Rodney almost had a heart attack as he heard the familiar metal-on-metal sound. He spun around to face the source of the sudden noise, part of him expecting to see the cell door swing open and the guards run in to drag him back to Kolya.
"Sorry, McKay," Zelenka said. He hurriedly bent down to pick up the tray he'd dropped, looking like he wanted nothing more than for the floor to open up and swallow him whole. "I'm so very, very sorry..."
"It's okay, Radek," Rodney assured him as his heart started to slow down to a steady beat again. "Not your fault. And I told you to call me Rodney."
Rodney smiled and shook his head as he focused his attention back onto his work. As annoying as it was to have everyone walking on eggshells around him, it was nice to see that they cared enough to fear upsetting him.
The past few weeks had really been eye-opening for him. He hadn't realized before his brush with death just how alone he'd been in the midst of all of these people, and that it was completely self-inflicted solitude. He'd resolved to do all he could to remedy that as soon as he was up and about again, and one of the first orders of business had been to make the effort to remember Zelenka's name. Zelenka... Radek Zelenka... it had taken him a few days, but he'd finally got it down.
Another thing that had been high on his list was making sure his teammates knew how much he respected them and enjoyed keeping their company. They seemed surprised by his sudden transformation, but after a couple of days the novelty of being amongst them again had worn off and Rodney had lost his temper over something trivial, thereby setting their minds at ease over the question of whether or not he'd suffered personality-altering brain damage during his ordeal.
The most important thing Rodney had had to deal with, however, and the thing that was taking the most time to change, was his relationship with Elizabeth. He'd seen something in her the day that he'd first woken up to find her sitting there beside him, something that seemed to run deeper than just her feelings of friendship for him. She seemed to be fighting against it all through those first few days of his recovery, and yet she'd always been there to hold him through his flashbacks and calm him down after his nightmares. He was determined to find out what that was all about, no matter how long it took.
Speaking of Elizabeth...
Rodney glanced at his watch and winced when he saw the time. "Can you finish up here?" he asked Zelenka as he stood up and started organizing all the papers and things on his desk. "I'm late for lunch."
"And we all know how you get when your blood sugar is low," Zelenka said in a dry tone. "Yes, yes, I can finish this. Go."
Rodney smiled and patted his friend on the shoulder as he passed him. "See you later," he said. Then he walked out of the room as quickly as he could without actually running.
Everyone he passed on the way to the mess hall gave him a smile and a nod, showing their encouragement and support now that he was back at work. There wasn't one person in the city that didn't know what a tough few weeks it had been for him, and no one would have wanted to be in his place through it all. He wasn't used to everyone admiring him like this, and it felt damn good.
For this reason, he was already walking on clouds by the time he reached the mess hall, so when he saw Elizabeth sitting there waiting for him, he felt like he would burst with happiness. She looked up as he entered, and her smile lit up the room.
"Hey," she said as he walked up beside her, "I was starting to think you'd stood me up."
"Never." He bent down and kissed her cheek, and then slipped into the seat beside hers. She'd already brought his food to the table - she was always thoughtful like that - but he could see that she hadn't started her own yet. He was touched that she'd waited for him, especially since he'd been late.
Suddenly, he was hit with a great idea. He got to his feet and held out his hand to her, stopping her just as she was about to take a bite out of her sandwich. "Come on," he said. "Let's take this to the southwest pier and eat it there. Like a... picnic."
Elizabeth looked surprised at first, but then she grinned. "I'd love to," she said. She stood up and lifted her tray, turning to face him with an impish look on her face. "Lead the way."
Rodney beamed and picked up his own tray. "Leading," he said, turning on his heel and heading for the door.
Elizabeth laughed and followed him out of the mess hall and into the transporter. As Rodney looked over at her and saw the open, excited look on her face, it suddenly occurred to him that all through his life he'd felt like something had been missing - that some part of him was empty. At some point over the past few weeks, that feeling had disappeared.
'So this is what it feels like to love,' he thought to himself as the door of the transporter swung open and Elizabeth stepped out. 'I wonder why I've always been afraid of it?'
"Are you coming?" Elizabeth asked when she noticed that he hadn't followed her out of the transporter yet.
Rodney gave himself a mental shake and smiled. "Thank you, Elizabeth," he said as he stepped out into the hall.
He shrugged. "Just thank you. Shall we?"
Elizabeth shook her head in confusion over his remark, but she smiled and linked her arm with his as he led her towards the balcony. "I hope we don't sit in a cowpat or get overrun by ants," she joked.
Rodney couldn't help but laugh out loud at that, and even though he felt a slight twinge in his ribs as a reminder of what he'd been through, he'd never felt more at peace.
It was good to be alive.