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This was ridiculous. It was insane. It was conduct unbecoming a Colonel in the US Air Force and a man who'd survived... everything he'd survived so far. A grown man should not be panicked like this for anything short of riding herd on a nuke, or some other imminent death. Yet, here he was, his heart racing, palms sweating and breathing erratic over the smallest little thing.

He looked down at the rest of the city's population, swirling around in the gate room, mingling and smiling and dancing as the "We're Still Not Dead" party achieved "full swing." Ronon was bumping into Rodney, both of them hovering near the food. Teyla was talking to Lorne, Beckett was chatting with Radek. New faces he didn't recognize yet blended with the survivors from what everyone had started calling Year One, like Atlantis wasn't on Earth's calendars anymore.

A dark head of curly hair moved smoothly through the crowd. He could recognize her shape anywhere by now, her profile imprinted in his mind after untold hours standing side-by-side discussing, arguing, consulting, trying to keep everything around them from falling apart. He automatically sought her figure in every room in the city. She was the first thing he looked for every time he returned. He could count on one hand the number of times she hadn't been in the control room when he came back through the gate from a mission, and the fact that out of all the missions he'd been on in the past four-plus years he knew such a logically irrelevant number was part of what was making his heart pound in his chest.

Even through the noise of the crowd, he could hear her. His ears had become so finely attuned he could recognize her voice anywhere; here, in a crowded room, or over a weak, static-filled radio link spanning hundreds of light-years across a strange galaxy, calling him home.

As he watched her talk and laugh with the others, he could still feel her touch on his skin. They'd been standing outside her office, leaning against the railing, overlooking the party and talking. She'd reached over and placed her hand over his gently, speaking quiet words of praise and gratitude that made his blood heat and his face grow warm. The team owed him their lives again. She didn't know how they would have survived if he hadn't come on the expedition. She was grateful he had come back, again, from his latest and closest close call.

Then a smile, not the polite diplomatic expression he'd seen too often but a genuine grin that lifted her lips and made a dimple appear in her cheek, causing his breath to catch in his throat, and she chided him about his promise not to scare her like that anymore.

Her touch burned on his skin and his pulse was soaring and he was disoriented by the immense desire to turn his hand over, interlace their fingers and hold on to her. Not for five seconds or five minutes but to just feel their hands – feel them – fit together seamlessly and never release her. The need for her, flaring up from someplace he'd been unaware of – or hiding from? – was almost a compulsion, to just not let her go, and it shocked him into silence.

He could only try to steady his breathing and attempt to smile back, and he saw in the flash of hurt in her eyes as she withdrew from him that it had been a dismal failure. His mouth was too dry to speak and his mind racing too fast to generate the appropriate words to apologize without risking saying too much.

She squeezed his hand once and then pulled away. He made an abortive move to reach for her again but she was too far away by then, her back to him and not seeing it. She headed off into the crowd, and he just stood there and watched her retreating back.

He curled his hand into a fist on the railing and stayed where he was long after she'd left. People glanced at him curiously. Someone would eventually come up the stairs to seek him out, and he had no idea what might come out of his mouth if he had to talk right now. He slipped into the control area and then turned and headed away from the noise and the crowd to walk the city and try and figure out what the hell had just happened to him.


***

As usual, it was a small piece of information that explained everything to her.

Elizabeth was gathering herself up after the pre-mission briefing with John's team a little uneasily. It was their first off-world trip since the destruction of the Hive ships that had nearly killed John, stranding him on the far side of Pegasus with no way to get back. Meanwhile they had no way to send help because their own gate had been damaged. It had taken almost too long just to locate him, then more interminable hours before they were finally able to get a puddle jumper into the gate room to send a rescue party.

The team all seemed eager to be back in the game. John in particular had been somewhat boisterous the last couple of weeks. It set her teeth on edge a little. He was almost too talkative, too outgoing, at least when she saw him with other people. And those were really the only times she saw him, as they hadn't had much chance to talk lately.

It was ironic that she had seen so little of him recently. During the three days he lingered in the coma after his rescue, she'd hardly left the infirmary, as if keeping watch over him would somehow make up for not getting to him sooner.

Something about the briefing as a whole was bothering her. She turned the details of the mission over in her mind, but nothing struck her as out of place. They were all cleared for duty by Carson. Possibly she was just mother-henning a bit. Given what had happened last time they left the city, it was probably inevitable she would be worried about letting them go anywhere.

The rest of them were filing out of the room. John was chatting with Teyla, that strange, excessive animation in his voice. Elizabeth was behind them and she noticed that John had his hand on the small of Teyla's back.

It was an inconsequential thing, but it made her nearly stumble in shock. Thankfully, no one noticed.

She reached her office, opened her e-mail and stared at her computer screen without seeing it. Her mind was replaying the last few weeks. How many times had she spotted John eating with Teyla or spending time with her lately? It hadn't registered. John and Teyla's close friendship had been a backdrop of existence in Atlantis since they arrived. Elizabeth had stopped thinking about it a long time ago.

It appeared whatever had been holding him back had finally snapped the leash.

Elizabeth was startled to feel a sharp pain at the thought. She couldn't be jealous? Could she?

No, she answered herself, pushing the possibility away. Not jealous like that, at any rate. Envious, in a general sense, that John could move forward with his life. It wasn't in the cards for her, not while she was here. But he was hardly the first person to come back from a near-death experience a changed man.

Elizabeth frowned, looking down at the Stargate.

All of them had nearly died at one time or another. Whether from a Wraith ship circling overhead or someone holding a gun to the temple or a knife to the throat, all of them had brushed against death these last few years. John more than any of them.

But he'd never changed before. He'd flown nuclear weapons into Hive ships, disappeared into the emptiness of space, and always come back just the same as he'd been: sarcastic, occasionally goofy and deceptively laid-back.

She stood up and went to her window, watching the team assemble and wait for the Stargate to open. She observed as they departed, remembering suddenly that first time she'd sent him through the Atlantis gate, with Colonel Sumner. He'd turned back and waved to her. He didn't do it all the time, but usually there was one last backward glance before he left.

John approached the event horizon, and had she not been watching so closely, she doubted she would have noticed the slight hesitation before he stepped through. He hesitated, but he didn't turn his head. The others followed him and the wormhole disengaged, but Elizabeth remained frozen.

He'd known she was watching them go. Elizabeth couldn't have explained how she was so sure of that, but she and John had gotten so used to one another they often seemed to be able to read each other's thoughts without speaking a word.

He'd known it, and he had wanted to look up at her. But he didn't.

It dawned on her that she could remember exactly the last time John had looked her directly in the eye. It had been three weeks ago, at the celebration after his release from the infirmary. He'd been pleased, embarrassed, and something else, some emotion flashing in his eyes she couldn't identify.

Since then, nothing. They spoke only about city matters and only when necessary. No more random appearances in her office to check in, or check up on her. The rare moments when she allowed herself to relax were undisturbed, at least by him. They hadn't had so much as a cup of coffee together in three weeks. She'd been vaguely bothered by it, but there was always something needing her attention, and John had just gone through something traumatic, so she had pushed it out of her thoughts as not requiring concern.

But now she realized that sense of unspoken connection between them, the thing that made it possible for them to run the city and work together so well, was completely and utterly gone as well.

And it hurt. Dear God, it hurt.

Especially since she didn't understand why.

Elizabeth remained there, looking down on the control room, lost in her own thoughts for a long time.

***

"Elizabeth? Can I join you?"

The leader of the Atlantis expedition was, in Carson's opinion, his single worst patient. Ronon wouldn't allow anyone but Carson to work on him. Teyla had a stubborn tendency to get out of bed far sooner than she should. Rodney drove the staff crazy with small injuries, although he was more stoic when seriously injured. Colonel Sheppard tended to put the treatment of others before himself, but he would get treated.

Elizabeth, however, would deny anything was wrong until she lost consciousness.

The way she started when Carson interrupted her intense brooding over her supper was just one more bad sign.

"Of course," she said and he watched as she visibly tried to pull herself back from whatever mental place she'd been lost in.

"How's the soup this evening?" he asked, eyeing the mostly-full bowl in front of her.

Elizabeth dragged her spoon through her bowl. "It's fine."

"That why you've barely eaten any of it?"

She glared. "Are we going to have this argument again?" she asked coolly.

Carson refused to blink or look away. "Yes, and we'll keep having it until you actually start taking care of yourself properly. Which includes eating decent meals at regular intervals."

Elizabeth stopped just short of rolling her eyes and started to protest. "I've been eating-"

"If you had, you wouldn't be looking so peaky," he interrupted, but even as he spoke, a thought occurred to him. "Unless there's something else wrong."

She wouldn't meet his eyes. "I've been having headaches," she muttered.

Carson decided to change tactics. "Elizabeth," he said, almost whining. "Headaches" was Elizabeth-speak for "yes, something's wrong but I don't want to be specific." He hated it when she did this. It was one thing for her to preserve her image by telling other people that lie, but he was her doctor first and foremost.

He was a little surprised that guilt-tripping her worked. "It's nothing, Carson, really. I've just been preoccupied."

"You're worried about John's team being off-world again?" he guessed. Colonel Sheppard's team would be back the next day, hopefully. He saw the reaction on her face when he mentioned John's name.

"Yes," she said, a little too quickly, like she was seizing on the idea. "Their first time out, after what happened with the Hive ships, you know."

He dropped his voice. "He's fine, Elizabeth. I checked him over thoroughly before I released him. He's fine."

Nervous green eyes darted to his for a moment and then looked away. "I know you did."

So if it wasn't John's physical well-being she was worried about... "Elizabeth, you don't have to tell me this if you're not comfortable, but did something happen between the two of you?"

Her reaction told him pretty much everything he needed to know. "No, Carson. And I'm a little disappointed in you for subscribing to gossip," she said, a chill in her voice.

He held up his hands. "All right, I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to imply anything improper. But it's obvious something is bothering you and it has to do with him."

She started playing with her soup again. Carson waited patiently in silence until she spoke, half to herself. "He's changed."

"How do you mean?" he asked gently, hoping to coax her into thinking aloud if nothing else.

She frowned and he saw a hurt look in her face. "I don't know. I didn't notice it at first, but I think what happened affected him more than we realized."

Carson thought back over the past few weeks. He hadn't noticed anything wrong with John, per se. Nothing was medically wrong with him, that was certain. The colonel had been spending a lot of time with Teyla. Carson had overheard the nurses gossiping about the two of them, and while he had discouraged the gossiping, at least on duty, he had noticed afterwards that he was seeing John with Teyla almost all the time.

And he didn't remember the last time he'd seen John speaking to Elizabeth outside of her office.

He looked at Elizabeth sharply. Could that be what was upsetting her? It seemed unlikely for Elizabeth to indulge in such adolescent foolishness, but then, who was immune to being stupid when the heart was involved?

She would die rather than admit to such a thing, though.

"Have you asked him about it?" he said neutrally.

She shook her head. "I learned the hard way that pushing John will only make him push back." Carson nodded, as that was true of their military commander, but at the same time, it also sounded like an excuse for Elizabeth to avoid the subject. He could see Elizabeth gathering herself. She used the mask of the Leader of Atlantis as much to do her job as she used it to keep people at arm's length. "I haven't seen any evidence that his work is being compromised. Once they get back from the mission, I'll have a better idea."

Knowing that she wouldn't admit that her concern was far more personal than John's duties, and that she would be genuinely offended if he said so, Carson waved his spoon at her. "I could speak to him, if you like. Just ask what's going on in that thick head of his."

That got him a ghost of a smile as she stood up to leave. "Why don't we wait and see how things go on this mission?"

Because, he thought to himself, this has nothing to do with the mission. Some sort of silent breach had occurred between Elizabeth and John. And it was hurting her.

***

Sheppard stalked into the lab two nights after they got back from off-world. The stalking alone indicated his mood. The scowl on his face confirmed that he was annoyed about something.

Rodney realized this was the first time Sheppard had been openly angry in weeks. Ever since their first-hand experience with being blasted at high speed through an unstable wormhole, the colonel had been acting strange. Even for him. "You've been acting weird."

Sheppard glared. Oh yeah, he was pissed. There was a slightly feral look in his eye. "Define 'weird'."

But Rodney had been around the man too long and been through too much to worry about the threatening looks. Sheppard wouldn't raise a hand against his own people, barring alien influence. Which, while not out of the question entirely, was unlikely. "You're always talking. Positively chatty," he said, thinking back and collecting the shreds of evidence to confirm his theory. "Restless. You never get pissy with anyone-" He paused, taking in his friend's expression and then revised. "Until right now."

"Your point, McKay?" Sheppard snapped impatiently.

As usual, the words blurted out of his mouth without editing. "It's like you're trying too hard."

Okay, maybe he was wrong about violent tendencies, because the furious look being directed at Rodney was a little too convincing. He waved a hand. "It's okay to be rattled, you know. We did both nearly die." He swallowed, memories of Sheppard's condition coming all-too-readily to mind. "You're allowed to be a little freaked out without it hurting your alpha male status. You certainly don't have to prove anything to anyone here."

Sheppard deflated. He wasn't angry anymore, and it wasn't one of his trademark "indulge me" expressions either. He looked confused as hell. And that freaked Rodney out a little. "I've just had a lot on my mind lately. You know?"

Rodney nodded. The explosion that had destabilized the wormhole had left him with three cracked ribs that still ached, plus his latest severe concussion. Carson said it was a miracle the tendons in his knee had only been strained and not irreparably torn by the rough landing. And he'd been the lucky one. The planet where he'd ended up had nice natives who'd taken him into a house and kept an eye on him until he regained consciousness and could dial home.

Sheppard had been just as roughed up but stranded on some frozen backwater with a broken DHD. He'd been completely alone, his life strung out between his injuries and hypothermia. The Atlantis gate room had been seriously damaged by the explosion. It had taken too many hours to get the gate running again, let alone find Sheppard. By the time they were able to send a puddle jumper through, he'd gone into a coma. Rodney, Teyla and Ronon had spent a few long days with Elizabeth, hovering in the infirmary until Sheppard woke up. It had been way beyond a close call.

"Have you... talked to anyone?" Rodney asked awkwardly.

Sheppard shrugged, sticking his hands in his pockets. "I'm not real into shrinks, Rodney."

He nodded, because he knew that. "Okay, but it doesn't have to be Kate." Something nagged at him. "What about Elizabeth?"

Sheppard flinched. Openly flinched.

Rodney frowned. Elizabeth had been remote lately, he remembered suddenly. Said she was having headaches, avoided looking straight at anyone when they asked how she was. Carson was worried, said something was bothering her but she wouldn't talk about it.

"You did talk to her, didn't you? Something happened between you?" Rodney was on his feet, surprising himself with his own protectiveness. "What did you do?" he demanded, upset.

The other man glared again. "Why would you assume I did something to Elizabeth?"

"Because she's been miserable for days, hiding out from everyone behind work. And now you're stalking around my lab like a wounded bear."

Sheppard fixed him with another look, but this one wasn't angry. It was worried, and dangerous. "What's wrong with her?" he asked.

Another man might have been intimidated by that look. "You tell me," Rodney said, belligerently.

Sheppard shook his head tiredly. "I haven't spoken with Elizabeth about any of this, Rodney."

Bewildered by the second sudden mood shift, Rodney swallowed. "Then maybe you should," Rodney told him.

He hadn't meant it as a dismissal, but Sheppard apparently took it that way. Rodney sat back down and made a mental note to check on Elizabeth in the morning.

***

He had to move. He had to get up and go find the supplies.

His body was too far gone.

Nothing hurt anymore. Everything was far away, his legs, his hands, the voice in his ear. He could just stay here and float.

Except the voice in his ear was getting louder, and more profane.

"God damn it, Colonel, you get up and move your ass! That's a direct order!"

There was something familiar about that voice.

Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was telling him to move. He had to move.

He couldn't.

He couldn't move.

Panic began to well up. He had to move. Elizabeth was telling him he had to, but he couldn't make his body respond. He fought but now it felt like he was being held in place. He lashed out-

John gasped for air, staring around him in confusion. He was standing in his quarters, next to his bed, heart racing like he'd just run from the other side of the city.

He slapped on the light. His t-shirt was soaked with sweat, and the sheets on his bed were tangled and dragging on the floor around his bare feet.

Nightmare, he realized. He'd been dreaming he was back on the planet, freezing to death, trying so hard to move he'd leapt right out of bed when he woke up.

He closed his eyes. He remembered lying in the little burrow he'd dug himself in the snow, drifting in and out of consciousness. After what had felt like years, he heard the wormhole opening, heard the radio signal coming through weakly. He wasn't entirely sure he wasn't dreaming. Then Rodney explained that they couldn't come get him yet. He told them not to send anyone else through and risk stranding more people in that frozen hell hole. Then Elizabeth's voice had come over his radio, telling him they'd sent supplies through. Her voice grew sharper until he answered, and then she kept yelling at him. She begged, ordered and finally started screaming obscenities at him and she wouldn't shut up until he dragged himself to the MALP, even though all he'd wanted was to drift into oblivion.

He stumbled into his bathroom, wincing at the bright light, and splashed water on his face.

The MALP had brought heated blankets, food and water, and sleeping bags. Without them, he would've been dead long before Atlantis was finally able to send a jumper for him. He'd barely made it with those things. Without them he would have had no chance in hell.

Elizabeth had saved his life. Her sheer force of will had gotten him moving on that planet. He doubted he would have heeded anyone else's instructions at that point.

When he'd regained consciousness in the infirmary in Atlantis, she was sitting next to his bed, holding his hand. That was how he'd known he was really awake, the warmth of her hand on his. He found out later that Elizabeth and his team had barely left his side while he was in the coma.

The night of the party, celebrating their survival, she'd taken his hand again, and something had rushed through him, an awareness of that touch that he'd never felt before. John had been trying hard not to think about that, as if ignoring it would stop it, and failing miserably.

He thought that weird moment at the party was where this all started, but he was wrong. It started when the need to stay alive and see Elizabeth again had pulled him out of the snow and to his feet one last time.

He went back to his bed and sat down, his head in his hands.

Earlier that night, he'd been eating dinner with Teyla. He'd been explaining something about politics back home and he'd reached out to touch her arm as he talked, like he'd been doing for weeks now.

Her hand had arrested the gesture before he could complete it. She gently but firmly pushed his own hand back onto the table. There was one brief look between them. After a few moments of strained silence, she excused herself and left.

Teyla's look. Rodney's accusations. His dreams.

He'd been running.

Had he even thanked Elizabeth for saving his life? No, she'd been the one thanking him, when it should've been the other way around. And then he'd run away like a five-year old.

Rodney said she was upset. Because of him, what else could it be? He'd felt her watching him as they left on the mission the other day. Not watching the team, watching him, waiting for him to wave goodbye like he usually did.

He hadn't looked back at her. And Elizabeth hadn't been in the control room when they returned. His stomach had clenched when he realized she wasn't there. It felt too much like a dismissal, but then, he'd been avoiding her for weeks, so what did he expect?

The thought that he'd been hurting her was enough to propel him towards his door before remembering it was the middle of the night.

He cursed himself out for a few minutes, then stretched out on the bed. No more, he decided. He would talk to Elizabeth tomorrow. What was he going to say? He wasn't even sure what the hell was wrong with him. But he figured "I'm sorry" would be a start.

***

John did his best to seem casual about wandering into Elizabeth's office in the morning. It was hard to pull off because he got the feeling everyone in the control room was watching them. "Hey."

Elizabeth looked up. She saw him and froze momentarily. "Good morning." She was wearing a field vest. She was going off-world today, he remembered belatedly. A simple negotiation to renew an arrangement for food supplies. Lorne's team was going with her.

"Ah, so, you're all set for the mission?" he asked, feeling pathetic.

She nodded. "It should be relatively straightforward," she said. She was watching him warily. That hurt. God, how had things gotten this out of whack between them?

He stuck his hands in his pockets. "You won't be gone overnight, right?"

"I don't expect to be."

He braced himself. "Good. I was wondering if we could have dinner." When her eyes widened in surprise, he added hesitantly, "And maybe talk."

They stood there in silence for a moment, just looking at each other. He felt a rush of warmth in his chest as her expression flickered through a half a dozen emotions before she smiled at him with genuine relief. "I'd like that."

They were still going to have to talk, he knew, but on some level, it felt like they already had.

Feeling significantly more relaxed, he pivoted to walk with her out of the office. "So, you're sure you have everything? Sunscreen? Breath mints?" Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Well, be careful. Look both ways before you cross the road, and all that."

The mood in the control room had improved. He tried not to notice, but it felt like everyone had just let out a deep breath at the sight of the two of them walking and talking.

He felt lighter, for that matter. Like the world was suddenly making sense again.

Elizabeth headed for the stairs to join Lorne and his guys in front of the gate. "You want me to bring you back anything?" she asked with a grin.

You, in one piece, John thought to himself. "Surprise me."

***

John checked his watch for the tenth time. Elizabeth wasn't back yet, and the sun had gone down long ago. There had been no word from Lorne's team.

Ronon looked at him. "How long?" He was prowling the control room in that way that suggested he'd be happy to hit someone just to have something to do.

"Almost twenty minutes." If they weren't coming back in time, Lorne would have sent someone to check in. They were twenty minutes overdue. There could have been a perfectly reasonable explanation for it, of course.

His gut twisted unpleasantly with the conviction that something was grievously wrong. He opened his mouth to tell the gate tech to dial anyway when the symbols lit up. "Unscheduled off-world activation!" The Marines poured into position. Ronon rushed down the stairs to join them, drawing his weapon. The sergeant looked at John. "We're receiving a radio transmission."

John nodded and his stomach fell when he heard the sound of weapons fire. "Atlantis, this is Lorne. We need back-up to secure the Stargate here ASAP!"

If they were under fire, why weren't they just coming back? "Copy that, Major, what's the situation?"

"Sir, the settlement has been attacked by some sort of raiding party. Most of them took off through the gate already. We trapped a few of them, but they have some of our weapons."

"I copy, Major. Why don't you just come through?"

He heard the fury in Lorne's voice even over the noise. "The bastards took Dr. Weir."

***

The anger was a living thing screaming in his mind. John shut it away.

He shut it away as he snapped orders for the Marines and his team to assemble. He shut it away as they opened the wormhole and barreled through, taking out the six men firing at the Stargate. He shut it away as they tried, unsuccessfully, to interrogate the two raiders who didn't die immediately from their injuries, and arranged for medical aid to help their trading partners who had tried valiantly to protect their guests when the bandits had appeared.

He shut it away as Rodney pulled the gate addresses from the DHD and they went back to Atlantis, and as Rodney and Radek cross-checked the addresses with the four symbols Lorne had been able to catch.

Three possible addresses. John mustered almost every military and combat-trained member of the expedition. If he had to, he could later justify the risk of leaving the city nearly defenseless by the fact that the faster they moved, the higher their chances were of recovering Elizabeth.

He wouldn't accept the possibility that they wouldn't recover her. He shut that thought away as well.

Three addresses, three teams, three MALPs that only revealed a breathable atmosphere and no one firing at the gate before each team moved out. It was incredibly reckless, but cautious wasn't going to help Elizabeth right now.

He went with the last team, leaving Zelenka in charge of the city. Beckett was waiting in the control room with a medical team, ready for anything.

Ronon was with the first team, Teyla and Lorne with the second, but John didn't need them to see the very fresh tracks of a group of people leading from the Stargate. Even in the dim light under cloudy skies, the tracks were clear. He, Rodney and the Marines with them followed the trail carefully.

He called a halt when they heard sounds and saw the flicker of camp fires. John waved one of the Marine SFs off with a couple hand signals and then lead the rest of them into the trees.

The camp was in disarray, people yelling and cursing, treating the wounded. Apparently they hadn't been expecting resistance during their little excursion. That explained the lack of sentries at the gate. John swore as his eyes scanned the camp, wishing that Elizabeth had worn one of those red shirts of hers today. They were easy to spot.

His eyes caught on a familiar figure, low to the ground. Her hands were tied, but she was moving. In fact, he realized with a surge of pride, she was carefully shifting herself away from the people in the camp, and towards the Stargate.

The Marine rejoined them and John nodded, still silent. They needed to work fast, before they lost all their advantages. The man pulled a radio transmitter out and depressed the detonator.

The C-4 went off about 90 degrees to the right of their position. Most of the camp looked towards the noise. A couple of the more savvy criminals looked in the opposite direction of the sound, which still wasn't the right way.

Elizabeth took off towards the tree line about ten feet to the left of John and his team, taking advantage of the diversion to run for the gate. With her back to the camp, she didn't see the man aiming for her.

John jumped out of the trees and moved into range. He prayed she would obey him as instinctively as he had obeyed her. "Elizabeth, down!"

She dropped.

He fired.

The man fell and John raced forward to grab Elizabeth and haul her upright. Around him he heard automatic weapons fire spitting angrily as Rodney and the Marines covered their retreat.

***

They hit the gate room at a run. John shoved Elizabeth to the floor and covered her with his body as shots were fired through the gate at them. Then the shield snapped up and the gate closed down and there was a sudden, surreal moment of silence.

One of the Marines was bleeding, and Rodney yelled for Beckett. John pushed himself onto his knees above Elizabeth, his P-90 still clutched in one hand. He grabbed her face with his other hand, tilting it up to look in her eyes. "Are you okay?"

Elizabeth had to look down at herself before she could answer. "I think so." She called up a weak smile. "Thanks."

He couldn't say anything. Sheer terror and utter relief mixed with the adrenaline still pumping through him. His hand slid back, fingers threading through her hair. He crushed Elizabeth against his chest, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth against the way he was shaking.

Elizabeth leaned into him, her bound hands gripping the top of his vest. He could feel her breath against his neck, feel her trembling as well.

He tightened his hold, resting his cheek against her hair and not caring that they were in the middle of the gate room, that a good portion of the city was watching. He just held on.

***

All in all, she wasn't as rattled as she expected to be.

Carson had kept her in the infirmary until he could look her over himself, even though she wasn't actually hurt. Her wrists were red from the ropes she'd been tied with and she was bruised a whole bunch of places including her face, but her mercifully short abduction hadn't done any lasting damage. To her, anyway. The Marine Lieutenant, Carpazin, had taken a bullet in the upper back, but it hit muscle far from the spinal cord and Carson assured her the man would be fine.

After Carson tried to order her to bed, she reminded him she had to go through a debriefing first. John was hovering and overheard them. He promised Carson that the meeting would be short and he'd make sure Elizabeth went to rest afterwards.

Ordinarily she'd feel a little ganged up on, but it was a relief to have John being so open and friendly again, and she was maybe just a little giddy from her escape.

The debriefing was unsettling, though. The thought of almost all of Atlantis' resources being committed just to find her alarmed her. John laid out his reasons calmly enough, and they did make sense. Time was vitally important in an abduction scenario, and the more people they had searching, the better the odds, even if the city was briefly left vulnerable. But it still felt slightly embarrassing.

She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "That was a risk."

He met her look evenly but there was something in his face – his eyes – that gave her a weird case of goose bumps. "It was worth it."

The table was full of assenting murmurs and Elizabeth admitted to herself that had it been someone else who was lost, she probably would've done the same thing. Best to be gracious and let it go. She thanked them all and everyone went their separate ways, except John. When she started to go to her office, he put a hand on her arm.

"Uh-uh. You're going to your quarters," he said. "I promised Beckett."

"John, I'm fine," she said, but her heart wasn't really in the protest. A hot shower and snuggling in her bed sounded like a great way to spend the evening for once and she had a good excuse to do it tonight. He just looked at her, like he knew exactly what she was thinking and she yielded. "Okay, but can I go to the mess hall first? I'm starving."

A strange look passed over his face. It took a second to remember their conversation that morning. "Oh, we were supposed to have dinner." In her defense, she had been freaking kidnapped today. He didn't need to look so hurt that she forgot.

John hesitated as they walked into the transporter. "Why don't I go and get some soup or something for you and bring it to your quarters?" he suggested, glancing down at her clothes, which were still damp and muddy. "You could shower and change and I'd keep my promise to Carson."

A hot bath and room service were too tempting for her to resist. She'd worry about appearances some other time.

***

Clean and warm, curled up on her sofa in sweatpants and a t-shirt, Elizabeth sniffed the cup of soup and sighed contentedly. It was good to be home, safe and sound, and showered. And she had John sitting next to her, making idle conversation as if she hadn't been abducted and he hadn't come charging to her rescue and the last few weeks of distance between them hadn't happened.

She ate her soup and wondered what had changed. He'd shown up in her office this morning, looking guilty and frazzled, and she just knew his invitation to dinner was an apology. She still had no idea what had been going on with him, and knowing John she'd never hear the exact details. He was too private a person. But if he was going to tell her anything, now was probably the best time to get him to talk.

She finished the soup, took half of the sandwich (turkey, of course) from the plate he had brought, and wiggled around to face him, covering her lap with the afghan from the back of the couch.

He looked at her suspiciously. "What?"

"What?" she asked back innocently.

"You've got that look on your face."

"What look?"

He leaned back, his mug cradled in his hands. "The 'now we're going to have a talk' look."

She shrugged and took another bite of her sandwich. "Dinner was your idea," she reminded him through her full mouth. His lips twitched at her bad manners.

The silence stretched out between them, but Elizabeth just finished her food and waited. Patience was a necessary thing when wheedling information out of John Sheppard. It would work better if she let him collect himself first.

Abruptly, he leaned forward and put the cup down. "I'm sorry about the last couple of weeks. I just..." he trailed off.

She could see him shifting uncomfortably. Elizabeth was momentarily torn between prying out the details of what had been going on with him and being supportive without invading his privacy. "It's understandable," she said, not missing the relief on his face. "Things happen fast, but we live through them slowly."

John nodded, his hands loosely clasped between his knees. "Yeah, something like that."

She hesitated, because it sounded a little pathetic, but she needed to know. "John, I didn't do anything, did I? I mean-"

"No," he cut her off emphatically. He reached out and took her hand. "No, Elizabeth. This was all me. I just got kind of messed up."

His fingers were warm, and she could feel the calluses on his palm. She squeezed his hand. "So we're okay?"

"You tell me."

She was all-too-familiar with John's tendency to crucify himself even when everyone else had let him off the hook. "Well, you brought me dinner, and you saved my life today, so I think I can move on."

Her teasing failed to produce the desired effect, unfortunately. John paled, looking down at their hands. He intertwined their fingers and Elizabeth's heart began to beat a little faster. "I never thanked you," he said quietly.

"For what?" she said just as quietly, afraid to startle him.

"You saved my life, when I was stranded." Elizabeth winced. The memory of that misadventure of his was going to haunt her for the rest of her life. Even with his remarkable history of close calls, that had been too close. "I didn't want to move. I just wanted to lie there and not have to care about anything anymore. But you kept yelling at me and you wouldn't let me..."

"Die," she thought but didn't say. Elizabeth reached out and held on to his hand with both of hers, a lump in her throat. He almost never talked like this, and she was floored by the raw emotion she could see, something he pretty much never showed to anyone.

John's voice was shaking now, but he kept talking. "You never give up." He shook his head. "And I didn't say thank you."

She tried to smile. "I think that's a mutual thing, John, really. You risked a lot for me today, not for the first time. It's what we do." She was hoping to lighten the mood, but her words seemed to have the opposite effect, because his face darkened, and he reached up and touched her cheek gently with his free hand. A bruise had formed there from being smacked around by one of the raiders during her abduction. Thankfully the cheekbone hadn't fractured.

"I'm not letting you out of my sight again," he muttered.

Elizabeth swallowed at the intensity of his expression. She answered before she could edit the thought. "Well, now you know how I feel most of the time," she said tartly.

That finally got a smile out of him, albeit a rueful one. His hand wrapped around the back of her neck and he pulled her towards him. Elizabeth closed her eyes as John pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. He released her fingers to wrap his arm around her shoulders and Elizabeth shifted without really thinking about it, cuddling against his side, leaning into his support for the second time that day. It felt strangely normal. They had grown so used to being around one another, it was a little odd that they touched so rarely. But she had been through one hell of a day, and a comforting hug from someone who was, after all, one of her closest friends, was so welcome.

She relaxed into the warmth of his body heat, her head on his shoulder, and fell asleep almost instantly.

***

He ought to go now. John knew he should get Elizabeth settled for the night and leave. She was exhausted and he was damn tired himself. He hadn't realized she'd fallen asleep until she snuggled into him further, one hand loosely hanging on to his shirt.

Knowing how tired she was, he seriously considered picking her up and carrying her to the bed. Sleeping on the couch couldn't be the best thing for her tonight. He wasn't sure how that would go over, though, if she woke up in his arms, or worse, while he was tucking her under the covers.

Trying to decide, he realized he was watching her sleep.

His thumb stroked lightly along the curve of her cheek, ghosting over the dark bruise. It was strange that someone he thought of as being so strong could appear so fragile. It wasn't a fair judgment, probably, given everything she'd been through today. Maybe it was the way she was leaning on him, the way being curled up in a ball made her seem small and delicate.

"Delicate." Remembering some of the language he'd heard her use in the past, mostly directed at himself, he grinned.

Elizabeth turned restlessly, trying to get more comfortable. Her eyes fluttered but stayed closed. His fingers crept into her hair, supporting her head. He started to massage her scalp gently, not really thinking about it, and she sighed in her sleep and settled again.

Her hair was damp from the shower. John noticed hints of gray in Elizabeth's hair as the curls tangled around his fingers. But it was still soft, and he could smell the soap she used, a scent he'd come to associate with her over the years.

Realizing what he was doing, he carefully disengaged his hand. He reached with his other arm and tugged her blanket up more, making sure she was warm enough.

He knew he should go, but he didn't want to. That rush of emotion came again, but instead of tamping it down, he let it come, let himself feel just how much he cared about Elizabeth. He liked making her smile even when she clearly didn't want to. He counted on her to be there, backing him up and keeping him honest, even when he didn't want to hear it. Her loyalty, where most of his commanding officers had only felt doubt or dismissal, was invaluable to him. It had quite literally saved his life.

He wanted to keep her safe. He admitted to himself that he would risk his own life, not to mention the lives and safety of others, solely because it was her.

John wanted to stay right where he was, Elizabeth's body warm and pliant next to his. He watched her chest move in and out with her slow breathing, tangible proof that she was alive and home. His heart was racing again, but he breathed deep and admitted to himself that what he wanted most was to run his fingers through her hair again, to touch her skin and feel how smooth it was. He wanted to tilt her head up. He wanted to kiss her.

He wanted Elizabeth.

The knowledge he'd been avoiding for weeks finally swallowed him whole. Looking down at her, oblivious in his arms, he knew there was no going back now. Once he saw her like this, not as a coworker or even his boss, but as a lover, at least potentially, it was always going to be part of his consciousness. No more running away.

He let his mind wander, thinking about things he'd been avoiding or repressing for a long time. What would it be like to kiss her? For real, he amended, thinking of their alien-possessed kiss. What would she feel like? What would she be like in bed? He let go of the internal censoring for a few minutes, absently running his palm up and down her arm. She'd be just like she was everywhere else, probably. Passionate, focused, smart...

John had purposefully avoided thinking about such things for years, because they had to work together and he didn't like speculating about things like that with a friend.

A friend, he thought with a smile. They were more than just friends. They always had been, from the day they first met and she put all her negotiating skills into selling the Atlantis expedition to him. Even when they were fighting, there was always something a little more between them. They were friends, yes, but also colleagues, allies and partners.

Wouldn't lovers be the next logical step?

The smile faded when Elizabeth's eyes blinked open. She looked confused and when she realized that they were cuddled up together she began to blush. It was kind of cute, but it also made his heart sink.

He didn't know exactly what Elizabeth thought of him, but he knew that she put the city before absolutely everything in her life. Her own needs, personal and physical, always came second. He wasn't any different. And this... whatever-this-was would have to follow those same rules.

He needed to think about that for a while.

Elizabeth pulled away from him and he let her go reluctantly. His voice was rough. "Come on, you need to get to bed."

She didn't fight him, allowing him to draw her to her feet and steer her over to the large bed in the other room. Being the leader of the expedition had its perks. Elizabeth had one of the big beds they'd requisitioned.

Firmly pushing that thought and its potential spin-off ideas out of his head, he got Elizabeth into the bed and settled the blankets over her. He couldn't resist brushing her hair back and kissing her forehead again, but she was already mostly back to sleep.

He watched her for a moment longer, then turned the lights down and left.

***

John looked out into the stand of trees at the end of the abandoned village. The only sounds were of birds and animals. It was cloudy but warm and his neck was damp with sweat under his jacket and vest. He and Ronon continued to make their way around the perimeter, and even as he noted the placement of buildings and trees, half of John's thoughts were hundreds of light-years away.

Elizabeth was off-world on a trading mission with Lorne's team. It was the first time she'd left Atlantis in over two months. And no matter how many times John told himself to be rational, he couldn't help worrying. It wasn't that he didn't trust Lorne. And he knew Elizabeth wasn't some helpless damsel in distress by any stretch of the imagination. He just hated the idea of her being out there someplace where he couldn't get to her easily.

She'd noticed his anxiety a few days ago and teased him about usurping her role as the old mother hen. He'd just made a sour face at her at the time, because they were wrapped up in talking about the party to celebrate the expedition's fifth year in Atlantis next week, and he hadn't wanted to deviate from a pleasant topic just then.

Ronon wandered around the far edge of the village, looking at the wreckage from what had probably been a Wraith culling. It was decades old, and clearly no one had lived here since. Rodney and Teyla were back at the ruins of the Ancient structure that sat on the other end of the village. Not much was left of the settlement and even less of the Ancient ruins. John was pretty sure this mission was a bust.

Which made it all the harder not to let his thoughts drift.

He'd been very careful over the last three months, but the amount of time he spent with Elizabeth was definitely more than it had been before his misadventure with planet Death by Hypothermia. They were doing non-work things together, too. He convinced Elizabeth to go with him to the mainland once, and managed to sneak a lunch along that they ate sitting on some rocks near the shore. He'd gotten her to come to movie night a few times, too. But he held himself back from his desire to commandeer all of her limited free time, even when he saw her eating dinner with Caldwell and his temper started to simmer.

Elizabeth was completely friendly with him, apparently grateful to have put the difficulties he had caused between them in the past. She flirted with him a bit, but as much as he wished it meant something, she always had. The way they teased one another had been part of their relationship from the start.

In those moments, though, when she smiled at him and let him see her dry sense of humor, John felt his stomach flip-flopping and wondered how she could not feel the same way. She never held his eyes very long, not then. When some crisis was happening, they could stare at each other hard enough to hurt and not blink. But lately she'd been dropping her eyes when he started edging towards that line that separated friendly banter from something else.

He was sure now that "something else" was what he wanted. If the jealousy and the stomach-churning nervousness hadn't been enough, the dreams he kept having were hard to ignore. They also made him wish she didn't look so good in those tight red shirts.

He still wasn't sure if Elizabeth felt the same way, but he also was starting to feel pressure. They couldn't keep going like this indefinitely. He'd gotten more than one snarky comment about the way he was glued to Elizabeth's side all the time. Something was going to have to break, and soon.

Ronon approached him, shrugging. "Not much left."

John nodded. "Let's head back." Assuming Rodney's initial scans hadn't been wrong and there was nothing in the Ancient ruins worth salvaging, they'd be back in Atlantis before Lorne's team. John could hover in the gate room until Elizabeth was home safe. Not that he was going to admit to that.

***

Elizabeth preferred negotiations that were straightforward. We want this, you want that, how can we all get most of what we want, okay, good enough, let's go have punch and cookies.

Unfortunately, the Marascians considered such honesty a sign of weakness. So she spent a whole day going through the song and dance of demanding too much, offering too little, acting offended, then amused, then reluctantly assenting. She ended up giving precisely what she expected to give and getting exactly what she expected to get. It was exhausting. They really needed to send some more negotiators from Earth. Five years of this was starting to get to her.

On the trip back to the Stargate, Major Lorne fell into step beside her. "Nicely done, ma'am."

"Piece of cake, Major," she quipped, even as she rolled her head from side to side to release some of the tension. "Though I'm glad that exercise is over with for another year."

"We'll be back in Atlantis a little earlier than expected," Lorne pointed out. "I'm sure Colonel Sheppard will be relieved."

Elizabeth grinned wryly. John had been fairly cute in his nervousness about her going off-world again. "It's not that the Colonel doesn't have the utmost faith in your abilities," she assured Lorne. "Don't take it personally."

"Oh, I don't," he nodded. "I know it's because it's you."

Elizabeth looked over at the man, startled, and he blushed a little.

"The Colonel has always been very protective of you, ma'am."

She nodded. "He's protective of all of our people, Major. It's part of his job description." She couldn't help the tiny note of reprimand in her voice. Carson, Kate and Ronon of all people had made remarks over the last few weeks about John's hovering around her and the comments were starting to grate on her nerves. She found his behavior rather endearing, truth be told. She suspected he was still trying to make up for that weird breach that had occurred between them a few months ago. It was just that other people were feeling entitled to comment on things that were nobody's business.

Not that there was anything to hide, of course.

Lorne seemed oblivious to her reaction. He shrugged. "All due respect, Doctor, I think you know it's more than just his job where you're concerned."

It was Elizabeth's turn to flush. Did Lorne mean...? No, she decided. He wouldn't speak that way about his commanding officer and the mission leader. She was getting paranoid, reading innuendos into statements that could just as easily be about innocent things like friendship and loyalty. "I don't think Atlantis is 'just a job' for any of us," she observed.

Lorne raised his eyebrows and then smiled. "I guess you're right about that."

***

Even a year ago, Elizabeth would've been reticent about drinking more than a single glass of wine at the party. But five years was a worthy milestone, as Rodney pointed out, and it was impossible to resist that beaming grin of his, and not accept another refill.

Earlier in the evening, as the fading sunlight glowed through the windows of the gate room and the party was just starting, she'd stood on the steps. John was on one side of her, Rodney on the other, Stephen a few steps down. Ronon and Teyla were not far away, standing near the Athosians. Elizabeth had raised her glass and without notes recited the list of names, starting with Marshall Sumner, and then stood there in silence for a moment in honor of the nameless ones. There were bowed heads and quiet sips from cups, then the noise level had begun to rise again.

Hours had passed now, and the party was steaming along, the mix of Pegasus and Earth traditions and cultures feeling normal to them all. People ate, drank, sang, flirted and danced. Stephen had even loosened up enough to dance with her to an old Sam Cooke song. John had snatched her immediately afterwards, much to the amusement of several onlookers. But Elizabeth was too relaxed and happy to worry about it.

She lingered much longer than usual, but eventually she slipped out onto the balcony by herself. Even in the middle of a party, no one else was out here. The entire team seemed to have decided that the balcony was an extension of her office, and to go there without her was somehow forbidden.

Leadership had its perks.

Elizabeth leaned on the railing and listened to the music and the chatter. She felt enfolded in the warmth and camaraderie of her makeshift family and she wanted to savor it, even if that meant going apart from them for a while. Tonight she didn't feel the alienation of being "the boss." She just felt like one of them. Maybe that sense of separation had been steadily eroding and she just hadn't noticed. Five years of living and dying and fighting and celebrating together had knocked down a lot of barriers between them all.

The doors opened and John arrived, on cue. As much as the gossiping irritated her, Elizabeth had to admit things between her and John had been a little different lately. Ever since the night of her abduction, John had been more open with her than before. It was as if talking to her once had unknotted something inside of him, and he wasn't so defensive and quick to avoid any kind of personal revelation. In her heart, Elizabeth knew she would rather endure the gossip and the questions than give that up.

He sidled over and mirrored her posture. Then he nudged her elbow with his. "I did warn you, you know." Her baffled stare must have shown she had no idea what he meant. "That first night, out on the balcony, I told you I could get us into all kinds of trouble."

Elizabeth chuckled. "Right. You're a man of your word, John Sheppard."

"Yep. Adventure, excitement, daring rescues."

"Explosions, nuclear bombs, giant weapons," she shot back.

"Abductions, life sucking aliens."

"Life sucking alien bugs."

That made him scowl. He hated being reminded of those things. "Earthquakes, volcanoes."

"Hurricanes, tsunamis," she added, and then sighed. "Invasions."

John reached over and squeezed her hand. Even now, neither of them liked to think about the Genii invasion. Elizabeth feared the memory of Kolya's arm around her, dragging her towards the Stargate, would never really fade.

John tried to cheer her back up, his head bobbing with each bullet point, "Attacks, chase scenes, revolutions, prisons, spaceships, alien weapons."

"Hot alien women," she couldn't resist.

John rolled his eyes. "Ascended Ancients, descended Ancients. Intrepid time travelers." He smiled at her.

"Body sharing," she put in, thinking of Rodney and poor Laura.

"Body snatching, alien possession. And one lousy kiss." His eyebrows shot up, like he was a little anxious bringing that up. To be fair, they never talked about that possessed kiss by some unspoken mutual agreement to pretend it hadn't happened.

"Are we talking 'lousy' in terms of quality or quantity?" she said archly. She was totally going to blame saying that aloud on the two extra glasses of wine.

John gaped at her for a second and then coughed. "Um, a little of both?"

She shrugged. "Well, under the circumstances it's just as well it was only one kiss. And since it wasn't actually us, the quality was beyond our control."

His eyes widened at that, and she saw him lick his lips, a gesture she associated with him being nervous about something. "So, you think we'd be better at it as us?"

She looked at him calculatingly. "I would hope you're not so bad at it that I would race to grab the nearest gun and try to shoot you."

John burst out laughing and she felt a small surge of pride. He didn't really laugh like that enough. "Elizabeth," he started and then stopped, a grin still lurking around his lips. He looked at her for a long moment, leaning in closer, reaching up to hold her face in his hands carefully.

It took a second for her to realize he really was going to kiss her. Yes, she had practically dared him to, but she couldn't quite get her mind around the reality of it until his lips actually brushed against hers.

Later on she would tell herself she responded because she was so startled, but the truth was years of curiosity got the better of her, and she kissed him back. His lips were soft, even as his perpetual beard stubble scratched against her skin. Elizabeth felt a warmth wash through her as he held on. It had been a very long time since anyone had touched her so sweetly. She could taste the punch from the party on his mouth as his lips glided over hers. No worries that he was a bad kisser, that was for sure.

John's thumbs brushed against her cheekbones and she melted at the tenderness of the gesture, a small, involuntary noise of pleasure escaping her. Unfortunately he took that as a sign and he deepened the kiss. It felt wonderful, truthfully, but alarms were going off in her head. This wasn't just a friendly, thank-God-we're-still alive / what-the-hell gesture.

It took a lot of effort to move her hands down to his shoulders – when had she wrapped her arms around his neck? She had to concentrate hard to hang on to any kind of rational thought. Kissing John felt absolutely wonderful, but the fact that they were kissing out on a balcony in the middle of a party finally got her to pull away.

She managed to push him back, her voice cracking unexpectedly as she held him off. "John, we can't... I mean, this... this isn't right."

He recoiled from her and Elizabeth's heart ached. She didn't want to hurt him, dear God, but she was very confused.

"I'm sorry," he said, pulling away. "I thought... I shouldn't have done that." He didn't meet her eyes, but she knew from the way he was shifting around that he was about to bolt.

Elizabeth hated the pained look on his face, knowing it was her fault. She also knew that if she let him just walk away with no explanations, their friendship might never recover from this. She grabbed his arm and hung on tight before he could run. "John, just wait, all right? We need to talk about this."

John sighed. "You're right. I'm sorry. I'm not handling this very well." He snorted. "Which pretty much sums up me, doesn't it?"

She really hated it when he got down on himself like that. She rolled her eyes. "Can you at least tell me what brought that on? Please?"

They were both quiet for a moment. John rubbed the back of his neck. "You saved my life."

It took her a long minute to remember that John somehow credited her with his surviving a destabilized wormhole and hypothermia. As if she'd done anything but stand in the control room and try not to let the immense panic she had been feeling show. Elizabeth resisted the urge to smack him, but barely. "And?"

He shrugged. "I couldn't let you down. And at the party, after Carson let me out..." He looked at her hands. "I didn't want to let go."

She remembered reaching out and touching his hand that night. It wasn't all that unusual a gesture for them, not any more. Or at least it hadn't been since then, and it was hard to distinguish differences of before and after at this point. Clearly it wasn't just a gesture to him, though.

His eyes met hers and she was startled by the heat she saw in them. "I didn't want to let you go," he repeated. "And it scared the hell out of me."

If possible, now she was even more confused. "But-" she started and then stopped, her cheeks turning pink.

"What?" he asked, like he already knew what she was going to say.

"Teyla," she mumbled weakly, not sure what answer she was hoping for.

John looked away and she knew that expression. He was angry at himself. "I panicked."

He'd gone rabbiting off after Teyla because of her? Elizabeth's head was swimming.

"Nothing happened," he assured her earnestly. "With me and Teyla. Nothing's ever happened between us."

She shook it off automatically, because his private life wasn't any of her business. Except John seemed to want to make it her business. What he was saying, what he wanted from her, started to sink in.

He was watching her closely now and Elizabeth tried to gather herself. "John, you're a very good friend-" she started.

He cut her off with a wave. "We passed 'just friends' a long time ago, Elizabeth."

She didn't bother trying to deny it, because the connection between them had been more than a simple work relationship for a long time. Still, it was a working relationship only. "But that doesn't mean we can-" Elizabeth stopped short, realizing she wasn't saying she didn't want to. She blushed like a schoolgirl, feeling ridiculous. She didn't want John that way, did she?

Did it matter? It wouldn't be good for the city or for either of their jobs.

John stepped closer to her. "Why not?"

"You know how it would look," she shot back irritably. He had to know what a bad idea this was. Would be. If they pursued it, which they wouldn't.

"I don't care," he retorted. "I don't. People in this city have been believing whatever they wanted to believe about me, and about you and me, for years. I don't care what they think. And I don't care what anyone back on Earth thinks," he forestalled her next objection before she could say anything. "The only thing that matters here is what we want."

He'd gone from beaten puppy to decisive rebel in a heartbeat and she should be used to his personality switches by now but Elizabeth was feeling more than slightly overwhelmed. There was a long pause, and John brushed his fingers along her jaw again. She got goose bumps everywhere and suddenly she didn't want him to stop touching her like that, not ever. "Elizabeth, do you want this?"

She should have taken another moment, collected her thoughts, considered what to say to best extricate them both from this conversation before any real damage was done. "I don't know," she confessed softly.

She expected him to look hurt again, to pull away from her, but instead he smiled all of a sudden and moved right into her personal space. It was a dangerous smile, seductive and irresistible, especially close up.

"Will you give me a chance to convince you?"

"John-"

He held up a hand. "I know. It can't interfere with work. We have to be discreet. I promise you, I won't push you." Elizabeth was unable to keep the disbelieving look off her face. "Hey, I can be patient when I put my mind to it!"

She laughed and couldn't help but notice his lips twitching in amusement and couldn't help thinking that John had very nice lips and why was she suddenly thinking about these things after five years of being around him all the time? Lunacy was contagious around this man.

Either that or she had been repressing on an Olympic level.

John looked her straight in the eye. "Just promise me you'll give me a chance. If you decide no, I'll let it go and never mention it again."

This was insane. John was turning her entire world – hell, galaxy – upside down and he'd done it in less than ten minutes. There were a lot reasons this was wrong and stupid and a very bad idea, but she couldn't articulate a single one.

"Please, Elizabeth."

He'd talked her into so many things over the years, more than he should have been able to, and she'd never been good at saying no to him. What was it about John Sheppard that made her forget all her training and skills and just tell the truth and damn the consequences? "Okay."

Maybe it had something to do with him trying to convince her to do things that they both knew she probably secretly really wanted to do anyway?

"Okay," he repeated breathlessly, his eyes on her mouth. He started to draw her towards him and she resisted. They were still out on the balcony, for heaven's sake. Someone was going to see them.

"John-"

"What?" he asked with deceptive innocence. "How can you make a decision if you don't know what's on the table?" He was teasing her and she started to smile in spite of herself before he kissed her again.

***

John trailed after Rodney, trying not to feel like an obedient puppy. Rodney was focused on energy readings and schematics as they wandered around an unexplored section of the city. Teyla was dealing with some Athosian business and Ronon was off-world with another team, so they were getting some recreational exploring in until the team reunited.

The room Rodney headed for didn't look like a lab, but too many innocuous-looking things in the Pegasus galaxy were capable of killing a lot of people, so John kept a wary eye on what Rodney was touching. Rodney poked, muttered, made some notes, and John just stood there and enjoyed the show for a bit. Rodney in his element was always fun to watch.

His radio crackled in his ear. "John, Rodney, how's it going?" He just managed to bite back a goofy smile at the sound of Elizabeth's voice. Like that wouldn't have been blatantly obvious.

"Nothing noteworthy so far," Rodney answered, distracted. "You'll be the first to know if we find anything. Like a ZPM factory."

"We can only dream," Elizabeth said wryly. "John, I'll see you for that dinner meeting?"

"Wouldn't miss it," he replied easily. He was pretty proud of himself for not letting his eagerness to surface in his voice. In the last six weeks, his life had taken a significant turn for the better, mostly because of Elizabeth.

He would never forget that moment on the balcony when she pulled away from him after that first kiss. Every other rejection in his life paled in comparison. He was half-seriously thinking of just jumping off the balcony before she started stammering and blushing and he realized that despite her protests, Elizabeth kept looking at his mouth. Like she really wanted him to kiss her again.

He had always been a bit stupid about women. They were unpredictable and didn't follow any logical pattern he could discern, as least not about things like sex. But he had been enormously dumb not to realize that she would be upset and confused. He'd been thinking about it for months, but that didn't mean she had. He should've expected that reaction.

He'd also been a fool not to expect that Elizabeth would need convincing on this. Even if she had immediately confessed to feeling the same way, her sense of duty was incredibly strong.

But then, he was having a lot of fun being persuasive. He could be downright dogged when he had a goal in sight and this was a nice change from hunting down Wraith. His persistence was paying off. Elizabeth's guard was starting to go down, at least in private, which just made things even more fun. Like when he discovered how sensitive her ears were, or how he'd practiced until he could find the tense spot in her shoulders right away and when he worked the knot out Elizabeth would moan a little with relief and he probably shouldn't be thinking about that right now.

They hadn't slept together. Yet. This was the longest he'd gone dating a woman without having sex in his entire adult life. It wasn't for lack of interest, on either of their parts, but John had gut-level conviction that it had to be Elizabeth's idea. She had to make the choice to go across that line and he'd promised he wouldn't push her so he wasn't. It was taking all of his willpower, but he wasn't. It was sorely tempting to use every trick he knew, all his understanding of Elizabeth's personality and the knowledge he'd gleaned so far about her body and how she liked to be touched, to seduce her.

He'd held back from doing that, but at the same time, he was sure Elizabeth had no doubt that he wanted her. But he'd wait for her to choose. Even if it killed him.

"So," Rodney said, cutting into his less-than-professional thoughts. "You're having dinner with Elizabeth again."

John narrowed his eyes. "We're meeting and having dinner at the same time, yes." Supposedly, Elizabeth was showing him some of the more administrative tasks involved in running the city, to take some responsibilities off her hands. That was the excuse they'd made up. John wasn't sure how well it was working, though, given that these meetings never occurred in her office or his office or any place where they were likely to be seen.

Rodney rolled his eyes a little and fixed him with a look. "Just for the record, you understand what'll happen to you if you screw this up?"

John tried to keep his poker face, but honestly, Rodney knew him and Elizabeth far too well. If anyone was going to figure out what was going on, it would be Rodney. For form's sake, he said sternly, "There's nothing going on," and then added more quietly, "but if there was, and I did screw it up, I'd let you take the first swing at me."

Rodney snorted. "Please, like I'd resort to anything so banal. Ronon could handle that. I would be far more... creative."

John paled. Rodney's smirk would've done Dr. Evil proud, and the mere thought of all Rodney's considerable brain power getting "creative" on a revenge quest was genuinely frightening.

***

Teyla nodded in greeting as John walked through the mess carrying two cups of coffee. He nodded back with a grin but kept walking, no doubt headed for the control room. She allowed herself to smile once he was gone.

Colonel Sheppard was now openly courting Dr. Weir. She doubted he would use that exact word but it was accurate. In the months since Elizabeth's brief abduction, when John had nearly risked the entire city to recover her, he and Elizabeth had been spending a great deal more time together. Outside of their responsibilities, he was constantly inviting her to dinner, cajoling her into going to the mainland with him, or simply spending the evening with her in private.

Teyla suspected that Elizabeth would be embarrassed to know just how closely everyone was following the progress of her relationship with John. The burgeoning romance didn't seem to be causing any problems. Most of the people Teyla had heard speaking about it were rooting for them. A good half of the city's residents had been startled to learn that their two leaders were not already romantically involved.

She had acted swiftly to quell the rumors that she had herself rejected John and that had sent him "chasing" after Elizabeth. It was an unpleasant side effect of John's behavior after his near-death. Teyla couldn't control what people thought, but she did her best to stop the story from spreading.

He'd been panicking in those weeks after his recovery. She'd seen it in his face, in his behavior towards everyone around him. Something had frightened him badly. She'd assumed it was his close brush with a very lonely death, but now Teyla suspected that something about the experience had caused him to realize his feelings for Elizabeth.

She felt slightly envious of them. It had been a long time since she'd felt that kind of deep attachment to someone, but Teyla remembered the overwhelming sensation of realizing that another person had become deeply interwoven into your life. That you wanted to be with them all the time, that your own life was inconsequential without them.

When you fell for someone, sometimes you lost yourself in the falling.

John had panicked and been looking for some kind of safety. She'd known it at the time, and stopped it before he could do something that would damage them both. She just hadn't understood why until now.

She fervently hoped that his behavior wouldn't cause problems between him and Elizabeth. And that he could convince Elizabeth that what was between them would only strengthen the city. If Teyla had been in Elizabeth's shoes, the welfare of their people would've been her primary concern.

Then again, Teyla didn't think Elizabeth had ever looked so happy and relaxed since they had arrived in Atlantis. She and John both looked like they'd lost ten years, making it blindingly obvious to anyone that something was going on. They both deserved that happiness. It wasn't something to be taken lightly

John Sheppard could be an incredibly stubborn, determined man, and Teyla didn't really doubt he would succeed.

***

If any other two people of their respective ages and positions in life were to spend an evening "watching a movie," Elizabeth had a feeling they would actually watch a movie.

Instead, she was nearly horizontal against the couch cushions. John's hand was under her shirt, and they were making out like teenagers. It wasn't only his fault they were entangled like this, though. She couldn't seem to stop running her fingers through his hair and dragging her nails along his scalp in a way that made him simultaneously moan and kiss her even harder.

She had lost track of time, but the movie hadn't been all that interesting anyway.

She pulled her mouth away to breathe. John ducked his head and teased her with light kisses along her neck that made her want to melt.

She could feel his erection against her leg. It had been a long time since she'd been in this situation, feeling this kind of power over a man. All she would have to do was say a few words, and he would probably gladly strip both of them of their clothes and take her right here on the couch.

She shivered, from the thought of his hands running all over her bare body and from what he was doing to her earlobe with his teeth. Then she chuckled.

John propped himself up with his other arm to look at her. "What?"

She grinned at him. "I feel like I'm 16 years old and making out with my boyfriend on the couch. I'm half-expecting my father to walk in at any moment."

John smiled back. His hair was a complete mess from her fingers, and he looked ridiculously adorable like this. "Well, Rodney might walk in." He paused and then pretended to look shocked. "Wait a minute, you were making out with guys at 16? I didn't even get to second base with a girl until I was 17!"

Elizabeth rolled her eyes and poked his socks with her bare foot. "Right. I can't picture you having problems getting girls."

He shrugged, playing with a curl of her hair. "The skinny, dorky kid with the weird hair who never stuck around long enough for anyone to remember his name? Yeah I was really popular with the ladies." There was a hint of bitterness in his voice, and Elizabeth's heart ached a little. She forgot sometimes that John's charming persona wasn't his entire personality. She brushed her fingers against his earlobe and he shuddered. "I figured you for the bookworm, straight-A student type," he said, a question in his eyes.

She chuckled. "I was. I was also a band geek and in the drama club."

"Ah. I've heard about those band camps."

"It's all true."

The hand under her shirt began to tease again and her eyes rolled back, her body moving into his touch without thought. This felt so good. Way better than being 16 and nervous and having no idea what to do or what to expect.

Like he was reading her mind, John murmured, "There's a big difference between being 16 and being us, you know."

Elizabeth opened her eyes and pointedly glanced at his crotch. John laughed. "Besides that," he smirked. He shifted them both so that she was more or less on her back underneath him.

"What?"

He looked down at her, eyebrows raised innocently. "No parents."

He kissed her as she started to giggle and her amusement faded rapidly. The passion in his kisses was hard to resist. John had kept his promise not to push her on this, but he had also not held back from letting her know exactly what he wanted.

Most of the time she could look at him and talk to him as they went through their routines during the day and feel like absolutely nothing had changed between them. Moments like that made her wonder if this wasn't all just a diversion, borne of loneliness or boredom.

Then he would casually touch her, or she would bump into him. Hands brushing hands as they walked next to each other, an arm briefly pressed against her back. And her body would warm in a very different way. If she looked up at him in those moments, Elizabeth knew she would see her own feelings mirrored in his face. His eyes would get darker and the heat in them would be almost palpable, but still make her shiver.

They were only moments. One of them would breathe or blink and it would pass and they would go on as if nothing had happened. But she felt almost inexorably drawn towards him, a deepening of the connection between them that was somehow simultaneously exciting and comforting.

She worried about becoming too connected to him, that it would affect her judgment or his, that it would cause problems when they fought at work. Though the truth was her feelings about him had gotten more complicated a long time ago. She'd already learned how to handle that problem and not let it affect her decisions to the best of her ability.

She'd resisted his attempts at first, but even as she did, she hated seeing a hurt look in his eyes and knowing it was her fault. However, if she'd thought he'd give up because of it, she was an idiot, because John was one of the few people she'd ever met who was even more stubborn than she was.

And after a few weeks, a few major crises handled no worse than their usual standards, and the delicious comfort of having him there to massage her shoulders and kiss her at the end of a bad day, her worries and her will both began to crumble.

She had no desire to resist anymore.

Elizabeth got her hands on his shoulders and pushed until he pulled back reluctantly. She saw that same heat in his eyes now, mixed with regret that she was stopping this here.

John wanted her. He'd whispered – growled, actually – as much while they were stealing kisses out on the balcony a few nights ago, "I want to make love to you, Elizabeth." Not subtle, but it felt amazingly good just to hear him be so direct, so blunt.

She would have said yes that night, but an accident in one of the labs distracted them both.

She pushed harder and disentangled herself and got up from the couch. John rubbed his face with his hand and she could see him trying to hide his disappointment. His expression changed to confusion when she held out a hand. "We're not doing this for the first time on the couch," she said calmly.

She experienced a split second of nervousness, standing there with her hand out and waiting, before he bounced up eagerly. She had to laugh, even as he caught her around the waist and started kissing her again. He looked younger when he was like this, all goofy smiles and enthusiasm. It was a nice change.

They stumbled across her quarters to the bed and she managed to get her hands under his t-shirt and lift it off. She swallowed hard, looking at him. She'd seen him without clothes on before, but never been able to really look - to enjoy looking at him without having to hide it. Her hands slid over his arms and down his chest.

His hands slipped up her back, under her own shirt, and he pulled her closer, leaning his forehead against hers. "You're sure about this?"

While she appreciated the courtesy, she didn't want to have him keep interrupting the mood to ask her that all night. Elizabeth pulled her shirt over her head, gratified by the way his eyes ran over her body. She undid the clasp and shrugged her bra off her shoulders and she could have sworn John whimpered a little.

Giving him a shove, she pushed him down so that he was sitting on the edge of her bed. Then she straddled his lap. "I'm sure."

They kissed, hot and hungry, John crushing her in his arms so that their bodies were flush against each other. The warm press of skin against skin felt heavenly. "Elizabeth?"

"Mmm?"

His eyes were dancing with laughter. "You didn't go this far when you were 16, did you?"

***

John had just gotten back from his daily run when Elizabeth appeared at his door. She didn't come to his place all that often. For a variety of reasons, he was more comfortable spending the night and slipping away in the morning than she was. And since a good portion of what he enjoyed so much about being with her was waking up in the morning with Elizabeth next to him, they tended to spend most of their time together in her quarters.

At the moment, the real question was why she was here in the afternoon when he was pretty sure she had meetings all day.

"Hey. What-" He got no further. As soon as the doors closed completely behind her, Elizabeth grabbed him and kissed him fiercely. Coherent thought dribbled away, as it usually did when Elizabeth focused her energies entirely on him. His back bumping into the wall was the only way he knew she had been pushing him while her mouth devoured his.

Finally, when he was actually getting dizzy, Elizabeth dragged herself away. Her body was mashed up against his and her hips were moving in a now-familiar way against his thigh as they both gasped for air.

John had absolutely no objections to Elizabeth coming to his quarters and jumping him in the middle of the afternoon, but still. She'd never done anything like this before. He took a stab at an explanation. "Alien drugs?"

She shook her head. "Bad meeting." Her eyes were locked on his lips again and there was a slightly feral quality to her expression that brought his lower body to full attention. "Very long and bad, bad meeting."

Another hot, sloppy kiss and he could feel the tension thrumming through her. He'd stripped off his shirt in order to take a shower and her nails raked over his skin, making him shudder. "Just out of curiosity," he murmured as Elizabeth nuzzled his neck and then found that spot above his collarbone that made him crazy. He groaned, his hands landing on her ass and holding on tight as her tongue did some amazing things to his skin. "How did you exorcise the tension before you had me around?"

"That stress ball I keep in my desk drawer," she told him, pulling back enough to look at his face. "John..."

She trailed off, which was unusual. John guessed why she was there, but he needed to know for sure.

All right, mostly he wanted to hear her say it aloud.

"Tell me what you want, Elizabeth," he coaxed, using every bit of persuasive ability he had.

Her eyes flickered shut briefly, but then she looked directly at him and did it. Once upon a time, he would've been surprised Elizabeth would use that kind of language at all. He still was a little amazed that she'd use it with him, and as a request.

He pushed, suddenly, and spun them around so that Elizabeth was up against the wall and his body was flush against hers, pinning her there. He ran his hands up her sides, touching her face for a moment. "Next time," he told her in a low voice, "you won't have to ask."

Elizabeth grinned at him in anticipation. His hands went to the fastening of her pants even as he kissed her possessively.

***

Elizabeth was standing near the window in her quarters when John came in, stripping off his uniform jacket. He hadn't bothered to go to his own quarters and change first before coming over tonight. She was wearing one of his t-shirts underneath her sweater, having grabbed it when she got out of the shower because it was closer at hand than her own shirts.

That was when she had noticed that many of John's things had migrated into her space without her realizing just how much of his life had gotten mixed up in her quarters. And it wasn't just that he was leaving things here now, it was that she thought of his book, his toothbrush and razor, his clean clothes as having a particular place of their own where they belonged. In her quarters.

"Hey." He came up behind her and rested his chin on her shoulder, arms wrapping around her comfortably. "What's wrong?"

"What makes you think something's wrong?" she answered, taken slightly aback by his perception.

"You're staring out the window, which is what you do when you're pensive," he answered. He had always been good at understanding her moods. "So what is it?"

She sighed a little, leaning back into his hold. After a minute of silence, she spoke quietly. "Everyone knows about us, don't they?"

John tensed and then sighed himself. "Pretty much." His arms tightened almost involuntarily. "Elizabeth, we weren't going to be able to keep this secret forever."

"I know," she said, though for months now she'd been hoping for just a little more time. She wasn't quite sure why it had been so important to her. One by one people had found out and nothing terrible had happened. Though she suspected that John got teased a lot more than she did.

Which was why she was grateful he hadn't asked what brought this revelation on. She doubted John would take her short conversation with Stephen well. Especially since Stephen wasn't the first person to offer to do something terrible to John if he hurt her.

It baffled her why everyone seemed to forget there were two people in this relationship, and that her track record was just as bad as John's. She was just as capable of screwing this up.

With his usual facility for guessing her thoughts, John asked, "Has someone voiced an objection?" She could hear the anger beginning to swell up in him. She hurried to head off further questions.

"No. Not to me, anyway." She rubbed a hand up and down his forearm soothingly. "I just hate being the subject of gossip."

"I hate to break this to you, sweetheart, but people have been gossiping about you and me since Antarctica."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

John nuzzled her neck for a minute before asking, "So, what do we do now?"

With deliberate casualness, she said, "I was thinking maybe you should move in here."

John froze and she turned in his arms, a small smile playing across her face. He was looking at her in shock. "You mean it?"

"John, half of your possessions are here already. And if everyone in the city knows then it's pointless to keep up the pretext. It's the logical thing to do."

He seemed to be trying to gather himself. "You're asking me to move in with you."

She narrowed her eyes. "Yes, I'm aware of that. I am the one doing the asking here."

He just kept looking at her dazedly. Elizabeth stretched up and brushed her lips against his. "I love you," she told him, her voice low. "I'm tired of pretending and I don't want to spend any more nights apart than we have to. I want you to be here, John."

He grabbed her suddenly, lifting her up into his arms and squeezing her in a hug so tight she yelped a little. Then he kissed her, that same slow, sweet, addictive kiss they'd shared out on the balcony seven months ago. It amazed her that it had only been seven months. How had they not done this for five years? How had she gotten through the day without having him waiting for her like this at the end of it for so long?

Instead of putting her back on her feet, John carried her the few steps to the bed. He laid her down gently and murmured against her lips in between kisses, "Love you."

No matter how many times he said it, it still made Elizabeth shiver. The first time he'd whispered those words to her, both of them half-asleep, she'd felt that warm, almost painfully sweet ache through her entire body.

That ache was the reason why, despite arguments and stress and their occasionally conflicting personalities, this thing between them worked so well. Why they managed to work through any problems that came their way instead of giving up. Now that Elizabeth had admitted to herself and to John how much she needed him, no power in the universe was going to take him away from her.

She kissed him back, drawing him down to the bed – their bed – in response.

***

John woke up in the middle of the night and dragged himself to the bathroom with a soft groan. He used to be able to fall into bed and not move for hours, but these days, his bladder or the ache in his bad knee would wake him up. Tonight it was his bladder and the nasty bruises on his ribs. And his knee.

He made a face in the dark. Getting old sucked.

He slid back into their bed carefully, not wanting to wake Elizabeth. They'd had a hard couple of days and she needed to sleep. He was pissed that his plans for tonight had been disrupted. One more thing to hang around the necks of the Wraith.

Elizabeth hadn't remembered the date, although to be fair, she'd been a little preoccupied with keeping the city from sinking. Still, his pride was a little hurt. The one-year anniversary of the first time they made love should have been worth making a mental note.

He curled up against her in the bed. At least he'd given her another reason to remember today. His hand wrapped around hers and he felt the strange coolness of the new ring around her finger. She wouldn't be able to wear it everyday, of course, but he was glad she had kept it on when they went to bed.

It was supposed to be a traditional proposal over dinner with nice music and candles and the whole works. Instead they were both filthy and exhausted and she wandered out onto the balcony in spite of the light rain. He followed her and decided he didn't want to risk another crisis arriving that might postpone his question or make him lose his nerve.

Some part of him was still awed that Elizabeth had allowed him into her bed and her heart. He didn't think that feeling would ever go away, and he didn't really want it to, either.

He hadn't had the ring with him, but that had given him an excuse to drag her back here to their quarters instead of her getting caught in some post-battle paperwork and falling asleep at her desk again. They spent their short evening far more pleasurably, before both of them were too tired to do anything but sleep.

The powers that be back on Earth would squawk. They'd been grumbling since news of their relationship had drifted back there, but no one had actually done anything yet. Once they were officially married, it would be a lot harder for the military to separate them.

And if they didn't like it, they could go to hell.

He knew it was supposed to feel like a big step, but it didn't. He closed his eyes and breathed in Elizabeth's scent as he fell asleep, thinking that this - being in Atlantis and being with her - was the most logical thing he'd ever done.