Elizabeth sleeps for almost an hour after he finally wakes up.
The grey sky, if not exactly what he'd call light, is a little less pitch-black.
He doesn't find anything native he'd risk eating, at least not within earshot of their camp. He wishes to hell he'd paid a bit more attention whenever Teyla and Ronon got to talking about edible plants common in this galaxy. He doesn't spend too long thinking about that, though, or else he'll have to think about the last time he saw his teammates, and how chances are pretty damned good that he'll never see them again.
He remembers a few of the more common plants, anyway, and he hasn't seen any of them here. He doesn't recognize any of the flora he's seen so far. He can explain that by the lack of civilization near the Stargate -- when Elizabeth was in a phase of evilly inviting him to everything, he had to sit through a botany lecture where the science team speculated that those plants were cross-pollinated across planetary borders mostly by trade and human foot traffic -- but having an explanation doesn't make the absence of recognizable plants any better.
He makes a stab at cleaning his gun, but only manages to do enough to realize that it's pretty much out of commission until he gets some tools more sophisticated than a damp corner of his shirt.
By the time Elizabeth wakes up, he's got fresh water, at least.
She thanks him when he hands her the canteen, but her grateful expression quickly turns sour as she struggles not to spit it out. "Good lord, are you trying to poison me?"
"Water purification tablets," he says with an apologetic smirk. "Drink it anyway."
She all but gags, but swallows down a few more gulps, alternating between the canteen and the chunk of energy bar he gave her as breakfast. "Don't tell me I'll get used to it."
"You won't," he promises. "I never have. If we make a more permanent shelter somewhere, I'll try to come up with some kind of filter."
She gives him a look, the softly proud and grateful one he usually gets in her office or the briefing room when he's done something particularly remarkable. It sends the exact same buzz of energy through him as it always does, even out here in the wilderness.
"I'll manage. Thank you."
He doesn't entirely keep his eyes averted as she shakes dried mud from her clothes and gets dressed. He's sure she notices, but she doesn't call him on it.
It's hard not to think of Teyla as he puts the fire out. They don't spend too many nights off-world, but whenever they do, this is always her job.
Elizabeth touches his shoulder. "Are you all right?"
He brushes her off with a lie. "Fine."
As is often the case, all it takes is his name on her lips to get him to do what she wants. "I'm thinking about the others," he admits. "If the self-destruct didn't work with the power surges, if the Wraith managed to take Atlantis intact-"
She grips his arm. "Don't think about that now."
"When am I supposed to think about it?"
"Later," she tells him, eyes wide and determined. "When we're back at the Alpha Site. When we can help them. We don't know that your team is dead. We don't know-"
He clenches his fists, harshly swallowing the horrible feeling that rises when he thinks that he survived -- at least for a while -- when others under his command didn't make it. He's not thinking that he should have stayed on Atlantis, not when it was seconds or minutes from complete destruction, but he should have done... something to stop it. Somehow. "I don't want to talk about it, Elizabeth."
"Okay," she agrees. "I know what you mean."
He knows she does.
He takes her hand as they head out into the rain in the direction of the mystery light. Continuous contact between them is less necessary, maybe, now that they can see without a flashlight, but it makes him feel better.
He starts playing I Spy to distract them from their wet clothes and to spare them from having to make real conversation.
It isn't that he doesn't like talking to Elizabeth. She's intelligent, obviously, and remarkably well-read on a completely ridiculous number of subjects, but is also encouraging in a way that lets him easily be intelligent with her. The long conversations they'll occasionally get into are always the high points of the week.
This time, though, they can't talk about anything at all without it feeling like they're talking about Atlantis.
So they do this.
"I Spy something beginning with R."
She tosses him a bedraggled look. "If you say rain, I'll..."
"You'll what?" he teases her. Her opposition to violence is so fundamental that she rarely even makes threats of physical injury in jest.
She glares in response. Her breathing is heavy -- she's not used to this sort of prolonged physical exertion the way he is -- but she manages to keep her speech relatively normal. "Fine. Something beginning with S."
"Storm clouds, actually, but I'll give it to you." She pulls her hand free from his just long enough to fuss uselessly with her wet hair, and then gives it back.
"This game might be more interesting if I knew the names of any of these trees," he observes.
"I doubt it."
"All right, then, I'm out of ideas. What did your family used to play to keep you out of trouble on long car trips?"
She tugs his arm playfully. "I was never trouble."
He tugs back. "Sure."
She's quiet for a moment, thinking. "I remember reciting my multiplication tables once or twice, but I think you'd have an unfair advantage at math games."
He laughs. He's corrected enough arithmetic errors in her budget reports to know she's right. "Maybe. But I'm told you know how to swear proficiently in eighteen languages."
Now she's laughing, too. "Who told you that?"
It feels wrong that they should be able to feel anything except despair in their current situation, with the friends they were responsible for stranded and possibly dead, but it feels too good to stop. He doesn't answer her question, only hints, "We've got lots of time on our hands..." He isn't sure if his pleading face is made more or less effective by his currently drenched state, but he tries it for all it's worth.
"I am not teaching you how to swear better in Russian just so you can torment Doctor Zukhova some more."
"Hey! Who said anything about tormenting?" The first time had been a complete misunderstanding. And, unlike all the other complete misunderstandings that he's been involved with in his years on Atlantis, that one actually was. "I need to have a competent foreign swear vocabulary to even understand Doctor Zukhova. The next time I get stuck on environmental-system guard duty..."
He trails off. He's never going to have to complain about security duty for day-long science expeditions into new sections of Atlantis ever again.
"Never mind." He focuses hard on the muck beneath his feet. The burst of cheerful normalcy between them is definitely over.
Elizabeth is quiet for a full minute, and then she says, "I'll teach you anyway."
She's not smiling, but she shrugs. "You'd be surprised the things you pick up in the United Nations."
The sharp drop into a valley of churning water and eroded earth is several hundred feet deep, and it comes up on them so suddenly that John forgets all the new vocabulary Elizabeth has been teaching him and swears in English.
"We have to cross that?" She's staying well back from the edge without his even reminding her to, wearing an expression that's the same one she has when he teases her about cliff-diving, only magnified times a thousand.
"Not here," he assures her. "We might be able to climb down and up the other side-" there are places where it isn't exactly a 90-degree drop, though it's still not something he'd want to risk without a harness, "-but I wouldn't want to deal with the water down there. We'll have to find somewhere else to get across."
"What, like a bridge?" Her eyes flicker to the trees around them, then down the face of the landslide, and her fingers tighten around his.
"If we're lucky, maybe."
Her face says no way in hell, but to her credit, she actually says, "Okay."
"Hopefully it won't come to that. This might not go on too far. We could get a real land bridge if it gets narrower."
He keeps hoping that for about two kilometers. He's just about to admit he might have been wrong and ask her for suggestions for a backup plan when Elizabeth slips.
It isn't a big deal, at first -- they're both tired and cold and stumble often with the uneven depths of mud and camouflaged tree roots -- but right as he tries to pull her up to standing, the ground slides out from under her completely, like she stepped on a stack of marbles.
She screams, flailing for grip. John hits the deck, pulled down right along with her, and digs his knees and feet into the ground to anchor him as he holds on to her.
He doesn't even have time to scream her name. His injured hand gives out almost instantly, and Elizabeth slips out of his grasp and disappears over the edge.
He's completely frozen by shock for almost a second, unable to breathe, unable to move or yell her name or even think.
Elizabeth, thank God, is the one who breaks the silence. "John! John!"
She's screaming, voice choked thickly with pain and terror, but it means she's still alive. John crawls to the edge -- every muscle in his body feels like it's shaking -- until he can see her.
She's a good two and a half stories below him down the jagged, muddy incline, having landed on some kind of outcropping ledge. She's clinging for dear life to something that looks like a tree root, and he suspects she used it to catch herself and slow her fall.
"Elizabeth!" He can barely speak. Shit, shit, shit. "Are you okay?"
She doesn't answer him with anything except a coughing fit, and he's not surprised that she isn't yet able to answer a coherent question when it was all he could do to ask it. He examines the path she took down there and realizes there's no way he'll make it to her.
"I'll get to you," he yells down, trying to shake off the lasting panic so he can think clearly. The ledge she's on -- it looks like rock -- extends in both directions. The incline down to it is slightly less steep if he heads back in the direction they came for maybe half a kilometer.
She screams his name when he disappears from sight over the ledge, and he yells down his plan, heart pounding as he does. "I'll get to you," he promises again.
He can move a lot faster by himself, even being careful of hitting other weakened patches of soil, and he has to force himself to slow down on the climb down. He guides his descent with roots and rocks, doing his best to keep the sliding to a minimum. The bandage over his hand gets ripped loose on one of the handholds, but he smothers the rush of pain with guilt. This is nothing compared to what Elizabeth just lived through.
Thank God she lived through it. He's not willing to contemplate the possibility yet that she might have been seriously injured just because he failed to hold onto her tighter, because he thought their walking distance from the cliffside was safe, because, because, because...
The thickness of the ledge varies, and he makes note of the most treacherous spots for when he brings Elizabeth back with him. She's going to hate this. At other times, he has found it oddly amusing that he has become so close to someone with a fear of heights -- when he pretty much lives for them -- but in this situation, he really won't be able to spare her from them.
At least she's still alive.
When he reaches her, it takes all his medical field training to resist the urge to grab her in his arms and crush her to him. He settles for gripping her hands and then running his fingers over her face, forcing down the sick terror at what he almost lost.
"John," she murmurs. Her breathing is sharp and shallow. She managed to scoot under her own power as far away from the edge as possible until she's leaning against the cliff wall, so at least he's not looking at neck trauma, but there's a nasty gash across her forehead that concerns him.
"It's okay," he tells her, hand shaking as he brushes blood from her face. Her jaw is scraped, too, but that's much less serious. He finds himself babbling words without thinking them over first: "I've got you. It's okay."
She shakes her head, and pain shoots across her features. "John, my leg is broken." The edges of her normally clear diction are slurred, and he hopes it's only from the shock of the fall. "I think I might have cracked a rib or something. I can't move."
"Yes, you can," he argues, before he even gets a look at her injuries. He opens his canteen and forces it at her. She can move her arms, at least. He checks her legs first -- her left knee is already ridiculously swollen, and she gasps whenever he gets near her right ankle -- and then he unzips her jacket. She hisses out a sharp sob when he examines her ribcage, but he can't feel any breaks. At least she's not in danger of puncturing a lung.
He checks her head last. Concussion, definitely. He has no idea how serious.
"That bad?" she asks, joking feebly. He can't even imagine what his face looks like.
"I can get wood for a splint," he says. That and the few packets of painkillers he has on hand might get her as far as where he climbed down, maybe, though he has no idea how she'll manage to climb back up the incline. Even the ledge, thin as it gets, is near-suicide to cross without full mobility. There's no way that he'll be able to carry her.
"We can't stay here," he insists. "If there's another landslide-"
She's shaking her head, shivering again like she was the night before, and her eyes slide closed the way they do when she's about to say something he really won't like.
"No way in hell," he snaps, before she can even make a suggestion.
"You can get help."
"From where?" The light on the horizon is still prohibitively far, even if he's traveling alone, and that's assuming he even manages to find a way across this chasm. "I'm not leaving you alone."
"What, so we both die?"
He hates this tone of voice on her, this indignantly self-sacrificial tone that he's only heard from her a few times over the years. Every time he does, he wants to shake the hell out of her.
"No one is going to die."
He grabs her shoulders. "I am not leaving you."
That shuts her up.
He does the best he can to provide first aid with what he has, which isn't much. She whimpers in pain when he moves her to slide himself between her and the wall, to cushion her injured ribs and keep her warm. She helps him spread the blanket over both of them. He'll still get her a splint, and he hopes against hope that, once the swelling goes down, her injuries won't be as bad as they seem.
He thinks she's asleep for a minute, but then she turns her head where it's resting on his shoulder. "This would be a good time for some of those swear words I taught you," she murmurs. Her hands grip his underneath the blanket, and he can smell fear on her skin.
He doesn't oblige her. "It's going to be okay." He's grateful that she doesn't ask for any details of how.
He squeezes her hands back and presses his lips to her hair. He says it again, as much for himself as for her. "It's going to be okay."
By nightfall, Elizabeth has gone from bad to worse. Painkillers, food and water all make her sick, and the combination of trauma and lying still in this weather has dropped her body temperature enough to scare the hell out of him.
Morning, he promises himself. She'll be better in the morning. Nights on this planet are ridiculously long, too, according to what they've seen so far, so he's giving her body plenty of time to catch up to his expectations.
He wasn't originally going to make a fire -- the going is treacherous enough on his path between here and the surface to make carrying more than a few things impossible -- but he changes his mind. It takes a number of harrowing trips to bring the supplies down strapped to his back, but by the time it gets too dark to travel he has collected enough wood to both splint her leg and start a fire.
He has given the mud above them strict orders not to slide down on top of them. So far, it seems to be obeying.
With great combined effort, they get Elizabeth out of her wet clothes and lying down inside the blanket. From there, she aims the flashlight for him as he struggles with setting up the fire. The beam of light wobbles precariously, but at least she's conscious.
"Talk to me," he orders her, "so I know you're not falling asleep." She complains of being exhausted, but he hasn't let her sleep too long at any one interval. Carson constantly harps at him that his first-aid skills could use some brushing up -- Teyla has become the real field medic on the team -- but John at least knows that much about concussions.
"I was thinking about the day I met you," Elizabeth says.
"Really?" At the time, it was by far the most surreal day of his life. Now it's a drop in the bucket.
"I thought Antarctica was the coldest I'd ever be in my life."
"I didn't mind it," he admits. "But then, it was a dry cold."
The flashlight beam goes wide for a moment as she shuffles under the blanket. "Everyone called you 'the wonder boy' until we got to Atlantis."
"I know." He heard that nickname more than once after they arrived, too. "Did you?"
He swears he can actually hear her smirk. "Once or twice, maybe."
For some reason, that doesn't bother him as much as it did every other time he heard it. From the military contingent it came with derision, laced with the implication that he was unqualified to be there in every way except genetically. At best, the scientists said it in a way that made him feel casually objectified, like he was just as much of a commodity as the Ancient device he was operating -- at worst, they used it with a bitter jealousy. No one said it in his presence after the first few weeks, once his position as military commander was established, but he suspects it persisted for a while longer behind closed doors.
He can't imagine Elizabeth saying it with anything other than awe and pride.
In Antarctica, after the brief and accidental demonstration of what he could do with a control chair, Elizabeth immediately offered him a job. He blurted out all the reasons she didn't really want him along, all the same reasons he was stationed in Antarctica in the first place, the military fall from grace that she still didn't seem to completely understand enough to care about.
She asked him to think about it, and here he is. He still hardly ever manages to say no to her.
The fire finally catches, and he hovers over it for a while, making sure it's stable enough to last even if the rain picks up again.
He strips down and crawls into the blanket next to her, careful not to jostle her injuries any more than necessary. He sets his watch to remind him to wake her periodically and then tries to sleep.
The weight of her head on his chest is warm and reassuring. "Tell me," she says, "what did you think about me when we first met?"
"I didn't have a clever nickname for you, if that's what you mean."
The glow of the fire picks up the raised eyebrow she sends him. "Come on."
"I thought you were crazy," he admits. He figures there's no way she can take offense at that -- after all, she did ask him to travel to another galaxy with her as though it was a completely ordinary request to make of a person.
He brushes a hand over her hair and shoots off a quick prayer to the universe that they'll somehow get out of this one. "I don't still think that."
Her words are slowing, edged with sleep. "Yes, you do."
His initial assessment of her changed pretty quickly, really. He thinks, sometimes, about what his life would have been like if he hadn't come to Atlantis, or if the expedition had been run by someone other than her, someone more military and less forgiving.
"Sleep well, John."
He leaves his hand on her head, holding her to him. "You too."
Elizabeth doesn't wake up magically cured. If anything, she's in even worse shape for getting out of this situation than she was the day before. The swelling in her knee hasn't gone down much, and when she climbs herself to standing with his help, she turns deathly white from pain. Sharp washes of vertigo make it dangerous to the point of stupid for her to go anywhere near the edge. She still isn't keeping down anything more than the occasional sip of water.
The rain has tapered off to a persistent drizzle, and with the increased visibility, John scouts the cliff for a few kilometers in both directions. The ledge tapers out of existence eventually, and there's no sign of an incline gradual enough for Elizabeth to climb out with injuries to both legs, even if she could make it that far.
He brings more firewood down and tries not to panic.
Elizabeth, for her part, has gone right past panic into the unearthly calm that he's seen from her only in worst case scenarios. "You have to try and get to the village."
"We don't even know if it is a village. For all we know, that light could occur naturally on this planet."
Elizabeth is back in her muddy uniform, leaning against the cliff. Her hands are folded neatly in her lap, like this is a routine briefing instead of a life-or-death argument. "If you don't go, we'll both starve to death. I'm not going to make it out of here without help."
"You don't know that," he insists. "You're doing better than you were yesterday-"
"John, stop it."
Emotion chokes at the back of his throat. "If I go, and something goes wrong, you'll freeze to death." There are about a hundred other ways she could die -- dehydration, landslide, slipping into a coma without him there to shake her awake every hour -- but he picks the one she'll probably think is the worst.
She stares him down. "Do you have a better idea?"
He tries desperately to think of one as he brings down more wood, but comes up empty.
He hates it, but she's right.
John divides their supplies and leaves her strict survival instructions, repeating them several times with a sick tremble in his throat that he can't quite swallow.
"I've got it," she finally tells him with a sad smile. "I'll be okay until you get back."
"I am coming back."
"I know." She presses a kiss to his cheek, holding there for a long moment. "Be safe, John."
He thinks that if he kisses her on the lips, he'll never leave. "Remember what I said about keeping the fire lit."
"Just go," she tells him. "And come back soon."
John finds the land bridge he'd hoped for about ten klicks farther on. Once on the other side, he moves as fast as he can in the direction they first saw the lights, stopping only to carefully mark his trail for the way back.
He resents the upward slope of the terrain, but only because it keeps him from going faster. The physical exertion serves to both keep him warm and keep him distracted.
He refuses to think that that might be the last time he ever sees her. He should never have let her anywhere near that valley, should never have trusted his injured hand to hold onto her, shouldn't have let himself be distracted by conversation. He should have seen it coming.
He shouldn't have left her alone.
She was right when she said there was no better option, but he still doesn't like it. He wasn't doing much for her except tending the fire and holding her hair back, but he can't stand the idea that she's suffering by herself.
None of that matters now. The voice in his head that tries to talk him out of guilt always sounds like her voice now, from so many post-mission conversations on the balcony outside the control room. He hopes like hell that she'll get another chance to convince him with her compassionate logic to let this one go, too.
He slips more than once in his haste, but doesn't get anything worse for it than the occasional mouthful of mud or a banged knee. His injured hand has started to sting like hell with pins and needles, but he doesn't want to stop long enough to redress it.
They must be on the winter hemisphere of the planet, because the days are nowhere near as long as the nights. When darkness falls, John keeps going. He can see the lights reflecting in the clouds again, still a ways off in the distance, and is beyond relieved to see that he really is getting closer.
He's lightheaded from pushing his body like this without nearly enough to eat, and that's ultimately why he misses registering the flashlight glinting off a twisted tree root in his way until it's too late and his foot gets caught.
He hears the crack before he even feels it, and is screaming by the time he hits the ground.
"Dammit!" The woods around him echo the sound as he fights for air over the blinding pain in his leg.
He rolls onto his back to get his face out of the mud, and clenches his teeth to stay conscious. The initial blinding pain recedes a bit after a moment, enough to let him breathe, and he lies there for a minute, trying to think.
This is bad. He can move, he's sure of it, and can probably even find himself makeshift crutches from all the branches lying around, but he left most of his first-aid supplies with Elizabeth, including all the painkillers. He can probably will himself as far as the village -- if that's what it is -- no matter how much it hurts, but it'll take forever.
Neither of them have that long.
He lies in the mud for a while, contemplating his lack of options and trying not to picture too clearly how he has doomed them both, and that's when he hears it.
There's movement in the distance, something large and moving quickly, from the direction in which he came.
"You have got to be kidding me," he grits out, digging out his knife from underneath him. It isn't much by way of protection, so he can only hope it'll be enough. They haven't seen wildlife on this planet at all so far, but it seems perfectly fitting that whatever it is would show up now.
John works himself up onto his elbows. He sees beams of light approaching along with the noise -- flashlights! -- and realizes that it's not a wild animal.
"Hey! Over here!" He'll take his chances with a potentially hostile force, at this point. Elizabeth was right, the lights must indicate civilization...
He doesn't get a clear view until they're practically on top of them. One of them shines a light on his face, blinding him.
A man's voice: "Colonel Sheppard?"
"What?" He's so surprised that it takes him a moment to switch gears. "Yes, it's me. How did you-?"
The man with the flashlight points the light back at his own face, and John can only conclude that he's hallucinating. He must have passed out, and is imagining Major Lorne.
"What the hell happened to you, sir?"
When John is beamed right out of the mud to the Daedalus infirmary, he swears he'll never say anything uncharitable about Colonel Caldwell ever again.
The harsh interior lights of the spaceship are painfully bright, and John reflexively shields his eyes as he babbles about the need to find Elizabeth as soon as they can.
"We've got her, Colonel," Caldwell says, turning up at his bedside. "We were searching from low orbit and detected her campfire. She told us where to look for you."
John wants to demand to see her, to shove the Daedalus personnel that he barely knows out of his way, but restrains himself to asking, "Is she all right?"
"She'll be fine. I'll let the doctor fill you in after you've been examined. Was anyone else with you on this planet?"
"No. No, sir, we came through the wormhole alone. How did you-?"
"Find you? You'll have to get the details from Doctor McKay. I'm told it was a veritable feat of science and Ancient technology."
John's head is swimming. "McKay's alive?"
"Very much so," Caldwell says, in a tone that suggests there are both good and bad sides to that. "He's waiting for you back on Atlantis."
The Daedalus makes it back to Atlantis -- such as it is -- in six hours at hyperspeed, but John and Elizabeth are confined to the ship for longer than that.
Elizabeth eventually ends up in the bed next to John's, slipping in and out of a drugged unconsciousness and slated for knee surgery as soon as Beckett or any other surgeon between the Atlantis team and the Daedalus crew gets the time. The infirmary around them is full of injured personnel from the Wraith attack on Atlantis, since the city infirmary was more or less totaled.
John gets the story from whichever passing crewmembers he manages to order into reporting, and when she's more awake than asleep, he fills her in.
"The wormhole cut out not long after we went through it. More sections of the city collapsed, but the control tower managed to last a few more minutes... and then the Daedalus got there a few days ahead of schedule."
It seems too good to be true, but John believes that he's not dreaming because of the pain in his foot and the infected cut on his hand, if for no other reason.
"The Daedalus is pretty good at those last-minute rescues, isn't it?" Elizabeth's voice is slurred with drugs, but John isn't complaining.
"They tried some new power ratios in the hyperdrive or something... I didn't get the specifics, but Caldwell claims he had a feeling that they'd be needed back on Atlantis sooner rather than later." Given how often the Daedalus really does provide last-minute rescues, John isn't about to discount Colonel Caldwell's potential ESP out of hand. "You and I dialed Atlantis before the Stargate on that planet went dead, remember? Rodney managed to pull that information out of the database after the shooting stopped and they figured out we weren't on the Alpha Site. The Stargate didn't work -- it's probably totally buried in mud by now -- so the Daedalus came to look for us."
He has to smile at that. "When they didn't find us near the Stargate, they picked up that village on sensors and Caldwell figured we might have tried to make our way there." Actually, Caldwell informed him that he'd assumed they were both dead upon seeing the state of flooding around the Stargate, but had been good enough to put in a good search before giving up completely.
"I told you we were lucky." Elizabeth smiles warmly at him, like they're sharing a secret. It occurs to him that he's never really going to be able to put this experience out of his mind, or the desperate thoughts and feelings that turned up to surprise him when faced with losing her for real. They'll have to talk about that eventually, probably, but for now he's just grateful that they're both alive.
"We're not so lucky." They lost a lot of people, though his team managed to survive, and at least twenty people are still unaccounted for. "It'll be a long time before the city's operational again. And as long as the Wraith have that weapon-"
"Tomorrow," Elizabeth argues, shaking her head into her pillow. She looks much better than she did. "We'll deal with it."
He wonders if anyone would notice if he pushed their beds a little closer together. It feels strange to be even this far from her. It's well worth it, though, to be warm and dry.
"Thank you," she says, out of nowhere. "For everything."
He isn't sure why, but he feels like he should be thanking her. "Anytime."
She snorts. "Please, let's never go through that again."
She smiles at that, and drifts off.
For a long time, he watches her sleep.
It's almost three weeks before the rest of the team returns from the Alpha Site. Even then, they're all mostly holed up in the less-damaged sections of the cities, and mostly without power.
John has finally gotten used to not constantly having Elizabeth in his sight, but he still does his best to keep track of her. She's in a wheelchair, and he's on crutches, which makes it easier. Their lack of mobility has kept them both in the temporary damage-control headquarters more often than not.
One night, he finds her reading by candlelight. She's alone in the mess hall when he gets there. As much as they've spent a lot of time together since returning to what remains of the city, they have spent very little of it alone.
For a while, that was actually kind of nice. When others are there with questions and immediate problems, it's easier to push aside the more unpleasant memories of being stuck on a rainsoaked ball of mud with her, thinking they were forever separated from everyone they cared about and fearing for their lives. She looks infinitely healthier now than she did on that planet, but occasionally a flash of pain or exhaustion will cross her features, and it always shoots right to his stomach.
He really, really thought she was going to die, to waste away on that precarious ledge because he was unable to save her. He hasn't quite gotten over that.
He hobbles over to her table and takes the seat next to her, pointing at the text in front of her. "Anything good?"
"I wish. It's a survey Tomlinson and Zelenka did of the North Pier in a puddle-jumper this morning -- I need to come up with some sort of salvage plan. There's flooding, structural collapse..."
He reads over her shoulder for a minute, squinting at the dim candle-light and artificial glow of her computer. "This is bad for your eyes, you know."
He doesn't realize how close he's actually sitting until she nudges him with her shoulder. "You worry too much."
"Thought that was my complaint about you." It is, usually. He says that to her, on the average, twice a week.
She frowns, and he knows she hasn't been able to completely forget their unexpected off-world mission, either. "I know you better now."
"Elizabeth-" He breaks off before he can say more, unsure if there are even words for everything he's been feeling like he needs to say to her.
She pushes the report away completely, turning to look at him with open concern in her eyes. The pause goes on too long, but she doesn't look away.
"I'm really glad you're okay," he finally says.
He thinks she understands everything he's not saying, too, because she looks just as overwhelmed as he feels. Her lips flutter in and out of a small smile, and she brushes his cheek with her hand. "Me too."
He closes his eyes at the feel of her warm fingers on his skin, and the next thing he knows, she's kissing him. It's soft, maybe the gentlest kiss he's ever received, and it makes his chest hurt with everything it means.
He hasn't lost her.
More than that.
She smiles when she pulls back, and it takes him a moment before he can breathe again. He realizes he caught her hand in his -- a reflex, maybe, after all that time alone with her in the rain -- and he squeezes it.
She glances back at the survey report. "Help me with this?"
He grins back. He brushes a thumb over her hand, and nods. "Okay."
They get back to work, but she doesn't let go of his hand.