapping at her side gets louder.

("Oh, now you're just playing right into his hand!")

"Oh, for God's sake, keep up. The hum."

At a loss for ideas, Elizabeth blankly stares at Rodney for a moment, then turns around towards John, indicating that his contribution would be highly welcome at this point.

"Oh… I don't even know what to…," John seems to give it an honest effort, in the end admitting defeat. "No, I've got nothing."

("Thank you."

"You're very welcome.")

"I've checked everything – the wiring, the plumbing, vibration, radiation…," Rodney lists, dramatically pushing down fingers into his palm at each item. "I'd check for ghosts, but I haven't quite figured out how to do that yet. So, I made the mistake of asking Radek for his opinion. He came to my room to check it out and claimed to not hear anything. There was obviously something wrong with his hearing, so I grabbed some random soldier that was passing by my room from the hallway. And that dumbass didn't hear anything either. So, now I can't even continue working on it without everybody thinking that I am crazy."

John observes Elizabeth squaring her shoulders, movement of hers that is a sure sign that she has spotted an endgame.

("I think I can see light at the end of the tunnel…"

"Easy, you don't want to spook him."

"Now, if I can just play our cards right..")

"I'll tell you what, Rodney," Elizabeth announces, "John and I will go and check out your quarters and see if we can hear anything. Meanwhile, you might want to go see Carson, just in case. Maybe it's some kind of an alien bug."

"You think that I've gone nuts as well!"

("It was bound to happen one day.")

"No, I don't think that. But if you have caught something, then it is in all our interests to find out as soon as possible and make sure this doesn't spread."

Next to her, a light switches on in John's eyes and he turns to look at her with reaffirmed respect.

("Hey, you're a genius! I never even saw that coming!"

"Of course I am. That's why I'm the boss."

"It's an honor to serve under you."

"Yes, yes, I'm sure that feeling will pass soon enough.")

Rodney suddenly seems to grow several inches taller. "You're right – I might be very ill! I might be dying! Ha! I hope they feel good about themselves now – ridiculing a terminally ill man."

("Checkmate!")

"I doubt you're quite dying, Rodney. But making fun of other people isn't nice, in general," Elizabeth says soothingly, but Rodney clearly isn't paying attention anymore, his own possible vindicating demise occupying him completely.

"Yes. No. Of course. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go have Carson run some tests. I think I have a few suggestions for him as to what…" And John has to very quickly step aside to allow him to dash out of the door, still speaking to himself.

For a moment, John and Elizabeth are left motionlessly staring at the doorway through which Rodney has just exited, as if afraid that anything they might do could land them back in that quagmire. Once Rodney's steps have retreated so far that they cannot be heard anymore, they turn to look at each other, both letting out an audible sigh of relief.

"Oh God, I thought that this would never end," John announces, shaking his head. "Great save, though. I'm sure Carson appreciates your lovely package." The smirk on his face is almost evil.

"Yes, well, in situations like these, it's every man for himself, isn't it?" Elizabeth laughs back. "Besides, there might actually be something wrong with him."

"I suppose," John admits, letting Elizabeth exit the room before him. "Though, if it was something medical, wouldn't he be hearing the humming in other places as well, not just his own quarters?"

Elizabeth dramatically closes her eyes, "If I never hear the word "humming" again, it will be too soon."

In unison, and without having to say a word, they turn to the direction opposite the one Rodney had rushed off to.

-x-

Here's how far it goes (four)

This is *your* fault. You did this, you woke them up and now, through no fault of their own, these people are paying for it.

The rain is pouring in buckets, making the road slippery with mud. There's nothing he can really do for these people, no way to really protect them. They're all running for cover, but the flashes of light in the night sky and the bone-piercing whine filling the air are a sharp reminder of the odds stacked up against them.

And then, by the light of another distant beam (how many did this one snatch up?), he sees the opening of the cave. Now, if they could only get across that stretch of open field…

You can do this. You've done it before. These people are counting on you.

A kid slips on the rough ground, falling behind. Yelling at everybody else to get in the cave, he goes back and, hauling the boy on his hip by the waistband of his pants, manages to dive to cover moments before the beam of light sweeps the doorway of the cave.

The boy's mother grabs her son into a desperate hug. Everybody, about ten people altogether, is glued to the walls, deep enough in the cave to be covered by the darkness, shocked and silent. But safe, for now.

Peering out from the doorway, John finds the first moment to spare a thought for his teammates, sending out a silent prayer that they are alright. Reaching for his earpiece, he tries to locate them.

Teyla comes in almost immediately, reporting that she and Rodney are hiding out in one of the cellars, deep underground, with some of the villagers. Ronon manages to give John a bit of the scare, but after an eternity of screaming and cussing into the comm unit, he finally replies, sounding annoyed to be bothered, and in the background John can hear something burning with heavy cracking and hissing. Ronon isn't really one for diabolical laughter, but it seems that they now have one dart less to worry about.

Having established the situation, John finally looks at the people in the cave with him. They are scared and wet and muddy, but there's trust in their eyes. Trust that he'll do whatever it takes to get them out of this alive.

There was a time when you wouldn't have recognized trust if it smacked you in the face. You wouldn't have even known to look for it, wouldn't have even dreamt that someone would feel that towards you ever again.

John slides down to sit on the floor, indicating for the others to do the same. They could be in here for a while. He can't be quite sure how big the cave is or what is behind them in the darkness, but can't really risk turning on the flashlight, either. He adjusts his grip on the gun, wipes the rain and mud out of his eyes and supports his head against the wall, letting out a heavy, loaded sigh.

It can be a burden, this trust. It can mean expectations and responsibility and it gives you ample opportunity to fail, but you hadn't really known how much you craved for it until somebody finally trusted you again. When Elizabeth first fought for you, wanted you on this mission, she didn't really even know you. She didn't know that there was a damn good chance that you might end up being a hell of a lot more trouble than you were worth. But it made you want to prove, to yourself and to your superiors, but, most of all, to her that this trust, it wasn't misplaced.

A couple of times he thinks he hears something approaching, but, after a few tense moments of paralyzed anxious stillness in the cave, it becomes clear that he has imagined it. The people on this planet are clearly good at this, the knowledge of how to hide probably hardwired into their DNA, Nobody moves, nobody makes a sound. Not even the children.

He is not that good at waiting things out. Never has been.

It's always been a Catch-22 for you – doing nothing makes you feel helpless, out of control; jumping into frantic action, thrashing about for the sake of doing *something*, leaves you rootless and confused and lonely. That's how you used to get in trouble, nothing holding you back, no one making you take a breath.

Elizabeth is a force in your life. Way more than just a boss. More than a friend. Her unwavering trust has turned into an anchor, grounding you. Keeping you from drifting away on a wave of your own insecurities. It's explicit and implicit and it stays with you, in the back of your mind, even in dark caves on distant planets, when she herself is light years away.

It sets you free to be the best possible version of you. Or at least, to try to be. Some currents run so deep in you that even you yourself can't see to the depth of them.

Over the radio, Ronon lets him know that he's about to join them in their hiding place, just so that John wouldn't take him for a Wraith and shoot his head off. And a moment later he stumbles into the cave, wet and dirty, but decidedly jubilant, announcing that he has taken out at least two darts and four foot soldiers and that the rest of them seem to be just about ready to get going.

A little while later John can hear the darts flying over, all in one direction, toward the gate. They stay put a little while longer, just to be sure. By the time they climb out of the cave it's almost dawn and the rain has stopped. They are dazed and tired, but they are alive.

The village has taken some heavy blows and there are numerous people missing, friends and family, giving a bitter aftertaste to the glee of survival.

They have to go. They were supposed to contact Atlantis hours ago. There's not much they can do here now, anyway – it's not them that have won and lost this night. Saying farewell, offering any assistance they can for rebuilding, they set out for the gate.

Home. She'll be relieved and happy.

She'll be proud.

John is startled how easily that knowledge comes to him.

-x-

Here's how it never ends (five)

The silence stretching out between them is not altogether uncomfortable. A long night has just brought about a lull and everything seems to slow and go quieter around them.

They're sitting at a long table at the side of the hall. There used to be more people around, but now there's just the two of them. He is straddling the bench, his elbow supported at the table, his head tilted sideways to rest on his palm. She is sitting in front of him, looking down on the table where her fingers are fiddling with a rustic cork of a home-made wine bottle.

Through lowered lashes, he is contemplating her profile. Her face seems almost expressionless so she is either very deep in thought or already made up her mind about something. For the first time, in a very long time, he has no idea, not an inkling, of what's on her mind.

He's trying to remember how the story went.

Inane joking and chitchat of a party that somebody else is hosting. Discreet ridiculing of people at nearby tables. Then, as it goes, with a smaller circle of people, something unexpectedly deep and maybe a bit too personal – childhoods; or choice of a type of underwear. Some more people leave, for the toilet, or a refill, or some prowling around.

And then there's suddenly only the two of you, and the conversation peters out, because this is a chance to talk about so many things that you simply won't talk about.

He lets out a deep breath, a sign of confusion he just can't control. She stirs, turns to face him and tilts her head, to make the angle match his. Still not giving away anything, she lets her gaze wander on his face. Serious, thoughtful eyes roaming along his hairline, his cheekbones and jaw line.

He waits.

She seems to have found whatever it was that she was looking for. Or not. But she glances down again and smiles.

Her touch is light on his jaw, her thumb tracing his cheek. He straightens, trying to reign in his expectations. This might be her way of letting go.

Rising slightly from her seat, she leans in closer to him and then her lips are on his, the butterfly touch of them mirroring her fingers on his face. His hand is on her hip, as if he is trying to ground her. She teases his lower lip with her teeth, then deepens the kiss for a moment and rises, as if getting to leave. Into the tail end of the kiss, he is shaking his head.

She has already turned her back to him, one leg over the bench, when he grabs her, tugging her to sit and wrapping his arms tightly around her shoulders. She doesn't protest, instead leaning into him as if she hadn't really meant to go.

You do know that this now is forever, don't you? is what he wants to ask her, but buries his face into the crook of her neck instead. He can't make her stay, not really. He can just pray to whatever force is out there that she will.

She leans back even further, nuzzling his cheek with her nose.

"You're finally here," he hears her whisper.

And then he knows – she's finally his.