Spoilers: “Lifeline.” General spoilers for seasons 4/5.
Summary: “They would know that no matter what, you’d come for her.”
Bingo 2012 prompt: Idealistic
Author's Note: Beta help from the eponymous queen of angst'n'romance anr.
In another life, they meet in a bar. He’s on leave or stationed stateside, she’s a visiting professor, and it doesn’t matter who either of them came in with because as soon as he sees her, she’s the only person in the room.
She drinks a Tuscan wine; he drinks domestic beer on tap. He does something to impress her: a bar trick with matches, guessing her alma mater, something terrestrial and ordinary. She regales him with the story of that wild adventure she had looking for an old church in Turkey with some Irish tourists she met on a train. John only checks the time when the bartender starts turning off lights.
Outside it’s cold, maybe snowing, and her breath forms into clouds when she asks him to leave his car and whatever plans he may have had for the night to walk her home.
In that life, when Elizabeth invites him to come with her, he doesn’t have to flip a coin.
She lives in an apartment or a house or a brownstone, something full of books and dog toys and foreign treasures that each have a story. John kisses her while her keys are still in the lock, her front door open, because he can’t wait.
He gets used to her in the other half of his bed. She sleeps soundly without the world on her shoulders, and when he starts awake thinking he’s still in a desert war zone, he can listen to her breathe, calm and even.
He buys a pricey bottle of wine from the year they met and tells her he’s saving it for a special occasion. They talk about marriage, maybe even kids, after his next tour’s done. He thinks about hanging up his wings for good, because there are hundreds of pilots who can patrol Afghan airspace and he’s nothing special, except to her.
He tells her he loves her. He starts small, bits of emotional honesty scattered between the rest of their daily lives, but he starts.
The closest they ever get to outer space is when they have picnics near the planetarium in Rock Creek park.
Neither of them ever hear of Replicators.
“Colonel, McKay’s almost ready down here. He didn’t leave much room to sit down.” Lorne. “And Woolsey wants to talk to you.”
John takes one last look at the empty room that used to be hers and heads for the jumper bay.
It doesn’t matter what Woolsey is going to say, because John’s decision was made as soon as they got the message. He knows his people – her people – well enough to be sure he won’t be going alone, no matter how bad an idea it is to waltz into an Asuran stronghold based on nothing but two words and a Stargate address.
Woolsey’s waiting for him outside the jumper bay. “Teyla already told me I’m not going to stop you, but.”
John nods. He won’t change his mind, but he’ll listen.
“She knows you. Which means they know you.”
The message was for him. Only him. Toscano 2004 would be gibberish to most of the expedition members, let alone anyone else from the Pegasus Galaxy. Only Elizabeth knew John was letting a good bottle of Italian wine collect dust as a promise:
One day, they’d toast the really big win. Just the two of them.
She couldn’t know he already drank it, after the third time he found and lost an artificial woman made in her image, when he gave up on victory and he and Ronon just needed one more bottle for a long damn night.
Woolsey’s frown deepens. “Regret is a powerful motivator. They would know that no matter what, you’d come for her.”
Regret. John wonders exactly how much Teyla told him.
“This is the last time,” John swears. “If it’s not her...”
There’s not much to promise, though. If he was ever going to give up, he already would have. He did, again and again, and yet here he is.
“Then let’s hope it’s her.” Woolsey swipes his hand over the door sensor, revealing the jumper bay with all the usual suspects inside. “Good luck.”
Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney are in one jumper and Lorne’s team is in a second, all squeezed in with most of McKay’s nanotech lab.
He lays down the ground rule. “We’re not leaving her there again.”
“You’re going to bring her back,” Lorne says, then indicates John’s volunteer crew. “We’re here to bring you back.”
He’d order them to stay here if he thought they’d give a damn.
Elizabeth didn’t call for the cavalry; she called for him. Maybe she’s been protecting them all this time, knowing they would try to rescue her no matter the danger. To break two years of silence now, she must be desperate.
Minimize the risk. One person. The only one she’d trust.
She tried to make him promise once, after she was first infected. “If they get me again, if there are no other options...”
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. He wanted to pull her fears to his chest and hold on, let them drown out his own. “We’re both getting out of here alive, Elizabeth. I bought a bottle of wine...”
If there are no other options, she expects him to kill her.
Like Woolsey said: she knew he’d come, no matter what.
There’s another way it could have happened.
They come to Atlantis, but they’re both different. Maybe Sumner lives. Maybe they never make contact again with Earth, or the Wraith are less of a threat, or John says to hell with it after the first or second or fifth time she almost dies and he spreads his heart out in front of her, lets her pick and choose the pieces she can accept.
They don’t flaunt it. They’re still private people, still responsible with appearances, but there’s a tilt of her head when she sees him across the control tower, and when she says, “Come back safe,” he knows she means “to me.”
When they meet the Asurans, he doesn’t let them touch her.
There’s no Asuran greeting party on the other side of the Stargate, and they soon find out why: the outpost is in ruins.
Rodney shoves his way to the front of the jumper to look out the window at the flattened structures and scorched earth. “Are we too late?”
Lorne takes his jumper left; John goes right. From what John can tell, the outpost’s landing bays are all empty. If the Asurans fled into space instead of through the Stargate, they won’t have gone far.
“Colonel,” Teyla says, sitting bolt upright in the co-pilot’s chair, “There are Wraith here.”
“I see at least one crashed dart in the rubble,” Lorne reports, “but the pattern of damage looks like a fail-safe. They wiped out their key systems to prevent enemy access.”
John gets new readings, far from both the dart and the landing bays. “There’s something alive in there.”
Ronon suggests, “The Wraith,” and he’s probably right. The readings are faint, suggesting hibernation.
“Lorne, check out the dart, see if there’s a body. We’re going after the sensor readings. Watch your back.”
Teyla touches John’s shoulder as he’s clipping weapons to his vest for whoever they might encounter – P-90 for Wraith, ARG for Asuran. “She could still be here.”
Hot anger sears through him as he shakes her off. He doesn’t need to be coddled. “We have a job to do.”
He can’t bear the weight of anyone else’s hope on top of his own.
Another option: he never falls for her.
They work side by side for years. He’s loyal, she’s kind, but that’s where it ends.
Maybe she’s not available, if that doctor ex-boyfriend of hers bought a clue and followed her to Atlantis when she asked. Maybe John finds someone else, someone who doesn’t share his command, a simpler woman who can touch him without getting under his skin.
He never looks at Elizabeth and hopes that someday, if they live through this galaxy, he’ll be hers.
It doesn’t seem like any of this could make a difference, could keep her safe and alive and fully human, but maybe it would have been enough.
Lorne finds two other crashed darts besides the first, but no bodies.
John’s team finds Elizabeth embedded in a wall.
The sight slams into him with such force that he can’t move while Rodney examines her. He should be used to it, to people and things wearing her face after the Asurans made copies, but he can’t even hear over the blood in his ears.
She’s frozen except for a slow pulse visible in her neck, and when Rodney holds a pocket mirror up to her mouth, it fogs. Her face is twisted with pain that she might have felt last week or two years ago, for all John knows.
John’s surroundings come rushing back in when Lorne and Hammel, his science expert, arrive behind him. “Jesus,” Lorne says, “Is that really–?”
Yes, John wants to say. She found a way to send him a message. She knew about the wine. If she were a copy, the Asurans would have no need to hold her like this. They could disassemble her brick by brick, torture her in pieces.
They can never be sure, though, not without killing her.
“Problem,” Rodney says, and points at Elizabeth, or whoever she is. “She’s alive, but she’s not the life sign reading we got from the ship. It’s too faint to be read outside this room.”
John checks his handheld scanner. One dot is moving toward them and two more are blinking on at the edge of sensor range. Wraith.
John says, “Can you get her out of there?”
Hammel shakes her head. “Not quickly.”
“We’ll need equipment from the jumpers,” Rodney says. “We have to build some kind of micro-ARG to sever the bonds between the nanites in the wall. We’re talking molecular electronic surgery, and we can’t even detect her vitals without medical–”
“We don’t have time,” Ronon says. “Hunt down the Wraith first and come back for her.”
Lorne argues, “If the Wraith got off a distress signal, more will be coming.”
John’s heart is pounding, the old promise he refused to make drowning out everything else. His hand tenses around the ARG strapped to his vest. “Shoot her.”
Rodney gapes, first at the Replicator-disintegrating weapon, then at him. “Are you crazy? Even when she was mostly human, the nanites–”
“–were the only thing keeping her alive. I know, Rodney!”
Understanding crosses Rodney’s face, and he takes a shaky step back.
“Colonel,” Teyla says, warning, her weapon pointed in the direction where the Wraith will come.
They’re out of time.
John forces himself to look at Elizabeth’s face. The ARG, when he lifts it, feels like it weighs a hundred pounds.
He isn’t sure he’ll be able to pull the trigger until he does.
There are three things he never told her:
“Thank you,” for bringing him here.
“I’m sorry,” because he didn’t mean to, but he woke the Wraith.
Without her, the third one doesn’t matter.
The wall melts in a shower of replicator pieces, but Elizabeth doesn’t.
Her body falls to the ground with a boneless thud. She’s wearing part of the uniform John last saw her in, just a red t-shirt and underwear, and grief stabs through his chest like he’s been impaled.
Rodney fumbles with his scanner. “She’s still alive!”
Hammel crouches over her, keeping a foot of air between them like the nanites left in Elizabeth’s body might leap up and grab her. “Sir, she’s not breathing.”
John drops his gun to his side and moves toward her without thinking, ready to pound her chest and breathe air into her lungs and somehow–
Rodney yells “Stop!” just before he reaches her. “She’s still–”
They can’t do CPR if they can’t touch her, and John has no idea if air compression will even help when he might have disintegrated half her nervous system. No matter what else is wrong with her, her body will shut down fast without oxygen. If she has any chance, she needs Keller.
“Go,” Lorne says, apparently reaching the same conclusion. He yanks open a zippered pocket in his vest and tosses John an emergency space blanket – the best they can do for haz-mat. “We’ll cover you.”
John can’t ask anyone else to take the risk. He covers her body without touching her directly, pulls her into his arms, and runs.
This isn’t the future he planned.
When he bought an 80 dollar bottle of wine in a Colorado liquor store, he imagined opening it on a balcony, letting it breathe in the warm ocean air while he and Elizabeth congratulated each other on the big win. She’d make an eloquent toast for just the two of them, we made it, together, we got our people through.
She would smile when they clinked glasses, that special look of hers that says she knows him bone by bone and keeps him by her side anyway. He’d finally get up the courage to close the polite distance of duty and fear between them, and he’d kiss the tannins from her tongue.
By the time they defeated the Wraith, he’d be ready.
The monitors all make their own sounds: heart, EEG, nanites. The ventilator is the loudest of all the equipment attached to her, and John finds himself breathing in time.
“How’s she doing?”
Keller is in full medical haz-mat, as is everyone else inside Elizabeth’s quarantined section of the Alpha Site field infirmary. “Some of the organic nanites survived the ARG blast. They’re clustering in her nervous system, and seem to be building a secondary conduit for impulses between her brain and vital organs. Her heart’s beating, but everything else is... intermittent at best.”
He feels like he’s been here a hundred times, watching through plastic while nanites take Elizabeth apart. “What else are they doing to her?”
Keller spreads her hands to illustrate a wild guess. “There’s no sign that they’re doing more damage or affecting her higher brain functions, but I’m not going to risk bringing her out of her coma until her vitals are more stable. Until then...”
At least she’s here, however much of her is left.
“You can sit with her if you want,” Keller offers. “She might appreciate it.”
John can’t look Keller in the eye. “You think she’d still know who I am?”
All she says is, “I’ll get you a suit.”
In real life, they meet in Antarctica. He’s a pilot, she’s a diplomat, and she invites him on the adventure of a lifetime.
For three years, they keep their people alive.
She stands by him like no one else he’s ever met. He works hard to become a better man, not just for himself, but for her.
She asks him three times over the years, when things are particularly dark and hopeless, if he thinks they’ll make it. John knows she never asks anyone else.
He always says yes.
John has never been good at being useless. He counts her mechanical breaths up to seventy before he loses track, then starts over. He studies her face, thin and jaundiced after two years without sun. She was light when he carried her to the jumper, even as dead weight. When Keller makes her report by radio to Woolsey in Atlantis, Elizabeth’s list of symptoms sounds insurmountable.
The first time nanites put her in a coma, he talked to her, but this time there’s too much to say. Their city is on a different planet. Teyla has a child. For two years, other people have done Elizabeth’s job, and life went on for everyone except her.
He’s dozing off in a chair next to her bed when something changes, the beeps of one of the monitors or the rhythm of the ventilator, and when he looks up, her eyes are open.
“Doctor,” he calls, and then, “Elizabeth, can you hear me?”
There’s no response, not even a blink. Keller is next to him in seconds, checking monitors and flashing a penlight in Elizabeth’s eyes.
“I don’t think she can move,” she tells him. “I’m reading increased brain activity, but until – unless – the nanites repair more of her nervous system, she won’t have any independent muscle control.”
John nods. Increased brain activity sounds like a good thing. “Is she awake?”
Elizabeth’s eyes move, and she’s looking right at him.
John sucks in air. For three years, no matter what happened to him off-world, when he got home he always looked for her, and she looked back.
He picks up her hand, cups it between his haz-mat gloves. “Hey,” he says, like he can convey everything he means with just one word. “I got your message.”
When he’s next on Earth, he buys another bottle of wine – and a corkscrew.
This time, when he brings it back home, they drink it together.