She'd issued it with the idea that the crew deserved the chance to take a break after they'd spent so much time adapting to life back in Atlantis after the Ancients were killed by the Asurans- to say nothing of the military staff having to adapt to John as their commanding officer rather than Sumner- and Heightmeyer had only confirmed the merits of the concept during a recent conversation. After the Orion had arrived in orbit for its latest supply run, Elizabeth had talked the matter over with Dixon and everyone had agreed with the decision.
Actually, Elizabeth had been particularly touched at the news that the Taranian and Athosian members of Atlantis and Orion's crew had chosen to spend their time in the city as well as visiting their own people. While the Athosians were content with their new settlement on the tentatively-named 'New Athos'- even if Elizabeth still felt they should have been more annoyed at the Ancients basically kicking them off-planet like that- the Taranians were taking advantage of the Orion's presence to have various equipment sent to them so that they could establish a colony similar to what they'd had on their home world. They obviously couldn't rebuild the force-field that the Taranian settlement had used originally, but Norina was working on creating a substitute using solar radiation as an alternative energy source. The Taranian scientist acknowledged that it wouldn't be as powerful as the original shield had been, but it should be enough to protect her people from a Wraith attack long enough for them to evacuate through the Stargate before it could break down…
And thinking about worst-case-scenarios was not going to help Elizabeth relax; she couldn't order the rest of her city to take time off and not do it herself.
The only problem was that the thing she most wanted to do was the one thing she couldn't let herself do.
As much as John Sheppard continued to… capture her interest… even after so many of his secrets had been revealed, she was fully aware that she just… wasn't likely to do the same for him. After all, John had originally met 'her' when she was an eighty-year-old woman shortly before 'she' had died of old age; that kind of revelation had to have some kind of impact on how she looked to him…
"Hi," a voice said, interrupting her train of thought. Looking up, Elizabeth saw a good-looking man with a beard in a casual shirt and trousers; she quickly recognised him as Michael Branton, one of the newer additions to the Atlantis Expedition, specialising in interfacing Earth's computers with Atlantis's own systems.
"Hi," Elizabeth said.
"What, uh, what are you doing here?" Branton asked.
"I work here," Elizabeth said, smiling at him despite the strangeness of the question/
"But it's our day off," Branton noted.
"Well, shouldn't you be enjoying your leisure time, then?" Elizabeth countered, cursing the childishness of the response as soon as it left her lips.
"I got a little behind on my research this week," Branton said, indicating the control room. "Just wanted to drop off some results for the next Earth transmission."
"Great," Elizabeth said, as she turned back to the computer. "Good."
"I was thinking about grabbing some food," Branton continued. "Care to join?"
"I can't," Elizabeth said, awkwardly indicating her laptop. "I've got…"
"You're not capable of having lunch?" Branton interjected.
"Yes, I'm capable," Elizabeth said, smiling despite herself.
"Are you planning on eating today?"
"Great," Branton smiled. "Eat with me."
"Look," Elizabeth said, settling for the more publically 'acceptable' explanation for her reticence, "it's nothing personal, but… I make it a point to not have relationships with people who work for me."
"I don't work for you," Branton noted.
"I'm your boss," Elizabeth countered.
"Well, you're my boss' boss, actually," Branton smiled.
"Still, however indirectly…" Elizabeth began.
"Yeah, but with that thinking, everyone on this entire planet works for you," Branton said. "You're not gonna be friends with any of them?"
"Friends is one thing," Elizabeth said, turning back to her laptop to try and avoid this increasingly awkward conversation.
"Oh, you think…" Branton began. "Oh, wait a second, I see what's happening here; you think I'm asking you out on a date."
Elizabeth simply let the other man talk, even as he moved over to sit down opposite her on the other side of her desk. "No-no-no-no, this isn't a date, this is… this is lunch. This is the mandatory refuelling of our bodies. This is putting food in your mouth and chewing it and having something more engaging than a wall sitting across from you. That's all it is."
Despite herself, Elizabeth had to smile at his awkward manner of trying to dismiss her 'concerns'; she wasn't totally convinced that even he was buying his impromptu 'excuse', but he made a valid point about the need for something more interesting than a wall as she ate if she accepted his offer…
"You are more appealing than a wall," she confirmed his initial awkward question in the most neutral manner available to her.
"Great," Branton said as he stood back up. "Now, what say we grab some grub?"
"I still have an hour of work to do, and then…" Elizabeth began.
"Another hour, then," Branton smiled. "I'll see you in the mess hall."
As he walked out, Elizabeth wasn't sure how she should feel about what she'd just done.
Branton had made a valid point that he wasn't directly under her authority, as she just advised McKay on what she wanted the computer science teams to do and then he passed the orders on, and she had to make some effort to move on from the impossible emotional situation she found herself in, but this was still a bit of a questionable way of doing it…
An hour or so later, having 'cancelled' her original plan with Teyla, Elizabeth had changed into a slightly more casual top and gone down to the mess hall, uninterrupted apart from a brief conversation with Carson Beckett about his own planned day off for a fishing trip, all the while hoping that she wouldn't run into John at an awkward moment; this situation felt strange enough without her being faced with the reason it felt strange.
Branton had been right that this didn't have to be a date, and it wasn't as though she could ever have an actual relationship with John… but that didn't mean that she felt entirely 'right' about this. As much as she knew a relationship with John beyond friendship was an impossibility, it was still hard to completely ignore the desire for something more regardless of how impractical it was…
Shaking that thought off as she settled down for lunch, she had to admit that she enjoyed the casual conversation; after so long focusing on matters of business and the complications faced in running this city, it was actually a relief to have a chance to discuss more personal matters. The conversation about their favourite films had been slightly unusual- she'd never seriously thought about When Harry Met Sally as a 'remake' of anything, and she just felt that Annie Hall took excessive pleasure in making things complicated- but even if she disagreed with the idea that men and women couldn't just be friends, she wasn't going to turn down a chance to have a good meal somewhere more appealing than the mess-hall.
She was almost disappointed that she'd never thought about some of the city's exterior areas as a location for a picnic; she supposed she'd grown so used to thinking of the outside as just somewhere for her to talk with John that she found it 'odd' to think about using it for more conventional purposes.
"It really is beautiful here, isn't it?" Elizabeth said, staring out at the open ocean.
"Yeah," Branton said, as Elizabeth took a last sip of her bottled water. "All done?"
"All done," Elizabeth confirmed with a brief glance at her bottle.
"I guess lunch is over," Branton said.
"I guess it is," Elizabeth said, as she put the bottle down.
"Should have brought dessert," Branton mused. "Would've lasted longer."
"I really should get back anyway," Elizabeth said, lost for a better way to get out of this suddenly awkward moment
"What are you doing tomorrow?" Branton asked.
"Mike…" Elizabeth began.
"Look," Branton said, leaning in to talk to her in a lower voice, "I like you, and I'm extremely charming; I'd like to see you spin those into negatives."
The problem was that the only negative Elizabeth could immediately come up with was a very simple one that she couldn't express; no matter how charming he was, Mike Branton would never be John Sheppard.
"Mike," she said, looking firmly at him to limit the possibility of him misunderstanding what she was about to say, "this has been an… interesting time, but-"
"Oh, don't say 'but'; I hate 'buts'," Branton said, rolling his eyes in frustration.
"This might be cliché, but it's not you; it's me," Elizabeth said, deciding that she might as well be reasonably honest with him even if she couldn't share everything. "It's just… to be completely blunt, I'm still dealing with how I feel about someone else, and it wouldn't be worth your time to get caught up in my mess."
"And what if I think your 'mess' would be worth it?" Branton asked. "Life needs a little interrupting every now and then-"
"You can't just 'interrupt' how I feel and expect things to work out," Elizabeth countered, shaking her head in frustration. "I shouldn't have done this; I thought-"
The sound of her radio gave her a welcome opportunity to withdraw from this conversation before it could get any more personal; whatever anyone else had to tell her, it couldn't be more uncomfortable than this meal had just become.
Hurrying up to the main tower, John had no idea what he expected to find or what he'd actually do when he got there, but in a strange way, it had to be easier than whatever was waiting for him back in the training room.
He'd hoped that he could reassuring Ronon Dex's remaining concerns about his appearance by training with him, but no matter how much control he demonstrated, it seemed as though Ronon was still waiting for him to slip up and demonstrate the trademark Wraithspawn psychopathic 'urges'. He could take a degree of comfort in the fact that Ronon had felt comfortable enough to tell him that he'd been married back on Sateda, but that still left a long way for him to go before the other man felt comfortable treating him as anything other than a colleague.
He appreciated that his face would never make it easy for him to make friends with Pegasus natives when their default response to seeing something like him was to run away before it tore them to bits, but Ronon and Teyla had known him as the Phantom; couldn't they just accept that he wouldn't snap just because they could see what was under the mask now?
As he arrived at the site of the explosion, John tried not to wince at the scale of the damage before him; even after everything he'd done as the Phantom, it still hurt to see Atlantis sustain this kind of damage. He briefly registered Beckett and his team taking Teyla away with a large piece of shrapnel sticking out of her side, but as much as he tried to consider the Athosian a friend, he only had one priority right now…
"What the Hell happened here?" he said, looking urgently at Doctor Radek Zelenka as the Czech scientist removed a breathing mask from his face while studying a warped wall that must have been at least close to the source of the explosion.
"There was an explosion," Zelenka said grimly.
"That's obvious; the question is how?" John asked urgently. "Atlantis doesn't just blow up after thousands of years!"
"I'm still working on that," Zelenka explained. "I wasn't allowed on the scene until the emergency crews cleared the floor; what took you so long?"
"Transporters are down and there were a lot of stairs to climb," John said, indicating his own more casual attire in the process; he still wore the mask for comfort's sake, and kept a couple of small items in his pockets in case of emergencies, but now that he didn't need to hide all the time he'd stopped carrying some of his equipment around Atlantis, simply wearing the usual black BDUs of the rest of the Earth expedition. "Do we have anything on what caused the blast… and what are the casualty figures?"
"Three dead and a dozen wounded," Zelenka explained. "McKay called earlier to say that he thought he'd found something in his lab, but he wouldn't share the specifics. The good news is, though, the structure is intact, so there's no danger of the tower falling down. There is, however, something very odd."
"Specifically?" John asked.
"According to our eyewitness reports, this was caused when Doctor Hewston just… blew up."
His blood ran cold at the thought.
He'd read a few notes about some of the Ancients' more questionable projects, but he'd really hoped that they'd destroyed that thing after the disastrous results of the original experiment…
"No trace of explosive residue, right?"
"Well… no, actually," Zelenka said, looking at John in surprise. "Do you-?"
"I have an idea," John confirmed grimly. "Looks like Hewston stumbled across something I really thought the Ancients would have destroyed earlier…"
He trailed off as a horrible thought occurred to him; he didn't know how long that device took to create the tumours, but he was fairly sure that Atlantis protocols wouldn't allow scientists to go around examining unexplored laboratories on their own…
"Explosive tumours?" Elizabeth repeated, wondering if she'd jinxed herself when she'd wished for something to distract her from the awkwardness of lunch as she looked at John, who'd clearly gone all-out to reach her office after his initial investigation of the explosion.
"From what I found in the city's archives, it was one of the Ancients' less successful anti-Wraith weapons," John explained grimly. "It basically operates by generating a unique form of irradiated particles that have been genetically programmed to enter the humanoid system and gather behind the lungs, collecting various trace elements from the body to create an explosive compound that manifests as a tumour and explodes."
"But they never used it?" Elizabeth asked uncertainly.
"Couldn't work out how to make the irradiated particles only form in the Wraith," John confirmed. "I thought they'd at least destroyed the prototype after the initial experiments, but they must have moved it to one of the outer labs I never got around to investigating…"
"You can't blame yourself, John," Elizabeth said, looking at him with that same casual smile that somehow always made John feel better. "You had a whole city to yourself and a lot of things to deal with; nobody expects you to have catalogued everything in it."
For a moment, as John exchanged a grateful smile with Elizabeth, he could almost imagine that everything was normal…
"Elizabeth, are you there?" McKay's voice suddenly said over the radio.
"Rodney," Elizabeth sighed as she activated her own radio in response, "if this is about the explosion, John already told me about the possible source-"
"He knew about the tumours?"
"You know about the tumours?" John interjected, grabbing the radio from Elizabeth.
"You're there?" McKay asked in surprise.
"I was just telling Elizabeth what I'd found in the archives; do you know if anyone was with Doctor Hewston when she might have been exposed to the device?" John asked urgently.
"I was… just about to ask Elizabeth to start organising a search for Doctor Watson, actually," McKay admitted, tone clearly uncomfortable at the developing situation. "He was with Doctor Hewston when they found some kind of machine that generated irradiated particles last night, but it didn't seem that serious at the time…"
"Damnit…" John groaned, shaking his head in exasperation.
"Let me try this," McKay said, with a moment's pause being followed by another call. "Doctor Watson, Doctor James Watson; report your whereabouts immediately."
"Citywide broadcast?" John said, looking at Elizabeth in surprise.
"The advantage of being in an official position," Elizabeth smiled at him. "You can delegate that kind of authority-"
"He's in the infirmary!" McKay yelled anxiously over the radio, interrupting their conversation. "I'm trying to call Carson-"
"On it!" John confirmed, charging out of the office and heading for the infirmary as fast as he could. "Get an ordinance disposal team down there; I'll see what I can do!"
Watching John run from the office, Elizabeth privately cursed this fresh reminder of what had attracted her interest in John in the first place; he always dived into action if it would give him a chance to save others, regardless of the risk to himself.
Unfortunately, that was the main reason she knew it wasn't worth pursuing a relationship; could he ever show that kind of… commitment to a single person?
Even as he ran from Elizabeth's office, John acknowledged that he didn't really know how long he had until the second tumour exploded, but at least he knew where he had to be if he was going to do anything; he might not have his old array of gadgets, but he could at least move fairly quickly when he didn't have to worry about being caught.
After a few moments of rapid running through the corridors, he finally reached the infirmary level just in time to see various infirmary staff hurrying out of the room in question.
"What's going on?" he asked, grabbing the arm of a nurse he recognised as one of Carson's most regular assistant nurses.
"Doctor Beckett ordered us out of the infirmary while he's trying to extract that… explosive tumour thing!" the nurse said, looking anxiously at John. "Can you-?"
"I'll do what I can," John nodded, hurrying up to the locked infirmary, waving a hand over the control panel, only to find no response.
"Damnit…" he groaned, slumping against the door. He might have installed various security codes in the city to help him access most locations in an emergency, but as part of his new official role in Atlantis, he'd been forced to give certain members of the senior staff the ability to override those codes in cases where they had a more specialised view of the situation.
He wanted to respect his new colleagues' rights, but this kind of thing was a clear example of why he'd preferred acting on his own…
"This is Doctor Beckett," Doctor Beckett's voice said over the radio. "I've extracted the tumour, and I'm opening up the O.R. level."
"Great," John said, smiling in relief as he heard one of the side doors open in the infirmary through the main door. "Just hold on, and the disposal team should be there soon."
"OK…" Doctor Beckett said, before sounding frustrated at the other end of the radio connection. "Damnit; I'll meet them halfway."
"Hold on!" John began, heading for the main door once again, relieved when it opened after the initial lockdown.
"What-?" Doctor Beckett said, turning to look at him in surprise. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd understand-"
"I get that I can't do anything right now; I just thought I'd make sure that you had a good chance of getting out yourself," John said, reaching into his pocket and tossing his shield device to the doctor. "It's been configured for your use; wear it."
"Wear it?" Carson repeated, looking at it in surprise. "But-"
"Even if you can get this tumour to the disposal team in time, there's no way to be sure how explosive this thing is going to be," John said grimly. "I can't stop it exploding, and I think I know you well enough to know that you're not going to abandon this if you have a chance to save someone, but I can make sure that you've got enough of a chance of surviving that blast."
"…Thanks," Beckett said, clipping the device to his chest before he turned back to the small box he'd been carrying earlier. "You'd better move; I have to focus right now."
"Right," John nodded, moving back towards the door. "Good luck."
"Always appreciated," Beckett said as he picked up a scalpel just as John left the room.
"You're leaving him?" McKay said incredulously over John's earpiece. "If that thing goes off-"
"I can't contribute anything to getting that tumour to safety, and I think we all know Doctor Beckett well enough to know that he's not going to leave a patient if there's still a chance to save him, and Elizabeth and I don't have the authority to countermand his orders in a medical situation," John explained solemnly. "I've done what I can to help him."
"How?" McKay protested. "We don't know how long that thing has until it explodes; Hewston was contaminated at the same time and she exploded before him-!"
"We have to have faith," John said firmly. "There's nothing else we can do about it right now."
There was nothing that anyone could say to that statement, so John simply stood outside the infirmary in silence, waiting for a few moments for any sign of the disposal team or Doctor Beckett finishing the operation. This might be a risk, but as he'd said earlier, he had to have some faith that the rest of the expedition knew what they were doing, or he wasn't going to get anywhere continuing some variation of his 'lone wolf' crusade which had only managed to take him so far before the expedition arrived to help him…
"We just made the hand-off-" Doctor Beckett's voice said over the radio, before a loud explosion filled the transmission, followed by a sudden silence.
"Doctor Beckett!" Elizabeth's voice yelled over the radio.
"Carson!" McKay called out anxiously. "Carson, are you there?"
"Fine…" the Scottish doctor replied, his voice sounding shaken but otherwise unhurt. "Took a few knocks… but the shield device… stopped the worst of it…"
"That's… good to know," John said, even as he already knew that the disposal ordinance team probably wouldn't have been so lucky.
He'd done his best to limit the death toll, but he wasn't a god; there were times when all you could do was save one life and hope for the best.