When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone
I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
~ Loreena McKennit, "Dante's prayer"
With a heavy sigh Rodney put down the figure of bishop back to the chess board and covered his face with a hand.
"What?" asked Ronon searching for the reason of Rodney's reaction on the board. "I didn't do anything wrong."
"Oh it's not you, Caveman," snapped Rodney and clenched his hand in a fist. Ronon frowned at his remark, but not because of the nickname Rodney had used. Teyla was posing and Evan Lorne, who was trying to draw her portrait sitting at the adjoining table looked at the two chess players.
"Why are you upset, Rodney?" Teyla's voice was calm. The scientist looked at her face, and held her gaze for a while and then looked around the mess hall, as if he was checking who could hear them talk. Finally he glanced back at her.
"He's playing it again," whispered Rodney as his expression changed from annoyed to painfully upset.
"What? Who is playing what?" asked Ronon leaning slightly forward, and Rodney ducked his head slightly.
"Can you talk any louder?!" hissed the scientist through his teeth. "Sheppard! Look at him," hissed Rodney switching back from worry to his well known annoyed state of mind. "It's pathetic. And depressing. Someone should tell him to stop it," muttered Rodney and Ronon's face turned grim as he tried not to look toward the far end of the mess hall, where John sat alone, cradling the guitar in his hands and picking a sorrowful tune.
"I'm sick of his beloved Johnny Cash and that pathetic song, damn it," added Rodney for a good measure and Teyla could feel the overall mood sinking. She sighed inwardly, this was happening often, way too often; and they never quite found a way out of this. It went unsaid that when John got upset Ronon made sure Rodney wasn't around and John simply fled somewhere where he couldn't be found. Then, when the team minus John gathered, they would usually end up fighting, Rodney being rude to Ronon and Telya trying to get them to calm down.
"Well then maybe you should tell him to stop it," glared Ronon, obviously loosing his patience. Everybody seemed to be on a short fuse these days, as Evan put it. She looked at the Major who was still trying to draw her face, but he gave up on his attempts when his eyes met hers. The sudden, cold tension was palpable all around them, falling on the table like a thick shroud full of suffocating dust.
Lorne looked at them, placing his drawing pencils on the table. He probably realized that that this wasn't the first time the three of them were having this conversation. Teyla shot them both an exasperated look as they tried to quiet their voices. She had enough of this. Something needed to be done. "Have you ever lost someone, McKay?" asked Ronon with a glare.
"No, but that's not the point!" snapped Rodney back.
"Then what is the point?" Ronon's patience was growing thinner.
"Stop it, both of you," Teyla's quiet and shaky tone successfully stopped the progress of Rodney's and Ronon's argument. "I understand it is not easy watching another one suffering, but we must respect it," she added, tired of repeating that to both men who seemed to be deaf at times. She found harder to keep her usual calm. While Ronon frowned, Rodney looked slightly ashamed, reminding Teyla of a small child caught misbehaving. She wanted to be angry at them – being angry was somehow a whole lot easier than being patient, or compassionate, or facing her own sadness– but when Rodney looked at her like that, the anger simply melted away.
"It's not that," rebelled Rodney. "Can't you see what he's doing to himself? No one will ever let him on a suicide mission like that," argued Rodney. "How much time has passed? There's no intel. Nothing. She… could be dead by now," he uttered quietly, barely glancing over at Ronon who didn't say anything this time. Ronon could be blunt and seemed rough, but he wasn't stupid or heartless; he knew how Rodney felt. Teyla's eyes filled with tears, but she didn't let them fall.
"That is not your fault Rodney," said Teyla firmly. Evan looked like he wanted to go away.
"I activated the damn things," sighed Rodney miserably and then clenched his jaw.
"You saved her life," supplied Evan tentatively, and Teyla gave him a sad but thankful smile. "Otherwise she would have died."
"For what? What was the purpose? So she could end up an Asuran prisoner? God only knows….," Rodney sighed again and looked away from the
"She decided to save us," countered Ronon firmly. "Besides, there's no use in feeling guilty after you've done something", he added.
"Only because she felt we left her no choice," Rodney's tone was nearing manic. "Sheppard was right. We should have… shouldn't have -," he tried but once again Teyla cut him off, this time allowing her voice to sound angry and edgy. She felt tired, so tired, unable to recall on a time in her life when she felt similar.
"It is too late for this now. Now we must decide what we should do and not look back. What has happened can not be changed," she said as quietly as she could.
Suddenly the music in the corner stopped and four of them looked in John's direction. He seemed smaller, almost fragile with his face sad and his shoulders slumped. Leaving the guitar behind he walked out on the main balcony to watch the sunset.
"We've got to do something" insisted Rodney. For a moment he seemed like a child whose parents just had a bad fight, desperately needing to fix the situation, to fix his friends. Sadly, he lacked the skill to do it, and it was just the same with Ronon. Both of them expected Teyla to know some miracle words to make this mess better.
Sadly, Teyla had no miracle handy. Ever since…. Elizabeth was taken, everything and everyone seemed broken, Teyla included, although she didn't let it show. It was like all of them expected her to mend them back together, and nobody was realizing that she needed someone to heal her too.
"Finding her would help," Ronon half smirked, playing with the figure of his black king. The chess match was forgotten. What he stated was obvious – and it would truly be the only thing to put John's mind and heart at peace.
"And how should we do that, wise guy?" asked Rodney nervously. Teyla let out a sigh, looking at two men who sat near her and thinking about the third one who was the cause of this. Loosing a link makes the chain fall apart… that was something Charin used to say. It never rang more true.
"There is no guarantee we will ever find out what happened to Elizabeth ," Teyla tried to control her voice as much as possible. "We must rely on things we can do."
"So, what do you suggest?" asked Rodney heavily, and Teyla sighed.
There was another thing Charin used to say, and Teyla intended to share that piece of wisdom with John, fully aware he probably won't react well, but in her honest opinion it needed to be done – or else this team would fall apart due to sadness and guilt they couldn't let go of.
Teyla was pretty certain John had noticed her arrival but hadn't moved or acknowledged her presence in any other way. He became an unpleasant companion recently, and the more the time passed, the more he closed himself off.
Ronon was better in sharing John's silence than making him talk, and generally made John's presence bearable, serving like a dampening shield between the sad man and the rest of his team. That also meant that the team was divided, and this worried Teyla. It seemed that all Rodney could manage when he tried to talk with John was to make him angry, which made matters worse. John did seem to be better when he was angry, mused Teyla, because anger meant he was still alive inside. With heavy feet she neared him, barely touching the balcony railing, feeling like an intruder, because she knew John used to share this very spot with somebody else.
"John," she called but he didn't move. She couldn't see his face from the spot she was standing in but for a moment it looked like his shoulders tensed. Teyla wondered why it was always up to her to coax him into conversational topics he would rather avoid. This time, however, it needed to be done, she knew that, and she mentally braced herself for possible outcomes of this conversation. "John?" she called more firmly.
"I heard you the first time," his voice was even but dimly annoyed, the tone he used intended to tell her he didn't care very much for the reason she was here, and didn't want to know. Teyla inwardly winced. They were friends and it hurt her to see him closing off from people who wanted to help him.
He wanted to punish himself, determined that it was his fault.
"Turn around," she asked, her voice rigid.
"I'm kinda comfortable this way," the false ease in his voice didn't fool her.
"I understand that but I would really like you to turn around," controlling her voice and the words coming out of her mouth took patience. For a moment she understood Rodney, who couldn't seem to react to his friend's sorrow differently than being angry.
Anger was liberating. Grief served only to cut one down.
When John turned around Teyla met his irritated eyes. These last few months took toll on the team more than she had expected and something needed to be done in order to mend the team and their relationship back into place.
"I was kinda busy," he said. It was clear he wanted to be left alone. Teyla straightened, chin up.
"Yes, I can see that," she pressed her lips together and feeling heaviness on her chest she reached for one of his hands. He was about to snatch his hand away – he was never very tactile and lately he seemed to avoid any kind of contact - but she held his hand firmly and placed a heavy metal object into his palm.
"I need you to take this. I can not keep it in my possession any longer," she said, staring back into his now angry eyes.
He didn't even look down at the object he held, but he knew what it was.
"Why should I have it?" he asked keeping his voice low, his eyes unpleasant.
"Because you need it."
"Why would I need this? It's an old, broken watch. I have a watch of my own. I don't need this one," he dismissed her gesture, trying to push the watch back into Teyla's hands, but she pushed his hands back.
"No," she said with determination. "You can not keep this up."
"What are you talking about?"
"John… you know what am I talking about," she tried to keep her voice soothing and steady but it wasn't helping. No matter how carefully she approached this subject she knew that she had treated on the ground he stubbornly, jealously defended. His eyes grew darker and Teyla knew that retreating from this topic now would be a mistake. Not that keeping the conversation up would make matters any better.
"Do I?" his voice was laced with sarcasm now.
"Yes you do," her patience was nearing the end. Part of her wanted to slap him across the face, like a sleeping man who simply wouldn't tear away from his nightmare. "Running away from the memory won't make it go away."
"Deep thoughts indeed," he spat out. Never before had he talked to her like this.
He was being rude on purpose. She pushed the thought away, seeing through his tactic and deciding not to yield.
"You are what you remember. Denying yourself to remember Elizabeth …"
"I don't want to talk about it, Teyla," he turned away and his empty hand formed an angry fist.
"Well it is not exclusively your problem John! All of us suffer," she countered, letting her own pain to creep through her carefully laid defense. She had lost a friend too and nobody even tried to comfort her.
"And how should her watch solve the problem?!"
"It should not! But you forgiving yourself would," she tried not to yell at him but both their tempers were too far gone.
"You have no idea how…"
"No. I have no idea how it feels, but you can not live your life regretting a wasted chance! It is going to cost you life. You or someone else," she said in a single breath, feeling suddenly drained.
She expected him to yell, but he remained stubbornly silent. His eyes were red around the edges now, filled with tears she knew he would hold back, just like he held back the anger, disappointment, and everything else. Moving closer to her, with eyes cold and hands shaking he pressed the watch back into Teyla's hands letting the pain he must have felt govern his movements. It hurt, and she bounced off backwards.
"How dare you," he spat out and his voice was barely heard.
"I dare because I am your friend," she said, feeling almost scared.
"You have no idea how it feels. You have no idea…. I don't want to discuss this with you, Teyla. Ever," he said in a voice so cold that she felt her heart drop into the pit of her stomach. She watched him leave, feeling numb and cold.
Maybe it was a bad call. Maybe she shouldn't have done it. It was a very private, very painful wound he tried to hide, after all.
Elizabeth … she never forced him to open up like this, thought Teyla. She used to have a way with him, she understood and knew how to help him face and fight his demons. He tried to be a better man… because he loved her – one of the things everybody knew, only John refused to confess it to himself, and forgive himself for that.
Looking at Elizabeth 's watch in her hand Teyla sighed heavily, feeling like she'd failed both of her friends. The object in her hand wasn't big, but its weight, and everything it meant, was suddenly overwhelming. Then someone wandered out on the balcony and she recognized the tall silhouette.
"That worked well," there was a light, humorous tone in Ronon's voice. She didn't feel like laughing but his tone and the friendly smirk he sported lifted some of the tension she felt.
"Indeed it did," she said allowing the irony to slip into her voice. Ronon's eyebrows shot up at the comment.
"I think we're spending too much time with McKay. Come on. There's apple pie in the kitchen," he offered and Teyla decided that following him to the kitchen was probably the wisest thing to do.
John loved to fly.
At least he thought he did. He had to – why else would he become a pilot? Only he didn't remember becoming a pilot, but....
Hesitating over the threshold of the puddlejumper, John stared inside uncertainly. For one terrifying moment, his mind went blank; he had no idea where to go, or what to do next. Then Ronon gave him a little shove forward, ushering him towards the pilot's seat. "Over there."
John obeyed, sitting down and staring blankly at the controls. Major Lo – Lon – Lorne? - saw his expression and asked worriedly, "Colonel Sheppard?"
"Yeah, just... give me a moment," John replied, willing himself to relax. He could do this. He loved to fly. He knew how to fly, too . . . right? This taste of uncertainty wasn't pleasant in his mouth.
"You can fly this thing," Ronon said firmly. "It's in your blood – literally."
Swallowing hard, John reached for the controls, thinking, Fly. The 'jumper came to life easily, and John let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. Okay. He really could do this, then. Just don't think wrong thoughts, he told himself, feeling Ronon's eyes on him. It was good that Ronon was here. Yes, it was definitely a good thing having someone to tell him what to do.
The bay doors opened for the 'jumper, and then it was all blue seas and wide, endless skies. John lost himself in it, rediscovering with pleasure that he did love to fly – he felt good, almost weightless in that amazing way; he felt free. And he was damn good at flying, too.
As the other two inhabitants of the 'jumper talked quietly in the background, John paid them no attention. He was aware that he probably should have – it could help slow the memory loss – but his head felt like it had decided to undergo a mitosis, and it was hard to follow their conversation. Enjoying something he was good at for a change definitely felt better than deciphering the conversation in the background, so John concentrated on the task under his hands, wondering how come he didn't forget his skills.
Plus, he'd forgotten who the one beside Ronon was, and he really didn't want to dwell on that right now. No, he thought. Concentrate. Fly, just fly away. There was a vague feeling of weight in his chest, like sadness hidden behind a thick curtain and his mind was letting go of it... no, feeling weightless and free was much, much better. If there was something he was sorry for... why not let it go? It couldn't be all that wrong because it felt so good.
The sea eventually gave way to land, and Ronon told him to put the 'jumper down. John obediently slowed down the 'jumper, landing smoothly (for the most part), and opening the hatch.
"Let's go," Ronon said, starting outside with the other, uniformed man following him.
John followed warily, frowning when he saw the trees surrounding them. "Wait a minute."
Ronon turned towards him reluctantly, obviously annoyed, which only served to make John more skittish. "Yeah?"
"What is this place?" asked John, the anxiety rising within him again. There was something wrong, but he couldn't remember what.
Oh no. He shouldn't have let go so easily. No. It was a mistake. John took in a sharp breath and licked his lips. The uniformed man looked concerned. John had a feeling he had to go somewhere, but didn't know where to go.
The other man raised his eyebrows and looked concerned. "It's the mainland, Colonel."
John tensed further; he had no idea why this man was calling him Colonel. His name was John - at least that was what he still could remember.
"What are we doing here?" asked John, his eyes wandering around the sky and grass and nearby woods.
"I told you already – we need to get that plant," Ronon growled obviously feeling frustrated.
Plant? What kind of plant? Why did they need a plant? No, it wasn't about a plant. John was certain he had to do something different, that there was another task for him out there – only he couldn't remember what kind of task.
"Something seems wrong," John said, beginning to back away. Yes, that was it. Go away. He had to go away.
John's suspicions were only confirmed, then, when Ronon pulled out his gun and shot him.
"Never gets old," Ronon said with a feral grin, holstering his gun.
Lorne knelt by Sheppard's unconscious form looking dismayed.
"Ronon! You didn't have to shoot him," protested the Major, checking John's pulse. Ronon felt a slight headache. This should have been a simple task, only Ronon didn't like the idea of watching over two memory – damaged men in the first place. Not that he was unable to call the shots – he believed someone else – Sheppard, to be more precise – was much better at being in charge.
"He was going to get in our way," Ronon pointed out. No, this wasn't good at all. John of all people never got in the way.
"Yeah, but..." Lorne shook his head, not bothering to finish the sentence. It might have been necessary, but the idea of shooting his commanding officer, even with a stunner, didn't sit right with him. Too late for regret now, though. "I'll stay with him. You go get the plant."
Ronon raised an eyebrow. "You sure?"
"Yeah. It's not like I'll be much help in finding it, considering I've never seen it before," Lorne said.
Ronon pondered that suggestion for a moment. He didn't like what he was seeing, his friend and a leader transforming into someone helpless and lost – for some reason Sheppard was doing much worse than Lorne. Leaving the two of them in the safety of the jumper didn't seem like a bad idea.
"Suit yourself," answered Ronon, and took off into the forest at a brisk lope.
Only when Ronon returned to the 'jumper, the sacks of plants in hand, did he realize that leaving Lorne with Sheppard had been a stupid thing to do.
He cursed and ran towards Lorne's limp figure lying on the ground near the jumper, noting the blood on the side of his head and unleashing a few more choice expletives. Fortunately, there was a pulse – but Sheppard was nowhere in sight. Great. Now what was he supposed to do?!
"Lorne. Lorne, wake up," muttered Ronon insistently, shaking the Major none-too-gently. He came awake with a groan, blinking blearily at Ronon.
"What happened?" Ronon demanded, helping him sit up. The confused look on the man's face wasn't too assuring. This was going from bad to worse.
Lorne stared at him, a confused frown creasing his forehead. "I – don't know. Who are you?"
Oh great. Just what he needed.
After he was done swearing, Ronon had Lorne sit in the pilot's seat and fly them to Atlantis – which wasn't an easy task at all. Ronon had never expected Major Lorne to act so timid and uncertain and only after a lot of convincing did the Major obey Ronon's instructions on how to fly the damn vessel. Given that Ronon had never actually flown a jumper, coaxing the Major through the task wasn't fun at all, but they managed.
He hated, hated to leave John behind, but they didn't have a choice – if he'd been in John's place, he'd be miles away already. Ronon didn't have the ATA gene so he couldn't use the life signs detector, and he doubted that he'd be able to teach Lorne how to do it Tracking Sheppard down would have taken too long. He'd tried radioing him, but Sheppard hadn't responded, which only made Ronon more worried.
Those were just excuses, really. If it'd been up to Ronon, he would have stayed and searched for Sheppard, difficulty be damned. But dozens of people back on Atlantis were sick – the cure needed to be taken back before more people died. Ronon he knew that the old, non-amnesiac John wouldn't have wanted more people to die because Ronon spent precious time searching for him – knew that if he did that, John would never forgive him. Ronon decided he would come back for Sheppard, after Atlantis had the cure. Yes, he would come back for him.
Staring at the expanse of water and sky, Ronon remembered the moment when he pulled John away, which resulted in leaving Doctor Weir behind. Now Ronon was leaving Sheppard behind.
He decided to give Lorne a short explanation of what was going on and convinced him to fly to Atlantis, ignoring every instinct and part of him that screamed to go back for Sheppard, because it wasn't what his friend would have wanted – just like Doctor Weir didn't want it, and Sheppard couldn't accept it. Ronon understood now why was it so difficult to respect someone else's wishes.
He thought about Sheppard's motto – "We don't leave our people behind". It wasn't exactly the truth. Sometimes people had to be left behind, sometimes nothing else could be done.
But they also came back for their people; or at least tried to.
And that had to be the truth, thought Ronon, pushing the memory of Doctor Weir's desperate expression out of his mind, wondering how to forget that it was his hand that pulled Sheppard away.
We come back for our people, chanted Ronon in his head. We always do. That had to be the truth. It simply had to be.
Everything was wrong.
He darted past trees and brush, compelled to run without knowing why. His name – he didn't know his name, or who he was, or where he was, just that he was alone in a strange place.
A recognition of pain was the first thing that penetrated the haze in his mind upon awaking. His back was sore and stiff from lying on hard ground, and it caused him to moan aloud as he shifted and opened his eyes.
A man was hovering over him, watching closely, and his proximity made him jerk backward. "Who are you?" he asked, suspicious and wary.
The man blinked, as if taken aback by the question, and not quite sure how to answer. "I – I'm – Evan. Sir."
Sir? That was him? "Where are we? Who am I?"
That seemed to stump Evan even more than the first question did. "I... I'm not sure. But I'm supposed to watch you."
I'm supposed to watch you. The words sent an ominous chill through him, and within a few seconds, he'd already made up his mind; he didn't trust this man and he was sure as hell not staying here.
It wasn't all that hard to take Evan by surprise and knock him unconscious, and then he was running.
Teyla resisted the urge to pace around the lab; because she knew that the others were watching her anxiously, and she did not wish to worry them further.
"Shouldn't they be here by now?" Rodney asked, drumming his fingers nervously against the desk.
"Not necessarily," Teyla replied, willing herself to appear calm and unconcerned. "Perhaps they simply have had a harder time finding the plant than we anticipated."
"What if they can't find it at all?" Rodney demanded. "Or if they've forgotten what to do?"
For a moment she was almost caught on the wave of Rodney's near panic.
"Ronon would not forget," Teyla replied.
Dr. Zelenka frowned. "Who is Ronon?"
Teyla did not bother to explain; instead she asked Rodney, "Is there any way for you to use the remote computer terminal to monitor what is happening in the 'jumper bay?
"Um..." Rodney frowned, turned back to the computer, and frowned some more. Then he hesitantly tapped a few keys, causing a video feed of the bay entrance to appear on the computer screen. "Oh! Yes, I can," he said, sounding surprised and proud
Teyla smiled, wondering for how long he would be able to do things by a simple guess. Rodney loosing his memory and knowledge of how to handle the Atlantis technology was something that worried her a great deal. "Very good, thank you, Rodney."
Colonel Carter looked over Rodney's shoulder. "That's where Ronon will arrive?" she guessed.
"Yes. Soon, hopefully," Teyla affirmed. No sooner were the words out of her mouth when the computer beeped in alarm.
"What is it?" Dr. Zelenka asked, looking lost and completely confused. God, it hurt to see all these people like this; all of them losing the very thing that made each of them unique.
"I'm... not sure..." Rodney pressed a few keys, frowning in effort of concentration. "I think the bay doors are opening."
Teyla's shoulders sagged slightly as relief flooded her when she saw the jumper on the screen. "It is them. They have arrived."
"That's great, but how are they going to get here?" Rodney asked, pointing at the computer screen. "The soldiers will just lock them in the mess hall like they did with everyone else, " pointed Rodney out. Apparently he hadn't forgotten how to think.
"We cannot allow that to happen," Teyla said looking at him. "You must find a way to stop them."
"Me?" Rodney squeaked. "How?"
"Can you not..." Teyla wracked her mind desperately; John's 'jumper had landed, and the marines were already surrounding it. "Distract them somehow?"
"How?" Rodney repeated in panic.
"Turn the lights off," Colonel Carter said suddenly. When Rodney gave her a look, she shrugged defensively and said, "It should distract them for at least a little bit."
Teyla was unable to come up with anything better at the moment and they had to act now.
"Yes, and also blind the people who are on our side!" Rodney snapped.
"Do you have a better plan?" Teyla asked. When Rodney's mouth turned down, she knew he couldn't think of anything better either. "Then please, do it."
A few seconds later, Ronon and Lorne emerged from the 'jumper, only to be stopped short by the soldiers' guns; but then the lights flickered off, leaving them in complete darkness. In the ensuing chaos, Teyla saw Ronon's blaster fire several times; there was the sound of Lorne yelling; and then the lights came back on.
She glanced at Rodney, who shrugged apologetically. "Someone turned them back on from the control room. I couldn't stop them," said Rodney.
"It doesn't matter, I think two of them got away," Carter said excitedly, leaning over Rodney's shoulder. "Look!"
It was true - Lorne was held by the soldiers, but Ronon and John were nowhere in sight. Teyla smiled and let out a soft breath. It was almost over.
As she found out later, Teyla had never been more wrong.
"Is that him?"
He heard the voices, loud and clear in his mind, and jolted from the ground to hide behind the low bushes. He could understand them – something about those voices was intriguing, appealing – but he feared they could also cause him harm.
Whoever these people were, they kept on calling for someone, and he wondered if they were really looking for him. Being alone here was quiet and soothing, but it was also cold and lonely during the night. Sounds of other human beings were drawing him like the sun, and as he watched them– there were three of them – walking down the narrow path, calling and looking around, he had to suppress the urge to leave his hiding place and confront the strangers.
The man with the frowning face was the first, followed by a small woman with pleasant eyes. Her voice was somehow familiar. A tall man with long hair walked behind her, scanning the trees and bushes with his eyes.
"Sheppard?" he called in deep voice. The frowning man on the front turned around.
"What if he doesn't remember his name?"
The woman sighed and gave a worried look to two men.
"Let's hope it's not that bad," she said, but her face was more worried than hopeful. Then she called again and the name she was calling and the way she spoke it sounded familiar. "John?! John, are you here?"
"Sheppard! Sheppard, where are you?" called the frowning man, and he moved, tense and unsure about the proper course of action. Part of his instincts were telling him to hide, but there was something inside of him saying it was safe to trust these people. He moved – and the bush moved too - and three people down on the path turned their heads toward him.
"Maybe it's just an animal," the frowning man was worried.
"No…," the tall man moved forward and started walking toward the bushes, clearly certain he found what he was looking for.
He felt pinned to the ground, and clearly discovered. For some reason he preferred standing up to hiding, so he rose from the ground to face the man coming in his direction.
"John!" the woman exclaimed, and three of them ran toward him, with relief in their eyes.
"Sheppard? Are you all right?" the frowning man asked, and his face changed. "He doesn't seem well," he added and looked at his tall companion.
"John?" the woman was coming closer, carefully extending her hand in his direction. He looked at her, desperately trying to put her voice and face into some kind of context. "John? Do you recognize us?"
He swallowed and licked his lips, staring into three people in front of him.
"Looks like he doesn't remember us," the frowning man whispered to the tall one.
"So we noticed, McKay," grunted the tall one. The woman stopped in front of him, with a tentative smile and reassuring look in her eyes.
She called him again – called him "John" – and that must have been his name. From the look of her face he – John – decided she wasn't a threat.
"Do you not recognize us?" she asked and he shook his head. Her eyes turned worried and sad. "John, we're friends, your friends," he looked over to two men, who seemed equally concerned and he could feel his fear melting away.
"N- no," finally he spoke and his own voice sounded unfamiliar. The woman sighed.
"You have fallen ill, and that is why you have forgotten," she offered. It made sense. He could remember waking up with a sore, weakened body and slight fever that had gone during the day.
"Why am I alone?"
If they were his friends… then why have they left him here? Alone? And sick?
"You got lost. We are sorry. We came as fast as we could, nobody meant to leave you behind," she explained and something tightened inside of his chest. "We are sorry," she repeated and it seemed to be true.
He stood there, watching the three faces that – maybe – should have been familiar. He was able to recognize the painful expressions on their faces as worry and genuine concern, and something about this woman made him feel safe with them. The other part of his mind was telling him that he could have been making a mistake, but how far could he run, feeling this weak, cold and hungry? He was outnumbered after all, and maybe it was wise to learn more about them. If they proved to be hostile, then he should pick another chance to run away.
John – if that was really his name – nodded and came closer to the woman. She smiled and gestured with her hand down the path among the trees.
"Come now. We'll take you home."
The whole place looked frightening – loud, big, filled with people who stared at him. John couldn't remember them, or this place, but the presence of the three people that found him in the forest was assuring. He was thankful when the woman – Teyla was her name – asked to stay with him in the room filled with people clad either in white or green.
Teyla told him this was the infirmary of the city – a city called Atlantis (and thankfully the name was vaguely familiar). There was another woman with tired and concerned eyes that ushered him to a narrow bed to lie on. It wasn't a real bed, actually. There was some kind of a machine hovering over him, moving up and down, along his body – Teyla called it a scanner, explaining that Jennifer (she was a doctor) – would be able to tell how to heal him and how to help him remember things.
John was still under the machine, looking worriedly at the two women who observed him. Jennifer was reading from various pads in her hands, checking the monitors and machines surrounding him, and Teyla stood still, not wanting to disturb her at work.
John allowed himself a moment of peace – there was something soothing in the quiet sound of waves crashing against the city – it was a city on water, in the middle of the ocean. As Rodney – the frowning man from the forest – flew them over Atlantis, John's eyes were huge with wonder over something looking so fragile; like a snowflake in the middle of the vast ocean.
He could hear Jennifer and Teyla talking. There was something about some kind of medicine and synapses and higher brain functions, of which he didn't understand much, but their worried glances and hushed voices worried him in return.. John concentrated on the sounds around him – on the voices in particular; then the beeping of monitors, people moving through the room, rustling of fabric and sounds that simply melted into the background. Infirmary was a busy place. It felt…. Familiar. The scent – he knew it, or at least he thought and felt so. It was sharp, clean – clinical was the word that came to mind – and the next thought was about unease.
Was he here before?
On the flight back, Teyla had told him he was a warrior. John was vaguely certain that warriors did get injured, and if this place was meant for healing, then it was probable he had spent some time here in the past. Maybe that was why the sounds of this place were familiar, even soothing. There were scars on his arms and one on his stomach; he saw them when he had checked his own body for injuries few days ago. It was entirely probable that he had spent time in this infirmary.
John looked toward the two women. Jennifer wore a white coat, toying with a thin metal object stuck into a large pocket on the side.
John frowned in concentration, trying to remember what that thing was, associating it with cold and uncomfortable for some reason.
Jennifer's fingers picked up that object, a tube and thin metal. Stethoscope. The word drifted into John's mind, feeling itchy, too big, poking him. He tried to sit up, but decided that staying put was a better idea and…
"Take it easy, lad! You hit your head pretty badly; 'a need to check on it!"
John was pretty certain he had heard a male voice, but there was nobody near, nobody but two worried women watching him lie under the scanner. Licking his lips, he wondered was it something he remembered – a pleasant tone, sounding strange but comfortable and assuring in his ear, rich with some kind of accent.
Closing his eyes, John tried to call the voice back into his mind. The baritone drifted back and forth through his consciousness, positively familiar and John gripped onto the memory like on a lifeline. The fleeting voice, the caring words…. And accent… John opened his eyes and looked around the infirmary. The drug he was given could have begun working, because suddenly he remembered – just a name he couldn't connect to a face, but he was certain he knew a man with a name like this.
"Carson?" he called.
Both Teyla and Jennifer turned around and looked at him, and then at each other. He could see Teyla pressing her lips together and taking a deep breath, and for some reason he felt he hadn't really taken a step forward.
Ronon stood in the infirmary, arms crossed, with hooded gaze directed at John's bed. The Colonel slept on, unaware of his friend's presence, while the nurses scurried around, giving Ronon a wide berth. He wasn't scowling, or frowning, or even smiling in a slightly predatory way; but apparently the dissatisfied look in his eyes was still enough to intimidate and ensure the avoidance of all people near. That was something that never bothered John and it was one of the reasons Ronon accepted him as a friend.
A couple of nurses, made of stronger mettle than the others, had already invited him to sit in the waiting room, or to at least find a seat by the bed, rather than standing smack in the middle of the walkway. Ronon had declined, a wordless look serving him nicely and quickly dispersing the nurses. He preferred standing. He felt like he had more control over everything – and it was just a feeling, not a fact.
He didn't feel like sitting down. He stood and studied John, dissatisfaction increasing with every detail he noted. A white face, made even paler by the dark shag of hair that surrounded it. Circles under his eyes, slight frown marring his forehead even as he slept, distressed twitching and mumbling as dreams – or nightmares – came.
Abruptly, Ronon sensed that there was someone behind him – he didn't have to turn to look to know who. As she approached, they stood in silence for a while, watching John who was dead to the world.
"He looks so…" Ronon began, only to trail off, struggling for the words that would describe Sheppard without disrespecting him. 'Weak' was at the forefront of his mind, but it didn't really fit, and Ronon refused accept that the word would ever apply to Sheppard in any way. Truth to be told, he was scared of admitting someone Ronon looked up to was weak Sheppard couldn't be weak. Sheppard had to recover somehow.
"Vulnerable." Teyla spoke quietly, and Ronon's mouth twisted wryly.
"Yeah," he agreed, just as quiet. It was a good word. 'Weak' would have provoked his disgust. 'Vulnerable' only summoned his protectiveness.
"Rodney is not remembering," Teyla said suddenly.
Ronon glanced at her, surprised. "I thought he could remember flashes."
"He can. He did. But he cannot recall anything more than that," Teyla replied. "Neither can Dr. Keller. Or Colonel Carter, or Radek, or Major Lorne."
Ronon stared. "I thought that after they were cured, their memories would come back." It was, after all, the way the medicine worked with the people of this Galaxy. But expedition members shared a different origin and maybe there was something in their genetic makeup that made them more vulnerable to this illness…. Maybe even weak.
No, thought Ronon. This had to be fixed somehow.
"They will," Teyla said firmly. "But I do not believe they will return as fast as we hoped." She paused. "You have probably noticed the division that already grows between the soldiers and civilians."
He had. It was kind of hard to miss. "They did try to keep the scientists all locked up," Ronon pointed out. Which didn't help the entire situation at all. "And nobody can remember much of before… so they can't remember how to work together. To trust each other."
Teyla nodded. "Yes. You understand that this might lead to… conflicts."
Ronon smirked humorlessly. No kidding. "You think we should try to help keep the peace."
"Yes. Until more of their memories return, at least."
He shrugged. "Okay," he said simply. But keeping peace was entirely a different thing then what Ronon was trained to do.
"There is another thing I worry about." Teyla murmured, a few moments later. "Because John was given the cure later than the others…"
"He might not remember at all," Ronon finished grimly. Yes, he thought of this too, and refused to allow his mind to dwell on it much. Teyla nodded, her expression bleak. They fell silent, watching the man before them as he slept.
The whole building was gray and cold.
There was a room deep inside of that building, with a locked door, hard walls and one tall narrow window. There was a bunk under the window, without a pillow or a blanket and the sole occupant of the room sat on it, hugging her knees and keeping her eyes closed.
The woman was quiet and completely still. Most of the time – and the time passed slowly here – she was this still; as still as possible. She felt almost invisible, wishing she could disappear for real, but that never happened. It certainly didn't happen every time when they came for her. Those were the moments she tired not to remember, not to feel the pain in her chest – after which everything was a blur, everything, including the numbing walls. Only her body was pulsing with strange effort to heal.
She would heal each and every time; no scratch on her skin, but with fog covering her memory.
Although she couldn't become invisible, she felt that way. If only she could really become invisible. If only.
Just like this world and this building; her mind was a gray, uninviting prison. If she ever had a name, she couldn't remember it. She couldn't remember her own face either. Sometimes she touched it carefully with palms and fingertips, but there was nothing recognizable about it. What were her eyes like? Or her hair? Was she pretty or at least a pleasant sight? Sometimes she wondered if she had a face at all.
Keeping her mind empty of any thoughts or questions was easier than facing either the emptiness, or her captors who occasionally showed up to inflict her more pain. She was vaguely certain they wanted to know and learn something about her, and weren't getting anywhere. It was because she failed to remember, and they didn't succeed in their methods of making her remember. She also sensed that defying them with the blankness of her mind was the only strategy to follow, and that was why she kept on floating in the empty space of grayish half light and this void where days and nights melted into a single long moment.
Sometimes – and those moments were rare – a streak of sunlight would sneak into her small room, dancing on the wall opposite her bed and the grey color would turn into once dark, but now faded blue. It reminded her of something, and then the threads of who she used to be floated back to her, and she would grasp them tentatively, not to get lost in the void completely.
It felt like a memory, even like a part of her and she knew she couldn't afford to lose it.
There was a cheerful, bouncy, loud sound that made her feel warm. Barking.
There was a heavy, round metal object in her hands connected with the feeling of weight of decisions she had to make; and she could barely remember what it was for and who gave it to her. But somebody did give it to her. It was important, she knew that. The person who had given her that object was important.
There was a sound of … water, of the waves crashing against the shore. She called that sound to her mind when she wanted to sleep.
The memory that had the brightest, warmest color – a memory – or maybe just a dream, she feared – was of two rough hands, a black wrist band on the right; masculine hands, strong and rough and strikingly clear with detail in her mind's eye. It was the image that seemed most personal, one of those hands stretched out for her to hold it and sometimes she tried to imagine doing it, using all her might, yet she never succeeded. The face that belonged to those hands remained hidden in the fog of her memory, and she wondered if she was really defending herself or denying whatever was left of her.
Teyla was holding her breath, while John was sitting at one restaurant table, searching the pile of photographs spread all around for something familiar.
He was given the medicine two days ago, and Teyla was getting more than worried because he made almost no progress remembering. First thing she did –Jennifer had made her a makeshift psychologist, because Kate was gone (and Teyla tried hard not to think about that), and nobody else had a mind sane enough right now and knew John all that well – so first thing Teyla decided would be good for him was to take him to his quarters. He walked around looking small and caged, lost in a place where he was supposed to fit.
He didn't recognize anything. The guitar made him frown, he asked what the skateboard was for and who Johnny Cash was. Teyla failed to explain it properly – Ronon would have done it better, but Ronon had other problems on his hands – so she put on one of John's CD's, telling him simply that the man on the picture was his favorite musician. John finally sat on the bed when he heard the singer's deep voice and asked Teyla what music was for. She simply smiled and told him to enjoy it.
The next day she took him to see Atlantis, letting him walk along the corridors on his own volition, hoping he would end up in some place that would trigger his memory. He wondered aimlessly instead, and she made sure not to let him get lost. If she left him to wander around alone, he probably would.
The situation was dire. Most of the expedition members were regaining their memories but the process was slow. There was mistrust and paranoia in the air; and the scientists, had to be locked away for their own protection. The same was true for most of the soldiers. Jennifer was exhausted. Carter was trying to figure out what was done to the 'gate, but failing. Not even with Rodney's help could a solution be found.
The pictures didn't seem to help much either. Teyla was starting to feel desperate. What Jennifer had told her wasn't encouraging – John's prognosis wasn't good. He spent nearly three days without medicine, suffered a high fever, and as far as Jennifer could tell, the damage on his memory might have been permanent. He was given the medicine, and the preliminary test results indicated that his body accepted it, but there was still little reaction. Teyla wondered if he would remember anything or anyone. The good thing was, he wasn't forgetting the things he learned after the disease.
John fumbled around the pictures, picking out a large photograph of original Atlantis team, showing Elizabeth, John, Colonel Sumner, Aiden Ford, Rodney and Carson. It was taken on Earth. Teyla tried not to show the pain she herself felt while looking on that photograph. Four people on that picture were lost. She looked at John, searching his face for any sign of recognition. He remembered Carson's name and his voice, but it seemed he couldn't recognize his face. He knew who Rodney was, but what really worried Teyla was the fact that John couldn't recognize Aiden, despite everything he went through trying to bring the young man home.
Even Elizabeth's face… was just a face. Teyla thought of their tense conversation two days before the disease broke out, when she told him that our memories make us who we are, wondering if another person from this photograph lost.
John kept staring at the faces.
"They are friends," he stated carefully. Teyla looked at him. It wasn't a question. His eyes were pinned at the picture he held in his hands.
"Yes," she said, deciding it would be best for him to tell him the less possible. He should be given a chance to remember on his own, she decided. Then John's finger pointed first at Carson, then at Elizabeth.
"They aren't here," he noticed. "Neither is he," he pointed to Aiden and Teyla nodded slowly. "Or him," decided John looking into Sumner's stern expression. "What happened to them?" he asked.
"Try to remember on your own," said Teyla. "That would be the best for you."
"Okay," he agreed. Teyla wondered where his stubbornness was, hoping she would see it appear soon, because this simply wasn't the John she had come to know over the last four years. Hoping that Jennifer was wrong about his condition, Teyla decided to give him another little nudge, before leaving him to rest. In her pocket she had a watch, Elizabeth's watch. She placed it on the table in front of John and he gave her a quizzical look when she did so.
"Is that mine?"
"Yes. And no," she answered and a curious glint appeared in his eye. He smiled slowly, and for the first time in last few days Teyla was able to recognize this man as John Sheppard.
"This whole thing sounds like a challenge," he said.
"My people would say that the greatest challenge we might encounter in our lives is ourselves," answered Teyla. John's smile grew, and his eyes fell back on the picture he was holding.
"I like the sound of that."
"Alright – try it now."
Zelenka looked up at Rodney over his glasses and frowned. "Are you sure? I do not believe it will work yet -"
"Well we can't know until we try, can we?" Rodney said testily, voice tight with impatience. Giving the gate tech person – what was his name, Charlie? – a quick nod, he ordered, "Do it."
Chad obeyed automatically, pressing down gate symbols in quick succession. A deep hum sounded, sending tiny vibrations through the floor and walls as the gate began to power up. Blue chevrons lit up in order, and Rodney watched with baited breath –
- only for the last chevron to stay dark, causing the gate to remain alight for a moment more, before it shut down again. Damn it, he thought. He was probably unable to fix this, despite what everyone thought or told him – he simply couldn't remember all he was supposed to know or do.
"Wormhole not established," Chris said unemotionally for perhaps the fiftieth or so time. His voice had lost its disappointment around the twentieth.
"Oh, thank you for that stunningly brilliant observation, I hadn't noticed," Rodney would have snapped – only he'd already said that (or something along those lines) far too many times today, and even he was sick of it.
Instead he threw down his tablet in disgust, turned on his heel, and began to stalk out the gate room. Zelenka, sounding startled, called out, "Wait, where are you going?"
Almost snarling with frustration, Rodney paused just long enough to say, "Away from here!" before storming out.
He could practically feel the disapproval and annoyance radiating from Zelenka, but he didn't care what he or Clark thought – he'd been working at that stupid gate problem for two days now, and had accomplished nothing. Nothing! It didn't make sense. The gate would connect to any other gate in the galaxy – they'd tried fifteen with complete success – but not the Earth gate. It didn't make sense.
And the worst part of the entire thing was the nagging feeling that his old, pre-memory loss self would've had no trouble fixing the gate. That he used to be completely capable of fixing things like this – but not anymore. He had no idea if it was really true… but he couldn't shake the feeling.
Scowling at the floor, Rodney allowed his feet to carry him away from the gate room without really knowing where he was going. The hallways were deceivingly quiet, giving the impression of being empty or at least mostly uninhabited – something that never failed to unnerve him. Yet it wasn't the silence that got to him – it was the tension behind it.
He turned the corner, lost in thought, only to flinch at the sight awaiting him. The group of scientists stopped their muttering immediately, each of them looking at him distrustfully. Rodney kept his head down, increasing his pace until it was almost at a jog. He could feel their eyes on his back, right up until he turned the corner into the next hall. Once there, he let out a sigh of relief, glancing behind him almost skittishly.
It was always like that, now. Of course, he couldn't really remember clearly what it was like before, but that was irrelevant. People – civilians, mostly - walked the corridors at rapid, quick paces, heads down, avoiding each others' eyes and rarely speaking. When they did, it was in whispers and mutters, as if afraid of being overheard. If anyone came near, they looked up with suspicious, hostile eyes.
Shivering slightly as goose bumps raised along his skin, Rodney turned another corner, hoping to reach the transporter that he knew was nearby this area, and stopped short. The three marines looked up, and Rodney didn't even try, turning around and doubling back up the hallway.
If the civilians were mistrustful, the soldiers were worse. Paranoid, cold, unreasonable, sometimes downright callous, they prowled the city and treated every non-soldier like a delinquent. Rodney was truly contemptuous of them – the way they used intimidation to cow and subdue others, the stupid brutish displays of knuckle-cracking and muscle-flexing, the glares, the not-so-subtle caressing of guns.
He would have dearly loved to stand up to them, to deliberately piss them off – but he wasn't nearly that brave or suicidal, and besides, he had better things to do than antagonize a bunch of mindless grunts.
"Dr. McKay?" The voice spoke into his right ear, and it took him a moment to realize it came from his earpiece. Tapping it, he replied, "Yes?"
"Myself and Dr. Everest are trying to get into the jumper bay to recalibrate the navigations systems and perform the monthly diagnosis check on the jumpers, to ensure everything is functioning correctly."
"The four marines guarding the entrance won't allow us to pass."
Rodney blinked. Well, that was unfortunate and not-so-surprising – but what did they want him to do about it? "And you're telling me this because…?"
A pause. "You're the chief science officer."
Oh. Right. He'd forgotten. "Have you tried explaining nicely to them why you want to get in?"
"We have explained the importance of it several times already," she replied, a definite note of annoyance coloring her voice now.
Rodney sighed inwardly. Dammit. "Okay. I guess I'll be there in a minute, then."
When Ronon agreed to help Teyla prevent any "conflicts", this wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind.
Lt. Marl stood stubbornly in front of the entrance, backed up by his fellow soldiers. "Orders are orders. We're not to allow any civilians into the jumper bay."
Dr. Simpson let out a noise eerily similar to a growl, saying, "Why, do you think we're going to get them dirty or something? If we don't get in there, your precious jumpers will be running on outdated navigation systems and will be at risk for errors and viruses - "
"They worked just fine yesterday," Marl said.
Ronon privately agreed, but then again, he wasn't a scientist. Dr. Simpson and Everest were. "You should let them in. They know what they're talking about," he said.
Marl gave him a look. "We have our orders. You understand."
Ronon sighed and remained silent. While it was true that he was in the ideal position to resolve "conflicts" such as this, that didn't necessarily mean he knew how to do so. Yes, he commanded the respect of the Atlantian soldiers as a warrior, and yes, he had the (if somewhat grudging) approval of the scientists as someone who was essentially on their side. So yes, that put him in a good place to negotiate. But he wasn't Teyla.
When he'd agreed to resolve conflicts, he'd been thinking more along the lines of separating fistfights and maintaining order with a few threatening glares and growls. This? This, he had not anticipated.
Simpson was still arguing. "Why would anyone issue orders preventing civilians from reaching the jumpers? We're the ones who ensure that they don't crash and burn on the next mission!"
"Because," a new voice said bitterly, "they don't trust us. What do you think we'd do, Lieutenant? Run off with a couple jumpers? Betray the city to the Genii, or the Wraith?"
Ronon frowned. "McKay -" he started.
"Don't McKay me. Whose side are you on anyway?" Rodney demanded, pointing an accusing finger. "Have you at least tried to get them to see reason and let my men in? Or have you just been standing there enjoying the show?"
Ronon bristled, about to defend himself, but Rodney was already moving on. "You. And you and you, whoever you grunts are, get out of the way, unless you really do want to risk your next mission going out on a jumper that hasn't been checked and updated."
The marines don't look like they're listening, so Ronon pushes aside his annoyance with Rodney for a moment to intervene. "I'd listen to him if I were you. If you don't want to leave them alone with the jumpers, then fine. Watch them. But let them in already."
Marl frowned, looking unhappy, before nodding and moving aside. "Alright. But we will be watching."
Rodney just rolled his eyes and waved a hand. "Yes, yes, whatever." Turning to Simpson and Dr. Everest, he said, "Go, do your thing."
Ronon stayed around just long enough to make sure the soldiers wouldn't harass or interfere with their work, and then ran after McKay. "Hey," he said, catching him on the arm to get him to stop, "What was that about?"
Rodney stopped and turned reluctantly, not quite meeting his eyes. "What was what about?"
Ronon resisted the urge to growl, instead quoting Rodney back at him: "'Whose side are you on anyway?' Remember now?"
"Oh, that. Why, was there something you found particularly objectionable about it?" Rodney asked, expression and tone void of emotion.
This time Ronon did growl, mostly because he had no idea whether Rodney was being sarcastic or not – in fact, his tone was almost polite. Never a good sign with Rodney.
"I am on your side," he said. "You know that."
But no, Ronon realized as he stared at Rodney's blank face, he didn't. Rodney didn't even know who he was – how could he be expected to trust him?
"Look," Ronon said, changing tactics, "You're my teammate. I know you don't remember, but we've gone through a lot together. You have to trust me."
A small, cynical smile appeared on Rodney's face at that. Ronon was not reassured. "You're right about one thing, at least. I don't remember – not much. But from what I do remember, and from what I see now, you're not much different from them – just another soldier."
Ronon frowned, not liking the way he spoke "them", as if it were a poisoned word. "They aren't the enemy."
Rodney met his gaze, eyes sharp. "Then they should stop acting like it."
As he watched Rodney walk away, yet again finding himself without the words to fix things, Ronon realized that things were going to get a lot more complicated than anyone had anticipated.
He didn't feel guilty. He didn't.
Okay, so maybe he did, just a little. But really, what had Ronon expected? For him to just blindly trust him so they could go skip happily in green pastures and live happily ever after? When Rodney had arrived at the scene, Ronon hadn't been doing anything – just standing there, watching.
Well, he was sorry, but that just didn't look like "being on their side."
The grumbling of his stomach dragged Rodney from his thoughts, and he changed direction, heading for a transporter. Might as well get a bite to eat before going back to work.
He reached the transporter just as a woman was stepping inside. She held the door open for him, and he stepped inside. "Thanks."
"No problem." She half-smiled, and Rodney recognized her as Dr. Keller – no first name, because he couldn't for the life of him recall it right now. "Where are you headed?"
"Mess hall," he replied automatically. Was it Juliet…? No, maybe Janine…
"Oh, good, same here," Dr. Keller said, pressing the area of the panel that would lead them to the mess.
There was the customary flash of light as they were transported, and Rodney turned to the door to leave – only to find the door closed.
"Um," Keller said. "Aren't we… here?"
Rodney frowned and pressed the panel again. Nothing. The doors didn't open.
"Maybe they're jammed?" Keller suggested.
"Maybe," he muttered absentmindedly. He braced his hands against the edges of the door and pulled, straining to get them open. Keller helped, but after a few minutes the doors still hadn't budged.
"We should probably call for help," she said, panting slightly.
"Not yet," Rodney said. "Just give me a minute…" Locating the auxiliary controls, he removed the cover and began to fiddle with the crystals inside.
"Look, I really think we should call somebody," Keller said later, after ten minutes of fruitless working. "Rodney?"
"No, it's fine. I should be able to get this door open. It's a simple command override… I just have to remember…" Remember. That was exactly the problem.
"Yeah, but..." Keller hesitated. "Wouldn't it be easier to ask for help?"
It would. But that would be giving up. Plus, the last thing he wanted to do was to ask Zelenka for help. He had the sneaking suspicion he'd never hear the end of it. "Just give me a few seconds."
The seconds ticked by. Keller stayed quiet, allowing him to work. And precisely one thousand, eight hundred and twelve seconds (or approximately thirty minutes) later, he threw down the crystals in frustration, ready to tear out his own hair. "I can't believe this. I can't even open one single door. One single damned door. Small wonder the gate isn't working! How on earth am I supposed to fix a stargate if I can't fix a door? How am I supposed to do anything, much less do my job? The chief science officer can't override a simple command code – why don't we just surrender to the Wraith right here and now, because if they attack anytime soon, I'm not going to be much help!"
Out of breath, Rodney stopped, breathing heavily from the tirade. From behind him, Keller was silent for a long moment.
"If you're useless, then it's probably my fault." The words were stated quietly, almost inaudibly.
Rodney turned slowly, searching her face questioningly. "What?"
"If you're useless, then it's my fault," Keller repeated. "I'm the CMO. I'm supposed to cure diseases and make people better – it's what I dedicated my life too. Everyone on Atlantis got sick from a Pegasus childhood illness – a childhood illness – and now I can't figure out a way to help people get their memories back."
Rodney blinked, uncomfortable with the look on Keller's face, one of dark pain and disappointment. "That's – that's different."
She smiled sadly. "How, Rodney? How is it different?"
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Sighing, he sat down besides her, resting his elbows on his knees. "So we're both failures," he said, trying to lighten the mood. "At least you can remember my first name."
"What, and you can't remember mine?" Keller said, her mouth twitching upward at one corner.
Taking that as a good sign, Rodney smiled ruefully at her. "It starts with a j, right? Jessica?"
"Close," Keller said, definitely amused now. "Jennifer."
"Right, right." He was silent for a moment, concentrating on remembering it this time. "So I guess I should radio for help."
"Yeah. Probably," Jennifer agreed softly.
Bracing himself, Rodney tapped his earpiece. "Zelenka. It's McKay."
"So it is." Zelenka's voice was dry and sardonic. "Are you ready to come help with the gate problem, or are you still sulking?"
"As a matter of fact… I'm trapped in a transporter with Dr. Keller."
"Yes, and I'd prefer to get out before I pass out from lack of food – I do have hypoglycemia, you know -"
"Fine. I will be there in a few minutes."
"Good. Thank you." Rodney reached to terminate the link, but not before he picked up some inaudible muttering, a mix of Czech and English: "… trapped in a transporter with Dr. Keller and he is complaining? Idiot…"
Pretending to ignore the last remark, Rodney told Jennifer, "He says he's coming."
She smiled. "Good."
They fell silent, and when Rodney couldn't stand the growing quiet anymore he blurted out, "You know – it's not really your fault. About the whole memory-loss thing, I mean. I always thought medicine was really more voodoo than science, anyway, more luck-chance and guesswork than anything else – you can hardly be blamed if things go wrong. It's not exactly precise, and I suspect most doctors are complete quacks – not that you're a quack, of course, I just mean -" He spluttered and flailed, worried about having offended her – but Jennifer just laughed.
"It's okay. I get it. Thanks," she said, smiling.
"Ah – thanks? Oh, okay, you're ah, welcome," Rodney said, just a bit confused. Jennifer's smile grew more wistful and she shook her head. "You know, I was supposed to be the one comforting you? But you managed to turn it around."
Not sure what to say to that, Rodney shrugged and said, "Well… we're all kind of in a – a less-than-desirable situation… we should try to help each other, because as long as we have no connection to Earth we're going to need to work together – so, I guess I'm trying to say that – if you ever need to talk… my lab's not that far away," he finished quickly, wincing inwardly.
"Thank you. That's really sweet," Jennifer said, and she seemed to mean it.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Rodney just started to relax when a voice in his ear made him jump. "I am here. How are you two doing?"
"Fine! Just fine. About time, by the way."
"You are most welcome. Now, have you tried opening the auxiliary control panel to -"
"Yes, yes, of course -"
"Very well then. I have a few ideas -"
"Good. Let's get started."
The first place that made him come back, as if there was something he had lost or misplaced there – was a balcony adjoining the commander's office.
The office was lacking its owner, Colonel Carter most of the time. The room was pleasant, filled with plants and photographs, and it had to be a comfortable place to spend the working day in – yet every time John had passed it to reach the balcony door, he felt a slight shiver of familiarity.
The balcony was completely empty. As he leaned with his hands against the railing he could feel his heart sink for no apparent reason. He would stare at the outlines of the city, listen to the waves and feel the weight inside of his chest become heavier.
But why? It made no sense. He was perfectly safe, the people here took care of him and he was certain they were friends or colleagues at least. However he sensed he wasn't told everything he should have known. Teyla said that he should remember on his own and it did make sense to him, wishing the remembering to come faster, because without his memories it was difficult to know who he was at all.
However this place seemed the most personal for some reason, and that was why he kept returning, feeling as if he was looking for ghosts. If he could only… catch that almost – formed memory in his mind, that flash of familiarity and make some sense of it… he was certain he would remember then.
Teyla urged him to use the photographs she had given him, and before he went to sleep he used to observe faces. Now he was certain who Carson was, yet he couldn't say what happened to him. However there was also the fact that Carson wasn't here any more. John knew that this place was dangerous, and with that in mind he had little doubt what really happened to the man with the pleasant accent. He only failed to remember how it happened.
The other faces he couldn't find on Atlantis were bothering him the most. Teyla didn't even tell him their names, and he was frustrated because by now they were all familiar – he could close his eyes and see them in front of him, the way they were on the picture – but the names refused to come.
He chose the balcony as his spot to think. Teyla seemed to approve his choice and he couldn't help but believe she had a reason. She seemed to do everything with a good reason, and that was why he trusted her.
John stared at the ocean stretching cold and grey in front of him, the waves crashing against the shore, thinking of the faces. The sound of waves lulled him in his thoughts, and suddenly there was the sound of door opening behind him. Startled, he snapped back to see who it was –
"Thank God that meeting is finally over. Did you get that report, John?"
- and a voice, crisp, clear and so right in his ear rang through his mind, and for a split second he expected to see a tall, thin figure in the doorway, with green eyes smiling at him….
"Teyla?" he asked somewhat disappointedly.
"John, are you doing well? It is cold, and you have been here for nearly two hours," she stared at him, searching his face. Should he tell her?
"Teyla, I think I just remembered someone," deciding to share what seemed like a flash of memory with her he kept going as she encouraged him with a smile. "A woman. Tall, thin… green eyes… that's the woman in the picture, right? I think I remember her voice… did she come here?" he asked suddenly, noting how Teyla's eyes grew wide and sad as she nodded. "Teyla, what was her name?"
"Can you not remember yourself?" she asked. Frowning, John tried to bring the image back. The ghost resisted him for a moment, but then she appeared, soft and pure in his mind's eye, different than she was on the picture – her face smiling, eyes with a glint of intelligent humor, brown hair falling in loose curls and touching her shoulders. She wore a red shirt.
She was pretty. She was more than pretty. For a moment John couldn't think of anything more appealing.
She was important to him.
But what was her name?
His eyes strayed toward the door that led to the commander office. Suddenly he saw himself sitting on the edge of large desk, toying with a figurine he put back in it's place and the woman with the red shirt sat back behind the desk, asking him something, and the office was different, and he could even hear his voice, feel the smile on his lips as he talked to her, and then she….
God, it felt so right, like a piece of him. That was her name. She felt like a piece of him.
"John?" Teyla was concerned as she watched the changing of expressions on his face.
"Elizabeth. Her name is Elizabeth, right?" he asked and when Teyla smiled he felt immense relief. But then he looked at the office…. The figurines…. And the masks on the walls, they weren't there any more. Elizabeth was gone.
The thought crushed down on him, because this place was dangerous and if she was not here… just like Carson wasn't here….
Was he remembering them only to loose them in the next moment?
"Teyla, did she die?" John asked, and he could almost feel Teyla's face turn cold.
"No," she said, but something in her eyes was growing dark.
Was it possible…. there was a fate even darker than death?
"Are you certain?" he felt the panic tighten his throat.
"As certain as I can be," she answered and briefly squeezed his hand, but despite the comfort of her gesture, her words and eyes left him feeling on edge – almost like there was something for him to do. He only had to remember what.
After he had remembered Elizabeth's name, the rest of them came flooding in – Rodney was the frowning man, and Ronon the tall guy who kept silent watch over him and the city. Ford was the young marine in that old picture, standing next to him, happily grinning into the camera. The man with the stern face was Colonel Sumner. John even remembered how he died.
It was the first memory that left a truly bitter taste in his mouth. In his mind's eye John could see the moment when he shot Sumner over and over again. He kept telling himself that it was inevitable; clearly there was nothing more John could have done, but that was not the same thing his heart was telling him. He didn't get to Sumner in time. He had left him behind. Leaving someone behind was wrong. Leaving someone behind, someone who was John's responsibility was something his mind as well as his heart couldn't accept, and he kept struggling with the guilt, not finding relief. On that night John didn't sleep. In the morning he refused to tell Teyla what was bothering him, and when he had reached the balcony - Elizabeth's balcony, he hesitated going out there for the first time, burdened with indescribable unease he couldn't explain.
For a few moments he struggled with himself, deciding that he had to go out - he had to remember. This place was becoming a trigger for his memories, and if he wanted to learn who he was - and what he could do to help people around him - the City was still a mess, its people struggling with their own clouded memories and resulting mistrust - he had to remember. On some deep and basic level he felt responsible for this place and all of them and he simply couldn't afford being this helpless.
As the sound of the waves surrounded him, John allowed himself to dwell on Sumner's fate. The memory of the event was foggy, but he had a fleeting feeling he really got there as soon as it was possible. Did he really do everything? Thinking back, he recalled that Sumner didn't like him for some reason. The Colonel was against John joining the mission. Suddenly a memory sprang to the forefront of his mind - a grey haired General, the Colonel - and Elizabeth - in some place cold, discussing John's participation in, what Elizabeth had called the "Atlantis expedition".
Holding his breath, John felt like staring into the memory, something that used to be a part of him, but was now trying to slip through his fingers. He felt like he was grasping, clinging to it desperately as the voices echoed in his mind, their tones, scattered words, but not the complete picture.
However he was able to grasp the meaning of it. It was Elizabeth who fought for him. It was Elizabeth who ensured he got there because she was convinced… convinced that he would be useful. Needed. Appropriate.
She expected him to give his best. Sumner expected him to fail. The image of the Colonel being drained of life and then shot - by John's own hand - flashed in front of his mind, feeling like a stab to his chest. But then another image followed, of Elizabeth, standing near him, the damp uniform and smell of the battle still covering him like a thick shroud. Her hand came to rest on his shoulder briefly, and he met her eyes, soft but determinant at the same time.
"You did well, John," she had told him. "There was nothing you could do."
"I should have gotten there earlier," he had replied then - he could almost taste those same words on his tongue.
"Maybe that's the truth, but if we're going to survive here, then we have to accept we're not Gods. We can't do everything or save everyone. This is why I didn't want to let you go after them. We have yet to learn our limitations," her words fell heavy, but as he swallowed the lump in his throat, he accepted them as the truth rather than condemnation. "We have to trust each other."
He remembered he nodded at her words, and how she squeezed his shoulder and told him they had to live; that they had to live on. She spoke of some kind of celebration, because everyone needed to hope and hold on, and he knew what she expected of him - to be there, with a brave rather than a guilty face, so he promised her to be there.
Then he promised himself to be there for her as he watched her leave the room, gathering the strength to hold the weight of the world on her shoulders. Helping her to shoulder that weight was his responsibility.
She felt disgust alone for the man in front of her.
He didn't look like the others - his face wasn't pale and marred with teeth and cruel, monster - like features, he looked weaker than his masters - they were definitely his masters - and she had known, for certain that what he was doing was wrong, very wrong. Not because he was helping them harm her. It was because of something different, something much more sinister and dark, bigger than her own fate.
The thin young man strapped her hands to the chair and connected her to familiar looking devices - it was some kind of laboratory and he was after her memories. There was a reason he wanted all that she had known once - and deep down her mind refused to deliver the knowledge that could have been buried within her. She'd rather not know who she was then… help him with his plan, whatever that plan might have been.
"Wouldn't you be happier if you knew your own name?" he asked, pretending the sincere concern and curiosity.
"I don't have a name," she replied stubbornly. She didn't. She didn't want it back, if it meant more harm done to anybody else.
"Everybody has a name," he insisted, moving away from her toward one of the panels near the wall. Then he silently walked toward desk with bottles and syringes, picking out what he needed for the procedure. She felt nausea rising from the pit of her stomach and clenched her teeth - as he approached her she gave him an icy look, which he chose to ignore. She closed her eyes when the needle pierced her skin, feeling the liquid fill her vein and the fear erupt in her chest. This time the drug might overpower all her defenses; this time she might lose the battle and prove to be too weak. The memory of rough hands sprang to her mind - bringing along the sense of trust and safety; yes those arms kept her safe; and she was able to keep her composure as she tried to reach for them again in her mind - a part of her believed that if she could, if she only could reach two rough hands, hold them with her thing fingers she would be saved somehow - but they stayed away, too far out of her reach.
"I don't have a name. I don't…," her voice broke as the drug collided with her blood.
The substance she was given started to affect her body, clouding her thoughts and confusing her as the man next to her spoke in soft, falsely assuring voice, trying to persuade her to remember.
Her mind refused.
Her heart ached - if she could remember that one thing. Only one thing - to whom those hands belonged.
She could remember only if she tried, promised the voice. All she had to do was try.
It would be good for her. Doesn't she want to know who she is? Where her friends are? How to go back to them?
The image of the hands was clearer, closer, and she could almost feel the memory looming, hovering above her and all she had to do was reach for it… then she would know… she would finally see the face of the man to whom those hands belonged to.
But then her body rebelled, shaking and convulsing, like there was a storm inside of her - something deep within her, something in her own blood prevented her from remembering; and her own mind blocked her with panic and a warning.
"Don't you want to have a name? Everybody needs a name," spoke the man.
She hated him. She hated his voice. Instinctively she knew, if she gave him any information, it would be the end of her - but not only her.
"I don't need a name," she breathed and her body shook, thrashing against the restraints on her hands and feet, and then the pain flooded her mind and knocked her into the vacuum of unconsciousness.
John woke with a start, feeling his heart beat wildly against his ribs.
He had a dream. A dark, confusing, cold dream.
No, he thought as he sat up in his bed and placed bare feet onto the cold tiles on the floor. That wasn't a dream. It was a memory.
The feeling that the dream had left behind was the same bitterness of Colonel Sumner's end - and that was the reason he believed this was a memory, not a dream. Frustrated and upset, he closed his eyes, desperately trying to remember what it was. He was somewhere - and he wasn't alone… and for a moment he felt a strong tug at the back of his uniform and someone dragging him away…. Away from what? Where to? He couldn't see what had happened, he couldn't remember when it was, all he knew - and he knew it for certain - was that there was someone left behind.
John stood up, ignoring the cold night air as he stepped out to his own small balcony, staring up at the stars above his head.
He talked with Lorne and Rodney yesterday. It was a nice moment, and Lorne seemed familiar – John had finally memorized the man's full name and rank and he felt he could almost remember how he met him, and that there was some special thing about Lorne… did he play music? Or was he a painter? It was something along those lines.
Both men were concerned for John, and while discussing remembering, Rodney mentioned something… that remembering was like Pandora's box. Once you open it, all kind of bad things could come out. Things you maybe wouldn't like to know about yourself or your past.
But one has to know who he is, claimed John, thinking of Teyla's proverb.
Yes, agreed Rodney. But one also has to know how to deal with whatever the box could provide.
John felt fear coiling deep in his stomach, making him anxious and physically sick. If he remembered he would know what kind of a man he was. He would know who he was, and what he stood for. What he should stand for. But also – he would never be able to change it – whatever he did, no matter how bad; he would have to accept it.
The afterglow of the dream stayed with him, making him feel colder than the ocean wind. But whatever was in that box – John had to remember. He simply had to.
It happened while he was running. He wasn't trying to remember, nor was he thinking of her – he did think of her often – she would cross his mind when he walked through the City and he remembered her – walking, taking care of things and people, talking, and negotiating. She was the ever present guiding light, and the fondness as well the sense of protectiveness preempted his memory, just like he smiled at the image of a woman who always wore red and had too much coffee and too little sleep.
He stopped as he felt something strange lurking from the back of his mind – there was a thought, a voice – his voice, and it called for an answer, bearing fear and panic.
"Atlantis! Come in!"
He was on the ship, an image of outer space floating in front of him, on the ship's viewer. John remembered the presence of other people all around, the bridge of the ship buzzing with activity. Yet his thoughts flew to the city on the planet somewhere under this ship, and he remembered the siege… the massive Wraith attack and how he tried to do something desperate…
"I have to and you know it!"
There was ice in her eyes as she watched him leave. She thought he would die. He believed it too, but it was the only thing he was capable of doing, because it meant all of them could be saved, and there was still hope, and she would still be alive….
He would have died for all of them – for her. The notion burned inside of his chest as he stepped near the city railing, staring down at the water. The memory of the storm and thunders echoed through his mind, his feet remembered the desperate, angry run as the cruel voice said "Doctor Weir is dead.", and then he saw fragments of her being dragged away, a hand holding her across her waist, pulling her through the gate….
He remembered shooting with cold anger filling his veins and she slipped free falling to the floor.
When he took a hold of her hand, he still couldn't quite believe it was over. As Rodney worked to keep the city safe, tremors shook his body in waves, relief was spreading under his skin, mixed with an oath – to never let her out of his sight, to keep her safe.
At times when she sat in her office alone and worried, and times when it was too much, and she went out to that balcony, seeking refuge, he remembered going after her, images and memories falling like snowflakes on his palms, melting and sinking under his skin, along with the care, affection, and the emotions he couldn't voice, just go by them, when she was alone.
Or in danger.
He heard Carson's voice, telling him he couldn't do anything for her and there something snapped inside John's chest and his hand reached through the transparent plastic curtain, because he couldn't afford to loose her, he couldn't because without her….
He loved her. It hit him so suddenly, so clearly, he had to hold onto the railing with both hands. It was cold, and grey and solid just like the memory of his feelings and….
Is she going to be okay?
Jennifer Keller stared back at him from his memory, her eyes scared. And then….
The young doctor was holding his shoulder, pushing him into one of infirmary offices, toward the small screen… and he saw Elizabeth, her head wrapped with bandages, and heard Jennifer saying… she probably wouldn't live.
He stared, trying to blink away the tears, feeling his own life coming to an end too because without her…
The widower's sorrow crashed down on him, and then he remembered the dream.
They cured her, fixed her somehow. She tried to help them, all of them…
"I have to and you know it!"
John took a shaky breath full of cold, stabbing guilt, remembering Ronon's hand fisting in the back of his shirt, and he remembered the desperate fear in her eyes…
"Go now! Or none of us will live!"
John let go of the railing, feeling his legs giving out, slipping onto the cold, solid tiles of the ancient city that witnessed both joy and death. In his hands, the Pandora's box was opened, everything Elizabeth was, everything she meant undone, and left out.
How she trusted him.
How he tried to protect her, whatever the cost was.
He… loved her. God, he loved her! Loved her like a husband loved a wife.
Was she his wife? Was that even possible? And if she wasn't did she know? Had she loved him back, or was he simply happy to stand by her, warmed by her presence and a chance to be a part of her life, no matter how small?
And he let her down, leaving her behind. He, of all people, he who should have protected her, who should have given his life for her – he was the one to leave her helpless and lost, left at the enemy's mercy.
John sat curled on the floor, with his face hidden between his hands in front of the truth of who he was, and what kind of man he was. He needed to know, needed to remember something at least. He still couldn't remember his own father's name, or where he was born, or how exactly he ended up here. But that wasn't the one fact that defined who he was.
He was the man who failed to meet his purpose, the very reason why he was here. As the city that had known both love and loss cradled him in her unwavering embrace, the man who served to protect cried for the first time he remembered doing it.
It was in his eyes and in the way he wouldn't say much that morning. He remembered. Teyla couldn't tell how much he remembered, but there was little doubt in her mind that he was aware of Elizabeth's fate.
In last few days, as his memories drifted back to him, and that one thing that kept coming back insistently was Elizabeth. She seemed to be the center of his memories, and the core of his newly regained identity, a guiding light that reached back to him. If almost every significant memory was somehow connected to her, then she had to be more important to him than Teyla had ever imagined.
Certainly, Teyla had always an idea of John's attachment and fondness for the former leader of the city. He loved her, it was clear. He grieved in silence during last few months, and his grief was tearing everyone apart. Still, Teyla had realized only now how deep both the love and the grief were.
And then it seemed that the only thing John couldn't gain back was the thing that could heal him. If mainly memories of Elizabeth came back to him, then those memories must have been the ones most difficult to destroy, the most cherished ones, the ones he clung to when everything else was falling apart. Was that simply an irony or was the fate truly cruel to him?
But all of this wasn't Teyla's only reason to worry. If she knew John – and she did, from his "bad taste in music" as Rodney put it, to every move during sparring practices he made – even before he decided on them – then it was certain as the sun rising on the far end of the ocean that John would at least try to do something.
Something that troubled her even more was the fact that this "new John" – because he seemed like a different person altogether – was raw and open, as if he was stripped to the bare basics of his character – impulsive, intense, willing to put himself in any harm's way if there was any chance he could prevent something from happening…. Or saving something. Or someone.
She remembered the man who defeated the Genii almost all by himself that first year, during the storm. That instinct that guided him was still there, deep in his eyes, and this morning as he was going for the run, Teyla didn't fail to notice the determination or cold purposefulness of his movements. Telling Ronon that she had to deal with something urgent – like there weren't emergencies all around them – she ran off to find John, absolutely positive that he was up to something.
No, not just something – he was planning a rescue mission. On his own and in the state he was in, it equaled a suicide mission – yet that never stopped John from trying, and maybe what Doctor Zelenka often said was true – God took care of the drunks and the fools. Given that she never had seen John in a truly inebriated state, he definitely met the standards of the latter group.
Locating him proved to be quite a task. With his memory damaged or not, he seemed to know how to hide from her and everyone else. His radio wasn't activated and for some reason Chuck couldn't find him on City's sensors for nearly two hours. What John did to fool the city remained a mystery, but when Teyla finally reached him, she found him dressed for battle near the puddle jumper bay.
And he was angry. It was the same kind of anger just like that day when they had a fight on the balcony, hitting her in waves spreading out from him, but this time Teyla decided not to let the conflict simply slip through her hands.
"John, you can not," she ran after him, catching up with his long strides.
"Funny you should say those exact words," his voice was laced with sarcasm Teyla didn't quite understand.
"John, stop. You can not just go from planet to planet looking for her. We looked and came up empty handed, can you not remember?"
He stopped, spinning around to face her, with his face flushed and his eyes drowning in pain.
"No, I can't remember. But I can remember leaving her behind," his breathing was heavy as he spat last three words out, and the strain in his voice was too big for just quick pacing, even running through the corridor.
"John, calm down please," she tried, well aware that he was ready to do just about anything – and without the reason he used to have – it was something that Elizabeth had taught him, never to jump off the cliff before considering his options and deciding on the best choice of action, not only for himself but for everyone else - something he failed to gain back along with other memories of her, he seemed like the hot headed young Major Teyla had met four years ago. It was that same fierceness that had saved her life, and other lives as well, but that same trait led him into countless dangers. He was the trouble magnet like Elizabeth used to say – so lovingly and with much compassion; and Teyla remembered in sadness how carefully the other woman nurtured and crafted John's ability to be a true leader on whom they could count.
"How can I calm down, Teyla? I left her behind!"
"John, nothing could have been done. Nothing! Do you believe Ronon would have left her if there was any chance of her salvation?"
"Well he left me in the woods, didn't he? Wasn't that what you guys told me when you found me there?" he spat back and Teyla couldn't stop the guilt welling up in her heart.
"That is not fair, John. Ronon cares for you like a brother would. Lives were in danger. He would not leave you there easily," she tried to control her own voice, but the strain of last few days, and everything going on around her and in the city took its price. "Nor was his decision over Elizabeth easy. He was saving your life and all the lives on Atlantis. It was Elizabeth's choice," she countered.
"Yes," Teyla sensed a crack in the wall of his anger and reached to grasp his arm. "John, listen to me. She feared she would only present a danger if she was to stay with us. She chose to sacrifice her…," the last word – 'life' - couldn't leave her lips. Loosing a friend like Elizabeth wasn't something Teyla could get over easily. She was still grieving; learning how to accept that, most probably, her friend and the leader was lost. Forever.
"Why would she decide that? Why would she choose to die?!" insisted John.
So he didn't remember the nanites and what Rodney did and… Closing her eyes and removing her hand from John's arm, Teyla rubbed her face. Maybe it wasn't a wise choice, but she had to tell him, offer an explanation, because he was desperate for one. And maybe, just maybe he would be reasonable enough to see why going after her; to save her was dangerous and practically impossible.
"We saved her life by reactivating the nanites she still had in her blood. You have told me you remembered that….," she let her voice trail off, watching the expression on his face, the same one he had just after Rodney had done it.
"No," his voice dropped, the heavy tone settling in the pit of her stomach like a cold burden.
"It was the only way," she said warmly.
"She would never want it," said John with strong conviction – he did remember what Elizabeth was like - and his shoulders dropped. Teyla's heart hurt when she saw the fire in his eyes vanishing, realizing that she took the hope away from him – and it felt like she took Elizabeth from him all over again.
"We are not certain what happened to her," she tried, but John had already turned his face away from her.
"She might be dead. Long dead," he hissed, and Teyla watched him as he seemed to collapse in on himself, loosing whatever it was that fueled the fire inside of him. And when nothing but the pain was left on his face, he suddenly straightened, clenching fists and looking back at her with determination reborn from ashes of hope. "But we don't know for certain, do we?"
Teyla shook her head slowly. As much as she feared this – his intention to go out there and save her, if there was anything left to save, was back – she felt immense relief to see him alive again. Without the hope he only seemed to exist under the shroud of sadness and the guilt that never left his soul.
And right there and then Teyla knew what was the only thing she could do and close her eyes at night to meet peaceful dreams – if John wanted to go and look for Elizabeth, then Teyla had to help him. With a memory loss that was still severe and probably permanent to an unknown extent, he couldn't meet this damned galaxy alone. But she was more than able to help. John couldn't succeed alone, but together they stood some kind of a chance.
"I won't let you go alone," she whispered and for the first time in a long time John smiled.
"I can live with that," he grinned then, following her as she turned the opposite direction of the jumper bay. If they would practically run away on a rouge rescue mission, then they needed to be well prepared. Besides, Teyla didn't plan to leave without leaving word for Ronon. He was the only one with memories intact besides her and well – she couldn't abuse his trust. Ronon counted on her. In prospect of that faith, what she was about to do was wrong, but this wasn't John's life at stake – it was his very soul.
Well, for supposed professionals, they were definitely doing a crappy job. Not only that they made their presence so easily notable – if those two believed they would pass for a married couple, they were fucking clueless – their means in acquiring information was sloppy at best.
Either that or he became all too critical and self assured that nobody could beat his skill of knowing everything that mattered.
They haven't really changed. Okay, he looked a bit older – not much wiser – with few pounds more, but years served him well. Besides, nothing ruined his appealing looks.
She didn't changed at all; she was exactly the same as the last time he saw her – the small and seemingly delicate frame, the gentle face that was hiding great strength – both physical and personal. She was always so kind to him – always – and as they walked through the market side by side, he watched them; dark haired man and the small woman, while longing for home and the anger of an abandoned child collided in his chest.
He started pacing faster as they took a turn toward the living area of the town, following them through the parallel ally. There was one single place where they could have rented a room. Pretending to be married served simply as a means of protection – while one could sleep the other could keep watch.
The darkness was creeping among the narrow streets of the town. People were hurrying to seek the shelter of their homes, given that they had one. He didn't but that wasn't all that important.
He just had to reach them before they reached their destination.
"And you believe this would prove helpful?" inquired John, keeping up with Teyla who hurried to reach the hostel where they rented a room. She had introduced him as her husband with one purpose only – she didn't want to leave him out of her sight, not for a single minute. John was aware that protesting or convincing her that he could defend himself should the need arise were futile, so he decided to turn everything into a joke by patting her hand in public just to annoy her or asking her was she upset with having such unwilling and disobeying husband as him. She laughed and the sound of it did him good.
"It could. Do you not think that inquiries about the Wraith yielded so much information on the Asurans so easily – significant?"
"I don't think you'd be asking me this if it was insignificant," grinned John. "Who are these Asurans?"
"Oh," a cold fist punched him straight into gut when Teyla said the name. He didn't really remember what they looked like but he hated them to the core. "Do you think they're working together?"
"I am not certain. They could also be working against each other," said Teyla as their footsteps echoed along the narrow ally. "Actually, the more I think about it, the more plausible it seems. We have to find out more."
"That would be useful," mused John, looking at her. She nodded with a worried look on her face.
"I believe it is highly important to learn as much of their connection as possible. We could be looking at the beginning of another war. It would come to Atlantis' doorstep sooner rather than later."
"I see what you mean. How do you think we could…?"
"Find Elizabeth?" Teyla looked at him, giving him a soft smile. God, was he glad he brought her along, not only because she knew what had to be done, but because her presence was so assuring. Calming. If there was any hope out there, Teyla was the one to find and cherish it. "We need to learn if both sides are taking prisoners and to what purpose. We need to find where they are keeping them. As for Wraith…"
"They simply need a snack, eh?" quipped John, as they rounded the corner. It was getting darker, and the air became humid and heavy, almost sticky with heat, the sounds and strange scents coming from the houses or taverns.
"You could put it that way, yes," she smirked up at him. "But both sides would also need information. Elizabeth has all the information on Atlantis and either side…"
Teyla didn't finish her sentence. Seemingly out of nowhere something flew toward them and hit her head, sending her unconscious to the floor.
John knelt next to her, his fingers finding the pulse on her neck. Her heart was beating, and she was also breathing, she was only unconscious – but then someone pulled him back to his feet and he faced a hooded man, a bit shorter than John, and the gun he was holding.
"Do as I say and don't try to be smart," he hissed. "Hands up!"
John did as he was ordered.
"Who are you?" he demanded, looking down at Teyla who lay near his right foot. "What do you want?"
The attacker didn't answer right away. He nudged the unconscious woman lying on the floor and she moaned.
"Good. She'll wake up soon, which means we have to go," said the stranger, and John frowned.
"I'm not leaving her," he drawled, but the man pointed his gun higher, toward John's face.
"Looks like I'm the one holding the gun. Now move. She'll be fine," there was something familiar about the laid back confidence of the voice hidden under the hood, but in the near – dark, John couldn't see the man's face. "Move!"
Unwillingly John obeyed, walking where the hand holding his shoulder directed him as he kept his hands on top of his head. The man was unexpectedly strong, and they walked fast until they reached the edge of the small merchant city and what seemed to be an abandoned house. Pushing the creaking door aside, John was maneuvered inside the cold space.
"Face the wall and don't move. I can see you even if you think I can't," the voice warned him. John strained his ears and heard some fumbling, and then there was light. "Okay, turn around now, and put down that gun from the holster. And the knives, both of them," heard John. He turned around and saw a dark skinned man crouched in front of a fireplace. He put on the fire with skillful fingers and looked up at John, picking up the strange looking gun. "The knife in your left boot," he said.
John crouched, staring into man's face – he couldn't tell was he young or old. He could have been young, yet the lines on his face and his tired eyes led him to believe differently.
But his eyes – his eyes were what kept John's attention locked. One eye was just a normal looking, brown eye. The other one was pitch black, and probably blind.
"How do you know about my knife?" asked John, pulling the blade out of his boot and putting it onto the floor. Damn it. He'd been captured by an enemy who probably knew him better than John would like. Maybe even better than John knew himself. After all it was Teyla who told him to place the second knife right there before they escaped to search for Elizabeth.
The man snorted indignantly.
"You made us all hide them there," he retorted, his good eye studying John intently. "Looks like this damn galaxy was too good to you," he spat.
"I made you… what do you mean by that?"
"C'mon Sheppard. Let's not play games here. I don't look that horrible to be unrecognizable," the man grinned and a flash of familiarity hit John's mind again, but he couldn't identify the person sitting next to the fire. "What are you doing here with Teyla anyway?"
"What do you care?"
How did he know him and Teyla? It seemed like he knew a lot about them both. Who was he?
"Oh is that the way to talk to an old friend?"
"Who the hell are you?" snapped John, almost rising to his feet, but the gun rose along as well, which sent him back to the floor.. "And what the hell happened to your eye?"
"Oh you're priceless!" The man started laughing without amusement in his voice, and the single eye that stared at him was cold and angry. "Drop the act, will you?"
"I don't know you," countered John determinately. "What do you want from me?"
"I was on your bloody team and you're saying you don't know me?!?" the man rose to his feet with a sudden outburst of near – rage. "I don't know are you an idiot, or do you simply enjoy degrading me, as if you haven't done that enough!"
"On my team? What do you mean… when?"
Didn't Teyla tell him about….? John strained his memory to come up with an answer.
"Some commanding officer you are! You left me to the Wraith, you bastard, you never came back! I kept calling for help from that damaged dart, but nobody came, because all that was important was to have your butt safe and sound," the man knelt in front of him, and there among the rage and disappointment on his face, John thought or imagined he saw something he used to know. "Drop the act, I said!"
John moved backwards and when his back hit the wall he raised his hands slightly, keeping his tone barely in the realm of controlled. Gun or not, this man was irritating and his accusations didn't ring any bell.
"I don't remember you! I don't remember lot of things! Have you ever heard of being sick?" John asked and for a moment the two of them glared at each other – then suddenly the man's face was transformed as his expression softened and then –
"Wait. You mean it? You don't remember? How can you not remember?"
Oh God. That face. One of the faces from the old picture.
"Ford? Aiden Ford??"
It couldn't be him. Could it? Teyla said he'd died in the Hive ship explosion. And they did search for him. They did.
"Yes, that's me – what the heck happened to you, Sheppard?"
John felt relief.
"Ha! What the heck happened to you?!"
"Wait! You're telling me Doctor Weir was kidnapped?"
John nodded, observing his used – to –be team member, trying to fit him into a place and time of his life – or better the leftovers of his life, but failing. When Aiden grinned or smiled he seemed familiar, but not from the picture John held in his hands over last few days. There must have been a memory of the young man lying somewhere in the back of John's head.
"Yes, and that's why we came here. Teyla said it was a good place to look for information, supplied John, pacing hurriedly next to Aiden.
"Yep, that's true. There's all kind of scum 'round here, and if you know what questions to ask, you'll find what you're looking for. Or at least you'll get an idea where next to go," mused Ford as two of them neared the big house where the hostel was.
"Here we are," announced the young man. They exchanged a look and John walked in, squaring his shoulders, with Ford close behind.
When they entered the reception hall the young woman who rented them the room early this morning stared at John with wide eyes.
"Is my wife here?" he asked, stepping closer to the counter.
"Uh, I'm afraid, kind sir, she had left," the woman threw suspicious glance at Ford, tensing visibly.
"Half an hour ago, sir," answered the woman, glancing back and forth between John and Aiden. "She left a message," her voice was almost a fearful whisper. John looked at Ford and the young man turned around, as if that could help the situation. He was obviously not presentable and not wanted in a fine place like this, and John didn't miss a glint of bitterness in his eye.
"What was the message?" he asked.
"She said she was going back. When I asked where to she had told me you would know what she meant."
John nodded. It could only mean Atlantis. He thanked the woman, asking if he was in debt, and when he was informed that "his wife" had paid for their short stay, he and Ford left the place.
Finding themselves on the street again, John couldn't miss the agitation in Ford's demeanor.
"Are you going to go back?" he asked. Was there hint of fear in his voice too?
"It would probably be the wisest thing… but… if I go back, I won't be able to continue my search later."
"They'll put your ass in the brig, huh?" chuckled Ford ironically. John frowned.
"Either that or the infirmary. Seems like Doctor Keller thinks my brain is missing a few pieces," joked John wryly.
"Doctor – who?"
"Doctor Keller. Jennifer Keller," clarified John. Aiden frowned in confusion.
"Where is Carson? He's usually the one who puts people in the infirmary and it's easier to flee the armed guards then him," asked Aiden, watching John intently. John felt his heart sink lower – first he told Aiden – as much as he remembered, and what he learned from others – about the Replicators, how they attacked them, how the city's shield collapsed.
How they lost Elizabeth and their home.
Now he had to tell him about yet another loss.
"Carson died in an explosion, trying to save a patient. It happened six months ago. I don't remember it. That's what Teyla had told me," supplied John watching his younger companion lower his head.
"Looks like I missed out on a lot of things," said Aiden taking a knife and flipping it in his hand.
"Bad things, it seems," added John. "I'm sorry. Wish I could tell you something better."
"This fucking galaxy isn't really a cheerful place to be," Aiden turned his face away from John. "You know, when I first saw you I thought you were looking good and doing fine. Doubted that you've actually married Teyla. You haven't, have you?"
"No," John smiled.
"Thought so. You two don't look very married," added Aiden in an amused tone. "Anyway… wish I could… have been there. To help out, you know," it wasn't just a casual comment. It was a confession of sorts, sensed John as his companion fought to keep his emotion in check.
"Why weren't you? I suppose you knew how to go back before we…," the look that Aiden gave him stopped John in completing his thought.
"Who says you would have taken me back?"
"We don't leave our men behind," stated John, which made Aiden laugh right in his face and his wide open feelings. John had meant it. Didn't Aiden know that?
"No kidding? Then what are we doing here discussing how Doctor Weir of all people got kidnapped and nobody sent a rescue party to retrieve her? Ha! This is really insane, you know?"
"She's infected with… the nanites," mumbled John before he was able to stop himself. He knew it wasn't wise to share such information but something heavy in Aiden's eye, accusing and directed straight at John made him speak to hear his condemnation.
"Nanites? The Replicator nanites? Oh now I see! You treated her just like me, didn't you? Like she was a monster! Or you didn't have chance to do so, but she knew you would!"
"We did not…"
It was Elizabeth's choice.
John stared back at Aiden, feeling defeated. It was her choice, right. But truthfully, did she have any choice, any choice at all? She knew what the nanites could do. Teyla explained it a bit more, and John could draw back to his memory of the time Elizabeth was first infected.
Essentially, she was the enemy.
With a numb emptiness he remembered stepping into an isolation room where she was just after she woke up…. And he felt his hand reach for the gun as she stared back at him in shock and horror and confusion, asking helplessly what had happened.
He treated her like the enemy.
"You did," hissed Aiden. "It's written all over your face. You were never that good at poker, Sheppard," he continued as John lowered his eyes.
"I did," whispered John, covering his face with his hands. "Oh my God."
They said that people changed. Aiden had his own theory – people either learned how to be more or less. Right now he couldn't put a finger on the change he was seeing in the shape of the man sitting across the camp fire, with half of his face submerged in the darkness. He really didn't remember anything, of that Aiden was certain. This was… confusing.
Splitting the food he had between the two of them – bread and ham and fruit that tasted like apples, Aiden observed the man he used to admire so much. He had spent too long trying to hate him or to forget him, not being able to do either. John Sheppard was someone to whom Aiden trusted – at least he used to, back in the days when he knew how to trust himself.
And then after… the accident he simply wanted to show them… him – he wasn't that bad. He wasn't sick. No, in fact, he could do more. If only they let him! But…
Aiden held back the old, overplayed anger as he watched John shift uncomfortably on the floor, eating the food he was given without a complaint. Sheppard was a modest man – simple and quiet, not an attention seeker like he sometimes lead people to believe. Yes, Aiden used to admire him. Used to trust him. Why didn't he help him back then? Aiden was honest when he said back then on a Hive ship he wanted to go home.
But right now it was hard staying angry of what was left of that man who hesitated to step through the wormhole. This man here was him, in the essence – but at the same time, this wasn't him. It seemed like John Sheppard had lost himself along the way.
"So what happened to you?" asked Ford.
"What do you mean?"
"What happened to you? How did you get… amnesia?"
John frowned. "Some kind of Pegasus virus infected us … Everyone in the City got infected. Ronon, Lorne and myself went for the medicine… then I got lost. They… had to leave me, because the situation in the City was critical."
Aiden held back the answer – Yeah, now you know how it feels; not nice, right? – was on tip of his tongue, but he didn't utter it. John finished his meal, and Aiden felt he lost his appetite.
"Why didn't you ever…?"
John looked up in confusion. He doesn't remember, said Aiden to himself, watching his former commander desperately search the pieces of his memory, debating with himself was Sheppard pathetic or … was Aiden actually feeling sorry for him.
Maybe it was little bit of both, he decided. He kind of missed John. He missed them all – and now, watching the man robbed of the memory, Aiden wondered how much of himself was lost too.
"I… I'm not really sure," replied John carefully. There was a sincere apology on his face. He probably didn't know what the Wraith enzyme was about and Aiden didn't want to tell him. Not just yet. Come to think of it, he didn't even know what to do now – at first his plan was to… go back somehow, convince them; but now he wondered what would he be coming back to. Most of his friends were gone. John was still alive, but he wasn't the man Aiden remembered. The City wasn't what Aiden remembered and the change that was shaped in things John had told him sounded frightening. There was no going back to yesterday.
"What were you looking for? You and Teyla?" he asked as John poked the flames with a branch.
"Information. We went to look for Elizabeth. We needed something to begin with," explained John.
Aiden nodded, studying the man's expression, the way his eyes lowered to his hands, not missing the shadow of self doubt that crossed his features.
"I really need Teyla's help," said John through his lips pressed. "I…"
"You don't remember," finished Aiden for him, feeling a sudden sadness. John only nodded.
The silence that fell upon them was heavy and thick. John let his face sink into darkness again, looking at his hands. Aiden stared at his old knife, the one that had cut too many Wraith to count.
Yes, he captured and killed a lot of them. He could even say that some of them feared him a little. He had gained a certain reputation even.
But was he doing anything useful? He often talked about the strength he had now, and how was he a better man? Aiden stared at John realizing that his companion didn't have trouble confessing the mistake he had made. It was something that was obviously tearing him apart.
Suddenly John pulled out a photograph out of his tac vest and handed it over to Aiden. God, that was an old photo. Aiden stared at them – Carson – he couldn't be gone! Rodney's face was irritated even at this old picture. Chuckling, he remembered that silly game of prime and not prime Rodney and Zelenka used to play.
Elizabeth. Aiden never really got to know her, but always respected her. She was… a presence. He didn't have a better word to describe her – he was a soldier, and was used to having an officer for a commander, but never was there a doubt in his mind that Doctor Weir was the one in charge.
Sheppard – young and not very confident, standing next to Elizabeth, content to stay behind in the shadow. Sumner was still alive, and in charge – and not happy at all with Elizabeth's decision to bring John along.
But looking at his own smiling face was the hardest thing for Aiden. Suddenly he realized that none of the people on the picture was still around. Well, maybe except for McKay – Aiden couldn't imagine Rodney any different than the cranky genius who could deal with the worst emergencies, but when he cut his finger he came running straight to the infirmary.
But the others? They were gone. Sumner was the first to die. Carson didn't deserve to share that fate. He was the kindest soul Aiden remembered. And Sheppard? He was hanging somewhere in between not wanting to look into all the mistakes that brought him here and the need to remember who he was.
And what about Aiden Ford? Where did he go? Aiden stared at his own face, feeling old and ruined. That photograph… felt like thousand years ago, or maybe another lifetime.
"You used to name things," the suddenly voiced memory startled him out of his thoughts. Aiden looked up at John, meeting the thoughtful face and eyes filled with sadness and longing, lost in the unknown distance. "Gateship. I remember I hated that, right?"
"Yes, you did," answered Aiden, feeling the warmth creep up his bones, despite everything.
"You know what the funny thing is? Ancients really called them that," confessed John, glancing toward Aiden with humor filling his eyes.
"Yep," John lowered his head staring at his hands again.
"Eh, for the record, Sir," it slipped through Aiden's mouth and when John lifted his head, it was too late to take it back. And then, there it was, that weak, but never – gone wish to go back, to go home and be accepted again. "'Puddlejumper' was kinda … lame," said Aiden tentatively. The two men stared at each other, the past and their wrong choices hanging above their heads. But then John started grinning, and in the next second both of them were laughing, hard and loud, desperately holding to the sound of other's voice.
When the laughter subsided the feeling in Aiden's chest was lighter, like a knot that was loosened. When John's expression fell again, and when he was about to turn his face to the darkness yet again, Aiden knew there was just one thing to do.
He couldn't go back – and he didn't want to. The man in front of him was searching for someone, but that wasn't just the woman on this old photograph. He was searching for himself. Glancing back at his own face, Aiden felt the decision welling up inside his chest.
They had taught him, after all, never to leave his men behind.
"Say, Sheppard? How about me helping you?"
"You're telling us that he wasn't here alone?" asked Rodney and the young hostel worker seemed terrified. Ronon's frown certainly didn't help, neither did Jennifer's uncomfortable shifting in place. Teyla was slightly annoyed by the doctor, assuming that the young woman could panic and cause more trouble than good, but Colonel Carter – and Ronon too – insisted that she should be brought along, because John's condition wasn't exactly good. And there was a possibility of whoever kidnapped him also injuring him, and Carter insisted on taking no chances.
"He was with the Wraith hunter," said the woman, looking even more frightened. Four of them exchanged a look. Wraith hunter?
"The Wraith hunter?" repeated Teyla, trying to look assuring as possible. "Would you know who this man is?"
The woman nodded but didn't speak. Teyla smiled, but Rodney wasn't in the mood for encouraging approach.
"Oh will you spit it out finally? The man we're looking for is sick and needs our help!"
"McKay," warned Ronon. Rodney scoffed.
"Please. Our… my husband needs help," pleaded Teyla, almost forgetting she was supposed to be the worried wife and blowing the little trust the woman still had in them.
The young woman swallowed a lump.
"The Wraith hunter comes and goes. He usually comes into town to find out where the Wraith are. Then he goes to hunt them. Some people say he … eats them," said the woman in disgust. Whoever this Wraith hunter was, he wasn't very popular.
"Eats them?" repeated Ronon, frowning.
"What does he look like?" asked Teyla, centering her attention at something useful.
"He is your height," the woman pointed at Rodney. "And has dark skin and dirty clothes. And only one eye."
"One eye?" repeated Teyla. That sounded like useful information, narrowing the possible suspects. Now they only had to find the man with only one eye, dark skin and dirty clothes.
"His other eye is black and they say he can see in the dark," said the woman. "And nobody can hide from him. They say he's faster and stronger than the Wraith, and even the Wraith fear him."
Teyla could feel a shiver that ran through her team, and how Ronon stiffened next to her. It sounded too familiar to be true. Before anyone could speak Teyla asked another question.
"Tell me… my husband was with this man? Was he concerned?"
"No. That was strange. I think… your husband knows the Wraith hunter. They looked like friends. He wasn't concerned at all."
Four of them exchanged a look - Ronon was grim, Rodney nervous, Jennifer was confused.
"Ford," muttered Ronon and clenched his fist. "Just what we need."
"Wow," muttered John as he entered the tavern, following Aiden.
"The scum of the Galaxy, at your service," grinned Aiden. "This is where you find out really interesting stuff," he added as they shouldered their way toward the bar. Several grim looking faces glared at John but he didn't flinch. When they reached the bar he trusted Aiden with the drinks order, which provided them with suspicious looking beer. However their goal wasn't the drink but the talks going on all around them.
John had observed Aiden as he studied the groups of people, carefully hiding his face under the hood. Finally he pointed toward one group of four men clad in greyish clothes.
"Wraith worshipers," said Aiden in the low voice. "They are the real scum. I hate their guts," he added. "But they can be very useful."
"How so?" asked John.
"You've met them. Don't you remember?" asked Aiden but John had shook his head.
"What do you mean by wraith worshipers?" asked John quietly.
"Well you probably know what the Wraith are doing. We're food to them. Some people work for them, tip off others, tell them about hiding places of the many, betray their own kind and ensure that the Wraith leave them alone. I've even heard of scientists working for the Wraith. I don't like it. It looks like they're preparing for something big."
"A war with the Replicators?"
"Anything is possible," mused Aiden. "The Replicators are inedible. And they are killing off their food. Not good for the Wraith."
"Definitely," smirked John sarcastically, as both sipped their beer. It wasn't as bad as it looked.
"So what now?" asked John after few moments of silence.
"I would like to have a chat with those guys over there. We should wait for them to leave this lovely party," Aiden winked with his good eye under the hood and the sight gave John chills. The young man noticed John's reaction and started laughing. "Relax, Sheppard. It doesn't hurt."
"What happened to it?"
"I think it's the enzyme," answered Ford, taking another sip of the beer.
"The Wraith tried to feed on me. They inject you with some kind of enzyme so you don't die right after they grab you. We fell into the cold water, the Wraith died of shock, and the enzyme shot straight into me. It… messed me up," said Aiden, shrugging.
"When did that happen?"
"During the siege."
"Of Atlantis?" asked John and Aiden nodded, keeping his eyes at their target. "Why didn't Carson fix it?"
Aiden was quiet for several moments, his eyes hidden under the shadow of his hood. Then he spoke, without looking up.
"I didn't really give him a chance," he said, playing with his glass and staring at his beer. "I thought…."
"What?" asked John, confused.
"I felt stronger. Better. You all thought I was sick and needed to be cured. Then I ran away," summed the young man dryly, and finally looked up at John.
"But why?" asked John, still missing a piece of the puzzle.
"I was wrong, Sheppard, okay? I'm not very proud of myself. I'm just…," he stopped mid sentence when they spotted the group of four starting to leave. Aiden put several silver coins on the bar counter, nodded to the waiter who returned a grim nod and the two of them started to make their way out, trying not to draw attention.
Ambushing them wasn't as hard as John expected it to be. Maybe it was because of Aiden and the way he knew this place – there was something definitely weird and slightly disturbing about him, the more John had observed the young man behave. When they attacked the four men, jumping out of the shadowy alley, Aiden had taken down three of them. John didn't forget how to fight, but the way Aiden fought got him wondering. The man was unnaturally fast.
With four unknown men unconscious, they started searching their clothes. Just as Aiden had said earlier, one of them had some kind of a device, which Aiden called a "data pad" – it had a small display screen and John watched as Aiden fumbled with it.
"You know, Sheppard, what I find most disgusting? These devices are of Ancient origin," Aiden looked up at John. "Which means… there are the descendants of the Ancients somewhere in this Galaxy," Aiden frowned as the device hummed into life and the small screen in front of them flashed.
"The same Ancients who built Atlantis?"
"The one and only. Huh. These guys think they're smart if they protect their data with a code," mused Aiden, typing into the device. "Which probably means there's something interesting inside of this thingy."
"Can you break the code?" asked John, watching him uncertainly, as his hands busied themselves by tying down their captives. Aiden flashed a vicious grin.
"Wraith codes aren't that smart. I wonder what McKay would say about them. Here we go, I think I'm getting closer….," John was quiet as he watched the young man frown in concentration, ridding the last of their captives of his set of very sharp knives. "Okay, this is weird," mouthed Aiden, frowning at the device in his hand.
John scooted over to him, taking a peek at the display. The stream of data in front of his eyes didn't make much sense. "This isn't the usual Wraith code," mused Aiden, still typing. "This is ancient writing."
"You think this device came from Atlantis?"
Aiden shook his head slowly. "No, I don't think so. If it did, then I wouldn't be able to break through the code because it would probably be McKay's code. It was a Wraith code. However… hmmm. This could actually be one of the Replicator devices. As far as I know the Asurans use Ancient, just like Ancients did."
John nodded. It made sense – Teyla had told him how the Asurans came to be.
"Can you read it?" asked John.
"I won't know until I try," said Aiden and busied himself with his work.
When John's radio suddenly cracked into life, John nearly jumped from the place on the ground where he laid on. Looking over at Aiden – who slept, John got up and activated the radio, just like Ronon had shown him several days ago.
"Yeah?" he croaked into the speaker, stepping away from his companion.
"Sheppard? Where are you?" he heard Rodney's voice on the end of the line.
"Yes, it's me, are you ok?Geez, I can't believe this," said Rodney way too loudly for John's liking.
"I'm fine! Rodney I need you here," muttered John glancing behind his shoulder, while reaching inside of his pocket to collect an item he took from one of the Wraith worshipers – a simple wrist watch, one he saw many times – worn backwards on Elizabeth's left wrist.
"Fine, where is here, and why are you whispering?"
"I'm with Ford, and he's asleep. I don't think he would ..."
"I get it. You don't want him to know we're coming?"
"I don't think he would be thrilled. Who else is there with you?"
"Ronon, Teyla and Keller. And Lorne and Thompson too. Are you ok?"
"I'm fine but I'm worried about Ford," muttered John as quiet as he could. A few hours ago when he suggested they should at least call the team here, Aiden had panicked. As far as John could tell the young man wasn't feeling well, and wouldn't tell John what was bothering him, also refusing to call Rodney for help when he obviously failed to translate whatever the data was on the device they had found.
John was nervous himself – their captives refused to reveal where they had gotten the wrist watch – Aiden too recognized it as Elizabeth's. Beating and threatening didn't bring them any new information. Aiden said that starving them might prove a better method of making them talk, but John had thought that would take too long. He couldn't sleep, not with Elizabeth's watch in his hands . . . it proved she was out there somewhere – maybe alive, and waiting for someone to set her free. He didn't like the fact that they had found her watch in a Wraith worshiper's hands. What if she was taken by the Wraith? John didn't dare to think what could have happened to her. Teyla told him how the Wraith used to kill whomever they caught.
"I'm fine, but he isn't and we have found something, and you should really take a look at it! Rodney, it's about Elizabeth," hissed John into the radio. For a moment there was silence, and then John thought he had heard voices near Rodney. Then he heard Ronon's deep drawl in his ear.
"Sheppard, where are you? Can you explain to me how to get there?"
"Yes, yes I can. Can you see the mountain with two peaks from where you are?"
Ronon grunted his approval and John began to explain.
Of course, it couldn't run smoothly, it simply couldn't. Even before Rodney was able to do anything useful with the device Aiden had woken up. Just as John had expected he wasn't happy at all.
He had nearly shot Ronon.
Then it happened all too fast – the shouting, Ronon shooting and Aiden dragging Jennifer away, threatening he would kill her if they dared to follow him. Unfortunately, the gate was close, and all they could do was stand and watch as the wormhole disengaged.
Teyla was able to see five of the symbols Aiden had dialed, which meant they had to figure out the remaining two somehow.
Rodney wasn't certain if that could be done.
No, it couldn't go well – and as far as John was concerned, it didn't go well at all.
"Look I'm trying! Back off a bit, would you?" yelled Rodney and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Ronon stepped away from him, wordless, and glanced over at the other scientist. Zelenka, who was crouched near the DHD glanced at him over his shoulder, sighed and then turned back to his work, predicting that he would come up with twenty possible Gate addresses that Aiden could have dialed within an hour. Teyla could feel the tension in him, in all of them for that matter.
"Silence would be good, thank you," muttered the Czech scientist at Rodney and the two men exchanged frowns and a string of barely heard curses. Some things never changed.
This was all awkward at best – Ronon shouldered the responsibility of leadership just fine, but he simply wasn't used to doing it; that was clearly evident. As much as he was mad at Teyla's decision to go with John and not let him in on the plan, he still sought her assurance while handling this situation, and Teyla couldn't help but think just how much they were now like John and Elizabeth used to be. Ronon wasn't comfortable with both John and Rodney so dependent on him – while the scientist was self conscious and confused, frustrated with the struggle to retain his knowledge – because so many people expected him to come up with solutions; John was eager to go on the rescue mission. Ronon had to keep an eye on both men, as if they were children, and that made him nervous.
"Radek," Teyla's voice was soft and almost pleading. Radek grunted, concentrating on his work again. She stood next Rodney, who was crouched on the ground, while John was kneeling near him, his eyes darting between Rodney's busy hands and Teyla's calming eyes. Teyla walked over to John, and he handed her the familiar looking wrist watch.
"She had it with her, right?" he asked and she smiled. "This means she could still be out there, somewhere," his gaze was desperately seeking confirmation and hope, and Teyla steadied herself, not to show just how much the thought of Elizabeth in the hands of the Wraith worried her.
"We hope so, John," she whispered, glancing over at Ronon who stood there grim and frowning. If Teyla had hope, then Ronon had worst case scenarios in his head. Teyla was grateful he didn't voice them aloud – yet. However she was certain that Ronon would follow the plan through, until the end, whatever end that may be. For John's and maybe everybody's sake they had to find out what had happened to Elizabeth. Being without her and not knowing what had happened to her took something away from them, and they had to find peace one way or the other, even if that meant bidding the last goodbye to the woman who watched over them for so long.
John shifted, discomfort showing on his face for a moment. Apparently, his mind was filled with his own doubts – and unlike anyone else, Elizabeth meant more to him. Every memory of significance he recalled since they had found him was somehow connected to her. She was still his anchor – he needed to find her so he could find himself.
"Teyla.... I have to go to find her. I have to. Please don't let them take me back to the City. Please," his face was child like and his voice soft and scared. Teyla's grip tightened on his shoulder and she resisted the wish to comb her fingers through his hair, like she would do if he was a child needing comfort. Finally he glanced at Ronon. The man hadn't moved, nor did he say anything but almost unnoticeable shadow passed his face. John was about to mutter another plea when Rodney jumped to his feet.
"God, I think I have it. I have it," he was breathing raggedly, and casted an excited glance around the group of people.
"You have what?" asked Ronon.
Rodney turned the palm device toward them and smiled – a real, confident McKay smile that usually meant that Rodney, the smartest person in two galaxies had found a way to fix whatever the problem was. Radek turned around and pushed his glasses up his nose in expectation. This moment was much more like those times Teyla remembered.
"The gate address of the planet where Elizabeth is being held," announced Rodney with triumph in his voice." There is just one cluster of information inside this thing, and a tall, dark haired woman who is mentioned is probably – Elizabeth. Some kind of research lab is mentioned," added Rodney and rest of them winced.
"What kind of research?" asked Ronon.
"It's not specified... but my guess is that the Wraith are trying to find some kind of weapon that would give them leverage in the war they're probably not winning," guessed Rodney. Teyla closed her eyes, trying not to hypothesize on possible "uses" for a woman infected with Replicator nanites in Wraith hands.
"Then we better hurry," said John firmly.
Teyla's heart fluttered as she watched John rise to his feet, the well known confidence taking over and pushing the uncertainty away. Watching him confident and determined felt good, it felt right. This was the man she knew, the man who was ready to go and save his people, no matter what, this was why she trusted him from the very beginning. John looked at Ronon – this time there was no plea on his face, just determination and for a moment Teyla thought she saw Ronon smile.
"I'm going there," announced John and it was clear that no force in the universe would be enough to stop him.
"And I'm going with you Sheppard," answered Ronon simply, and there was certain peace in the tall man's voice.
Jennifer pushed herself off the dusty ground and dared another look at her captor. So this was Lieutenant Ford, she thought, getting up on her feet and trying to steady herself. He waved a gun in front of her face and she froze for a moment. The pitch black eye seemed to stare through her, right through her bones.
"What are you looking at? Move!" yelled Ford.
Jeniffer picked up her rucksack, trying to keep her eye on him, and started walking in the direction he was nervously pointing, wiping the sweat and dust off her face. He started rambling, walking behind her back and she shivered every time his voice turned into yelling. She couldn't tell if he would hurt her – he was definitely capable of doing it – but what his intentions were, she had no idea. That certainly wasn't a comforting thought.
"This is just great, great! I should have known, of course, I should have known, it's just the same thing as before," Ford walked next to her now, but he seemed absorbed into talking with himself. Thankfully, he had put the gun away, but Jennifer was both nervous and worried as she observed his movements and the sweat gathering on his face. Something was telling her that it wasn't just about the heat. The doctor – instinct (how her mentor called it a lifetime ago, she thought) woke inside of her head and part of her mind was scanning the man walking next to her, cataloging his symptoms. Nervousness, agitation, jittery movements, sweating. It was familiar. Jennifer hoped she was wrong about her assumption. When he yelled again she jumped.
"Bastard," he yelled and Jennifer tried not to look at him, guessing that he was talking about John. God, what a match, she thought. Ford continued. "Just like before, he just wanted to put me in the brig. Memory loss my ass!"
"He did loose his memories, they all did" said Jennifer, hating the way her voice sounded – scared, wavering tone; nothing like a doctor should sound - and the man next to her stopped to a halt.
"Don't you defend him! What do you know anyway??" he stopped in front of her and she froze.
"I.. I'm a doctor," she offered uncertainly. For some reason she felt that information would make her position only worse.
"Oh, so you're Carson's replacement?" he spat out and Jennifer swallowed.
"Yes," she said quietly.
"What would you know about the whole damn thing? You weren't there. What the hell would you know??? I'm not gonna let you proclaim me crazy, and that's it, forget about it! Is that why they brought you???"
Jennifer stepped away from him, raising her hands to shield her face, expecting the man to hit her. "What? You think I'm beating women?"
"Please," she muttered, her face still hidden behind her hands. "Please." She didn't know what to say to him to make him calm down – it seemed like his mood or his behavior was definitely out of his control. She bit her lip and tried to be calm, as calm as possible while feeling scared as hell.
"Please, what?" he growled into her face.
"I'll do whatever you want me to, I can't..." - great Jen. Just great. Tell him you're helpless will you? Tell him you don't have a clue what to do and right now all you'd do is cry!
He looked at her for several tensed moments and then took a deep, forceful breath. For some reason Jennifer was convinced he could smell her fear; and knew how terrified she was. Totally, completely helpless. Dad was right, she wasn't cut out for stuff like this, she should have been a family doctor, yes, she should have done something simple and quiet, she shouldn't have come here....
"Just walk," Ford took his gun again, lips tightening into a thin line. Jennifer swallowed a lump of fear and forced her feet to move toward the far away rocks, as the sun burned the sand and stone beneath her feet.
She prayed her colleagues would find some way to get her out of this mess because she couldn't possibly think of a way to get out of this herself.
"This planet doesn't have breathable atmosphere. These two have gates in space orbits, which leaves these four addresses," summed up Ronon after Zelenka had shown him the list of the most recent addresses which were dialed out. "Two of these are Wraith worlds. I'd start there."
"Why?" asked John in confusion, giving him a worried glance.
"He'll need the enzyme," supplied Ronon with disgust.
"For what?" John was only further confused.
"He is addicted to it," said Teyla bitterly.
"He has to kill Wraith to .... get the enzyme. It gives him greater physical strength, but it also makes him addicted... which means he is going to suffer withdrawal symptoms if he does not find the enzyme on time. He could even die without it," explained Teyla.
"Then Jennifer is in danger either way," said John, pressing his lips into a tight, thin line. "He had told me he wanted to help me. I believed him."
"He can't be trusted," drawled Ronon. Teyla gave him a stern look.
"That is a harsh thing to say. Aiden ... used to be our friend," she countered.
"Exactly, used to," pointed Ronon out.
"What I am trying to say is that we should not dismiss what he had told John, just because he is... ill," she summed up. "Getting the enzyme means survival... just like we need the food."
"It's disgusting no matter how you put it," shot Ronon back.
"That may be the case. I do not like this any more than you do. But his intention to help could have been an honest one," insisted Teyla.
"Well either way, he is dangerous, and Jennifer is in danger now," Ronon crossed his arms over his chest. "I think we should split up. One group should go to McKay's address to look for Weir. The other should go after Ford."
John looked around their group. Lorne and Thompson seemed ready to go. Ronon nodded in Teyla's direction.
"You should go after Ford," he said.
"Better for Ford," grinned Rodney and glanced at Ronon. "Are we going to find Elizabeth?"
Ronon nodded. "Teyla, take Lorne and Thompson. Sheppard and McKay are with me. Doctor Zelenka, you should go back to Atlantis."
The Czech scientist nodded briefly. Ronon definitely didn't have the intention of babysitting more memory loss suffering scientists than was absolutely necessary.
"We will contact Atlantis every time we go to check another gate address," said Teyla to Radek. "I think the three of you should take the jumper," she pointed in the direction of the vessel.
"Good idea," agreed Ronon. The two groups parted, and Teyla's was the first to go. While Lorne was dialing the first address from the list Teyla turned around, giving Ronon and John a long look.
"Take care of yourselves," said John. Teyla smiled.
"Someone else used to say 'be safe'," she answered. John gave her a sad smile. He remembered that too.
"We'll find her," was all he said.
"I know you will," answered Teyla. The wormhole engaged in front of them. Lorne and Thompson stepped forward and went through before Teyla, who turned around one last time, raised her hand and waved, and then the blue liquid swallowed her and sent her far away from them.
When the wormhole was gone, Ronon looked at Zelenka.
"You next," he said and the scientist gathered his equipment from the ground.
"Good luck," he said to Rodney. Then he dialed Atlantis and stepped through the wormhole.
Three men were left alone. Ronon inwardly sighed when he looked at his two companions. Rodney was so obviously confused, while John was hiding the fact that he depended on someone's guidance.
It occurred to Ronon just how much he had learned to rely on these two men and trust their guidance and leadership. Now he was the one supposed to guide and lead - they expected and needed him to.
"Follow me," said Ronon, straightening and rooting himself in his new role. He had to do this, he had to do it well. He couldn't lean on Sheppard to have the last word any more – thankfully both Sheppard and McKay followed him and listened to him without protest. Memory loss or not, Ronon didn't want to deal with Rodney and his still very present talent for bickering.
With his heart threatening to break through his ribs, John followed Ronon, holding his breath, while Rodney followed close behind. If Rodney's plan didn't work and this place really was full of dormant Wraith soldiers – the improved soldiers (whatever that meant couldn't be anything good) – then the three men on a rescue mission were possibly facing lots of trouble, yet that wasn't something John could think about, not now.
All John could think about was the woman who haunted his memories.
John followed Ronon through a narrow corridor. They could see a silhouette of someone tall moving inside of a room that could have been a lab. Rodney peered at his life signs detector and looked at Ronon.
"That's not her," he stated as quietly as he could. "Which leaves seven more," he pointed at the dots moving on a lower level of the simple display.
"There are people on the lower level," John said. "Maybe that's some kind of prison down there?"
"Could be," said Ronon.
"We should find a way there. McKay?" John turned to Rodney who studied the plan of the building on the data pad they confiscated from the Wraith worshipers – they arranged with Carter, before leaving for a rescue mission, that someone should go to the spot where John and Aiden tied the group of Wraith worshipers to the trees and question the captives.
The plan sounded easy but finding the right corridor that lead to the lower level proved to be exactly the opposite, and the three men wandered the facility, hiding and avoiding several human guards as they passed. They managed to take a look into several rooms which were clean and nearly empty - almost clinical. It seemed as if this place – whatever it was – still wasn't put to it's full use. The whole building was cold and somehow narrow and all John wanted was to get this over with and home.
After they found the stairs and walked down slowly, John and Ronon with guns at the ready, it was Rodney who took tentative lead. John was wondering why there weren't more guards and he suspected there had to be some other kind of securing the facility. However it was too late to discuss that, and he trusted Ronon's decisions.
When they left the stairway, Rodney led them toward a wide hallway with narrow doors on its left side. Every door was marked symbols written in Wraith, locked from outside.
Both John and Ronon looked at Rodney.
"They look like cells," stated John. Rodney neared one of the control mechanisms near the first door in line.
"Are they?" asked Ronon.
"It's quite possible," said Rodney, holding up the life signs detector. "This one is empty," he stated. John gripped the large weapon hanging on his tac - vest tighter.
"We should check the rest," said John and Rodney nodded, walking forward.
"Well, that won't be necessary," said Rodney, still staring at the life sign detector. "If I'm reading this right, there's only one person with us in this hallway... rest of them are in another one... there," Rodney pointed to the right.
"Can you tell... is that person, you know...?" Ronon's brows furrowed.
"What? Human? Female?" Ronon nodded. "Well no. All I can see here is that there's someone alive down there," Rodney pointed down the hall. "We have to open the cell, which could possibly lead to us, being discovered, which means...," Rodney would continue talking hadn't Ronon stopped him.
"We understand," frowned Ronon and glanced at John, who nodded.
"We'll take that chance," said John.
"I'm not sure two of you understand what I mean. This place could be booby trapped, full of dormant Wraith and we could end up as prisoners if we trigger some kind of alarm, which is highly possible, and I can't promise..."
"McKay! We get it. Now, where is that cell?" asked Ronon, setting his large gun to 'kill'.
Rodney opened and then closed his mouth, looking back at the life sign detector.
"There," he pointed toward fourth door in the row. Ronon looked at John, who nodded and nervously licked his lips, gripping his P – 90 tighter.
"Do your stuff McKay. We've got your back," growled Ronon, looking up and down the hall.
The three of them reached the door. Rodney's fingers hesitated above the small control panel for a moment, after he handed John the life sign detector. Nobody was heading toward them, and John could clearly see the single dot, separated from them by the thin metal door; and another six dots hidden in the hallway nearby.
"Rodney, hurry up," John's voice was impatient, and his heart begun to race in his chest. Was she really here? Was that her behind the door?
"Okay, okay," Rodney still hesitated, staring at the buttons and lights on the panel. Then he frowned, probably gathering confidence and begun working. "You know I think this is slightly modified Wraith design, which would mean that I should....," his fingers were tapping sequences of symbols and he stared at the small display on the panel, and then the door suddenly clicked open, sliding toward them. "Wow."
"What did you do?" asked John.
"Opened it?" Rodney threw back at him. "I'm not really certain, but..."
"Doesn't matter how you did it," said Ronon pulling the door toward them as they peered inside.
At first there was little to be seen. The room was probably small, and it was dark, much darker than the dimly lit hallway they were standing in.
"Can you see anything?" asked Rodney.
"Not much," answered Ronon. John pulled a small flashlight from his vest.
"This'll help," he said, switching on the light which washed the space in front of them in warm glow. John circled the room with the flashlight, staring at the barren walls. There was an empty bunk without a cover or a pillow in one corner and his heart clenched when his eyes met emptiness. But when he reached the far corner with the light, all three held their breaths.
There, on the floor sat a woman – definitely a woman – curled on the hard floor, with her face hidden against her knees, rocking slightly and hugging her legs with her hands.
All John could do for a moment was stare at her wavy brown hair and pale skin. He looked at Rodney, who's face had lost its coloring, and then at Ronon who simply nodded.
"Elizabeth?" called John, but the woman didn't react. "Elizabeth??" he called again with slight panic.
"Maybe she's asleep," said Rodney.
John sucked a breath, stepping cautiously forward, when the woman looked up. John stopped in his tracks, hearing both of his friends gasp. It was her – but those weren't the eyes John remembered; that wasn't the compassionate face he held in his memory - this face was blank, and her eyes were empty, and John tried to come closer...
... only to hit an invisible barrier and be thrown at the floor. The woman yelped and launched herself backwards, in the shelter of the shadows, while at the same time the alarm went off all around them.
"Damn it, I knew that would happen," cursed Rodney.
When she heard the door open, she expected to see the man who always came – he always came alone and always treated her with faked interest that only served to mask his real intentions.
It was a male voice she heard – but it was someone she hadn't heard here before, and despite being curious, she refused to look up; just like she always disobeyed, even if it didn't mean more than simple refusal to look up when addressed.
The man who called her this time sounded uncertain, even concerned, and then, when she didn't react his voice changed. When he wouldn't stop calling – was that word he was using a name? - she looked up, not daring to hope. However, when she met his face – clear in the small light he held in his hand, with dark hair and warm eyes, something inside of her hurt because he was just a stranger; nobody she could remember.
"Elizabeth," was what he said several times before trying to come closer and then he fell, and a loud sound ripped through the air. She launched herself backwards, realizing for the first time that the dark haired man wasn't alone – there were two more men with him which startled her – both or them in front of the door, yelling, while the dark haired one, the one who kept calling her wouldn't go away.
"McKay, what is this?!" said the dark haired one turning his head toward one of his companions.
"It's some kind or force field! And it looks like it's password locked," came the shouted reply.
"Well can you unlock it?" shouted back the dark haired man, kneeling near the door, his eyes never leaving her. God, his eyes! The fire in his eyes kept her gaze locked at him, and he... he smiled. It wasn't like the smirk of her captor, it was different. It made her feel curious and she almost wanted him to come closer. And the way he looked at her... as if....
"Well unlock it," the man in front of her was anxious and impatient.
"McKay," called another voice, a deep voice hidden outside of the room. "I think I hear something, so you better hurry!"
"I know! Look, I may be a genius but right now I don't remember how to…, I'm just trying to... there, did that work? Sheppard, did that work?!"
The man kneeling on the ground waved his hand forward and it swam through the air toward her. Her heart jumped to her throat when she saw the man getting up, stepping closer to her, keeping his steps slow and measured; holding a small light in one of his hands. She pressed herself against the wall, fear and a strange hope gripping against her tight throat. He stood tall and dark and strangely beautiful in front of her, a light smile and eyes filled with... fear, no... disbelief, while looking at her. Did he come for her? Was there someone who... cared? Who knew...? She pressed further against the wall, not afraid of him, but of hope that could once again prove false.
"Elizabeth," his voice was soft and non threatening while he searched her eyes. "Don't you know... who I am?" he asked and she stared, her mind completely empty.
She was still frozen when he extended his hand and she was able to see his palm and fingers up close, and the black band around his wrist. The hand was rough, massive if compared to her thin fingers – and it was a hand she remembered. Every nuance, every detail, it was all there and for a moment the air was caught in her throat.
"Elizabeth," he called again, lowering and kneeling in front of her again. She looked at his hands, both of his hands – those were the hands she dreamed of so many times. Could that be true? Could it be real?
There was no mistake in her perception – she blinked and he didn't disappear, like he usually did in her dreams. Every detail was still there. She stared at his palms then looked up his arms and finally allowed her eyes to set on his face, in a long gaze. His face was serious as she studied him, and when she reached with her hand, stopping inches in front of his face, he smiled. "It's me," he said.
"Who are you?" she asked, and it was a first time in a long time when she wanted to speak, when nobody was going to force her words by substances or any other methods.
He was going to say something when she heard more shouting and then gunfire.
"Sheppard, we better get out of here if you still want to be in one piece," yelled one of the men in front of the door. The man in front of her reached for her, but she moved her hand away.
"We have to go," his eyes were full of alarm and conviction. "Come on, 'Lizbeth. We have to go," he repeated and she was tempted to grab that hand, just like she tried to so many times when she dreamed.
But who was he? How could she be certain he wouldn't do her more harm than good?
"Where?" she asked, and her voice was weak. If this wasn't real, if this wasn't true... if one of the rare things she seemed to remember was just another trick then....
"Home. I'm taking you home," he said loudly over the noise of the alarm.
... then her heart, her soul would be broken beyond repair. She opened her mouth, unable to find the words to tell him, ask him not to take away from her one of the few pieces of herself she had left.
The sound of shooting nearby stopped her voice.
"Sheppard!" yelled the deep voice in front of the door. Dark haired man's eyes held an apology when his strong hands reached for her wrists, and he pulled her to her feet. On his face she could see that what he was doing was important. He held her and she couldn't struggle away.
"I'm sorry," he said when she refused to move and follow him, felt his arms lift her easily, and in the next moment they were leaving this place of empty darkness.
"How many times have I told you.???"
"Rodney, take the gun and just shoot, it doesn't matter if you hit them! Just cover me," yelled John, trying to keep his hold on Elizabeth, who obviously didn't trust her rescuers.
Running through the bush and among the trees was difficult enough, even more so with uncooperative damsel in distress who kept asking to be left alone. Why she was reacting like this John didn't have time or courage to wonder, but it was clear that she didn't recognize him, or the other two men for that matter. She protested when he lifted her, and when the shooting begun, she panicked.
"Rodney, are you going to cover my ass or not!?" yelled John hiding behind a large tree, barely evading several gunshots aimed at him.
"I'm a scientist not a gun slinger," shouted Rodney back, proving his statement with poorly aimed gunfire. John groaned, wondering again how come he apparently still remembered how to run or take cover or shoot. His memories were still scattered, but the skills he had were, thankfully, still there.
"Shoot more and talk less, McKay," shouted Ronon, hidden near John, sending certain death toward their persecutors. "Damn it, there's too many of them! Sheppard, help me," yelled Ronon.
John held his still struggling burden a bit tighter, leaning his cheek into her hair - God, how familiar she smelled....how come those memories tied to her were coming back so easily, while others refused to show up? Wasn't there him before he met her?
"Elizabeth, I need you to be calm right now," he whispered into her ear and she pressed her face against his neck. John closed his eyes, the contact flooding his senses. He wanted and needed to protect her, to get them all out of here – wasn't that something he always did? -- and when she was finally, finally still he kept talking. "I'm going to put you down, but don't you go anywhere, because you might get hit. Do you understand? Will you stay still?"
He could feel her nod against his neck after a moment of hesitation, but he needed to see her eyes. She was like a small child who didn't know how to talk, so he had to see her eyes, because children couldn't lie. You could see everything that mattered right there in their eyes.
"Look at me 'Lizbeth," he said a bit louder, realizing how easily her name slipped down his tongue, how right it felt. Having her here, finally here and safe only served to confuse him more, because he still wasn't able to answer many questions.
She looked up at his face and he concluded she was less afraid.
"I'm going to put you down now. Don't go away, please.... I did all I could to find you," he said. She was holding his gaze as if she had been gripping his hand tightly and he let her slide to the ground. The gunfire echoed around them. John reached his weapon that hung on his side with one hand, pulling Elizabeth to his other side, keeping her protected.
"Keep shooting, Rodney," yelled John and took his aim. Whatever the reason, John was thankful that his ability to be deadly wasn't gone. Rodney, who was crouched behind rocks several feet away served as a distraction, while Ronon kept sending deadly shots toward the enemies.
"You'll have to run when I tell you," shouted Ronon, looking at John. "Will she run?"
John looked at the woman next to him – he took a breath and for the first time looked at her properly under the light of the day – she was thin, thinner than she was in pictures or in his memories, and her hair, her face and clothes were dirty. He felt anger swelling in his chest, but there was no time to deal with that right now – all that mattered was to get her to safety and later, later he would take care of her, yes, he would never let her out of his sight, never again.
"Can you run?" he asked gently. Her eyes were still holding some mistrust. God only knew how was she treated and what she had endured. "We have to run," he almost pleaded. It was like she didn't want to be rescued like... she couldn't believe he really meant it. "I...," his breath caught in his throat. "I'm not leaving you again, 'Lizbeth. We have to run. Last time you didn't want to, this time you have to. Please 'Lizbeth... don't you leave me again," he said and he could see the change in her eyes. When he gave her his hand she took it, holding firmly.
"Sheppard! We have to go, or they'll bring in reinforcements!!"
"We're ready to go, Ronon! Rodney!!!"
"I'm coming," shouted the scientist from his hideout. "Don't yell at me!"
"On my mark," barked Ronon, leaning forward and taking the aim. "Now!!"
As Ronon begun shooting, John ducked his head and pulled Elizabeth's hand. He could see Rodney from the corner of his eye charging out of his shelter and heading toward the clearing where the jumper waited near a large rock.
John could see Rodney's back as the man ran in front of him. Elizabeth was keeping up his pace, and he guessed that Ronon started to retreat, which meant he needed help.
"Follow Rodney," he told Elizabeth, letting go of her hand, and taking a hold of his gun, stopping at the edge of the tree line. Elizabeth stopped along, hidden behind a tree near him, obviously reluctant to proceed without him.
"Go! Go after Rodney! I've got your back," shouted John. Ronon ran toward them in zig zag line, taking shelter and turning to hold off half dozen Wraith worshipers running and shooting after them. John held up the P -90 and opened fire, protecting the tall man as he ran out of the harm's way.
"Go, Sheppard," breathed Ronon when he reached John and Elizabeth who simply refused to part from John.
"Ronon, I..," there was this sense of responsibility that task was his, and his alone in John's mind, but Ronon refused, insisting to keep the lead, and the same responsibility that came with that position.
"I'm in charge and I say go," insisted Ronon. "There's no time! Go!!"
John stubbornly stared into Ronon's eyes – Ronon knew exactly what position he was putting John in. Both of them thought back at the very same moment, the one when Elizabeth was left at the mercy of the Replicators. Ronon suddenly grinned over his deep frown and then John realized that Elizabeth was pulling his hand to goad him into moving, and that somehow, everything around him was finding its place. With his heart sore and tight in his chest he let her drag him away, while Ronon opened fire at the Wraith worshipers again.
"Could you wait just a little bit more out there? What were you doing, sightseeing??" shouted Rodney nervously after the jumper door finally closed behind Ronon, who fell to the floor.
John took over the pilot's seat from Rodney, still holding his breath and was surprised as the consoles under his hands sprang to life.
"Hold onto something," said John, anticipating the rough ride. He wasn't wrong, as the jumper lifted from the ground, the gunshots followed them and the small vessel rocked before John had finally managed to gain enough height and speed to move away.
He could see the gate through the viewer in front of him. Rodney was already in the co pilot's seat, dialing the address.
"We're going home," said Rodney. "I've had enough of these guys!"
John saw the wormhole form and rushed with the jumper under his fingertips toward the circle of blueish light. As they neared he held his breath, turned around to take just one more glimpse of Elizabeth sitting in the back of the jumper, looking scared and pale – just to make sure he wasn't dreaming and she really was there – and then they were inside of the wormhole, soaring through time and space and light....
... to meet the darkness of open space on the other end.
"What the...?!" gasped John.
"I dialed Atlantis! I did, I swear," said Rodney turning toward John. Ronon stood behind two of them, and now after the action and the chase was over – and they found themselves somewhere they shouldn't have, both of them glanced at Ronon.
"McKay, are you sure?" asked Ronon. Now how was he supposed to get them out of this mess? He glanced at John who licked his lips in confusion.
"I am," Rodney's neck was turning red. "Look, my memory might be a little loopy but I know that address," growled Rodney.
"Calm down," said John.
"I dialed Atlantis," Rodney kept insisting.
"Well, we're not there," shot back Ronon. This wasn't going well.
"I said calm down," John stood up, realizing just then how much the yelling scared the fourth person crouched on the floor in the far back of the jumper. He looked at her with apology, allowing the concern to swell in his chest. "We're scaring her," he said. Rodney looked toward Elizabeth guiltily and closed his mouth, giving up on the next protest he was already mouthing.
"I'll... check the systems," said Rodney. John turned to his controls, his hand finding several buttons. He willed the jumper to stay in one place, and after he was convinced they weren't flying aimlessly, John left the pilot's position and walked toward the rear end of the jumper.
Both Rodney and Ronon looked at him as he neared Elizabeth. Without his gun he didn't have a clearly defined purpose, just jumbled feelings colliding in his chest.
After staring at her for several moments, during which she stared mutely back, searching his face with almost feverish intensity, he dropped slowly to his knees, doing his best not to choke her with the closeness. He missed her – the memory of sadness, grief and loss swept over him like a tidal wave and he choked over her name. She still held a distance between him and herself, but her eyes remained on his face.
"Elizabeth," he managed her name and his voice was weak. He could feel Rodney's and Ronon's eyes on them, both men waiting for something to happen – John didn't know what it was, but the moment was heavy, pregnant with meaning and need. The woman in dirty clothes sitting across from him seemed lost, just like they were lost in vastness of space and their own minds, swimming blindly and reaching for the wreck of their memories floating around.
"What is Elizabeth?" she asked and the sound of her voice was coming back to him, those different tones she used – the voice of the calm diplomat that could talk sense into anybody's stubborn head and the compassionate voice of a friend, soft voice of the woman he loved.
"It's your name," he said. They held each other's gazes, while deafening silence stretched in the small space of the jumper. John could hear sound of Ronon's breathing and Rodney's nervous shuffling in the co pilot's seat. Elizabeth looked at him with burning eyes, desperation and questions and fear all reaching out to him, and he didn't know what to say. He had needed to find her so he could find himself, only to learn that she needed him even more and this time he couldn't let her down.
His mind screeched to a halt and then suddenly he remembered the photograph he was carrying around ever since Teyla had given it to him.
Her eyes followed his hands – his face was pleasant to look at too, but his hands were giving her the assurance she really needed, because they were solidly familiar, and it seemed he wasn't going away anywhere. He wasn't going away, she kept telling herself but still couldn't quite believe.
His right hand came out of the vest he was wearing, holding a piece of glossy paper. He offered it to her and she took it. Six people were shown on that piece of paper that was thick and smooth under her hand – five men and one woman. Her eyes searched those faces, and when she instantly recognized the man in black who sat in front of her, she felt unexpected, liberating relief. She looked back to his face inches away from hers – she thought she could feel his warmth – her captor always had cold hands - and the man in black smiled – he looked a somewhat differently than on the picture, bit older; his clothes were different – but that wasn't so important.
After that she recognized the man who sat in one of the seats nearby, the one who seemed to talk with his gesturing hands and fidget a lot. The notion of seeing familiar, recognizable things and being safe crept slowly over her as the world begun to gain shape and sense. There was knowledge within her grasp that she could connect into something coherent and meaningful. She looked at the image in her hand again pointed with her finger at the face of the man in black and he smiled, moving just a little bit closer to her.
"That's me," he said.
"You," she repeated, feeling like she was learning to talk and think and feel. Her eyes darted back to man's hands. Safe. She was safe. She knew his hands. It was okay, this was okay. Then she looked back to his face, his smile, almost wanting to touch his hair.
"John," he said. "That's my name."
"John," she repeated. It was a soft word; it felt and tasted good, right on her tongue. John smiled and than pointed at the single woman on the glossy paper.
"That is you," he said. "Elizabeth."
She stared at the image of the woman – thin body and smiling face that meant nothing to her. When she reached for her own face there was nothing under her fingertips to assure her that her face was the same face John was showing her on the image. Her eyes fogged with tears that started streaming so suddenly and John handed her something small and smooth. After her sobs calmed down she felt the back of his fingers – rough and warm and real – wipe the rest of her tears away. He moved to sit next to her, taking the smooth object made of glass in his hand.
"It's a mirror. You can see yourself," he explained and turned the smooth, shiny surface toward his face. "See? That's me," he said, and when she leaned closer, she really could see the reflection of his face looking back at her from the shiny surface.
Then he offered the mirror to her and she hesitated.
"Don't worry. It's okay," he assured her. "I've got you," he added in a half whisper that was meant for her ears only and God, the tone of his voice sounded familiar to her for the very first time.
She took the offered mirror and holding her breath dared a look. There it was – a pale, scared, hardened face, like a piece of pale moon she could sometimes see through her cell window, with green eyes staring back at her.
Her face. The face from the glossy paper, from the image where she stood next to this man – John, his name was John - who looked at her like she was precious and important and irreplaceable.
She wasn't invisible any more.
She wasn't nameless or alone.
For the first time she remembered doing, she reached for his hand and held it tightly.
"So? What's the problem?" Ronon was sitting in the pilot's seat, his eyes darting from Sheppard and Elizabeth back at Rodney, who was unusually silent while his fingers worked on the control panel of the jumper.
"I'm not a hundred percent certain but I think our cloaking system was damaged when we got hit," summed Rodney up, scratching the back of his head.
"But what does that have to do with ..."
"Not coming to the right address? Well, whatever the malfunction is, I think it's affecting other systems too. Like dialing controls," Rodney's hand did the familiar circling motion as he went on explaining. Ronon frowned, not really wanting to listen to the details of Rodney's theory. Having him around in this uncertain and confused state of mind was more unnerving than bearing with his constant ranting and bickering.
Ronon turned his eyes toward the people in the back of the jumper. They were still sitting on the hard floor, and for a moment Ronon silently observed as Sheppard tried to talk Elizabeth into letting him wipe her hands and her face with a tissue.
Witnessing that was even more unsettling. Ronon's jaw clenched involuntarily as he watched Elizabeth's expression, the way she couldn't speak as if she had forgotten all the words she knew; and John ... so vulnerable. They used to be his leaders. Those were the two people who gave him a home. Seeing them fractured and damaged - so fragile - simply wasn't right.
Sheppard was doing better than only a few days ago, but he wasn't even close to what he used to be – Ronon knew he might never get to his old self, he probably never would. But Elizabeth – seeing her was like watching a ghost of the woman Ronon used to know. She wasn't only weak, she was broken, fearfully looking at him and Rodney, depending on a man who was lost himself to guide her home.
Ronon couldn't stop watching them. They did lose their memories and most of the knowledge of who they were, but something about them was still present, although brazenly bared now when their when rules they had to abide were stripped away.
It was that connection that always brought them together, like they were magnets of sorts. There was no John Sheppard without his loyalty to Atlantis and perhaps – love for Elizabeth Weir.
Ronon often wondered if he anything like John Sheppard, and was John Sheppard anything like him. The former runner had few friends – true friends in his life because he knew that trusting people could cost him many things, even his life, just like those people he befriended could pay the same cost. Ronon chose his friends carefully. Sheppard was among them.
He didn't know much about all those Earth things Sheppard liked to talk about, but he did know the way Sheppard thought. When it came to action, they didn't have to discuss much – Ronon was able to predict his leader's decisions even before they were spoken.
That was one of the reasons Ronon had known about Sheppard's connection to Elizabeth – apart from being trained to notice everything about everybody, because that kind of information saved lives, there was a slight tang of envy, because despite the deep friendship Ronon shared with Sheppard on a very basic, unspoken level, he never was able to make John react or connect like Elizabeth was. Nobody was able to make him come so... alive; nobody but her. There was longing in Ronon's heart too as he watched his friends reconnect, bringing each other back to the world they belonged to. Elizabeth's eyes started to gleam, revived although still weak, reminding him of prisoners and people who held onto the last thread of hope in the galaxy that knew no mercy or forgiveness. He remembered his wife, wished he had more time with Melena, another chance to feel what Sheppard was rediscovering.
Ronon still observed them in fascination as Sheppard was wiping Elizabeth's hands with an antiseptic tissue (Beckett made them all carry those in their rucksacks and tac vests) and Ronon was struck by the tenderness he saw, trying to remember how that felt, reminding himself that he could...
He tore his eyes away, because he knew this was a private and deeply intimate moment. Watching them right now simply wasn't right, but Ronon had to, and his eyes slowly darted back to his friend and the woman he loved. There in front of Ronon's eyes one broken man was healing and helping another fractured human being to heal and – as Ronon realized – it affected him too, because he himself was hurting; he himself was broken or at least damaged. He needed to heal as well.
With his heart heavy Ronon looked at Rodney who was still focused on his task, frowning, concentrating and looking uncertain.
It was so unnatural to see Rodney McKay uncertain and insecure when it came to his knowledge.
Ronon stole another glance at Sheppard and Elizabeth. Sheppard was leaning closer, smiling warmly at her as his hand wiped the dirt and fear away from her face. Her lips were almost smiling and her eyes weren't so terrified any more.
"Ronon? Could you take a look at this address?" asked Rodney and Ronon turned toward him and the screen of the console, wondering if there was any way in which he could help another of his friends heal and remember who he was and what he was good at.
There was one thing Jennifer felt she couldn't handle – actually, she was told long ago, every doctor had one type of patient he or she didn't want (and didn't know how) to deal with at all – that wasn't anything unusual. It was only human, right? It wasn't unusual that Jennifer had a weak spot like that.
She felt it was a weakness she shouldn't have had. She was supposed to be able to face everything that came her way. God, why was she given this job? Obviously, she wasn't up to it.
Drug addicts were Jennifer's weak spot, something she avoided at any price – well that is, if it was possible in any way. She remembered with a dose of shame how she spent two hours hiding in a storage room, staring at the packages of syringes during her first intern year, so one of her colleagues would be forced to attend to a young man in heroin withdrawal crisis. She felt a disgust to the point of being unable to treat him.
Was she even fit to be a doctor of medicine when she felt something like that? Instead reaching some sort of conclusion, Jennifer had spent two hours in the hiding, feeling ashamed and inadequate.
That was out of the question this time. She hoped she was wrong, but the symptoms and behavior the man in front of her was displaying left a little room for doubt.
Lieutenant Ford was shivering, sweating and clenching his jaw, not wanting to admit he was suffering pain. He was barely conscious too. She would bet anything that he had a high fever, she could see his nose was running, and it was probably only a matter of time before he would start vomiting. God, this wasn't good. She didn't even know what he was on, and her mind went through the mental list of pain killers and sedatives she had with her. Not enough, she knew.
Typical withdrawal symptoms, and very severe at that.
She just couldn't handle the addicts, because she never knew what to say or how to behave - she was one of those doctors who failed at good bedside manner. She couldn't tell them they would be better in time, because all of them aimed to destroy themselves, and after a period of being clean – given that withdrawal didn't kill them – most of them turned back to the poison that owned their life. She wanted to help, but helping was impossible with patients like that – at least for her. There was a block, made of solid fear stuck in her chest whenever she had to deal with a person in withdrawal, and usually when she tried comfort they would laugh in her face making her realize that she didn't know how to treat them.
Bottom line? She was useless. Beneath all the education and knowledge it was the feeling she carried with her.
Yes, she was the genius child, the Mensa material, and yet she wasn't a Doctor, not like Doctor Beckett was. She simply knew a lot about medicine, and little of what people really needed.
The man curled not too far away from her on the hard floor of the shallow cave began trembling. Jennifer's throat tightened and she made herself slip into what was left of her professional facade. He would need something for the pain, and something to relieve the withdrawal.
Reaching for her bag Jennifer realized she didn't know his name.
Elizabeth was half asleep and half awake. She listened to the conversation her companions were having, as their words drifted in and out of her mind, to be replaced by the dreams of the place reminding her of a castle on the water. It was a circular shaped city, reminding her of a snowflake cut out of powerful steel, resisting the ocean waves and the clouds. Then, when she drifted back, she felt the warmth of the embrace – John held her close as she slept, while the two other men were working to fix whatever it was wrong with their little space ship.
Half seated and half lying, cocooned in the safety of John's touch and scent and three voices, she remembered.
The man who talked lot and fast was Rodney. He used to be her friend.
The tall man with the deep voice was Ronon. She remembered she could always, always rely on him.
And John... as images – memories - flooded her mind completely out of any coherent order she knew that he was like second skin to her. All those sights and images – John and the sea and the balcony; John reaching out to hold her hand after she rose from the hard floor in clothes drenched and cold; John giving her something wrapped in brown cloth; John... always and everywhere and right beside her, he felt like an anchor. She shifted and his arms held her tighter.
She could feel something inside of her body awaken; something cold and stiff, barely under the surface of her consciousness. Prying her eyes open, Elizabeth saw Rodney lying under a console, while Ronon was crouched near him. A familiar sight, she thought. How many times had she seen them like this? She looked up and met John's eyes and smile, now she could positively recognize him.
"Hey... You okay?" he asked and she stretched and nodded fighting that inner alarm away. The long gaze in his eyes made her almost forget about the unpleasant feeling.
Something was happening – something inside of her, but John was here, he was close and she didn't have to worry, because among the things she could remember the most important one was that he always, always kept her safe.
A few hours must have passed and John settled into the soothing sounds around him. Rodney was working and Ronon was helping out the best way he could – mostly by patiently listening to Rodney's debating with himself.
John couldn't follow Rodney's train of thought – there were several trains actually – so he let himself drift off, holding Elizabeth 's still form and feeling her breathing under his arm.
He hadn't noticed when he started humming – it could have been when she woke up and looked at him sleepily, and he wanted to put her back to sleep, because she looked exhausted. The way she was still and quiet made him wonder if she had even a moment when she could relax. She probably didn't and his heart hurt. Once upon a time, in the life he had mostly forgotten, he was certain he took care she was peaceful.
He also wasn't thinking about what he was humming, but suddenly Rodney looked up to him.
"What?" asked John quietly. The woman in his arms shifted a little. Rodney gave him a sad smile.
"Oh, nothing… I'm… just glad to hear that," he said.
John frowned, wondering what he meant, but Rodney had ducked his head again and busied himself with working. John was about to ask what exactly he had meant, and then Elizabeth shifted in his arms and fisted his shirt, and the moment seemed still and frozen in time, before it was broken with the sound of an alarm and the jumper rocking under gunfire.
Teyla was wearing a worried look on her face as Evan walked next to her. Two marines followed them toward the gate.
"Do you think we should ask for more men?" said Lorne, his eyes darting toward the huge circle. Teyla looked up from the ground in front of them and then stopped.
"I do not know. I still think a smaller team has more chance of going unnoticed. Especially…"
"Especially if they went to an inhabitant planet," finished Lorne, frowning.
"Yes," said Teyla quietly. Lorne turned towards her and gave her a firm look.
"I trust you and I trust your lead," he said simply. She pressed her lips together and Lorne reached out, touching her shoulder briefly.
"I caused this," she said quietly and then looked at him. The marine following them kept respectable distance, looking toward the small town they just visited. Nobody knew anything about "the Wraith hunter on this planet – at least nobody had seen him in last two months. Obviously Aiden Ford made himself a name in years he spent away from Atlantis.
"No, you didn't.," countered Evan. "To be fair, it's Sheppard was who caused it, and you did a good thing."
"I should have stopped him," she looked sideways.
"Honestly Teyla… could you?" he asked with a voice softer than she was used to hear from him. She remembered that he was an artist, a painter, and saw the world differently – saw more to everything around him - than most people she had known.
"I could have," she sighed and closed her eyes. "But it had to end somehow. You know what I mean."
Evan nodded. Atlantis was in chaos of sorts and Teyla had only taken advantage of the situation.
"I think you picked up quite few things from Sheppard," he noticed and grinned. "There will be questions about all this later, and when … I will put in a good word for you," he said with a little smile. Teyla lowered her head for a little bit and then looked at him.
"I have never understood a lot of your rules. Earth rules," she said. "How can your people …," she stopped mid sentence and looked away again. If everything went well, if the whole plan worked, she knew John would not be allowed to stay in the City. Neither would Elizabeth. Suddenly this felt like a dead end street, and not a rescue mission it should have been. "How can you take away from people what they hold dearest? Most sacred?"
"I wish I could answer that question," Lorne's voice was sad. "But I have to hold onto hope, you know. As long as they're still alive, we might be able to help them. Don't forget that."
Teyla gave him a sad smile.
"I feel that… whatever I do, nothing will be the same. Or better," she sighed, and then turned back toward the gate. "It feels like this path has chosen me, and not the other way around. And I do not like that Evan... not one bit."
"Well, that went well," sighed Rodney inspecting the hull of their jumper. It didn't look good, after several hits from Wraith darts, but slightly damaged and burned outsides of the vessel wasn't what worried him the most.
"Can you repair it?" asked Ronon, as the four of them circled around the jumper, inspecting the damage.
"Yes I can, at least I think it's doable but it will take time," mused Rodney and staggered back into the jumper. "I'll need some help," he added and glanced toward Ronon who didn't even object. It seemed that the tall man had made himself a willing assistant of the scientist.
"How much time?" Ronon was obviously developing a mother hen behavior of sorts, not leaving Rodney out of his sight for long. If there was any way Ronon could help out, he was ready to take it, even if it meant being a part – time apprentice to Rodney. It looked like he'd do anything to enhance Rodney's feeling of usefulness. Clearly, most people didn't give Ronon all the credit he deserved – and while he appeared to be a rough man, he knew very well how his friends felt and what they needed. Ronon was highly practical about that – he wasn't the guy to discuss emotion with, but he found a way to help out more often than not.
Meanwhile John observed the woods not too far away from the place where they crash landed the jumper. It wasn't a neat landing exactly, but thankfully no one was hurt. He was still shaken because he didn't really know what he was doing, except from thinking how to get to the space gate as fast as possible and get the hell away from darts – luckily for him, the jumper had the same mind.
John didn't hear Elizabeth as she approached him from behind, putting a hand on his shoulder. She didn't ask anything, and when he turned around to face her, there was an expression of understanding in her eyes, and it felt just right.
It looked familiar too. Teyla told him Elizabeth was the leader and he was always by her side, and they had shared the good and the bad.
John wanted to be able to do that again. Maybe that connection they used to have was alive somewhere in her; or in both of them. They just had to find it again, mused John, savoring the feeling of her arm on his shoulder. John was grasping at every little piece of the puzzle, trying to put together the whole picture. If he only could do that, he could be his true self again.
Over and over he was faced with the fact that Elizabeth was connected to every memory that was important and defining. She seemed like the beacon of his journey.
"That was scary," he confessed looking into her eyes, surprised at how the words easily slipped from his mouth. He couldn't help the trust he felt for her, although he didn't know how exactly it was built. On some deep level he knew he was a private person. He didn't trust just anybody. Elizabeth had to gain that trust somehow, she was simply right and fitting. He couldn't help that sense of belonging now when he had her with him, nor was he able to ignore bursts of emotion in his chest, and it was confusing, but warming him inside.
Yes, this was where he belonged. Where – he hoped – both of them belonged. His fingers and arms were tingling with a need to hold her.
"But you made it," she countered and stepped closer. He was taken by surprise when she took his right hand in both of hers. "It's one of the things I kept remembering. Your hands. That is how I recognized you," she looked up at him again.
His throat got painfully tight and he was silent as she continued.
"I wish I could remember more," her thumbs rubbed warm circles on his palm. "I wish…" her eyes were stuck on his for a moment. She bit her lower lip; that was something she did often. He remembered that. He remembered that he liked that, just as he liked her eyes and the sudden, small quirk of her lips when she was amused. A flood of those little things caught him on a wave and he simply watched, watched her still not believing she was here; safe and real.
Suddenly his chest got tight again. He realized he didn't want her to remember. If she could only... start new, and write her story fresh from the beginning. If only certain things in the past could remain forgotten.
If she did remember, she would know that those hands she was holding were the hands that let her slip away and left her to the mercy of enemies.
"I know," he said and let his head hang low. He did know. She needed to know who she was, and all he wanted was to protect her – this time from herself.
He was the one who left her. He was the one who went away. That was why he had to be the one to take responsibility and be there for her when she faced her past and her pain.
To John's surprise, Elizabeth tugged at his hands and pulled him closer. It wasn't exactly a hug, but she did lean on him and made a little noise when her nose touched his shirt. Warmth and flutters exploded inside him. His hands went around her on their own accord, and he held her gently, deciding he could ease the tension from this moment. The pain hadn't come yet, and he could offer her care she needed. She was lost for so long.
"There are some spare clothes in the jumper… and I'm sure I spotted a creek when we were landing. Would you like to freshen up?" he asked and she nodded against his chest, then moved away.
"I could eat too," she added and the moment felt almost normal and ordinary.
"Well, I'll be happy to serve you," grinned John and started walking toward the jumper.
Elizabeth followed him silently, allowing him to hold her hand.
Jennifer steeled herself and moved closer to shivering man on the floor. Just treat him like any patient. Like you don't know first thing about him – well that was truth. Mostly. Forget that he's an addict and that you don't like it. You're not supposed to feel that, Jen.
She cleared her throat, adopting the best physician voice she could muster, then reached with her hand for his exposed shoulder, as he lay curled on his side.
"Hey...," she tried but her intended doctor voice failed her. She sounded scared.
He didn't react at firs and she dared to nudge him a little harder, and it took several moments until he reacted. When he looked at her, his good eye was unfocused, and he seemed disoriented, which only made her suspicions worse.
Withdrawal. She could even feel cold sweat through the material of his ragged, dirty shirt.
"Are you alright?" she asked and he simply stared. "You don't seem well and I need to..."
Suddenly and roughly, he pulled his hand away.
"Don't touch me," he hissed, moving away from her.
"I need to check on you," she insisted, but the fear already crept in her voice.
"Like hell you do," his voice raised to shouting this time and he jerked back, until he hit the wall of the cave. "Stay away," he drawled, looking at her with mistrustful eye.
Dear God. That is how much confidence I project, she thought, attempting to move closer to him, because he was a sick human being in need of a Doctor and she was one – although a weak hearted one. At least she had the knowledge.
"Please," she tried, watching as Lieutenant Ford curled into a tight ball on the floor. She could see how his body shook as – presumably – a wave of pain hit him.
"Please what?" he looked at her like she wanted to do something completely ridiculous.
"You're not well, and I need to check what is wrong with you," her voice couldn't sound worse, flat, and even, laced with lack of confidence.
"Stay away from me bitch," he yelled and pulled out his knife, waving it in front of her face and almost cutting her. "I'll tell you what's wrong! You're all damn bastards, that's wrong! Nothing is wrong with me, so you stay the hell away!"
Jennifer launched herself backwards from the place on the ground where she was kneeling, hitting a sharp and hard rock with the palm of her left hand. She lost her balance and fell as her unwilling patient still screamed to be left alone.
Her hand burned with pain and her eyes stung with tears. She moved away, until she was pressed against the opposite wall of the cave, curled with her face buried against her knees, as the man who kept her prisoner yelled – and despite knowing that it was the symptoms that made him react like that, that it didn't have to be personal – but it could, couldn't it Jennifer? Because you're so helpless - she couldn't stop shaking and crying.
Cold water felt so good on her skin. It wasn't exactly a creek, more like a small river that John spotted on their way toward the suitable landing ground after they escaped through the gate.
John brought her here – it was almost half an hour by foot away from the place where they landed their jumper. Rodney was repairing it and Ronon was holding things and adding things when requested, patiently following the repair process, still hovering around Rodney with anxiety hidden in his eyes.
As she walked here with John, following him through sparse trees and high grass he kept turning back to catch her eye and give her small smiles that seemed to change the rhythm of her heart. He carried a spare uniform and a shirt folded under his hand, and after they reached the rivulet, he stuttered something about giving her privacy, promising he would remain within an earshot.
She undressed wondering why he had left so abruptly, discarding the clothes stained with fear and loneliness, taking off the constricting piece of clothing against her breasts and dropping it all on the grass. Then there was only one piece of fabric to leave forgotten on the ground, and her toes walked into the shallow river.
John told her she could take her time – and she did. She might have preferred the water to be warmer, but it makes her stay awake and focused as she scrubbed her skin, lathered it with the soap and washed her hair.
Then her jaw started to tremble at the cold and she was about to leave the water when it happened.
It was like staring into one of those half memories and half dreams back in that room she was confined to – someone was dragging her away, away from John and she stared into his desperate eyes... telling, yelling, screaming for him to go.
Her heart was desperate for him to help her, to tear her away from the merciless hands that held her frozen in place and guide her back to safety, but her mind was telling her, determinately, that she had to let him go – for his own safety and because... because she couldn't be saved. As her heart hurt, thorn and shattered as she watched him leave – leave her – her mind decided she had to make this sacrifice, that there was no way back.
And then she felt like she was dying, and everything was disappearing in front of her eyes.
It wasn't a scream, but some kind of urgent, choked sound that he heard as he was trying hard to resist the temptation to get up and walk the couple of meters to the spot from which he could see her bathing in the river, fighting the tide rising in his body as he thought about her not too far away and naked in the water. Somehow it didn't seem appropriate to intrude on her privacy like that, but as he heard the shriek, everything else but her safety was forgotten.
John was on his feet even before he could think straight, running down the small hill toward her, where she was on her knees, trying to get out of the water. She slipped and fell back, and for a moment he thought there was something in the water, an animal perhaps, that could have bitten her. She fell back in the water, splashing like she was drowning and John didn't care that all of his clothes, which he needed dry, were still on him – he jumped into the stream, reaching for her.
She was too light and her skin was slick and pale and cold. John carried her out of the water, holding her tightly, protectively like he would have held her, had he a chance to get her out of the Replicator's hands. When he knelt on the ground to put her down she only clung to him tighter-
"Don't leave, don't go" her voice was broken as her wet and naked body shuddered against him. He sat on the ground and then let himself fall backwards just a little bit, so she could feel that she was held and protected. Her face found the crook of his shoulder and two small hands fisted his shirt on his back. His arms closed around her probably too tightly, but that moment was playing in front of his eyes, and somehow he knew she was there too.
He needed to see her eyes, he needed her to see him and not the moment when she was left behind to suffer God knew what kind of torture. Prying her face away from his wet clothes and his warm skin was more difficult than he would expect, and his heart hurt at the desperation of her grip on him.
"I won't go, I'm here, I'm here.... shhh, I'm here and I've got you," he whispered with his own desperation, with the guilt that ate at him. Gentle hands and his soothing voice managed to call her back to him, away from the memory. She looked up and her frightened eyes refocused on his face. The desperation of being left stared back at him and knocked the air out of his lungs. Her lips had turned blue and she was so awfully cold. There was no apology in his mind, nothing he could say to make amends for what he had, or perhaps hadn't done. But beneath all the damage that was done to her he could see the trust she had in him and that hurt even more than the raw fear and the cold.
There weren't many chances at redemption in this galaxy or any other. John knew that. Maybe he didn't deserved a chance like that, but it was there, the trust and hope buried under the fear in Elizabeth 's eyes.
He would not – could not waste it – because if Ronon had only known that pulling him away back then meant breaking his heart and every hope he had been hiding even from himself...
He stared at her lips, bluish and trembling, slightly parted hovering in front of his face. Her eyebrows knitted and her face softened he allowed his longing for her and determination to keep her safe be seen in his eyes. When he saw the reflection of his feelings in the green of her eyes, he knew she understood. He didn't have the words to match the strength of what he felt, of how fiercely his heart vowed to protect her this time. But it was in her eyes, unsaid, yet understood. He could feel her muscles relax but she was still shivering.
Tender fingers on his cheek were the answer to everything he couldn't say, like she wanted to encourage him, and he realized he couldn't keep his silence any more.
"I love you," came out of his mouth in a deep, hoarse whisper and then he needed to warm her lips and her body.
Thankfully the planet had an acceptably warm climate and soft grass. Lying on his back, with Elizabeth sprawled on top of him, John wondered if his clothes had managed to dry in the sun. He had no idea how much time had passed since they left Rodney and Ronon – and he didn't care. For the first time after leaving Atlantis his body was truly relaxed and his mind calm.
Elizabeth's hair smelled of soap and soil and dried sweat. Her breathing was slow but he knew she was awake. Peace was settling over him, because he could feel she was fine. They were bent but not broken. With his fingers in her hair and her fingers drawing patterns on his upper arm he felt anything could be fixed – even he could.
"Had you ever told me before?" she asked and he closed his eyes against the feeling of her mouth moving so close to the skin of his neck.
"No. At least I don't think I did. But I wish I had," he said. She raised her head to look at him.
"I was kidnapped," she stated without bitterness.
"Yes," he pressed out through his tight throat. "Elizabeth, I..."
Her fingers touched his lips, cutting off the apology that he believed would never be enough. He could see on her face and in her gaze that she was forgiving him, offering him another chance, buying his very soul back for him – and felt that this wasn't the first time she had done that.
"I don't want to think about it. I don't want to remember that," she said and her lips found his again, moving softly and parting to taste him.
They had kissed – kissed and touched each other, but nothing more. Instinctively John felt that there was more – his whole body seemed to anticipate it and crave more, but he wasn't certain if he should have pursued any other kind of intimacy. Elizabeth probably wasn't ready for... something more. He shed his clothes partially because their wet state was chilling him, but also because he didn't want her to be the only one exposed.
With her body on top of his, he felt the part of his body between his legs hardening and straining with pleasant, yearning tension – she must have felt that change too, but she didn't react to tend to his need for her to touch him – he thought if she would just keep on touching him, wanting more and harder – it would bring him to some kind of release. The burden on his soul felt lesser, but now his body demanded attention. He had a vague idea of her body being able to give pleasure to his, but the details of the act were lost on him. At the same time, she wanted the contact and the touch, the feeling that he was there, holding her, so he kept doing that, ignoring his own need.
It occurred to him that perhaps she wanted to forget everything. Perhaps that was the way she had survived. Not knowing was easier than bearing the burden of knowledge of who you were and what you did. Or what you failed to do.
There were no scars on her body – her skin was flawless, and he hoped that he was right in his assumption about the lack of physical torture. He prayed he was right about that; that nobody beat her, but he also knew that her body wasn't the only thing that could have been hurt.
"It's okay," he whispered when their lips parted. "You don't have to think about it now."
She bit her lip and nodded. Seeing her fragile like this didn't feel right. John wasn't certain, but he firmly believed that Elizabeth – who she used to be – was incredibly strong. He cradled her head in his palms and gave her a soft kiss, sliding one of his hands down the outline of her spine and – God, she is so thin, too thin – holding the back of her head, he pulled her down to kiss her with open mouth and heart.
"Geez, what took them so long?" Rodney asked in a grumpy voice when he noticed two people slowly walking toward the jumper. Ronon smirked, because Rodney retreated inside the jumper, failing to notice they were holding hands.
"Relax McKay. They're grown ups," said Ronon, feeling actually glad to notice that Rodney's temper was coming back and he was beginning to behave like his old self.
"With holes in their memories, may I remind you," came the reply out of the jumper and Ronon failed to smother another grin.
"How about dinner?" asked Ronon.
"Finally a good idea. I'm starving," was all that Ronon heard – Rodney continued talking like a drama queen as Carson used to call him – but Ronon walked to meet Sheppard and Elizabeth, noticing how their faces had changed, and how they looked more like themselves and less like the lost people from couple of hours ago.
Lying on their narrow makeshift bed on the jumper floor, with John's body curled, spooning her from behind, the two of them covered with a blanket, she stared into darkness, feeling safe and warm but not peaceful.
Ronon was outside, guarding the jumper, and Rodney was sleeping on the bunk in the back compartment, leaving John and Elizabeth some privacy. Elizabeth shifted again and then gave up the pretense she was sleeping. Instead of closing her eyes she wanted to watch John's face, hoping that the sight of him would help her settle under the cover of sleep – but even when she turned around to face him, it was too dark to see anything.
Unsettled, she pressed her face against his chest, feeling it rise and fall in a steady rhythm, unable to accept the comfort as she had in that sunlit field just few hours ago. The magic of the moment had passed and she was facing questions in her mind.
She had told him she didn't want to remember – if it was possible to remain like this, like a clean slate for a fresh, new beginning, then she wanted that. He had accepted without saying a word, simply happy to have her back.
The sound of his breathing was so soothing in her ear – too familiar too quickly for her liking and understanding – and it made her wonder why, and how that came to be. Why she felt that way with him and not with somebody else? She did trust Ronon and Rodney too, but it was mostly because John seemed to trust them.
And wasn't it simply unfair of her not to remember? He was trying so hard, struggling to reclaim more memories of himself – of them – to give them time and place and meaning, accepting her wish to start anew for some reason. When she mentioned she didn't want to remember, she though there was a pang of guilt on his face – but why?
Who were they and what was their lives about? What was she – to him – in that life she had put behind? And why his kisses had been so … right? Being naked with him felt natural – and she wondered if they'd ever did that before. She felt – she was almost certain – that it should have felt at least awkward, but all she knew was comforting intimacy and she wondered how that came to exist. She barely knew his name – the rest was buried somewhere in her memory; and in his.
When she thought back at the memory of being left – kidnapped – she shuddered and John's arm pulled her closer. He took a deep breath and then his breathing evened out again. With his body so close and his arms around her nobody could even come close to hurting her. He would never allow that. Never again - the headlong determination in his eyes left a core of fear in her; making her unable to like the idea that he would throw his life away for her.
She needed to understand why. She needed to know was there anything in her past worth reclaiming.
If John had fought so hard for it – then, maybe, there was something worth remembering.
Without the knowledge of her past she couldn't understand this, him or – most importantly – herself. All she could rely on was a feeling that she was bound tightly to this man, yet although she felt safe, she couldn't simply settle for that. Something in her needed to know.
There had to be... responsibilities and duties.... and if she was to go with him, to the place he called home – place she couldn't recall properly, left only with vague images of pillars, piers and endless water – then how would she do her part and stand with him, equally, making him feel... the trust and pride? How would he rely on a woman who didn't know anything of herself and the man who loved her... and whom she, so obviously loved back?
With a gentle hand Elizabeth traced the outline of John's face, cupping his cheek and placing her thumb to his lips. He gave a content sigh, moving even closer to her.
Elizabeth took a breath filled with scent of him, rooted in the knowledge of being safe. What could be so awful buried in depths of her that his smile couldn't fix? Was there a darkness too deep and too thick for the shine of his eyes to fade? Would he ever stop loving her? She didn't think – didn't feel it was possible, just like knowing he left her for some reason didn't alter how much her heart needed him.
Elizabeth shuddered at the thought of how easily John moved her, how he made her feel – and how deeply she felt for him. With her forehead close to his heart, Elizabeth closed her eyes.
Ronon treated her with that instant respect and she could clearly see both sadness and apology in his eyes and the way he didn't speak to her. He felt guilty. Rodney just stared at her in... awe, his huge child – like eyes overcoming the loss – and then a smile would play upon his lips. Why did they react to her like this?
She had to know. Whatever lay buried within her, she had to face it- because if he had been trying so hard, she couldn't be the one to quit. Somehow she was certain that she never would have and that John respected her precisely because of that. She couldn't allow the thing, or things that brought them together to be wasted and their history to be forgotten as if never existed.
The water ran clear and cold through Elizabeth's fingers. With her feet dangling in the stream she looked up toward John, standing nearby and observing the woods.
Rodney was still busy with his attempts to repair the jumper. Ronon was gone hunting, while John and Elizabeth spontaneously drifted away from their landing site, seeking solitude.
John turned around and faced her, with a wide grin on his face, and she could almost remember the feeling of success and happiness mixed with relief she had every time as he... came back home. Like that time… when he was trapped on Wraith hive ship and she waited for days. And then she was told he died.
When the memory swept over her Elizabeth held her breath, suddenly knowing how it had been… how she waited for them, waited for him, all alone; until he was home.
Home. Elizabeth strained to recall.
A large, wide room with tall ceiling and an indoor balcony... a spot she liked to occupy... and the giant ring below. Sound of voices talking and waves crashing against the city.
The city. She could see it more clearly in her mind's eye, her precious city, the jewel floating above the waves....
... Atlantis, she thought taking in a sharp breath that hurt.
John was near her when she gasped. "Elizabeth?"
She looked at him. "Her name is Atlantis. The city. Is that right?" she asked watching him lower himself down on the ground near her. His eyes were huge, dark, serious.
"Yes," he said quietly. With some uncertainty she smiled, looking for approval in his eyes, but meeting fear instead.
"I... I can... I could remember," she offered, adding more of a smile, but his eyes were still fixed on her in their seriousness. "John? Is something wrong?"
There was something on his mind, something plaguing his soul, but he didn't speak of it. Instead his hand cupped her cheek and she came willingly into a kiss. When they parted, she breathed him in and traced his lower lip with her finger – staring at the digit and not his eyes as she explained.
"I thought about it… and I think… believe I should give it a try. I want to remember – I have to, because like this… there is too much I can't understand. I could be so much more if I knew who I was. I'd know… what you mean to me," she could feel him stiffen and looked up to meet his eyes. "Don't worry. I'm not afraid. You're here and I'm not afraid," she assured him.
John's eyes were dark.
"I'm here for you, I will always be here for you," his voice was thick with heaviness she felt in his muscles. They were staring at each other and then her eyes trailed down his face, onto the patch of warm skin exposed where the top button of his shirt was loose.
"John, what is wrong?" she asked. She sensed it, looked up to his handsome face, sensed him drifting away and for a moment she was terrified. "John…"
No. She couldn't let him pull away.
He swallowed hard and pressed his lips together, looking older, tired; trying to blink away the tears.
"I wasn't…," his voice broke.
"You weren't what?" she asked holding his head up with both of her palms. John's eyes were fixed somewhere below her lips for long moments. Breathing seemed heavier than ever as his silence stretched, pressing heavily into her chest. "John, tell me," she said softly. His hand came up to her face, thumb placed on her small chin.
"I left you behind," the words were simple and clear, and he was barely holding her eyes, but he was doing it, staring at her with fire of guilt burning inside. Shaking her head she held him tighter.
"John there was nothing…," she tried but he cut her off.
"Don't tell me that. Just don't tell me that, Elizabeth. I forgot so many things… almost everything, and then I remembered you… the one thing I remembered was the one damn thing I lost. You. I lost you! Personally screwed up," he was shaking, and she pulled him in a tight hug.
"But you see if I just let it go, then everything you did was in vain. John, you say you love me, and I can barely remember who I was… who I am! It's the memories that… make us... help us know who we are," she said into his soft hair. For a moment they were silent, but his body was speaking things he couldn't put into words – muscles relaxing, the heart she could feel beating, pressed against her chest picking up the pace. He moved away enough to see her, and there was a different kind of heaviness in his eyes. Elizabeth felt her cheeks becoming hot.
She trailed one of her fingers down from his lips and along his neck, still holding his head with the other hand; reaching the button of his shirt, and then loosened it. His body became rigid again and different kind of darkness grew in his eyes.
She felt as safe as the day before, realizing that a wave of warmth rose within her. With her eyes fixed on what her fingers were doing she worked on exposing more of his chest to her eyes, wanting to see his skin again; to touch him again. When his shirt was halfway unbuttoned she looked up at him, biting her lip, and her heart started beating faster at the sight of the fire in his eyes. Drawing a shuddering breath she spoke even as he lowered his lips to hers.
"This… I have to know… understand…," she whispered between the kisses; "I want to be the woman you love, not somebody else. You have done so much to get me back. Let me … come back to you… help me do that."
John's hands were hesitant on her hips until he hared her words. The way he started touching her was different, exploratory, claiming. His lips pressed hard against her mouth and she swallowed his tongue, fighting to breathe between the kisses. She was pulled under the strength of the need to feel him, taste him; be with him; trying to claim back all he was, and what he meant to her once by the kisses she was giving him. John's hands sneaked under the loose, over sized shirt he gave her to wear. Her skin tingled under his fingers, tension urging her on, but she didn't know exactly where; or how to quench the thirst for him.
They almost didn't hear Ronon's shouting – it wasn't until the tall man came close to them running and calling out their names. Ronon's face spoke of danger and as he urged them to run – because the Wraith were coming – she felt the panic rise within her, fearing – feeling – she would loose John all over again.
Rodney couldn't get his fingers to work fast enough. The jumper was refusing to comply with his commands and the scientist was getting frustrated. It had to work, it had to work now, because he could hear the gunshots.
Typing furiously he punched the console and the vessel sprang to life.
"Come ON, you lemon," shouted Rodney. It seemed that the vessel finally realized there was no joking around with the edgy scientist. Rodney took the pilot's seat, wishing for the life signs scanner, concentrating as hard as he could on activating it. The blueish panel appeared in front of him and he saw three blue dots surrounded with dozen paler ones, closing the circle around them.
"Go, go, go," Rodney voiced his thoughts and the jumper lifted – although shakily. He still felt that little bit of shouting would help to reach his goal on time. "It doesn't have to be a straight line, but get there fast!"
Ronon ended up being the one to pull Elizabeth by the hand as they ran as fast as they could through the grass and the bush, toward the tree line, heading in the direction of the jumper.
Hoping that McKay was done and the vessel was able to fly, Ronon listened for the sounds of Wraith who would probably try to surround them and cut them off. He called Rodney and the scientist told him he would try to get to them with the jumper… since he remembered how to use the thing.
He knew they would quickly end up surrounded, but the circle around them was still loose, with enough time to make an escape… where are you, McKay?
Ronon knew that once they reached the woods, defending themselves would be harder. He called for John, who was behind, shooting at two Wraith running after them and failing to kill off the damn bastards – and then just when they were near the trees, John fell to the ground.
Seeing that, Elizabeth tore herself from Ronon's grip and ran to John. The former runner stopped in his tracks, and everything that followed had to have happened quickly, only Ronon's brain was stuck on some weird slow motion setting. He couldn't move fast enough to get there before them. Damned Wraith worshipers – jumping out of the woods. Two of them, and while John was able to shoot one, the other one got to him; with a knife in his hand.
And then Elizabeth threw herself between John and the knife.
Their voices echoed in her head. She felt dizzy and cold, and everything was veiled with fog. Someone carried her – she could tell by the sound of the breathing and the scent that it was John - and then there was darkness and noises and shouts after her body was gently put down to the ground.
"Get us out of here, Rodney!!"
"I'm trying, I'm trying!!"
"Well try harder!"
John's voice was thick with panic. Elizabeth opened her eyes and looked down her body, seeing her blood covered hand as she tried to reach for something, anything. John was right there hovering above her, sweating and pale-faced. Her mind was so slow, too slow for some reason, and she realized he was cutting her shirt apart with a knife. And then he was done and his face turned to stone.
She felt feverish and cold at the same time, while something was happening to her body. Something was wrong… why was John staring at her stomach in that way? She propped herself up on her elbows, realizing that Ronon was standing next to them, and then Rodney wandered over, his mouth dropping.
She looked down… and there was a wound on her pale stomach. Yes, she remembered, she was stabbed by a knife… so that John wouldn't be hurt. But then… why was there no pain? She felt numb, and still dizzy, and then John's bloodied hand came down to her skin with a gauze and wiped the blood away…
… and there was nothing. Just – nothing. Just her skin – untouched, unhurt. She gasped, then looked at John's face and the emotions mixed there – the fear, disbelief, gratitude, shock.
She should have been bleeding. She should have died. She remembered the stab and how it felt when the knife pierced her body… that should have killed her!
John looked at Rodney and Ronon. The tall man's face was grim and dark and Rodney looked like a scared child.
"Nanites…" he whispered.
She looked at John with glazed eyes, her breath stuck in her throat; remembered two inhumanly strong hands tightening around her neck, trying to choke her while Rodney and Teyla and Ronon fought to set her free… she remembered those cold beings, remembered that she'd been caught in their web of lies and illusion… remembered that she became one of them; belonged to the worst of enemies, ones who weren't human, didn't have souls.
She was trapped.
Her lips were trembling and twitching. John held out his hand, wanting to touch her. She stared at his warm fingers, the fingers that made her skin tingle, looked at the hand that pulled her out of the darkness. Suddenly wishing he had left her there; wishing she'd never hoped… that she could be with him.
Stay with him.
Let him take her home.
Looking at John, Ronon and Rodney she realized she didn't belong (with them any more. She couldn't be fixed. Her blood was tainted with betrayal. She was a risk; she was possibly even dangerous to them.
"No," she said to John, and her voice was different. It was her commanding voice, the one she used when she tasked him not to go on a suicide mission during the Wraith Siege; the same voice she used when she told him to leave her.
With the Replicators.
"She remembers," whispered Rodney.
John pulled his hand back. She couldn't look into his eyes, couldn't bear the pain there.
"Don't do this, Elizabeth ," he pleaded.
"I … I have to," she whispered shakily, realizing only then that she was sitting there half naked. "You can't take me back, John. You just can't."
"Well that's an obvious flaw in this plan," remarked Ronon while staring into nothing in particular. He was sitting on the jumper floor, John across from him, while Elizabeth sat in the co pilot's seat. Rodney came out of the back compartment, holding a pile of his tools and devices, guiltily looking toward her.
"It's a bit too late to chat about that now, isn't it? We've got her now and we can't just…," Rodney gritted his teeth and looked at John. John glared at the scientist.
"Nobody is leaving her," growled John at both men. "I'm not leaving her"
"That's not what we're saying," Ronon only seemed calm. After giving John a long firm gaze, Ronon looked at Rodney.
"Can you tell if she's any danger to Atlantis?"
"I already checked her… the nanites are active but all they're doing is… taking care of her. I think that's it. They are like a self preserving mechanism," explained Rodney.
"But can they… contact…?" John couldn't even voice that thought.
"I can't be one hundred percent certain… but I think no."
There was a sigh of relief, but then suddenly Elizabeth turned around to face them. Painfully, John stared into her eyes – they had changed. There was no more of that innocence caused by forgetting. He was facing her leader mask, the diplomatic façade he could vaguely remember now; wondering if that was the reason he never had told her how he felt. Was there always that invisible barrier between them, one that prevented them both from reaching out to the other? His hands were bound by her choice. Even in her eyes she kept the distance and John didn't exactly know why.
Why couldn't he love her openly? He was pretty certain that she was aware, she had to be even then – because if she wasn't there would be no need for the walls she was building so rapidly.
"If you're not certain then I can't go with you," she said, looking at the three of them, but significantly avoiding looking at John for a longer period of time
Anger and defiance spiked up within him. He got up to his feet and walked over to her. When he tried to take her hand, she pulled it back so hastily it hurt inside his chest, not caring for her wish to distance herself from him; he snatched her hand and held it, leaning closer so that there was no choice left to her but to look him straight in the eyes.
"I am not fucking afraid of you," he growled and she raised her chin.
"John, you can't take me back to the city," she repeated slowly, like he was a child who couldn't understand the meaning of this.
He could. He knew what was at stake. But she belonged with him. She was their leader. She was the woman he loved. Nothing – not even the nanites swimming in her blood – could change that.
"Nothing… has changed," his voice was a near whisper and his stubbornness shined out of his eyes. Elizabeth pressed her lips together.
"I never thought you were naïve, John," her voice was sad.
"I'm not. But I can't remember my mother's name, yet I remember you; almost all I'm able to remember is you, and how I felt when Keller showed me…," the words choked him, just as tears gleamed in his eyes. "And damn it, I lost you once, then I let you order me to leave you behind, and now you're asking me to loose you all over again?!"
Her lips quivered. The skin on her wrist where his hand was holding her was turning white, just as his knuckles were.
"I would rather die myself," he ground out.
"I chose to… die, so all of you could live," she countered. Ronon and Rodney were silent and almost invisible in the background.
"It didn't have to happen."
"What do you think could have been done? I had been compromised, John," her voice was shaking now.
"Rodney could have fixed it. All he needed was a bit more time. He can fix it now," John said fiercely. She just stared back, fighting tears of her own and silent. "Was it always like this? You pulling away? Telling me why not to…?"
She lowered her head, but he tugged at her hand, pulled too roughly with fear and pain driving him, and she made a painful noise of protest.
"I was… we shouldn't have done this," her reply was weak, he knew she didn't mean it by half, he knew she wanted it differently… knew that she cared, just like he did.
"I love you. Love you. Damn it, I was too proud, or stupid or too much of a coward to corner you with that once, but it's true; it was always the truth! And you know it," he mumbled the last, not caring about Rodney's gasp or the knowing face Ronon must have made. "That… won't change…. ever," he said and then let go of her hand, watching her slump back in the co pilot's seat.
He kept staring at her for couple of moments, but when she didn't look up, didn't meet his eyes, John swallowed the burning pain, starting to move away.
Walking past Rodney, John cast him a tired glance.
"Get us some place where I can go for a walk," said John and closed the door of the back compartment as he entered.
This planet was even hotter than the last one. Rodney was sweating, but he kept ignoring the heat and droplets rolling down his face and back as he stared at the readings in front of him.
Then he looked up at Elizabeth and she gave him one of those disarming smiles that assured him everything would work out just fine, no matter how hard he screwed up. Well, this time he couldn't take comfort in that.
How many times she took the blame and verbal beating after some mission had gone wrong way? Too many times, he thought, sighing inwardly, wishing he was more aware of the burden she shouldered for him and all of them.
Well too late for that now. But... he could still do something for her, or at least try.
"It wasn't your fault, Rodney. I left the jumper. I knew what I was doing," her tone was placating, but firm enough not to let him rebel against what she had said. How many times she did that, and made him listen to her?
"Yeah, right, you did. But we know what we're doing now and you just have to trust us," he frowned and returned his eyes to the screen.
"This is not about trust. It's about safety. It's not safe...," she started telling him that same story all over, but he wasn't Sheppard and she couldn't break his heart; she'd have to defeat him through other means. She was smart but he wasn't bad himself.
"Please! Like living in this galaxy is a safe thing? Like ninety hundred percent of what we do here is safe? Are you telling me we should leave you when your ... condition can be helped?"
She gave an ironic smile at the word 'condition'. Well, he tried to be polite at least.
"And how? How are you going to shut them down without..."
"Killing you? I don't know – yet! But I haven't even tried and there is a way, I'm certain, there has to be. Besides, you're perfectly fine right now," he turned the display of his scanner toward her. Yes, he had all the evidence. That much he could tell. "Look. They're dormant again. I'm pretty certain of that. Which means they activate when you're in some kind of danger – like when you were injured!.. Or when you consciously activate them. They're like a preserving mechanism... a second immune system."
She just stared at him, a smile playing on her lips, but not reaching her eyes, which were still telling him what he was trying was in vain. Frustrated, he couldn't stop his mouth from talking.
"They're not doing anything that could put Atlantis in danger," he insisted. "I would know."
"I think both of us can recall several occasions when your words weren't exactly a guarantee of success," she said with hint of humor he remembered and loved. She was smart. Nobody could take that away from her, which was certain. She also had a point, but Rodney wasn't about to give up, because he had a point too.
"I can't recall such event," he replied with matching her humorous tone and faking indignation. "My memory might be doing better than Sheppard's, but it's still loopy," he made few circles with his finger next to his temple and managed to get a honest smile out of her.
"And I should rest assured everything would turn out fine, just like that?" she asked and Rodney almost winced at the sadness in her eyes.
"Is anything hundred percent certain, Elizabeth?"
"Are we going to debate rhetorical questions?" she shot back quickly.
"Okay, so you might have a point. But now listen to me. As far as I recall you always listened to me or any of us no matter how stupid or boring we were... now....See that man out there?" he pointed with his thumb behind his back to where John and Ronon stood in the sun. "Not the Caveman but the other poor soul. Keep doing this if you intend to kill him," he let his words sound just a bit harsh, feeling almost pleased when he saw the guilt on her face. "This isn't only about you," he pressed his lips together. "Maybe we can't help you, but you're not even giving us a chance to try, and that's... killing all of us! Mostly him because he seems to have a bad case of crush on you – and that's mildly put," even saying that felt weird, but her face couldn't stay calm.
"John is...," she tried but Rodney cut her off.
"You should have seen him after... after we landed the city. You know, that day I can remember. That day I haven't forgot in the first place, it was the worst day in years... maybe in my life. But Sheppard? He was crushed. He looked as good as dead. And I thought it would pass, you know, time heals wounds? But it didn't. Then Carter and those IOA assholes wouldn't authorize a proper search and rescue mission and we had our hands full with repair. And then, as far as I recall, this memory chaos ensued, and thankfully everybody was out of their minds. Funny thing is, John forgot so many things but not his wish to go and look for you. Do you want to take that away from him, Elizabeth?"
She lowered her head and draw in a shaky breath. Rodney realized he was probably too harsh on her, but it was what he wanted to say – and rarely was he this honest with anybody.
"How did you get into Wraith hands, anyway?" he asked in a softer tone, deciding to redirect the conversation. She looked at him, concentrating.
"I don't remember that. I think... the Wraith captured a Replicator ship where I was and took everyone prisoner. They wanted...."
"... to do the research," supplied Rodney. Elizabeth looked at him with frozen gaze. "They want to defeat the Replicators."
"They... they noticed I was different."
"Not a Replicator," said Rodney quietly and carefully. She lowered her head again. "Elizabeth, you don't belong to them. You belong with us," he said slowly, emphasizing every word. "What happened then?"
"I can't remember beyond that point. Or what... happened after the Replicators took me. I..."
"The nanites...," Rodney said thoughtfully. "Maybe they protected you from the psychological suffering as well," he mused.
"You think they blocked my mind?" she asked.
"It's possible, you know... they act like your preserving mechanism, from everything I can tell – and we know they can affect your mind... now I wonder...," Rodney didn't finish the thought when he saw John and Ronon approaching with alarmed expressions on their faces. Ronon stood in front of him, looking grim. "What? What happened?"
"There's a reason for the Wraith following us," supplied Ronon darkly, and then his eyes fixed at Elizabeth.
"How could they...," Rodney stopped mid sentence, looking at Ronon and then at John's face filled with anguish. Then he remembered; remembered how they met Ronon and what the Wraith did to him. "No. You don't think that they...?"
"We have to check," answered Ronon and then looked at Elizabeth again. Her expression was steel, but the little hope she still had in her eyes seemed to be fading rapidly.
"You think they put a receiver on me," she said and Ronon nodded, his eyes holding an apology. Elizabeth looked at Rodney, then Ronon and finally John, trying to encourage her former military commander by simple gaze. "Okay," she said then looked at Ronon, turning her back to the three men. Then she carefully pulled her shirt up, exposing the pale skin, prominent ribs and contours of her spine. John and Ronon knelt next to her.
"They put it between the shoulder blades, so you couldn't cut it out yourself," explained Ronon and then his large and rough fingers started pressing against Elizabeth's delicate skin, searching for the device he once had. John was holding his breath and so was Rodney. Finally, Ronon's fingers stopped. "Here."
Elizabeth craned her neck toward him.
"Cut it out," she said flatly. Ronon looked at John, seemingly asking his agreement. Everything on John's face screamed "no". "Cut it out," demanded Elizabeth again, and Ronon looked at Rodney. The former runner was obviously against that idea. "Otherwise we're sitting ducks," she stated.
"We know that," John put his hand on her shoulder and she stiffened. "We won't cut you," he decided.
"John," she pulled her shirt down and turned toward him. He took both of her shoulders with his hands, staring into her eyes with desperate intensity.
"No, Elizabeth. No, this time it's my call. We won't cut you, this is something Keller needs to do."
"The nanites... will fix me," she retorted, heaviness and hints of sarcasm lacing her voice.
"I don't want to count on them and I don't want to cause you more pain. Keller can do this painlessly," his voice was firm with intention to prevent her from suffering.
"And bring Wraith to Atlantis?"
"No. She can come here... once we find her," he said and looked at his friends. "We must contact Atlantis."
"What happened to Keller?" asked Elizabeth.
"That's a long story. I'm afraid we don't have time for that now. We have to decide what to do," said Ronon. "Among the doctors in the city she is in the best condition. But first we must find her," he explained.
"The jumper needs to be fixed... again," Rodney glared at John, like the new damage on the jumper was his fault.
"Do we have to? Why don't we just leave it here?" asked John and Rodney rolled his eyes.
"You never were all that smart, weren't you? Yes, it has to be fixed, because A – if we simply leave it here, the Wraith or who knows who could find it, and then find Atlantis. Given that they have ATA gene of course, and we already found out it's not all that rare in this galaxy. B – we don't actually have an infinite number of these things on Atlantis, and this particular one is upgraded to function under water, so it would be a super stupid thing to waste it. And C – I don't know how to destroy it to the point where the computer, which holds way too much information to leave it to the enemies, would stop working. When Ancients made them, they did a damn good job. Unfortunately," finished Rodney.
Rodney looked around the small group.
"Bottom line? We can't stay here long. The Wraith will find us," pointed Rodney out. "Correction. Elizabeth can't stay here long," added Rodney. All eyes were fixed on her.
"We split up," Ronon broke the silence. "I'll stay with McKay. Sheppard and Elizabeth... will be on the run until we fix the jumper," he said. Rodney nodded.
"Fine by me," he said and started getting up. For Rodney the best time to start working was right there and then, whenever the task was named.
"But," Elizabeth was ready to protest, only this time it was Ronon who spoke up.
"I lead this mission. This is my call," he said and looked at John. "You'll be safe with Sheppard."
"That's not the problem," she said, trying not to look at John. "After we go back to Atlantis..."
"We'll figure that part when it comes to that," said John, reaching out for her hand. "Now we have to keep you safe," his voice was warm. Elizabeth stared at their hands, his larger one covering hers, swallowing through her tight throat. "Elizabeth... please," he said and she looked up, met his eyes with hers.
Rodney was standing at the jumper entrance, looking at them.
"Please Elizabeth," he said and she looked up to him, then looked at Ronon. All three men had the same plea in their eyes.
"We come back for our people," Ronon's voice was deep and his words simple. John's hand squeezed Elizabeth's fingers. Rodney was holding his breath. The steel mask was falling off Elizabeth's face.
"We need you," whispered John, and it was the truth – although John was the one who needed her the most, the rest of them needed her too. Without her they didn't seem to be complete; couldn't exist like they used to. Losing her left a wound too big to heal without leaving them damaged and crippled.
"Okay," she said finally and then looked at John. "Okay. I agree. "
Three men sighed in relief at the same time.
Jennifer got off the floor, tracing her cheek with her fingers. Lieutenant Ford hit her pretty hard. He probably wasn't aware of his actions. She moved toward his form curled in the darkness, listening to his breathing.
He wasn't doing well. She tried to help him – over and over – and it led to a fight in which he slapped her with his wrist and she fell to the floor, feeling helpless, but also angry.
You couldn't help someone who didn't want to be helped, she thought bitterly, crawling next to him.
Yes, he was unconscious.
Jennifer looked toward the horizon. The dawn was breaking above this endless field of sand and stone.
She looked around the small cave. Her big rucksack was still neatly packed. All she had to do was grab it and leave – unlike many women, Jennifer did have a good sense of direction and orientation; and she could return to the gate easily.
All she had to do was get up and go. Ford was in no condition to get up and follow her – he could barely sit at this point.
Jennifer steeled herself as she got up and grabbed her belongings, trying to harden her heart as she looked at the man on the floor. She offered her help. He refused. Simple as that.
Turning away was easy, and her feet climbed down the rock easily – Jennifer was in good shape. Without much doubting she headed toward the Stargate, with the address of Atlantis vivid and invitingly glowing like chevrons in front of her eyes.
But then her feet faltered.
Didn't she promise to help, no matter what? Didn't she give an oath that said human life came first, and nothing else mattered, not even her fears?
And didn't Doctor Beckett, the man whom even Lieutenant Ford admired, give his own life to save another?
With trembling lips Jennifer stared toward the horizon and the sun appearing slowly from behind the distant line of mountains. A face emerged from her memory, and she tried to push it back – someone she watched fade away, slowly kill himself, not allowing other people to help him.
Then she felt the same kind of anger she felt back in the cave.
You weren't a Doctor then, Jennifer, but you are one now and if you leave that man will die, she told herself. He isn't himself and he doesn't know what he's doing. And it's because of withdrawal crisis.
That's something you can help with. You don't have to like him, but you have to help him.
The young Doctor closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The first rays of sun touched her bruised face.
Then she turned around and with determinant steps went to do her duty.
The wormhole disengaged, and Elizabeth took a steadying breath. John's eyes scanned the perimeter. They were standing on a meadow, and the grass was knee high, scents of the new world he stepped into for the first time filling his senses. The sun was hanging low in the sky and it seemed like the night was close. It reminded him of something from a long time ago. Maybe he could remember if he tried harder. He didn't feel like it at the moment.
"We shouldn't go far away from the gate," he said, searching for a place where they could rest for couple of hours. The meadow was plain and open, and didn't offer any kind of shelter. Elizabeth needed to sleep. John could have also used a break. He couldn't tell how much time Rodney needed to fix the jumper. Ronon had told them not to wait on any planet for too long – twelve hours tops – if they didn't want to be attacked by the Wraith, who seemed determinant to get Elizabeth back.
Elizabeth needed him rested and at full alert.
Rodney mentioned the experiments they were probably using Elizabeth for. John's stomach turned at that thought every time. No, he won't let them have her. Nobody would harm her – ever again.
"Looks like we're out of shelter this time," said John when his eyes didn't spot anything that could hide them from prying eyes. Ronon did say that the planet was inhabitable without dangerous animals that would want two of them served for dinner. "Hopefully there will be no rain," he added, picking a direction to walk. Elizabeth followed him wordlessly.
John didn't like her silent presence next to him, and her within arm's reach yet so far away. Lack of words was uncomfortable and heavy. Finally she decided to address him.
"Why didn't you tell me about the nanites in my blood?" there was an accusation in her tone.
"I don't know. It doesn't change a lot to me at least," he shrugged, feeling numb and empty. Just few hours ago she was kissing him, telling him she needed him. He did know why he hadn't told her. He didn't want her to remember that part and bear it on her mind.
"To me it does," she said and her voice spoke a verdict that stabbed his chest.
"You said you needed me. That's important to me, Elizabeth," the pain he couldn't hide. He couldn't even if he tried.
He could never foresee that she could – would hurt him, give him a hope and then make a retreat, leaving a clean cut behind. He meant when he said he loved her, and she seemed to accept it. How could she... ? John looked at her, seeing her consumed with the inner fight raging inside of her. "You led me to believe that you loved me. Did that change all of a sudden?" his tone rose and she closed her eyes.
"John, that can't be. We just can't...," she stopped and covered her face with her hands, then let them drop by her sides.
"Why do I have a feeling that this story got old a long time ago?" he stood in front of her, staring at her face, the memory of how she used to keep him on a distance slowly returning; realizing why he settled for never voicing his feelings back then.
He was happy when he saw her happy. It had to be enough – and it was – until she was taken from him. After that all he could feel was guilt, and deep regret that he never told her just how much he cared.
Watching her face now he wondered would it have made any difference. Then he had to tell himself to calm down.
"Elizabeth... why?" was all he could ask without causing any more damage.
"Because we had jobs to do. I couldn't let you or myself be compromised."
"Compromised? In what way? Just look at us – after losing my fucking memory I still...," Her hand flew, stopping in front of his lips.
"Don't say it," her breathing was heavy. John grabbed her hand, mentally slapping himself for being rough, but his tense muscles couldn't be gentle at this point of inner pain. He was loosing her all over again, she was slipping through his fingers and all that his arms wanted was to hold her, hold her tightly.
"Don't say it – why? Would it make more difficult, Elizabeth?" she was pressed against him, breathing hard, with feverish eyes glued to his. When she started blinking away the tears, he loosened his grip a little, but didn't let her move away. "I love you. For me it all comes down to that. And I mean all."
"John," her voice was half choked sob.
"Don't do this to us," with one hand he held hers against his chest; using his free hand to cup her cheek. He didn't want her to hurt in any way. He didn't want to see her cry. His thumb brushed away a tiny, warm tear. She closed her eyes, and loosing the battle with her self control she leaned into his palm, and then against his whole body.
"John, I am not human any more," this time she openly sobbed and he let go of her hand to circle his arms around her, allowing himself to hold her as tightly as he wanted and needed.
"That's nonsense, Elizabeth. How can you stop being a human?"
"But the nanites..."
"Nanites aren't what defines you or your humanity. It was never lost," he whispered into her hair.
"Wake up Lieutenant. Come on, wake up," Jennifer wished she was back in her infirmary. She would have several useful scanners at least, but right now the knowledge would do. Of course it would.
One month ago Colonel Carter sprained her ankle and ended up in the infirmary, under Jennifer's care. Jennifer liked the woman instantly- in some way she was similar to Doctor Weir – guarded but warm at the same time, calm and caring to everyone. As Jennifer somewhat nervously bandaged the ankle, the Colonel seemed to read the young woman's mind.
"If those soldiers ever become jumpy, or too much to take, just pull the rank. It's also useful if they don't feel like themselves," said Colonel Carter. Jennifer had looked at her and the new commander gave a warm, assuring smile. "Don't be afraid.. you'll do just fine, Doctor. I have complete trust in you."
As the Colonel had said, Jennifer called the man on the floor by his rank – that combined with damp gauze on his forehead seemed to call him back to consciousness.
Lieutenant Ford blinked at her weakly. This time he seemed too weak to protest against her hands checking his pulse and temperature.
"I need you to cooperate here with me," she said, and this time her doctor - face was steadily in its place as she spoke. "What time of the day is it, Lieutenant?"
He looked at her with confusion and she caught an almost protest as he tried to rise from the floor – she pushed him gently back, pulling out her pen – light. He didn't react well to light, just as she had expected. "What time of the day is it?" she repeated firmly.
"Not sure," croaked Ford. "Put that thing away," he protested as she tried to point the small light toward his iris.
"Very well... tell me what year is it?"
"Who cares," he groaned. "Would you leave me alone? My head is killing me," he said and Jennifer took that as a positive sign. Admitting he was in pain was a step away from asking for help.
"Glad to hear that," said Jennifer, finding the strength to give him slightly patronizing smile before she realized he ought to be older than her. But she was the doctor, the one in charge. "I'd be worried if you didn't feel any pain. What stuff are you on?" she asked, helping him to sit up. He stared at her, as she started unpacking her rucksack. "Lieutenant! I asked you something," she pressed.
"You're annoying," he protested, but stared as her shaky, yet determinant hands pulled out a syringe, then a needle and then a small ampule. He had that hungry expression all of them had, the one Jennifer hated.
"You can't fool me," she said. Jennifer's fingers were skilled in this task. "It's in your eyes," she held up the filled syringe. His good eye pleaded to her to give him whatever that was.
He couldn't know it was just a vitamin mixture.
"You think it's disgusting," accused Ford and she didn't have any niceness in her left to give him a "professional" answer. Instead she gave him a honest one.
"Yes I do. It's a disgusting thing, killing yourself in that way," her words were heavy and harsh but she felt no regret as she watched him pull up his dirty sleeve. He was going to cooperate, and for some reason she thought he appreciated her honesty.
False compassion would be far worse.
Lieutenant Ford just stared as she gave him the shot, then pulled out another syringe and filled it with a sedative. God knew he was going to need it. She did the mental counting and concluded she had enough ampules to last three days. It should be enough.
"Now tell me how you feel," she said when she finished disposing used syringes and needles in a small metal can.
"Thirsty," he muttered, still staring at her. She couldn't read that expression on his face, but he wasn't aggressive any more and she got his attention. "And cold."
"There's a small blanket in my rucksack," she said and pulled off her jacket, folding in into a neat form. When she placed it on the ground she told him to lie down.
"What the fuck are you doing?" he asked even as he curled on the floor, shivering and hugging his torso. Jennifer unpacked everything she had, finding the military issued, rough and ugly blanket on the bottom. She covered him first and then looked at his sweat covered face, pale skin and dirty hands.
"I'm a doctor. You need one," she said and covered him up to his chin. Suddenly he seemed smaller and she remembered Sebastian – pale and thin, looking like a ghost of the man she used to know.
You killed yourself, you bastard. You never cared about anyone else, she thought.
This man in front of her wasn't Sebastian. This man wasn't her best friend who had lied to her and broke her heart… and died.
"Tell me your name, Lieutenant," her words were softer and she brushed his cheek with her cold knuckles.
He closed his eyes.
"It's Aiden. Aiden Ford."
"Pleased to meet you, Aiden."
She smiled as his eyes dropped closed. She meant it.
She felt like she had been walking for years.
It was only two days. Maybe less. Several hours of sleep and four different planets, and John, silent and caring next to her.
She expected him to insist – that was what he was like. If he thought something was important, he kept insisting on it. The silence he wrapped himself in – except from the things they had to talk about, shelters and the next planet to go to, and contacting Ronon and Rodney who were struggling with the newly damaged jumper - was unnerving.
John stalked her like a shadow. The words he wasn't speaking played on his face and in his eyes, and she knew all he said was the truth. To him she was as human as the first day they had met, and he didn't mind the danger hidden in her blood.
She found that terrifying, because she couldn't accept it, couldn't accept living like this. She tried but failed to explain to him why it felt impossible to be the same Elizabeth again. It wasn't only that she was heavily compromised – she couldn't trust herself any more. If those... creatures could control her, then she was dangerous. She could hurt anyone she was ordered to.
She could hurt him too, without being able to stop it, without even knowing what she was doing.
She told him that as well. He promised her he – they, all of them – would take care of that. It would be fixed. That she should to trust him.
She did trust him. She wasn't able to trust herself.
Her heart wanted to hope and believe, but her reason was afraid of what the reality would decide.
John stopped, looking around. Just another planet with trees and humid, tacky air. She huffed and the let out a weak groan and he was right there at her side.
"You're tired," he said. She wiped the sweat and dirt off her forehead with the back of her hand and nodded, because there was no point in putting on the brave face when her legs could barely hold her weight.
"Yes," she said. She was tired of everything and scared to confess that she simply wanted to hide, wanted some place where she could be safe, away from the Wraith, the SGC and IOA and everybody who would decide on her destiny even if they got back to Atlantis somehow.
"We'll rest soon," promised John and she nodded, not able to protest or ask. If he said so, then it was the truth.
"I'm just tired," she said finally looking at his face. The unspoken words were still there and when he came closer to hold her face between his hands she felt like she was melting, forgetting the nanites and dangers and the future trials that awaited her.
In his hands she felt almost human.
In his eyes she was that and nothing else.
John kissed her for the first time in two days and Elizabeth held onto his shoulders not to collapse.
She was so tired.
The nights brought sleep but not rest.
When Elizabeth's body managed to relax enough to lay still, her mind would take her back to places she didn't want to remember. Memories of Atlantis were laced with pain and loss, but those were essentially fond memories.
Rodney was probably correct in his assumption of nanites acting like a protective mechanism when she was in danger; blocking her mind to keep her as sane as possible. But after she was found the danger was gone and the memories started coming back, now that she was safe and able to deal with reality. She didn't need the protection of oblivion to keep herself together.
However facing the months she spent imprisoned was just the like dealing with the encounter with the nanites for the first time. Lying on the ground, wrapped in the sleeping bag she listened to John's even breathing. He was so far away. He was off limits. Elizabeth did her best to remain silent, not to wake him from the light sleep, while wanting nothing more but to push her face against the always warm skin of his neck, just like a few days ago. It was easier back in the days when she didn't know how his hands felt on her.
Then, after struggling with her mind for several hours the sleep would claim her and she rested until the nightmares started.
Mercifully, she didn't dream of what the Replicators did to her. That was, perhaps, still too painful, too much for her to take.
But in the last two days, every time she closed her eyes to sleep, she dreamed of the Wraith, and what their nameless accomplice did to her in the white, soundless room she was taken to so many times.
Waking with a gasp and a scream that thankfully died on her lips, Elizabeth could still see the face of the Wraith, always the same one, as his right hand latched itself onto her chest.
It hurt, the pain white and cold and she would pass out, and then she would wake up on the hard floor, drained and tired, but alive; body fighting for life that slowly crept its way back into her.
Now she knew. The nanites did it every time, restored her back into almost human state, helping her body regenerate. She hated it now. Every time it happened it took a piece of her away, making her more like them.
Biting her lip, she waited for her body to stop shuddering, closing her eyes. The soil beneath her smelled wet and drunk on life. The grass was underneath her fingers, damp just before the morning sun rose.
When she opened her eyes, John's were staring at her; still foggy with sleep, but also filled with worry. He was lying close beside her, a wall of warmth and safety by her side.
How many times did she wish, there in that cold Wraith cell to remember a face, any face that would mean something, tell her she wasn't alone? And there he was, roughened fingers moving her hair away from her face. Her lips were trembling. She could smell him, and touch him, and not a soul would know. Anger filled her as she thought about what would probably happen upon her return to Atlantis.
The IOA would decide she was compromised and too much of a risk to be kept in the city in any capacity. The people in neatly pressed suits would close her file, sign her off, send her away. She would be out of her job – any job she was capable of performing. People who couldn't even begin to understand or know how many tears she shed in loneliness, only to put a strong face for her expedition, would deem her an unfit leader. Unfit anything. They would send her back to Earth and lock her up somewhere where nobody would be able to come and see her, not even her own mother. Bureaucrats would take her home away from her.
And then they would bring an army of white-coated scientists to study her, people with cold hands and cold minds to figure her out, find a means of defeating the Replicators using everything they could learn from her. They wouldn't ask about the sound of waves or how the air smelled early in the morning on her balcony. It wouldn't be too different from what the Wraith did to her. Actually it would be just the same.
Who would listen to John then? Who would take care of his heart? He'd struggled to save her, but she knew she would be taken away from him. For what? She had sacrificed everything, and so had John. And what would they get for it? They wouldn't get back to their home. It wasn't possible any more. Elizabeth failed to conjure a future which held good things in store for either of them.
And if John's memory was really damaged for good... then God only knew where he would end up.
Everything was in vain.
She hated it. She didn't deserve it. He didn't deserve it. He didn't deserve to have his heart broken one more time.
Elizabeth stared into his warm eyes, the affection and worry for her clear in the dim light of the near morning, realizing he was probably the last person who saw her for what she used to be. Just Elizabeth. She could reach out and find herself in his eyes, everything that was worthy. He could give that to her.
She felt the tears starting to burn her eyes as she looked up at the most beautiful face she knew, her last thread to what she used to be. He refused to let go of her. If she held on tightly, maybe she would be able to keep pieces of herself. Keeping the little that was left was better than losing them all completely.
"What's wrong?" he asked. The sound of his voice, that caring tone, went through her, tightening her throat. He used to make everything better. She could always count on that. She'd known that ever since the storm. He was always there to help her pick up the pieces and arrange them into a better picture.
She needed that. Needed him.
"A bad dream. That's all," her voice was thick with the wish for him to make the nightmare go away. He could make her forget.
"But it's over now," he whispered soothingly and then his lips were brushing against her forehead. Elizabeth choked a sob and placed her hand on his chest. He looked at her face and kissed her, dry, soft lips ghosting over hers once, twice. The touch of them tingled, awareness of how his skin moved against hers leaving her oversensitive. She opened her mouth and gasped and he took it as a sign to enter her mouth with his tongue, teasing a moan out of her.
She'd never felt that aware of a man before – the smell and touch and the way his skin was always warm, how he moved closer until their bodies were against each other, a perfect fit; memorizing little noises he made while they kissed – details etched into her brain never to be forgotten, never to be taken away from her.
The need in her was growing more rapidly than she could remember, pressing her with the weight of his strong body as he settled himself over her and she couldn't help but wonder, did the nanites dictate even this response of her organism? She would never know him as a human. The bitterness of regret cut at her chest. A choked sob escaped, but John's lips crushed on hers and then it didn't matter any more. She could feel him. Nothing else was important.
He moved away to look at her, sweat breaking on his hairline, dark stubble covering his cheeks. Gorgeous, she thought, sad about all the missed opportunities, but then his mouth was on her jaw and neck, rough and slow, goading her into shivers.
"Does this feel wrong?" his tongue left a wet mark along her neck and her hands held him under his armpits, pulling him down. "Does it feel like you're a machine?" his voice was rough but caring and when he looked at her something inside her broke apart.
It was her who pulled him into the next kiss, not holding back. She couldn't. His lips were soft and right there, his tongue wet and hot when he made her open her mouth to him, insistent and rough. It felt right. It made her fight for breath against his flesh, and his hands rubbed along her sides, under her clothes searching for her breasts. Her left breast fit perfectly into the open, calloused palm. The stubble scraping against her skin was rough in just the right, inciting way. He moved and ground his heavier body above hers, the need tensing his muscles making her blood thick, making her feel alive... and human, so painfully, breathlessly human in her need.
John rocked against her, his kisses gaining a new level of intensity in his desperation, pressing himself against her body in an attempt to release the growing tension. He fought to find a way to do something with his body. Could he have forgotten? Holding his head in place Elizabeth slowed the kiss, her teeth grazing over his upper lip. He was panting heavily into her mouth.
"I don't know how to...," he pressed out heavily, his eyes burning and begging and almost ashamed. She shouldn't have do it, shouldn't have brought them here and into this state, but to this she couldn't say no, and the way he looked at her, the way he needed her, eyes full of raw lust, trusting her so completely at the same time melted her bitterness. She felt victorious in her pain. If her humanity was lost then this couldn't be possible.
"Let me show you," she said. He swallowed and nodded, staring at her with darkened eyes and breathtaking trust as she pushed him up to sit.
The buttoned shirt he wore was damp, smelling of sweat and the ground they slept on and him. He watched her faint smile as she started unbuttoning it, the black material revealing the hair – covered skin of his chest. When she pushed the shirt off his shoulders, she reached for her own shirt, pulling it over her head, and then he stared at her breasts. Before she could do anything, he reached for them, cupped them gently, giving her a half apologetic look. She had to smile at his inability to hold back from something that obviously tempted him more than he was able to take and arched into his hands.
"Yes, that's right," she said huskily as his thumbs stroked her nipples. The uncertainty left his face when she moaned. His eyes flashed with pride, making her unable to hold back her moans. He deserved to hear them and know what he was doing to her, and how good it felt. She was already wet between her legs and wanted him there; wanted him to fuck her into oblivion, until both of them just forgot.
However, they were still wearing too many clothes. Elizabeth wanted him naked, wanted to see his body now, when she remembered and knew whom she would be watching.
Playfully, she took his hands and moved them down onto her waist, then pushed him flat onto his back. He went without a protest. Her fingers grabbed his belt buckle and he lifted his hips to help her as she hungrily stripped him off his pants. His hardened cock sprang out and straightened in front of her eyes, making her vaginal muscles clench and flutter.
Elizabeth took off his boots and finally he was completely naked, a glorious sight for her needy body. She kissed his left foot and crawled back up his body, until she was within arm's reach. She settled herself over his hardened length and he gasped, hips jerking into her.
"God," he breathed. She took his hands, leading them to the front of her pants.
"Take them off," she said teasingly, managing a grin. John swallowed, lust and longing and uncertainty mixed on his face as his fingers worked. She helped him, untying her own boots, and wriggling out of her over-sized BDUs. She was naked and wet underneath them.
Leaning down, she told him urgently to open his mouth, feeding him with one of her breasts, and her nipple was washed with wet heat. Her hand grasped his cock, hot and full and twitching in her hand and John groaned into the flesh filling his mouth, making her shiver.
Pulling her breast free from his mouth, she leaned down, straddling him.
"I'm going to fuck you now," her voice was hardly recognizable to her own ears, not ashamed of the words she rarely used. He swallowed again, the Adam's apple bobbing on his long throat. John held her eyes with his glazed ones and nodded. She held his cock firmly and pushed down on him, wet and hot insides enveloping him firmly.
It hurt, but in the right way that proved to her she was still made of living flesh and blood. He was hard and thick and her inner muscles protested. His lips parted as he stared at her, consumed in sensations. Bending down, she leaned over him and John instinctively readjusted his hips, moving his hands onto her ass.
"Push. Fuck me," she growled into the skin of his shoulder. He grunted his agreement and started moving a little too eagerly, slipping out of her. Frustrated, she reached with her hand between their bodies, needing him back inside and guiding him where she needed him, and this time he slid back in almost painlessly. Elizabeth reached for her clit, straightening up a little, dimly aware of his hands moving to her hips. They started moving, seeking a rhythm and grunting. Her fingers abused her clit, pushing the tension up. Her spine felt like melting under overload of sensations.
The air of the planet was motionless and damp around Elizabeth, bringing sweat to her skin. John was fucking her hard, lying under her and pushing his hips upwards. Her breasts were swaying and eyes rolling back into her head. The dirt under her knees was digging into her skin, juices from her body dripping from her, and she was too far gone to feel embarrassed about the loss of self-control. She knew neither of them wouldn't last long, but she didn't mind. It was perfect.
She was grunting and then screaming as John kept thrusting into her. Wet sounds of their bodies smacking against each other and John's ragged breathing filled her ears. She didn't care about the noises she was making, letting him fuck her well and rough. It was like music. It was sweat, and wetness, and his flesh stretching her, claiming her. It felt so alive and real; the strain of her throat, his hot fingers on her hips, his cock pushing in and out, until the orgasm almost ripped her apart and she let go, forgetting herself and everything but her shaking body.
John came with a groan she barely heard, clenching his fingers on her hips, pushing himself inside of her all the way. When both of them were done shaking, Elizabeth collapsed onto him, wet and twitching cock slipping out of her body. She panted, lying on top of him, their sweat mixing in the pre-dawn air.
She buried her face into his chest. The heaviness inside of her was half gone. Now she had a memory of him nobody would take away. Nobody. This was hers, and he was hers. John's arms were heavy on her back, grounding her to reality; to him.
This was their reality.
"I love you," she whispered, claiming victory over the rules and everything that had set them apart for so long. "I love you so much it hurts."
Jennifer held Aiden's shoulder as he threw up again.
Her muscles were trembling with painful strain of last two days spent almost without sleeping. It wasn't the worst withdrawal period she saw in a patient and treated as a Doctor, but it was worse than she expected. If she hadn't brought a plastic bag of infusion with her, Aiden would already be dead because of constant nausea and throwing up.
Their cave reeked of everything his body had to dispose, but Jennifer could barely smell anything by now. The damn planet was dusty and hot, the air was dry and she was sweating profusely the whole the time, smelling badly herself. Never in her life had she felt this drained, but sleeping was out of option. She would have killed for a nice, long shower. The man that collapsed near her on the floor needed her to keep him alive.
Jennifer took the water can in her hand and found the cleanest gauze she had at her disposal, wiping his face and his twitching lips. He opened his eyes as his body shivered.
"Y – you look l -like sh – shit, Doc," he stuttered through shivers. Her face spread into a watery smile and she felt her eyes burning with tears. He had told her what happened to him, and although she couldn't possibly justify his addiction, her heart was positively on his side. Feeling rejected and not worthy enough was familiar. As long as she could remember – and memories she would rather leave behind as well as the fond ones found their way back to her – had Jennifer fought to be taken seriously. Being a genius child was a blessing and a curse.
"You don't look so shipshape yourself, Lieutenant," she was able to tease through her exhaustion, wetting the gauze and wiping his face again. "How is the pain?"
"Still being a bitch, thank you," Aiden gritted his teeth. "You happen to have those good meds still?" he asked with a telltale hitch in his voice and she knew he really needed the happy meds.
Jennifer nodded and cringed inwardly. While she was taking him off Wraith enzyme, she was probably making him addicted to sedatives. That disgusted her on a completely new level, but medicine was sometimes about doing the lesser evil. Great profession, Jen. However he would have died without those medicines she kept giving him, and that made her reach for her medicine supply.
Jennifer hoped the help would arrive soon. She was almost out of everything. Aiden opposed to her wish to contact Atlantis and ask for help when she first suggested it. She sensed he had some kind of love – hate relationship with the city, wondering was he trying to prove something too. In long hours he had spent awake, shaking in the withdrawal, he told her lot of things she could understand. No, strike that. She knew exactly how it felt – being the one who always felt not quite fitting, in need to prove that she really belonged. He watched her as she opened a sterile needle and attached it to the syringe, then drew the sedative inside.
"How much more?" he asked as she pulled up his sleeve and pierced his clammy skin with the needle.
"A day. Hopefully. Try to sleep, Aiden," she said tiredly. Her own eyelids were growing heavy.
"No, not that. Our supply," he asked worriedly, and in his eyes she could read something that wasn't concern over his own well being, but hers.
"We're still all set," she said and stroked his cheek, trying to imagine what he was like before.
"Don't bullshit me, Doc. You're worse liar than Carson," he said and she grinned. "Have you ever met him?"
Jennifer nodded. "Yes. I was fortunate to have him as my mentor for several short months," thinking back on that day made her hurt deep inside her chest. She had a genuine affection for Carson. Not only was he an amazing doctor, he was a kind of person that made the others around him better people.
"You should call them. You need help," said Aiden as his eyelids dropped closed.
"Aiden? Are you certain?"
"Yes," he said and Jennifer watched as the sleep claimed him.
She leaned against the wall of the cave. The relief she felt was so sudden and overwhelming, leaving her emotions wide open.
Jennifer Keller, the medical Doctor and Chief Medical Officer of Atlantis base started crying – crying for everything – the little girl who was too serious for other little girls of her age, but still too small and unimportant to feel as an equal among the bigger kids.
She cried for the young girl who rarely dated and studied hard, worked until she was falling asleep while still on her feet, young woman who lost her best friend to heroin addiction.
Jennifer cried for a woman who decided that other galaxy couldn't possibly be worse or lonelier than her past, and sitting like that, while sobs ripped through her, she glanced from time to time toward the man who shared the small cave with her, grateful for knowing him, the man who touched the absolute bottom, but despite that was still human enough to recognize her own humanity and even amidst his own pain offer her kindness. It was a rough kind of kindness but it was the best thing in a long time that happened to her.
And then as her body relaxed and she remembered she should get up and walk to the gate, to call for help, her own body lost the fight with tiredness, and Jennifer fell asleep.
Rodney pressed his lips together.
"There. It's fixed. Now we need Keller," said the scientist and looked at Ronon. His expression was vary.
"And then what?" asked the deep voice.
"We get Keller to Elizabeth, she will remove the device...," Rodney stopped. "And we'll go back to Atlantis."
"Exactly," said Ronon as his expression turned grim. "And then what?" he insisted further.
Rodney stared dumbly at Ronon for several moments, tired and sore after working on the jumper's systems for nearly twelve hours without a break.
"I see what you mean," said the scientist finally. He let out a sigh wondering what purpose all of this had.
"Your authorities will remove her from Atlantis," said Ronon bitterly. There was no need to elaborate whom and why.
"Not if I could reprogram the nanites," the memory of failing to do it for the first time came to the forefront of Rodney's mind. He lowered his head, looking at his hands, wishing they were more useful back then.
"Can you do it?"
Rodney looked up again. Ronon was awaiting answer. There was no bulshitting him this time around.
"I'm afraid that's not good enough for her," said Ronon as Rodney's hands activated the DHD inside the jumper, dialing the address of Atlantis.
Teyla's heavy feet settled on the dusty ground as the sunset crept over the red horizon. Major Lorne was next to her and their marines were helping Doctor Biro and Nurse Henley with medical supplies.
Teyla looked at them. Doctor Biro wiped sweat off her forehead.
"It looks like New Mexico," said the short haired woman.
"Hopefully there are no sand storms," said Evan and the woman smirked.
"And rattle snakes," added Clara Henley. Evan grinned and then sighed.
"Which direction, ma'am?" asked Thompson as he approached Teyla, shouldering a large medical rucksack.
"Doctor Keller said east," answered Teyla and choosing the right direction, she lead the way.
Jennifer woke up to the feeling of something cool and fresh, and when she managed to pry her eyes open, she met Aiden's eyes. He was sitting next to her, looking awake, aware and healthier.
"Morning, Doc," he said and resumed wiping her face with that same gauze she used on him. She pushed herself up, realizing that he brought fresh water from that small and almost dried well nearby and did his best to clean the cave. "Are you thirsty?"
She nodded and he held the water can out for her. When the cool liquid touched her dry lips and throat, it almost hurt. She started coughing and Aiden patted her back, grinning at her softly.
"Eh, slow down there," he said. "I still need you around."
"Help is on the way," she said, looking at his face. She caught a flash of uncertainty and self doubt, and reached out with her hand for his. "Don't worry. I won't let anybody treat you badly."
Aiden held her eyes for a long time and then his gaze softened. He didn't have to say out loud that he trusted her – she knew. After the last few days she spent with him, going with him through hell, she simply knew. Never before was she so certain of another human being. Her reason told her it wasn't wise, but laws of logic somehow didn't apply any more.
"Good," he said. He wasn't perfectly happy, but he wasn't edgy as before either. "We both need a shower, Doc. And you know what? I think I'm hungry," a grin flashed on his face. God, he had a beautiful smile.
She was about to ask him how he felt when she heard familiar voices calling out to both of them.
The morning light was moving slowly from the valley, reaching the hillside, the rocks and caves and the river like gentle fingers of a harp player. John was blinking in still dim light, filling his lungs with fresh air. There was still some time to spend it like this, curled in the makeshift bed near the cave entrance, with Elizabeth at his side.
He could tell she wasn't asleep by the sound and rhythm of her breathing. He reached out with his hand and moved her hair away from her face. She shifted, her back spooned against his front, and then stretched like a cat. John could tell she was more relaxed than before. The tension between them had dissipated and turned into new kind of awareness.
"Do we have to go?" she asked as his hand traced slow patterns on her shoulder. He pressed his face into her hair.
"No, not yet. We have a couple more hours," he pulled her closer, enjoying the fact that he was allowed and able to do so. This was real but at the same time he knew it might be over soon. They could have those couple of hours or couple of days; however sooner or later Rodney would tell them that Keller or some other doctor could come to operate on Elizabeth and free her from the Wraith receiver. Then their time together would be over. They would return to the city that used to be, but wasn't theirs any more.
They had avoided talk about it for the past twenty hours, using their time for simply being together. John could see it on Elizabeth's face, the regret he'd been holding in his chest ever since they made love. It was ironic. They were runners of sorts, trying to fool the Wraith, but they were free in every other aspect. They'd gone from the previous planet to this one, enjoyed the walk up the hills and took a bath in the cool river. They made love again, built a camp fire and fell asleep holding each other.
Rodney could have fixed the jumper by now. He and Ronon knew where they were. They could come searching for them any minute.
And then a different kind of reality would reassert itself, falling upon them and probably setting them apart - again.
John's hand tightened around the too thin body next to him and she must have felt his body tensing from head to toe. She turned around in his embrace, calm expression but worried eyes studying him.
He opened his mouth to speak but putting his thoughts and feelings into words proved to be too difficult.
"I want...," he started but then ended up staring at her face. What if the IOA men turned up in Atlantis the next morning after they got there, and locked her away? John remembered more things from their shared past and how Atlantis worked. He knew she would be put to quarantine, but he also knew – actually hoped – that Rodney and Zelenka and the rest of the science team would be able to fix the nanite issue, make them harmless again somehow. Yet he couldn't help but worry and in the quiet moments when she slept and he'd lie awake holding her, his head filled with scenarios that frightened him.
The prospect of losing her due to rules and regulation – the very thing that kept them apart for three years, until it was too late – was hovering above his head like a blade of the guillotine.
John sighed and pressed his face against hers. He used to trust her lead. He used to make sure everything worked and that she was safe in their city. It was simple, actually. There was this one thing he was good at, and he did it – for their city and for her. It was the only way he could express his love and care for her.
There was nothing he could do now, because somebody – be that IOA representatives or Air Force or just plain and cruel fate – would make him questionable too. He couldn't stand up for her any more. He had a serious case of retrograde amnesia, which effectively would cost him his job. John knew that and it was frightening, but loosing Elizabeth, after he was robed of his memory, his identity and his place in the world was something he couldn't face.
She wrapped her hands gently around him, kissing his temple and whispering tender things into the skin of his neck. He moved slightly away and looked down on her face, rewarded with the knowledge that she loved him. That notion was his alone and nobody could take it away from him.
He grew restless as they walked toward the gate.
The topic both of them had avoided for the last couple of days followed them like a shadow and Elizabeth couldn't take it any more.
She wished she could offer him a solution, but she knew they were both pawns in this game. John's frustration made her own feelings of helplessness an even heavier weight on her chest. She couldn't shake off the feeling of responsibility toward him – it was her who should provide the final word, take care of him, make everything easier – if not for herself than at least for him. This time she was helpless, just as John was.
The gate wasn't too far away any more – she could see the giant ring in the far distance as they climbed down toward the valley. The world around them was still sleepy. John stopped, his eyes toward their goal, his shoulders tense. He was never good at voicing his feelings with his words, but his body spoke rather loudly and directly about his mental states.
Elizabeth stepped next to him and placed her hand on his shoulder, just like many times in the past when he'd needed comfort. However, she couldn't offer much. She couldn't promise him this time that they would keep on looking for Ford, or tell him he would do better on the next mission. She couldn't even promise him herself.
She was about to move her hand away when he spoke, voice thick and heavy.
"I can take you away. We... I would go with you anywhere, Elizabeth. Just say the word. We don't have to go back."
Her throat tightened. Her heart soared at his words. She was half tempted to ask him never to go back, but she couldn't do it
If she knew anything about John, then it was his loyalty to the people they worked with and the City – but it wasn't just that. John was one of those people who couldn't find home so easily. She didn't have the heart to ask him to actually to give all that up. Elizabeth knew him well enough to be certain he wanted, deep down, something good to come out of this.
She wanted it too; she just didn't believe anything good for two of them could be found in this mess.
"John, this galaxy isn't a particularly safe place to be. We'd have to spend our lives in hiding," she stated painfully, but he looked at her with even more determination.
"I'm not looking for safe and easy, Elizabeth ," he pressed. The sight of intensive stare, that told her he set his mind and heart on staying with her, no matter what only strengthened his words.
Elizabeth stared at him as he waited for her decision. She searched for the words, her mind coming up empty. Too many people had put themselves on the line for her, for both of them. If she escaped with John, then they would be the ones to take the blame and she wasn't sure she could live with that.
Her mind never reached a decision – not that day, or in the days that followed. In the moment when she was about to speak, the danger was already upon them. All she remembered was a blurred slow motion, spiraling out of her control. She remembered John pulling her to the ground and the sound of gunshots – not stunners or energy weapon beams, but gunshots, and that meant the Wraith worshipers. She remembered following John, hiding behind trees and rocks, climbing back up the hill, as John tried to out shoot their attackers.
She remembered tripping over something on the rocky ground, falling and hurting her knee. There were voices behind her, shouts and more weapon fire, and as she turned around, to look down the hill at the people following them and trying to kill them, Elizabeth recognized a face.
That was the man who held her captive. The Wraith – scientist.
Fear shot through her veins and for a moment she was unable to move. John was calling out for her, further up the hill, and she tried to struggle to her feet. Then she felt a burning pain, and realized she'd been shot in a leg.
John ran down toward her.
Five people were chasing them. As John reached her he managed to take one of them out. He helped her to her feet and she felt cold stinging in her leg as the nanites attacked her wound. John pulled her hand. Gunshots echoed around her head, and John turned around to shoot as she climbed back up the hill, toward the cave they'd been hiding in.
She could hear John's breath behind her as she climbed. So close, she thought. They would have some kind of shelter at least. So close. She tripped again, but got up on her own.
More gunshots. They pain in her leg faded. She only felt the cold now and for a moment she was glad about the damn machines inside of her, for fixing her on the spot, keeping her from slow them down, putting John at further risk.
When she landed in the cave, hidden behind a piece of rock, she couldn't do anything more than catch her breath. She heard more gunfire – and then it suddenly it stopped. It was over.
There were heavy steps outside her small hiding place and in the next moment John stumbled inside, then fell to the ground.
He pushed himself up on his forearms unsteadily and looked at her, his eyes unfocused, his breathing hard. Elizabeth crawled over to him. There was something wrong.
His hand reached out as he began to cough.
"It's over," he stammered. The P – 90 fell of his shoulder. "It's over," he repeated urgently, coughing again, spitting out something red.
Then he fell to the ground and Elizabeth was at his side, panic and fear fueling her muscles. He was heavy, too heavy, too limp under her hands. He moaned painfully when she started to move him. When she finally managed to turn him around she realized the lower part of his shirt was soaked. Elizabeth 's hands were trembling as she pulled the fabric up, revealing warm and red blood covering his skin.
He'd been shot in stomach.
"He had a knife," John said hoarsely, coughing again. The blood was dripping down his side, leaving a wet trail of red on his fair skin. Elizabeth couldn't breathe. Couldn't think. There was too much blood, meaning the wound was serious. She didn't know much about wounds, despite John's habit of getting injured way too often, but she was pretty certain that this kind of injury couldn't end well without a doctor in sight.
"John," she pleaded and he looked up at her weakly.
"One of them...," his words were cut by another bolt of coughing and reddish foam dripped from the corner of his mouth. His breathing was shallow, quick, eyes unfocused and he fought to stay awake. "I shot... him."
All she could see was John, lying on the ground, coughing and shivering, repeating her name. She knelt next to him, wiping his mouth with shaky fingers, feeling how clammy his skin was and the sweat breaking on him.
He was dying.
When his eyes closed and he quieted, Elizabeth froze. This was it. It was over.
She was losing him.
"John," she shook him desperately and he opened his eyes. The warmth was fading from them and for a moment she wasn't certain he could even see her.
"I love you," he grimaced a smile. "Love you...," he repeated, but it sounded like a goodbye.
"No! John," she pleaded. He swallowed. His face was loosing color as he was loosing blood. Elizabeth looked down his body. The wound was bleeding badly, but he was still conscious. And he was in pain. She remembered reading that abdomen wounds caused slow death.
"I have... a little bit more...," his hand reached up to her face and fell as he coughed more of his blood.
"No," she whispered, bending above him and brushing his hair away from his forehead. He closed his eyes and finally smiled. His sweat was cold. "John! John," she called, and nudged and shook him until his glazed eyes opened for her.
Last time. Her throat was closed and her chest felt numb and empty. This could be the last time she looked into his eyes.
If only Jennifer was here. Maybe she could save him. If only he didn't have to protect her while risking his own life, he would still be fine, he would....
His lips were trembling.
"I love you. I will always love you," he choked out, looking at her intensely and she didn't even realize she started crying. "No, don't cry," his hand reached for her again, but then fell on his chest, motionless and limp. Elizabeth took it hand in hers and held it on her cheek.
"No John," she said through her sobs. "No... stay with me, John. Please," she whispered weakly, knowing it was in vain.
"I'm cold.... but your hand is warm," he answered and his head dropped to the side.
Elizabeth froze. Her mind suddenly running wild.
Jennifer wasn't here, and even if she was, the chances probably wouldn't be on John's side. The wound was bad and internal damage probably too extensive. Nothing that the doctor could do would stop the bleeding quickly enough.
Except for her nanites.
She remembered how Niam grabbed her neck and the cold she felt briefly under his touch, the same cold she felt every time the nanites were active in her body.
"John," with her voice steadier, Elizabeth shook him and called him again and again, until he looked at her.
If Niam could do it, then she could do it too. Rodney mentioned that.... the nanites were under her control.
"I love you," he repeated. She grabbed his head.
"John, look at me. I can help you," she said. "I can.... transfer my nanites to you," she couldn't believe she'd actually said that. It meant turning him into whatever she was. It meant ripping his remaining chances at a normal life away; but it also meant saving his life. John looked at her in silence, his eyes filled with heartbreaking trust and then nodded, peacefully accepting her offering. A part of her knew that he understood why she hated the nanites; why she feared carrying them in her blood. But he still he chose to become like her. To other people she was less than a human being. To John anything she was was good enough.
Elizabeth took John's palm, realizing that both of her hands were covered in his blood.
"I'm so sorry, John," she whispered and laced her fingers with his, not knowing what exactly she was doing, only doing what felt right. Concentrating on her body and the feeling of cold, she tightened her hold on him, willing the machines in her blood to cross the barrier of their touch.
John gasped, but continued looking at her with trust; with love. She could feel them awaken and for the first time since John had found her, deliberately reached with her mind for the invisible force running through her veins. Elizabeth looked at their hands, felt his fingers move and envelope hers weakly as her mind urged the little machines to work, to fix him.
Then she felt her awareness crossing the barrier too.
A wave of pain and weakness washed over her. Cold sweat broke out on her skin and she was shivering, her mind and bare willpower making her hold out. John was breathing raggedly below her and for an unknown period of time, everything was just a dizzy fog as both of them fought for his life.
And then it suddenly stopped. The cold crept away and Elizabeth collapsed next to John, spent and weak, all of her muscles twitching.
John breathed. It had worked. He was alive.
She looked at his stomach. Blood was still there but it was drying. She reached with her fingers and felt the healed skin underneath her hands.
She couldn't help feeling that she'd saved his body only to take away his life.
Rodney helped an exhausted Jennifer up the hill and Teyla followed them. When they reached the place where Ronon was standing motionless and silent, Rodney was afraid that the worst had happened.
But then Ronon moved aside and Rodney blinked as he stepped into the small cave. When his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, he saw Elizabeth and John lying on the ground.
They were both pale, holding each other, their faces reflecting shock.
Then Rodney noticed John's shirt, which was pulled up; and the blood. He'd been shot!
Jennifer ran to them and knelt at John's side, her fingers reaching for his abdomen. John seemed to wake up from the stupor he was in, his eyes connecting with the eyes of the young doctor. At the same time, Elizabeth moved herself away from John, sitting up and looking at Rodney with a strange apology and hopeless desperation, seeking some kind of help.
"There's no wound," Jennifer said blankly, staring at the dried blood on John's skin. "There's no wound!"
Elizabeth continued to stare mutely at Rodney. Jennifer glanced around the faces of everyone present, seeking an answer. Ronon shifted.
"Oh," was all that Teyla said after several moments, her eyes filling with understanding. She placed her hand over her mouth and looked at Ronon, who looked like he'd figured everything out long ago.
"I couldn't leave him to die," Elizabeth stammered out. Finally the understanding sunk in and Rodney realized what had happened.
She had used her nanites.
Elizabeth's eyes were still seeking assurance, but Rodney felt helpless. Then she looked at Teyla and the Athosian was at her side in two swift strides, kneeling on the hard floor and hugging the former leader of Atlantis.
With his own anguish unspoken, Rodney looked at Ronon. The tall man wore dark shadow on his face, finding no relief. Ronon couldn't fix this or tell him what to do.
"You better come up with something, McKay."
The following hours were a blur of rush for pretty much all of them. Teyla was the one who assisted Jennifer as the doctor performed the operation on Elizabeth. Both women tried to send John away, but he refused to go. Elizabeth was leaning against him during the procedure, and after it was done, the wound healed rapidly. After that, Ronon had destroyed the Wraith beacon.
When everything was over, they dialed Atlantis.
The personnel in the Gate room stared with a mixture of shock, disbelief and happiness as Elizabeth Weir stepped through the event horizon. Some of them were terrified. The news have, apparently, spread quickly, but most of the personnel looked at the arrivals with compassion. Colonel Carter waited for them with a group of marines; and medical staff clad in hazmat suits. She had already been informed of the new developments, her own shock and disbelief almost hidden under the mask of professional calm, but there was also warmth in her eyes.
If all the decisions were left to the members of the expedition, then none of the people who arrived through the gate would feel the weight of worry they did. However, two men standing near the railing in front of what used to be Elizabeth's office, overlooking the silent welcome, clad in stiff dark suits meant that new struggle was just beginning. The IOA had already sent their men.
The complete rescue team had to be placed in quarantine, at least for some time, except for Elizabeth and John - the two of them had to be separated from the rest of the city population. When one of the marines stepped toward two former leaders, looking uncomfortable and apologetic, John tightened his hold on Elizabeth's hand. He wasn't going to let anyone separate him from her.
The young soldier raised his gun. The silence in the Gate room was loaded with disappointment and fear as John smirked at the soldier, his eyes cold.
"Do you really think that that would make any difference?" he asked darkly, pointing at the weapon. The soldiers who used to obey him stepped back, unable to hide the mistrust. John looked at Carter who simply stared back, her eyes now unreadable.
"We don't want to harm anyone. But I'm not leaving her," John said, a warning coloring his voice.
"The nanites seem to be inactive," voiced Doctor Zelenka, looking at Colonel Carter.
"Are you absolutely certain?" badly covered nervousness filled Richard Woolsey's voice. Radek glanced at him, and realized he wanted to smack the man on the head probably more than he wanted to smack Rodney on countless occasions.
"You have it all here, and besides, anyone from the science department would tell you the same. That is, if you are not able to interpret these readings," Radek pointed toward his laptop sitting on the desk in large isolation room.
Doctor Weir was sitting on the large bed that Doctor Keller insisted on bringing, while Colonel Sheppard stood in front of her, arms crossed and legs slightly spread in a defensive stance. Rodney was fussing about the monitors and security cameras, repeating there was no need for hazmat suits.
When Woolsey failed to provide an answer, Radek sighed and took off the head covering piece of the suit.
"Now if you don't have any more questions and concerns, I would like to return to my duties," said Radek and glanced at Rodney. "Doctor McKay needs to be filled in on repair of the Stargate, so if you'd please-"
"Just one more thing," said Woolsey and turned toward Colonel Carter. "Colonel, I think you should..."
Radek noticed how Samantha Carter winced before she approached Colonel Sheppard. He pointed a questioning look at her and she looked apologetic.
"Your uniform, John. And dog tags," she said with soft sadness. His eyes darkened, but he reached inside of his shirt without hesitation and handed her the dog tags in the next moment. "I'm sorry," Carter's hand dipped under the weight of the chain placed in her hands.
"Don't be," answered Sheppard.
"You are suspended from active duty," said Carter, looking at the contents of her palm. Then she looked at John again. "You risked too much."
Sheppard gave her a bitter smile.
"That may be so. Maybe I left someone behind, but I damn well tried not to do it. And guess what? I saved someone this time around," the bitterness was dripping from his voice. Radek looked around the room. Woolsey didn't look at him, and Rodney's eyes were heavy. Doctor Weir got up from the bed she was sitting on and placed a hand on Sheppard's shoulder. He turned and they exchanged a look, something like silent agreement.
Then Sheppard looked back at Carter, and then turned his eyes toward Richard Woolsey.
"You know what? I... we are not any less those two people who gave everything for this city. If you and your politicians fail to see that, then you're disrespecting not only us... but everyone whose blood was shed to keep Atlantis and Earth safe."
"Nobody questioned what you accomplished here... Colonel."
Sheppard smirked at the rank he was relieved of only minutes ago. The gleam in his eyes was dangerous and angry.
"Then why do you expect my men to treat me like a prisoner? Because of the nanites? I am no less human then I used to be," bitter laughter escaped Sheppard's lips. "I guess you and Stargate Command finally found your way to get rid of me, didn't you?"
Woolsey's bald head gained a shade of red.
"You still have your duties toward this City, Sheppard," said the bureaucrat. Radek didn't miss the omission of the rank this time around.
Doctor Weir, who remained silent up to that point stepped forward.
"That may be so, Richard. You need all the information on Replicators you can get, and we are the only two available at the moment. So, what you're doing here is only logical – you just need to convince everyone else we are dangerous. I guess experimenting on us then-," she held onto Sheppard tighter, "wouldn't feel so wrong. But like John had said," her clear voice paused and she looked at Sheppard with tender gaze, "we gave everything for this city. Keep that in mind."
Woolsey didn't say anything. Both Carter and Rodney looked openly sad. Rodney appeared angry too, and Radek knew his friend wasn't very good at hiding his anger. Sheppard frowned, moving slightly forward and shielding Doctor Weir with his larger body.
"Somehow I have the feeling that anything we did won't matter all that much, Elizabeth. We are the Replicators now, you know."
She nodded disappointedly, meeting his gaze.
Woolsey didn't answer, he just left the room. Radek glanced toward his former leaders, feeling bitterness welling up in his chest. He had to agree with Sheppard – Replicator nanites or not, disrespect to him and Doctor Weir meant disrespect toward the expedition as a whole.
"I said, I just want to talk to him. What part of that didn't you get?"
The marine didn't bother to reply, staring stubbornly at Aiden as he stood in front of the isolation room in Atlantis.
"What's going on?" a tired female voice rang through the hallway. Jennifer was walking from the main lab, clad in green scrubs, pulling off her latex gloves. She gave an exasperated sigh when she faced the marines. "What seems to be the problem, Sergeant Arroway?"
"He doesn't have security clearance, Doctor," said Sergeant Arroway, pointing at Aiden. Jennifer sighed again, pinching the bridge of her nose.
"He does now, Sergeant. Let him inside," said Jennifer.
"But Doctor!," Arroway was probably one of those 'I'll do exactly what I'm told to do' guys who either lacked a basic grasp of any situation or refused to even try. Jennifer put her hand on Aiden's shoulder and Aiden wasn't about to protest. If this was Carson , he would probably have told him not to treat him this way, like he needed protection. Or a babysitter. However, with his head cleared of the Wraith enzyme, Aiden's trust in Jennifer was very solid. She did win the battle with herself in order to help him. Aiden couldn't say that about himself. Being back on Atlantis had felt strange. Part of him still wanted to run away – especially after he saw the way Sheppard and Doctor Weir were treated. One day upon their return they were, basically, degraded from leaders to prisoners and referred to as a "security risk".
Jennifer had been amazing. She didn't allow turning infirmary into questioning room, among other things. Aiden felt he owed her – a lot. Running away would feel like throwing everything she had done for him away, so he decided to stay, for the time being, and recover. If anything, Jennifer had deserved it.
"No but Sergeant. This is still my infirmary and you'll do as I say. And if you're so concerned for the young Lieutenant's health or well being, I assure you I will keep an eye on the situation," she finished. Arroway stared at her for several stubborn moments but then moved aside. Jennifer palmed the door sensor and the heavy metal slid aside, revealing the glum-looking room.
There was a bed made for two in the corner, the one Jennifer insisted on having there (Aiden overheard her argument with Colonel Carter and some IOA supervisor over the matter, and felt proud when she kept insisting on her request until the bed was brought. It also confirmed Aiden's suspicion about how Sheppard really felt about his former boss); and two people silently lying on it, the woman curled next to the man, her head on his chest. Aiden stopped for a moment, until both of them looked up at him. Then he glanced toward Jennifer and she nodded with a smile.
John and Elizabeth untangled themselves and got up. Aiden caught himself staring at Elizabeth in disbelief, finding her just the same as he remembered her, tall and elegant and so dignified - even in hospital scrubs - but at the same time, something about her was different.
Her eyes. They lacked that spark of optimism and faith, he decided. She walked up to him, John shadowing her silently, and opened her hands. Oh God. The reunion of the outcasts. Aiden hesitated a small moment, the sadness of the abandoned child a welling up in him and then succumbing into nothingness as he received the hug. Somebody was opening their arms for him, somebody standing up for him and it was real. He was hugging his former leader, the person he never stopped respecting, relishing the way she held him very much like a mother would hold a child, soft and caring - and for some reason he could picture her smile as she held him tightly.
"I'm so glad you're all right, Aiden," she said as they parted.
"Thank you, Doctor Weir," he squeezed her shoulders with remembered affection. She was smiling and her eyes reminded him of the old Elizabeth a little. Then he turned his eyes toward John and the two men stared at each other in silence that stretched for several moments.
Many times Aiden had wished to see John Sheppard in the same position he was in - compromised by something that was out of his hands, and yet under his skin; a part of him John himself couldn't control. Seeing John Sheppard receive the treatment Aiden had received after the Wraith siege, he didn't feel the vengeful satisfaction he'd always anticipated. If only life was so simple and proverbial justice blind – but none of that was real.
"Sir," greeted Aiden, not sure how to proceed.
"Drop the rank, Aiden. I'm pretty certain I don't have it any more," said John. Elizabeth gave him a sad look and John squeezed her shoulder briefly, adding something about dealing with all those military bigwigs in vain, and then stepped forward to shake hands with Aiden. What started as a firm handshake turned into one of those brotherly hugs with lots of hefty back slapping, lasting longer than Aiden thought it would - more heartfelt than he'd have ever expected. When they parted, he simply looked at John, finding the need for words or explanations gone.
"I understand," said Aiden and John nodded. It was enough.
The kind of looks Aiden, "The Wraith hunter" got were directed at John now. He hadn't done anything wrong, hadn't harmed anyone, yet he was treated like something that needed to be avoided, because all of a sudden he wasn't a person any more. He was a security risk.
"I know you do. So do I," answered John. It was the truth.
Aiden saluted him. It was ridiculous actually - both of them were standing there in scrubs, but to Aiden it felt more meaningful than any military ceremony. Neither of them could ever be a soldier again - Marines or Air Force, it didn't matter much - but honor mattered. So did respect. Aiden had always admired this man, wanted to be like him.
It was still the truth.
"What will you do now, Sir?" asked Aiden. John smirked, much in the same way he used to do back in the old days.
"I don't think it's really up to me. But I'll be happy if they decide to drop me on some lonely beach with lots of waves after everything is done," said John and looked at Elizabeth.
"That sounds nice," agreed Elizabeth, but couldn't hide the sadness in her voice.
If only life could be that simple.
"Tell me Doctor, just what were you thinking? Actually did you think – at all?"
Jennifer was tired. She had a headache. Her infirmary was still filled with people who couldn't remember basic things about themselves. She was still dirty and her feet were sore. She had perpetual cramps in her left leg and still couldn't afford a break.
She didn't need an IOA committee on top of everything. Sighing, she raised her chin and eyes, looking at two men sent here to ask useless questions and make their lives unnecessarily complicated. She was pretty certain they already reached the decision on what to do – all this show they were putting up was humiliating and quite lame. Okay, if they wanted to play a game, Jennifer had a game of her own.
"I was thinking about Sergeants Hopkins and Mueller and how to adjust the dosage of their medicines. Also, I was preoccupied with several reports I am due to be writing, and the general well-being of my patients. Apart from that I was contemplating taking a nice long bath because I'm really tired," replied Jennifer flatly. Colonel Carter, who sat next to her, kept her face straight but her expressive eyes were twinkling with amusement.
"Is that so Doctor? If you were so concerned for your patients' well-being, how could you allow this?" one of the IOA people, she didn't catch his name, pointed toward a large screen showing Elizabeth Weir giving a hug to Aiden Ford.
"I don't see why I should have objected to that," Jennifer was keeping her calm, but this whole situation wasn't just annoying. She was positively disgusted by now. The initial requests made by IOA representatives consisted of separating Elizabeth from John, forbidding visits and any kind of personal contact with anyone but selected medical personnel, with detailed, long questioning planned. Jennifer refused every single of their requests. Not until they rested. Separation wasn't an option at all, until both were her patients.
"Need I remind you that both of these," there was a pause, "Persons carry active Replicator nanites?"
"You can't bring yourself to call them people any more?" asked Jennifer pointedly.
"Doctor Keller," Colonel Carter leaned slightly forward. Yes, she did toe the line. But she did that on purpose. If anything, Jennifer had brains.
"Don't make us wonder about your professional objectiveness, Doctor," said the second IOA guy. She knew him, bald, short and forcedly nice. Her grandma would have a list of appropriate names for him, none of them very flattering. His remark was truly priceless. How anybody sensible could expect her to treat two people, who were her friends and colleagues without compassion and sympathy was beyond her.
Actually, how could anyone expect a Doctor – someone who dealt with people suffering all kinds of bad things – to keep a distance?
Straightening in her seat and facing something she always silently dreaded, Jennifer realized that knowledge, professionalism or ability to stay awake and focused under pressure didn't make her a good Doctor. It wasn't the bedside manner either, nor her skill to sympathize, or be tolerant toward the things she really couldn't approve or understand. She was just a human. At the end of the day, various kind of addicts were still her least favorite patients. She still felt the same disgust, but now she knew she could deal with it.
What mattered and what did make her a good doctor was her dedication to help, to treat everyone equally, despite anything, even her own personal dislikes, or her fondness toward a person. Realizing that she didn't have to sympathize with things she found unacceptable - and still be able to do her job well – allowed her to honestly care for the person.
"You are making me wonder about your basic sense of human compassion, mister Woolsey," said Jennifer, looking straight at him. "I touched both of them, and so did the others. Nobody got infected. The nanites can be transferred only intentionally," said Jennifer. "I will sign to that if you need me to," she added. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have an infirmary full of sick people who need help."
She rose from her chair and walked out of the room. In her head she could hear he grandmother saying You finally grow yourself a spine, girl. It would probably prove troublesome, she mused, but she stood up for what she believed in. She found a place within her own skin that she liked.
There would be more questions, she was certain. But that didn't matter all that much. Jennifer stopped looking over her shoulder, stopped wondering how could she be more like doctor Beckett.
She wasn't doctor Beckett. She would never be. But she was a Doctor, and she was good. She was certainly good enough. She was able to treat people even when she didn't like what they had done.
That was something she was proud of.
Elizabeth settled next to John again, looking at his face. He gave her a light, happy smile.
"Don't do that to yourself. I'd rather be alive and with you than dead."
"You make it sound so simple, John, when it's not."
"When were we simple, Elizabeth? We are not meant to be simple."
"It's not funny, John."
"Actually it is. Look at those cameras. Wanna bet those IOA heads wondering why we aren't talking? Out loud?"
"You're laughing. You're thinking of laughing!"
"Okay, I'm laughing in my head, but not out of happiness."
John hugged her, pulling her close. She sighed and cuddled even closer. She felt calm. Jennifer had proved to be a fierce guardian, allowing only people who sincerely cared about them to visit. Both of them were clean and safe and fed. They had a comfortable bed and weren't running from any kind of danger. For the time being Elizabeth felt silently content.
John had nearly died. What Elizabeth did was desperate, but he was alive. Alive and breathing, solid and warm and real, lying next to her. For now it was enough. She was weak from running, lack of sleep and food, and her body and mind were still in a state of shock. She simply couldn't think forward, couldn't think of things that could or would happen and what could be done to prevent them. All she knew was that she, they, would deal with them. In time. Which would probably come soon.
"You're thinking too loudly," hearing John's thoughts was just a tad bit weird. It didn't feel like an intrusion to her privacy, as she'd feared. He was just a close and comforting presence she'd always known. Besides, he already knew how to read her, even without any spoken words. "And you're right."
Lifting her head from his chest, Elizabeth placed a soft kiss on his slightly prickly cheek.
"I.. I always knew. Knew how you felt... about me. I could see it in your eyes. I was afraid to try, afraid I'd ruin everything good" she whispered through her thoughts and he kissed her temple. "It could have been different. Better. Please forgive me?" she added.
"It's okay... don't go there. We can't turn back time, Elizabeth. We're together now," his thoughts were a gentle touch in her soul.
"But for how long?"
She could hear and feel his silence now. His arms tightened around her and he kept pulling her closer until she was on top of him. She couldn't exactly tell what he felt, but his silence turned darker and she sensed fear creeping into him, fear of being separated and loosing each other.
It terrified her too, beyond every reason and sense of duty she still had. He was the only thread to normalcy she had left. Besides, she did this to him, had put him into this position, and now she had to protect him somehow.
"I heard that," he smiled at her sweetly, sneaking his fingers into her hair. "You didn't mean me any harm. And I agreed."
"John, you were injured and didn't think clearly back there. And I..."
"I know what I chose. If anyone takes you God knows where, then I want to go with you. I told you that already."
She couldn't argue with that. She didn't want to argue, just like she didn't want to be alone, not in this. John had always been her shelter, her secret source of strength. She needed him too much to keep fighting.
Besides, he didn't have much options left.
If she had to choose between him and her duty to Atlantis, the debate suddenly ceased to be so great.
"You won't be alone," his thoughts followed hers and he pulled her down into a kiss. She didn't need to read his thoughts to guess what he wanted to do. He grinned at her briefly, before his hand started pushing the fabric of the loose shirt up her back. They stared at each other. Connecting with him in silent agreement, Elizabeth broke the gaze only to sit up and pull the piece of clothing over her head. John swallowed, his eyes traveling up and down her body. "You feel like part of me now," the sound of his voice echoed in her mind.
"I don't think that's something new. I feel like you've been a part of me for so long I can't even remember how it felt not knowing you," she leaned over him and his hands cupped her breasts. He smirked again, with hesitation but also mischief in his eyes.
She flashed him a grin, briefly glancing up at one of the cameras. "If they think it's absolutely necessary to watch, let them. They can go to hell. We have a blanket. And I won't let anyone take this away from me," with that thought she leaned into him, and John's hand reached for the blanket that lay beside them, to hide them from the prying eyes.
The sound of argument made Teyla stop in her tracks. She was nearing one of the control labs when she heard raised voices, and instead of resuming her path – she'd been unable to sleep so she'd decided to take a long walk, preferably somewhere outside, so she could feel the breeze and hear the ocean, which meant walking from her quarters through the main area of the city – she turned around to see if she could help stop the fighting.
She wasn't surprised. Ever since they got back yesterday the City was on edge. People were desperately trying not to talk about their compromised leaders and what was going to happen to them, or the expedition as a whole. The city felt divided again. Most of the expedition members reacted with worry and sympathy, but there were also mistrustful ones.
At the end of the day Teyla knew someone else, someone from the outside, who didn't know this people and never shared their burden would make a verdict. That was what two IOA representatives were here for. Every time Teyla thought of it, she had to take effort in controlling her anger.
Shouting scientists weren't actually a common thing, except when Rodney couldn't get something right the way he wanted it done so she entered the lab, not prepared to find herself surrounded by screens showing John and Elizabeth in an intimate embrace – covered with a blanket for the sake of modesty - but still there was no doubt where their actions were heading.
For a moment, Teyla simply stared.
Teyla needed several seconds to snap out of the shock. The feeling of sickness in her stomach followed quickly when she realized just what exactly was happening.
Why would anyone want to film them in a moment so private? It wasn't like she didn't know the isolation room had to be observed – she understood the reasons, although the implied mistrust hurt her deeply (to her, treating John and Elizabeth like suspects rather than friends in need wasn't acceptable, but she would comply with the rules, if her friends were given a just treatment), but this? It seemed too much, way too much.
The act of love with the person of your heart's choosing was sacred among her people. It was respected, celebrated and never intruded upon like this. Teyla's insides trembled. It was too much. The hope that Major Lorne spoke of was gone – if there was any to begin with. Not with the rules the Tau'ri invented for themselves. She didn't agree with many of those rules, but learned to accept them. This – this was unimaginable. This she couldn't, she wouldn't tolerate.
However, she wasn't the only one heavily upset by this.
Chuck, the gate technician, was standing in the middle of the room, shouting at one scientist and a marine, the people who were probably enlisted to observe and record the isolation room.
Teyla had never seen Chuck shout. She had never seen him lose his temper or use a raised voice. The reality of the situation – and how it affected people around her pushed her shock to a completely new level.
"Turn it off Harolds! That's a private matter God dammit!"
Teyla never heard Chuck curse like that.
The young man moved toward the control console, but the marine – Sergeant Harolds – blocked his way with his heavier body, aiming a threatening grin at Chuck.
"The order was to record all of their conversations and behavior," said the Sergeant with disgusting contentment. Teyla realized he liked all of this.
"That's your commanding officer in there, Harolds! Have you lost all the decency you had, or did you lack any in the first place?!" Chuck attempted to get past the marine, while the scientist, one of Rodney's new men whom Teyla didn't know all that well, just stood there. Three large screens showed a couple kissing, not caring about the rest of the world. It was their way to protest, realized Teyla. They refused to give up on each other, the tenderness and love they shared, the humanity they were denied - and more than ever Teyla felt she ought to do something.
The Athosian woamn was known for her calm. She always thought twice. She was the one who stopped Ronon or John before they ran into peril mindlessly, but this time she could feel their mindlessness rise from inside her very bones and flood her flesh and veins.
The realization of what would happen finally dawned and she needn't think any more.
Even their privacy would be taken away, every dream of the soul and every secret of the heart, everything held dear, displayed for someone to judge and decide should it be allowed. If she was their friend, then she had to do something.
Harolds grabbed Chuck and pushed him to the floor.
"You are one sick idiot, Harolds," spat Chuck out pushing himself away.
"I'm just doing my job," answered the marine.
"What a fine excuse you found for yourself! There's a line that shouldn't be crossed. You're disgusting," said Chuck and got up.
"Get out of here," said the marine.
Chuck seemed like he was ready to confront the soldier again. That was when Teyla decided to cut in.
Standing between Chuck and Sergeant Harolds, she raised her chin, looking the soldier who towered over her straight in the eye.
"You will turn the cameras off for at least one hour, Sergeant," Teyla used her calm but intimidating tone – and by now every soldier in the city knew that tone, Harolds included. The warning in her eyes was evident. However the Sergeant was either stupid or stubborn – probably both – and didn't move. John and Elizabeth on screen shifted their position and the blanket fell to the floor. Elizabeth didn't have any clothes on, but most of her was hidden by John's body. Teyla swallowed her anger. No person under the Sun had the right to intrude in a moment like this.
"Ma'am I must ask you to step aside," only the words he used were polite. It was blatantly evident he was ready to hit her, or anyone else, should his current position of power be disputed.
Teyla didn't flinch. She kept his gaze, steady and calm.
"Your orders never said you are allowed to intrude on Doctor Weir's and Colonel Sheppard's intimate moments," Teyla neared him, holding his gaze. "You will turn the cameras off," she repeated firmly but Harolds didn't show any intention to move away.
"With all due respect, no I won't ma'am. They can damn well keep their hands to themselves," he said with a sneer and Teyla remembered why she had never liked him in the first place, but just like the rules of the Tau'ri, learned to tolerate him.
The tone of his voice was what did it, and the way he glanced toward the screen with a leer. Power did have the way of corrupting people. Tau'ri were right about that.
She took the Sergeant by surprise, grabbing his wrist in a death – grip and pulling him, while kicking him in the shin. It was one of Ronon's moves that demanded skill and a quick reaction and she found it useful because she knew how to use the element of surprise better than most people she confronted - Sergeant Harolds included.
The Sergeant was about to protest and get up, but before he could, Teyla's foot was firmly pressed against his neck.
"Turn that off, Chuck," she ordered. "Help him," she glared at the doctor who uselessly stood in the room, observing the event, and the doctor snapped into action as ordered.
"You are breaking orders," growled Harolds from under her foot. She pressed him harder into the floor and he groaned.
"I was never given any kind of order, Sergeant. Nor do I need to follow them when I know they are insulting," answered Teyla, removing her foot. "It's something anyone should keep in mind. Now get up," she said. "Chuck, is there a way to keep the cameras turned off for a period of time?"
"We're working on it, ma'am," Chuck's hands were typing furiously, and the doctor was giving suggestions on what to do. In the meantime Harolds was fuming, but didn't dare to attack Teyla, which was the wisest decision he had made ever since she stepped into the lab.
"You will be called on this, ma'am. I will inform the -," Harolds started but Teyla cut him off with a raised hand and eyes determined and cold. For the first time she really understood Ford and what he had feared.
"You may go and inform everyone you deem appropriate," answered Teyla. As Harolds was leaving, she decided it was time for her to choose her own path instead blindly following the road that had laid itself in front of her.
Not so long ago she had felt that she left down both of her friends, unable to provide comfort and understanding for John when he tried to run away from his grief. The guilt for causing him pain was still present in Teyla's heart. Now was the time to compensate for it, help both him and Elizabeth keep the little happiness they had left.
One option was there. Taking a steadying breath, Teyla decided to pay a visit to Ronon first. This time she wasn't about to leave him out of her plans. Two people stood better chance when it came to talking Elizabeth Weir into something what would oppose to her sense of duty – and Teyla knew her well enough to be certain she still thought she could help Atlantis.
As she paced down the hallways, heading for Ronon's quarters, all she could think about was that maybe Ford wasn't that wrong when he had left them.
Gentle hands woke him up.
Rodney blinked his eyes open in the almost – darkness of his room, meeting Ronon's stare.
"Not so loud, McKay. We need you to do something," said Ronon.
Rodney barely registered the "we" that Ronon had used, but after he sat up he noticed Teyla. His brain was slowly waking up, and after he rubbed his eyes he realized she was fully dressed and equipped as if she was going off-world.
He looked back at Ronon. His long coat was hugging his shoulders just as some strange silence was enveloping their presence. Rodney put his bare feet on the floor and looked at Teyla. Her face was serious and… sad?
"We need you to do something, Rodney," she said and there was no mistake. Her voice was thick with emotion and then suddenly the darkness in the corner of his room moved. John and Elizabeth stepped into the light, clad in dark uniforms, wearing tac vests.
Rodney sobered up rapidly. The realization was like a fist slamming him hard in the chest. He looked at Elizabeth and she gave him one of those generous, kind smiles that came with patience for all of his moods and quirks. John's lips were pressed in a tight line.
"Sheppard?" called Rodney and John reluctantly met his eyes. His gaze was heavy.
"There's no place for us here, Rodney," said John and held Elizabeth 's hand. "You know that. You saw it yourself."
"We can't let them go alone," interrupted Ronon, and that was all the explanation that was needed.
The thought of soon – to – be family of Robinsons, stranded in some forgotten corner of Pegasus galaxy, sitting by the camp fire crossed Rodney's mind. No. Dear God no. Don't leave me here. You need me and I need...
Rodney sprang to his feet, switching his begging gaze from one to the other of his friends, feeling that this time, he wasn't invited for the adventure. That he wasn't needed. If they meant to take him along then he would have been dressed up by now too.
"Then I want to come with you," he said, despite everything, stepping in front of Elizabeth and addressing her directly. If she said the word they would listen. They always listened to her, all of them.
He could see the inner battle going on inside of her. She looked at John, seeking help. Teyla stepped next to Elizabeth and John and took Rodney's hand that gestured through the air. Rodney stared at their connected hands, realizing there was a good chance he would never hold her hand again. Never see her – any of them again.
"We need you here," she said with all that warmth only she could give to a person and Rodney felt all of his pleading would be in vain.
"Like hell! You'll go and disappear! What use would I be, stuck here, doing-"
"You need to find a way to stop the nanites. Only you can do that, Rodney," Teyla squeezed his hand tighter, looking down at it. His hand – both of his hands solved so many problems. Rodney still suffered slight memory loss. What if he proved to be a wrong choice, couldn't remember how to solve this one how to be... useful to them?
As if she could read Rodney's mind, Teyla looked at him, eyes filled with trust. Then she kissed his hand. "We need you to do it. It's the only way to set John and Elizabeth free. You can do it, Rodney. You can."
"But, but… how will I find you even if I...?"
"We will find you, Rodney," answered Teyla. "Don't worry. We will know. And we will be safe, and that's the most important thing, Rodney."
John finally spoke.
"We won't leave you behind, I promise. I promise," Rodney looked at him, could see his eyes growing larger. "I'm counting on you."
"But I'm not sure they can be stopped with the two of you still alive! I need you here to run some tests and …"
Teyla had put her fingers gently to his lips and Rodney was still. There was no use to bargain. His arguments were futile. The decision was there, laid on the table before him. All he could do for them now was...
... let them go.
Rodney looked at Ronon, realizing he would miss that face, and the way the tall man missed the punchline of the joke, or mayabe only pretended so.
"You will have to be smart. We know you are," tears were streaming down Teyla's cheeks. He would miss her reason, her calm; the way she expected him to be a better person. "Please Rodney. We need you to help us get out of here."
Rodney swallowed. His heart was breaking. There was something big and numb, unbearably heavy in his chest. He looked at their faces in the semi darkness of his quarters. Silently, they were asking both his help and his forgiveness.
How could he deny that, even if it broke his heart?
"We won't leave you behind, Rodney," John repeated.
Rodney knew he would never say that as a simple means of comforting a friend. It was John's oath, and the way he held Elizabeth's hand was the guarantee of his promise.
He also knew that staying meant being turned into guinea pigs for the scientists in Area 51 for Elizabeth and John. They were the only living… Replicators in the hands of the IOA and the SGC and nobody would feel bad enough not to use them as a means of acquiring vital information on defeating Replicators. Nobody would wonder about their human rights too much. Nobody would ask them if they missed their home or their friends.
Elizabeth had barely escaped from one prison. The last thing she needed was another one, made by people who were supposed to protect her.
Rodney steeled himself and clenched his hands into fists. This time it was his turn to make a sacrifice for their benefit. It was his turn to save the day for the rest of them.
"Okay. I will help you," he said and with a heavy heart he followed them into the darkness of Atlantis.
Evan always enjoyed the trading planets the most. When he was a child, he loved the stories of ancient Greece and Egypt, imagining what everyday life of the ancient world was like, picturing sun - bathed streets filled with simple people wearing plain clothes, going about their everyday chores. Wandering around alien markets in Pegasus, with words and languages he couldn't understand, was like watching the past being brought to life.
He savored those moments and painted them often, especially after battles or dangerous missions, because he needed to remind himself what life could – should – be.
Sarraya was one of those planets with narrow streets and houses made of stone. His team came there to trade for everyday supplies and Lieutenant Sandra Davidson was busy settling a trade deal for fruit and vegetables. The rest of his men were with Sandra, and Evan took the opportunity to wander a little bit and watch the people who had the privilege to live; not worrying about grand scheme of things apart from yearly crop and everyday business. Evan was told that this planet had been spared from the Wraith for more than a hundred of years – they existed in stories believed to be legends, or something to scare the children with. It was rare, lucky place in a galaxy filled with fear.
Evan let his mind wander, eyes observing the colorful, loud everyday of Sarraya, when his mind singled something – someone – out.
There was a woman, not too far away from him, picking out fabric – possibly to make clothes. She was pregnant – the protrusion of her belly was actually what caught Evan's attention. With her stomach full with new life and her breasts ready to feed the child that would probably come soon, she was an impersonation of Mother Nature itself.
Somehow the light wind managed to carry the sound of her laughter to Evan's ears, and only then did he recognize her.
She moved the loose, shoulder – long brown curls away from her face, and there she was – smiling, with shining and happy eyes, and talking to a dark haired man next to her. Elizabeth Weir.
For a moment Evan couldn't move. Couldn't even breathe. He just stared at the two people – the former expedition leader and the man who used to be his commanding officer, standing intimately close and talking.
He almost called out to them, but something was tightening his throat as he observed John, soon to be a father, as he took piece of fabric from Elizabeth's hands – a rich red, cotton like fabric – and placed it over the simple blue tunic she was wearing. It was a perfect color for her.
For a moment, time stopped and all the sounds of market were blocked out of Evan's mind. He watched the man and woman choosing the fabric for her dress, the way the man said gentle, sweet things and how the woman smiled at him. Evan remembered the sight of her face when she returned, remembered the dreadful, devastating absence of hope in her eyes. She wasn't that woman any more. The Elizabeth he was seeing here was happy, content and alive.
Evan thought back on tons of paperwork, of search parties and briefings. Retrieving four fugitives was a standing order for all teams of Atlantis.
Evan also thought of Rodney, and how the man had changed over the last year. There was a layer of sadness ever since the four of them ran away, and it never left Rodney's eyes.
He wasn't as talkative as before, doing his job with less enthusiasm, but a new sense of duty. Evan was fairly certain that he continued his work on a way to reprogram and modify already active nanites that were active part of someone's organism, although the IOA put a stop to his research months ago.
For several moments Evan fought himself as he watched the couple not too far away from him. They were still the same two people he remembered, but there was a change. Responsibilities, burdens and dangers weren't hanging above their heads any more. They had new priorities, a new life.
More than anything he wanted to go over, speak to them, tell them he was happy to see them alive and well, but he couldn't take their happiness away. Better be left alone, he thought; alone and without a care on their minds.
Two people appeared from the crowd and approached Elizabeth and John – and them Evan instantly recognized.
Ronon greeted John. Elizabeth showed Teyla the pretty red fabric and Teyla nodded in agreement. God. They looked like a family; happy little family. They were better off far away from Atlantis.
And then the Athosian saw Evan – turned her head as if she was called by some mysterious force and their eyes met. Teyla's eyes filled with warmth and Evan remembered the day when she told him she had never understood the rules that ruined all the sacred things of life.
Teyla gave him a slow smile, and her eyes held a plea, a warning. Don't take away from them what's most sacred. Evan glanced at Elizabeth, at the hand she put on her belly, and how John wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Proud parents. Two happy people. He shook his head lightly as his own eyes started burning. Then he saw Teyla's eyes fill with a genuine smile and in the next moment she led her small family away, knowing their secret was safe.
Hours later, Evan was back in Atlantis. His mission report was thorough as usual but the two men and two women he saw at the market were never mentioned – to anybody.
He spent the next few days on Atlantis with lots of free time on his hands. The markets of other worlds were always an inspiration, and his brushes were busy. He was done rather quickly with his new painting, putting it later into a frame; and after the city had settled into another night, Evan found his way toward the physics lab, knowing only one person would be there.
Rodney was surprised when Evan pushed a framed canvas into his hands. The scientist wasn't known as a fan of painting and he was about to protest as Evan insisted on him to take the painting, but when Rodney's eyes fell on the painted scene, his mouth was left hanging. His head jerked up, eyes filled with questions and hope he didn't dare voicing.
"Yes," was all that Evan had said. The painting of Mother Nature and her mate was in Rodney's hands.
And then all the sadness left Rodney's eyes.