The glare of sunlight does its best to drown every shadow, only creating more in its wake. Her cold outline falls over him as he stands behind her on the balcony, hands in his pockets, fiddling with that same hole in the fabric. How many pairs of pants has he gone through this way, because of her?
She turns. “Rodney.”
The diamond behind her left hand is blinding. Her fingers part to show the engagement ring.
“Do you...do you like it?”
“You really shouldn't have.”
“Of course I had to.” Something isn't making sense here. “We're getting married, remember? Look – just keep it on. I don't want anyone not knowing...not knowing that...”
“When did you have time to get this?”
“A little time here, a little time there...” he answers, frowning as the memory escapes. “Mostly my last trip back to Earth.”
“That trip was before you had decided to ask me.”
“No...no. It wasn't. It was right after we returned from the Asurans. Trust me, I would remember such a big payment on my credit card. Especially with this paycheck.”
“Rodney, we didn't return.”
“What – we did. We're talking now.”
Dark, angry clouds blot the sun and suddenly he feels colder. This is supposed to be a good feeling. Birds chirping, singing, whatever. Elizabeth holds out her hand – there is no ring. Her fingers claw and her face melts into something unrecognisable. Rodney's knees ache from wanting to back away.
But he can't. He can't.
Elizabeth's hand touches his and it burns, burns until he wants to scream...
The darkness carried over from his dream into his quarters. Rodney sat up, blindly staring ahead towards...towards anything. The blankets stirred beside him and he sidled away, heart thundering at a painful speed. Then Katie's voice inquired sleepily, “Rodney? You okay?”
“Just a...” Nightmare? Omen? “Just a brilliant idea. Go back to sleep.”
Her breathing evened out, too loud, too deep. A stranger shared his bed. Rodney awkwardly twisted the sheets off his aching limbs and left her behind. The muted lighting in the corridors confused him, burning his tired eyes, yet leading him on. Scowling at this, he fumbled into the nearest transporter, aimed blindly, and successfully staggered out at the level of his lab.
Computers. Quiet and busy. Hard workers. They also happened to be a lot more reliable than people. No arguing, no ethics – just plain obedience. Rodney needed obedience right then. Pulling out a drawer in his desk, he palmed the small box before setting it out in front of his nose. He waited, then opened it. The same simple engagement ring. He wanted to ask Katie soon – before she realised he wasn't good enough. Or...before she died. Probably of something nasty. It was expected in this galaxy. Or any galaxy.
But women wanted rings. Maybe. He wanted this ring, so that's all that really mattered in this case. Elizabeth would have liked this ring. He'd chosen it for her approval, even if it was for Katie's finger. Practical, simple, easily negotiable...
Rodney circled his thumb over the band, wincing as the pad of his skin scratched over the diamond. Carefully, he inspected the stone, but found no flecks of blood. That would be bad. He'd never get a refund if it stained. He might need a refund. Tremors flooded his hands as he realised he had no idea what her answer would be.
Yes? Too easy. No? Again, too easy, but very probable.
He loved Katie. He had to.
Rodney pushed the ring away from himself, annoyed. He wasn't rushing – he was sure of that.
It hasn't even been a year, Rodney.
He squeezed his eyes shut and held on to that voice. Lizbeth. You said to move on. At least, I think you meant that, and I never did promise you, did I?
Katie's a nice woman. But is this being fair to her?
Of course. She wants babies and marriage, like everyone else.
You are not everyone else.
And whose fault is that? You left me here. Alone.
The silence lasted for minutes before Rodney carefully slipped the box back into his desk and rested his weight on his elbows, staring at his laptop. He always kept it on standby, just in case, and maybe if he started working on some reports...
Rodney blinked a few times and his head dipped towards the desk. Before he fell asleep, he could almost feel her hands working over his tight shoulders.
After “This Mortal Coil”...
The transporter display blinked, faded and died. Rodney turned away in frustration and crossed his arms over the tablet he'd been working off. Usually he'd have sorted a problem like this in no time, but yet here he was, still stuck on the same problem while the transporter doors opened and shut at someone's leisure.
Rodney hunched over and rested his chin on the tablet. He didn't particular like the thought of paging Zelenka over this – he'd never hear the end of it.
After some consideration, Rodney sat down on the floor and leaned back against the transporter wall.
“I saw you today,” he said. It didn't take long for her presence to fill the cramped space.
“You were you, but a machine. You were you and I couldn't say anything. Or kiss you. Because no one else knows about us.”
That is my fault, Elizabeth conceded. I should not have been afraid to make our relationship public.
Rodney slouched to his other side and pretended he could feel her sitting next to him. It wasn't hard, especially since he could even smell her perfume. That perfume. He was jealous when she wore it for anyone but him.
“What was she thinking?” he asked.
Regret. For you.
“She wanted him,” Rodney deduced. “Machine-you, she wanted machine-me.”
But I wanted you. Katie wants you.
Rodney swung around, banishing the phantom scent of Elizabeth. He had seen her not even a day ago, dressed the same, looking the same. He couldn't even touch her. And now she was dead all over again, broken bits of machine in a Puddle Jumper on some alien planet.
Checking his watch, he scowled. Late for another dinner with Katie.
But she was there, in her quarters, smiling and waiting. He could touch her and that's all that mattered right now. He just had to touch her and everything else would go away.
And soon, he would give her the ring. She'd want that. She wanted him. Rodney stood up and left Elizabeth there.
“She said no,” Rodney snapped, pacing his quarters.
He could hear her footsteps matching his, feel the draft as she eclipsed him. Someone to blame. Someone to force his faults onto. Rodney spun, trying to catch her in his vision, but she was once again drifting past him.
You didn't give her a chance to answer properly.
“It's too soon anyway. You said it had been less than a year, I remember that part.”
You could have stayed.
“No. No. Do you know why? If I asked her to marry me, she would end up like you, Elizabeth. Exactly like you. I can't have that.”
During “Be All My Sins Remember'd”...
The text jumbled, rearranged itself and spelled out her name. He was convinced immediately by...by logic, he told himself. Even though there was no way to tell if it really was Elizabeth Weir, he needed to hear her for real.
“Perhaps you should answer her,” Woolsey suggested.
Answer her with what? A year and he could finally say – type, it was typing – something to her, but everyone was listening and waiting.
“Right,” Rodney said into the keyboard.
Elizabeth, you're here! he thought desperately. You're here! Please let it be you.
It hurt to hear her again, not a phantom voice in his nightmares, but a digitised tone through a computer. She said his name, and he could pretend that she was standing in front of him, arms crossed over her jacket and red top. But it wasn't until she used FRAN's settings that it really hurt. Watching Elizabeth in another body seemed so wrong; she didn't deserve that. It was his fault she'd ended up infested with nanites, his fault what they did to her and his fault that she was in a body that didn't fit her.
Before he could get used to having her back, she wanted to leave again. It wasn't fair. He caught her in a corridor on her way to luring in the other Replicators.
He jogged to catch up with her. “Elizabeth – wait.”
Elizabeth stopped, turned stiffly and acknowledged him with a nod. Slowing to a walk, he wanted to put his arms around her, but faltered. Instead, he pulled out the ring and grabbed her hand, slipping it onto her finger. It hung loosely.
“What is this?” Elizabeth asked.
“It's for you,” Rodney explained. “I mean, I got it for you last year. So it's yours. I mean, it might be the wrong size since your fingers are different, but it's yours.”
“Rodney, I can't wear this.”
“But it's you. I know it's you.” Elizabeth drew back a step and regarded him with a frown. “To Stargate Command, I have been dead for over a year. I should have been dead to you, Rodney.”
“You're not dead. And I love you.”
“Is there someone else?”
He shook his head. “No, no!”
“Maybe,” he said, discarding Jennifer's face from his mind. “But that doesn't matter anymore because you're you, you're alive, you love me and – and I can get past the face, just give me some time. I'll-I'll make up another you!”
“Are you even listening to yourself? We can't do this and you need to stop doing this to yourself. I am Elizabeth Weir, but too much has happened. Let me be dead to you.”
Rodney let his eyes lift from her feet, to look at her properly. He winced. “I can't do that, Lizbeth.”
“Forget you ever saw me,” she told him. “And whoever it is that you love – ”
“I love you, Elizabeth.”
She held up her left hand and touched his lips. Closing his eyes, Rodney kissed her fingers, but she drew her hand away sharply. After a moment, Elizabeth remonstrated, “You need to pay more attention to the people you have, and not those you have lost.”
“I won't lose you,” he vowed.
“You've already lost me. And you owe it to yourself, and this other person in your life, to accept that. You can start by getting rid of this ring.”
With that, she took his hand and the ring slipped off her smaller fingers. Rodney clenched it hard enough that it dug into his skin.
“Lizbeth...please...” he tried once more.
“I'm sorry, Rodney. This is how it has to be.”
He watched her walk swiftly down the corridor without a backward glance. Rodney opened his fist, shot an angry glance at the ring and shoved it back into his pocket. He suspected that his palm would bruise by tomorrow.
His fault. All his fault. And she was gone again.
“She's wrong,” he snapped.
Months passed, and every moment that he leaned the wrong way against the side of his desk, he felt the unboxed ring dig into his thigh. He didn't take it off-world – if he lost it, what would she say? He didn't even take it back to Earth.
Sometimes, when he thought of Elizabeth, he took Jennifer Keller's hand to his lips and kissed her fingers while she laughed and told him she was never aware of being ticklish there. Rodney avoided her eyes at these moments, feeling the ring burn in his pocket. He thought about throwing the ring away.
And when she left for her shift in the infirmary, he would hold the ring in his palm, looking out the window to the ocean. Too many moons, even though he couldn't see them all right now. He knew they were there. Elizabeth wasn't here – it wasn't their planet anyway.
You should talk to her, Rodney, her voice still whispered in his ear.
He was surprised it took Jennifer as long as it did to find him with the ring. They'd returned from the science conference days before and, wounded by the memory of seeing her cold and alone, he had stayed in his quarters to work. It was too noisy anywhere else. The labs reeked of stale coffee and pointless hypotheses.
The silence was just right for him to set the ring on his desk, to draw his finger gently around the rim. He didn't hear the door open.
“I don't suppose you have something to tell me, Rodney?” she asked.
Rodney turned and realised it was Jennifer. He cleared his throat. “What? Oh. No. Not – not that I wouldn't ever consider asking you to marry me. I mean, not right now.”
“Then why the bling?” she prompted.
“You'll think it's stupid.”
Jennifer sat on the edge of his bed, leaning forward to pull the chair towards her. She began gently, “Rodney, I think we both know that there are a lot of stupid things in this galaxy – and the next – so anything you can come up with would have to be stupid on a monumental scale. So tell me.”
“It was for Katie,” Rodney admitted.
He heard the hesitance in her voice. “Oh…and you still carry it around with you?”
“Funny story,” he said. “I might have actually bought it for Elizabeth. Not…such a funny story. But I was going to ask Katie and I…I thought Elizabeth might have liked it.”
“You and Elizabeth…?” Jennifer asked quietly.
Rodney crossed his arms and met her gaze squarely. “Don't sound so surprised. You don't think a guy like me and a woman like that…”
“Rodney, this might come as a shock to you, but I happen to love the guy like you,” Jennifer interrupted. “I understand. Do you…want to talk about it?”
Talk to her, Rodney.
Why? If I tell her anything, she'll know more about me and then she'll be living in my quarters.
Is that so bad?
It would be like – like her replacing you!
No one is replacing me, Rodney.
Rodney sighed. “I asked her to marry me. She said yes.”
“Huh,” Rodney said thoughtfully. “You know, even I'm not too sure. I think we were engaged for all of – two minutes? – before she ran out of the Jumper and then…we left her behind.” Jennifer's hand found his.
“Oh, Rodney. I didn't know.”
“No one did.”
“So when you saw Elizabeth again, you were with Katie...and the second time, you had feelings for me.”
“She wouldn't listen,” Rodney muttered. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Rodney…what do you remember about the last time you saw her? Before…before she was captured.”
Rodney straightened in the chair, absently tracing her fingers with his own. “She made me promise. To...to move on in case anything bad happened – which in hindsight just proves that anything that can go wrong will, no matter how illogical.”
“I can't promise that. Because…because…regardless of whether or not we make it out of this, I will still marry you.”
Her smile stretches thin, possibly due to stress. He hopes it's stress and not any foreshadowing. Because that would be bad, and right now he doesn't have time for bad. Elizabeth stares at him. It feels wrong somehow. But it's okay, because she kisses him and he feels on top of the universe. Or he probably will feel that way once they're away from the Asuran cities.
Her kiss becomes weak, so Rodney pulls her closer to him. Too soon she has drawn away and he sees something dark in her eyes. There's no time to ask.
“Regardless,” Jennifer repeated.
“You told her that you would marry her, regardless of what happened.”
He forced an impatient stare back to his screen. “And what's that got to do with anything?”
“Rodney, I think…I think on some level you still see yourself as married to Elizabeth. Don't say anything for a moment. You promised her – and yourself – that no matter what, you would be together.”
“Elizabeth…” he moaned.
“Rodney, I don't love you any less or any more than Elizabeth did,” Jennifer told him. “You might feel differently about me, but I'm pretty sure you love me too. You don't have to ask me any life-altering questions, and it's probably not a good idea to bring up children and grandchildren just yet. But I love you. And that's all there is to it.”
After “Enemy at the Gate”...
San Francisco. Too sunny, too bright, and the reflection of the water was sharper than those on the previous planet they'd been on. He'd probably get sunburnt. Rodney leaned on the railing and looked out at the unsuspecting city.
“What do you think of Jennifer?” he asked the spectre beside him.
It didn't seem weird that he could see in her the daylight now. Hallucinations progressed, you know. They started with the voices, and talking to yourself. And then you reach the point where you're not even sure if you are actually talking to yourself.
Elizabeth copied his stance and her elbow brushed his. It shouldn't matter what I think.
“Yes. Yes it does. And you're going to answer that question.”
I have no regrets about leaving Dr. Keller in charge of medicine. She is a vital member of this expedition. But if you are asking for my permission, you don't need it.
“But I – ”
What you have, Rodney, is my every hope for your future. There is so much ahead of you. Don't waste it.
“I love you,” Rodney reminded her.
You always will.
“That's what hurts the most.”
I know. Dr. Keller may not be me, but she is in no way less worthy of your love. Give it to her.
He drew up quickly and glared at the side of her head, trying not to be distracted by the gentle wave of her hair in the breeze. “Wait, that's it? Short goodbye, disappear forever?”
You know I love you. Elizabeth turned and smiled at him. But we both know you don't need me anymore.
She tilted her head up to the sun. Rodney stepped forward and kissed her softly. Her lips faded beneath his.
“Goodbye, Lizbeth,” he murmured.
He took the ring from his pocket and hurled it into the ocean.
His pocket felt heavy. Another galaxy, another ring. Slightly different background, but the Golden Gate Bridge wasn't that much of an eyesore. Heart struggling to smash through his ribs, Rodney hurried off in search of Jennifer. He would ask her. And she would say yes.
He loved Elizabeth. And he loved Jennifer.