Despite being the first of November, it was bright and sunny in Arizona like it always was. In a noisy industrial neighborhood of some midsized city, a large plumber's van sat parked along the corner of 12th Avenue and Main. To a passerby, there was nothing remarkable about the van, but if someone gave it stricter scrutiny and glanced inside, it'd quickly turn into another matter entirely.
"Status on the snipers?"
"They have no clear line of sight. Agent Emmagan is in the interior sections of the factory."
"Fantastic. So we'll just stick our thumbs up our a—"
"Quiet," John urged with a glare, "Look, they're leading her down somewhere."
Special Agent John Sheppard of the Secret Service braced an arm against the console, getting a closer look at the surveillance feed. The image was black and white and, irritatingly enough, a little staticky. The feed was live, receiving reception from across the street through a small hidden camera the size of a diamond, hanging on a delicate pendent.
John studied one of the various monitors as Teyla trailed two men down a dimly lit factory hallway. The men accompanying her were twice her size and armed with heavy semi-automatic weapons, and though Teyla had already been searched and found clean, the thick taste of anxiety in the back of John's throat made him jittery.
He hated sitting on the sidelines in undercover operations.
"The reception's getting shaky," Rodney muttered from nearby, hunched over a keyboard as he furiously typed commands. "I told you this feed wouldn't work well in this area. The electromagnetic machinery in the nearby building is interfering with the signal."
John leaned down to get a closer look. "Anything you can do to fix it?"
"What? Magically turn off all electronic interference within a three block radius?" Rodney groused with a roll of his eyes. "The bad guys probably picked this place because of the noise."
John ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Well, then do something to make sure we don't end up blind in there."
"And what exactly do you suggest?"
Rodney McKay was arguably the best tech analyst the government had to offer, in any division, in any government agency. Unfortunately, the resident genius was also more than well aware of his abilities, which made him a bit of a handful. His personality quirks were the main reasons he was here, in the middle of nowhere Arizona, instead of working for the NSA or some other highly classified government division. He'd been passed over for promotion more times than John could count, and while most teams groaned when they got assigned Rodney as their tech support, John had a knack for keeping him in line.
It helped that he was actually friends with Rodney.
"Something," John snapped in an answer. "It's your job to figure it out, not mine."
Rodney muttered under his breath a little – something about not being Superman? – but John paid it little attention and shifted his gaze back to the monitors affixed to the interior walls. The space inside the van was oppressively small and crowded, with over half a dozen agents crouched over a bank of high-level surveillance equipment. He spared a quick look towards Sumner, his active superior, who was standing on the other end of the van, before turning his attention back to the monitor.
The counterfeit investigation had been running its course for well over seven months and finally his fraud division, under a faction of the DSS (Diplomatic Security Service), had gathered enough intelligence to set up a sting operation. He just wished he were the one undercover; John always preferred taking on the more dodgy situations himself. But the call to send Teyla in had rested with his boss.
And Sumner didn't like John's brand of – what did he call it once? – delusions of John Wayne grandeur.
"You see any other guards besides those two?" an agent in the back asked.
Another answered, "None, though we have confirmed movement on the east quadrant of the factory. Could be regular workers?"
While a highly illicit transaction went down twenty feet from them? John scowled but kept his mouth shut. On a superficial level, the operation was going exactly according to plan and if everything ran its course, by the end of the day his unit would have bagged one of the most notorious counterfeit rings on the west coast. But John wasn't holding his breath for things to go the way they should; Sumner was playing this all wrong. John would never have sent in Teyla without backup. They had no idea what she was walking into.
A hush fell over the van as Teyla arrived at her destination. They watched as she pivoted on her feet a little, her stiletto heels rapping against the concrete floor as the camera panned across the room, giving John and the others a lay of the place. It was a large barren room, furnished with only a steel table and a lone plastic chair in the center.
Teyla's voice came over the feed. "Your accommodations leave much to be desired. Granted, I don't often deal with this sort of… investment," she paused delicately, "but surely we could have done this someplace nicer?"
One of the men gave Teyla a look that could have melted the skin off her bones. "We're not like your other investments."
"Legal, you mean?" Teyla tossed back in a haughty voice. "Trust me, of that I am perfectly aware. Still, a little air of sophistication would go a long way. You haven't even offered me anything to drink. Where I come from, that is simply considered poor manners."
The man bristled, but John hoped he wouldn't do anything to a woman that was offering to finance their organization with millions of dollars – no matter how insufferably arrogant Teyla was choosing to play this particular role today. He'd have to talk to her about toning it back some the next time. Not that he didn't enjoy her performance any; he found it incredibly amusing when Teyla put on an act – as long as John was there to cover her six should shit hit the fan.
"Take a seat," the first man tersely suggested, gesturing to the chair. "Our boss will be in momentarily."
Teyla sat down and waited patiently.
Meanwhile John felt like he was going out of his mind. "This is wrong. Anyone else getting the idea that they're being too trusting? Barely a week after initial contact, and already they're having Teyla meet with the head honcho?"
Sumner came to stand behind him. "They need fast financing if they want to stay in production. The timing was fortunate. They're desperate."
"But not sloppy," John argued. "These men won't risk everything on an unsure bet."
The group of men they were after were too professional and cold-hearted to slip up easily. The Secret Service had been chasing their tail for months trying to track them down and get a solid lead, and all of a sudden the entire investigation coalesced in less than a few weeks? It didn't make sense.
"Sheppard, stop arguing and pay attention to the feed."
That was, ironically, the exact moment the feed went dead.
"Son of a—"
"Hold on, hold on!" Rodney urged, frantically typing. "Give me a second to get it back. I told you the feed was bad. I told you this was a bad location. But did anyone listen to me? No—"
"Just get the damn feed back, McKay," Sumner barked.
John turned towards Sumner. "She's in there blind, sir."
"We're not going to overreact, Agent," Sumner warned. "Give McKay time to get the feed back."
John could tell Sumner wasn't going to listen to him. He turned back to watch McKay swiftly enter three dozen commands in the span of thirty seconds. But John was too jittery to wait. The longer the seconds ticked by, the more he feared for Teyla.
"We have to go in, sir," he pressed, almost angrily. "We can't—"
"Agent, that's enough," Sumner cut him off. "Another word from you and consider yourself relieved of duty."
"That's it!" Sumner barked. "Out of the van! Now!"
John's entire body went stiff as a board as he fought the urge to deck him. After a moment of deafening silence, in which everyone, even Rodney, had stopped to stare at the spectacle, John realized he wasn't doing any good there. He pivoted and stormed out the back of the van, slamming the double doors shut behind him.
The bright glare of sunlight blinded him for a second, but he didn't care. He paced back and forth, agitation making him momentarily forget that the movement would probably draw unwanted attention. He pulled a baseball cap out of his back pocket and shoved it over his mess of hair. Civilian clothes or not, hovering here would only attract interest.
He decided to take a walk – a meandering stroll, even.
Fifty paces from the van, he broke out into a jog.
He pulled his SIG from his waistband, simultaneously flicking off the safety in one fluid move, and approached the factory warehouse. He swung around the side, pressing his back along the wall and flashing a look in either direction. When he determined the coast was clear, he ducked in through an open window.
This was reckless; stupid, even, but he couldn't get over the gnawing feeling that Teyla was in danger. He'd find a spot inside the factory to observe from – keep low and out of sight. If everything looked all right, he'd stay hidden. If everything didn't look all right, John wasn't willing to wait for Sumner to give the damn order.
This was probably the main reason why, after nearly ten years of exemplary work in the Secret Service, he was still in the counterfeit division instead of protective services like he wanted. John had issues with the chain of command sometimes.
He wove his way through the hallways, following the sound of voices. They grew clearer and more distinct as each step drew him nearer to his target. He was almost upon them when he heard a distinctly female scream – Teyla's scream.
John reacted on finely honed instincts.
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, Dr. Elizabeth Weir reclined in her plush chair with a sigh, tugging open a mixed bag of nuts brandished with the presidential seal. Flying Air Force One had its perks, she'd give it that.
Everything in the aircraft was designed to exude a certain level of power and authority; it certainly outshined her normal travel arrangements by a mile. The news media section was behind her, and the executive suite and conference rooms were ahead. Elizabeth was comfortably situated in between, finally able to rest in the quiet sections reserved for politicians and UN diplomats.
She glanced around before quietly toeing off her high heels. It had been a long couple of days. If she looked out her window she would have a view of a cloudless, brightly colored sky, but Elizabeth was too tired to appreciate it. She slid the window cover shut before leaning her head against the back of her seat and closing her eyes. It still felt like the dead middle of the night; she was still on European time. It had been a week of posturing and pleasantries, of dirty politics and sweet smiling, of negotiations and never-ending blusters from some of the most powerful people in the world – but the end result had been worth it. The non-proliferation treaty was significantly closer to completion and Elizabeth felt like her hand in it had been played well.
While it wasn't yet time to pop open the champagne, Elizabeth was at least ready to take a deep breath. Things were finally beginning to look up in her life – professionally, anyway.
Her personal life was another matter entirely.
Somebody stole the open-and-forgotten bag from her hands, and she didn't even need to crack an eye open to recognize whom. "Jack," she scolded. "I was going to eat that."
"You snooze, you lose," Jack admonished around a mouthful of peanuts, and Elizabeth opened her eyes to glare. "The president wants to speak to you in about five minutes."
Elizabeth shifted, sitting up in her seat a little. "Why?"
He shrugged. "How should I know? I'm just the messenger boy."
This self-proclaimed messenger boy had more medals and decorations affixed to his uniform than any other man on this plane. Jack O'Neill was a Major General in the United States Air Force, and though he'd been accompanying her and the president along this trip, she still wasn't sure what he was doing here. Jack's bio was riddled with blackouts and top-level classified material stricken from the record, to the point where reading his personnel file was more bewildering than informative.
He'd spent nearly a decade over in Colorado under a project that dealt with "Deep Space Radar Telemetry," but Elizabeth knew a cover when she heard one.
"You know," Jack commented idly, "I don't know much about politics, but I do believe you kicked a little ass out there this week."
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "I'm pretty sure that's not the PC term for it."
"Just means it's more likely to be true."
They shared a smile and sat in comfortable silence for a few moments. She'd known Jack for nearly seven years now, and during that time they'd butted heads on a number of issues: military spending and national security, most of all. She didn't think they even had the same definition of the word diplomacy. Still, despite her natural inclination against most things military in nature, she liked Jack. He had a personality that was refreshingly straightforward; his secretive position notwithstanding.
Snatching her bag of nuts back, she threw a silent glare in his direction and ate the last peanut. A quick glance at her watch confirmed that enough time had passed. Elizabeth slipped on her shoes again before climbing to her feet.
"The president's in the conference room," Jack informed her. "Good luck."
"Why do I need luck?"
Jack mimed zipping his lips closed with his fingers and plastered on an innocent smile. The maneuver was enough to raise Elizabeth's suspicions to a whole new level, and she turned and headed to the front of the plane with her curiosity peaked.
Two Secret Service agents were posted on either side of the conference room doors, and Elizabeth stopped before them with a hesitant smile. She had no idea what it was about the men-in-black, but Secret Service agents disturbed her a little. Efficiency was one thing, but there was an aura about them that seemed almost inhumane. They never said anything, except when spoken to. They never made any movement unless absolutely necessary. They were like statues much of the time, blending into the background.
Unless there was danger nearby, of course. Elizabeth didn't want to be any closer to them in that case, either.
She waited patiently while one of the agents got confirmation to let her through, and a moment later she was being ushered in. This was one of a handful of aircrafts in the world that had a full-sized conference room 40,000 feet up in the air. The long mahogany table rested in the middle of the room, outlined by plush chairs usually reserved for the president and his staff.
President Hayes was standing in the far corner of the room, reaching for a bottle of scotch. "Elizabeth, c'mon in," he greeted. "Care for a drink?"
Never decline the president, Elizabeth knew.
She flashed a smile. "I suppose if jetlag stands, this still qualifies as a nightcap?"
Hayes tipped his head in appreciation and motioned her over. She accepted the drink, and he spent a couple of moments talking about the thing that was on everybody's mind the last few days. They discussed the treaty and the accompanying ambassadors, which led them into a discussion about the international exposure she would receive for her work in this, and her upcoming plans for when the job ended.
"Go back to Georgetown University?" Elizabeth shrugged. "I've got a couple of offers, but it'd be nice to teach again. I enjoyed that while it lasted."
Hayes nodded graciously, but she read the disquiet look in his eyes that poked at her suspicions. She thought back to Jack's parting words and Elizabeth had a feeling this was all headed somewhere.
She decided to opt for blunt. "Mr. President, do you have something in mind for me after this treaty is signed?"
"I may, if things go well."
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "What does it entail?"
"I can't tell you that yet," Hayes replied with a distasteful sigh. "We have to deal with security clearance and vetting first."
There was an aura of frustration around him as he said the words, almost as if he wanted to speak out about the details and had been specifically told not to. Which was patently absurd, because as President of the United States, there weren't a lot he couldn't do if he so desired. Her curiosity was definitely peaked now, though she kept her features schooled. She'd had code-word clearance before, back when she worked for the State Department. She knew security clearance wasn't something any one trifled with, even the President.
She could keep the questions to a minimum, for now. "Will it be another treaty?"
"No, though it will be international," Hayes clarified, taking a sip of his drink. "That's why I want you on it, speaking for the US. It's going to be big, Elizabeth. I daresay even life-altering."
"Life-altering?" Elizabeth repeated, controlling her voice carefully. "I don't know what to say to that."
Hayes shook his head and took a seat on the corner sofa. "There's nothing to say, yet. What we're talking about is of the highest security level, and I've put your name at the top of a very, very short list. But until it comes back with finality and everybody has agreed, I can't tell you much. I can, however, tell you this: a lot of people are going to be interested in you now because you're on that short list. You've got to be careful. It's imperative you don't get sloppy."
After a pause, Elizabeth answered, "I understand."
Though she clearly didn't and wouldn't for some time.
Air Force One taxied on native soil only an hour after it was scheduled to arrive back in D.C. Considering the weather, the delay wasn't surprising. Elizabeth and the rest of the delegates waited while the President and his staff disembarked first, and then grabbed her carry-on baggage and started down the aisle.
Jack caught up with her again. "Need a ride home? One of the perks of being a General, people drive you everywhere. I got a car waiting."
Elizabeth flashed a smile. "Actually, yes. If it's not out of your way?"
It took them a little while to pick up their luggage and find Jack's chauffer. When they emerged outside, the weather left much to be desired. The temperature was in the low forties, and the wind was howling so loudly that Elizabeth had to raise her voice to speak over it. It hadn't snowed yet, but it was only a matter of time before the first snowflake fell and heralded a white winter holiday. Jack quickly ushered her into the backseat of his car, where it seemed his assistant had laid a bunch of paperwork for Jack to look over. Jack caught sight of it and groaned.
Elizabeth couldn't help but tease him a little. "The bureaucracy of the job getting to you, General?"
"The paperwork will kill me one day," Jack affirmed sourly. "No one told me about that when they promoted me. They just mentioned the shiny stars. I might have turned down the offer if I'd known." Elizabeth obligingly rolled her eyes, but Jack attention had already drifted to the can of cashews in the corner, alongside other small refreshments. "Hey, look, more nuts."
"See?" she pointed out. "There are perks to being the Man."
Another fifteen minutes later and the car ride had settled into companionable silence. She was exhausted and, frankly, still a little thrown by her discussion with the president to be the best of company. She drifted into deep thought, staring out the window as the scenery flashed by.
Eventually, Jack broke the silence. "So," he began idly, but by now Elizabeth was well familiar with that tone of voice and what it really meant. "Now that we're one step closer to world peace—"
"A non-proliferation treaty," Elizabeth interrupted, "is not a significant step until we actually sign it."
"Yeah, but I saw enough. We'll get it done."
Elizabeth wished she had that much confidence in it. Things were looking up, but by no means was the treaty considered a done deal. She settled back against the cushioned chair with a sigh.
"What are you going to do afterwards?"
"After this little shindig is over, you got any plans?"
"You tell me," Elizabeth replied. "What does the president have planned for me?"
Jack tipped her a knowing smile. "So, he did talk to you about it. What did he say?"
Elizabeth sighed again. "Not much. Apparently it's highly classified."
Jack nodded, for once no quip on his lips to lighten the mood. He didn't elaborate either, but she hadn't been expecting him to. The mere fact that this conversation was taking place confirmed one thing for Elizabeth, though. Whatever this classified project was, it was military in nature. That surprised her a little. It wasn't unusual for her to be called in to be – what had President Hayes implied? A spokesperson for the US – but in military matters, even if they were international in nature, it was strange that they would come to her for this.
Jack O'Neill notwithstanding, she didn't get along with many military personnel – a causality of her line of work. Her head spun with all the possibilities and she hated being so in the dark about a decision that obviously affected her.
Jack redirected the conversation. "You got plans for the holidays?"
Elizabeth found the new topic of choice no less daunting than the last. Six months ago, she'd been planning a Christmas wedding. Now, she didn't even know if she would come home to a house with any furniture. Simon had probably taken the opportunity of her absence to retrieve his belongings from their two-story house in Georgetown.
Jack winced in the silence that had settled. "Right, you were supposed to…" he trailed off, waving a finger.
"Tie the knot?" Elizabeth took pity on him. "Simon and I broke up a while ago. I'm not going to break down into tears at the mere mention of it, Jack."
Jack shifted in his seat, obviously uncomfortable. Then he lifted a brow. "What about that new guy? Mike what's-his-face?"
"Branton," Elizabeth clarified. "And he's just a friend."
Jack threw her a disbelieving look. "For a friend, he spends a lot of time staring at you with doe-eyes."
She wasn't even going to dignify that with a response. Thankfully, at that moment the car rolled to a stop in front of her house. Elizabeth swung open the door and quickly stepped out, then bent her head against the wind.
"Thanks for the ride, Jack."
"Anytime," he answered as he leaned across to get a better look at her through the open door. "Get inside, Elizabeth. It's freezing out here. Talk to you soon enough."
That sounded like a promise.
Elizabeth drew her coat tighter around herself, nodding in gratitude before she quickly turned and headed up the stairs to her front porch. A second after she unlocked the front door, she turned around to toss one small wave at Jack's car before he pulled away from the curb. She shuffled into her house, swiftly closing the door behind her just as one large gust of wind swept past.
Inside, a dark, silent house greeted her. She pulled off her gloves and dropped her keys onto the small table that sat flush against her foyer wall. Her mail was piled on the wooden surface, collected and arranged by her neighbor, Mrs. Langdon. The elderly neighbor babysat her dog as well. Though Elizabeth missed Sedge terribly, she realized it was too late to pick her up tonight; in the morning, then.
Attempting to ignore the dull ache of loneliness, she flipped on the lights and took in the expanse with a sweeping gaze. Most of the space was empty now. As suspected, Simon had moved out all his stuff sometime over the last few weeks while she was abroad.
The house now seemed large and empty when once upon a time it had felt just right. The place was too big for one person. It wasn't that she missed Simon, per se. Their relationship had always been… average, to say the least. She had nothing nasty to say about Simon – in fact, he had been a good man: strong, kind, and intelligent. There had been no other woman to come in between them. No other man, either.
When they broke up, there was no heated fighting or vicious words exchanged. They'd broken up much like how they'd lived together – quietly, mutually acknowledging what their relationship was and what it lacked. They made good friends, but lovers were another matter. A few months ago, it stung to finally acknowledge that aloud, but since then Elizabeth was willing to admit to herself that she missed the idea of being with someone more than she missed Simon, specifically.
The upcoming holidays weren't going to make that sense of isolation any more tolerable to bear.
Ignoring the stab of loneliness, Elizabeth shrugged off her coat and set the thermostat a few degrees higher. That was when she noticed something was missing. Glancing around, she realized her purse was misplaced. Damn it. A moment of frustration arose before her eyes slid closed, realization setting in. She must have left it behind in Jack's car.
"Which means I left my cell phone there," she muttered to herself in exasperation. "Which means I don't have Jack's number. Terrif—"
"Muttering to yourself isn't very attractive, Dr. Weir."
She whirled around, shocked to find someone standing in a shadowed corner of her living room.
Startled, she stumbled back, jostling the wooden table behind her. Adrenaline surged through her as she met the dark stare of the intruder, dressed from head to toe in black. His face was covered with overstretched pantyhose.
She barely had a second before the man lunged for her across the open expanse. She screamed once, but in the next intake of breath a strong hand clamped around her throat and crushed her windpipe. The man propelled both of them back until she slammed into the table behind her. He lifted her up and off the ground with ferocious strength, then slammed her to the wooden surface so that she was pinned horizontal against it, staring up at the ceiling. She gasped, eyes watering as she clawed at his arms.
"Stop!" she gasped.
Her struggles didn't faze her captor in the slightest. "Dr. Weir," he taunted, perversely calm. "Let's not make this more difficult than it has to be."
Elizabeth desperately looked around for something to defend herself with. She stretched fingers and reached blindly around her, digits tripping over piles of mail before she stumbled across her keys. She grabbed them, fisted her hand and swung out wildly. The outstretched keys struck her intruder across the face, tearing the pantyhose and slicing skin open. The intruder grunted, stumbling back enough to slacken his hold.
She struck out again and again, blindly, clumsily, adrenaline making her actions more frenzied than coordinated. She managed to land one more blow, causing her intruder to stumble back. He recovered quickly, grabbing her by the hair and using it to throw her across several feet like a ragdoll. Elizabeth slammed onto the ground and skidded across the wooden floorboards of her living room. She gasped for breath and stared up as her attacker as he advanced.
Dear god, he was going to kill her.
Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and dashed across the living room. The front door was the closest means of escape, but her attacker stood in her way so she bolted for the patio doors off to the left. The man quickly blocked her path, and she was close enough to see his eyes – dark and menacing; the only thing that managed to stand out against the cover of his mask.
"What do you want?!" she gasped desperately. "Take what you want, just don't—"
"Nothing personal," the man replied, voice low and gritty. "Just paid to do a job. Business, you understand?"
Elizabeth couldn't comprehend anything in that moment. She back-peddled to the foyer, whirling around as her attacker continued his pursuit. He caught up before she could make it a few feet and they both crashed to the floor. A struggle ensued and Elizabeth screamed and fought violently, blindingly lashing out. Her attacker knew how to handle her assaults, overcoming her by pure brute force, and soon Elizabeth found herself overpowered. He pinned her to the floor with the weight of his body, trapping her arms against her chest.
She knew it was a lost cause, but she couldn't stop fighting.
She screamed and reached up to bite, snagging a piece of his ear and the pantyhose between her teeth before she tore away. Her attacker was the one screaming now, and blood spurted everywhere. She tasted the thick copper of it along with adrenaline in the back of her throat, clawing and struggling, fighting to break loose.
She managed to wrestle herself free and slither out from under him. She scrambled across the tiles on her hands and knees. A hand clamped over her foot, tugging her backwards, but she looked over her shoulder and slammed a boot against his face. Elizabeth clambered to her feet and reached the front door. She managed to tear it open before her captor was on her again.
He tossed her against the sidewall, wrapping his hands around her neck again. "Now, it's personal," he muttered, aggravated.
Elizabeth couldn't breathe, couldn't talk, and couldn't focus. Her vision began to dim and blur, and though she clawed desperately at his arms, her attacker had the advantage and wasn't letting go. There was nothing to save her now; she couldn't see a way out of this. Everything started to fade to black and then—
A heavy thud, and suddenly her capturer released his grip and dropped to the floor like a bag of bricks. Elizabeth gasped, sucking in precious oxygen as her legs gave way under her. She slid to the floor, eyes watering, and looked up to find Jack looming over her.
"You forgot your purse," he explained simply, and Elizabeth passed out.
By nightfall, the Arizona factory had been cordoned off and the first team of forensics had already come and gone. It left the crude building – which hadn't been easy on the eyes to begin with – fastened with both yellow police tape and blue Secret Service tape as the authorities did their work. John scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck, staring up at the building as a paramedic finished up bandaging his right arm. He felt exhausted and his vision was a little blurry around the edges, but most of all there was a disquiet sense in the pit of his stomach.
John didn't know what happened now.
Truthfully, he was still a little fuzzy on what had happened before. Earlier, when the surveillance feed had broken and John had slipped into the factory for a closer look, he'd known he'd been breaking a dozen protocols. But when he'd gone gallivanting in after hearing Teyla scream, he'd done more than that. He'd broken the chain of command and objectively risked more than gained in the venture. The brass was going to fry his ass for this.
It was worth it, though. Teyla was alive and safe, if a little worse for wear. She came out of the factory with a severely burned arm and few lacerations across the side of her face, but it could have been so much worse than that. By the time John had stormed in, he'd discovered Teyla on the ground, and the delinquents in the room about to beat her into submission.
Something had gone wrong; somebody had tipped them off about Teyla. John still didn't know what was going on or how that had happened. He planned on finding out, though. If the Powers That Be didn't have his badge for his latest stunt. John cursed under his breath, and watched two uniformed men roll out a gurney with a body bag on it. He'd killed a man today and critically wounded another; Teyla had managed to subdue the third without resorting to such violence. He prayed the two men that survived would talk; otherwise this entire operation was basically a bust that ruined months' worth of investigation.
Somebody was going to get the blame for this. John placed odds on himself.
Across the room, Sumner placed his cell phone back in his pocket and glanced towards John. John couldn't decipher the expression on his boss's face, but whatever it was, it wasn't good. The paramedic tending to his arm left with a parting word about taking it easy for a few days, and John nodded absentmindedly and rose. He shrugged on his jacket, wincing a little as his sore muscles gave protest, and decided he had to face the firing squad at some point.
He walked across the factory room towards Sumner. "What's the latest news?"
Sumner released a harsh breath. "We may get something from the third man," he answered with an even stare. "He calls himself Kentucky, and says he's willing to deal."
The knot in John's stomach lessened, just a bit. "That's good."
"That's lucky," Sumner corrected. "Christ, Sheppard, you ever think before acting?"
"I prefer to avoid thinking if I can."
"This isn't a joking matter, Agent!"
John flinched defensively. "I know that, but Agent Emmagan was in distress and I acted with the urgency it required."
"No, you didn't," Sumner countered. "You acted with no impulse control whatsoever. There's a differ—"
"Don't be so hard on him, Marshall," a third voice entered into the fray.
Both John and Sumner turned to find a sharply tailored African American man striding towards him. Abraham Ellis was the acting chairman of their division, which meant he was at the top of the food chain around here.
Ellis walked up to John, nodding once. "This man may have saved Agent Emmagan's life. Let's not overlook that."
Sumner got a little red in the face. "He defied orders and rushed in blind to a volatile situ—"
"And quite possibly saved the day," Ellis finished pointedly. "Protocol is important, but life is more so, don't you think?"
John stood silent between the two men, knowing better than to interrupt the pissing contest. The familiar animosity hanging thick in the air was only partially about John. Sumner and Ellis had been clashing horns ever since Ellis' promotion a few weeks back, and apparently their latest turf war was going to be over John. Lucky him. But while John normally hated being caught in the middle, he wouldn't lie – he was relieved to have somebody on his side, especially someone as high up as Ellis.
"C'mon," Ellis urged John, "Let's gets some fresh air and talk."
Sumner's jaw clenched, but he said nothing further as he turned away and left the two of them without sparing another glance. John watched him go, disquieted. He didn't always get along with Sumner, and agreed with him even less, but that didn't mean he had no respect for the man. John hated being thought so little of by his superiors; ironic, considering how used to the feeling he should have been by now.
Ellis led John back out of the factory where the cool night air of the desert did a little to revive his spirit. "Sir," John began, "I'd like to be in on the interrogation—"
Ellis patted a hand on John's shoulder. "One thing at a time, Sheppard. I admire what you did today, but we can't push too hard. One thing I've learned about Sumner is that when his temper is up, it's best to let things cool off. If I were you, I wouldn't request anymore involvement in this investigation."
John flinched. "You're kicking me off the case?"
Ellis shook his head as he moved away, settling against a heavy, worn-out worktable that had been left out in the sun for too many days. "Look, I like you. I always have. You've got potential, despite some thickheaded qualities that remind me of Wile E. Coyote."
John's face scrunched up a bit, unsure of how to respond to that.
"But there are going to be consequences to your actions today."
John felt vaguely sick. "Consequences?"
"A review board, at the very least."
The words sounded like the swing of an axe falling across his neck. Possibilities flashed before John's eyes, from being outright terminated to a review of his record that might get him a few weeks of suspension, at best. But even a suspension in the agency was a kiss of death. With such a black mark on his record, he'd only be able to climb the ladder so far. The posts he'd get from then onwards would be desk jobs and grunt work.
John pivoted away from Ellis and faced the street corner. Trying to keep the swell of anxiety from registering on his face, he took a steadying breath. The Secret Service was his entire life, not only his bread and butter but also practically his reason for existence. He didn't have much of a personal life: no girlfriend to speak of; his family barely talked to him; all his friends were fellow agents. He lived, breathed and slept the agency.
"Look, things might not look so bad," Ellis tried. "I'm not promising anything, but I'll put my weight behind you. You saved a fellow agent today. That goes a long way. I'll see what I can do."
It went without saying that Sumner would be fighting both of them every step of the way.
"Thank you, sir. I'm not sure what I've done to deserve this, but thanks."
Ellis flashed a wide smile as he rose. "You'll just owe me one for this, Sheppard. Big time."
Less than twenty-four hours later, Jack O'Neill walked through the corridors of the White House with a purposeful stride. The last day had been harried and a little on the unproductive side, and that put Jack in a foul mood. Still, he flashed an easy smile at the president's secretary when he arrived at his destination, and waited patiently as he could for her to give him the go-ahead.
"He has seven free minutes," the secretary informed him. "That's all. Not a second more."
Considering this was an unscheduled visit, Jack was happy to get that much. "Should we synchronize our watches?" he offered. "Just to be safe?"
The secretary glared. "You can go in now."
Obediently, Jack turned and entered through the northeast door into the Oval Office. Inside, the room inspired the same sense of reverence it always did. There were two Secret Service agents posted out on the veranda that led to the Rose Garden, and another one posted inside near the fireplace. Jack paid them little mind, focusing his attention on the decidedly despondent man sitting behind the Resolute Desk. There were a few classified files in his hands, and Jack knew they all focused on the ongoing investigation regarding the break-in at Elizabeth Weir's house.
"The man was rogue NID, wasn't he?" President Hays began without prelude, a little irate. "They're after Dr. Weir now?"
Jack repressed a wince. "It looks that way, sir."
Though they technically had no way of proving that. Elizabeth's attacker refused to divulge a real name, giving only an alias of Michael Kenmore. The name was a dead-end, as were his fingerprints and DNA. Nothing matched their records. All those resources at Jack's beck and call had thus far proven as useless as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. The only thing distinguishable about the grunt was a tattoo: a bulldog that looked similar to a few other marine tattoos Jack had seen in his time.
President Hayes pulled off his glasses and tossed the papers onto his desk angrily. "What was their endgame? Kill her? Why? She's not even on the IOA yet. Her influence is only a potential thing until she's confirmed as a viable candidate by the other Gate Alliance members."
Jack opened his mouth, but the president waved him off, clearly agitated. He rose and began to walk across the room, reaching for a few other red-and-white classified envelopes resting on the center table. Jack stayed silent, deciding to let the president work off a bit of his restlessness before he spoke. The President had reason to be pissed.
Elizabeth Weir was at the top of a very, very short list of candidates to join the IOA – the International Oversight Advisory. A lackluster name, in Jack's opinion, used to describe a civilian committee that was designed to keep an eye on the Stargate program. He didn't quite know how Elizabeth would respond to the revelation of a top secret organization responsible for interplanetary exploration and alien reconnaissance, but he'd spent the entire trip to Europe gauging her, evaluating what type of IOA member she'd likely make. These IOA people potentially had the power to wield influence on not only a global scale, but also a universal one.
And somebody was obviously trying to get to Dr. Weir before she was given a shot at wielding that influence.
"What does the NID say?" Jack asked. "Officially, obviously."
The president released a harsh breath. "They're looking into it."
Jack resisted the urge to roll his eyes. The NID had been a pain in his ass since almost the inception of it – both the officially sanctioned version and its rogue cell. Though the credible side of NID was mainly a dependable operation that was designed to investigate and exploit technology brought back through the Stargate, Jack couldn't overlook the fact that they'd managed to let a cancerous cell splinter-off.
This rogue organization had created one headache after another over the years. Well-resourced with unscrupulous methods, the rogue cell had procured alien technology, developed weapons, and gathered sensitive intelligence on the Stargate program.
It went without saying that Jack really hated the NID a lot. He said it frequently, anyway.
"We're going to protect her from now on," Hayes said quietly. "Her and the other IOA potentials."
"They're likely going to want answers about why they need the protection," Jack offered. "Dr. Weir isn't the type to blindly accept anything, and I doubt the others on the list will be either. They'll want to know why their lives are in danger."
"Until the other Gate Alliance members agree on who goes on the IOA, we can't afford to tell them anything at all." Hayes shook his head. "But Dr. Weir was just attacked. You really think she'd turn down the offer of protection?"
"I think she's just that stubborn," Jack affirmed. "She's shaken up right now, but if you don't give her a solid reason, she'll fight you tooth and nail."
"I don't care. They're getting protection whether she likes it or not."
Jack nodded dutifully. "I'll get a team of SGC personnel on it."
Hayes sighed. "That's no good. The SGC has always been the first place NID positioned their spies."
Jack openly flinched, but he couldn't deny it. He'd spent a better part of a decade commanding the SGC in one form or another, before President Hayes had promoted him to the new Commander for the clandestine Department of Homeworld Security. He knew the rogue cell made extensive use of NID operatives and resources all throughout the SGC. Hell, they had spies probably spread through every branch of the government, but still their influence was most noticeable within the SGC itself.
The NID had been silently gaining power over the years, backed by some elusive conglomerate of rich, powerful men known as The Trust. No one knew the names or identities of their members, but they existed and spread out through mainstream government agencies like cancer. Jack had been trying to track them down for years, to no avail. They were everywhere; even in the highest positions.
"No," Hayes mused aloud, "we can't do this the conventional way."
Which meant they needed to use people that weren't normally assigned to these types of things; people who were off the beaten-track, but still capable.
Jack suddenly had an idea.
"You're being reassigned," Ellis informed John, later that same day. "Washington D.C. protective detail."
John blinked in bewilderment. "What? Protective detail? I'm not even in that division."
"I know," Ellis replied, "but the call came in from high up. I don't quite get it myself, actually."
"What about my review board?"
"It's being delayed," Ellis replied. "You and the rest of your team are shipping to the east coast immediately, including Sumner – who you'll find is noticeably frustrated with the placement, so play nice with him. There's some big politician that's in danger; a former UN diplomat."
"Why not use the State Department's Diplomatic Service? Why are they stretching all the way across to the Counterfeit Division?"
"I asked them that," Ellis answered, "and was told in no uncertain terms to shut up. Apparently they want someone 'off-the beaten track,' whatever the hell that means."
"That doesn't make any sense—"
"Look," Ellis cut in, pointedly. "You got the training, right?"
Every Secret Service Agent got protective detail training. "Yeah."
"Then what are you complaining about?" Ellis snapped. "A day ago, you were looking at a review board. Now, you've practically been handed a promotion. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, and do what you're damn well told to do."
John snapped to attention. "Yes, sir."
Ellis continued in a no-nonsense tone. "She just did a circuit in Europe regarding the non-proliferation talks, and apparently got roughed-up at her house yesterday when she came back. Full details are still trickling in." He threw John a pointed glare. "Oh, and John? On this job, you better be on your best behavior. Everybody's going to be watching you."
No pressure, then.
"What's her name?"
"Dr. Elizabeth Weir."
Elizabeth stayed silent as Special Agent Marshall Sumner made introductions. Her jaw was clenched, eyes reflecting her frustration, and though she knew these people were only doing their job – were here to protect her – there was little denying that she felt uncomfortable from the get-go. There were two other agents standing beside Sumner: Agent Evan Lorne and Agent Laura Cadman. Sumner kept their introductions to a minimum but certain facts told Elizabeth that they weren't from the lower ranks of the Secret Service – nor from the right division. That confused her, though she did well to hide it.
The other agents on her "security detail" were still coming in, carrying more equipment, scoping the layout, looking for suspicious things and God knows what else – traipsing through her place with barely any respect given to her sense of privacy. In less than twenty minutes, her house had been turned into a circus. The front door was left wide open for easy access, and her fingers twitched to bolt the lock.
The memory of the attack was still making Elizabeth jump at every little noise. Though she'd been diligent about keeping a brave face in front of others, the attack – in my own home, for God's sakes – had left Elizabeth entirely shaken. She still couldn't think about it without feeling sick, a thick coil twisting her insides whenever she remembered her intruder's cold stare. The bruising on her neck only served as a constant reminder. The entire event was like something out of dream – a nightmare – and Elizabeth would have much preferred to forget it as quickly as possible.
Jack had made arrangements to make sure that was never going to happen.
God, the Secret Service. Wasn't that overkill?
"We'll have a two-man team with you at all times," Sumner continued. "But we'll do our best to provide as little interruption to your normal routine as possible."
Yeah, right. Elizabeth wouldn't hold her breath on that one.
"Could you excuse me for a moment?" she replied with a smile stretched across her face. "I have to go… make a phone call. In the other room."
She left without waiting for a response, fighting back a tick of annoyance when she saw a few men rummaging through her belongings, sweeping some type of small device over her living room. They were searching for something. Bugs, perhaps? God, couldn't the danger just be over? Her attacker was in custody. Elizabeth had kept repeating that to herself over and over again for the last few days, trying to draw comfort from it.
Despite the sense of anxiety that arose at nearly every sudden noise, every strange sound, she wasn't pleased with the idea of personal bodyguards. The Secret Service agents present were obviously professional people, but Elizabeth was fighting the strong urge to swiftly throw them all off her property. They made her feel vulnerable and uneasy, not anything remotely like safe. Men with guns had that effect on her.
When she escaped into her bedroom, she shut the door and reached for the phone resting on her bedside table. She dialed quickly, the number now known by heart, and waited until the other end picked up after the third ring.
"Jack," she greeted tightly. "This isn't going to work."
She knew Jack well enough to know that he wouldn't even flinch at her tone. "And hello to you too, Elizabeth. How are you this evening? Nice weather we're having—"
"Jack," she cut in, forcefully. "I'm serious. This isn't going to work out. I don't know why you insist on having a bunch of men traipse around after me—"
"First of all, it's the President's request that you take on the detail," Jack countered calmly. "Not mine. You're more than welcome to turn him down."
Elizabeth stilled. One didn't just turn down a presidential request – not without a damn good reason. But that was precisely the problem. No one had given her any reason, one way or another, as to why there was a necessity for armed guards. She heard words tossed around like "national security" and "for your own protection." But nothing concrete. Nothing that remotely informed her to the threat she apparently still faced; a hefty one if it required the recruitment of the Secret Service.
It frustrated and confused her, and Elizabeth was wound tight enough already. She hadn't slept properly in the last few days, and with the prospect of so many people roaming around her place, she doubted she'd be relaxed to get any shut-eye anytime soon.
"Look, I can't…" she trailed off, irritated with her inability to formulate her frustrations. She switched tactics, going formal, "You have to tell me more, General. That isn't a request. I shouldn't have to justify the need to know why my life is in danger, and from whom."
Jack sighed. "And as soon as we know anything, we'll tell you. Right now, we're just taking precautionary meas—"
"Bullshit," Elizabeth called.
"Dr. Weir," Jack feigned shock. "Such language."
"I wasn't born yesterday, Jack," she barreled on, overtop of him. "You can't keep me in the dark about my own life and expect me to go along with a smile on my face. Put yourself in my position. You wouldn't stand for this, either."
There was a pause on the other end, stretching long and silent. She respected the need for national security and clearance issues, but enough was enough. Concerns for her own wellbeing trumped the governments' need for her to blindly follow instructions like a good little girl. This was her life, for God's sakes.
Jack sighed heavily on the other end of the phone. "Look, I know we're asking a lot of you, but… there's just no way around it right now, Elizabeth. You're gonna have to trust us."
Elizabeth's jaw clenched, inhaling sharply. She opened her mouth to respond, but then the sound of a door creaking open distracted her. She whirled around to find her bathroom door – the one connected to her master bedroom – was open, florescent light flooding out. In the doorway stood two agents. One was a tall green-eyed man with dark, unruly hair. The other man was a little shorter, and Elizabeth vaguely recalled hearing him belittle one of the other technicians earlier in her living room. She couldn't immediately place names on either one of them, though introductions had probably already been made at some point.
Damn it. She should be paying better attention than this.
The shorter man stepped out of the bathroom first, and Elizabeth eye's narrowed a little.
"Looking for a threat from a dental hygienist now?"
The man blinked. "What?"
She nodded pointedly towards the item in his hand. He turned sheepish as he realized he was caught holding her toothbrush. "Oh," he dropped the toothbrush back onto the counter. "No, I was just doing a sweep through to check for—"
Elizabeth held up a finger to briefly stop him, returning her attention back to the phone. "Jack," she called, forcing her voice light. "I'm going to have to call you back before strange men I've never met go searching through my underwear drawer."
The short man visibly blanched; the taller one looked like he was holding back a smirk of approval in response to Elizabeth's cheeky observation.
Jack paused on the phone. "Okay," he said simply, in that wry tone of his, "you go do that."
She hung up the phone after a quick farewell and turned back to the two gentlemen before her. They both looked a little sheepish now, almost like children caught with their hands down the cookie jar. She wasn't even sure that the imagery wasn't prodded along by the taller one's wayward hair.
She forced out a deep breath and slipped on the diplomatic smile. "Gentlemen, forgive me, but I'm little lost on names."
"Special Agent Rodney McKay," answer the shorter one. "Tech analyst."
"John Sheppard, field operative," the latter answered. He yanked off plastic gloves and extended his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Dr. Weir."
She shook hands, reassessing her initial impression. Not green eyes, but hazel. She pulled back and rested a hip against the footboard of her bed. These were the last two agents on her detail, then. Elizabeth smiled faintly, but truthfully she was too tired for pleasantries.
"I was hoping for some privacy. Is there any chance you could finish up this room later?"
"Oh, ah, yes," Rodney quickly rambled. "We actually need a little more to do a sweep through in the master bedroo—"
John clamped a hand over Rodney's shoulder. "We'll get out of your way now," he overrode swiftly, eyes warm with sympathy. Apparently she wasn't doing a good job with covering up her anxiety if he could read her that easily. "Rodney, get the bag from the bathroom. We can finish up the other rooms for now."
Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief, probably a little too loudly. "Thank you, Agent Sheppard."
He nodded swiftly, and Elizabeth perched on the edge of her bed and waited while the two gathered their belongings together. As they started towards the hallway, Elizabeth closed her eyes and rubbed a hand against her temple, fighting off a headache. When she glanced up, she was surprised to find that Sedge had padded into the room, pawing eagerly at John with her tongue and tail both wagging happily. Rodney flashed a smirk and escaped the room without getting the same treatment, leaving John behind with her dog practically climbing up his leg.
"Sedge!" Elizabeth admonished. "Get down! Don't!"
John laughed. "Ah, don't. She's just being friendly."
She paused; Sedge usually hated strangers. Elizabeth marked one silent point for Sheppard. Sedge always had been a good judge of character.
After a moment of playing with her dog, John said quietly, "We'll find out who's after you."
Elizabeth folded her hands in her lap, too tired to process his words immediately. "What?"
He shrugged awkwardly. "I couldn't help overhear your conversation with…"
"General Jack O'Neill," Elizabeth supplied politely.
John nodded. "You've got questions that no one seems to be answering, but… well, we're not only here to protect you. We're here to find answers too."
"Did you think I was here for my good looks?"
Elizabeth surprised herself by answering without the normal filter in place, "I'm still trying to figure out how you managed to stay in the service with that hair." She paused briefly, then blinked as her cheeks reddened a little. Embarrassment flooded her. "Uh, I'm sorry. I'm just… really tired. I don't think—"
"Relax," John waved quickly, a lopsided smirk growing on his face. "I get teased more about these damn ears more than I do about the hair."
Which only served to draw her attention to his ears, and actually... his ears were a little elfish. God, what the hell am I doing staring at a man's ears? She averted her gaze, trying to stop heat from spreading up her neck.
She obviously needed sleep - long hours of uninterrupted sleep, without nightmares, without waking up in a cold sweat. Was that so much to ask?
Dimly she was aware of John's voice, growing serious. "We know how to investigate crimes, and we know how to protect people. My team is the best at what they do."
Elizabeth lifted her gaze, a curl of hair falling over her left eye as she studied him for a moment. Her first impression of him was already solidifying: good natured, funny, obviously capable because of the position he held, and she bet he covered up his intelligence with self-depreciating humor, a touch of which she'd already seen. Sedge was right – he was a good man.
But the thing that struck her the most in that moment was the sincerity of his words; he meant them. She found she wanted to believe him.
"Thank you, Agent Sheppard."
"Anytime, Dr. Weir."
There was a diminishing return on the effect black coffee had on John as the night wore on. He was hunkered down for a long shift ahead of him, the first night shift of many. It was barely passed twelve, and he was stationed outside Elizabeth's house, sitting idly in his car with the heater on full blast.
It was a miserably cold night. The temperature had dropped to just above freezing, and though he was bundled up in three layers of clothing and a heavy woolen scarf, the frost was nearly unbearable. He'd experienced cold like this before: the first few years in the agency, he'd been stationed in D.C., a low man on the totem pole in the counterfeit division. He'd been transferred to the West Coast only a few years later, but he'd spent the mid-nineties here. John hadn't become used to weather back then, and he doubted he'd grow used to it now.
His partner for the night, Cadman, was currently stationed inside Elizabeth's house, no doubt warm and cozy. John huffed out a warm breath of air that fogged the windows, then grunted in annoyance as he wiped down the condensation. The view of the street corner assured him that all was quiet on the western front – and boring. He glanced briefly to his watch - twenty more minutes before Cadman would knock on his window to trade spots.
It was weird having Cadman as his partner. Teyla was normally the one he buddied up with, but she was still on medical leave from the injuries suffered in the Arizona debacle. The good news was that John had spoken to her earlier in the day and knew she expected to rejoin the team in D.C. by the end of next week. Not that he'd see her much at that point: Teyla got assigned the day shifts on this gig. John was stuck with twice as many graveyard shifts as anybody else – a punishment he suspected was doled out by Sumner.
The tension between with Sumner had never been as fraught as this before. They'd never gotten along but this was taking their animosity to a whole new level. John knew every move he made, every word he said was being scrutinized. One misstep and he was screwed. The decision to keep John on post was obviously being ordered by somebody above Sumner's pay grade. John suspected Ellis, though he couldn't be positive and damn sure didn't know why. Not that he was complaining: John needed all the charity he could get at this point.
The minutes ticked by at an irritatingly slow tempo, and John glanced at his watch again. He factored the time difference to Arizona. It was only after nine there. He dragged in a deep breath, and then thought screw it. He reached into his coat and pulled out his cell phone, scrolling through his contacts before he found the one he was looking for.
The other end picked up after the fourth ring. "Ellis, here."
John sat up a little. "Sir, it's Sheppard. I hope I didn't catch you at a bad time?"
Ellis snorted in annoyance. "It's nine o'clock on a Friday night. Where else would I be but at work?"
John hid a grin. "I just wanted to talk to you a little about the Weir investigation."
There was a long pause on the other end. "Yeah, what about it?"
"Well, it's been going… well, nowhere, actually." John paused, licking his lips. "Sumner hasn't even been able to let me interrogate Kenmore – the suspect. Which is just ridicul—"
"Stop right there," Ellis cut in. "It's not my command. You got problems with how Sumner is running your team, you take it up with him. I can't help you there."
Of course John knew that. "I'm not talking about his command."
"Then what are you talking about?"
John paused. "I'm talking about the fact that Sumner's being denied all access to Kenmore. The guy's in lockdown, and no one has been allowed to question him. Not the Secret Service. Not the FBI. Not even the local PD when they first arrested him. The only people that have taken his almost non-existent statement? The Pentagon."
Ellis paused, then repeated, "The Pentagon."
"Yeah," John affirmed. "And they're not letting anyone else play with their toy."
The truth was, this entire job felt off. Elizabeth Weir wasn't the normal candidate for protection detail. Even in the beginning stages of the investigation, it was obvious she didn't have many enemies – not the kind that swore bloody vengeance, anyway. Politically speaking, she wasn't liked much in certain Republican circles and had more than a few opponents that tangled with her frequently regarding diplomatic issues. But even there, the list of suspects was a stretch at best. Those people preferred political assassinations – not the literal ones. Usually, anyway. American politicians didn't have to deal with bloodshed too often.
He'd called because – because he was hoping that Ellis could pull some of his strings and use more of that newfound authority to cut threw some red tape.
But then Ellis' voice came back, sounding defeated. "Just do your job, Agent."
"That's what I'm trying to do."
"No, I mean protect her. When I was called up regarding this job, I was told you might hit roadblocks in the investigation. Just focus on keeping Dr. Weir safe."
John's jaw should have been on the floor. "Excuse me? The investigation is part of keeping Weir safe. We need to know—"
"Nothing," Ellis cut in. "You need to know nothing except that Dr. Weir may be in danger and that it's your job to protect her."
"From what? From who?"
"Whatever's a threat," Ellis answered broadly. "Just do your job and protect her. Don't go sniffing into anything else."
"That doesn't make any sense," John protested.
Ellis didn't miss a beat. "You'll find little of this case does. Look, I gotta go—"
And then Ellis hung up, leaving John with the distinct feeling that someone must have been playing some type of sick game with him because none of this was making any damn bit of sense. Why would government bigwigs insist the Secret Service protect this woman, and then block their investigation? There was no logical answer. None, whatsoever.
A knock at the window jarred John for a moment, and he looked up to find Cadman standing outside, her hands curled around a warm cup of coffee. She pointed to her watch, and John realized it was time to switch spots on the detail.
John entered from the back, slipping through the patio entrance as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Concerned about waking Elizabeth, he crept along the long, narrow corridor and down towards the kitchen.
He shouldn't have bothered with keeping the noise down.
As he walked through the lighted corridor, he realized the kitchen light was already on. Elizabeth was inside, hands wrapped around a warm coffee cup, a few papers and file folders strewn out on the kitchen table in front of her. Her eyes were so focused on her task that he doubted she heard his entrance. He took the opportunity to study his new charge covertly.
She was dressed in a light blue house robe, though it wasn't tied properly and he caught a glimpse of a red tank top underneath, complete with matching pajamas bottoms. Her hair was pulled back in a sloppy ponytail that left a more than a few strands free at the nape of her neck, and her face was freshly scrubbed, faint traces of freckles visible to the eye. Yet his favorite item by far was what adorned her feet – white bunny slippers.
"Agent Sheppard," she greeted, without lifting her gaze to him. "There's coffee in the pot if you want some."
John stopped, surprised to be caught. He recovered quickly, "You're drinking coffee this late at night?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "Mine is decaf. The pot is fully caffeinated, though. For you."
After a surprised pause, John nodded his appreciation, started towards the pot, and then thought better of it. He didn't want his third cup of coffee before half his shift was even over. He'd be too wired by the time it ended. Instead, deviating his course a little, he grabbed a glass from the top right cabinet and pulled open the fridge for some fresh orange juice.
He knew Elizabeth was studying his every move, so John tried to act nonchalant as he went about rummaging through another person's fridge. Every protectee had boundary issues. He still had yet to figure out what Elizabeth's were, but it was the first day on the job and he was already fairly sure Elizabeth was the type of woman that wouldn't mind having her fridge raided; she'd save her qualms for the issues that really mattered.
When he sat down at the table, glass of orange juice in hand, Elizabeth was watching him with an amused expression on her face. She didn't comment, though. As her eyes flittered back to the papers in front of her, they both let the hush fall as she continued her work – whatever it was.
He'd done his homework on her. Her UN stint had included some impressive trade negotiations, peace treaties and relief work in places all over the globe – the Baltic, Uganda, Kosovo, and more. She'd spent a number of years in D.C. as a lobbyist fighting the military and republicans alike, which was where she made most of her political enemies. She'd taken a few years off to teach at Georgetown University in between her – as John internally dubbed it – efforts to save the world. Her work on the current non-proliferation treaty was just the most recent example: she was an idealist; that much was obvious.
John was still trying to figure out the rest of her, though. He kept quiet and let her work, adopting a look of causal boredom as his gaze flittered around the kitchen. The room was small, homey, like the rest of her house. There was a row of pictures hanging in the cove near the kitchen window – the normal pictures from old graduations, parties and get-togethers with friends and relatives. Mixed in with that were some interesting photos of her work: a picture of her shaking hands with President Hayes and, if John wasn't mistaken – which he knew he wasn't – there was even another one with Vladimir Putin, too.
Though there was no picture of her ex-fiancé, Dr. Simon Wallace. The absence was telling.
"So," Elizabeth broke the silence. "Tell me about yourself, Agent Sheppard."
John shifted back in his chair. "What do you want to know?"
She shrugged. "You tell me. We're going to be spending a lot of time together, and I figure we should get to know each other a little. What are you interests, Agent Sheppard?" She paused, grimacing slightly. "Do you mind if we drop the 'Agent' thing? How about I call you Sheppard?"
"How about you call me John?" he offered instead. "And I'll call you Elizabeth?"
She smiled at him like he'd just done something right. "Deal."
He slumped back in his chair a little as he picked up the original line of questioning. "There's really not a lot to know about me. I'm pretty much an open book."
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow, prompting, "Where did you go to school? How did you get into this line of work? What type of jobs have you done before?"
John shrugged, always uncomfortable with talking about himself. "You know, the usual," he answered evasively. "This and that."
Elizabeth paused, watching him with a look on her face he couldn't decipher. It was one he imagined she used during her diplomatic work – a look that said she knew more than she'd previously led on.
She settled back in her chair, and began from rote memory. "You graduated high school by sixteen, went on to do a year in the Air Force Academy before you changed course and finished your undergrad from the University of Michigan with a degree in mathematics – all by the age of nineteen. When you joined the Secret Service, you graduated third in your class at Rowley. Your specialty is in the Counterfeit Division, where you most recently got into a scuffle during an undercover investigation that left two men dead and third plea-bargaining desperately."
By the time she was through, John's posture was ramrod straight in his chair. Surprised, his eyes skidded across the folders lying on the tabletop – something he hadn't paid too much attention to, before – and reached across to shuffle through them. He found personnel files on every member of his team among them: Sumner, Lorne, Cadman, Teyla, Rodney – and himself.
"You've been checking up on me."
"I like to know who I'm working with," Elizabeth replied, delicately. "But one thing I haven't been able to figure out is how you went from all that… to protecting me."
This woman was too smart for her own good. She was going to figure out – nearly as quickly as he did – that there was something incredibly off about this entire arrangement.
He hedged as best he could, "Things work differently in the agency than what you're used to. I get my orders from above and I follow them."
Elizabeth sighed, settling back heavily in her chair. "Which is your way of saying that you have no idea what's going on, either."
Definitely too smart. "I meant what I said to you earlier," he countered. "I will find out who's after you. I'll protect you."
She shook her head and glanced away. "That's not a promise you can make. Somebody is after me, and no matter how good you may be at your job, you can't ensure that I'll survive."
Those were bleak words coming from an idealist.
He didn't like that one bit. Silence settled like a heavy blanket as John attempted to snap back with some sort of response that could comfort her. He may have been a fledging at protection, but he wasn't an amateur at his job. Screw the higher-ups. John decided right then and there that he was going to investigate everything he could, from all angles. He didn't care if Ellis or someone else among the Powers That Be didn't like it: it was his job to investigate this case thoroughly.
"I know better to then to swear you'll live," he broke the hush, "but I can guarantee you one thing. If you end up dead, chances are that I will be, too. I'll protect you with my life."
Elizabeth's breath hitched, eyes widening slightly as they caught his. He'd left her speechless, a feat he imagined was tough to pull off with a woman like her. "Is that…" she eventually recovered, "is that really supposed to make me feel better? The idea that you'll take a bullet and die for me?"
She paused, lips parted to formulate an answer. After a beat, her eyes slid closed and she turned away. "God help me," she confessed softly, a little shamefully. "It does."
Since Air Force One touched-down in D.C. nearly a week and half ago, Elizabeth's life had taken a turn for the surreal. She was still getting used to the shadow of the Secret Service agents everywhere she went, and though she knew that it was for her own good and that the people protecting her were all decent folk, the adjustments didn't come easy.
Every time she made plans, she had to inform Sumner at least four hours in advance so his team could go and scope the area ahead of time. That irritated her sense of independence. Everywhere she went, at least two agents went with her – one glued to her side and the other at a distance, watching from the car or across the street or whereever. That encroached on her need for privacy. They were always there – always – and she never went anywhere without an agent going in first (and that included public bathrooms, which Elizabeth found more than a little embarrassing).
Thankfully, the agents dressed to match the circumstances. When she went out in public – the shopping mall, the gym, restaurants, wherever – the agents assigned to her usually dressed down to meet the occasion. They normally dressed less conspicuously than the black suits she was so familiar with seeing at the White House.
No matter what, though, their "parade" always drew stares. It made her skin itch to be the center of that type of attention.
Elizabeth had always presumed that the Secret Service agents were stone statutes ninety percent of the time. The guards to the President. The silent men that sometimes you could even forget were in the same room. She rarely conversed with any of them long enough to see what they were really like, but they were human beings – just like everybody else.
Sumner was a by-the-books man. He had no patience for deviation from any plan, which provided more than a little fodder for disputes when Elizabeth changed her mind on something. Sumner was definitely skilled at his job, as she quickly recognized he was as efficient as a machine in what he did. But there was something about his personality – something she couldn't pinpoint – that made her uncomfortable in his presence.
The other agents were better at putting her at ease. At first they were too conspicuous to be shadows, but sometimes so remote she wasn't sure how to strike up a conversation with them. But over the first few days, Elizabeth forced herself to make an effort to get to know them – she was a people person, after all. Her job necessitated it.
Laura Cadman was smart and sarcastic, sometimes even to the point where she'd caused Elizabeth to laugh at some… inappropriate times. Evan Lorne had a charming personality – chivalrous, even. Rodney McKay was a talkative man that rambled on like a locomotive with no brakes, but he could make her laugh and there was something about his demeanor that oddly endeared him to her.
And then there was John Sheppard.
"Elizabeth, you know people normally sleep at night," he mused in a wry voice, flopping down onto the chair next to her. "You should try it sometime."
Elizabeth made a noncommittal noise and went back to shuffling her papers together and setting them aside. John leaned back in his chair, peeling a banana as he watched her. This nightly scene was beginning to become familiar. It was a little unexpected that, out of all the agents, she actually had the most contact with him. His night shifts coincided perfectly with her bouts of insomnia.
Elizabeth pinched the bridge of her nose, eyesight blurring slightly with exhaustion.
"A word from the wise?" John broke the silence, watching her. "Nightmares don't go away just because you keep running from 'em."
Elizabeth's shoulders tensed, unwilling to meet his eyes. The words cut a little too close to home, and she kept her gaze trained on the papers. A moment of silence stretched between them, and though she didn't want to respond to John's comment – wanted, in fact, to ignore it entirely – something compelled her to speak up.
"You know, nobody told me it would be like this."
"This… situation," she breathed quietly, meaning her nightmares, her protection, the elusive threat out there – everything that was conspiring to make a mess out of her life. "It's just so... everybody said I'd get used to it."
"Who said that?"
John made a face. "Well, then, everybody's wrong."
Elizabeth glanced up at him. "And what is it supposed to be like, then?"
"This," he answered matter-of-factly. "It's supposed to be exactly like this. This hard, this uncomfortable, this painful. Anybody that tells you differently doesn't know what the hell they're talking about."
When he said it like that, it sounded so simple, so obvious. She drew her gaze back to the papers, falling into silence again, and though John stretched his legs out lazily and looked to the entire world like he was about to fall asleep, she knew better. His attention never shifted off of her; the awareness of that fact made her skin prickle.
Her cell phone chirped, jarring the peace. "Weir, here," she answered with a tired sigh.
"Elizabeth, it's me."
She paused, trying to identify the voice. "Who?"
"Mike," he answered, "Mike Branton."
Oh. Pushing away from the kitchen table, Elizabeth retreated from John a little in order to gain some privacy. Mike Branton was a new… friend Elizabeth had made during her most recent trip to Europe. Elizabeth had been pleasantly surprised to find she had a lot in common with Mike, especially considering he was the eldest son of a Republican Senator from Maine. But Mike had a knack for languages that mirrored her own, and a touch of wry humor that Elizabeth found refreshing.
He had also, on more than one occasion, flirted with her like crazy.
"It's nice to hear your voice again," he greeted cheerfully. "It's been too long."
"Mike, it's barely been more than a week."
"I say again, too long."
She smiled into the phone and brushed a curl of hair behind her ear. "So, to what do I owe this pleasure?"
"To the President of Turkey, actually."
Elizabeth blinked. "Excuse me?"
He chuckled softly into the phone. "The White House is holding a State Dinner this Friday. Sameer Gül is the special guest of the hour."
Elizabeth paused, remembering the silver-lettered invitation clearly now. Sameer Gül had just recently been elected President of Turkey, and this was his first visit to the White House. Elizabeth usually didn't make it to most State Dinners because she was so often out of town – or out of the country. But she'd already made plans for this occasion; in fact, she was looking forward to it.
"So," Mike continued, "You're invited, and I'm invited, so I figured we might as well be invited together."
Elizabeth paused again. She was flattered – how could she not be? Mike was handsome, funny and charming. But the truth was she wasn't ready for this; it was too close to her breakup with Simon.
Her hesitation lasted long enough that Mike continued, "Look, it's no big deal. It's not a date, if that's what you're worried about? No, no, no, no. It's just… two friends. Going together. Keeping each other company so they don't fall asleep at a dry dinner."
Elizabeth actually enjoyed these dinners. "Mike, I… don't know. I'm just not sure—"
"It'll be fun. Just hanging out, you and me."
"And my Secret Service detail," Elizabeth offered with a heavy sigh. "You have heard about them, right?"
"No offense, Elizabeth, but I wouldn't be surprised if Sameer Gül has heard about them by now," he joked lightly. "Gossip travels fast in Washington."
Terrific. Just what she needed.
"So, whatdya say?"
She smiled a little. "It's not a date."
"Absolutely not," Mike conceded, though he sounded smug. "I'll pick you up on Friday at six?"
"Make it six-thirty."
It was standard procedure that the agency conducted at least a preliminary investigation of anyone that came in contact with the protectee. It was a little scary how easily they could dig up dirt on people. Years of information condensed into dozens of electronic data banks, ready to be probed and prodded at the command of a keyboard.
Luckily, this was where having a friend like Rodney McKay came in handy. "Okay, we've got phone bills, insurance policies, credit histories, video rentals, library checkouts, school transcripts, ATM transactions, tax returns...everything. What do you wanna know?"
John was too out-in-the-open to give Rodney a clear answer. Clutching his cell phone, he tossed a gaze around the crowded shopping mall before he risked answering the question. As soon as Elizabeth mentioned her plans with this Mike Branton guy, John had made a mental note to check him out immediately.
They already knew the basics: Branton was a Senator's son. Mid-forties, good health. Republican. Never married. Rich – the type of rich that got noticed, even in Washington. He did a lot of charity stuff, worked high up for non-profit organizations like Amnesty International and Red Cross: wealthy, handsome and a philanthropist. For all intents and purposes, he sounded like a stand-up guy.
"Find the dirt," John instructed coolly, speaking into phone with a low voice. "I know the superficial investigation is going to produce zero flags. Go deeper."
John clenched his jaw, annoyed that he had to spell it out. "Until you hit something suspicious."
Rodney paused on the other end. "Uh, and what I am supposed to do if I don't find anything suspicious?"
"Everybody has dirt, Rodney," John countered. "If you can't find any, that's just means they've covered it up. Uncover it."
"He's a Senator's son," Rodney voice went an octave higher in warning. "We go poking our noses in the wrong place, it might raise flags with daddy-dearest—"
"Rodney," John bit out, "Just do it."
He hung up the phone and turned around, coming face-to-face with a life-sized mannequin modeling some skimpy little black dress. It left very little to the imagination, slit right down the torso and leaving a considerable amount of cleavage exposed. Quirking an eyebrow, John tilted his head as he tried to imagine just how a woman was supposed to walk around in that thing without some unmentionable parts becoming very publicly... mentionable.
To the left, Elizabeth was wandering down the aisle, fingering through a small rack of formal eveningwear. He realized it was a stereotypical male response, but he really did hate shopping. It was part of the job, though – where Elizabeth went, he did. He gritted his teeth and prayed Elizabeth wasn't one of those women that walked away with a dozen bags of clothing and a month's salary wasted on shoes.
He doubted it was a coincidence that his first day shift on this gig coincided with Elizabeth's day at the mall. This was Sumner's most ingenious form of punishment yet.
"What do you think of this one?" Elizabeth asked, holding up a yellow gown.
John squinted at it, repressing the urge to grimace. "Meh," he offered.
She quirked an eyebrow at his choice of words. "That bad?"
John made a face. "Worse."
She offered a small laugh as she dutifully placed the dress back on the rack. "You know, I've never really taken a guy shopping before. It has its advantages."
John rolled his eyes. "This is torture, and you're enjoying it. Some might call that masochism."
"I'm not the one that's being tortured," Elizabeth refuted with a smirk. "And this could be worse. I could be asking you if "this makes me look fat" or… something really embarrassing."
Elizabeth glanced pointedly over to the lingerie section, which was cordoned off from their area by a small red rope. He glanced briefly towards it, eyes drawn to yet another mannequin – this one modeling a black bra, matching underwear and a garter belt.
John turned back with his ears turning a little red.
Elizabeth was grinning. "See? It could be worse."
Worse wasn't the word he was quite looking for, in that moment.
Lorne's voice crackled in over the radio. "This is Bravo Two, checking in. Everything is all clear."
John answered back promptly. "Bravo Two, this is Bravo One. Scholar is still shopping. Incessantly."
Elizabeth looked up and sent him a glare, then sighed. "I'm still not used to being called by a codename."
John shrugged. "Protocol."
Fifteen minutes later, with a stack of dresses draped over her arm, Elizabeth headed for the fitting rooms. John stopped her, went in first, and did a quick sweep of the area. Two fitting rooms, side-by-side, both empty. There was a back entrance too, which allowed for dual access to the fitting rooms. He'd have to mind that. He came back to Elizabeth and waved her in.
"No boogie-man waiting in the shadows?" Elizabeth asked wryly.
"I told him nobody liked a peeping Tom," John volleyed back. "He sulked away."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes as she went in. A few moments of agonizing boredom passed as John stood watch just outside the doors of the fitting room. Another woman eventually tried to enter the room, but John blocked her path.
"Out of order," he offered.
The older woman blinked in confusion. "A fitting room is out of order?"
John shrugged. "You know, those darn… doors sometime break." He quickly pointed her towards the other fitting room on opposite end of the complex. "You can try that one."
The woman tossed him a suspicious glare before she went away.
"John?" Elizabeth called from inside the fitting room, "Uh, could you come in here for just one second?"
Figuring she was going to ask more of his opinions, John came back to her fitting room. The door was ajar, leaving in plain view a sliver of the mirror inside. He caught sight of the reflection of Elizabeth's bare back before the door swung open a little more.
She smiled sheepishly through the cracked flap. "I need help with the zipper."
John paused. "Uh, yeah, sure."
Dutifully stepping into the small enclosure, John shut the door behind him. He turned back and stopped, getting the first glimpse of Elizabeth in her dress. It was a sleeveless red evening gown with simple lines and small slit up her right thigh. Elizabeth clutched the material to her chest, her thin shoulder straps slipping off at the sides, and turned around to give John a view of the problem. The zipper was halfway down her back, and the material flooded open – exposing flawless skin underneath and the thick band of a black bra.
Abruptly, John felt a little out of his element.
"I think it's a little stuck," Elizabeth offered, tossing a hesitant smile over her shoulder. "Do you mind?"
Highly aware that he was feeling things that he should not feel – a sense of attraction that he had no right to entertain for a protectee – the moment stretched out. John stepped forward, and though the zipper turned out to be a little stubborn, it soon gave way. John worked it higher, doing his best to ignore the sight of her skin and the proximity of her body. There was a small surge of exhilaration flooding his system that shocked him.
"So what do you think?" Elizabeth mused with a sigh, adjusting the straps as she scrutinized her reflection. "You think the color's too bright?"
He glanced at the full-length mirror. At first, she simply smiled with a bemused expression on her face, head tipped to the side as she examined her reflection critically. But John stayed focused on her for a second that stretched too long, too heated, and her smile dimmed. She caught his gaze in the mirror, and then stilled. He knew he wasn't covering up his reaction quick enough – not with his eyes, anyway.
"No," he managed. "I think you look good in red." By the time he stepped back, blinking away the all-too-telling expression on his face, he knew she'd seen everything. "You should get this one," he recovered a light tone. "You'll knock 'em dead at the ball."
Elizabeth offered him a tight smile, her cheeks suddenly looking a bit flushed. "Thanks."
He paused again, and then quickly turned and left. As soon as he was outside the fitting room and the door closed again, John stilled in the hallway. Unnerved, he stood frozen, wondering what the hell had just happened.
Biting his lower lip in anxiety, John told himself to shake it off – whatever it was. The agency frowned on even simple friendships forming between agent and charge. You could be friendly with your protectee, but at the end of the day there were clear lines marked in the sand. He was her bodyguard, and that required a certain level of healthy emotional detachment if he wanted to do his job efficiently. John knew that better than most, always highly aware of his weaknesses of being ruled by his moods.
He shoved the unexpected spike of attraction down hard. This was one rule even he wasn't stupid enough to break.
God, what the hell had just happened?
God, what the hell had just happened?
A little thrown, Elizabeth was left frozen in the fitting room as the door closed after John. Her mind felt like it was sinking in quicksand, more than well aware of the charged moment she'd just shared with John. It hadn't been her imagination, right? There was something – a spark of interest – that she'd witnessed.
The realization made her stomach flutter. She quietly tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and turned back to the mirror. The image before her was nice; she liked the material of the dress and the cut. But more than that, her mind stalled on John's words – his remark about the color. A blush crawled up her neck and settled on her cheeks. She felt a little self-conscious in the gown now, though the feeling wasn't entirely unpleasant.
As she undressed and continued to try on various other evening gowns, her eyes kept turning back to the red one. After discarding the third dress, it seemed obvious that she was trying on the others merely for the sake of appearances. She'd obviously already chosen which one she was going to buy.
That marked one item off the list, but there were a few things she still needed to get. And despite her earlier teasing, Elizabeth was in genuine need of some lingerie. Nothing racy, of course. Just a simple strapless bra that would work well with the dress - although she didn't relish the idea of having John accompany her on that task. Shopping for an evening gown had produced… awkwardness. There was no way she was going to let John stand nearby while she poked around a pile of underwear.
When she slipped out of the fitting room, her retreat was silent and unobtrusive. John stood with his back to her, his radio earpiece visibly hanging over his shoulder as he swept his gaze over the crowd outside. She only needed five minutes to find herself appropriate underwear. That was all.
Assuring herself John wouldn't miss her presence for such a short period of time, she slipped away through the back entrance.
Minutes ticked by as John waited as patiently as he could for Elizabeth to finish trying on the rest of the dresses. While a mere half-an-hour ago, he would have been making quips about the length of time she was taking, his recent transgression left him a little off his game. He kept quiet, keeping watch on the front entrance while Elizabeth finished up. It wasn't until he tossed a precautionary look over his shoulder towards the back entrance that he realized the door to Elizabeth's fitting room was once again ajar.
Abruptly John strode forward to yank the door open and found the room empty. He whirled around, throwing a searching gaze around the nearby area.
Shit. He'd lost Elizabeth.
A thousand scenarios flashed threw his mind as he started down the aisles of the store, glancing this way and that for a familiar head of dark curls. She could have wandered off by herself – but she knew better than that! It could have been something more disconcerting. Damn it. It was his job to protect her, to keep an eye out on her. What if something happened to her? What if she was in trouble because he'd been distracted?
God, if he hadn't had his head up his ass because some damn dress, this would never have happened.
Angry with himself but mostly alarmed, John combed through the small store in less than a few minutes before he stumbled upon her in the lingerie department. Discovering she was safe and unharmed, the sight left a surge of relief coursing through him. But then anger quickly nipped at its heels, strong and vicious. Angry for letting her slip away like that, he strode across the department and caught up with her.
He grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to the side. "Why the hell did you wander away like that?" he bit out furiously.
She blinked at his tone. "Excuse me?"
"You don't do that!" John stressed, barely managing to keep from shouting. "You don't break protocol. Why the hell did you leave the fitting room without me? You know you're supposed to—"
"John," she stopped him. She attempted to wrench her arm free, but unthinkingly John held on. "You need to calm down."
He glared. "Don't tell me to calm down. Wandering off like that is one of the dumbest things you could do. Don't do it again."
Her face closed off, and then the first hint of anger bloomed in her eyes. "Don't tell me what I can or cannot do, Agent."
"You're damn right I will," John rebuffed heatedly. "It's my job to protect you, and I can't do that if you do a brainless thing like—"
Elizabeth's face flooded with irritation. "I suggest you watch your tone, and who you're calling brainless. I was only gone for five minutes—"
"Five minutes may as well be the same thing as five hours," John snapped. "It takes less than a second for a bullet to pierce the body. How do you not get that? I'm not here as your chauffer. Your life is in danger!"
"I'm very well aware of that."
"Are you?" John lobbied back. "Then why the hell did you ditch me?"
Her jaw clenched, and she finally wrenched her arm free. She turned to walk away without giving him an answer. Abruptly he realized that their argument had become a bit of a spectacle in the store, garnering attention from the pedestrians nearby. The young clerk behind the retail counter was openly gawking at them, but when Elizabeth strode up and deposited her items onto the counter, he snapped out of it quickly.
John lingered a few feet from her, waiting impatiently while Elizabeth paid for her purchases. His mood was foul, nearly toxic, and that left him caring very little that they had just made a scene in a crowded department store. Elizabeth needed to understand how dangerous it was walking away like that.
God, if anything had happened to her, if someone had gotten to her…
Even left unfinished the thought was vicious and choking, and John refused to let his mind linger on the fear. Choosing instead to let his irritation take control, the rest of the trip was short and tense. Any exchange between him and Elizabeth was stilted, not at all like what he'd become used to with her. It wasn't surprising that Elizabeth decided to cut the trip to the mall short, a decision John wholeheartedly supported.
They walked out of department store, and Lorne was waiting for them outside. He took one look at John, then Elizabeth, and quirked an eyebrow. "What's up?"
John growled his answer. "I'll drive. You take shotgun detail for the rest of the day."
Elizabeth got into the backseat of the dark sedan without a word. After tossing a bewildering look between the two, Lorne climbed into the backseat with her. Let him handle being by Elizabeth's side all day.
John had enough for one day.
Two days later, the skies over Washington D.C. were looming with dark clouds and chilled with frost. Snow was falling in a heavy blanket, coating the pavement with sheets of white powder five inches deep. Elizabeth stared vacantly out her second-story bedroom window, gazing across the neighborhood as a familiar black sedan pulled up to the curb. She watched John climb out of the car and hustle quickly towards her front porch.
Things had been strained between them ever since the mall incident. Elizabeth wasn't normally one to let hurt feelings fester, especially when a simple misunderstanding was at the heart of the matter, but there was something about the way John had reprimanded Elizabeth that left her feeling uneasy. In retrospect, she conceded that sneaking off like that – even for five minutes, even for something as innocuous as slipping free to shop for lingerie in private – hadn't been the smartest move.
Things needed to be rectified; Elizabeth had let the discomfort slide long enough.
She descended the steps to greet John just as he stepped through the front door. He looked distinctly agitated as he shrugged off his heavy black coat and unwrapped his scarf. His foul mood seemed to match her temperament perfectly. When Sumner strode forward to meet him, Elizabeth waited patiently while they exchanged the standard update before the shift change.
When Sumner left, Elizabeth stepped into view. "John?"
He turned at her words and a muscle jumped in his jaw. He clenched his teeth. "Elizabeth."
"We need to talk. My office?"
She didn't bother waiting for a response. Pivoting on her heel, Elizabeth made her way down the quiet hallway towards her home office in the back. It was more of a library than anything else; on one side was a sizeable bookcase that covered the wall from floor to ceiling, overflowing with novels and textbooks that covered everything from politics to dead languages – anything that had caught Elizabeth's interest over the years. A comfortable aged-leather couch sat in the opposite corner and in the center of the room was a long mahogany desk with her plush chair settled behind it, and two extra chairs set aside for visitors.
Elizabeth strategically picked the couch, not wanting to face John from behind her father's imposing mahogany throne. This wasn't a confrontation; it was a simple conversation that was going to clear up a few things. She waited until John joined her in the study. He flashed a smile and chose to lean his lanky frame against the doorframe, neither inside nor out of the room. Elizabeth mused he'd probably bolt at the first opportunity presented to him.
"You wanted to talk?"
She gestured for him to take a seat but he waved her off. "John, you've read my file, right?"
John raised an eyebrow. "Your career dossier? Yeah, of course."
Elizabeth took a deep breath and folded her hands in her lap. "Then you know that back in the late nineties, I was in Uganda for something called HIPC."
"Heavily Indebted Poor Countries relief initiative," John quoted, proving he'd done more than just skim her files. "You helped negotiate $1.3 billion dollars in aid, with another $145 million coming in from other countries."
Her humanitarian career had led Elizabeth to many war-torn regions across the world, but Africa had been the most revealing. "During that time… well, I doubt I have to paint much of a picture for you. Uganda was and still is a country tearing itself apart. The region's plagued by droughts, an AIDS epidemic, and the government has been through seven coup d'états in forty years. For the past 22 years, no region in that country has seen any form of peace."
She trailed off, finding it difficult to talk about this experience even after all this time. John pushed away from his perch in the doorframe and walked further into the room. She could tell his interest was peaked now, so she waited while he dragged one of the chairs towards her, dropping down so he could sit face-to-face with her. The proximity forced their eyes to lock.
When she didn't immediately continue, John spoke up, knowingly, softly, "You were held hostage for a nearly two days on the military base in Gulu by the LRA soldiers."
"They weren't soldiers," Elizabeth corrected. "They were children. The LRA abducted them for their militia."
Fifty thousand children a year – kidnapped and subjected to psychological torture so that they could be indoctrinated into continuing the LRA's way of life. Though "way of life" was a misnomer; it was more about death and fear than anything else. Back then, she'd been naïve enough to think she could change the world with her work, help the country be a better place with the aid she was bringing into the region. It was afterwards, when a platoon of the government's militia invaded the compound and took control back; afterwards, when she had climbed to her feet, surrounded by small bodies, that the shine of that naiveté had been stripped away.
She could still remember so clearly, so vividly, those few hours she'd been held at gunpoint by the boys had been the longest hours of her entire life. Children were meant to cry over skinned knees and tease each other in playgrounds. They were never meant to hold heavy weaponry in their soft, petite hands.
"I know all this already," John offered in sympathy. "You don't have to rehash it."
Elizabeth took another second to regroup and John leaned forward, hesitating for just a moment before placing a hand over hers. The gesture was slightly awkward, as if he was only parroting what he'd seen others do and had no genuine concept of how to offer comfort, and she was sidetracked for a split-second in wondering what that telling gesture implied about his personal relationships, about the man himself.
She refocused. "Back in that department store, you told me I wasn't taking this threat seriously. I didn't understand the depth of what was going on and the fact that I was in danger. I'm here to tell you that I understand it perfectly."
She didn't let him finish. "You don't know fear until you've seen a twelve-year-old boy holding a semi-automatic weapon to your forehead, John. You think you're trying to prepare me for some elusive threat, but you don't have to do that. I know what it's like to have my life in danger. I made a mistake the other day in the shopping mall, but don't for one second assume that I am not aware of the circumstances I am in. Don't belittle me—"
"You were," she cut him off, almost harshly. "You thought, 'poor naïve politician. She doesn't understand what's going on.' I do. I understand it more than I care to admit."
The heated words felt like they echoed long after she'd finished, leaving the room stewing in pregnant silence. John averted his gaze and scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck. She'd gotten through to him – she could see it clearly on his face.
John's gaze drifted back to hers. "Elizabeth, I didn't mean to… there was no belittling involved. I got angry. I say heated things when I get angry."
"I gathered that."
He made a face. "But that doesn't mean I was entirely wrong, either."
Elizabeth didn't know whether to roll her eyes or hit him with the nearby newspaper. He seemed incapable of actually saying the words "I'm sorry," but strangely enough, Elizabeth found she was all right with that. She didn't need a verbal apology. She never wanted one; she just wanted him to understand.
She was fairly sure the mission was accomplished.
"For what it's worth," she offered as an olive branch, "I won't leave an agent's side anymore. It won't happen again."
"Good." John nodded. "And I won't yell at you in a crowded mall anymore."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow.
"Or anywhere else," he conceded quickly.
She decided that this was the best she was going to get out of him. She rose to her feet as she drew a deep breath. John was a frustrating individual, but the conversation didn't need to go any further. Hopefully, some of the awkwardness would subside a little now. She hated not talking to him these last few nights – a surprising confession considering the little amount of time she'd actually known him.
"There's coffee in the pot if you want some."
John nodded and stretched a little as he rose. "You want any? I could make you a pot of decaf."
As pathetic as it was, Elizabeth recognized the question as a peace offering. She nodded. "Cream with—"
"Two sugars," John finished with a roll of his eyes. "I know, Elizabeth."
It was after two in the morning when John got the phone call. Elizabeth waved him off with a yawn, and John quickly excused himself from the kitchen and walked down the corridor to gain some privacy.
"Sheppard," Rodney spoke quickly on the other end. "I hit pay dirt."
John stopped in the foyer. The last task that he'd given Rodney was digging up dirt on Elizabeth's date for the State Dinner, Mike Branton. He'd issued the order nearly two days ago, and the length of time taken to complete the task was telling. Rodney normally never took more than a day to complete an assignment.
"Well, don't keep me in suspense. What is it?"
Rodney's voice dropped to a whisper, almost muffled like he was concerned about who might overhear him. "Not over the phone. Just come to Rowley after your babysitting duty is over."
Rowley Training Center? That was a bit out of the way. John glanced at his wristwatch, realizing he had another three hours left on his shift. Including commute, it'd be close to six in the morning before he'd reach Rodney.
"What are you doing out there?"
"Rowley has the best resources for what I'm doing," Rodney spoke tersely. "Look, you're the one that told me to dig deep on this pretty boy and I did and I found something – which of course I would because I'm me and my hacking kung-fu is better than anyone else no matter what Kavanaugh may think or claim. So now you're going to come over here and I don't care if you're tired, cranky and haven't had your third cup of Starbucks Nonfat Tazo Chai Tea Latte or not. Just come!"
"Okay, okay, I'm coming! Jeeze, what the hell has your knickers in a twist?"
"I hit pay dirt," Rodney repeated. "Big. Pay. Dirt."
John froze, alarm bells going off. "Okay," he recovered quickly. "I'll see you in a few hours."
Rodney hung up without another word.
John was left staring at his cell phone for a lengthy beat afterwards. Finally, a lead. Their investigation had hit so many roadblocks, so many dead ends, that it was like someone was anticipating their moves three steps ahead of them and covering up all suspicious footprints before they could lead the investigation anywhere productive.
Hopefully, Rodney had finally found something that wouldn't lead to a brick wall.
But that also meant Elizabeth's date for the following evening wasn't as innocuous as he seemed. Swallowing back his distaste, John wandered back to the kitchen. He stopped short when he found Elizabeth fast asleep at the kitchen table, head cradled in her arms over a pile of paperwork. She'd even fallen asleep with a pen dangling from her fingers.
Deliberating his options, John decided he wouldn't risk waking her. Sleep was a rare luxury for Elizabeth lately. He tipped his head to the side, calculating the distance it'd take him to reach the spare bedroom on the bottom floor. Her master bedroom was out of the question – no way he'd manage to make it up the stairs without waking her.
Feeling a little out of his element, John approached Elizabeth and quietly gathered her into his arms. She landed against his chest with soft mumbling. While she looked like she couldn't weigh more than a feather, Elizabeth turned out to be no lightweight. It was awkward when he straightened up, hauling her up into his arms, and when she mumbled unintelligibly he thought for sure she was going to wake up and kick his ass right then and there. After a brief half-hummed protest, though, her hand landed against his shoulder and she stilled, and her other arm curled around his neck instinctively to hold on. Her eyes never even fluttered open.
Jesus, John mused, since when did he become Prince Charming?
He fought to keep his steps light as worked his way down the hall. When he kicked open the spare bedroom door, light from the hallway flooded in to reveal a large canopy bed. He eased her down onto the mattress as gently as he could. He drew back and Elizabeth rolled onto her side, immediately curling up like a lazy cat.
She deserved a good night's sleep after everything she'd been through lately. Hell, her whole world had been turned upside down and inside out these last few weeks, and it was a wonder she hadn't exploded. Protectees weren't known for handling the sudden lack of privacy particularly well. Elizabeth was handling it better than most.
On its own volition, his mind drifted to their earlier conversation about her experiences in Africa. Elizabeth handled a lot of things better than most. He should have realized that before, but the conversation had been eye-opening to John in more than one way. It was one thing for her to confess her experiences to him – obviously painful – but in the telling, it had exposed a side of her that John admired. She was so genuine, so earnest in her work.
He'd been wrong to yell at her in the department store. Thinking back, he realized he'd overreacted and lashed out in anger that was actually more self-deprecating than anything else. It was his job to protect her – if she was left exposed, the fault laid with him alone. But, Jesus, he hadn't anticipated feeling such a surge of fear. He was usually so calm and collected during the midst of an emergency, but he'd barely been able to keep a lid on his emotions in that mall – thank god the entire thing turned out to be a false alarm.
Sedge trudged into the room with her tail wagging, looking up at John. He bent a knee and ran a hand over her white coat, petting it down as she beamed up at him happily. But John was too preoccupied, letting his eyes rest on Sedge for only a moment before they were drawn back to Elizabeth's sleeping form almost immediately.
The light from the hallway streaked across her face, highlighting her features. She looked more at ease now. Elizabeth was the type of woman that carried the weight of her responsibilities and worries with her everywhere she went. She was always working, always stressed, always planning and thinking about something. It was refreshing to see her at ease, and in this light the sight she presented was… spellbinding.
John froze, abruptly realizing that he was rooted in his spot, riveted by the sight of his protectee sleeping. It was one thing to keep an eye on her – that was his job. But this? This was quite obviously something else. He edged back out of the room and shut the door quietly behind him. In the respite of the hallway, John took a moment to regroup. Once again he was overcome with the awareness that his feelings towards Elizabeth were rapidly becoming complicated.
Slamming his eyes shut, John scolded himself for over-analyzing the situation. It was an attraction, nothing else. He just needed to keep things in perspective. Elizabeth was his charge. It was his job to protect her with his life. There was no room for anything else. Period. End of sentence.
But a tiny part of John suddenly wondered if it was really going to be as simple as that.
The James J. Rowley Training Center (JJRTC) was the headquarters of the State Department, where John had been trained as a Secret Service agent nearly a decade prior. All Diplomatic Secret Service agents (known as DSS agents) were put through the ringer here. He still vividly recalled the layout, though subtleties had changed over the years. The complex was located about sixty miles off the outskirts of Washington, D.C., comprised of almost 500 acres of land, six miles of roadway and 31 separate buildings with state of the art facilities and equipment.
It was close to sunrise as he swept his identification card across the last electronic access pad and keyed in his numeric password. The door opened to reveal a long, dull hallway. He entered the third door to his left and found a familiar sight: Rodney McKay, two dozen empty protein bar wrappers, and a mound of paperwork strewn everywhere as if a small tornado had swept through the area.
Rodney's condition looked no better. "Where the hell have you been?" he snapped. "I expected you an hour ago!"
"Never mind." Rodney waved a hand. "Do you have any coffee?"
John suspected Rodney had enough coffee in his system to supply a small midwestern town. "Not on me, no."
Rodney scowled, then twisted in his chair and focused back on the computer monitor in front of him. "Grab a seat, this is just going to take a second."
"Shh!" Rodney scolded, typing furiously away. "Just a second!"
John suppressed a groan. He knew the routine well. He slumped heavily into a chair behind Rodney, closing his eyes for a moment to rest. It really was best if he didn't bother Rodney when he was like this, but John liked to needle the guy. It was how their friendship worked.
"Rodney, I'm tired. I just came off from a long shift and I miss my bed. Please tell me you didn't drag me all the way out here so I could watch you type."
Even with his eyes closed, John knew Rodney didn't bother turning around to snap at him. "I don't care. I've been up for the last forty-eight hours hacking through some of the most well protected government firewalls known to mankind. Your beauty sleep doesn't rank up there on my list of priorities, especially with the global conspiracy I just uncovered."
John bolted upright in his chair. "Conspiracy? What the hell are you going on about, McKay?"
"Three little letters that apparently mean a lot," Rodney replied. "The NID."
John never did learn from his mistakes.
When somebody told him not to do something, it was almost hardwired into his DNA to rebel, to be curious, to test the boundaries as far as he could push them. But despite the undeniable fact that he'd always had issues with authority figures – his father had certainly agreed with that – John mostly knew where his limitation lay. There were things even he acknowledged his nose for trouble had no right sniffing around. Matters of national security were at the top of the list. John didn't mess around with that, not without a damn good reason.
Today, the thing that surprised John the most was how easily Elizabeth qualified as a good reason.
The NID was big. Rodney had been doing his routine electronic investigation into Mike Branton's life for a few hours when he'd hit a red flag. A lot of Branton's accounts had large unaccounted-for cash deposits every fifth day of the month, the source untraceable. Curious, Rodney went digging deeper into some of the places where Branton had worked recently.
Rodney found a slew of dummy corporations. At a superficial glance everything checked-out legitimate and clean, but Rodney wasn't a guy to be fooled easily. He went snooping into one of the corporations' databases through remote access, hacking through the backdoor and bypassing their security and firewalls with barely a blink of an eye.
It wasn't legal, but then again they weren't looking for something to prosecute on. A quietly acknowledged fact of reality was that government agencies only worried about things like search warrants when they were looking to build a criminal case. John wasn't looking for that – yet. He only wanted something to point him in the right direction, something that would lead them to the real culprits behind the threat against Elizabeth.
Which meant illegal hacking, and that explained why Rodney had chosen the Rowley Training Center as his workspace – the complex was well equipped with some of the most sophisticated surveillance equipment available to him. At Rowley, the DSS Computer Investigations and Forensics Branch (CIF) was specifically designed to help investigators confront electronic criminals. The CIF trained people just like Rodney – people who were highly skilled special agents and civilian forensic examiners, network analysts, and evidence technicians – to do exactly this: electronic espionage.
He would know how to hack under the radar with these computers.
What Rodney found led him down a trail of bed crumbs, where one dummy corporation led to another and another, each managed by wealthy and ostensibly legitimate business men. Some of the most powerful men in the nation, in fact. Mike Branton's father, Senator David Branton from Maine, was one of them.
Rodney hadn't slept in nearly two days, so caught up in unraveling this mystery. Eventually, Rodney uncovered something called the NID, an acronym that somehow was at the center of all of this. They didn't know much yet – basically only had those three letters to go off – but the records that held the initials were all highly confidential documents.
After quickly programming a decryption algorithm that probably would have taken other highly trained technicians weeks to encode, Rodney uncovered that the documents themselves were steeped in secrets – all government related.
"I think the NID is some type of secret agency," Rodney finally concluded. "I'm still hacking into something that will give me more information. It'll take a few more hours, a day tops—"
"A secret agency?" John asked. "For what? Is Branton an agent?"
Rodney threw up his hands in exasperation. "How am I supposed to know any of that?! That's why it's called a secret conspiracy. Look, all I know is that you told me to go digging into Branton's life and I did. I didn't expect to unravel something to rival the Illuminati. Besides, it's your job is to analyze the threat. I'm just the tech guy, remember?"
John's mind went into overload. Just because this was all clandestine and hush-hush didn't make it illegitimate – just suspicious. John didn't want to jump to the wrong conclusions. If the NID tied back to Elizabeth's threat somehow, then that would explain why his superiors had been unwilling to give John all the resources he needed to investigate things. They didn't want him doing exactly this – unraveling secrets that for all intents and purposes were way above his pay grade and outside his jurisdiction.
Did that mean the higher-ups were protecting the NID because they were good guys? Or that they were being protected for other, far more nefarious reasons?
John tried to focus on one thing at a time. "I just need to know if Branton is using Elizabeth for NID purposes, and why."
"Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems likely," Rodney stated with a sigh. "Why else would Branton be sniffing around her during a time like this? In any case, we'll find out more once my program has fully run its course. Half a day, a day tops, and we should have more answers."
"Elizabeth has her date tonight."
"They'll be at the White House by seven. I'm not even covering it. Sumner and Lorne are on detail."
Rodney glanced to the clock in the corner. "That might be too early for us to know anything substantial."
"I can't let her go on a date with this guy, Rodney," John stressed. "Not when he's a shady figure."
John froze, lips thinning. He couldn't afford to go making blind accusations, either. Because then he'd have to explain why he had his suspicions and how he got his information. That presented a whole host of problems, some of which could even land him and Rodney in jail for years. People got grumpy about national security that way. Not to mention Branton's father was a Senator – that meant powerful influence they didn't want to test if they could manage to avoid it.
No, he had to play this smart, no matter how much his instincts were screaming to rush. His skin crawled with the mere idea of letting Elizabeth go out on a date with this guy. Growling in anger, John pivoted on his heels and kicked the nearby trashcan in frustration. It dented and John's foot stung, and neither of the actions left him feeling any better.
Rodney was staring at him.
"What?" John snapped.
"Don't do anything stupid, Sheppard," Rodney warned. "Both of us are on the line here and I'd prefer to avoid spending the rest of my life in the big house where I'll be passed around from one tattooed behemoth to the next like a two-dollar hooker. I don't want to have a boyfriend named Big Ed, thank you."
"She's going to be going on a date with this guy."
"Do you?" John snapped angrily. "Because she's going to be smiling at him, and he's going to be flirting, and both of them are going to be dancing at the White House like it's some goddamned fairy-tale."
"You realize you sound more jealous than paranoid there?"
John growled and turned away, kicking the trashcan again. When he started pacing the length of small office space, Rodney tracked his movements. Then Rodney's expression subtly changed, as if a realization was dawning on him.
A look of vague horror and exasperation grew on his face. "Oh my god! You are jealous!"
"What?" John whirled around. "No! No, I'm concerned and pissed off because—"
"Oh, don't give me that!" Rodney snapped. "I know Kirk when I see him. Oh, god, Sheppard. Can't you keep it in your pants for once? Just because she's some pretty brunette does not mean you have to let Little Sheppard dictate all your—"
"It's not like that."
The clear warning in John's voice stopped Rodney dead in his tracks. Elizabeth wasn't some girl that he wanted to have a fling with – though it seemed equally as ridiculous to say now that she was just his protectee and nothing more. Damn, this was all too confusing for words. Shoving a hand through his hair in frustration, he flopped down onto the chair opposite Rodney.
"Tell me you're not having me break national security, risking a life in prison, because you like a girl."
John's jaw clenched. "Rodney," he warned.
Rodney was undeterred. "I'm risking my neck here so be honest with me, Sheppard."
John bit his lip as he glanced away, straining to come up with an honest answer that wouldn't make both of them flinch. But in the end, his feelings for Elizabeth, whatever the hell they were, were inconsequential.
"It's our job to keep her safe," he finally answered. "I'd be doing this for anyone under our protection."
After a beat, Rodney seemed mollified by the response. He went back to typing and John watched in silence, feeling a vague sickness rolling in his stomach that enlightened John to the real truth. He'd been lying. This had become personal for him. God help them all, his emotions had somehow become too invested in Elizabeth in a scant few days.
Jesus. He just prayed that wouldn't affect his focus.
The sun fell behind the central Colorado mountains as the helicopter roared out of the blazing light. Michael Kenmore shifted in his seat, the clink of his shackled arms and legs inaudible over the howl of the helicopter blades. Beside him, the Air Force officer had one hand settled firmly on the assault rifle in his possession, and two more guards sat opposite them. Michael barely gave any of them a second glance, looking instead out towards the terrain they were approaching.
The landing strip had obviously been used for decades by the military: small, camouflaged, with barely any other standing structure in sight. He doubted anyone but the military knew of its existence. That made it ideal for clandestine work, Michael knew. Like transporting prisoners that needed to stay below radar.
The Cheyenne complex wasn't far from here. Michael expected an armed escort for the forty-five minute drive to the underground facility where he would be placed in solitary confinement again, moved from one prison to another. The difference was that this prison had other amenities, which made it special.
Michael had never seen the Stargate for himself, although through his efforts working for the rogue factions of the NID he knew exactly what it looked like. Seeing the shimmer of an event horizon was one of Michael's long-standing wishes in life; a thing he promised himself he would witness before he died. And now, ironically, he was being escorted there, almost right up to its open ramp.
Too bad he would never make it to his destination. Michael had no intention of reaching the Stargate today, or Cheyenne Mountain. Maybe another day, he mused with a dark smile.
One of the guards narrowed his eyes. "What the hell are you smirking at?"
Another guard waved a dismissive hand. "You're wasting your breath. The guy doesn't talk."
That wasn't precisely true. Michael didn't talk about who he was, what he did, or why he'd been at Doctor Weir's home the night of the attack. He didn't discuss those things because he knew how to keep his mouth shut on things that mattered. But other than that Michael was quite the conversationalist, given the right company.
Michael shuffled his feet a little as he settled back in his chair. "I love weather like this. I happen to like the scorching heat."
"I'm riveted," the guard deadpanned. "Please, tell me more about your likes and dislikes. Your life story, even."
Michael's eyes drifted to him, darkening a little. "You know what time it is?"
"Why?" A guard tossed back with a smirk. "You got somewhere to be?"
"Actually, yes," Michael answered. "I'm expecting to meet the President tonight at the State Dinner. I want to make sure I have enough time to change into something suitable." He lifted his chain-linked hands, bringing attention to both the shackles and the horrific orange jumpsuit he was wearing. "I don't think this color particularly flatters me, and I really want to make a good first impression, you understand?"
The guard opposite him barked a laugh. "We've got ourselves a comedian."
"Delusions of grandeur," another corrected. "Only famous people you're going to be meeting tonight are SG-1, and they won't be too impressed with you, I bet."
Ah, SG-1. Michael had done his research on them as well. The misadventures of those five individuals were legendary among those in-the-know. Two military leaders, two aliens and an anthropologist. All that was missing was General Jack O'Neill, who Michael already had the pleasure of meeting back in his jail cell in Washington. The General hadn't been too impressed with Michael at the time, underestimated him as merely a flunky of the NID.
The helicopter descended, hovering over the landing pad briefly before it touched ground. Michael stretched his legs a bit and closed his eyes, resting back in his seat comfortably as the helicopter powered down.
A guard jostled him. "C'mon, it's time to move."
"Wait for it," Michael warned.
"Wait for wha—"
The sniper shots pierced the dry heat. Silent and sharp, they hit their targets with deadly accuracy and one guard fell, then another, even before the idiots realized they were under attack. A warning scream broke out, but Michael knew it was too late. With his eyes still closed, almost serenely comfortable as chaos broke out around him, he waited mere seconds for the bullets to find their targets and do their work.
One guard reached him before the sniper could finish the job and Michael reacted, spinning around, dislodging the man's arm from his shoulder by clamping it under his own and twisting. A scream broke out as Michael forced the guard face down and then, perversely, though he knew victory was already his, Michael allowed the guard one last glimpse at hope. He eased off, allowing the man to lift his head, then Michael smiled and stepped back.
The sniper finished the guard off with a clean shot between the eyes.
A few moments later he retrieved the keys to his cuffs and walked away from the helicopter a free man. His wrists were a little sore and he rubbed the feeling back into them as, down the road, a green jeep hurdled over the uneven pavement towards him. Michael squinted against the sun, scanning the horizon. He figured the sniper was probably still somewhere out there in the distance, awaiting orders to clean up any mess left behind. When the jeep kicked up gravel at his feet, the passenger side door swung open, revealing the familiar face of a pretty girl with chestnut-colored hair.
"Michael," Larrin greeted with a disapproving shake of her head. "The messes you manage to get yourself into."
"Thanks for the rescue," Michael replied with a cold smile as he climbed into the backseat. "Everything set for tonight?"
Larrin nodded to the driver and the car shifted into reverse and quickly pulled away from the landing strip. Michael didn't even glance backwards when he heard the helicopter explode behind them. Grenade launcher, Michael suspected. Larrin always did like to bring the big guns to the party.
Larrin waited for the blast to dissipate before she answered him. "Everything is fully set to go. We have several other agents attending the State Dinner as guests; two situated close to the targets. We've got a problem, though. We only have two mimic devices. We tried to raid Area 51 again, but they've improved security."
"That throws a wrench in our plans," Michael sighed.
Larrin scowled at the remark, taking it as a reprimand. "Not as big of a wrench as you being arrested. Honestly, Michael, was kidnapping Dr. Weir that hard of task? She is just a politician."
Scratching idly at the mesh of bandages that covered his torn ear, he tried to hide his ire. He'd deal with Elizabeth Weir soon enough, but they had more pressing issues to attend to. "You have the mimic devices on you?"
"Give one to me," Michael instructed. "I want to test it."
The car hit a speed bump as Larrin reached down for a briefcase at her side. She spun the combination on it, removed the steel casing inside, and keyed in another numeric password to open it up. The NID agents were all trained to be highly paranoid, but Larrin liked redundancy a little too much for Michael's tastes.
"The power source has been upgraded, so we've got about four weeks of battery life left," Larrin informed. "But we don't want to use it all in one go. We've got to make the replacement – and the switch back – within days if we can manage it."
She reached back and handed him exactly what he wanted. The alien device was small, circular, with a metal covering. There was a button in the center, and when Michael placed the backing against his chest and pressed the button, there was a pulsing wave of energy that passed over him. Inwardly, Michael noted no changes, but outwardly was another matter entirely.
Larrin tilted her head as she examined him. "You know, with that visage, you look half-way respectable, Kenmore."
The mimic device did exactly what its name implied. It transformed the wearer's appearance to a pre-programmed illusion – in this case, it turned Michael into the spitting image of another human being. The technology had been recovered by SG-1 years ago, after a certain foothold situation at the SGC. From there it had been sent to Area 51 where it subsequently fell into Larrin's hands. She had a knack for acquiring things that didn't belong to her.
"Another thing," Larrin added. "Tonight at the State Dinner we're thinking about revising the plan to replace Dr. Weir, too. Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. I've already programmed the other device to mimic her."
Michael lifted an eyebrow. "And who'll be playing Dr. Weir come tomorrow?"
Larrin smiled. "I've been practicing being a goody-two-shoes in front of the mirror. I think I've almost managed to get it down."
"Cheeky," Michael approved.
They'd hit a snag in the plans with his untimely arrest, but things were looking to get right back on track. Nothing had changed. Michael glanced into the rear-view mirror and a pair of old eyes greeted him in the reflection. He did look poised and dignified, actually. Michael would have to practice a little before tonight on his demeanor and behavior, but he'd been preparing for this gig for months, learning the normal ticks and mannerism of his target. He was fairly sure he could pull off the ruse well enough.
He glanced at Larrin. "You study Dr. Weir for homework, yet?"
"I can fake being her for a few days," Larrin replied with a shrug. "What about you? You ready for this?"
Michael couldn't take his eyes off the mirror. "I think I'm going to like the White House," he mused, staring at the reflection of President Henry Hayes. "I think I'm going to like it a lot."
Hours later, John was slumped back in a stiff plastic chair, hands curled around a cup of coffee that had long since gone stale. He blinked back exhaustion and stared vacantly ahead while Rodney played with his computers and did God knows what. It was early in the evening and John fidgeted, trying to keep his mouth clamped shut about the delay in progress. Factoring in the commute time, he wouldn't be able to reach Elizabeth's house until after she'd already left for her date with Branton. John just prayed that whatever Rodney's program uncovered when it completed its course would be worth the delay.
His cell phone rang, and John answered it with a yawn. "Sheppard."
"John," the line was broken by static, "it's Teyla." John's face scrunched, struggling to understand Teyla as she continued to speak, but the words were garbled and incomprehensible. "... broken… right now… Colora…"
"Wait, Teyla. I can't understand a thing you're saying."
Rodney swiveled in his chair. "It's the computers interfering. Walk down the hallway to the break room. You'll get better reception there."
John nodded, then told Teyla to hold on while he found a better spot for the call. He exited the small office and quickly made his way towards the cafeteria.
It had been days since he'd last spoken to Teyla, who was still on medical leave. She'd been calling him frequently, leaving at least a message a day for casual updates, perceptibly bored out there in Arizona with no company. But John had been unusually busy lately, and he knew she was going to have words with him about the ignored phone calls. She hated being left out of the loop and with the entire team moved to D.C., he imagined her sense of isolation made her a touch prickly.
The good news was that they expected her back on the job within days. The thought did a little to lift his spirits. Teyla was one of the best agents he knew and he would have no complaints about enlisting her help at a time like this. When he finally found the cafeteria at the end of the hall, he swung open the door and slumped back in a secluded chair in the corner, knowing the best way to cut Teyla's reprimand off at the head was start with an apology.
"Hey, Teyla, I know what you're going to sa—"
John cut in, "I haven't been calling lately—"
"But you don't have to yell at me for that. I was going to return your phone calls—"
"John," Teyla spoke over him. "We've got trouble."
John stopped short, brow knit together. "What?"
"Michael Kenmore just escaped."
Draped in Vera Wang and wearing black stilettos, Elizabeth sat quietly with her hands folded in her lap, digesting the information Sumner relayed to her. Michael Kenmore had been in the middle of a transfer from Washington D.C. to some unspecified location and he'd managed to escape. The man that broke into her house, attacked her and nearly choked the life out of her was free. The taste of fear was thick in her throat but she did her best to keep composed.
"What do I do now?" she asked.
"You do nothing," Sumner replied. "This changes nothing. Michael Kenmore is probably trying to find the deepest hole to hide himself in right now. He's not going to come after you again. And even if he is that stupid, we're still here to protect you. Nothing changes."
Somehow his words didn't inspire the comfort Elizabeth was seeking.
Clad in a smart tuxedo, Mike Branton approached her from behind, arms crossed over his chest in silent contemplation. He'd been unusually quiet since hearing the news, and the change in his normal demeanor threw Elizabeth a little. The man wasn't usually so reticent, but obviously learning that his date had a psychopath after her – one that had managed to kill four guards in his escape – was probably not a thing he wanted to hear.
"We don't have to go out tonight," Michael offered. "If you want to cancel our plans, I'll understand."
Elizabeth paused. After hearing the news herself, attending a formal dinner with the President and the visiting Heads of State seemed like the last thing she wanted to do. Her gut instincts told her to hide, to crawl into her bed and pull the covers over her until this entire thing blew over. Ridiculous, of course, but dear God, the thought of her attacker out there almost paralyzed Elizabeth with fear.
Lorne entered through the back door. "Sheppard's on the phone. He's says he'll be here within half an hour."
"Tell him that's not necessary. We have everything under control already."
"He seems rather insistent."
Sumner's face darkened. "And what do I seem?"
Lorne clamped his mouth shut, nodded once and left the room, no doubt to convey the clear reprimand to John. Elizabeth kept quiet, fighting the urge to speak up. She actually preferred John swinging by, if only to offer the same exact reassurances that Sumner was giving her. The compulsion made her feel slightly silly. Objectively she was fully aware that Sumner and the others were as capable as John. She shouldn't allow herself to become overly invested in one man's protection.
Still, she couldn't deny that she would have felt better with John by her side.
"Elizabeth?" Mike voiced softly, reminding her of his presence by her side.
She took the offered glass of water. "Yes," she decided, still a little unsettled. "We should go. I think… yes, I think we definitely should go. Besides, I got all dressed up, right? We may as well enjoy the evening."
Mike's cheeks dimpled as he smiled. "You look beautiful, by the way. Have I mentioned that yet?"
"Only three times," Elizabeth offered with an arch of her brow. She set the glass down on the nearby table and straightened. "So, I suppose we should go? We don't want to be late."
"I'll have Lorne bring the car around the front," Sumner agreed.
"What about John?" she asked.
Sumner's face closed off, a muscle in his jaw jumping as he clenched his teeth. "He's not on duty tonight."
Elizabeth received the message loud and clear. Forcing a smile of understanding onto her face, she retrieved her coat from nearby and Mike helped drape it over her shoulders.
"Relax, Elizabeth," Mike offered in a soft voice. "We're headed to the White House. There's no safer place on Earth for you to be."
Henry Hayes suffered no fools lightly.
The day grew dark as he began to dress for the evening's event, but his mind was too busy furiously churning to allow him to focus on his appearance. Dressing for these occasions had become second nature to him long ago, a politician nearly all his life. He felt comfortable in a tuxedo the way most people felt in a business suit. The days of dressing down by wearing jeans were long over for Henry.
Instead, as he locked his cufflink and straightened the black tie at his collar, Henry's mind was preoccupied with thoughts of the latest reports from the SGC. Four Airmen were dead, a fifth was in critical condition, and Michael Kenmore's escape had been flawless, leading Henry to the distressing conclusion that Kenmore had help from the inside. It was impossible for him to have managed such an escape without someone within the ranks helping him achieve his freedom.
Someone was playing the SGC for a fool, and, by extension, Henry's administration and ultimately himself. Henry hated that feeling immensely. The identities of these rogue NID agents and, more importantly, the Trust members that controlled them, were something Henry was determined to uncover during his tenure as President. Such blights against the security of the SGC – of Earth – could not go unpunished.
He turned the faucet on and washed his hands briefly, debating his next move regarding the situation with Elizabeth Weir. Things had been stagnate on the IOA front. The other nations in the Gate Alliance Treaty had been dragging their feet in ratifying her appointment. International relations had been testy lately, as China continued to demand more influence and more say in intergalactic decisions. The appointment of an oversight committee comprised of international diplomats had, at that time, seemed like a smart play. Henry hadn't anticipated things stretching out so long, or being so tedious. Though, in retrospect, the roadblocks of bureaucracy when dealing with so many stubborn nations shouldn't have surprised him.
As soon as the others finally approved Elizabeth Weir's appointment – and Henry still couldn't see what was taking them so damn long – perhaps the threat would die down. It seemed illogical from a certain stance, because it was only after she was approved that Elizabeth would be told of the SGC, and thereafter be placed in the position to shape things. But the NID, or at least the rogue faction within it, had apparently already deemed Elizabeth a threat. He suspected the reasoning behind that was related to her posture against the military.
Most people pegged Elizabeth as anti-military because of her strong stance during the early nineties. She'd indeed been one of the most formidable opponents to the US military, but what most people failed to remember was that, at the time, the Soviet Union had recently collapsed. She'd been fighting nuclear proliferation and extraordinary military expenditure during the post-Cold War era when the US still felt the need to heavily arm itself against a country that could barely thwart its own self-destruction.
Given the change in circumstances now, and how the SGC ran things to protect the security of Earth, Henry suspected Elizabeth Weir wouldn't be as confrontational against the military as her previous record would perhaps suggest. She was a smart woman – highly perceptive and adaptable. She knew how to handle people, judge situations, and never failed to examine problems from all angles before she chose a given route. Henry needed such levelheaded civilians out there in the middle of all those stubborn military men. He needed to make sure that whoever had such control – like that of an IOA member – would be willing to judge the situation from all sides dispassionately.
Elizabeth Weir had a strong head on her, could be conciliatory when she wanted and stubborn when she needed. She wouldn't strong-arm the military simply for the sake of it; she'd have reasons. She'd actually listen to the voices around her. God knows he knew so many politicians that could only pretend to do so, but Elizabeth wasn't one of them.
Certain members of the NID apparently didn't want to make such distinctions. They deemed her as anti-military, which threatened their underlying tactic of using brute force to acquire alien technology. What would a liberal-hearted woman think of such strong-armed ploys? Given power, how much pain could she inflict on their organization?
Henry suspected that the rogue NID didn't want to find out the answer.
Still, he couldn't figure out what their ultimate plan was. If they had killed Elizabeth, what then? What was Michael Kenmore supposed to do with one potential IOA member out of the way? There would be other candidates, and seeing as Henry was the one that was going to appoint them, they'd be of similar breeds. Liberal, at the very least. Was the NID looking to kill off all unsuitable candidates until they finally hit one they liked? The plan was foolhardy, and Henry knew better than to consider them fools.
He sighed heavily as he walked out of his ornate bathroom towards the bedchamber. His wife, Lillian, was out of town for the evening celebrating their granddaughter's second birthday in New Hampshire. Henry would have liked to have been there himself, but of course the obligations of his presidency always managed to get in the way. That soured his mood until it was nearly toxic. He'd always been a family man, through and throu—
Movement from the corner of the room caught his eye and Henry whirled, shocked to find a man emerging from a shadowed corner of his bedroom. Dumbstruck for a moment, he couldn't get past the sheer disbelief that someone could manage to slip through his security – the finest in the world – to his residence without one of the agents noticing.
Then the man revealed his face and Henry's shock increased tenfold.
"You know," his intruder mused, "the easiest thing about this? Explaining to some clueless agent out front that I somehow managed to slip past his post for a moment, and was simply returning. But I suppose when I look like this, anybody will believe anything I say. Don't you agree?"
"How…" Henry began, jaw slackened with disbelief, "how do you look like—"
He was struck with a heavy object – Henry never saw what – and his legs caved underneath him. As he fell to the ground, the last thing he saw was himself – a spitting image, like staring into the mirror. His intruder smiled a familiar smile as Henry's vision blurred, but there was a wicked glint in the doppelganger's eyes that was alien and made of pure venom.
The memory of this moment would certainly haunt Henry's dreams for the rest of his life, which, after tonight, might not be much longer.
The chatter of the State Dinner flowed around Elizabeth without any of it truly sinking in. She felt separate, apart from the crowd, though the seats she and her date held tonight were in the center of everything. It was still early in the evening and, though the President had yet to make his grand entrance, Elizabeth was restless with the urge to bolt from the party.
Coming here had been a mistake. She felt uncomfortable and out of place, and certainly wouldn't be much for socialization when other concerns were so clearly clouding her mind.
She tried to force herself to be more social, putting on an easy smile as the French Ambassador approached her to discuss a few details of her most recent work on the non-proliferation treaty. But her heart wasn't in it, though she doubted anyone here would suspect as much. She was a consummate actress when she needed to be, at least in political situations like this. It was practically a job requirement.
Still, she spent the first hour distracted by thoughts of Michael Kenmore, wondering whether he was a man compelled to finish what he started. Sumner and Lorne, both dressed stylishly in tuxedos to match the occasion, circled the room like hawks, though neither one of them drifted far from her at any point in the night. Mike had even been unusually clingy, sticking to her side even though Elizabeth wasn't venturing out into the crowds and socializing like she was known to do.
The evening was shaping up to be a headache long before the trumpets blared – literally – to announce the arrival of the President. She glanced briefly to her delicate wristwatch as she rose from her chair, noting that the President's arrival was nearly an hour past the appropriate time. This left the special guest of honor – the President of Turkey – mostly entertained by the President's Senior Staff. The delay could be deemed as an affront if the President didn't have a good reason for it. Elizabeth suspected he did, as Henry Hayes wasn't a man that let such political transgression occur without a damn good excuse.
When Hayes finally arrived, Elizabeth clapped with the rest of the audience. As he walked down the aisle, Hayes turned towards her and winked. Elizabeth stopped clapping, struck silent by the odd gesture.
Did the President of the United States actually just wink at her?
The idea was a little too out there for Elizabeth, so she quickly dismissed it as her overactive imagination. She was still hoping to catch a moment in private with him later so that she could discuss the Michael Kenmore situation with someone that could perhaps give her answers. The pressing issue felt like it was the only thing she could think about, and damn it, she didn't care if he'd already denied answering any one of a million questions she'd asked him in the preceding weeks – about her protection, about the threat against her, about this elusive job offer – she was going to get answers tonight.
The evening wore on, Elizabeth mingled because she was expected to, and Mike stuck by her side as if glued to her. Though Elizabeth acknowledged under other circumstances she would have thought she'd feel comfortable receiving such intimate attention from him, tonight it felt off. More than that, it felt slightly annoying. The thought was ridiculous, especially in light of the fact that she'd spent the last few weeks with other men close enough to be her shadow. The DSS agents were different, though. She was quickly coming to find their presence comforting – one agent, admittedly, more than the rest.
Her thoughts drifted to John once more, almost without her permission. They had drifted in that direction throughout most of the night and Elizabeth was aware of the oddity of it. Why was she so preoccupied with thoughts of him? Like she didn't have enough to worry about already? The musings were accompanied with a sense of disappointment, of not having him by her side tonight, and that certainly didn't help Elizabeth's focus. She had no rational reason to be so distraught at not having one agent here.
But all the thoughts and rationales in the world didn't prevent the relief from surging when Elizabeth spotted familiar spikes of messy hair moving through the masses. The crowd drifted apart and Elizabeth peered closely to find that, yes, John Sheppard had somehow managed to attend the festivities after all.
As he quickly approached her through the throng of people, Elizabeth's mind was sidetracked for a split-second as she studied the cut of his tuxedo. Normally, even in his tailored suits, John Sheppard's appearance was a little haphazard, almost as if he'd rolled out of bed and put on the first thing he saw in his closet. This time, though, the environment dictated strict attire. He looked polished and well groomed, though apparently not even tonight's venue was reason enough to tame his wild hair.
When he approached her table, Elizabeth regrouped and rose to greet him. "John, what are you doing here? I thought you didn't have duty tonight."
"I don't," he acknowledged, then slanted a glance towards Mike.
Elizabeth's gaze followed his, and then began introductions. "John, this is Mike Branton. Mike, this John Sheppard, one of the DSS agents—"
"Could I speak to you in private?" John cut in. "It's important."
Elizabeth studied him for a split-second, noting the tense set of his shoulders and how his eyes kept darting to Mike – almost in contempt. Before she could voice a word, her eyes drifted over John's shoulders and spotted Sumner quickly approaching.
Sumner looked infuriated. "What the hell are you doing here, Agent?" he hissed in a low voice, then glanced to Elizabeth in apology. "Dr. Weir, could you excuse us for a moment?"
Elizabeth opened her mouth, but John spoke over her. "Sir, the situation is critical and I suggest we get Dr. Weir out of here immediately."
Sumner froze. "Critical? Based on what intel?"
"Sir," John tried to keep his voice even, though he clearly stressed urgency. "We should leave. I'll discuss threat analysis with you in the car, but we should leave. Right now."
Mike rose to his feet. "Something a problem?"
Sumner and John traded looks, almost as if it was staring contest – or pissing contest. Either way, Elizabeth wasn't amused by it. She grabbed her purse from the table and broke the stalemate by addressing Mike. "I think I'm going to head home early."
Mike sputtered. "We haven't even had dinner yet."
Elizabeth's mind was too preoccupied to think about food; hell, she was so thrown by the warning in John's voice that she was willing to bypass that quiet conversation with the President she had planned. She could come back to the White House tomorrow, talk with him later. Right now, John was radiating paranoia that just made Elizabeth skittish.
"You don't have to leave with me. You can stay."
Mike shook his head. "No, no. What kind of a date would I be if I didn't walk you to the door?"
She wasn't positive, but she thought she heard a faint growl from John.
Sumner addressed Elizabeth. "Fine," he sighed. "We'll leave early." He turned slightly towards John and his voice dropped to a whisper. "But there had better be a good explanation for this."
"I'll explain in the car."
Sumner contacted Lorne through his radio earpiece. "Bravo Two, this is Bravo One. Scholar is leaving the party early. Sheppard's here, so you're relieved of duty for the night. We've got it covered."
There was a moment's pause where Elizabeth assumed Lorne was answering the call, but she was too preoccupied with gathering her belongings. As quickly as she could manage without creating a scene, they left the State Room behind and entered the cream-colored hallways. John stole the spot next to her, edging Mike out of the way as Sumner cleared the path ahead of them. Their pace was so quick that when another woman turned the corner Elizabeth collided with her heavily.
Startled, Elizabeth recovered and offered her apologies to the woman.
"It's no problem." The response came from a young, pretty woman with chestnut-colored hair. "Hey, wait, aren't you Dr. Elizabeth Weir?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am," Sumner stepped forward to intercede. "We really—"
"No, no, it's all right," Elizabeth protested, then turned towards the mysterious woman. "Do I know you?"
"No, I'm just a," she darted glances to the three men present, "fellow politician. I was hoping to catch a private word with you tonight at the Dinner. Bend your ear a little."
Elizabeth offered an apologetic smile. "Another time, perhaps?"
The woman smiled, though it looked a little forceful. "Of course. You can count on it."
They left the party without further incident after that, hopefully without drawing too much attention to themselves as they retreated. As Elizabeth left the White House behind and climbed into the black sedan, she couldn't help but exhale in relief.
It may have been the paranoia talking, but she was glad to call it an early night.
Larrin kept her gaze trained on the retreating figures of Dr. Weir and her posse of men. Another wrench in the gears. It had been Larrin's intention to make the replacement sometime during the dinner, but it seemed that the course had changed.
One of her flunkies approached her from behind but Larrin merely turned her head away and threw a pointed look towards the State Room. Inside, as if sensing her, Michael looked up – with the face of the President – and smirked at her from all the way across the room. He was enjoying her setback, the bastard, and almost hidden in his expression was a clear message: See? Getting to Dr. Weir wasn't as easy as you thought.
Larrin turned back to her flunky, and tersely ordered, "Change of plans. Get the car. We'll take them en route."
John sat in the racing shadows, the intermittent moonlight creating brief explosions of light and dark inside the automobile as it moved speedily down the street. Sumner was driving, turning onto the main road that would bring them up to a small bottleneck of cars that congested DuPont Circle. John twisted slightly to toss a glance towards the back seat, passed the partition glass that divided the car into two halves. Elizabeth and Branton sat talking in hushed tones, and though John didn't like it, he needed that luxury of privacy that the partition provided.
Up front he had a conversation of his own taking place.
John hadn't told Sumner everything, but he'd told him enough to get himself into a boatload of trouble. John had no choice. Branton represented a threat now, and Rodney's program wouldn't produce results until the morning. That left John in the unenviable position of having to admit to his boss that he'd recruited another agent in a ploy to actively break national security.
John let his focus drift to the back again, towards Elizabeth and Branton, as he left Sumner to quietly absorb all the information. He'd told him about the investigation into Branton's financial records, the dummy corporations and the classified documents that spoke of a secret government agency. He mentioned the initials of the NID and pressed his concerns about Branton. John didn't give Sumner one shred of evidence to back up any of his accusations but he was hoping that Sumner knew as well as John did that sometimes they couldn't wait for hard proof before acting against possible threats.
Sumner fisted his hands around the steering wheel, voice low as he broke the silence. "So you think Branton is a threat and for some reason felt it was acceptable to let him get into the backseat with Dr. Weir?"
John released a harsh breath. "He won't make a move with us here. I'm more concerned about why he's hanging around Elizabeth so much. What's he doing?"
Sumner kept his eyes trained on the road ahead of him for all of two seconds before they drifted to the rearview mirror again, studying Elizabeth. "You don't have any proof that Branton is doing anything wrong."
"Give Rodney twelve hours," John answered, "and we might have something—"
"'Might' being the operative word," Sumner barked angrily. "Jesus, you really don't play with a full deck of cards, do you? Do you have any idea who his father is? Blind accusations will—"
"I don't care. Our job is to protect Elizabeth, and this guy might prove a threat—"
"Of what?" Sumner cut in. "You've given me nothing but a conspiracy theory. Not one solid piece of evidence to support it."
"I told you, Rodney's—"
"You're going to need more than that to expose these people, Sheppard!"
In the silence that followed, the words resonated on such a deep level that John turned to scrutinize Sumner more closely. The telling tick of Sumner's expression – averted gaze, clenched jaw, eyes sharp and angry – informed John that the man was holding back something other than just a reprimand. Sumner knew something.
"What do you mean by 'these people?'"
Sumner shot him a look. "What?"
"A second ago it was a bogus conspiracy theory and now all of a sudden you're warning me about the power of these people? I'm missing something here."
Sumner stayed silent for a long beat and the hesitation belied some sort of internal struggle.
"What aren't you telling me?" John prodded impatiently.
Sumner released a forceful breath, fingers white-knuckled around the steering wheel. "I never said it was a bogus conspiracy theory. I just said you don't have a shred of evidence to support it. There's a difference."
Shock swallowed John's ability to speak for a second. "You know about the NID," he realized.
Sumner didn't refute the allegation, at least not entirely. "I know that something big is behind this," he admitted. "Something that's been stalling our investigation from day one."
"What do you know?"
"Not much." Sumner sighed, eyes averted. "Just enough to know what you're saying isn't so farfetched. I've heard whispers of a secret organization like the one you're talking about. And they don't mind playing dirty to keep their secrets."
The affirmation of his conspiracy theory – from a source like Sumner of all people – rendered John speechless for a moment. He'd been hunting down vague figures and elusive shadows thus far, almost blindly reaching for conclusions. Now, here, Sumner was acknowledging that this half-concocted theory might actually hold water.
"And I think we've got DSS agents that are in on it," Sumner added.
"What?" John exclaimed in shock.
"It's a long story," Sumner replied. "But at this point, I wouldn't be remotely surprised if some of our agents really have dual loyalties. This NID organization works that way."
"If Branton is an NID agent," Sumner's voice bore a telling hint of frustration, "he might be the only link we have to finally getting some damn answers."
The vehemence of his tone shouldn't have surprised John, but it did. He never stopped to consider that Sumner was nearly as determined as he was to find out what was going on and who was behind the threat against Elizabeth. Jesus, if only John hadn't had his head up his ass this entire time they could have been working together instead of sniping at each other like two schoolyard bullies.
It was an odd thing, but for the first time in weeks John suddenly felt like he was working on the same side as Sumner again, instead of against him. The new threat forged a fast alliance that seemed to dissipate whatever animosity stood between them like smoke – at least for the moment.
Sumner grunted. "I don't know about you, but I'm tired of being stonewalled."
A plan was quickly formulated. They'd have to interrogate Branton privately. Tonight, before Branton received cover from the Powers That Be, or somehow disappeared into thin air like Kenmore. They needed answers, and it'd been proven time and time again that they weren't going to get that the conventional way.
"One thing's for certain," Sumner added. "We're going to get into trouble tonight."
"What makes you say that?"
"We've got a tail," Sumner answered, eyes fastened to the review mirror. "Blue van, three vehicles behind us. And, if I'm not mistaken, it's government issued."
Inside the blue van, Larrin reached for the Glock resting in the glove compartment in front of her. She adjusted the straps of her dress, feeling a little ridiculous that she was going to have to do this thing in a damn evening gown. She glanced around briefly before tossing her empty purse in the back. The bottleneck of cars in DuPont Circle made the task of following the black sedan in front of them a little more troublesome than Larrin would have liked. The falling snow didn't help matters either, obstructing the view even with the windshield wipers on.
Sighing softly in aggravation, she mused aloud, "We tried to do this Michael's way – he got arrested. We tried to do this the subtle way – she slipped free before we even sprung the trap." She clicked the magazine into place. "Now we do this my way."
Andrews, her partner for the evening, flashed a look of apprehension. He wasn't nearly as much fun as Michael was, though she suspected that had to do with the fact Larrin had been calling him a flunky all night long – to his face, even. The man had no sense of humor.
"What's the plan?" he asked.
"Wait until they head towards the residential areas," Larrin instructed. "Then pull up next to them. I'll take care of the rest."
"We need Dr. Weir alive for our plan to work," Andrew reminded her. "And unharmed as well."
Larrin took a moment to count to three so she wouldn't lose her temper with the man. "She will be, trust me. The rest, though, they're perfectly expendable."
"Hey." Andrews nodded toward the sedan. "They're turning right on 19th street. That's not on any of the routes back to Dr. Weir's place, is it?"
Larrin's eyes narrowed, craning her neck to get a clear line of sight. The Secret Service had three separate routes designed to reach Dr. Weir's house from the White House. Larrin knew all of them thanks to their man on the inside. This path led to none of them, which didn't make sense because all routes were always strictly adhered to. If there was one thing the Secret Service was famous for, it was sticking to protocol.
"Where are they going?"
Larrin didn't have the first clue. The black sedan cleared the traffic and turned right around the corner. Andrews sped up, accelerating quickly in order to catch them before they managed to vanish from sight. When they found the car again, it was speeding towards the highway onramp. Larrin and Andrews exchanged a look before following them without a word.
Twenty minutes later they arrived at a small industrial neighborhood – one of the few within city limits. The location set off alarms with Larrin. Why would the Secret Service be leading Dr. Weir and her date here in the middle of the night? Telling Andrews to fall back another twenty feet, Larrin quickly ran through her options. She could call it quits and reengage Dr. Weir at some other point in time – after all, until the IOA confirmation actually happened, all of these measures were simply a precaution. There was no pressing need to kidnap her, and certainly no need to play things hard and fast; impatience, in Larrin's opinion, was what got Michael caught in the first place.
"Fall back," Larrin ordered. "Something's not right."
Andrews forced out a tense exhale. "So we're letting her slip through our fingers again?"
Larrin studied the black sedan as it disappeared around the corner. "No, we're just going to make them think that. Call up our source at the Secret Service. Tell him we need GPS tracking on the car they're using. Oh, and you've got that sniper rifle in the back, right?"
"And the long range listening devices?"
Larrin tossed him an incredulous look. "See? It's because of moronic questions like that one that I call you a flunky."
"We lost them," Sumner declared.
John wasn't so sure, though he knew that was probably the paranoia talking. He scanned the horizon for another few minutes before he risked telling Elizabeth to sit up again. She'd been crouched low, out of sight, though the precaution was probably for nothing since the government-issued sedan had bulletproof glass. Next to her, Branton lifted his head and tried to peer out the tinted windows.
"Everything clear now?"
John resisted the urge to send Branton a withering glare. "For now. We're going to make a quick stop soon."
"Where?" Elizabeth asked.
That was a good question; John didn't have an answer yet. Giving some vague assurances that they knew exactly what they were doing, John turned back to Sumner and traded a brief but telling look. They needed to formulate a game plan, pronto. Sumner slowed the car to a stop, rolling the tires against a rough patch of gravel near a parking lot building that was under heavy construction. The edifice was large, at least four stories high and mostly complete except for some scaffolding support on the left side. John swept his gaze across it and turned back to Sumner.
"Someplace quiet," John insisted.
Sumner nodded and spun the wheel, steering the car through the small gates cordoned off by yellow hazard tape. They drove silently up through the levels, using the internal ramps to climb up to the top floor of the building and emerged onto the roof. Sumner parked the car near the corner and killed the ignition.
Elizabeth sounded confused. "Here? Why are we stopping here?"
"We need to do something," Sumner answered. "Ask some questions."
John paused for a beat then, growing determined, pushed open his door. The air was chilly outside with a few lingering flakes of snow gently falling down. John pulled open the back door and ordered Branton out. For his part, Branton seemed a little confused but willingly climbed out of the sedan without a word of protest. Branton drew his coat tighter around his waist, hugging himself against the frosty atmosphere.
"What's going on?" Branton asked, gaze drifting over the skyline.
"We need answers about the NID."
And there it was – in a flicker no longer than a mere second – Branton's telling expression showed clearly that recognition hit. It was gone with the next blink of an eye, and Branton swiftly adopted a look of confusion.
"The what?" he tried, glancing briefly to Elizabeth as she stepped down from the other side of the vehicle. But John wasn't going to let that slide.
John walked around the bumper towards Elizabeth. "Walk with me a little."
"Sumner's going to talk with Branton," John explained. "I need you to come with me so he can—"
"I'll stay, thank you," Elizabeth cut in. "What's this all about it?"
If she stayed, they wouldn't feel comfortable getting the answers by whatever means necessary. She'd protest, they'd back down and this opportunity would slip through their fingers. John couldn't afford to let that happen. He pressed closer to Elizabeth, blocking both her view to Sumner and to Branton until she had to focus on him.
He spoke quietly, making sure the others couldn't hear. "Do you trust me, Elizabeth?"
She frowned. "What?"
"Do you trust me?"
Elizabeth paused. "Of course, I do."
"Good. Then come with me."
She hesitated for just one more second, then reluctantly nodded. She allowed him to lead her away, tossing one fleeting glance at Branton and Sumner as the two men stared off at each other coolly.
John escorted her down to one of the lower levels of the parking structure, praying this entire night wouldn't go as badly as he was beginning to suspect it would. Elizabeth was quiet, preoccupied with concerns, and John had more than a few of his own. The seconds ticked by slowly until John snapped out of his trance long enough to realize Elizabeth was hugging her arms across her body, obviously cold.
She was still dressed in that red gown, wrapped up with only a light shawl. She must have left her coat back in the car. John quickly shrugged off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
"John, there's no—"
"Relax. If you freeze to death, I'm out of a job."
She almost tipped him a smile as she relaxed and drew his coat tighter around her, but the full reality of the circumstances managed to suck all the humor from her. "John, what's going on with Mike?"
John didn't answer immediately. Instead, taking a moment to marshal his words, he paced across the open space, then pivoted back to face her. "If I told you that I recently came across top level security information that suggested Branton wasn't as straight and narrow as he seemed, what would you say?"
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "I'd say I'd want to see this information first hand."
John shook his head. "Not available right now."
"What does it say?"
He didn't beat around the bush. "That Branton works for a shady organization called the NID. I suspect it might have something to do with the threat against you."
Elizabeth stood frozen, arms wrapped around herself in way that seemed defensive, and remained uncharacteristically quiet as he began to explain everything that had transpired earlier in the day. There was no disbelief in her eyes, no panic or concern. Her face was entirely closed off, almost emotionless, and he hadn't the first clue what was going through her head.
"What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking…" she trailed off, then braced her back against a stone pillar. "I'm thinking about how I should have told the President to shove this job opportunity. Nothing can be worth this headache."
She sounded so dejected, even a little lost.
"You don't mean that."
She glared at him half-heartedly. "What makes you say that?"
"You don't know what you're fighting for yet. The President could be setting you up to do some good in the world."
"But what?" Elizabeth demanded. "What could it possibly be? The Middle East? Africa? Something international, I know that much. What could attract such bullshit?" she spat out, angrily. "I'm tired of being left out of my own life. I should know what's going on."
It was in that precise moment that they heard the telling cry of Branton from above; his interrogation was turning rough.
John managed to catch Elizabeth around the waist before she could bolt. She struggled at first, protesting, demanding that John let her go. But he couldn't allow her to intervene. He pulled her close and that just made her act out even more in panic, kicking and fighting against his hold, landing one or two good elbows to his chest that almost knocked the wind out of him. But eventually the futility became obvious. She started quieting down, her resistance slowly tapering off until she finally went still in his arms.
He had to be unyielding. "If we want answers, this is how it has to be," he reasoned. "This is the way it has to be."
In the distance, Branton screamed again.
She twisted to face him, an unruly strand of hair curling across her eyes. Her breathing was heavy, her gaze brimming with fear. "I can't listen to him scream, John. I just… can't. It's wrong."
She blew out heated breaths that fogged the chilly air as he held her for another second, then – though he couldn't name the impetus that made him do it – he abruptly let go. Elizabeth bolted for the ramp that lead back up to the roof. John gave himself a split-second scolding for letting her get the better of him before he chased after her again. They made it back to the roof just in time to see Sumner sucker-punch Michael in the stomach.
"Marshall!" Elizabeth barked in protest. "That's enough!"
Branton dropped to his knees, recovering his breath in ragged gasps. He had a bloody lip and was cradling his arm against his chest like it was injured. Sumner had wasted no time in small talk, that much was certain.
Sumner shot John a look. "You were supposed to keep her downstairs."
Elizabeth's eyes flashed. "I'm not a child, and I demand to know what's going on."
Sumner pulled free a white handkerchief and wiped a little blood off his hands. "That's what I'm trying to figure out, Dr. Weir. You shouldn't be here—"
"You shouldn't be torturing a man to get an answer," Elizabeth countered heatedly. "Have you even found out any information?"
Almost prone on all fours, Branton barked a rough laugh. "I told him the truth already, but he doesn't believe me."
Everybody's attention swiveled to the man lying on the floor. "What is the truth?" Elizabeth asked.
"I'm NID," Branton confessed. "But I'm one of the good guys."
Mike Branton flopped back onto the snow-covered ground, taking a moment to recover his breath. Jesus, Sumner had some strength in him. His stomach was going to be a massive purple bruise come morning. Elizabeth stared at him with those bright green eyes of hers, and that stung nearly as much as the sucker punch. Mike had to glance away. It had never been his intention to lie to Elizabeth. Truth be told, his attraction to her had never been a rouse, it was just the circumstances of his courting that were suspect.
"I'm NID," Mike reiterated, "Official NID, not rogue."
Sheppard's face twisted in confusion. "And the difference is?"
Mike grunted. "Terrific. What do you guys even know about the NID?"
Sumner crossed his arms. "We're asking the questions here."
Mike glanced from Sumner to Sheppard, noting the grave seriousness on their faces. They obviously meant business, but Mike had never been one for pissing contests. They were all on the same side. Mike worked for the official NID – the ones trying to protect Elizabeth against the rogue cell that had splintered off. He'd been assigned to get close to Elizabeth to keep an eye on her, to keep her safe. He had that much in common with the Secret Service agents present.
Now, the trick was, how was he supposed to convince them of that?
"Agent number 37725," Mike rattled off. "My superior is Steven Caldwell at the Pentagon. If you call him, he'll verify everything I have to say."
Sheppard stepped forward. "Which is?"
"This is all high level national security," Mike stressed. "And the only reason I'm telling you is because there seems to be a misunderstanding of epic proportions here. I'm with the Official NID, and for those that don't know – which you shouldn't, seeing as it's a secret organization – that means I'm one of the good guys."
Sumner shook his head. "The things I've heard about the NID don't paint that picture."
"That's the rogue cell. They're the bad guys."
"Rogue NID?" Sheppard repeated in an incredulous tone. "Official NID? And what does the NID do, exactly?"
Boy, was that a loaded question.
Mike turned to Elizabeth. "You'll find out soon enough. That's what this is all about. You're being sized up for a position of global power involving extrater—"
The back of his head was blown clean off by a sniper shot from half a block away.
John had been trained for moments like these – the brief snap, a bullet struck and a Secret Service agent was supposed to respond instantly and without hesitation. He broke for Elizabeth, shielding her body with his own and then propelling them back. Startled, she stumbled, tripped and they almost crashed to the ground before John's reflexes caught them. He shoved Elizabeth behind the cover of the black sedan, blanketing her body with his own. He could feel her trembling underneath him as another barrage of bullets slammed into the side of the car.
John grabbed the door handle and yanked it open. "Inside!" he barked.
Elizabeth obeyed instantly, scrambling in, and John slammed the door shut after her. Bulletproof glass. That was it, just like his training taught him: temporary cover achieved, protectee sheltered. Now he needed to reassess the threat.
Sumner returned fire. John pulled his gun free and calculated the trajectory and angle of the sniper shot with rough estimations. Less than a block away, probably from the northeast. Rooftop. He took a breath and craned his head around the edge of the car and aimed.
Sumner shouted, "Rooftop, two o'clock—"
"Got it!" John acknowledged as he spotted it.
The sniper ducked low and vanished from sight almost immediately.
They needed to get out of here – too exposed, too open.
"Sumner," he shouted, "you got the keys?"
They both reached for the doors in the same second, but Sumner was on the exposed side. As he pulled open the passenger's side door and climbed in, a sniper shot slammed into his shoulder. He lurched forward and John made a wild, desperate grab. He tugged Sumner onto the seat and the next few seconds happened in a blur – John jammed the key in, revved the ignition, and quickly sped off.
As he jerked the car into reverse and slammed on the accelerator, John saw Sumner bleeding in the periphery of his vision, gasping for breath, blood already spreading across his shirt. By the time they were down on the bottom floor and crashing through the construction cones out on the street, Sumner had struggled upright, a hand pressed to his shoulder wound.
Sumner turned to the divider glass behind him and asked Elizabeth how she was doing.
Her eyes were wide and fearful. "How am I doing?! I'm not the one shot!"
"I'm fine." He grimaced.
But John disagreed, even with most of his focus riveted on speeding down the empty streets to put as much distance between them and the sniper as possible. Branton's dead body had been left behind and Sumner was shot. Shit. At least a glance back in the review mirror reassured him that Elizabeth fine – pale and shaking, but still alive.
"We need to get him to a hospital!" Elizabeth insisted.
"No!" Sumner objected. "We got to get you to a safe place."
"Marshall!" Elizabeth urged. "You're about ready to black out. You need medical attention!"
"No," he slurred in protest.
John grunted. "Sorry, sir, but I'm with Elizabeth on this one. You need a hospital."
"Secure the protectee first," Sumner bit out, "at all costs."
It was the first rule a Secret Service agent ever learned; the most important rule. As he furiously thought over options, his training kicked in and he ignored the gnawing feeling of disgust as a man sat next to him bleeding out. The situation was still too volatile for them to take her back into official custody – there were too many shady players. They needed someplace to lay low, under government radar. That presented a whole host of problems. What safe place could they take Elizabeth? That was the only way to—
"Get him to a hospital," Elizabeth barked the order. "Now."
Sumner blacked out.
Hours later, Elizabeth sat heavily on a thin motel mattress, numb, almost shivering in shock. The TV was on in front (a late night infomercial) and the sound of running water was coming from the nearby bathroom.
Elizabeth was having trouble focusing.
She felt so cold, disconnected from her body as if it wasn't her own. The motel room was small and fairly tacky, one of those low-rate establishments near the highway that truckers and long-distance travelers used for cheap nightly accommodations. John had pulled up, paid cash, given an alias of a married couple, and swept Elizabeth inside before people could take note of their conditions.
They both looked like hell and it was a miracle no one had noticed the sheer wrongness of their appearance. The upscale attire alone would have normally raised eyebrows in a seedy place like this, much less the blood stains. Elizabeth's gown was an absolute mess, and even in his tux John didn't fare much better in appearance. But it was one o'clock in the morning and the man at the reception desk had been so drunk that his blood had probably been certifiably flammable.
John emerged from the bathroom. His tie was undone, the formerly well-pressed white shirt now wrinkled and dirty, with splatters of blood – Sumner's blood – near the cufflinks. He swung around the bed towards her and then slowly, almost as if afraid to startle her, crouched alongside her with concern swallowing up his eyes.
"You need to clean up, Elizabeth. I've got some spare stuff of yours in an emergency duffle bag in the car. I'm going to go get it. Are you okay here alone for a bit?"
It took a moment for John's words to sink in. "Yeah, I'm fine."
John paused, licking his lips. "Don't answer the phone. Don't open the door; I've got a key. We can't use our real names, so you and I are Mr. and Mrs. Raymond today."
John kept staring at her. "I've already turned off our cell phones. We can't use your credit cards—"
"John," she cut in, fastening onto his grave expression. "I know. We have to stay below the radar."
They were on the run now, even from his people. It was too risky to trust anyone but a handful, and John had been insistent that they wouldn't attempt any contact with those few until absolutely necessary. They'd booked the motel for the next full day, but John was already making other arrangements for when morning came. Elizabeth wasn't too clear on the details; couldn't be, truth be told. Her concentration was shot to hell.
John climbed to his feet, then gently pulled Elizabeth up. "I'll be back in a minute. You can use the bathroom to clean up."
She nodded wordlessly.
After he slipped out the door, Elizabeth tried to marshal her strength together. Even making her way to the small bathroom seemed like a task. She flipped the switch and flinched against the flood of florescent light, illuminating a bathroom garishly decorated in swaths of green and yellow. But none of that could hold her attention. Elizabeth stared into her reflection in the mirror, transfixed.
She looked worse than she imagined. A lot more of Sumner's blood had managed to get on her than it had John. Her beautiful Vera Wang dress, which had been a light shade of red, was now stained with splashes of dark blood.
Her eyes slipped shut, picturing Sumner's pale face, his unresponsive body as she'd tried to jostle him awake. He'd been unconscious the last time they'd seen him – when they'd dropped him off on the steps of the ER before John had insisted on quickly speeding away. The orderlies had taken him in, but God knew if they'd managed to save his life. There had been so much blood – so much that Elizabeth feared they'd been too late in getting him the medical attention he needed.
She rested her palms against the porcelain sink, needing a moment to recover her composure. This was shock, a part of her rationalized. Post-traumatic stress. She'd seen Sumner shot and he'd nearly died in front of her. Everything was a blur, some incoherent jumble of memories and she couldn't seem to focus on any one particular thing. Mike was dead. Oh, god. She wanted to block that out entirely, but it had happened. She'd seen him die up there on that rooftop, the back of his head blown apart like bits of watermelon.
Her gag reflex rose, and Elizabeth braced herself against the counter and threw up, but there was nothing in her stomach for Elizabeth to expel. Her eyes stung with the force of heavy, dry heaves, leaving her body spent and aching, giving her no relief.
She was a mess in every conceivable way. God, how did her life come to this? Months ago, when Simon had left her, she thought she'd hit bottom. The sense of loneliness that had descended upon her afterwards had been terrible, but now? Things now were so much worse that she almost laughed at memory of her post-breakup misery. Simon had been an honest and good man; Mike was quite possibly neither.
Then why did she feel such a sense of guilt and grief at the loss of him? Mike had lied to her, used her; he'd been nothing but bad news. Why should she care that he was dead?
But she clearly did. The tears streaming down her face was proof enough.
When she heard the door jostle open, her head shot up. She didn't want to face John in this state. She quickly shut the bathroom door as he let himself back into the motel room. Turning the hot faucet on full blast, she took a steadying breath and rinsed her mouth out with palms full of water.
When she stood up, water was dripping down her chin and her face looked pale – almost like a ghost. There was a splash of blood marring one of her cheeks. The sight of it was too fresh, too soon, and her eyes threatened tears all over again without any permission from her.
The bathroom door creaked softly open. "Elizabeth."
She turned her head away, hiding her tear-streaked face. "Go away, John. I just need a moment."
Instead of heeding her request, he stepped into the bathroom, dropping a bundle of her clothing onto the countertop. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him reach for the hand towel and wet it slightly under the running water. When he touched her waist and tugged her around to face him, Elizabeth didn't resist; she didn't have the energy for it. Instead, frozen and silent, she allowed John to bring the damp washcloth to her face, wiping clean the smudge of blood with a gentleness she'd never expected from him.
He was afraid of shattering her – with good reason, she realized. Elizabeth felt so close to the edge that it scared her, terrified her even more than that night Michael Kenmore had broken into her house and nearly choked the life out of her. Tonight, a person had been killed in front of her, and Sumner, a man who'd sworn to protect her with his life, could die because of that oath.
Did that make any sense? Did any of this?
Her thoughts were a whirlwind, rapidly firing off a dozen different tangents with every breath. She felt sick and lost and confused, and John was staring at her like he saw everything, understood everything; in that moment she knew he did. He'd been the person she relied on the most since he first entered the picture. His mere presence cocooned her, lulled her senses in comfort. He would protect her. In that instant, the gratitude she felt for him was nearly choking.
Her gaze dropped to his lips and, just like that, her awareness of him shifted entirely. The proximity of their bodies, the weight of his hand on her hip, the concerned look in his eyes – her jumbled thoughts jumped from musings of comfort to seeking something else entirely. It was abruptly in that instant that Elizabeth was overwhelmed by the absolute knowledge that she wanted him.
Before her mind could settle on a thought, John dropped his gaze and stepped back. "You should," he cleared his throat, avoiding eye contact, "clean up. I'll… I'll be waiting outside."
He left the bathroom and closed the door behind him before Elizabeth could find her voice. The shattered moment left her even more shaken, the foolish spell broken. She'd stepped back and glanced to the mirror again, trying to clear her mind and slow her racing heartbeat, but the knowledge within her was a certainty. She'd wanted to kiss him; after everything that had just happened with Mike, she'd chosen tonight to...
God, her eyes slid closed in fury and confusion. Get a grip, Elizabeth.
She took a steadying breath and scrubbed a hand over her face. She reached for the zipper at her back, drawing it down slowly. Elizabeth let the gown drop, flooding around her ankles, and stepped out. She spun the heat knob of the shower with a generous twist, and when she finally climbed into the tiled chamber the blast was just shy of scalding. Elizabeth didn't notice. She was still shivering, still cold, still in shock. She stuck her head under the forceful stream, soaking her hair and swallowing the water that trickled down her mouth.
She couldn't afford to break down. She needed her head on straight, to keep focused now more than ever. And yet, the entire time, she couldn't stop thinking about John; about kissing him; about doing more than just kissing him. Thoughts and images flooded her as Elizabeth rested her head against the cool tiles. But in the end, the thing she desired more than anything else, more than sex, more than losing herself to something carnal so that she could forget – the thing she craved most was just to be held.
For a long time she let the shower stream over her as she entertained the thought of John holding in her arms while they fell asleep. The notion did more to warm her than the heated water.
It felt shockingly right.
John thumped his head against the door lightly, repeatedly, because it was well deserved. As he heard Elizabeth start the shower and climb inside, John pulled away from the bathroom, finally releasing the death grip he had on the doorknob. The urge to storm back in there and follow through on his desires was still a near thing.
He'd almost kissed her.
When he'd seen Elizabeth looking at him like that, with all her walls down, all her emotions exposed, he'd nearly lost control over every impulse in his body and closed the distance between them. The temptation had been right there in front of him. He doubted Elizabeth would have resisted. In fact, he knew without a doubt that she would have eagerly responded, just like he was coming to instinctively know dozens of things about her. It was his job to identify certain ticks – her normal routine, her body language, and her expressions – but somewhere along the way it had stopped being about duty. He knew this woman surprisingly well.
She would have kissed him back, he was certain of it.
Of all the dumb, foolish things John Sheppard had done over the years in his career, he was pretty sure this ranked near the highest.
His mind rationalized a thousand different reasons why he shouldn't and couldn't follow through. She was his charge; she was in shock, still traumatized by the events of the night. John didn't have it in him to take advantage of her like that – wouldn't forgive himself in the morning when she'd look at him with regret in her eyes. The mere thought was like a splash of cool water – which he clearly needed under the circumstances.
John pulled back and strode across the carpeted floor, needing to expel some energy. He had to refocus and regroup, to get back to the problem at hand. John was getting anxious enough to start with heavy-handed tactics to get what he wanted. Enough with the rules – if no one else was playing by them, then why should he? A game plan started forming in his head, the next step and the one after slowly falling into place as John thought things over.
He flopped onto the mattress, taking inventory. Over two hundred dollars in cash, cell phones (that could be tracked when used, and were therefore useless), and credit cards (equally useless). He'd already ditched the government-issued car and stolen another one; already acquired some basic amenities for Elizabeth for the night.
John pulled his standard-issue SIG from his shoulder holster and set it down on the bedspread next to him, then took a moment to untuck the smaller gun near his ankle. He had enough ammunition to last them some time, but John didn't plan on holding out here in this tacky motel room for long.
What then? Who to trust? John could try Ellis, but his superiors all answered to the same men that were probably pulling all these strings. And Sumner – Jesus, Sumner was probably in critical condition or worse. John shook his head and forcefully dispelled the thought. There was nothing he could do for Sumner now, just like there was nothing he could have done for Branton.
The NID. He needed more information.
Information meant he'd have to contact people that could help him get access, but he wondered if all the usual suspects would be monitored. By now, the Secret Service would realize Elizabeth was missing, John was missing, and maybe even would have figured out Sumner's identity in the hospital. Flags would be raised, and all the normal steps to track them down would be taking place.
He couldn't contact his team members. He'd have to assume their phones would be tapped, at least. Could he afford to contact Rodney in the morning regarding the decryption program? How was he supposed to do that without alerting people he didn't want alerted? He set aside that particular puzzle and let his mind drift to other concerns.
John stopped short, suddenly struck with a thought. What was the name Branton had given? His NID contact at the Pentagon.
When Elizabeth finally emerged from the bathroom, towel drying her damp hair, John froze in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt. She was wearing a white tank top and a pair of sweat pants, and he was once again starkly reminded of his attraction to this woman.
He cleared his throat and nodded towards the bed. "You take the bed, I'll take the floor. Get some rest. We've got an early morning tomorrow." Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "We're going to have to move motel rooms every day," he expanded. "We can't afford to stay in one place for long. And we're also going to have to start doing recon."
John nodded. "It's going to be tricky. I don't have any of my normal resources, and we're going to have to improvise a little, but I've got a deposit box at a local bank with some supplies that'll hopefully last us some time."
John waved off the topic, mainly because Elizabeth looked exhausted and worn out, and he didn't want to bog her down with details tonight. It proved the right move because she settled heavily on the edge of the bed, running fingers through her tangled hair.
"Don't worry, Elizabeth. I've got a plan."
"Why do those words make me feel so concerned?"
"Hey," John lobbied, plastering on a good-natured smirk, "my plans happen to be genius most of the time. When I decide to stick with them, anyway."
She didn't even crack a smile. She looked exhausted and emotionally spent, but at least she didn't look close to crying anymore. He turned his back to her, continuing to change into something comfortable enough to sleep in.
"John." When he glanced over, she was watching him with wide eyes. "You have… you're bleeding, John."
Sure enough, when he glanced down he found a small spot of blood staining the edge of his undershirt. He lifted the cloth to expose a small tear in his skin – nothing bad, just a scrape he must have suffered when he dove for the ground during the earlier shoot out. It had already stopped bleeding.
"Let me see," Elizabeth said, waving him over.
"No, I'm fine—"
"John," she stopped him, weariness in her voice. "Let me see."
He complied more because of her tone than anything else. Walking forward, John stepped up to the edge of the bed. She tugged him into the space between her legs without hesitation, lifting the shirt to examine the wound.
"Where's the first aid kit?"
"Behind you, on the table."
She looked back, reached for the box, and flipped open the lid. He would have protested more, but the way she was moving seemed to belie her fatigue and he didn't have the heart to argue with her under such conditions. He waited as patiently as he could as she applied the stinging antiseptic and then covered the tear with taped gauze. Her fingers brushed against his abdomen, lingering over the bandaged spot. He reached down to still her fingers with his own, and her gaze drew up to his.
"John?" she whispered. "Will you…" she trailed off, her words choked. "God, this is stupid."
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Nothing. It's stupid."
He didn't push her; didn't have to, he knew.
After a silent moment, she tilted her head to look up at him. "Will you… will you stay with me tonight? Just… just to hold me?"
His breath lodged in his throat for a second, realizing what she was asking him to do – to crawl into bed and hold her, all night long. The proposal was tempting for all the wrong reasons, and warning bells were ringing in John's head like never before. But the way she was looking up at him, so clearly exhausted and spent, he didn't think she had any other intentions in mind except to be held.
And John didn't have it in him to deny her that. "Yeah, sure," he found himself saying. "Just to hold."
She nodded, pulled her legs up and edged backwards towards the head of the bed. After a beat, John toed off his shoes and socks and crawled in after her. It was awkward at first; John didn't know what to do. Elizabeth, in her dazed state, seemed to take his hesitation in stride. She waited until he settled on his side of the bed, then reached to turn off the light, and the next thing he knew she was curling up against him, her back to his front.
After a slight pause of hesitation, his arms went around her waist. He was afraid of overstepping the boundaries, though he clearly had no idea what boundaries there were when they were curling up in bed together. Elizabeth snuggled closer to him as her eyes slipped shut. She smelled of cheap shampoo and something else – something indefinable.
In the darkness, John watched her for a moment, words caught in his throat. He wanted to say something, quip a joke or lessen the weight of the situation so he could fool himself into believing it wasn't as intense, as meaningful, as it really was. For the second time in so many days, he watched Elizabeth sleep.
This time, though, he didn't fight the pull she had over him.
Cold water splashed onto Henry's face as he awoke with a start.
Glancing around frantically, he found himself bound to a chair with ropes at his feet and handcuffs on his wrists. The room was dark, quiet and empty with the exception of a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling above his head. He suspected he was in a basement of some sort. He struggled for a bit, knowing it to be futile, until then the woman – Larrin, he thought her name was – walked around his chair and presented herself with her hands on her hips.
She tilted her head. "Glad you could join us, Mr. President."
"What do you want?" Henry barked angrily.
"What I want is inconsequential. It's what the Trust wants that matters."
It seemed he had underestimated them. He knew they were a threat, but he never thought they'd be bold enough – stupid enough – to kidnap the President of the United States. These types of things had consequences and repercussions that were felt like a shockwave through the nation. There was no way to anticipate precisely what the nation would do in response to his absence.
Then he remembered the man that had originally abducted him – his doppelganger.
"Your ruse won't work for long," Henry insisted with a glare. "People will recognize me from some impersonator. My wife is returning from New Hampshire by the end of the week. Your ruse won't—"
"By next week," Larrin interrupted, "You'll be back in the White House, in your own bed, right as rain. She won't notice a thing amiss."
Henry paused. "What?"
Larrin released a long-suffering sigh. "The man impersonating you right now only needs to fool people for a short amount of time. Days, in fact. Our intention was always to return you to the White House."
"To what end?"
Larrin gestured widely. "Well, first, we are of course going to ensure that you proceed with the best interests of the Trust at heart. When you return, things are going to change."
"You can't threaten me into submission. I won't be your pawn!"
Larrin grinned. "Oh, all the boys say that to me at one point or another. Andrews, if you please?"
She gestured to somebody behind him, and the sounds of a squeaking cart wheeling across the floor alerted Henry. He twisted in his seat to see a young blonde man push a trolley with some strange equipment on it to the front – no, not strange. Alien. The device on top of the cart was large and heavy, comprised of a glossy metal that looked distinctly alien in origin.
"We picked this up on P34-535," Larrin confirmed. "Do you know what this does?"
He hadn't a clue, and would have preferred for it to stay that way. "Whatever you have planned, you won't get away with it. I'm the President of the United States. These things have conseque—"
"It does," Larrin overrode him easily, "what some would call brainwashing. I like to call it reeducation. We use this on you long enough, and you won't be arguing with me about anything. A mere puppet for the Trust to use however they see fit." She paused and then smiled when Henry failed respond. "Yeah, see? Ingenious plan, if I do say so myself. You were supposed to have company tonight, too. Alas, Dr. Weir proved annoyingly difficult to get a hold of."
Henry was sickened into silence. So that was their plan? Kidnap them – replace them with those doppelgangers, those imposters – and then condition them to do the Trust's bidding. By the time they were through, Henry realized that they could reinsert them back to their original places, brainwashed. With Henry and Dr. Weir, and god knows how many others, the Trust could effectively take control of the SGC and Earth's global and interstellar relations entirely without any change in the players.
Good Lord, the thought was terrifying.
Larrin reached for the alien device and flipped a switch. "A few days of this, and you won't be an unpleasant, grumpy old bastard anymore. Well… okay, maybe you will be. But I might just like you better. I love an obliging man."
A light emerged from the device, and Larrin hit another button that sent the beam straight towards Henry. It hit him square between the eyes and spread out, covering his vision in a bright glare of white light. He was transfixed, staring into nothingness without any ability to move, to think, to function unless The Light told him to.
"Let's get this party started," Larrin mused aloud.
In the morning, John showered and dressed quickly.
Across the street, there was a quiet coffee shop that also served limited breakfast. He walked in with Elizabeth and ordered two cups of coffee as they claimed a secluded booth in the corner. John felt out of place; he'd had little choice in his attire except to redress in his crumbled white shirt again, though when he shrugged his coat over it, it looked marginally more presentable. Still, his appearance was a little more haphazard than even he normally liked. John resolved to think of it as a new personal style – the scruffy look.
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow at him across the table. "You look like a groomsman after the apocalypse."
"It's the scruffy look," John defended, trying not to mope. "It's the new thing."
She rolled her eyes and went back to drinking her coffee. As she glanced out the tinted windows to the park outside, John slung his arm across the back of the booth and kept a watch on the front door. He studied Elizabeth covertly out of the corner of his eye. She looked better today, more rested. Neither of them had said much in the morning; in fact, the sleeping arrangements hadn't been verbally acknowledged at all. There wasn't any lingering awkwardness, though, which shocked the hell out of John. He'd never slept with a woman before without… well, sleeping with her. Elizabeth was getting into the habit of breaking all the rules in his life, and he wondered if she even realized it.
Twenty minutes later, having polished off their plates of pancakes in record time, they went back to the motel, packed their meager belongings and cleaned the place so that even the fingerprints were gone.
They hailed a cab to drive cross-city to the bank where John had obtained a safety deposit box under an assumed alias weeks back. It wasn't part of Secret Service procedure; just John being his normal paranoid self. Every time he moved to a new city, or started a new operation, he did this. The safety deposit box held fake IDs for him, thousands of dollars in cash, and a list of contacts in both high and low places to be used in case of emergency only. Everything he needed to stay hidden for a few days, maybe even a few weeks.
John wasn't stupid, though – these were all temporary measures. If people wanted to find them bad enough, they'd eventually be found.
Elizabeth posed as his wife at the bank, chatting amicably with the teller until all the paperwork checked out – as a DSS agent, John knew how to forge important documents and create aliases easily enough. It was disconcerting what a person could do with the duplicated birth certificate of a deceased person. If you had that, you could get a driver license, you could get their social security number, you could set up a whole new identity with it – credit cards, passports and all.
It was usually his job to stop things like that, but the tables had turned.
His new name would be Benjamin Oliver, a man that'd technically died in a car accident in '87 at the age of 19. He'd have to work on creating an alias for Elizabeth, assuming they needed to stay out-of-sight for an extended period of time to warrant the hassle. Until then, they could work off his pseudonym alone. She'd just have to stick to his side, and really, John hadn't planned for her to be anywhere else.
Elizabeth looked a little dumbstruck by his fortitude, shuffling through his safety deposit box when they were left alone for privacy in the small bank cubicle. "You planned for this?"
"Not this, specifically," John answered, flipping through a thick stack of $100 dollar bills. "These are all just measures for a rainy day."
Elizabeth didn't comment, though her expression said more than enough.
They went clothes shopping first, picking up a few items that would work better with blending in than their current attire. John was glad to get rid of the ruined tux – though, damn if he hadn't lost his deposit fully. It had been a rental.
They both came out of the store wearing some of their purchases. John wanted to dress down – some jeans, a white shirt and a regular jacket; something completely nondescript – but the weather was horrible and most of the people in Washington D.C. were lawyers (one in three, statistics said) so they'd have to dress to blend in. John wore his suit causally, shirt open at the collar and a long, black coat to fend off the brutal weather.
Elizabeth, in contrast, was as polished as always in a stylish black pant suit that made it look like the thing had been specifically tailored with her in mind. Few women could pull off a power suit like that and make it look so good; John had a little difficulty pulling his eyes away from her.
They needed other supplies though, and not hair products and toothpaste. They needed surveillance equipment, tracking devices, extra ammunition, untraceable and disposable cell phones, and a police scanner. You couldn't get that stuff at the local Wal-Mart.
Thankfully, John knew exactly where to get it. Back when he'd been stationed in D.C. in the mid-nineties, he knew more than a few unscrupulous members of society, where they operated and what they did. He often let a few of the low-level people slide, allowing their businesses to run in exchange for tips and information on the bigger fish in the pond.
John dredged up the memory of an old informant of his that used to sell black market products on the crossing of 23rd and South Arlington, using a dry cleaners business as a front. A decent guy, despite his chosen field of profession. The man had been roped into the family business against his will; immigrants from a Slavic nation with a tradition of selling anything from guns to high-quality surveillance equipment – everything John would need for the time being.
John searched his memory, and recalled the name easily – Radek Zelenka.
Elizabeth rested against the countertop, idly watching the lines of clothing spin around on their tracks in the back of the decades old dry cleaners. The old shopkeeper that had greeted them at the front had long since disappeared into the nearby office to retrieve John's friend. She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but this? This wasn't what she would have pegged as a one-stop shop for all their black market needs. The old Slavic storeowner had barely reached Elizabeth's elbow, and there was also another innocuous looking employee – a young teenage girl, with red-dyed pigtails, chewing bubblegum in the corner.
The entire day was turning out to be a little surreal and Elizabeth was having trouble adjusting. John was proving to be more adept – almost eerily in his element about this type of stuff – and she couldn't quite wrap her head around that. She'd always known he was good at his job, but after seeing how proficiently he'd handled the curveballs being thrown their way today? Her estimations of him went even higher.
The woman returned, ushering them to the back with a thick accent that nibbled at Elizabeth's linguistic ear. Czech, she determined. From Prague, maybe? Languages had held a certain allure for her since a young age, and though she was fluent in six languages and had a passing knowledge in a dozen more, Czech wasn't one she knew well. She'd learned bits and pieces of it years ago, but she was vastly more articulate in Russian and Polish.
As they made their way behind the counter and followed the old woman through the back, she approached a large door that Elizabeth presumed headed out to an alley behind the store. She was wrong; the door swung open and led down another corridor, and the woman stopped and pounded in an access number on a keypad.
The back store was exactly the opposite of the neglected and dilapidated dry cleaners place at the front. The hallway door swung open to admit them into a large, well-maintained showroom. Her eyes swept across the walls, where a row of heavy artillery – from handguns to semi-automatic weapons – was on display. Below that, locked inside glass countertops, were a series of small electronic devices and various paraphernalia that looked like average, every day products (backpacks, cell phones, sunglasses, and the like) but Elizabeth suspected that weren't so ordinary if the outrageous price-tags attached to them were any indication.
A small sign above all the hundreds and thousands of dollars of equipment read, "Batteries not included." The irony made her smile.
"Sheppard!" A thin-framed man with wispy hair and glasses emerged from the corner room and walked towards them. "Been a long time, my friend! I did not know you were back in town." He glanced to Elizabeth. "And you bring lovely company, I see."
The old shopkeeper mumbled to him in Czech, "Nelíbí se mi jak vypadají. Oblékají se příliš moderně. Hned se jich zbav!"
The man heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Matko, prosím, je to můj starý přítel. Postarám se o to. Jdi zpátky a starej se o obchod."
"Kdo to je?" she demanded.
The man got a little red in the face at this point, and quietly tugged his mother aside. In a beseeching voice he said, "Matko, přivádíš mě do rozpaků. Ten muž je jenom obchodník. A moc vážený."
She continued heatedly, "A co ta vysoká žena? Sem se vůbec nehodí."
"Pak je to jeho milenka!" he shot back with a roll of his eyes, making Elizabeth's cheek redden a bit. "Proč se staráš? Jsou to jenom zákazníci."
John leaned in and whispered in a conspiratorial voice, "It looks like the old woman doesn't like us too much."
"She doesn't," Elizabeth acknowledged. "She's suspicious of us."
John raised an eyebrow. "You can understand them?"
"Partially," Elizabeth replied, watching the man escort his mother out of the room. "She thinks we're too well dressed, and doesn't trust us. Me, especially, it seems."
"Apparently I don't fit in here," Elizabeth explained with a shrug.
John narrowed his eyes at her. "I can't take you anywhere, can I?"
Elizabeth let the comment go without remark, though the small urge to stick her tongue out at him reared unexpectedly. When the man came back from the hallway, he was muttering to himself with a stream of Czech curse words that made Elizabeth's eyebrows lift in shock. The exasperated man didn't stop until he was standing before them again.
"Apologies," he spoke quickly. "You know how hard it is to work with family? The headaches they give you about the small things are never…" he trailed off, refocusing on Elizabeth with a smile. "But, please, excuse me. I am Radek Zelenka. And you, my miláčku, would be?"
"Eliz—" she began.
John cut her off quickly. "Alexis. Her name is Alexis."
Elizabeth turned to him, face reddening as she realized her misstep. "Alexis Roberts," she recovered smoothly, trying for an even tone. "It's nice to meet you."
Radek smiled brightly. "You work for the government as well?"
John shook his head. "No, not exactly. She's just with me for… other reasons."
At which point, Radek turned away politely and muttered under his breath, "Měl jsem pravdu. Je jeho milenka. Sakra." Elizabeth blushed a little, sparing a glance towards John and wondering what his reactions would be if he knew Radek had taken his words to mean they were lovers.
"So," Radek continued in a pleasant tone as he made his way around the counter, "you are here to do what, exactly? Need information? I am not aware of much that requires the attention of the Secret Service lately and I—"
John dropped a thick stack of money onto the countertop. "Supplies. We need lots and lots of supplies."
Radek's eyes latched onto the money and widened in surprise.
"And," John added. "I need you to deliver a message for me. To a friend of mine at the agency."
"A message?" Radek repeated. "I am not in the business of—"
"I'll consider it a personal favor," John cut in, retrieving a letter from his breast pocket. "I just need to get this in the hands of Rodney McKay by the end of the day."
"Rodney McKay?" Radek repeated in confusion.
Elizabeth offered a wide smile. "You'll like him. He's got a… larger-than-life personality."
That was certainly one accurate description of Rodney McKay.
Teyla Emmagan was not in a good mood.
The flight from Phoenix to Washington D.C. had been a miserable red-eye in third class, where the large, ripe-smelling fellow across the aisle kept leering at her. She had been jostled and pushed within an inch of her patience at the Dulles International Airport when claiming her luggage, and if one more person bumped into her sore (and still healing) arm, she might find herself losing that last inch.
Teyla had been born and raised in greater Chicago-land area, where there certainly wasn't any shortage of pushy people, but, even so, this was taxing her patience.
She hailed a cab to take her to the Rowley Training Center, fully intending on getting all the answers from Rodney in person. Except time was of the essence and by the time her plane had finally touched ground, her cell phone had missed six calls – four from Rodney and two from Ellis. She called the latter back first.
Ellis' sit rep had been succinct and disturbing. Sumner was shot and in poor condition at Sibley Memorial Hospital, John and Dr. Weir were missing, and Mike Branton's body had been discovered in some construction site downtown, killed by a suspected McMillan TAC-50 long range sniper weapon from across the street.
The disturbing news only did more to add to Teyla's gnawing concern. She'd been woken up the previous night by Rodney, who was either less than forthcoming with all the details or had not fully known them. The exchange had been simple: Rodney had asked Teyla to fly in to help with certain "messy" elements of their on-going investigation. She was not technically allowed back on duty yet – her medical leave extended for another four days with the option of more. Her arm still stung with the remnants of the burn marks but her bruised ribs were recovering nicely. But as soon as Rodney had pleaded for her help, with such frantic and obvious anxiety in his voice, nothing could have prevented Teyla from flying straight out.
The cab driver punched in the Training Facility for directions into his navigation system, but had difficulty finding it. Teyla was not remotely surprised. The Secret Service training center, as big as it was, was a well-kept secret. On some maps it was even marked as an Agriculture Research Facility. In reality, it had an obstacle course, a simulated airport, several firing ranges, and a large number of outdoor training and tactical response areas. An entire fake town existed on the premises of this 500-acre parcel of land, and security was extraordinarily paranoid about outside attention.
She gave the cab driver the directions, and when she arrived at Rowley she paid him a generous tip for his headaches. The air was crisp and cool, and Teyla tugged her coat tighter around her to fend off the November chill. She grabbed her luggage, tugging it alongside her as she walked up to the first checkpoint, identified herself, walked across the long winding pathways of the facility in painful high-heels, and identified herself at another three points before she finally arrived at the building where Rodney was doing his work.
For all her gifts of patience and fortitude, by the time she greeted Rodney, her nerves had been worn thin. "What on Earth is going on?" she demanded.
Rodney flinched at her tone, and then mumbled only one sentence in explanation. "Aliens are among us."
Teyla paused, thrown for a moment, and then exclaimed, "What?!"
They didn't find Steven Caldwell at the Pentagon, which Elizabeth knew was a good thing. The last thing they needed was to approach a behemoth like the Pentagon with the intentions of espionage. Instead, Caldwell was posted at a government facility on the opposite side of the city. But when John walked by the front of the building with something he called a long range digital and analog RF detector, he came back to inform Elizabeth that the place was bugged to high heaven, which meant they couldn't talk to him at the office.
They were watching from their parked car across the street when John figured out the new plan. "We track his car," he said simply, though he had an expression of concern on his face. "I can plant a micro GPS tracker that serves dually as a listening device inside his car. We can listen in on any conversation he has, follow him home or wherever he goes after work. We can talk to him there."
"Okay," Elizabeth replied, scrutinizing the look on his face. "What's got you so preoccupied?"
John glanced to her. "I seem preoccupied?"
"You get this look on your face when you're thinking too much. Your face all scrunches up in concentration."
He lifted a brow. "My face scrunches up? Seriously?"
"You've never noticed?"
"I've never stared at a mirror when I was thinking hard," John replied, a bit defensive. "My face scrunches up?"
She could tell he was little embarrassed by the description. "It's not bad," she offered. "It makes you look..." she trailed off, now her turn to grow embarrassed.
She paused for a beat, then admitted in a soft voice, "Cute."
They stared at each other over the center consol of the sedan, caught in the moment. It wasn't anything particularly intense, just a quiet acknowledgment of a fact – their growing attraction towards each other. Elizabeth was the first to glance away, breaking eye contact, and John quickly got back on track.
"Anyway," he said, his face scrunched up again. "Um, the problem arises from planting the device. His car is parked in a government facility, which means there's going to be guards and surveillance cameras."
Elizabeth nodded. "That's a problem."
He looked at her pointedly. "So I'm going to need a distraction, something to draw the guard's attention briefly away while I go do my thing. It'll just take a few moments."
Elizabeth paused for a second, then slowly caught on to the role she would have to play. "Oh."
Though, in her head, it was more like oh, my god.
Ten minutes later, Elizabeth chanted that to herself as she walked towards the booth with two heavily armed guards inside. She was so not qualified for espionage work – not by a long shot. Her heart was racing so fast that she swore it was going to break her chest, and her palms – dear lord – her palms were actually sweaty. And she hadn't even done anything yet.
Steadying herself with a deep breath, she approached the small little booth at the front entrance to the garage where the two uniformed men were lounging. As she walked closer, she saw three monitors affixed to the interior walls, each with a different angle to the garage layout. One of the guards inside had his feet propped up against the console, looking like he was about to fall asleep staring at the monitors. The second guard, who looked marginally more attentive at his duty, was leaning against the wall near the open window. Both had semi-automatic weapons.
John was hidden in the low shadows, pressed against the wall behind the booth, waiting for Elizabeth to do her distracting.
She stepped up to the booth and smiled widely. "Hi," she greeted with a sheepish voice. "I seem to be a little lost."
The first guard turned towards her. "Ma'am?"
"I'm trying to get to the Whitehurst Freeway," Elizabeth answered, adopting a bewildered tone as she blabbered on. "I took Jefferson Davis Highway and got onto the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and I got turned around somewhere after that and I have no idea where I am anymore. And my friend said to turn left after I see a Target store on the corner street, but I drove for like fifteen minutes and I didn't see any Target store and—"
It went on like that for a while, leaving both guards staring at her and then at each other with one clear, disparaging message: women and directions. God help us all. Meanwhile, John slipped undetected through the entrance on the other end of the booth.
But if the guards glanced to the monitors, they'd spot him on the cameras in an instant. She had to keep their attention.
"So, somehow I ended up here," she wound down. "I'm not at all familiar with the area and I was wondering if you guys could help me."
The first guard dropped his legs onto the floor with an exasperated sigh. "You got a map, lady?"
Elizabeth blinked like she was Bambi. "I don't really understand maps."
The second guard rolled his eyes. "Figures. Why can't women read maps?"
"Because men created them," the other answered with a laugh, "and therefore women can't understand the logic in them."
Elizabeth couldn't help herself; she muttered, "Because only the egotistical male mind could possibly conceive of one inch equaling a hundred miles." Both men stopped and stared at her, and Elizabeth realized maybe she'd just put her foot in her mouth. "Joke?" she offered tentatively.
They burst out laughing. "Good one, Ma'am," one of them guffawed. "My wife will get a kick outta that one."
Elizabeth released the breath she was holding. Behind the two men, the monitors clearly showed John as he unlocked a blue SUV with a wire hanger and climbed inside. If either of their attentions even flickered in the direction of the monitor, things would turn ugly fast.
"So," Elizabeth breathed. "Directions?"
"You gotta take Foxhall road and turn right onto P Street—"
"You stupid, Fred? Clearly you take 44TH Street instead—"
"What? That'll take way too long. P Street gets you there faster—"
"You always hit traffic this time a day on that street, you doofus. You gotta bypass it by taking—"
"Who're you calling a doofus?"
"You, you doofus."
Terrific, she was getting directions from Bevis and Butthead. Also, they were both clearly wrong. Having lived in D.C. for more than a few years, Elizabeth knew full well that you needed to take Canal Road from here to get to the freeway. Jesus, these two were idiots. Glancing to the monitors again and noticing that John had finally emerged from the SUV and was quietly slipping back towards the exit, Elizabeth realized that was a good thing. Anyone with an IQ higher than 100 might have actually caught John.
One of the guards made a move as if to turn back to the monitors. "Wait!" Elizabeth screamed in protest. He froze, and threw her a dirty look. Elizabeth's jaw worked for a second before she recovered. "Did you say G Street?"
"P Street," the man corrected with a scowl. "Good lord, woman, you really are lost, aren't you?"
She would have immediately responded, but her attention was distracted by John, who managed to sneak out through the back, crouched low and undetected. Her attention flew back to the two guards. "Actually," she answered eventually, "I think you gentlemen helped me enormously. I figured it out. Thanks very much!"
She turned and started retreating before either of them could come up with a response. Walking quickly back across the street and towards their rental car, Elizabeth quickened her pace and climbed back inside. John was already waiting for her in the driver's seat.
"Everything went all right?" she asked him.
He nodded quickly. "Easy as pie. You?"
She huffed out an annoyed breath. "I fear for the male species."
Steven Caldwell left his workplace promptly at five, got in his car, contacted his secretary over the phone regarding arrangements for a lunch meeting with several of his co-workers the following day, and pulled onto the freeway. John and Elizabeth tailed him from a block back. Twenty minutes later they were surprised to find Caldwell parking just outside of a local bar called the Ozio.
Elizabeth had heard about Ozio before: heralded as the city's first cigar and martini lounge, it attracted the twenty-somethings and the local celebrities. She tilted her head and examined Caldwell from a distance. Middle-aged, short-cropped hair, meticulously groomed, and a well-starched suit; he didn't strike her as the clubbing type.
"What's he doing here?"
John shrugged. "Meeting a date?"
Elizabeth deliberated the option for a moment, then quickly discarded it. "No. He's not the type of guy that goes barhopping for dates."
"He may look stuffy, but some guys can be hounds no matter how old or bald they get."
Elizabeth threw him a quelling look, then challenged, "And what about you? You go barhopping that often to pick up women?"
John hesitated briefly, then said smoothly, "Women usually pick me up. Apparently the combination of the roguish good looks and the Secret Service badge is a bit of a turn-on."
Elizabeth let her attention drift back to her window. Judging the place on its reputation and the bright flashy exterior, she gave her business attire a critical assessment. It wouldn't do. With a sigh, she pulled free her ponytail and dropped down the visor mirror, examining herself in the reflection. She quickly reached for her purse, reapplying lipstick and then running fingers through her hair so that it acquired that sexy messy look so many men these days loved.
She started shedding her coat and outer shirt quickly, intending to strip down to her silk red camisole. She could toss on the brown leather jacket she'd purchased earlier in the day—
John was watching her performance, a little avidly.
"What?" she said defensively. "I can't go in there with my suit on."
John pulled his eyes away, smirking. "I'm not complaining."
She sent him a withering glare, mostly to cover up the quiet flip of her stomach.
Before they could follow Caldwell inside the bar for a closer look, he was already storming back out the front door. He wasn't alone. He was dragging a young, attractive woman by the arm, and it didn't look like the she appreciated the show of force in the slightest. The younger woman was screaming heated profanity at him, the words drifting over to reach Elizabeth's ears even above the racket of the street.
The girl looked in her mid-twenties, with chestnut colored hair – wavy and long. Elizabeth peered at her from a distance, finding something oddly familiar about her.
Caldwell took the shouting match with stride. He gestured to the car, and reluctantly with a malevolent glare the woman climbed into his SUV and slammed the door shut. Caldwell swung around to the driver's side.
"The listening device," John murmured, reaching for the receiver.
When the static cleared, both John and Elizabeth eavesdropped on the conversation. "Larrin," Caldwell barked angrily. "What the hell are you doing?"
The girl's voice came over loud and clear – and angry. "Living my life, Steven. What's it to you? I'm just having a few drinks with my friends, and it was horrifically rude of you to interrupt my evening—"
"God damn it," Caldwell cursed. "You know that's not what I'm talking about!"
"Then what are you—"
"The NID," Caldwell cut in. "Tell me you're not playing the wrong side of it. Just because you're my sister, doesn't mean I'm going to let you get away with anything."
There was a long pause in the conversation that allowed John and Elizabeth to exchange looks with each other, realizing they may have just stumbled onto something big completely by sheer dumb luck. Caldwell and this Larrin person were brother and sister, and both NID. And clearly not getting along.
"Steven, I'm not having this conversation with you again."
"Oh, yes, you are," Caldwell threatened. "I'm not going to cover for you anymore if you've been playing us for a fool. The SGC is getting heavily involved with our operations, you know that? If you're doing something stupid—"
"I'm not stupid," Larrin bit out angrily. "And I'm not a little girl anymore. You don't need to look out for me, and you certainly don't need to tell me what to do. You never had that right."
Steven's voice dropped with exasperation. "Larrin, my job is to hunt down rogue NID agents. And your behavior lately has been shady at best. I'm supposed to hand any suspects over to the SGC for questioning."
SGC? Elizabeth shared another confused look with John.
"Then do it," Larrin threatened back. "Turn me in. Whatever. But I'm through with this ridiculous conversation."
Caldwell obviously made a grab for her but Larrin pulled free, and from across the street, Elizabeth could see her climb down from the SUV and slam the door shut angrily. She retreated back into the nightclub, and Caldwell remained idly in his car for a long moment afterwards. Eventually, he pulled away from the curb and floored the accelerator.
Elizabeth turned to John. "Which one do we follow? Larrin or Caldwell?"
John paused, jaw clenching.
"We need information first," he determined, keying the ignition. "We avoid a possible confrontation right now if we can. If Caldwell is one of the so-called good-guys, we'll follow him first and get answers."
Elizabeth knew without asking the real motive behind playing it so safe; she was with him. On his own, John would have gone after the possible threat immediately, but with Elizabeth tagging along he wasn't willing to take the risk. She glanced out the window as John drove past the bar, and let a silent curse slip under her breath. She couldn't help but think they were letting someone with vital information get away.
They followed Caldwell's car in silence.
John tailed Caldwell's SUV from thirty yards back, fingers gripping the steering wheel so tightly he'd lost all feeling in his hands. There were dark misgivings growing within him – he was making a mistake. His primary target should have become Larrin as soon as she was identified as a potential threat. Pursuing her could lead to answers and possibly a solution.
But Elizabeth was with him, and that complicated matters.
The creeping realization that he was letting his emotions cloud his judgment dawned on John as he wove through the dimly lit streets. If it had been any other protectee, John knew he would have bent the rules and gone after a potential source like Larrin immediately. Without hesitation. Without fear. There would have been a brief debate between the pros and cons, but ultimately John would have seized the opportunity when it was presented to him.
This time, he'd let that chance slip right through his fingers.
He slammed a hand viciously against the steering wheel, and Elizabeth's eyes flew to him. "John?"
His shook his head in reply, unable to find his voice. The gnawing regret of having let Larrin go was quickly festering and turning inward. He really shouldn't have let her go. Fucking hell. He needed to get his head on straight; keep things in perspective. He hadn't been doing that lately, not since things with Elizabeth had changed. This was precisely why he knew better than to develop feelings for someone under his protection; an agent couldn't think as clearly if emotions were involved and split-second decisions were affected. And in his line of work those split-second decisions often meant the difference between life and death.
"He's stopping," Elizabeth spoke up. "What do we do now?"
Hardness settled into John's eyes. "Now we finally get some goddamn answers."
Caldwell stopped in front his residence; a quiet two-story townhouse on the upper west side of the city. He climbed down from his SUV and swung around the back, popping open the trunk to retrieve some belongings.
They snuck up while Caldwell had his back to them. Without preamble, John pulled his gun out, gripped it by the muzzle and swiftly slammed the butt down against the spot where Caldwell's neck met his shoulder. Caldwell crumbled like a ton of bricks, instantly unconscious, and John caught his dead weight around the waist.
"Get his keys," John ordered Elizabeth.
She looked dumbstruck. "I thought we were going to talk to him."
"We are," John insisted, and dragged Caldwell's body to the front porch of his townhouse. "I just want his undivided attention first."
Elizabeth watched as John dragged Caldwell into the living room.
Something had changed in John's demeanor, something she couldn't pinpoint, but he was more calculated now, almost cold. He'd secured the area quickly, checking for bugs with one of Radek's devices, then had gone looking for anything else suspicious. He came back with rope and strips of cloth.
Elizabeth stood stock still, watching the performance with a quiet discord in the pit of her stomach. John bound and gagged the unconscious form of Caldwell to a small wooden chair, and then left to get something from the kitchen. She watched him retreat, a sickening awareness dawning on her that this was Mike Branton all over again. If they didn't get answers immediately, John was going to apply physical force to Caldwell just like Sumner had done to Mike.
But what if both were good people? What if Mike had been telling the truth when he said he'd been there to protect Elizabeth? Could she stand by and watch another potentially innocent man be tortured for answers, all in her name?
The answer came swiftly to her: over her dead body.
Elizabeth followed John to the kitchen, eyeing with concern as he rummaged through the utensil drawers. "John, don't do this." He acted like he didn't hear her, so she swung around the breakfast nook and invaded his space, forcing his eyes to her. "Don't do this. There's got to be another way—"
"Elizabeth, I'm not going to hurt the guy unless I absolutely have to—"
"No," Elizabeth shook her head. "Haven't you learned? We're dealing with government agents here. They're not going to break that easily, and that means force won't be the way to do this."
"And what do you suggest?"
"I don't know," she shot back in an exasperated tone. "I'd thought I'd try the novel concept of asking him." John opened his mouth but she rode over him. "Let me talk to him first. Let me try to get him to answer questions without the threat of force being our only option on how to play this."
"It is our only option. Men like these guys don't understand anything except violence."
"I refuse to believe that," Elizabeth countered. "Look, if time was of the essence, maybe things would be different. But you've tied him to a chair so he's not going anywhere. There's no ticking time-bomb anywhere. Let me do this my way first."
John frowned. "You think you can interrogate a person?"
Elizabeth tipped her head aside. "I'm gifted with words."
"This isn't diplomacy."
"No, it's more like playing dirty politics and I'm familiar with the concept."
Inside the living room, the sounds of grunting and soft swearing emerged. It seemed their company was waking up. Elizabeth kept her eyes trained on John, waiting for him to make his decision.
John shook his head knowingly. "This is nothing like dirty politics."
"You underestimate politics," Elizabeth remarked tartly. "Trust me, John."
He paused for a beat, then finally relented with a nod. "Fine. We'll try it your way first." He rolled his eyes a little as he turned away. "Should I start preparing tea and biscuits for him?"
She ignored the quip – still thrown by the abrupt change in his behavior – and returned to the living room. John trailed after her. As Caldwell came into sight, Elizabeth saw him meet her gaze and his eyes widened slightly – in recognition. He knew her.
She walked forward and tugged down the gag past his chin. "This wasn't how I wanted to do this," Elizabeth began in a soft, unassuming voice, "but my colleague got a little carried away. How's your head?"
"That depends," Caldwell answered. "Am I going to be expecting anymore blows?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "No."
"Really?" Caldwell's voice was thick with suspicion. "And what do you guys want?"
"Information," she answered bluntly. "Why does the NID want me dead?"
Caldwell stilled, body going stiff in the chair and Elizabeth knew she had him now. John was wrong about one thing – this was like politics. Or maybe, she conceded, poker was a more apt analogy. All the players weren't just playing the cards they'd been dealt; a skilled card player knew you managed your opponents as much as you depended on your hand.
Caldwell's face closed off. "Look, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You don't?" she mused with a lifted brow. "I have trouble believing that."
"Believe what you want, Dr. Weir, but I'm not—"
John stepped forward. "She never told you her name."
Caldwell didn't balk, but she suspected it was a near thing. "I overheard you talking in the kitchen."
"Nice try," John retorted. "But I call her Elizabeth, not Dr. Weir."
She darted a glance to John, who stood behind her to the left, arms crossed over his chest defensively. He looked like her muscle, she realized. The two of them together created an interesting front; she could use that to her advantage.
Caldwell struggled against his bonds. "What do you want?"
Caldwell scowled. "Do you guys know the meaning of national security?"
"I'm a Secret Service agent," John drawled wryly. "I'm a bit familiar with the concept."
"This is bigger than that," Caldwell added. "Bigger than national security. Bigger than anything you've dealt with or could possibly imagine."
Elizabeth sighed heavily. "I don't know. With our history, I can imagine quiet a lot. Our government's had quite a few conspiracies in our time: Watergate, JFK, Roswell, the Manhattan Project—"
"It's bigger than the Manhattan Project," Caldwell cut in.
Elizabeth almost laughed. "Yes, because that was only the secret birth of the atomic weapon."
Caldwell held her gaze evenly. "Exactly."
A quiet flutter of apprehension turned her stomach to worms. What the hell was going on here? Was it really that big? Were they really covering up something as inconceivable as they claimed?
She continued, straining to keep her voice even, "Agent Caldwell, we're not here blindly. We came to you because we know you're involved with the NID. We know that Mike Branton was one of your agents." The Pentagon, she remembered. "We know the military is involved, as well as several foreign countries." She'd deduced that much from her conversations with the President. "We know about the rogue faction and the official NID. And, last but not least, we know your sister is one of those rogue agents."
Caldwell's face flashed with surprise. "How the hell—"
Elizabeth pressed, "We've got pieces of the puzzle. Help us make sense of the picture."
Caldwell paused, indecision clearly growing on his face.
John stepped forward. "You tell us exactly what we need to know, or the next phone call we make is one that'll land your sister in very hot water. Something tells me they won't demand too much proof before they drag her in for questioning."
Caldwell sent a withering glare in John's direction. "You don't even know what you're talking about. You're asking questions that are entirely out of the scope of your jurisdiction—"
"But they're not out of mine," Elizabeth countered knowingly. "I'm being vetted for something – a position of importance; of authority. When I get that position, do you really want to be my enemy?"
Caldwell's head snapped over to her. "Despite what you might think of my position, Dr. Weir, I'm not your enemy.
Elizabeth smiled at him rather unpleasantly. "Believe me, Agent Caldwell, you don't want to be."
They held each other's stare for one long moment, and Elizabeth felt the message conveyed loud and clear. She'd sold the threat – the bluff – with enough force to make him pause. At length, he sighed and averted his gaze.
"You wouldn't believe me even if I told you what you want to know."
John shrugged, almost nonchalantly. "Try us."
"Or else we make this experience far more unpleasant," John warned in a dark tone.
Except Elizabeth had a nagging feeling that threats weren't going to get them anywhere. If Caldwell saw them as the enemy, he'd resist telling them anything and Elizabeth suspected John's patience would soon run thin. She had to change tactics, make Caldwell see them as allies and victims in this convoluted game.
Running through the options quickly in her head, she decided to try something else.
If this man was such a patriot, then he'd hopefully have morals as well. She needed to use that to her advantage.
"These men are trying to kill us," Elizabeth began. "They tried to kill me at my house. They tried again on that rooftop, where Mike Branton died. They'll continue to try until they succeed, and all I want to know is why. That's all. I want answers. What is the NID? Why do they want me dead?" Caldwell's gaze wavered for a moment, but Elizabeth stepped forward and crouched down, bringing them face-to-face so that he had no option but to meet her gaze. "Look me in the eye and tell me I don't have a right to these answers."
Caldwell paused. "Maybe you do," he admitted in a soft breath.
There, she realized. He was opening up.
"Then give them to me," she pleaded. "Tell me why my life is in danger."
Caldwell wrestled with indecision for a moment. The internal struggle was plain for all to see, but Elizabeth kept quiet, waiting for the man to come his own conclusions. When he finally decided, his gaze locked on hers and he began speaking in a grave voice. "The NID stands for the National Intelligence Department."
"Ah," John muttered under his breath. "Don't you just love all those three-letter acronyms?
"Yeah, well, here's another one you'll never forget," Caldwell added in a somber voice. "The SGC, otherwise known as the Stargate Command. A top-secret U.S. military base underneath Cheyenne Mountain, which represents the first and last line of defense our planet has against extraterrestrial forces."
John and Elizabeth paused for a beat, then exclaimed simultaneously, "What?!"
Rodney McKay was grumbling to himself about overprotective, unaccommodating friends – in this particular case, Teyla – when he lurched his car to a stop in the parking structure of his apartment complex. She'd insisted that he go home and sleep. But – as Rodney had tried to defend, had insisted repeatedly – he had better things to do with his time. Too many important things had transpired in the last three days for him to worry about such a trivial thing like sleep.
Teyla hadn't seen the logic, of course. Why wasn't he remotely surprised?
But the woman was scary when she wanted to be, and Rodney hadn't managed to stare down her death glare for more than a few hours before he'd given in. He was just tired, that's all. Caving into Teyla's demands had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the petite woman could snap him like a twig if she so desired. Xena without the leather, and really, what good was that?
He realized a few of his stray thoughts weren't quite as coherent and elegant as they normally were, but then again, no sleep in three days.
Ever since Rodney first stumbled on Mike Branton's suspicious background, he felt like he'd been tumbling through the rabbit hole in some acid-trip version of Alice in Wonderland. He kept tumbling down, and now Rodney was so far gone there was no chance of him getting back. He'd committed treason: had broken into secure government networks, and, ironically, used government-issued equipment to manage the illegal activity. And though he was fairly confident that he'd covered his tracks effectively, he was still jittery as a bug.
He had reason to be overly paranoid. The United States, China, France, Japan, Russia, and the UK – all of them were in on the biggest global conspiracy of all time. The Stargate – it was a thing of wonder that Rodney could only hope to imagine. Instantaneous travel through wormholes, establishing connections between worlds – between galaxies!
The SGC, SG-1, the NID, and the IOA – what was with these people and all the acronyms?
And then there was the Trust – the group of elusive rogue members of the NID that wanted power, control. Their files (scarce though they were) made for interesting bedtime reading that Rodney was sure would give him nightmares – if he ever managed any sleep.
If Sheppard actually got in contact with him again anytime this century, Rodney could fill in so many of the blanks in their investigation. Dr. Weir was all set up to be some bigwig on an international committee, overseeing the SGC and all their operations. No wonder people were after her – she was primed to be a key player in a global conspiracy!
Rodney whirled and shouted. Okay, yes – shrieked. Lack of caffeine and an overly preoccupied mind made him jittery. "Who's there?!"
A thin man stepped clear from the shadows, dressed in a long beige coat and warm gloves. He had wispy thin hair, spectacles, and looked rather bemused by Rodney's reaction. "I am not here to harm you," he spoke with a thick accent.
Rodney scowled, instantly defensive. "Yeah, well, don't go sneaking up on people like that! Honestly, hasn't anybody ever told you that loitering in shadows at night in front of people's apartment is a creepy behavior? Who the hell are you anyway and why are you here?"
The man blinked. "You ramble," he remarked. "And remind me of that maličký bunny on the TV commercial that keeps beating the drum."
"I haven't slept in 72 hours," Rodney bit out. "I'd like to see your cognitive thinking approach even a small fraction of mine under those conditions, buddy!"
The man plastered on a smile. "And the pleasure is all mine. You are Rodney McKay, yes?"
His scowl deepened. "Who wants to know?"
"My name is unimportant," he answered, pulling free an envelope. "But we have a mutual friend that wanted me to deliver a message."
"Friend?" Rodney repeated suspiciously.
He snatched the thick envelope quickly and glanced down to find Sheppard's familiar chicken-scratch sprawled across the top. Sheppard had left him a letter! Finally! Didn't the man know that Rodney had been looking for a way to contact him for hours now? Rodney had things he needed to share.
"Where is he?" Rodney began, glancing up. "How did you…"
He trailed off. His mysterious new acquaintance had apparently disappeared back into the shadows. Rodney tossed a searching gaze about, then determined he really didn't care if Mr. Mysterious vanished on him or not. Pulling his coat tighter around his body, he climbed the stairs to his apartment with a scowl. By the time he'd pushed open the door, he was already reading the letter, his mind half-preoccupied with the thoughts of finally getting to tell Sheppard all the things he'd learned in the last few days.
It was going to blow Sheppard's mind to pieces; Rodney couldn't wait to see the look on his face when he learned the truth.
John felt dumbstruck, and probably looked it, too.
His mind was a whirlwind of thought, barely resting on any one thing as he absorbed everything Caldwell had told him over the past few hours. They'd left Caldwell behind, still tied to the chair, but John doubted the man would have any trouble figuring a way out. John pegged him as a smart guy, resourceful. It wasn't personal – they'd left Caldwell tied up mainly because they didn't want to risk him calling the authorities on them as soon as he was able.
… Okay, so maybe it was a little personal.
But they couldn't afford to trust blindly; especially a man that claimed the existence of alien life was not only known to the US government, but also familiar enough that they were in the business of instantaneous interstellar travel. The sheer logic of that statement was ludicrous.
Why wasn't John laughing, then? Why wasn't he dismissing the explanation as the ramblings of a madman, or a gifted liar? Why was his mind so furiously preoccupied with all the details, trying to sort them out, make sense of it like it could possible make any sense to being with? The SGC. Cheyenne Mountain. Snakehead aliens and other extraterrestrial threats. Life on hundreds – maybe thousands – of other planets in the Milky Way. Even beyond the Milky Way.
God, his head was spinning.
He glanced aside towards Elizabeth in the passenger seat, who seemed equally as preoccupied as him while she watched the scenery pass by her window. John weaved the car through the inner streets with only half his normal attention on the task. Elizabeth was supposed to be up for some sort of oversight position – some representative of the US in intergalactic relations or something. Caldwell hadn't been too clear on those details, and truthfully, by that time John's brain had been on information overload.
"You believe him, don't you?" Elizabeth breathed without glancing in his direction. "You think his explanation holds water."
"I've heard a lot of crazy things in my life," John answered, "this is the craziest of them all by a long shot."
He swallowed through his dry throat. "And I know better than to discount crazy. I don't know. I think if he were to come up with a lie, it'd be more plausible than that. It's just…"
"It's so crazy," Elizabeth finished for him with a sigh, "that it has to be true."
John licked his lips and made a non-committal noise in the back of his throat. They sat in silence again, each lost in their own thoughts, but then John abruptly curved the rental car onto a dark tree-lined deserted stretch of the road. He stopped with the engine still running at the curb.
"Larrin Caldwell might prove to be a huge liability if she stays free for long," John concluded. "Information like that can't wait to be acted on."
"Okay," Elizabeth conceded, eyeing him. "What do you suggest?"
John extinguished the headlines and got out of the car, swinging around to the back. He spent a few seconds rummaging through a few belongings from the trunk until he emerged with the sleek cell phone.
Elizabeth joined him at the side of the road. "What are you doing?"
John blew out a breath, the heat of it condensing visibly in the frigid air. "I'm going to call up Ellis and tell him about Larrin."
"You'll think he'll listen?"
"We're about to find out," John answered and dialed the number. When he heard Ellis pick on the other end, John skipped any pleasantries. "Sir, this is Sheppard. I'm with Dr. Weir right now and I have vital information."
On the other end, Ellis paused and at another time John might have taken that to mean the man was shocked into silence by John's sudden contact, but he knew well enough that Ellis was simply taking the moment to signal one of his men to trace the phone call. It would be futile. The cell phone he was using had a SIM card that changed its IMEI number automatically after every use to a random number, making it untraceable and easily disposable.
"Agent," Ellis hissed. "Where the hell have you been?"
"No fucking shit," Ellis barked. "I've had the entire agency looking for you and Dr. Weir for the last day. Not to mention one peeved off Senator that wants a damn good explanation for why his son is dead."
"First thing's first, is Dr. Weir all right?"
John darted a glance towards Elizabeth. "Yes, sir, thus far, but that's only because we've been hiding out. She's in danger—"
"Which is why you have to come in immediately," Ellis overrode him. "I don't know what game you're playing, but this is unacceptable, agent. Dr. Weir needs to come in and—"
"If she comes in, she'll be walking right back into the crosshairs of people that want her dead. I can't come in until I know it's safe."
"That's not your call to make," Ellis snapped. "You're a field agent, Sheppard. This is way above your head."
John paused, recognizing the tone of voice Ellis was using. The man was a good boss, but everybody had their limits and when you pushed Ellis beyond his, the man was not known for subtlety. He'd slammed people down for lesser offenses, and John, knowing he was probably courting his own downfall, was just baiting him at this point.
John took a steadying breath. "Sir, with all due respect, you don't have all the pieces of the puzzle. I'm calling because I've got a lead that might be able to provide informa—"
"We'll deal with the investigation," Ellis stopped him. "I'll say this one last time, and then I'm going to lose patience with you. Just get Dr. Weir in here now."
John's gaze flittered to Elizabeth again, who was watching him with a pale face, hugging her arms around herself for warmth. She was looking at him like she always looked at him – completely open and trusting. He doubted anyone had ever placed that much amount of faith in him before, in his entire life, and John wasn't about to squander it – even if it meant defying the chain of command.
"Sir, my answer is still the same. Dr. Weir comes in when I deem it safe."
The line at the other end went eerily silent, and John pictured Ellis' face in that moment – cold and angry. When Ellis finally spoke up again, his tone matched the imagery perfectly. "You have three hours to bring in Dr. Weir. If you're not in at that time, I'm going to consider you an enemy of the state, do you understand me? I'm going to unleash all government agencies to track you down. You won't be able to hide with that."
John closed his eyes, frustration bubbling to the surface. "You're not listening to me. It's my job to protect her and—"
"I think it should go without saying that if you don't come in within the next three hours, you don't have a job."
The words were a death sentence to him, rendering John silent for several breathes afterwards. He struggled to find his voice, to articulate his arguments, but his mind quickly stalled only on one thing. If the decision came down between his job and his duty, John knew where his loyalties would lie.
"I'll save you the trouble," John answered as his eyes grew hard. "I quit."
He hung up, and just like that, his career as a Secret Service agent ended by the side of the road.
They drove in a hushed atmosphere, John's eyes fixed on the road ahead of him. He refused to think about what just happened; refused to consider the implications of the fact that he'd just provoked his own termination in a job that was his entire life.
The thought that he'd just given that up permanently affected John more than he thought possible, so he refused to let himself be bogged down by the details. Instead, he switched his focus to locating a place for the night. They finally had enough monetary resources to upgrade from a motel to a hotel, and at the first accommodations they found, John pulled in, paid with his alias' credit card, and rode the elevator up to their room on the thirteenth floor in tense silence.
Elizabeth studied him the entire time – not even covertly, as the concern on her face was naked for all to see. He couldn't handle that under the circumstances; felt like her added concern would tip the balance and make him lose control so he ignored it. Hauling their belongings into their hotel room, John worked on auto-mode. He secured the area, then began unpacking their things and taking inventory.
"John," Elizabeth breathed softly, from behind. "About your job, I'm sorr—"
"Don't," he stopped her quickly as he continued to lay out their supplies on the coffee table. "You have nothing to apologize for. Just forget it."
"I said forget it," he snapped harshly, then stilled, shoulders dropping as recrimination tainted his frustration. He closed his eyes, his back to her, and couldn't for the life of him turn around to meet her gaze. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I just… don't want to talk about it."
In fact, he wanted to be alone. He wanted some space to reestablish his equilibrium. Elizabeth must have sensed it easily enough; she excused herself to the bathroom, taking a bundle of clothing, and a few minutes after she retreated he heard the shower turn on. He closed his eyes, bracing his knuckles against the surface of the hard table. Taking a deep breath, John ordered himself to refocus and regroup. Elizabeth was still in danger and he had to help her. Things still needed to get done; nothing had changed.
Nothing had changed.
Gritting his teeth a little, John reached for his cell phone again. His first instinct was to call Rodney, his second to call Teyla. But hopefully Zelenka had already been in contact with the former, which meant Rodney would know how to get in touch with John without taking extraordinary risks. The letter had furnished Rodney with his alias - Benjamin Oliver. With that, Rodney could track John and Elizabeth down anywhere, and he'd be smart enough to have asked Teyla for assistance by now. No, it was just a matter of time before his teammates got in contact with him. John just had to be patient.
But he couldn't afford to be patient; they didn't have that luxury.
He'd just been declared an enemy of the state, and that meant they needed help now more than ever. He needed someone outside the agency, someone so far from all of this they couldn't possibly be tainted. Who did he know that fit the bill? More importantly, whom could he possibly trust in times like these?
John paused, running over his list of contacts and then the answer came to him so swiftly he felt a little stupid for not thinking of it earlier. It was a long shot, but in times of desperation, John was willing to make a fool of himself.
He reached for the motel phone, dialed the directory, told the name and got the connection surprisingly fast. As he was mentally wording his greeting in his head, the phone picked up shortly.
"This better be a fucking emergency," the harsh bark came on the other end.
John tried to force a casual tone. "Hey, buddy. It's me, Sheppard."
There was a pause, and the voice came back confused. "What?"
John frowned; not a good start. "John Sheppard, Air Force Academy back in '93? Remember, we were roommates—"
"Yeah, yeah, of course," the voice cut in. "Jesus, it's been forever."
John paused, rethinking his plan now that he was working up to asking this man for huge favors. He hadn't spoken to his Air Force buddies in nearly a decade, and though with this particular one, John had stayed in touch for a few years, their friendship had naturally suffered because of distance and deviating paths. John went the Secret Service route and never looked back at what could have become of his Air Force career.
Ronon Dex, on the other hand, was in the military for life. A Lieutenant Colonel by now, John knew.
"What's up, Sheppard?" Ronon asked.
Small talk, first. "You know, the same old, same old. Just, ah, thought of you tonight and figured I'd give a call. Where you stationed now?"
"Griffiss Air Force Base."
"New York?" John replied, trying to sound amiable. "Sweet, how is it up there?"
"Dark," he grunted back, pointedly. "It's nearly three in the morning, Sheppard. You didn't call me up to talk about the weather."
John belatedly remembered Ronon's lack of patience when it came to chitchat. The man hadn't been the most verbose individual in the class, and he doubted Ronon had changed much in the past decade. They'd both had been a bit green back then, both outsiders. Well, John had been green... ish. Ronon had been always been… Ronon, even back then. Big, dark and built like a tank. They didn't share many interests in common either, but an unlikely friendship had somehow struck up.
"Look, Ronon, I'm gonna be straight up with you," John said. "I'm in a bind and I need a favor. A big one."
Ronon paused. "Nothing's changed, has it? Still the same reckless newbie."
John smirked. Ronon was a good man, a trusted friend from the old days. That was a long time ago, though – which turned out to be one of the advantages as well. No one would think of looking into this decade-old connection. Ronon was so far removed from John's normal circle of friends that he wouldn't even ping as a potential red flag for anyone trying to track John down.
"How're your frequent flyer miles?" John prodded with a lifted brow.
By the time he finished the conversation, John's thoughts had drifted far enough from his anger with Ellis that he was starting to cool down. If the Secret Service weren't going to listen to his warnings, then John had to go after the threats himself.
Tomorrow, the plan was simple: John went after Larrin Caldwell.
He changed into a white t-shirt and sweatpants, but John's body still felt wired, wound-tight with the stresses of the day. It was only a few hours till sunset, but John was entirely too energized. The notion of rest was a far off dream.
As he stood by the half-open blinds and meticulously began cleaning the chamber piece of his firearm, his mind was preoccupied with various things, some of them decade old wounds that had been reopened by Ellis' recent conversation. Ellis was right in one regard – John had stopped being professional about this situation some time ago. Things felt personal. His own misgivings grew, compounded by Ellis' reprimand. This was just another failure in John's life – first the Air Force, and now this. They just kept tallying up, didn't they?
By the time Elizabeth emerged from the bathroom, John was so lost in thought he didn't hear her until she spoke up, but she whispered so softly she didn't even startle him with her sudden proximity.
"What are you thinking about, John?"
After a beat, John surprised himself by actually answering. "I'm thinking about what my father would think of me right now."
He shook his head, trying to dispel the thoughts as he risked a bit by pushing aside the window's heavy drapes. Moonlight flooded into the dark space. Their hotel room was high up, elevated enough to give them a panoramic view of the capital city. John let his gaze drift over the landscape; it looked a modern day snow globe, actually. He could see the Lincoln Memorial from here, as well the reflecting pool adjacent to it. Elizabeth halted quietly behind him, a little to his left so she could look over his shoulder and share the view alongside him.
"John?" she softly prodded.
He waited a beat, then continued in a shaky voice, "I didn't always want to be a Secret Service agent, y'know? When I was a kid, my father… he was in the Air Force – a Vietnam veteran. I spent my entire childhood trying to please him. But the man… he was…"
His father hadn't been an unloving parent, just stern. John remembered when he'd been eleven-years-old and driven his bike straight into a tree trying to do some stupid stunt: he'd broken his leg in two different places. His father had found him outside in the front yard wailing, and after his parents had taken him to the ER and he'd gotten a cast – John doubted he'd ever forget the memory – he remembered how his father had pulled him aside and told him one thing: Boys don't cry. No matter what. His father hadn't said it cruelly, but the tone behind it was subtly reprimanding in a way that John had carried with him for a long time.
Till this day, he hadn't cried once. Not even for his father's funeral.
John continued, "I went into the Air Force Academy when I was seventeen and then dropped out a year later. My father and I had a huge fight over it. Everybody always asked me why I dropped out, but the truth is I don't think I even knew back then. I just hated it there. Every second of everyday was just this constant struggle to fit in someplace I didn't belong – or at least, I felt like I hadn't belonged."
The other guys had been cool. John had gotten along with most of them just fine; even made a good friend in Ronon. But John later realized that he'd spent his entire life up till that moment doing things the way he was expected to do them. He had joined the military because his father wanted it.
Elizabeth waited patiently for him to pick up the thread and carry on.
"When I dropped out, we stopped talking to each other. He died the following year." He paused for a moment, glancing down at the gun in his hands. "The last conversation we ever had, he said to me a man wasn't any good unless he was protecting the people he loved; unless he was serving his country."
Within six months of his father's death, John had joined the cadets at Rowley and was swiftly on his way to becoming a Secret Service agent. It wasn't what his father had originally intended, but John didn't fool himself for a moment.
"I became a Secret Service agent because of my father," John acknowledged, perhaps for the first time aloud. He reached out and deposited the weapon on top of the cherry oak desk nearby. "I'm just wondering what he would think of me now, seeing as I've managed to screw that up too."
"You didn't screw up," Elizabeth whispered fiercely. In the next heartbeat she tugged him around to face her, and John found her eyes imploring and angry all at once. "You didn't fail. Forget about Ellis and a job title. You're still doing your job, aren't you? I'm still alive, aren't I?"
It wasn't the same thing. "Elizabe—"
"No!" she cut in heatedly, "You listen to me. I would be dead if it weren't for you, and I bet I'm not the first – and probably won't be the last – that can say those words about you. You're willing to put yourself in front of a bullet to save someone else. Don't belittle that. You're still as much of a patriot as you were yesterday and the day before that."
She was getting so worked up over it that he would have laughed at any other moment in time. Instead, he found himself staring at Elizabeth, hair still damp, skin glowing with the heat of a hot shower. Transfixed the most by the intensity of her eyes, by the level of faith she had in him – that someone could look at him like that and mean those words with such sincerity – he suddenly couldn't stop himself.
John wasn't sure how the distance was breached, but abruptly he was kissing her. The move caught him by surprise just as much as her – a shocked gasp escaping her lips – but it felt right, seemed so fitting. He went with it instinctively, lips on hers, coaxing them open with persuasion and just a hint of desperation. John wasn't thinking clearly enough to calculate anything, but he knew he was doing something foolish, something stupid, the repercussions of this action extreme.
But as soon as Elizabeth parted her lips and John's tongue slipped inside, her body melted against him like butter and he found there were no repercussions in that moment. Elizabeth's arms went around him, and then the only thing he could think was that she was kissing him, exactly like he'd been wanting for a long damn time now. John suddenly flashed to the previous night, to how it felt to hold her in his arms all night long. The sudden surge of desire to hold her like that again – with Elizabeth, naked and sweaty, blissed-out from post-coital satisfaction – spurred him on.
When they finally pulled back, John rested his forehead against hers, staring down at her lips, then flickering up to meet her gaze. He waited a beat for Elizabeth to react first.
"John, I…" She looked flustered and thrown. "I don't want to make a mistake with you."
He held still, eyes open and telling, showing her everything he couldn't – and probably never would – say with words. The message must have gotten through because her gaze softened and then her hands moved slowly, hesitantly, to rest against the hollow of his throat. Her fingertips brushed against the speeding pulse of his erratic heartbeat, and he felt a piece of knowledge solidify in that slight gesture.
There were two types of first kisses: the ones that ended the night and the ones that just started it. Without words, he suddenly knew this was the latter. He recognized it the same way he knew all her tells – how her hands folded into each other when she was nervous; how her gaze avoided his when she was holding something back; how he was coming to know everything else about this woman.
He knew it instinctively.
She stretched up to brush his lips lightly with hers, almost hesitantly, but the touch was enough to reignite that reckless feeling again.
Permission granted, he cupped the back of her head and gently held her to him. Despite the softness in his touch, there was no uncertainty in his actions because he knew he wanted this – wanted it for a very long time – and that confidence seemed to coax Elizabeth away from any hesitation. Her fingers scraped across his scalp, pulling him with her as she retreated to the desk. They landed with a thud against the table, jostling the items on the surface.
The second kiss melted into a third and then drove them into a series of slow, sensuous kisses. The embrace was just shy of desperate and needy, but they moved slowly. John wanted it that way, wanted this to mean more than just a desperate fuck.
John edged her back mindlessly. Blindly, he swept a hand at the table behind her and knocked the objects out of their way. He hoisted her up, and Elizabeth instinctively wrapped her legs around his waist as he laid her down on the table. Without asking for permission, without a single moment of hesitation, he moved on top of her, pinning her to the surface of the desk.
His hands were already under her top and she shivered slightly when his fingers grazed the underside of her breast. She wasn't wearing a bra and the realization made him a little wild, cupping her breast with his palm and kneading with pressure. She moaned loudly, tilted her head aside, and the maneuver exposed the curve of her elegant neck and the slope down to her chest, where the top two buttons were left undone. John leaned forward, brushing his lips against her neck, nipping the skin and then latching on to suck hard enough to leave Elizabeth gasping.
He chased the mark he left behind with the scrap of his stubble, rewarded with a small, indistinct noise from the back of her throat, and that just made John feel a little delirious, almost smug.
"Stop smirking," Elizabeth chided. "Cocky bastard."
He laughed, kissing her again. Distractedly, John fumbled for her pajamas. As soon as he managed to slide a finger under her panties, Elizabeth's back arched into him and she broke off the kiss with a gasp. He grazed her clit and Elizabeth started making all-new, small noises of satisfaction.
He rubbed a finger against her urgently at first, and then pushed his index finger inside of her. Her body jerked away, an instinctual reaction, but he gripped her hips and quieted her down with soothing words, swiftly working his finger in and out of her. He had one arm braced by her side, the other delved beneath her panties, and she was starting to buck up against him, a bit desperately.
"God, John," she mumbled, head tossing and turning with need. "I'm… oh, God."
"C'mon, Elizabeth," he encouraged in a hoarse whisper. "C'mon."
He added another digit, rapidly fucking her with his fingers, and then she came hard, bucking up as her muscles spasmed erratically. The sensation was too much for him to handle, too intense, and when he pulled back as she trembled, he frantically started to shove his sweats and boxers down past his hips.
"Wait, wait, wait," Elizabeth protested with a gasp, pushing him back. "John, wait."
He pulled back confused, hormones run amuck, and a frantic thought seized him. "Should I… do you want me to stop?"
"What?" There was a pause, and then her eyes widened in realization. "No, no," she assured, still drawing heavy breaths. "I just… do you… do you have protection?"
He dropped his forehead to her shoulder again, this time resting in frank relief because all she was asking for was protection. For a split-second there, he thought she was going to want to stop, and that was a thought too cruel for words. He felt her body start to shake with silent laughter as she caught on, but when she dragged her fingers through his hair and stroked lightly in reassurance, John couldn't find it in him to take offense.
"You really are chivalrous, you know that?" She slid her hands down his back, cupping his ass through the sweats. "What would you have done if I said stop?"
"Killed myself?" he offered lightly, then groaned when her hands encouraged him to rock, grinding him down against her. "Jesus, Elizabeth," he moaned. "You feel so…" Good, soft, warm, right. He wasn't sure what he could have said that would have described her perfectly.
"Well," she mused in a soft voice. "As much as I'm enjoying this position, why don't we move to that big, king-sized mattress three feet from us?"
"If you insist," he mumbled, pressing a kiss to her collarbone.
She started to pull away, but John turned his head instinctively, catching her wrist in his hand and brushing a quick feather-light kiss to her palm. Her eyes darkened a bit, and the slight tell in them just confirmed everything he was feeling. This felt right to her, just like it did for him. It was deep and heavy, and John couldn't help but think he'd never felt like this before.
He pulled her in for another kiss and she melted into him. Elizabeth slid her hands up around his neck, legs already wrapped around his waist, and John lifted her, carrying her with him as he backpedaled to the bed. He eased her down onto the mattress, and then reached across her – his body hovered over her – to the bedside table where his wallet rested. As he fished around for the condom, Elizabeth slithered out from under him.
"Hey," he protested with a frown, "where you going?"
She silenced him with an arched eyebrow, then tugged at his sweats. He landed with a bounce against the mattress, turning over onto his back, and found himself staring up at Elizabeth as she tugged his clothes off with a small laugh. He realized with a start that he was this worked up over her, and they weren't even naked yet. But the smell of her was still on his fingers, and he decided he wanted to enjoy this moment as long as he could. He folded his arms behind his head, condom falling to the pillowcase, and idly watched as Elizabeth undressed him.
She glared at him. "Help a little."
He paused, then obligingly tugged off his shirt, tossed it aside and went right back to watching her perform, fingers clasped behind his head. She rolled her eyes, and then – ever so accommodating – began shimmying out of her pants and panties. He studied her in the dim light, a surge of lust going through him as she exposed herself. God, she was lithe and gorgeous. Elizabeth tugged her shirt off her body, curls landing against her shoulder with a bounce. He realized that he'd been fantasizing about this moment in the back of his head for so long now, but he'd never thought reality could meet the standards his daydreams had set up.
She crawled on top and straddled his legs – both of them naked – and stretched to kiss him again. "You don't think this is a mistake, right?" she breathed in between kisses. "You and me?"
He couldn't force himself to stop and think, but didn't have to. "No," he breathed knowingly. Then chuckled softly into her ear. "Though, I'll admit, brain functions aren't at their highest potential right now."
As she shifted away to straddle his legs again, John sought the condom on the nearby pillow and was just reaching for it when he felt her mouth unexpectedly close in around his shaft. She took in his dick swiftly and sucked hard. John bucked up instinctively, eyes flying to Elizabeth. She pushed his hips down, then palmed the base of his erection and pumped as her mouth took him in and out. He groaned, head pressed back into the pillow, eyes screwed shut as the sensation of Elizabeth sucking him off took over every sensation in his body.
When he was dangerously close to the edge, he realized she needed to stop or the night's activities would end prematurely. Fumbling, John reached across the bed and snagged the condom, mumbling something like Stop. Stop. Stop. Elizabeth, stop. When she finally pulled back, John quickly and desperately rolled the condom on.
Moments later when she finally sunk down onto him, John felt the penetration every inch of the way. As they settled, hips-to-hips, he swallowed thickly and stared up at her. Elizabeth's body began to move, slowly at first, adjusting to him inside of her. He gripped her hips in encouragement, persuading her to rock faster and harder with a bruising hold. She retaliated by dropping forward, bracing her arms on either side of his head, and shifting her lower body slowly. He felt like he was going out of his mind, watching Elizabeth move slowly at first, her face inches from his.
"Don't stop," he breathed, voice choked with need. "Christ, Elizabeth, don't stop."
She hummed and leaned forward to lick his neck, nipping a little before she nuzzled him. He threaded his fingers through her hair, clenched the strands in a fist and then pulled her up for a toe-curling kiss. He swallowed her attention by taking over her mouth, tongues toying, eyes screwed shut, chest-to-chest.
When she pulled back, she started moving harder, rocking her hips against his body in a way that left John struggling to breathe. She planted a hand against his chest, pulling up and lowering back down, shifting against him, rotating her hips and grinding down. John watched, transfixed by the sight, overwhelmed by the feeling of her swaying against him. She threaded her hands through his hair, fingers brushing the tip of his ear as their lips crushed against each other, seeking an intense rhythm with their bodies, like they were long-familiar lovers.
When she came, it was with a swift cry of pleasure, muscles spasming as she pitched forward, body limp. He swallowed against the urge to grimace, mindlessly chanting her name and cursing under his breath. He gripped her hips as she rode out the tremors, then pushed up into her, frantically thrusting up a few more times before his own release ripped through him with a hoarse grunt. His body jerked, jolted and then settled heavily against the mattress. He stroked a hand across her back, soothing her down as he got his own breathing under control, the euphoric daze leaving his mind blank for several moments.
But as the seconds stretched out, the weight of Elizabeth's body over his convinced John that this moment was both as good and as bad as he'd originally anticipated. John felt like he'd done this before – with her – like they'd always been like this. There was no going back now; the lines had been blurred into obscurity.
Protecting Elizabeth wasn't about duty and honor anymore, not even close.
Some time later, as they spooned against each other, drowsy but still awake, he ran the pads of his fingers across her naked thigh. The bed was warm and inviting, and though they'd barely gotten any sleep during the night, he was fighting the pull of slumber as a red dawn was clearing the horizon. The blinds were left a sliver open, letting a thin strip of light creep across the carpeted floor. He knew he couldn't let that stand.
Sighing, he finally left the bed was for the sole purpose of closing the drapes and retrieving the pieces of his SIG, quickly reassembling them together again in the dim light of the room. He stood nude, snapping the clip back into place and checking the safety, before he felt Elizabeth's gaze on him. She was following the movements of his hands, a dark look in her eyes.
"I almost forgot," she breathed as he approached the bed again.
He placed the weapon underneath his pillow and climbed back into bed. "What?"
"I almost forgot about the threat," she explained as she made room for him. "A few good hours there, and I have to say… it was a nice thing to forget."
She stretched alongside him, a leg slipping between his. She dropped her chin onto his chest, and looked up at him while he idly toyed with a strand of her hair. "We can't forget," he breathed quietly. "We forget, even for an instance, and we'll get into trouble."
She sighed heavily. "I know." A moment lapsed in silence, but then Elizabeth was shaking her head, dispelling the gloomy thought with an impish smile. "What about you?" she teased. "You really are chivalrous, you know that? Almost old-fashioned."
John quirked an eyebrow in confusion, then remembered that brief moment of panic last night when he thought she wanted him to stop the sex before they even really got to it. "Old-fashioned?" he murmured with amusement.
He'd been called a lot of things in his life, by a lot of girls, but old-fashioned and chivalrous had never been one of them. In fact, there were moments when he'd considered a few of his one-night stands to be conquests; hardly a gentlemanly thing to think. But he didn't want things to be like that with Elizabeth. She deserved better.
She also deserved to know what she was getting into.
"I'm not a guy that does relationships well," he admitted. "Old-fashioned is really a bad description of me. I have a history of… well, messing things up. So if you wanna stop this, it's probably best to do it now before either of us get too invested in this thing."
She quirked an eyebrow. "I think it's already a little too late for that, don't you?"
John paused, more than well aware of the truth in her words. He'd been fighting the pull of this attraction for what seemed like a very, very long time and he was getting tired of that. "This is going to be…" he took a breath, warning her, "messy."
"Messy," she affirmed with a simple nod.
He scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration, getting the sense that she wasn't appreciating the weight of this fully. She seemed to be humoring him, the expression on her face far too light and carefree for the conversation he was trying to broach. She needed to know this wasn't going to be like some damn romance novel. Sleeping with each other was only going to complicate an already horribly messy situation, and the likelihood of this relationship leading anywhere positive was slim-to-none. Real life wasn't like TV or the movies.
She reached up to brush his lips with a soft kiss. "Hey, you're thinking too much."
"Isn't that supposed to be my line?"
She arched an eyebrow at him. "Look, I'm scared, too. Six months ago, I was engaged to a man who I never really loved. Two days ago, I was out on a date with a man that was using me for his job. You think after that, the idea of you and me doesn't terrify me half to death? You're not the only one that can make mistakes here, John."
"If I make a mistake," John countered, "I could get you killed."
She shook her head. "That's not what I'm talking about, and you know it. You're not freaking out because of the complications this is going to bring to your job."
"I'm not freaking out."
"Yes," she countered softly, confidently. "You are. A little, at least."
John realized she was right, and that just made him nervous on a whole new level because how the hell could she know that? How the hell could she possibly know him so well after only a few weeks' time? He glanced to the ceiling, eyes affixed on some distant spot, and the urge overwhelmed him to shake her until she realized his apprehensions. Things weren't going to be neat and tidy. This relationship was a hunkered down in the middle of a disaster-zone; it was a time-bomb waiting to go off.
Why wasn't Elizabeth as concerned as he was about that?
She distracted him from his thoughts by placing a few feather-light kisses across his chest. "Good news, though," she breathed, moving to his neck and nipping gently. John instinctively moved his head aside to allow her better access. "You're not officially on my detail anymore. So, technically no professional ethics have been breached in this—"
He chuckled. "So this is the silver lining in getting fired?"
She smirked at him. "I do try to look at things in a positive light."
That required a response more than merely verbal. John swiftly overturned her to trap her body beneath his, shifting a little lower so he could quickly place kisses along her sternum and down to her bellybutton. "I guess I should reap the benefits as much as possible, then?"
The conversation pretty much ceased after that.
The following morning, they were having breakfast at the local dinner on the corner street when the door swung open and a familiar tall figure dressed in green fatigues walked through the entrance. John slung an arm across the back of the booth and smirked.
Ronon Dex had always been a big guy – and when John said big, it really didn't do him justice. Back in the academy, Ronon had easily outweighed, outmaneuvered, and outperformed every other cadet in the class. It seemed in the years since then that Ronon had only taken the opportunity to bulk up even more. Carrying a duffle bag slung over his left shoulder, he strode towards the small booth as John rose to greet him.
They stopped and silently stared at each other as Elizabeth looked on. For a moment, John was at a loss for words but then Ronon did what he always did – surprised the hell out of John.
Ronon dropped the duffle bag to the floor, clamped John over the shoulder in a one-armed hug that lifted him clear off the floor. "How you been, Sheppard?" he barked with a laugh. "Been forever."
And just like that, John felt like all the years had melted away.
"It's good to see you, Ronon," John laughed. "Man, you have no idea how good."
The picture was grainy, out of focus, and further blurred by the distance of the camera's point of origin. Still, as Teyla leaned down to peer at the imagery closer, it was obvious that the footage held two familiar figures.
"Sheppard and Weir were caught on a traffic camera across the street from this department store at 2:47 PM yesterday," Ellis explained. "We haven't been able to track them physically from this point onwards, but we should be able to pick up the investigation again and follow the trail. Interview sales representatives to see if they remember these two. Track down all the credit card transactions and ATM withdrawals at the store to see if they match up with any known aliases that Sheppard's used in the past. Check the log of the public phones and trace the calls. Run everything through NTAC."
Teyla exchanged a covert look with Rodney, the message passing between them in a split-second. They already knew where John was, and under what alias; it was just a matter of time before they'd make contact. But they couldn't let Ellis know any of that, of course.
"If you find out any information," Ellis continued, "I want to be the first to know. No delay. I want updates as this unfolds piece-by-piece."
"Sir," Teyla tried. "Perhaps Agent Sheppard will come in with Dr. Weir once he deems it prudent. I know him, and he wouldn't engage in this type of hide-and-seek without a good reason for—"
"It's not his place to make those decisions," Ellis cut her off forcefully. "Look, I get the man is just doing what he thinks is right, but he's not thinking the big picture. Dr. Weir needs the protection of the entire agency, not from just one AWOL agent."
As much as Teyla hated to admit it, she conceded the validity of his point. No matter how determined John was, there was no way he could provide Dr. Weir with protection 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He could not possibly be on alert all the time and that was precisely why this wasn't a job meant for a single man.
"Keep in touch," Ellis ordered as he gathered his coat. "A few other agents should be joining you shortly. Agent Emmagan, I want you to coordinate with them and handle the logistics. But I want our team to find them before anybody else does."
He quickly stormed out of the room, leaving Rodney and Teyla behind in his wake with a sense of growing ill ease. She refocused on the monitor screen. What did John think he was doing? She usually trusted his judgment above all others, but his actions on this case had been so far from orthodox that even Teyla felt her misgivings grow despite herself.
"He is acting reckless," Teyla mumbled, turning to Rodney with an anxious lilt in her voice. "I know John has always acted on impulse but this time he may have gone too far. Ellis has a point. He should not be trying to deal with this singlehandedly."
"He's not," Rodney argued, "That's why he's got us, remember? To pull him back from the brink of doing something stupid on a Neanderthal level."
"But I've never seen him act so defiantly before," Teyla continued to protest. "Not even with Sumner." The name brought Teyla to a screeching halt, remembering Sumner's condition at Sibley Memorial Hospital. She shook the worry loose with a tense exhale and refocused on the monitor again. "I cannot imagine what he's thinking."
Rodney snorted, then mumbled softly under his breath, "That's because he's thinking with his hormones."
Teyla suspected Rodney had not intended her to hear that, but she had and she could no less dismiss the words than she could stop breathing. She whirled around to Rodney, eyes widening in disbelief. "What did you say?" she breathed. He clamped his mouth shut, so she steadied herself with a breath and intoned with a stern voice, "Rodney."
He flinched, avoiding eye contact. "He may have developed… an affinity for Dr. Weir."
"An affinity?" Teyla echoed slowly, suspiciously.
Rodney was attempting to be tactful – never a good sign.
He waved a hand around. "Don't look at me like that. I'm not the one that got involved with her."
"He's involved?" Teyla repeated harshly as she advanced a step. "How involved is he with—"
"Look," Rodney squeaked, back peddling. "I don't know anything! If you want answers, we're going to have to ask Sheppard and we'll see him soon enough so you can tear into him like a piñata all you want. I'll even stand back and clap and possibly provide suggestions and audience commentary on the best ways to pummel Sheppard."
Rodney never let her finish, "Although honestly, professional misconduct will likely be one of the lower charges they'll bring him up against when this thing is all over with. I imagine the little things like violating national security and defying multiple direct orders might land him in more hot water than anything else. But that's just me and what the hell do I know? I just have an IQ twice the number of most people's optimal cholesterol levels!"
The door swung open and admitted three other agents into the small enclosure before she could muster a response. Teyla pressed her lips into the thin line. Yes, she was certainly going to question John regarding this matter personally. Although much good that notion was to any of them right now. Teyla and Rodney still had to maintain the image that they were desperately continuing the investigation so the other agents would not suspect. She had no choice but to fake the search for a few hours until they could manage to slip away undetected.
"Alright," Teyla began with an aggrieved sigh as she assumed command. "This is how we're going to split up the work detail. Rodney and I are going to start with interviewing the sales representative and…"
Two hours later, everybody had their roles to play. Still John felt disquieted as he hunched over on the sofa, hands clasped between his legs, staring at Elizabeth from across the hotel room. Something wasn't right – there was something he was forgetting or overlooking and he couldn't afford to mess up a single part of their plan—
"Go, Sheppard." Ronon slanted him an exasperated look. "Do what you have to do. I've got Dr. Weir covered."
After a pause, John reached for his coat. "You'll keep an eye on her while I track Larrin—"
"John," Elizabeth cut in. "Go."
John nodded. He fought the urge to hesitate longer, a quiet unease sinking in his stomach at the thought of leaving her. It wasn't that he didn't trust Ronon – John did, otherwise he'd never have called him in the first place – but he knew just what kind of danger Elizabeth was in. He preferred to be there himself in case the shit hit the fan.
He shrugged on his coat and fixed the collar. "All right, I'll see you in a few hours."
Elizabeth pushed off and stepped forward to meet him at the door. She paused, turning back to Ronon and the big guy seemed to receive the message. He lifted to his feet and went over to lounge near the plate-glass window with his back to them. It gave them the illusions of privacy, but nothing more.
Elizabeth hooked a strand of hair behind her ear. "When do you think Rodney and… what was your other friend's name? Teyla?"
John nodded. "Teyla Emmagan."
"When do you think they'll contact us?"
"Sometime today," John assured with more confidence than he had. "Rodney should track us to this hotel room. Just sit tight, and explain the situation to them when they arrive. I'll try to be back with Larrin as soon as possible."
Elizabeth stepped into his personal space and John's eyes flittered to Ronon briefly again. Debating for a second on how much he could get away with without the big guy noticing, John shifted his weight from one foot to another, a little jittery.
He suspected Ronon wouldn't take the news that he slept with his protectee all that well. It was unprofessional at best, and he didn't want Ronon thinking there were any other reasons for John's concerns except rational ones; John needed to maintain that image if Ronon was to continue laying his neck out on the line for this.
Elizabeth brought his attention back to her. "John, I—"
"I'll be fine," he stopped her, knowingly. "I know what I'm doing."
She nodded slowly, her face pinched with anxiety. He licked his lips a little, a rush of adolescent foolishness overcoming him. Damn it. Forget Ronon. Grow a pair and kiss her already. Except he couldn't risk it and they both knew that. Jesus, not even a day and his hormones were running amok. Elizabeth wasn't helping matters by her close proximity.
His hand fisted around the doorknob. "I'll see you in few hours."
Disappointment and understanding darkened the hue of her eyes. "Stay safe."
He pulled open the door and left without a backwards glance.
Larrin Caldwell wasn't a difficult woman to track down as long as you knew where to start. He spent half an hour driving back to Ozio to talk with a bartender that had worked the previous night. A fifty-dollar bill exchanged hands and information was relayed; Larrin frequented the bar on a regular basis and ran up a tab in the hundreds. The owners sent the bills directly to her apartment on the Anacostia waterfront.
John drove to her shoreline residence and sat guard in his rental car, a half-folded newspaper concealing his features as Larrin emerged from her place briefly to get her mail before she retreated back inside. He killed the engine and climbed out of his rental car when a dark shadow abruptly crossed his path.
His gaze drifted up to find Steven Caldwell standing on the sidewalk.
John's hands flew to his SIG, but Caldwell started, "Don't! I'm not here to harm you."
John's grip rested on the heel of his weapon. "What are you doing here?"
"What do you think I'm doing here?" Caldwell answered with narrowed eyes. "I knew after last night's conversation you'd track my sister down for information."
John shook his head. "Look, you seem like a good guy and I'm sorry she's your sister, but if you think you're going to stop me from—"
"I'm not," Caldwell cut in. "I don't want to stop you from doing anything."
John paused. "What, then?"
Caldwell expelled a harsh breath. "I want to know what Larrin's up to. I'm here to get answers, just like you."
Larrin flopped down onto her sofa cushion, reached for the remote control and punched the play button. Nothing particularly interesting popped up on screen, but then again, Larrin wasn't watching for the entertainment value. It was her homework for the afternoon. On the TV screen in front of her was an old interview of Dr. Weir, dating back a year ago. She was discussing some type of energy crisis with other political pundits that all loved to talk way too much in Larrin's opinion.
Dropping the remote control onto the cushions, Larrin leaned in, elbows braced on her knees as she got a closer look. The facial expressions and frequent hand gestures Weir made were key. Though the footage was a poor source for learning the ticks and mannerisms of the woman, it'd have to do for a temporary basis.
God help her if Larrin needed to fool people into thinking she was Elizabeth Weir for longer than a few days.
Hopefully the ruse would end quickly without any sort of fuss. Larrin wasn't looking forward to the performance; not because she felt unprepared to play the part of some bleeding-heart liberal. No, Larrin was a consummate actress. She'd manage just fine. Unlike Michael, though, she had little patience for such games. She much preferred doing things behind the scenes – for instance, right now Larrin would have killed to be in on the reconditioning of Henry Hayes.
But no, she had homework.
Heaving a restless sigh, Larrin hit the pause button and retreated to the kitchen to get some snacks. On her way back, she swung by her front foyer closet and picked up the metallic briefcase that rested in the corner. She spread out all her belongings on her family room table, and spun the numeric combination to open the briefcase. As she lifted the lid, the final mimic device gleamed up at her – all shiny, sparkly and new. Larrin hefted the weight of the alien object in her hands, running over the smooth circular indentations with the pads of her fingertips.
Larrin glanced to the TV screen, eyeing the frozen image of Elizabeth Weir in the midst of taking a sip from an open bottle of sparkling water, one delicate eyebrow lifted in an expression of amusement. Larrin studied the image for half a tick, then adhered the back of the alien device to her shirt and hit the button on top. She padded across the room barefoot to the nearest mirror.
When she found her reflection, it was uncanny even knowing full-well what she'd find. The reflection of Elizabeth Weir stared back at her with green eyes and shoulder-length brunette hair that curled slightly at the ends.
"Hi," Larrin greeted with a cheeky smile. "I'm Dr. Stick Up Her Ass. Won't you come save the world with me?"
Out of sheer amusement, she practiced the one-eyebrow-lift in the mirror. It was a little difficult for her to manage at first, but after a few seconds of trying it out Larrin got a chuckle out of it. Playing with a slight perverse sense of humor, she went through a barrage of ridiculous facial expressions – scrunching up her nose, sticking her tongue out at the mirror, making cross-eyes. Anything and everything that ended up making the woman in the mirror look ridiculous.
Eventually, though, the humor of the situation flittered away and Larrin was left staring at the reflection of a perfect stranger. She examined the face critically. Weir was a pretty woman – not in an ostentatious type of way that Larrin was used to, but in an… unassuming type of way, perhaps? Larrin was hard-pressed to concede that much, but it was undeniable.
Weir dressed professionally, but Larrin knew if she threw on some tight-fitting jeans, snug t-shirt, maybe finished off the look with a sleek brown leather jacket, then the appearance would transform easily into something that would make most men stop and stare as she walked by. Larrin liked that type of attention. Weir was probably too stuffy for that, wasn't she? Larrin rolled her eyes – the image perfectly mirrored with unfamiliar green ones – and quickly turned her back on the reflection.
To her extreme and ever-lasting shock, Larrin found her brother and another strange man standing in her hallway.
"Larrin?" Steven greeted in a terse voice. "You better have a damn good explanation for this."
Instinctively recoiling a few steps, her eyes flew from Steven's face, to the gun in his hands, then to the man standing next to him – the Secret Service agent on Weir's detail! Shit! She tossed a look over her shoulder and realized that the mimicry device was still on. She still looked like Elizabeth Weir.
With growing panic, Larrin tried to backtrack. "I can explain everything."
The man with Steven threw her a menacing look as he stepped forward. "Oh, trust me, you will."
Elizabeth's boredom escalated as the minutes ticked by slowly, and while she waited and waited and waited, the restlessness compelled her to reach for a spare deck of cards. She started playing Solitaire. Her only other sources of entertainment included a TV with three hazy channels and the possibility of a conversation with a man who had refined the single-syllable answer into an art form.
Ronon wasn't an avid conversationalist, to say the least.
After a few hours of trying to coax him into talking to her, Elizabeth gave up the futile task and settled by the bed with her deck of cards. Ronon lounged in the corner chair much like a lazy lion after a heavy meal. He looked so deceptively calm – it had to be a deception, Elizabeth told herself – but she couldn't impersonate the same level of nonchalance. Time passed by, bit by bit, until it was mid-afternoon and the lack of news gave way to gnawing concern.
Eventually, she cracked. "What the hell is taking him so long?" she muttered heatedly, tossing down a three of hearts. "He should have been back hours ago."
Ronon didn't even spare a glance. "Sheppard will come."
"What if something's wrong?"
Elizabeth shot him a glare. "How do you know?"
"Because," Ronon answered simply, "Sheppard's good at what he does."
She stopped and stared at him, studying his profile and large frame in the dim light. He seemed so confident and sure, but the way John explained it to her, he hadn't had contact with this man in nearly a decade. What did it say about John that he could inspire that type of loyalty and confidence years after the fact? And what did all of that say about a man like Ronon?
"What do you do for a living?" Elizabeth asked. "I know you're in the military, but John never went into the details."
"That's because my job isn't that interesting."
That just made Elizabeth all the more curious. "What is it?"
He tossed a quick glance over his shoulder. "I teach hand-to-hand combat and survival training."
He shrugged. "Kick boxing, judo, jujutsu, kendo," he paused, then shook his head. "And about five other martial arts techniques that most people can't even pronounce. You wouldn't be interested in the details."
Except Elizabeth paused, suddenly thrown back to the day from weeks ago when she'd been attacked by Michael Kenmore. The thing that made the memory of that attack so terrifying – so degrading – was the shameful fact that Elizabeth hadn't been able to do much to defend herself. His assaults had so easily overwhelmed her meager resistance. No matter how unreasonable it was to think she could defend herself against a hired assassin, thinking back to those moments filled her with a sense of humiliation.
She hated feeling so defenseless; hated it perhaps more than she feared the idea of another attack.
"Teach me," Elizabeth said suddenly. "Teach me some self-defense moves."
For the first time all day, Ronon turned to give her his full attention, interest clearly peaked. "Seriously?"
Her eyes hardened with determination. "Do I look like I'm joking to you?"
Teyla released a long-suffering sigh as she studied the scenery pass by her passenger side window. They'd had to continue the ruse of an investigation longer than Teyla had originally anticipated; it was already passed six. Praying that John hadn't moved Dr. Weir to a new location, she glanced to the speedometer with a quick eye and then tried not to glare up at Rodney.
"Perhaps we can go a bit faster, Rodney?" she urged in an even voice. "Time is of the essence."
Rodney grunted, "Have you seen the roads out there? They're all slicked with ice and snow. Oh, no, no, no, no. I'm not spinning out of the control and crashing to our deaths just to reach our destination five minutes faster. We'll get there when we get there."
Teyla paused, then decided to let the matter drop. She knew her patience was on edge for reasons that had nothing to do with Rodney and his abysmal driving skills. Her growing discontent stemmed from the fact that the more she gave the situation consideration, the more she feared where all of this was leading.
God help them all if John was letting his feelings for Dr. Weir get in the way of making important decisions. He was a smart man, but far from flawless. His Achilles heel seemed to stem from his impulse control that was so often a slave to his emotions. John often needed his team to be the voices of his better angels in order to pull him back from doing something reckless.
Teyla turned to Rodney again. "What is Dr. Weir like?"
"Dr. Weir," she repeated. "I've been drowning in information about her these last few days, but I still have no sense of what type of woman she is. What is she like?"
Rodney mulled over the answer for two seconds flat. "Smart. Not smart like me-smart, but intelligent enough to carry on a conversation. Soft-science doctorate, though."
"And?" Telya prodded.
Rodney shrugged. "She's nice. What do you want me to say?"
Teyla sighed heavily. With a roll of her eyes, she turned back to her window as Rodney pulled up to the hotel. The parking lot was small though, completely filled. She had no patience to wait for Rodney to find a spot. When he rolled the car to a stop at the end of one lane, Teyla quickly got out.
"I'll meet you up there," Teyla explained, buttoning up her coat. "What was the room number, again?"
"1305," Rodney answered. "But don't start on Sheppard until I get there, all right? I want to bear witness to the ass-kicking and—"
"Park the car, Rodney," Teyla said in an affectionate, amused tone.
She scoped the layout as she passed through the revolving front door. The hotel was a large building with multiple exits and entrances. The lobby was wide open and lead to a small indoor swimming pool in the back, as well as a cordoned-off vending machine area. The elevator ride up proved uneventful and quiet despite the fact that Teyla's company included a tourist family with two kids under the age of five. The smallest kid, a toddler, strained his neck looking up at her, and Teyla flashed a friendly smile and waved back.
She got off on the thirteenth floor, weaving through the corridor until she arrived at 1305. But as she lifted her fist to knock on the door, a loud thud from the other side abruptly pulled Teyla to a halt. Suspicious, she leaned closer to the door, pressing her ear to the surface and picked up a slew of other muted noises. A grunt, some feet shuffling, and then there was a very loud, very disconcerting crash – a struggle.
Teyla reacted on instinct. Pulling her weapon free and switching the safety off in one fluid move, she slammed a hard boot against the door. The lock broke open and in the next second Teyla was charging into the hotel room with her weapon raised. She found Dr. Weir on the ground, the wind clearly knocked out of her, and another large unidentifiable man the size of a tank looming over her fallen figure.
Teyla swiveled her gun to the large man. "Freeze. Put your hands up in the air and—"
Dr. Weir rose, "Who are you—"
The guy took advantage of the split-second distraction. He reached for the nearby phone and lobbed it at her, knocking her gun away. He charged and Teyla reacted to the threat. She ducked an incoming uppercut and whirled, grabbed both his arms and head-butted him in return. As he groaned and recoiled, she leapt into the air, spun into a roundhouse kick that left her opponent groaning.
When she advanced on his doubled-over form, he rebounded swiftly with an elbow to her face, grabbed her right arm and twisted so that Teyla screamed out. She stuck out her foot, trying to trip him but he responded with a block and pushed her back. He sent her stumbling backwards and skidding across the floor.
For a brief split-second, as Teyla looked up at his behemoth figure looming over her, she reassessed him with newfound respect. He was a big man, nearly twice her size but what concerned her more was his skill. He obviously knew how to handle himself even against such a well-trained opponent as herself.
Teyla took cold comfort in the notion that she'd demonstrated enough skill to give him pause as well.
She rose to her feet slowly and adopted a fighting stance, chin tucked low, eyes staring straight ahead with a threat inherent in them. Her opponent flashed a lazy, feral grin as if the idea of a worthy fight was appealing to him. He brought his hands up in the air, palms open. All the while, with growing alarm on her face Dr. Weir pressed herself against the back wall and watched with wide eyes.
They both charged in the same instance, and what ensued was a knockdown, drag out fight: his size versus her speed, his power versus her agility, and finally his level of force versus her own brand. Teyla traded hard kicks and combination strikes with the other man, and though they utilized two different styles and techniques in the blows, together the trade-offs were too evenly matched. Weaknesses were exploited as quickly as a blink of an eye.
At one point her attacker hefted Teyla around the waist and hurled her into the full-length mirror by the bed. The glass smashed as Teyla crumpled to the floor, leaving a blood trail from her head on the wall behind her. She recovered, winded, then stretched across for a blade of glass and swung out, intending a killing blow. He jerked back and then ripped a slim lamp off the wall, overturning it so the flat base could serve as a blunt killing instrument.
"Stop!" Dr. Weir screamed, and both fighters whirled to the woman in the corner. "Nobody move!"
Teyla stared, shocked to find Dr. Weir with a gun in her hands – Teyla's own that had earlier skidded to the floor. She had her aim trained on Teyla.
"Dr. Weir!" Teyla protested. "I am here to help you!"
"Freeze!" another familiar voice entered into the fray.
Rodney was suddenly at Teyla's back, having slipped through the broken door. He had his gun aimed over her shoulder at the large, dark-skinned man, and the entire thing was quickly turning into a strange standoff. Except Teyla still couldn't fathom why Dr. Weir had her gun aimed at Teyla instead of the man that had been attacking her.
"Rodney?" Dr. Weir breathed in confusion.
"Elizabeth," Rodney responded in a wry, annoyed voice. "Why do you have a gun trained on Agent Emmagan? She's your friend."
"So am I," the big guy in the corner barked.
When Dr. Weir failed to refute the statement, everybody stared at each other for one long pause. "Okay," she breathed, confused. "So I think there's been a bit of a miscommunication here."
Teyla concurred with the assessment entirely, waiting for an explanation.
John worked on autopilot as he washed his hands under the running faucet. His mind was on information overload. As he reached for the hand towel, John caught his own reflection in the mirror and stopped. He tried to imagine what it was like, putting on that alien device, changing his appearance with just a push of a button. Even now, even after witnessing the device's capabilities, John had trouble wrapping his mind around the logistics of it.
Seeing was believing, and now the alien conspiracy was just a little too tangible for him to deny.
Caldwell had brought along another alien device, too. Some sort of fancy, shiny lie suppressor that ensured when Larrin talked, it was nothing but the truth. Once she caught up with the fact that there were no other options left for her, she sang like a canary and confessed to a litany of crimes, each one worse than the last: working for the rogue NID, helping Michael Kenmore break out, and killing Mike Branton up on that rooftop.
And the biggest whopper of them all: kidnapping the President of the United States.
John braced his hands against the countertop, and took a steadying breath. The entire game had changed now – a whole new level. Jesus, how were they supposed to get anything done with Kenmore impersonating Hayes? John was a Secret Service agent and he knew intimately how much protection the man got. There was no way to touch Kenmore while he held the position of the POTUS.
Who should John talk to? How did he go about accusing people of an alien conspiracy? What proof could he bring to substantiate it?
The rogue NID agent in his custody was a secondary problem; his real enemy was the uncertain and unknown factors he faced. His mind awhirl, he left the bathroom and worked his way back to Larrin's living room. The woman of the hour was tied up securely and currently glaring at her brother like she was trying to kill him with nothing but the force of her hatred.
John sympathized with Caldwell, the poor son-of-a-bitch. The situation must have been seven different types of screwed-up, but for his part Caldwell handled the news of his little sister's treachery without even the slightest outward emotional tic; though John knew it had to be a performance. He suspected Caldwell was the type of man that preferred to deal with his own demons in private. Probably with copious amounts of alcohol.
John cleared his throat as he approached them from behind. "Did I miss anything juicy?"
Caldwell swiveled to face him. "She was just telling us that she doesn't know the identities of the Trust Members. They only convene for 'special occasions,' and apparently she hasn't been invited for those."
"Is she telling the truth?" John asked with a glance towards Caldwell's alien doohickey.
Caldwell inspected the device with a lift of a brow. "Mostly, but I think she's holding something back."
John walked over and crouched down in front of her. "We've been over this, Larrin. No point in lying to us. The thingamabob from P3X-whatever isn't going to let you. So save us the run around and tell us—"
"The Trust is meeting soon," Larrin spit out, almost despite herself. She threw a malevolent glare at the device, and continued speaking through clenched teeth. "When Hayes' reconditioning is done, he'll meet with the Trust and get his final instructions."
"When? Where?" John prodded.
"How the hell should I know?" she scoffed. "I told you, to get invited to those things you gotta be one of two classes. Either a Trust member, or somebody they're damn impressed by."
Caldwell crossed his arms across his chest. "And they aren't impressed by you? I would say I was disappointed but—"
"Don't," Larrin leveled him with a dark look. "Don't play the big brother routine with me anymore. I think we're beyond that."
Caldwell opened his mouth but John rode over him and got things back on track. "What does impress them?"
Larrin struggled against her bonds. "Stuff."
John rolled his eyes, prodding, "What type of stuff?"
"I would have to do something extraordinarily difficult," she answered reluctantly, then flashed a biting grin. "Like capturing Dr. Weir, maybe? I'm sure if you let me bring her in for reconditioning, that'll help my resume a bit and I'll get noticed."
John really wanted to wipe the smirk off her face. "We'll pass, thanks."
Ronon wiped the blood from his lower lip as they quickly moved through the lobby and out the revolving door. They swiftly left the hotel behind, as the noise from the brawl had attracted too much attention. Out on the curb a pedestrian bumped into Ronon's shoulder, sending a new spike of pain through his sore muscles; he stifled a groan and sent a threatening growl in the direction of the offender. The small man scampered away.
They quickly climbed into McKay's car and were on the highway on-ramp by the time a slew of cop cars passed by their windows – lights flashing, sirens blazing, headed straight to their hotel room no doubt. Shit. Sheppard was going to be pissed that they'd blown their hideout. His alias on the hotel registry was now going to be red-flagged.
Up front, Rodney heaved a sigh. "Yes, well, now that introductions and blows have been traded, how about we regroup? People saw us leave. They'll know our description. We need a new place to secure Dr. Weir."
"I don't know of any place," Teyla breathed apprehensively. "Not secure enough, anyway. Or maybe I am being too paranoid with—"
Ronon grunted his annoyance. "You? Paranoid?"
Teyla's eyes flashed as they connected with his. "It looked like you were attacking Dr. Weir when I came through the door!"
"He was teaching me self-defense," Elizabeth explained again.
Next time Weir asked to be taught self-defense, Ronon was sending her to this Teyla woman. Damn girl knew how to fight better than ninety percent of his men at the Air Force base back home. He'd have admired that a little more if he wasn't currently suffering wounds that would hold him back in a fight should a real threat arise.
"Take the next exit," Elizabeth suddenly instructed, breaking the tense hush. "I know a place." Everybody swiveled to throw her an incredulous look, and her eyes flashed with annoyance. "I'm not entirely useless, y'know? I learned a thing or two from John in the last few days. Now take the next damn exit!"
No one argued with her, though Ronon suspected it was because no one else had any other bright ideas. They followed Weir's directions until they came to a small place on the crossing of 23rd and South Arlington.
"A dry cleaner?" Rodney demanded in annoyance. "I get that Xena and Hercules went ten rounds with each other, but I don't think this is the time to worry about getting the nasty bloodstains out of their clothes."
Elizabeth ignored the dig, instead focusing on a man with thin, wispy hair and eyeglasses approaching the car. "Radek," Elizabeth called out with a sigh. "I hate to impose but I've got an emergency."
Rodney eyed the new guy and jabbed a finger in surprise. "You!"
Apparently they knew each other but Ronon couldn't care less in that instance. There was a donut shop across the street, and he could make out two blue uniforms inside. He climbed out of the car and urged the group into the back of the store before anyone – including the owner – could protest.
"Radek," Elizabeth breathed as they moved down the hallway. "Please, we need a place to lie low for a while."
The thin man paused, staring at the crowd, then clenched his jaw and grumbled. He turned and led the way back down a long corridor, muttering to himself in some other language Ronon couldn't identify. Russian, maybe? Didn't matter. The inflection behind the words told Ronon everything he needed to know – the man was cursing up a goddamn storm.
They emerged into a large showroom, with highly illegal merchandise on the walls and behind glass counters. This Radek guy was in the black market, then. Huh. Ronon gave the place a sweeping glance and then turned back to the others.
"I'm gonna call Sheppard on his cell phone," Ronon said. "Tell him where we're at."
"And where is he?" Teyla asked in return. "I had expected him to be with Dr. Weir at the hotel room."
"He's following a lead," Elizabeth informed. "He was supposed to meet up with us back at the hotel."
Ronon nodded. "I'll tell him to met up with us here instead—"
"Uh, hello!" Radek stopped everybody, hands gesticulating wildly. "I demand to know what is going on. Alexis, what is the meaning of all of this?!"
Everybody stared at him in confusion, wondering who this Alexis person was, when Elizabeth suddenly jumped up to answer. "Oh, ah… it's a complicated issue."
"I am a smart man, Alexis."
Elizabeth flinched. "See, the thing is… my name isn't actually Alexis."
Ronon rolled his eyes. "You guys explain. I'll be in the hallway on the phone."
He exited, leaving the others to deal with Radek's questions however they saw fit. He treaded down the corridor a bit to gain some privacy, then dialed the number Sheppard had given him to use in case of emergencies.
When John answered, they kept the conversation short. Ronon informed him of the new rendezvous point, and John in turned hinted that his lead on Larrin was fruitful in answering a lot of questions. No real details were given otherwise; they'd have time for that later, face-to-face.
"I'll be there within a few hours, with company," John finished. "Hold down the fort until I get there."
"As long as we don't kill each other," Ronon remarked wryly.
"Nothing," Ronon replied. "Just hurry up."
After they hung up, Ronon stood frozen for a second. Flashing a look down both ways of the hallway, he ensured he had his privacy and then dialed one last number. "Sir?" he began when the other end picked up.
"Dr. Weir has moved locations. If you want to keep an eye on us, then track the location of this cell phone…"
Hours later as the sun set, Elizabeth stared out the window and surveyed the white landscape, eyes glued to the winding road for the telltale emergence of John's black rental. Radek's shop only occupied the lower floor of the building; one level above it was a small cluster of apartments. Zelenka's family owned the entire building, and their large group had quickly taken up residence in one of the small two-bedroom apartments on the second floor.
She crossed the room and cracked open the front door, listening intently as voices from downstairs drifted up through the paper thin walls. She could faintly hear the animated voices of both Radek and Rodney arguing back and forth about what items they would take.
"Ah, ah, ah!" Rodney's voice floated up, annoyed and loud. "Don't touch the sensors on that! I just got it to the precise calibrations I wanted!"
"It is my equipment!" Radek lobbied back, just as loudly. "I will touch whatever I like, McKay."
"Look, we're going to pay you when this is all over, so it's mine! Mine!" Rodney insisted with a haughty voice. "Just put the things down and back away if you're not going to do exactly what I tell you to do!"
Despite appearances, Elizabeth suspected there wasn't all that much animosity between the two. It was obvious that they had quickly bonded over sophisticated espionage technology; Elizabeth had gotten a headache from trying to follow the conversation after just a few minutes.
Ronon climbed the stairs to greet her. "If I have to listen to that bullshit for one more minute, I'm going to kill people. Slowly."
Elizabeth smirked. "Rethinking your offer of help?"
Ronon grunted. "You're lucky I owe Sheppard. I should have told him to stick this favor up his a—"
"Aha!" a distant voice shouted. "I said don't touch that! Honestly, I understand that English isn't your first language but you still understand me, don't you? No touching means no touching!"
Ronon brushed passed Elizabeth with a feral growl, and she laughed, following him back into the apartment. They shut the door on the byplay of the geek-squad downstairs, and wandered to the living room; Ronon retreated to the kitchen.
"Dr. Weir," Agent Emmagan spoke up from behind. "Could you please not leave the apartment without someone escorting you?"
Elizabeth blinked. "I just… I just stepped out for a moment. I hadn't even left the hallway."
Teyla nodded. "Still, it's best if you don't wander off anywhere by yourself. The circumstances being what they are."
Elizabeth barely had a moment to react before the other woman was besides her, drawing the door closed. All things considered, paranoia wasn't unwarranted. She watched as Teyla swiftly crossed the room and drew every single drape shut, reminding her so starkly of John's performances in that moment that a fierce rush of wistfulness unexpectedly spiked. Where the hell was John? When would he get back? The worry was starting to gnaw at her insides.
She refocused on Teyla. "How long have you been in town?"
"I only arrived early yesterday," Teyla answered as she resumed her post near the door. "Rodney called me and said he needed some help with the investigation. Imagine my surprise when I walked in on… all of this."
The conversation teetered off after that into awkward silence. It wasn't until several minutes later, when Teyla shifted her stance and abruptly winced, that Elizabeth noticed the small cut on her right forearm. The fight with Ronon. Teyla was petite and quiet, but as the brawl could attest, she was a force to be reckoned with. Without a word, Elizabeth disappeared into the other room and then remerged with a first-aid kit. She set the supplies out on the table in front of Teyla.
"That is not necessary," Teyla insisted. "I can—"
"It's not a problem."
Teyla flashed a timid smile.
As she set about cleaning Teyla's cut, Elizabeth released a quiet breath and picked up the trail of conversation. "I wanted to thank you for helping us. I understand what you and the others are doing is well above the call of duty."
Teyla paused. "Helping us?" she emphasized.
Elizabeth looked up, then shook her head. "Helping me, I guess."
By the expression on Teyla's face, she didn't buy the new answer. "You and John have… become close?"
Elizabeth paused, then hedged as best as she could, "We've been through a lot together, yes."
She busied herself by clearing away the mess and tucking the unused bandages back inside the box. John had been clear about one set of rules: maintain the illusion of a professional relationship in front of the others. He didn't want the impropriety of the situation causing others concern.
Except Teyla caught her eye, and it became abruptly evident that no such ruse would ever work with her. Maybe it was a female thing, or maybe everybody else knew as well, but it was obvious that Teyla had managed to guess the intimate dynamics of Elizabeth's relationship with John.
Teyla tested the strength of the bandages by flexing her arm a bit. "It is a good binding."
There was another beat of awkwardness that followed. "So, this," Teyla searched her memory, "IOA committee. Have you given it much consideration?"
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "What?"
Teyla offered a slim smile. "All these nightmares for a position you haven't technically even been offered yet. Is it worth it? And the responsibility and dangers it carries… it is not one to take on lightly. Would you accept it if given the choice?"
Elizabeth paused, turning away to rest her gaze upon the window, spying the view of the city through a crack in the curtains. The responsibility was indeed great, nearly choking. It wasn't a position that would just affect one nation or a dozen, but the entire world. And if she was following the thread of facts correctly, there was a whole galaxy – a whole universe – of life out there.
Hundreds of planets and millions of people. It offered them the chance to explore and communicate with alien civilizations, exchange history, technology, spiritual beliefs, and search for the greatest mysteries beyond all her imaginings.
"In a heartbeat," Elizabeth answered bluntly. "For something this great, I'd be willing to sacrifice everything."
After a brief pause in consideration, Teyla tipped her head aside and said in a solemn voice, "For something this great, you may be forced to do exactly that."
With that sobering line haunting her thoughts, Elizabeth excused herself and retreated to one of the bathrooms. She braced her knuckles on the hard countertop, eyes meeting her reflection in the mirror. With all that had been going on lately, the truth was she hadn't been afforded the opportunity to give much consideration to the IOA position. It was a distant dream, something that seemed off in the endless horizon. The more pressing concern was clearly surviving the threat that currently made her life so miserable.
Teyla's words brought reality down hard on Elizabeth. It wasn't a distant dream; it was all too real. The notion of her having global power in some alien conspiracy sounded so absurd – so extreme – but her life was swiftly proving the reliability of the old adage of fact is stranger than fiction.
Was she the right person for this job? Was she capable of handling the choking responsibility that came with such authority? The questions weren't ones she could possibly answer – not until she was truly tested – but the uncertainty haunted her.
She scrubbed a hand through her hair, suddenly feeling exhausted and emotionally conflicted. She decided to take a quick shower to clear her head. Gathering together a bundle of clean clothes – another business suit, this time with a short skirt – Elizabeth set it aside on the countertop and spun the shower knob with a generous twist.
Minutes later as she stood beneath the weak stream of the showerhead, the temperature proved lukewarm. She didn't take much time, showering quickly, and by the time she was half-dressed she heard voices drifting in from the living room. She pulled the bathroom door open a fraction of an inch and spied John as he paced across the floorboards, clearly agitated as he conversed with Teyla and the others.
Shockingly enough, both Steven and Larrin Caldwell accompanied him. The latter was handcuffed. It seemed there were plenty of developments on John's end, and eager to find out what was going on, Elizabeth quickly buttoned up her shirt and tucked it into her skirt. When she finally emerged, the group had already disbanded. Teyla, Caldwell and Larrin were retreating to the kitchen, Ronon and Rodney were headed out the front door, and John was left to his lonesome self in the living room.
"Hey," she greeted, tucking a curl of hair behind her ear. "I was beginning to get worried."
John flashed a tired smile as he turned to greet her. "Way I hear it, you had the more adventurous day. I seriously missed a face-off between Teyla and Ronon?"
Elizabeth grinned. "It was terrifying in an awe-inspiring way."
"I bet," he laughed, then sobered quickly. "How are you?"
He glanced around, looking for the others, and then tipped his head aside. "Walk with me to the car. I need to get some stuff."
With a lift of her brow, Elizabeth nodded and reached for her coat. John helped her shrug it on, and then together they left the apartment and climbed down the stairs to the bottom floor. Radek's back alley smelled of garbage and the ripe smell of days-old food, and as they quickly wove their way to John's black rental, Elizabeth pulled the coat tighter around her waist and slanted John a look. Elizabeth suspected there hadn't been anything he needed to retrieve from the car at all; he'd just wanted a place of privacy to talk.
"What happened today?" she asked. "What did Larrin tell you? And why is Steven Caldwell with you?"
Her suspicions were confirmed when John denied an answer with a grunt and gestured towards the car. He quickly tossed her the keys and it wasn't until they were both seated inside the frigid vehicle and she'd started up the engine for some heat that he spoke again. Elizabeth understood fairly quickly why; as she listened to John explain the events of his day, the details of Larrin's confessions left Elizabeth flooded with shock and horror.
"So she was supposed to pretend to be me?"
"Yeah," John answered.
"And I was supposed to be brainwashed—"
"And the President has already been kidnapped—"
It felt surreal to even say the next part. "And he's currently undergoing a reconditioning process that will render him a mere puppet of the Trust?"
John winced, then nodded. "Pretty much, yeah... You okay?"
Elizabeth paused numbly. "As well as can be expected when you realize your life has turned into a spy film."
"Global conspiracy for a bid to rule the world. Assassinations. Kidnapping. Larrin up there would probably qualify as one of the evil Bond girls."
John looked intrigued by the idea. "Does that make me Bond?"
She rolled her eyes. "Would that make you happy?"
"Hey, by my count, I've fought some bad guys and thus far slept with the leading lady of the film. The correlations fit."
She knew what he was doing: making light of the situation so she wouldn't take everything quiet so gravely. At another time she might have humored him, but the situation was so serious that she couldn't muster much more than a brief smile. Tugged by thoughts of someone else impersonating her, brainwashing her… Elizabeth suddenly appreciated the privacy as she mulled over the revelations.
"What do we do now?"
"We're regrouping," John explained. "I've already told the others every minute detail I could think of. We'll think of something."
Elizabeth sighed, and dropped her head into her hands, scrubbing fingers across the temple of her forehead to ward of an oncoming headache. President Hayes was in trouble; they had to act fast. What? What could they do? Larrin didn't know the current location of where Hayes was being held – something about moving him every night from place to place – and the Trust Members only convened in secrecy. They needed a way in; a way to find the President and stop the men behind this once and for all. This simply couldn't continue indefinitely.
"Hayes is a good man. He doesn't deserve to be—"
"We won't let that happen," John cut in fiercely. "We're not going to let him get hurt."
She slanted him a glance. "What about going to the authorities?"
"Absolutely not," John shot her down quickly. "We can't afford to trust anybody with Kenmore playing president. Besides, they're still looking for you and we don't want to poke our heads out if we don't have to."
She stifled a groan. They really couldn't be too worried about her, not when the President of the United States' life was in danger. John was a Secret Service agent; their entire organization had originally been designed for the sole purpose of the protecting the president. All other objectives were secondary to that. She was smart enough to know that without it being explained to her and for the first time since this entire mess began, she grasped the full severity and ideology behind John's occupation. The notion of taking a bullet to save another human being wasn't about nobility, not entirely. It was about doing the act of a patriot; serving for the best interest of the people.
If it came down to her or the President of the United States, Elizabeth abruptly realized that she was enough of a patriot to sacrifice herself. No hesitation and qualms over the thought arose – the nation needed their leader more than anybody needed her.
"Hey," John broke into her thoughts. "We're going to think of something."
Her mind was too busy running over a dozen different options, assessing one before discarding it and quickly moving onto the next. It wasn't until John laid a hand on her and tugged her attention back to him that she acknowledged his presence again.
"We're going to think of something," he reiterated.
She pulled free, gripping her hands around the steering wheel. "We have to do something, John. Fast. President Hayes is a good man."
She shook her head and opened her mouth, but John tugged her forward and the next thing she knew, his mouth was hot on hers, swallowing her ability to speak; to think; to do pretty much anything other than reciprocate. The man knew how to kiss her just right so she lost all train of thought regarding everything else, and if last night attested to anything, his learning curve on how to make her respond was steep indeed.
Though it was awkward with the centre gears in the way, Elizabeth leaned over it, pressed a palm against his cheeks and let the deep kiss linger for a few more seconds.
When they pulled back, he rested his forehead against hers. "I really hate that we're going to have to fake it when we go back up there."
Elizabeth stilled, knowing exactly what he meant as she stared down at his lips, then flickered up to meet his eyes. With a growing sense of recklessness, she tossed a glance out to the side alley where the car was parked. The moonlight was so faint that she could barely make out anything beyond shadows and the obscurity comforted her. She turned her attention back to John, and steadily grew bold.
Slowly, she breached the gap between their seats by bracing a hand against the steering wheel, and gradually maneuvered over the centre gears and consol. He watched her as she moved, a hand quickly settling on her hips to help guide her, but his eyes belied his surprise. She straddled his lap as John tried to stifle a half-muted moan.
He recovered, affecting a scandalized tone. "Dr. Weir, are you attempting to seduce me?"
"There's no attempt about it," she tossed back with a cheeky grin, feeling slightly giddy.
Before he could open his mouth to further comment, she was already atop him, making her intentions clear with a heated kiss. Elizabeth adjusted her position a bit so it was more comfortable. The space was confining though, and she briefly mused that she didn't really see the benefits of car-sex beyond the fact that it was isolated. The others wouldn't look for them here. Still, it was highly constricting. Absently she reached for the lever at the side of his seat, intending to recline his chair a little, but the tug dropped the seat back abruptly and the action jarred them both. It sent them into peals of laughter.
"Oh, god," she whispered, trying to catch her breath. "This is ridiculous."
"We could move to the backseat?" John offered valiantly.
She stifled a laugh, resting her head against his shoulders and breathing in his scent. She felt like a teenager, and god, they were both too old for this. Way too old. It was reckless and stupid and not at all what Elizabeth would normally do – not even as a teenager – but like everything else with John, she found herself embracing new possibilities.
She reached for the buttons of her coat, revealing a white blouse underneath and – appropriately enough – a dark knee-length skirt. She shifted a little on his lap, freeing her legs for more maneuverability as the skirt rode up slightly. His hands moved over her thigh, bunching up the material further, and she realized even the simplest of his touches managed to affect her more than what was rational.
As he fisted a hand around her hair and dragged her down for another toe-curling kiss, she acknowledged there was nothing about her relationship with this man that was rational. Why didn't that scare her? Why didn't that send her running in the other direction like all those previous relationships with men that had wanted to move too fast, too soon? She was normally a woman that prided herself on being tempered and sensible. Propriety was usually her concern, her domain of reservations, and she'd always hated public displays of affection – now just look at her. John had demonstrated more restraint in that regard than she had; he was the one that was concerned with how this would all look in the professional limelight.
There was just something about John Sheppard that broke down all her walls and barriers effortlessly. She almost wanted to hate him for that, for how easily and quickly he'd moved passed her defenses.
She toed off her shoes, and he hooked a finger under her panties and slowly, leisurely, moved them down her legs. They moved unhurriedly, enjoying the feel and tease of each other despite the fact that the others would probably notice their absence soon enough. The notion didn't speed them up any. Instead, like all their concerns had momentarily melted away, Elizabeth and John moved against each other without a thought given to the outside world.
Tapping her well-manicured nails in a rhythmic drum against the tabletop, Teyla wiled away the minutes waiting for John and Dr. Weir to walk back through the front door. It wasn't a matter of protection; she had faith in John's abilities to keep her safe and secure. Her true anxiety laid in other concerns, mainly in regards to what they were doing with their time away from the apartment.
Teyla highly doubted they were spending this much time just talking.
Repressing the heavy, frustration-laden sigh that threatened to spill passed her lips, Teyla climbed steadily to her feet and began to pace the length of the living room. Caldwell and his imprisoned sister were in the next room over; Rodney, Ronon and the strange Zelenka fellow were all downstairs fighting over the black market merchandise. Teyla had time to herself, which afforded her the opportunity to examine the situation from all sides given the new information they had on the President. Thoughts festered and concerns grew, and by the time the knob jostled and the front door swung open, Teyla decided this had waited long enough.
She greeted Dr. Weir with a pleasant smile; John, less so. "We need to have a word," she said to him, "in private."
By the fleeting look of resignation that flashed across his face, she suspected John knew exactly what this was in regards to. They knew each other well enough to know the forthcoming conversation would not be pleasant for either one of them.
There was little avoiding it, though.
With a defensive posture written into every inch of his body, John gave a stiff nod and followed her out the front door. They left Dr. Weir behind with a thinly concealed pinch of worry on her face. The door shut after them, and Teyla treaded down the carpeted corridor a few feet, coming to rest in front of the small square window at the end.
"Look," John tried in a tired voice, "I know what you're going to say."
"Do you?" Teyla highly doubted that.
John narrowed his eyes at her tone. "I'm not losing my perspective with her. I know that's what you think, but I'm not."
"Your affection for her—"
"—has nothing to do with this," John finished emphatically.
It was not the denial she'd been praying for. Instead, it served as much of a tacit confirmation as Teyla would likely to get for what she already knew. They were sleeping together. Despite knowing both the strengths and weaknesses of John's nature, Teyla had to say she expected better judgment than that. Sleeping with his protectee. Heaven help them all, there was no way this could end well.
It wasn't that she didn't like Dr. Weir – far from it. The little interaction they'd had thus far had proven the woman to be a true spirit, strong and capable. If circumstances permitted it, Teyla was sure they would become fast friends.
But friendship was one thing; what John was doing was another matter entirely.
"I have news for you, John," Teyla tried for an even temperament. "You've lost so much perspective with this woman that you've turned yourself into an enemy of the state. That, I would think, says more than enough about the situation. Too much. There were other avenues you could have taken, other ways for you—"
"How?" John barked. "What exactly could I have done differently that wouldn't have gotten Elizabeth killed or kidnapped? I did my job. Maybe not the way protocol dictated, but I did it."
"You never even stopped to give real consideration to reaching out to the authorities," Teyla countered. "This isn't a job for a one-man army, or even our small team. The President is kidnapped. This is bigger than us and Dr. Weir, and it demands—"
"Extreme measures. I've already thought this over a thousand times, Teyla. We can't trust anybody now. No one. We have to deal with this ourselves."
John glared. "I'm working on it."
"What about Dr. Weir?"
"What about her?" he demanded in a rough voice.
Teyla flinched against the tone, highly aware that his defensive posturing would prevent him from hearing anything she had to say. She internally debated if this conversation would even be worth the headache it would cause, but the current state of affairs was strife with tension and Teyla was left with no choice but to voice the hard facts. No one else seemed willing to.
"She is not a damsel-in-distress," Teyla stressed in a hard, unwavering voice. "We have two main concerns, now. Save the president and protect Dr. Weir."
"And?" John prompted impatiently.
She didn't mince words. "If it comes down to only one, which one is your priority?"
John's jaw clenched and shook his head. "It's not like that. We can manage both. Those two priorities don't work against each other."
Teyla sighed heavily. "What if it does? What if I have figured out a way to save the President, but in order to get that chance, we must place Dr. Weir in extreme danger?"
"What are you talking?"
She opened her mouth to answer, but abruptly another feminine voice interrupted, "She's formulated a plan."
They both whirled to discover their raised voices had drawn an audience. Dr. Weir stood at the end of the hallway, and Teyla abruptly acknowledged the intrusion was more the welcomed. The other woman had more right to be in on this conversation than anybody else.
"What plan?" John asked, looking back and forth between the two.
Teyla kept her gaze trained on Dr. Weir, recognizing the stark realization in the other woman's eyes. It was telling; it told Teyla that she'd already implicitly come to grips with the details of the plan. Not a single word of explanation was needed.
"We give them exactly what they want," Teyla enlightened John.
Dr. Weir took a steadying breath, and nodded once in understanding. "Me."
After much debate, Teyla's plan was promptly set into motion.
At the point of John's gun, Larrin reluctantly dialled her NID contact. No names were exchanged and the conversation was brief and to the point. After Larrin informed her people that she had Dr. Weir in custody and had "taken care" of the Secret Service agent, Larrin was given instructions to escort Dr. Weir to a designated point within the hour.
Upon further prodding, Larrin insisted she be granted an audience with the Trust members but her contact on the other end promised absolutely nothing. It defined things clearly; Larrin had very low status in the hierarchy of the organization.
When she hung up the phone, Larrin reclined back in her chair and tipped Teyla a smile. "Congratulations, you've got a date."
Caldwell scrubbed a hand over his face and turned to Teyla with a rueful smile. "My sister acts arrogant, flashy, always trying to be the centre of attention. You have to walk into the room like you think you own it, and never, ever show even the slightest bit of fear. Or vulnerability." He paused, then added in a tired voice, "Or human common decency."
Larrin glared up at him. "Wow. Well, don't hold back any animosity, Steven," she hissed. "I want to know what you really think of me."
He flashed her a fleeting, malevolent look. "I think if you weren't my sister, I would have taken you down long ago. I'm ashamed I let you use me for all these years."
"It was rather easy to play the little-sister card with you, wasn't it? Must burn your pride a bit. Isn't it your job to look for security leaks? Ouch," Larrin clucked her tongue. "The irony."
Teyla exchanged a look with John across the table, and decided to break into the conversation before the two took sibling rivalry to homicidal levels. She dangled the alien mimic device in front of Larrin mockingly. "You planned on using this to play Dr. Weir. I plan on using it to play you. I would call that a touch ironic as well."
Larrin smiled. "Good luck. The Trust members won't be there. They have no reason to expose themselves to someone like me. Even if I bring in a shiny prize like Dr. Weir."
Teyla's eyes narrowed, but she would not lower herself to being bated. Instead turning to Dr. Weir, she inquired, "Ready?"
Dr. Weir hesitated for a long beat, exchanging a pointed look with John by her side. The two stood shoulder-to-shoulder, creating a strange unified front. Elizabeth eventually returned her attention to Teyla and gave a curt nod.
Several last minute preparations were put into effect. Teyla removed her coat and unbuttoned her shirt, allowing Rodney to place a handful of listening devices and several GPS tracers over her body. Out of the periphery of her vision, she saw John pull Dr. Weir aside and repeat the same procedure with her – though John was far gentler with the process than Rodney was being, who was proving to be all thumbs.
"Ouch," Teyla hissed pointedly. "That's not the material of my bra, Rodney."
Rodney went red in the face a little. "Sorry."
Teyla released a long suffering sigh as her eyes drifted over to the others again, observing John without even meaning to. He was gentle with Dr. Weir, speaking softly about things Teyla could not overhear. She watched them covertly, strangely fascinated by how they moved around each other, when they touched each other – seemingly innocuous gestures, but the sense of personal space between them had diminished to nearly nothing. His voice took on a teasing edge and Dr. Weir laughed.
Teyla snapped her attention away, feeling like she was suddenly intruding on a private moment. She pretended not to notice his hand linger on Dr. Weir's waist. John was different around her; Teyla didn't think she'd really noticed how until that very moment.
By the time they were both properly equipped, there were three tracers on Teyla, four on Dr. Weir – each half the size of a penny or smaller. Dr. Weir wore an additional broach on her blouse, a small hidden camera inside it; Teyla wore a similar one in her pendent. Teyla activated the alien mimic device, and an energy rippled and pulsed around her to leave behind the spitting image of Larrin. Their ruse rested on Teyla's capabilities as a doppelganger; she dearly hoped the faith placed in her would not prove unwarranted.
Together the two women loaded into Larrin's SUV; the vehicle was lojacked so the others could follow them everywhere. She drove through the inner streets, one eye on the rear-view mirror where she could spy John and Ronon trailing after them from a covert distance. The boys employed a nondescript blue van, and in the back Rodney and Radek monitored every move the women made by watching them on monitors and computer screens hastily affixed to the sidewalls.
Caldwell stayed behind to babysit Larrin back in Radek's building, given specific instructions that if all else failed, he was to go to his people and deal with the problems however he saw fit. Teyla hoped it never came to that.
She tempered the growing anxiety with a drawn out breath, reminding herself to be focused and alert. She had to define her obstacles; what was expected of her and then how to outthink whoever was attempting to manipulate them. Above all, she knew she could not give in to panic at any given moment, not even the vague perception of being thrown by an unexpected question or action. Even a slightest slipup would raise suspicions and ensure a speedy death. Undercover work was delicate – violently delicate. Teyla hadn't even fully recovered from the Arizona case, and now here she was, already charging into another volatile situation. And all that hung in the balance was a global conspiracy and the life of the POTUS.
No pressure, then.
Dr. Weir broke into her thoughts. "How confident do you really feel about all this?"
Teyla hedged her answer, "I have prior experience with over a dozen undercover operations. They all present their own issues."
"You didn't answer my question," she noted shrewdly. "What are our odds in this?"
Teyla took in Dr. Weir's appearance through the rear view mirror, lingering on the handcuffs around her delicate wrists. The honest truth was, for either one of them the chances could astutely be classified as suicidal. Teyla couldn't quite bring herself to voice the dark thoughts, nor to lie to the woman, so she sat in stewed silence until Dr. Weir broke it.
"That good, huh?" she sighed.
"Please," she cut in wryly. "I think under the circumstances, we should be on first name basis, don't you think?"
Teyla offered a genuine smile, aware that it looked like Larrin instead.
Over the handheld radio stowed away on the dashboard, she heard Rodney's amused voice drift in, "Oh, listen, Sheppard, I think they're bonding."
"Shut up, McKay, John replied, grouchily.
The two women exchanged smirks through the rear view mirror.
The humour abated when Teyla saw their destination arrive on their left side: a large commercial complex. Teyla slowed the car to a stop, braced her arm against the steering wheel and craned her neck to get a better view. She peered up at the impressive structure – some sort of business centre, towering to the heights of at least fifty stories. The building was elegantly crafted, clearly expensive and well guarded. Taking a steadying breath, Teyla parked the car at the curb, swung around the back and pulled Dr. Weir out by the forearm, using more force than necessary to maintain the ruse.
"Remember the codeword apples," Teyla whispered fiercely as she approached the front entrance. "Anything happens to me, then use it. Work it into your natural vocabulary. The others will raid the place swiftly if you say it."
Elizabeth sighed. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that, huh?"
Teyla led them through the revolving doors into the main lobby, which appeared to be abandoned at first. She swept her gaze across the reception area until the distant footsteps of someone approaching them from the left wing echoed across the marble flooring. Teyla turned, then peered into the hallway as florescent lighting from above flickered on.
As light flooded the area, Teyla froze, unwilling at first to believe her eyes on the identity of the man that approached them. Shock swallowed her ability to formulate thought, but then Teyla reminded herself to stay cool and undaunted. She couldn't let a flicker of emotion pass over her face, not even one of revulsion, anger or – most important of all – betrayal. It was easier said than done.
"Larrin," Abraham Ellis greeted in the middle of the lobby. "About damn time you caught Dr. Weir. How did you manage it?"
Her boss was a rogue NID agent. How long? How many times had he betrayed them? How many agents had died because of his treachery? How could they have never even suspected?
Teyla tried to recover her voice. "I…" she trailed off, then in the next instant, the tell-tale hesitation melted away and Teyla remembered Larrin's quirks. "I'm not as inept as you, Ellis. You should have been the one to bring her in all this time. For Christ's sakes, she was under the protection of your flunkies."
Ellis flinched, eyes hardening. "It was never my job to bring her in. I gave you everything you needed to know to get the job done yourself. Our routes, our location, who would be with her, what times she'd come and go. I gave all the intel you needed. You're the one that failed to act on it. The only person you did anything about was Branton, and why exactly did you kill him again?"
"He was about to spill secrets," Teyla lobbied back easily with an aggravated sigh. "I thought we were in the business of keeping them."
"His father wasn't an enemy we needed," Ellis insisted, then waved the topic away. He grabbed Elizabeth by the elbow and started tugging her down the lobby hallway. "And we're two days behind schedule with her reprogramming."
"Sorry to be so inconvenient," Elizabeth cut in, wryly.
Ellis ignored her. "I'll secure Dr. Weir. You go to the 15th floor. The others are waiting for you."
"Others?" Teyla repeated, trying to stop him.
Ellis never broke his stride. "Just go. They don't like to be kept waiting."
He hauled Elizabeth down the hallway without another backwards glance, and when Elizabeth tossed a beseeching look over her shoulder, Teyla could do nothing but raise a hand, silently pleading with Elizabeth to stay calm and collected. She watched the two of them retreat down the hallway, praying the other woman could manage on her own for a few moments.
They won't hurt her, she insisted to herself. She's too important.
Teyla did not want to imagine John's reaction in that moment. With a steadying breath, she turned to the elevators and rode up to the 15th floor in silence. When the door pinged open, she found a pair of large double doors guarded by two equally large guards on either side. The one to the left immediately opened the doors for her, gesturing for her to go in.
She paused for the briefest of moments, then strode passed the threshold. Inside, she found over a dozen old, Caucasian men situated on the outer rim of a large semi-circular conference table; like judges on a panel.
The Trust Members.
John tapped the monitor screen twice. "Get a close up shot of every man there. Freeze frame the digital image and run it through the facial recognition system at NTAC."
Rodney slapped his hand away. "Yes, thank you! I didn't need you to tell me that!" He turned towards Radek. "Do the left half of the room and I'll do the—"
"Yes, yes, yes," Radek cut him off. "I do not need you to state the obvious for me."
Rodney snorted in disdain, but he let the comment go without remark, ostensibly too busy with typing in the next command code. John waited impatiently as Rodney hit enter and, a split-second later, the computer screen changed. John leaned forward and braced an arm on Rodney's chair, hovering in that way that drove the geek up the walls. John didn't care; Rodney always worked faster when he was agitated.
A flood of figures streamed down the left monitor as the Facial Recognition System sprinted through millions of images. The identities of these men were top priority, and John suspected these individuals were so powerful that they had to be well known. The software was designed to comb through millions of police records, newspaper articles and a dozen other printed sources. They'd spring up on one database or another, John was sure of it.
John hovered over Rodney's shoulder. "Anything?"
Rodney scowled as the hits popped up on screen. "Two, thus far. Jason Montgomery, a billionaire industrialist of a chief weapons manufacturer for the U.S. military." He hit a button and the next image came up. "David Isaac, a corporate CEO of one of the Fortune 500 Companies located in California. It deals with pharmaceuticals and bioengineering."
John's jaw clenched. "Prep the package. Make sure we can deliver it at any moment."
"I know! I know the plan!" Rodney groused. "I'm not an incompetent fool that needs reminding every few seconds."
But if there was one thing John knew about sting operations, it was that things never went according to plan. For all its benefits, the setbacks of this entire arrangement outnumbered it two-to-one. Formulating a plan and executing it were two different things, and at best Elizabeth and Teyla had just both walked into the situation blind. Elizabeth wasn't trained for this type of stuff; they were setting her up as bait, dangling her on a hook in front of the very men he'd been protecting her against this entire time. It was like sending a kitten to a pack of wolves.
He hated this plan with every fibre of his being; had always hated not being front-and-centre on any type of undercover operation. His gaze shifted from one monitor to the next, watching Teyla's feed as she played the unrepentant bitch with the Trust members. She was capable – highly capable – but this wasn't about his faith in Teyla's ability to handle a tough situation. The persistent feeling that this was all going to go sideways never abated in the slightest, no matter how many times the girls offered their reassurances.
Behind him, Ronon stepped up. "Phase Two?"
John nodded without letting his eyes drift off the monitor. "It's a go."
Ronon grinned fiercely, reached for his weapon and left the van without another word.
"That man has issues," Rodney declared after a pause. "Deep anger management issues that I don't want to touch with a ten-foot pol—"
"Another hit," Radek informed. "David Branton, a republican Senator from Maine."
There was a pregnant lull as John and Rodney exchanged frantic looks. The abrupt connections were obvious. David Branton was Mike Branton's father, and Larrin had killed Mike Branton.
"Shit," they muttered together in realization. "Teyla."
"I've been looking forward to this meeting for some time, Larrin," the man from the left corner said to Teyla. "Quite frankly, I'm the reason why the Trust allowed you here in the first place."
"It's an honour to be standing in front of this crowd," Teyla replied. "I can't thank you enough for the privilege."
"Oh, no," the man rebutted. "The pleasure of this meeting is all mine."
Teyla paused, sensing there were some meaningful undertones to the words that she could not decipher. The man was smartly dressed in a three-button suit that probably cost more than her first car, and he handled himself with a quiet poise. Teyla thought she recognized him from somewhere, but she could not place where.
"And you would be?" Teyla prodded, hoping she wasn't stepping out of line with the question.
"I'm surprised you don't recognize me."
"Why?" Teyla tried. "The identities of the Trust members are secret."
The man smiled coldly. "Yes, I suspect that's why you didn't know better than to kill my son."
Teyla froze for a full two seconds. "What?"
"My name is David Branton," he explained. "And I'm having my son's funeral tomorrow because of you. Now, Larrin, you seem like a smart girl. Guess the real reason why you're here with us today?"
Teyla felt the tip of a gun press against the back of her head.
Ronon snapped the guard's neck with a wrench of his hands, and let the body hit to the floor before he advanced down the corridor. Another man jumped out at him from behind and Ronon whirled, grabbed hold of the assailant mid-air and twisted. The guard slammed into the wall and Ronon drove forward like a bulldozer, crushing the smaller man's frame into the plaster until it cracked. Winded, the guard barely put up resistance when Ronon grabbed him by the collar and hauled him around, using him as a shield as advanced further along the marbled hallway. Halfway to the elevators, Ronon released his hold, swung an elbow out and knocked the guard unconscious.
Ronon reached into his pocket, pulled a globule of plastique and pressed the adhesive side against the wall; he had pre-set the digital timer in the centre of the explosive for fifteen minutes. Just enough time. And there were four other bombs set strategically across the building.
Ronon tapped his earpiece. "Phase Two complete."
"Good," John acknowledged. "But change of plans. Hold off on Phase Three. Get to Teyla. Now."
"What about Dr. Weir?"
There was a pause. "I'll handle her. Teyla's closer to you and she's in trouble."
Being manhandled down the hallway, Elizabeth tossed a searching gaze around her environment and tried to stay calm. Ellis proved to be an intimidating man, but after the third time of yanking her arm so hard he nearly pulled her shoulder out of the socket, she wrenched her arm free and planted her feet firmly.
"I can walk on my own just fine," she said with a glare.
Ellis stopped, glanced back at her, then sighed. "Fine, just hurry up."
They continued quietly until they came to the end of the corridor, and Elizabeth could see a pair of heavy doors to the left. There was light slipping through the crevice on the floor, and some strange sound – a rapid stream of beeps – that came from the other side. When Ellis tugged open the doors and gestured her inside, Elizabeth braced herself with a deep breath and stepped in.
The president was strapped into a chair, eyelids taped open, staring into some glowing alien device positioned in front of him.
"He's almost done," Ellis informed coldly, shoving Elizabeth through the door when she froze in shock. "A few more hours, and then it's your turn."
Elizabeth swallowed thickly, then turned to watch Ellis instruct a guard with a command or two. The guard was bald and burly, nearly twice Elizabeth's size, and sported a missing front tooth that made him look like a complete moron. A moment later Ellis strode out the door without a backwards glance, and the guard advanced and grabbed Elizabeth by the arms, hauling her into a chair besides the president.
"Stay," he instructed sharply, like she was a dog.
He strode away, resuming his post by the door. Elizabeth let her attention drift to Hayes, whispering fiercely. "Mr. President, it's Elizabeth. Can you hear—"
"Shut up!" The guard barked.
Elizabeth's jaw clenched, slipping a hand inside her sleeve to retrieve something. "You know, I'm really getting tired of all the orders. A simple please goes a long way. Didn't your mother ever teach you any manners?"
"What part of shut up is too complicated for your brain to understand?"
"The same part of dental hygiene that was too complicated for yours?" Elizabeth lobbied back.
The man snarled once, but kept his distance. Exactly as she'd expected, they'd been given orders not to hurt her. Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief, glancing again to Hayes. It was hard just sitting there, not doing anything, but she needed to follow John's orders to the letter.
Ronon would be here any second now, and then things would proceed from there.
John strapped on his Kevlar and buttoned up his outer shirt. "Once the package is prepped, send it to Caldwell," he ordered. "Not to anyone else."
Rodney nodded, then hesitated before he gestured to the surveillance feed. "Ellis is guarding the hallway twenty meters outside Elizabeth's door. He's got two men with him. Can you handle that by yourself?"
John paused, his gaze shifting from one monitor to another, watching the footage from Elizabeth's feed and then the building's surveillance cameras. Ellis' betrayal stung. There were few things that John hated more in the world than disloyalty. He'd trusted the man, actually thought that Ellis had been on his side in the power-struggle against Sumner. Now, looking back the notion seemed sickening. Sumner ended up with a gut-wound because of Ellis' treachery.
John reached for his weapon, swivelled on the silencer, checked the clip and slammed it back into place with his palm. "I'll handle it fine," he assured as he ducked out the van.
Two minutes later, he was working through the bowels of the building, following the trail of bodies that Ronon had left behind. Coming to a junction of the building that had a glob of C-4 adhered to the wall, John read the timer. He had ten minutes and change. Barely enough time. Jesus, this was cutting it close.
He moved further down towards Elizabeth's room. After a few minutes, there were faint voices in the far off distance. John strained his ears trying to place the location, following the noises down the long, marbled corridor. His footsteps echoed slightly so John had to step lightly as he approached with his gun drawn. He craned his neck to spy the view around the bend of the hallway, and there near the elevator was Ellis and two men. One guard planted himself at one end of the hallway, and the other moved to the opposite side.
Ellis remained standing in front of the elevator, as if waiting for someone to arrive.
John pulled back and cursed. "Next time," he whispered to himself. "Bring grenades."
John raised his weapon, took rapid aim, fired once, twisted his aim to the other side, and fired again. The bullets slid through the air like hushed choughs and two men crumbled to the floor without even a scream. Ellis was a trained Secret Service agent like John, though; he reacted quickly. He swiftly drew his weapon and John pulled back, dodging return fire by the very real margin of inches.
"Sheppard?" Ellis shouted, ducking behind the bend in the corridor. "What the hell are you doing here? You have any idea what you're getting in the middle of?"
"Interrupting a meeting of Cheesy Villains Anonymous?" John offered lightly.
"Drop your weapon on the floor and back away, and I'll make sure you live through today."
John rolled his eyes. "How about I not?"
"See?" Ellis shouted. "That was always your problem, Sheppard. You never could follow orders."
The sound of an elevator pinging open alerted John, and he peeked out to spy Ellis flee into the shaft. Ellis raised his weapon and fired, John pulled back and the bullet slammed into the wall beside his head. John returned fire, but a spare second passed by and the elevators slid shut. Damn it. Ellis had escaped. Bracing himself with a deep breath, John pushed away from the wall and strode down the corridor.
John would just have to deal with Ellis later.
"Change of plans," the guard announced. "We're splitting you two up and moving you."
Elizabeth panicked. The guys knew to find her here, with the president. She couldn't afford to move locations and be split up from Hayes. She had to protect him; she had to save Hayes. She jerked back out of reach from the guard, raising her hands against him.
"No," she warned. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Bitch, you go where I tell you to."
"You don't understand the severity of the situation," Elizabeth continued as her voice grew firm and cold. "There are men here that are going to take down the Trust. Men that were sent to protect Hayes. Do you really want to go down for kidnapping the President of the United States?"
The bald man flashed a crocked smile. "Lady, I'm wanted for five counts of murder. They ain't gonna go easy on me no matter what. That won't stop my fun."
The confession repulsed her and she edged back as he advanced. "You don't want to do this."
He tipped his head aside, examining her like a bug, and her flesh suddenly crawled with the way his eyes darkened. "Oh," he threatened sweetly, "I think I do. I can think of a lot of things I want to do to you—"
The sound of nearby gunfire echoed off the walls. The guard's attention snapped to the door, and Elizabeth sensed the opportunity and seized it without much thought. Pulling the sheathed knife from her sleeve, she lunged onto his back. The knife slid into his flesh like butter, surprisingly easy, but then the guard was screaming, bucking up to throw her off his back.
Flung off, Elizabeth hit the wall and then crashed onto the floor, crumbling a little. He was on her before she recovered, grabbing her by a fistful of hair. He hauled her upright and, blindly, she planted a hand against his face and shoved hard. He barely budged, backhanding her so hard she tasted the trickle of her own blood slid down her throat. She used her nails to scratch up his face and panic grew; panic was just like before, when Michael Kenmore had attacked her.
No! No! Think! Don't panic!
Ronon's lessons surged to the forefront – go for the throat, the eyes, find a weapon and for god's sakes use it. Frantic, she saw the knife still lodged in his shoulder, and reached, stretching her fingers around it to pull. The man gave a guttural scream when she yanked it free. She pulled back and stabbed once, then twice, before she was dropped to the floor. Rethinking her strategies as he advanced on her, Elizabeth scrambled back and flashed to other self-defence moves.
Then something unexpected happened. The guard wavered, eyes rolling backwards in his head and crumbled to the floor unconscious. The wounds had been debilitating – the results had just been delayed.
Elizabeth exhaled sharply, her hands shaking with adrenaline, before she scrambled to her feet again. She hauled the guard's body on its back, ignoring the blood seeping out of his neck wound, and then paused. Had she killed him? Was he dead? Oh, god. Oh, god. Fingers trembling, she quickly reached out to check for a pulse.
Her eyes slipped shut in mortification when she found nothing. No beat. No pulse. No telltale sign of life. She'd killed a man. She'd actually killed a man. Jesus Christ. Her breath hitched, a gagging feeling rising in her throat, and Elizabeth felt like throwing up. She couldn't help it; couldn't stop. Her hands were shaking and the dry heaves just came, just kept coming. When she was done, her eyes stung with the force of the heaves.
Hayes mumbled to himself nearby, and distantly the noise managed to draw her attention. The President. I need to get him somewhere safe. She blinked, attempting to refocus, trying to calm herself down. Telling herself to shake off the coils of dread, it was like a part of Elizabeth had shut down and another part took control. She stopped thinking, just reacted. She grabbed the guard's gun and whirled.
Rushing to the President's side, she shoved away the alien device and let it crash to the floor. Hayes' eyelids had been taped open, exposing bloodshot eyes that looked horribly painful. Elizabeth set the gun on the floor next to her and quickly began peeling away the tape before she used a blood stained knife to sever the rope that bound him.
"Mr. President, can you hear me?" she pleaded, ripping the rope away. "Mr. President, it's me. Elizabeth Weir. I'm here to get you out of here. Just hold on."
He was entirely unresponsive, and Elizabeth froze for a second, debating her options. She had to get him out of here. If there was gunfire in the hallway, maybe there was another way out of the room? She rose to her feet, tossing a frantic gaze around, looking for another exit, but the only other way out was through the window, onto a ledge that was thirteen stories high.
"We'll leave that as Option B," Elizabeth muttered to herself nervously.
"Elizabeth?" Hayes called.
Elizabeth whirled around, expecting to feel relieved at finding the President aware and responsive. The emotion never came, overwhelmed by shock instead. Hayes cocked the gun in his hands – the same one she'd left on the floor – and aimed it straight at her.
"Elizabeth, what are you doing?" he demanded.
Elizabeth's mouth dropped open and she struggled for words. "What are you doing?" she countered heatedly. "Mr. President, I'm not here to hurt you. I'm with a group of people that are here to rescue you from the Trust."
He glanced to the fallen guard on the floor, then back up to Elizabeth. "Why on Earth would I need rescuing from them? The Trust has the best interest of the nation in mind."
Elizabeth's eyes widened in disbelief, then swivelled over to the fallen alien device as realization hit. Oh, god. They'd been too late. The President had already been reprogrammed. He looked pale and sweaty, but his eyes were focused and had a touch of maniacal fanaticism about it. This was too much. She still had the guard's blood on her hands, and now the President was pointing a gun at her.
Thrown, Elizabeth took a second to regroup and tried to reason with him. "Mr. President, you're not yourself. Just stop and think for a minute. Breathe. I have—"
"Elizabeth," Hayes cut in, calmly. "Relax, we have plans for you. I don't want to hurt you if I don't have to. Now turn around and put your hands behind your head."
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "You've watched this on TV, I presume?"
Hayes smiled, coherent enough to see the amusement of the situation. "I am not a man of violence, Elizabeth. But I am one of principle."
And right now he was brainwashed into beliefs that weren't his own. She swallowed hard, and turned around, doing as told as she interweaved her fingers behind her head. Hayes pressed the gun to her back of her head while he quickly padded Elizabeth down for weapons.
He pushed her forward, and out the door.
"Apples," she muttered under her breath. "Rotten, stinking apples."
Someone slammed the butt-end of a gun onto Teyla's shoulder, and she crumbled to the ground. Struggling to breathe against the spike of pain, she tipped her head up and glanced across the conference room as the Trust members filed out, one-by-one, leaving David Branton to do his dirty work.
Branton strode forward. "My son had never been given the opportunity to join us – he never even knew I was aware of the existence of extra-terrestrials. I planned on introducing him into the inner circle of the Trust sometime this year, after he proved himself a capable NID agent." He stopped before Teyla's doubled-over form. "You took my son from me."
Teyla drew a deep breath, and glanced up with a hardened glare. "And now you want vengeance? That won't bring your son back, and it won't give you any peace."
Branton gestured for the one of the guards to hand over his weapon. "We'll see about that. Killing the woman that killed my son might just help me sleep at night."
"Just one thing," Teyla stopped him. "I didn't kill your son."
"Nice try, but all reports came back the same. You did."
"Larrin Caldwell did," Teyla corrected. "But I'm not her."
Branton paused. "What?"
Teyla reached for the button on the alien device and pressed it. A moment later, Branton's eyes widened in shock as he stepped back, taking in the sight of Teyla in her true form. She steadily climbed to her feet, ignoring the wince of pain, and met the stunned duper of Branton evenly.
"I'm Special Agent Teyla Emmagan of the Secret Service," she continued easily. "And you're under arrest."
Branton found his voice. "How—?"
On cue, Ronon burst through the door. Teyla nearly smiled at the flawless execution of backup – then did a double take. She stalled on the sight of Ronon, unarmed and escorted by two of the Trust's men. He'd been caught.
"We cornered him in the nearby corridor," one of the guards explained. "Barely put up a fight for such a big guy."
Teyla tossed an incredulous look towards Ronon, who merely shrugged in response. Repressing a glare, she turned back to the crowd at large, struggling for something to say that could salvage her dignity – and more importantly, their lives.
"You were saying?" Branton prompted, haughtily.
Teyla opened her mouth, but then the next thing she knew the ground shook, a violent explosion shuddering through the entire foundation. One after another, the explosions hit – two, three, four, five. She slammed into the side of her conference table, the wind knocked out of her as the debris went flying everywhere. For a moment afterwards as she braced herself on all fours, Teyla felt like the world was spinning around and the only thing she registered besides the disorientation was the faint ringing sound in her ears. Black smoke filled the air, and outside, the riotous noise of trucks and buses coming to a screeching halt on the highway flittered in.
Phase Two, Teyla remembered.
The sprinklers set off and soaked the room within seconds. As water came pouring down, Teyla and Ronon gathered their strengths faster than the others. While Branton and the guards were still on the floor, Teyla slammed one of the guards behind her with an elbow, shoved a wet boot in the face of Branton and retrieved his weapon. On the other end of the room, Ronon had dropped one guard to the floor with a hard blow.
"I got cornered?" Ronon sneered at the guard, reaching for his weapon and slamming a butt down onto man's face. "Bitch, please."
Teyla arched her eyebrow. "Are you quite through?"
"Hey, don't look at me like that," Ronon growled. "I needed a way into the room. Might as well be escorted. Plan worked, didn't it?"
She pushed back wet bangs away from her face, turning back to the only Trust member in the room. "As I was saying, Senator, you're under arrest for the crime of high treason for conspiracy in kidnapping the President of the United States." She paused, and glanced sideways at Ronon. "Now, the question remains, what do we do about the rest of the Trust members? They might get away before the authorities arrive."
Ronon paused, and answered cryptically, "Don't worry about it. It's being taken care of."
"No, no, no, no!" Rodney muttered in horror. Watching the surveillance feed, he froze, hands hovering over the keyboard before he exchanged frantic looks with Radek. "This is not good," he insisted. "Not good at all."
Radek looked panicked. "Who are those people?"
Rodney had no idea. He watched, transfixed, as a group of men in dark uniforms began lining the building's perimeter, clustering around the back and front entrances, armed with high beams and assault rifles. They took up positions and, in formation, systematically invaded the drenched building. Rodney could do nothing but watch as these mysterious men in black began sweeping the area, locating the remaining Trust members and quickly detaining them one at a time with barely a struggle.
"The fireman and police weren't supposed to react to the fire alarm so quickly," Radek continued. "Their responses are not this quick!"
Rodney stayed quiet, conceding the point. The purpose of setting off the explosive charge had been to trigger the building's fire alarm, alerting local authorities. Sheppard's small team wouldn't have been able to arrest the large number of the Trust by themselves, so they'd devised this plan to pull in the local police when the moment was right. The Washington PD was supposed to flood the building, responding to the detonation of a bomb in a local corporate building with SWAT and firepower. The logistical mess of arresting the Trust members was supposed to be sorted out from there.
But these mysterious men-in-black weren't local authorities. That much was obvious.
A loud knock on the outside of the van made Rodney yelp. He whirled towards the window and spotted a figure wearing a military uniform. The older man waved at them from outside; Rodney recognized him swiftly.
General Jack O'Neill waited patiently while Rodney slid open the van door, and then rested against the frame of the vehicle. "Hello, boys." He paused. "Nice work, but we'll take it from here."
"What?" Rodney exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"Cleaning up the mess," O'Neill explained with a casual wave of his hand. "We've been following you guys for several hours now."
Rodney's mouth hung open. "Why didn't you intervene before?"
O'Neill shrugged. "You guys seemed like you were handling it just fine."
"What? How could you—"
"Dex," O'Neill answered simply.
Rodney paused, then snapping his fingers, his mind deduced the scenario quickly. "Ronon's been passing information along to the Air Force the entire time! Damn it, I told Sheppard not to trust the He-man!"
He'd actually said no such thing, but he thought about it. A lot. Or at least in retrospect he probably did – unconsciously! You just couldn't trust an ape to handle a delicate situation like this… Unless, of course, the ape was one of the good guys. Rodney's mind worked overtime, wrapping his mind around the fact that'd they'd been followed this entire time; wondering what things they'd overheard; whether they knew he'd hacked into confidential governmental files and broken half a dozen different laws in the last three days.
"Who do you work for?" Rodney demanded with narrowed eyes. "How do we know you're not with them?"
"Them?" Jack repeated.
"You know, them. They. The bad guys. The Black Hats."
Jack paused. "Oh, we're not… them. We're more… us. We. The good guys. We have hats that are entirely white."
Rodney narrowed his eyes. "And I'm supposed to take your word on that?"
"We haven't tried to kill you yet, have we?"
Rodney paused. Fair point. "Yes, well," he groused. "If you are who you say your are – and I'm not sure I believe you one way or another – it took you long enough to come to the rescue! We only uncovered a global conspiracy, identified and located the Trust members, protected Dr. Weir, and tracked down the President! What? You wanted us to gift-wrap everything with a neat bow and tie for you before you decided to step in?"
Jack lifted an eyebrow. "About Dr. Weir and the President…" he began calmly.
Soaked through and through as the sprinklers rained down on him, John wasn't having an easy time of things. He glanced up at the ceiling with a glare, praying the local cops would be on their way quickly. His hearing was still ringing from the bomb-blast, but the sense he had trouble currently believing was his vision. As he ducked behind the cover of an upstanding statue, he peeked around and spied Elizabeth being escorted by an armed man.
The man was none other than the President of the United States.
John pulled back and stilled, conflicted. Thrown for a tailspin, he quickly deduced the obvious: Hayes had been successfully brainwashed and had taken Elizabeth hostage. Shit. John hadn't anticipated this twist. Who did he protect? What was his objective? The POTUS or his charge? One was threatening the life of the other and John had to make a decision.
Water rained down on him, and John swallowed heavily, emotions clouding the decision, his feelings for Elizabeth warring for attention. On the other hand was his oath as a Secret Service agent. Protect and defend the president at all costs. He swore under his breath, and took a steadying breath.
He swung around the statue, and aimed his weapon. "Freeze!" John ordered. "Drop your weapon!"
Elizabeth was yanked back, an arm going around her throat, the other hand pressing the gun to her temple. Hayes had her in a chokehold, stumbling Elizabeth back as he retreated. Her damp hair curled around her eyes as they locked gazes.
"Don't shoot!" Hayes threatened. "Or you'll risk hitting Dr. Weir!"
There was a lulled moment where everything slowed down, the seconds stretched onwards and time seemed to have lost its tempo. All he saw was Elizabeth, a threat, and his mind made a snap decision.
"I'm not aiming at her," John warned.
"John, don't!" Elizabeth screamed. "He's the presi—"
He took the shot, winging Hayes in the shoulder with a bullet. The man went down, stumbling backwards and Elizabeth slid on the slippery floor with him. They caved into a pile. John rushed forward, pressing his foot down on Hayes' arm, keeping his weapon out of reach – but Hayes was already out like a light, knocked unconscious. A flesh wound to the shoulder; he must have hit his head on the wet marble flooring on the way down. Elizabeth rose slowly, shakily, climbing to her feet beside John.
"Hey, I'm sorry, I had to…" John trailed off, catching sight of her pale face and trembling hands. "You all right?"
She looked up at him, and confessed, "No."
Before John could respond, a blur of colour whirled by his peripheral vision. The gunshot came before he could react, slamming into Elizabeth and sending her crashing back to the floor. He dove to cover her as the next wave of firepower came, the bullets slamming into his Kevlar vest with the force of a sledgehammer. John covered Elizabeth's body, hands around her head, body blanketing as much of as he could.
Blindly, he raised his weapon and returned fire and the figure disappeared around the corridor. John pulled back, sweeping his aim across the area. He found the hallway clear; their assailant had retreated. He glanced down to Elizabeth and for a split second – an infinitesimal sliver of a second – John froze. Blood was mixing in with the pouring down water, staining her shirt pink. John lifted her damp cloth, assessing the gut wound, and cursed under his breath.
"How bad is it?" Elizabeth breathed, face contorted in pain. "Oh, god, it hurts."
"Shh, you're going to be fine," John lied. "Just lay back."
Shit. Shit. Shit.
He quickly stripped off his wet, outer shirt and bundled it up, pressing it to the wound and Elizabeth sputtered a grisly cry. It was a blessing that John wasn't normally the type to panic, because if there ever was a moment for that, it would be at a time like this. He glanced sideways at Hayes – of the two of them, he was in better shape. Minor flesh wound. But Elizabeth – God, Elizabeth was worse. His bundled-up shirt quickly soaked up her blood, the wet marble underneath her pooling and swirling with pink liquid.
A shuffling noise from behind alerted John and he whirled, firing off shots at the assailant – Ellis. It was Ellis! John squeezed the trigger in rapid succession, and the bullets whizzed through the air, through the falling water, shooting up the wall, the glass, making Ellis dive for cover and stumble back the way he came.
He turned back to Elizabeth. "I have to go and—I can't just. He'll come back."
Elizabeth nodded, her fingers slippery as she covered his hand, squeezed it once, and then pushed him away. "Go. Take care of him."
He stumbled back, eyes flittering over her bleeding form on the floor, to Hayes beside her, then back again to Elizabeth's face. She was pale, wet and scared, and the only thing he could think of in that moment was that he'd let her down – it was his job to protect her. More than that. God damn it.
"Go!" Elizabeth insisted.
John whirled on the balls of his feet, and took off, jogging down the corridor Ellis had retreated. He ejected the empty clip, reached for another and reloaded quickly, then sprinted down the hallway faster. For those brief moments there was no emotion except anger; no motive except finding Ellis; no thought except of killing him. John scanned the horizon. The fleeting image of Ellis passed by and John dove, firing.
The bullets traded back and forth, devastating the marble corridor, shattering the glass of a nearby window, the bullets embedding themselves in the walls and floors. John crashed to the floor, scrambling behind the cover of the opposing wall as he swiftly reloaded his weapon again.
Last clip. He had no more ammunition after this.
"Out of curiosity, when did you sell out?" John demanded when there was a lull, pissed off. "Were you always a duplicitous bastard, or was this a recent development?"
"I don't sell secrets," Ellis rebuffed. "I'm a patriot, just like you. I've done everything for the betterment of this country."
"Kidnapping the president was for the nation's own good?" John shouted incredulously.
"Hayes didn't appreciate the severity of the threat we face," Ellis argued. "You don't either. You're just a flunky with a badge. I know what's out there. I've seen the threat Earth fac—"
"The Orii, right?" John cut in.
Ellis paused. "How do you know about them?"
John adopted a lazy drawl, "I guess I'm not as dumb as I look."
John reached for the shattered glass nearby, grabbing a shard and using it as a mirror. Water trickled down over the surface as he angled the piece, eyeing Ellis on the opposite bend of the corridor, half-hidden by a wall. They were at a standstill. Neither of them were the type to make a mistake and pose an easy target – unless, of course, John could make Ellis slip up. He angled his mirror up slightly, spotting the item affixed to the wall behind Ellis. Bracing himself with a deep breath, John knew he only had one shot. One moment. He dropped the shard, closed his eyes and concentrated.
Then he cracked open his eyes and said, "Hey, Ellis? You don't smoke, right?"
Ellis paused in confusion. "No."
"Hmm," John answered in disappointed. "There goes a wasted opportunity for a pun."
He flung himself out, firing off a bullet at the fire extinguisher in the back. The canister exploded, the compressed air inside igniting and startling Ellis with a blast of white foam. Ellis jerked back in shock, stepping clear of his cover and John took the opportunity. He fired off a shot that slammed into Ellis' shoulder, then another that went into his left leg and crumbled his knees. Ellis landed on the ground with a grunt as John strode forward. Ellis raised his hand, weapon aimed, and John fired off a final shot that knocked his gun loose.
"Don't," Ellis breathed, water coursing down his face. "You don't know what you're doing."
John raised his gun, paused – imagining Elizabeth's bleeding form on the ground – and then said without a tick of guilt, "Yes, I do."
He pulled the trigger, the bullet penetrating Ellis' forehead right between the eyes, execution style.
Shelby Memorial Hospital had a secluded waiting room in its east wing, cordoned off for sensitive situations just like this. No press, no unexpected visitors, no unauthorized staff were allowed inside. No one but a select handful knew what was happening inside as the backdoors to the wing were opened, and the President was quietly wheeled down one corridor and to the next by a Scottish doctor and some mysterious military men in black fatigues. Hayes was still unconscious.
In a detached, slightly unfocused state, John watched from a distance as the cluster of people surrounding the POTUS swept passed the waiting room lobby. He ran a hand over his face, scrubbing fingers over his day-old-stubble down to his chin. He felt like road-kill: flattened, sore, and entirely drained of life. A thousand things had happened in the last few hours, and John had long since come down from an adrenaline high that left his body feeling beaten and haggard.
"So," the voice spoke up behind him, sounding bewildered, "Run that by me one more time?"
Repressing the urge to shove his fist through a glass window just so he could feel something again, John tiredly turned around to address General O'Neill's questions. "Which part?"
O'Neill waved a hand around dismissively, leaning back in his chair with feigned nonchalance. "The part where you said you shot the President of the United States."
"I shot the President of the United States," John repeated obediently, emotionless, like he was talking about the weather. "He was brainwashed and threatening Dr. Weir's life. I made a judgment call and winged him in the shoulder."
O'Neill stared at him, the moment stretching too long. "Okaaaaay."
John expected something to happen at that point – O'Neill to yell at him, arrest him, hell, slug him – something. But they just sat there as the silence stretched longer, heavy and choked. If things had happened the same way twice, John comforted himself with the knowledge that he would do everything exactly the same. Maybe that made him foolish? Maybe just plain dumb? But John felt like he'd done everything right, everything he possibly could under the circumstances.
Now the only thing that was left for him to do was to wait for the hammer to fall. He'd shot the President; it wasn't something a person just walked away from. John was intimately aware that people were sent to prison for the rest of their lives for far, far lesser offenses.
Speaking of… "Michael Kenmore?" John prodded. "The man is still pretending to be—"
"I'll take care of him," O'Neill cut him off. "No need to worry about that."
John nearly snorted; yeah, that was going to happen. He'd just spent the last few days conspiring against the United States government because of an incident that all started a month back, with that man breaking into Elizabeth's house. John wanted to be there when the asshole was brought down, but he knew he had other pressing concerns to worry about.
"What's going to happen to the President now?" John asked. "The real one, I mean?"
O'Neill shrugged. "We're escorting Hayes to a safe facility. A few stitches, some deprogramming, a nice little smiley face sticker on his boo-boo, and he'll be fine. Nothing unexpected."
"He'll be fine?"
O'Neill nodded. "We'll take good care of him. He's not the one in intensive surgery."
John flinched, turning away. Elizabeth's condition wasn't something he could focus on; every time he did, he kept picturing her face, pale and eyes wide, shirt bloodied, lying on that wet marble floor. The image was shocking – it still sent him reeling back with disgust. He couldn't focus on that; couldn't afford to. He scoped the waiting room area, concentrating on the view through the pane glass windows: the military men in the back, the few nurses that bustled down the hallways, the doctors in green scrubs that scrambled from one emergency room or another.
Outside the left entrance door there were raised voices, and John picked up the raucous noise Rodney made, harshly demanding to be let in and told what was happening. The assurances that his team was safe and all right did a little to assuage the tight knots in John's stomach, but the stench of anxiety would not lift entirely. Could not.
"What's going to happen to us, now? My team?"
O'Neill rose, stretching a little and then winching as his knees popped audibly. "That's the million dollar question, isn't it?"
He left without giving John an answer.
Michael Kenmore finished off the presidential signature without a single stroke misplaced. He set the ballpoint pen down, closed the classified document and smirked. A single signature, and he'd just killed a few roadblocks that had stood in the way of the NID for the last few years. If only Michael could keep up this ruse for a few more days, imagine the things he could have accomplished. Alas, the most Michael had was a day – two, tops.
But as the saying went, it was good to be King. Michael planned on enjoying the luxuries for as long as he could.
"Mr. President?" his secretary called. "You have an unannounced visitor that would like a word. General Jack O'Neill."
Michael smiled. "Always have time for old friends. Send him in."
It would be the last order he'd ever give as the president.
Teyla was getting impatient.
She was secluded with Rodney in the private doctor's lounge on the fifth floor, a large TV fastened to the upper corner. The news was on – muted, but Teyla read the message that scrolled across the bottom of the screen. Gas Explosion Claims Corporate Building in Downtown Washington D.C… No Casualties Yet Found.
No mention of the men apprehended, none of Elizabeth Weir and certainly nothing of the President. Though Teyla was under no delusions that things were over now that the Trust had been exposed, she felt a certain sense of pressure lift off her shoulders.
The hard part was over; now came the messy part.
"You don't think they're going to arrest us, right?" Rodney asked her, chewing on his lower lip. "I mean, we saved the day. The planet, even! That has to count for something, right?"
Teyla sighed heavily. "You know as well as I do how many laws we have broken over the last few days. And John… he…" she trailed off.
John was deeper in this mess than any of them.
Rodney overrode her thoughts before she could voice them. "We need lawyers. Really good lawyers that will be able to—"
"Rodney," Teyla pleaded in a tired voice. "Please, stop for just one moment."
He'd been jittery as a bug the entire day, barely sitting still, never silent, and the constant suppositions was slowly eroding any semblance of composure Teyla had managed to maintain throughout the hellish day. Her arm was bandaged, her back sore, and she had a headache that was not helped along by Rodney's constant rambling and demands for answers.
A second later, though, when Rodney fell silent and obediently settled down without a word, Teyla felt a spark of guilt course through her. It was not Rodney's fault that they were in any of this mess. She should not take it out on him—
The door opened and Ronon came striding in.
Teyla was not even quite sure how it happened – unthinkingly, almost. One moment, she was sitting in a stiff uncomfortable chair by the door, and then the next she had slammed Ronon up against the wall, her arm braced against his throat. Despite his larger frame, she was able to disarm him of a small dagger he kept in the third pocket of his vest, and pressed the tip to his throat threateningly.
"You used us!" she accused, her anger unleashed. "You lied to us."
Ronon grabbed her arm, twisted and Teyla let him shove her away. "I didn't betray you," he insisted. "I did the best thing for everyone involved."
Teyla narrowed her eyes as he circled around her, each wary of the other's presence. "Whom do you work for?"
Ronon crossed his arms over his chest. "The Air Force. I never lied about that."
"You just lied about everything else!" Rodney groused. "You have any idea how much trouble we're in because Sheppard trusted you?"
"You're not in trouble," Ronon answered. "That's what I'm here to tell you. You guys have to sign some non-disclosure papers, but your jobs are safe. You're not being charged with anything. Hell, you might even get a promotion."
Teyla stepped forward quickly. "All of us are free and clear?"
Ronon shook his head. "You and McKay are, but Sheppard… things are more complicated with him. He's not getting criminal charges, but he's out of a job, for sure."
"That's not fair," Rodney protested heatedly. "After everything he did – the reason we accomplished so much. They can't overlook that. That's not fair!"
Teyla released a tense exhale, feeling sick. She'd been nursing the vain hope that when this was all over John would be able to return to his duties, but the man simply could not catch a break.
"Who the fuck ever said life was fair?" Ronon scowled.
A day later, a ripple of anxiety worked through John as he opened the door to the recovery ward. The nurse guided him down the slim corridor to the room in the back, informing him that Dr. Beckett would be along shortly to give him an update on Elizabeth's condition. She had finally – thank god – woken up after surgery early in the morning. Two agents stood on either side of Elizabeth's private room; one of them was Lorne.
"She's been asking for you," Evan informed. "About time you showed up."
The agent next to him wasn't so friendly. "You're allowed to visit for only a short period of time. Make it quick."
Lorne sent a glare. "Bates, why don't you go do a perimeter run of the hallway? Now."
Bates flashed an annoyed look. It had taken a direct order from O'Neill for some of the other Secret Service agents to stand down and allow John anywhere near Elizabeth. A few days ago, he'd been one of them – been protecting Elizabeth. Now, most of the agents had practically ostracized him. The irony was thick enough to choke.
As Bates reluctantly did as told, Lorne walked up to John and smirked. "I could get used to ordering people around."
John raised an eyebrow. "Promoted?"
Lorne nodded. "Because of you."
"My old position?"
"For now. I guess I should thank you?"
"Save it," John tossed back easily. "Just do your job."
Lorne paused, his expression sobering up. Despite the levity between them, the weight of John's words settled over them both and John knew he'd conveyed his concerns enough. Lorne was a good agent – a good man. He'd take care of Elizabeth when John wasn't around.
Lorne cleared his throat. "I'll let you guys have some privacy, but I can only give you a couple of minutes."
John offered his gratitude with a smile. "Thanks, man."
"Least I could do," Lorne returned.
He parted quickly, leaving John standing outside Elizabeth's room, watching her through the plate glass window. She was asleep, tucked under a light beige blanket with a dozen different monitors all surrounding her. Despite the pallid look, she was a sight for sore eyes. He hadn't seen her since the moment the paramedics had loaded her into the ambulance nearly two days ago, and the persistent image of her bleeding and wounded hadn't abated in the long hours since.
A figure rolled over to him in a wheelchair, and at first John didn't even notice the presence – until there was some rather pointed throat clearing. John glanced aside, realizing Sumner was next to him in a blue hospital gown, wheelchair bound.
"O'Neill told me everything that's happened," Sumner greeted as he applied the handbrakes. "Christ on a bike, Sheppard."
John's eyes fell back on Elizabeth's prone form. "Go ahead. Get in your shots."
Sumner snorted. "Too easy. I prefer something challenging. Although there is a certain ironic poetry to the idea of a Secret Service agent shooting the president."
John just grunted in response, trying to pull himself out of this funk so that he could offer Sumner a better explanation to everything that had transpired over the previous few days since they'd last seen each other. He couldn't pull his focus away from Elizabeth, though. Eyes riveted on her pale form, the only thing John could manage was a choking swell of guilt: he should have protected her. He should have taken the bullet for her. If he'd been half the agent he'd always hoped to be, then Elizabeth would never have been hurt in the first place.
"What are you going to do now?" Sumner asked him.
John had no clue. Without the Secret Service, his life was pretty much aimless. He doubted many other law enforcement agencies would hire a man that was so unceremoniously canned. The nature of his termination was classified; only a black mark on his record would be public knowledge, and that would certainly liven up his resume, wouldn't it?
John shrugged. "I'll think of something."
Sumner's gaze drifted to Elizabeth. "I bet you will."
John would have commented, but his focus was suddenly distracted when he thought Elizabeth began to stir awake. He lifted on the balls of his feet, trying to catch her attention through the window, but she quickly settled back down, fast asleep.
Sumner rolled his eyes. "Man, watching you right now is just painful. Act like a grown adult, not a damn overeager puppy." He started wheeling himself away before John could respond. "Oh, and another thing, Sheppard? I don't think anybody else has said this to you, yet. Allow me to be the first."
John paused, still bracing himself for a scathing reprimand; Sumner certainly wouldn't be the first for that. "What?"
Sumner waited a beat. "You did a good job out there. Don't let the anybody convince you otherwise."
Sumner wheeled himself away, disappearing around the corridor and out of sight. John stood rooted in his spot, a small kernel of pride burgeoning despite himself. He'd never heard Sumner pay him a compliment before, nothing even remotely close. And it'd probably cost Sumner something to admit those words considering the unpleasant history that lay between them.
It was something good to come out of this mess, at least.
John fisted a hand around the doorknob and quietly pushed the weighty door inward, crossing the threshold into the sterile room with heavy steps. The artificial, persistent beep of her heart monitor greeted him, and the faint smell of an antiseptic smell hung in the air. The noise of his arrival drew a response from Elizabeth. She came to, slowly, blinking groggily against the harsh light from above.
John drew to her bedside. "Hey, there, lazy head," he teased, feeling tension loosen in the pit of his stomach. "About time you woke up."
She smiled faintly. "Is that any way to greet me right now?"
He shrugged. "Well, jumping your bones would probably be frowned upon by the staff." She barked a small laugh, the edges around her eyes crinkling slightly. He tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, and softened his voice, "How you feeling?"
"I've been better," she admitted. "You?"
"The cafeteria food is horrible," John answered. "And Rodney's been complaining that the food staff has been trying to poison him with citrus for the last twenty-four hours."
"Everybody all right?"
He nodded. "Good and accounted for."
She released a deep breath. "Jack told me this already, I just… it's better hearing it from you."
John knew the sentiment, though it still amazed him that Elizabeth reciprocated the feeling. He hooked a foot around the nearby chair and dragged it forward, sitting down by her bedside. The next few minutes passed by in a blur as they spoke quietly, Elizabeth listening more than talking, until her eyes started drifting shut in exhaustion.
"John," she mumbled heavily. "I killed a man."
John froze, the confession shocking him into silence for a long pause.
"I had no choice," she continued, half-delirious with fatigue. "I had no choice."
"Shh," he recovered, mindlessly mumbling words of comfort when he couldn't think of anything else. "I know, I know."
"I'm so tired."
"Go to sleep then, baby."
"You'll be here when I wake up?" she asked in a thick groggy voice. "Be here?"
He pressed a kiss to the back of her hand, mumbling assurances, and though he could see her fight the fatigue she was out like a light within seconds. He watched her sleep for a while, a weight lifted off his shoulders as he sought proof of her health and wellbeing with his own two eyes. Another weight settled back in when he thought over her confession – she'd killed a man. That type of action changed a person, especially a person as sensitive as Elizabeth.
He couldn't get over the persistent feeling that it was all entirely his fault. He'd saved her life and still the sensation nagged at him that he'd lost this one; somehow he'd failed in duties that had nothing at all to do with the president. His priority was and still remained Elizabeth.
A part of him knew she'd never hear his apology in the first place. It didn't matter; he needed to say things to her; admit things to her. Abruptly, watching her slumbering form John realized he wanted to admit three words that he hadn't spoken to anyone since his disastrous failed marriage nearly a decade prior. He loved her. The emotion was thick and choking, undeniable after everything they'd been through, and it scared the shit out of him in a way that only life-and-death situations normally provoked in him.
He settled heavily into the chair by her bedside, grasping her cold hand, trying to figure out how everything had come together to this moment. A month ago, he'd never even heard of Elizabeth Weir. Now, the only thing he had left in his life was her. The last time he'd felt even remotely this strong about a woman, he'd been married within two months – and this time, his feelings for Elizabeth seemed even more intense than what he'd ever harbored for his ex.
Christ, he was never going to think clearly around this woman, was he?
The sound of the door opening drew his attention away, and he discovered Elizabeth had two more visitors. Caldwell and O'Neill stepped into the room and closed the door behind them, except when they began talking in hushed tones, it became obvious that they were really there to talk to John, not check up on Elizabeth.
"We've been discussing it," Caldwell explained in a soft voice, mindful of Elizabeth. "And we know that you did this country a service. You deserve recognition for that."
John raised an eyebrow, a touch bitter. "Being fired from my job isn't exactly a ringing endorsement."
O'Neill slapped a hand across John's back. "Yeah, we really can't do anything about that. You shot the president, after all."
John scowled, not needing the reminder.
"But," Caldwell continued, "We can do you the next best thing."
O'Neill stretched a smile. "What do you think about joining the official ranks of the NID?"
John stared at one, and then the other, incredulously. "You've got to be shitting me."
The alarm jarred John awake with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and he lifted his head and fumbled for the offending noise. When he silenced it with a slam, he rested back against the pillow, eyes drifting shut in exhaustion. It wasn't even six yet; that was too early to get up and dressed for work – way too early. With a groan, he overturned on his side, curling up against the warm body beside him with his arm slung across a protruding belly.
Elizabeth shifted restlessly. "What time is it?"
"Early," John mumbled back, nestling closer to her. "Too early. Go back to sleep."
"Can't," she protested, "Rodney's updating us on the progress of that shiny new machine, remember? He won't quit until I hear him out fully on it."
John grunted. "He can talk to himself about the device and be in good company. He'll never miss us."
That earned him a sharp elbow to the ribs. "We need to get up," Elizabeth persisted, but she was still only half awake. "Just because you're sleeping with the boss does not mean you get fringe benefits."
"I thought sleeping with the boss was fringe benefits?"
He grunted when Elizabeth jabbed him with another elbow. But he'd have the last laugh – these days Elizabeth only got out of bed with his assisted help. Maneuverability was lately negotiated, never commanded. It was one of the many daily adjustments she'd had to make, what with being seven months pregnant.
John rested the flat of his palm over her bellybutton, waiting for a moment, but there wasn't any of the expected movement. He lifted his head off the pillow. "Baby's still sleeping, apparently."
"What?" Elizabeth peeked her eyes open. "Did you expect her to get up and make coffee?"
John grinned. "Like you can have any of it?"
She groaned; a familiar one that belied the many things she'd sacrificed over the course of this pregnancy. This entire thing had been an experience for them – and neither of them had exactly been unused to the land of strange and weird before. They dealt with alien technology on a daily basis, made frequent trips to the SGC, and on seven separate occasions, they'd even taken trips off-world so that Elizabeth could negotiate treaties with some fancy alien civilization as part of her IOA duties. John usually went along as her bodyguard; two years had gone by, and he was still protecting her. Though their official titles had changed.
He kept his hand on her belly, waiting for the kick. "She's usually active in the morning," he mumbled, paranoia starting to overcome him. "Why isn't she moving today?"
Elizabeth sighed heavily. "She's sleeping, John. Like any sane person would be doing at—" she glanced to the alarm clock, "—5:45 in the morning."
His head landed back against the pillow with a frown. "I suppose."
Minutes ticked by as Elizabeth drifted in and out of slumber, but John was now wide awake. His limbs felt heavy with exhaustion, but absentmindedly, he trailed fingers softly over her bare arms. She shivered in that familiar way - that good way - and John's mind shifted focus abruptly. Well, hell, if they were up…
She had on a comfy cotton pair of pajamas and a white tank top, and the material of her shirt rode up to expose her belly. He ran one hand over the swell of her hip, and then leaned into her body to mouth a kiss across the nape of her neck. He trailed light kisses down, snagging a finger under the material of her strap to push it off one shoulder.
"We need to get up," she mumbled. "Shiny machine."
He knew he had only a few more minutes before she'd gain full control of her faculties; history proved she was way too comfortable in the first few minutes of waking up to mount any sort of protest to anything he did. Buoyed by the sentiment, he tugged her body closer, coaxing her leg up and back over his. His hand slid down her hips, over her belly, then ran up to cup her breast underneath her shirt.
Elizabeth moaned, then protested weakly, "You're going to make us late, John."
"The last time you said something like that to me, you announced we were pregnant. Trust me, being a few minutes late for a meeting won't be the end of the world by comparison."
"John," she warned with a laugh.
John smirked a little, pressing his advantage by kissing her collarbone. "Nobody will notice we're late," he breathed in a low voice. "Promise."
"You're half an hour late!" Rodney accused, jabbing a finger at them in annoyance.
Elizabeth sent John a withering glare as she swung around the workbench. "Sorry, Rodney," she offered softly, pressing a hand to his shoulder. "We've wasted enough of your time, so why don't you get right to it?"
Rodney huffed out an annoyed breath, and spent a few seconds rummaging through his drawer before he emerged with several pages of blue prints – schematics of some strange new alien machine that had captured his undivided attention lately. Rodney was now one of the leading scientists working in Area 51, an assignment that Elizabeth herself had appointed after pulling a few strings. She may have helped get his foot in the door, but Rodney had climbed the ladder himself, reaching the topmost levels of the infrastructure when his aptitude for deconstructing alien technology became apparent to anyone with eyes.
He'd finally found a government agency where he could flourish; in fact, the NID was proving strangely fitting for all of them in their respective positions – Elizabeth as an IOA member, John as a NID field agent, and Rodney as the leading scientist. They officially ran Area 51 now, presiding over the experimentation of every single piece of alien technology that came through the Stargate – with the exception of those rare few that never left Cheyenne Mountain, of course.
"We've managed to isolate the source behind the anomalies from the naquada readings," Rodney explained as he spread out the blueprints. "Various diagnostic tests have determined this machine isn't – as was first presumed erroneously by Col. Samantha Carter – an energy source."
"Damn," John muttered. "We could have used one of those."
"What does it do?" Elizabeth asked.
Rodney snapped his fingers and motioned for them to follow him down the lab. He swept passed a few other cluttered workbenches, each piled over with dismantled technology, and led them to the back room. The life-size alien machine stood in the centre, a behemoth statue that glistened in the surrounding sunlight. It towered over them like some abstract piece of art – the center was hollow, surrounded by spiraling metal that wove up in rings and melded over the top to form a cover. It looked like someone was meant to stand in the center of the device – for what purpose, no one had yet figured out.
Rodney circled the device. "It's not meant to transport, reconfigure, construct, demolish, or scan anything. It doesn't pulse or spike with any strange energy readings, except for the baseline hum of Naquada that we first detected when SG-1 pulled it from the pile of rubble. I've ruled out any conventional uses for it."
"So," John surmised. "That's a long-winded way of saying you have no clue what it does, yet. It could make pancakes for all you know."
Elizabeth lifted a brow at him, incredulous. "Pancakes?"
John shrugged. "What? I've got breakfast on my mind. We didn't have time this morning."
She sent him a pointed glare that reminded him exactly why they were so late in the first place. Besides, he was only half right. He hadn't had breakfast; Elizabeth had. Nothing got between a pregnant woman and food.
"I've got another piece in the back," Rodney cut in, focused on the statue. "It's supposed to hook onto this part here," he waved a hand around in the general direction of the bottom half, "but it might take me a minute to put it in. Then I can power it up and give you a demonstration of what we've figured out so far."
John waved a hand. "We'll be waiting here with baited breath."
Rodney frowned. "I need some help carrying the piece out. It's extremely heavy and I'm still recovering from that pulled muscles from a few weeks back when I was—"
"Why don't you go help him, John?" she suggested, before Rodney could really get started.
"Why me? He's got a dozen assistants that he orders around like little minions."
She sighed heavily. "The faster you help him, the faster we can get out of here and you can get breakfast."
"Or," John wagged his eyebrows suggestively, "It really does make pancakes and we won't even have to leave."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Go."
Five minutes later, she was still waiting for them to reemerge with the missing piece. While she ambled around the workroom listlessly, she studied the alien device. It did look rather beautiful, strange though it was. Elizabeth let her imagination drift, wondering where it came from, what it did, who it was made by. Dr. Jackson had left some preliminary notes on the device, suggesting that perhaps the Ancients may have made it; Elizabeth wouldn't be surprised.
She breathed out, hoping to expel a touch of that endless curiosity with it. Elizabeth knew she shouldn't get her hopes up again, but apparently she couldn't help herself. The Ancients were still a rather big question mark even though she'd conducted years of extensive research on them. It was well known in some circles that Elizabeth had a vested interest in learning everything she could about them. There was just something inherently fascinating about that civilization – Ascension, higher powers, and they had knack for creating technology beyond the capabilities of any other society the SGC had encountered.
There were even allusions to some great lost city in the Pegasus Galaxy, one that represented the Ancients at the peak of their civilization.
All of this was conjecture, though. Nothing concrete. Elizabeth was desperately eager to learn more, but sources of information were few and far between and they had other pressing concerns to deal with at Area 51. The priority was currently finding a viable weapon to use against the Orii, but things weren't looking good on that front either.
She swept her hand across the glossy surface of the structure, fingers tracing the fine lines etched into the metal with a soft caress. Her mind was adrift with a thousand different things when she suddenly stopped, digits crossing over a small niche in the texture. Her gaze dropped, scrutinizing the small indentation until she realized when she titled her head aside and examined it from the right angle, it revealed to her an hieroglyphic – no, an Ancient symbol. For… truth? Veracity? Perhaps reality? She couldn't settle on any one meaning.
The scientists on Rodney's team were all brilliant, but linguists they were not. They'd probably failed to recognize the significance of such a small marking but Elizabeth knew better. She quickly swept her eyes over other areas of the surface, seeking other symbols with a quiet sense of exhilaration coursing through her.
She was right. This machine was Ancient in origin.
Eventually she discovered another symbol on the opposite side of the structure, except a problem immediately presented itself – it was just barely within her level of sight. As she settled a hand against the metal and struggled to crouch down, the weight of her protruding belly made the maneuver as unlikely as twisting into a pretzel. She expelled a heavy breath, annoyed, and stretched her fingers to trace the symbol, hoping at least to distinguish the symbol by touch. Curiously feeling the surface, she was surprised to discover that there was – what felt like – a hidden latch. She pushed it aside.
John and Rodney emerged from the backroom.
Elizabeth looked up. "I think I've found something—"
She stopped short, aware that she'd accidently pushed the symbol inwards with her fingers – like it was a button. Over the years, working with strange alien equipment, if there was one rule Elizabeth knew well, it was to never push a button unless you knew what it did.
"Uh, oh," she breathed with a sheepish look growing on her face.
John lifted a brow. "What?"
A faint flicker of electricity shocked her fingertip – like static cling. The next thing she knew, she was blinded, a pulsing bright energy bathing the room with light and heat and Elizabeth stood frozen, trapped like a fly in the middle of a spider web. Seconds, minutes, hours passed – time lost its tempo and she was only aware of a bright, white light and the distant screams of John from across the room.
Her body crumbled to the floor as she passed out.
Opening her eyes fractionally, the first thing she noticed was the harsh florescent lighting and the vague, familiar racket of a busy infirmary. Her head spun and she slipped her eyes shut again, groaning.
"Go easy, there," John breathed to her from nearby. "You took a big knock to the head when you went down."
Elizabeth pushed off her elbows, attempting to rise but the maneuver proved impossible. It took a second or two to realize it, but when Elizabeth blinked her eyes open, she discovered to her extreme shock that she was restrained, tied down to the bed. The alarming realization followed another one.
"John, where am I?" she breathed, tossing a frantic gaze about the unfamiliar place. "Why am I tied down?"
The room was an infirmary, but one unlike any she'd ever seen before. The walls were all brightly painted, the machines all advanced and alien, and the personnel – she didn't recognize a single person among them save for John.
And John – faceting onto his face, she took in his state with a sweep of her wide eyes. He was dressed in black military fatigues, watching her with a scrutiny she couldn't fathom. The look in his eyes was dark and suspicious, trying to cover up a hint of anxiousness that probably would have fooled any other individual. Elizabeth knew better, and she quickly read his face, the defensive posture, the distance between them all within two shallow breaths. She didn't like what any of it told her.
"Elizabeth?" he said cautiously, as if he was unsure.
She struggled against her bounds, then glanced down to her belly. "My baby," she breathed frantically, eyes going wide. "My baby, is she all right?"
John swallowed heavily. "The doctors say your kid is fine. They've got other questions, though."
They had questions? "How about answering some of mine?" Elizabeth rebuffed, trying to control the panic threatening to swell. "What's going on? Why do you have me tied up?"
John glowered, averting his gaze. "Wasn't my choice. Boss's orders, but don't worry, I'll get you out of them soon enough."
Boss? She was his boss.
Why wasn't he more concerned? Why wasn't he livid that she was tied up? And what did he mean by your kid? It was always ours, with him. Our kid. Our baby girl.
She swallowed the terror, and took a steadying breath. "John, talk to me. What's going on?"
"That's what we'd like to know," another person announced.
She swiveled her attention away from John and locked onto another man approaching them with long strides. He was unfamiliar, bald with glasses, and looked like the bookish type. He also wore a strange uniform, with red fleece and jacket that had an obscure insignia at the side.
"Who are you? Where am I?" she demanded.
The man halted at the foot of her bed. "My name is Richard Woosley, and you are in – as I'm sure you already know – Atlantis."
"Atlantis?" Elizabeth repeated in bewilderment. "What? How did I—"
"Don't play coy." Woosley countered accusingly. "I'm sure you could answer that better than any of us. We don't know who you are and what you're doing here, but rest assured we will find out the truth."
"All right," John cut in with a flash of annoyance. "That's enough. She's not wraith, Woosley. No need to treat her like—"
"Her sudden appearance here is suspicious, Colonel," Woosley never let him finish. "We cannot overlook that simply because she has on the guise of a long lost friend. She could be attempting to manipulate us by doing this."
Elizabeth's eyes narrowed at the bald man, ire kindled. "Manipulating you?" she said lowly. "I don't even know what's going on! John, tell him who I am. Tell him I'm Elizabeth Weir."
But John's face shadowed – with something akin to grief – and then admitted blunt words that rendered her speechless. "Elizabeth Weir has been dead for nearly two years."
Stunned into silence, Elizabeth just stared at him, hoping to spy some glimmer that this was all some type of joke – some cruel and unusual joke. But John's eyes were too somber and grief-stricken, and this place was too strange. Atlantis. Abruptly, she remembered the Ancient machine – the one she'd touched. The memory of it was hazy, unclear – it had happened all so fast. But suddenly Elizabeth grasped the connections with instant clarity.
An alternate reality; she was in an alternate reality.