Mel's notes: My apologies for not responding to individual reviews – I will get to that eventually, but the combination of a nasty cold and some marathon Christmas shopping sapped me of most of my energy this week. For now, I'll just say thank you to everyone who's read. :)
In the next couple weeks, Daniel and Zelenka finished their lengthy translation and then started over again, having gleaned very, very little from it. The rest of Atlantis was consumed for several days with investigating the car bombing. It turned out that the Genii engineer had really known what he was doing, connecting one explosive to the ignition and putting another on a timer. They probably could have found both, but there was always the possibility that the second would blow before it could be disabled.
The public, of course, was given almost no information, except that the car had been rented from a place near Midway and that no one had been hurt in the blast. All this created a rather tense environment in Chicago and its suburbs. As baseball’s regular season drew to a close and the Cubs made it to the playoffs, the tourism bureau was suddenly joined in its concerns by groups across the country. Was the car bombing an isolated incident? Was it foreign terrorism? Would the city be able to protect the tourists who would make their way to Illinois to watch the Cubs play?
Of course, according what one could glean from local news, the biggest question was this: could the Cubs break the curse of the billy goat?
This curse, as John had explained it to Elizabeth, involved the Cubs at the World Series in the 1940s, and a man being denied entrance to the park because he wanted to bring in his pet goat. As if that weren’t enough to make the whole thing sound ridiculous, the man supposedly cursed the team, saying they’d never make it to the World Series again, let alone win it. The craziest part of all was that the curse had held true.
It wasn’t very often that the Cubs were even in the playoffs, so much of the Atlantis crew was crowded into a lounge at headquarters, watching as the team squeaked through one final game to make it into the World Series. After a couple of beers and a little post-victory euphoria, John had draped his arm on the sofa behind Elizabeth, something which she knew would never happen under any other circumstance. Jack kept looking at them oddly, when not busy getting Sam Carter tipsy. It was like he was waiting for Elizabeth to make a move in any direction.
In rare moments of personal honesty on the subject, she admitted to herself that she was tempted to.
Caldwell came into the room as Elizabeth was about to open her second bottle, but she quickly put that down as he began to speak. “Ladies, gentlemen,” he said, “I’m glad you’re all enjoying yourselves tonight, but I just got a call from Agent Barrett at the FBI’s Chicago office. They tapped a phone conversation between Kolya and one of his American business associates, and they’ve found out that he’ll be at a political fundraiser at Navy Pier at the end of the week. We have work to do.”
The party started to break up immediately, and Caldwell came up to Elizabeth and John and said, “Weir, can I have a word with you?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied, standing up and following him out of the room.
The halls were sporadically populated by partygoers heading back to their labs, so he led her to his office. “Weir,” he said, as soon as the doors had shut behind them, “I need to know if you can do this.”
Elizabeth blinked several times. “Why wouldn’t I?” she asked.
“I know you’re capable of doing this,” he replied. “I know you could probably take down the entire Genii organization by yourself. But I’m not convinced it’s a good idea for you to be involved.”
“Are you worried about me holding a grudge?” Elizabeth asked. “It’s been fifteen years.”
“And I saw the pictures, Elizabeth.” The use of her first name startled her, and she looked up at him to see some measure of compassion apparent on his face. “There were FBI agents involved in the rescue op. In their report, they sent back pictures of your injuries, and you having to be carried from the building.”
“I had a broken leg,” she offered, more weakly than she would have liked.
“I know,” he said. “And you went right back to work as soon as the doctors would let you. Most agents probably wouldn’t do that. I’m just worried about your motives.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Sir,” she said, “Kolya is a bad person. Someone has to deal with him.”
“And someone will. It doesn’t have to be you.” He shifted a file on his desk. “I can send Cadman and Lorne on this one. It’s just a simple recon.”
She shook her head. “They don’t have my experience with these people.”
“No one does,” Caldwell replied. “And I’d rather not have to have these people figure out how to spring you from a fortress in Belarus.”
“I’m not going to be alone, sir,” said Elizabeth. “Sheppard can keep me from doing anything stupid.”
“And all this time I thought it was the other way around.” Caldwell sighed and sat behind his desk. “Well, go on, start scheming.”
She smiled just a little. “Thank you, sir.”
As a native of the Chicago area, John knew parts of the city pretty well, and he’d always thought that Navy Pier would make for a good set in an action movie. There were all kinds of places to hide and shoot people, and there were long sections of corridor that would seem perfect for driving a car through, if one could get a car inside. Surely there was a loading dock around somewhere to facilitate that.
Among other things, there was on the premises an IMAX theatre, a Shakespeare theatre – currently performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and a ballroom called the Crystal Garden. Said ballroom was where the ridiculously overpriced fundraiser was being held.
Before they even got to the entrance of the ballroom, John spotted a huge Ferris wheel not far down the way, and he suggested that they spend their time on it while waiting for McKay to tell them that he’d spotted Kolya on the surveillance video, coming from cameras they’d planted. Elizabeth gave him a humoring smile and casually clasped his hand, leading him farther into the building rather than outside. He would have complained, except that it didn’t feel like Elizabeth had slipped into character just then.
She was dressed in deep red this time, a color that suited her well. She’d pulled her hair up like she had at the opera, but an errant curl had tumbled down just in front of her ear, and she hadn’t bothered to fix it. This time she hadn’t asked for his assistance to zip up her gown, and he was rather glad about that. She looked completely natural in this setting, with her strapless gown and glittering jewelry and glossy red lipstick and he really needed to stop looking at her mouth.
He shook his head as though to clear the thought from his mind. “What is it?” Elizabeth suddenly asked.
He cast about to find an excuse. “You didn’t tell me this was a Democratic fundraiser,” he replied. “Now I feel dirty.”
“Like you really care about politics,” she said, a smile on her lips.
“I do,” said John. “I don’t want either party in power.”
By then, they’d reached an usher, and John produced their hastily procured tickets to the event. They were Colonel and Mrs. Campbell this time, names culled from a book, if Elizabeth held true to her usual pattern. Then the usher led them to their table, and John took a good look around the place.
There weren’t as many exits as he would have liked, but at least he and the rest of the team would be able to see things going on outside the ballroom, as they were surrounded by glass walls. The random palm trees were a bit of an annoyance, as were the leapfrog fountains that dotted the area, but for the most part, John’s route to any of the exits was relatively clear.
“This won’t work like a dome, right?” he asked of Elizabeth, gesturing to the arched ceiling that had to be at least forty or fifty feet high. Twinkle lights were suspended from it.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Someone standing across the room won’t be able to hear me whispering?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I wouldn’t think so.”
Just then a third person arrived at the table – none other than Malcolm Barrett. The plan tonight was for the three of them to do this operation together, but they’d brought in ample help anyway. Lorne and Cadman were on the other side of the ballroom; Jack O’Neill and Jonas Quinn were wandering around too. The place was peppered with Atlantis personnel. Then another man, an imposing, dark-haired figure who looked quite awkward in his tuxedo came up to the table. “Malcolm Ryan,” Dave Dixon said to Barrett, “good to see you, man.”
Barrett stood up and clapped Dixon on the back. “James, good of you to come. Where’ve you been all this time?”
“Don’t ever have kids,” he replied. The two men laughed.
“Hey, let me introduce you to these two,” said Barrett. He was fallilng into this secret agent business rather easily. “Colonel John Campbell and his wife, Beth. John, Beth, this is an old buddy of mine, James Cobb.”
“Team, this is Citrus Peel,” said the voice of Rodney McKay through John’s earpiece. “We’re in position. The target has not yet arrived.”
“Scratch that,” said Cadman’s voice. John looked in her direction; to any outside observer, she appeared to be chatting with Lorne. “He’s just come in.”
“I. . . can confirm that,” McKay replied. “He’s on the north side of the ballroom.”
“Check that,” John said, seeing Kolya and a pretty girl with curly hair ambling over to a table. “Do we have positive IDs on anyone else who was at the opera ball?”
“The girl with the reddish hair was,” Jonas interjected, before McKay could respond. “She was with Ladon at the opera event.”
“The computer’s recognizing a few of these guys. The girl too,” McKay replied. “We don’t have enough intel, though, to actually identify anyone but her, Kolya, and Ladon–”
“Citrus Peel,” Jack interrupted over the radio, still standing across the room with Jonas. “What do we do next?”
“Wires already disabled his car. He’s not getting anywhere,” said McKay. “We wait till he tries to leave, and we take him in the parking garage.”
“What’s this ‘we’ business? I don’t see him here to help,” John said, mostly in Elizabeth’s direction. She laughed.
“Farmboy, Sparky, I heard that,” McKay said. “You’re going on my list.”
And on that note, the waiting commenced.
John had never had a very strong interest in politics, and this sealed it for him. This fundraiser was even worse than sitting through that opera a couple weeks back. As the dinner wore on, he was having a very strong urge never to vote again. Even Elizabeth, who was much more interested in politics than he, seemed bored out of her skull. It was really no surprise when she excused herself from the table.
He watched her go, surprised at how naturally she blended into this setting. The only thing that seemed to set her apart from the hundreds of other women in the room was how toned her arms were. Well, John was fairly certain that she was in better shape than any other woman and most of the men in the room, but in that dress, her arms were the most obvious evidence of it.
He turned his attention back to his champagne and tried to get the afterimage of her out of his mind. Then at Kolya’s table, he saw the pretty girl who’d come in with Kolya rise and head for the same door Elizabeth had just exited. “Citrus Peel,” John said, straightening up.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I see her,” said McKay.
“Should someone follow her?” Jonas asked.
“Citrus Peel, this is Sparky,” said Elizabeth. “Care to tell me what’s going on?”
“The girl who was with Kolya is coming in your direction,” McKay replied, “and I don’t have video outside the ballroom.”
“Well,” John remarked to his companions, “that doesn’t bode well.”
Elizabeth barely had time to get her hands dry before the door to the restroom opened and the girl walked in. She was decidedly beautiful, with a kind of face that probably made most people think she was very naïve. And, as Elizabeth realized with a mental wince, she couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old when Elizabeth first made contact with the Genii.
“Agent Weir,” the young woman said, in perfectly crisp English.
Elizabeth decided to play it safe, making a confused face while McKay was panicking in her earpiece. “I’m sorry,” she replied. “Are you looking for someone?”
The girl nodded. “You. I’ve been looking for you for some time.” She tucked a wisp of curly hair behind her ear. “My name is Sora Tyrus. I work for the Genii.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what–”
“Agent Weir, please,” Sora interrupted. “You were in the Hilton ballroom on the night of the Lyric’s premiere. You were called out by an FBI agent, who’d gotten a tip saying that Kolya wasn’t going to be there. That tip saved you from being taken hostage when you and your men were severely outnumbered.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “That was you?” she asked.
Sora nodded. “Yes.” She took a deep breath. “I know you have no reason to trust me, but will you come with me? I need to talk with you in a more secure location, and I think you’re the only one who will trust me that far.”
And as Elizabeth complied and followed her out of the restroom, she had about a dozen people in her earpiece confirming Sora’s suspicion.
John was up and leaving the ballroom before Elizabeth had even gotten to the point where she was agreeing to go with the Genii agent. He might have been able to cut her off with McKay’s directions through the back corridors if he hadn’t been practically accosted by the people at the coat check, who insisted on him taking his overcoat. It was just as well, he supposed, as it was pretty chilly outside the ballroom. There were probably doors open somewhere that were creating a wind tunnel or something.
“Elizabeth, where are you?” he asked, frustrated.
“Where are we going?” came Elizabeth’s voice in his ear. “We’re way outside the range of the security team here for the fundraiser.”
“Damn it,” John whispered to the air.
“I told you, we’re going somewhere we can talk.”
“Sora. . .”
He heard the sound of a door scraping against concrete, and he felt fairly certain that she’d just entered one of the underground parking areas. And that was when he heard her curse in Russian.
There was no way this could be good.
On the other side of the door were two large and heavily-armed men, and a word slipped out of Elizabeth’s mouth that would have made her Russian grandmother blush. Fortunately, none of those around her seemed to understand what she’d said.
For half a moment, she thought Sora looked surprised, but that was quickly masked. “Take her back to the car,” the girl ordered. Elizabeth shot her a look that she hoped was more angry than betrayed, but Sora didn’t look at her again as the two men grabbed her arms and dragged her off.
“What are you trying to get out of this?” Elizabeth asked. “What good am I to you?”
“Everyone among us knows who you are, Elizabeth Weir, and what you did,” Sora replied, her voice strangely cold. “Kolya will want to deal with you personally.”
This time, John was the one swearing in Russian.
“Citrus Peel,” John was saying, heading back down the deserted corridor to the ballroom. “Citrus Peel, I need everyone out here now.”
It seemed that some had already gotten the idea. O’Neill and Quinn were out in the hallway before the words had gotten out of John’s mouth. Lorne and Cadman weren’t far behind. “What’s going on?” Jack demanded.
“It was a set-up,” said John, as Dixon, Barrett, and the other agents who’d come on this mission crowded around. “I think the Genii girl led her to the parking garage. It’s not too far from where we–”
“Wait, wait, wait, just hang on a second,” McKay said into the radio. “Kolya’s car is disabled. They can’t leave.”
John resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Sparky, this is Farmboy. Can you give us any indication of where they’re taking you?”
There was a pregnant pause, and then Elizabeth said, “That’s a very nice Mercedes we’re passing.” That was followed by a thud. She’d probably been hit for speaking.
“Damn it,” John said, for the second time in a couple minutes. “They’re taking her to a different car.”
“Could have seen that coming,” said Dixon. When John turned a glare on him, he raised his hands defensively. “Hey, we didn’t know how many thugs he was bringing, so it’s not like we could have gotten to every single car in the lot.”
For a moment, the mental image of Genii soldiers spilling out of a Mercedes like so many clowns from a Volkswagen was enough to make John want to laugh out loud. Elizabeth must have been rubbing off on him – that was the kind of remark she would have made in the situation. “All right,” he said, rubbing his temples, “how do we get her out of this?”
“We could try a Bloody Mary,” Dixon suggested.
“I don’t think we could dress Cadman up as a hooker fast enough for that one,” Lorne replied. Then, at the glare he got from his partner, he added, “And, uh, I’d never suggest that we try.”
“Mona Lisa?” said McKay.
“Not unless you can get a map of the ventilation system, Citrus Peel,” Jonas said. “Hey, what about a Crouching Tiger?”
“Do we have a sharpshooter here?” Jack asked.
Everyone else raised a hand. “Okay, we might be able to pull this off,” John said. “Who wants to be our tiger?”
Radek Zelenka was running toward the surveillance room, and nearly knocked Daniel Jackson over when they came around the same corner at dangerous speeds. In fact, he probably would have had it not been for the geneticist whom Daniel knocked over instead. “Sorry!” the linguist called, jogging backwards for half a second.
He and Radek slowed to a reasonable walking pace when they neared the surveillance room. “Rodney?” the Czech said. “You needed us for something?”
“We’ve got a problem,” said Rodney. “Sparky’s been captured by the Genii. We don’t know how big a force it is or what they want from her. I need you two to translate whatever it is they’re saying to her.”
“They haven’t taken her microphone?” Daniel asked.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think they’ve looked for it,” Rodney replied. “I know they haven’t had time to do that kind of search.” He held headsets out to them. “Start translating.”
A Crouching Tiger, as John understood it (he’d never before been involved in one), worked thusly: a sharpshooter would position himself some distance from the target, usually crouched behind something large like a car, and fire at the target. Said target would be incapacitated in some measure, allowing the captive to escape. Usually, that worked better if the captive knew it was coming. Fortunately, in this case, she did.
Marcus Lorne had drawn the short straw, and thus had taken the role of tiger in this game. John would have liked to have done it himself – he trusted his own aim more than anyone’s save Elizabeth’s – but instead he was waiting at one of the exits from the parking garage, the one she was most likely to take, with any luck, when she made a run for it. Granted, their luck in Operation Take Down Bad Guy With Weird Name had a pattern to it, and it hadn’t been good.
In reality, the whole thing went down only seconds after he got into position, but it seemed like it took so much longer. At that point he was only grateful that Elizabeth’s microphone hadn’t been found yet. He could still hear her breathing pattern over the radio, so he knew she was still all right. Small blessings, he supposed.
“The girl’s in the driver’s seat,” Lorne was saying over the radio. “I’m taking the men now.”
Then two shots rang out in quick succession, and John heard a loud thud in his earpiece. His eyes widened, and he heard a woman gasp.
Marcus Lorne had decided on shielding himself behind a silver SUV, a car so common in the parking garage at this point that no one would be paying special attention to it. He had a clear shot from there to where the two Genii soldiers were trying to stuff Agent Weir into a car. He wanted his sniper rifle, though. Too bad they never could have gotten that past the fundraiser’s security.
One of the men opened the back door of the car, and Marcus focused, trying to drown out the chatter filtering in through his earpiece. He fired at the first man, took aim again, and fired at the second before the Genii man could turn in his direction.
The first Genii man hit the ground, but something was terribly, terribly wrong. The other was reaching for his own gun as Weir hit the car. Even from this distance, he could see the blood bubbling from her arm.
He’d shot Elizabeth. Sheppard was going to kill him.
By the time Elizabeth registered that she’d been shot, she had fallen onto the trunk of the car, having jerked free of her captors’ grasp. By the time she looked down at her arm and saw the blood oozing out of the wound, a third shot had been fired and hit its intended target, the other Genii thug.
She could hear John almost screaming at Lorne over the radio, and she realized that she needed to take the chance to get out of there. So Elizabeth ran as fast as she could in a long dress and spike heels and a bullet in her left arm. Behind her she heard a car peel out, but she couldn’t care. Instead, she slammed her right side into the exit door and took off down a drab concrete corridor.
“Sparky,” John was saying over and over. “Sparky, where the hell are you?”
She was running too hard to answer, focusing too much on getting out to form a reply. Then she came up to a junction with another hallway, and suddenly John was right in front of her. “Spar– Elizabeth!”
He grabbed her by her right elbow and jerked her to a stop. She almost toppled backwards, and John steadied her with a hand on her back. “Citrus Peel,” he said to his radio, “I have Sparky.”
Elizabeth heard McKay say something in reply, but just then the pain in her arm caught up to her and she let out a choked cry. “Hang on,” John said. “Elizabeth, talk to me.”
She bit down on her lip and looked at the blood now flowing down her arm. A few choice words came out of John’s mouth, and then he was searching around in his pockets. “John,” she said, with a little difficulty, “tell me you don’t carry a first aid kit in your coat.”
He pulled a gauze pad wrapped in cellophane from his coat pocket and ripped the plastic off. “I got shot the first time I tried to play secret agent,” he said. “Now I’m prepared.”
She tried to smile as he pressed the pad over the wound and started wrapping bandage around it. “Should have called you Boy Scout,” she said.
John looked at her oddly for a second, before taking his overcoat off and holding it out to her. While she managed to get her arms into the sleeves, he said, “Citrus Peel, what’s our status?”
“You can’t get back out through the parking garage,” McKay replied. “Ping-Pong’s reporting fifteen or twenty guys storming the place.”
“I need to get Elizabeth out of here,” John said, taking Elizabeth’s right arm and leading her on. “Kolya’s obviously after her for some reason. I’m going to get her to a safe location, and then you can send someone to get us. The rest of the guys can wait them out or hitch a ride back.”
“How are you going to get out?” someone else asked; Elizabeth couldn’t quite tell who. “Your car’s in that garage.”
“This is Chicago, remember?” John replied. “We’ll take the train.”
Of course, taking the train wasn’t as easy as it might have appeared. From Navy Pier, they had to first take a bus ride (mercifully short, as it wasn’t quite late enough for various events to have let out) to Union Station, where they hurried down escalators and through food courts to get down to the trains. At Elizabeth’s tiny whimpers, which she was probably trying vainly to suppress, John kept thinking that he ought to just take her to the hospital, company policy be damned. But there was good reason that the organization didn’t want their injured agents going to local hospitals unless there were no Atlantis medical personnel in the area. The last thing this investigation needed right now was a police report about a woman in an expensive ball gown with a gunshot wound in her arm showing up at Cook County Hospital.
They took the Chicago-Aurora line, the one that would stop closest to their headquarters in the suburb of Oak Brook. Once on the train, John led Elizabeth to the upper level of an otherwise empty passenger carriage. They sat in the only upper-level seat for two, and when a conductor came through below them and asked for their tickets, John gave him the cash for the fare and the fine for not buying tickets at the station. Elizabeth was still breathing heavily then, and the conductor gave her an odd look as he left the car.
“Are you in a lot of pain?” John asked, gently. She shook her head, but he figured she was lying. “Well, I think there might be some aspirin in that coat if you want it.”
He looked away while she gingerly rummaged through the pockets, propping his feet up on the seat across from him and staring out the dirty window at the city lights as the train rumbled on through the night. A few moments later, Elizabeth rested her head against his shoulder, and John looked down at her, wondering if she’d ever seemed so small before.
One stop before they were planning to get off, he led her down to the exit, and when the train reached Hinsdale, they stepped off on the north side of the tracks. He’d planned to head up to the town hall, on the other side of a big, grassy hill, but then remembered that his brother lived just a couple blocks away from the train station. There he could get Elizabeth inside while they called and waited for someone to get them. It was the middle of the night, but hopefully his brother and sister-in-law would forgive the intrusion.
They crossed the tracks and walked down the quiet streets, passing a row of shops before entering the residential area. He pulled out his cell phone and made his call to headquarters as they rounded another corner and came up to a big restored Victorian, one of the few houses on the street that wasn’t a new construction. They walked up to the porch, and John rang the doorbell. Almost a full minute later, a light came on in the front room, and the heavy oak door opened a tiny crack. “John?” said his sister-in-law, looking very confused.
“Can we come in, Faith?” he asked.
She stood out of the way to let John and Elizabeth in. “John, what’s going on?” she demanded. “Who is this?”
“I’m Elizabeth Weir. I work with John,” Elizabeth explained.
“I’m Faith Sheppard. I’m married to his brother.” Faith pushed some of her long hair behind her shoulder. “What’s going on?”
“We just need to stay here for a few minutes, until someone can get us,” said John.
But Faith’s attention was back on Elizabeth. “You’ve got something on your – are you bleeding?”
Elizabeth lifted her hand and winced. There was a line of blood running down her palm now. “Faith,” John said, taking Elizabeth’s other hand and leading her toward the stairs, “do you have a first aid kit somewhere?”
“In the guest bathroom. Try not to wake the kids, please. . .”
The guest bedroom and its adjoining bathroom were close to the staircase, and like most of the rooms in the house, simply designed. John had always thought his brother David had been fortunate that his wife’s tastes were not at all frilly. Faith was a smart, practical woman, as evidenced by the well-stocked first aid kit under the sink in the bathroom. She could probably rival Beckett and Fraiser in field medicine – the inevitable byproduct of being the mother of four children.
Elizabeth shrugged John’s coat off, and he took it from her and hung it on the door. As he dug into the first aid kit, looking for iodine and fresh bandages, Elizabeth managed to sit on the counter, her left arm over the sink. Then John began removing the bloodied bandages and said, “Someone should be here to get us in a few minutes.”
She nodded. “I know.” There was a long pause while he poured iodine over the wound to disinfect it as best he could. “I think I got blood on your coat.”
“It’s okay.” He set the iodine aside and started to work at bandaging her arm again, as she was still bleeding a little. “As long as you don’t bleed all over my sister-in-law’s carpet, I think we’re good.”
He looked up and was glad to see that his bad jokes could still bring a smile to her lips, faint though it was. It was one of the highlights of working with her.
With her arm bandaged again, John wet a washcloth and started to clean dried blood off her arm. Faith would probably kill him for that too, but he didn’t really care about that. “I’m sorry about what happened,” he blurted out.
Elizabeth looked up at him abruptly, confused. “What are you talking about?”
“I shouldn’t have let Lorne do the shooting,” he said. “I should have done it myself.”
“John, that was an impossible shot,” she replied. “Lorne’s got good aim. I don’t think I could have made that shot either. Besides, if you hadn’t been down that corridor, you probably wouldn’t have found me and I’d still be bleeding all over Navy Pier.”
He shook his head. “I would have found you.”
Her gaze was almost piercing. “You would have,” she quietly agreed.
It was then that he realized just how far they had come since they’d walked into the ballroom a few hours earlier. Elizabeth’s hair was a tousled mess. Her lipstick was long gone, and there was a bruise trailing along her collarbone. John lifted his hand to her face, brushing stray wisps of hair from her cheek. “Elizabeth,” he said, in a tone he hadn’t heard from his own mouth in a long time.
There were a thousand reasons not to do what he wanted to do, not the least of which was that she’d been shot and still hadn’t seen a doctor about that. They worked together, and John respected her more than he could probably express. But then Elizabeth laid her hand over his and whispered his name, looking up at him with green eyes wide, and all the logic holding him back snapped.
He kissed her softly at first, as if he didn’t already know what it felt like. And in a way, perhaps, he didn’t, for in all the times they’d kissed before, they’d never really done it for themselves. This was new. This was them, John Sheppard and Elizabeth Weir.
When he drew back, she bit her lower lip, and John didn’t think it was out of uncertainty. He’d never known her to be timid. “Are you all right?” he asked, because they were the only words that came to mind.
She lifted her hand to drag her fingers through his hair, and he made a contented sound deep in his throat. “You won’t break me,” she whispered, and she was right.
For moments too brief his world was Elizabeth, her scent, her taste, her touch. One hand cradled the back of her head as he kissed her again, this time with confidence unwavering. He ran his other hand lightly up her side, tracing a path that was at once comfortable and unfamiliar. A thousand images were rushing through his mind in a jumble – watching her run from a building she’d just set explosives in, covering her from a spray of bullets, the rise and fall of her chest as she slept after a mission, her small smile at his bad jokes – and none of it made any sense. The only thing that made any sense was how badly he wanted to know what it was like to make love to her.
But with a suddenness that surprised even himself, he pulled away and stared at her, wondering if there were some enchantment in this place. Elizabeth still looked just as alluring, her eyes half-closed and her lips parted, but something, possibly resembling sanity, was holding John back from ravaging her. When she opened her eyes, he had to swallow hard, as he could tell she was all too willing.
Then, mercifully, he heard his sister-in-law calling his name, and with a gentle squeeze on Elizabeth’s fingers, he stepped into the bedroom. “Faith, do you need me?” he asked.
She came into the room from the hall, this time carrying her youngest child and only daughter, seven-month-old Jamie. “Are you. . . Are you in trouble, John?” she asked, quietly.
He shook his head and started to deny it, but he couldn’t really lie to her. “I don’t know, Faith,” he said. “We’re in the middle of an investigation, and it got sticky tonight.”
“Had your friend been shot?”
John nodded. “Not seriously, but yes. Faith, where’s David?”
She frowned. “He’s in New York on a business trip. He’ll be back next week.”
“Okay.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. “I need you to understand this, Faith. I would never intentionally put you or David or the kids in danger.”
“Are you saying you might have unintentionally?” she asked.
Reluctantly, John nodded again. “These people we’re after – I don’t know what kind of lengths they’ll go to, or even what resources they have,” he replied. “So if you feel like something’s wrong or that you might be in danger, I want you to gather the kids up and go to the Executive Plaza in Oak Brook. You know where that is?”
“Just this side of the McDonald’s corporate offices, right?”
“That’s it,” he said. “Go there, and tell them your name and who you are in relation to me. They’re not going to trust you right away, but that’s how they work. Just insist that they contact me to confirm it, and they will. You’ll be safe there.”
Faith took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you.”
John leaned forward then and placed a kiss on the baby’s head as she slept on in her mother’s arms. Then he kissed Faith’s cheek too and said, “I’m going to go downstairs and wait for whoever’s picking us up. Can you give Elizabeth a hand?”
“Sure.” She touched his arm briefly. “You’re a good man, John.”
“Well,” he said wryly, “sometimes that’s up for debate.”
When John left the bathroom, Elizabeth took several deep breaths before she tried to focus on anything. She’d thought she had John all figured out, but in the space of an hour he’d managed to turn everything upside down. Now her mind was frantically trying to piece her paradigm back together.
She’d known almost since they met that John was close to his family. If she thought about it for a minute, she could probably remember the names of his nephews and niece, as he did tend to talk about them when they weren’t terribly busy with saving the world. But the conversation she was overhearing was strange to Elizabeth. It wasn’t unexpected, but she’d just never seen him quite so protective of others before.
Except that she had, just a little while earlier. Perhaps the shock of getting shot had prevented her from recognizing it before, but now that the pain had settled to a manageable level, Elizabeth could tell that John had just been taking care of her to a degree he never had before.
And then he’d kissed her.
There was no point in mincing words – it was a pretty amazing kiss, despite how badly her arm was hurting and how much she needed to see a doctor. And even though it was the same mouth she’d kissed a dozen times in the course of the previous year, there was something that just wasn’t the same. They weren’t the same, and the look in his eyes had told her that he knew it too.
In a way she was glad he had stopped, even though she had been left wanting so much more. She could just imagine one of his nephews, with wild hair and elf ears, clad in teddy bear pajamas and dragging his blankie behind him, bursting in on them at a critical moment, but that wasn’t entirely the point. And the point was not the easiest thing for her to admit. She’d had no qualms about her affair with Jack until it was over, when his leaving had hurt her more than she’d cared to show. Elizabeth had thought for some time that she couldn’t throw herself into another affair with a colleague, and perhaps that was true. Sumner’s death had been hard on her, and taught her more than anything else that her job carried no guarantees. She could never be certain that she and John would get out of their next mission alive.
But beyond that, she couldn’t just go to bed with John Sheppard and pretend the next morning that it was business as usual. She and Jack had operated that way, and she just couldn’t do that again. At least, not with John.
Finally the voices outside stopped, and Elizabeth got off the countertop. Faith Sheppard came up to the door, still wearing a blue terry-cloth robe, but now carrying a sleeping baby. “John asked me to help you if you needed anything,” she offered. “Do you need a painkiller of some kind? I’ve got anything from children’s Tylenol to Midol.”
Elizabeth smiled a little. “Unless you’ve got morphine or something stronger, I don’t think it’ll be of much help.”
“Sorry.” Faith glanced at the bloody washcloth on the counter for a moment, and then looked back at Elizabeth. “You can’t possibly be in comfortable shoes,” she said. “Maybe I could see if I have a pair of tennis shoes that would fit you.”
As it turned out, the two women were only a half-size different in shoe size, and Faith produced a pair of shoes that had obviously been well-loved. They were a welcome relief from the high heels Elizabeth had been wearing all evening, but Faith looked at Elizabeth’s shoes almost wistfully. “It’s been a long time since I wore a pair of shoes like this,” she said. “Can’t really chase a four-year-old if you’re worried about breaking your ankle because of your choice in footwear.”
By then they’d come into the bedroom, Elizabeth sitting on the edge of the bed while changing her shoes. She picked up one of her heels and turned it over. “I think you’d be surprised how much you can run in these. It’s certainly a workout,” she said. “One of the boys in the lab coated the soles of these with some kind of textured polymer that gives them extra traction.”
“I doubt that’s available to the average mom, though.”
“Hmm. That’s a valid point.”
Faith turned then and sat next to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth got a good look at the baby for the first time. “That nose must be a family trait,” she said. “Her name’s Jamie, right?”
The other woman looked at her somewhat alarmed, and Elizabeth quickly added, “John’s talked about you, his brother, and these kids a lot. He was so excited when she was born.”
Faith shook her head, looking astonished. “He’s never said anything about you,” she replied. “And I mean anything. Ever since he left the Air Force, he’s hardly ever talked about his job.”
“Most of his life’s work has been classified,” said Elizabeth.
“I know,” said Faith. “About a year ago he started traveling more. A lot more. David asked him why, and John never really answered.”
“He went from working as a cryptographer to working as a field agent,” Elizabeth explained. There was no reason she shouldn’t know. “That was when he met me.”
“How did that happen?”
“I was captured by the Russian mafia and he rescued me,” said Elizabeth. “Or at least he tried to. I’m not sure which of us did more rescuing that day.”
Faith laughed softly. “He likes what he does. I know that much,” she said. “And he’s seemed happier since. . . well, since he started working with you.”
“He’s a brilliant man,” Elizabeth replied. “One of the best mathematicians our organization has ever employed. But he’s capable of a lot more than crunching numbers in a dark room somewhere.”
She heard footsteps then, and it wasn’t long before John appeared in the doorway. “Elizabeth?” he said. “Cadman and Lorne are here.”
“All right.” She stood, turned to Faith, and said, “It was nice meeting you.”
“You too, though under unbelievably strange circumstances.” Faith walked her to the door of the bedroom. “And John,” she added, “try not to get shot at again tonight.”
“I’ll try,” he said. “Remember what I told you.”
Elizabeth and John were heading down the stairs before he spoke again. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a visit to the infirmary wouldn’t be out of order.”
“Is it that bad?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, “but it’s bad enough.”
Three hours after arriving at headquarters for what she hoped was the final time that night, Laura Cadman had changed out of her evening wear and was making her way down to the infirmary, where she hoped Carson was finally done for the evening. They’d had plans to get dessert somewhere after her mission, but obviously, now that it was two in the morning, that was out of the question. It wasn’t like the building had an all-night pastry chef.
She bypassed the recovery room and went into the observation booth adjoining it, where Carson was nursing a cup of coffee while watching his only patient through the one-way mirror. When Laura came through the door, he turned and gave her a weary smile. “I thought you would have gone home by now.”
Laura shook her head, coming to his side and leaning down to kiss him. “We’ve got a situation upstairs,” she said. “I’m probably going to end up staying overnight, try to get a few hours’ sleep up on the fifth floor. There’s just no point in going home.”
She flopped down gracelessly into the chair next to Carson, and he patted her leg. “Will they be needing me upstairs?” he asked.
“Not that I know of.” She started chipping at the nail polish she’d put on as a concession to the mission. “Were you in the surveillance room at all tonight?”
Carson shook his head. “No, but Caldwell gave me the basic idea of what happened while we were waiting to hear from those two,” he said, gesturing down into the recovery room, where Sheppard was sitting at Weir’s bedside.
“It turns out that the girl who was double-crossing Weir might not have been setting her up after all,” said Laura. “I know, it sounds crazy, but ninety minutes ago she drove up to this building and turned herself in.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Trust me, you’re not alone,” she replied. “There’s a group interrogating her now. Last I heard, she wanted to speak with Elizabeth.”
“No one’s talking to Elizabeth tonight,” said Carson. “John’s only in there because he would have been insufferable otherwise.”
Laura took Carson’s hand in her own and narrowed her eyes as she watched the two in the next room. “He does tend to get rather protective of her,” she said.
“He’s protective of everyone.”
“Not like this,” she replied. “Lorne was the one who accidentally hit her, and I honestly thought for a minute that Sheppard was going to shoot Lorne over it. I’ve never seen him so angry.”
“They’re close,” said Carson. “They’ve been through a lot.”
Laura laughed for a moment. “You think that’s what’s going on?” she asked. “Marcus and I have been working together in the field for four years, and he doesn’t act like that with me.” She shook her head. “There are rumors that they’re sleeping together.”
“Do you think either of them would have such a lapse in professionalism?” Carson asked.
“She was sleeping with Jack O’Neill.”
At this revelation, Carson started coughing, and it took him a while to recover. “You can’t be serious,” he said.
“You really don’t pay attention to the rumor mill, do you?” Laura asked. “That little affair went on for three or four years.”
“Well, that explains quite a lot, actually,” he replied. “She took his retirement pretty hard.”
“That’s because Jack just up and left her, from what I heard,” she said.
Carson shook his head. “She was with Jack?”
“You really are married to your work, aren’t you? Can’t even find time to keep up with the gossip,” Laura said, laughing. Then she stood, dragging him to his feet with her. “Come on, I’m putting you to bed. Otherwise we both know you won’t sleep tonight.”
For once, he didn’t complain about that.
When Elizabeth stirred, she had no idea how long she’d been asleep, having passed out from sheer exhaustion before Carson was even finished repairing damaged tissue in her arm. She found herself feeling strangely dazed, and it took her a while to realize that that was probably the morphine. She looked to her left and saw that she was on an IV; she looked to her right and saw that John was next to her bed.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
She rubbed her hand against her forehead. “A little fuzzy around the edges,” she replied.
“That’d be the morphine.”
“I figured as much.” Then she yawned hugely. “How long was I out?”
“About an hour and a half,” he replied. “You needed the rest. You’d lost a lot of blood.”
“That much I remember,” Elizabeth said. “You probably ought to call your sister-in-law and tell her that I’m going to be fine.”
“Why don’t we wait till you’re actually fine?”
“If you insist.”
Then John leaned over and picked up a blanket from the end of the bed. “Are you cold?” he asked.
“Will my answer make a difference?”
“No.” He stood and draped the blanket over her, letting her get her arms out on top of the cover. “But speaking of insisting. . .”
“What?” Elizabeth asked.
John didn’t answer her for a minute, staring instead at her right hand. “I asked you this weeks ago,” he said. “You didn’t answer then, but I need to know now. What happened with you and the Genii?”
Elizabeth looked up at the ceiling and then closed her eyes. “It was fifteen years ago,” she said. “I hadn’t been working for the CIA very long, but I was fluent enough in Russian that they decided to put me in one of the Soviet states as a liaison.”
“Which one?” he asked.
“I can’t tell you.” When he started to protest, she shook her head. “As far as I know, those kinds of details of the mission are still classified, probably because of what happened. I could go to jail if I told you.”
“Okay,” he said, though reluctantly. “What happened?”
“I was approached by the Genii, only they didn’t call themselves that at the time,” she continued. “It was 1990. The Berlin Wall had come down, and a lot of people in the CIA thought the end of the Cold War was upon us. They were right, of course, but there was a sizable number of people who thought we should be taking a proactive approach to the Soviet Union’s demise.”
“Let me guess,” said John. “You were told to listen.”
“I was, and I did,” she replied, nodding. “And then the Genii found me. I met a man named Cowen. Charismatic, well-educated. I understand he’s running the organization now. And their offer was. . . appealing to the CIA. They were willing to do the legwork in a coup that would take out the Soviet government and in its place establish a full democracy, if the CIA was willing to fund the operation.
“It was too good to be true, and my superior knew that.” She shook her head. “His superiors, on the other hand, thought it was an amazing stroke of luck, and they authorized me to proceed. But my boss told me to keep my eyes open.”
At some point in her narrative, John had picked up her hand and was stroking the back of it with his thumb. She tried to concentrate on something else. “Their intentions were anything but democracy, and I’m not sure their plan could have been called a coup. They had nuclear weapons. That’s why this country is so frightened of them. They’re a terrorist group with the bomb.”
John shook his head. “That’s insane,” he said. “What happened to you?”
“I managed to get the message back to headquarters, but not before the Genii figured out what I was doing,” she replied. “They had me for five days before a joint CIA-FBI task force extracted me. You know how I have a bad knee?”
“You can always tell when it’s going to rain.”
Elizabeth nodded. “They didn’t so much break my knee as they shattered it,” she replied. “It was six months before I could walk again. To this day, I don’t remember telling them anything, but the CIA pulled all its operatives out of the region. I had a lot of information that could have been very bad in the wrong hands.”
John frowned, gripping her hand a little tighter. “But why are they making a move now?” he asked. “Why not fifteen years ago?”
“We alerted the Soviets to intelligence that a group within the country’s borders was stealing radioactive materials,” she said, her smile wry. “The Soviets. . . crushed them, for lack of a better descriptor. It’s only been in recent years that we’ve heard anything about the organization putting itself back together. And from what I understand, they have long memories.”
“Well,” said John, “we may have a lead on what their target here is.”
“How’s that?” she asked, yawning.
“The girl turned herself in.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened immediately, despite her exhaustion. “Sora?” she said. “I had a feeling that maybe. . .”
John shook his head. “We don’t know anything yet,” he replied. “She claims she was trying to turn herself over to you, and that she didn’t know about the two guys you ran into.”
She let out a long, deep breath. “Well, we’ll see.”
“Yeah.” He got out of his chair and kissed her forehead. “Try to get some sleep.”
Their eyes met for a moment, and then John kissed her lips too. “Sweet dreams.”
And dream she did, of the three Sheppard boys she hadn’t met, with John’s looks and his way with words. But she dreamt of her nights in Belarus and something about giant slugs too, so when morning came, she let her subconscious alone and moved on to getting Beckett to let her get back to work again.