The last thing Elizabeth remembered was being in her office in Atlantis, talking with John about something.
She didn't know where she was, but it certainly wasn't anywhere in Atlantis. The room had once been white in every surface, but now the space was a dingy, greying place that made Elizabeth unreasonably unsettled. She was lying on a cot shoved into one corner. Above her head was a window; at the other end was a door. A toilet and sink were in the opposite corner from the bed, and she was wearing white clothes she'd never seen before.
When she sat up and got off the cot, her body wasn't stiff like it usually was when she woke up. She still didn't have any inkling of where she was, so she padded across the chilly floor to the door, which had a small window of reinforced glass. The handle was locked, and she looked out the window in both directions. "Hello?" she called, though there was no one visible in the hallway beyond. "Anyone?"
Elizabeth stood there for several minutes, and then a strange face suddenly appeared in the window. She gasped and jumped back. The man on the other side of the door stared at her, then looked down. The lock mechanism clicked and the door swung open with a quiet creak.
For reasons she could not fully express, her heart fairly leapt into her throat in fear when she got a good look at the man. He was well-dressed, his suit a conservative grey. He was only a little taller than herself, and had a goatee that was more grey than his hair. There was no reason to be afraid of him, but instinctively Elizabeth did not want to trust him.
"Doctor," the man said, "you shouldn't be out of bed yet. Your body hasn't had time to adjust to the medication –"
"Medication?" Elizabeth interrupted. "Who are you? Where am I?"
"My name is Doctor Adam Fletcher," he replied calmly. "You're in the acute care ward of Willoughby State Hospital."
"Willoughby?" She frowned. "That's a psychiatric hospital in Virginia." When he nodded, she asked, "Why am I back on Earth?"
"Back?" Fletcher repeated, clearly puzzled. "Doctor, you never left."
It seemed like John had banged on the door for hours before a well-dressed man about his age arrived. Fletcher, as he called himself, was imperturbable. No amount of begging, wheedling, or threatening on John's part convinced Fletcher that he wasn't crazy and he needed to be released yesterday.
However, John thought as he was led from the white room to Fletcher's office, the doctor had made a mistake. He'd let it slip that Elizabeth was there too. At first, John had had to clamp down on a swell of panic at the idea of her being trapped there too, but he knew that whatever was going on, he and Elizabeth could find a way out of it.
She was there ahead of him, her whole body exuding nervousness. She was wearing white scrubs like his, and her hair was pulled back from her face, something he'd never seen before. She looked younger, and a little frightened. The sight of her fear made John's alarm rise again, setting him on edge.
On the other hand, just seeing her was something of a relief, so John ignored the doctor and focused on her. "Elizabeth?" he said. "Are you okay?"
"I – I think so," she replied. "John, do you have any idea what's going on? How we got here?"
"No, but I think someone here can answer some of those questions." He sat down next to her in front of the desk and turned his attention to their captor. "Doc?"
"Thank you, John," Fletcher said. "Can the two of you tell me what the last thing you remember is?"
John glanced at Elizabeth, who had also looked to him. "Last thing I remember is being in your office in..."
Elizabeth's eyes narrowed and she turned back to Fletcher. "Wait, what's your security clearance?" she asked. "We've been doing some work that requires code-word clearance."
Fletcher smiled kindly, but the expression made John twitch. "It's been a few years since either of you were involved in covert activities," he explained. "That's how you met, isn't it? Both of you were field agents for the CIA."
John's jaw dropped. "Listen, I don't know where you got that information, but I joined the Air Force right out of college –"
"And from there you were recruited by the CIA," Fletcher said smoothly. "I don't believe you ever worked together in the field, but it's my understanding from your friends that you met through work somehow."
John didn't understand how any of that was possible, and he turned to Elizabeth. "The CIA tried to recruit me my senior year of college," she said, more to him than to Fletcher. "But I turned them down. I went to work for a lobbyist and then went to law school and –"
"And then went to Atlantis?" Fletcher asked smoothly.
Elizabeth sat back in her chair abruptly. "How do you know about that?"
"When the two of you were brought here two days ago, you were both ranting about a place called Atlantis and how you needed to get back."
John finally felt his patience starting to unravel. "Listen, Doc, if everything we think we know about our adult lives is wrong, why don't you tell us what we're supposed to be?"
Fletcher looked reluctant, but then he pulled a file from his desk drawer. "Doctor Weir, you were shot while in the field five years ago. The bullets shattered your left kneecap. While you did recover, you resigned from the CIA for medical reasons. Major Sheppard, you followed her out of the CIA and out of the service."
John bristled, as it had been more than a year since he'd been promoted, or at least so he thought. "Yeah, and what have we been doing since then? Collecting disability pay?"
"Of course not," the doctor answered with a smile. "As soon as Doctor Weir was recovered enough to travel, you were recruited by a charitable foundation to coordinate aid work in Africa. Doctor Weir, you also began doing some work for the United Nations."
Elizabeth shook her head. "Why can't we remember any of this?"
"I don't know," Fletcher replied. "I haven't had the time to diagnose either of you yet. But there is one other thing which I believe may have triggered the break with reality that you seem to have shared."
"Yeah, and what's that?" John asked, his temper starting to fray. "We're both secretly in love with our mothers?"
"About six weeks ago you were in a car accident," Fletcher said, ignoring John. "A drunk driver broad-sided your car. Both of you walked away without a scratch but your son..."
"What?" Elizabeth finally snapped. "Are you trying to tell us that we have a child?"
"You've been married for four years, Doctor," Fletcher said. "You had a son named Michael. He was killed in the accident."
John couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't look away from the spot on Fletcher's desk he'd been staring at when Fletcher had started talking. Was he really supposed to believe that he'd gotten married and couldn't remember? Gotten married to Elizabeth of all people, and couldn't remember? That he'd had a kid with Elizabeth and couldn't remember? He felt like he'd been punched in the stomach until he simply couldn't feel anymore.
The room was silent for a moment. "Clearly you two have some things to discuss," Fletcher said, getting up from his desk. "I'll let you have a few minutes alone, but after that I really must insist that you go back to your rooms and rest."
When the doctor was gone, Elizabeth groped for John's hand. The gesture felt so unnatural, but John held on tightly anyway, not knowing what to say.
When Fletcher was gone, Elizabeth didn't know what to say. This was all wrong. It had to be. Even John's hand against hers felt forced. There was no way that they were married, and as for the rest – there was just no way.
She was at the verge of tears when she finally decided that one of them had to say something. "What's the last thing you remember?" she asked. "Before here, I mean."
John took a moment to answer her, his thumb rubbing against her knuckles. "We were in your office in Atlantis," he replied. "We were talking, you looked kind of sick and then you passed out, and... I don't know. I guess I did too."
"I thought it was just because I skipped breakfast."
Under other circumstances, Elizabeth felt sure that he would have chastised her for skipping a meal. Now he just stared ahead blankly.
She pulled her hand away from his. "How likely is it that we can confirm or refute what Fletcher's telling us?"
John looked ambivalent. "I don't know. If we really were in the CIA, it seems unlikely," he said. "Of course, if what we remember is the truth and the government wants us to believe differently, then I have my doubts we could find out that the SGC and Atlantis were real."
Elizabeth was slightly surprised that John would give in so fast, but she was also so numb with shock she couldn't concentrate either. She couldn't think of anything else to say. The minutes passed in silence until Fletcher returned and told them they needed to return to their rooms. Though John tried to cling to her as they were separated, Elizabeth felt too dazed to join his protests.
A few days later, they asked to see Jack O'Neill. Jack came, but it was not the Jack who had talked John into joining the Atlantis expedition. This Jack O'Neill claimed he was a CIA veteran, the assistant director to whom they'd reported when they were both field agents. He knew them, but he didn't know anything about a Stargate or an expedition to another galaxy or lost cities or any of that.
Jack stayed with them for only a few minutes, until it was clear that he couldn't or wouldn't corroborate what they believed. "Listen," he said, standing to go, "something traumatic happened to you two. I know what you're going through. I lost my son almost fifteen years ago."
John wiped his mouth with his palm and sat up straight. "Yeah, but you remember him."
"Yeah," Jack replied. "And so will you. Give it time."
Individually they met daily with Fletcher, but it wasn't until the day after Jack's visit that they met with him together again. "I think I have an idea of what this condition is," he announced to them. "You're both suffering from delusional disorder, but what's unusual about it is that the imagined past your minds have invented is the same. It's a rare phenomenon called folie à deux."
"Folie à deux," Elizabeth repeated. "Madness shared by two?"
Fletcher nodded. "Folie simultanée, to be exact. We believe your delusions developed in concert. With folie imposée, one of you would have imposed your delusions on the other."
John winced as he spoke. "Can we stop referring to it all as delusions? You're talking about my entire adult life."
"No, John, I'm talking about two or three weeks," the doctor said gently. "We're not entirely sure when the full breakdown occurred, but the two of you almost certainly began developing these imaginary events since your son's death. The last twenty years that you remember never happened."
John rubbed his hand across his face. "Okay, well, if what you say is true, we'd have undergone extensive psychological screening in order to be allowed to do the kind of work you say we've done," he said. "This delusional disorder or whatever you're calling it – how could we possibly be prone to some kind of psychosis and be allowed to stay in the CIA?"
"The mind is hardly a static object," Fletcher replied, chuckling. "Just because you weren't prone to psychotic breakdown ten years ago doesn't mean you aren't now."
John glanced at Elizabeth, who was staring at her hands. "Do we ever get back the real twenty years?" she asked quietly.
Fletcher looked at her curiously. "What do you mean?"
"A minute ago, you said that the last twenty years that we remember never happened," she explained. "If that's the case, do we ever get the real twenty years back?"
The doctor's expression turned sympathetic. "Maybe, maybe not," he said. "Some patients never recover the time they've lost. They just learn to accept that their memories aren't real, and they move on with their lives."
But John was hardly listening to Fletcher anymore. Instead, he was focused on Elizabeth. Was it possible that she was beginning to believe this psychobabble? That their professional lives weren't at all what they remembered – that they'd been married and had a child together and then lost their son?
It didn't seem possible. Couldn't be possible. And yet, if Elizabeth – beautiful, smart, capable, witty, resourceful, courageous Elizabeth – was beginning to believe... It might just be possible after all, and John didn't know what to do with that idea.
They were locked up in the hospital for two weeks.
There were daily evaluations with Fletcher, sometimes alone, sometimes together. They went to group therapy sessions. They sat and talked with each other. At some point Elizabeth no longer felt awkward whenever John reached for her hand, and she wondered if he was coping with this idea of them being married better than she was. Maybe it was just his protective streak coming to the fore.
He seemed to be handling reality better than she was at this stage, mentioning occasionally that things were coming back slowly, in very small increments. For once in her life Elizabeth was almost happy to be following someone else's lead. Perhaps she was learning to be the person she had apparently been in the CIA, someone who would follow orders to serve her country to the best of her ability.
And yet she wondered why she couldn't remember any of that.
When Fletcher told them they were being released, Elizabeth wasn't quite sure she believed him. But there they were, being told that their condition had reached a point where neither of them was displaying the behavior that had landed them in the institution to begin with – in other words, neither of them were talking about being in another galaxy or an expedition to Atlantis. Truthfully, Elizabeth still wasn't sure he was telling the truth, but she didn't know what else she was supposed to do now but play along.
So she listened as Fletcher talked about their medications and their appointments for therapy and how different life would be for a while, until they adjusted. "Adjusted" was an ugly word, she wanted to point out. Acceptance was what they needed, and it was the one thing Elizabeth wasn't sure she wanted to give.
But for now, she'd play along. Anything to escape the hospital.
Back in her room, clothing had been provided. She assumed it was her own. Boots, jeans, silk shirt, leather jacket. It felt like her own, at any rate. There was a small manila envelope under the jacket, and when Elizabeth turned its contents over into her hand, she gasped.
There were two rings, one a plain, wide band of white gold, the other boasting a single diamond. Here before her was the most tangible proof yet that Fletcher was telling the truth.
Suddenly an image flashed through her mind. New York, Central Park, John kneeling down in front of her, tears welling up in her eyes. For a moment Elizabeth couldn't breathe.
Elizabeth whirled around, her hand fisting over the rings. The diamond dug into her palm. "I didn't hear you come in."
John smiled easily, sauntering over to her. "I'm sneaky like that." He looked her over once. "You ready?"
She opened her palm again and looked down. "John," she said, "do you remember asking me to marry you?"
Gently, he took the rings from her and slipped them one by one onto the third finger of her left hand. Then he reached up and caressed her cheek before leaning in to kiss her. It felt strange, familiar and foreign at once. When he drew back, he replied, "Yeah. I do."
John held out his hand to her, and when she had clasped it he led her out into the real world. Elizabeth was only left to wonder why she didn't quite believe him, and why he'd become so difficult to read since they'd awoken.
Their house was clearly decorated to Elizabeth's taste, not to John's. Not that there was anything overwhelmingly fluffy or frilly in the place, but it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
All right, it lacked a big-screen television and model aircraft.
Elizabeth was in the kitchen, purging all the food that had gone bad in their time away. John refused to refer to it as a mental breakdown and hospital visit in his head. It just didn't seem possible that someone who'd been through such rigorous psychological screening for his job – either his real one or the fake one, and he didn't know which was which – could have such a complete break with reality. But he was playing along now. Seemed like the only way to figure out what was going on. Plus it got them out of the damn hospital.
He was wandering around the house aimlessly, trying to reacquaint himself with a place he didn't remember, when he spotted a row of pictures on the mantle. Some were of himself, with his grandfather, his parents, his sister. Some were of Elizabeth with people he didn't know. Then there were the ones of them together in Paris or Chicago or an African savannah.
The big one in the middle – and he couldn't believe he didn't notice it sooner – was also of them, but completely unlike the rest. It was a black-and-white portrait of them on their wedding day. John looked away for a moment to the ring he was now wearing but didn't remember getting. Elizabeth looked so beautiful, and he wondered what had possessed her to marry him.
Love is a strange and dangerous thing, he thought.
And then his eyes were drawn away from the portrait to the pictures directly beneath it. John walked forward slowly, not quite wanting to believe what he was seeing. There were more pictures of him and Elizabeth, but these featured a baby. Their son.
The only Michael he remembered was the Wraith he'd named Michael. Had he, in some state of psychotic grief, taken his son's name and twisted it into that horrible, life-sucking thing?
John picked up one of the pictures and sighed. The kid looked like Elizabeth. He wondered if Michael Sheppard had been just as smart as his mom, too.
Fighting a tight feeling in his throat, John set the picture aside and left the living room, one fist clenched briefly. He still didn't know if all of this was really true, but he couldn't think of any other way any of this could exist. Surely no one would be so cruel as to invent a family for him and then deconstruct it like this.
Maybe he really had gone crazy.
John came into the kitchen, where Elizabeth was closing the refrigerator. The bag in the open trash can looked to be full, so he said, "I'll take the garbage out."
She looked at him distractedly. "Thank you, John."
Earlier he'd spotted the big garbage bins in the garage, so he tied up the bag and took it out. He had no idea where they kept trash bags, but when he got back to the kitchen Elizabeth had put a fresh one in the trash can and slid it back to its usual place. She was also standing at the sink, her back to him, her arms wrapped around her middle like she was cold or worried or frightened. John couldn't tell which.
"Elizabeth," he said, not knowing where to go from there.
She looked at him, then back out the window. John approached her tentatively. He didn't know if his memories were real or not, but he remembered wanting to kiss her. Wanting to sleep with her, frankly, and maybe not as a one-time thing. He wasn't sure, and probably hadn't ever been. Now he was told they were married, but he didn't even know how to touch her.
But she was holding her breath, as though in anticipation.
He started at her shoulder, just two fingers down her arm until he'd reached her elbow. Then he leaned forward and kissed her neck softly, just under her ear. Elizabeth let out a little whimper that seemed to touch every nerve in John's body.
Her body was tense, and so was his. "Why does this feel so strange?" she asked.
In another life that might have killed his momentum, his confidence. In this life, he shrugged, though she couldn't see it. "Supposedly we've been married for four years and to my remembrance, we've never had sex?" He set his hands on her shoulders and gently turned her around to face him. "Just a guess."
Elizabeth smiled a little and shook her head. "I figured I'd remember having sex with you."
Forgetting that he was going along with the idea that his memories were wrong, he said, "You'd thought about having sex with me?"
"Yes, well, who hadn't?" she remarked dryly.
Smirking, he said, "Well, I could say the same about you."
At some point he'd let his hands come to rest at her waist; hers were sliding up his arms. It felt real. It was real. He prayed to God and whoever else would answer that he'd get his real memories back, that he'd know for sure what had happened to them and be able to remember his son, but for now, he'd take being able to discover everything about Elizabeth for the first time. Again.
He kissed her softly, and it took her a long moment to respond. John wasn't sure what to make of that – he'd never imagined her as reticent. But he was nothing if not persistent, and before long he had her pinned up against the counter, their bodies flush as he probed her mouth.
Elizabeth broke off the kiss, turning her head away. Her hands had fisted in his t-shirt and she was breathing heavily. "John, what are we doing?" she asked.
"You're my wife," John practically growled. "I want to remember that, at least."
She looked at him again, her eyes clouded with a little pain, and John understood that. He wanted to remember everything, but some parts of that were easier to take than others.
"I meant," she said slowly, "what are we doing in the kitchen?"
John was pretty sure that wasn't what she'd meant, but he was willing to go along with it. He gave her as playful a smile as he could conjure. "I don't know, Elizabeth. Got someplace else in mind?"
Within a couple weeks of leaving the hospital, Elizabeth began sorting through the piles of work papers at the house, trying to get up to speed on what had been her job. She still didn't remember much of what her life was supposed to be, but things were getting easier. Having John around helped, even though it was still a little strange to kiss him and make love to him every night. He seemed to need it, though, muttering something about grounding himself, seeking her out with a surprising urgency. Elizabeth couldn't bring herself to hold back when John needed her help.
Old habits, she supposed, even if they were just in her head.
The accident, she learned, had interrupted their plans to go to Africa, surveying the progress of one of several planned intercontinental highways. She was not particularly surprised to find herself doing work in dangerous parts of the world, but she was a little surprised that John had been okay with it. Perhaps that was the result of their experiences with the CIA, but what she remembered of John was that he was remarkably protective of her and really preferred it when she was out of harm's way. It hadn't entirely been for sentimental reasons, either. As far as she could remember, she had no field experience, though admittedly she'd been in more war zones than he had. Just not with a trigger under her finger.
As it turned out, perhaps it was for the best that they hadn't gone to Africa. In catching up with news and memos, Elizabeth learned that extremists in northern Africa were starting to target Westerners. The Dakar Rally, one of the premiere off-road racing events in the world, had been cancelled after a group of tourists were found dead near the planned route, their belongings untouched. It was entirely likely that their employers, the McClane Foundation, might have tried to cancel their trip anyway.
Still, Elizabeth didn't like the idea of leaving all the work on this project to others while staying safely on the other side of the Atlantic. Perhaps John would agree.
Filled with an odd sense of resolve, she walked out of her tiny office. "John?" she called.
"In here," came his voice, from the living room.
Elizabeth walked down the hall and through the kitchen to see him standing at the fireplace. For a moment his figure and everything else blurred; she squeezed her eyes shut in surprise, and when she opened them again he was back to normal. Perhaps it was a side effect of her antipsychotic medication. "John?" she said quietly.
He jerked and looked at her. "I didn't hear you."
Frowning, Elizabeth stepped forward. He'd answered her when she'd called. Now, though, he was fixated on the pictures above the mantle. "Lizabeth," he said, "what happened to the pictures of Michael?"
Her frown deepened, and she crossed the room to stand next to him at the hearth. "Michael who?"
John turned to her, horror on his face. "Our son, Michael."
Elizabeth's eyes widened and she took a step backward involuntarily. "John, we don't have a son," she told him. "We've never –"
"He died in the crash, Elizabeth," he said, barreling over her objection. "We had a little boy. He was three years old! This morning there were pictures of him here!"
"No, there weren't!" She could only stare at him. "John, what's gotten into you?"
"It's bad enough that I can't remember anything about my son, Elizabeth," he replied. "Now you can't remember what Fletcher told us about him?"
"John, what in the world are you talking about? If Fletcher told us we had a child, I would have remembered that!"
The strange blurriness happened again, and Elizabeth shook her head as though that would fix the problem.
She looked at John, who was again back to normal in her field of vision. "John, we didn't have a son," she said, trying to soothe him. "We didn't lose anybody in that accident –"
"Elizabeth, what are you talking about?" he interrupted. "What son? We don't have kids."
Elizabeth's eyes went wide again. "You were just saying –"
"No, I was just standing here and you came in ranting about some kid named Michael. What the hell's going on?"
Suddenly Elizabeth knew what they needed to do. "Come on," she said. "We need to see Doctor Fletcher."
After those strange few minutes when Michael's pictures had disappeared and then reappeared, and Elizabeth had first told him they'd never had a son and then calmly began talking about rescheduling a trip to Africa, John made two decisions. He said nothing about the odd event. He also stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication.
There was something very wrong here. When Elizabeth had stood before him telling him they'd never had a child together it had felt so wrong, but afterward he began to reconsider. For those brief minutes, Elizabeth had been Elizabeth again, standing in front of him and arguing with him as his equal, not going about the house serenely continuing her life's work. He was going to continue to play along, and he knew it sounded crazy even to him, but the woman he was living with was an impostor.
He just knew it.
The next day, John brought Elizabeth back home from the hospital. It was supposed to be the other way around.
When they got to the hospital, Fletcher was confronted with two people telling opposite versions of events. Elizabeth thought that John had had some sort of break with reality. John thought Elizabeth had, in his words, flipped out. In the middle of listening to John tell Fletcher what had happened, Elizabeth couldn't help but think of that first day in Atlantis when they'd stepped out to the balcony to fight. She thought they'd moved past that, but the man next to her, telling their doctor that she was crazy, didn't match up with the man she'd worked alongside in Atlantis.
I'm not crazy, she kept telling herself. It was the only thing keeping her from grabbing John by the shoulder and punching him in the face.
She spent the day being observed, and her medication was adjusted. "The higher dosage might cause more severe side effects," Fletcher told them before they left. "Make sure she takes them, John."
John assured Fletcher that he would and took her away to the car, holding her close to him with an arm around her, hand firmly clasping her shoulder. Elizabeth thought of movies where women let their abusive husbands lead them out of the hospital to take them back to a place of pain and despair, and she wondered what the hell she was doing, even though John was the one person in the world she trusted above all others.
John wasn't sure when she noticed that he'd stopped taking his medication, but he knew she did. Whole days began to pass where they didn't speak to each other. Those were the good days. When they did interact, she was nagging at best and hostile at worst. Every day, he became more and more convinced that this couldn't be real.
He wasn't sure how that would work. Sure, he'd encountered false realities before. There had been that planet with the mist where they'd all been tricked into thinking they were on Earth, until the ruse had become too difficult to maintain. He remembered reading mission reports from the SGC, and one had detailed a planet where SG-1 had been trapped in some sort of game that forced them to relive the worst moments of their lives over and over, unable to change anything. And there had been that terrible vision of Atlantis about to be overrun, Elizabeth taking one last look at him before she stepped through the gate and he stayed behind to –
Startled, John clamped down on that line of thought as soon as he could, forcing his mind away from the answer. If he was right, they probably knew already, but he had to keep up with the dance. He had to make them think he believed.
So, as evening fell, he sought her out.
The list of side effects seemed so innocuous. The most dangerous one, in Elizabeth's opinion, was naturally the one that set in after only a few days after her dosage was increased: dysphoria. Depression, in layman's terms. Most days she didn't want to get out of bed. Some days she didn't.
She'd dealt with depression once in a while as an adult. She suspected most everyone did at some point. The best thing to do, her mother always said, was to get out of the house and do something for someone else. But this was different, she told herself. This was chemically induced, and she didn't know how to fight it. Her work was confusing now and wasn't important enough to warrant focusing on.
In those days John became increasingly insistent about her behavior, sometimes even to the point of belligerence. He practically forced her to eat, shower, stay out of bed. If she decided to lie down on the couch for fifteen minutes after lunch it turned into a huge fight.
In the back of her mind she remembered reading that few people placed on antipsychotics stayed on them. The side effects were so unpleasant that they would rather go untreated.
Elizabeth made it twelve days before standing at the kitchen sink and washing the pills down the drain.
Behind her she heard footsteps. "What do you think you're doing?" John demanded.
John found her standing at their bedroom window, watching the sunlight fade in the west. Silently, he walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. She didn't react, at least not until he pressed a soft kiss to her neck.
"John," she breathed, leaning back against him.
"I've been thinking," he began.
"So have I."
He laid his cheek against her neck. "You first."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I haven't been a nice person lately. I don't know why that is, but I'm sorry."
"It's okay," John replied, nuzzling her neck and breathing in the scent of her.
"So what have you been thinking about?"
"I think it may be time we tried to move on," he said softly. "We may never remember Michael, but I want to know what it's like. I want to be able to hold our baby, and remember."
Her breathing quickened, and he took that as a yes. Slowly, slowly, he began to undress her.
Elizabeth steeled herself before turning around. "I can't do this anymore," she told John softly, hoping her tone would keep this calm. "I can't."
"Elizabeth, you need those pills," he said, voice rising with each patronizing word. "Before they adjusted your dosage you kept ranting about things that never happened, kept saying we had a kid!"
Shocked, she took a moment to respond. "It happened once, John. Once."
"It happened time after time after time, Elizabeth." He was almost taunting her now. "The last time I decided you needed help."
Elizabeth just stood there with her mouth hanging open. That wasn't at all what had happened!
"I knew as soon as we woke up in that hospital that you weren't going to be able to handle this. I let you drag me into your delusions, but not anymore." She tried to turn away from him but he grabbed her arm, his fingers tight enough to leave marks, she was sure. "You're going back to the hospital and you're not coming out until you've dropped this ridiculous game you're trying to play!"
"John!" she cried, angry and amazed. "You know none of that is true!"
"You talk in your sleep," he said, sneering. "Talking about other men – Rodney, Carson, Evan, I don't know who else. Whatever life you imagined yourself having in Atlantis, you were certainly quite the whore."
"I don't have to put up with this," Elizabeth shot back, yanking herself out of his grasp. Her mind felt clear for the first time in weeks, even though she was more enraged than she could ever remember being. "You know it was you who lost it that day. I don't know why Fletcher decided to believe such obvious, hateful lies. I don't even know who you are anymore –"
Something struck her cheek hard and she stumbled back. As she brought her fingers up to the now-tender place, she looked at John and saw a clenched fist. He'd hit her.
He'd hit her.
Suddenly, everything was crystal clear.
"Get out," she said, her voice low and full of bitterness. "Get out."
She didn't care if he was trying to apologize, though she doubted it. Defiance was still written plainly across his face. "Get out," she repeated forcefully. "You're not John."
He reached for her; she backed away. He lunged for her and she tried to run, screaming at him to get away from her, but then everything... changed.
John stripped her bare before dragging her across the room and tossing her to the bed. He followed her, pinning her body beneath his as they worked together to get rid of his clothes. He started nibbling at her earlobe, listening to her moan with pleasure. Suddenly her moan turned to a piercing scream.
"Get away from me! Get away!"
Fists started pounding on his chest and shoulders, and John tried to grab her wrists and pin her down. He didn't know what had gotten into her. She was writhing beneath him, trying to free herself from his restraint, when he finally saw the terrified look on her face. John pulled back abruptly, almost coming up to his knees. Elizabeth stopped screaming at him and looked around the room, breathing heavily. He couldn't help a glance at her chest. "Elizabeth?" he said, softly.
Her eyes finally fell on him, and even in the dark of twilight he could see her shock. He imagined that he was mirroring the expression pretty well, but probably not for the same reasons. Suddenly he remembered the day when Elizabeth had tried to tell them they'd never had a child, that Michael had never existed. Somewhere along the line he'd become convinced that that woman was the woman he'd known and worked with, not the woman he was living with. "It's you, isn't it?" he asked. "The real you."
She held her breath for a moment and then exhaled, "John."
She reached for him, seeming unaware that they were naked, but John let her. He held her as fiercely as he could without smothering her. He didn't know how this was possible and didn't care. Elizabeth – the real Elizabeth – was with him again and come hell or high water, he wasn't losing her now.
"Lizabeth," he said, drawing back enough to look her in the eye, "why were you screaming?"
She couldn't meet his gaze. "You'd hit me. I thought you were going to hit me again."
Horrified, John fell to her side. There was no way, just no way that he would ever strike her, but he could understand why she'd been screaming and trying to hold him off. "Elizabeth," he said slowly, "I would throw myself in front of a train before I'd hit you."
"I know," she replied distractedly. They were both quiet a moment, John mindlessly tracing patterns on her stomach. "None of this is real, is it?"
"I'm real," John said, inanely. "So are you."
He leaned over then and kissed her. She was shy in responding, and he reminded himself that this wasn't the false Elizabeth he'd been sleeping with for the last few weeks. This was really her. John kept it light even though he was aching for her desperately. But he wouldn't push her beyond what she could take now. He could never do that.
It was the kiss he would always think of as their first – soft, gentle, unassuming, and perfect. But when it ended, Elizabeth was almost in tears. "I don't want to go back," she breathed.
"Then don't," he said impulsively.
"I don't know," he admitted. "But there has to be a way. We'll figure it out, Elizabeth. I'm not letting you go. We'll stick together, somehow."
Elizabeth nodded then and reached for him again, pulling him down for a second kiss. This time he shifted, hovering over her as she held him to her tightly and her tongue explored his mouth. His hands began to wander tentatively over her body and she groaned against his lips.
"Stay with me," he murmured over and over, as Elizabeth began to touch him, as he let his weight settle more heavily on her, as they started to move together on the bed.
A long time ago their relationship had ceased to be one of casual friendship. John couldn't quantify when. Now, though, he knew this wasn't just comfort or convenience. They weren't having sex; they were making love.
When it was over, their bodies sated and spent, John couldn't let her go. "Stay," he repeated one last time, lying on his side and pulling her to him.
Elizabeth settled with him, her back pressed against his chest. When his arm rested around her waist, she took his hand and drew it up between her breasts, her fingers laced through his. "This is real," she whispered. "This is real."
The next morning, Elizabeth awoke fully in a moment, her nerves on fire. She was in a bedroom, but not the one in the house she'd spent the last few weeks in. John was still with her, holding her flush against him, his breath tickling the hair on the back of her neck. Distracted, she recalled that the other John had never held her like this through the night.
In a heartbeat, John was alert too. "Elizabeth?" he said, his voice rough from the night before, and full of wariness.
"I'm here, John," she replied, answering everything he was asking.
His arm tightened around her, but then they heard a thump downstairs. Elizabeth pushed herself up, John right behind her, and realized someone was downstairs and that had probably woken them.
They were up in a hurry, pulling clothes on frantically to get out of the bedroom and find out what was going on. But as Elizabeth, still buttoning her blouse with one hand, reached for the doorknob, John yanked her back to him and spun her around with a hand on her shoulder. "John–"
She got no further than that as he kissed her fiercely. It was too brief, and there was a hint of desperation in his touch. Elizabeth pulled away breathlessly. "You felt a need to make this the climax of a cheesy adventure story? Guy gets the girl?"
"It'd be nice for a change." He reached for the doorknob. "Let's go."
When they reached the top of the stairs, they saw men from the hospital in white scrubs all over the ground floor of the house, scouring the place like they were taking hostages. Belatedly, Elizabeth realized they were.
"No other way out," John remarked, sounding strangely relaxed.
Elizabeth looked at him and saw a gleam in his eyes. She wondered if he'd figured something out. "You got a plan?"
"Yeah," he said. "We turn ourselves in."
There were shots, there were pills, there were threats of lobotomy. John didn't regret the decision, although he edged near to panic when Elizabeth was dragged away from him, literally kicking and screaming.
This was their only way out.
Something was happening, maybe on the outside of whatever this horrible nightmare was. Reality kept jerking around; a face would disappear and reappear like something out of a horror movie, or a person would become someone else entirely in the middle of a conversation. Old dead friends would show up, and everywhere there were orderlies trying to constrain him.
The shots and the pills had no effect. It was like a reverse placebo effect: convinced that nothing was real and none of this could stop him, he was unaffected by the pills.
He was lying on his cot, thinking of where the exits were and what kind of force it would take to get out of here, when there was a click and a creak. John sat up immediately, body tensed for another fight, when he saw Elizabeth slip through the door, leaving it cracked open. "John," she said, "they left my door open."
"Good, then let's get out of here," he replied, heading for the door, but she didn't move out of his way.
"No, that's not why I'm here."
John stood still for a moment, and she walked forward, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him. He didn't respond. "If we just cooperate with them," she said when she had drawn away, "if we just play along, they'll let us have our lives back."
Feeling cold all over, John pushed her away. "You're not Elizabeth. You're not. You're not her."
She smiled, a quirk of the lips that was totally unlike Elizabeth. "You're right," she said in a soft, seductive voice.
Then she turned into Doctor Fletcher.
"We're going to have to redouble our efforts with you," Fletcher said, lifting a large needle. "But don't worry. We have experience with... troublesome patients."
He raised his arm as though to jab the needle into John's neck, but John was quicker. He grabbed the man's arm and twisted him around. Without a moment's hesitation, he seized Fletcher by the head and broke his neck.
John dropped the body to the ground and started to step over it to leave the room. Before he could, the body melted into a puddle of silver, and the puddle reshaped itself into the image of Colonel Sumner.
There was hatred in the man's eyes and in the way the P90 was pointed at John. "Yeah, and what do you want?" John asked in annoyance.
"To stop you from screwing this up for us, like you've screwed up everything else in your life," the dead man said, and he fired.
The bullet struck John's abdomen, but he didn't feel it. Even when he touched the wound and saw the blood, he didn't feel it. When he looked up again, it wasn't Sumner he saw, but the Replicator who had attacked Elizabeth during their escape from the Asuran home world. Niam kicked the door closed behind him.
"Well," John said laconically, "that makes sense."
With that, he stepped forward, through the Replicator and through the door.
Elizabeth was pacing, as though on her balcony in Atlantis, waiting for something she couldn't put words to. It was like being back in her city, knowing John was in trouble out there but not knowing what the problem was or how to help.
Down the hall she heard the sounds of a scuffle. Seventeen seconds later, the door opened.
"John," she said, relieved to see him enter.
Her relief was short-lived. His white scrubs matched hers no longer. He was holding a hand over his abdomen, a blood stain spreading beneath it. Terror seized her. "Oh, John," she said, hurrying to his side as he stumbled into the wall and started to sink down. "What happened?"
He shook his head. "Doesn't matter," he said. "Promise me something, Lizabeth."
She cupped his cheek, tears welling in her eyes. "What?"
"Do what they say," he told her. "Don't let them get you too."
The room felt cold all of the sudden, and Elizabeth stood up, backing away quickly. "Don't you dare try this again," she said. "Don't you dare."
The man looked up at her with a hurt look, the one that had gotten her to give in to so many things, but this time she was unmoved. Then, with a sigh, he shifted. The blood disappeared, the scrubs became a suit, and he became Doctor Fletcher.
"You're not making this easy on me," he said, standing and producing a big needle.
Elizabeth didn't give him a chance to use it. Remembering something Teyla had taught her, she pulled back and punched, connecting with his jaw. With a swift, low kick she swiped at the back of his knee, bringing him to the ground. He tried to stab the needle into her chest, but she was too fast. She grabbed his wrist with both hands and twisted it around, and he stabbed himself in the neck.
Then, before her eyes, he changed into Colonel Sumner. The needle was gone and he grabbed her hand, pushing it against his chest. As though she were the Wraith that had killed him, she watched him age, screaming in agony as he knelt before her.
"See the work of your hands, Elizabeth," he croaked.
Knowing the thing in front of her was not real, she pushed aside any pangs of guilt or sympathy. "Go to hell," she hissed.
Jerking her hand away, she walked around him and through the door beyond.
John was running down the hallway when he spotted her coming out of her room. "Elizabeth!" he called.
She turned and looked at him, but stopped short, her face going paler than usual. "I just saw you with..." she began, looking down at his stomach.
"It's not real," he said. "Elizabeth, do you trust me?"
He watched her hesitate, but then he saw her familiar resolve. "Yes."
"Then what are we waiting for?"
John grabbed her hand, and together they ran down the corridor toward the front lobby, the nearest exit he knew of. He expected to see a crowd of orderlies trying to restrain them, as usual, but what he saw when he turned the last corner made him stop dead in his tracks.
John had no idea what was going on outside this place, but it had just taken on a new flavor. Elizabeth gripped his hand more tightly. "John..."
"It's okay," he said, though he didn't know why he believed that. He looked over his shoulder and saw an empty hall. "It's clear behind us."
"We can't go back," she stated, her conviction clear.
"Yeah," he replied, and the Wraith began to advance.
It seemed like all the time in the world passed before the Wraith actually reached them, but though he and Elizabeth were both tense, he wasn't scared. Even when a hand was laid against his chest, he didn't feel anything.
The truth was, he would rather have the horrible nightmare of his old life than even the best parts of his new one.
The only pain he felt was where Elizabeth clutched his hand, though he was squeezing back just as hard. As the Wraith fed on them, they fell to their knees, and all the world went white.
Elizabeth awoke gasping for air. The room was dark, but she could tell almost immediately that she was in Atlantis.
There was a huge scanner overhead, and nearby some piece of equipment was beeping a steady rhythm. Around her was a plastic quarantine tent. Next to her was John.
Outside the tent she heard talking, and she looked to her left to see Carson and Rodney and Teyla and Ronon all smiling with ebullient relief. "We're back in Atlantis?" she asked, smiling too. After the last few weeks, it was almost impossible to comprehend.
"Back?" Carson repeated. "Love, you never left."
Elizabeth wasn't quite sure she believed that, but it was enough to know that she was safely home again. She looked back to her right and saw John watching her. They reached for each other, and until the doctors and medics in hazmat suits interfered, they didn't let go.
They didn't tell Carson and the rest everything. The others didn't need to hear the details, and frankly, John was pretty sure that neither he nor Elizabeth would ever feel a compelling need to share the particulars of the experience. It had been harrowing enough without having to relive it.
John didn't fully follow the science of what had happened to them, but nanites had infected them both. At some point, toward the end, it became clear that the nanites in each of them were communicating with each other, and that was when Rodney had hatched his plan. Since their base programming was to destroy the Wraith, Carson had introduced Wraith tissue to both their bodies, trying to distract the nanites long enough to destroy them with an electromagnetic pulse. But a few had bonded with the tissue in their bodies, and in the end their minds had to incapacitate those, somehow. Carson and Rodney couldn't give them an answer to that, and neither John nor Elizabeth wanted to explain it from their end.
They'd only been out for five hours, but from the flood of well-wishers they received, both before and after they were released from the infirmary, John would have thought they'd been gone for the six weeks that had passed in their minds. It was all incredibly strange. Thankfully, most people seemed to get that they really didn't want to talk about it, though from the way Kate Heightmeyer looked at them during her visit, he figured he wasn't going to weasel out of some counseling sessions.
The strangest part of all, though, was his unwillingness to be away from Elizabeth for more than a few minutes at a time. He'd felt that urge before, after situations where she and everyone else in the city had been in danger, but it had never been this strong. Elizabeth seemed to be the same way. They had anchored each other, after all, and that was a hard thing to let go.
As night came and the city slowed, John walked her to her door. She wasn't surprised when he followed her into her bedroom. She walked up to the window, her arms tight around her middle; he sat on her bed, staring at his hands. "They tried to make you think I would hit you?" he blurted out.
Elizabeth turned away from the window. She looked so tired. "They weren't very successful," she said. "That was what finally convinced me that it couldn't be real."
There was an awkward silence, and Elizabeth stared at her shoes. "They told you we had a baby?" she asked.
John nodded. "Yeah. I almost wanted that to be real."
She looked up, startled. John winced. "That didn't come out right," he began.
Elizabeth subsided and almost smiled. "I think we're past the point where we can deny some level of attraction, John," she replied. "We did have sex, even if it was just in our heads."
He stood then and approached her slowly. "If it hadn't been for all that peril, I might have used that as a way to get creative."
Her smile in return was awkward and hesitant but genuine, and John felt like someone had taken fifty pounds off his shoulders. "So what do we do now?" she asked.
"Long term, I don't know," he told her truthfully, moving even closer. He was laying all his cards out on the table now, and if this didn't go the right way, it could be disastrous for their relationship, both at work and as friends. John took a deep breath. "But for now I want to kiss you. For real."
Elizabeth didn't say anything, just held his gaze steadily. He leaned down and brushed his lips against hers. It was nothing spectacular, but he didn't want it to end, even as he pulled away.
"Mmm," she said, resting her hands against his chest.
John slipped one arm around her, rubbing her back gently. "Good to be back in the real world," he replied.
She leaned forward, resting her head against his shoulder, which felt bizarrely normal even after everything. "I'm glad you were with me," she said. "I don't know if I would have gotten out of there alone."
"You would have." He kissed her forehead. "You're too strong to let them break you."
The night wore on. As seconds passed to minutes and minutes passed to hours, they eventually settled in the bed, though it was just barely wide enough for both of them. Elizabeth lay in front of him, facing him this time, John holding her and breathing in the faint scent of the shampoo she'd used that morning, so many weeks ago in his mind.
"I don't want to sleep," Elizabeth finally said, after half a night of lying in each other's arms and pretending not to be awake. "I've had enough of that."