The updated report arrives on Elizabeth's desk the next morning.
He was drugged, John repeats. He still doesn't remember concretely anything they asked or anything he said in reply.
He remembers, now that he thinks about it, that they asked about alpha sites. He doesn't remember answering.
He gives her a list of everything he might have told them, if they asked the right questions during the four days he doesn't quite remember. Speculation, he writes. There's no way to be sure, but Lorne and Caldwell are correct; they have to assume the worst.
The list is four pages long.
It starts with the things they already assumed and accounted for -- IDCs, command codes, already scheduled missions. It goes on from there.
The alpha site. The potential beta sites.
Their list of allies, complete with Stargate addresses. The layout of the city. The statistics and details of their standing defensive ordnance and personnel. Their offensive and defensive tactics. The technology of the puddle-jumper and other Ancient devices, as much as John or anyone else knows about it.
Halfway down the second page, Elizabeth finds herself shaking. Each item is a problem, a concern that must be dealt with, but all she can see is John on the floor of an Ankari cell being asked every one of these questions, one by one, drugged and tortured until he answers.
There are burned nerve endings in his hands and feet and along the back of his neck, Carson said, from repeated electric shocks. The surface physical trauma was less, but next to direct stimulation of his nervous system, he probably wouldn't even have felt the cuts and bruises.
The Daedalus. The ZPM. Their -- his -- role in waking the Wraith. The location and defenses of other planets housing ZPMs and abandoned Ancient technology. Earth.
Elizabeth reads to the end of the list, and then leaves her office for a secluded balcony to the west of the main city where no one will look for her. It's the first time since John's return that she lets herself cry.
John is collapsed across her bed when she returns home for the evening.
She panics for a moment at his unusual position, seeing the streak of smeared blood across his cheek. The feeling doesn't completely go away even after she registers his sweat-soaked workout clothes.
He opens one eye, aimed at the ceiling. "Teyla beat the crap out of me," he explains. He makes to roll over, probably so he can actually see her, but then gives up.
Elizabeth takes a seat on the corner of the bed, but stops short of actually touching him. "I thought you were getting better at that," she teases.
John groans. "You're going to mock me when I'm down?"
She peers at his face to make sure he isn't hiding a mortal injury. It's rare for Teyla to draw blood at all in training unless John pushes her, actually, as the Athosian leader considers precise control of her weapons and limbs more important than subduing her training partner.
"What would you prefer that I do?"
It's a rhetorical question, but he answers her. "Kiss me?"
She considers it, but only briefly. "Shower first."
John starts to whine.
"Shower, or I go sleep at your place without you. And you get to wash the sheets."
He half-heartedly rolls away from her, burying his face in the bedding. "Thought you loved me," he complains.
"I do. I just love you clean." She sighs when he still doesn't move and tugs on his sleeve. "Come on. I'll help you wash your hair."
In the harsh light of the bathroom, as she lathers his body with soap and kisses, she catalogs the dents and scars she never properly sees in the half-light of the bedroom. She tries not to make her exploration obvious -- the last thing she wants is to make him more self-conscious -- but her fingers get lost tracing the faint snowflake of discolored skin on the back of his neck.
He gasps, once, and she jerks her hand away. "What?"
He shakes his head and fumbles with the shower door. "I'm fine. Never mind."
"John, wait." He's covered with soap still, and that's enough reason for her to grab his arm. She'd have no chance against him if he wanted to fight her off, but he slowly relaxes at her touch, letting her tug him back under the stream.
She takes a step back to the wall and lets him finish showering.
"I dreamed about this," he says, eyes closed, voice low.
She stays quiet, almost certain that even a word will burst the bubble and send him back into total silence.
"While I was there. I dreamed about you." He scrubs his hands through his hair almost violently, shaking the suds loose. "They dunked me in water, or something. I could barely think under whatever they'd given me, but for a second... I thought I was here." He smirks. "I asked them to turn the heat down."
They have long arguments about temperature. He likes everything cold, she likes it hot. "John..."
"Don't worry about me," he orders her. "It sucked, but I'm fine. I should have been..." he trails off and forces a smile to his lips. It's more like a grimace. "It sucked," he says again. "But I'm fine now. I don't want to talk about it."
She wants to scream at the unfairness of it all, at how there are parts of his body and mind that are now permanently off-limits to her, at how she sent him out one day and he came back like this (the same, but damaged), but holds her tongue. She doesn't want his promise that he's all right to be a lie, so she agrees. "Okay. I'm sorry."
He shrugs awkwardly and doesn't move, looking torn between her and escape. The decision, when he makes it, is to push her back into the shower wall and kiss her for all he's worth.
She can't help feeling that sometimes, lately, he has sex with her more to ward off conversation than because he really wants to have sex.
They tumble into bed, skin still wet, and when he kisses her, she holds on a little too tightly.
Elizabeth doesn't specifically ask Teyla to report on John's off-world behavior, but the Athosian woman does anyway.
"There have been no further incidents," Teyla says, hands folded in her lap, gaze direct and piercing as always. "He has been entirely professional."
It doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but Elizabeth will take it. "That's good to hear."
"That is not all." Teyla frowns. "He is too quiet."
Elizabeth's smile falters. On the one hand, it has always bothered her that John feels more comfortable discussing certain things with Teyla -- things he claims she won't understand or that he wants to protect her from. He begs Elizabeth with his eyes to leave the infirmary whenever he's bleeding, but will let his teammates stay. She suspects that he's not entirely open with Teyla, either, but the battle-bond between them creates some sort of mutual understanding.
It's better that he have someone to hold his hand when he's injured, she knows, even if it isn't her. The fact that Teyla is being kept at just as much of a distance worries the hell out of her, and she'd much rather be jealous than worried.
"More than that," Teyla continues. "I believe he is disappointed that we have not seen combat since he returned to duty."
"What?" Elizabeth has sensed a restlessness in him, something unsettled and undefined, but she hasn't had the chance to see him in the field lately and would never have attributed it to that. As much as John is good in battle, it's never something that he craves.
"Last week, he entered a settlement heavily populated with refugee Genii alone and refused to allow Ronon or myself to accompany him. Yesterday he had us remain in a debris field far longer than necessary, despite indications that the Wraith would soon be returning."
"That doesn't mean-"
"It is his attitude more than his actions," Teyla allows. "He has been asking the locals on every planet specifically about their knowledge of Ankari strategic positions. I believe he is searching for a way to... prove something, to us or to himself. I am not sure what."
Elizabeth's stomach clenches, but she ignores it. "It's his job to think strategically. He had explanations in his reports for every action he has taken."
Teyla's eyes narrow sympathetically. "You are still worried about him." It isn't a question.
"He says he's fine," Elizabeth answers.
She never suspected that Teyla would be the one doubting John's ability to return to duty. The Athosians have lived in the trenches for millennia without any real concept of "off-duty" and, until they joined with them, Teyla was always insisting that the recovery times Carson insisted upon for war wounds were far too long. If she could walk, she would fight, and Elizabeth wouldn't be surprised if the Athosians would never even consider emotional post-traumatic symptoms a true cause for concern.
For that reason, it jars her all the more that Teyla shakes her head. "He is not."
Doctor Heightmeyer's office is regulated by the same meticulous Ancient environmental controls as everywhere else in the city, but it feels colder.
"Colonel Sheppard has made it to every appointment," Kate tells her. "He's cooperating, as much as can be expected."
Elizabeth doesn't want to show her own nervousness, but she's dying to pace to the window and back. "He talks to you?"
Kate half-smiles. "Some. I'm not sure how much progress we're making, but he's very aware of the issues that he's dealing with and how they might affect his reactions and behavior. I would tell you if I thought he was unfit to command his team. I don't."
Elizabeth lets out a breath. She doesn't feel particularly relieved at the verdict. "To be honest," she admits, "I'm not even sure that I have the right to be here."
"Because you're in a relationship with him."
"Yes." There's a long pause, and Kate indicates a chair with one hand. Almost everything in Elizabeth is against this, feels like she already admitted too much by even coming here to ask about him, but the icy silence and flippant non-conversation at home is pushing her towards the point where she needs to talk to someone.
She sits. "I'm not here because I'm in a relationship with him," she says. "I'm here as the leader of this base."
"All right. Then, as the leader of this base, you can allow him to serve as military commander, provided he continues with counseling."
She thinks about what Teyla said. "Even if he encounters the Ankari again?"
"He'll do his job," Kate insists, "and right now, reducing his responsibilities or removing him from command could be very harmful."
She chews on the information in silence, and Kate lets her. Elizabeth remembers all the things she has confessed to her bathroom mirror in the past six weeks and picks the least damning.
"What should I be doing to help him?" She feels about fifteen years younger.
"You are helping him."
Elizabeth actually scoffs. "It doesn't feel that way." It doesn't even feel like he trusts her anymore. He'll grab her hand when he's falling asleep sometimes, pulling her closer, but she can't imagine that being a warm body for him can possibly be enough. He lies to her, constantly -- about being okay, about his rationale for going alone into a Genii settlement, even about why he'll spend whole evenings in front of the punching bag in the workout room until his knuckles are bloody and he's too exhausted to sleep -- and she doesn't call him on it because she's afraid to drive him farther away. Whenever he wakes up from a nightmare or falters at a mention of the Ankari during a mission briefing, he glares at her like she's the enemy.
In a way, she supposes, she is, as long as she's holding his job in her hands.
"You are helping," Kate insists, "just by being there. It will get better, Elizabeth."
"I know," she says, but she doesn't, really. He does get over things, more or less. It can't last forever. She knows that, but it has been almost a month and a half since she has been able to be with him without this in the air between them, and she misses it.
"It will," Kate promises. "Trust me."
In the middle of the night, John starts screaming.
The sound, even choked in his throat, slices through her like a knife, and Elizabeth is on top of him before she's even fully awake, shaking his shoulders to break through the nightmare.
His words are completely incoherent, disjointed syllables, and he struggles against her.
"John, wake up!" she commands in a voice that's practically a shriek, but he only fights harder in return. His chest is heaving and he ends up wrapping his hands tighter into the blankets as he tries to yank them free.
Her stomach turns over as she untwists the sheet from his hands, trying to sound soothing enough to bring him out of it when all she can think is that she wants to kill the bastards who did this to him. Slowly. Painfully. She doesn't have thoughts like these, not normally, not in daylight, but this is John.
They hurt him, are somehow still hurting him, and it's killing her that she has no one to hurt back.
"John!" she yells again, grabbing both sides of his head to try and hold him still and he shoves his free hand toward her to push her off.
The back of his hand collides with her jaw with a sharp smack, and that's the moment he wakes up.
He stares at her, completely confused. Reflexive tears jump to her eyes as her cheek starts to throb, but she bites her tongue and forces herself to keep them back.
"Elizabeth..." his voice is breathy for a moment, still unsure of what happened and possibly even confused about where he is. His gaze comes to rest on her face, where she's holding her jaw and trying not to cry, and she can tell the moment it all clicks together.
"Shit," he gasps, balling his hands into fists and pressing them to his eyes. "Shit, shit, shit..."
"It's okay," she tries to reassure him, cursing the shakiness of her own voice, stuffing her hands under her knee to keep from touching him. "Everything's okay. You're here now. You're home."
"I know!" he snaps, rolling up to sitting and turning his back to her. "I know. I'm fine."
He's anything but fine. A tear escapes her eyes, and she swats it away. For a brief second, all the boiling rage she feels for the Ankari is directed right at him. "Dammit, John! Why won't you talk to me?"
He slams a fist down into the mattress.
"Shit," he swears again, and it's almost like she can see the anger draining out of him, leaving him weak and exhausted. His voice is painfully guilty. "Elizabeth..."
"It's okay," she says again, forcing herself to be calm. "I'm fine. You didn't hurt me." It'll bruise, she suspects, but she can figure out later what to say to people if her concealer doesn't mask it. That's not what she's worried about.
He fixes his eyes on empty space, refusing to look at her, and clenches a corner of blanket in one of his hands. He looks so completely disheartened that she breaches the physical barrier and touches a hand to his shoulder.
"It's okay," she whispers, like they're the only words she has.
"It's not okay." It comes out forcefully, like the words have been building up for a month, and the sudden lack of denial stuns her into silence. He scrubs at his eyes with one hand with a force that makes her wince. "I don't know what the hell I'm doing here anymore."
Her mouth dries. "With me?"
John's head snaps toward her, eyes wide and surprised. He has aged a lot in the past few years, but she's suddenly struck by how young he still looks. "No," he says. His eyes slide closed and his jaw clenches. "On Atlantis. Doing my job."
"John, you are doing your job," Elizabeth argues, wanting to tear out the disloyal part of herself that has doubted him these past few weeks. "You're great at your job."
"Don't say that."
She has taken great pains to separate her role in this room from her role in the rest of the city, but she has to say it. "I wouldn't let you do your job if you couldn't handle it." She covers one of his fists with her open palm, desperate to do something to narrow what feels like a chasm between them.
He rips his hand away from hers. "Do you know what they did to me?"
She feels cold all over. For a guilty moment, she honestly doesn't want to know. She shakes her head even though he's not looking at her. "What?"
He spares her the details, skipping right to the end. "I might have told them everything, Elizabeth."
She wraps her arms around herself to keep from pulling him to her when he's not ready to be touched, unable to stand the overwhelming guilt in his voice. "You were drugged," she forces over the knot in her throat. "They tortured you. It isn't your fault."
"That's not an excuse!" He turns to look at her again, and she has to shove down an instinctive, animal fear at the look on his face and furious tone of his voice. "I'm trained for that. I am the military commander of this expedition. Atlantis could have been destroyed because I fucked up. It should not have happened, and you know it."
"There was nothing you could have done," she insists, realizing another tear has slipped free and not doing anything about it. "When we found you-"
When his team had radioed back that they'd found him, she had been so relieved that Colonel Caldwell had grabbed her arm to make sure she stayed standing. John came back bruised and bloody, still drugged, conscious enough only to give her a weary smile and a rote promise that he was fine, and he was still the most welcome sight of her life.
"When they found me," he spits, "Ronon had to carry me out of there."
She grabs his nearest hand again, and this time, he doesn't shake her off right away. "John..."
"I was there for four days." It sounds like a confession, and he almost whispers it.
"I know." God, does she know. She spent four days losing her mind, terrified that he was already dead, sending out search parties and barely sleeping.
John sucks in a breath, dropping his head back to the headboard. "I told them everything after four days."
Her heart flips over as realization slides into place. He expects something unnatural of himself, expects the military commander of Atlantis to hold out with inhuman strength for weeks or months or years no matter what mind-controlling drugs or alien methods of coercion he's subjected to. It isn't just that they broke him, it's that they broke him so fast.
To her, four days under that kind of torture sounds like an impossible eternity.
"Oh, God," she whispers, clenching his hand like there's a chance he'll slip away again.
He doesn't squeeze her hand back. "How the hell is anyone supposed to trust me again?"
Before she can answer, he pulls her into a rough hug. He slides down to the bed, not letting go, and buries his face in her shoulder.
I love you, I love you, she wants to say, wants to tell him how ridiculously grateful she is that he's still alive, but she has to answer his question. "I still trust you, John."
"You shouldn't," he says, but his voice breaks, and she clings to him with all the strength she has. She can feel him shaking.
"Too bad. I do. Always."
She feels a ghost of a smile against her neck.
"Thanks," he says, crushing her to him even tighter. She doesn't complain. After a long minute, he whispers, "Stay here."
She holds him for the whole rest of the night.
Elizabeth gets them a day off together as soon as she can.
The plan is the mainland -- a change of scenery, some real distance from their responsibilities, and the opportunity to be really alone together.
As is usually the case when they take any time off, it takes them quite a while to even make it out of his bedroom.
This time, however, it isn't about sex. John has been quiet all through their lazy morning in, mostly dozing or watching her while she reads, but it's a different sort of silence than the thick, choking one she never really got used to.
"No tickling," she warns him when peripheral vision alerts her that he's making a move for the hem of her t-shirt.
"Won't," he promises. He pulls her shirt up enough to expose skin, and carefully traces his fingers along her ribs. It doesn't feel like an attempt at seduction so much as an attempt at contact. So far, this morning, he has been more interested in being near her than being inside her.
She likes that. She missed it. It's a sign that she's getting old, maybe, or that they're settling into comfort in their relationship instead of passion, but very little relaxes her more on a day off than just being around him.
It still feels a bit like the entire Ankari prison is lying between them in bed, but she knows that will take a long time to fade completely away.
She doesn't really care about the book she's reading -- she has read and re-read her way through much of their paper library already -- so soon she finds herself studying his face instead of the page in front of her.
He still looks worried and haunted, but a lot less tired. That's something, anyway.
"Hey," she says, trapping his wandering hand against her stomach. She sets her book aside, not bothering to mark the page. "Are you okay?"
He flinches reflexively but, to her surprise, doesn't brush her off. She suspects that takes a lot of courage. He winces. "That's a bit of a loaded question," he points out.
"I'm okay," he promises.
A week ago, she wouldn't have asked. "Really?"
He manages half a smirk. "No, not really."
She snuggles up to him, resting her head on his chest. His heartbeat in her ear is calm and reassuring. "Okay."
His hand comes up to the back of her head, playing with her hair and holding her where she is. "Okay."
It's three weeks before John's team encounters the Ankari again.
Elizabeth knows there's a high risk of contact when she authorizes the mission, but Rodney insists that the Ancient technology they're after on the planet is worth it.
"You could send another team," John tells her in her office. He has been angry and wound up ever since the intelligence about the Ankari landed, but she can't blame him for that.
She watches him pace back and forth for a moment. "I could," she agrees. "Do you want to take this mission, John?"
He looks her right in the eye. There's venom in his voice. "Yes, Elizabeth."
When it comes right down to it, her name is all he has ever needed to convince her. At that moment, she doesn't care if her agreement is driven by a professional need to show complete faith in her military commander or a personal desire to have him put these demons behind him. All sides of her are in a rare alignment.
"Go," she orders.
While they're gone, to keep from worrying herself right over the edge of sanity, she walls herself in with meetings. John's mission is scheduled to last for seven hours -- if they don't encounter resistance, it'll take at least that long for Rodney to assess and extricate any valuable Ancient technology for study back at Atlantis.
The topic of these meetings -- progress reports and personnel assessment with department heads, mostly -- aren't nearly interesting enough to keep the frantic part of her mind from speculating. What if he's captured again? What if he dies? What if he freezes, overwhelmed by his past experiences in a way neither she nor Kate predicted, and someone else dies?
Almost everyone she meets with is so involved in their own projects and reports that they don't notice, but Zelenka does.
"It is difficult," he observes with sad, knowing smile.
"I wish I were out there with them," she says without thinking. She has been forced to grow accustomed to it in this job and this relationship, but she hates feeling sidelined and helpless.
"I don't," Radek replies immediately. "I wish they were here with us."
At that moment, as though conjured, the wormhole alarm sounds.
Elizabeth arrives in the 'gate room at a run, just in time to see security officers crouching into position in front of the Stargate as Bates yells about John's team coming in hot.
McKay spills through the wormhole first, clutching something made of shiny Ancient metal and collapsing to his knees before he scrambles out of the way. Bullets surge through the wormhole behind him, creating small explosions when they strike the floor or the walls -- the telltale Ankari signature.
Someone grabs Elizabeth's shoulder and forces her down as a bullet explodes against a nearby pillar, but she can still see.
Ronon comes through next, Teyla in his arms. She's bleeding enough to leave a trail, but is still conscious and pointing a 9 mil over Ronon's shoulder, covering his back.
John doesn't come through.
"Hold the wormhole open!" Teyla yells, voice choked with physical pain, struggling against Ronon's grip to be put down. "Colonel Sheppard is right behind us!"
Elizabeth shakes off the technician holding her to the floor and runs for the stairwell, counting off the seconds in her head.
John dives through the wormhole, landing awkwardly on his shoulder, and shouts "Shut it down!" from the floor.
She gets to him first, pulling his P-90 away and handing it off to someone before helping him to sitting. She briefly notices that her hands are white-knuckling the fabric of his jacket.
"Teyla needs the infirmary," he says, panting for breath.
She glances behind her to confirm that Carson's team is there. "We've got it. Are you okay?"
He shakes her off and stands, wiping his forehead with the back of his sleeve. "Yeah, yeah." He meets her eyes for the first time, and she can actually see his him switching gears away from fight or flight. "Yeah," he says, officially reporting. "We're okay. Teyla took at least one shot in the leg, though. McKay got a hold of something he says is important -- something about energy conversion -- but we had to leave almost everything there. The Ankari are holed up inside the Ancient structure; it'll take a major strike force to retake it."
Elizabeth nods, squeezing his arm. "All right. We'll deal with that later. Head to the infirmary."
He nods, swallowing hard. She can see the tension in the tight muscles of his neck, and for a moment, he still looks disoriented and shocked.
Rodney appears next to them, giving both her and John a worried look. "Come on," he says. "Teyla's waiting."
Elizabeth releases his arm and lets them go.
She finds him later that evening hovering outside the infirmary.
Through the doorway she can see Teyla in a hospital bed, out of surgery but still doped to the gills. Ronon is standing guard over her, but she doubts the imposing alien is the reason that John isn't in there with them.
"Hey," Elizabeth announces herself. "How's she doing?"
John crosses his arms tighter over his chest. "Okay. One of the bullets failed to detonate, minimizing the burns and shrapnel. Carson says she might have some localized nerve damage, but he thinks she'll be all right."
"That's good to hear."
There's a long silence between them. In the infirmary, she can hear the nurses talking, but it seems far more distant than it is.
She finally asks, "What happened out there?"
"I hesitated," he admits, lightly kicking the nearest wall with his toe. "It wouldn't have made a difference; Teyla had already been shot, but... for a second, all I could think was what happened last time and... I hesitated."
She moves closer, but doesn't touch him. "Then what?"
"Ronon grabbed her, got her out of the line of fire. Rodney went for the technology, I ordered him to stop and head for the 'gate. We argued, there was an explosion... The path was pretty defensible. I laid down cover fire, and we made it out."
"You snapped out of it," she observes. "You still did everything you should have done."
He clenches his jaw. "Maybe."
"Hey." She can't resist the urge to physically comfort him anymore and rubs a hand up and down his arm. "You're all still alive."
He sighs, letting out a long breath, and the corners of his mouth twitch up in a brief, tired smile. "Yeah. I just..."
He takes her hand from where it's still resting on his elbow and holds it lightly in his for a moment, almost as if he's testing the weight of it or testing the strength of her connection to him. He runs a thumb over her knuckles, slowly tracing the shape of her hand.
She doesn't think he'll ever tell her everything that he's thinking, but this is enough.
"Come for a walk with me?" he finally asks.
He smiles at her then, a real smile, loving and grateful and without pretense. He threads his fingers through hers and doesn't let go.
For the first time, Elizabeth is sure that they will both be all right.