Summary: All hail the mighty Google.
Other notes: As bluebanrigh already figured out, this plot is loosely based on an episode of The West Wing entitled "The US Poet Laureate". Also, this takes place approximately three years after "Hallowed Halls", the inaugural fic of the AU.
This semester, Tuesday was the only weekday on which Elizabeth Weir didn’t end up having lunch with professor-errant John Sheppard. Sometimes they went to a local restaurant, and other times they just brought food to Elizabeth’s office, but it was regular enough that her assistant Peter was generally quite amused by it all.
But on Tuesdays she met up with a few of the women of the faculty, where she tended to get quite a lot of gossip about the other departments. Elizabeth wasn’t even entirely sure how that tradition had started, but she suspected that Janet Fraiser had been responsible for it. She was an old friend of Sam Carter’s, and Sam needed to get out of her lab badly. The skirmishes in the physics department were starting to get out of hand. Elizabeth, on the other hand, really wanted to get out of the politics of being dean. As the first woman in Langford’s history to hold the position of dean of the law school, her appointment had bred some resentment among the older professors who’d been there longer and had been passed over for the position, those who thought she had been appointed purely on the basis of being a woman. It was rubbish, as President Hayes had reminded her over and over, but the accusations still bothered her.
It was on one such Tuesday, after a rough meeting with two of her professors, that she went to lunch with the girls and came back to the office in a considerably lighter mood. Peter was still out to lunch, but Elizabeth was in no way surprised when she saw the door to her office slightly ajar. Smiling, she pushed it open a little more and caught sight of a familiar scene.
John, having finished with classes for the day, was in her chair, staring intently at her computer screen. His hair was looking particularly unruly, and he’d loosened his tie in order to undo the top button on his shirt. Elizabeth had always wondered what he’d look like if he paid half as much attention to his appearance as he did to the mathematical principles behind Maxwell’s Laws. But given the amount of attention he already garnered, she figured it was a good thing he didn’t care.
“Elizabeth,” he said as the door creaked, “this is disturbing. . .”
“You found the pictures of me in a bikini?” she joked.
One brow rose. “There are pictures of you in a bikini on this computer?”
She walked up to the desk and pulled at the drawer in front of John. It stuck a little, so he placed his hand over hers and yanked the drawer open. As she slipped a notepad into it, she said, “On a computer that IT people regularly have access to.”
He looked adorably crestfallen. “Guess not.”
Elizabeth gave him a small, mischievous smile. “I keep those on my laptop.”
“Well, as nice as that train of thought is,” he replied, “that’s not the disturbing thing.” He pointed at the monitor. “Look.”
She did so, turning around and sitting on the arm of the chair. John put his hand on her hip to steady her. A Google page was displayed on the monitor. Under it were links, with the words “John” and “Sheppard” in boldface. Elizabeth frowned. “You Googled yourself?” she asked, glancing up to where “John Alan Sheppard” was entered in the search field.
“You’re not looking well enough.”
He moved the cursor and clicked on the first link. A page popped up with a rather large picture of him in a nicely designed website. Elizabeth glanced at the address. “Careless-Hair-dot-com?” she read, incredulous.
“I don’t know who these girls are,” he replied, “but it’s freaking me out.”
“Yes, they could have gotten their title from someone other than Jewel.”
“Okay, now you’re starting to freak me out.”
“Well,” Elizabeth replied, commandeering the mouse and closing the window, “let’s talk about something else. Do you have a tuxedo?”
“No. . .”
“Can you get one by Friday?”
“Yeah. . .”
She stood up and rolled the chair away from a drawer. As she opened it and pulled out a pair of tennis shoes, he said, “Elizabeth, do I get to know why you want me to get a tux by Friday?”
She looked up and smiled disarmingly. “Can’t be a surprise?”
“We live in the middle of a cornfield, Elizabeth. Do you know how far I have to drive to get a tux?”
“To Lincoln, I’d imagine.” Elizabeth stood up and took her heels off, dropping them into the drawer before nudging it closed with her foot. “Why’d you say you could get one by Friday?”
“Because I’m going to Lincoln tomorrow anyway, and I can do that while I’m there.”
“Why are you going to Lincoln?”
“Do you just have to know everything?”
“I let you hide from sorority girls in my office, and I talked Hill into letting you stay in the law building when I could have shipped you back to Asbestos Hall.”
“And I said I could get a tux by Friday before asking why.”
“It’s a ball,” she said, hands on hips. “It’s the trustees’ annual Christmas ball, and a lot of people with money or power or both are going to be there.”
The door creaked again, and both of them looked up to see Peter Grodin in the doorway. “Excuse me, Elizabeth,” he said. “You’ve got Carleton and Briggs in five minutes.”
“We didn’t cancel that?” she asked.
“We postponed it last Thursday. Would you like me to cancel it?”
“No, by now they’re on their way over from C lot.”
Peter closed the door behind him, and John looked up at Elizabeth with surprise. “Between you and old clients, it’s a wonder I ever get anything done.”
“You’re meeting with old clients?” John asked as she opened the drawer again and changed back into her heels. “Carleton and Briggs?”
“No, Carleton and Briggs are two lawyers I used to work for.” Closing the drawer, she added, “This should be their quarterly attempt to get me to work for them again.”
“And the old clients?”
“Are at the Christmas ball. One of them, anyway,” she replied, turning around to pull a file from a shelf. “A man named Dillon Everett. I got him off in a case that was impossible to defend, and ever since he’s been trying to buy me a drink.”
“And you think having the hottest professor on campus at your elbow will stave off unwanted advances?”
“You’re right. That’s totally unrealistic.”
“Well, I’ll let you have your office back,” he said, getting out of her chair. She handed him the file. “What’s this?”
“Pictures of me in a bikini.”
His jaw almost hit the ground. “Really?”
“No.” Elizabeth glanced up, smiling with amusement. “You left that in here Friday. I think it’s an exam you haven’t graded yet.”
He opened the file and leafed through it. “Really wish you hadn’t found this.”
“I told my Cal III class this morning they were going to have to take this test over.”
Shaking her head, Elizabeth started pushing John toward the door. “Out,” she said. “I have important people to get rid of, and you’ve got a test to grade.”
“You’re no fun,” he muttered as he opened the door and headed into the outer office.
“Tell it to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, John,” she replied, standing with her back against the door and her hand on the doorknob. “And John?”
“Yeah?” he said, turning around at the exit.
“Stay away from that website.”
As the door closed behind him, Peter looked up at Elizabeth. “Are you done flirting for now?” he asked.
“I was not —” At the look he gave her, Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Oh, just give me the file on Clayton’s torts class. I’ll look at it after Carleton and Briggs leave.”
In the middle of Wednesday morning, Elizabeth had to call John to cancel their usual lunch. He was in class, so she had to leave a message, and thus didn’t find out how distracted he was until Thursday, when she was curious enough about his absence from her office to head down the hall.
She slipped inside without knocking, and found John staring at his computer screen, obviously engrossed. As quietly as she could, she walked up behind him, and then she suddenly said, “Hard at work?”
He jumped a few inches at the sound of her voice. “Elizabeth!” He looked over his shoulder and tried to smooth his hair. “Don’t do that!”
“Sorry,” she said, though not remotely meaning it.
“You should wear a bell around your neck or something.”
“Thanks. I think.” A little bewildered, she glanced at the computer screen. “What are you doing?”
He minimized the window on the monitor and turned his chair around. “Elizabeth,” he said, “how long have we known each other?”
“Since we met or since you moved into this building?”
“Since I moved into this building.”
“And in four years, you’ve been in this office once.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Once, Elizabeth. And that was the day you helped me move in. What’s going on?”
“Well, I hadn’t seen you since Tuesday,” she replied, realizing how oddly. . . dependent that sounded. “I was a little worried that the girls had finally broken down the door.”
“I was in Lincoln most of yesterday,” he said. “Then I had stuff to do.”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and took another step forward. She glanced at the bottom of the screen and saw the name of the website he’d tried to hide. “John,” she said, “did you go back to that idiot website?”
“It’s not an idiot website, Elizabeth. It’s about me,” he replied. “And, um, no.”
“John!” She reached across him to grab the mouse and maximize the window. There was that fan site again. “John, what did I tell you?”
“Okay, since when are you in charge of me? You’re not my dean.”
“No, but I can have your internet access revoked.” She looked at the web page more closely. “Forums, John?”
“Hey, there’s a whole section where they talk about my classes,” he said, very defensively. “And no, they’re not talking about what I wear to lecture. They’re talking about differential equations and stuff.”
“John, John, John. . .”
“Will you stop saying my name!?”
Abruptly, she swatted his hand off his leg and sat down on his lap. “Elizabeth,” he said, his voice squeaking a bit, “you realize the door’s unlocked, right?”
She ignored him, clicking on a link to the forum’s main page and navigating over to another section of the message boards, one entitled “Speculation”. “No,” John said. “No, not there, . . .”
It was too late. Elizabeth’s eyes widened as she realized what she was looking at. Under the subheading was a list of women around campus, including a few whom she recognized as former students. Her own name was quite prominent, and had the most threads and posts next to it. She barely noticed that John’s hand had landed on her thigh, and that he was trying to roll them away from the desk.
“Elizabeth,” he began, “you know there’s always been speculation about us ever since we met. It’s harmless.”
She grabbed the edge of the desk and stopped him from backing her away. “No, I’m looking at it,” she insisted, clicking the link.
On the next page, she saw a variety of thread titles in sundry states of misspelling. Several of them were outright insulting, and a few used language that made her blush faintly. “Elizabeth,” John said softly, resting his nose against her shoulder.
“Harmless?” she said.
“I didn’t want you to look at it,” he said. “These girls don’t know you, and they’ll never know you. They’re just gossiping.”
Frowning, Elizabeth hovered the cursor over the top thread. “How do they know about the Christmas ball?” she asked.
“I don’t know how they know any of this, Elizabeth,” he replied, “and I don’t know how they get pictures of me, either. Can we close this?”
She was already scrolling through the page, seeing nasty insults at the idea of John inviting her to the trustees’ ball. Then she reached a message in which an anonymous poster pointed out that Elizabeth had, in fact, invited John to it. The message was followed by at least thirty shocked responses, and she was fairly certain that she was just being called a tramp in various ways.
Then her eyes widened again. “John,” she said, “did you post that?”
“Did you tell them I asked you?”
“Elizabeth, let’s go get lunch,” he began.
“No,” she replied. “Did you respond to these people?”
“I was just correcting them!”
“John!” she cried. “The first rule of the internet is that you give a normal person anonymity and an audience and they become crazy!”
“The site has my name on it!”
“So does your office door, but that doesn’t make you come in here when you should.” She stood abruptly and rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “John, if I find out you’ve posted anything else on that site, I’m taking a magnet to your hard drive.”
He looked a tiny bit terrified. “That was it. I swear.”
They stared at each other in silence for a little while, until Elizabeth looked away and said, “I have to finish writing a final.”
John stood and started to open the door for her. “This is probably a bad time to ask,” he started, “but do you still want me to go with you tomorrow?”
“You got a tux already,” she said, dispassionately.
“Yeah.” They stood there awkwardly before John opened the door. “I’ll swing by your house around seven tomorrow night.”
“I’ll see you then.”
She walked off then, heading straight for her office, ignoring Peter’s query about how she was feeling. She didn’t see John watching her go either, a hurt look on his face.
John arrived at her house ten minutes early Friday night, but waited in his Jeep for five minutes before heading to the door. He hadn’t seen her since their argument on Thursday morning, so he was seriously wondering if this was a wise idea.
The oak door behind the storm door was open, so he was unsurprised when he rang the doorbell and heard her call to him to come on in. He’d been in Elizabeth’s house a few times, enough that her dog, Sedge, wasn’t scared by him or unsettled by his presence. He stood in the foyer, feeling a little uncomfortable in his tuxedo, and waited. Then, as the grandfather clock in the living room struck seven, Elizabeth Weir descended the stairs.
John had never been good at categorizing dresses beyond “pretty” and “not pretty”, but this one was definitely of the pretty type. Truth be told, Elizabeth looked stunning. The ball gown was a brilliant red, with a good deal of sparkly to it. It was a perfectly festive dress.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth herself was looking less than festive.
Quickly, John opened her front closet and pulled out her long coat. “You look beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied, less warmly than he had hoped. Clearly, she was still upset with him. “You look nice yourself.”
Smiling, he held up her coat. “Shall we?”
Silently, she let him help her put it on, and they headed out of the house. As his father had taught him in high school, he opened the car door for her, but that did little to alleviate the tension. John tried on several occasions to start some form of conversation on the way to the university, but they were all dead on arrival. This was not a good sign.
She put on a good face when they entered the ballroom, though. Once she was surrounded by people to schmooze with, she seemed just fine, though John could tell she was faking it. He could always tell. He tried to stay with her for a while, but eventually Jack O’Neill came over to take her over to the university president. Having no interest in school politics, John headed over to the bar and waited. If Elizabeth wanted him, she’d find him.
And as he waited, he started thinking about the last day and a half. Yes, Elizabeth was right. He should have stayed away from that website, and he definitely shouldn’t have posted that message. But he’d been so livid after seeing what these cheap girls with their obsession had to say about his friend. No one deserved to be burned in effigy like that, but the idea that people would say such things about Elizabeth simply because of her close friendship with him was infuriating.
He’d never seen her blush before, and he was horrified that he had inadvertently caused it.
With a sigh, John turned away from the ballroom and stared at the marble countertop of the bar. “Something on your mind?” the bartender said.
“Little cliché, don’t you think?” John replied.
The man shrugged and smiled. “Quite a woman you came in with,” he said. “Don’t think I’d let that one go.”
John looked over his shoulder for a minute before turning his back to the bar again. There was a lot of truth to that. She was beautiful and charming, and it didn’t take most people long to figure out that she was brilliant on top of that. He heard her laughing at some joke, and she looked away from the people she was with. Suddenly she was looking right at him, and he thought he saw her blush.
He narrowed his eyes, wondering if just the sight of him was enough to induce that embarrassment again. But then another possibility popped into his mind, quite unexpectedly. The previous day, he’d been surprised at the intensity of her reaction to the site, and suddenly John was wondering if there was something behind that, if perhaps — perhaps — she actually liked him.
John wandered off, rubbing his forehead in confusion. Over the last four years, he’d practically been going through phases of dementia with her. There were days when all he could think about while teaching was how good it would be to get out of class and get to Elizabeth’s office. She had an allure that had drawn him almost since the beginning. There were times when he watched her work late at night, and all he wanted to do was take her paperwork away from her and kiss her senseless. But never in his life had he imagined that a woman like her might return the sentiment.
He had meandered halfway around the ballroom before Elizabeth found him. “John,” she said, “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I’ve been walking,” he replied.
“I’m sorry,” she continued. “I knew Hayes was going to have something to talk about, but I never dreamed it would take so long.” She laid her hand on his arm. “Are you all right?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“John. . .”
Elizabeth was prevented from getting any further than that when a man’s voice filtered its way through the people around them. “Doctor Weir,” someone said. “What a surprise.”
She closed her eyes briefly before turning and smiling. “Mr. Everett,” she replied. “I heard you were going to be here.”
“How many times do I have to tell you to call me Dillon?” he asked. His voice was already starting to grate at John.
Elizabeth ignored the question. “Let me introduce you two,” she said. “This is Doctor John Sheppard, from the mathematics department. John, this is an old client of mine.”
John shook the man’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Everett replied, though he gave John a suspicious look. Then he turned back to Elizabeth. “Doctor, I think it’s high time I finally bought you that drink.”
“No, not now,” Elizabeth replied. “I have some people I need to see.”
“Nonsense. It’ll only take a minute.”
John cleared his throat, getting Everett’s attention. “She said no,” he said. “Does she need to spell it for you?”
Everett’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”
“John Sheppard.” John stuffed his hands into his pockets. “And I’m a good friend of Elizabeth’s, and I’d prefer it if you did what she asked.”
“Is that a fact.”
“No, I’m making that up.”
Everett was apparently intelligent enough to pick up on the liberal sarcasm (though John wasn’t about to give him more credit than that), so he turned to Elizabeth with a congenial look on his face. “Well, I suppose we can talk some other time. Nice seeing you again.”
He walked away before Elizabeth could answer, and she didn’t try to. Looking a little stunned, she turned to John. “What was that?”
John shrugged. “You told me I was here to stave off unwanted advances.”
“Yes, but I thought you’d just take me over to Jack or something.”
“Do you want me to get that guy back and do that instead?”
“No, of course not. What you did was perfect. I can’t thank you enough.” She touched his hand. “Listen, about that website,” she began.
“Please, Elizabeth, don’t.”
“No, I’m sorry I snapped at you,” she replied. “I was just shocked that they were talking that way about me, and I realized that if the trustees or anyone in administration found that site, you’d be open to some very serious legal problems. I had to talk to Hayes just now about legal options for getting that site shut down, as it’s spreading some very false information about you and is damaging to your reputation.”
“So you were just trying to cover me?”
Slowly, she shook her head. “I was more than a little annoyed that you’d told them I was coming here with you.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“You should be. But I think we’ve both made some mistakes in the last couple days,” she added. “Think we can move on?”
He gave her his very best smile, the one he almost never used on anyone but her. “Dance with me?” he said.
He got one of her rare smiles in return. “I thought you’d never ask.”
They slipped out of the party as soon as Elizabeth deemed it safe to escape. She was still quiet on the way out, but John no longer felt like she was going to try to beat the crap out of him at any moment. Then as he shifted the Jeep into drive, he looked at her and asked, “Are you hungry?”
“Not really,” she replied. “Want to go for a walk?”
“It’s fifteen degrees,” he said.
“It’s beautiful,” she countered. She was watching the world outside in wonder. “It’s starting to snow.”
John hit his forehead against the steering wheel lightly. “Can we at least get out of the parking lot?”
She laughed. “Sure.”
She still didn’t say much as he drove out of the lot toward the center of the university. Normally the quad would be covered with students in varying stages of inebriation on a Friday night, but as finals had just finished up that afternoon, most of them were off campus for the winter holiday already. So John parked the car and ran around, almost slipping in the thin layer of snow that had already accumulated, to open the door for her. Elizabeth was trying not to laugh when he did.
She took his hand and stepped out of the car. “Take your coat off,” he said.
She raised a brow. “John,” she said, “it’s fifteen degrees. This gown is strapless.”
“Yeah, and that coat’s not going to be warm for traipsing around.” Sighing heavily, he unbuttoned his heavy overcoat, and she got the idea. The coat fit her remarkably well, considering her slimness.
They headed between the math and physics buildings into the quad. Elizabeth was smiling widely, and John didn’t blame her. It really was picturesque, with the snow falling in the night filled with moonlight. The whole campus looked like it was prime for an Ansel Adams photograph, except for that ridiculous statue on one end of the quad.
“Think there’s any chance we’ll ever get used to that circle thing?” he asked, as they headed in its direction.
“Probably not.” Elizabeth shook her head. “Hayes wants to get rid of it, but Kinsey thinks we ought to leave it up, and he controls half the board.”
“What about Jack?”
“Jack thinks it’s funny.”
They ascended the steps of the statue base and stood under the ring. “At least there’s a nice view from here,” Elizabeth commented.
John looked down and saw that the snow still wasn’t sticking to the stone base. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“John?” He looked up at her. “Can we talk?”
“Any chance we can do this inside? You’re wearing my coat.”
“And you’re wearing six other layers.”
“Four.” With a sigh, he turned around and sat down on the back edge of the statue base, under the ring. Elizabeth followed, though with more difficulty. “What’s on your mind?”
“That website,” she said. “I overreacted yesterday, and it wasn’t just. . . I didn’t tell you everything back in the ballroom.”
“I had a hunch.”
She looked at him, startled. “You did?”
“Yeah, it was just. . . I don’t know.” John looked away. “You’re a good friend, Elizabeth. You just confuse me sometimes.”
A quiet moment passed, and the snow continued to sparkle. “John.”
He turned his head to see her smiling. Then she leaned forward and kissed him softly. It was over in a moment, and she said, “Still confused?”
It took John a second to form words. “Uh. . . yeah. More confused.”
She laughed, and in the middle of it he took the initiative and kissed her again. She tasted like the champagne she’d had at the ball, and her cheeks were warm against his cold fingers. “I think it’s mutual,” she said as he pulled away.
“Merry Christmas,” he replied.
“And now you have my lipstick on you,” she commented, rubbing her thumb against his mouth. “Wouldn’t want some webmaster to see that.”
He laughed a little. “Lizabeth, what are you doing for Christmas?”
“I didn’t have anything particular—”
“Come with me.”
Her eyes widened at his sudden invitation. “Where are you—”
“Sorry,” he interrupted again, smiling sheepishly. “My family’s in Chicago. I’m going for about a week and a half. You could, you know, come along.”
“Would anyone mind?”
“Of course not.”
“John. . .”
“Well, there’s my baby sister.” As Elizabeth raised a brow, he shrugged. “Okay, she’s almost thirty, but she’s still my baby sister.”
“Is this the one who got you the calculus book for Christmas?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yeah. Lydia. Anyway,” John continued, “she’s. . . read a lot about you.”
Elizabeth froze. “How?”
“Well, uh, see, she emailed me this week about how she’d found a website—”
Suddenly Elizabeth smacked his arm. “You went looking for that site!” she cried, half laughing.
“Oww! Yes, I did, so stop beating on me.” He rubbed his arm. “I thought we were moving past that.”
“So,” he said, “will you come? It might be good if we got to figure this out before—”
“Before spring semester’s pledge week comes around and some sorority’s pledge is getting photographic evidence of kissing you?”
“Something like that. That was pretty embarrassing last time.” He rubbed his hand across his hair. “Well?”
“I’d like to.”
Without warning she kissed him again, but John extricated himself quickly. “Elizabeth, is there any chance we can continue this somewhere else?” he asked.
“It’s fifteen degrees, you’re wearing my coat, and whatever this stone is, it’s uncomfortable.”
A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, and she raised a brow. “John, what exactly do you have in mind?”