Rodney shook his head. "I haven't even seen my cat yet."
"One extra day, Rodney," Elizabeth said.
"You don't understand. I've been away from my cat for a year, and while I have faith in his enduring affection, my neighbor who's catsitting is really hot and is home a lot more than I ever was. And she probably feeds him wet food all the time, too, though I specifically told her not to." He waved his hands. "It's not fair to put that kind of pressure on him!"
Elizabeth sighed, pushing her chair back from the conference table. "Your cat won't forget you, Rodney. Take it from me, you're an extremely memorable person. And you're coming tomorrow."
Rodney glanced away for a second, then back. "Look," he half-stammered, "he, um, he didn't invite me, okay?"
His mouth was tight with embarrassment. There had been times in the past—more than a few times, in fact—when Elizabeth had wished Rodney could be just a little more stoic, but now she found herself appreciating his total inability to hide what he was feeling. If he ever met someone new, he wouldn't be able to hide it from his girlfriend for two seconds, much less two weeks. "He didn't invite anyone. General O'Neill tipped me off."
"Well, then," he said quickly, "maybe he doesn't want us there."
"At his promotion ceremony? That's supposed to be a big deal."
Rodney started gathering papers from the table. "Oh, I'm sure he's got lots of family and friends on Earth he'd rather spend time with while he has the chance. He doesn't need us."
"He doesn't have any family, Rodney. And he didn't send a message to anyone on Earth when he had the chance before the attack. If we don't go, there may not be anybody else there."
That used to be a not-very-private joke around SGC, before they left: that the Atlantis expedition was mostly made up of people who nobody on earth would miss. Whenever she overheard it, she would bristle silently, but she couldn't deny there was a kernel of truth in it.
Of course, she'd always thought of herself as an exception to the rule.
"Wow." Rodney stopped. "That would be depressing. But I'm still not sure—"
"When we get back to Atlantis, I'll let you try hooking up that secondary defensive system again."
His eyes lit up. "At full power."
She arched an eyebrow, rising. "Rodney, please tell me you're not trying to negotiate with me."
"What, you'll negotiate with the Genii, but not with—" She kept the eyebrow firmly in place. "Okay, okay. I'll be there."
She headed for the door. "In a suit."
"A suit?" he called after her in dismay.
She kept going. She could see where the conversation would end up, and she really didn't want that defensive system running at three-quarters power. Zelenka would turn purple.
The apartment was very quiet as Elizabeth got dressed the next morning. She was used to waking up alone in Atlantis, but there she always had the sounds of the ocean to keep her company.
Rodney was sleepy-eyed and cranky when she picked him up. She had a large thermos of coffee ready, though, and he spent the short trip guzzling it instead of complaining. Carson, at least, was in a better mood. She made noncommital noises for the rest of the way in response to his cheerful small talk about oatmeal versus shredded wheat as the healthiest possible breakfast, with special reference to effects on the colon. Simon, she tried not to remember, had always preferred to concentrate on working during his commute.
She had been right about the ceremony. When they filed in, the small auditorium was largely deserted. General O'Neill gave her a casual wave from across the aisle. Next to him, looking pointedly dutiful, sat Colonel Caldwell. There were a few other officers she recognized vaguely from SGC, but all of them together didn't fill two rows.
"He climbed on top of a nuke," Rodney muttered, still clutching the thermos. "This seems a little inadequate."
"I know," Elizabeth said. She reached over and tried to straighten his hideous tie until he slapped irritably at her hands.
When the ceremony started and John entered, Elizabeth hardly recognized him. She had never seen him in full Air Force service dress. He looked like a different person, from a different world, in the neat dark blue uniform with every badge and tab precisely in place and a blank expression. She had always been highly skeptical of the military, and even though her time on Atlantis had made her appreciate their value in a much more immediate way than she ever had before, they still seemed a little alien to her. She had probably gotten along with John so well because they seemed to be alien to him, too. But there he was, wrapped in their different traditions, different values, as if that was what he really was.
And yet she couldn't help feeling the rightness of it, too. He had made such sacrifices for them—had fought his way singlehanded through an Atlantis filled with enemy soldiers to save her life, had, as Rodney said, strapped himself to a nuclear weapon to protect Earth. Because it was his duty. He deserved a moment, a solemn, ritual moment, where the service that had never seemed to have much use for him formally embraced him. When General Landry said, "The President of the United States, acting upon the recommendation of the Secretary of the Air Force, has placed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, integrity, and abilities of Major John Sheppard," she had to press her lips together a little.
After the ceremony ended, John came over to them. "I take it I have General O'Neill to blame for this?"
She smiled at him. "As leader of the Atlantis expedition, Lieutenant Colonel, I take full responsibility. Congratulations."
"You really didn't have to come," he said. He was frowning slightly, but in his eyes lurked a shy pleasure she had learned to recognize over the past several months.
"Yes," she said firmly, "we did."
He met her gaze for a minute, expression softening, then glanced over. "Rodney, are you wearing a suit?"
"Yes," Rodney said, "and you have no idea how uncomfortable it is. Also, I'm starving. What's next on the agenda? Powerbars and punch in the fellowship hall?"
"Sorry, Rodney, I didn't bother with a reception."
Rodney looked aghast. "Now that, Maj—"
"Lieutenant Colonel," Elizabeth interjected.
"—whatever, is just wrong. The only excuse for formal events is the food!"
John rolled his eyes. Elizabeth said carefully, "Speaking of eating, Colonel, we weren't sure what your plans were for this evening, but we were thinking of all going out to get something. If you're free, you're welcome to join us."
"Let me check my social calendar." He was quiet for a couple of seconds, then the corner of his mouth twitched. "All right, checked. Looks like I'm available."
"Good. Conference room at 5:30?"
"Sounds like a plan. Now, if you'll excuse me"—he threw a grim look over at the other side of the auditorium—"I'd better go make nice with the brass. I'm sure giving me a promotion was a difficult moment for them."
Elizabeth watched him as he went over to salute O'Neill, the very picture of a rising young officer. She couldn't quite repress a smile.
5:30 had turned to 6 by the time she managed to pry everyone, including herself, away from their work; the sun was going down as they emerged into the parking lot. When Elizabeth hit the button to unlock the doors of her rented SUV, John called, "Shotgun!", speeding up and cutting off Rodney's approach to the passenger side.
"What are we, fifteen?" Rodney complained.
John clambered into the front seat, ignoring Rodney's protests, and the other two followed. When everyone was belted in, Elizabeth started to back the car out—only to nearly run into another driver, who honked impatiently.
"Wow," she said, clutching the wheel, trying to get her breath. "Sorry."
"Is it just me," John said, "or does traffic seem really weird to you now?"
She gave him a grateful look. "Yes, it does."
"You just miss Ancient technology," Rodney said. "'Want me to adjust the inertial dampeners, Colonel? Lock missiles on target now, Colonel? How about a nice turkey sandwich?'"
"Last I checked," John said dryly, "you hadn't licked the turkey sandwich dispenser problem."
"Well, as soon as we get back, I'll get right on it."
"That wouldn't be very sanitary," Carson said.
"You do that." John leaned over and started fiddling with the radio. Bringing you classic rock of the 70s and 80s... "Oh, good."
"Oh, great," Rodney groused.
"Gentlemen," Elizabeth said, "how about letting me concentrate on not killing us in our primitive combustion-engine vehicle?"
The restaurant was a good, quiet French place that she had been to a few times before and always enjoyed. John raised an eyebrow as they went inside, and Elizabeth instantly felt his point. They were dressed appropriately enough, but somehow they still didn't seem to fit in with the crowd of well-appointed professionals and older couples who sat quietly at the tables, laughing softly and murmuring to each other. She had never felt that way when she was there with Simon. She wondered whether the place had changed, or she had.
John was looking a little tense, and she was glad that she had had the foresight to request a corner table. They ordered a Beaujolais to start, and everyone began drinking with a bit too much relief. After a couple of minutes, their waiter came back over. "What would you like to start with this evening?"
"I don't even know what an amuse-bouche is," Carson said mournfully, staring at the menu.
"I have a question." Rodney, who had been poring over his own menu, cut in. "What's in the dressing for the salad Nicoise?"
"It's a vinaigrette."
"Yes, I can read that. What kind of acid is in the vinaigrette?"
"Lemon juice, I believe."
"Oh, lovely, salad with a free side of anaphylactic shock. That's just what I'll be having, thank you."
"I think we need another minute or two," Elizabeth said to the waiter, whose eyebrows were climbing to the ceiling. He sniffed and withdrew.
"I miss the commissary," Rodney sighed, still engrossed in the menu.
"Are you kidding me?" John said.
"No. I knew exactly what went into everything."
"Is that the kind of thing you want to know?"
"Yes," Rodney said. "It was safe. I had a whole system. I knew what I could eat every day of the week."
John looked across the table at Elizabeth. "Have you been here before, Elizabeth? Recommend anything?"
"Yes," she said. "I have. I—"
She'd just gotten back from Oslo. She'd had turbot in a champagne-cream sauce, absolutely delicious. Simon had told her that he hated it when she went away, but that it was almost worth it because he was so happy when she came back.
She should never have come there again. Not that there were many local restaurants they hadn't been to. Simon loved food, and she had loved doing anything that gave him so much pleasure.
"I can't say. The menu's different than it used to be," she said finally.
They all looked at her, even Carson. She swallowed. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the waiter observing their table with a faint expression of disdain.
There was a long silence.
"Screw it," John said, and threw his napkin on the table. "I'm for night skiing. Who's with me?"
Elizabeth tried not to feel as relieved as everyone else looked.
"I'm hungry, though," Rodney said uncertainly.
"We'll stop by a gas station, get you a nice handful of Powerbars, maybe some Hot Pockets. Dinner of champions. How does that sound?"
"I'm just as happy to get out of here before someone tries to amuse my bouche," Carson said, "but I promised my mum I wouldn't go putting myself in any unnecessary danger."
"Carson, you travelled to another galaxy," Rodney said. "A galaxy where they eat people."
"That was for medicine! My mum would never forgive me if I let a little danger get in the way of helping people who needed it. But skiing—nighttime skiing—that's a whole other question."
"I have to admit, I support this plan," Elizabeth said. "The atmosphere in here is a little..."
"Oppressive?" Carson said.
"Allergenic?" Rodney suggested.
"Hostile?" John muttered.
A smile escaped her. "I was going to say thick."
"I'm not very good at skiing," Rodney said.
"I thought all Canadians could ski."
Rodney looked incredulous. "Yes, Elizabeth, and we're all lumberjacks and drink two liters of maple syrup a day and live at Tim Horton's."
She laughed. "Sorry, Rodney."
"So, if we're quite through with the ethnic stereotyping—which is probably a violation of the SGC personnel regulations, now that I think about it—"
"We'll stick to the bunny slopes," John said. "Night skiing is very relaxing. Totally different from going in the day. We can drop Carson off while we're picking up clothes. Okay?"
Rodney sighed. "Well, it's your party."
"That's right. It is. And I say we go for it. Elizabeth?"
She was already signalling the waiter.
The moon was full when they reached the resort. In the main lodge, Rodney, who was bundled in approximately twenty layers of winter clothing, blinked around at the young people chattering and flirting.
"Isn't it kind of weird to see all these people going around, not even knowing the world practically ended?"
"Yes, it is," Elizabeth said, "and can we please try to keep it that way?"
"What?" He blinked, and then waved a hand. "Oh, security. It's not like they could understand what I was saying anyway."
"Have you been off the base at all since we came back, Rodney?" John asked.
"Not really," Rodney said defensively. "I was supposed to—"
Elizabeth stepped on his foot.
Outside, her cheeks quickly grew pink in the crisp air. It was a weeknight, most of the skiiers had retired to the bar, and the slopes were almost deserted. The floodlights gave the snow an unearthly glow, but on all sides the mountains fell away into darkness, textured only by the dim shapes of tall trees. Above them, the sky reached in every direction without interruption from civilization.
John squinted down at the run. "Easy as pie, Rodney."
He took off, rapidly gathering speed, going out of his way to hit the hardest spots, and curving at the bottom into a long arc sending up a graceful spray of snow.
"Showoff," Rodney muttered.
"Would you like me to go next?"
"No, really, one humiliating demonstration of superiority is quite enough." He swallowed hard and was gone. Despite some wobbles, he reached the bottom in one piece, pumping his fists in self-congratulation.
The run wasn't much of a challenge, but she found herself, like John, reaching for as much speed as possible. She wanted to fly. They took several trips down, and Elizabeth grew more and more exhilarated. The cold air made her giddy with breathlessness; she revelled in the cleansing chill. Suspended there in the strange light on the side of the mountain, she felt the rest of the planet was very far away from them. John had visibly relaxed, lapsing into a natural, unstrained quiet. Meanwhile, Rodney had quickly grown cocky about his abilities.
"Admit it: this is just another aspect of my natural genius," he said, as he set himself to go down ahead of them again. His tone was so smug that Elizabeth couldn't even bring herself to scold when John yelled, "Incoming Dart!" and Rodney shrieked in alarm, swerved, and ended up in a snowbank.
John doubled over laughing, and Elizabeth had to grab his arm to keep from doing the same. Rodney's irate complaints floated up the slope to them.
"We'd better go pull him out," she said, when she could get her breath, and he nodded, eyes still watering with laughter. When they reached him, he was still buried in the bank, waving his arms and legs helplessly like a turtle on its back.
"C'mon, natural genius, on your feet," John said, as they both reached down to offer him a hand. Rodney grabbed them, started to pull himself up, and then abruptly flopped back down again, dragging them both with him.
"Rodney!" they squawked in unison.
"I regret nothing," Rodney said with grim satisfaction.
Elizabeth rolled over in the snow, as did John. She was half-sprawled on top of Rodney; John's arm ended up against her shoulder. With the snow all around, she could feel their comparative warmth even through the layers of winter gear. Looking straight up, she could see the stars, and she felt utterly uninclined to move. The other two weren't stirring, either.
"Can we see Pegasus from here, Rodney?" she asked.
"Not without a telescope, especially not with these lights, but it would be about...there." He pointed.
They all stared up, their condensing breaths mingling and drifting away. One more month.
Simon would never see what they did. Never understand.
"All right," Rodney said finally, "now that we've apparently had a moment, let's concentrate on staving off the other moment, the one where Rodney lapses into hypothermia, because that one will be much less fun for all of us."
"I think it's time for the drinking portion of the evening's festivities," John said as they all struggled to sit up.
"I concur," Elizabeth said.
"I think—hey!" Rodney yelled again as John stuffed snow down the back of his jacket. "What—"
"I just wanted to see if I could get you to scream like a little girl again," John said innocently. "Because that was really impressive."
"You—" Rodney spluttered and started slapping snow at him with his mittens. John began scooping together a snowball, and matters looked dire.
Elizabeth got to her feet. Time to demonstrate her famous powers of leadership. "Senior staff! Hot toddies or hypothermia, your choice."
"All right," they grumbled, and followed her towards the lodge.
The main lodge was crowded with raucous, happy college kids who had been working on finishing out the evening for a couple of hours already. They acquired several thermoses full of drinks and negotiated their way to a deserted back room, where a low fire burned in front of a comfortable-looking couch, and dropped down gratefully into it, one of them on each side of John. Elizabeth took a long drink from her mug and felt her muscles slowly unknotting. Rodney and John already had their feet up, and she couldn't resist joining them. They sat there quietly for a little while, letting their drinks and the fire warm them.
"I wonder what's going on back—on Atlantis," John mused.
"Teyla's instituted a dictatorship," Rodney said matter-of-factly. "The marines couldn't possibly stand up to her."
"Rodney," Elizabeth said, "we get reports through the gate every day. I think someone might have mentioned that."
"You think she doesn't know enough to control the reports? Besides, Zelenka's always been jealous of me. I'm sure he's collaborating with her."
"Zelenka's not jealous of you, Rodney."
"Well, if he wasn't before, he is now, what with my promotion—oh, wait. I didn't get a promotion. Never mind."
"You're already head of the scientific team."
"And Major Sheppard here is head of the military team, but he got one."
"What kind of title are you looking for?" John asked. "'Most Exalted Galactic Poobah of Science?''"
"Oh, I'd settle for doctor squared."
"Very modest," Elizabeth said, trying not to giggle. The brandy was very good. "You know, I didn't get a promotion, either."
"You're already queen," Rodney said. "What more do you need?"
Queen. She'd never admit it, but she liked the sound of that. She laid her head back against the cushion, which gave easily under her weight. "Oh, I can think of a few things."
"What?" She sat back up abruptly. John gave her a look, but Rodney didn't notice, going on.
"Well, there is some guy, right? You sent a message home in the databurst, and you've been disappearing every evening to an undisclosed location, which you wouldn't do just to watch reruns of Friends." He said it as calmly as if he were making a scientific deduction. "I'm actually a little surprised you're out with us tonight. Unlike the rest of us, don't you have somewhere to be?"
She bit her lip. All this time she had tried to keep her professional and personal lives separate, and it hadn't done any good. Well, there was no point in maintaining the effort now that she didn't have a personal life. "Not anymore," she said simply.
"Oh." Rodney flushed, giving her a stricken look. "I—that is, I assumed—I mean, you usually—" She felt John throw him an elbow. "I'm sorry—"
She raised a hand. "It's—it's all right, Rodney."
John made a sound that sounded like a suppressed sigh and slid his hands onto her shoulders. For a second, she tensed, then she realized that no one here knew them—knew anything about who they really were. They might as well not even be real. So she gave in, leaning back and letting John gently work his thumbs into her neck muscles.
Rodney reached forward to pour her her next drink and then shifted himself, draping his legs over the arm of the couch. "Colonel Carter is seeing someone," he said awkwardly after a minute. "It's serious."
"I thought...finally, I've been in the field, I get the whole SGC team..." He waved his hands. "Concept. I was actually beginning to be worthy. The first thing I did when I got back was get a haircut and a nice shirt and go see her. But apparently I took a little too long to catch up." He swallowed more of his toddy. "Who am I kidding? She's way out of my league."
"Hey." John clunked his head backwards into Rodney's. "Stop letting down the side."
"It's the truth," Rodney said morosely.
"Plenty of fish in the sea."
"Samantha Carter is not some fish! Samantha Carter is a once-in-a-galaxy phenomenon."
"Lucky we live in a whole new galaxy, then, isn't it?"
"Hm," Rodney said. "I never thought of it that way." He fell silent.
"He has a point," Elizabeth said, finding she could talk again. John's hands were warm and strong, working loose the pain that had been stuck in her chest since Simon's bombshell.
"Still, Colonel Carter..."
"I know," John said, and Rodney shifted again, settling more fully against John's back.
There was another long silence. John wasn't particularly expert, but Elizabeth's muscles were still quickly turning into butter beneath his hands. Even the calluses on his fingertips felt strangely soothing. She finished her third round and turned her head so she could almost meet his eyes. "What are you thinking about?"
"I went to see Ford's family a few days ago," he said. He didn't change his tone of voice, but she could feel his hands tense.
"Jesus, poor Ford," Rodney muttered.
"How are they taking it?" she asked.
"About how you'd expect."
"That was good of you. They'd already been notified. You didn't have to—"
"Yes, I did."
Now he'd stopped, and was looking away. She put a hand on his. "It wasn't your fault, John."
"She's right, you know, Colonel," Rodney said. "Take it from Atlantis's expert at placing blame."
"You don't understand."
"Yes, I do," she said. "He was my responsibility just as much as he was yours, John. Don't tell me I can't get what that means because I'm not military. I'm Atlantis, and so are you."
"I guess we are, aren't we?" John murmured, and he sounded surprised at how much he believed it.
"Oddly enough," Rodney said, "yes."
"And so is he. We'll get him back."
"John." She caught his chin. "I'm in charge, and I said we'll get him back. That means we're getting him back."
He gave her a crooked smile with the corner of his mouth. She released him and slid back into her former position. Rodney sighed and got them their last drinks.
Some time later, the fire crackled, stirring her from a half-doze. John, whose head was now pillowed on hers, started a little, muttered something, and grew still again. Rodney, sprawled out against John, didn't move. Elizabeth cradled the mug in her hands, listening to their slow breathing.
She had surprised herself with what she had said. Living the way she did—jumping from foreign city to foreign city, language to language, getting passionately absorbed with one set of people's problems only to abandon them at once when the next diplomatic crisis came along—she'd always thought that she needed an anchor. Needed Simon, with his gentle domestic pleasures, his quiet love for his patients and this place. But maybe if she had an island of her own, she didn't need an anchor. She belonged to these men now, to Atlantis, not to him, and she was beginning to suspect that that was a better, larger, freer way to be.
She woke some time later, curled up on the couch, to the feeling of someone putting a blanket over her. She blinked up at John.
"It's all right," he said. "Go back to sleep."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to go qualify on the X-302. Training starts in—" He looked at his watch. "About two hours. I've got a lift."
"Mmmm." Rodney, she realized, was burrowed into the back of her knees. It was oddly comforting.
He started to straighten, then stopped. "Elizabeth."
"My promotion. I didn't have anywhere near time-in-grade, and I know Colonel Caldwell wasn't in there pushing for me, so—That was you, wasn't it."
She'd prepared an answer to that question, one that stressed the role of his own extraordinary performance in receiving the honor over her own insistence, but she was too sleepy to come up with it, so she just nodded.
"Thanks," he said, pulling the blanket more closely over her shoulder and giving it a pat.
"You're welcome," she murmured drowsily.
"I'll see you on the 14th."
She shut her eyes again, nestling down into the cushions. Rodney was snoring gently. If he had a morning flight to New Mexico, he was going to miss it.
She didn't move. He'd forgive her.