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Handle With Care

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Elizabeth is used to working with the military, which some of the time means working around the military. Col. Marshall Sumner wouldn't have been her first choice for a military commander for the Atlantis expedition, but he certainly wasn't her last choice, either, and she'd been genuinely glad to have him along. She'd be the first to admit that taking scientists -- most of whose closest brushes with danger had probably been in rush hour traffic -- to an unknown planet in an unknown galaxy scared her.

Sumner would have been the last to admit that it scared him, but she understood why he got worry lines whenever he dealt with the scientists. Elizabeth is used to her job entailing a lot of time spent herding cats, but she thinks Sumner wasn't used to trying to ensure people's safety while they alternately ignored him and gave him hostile looks.

He got along best with the long-time contractors who were used to the military, or with anyone who'd been with the SGC long enough to have some idea what was out there. Rodney isn't the military's biggest fan, but she thinks he's entirely in favor of having men with guns between him and whatever might come through the stargate.

They've been in Atlantis now for less than three days, and Sumner is dead. This isn't the way it was supposed to happen. But she doesn't have the luxury of thinking about what was supposed to happen. Everyone needs her to be entirely confident in their ability to handle the problems. Especially Sheppard, who she thinks may secretly be a little less than confident about the idea of being responsible for everybody's lives. Not that he'd probably admit it.

Their list of priorities has shifted. They need to meet their neighbors, now rather than in a few weeks when they're settled. They can't afford to wait to find out more about the Wraith. And they need another ZPM.

Rodney is eloquent on the subject of the ZPM. "We've already found pieces of Ancient technology that would probably revolutionize several sciences if we could afford to turn them on. Right now, this is like trying to power an aircraft carrier with a couple of D-cells. We need another ZPM."

"We'll look for one," Elizabeth says. The Ancient laboratory they're working in was roomy enough to start with, but equipment seems to have expanded to fill all the available space. She expects they wouldn't appreciate it if she said it looked like they were nesting. "So, Major Sheppard says he wants you on the gate team."

"Of course he does," Rodney says. "I'm the one who actually knows what we're dealing with here. As much as anybody does, which …" He waggles one hand in an not-so-much-so gesture, but keeps going. "I mean, just the likelihood of their running into problems with the stargate, or problems with their equipment, or -- or some kind of natural phenomenon that won't even seem significant to them unless they actually have a scientist with them--"

"I'm not arguing," Elizabeth says when Rodney has to pause for breath. "I'm just saying that you are -- actually -- essential to the expedition."

"Yes, well," Rodney says. "I will actually try not to die horribly."

"I'm sure you'll all be fine," Elizabeth says. She tries to project confidence. She is confident; Rodney is very nearly as brilliant as he thinks he is, which is saying a lot, and despite his tendency to magnify all prospective dangers, he is here. That's saying a lot about anyone, even before he saved them all from an alien entity. She thinks that impressed Sheppard. It certainly impressed her.

"What?" Rodney says.

"Nothing," Elizabeth says, smiling. "You can find us a ZPM."

"I wish that was likely. It's like looking for a needle in a very big haystack full of people who want to kill us."

"You never know," Elizabeth says. "Maybe they were more common than we think."

It's hard to tell from the Ancient database. In all the spare time she's had, she's been focusing on helping to translate the commands and search interface, the things they need to make it possible to even know where to start. They've found out a bit about how the ZPMs were originally used to power the city's systems, but practically nothing about how widely they were used. She's not sure if they're hunting for a few scarce treasures or something you could once have bought at the corner store.

All right, maybe not the corner store. It's not like you can buy a power plant off the shelf back home, although you could buy a gasoline-powered generator. Simon has one in case of weather emergencies. The last time a bad thunderstorm took the power out, he cooked her dinner by candlelight.

"No point in using electricity just to turn the lights on," he said. "Unless you mind a little atmosphere."

"Not a bit." She remembers tangling her fingers with his on the table, and his hand sliding up her thigh. She wonders whether he'll think about it the next time there's a thunderstorm. She wishes for a moment that she were in Jerusalem or Seoul or Khartoum, anywhere that meant she could pick up a telephone and call home.

But then if she really wanted that, she wouldn't have come. There's nothing that can actually compete with getting to be the first visitors to the lost city of Atlantis in ten thousand years. Whatever anyone had on Earth, it couldn't compete, or they wouldn't be here.

She wonders if Sheppard is here because he's looking for adventure, or because he thinks it'll be good for his somewhat checkered career, or because he finds the idea of exploring a new galaxy as fascinating as she does. Sheppard is still something of a cipher to her; despite his easy banter, she's not always sure what's going on in there. She doesn't think he has a problem with her being a woman in authority, but he may have a problem with authority in general. Which may be a problem.

And she can't help liking him at the same time. Well, she may as well, since they're going to have to work together. She hopes he knows how to work with someone, not just around them.

Ford and Bates seem to be sizing each other up and reserving judgment so far, in the way of very young officers with more experienced NCOs. Getting them to work together is Sheppard's problem, though. Hers is to get the scientists to pull together as a team, since personnel management is not exactly Rodney's strong suit.

That's one of her problems. She has a whole list, which she prefers to think of as a to-do list, in the hope that some items will eventually be crossed off. Handling the Athosian refugees is high on the list right now, although it's certainly to their advantage to have made some friends here.

She knows how easy it would be to screw this up. If she'd thought they'd be taking in refugees, she'd have brought more supplies, and different ones; to start with, they're lucky that the military rations they brought are things the Athosians can eat. Humanitarian relief rations would have been vegetarian and non-dairy.

"We sometimes trade for domesticated animals, though we are not great herdsmen," Teyla said in answer to her questions. "I have drunk animal's milk with no ill effects before, though it is … " She smiled wryly. "Not what I would choose as a meal. Food for the sick or the very old."

"I wasn't sure your people would have the gene that allows adults to digest milk," Elizabeth explained. "Some don't, on Earth."

"We are adaptable," Teyla says. "And I have told them that if anyone becomes sick after eating, they should see Dr. Beckett. Most people I have met can eat the same foods, but there have been times when a new food has made some people sick but not others."

"There may be food allergies," Elizabeth says. "Tell Dr. Beckett about anything that's been a problem in the past. He can test for allergies to similar foods without having to make anyone sick."

Teyla nods. "I have been to planets with many taboos on what foods could be eaten." She is eating peanut butter on toast, seeming content with that as a breakfast. "We are adaptable, as I said."

As unfamiliar as much of the food much be, it sounds like they're better off in that respect than those of the expedition members who are stuck with the military's idea of vegetarian food. They'll need to find some local food sources, and hopefully that will provide a little more variety. She's already wishing they'd brought more coffee. If they run out of coffee, she suspects some of the scientists will grind to a halt like wind-up toys whose batteries have run down.

"There's so much we don't know," Elizabeth says. "Please tell me if we do something that's a problem for your people or causes offense."

"I am sure you will not," Teyla says, which Elizabeth thinks means she thinks that of course they will, but she will not hold it against them. That's a reasonably good place to start.

She's being careful not to ask too many personal questions, not sure yet whether this is a society that will take that as a sign of interest rather than rudeness. It's possible that she's coming off as cold. It's so hard to know so early, and they're going to have one after another of these introductions every time someone steps through the stargate. They need a cultural broker.

"I appreciate everything you have done for my people," Teyla says.

"We appreciate your help," Elizabeth says. She knows neither of them is sure yet what the other one means by that, but at least it sounds friendly.

Teyla nods. "We would rather make this a fair exchange than be in your debt."

"I understand that," Elizabeth says. "Given how little we know about the Pegasus galaxy, I think it will be. And it sounds like we both have a common problem."

"We share a common enemy," Teyla says, as if this is something everyone knows but sometimes people need to be reminded of.

She's afraid they do. It's been three days, and they may already have made an enemy that they're going to have to keep fighting. That isn't how she wanted to start their exploration of a new galaxy, either. They've walked into the middle of a war where one side thinks of the other as food.

It's a good thing they brought the Marines. And, as it turns out, it's a good thing they brought Sheppard, who has just appeared seeking coffee, his hair still wet from the shower.

"Good morning, Major," Elizabeth says. Teyla turns a smile on Sheppard that seems warmer than the very professional one she had for Elizabeth. Of course, Elizabeth wasn't the one who saved her life. And they are both very aware whenever they talk that they speak for their people.

"Morning," Sheppard says. "Come up with six more impossible things for us to do before breakfast?"

"Not yet, but breakfast isn't over, so we'll see," Elizabeth says. "Thrown anyone off a balcony this morning?"

"Unfortunately not," Sheppard says. "McKay seems less interested in that kind of thing without the force shield."

"I do not volunteer either," Teyla says, but she's smiling.

Sheppard makes a show of sizing her up. "I'm not sure which of us would get thrown off the balcony."

"You," Teyla says.

Sheppard looks like he's tempted to find out. Hopefully not in a way that involves balconies. "I have to get to work," Elizabeth says.

"Me, too," Sheppard says. "McKay has his panties in a knot about getting the labs in the south wing opened up. I'm going to go take a team and check it out."

"Perhaps Lieutenant Ford will let you throw him off a balcony," Teyla says, rising to follow him out.

"I'm pretty sure that would be against regulations," Sheppard says. He stops in the doorway to wait for Ford, who scoops up the last of his scrambled eggs and drains his coffee before standing up.

"Yeah, but if you ordered me to jump off a balcony, I'd have to do it," Ford says.

"Would you?" Sheppard asks, looking skeptical.

"No. Probably not."

"That is wise," Teyla says. She looks at Sheppard a little skeptically herself.

It's good that they're at least trying to make jokes, negotiating how to be a team. She has to trust them to do that. She has to trust a lot of people to do a lot of things.

She picks up her coffee and crosses to one of the long windows that open out onto the terrace outside. She thinks they might want to move some tables out here, for people to eat in good weather. It's a beautiful view, the water stretching unbroken all the way to the horizon, and above her the spires of Atlantis stretching up toward the sky.

It's strong, this city; it's survived a war, and survived ten thousand years resting on the ocean floor. All the same, with the spires gleaming like blue glass in the morning sun, she can't help wanting to hold it carefully in the palm of her hand, like one more precious thing that it would be so easy to break.