widow's walk

When Elizabeth was younger, she lived in Provincetown for three years. She does not remember much, but she can still remember the taste of the salt on her skin, the plain wood houses scrubbed bare by years of sun and ocean, the clear straight line out to sea and the weight of years of history pressing down against her skin. She remembers standing where generations of women stood, feeling their strength and their fortitude seeping through her palms, drawing on the memories of watching and waiting.

Atlantis's widow's walk is nothing like that house's rooftop platform, but she curls her fingers around the railing anyway, looks down at the gate and wills it to life as though it is a clipper sliding into port. Her men will not be returning through the gate this time, though. Perhaps they won't be returning at all.

Elizabeth wonders if those fishermen's wives ever dreamed of a time when their granddaughters and great-granddaughters would hold the fate of an entire city in their hands, instead of filling their days with sewing and cooking and house-work. She is far from Provincetown now, in years and in light-years, but some things never change. She allows herself two hours each day of silent vigil, one in the morning and one as sunset paints the control-room red and gold.


With Sheppard and McKay gone, Lorne and Zelenka are the ones to sit in the afternoon meetings, offering tactics and plans and possible defenses. They spent some of their precious power to open a wormhole back to Earth, giving warning in neat clipped phrases that don't hold any of the horror they should. The Wraith have Earth's location. They're holding McKay hostage. Sheppard is MIA. Colonel Caldwell and the Daedalus are in pursuit. The message they got back was just as bloodless: stand by for further orders, Atlantis.

"We must consider the worst case," Zelenka says, his eyes sunken behind the glint of light against his glasses. "Rodney --" He stops and breathes deeply; Elizabeth closes her eyes against the naked despair there. "If they question him, he will break."

Lorne is sitting with his hands folded in his lap; she can see his biceps tense, relax, as he squeezes his hands together. It's the only sign he gives. "We know they want Earth. We have to assume they'll get McKay to give up the method of galactic hyperdrive. And they know where Earth is, now."

Zelenka rounds on him, face pale. "Because of our mistake. Say it, Major; it cannot be worse than what we have already thought ourselves."

"Stop," Elizabeth says, as Lorne is about to respond. "This is getting us nowhere. We need to --" She runs out of words, runs out of ideas, runs out of anything but the thrumming sense of panic behind her eyes. They've pulled off miracles with less, but this time she can't even see the pieces on the board. All she can think of is Sheppard and McKay before they sailed out into space, matching grins on their faces and equally convinced of their own invulnerability.

"Dr. Weir?" The way Lorne is watching her tells her she's been silent for far too long.

She shakes herself once, all over. "I'm sorry," she says, automatically. "I just --"

Zelenka is the one to reach across the table and rest a hand on her wrist. His skin is cool and damp, but she takes comfort from the touch. "You have not slept, I think," he says, too gentle. "There is nothing more we can do tonight. Not until we know more." He flicks his eyes over to Lorne for confirmation; Lorne nods, once. "Perhaps we should sleep, and come back to the problem in the morning, more rested."

"Yes," Elizabeth says. She doesn't know how she's supposed to sleep with the weight of every bad decision pressing down upon her chest, but perhaps, she thinks, it's not only for her. No one in the city has slept much in the past week. "I think -- a few hours. Perhaps we'll know more by then." Perhaps Sheppard isn't dead; perhaps by the time she wakes they'll have come stumbling into the gateroom, laughing with relief or nursing new injuries, ripe with another victory against the odds.

She stops at the railing on her way out of the conference room. It might only be her imagination, but she thinks she can feel where her hands have worn a spot in the railing, a subtle dip and curve where they settle and rest.


She hesitates between changing into sleep-clothes or leaving on her uniform. A middle-of-the-night call would mean needing to move quickly, but she's too used to the phone's ring pulling her from sleep not to realize that the universe springs things on you when you are least prepared for them, and perhaps if she strips it will make the call come sooner. She compromises by removing her shoes and her jacket, and turns the lights down low while the glint of Atlantis's twin moons spills over the bed.

Her heart stops for a minute when the chime sounds at her door, but reason reasserts itself after that first quick stab; they would call her on the city-wide if they can't reach her headset, and the headset is still pressing into the curve of her ear. When she opens the door, Zelenka is standing there, dressed in a ratty t-shirt and a pair of sweats. It's not what she would have ever imagined seeing him in, she thinks, and presses her palm against her mouth to hold back the choked laugh she can feel pushing against her tongue.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Dr. Weir," he says, his eyes intent on her face.

"No, no, it's all right," she says unthinkingly. "Is something wrong?"

"No," he says, and then takes off his glasses and rubs at one eye, roughly. "Yes. May I come in? I will not be long."

She stands aside to let him enter. He's never been in her quarters before, she thinks; she watches as he takes in the room in one quick glance and then looks back to her. He seems content to just look, and the silence spins out between them until she is almost ready to say something. He finally blurts, "I have been thinking of Rodney and Colonel Sheppard."

It twists something in her chest; she's been trying not to think of them, not to wonder where they are and what is happening to them, not to wonder if they are even -- Enough. The need to distance herself from her thoughts makes her voice sharper than it should be. "What about them?"

She regrets her tone the minute she speaks, and lifts a hand as a preface to an apology, but Zelenka shakes his head as though he didn't even notice her rudeness, which is probably the truth; he's used to working under much more adverse conditions. "You are an intelligent and perceptive woman," he says -- not a compliment, simply a statement of fact. After so long, she's still learning how to read the language of scientists and engineers; it's a tongue far more alien than Ancient, breathtaking in its simplicity and forthrightness. "You have seen the way they interact. The way they look to each other, but neither is willing to make the first move."

Elizabeth has noticed. She couldn't not notice, and she knows she isn't the only one, but it's none of her business and she fails to see why Zelenka is interrupting the rest period he was the one to suggest simply to discuss the personal lives of two men who might not even --

"You have seen," he says, quietly, eyes on her face. She wonders what shows there. "I think -- they fear what might happen to them here. They fear the loss. And so they are unwilling to take the risk. And I -- I think it is quite noble of them, to try to spare each other pain, but I am not a noble man. I could not say this during any of the other times we have been near death, but I cannot not say this now."

His voice is curiously uninflected, as though he is reading a series of notes from the insides of his glasses. Elizabeth is a diplomat and a linguist; she's used to reading all types of speech acts, and the set of his shoulders and the way he's moved his eyes to stare over her head tells her how uncomfortable he is.

"I admire you greatly," he says. "We have, I think, both left people behind us, and we are neither of us such excellent communicators to begin with." His lips curve a little in a smile, and she can see him sidetracking, needing to clarify or perhaps just follow the thread of what he's said. "Which is an irony, given our positions, and one that tempts me to wonder if it is perhaps a cruel universe to place us in such situations, but that is not my point. I do not wish to be Rodney or the Colonel, Elizabeth."

He almost never uses her name. It shocks her out of her silence. "Dr. Zelenka," she starts, intending to tell him that it's all right, they can talk in the morning once everyone is running less on caffeine and nerves, but his hands rise between them to slash at the air in negation.

"No," he says, too sharply, and then smiles ruefully, pushing up his glasses with one finger. "Forgive me, but no. It is not as easy as you might think, to say this. I do not wish to make you uncomfortable, but -- please let me finish."

Her breath catches at the look on his face: one quick stab of longing mixed with a sort of terror and exhilaration she can barely even begin to comprehend. She holds that breath for a minute, then exhales and nods. He folds his hands together and continues. "I am not saying I love you, because I do not know you in the ways that might let me say it. I know you are a strong woman, an intelligent woman, and I admire your strength and your intelligence. I know you care for us all. I respect your skills and your abilities, and I respect your --"

He hesitates, makes a small circling motion with one hand to indicate that he is running through his mental translating dictionary for the closest word to a concept he does not think English contains, and finishes with, "Heart. I think sometimes that you forget this; you see that Rodney is this city's brain, and Colonel Sheppard is her hands, but you do not see that you are her soul."

Elizabeth discovers that her hands are shaking. She's had decades of people complimenting her abilities, but this is the first time any of them have cut straight to the core of her fears like this, put voice to the very things she is most uncertain about. She wonders how long he has been watching her.

"I see you in the meeting tonight," he continues, the words tumbling from his lips as though he fears she will not let him finish and growing slightly more awkward for the speed, "and you are tired, yes, but in your eyes I also see --" He pauses again, mutters something under his breath, and comes back with, "Heart-sickness. You think you have made mistakes, and think perhaps you deserve to be punished for them. I have come here to say that we have all made mistakes, and none of us think less of you for yours. I could not sleep without telling you this. You are an amazing woman, and it is the amazing women who believe themselves to be least worthy of love. And I could not sleep without telling you that I --" He stops again, runs out of words. Helplessly, he gestures once, wildly. "I am a very clumsy man with words, Dr. Weir, but I can tell you that I could so easily love you."

The silence stretches out between them. She finds herself unwilling to break it, unable to do more than force herself to breathe, feeling the shape of her self-control weighing down heavily upon her. No one has ever said anything like this to her before; even Simon's courtship had been reserved, almost calculated, nothing like this heartfelt explosion. She's tempted, so tempted, to step into the circle of his arms, to let him hold onto her and rock her back and forth, letting her cry out all the anger and the frustration and the fear, but that's a comfort she's never allowed herself and she knows she can't start.

He's finished, perhaps, she thinks. His eyes study her face for a minute, looking for something, and she watches as the tiny glint of hope slowly ebbs, flows, banks itself into a quiet ember hidden deep. "You do not need to say anything," he says, and pushes his glasses up his nose again. "I simply hope you might take some comfort from it."

He turns to go, and the dignity in the cant of his shoulders and the even, measured steps tells her that he's telling the truth, that this brilliant and sensitive man came to her even in the midst of his own -- heart-sickness, yes, that's a good word for it -- to offer what comfort he could provide by the simple means of direct honesty.

In the instant between one step and the next, she recalls a thousand men who have wanted something from her, and the one she thought never did, and she realizes that none of them could ever have the courage to do a thing like this. "Radek," she says, before she even realizes she is speaking; he stills, and it takes a few extra seconds before he turns back around. She sees hope in his face, twinned with despair.

She wets her lips. "I do," she says. They're not the words she wants, but all of the rest of them have deserted her. "Take comfort from it, I mean."

He inclines his head slowly, and gifts her with a smile. "Then my speech has not been wasted."

Honesty calls for honesty; it's the first rule of negotiation. "I can't be involved with anyone here. I --" She stops and breathes. There's no reason she should not be able to do this; she has a lifetime of experience in letting people down easily and making them want to thank her for it afterwards.

Strangely enough, she thinks he might be able to see. He crosses the room to stand in front of her again, reaches out and takes her hands in his. His skin is warmer this time; she thrills to his touch, so long since anyone has given her this simple comfort. "Elizabeth," he says, her name soft and sweet against his lips. "Elizaveta. We are all a long way from home and doing many things we should not do. If that is all that would stop you, I beg of you to think again. But I will place no more burdens on you." He hesitates for a second, then turns over her palms in his hands, brings them up and presses a soft kiss against the inside of each wrist. His lips burn against her skin; she is leaning towards him, subtly, her body curving into the space between them. "I told you, you do not need to say anything. I simply needed for you to know that you are worthy of love."

She doesn't know why his generosity undoes her. Perhaps it's been so long since she has encountered it, if she ever truly has, that she can't even begin to understand. Zelenka -- Radek -- does not let her hands go, though she knows that if she pulled away, if she even thought about withdrawing, he would. She stands there, in her quarters, on the lost city of Atlantis, with their doom potentially in the sky and three-quarters of her flagship team missing or worse, and she can't, she can't, it would be a betrayal of everything she's tried to safeguard, but oh, she wants.

"Radek," she says, because he's the only one she could say it to. "I'm scared."

His brows draw together as he considers her words. "As am I," he says, as though it's the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps for him, it is, to be that open. Or to be that open with someone he cares for. "Will the Wraith come? Will Earth be safe? Will I be responsible for the deaths of millions?" She starts to say something, tell him he wasn't responsible, but he cuts her off with a shake of the head. "And you should not say it was not my fault; I was the one to pronounce the database free of threat."

"I gave the order," she says. She won't let any of her people blame themselves for things that rest solely on her shoulders.

"So," he says, emphatically. "If I must not blame myself, you must not blame yourself either."

There's a flaw in his logic somewhere, but she can't spot it. "I shouldn't," she says. "I can't. I -- Radek, I am -- I am very fond of you, but I -- I don't --" She closes her eyes. She speaks eight languages, and all of the words are wrong.

Radek lets her hands fall and takes a step back. "Tell me to go," he says, "and I will."

The words are on her lips, but she can't say them. Doesn't want to say them. She is breaking, broken, and he is offering her a line back to shore, and she wants nothing more than to throw caution to the wind and turn back into him. She is not in love with him, but she understands that he is not the only one who could so easily fall.

And then regret and a bit of self-deprecation crosses his face, and he says, "I'm sorry. I did not mean to -- I should go anyway. I will forget I have said anything. We should both sleep."

Elizabeth takes a breath, deep and free and clear, and says, wondering where the courage comes from, "What if I would prefer you stay?"

He stops halfway through his turn; his face is pale in the moonlight, and his eyes are smudged under with dark circles. "You will need to -- to tell me what you mean."

This, then. This, and now, and just like this, and she can't and she shouldn't but she's given so many years of her life to can'ts and shouldn'ts and maybe it's time to stop waiting. She lifts a hand to her ear and plucks the earpiece free, tosses it to the bedside table behind her without looking. Tomorrow they all may be dead. She knows all the gossip about her, everything said of a strong woman in a position of authority, and maybe if she's going to be condemned she should get some comfort out of it first. "I can't promise anything," she says, because for the first time in her life, she cares enough to be sure that she won't leave any broken hearts behind her.

Radek's breath catches as he takes her meaning, and then a shy smile touches his lips. "I would not want you to," he says, and crosses the room to stand before her again.

Barefoot, he is her height, or near enough as to make no difference. He brings reverent fingertips to rest against one of her cheekbones, the lightest touch. She can feel the calluses there. "No promises, Eliska," he says, and then his mouth stutters against hers, soft and gentle.


In the morning, she walks past the spot on the balcony overlooking the gateroom without stopping, and does not once need to fight back tears as she begins to plan.

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