Author: Little Red
Summary: John actually lives until retirement. Sheppard/Weir.
Author’s Note: I wrote most of this long before Elizabeth’s Adventures With Replicators, so this is set in a future that went AU before “First Strike” ever happened.
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,
And she’s always gone too long
Anytime she goes away.
John Sheppard retires at 45.
He didn’t have to. He could’ve dug his heels in and flown a desk for a few more years, maybe even in Colorado, but he’s long done with field duty, and when Doctor Hayworth suggests that he consider a slower pace of life, all he can think is hell yes.
His knees and shoulders are shot, his back hurts all the time, even just sitting at a desk, and he still gets migraines from those damned Ngalo probes all those years ago. He did nine years of duty on Atlantis, nine years, and two more jetting back and forth on administrative assignments, and he’s done.
Of all the ways he expected to leave Atlantis behind, he didn’t really think it would be, well, while still standing up and breathing. The city is still there, now a bustling colonial metropolis of scientists, soldiers, and alien humans from all around the Pegasus Galaxy. The Wraith are still there, too, but they haven’t ventured outside the lines drawn up in the accords, and the war has been more or less a peacekeeping operation for years.
He doesn’t actually have a farewell tour of the city. General Keane offers him retirement while he’s in D.C., Doctor Hayworth encourages it, and he agrees with very little ceremony.
He’s lived two years out of extended-stay hotels and military apartments, and twenty years before that out of barracks of one kind or another, and it occurs to him that he’s going to have to find somewhere to live.
She misses the retirement dinners, but it isn’t long before Elizabeth shows up.
She’s never been to this particular apartment, but she doesn’t comment on it. They’ve moved permanently beyond small talk. He isn’t surprised that she showed up without calling first – she must have gotten the address from someone else in Homeworld Security – because they’re past politeness, too. They tried politeness and small talk for a while, when he first returned to Earth to join her on the bureaucratic side of the fence. It always seemed like a bad joke, commenting on the weather or the bestseller list, because he’s seen her order air assaults in her pajamas during a surprise midnight raid on the city, and she was the only one he let near him when the Ngalo machines were drilling holes in his brain. She held him down to an infirmary bed with her body weight while he seized and retched and screamed until Carson could knock him out with sedatives. He’s gotten blood all over her clothes, more than once.
After that, they settled into on-and-off silence, punctuated by business meetings and the occasional eight-hour catch-up dinner at a restaurant that ends with the waitstaff all but begging them to leave and John wanting nothing more than five more minutes. She’s not a former coworker, not just a trusted friend, an ally, or the most important person in the world, long-lost. Since she left the city, he has never quite known what to do with her, but they always seem to make do.
She hugs him when he opens the door. They do that now.
“So, you’re done,” she says, echoing all his thoughts in three little words.
“Yeah,” he answers, and invites her in before going into the kitchen to make coffee.
There’s a lot of things they don’t talk about.
Why she left, for one, but that’s because they burned out on that long ago. He was so angry at Earth, at General Hammond, at Elizabeth for going along with it, that even Teyla, who knew nothing of Earth politicking, warned him that he was jeopardizing his role in the expedition by being so belligerent. The higher-ups wanted Elizabeth out, and they weren’t all together happy with him, either. Rumor has it that she had a nervous breakdown during her first year back, which would explain away the blank months on her C.V., but he never asks her about that, either.
He didn’t break down after he failed his third physical and General Keane created a liaison position for him behind the lines, but he mixes beer with his prescription painkillers more than he should.
She asks, “What are you going to do now?”
He’s suddenly aware of how none of his boxes are unpacked, and they’re all stacked in the corner of the living room, in view. There aren’t many of them.
“Nothing. That’s the point of retirement.”
Elizabeth’s hair was going gray before she left the city, but it’s meticulously dyed now. He never thought of her as vain, but really, when he knew her, she never had time to be.
“That is not the point of retirement, John.”
He turns the tables on her. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m still gainfully employed,” she reminds him. “I’m off to Sudan in the morning, actually.”
He wonders if she came here the night before she had to leave on purpose, so she’d have an excuse not to stay long. “How very glamorous.”
He wants to ask her to stay, but the words don’t come out, and anyway, they’ve never worked before.
Rodney’s sister, of all people, comes to see him. Her daughter is planning to apply as an international student to Georgetown in a few years (or less, given her genetic brilliance), which puts Jeannie in the neighborhood. With Rodney still in another galaxy – the Asgard one this time, last John heard – he’s somehow the next-best thing.
He meets her at a café instead of inviting her over, because he still hasn’t unpacked.
“You look great,” he tells her, after polite exchanges about how he’s disappointed he doesn’t get to see Madison and how he really will get up to Canada to visit them someday, now that he has the time.
“Thanks,” Jeannie says. “You look... older.” It doesn’t happen often – especially since John is really only in Christmas-card contact with the Millers – but sometimes Jeannie will be just blunt enough to remind him that she and Rodney really do fall from the same tree.
He doesn’t really have an answer. He’s actually surprised sometimes by how young he looks in the mirror compared to how old he feels.
“So,” she says, as everyone does, “what are you going to do now?”
“I’m exploring my options.”
She accepts this, and finally asks, brow furrowed, “Have you heard from him?”
Rodney accused him of giving up when he accepted the job on Earth, abandoning them. John isn’t sure that Rodney has forgiven him yet – though, practically, he knows that Rodney is easily distracted by shiny objects with superior technological value, and probably only notices once a month that John, or Elizabeth, or any of them are even gone.
“The SGC has. He’s doing well, last I heard. Driving the Asgard crazy. He’s still doing a lot of great stuff.”
Jeannie glows with sisterly pride and just a little moral superiority. “Well, saving the planet isn’t everything.“
John smiles, but it catches a little. “It was fun while it lasted,” he dismisses it, trying not to sound jealous that Rodney still gets to yank the universe from the jaws of death on a semi-regular basis.
She pats his hand in sympathy. “So, what about you? Are you going to finally settle down now? I told you about my friend Danielle, teaches over at Georgetown...”
He declines, and she isn’t surprised. He’s gone on dates, here and there, since returning to Earth, but traveling as much as he does – did – makes relationships impractical. Now that he’s done with that life, it just sounds like work. He’d have to lie to a girlfriend every day, about the headaches and the nightmares and everything that’s most important to him in his life, and he’s not up to that yet.
Jeannie hugs him before getting into a taxi, once coffee is over. “Take care of yourself.”
He does a lot of walking around the block. He can’t go too far without his knees starting to complain, but his back hurts if he sits on his couch too long, so he goes out. There’s a bar on the corner that opens at four; earlier in the day, he’ll walk to the smoke & convenience shop, buy newspapers, and scan the World sections for mentions of Africa.
Even after all this time, it feels like he’s failing in his duty whenever she goes into dangerous territory without him.
After two weeks, there’s a page 2 headline, behind the football riots in the U.K., of talks stalled, official U.N. statements, gunfire outside the embassy, suspected involvement from foreign parties. 8 dead, 13 wounded.
He knows the print would be bolder, bigger, if any of those casualties had been American, but his heart feels like it’s struggling through molasses just to beat until he gets Colonel Davis on the phone, who puts him right through to General Keane. Elizabeth is working for the U.N. this time, not Homeworld Security, but John knows that they’ll know where she is. No one with Elizabeth’s security clearance is out of sight for long.
“She’s okay, John,” the General assures him. He doesn’t sound surprised to hear from him, though John has been studiously ignoring the polite invitations to state functions for a month now. “I talked to her myself. Not even rattled; you know how she is.”
John can breathe easier, but his heart is still racing like he’s trapped. “She’s been through a hell of a lot worse,” he agrees. He watched most of those up close. Reading about it in a corner store on their own planet should be easier than that. Than this.
Keane says, seriously, “John, if anything ever happens, you know you’ll be the first person I call.”
Everyone assumes something happened between them on Atlantis, something to warrant his being notified before her next of kin, and they’re right and wrong. It was never what they’re thinking, because they were coworkers, because they were friends, because they had all the time in the world until she was recalled after six short years and they never really recovered.
He thanks the General, hangs up, and tries to put thoughts of a state funeral out of his head.
He takes short trips, to amusement parks, to the Smithsonian, to New York to visit some buddies he’s had since before he ever heard of the Stargate. He doesn’t go near the ocean; he’s been there since returning to Earth, and the crowded, dingy water is always disappointing.
He and Elizabeth used to joke about retirement on particularly late nights on Atlantis, when they were overcaffeinated and underslept and punchy on stress. She talked about long, lazy days on the beach with nothing to do but apply sunscreen; he talked about surfing and skiing, and, if it was really late, he joked about helping her with her sunscreen in between catching waves. The details weren’t particularly important, because neither of them expected to live that long.
He still thinks about skiing and surfing, but his body is falling apart. Instead, he reads a lot. He plays pool at the bar two blocks from his place, and he contemplates taking up golf.
His buddies in New York, the ones he knew when he was 25 and invincible, make fun of him for being an old man already. He takes the abuse gamely, but feels like he has nothing left in common with them, and can’t remember what he was like when he did.
He calls up Carson, who’s busy curing alien cancer at Area 51. Even Carson makes fun of him about the golf and the bar on the corner, using his concerned voice.
“I heard about the embassy,” Carson says, after the jokes wear thin.
“Elizabeth’s fine,” John replies, and he hates that she didn’t even call him. That she no longer has to call him, because they don’t share a chain of command anymore. He’s not waiting in the wings to rescue her. Couldn’t, even if she needed him to.
Absurdly, because Elizabeth is the one overseas and in danger of being shot, Carson says, “She’d be worried about you, too.”
John can picture her face, to the detail, the way she looked when she was packing to leave Atlantis. He was too angry to really look at her at the time, but when he thinks of her now, that’s usually the image he sees.
Elizabeth calls him.
It’s the middle of the afternoon, but he was sleeping off a migraine and is groggy as hell when he answers. She worries she got the time zones wrong, and his heart is pounding because her voice used to wake him from sleep all the time, and there was almost always an emergency.
His head still hurts. He remembers cold compresses, whispered conversations in the infirmary, and her hand in his, squeezing.
“How go the talks?”
“Good,” she hedges.
“By which you mean impending global disaster?”
He can hear her smile, which means he doesn’t really mind when she tells him, “By which I mean classified, unfortunately.”
“I’m hurt.” His security clearance doesn’t cover goings-on inside the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Everything is going fine,” she assures him, but he knows her, and he knows her voice even after five years of only occasional contact, and one glance at the clock and quick mental calculations tells him it’s close to three in the morning where she is.
“Elizabeth, did something happen?” He asks it like it’s an order, like he’s about to throw on boots and a puddle-jumper and get her the hell out of there himself.
“A lot,” she says. “I’m just tired, and Roger...” she’s the only one who calls General Keane by his first name, “Roger said you asked about me. I wanted to call you, after, but-”
“It’s okay. It’s not like you have to anymore.”
“Still feels weird, doesn’t it?”
She’s brilliant at what she does, but he knows how it takes a toll on her. He used to sit up with her in her office, lounging on her couch and tossing in a joke or two as she pored over paperwork for hours on end, because she never slept during tense negotiations and because, after a few years of working together, he didn’t either.
He wants to be in the Sudan bringing her coffee, instead of napping on the couch because his head hurts too much to make it to his bed.
“You’re being careful, right?”
She laughs. “John, I’m a diplomat. After the scare outside the embassy, I’m lucky if they let me go to the bathroom by myself. I haven’t been outside in two weeks.”
“Good.” After the ‘scare’, he got the names of her security detail from Keane. Their records are good, better than your average diplomatic babysitters, but he still wishes she could have taken someone who’d served with them in Atlantis, so he’d know their capabilities. “Still wish I was there.”
She’s quiet for a moment, and he can almost feel her hand in his, squeezing, like they’re back in the infirmary. “I wish you were here, too.”
He finds a better rental, an unfurnished townhouse, and buys necessities online that arrive fully assembled. He forgets cups, though, and so drinks water out of the sink and whiskey – he’s graduated up from beer – from the bottle.
He’s still got most of his personal stuff in boxes stacked in the corner, opened and dug-through whenever he needs something, and he’s catching up on eleven years of television.
Elizabeth comes home, and when she shows up at his door – unannounced, as usual – she says, “You look like hell,” and hugs him, like they do now.
“So do you,” he replies, and she does look exhausted and too thin, but she’s the best thing he’s seen in weeks.
“I’m thinking you’ve got a good racket going here. Retirement. Definitely the way to go.”
He knows the negotiations were successful – he gets the paper delivered now, and there was a piece about a timetable for U.N. involvement – but she’s been gone almost two months, and she’s brokered interplanetary alliances with quadrupeds quicker than this.
“You’ll never retire,” he chides her, because he’s never really seen her do nothing before. He used to have dreams about that, when the city was under constant attack, imagined being somewhere safe with her and just resting. Talking about nothing. Getting closer, in a different way than the desperate closeness that was cemented every time one of them nearly died.
“I never thought you would, either,” she says, and shrugs.
He never thought she’d do a lot of things – like going back to negotiating Earth-bound squabbles for the U.N., for one – but he doesn’t want to think about that now, when he hasn’t seen in her in two months.
“Want me to order pizza?” He knew her favorite toppings even when they were living in another galaxy. Fortunately, she never changes her order.
He offers her a two-liter of coke when she asks for soda to wash down the pizza – “Forgot to buy glasses,” – and she gives him that look she has that’s bemused and concerned and kind all at once.
“I’ll bring you some of mine next time I’m here,” she offers.
“You don’t need to do that.”
“Can I just bring one over for me, then?”
He’s startled by the sound of his own laugh. “I promise I’ll buy cups, okay? Any particular color? Theme? Cartoon character?”
“Hmm, I’m partial to Minnie.”
“Oh, yeah, had the whole bedspread ensemble as a kid. I walked around with Minnie Mouse ears for my entire year of kindergarten.”
He can’t believe he’s known her this long and never seen baby pictures. “They were your one personal item, weren’t they? You know, I heard stories about a mysterious creature with mouse ears lurking the halls late at night...”
“Stop. And get me a beer.”
They never really got the chance to do this on Atlantis, certainly not with genuine pizza and beer, but this, Elizabeth with her bare feet curled underneath her on his new couch and him laughing more than he’s done in months or years, this feels like home.
The feeling chokes him, tired anger welling to the surface about everything they missed out on.
He doesn’t know what would have happened if she’d stayed, if their timing would have ever been right. He still feels that flutter sometimes when he’s next to her or thinking about her, that feeling that says he’s just a little out of control but it’s okay because it’s her, and she’s the one person he never thought would let him down. Even if nothing ever happened between them, it would have been better than this.
“Are you still getting headaches?”
He’s a few drinks in, was a few drinks in when she arrived, and she’s no longer his boss with the power to pull him from a mission, so he answers her. “Yeah. They keep getting worse.”
Her expression fills with sympathy. “I wish there was something I could do.”
This is enough, he wants to say. Being here. Pretending we’re still okay.
Instead, he says, because he’s drunk: “You shouldn’t have left.”
Her face darkens, and he’s apologizing, taking the words back before she can respond:
“I’m sorry. Elizabeth, forget I said anything. I didn’t-”
She puts her beer down. “If I’d stayed, it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Major Lorne would still have died on Genii. John would still have been stranded with a crashed jumper, alone, on an uninhabited planet eating grass for six weeks until McKay and the Daedalus managed to find him. His back would still be mangled, the city would still have fallen into and out of military control, the surviving Wraith would still have gone back into hibernation. If she hadn’t compromised with the IOA, agreed to go back to Earth and then lobbied for the team from there, their support would have been scaled back and their budget slashed. The whole expedition could have fallen apart.
If she had stayed, it wouldn’t have made a difference to anyone but him.
“Forget it. I’m just drunk. I didn’t mean it.”
He can tell she’s reading him like a book, and not one of her favorites. “Yes, you meant it. And that’s not fair. You haven’t been fair about this.”
She stands up, arms crossed, and even with her hair dyed and clothes from a shopping mall instead of a quartermaster, she looks the same as she always did.
“I didn’t leave you, John,” she snaps, and he recalls the time when he swallowed his pride and asked her to stay. So tell them to fuck off. I need you here. And like a slap in the face, she said: This isn’t about you. She continued on after that, saying it wasn’t about her either, or about anything except the city and the IOA and doing what she had to do to save the team, but he only really remembers the first part. It wasn’t about him.
She’s still talking. Her voice rises, and he realizes she’s a little drunk, too. “You took this personally, and that wasn’t fair to me.”
“It was personal. It should have been personal,” he says, even though he doesn’t quite know what he means.
After a long silence, she’s the one who apologizes. It’s always her.
He calls her a cab.
She gets her purse and says, “I’ll call you about dinner next week. Okay?”
She looks exhausted, and he wants to hold her until he can apologize for the past ten minutes and the past five years.
Stronger words don’t come, so he says what he can. “Dinner. I’ll hold you to that,” and he hopes she still knows him well enough to understand.
He falls asleep on the couch and dreams about her.
He dreams she didn’t go, that she stayed and he kissed her. Her hair and clothes and smile are back to normal. They’re back on Atlantis, where they belong.
He can breathe the salty air here, and she feels real. He knows he’s dreaming, but that knowledge only lasts a moment, only until she touches him, and then he forgets easily. He tastes her skin as he always wanted to but never did, kisses down her throat, feels her pulse, live and quick against his mouth.
They never did this, never made love on one of those Atlantis cots, but the fantasy feels so familiar when she touches him that it’s like coming home. His clothing is peeled off and she trails kisses down his chest, her hair tickling his skin as she soothes the scars on his ribs. She’s above him, taking the lead, pinning his hands to the bed with a gentleness that doesn’t surprise him because it’s Elizabeth, and even her tough love always felt kind. He lets her hold him there, powerless. He doesn’t care how she takes him, not when it’s her, because she’s been away for so long and he just wants to watch and feel and see her and remember this, forever, as long as he can.
In his dream, she’s naked and beautiful. Her legs slip between his as he struggles to keep all their limbs in place on the small bed, and then her lips find his again. She’s breathing words against him, but he can’t hear her, only kisses and kisses her until he can’t breathe, pulls her closer until there’s nothing between them but skin and air. She feels the way he always hoped she would, perfect and warm and willing.
He wants to talk to her, opens his mouth to ask her if this is real, and something about that breaks the spell.
John gasps awake, hard and confused, back seizing from sleeping on the couch. His back hurts, his dick, his head, and all he can do is lie there trying to breathe until he can move enough to walk to the bathroom and grab the muscle relaxants that will knock him out for another half a day.
When he sees himself in the mirror, very different from the John Sheppard in his dream – the one who was still a soldier and a commander and still looked his age – he laughs unkindly.
“God,” he mutters. “Elizabeth...”
He doesn’t finish his thought. He can never tell her what he’s thinking, even when she’s not there.
He falls asleep again, but this time he’s drugged, and he doesn’t dream.
When he wakes up again, he doesn’t know what day it is, and Elizabeth is standing in his bedroom doorway.
“You left your house unlocked,” she informs him.
“I came to get my car. John, you look like hell.”
“You woke me up,” he mutters, sliding his legs over the side of the bed carefully, waiting a minute to psych up his muscles before standing.
There’s no sympathy. “I called you six times before coming over. Did you keep drinking after I left?”
He heard the phone, now that he thinks about it. “Had a headache,” he retorts, pressing both hands to his face.
Cool hands are on his shoulders, Elizabeth’s, and she guides him back to sitting. “Have you told Doctor Hayworth how bad they are?”
Hayworth is stationed in Colorado, only coming to D.C. every quarter to report. It didn’t seem right to bother her when all she was going to do was refill his prescriptions, do a thousand tests, and conclude that there’s really nothing that can be done for him. There’s still residue from the Ngalo probes in his head. It’s inactive, it’s not going to kill him, it’s just going to hurt like a bitch for the rest of his life.
Elizabeth’s right, though. It wasn’t this bad before. He survived four years of active duty after his encounter with Ngalo technology before the frequent migraines, along with everything else, sent him back to Earth. He was still flying missions with this junk in his head once upon a time, and now he can barely get out of bed.
Elizabeth disappears and – ridiculously – returns with a cereal bowl full of water. “Drink,” she orders. “I’m going to Colorado Springs tomorrow morning to consult with General Mitchell. You’re coming with me.”
“I’m retired,” he points out, as sternly as he can manage through the headache and while he’s spilling water all over himself from a bowl because he forgot to buy glasses.
She brushes a hand over his cheek, rough with three-day beard. “That wasn’t a suggestion, Colonel.” She practically whispers it, and that, and the way her fingertips shake as they scratch over his skin, is what does him in.
Doctor Hayworth runs her tests and manages not to look disgusted at the results, but just barely.
She gives him a daily exercise regimen and strict orders to get fresh air, see a physical therapist, and take his medications at the actual prescribed intervals. Lose ten pounds. A regular sleep schedule. No alcohol. “Eat some damned vegetables, already,” she says.
He doesn’t recall Hayworth being quite as forward with him when he was still in uniform, but perhaps he didn’t need his ass kicked quite as badly then.
“And find something to do while you’re at it,” she advises.
“Hey, you were the one who told me to slow down.”
She raises an eyebrow and signs his chart with a flourish. “This wasn’t what I had in mind, sir.”
John finds Elizabeth in the briefing room. It’s his fourth guess, after the General’s office and the cafeteria and the control room. It looks exactly the same as it did three months ago, the last time he was here on business, and it feels weird to be in civilian clothes. When he got dressed that morning, he thought that would make it easier, make him remember that he’s here as a patient and a has-been and not as an active member of the Stargate program.
Elizabeth is alone, looking down at the Stargate and the perpetual bustle of soldier and technician activity surrounding it. John got used to the appearance of the Earth ‘gate after he was back for a while, but it still looks rickety and stone-age compared to what they had in Atlantis.
Most things on Earth do.
She hears him approach. His stealth training is out of date.
“Clean bill of health?”
He shrugs, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “I need to get a hobby.”
“Bridge,” she says.
“Bridge. That was mine.”
His back is starting to bug him after all the wandering around the SGC, so he sits down in the General’s chair at the head of the table and waits for her explanation.
“When I left Atlantis. That year. It was either start playing Bridge with General Keane’s wife and her country club friends, or check myself into St. Elizabeth’s for observation.”
John feels a flutter of panic, the way he usually does when he gets close to personal territory, but shoves it down. This is Elizabeth. This is him. He wants to know.
“I don’t think they really use that asylum anymore.”
She smiles. “You know what I mean. Are you going to be okay?”
“Sure. You know me.”
“Yes,” she says. “I do.”
He glances behind him, making sure they’re still alone before asking, “The year you left... how bad was it?”
It’s personal, really personal, but he needs to know. He feels like he’s drowning here, and like he’s the only one who ever has.
“I missed you. You all. A lot. It was hard to get over.” She sighs, looking down at the ‘gate room again. “If we’re being honest, I don’t think I ever have.”
The Stargate below them whooshes open. A team of people he doesn’t know marches up the ramp, heading somewhere, and if John could still run, he’d think about grabbing Elizabeth’s hand and following them, getting the hell off this rock.
Instead, he says, “Have dinner with me.”
She checks her watch. “Oh, John, I’m sorry. While you were in the infirmary, I had a late lunch with General Mitchell.”
“I can wait.”
She smiles. “Okay.”
“I never-” the words stall in his throat, and he runs them over in his head a few times. Atlantis. Pegasus. The expedition. You. “I never got over it either.”
Elizabeth closes her eyes for a long moment, like she does when she’s exhausted, or trying not to look like she thinks they’re all doomed. He saw that look a lot in Atlantis. It’s oddly reassuring.
“Well, then,” she finally says, “Let’s round up another pair of losers and I’ll teach you to play Bridge.”
Elizabeth accompanies him home from the airport, because the cabin pressure on the plane started to mess with the holes in his head and she didn’t want him passing out in a cab.
“We’ve talked about how you’re too much of a mother hen,” he mutters from the passenger seat of her car. They haven’t talked about that for years, actually, but it’s all still true.
“Yes, we have,” she patronizes. “And unless you want to keep having this discussion, you’ll start taking better care of yourself.”
Even though his head his pounding, he smiles, feeling warm and happy. It’s been a long time since anyone took care of him, and here she is, hauling him to Colorado and driving him home to dump his sorry ass in bed. He thinks of Bridge and everything she said and didn’t say in the SGC briefing room when they were still in Colorado, and he wonders who was there for her.
When they make it back to his place, she brings water to his bedside – they bought a set of glasses in the Cincinnati airport, of all places, during the layover between flights, and the glasses all say “Gettin’ Lucky in Kentucky” – and turns off the light.
“You don’t have to go,” he says.
He doesn’t remember her answer, but when he wakes up, his living room has been tidied, the Kentucky glassware is all washed and drying on his kitchen counter, and Elizabeth is asleep on his couch. One of her slip-on shoes is dangling precariously from her toes.
He should be embarrassed that she was cleaning his place, and how many old Chinese-food boxes and dirty clothes that means she had to touch, but this is Elizabeth. This, her here and surrounded by the messiness of his life on Earth, still seems more like the future he hoped for than anything that has actually happened.
Her shoe drops to the floor and she stirs awake. She yawns, and he remembers how she used to fall asleep next to him when they wrote reports together in the lounge, and how that always made him feel... good. Strong. Like she trusted him, and even like he deserved it.
He misses that feeling. He remembers standing guard over her in the infirmary, keeping a nervous watch whenever nanites or alien possession or, once, a freak alien flu virus laid her low. At the time, he thought that was the worst, most helpless feeling in the world; now, strangely, he thinks he’d give anything to have that again.
“Hey,” she says blearily. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. Are you feeling better?”
“Yeah. Want dinner?”
What he really wants is a stiff drink, but that’s habit now. The painkillers make his brain prickle in a way he hates, and as much as alcohol muffled that, Doctor Hayworth pointed out it also washed away a lot of the medication’s effectiveness.
He offers, “Pizza again?”
She raises an eyebrow. “You really know how to treat a guest.”
They walk to the so-so Greek restaurant a few blocks away, where she nags at him to eat a salad, and he encourages her to order dessert. He’s still gritting his teeth against a headache, but some of his smiles are genuine, and the staff have to chase them out at the end of the night.
“I’m going to New York next week,” she tells him on the walk home. “You can come, if you want.”
He bristles. “You don’t need to do that.” He doesn’t need a babysitter, he just needs to figure things out.
“That’s not what I meant.” She sighs. “John, I know... things have never been the same between us since I was recalled, so I could be out of line.” She takes a breath and doesn’t look at him. “If you want me to leave you alone for a while, I will.”
It’s a statement of fact, but he finds himself listening for guilt in her voice, or accusation. There’s probably both, hiding in there somewhere. She was the one who agreed to leave Atlantis five years ago, even after he asked her to stay, but he’s the one who blamed her. Since then, they’ve just been... stuck, and he’s tired. He misses her.
“I never wanted that, Elizabeth.”
Her fingers brush his as they walk. “Okay, then tell me: how can I help?”
He slips his hand into hers. Her fingers are cool, and that makes him squeeze them, reflexively trying to warm her up.
He can’t ask her to stay, not again.
“Come back,” he says instead. “After you go to New York. I’ll buy dinner.”
She laughs, sounding relieved. “I’ll buy, if you drive me to the airport.”
She hugs him goodnight at his front door and kisses his cheek, and even through the painkillers prickling in his brain, he feels like he’s waking up.
After New York, Elizabeth goes back to Africa, then to Russia, then a quick detour to M8X-441, and then spends weeks on end going back and forth between New York and Geneva, Colorado Springs and Washington, D.C.
He doesn’t play Bridge with General Keane’s wife, but Keane’s grandson is just old enough to start playing Pop Warner football, and John takes a deep breath and volunteers himself as assistant coach.
It’s been a decade since he taught Jinto and Wex to throw a pigskin around, and almost as long since he’s spent quality time with kids, but he looks forward all week to the practices and games and twenty 7-9 year old boys all talking at once and crawling all over him.
His back and knees protest the rough-housing, of course, but he bears because this feels good, as so few things have in far too long. Elizabeth seems a bit less worried when she looks at him now, when she’s in D.C. between assignments. She comes to the games when she’s in town and sits with the General and his family, cheering loudly for John’s perpetually losing Mighty Mites.
Afterwards, they have dinner, or watch movies at his place – better than a theater, because he doesn’t have to sit still for two hours if his back is bothering him. It feels strange, watching movies with her and playing chess. They did these things on Atlantis, of course, when they were desperate for down-time, but they were never more than five inches from their radios and someone was always interrupting. When talking about nothing gets to be too strange, she tells him as much as she can about where she’s been, and he lies about how well he does in her absence.
He asks leading questions to suss out how she’s really doing, and he can tell she’s doing the same to him. He hasn’t been dragged back to the SGC, so he guesses that means he’s doing all right.
Things are better, but they still feel wrong, and he’s pretty sure that they’ll probably always feel that way. It’s like he cheated death on Atlantis, coming back alive from all those missions that blew up in his face, and now he’s in limbo, just... waiting.
When she’s gone, he reads the paper. When she’s in D.C., he only skims it, to see where she might be going next. He coaches football and goes to physical therapy for his back and hates that he lives in the middle of a densely populated suburb where he can’t see the stars.
When she comes back from Colorado, she calls him for a ride from the airport. He’s told her again and again that he’s glad to drive her whenever she needs him to – “It’ll be like old times,” he jokes, though he won’t be flying her through any wormholes – but she’s hesitant to push her luck, and so she only calls him occasionally. He’s thought about weaseling her flight numbers out of his former coworkers and showing up unannounced, but that seems like it might fall on the wrong side of stalking, so he usually just sits around waiting.
“How is everyone?” he asks on the drive home.
She seems distracted. “Carson’s back at the SGC. I had lunch with him.”
“Oh. I haven’t spoken to him since-”
“I went to Atlantis,” she announces, cutting him off. “No emergency, don’t worry. Colonel Davis asked me to go with him to debrief the command team.”
He feels like he’s being squeezed. That was part of his job, the past few years, and he never really got used to being an observer. When he retired, he thought that not going at all would be better than going for a day to see people he doesn’t know manning familiar stations, and then having to go back to Earth without even getting to see the Mainland or visit the Athosians or have lunch out on the pier.
But this... this might be worse. One of these days, there will be an emergency, and he won’t even hear about it unless Elizabeth decides to tell him in violation of his new, retired security clearance. He remembers how Rodney accused him of abandoning them, how John blamed Elizabeth for that same thing, and he forces himself to breathe through the tightness of his throat.
“How was it?” he asks, because he can still ask that, at least.
“Different.” She hasn’t been there in a long time, almost a year. “Not too many of the old guard left.” She looks down at her hands. “It was hard to leave again.”
He wants to pull the car over and hug her at the quiet defeat in her voice, but they’re on the Beltway, so he says instead, “This sucks. This just... completely sucks.”
She chokes out a laugh. “Yes, John, it does. But I guess... living through it beats the alternative.”
Her flippant statement is too morbid, and too much like what he’s been thinking about lately, so he lets it hang there without comment.
She asks him again, “What are you going to do now?”
He bought reclining lawn chairs, and they’re using them on his back porch, which gets a fair dose of muggy D.C. summer heat and sun along with the noise pollution. Elizabeth is reading the new Michael Ondaatje and he’s reading Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita – a recommendation of hers when he mentioned that he never did pick up Russian literature again after the whole War and Peace fiasco.
It takes him a moment to draw himself out of the book. “Like... right now?”
“No, John.” Elizabeth pulls off her reading glasses. “Retirement doesn’t suit you. You must see that.”
The lazy summer day has been so nice that it takes him a moment to remember that he is retired, and that he pretty much hates it. He can’t do a thing to protect anyone he ever cared about, and he spends his time lying to strangers he meets on the football sidelines or at the chiropractor about who he is and where he’s been, if anyone even asks.
He’s not lying, though, when he says, “This... is really nice.”
Elizabeth smiles a half-smile and then curls up around her book. He remembers that late-night game of theirs and her pipe dream of the beach and sunscreen and nothing at all to do, and he thinks this would be a whole lot better if she wasn’t heading off to Moscow on Wednesday.
There are rules when it comes to security clearance, and there are rules. After everything they’ve been through, she doesn’t usually flinch at telling him where she’s going, and he believes her when she says she really doesn’t know how long she’ll be gone.
He’s not worried, though, because it’s Russia. Last time she went to Moscow she came back tired and frustrated and cursing in Russian when she stubbed her toe, but there’s no one shooting at her. Even better, other Homeworld Security officials are there with her, because she’s in the preliminary steps of proposing a nuclear disarmament plan assisted by Stargate technology. He keeps an eye on the news despite the classified nature of her mission, out of habit, and there’s nothing out of the ordinary until he reads the headlines: ‘TWELVE AMERICANS DEAD; HOSTAGE CRISIS IN SUDAN; U.N. PEACEKEEPING MISSION COLLAPSES’ from the associated press in Khartoum.
He knows even before she calls him in the middle of the night that she’ll be going there. “I’m leaving Moscow,” is all she really has time to say. “There’s a more pressing assignment. I’ll be out of touch.”
He says something stupid, something like ‘don’t drink the water,’ because he’s too rattled to remember the things she used to say to him when he was the one heading into a war zone. Be safe. Come back in one piece. Keep your head down. She said those things a lot, back in Atlantis, but she has to end the phone conversation before he can pass along the sentiment.
It takes a whole week before he can track General Keane down for any details. The General is in Moscow when he calls, coordinating with the Russian Stargate Program since Elizabeth was pulled off the case, and Colonel Davis doesn’t know or won’t talk.
The General comes back after a week and a half, and John makes the drive to his office.
Davis has the decency to at least look guilty as he tells him to go ahead in.
“General, I know this isn’t strictly Stargate related, but-”
“She’s in Khartoum,” Keane confirms without hesitation. “Emergency summit. They’re... trying to stop the bleeding, get their people out, arrange a new timetable for U.N. involvement and emergency assistance the Sudanese will allow. It’ll hit the papers soon enough.”
“She’s not a hostage negotiator,” John argues, although he knows from experience that Elizabeth is a little bit of everything.
He just really doesn’t like the sound of ‘emergency summit.’ They had a few of those on Atlantis, during their attempts to form a confederation of Pegasus planets against the Wraith. Two of three ‘emergency summits’ were bombed by inside parties, and the last was attacked by a hive ship. She survived those relatively unscathed, but back then, he was there with her.
“She’s not working alone,” Keane reminds him, “but the Sudanese have worked with her, and the U.N. wants her. She’s the best they’ve got.”
He tries one more argument: “This thing with Russia, and the Stargate. That’s important.” If Homeworld Security threw its weight around, if Keane requested it, if the President ordered it, Elizabeth would be sent back to Moscow no matter what was going on elsewhere on Earth.
It’s a stupid thing to say, a stupid thing to think, and that’s probably why the General doesn’t acknowledge it.
“Go home, John,” he says instead.
He does, because that’s all he can do.