If you want to find Atlantis—Jewel of the Ancients; hope of the Pegasus Galaxy; the most highly classified project of the United States government—all you have to do is travel to the state of Colorado. More specifically, Cheyenne Mountain. Once there, you will present your identification to the guard on duty (Stephanie on Tuesdays, to be sure), and after that, really, it's only a matter of time and distance. You will enter the mountain (through quite an impressive series of gates and doors and other such portals) and descend (in an elevator, which while certainly important, is not nearly so impressive) many, many feet, until you reach Stargate Command.
Once there, you will proceed to the Gate Room (so named for apparent reasons), and as the vibrations from the generators thrum through the soles of your shoes, you'll listen to the gate crew (Walter, invariably) call out the successful alignment of the necessary coordinates—Chevron One Is Locked! Chevron Two Engaging!—and so forth, until all eight (yes, eight, not seven) have clunked into place. Then there will be a great swoosh, a most amazing sight, as the connection to Atlantis is finally made, ready for you to step through to the other side.
And sure enough, if you follow those directions exactly, that is how you find Atlantis.
All of this is assuming, of course, that you're headed there from Earth.
There was an energy shield in place. She knew its purpose was to guard the ring from uninvited travelers, a precaution that had been set in place millennia ago by the original builders of the city. It was no barrier to her, however. She simply shifted her energy to a compatible frequency to pass through it and then coalesced into her material form once she was on the other side.
This was Atlantis. Prime city-ship of the First Ones, the Altarans, those who had changed the course of the universe through greatness and hubris both. She had known of it, of course, but seeing it with her own eyes was a far different experience than she had expected. The city was...disappointingly sterile. Oh, there was beauty in the soaring lines, yes, and in the play of light and color throughout the structure, but it was not the same magnificent structure that had been in her mind's eye since she was a child, her imagination fed by tales told over and over again through the years.
Her impressions mattered not.
The warning klaxon that echoed through the great room around her was as sterile as the architecture: a constant, ascending loop of notes with a cool, non-specific timbre that nevertheless flavored her arrival with an urgency she did not wish it to have. She reached out with her thoughts and reset the alarm so that it no longer reacted to her presence, and then turned her attention to the group of humans who had arrayed themselves in front of her. Most stood in defensive stances, the boxy projectile weapons in their arms leveled at her chest. As a whole they were frightened and angry, though not overly so. Not so much that they would act without further provocation. She waited where she stood, unmoving, until a woman standing on the upper gallery gentled a protective soldier out of her way and then descended the stairs to stand at the forefront of the group.
"My name is Dr. Elizabeth Weir," the woman said, holding her hands before her and slightly to the sides, an offering of welcome and peace. Weir did not radiate the fear that some of the others did, and her eyes were lively, dilated by the arousal of her intellectual curiosity. "We will not harm you unless you attempt to harm us. If your intentions are peaceful, then you are welcome here."
"I intend no harm to you," she said, copying Weir's hand position. "I am pleased to meet you, Dr. Weir. My name is Teyla Emmagan."
Weir smiled. "And I am very pleased to meet you, Teyla. May I ask, are you an Ancient?"
"You may. I am not." Some of the pleasure went out of Weir's eyes then, and her anxiety rose, but Teyla was more interested in the approach of two men. The dark-haired one, dressed as the other soldiers were, had come racing from beyond the main room, weapon in hand as he sped towards Weir. The other one, light-haired and unarmed, approached cautiously from the same upper balcony where Weir had been. They moved as an inverted set, taking up positions on either side of Weir without ever acknowledging the other's presence.
"So if you're not an Ancient, then what are you?"
"Oh, that's real good, McKay. Try a little harder to piss off the super-powerful alien, why don't you?"
"I was just asking a question!"
"Shut up, the both of you! Now is not the time for your issues!" Weir snapped softly, offering an apologetic smile to Teyla before addressing her directly once again. "I'm sorry, we don't mean to be rude. But your presence here does cause many questions. Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay are merely expressing the worries that we all have."
Teyla tipped her head to the side, considering. There were many words in their language that she could choose, though none fit perfectly. The one that was closest was slightly archaic, carrying layers of connotation that she would rather do without, but she found that, irrational though it was, she liked it the best.
"There is no need for concern," she said. "I have come to be your new governess."
"Don't worry, Mr. Bear! We're gonna eat real soon, promise."
Mr. Bear tipped to one side. Elise huffed and set the teapot back down on the coffee table, then scooted over to his side. His tail made his butt too tippy, that was the problem. She stared at it for a moment, wondering if she could coax it into a different shape. If he didn't have a tail at all it'd be much easier for him to sit, but then again, he wouldn't be a very good bear if he didn't have a tail.
Elise felt behind her, at her own rear, wondering if she'd have the same problem if she had a tail. It probably wouldn't be like Mr. Bear's, though. Like a monkey's tail, since humans came from monkeys. A monkey's tail would be a lot more fun than a short stubby tail like Mr. Bear's—but it still'd probably be a pain to sit on.
She frowned at Mr. Bear. His bow-tie looked a little droopier than it had before. "I know, I know," she told him as she clambered up off the floor. She raced into Daddy's bedroom and grabbed his pillows, then raced back into the playroom. "Your hypaglycemia is gonna make you sick if'n you don't eat. Just hold your freakin' horses, 'kay?"
Mr. Bear was a good bear, really, except when he got hungry. She had to pick him up to get the pillows settled all perfect, so she gave him a great big hug to make him feel better, then sat him back down. With his back against the couch and his tail sticking over the edge of the pillows, he was balanced just right. Elise tweaked his bow-tie, but it was still crooked and sad.
"Okay, fine. Gimme a sec." She set the plate of cookies in front of him, and then poured his tea. "Happy?" she asked as she gave him a bite of a cookie. That seemed to do the trick, so she scooted around to her side of the table and started eating her own cookies. After the first one, she took a drink of tea.
Elise frowned at the cup of air. Tea and cookies wasn't any fun if there wasn't any real tea. She couldn't even dunk her cookie into it, like Daddy sometimes did. Dr. Sarah had said she had to make-do without real tea, because that was how she did it when she was a little girl.
Dr. Sarah never came for tea with them, though, so she must not like air-tea very much, either.
Elise crawled to the edge of the doorway, then inched her way up until she could see Dr. Sarah sitting on the big couch. She was busy with her computer, like she always was when she came over to watch Elise. Dr. Sarah was boring. Not like Corporal Lee at all. Corporal Lee would have made sure they had tea, and would have drank it with them, too.
"Just gotta do it yourself," Elise told herself softly.
Dr. Sarah didn't look up as Elise tiptoed across the edge of the room and towards the kitchen. Not even once. Corporal Lee totally would have seen her. That's what soldiers were good at. They weren't very smart, not according to Papa, but Corporal Lee didn't seem that dumb to Elise.
Elise let out a big breath once she was safe in the kitchen, and then started to count off her next steps on her fingers. First she needed to get the tea bags, and then she needed water. Water hot enough to extract the good stuff out of the tea leaves.
The tea bags were under the counter, so that was easy. But she'd goofed up and left her teapot in the other room. The odds of Dr. Sarah seeing her went up a great degree the more often she went through the sitting room, no matter how stealthy she was. Not even Dr. Sarah was that obtuse. Elise bit her lip, trying not to cry. She really wanted to have tea with Mr. Bear. It wasn't fair at all that Dr. Sarah wouldn't let her.
"I don't care," she said. "I can do it, I'm big enough."
Elise set the box of tea bags on the floor, then as quietly as a mouse, slid the step stool over in front of the sink. The water from the faucet would be hot enough if she told Atlantis to make it that way. But she still needed something to put it in.
Elise squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on the shape of a teapot, exactly like the one she had in the playroom. She couldn't hold onto the color, but it was the shape that mattered. Mostly spherical, with a flat bottom and a long, cylindrical spout, hollow all the way through.
She felt a tug. Elise opened her eyes—and there it was. Exactly what she needed, though it was a really ugly green color. She clapped her hands together with her excitement, right up until she remembered Dr. Sarah in the other room.
"Shhh," she hissed to herself. "First rule of sneaking. Duh." She listened for a second, but Dr. Sarah wasn't coming to yell at her.
Elise picked up the pot and held it under the sink. Hot water, hot enough for tea brewing, ran out of the faucet and into the pot. She held it carefully, so it wouldn't spill, but the pot started to get hot. Really, really hot, until it felt like her hands were burning right off.
She shrieked and let go. The pot smashed against the bottom of the sink. Hot water splashed up, drops of it hitting her hands and burning even more. Elise pulled them in tight against her chest. She didn't want to look. They'd be burned real bad, so bad Dr. Carson would have to cut them off.
"Is it really as terrible as all that?"
That didn't sound like Dr. Sarah at all. Elise sucked in a breath, licking tears away from her lips and rubbing her face against the shoulder of her shirt. She slowly turned around on the chair, wobbling on her knees because she couldn't stand to move her hands away from her chest.
A woman was standing in front of her, right at the spot at the table where the chair should be. She was dark-skinned and pretty, with pretty long hair the color of Atlantis's walls. She didn't look scary, but Elise didn't know how she got in here. Daddy didn't like people she didn't know to come to their quarters.
"Who are you?" Elise asked. She thought about running away, but her hands hurt too much for her to figure out where to go. "Does Daddy know you?"
"My name is Teyla. I am here to help you." She took a step forward, reaching for Elise's hands. Elise shook her head, hard, but Teyla shushed her and did it anyway. Teyla's hands were cool, pulling the burn away. "There now. Your hands are all better, are they not?"
Elise swallowed some more of her tears. She didn't want to look, but Teyla's eyes were smart. Smart and nice. Elise looked down—and her hands were just fine. Exactly like they were before the hot water hit them.
She looked back up at Teyla. "How did you do that? Can you show me?"
Teyla smiled. "I did nothing but soothe a little soreness. It was all in your mind, little one."
"It hurt." Elise glared at her. Just because other people said it was in your head didn't mean it wasn't real. She knew that. Papa said that all the time.
"I know." Teyla held out a hand. "Now come down from there. This is not where you should be."
"I just wanted tea," Elise said, but she did as Teyla asked, taking her hand and climbing down from the chair.
"Then you should have asked for assistance." Teyla reached into the sink and came out with an unbroken teapot. This one was blue with shimmery silver stars all around it.
"Cool!" Elise picked up the box of teabags and trotted after Teyla. She'd gotten just inside the doorway of the front room when Dr. Sarah shrieked and stood up.
"Who are you and where did you come from?" Dr. Sarah asked.
"My name is Teyla, and I am Elise's new governess." Teyla's eyebrows were very pointed as she said that; she almost looked like Mr. Spock. "You may go now."
"I don't know anything about that," Dr. Sarah said. She reached for her headset.
"It does not matter. We do not need your services any longer," Teyla said. She touched Elise's shoulder with the hand that wasn't holding the teapot, and nudged her towards the playroom. Elise smiled up at her, and then skipped back towards Mr. Bear.
"Now," Teyla said as she started pouring the hot water over the tea bags. "Tell me about your day. And please, sit up straight before you start to drink."
John rubbed his thumb against his lip and shifted his stance so he had a better view of the corner of the playroom. Elise was putting Mr. Bear down for a nap in his tent. The tent took up nearly a quarter of the floor space in the room, but despite the cost in real estate, it was obviously one of her favorite toys. John couldn't even hang onto any of the anger he'd had at Rodney when Elise had first unwrapped the box. God, they'd gotten into such a huge fight over that. Nearly as bad as the fights they'd had when they first broke up, and those screaming matches had been so bad he'd always had tension headaches for days afterwards.
During those times when he was being begrudgingly honest with himself, John could admit that he'd been so angry about the tent because he was jealous. It was so much more his style than Rodney's, something he should have thought of himself, but hadn't. And then when Elise immediately latched onto it, Rodney had been so damn smug....
John shook his head. That was all in the past. He needed to be in the right here, right now. Mr. Bear was snug under a blankie, back paws sticking out from the front of the tent, and Elise was settling in on the loveseat for her own nap. John gripped the ZAT tighter as Teyla Emmagan stood up, but there wasn't anything he could do but stand there and watch as she approached his daughter. She pulled the throw off the back of the couch and tucked it around Elise, making sure to cover her toes and shoulders both, and then walked back to the chair on the other side of the room. John started breathing again when she finally sat back down. He couldn't quite get his grip to relax to normal levels, though.
"Has she done anything?"
John barely controlled a jump. He turned his head just enough to aim a glare at Rodney, then returned to doing what he needed to be doing—keeping watch on the strange Ancient-y woman meditating in his favorite chair. After a moment, he decided he could throw Rodney a bone. He had reason to be worried too, after all. "She told Elise some kind of bedtime story. I couldn't really hear it."
John couldn't help the snort that escaped. "She got Elise to lay down for her nap without any hysterics. At all. And no, I didn't see her do anything."
"Oh, God. She probably drugged her." Rodney pressed up close to the doorway, close enough that the barrier that was keeping them out started to hum. "Or used her powers to knock her out. Oh, God, that can't be good for a growing brain. Elise could be permanently damaged!"
"She's fine, Rodney," John growled, but that was the best reassurance he could force out of himself. Yeah, Elise had looked fine when she was putting Mr. Bear down, looked fine right now as her little blanket-covered chest rose and fell, but he had no way of knowing that for sure. And he wouldn't until they got into that room. "Did you figure out the deal with the force field?"
Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Rodney shake his head. "It's exactly the same as the shield Atlantis is able to generate when it's fully powered up. Identical in every way."
"That's good, right? Since you know how that works."
Rodney sighed. One of his 'oh, my God, you simpleton' specials. "Theoretically, yes. But there's nothing powering it."
John looked over to him. "Nothing? As in 'not a ZPM' nothing, or—"
"As in nothing, nothing." Rodney held up the scanner in his hand. "Our power consumption levels are exactly the same as before her arrival, and I can't detect any other energy readings. In your quarters, or anywhere else."
"Crap." John resisted the urge to beat his fists against the forcefield, knowing from experience it'd do absolutely no good. "So what now? Cut through the wall?"
"Oh, yes, that's brilliant." Rodney crossed his arms over his chest, scanner stuffed in tight in the crook of his elbow. "You think she wouldn't just shield that, too?"
"I think I'm going to do everything I can possibly think of to make sure my daughter is safe."
"You think I'm not?" Rodney dropped his arms to the side, taking a step forward so he was way too far inside John's space. "Hello? She's my daughter, too, no matter how much you try to forget that."
John scoffed. "You mean she's your daughter when you've got another idea to cram into her head."
"Oh, that is so not fair." Rodney flushed hard, then went pale in a way that made his eyes look extra big and blue and worried. "Don't act like I don't love her."
"Sorry," John muttered. He cleared his throat and went back to staring at Teyla Emmagan. "So, what are we going to do?"
Before Rodney could suggest anything, Teyla Emmagan stood up again. She was in front of the shield before John could shift his grip on the ZAT, though it'd looked like she'd moved at normal human speed. John blinked at her, and she smiled blandly back at him.
And then she stepped through the shield.
"Excuse me," she said, completely ignoring the way every weapon in the room was snapped up and aimed directly at her. "But please. If you are going to argue, do so where your voices will not disturb the child."
"Papa lets me have cookies," Elise tried again. It hadn't worked five minutes ago, but she still wanted them. If Corporal Lee was watching her still, he would have given in after the third time she asked. Not Dr. Sarah, though. Dr. Sarah was still the meanest, even if Teyla was mean, too. "'Cause of low blood sugar."
"Cookies will not help your blood sugar. Hasn't Dr. Carson told you that?" Teyla pulled the blanket back up from where Elise had kicked it onto the floor and then she tossed it up into the air. It spread out like a rainbow-colored parachute and slowly floated down until it covered Elise from toes to chin. "Now, it is time for your nap. Do not argue any more."
"Fine." Elise rolled over onto her side. She waited until she didn't hear Teyla moving around anymore, and then rolled back over. Teyla was gone. That didn't mean Elise was in the clear, though. Teyla might come back in and see before she was finished, so Elise slipped off the couch as quietly as she could and crawled into Mr. Bear's tent.
"Shh," she told him. "We gotta be quiet, k?"
Mr. Bear's tie was extra-perky. He really liked cookies, too.
Elise closed her eyes. She wanted the oval ones with chocolate, the M'lano ones Daddy kept for his coffee sometimes. She pictured them exactly, just how they would feel in her hand and taste in her mouth. And then something dropped into her hand.
It was one cookie.
"Sorry, Mr. Bear," she said. She brought it up to her mouth to take a bite—but it was gone before she bit down.
"I told you no cookies until later," Teyla said. Her head was inside the entrance of the tent, and she had the cookie in her hand. "You cannot simply take whatever you want, simply because you want it."
Elise crossed her arms. "Papa and Daddy both say I can have whatever I want."
"That is not precisely true." Teyla backed out of the tent, but then she stuck her hand back in. The cookie was gone. She snapped her fingers. Elise sighed and took her hand, letting Teyla help her out of the tent and back onto the couch. Teyla tucked the blanket around her again, but not fancy at all this time.
"Your fathers want you to be happy and self-sufficient," she told Elise. "That does not mean indulging every whim, or cheating to get your way. Things happen as they are meant to happen. Do you understand?"
Elise shook her head. All she understood was that Teyla wasn't letting her have cookies. "You're mean."
Teyla sighed. "You know that is not true. You can have cookies with your Papa later, after dinner. Now it is time for your nap."
Elise frowned. She still wanted cookies, but she was kind of tired. "Sing me a song?"
"Until you are asleep," Teyla agreed. She had a pretty voice, even if Elise couldn't quite understand the words. They painted pretty pictures in her head, though, of stars and trees and cookies that had wings and flew over her head. Elise tried to keep her eyes open, because she didn't want Teyla to stop singing about those things.
"I don't like it."
John sighed. Of course John sighed. Oh, and there was the eyeroll, too. Couldn't leave out the eyeroll. "Yes, Rodney. We know you don't like it. You've only mentioned that a couple thousand times already in the past week."
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, I wouldn't have to keep repeating myself if somebody would actually listen to me."
"That's enough, Rodney." Elizabeth glared at him from the opposite arm of the meeting room table. He hated that look--mostly because he was powerless against it. He set his jaw and tried to will her to back down, but she started to get that steely look in her eyes that meant bad things, so he sighed and dropped his arms. She nodded and eased back from her attack-dog alertness. "Thank you. I understand your concerns, I do. I think it's safe to say we all have them. But right now we're just going around in circles instead of coming up with productive ideas."
"Oh, I don't know, I thought asking her for her references was a fantastic idea," Carson said blandly. Traitorous bastard.
"It was definitely entertaining." John snickered a little. "I don't know what other powers she has, but I'm pretty sure that eyebrow can be classified as a deadly weapon."
"I'm sorry I missed that," Grodin jumped in. His was another name getting struck off Rodney's theoretical Christmas list this year. "Would you be willing to go for an encore when I'm around? Perhaps ask about her salary expectations this time?"
"Ha, ha. Yes, you're all hilarious. But I don't see any of you getting any information out of her."
"McKay has a point, though," Bates said. Rodney rolled his eyes. When didn't he have a point? "Not only is Emmagan a security concern in herself, but with all of our attention focused on her, we're vulnerable to any other threat that may come along."
"Exactly!" Rodney pointed at him in agreement. "Not that I'm saying I don't want our resources dedicated to my daughter's safety, but what happens if the Asurans decide to make their move tomorrow?"
Bates nodded. "The most prudent option may be to send Elise back to Earth."
"I don't think so!" Rodney squawked, at the same time that John snarled, "Like hell."
"I'm not saying send her by herself," Bates said, as stubborn as he always was. The man had the inertia of a planetary object. "Take a leave of absence. Both of you could swing a few months of down time, no problem."
"That's not going to happen," John said, and for once, Rodney was glad of the way he sometimes acted like they were still a single decision-making unit. "For one thing, we don't know that it would solve the problem. Teyla seems to be able to go wherever she wants to go, and there's no reason why she wouldn't just follow us back to Earth."
"And that's a security risk I don't want to answer for," Elizabeth said. "I know the situation is hardly ideal, but as far as I can tell, the only options we have are to stay alert, and to try to get Teyla herself to explain what she's doing here."
Rodney snorted. "Good luck with that."
"We can start by not antagonizing her," Elizabeth said, directly to him.
"I wasn't trying to antagonize her!"
"No, you just generally have that effect on people," John sniped. Rodney would have sniped back, but they'd been at this long enough now that he'd learned that the most effective counter-measure was to stay quiet; eventually John's sense of fair play would kick in and he'd start to feel guilty. He didn't get an apology this time, but John dropped his gaze and started playing with edge of the table.
"Does anyone have any other suggestions on this matter?" Elizabeth looked to each of them, but they'd exhausted every plausible idea a few days ago. She nodded conclusively. "Then let's move on."
"Looks like you boys have a full-time nanny," Carson said, sotto voce. "You never know, though. Maybe it'll be good for little Elise."
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Mommy Issues." Rodney sighed and slouched deeper into his seat. Peter had started talking about the anthropology department's latest proposal. Grodin might not be the end-all be-all of assistant department heads that he thought he was, but he was at least competent enough to handle the flaky sciences. Which meant it was totally safe for Rodney to tune out.
Unfortunately, that left him with nothing to think about except this whole Teyla issue. Rodney aimed a glare at John's head, but he was doing that thing where he was pretending to pay attention to whomever was speaking. It was the finger on his lips that gave him away. The way he stroked it back and forth meant his thoughts were a million miles away.
God, it was unspeakably unfair that such an annoying habit could be so hot.
Rodney forced his gaze away. That kind of thinking didn't get him closer to making sure Elise was safe. He'd anticipated and accounted for so many possibilities already in her thus-far-short existence: enemy attacks, plagues, childhood diseases, corners on tables, scalding water, loaded guns, pollen, insects, plastic bags—the list was infinite and overwhelming, but he'd done his best. Considering the fact that his best was incomprehensibly good to most people, he had a certain degree of confidence in his ability to keep his daughter safe.
Being stalked by a pseudo-Ancient, though.... It was almost farcical in its ridiculousness. Or it would be, if Elise weren't the one being stalked. It was so damn frustrating that he couldn't think of anything that would affect the woman. His brilliance had saved the city time and time again in the past; why couldn't he come up with something when it mattered the most?
Rodney drummed his fingertips against the table, stopping only when Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at him. His restlessness was her fault, really; if she hadn't banned him from bringing a computer to these meetings, he'd at least have something productive to do. There was a vague idea sparking through his neurons, but he needed to look up the research first. Something Dr. Carter and...that Czech guy with SG-1, the one whose name Rodney could never remember. Anyway, they'd been working on something to deflect the Ori, but it'd been scrapped after Mitchell launched his hail Mary. Maybe they'd been on the right track.
He had a vague plan outlined in his head by the time Elizabeth finally dismissed them all. Rodney didn't stick around for her final admonitions. He raced out of the room and down the stairs, heading straight for the transporter—and almost ran over his daughter in the process.
"Papa!" Elise squealed, holding her arms straight up in the air. He scooped her up into his arms, ignoring the complaints from his back that grew louder with every centimeter she did. One of these days, he was going to have to stop picking her up altogether, but today was not that day.
"Hey, there, star-stuff," he said. "You're not supposed to be out here, remember?"
Elise shook her head strongly, like little kids did, fast and hard enough to make Rodney worry about what it was doing to her neck. Not to mention her brain. "You said I can't come here alone. I'm not alone!"
Rodney stiffened. Sure enough, Teyla was standing a few meters beyond them, looking on serenely, like she didn't care one way or the other that she'd thrown their entire world into chaos. "I didn't exactly mean her," he said, clutching Elise closer as he took a step backwards.
"Then you didn't say what you meant," Elise said, shoving a hand against his chest. He got the message, loosening his arms enough that she could twist around to look behind her. "Teyla is a grown-up, and you said grown-ups."
Rodney sighed. He never, ever wished Elise was less intelligent than she was—but sometimes he did acknowledge the fact that her brilliance made his life a bit more difficult. "You're right. I did say grown-ups. But Teyla—"
"Is certainly as grown as you are, Dr. McKay," Teyla herself said. "Your daughter wished to see you. Was I wrong to bring her to you?"
"No," he said, swallowing the urge to go off on everything that was wrong about Teyla. Instead, he forced himself to smile. "Any time Elise wants to see me, bring her to me. Or to John," he added after a second. He bounced Elise gently. "Hear that? If you need me or Daddy, tell Teyla to take you to us."
"Duh," Elise said. Rodney had a feeling he was to blame for that one. She twisted her finger in the ribbing that hemmed the neck hole of his shirt. "Can we work on the computer now? Teyla taught me how to do deriv'tives. It's fun."
"She did, did she?" Rodney looked up to ask the woman exactly what she thought she was doing, interfering with his education plan—but she wasn't there. He turned in a slow circle, but she was nowhere to be seen. "If only she'd stay gone," he muttered. The first time she'd disappeared, they'd actually cheered in celebration—prematurely, of course.
"Isn't teaching her derivatives, oh, I don't know, something like ten years too early?"
"Daddy!" Elise surged for John, and it was all Rodney could do to hang on against her kicking feet to make sure she made it to John without ending up on the floor first. John wrestled her around onto his left hip like he was juggling a volleyball.
"Would you be careful?" Rodney warned, and then frowned as what John said caught up to him. "And are you kidding? You want to wait until she's fifteen to teach her calculus?"
"That's how old I was when I started calc. And I was taking all AP classes."
Rodney snorted. "Yes, well, we're not talking about you. I swear, if I'd left potty training up to you, she'd still be in diapers when she goes off to college!"
"Yeah, and if I let you have your way about everything, she'd have been in college while she was still in diapers." John tapped the end of Elise's nose with his index finger, getting a giggle in return. "Heya, sport. How was your day?"
"Good!" she chirped. "Teyla made Mr. Bear a suit, and we went dancing!"
"And learned the fundamentals of higher math, apparently," Rodney mused. He tugged on her small wrist with his index finger. God, she was so small still, so fragile. Like a Gelfling from that Jim Henson movie, with the pale blonde hair of his own youth and John's elfin ears. "You want to go show me what you learned today?"
"'K," Elise said, still mostly occupied by the zippers on John's tac vest.
"Oh, come on, Rodney. She's not one of your lab assistants." John twisted slightly, moving Elise farther away from Rodney, like he was an honest-to-god physical threat. "Stop trying to make her your Mini-Me."
"She asked!" Rodney snapped at him. "And if you'd stop freaking out about the fact that our child actually has a brain, then maybe you'd see she enjoys using it. You're not going to make her happier by holding her back."
John took a step closer to him. "I'm not trying to hold her back, McKay. I just don't want you using her as a lab rat!"
"Oh, that's rich, Mr. Throw Her Out Into The World And See If She Bounces!"
"Well, she just might, considering all the tissue paper you've got her wrapped in. She's a kid, Rodney, not a nuclear bomb you're trying not to set off!"
"That's a terrible metaphor!" Rodney shouted. "Nukes are fairly stable, all things considered, and anyway, why would I want to protect the world from Elise?"
"That's not what I meant—"
"Stop it, stop stop stopstopstopstop!" Elise shrieked, her voice so loud and piercing that Rodney slapped his hands over his ears without thinking. He dropped them immediately and stepped forward, reaching out to her.
"No, no, no, no," he said softly. "It's okay, we didn't mean it. It's all okay."
"Shhh," John said, face pressed close to hers. "We'll stop. No more fighting."
Elise snuffled. Her face was so red Rodney could see the blood vessels in her cheeks, her skin sickeningly translucent. But she wasn't actually crying yet, so maybe it'd be okay. She raised her head away from John's shoulder, looking at him first. "Promise?" she asked.
John nodded. "Promise."
Elise looked at him. Rodney nodded. "I absolutely promise."
She snuffled again. "That's what you guys said last time."
"I—" Rodney shut his mouth. He had no idea what to say to that. He looked over to John, hoping for help, but John was looking back at him just as helplessly. His eyes were glistening a little bit, and if Rodney hadn't already felt like shit, that would have done the trick. "I know," he said finally. "I messed up."
"We both messed up," John said. "And we're sorry, and we're going to try really hard to be better this time. Just like when you broke Papa's life signs detector that one time, right?"
Elise nodded slowly.
"Great," John said. "Now do you want to go work on your lessons with Papa?"
"Or we could watch a movie," Rodney suggested quickly.
Elise shook her head, then squirmed away from John. John let her down gently, holding onto her hand once she was standing again. "I want to go watch the fishies," she said. "Both of you have to come."
She started marching towards the transporter, dragging John along behind her as effectively as an eighteen-kilo child could drag a man four times her weight. John looked back over his shoulder, giving Rodney a look that said 'what am I supposed to do?'
Rodney sighed; the deep-sea observation window always gave him the creeps, but at least it wasn't the botany labs. He fell into step behind them, resigned to an evening of ignoring his claustrophobia and putting up with John's prickly temper.
As he stepped into the transporter, he thought he caught a glimpse of red-brown hair. But then John tapped the transport pad, and everything dissolved.
Elise tugged the last pillow into place between the legs of the chair, making sure that it sealed out every last bit of light. The bedspread and blankets over the top of the table did a pretty good job, but there were always gaps where they didn't reach all the way to the floor. She had used most of the pillows from Daddy's bed and a couple from the couch, but she still had the two from her own bed left over to sit on, which was nice. What wasn't nice was that she had forgotten to bring Mr. Bear in with her. If she went out to get him now she'd have to move a chair to fit him inside.
Mr. Bear had his own tent, though, so he'd be okay.
But that meant she didn't have anyone to talk to. It wasn't as much fun this way, but she could pretend by herself. Daddy had told her about a world where little kids lived in treehouses all the time. If she was in a treehouse, then she could see all kinds of stuff. Birds and maybe squirrels. If it was night, she could look up through the leaves in the tree and see the stars.
She laid down on her back, pushing the pillow out of the way until it was under her head. She liked looking at the stars. Papa studied the stars; he had a Ph.D. in it. He said she could get one someday, too, if she studied hard enough.
Somebody knocked on the back of one of the chairs. Elise tilted her head back. Teyla's boots were right outside the spot where the bedspread and the pink fuzzy blanket came together to make the entrance. Then Teyla knelt down so that Elise could see her eyes looking in through the crack.
"May I come in?" Teyla asked. Elise nodded, and Teyla crawled in on her hands and knees. She didn't have problems fitting like Daddy did. Papa never tried--he said it was bad for his back. But Teyla just laid down beside Elise and pulled her knees up close to her chest.
"Is there a reason you aren't napping?"
Elise pushed out her lips, then sucked them back in again. "Not tired."
"I thought perhaps you were upset because of what happened earlier."
Elise swiped at her eyes. She could have put the puzzle together if she wanted to. It wasn't even as hard as deriv'tives. It was just boring and stupid and her hands hadn't wanted to work right when she tried to do it.
Teyla sighed. "Sometimes things are difficult, even when we expect them to be easy. That is not a bad thing. It just means there are more ways we can grow and learn."
Elise shook her head. "I don't care."
"Very well," Teyla said. "What is it you are doing now?"
Elise shrugged. "Watching the stars."
"Show me," Teyla said.
They were all right there. Little dots and lines that squiggled across the underside of the table. Elise stretched her arm upwards, pointing at the one right above her head, but no matter how much she reached she couldn't touch it. Just like real stars.
"That's Polaris," she explained.
"Your Earth's North Star." Teyla reached up and set her finger lightly on the big spot Elise had been pointing to. When she dropped her hand, the spot was glowing, just like a star in the night sky. Elise gasped.
"How did you do that?"
Teyla didn't answer. Instead, she moved to a smaller dot above that one, making it light up the same way. She continued until all of Ursa Minor was glowing softly above their heads.
"Do Ursa Major now," Elise begged. "The Big Bear."
Teyla started with the star at the front of the bowl of The Big Dipper, the one that shone so brightly.
"Dubhe," Elise named off. She giggled, then pointed to the one right below it. "Merak next."
Teyla kept going, filling out the rest of The Big Bear, and then Draco, and then Leo Minor. She kept going until the whole bottom of the table looked exactly like looking up at the winter sky on Earth. Elise rolled over and got onto her knees. She reached out to touch Beetlejuice. It looked so close—but her hand kept going and going. She stood up, but she still couldn't touch it.
"Teyla!" she gasped. "Is it real?"
"Reality is a state of mind. You do not always have to question so deeply. Simply enjoy what is." Teyla brushed her hand across the sky, and the stars zoomed apart, until the constellations were all broken and unfamiliar. She twirled her finger around, and then they were familiar again.
Teyla nodded. "See this grouping?" she asked, putting the tip of her finger to each of the five stars right above their heads. "The Altarans called this one the quiet mouse."
"The Altarans. That's the Ancients, right?"
"That is how you refer to them, yes."
"Are you an Altaran?"
Teyla shook her head. "No. I came from a place called Athos."
"Show me your stars?"
"Only if you lay back down."
Elise did, snuggling in beside Teyla's warm side. Teyla swirled the stars again, and then started telling her the stories of her constellations.
"Did you use science to make the stars?" Elise asked after Teyla finished the story about the runner who killed the Wraith queen who captured her. "To make them come here?"
"It is not precisely science in the way you think of it," Teyla said.
"Oh." That was sad. If it was science, she could learn it. She reached out once more, even though she was too tired to stretch very far. This time, though, she thought she felt something. It was warm, but it kind of tickled, too, like an electric shock. She turned her head so she could look at Teyla. "I touched it!"
Teyla shook her head. "It touched you."
"Cooool," Elise said. The star winked at her, and Elise winked back. It was getting hard to keep her eyes open, so she decided to rest the muscles that controlled her eyelids for a bit before looking again.
"Teyla, if it's not science, is it magic?" she asked—but she never heard Teyla answer.
John shifted his weight to his left foot and leaned a little harder on the arm propping him against the window. He could barely see Elise behind Rodney, but what he did see was her giggling face aimed up at her Papa. Whatever they were working on today must be going really well. Not that he'd ever seen Elise get too upset during their lessons. Certainly nothing like the tantrums she threw when her babysitters tried to get her to take naps (babysitters who weren't Teyla, he reminded himself) or when she was asked to do something outside her comfort zone. But Elise liked math and science a lot, which meant that her sessions with Rodney were relatively painless.
Subject compatibility wasn't the only reason they went well, though.
John snorted. Of all the things he'd thought about Rodney McKay when they first met, the possibility that he'd be a good teacher definitely wasn't one of them. Not with the way he was with his staff. Or the way John had seen him with kids other than Elise, all freaked out and impatient with the fact that they just didn't act like adult human beings. John had actually dreaded the day Elise was old enough to start talking, because he knew Rodney would be awful to her.
He hadn't been, though. It was like Elise was a completely different being from all the others in the universe that annoyed Rodney so much. He was patient with her, even giving. It made John's insides uncomfortably squishy every time he saw them interacting that way.
He just wished that he was absolutely certain that Rodney wasn't that way with Elise because he thought of her as a special project. A perfect lab specimen (except for the influence of John's genes, of course) that he could shape into the protégée he'd always wanted. John hated himself for even thinking that—he knew Rodney loved Elise, he did—but every time Rodney taught her something like the principle of osmosis, or God, calculus, he couldn't stop the niggle of doubt from biting at him.
Elise squealed. Rodney said something—John couldn't make out his words, never could, but he sounded amused, too—and then squatted down beside her and opened his arms for a hug. Elise wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed hard enough that Rodney's face flushed, and then she let go and went back to doing whatever she was doing on the computer.
Yep, John was pretty much a paranoid bastard. A paranoid bastard who couldn't stop staring at his ex's ass when he stood back up.
The sound of a throat being cleared had John snapping to attention faster than any brass had ever managed to inspire him. He turned around, trying to keep the guilt off his face. It wasn't a secret that he looked in on Elise and Rodney about this time every day. Hell, even Rodney knew. They'd originally chose this particular room for Elise's school area just so he could see her while he was on duty.
Lieutenant Bates' stone face clearly stated that none of those were valid reasons for John to be here. John frowned at him, but the look just bounced off his XO like Medusa's glare off Perseus's shield, making him feel even guiltier and more uncomfortable.
"Is the Emmagan woman here?" Bates held his pause as long as he did when he wasn't particularly upset about something John had done—that was, just shy of insubordination—before adding, "Sir?"
"No, she's not." John reconsidered that. "Not as far as I can tell, anyway."
Bates nodded like that meant something. "She doesn't usually appear when she's with McKay, does she?"
"Not for very long, anyway." She tended to hang around John just a little bit longer, from what he could tell from comparing notes after the fact. Rodney did tend to have a repellent effect on ascended beings, after all.
"So she only appears when you or McKay aren't caring for Elise?"
John nodded. "Pretty much." He'd finally reassigned Corporal Lee back to the anthro department full-time; Teyla only put up the shield when another sitter tried to enter his quarters. He wasn't sure how Rodney had handled Dr. Kusera, but she had stopped showing up in his quarters four days ago.
"Is it possible that Emmagan perceives either Lee or Kusera as a threat?"
John blinked. Not that the thought hadn't crossed his mind, but he knew for a fact that Jonah and Sarah treated Elise well. Rodney had made him install security cameras when they first started leaving Elise with sitters during the day. "Are you suggesting Teyla might have a positive motive for being here?"
Bates shrugged, the movement so small it was more like a flinch. "It'd be imprudent not to consider all possibilities."
"Imprudent. Of course." John shook his head. "No, I don't think she really cares about who in particular is looking after Elise, other than she seems to want it to be me, Rodney, or her."
John didn't, really; a part of him was constantly worried that Teyla would decide he and Rodney were the ones who weren't good enough for Elise. But all she ever did was show up and take care of Elise—really well, in fact.
"Was there anything else, Lieutenant?"
"Ford's team is due back in fifteen minutes," Bates said.
"I'll be there." John nodded his dismissal, and Bates turned sharply and headed back in the direction of the control tower. John intended to follow him, but he couldn't help taking one last look at the window.
Elise was staring out at him. When she saw him looking, she smiled and waved. Rodney looked up, too—and their gazes locked. John couldn't tell what Rodney was thinking. Not even a little.
He tore his gaze away from Rodney, looking back down to Elise. He waved to her, and then turned on his heel, sharp enough that Bates would weep with envy, and raced off towards the control room to do his job.
"You must be quiet, so we do not disturb the soldiers watching the gate," Teyla told her.
Elise nodded, then dragged her fingers across her lips. Teyla smiled at her and took her hand, leading her into the gate room. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to them at all, not like when Elise had tried to come up here on her own before. Daddy and Papa had both yelled at her that time and made her promise never to do it again. But she was with Teyla now, and that made everything okay.
They stopped in front of the Stargate. The pretty blue shield was up, the one that kept them safe from bad people. Teyla waved her hand in front of the shield. Elise thought it had changed, but only when she looked at it a certain way.
"Now. Do exactly what I do, and do not let go of my hand."
"Shh. Remember what I said." Teyla didn't get mad, though. She just held up one finger. Elise nodded, and then held up her finger, too.
"Now focus," Teyla said. The tip of her finger began to glow, just like it had a star growing out of the tip. Elise stared at it, wondering if it was hot. Not star hot, because that would burn her up right away. "Not on me," Teyla said. "Focus on yourself."
Elise looked down at her own finger. She jumped when she saw that it was glowing, too, not as bright as Teyla's, but almost. It wasn't hot. Actually, it didn't feel like anything at all. As she stared at it, it started to change colors, until it was a blue a lot like the shield.
"Now come," Teyla said, and tugged her forward by the hand. Elise had to step up onto the edge of the Stargate, but it wasn't hard, not with Teyla holding onto her. And then they stepped through the shield.
It felt like sliding down the longest slide at Big Surf. Or when Daddy pushed her too high on the swings and her tummy tickled. Blue and green ribbons twisted around her head. She wanted to reach out, see if they felt as silky as they looked, but then Teyla squeezed her hand and they stepped forward again.
"Oof," she said as the ground tripped under her feet. She slapped her hand over her mouth, and then looked up at Teyla, but Teyla just smiled down at her.
"It is all right. You do not have to be quiet any longer."
Elise smiled, but just like that, she didn't have anything to say. She was too busy looking. They were somewhere other than Atlantis. That was for sure. There was green grass everywhere, and there were trees not far away—evergreens, like real Christmas trees—and the sun was very, very bright. Elise spun around. There was a Stargate right behind them. Almost exactly like the one on Atlantis, except it didn't have a shield.
"Where are we?" Elise asked.
"Some place very dear to my heart." Teyla held out her hand for Elise to take. "Now come along. If we stand around talking instead of walking, we will not have much time for our visit."
"Who are we visiting?" Elise asked as she skipped along beside Teyla.
"You will see. It isn't very far at all." They kept walking towards the trees, and before long Elise saw a building hidden by the green branches. She stared at it until details started popping out at her. The roof looked like it was made out of straw or branches, and there was a big window staring right back at them.
"It's a house!"
"Of course it's a house." She lifted the first finger of each hand to her lips and let out a whistle that sounded just like a bird's. A bird whistled back at her. Elise tried to copy her, but the only noise that came out sounded like a really stinky fart.
Elise dropped her hands and crowded in close behind Teyla. There was a man in front of them, right beside one of the biggest trees. He was tall, taller than Papa and Daddy both, and he had long, long hair and a beard on his face. His coat was long and brown, the same color as the walls of the house.
"Ronon. It is good to see you again." Teyla stepped forward, and Elise had to either let go and be by herself, or hang on and get closer to the man. She let go. Teyla bent her head and the man did too, until they were pressing their foreheads together.
"What's your name?" the man asked. He knelt down on one knee in front of Elise, but he was still taller than she was. By a lot.
"Elise," she said. She thought he was going to do the forehead thing with her, but he stuck out his hand like people on Earth did. She put her hand in his, but instead of shaking it, he squeezed her fingers. Not hard, but she thought he could squish them into jelly if he wanted to.
"I'm Ronon Dex," he said. "Just call me Ronon."
"Okay." She smiled at him, and he smiled back, touching her on the top of the head before he stood back up.
"She staying?" Ronon asked, looking at Teyla.
Teyla shook her head. "Just for the afternoon. If you have the time for us, of course."
"I always have time for you." He thumped his fist against his chest. "Always."
Teyla hmmphed. "That is not what I asked, but very well. We are simply here to visit."
"Then come on," he said, turning around and walking towards the house. He didn't go inside, though. He circled around to the side opposite the one with the big window, and sat down on a fat log that was set on end, right next to a firepit. He nodded at a fallen tree that was laying on its side between the house and the firepit. It was green from moss crawling over the top, and at first Elise didn't want to touch it. But Teyla looked at her until Elise knew that she didn't have any choice. The moss was soft, actually, not slimy or dirty, and Elise petted it like she did Mr. Bear.
It was really pretty here, kind of like the mountain parks Daddy took her to visit on Earth, except she couldn't really see any mountains. There was a big lake, so big she couldn't see where it ended. Elise wondered if Teyla would let her go swimming later.
"She drink tea?"
"Ask her, not me," Teyla said. She was sitting on the tree beside Elise, and she already had a cup. Elise leaned forward, and Teyla held it out so Elise could sniff it. It smelled pretty much like the tea they had at home.
"You want some?" Ronon asked.
Elise nodded. "But no lemon. Papa said I might be 'llergic some day."
Elise shrugged. "A citrus fruit."
"Your tea is fine, Ronon," Teyla said. "But perhaps we could both have some honey?"
"Still have that sweet tooth, huh?" Ronon got up and went into the house, leaving the door open behind him. Elise leaned forward, trying to see what was inside, but he hardly took any time at all before he came back with a brownish-red pot in his hands. He handed it over to Teyla. "Here. Might not want to give her a lot, though. My mother always used to say sugar made us short and shifty."
"A spoonful will not hurt." Teyla dripped some of the honey into the mug Ronon held out to her. It was really dark, darker than the color of the pot it came in, and it slid off the spoon like a really slow waterfall. Elise didn't think it was ever going to get to the tea. She stared at it, waiting for the moment gravity overcame the viscosity of the liquid. The curtain of honey widened and widened until the sun shone through, making it the same color as a glowing ZPM. Any second now—and then it was gone. She'd missed it somehow. It wasn't fair—she hadn't even blinked!
"Probably wanna mix it up," Ronon said, pulling a small knife from his belt.
"That is not necessary," Teyla said as he started to stick it into the tea. "I have seen to it. But thank you."
"Whatever you say," Ronon said. He shrugged and handed the cup to Elise.
The ceramic was knobby and uneven and kind of hot from the tea inside. Elise blew on the surface of the tea, making swirls and waves in it just like the wind on the lake. She brought it up to her mouth, but it was still too hot. She knew she'd burn her mouth if she tried to drink it now. Instead, she kicked her feet against the log as she watched Ronon. He was picking his nails with the knife now.
"You're not short," she said.
He looked up at her. "I guess not."
Elise nodded. "Your mom said sugar would make you short. Guess she was wrong."
Ronon snorted. "Maybe she just didn't give me too much sugar."
"Oh." Elise bit her lip, considering. She didn't know how much sugar Ronon's mom had given him, so it was impossible to say how much was too much. If any was too much at all. It was a bad question.
"You here to eat?" Ronon asked. "'Cause I don't have much. I was planning to go for supplies today, go hunting tomorrow."
Elise's tummy growled.
Teyla laughed. "It will be her lunch time soon, yes. But we can return to Elise's home for a meal."
Ronon shrugged. "Don't have to. Just come with me into the village."
"Ronon. You know that I cannot."
"You keep saying that." He stood up and tucked the knife back into his belt. "Guess we gotta go fishing, then."
"Fishing?" Elise asked.
Ronon nodded. "Teyla's way, anyway. Have you ever seen a fish fly out of the water?"
Elise looked up to Teyla. "Really?"
"They do not really fly," Teyla said, but then she sighed and took Elise's tea out of her hands. "And yes, you may help."
"Her name's Annika," Carson said. "She's a veterinarian. A surgeon, actually. She specializes in exotic animals. For zoos and the like." He pulled an actual photograph out of his pocket and held it out across the table.
"She sounds nice," Peter said. He bumped his elbow into Rodney's as he reached for the picture, and then again as he pulled his arm back in. Rodney shoved back, but Peter didn't even seem to notice. He was too busy staring at Carson's picture. "No problems in the looks department, either. So what's holding you back? I thought you said your mother has great taste."
"She does." Carson sighed. "But what's the point, really? I hardly get back to Earth to see my family as it is. It'd be ridiculous to try to court her."
"It'd be ridiculous to try to 'court' anyone. I thought you were from Scotland, not the 19th century." Rodney snatched the picture out of Peter's hand and gave it a once over. She was pretty enough, with long blonde hair, a nice face, and a nicer rack. Rodney shrugged and passed it back to Carson. "I've always preferred brunettes, myself."
"What? What does that mean?"
Carson just shook his head as he tucked the picture back into his jacket. "You forget that I've known you a long time, Rodney."
Rodney glared at him. "Is that supposed to be an explanation?"
"I remember when we first worked together in Antarctica that you had a huge thing for Dr. Carter," Peter said. He pushed his lunch tray away from himself and slouched back in his seat, smiling smugly. "Or did that come later? Maybe you were hung up on Simpson then."
"I think Simpson was in between his Carter obsessions," Carson said. "And Heightmeyer came later."
"She was my therapist!" Rodney yelped.
"The point is, Rodney," Peter said, "that you used to talk about your thing for blondes all the time."
"Yes, well." Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "People's tastes change. It happens."
"Uh-huh," Carson said. "And just when was it that yours changed, I wonder?"
Rodney opened his mouth to defend himself—but all the words went out of his head when John walked into the cafeteria. Rodney didn't actively avoid eating lunch at the same time that John did; it was just that their schedules usually took care of the problem for them. But Rodney had been running late today, too caught up in trying to calibrate the new parameters on the detector, and apparently John was running early.
"I still think you should go for it," Peter was saying. "You never know. Maybe she'd be interested in coming to Atlantis."
"Oh, yes, that's good," Rodney said, not really paying that much attention to what he was saying. John was getting the chili mac today, judging by the way he grabbed up packets of hot sauce. "And what happens when they break up, Grodin? Excellent thought."
Carson and Peter didn't bother to try to refute his point, which was good, because John had turned around and was clearly looking for some place to sit. It used to be that he'd eat with Rodney and the others, every day. Since then, on the occasions their shifts had matched, Rodney had noticed that he never seemed to have a particular group to sit with—sometimes choosing Elizabeth, other times random groups of Marines or airmen.
"Colonel!" Carson called out. "Join us, why don't you?"
Rodney would have kicked him, except he didn't want to strain his back. "I hate you," was all he could get out before John was there, sliding into the seat across from Rodney.
"Hey, guys," he said. "What's up?"
"I need a supporting opinion," Peter said. "Carson here keeps chickening out of asking a beautiful woman on a date because he's afraid of a long distance relationship."
"Well. We are kind of taking 'long distance' to an extreme out here." John ripped open a pair of hot sauce packets at the same time and started dumping them onto his chili-topped noodles. It was disgusting, but Rodney couldn't look away from his hands. "But if you like her, why sabotage yourself before you even give it a chance?"
"That's exactly what I was saying," Peter said.
"And thank you both for sounding exactly like my mother."
"Isn't that a good thing?" John asked.
"Most days, yes." Carson stood up and picked up his tray. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have patients to see to."
John looked up from his food, eyebrows knit together as he watched Carson leave. "I guess I said the wrong thing?"
Peter shook his head. "Don't mind him. He's just nervous because he really likes her." Then he stood up and picked up his tray. "And I'm sorry, but my shift starts in a couple of minutes. Have a good day, Colonel. McKay."
John raised an eyebrow at Rodney. "You've got half of your tetrazzini left, so it'd better be a good excuse."
"I'm not going anywhere," Rodney grumbled. He took another bite of casserole to prove it. "That doesn't mean I don't have things to do, of course."
"Of course." John ate a few bites of his mess of a lunch, then set his fork back down. "I'm kind of surprised you're not watching over Elise, actually."
Rodney shrugged. "She started doing that eyeroll thing at me every time I show up. Besides, I had an idea to adapt one of the life signs detectors to get better readings. It'll basically ruin it for any other purpose, but I think that if I'm close enough to Teyla, I should be able to learn more than from Atlantis's base scans."
John nodded. "Sounds good. You just going to follow her around?"
"I hadn't really thought about it."
"Teyla tends to be pretty mellow at breakfast time, while I'm getting Elise ready," John said. He'd picked up his fork again, but he was using it to twirl his noodles around rather than actually eat. "Maybe you could stop by tomorrow morning."
"Oh." Rodney almost dropped his own fork. "That'd be perfect, actually."
John nodded and took a small bite. "Don't know what you'll find, but I guess you can't stop trying, huh?"
"Exactly." There didn't really be anything else to add on the subject, so Rodney went back to his own lunch. He had a quarter of it left when he looked back up to find John watching him. "Um. So, have you seen any good movies lately?"
"You mean something beside kid movies?" John smiled. "Nah, not really. What about you?"
"Teyla?" Elise called out. It was dark, except for Atlantis's lights outside, and Teyla had been gone since she left Elise with Papa before dinner. But she was sure Teyla was still here somewhere, even though she couldn't see her. She just knew it.
"You should be sleeping, not talking," Teyla said.
Elise rolled over on her side. "I'll go to sleep in a sec, promise," she said. "But I wanna know something."
Teyla sat down on the edge of the bed. She straightened the blanket over Elise's toes, then brushed the bit of hair out of her face that had been tickling her eyes. "What is it that you wish to know?"
"Is Ronon your boyfriend?"
Teyla laughed. "No. He is my friend."
"Oh." Elise found Teyla's hand and started playing with her fingers. The skin started out feeling rough, but the more she touched it, the softer her skin got. "Did he used to be your boyfriend?"
"No. Why would you think so?"
Elise shrugged. "Just 'cause." She let go of Teyla's hand and scrunched in deeper under the covers. "Can we go visit him again sometimes?"
"If we are able to do so, then yes." Teyla stood up. Elise started to reach for her again, but a yawn stopped her.
"Tomorrow?" she asked, once she was finished yawning.
"No, not tomorrow." Teyla bent forward and touched their foreheads together. "Now go to sleep."
"You gonna eat that, squirt, or fall asleep in it?" John pushed the bowl of granola a little farther away from the edge of the table, just in case. Elise jerked upright and grabbed for her spoon, shoveling a couple of big bites into her mouth before she started to nod off again. John snorted. If he'd ever had any doubts that half of Elise's DNA came from Rodney, her morning habits would have cleared them up right away.
He sighed. Not that he'd had the opportunity to observe Rodney's morning habits in a very long time. It'd been...God, before she'd started eating cereal, even. Right about the time she'd really started exploring the world, and Rodney had freaked out about that. Freaked out about everything.
"Daddycannahasomjuice?" Elise asked, one eye barely open as she stared up at him. Well. Both eyes might have been open, but half of her face was buried in the hand that was propping up her head.
"Apple or orange?" he asked as he opened up the door of the cooling unit. He didn't need to look back over his shoulder to know she had a dirty look on her face, but he did anyway. He hid his smile by turning back to pull out the container of apple. He filled a small glass three-quarters of the way and set it down next to her bowl. "You know, you don't have to not drink OJ just because of Papa. It won't hurt him if you want to try it."
"He's 'llergic," Elise insisted.
"Not that allergic," John muttered. He hadn't given up his morning orange juice the entire time they were together, and Rodney hadn't keeled over once. But he let it go. Apparently it was the McKay way to express love through constant worry, and while John didn't think it was exactly the most healthy thing in the world, it had miles on the repression and constant judging that were the norm in the Sheppard family.
The door alert sounded. John headed towards it, ears at attention for Elise's usual 'beep-boop' echo, but apparently she was too busy rearranging the chunks of granola in her milk to bother with it. (She was particularly fond of star patterns.) He slid his hand across the door crystal and stood back, crossing his arms over his chest as he waited for Rodney to look up from his pad.
"She isn't here yet," John said preemptively. The first few mornings Rodney had shown up, they'd stood at the door for a good five minutes making ridiculous small talk at each other. Not only did this method cut to the chase, but it had the added benefit of leaving Rodney gaping for a full three seconds.
"Yes, well." Rodney waved the pad in his hand around. "That's even better, isn't it? I'll be able to record her in the act."
"You make it sound dirty, McKay," John said, but he stepped to the side and waved him on in.
"Hey, Papa," Elise said sleepily. She didn't bother to jump up and race for a hug like she usually did later in the day. That had thrown Rodney at first, but by now he was used to the fact that Elise just wasn't a morning person. He brushed a hand over her head, and then retreated to the far corner of the kitchen area. Like that would stop Teyla from noticing him when she showed up.
John shook his head, then went back to getting ready. Lunch and snacks were in the fridge, ready for Teyla, which pretty much just left his own breakfast. He pulled a bowl out of the cupboard, but paused before he closed the door.
"You eaten yet?" he asked Rodney.
Rodney snorted. "What do you think?"
"I thought maybe you'd like a bowl of cereal, but I guess I was wrong."
"Oh." Rodney took a hesitant step forward. "Well. It was more of a quick bite on the way over here."
"Because it takes so long to get across the hall," John said, but he pulled a second bowl out of the cupboard, then grabbed a pair of spoons.
"I said it was quick, didn't I?" Rodney dragged a chair out from the table, making no attempt to keep the feet from snarling across the floor. John sighed, poured out his own bowl of cereal, and then passed the box over to Rodney.
"Granola?" Rodney asked, holding the box at arms length. John expected him to start breaking out Tofurkey comparisons, but Rodney just looked over at Elise, his brow wrinkled in consternation. "I thought you said she wouldn't eat anything but those frosted graham things."
John shrugged. "She started insisting on this about a week ago. Figure it's better for her, anyway."
"Huh." Rodney poured some into his bowl, but instead of adding milk, he picked up his pad and started tapping away. When he looked up again, John hit him with an eyebrow. Rodney shrugged. "It's a data point."
"You know, sometimes it's really hard to ignore the way you talk about our daughter in terms of data points and statistical curves."
Rodney frowned at him. "I didn't say she was a data point. I was merely recording something in her behavior that has changed since Teyla arrived."
"I know, Rodney. That doesn't mean I have to like it." John crunched through a couple of bites of granola, then dropped his spoon back into the bowl. "So, has she asked for anything different at dinner?"
"Hmm." Rodney shoveled a heaping spoonful into his mouth. It sounded like half a platoon marching as he crunched his way through it—and of course he didn't wait till he was finished to answer. "No, not really. Though, oh, she did ask for honey instead of sugar a couple of nights ago."
"Huh." Neither one of them were big honey fans. "Did you give it to her?"
Rodney snorted. "Of course not. Honey is full of botulinum spores. Did you expect me to poison her?"
"I'm not a baby," Elise said. Her bowl was empty now, and the evidence of why was all over her chin. Before John could say anything, she picked up her napkin and wiped her face clean.
"No, you're not," John told her, and God, there was a muscle inside of him that just hadn't existed until after Elise was born, because nothing had ever ached like it did when she said stuff like that. "You're growing up fast."
She looked up at him—and rolled her eyes. "I'm not a baby," she said emphatically. "Honey's only dangerous to babies. I looked it up."
"Oh. Right." Her precociousness caught him by surprise almost daily, even though it'd been clear before she could talk that she was advanced. He started to chuckle. "Hear that, Rodney? Honey is perfectly safe for Elise."
"Yes, well. It doesn't matter anyway, since I don't have any." Rodney cleared his throat. "You got any grape juice?"
"Apple or orange, those are your choices," John said, and he had to laugh again at the way Rodney's face was almost a mirror of Elise's earlier dirty look. He stood up to head back to the cooling unit, tapping Elise on the shoulder as he passed her. "If you're finished, go brush your teeth."
"'K," she said, and slipped of the chair without protest. John watched her until she reached the bathroom. He poured Rodney a glass of juice and then started cleaning up their breakfast dishes.
"You didn't eat very much," Rodney said.
John shrugged. "Haven't had much appetite lately."
"Because you do that thing where you don't eat when you worry." Rodney clinked his spoon against the side of his nearly empty bowl. "I, on the other hand...."
"At least Elise seems to be doing really well."
"That's the part that bothers me. Not that I don't want her to be happy, of course." Rodney draped his arm over the back of the chair, twisting around so that John could see his face. "I just can't shake the feeling that this is some kind of set up. That as soon as we relax our guard, then snap! The trap closes."
"Yeah. I know what you mean." He couldn't even get himself to tell Rodney that he was being paranoid. The worst part was that John liked Teyla, or at least as much as he could like her, given the short amount of time they'd actually interacted. But she seemed to have a very dry sense of humor, and Elise absolutely adored her. "For what it's worth, Elizabeth seems to think she's on the up and up."
Rodney scoffed. "Elizabeth also thinks she's really an Ancient. You know how Elizabeth gets about them."
"She is an expert."
"Please. That's like saying I'm an expert baker because I figured out how to read the instructions on a box of brownies." Rodney glanced down at his watch. "Shouldn't she be here by now?"
"Teyla?" John shrugged. "She seems to know when I'm more or less in a hurry. When I've got time to hang around, she doesn't show up until later."
"Huh. She always shows up with Elise before I'm ready to stop for the evening."
"Maybe that's because you're never ready to quit," John said, as mildly as he could.
"That's because the work I have to do never ends! And, by the way, that doesn't mean I don't want to spend time with Elise."
Rodney was getting that defensive whine to his voice. John sighed. "I know, I know. Just...make sure she always knows that, too. It's...hard, sometimes, to tell that, when you get so caught up in your work."
Rodney swallowed. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Good." John nodded decisively, then turned back to the sink. There really wasn't anything else to do, other than to gather Rodney's breakfast stuff, and that was just going to have to wait until John felt like turning around again.
"You know, I could stay," Rodney said. "Right now. If you need to go do whatever it is that you do on days without missions."
John snorted. "That little overseeing-military-command-of-Atlantis thing, you mean."
"Yes, that. Anyway, it'd be nice to spend a little more time with Elise."
John turned around. "Not to mention it'll give you a chance to observe Teyla?"
"I had planned on it to begin—"
"I'm teasing, Rodney." John swiped a dish towel over his hands, then tossed it at Rodney's head. "Clean up after yourself, okay?"
"Oh, joy," Rodney muttered, but a smile was quirking up his lips on the right. John ignored how much he loved that look, and headed back to say goodbye to Elise.
"And Papa said that you can use it to find out how much water goes ina swimming pool, or in a glass of water, or even on top of a tiny, tiny gateship on the bottom of the ocean!" Elise wriggled her fingers in front of his face, and Ronon grunted back at her. He didn't understand even half of what she was saying, but she didn't seem to mind him not talking much. "Are we almost there?"
"Just over the next hill," Ronon said, nodding at the ridge in front of them. He'd picked her up about a mile out from the village, after it became obvious her little legs weren't going to make the whole trip. She'd been a real good passenger, not once squirming like he vaguely remembered his nephews doing, but now she wrapped one hand in his hair and wound it tight.
"Let up a little, okay?" he asked, gently untangling her fist as best as he could without being able to see it. She immediately latched onto his ear. "Hey, don't be scared. They're really nice people. Just like Teyla."
"Just like her?"
"Well, nobody's just like Teyla." Nobody he'd ever met, anyway. He had a feeling she was one of a kind, even among the others with her powers. "But these are her people."
Ronon couldn't tell if that was a good 'oh' or a bad 'oh'. Elise kept quiet after that, still clinging to his head so tight it hurt, but he hadn't been lying when he said they were close. The whole village was visible as soon as they crested the ridge, and he wasn't halfway down the path before Halling came striding towards them. Ronon stopped to wait for him, figuring it'd be best to take this in stages. He reached up, coaxing Elise down off his shoulders and onto his hip, where he could see her face better.
"Ronon!" Halling called, his voice booming across the short paces that separated them. "It is good to see you again!"
"And this must be the young friend you told us about," Halling said, smiling at Elise. "Welcome."
Ronon rolled his shoulder forward, nudging Elise with the front of his arm. She looked up at him doubtfully, like he couldn't possibly be so mean as to be asking her to speak up. He did the thing Teyla did, staring calmly down at Elise until she sighed and looked back at Halling. "I'm Elise."
"Welcome, Elise. I am Halling." He tapped his fist gently to his chest. "My son, Jinto, is some years older than you, but my daughter, Talia, is just about your age. Would you like to meet her?"
She craned her head back, looking over Ronon's shoulder. Assessing the threats around her, no doubt. Then she looked back to Ronon. He nodded this time.
"'K," she said.
"Come on, you can walk the rest of the way," Ronon said, easing her down to the ground. She clung to his hand still, but she didn't try to hide behind him. Halling led them to his tent rather than the main one where most of the village regularly gathered. He passed behind the tent rather than going inside, leading them to an open grassy area where two girls were chasing each other around in circles, for no reason that Ronon could decipher.
"Talia! Mari!" Halling's voice was a loud bark that brought them both to a halt. "We have visitors!"
The pair raced over, their shoes throwing up dust as they practically tripped to a stop in front of Elise and Ronon.
"Hi, Ronon," Talia said, smiling up at him. Mari, always quieter, simply flexed her fingers up and down.
"Hey," he said. He cupped his hand around Elise's shoulder and gently urged her forward. She took one hesitant step, and then a second, more confident one, so that she was standing directly in front of the other two girls. "This is my friend Elise."
Halling squatted down, both knees nearly to the ground with his effort to get closer to their level. "There are no other children where she comes from. I thought perhaps you could show her how to play some of your games."
"No children?" Mari sounded scandalized. Ronon had to hold back a chuckle.
Elise twisted back and forth, the hem of her shirt caught in one hand. She shrugged. "Papa said I'm all they need."
"Who do you play with?" Talia asked.
Elise shrugged again. "Mr. Bear. And Teyla."
"Do you know Princess and the Wraith?" Mari asked.
Elise shook her head.
Talia grabbed Elise's wrist. "Come on. It's easy."
Ronon expected another concerned look, but Elise followed Talia easily, not looking back once. He watched them until all three started running in circles again, and then he let out a relieved sigh. Halling laughed softly.
"It is not easy, is it? Even when you are simply minding them for a short time."
Ronon nodded. "I keep thinking I'm going to break her."
"I doubt that will happen." Halling pushed himself up from the ground and came to stand beside Ronon. "What world did you say she came from?"
"She never said." Ronon never mentioned Teyla's name to her people, and they referred to her in the same oblique way in return. It had been a shock to hear Elise say it earlier, but in some ways it made it easier to talk now. "Just that Elise needs friends."
Halling nodded. "It is difficult, to be without companions in life. I hope that she has fun here." He turned slightly, gaze probing as he looked at Ronon. "And you? Are you well? We worry, you know, with you out there by yourself."
"I can take care of myself."
Halling smiled. "That, I do not doubt. She would not have appointed you our guardian, otherwise."
Ronon had never been certain of that. He was confident in his abilities, yes, knew he was better than most humans he'd fought. Better than enough Wraith that he was still standing, instead of wrapped up in one of their cocoons somewhere. But he'd seen the horror and pity in Teyla's eyes when she'd found him. It was a big task to keep her people safe, an impossible one if the Wraith ever came in mass. Whether it was a job she honestly believed he could do or not, though, he was still going to do it the best he could. Or die trying.
"I didn't see Jinto and Stana when we arrived," he said. "They out with the hunting party?"
Halling laughed lightly. "Yes. He wasn't overly happy about having his mother along on his first scout as a full hunter. But apparently it was better to go with her along, than to not go at all."
"Funny how that works." Athosian culture had very little in common with Satedan, but Ronon could still remember the way it had ate at him when his mother had sent Ren along with him to first camp. Now.... Now, he was learning to forgive himself for all the times he'd had thoughts like that, no matter how much he still wanted to take them all back. "You planning on moving to the winter camp soon?"
Halling shook his head. "The weather has been holding well this year. It will be another month, at least."
One of the girls giggled, loud and high-pitched. Ronon didn't need to look to know that it was Elise. She'd giggled the same way when they'd gone fishing Teyla's way, that first afternoon Teyla had brought her to visit.
"There," Halling said. "That did not take long at all."
"She had the right idea, having me bring Elise here."
Halling smiled. "She was always the smartest of us all. And the one with the most heart. It surprised no one when she was chosen by the Ancestors."
"Yeah," Ronon said, though from what he'd figured out from the bits and pieces Teyla let pass, the Ancestors really hadn't had much to do with it at all. He wasn't going to tell her people what to think about her, though.
"Tell me," Halling said after a moment. "Is she happy?"
The question caught him by surprise. It wasn't that he never wondered. More that he had no idea how to answer. "She seems...very peaceful," he finally said.
"Good." Halling sighed. "You know, it has been so long now, that I can hardly remember her face."
Ronon knew how that felt. So many faces had slipped from his mind's eye, and more continued to do so all the time. Sometimes he wasn't sure if he remembered how his mother looked, or if he'd simply clung to a face he'd seen somewhere on one of the worlds he'd run to. But Teyla, though....
"I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it," he said, and then went back to watching Elise play princess and the Wraith.
John showed up promptly at 18:30. Rodney opened the door expecting to see him in his usual fatigues, but apparently he'd skivved out of duty early, because he was in civvies. Old jeans and that faded blue button-down that always clung to his pecs like it was fulfilling a sacred mission.
"Um," Rodney said.
"Thanks for asking me over," John said. He tucked his hands into his pockets, then rocked back on his heels. "Unless you changed your mind?"
"No! No, come on in." Rodney turned and headed back to the kitchen without looking back; John could manage on his own just fine without Rodney escorting him around like a date. As if.
Elise had the rolls out of the package and crowded together in the only serving basket Rodney had. One looked like it was in danger of falling out, so Rodney grabbed it and stuffed it into his mouth.
"Hi, Daddy!" Elise yelled. She carefully scooted the butter up onto the table and then ran to give John a hug.
"Heya there, sweetie. Did you have a good day today?"
Elise nodded. "Yep! Papa showed me how to calclate the area under a curve!"
John shot him a glare, but he didn't start an argument. Not yet, anyway. Rodney sighed. He knew there would be one coming, probably before they even made it to dessert. At least he'd have something to settle his stomach afterwards.
"That's great," John said. "But did you have any fun?"
Elise nodded, then squirmed away from John and went back to the fridge for the honey. She didn't seem to be in a very talkative mood tonight. Rodney finished dishing up the spaghetti and meatballs, set out the hot sauce packets, and then helped Elise into her chair. He served her, then himself, and then looked over at John.
"Well? Are you going to join us?"
John finally sat down. "Right. Some things never change, I guess."
"What? Manners are society's way of making life inefficient." Rodney reached across the rolls and started cutting Elise's meatballs in half. She gave him a dirty look, but she still didn't have the dexterity to handle spherical objects on her own. Not without launching them across the room.
"This is pretty good. You make this yourself?"
"Are you kidding? When would I have the time?" Rodney twirled his fork through the spaghetti. He happened to look up before he got it to his mouth, though, and that was a mistake. John had a bit of honey on his finger—apparently he'd been wiping the spoon with it, and oh my God, how did he think he had any room to get after Rodney about his manners?—and as Rodney watched, he brought his finger up and sucked it into his mouth. Rodney swallowed and tore his gaze away. "It's from the cafeteria, of course."
"Huh. It tastes better than they usually make it. Guess 'cause it hasn't been sitting out so long." John gently nudged Elise's shoulder. "So, did you and Teyla do anything fun today?"
Elise shrugged. "Nothing special."
"Guess you can't have dances with Mr. Bear every day, huh?"
Elise shrugged again. She stretched for the can of parmesan cheese, but it was just out of her reach. Rodney nudged it closer. When he looked back up, John was staring at him with worried eyes.
"She's fine," Rodney explained. "Just decompressing. It's normal for her on heavy learning days. Don't worry, she'll back to telling you all about her day when it's time for you to take her ho— take her back to your quarters."
John didn't seem to notice Rodney's slip. He was frowning again, though. "Heavy learning days, huh? How much did you cram into her head?"
"I didn't cram anything." Rodney opened his mouth to let loose—but Elise looked up at him just then. He pasted a smile on his face. "So. Anybody ready for dessert? Chocolate pudding tonight!"
They finished the meal in silence, both John and him eating another helping of spaghetti before tucking into the pudding cups. Elise was a dainty eater and only managed half of a cup before she declared herself full. She slipped off of her chair and headed towards Rodney's bedroom, where her play area was set up.
Rodney was reaching for the half-empty pudding cup when Elise ducked her head back through the doorway. "Don't fight. 'K?"
"We won't," John promised, and that seemed to be good enough for her.
Rodney sighed and dropped the cup onto his plate, untouched. Apparently even his appetite had limits. "What's the plan, then? Because you know she can still hear us if you raise your voice."
John frowned at him. "I wasn't lying to her. I don't want to fight, Rodney."
"I don't either. But I know that look."
John rubbed at his eyebrows. "It's just, calculus? I thought we talked about that already."
"We did. And I thought I made it very clear that she's more than ready to learn the basic concepts."
"She's five—" John snapped his mouth shut on his rising volume. He glanced towards the bedroom door, then looked back to Rodney. "She's five, McKay. I don't know why you can't get that through your head."
Rodney made himself unclench his jaw. "And I don't know why you can't understand that stuff like this is fun for her. You really think she'd be happy if I didn't let her do anything but sing the alphabet song and count all her fingers and toes?"
John was silent a long time. Rodney wasn't sure whether he was gearing up for a tirade or to storm out of the room, like he had a habit of doing whenever things got too tense between them. After a moment, though, he wiped his hand over his face and let out a huge sigh.
"I know," he said. "I know she's advanced, Rodney. I'd have to be blind not to see that. It's just.... My dad pushed me so hard, as far back as I can remember, right on up to the day I walked out his door and never looked back. I don't want her to feel like I did, ever."
"Oh." That was obvious. Rodney'd known that, of course, but more subconsciously than anything else. It didn't help that John had never bothered to actually verbalize it, himself. "Well, I understand that. Hello, child prodigy myself, here. My father pushed me constantly, too."
"So why do you keep doing that to her?"
Rodney wanted to let loose with an exasperated yelp that half of Atlantis would hear, but he kept it together for Elise's sake. "I'm not pushing her. Look, I know this is difficult to understand. Yes, I will admit that you are of above average intelligence. But Elise is so far beyond that I'm not sure it's quantifiable. She's even beyond what I was at her age. That's exactly why it's important to get her doing things she's interested in. Right now, that's learning calculus. And Greek myths. And why honey is safe for her, but not babies."
John snorted at the last. "Okay. Okay, I get it. What I want to know is this: what happens when it stops being fun for her? What if she decides she doesn't want any Ph.Ds at all? Are you going to be okay with that?"
"No," Rodney snapped. Sometimes John asked the most ridiculous questions. "Of course I'm not going to be okay with that! But give me a little credit. I can act."
"Right. That award thing."
"I could have gotten a scholarship." Well, maybe not, but that was only because his attention had been absorbed by physics at that point in his educational career, but there wasn't any reason John needed to know that. "My point is, I'm not trying to turn her into me. I'm just trying to do what's best for her. You're not helping Elise by trying to hold her back."
"You're sure about this?" John's eyebrows were bunched furiously together. His eyes were soft, though, thoughtful, like he was working through some logic puzzle. Like maybe Rodney had finally gotten through that thickly-padded skull of his. The feeling of relief was almost overwhelming, but he couldn't trust it. Not yet.
"I'm sure," he said. "Trust me on this, if nothing else."
John nodded. "Okay. But you have to do something, too."
"Oh, surprise, surprise."
"It's not an either-or thing, Rodney. I'm not going to nitpick what she's learning even if you don't agree with what I say." He picked up the plastic knife from Elise's plate. "But it's the same thing. You're holding her back. With life."
Rodney crossed his arms. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You protect her too much. That's great, to a certain extent, but you can't protect her from every single thing."
"She's five! Of course she needs protecting."
John tossed the knife back onto the table. "She's hardly ever had a bruise, Rodney, except for when she's given herself one throwing a tantrum."
"You've got to be kidding me. You actually want her to get hurt?"
John shook his head. "No. I never want her to get hurt, ever. But it's part of life, Rodney, and if you don't let her know that, then she's going to be afraid of everything. Hell, you've already given her a complex about citrus. And one about strangers. And she's not real good with making mistakes, either, if you hadn't noticed."
"Yes, well, mistakes are for lesser beings," Rodney said, but even as he said it, he could feel his stomach turning. He hadn't really made her afraid, had he? He'd been so careful to make sure she felt free to learn whatever she wanted to—but he hadn't thought to apply that to the world outside the lab. He hadn't even considered that those two things could be approached similarly.
"I don't know how," he finally said. "There's so much to worry about."
"Just relax a little, Rodney." John smiled gently. "You've said it over and over again. Elise is a smart kid. She's already got most of the big things figured out. The rest of it is either too small to worry about, or stuff that we'll be there for."
Rodney swallowed. "Accidents still happen."
John nodded. "Accidents still happen, no matter how much you try to avoid them. That's why they're accidents."
"I hate this part."
"I know, Rodney. Me, too." John started to reach out, like he was going to touch Rodney's hand, but at the last second he detoured to grab Elise's fork. "Start with the easy stuff. We got this set for her when she was ten months old. She can use regular silverware now. You just gotta let her do it."
"Oh." The fork and spoon were kind of small, especially since the little plastic teddy bears took up a good portion of the end. It hadn't really occurred to him that she might be ready to move on, though. He looked up at John, anxiety building. "I don't even know what to relax about!"
John laughed, loud and long, that stupid braying laugh that Rodney only heard from across rooms these days.
"I'm glad I amuse you."
John stopped laughing. He kept smiling, though, looking directly into Rodney's eyes like there was nowhere he'd rather look. Rodney's heart skipped a beat. He would have checked his pulse, but right then he didn't want to do anything to disturb the moment.
John cleared his throat. "I'll help," he said. "Just try to listen when I suggest something, okay?"
"Okay." Rodney tried to shake off the spell that had fogged his brain. "Don't expect me to accept everything you say without a good argument, though."
"I wouldn't ever," John pledged. He stood up and picked up his plate. "Now come on. I'll help you with the dishes."
"We're safe here, Mr. Bear," Elise whispered into his ear. She hugged him tighter, then looked back to where she could see the hole that led into the back of his tent. Light from the playroom shone through the other end, but no one would think to look all the way back here. "They can't find us."
Mr. Bear didn't say anything back. She moved him around so that he had his back against the storeroom wall, then snuggled in close so her back to his front. She didn't think he was cold; he had a suit on, after all. But she was. There was an air vent right over her head, blowing down on them. Elise really wanted it to stop blowing, but she was afraid that if it did they wouldn't have any air left to breathe.
She shifted around some more, pulling Mr. Bear's paws down on top of her shoulders. When she looked up again, Teyla was there.
"Go away," Elise said.
"There is plenty of room for both of us," Teyla said. She reached out and put a hand on Elise's forehead. "Why are you running away?"
"I'm not," Elise argued. She hadn't run. She'd just found a different place to go to for a while.
"You are avoiding something that frightens you." Teyla closed her eyes. Cold raced up Elise's body, making her shiver so much her teeth chattered together. Then the cold stopped, all at once, and she felt warm again. Warm like she was back in the playroom.
"How did you do that?"
Teyla shook her head. "I told you, you were running away. You must not do that. It is okay if something frightens you, but you must deal with the emotion instead of avoiding it."
"Running away makes me cold? That doesn't make any sense at all."
Teyla sighed. "There are many things that do not make sense at your age, no matter how smart you are. That is why you must stay present in life. Becoming cold is not the only consequence you will suffer if you keep running away."
Elise wrinkled her nose. That sounded scarier than finishing her painting. "You won't tell, will you?"
"No, I will not tell." Teyla sat down cross-legged in front of her. "Will you tell me what upset you?"
Elise rubbed her face against Mr. Bear's paw. It was stupid. But she knew Teyla wouldn't leave her alone until she did. "I can't draw."
"That is not true. I saw the pictures you are making for your fathers. Clearly you can draw."
Elise shook her head. "They suck."
Teyla raised an eyebrow. "You expect to be perfect in everything you do?"
Elise shrugged again. "I'm smart."
Teyla looked at her for a very long time, so long that Elise wanted to run further away. She couldn't, though, not with Teyla watching her, so she just pulled Mr. Bear's paws more tightly around her.
"Listen to me very carefully," Teyla said at last. Elise nodded. "No one is perfect. Not even me, or those like me. It is our imperfections that make us perfect."
Elise frowned at her. "That's an oxamoron."
"It means that we are nothing without our mistakes." Teyla reached out and took her hand. "We learn from them, and we are lovable because of them. Never, ever doubt that."
Elise thought about that. She still didn't think it made any sense, but there was one thing that leapt out at her. "So if running away's a mistake, and I'm nothing without mistakes, it's okay that I ran away?"
"You are very much your fathers' child," Teyla said. Elise grinned at her, and Teyla sighed. "You will be lovable even if you run away, yes. But it will hurt you, and it will hurt those of us who love you."
"Oh." Papa and Daddy did get pretty upset when she hid. Elise stopped hanging onto Mr. Bear quite so hard. "Okay."
"Good." Teyla smiled at her. "Now, are you ready to return?"
Elise nodded. Teyla took her hand—and just like that, they were back in the playroom. Elise ducked her head to look into Mr. Bear's tent. The opening to the storeroom was gone, without her having to do it up herself. She was kind of glad, because it had take a lot of work to open it, and she wasn't sure if she'd have been able to close it back up again.
"I will get our tea," Teyla told her. "And then you may tell me about the difficulties you're having with your pictures. Perhaps I can help."
"Hey, Teyla," John said as he cruised into the living room. As far as John could tell, all she did when she wasn't with Elise was sit and look imperious. If it were him, that'd get pretty old after a while, but it obviously worked for her. He could see Elise curled up on the couch in her playroom, so he didn't risk waking her by going in for a closer look. "How's it hanging?"
Teyla raised an eyebrow. "It is hanging well," she said.
"Great! Everything good with Elise?"
"Great!" John started towards his bedroom, but paused at the kitchen doorway. "I don't suppose you did any of the laundry while I was...." Teyla's eyebrow actually looked serrated in several places. John backed up half a step. "Yeah, I didn't think so. I'm just going to go see what's not so wrinkled."
'Not so wrinkled' was quickly downgraded to 'anything that didn't have food or grease on it'. Strictly speaking, there wasn't any real reason for him to change out of his BDUs. They were pretty comfy, after all, and it wasn't like he was leaving the city or anything. But the plain truth was that he liked the way Rodney's eyes lit up when he saw him in something different than the norm.
John finally pulled on a black T-shirt that passed the sniff test and a pair of jeans that didn't seem too grungy. He grabbed the jump drive with his notes and then raced back out to the living room. Teyla hadn't moved from her cross-legged pose.
"Hey," he said, waiting until she looked over to him in acknowledgment. "Rodney and I are going to be working on a project this evening. Something for somebody special." He jerked his head toward the playroom a couple of times. Teyla's expression didn't change. Maybe it was one of those physical expressions that didn't translate across cultures. "Anyway, can you stick around for a while? I know it's not your regular...." John trailed off. He'd about to say 'hours', which was ridiculous. She was an alien intruder, not an employee. "Thing. Not your regular thing."
Teyla inclined her head. "I will see that she has dinner, as well."
"Rodney has stuff in his fridge, but you can take her down to the mess, if you want to. She hasn't figured out that's not a great big adventure yet." John smiled, but that was another one that went over Teyla's head. "Okay, I'm going to run. Thanks!"
John was halfway to the transporter when Elizabeth stepped out of her quarters. He had to skip to the left so that he didn't run her over.
"Where are you off to in such a hurry?" she asked, smirking like she knew something he didn't.
John shrugged. "Finally got time to work on this project we've been talking about. Special birthday present for Elise."
"Oh, how lovely!" Elizabeth started walking in the same direction he'd been headed, so John fell in beside her, throttling back his earlier pace to a rate that wouldn't force her into a jog. "And when you say 'we', you mean..."
"Me and McKay," John said as casually as he could manage. "It was his idea, really."
"I see," she said, and left it at that, letting the silence build between them until John could feeling it crawling up his shoulders and breathing down his neck. She still had that all-knowing smile, too, the one that said her security clearance put Rodney's to shame.
The was no question in John's mind about exactly how she'd broken the Menaran's resolve in under four hours.
"Okay, what?" he finally asked. "What's going on in that devious head of yours?"
Elizabeth shrugged. "Nothing at all. Except...it is rather nice that you two seem to be getting along better these days."
"We worked out some things about raising Elise." Things hadn't changed overnight, of course. Rodney was still ridiculously nervous about letting her do anything, though he was obviously trying, and John had just about bitten his lip bloody trying not to say something every time Rodney brought up higher math. "Makes it a little easier to put up with him the rest of the time."
"Uh-huh," Elizabeth said—but they were at the transporter, so John just smiled at her and ushered her inside.
"Command," she said. "But I'm not in a hurry. I could—"
John directed the transporter to Command. Elizabeth was laughing when they re-materialized.
"Okay, okay, I get the hint," she said. "I'll talk to you later. Enjoy yourselves."
"I'll try," he said, but it didn't come out nearly as put-upon as he was aiming for. He closed the doors on her laughter and sent the transporter in the direction of the science labs. No matter what Elizabeth was thinking, the simple truth was that he and Rodney were working together for Elise's benefit, nothing more. John needed to remember that. If they had fun together, if there happened to be a little flirting...well. It wasn't like those things added up to anything more. He knew that for a fact.
He passed Rodney's home lab and headed towards the engineering bay at the end of the corridor, the one set aside for pet projects and staff 'fun time'. There was no guarantee that they'd have it to themselves, but knowing Rodney, he'd probably threatened to fire any potential trespassers. The place was a hell of a lot quieter than it usually was, John could tell that from ten yards out, no obnoxiously loud music competing with the screeching of metal saws or the low roar of a blowtorch.
Sure enough, Rodney's was the only face John saw when he stepped inside. He was sitting at the computer station at the front side wall of the room, leaving him in profile as he studied the bank of huge monitors above his head. He was out of uniform, too, in one of those colorfully striped short-sleeved shirts that was undoubtedly hiding one of his smarty-pants tees underneath. John took a moment just to look at him; he rarely saw Rodney like this anymore, contentedly absorbed in his work.
Rodney looked up and over. Their eyes met. For a moment John thought there was something there, something wanting in Rodney's eyes, but then Rodney turned back to the main monitor. "You're here, good," he said. "I think I've got the initial design finished. Minus your contributions, of course."
John crossed the short distance between them, coming to stand behind Rodney's chair so he had a good view of the schematic on the screen. He held out the jump drive. Rodney snatched it out of his hand like it was a cupcake. John set his hands on his hips as he waited for Rodney to bring up his designs, trying to convince his gut it was no big deal if Rodney didn't like them.
"I see you used the gateship HUD as a model."
John shrugged. "You said you could replicate the ATA interface. I figured that was the best place to start."
Rodney nodded. "Yes, yes, of course. I like the way you've simplified it."
"Well, it's not like Elise is going to need to take atmospheric readings while she's scooting around Atlantis. Better not, anyway."
"Yes, that would be a major failure on our part." Rodney smiled up at him. "The star backdrop is a nice touch."
"It came down to a tough choice, but teddy bears just didn't scream hot rod to me."
"Mmm, yes, and I see that was your main concern," Rodney said as he opened the second file. John had left his first attempt on top, the one he'd used to work through the clutter in his head. It was a banana yellow dragster, far too long and narrow to fit with what they had in mind. "Please tell me this isn't the best you came up with."
"Keep scrolling," John said. He was personally quite fond of the DeLorean knock-off that came second—the upward-swinging doors alone made it perfect—but of course Rodney scoffed and kept on scrolling. There were a couple designs in the middle John didn't have strong feelings about one way or the other—one an ugly but functional gateship knock-off that she'd love just because Daddy flew one, and the other basically a Hummer in miniature.
Rodney stared at the final design for a long time. John had left it last because it was the best one. Rodney had to see that. It was modeled after the sleek red and black Bugatti Veyron that he'd been salivating over forever, but with a little bit more Batmobile bubble to it so that Elise could actually see out of it.
"That's perfect," Rodney finally said. "Except...are you sure she'll like it? It seems a little boyish, don't you think?"
"She loves red," John said, trying to not sound overly invested. You never knew when Rodney would decide to argue for argument's sake alone. "And who cares if it's boyish? Elise doesn't give a crap about that kind of stuff."
"Right." Rodney brought his thumbnail up to his mouth, biting at the cuticle.
Rodney shook his head. "No, no, it's fine. I was just thinking. It looks a little unbalanced, don't you think? Like it needs something on the back."
John snorted. "A jet engine."
Rodney snapped his fingers. "Yes! That's exactly it!"
"Yeah. I had a mock one in there initially, but I didn't think it'd be a good to plant the idea in her head that she could actually jump buildings."
"Mmm. Good point."
"Although..." John brought up Rodney's schematics again. "Do you think you could actually make it fly? Like a jumper?"
"Yes, because that's leaps and bounds better than actually strapping a jet engine onto her back." Rodney pulled the mouse back out of John's hand. "Have you even thought about how much trouble she could get into that way?"
"I guess you're right," John said. He still thought the idea was super cool, but only in theory. Rodney had done his best to instill a sense of caution in her, but every now and then she'd be overtaken by an idea and no amount of good sense could stop her. The last thing he wanted was for Elise to try to take her toy up into orbit so she could get a better view of the stars. "Okay, so no flying. But what if you kept it close to the ground? Like a hovercraft."
Rodney tilted his head to the side. "That...has possibilities, actually."
"Right? And I bet you could program in a failsafe so that she can't take it outside the area we decide is safe."
"That part would be easy." Rodney opened another file and started to type. "Although I'd have to build in safeguards so that Elise couldn't crack it. She hasn't shown any interest in programming so far, but it'd be stupid to count on that lasting."
John nodded. "We'll have to make it big enough that she doesn't outgrow it too soon."
"I've calculated the initial dimensions based off of standard growth curves so that it'll suit her for at least two more years." Rodney brought up a couple more windows. One had several charts, complete with line drawings of little kids getting taller and taller. The other was simply a list; the first thing on it was 'Optimus Prime'. Rodney gestured at that window, grinning. "We can build her something cooler after that."
"Good thinking." John paused as he hit the fifth item on the list. "Iron man suit? That's not exactly the definition of safe, there, Rodney."
"I was just brainstorming. That means no self-editing." Rodney minimized both of those windows, bringing up the original specs again. "We have plenty to work on right now. I do like the hovercraft idea, but I'll need to rework the entire engine design first."
"Do you think we'll have time?"
Rodney snorted. "Please. This is me we're talking about."
"I don't know what I was thinking," John said. He stopped smiling, though, when he realized that meant they wouldn't be able to start building the cart tonight. "I guess you want to get started with those plans, huh?"
"Oh." It looked like that had just occurred to Rodney, too. John's ego was pretending the look of disappointment on his face was because they wouldn't have a reason to spend the rest of the evening together, and not because Rodney was really looking forward to building stuff. "Oh. I probably should."
John sighed. "That's what I thought."
Rodney snapped his fingers, then pointed at the doorway. "We should really do an in-depth study of potential problem areas throughout the city. Look for stairs, places where she could get outside, places where a small vehicle could get stuck. That kind of thing."
John nodded. "Get a good idea of the area we want to limit her to." He straightened to full attention as he got an inkling of where Rodney was going with this. "You don't still have them, do you?"
Rodney smiled smugly. "Still in the boxes and everything."
"Oh, that's perfect. But what about the batteries? They can't still be good after all this time."
"Hello? We're in an engineering lab." Rodney pushed away from the computer and started walking out of the room. John hurried to catch up with him. "Besides," Rodney said over his shoulder, "if we're out, I can always steal some from Grodin. The man's a pack rat."
Rodney led him to a storage closet in the back of his lab. The shelves were packed, but neatly so, every one of them labeled. Near the back, on the very bottom shelf, were two boxes, side by side, that looked completely out of place among all the Ancient tech and scientific equipment from Earth. Rodney pulled the first one out, and John had to swallow down the tight knot of regret and sadness in his throat. He'd bought the pair of remote control cars for their last Christmas together, right before they broke up. Seeing them still in their packaging brought back the failure, as fresh and sharp as the pine scent John swore was wafting up from the boxes.
But. "You kept them."
"Of course I kept them," Rodney said. He didn't look up, so John couldn't see his face to tell if there was any sentimentality lurking there, but he also didn't add the 'they're expensive' or 'they're mine' justification that John was expecting. He just pushed the first box towards John and then scooped up the second one for himself.
"So," Rodney said as he stood back up. "I'm thinking, start at the northwest pier?"
"Sounds good." John slapped him on the shoulder. "First one back to the naquada generator wins."
Ronon stretched his legs out, keeping his feet far enough from the fireplace that the soles of his boots wouldn't crack from the heat. Elise was asleep on his cot, all stretched out with her arms flung every which way, and even Teyla looked a bit drowsy in the chair beside him. It'd been another good day, tiring in ways that he wasn't used to anymore. Maybe that was a sign that he should spend more time visiting the Athosians. He hadn't been ready, when Teyla first brought him here, and it had become something of a habit over the years to limit his visits to what was necessary to exchange goods and information. They always seemed really glad to see him, though, so.... Maybe.
"You sure you don't want anything?" he asked again. Teyla could be stubborn sometimes when it came to normal human stuff. He thought it was because she was trying too hard to be something not human. "I got a fresh tin of that tea you like so much. Should brew up nice and strong."
"Only if you are having some."
Ronon hadn't been planning on it—the Athosian stuff was strong enough to keep him up half the night if he drank it this late—but he'd drink half a cup if it meant getting Teyla to smile. He got the kettle going on the stove, then settled back down to wait. Teyla didn't try to make conversation. Usually he liked that about her, the way she was able to share a companionable silence without giving off a sense that she was expecting something more from him. But something was eating at him tonight, something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
The kettle finally let out a hiss of steam. Ronon got up and measure out tea for both of them, using half as much for himself as for her, and then poured the water. "Honey?" he asked as he handed her the mug.
Teyla shook her head. "I am fine, thank you."
"Are you?" he asked.
"Of course." Teyla arched an eyebrow. "Why would you think differently?"
Ronon shrugged one shoulder. "I've been seeing a lot of you lately. It's not normal for you."
"I only come because of Elise." Teyla looked over to the girl on the bed, and her mouth softened into a barely there smile. "She has no other children to socialize with at her home, and she needs that kind of connection."
"She and Talia get along really well. They were making some kind of necklace today. I had a hard time convincing Elise that it was time to come back, even though she was already half-asleep."
Teyla's fond smile disappeared, her brow furrowing instead. "She can be rather...willful at times."
Ronon snorted. "She's a kid, Teyla. A good one. She'll grow out of it."
"I hope that you are right."
"You're good with her." Ronon set his tea aside and sat forward, watching Teyla's face. "You have any kids of your own?"
"No." Teyla looked down at the mug in her hands. Ronon found his gaze drawn there, too, and was surprised by how strong and work-worn they looked. She had ragged cuticles, and calluses on her thumbs and first fingers. "Not in this universe."
Ronon looked up at her face. "Not in this universe? What does that mean?"
Teyla sighed. "There are many way that our lives may turn, Ronon. The path that I took in this life meant that I will never have children of my own. But had I made a different choice, that would not be the case. In other lives, I have a son. In some, a daughter. In some, I have many children."
Ronon frowned. "So there are a whole bunch of different Teylas?"
"It is...complicated." She smiled. "Elise's papa could explain it to you."
Ronon snorted. "I doubt it."
Her smile turned private, knowing, before she buried it in another sip of tea. She seemed content enough. But content wasn't the same as happy.
"You regret it?" he asked. "Not having kids in this life?"
She tilted her head to the side. "I do not weigh emotions the same way you do, Ronon. How could I possibly balance one life that does not exist against the many that do all because I chose to enter the valley of the Ancestors in this lifetime? It is what is, and that is all there is to it."
Ronon shook his head. "I still think you're lonely."
"That is not possible," she said, setting her mug down on the hearth beside her. "We are one with the universe. There is no such thing as loneliness for us."
"Then why do you keep coming back to your people, then?"
Teyla didn't answer him. She didn't even acknowledge the fact that he'd spoken. Instead, she stood up and headed over to his bed, beginning the process of nudging Elise awake.
"It is time to go home, little one," she said quietly.
Elise rolled over, hiding her head under arms. "No," she said, the denial firm even as muffled as it was. "I have to finish my necklace."
"You can do so some other time." Teyla tugged the blankets away from Elise. "Now come along. It will be time for your dinner soon."
"I don't want to go!" Elise kicked out, catching Teyla right in the jaw. Teyla didn't react, but she did let Elise shimmy away to the far side of Ronon's bed. "You can't make me!"
"She can make you," Ronon said. "It's probably not a good idea to dare her."
"Ronon. I can handle this." Teyla frowned at him over her shoulder, so he held up his hands and took half a step back. "Now. Elise. It is not a matter of making you do anything. It is time to go home, and unless you can tell me a compelling reason why not, then we must go home."
"No, no, no, no!" Elise was nearly screaming by the end, as loud and as shrill as anyone he'd ever heard running for their life. Ronon eased back in towards her side, hoping to do something to calm her—and stopped, horrified.
"Teyla," he said, her name barely creeping out through the fear in his throat.
"I am doing what I can," she said.
Ronon didn't dare distract her with more questions. The skin of Elise's face looked transparent, nothing but greased paper over the blood and muscles underneath. He looked down, but that just meant he saw her hands. Or what was left of her hands. There wasn't even muscle and blood showing where her fingers should be. Not even bone. Her hands just ended at the first knuckles.
"Elise," Teyla said firmly. "You cannot do this. You must stay with us. With me, and Ronon, and your fathers."
Elise's right palm flickered once, and then it was gone. Her whole hand was missing now.
"Ronon," Teyla said urgently. "Get something cold. Water, anything."
It would have been an easy request in another month, but the only thing he could think to do right now was grab a bucket and race for the lake. The water was chilly, this time of year, this time of day, and he hoped that would be good enough. He raced back into the house, slopping water everywhere, and thrust the bucket into Teyla's hand.
She dumped it directly over Elise's head.
The change was immediate. Elise opened her eyes, staring at Teyla with shock. She opened her mouth like she was going to start shrieking again, but then all of the tension went out of her body with a long, soft sigh. More importantly, her face was back. Ronon looked down at her hands, and they were right where they were supposed to be, too.
"Why'd you do that?" Elise yelled. "That wasn't nice!"
"Neither is throwing a tantrum." Teyla produced a small towel from somewhere, an unnaturally green-colored cloth that Ronon wouldn't be surprised to see on Sateda, but looked completely out of place here on Athos. She wiped it lightly over Elise's face, and all of the water disappeared. "You must never do that. If you are upset about something, you must face your fears, not run away from them."
"I wasn't running away," Elise protested sulkily.
"Yes, you were." Teyla swiped the towel over the top of Elise's head, and just like that her hair was dry. Ronon hoped she remembered to do that to his pillow. "You must promise never to do that again. Promise me."
Elise's eyes were huge. Even when she'd been spooked about meeting him or other new people, Ronon had never seen her eyes get that big. "I promise."
Teyla dropped her head. "Thank you."
"Don't be mad at me, Teyla," Elise said. Tears were gathering in the corners of her eyes now. Ronon expected them to spill over as a gushing river any second.
"I am not mad." Teyla brushed her thumb over one of the escaping tears. Elise sniffed twice and then firmed her trembling lower lip. "I am worried, though. It is very dangerous for you to do what you just did. Do you understand?"
Elise stared back at her for several seconds, and then nodded slowly. She started to cry again, but softly, like she was letting go of a long-distant grief. Teyla gathered her up in her arms, rocking her gently. Ronon moved off, fussing with the hearth to give them some time. When he looked back over to them, Elise was asleep once again.
"Thank you for your assistance," Teyla said quietly. "She is very strong. I could barely hold her."
Ronon nodded. "What in Stoll's name was that, though?"
Teyla stroked Elise's hair, pulling the stray wispy bits down away from where they'd stuck to her blouse. "That was the entire reason I am here."
"What's wrong with her?"
Teyla sighed. "The idea of ascension was one that the Ancestors were fixated upon for a very long time. Ultimately, it is a matter of the mind and soul being in agreement, but it is nearly impossible to achieve the state needed for that final step without assistance. So they began building devices to help them. Some were successful. Most.... Most had dreadful consequences."
"Consequences like eating up her hands?" Ronon had a iron-strong stomach, but thinking about what he'd seen left it sloshing worse than being on a boat.
"She was conceived by such a device." Teyla shook her head. "Its purpose was to give the children a head start, to make ascension easier. But by doing so...."
"That's what was happening?" Ronon sat down on the bed next to them. He was afraid if he touched Elise he'd wake her up again, so he settled on threading his finger through the loop of string that tied her shoe. "She was ascending?"
"Only partially. To truly ascend, one must let go of all of fears. Elise was trying to leave because she was afraid and angry." Teyla closed her eyes. "Those who partially ascend.... It is an abomination, Ronon. Something that I must stop."
"Must stop—" Ronon clutched Elise's foot. He'd heard that kind of careful phrasing too many times in the Satedan army. "You mean fix it, right?"
She pressed her cheek to the top of Elise's head. "That is what I hope. Yes."
Elise raced inside the instant John's door swooshed open, leaving them both staring after her for a couple of seconds.
"She said something about wanting to tell Mr. Bear a story," Rodney explained. It hadn't made much sense to him earlier, but apparently it had been something urgent in her mind.
"I'll try not to take it personally." John's eyes were picking up a bit of light from the corridor, making it look like they were twinkling. It was a good look for him. Most looks were, actually, but Rodney especially liked this one, the way the shine coupled with his smile to make him look extremely happy to see Rodney.
"Ah, that's good." Rodney cleared his throat. "Nothing exciting to report, so I guess I'll let you get back to whatever you were doing."
"Wait," John said quickly, even though Rodney hadn't even started to turn away. "You don't have to— I mean, if you're not busy, you could come over. Watch a movie with us before Elise goes to bed."
"Busy?" He actually had three pressing projects at the moment, all of which he'd planned on working on as soon as he dropped Elise off. None of them were going to explode if he didn't babysit them, however, so Rodney smiled and took a step inside. "No more than usual, no."
"Good! That's good." John led Rodney past the living room area of his quarters and into the room he'd converted into Elise's play space. Rodney smiled at the fat yellow play tent, absent its owner, in the corner of the room. He was distracted from his gloating, though, when John bent over to pick a DVD out of the rack under the flat screen TV and then stick it into the player. Rodney had just enough time to look away before John straightened back up and turned to take a seat on the small couch.
That left Rodney the option of sitting beside John—or moving Mr. Bear out of the only chair in the room.
Rodney took a step towards Mr. Bear, but Elise grabbed his hand. "No!" she said, tugging him towards the couch. "First come, first serve!"
John snorted. "I wonder where she got that one."
"Yes, yes, it's always amusing when the more...sparkling...aspects of my personality come back to bite me on the—" John raised an eyebrow. Rodney grimaced at him. "Butt. I was going to say butt. Like you're perfect, Lt. Colonel Potty Mouth."
"Yes, Rodney. Crap is a horrible, horrible word, and I should be punished for using it." John's eyes were sparkling again, but there weren't any reflections to blame this time. Rodney's pulse jumped in his throat.
"Crap!" Elise shouted joyfully. She tugged Rodney toward the couch again, then clambered up onto it herself. "Feces! Poop! Dung! Doo-doo!"
"Yes, that's wonderful, you know all sorts of words for excrement," he said as he sat down beside her. At least she'd squashed herself in between the two of them rather on the end, so he wasn't forced to sit thigh-to-thigh John. That would have been pure torture, far worse than watching this Disney princess movie for the thousandth time. He wasn't even sure which one it was and didn't really care; he was too busy trying not to get caught looking over at John every time John turned his head.
The movie was interminable, but finally Elise was nodding off, just before the credits rolled. Rodney could have spent the night with her warm weight pressed up against his side, never mind that he'd never be able to stand again afterward, but John carefully scooped her up into his arms and carried her into her bedroom. It was the perfect opportunity to escape, but instead, he picked up Mr. Bear and followed John.
"Thanks," John whispered as he took Mr. Bear. He settled the stuffed monstrosity into the rocking chair, the one that Jeannie had shipped at her own expense across a galaxy because every kid needs to be rocked to sleep sometimes, no matter how smart she is, Meredith. He'd only used it a few times—the motion of the thing made him seasick, to be honest—but she'd been totally right.
"Come on." John set his hand on Rodney's back, rubbing a little before urging him towards the door. "You know how she gets."
"Still?" Rodney asked, just as softly, even though they were outside her room now. "I thought she was getting better about going to sleep."
"She is." John squeezed Rodney's shoulder, then crooked two fingers at him before moving to the main living room area. He sat down on the couch and looked up at Rodney, clearly expecting him to sit down, too. "It's just really easy to wake her up in the first half hour. I think she gets that from me."
"Huh," Rodney said as he sat down on the opposite end of the couch. "I just thought that was your super-soldier training or something."
John smiled. "Nah. I've always been like that. Comes in handy in military situations. Other times, not so much."
Rodney snorted. "Like that time I tried to—" He snapped his mouth shut. They didn't do this, reminisce about good times together, and wow, of all the memories to bring up.
John's eyes went dark, though. Rodney tried to tell himself that it was the lack of light in the room, even though the level hadn't changed in the past thirty seconds. "Yeah," John said, his voice deeper than usual. "But that time worked out pretty okay in the end."
Rodney swallowed. "Okay? It was a lot more than okay."
John shrugged one shoulder. "That time in the gateship was better."
Fuck. He knew he should have left after the movie ended. John had obviously switched tactics from constantly arguing with him to actively trying to kill him through flirting. "It was all right," Rodney said, even though he knew John knew that was on his all-time hottest-sexual-experiences-ever list. "Listen, I should—"
"I know it's late," John broke in. "But I want to talk to you."
Crap. Rodney hated those words. "I thought that's what we were doing."
Oh, look. There went the frustrated little divot between John's eyebrows. "Stop trying to distract me."
"I wasn't—" John frowned at him, and Rodney caved, just like that. "Okay, fine. Talk."
"It's nothing bad. Or, at least I don't think it is." John looked down at his hands in his lap, which meant that now he was the one feeling uncomfortable. Once upon a time, Rodney would have given him a shove, or an overly exasperated sigh, something that would have drawn a smile out of him. But he couldn't get himself to do that right now, even though it felt like.... It felt like John wanted him to.
"Well?" he finally asked. "Talk!"
John shook his head, but then he sat back and turned towards Rodney with a half-smile on his lips. "His lordship has spoken." He took a deep breath. "I was talking to Elizabeth the other day."
"Oh, God, she wants to send Elise back to Earth, doesn't she?"
"Relax, Rodney! I said it wasn't bad." John rolled his eyes. "All she said was that we seemed to be getting along well together lately."
"Oh." Rodney brought his fingers up to his racing pulse, waiting for the confirmation that it was slowing before he turned his attention back to John. "Wait. That's what you wanted to talk to me about?"
John shrugged. "I agreed with her. And that was before we got the cars out that night."
"That was pretty fun." They'd each won once, and then raced to a draw, before Rodney pulled out the final victory at the stargate itself. John had pouted very prettily. "We should do it again sometime."
"Definitely." John took a deep breath. "That's the point. I've really missed doing stuff like that with you. You know?"
"Oh." Rodney's pulse was speeding up again, but he couldn't spare the attention for it at the moment. "Oh. Yes, me too."
"That's the thing," John said. He scooted forward on the edge of the couch, twisting so that his knees were almost touching Rodney's. "I don't know why we ever stopped doing stuff like that. I know that part of it was me getting all paranoid about you pressuring Elise. But we should have been able to work that out a long time ago."
"Could we have? You were so angry about everything I did."
"Pot, kettle." John dropped his hand down to the couch. Right next to Rodney's. They weren't touching, but it was enough for Rodney to finally get what was going on.
"I'm sorry." Rodney could hardly say it. Not because he didn't want to, but because his throat was so thick he might as well have sucked down a whole pitcher of lemonade. "I don't know exactly what I did, or how we ever wound up where we did, but I'm sorry. For every mistake I made."
"No, Rodney, hey. That's not what— We both made mistakes." John brought his hand up, and then he was touching Rodney's face, tracing the pads of his fingers over Rodney's cheekbones. It sent shudders all the way down his spine. "I'm sorry, too."
"I just—" But Rodney couldn't say what he intended, because John leaned in and kissed him. After that, he couldn't remember anything but how good this was, and how he'd never, ever wanted it to end. But before he was ready, John pulled back.
"Was that okay?" he asked.
"Are you kidding?" Rodney gaped. "It was perfect, right up until the point you stopped."
John grinned. "I'll keep that in mind next time."
"How long until—"
Next time was right now, apparently, which was perfectly fine with Rodney. He'd forgotten how hungrily John kissed, and the way he'd break away every now and then to bite at Rodney's neck. He'd forgotten how fantastic John smelled up close, underneath his aftershave, and just how strong John's hands were as he pulled Rodney closer.
They were stretched halfway across the couch, Rodney half on top of John, both of them hard, when John finally pulled away, breathing heavily.
"Please don't tell me you changed your mind," Rodney said, his voice cracking with his desperation. "Please."
"I didn't change my mind." John kissed him lightly before pulling back again. "But we can't do this here. Elise might wake up and come out."
"Crap." Rodney hadn't thought of that. It hadn't really been a problem back when they'd still been having sex regularly. "So what— Are you saying we can't at all?"
John craned his head back over the armrest, staring straight up at the ceiling. "Teyla!" he whisper-shouted. "Teyla! I need a favor!"
They waited for a whole minute. Rodney finally whimpered and dropped his head to John's chest. "You didn't really think that'd work, did you?"
"I thought maybe she'd have pity on us." John pushed on his shoulder, and Rodney sat back, already counting on a dangerous case of blue balls. But John grabbed his hand and urged him off of the couch.
"Come on," he said. "Elise knows not to come into the bathroom while I'm in there."
"Shower sex?" Rodney practically tripped over his own feet hurrying to catch up. "I love shower sex."
Elise skipped along beside Papa as they walked back home from the transporter. "I wanna learn about drawing," she told him, swinging his hand in hers. She still wasn't good at it, but Teyla said if she kept trying that she'd learn to make pictures her own way. "Can we learn about drawing tomorrow?"
"Drawing?" Papa stopped and looked down at her. "What would I—" He made a funny face, then smiled at her. "Like schematics? I'll install a CAD program on your computer first thing tomorrow. How about that?"
Elise thought about that. She wasn't sure what a CAD program was, but she knew schematics were the line drawings Daddy and Papa both did to make stuff. "That's boring," she said. "I want to do real pictures."
"Oh." Papa didn't look happy. "Okay, I guess we can do that."
Elise bit her lip. "Is drawing bad?"
Papa shook his head. "Of course not. I just.... I just don't know very much about art. That's all."
"Oh." Elise shrugged, then started walking back towards home. "That's okay. Teyla says not even you know everything. That's why learning's fun."
"She said that?" Papa's voice went high and squeaky. Elise looked up at him and nodded. "Ah. Well, yes, I suppose she's right. That's why we have science, after all."
"And art, right?"
"Hmm. My piano teacher always said creating art was about finding your soul, so yes, I guess so."
"Told you." They were almost there, so Elise ran ahead to open the door. Papa grabbed her by the shoulder before she could go through it, though.
"Hang on, star-stuff," he said. He spun her around to face the other side of the hallway. "We're having dinner with Daddy tonight."
"Oh." Elise stared at the door in front of her. Her stomach knotted up, and she didn't feel hungry at all. "How come?"
"How come? Because we both want to eat dinner with you." Papa looked down at her with a frown. "Don't you want to eat dinner with Daddy?"
Elise shrugged. Dinner was supposed to be with Papa, not Daddy. Papa looked liked he was upset, though, so she shrugged again. "'K."
Papa sighed and opened the door. Daddy was standing in the doorway to the kitchen.
"Hey, there," he said. "It's my two favorite people!"
"Hi, Daddy." Elise hugged him around the legs, and then went to her playroom to find Mr. Bear. He was taking a nap in his tent like he always did when she was with Papa. He didn't seem to mind when she crawled inside with him, though.
"Did you really mean that?" she could hear Papa ask.
"Yeah, I really do," Daddy said. "Is that okay?"
"What, are you stupid?"
Elise pulled Mr. Bear's paws over her ears. This was what always happened when she and Papa ate dinner with Daddy. It always made her tummy hurt, too. It had been okay when Daddy came over to eat with them lately, but that wasn't like how it used to be. Elise had a good memory.
Somebody scratched at the door of the tent. Elise rolled over, expecting it to be Daddy—but Papa was laying down on the floor, looking in at her and Mr. Bear.
"Are you hiding?" he asked.
Elise shook her head.
"Okay, that's good. Then come on out. Dinner's ready."
Elise shook her head again. Papa sighed.
"You were right," he said over his shoulder. "She really doesn't like change."
"Not going to say I told you so," Daddy said. "We just have to work on it."
Papa looked at her again. "Why don't you want to come eat, Elise? Does your tummy not feel good? Are you sick?"
"Don't put thoughts in her head, Rodney."
Elise pulled Mr. Bear's paws over her ears again, but she could still hear Papa's big sigh.
"I think that's the problem right there, John." Papa reached in and pulled one of Mr. Bear's paws away from her ear. "Hey. We're not fighting. Really. That's just the way Daddy and I talk to each other. We like to tease each other a lot. It doesn't mean anything bad."
Elise shook her head. "You'll yell at each other later."
Daddy dropped down on his knees beside Papa. "We're trying not to do that anymore," he said. "We're trying really hard, I promise. But even if we slip up, you know that doesn't mean you're in trouble or that we don't love you, right?"
"Look," Papa said. "Think of it as an experiment. Sometimes experiments fail. But you learn just as much when they do as when they don't."
"That's real reassuring, Rodney."
Papa huffed. "My point is, you keep trying until you get it right. And that's what we're doing. Only this is better, because it has mashed potatoes and gravy and you and me and Daddy. You don't want to miss out on that, do you?"
Elise shrugged. She did like mashed potatoes, and her tummy wasn't as tight as it had been a few minutes ago. And she wanted to ask Daddy about flying through the stars so she could make a picture of it. She thought about it for a little bit longer, and then she kissed Mr. Bear's nose.
"Gotta go," she told him, and crawled out of his tent.
Rodney rolled to his back, still gasping for breath. "How were we ever stupid enough to stop doing this?"
John chuckled. He rolled over onto his side, propping his head up on one hand and draping his other arm over Rodney's chest. "Lesson learned, hopefully."
He dropped his head forward, nuzzling at the spot where Rodney's collarbone met his shoulder. It didn't even make sense for that spot to be sensitive, but the warmth of John's mouth and the gentle tug of his teeth was enough to get things twitching again. That shouldn't even be possible; he was over forty, for crying out loud. But John had always had that effect on him, and the years apart hadn't lessened that at all.
Rodney was just finding a really good spot on John's right hip to rest his hand when he heard a small cry come from the next room over. It might have been his imagination, but John immediately froze. Rodney held his breath, ears straining, and sure enough, a second whimpering cry followed the first. John rolled away from him and out of the bed, taking mere seconds to find his boxers and pull them back on. He was out the door before Rodney could even get himself sitting upright.
By the time Rodney had wiped himself down and gotten his own boxers back on, John was coming back into the room.
"She's fine," he said, shaking his head before slipping back into bed. "Whatever it was, it didn't seem to be bothering her by the time I got in there."
Rodney sighed. "That's better, I guess."
John nodded. "Yeah. She just needs time to get used to the change. To trust that we're back together for good."
His lungs stopped working. Just completely quit processing air. Rodney started to panic, but that was enough to get them working again, apparently. He drew in a deep gulp of lovely O2, and then turned his head to stare at John. "She— We are?"
John went still again. "We're not?"
"No, that's not—" Rodney took another deep breath. This was exactly the kind of bad communication that had gotten them in trouble in the first place. Well, minus the screaming and accusations, but he had no doubt that they could get to that place if he didn't make an actual effort. "I want to be," he said, choking up on the want. "Are you sure you want to, though?"
"Rodney." John rolled so that he was half on top of Rodney's chest. It didn't bother his breathing at all. Not in a bad way. "I never wanted to separate in the first place."
"Oh." Make that horrible communication. But all of that was in the past now. Rodney smiled up at John, and John smiled back down at him, and anything else either of them had to say was going to have to wait for a while.
Elise skipped on ahead of him as they rounded the bend that led to the fishing hole. Ronon couldn't imagine what kind of ascended business could have called Teyla away, but for the moment he was willing to take her at her word that it wasn't anything bad. He was just glad that Elise had been okay with not visiting Talia and the other Athosians. He didn't mind going to see them now and then, but the weight of his past had been pressing on him this morning, and he didn't need a bunch of loud voices adding to the tension at the base of his neck.
Sitting on the bank and dangling a line in the water, though. That sounded about perfect. Elise's sunny smiles and curious questions were all the company he needed. As long as she didn't try to pull her little disappearing trick, anyway. But Teyla had said Elise had been better lately. Ronon hoped she was right.
Elise launched herself forward with a two-footed jump and landed firmly on the stretch of grassy bank that was his favorite sitting spot. She looked up at him, face open and questioning, and he nodded at her. She smiled and plopped down like the ground was as soft as feather down under her butt. Ronon snorted and started putting his gear together.
They fished for a while with nothing but the sound of the trees and birdsong around them, and the occasional rustle of a small animal moving through the forest, Ronon with the fancy rod Halling had brought him two summers ago and Elise with the same stick and string contraption he'd learned to make when he was five. Elise was content like that until Ronon pulled in the first fish. Then she sat her stick aside and started playing with the leaves of grass around her feet.
"Ronon," she asked, twisting a fuzzy-headed flower between her fingers, "why don't you live with the others?"
He reeled in his line and cast it out again. "Because I need to be able to watch over them."
Elise looked up at him with a little furrowed line crawling up her forehead. "Why? Daddy watches over Atlantis, and he lives with us."
"Yeah, but you're his people." Ronon gave the cork out on the water a good look, but whatever twitch he'd seen was gone. Must have been the wind catching it.
"The Athosans aren't your people?"
Ronon shook his head. "Nah. They're nice enough and everything, but I don't really fit in with them." They were too passive, too caught up in trading with neighboring worlds and dreaming about the days when the Ancestors would come back. He might not be doing much different from day to day, but at least he could pretend he was still a soldier keeping to his duty.
"Where are your people?"
Ronon shrugged. "They're all gone."
He sighed and looked down at her. She didn't seem too concerned about anything but the pile of flowers at her feet. "You heard of the Wraith, right?"
"Well, one day a big Wraith ship came and attacked my world. They killed everybody they didn't take for themselves."
Elise looked up at him, eyes wide. "Everybody?"
Ronon nodded. "Everybody."
"Everybody but you, you mean."
Ronon shook his head. "No, they captured me, too. Zapped me up into the ship. They were going to feed on me, but instead they decided to make me a runner."
Her brow wrinkled again. "What's a runner?"
"The Wraith put a device in my back. So they could track me wherever I went." Ronon twitched his shoulders together, reminding himself it hadn't been back there for years. "And then they chased me, and I ran from them as fast as I could."
"You ran away?" Elise stood up. Bits of grass and dismembered petals rained down from her lap. "Teyla said it's bad to run away!"
Pig's balls. This was why he didn't like talking to people. Ronon spared the cork one more glance, then wedged the rod in between a couple of branches of the driftwood caught on the bank. He turned to face her full on, drawing one leg to the side as he tried to figure out what to say.
"It's not the same thing," he told her, but her jaw was tightening up, getting that stubborn lock to it that meant no good. "Teyla doesn't mean you can't run away using your legs when somebody's trying to hurt you. You know that, right?"
Elise lost some of the mulishness, but she was still looking at him warily.
Ronon sighed. "Maybe she should have used different words."
"I'm not stupid," Elise said.
"I know that." He wasn't either, but it'd been too long since he'd tried to explain anything to anybody. He scratched at his beard, wishing Teyla would have one of her moments of perfect timing. "It's like this. I had to run away from the Wraith, or they would have killed me. You understand that?"
Elise nodded slowly.
"It was really terrible. I was cold all the time, and tired, and I never had enough food. And I was sad, really sad." Ronon worked his jaw around a couple of times, loosening up so he could keep talking. "It would have been easy to just let the Wraith kill me, because then I wouldn't have to keep being sad and cold and hungry."
Elise's eyes went wide. "But then you would have been dead!"
Ronon nodded. "Yeah. But sometimes, when I was really scared, that seemed better than being alive. That would have been the real running away, though. That's what Teyla doesn't want you to do."
Elise looked back down at the ground, one hand crossing to her foot to idly tug on her shoe strings. "I just go to the other room."
Ronon shook his head. "I saw you. You were going a lot farther than another room."
Elise shrugged one shoulder. "Maybe," she said quietly.
"Yeah." Ronon picked up one of the flowers that she hadn't yet shredded and tucked it behind her ear. "You gotta stay with us, okay?"
"Okay," she said quietly.
Ronon let out a breath. He wasn't sure if he'd gotten through to her any more than Teyla had, but he'd given it his best shot. He watched her for a minute more, but she seemed to be finished with the conversation. He picked up his rod and reeled the line back in.
His bait was gone, of course.
Elise held out a worm to him.
"Thanks," he said, and started to thread it on the hook.
"Ronon? If the Wraith ever chase me, can I run to you? I'll do it with my legs. Promise."
"Yeah," he said after a moment, voice coming out as hoarse as when Teyla'd first set him free. "Yeah, you can."
John jogged all the way to the gym. He wasn't really in too much of a hurry, now that Rodney was around in the mornings to watch over Elise, but he'd learned a long time ago that most people wouldn't try to talk to you when you were running. It didn't spare him the knowing smirks or the occasional wink that had started coming his way a few days ago, but at least he didn't have to make small talk while pretending he didn't know that the whole city knew too many details about his love life.
It didn't help that he couldn't keep the smile off his face whenever he started thinking about Rodney.
The gym was empty when he got there. If this was going to be a regular time, it might be nice to find a partner to work out with. Bates would probably do it; he'd never once turned down an offer to knock John on his ass. Not exactly John's favorite option, but he didn't really feel comfortable with asking anybody else in his chain of command.
John wrapped his hands, then turned around to face the punching bag.
Teyla was sitting in the corner of the room, cross-legged and watching him.
"Teyla?" he asked, taking an instinctive step forward. "Is Elise okay?"
"She is fine." Teyla stood, moving with an inhuman grace, and circled the room to stand opposite him. "I did not mean to disturb you. I was merely...indulging a whim."
"A whim, huh?" Close up, she looked a bit frazzled. Worn down around the edges like a human would get.
"An indulgent one," she said, smiling faintly. "Yes."
"Are you feeling okay? You look a little..." John had no idea how to finish that sentence. There wasn't any way he was ever telling a woman, alien or otherwise, that she didn't have quite the same glow about her as she usually did. He wasn't great with women—or people in general, actually—but he knew that much. "Tired."
"I am fine. I have merely been considering a great many things lately." She circled around him again, running a hand over the curve of the punching bag. "As have you, from what I understand."
John snorted. Obviously Teyla knew about him and Rodney; he just hadn't expected her to say anything about the change in their relationship. "Yeah," he said. "Turns out, all that crap about talking about stuff with people? Actually wasn't crap. Crazy, huh?"
She smiled fully this time. "It indeed sounds like insanity."
John nodded, and then just fell into watching her. They didn't really have conversations as such, so he wasn't sure what she was looking for right now. She approached the bench at the side of the room, peering into his gym bag for a moment before turning around to face him once again.
"Have you ever considered studying the more traditional martial arts of your world?"
John blinked at her. "Uh. I took a couple karate classes back in the academy. Wasn't really my thing."
Teyla nodded. "Perhaps you would find a different form more suitable."
John opened his mouth to ask her exactly what she had in mind—but she disappeared. Gone right in front of his eyes. He shook his head, then tugged on his hand wrappings to make sure they were still secure, and headed over to the bag.
"I think we should draw a picture of Ronon, don't you?"
Mr. Bear looked like he was wrinkling his nose. Elise wrinkled hers back at him. "Okay, smarty pants, what's your idea?"
Mr. Bear's tie looked extra perky. Like he was showing off. "Okay, you're right. I'll draw a picture of you! For Ronon!"
Her supplies were already out. She just had to choose between crayons and pencils. The crayons had prettier colors and were easier to hold onto, but it was easier to make good lines with the pencils. She could use both, maybe. Draw Mr. Bear with a pencil first and then color him in. Teyla said it was good to experiment, so she could find out what worked and what didn't, so maybe she'd try that.
"You sure you want to move that knight, Rodney?"
"What, is this Who Wants To Be a Millionaire now?"
"Hey, I was just trying to help."
Elise looked up for a moment. Daddy was smiling at Papa over the chess board, and Papa...Papa wasn't smiling, but he didn't look mad, either. She shrugged and dumped the pencils out of their box. The brown she had wasn't the same color as Mr. Bear, but maybe that'd be okay.
"Mate in four moves."
"Oh, I definitely wish," Daddy said, and then he laughed. Papa started laughing, too.
Elise stuck her tongue out at Mr. Bear. "Chess is boring," she told him. Mr. Bear definitely agreed with that.
The door alert beep-booped. "I'll get it," she yelled, and then raced through the living room before they could tell her to slow down. She stretched up to wave her hand over the sensor, then waited as the door slid open. Dr. Elizabeth was on the other side.
"Why hello, Elise," Elizabeth bent forward, hands on her thighs, so that she was closer to Elise's height. "May I come in? I want to speak to your Daddy."
"Okay. Papa's here, too."
"I thought he might be," Elizabeth said as she followed Elise into the living room. Daddy and Papa both stood up.
"Elizabeth," Papa said. "What's going on?"
"I have something I need to discuss with both of you," she said. "Privately."
"Elise, why don't you go work on your drawings in your room," Daddy said. "I'll bring Mr. Bear if you want."
Elise looked from Daddy to Papa to Elizabeth. They were all smiling at her, but she could tell that they weren't real smiles. She turned away from them and started grabbing up her pencils. She couldn't get them back into the box right—they kept slipping out of her hands and going crooked and just being a problem. She was about to give up when Papa took the box out of her hand.
"Go on," he said. "I'll bring these. Daddy has Mr. Bear."
"We won't be too long," Daddy said after he set Mr. Bear into her rocking chair. He kissed the top of her hair and then stepped back. "You need to stay in here, okay? We'll do something fun after we're done talking."
She nodded. Papa put her drawing stuff on her lap desk on the floor, then he kissed her, too. Then he and Daddy left the room and closed the door behind them.
Elise crawled into bed and pulled the covers over her head. Something bad was happening. Something bad, and they didn't want her to know about it. She didn't want to know what it was—except what if it was something she had done? If it was something she had done, maybe she could fix it before they got too angry at her.
She couldn't sneak out there. Daddy would definitely notice. He always did. But maybe, if she was careful, she could work it so she could listen through the wall. Elise closed her eyes, thinking of the exact shape she needed for the acoustics. She didn't need to open her eyes again to know it had worked.
"I'm sorry, John. General O'Neill even tried to intervene, but this is way above our heads." That was Elizabeth.
"But why would they even care about Elise?" Papa asked. "Of all the situations we've had to handle out here, she's the one that gets their attention?"
"It's not about Elise, Rodney," Daddy said. "Is it, Elizabeth?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
"But what— They want to use our daughter as bait?!" Daddy yelled that so loud Elise's ears hurt. "To what, catch an ascended being of their very own? That's— They can't do that!"
"Apparently they can," Elizabeth said. "I know it isn't what you want, but look at it this way. Teyla hasn't been any danger to her so far, and there's no reason to think she will be back on Earth. It'll just be like a vacation for Elise."
"Wow. You drank a whole vat of that Kool-Aid, didn't you?"
"I don't appreciate that, John."
"And I don't appreciate the IOA using my family as a scientific experiment!"
"Oh, God. I think I'm going to be sick."
"Take a deep breath, Rodney. We'll fix this, no matter what."
"Shut up!" Elise yelled at the wall. It sealed itself up, shutting out the sound of their voices. She crawled deeper under the covers, but it wasn't good enough. They were going to take her away from Atlantis. Maybe away from Papa and Daddy, she didn't know.
She started crying, so hard that snot was clogging up her nose. She didn't wipe it away, though. She needed a plan. The easiest thing to do would be to hide. If she wasn't here, then they couldn't take her away. It'd need to be a good hiding place, though. Somewhere very far away. With the Athosians, maybe. Except then Talia and Mari might get into trouble, too, and that would be bad. She couldn't go to Ronon, because she'd promised him she'd use her legs if she had to get away.
If she went and hid with the stars, no one would ever, ever find her, except maybe Teyla. And then she could come back whenever she wanted to see Papa and Daddy. It'd be perfect.
She pushed the covers back and found a tissue to blow her nose. She wiped her face dry, and then got ready to go. All she needed to do was think of the stars. Like Dubhe, the star that was named after a bear.
Elise gasped and looked over at the rocking chair. "You can't go with me, Mr. Bear!"
Mr. Bear looked like he wanted to cry, too. But Elise couldn't take him. It didn't work that way. If she went, she'd have to give him up. She'd have to give up playing on the computer, too, and she wouldn't be able to finish her drawing for Ronon. She wouldn't be able to have breakfast with Daddy anymore, or dinner with Papa, because she'd have to stay hidden from them. Papa and Daddy were starting to eat all of the meals together lately, too, which was really nice, but she wouldn't be here for them if she went away.
But if she stayed, they were going to take her. If Papa and Daddy let them, anyway. Daddy did say he'd fix it. No matter what.
Elise wiped her nose again. Maybe it'd be better to wait and see what happened. She could still run away later. Although, she had promised Teyla she wouldn't ever run away again.
"What do you think, Mr. Bear?"
Mr. Bear looked like he needed a hug. Elise crawled out of bed and gave him the biggest, tightest hug she could manage. "Don't worry," she told him. "I won't leave."
She held him for a long time, but the crying had made her tired. Mr. Bear didn't fit into bed with her, not without falling out again right away, so she left him in the rocker. It seemed like it had been a really long time since Daddy and Papa had left her in here, but she didn't dare listen again. She pulled the covers back over her head, and went to sleep.
When she woke up, she wasn't alone. Elise wasn't sure how she knew, but she always did. She sat up, and sure enough, Teyla was sitting in the rocking chair. Mr. Bear was on the floor beside her, and Teyla had one hand on his head.
"I'm very proud of you," Teyla said.
Teyla nodded. "You stayed here, to face life, instead of running away."
Elise licked her lips. They were still salty, from when she'd been crying. "I promised I wouldn't."
"But that's not the main reason you stayed, is it?"
Elise shook her head. "I'd miss everything."
Teyla smiled. "There is so much to miss, isn't there? I'm glad you realized that."
"Teyla, are they going to take me away?" Tears started coming to her eyes again, but she bit her lip and held them back.
Teyla sighed. "I think that if all goes as I expect it will, they won't have any reason to do so."
"Really?" Elise scooted to the edge of the bed. "Really really?"
"Yes, really." Teyla stood up and came to sit down on the bed with her. She picked up Elise's left hand and started tying something around her wrist. It was a bracelet, made out of brown leather, and it was just a little bit loose the way Teyla tied it. "This was mine, once upon a time. It is yours now, to make sure you never forget your home."
"It was yours?"
Teyla twisted the bracelet around so the ties were facing down. "Yes. Every Athosian child has one when they start traveling through the rings. You have seen Mari and Talia's, haven't you?"
Elise nodded. "You don't want it anymore?"
"I want you to have it more." Teyla leaned forward, but instead of touching their foreheads together, she kissed Elise on the top of the head like Papa and Daddy always did. "Now you should go back to sleep. It will be late before your fathers are finished talking."
"Okay." She did what Teyla asked and settled herself back under the covers, even though she had so many more questions. Teyla straightened the blankets over her chest, then stepped back. "Teyla, wait!"
Elise sucked in a breath. She was scared to say it, because she knew what the answer was already. "Don't go, please?"
Teyla stroked Elise's hair back from her forehead. "I will never truly be gone. Always know that."
And then she disappeared. Tears started rolling down Elise's cheeks, and there was nothing she could do to stop them.
"Teyla?" she called one more time. She knew Teyla wouldn't answer, but if she meant what she said about never really being gone, it wouldn't matter. "Teyla, I love you."
"Teyla." Ronon stepped forward for the Athosian greeting, but he could tell immediately that something was wrong. She was agitated, pacing away from him without even acknowledging his gesture, and he thought he saw tears on her cheeks. "Is something wrong? Where's Elise?"
She paced back towards him. "Elise is fine. More than fine, actually. She has learned what she needed to learn."
"That's good, isn't it?"
"Yes. It means that I no longer have to keep watch over her." She turned away, but not before Ronon saw that she had crossed her arms over her chest to clutch at her own shoulders. "She may ascend some day, but I have great hope that it will because she chooses to do so, rather than by accident."
"Right." He couldn't imagine little, vibrant Elise ever having anything close to Teyla's reserved manner, but kids changed. Maybe it'd be good, for there to be another being up there with Teyla's heart. "If that's so good, then what's bugging you?"
Teyla turned back around. She dropped her hands and smiled sadly. "I had tried to make her understand that she must experience a full life before she is ready to move on to the next one. That part of that is staying to face the negative emotions. But her mind is still too young to fully grasp those concepts."
Ronon nodded. "Especially the way they've kept her protected from everything."
"It is their way, Ronon. And I do not begrudge them the luxury." Teyla sighed. "In the end, it was her attachments to her toys and the joy she takes in her family that kept her here. It is not quite the lesson I was trying to impart, but it is close enough."
"So why are you so upset?"
Teyla shook her head. "I have been doing the very same thing, Ronon. Not with things, but with my people. With you. I had thought myself to have truly ascended, but I must take that final step. Once and for all."
"What, just because you think you're too human?"
"No." She smiled sadly. "I have spoken with others of my kind. I had thought that I was acting beneath their notice, keeping my actions small enough that it would not draw their attention. But they were merely allowing me a...grace period, if you will."
"A grace period until what?"
"Until I must make my true choice."
"And you decided not to stay." Ronon swallowed when she nodded her head. "So you're leaving, then. For good?"
"I may still be able look in on things from time to time, but you will not know of it." She took a step forward, reaching up to grasp his shoulders. "Tell me. Are you happy here?"
It was basically the same question he'd asked her, over a week ago now. He shook his head, not even knowing how to find an answer to that. "As happy as I can be," he finally said.
Teyla touched his cheek. Her hand was cool, and kind of tingly, and it made him feel like a kid on his mom's lap again. "I release you from your pledge," she said. "You may stay here as long as you want to, of course, but never feel that I require it of you."
Panic welled up under his breastbone. "Where else would I go?"
"Wherever you wish." She moved her hand down, over the fear, and it eased somewhat, although he was still aware of it. "You have been so brave, Ronon, and you have earned a respite, but what I tried to teach Elise is just as important for you. Life is worth living. Do not hide from it forever."
Ronon cleared his throat. "I'll think about it."
"That is all I can ask." She smiled benevolently at him, then took a step back.
"You're sure I'll never see you again?"
"There are many futures," she said. Light began to grow around her, like a bright aura from a sun low in the sky. She was standing opposite the sun, though, and Ronon knew this was it.
"What about Elise?" he asked. "Will I ever see her again?"
"Do you want to?" The light was brighter now, obscuring her hair and arms almost completely. It hurt to look at her.
"Yeah," he said, and it was true. He'd gotten attached to her during the few visits they'd had. "Yeah, I do."
"I am glad to hear that," Teyla said—and then she flashed bright white, brighter than the sun. Ronon covered his eyes with his forearm. He dropped it again as soon as the light dissipated enough, but Teyla was already gone.
To the most basic senses, the laboratory seemed no different than any of the other spaces in Atlantis. Perhaps cluttered in comparison; the Earthlings had taken to storing any unidentifiable equipment in here, shoving in any bit of technology that they didn't take an interest in. There was nothing in the room to draw the eyes, or to worry at the ears, or prick the nose.
The feeling of wrongness, however—it would have taken her breath away if she were still human. The worst of it came from an object the size and shape of a simple Athosian portmanteau, made of the composite the Altarans preferred rather than leather. Teyla rested her hands on top of it. The soul inside was so damaged, so corrupted, that it was barely a soul. More a hungry, needing thing. Flickering moments from other realities passed through her awareness—Jinto, where are you! Elizabeth, look out! Now that's what I call a Hail Mary!—but they were absorbed quickly by the soul's very being.
It took all of her focus, and almost more power than she was able to handle, but she was finally able to safely release the creature's energy to the universe. She spared it a moment of deep grieving. Then she let go of that emotion, as well as her anger at the Altarans for yet another mess that they refused to clean up. That was the most difficult to do. She understood why they felt it was not their place to judge their own past deeds, but there were just so many mistakes.
And you lived a life of perfection? she reminded herself wryly.
"Heya, Teyla. Whatcha doin'?"
She turned slowly, aware that though they were now used to her presence for the most part, they were still wary of her motives. John and Rodney were a few steps inside the entrance of the room, standing side-by-side with their shoulders pressed together. She smiled at the sight.
"I had things to attend to." She set her hand on the imprisoning case one more time, willing it into an inert state. "I am mostly finished now."
"Must have been something important, for us to be able to sneak up on you like that," John said.
She laughed softly. "Believe what you wish to believe."
"Told you," Rodney muttered.
"Be that as it may," John said calmly, though he did turn a sidelong glare at Rodney for a moment before returning his attention to her. "What's going on, Teyla?"
"I do not know what you're referring to."
Rodney huffed out a tremendous sigh of exasperation. "Elise is convinced that you're leaving. For good."
"She was cuddled up with Mr. Bear, talking all about this bracelet you'd given her." John crossed his arms over his chest. "She was crying, Teyla."
Teyla sighed. "She was worried about Dr. Weir's news. I believe she is strong enough to handle whatever comes of it, however."
"We talked to her about it," John said. "But the thing that she was the most upset about is you. Are you leaving because of the IOA? Because I appreciate the gesture, but it's not necessary. We'll figure out a solution without you having to make yourself scarce."
"But it is the easiest solution." Teyla held up her hand when they started to protest. She didn't even have to put any power behind the gesture; they shut their mouths at the exact same time. "That is not the reason, however. I have accomplished what I came to do."
"So you are going," Rodney said, and it was an accusation.
"For now." To be truthful, they had caught her out a bit. She hadn't expected them to figure it out so quickly, or to come to question her about it. It made certain...temptations...greater than she had allowed for. Perhaps, then, it was best to follow the path that presented itself.
She crossed to a piece of equipment placed in the farthest corner of the room. This one was close in size and shape to the energy prison, but it was on end, and had several accessory pieces, including receptacles for two pairs of hands.
"Don't touch that!" Rodney snapped.
Teyla smiled over her shoulder. "Do not worry, Dr. McKay. I will not activate it. In fact, I cannot. Most certainly not by myself."
"Yeah, well, can't be too careful," John said, circling around from the opposite side of the room. "We know that from experience."
Teyla raised an eyebrow. "Then perhaps you should heed your own words."
"Right." He stopped advancing, but didn't back off.
Teyla let him follow his own wisdom and turned back to the machine. It was currently dormant, but ready to activate at the call of two compatible candidates—much as it must have been when John and Rodney originally found it. Elise would be fine, but other such children had not chosen as wisely as she. The twisted, pained creatures that resulted among the ascended ones made her heart hurt without end. Even so, she could not bring herself to destroy the device. Its existence was not wrong—merely problematic.
Instead, she locked it. Locked it so that it could only be used if another ascended being allowed it. It wasn't the perfect solution, but it would do. She turned back to the pair watching her.
"You must promise me," she said, holding first John's gaze, and then Rodney's. "Promise me that you will never attempt to use this machine again, or try to recreate it. It is far more dangerous than you realize."
"Why, are you afraid the galaxy will be overrun by hyper-intelligent people? I can think of worse—" Rodney's eyes widened. "Is there something wrong with Elise?"
Teyla shook her head. "Not anymore. But you must promise me this thing. If you wish to have more children, do as humans do. Or call to me, and I will help you."
John and Rodney exchanged glances. "Yeah, okay," John said. "We promise. But Teyla—"
"I must go now."
"Snap," Rodney said softly. "There it goes."
"Yeah," John said. "Can't say we didn't see it coming. I just never expected this to be the outcome we were worried about."
"I am sorry, I do not understand."
John smiled sadly. "We're going to miss you, Teyla. All of us are."
Emotion welled up strongly. These two men were so dear to her in so many of her other lives, and it hurt as much to say goodbye to them as it had with Ronon. Teyla accepted the pain and the love that was its source, thanked the universe for allowing her the experience, and then she let the emotions pass on. "As I told Elise, I will never be far from you."
"But I'm guessing you won't ever be too close, either," John said.
Teyla smiled at him. "Elise doesn't get her intelligence solely from Dr. McKay."
Rodney snorted. "You think I'd be with him if she had?"
"I appreciate that, Rodney. Really."
"If that's sarcasm, don't tell me." Rodney sighed. "This means we'll have to find babysitters again. You could at least have given a couple weeks notice, you know."
"I believe I can assist you with that," Teyla said. She was nervous about doing this; there were many futures that branched out from this one decision, and not all of them had a good outcome for those she cared about. But if she kept trying to protect the ones she loved, then she would take choice away from an entire universe of beings. That was the final lesson she had to learn. "Unless you require further references?"
John and Rodney looked at each other, then looked back at her. "Who do you have in mind?" John asked.
Teyla smiled. "On the inner surface of Elise's bracelet, there is a gate address. If you have any regard for me at all, I beg you to treat the people you find there kindly."
"Of course we will," John said.
"It is not you so much that I am worried about."
John sighed, but he didn't try to argue her out of her worries.
Teyla nodded. "If you go there, and are found to be friends, then there is a man there who is very dear to Elise."
"What—?" "Who does she—" Rodney and John's words tumbled over each other. Teyla did stop them with a surge of power this time.
"Keep love in your hearts, above all else," she said, stepping forward to offer the touch of farewell. John squeezed her shoulder as she stepped back from him. Rodney sniffled a little bit, just as Elise was wont to do.
Teyla smiled at them one last time—and then she let go.
In one part of Atlantis, a flash of brilliant light appeared in front of the stargate.
"Is that what I think it is?" Dr. Weir said—but no one answered her, and then it was gone.
In another part of Atlantis, a little girl fluttered her own blanket down from high up above, smiling as it settled in around her toes and shoulders, tucking her in tight.
"Don't worry, Mr. Bear," she said. "I'm here to stay."