Title: "Veracity"

Author: Little Red

Rating: R, for graphic sex, language and violence.

Category: Sheppard/Weir RST, hurt/comfort, angst.

Spoilers: General season 2 team knowledge. Set in a possible season 3 or 4.

Summary: When something traumatic happens to John Sheppard off-world, he is no longer the only one affected.

Author's Note: A billion thank-yous to Anna and A.j. for reading this over and to Amy for a fantastic beta job. Also thanks to Pooh, who got bossy and made me finish it.

Dedication: For Ness. Happy birthday!!!!! For you I write angst, darling. Inspired by her loverly Siege III wallpaper. (Which, for those of you keeping track, was *my* birthday present. Sparky begets Sparky, I tell you.) *love*


****


He lies to her.

He always smiles at her when he comes back through the 'gate, even if he's screaming and Ronon is all but carrying him.

"Just a scratch," John gasps out, clutching her hand a little too hard as he passes her on a stretcher. "I'm good." Elizabeth waits until she stops shaking to follow him.

They have an unspoken agreement: she never stays long in the infirmary if he's in pain. He lets Teyla and the others stay, and she takes comfort in the fact that, at least, he isn't alone.

When he returns to her, in her office or in her bed, he jokes about the mission and she jokes about Carson's bedside manner. She's allowed to hug him, to say she missed him, that she was worried, because all of that is about her. He'll bitch about being sore, a little, but never actually tells her how much it hurt.

He lies just as much about the wounds she can't see.

She gets the run-down on his physical injuries from Carson, who has long learned not to smooth over the details, both because she's his boss and because he's her friend and he wants her to know what she'll be facing the next time she undresses John Sheppard.

"Maybe..." she suggests one night while running fingers through John's hair, over and over, so he can sleep, "Maybe you should talk to Doctor Heightmeyer."

John nuzzles into her lap. His fingers brush over her leg, gripping just a bit too hard at the knee. "Why?" His voice is tired. "I'm back now. There's nothing wrong."

She kisses her fingers gently and presses them to his forehead. She doesn't mention it again.


****


He never minces words when delivering his reports.

"The Ankari pose a serious threat to our security," John says. "It's entirely possible that they have allies. All teams should carry extra ordnance and identities need to be double-checked by radio before dropping the 'gate shield."

"Is that really necessary?" Elizabeth thinks of how many times in the past two months her teams came back through the 'gate at a run. The Pegasus galaxy is getting progressively more dangerous, week by week.

"The real question," Rodney interrupts, "is whether that's enough. The Ankari-" his eyes slide away from Sheppard "-or anyone else could have the technology to record a few voice statements while they're getting the ID codes. Enough to pass a general radio screening."

"Then we conduct a little interview of our own," John decides. "Personal information. Family details. Things no one would think to ask during an interrogation."

Teyla speaks up, slowly. "Perhaps, as a precaution, we should limit off-world travel for the next little while only to personnel who have been trained in resisting... coercion. At least until the current crisis has been resolved."

"What?" Rodney waves a hand around the table, speaking less from bravery than from indignation. "What the hell good is that going to do? We aren't going to solve the 'current crisis' if everyone except soldiers stays at home doing needlepoint. Shouldn't we be working on ways not to get caught, instead?"

Elizabeth nods. "I'm inclined to agree with you, Rodney, but the situation is pretty volatile right now. Teyla may have a point."

"It's not like it matters, Elizabeth," Rodney snaps, and doesn't quite manage to keep his eyes away from John. "If we get caught -- it's torture. Everyone breaks under torture."

Elizabeth can almost feel John shut off next to her, and fights the urge to wince or cry or take his hand at the thought of him drugged and helpless for four days before they broke him out of an Ankari prison. He told her to change the codes and mission schedules, because he was drugged and didn't know what he might have told them, and that was the last time they discussed it. It isn't the first time that has happened to him in this galaxy, either.

"Nonetheless, we should do our best to minimize the risk to everyone." She can't avoid looking at him completely. "What do you think, Colonel? You know best what's out there."

Not for the first time, she thinks it might be easier for him to be honest in these briefings if he had a boss he wasn't personally involved with. He shrugs and gives a wry smirk, obviously strained. He meets her eyes, but it feels like hollow, he's looking at someone else in her shoes. "We'll prioritize the missions. For the next month, civilians without military training should only go to lower-risk planets, and then only as volunteers. We'll reevaluate then."

He leaves the briefing without looking at her again.


****


She licks the long, pink scar across his chest from bottom to top as he sighs with content. She commits the changes to his body to memory with her own, smothering the lingering bruises with kisses and the warm palms of her hands, like she can undo the hands that put them there to begin with.

They roll around in the sheets chasing each other's lips, tickling and wrestling between kisses. They're always a bit playful in bed, no matter what is going on outside, and when she laughs, he smiles the first genuine smile she has seen from him in weeks.

"You feel..." he murmurs, hand sliding over her belly, searching for a hip to use to tug her closer. "... so..." He doesn't usually finish sentences like that in anything other than an incoherent moan, like even that would be revealing too much.

He can't pretend a thing when he kisses her, though. She can read whole volumes in that, in how intense he is, how giving, how withdrawn. She knows he feels good. She knows he needs her, more than anyone, but doesn't know how. She knows he remembers more than he even told Carson about what the Ankari did, and that he plans to continue pretending to forget until he's not pretending anymore. She knows it works, a little, when she's with him, especially when she's with him like this.

She slides down his body, eyes locked with his, and licks the tip of his penis so slowly his whole body shudders. His fingers wrap into the loose top-sheet before she even takes him in her mouth, his eyes fluttering closed as he smiles the singular expression of this one sensation. He breathes hard as she sucks him to full hardness, letting out the occasional moan when he can't bear to keep silent, still smiling in a way that looks more and more urgent.

His hips are starting to buck out of rhythm when he tries for her name, "Elizabeth," the syllables broken up between breaths. "Wait-"

He squirms, but she's committed, loving the way he'll lie there afterwards, too dazed and sated for a minute to even move, looking at her with eyes full of a million things he might never say. She feels like she's the only woman who will ever see him like that, ever, and that means something to her, means more than a blowjob or sex or a comfortable working relationship.

"Elizabeth," he tries again, "you... oh, God."

She can't talk like this, so she hums as a response, and his hips jerk under her at the increased vibration. He gasps once, sounding desperate in an unexpected way, and when she looks up she catches a flash of pure panic on his face at being trapped and helpless and being made to feel too much all at once.

He's already there -- too late for her to change intention -- and he comes with sharp twitches and a cry that breaks before ending. He struggles for breath with his eyes closed as Elizabeth wipes her mouth on the sheet, feeling for the first time in months that her presence in bed is painful and unwanted, that she shouldn't stay for the night or even for the next five minutes.

"No," he says, blindly grabbing her hand before she can look for her clothes or for a way to apologize for something she shouldn't have seen. He pulls her to him silently, curling naked around her. His hands cross over her chest and he holds on tightly, until she can feel every one of his shaky breaths against her back like they're part of her body, too.

She takes a breath, but he cuts her off before she can even think of what to say. "Don't."

She obliges, doesn't apologize or ask if he's okay. She wishes to hell there was something she could do.

In the morning, he wakes her with kisses on the inside of her thighs, repaying her an orgasm with the smug-bastard grin that drives her nuts even as she spirals apart under his attentions.

They aren't going to talk about it, even if it's the only thing on her mind, so she tosses a pillow at his head. He wrestles her into the mattress -- it never takes long for him to gain the upper hand -- and kisses her on the nose. "Stop looking so worried," he chides her, like he has no idea why she might look that way. "Everything's fine."

There's an order in that statement as well as a request, and so she lets it go.


****


Kate Heightmeyer gives Elizabeth regular updates on the general mental state of the base personnel, so it isn't strange that she requests a meeting.

This time, however, the topic is more specific.

"I'm worried about Colonel Sheppard," she states.

The part of Elizabeth who hasn't said anything to anyone about this wants to jump up and down and yell so am I!, but instead, she frowns and plays dumb. "Why?"

Kate tucks a lock of blonde hair behind her ear with delicately manicured nails. "He hasn't come in to see me after the incident with the Ankari."

"That's unusual?" To Elizabeth's knowledge, John has only even been in Kate's office a handful of times, and nearly all of them have been to check up on the people under his command.

Kate tilts her head in acknowledgement. "However, in this instance, both Doctor Beckett and I have specifically requested that he do so before he returns to off-world duty. Those around him have reported that he's been irritable, distracted and jumpy, even somewhat paranoid."

Elizabeth stiffens in her chair, feeling both slightly violated that someone is spying on John's activities like that and relieved that she herself is not the only one doing so. "I think that's all pretty understandable, Doctor."

"Of course it is," Kate smiles sympathetically. "However, you must admit that he's not entirely himself. I feel it would be beneficial for him to go through counseling. He told Carson that it's unnecessary and that he doesn't have time, but I feel differently."

Elizabeth pauses before replying. If it was anyone else, she wouldn't hesitate to order him to see the psychologist, but overruling John's judgment in this case would be a personal intrusion as well as a professional one. She tells herself she would if it were serious -- she knows she would -- but this sort of invisible injury is definitely a shade of grey. She'll lose his trust on this matter if she takes action as his commander, and she can't help but feel like that would make things worse for him instead of better.

It's possible she exaggerates her own role in his continued stability, but she doesn't think so.

"Talk to him again," she finally says. "I'd like to leave it up to him -- it won't be nearly as helpful if it isn't voluntary anyway, right? I haven't noticed anything yet that suggests he's at all unable to function as military commander, but..." She frowns. "But let me know if you do."

"I could ask Caldwell to order him instead," Kate suggests gently.

Elizabeth is completely certain that involving Colonel Caldwell will elevate the command tension in a way that could cause serious problems down the road, but doesn't order her not to. She wants to slap down the implication that she's too close to the situation to give the order herself, but doesn't do that, either. "If you feel it's necessary," she answers instead. "I'm not sure it is."

Kate nods slowly, but doesn't leave.

"Was there something else?"

The counselor's voice is lower when she speaks, softer, like Elizabeth is now on the metaphorical couch. "How are you handling this?"

Elizabeth bristles at the intrusion but tries not to show it. As a rule, she has her ribs closed just as tightly over anything personal as John does. She wonders, sometimes, if that's part of the problem. They sought each other out partly because of that shared emotional reservation -- neither of them are comfortable with someone else prying too deeply -- but maybe it would be easier for him to talk about the things he really needs to if he were with someone more open.

"I'm fine," she tells Kate, unsure of what else to say. "I'm a little worried about him, but I'm fine."

Kate stands, pausing to rest one hand on her desk in a gesture of solidarity and invitation. "If you ever want to talk about it, you know where my office is."


****


Elizabeth doesn't go to see Kate, but she rehearses what she would say if she did.

I'm worried about him, she admits, after a shower, naked and brushing her hair in the bathroom mirror while John reads in the other room. I feel like he's changing because of everything that's happening, maybe irreparably. I think he's in pain, and I don't know how to help him.

I love him, and I'm afraid that means I can't do my job.

I don't want to lose him. I don't want to lose him. I don't want to lose him.


When she emerges from the bathroom, he's not reading, only staring over the top of the book like his thoughts are a million miles away. She feels like an intruder in her own bedroom as she shrugs on a nightshirt and crawls into bed.

"Hey," he greets her, burying his nose in her freshly washed hair. "Good shower?"

"Yee-esss..." she drawls, kissing along his stubbled jaw, needing to do something to shake loose the haunted expression on his face.

"I'm tired," he argues when she slips a hand under the hem of his t-shirt. He never wore shirts to bed until recently, not even in the winter, and it makes her think he's sensitive about the deep scars on his chest and back. He then frowns at her, cupping her chin. He looks worried. "Is that okay?"

She tries to smile reassuringly, more unnerved that he asked that question than that he turned down a sexual advance. They're often too worn out for sex -- it's an understood part of their lives and their relationship. "Of course." She kisses him again and then curls up against his shoulder. "I'm tired, too."

He pulls straight a lock of her hair, smirking when it springs back into a curl, and then turns over to sleep. She shuts off the light and lies awake. He's strong, she remembers. Probably stronger than she gives him credit for. Four days in an Ankari prison, eighteen hours in a Wraith cocoon, a week being beaten senseless by the Genii, sixty-three lost men and women under their shared command -- these things would take out parts of her, but that's her. Maybe he isn't lying to Kate about being okay. She wants to say she knows him better than that, can feel the way he's lost and scared and struggling to find a new balance, but maybe she's only projecting.

Or maybe, she thinks as she abandons sleep altogether and goes to pick through preliminary objectives for upcoming missions, she just needs to think that so she can agree to send him out again.


****


The mission is an easy one, relatively, because they've contacted the Ptaik before and they have always been agreeable -- if cagey -- about exchanges of intelligence. Because it's his first time back in the saddle since the end of his medically required twenty-day confinement to Atlantis -- necessary, according to Carson, to ensure the last of the Ankari toxins are out of his system before he exposes himself to any new alien environmental triggers -- the preparatory briefing is longer and more detailed than would usually be the case for a team this experienced. Elizabeth keeps a close eye on John as they go over the specifics, but he shows no sign of worry about the mission or of the paranoia Doctor Heightmeyer was concerned about.

If he snaps at Rodney more than is strictly necessary, well, Elizabeth sympathizes. It's definitely not cause for psychiatric intervention.

After the meeting, as Rodney packs up his things -- he always seems to bring stuff to briefings for purposes Elizabeth has never figured out -- John flashes her a winning smile. "See? Nothing to it."

She didn't mean to be quite so obvious about worrying. "I know."

He scratches some dirt off the back of the nearest chair with his thumb. "Your place tonight?"

She pretends not to notice the hint of worry in his own expression. She'd never have seen it if she didn't know him as well as she does. "I'll be there."


****


John's hands knead into the protesting muscles of her lower back and Elizabeth hisses in pain.

"Shush," he admonishes. "It's good for you."

"I asked you for a massage," she mutters in response, accusation broken up by a deep sigh. She isn't sure if it's a sign that he's a good masseur or a terrible one that she is perpetually torn between agony and bliss. "Not a torture session."

She flinches when she realizes what she said, but John only chuckles and digs his knuckles into a stubborn knot.

He soothes the muscle with his open palm before she can yelp. "What have you been doing to yourself, anyway?"

Worrying about you, she thinks. She would've said it aloud a month ago, but now she's not sure if he'll laugh and continue the banter or be hurt. "I think it's the chair in my office."

"I really am disappointed that the Ancients didn't have superior ergonomics." John leans over and kisses her spine. "Try to relax, okay?"

She does, letting her eyes drift closed, letting herself be hypnotized by the harsh calluses of John's hands tracing strong circles over her back and the sound of his breathing in her otherwise quiet quarters.

He's silent for too long, and after long minutes, it pulls her away from the brink of sleep. "John?"

His hands have stilled, too, resting over her ribs, rising and falling with every breath she takes. He bends over to kiss her spine again and then rests his forehead on her skin.

"John?" She wants to turn around and see his face but makes herself wait. The whole mood in the room has changed, and it makes her hold her breath.

"You're beautiful," he whispers. "You know that?"

It's an admission, but not the one he really means. It's the first indication she's had from him that he's anything but completely confident about returning to off-world duty, that he might still be unsettled by what the Ankari did, that he's just as afraid as she is that it will happen again.

She rolls over, making him lift his head from her back. He doesn't meet her eyes, focusing instead on her lips. She kisses him.

She's been sleeping with him for almost a year, and his kiss still does her in every time.

Elizabeth brings her arms around him, pulling him closer to her. He sighs and kisses her back with a familiar intention. She's lost in just kissing him for a minute, running her fingers through his hair, feeling his t-shirt against her bare chest and his still-clothed hips against hers.

"Might throw your back out again," John warns in her ear, in the breathy way he has when she's this close to him and he's having trouble speaking clearly. She loves that.

"I don't care." Her back is the last thing on her mind. She just wants him inside her. If she could, she'd keep him there.


****


Elizabeth spends John's entire mission obsessively checking the clock.

The mission is only scheduled to last for six hours, and it isn't as though she lacks for things to do in that time. She shuffles through all the reports she needs to prepare for her routine meeting with Colonel Caldwell, but has a hard time focusing on the text in front of her.

It's rare that she wishes for anything to go wrong in Atlantis, but she wouldn't mind a minor crisis to take her mind off of things.

During John's sixth hour off-world, Elizabeth meets with Caldwell. She focuses on inventories and the exchange of scientific personnel, penning notes in the margins for anything that will need to be discussed again at the full department-head meeting scheduled for the next day, and only has to ask him to repeat himself twice.

He notices anyway. "Elizabeth, are you all right?"

They aren't exactly friends, but they're close to it after so long fighting the same battles, on one side or the other. She knows him well enough to be sure that his concern is genuine. "I'm fine. I'm sorry. You were saying... the food stores?"

Caldwell gives her a brief smile, as close as he tends to get to sympathy. "He's going to be okay out there."

Elizabeth draws in a calming breath and nods. "I know."

They both glance at the clock. Five minutes until the scheduled team return, though John has the irritating habit of being fashionably late.

Caldwell nudges another stack of reports in front of her, perhaps as a distraction, perhaps just because they need her attention. He has never been completely in favor of her public relationship with the military commander of Atlantis, though he defended them when questions were raised back on Earth. John continues to have his own problems with Caldwell above and beyond the Colonel's occasional snide remarks about impropriety. In many ways, however, Elizabeth appreciates Caldwell's wariness. More than anyone else, she trusts him to step in if her emotions begin to dangerously cloud her judgment.

The wormhole surges to life seventeen minutes after the hour, and Caldwell follows her into the control room in time to hear the radio transmission.

"Atlantis, this is Sheppard. Request permission to return to base."

Andreas, the technician on duty, nods to Elizabeth to continue the conversation, to go through the now routine motion of asking arbitrary questions to confirm identity. For a long moment she pauses, mind full of ten thousand things she wants to ask him in a situation where he can't lie to her or refuse to answer.

"... Atlantis?"

She shoves the fantasy out of her mind. "Colonel, this is Atlantis. It's a good thing you're coming home," she says, feeling slightly shaky. "Your brother's been waiting for you."

She can hear the smile in his voice. "I don't have a brother, Elizabeth."

There's a relieved sigh in the control room. They have all become a little paranoid in recent weeks. "Well then," she says, touching a hand to the technician's shoulder as a sign to drop the 'gate-shield. "Come on home."


****


John's second mission back on full duty is equally uneventful.

"It's actually kinda boring out there now," he tells her over breakfast, one in a long string of random observations he's making in his quest to distract her from the report she's reading.

"Not enough action for you?"

He tugs on the edge of her PDA. She pulls it back, but peers over it to see him sulking into his hash browns at being ignored.

She smirks. She relaxes a little more every time they have moments like this, when it feels like everything is normal and they're not just pretending. It'll get better, she promises herself, and uses breakfasts like this as proof. It always has before.

"It just..." he pauses long enough for her to look up, and then shrugs in a way that makes him look about ten years old. "It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know?"

She extends a hand across the table, trying not to look too worried herself, and he squeezes it.

"And there's not enough action for me," John adds, letting go of her hand and taking a swig of orange juice.

She gives her best boys-will-be-boys sigh. "You know that's what gets you into trouble."

He pinches off a piece of toast and flicks it at her, missing by a mile. "Me? Trouble?"

On his third mission, this one to a previously unexplored world with a suspected pre-industrial civilization, the team radios in two hours early. Teyla's is the voice on the radio.

Elizabeth's heart pounds as Andreas runs an identity check and drops the shield, preparing herself for the worst, for Teyla to come back through alone or with John draped over Ronon's shoulders and bleeding again, but the entire team comes through on their feet.

"- no way that was necessary!" Rodney is yelling, mid-sentence, as he rematerializes.

"I'm in command here, McKay," John snaps back, voice loud and far angrier than he usually sounds when dealing with McKay, even in the heat of argument. "I decide what's necessary, and you have no right to contradict me!" He's cradling his arm, Elizabeth notices, but that's far less of an immediate concern than what he's saying.

"You're being completely irrational!" McKay squawks. "Teyla agreed with me!"

"I merely suggested caution." Teyla sounds especially collected next to her agitated teammates. She and Ronon are standing off to the side, but not so far away that they couldn't intervene should John and Rodney come to blows.

At that thought, Elizabeth runs down the stairs to intercept them as Rodney continues to argue.

"If you hadn't-"

John doesn't let him finish. "If I hadn't? They could've captured us! And then-"

"Gentlemen!" Elizabeth only manages to meet their energy by actually shouting.

"Elizabeth," Rodney points a finger at John, "he attacked an unarmed civilian!"

"He had backup!"

"Everybody STOP," she orders. For an instant, everyone complies.

John shuffles next to her, breathing hard. Two slightly wary security officers walk up to take the team's weapons, and as soon as John is free of his P-90, he stalks away. "I hurt my hand," he calls back. "I'm going to the infirmary."

Rodney continues to sputter next to her as he hands off his equipment, but Teyla's the one who attempts to give her a straight answer.

"We were asked to leave," she reports, with the unearthly calm that only means bad news when it comes to Teyla. "Doctor McKay got into an argument with a native who wished to purchase our weapons and jackets. One of the vendor's associates attempted to calm the situation by offering us a drink. Colonel Sheppard... overreacted."

Elizabeth stares between Teyla, Rodney and the door John stormed away through. "A drink?"

Teyla frowns. "He thought it was poisoned."


****


Elizabeth enters the infirmary after more than an hour, giving John the chance to calm down and be treated and herself the chance to get preliminary reports from the rest of his team.

When she arrives, Carson greets her at the door with a report of minor injuries and physical symptoms consistent with the after-effects of shock or panic. She wants to ask more questions, but sees that John has already spotted her, and changes her mind.

Instead, she pulls up a chair. His uninjured hand is lying on the edge of the bed nearest to her, but she doesn't try to take it. "How are you feeling?"

"It's just a scratch." John sounds bitter, but nowhere near as upset as he was before. "Six stitches. No reason to keep me here."

Elizabeth pours him a cup of water from the pitcher on the nightstand before she continues. "What happened on the planet?"

He works his jaw for a moment before answering. "I overreacted."

"So I heard."

He shoots her a glare at that, looking almost betrayed. She raises her eyebrows in response.

"I'm not here to get mad, John. I want you to tell me what happened." She pretends they're not lovers as she questions him, tries to remember how they used to be with each other when they were only coworkers. She takes comfort in that artificial distance and thinks he probably will, too.

He swirls the water in the glass, but doesn't drink. "I lost my temper. They were grabbing at us, trying to get a better look at our weapons, I was worried Ronon was going to go off on someone... there were only three of them, but I overreacted, and it got out of hand. It won't happen again."

Elizabeth nods slowly, taking that in. It's rare that John admits his mistakes, and the fact that he's doing so this easily worries the hell out of her. "Teyla said there was a drink."

He flinches, and she has to close her eyes for a moment to stay in professional mode, to look at him and see a subordinate whose ability to function is in question, not a man in pain. She prays quickly that he isn't going to lie to her outright.

He doesn't. "There was."

She lets that hang between them for a while, though he doesn't try to explain. She can hear Carson rustling around in the next room, but doesn't break her gaze.

"It won't happen again, Elizabeth," John swears.

"I want you to see Heightmeyer."

"I don't need to see Heightmeyer," he insists. "I made a bad call, that's all. I already told you, it won't happen again."

She sits up straighter, willing steel into herself. "It's not your intentions I'm worried about, John."

He glares at her, but it's the glare he uses when he knows he's defeated. "Am I removed from duty, as well?" There's more than a little biting sarcasm in his tone.

"Do you think you should be?"

"I'm not the one who thinks there's a problem, remember?" He looks away from her as soon as the words hit the air, scrubbing his un-bandaged hand over his face. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," she says, once she's sure that her voice will come out the way she wants it to. "You made a mistake, John. I'm not taking you off duty for that."

She waits while he stews over the conversation, part of her wanting to break the tension with a joke and a kiss and the rest of her knowing she can't.

"I'll make an appointment," he finally concedes.

"Good."

He leans back on the pillows and closes his eyes, as clear an indication as any that he's not about to continue the conversation. She hesitates only long enough to realize that anything she says will only make things worse, and then, with a pat on his calf, walks out.


****


John doesn't come to her quarters for the next four nights.

She doesn't sleep well without him -- an empty bed usually means that he's off-world and possibly in danger -- but she quells the desire to go to his quarters and force the issue. She didn't really expect him to easily forgive their conversation in the infirmary. If she chases him down now, before he lets her back in, she'll only push him farther away.

She still sees him during the day, but only in meetings. Even then, he avoids her gaze. She can tell from his face that he's not sleeping, either, and her chest feels painfully tight when she thinks of how, in the immediate, it's her fault that he's in pain.

She doesn't question whether or not she did the right thing. Even if therapy isn't the answer, even if John's deep-seated aversion to it or his innate stubbornness will render it useless, at least it's something. Professionally, he was the one in error, but where he sleeps isn't a professional matter.

The fifth night, on her way back to her room after an exhausting late night at the office, she falters.

She should wait, she knows. Allow him to sulk, to seethe over how she didn't trust him and overruled him and denied him her support, to do whatever it is he does when he shuts her out.

But she's worried about him and selfishly lonely, and that overrides her judgment long enough to get her to his door. The worst he can do, she decides as she knocks, is kick her out.

He doesn't. "Elizabeth." His eyes are guarded, but he steps aside to let her in.

She has nothing planned to say. She puts it off for a moment, busying herself by setting her PDA and jacket on the dresser as he watches her.

She wants to apologize, but knows she can't. She violated something personal between them, maybe, but she has to hope that he would have done the same in her position. She can't back down from it now. It might be an argument they need to have, someday, but she doesn't feel up to reopening the conversation just yet. She didn't come here to start a fight.

To break the silence, she settles on a simple, "Your place tonight?"

John's lips twitch, barely a smile, but enough to count as agreement. "I was just about to get in the shower."

It doesn't sound like an invitation to join him, so she brushes her teeth, changes clothes and gets into bed. Even with everything between them strained and awkward, she prefers having him where she can keep an eye on him.

Elizabeth is so tired from recent restless nights that she's almost asleep by the time John climbs into bed next to her. After a long moment, he spoons himself behind her and kisses her ear.

"Mmmm. Hi," she hums, too tired for anything more coherent, afraid at how profoundly better she feels from only his arms around her, like the universe has slid back into alignment.

"I didn't know if you were coming back." His words are flippant, inflected like a joke, but they shoot right to her stomach and she feels sick and sorry.

"Hey," she says, turning over to look at him. Her heart thuds at the thought that he might have taken her attempt at respectful distance as abandonment. She's afraid that she'll never totally understand him, that she never did, not even before the Ankari and everything else. "You know me better than that."

He doesn't quite look at her, so she pulls him close in a hug. He returns it, but his body stays tense.

He's still awake when she falls asleep.


****


Major Lorne's team encounters an Ankari patrol while surveying a possible beta site. They all manage to escape, but Lieutenant Reed ends up in the infirmary with a blaster wound to the shoulder and Lorne reports that it was "close."

"They definitely knew we were coming," the Major reports. He's still buzzing from adrenaline and refused to even sit down for the meeting. "Our initial recon two months ago suggests no one else goes anywhere near that planet. Their tactical position in front of the Stargate suggests that they were there expressly to capture us or the puddle-jumper, and possibly try to make a run at Atlantis through the Stargate."

Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth sees Caldwell shoot John a look. John's hands ball into fists on the table, but other than that, he doesn't react.

"Is that speculation, Major?" Elizabeth turns her attention back to Lorne. "Is there any other possible reason for them to have been on M7K-831?"

Lorne stops his pacing to think it over. "I don't think so, ma'am. There's always the chance that they stumbled on it themselves -- the Stargate is defensible and that might have been reason enough for them to set up camp -- but given the layout of their camp and the previous lack of traffic on the planet, I think any other reason would be-"

"... unlikely," John interjects. His gaze is glued to the table.

Elizabeth nods. "So where does that leave us?"

"We need to redraw a list of potential alpha and beta sites, ma'am," Lorne suggests. "Our other positions may be compromised as well, whether or not the Ankari or their allies have shown themselves."

"Sounds reasonable." Elizabeth makes a note and suppresses a groan. They have had astronomically bad luck with securing fallback planets. "Anything else?"

There's a brief exchange of looks between Lorne and Caldwell.

Caldwell is the one who speaks. "We need to seriously reexamine what information was leaked when the Ankari interrogated Colonel Sheppard. Looks like we underestimated the extent of the damage."

John doesn't respond aloud, but Elizabeth can feel him beside her, angry and frustrated.

She has to say it. "Agreed. We can't leave anything to chance." Then, "We'll continue this conversation tomorrow. For now, Major Lorne, go see to your team and have Carson take a look at you." He doesn't look any worse than sweaty and dirty, but as a rule, they don't take chances anymore.

"Yes, ma'am." Lorne looks to Sheppard for an official dismissal, but John doesn't look up. After a moment, Caldwell waves him out.

Elizabeth jumps in before Caldwell can. "John..."

"I didn't think of the beta sites," he admits, jaw so tight it hurts her to watch him.

Caldwell interrupts. "No one's blaming you, Colonel."

If anything, that assurance only makes John tense up more until he's sitting straighter than she's ever seen him. She thinks even a touch could snap him in half.

She keeps her hands to herself. "There was nothing you could have done, John. This isn't your fault."

He shoves his chair back from the table. "I'll make another report. Am I dismissed?"

"Yes." Elizabeth feels cold all the way through to her bones. "Take your time."


****


Elizabeth wakes up at two in the morning when John kicks the blankets off.

He's awake before she can touch him, sweaty and panting from a nightmare.

"John-"

He jerks away from her touch, covering his face with his hands, sitting up on the edge of the bed.

Her own dreams are instantly gone from her mind, and she crawls across the bed to kneel next to him. His bare feet on the floor make him seem unnaturally small and vulnerable, but she resists the urge to throw her arms around him.

She doesn't think he'd hit her, not really, but he's always disoriented after nightmares, so she keeps her distance. Also, she doesn't think it would help.

"It was just a dream," she says instead. "You're on Atlantis."

He takes his hands down, and the expression on his face shoots right to her spine, stalling her words in her throat. He's furious and scared and, in the dark room, she hardly recognizes him.

"I need to get water," he mumbles, standing up. He goes right past her water dispenser, grabbing his jacket off the hook by the door and heading into the hallway.

"John-" she calls again, but doesn't move. She feels almost trapped to the bed.

"Don't follow me, Elizabeth." It's an order, spoken in the voice he usually only uses with Sergeant Bates and Rodney and other subordinates whom he can't trust to obey simple commands. She instantly feels cold. "Just let me be alone for a minute."

The door slides shut behind him. Shaking, she straightens the covers and tries to calm herself with logic -- he went to the mess hall or to his own quarters, he just needs to walk it off, he's fine, he's fine, he's fine.

The energy in the room still feels frantic half an hour later, so she takes a long, hot shower to help her relax.

When she finally falls asleep again, she has nightmares, too.


****


The updated report arrives on her desk the next morning.

He was drugged, John repeats. He still doesn't remember concretely anything they asked or anything he said in reply.

He remembers, now that he thinks about it, that they asked about alpha sites. He doesn't remember answering.

He gives her a list of everything he might have told them, if they asked the right questions during the four days he doesn't quite remember. Speculation, he writes. There's no way to be sure, but Lorne and Caldwell are correct; they have to assume the worst.

The list is four pages long.

It starts with the things they already assumed and accounted for -- IDCs, command codes, already scheduled missions. It goes on from there.

The alpha site. The potential beta sites.

Their list of allies, complete with Stargate addresses. The layout of the city. The statistics and details of their standing defensive ordnance and personnel. Their offensive and defensive tactics. The technology of the puddle-jumper and other Ancient devices, as much as John or anyone else knows about it.

Halfway down the second page, Elizabeth finds herself shaking. Each item is a problem, a concern that must be dealt with, but all she can see is John on the floor of an Ankari cell being asked every one of these questions, one by one, drugged and tortured until he answers.

There are burned nerve endings in his hands and feet and along the back of his neck, Carson said, from repeated electric shocks. The surface physical trauma was less, but next to direct stimulation of his nervous system, he probably wouldn't even have felt the cuts and bruises.

The Daedalus. The ZPM. Their -- his -- role in waking the Wraith. The location and defenses of other planets housing ZPMs and abandoned Ancient technology. Earth.

Elizabeth reads to the end of the list, and then leaves her office for a secluded balcony to the west of the main city where no one will look for her. It's the first time since John's return that she lets herself cry.


****


John is collapsed across her bed when she returns home for the evening.

She panics for a moment at his unusual position, seeing the streak of smeared blood across his cheek. The feeling doesn't completely go away even after she registers his sweat-soaked workout clothes.

"John?"

He opens one eye, aimed at the ceiling. "Teyla beat the crap out of me," he explains. He makes to roll over, probably so he can actually see her, but then gives up.

Elizabeth takes a seat on the corner of the bed, but stops short of actually touching him. "I thought you were getting better at that," she teases.

John groans. "You're going to mock me when I'm down?"

She peers at his face to make sure he isn't hiding a mortal injury. It's rare for Teyla to draw blood at all in training unless John pushes her, actually, as the Athosian leader considers precise control of her weapons and limbs more important than subduing her training partner.

"What would you prefer that I do?"

It's a rhetorical question, but he answers her. "Kiss me?"

She considers it, but only briefly. "Shower first."

John starts to whine.

"Shower, or I go sleep at your place without you. And you get to wash the sheets."

He half-heartedly rolls away from her, burying his face in the bedding. "Thought you loved me," he complains.

"I do. I just love you clean." She sighs when he still doesn't move and tugs on his sleeve. "Come on. I'll help you wash your hair."

In the harsh light of the bathroom, as she lathers his body with soap and kisses, she catalogs the dents and scars she never properly sees in the half-light of the bedroom. She tries not to make her exploration obvious -- the last thing she wants is to make him more self-conscious -- but her fingers get lost tracing the faint snowflake of discolored skin on the back of his neck.

He gasps, once, and she jerks her hand away. "What?"

He shakes his head and fumbles with the shower door. "I'm fine. Never mind."

"John, wait." He's covered with soap still, and that's enough reason for her to grab his arm. She'd have no chance against him if he wanted to fight her off, but he slowly relaxes at her touch, letting her tug him back under the stream.

She takes a step back to the wall and lets him finish showering.

"I dreamed about this," he says, eyes closed, voice low.

She stays quiet, almost certain that even a word will burst the bubble and send him back into total silence.

"While I was there. I dreamed about you." He scrubs his hands through his hair almost violently, shaking the suds loose. "They dunked me in water, or something. I could barely think under whatever they'd given me, but for a second... I thought I was here." He smirks. "I asked them to turn the heat down."

They have long arguments about temperature. He likes everything cold, she likes it hot. "John..."

"Don't worry about me," he orders her. "It sucked, but I'm fine. I should have been..." he trails off and forces a smile to his lips. It's more like a grimace. "It sucked," he says again. "But I'm fine now. I don't want to talk about it."

She wants to scream at the unfairness of it all, at how there are parts of his body and mind that are now permanently off-limits to her, at how she sent him out one day and he came back like this (the same, but damaged), but holds her tongue. She doesn't want his promise that he's all right to be a lie, so she agrees. "Okay. I'm sorry."

He shrugs awkwardly and doesn't move, looking torn between her and escape. The decision, when he makes it, is to push her back into the shower wall and kiss her for all he's worth.

She can't help feeling that sometimes, lately, he has sex with her more to ward off conversation than because he really wants to have sex.

They tumble into bed, skin still wet, and when he kisses her, she holds on a little too tightly.


****


Elizabeth doesn't specifically ask Teyla to report on John's off-world behavior, but the Athosian woman does anyway.

"There have been no further incidents," Teyla says, hands folded in her lap, gaze direct and piercing as always. "He has been entirely professional."

It doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but Elizabeth will take it. "That's good to hear."

"That is not all." Teyla frowns. "He is too quiet."

Elizabeth's smile falters. On the one hand, it has always bothered her that John feels more comfortable discussing certain things with Teyla -- things he claims she won't understand or that he wants to protect her from. He begs Elizabeth with his eyes to leave the infirmary whenever he's bleeding, but will let his teammates stay. She suspects that he's not entirely open with Teyla, either, but the battle-bond between them creates some sort of mutual understanding.

It's better that he have someone to hold his hand when he's injured, she knows, even if it isn't her. The fact that Teyla is being kept at just as much of a distance worries the hell out of her, and she'd much rather be jealous than worried.

"More than that," Teyla continues. "I believe he is disappointed that we have not seen combat since he returned to duty."

"What?" Elizabeth has sensed a restlessness in him, something unsettled and undefined, but she hasn't had the chance to see him in the field lately and would never have attributed it to that. As much as John is good in battle, it's never something that he craves.

"Last week, he entered a settlement heavily populated with refugee Genii alone and refused to allow Ronon or myself to accompany him. Yesterday he had us remain in a debris field far longer than necessary, despite indications that the Wraith would soon be returning."

"That doesn't mean-"

"It is his attitude more than his actions," Teyla allows. "He has been asking the locals on every planet specifically about their knowledge of Ankari strategic positions. I believe he is searching for a way to... prove something, to us or to himself. I am not sure what."

Elizabeth's stomach clenches, but she ignores it. "It's his job to think strategically. He had explanations in his reports for every action he has taken."

Teyla's eyes narrow sympathetically. "You are still worried about him." It isn't a question.

"He says he's fine," Elizabeth answers.

She never suspected that Teyla would be the one doubting John's ability to return to duty. The Athosians have lived in the trenches for millennia without any real concept of "off-duty," and Teyla is always insisting that the recovery times Carson insists upon for war wounds are far too long. If she can walk, she wants to fight, and Elizabeth wouldn't be surprised if the Athosians would never even consider emotional post-traumatic symptoms a true cause for concern.

For that reason, it jars her all the more that Teyla shakes her head. "He is not."


***


Doctor Heightmeyer's office is regulated by the same meticulous Ancient environmental controls as everywhere else in the city, but it feels colder.

"Colonel Sheppard has made it to every appointment," Kate tells her. "He's cooperating, as much as can be expected."

Elizabeth doesn't want to show her own nervousness, but she's dying to pace to the window and back. "He talks to you?"

Kate half-smiles. "Some. I'm not sure how much progress we're making, but he's very aware of the issues that he's dealing with and how they might affect his reactions and behavior. I would tell you if I thought he was unfit to command his team. I don't."

Elizabeth lets out a breath. She doesn't feel particularly relieved at the verdict. "To be honest," she admits, "I'm not even sure that I have the right to be here."

"Because you're in a relationship with him."

"Yes." There's a long pause, and Kate indicates a chair with one hand. Almost everything in Elizabeth is against this, feels like she already admitted too much by even coming here to ask about him, but the icy silence and flippant non-conversation at home is pushing her towards the point where she needs to talk to someone.

She sits. "I'm not here because I'm in a relationship with him," she says. "I'm here as the leader of this base."

"All right. Then, as the leader of this base, you can allow him to serve as military commander, provided he continues with counseling."

She thinks about what Teyla said. "Even if he encounters the Ankari again?"

"He'll do his job," Kate insists, "and right now, reducing his responsibilities or removing him from command could be very harmful."

"I know."

She chews on the information in silence, and Kate lets her. Elizabeth remembers all the things she has confessed to her bathroom mirror in the past six weeks and picks the least damning.

"What should I be doing to help him?" She feels about fifteen years younger.

"You are helping him."

Elizabeth actually scoffs. "It doesn't feel that way." It doesn't even feel like he trusts her anymore. He'll grab her hand when he's falling asleep sometimes, pulling her closer, but she can't imagine that being a warm body for him can possibly be enough. He lies to her, constantly -- about being okay, about his rationale for going alone into a Genii settlement, even about why he'll spend whole evenings in front of the punching bag in the workout room until his knuckles are bloody and he's too exhausted to sleep -- and she doesn't call him on it because she's afraid to drive him farther away. Whenever he wakes up from a nightmare or falters at a mention of the Ankari during a mission briefing, he glares at her like she's the enemy.

In a way, she supposes, she is, as long as she's holding his job in her hands.

"You are helping," Kate insists, "just by being there. It will get better, Elizabeth."

"I know," she says, but she doesn't, really. He does get over things, more or less. It can't last forever. She knows that, but it has been almost a month and a half since she has been able to be with him without this in the air between them, and she misses it.

"It will," Kate promises. "Trust me."


****


In the middle of the night, John starts screaming.

The sound, even choked in his throat, slices through her like a knife, and Elizabeth is on top of him before she's even fully awake, shaking his shoulders to break through the nightmare.

His words are completely incoherent, disjointed syllables, and he struggles against her.

"John, wake up!" she commands in a voice that's practically a shriek, but he only fights harder in return. His chest is heaving and he ends up wrapping his hands tighter into the blankets as he tries to yank them free.

Her stomach turns over as she untwists the sheet from his hands, trying to sound soothing enough to bring him out of it when all she can think is that she wants to kill the bastards who did this to him. Slowly. Painfully. She doesn't have thoughts like these, not normally, not in daylight, but this is John.

They hurt him, are somehow still hurting him, and it's killing her that she has no one to hurt back.

"John!" she yells again, grabbing both sides of his head to try and hold him still and he shoves his free hand toward her to push her off.

The back of his hand collides with her jaw with a sharp smack, and that's the moment he wakes up.

He stares at her, completely confused. Reflexive tears jump to her eyes as her cheek starts to throb, but she bites her tongue and forces herself to keep them back.

"Elizabeth..." his voice is breathy for a moment, still unsure of what happened and possibly even confused about where he is. His gaze comes to rest on her face, where she's holding her jaw and trying not to cry, and she can tell the moment it all clicks together.

"Shit," he gasps, balling his hands into fists and pressing them to his eyes. "Shit, shit, shit..."

"It's okay," she tries to reassure him, cursing the shakiness of her own voice, stuffing her hands under her knee to keep from touching him. "Everything's okay. You're here now. You're home."

"I know!" he snaps, rolling up to sitting and turning his back to her. "I know. I'm fine."

He's anything but fine. A tear escapes her eyes, and she swats it away. For a brief second, all the boiling rage she feels for the Ankari is directed right at him. "Dammit, John! Why won't you talk to me?"

He slams a fist down into the mattress.

"Shit," he swears again, and it's almost like she can see the anger draining out of him, leaving him weak and exhausted. His voice is painfully guilty. "Elizabeth..."

"It's okay," she says again, forcing herself to be calm. "I'm fine. You didn't hurt me." It'll bruise, she suspects, but she can figure out later what to say to people if her concealer doesn't mask it. That's not what she's worried about.

He fixes his eyes on empty space, refusing to look at her, and clenches a corner of blanket in one of his hands. He looks so completely disheartened that she breaches the physical barrier and touches a hand to his shoulder.

"It's okay," she whispers, like they're the only words she has.

"It's not okay." It comes out forcefully, like the words have been building up for a month, and the sudden lack of denial stuns her into silence. He scrubs at his eyes with one hand with a force that makes her wince. "I don't know what the hell I'm doing here anymore."

Her mouth dries. "With me?"

John's head snaps toward her, eyes wide and surprised. He has aged a lot in the past few years, but she's suddenly struck by how young he still looks. "No," he says. His eyes slide closed and his jaw clenches. "On Atlantis. Doing my job."

"John, you are doing your job," Elizabeth argues, wanting to tear out the disloyal part of herself that has doubted him these past few weeks. "You're great at your job."

"Don't say that."

She has taken great pains to separate her role in this room from her role in the rest of the city, but she has to say it. "I wouldn't let you do your job if you couldn't handle it." She covers one of his fists with her open palm, desperate to do something to narrow what feels like a chasm between them.

He rips his hand away from hers. "Do you know what they did to me?"

She feels cold all over. For a guilty moment, she honestly doesn't want to know. She shakes her head even though he's not looking at her. "What?"

He spares her the details, skipping right to the end. "I might have told them everything, Elizabeth."

She wraps her arms around herself to keep from pulling him to her when he's not ready to be touched, unable to stand the overwhelming guilt in his voice. "You were drugged," she forces over the knot in her throat. "They tortured you. It isn't your fault."

"That's not an excuse!" He turns to look at her again, and she has to shove down an instinctive, animal fear at the look on his face and furious tone of his voice. "I'm trained for that. I am the military commander of this expedition. Atlantis could have been destroyed because I fucked up. It should not have happened, and you know it."

"There was nothing you could have done," she insists, realizing another tear has slipped free and not doing anything about it. "When we found you-"

When his team had radioed back that they'd found him, she had been so relieved that Colonel Caldwell had grabbed her arm to make sure she stayed standing. John came back bruised and bloody, still drugged, conscious enough only to give her a weary smile and a rote promise that he was fine, and he was still the most welcome sight of her life.

"When they found me," he spits, "Ronon had to carry me out of there."

She grabs his nearest hand again, and this time, he doesn't shake her off right away. "John..."

"I was there for four days." It sounds like a confession, and he almost whispers it.

"I know." God, does she know. She spent four days losing her mind, terrified that he was already dead, sending out search parties and barely sleeping.

John sucks in a breath, dropping his head back to the headboard. "I told them everything after four days."

Her heart flips over as realization slides into place. He expects something unnatural of himself, expects the military commander of Atlantis to hold out with inhuman strength for weeks or months or years no matter what mind-controlling drugs or alien methods of coercion he's subjected to. It isn't just that they broke him, it's that they broke him so fast.

To her, four days under that kind of torture sounds like an impossible eternity.

To him...

"Oh, God," she whispers, clenching his hand like there's a chance he'll slip away again.

He doesn't squeeze her hand back. "How the hell is anyone supposed to trust me again?"

Before she can answer, he pulls her into a rough hug. He slides down to the bed, not letting go, and buries his face in her shoulder.

I love you, I love you, she wants to say, wants to tell him how ridiculously grateful she is that he's still alive, but she has to answer his question. "I still trust you, John."

"You shouldn't," he says, but his voice breaks, and she clings to him with all the strength she has. She can feel him shaking.

"Too bad. I do. Always."

She feels a ghost of a smile against her neck.

"Thanks," he says, crushing her to him even tighter. She doesn't complain. After a long minute, he whispers, "Stay here."

She holds him for the whole rest of the night.


****


Elizabeth gets them a day off together as soon as she can.

The plan is the mainland -- a change of scenery, some real distance from their responsibilities, and the opportunity to be really alone together.

As is usually the case when they take any time off, it takes them quite a while to even make it out of his bedroom.

This time, however, it isn't about sex. John has been quiet all through their lazy morning in, mostly dozing or watching her while she reads, but it's a different sort of silence than the thick, choking one she never really got used to.

"No tickling," she warns him when peripheral vision alerts her that he's making a move for the hem of her t-shirt.

"Won't," he promises. He pulls her shirt up enough to expose skin, and carefully traces his fingers along her ribs. It doesn't feel like an attempt at seduction so much as an attempt at contact. So far, this morning, he has been more interested in being near her than being inside her.

She likes that. She missed it. It's a sign that she's getting old, maybe, or that they're settling into comfort in their relationship instead of passion, but very little relaxes her more on a day off than just being around him.

It still feels a bit like the entire Ankari prison is lying between them in bed, but she knows that will take a long time to fade completely away.

She doesn't really care about the book she's reading -- she has read and re-read her way through much of their paper library already -- so soon she finds herself studying his face instead of the page in front of her.

He still looks worried and haunted, but a lot less tired. That's something, anyway.

"Hey," she says, trapping his wandering hand against her stomach. She sets her book aside, not bothering to mark the page. "Are you okay?"

He flinches reflexively but, to her surprise, doesn't brush her off. She suspects that takes a lot of courage. He winces. "That's a bit of a loaded question," he points out.

"I know."

"I'm okay," he promises.

A week ago, she wouldn't have asked. "Really?"

He manages half a smirk. "No, not really."

She snuggles up to him, resting her head on his chest. His heartbeat in her ear is calm and reassuring. "Okay."

His hand comes up to the back of her head, playing with her hair and holding her where she is. "Okay."


****


It's three weeks before John's team encounters the Ankari again.

Elizabeth knows there's a high risk of contact when she authorizes the mission, but Rodney insists that the Ancient technology they're after on the planet is worth it.

"You could send another team," John tells her in her office. He has been angry and wound up ever since the intelligence about the Ankari landed, but she can't blame him for that.

She watches him pace back and forth for a moment. "I could," she agrees. "Do you want to take this mission, John?"

He looks her right in the eye. There's venom in his voice. "Yes, Elizabeth."

When it comes right down to it, her name is all he has ever needed to convince her. At that moment, she doesn't care if her agreement is driven by a professional need to show complete faith in her military commander or a personal desire to have him put these demons behind him. All sides of her are in a rare alignment.

"Go," she orders.

While they're gone, to keep from worrying herself right over the edge of sanity, she walls herself in with meetings. John's mission is scheduled to last for seven hours -- if they don't encounter resistance, it'll take at least that long for Rodney to assess and extricate any valuable Ancient technology for study back at Atlantis.

The topic of these meetings -- progress reports and personnel assessment with department heads, mostly -- aren't nearly interesting enough to keep the frantic part of her mind from speculating. What if he's captured again? What if he dies? What if he freezes, overwhelmed by his past experiences in a way neither she nor Kate predicted, and someone else dies?

Almost everyone she meets with is so involved in their own projects and reports that they don't notice, but Zelenka does.

"It is difficult," he observes with sad, knowing smile.

"I wish I were out there with them," she says without thinking. She has been forced to grow accustomed to it in this job and this relationship, but she hates feeling sidelined and helpless.

"I don't," Radek replies immediately. "I wish they were here with us."

At that moment, as though conjured, the wormhole alarm sounds.

Elizabeth arrives in the 'gate room at a run, just in time to see security officers crouching into position in front of the Stargate as Bates yells about John's team coming in hot.

McKay spills through the wormhole first, clutching something made of shiny Ancient metal and collapsing to his knees before he scrambles out of the way. Bullets surge through the wormhole behind him, creating small explosions when they strike the floor or the walls -- the telltale Ankari signature.

Someone grabs Elizabeth's shoulder and forces her down as a bullet explodes against a nearby pillar, but she can still see.

Ronon comes through next, Teyla in his arms. She's bleeding enough to leave a trail, but is still conscious and pointing a 9 mil over Ronon's shoulder, covering his back.

John doesn't come through.

"Hold the wormhole open!" Teyla yells, voice choked with physical pain, struggling against Ronon's grip to be put down. "Colonel Sheppard is right behind us!"

Elizabeth shakes off the technician holding her to the floor and runs for the stairwell, counting off the seconds in her head.

Four, five...

John dives through the wormhole, landing awkwardly on his shoulder, and shouts "Shut it down!" from the floor.

She gets to him first, pulling his P-90 away and handing it off to someone before helping him to sitting. She briefly notices that her hands are white-knuckling the fabric of his jacket.

"Teyla needs the infirmary," he says, panting for breath.

She glances behind her to confirm that Carson's team is there. "We've got it. Are you okay?"

He shakes her off and stands, wiping his forehead with the back of his sleeve. "Yeah, yeah." He meets her eyes for the first time, and she can actually see his him switching gears away from fight or flight. "Yeah," he says, officially reporting. "We're okay. Teyla took at least one shot in the leg, though. McKay got a hold of something he says is important -- something about energy conversion -- but we had to leave almost everything there. The Ankari are holed up inside the Ancient structure; it'll take a major strike force to retake it."

Elizabeth nods, squeezing his arm. "All right. We'll deal with that later. Head to the infirmary."

He nods, swallowing hard. She can see the tension in the tight muscles of his neck, and for a moment, he still looks disoriented and shocked.

Rodney appears next to them, giving both her and John a worried look. "Come on," he says. "Teyla's waiting."

Elizabeth releases his arm and lets them go.


****


She finds him later that evening hovering outside the infirmary.

Through the doorway she can see Teyla in a hospital bed, out of surgery but still doped to the gills. Ronon is standing guard over her, but she doubts the imposing alien is the reason that John isn't in there with them.

"Hey," Elizabeth announces herself. "How's she doing?"

John crosses his arms tighter over his chest. "Okay. One of the bullets failed to detonate, minimizing the burns and shrapnel. Carson says she might have some localized nerve damage, but he thinks she'll be all right."

"That's good to hear."

There's a long silence between them. In the infirmary, she can hear the nurses talking, but it seems far more distant than it is.

She finally asks, "What happened out there?"

"I hesitated," he admits, lightly kicking the nearest wall with his toe. "It wouldn't have made a difference; Teyla had already been shot, but... for a second, all I could think was what happened last time and... I hesitated."

She moves closer, but doesn't touch him. "Then what?"

"Ronon grabbed her, got her out of the line of fire. Rodney went for the technology, I ordered him to stop and head for the 'gate. We argued, there was an explosion... The path was pretty defensible. I laid down cover fire, and we made it out."

"You snapped out of it," she observes. "You still did everything you should have done."

He clenches his jaw. "Maybe."

"Hey." She can't resist the urge to physically comfort him anymore and rubs a hand up and down his arm. "You're all still alive."

He sighs, letting out a long breath, and the corners of his mouth twitch up in a brief, tired smile. "Yeah. I just..."

"I know."

He takes her hand from where it's still resting on his elbow and holds it lightly in his for a moment, almost as if he's testing the weight of it or testing the strength of her connection to him. He runs a thumb over her knuckles, slowly tracing the shape of her hand.

She doesn't think he'll ever tell her everything that he's thinking, but this is enough.

"Come for a walk with me?" he finally asks.

"Of course."

He smiles at her then, a real smile, loving and grateful and without pretense. He threads his fingers through hers and doesn't let go.

For the first time, Elizabeth is sure that they will both be all right.


*end!*


*send feedback to little red*
back to Atlantis index - back to the badlands