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Chapter 9: Your Heart's an Empty Hole

John blinked slowly against the harsh glare of the infirmary lights as his weary green eyes met her tired yet relieved hazel ones. It felt like he had come full circle. The last thing he remembered seeing before sinking into unconsciousness had been her eyes, and now they were first thing he viewed upon finally awakening.

"Hey you. You're awake." Elizabeth said softly, the relief evident in her voice.

His voice sounded gravelly and slightly hoarse from disuse, as it came out no louder than a whisper. "Apparently."

Elizabeth smiled at the typical John Sheppard remark. It never failed to amaze her how the man managed to respond with sardonic wit no matter what the circumstances. Even still groggy from sleep and pain medication, his quietly drawled reply hinted at the sarcastic sense of humor that was so much a part of him.

"Let me guess, I'm in the infirmary, aren't I?" He asked, slowly becoming more aware of his surroundings.

"Yes, you are." Elizabeth replied.

"Thought so. I'd recognize those ceiling tiles and annoyingly bright lights anywhere. How long have I been here?" The major tried to shift into a more comfortable position. His efforts were rewarded with a throbbing pain that rolled across his midsection, causing him to wince as he spoke.

Noticing his look of discomfort, Elizabeth adjusted the bed controls to ease his upper body into a more upright position as she answered him. "Almost a week. You have been unconscious for five days now. How are you feeling?"

Sheppard nodded his thanks as he settled back down wearily against the pillow. "Doubt I'll be running any marathons any time soon, but I guess I could be worse. I didn't think we'd be rescued in time. I really thought I was a dead man."

Elizabeth inwardly cringed at the sudden reminder of how easily the outcome of this disaster could have been so very different. Her dreams were still haunted by visions of a bloody and battered John lying cold and dead among the rubble. She didn't think she would ever forget that horrible moment when his heart stopped and his last gasping breath faded into utter silence.

Her throat felt constricted as she started to speak, making her voice sound strained and distant. "You were. You were clinically dead for several minutes until Carson was able to get your heart beating again. We thought we lost you."

Noticing the forlorn look in her eyes, Sheppard reached over and touched her arm. "Hey, I'm still here. I told you I would never leave. I meant it."

Elizabeth blinked away the tears that had welled up at the memory of his death. But he was here now and that was all that mattered. She smiled at him to reassure him that she was okay and gripped his hand back. His green eyes studied her intently for a moment before he flashed a small grin back. There was a minute or two of awkward silence while each of them tried to think of a way to broach the topic that both of them had been dancing around since they arrived in Atlantis, but neither openly spoke of until five days ago.

John had lost consciousness before he saw Elizabeth's reaction to his declaration of his true feelings. He had no idea what she felt for him if anything. For all he knew, she only thought of him as a friend. Nothing more, nothing less. In the past, he walked away from relationships before they got too serious, preferring to keep himself from becoming too emotionally involved. By staying detached, he was able to perpetuate the love-them-and-leave-them flyboy image. He thought it was better to disguise the true depth of his emotions and hide from any possible heartbreak. But Elizabeth made him want to change all that. He wanted her to know the real John Sheppard for better or for worse, whatever the consequences.

Elizabeth felt at a loss for words. Fluent in several languages and well versed in discussing a wide range of topics with people from many nations and even a few planets, she nevertheless had no clue where to begin. What was easy to say while John was unconscious proved difficult now that he was awake. He had told her that he loved her, but did he say the words impulsively, meaning only to reassure her when he thought he would not survive? She wasn't sure if he had heard her admitting to feeling the same way before he slipped into unconsciousness prior to their rescue. Even if John had, he probably no longer remembered it.

"John, about what you said earlier...." Elizabeth started to say.

"When?" He asked slightly confused.

"When we were still trapped and you thought you were dying...when you said that you loved me." Elizabeth hesitated, not sure how to continue.

"Oh, that. Well, I...." John was about to cut in when he saw her uncertainty. Unsure how to interpret it, he started to falter himself.

Before either of them could say anything further, they were interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Beckett coming to check on his patient. John glanced at Elizabeth, giving her a look that said they would talk about this unfinished business when they were alone again later.

"Aye, I see you finally decided it was time to wake up now. How are you feeling, son?" The doctor asked as he looked over his medical chart and compared the vital statistics noted with the current readings on the monitors surrounding the bed.

"Other than it hurting when I move or breathe, I'm doing good. But I am pleasantly surprised to find I am still here." The major replied.

"Laddie, I think we all are happy you are still here. It was a close call, it was. I know you like to push my skills to their limits, but I could do without you adding to my stress levels on such a regular basis." Beckett continued with his examination of his patient, testing the major's neurological responses before checking on the progress of his healing wounds.

Giving a satisfied nod, he adjusted the drip on the IV and then injected some pain medication into the line. "There, this should make you feel a wee bit better and help you rest."

"Thanks, Carson, for everything." Already feeling drowsy, the major's eyelids began to droop as he gave in to the effects of the drugs. The expedition head and chief medical officer watched sleep overtake the recuperating man before they spoke next.

"John's going to be okay, isn't he Carson?" Elizabeth asked the Scotsman.

"Aye, he's healing well. I don't anticipate any problems with his making a full and speedy recovery. He'll be up and back to his mischief-making self in no time. We should let the major rest for now. I gave him enough of a dose to keep him under for several hours. Why don't you go to your quarters and get some real sleep yourself, lass? You look done in." The doctor suggested to the tired woman.

"Well, these chairs of yours don't lend themselves to a comfortable night's sleep. I suppose Peter can handle things for a few hours while I catch a few winks." She followed Carson out and headed to her room to heed his advice. Now that John was out of danger, would she allow herself to sleep in the comfort of her own bed. When she reached her quarters, she lay down still in her clothes and slept soundly for the first time in five days.

It was early morning when Sheppard awoke for the second time. Opening his eyes, he turned his head slightly and saw Rodney McKay occupying the chair next to his bed. His attention focused on the laptop screen in front of him, the astrophysicist had not yet noticed the major watching him.

"I see you found another laptop." The major said softly.

McKay looked up from his computer with a slightly startled expression. "Major! You're awake." The scientist put his laptop down on the bedside table and approached his friend.

"You're ever so observant, McKay. Don't let anyone tell you different." Sheppard mocked.

"Well, I see you haven't lost your incredibly poor sense of humor. I thought we asked Carson to remove it when you were in surgery, but I see our pleas fell on deaf ears." McKay countered.

"Don't make me laugh. It still hurts when I do." The major grimaced while he gingerly held a hand to his healing ribs as his short-lived snort of laughter dissolved into a bout of coughing.

"Ah, sorry." McKay hastily reached for a glass of water on the nearby table and offered it to the major. "Here, take a drink of this."

Sheppard took a few sips from the straw before leaning his head back against the pillow. "Thanks, McKay. I mean for getting Elizabeth and me out of there in time."

"Radek was the one who noticed the sensors indicated a structural collapse where you were. I just sounded the alarm. It was my fault you were even in that situation anyways." McKay said.

"What are you talking about?" Sheppard inquired.

"Maybe the concussion you suffered robbed you of recent memories, but I recall my whining about my lost laptop is what sent you on your mission of doom in the first place."

"See, that's where you've got it all wrong, Rodney. Seems to me I volunteered on my own accord. And I didn't see you knocking down any walls in that room. They fell without any intervention from a scientist on a guilt-trip." The soldier insisted.

McKay tapped his head with his finger. "There's nothing wrong with my memories, Major. Hello? Genius brain here with total recall. But I don't expect you to be able to relate to such talents being a military jock."

"Seeing who they allow into their membership, you had to ask me why I didn't join MENSA?" Sheppard muttered dryly.

"I stand corrected, you're a military jock with delusions of grandeur. But, that is something I really would like to discuss at length some other time. Now, I just want to say I'm sorry. I should have never demanded the immediate return of my laptop. It could have and should have waited." McKay apologized.

"Did you just actually admit to making a mistake? Okay, what have you done with the real Rodney McKay? Seriously, what happened is not your fault so stop with the blame assigning right now."

"You know, that sounded like an order. I'm not military so technically you can't order me to do anything, Major." McKay grinned as he folded his arms.

"Yes, you remind me of that fact quite frequently. So take it as strong advice from a friend then." Sheppard suggested.

"Fine. We'll consider this matter dropped."

"Except I didn't manage to retrieve your laptop for you. It's probably still buried under a pile of debris. The data you needed from it might be totally destroyed." The major noted.

"Water under the bridge, Major. Elizabeth's and your safety is far more important than one computer. Besides, Zelenka managed to locate the laptop after we extricated you from the bulkhead wreckage. I should be able to access the data still stored on the hard drive." McKay explained.

"Still? Didn't you tell Kavanaugh you couldn't wait for that data? I seem to recall you were spitting mad when he said he would recover it the next day." Sheppard reminded the astrophysicist as he shifted into a more comfortable position.

"Ah, I see that head injury of yours has indeed impaired your memory. The fact is I was simply reprimanding Kavanaugh for being careless with other people's property. I will use any opportunity at my disposal to drill a lesson in consideration for one's fellow man into that reprobate's self-centered skull from time to time." McKay shrugged.

"Is that right?" Sheppard replied with a hint of skepticism in his voice.

"Do I detect a bit of cynicism, Major? You must be feeling more like your old self."

"I must be."

"Oh, speaking of teaching Kavanaugh a lesson, I have some ideas to discuss with you regarding some retaliation on our favorite chemist." Rodney looked almost gleeful as he thought about the plan he was about to share with the major.

"Do tell, McKay. I'm all ears."

It was about half an hour later when Beckett came to check on Sheppard and had to shoo the astrophysicist out of the infirmary. Telling McKay that the major needed to rest, the doctor escorted Rodney out of the medical bay and made him promise to not come back until tomorrow. By the time the Scotsman walked back to his patient's bedside to dispense his scheduled pain medication, he discovered the recovering man had already fallen fast asleep. It might have been a trick of the lights above the bed, but Carson could have sworn the major had a devilish smile on his face.

Elizabeth nodded hello to various personnel as she made her way towards Major Sheppard's quarters. Doctor Beckett had just released him from the infirmary this morning with the major's promise to confine himself to bed rest only for the next week. Beckett begrudgingly allowed Sheppard to complete his convalescence in his own room provided he adhered to the doctor's strict orders. To make sure the officer complied with his instructions, Carson sent various staff members to check on the major at regular intervals. The Scotsman was determined that nothing impede his patient's recovery.

In the past week since the major regained consciousness, she had been unable to steal any time alone with him. Whenever she managed to tear away from the mountain of paperwork that had accumulated on her desk and sneak down to the infirmary, she found she had to share John's attention with other visitors. Now that the major was out of the coma and on the mend, it seemed a steady stream of people stopped by to check on his progress. Elizabeth was willing to bet that most of the expedition members and even a few Athosians found time to visit his bedside. Much to Carson's dismay, his infirmary was turning into Grand Central Station. That is, until he decided to enforce stricter visiting hours to prevent the well-wishers from taxing the recuperating man's strength.

Now that John was back in the relative privacy of his own quarters, Elizabeth thought she would stop by to see him. It was time to finally finish the discussion they started earlier. Standing outside his door, she paused for a moment before hitting the door chime to try to calm the butterflies in her stomach. She scarcely had time to steel her nerves before a muffled "come in" granted her entry. The door whooshed open, giving her a clear view of the major sitting up in bed, his back cushioned by pillows propped against the wall and his leg stretched out and laying slightly elevated on another pillow. He was attempting to make a dent in 'War and Peace', but his distracted look suggested he hadn't gotten very far. Looking up to see her standing just inside the doorway, he smiled as he closed the book and put it on the nightstand.

"Hi there. What's up?" He asked as she stepped into the room.

"Oh, just thought I would stop by to see how you were settling in. But if you'd rather catch up on your reading, I can come back." She pointed to the book he had just set down.

"No! You just rescued me from falling back into a coma--this time induced by literary boredom." Sheppard blew out a breath and folded his arms.

"But it is such a classic novel, John." Elizabeth said.

"The thing is the classics are always so dry and dull. I tried to convince myself that if I just try, I could get through it. But it just isn't happening. I knew I should have brought a Tom Clancy novel instead." The major sighed in reply.

"Well then, maybe it's a good time to talk." Elizabeth pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down.

"Okay. What's on your mind?" John asked looking directly at her.

"Us. I mean where our relationship stands with each other. You did confess certain feelings when we were still trapped. I think we should talk about it." Elizabeth began hesitantly.

"Listen, Elizabeth. If you are uncomfortable with what I said to you when we were stuck in that room, I understand. Really I do. I mean, I know you have someone back on Earth." John stammered.

"I did, but it is over. He is there, and I am here. I told him not to wait for me when I left for the Pegasus galaxy. We'd grown apart before I even went to Antarctica. On some level, I probably came here to escape what had basically become an empty relationship. Simon deserves better than what I could give him." Elizabeth admitted.

"And you deserve better than what I can offer you. You should have so much more." He whispered softly as he looked away not wanting to meet her gaze.

"What about you, John?" Elizabeth wondered aloud.

"I got more than I ever thought I would. You gave me the chance to make something better of my life. I'm more grateful for that opportunity than you know. I thought what remained of my career would slowly dead end at McMurdo Base. I never expected to find a place I belonged." Sheppard told her.

"Maybe we both found that. Funny how we had to travel to another galaxy to find it. But we did. Atlantis is now our home and the people in it our family."

"Yep, life has a way of throwing you a few surprises. I always expected to be alone. I used to think it was better that way." John reminisced.

"Well, if anyone had ever told me I would fall for an Air Force flyboy, I would have never believed them. I always distrusted the military. Most of the time with good reason. I still tell myself there are so many reasons this cannot work."

"Elizabeth..." John reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her down to sit next to him on the bed.

"I'm willing to take a chance and see where this goes if you are." He looked into her eyes as if he might try to reach her soul.

"We'll still need to be discrete. After all, as leaders we need to set good examples...

Her weak argument was cut off as John leaned over, cupped the sides of her face with both hands and kissed her deeply. Stunned at first, she didn't resist, but instead moved her arms up around his neck and pulled him closer.

The hell with what people thought. The rumor mill would exist no matter what their relationship. Let people think what they wanted. So what if it undermined her authority. She was willing to take the risk to see this through, and the consequences be damned. They almost lost their chance to finally have something special. She almost lost John for good. The most unlikely of circumstances had brought them together and now they were being given a second chance. Both of them meant to take it, for they might never get another. Finally separating, they each pulled back a moment to catch their breath.

"Wow. I guess it was worth the wait." Elizabeth grinned at him, her hazel eyes full of emotion.

"You guess? You mean, you don't know? Maybe we ought to try again just so you can be certain." John smiled as he teased her.

"You're right. I really should make sure." She reached over and brushed her lips gently over his.

As she pulled back a second time, she looked at him intently before speaking. "Yes, I am sure."

"Good, because I've never been more certain of anything in all my life. I love you, Elizabeth. Don't ever doubt that." John leaned back against the wall behind his head and pulled her close to nestle against his shoulder.

Resting her head against his chest, she snuggled closer as she replied. "I love you too, John Sheppard, and always will."

It felt so natural to be sitting together, talking about everything, sharing their hopes and dreams with each other. After coming so close to losing it all, they were happy to finally be able to openly and freely express what they felt. Nothing could be more right than what they had together today. Starting now, they planned to not waste any more of their tomorrows.

Several weeks later Rodney was coming out of his lab with Radek when they saw Weir and Sheppard walking along together further down the corridor. The major was leaning heavily on a cane while Elizabeth strolled next to him. Rodney knew that Carson had prescribed daily walks as physical therapy to build up strength in John's healing leg now that he was out of the cast. Since the pair was heading away from the science lab, they were unaware of McKay and Zelenka watching their slow, but steady progress. As he studied his friends as they made their way along the hall, Rodney noticed Elizabeth supported Sheppard gently with an arm around his waist. The major had his head angled towards Weir, gazing at her as she looked back up at him and laughed softly at something he was saying.

Tapping Zelenka in the arm, Rodney stated with a smug smirk on his face. "Pay up, Radek."

"Rodney, what are you talking about? Zelenka asked in confusion.

"Last month's pool. Remember you bet me that there was nothing going on between Major Sheppard and Dr. Weir, and I told you they were destined to become an item? Well, I win. Pay up." McKay insisted.

Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose and squinted as he scrutinized the departing couple as they turned the corner and headed out of sight.

"Hmmm. Ah, they do look close now, but how can you be sure there is a relationship there? Have they admitted it? Do you see them on a date? Could be just very good friends, yes?" Zelenka was hedging.

"Radek, come on. Are you blind? Does your eyeglass prescription need updating? Have you not been noticing how much time Elizabeth and the major spend together? Hello? The significant looks they give each other? It is so obvious to anyone with half a brain." McKay stated confidently.

"Give yourself more credit, Rodney. You must have a whole brain to be as smart as you say you are. But I will give you benefit of doubt. It was three Power Bars, yes?" The Czech scientist replied.

"I distinctly remember the deal was for four, not three." The astrophysicist answered.

"All right, greedy man. You drive a hard bargain. Come by my lab later to collect your spoils." Zelenka rolled his eyes before taking his leave and walking down the hall back to the science lab.

Rodney smiled with smug satisfaction as he snapped his fingers and clapped his hands together. Then turning in the other direction, he headed off to find Ford, Grodin, and Stackhouse. He had more betting pool payoffs to collect before the day was done.

A few days later, Elizabeth was meeting with Dr. Kavanaugh and a team of scientists to discuss their latest analysis of the composition of several Ancient alloys used throughout the city. The longhaired scientist sat down at the conference room table after setting up his laptop to display flow charts and test data on the room's viewer screen. The rest of the group settled in the remaining chairs around the circular table.

As soon as Kavanaugh opened his laptop and turned it on, an unexpected sound began emanating from the computer before it filtered through the network connection into the city's speaker system, loudly broadcasting to the far corners of Atlantis. It was a song. Instantly familiar to those who celebrated the spirit of Christmas, the odd little melody spoke of a certain green Dr. Seuss curmudgeon with a heart three sizes too small.

'You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch. You really are a heel...'

All eyes were drawn to Kavanaugh as he frantically tried to shut the music off. Even though he was currently more red than green, the similarities to the well-known children's book character were all too apparent to everyone in the room.

"Dr. Kavanaugh, are you having a problem with your laptop?" Elizabeth asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Uh, no. Yes! Give me a minute to put an end to this infantile farce, Dr. Weir." Kavanaugh sputtered as he hit different combinations of buttons on his keyboard.

"Maybe we can continue this presentation at another time?" Weir suggested, trying to keep a straight face while the others chuckled.

The music continued over the loudspeaker...'Your heart's an empty hole'...

"No, no. I should be able to stop it momentarily."

...'I wouldn't touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole!'...

Kavanaugh's efforts had absolutely no effect. Once channeled into the speaker system, the song took on a life of its own, not stopping at the command of one scientist with a less-than-loveable personality. Nothing worked-not rebooting the laptop, not disconnecting it from the network, not even shutting it down and unplugging the power supply. Much to Kavanaugh's chagrin and everyone else's total enjoyment, the song continued to play in full stereophonic sound.

Frustrated, the hapless chemist pounded the desktop next to his computer with his fist. The last refrains of the familiar tune wafted out of the speakers and finished echoing down through the gate room.

...'The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote, "Stink, stank, stunk"!'

As the music died away amid the chortles and now unrestrained hoots of merriment, Kavanaugh pursed his lips as his face, already red with embarrassment, contorted in anger. Steaming, the scientist picked up his laptop and bolted out of the conference room, the raucous laughter of his fellow teammates heralding his hurried departure.

Elizabeth looked away, biting her lip to hold in the laughter threatening to erupt. Turning towards the glass wall that looked out to the observation deck above the gate room, she spotted Sheppard, McKay, Zelenka, and Beckett hanging oh so nonchalantly by the balcony rail. Noticing her watching them through the window, they flashed her what they thought were their most innocent looks. Trying her best to hide her amusement, she leveled a stern look back at them, noticing each failed miserably at disguising the guilt in their faces. She almost lost it entirely when the four of them abruptly disbanded and headed quickly in different directions, suddenly anxious to leave the scene of the crime. None of the co-conspirators wanted to experience the wrath of Kavanaugh. Nor were they eager to stick around to see the rest of Elizabeth's reaction. They might be certifiable, but they certainly weren't stupid.

Elizabeth managed to maintain her disapproving stare until they all disappeared from sight. Carson shot down the stairs as if his life depended on it. Zelenka walked as fast as his legs could carry him out of the gate room, suddenly intent on the data readout on a portable scanner. Rodney lingered for a split second, but his fear got the better of him, and he made himself scarce. Major Sheppard was the last to vanish from view, though even he made steady progress for a man still hampered by a limp and a cane. Watching their retreating backs, she finally lost her composure and dissolved into a fit of giggles.

Bickering and childish pranks aside, Elizabeth was happy to see things were finally getting back to normal. Yes, her boys will be boys and she wouldn't have it any other way.

The End

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