That first week in Atlantis, she'd cried every night. Exhaustion, exhilaration, and the sheer enormity of their situation wringing the tears out of her whether she wanted them or not. She's never been a crier, never been one to let her emotions run roughshod over her reason. Atlantis doesn't care.
She reads reports, signs reports, and wishes mightily for a glass of wine. She misses it. Misses the routine of coming home, kicking off her shoes and pouring that first glass. Half a glass, really. The action, more than the wine, starting that unwinding process. She and her glass would go through the motions, shedding the day's clothes, filling the tub, and ordering dinner.
By the time she'd eaten, soaked, and poured her second glass, she was ready to face the day's paperwork.
Atlantis destroys routine. They lose Sumner early. Gain the Wraith. The Athosians. She can't find her footing. They mourn the dead, move into Atlantis, and, through it all, she puts one foot in front of the other and hopes to God they touch ground. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, and sometimes she just holds her breath.
It's not a routine, but the tears stop.
"You look terrible," Rodney says.
Elizabeth tries to laugh. It comes out broken. Exhausted. The hours of adrenaline behind her, she's crashing and she's crashing hard. Try as she might, she can't help closing her eyes when she rubs the back of her neck. It's just a second, but the pull of sleep is a near physical yank. She catches herself starting to stumble forward and opens her eyes again, getting a good look at him. She isn't the only one crashing. "So do you."
"Yes, well, I just performed a number of miracles on too much adrenaline and too little food," Rodney says, chewing noisily. He's got a fistful of power bars and one of Carson's people watching him warily. Hovering. She suspects they're all under someone's watchful eye. She's only just beginning to discover how relentless Carson's team can be, how relentless they can all be. "What's your excuse?" As an afterthought, almost, he hands her one of the power bars.
She does laugh at that. It's small, but enough that John turns his head. She waves the gifted food. Rodney sharing anything edible is miraculous. Surrounded as he is by medical personnel, Carson clucking at them like a demented hen, his head is all they can see, but he's grinning.
Elizabeth's attempt at a grin back is half-hearted at best. Looking at him, all she can see is him, sprawled on the jumper floor, pale with death. She shudders with the promise of it. It's not that it happened, that they came so close, it's that it will happen again. Pegasus has promised them abundance, but of dream and nightmare alike.
"I don't need one," she says, not looking at him or John. "I have Atlantis."
People die. It's not the first time she's dealt with that reality. It's an unfortunate part of life, life in her line of work, and she's always been able to accept that. This time is different. This time there is no NATO, no Security Council, just Elizabeth. She makes the call. She sends them into the line of fire. She does.
She is responsible. John's death, albeit averted this time, is her responsibility. She sent them through the gate, just as she sends dozens of others, and now she knows. That moment in the jumper comes back, bringing with it the weight her understanding. It presses down, driving her into a chair, threatening to break her with the weight of what still could be.
They'll lose someone. Someone close. They'll lose them and it will be her responsibility, her decision, and she'll have to live with that too. They'll be dead, but she'll feel guilty. Elizabeth smiles, wry and annoyed, at her own self-interest. She shakes her head and pushes to her feet. Work, reports, and someone at the door.
"Shouldn't you be recovering?" she asks, hand on hip.
He smiles, mischievous, and she returns it without thinking. It feels good. Even better when his brightens. "I'm recovered. Carson said."
"Carson restricted your duty," she points out. "I've seen the report."
"You see all the reports," he says, not really a complaint. "It's an unfair advantage."
"You have the clearance," she counters. "You just don't use it."
"I don't like to pry." John holds up holding a dirt-encrusted bottle, a little grin crinkling the corners of his eyes. "Mostly. I did hear something about a fellow connoisseur?"
She flicks an eyebrow up. She knows his background, of course, saw it with the rushed report the SGC had provided, but he's right. It isn't fair. "You?"
He puffs up, looking a little defensive. "I can have layers, can't I?" She grins. He holds up the bottle. "I don't have to share, you know."
Elizabeth grabs the bottle. "Yes, you do." The bottle's a familiar weight in her hand. She rubs a thumb against its uneven surface. The dirt's old, caked on, and comes away with the brush of her skin.
"I'm under orders; I can't divulge it's source," John says. "Sorry."
"You don't have to."
This is an Athosian wine. The dirt on the bottle is from their world. She wonders which of the Athosians gave it to him. It's a precious gift, snatched in the rushed evacuation of their world, and she can't imagine anyone parting with it easily.
She looks from the bottle to him. "Why?"
He produces glasses. Wood. Not Athosian, some other people Teyla has introduced them to. She wonders what Atlantis will look like in ten years time. How many remnants of how many dead races will find their way into the city. "It was time. I remember you said you liked wine."
She had. An unguarded moment, just a mention, in a wistful conversation about things left at home. She hadn't thought he was paying attention; she hadn't thought anyone was.
Elizabeth lets herself feel the rush of surprise. It's alien. More so than anything they've seen since their arrival here. "Doesn't -- "
"Well, we could ask Rodney," John says, smiling wide, "but then we'd have to share."
She can remember a day when she got to speak entire sentences. Some of them were even complex and well-thought out. With Rodney and John, though, she's amazed if she can manage multiple syllables.
Turning away, bottle held close, she tries to remember what relaxing feels like. "Point, but we will owe him one." And she will.
"I don't think he likes the stuff," John says, following her inside. "At least, he has negative associations."
He puts a twist on the words. She's still learning him, learning how to read all of them, but she thinks she can hear the edge of irony. John's personal history is his own, she doesn't know him like Rodney, not yet, but there's an understanding in it all that says it's not so different.
She aches for them both. One more pain to add to the ever-growing collection.
She looks at him, realizing he's holding out a glass, and tries to smile. "Wool-gathering."
His look says 'bullshit' but he's smart enough to keep it to himself. "Bottoms up."
Charon is old. Among the Athosians, such an accomplishment is legend. Elizabeth can see the respect and power it affords her in the way her people treat her. She's escorted in, hovered over, and only left to their presence when she shoos Halling and Teyla out.
"They worry," Charon smiles.
"They love you." Elizabeth laces her fingers together, resting them on the table before her, and tries to keep her smile professional. Distant. She fails miserably. "I'm sorry to have to do this, truly, but -- "
"We are in danger." It's a blunt, but quiet response. No bitterness. No anger. None of the defiance of the others.
Sitting before her, Elizabeth sees Charon. Really sees. Charon is an impossibility in Pegasus; an old woman facing death by nature's hand and not the Wraith's. The eyes that now watch her have seen a thousand cullings, more, and survived them all. Her lips have sung the songs of the dead, hands comforted those left behind, and through it all, she allowed herself to bend and change.
Ultimately, it's just chance that she's still here, but Elizabeth can't believe that. Even if that's the rational, logical response, she can't.
"It will take time," Charon says, answering a question Elizabeth can't remember asking. "More than you have, but less than you need."
Charon just smiles.
"I don't understand."
"Yes, you do," Charon says. "And so do they."
Charon becomes a fixture. Not in the main tower, but among the Athosians and, at times, the expedition. She pays no attention to boundaries, leaning on the cane one of the Marines made for her as she goes. Even after they move to the mainland, she comes and goes as she pleases, no matter how much some might complain.
"She's -- " Rodney bites off his own words, poking at his dinner like it offended him. "She keeps coming to the lab."
"She likes winding you up," John says. He waves his glass in Rodney's direction. It's half-full of Athosian wine, the new vintage from the fields on the mainland. "And, let's face it, you like it when she does."
Rodney reddens. He mutters something about senility, but there's genuine affection behind it. "We're going to the harvest festival, right? They said there'd be pie."
"A pie-like substance," says John. He wiggles his eyebrows Elizabeth's way. "And dancing."
They're watching out for her. She can feel it. It's sweet. It should be smothering, cloying, but it's not. John's wry jokes and Rodney's blatant pragmatism are a buffer. She can see the connection between them, even though she isn't supposed to, and revels in it.
Rodney looks at her, sideways like she's not supposed to know, and she can feel it. Feel it the way she can feel John watching them.
"Dancing," she says, soft. She can't remember the last time she danced. "Yes, Rodney, we're going."
The storm changes that. The storm changes everything.
Every night, without fail, she dreams of water. Of drowning. Water surrounding her, rain beating her into the waves that are pulling her down. She can't scream, can't fight, all she can do is sink while Koyla watches her go. Watches her sink with John, Rodney, and the city all around her.
She wakes, hoarse, tangled in bed sheets.
It lasts a week.
A week that sees John and Rodney trapped on a desert world with a Wraith.
After that, her dreams become deserts, dry and arid, sand slowing their steps as they try to run. The end result is the same. She wakes up, sheets so tight about her legs she can barely move, her voice rough and weak throughout the day.
Sand, water, even a virus that boil you from the inside. It doesn't matter. She's drowning in moments of time until someone grabs her by the hand.
She's there when the other, older, Elizabeth dies. Sits by her side and holds her hand, telling her stories about the mission and all they've achieved, all that Elizabeth accomplished by proxy. She feels like she's being cruel, waving an impossible dream in an old woman's face, but the old woman just smiles.
"The harvest festival?"
"Next week," Elizabeth says. "Rodney's dead set on going." Had mentioned it at breakfast, this morning in fact, regaling she and John both with epic accounts of pie. Or, at least, the Athosian equivalent thereof. She starts to talk about that, to share the joke, but the other Elizabeth is grinning.
"Do they know?" she asks. Her voice is fading, she's sinking, but it's strong enough that she can add, "Do you?"
Charon would have liked this version of her. Cryptic as hell and enjoying every last second of it. More than that, of course. This is an Elizabeth who understood. An Elizabeth who, without ever meeting Charon, understood all that still manages to elude her.
The older Elizabeth huffs a breath. She closes her eyes.
Elizabeth bites the inside of her cheek and dares to admit it. "I think so."
They go. Rodney has pie and Elizabeth dances. She dances with Halling. John. Ford. Rodney. She watches, then joins, as Teyla and Sora dance together.
She blames the wine when she slips away, but the blurring of laughter and sound's too much. Her nightmares still to close to the surface. She stumbles into the trees, footsteps uneven from the new wine, and nearly falls.
She looks back, seeing John and Rodney both, and catches herself on a tree. "Too much fun," she says, trying to laugh.
Neither of them believe her.
"I think," Rodney says, his own voice thick with the same wine, in the deliberate way of the nearly-too-drunk, "this has gone on long enough."
John steps closer, Rodney like a burr at his side, and tips his head. "Really?"
Annoyed, she folds her arms, ends up hugging herself, and looks at them. "Why do people insist on asking me questions like that?"
"Because you're usually the only person in the room with the answers," John shrugs.
She laughs and closes her eyes. It's a mistake, because her head starts swimming, but she keeps them shut tight. Even when she can hear them moving closer with every twig that snaps beneath Rodney's feet.
"I never have the answers," she confesses. "I'm making it up." For all she'd said and thought, reading the reports of Generals Hammond and West, she understands now. And she does. It's not a world changing moment, no great revelations from on high, but she understands them and, maybe, she understands what Charon had been trying to say.
"Of course you are," Rodney snorts. "We know that."
"The thing is -- " John says, practically in her ear, "-- you're just better at it than we are."
She opens her eyes and looks at him. He's close at her side, Rodney pressed in before her, and she should probably feel claustrophobic, but she doesn't. She reaches for them. Her fingers slide over bodies as familiar as her own, even if she's never touched them like this before, and they're shaking.
"If you actually expect me to answer that, I should warn you my answer will change drastically from this moment," Rodney says. "We're all making this up, Elizabeth, but John's right. As much as it pains me to admit it, John is right. You might pull it out of your ass, but it's a damn sight better than anything the rest of us could come up--"
Laughing, she kisses him. When he's gaping, stunned into silence, she turns her head and kisses John.
When Rodney recovers, he nuzzles his way along her cheek, hands behaving themselves to her surprise. "Get it now?" he mutters, pressing kisses between words. "Do you?"
"Yeah," John says, into the kiss, speaking into her mouth, "I think she's got it."
It's barely dawn. The first light of day still considering whether to break on the horizon when Elizabeth slips free of John and Rodney's embrace, making for the privacy of the trees and the river in their midst.
It's too cold for proper bathing, but she washes quickly and makes tracks for camp. Charon's waiting by the fire.
Elizabeth's takes the cup that's held out and sits opposite her.
Nothing's said, but nothing needs to be. She still feels the promises of last night on her skin. Beneath her shirt both have left their marks as she's left marks on them. Promises mouthed into bodies and the thought makes her cheeks heat.
She gets up and Charon chuckles.
John and Rodney make room, parting easily to let her slip between them, then close ranks around her again.
They've got her, she's got them, and she falls asleep, the sound of their breathing carrying her away.