Elizabeth knew there was cake to celebrate everyone's return from Earth. The original, simple, hurrah-you're-back-and-we're-not-dead-yet had flowed into a combination celebration of John's promotion and wake for Drs. Monroe and Lindstrom—not quite of the Irish variety, not in public, but Elizabeth wouldn't be surprised if later that evening, in the privacy of people's quarters, alcohol materialized from somewhere. Officially she knew nothing of any such things, nor did she suspect, but she would have been a fool not to think that at least one of the scientists hadn't attempted to bring Earth traditions to this galaxy, or to believe that none of them were capable of brewing something extremely intoxicating.
The mess hall was crowded when she got there, people broken into unfamiliar groups, and she realized with some regret that she had been gone for all this—it was like the Athosians all over again, almost—that she had missed seeing the newcomers settle in and find their places. She was rather glad she had missed their reactions to the PowerPoint Rodney had apparently left with Dr. Zelenka to make sure everyone watched, though; she was even more glad that she had heard nothing about it until after they were back on Earth, and had therefore not had to tell Rodney that he should—as he almost certainly should—modify it so he sounded slightly less as if he were addressing a tank of unusually stubborn and malicious goldfish.
She had been delayed catching up on paperwork, and she wasn't terribly surprised that the best of the food appeared to be gone—disappointed, yes, but not surprised. Teyla had produced reports from the Athosians and their allies, beyond the information on the search for Ford that she had given John; Dr. Zelenka had collected and given her so much information on the city that it made her dizzy with the possibilities; Major Lorne had brought her updates on the new military personnel's adjustment and to brief her on some of the more interesting off-world discoveries. Rumors of a paperless future, Elizabeth thought wryly as she studied the well-scavenged buffet tables, appeared to have been unfounded.
Caldwell inclined his head to her as she looked past him—he was sitting alone, but he was one of the only ones, especially of the people for whom she could instantly match name to face to history. Rodney was gesturing expansively to John, who was slouched so far down in his seat Elizabeth was amazed he didn't fall out, and Teyla, who was watching them both indulgently; the fourth seat at that table was sharply, painfully empty. Nobody had tried to take it. Carson was sitting with one of his assistants and a few of the new Marines (all female, she couldn't help but notice); Major Lorne appeared to be getting to know some of the scientists. She had almost swept the room when she noticed Dr. Zelenka and Miko—it was impossible to think of her as anything else—not-sharing a table.
She couldn't think of a better way to put it. They were both sitting at a table; the table happened to be the same one for each of them. Miko was staring wistfully across the room towards—John?—and Dr. Zelenka seemed purely abstracted. There was an uneaten piece of cake at the table with them, with a clean-looking fork next to it.
Drawn by sugar and butter, she moved towards them. Dr. Zelenka looked up almost immediately. "Dr. Weir," he said, smiling. "I was worried you wouldn't be able to come before closing."
"It was important to me to be here." Elizabeth kept her polite and diplomatic face on as she tried to figure out if the cake was for her.
"Good evening, Dr. Weir," Miko said. "I hope you enjoyed your time on Earth?"
Yes, I did. I enjoyed meeting with my ex—it sounded so bitterly apt, that short harsh syllable—and finding out that he didn't care about the things I've learned to love, and wasn't willing to learn. Oh, and I really enjoy that he started a relationship with someone else while I was in another galaxy. "Yes," she said. "I… enjoyed it very much." And there had been good points, too: gathering new people, seeing that some people still did dare to hope and risk.
Dr. Zelenka's brows flicked together, just for an instant. Elizabeth lifted her chin in a gesture that she'd picked up—dear God—from Rodney, of all people, and silently dared him to challenge her. Instead, he said, "There is slice of cake left for you. I—after Teyla told me I had been too hasty in giving you reports from the city, I was afraid you would work late and miss everything, and after nearly three weeks on the Daedalus it seemed—I thought perhaps you had missed food."
"I did," Elizabeth said, taking the seat with the cake. "Thank you very much. I've been looking forward to this." The cake wasn't chocolate, but it wasn't doing too bad a job of pretending, and after eighteen days of MREs and Powerbars, spiced with mortal peril, she would happily have eaten almost anything that didn't come out of a packet here in the relative peace of the mess hall.
"My pleasure," he said. "If some cake hadn't been set aside for you, I suspect Rodney would eat it all. It is very nearly chocolate, after all."
She couldn't help but smile. "Of course."
"I am sure Dr. McKay is very glad that Dr. Weir has some of the very nearly chocolate cake." Miko looked anxious. "He is a very generous man, and has great respect for the expedition."
Elizabeth made the mistake of catching Dr. Zelenka's eye at that—his expression said plain as any words Perhaps she means a different Dr. McKay?, and it was everything either of them could do not to burst out laughing. Rodney was generous about the big things, but never about chocolate.
She was nowhere near done with the reports. After she had eaten her cake she didn't dare linger—there was too much to be done, too much to learn. Major Lorne's notes on the soldiers and the potential defense of Atlantis, should such a thing be necessary again, were clear and concise; the defense notes occasionally cross-referenced Dr. Zelenka's study of the city. She memorized the list of names before going on to the mission reports he'd felt she ought to read.
There was the potential for trading for a barley-like grain on M4A-320—according to the botanist on that mission, it was functionally identical to Earth barley (Hordeum sativum, the major had helpfully noted in his report, as if that meant anything to her, or, she suspected, to him), apart from the color. It was reddish-brown, apparently. She noted that to check with Teyla—it would probably have occurred to Major Lorne as well, but it would be good to be sure—and went on through the reports.
M2D-219 had been mentioned by a source on M5T-993 as a possible location of either a ZPM or clues to one (Found nothing of interest, Lorne had noted, except what Dr. Simpson reported as dangerously high concentrations of CO2 and some form of insect life resembling mosquitos but approx. 3.5cm in length. Recommend return with proper protective gear. Dr. Amaro (entomologist) expressed interest in investigating the insect life; recommend taking no scientists who are not aware of the mosquito-like creatures' presence.).
M4Q-781, according to AR-3, had indications of a Genii presence. She could understand the science from the previous two reports as it was presented, but this report was written in militarese, and although she spoke several languages fluently, that had never been one of them. She set that one aside to ask Teyla about as well—and maybe John; he could probably interpret AR-3's findings, even though he would have no more information than she did on the social possibilities.
Teyla's mission reports were less formally and carefully phrased than the major's, rich with sensory detail. She had gone on the mission to M2D-219 as well, but where Major Lorne's report simply made Elizabeth mentally resolve not to send Rodney there, Teyla's brought to mind the eye-searing green of the native foliage, acid-bright against tree trunks stained almost violet, and the odd brilliant aqua of the swamps. Elizabeth desperately hoped the ZPM wasn't in one of the swamps.
The non-mission reports Teyla made, on the social and financial contacts the Athosians made, were even more detailed; some read almost like stories, dense with nuance. Elizabeth wrote down a few gate addresses that bore promise of future trade—minerals, fruits (not citrus, Teyla had added as an aside), an animal that looked distressingly like a guinea pig which was apparently bred for food.
She had half-unknowingly saved Dr. Zelenka's reports on the city for the last. After Teyla's reaction when he had brought her the datapad almost as soon as she'd returned to Atlantis, she had been reluctant to go over the materials in front of Teyla, almost as if she expected a reprise of the earlier scene. Well, "scene" was a bit strong a word, but Dr. Zelenka's apology—quick, unbidden, unquestionably sincere—had made her want to make that problem, at least, go away, because it was important to him and it was in her power to fix.
She distracted herself for a while looking through maps and graphs, diagrams and carefully-written descriptions, at the sense of wonder that bled through at even the simplest of things. There was a subtext to the reports: this city is ten thousand years old; it was made by a race of people who could work wonders we still cannot replicate at a time when our ancestors were only barely discovering agriculture; we live here, this is ours now. It made even the discussion of the city's plumbing systems almost pleasant—well, tolerable, at least.
It wasn't really a distraction, though, because the half-reverent joy that permeated the reports was very much like Dr. Zelenka's attitude towards her. She pretended not to notice, but it was difficult to miss seeing. She had hoped that the trip back to Earth would fix this—she would be gone for a relatively long time, and when she returned she'd have Simon with her, and perhaps in her absence, or after her return, one of the other women in Atlantis would catch his attention, someone who could return it. A few of the new women were remarkably pretty, after all, as well as being competent and intelligent.
But they seemed to have instantly gravitated to Carson on his arrival, from what she'd seen in the mess hall that evening, and Dr. Zelenka did not appear to have been putting her out of his mind. On the contrary, he'd—she guessed he had been in the jumper bay, as that was where he spent most of his time, so he must have started for the gateroom as soon as they arrived. There was nothing in any of his reports that was desperately urgent; it had been, she guessed, a combination of look what I found—it's really interesting and I want to share it with you and you're back! I had to come to see you as soon as I could because I missed you so much while you were gone.
And she hadn't minded as much as she had expected to. She felt a little pain, yes, that she couldn't fix this by calling in a favor from the President or persuading the Genii to give her a nuclear weapon, because Dr. Zelenka deserved better than the nothing she could give him. But—
But it had been…nice. In an entirely selfish way, which made her uncomfortable with herself, she had enjoyed it. It had been nice to have someone hurry across the city, away from important work, just to greet her. And it had been, a little bit, nice that that person was someone who understood her in a way that nobody in the military here seemed to—someone who was here, in another galaxy, despite the fact he wasn't the adventurous type (if she recalled right, he'd never been off Atlantis), who simply worked on what needed to be done, however insane the circumstances or alien the task, and did it. Whatever she needed.
God forgive her, but she couldn't help but be grateful.