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stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows

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One is one's own refuge, who else could be the refuge?

 

"Da," Teyla murmured sleepily.

"Shh," her father whispered. "Can you get dressed quietly?"

"Why?" she asked, rubbing her eyes. "Sleepy."

"Don't whine, daughter. Pull on your clothes, be quiet, and be quick."

"Yes, Da," she said sulkily, struggling to wake up. He handed her a wet cloth and she wiped her face, yawning, and let her da help her up from her sleeping met. She saw that he was already dressed, and their packs sat ready.

Teyla still wanted to cry a little bit, but she didn't want to be a baby in front of her da, so she bit her lip and followed his instructions. Though it was still full dark, the air was summer warm and, when she stepped from the tent, the sky nearly white with stars. "Oh," she said, and her da smiled at her.

"Come, Teyla," he said again, and, pulling her pack on, she obediently followed him.

Their camp was quiet, no lights in any tent, but two waited by the Ancestor's Ring. "Torren," Jima said. "Teyla."

She nodded shyly, ducking behind her da. Jima was a big man who'd come to live with the Athosians when Teyla was five. She didn't know him well, not like the others who had dandled her and taught her and scolded her since she was a baby. The other person was Med, a woman nearly as old as Charin but who had always gone through the ring. Med nodded at her and entered the symbols for the trading fair.

The pool whirled bright and pale blue in the dark night. Teyla stood frozen before it; she thought she could feel something on her face -- some power emanating from the watery light. Jima went through first. Med looked back at Teyla and smiled, then went through. Teyla looked to her da.

"Well, daughter," he said, holding out his big hand. "Will you come?"

"Yes, da," she said instantly, and took his hand, warm against her cold one. He tugged lightly, and she stumbled forward, terrified and thrilled.

Her first trip through the ring as a trader. When they exited onto Dektiy, the sun was nearly straight overhead and the temperature so cold her breath steamed when she opened her mouth in awe. It seemed to Teyla that hundreds and hundreds of people were here, all shouting and arguing and laughing. Dozens of different kinds of tents had been set up, most with their front open to a table covered with merchandise or food. Some people had thick rugs on the loamy ground with their goods displayed on it. The ring was in a large clearing, around which enormous pines swayed in a breeze Teyla couldn't feel, and the air smelled resiny.

Med was already surrounded by friends and competitors, laughing her big laugh. Jima was talking to an old man wearing a long cape with a pointed hood who pointed out something to Jima. Teyla saw a tall woman, nearly as tall as her da, hurrying toward them, her smile brilliant in the sunshine as she pushed her way through the crowd; she cried, "Torren! Torren!"

Her father dropped Teyla's hand and pulled the woman into his arms. "Ah, Teralla, Teralla," he said in his soft voice, and they kissed. Teyla stared open mouthed. Then her father looked back at her. "Teyla, come meet your mother's sister."

"Oh, Ancestors!" the woman cried, and dropped to her knees. "Teyla, my child." Teyla saw that Teralla had tears in her eyes. "You are not much like my sister," she said, glancing up at Torren. "She is your daughter through and through."

"Tagan used to say the same," her father said, smiling sadly. Teyla didn't remember the last time she heard her father say her mother's name.

"Will you not greet me?" Teralla asked quietly. "It has been ten sun cycles since I last saw you." Teyla shrugged, not knowing what to do or say. She saw something flash across her father's face: hurt, and maybe embarrassment, though, so she stepped to Teralla and embraced her, who rested her forehead against Teyla's and they breathed quietly. Then Teralla kissed Teyla's cheeks, right, left, and right.

"Teyla, will you stay with your aunt? Or help me?"

She looked up at her father, so tall above her, then back at her aunt. "Um."

"Go with your father, dear one," Teralla said. "He will return for the midday meal and we will talk."

Teyla jumped up and took her father's hand, almost clinging to him. Torren nodded to Teralla, and led Teyla into the crowded market. She felt overwhelmed by the noise and smells of the market, excited by the crowds, and dazzled to have met her mother's sister. She was too busy keeping up with her father to ask him any questions as he wove through the market, stopping abruptly at times to barter for supplies.

She listened avidly as he bartered for spices, for a special kind of charcoal the Xiti used to smoke antelope, for the dyes that Charin used to color the wool she wove with, and for the special stones that the Eirkdke used to make jewelry.

Following him closely, she saw how people smiled up at him, and how many greeted him in the formal Athosian way, though there were few Athosians at this market. She was proud of her da, and longed for the day she could make him proud of her. Children dashed by, laughing, and she looked after them, wishing she could play. "Teyla?" her da said.

"No, no," she assured him, taking his hand. "How will the Xiti get their charcoal?" she asked.

"Ah," he smiled. "I have made arrangements for them to pick it up directly."

"And in exchange?" she said, proud to know the words and concept.

"In exchange, they will give us a third of the meat they smoke." Teyla sighed happily at the thought. The Athosians were not natural hunters of big game; when they hunted, they hunted ripening fruit, rarely meat. She was more used to hunting for ground-fruit and fish, and the sour-bitter leaves of astis. "Let's go back to your aunt," he said, and led the way unerringly through the crowd. She watched carefully, trying to remember the organization of the market, but everyone was jumbled together: butchers' stalls next to clothiers next to chemists next to musicians.

They saw Teralla before she saw them, at a stall for leather goods. Her father paused to watch, not interrupting the barter. Teyla shyly said, "I don't remember her."

Her da didn't look at her, but clutched her hand. Finally he said, "She came when your mother fell ill." Finally he looked down at her. "You were just a baby. I had hoped --" He stopped abruptly and then swung her up into his arms. "Oof. You're getting too big for this." He kissed her cheek. "I'm sorry you didn't know your mother. She was smart and brave and made me laugh."

"I make you laugh," Teyla pointed out. He smiled, and then her aunt greeted them.

"Sit with me, eat with me!" she boomed, striding toward them. The merchant she left looked ruefully after her.

Her aunt bartered her ability to lead hunting groups, Teyla learned, and watched in awe as Teralla and Torren spoke. "Last month I took a group through the Vale of Crimson, on Ullus," Teralla said between bites of their meal. "Have you been?"

"Never," Torren said, "though I have heard many stories. Is it true that it never rains there?"

"Not while I was there. And the land is very dry. With each step up flew little whirlwinds of dust. My eyes and nose were full of it. There are wells, but few and far between, and their water is sour."

"What did you hunt there?" Teyla asked, a little shy but very curious.

"Wild melacca," Teralla told her. Teyla felt her eyes widen. "Yes, very formidable beasts. Here," she said, and turned to hunt through an embroidered pouch. "Here, you might like this." She held out her hand, palm up, fingers flattened. In her hand were a dozen or more teeth, triangular and yellow-white. "From the first melacca we brought down. Took us a day and a half of hard running."

Teyla carefully picked up one tooth; it was razor sharp. "There are hundreds in the mouth of a melacca," her aunt explained. "The people I was with use them to make terrible weapons, like saws but used for striking. The melacca skin is as tough as anything. I sold my share to people who use it for body armor."

Teyla didn't know what to say. She didn't know any real warriors, not who wore armor.

"You'll give the girl nightmares," Torren said.

"No, Da!" Teyla looked up at him. "I want to know. I want to know everything!"

"And that," Teralla said, "sounds like my big sister."

Da looked sad, Teyla thought, but nodded. She didn't understand. Da knew everything, and everyone. She'd seen that at the market.

Suddenly she was very tired. Da had gotten up before dawn, and she'd followed him for hours. The big meal rested heavily in her. She lay back and shut her eyes, keeping the melacca tooth in her hand. She would use it to scare Halling.

The sun had fallen below the trees, which cast long cool shadows by the time Teyla's father woke her. "Aunt Teralla?" she asked, and her father nodded.

Teralla was deep in conversation with two men, one big and grizzled, wearing a necklace of Wraith teeth, the other old and frail. They nodded and Teyla heard Teralla say, "In two days, at the foot of the hills north of the ring." She turned and left the men, who watched her closely.

"Ah, you're awake," Teralla said, smiling at Teyla. Teyla clambered to her feet and stood shyly before her aunt. "I am so glad we have finally met. I am not often at these markets, nor will I be again."

"You won't come home with us?" Teyla asked, but she knew the answer.

"No, I have work to do." Teralla knelt in front of Teyla. "Come here?" Teyla hesitantly walked to her, and accepted Teralla's arms around her. "I wish you'd known your mother," she whispered into Teyla's ear. "She was wild and brave. I never knew anyone like her. Don't let your father's fear that he'll lose you, too, keep you from growing up." Teyla didn't understand that, but she hugged her aunt and accepted a kiss from her. She took her father's hand and watched as her aunt, smiling over her shoulder, slipped through the crowd toward the Ancestor's Ring.

Teyla felt like crying, but knew her father wouldn't understand and might be angry at her aunt, so she remained quiet. "Bye," she whispered.

By the time she and her father returned to Athos, Teyla was so tired she could barely put one foot ahead of the next. He kept one hand on her shoulder and guided her to the children's tent. Charin was there, singing to one of the infants as she walked, joggling the baby. "Colic," she said to Torren, singing the word. "And how was your first time bartering?" she sang to Teyla.

Teyla yawned. "Exciting. My aunt was there!" Remembering Teralla made her wake up a bit, and she rubbed her eyes.

Charin looked at Torren, who said, "No, I had no idea. But I'm not sorry."

"Nor am I," Charin said. "Teyla, wash your face and comb your hair; you're falling asleep on your feet."

"Yes," she murmured, and went to obey, yawning so hard that tears came to her eyes. Her father was gone and Charin had put the baby to bed when she returned.

"Come, child," Charin said, and she went happily to her sleeping mat. The other kids were already there, listening to Joda tell the story of little girl with the wheelbarrow. Kanaan smiled up at Teyla, but she ignored him and looked for Halling; she wanted to impress him with the melacca tooth her aunt had given her. But he was older than the others and not in the children's tent tonight. She yawned again and let Charin tuck her in and stroke her hair from her face. "Sleep well," Charin said. Kanaan said it, too, but Teyla rolled onto her side, facing away from the other kids, closed her eyes, and pictured her aunt, bartering with people who needed a guide. She would do that one day, Teyla decided. She could hardly wait.

Teyla accompanied her father on many trips through the Ancestor's Ring after that. She watched him barter, learning the skill. She learned to read people with whom she bartered, when to push them and when to smile flirtatiously and walk away. She liked visiting so many different worlds, liked stepping through in the morning on Athos to the middle of the night of Xeria; from early spring in one market to deep winter on another and then to high summer on a third. She could bring autumn fruits to people who lived in ice tents, and ice to people in a desert.

Her father arranged for her to learn to fight, too. She loved using the bantos best of all, so her first teacher sent her to Kai, an old man, back curled with the years, but who, when he picked up the sticks, became a dance of violence.

She also studied singing and chanting, mostly with Charin but sometimes with others who came to visit. She was proud of her voice, and embarrassed by her pride, but Charin told her that her voice was a gift and she should treasure it. She learned the songs and stories of many peoples, not just her Athosians, and was often asked to sing at feasts.

One wintry evening the wind came up, wheezing through every crack in the long houses, cold with a bitter tasting dust in it that made Teyla's teeth grit, and sometimes it would howl like angry spirits. No one could sleep well, and when the wind refused to die down in the morning, few could bear to be out in it. Nor had it died down that evening, so for a second night they crowded together, trying to keep warm and in good cheer.

Some of the babies were crying, including Beeba, a little girl brought to the Athosians by survivors because her parents had been culled. Kanaan pulled her into his lap and said, "Teyla, won't you sing for us?"

Her throat was dry and scratchy, but she knew it was a good idea, so she sipped hot cider and asked, "What would you like to hear?"

Names of many songs were offered by the children, and some by the adults, but Kanaan said, "Small and Dark," and grinned at her.

"Very well," she said. "But you have to help," told the babies, and looked meaningfully at Kanaan. Then she began:

Small and dark
Tiny and frail
Who could know
What will start
What will fail
No one can know
Until it grows
Soft and pale
But bigger and bigger
Larger and stronger
What will it be?
A flower!

"Now you must sing; I'll whisper to you what it will be," she said over the howl of the wind.

Small and dark
Tiny and frail
Who could know
What will start
What will fail
No one can know
Until it grows
Soft and pale
But bigger and bigger
Larger and stronger
What will it be?

"A firefly!" she whispered and they all shouted it back. Then she whispered that it was a tree, then a fish, then a puppy, then the boys got silly and said it was a boulder, which led to arguments about whether boulders grew from tiny stones, and after six or seven verses, Teyla could rest her throat and smile at the children, the frightening sound of the wind forgotten.

"That was well done," Halling told her later, when the children were in bed and most of them sleeping. She wanted to point out that he was only a few years older than she and had no business offering her such praise, but then she realized how silly she was being. "Thank you," she said meekly. Kanaan's mother, Isa, came to her as well to thank you. "I don't think my head can take much more," she confided, "and the crying was too much. Poor things." Isa looked at Beeba. Kanaan heard her, and drew her away to put warm cloths on her forehead and to rub her temples.

Teyla went to sleep glad she had helped, and she promised herself to be more observant so she wouldn't have to be told when to sing and what to do. To be, she told herself, more like Kanaan.

She and Kanaan were alike, she knew from an early age. When she was little, the Wraith came, but she didn't know what was happening. She just knew that something was terribly wrong. She screamed and cried, and only later learned that Kanaan had done the same. In her head, she heard things she couldn't understand, and when she closed her eyes, she saw things for which she had no name. Worse, she knew -- even when very small -- that if she let herself sink into these feelings, she would desire great evil: to prey on the weak, to eat unspeakable things, to rejoice in foulness of every kind.

Instead of feeling closer to Kanaan, though, she saw reflected in him that which she did not love about herself.

When she was eleven, her father took her to meet the Genii, and there she met Sora. Sora was beautiful, Teyla thought, peeking shyly at her. She had blonde curly hair and pale skin, but she also fought with the bantos. Sora took Teyla running through the woods; she showed her where to pick the fattest mushrooms and the sweetest apples. They waded in the creek, and and caught trout.

 

"My father told me about a monster that lives in those woods," Sora whispered to Teyla one night. They lay together in front of a fire, dozy after a long day of playing.

"No such thing as monsters," Teyla said firmly. Her da had told her so. He said the only monsters were the Wraith, and they weren't monsters but sick and evil creatures, like bears gone mad with rabies. Only thing you could do was hide from them.

"Shows what he knows," Sora scoffed, and Teyla felt a familiar rise of irritation at her. How she could love someone so annoying she didn't know. "Let's look for it tomorrow."

"All right," Teyla said carelessly. Her da had said no monsters, so no monsters could there be.

"Do you think Hana is pretty?" Sora asked then, and they stared across the fire at Hana, who was, Teyla thought, very pretty indeed. She was tall and slim, with long hair she wore in ringlets and ribbons; very impractical, Teyla thought, even as she envied the look. In the firelight, her skin was burnished copper, and her teeth white as milk. Two of the older boys were teasing her, and she laughed.

"Yes," Teyla said. The two girls watched Hana until one of Sora's aunties chased them to their beds.

Teyla's days with the Genii followed a set pattern unlike the more relaxed routines at home. The children were all woken and taken to breakfast at the same time, then sat in small clusters and worked on various projects. Teyla and Sora sat with their age-mates and worked on reading several alphabets useful for travel through the Ancestor's Ring, and then broke for an hour of active play. Then they were given a drink of fresh-squeezed afa and a small cake, and then they returned to their groups; this time, she and Sora worked on maths.

After lunch, though, they were let go to play. This afternoon, she and Sora slipped away from the other children and followed a trail into the woods. Teyla's heart raced with excitement, even though she didn't really believe there was a monster. Each bird call, every crack of a twig underfoot, every sway of a tree branch seemed to them, in their excitement, the step or breath of the monster. They clutched at each other's hands, giggling with excitement, shushing each other.

They crept through a mixed forest, unlike the pine forests of Athos; trees of every shape and size loomed around them, blocking their view of the forest floor. The ground was thick with humus and moldered leaves, muffling their footsteps. She and Sora moved slower and slower the deeper in they went, and Teyla listened with all her might.

She heard a loud bang, and they both jumped, hugging each other in fear. Teyla pulled them next to the smooth trunk of a white elm. There was a shuffling sound, men's voice, and she whispered to Sora, "See? No monster." Sora frowned; she looked puzzled, Teyla thought. There was another heavy series of thumps, but Teyla was sure monsters wouldn't sound like that. Sora tugged on Teyla's hand, and they crept toward the noises, keeping low, trying not to stir the thick shrubs. Teyla used all her forest lore that she'd learned from her father and teachers on Athos but Sora was impatient and pulled at her.

"Hey!" a man shouted, and then two men grabbed the girls. Both screamed, and Teyla fought hard, but she was just a little girl and these were grown men. They carried the girls deeper into the woods and then dumped them in front of a group of men -- Genii, Teyla saw, and among them Sora's father, Tyrus.

"Sora!" he bellowed, and seized her arm, twisting her around and, in the same move, ripping a small branch from a bush that he used to switch Sora's bottom and the back of her legs. Sora screeched and wept.

The other men looked annoyed and turned away, returning to whatever task they'd been doing. In her shock and fear, Teyla noticed only a dilapidated barn. Then Tyrus pushed Sora away, shouting, "Go home! Right now!" With a tearful glance at Teyla, she fled. Tyrus grabbed Teyla's hand and for an instance she thought he was going to beat her, too, but he dragged her after Sora, back to the village.

Sora wasn't in sight when they reached the village, but it was clear her arrival had caused a stir. Teyla's father was there, looking irritated and worried. "I am sorry, Torren," Tyrus said, thrusting Teyla at him, "but it is time for you to leave."

Her da nodded and, without a word, took Teyla's hand and led her away from the village toward the Ancestor's Ring. She saw the other Athosians in their group, and one of them nodded at Torren, but then they were past and on the wide trail.

"I'm sorry," she cried when they were alone, though she didn't know what she was sorry for. He smiled sadly at her and held her hand tightly.

Only when they'd returned to Athos did her father speak. Instead of walking to the settlement, he led her to a broad meadow not far from the Ancestor's Ring, where they sat on thick grass beside a white boulder, a favorite spot of Teyla's. For a while, her father meditated, eyes closed, breathing slowly, so Teyla did, too. She felt calmer when he finally asked, "What happened, daughter?"

"Sora, she said there were monsters in the woods," she explained, feeling hot and a little sick. "I said there were not, but she wanted to look, so we did. But she followed the men. I do not understand, Da!" she burst out, starting to cry again. "It was just an old barn."

He stroked her head, tugging on a pigtail, and she scooted next to him. "I am sorry," she finally said, wiping her face on her sleeve.

"I know. I know you are. Tyrus can be quick to anger. I remember him as a boy; he was a lot more fun." She looked up at him in surprise. She found it impossible to imagine Tyrus as a boy, and certainly not fun. "But the Genii have always been secretive. We must respect their traditions, even when we not understand them."

"Yes, da," she whispered, though in truth she did not, for what had happened? She was confused and felt feverish. He let her go and she raced back to their settlement, but when she saw Kanaan's startled face, she ran faster, straight to her favorite hiding place in the rocks above a little stream that emptied into the lake on whose side the settlement was built. There, in familiar surroundings, with the noise of the creek to muffle her, she cried until her head hurt. She lay on the soft moss next to the creek, feeling sorry for herself.

When she was hungry and tired she returned home, feeling unwell in body but more settled in spirit. At the children's tent, Charin took Teyla into her arms and stroked her hair. "You're chilled," she said, and wrapped her in a quilt that Teyla had helped Charin piece together, then fed her a bowl of soup. Only when Teyla was lying in her bed did Charin refer to what had brought Teyla and Torren back early.

"I knew there weren't any monsters," she said sulkily.

"I know," Charin said. "But to be a successful trader for our people, you need to learn to read behind the words. Why might the Genii tell their children there was a monster in the forest?"

Teyla shrugged.

"To keep the children away perhaps?"

"Why?"

Charin shook her head. "Dangerous work? Secret work? Whatever the reason, they wanted no children there. You know there are things grownups do that children do not. And it is always wise to pay close attention to another people's customs, and especially to their requests of you when you are a visitor."

"I am sorry, Charin."

"I know, dear, and so does your father."

"Will the Genii still trade with us?" This thought had occurred to Teyla while she cried by the stream, and it frightened her more than any monster.

"Oh, yes. But I think you won't go with the traders for a while." At Teyla's distressed look, Charin added, "Traders to the Genii, dear. I know that all the children are still invited to the market on Resa-Keorin."

Teyla sighed with relief, and then yawned. Charin kissed her forehead, and tucked her in. "Sleep now. Everything is always better in the morning."

Kanaan was even more solicitous of Teyla than usual for the next few days, and for once, she allowed him. He wasn't exciting like Sora, but he was kind and restful. She taught him how to play the Genii children's game hekka, using different colored pebbles for the hekka pieces, and found he played better than Sora, with more forethought.

Before the market on Resa-Keorin, Teyla's da took her fishing and, while they sat quietly on the long pier into the lake, he talked about the different people they traded with and their different customs, and how it was the duty of each trader to learn and respect those customs. He never mentioned the Genii or Sora, and Teyla didn't ask, but she felt Sora had had the easier punishment when they finally walked back to the settlement with a string of fresh ton. She went to bed early again that night.

She didn't see Sora again for nearly two years, and only when she'd been formally invited back. Sora was turning thirteen, the age of adulthood in Genii measuring, and Teyla was invited to help her celebrate. Torren kissed her farewell and she stepped through the Ancestor's Ring alone.

Sora waited her on the other side, and Teyla caught her breath at sight of her. She had missed Sora. She'd grown taller and prettier, with a rounder face, but the same smile greeted Teyla. Without a word, they embraced. Then, to Teyla's surprise, Sora kissed her, soft and hesitant on Teyla's mouth. She smiled shyly at Sora. "I'm glad you're back," Sora said, and it was as if no time at all had separated them.

"I missed you," Teyla blurted, and Sora beamed at her.

"Let's go," she said, and arm in arm, they strolled back to the village, catching each other up on their lives. "Kanaan still follow you around?" she teased Teyla, who rolled her eyes and admitted that yes, he still did.

"Do you still follow Hana around?" she teased back. Sora blushed and whispered to Teyla, "For a while, yes, but she's with Rakeem now."

Teyla had applied herself in her two years away to learn more about the various cultures she encountered on her bartering missions. She knew when to take the lead and when to fall back; when to cover her hair and when to bare her midriff. She knew when to bow and when to hold herself stiffly erect and project an expectation that others would bow to her. She had been a good student, determined to make her father and Charin proud. So she knew that the Genii were a more formal people than the Athosians and today dressed and now behaved accordingly. She greeted Sora's father with the greatest respect, bowing to him.

He seemed to have forgotten, or perhaps forgiven, Teyla, but as soon as she felt it was polite, she left, hurrying after Sora to help her prepare. Young Genii women dressed in heavy clothing, unsuitable to the warm climate and ugly to Teyla's eye, but Sora liked the long dress's graceful folds even though she sweated under the cumbersome bodice. "Flowers for your hair," Teyla said, and helped her arrange them in a fragrant crown. "You are so pretty, Sora."

Sora embraced her; Teyla could feel her racing heart. Then Sora's father called sharply and the girls made their way to the center of the settlement. All the young women and men reaching thirteen that cycle were trickling in accompanied by family and friends. Buildings had white bows tied to their doors, and flowers had been twined along the way, leading them to where the adult men waited.

Teyla saw again how different the Genii were. The adults wore heavy clothing, and their faces were lined with frowns of worry and disapproval. She wondered if Sora would someday look as they did. She hoped not.

A few other off-worlders were there, and Teyla was directed with them to a separate area, a bit apart from the Genii. Someone beat a drum slowly, and a wind instrument honked unpleasantly.

"You're Teyla," a boy about her own age said. "I'm Kino, son of Teur, of Vinmigt."

"Hello," she said uncertainly.

"You're Sora's friend. I'm her cousin Beri's friend."

Teyla knew Beri, though not well. He was big for his age, and sometimes frightened Teyla. She thought he was a bully, and wondered if Kino was, too. Fortunately, the wind instrument gave an enormous blaaaaat and everyone fell silent, including Kino. The elders of the village, all stern looking men with dark eyes and down-turned mouths, stood in front of the group of thirteen-year-olds. One of the elders said, "In a few hours, you will have been initiated into the truths of the Genii. These are secrets you cannot share upon pain of your life, and shame of your family. When you return here, you will no longer be children but adults carrying the responsibilities of the Genii."

Another said, "There is no shame if you choose to wait another year. Not everyone is ready to give up the pleasures and freedom of childhood. If you wish to stay back, step forward now."

No one, of course, stepped forward; Teyla knew that Sora would sooner die than postpone this ritual.

"Then come with us," a third old man said, and he led the children away.

"You," another old man said, and Teyla realized he was speaking to the off-world guests. "You are welcome to remain here, or to help the women prepare the celebratory world." Teyla already knew she would help the women; her father had told her to, and besides, she didn't want to be alone with Kino. She followed the women to a large open-aired shelter and began peeling apples.

She was hot and bored by the time Sora and the others returned. When the drum started again, everyone rushed back to the center of the village. Teyla saw that Sora had changed. She looked exhausted, and sad, terribly sad. Teyla thought she had been crying. Her stomach cramped with fear for her friend.

"It is done," one of the elders said. "Go now, but remember you carry all the Genii, those who have died and those who have yet to be born. Do not betray them."

Then they walked away, leaving the children there, except Teyla knew the Genii elders were right: the thirteen year olds were no longer children. She walked through the crowd to Sora, hesitant. Maybe she should go home? But Sora smiled when she saw Teyla, and hugged her tightly. Teyla saw that was drenched with sweat, and covered with a layer of dust. She wondered what she'd been doing but knew better than to ask. "You must be hungry," was all she said, and the two girls walked hand in hand to the line of people waiting for their meal.

When their plates were full, Sora led Teyla way from the crowd and into the forest where it was cooler and quieter. "Not very celebratory," Sora said as they settled beneath a poplar.

"I'm sorry," Teyla said, though she didn't know what she was sorry for.

"Me, too. I'm sorry I didn't invite you sooner, and sorry I invited you for this. I thought it would be fun, not boring and, and stupid."

"It isn't stupid!" Teyla said. "It must be important."

"I guess." They ate in silence for a while, but neither had much of an appetite. "It's too hot," Sora said. "Let's go swimming."

They returned their lunch platters, and then slipped away again, this time heading to the river. "No boys," Teyla told Sora, who laughed. "Oh, Ancestors, no," she agreed. "They're stupid and boring, too."

Teyla was a little nervous; there were so many people in the village today, so they climbed higher than they usually did. The river, slow this time of year, turned in a wide bend, opening into a meadow so they could see if anyone was around. There were two boulders near the edge, one like a step up to the larger one, which was flat on top. Sora and Teyla stripped and plunged into the river, and Teyla sighed with relief. They swam to the upstream side of the boulders and played there, splashing each other, and then climbed the lower boulder. Sora was so bold, Teyla thought, as she stood on top of the higher rock and surveyed the country, as naked and free and to Teyla's eyes just as pretty as the flowers in the surrounding meadows. Then she dove into the water on the downstream side.

They played in the water until their fingers withered like dried fruit. The sun had slid behind the tops of the trees, so the air was cooler. Teyla was hungry now and wished they're brought something to eat with them. But Sora didn't want to return. She sat at the side of the river in the soft sandy soil and looked across the meadow, at the foothills on the far side. "I wish I could just go and go and never come back," she whispered.

"Sora, what is it?" Teyla asked.

Sora shrugged. "The secrets. I didn't -- I thought they'd be interesting. That I'd feel special." Her pretty mouth twisted down. "I don't."

"You are special," Teyla said urgently. "You're so special, Sora. I missed you so much."

Sora looked at her, and then smiled, relieved. "Oh, I missed you, Teyla. It was no fun without you." She lay back, her legs in the water, her shoulders on the shore, and pulled Teyla next to her. "I missed you," she said again, almost breathing the words. Their faces were close, their shoulders touching, and Teyla shivered with some strange pleasure. She kept glancing at Sora's breasts, which were larger than Teyla's, with pink nipples drawn tight after the chill of swimming. She had hair between her legs, too, more than Teyla did, and under her arms. "Teyla," Sora whispered, and they stared at each other. Teyla didn't understand what she was feeling -- almost dizzy, and she couldn't catch her breath. Sora rolled her head nearer and lightly touched her lips to Teyla's. Teyla gasped and put her hand on Sora's shoulder; she was trembling, but Sora smiled and kissed her, a serious kiss. Teyla's first real kiss.

But it was chilly in the damp sand, and Teyla's stomach growled, so they laughed and dressed and went back. Teyla wasn't sure what had happened. She wanted to go home and be alone to think.

Sora was unusually quiet for the rest of the day, though she flashed her pretty smile at Teyla often enough, but Teyla continued to feel something was wrong. When evening fell, Sora's father came to them.

"Sora has reached the age of fostering," he told them, speaking in the formal register. Teyla straightened and lifted her head proudly. "Torren has agreed to foster her in Athos, to teach her Athosian ways as well as negotiation and barter. She will be going back with you." Teyla realized that the large pack he carried must be Sora's belongings. He turned to his daughter. "Say goodbye to your mother and brother."

"Yes, Father," she said obediently, and walked away swiftly.

"Teyla, daughter of Torren," he said to her. "I will speak honestly with you. I would have preferred that my daughter be fostered among a more technological people, but she wished to be in Athos. I expect her to return more proficient with the bantos, in meditation, and in barter. In return, the ties between the Genii and the Athosians will grow closer."

"Yes, sir," Teyla said when the silence grew long.

He sighed. "Very well, child. Tell your father I thank him." He left the pack at her feet and followed Sora's path. Teyla shifted uncomfortably, unsure what she should do. Her father had said nothing to her about this, but she supposed it had been a secret until Sora had gone through her coming of age ceremony. Then she thought: Sora is coming home with me, and couldn't help but smile.

The eagerness with which Sora approached her tasks in Athos surprised Teyla, but her behavior did make it easier for Teyla to continue her own work. She had begun negotiating on behalf of other peoples, which meant knowing who practiced a direct exchange of goods and services and, if so, which goods and services were desired; and who used a medium of exchange and then what that medium was. Amber, spices, teas, salt, silk, wool, obsidian, precious stones, seashells, tin, bronze, fishes, cattle, goats, oxen, wheat, ground wheat, baked goods . . . Teyla spent much time memorizing the Ancestor's Ring glyphs, learning mnemonics to link the glyphs with their worlds with their needs. She took great pride in her ability.

She wasn't entirely sure how Sora was spending her time. She remembered what Sora's father had said, that he'd wanted technology for her. Teyla looked toward what had been the city of Athos but which her people had deserted generations earlier in the hopes of avoiding culling by the Wraith. It was early morning and she was scheduled to visit Ntauti; the sun had not yet risen, but in the twilight of dawn she could make out the ruined towers of the old city. Sora yawned and handed Teyla a bowl of tea.

"Would you like to visit the city?" Teyla asked quietly. Superstitions were growing about visiting the city, but she wanted Sora to know that the Athosians had chosen this life.

Sora looked toward the city as she sipped her tea. "Is it permitted?"

"It is not encouraged, but it is not forbidden."

"Then yes, I would like to visit."

"When I return then," Teyla said.

Sora beamed at her. "I miss you, Teyla," she said. "I thought coming here meant we would be together."

Teyla took her hand. "I miss you, too. We both have our work, though."

Sora made a little face. "I know. It's just -- there's always work, but not always time."

"In two days," Teyla promised, and she kept the promise. On the third day she and Sora took their packs and began the hike to the old city.

At first they raced through the forest, laughing so hard they gasped for breath. The day was beautiful: not too hot but warm with a slight breeze. The trees here were hemlock and cedar, fragrant trees that perfumed the air as the day grew warmer. The ground cover was thick with leaf litter, mosses, and patches of mushrooms, which they studied, then carefully selected some for dinner.

Midday, they rested beside a small noisy creek splashing its way along the forest floor. The water was tremendously cold, almost too cold to drink, and they screamed as they splashed each other. "Enough, enough!" Teyla said, laughing, and they lay back, looking up through the screen of leaves filtering the sunlight. A thrush sang nearby, full-throated and sweet. Teyla closed her eyes to to listen better.

A shadow fell over her face and she opened her eyes to find Sora leaning over her, smiling. "Hello," Sora whispered.

"Hello." Teyla smiled helplessly back.

Sora leaned nearer, and Teyla reached up with one hand to brush Sora's hair behind an ear. "Teyla," she said, then bit her lip. "Don't be mad." Then she lightly, tenderly, hesitantly kissed Teyla.

Teyla sighed, still smiling, smiling all through the kiss. When Sora pulled back, she asked, "Why would I be mad?"

Sora laughed. "I'm not sure. But, I just." She kissed Teyla again, and this time, Teyla kissed her back, still smiling. Then Teyla's stomach growled, and they both laughed. Sora sat up, dug through her back, pulled out a packet and held it to Teyla. "I made turnovers." The smell of the filling -- grilled lamb with vegetables -- made Teyla sit up and exclaim, "Thank you!" Her favorite, as Sora knew. Teyla had never bothered to learn to make pastry, but she knew this was good. They ate heartily, licking their fingers, then washed in the icy creek before starting out again.

It had been years since Teyla visited the city. She understood from Charin that at one time the Athosians had made ritual returns, but that when Charin's mother was a little girl, the Wraith had attacked during one of the returns, and so the Athosians decided that no one should visit, that the city would be left to molder in isolation. Of course, Charin went on to say, that didn't stop people from visiting, but they did so surreptitiously.

Teyla had gone with her childhood friends Halling, Kanaan, Anezka, Bedrich, and Nadez. During the mid-summer festival they had run into the forest, laughing and nibbling pilfered sweets. Somehow they'd ended up near the city and so they continued into the wide streets.

Now she walked those streets again with Sora. So different from Athos, and from the city of the Genii: here were broad avenues filled with leaf litter and fallen trees, buildings of yellow brick, some many stories tall, but all the windows were gone and the empty doorways were like missing teeth.

"It's a little creepy," Sora said, and took Teyla's hand. The westering sun cast long shadows into the street and the air felt stale and cold. She could smell rotting vegetation, and hear little animals skittering in the undergrowth.

When she'd last been here, the children had walked to the city center, so she led Sora that way. She thought the city was even more dilapidated, or perhaps she saw it with a clearer eye than she had as a child. Certainly all of the children had attempted to appear brave and strong; she still felt the need to seem fearless to Sora, who looked everywhere, curious though cautious.

The city center was a large open rectangle, with tall statues at its four corners. "Who are they supposed to be?" Sora asked.

"I'm not really sure," Teyla admitted. "I know one of them was a famous philosopher; Halling is named after him. I think one was a general or something, from the military." They walked around the plaza taking their time. "That's the city administration building," Teyla said confidently. "I've seen pictures of it in the cavern."

"How can you remember? There are so many drawings and carvings there," Sora said. Teyla shrugged. She remembered many such things; much of her training was in mnemonics.

"What was the name of this city?"

Teyla said, "Now we call it Athos, but a thousand years ago it was called Longye."

Sora laughed, and Teyla saw that the emptied city wasn't affecting her in the same way that it did Teyla. Perhaps because this was where here people had lived and thrived until forced to flee by the Wraith. As far as Teyla knew, the Genii had never had to leave their homes; they had certainly never made a decision to turn their back on their technology. Of course, Teyla thought, they didn't really have the kind of technology that the old Athosians had given up in the hopes of hiding from the Wraith. Perhaps that made Sora less sensitive to the loss.

As she thought, Sora began to run ahead, crying, "Look at this, Teyla! What is it?"

Teyla began to jog after her, trying to see what she was looking at, but Sora ducked into the overgrown foliage between two buildings drunkenly slumping toward each other. "Sora!" she cried, alarmed. "Come back! It isn't safe!" She heard Sora call her name, but she paused on what had been the verge, though everything was so covered in soil and plants, even trees that had forced their way through the pavement, that only occasionally could she see the ancient surface.

Sora shouted, "Come on, Teyla!" but still she hesitated. She looked up at the buildings. Their foundations had shifted due to subsidence; they were near the river that divided the city and it had flooded this area many times. She could see muddy waterlines at varying levels on the yellow-brick walls of the buildings. Large trees had toppled and rested against the two buildings in a crazy tangle of limbs and branches, and broken statuary gleamed white among the leaves.

"What is it?" she called, still hesitating.

"It's beautiful!" Sora shouted, sound happy and excited. "I think it was --" but then she screamed, and stopped abruptly. There was only silence.

"Sora?" Teyla shouted, and then pushed her way into the thick clusters of leaves, ducking under lichen-covered branches. "Sora!" She walked carefully, trying to see where she put her feet, knowing the land was unstable. She heard a moan.

She refused to hurry. It simply wasn't worth injuring herself because then she wouldn't be able to help Sora. Criss-crossed tree limbs blocked her way, so she dropped to her knees and began to crawl under them. The soil beneath the thick weeds was sodden and her hands and knees were soon covered in black mud that squelched as she made her way. "Sora?" she called again.

"I'm sorry, Teyla," Sora said, crying. "I fell into something."

"Oh, Ancestors," Teyla muttered. "What did you think you were doing?"

"The statue. Look, Teyla."

She still couldn't see Sora, but she paused and looked around her, then up. Beyond the thick tangle of branches she saw the statue, one she had never seen before. It was a woman, twice as tall as life. One hand was broken away, and it sat at a tilt like the buildings, but whoever the woman had been, her features were still clear. Lichen and moss were slowly covering her, so her gown was now green flecked with white. Lantana, portulaca, and moss roses were growing in the soil that had built up around the shoulders, like a flowered cape. She was, Teyla admitted, beautiful, and she was glad to have seen it before the statue was completely covered or crushed by falling buildings and trees.

Still. "Sora, you know better than to run wildly in places like this," Teyla said.

"Don't scold me, Teyla," Sora said. "I'm hurt. I'm soaking wet. I want to go home."

Teyla put her head down and pushed through the curtain of leaves ahead of her, which as she shook them poured their rain on her so she was soaking, too, then beyond them saw Sora. Around the statue of the woman had been an ornamental pond or basin, but over the years it had sunk into the land and broken. The section nearest Teyla was completely below ground level, so someone running wouldn't have seen it until too late. Sora had fallen forward into the basin. She was sitting up now, filthy with black mud and slimy green stuff, her forearms scraped and bleeding, one eye already swelling. She had bent one knee in order to hold the ankle. Sprained, no doubt, Teyla thought, and wondered how they would get home.

"Can you move? Stand up?"

"I think so," Sora said. "But I'll need your help, or a crutch." She looked around, but no obvious tree branch presented itself.

Teyla carefully made her way around the basin until she was behind Sora, then put her hands around her. "Slowly, slowly," she said. She drew Sora up, standing on one leg, and they balanced there. A breeze was rising, and they shivered. Sora began to cry harder.

Teyla knew they couldn't get out the way she had come in, but she saw a clearer way ahead. "That way," she said, gently turning Sora. "Lean on me. Try not to put any weight on your foot."

Sora hopped and Teyla half dragged her. They had to brace themselves against the filthy wall of one of the buildings to work their way around a fence of fallen trees, but Sora had stopped crying and worked hard to help. After that barrier, the way was easier, and within another minute they were on what had been the street. A tree had long ago fallen perpendicular to the street; it was now white with age but still solid enough that they sat down. Both women sighed.

"Sorry," Sora said at last. Teyla shrugged. "If you help me out of the city, away from here, I can wait while you run back for help."

That was what Teyla had been going to suggest, though she'd thought Sora would object. She was glad to hear Sora offer to wait, rather than demand to be helped all the way back. "Of course," she said. She understood completely why Sora didn't want to wait in the city itself. Its stone and brick facades were cold, and more than that, Teyla found it uncanny, as if the spirits of the people who had lived here so long ago were in some way still present, and angry that they had been left alone.

A few weeks later, Sora returned to her homeworld; she missed her father, and Teyla thought she was embarrassed by her behavior in the old city, though she never said so. The night before she was to go through the Ancestor's Ring, she reached for Teyla in the women's long house. Teyla scooted from her sleeping mat to Sora's, who lifted her bed covering so Teyla could slide in next to her. "I will miss you," Sora whispered. The others were settling to sleep, and Teyla could hear sighs, soft snores, bedclothes being adjusted. She and Sora were near the north side of the house, the cold side where the large fireplace was. In winter, it would be lit, but this time of year the air was cool enough for heavy covers but not enough for the effort of a fire. She was happy to lie in Sora's bed warm, and a little excited.

"And I will miss you," she said just as quietly.

"I won't be allowed to return, you know."

Teyla nodded; she did know. The Genii were very unlike the Athosians in that. Although young adults were fostered out among the Ring people, adults remained at home doing the hard agricultural work. Tava beans, of course, which stored well and provided all the nutrition needed but which grew on few worlds; they were highly valued.

"What will you do when you get home?" Teyla asked.

"I don't want to talk about it," Sora said quickly, grimacing. She took a deep breath, held it for a few heart beats, and then exhaled slowly, relaxing her muscles. She shifted so she faced Teyla, and began to lightly trace her fingers across Teyla's forehead, down her nose, and across her lips. Teyla swallowed. The silence around them grew as their neighbors fell asleep, and the night was so dark and so quiet that it seemed as if they were the only two in the world. Sora dragged her fingers across Teyla's shoulder, then down her arm, catching her hand and bringing it up to Sora's mouth so she could kiss Teyla's fingers. "I will miss you more than I can say," she breathed. Teyla gently touched Sora's face, pale even in the dark night, using the pads of her fingers to stroke her fair hair behind her ear. Sora's eyes glittered, and her lips were moist. Teyla couldn't stop staring at her friend and discovered she was panting a little. Then Sora angled her head slightly and their lips met, softly, softly, and Teyla gasped into Sora's mouth.

Sora moved her leg between Teyla's thighs pressed against her, moaning quietly before kissing Teyla again; so sweet, Teyla thought, like the flavor of the twigs they'd used to clean their teeth and a hint of the hot apple cider they'd shared after dinner. Oh, she wanted whatever Sora wanted, she wanted her friend to stay here in Athos, with Teyla, even though she knew they were too young for such attachments and, worse, knew that the Genii would never permit it.

So she closed her mind against tomorrow when Sora would leave and never return to her, to a time when she would see Sora only occasionally when she visited the Genii to barter for tava beans; she closed her mind to all that and kissed her friend with more passion than she realized she possessed. She felt Sora's hands on her back, stroking, and it felt as though she were writing on Teyla's skin.

When morning came, they were shy together, holding hands as they stood before the Ancestor's Ring. Sora's ankle had been wrapped again, by Teyla but supervised by one of their healers. She and Sora had carved her a walking stick she could use as a crutch, and to remember her time in Athos.

They were alone, so Teyla kissed Sora for the first and only time in the sunlight of Athos, and then together they pressed the glyphs so the Ring boiled out in its mysterious watery brilliance. They kissed again, clinging to each other, but Sora finally pulled away. "I will always remember you," she said, and Teyla nodded and then bowed formally.

"And I you," she murmured. She watched the ground, not Sora, paying close attention to the way the sunlight was drying the dew from the tangle of grasses, how tenderly green they were, how the drops sparkled in the morning sun, the smell of the grass crushed by their feet, the impression Sora's crutch had made in the grass and soil. When she looked up, her friend was gone, and Kanaan was standing next to her. He said, "We're going fishing tomorrow, Teyla; come with us." She just walked away.

The next day, he came to her again. "Fishing?" he reminded her.

She shook her head, never lifting her eyes from the wool she was carding. She had nearly four pounds to get through, and she wanted it to be perfect. The end result would be a shawl for Charin, to celebrate her name day.

"Come on, Tey. You never play with us anymore."

She did look up at that. "You are too old to be playing all the time, Kanaan. Your mother needs your help."

"Fish is help. Tomorrow night we'll be biting into a flaky fried ton."

Teyla thought that did sound good. She loved fresh fish, especially the way Kanaan's mother prepared it. When Teyla tried to cook, the results were never what she had hoped for. "Come on," Kanaan said again.

"If you help me card this wool."

She watched his face as he considered. "Sure," he said, and he sounded cheerful. "I'll help you card today and you'll go fishing tomorrow."

"Very well." She could feel Kanaan watching her closely as she carded another handful of wool. "This is from the sheep up at North Rise. I have helped with them since they were lambs."

"I remember." He sat next to her and took up a handful. It was dirty, and thick with lanolin, with a distinctive smell. He carefully pulled it through a carder, watching the wool spread out into a fine cloud. She watched him critically, but he knew what he was doing. She often was surprised by how much Kanaan knew; he was a quiet boy always watching.

"How was Sora?" he asked, not looking at her.

"Fine." She thought about Sora, the heavy clothes, her disappointment in the ceremony, and the kiss at the river's edge. She remembered the beautiful night they had spent together, and the painful farewell at the Ancestor's Ring. She glanced at Kanaan from the corner of her eye, but he was studying the wool he was carding. Suddenly she wanted to talk to him but she didn't know what to say. She sighed, and carded ferociously. She realized she was panting, and slowed her breathing. She had practiced controlling her breath for so long that almost instantly she fell into the familiar rhythm. She forced her muscles to relax, and carded more deliberately. After a while she said, "Thank you for inviting me to go fishing."

He looked up, his face glowing. "I -- thank you, Teyla."

She knew he wanted to say more, but he fell quiet again, and they sat together for the entire afternoon, carding the wool that would become Charin's shawl. Teyla decided that one day she would knit something for Kanaan, too. And she would be glad to get outdoors again, she knew. She realized she'd been sulking, and was ashamed.

Teyla's life was too busy to let her miss Sora more than occasionally, and she was glad for that. Over time, the ache grew into a small pinch, and eventually she was glad that Sora was gone. She had too much to do, too many places to go, and so much to learn.

"What smells so good?" Teyla asked one day when she'd turned to the long house. She was tired, and wanted a bath; she and Halling had hiked a long way today. He was preparing to study with yet another healer, this one far from the Ancestor's Ring on Levalla, a desert region at high altitude.

"My father, Ria, and I brought down two antelope yesterday," Kanaan said, looking up from the cooker where he was working. His face was bright red and his hair lank from the humidity. "It's ready now, and there's lots of other stuff."

"Did you make this?" Teyla asked him.

He beamed at her. "From start to finish," he said proudly.

She already knew he made good bread; her stomach rumbled and she smiled at him. People were crowding around the long table to get at the platters of roasted root vegetables and bowls of salads. Kanaan was slicing the meat into a large glazed plate, something Teyla had brought back from Xitia. She took a deep breath, inhaling the rich scent of the grilled meat, spicy with the herbs Kanaan had used. When the others had moved away, she said to him, "You are a wonderful cook, Kanaan."

"Thank you, Teyla." His smile was brilliant against his red face. "I am -- would you sit with me? I'm almost through."

She looked around, bit her lip, and said, "Of course. Um. Thank you."

He smiled at her so enormously that she was embarrassed for him. But she was really hungry, and he was nice.

Kanaan found her after everyone had been served. With the warm bread, she sopped up the fragrant juice from the roasted antelope, sighing with pleasure, and he passed her a damp cloth for her sticky hands. "You look tired," he said.

"We hiked a long way. Halling is studying with the Maa on Levalla, an honor, I know, but it is a difficult path he has decided upon."

Kanaan grinned at her. "A difficult path? Did you make a joke?"

She couldn't help but smile. "Unintentionally, I assure you. This is very good, Kanaan."

"Thank you!" She felt a bit guilty that a kind word from her made him so happy. "Ria has been letting me help in the kitchens. I am not sure that this is my calling, but I like the work, both the hunting and the preparing." He grinned. "And the eating."

She nodded. They were reaching the age at which they would have to decide with whom to apprentice. She had known since she was a little girl that she would be a trader. She had memorized many addresses for the Ancestor's Ring, but there was much more to learn. Halling had also been called young, but most Athosians tried several paths before settling.

In her seventeenth year, she was on Xitia with Halling and an older trader, Park, but mostly she and Halling had been on their own. "Do you have nothing more to offer than your people's labor?" Halling asked, staring down at Miklos.

"You know you need our labor. There are not enough Athosians to bring in a crop of triticum. It comes in fast and must be harvested quickly before the rains come."

"Not that fast," Teyla pointed out, "and the rains will not be due for some time."

Miklos sighed. He was a little taller than Teyla, with darker skin and deep brown eyes. She thought he was handsome, but very irritating, too. All three of them knew that the Xitians had helped the Athosians harvest triticum for generations, yet Miklos insisted on re-negotiating each season. The three of them stood quietly in the midst of the busy Xitian market; Teyla knew that they mostly traded on labor, but that their artisans were woodwrights of great renown. She longed for a bed made by them. Maybe when she was older.

At last, Miklos said, "Very well. We will assist with the harvest and repair the watermill."

Halling and Teyla nodded, and Teyla gently took Miklos' forearms, then rested her forehead against his. "Thank you," she said. "We will expect you at the usual time."

"Of course," he said, and took Halling's forearms. Then Miklos disappeared into the crowded market and Halling winked at Teyla. "Let's see what Park thinks," he suggested, and they began to hunt up their older partner. He was, not to their surprise, sampling the mead brought to the market by the Rybans, well known for the quality of it. "Here," Park said, beaming at them. "We must bring back several barrels."

"I do not believe that Torren and the elders would appreciate that," Halling said, removing the cup from Park's hand. "Does he owe you anything?" he asked the waiter behind the counter.

"Just a kiss!" Park said, and swayed to his feet, leaning over the counter. The waiter laughed, and pecked Park's cheek before moving to another customer. Teyla shook her head, but helped Halling guide Park through the crowd. Night was coming on, and it got cold quickly on Xitia, so they hurried through the Ring and home.

The settlement was in an uproar when they walked in. It was only midday here, and the brilliant sunlight and walk back seemed to sober Park, so it was he who asked, "What is going on? What has happened?"

Kanaan ran through the crowd to Teyla. He put his hands on her forearms, and she saw tears in his warm brown eyes. "Teyla, I am sorry," he said, his voice thick. "I'm so sorry."

"What is it?" she tried to ask, but her voice was gone. "Please, Kanaan."

"It's your father," he whispered, a tear spilling from his eye. "Oh, Teyla, it's your father."

"Where!" she demanded, beginning to tremble.

"With the healer. Charin found him, lying in the orchard, apples all around him."

"Ancestors, no," Teyla said, and turned to run home. Kanaan stopped her. "They brought him to the healer's house," he said, and they ran hand in hand, Halling following.

She knew the instant she burst into the healer's home. After her race through the settlement, conscious of the looks of compassion from her friends and neighbors, the harsh sound of her gasps for air, she knew by the stillness, the sense of something missing, when she half fell into the front room. The healer rose, but Charin remained seated, and then Teyla saw her father. Stretched out on a sleeping mat looking as if he were napping. She fell to her knees and stared at him.

No one spoke. When she caught her breath, she went to him and gently placed her hand on his chest. Cold. Motionless. His muscles were slack, his face unlined in a way she'd never seen. As she stared down at him, she had the sensation that he was drawing away from her. "Father," she whispered, and rested her head on his shoulder.

Then Charin stroked Teyla's hair. She looked up, her vision blurry. "I am sorry, dear one. He should not have been taken from us so soon."

Teyla wanted to cry, to throw a tantrum, to demand that Charin do something, but she swallowed everything down. "Thank you," she said, her voice thready. She closed her eyes and breathed, settling into the posture her father had taught her. She would do this right and make him proud of her. She breathed, one hand resting on her father, until she knew she could stand and speak. She leaned forward to kiss his forehead and then rose. She had rituals to arrange and perform, empty nights to get through, so she gave herself a moment more, and then thought, as if she could make her father hear, I will mourn later. Afterward. She became aware of all the people in the room: Charin, Jachim the Healer, Halling, Kanaan, Kanaan's mother Isa, their closest neighbor, Yos, and even the elder trader Park. She met Charin's eye, who nodded at her, and then turned to face the others. "My father has rejoined the ancestors," she said, and brought her hands together beneath her breasts. "Tonight we will mourn him. Tomorrow we will release his spirit. And the next day we will go on."

"I'll stay with you tonight," Kanaan said quietly, coming to stand beside her. She heard him but distantly, as if he were far away. She was aware of the people coming in and out of Jachim's; she understood the loss this meant for her people, because her father had been first among the Athosians, a true leader. But mostly she understood what his death meant for her: she was alone. Truly alone. She had no brother or sister, no living relative on Athos, nor had she any idea where her mother's sister might be, or even if she were still alive. She had only Athos.

She sighed, and straightened her back. Tonight she would watch over her father's body, and tomorrow his spirit, but then she would have to watch out for herself and for her people. She was a motherless child now fatherless, but she knew she would always have her people.

On the third day, her age mates came to her. Halling spoke first, as he so often did. "You have traveled more than any of us, Teyla, daughter of Tagan, daughter of Torren," he said, his voice low and measured. "You are a skilled negotiator and even more skillful barterer."

"None of us has your experience," Kanaan added.

"I don't want to go through the Ring," Anezka said, in her usual whiny voice.

"Nor I," her twin brother Bedrich said, crossing his arms and widening his stance, as if he might be forced through the Ancestor's Ring in the next minute.

"Well, I do," Nadez said, "but I hate bartering with people. I just want to see everything!" She spread wide her arms. Teyla smiled at her; Nadez was always so passionate.

All her age mates spoke; to her surprise, most had decided not to travel unless they had to. She loved going through the Ring's trembling water, stepping out onto a new world, learning how to behave, what to say, what could be bartered and what could not.

"Da says you're like your mother," Anezka said. "She was always going through the Ring. She and her sister."

"I am like my mother," Teyla said proudly. Her father had often told her so, and the soft look in his eyes had always made her happy. She would remember that look, she promised herself. "Very well. I will represent you when away from Athos."

Bedrich snorted, never one for formalities and tradition, but Halling nodded gravely. "I will go when you wish, Teyla," he said, and she'd known that he would. "But I am to be apprenticed to Jachim, and later to Vac on Ryba." Vac was a famous teacher, said to be the wisest among the Ring-linked worlds.

"Thank you, Halling," Teyla said, a little stunned at the news. She looked around at her friends and wondered who they would be next year, in ten years, at the end of their lives. Halling embraced her, and they rested their foreheads together, then Kanaan hugged her tightly and kissed her cheek. The others hugged her as well, chattering as though her father hadn't just died, but she liked that. The worlds would continue; her father would have said that that was what's important. She had heard him often enough. And so she obeyed him.

Teyla kept close record of the types of goods different communities were interested in trading, and what they most desired in exchange. A few had elaborate rituals so they did not participate in a quid pro quo barter but rather gave gifts that eventually would be repaid, also as gifts, in what they needed. She was good at this kind of bookkeeping, she discovered, and was quietly proud of her ability. Her father had been much more laissez faire in his approach to trade; he would see what the Athosians had in surplus and find out who needed it. Sometimes he would have to find a third or even a fourth partner so everyone could get what they needed.

Teyla also did that, but she was interested in what other villages and settlements and towns and migratory people preferred to do, as well as what they preferred to trade. The gift exchanges pleased her most, and finding ways to meet everyone's needs without insulting someone by offering too much or too quickly was especially fun for her -- although it could be taxing, and early on she made a few mistakes. But she was young and pretty and had a beautiful smile that she used like a weapon, and most of her mistakes were forgiven.

"You know we have no need of labor," Eris said. She was much older and frailer looking since Teyla had last bargained with her, but was just as stubborn as ever.

"We offer more than labor, Eris," Teyla said patiently. "We are skilled craftsmen, good with herd animals, and know more about fermenting apples than anyone else. These are facts."

Eris looked pointedly over Teyla's shoulder.

"But perhaps you do not need labor this spring," Teyla continued. "Perhaps the snows damaged no roofs. Perhaps your ewes will lamb themselves. Perhaps you have discovered the secrets to fermenting apples. In that case, we would have little to offer you. Only we were gifted with a great volume of raw wool, more than we can use since we have our own sheep. And the Egis very kindly rewarded us with a winter's supply of pena fuel."

Eris finally met Teyla's eyes. "Perhaps we could consider labor. The winter was hard and there was some damage."

"The Mur have gifted us with many ret furs, very beautiful and warm. As you know, Athos is located in a warm region where we suffer little from cold weather. We had planned to use some of the furs for decoration, and some from which to make clothing for cold worlds we visit. Even so, we will have many furs beyond our needs. I had considered returning them to the Mur, but that seems ungracious." Teyla paused and, as had Eris, looked beyond her shoulder.

Many breaths later, Eris said, "I have heard that the Qintu had much need for cold-weather clothing. I have never visited their city, but my younger husband's cousin trades with them. He mentioned the cold."

Teyla let several more breaths pass before she said, "Perhaps I should visit the Qintu." She waited now, for this was the key moment. She was grateful she had brought no one with her for this negotiation; she would have been too tense that they might speak up. Alone, she felt relaxed, and free to wait.

Eris nodded, raised a hand, and Teyla watched as a young woman carried a lamb to them. "This lamb was born early," Eris said. "Trina is caring for the creature, as its mother died giving birth. We do not have enough people to assist with the lambing."

"Athos is glad to be of assistance," Teyla said. "I shall return with those who can help."

Eris nodded, motioned Trina and her lamb away, and then walked away from Teyla and the Ancestor's Ring without a glance back. When all had left the clearing, Teyla sighed deeply, entered the glyphs for Athos, and hurried home to gather workers to help. Kanaan was waiting for her. "Well?" he asked.

"I do not believe that Eris will ever change," she said.

He made a face, and took her hand. "About twenty people are ready to help with the lambing," was all he said. She met with them, and watched them go through the ring. She sighed heartily; bartering with Eris was always a challenge.

"Kanaan!" someone called. Teyla turned, not recognizing the voice. She saw Bohdan, a boy she knew only slightly. He had grown tall, and his voice had deepened. "Kanaan, we're leaving."

"Teyla, do you need anything?" Kanaan asked. "I promised to fish with the others."

"The ton are running," Bohdan explained. "Teyla, daughter of Tagan, I greet you." He bowed slightly. Teyla knew he was teasing her with such a formal greeting, but perhaps she had changed as much as he had. She inclined her head but remained silent. "My father took us north, to the high country; we have been felling trees and turning them. You might remember that, if you find people looking for lumber."

"I shall speak to your father," she said.

"Ah, you can speak to me," he replied, and smiled at her. He was, she thought, the best looking man she had ever seen. And he was Athosian. His smile, the tilt of his head, made her smile back. She heard Kanaan move restlessly but ignored him.

"Very well," she said at last. "When you return from your fishing trip we will speak."

And they did. Bohdan insisted on cooking for her, and she had to admit that freshly fried ton was one of her favorite dishes. He had picked cress from the stream and dressed it in oil from silver nuts and sprinkled it with grated cheese, and brought fresh bread baked that very evening. They sat together, a bit apart from the others, while he told her about his life in the mountains.

"Are you not lonely?" she asked him.

He looked her in the eyes and daringly touched her hand. "Yes," he said simply.

Bohdan and his uncles remained in Athos, and Teyla did speak to them about the lumber they had prepared. "Fine trees," Bohdan's first uncle told her seriously. "The safole tree is strong and fragrant. We choose them carefully, thinning out groves but leaving many for our children's children to cut."

She decided that the busy market on Xitia would be the best place to locate those interested in the lumber, and she was right. The manager of the market turned out to be very interested. "Our woodwrights have lost one of their major suppliers," she explained. "The Vyoges were culled," she said, leaning nearer to Teyla and speaking quietly. "Many were taken. They are talking of leaving their world, perhaps joining with another people." Teyla nodded and decided to visit them; the Athosians would welcome them. "I will introduce you to Tyra, of the House of Xii, and to Azon, of the house of iXii."

Tyra and Azon were both very interested in the samples she had brought with her of the safole tree from the high mountains of Athos. "Good hard wood," Tyra said, rubbing his callused thumb over the wood. "Strong grain."

Azon took a sample and sniffed it. "Yes, we could use this."

"What do you need, Teyla of Athos?" Tyra asked.

"Now? Nothing. Athos is a fortunate world. But one day we may ask your help."

Tyra studied her, and glanced at Azon and at the manager, who said, "I have known Teyla since she was a little girl traveling with her father. The Athosians word is good."

"Very well," Tyra said, and straightened, handing the sample back to Teyla. The House of Xii accepts this fine wood. We will produce a bed frame for you, and owe you assistance."

"The House of iXii concurs," Azon said. The two men clapped their hands in unison, and Teyla understood this meant the decision was made and the deal was done. She bowed.

"Thank you, good men of Xii."

Upon hearing the news, Bohdan smiled broadly, standing behind his uncles. "We thank you," they said, "daughter of Torren and Tagan."

"Come up to the camp," Bohdan invited her. "We're going back in two days. Come with us."

"I must speak with Charin," Teyla said, "but I would like that. I will give you my answer tomorrow evening."

Halling overheard. "Teyla, you must not take this invitation lightly," he told her. He was only a few years older than she, but his studies weighed heavily on him, and for a moment she was annoyed.

"I know," she said, trying not to snap. "That's why I'm going to ask Charin."

"I will come with you."

"You were not invited."

"They will not say no. It is only appropriate."

To Teyla's dismay, Charin agreed with Halling. "They are -- hmm. A-typical Athosians," she said, continuing to weave as they spoke. "Old fashioned in some ways. So isolated up there. It would give them a message we do not want to give were you to go alone. Halling is a good choice for an escort."

Teyla scowled, but she could not argue with Charin; she held her in too high regard.

Kanaan heard, too, and came to her that night, waiting for her by the young woman's long house. "Come out with me," he whispered to her.

"You can't change my mind," she said, tossing her hair. What business was this of his? He wasn't her family, not the way Charin was.

"Just -- Teyla." He looked sadly at her. "I thought perhaps we would -- that we could be together. For our first. At solstice."

Teyla felt her face and neck go hot with embarrassment. "Kanaan," she whispered sharply. "This is not your concern." She remembered kissing Sora, and suddenly missed her so much her heart hurt. But Sora was on another world, and busy with her own duties now. "Go away," she said with finality, and went into the long house with the others, leaving him alone on the steps.

She left with Halling, Bohdan, his uncles, and the others who had come down from the mountains. She and Halling watched them closely and with great interest. Although they were considered Athosians, she saw at once that they held themselves a little apart from lowland Athosians. Most obvious to her was a division of labor that she was unfamiliar with. No women had come down to the lowlands; she tried to ask Bohdan about this, but he seemed puzzled and only said, "They have their work." She was apprehensive about what she would find in their settlement. She had traveled to worlds where she had to wear baggier clothing than she usually did, and to one settlement that required she drape a veil over her face. They had even left veils by the Ancestor's Ring for female visitors. Would the highland Athosians be like that, was that what Charin meant?

Bohdan often walked with her, asking her questions about her work. "What is the strangest cultural practice you have seen?" he asked her one morning, shortly after they set out from camp.

She thought for some paces. "Upon the world of Uvulu, there is very little land, only a few small islands, each as barren and hot as an oven. All their food and possessions come from the ocean. They live on enormous mats of vegetable matter -- sea grasses, they call them, that the people weave thick and strong. The Ancestor's Ring is nearly submerged, so I must swim up to meet the Uvuli, who swim out to meet me."

"And what do you trade with the Uvuli?"

"Fish, of course," she laughed. "Sweet mussels, fat crabs, and fish of all kinds. They ask for iron, for they have none on their world, and the soft sunstone from Hattarah, from which they carve bracelets of great beauty."

He shook his head, laughing with her, and she thought how handsome he was in the morning sunlight, tall and strong, skin a deep golden brown. She wished she had one of the sunstone bracelets the Uluvi carved, or anything, really, to give him so he would remember her.

The little group took three days to reach the settlement; it was late afternoon and the sun had fallen below the treetops, so the light was filtered and pale green, with spires of golden sunshine blooming overhead. The air smelled piney and sweet, as if no one else had ever breathed it.

Teyla was accustomed to long and arduous hikes, but not at such elevation, and found her breath short. Or maybe, she thought, looking around, that was from being near Bohdan. She could felt his eyes on her, soft and gentle, and knew she was smiling too much, but she couldn't help herself. Being with him, hearing his voice, making him laugh, was exciting and fun.

When they finally arrived on the third day, the settlement seemed empty at first, but then Teyla heard voices, primarily women's voices, and in a moment she realized they were coming from above. She leaned back and saw movement in the branches. Then rope ladders unfurled and a dozen or more people scrambled down to welcome the visitors.

"This is Teyla, daughter of Tagan, and Halling, son of Jina," Bohdan's eldest uncle announced. "They have come to learn of our ways. Teyla is a trader and has word of people interested in our lumber. Halling is here to study with Oldrich." Teyla looked at Halling in surprise; he hadn't told her this. But then, he wouldn't. He was not entirely happy with her, Teyla knew.

"Welcome!" a man said, coming to greet them. Teyla wondered where the women were, but then three little girls scampered down a rope ladder and ran to her.

"Your hair is so pretty!" one said, reaching up. "The light turns it red and gold."

"Who are you?" Teyla asked, kneeling.

"I am Dusana," she said. "This is my little sister Dilska, and my friend Milro."

"Hello," Teyla said, smiling at them. "What were you doing up there?"

"School," Milro said, looking puzzled.

The smallest, Dilska, whispered to Teyla, "Your friend is very tall." She looked back at Halling, who was watching them, arms crossed.

"Very tall," Teyla agreed. "But he gives wonderful rides."

Halling heard her and laughed, then came forward to kneel next to Teyla. "It is true," he said. "I grew taller than my father before I was fifteen years, and I have not yet stopped growing. But that makes me like the trees, yes?"

"These trees grow to seven hundred tetro," Dilska said carefully, and Teyla thought she was reciting a lesson. "But the safole tree grows only to three hundred tetro, and more slowly."

"Safole," Teyla said. "A kind of tree that you harvest."

"You remembered," Bohdan said, startling her.

"Bohdan!" Milro cried, and he swung her up in his arms.

"This is my niece," he explained. "Where's your ma?" he asked her. She pointed up. "Beta!" he called. "Beta! Come down and say hello!"

Another woman came down the ladder, more gracefully than Teyla would have thought possible. She was older than Bohdan by quite a bit, but their eyes were the same. Teyla saw Halling's eyes widen, and smiled to herself. "I am Beta," she said when she reached the ground. Milro said, "Ma, now that Bohdan's home, can we go back upsite?"

"Hmm, maybe," Beta said, smiling at her daughter.

"Yes, we will," Bohdan said. "I want to show Teyla, and Halling, if he is interested."

"I am," Halling said. He rose, giving Teyla his hand and pulling her up, too. "We are here to learn."

"You are very welcome," Beta said. "I will show you were you will sleep tonight." She glanced at Bohdan in a way that made Teyla blush. She and Halling followed Beta to the settlement, which consisted of many very small lattice-framed structures covered in branches taken from the trees around them. She and Halling were given their own ooee, as they called the little buildings. She discovered they were snugly built, and as flooring had a thick layer of leaves covered with soft and colorful mats. The ooees were short, so Halling had to bend nearly half over to enter his, but they were warm and she instantly loved hers. She wished she could take one back with her.

Halling almost immediately left to study with Oldrich, while Teyla climbed into the trees at every opportunity. Bohdan often accompanied her, but she learned that the women did the real work -- administrative as well as the actual logging. They studied the trees and knew them as individuals: which ones needed to be culled, which to be trimmed, which to be left alone. The safole trees, Teyla could see, were different: larger, faster growing at first, then settling into a long slow period of growth.

"Different growth for different reasons," Milro told her as they clambered across a rope bridge from one crown to another. "See, the smaller ones that are crowded," she pointed down, "they can't grow big like this, so they are cut. The wood is flexible, so it's used for furniture, things that have to be shaped."

"How old are you?" Teyla asked her.

"Eleven," Milro said, bounding forward. Teyla followed, feeling old at twenty. She had many responsibilities for her age, she knew, and recognized in Milro someone with similar responsibilities, but focused on forest management, or whatever these people called it.

The quality of the light filtered through the tree branches drew Teyla higher. Brilliant shafts of gold sunlight in which she could see pollen or dust rising slowly alternated with deep green-black shadows and pale green light. She loved to climb to the highest points from which she could look over the canopy, a green-leafed sea never ceasing in sound or movement, punctuated by the tallest conifers. Rarely did men climb this high; they remained on the ground, keeping the settlement running. They did take the cutting of the felled logs, though, and took the lumber to the lowlands and to the Ancestor's Ring.

At the end of the day, when she finally climbed down, she had to stretch and take a few moments to steady her legs after climbing among the treetops. And each evening Bohdan met her, smiling at her. One day, he led her to see an explosion of flowers in a meadow not far from the settlement. "Oh," she marveled, and he laughed.

"I'm so glad you were here for this," he told her. "They don't bloom every year, and I had no idea they would this year."

The ground cover beneath the trees was a wildly diverse layer of mints, ferns, grasses, clovers, and hostas that released wonderful scents when trod on. This meadow, though, was full of alpine flowers, little blue ones. "What are they?" Teyla asked, kneeling to see them better.

"We call them asterids," he said, sitting beside her, and gently stroked his hand over the tops so the little flowers released their scent. He breathed deeply. "They're good for breathing ailments."

Inhaling deeply, Teyla agreed. She thought the meadow, luminous blue in the afternoon sun, was one of the most beautiful sights anywhere, and certainly on Athos. The sight and scent overwhelmed her, and when Bohdan took her hand she turned to him quickly. They stared at each other and then Bohdran gently put his hand on Teyla's face. Her breath came faster and she had to moisten her lips. She saw Bohdan's eyes flick to her mouth as she did, and then back to meet her eyes. They came together, a cautious meeting of their mouths, as chaste as brother and sister, but then Teyla suddenly wanted more, and she took his shoulders, her hands trembling. He sighed, opening his mouth, and she opened hers, so their tongues touched. He pulled her close to him, until they were kneeling closely together. She'd never felt anything like this, not even when she and Sora had lain together kissing. She thought of Sora, remembering how beautiful she had been that afternoon, but then Bohdan made a little noise and the two of them fell together on top of the asterids, crushing them so the scent rose around them, pure and sweet and honest.

"I don't, I've never," she gasped.

He stroked her hair, breathing deeply, "We can stop, if you want, if you should -- I know our people are different."

"No!" She was embarrassed by her vehemence. "No, just, Bohdan." They stared at each other.

He kissed her again, slowly, and she kissed him back, her face hot, the scent of the asterids around them. He moved slowly, touching her carefully, and she finally touched him. "You're hot," she whispered. He groaned.

"Wait," he said. "I should -- I brought these --" She saw he was almost as embarrassed as she was and so kissed him. He drew his vest to them and from a pocket pulled a little felt pouch. He handed it to her.

She opened the pouch and felt her face grow even hotter; inside were three or four sheaths. Charin had taught her about these devices. For a moment she hesitated, and then withdrew one from the pouch.

"Oh, Teyla," he said, and she laughed, nervous and excited and determined. Why not Bohdan? Why not here in this beautiful meadow?

That night, when Teyla lay alone in her little ooee, warm and cosy, she let herself remember the afternoon in the meadow. She knew she would treasure that memory, and tried to fix it in her mind: how gentle Bohdan's hands had been, and yet how hard he'd felt against her, and how, even though she genuinely wanted him, she had trembled with apprehension when he finally, finally pushed inside her. She had not felt the pleasure she'd hoped for until he had finished. Then, looking down at her, his face flushed, eyes glittering, he had smiled and returned to kissing her. He had continued kissing her body, and she had had little idea how much sensation her breasts offered, how his mouth on her could make her lift up to meet him. When he first kissed her between her legs, she had frozen, a little embarrassed again, but gradually she'd relaxed, and even guided his head so the feeling she wanted began to build.

She flushed in her bed remembering. She was so awake, and wished she were home in Athos to talk to Charin, or better, that she had some way to talk to Sora about everything that had happened. She spent most of her life with men, she realized; that had never mattered before but tonight, she longed for another woman to talk with. She wondered if this was something she would have been able to speak to her mother about, but never having had a mother, she didn't know.

She turned again in her bed, and let herself remember again the afternoon in the meadow. Suddenly she sat up, put on her shoes and a shawl, and quietly went to Halling's ooee. It occurred to her that he might have someone in there with him, so she didn't barge in as she would have just the night before but softly called his name.

"Teyla?" she heard him say, and then he poked his head out the little opening, pulling the cloth back. "Are you all right?"

"Have you finished with Oldrich?" she asked. "I think I'd like to go home."

"Now? Are you all right?" He looked worried, almost frightened, so she said, "Yes, yes, I am fine. But we have been here nearly a full moon cycle. Perhaps we should return?"

He stared at her, then clambered out of the ooee. Without speaking, they began to walk; he led her toward the brook that ran along the perimeter of the settlement, to a bridge the men had created from three living trees that they had bent into shape and intertwined. "Teyla, you are a sister to me," Halling finally said when they were seated on the bridge, dangling their legs over. His bare feet splashed in the water.

"Truly, I am well," she said quickly. "I know you worry about me, and I love you for that. If there were something wrong, I promise I would tell you."

He took a deep breath. "I believe I can learn more from Oldrich," he finally said, "but there are so many people from whom I can learn. Perhaps it is time I return home as well, so I may consider what to do next."

"What do you want?" she asked him. She realized she'd never asked Halling what he was studying for. To be a shaman? He was the most educated Athosian she knew, yet remained very conservative in his beliefs and habits.

He tilted his head. "That is my very question," he said. "I feel a compulsion to study, but I see that I run here and there, learning from one and then another, but for what reason? Why am I studying?"

"You will lead us someday," she said confidently.

He looked at her curiously. "Do you really not know?" he asked her.

"Know what?"

"Teyla, you will lead us. You already do. When Rooyady steps aside in two sun cycles, you will take his place."

She wanted to laugh, but she saw he was serious and besides, Halling would never joke about such things. She turned her mind to the last few years, since her father died, and realized that she had indeed followed in his steps.

They sat in silence for a long time, until a fog began to rise from the humid groundcover, twisting like the softest fabric from Charin's looms. When a night animal barked once, low and urgent, Halling took her hand and they walked back to their sleeping structures. At her door, Halling put his hands on her shoulders and bent forward so they rested their foreheads together for a long minute. Then she slipped inside, curled up, and fell soundly asleep.

In the morning, they bade their highland cousins goodbye. Bohdan walked with them until they broke for a midday meal. Then he left them, and she and Halling returned to their settlement alone.

Halling was right, as he so often was, and in two sun cycles, Rooyady announced that he wanted nothing more than to sit at home and watch his grandchildren play. The entire settlement had come together; they already knew, of course, and a great feast had been prepared. Rooyady had been a competent leader, but he was very married and much involved with the lives of his children and with their children. Teyla wondered if she would ever have a family of her own, then looked guiltily at Charin, for she was Teyla's family, as were Kanaan, his mother, and Halling. But not a real family, another part of her answered, and she admitted this was true. She remembered Sora, and Bohdan, but they would never be that kind of family, either.

Her life became even busier after that. She met with the elders, feeling awkward at first, but they trusted her judgment and, with some surprise, she realized that she did, too. Somehow she knew what to do, although often that was to wait. She sat meditation with Halling every day she was in Athos, met with her childhood friends, who were now having children, including Halling, and who came to her for advice and encouragement. She formed a group of what she called councilors, people she trusted from many worlds, and invited them to Athos four times each sun cycle to discuss their trading relationships. In less than a year, they began to discuss other issues, though, and then to meet on other worlds, sharing the responsibility for hospitality. They began to call her the first, a title she accepted with trepidation. She was first among equals, but first nonetheless.

She did not form a partnership. Kanaan remained at her side when she was in Athos, but that was less and less. One day she was at the great market on Dektiy and, as she always did, looked around for her aunt Teralla. At the midday meal, though, she found Kanaan.

"I've been looking for you," he said, smiling. He was nervous, she saw; he rarely traveled through the Ancestor's Ring. He loved seeing what she brought back, and was the lead hunter and often cooked for the entire settlement now. Hunters were unusual among the Athosians, and so everyone knew and respected him. But he had never asked to accompany her. She was so surprised to see him that she forgot how to speak for a moment.

He greeted her formally, bowing, and then as a friend, resting his hands on her shoulders and his forehead against hers. They breathed together for a few heart beats, and then he said, "I've brought you a meal, Teyla. Will you eat with me?"

"Of course," she said, and led him out of the busiest part of the market to a little circular park around which the merchants set up their stalls and tents and tables. They sat in the dusty grass and she gratefully ate the stew and fresh bread he had brought her, washing them down with pomegranate juice. "So good," she nearly moaned. She ate little when off world because so often the food didn't sit right, a common ailment among all who traveled through the Ring. "Thank you so much."

When they had finished and tidied away their gear, he took her hand. "This isn't exactly what I had imagined," he said, gesturing at the lively market around them, the many traders bartering, laughing, arguing with each other. "But it's your element, and will do.

"Teyla, you know I have loved you since we were children. I love you still, and I know you love me a little. Will you not make a family with me? You could still travel, just as Rooyady did, and if we are lucky enough to have children, I will care for them. Nothing needs to change in your life except that you would come home to me."

She had known this was coming, had seen it for years. And she knew that he already knew her answer. "Kanaan," she said as kindly as she could even though she was irritated and embarrassed, because why would he ask when he truly knew what she would say? "I cannot. That wouldn't be fair to you and it certainly wouldn't be fair to any child we had.

"You're right that I love you, but I love you as I love Halling and Anezka. You deserve more than that."

"You mean you deserve more," he said, hurt. "I only want you. I've always only wanted you."

"I'm sorry," she said, and she was. It would be so easy to say yes, and she knew that their people expected it.

"You're waiting for someone, but you don't know that they'll ever come," he tried to argue, but then he saw her face and stopped. "All right," he said at last, and sighed. "I had to try."

"I know. And I'm glad you did." She kissed his cheek. "No one has ever asked me before, Kanaan. I will always treasure this moment."

He grimaced, her words unpleasant to him. He didn't want to be a treasured moment, she knew, and was silent. After a while, he finished packing up and stood. "I can find my way back to the Ring. I know you have work to do, and that you go on from here, not back. Thank you for having lunch with me."

Thank you for having lunch with me, she thought, the words burning her, and she was ashamed and so sorry that she couldn't love him the way he deserved. But she knew he didn't want to hear her apologies, so she just got up, embraced him, kissed his cheeks, and then bowed deeply to him. He nodded and left.

She did very little work that afternoon, and finally left Dektiy for Xitia, where the next meeting of councillors would be held. She arrived there at nightfall and made herself a camp not far from the Ancestor's Ring. She knew the Xitians would welcome her, but she wanted to be alone that night. It was cold, but she didn't light a fire, accepting the damp chill as punishment for hurting someone who loved her.

Kanaan didn't treat her any differently when she finally returned. He neither pressed her to settle with him nor did he pursue anyone else. He remained the same quiet, rather shy man he had always been, happiest when working. She admired him, and her heart always hurt a bit when they met, but that was rarely. They had their own lives, and they were separate.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Teyla was in the Athos settlement again when Halling called for her. She had traveled frequently that week and felt the slight queasiness that too frequent travel through the Ring could cause, but over the years, more people had requested assistance from the councillors, and as first, she was usually the one to visit. Sometimes angry villages requested arbitration, sometimes famine relief when after a great flood or long drought they had nothing with which to trade, and sometimes to challenge a decision the councillors had made. The council had met again, a session lasting two full days during which her negotiating skills were stretched to the limit of her abilities. In addition, she was still responsible for most of the bartering for the Athosians; she was good at it, and her agemates didn't like to leave.

A family fairly new to the Athosians had requested she visit their tent for breakfast, which she knew meant they needed to settle an argument. They were refugees from a place culled by the Wraith, a collection of survivors who had tried to form a family. She knew they needed to separate in order to become Athosian, but she also knew they were not quite ready for that. She was sitting with them when Halling appeared trailed by three men wearing clothing she did not recognize. After a moment, she rose and greeted them.

Their speech was stilted and odd, and the oldest of them was nearly unintelligible. She knew the Ancestor's Ring sometimes garbled translation, but it was also his way of speaking: abrupt, sharp, cold. He also kept looking around as if for someone, but she didn't know for whom. The youngest of the three had dark skin like hers and she immediately felt comfortable with him, but she could see that he was a little afraid of the older man.

Of the three men, the one with the goggles seemed most real to her. He had a friendly smile, though she could see he was shy and making an effort to overcome his shyness. She saw he also was a little afraid of the older man and quickly realized that he was trying to protect her from the man's sharp words. But when the old man demanded a "few specific needs," she replied quickly, "We do not trade with strangers."

He looked angry and she could see that he didn't believe her. But she did not wish to trade with this man. If he would leave, perhaps she could talk to the floppy-haired man and learn more about these strange people. Over his shoulder, she could see the sky was lightening, and she heard the morning birds begin to fuss and chirp, so she said, "Each morning before dawn our people drink a stout tea to brace us for the coming day. Will you join us?"

The man smiled at her again, and she thought that might be his real smile. Then he glanced at the older man and said, "I love a good cup of tea. Now there's another thing you know about me." She knew he was lying just as she knew that he knew she knew, and she could see that he was laughing at himself for lying and hoping that she wouldn't mind. She smiled back at him. A complicated man.

Sheppard, for that was his name, reminded her a bit of Kanaan in his shyness, and a bit of Bohdan in his boldness. It was an unusual combination and she watched closely as he struggled to keep his balance. She could see that he had been deeply hurt, probably many times. She liked him and, as they passed the day, she grew to like him more. So when the older man, Sumner, had taken the young dark-skinned man away, Teyla decided to explain to Sheppard the danger his people were in. She doubted he would be able to persuade Sumner of anything, but they needed to know.

She hadn't been to the city since Sora had been injured years ago, but she found the way to the caverns outside it easily enough. She showed him the drawings, hoping he would understand, and explained why her people had turned their back on their city and technology. "It's a hell of a way to live," he said, staring at the cave drawings.

"We move our hunting camps around. We try to teach our children not to live in fear, but it is hard. Some of us can sense the Wraith coming. That gives us warning." She didn't tell him that she was one who could sense the Wraith. That was the business of her people, not these strangers. "We should go. It will be dark soon."

Then so much happened that for weeks afterward she struggled to make a cohesive story of it. A culling by the Wraith but this time, Sheppard was there, and he refused to give up. She often thought during those hectic first days among the Atlantians that, when she was an old woman telling stories to her grandchildren, she still wouldn't be able to describe her surprise when she saw him in the hive ship coming for his people, and for hers.

Her people were moved to a new world. Halling said he understood why she did not move to the mainland with the other Athosians -- so few now; her heart ached to see them standing proudly in what the Atlantians called the Jumper Bay, working hard to re-settle yet again. And now she had another job in addition to her work as chief negotiator and first councillor: Sheppard had asked her to be on his team, as he called it, and to negotiate on behalf of the Atlantians.

Her people would be cut off from the Ancestor's Ring, for the first time ever. She knew that Halling believed they would be safer, but the Wraith didn't always come through the Ring. They had enormous ships, hives too large to come into a planet's atmosphere, but she had been on a world once when they'd attacked. The market had been, as it often was, in a plaza very near the Ring, so she knew it had not been activated. That time they had not bothered to land but used those horrible lights to suck people up, as they had her only days before. She shuddered.

Well, perhaps Halling was right and they would be safer away from the Ring. She hoped so. She also hoped he and Doctor Weir would become friends, or at least friendly. They were both formal people, deeply respectful of tradition, so that was a real possibility, she thought.

Kanaan came to her privately before they left. "Are you going to marry him? Their shepherd?"

"What? No, Kanaan!" She stared at him. "Whatever gave you that idea?"

"We are leaving but you are staying. We are allying with them, but there have been no formalities. I assumed you would marry the shepherd to tie our peoples together."

"No," she said coldly. "That is not our practice as you well know. Nor, I think, is it these people's. But even if it were, I would not marry any of them."

He looked at her for a long time, and then left without saying goodbye. Her heart ached, and part of her wondered if she was making the right decision. Then she remembered that Halling had said he understood, and he would never say that if he didn't mean it. She felt responsible for these strange people; they were so ignorant, dangerously ignorant. She should stay for a time and help them. But then she had to turn her attention to Sheppard, and offer him advice and hope he took it.

At first, she took her new trading partners to places she had been, but they had something called a database that offered them more places, places she had never heard of. The results were not, in Teyla's opinion, worth the effort and danger, and finally she spoke to Elizabeth about it.

"But we must find a ZPM," Elizabeth explained, and Teyla sighed.

"There is a people I wish you to meet," she said, and so she took them to meet the Genii. She considered them good trading partners, and was hopeful that she would see Sora again. But Sora had changed, she saw immediately. She had grown up just like the other Genii: silent, a bit sullen, untrusting. Teyla gazed after her and wondered if she remembered their times together with pleasure or distaste. "Teyla?" John called to her, and followed them to meet with Cowan, a man she did not know and whom she immediately disliked.

Tyrus had been a good friend to her father, she remembered, but he had changed, too. Perhaps this Cowan had something to do with how surly her old friends seemed to have become. She glanced at her teammates. Perhaps they had something to do with the change. She sighed, and began to watch more closely.

All her watching did no good, and without any desire to, she learned the secret of the Genii, the one that Sora had been inducted into at thirteen. Fleeing the Genii homeworld, she mourned the loss of her friends, and especially Sora, whom she loved. Had loved. Perhaps still did love.

But the Genii did not remain at home. Their leaders had changed and now they went on sorties. Taking the Atlantians to the Genii had been a mistake she would long regret. Never had she imagined they would attack an Athosian ally; never had she imagined they would invade the city of Atlantis. When she heard John say over the radio, "We've got a situation here. From what I can ascertain, a small Genii strike force has gated in," she at first thought she had misheard. Not the Genii, she thought.

She took control of the situation in the jumper. "The hurricane is in full force outside," she told John. "We could attempt to fly through it but it is doubtful that we could make it back to Atlantis, and we have three young passengers."

"Just get your ass back here as soon as you can. I could use a little back-up," he finally told them.

She looked at Aiden and Carson, and then at the raging storm thrashing against the windscreen. For John to request a little back-up meant he was in desperate straits, and if John were here, she would trust him to fly the puddlejumper through this storm. But not Carson. She glanced at him; he was pale with fear, biting his lower lip nervously. They could only wait for the storm to pass. When what Aiden called the eye appeared as if out of their desperate wishes, she said urgently, "If we can help, we must." Carson was miserable, but he returned them to Atlantis. When they finally set down, she clasped his shoulder. He tried to smile at her, and then at the three young hunters in the rear.

They crept through the city looking for John and Rodney and Elizabeth. When they finally found John and he soon told them to separate, she hesitated, but left with Carson. She was still shocked that the Genii would do this, remembering her time with them, when Carson abruptly collapsed and Sora was before her.

"Drop it!" Sora shouted at her. When Teyla didn't move, Sora said viciously, "I'll kill him."

Teyla dropped her weapon and raised her hands, then watched in disbelief as Sora dropped her own weapon and sneered, "I would hate to kill you so quickly."

Teyla realized that Sora, her anger grown poisonous in their years apart, wanted to punish her for what had happened on the Hive ship.

"Sora, I do not wish to fight you!" she cried. "I have known you for almost all your life. Why are you doing this? Sora!"

But Sora was beyond reason, her grief too great, and part of Teyla understood that Sora mourned her father even as she raged at him for his faults. But there was no time, no opportunity to comfort Sora, who did not wish to be comforted; she wished to punish Teyla for her father's failings. She set down her projectile weapon and withdrew a knife. "No, Sora," Teyla cried, but Sora lashed out at her. She pulled her own knife and they began to fight. Teyla forced herself to concentrate; she was fighting for her life. She hated knives and longed for her bantos rods, but this was Sora's choice.

Suddenly she seized Sora's knife hand and twisted it hard enough Sora cried out and dropped the knife. Teyla jerked her closer and then slapped her, harder than she had ever struck another person. She flung down her knife and faced Sora four-square, grim and angry. Sora tried again but the fight was over and she knew it. They glared at each other and then Teyla said slowly and firmly, "I loved you." Then she turned to help Carson, showing her back to Sora in a deliberate insult.

To Teyla's dismay, Elizabeth ordered Sora imprisoned. She found it agony to know that her dear friend was locked up so far from her home, even as she remained furious with Sora for her betrayal. For days, she refused to visit her, even after Carson relayed a wish from Sora to see Teyla. But Halling said, "You are hurting only yourself," and looked sadly at her. She meditated for several hours, and when she rose, she felt ready to face her childhood friend.

Sora wasn't in one of the cages that the Atlantians had put the Wraith but in a small room not much different from Teyla's quarters. Teyla was grateful to John for arranging this. Tomás, one of the guards at her door, knocked and called to Sora before letting Teyla in, but he insisted on leaving the door open. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said. She nodded, and then entered.

Sora was on the bed, sitting cross-legged. Her face was haggard, Teyla thought; her hair unkempt, her demeanor humble, so unlike the Sora Teyla had known. She stood hesitantly at the door, and then bowed slightly. "I greet you, Sora, daughter of Tyrus."

"Oh, yes, daughter of Tyrus, Tyrus you murdered," Sora said, but her voice was sad and distant. "Murdered," she repeated, and Teyla knew she had been repeating the word in her mind for a long time. She also knew there was nothing she could say or do to persuade Sora that her father had betrayed them all while on the Wraith ship.

"I am sorry to see you here," Teyla finally said. "I am discussing the possibility of returning you to your home, but the Atlantians are reluctant to do so."

Sora shrugged. "Here or there, it makes no difference. All life is a prison to me now."

"Sora, it doesn't have to be," Teyla began, but Sora turned away. "Sora, please remember that we were friends once. More than friends. I loved you, and I thought you loved me."

Sora hunched her back. Teyla thought about leaving, but she wanted to give Sora more time. She waited patiently, visualizing the peaceful beauty of the clear skies above the city of Atlantis, where no hive ships hovered now. At last, Sora said, "Remember my thirteenth birthday? When you came for the ceremony?"

"Of course! It's one of my treasured memories."

Sora glanced at Teyla but her look was scathing. "That's when I learned who I am, who the Genii really are, and how disgusting the Athosians were for turning their back on the technology that could someday defeat the Wraith. You took me to your city and I saw how magnificent it was, so much more than the Genii have. But you gave it up. You gave up everyone on every world just so you could be safe." Her lip curled. "The Genii will never give up."

Tears filled Teyla's eyes and she struggled to say evenly, "But that day you didn't seem angry at me. You -- we." She stopped abruptly, aware of the guards a few feet away.

"Yeah, well, I was young and surprised, and you were familiar. After I thought about what I'd learned, and seen what your people had given up, then I knew that the Genii leaders were right." She turned her head away again and this time Teyla knew she would not speak again.

"Sora," she said haltingly, "I don't know if what my forebears did was right or wrong. It is done, and many years ago, long before either of us or our fathers were born. But this is now and we can start fresh, we can work together." She paused and then, ignoring the guards, said, "I will always love you, Sora, more-than-sister. I hope one day you will remember that you love me, too."

Her throat was too tight to say more, and Sora only hunched tighter into herself, so Teyla left. Both guards looked sympathetically at her as they shut the door. "We'll take care of her, ma'am," Tomás said, and his partner nodded. "The major wouldn't have it any other way."

"Thank you," she murmured, and returned to her own quarters where she could weep in privacy.

She didn't approach John for several days, not until she was at peace with herself. She found him alone on a balcony looking out to see, away from the mainland, one of the myriad laptop computers open but its window dark. He looked tired and sad, she thought. "John. May I join you?"

He smiled at her, and patted the floor next to him. "Not especially comfortable but you can't beat the view."

"No, you cannot," she agreed, and sat next to him. The silence between them was easy and she thought again how much she liked him. Eventually she asked, "Are you well? In good spirits?"

He laughed in surpised. "Well? I guess so. Carson tells me I am, and I feel all right. As for my spirits, well." He shrugged.

"Tell me," she insisted gently.

"Uh, Teyla, stuff like that isn't easy for me. But I'm okay. I'm kind of surprised, but I'm okay. What happened," he gestured over his shoulder, and she knew he meant during the storm, with the Genii, "was really ugly, but I can't see what I could have done differently to prevent it. Not at the time. Rodney's people are cooking up some precautions that'll help us in the future, but," and he rubbed his neck now. She had often noticed that John's body language spoke more clearly than his words.

Then he said, "I heard you visited that Sora."

"Yes. She was my friend and I felt obligated to look after her."

"Was your friend."

Teyla shrugged. "I loved her. I never expected her to behave so viciously. She was cold when we first met her; I still do not understand. No, that's not true." She paused, and said, "Remember when we first met? And I explained that the Athosians long ago decided to give up technology in the hopes of avoiding the attention of the Wraith? As you have seen in your time here, many worlds have chosen to return to hunting and gathering, or subsistence agriculture. Most world's populations are so small that we need each other." She sighed. "At least, I think so. Not everyone does."

He studied her and she submitted to his gaze. "Well, I think so, too," he said, sounding surprised. "We do need each other." He shook his head. "But Earth, the SGC -- they." He stopped abruptly, pressing his lips together.

"They do not agree," Teyla finished for him, because she already knew that. Earth, the SGC, the IOA, they all viewed them as alien, different. She had known this from the first words from Colonel Sumner, on the morning they first stepped into the Athosian settlement. She had known it from early conversations with Elizabeth, and with Peter Grodin, now gone. Not as real, she thought, though she'd never tell John that.

"Jesus," John murmured. Teyla patted his hand on the floor beside her.

"I am glad you came to us," she told him. He looked embarrassed, and that made her smile.

When she at last met with Elizabeth, Teyla found her shaken and pale. "Elizabeth," she said, coming to sit next to her. They were on a small balcony that faced southwest and was warm despite the puddles still glinting after the storm.

"Teyla," Elizabeth said, and smiled at her. "There is tea, and Sergeant Andreesen made beignets. Well, a Pegasian version of beignets, but they're very good."

Beignets were a sweet fried dough and Elizabeth was right, Teyla thought, sucking the sugar from her thumb; they were very good. She sighed happily. "Thank you," she said. "I must thank Sergeant Andreesen as well."

Elizabeth nodded, and sipped her tea before stretching back. "I'm warm for what feels the first time in weeks."

"It is very nice here," Teyla agreed. "Elizabeth, I must ask you what you plan to do about Sora, daughter of Tyrus of the Genii."

Elizabeth shuddered, the tea in her cup sloshing. Teyla gently took the cup from her. "Oh, Teyla, I know she was your friend, but what I saw --" She stopped abruptly, putting her hand to her mouth. Teyla waited patiently. Elizabeth said, "John advises me to return her, and so we shall." She sat up straighter. "I am sorry you had to come to me. I should have told you our plans as soon as they were made."

"When did John speak to you?"

"Last night. And we spoke of other things as well." After a few moments, Elizabeth said, "We rely on you so much, but I must ask your help again. We simply must find a ZPM. You have been beyond generous helping us locate supplies and trading partners, but what we really need is an energy source. To me, a ZPM seems like magic, but you can see what even a partially powered one can do. Would it be possible -- do you think it's possible one exists in this galaxy? That the Ancients would have left one on another world?"

Teyla sat silent for a moment, thinking before saying, "You have lived among us only a short while, less than a year. How many years did you study your home world? I know your title, doctor, indicates advanced study, so -- how advanced?"

Elizabeth studied her, then nodded. "You're right, of course, that we -- that I don't know this galaxy. But we do know the Ancients, what you call the Ancestors, and --"

"You never considered the Ancients gods," Teyla said. "Nor did the Athosians, though many peoples have. To us, they were our ancestors, and even you will admit that they were capable of almost anything we can imagine. But not gods, Elizabeth." She looked sternly at her friend.

"I apologize," Elizabeth said stiffly. "You're right, I was thinking that." She rubbed her forehead. "You asked about my studies. I thought I was an educated woman, sophisticated and well-traveled, but I keep bumping into my limitations." She raised her head and met Teyla's eyes. "You are right. Even though I know you, I was working on the assumption that you and your people were not as . . . I don't know."

"That we are different. Sergeant Bates certainly considers us different. You do also."

Elizabeth nodded. She looked stiff and uncomfortable. "Yes, that was my assumption. And of course, we are all different, but not in the way I was thinking. I am sorry, Teyla." She sighed, straightened her back, and said, "All right, let's begin again. We need energy, preferably in the form of a ZPM. We know some exist in this galaxy, such as on M7G-677, the children's world.

"What do you suggest, Teyla?"

"When I was actively trading for my people, I was not searching for an energy source, but for labor or food, or negotiating on behalf of other people. Shortly after I began to live in this city, I decided it would be a good use of my time to list all the worlds I have visited and for us to investigate them systematically, beginning with the more technologically advanced. However, remember that many will not know whether a ZPM exists on their world or not.

"I have that list for you, though written in my language. If someone could assist me, I would be happy to give it to you."

"Oh, Teyla, that is far more generous than we deserve." Elizabeth took Teyla's hand. "I'm so sorry," she said in a different voice. "I will try not to make that mistake again. Please tell me if I do."

Teyla thought it odd that she should be put in charge of Elizabeth's further education, but said nothing, merely nodded as graciously as she could. Then Elizabeth served her an Earth tea, Earl Grey, and they sat and discussed how each of their peoples were doing.

A few days later, Rodney came to the door of her quarters. "Elizabeth says you have a list," he said abruptly.

"Hello, Rodney. It is good to see you this morning. Will you join me for morning tea?"

"Um, sorry, Teyla. You know how I get." He ducked his head, then said, "Good morning, Teyla. How are you this morning?"

"I am very well, Rodney." She stepped aside and gestured; he entered her quarters and looked around while she brewed the tea.

"Wow," he said, studying a wall hanging. "This looks like -- it is, it's Wraith stuff." He wrinkled his face and looked at her in puzzlement. "Why would you have something like that in your rooms? Doesn't it give you nightmares?"

She laughed. "No longer," she said, and they sat, Rodney grunting unattractively, on the cushions strewn on the mats she had placed on the hard floors. "It is not Wraith stuff. My friend and mentor Charin made it. I keep it there to remind me that life is precious and that at any time it can be taken from us."

"Huh," he said, and sipped his tea. She knew he liked it sweet so she had added a good helping of brambleberry honey. "Oh, this is so good." He sighed, and let steam from the cup rise into his face. "Not coffee, of course, but what is?"

When they had drunk their first cups and started sipping their second, Teyla said, "Elizabeth is correct. I have made a list of all the inhabited worlds I have visited, listed in order of technological advancement, with a few exceptions -- places where buildings of the people you call the Ancients still stand. I thought perhaps we could use this list to search for your energy device, the ZPM."

"Yes, yes, exactly," he said, nearly spilling his tea in excitement. She leaned back and pulled the scroll from her little bedside table; when she turned back, he flushed, and she realized he had been staring at her body. She smiled to herself and handed him the scroll. "Oh my god, it's paper," he said, unrolling it. "Hmm."

"Can you read Athosian?"

"Only a little. I noticed some scrolls that Halling had and he explained a bit to me." He looked up. "I'd like to learn more; I've always been good with languages. Mathematicians and musicians often are, not that that means anything to you. Besides, I can't wait around for a linguist to show up; it just makes sense that I learn enough to get by.

"But mostly you'll need to translate it for me, and I'll assign the gate addresses we use. When can we start?"

She had planned to do her morning stretches, and then her katas in what the Atlantians called the gym, but she said, "Right away, if you wish."

"Oh god, yes, thank you, Teyla." He stopped. "Um. Elizabeth said something. She said that I shouldn't treat you as if you were stupid or primitive, because you're not. I don't, do I? I mean, any more than I treat most people as if they were stupid because, face it, most people are, though you're less stupid than most."

She started to laugh and couldn't stop until tears rolled down her face. "Rodney McKay, you have nothing to worry about, I assure you," she finally gasped out. "You are as offensive to me as you are to anyone else."

"Oh, well, good. That's good, isn't it?"

She nodded, and he looked a little abashed, but then took her to one of the smaller rooms, which he called labs, and sat them down with a laptop computer on a table between them. "Okay, let's get started." He brought up what looked like a paper document on the little window and started typing. "This says Worlds to check for ZPMs," he explained. "And now read me the name of the first world on the list and its glyphs and we'll figure out the stargate address."

To her surprise, after she had read it out, he pulled the scroll from her and had her point it out, then read out the word. "Hoff," he said, and frowned. "I suppose we should go back," he said slowly. "God, what a fuck-up that was. So that's an ach? Only three letters in the word; what's that last one?"

"It's a breathy version of our letter ved."

"Unvoiced, we'd say. Okay," and he brought up another paper on the window but one with many words already on it. "This is where I keep notes about your language. We can't spend much time on it, but for the worlds I know, I'll keep tabs."

Teyla wasn't sure what tabs were, but she felt a rush of affection for Rodney. They continued.

Unfortunately for everyone, especially for Rodney, before they finished transcribing Teyla's list, Elizabeth discovered Doranda in the database. Even Teyla thought the Dorandans sounded promising, though she was surprised she'd never heard of them before. When they reached the planet and discovered it uninhabited, she understood why not, and resolved to push ahead with her plan. The database, as Rodney was the first to point out, was tens of thousands of years old. It made much more sense to focus their attention on worlds they knew still lived.

When she and Ronon returned from Belkan and discovered what had happened to Doranda, Teyla thought, I was right when she saw how Rodney looked at John, who refused to meet his eyes. She knew they should spend their time and energy on the worlds she knew, not the ones in the database.

First she took care of Ronon as best she could, shocked as he was to have learned some Satedans had survived, and saw to it that John spent more time with him, for the discovery had profoundly affected him. John was no longer finding much time for Rodney, and Teyla saw he was at a loss. He missed his friend, she thought. Helping Ronon would help him while they both adjusted.

One afternoon, she found John in his quarters strumming a musical instrument. "This is a gittern!" she said, smiling. "I had no idea you were a musician!"

"Oh hell, no, Teyla," John laughed. She was pleased to see smiles lines on his face, rather than the tense frown he'd been wearing since Doranda. "Not a real musician. I just pluck." He started to set aside the gittern.

"Please continue," she said. She sat at his desk, in a very uncomfortable chair, and clasped her hands, looking at him expectantly. He looked sheepish, but adjusted the gittern.

"Uh, we call it a guitar. And seriously, I'm just trying to learn. I'm not actually very good."

"I have found stretching oneself to be a good thing. Please, will you play for me?"

Teyla smiled fondly at him. He looked nervous, but she knew John well enough by now to know that he didn't really want her to go. Instead, he hitched at the instrument, leaned over, and strummed, then looked up at her. "Okay, but, don't say I didn't warn you."

"You have warned me overmuch," she said, still smiling. He smiled back, shaking his head, and began to play. A little haltingly, but she thought that was due to nerves at her presence. The sound was melancholic. She closed her eyes.

When he stopped, she opened her eyes and sighed. He looked hopeful and abashed. "That was lovely, John. Will you play more? Do you sing?"

He laughed. "Oh hell, no. I mean, I sing in the shower or to myself, but trust me, you do not want to hear my rusty voice."

"But I do!" she said earnestly. "I do. Please, sing something for me."

He looked uncomfortable, but shrugged. "Well, it's your ears that'll suffer."

"Then let me suffer," she said dramatically; as she had hoped, he laughed.

He fiddled with the tuning gear, picked a note and hummed, then stopped, staring into space. "Okay," he said after a moment. "This probably isn't the most appropriate song, but I really like it, and besides, I know all the words." She tilted her head understandingly. He took a deep breath, looked shyly at her, and began to play. Just like so many of the songs she was familiar with, it was a love song with a sad ending. That must be a universal experience, she thought. The chorus she found especially poignant, and felt she understood why John had learned this song:

Don't know that I will but until I can find me
A girl who'll stay and won't play games behind me
I'll be what I am
A solitary man
A solitary man

When he finished, he set the guitar across his lap and looked at her. She discovered she had tears in her eyes. "You are not solitary, John Sheppard," she burst out.

He laughed, but sadly. "Just a song," he said. Then, "but thanks, Teyla."

"Now, you must know another song. I would like to hear more of your world's music."

"Oh, hey, I'm like the wrong guy for that. McKay, now, he might know stuff, and Radek does. Actually, everybody does." He looked thoughtful, so she tapped his guitar.

"Okay, okay. Let me think."

"Teach me one," she said impulsively.

"Hey, that's even harder!" he said, but she saw he liked the idea. "I know, I know. Shit, let me find -- hang on." He set the guitar on the bed and began scrabbling through a drawer in his night stand, and then behind her in his desk. "Shit." He thought, and then went to a bookcase and took out a heavy dark volume. Flipping through it, he stopped when a paper fluttered out. She picked it up from where it fluttered to the floor and handed it to him. "That's it," he said.

She looked at the paper in his hands. Just words, written in his language. He settled back with the guitar in his arms, staring at the paper on the bed beside him. He strummed several chord changes, and then said, "Yeah, you should sing this, Teyla. I'll teach you."

"I would like that very much," she told him, and sat forward.

"Down around Biloxi," he started, and then interrupted himself to explain, "Biloxi, that's a city on Earth, right on the coast. It's warm, a place people go to vacation." She nodded. He began again.

She liked that song, much more than his solitary song. She had always been quick to learn lyrics, and he was a patient teacher. When she knew all the words, she sang again her favorite passage while he strummed his guitar:

Stars can see Biloxi
Stars can find their faces in the sea
We are walking down beside the ocean
We are splashing naked in the water
And the sky is red from off towards New Orleans
And the sky is red from off towards New Orleans

"New Orleans is another city," she told him. "Sergeant Andreesen is from there. She says it is very beautiful. Warm, like Biloxi, but different from the rest of the world it is on."

John grinned. "It is that," he said. "She's right; it's beautiful and different. Sexy."

"A sexy city?"

"Very," he said firmly, and they began again. When John at last set down his guitar, he looked more relaxed than he had in months, she thought. "Maybe we'll do this again," he said hesitantly.

"We will," she said. "Thank you, John, for sharing your music and your time."

"Hey, Teyla. You -- this meant a lot. Thanks."

She impulsively bent down and rested her forehead again his, smoothing his spiky hair back. They breathed together, quietly. She thought that he would forgive Rodney.

Teyla saw that Ronon was recovering, and now John, too, but Rodney was still alone. Even Radek, one of the kindest people she knew, remained angry with Rodney, though Radek hid it better than John did. This was why she preferred trading, going to a new world each day. The interpersonal mess that so many people fell into and never learned how to avoid. She sighed, and sat next to Rodney in the mess hall.

"Why do you call this a mess hall?" she asked for want of anything else to say. "The word mess does not connote a pleasant place to dine."

He looked at her dully, then said, "It's from the Latin. Which is from Ancient, by the way, so presumably they also called this something like a the mess hall." He looked interested, which made Teyla happy. Then he said, very quietly, "Do you think he'll forgive me, Teyla? I lied to him."

She could see that Rodney was ashamed of himself, something he rarely was. "He will," she promised, hoping it was true. "But you must give him time, and Rodney, you must not make false promises again. To anyone, but especially to John. He is . . ." She trailed off, biting her lip. "He can be fragile," she finally said.

Rodney stared at her and for a moment she thought he would laugh at her. "Oh god, you're right," he said. "For a genius, I can be spectacularly stupid."

"We all can," she said. "Now, here is something you can do that would make several people happy. You know that on Belkan, Ronon met a few surviving Satedans. Talk to him about them, ask him about them. He will be reluctant to discuss them, but it will be good for him to do so."

He stared at her, looking horrified. Whe he started to protest, she said, "Rodney. This is important. To Ronon, to me, and to John. And it should be important to you."

His mouth curled down, but he said, "All right. Just, not for very long, okay?"

"I am sure that Ronon will agree."

The next day they met again to continue working through her list. "You've been to so many worlds," Rodney said. "I really didn't understand what you did, but this is bigger than, than some corporations back on Earth, and it's just you."

"It is vital work," she said. "And I am good at it. Like you, I wish to do what I have a talent for."

"I didn't understand," he said again. After they'd worked through a few more names, he said, "Uh, Teyla, I did what you asked and talked to Ronon. Last night, in fact. I brought him a couple of beers, really good stuff from a microbrew in Toronto, and we talked for a little bit. Well," he said in a different voice, "actually, neither of us talked very much, but we sat and drank beer and it was good. It was good."

"Thank you, Rodney. I am so glad you chose to follow my suggestion."

He looked steadily at her. "I always will, Teyla. You're, you're just." He sighed in irritation. "You're beautiful, and you're smart, and you're kind. That's the trifecta as far as I'm concerned." When she looked at him in puzzlement, he said, "Trifecta, that's a racing term, and I actually don't bet on horses or on anything really, but it means you're everything."

She took his hand, big and warm, with both of hers and squeezed it. "You are the trifecta, too, Rodney," she said, and she meant it. They stared at each other and then he said, "Well. Um." She smiled and released his hand, and they returned to their work.

The night that John and Radek brought Rodney back from beneath the ocean, Teyla went to him. He was huddled in his bed, eyes a bit red. "Are you ill?" she asked him, resting her hand against his forehead.

"No, just. Teyla, I knew I was going to die." He said this quickly, as if he wasn't sure he could admit it otherwise. "I knew it," he repeated slower and softer.

She sat on the bed next to him, and put her arms around him. "I am glad you did not," she whispered. "Very glad."

He rested his head on her shoulder, and she wondered if he would weep. He did not, but he kept very still and she knew he was holding in all his emotions: fear, grief, relief, joy in still being alive.

"On Pantos," she whispered, stroking his back, "when you greet someone and ask her how she is, she replies, I am blessed! I have always found that wonderful. Because we are blessed. You are blessed."

He sniffed and raised his head. His eyes were perhaps a bit redder but dry. "How are you?" he asked seriously.

"I am blessed!" she said, and touched his cheek. "How are you?"

"I am blessed," he said hoarsely. "I am blessed."

"You are," she agreed, and then to her astonishment she kissed him. Kissing Rodney was not what she expected. After his initial surprise, he kissed her back, and he was gentle and sweet though awkward. But not much more awkward than she was, for Teyla was a chaste traveler through the Ancestor's Rings, unlike many, and her first time with a new lover was always a bit awkward.

They lay down in his narrow bed and he lifted the covers around her so they could lie facing each other while they kissed. She took the initiative at each step; though it was clear he was not inexperienced, it was also clear that his respect for her was too great for easiness. She had to put his hand on her breast, and he cried out, blue eyes wide, before bending his head to kiss and suck her nipples. "Oh my god," he murmured many times, and when they eventually removed all their clothing he stared at her. "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen," he declared. She felt herself blush with pleasure and pride, and then they came together.

One time, after they were spent and were lying in her bed in Athos, he said, "I always thought you and Ronon would get together. I mean, you're the strangers in Atlantis."

He could be so thoughtless. She sighed. "Am I a stranger in Atlantis?"

"What? No, not like that. Oh god, I did it again. I just meant that you and he aren't from Earth." He propped himself up on one arm and looked at her, then bent forward to kiss her. "You're both young and beautiful, and you know about this place. We don't."

"Rodney, Ronon is like a little brother to me. But even were I interested, he is still too much in love with Melena. It will be years before he permits himself to fall in love again."

"Huh," he said, as he always did when confronted with some emotional or psychological concept. Then he said grinning, "He's sure a big little brother."

"Very big," she said. And then she looked at him more closely. "Oh, big as in . . . big."

"Very big," he agreed. "In the shower, I couldn't help myself," he explained when she began to tickle him. "Seriously, wouldn't you look? Who wouldn't, oh Teyla, stop, ah, dammit," and he took her wrists and rolled her onto her back. They stared at each other. She wiggled a bit, not at all trying to get free, and they kissed. Afterwards, she assured him that he was quite big enough for her. He grinned all afternoon.

Teyla loved her team. Rodney was comfort, Ronon was joy, and John was as complicated as ever. She knew she was his closest friend, and perhaps closer than anyone had ever been to him since his mother. She rejoiced to see him learn to play with Rodney, and to watch him draw out Ronon. He worked too hard, worried too much, but she believed his time in Atlantis -- and with her -- was good for him.

The day John asked Teyla to pick up Elizabeth's possessions in her office, Teyla stood in the doorway for nearly a minute before she could bring herself to enter. Elizabeth, gone, and so cruelly. Teyla knew that John believed he could return her to Atlantis. She hoped he was right. In the meantime, she would do as he asked. She would store her things in Elizabeth's quarters, until either she returned or they were forced to acknowledge that she was truly and forever gone. She picked up the photo of Elizabeth's dog and stared at it before setting it carefully into a box. She jumped a little when Ronon said, "Who d'you think's gonna replace her?"

"I do not know," she said, sighing. Her head and her heart ached. Elizabeth had become a friend, and she had trusted Teyla with her confidences, and with the city. Teyla wore the red of command because of Elizabeth. "I do not know," she murmured again. She touched Elizabeth's father's watch, its fob, running the chain through her fingers before setting it into the box. She made a small sound of misery, and Ronon clasped her shoulder. She put her hand over his, and bowed her head.

He helped her remove everything from the office to Elizabeth's quarters where they sat for a while. Ronon was a good person to be with at times like these, Teyla thought. Rodney would be talking non-stop in an effort to avoid the pain, and John would be fidgeting and miserable. Ronon was calm, quiet, though he also grieved. He thought highly of Elizabeth, who had welcomed him to her city.

"I am going to my people," she said. Ronon nodded. "Would you like to come with me?"

He shook his head. She hadn't thought he would come. He would stay with John, who needed his support. He needed Teyla's as well, she thought, but she longed for a few days with her people.

"Thought you're in charge," Ronon said.

"John and Rodney are here now. They will be fine."

To her surprise, he said, "They need you, Teyla. John especially."

"I will return soon. And he has you and Rodney."

Ronon snorted at that, but said nothing more. After a few moments more, they rose. Teyla looked around at Elizabeth's room. It looked as though Elizabeth had just stepped out and would return soon. She desperately hoped that was true.

She returned to Athos after that, needing to be around her people. Halling was especially anguished by the loss of Elizabeth, and they sat for a while, meditating together. Then he kissed her forehead and left her alone. Kanaan found her, sitting in front of Halling's tent. Wordlessly, he pulled her up and they walked together, away from the settlement and toward the ocean.

"What is it, Teyla?" Kanaan asked at last, sitting next to her. They sat on boulders piled high by the sea. She said nothing, and he did not insist. Instead, they listened to the water rush in, and slide back out. One of life's most soothing sounds, Teyla thought. Eventually, she took Kanaan's hand. He was such a good man. He had loved her since they were children. He shared her burden of knowing when the Wraith were near. He remembered Teyla as a wild girl, leaves in her hair as they raced through the woods. He had always, always been beside her, she saw. She turned to him, tears welling in her eyes, her throat tight with anguish, thinking of Elizabeth now gone, so quickly taken from them. "Kanaan," she tried to say, but instead she kissed him.

A kiss of equals, she thought, of people who understood each other profoundly. He stared at her, and she was able to smile now. "Oh, Kanaan," she whispered. She kissed him again, and again, and then they moved to the soft grass above the shoreline, warm in the afternoon sun. She though of John's song, of the children playing in the water. She wanted that, she thought as Kanaan stroked her breast. She wanted to see her children playing happily in the warm water, she wanted her own family, a sense of belonging again as she had as a child when she knew she belonged to her da and to Charin, to her friends and her teachers. She was so alone. Only Kanaan was like her.

"Please, Teyla," he gasped, red from sun and effort. She laughed, almost crying again but this time from happiness. "What is wrong? Please tell me."

She realized she was trembling, and took a deep, calming breath. "During my time away from you, from our people, I have seen many things. Some amazing, breath-taking, but Kanaan." She stopped herself and thought for a moment. "Their ways are very different from ours."

"I knew that," he said, frowning.

"Yes, of course. You know that Sergeant Bates suspected us of bringing the Wraith to Atlantis." Kanaan's frown deepened and he opened his mouth to speak; she rested her fingers across his lips. "He apologized, and was badly injured and returned to their world. And they have learned, but." This was so hard! "It is not only the Atlantians," she struggled. "The Genii, people we have traded with for generations beyond counting, proved themselves liars. The Manarians conspired with them."

"What does that matter?" he burst out. "There are many worlds we choose not to trade with, worlds we do not visit."

"No, I mean, yes, yes, and there will be others. But," and to her dismay her throat tightened. "I was so alone," she whispered.

"Teyla, come home." He grasped her hands and they rested their foreheads together, sharing breath until they both had calmed. She thought: There is no one among the Atlantians with who understands. No one in the city, not even the ones who love me, who understand.

"Oh, Kanaan," she whispered to him. "I missed you." He groaned and dropped his head to her breast. She pushed him onto his back and straddled him, staring down. I want this man, she realized. I want this man. Her first lover since Rodney, but Rodney was for comfort. Kanaan was that, too, but so much more: for comfort, for love, for family, for hope, for the future. He looked wildly at her, clutching her thighs. She knelt up, and then slowly, slowly pressed back, closing her eyes as she opened to him. Hot, almost burning, as warm as summer. "Kanaan," she breathed, exhaling slowly. "Oh, Kanaan."

We are walking down beside the ocean
We are splashing naked in the water

The Wraith came, the Wraith retreated. The Asurans came, and they retreated. Teyla grew suspicious of the Atlantians; their good intentions so often led to disaster. "John blames himself," Rodney told her one night. He paced anxiously, rubbing his hands in a gesture Teyla found annoying. "It wasn't his fault, was it, Teyla? Was anyone at fault?"

She took a slow inhalation. "It is true that some believe that John woke the Wraith. And perhaps they did return earlier than they would have. But John did not create the Wraith, and we have no way of knowing when they would have returned."

"In other words, it's his fault," Rodney snapped, and paced faster.

"I did not say that."

"You might as well. Teyla, John is a good man," Rodney said, stopping suddenly to stare at her. "Even if he is an asshole."

"I know that, Rodney, of course I do."

"Well, nobody else seems to. They see the asshole and not, not." He sighed.

She studied him. "Rodney, we both know that is not true. What is going on?"

He shoved his hands in his pockets and glared around her room, as if it were full of enemies. "Nothing. Everything! Just." He sat on her bed and looked up at her. "You can't ask, and I can't tell."

"Ah." She sat next to him, forcing him to let her hold his hands. They were cold and tense, so she began to massage his right hand. She didn't speak, just breathed quietly and slowly while gently manipulating his fingers and rubbing the muscles running from his forearm into his wrist. He sighed. When he began to relax, she said, "I know you care deeply for him."

"That fucker."

She smiled. "Regardless, you care. No, don't say anything; I know you dislike speaking of such concerns. But I know you, and I know John."

He pushed his left hand into her lap, so she began rubbing it. He said, "You're so good to me, Teyla. I don't suppose you'd marry me?"

She looked at him in amazement, though she did not believe he was serious. "Rodney, I am honored. But no. I do not believe that would be best for either of us." Also, she thought but did not say, you do not know the true meaning of marriage.

"Damn. It'd make my life so much simpler."

"Is that truly a reason to marry?"

"It's as good as any," he declared. "I love you, you love me, we get along, why not? We have a good time in bed," he reminded her.

"All true," she said, smiling at him. "But also true for others. For example," she smiled mischievously, "John. And Ronon. And --"

He sputtered, and then -- not disagreeing with her -- said, "Oh, yeah, fat lot of good that'll do me. I'll die alone and lonely and alone."

"Rodney, I promise that I will always be there for you. If I have anything to do about it, you will not die alone."

"Hmph." He scowled at her, and then said, "Okay, how about this: when we're old and decrepit, not that you'll ever be decrepit, if we're still alone, we'll get married. What'd you say?"

She leaned up to kiss him. When they sat back, Teyla asked, "Have you spoken with John?"

"Oh hell, no. And no, I'm not going to, I don't care how persuasive you are."

"Very well. Do you wish me to?"

"No! Jesus, no." He sighed heavily, then slapped his knees and stood. "Thank you, Teyla. I'm sorry you won't marry me, but I understand. The children we'd have: your beauty and my brains. If you change your mind --"

"You will be the first to know. Now, it is very late. Go to bed." She rose and herded him to the door. They kissed, softly, sweetly, and then she waved her hand so the door slid open. "Good night, Rodney."

"Night, Teyla."

She nodded her head and watched him leave. He looked cheerful again, probably focusing on a problem in one of his labs. But he had left her with much to think about. She wondered if John, her dear friend, would be able to consider Rodney as more than a friend. Rodney had, undoubtedly without intending to, revealed the depth of his feelings for John, and she believed John loved Rodney deeply. The question she could not answer was whether John loved him passionately. She hoped so.

Teyla smiled, remembering when Kanaan had asked her if she would be required to marry John. Marriage among many people, including the Athosians, carried a much different significance than among her friends from Earth, a significance that the Ancestor's Ring did not convey. They seemed to marry and then separate; even John had confided that he had once married. She knew that Radek had, and Emily Simpson, and many of the men and women who wore the military uniforms of Atlantis. As they so often did, they assumed that to marry carried the same meaning here as it did where they came from. Teyla had occasionally thought about discussing this with Elizabeth; she would be fascinated and demanded to learn more. But that was no longer a possibility. Elizabeth was gone.

But now, Teyla smiled to herself, Doctor Keller was coming with her to visit her people. Teyla busied herself packing, wondering whether Kanaan would be there or out hunting. But she thought he would be there. While the Atlantians had been on Earth, Kanaan had made a point of finding time to be with Teyla. She laughed to herself, looking forward to seeing him.

It mattered to her that Ronon liked Kanaan, too. Well, he would; they were both hunters, and had hunted together on a number of worlds. But they were so different from each other! Teyla's smile grew when she thought of them together. One time they'd both gotten spectacularly drunk; she would never forget watching them stumbling through the Ancestor's Ring together, Kanaan holding Ronon up as much as Ronon was holding him.

"Hey." She turned to find Ronon in her doorway. "Off to see your guy?"

"My guy," she laughed. "You sound very much like John."

Ronon shrugged. "I got him this." He handed her a small package wrapped in grass cloth. "Be careful. It's a point for his boar spear. They make them on Wai."

"Ronon, thank you! Kanaan will be very pleased."

"Tell him we'll go hunting next time."

"I will do so." She smiled up at him. "Thank you."

"He's a good guy. And if he isn't good to you, I'll tear him to pieces." He grinned at her and left, loping down the corridor, obviously pleased with himself.

She packed the spear point, imagining Kanaan's face when she gave it to him. It meant a lot to him that Ronon approved. He was waiting for Teyla to tell John, she knew. She sighed.

As bitter as it had been to say goodbye to her friends when the Ancients forced them to leave Atlantis, if not for that, she would never have considered Kanaan as more than a childhood friend. But she discovered he had changed in her years away. He traveled through the Ring to hunt on other worlds, and traded the meat for tools and food the Athosians needed, now that they had been forced to move yet again. When would they find a home? A place they could plant their triticum and perhaps tava?

But she was not yet ready to share her feelings about Kanaan with John, though he knew she was seeing someone. Rodney she would tell soon. He would be happy for her; she knew his marriage proposal had not been not serious. He so feared being alone. She shook her head. Why could he not see how loved he was? That his family was already all around him?

At last she was ready and went to find the doctor.

Teyla's anguish when she realized her people had gone made her quick to anger at Doctor Keller, who was a child of Earth and new to Atlantis; her ignorance and incompetence made Teyla's head ache and stomach roil when all Teyla wanted to do was run after her people. They would not simply leave without her; Halling would not go without a word; Kanaan would never leave her behind. She clutched at her head and gasped for breath, trying to center herself so she could be strong for Doctor Keller. "Ancestors help me," she whispered to herself, and inhaled deeply.

Then the Bolo Kai appeared, and she could spare no more time to worry about her people.

Two days later, lying in the infirmary, Teyla saw Ronon hovering near the door. She smiled at him, but he looked so concerned that she stopped. "I am well," she said as he approached.

"Yeah, right," he said, and took her hand. "We'll find them. John'll help; he's promised."

"I must find them, Ronon. They would not simply leave me."

"I know." He squeezed her hand.

"Uh, am I interrupting something?" Teyla looked up to find Rodney hesitating before her, rocking a bit. She held out her other hand. "We'll find them, Teyla," he said earnestly. She was able to smile a bit, though her vision wavered. She blinked rapidly.

"Already told her that, McKay," Ronon said.

"Well, yes, of course you would. But I have science," Rodney said haughtily. "Not that I'm not glad to have you on our side," he added hastily when Ronon growled.

"You two must be hungry," Teyla said, lying back.

"Are you? Can we bring you something? I'm peckish; a bite of something would be good, and Ronon can always eat."

"Tea would be lovely," she said, more to encourage them to leave. Ronon leaned over and kissed her forehead. After an awkward moment, Rodney did the same. The two men left, glancing back at her. She closed her eyes gratefully. However much she loved them, she did not have the strength to comfort them right now.

She was pregnant. Kanaan, her childhood friend, was the father of her baby. She put her hand on her abdomen, but of course, she could feel nothing. She had noticed nothing, though she supposed that would soon change. She had never paid much attention to babies; unlike some of her friends, she hadn't been baby crazy. In fact, babies and toddlers frightened her. They were so small and helpless, so utterly dependent on others. How could she be a good mother yet still do her job? How could she continue to go through the Ancestor's Ring, to visit other worlds, after she had a small baby to think of?

And where was Kanaan? Where were Halling, Anezka, Bedrich, and Nadez -- her childhood friends, their parents, their families? How could they simply disappear? It had to be the Wraith; she was certain of it. She put her hands on her face and tried to slow her breathing, but she was in agony. Stop, she whispered to herself. She must be calm and strong for the baby. They might be the only Athosians left, so she must take care of herself. Teyla had seen many cultures die out because too many had been culled. What if she was the last Athosian? And what if the Atlantians returned to Earth -- who would she be?

"Teyla?"

She looked up to find John watching her anxiously. She wiped her tears away and tried to smile at him. He looked constipated with emotion, she thought. "John."

He shyly came toward her, skittish as always. "Hey, we'll find them," he said, almost whispering. "You know that."

She tried to say "I know," but her throat was twisted with sorrow, and she could only reach for him. He let her take his hand, and even patted her arm with his other hand. What could he do? What could anyone do? But she remembered him patting her hand on the Daedalus, when they had been searching for Ronon. The same a-rhythmic pat that translated into I never leave anyone behind.

Then Rodney and Ronon returned with a tray -- tea for her, and a pile of sandwiches for themselves. They settled around her, her only family now, and kept guard.

How she wished Elizabeth were still with them, that she had found another home for her people, that she had stayed with them and not on Atlantis. But it was too late for all her wishes. She took the mug of tea and lay back against her pillows. It was too late.

She cried when she was released from the infirmary and returned to her quarters. Curled in her bed, remembering Kanaan's warm body and gentle hands, she wept until her head throbbed and her eyes were sore. She half wished Rodney would come as he used to; she would have to ask him, and maybe she would, but not tonight. When she could cry no more, she rose and washed her face, combed her hair, and then went back to bed, leaving one candle burning to light the way for the people she loved.

Each morning she found it harder to rise, to leave her room, her little enclave of Athosian memories, but she forced herself. She wanted to spend every moment of her time looking, but she still had work to do in Atlantis and, as she had told Halling years earlier, she believed she could do more here than anywhere else. So she stayed and attended staff meetings and trained people to fight and practiced meditation and ate with her teammates. She felt only half present, though, and from their looks, she knew they saw it, too.

Rodney did come one night, shyly looking in on her. "Brought you some chocolate," he said, holding out his hand. Three of what he called bars were in his hand. She knew him well enough to know what a gift this was, so she opened one bar and they shared it, sitting on her bed, shoulder to hip, sharing warmth as well as chocolate. It did taste good; there was nothing like it that she'd ever found. "Thank you," she said, putting the last piece into his mouth. His lips closed around the chocolate and he shut his eyes, inhaling deeply, letting the chocolate melt rather than chewing it. When he finally opened his eyes, he licked his lips, and said, "This sucks."

"It really does," she agreed. He put his arm around her shoulders and she let him draw her to him. Dear Rodney, she thought. He was awkward and self-important and vain and silly, but he was a good person and she knew that he loved her.

When Rodney left that night, Ronon was standing outside the door. "Uh," Rodney said, staring up at him. "What do you want?"

Ronon loomed. Teyla said, "Ronon," and he grinned toothily. Rodney snorted and pushed past him. "Goodnight, Teyla," he said around Ronon. "Don't keep her up too late," he said to Ronon, scowling. "She's pregnant, you know."

"I know," Ronon said. They stared at each other for a few more seconds until Teyla sighed loudly and said, "Come or go, both of you."

"Going, going," Rodney said, and he did. Ronon hesitated at the door; with Rodney gone, he was more subdued. Teyla stood back, and he entered, looking around.

"What can I do for you?" Teyla asked him. Her back hurt, her feet hurt, she'd eaten too much of Rodney's chocolate, and she wanted to go to bed.

"You look tired," he said. "Can I sit with you a while?"

She rubbed her stomach, the skin already stretching. Her bed looked so inviting. Ronon gently pushed her toward it. "Lie down," he said, and, bemused. she did. He sat next to her feet and slid off its boot, then began to massage her foot. "Oh, Ancestors," she sighed. She wriggled a bit, getting more comfortable. His hands were big and warm and strong, but gentle and thorough. She closed her eyes.

He tucked a corner of her bedcover over the massaged foot and started massaging the other. She had left a window open and the cool night air flowed in smelling of ocean and salt. The silence was profound. She was nearly dozing when Ronon said quietly, "I lost my people, too."

She wasn't sure how to respond. She knew he had lost so much. He went on. "There are a few of us left, you know, but pretty much the entire world is dead." He fell silent again for a long while and together they listened to the sigh of the ocean breakers as they rolled against Atlantis' piers. Finally he said, "We'll find some Athosians. Maybe not all, but some. I won't stop till we do. No matter what these Earth people do, I'll help."

She put her hands over her face. When she could speak, she murmured, "Thank you."

He didn't respond, just kept rubbing her foot. After a while he said, "You need a back rub?"

She moaned at the thought, and rolled onto her stomach, wondering how much longer she'd be able to. He knew exactly where to rub her lower back, and how hard. "Ronon, where did you learn this skill?"

"My sisters, especially my sister Retha. She was the oldest. Took care of me when I was little."

Teyla thought about Retha. Ronon had never mentioned her before. She wondered how many children Retha had had, and tried to imagine losing everyone she had ever loved. But Ronon's hands on her back distracted her, and she was so sleepy. She didn't want to think of his loneliness. Her dear friend, her teammate. The two strangers in Atlantis, Rodney had once said. She sighed and, when he pressed harder into her back, sighed again, this time with relief and pleasure.

"Three times," Ronon said suddenly, and she had to think for a moment to catch up. "She lost the first one. Second time, she had a little boy. He was three. She was pregnant again."

He didn't need to explain; Teyla knew he meant that his sister had been pregnant again when the Wraith destroyed Sateda. She made a soft noise, and turned her head to look back at him. "I'm sorry," she said at last. "Ronon, I am so sorry. I know -- I just want you to know that I consider you my family."

He paused, his head down, dreadlocks falling forward, for a long moment not moving. She breathed quietly, staying very still beneath his warm hands. Then he said, "My family, too," and began to massage her back again. Teyla wanted to do or say something, but she knew there were no words, there was nothing in the world anyone could say or do because the Wraith had taken everything from him, just as they had taken everything from her.

She lay pliant, thinking about her father, her unknown mother, her distant aunt, about Halling and Jinto, and of Kanaan. When her bladder woke her, Ronon was gone, but one candle burned in the dim room and she knew he had lit it so she wouldn't wake alone in the dark.

After that night, Teyla felt stronger and more anxious to hunt for her people. Something had changed, and she felt their presence in a way she had never before. When she slept, she dreamed about her life in Athos, the ruins of the city silhouetted in the twilight, her father still alive. She woke up happy before remembering that they were gone.

Shortly afterwards, her visions started, Michael returned, and her life fell into nightmare and darkness.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

"Why not name him Rodney? Seriously, I delivered him, I was there for you, and we, um, we, hey, did you and John? And not tell me?"

"No, Rodney," Teyla said, and sighed.

"Let me," Rodney said, and took Torren from Teyla's arms so she could carefully swing her legs over the side of her bed. "Where's Kanaan?"

"With my peop -- with the other Athosians," Teyla said, frowning. "Rodney, you know I love you, but," and then had to stop, freezing where she half sat, half leaned against the bed.

"Oh my god," Rodney said. He hitched the baby into his left arm, tucking its head against his shoulder, and then put his right arm around Teyla. "It's okay, it'll be okay," he murmured.

Ashamed, Teyla let herself turn into him and put her face into his chest. Hot tears rolled her down face, soaking into his shirt. "Sorry," she gasped.

"Don't be," he said fiercely. "God, Teyla, you are amazing. You're hurt and it's been awful, everything sucked, but it'll be okay now. You're home, and the baby is okay, everything is okay, oh Teyla."

She let herself cry for almost a minute, listening to him insist that everything was okay, before she choked out, "Everything is not okay." He fell silent, holding her tightly, and because this was Rodney, who could have returned to Earth years ago but chose not to, and because he was not an Athosian, who had been through such horrors, she said, "Nothing is okay, Rodney, and everything is wrong -- I have lost my home so many times; so few of my people survive, we are no longer Athosians but simply another group of culled and terrorized survivors with no fields to plow, no rivers to fish, no homes to return to; we have nothing, oh Rodney," she sobbed, "we have nothing," and then she could speak no longer, only cry.

He was crying, too, she realized when she finally pulled back to wipe her face and sniff. Tears had broken from his eyes and smeared his face as he looked at her in grief. "Oh," she said, but he said, "When we came here, to Pegasus, you had everything: your ancestral home, with that city behind it, and you're right, we fucked up everything. I'm so sorry, Teyla. I do that, I'm, ha, I'm the destroyer of worlds, of planets, of fucking solar systems, I am become Death."

"No, not you," she said urgently, hugging him back. "Not you. The Wraith did this."

He looked away, sniffed, and kissed the top of Torren's head. "At least you have Torren John," he finally said. "And Kanaan, if you want him. And Halling and Jinto, and Anezka and her two boys, and Bedrich and, and Nadez, and I'm forgetting a bunch. And you have us, Teyla. If you want us. And by 'us' mostly I mean me and John and Ronon, and I know you like Radek, and Lorne isn't so bad, and you're friends with the botanists, aren't you?"

She put her hand over his mouth, then leaned up and gently kissed him. "I do," she said. "I do, and you do, too." She pushed away from him and the bed, standing cautiously, getting her balance, and then took Torren from him. "Torren and I have both friends and family," she said at last. She looked at Rodney, who still looked devastated, his mouth an unhappy line, his brows drawn together tightly. "As do you. Thank you, Rodney."

Then Torren stirred in her arms, smacking and pursing his lips. "Uh oh," Rodney said. "I know what that means." He took the baby again until she was seated in a wooden rocking chair that John had had sent from Earth, then returned Torren to her and gave her a clean towel. "My sister would not believe this," he said with satisfaction.

"You just like to see my breasts," Teyla said.

Rodney turned red but lifted his chin and said, "Who could blame me? But I think John's afraid of them."

Teyla stared to laugh. "I think you're right!" she said.

"Radek says that when one eye cries the other laughs," Rodney said, sitting back on the bed to watch. He was undeniably staring at her breast as Torren played with it before beginning to suckle. Teyla heard him and wanted to ask what he meant, but then the sensation of Torren's tugging at her breast, his little noises, pulled her into that wonderful state, almost meditative, where even the uterine cramping and Rodney's babbling couldn't disturb her. Rodney stopped talking and just breathed, then lay back on the bed. She soon heard him snoring.

The door made the noise it did when John was on the other side. She wished she had the connection -- what Carson had named the gene -- that John did, so she could open the door without moving. She called quietly, hoping not to wake Rodney, "Come in!"

John slipped in, saw what she was doing, and looked away, rubbing the back of his neck. He sat next to Rodney's hip, bumping him slightly, so Rodney said, "Hmph?" and rolled onto his side, curling around John, who smiled down at him. Then he looked up at Teyla.

"Hi," he said softly.

"Hi." She smiled at him. "I am so glad to see you."

He ducked his head, and she wondered, not for the first time, what had made John so shy in these ways when he was such a loving man. But he would never tell, she knew, and she would never ask. "Yeah, it's been busy. You okay?"

She thought for a moment. At last she said, "Not yet. But with your help, I will be." She studied the expression on his face and thought that, perhaps, he was pleased.

"McKay bugging you?"

"No, quite the contrary. He has been a great help. John," she said, adjusting Torren's grip upon her nipple, "thank you for all you have done. You have again and again shown that you see no difference between the people from your world and the people here. That is too rarely true among your people. No, among all people. I thank you. Thank you," she said more earnestly, looking him in the eye, "for bringing all of us back."

He swallowed and stared at the floor. "Not home, though," he said, and she knew that, as so often, his thought had been parallel to hers. "Kinda wrecked your home."

Teyla saw that Rodney was feigning sleep, listening intently to her and John's conversation. As she had told Rodney, she said, "The Wraith did all wrecking."

"But I know most people think I woke them," he said, almost asking her. Before she could disagree, Rodney opened his eyes and poked John in the side. John tried to twist away, but Rodney grabbed his arm and held on.

"That's bullshit," he said fiercely. "I won't listen to you say shit like that. You like to remind me that I blew up most of a solar system. Don't you think if you woke the Wraith I'd let you know about it in no uncertain terms? You don't believe it, anyway; I know you don't. I don't care what anybody says. Don't be more of an idiot than the military has made you."

Teyla thought Rodney sounded unusually bitter, but then John stood up. "Shut up, McKay," he said. "Don't you --" and then he shut his mouth abruptly, staring at Rodney. Whatever passed between them was, Teyla saw, powerful, and painful, and heart-rending.

Before the silence dragged out long enough to spring Rodney into loquacity, she said, "Would one of you make tea? I am thirsty."

"I'll do it," John said, and set about the business of fetching water, starting the little naquadah-powered kettle hissing, and putting four pinches of loose tea into the daily-use pot she used. She watched him with pleasure; she liked knowing that he knew how to do this, where everything was, and how each of them preferred their tea. Rodney watched as well, sullen, until Torren began playing with her breast rather than eating; then Rodney watched her. She winked at him and he reached out. "Give the brat to me," he said, and taking Torren, swung the towel over his shoulder so he could burp the baby. "Disgusting thing," he muttered, but Teyla knew not to be offended.

That evening, Teyla went to the portion of Atlantis in which the Athosians were housed. Halling greeted her formally. He had changed so much in his time away; he looked tired and much older. When they had bowed, she hugged him tightly and after a moment, he returned her embrace. "Teyla," he whispered as she clung to him.

In his time away, Jinto had grown up without her there to watch. He was a sober young man, watching his father carefully, almost fearfully, and she wondered what terrible things he had seen. The younger children were happy, though, playing a game she remembered from her own childhood, and she thought they would be all right.

Greeting old friends took a long time, for Teyla did not rush, and stayed with each to share words and hear their stories. At last she reached Kanaan, who had stayed seated, sharpening the blades of his knives and spears. Each gleamed dangerously: hunting, cleaning, carving.

"Kanaan," Teyla said and bowed. "May I sit with you?"

He shrugged. His face was haggard and she knew from speaking with the nurses in the infirmary that he had had a difficult recovery from what evil Michael had done to him.

"I have missed you," she said. Where was her friend? She could not see the younger Kanaan in his face.

"How is your son?" he asked, his voice soft.

She smiled. "He is very well. Sleeping while some friends watch over him. I was not sure you would remember."

He set down the blade, leaving the sharpening guide attached to it, and wiped his hands. Without looking at her, he said, "I remember everything. I remember seeing you in my dreams. I remember helping you, and then waking to discover that I could not help, that I could do nothing."

"Kanaan, you did help. You guided me, and you gave me hope. And more than that, oh, dear Kanaan, please look at me! More than anything, Kanaan, you gave me Torren, my beloved Torren. Do you not wish to meet your son?"

He finally looked up at her and she realized he was amazed at her words "My son? After everything, you wish to name me as his father? Teyla, I would do anything for you, anything for him." He reached out and she took his hands; they gripped her firmly. "If you will let me share his life, oh, Teyla . . ." They stared at each other.

"Torren needs his father," she said finally, her voice thick with emotion. "And I need help," she added, hiccuping a little with both laughter and tears. He rose, pulling her to him, and she hugged him tightly, sighing as he put his arms around her. "It has been so very hard," she whispered when she caught her breath.

"Teyla, I have loved you since we were children. I will always love you."

She closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest, sighing. "Dear Kanaan," she murmured. "My dear Kanaan."

He slid his hands to her shoulders and gently leaned back. "Halling wants to return to Athos. Where would you have me?"

She breathed quietly: she could smell candles burning, the oil from Kanaan's sharpening stone, the soap from the infirmary that he'd used, and the clean scent of Atlantis. She remembered Athos, how beautiful it was before the Wraith had scorched it bare. She wanted to argue that returning to Athos was foolish, she wanted her people with her here in Atlantis, but she understood the impulse to return home. "You must do as you believe best," she told him. "But since you ask me I will say that I truly wish you would stay here, and live with me and Torren."

He smiled, the first true smile she had seen on his face in years. "I am honored," he said, and then, "Torren -- after your father. He was a good man."

"Help me teach Torren about his grandfather."

He gently kissed her, and then they rested their foreheads together. "Yes," he said in his simple way, and she thought how calming he was. She loved Rodney and John and Ronon, but each was in his own way difficult, even challenging. Kanaan was a man of Athos and she understood him in a way she never would the others.

"Thank you," she said. Then she took one of his hands and gently pulled him through the little encampments set up in the quarters set aside for her people. Anezka stood up, the first time Teyla had seen her in over two years. Her daughter, named after Teyla, leaned against her mother's leg, thumb in mouth, eyes blank. Teyla thought her heart would break looking at the small girl. She knelt and held out her arms. "Little flower," she managed to say. The girl stared at her, stubbing one toe against the floor. Anezka sank down. "Teyla, this is your namesake," she whispered to her daughter. To Teyla she said, "She's very shy. Like her father." Anezka's eyes filled with tears. "He is gone," she said, her voice only a breath.

"Anezka, I am so, so sorry," Teyla said, wiping her eyes. "I missed you so much. All of you," she added, looking up and around at her people, so few, so battered.

"Sing for us," Halling said. He sat next to Anezka and her daughter. "We have not heard your voice in too long. Help us remember."

Kanaan sat next to her and took her hand. "Sing 'Small and Dark," he told her. "Remember? Sing that again."

She settled herself, back straight, took a deep breath, another, and then began the children's song she had sung since she was a little girl:

Small and dark
Tiny and frail
Who could know
What will start
What will fail
No one can know
Until it grows
Soft and pale
But bigger and bigger
Larger and stronger
What will it be?
A flower!

Kanaan smiled again, and she saw others smile, and slowly they joined in. She sang three rounds, before the pressure in her chest grew too great. The others carried on, singing to their children and to comfort themselves.

"I missed you," Halling told her, taking her hand. Jinto, behind him, smiled at her, and began another song, pulling little Teyla onto his knee and bouncing her in time so she finally laughed. Teyla and Kanaan watched for a moment, and then she squeezed Halling's hand and stood, pulling Kanaan with her. Her people smiled at them as they made their way to the corridor leading to the transporter. That night, for the first time, she slept in Atlantis with both her son and his father.

Halling did return to Athos, to the world she had grown up on, and most of the others returned with him, trying to rebuild yet again. A few scattered, going to family or friends elsewhere, and fewer still remained in Atlantis. But Kanaan stayed with her. He and Teyla found larger quarters and her team helped them move. Richard Woolsey surprised her with gifts: a bottle of wine from Earth for her and Kanaan and a toy for Torren, a wind-up bird from Ecthis, what Richard called P35-711. Torren was too young and put the bird in his mouth, but the gesture meant a great deal to Teyla, and to Kanaan.

He had never been one to complain, Teyla knew. He was still a shy man, shyer now than ever: thoughtful and hard working, and he adored Torren. He looked at Teyla as though she were life itself and he was humbled before her. He kept their quarters tidy, made sure she ate regularly, periodically shared movie nights with her teammates, and rarely let Torren out of his sight.

But he was a hunter and she saw that he felt useless in the wide wandering corridors of Atlantis. She imagined him in the broad fields of Athos, at the forest's edge, kneeling and watching with the same quiet patience he exhibited here in this artificial world of the Ancestors. She went to John.

He was in his office, that barren space he had claimed -- to escape Rodney, he said when asked, but only when in front of Rodney. He had admitted to Teyla that he liked its quiet and isolation, but she saw in his choice another example of his asceticism, not that he would ever admit to such. His head was bowed over the desk, and he was reading something on his laptop quite intently. She stood quietly watching him, thinking about their years together. She suddenly remembered when Kanaan had asked if she would be required to marry him, to unite their people; the memory made me smile. At that moment, he raised his head. He smiled back at her.

"John," she said warmly. "May I disturb you?"

"Nothing you have ever done disturbs me," he said, gesturing toward the only other chair in the room, an uncomfortable folding metal one. She perched on the edge of its seat.

"I have come to ask a favor. No, before you agree," she added quickly, holding up her hand, for she knew John well, "let me explain. I miss my people. While I do not wish to leave Atlantis, and I never wish to leave the team, I need to be with them more often. And I believe that Kanaan and Torren would do well to live among them."

His mouth opened in surprise. He paused, gathering himself, and then said, "You don't want Torren in Atlantis?"

"Of course I do! I love my son, and I wish him to know -- she gestured around her -- "everything. Atlantis is a wonderful city, a city of dreams, and it is full of people I respect and love." She looked meaningfully at him. "But he also needs to know his Athosian history, and his family among them."

"Well, yeah, I can see that." He stared at her, frowning.

"What you can do is permit more regular gate travel between Atlantis and Athos -- daily or more. Ideally, visiting my settlement should be no more onerous than visiting Rodney's lab. Would that be possible, do you think?"

He looked so relieved. He smiled at her, a shy smile she rarely saw at other times. "Yeah, we can do that. I'll take care of everything. It's a great idea. I don't know why we haven't done it before. The Athosians -- your people -- you saved us. A lot. We owe you."

"Thank you," she said, and she heard more fervor in her voice than she had intended. "And you will come often? Athos should be your home as well."

She saw the surprise bloom in his face, and the pleasure. "Yeah, I'd like that. Really." He stood, nearly jumping up. "I don't know why we didn't think of this earlier. We should have stronger ties. Let's go talk to Woolsey."

"Now?" She rose, smiling at his enthusiasm. "Very well. Then let us visit Kanaan and tell him, and then we will practice with our bantos rods."

"You just love smacking me around," he told her, and she nodded.

"Very much so."

Kanaan was delighted to rejoin the Athosians, exhibiting his pleasure in his usual understated manner. Torren was pleased, too, though Teyla knew he'd be pleased with anyone who played with him and cooed over him and offered him tidbits to eat. In that, she thought, he was much like Rodney.

Standing in the middle of the new settlement on Athos, in the midst of the chaos of the move and a welcome feast, Teyla felt more centered than she had in years. She looked around at her friends in gratitude.

"I hate to admit it," Rodney said through a mouthful of roast venison, "but I'm gonna miss the little guy. Especially now that he's more than a wet diaper."

"Rodney," John said, but then, "Actually, you're right. He was cute as a baby but he's gonna be a great little boy."

"We need to work on his maths," Rodney said, wiping his math with the back of his hand. "Start early."

"He'll be a warrior," Ronon said, taking a chunk of venison from the platter in Rodney's hand.

"He will be whatever he wants," Kanaan said, surprising Teyla. She smiled at him and took his hand. The other men looked a little abashed, but then Rodney said, "Hey, fresh bread," and all three, lifting their heads and sniffing, headed toward the beehive oven where Chessel was pulling out round loaves. Teyla could heard them crackle as they cooled, and the smell made her mouth water. She and Kanaan followed, swinging their hands.

"Aah, ah," Torren cried when he saw them. He was with Jinto, clinging to his pants leg as he wobbled along, Jinto leaving one hand lightly on Torren's head. For a moment, Teyla experienced a happiness so profound as to leave her lightheaded. This, she thought, is joy. This is my bliss. Superstitiously, she looked into the sky, wondering if the Wraith would come to destroy this happiness, but it remained clear, the thin blue she remembered from her childhood.

She remembered her kinsmen in the highlands. Were they still there, still working in the treetops? Or had the Wraith found them, too. Soon she would go, with her team, to find out. For now, Halling and the others had decided to settle a two-day hike from the Ancestor's, and at the edge of a thick evergreen forest. He believed the Wraith would not look for survivors on Athos, and certainly not here; the old Athosian settlements had all been on the shore of the great ocean.

"Home at last?" John asked her quietly. She realized he had been studying her. Kanaan smiled shyly at him and swung Torren up, thanking Jinto. He and Ronon began discussing when to meet again for another hunt.

"I no longer know where my home is," she said honestly.

He looked rueful. "Yeah. Yeah, I know what you mean."

"You no longer feel of Earth?"

He crossed his arms, frowning, and said, "Not really. This place -- Atlantis, but with you guys, too -- it's more home than I ever had."

"You are my family as well," Teyla said. She had told him this before; perhaps one day he would believe her. She put her hand on his forearm, crossed over his chest. "John," she started.

"What about me?" Rodney asked. He handed John a slice of bread fresh from the oven, dripping with butter.

"Yes, Rodney, you are part of our family," Teyla assured him.

"Good. Good. Hey, the Daedalus brought a shipment of ice cream, so I, uh, appropriated a few gallons. They're in the ice chest over there." He nodded toward a mound of supplies he, John, and Ronon had brought through. "Might melt if we don't eat it soon."

"Can't have that," John said, licking the butter from his fingers. Teyla marked how closely Rodney watched him, his mouth slightly open. "Time for ice cream, yeah, Teyla?"

"It is time," she said, and clapped her hands.

For a blessed while, Teyla returned to the work she loved best: negotiating with other peoples for supplies, foods, labor, even medical care. No trip through the Ancestor's Ring with her team was routine, but that had been true even when she had traveled with her father.

She took Torren, Kanaan, and her team to the Athosian highlands in search of her kinsmen, remembering the long hike she and Halling had made with Bohdan, and she remembered Bohdan and their time together. "I don't know why we couldn't take the jumper," Rodney grumbled for the dozenth time. Ronon smacked the back of his head. "Hey!"

"This isn't a misson," John said.

It was late spring, the air still cool but with a hint of the heat to come. The meadows they crossed were riotous with wildflowers, and all the streams were full, rushing from the snow-laden mountains. When Teyla had last made this trip her group had taken two days, but this time, they were moving more slowly. Torren slowed them down, and Kanaan and Ronon were scouting for game. They planned to hunt regularly, and not just for the Athosians but also to supplement the Atlantians' supplies.

"Teyla," John said softly, drawing her aside as they made their way into the mountains, "why didn't these folks leave with the other Athosians? Is there really a chance they'll be here?"

"We left so quickly," she reminded him, "but they would not have come. They lived very different lives than we did. I think in some way they lived better lives, and they were certainly better hidden from the Wraith."

"But you saw the damage they did -- even the caverns you showed me are gone. Those fuckers," he added. She knew he wished he could have stopped the Wraith from ravaging her world.

"If they are not here, they have moved to higher ground. They would not leave their trees," she said. She wasn't as confident as she sounded, but she wanted to believe that Bohdan, his sister, Beta, her daughters Dusana and Dilska, and Teyla's special friend Milro would still be there, caring for the trees even though they could not reach a market for the lumber. She could help them, she thought.

But John looked concerned for her and, beyond him, she saw Kanaan watching her, a frown on his face. Then Torren wiggled in her arms, wanting down, so she and John took his hands and helped him wobble along. There was no rush. The journey, not the destination, was what she had desired when she'd proposed this adventure. "Ah!" Torren cried, trying to dash ahead; "ah!"

"Ah!" John mimicked, making Torren laugh. He was getting so big and would soon be walking without any help. He was stubborn, too, more than either she or Kanaan. Sometimes she thought he had a bit of Rodney in him, from when they had been lovers. He loved all his uncles: tall Ronon, adoring John, and especially cranky Rodney, and she envied him having such a large and loving family.

That night they camped at the edge of a meadow. Torren was asleep, worn out from all the activity, and Kanaan and Ronon were tidying up after their evening meal. John and Rodney sat with her, staring up at the stars. "What a sky this planet has," Rodney said. "I forget sometimes. Atlantis is so bright, and we're either on other worlds during the day or else they're at the back end of the galaxy or looking away from the galactic plane. This is glorious."

John lay back, arms crossed behind his head, chewing a stem of grass. He pointed. "That's kind of a big dipper," he said.

Rodney took off his light jacket and spread it out, then lay back as well. "Some of the Greek and Roman names for the constellations never made sense to me. "Aries -- who thinks that cluster looks like a Ram? It's ridiculous."

"I never could see Capricorn myself," John admitted.

"Do you have names for asterisms?" Rodney asked Teyla, leaning on an elbow to look down at her. She felt safe between them, two of her closest friends, lying in the high meadow. "Um, collections of stars and planets that seem to form a pattern?"

"We do," she said. "My father taught them to read them from many worlds so I could never be lost on a clear night." She pointed overhead and to her right. "Do you see the very bright star? A pure white? And next to it a smaller pale blue star? The blue is the eye of the dove. You spot her by finding the bright white star first -- that is the light of her home. Over there, just above the treetops, do you see a small red light?"

"That's a planet," Rodney said. "We've been there, remember?"

"I do. But because we only had stargates, not puddlejumpers, we did not know. We called it the familiar because it keeps company with the five pale pink stars behind it."

"Hey, they are pink," Rodney said, and she felt satisfied that she had taught him something.

"What are the five pink stars called?" John asked.

She laughed. "The Turtle, though I have never seen a pink turtle."

"So your names are as goofy as ours," Rodney said with satisfaction at the same moment that John asked, "The Turtle has a familiar?"

"This one has," she said. "Turtles are known for their longevity. Do you have turtles where you are from?"

They both nodded. Ronon said, "You're telling them about the turtle and her companion?" He handed her and John mugs of hot tea. Kanaan carried a sleeping Torren in a sling around his chest; he gave a mug to Rodney and settled behind Teyla, so she could rest her head on his thigh. Ronon returned with his own mug. "So tell. Let's hear if it's the same story I know."

"Very well," she said. "In the time before humans, the people were animals," she began in the traditional way, as if she were telling stories to young children. "They lived as humans do, and were as wise and and as foolish as humans are now." She leaned up a bit to sip her tea, and her John sigh with contentment. Settling back down, holding the mug to keep her hands warm, she continued. "In that time, the turtle was oldest. She had an ugly wrinkled face and her back was hardened against the weather. She had grown sad to see all her family die, and was bitter to be the last.

"The other people respected her because of her great age, but did not like her for she was sharp-tongued and could be cruel. She was alone and lonely and angry because of it."

For a moment, Teyla remembered being apart from every other Athosian, and how bitter that had been. She remembered how angry Ronon had been when they had first found him on that awful world. Poor Turtle, she thought, and took John's hand. "All around her, other people had families, and she watched the babies grow up and grow old. She remembered her husbands, for she had had many, and her wives, and of course, she remembered her own children. She had watched all of them die, too, and she mourned.

"One day as she sat on a rock in the river sunning herself, she heard something crying. Not anyone she knew; this was someone very young and frightened. She ignored it because that was what she did; she was through with all people and was only waiting to die, even though she knew that would take a very long time.

"The person cried again, this time calling help, oh Mother, please help!. The turtle ignored this, too, for she was no one's mother.

"A third time the person cried, and the tears made even the bitter old Turtle's heart ache. Please, this person cried, sobbing miserably. Oh, please, anyone."

"For a few heartbeats longer Turtle sat on her rock, but her day had been spoiled. All right, she said crossly. I'm coming. She swam toward the voice, now just weeping, and saw a strange creature, sodden and shivering as it clung to a branch that lay between two rocks in the river . It was young, and small, and very wet. What are you? the old turtle asked.

"The little creature's eyes weren't open yet, she saw, and it was shivering so hard she knew it would soon be unable to cling to the branch and would drown. She swam to it and positioned herself beneath it, so its feet rested on her back."

"Turtles all the way down!" Rodney said, and John shushed him.

"Go on, Teyla. What happened next?" John asked.

She laughed, remembering asking Charin the same thing.

"The little person's front paws slipped off the branch so it was entirely on Turtle's back. She carefully swam to shore and helped it, nudging it with her nose, until it was sprawled in the sun. When she finally saw it, she said, Why, you're a cat!. The little thing said, Mama? and for a long time the turtle was silent. The little cat asked, Are you my mama?, and Turtle thought some more. The little cat finally said, Thank you for coming to save me, Mama, and fell asleep on the shore.

The turtle watched over the little cat. She had never seen one quite like it. It wasn't a bobcat; it wasn't a tiger; it wasn't a lion or a leopard or a lynx. When its fur had completely dried, she saw the colors were like the colors in the shells of her own babies, a tortoise shell, and when it woke and opened its eyes, it smiled at her and said, Mama!

"So Turtle said I'm here, dear and went to the other people for help feeding the little thing. When it got bigger she saw it was a boy, and by then she loved it, so she called him her son.

"To reward Turtle for her kindness, the cat stayed with her always, and even now, he circles her, chasing his tail around his turtle mother, as you see above us."

"Oh my god," Rodney said. She couldn't tell if he was horrified or moved by the story. Knowing Rodney as she did, she thought both. She laughed again.

"That's, that's -- really a good story," John said.

"Yeah," Ronon said with satisfaction. "I had a cat like that when I was little. I called it Turtle."

"My grandmother did, too," Kanaan said.

"I never had a tortoiseshell," Rodney said thoughtfully. "A big black fellow, though, and later and a grey. I miss cats."

They were silent then, lying peacefully in the meadow, looking up at the sky and the worlds above them.

The next day they reached what Teyla was sure had been the settlement of her kinsmen. The little shelters, the ooee, were gone, vanished completely, not subsided into the loamy soil. What might have once been a rope ladder hung wrapped loosely around a branch high in a tree, but no other signs of habitation. Teyla wandered from tree to tree, peering up, wondering if she remembered correctly. Many years had passed, and she had visited so many worlds since that time.

The others had fallen silent, even Torren, watching with his fingers in his mouth. John was holding him, kissing the top of his head. Rodney was studying his little life signs detector, frowning. Ronon's head was cocked and his gaze distant; he was listening. Kanaan watched her, his face concerned. She closed her eyes and listened as hard as she good. She heard the wind in the branches of the tallest trees, a soft sighing sound like waves on a beach. She heard little birds arguing among themselves. A small animal called: pow-wheee, pow-wheee.

She opened her eyes. "They are gone."

"Hiding from the Wraith," Kanaan said quickly.

"Perhaps. I hope so." She looked up again, and pointed. "The school was up there. They had walkways in the canopy, and spent much time in the crowns of the largest trees.

"I think Kanaan is right," John said. "They left here, maybe to avoid the Wraith. I bet they're higher up, or living in another mountain range. It's a big world."

"We'll do a flyover," Rodney said, putting away the LSD. "Find them. They can't know you're back. Maybe they don't even know the Wraith have left."

"We'll find them," Ronon said.

Kanaan put his around around Teyla. "We will find them," he repeated. "You found us; you'll find them." All four men looked determined, and she smiled. If the highland Athosians lived, then yes. They would be found.

"We will," she agreed. She took Kanaan's hand. "If you will keep Torren for a little while?" she asked John. "I wish to show Kanaan something." She led him away, hearing Rodney say, "We'll just wait here then, yes?"

She knew she was in the right place when she found the meadow full of little blue asterids. She led Kanaan into their midst, their footsteps releasing the scent. "This is what I wanted to show you," she said, leaning into him. He embraced her, and they kissed, standing in a sea of blue, surrounded by tall graceful trees. "Thank you for waiting for me," she whispered.

He didn't answer. He kissed her again, stroking her face, her shoulders, pulling her nearer so she felt his desire for her. She remembered being with Bohdan here but felt no nostalgia, only gratitude that she could share this place with her dear Kanaan. Together they sank into the soft welcome of the asterids, shafts of morning sunlight streaming through the leaves of the trees swaying above them. "You are so beautiful," Kanaan told her between kisses. "Your skin glows in this light, and your eyes, Teyla, they are --"

"The color of Turtle," she said, laughing and kissing him back. "Tortoiseshell."

He rolled her onto her back, smiled down at her, and then gentle stroked her left breast. "Beautiful," he whispered.

"Wait, wait," she said, pushing him back enough so she could sit up and pull off her overshirt and blouse.

"Oh, Ancestors," he murmured, touching her nipple, lifting her breast. "So beautiful." She arched back and he kissed her breast, flicking her nipple with his touch, and she groaned with pleasure. "Right here?" he asked, tearing off his own shirt. "The others?"

"They will be fine," she said, and began unlacing the front of his trousers. "Oh, Kanaan," she said. This was so different from her first time with Bohdan, when she had been overwhelmed by him and a little frightened. This was Kanaan, who loved her across galaxies and who had given her Torren John. When they were nude, they lay panting on the flowers, staring into each other's eyes, and he began to kiss her again, passionately, possessively; she had never known him to be so wild. He fitted himself on top of her and them pushed into her, staring into her eyes as she lifted her hips to him. They moved slowly, and faster, then he slowed and pressed his hand between them so she could rock against the heel of his palm, but it wasn't enough.

She pushed Kanaan to one side and he rolled away from her then onto his back. She straddled him, sitting over his cock so she could push and slide against him. He groaned and pulled her down, kissing and fondling her breasts. Her muscles bunched and tightened and she could her climax so near, so near, and she rested her head on his chest and shuddered. She slumped back, and after a few deep breathes, slid further down his legs to take him into her mouth. "Oh, Teyla," he shouted, and climaxed. She swallowed and licked at him, gently biting his balls, then nuzzling them and his softening cock. "Teyla," he whispered, and stroked her hair.

They lay together for a few minutes more before dressing. Holding hands, they returned to the others who had started a small fire and were heating water and eating. Ronon gave them a knowing smirk; Rodney rolled his eyes though she saw he had a hidden smile. John was feeding Torren; he looked up at her, a bit shy, but happy for her. She smiled at him, the smile she saved for her friend John. "Thank you," she told him, sitting next to him on the ground. Torren smacked his sticky lips happily, face smeared with the nut butter he loved while John tried to wipe him off. "Ah!" he crowed at her.

"Thank god," John said. "It's your turn." He tossed her the gooey towel and wiped his hands on the grass. "Messy face," he said to Torren. "What a messy guy you are." Torren beamed at him.

"Well, what next?" Rodney asked. "Hang around? Move on? Go back?"

"Hang around," John said, and looked at Teyla.

"If you don't mind," she said to them. "One night here and then home?"

"Kanaan," Ronon said. "Let's check out the game."

Kanaan kissed her and Torren, and followed Ronon. "Bring back something good!" Rodney shouted after them. Kanaan waved cheerfully as they trotted off.

"So, what, this is a vacation?" Rodney asked. He flopped back, sighing. "So much to do in Atlantis," he murmured. Teyla knew he'd drop off into a much-needed nap if she and John were quiet. She motioned to John and carried Torren to the small creek that meandered through the abandoned settlement. The water was very cold, but she managed to clean Torren's face even though he kept twisting away. John helped by distracting him.

"This was a good idea," he told her when Torren's face was finally free of his mid-morning snack and he was dozing in her arms. They sat on the side of the creek; John tossed twigs into the water and they watched them sail away, spinning in the current. "I'm sorry your friends weren't here."

"As am I," she said. "But it was many years ago that I visited; there was no reason to believe they would still be here. We know the signs of a culling, and I see none here, so I have hope. I would like to see them again."

"Rodney'll find 'em," he said confidently. "You know that."

"I do."

She watched him pluck a stem of grass and fit it between his thumbs, then gently blow through them. "Not too loud; you'll wake Rodney," she murmured. He nodded, whistled a bit more and then tickled her cheek with the grass. She smiled at him. "How are you and Rodney?" she asked.

He looked away quickly, tossing the stems aside and shrugging. After a few seconds, he said, "He's seeing Keller."

She was amazed. "Jennifer? With Rodney?" She remembered to keep her voice down but couldn't help looking back at him where he dozed. "Oh, John."

"Hey," he said. "You know Rodney and a pretty girl."

She sighed. "Why do you not speak to him?"

He rolled his eyes. "Right. I can imagine how that would go over." He shrugged again. "Doesn't matter."

"It does," she insisted. "He can be so foolish, for one so brilliant. As can you," she added.

"He'd agree with that." John leaned back on his hands and looked up at the sky, through the thick cover of the treetops. "Besides, you're not supposed to ask."

"You are my family, John. Of course I will ask." She realized she sounded irritated, and took a deep breath. "Anyone with eyes can see what is between you two."

"Anyone except Rodney," he said. "And wait, anyone? Jesus, that's comforting." He frowned.

"You know what I mean. Anyone who loves you." He looked away, as usual, shy of any declaration. "John, it's important to me that you know you are my brother. I love and respect you. Please accept this from me." He shrugged, and then flashed her a grateful smile.

She shifted Torren to her right side and rested her hand on John's in the grass beside her. They sat quietly for a while longer, until Torren woke and began to fuss. John said, "Let me," and seizing Torren, leapt over the creek. Torren screeched happily. John set him down and took his hands, helping him toddle through the tall grass, both laughing. Teyla watched, so happy to see them, so happy to be here.

She would remember this day, she knew. As if it were one of Evan's paintings, or one of the photographs that had sat on Elizabeth's desk, she would have this day in her memory. Hearing John laugh was as important to her as hearing Torren; knowing Kanaan was racing Ronon through the forest, and that Rodney was resting -- she turned and saw him slumped bonelessly over his pack -- these images she would keep and treasure. She did wish her kinsmen were here, but she pushed away her fears. Rodney, as he loved to remind her, was a genius, and if they could be found, he would find them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

"Now that you are back, will take up your work with the council again?" Halling asked her one afternoon. The sky had been cloudy and threatening rain all day; now the sun was setting and its light slipped beneath the cloud cover turning everything a creamy orange and yellow. They were stacking wood, preparing for the winter.

"I'm not sure I knew the council was functioning," Teyla said. She paused to stretch her back and dust off her hands. "Who is first?"

"A most unpleasant woman named Shiana. Do you know here? She is from Santhal. I do not believe she traveled much through the Ancestor's Ring before taking the post."

Teyla shook her head. "I do not. Santhal. They stayed to themselves, as I recall. We rarely traded with them, and then usually at one of the markets. How odd that she should work with the council."

"They are not happy."

"As Rodney would say, who is?" They exchanged glances, and Halling nodded at the truth of the statement.

"We can only accept the peace of the moment. One breath, and all may change."

Well, that was certainly truth, Teyla though. They returned to their work. She thought about the council, but it was not time for her to return to that work. She had much to do in Atlantis, with her people, and with her family.

When Teyla learned that the Wraith whom John had named Todd was requesting their assistance and dangling the possibility of a ZPM before the Atlantians, she had grave doubts. "It is possible that he mentioned the Zero Point Module simply to get our attention," she pointed out, but as she had known, they would not listen. Rodney in particular was greedy for the power, and in her heart she did not blame him for that desire. She did, however, urge caution to all who would listen -- but there were few who would. Not even Richard, normally a very cautious man, but the possibility that their own world was in danger spurred him on. She kissed Torren and Kanaan farewell and sent them through the Ancestor's Ring to stay with the Athosians while she and her teamed beamed into the Daedalus.

She stayed in the background, closely watching events unfurl. When Richard said earnestly to her and Ronon, "Your involvement in this mission. I'm told we're about to pass the outer edge of the Pegasus galaxy. If you wish to be dropped off, now would be the time," they only glanced at each other. John, Rodney, and so many others had tried to help them, so she would do the same for them and for their Earth.

"Thank you for your consideration, Mr Woolsey, but I assure you it is not necessary," she told him. She thought of her baby Torren, and dear Kanaan; how far away they would be. But she stood straighter and promised herself that they would understand. Kanaan certainly would. He always had, more than she ever knew.

The evil moment when she realized that Ronon was dead still woke her years later, gasping in anguish, remembering how Rodney had sounded calling his name, the grief on John's face. When she thought they all would die in the hive ship, and she would be scattered into the atmosphere of Earth, she could only think of Torren growing up without a mother, just as she had, and tried to comfort herself with the knowledge that Kanaan loved him and would see he grew up into a fine man. She held Ronon's hand and waited to learn, from Earth or from Rodney, whether the Wraith or they had succeeded. She had trouble imagining a world that had never known the depredation of the Wraith. Knowing that even one world remained free, especially a world so populous, one that contained friends she had made, like Sam Carter and Jeannie Miller, would be worth a few deaths, even her own.

Then she heard Sam's voice crying, " It's Atlantis! They're engaging the Hive!" and could breathe again. Atlantis was here, functioning, saving them again, the beautiful flying city, and then Rodney had the Ancestor's Ring these Wraith had stolen functioning so they could step through to another world, one she did not recognize. John followed last. Their eyes met, and he said, "The Wraith are gone." She sagged in relief, then clutched at Ronon who was slumping against her. Evan Lorne helped her lower him to the well-trodden ground, and people she did not recognize were rushing toward the gate, calling greetings to Rodney.

They took him back to Atlantis, to the infirmary there, and when she stepped into the gateroom with John and Rodney and the others, tears of relief filled her eyes. Richard smiled at her before his attention was pulled away by Chuck and Amelia simultaneously relaying information to him. "Oh my god, he's been fed on," Marie said as she cut away Ronon's clothing. Rodney was shouting at John, who dragged him away. Teyla heard Rodney say, "Why is your answer always suicide? Give me time, give me a chance, goddammit, John!" before they disappeared down the corridor. Radek rushed in, asking, "Where is Rodney? We have problem, zmrde zkurvenej, he disappears, why not, we don't need him," and then rushed back our.

There was so much going on. Teyla found an empty chair and sat. She felt lightheaded.

Evan Lorne knelt in front of her. "You all right?" he asked.

"I am on Earth," she said, surprising herself.

He grinned. "Yeah, and near my home. Soon as things settle down, I'll show you around."

"Thank you, Evan."

He patted her knee. "I saw McKay reading the colonel the riot act. Think I should interrupt?"

"If you can manage without the colonel, I suggest you do so. Rodney will not appreciate being interrupted."

"Yeah, but the colonel would. Still, I'm more afraid of McKay than I am of Sheppard, so, you're right." He stood. "Thanks, Teyla." He left before she could respond.

She was on Earth. Well, Atlantis was on Earth. For the first time, she wondered what significance that would have for the people here. John had told her that the stargate system was kept secret here. She couldn't imagine a life so constrained. Where did one go to trade, to find work, to find a partner? So many beautiful worlds to explore, but these people had no way to know.

Richard came into the infirmary, looking around for someone. One of the Marine nurses, Sergeant Brickman, saw him and came over. "Mister Woolsey," he said. "You want a status update."

"Please."

"Lance Corporal Dabirian fell down some stairs and fractured his right elbow. Gunnery Sergeant Arrequin got some glass in his face when we landed, but nothing in his eyes. Doctor Sharifi from Electrical Engineering was shocked by some equipment, and bruised when it fell on him. That's probably our worse injury; Doctor Keller is working on him. Ronon was injured and we thought fed on, but it turns out the Wraith revived him, so he's better than ever. Oh, Chuy Chuaycham twisted some muscles in his back but he saved Doctor Parrish from a huge plant falling on him." He thought. "One of the cooks, Jasper Dang, burnt his hand. I have no idea why he was trying to cook. Or what," he added.

"I could eat," Richard said, and they both nodded. He noticed Teyla. "Thank you, Sergeant," he said, touching the sergeant's elbow. I'll have coffee and pastries sent here right away. Teyla, my dear, you look pale. Sergeant?"

Sergeant Brickman, as Evan had done, knelt in front of her. He took her pulse, and touched her forehead.

"I am fine," she told him. "Just a bit unsettled."

"We all are," he said. "Let me take your blood pressure just to be sure." He pulled a machine on a wheeled trolley to her and wrapped her left upper arm. Richard brought another chair over and sat waiting. "Okay, looks good," the sergeant said. "Cool as cucumber, aren't you, ma'am."

"Perhaps not that cool," she admitted. "Thank you for checking." She turned to Richard. "I will help you bring the food here."

"Oh, I -- well, all right. Of course, everyone else will be busy." He stood and offered her his arm. "Thank you, Sergeant. We'll be back shortly."

Sergeant Brickman nodded, and they left, walking slowly. "I probably should have had him take my blood pressure," Richard confided. "I was pretty rattled. Not used to flying around in cities, especially one that might blow up." At her look he said, "We got here using something called wormhole travel -- Radek told me about it. It has never been used before. He and Doctor McKay adapted from Ancient technology."

"So you chose to risk Atlantis and the lives of everyone on it in the hopes of reaching Earth?"

He looked embarrassed. "I thought -- I don't know how I'll ever sleep again, but I thought it would be better to be dead having tried to reach Earth than to live under the Wraith."

She paused and waited until he noticed and came back. "Teyla?" She put her hands on his shoulders and tilted her head. After many heartbeats, he rested his forehead against hers and they breathed together. When she finally looked at him, his face was flushed. "Thank you, my dear," he said. They continued to the mess hall and then back into where the food was prepared. One woman was singing in a loud clear voice:

A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord,
A wonderful Savior to me;
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
Where rivers of pleasure I see.

Lizzie Hendrickson, the head cook, came toward them, wiping her hands on a bright yellow towel. "Mister Woolsey! Miss Emmagan!" she called. "It is fine to see you this morning on Earth!"

"It is indeed, Ms Hendrickson," Richard said, and they shook hands firmly. "How is everyone?" he asked, looking around. "I understand that someone was injured."

"Oh, Jasper," Lizzie said. "He was worried that the hot water heaters would fall, and fall they did, but if he hadn't been back there, he would not have been hurt. Still, he had our best at heart."

"No one else?"

"No, sir, not a bump or a bruise."

"I'm relieved. There was so much damage to the city; we're lucky that so few were hurt."

"Thank you, Jesus," the singing woman cried.

Lizzie rolled her eyes and said quietly, "Dolores is happy to be home. I think she'll stay behind this time. She found the folks we met in Pegasus not as interested in the lord as she'd hoped."

"She has a lovely singing voice," Richard said doubtfully.

"She can sing back home in Waukegan," Lizzie told him. "Now, I know there're people needing hot drinks and such, so we've been working."

"Thank you, Ms Hendrickson," Richard said, and his voice rang with fervor. "There's a lot I'd give right now for a cup of hot coffee."

"No cream, no sugar," Lizzie said, "and for you, Miss Emmagan, we have your tea."

"We can take a cart to the infirmary," Teyla offered, remembering the harried staff they'd left.

"We'll do that. You go sit; you look ready to fall over. I'll bring you the tea myself." She hustled them out of the big kitchen and Richard took them to a table by the windows.

"Still intact," he said, looking up at them. The Earth's sun seemed yellower than suns Teyla was accustomed to, but perhaps the glass it shone through colored it. She sat, happy to be off her feet, and wondered where John and Rodney were. What would happen to them here? She knew from her years with them that any relationship they might have had would be strained here. She sighed. Then Lizzie returned with a tray containing tea and coffee and a plate of the twice-baked cookies Rodney loved. "Biscotti," Teyla said, smiling up at Lizzie.

"Made with love," she said. "Thank you for coming, Miss Emmagan. It's a long way, and we're not your people. We all appreciate what you did, what you've done for us all these years."

"Thank you, Lizzie," Teyla said, touched despite herself. When Lizzie had returned to the kitchen, Teyla thought, not your people. She sighed.

The tea was, however, excellent. She wrapped several cookies in a napkin to take to Ronon.

Richard left her at the transporter so she returned to Ronon alone. "Hey," he greeted her from the hospital bed where he lay. A tube ran into his arm, and he looked more tired than she could remember seeing him, but he was well and whole. She held out the napkin; he grinned, greedy as a child. "Thanks."

She sat next to him and watched him eat. He licked his fingers and said, "Think we're stuck here."

She wasn't startled; she had been wondering the same. "I hope not," she finally said.

"Evan says he'll show us the city we landed near. He's from here. Says we'll like it."

She nodded. She had seen Evan's paintings of the city and thought it beautiful. So big, though. "I look forward to that," she said. He nodded. "Lizzie Hendrickson reminded me that we are not -- not Earth people." He stopped chewing and studied her. "I have some concerns."

He swallowed and said, "Yeah. The IOA won't forget that. We shouldn't, either." They shared a long look, and then he began eating the cookies again. "Good," he said, muffled.

At last Richard escorted Teyla to a balcony overlooking the city; Jennifer, Rodney, and Carson were already there, squinting in the brilliant sunshine. The air smelled metallic to Teyla, overlaid with the scent of fuel. The skyline was, she admitted, beautiful: sharp and clear in the clear light with tall graceful buildings clustered in the city center, their windows glinting mirror bright. She paid no attention to the conversation around her but watched Rodney and Jennifer as covertly as she could. Then John stepped into the light. "Oh, so this is where everyone went, huh?" He sounded normal, a little bored, but she saw his face; she knew him better than anyone else and her heart sank. She turned back to the view, leaning over the balcony to watch the water below. She closed her ears to further conversation and listened to the waves break against the piers of Atlantis.

The IOA in their usual contrary way took much time before they would give permission for Ronon and Teyla to be permitted ashore. A launch came out nearly every day and ferried many people to the mainland. Some were just visiting the city but many were going home: Chuck, Radek, Miko -- many from the first expedition were leaving. They came to say goodbye to Teyla. "We'll be back," Radek said, shyly taking her hand. "I have too much work to do. Plus I am not very fond of my nieces and nephews. Or my sisters," he added, frowning. "I shouldn't admit that. But I prefer the laboratory to the living room."

Impulsively, Teyla embraced him. "I hope you do come back, Radek. I will miss you." He blushed, which made her laugh, her first laugh in weeks, and then he kissed her cheek before hurrying off. "Don't let Rodney blow anything up!" he called back to her.

The city's corridors echoed in their emptiness as she wandered them, peering into vacant labs and offices. Almost three weeks passed before Richard found her on that same balcony. "At last," he said. He shook his head. "I admit that I'm a bureaucrat, but Teyla, I have never seen such delight in formalities and protocols and procedures. Or perhaps my year in Pegasus has changed me. At any rate, I'm happy to tell you that, with some qualifications, you are free to explore my world. And I hope you do, Teyla. In fact, I would like you to visit New York while I am there. I think you would enjoy seeing the American Ballet Theatre. I want to see John Neumann's The Lady of the Camellias; you will love it." He seemed so enthusiastic that she had to smile.

"I do wish to see this," she told him. She knew ballet was a form of stylized dancing, very ritualized, though it looked uncomfortable to perform.

"Excellent," he said, clasping his hands together and beaming at her. "In the meantime, Major Lorne has asked permission to show you San Francisco; he's from here and knows the city well. Ronon and Amelia are going. Doctor McKay is taking Doctor Keller to meet his sister in Vancouver; between you and me, I think there's something serious going on there."

"Yes," she said and tried to look cheerful, but she remembered John's face when he'd seen them together on this very balcony.

"Well, my flight leaves tonight, so I'll say goodbye now. But you have an email account, and I know anyone will be happy to help you use it. I'll make arrangements for you to fly out. I'm hoping that the others will come, too." He looked so happy, his face shining in the sun, that she smiled and squeezed his hands before he left, walking swiftly away and leaving her alone.

Evan found her there shortly afterward. "Hey," he called. "Woolsey said you might be here. The launch is here to take us in. Can you pack something for a few nights' stay?"

"Thank you, Evan," she said, coming to his side. "You are very kind."

"Naw, I just love this place. I'm excited to show it off. It's weird, though. Not like anywhere else on Earth. Or in Pegasus."

"So I must not judge the Earth by what I will see?"

She was only teasing him, but he took her seriously. "Well, yes and no. I mean, a big city's a big city: noise, pollution, homeless people, crime. That's everywhere. But there's a kind of. Hmm. I think I'll let my mom tell you. That's where we're going." He glanced at his watch. "Can you be on the southeast pier in an hour?"

"I will be there."

"Great!" He jogged off, and she went to pack as if going on a mission.

Ronon and Amelia arrived at the same time she did; Evan was there along with several other of John's men. She had not seen the other members of her team for several days. She knew that Rodney had gone; he had not said goodbye, which hurt her feelings but she knew how Rodney could be when excited. He would eventually remember her and feel badly when he did; she could expect nothing more. John she believed was intentionally staying away from her, and that hurt her even more. She said nothing, nor did she seek him out. He was in pain, she knew.

She stepped into the launch with a smile for her colleagues. "Ooo-rah!" one of the younger Marines shouted; he had not been stationed on Atlantis very long and looked wildly excited. "Ooo-oof!" An older Marine elbowed him, looking irritated. Teyla had seen that cycle before: young and determined to be a hero. Time usually took care of that, or the Wraith.

Evan was right; San Francisco was a beautiful city, but she found it dirtier than she thought necessary for a city of such wealth. The elderly camped out on the pavement in front of elegant buildings of glass and steel, in little parks, along the waterfront. Young people wearing leather and chains smoked and lounged along the streets, some with vicious looking dogs, and even some of the dogs wore chains. People flew by on bicycles, and on motorized cycles that hurt Teyla's ears and smelled foul. She grew exhausted quickly.

But she loved the pastel buses, and even the ugly electric buses with long antennae like enormous insects had their charm. Beneath the ground buses and trains rushed along, and everywhere people walked and ran and biked and queued without a thought for what evil might rain down from them. No Wraith; never Wraith. If the cost to live without Wraith was the foulness of the air, would she pay it? She admitted that she would.

Evan's mother was funny; short, buxom, with his smile and eyes, she welcomed everyone into her home, a tall narrow building painted pink with green trim. "There's coffee, and yes, I made Aunt Ada's coconut cake, and sandwiches, but they're veggie, no meat, I'm afraid."

"That's fine, Ma," Evan said, kissing her cheek, then grabbing a little boy and swinging him around. "Tyler! Is this Tyler? Wow, you got big."

Someone shrieked and a young woman hurtled down the stairs into the front room where they were all crowded. "Evan!" she cried. He set down Tyler and hugged her back and forth. A man followed her, and another woman. Kids were everywhere, and Teyla missed Torren so much her chest hurt. Evan's mother took her aside.

"I'm Sunshine," she said. "And you're Teyla; I've heard about you. And this big guy is Ronon," she said, looking up at him.

"And this is Amelia," Teyla said. "Thank you, Sunshine, for inviting us into your home."

"I'm so happy you're here. I wanted to meet the people my son has spent so many years with. Here, sit, and have something to eat. What have you done? Have you seen anything? Evan! Where are you taking them?"

"Ma," he said, coming over to kiss her again. "I don't know. I thought I'd leave that up to you. Hey, these are my two sisters, Carmen and Hannah, and this is Carmen's husband, Bruce. And the kids -- well, I'm not sure. Tyler and Bea and their friends." Bea was a shy little girl who hugged her mother's knees and peered up at Ronon in amazement.

They settled down, Teyla watching Evan's smile, while the Earthers discussed what they should see: Painted Ladies, Fisherman's Wharf, the Ferry Building, Golden Gate Park, Golden Gate Bridge, the Mission, a cathedral . . . she grew lost among all the names. She remembered when John first came to Athos. Had he wondered where their sights were? The Athosians had left their city so long ago.

"You're overwhelmed," Sunshine said quietly to Teyla. "Ev says I'm not to ask where you're from, but I can tell it isn't a big city. But San Francisco is really just a collection of neighborhoods. We're in what's called the Sunset, about a block from Ocean Beach. Anyway, I'm happy to chauffeur you around. I was born here; in fact, my mother was born here and lived in this very house."

"Only reason we could afford to live here is because we inherited this place," Carmen said, offering Teyla another sandwich. "Mom, these are good. Where'd you get the bread?"

"Noe Valley Bakery," Sunshine said. "They had Mexican Wedding cookies, so I bought you a dozen."

"You are so sweet," Carmen said, and kissed her mother's cheek. "Also, you'll make me fat." She took another bite of her sandwich.

"Cookies?" Evan said. "Ma, did you make those chocolate chip ones?"

"No, I did not; they take forever. But I bought some."

He made a face, but didn't decline the bought ones. Teyla took one, too; it was as big around as her hand and heavy with chunks of chocolate, a food that Rodney had taught her to love. Thinking about him made her stomach hurt, though, and she unobtrusively handed the cookie to Ronon. He studied her while eating it but said nothing.

After their lunch, Sunshine herded them into her vehicle. Carmen and Bruce and their children stayed behind, but Hannah came with them. "Oh god, it isn't mine," Sunshine had exclaimed while they settled in it. "I'd never own something like this. Evan rented it just for your visit." Evan put Teyla in the front next to his mother; Ronon and Amelia sat in the middle row, and behind them were he and Hannah, who pointed out sights.

Teyla quickly became disoriented. She tried to pay attention, but there were so many people. She saw people who smelled bad and wore ragged clothing; Evan told her they were homeless. "It's so expensive to live here," he explained. "Some are scammers, but a lot are sick, either crazy or on drugs. Don't meet their eyes, just look away." But she couldn't look away. All the people from Earth that Teyla knew were well bathed and well dressed, and their teeth were white and even. These people's jaws were collapsed, some had sores on their faces. Some had dogs with them, and a few had children.

"To live in a city is to be willfully deaf and blind," Sunshine said to her. They were standing almost beneath the enormous bridge they called golden, though Teyla thought it was orange. The beach was full of people speaking many languages, only a few of which Teyla could understand. She wondered if that was because so few Earth people went through the Ancestor's Ring. The others were in the Warming Hut, a two-story wooden building, while she and Sunshine waited outside.

"This is very different from my home," Teyla responded after a while. "Evan had warned me, but I realize now that I did not understand him."

"Maybe we should go back," Sunshine suggested but Teyla shook her head.

"No, no, I want to see. There's so much to see."

"And you'll have time. Evan says the IOA won't be in any hurry."

"They never are," Teyla agreed. "And we are not important to them." She tried to laugh but stopped. Sunshine touched Teyla's arm. "I am all right," Teyla said, clearing her throat.

Ronon and the others filed out of the Warming Hut. He handed her a plastic bottle of water, and smiled down at her. "Great place to go for a run," he said. "Or meditate."

She slapped his forearm, smiling back at him. Sunshine said, "Do you meditate? Vipassana?"

"Her own style, Ma," Evan said, and there was a warning in his voice.

"I know, no questions. Sorry, Teyla."

"I would be interested to learn about Vipassana," Teyla said.

"Great. You're staying with us so we can sit tonight. It will do Evan good to sit with us."

Evan made a face but didn't disagree. "Where next?"

Sunshine studied Teyla. "Let's go to the Legion of Honor. It's the most peaceful place I know, and I think we could use some peace and quiet right now." They climbed the wooden steps back up the hill to where they had parked Sunshine's vehicle.

Sunshine was right, Teyla thought as they wandered through the quiet museum. It appeared to consist of a series of beautifully proportioned rooms, color-coded, she learned, to indicate the kind of paintings it contained. She had seen museums before on many worlds, but this was the largest. Yet this was not the largest on Earth, or even the largest in this city, Hannah told her. Just one of many holding beautiful artifacts of past times on this world.

She spent some time standing in front of an enormous painting that Hannah told her was called The Russian Bride's Attire. "That's my favorite painting in here," Hannah said quietly. "I always stop by this."

"Does it have a meaning?"

Hannah made a little face. "I've heard different stories about it from different docents. I know that the artist was painting something that happened about a hundred years earlier than he lived, that when he was alive people didn't dress like that. Those boots, for example. But beyond that, I'm not sure anyone knows. I just know I love the detail, and how beautiful the clothing is, and I love the way the bride is looking at her bridesmaid. At least, I assume it's her bridesmaid."

"Which one is the bride?"

"In white, see?"

"So the woman at her feet is not her lover?"

"Well, I'd like to think she is. The two women look so sad. But her husband-to-be is that big guy trying to get into the room."

"My friend Rodney told me that in this country, women cannot marry women here, nor men marry men."

"Well, in some places they can, but mostly, no. You were thinking the two women were the brides?"

Teyla nodded, and sighed. She thought the woman on the floor slightly resembled Sora, and wondered whether she would ever forgive Teyla for the death of Tyrus.

"Come on," Ronon said, surprising her. "Lorne says there's a place to eat here." He left, pulling Amelia after him; she smiled at Teyla and beckoned.

"The cafe does have good coffee," Hannah said. "And the gift shop sells a postcard of this picture, if you want."

"Thank you," Teyla said, and left the beautiful painting in the beautiful room.

The three of them spent two nights at Sunshine's. Evan gave up his room at the top of the house to Amelia and Ronon, and Hannah shared her room with Teyla. Hannah reminded Teyla very strongly of Evan; she was quiet, with a fierce sense of humor and a deep kindness about her. Their mother was much the same. On the third day, Amelia left with Ronon, taking him to her home in another city. Ronon held Teyla so tightly that she thought her arms would bruise, and then kissed her cheeks: right, left, right. "Take care," he said gruffly.

Sunshine put her arm around Teyla's shoulders. "We'll take care of her," she promised. "Come back soon."

"If I can," Ronon said. A yellow vehicle was waiting for them so they left quickly, and then Teyla was alone with Evan's family.

"Is there someplace you have to be?" Sunshine asked her. "You're welcome to stay here as long as you want, or make it your home base while you explore. I know Evan has to go back to Colorado, and Hannah to DC, so it would just be the two of us for a while."

Evan said, "Stay, Teyla. I'd feel better knowing you were here. If you need anything, Ma'll get it for you. But don't go back to -- don't go back right now. The SGC knows you're here and you'll probably be asked to check in, but they'll call. They have your number." He looked at his mother. "And your subcutaneous transmitter tells them where you are at all times, so they shouldn't worry."

She wondered if there was a reason she should not return to Atlantis, or if he was just being kind. She thought about the echoing corridors and empty rooms. "Do you know where John is?" she finally asked.

Evan looked stricken. "Uh, they called him back. First to Colorado and then to DC." He looked so pained that she asked, speaking quietly, "Is John in some trouble?"

Evan shook his head. "I wouldn't say trouble. But I know the brass have never appreciated him." He shrugged. "Don't worry," he said, but she was not convinced. She wanted to ask him when John would be back, but of course, Evan would have no way of knowing. He and John served forces larger than themselves and must be obedient to them. She nodded.

"Then thank you, Sunshine, Evan. I would like to stay, at least for a while." Evan looked so relieved that she began to worry.

Hannah insisted that Teyla stay in her room. "I'm hardly ever here," she said. "It's more a guest room now, and you're our guest." She hugged Teyla, abrupt and awkward in a way Teyla had never seen her before. "We'll stay in touch," she said, and kissed Teyla and her mother goodbye.

Evan shook Teyla's hand and then pulled her into a hug. "I won't forget you," he whispered. "We won't forget." He hugged his mother tightly and said to her, "Look after her, Ma. There's things I gotta do."

Sunshine smoothed the hair from his forehead. She looked old enough to be Evan's mother for the first time since Teyla had met her. "I know," she said. "I love you for it." Her voice broke. Evan hugged her again, and then he and Hannah left together in another yellow vehicle.

Sunshine watched the vehicle move away. She walked out of the house and into the front garden to follow it with her eyes. When it had disappeared around the corner, she turned. "I'd like to take a walk."

"Of course," Teyla said, and backed into the house.

"No, I'm sorry -- I meant with you. Down to the beach. It always comforts me."

Teyla shut the door behind her and walked the short distance from Sunshine's tall narrow house to where the sand was spilling into the street. In her time here, the mornings had always been foggy and much of the day, but this afternoon, the sun was brilliant and the waves sleek. A dog pulled a young woman riding a skateboard. A few surfers were bobbing a distance out, waiting for something to ride. Sunshine had told Teyla that the water here was dangerous, but that hadn't kept her children out of it. All this reminded Teyla of John, far away, and apparently in trouble. She missed him so much: his dry humor, his shy teasing, his kindness.

But Sunshine was right; it was better on the beach. They took off their shoes and carried them, walking where the wet sand met the dry. Sunshine was an easy person to be with and after a while, Teyla felt better. "Where is Biloxi?" she asked, surprising herself and Sunshine.

"Biloxi? Biloxi, Mississippi? Well, of course, Sunshine." She sounded like Rodney when she said that, and Teyla smiled. "It's a ways away. I think around twenty-five hundred miles." They walk a bit more and then Sunshine said, "Can I ask why?"

"A friend taught me a song about Biloxi. I wondered if it was near here."

"No, sorry. Um, a friend from where you're from? I'm not asking where that is, just to be clear."

"Yes, he -- well, no, but he moved there. I miss him."

Sunshine took her hand but didn't say anything more.

Each night she stayed in Hannah's room, she could hear the ocean, a deep bass thud. Nothing like the breakers against Atlantis, yet the constant reminder of the ocean was a comfort, as was the salty air and thick humidity. Teyla even liked the fog, though she thought its constant presence would tire after a while. But right now, it fit her mood and her circumstances.

One morning, she remembered Richard promising to email her. "Sunshine, is there a way to look at my email?" she asked.

Sunshine made a face; she was operating a noisy machine that converted fruits and vegetables into juice. She finished pushing a cucumber through it and shut it off. "I hate computers, but the kids got me a Mac and an email account. I know enough to fire it up for you."

"That will do," Teyla said, hoping it was true. She fetched from her pack the note Chuck had written for her with her email address; it was in both English and Athosian. The little @ sign looked funny in the middle of the Athosian letters and she smiled at it. She wondered where Chuck was now, and what he was doing.

"Okay, let's see," Sunshine said. The Mac was a cheerful yellow and made almost no sound. "A Gmail account, so do you want me . . ."

"Yes, please," Teyla said, determined not to be embarrassed because she had to ask for help. Sunshine typed a while and pictures appeared in the monitor. "Okay," she said again. "You enter your password here." She stood up and gestured for Teyla to take the chair.

Hesitantly, aware of Sunshine's observation, Teyla hunted the letters that matched what Chuck had written. Rodney had explained the QWERTY keyboard to her, so she understood the concept, but she did not have his or even Sunshine's proficiency.

At last the inbox appeared. She studied it carefully, wishing she had taken more effort to learn English writing. Richard had sent her the promised email, Radek one, Chuck one, and there was one from Emily Simpson. She sighed. Her eye-hand coordination was quite good, but moving the little arrow on the screen was different from gutting a fish or catching a ball. At last she opened one of the emails from Richard.

I am very sorry, he had written, and she could imagine the look on his face as he typed those words, but my masters have plans to keep me busy and away from New York for some time. The ballet will have to wait.

 

I hope you are well. I think of you often. I will remember you.

That was what Evan had said to her. I will remember you. Her heart sank.

Sunshine set a glass of pale green juice next to her. "Not good news, I see."

"No. A friend had asked me to the ballet but he has to work."

Sunshine went back to her juicer and Teyla opened Radek's email. My dearest Teyla, they are idiots, IDIOTS, and I am so angry I cannot speak. We will talk soon, yes? Do not ask any IDIOT SGC person to help you.

Well, she thought, sipping the juice.

Chuck hadn't written much, just that he was thinking of her and he wished they were all home. She thought that was interesting, too, almost as interesting as Radek's.

Finally she opened Emily Simpson's email. She didn't know Emily well, though she had been part of the first expedition, so she was a little surprised to see an email from her. Emily had written I'm in the city. We'll talk soon. This puzzled Teyla very much and she realized that something was going on among the members of the expedition. She wished Ronon were still here so she could confide in him.

At last she said, "Thank you, Sunshine. I am finished."

"Oh, just log out. I'll check my email while the beast is running."

Two days later, Sunshine took her to lunch at a restaurant called the Beach Chalet. They drank good beer and ate seafood in comfortable silence. As they sat sipping their beers, Teyla said, "I have been meaning to tell you that I think your name is beautiful, and very apt. Your parents named you well."

Sunshine laughed. "My parents named me Julie." She wrinkled her nose. "I hated that name my whole life until one day my mother, frustrated with me, said, well, what do you think you should be called? I said Sunshine, and Sunshine I've stayed. I was about thirteen."

"Your mother is wise," Teyla said, smiling, remembering her own frustrations at thirteen.

"Well, she called me Julie half the time, but when she remembered, she called me Sunshine. Evan's dad used to call me Sunny, but no one else ever did."

"May I ask where Evan's father is?"

Sunshine shrugged. "He took off. He was a musician and came to San Francisco in the sixties, made some music, and then disappeared."

"I am sorry."

"It was hard at first, and I did love him. But then I look at my children and think: if he couldn't see what miracles they were, fuck him. His loss."

"Yes, it is his loss," Teyla said fiercely. But Sunshine began to laugh, and Teyla looked at her curiously.

"Just, their dad was a tall, skinny guy. Evan's more pissed that none of his kids got his height than that he split. Evan says you have a child? Is that okay to ask?"

Teyla beamed at her. "Yes, it is, and yes, I do, a beautiful little boy named Torren John. He is with his father, and I miss them so much." Her voice broke at the last few words. Sunshine reached across the table and took her hand. Then she waved at the waiter and made a circling motion with her hand; even in Pegasus taverns that meant another round. Teyla thought that was a good idea.

When they left the restaurant, Sunshine led Teyla a different way, into the park. They walked swiftly, and Sunshine made many twists and turns through the paths. Eventually Teyla asked, "Are we being followed?"

"God, I hope not. I hope I'm just being paranoid."

"Did Radek contact you?"

"No, Radek? Evan did. Let's see." Sunshine turned in a slow circle, and then headed a different direction. "I'm sorry we don't have time to visit the Japanese Tea Room; I've always loved that place," she said. "Maybe another day." After forty minutes of walking, they came to a lake bordered by a wide sidewalk. "Spreckels Lake," Sunshine said, and on the north side of the lake found a bench. To Teyla's surprise, Emily Simpson was waiting for them.

"Oh, Teyla," Emily cried, jumping up. She was a tall woman, a bit awkward, but Teyla knew that both Rodney and Radek respected her. She started to hug Teyla and then pulled back hesitantly, so Teyla embraced her in the Earth way. "I'm so glad to see you."

Teyla saw that Emily was distressed. "Emily, this is Evan's mother and my friend, Sunshine."

"Hi, Sunshine, it's good to meet you." She shook Sunshine's hand firmly, and then all three sat on the bench. Emily opened her pack and took out an object Teyla didn't recognize. It almost looked like a handgun, but was pale blue plastic. Emily wrapped her hand around it and pressed it against Teyla's upper arm. "Remember the subcutaneous transmitter Carson put into us? This is so it's no longer transmitting anything." She pulled the trigger; Teyla felt nothing. "Good, that's done." Emily rummaged in the pack more and held out her hand to Teyla; on the tip of her index finger was a flat metal disk with faint green lines on it. "Now this is transmitting. Keep it with you until -- well, until you shouldn't keep it with you." She sighed and tucked away the gun. "Oh, and pack."

"But what is happening? Emily, I do not understand."

"That's good, that's good, you don't know anything." Emily stood, looking around. "I'll leave first. Oh, Teyla, I miss it so much!" She squeezed Teyla's shoulder, smiled at Sunshine, and left walking rapidly.

"Sunshine, do you understand what is happening?"

Sunshine leaned back against the bench. "Let's sit here a while, give Emily time to get back. I'll tell you what I know, but it isn't much. Evan didn't want to involve me in case there are, well, repercussions, I guess.

"Listen, Teyla. Evan isn't supposed to tell me anything, but he's my son and I love him, so before he left for At -- Atlanta," she said, looking wide-eyed at Teyla, "he sat me down and explained things. And Hannah works at Homeland Security, so she knew quite a bit. Between the two of them, I think I know -- well, anyway, I know.

"So. When I checked my email yesterday, Evan had written a little bit, just enough that I knew there was more. I went up to his room and checked in his hiding place. When he was little, he used to hide stuff from his sisters. The only boy in a house full of women, maybe that was it, but he had found a loose board in the paneling in his closet and used to hide things there. And he'd hidden a letter there for me. I'm supposed to burn it." She rolled her eyes. "He told me where to go and what to do.

"Hannah knows, too. She'll be home late tonight and is taking you somewhere -- I don't know where. I suppose that's to protect me."

"So I'm leaving San Francisco? But where will I go? What about Ronon?"

Sunshine shrugged. "I only know my little bit, which was to get you here to meet Emily, and to make sure Hannah gets you away. I'm sorry I can't answer any questions. Maybe Hannah can."

Teyla nodded, but she was thinking rapidly. Where was Rodney in all this? Should she try to reach Ronon? What was going to happen to her?

She thought of Torren, and Kanaan, and Halling, Anezka, Bedrich, and Nadez -- so many people she had left behind when she had impulsively gone through the Ancestor's Ring and onto the Wraith ship. She looked around her. So many people, going about their business, utterly ignorant of what dangers lurked off planet. This mission was complete, and it was time for her to return home, but she was powerless.

She would go with Hannah. She took a deep breath and straightened her back. She would go wherever and whenever Hannah said. Hannah was Evan's sister, and she believed that Evan would not be careless with her life.

If only she could be with her team again.

Sunshine caught one of the yellow vehicles when they reached a main road and they drove back to her home in silence. Teyla washed and dried her clothes in the noisy white boxes in Sunshine's back room and then packed carefully, keeping the phone in her pocket. Sunshine was quiet, and busied herself making cookies, so the house smelled of sugar and chocolate. They ate a light dinner, and went to bed early. Teyla meditated a long time before trying to sleep. She was frightened, and angry at being so helpless, a mere pawn in other people's plans. She could only wait and see. She, who had acted for entire planets, who had been first among equals, who traveled to other worlds before anyone on this world even knew such travel was possible, could only lie in a strange bed and wait for something to happen.

Alone, lonely, in the dark with only the deep thrum of the ocean as it threw itself against the nearby beach to keep her company, she finally permitted herself to cry. She wanted to hold her baby, to kiss his chubby cheek, to watch him clamber after Kanaan. She wanted Kanaan, who had waited so long for her to notice him, and was still waiting for her. She wanted her team back. She missed Aiden so much, and dear Rodney who had changed into someone else, and Ronon, and most of all she missed John, her brother, who would do anything for her but was as helpless as she.

She cried until her head hurt and her nose was stuffed up. She got up, relieved herself, washed her face, and returned to bed, empty and lost. John, she thought, closing her eyes. Oh, John.

Hannah was there when she woke, a bit later than usual. Teyla's head hurt so Sunshine brewed her chamomile tea but Hannah gave her two small red pills. "Tylenol," she murmured. "Mom thinks they're poison, and maybe they are, but they'll help." They did.

Hannah also ran a wand around Teyla's body several times, and checked a number of small electronic instruments that reminded Teyla of Rodney's life signs detector and so of Rodney, whom she missed terribly. Instead of retreating to her studio after breakfast as usual, Sunshine carried a suitcase and two backpacks into a small vehicle Teyla had not seen before. "I rented it at the airport," Hannah explained. They shared a quiet morning, none of the women speaking much, and Teyla saw they were worried, even afraid. They climbed in, Sunshine driving, then Hannah put her finger over her lips. She opened a pack and Teyla saw it was empty, and began moving the contents of Teyla's pack into the new one. Teyla helped.

At last, Hannah paused, biting her lip. She pointed to Teyla's upper arm. Teyla knew what she meant and pulled from her pocket the little disk that Emily had given her the day before. Hannah grinned at her and slipped it into a pocket in the backpack.

Sunshine drove them to the airport, an enormous and chaotic sea of activity with vehicles of all sizes and smells zooming recklessly around them. Teyla thought there were more people in this one place than on many planets she had visited for trade. She wondered how Ronon had fared when he'd left with Amelia, and then she wondered if she'd see him again. They left the vehicle at some kind of station for that purpose, everyone moving quickly around them in a pattern Teyla couldn't understand. Waiting for a slow-moving elevator, all three women set down their bags and packs and when the elevator came, Teyla saw that Hannah did not pick up Teyla's old pack but instead a strange woman did. No one met anyone else's eyes. When they emerged inside the airport, Hannah and Sunshine hugged and kissed farewell.

"I'm sorry about all the cloak-and-dagger stuff," Sunshine whispered into Teyla's ear and she embraced her. "I'm ashamed of my country and my world." She was crying, Teyla realized, and that brought tears to Teyla's eyes. "And I'm going to miss you something awful." She dug a faded blue handkerchief from her jeans pocket and wiped her eyes. "Oh, Teyla, you didn't get to see the best of us. But Hannah and Evan will take care of you."

Teyla was overwhelmed by the noise and bustle around them and by this abrupt departure, and by her own emotions now that she was leaving Sunshine. "Thank you for everything," she said, and then suddenly her composure returned and she said fiercely, "And I did get to see the best, I met you, and your children, and I saw the beach and the park. Thank you, my sister." The two women hugged again, Teyla's throat tight with loss.

"Oh, I nearly forgot," Sunshine said, and from one of the packs pulled two squarish bundles and handed them to Teyla. "Cookies. In case. Well. In case." She smiled sadly. "If one could go to Evan, that would be wonderful."

Hannah kissed her mother again, who left, immediately lost in the crowd.

"I'm sorry this is such a --" Hannah sighed and shook her head. "I'm just sorry. But maybe this'll work."

"Why did you exchange my pack? Who was that woman who took it? Where are we going?"

"We're going to catch BART, the train you saw as we drove in? The woman who took it is a friend of mine who's flying to New York; she'll leave the pack in Times Square," which meant nothing to Teyla but she saw that Hannah was satisfied. "As to why, I'm sure you can guess. Now, where do we catch BART?" She took Teyla's hand and they navigated through the crowd.

The day was a long day of travel, on BART, on a ferry, a taxi, and finally on what Hannah called a seaplane. The pilot corrected her: "It's a float plane, if you don't mind. This is a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, rebuilt by Kenmore Air, and if my family didn't spoil me rotten, I couldn't possibly afford one." He was a tallish young man with dark hair and something about his face looked familiar to Teyla. He stuck out his hand and grinned at her. "I'm told I resemble my black sheep cousin, John. Well, first cousin once removed, to be technical. I only met him a couple of times when I was younger, but he made a big impression on me. Plus, as you see, I got the hair."

Teyla laughed in delight, for he did indeed possess John's hair. She shook his hand with relief. "How is he? Where is he?"

His face saddened and he looked at Hannah. "Ms Lorne?"

"Call me Hannah. Teyla, this is David, and you probably guessed that John's not available. But we're all working on that. Right now, we're taking a little vacation. Mother's gone home in case anyone shows up there, but I'm supposed to be in London at special training. Carmen -- my sister," she added to David, "is actually there, not that we look much alike but she's traveling under my name and I am traveling as someone who doesn't exist, as are you. David is trouble with a capital T and has been hounding Homeland Security to visit his uncle; he'll continue to do so." She looked at him and he saluted ironically.

"Got a little program set up that shoots out annoying email to a big list of people. It's fun."

Hannah rolled her eyes.

"All aboard," David told them, and within thirty minutes they were aloft. Teyla had ridden in many puddlejumpers, in starships, in hive ships, and in a flying city, but she had never been in a propeller-driven aircraft before and soon felt very ill. "Oh dear," David said, glancing back at her. "Um."

"Got it," Hannah said, and gave two white pills to Teyla and a bottle of water. "Sip slowly, and look straight ahead, not out the side windows," she advised. She also gave her a small paper bag. "Just in case," she said, patting Teyla's shoulder. Teyla tried not to moan. The pills made her sleepy, which was a blessed relief, and she let herself drift in the dark comfort, the engine noise and smell only dimly perceived.

When she woke, it was night and they were landing. She peered out the window, forehead pressed to the cold glass, and saw very few lights. "Middle of nowhere," David said. "Just a pit stop."

"We'll talk when we're out of the plane," Hannah said firmly, which squashed all further conversation.

David took care of fueling the plane while Hannah and Teyla found a toilet in the small building. "Goin' fishin'?" an older gentleman wearing oil-stained overall asked them genially when they entered the building.

"Well, they are," Hannah said, gesturing to Teyla and then to David still on the field. "But I plan to sleep and read."

"Just like the missus," he smiled.

After they had relieved themselves, Hannah bought small plastic bags of cookies and chips and cans of fizzy soda that tasted unpleasantly metallic to Teyla, but many Earth foods did, and she was thirsty so she drank it gratefully. "We'll pee again before leaving," Hannah said reassuringly.

They walked out to David, waiting by the plane, and then the three of them strolled a bit, Teyla staring around her. It was fully dark, but the little airstrip had two brilliant lights that when she stood under them made her feel strange, almost light-headed, as if the lights had charged the atmosphere in some way. She could almost hear Rodney scoffing at her notion, so she said, "Can we talk here?"

"I think we better," David said. "What's the spook say?"

"I'm not a spy," Hannah said. "Just well placed. You, on the other hand." She raised an eyebrow.

"I'm certainly not a spy," David said indignantly. "Just a J-school student. Journalism school," he said to Teyla when she opened her mouth to ask.

"A blogger," Hannah snorted. "Well known to be interested in unconventional topics. A twenty-first century Art Bell."

"You say that like it's a bad thing," he retorted. "Besides, I only wish I were another Art Bell. That man has balls."

"Please," Teyla interrupted.

"Sorry," David and Hannah said in unison. David went on. "I contacted Hannah a couple of years ago. There are a lot of rumors about extraterrestrials working with the US government. I was pretty surprised when Cousin John's name cropped up a few times, especially about four years ago. That got me even more curious. I asked his brother -- we're both named after my grandpa, but I'd never met cousin David before -- and he tried to shut me down. Ha! Just made me work that much harder.

"Anyway, a source gave me a few names to look into --"

"What source?" Hannah asked sharply.

"No way," David said, and Teyla realized how young he was. "First Amendment and all that." Hannah grimaced irritably and he continued. "So this source gave me some names, including Hannah's brother. Like John, he'd disappeared off the face of the Earth. The Air Force wouldn't respond to any questions, not even to cite confidentiality or homeland security. My emails and letters just vanished."

"Not so much," Hannah said. "You were noticed."

"Anyway," he said forcefully, walking ahead of them and turning so they had to stop, "I started really digging. Reading everything I could find, sending in FOIA requests, and then I had an idea. One of the names I had discovered was Rodney McKay, a Canadian who'd worked for the US military for years. He was pretty easy to research because he was a big name in physics in his early days, some wunderkind who vanished, just like John. Then I found his sister, an even bigger wunderkind who'd vanished, but she turned into just another mom taking her kid to ballet and piano lessons."

"Wait!" Teyla said, holding up her hands. "First Amendment?"

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," David rattled out.

"He considers himself press, which means no one can stop him from saying pretty much anything," Hannah explained.

"FOIA?"

"Freedom of Information Act," they said again in unison. "Being severely undermined by the last two administrations," David added. "It's an important way to keep the government honest."

"And just another mom?"

"Um," David said.

"You go, girl," Hannah said. "Okay, cut to the chase: you found Jeannie and did what?"

"I figured you knew. Don't you know everything?"

"David," Teyla said, feeling desperate and afraid. "Getting in touch with Jeannie could put her and her family in danger."

David stared at her. "You know Jeannie McKay Miller? Wow. Uh, in fact, I didn't do anything; by then, I was getting spooked. So I just watched her, and not in person; I've never met her. I set up some Google Alerts so if anything about her or her brother or the kind of physics they practice appeared I'd hear about it. Not much did; like I said, she mostly took her kid to school. Her husband won some kind of teaching award. Stuff like that.

"Until," he added dramatically, "about two years ago there was a home invasion and she disappeared. It was in all the papers; I had to cancel the Alerts for a while so my email didn't crash. Her brother and my cousin John were in Vancouver to help; their pictures were even in the paper. Then: nothing for a long time."

"But I don't understand," Teyla said, frustrated. "What made you do this? What did you think you would find?"

"Well, you," he said. "Aliens. Other worlds, space travel, all kinds of science fictiony stuff. Those are the rumors I heard, only now I know they aren't rumors. Hannah's brother, my cousin, Rodney McKay -- they weren't on Earth in some super secret installation. They were on another world." He looked delighted, thrilled, and Teyla remembered again that these people had no stargate. Not even a myth about them, Rodney had told her.

"Now that you've found me, what will you do?" she asked, her voice calmer than she felt.

David looked at Hannah. "He's doing it,"she said. "He's flying us out of the States and into Canada. We think you'll be safer there, but let's face it, Canada is pretty much the US's lapdog these days." She sounded bitter.

"Hannah approached me," David said more quietly. "That's a big deal, bigger than you can know, Teyla. Basically, Hannah is committing treason to help her brother."

"Not just my brother. Everyone involved. What they're doing is wrong," she said. Like David, she was quiet now, and sad, Teyla thought. "My government -- I really thought things would be different. But people are still disappearing and I was afraid, Teyla, that you would be one of them."

"How much trouble will you be in when you return?" David asked her. He began to herd them forward the float plane.

"If I get found out, I'll be looking at some serious jail time, unless something breaks." She shrugged. "Mom understands. Carmen, too. Evan would have my head, but what the hell. We used to fight all the time when we were kids."

They climbed back into the plane. Hannah gave Teyla more of the white pills while David negotiated their take-off. Once they were airborne, David shouted, "The DHC-2 Beaver can make about four hours between pit stops, so it'll take a few days to reach our destination."

"You sure you can avoid the border patrol?" Hannah shouted back.

He shrugged. "Pretty sure. We'll know soon enough."

Teyla fell asleep. They were landing again when she woke. "That last stop was a decoy," Hannah explained. There were no buildings here, nothing that looked like an airport to Teyla. David had landed along a dirt road. "He took us due east, so they'll think we're going to Area 51. Really, though, we've been caching fuel and supplies, hoping to stay off the grid. Thank god David is as rich as Croesus, and I have a pretty good salary. He's a smart kid, smarter than he lets on, and he did some fancy money laundering so we were able to pay cash without, I hope, any flags going up. He loves this Spy vs. Spy stuff."

"Who has been doing all this?"

"David and me, of course. Evan did some before he left for Colorado. Carmen's husband Bruce is a wild-ass Trotskyist who prides himself on subverting the government, so he's a natural, but he's known so he's been acting as a decoy while Carmen and the girls took a little vacation up to Glacier National Park before she left for London."

"Why? Why put yourself in danger? You said you could go to jail, Hannah."

"Well, I was raised by Sunshine, and she grew up when things were really different. She believed the world was changing, that people would be free no matter who they were. She taught us kids to believe that. It's why Evan went into the military, though the Air Force knocked out most of his idealism pretty quick. It's why I became a lawyer and then started working for the feds. Change from within, you know? But it's gotten harder and harder.

"David's doing it because he's a kid and admires his cousin John."

"Hey, that's unfair," he said, startling them. "Sorry, you through? I can turn my back."

"We are finished," Teyla said.

"Listen, I need to catch some shut-eye, and this place seems isolated enough."

"David, you are parked on the road," Hannah pointed out. "Surely you have a better plan than that."

He pulled out a long folded piece of paper and squatted, unfolding it and holding down the edges so the light wind wouldn't blow it away. Hannah held a flashlight over his shoulder. "I still think here is okay," he grumbled. "But about two hours away is a dry lake bed." He looked up at Hannah. "Better than a road?"

"Can you find it in the dark?"

"Uh, yeah. Sure. Give me some time to get my readings and I will."

Teyla felt oddly confident in David's ability, no doubt because she trusted John as a pilot and David reminded her of him so strongly. He did locate the lake, and it was dry, and from their altitude before he landed she could see few lights and none near their destination. Hannah approved, so there they slept.

The rest of her journey north was not as easy. One time they missed the cache of fuel, so David had to put down at a small airport in the early morning. "Shit," was all Hannah said, but there was nothing they could do about it. She and David studied the map, their heads together in the front of the plane while Teyla looked around. The airport appeared deserted. David said they were in Montana, but Teyla didn't know what that meant. Hannah said with luck anyone looking for them was still assuming they were flying east, not north.

The old man who took David's cash seemed to know they were doing something suspicious, but Teyla instinctively felt she could trust him. When they were back in the air, David said, "I saw him copy down the wrong registration number."

Hannah nodded. "I hope that's a good thing. It's hard to trust anyone."

"Trust no one," David intoned, and Hannah smiled.

"It's even better advice now than it was then," she said. "But David, we can't miss another cache. The more people who see us, the riskier this gets."

"I know," he said, subdued. "And I'm really sorry. I'm a good pilot, Hannah; I've never wanted to do anything except fly my whole life. It's just it's different out here."

Teyla touched his shoulder from where she sat in the back. "Thank you for trying, David."

"Do or not do. There is no try," he said in a creaky voice. Hannah smacked his arm, but laughed.

"That is from Star Wars," Teyla said. "John and Rodney watched it many times."

"They watched Star Wars when they were in outer space?" David asked, turning in his seat.

"Hey, hey, eyes on the -- on the sky," Hannah said.

David said, "Wow."

Teyla thought his opinion of John just went up even higher. She said, "You said you have met John?"

"Well, technically, but I was such a little kid. I remember he was tall, and told me about flying. I was crazy about planes even then, and listening to him made me decide to learn to fly as soon as my feet could reach the pedals." They flew in silence and then he said, "So, what's he like? He made colonel, right? Lieutenant colonel, my dad said."

Teyla beamed. "He did. He is very proud of his rank. Rodney likes to tease him about it, but we are all very proud of him."

"So Rodney McKay, the evil genius, and John -- what, they work together?"

"We are on a team, and Rodney is not evil. Although he can be irritable. But John, Rodney, Ronon, and I work together. Ronon Dex is from Sateda, a culled planet. The Wraith had made him a Runner; John and I found him."

"Oh holy shit, Teyla." To her consternation and Hannah's, David turned in his seat again. "Start from the beginning. This is so fucking cool."

Hannah said, "Hey! Hey, what did I say? Eyes on the sky, buddy."

He turned back, still grinning hugely. "Yes, ma'am. But Teyla, seriously. The team? Wraith? Runners?"

Hannah said, "I don't know much, Teyla. I'd like to hear as much as you're comfortable telling us."

Teyla settled back. "I come from a world called Athos," she said. "I met your cousin five of your years ago, when he came to our camp asking for help. They had just arrived and were terrifyingly ignorant of the dangers they faced. He was kind to me when others in his party were not. John has always been loyal to his people."

"Wow," David said. Teyla smiled, and continued.

Their ultimate destination turned out to be Tcenakun Point on Graham Island, Teyla learned. She thought they had been reluctant to tell her in case they'd been caught, but when they crossed the invisible line between their country and Rodney's with no indication they were being followed, Hannah opened a map to show her. Their flight had taken nearly five days because they had first flown east, then west, then east again to cross the border at what Hannah believed was a particularly unguarded area. "Lot of crazy white supremacists here," she explained. "They don't like the feds, nor do the Indians on either side of the border."

David said, "They wouldn't like us, either."

"No, they would not. Plus there's a little disruption going on near Rachel, Nevada, and another one at Cold Lake in Alberta. Some of my relatives might be participating in said disruptions."

David laughed and said, "Okay, hang on, we're entering Canadian air space. Let's see if anyone yells at us or if they're too busy chasing old hippies."

Teyla wasn't sure what she expected, but peering down, the land looked no different. She saw no border, no fence, no change in geography. The land was rugged, heavily forested except for the crests of the mountains, many of which were tipped with snow. She thought about the crowds in San Francisco and the emptiness here, and wondered why more people didn't move out here.

"I'm taking us a bit north," David explained when they'd begun to breathe again. "Fewer people up there. Everybody in Canada lives along the border."

"Hardly everybody," Hannah said, "but he's right. It's best if we come in from the north rather than fly too near Vancouver."

"How many more days?"

"Oh, this is it," David said. "Thank god. My butt's tired of sitting."

"What if someone sees us?"

"We'll plead ignorance. That we got lost trying to get to Calgary," David said. "There's a good school there. Tell 'em I'm looking into attending."

Hannah snorted, but didn't argue.

Teyla had grown accustomed to the vibrations of the Beaver and could study the land for a while without feeling sick. So green; she hadn't realized that parts of Earth were still so wild.

They were flying west now, into the sun. She heard David and Hannah discussing the fuel, but she was too tired and bewildered to care. She was completely in their hands, and maybe that was good, maybe they were rescuing her from something she couldn't imagine, or maybe she was a pawn in their political games. She ached to hold her baby, to be with her friends. Had she been foolish to trust these people? She had trusted Sunshine, who had put her into the care of Hannah, and she was sure that David was exactly who he said he was, but what did that mean, that he was of John's blood?

"Fuck," David said, and she straightened up to lean forward. "It's gonna be awful damn close, Han."

"Do whatever you have to to conserve fuel," she said. She opened a leather case and flicked a tiny switch. Lights flickered and then a series of concentric circles appeared.

Teyla wanted to ask what it was, if Hannah could reach whoever was waiting for them on the island, but she was studying the little object so intently that Teyla refrained and just watched. David told her he would fly slower to conserve fuel, so it would be dark when they arrived. She thought he was nervous; he grew quieter and in the glow of the dashboard lights she saw he was frowning.

"Got 'em," Hannah said, and Teyla saw a small dot begin to blink on the screen in her hands. "They're there, thank god."

"Someone is," David said. "But let's be positive. Teyla."

"Yes, David?"

"Tell me more. If this works I'll never see you again, so tell me more while we have time."

"John never gives up," she said. "One time, he rescued Rodney from the bottom of the ocean."

Hannah said, "The ocean? How is that even possible?"

"With John and Rodney, everything is possible."

She talked until she saw water glinting in the moonlight; they were above the ocean. In the dim light, Hannah looked tense but not frightened. "David?" she interrupted herself.

"This is it," he said. He was taking them down; she could hear him murmuring to himself. "Gear up. Fuel pump on. Water pump on. Flaps down. Power back. Gear up, gear up." She saw he was nervous. "Gear up," he repeated. She looked through the windshield and saw a light, thin in the rising fog, and as they neared, she saw it was on a pole, on land. She grew tense. "Oh, Ancestors," she murmured, and then they were on the water, the propeller spinning slower and slower. They headed toward the light, water splashing beneath them.

"Jesus, you did it," Hannah said disbelievingly. "We're here."

"We're fucking here!" David shouted, and exhaled. "Oh my god, I was so scared."

"Me, too," Hannah said. "Now, what will be find now that we're here?"

"Christ," David muttered. He slowed the plane even more, and Teyla saw there was a ramp protruding into the water that he was aiming for. "Like a fucking video game," David muttered.

They climbed the ramp, David suddenly gunning the engine to push them up, and then there was silence. "Oh," Teyla said, and began to shiver. She was cold and very frightened. The three of them sat in the cockpit and waited, peering through the windows. The light wasn't very bright, but it was the only light now, even the dashboard was dark, and it blinded Teyla so she couldn't see beyond it. Had there been buildings?

"There," she said, and pointed.

Hannah put her hand on her forehead. "Christ," she murmured. "I hope it isn't the CSIS."

"What the hell's that?" David asked.

"Canadian equivalent of the CIA."

"Oh, fuck," he said.

"No, it is Evan!" Teyla cried. "Hannah, get out, that is Evan." They tumbled from the Beaver, Teyla clinging to it trying not to fall. Evan grabbed her and swung her down, then hugged her.

"Hey, sis," he said, and they hugged.

"Jesus, Evan," Hannah said, and Teyla saw she was trembling. "Oh, this is David Sheppard. David, my brother, Evan."

"Good to meet you, man," David said, shaking his hand in a complicated fashion.

"You, too. Dude, you look so much like the colonel."

"Evan, please, what's going on?"

"Oh, hey, Teyla, you're freezing. Let's get you inside. David, there's a hangar we can push the plane into, but let's get Teyla indoors."

"Sure, I'll grab her bags."

Teyla let herself be moved away from the dock and onto a paved area. They passed what must be the hangar, a low open building, and entered a similarly shaped building but that was closed in. Evan led them down a dark, narrow flight of stairs, around a sharp corner, and then into warmth and light and a crowd of people whom Teyla recognized. They surged around her.

"Ah, Teyla," Radek said, and he kissed her hand. "I am so relieved." Miko was there, and Emily, and Chuck, and two men she recognized from the Marines, not in their familiar uniforms, and then Ronon swept her up into an enormous hug. She clung to him, overpowered by feelings of relief and exhaustion and fear. When he set her down, she saw more members of the Atlantis crew crowding around her, everyone talking at the same time.

Evan whistled sharply and everyone quieted. "Okay," he said. "We're almost ready. Ronon, Chuck, help David get the plane under cover. Everyone else, grab your gear. Teyla, Hannah, you come with me." He worked his way through the crowd to hallway and then down another narrow stairwell. Teyla heard their destination before she saw anything, and pushed past Evan. "Rodney!" she cried.

He turned from the laptop and they seized each other. "Oh, thank god," he whispered. "Oh, thank god you're here and safe." She shook even harder, clutching him, and he held her tightly, stroking her hair and patting her back. When she could let him go, she saw Jeannie Miller behind him, smiling damply at her, and on the monitor, Sam Carter, biting her lip and looking worried.

"Rodney," Teyla asked, "what is going on?"

"We're leaving," he said. "Or trying to. Sam?"

"We reversed engineered the gate that Orlin built," she explained, but Teyla didn't understand at all. "Raw titantium, two hundred feet of fiber optic cable, seven hundred-thousand-watt industrial-strength capacitors, and a toaster."

"That's a joke," Rodney said to Teyla. "Kind of."

"It's a one-time use gate, and it'll blow the power for the entire west coast of Canada and the US."

"Fuck 'em," Rodney and Evan said simultaneously.

"Sam, are you sure you're secure?" Jeannie asked. "How can you know?"

"Well, I suppose I can't really, but I'm as secure as I can manage with your and Rodney's help. Can you get out of there right away?"

"David will take us," Jeannie said.

"The time?" Rodney asked.

"Almost. Your people ready?"

"Yeah," Evan said. "I'll get 'em down here." He left quickly. Teyla saw that he'd been stacking boxes and crates on top of a pallet; there was a second pallet next to it with many more cardboard boxes and some ugly orange plastic crates.

"Teyla," Sam said, and Teyla came to the table so she could better see Sam's face on the monitor. "Teyla, I cannot apologize enough for what my government and the IOA has done. The rest of my team feels the same. Please don't judge all of Earth by the misguided actions of a few."

"Of course," Teyla said.

"I hope to see you again one day. Take care of yourself and your family. And hey, if you have a spare minute, look in on Rodney, okay?"

"Hey," Rodney said, but he was smiling sadly. "Thank you, Blondie. I always said you were smarter than you looked."

"Bite me, McKay," Sam laughed.

"Too late now!"

Jeannie slugged her brother's arm and Teyla saw she was crying, too. "Take care of yourself," she said. They hugged tightly. "Oh god, I'll miss you." She pulled away enough to look him in the eyes. "I love you, Mer."

"I love you, Jeannie-beanie," Rodney said in a choked voice, and Teyla finally let herself believe.

"We are going home?" she asked.

The others rushed in, including David. "Wow!" he said, and she followed his gaze.

"Is that --?" Teyla asked.

"Yup, it's a homemade stargate," Rodney said proudly. "Sam, Jeannie, Radek, and I built it. And David here paid for it."

"But I thought this was not possible," Teyla protested, putting a hand to her forehead. "The Pegasus gate takes precedent -- I am sure you told me that, Rodney."

"Yes, it's true --" Rodney said, and Radek added, "At Midway Station, we created a work-around for that problem --" and Rodney continued, "So we adapted the work-around for our homemade gate." They beamed at her.

Sam said, "It was a bit more complicated than that, Teyla, but, gentlemen, we really don't have time to go into the details, no matter how good they make you look."

Rodney looked sour at that, but Radek said, "And you and Jeannie!"

"Thank you, Radek," Jeannie said.

"Thank you," Teyla tried to say, but her throat had closed with tears of grief and joy. "Thank you," she whispered.

"Teyla, I never got to ask you anything," David said.

"Time, people!" Sam shouted over the link. Jeannie ran around the pallets to the stargate and pulled a tarp away from it. The ring rested on brackets so it appeared to float nearly a foot above the floor of the sub-basement; it gleamed silver and heavy wires had been wrapped tightly around it. She made a few adjustments, and then stepped back. "It's ready," she called.

Sam nodded, and looked to one side. "They're ready," she said to someone unseen.

"Okay, timing is everything," Rodney said. Jeannie rushed to him and kissed his cheek, then darted back, pulling David and Hannah with her. Rodney looked at her with sorrow and longing.

"Goodbye, Teyla," Hannah called.

"Thank you, thank you both, thank everyone," she cried. Ronon took one of her hands and Rodney the other.

"Sam?" he said quietly.

"Do it," she said to the unseen other. There was a flash and John stood before them looking stunned. "Rodney?" he asked. Rodney reached for him just as Sam shouted, "Now! Jeannie, now!"

The stargate flashed blue-white light and began to hiss and steam. "Good luck, Colonel!" Sam cried, and then the laptop exploded, sparks flying up to mingle with the scintillating stargate, and the light grew painful as it radiated out. Teyla heard something popping, something crashed, she couldn't see. She thought she heard Rodney cry out, "John!" and Evan shout, "Get the goddamn crates through!" but then she was pulled forward, almost plucked away and then she was in the stargate but not the familiar experience, she was twisted and tumbled and stretched into infinity. She laughed and reached out, seeing home even though she couldn't see in any normal way.

They were dumped unceremoniously on the ground in front of the gate on Athos, the containers scattered around them. "Holy shit," Evan said, pushing Radek off him. "It worked. Did it work?" Teyla and Miko were sprawled together, Amelia was on top of Chuck, and Rodney was lying half on top of John. Teyla saw Emily sit up, her long hair tangled.

"We are on Athos," Teyla said, recognizing the land around the Ancestor's Ring. She helped Miko and then Emily up. "Is everyone here? Evan, how many were coming?"

"Count off!" Evan shouted. "Miko!"

"I have the list," she said, and began checking off people as they shouted their names. Teyla watched John and Rodney. They rolled to their feet but didn't look around, only at each other. So many of her Atlantian colleagues were shouting and cheering that she couldn't hear her friends, but she saw their faces. John looked too thin, and exhausted, and she saw how much grey had come into his hair. Rodney was trembling, staring intently into John's face, talking quickly, and then he grabbed John into a bear hug, holding the back of John's head. John closed his eyes and pushed his face into Rodney's shoulder, letting himself be manhandled in a way Teyla had never imagined.

Evan came to stand beside her. "Thank god," he said fervently, watching John and Rodney. "Those assholes."

Teyla laughed and cried, and said, "Evan, your family --"

"I know," he said, and wiped his face, smudged with earth where he'd tumbled from the ring. "God, I miss them. But I had to come back, Teyla; you understand, don't you?"

"I do," she promised him, putting her hand on his arm. "And I know your mother does, too."

"Yeah," he said, sniffing. "Yeah. Hey, isn't Hannah a trip? Who knew my sister would grow up to be a spook?"

"She said she wasn't a spy," Teyla protested for her since Hannah was several million light years away.

"Well, what do you think a spy would say?" Evan retorted, and then he grabbed Radek. "Helluva job, doc. Helluva job."

"You, too," Radek beamed. His glasses were filthy, Teyla saw, but he didn't seem to care. "We make brilliant team, yes? Brilliant."

Evan whistled shrilly again, as he had just before the stargate had burst open, and said, "Okay, this is it, people. Let's get this stuff piled up and out of the way." Everyone went to work immediately, and for a while it reminded Teyla of the Christmas mornings she had spent on Atlantis. "Who the hell brought a Wii to Pegasus?" Rodney asked. "Does it have The Legend of Zelda?"

"Jesus, how many naquadah generators did we bring?" Chuck asked, staggering as he tried to lift one of the wooden crates.

"Not enough," Radek said, helping him. "This will be challenge."

When the supplies were again neatly stacked to one side of the Ring and covered with tarps, Evan gestured to Teyla. "If you'd lead the way?"

She smiled at him and at Radek, glanced at John and Rodney who still seemed lost, and started along the path to the Athosian settlement. To her home. "Brilliant," she heard Radek repeat.

"Brilliant," she agreed. She looked up at the trees before them; light was just touching their tips. From the quality of the light and the cool air, she knew it was morning here, in early spring. The start of the new Athosian year.

They made a lot of noise stumbling along the path. Everyone wanted to tell their story at the same time. Ronon and Amelia stayed near Teyla, and the three of them kept John and Rodney moving. "He looks awful," Amelia whispered, and Teyla knew she meant John. Rodney kept a firm grip on John's arm, and spoke quietly into his ear the entire time, John interrupting occasionally. She wished she could hear what they were saying.

She looked around at the excited, exhausted faces and wondered what they had been doing while she had been with Evan's family. Ronon squeezed her hand. "Good people," he said, and she nodded.

"Amelia, why did you come back?" she asked. "There's no way for you to return, is there?"

As they walked, Amelia looked at the ground and said, "At first I didn't think I would come back. When I heard about what was happening, I just knew I'd help. But then." She looked up at Ronon. "Well, I remembered the freedom I had here. The colonel was a great CO, and encouraged people to learn knew skills. Ronon was teaching me to hunt, and I was teaching him kickboxing. And the stargate -- Teyla, I, it's so amazing, and I didn't want to give that up. I don't want anybody to have to give it up.

"So it just sort of happened. It went from getting you and Ronon home, to getting the colonel back, to getting all of us back. Back home." She laughed, but it was strained. "I told my mom. She cried a lot, but after she met Ronon and heard about you and the colonel, she told me to do what I thought was right." She wiped her eyes, and Ronon put his arm around her shoulders.

"What the politicians don't understand," Chuck said, surprising Teyla, "is a lot of us went into the military because we wanted to serve our country. I mean, not everybody, and not just that -- I wanted to go to college, and get out of a small town, eh? But the ideals I had were, like, the first casualty. Working in Atlantis was the closest to what I really wanted to do. I was recognized here, and appreciated, and if that sounds stupid, I'm sorry." Teyla saw he was glaring at Ronon, who shrugged.

"I went into the military because everybody did," Ronon said. "But I stayed because I liked it. I loved my team, and even though we raised a lot of hell and got into trouble, I knew I could count on them to have my back. And killing Wraith -- that's a good enough reason. But yeah, the politicians in Sateda didn't get it. We were just pawns." He hesitated, as if to say more; Teyla knew he was remembering Melena.

"Exactly," Amelia said, leaning forward. "I mean, I understand that we're supposed to be the sum that's greater than its parts, but we're not cogs in a machine. Pegasus, Atlantis, the colonel -- they let us be people, too."

Chuck nodded, and Ronon nodded, too. The Athosians had never had a standing army, not that Teyla had ever heard of, but she knew service to community. The few communities that she knew with armies were like the Genii, people who kept to themselves and perceived significant differences between themselves and others. The Athosians were an integrative people; she had grown up welcoming others from other worlds and helping them become Athosian. Standing among these people from another galaxy, looking around at their tired faces, she knew they were Athosian, too.

She heard a shout, and then another. Kids yelled, and then Halling burst into sight. "Teyla!" he cried, and swept her up. "Thank the Ancestors, you are returned to us," he whispered into her ear. He set her down and seized Ronon's hand, and then saw John and Rodney. She watched him approach them, and bow formally, but then Kanaan pulled her into his arms and she could see only him.

"Teyla," he gasped. She forgot everything but his presence, warm and strong and so familiar. She had known this man literally her entire life. They had shared so much, even the curse of knowing the presence of Wraith, and he had been nothing but loyal and loving to her. "You are so precious to me," he whispered, kissing her neck, her cheek, her mouth. She kissed him back, realizing how starved she had been for his body. She felt as though she were melting into his arms, finally warm, finally safe, finally home.

When at last they separated, still holding hands, she saw many Athosians mixing with the Atlantians, welcoming them, helping with their packs and bags. Halling was still with John and Rodney, standing between them with one hand on each of their shoulders. She couldn't hear what he was saying over the jumble of words, but she knew he was receiving them gladly, and saw him gently push them ahead. "Teyla," Kanaan said, drawing her attention back. "Hurry! Nadez has Torren, come on." She began to run, Kanaan at her side, hurrying through the thick forest to where the Athosians had settled. Nadez was standing by the long house, Torren squirming in her arms. "Teyla!" Nadez shouting, and others cheered. Teyla took Torren from Nadez, kissing his face, ignoring his protests.

"Oh, my baby, my baby," she wept, "I missed you so much, I will never leave you, never." He struggled harder, trying to get down, so she set him down. To her amazement, he could walk, and he staggered drunkenly to John, holding up his arms, babbling confidently.

John stared at him, then dropped to his knees. "TJ!" he said, and the delight in his voice made Teyla cry again. Kanaan held her as John picked up Torren and jumped up to zoom him high above his head, then back. John stood next to Rodney, who held out his hand to Torren who grabbed it and began chewing on his forefinger.

"Ow! The little -- my god, look at all those teeth! Ow!" John and Rodney laughed at Torren's contentment.

"He's so big," John said, and for the first time sought out Teyla. She smiled at him, wiping her tears.

Halling clapped his hands and boomed, "Thank you for returning our sister Teyla, daughter of Tagan, daughter of Torren, to us, and welcome back! We have missed your presence in our lives. Will you not stay and eat with us?"

"God, yes," Rodney said fervently.

The morning stretched into the afternoon. and long into the night Teyla listened to her friends' stories and told her own. What the Athosians had done, what the Genii were up to, what the council, now called the Coalition, was doing, all this interested her, but what she really wanted to know was what had happened to John.

Rodney refused to leave his side, even when John snapped, "I can take a leak by myself, McKay."

"I strongly doubt that," Rodney had said, and led John into the bathhouse. That had been early in the morning of their arrival; as the day passed, John accepted Rodney's presence more and more, Teyla noted. But she was kept busy, too delighted to be home, to bully them into telling her their story.

Night had long since fallen before she was left with her Atlantian family: Ronon, Rodney, John, and Teyla, sitting around a fire talking as they had so many times in the past, and also Miko, Radek, Evan, Chuck, and Amelia. The others, ones she had not known as well, had drifted away -- she saw they had returned for other reasons. But this was not a mission; this was, Teyla profoundly hoped, their lives now. "I knew it the minute we landed," Rodney was saying. "I mean, not like we had a choice; we had to go back and take care of things, but still." He sighed. "It was worse than even I imagined."

Kanaan, his arm around Teyla's waist, asked, "In which ways?"

"All of them," Rodney snapped, then looked abashed. "Sorry. So typical, though. We come roaring back, Radek taking incredible risks, John ready to kill himself, Ronon fucking dying, and for what? For debriefings that went on forever with suspicious assholes who hadn't a clue what we were up against." He rubbed his forehead above his left eye. "I can't talk about it right now."

John bumped his shoulder against Rodney's. "What's gonna happen now? They could send the Daedalus after us."

Rodney snorted. "Sure, they could, but they won't. They've got the city."

"And beaming me out of my office?"

Rodney grinned, very pleased with himself.

"Yes, Rodney," Teyla asked, leaning forward. "How did you do that?"

"Carter," Ronon said.

Rodney made a face at him. "I helped. But yeah, Sam. O'Neill wanted us back in Pegasus, in Atlantis, but the IOA wasn't having it. They finally had Atlantis, that's what I didn't get until I was there for a while -- that's what they wanted all along. The fucking Wraith just gave them an excuse."

"Did they imprison you, John?"

He barked out a laugh, not a happy one. "Worse. They made me aide-de-camp to General Landry."

"I was under the impression that General Landry was not, ah, fond of you," she asked, puzzled.

"Your impression is correct," he said.

"Must have been punishment," Rodney said sourly. "Landry got to jerk him around, John was earth-bound, and everybody pissed themselves laughing. Hardy-har-har."

"Technically, I think it was supposed to be an honor," John said, making a face. Rodney snorted.

"What will happen to Sam?" Teyla asked.

"I think we hid our traces pretty well," Rodney said. "She'll be suspected, of course, but nobody'll be able to prove she had anything to do with his disappearance. Plus she's saved the world so many times, what're they gonna do? And I'm pretty sure O'Neill was part of the, uh, the conspiracy."

"You could have warned me," John said, and Rodney made a face.

"Oh yeah, sure, you'd've agreed."

"Sheppard," Ronon said. "Say 'thank you.'"

"Thank you," John said. "And you're right; I would have refused. But I'm damn glad you did it. Never been so surprised in my life."

"Nor was I," said Teyla.

"But you," Kanaan said, turning to Teyla, "what did you do?"

She was still for a moment, looking at her friends' face illuminated by the fire. "I did nothing," she finally said. "I truly thought the IOA would send us home. I wondered where Rodney and John were, of course, but I thought they would return to Atlantis and we would leave.

"Evan took me away, to his mother's. Ronon, did you know what was going on?"

He shook his head, as did Amelia sitting next to him. "I had some suspicions," she said. "Some things looked a little hinky. But Rodney told me when we saw him in the mountain."

"I knew right away," he said again. "Not because I'm brilliant, though I am, but because the IOA was swarming the mountain. Woolsey was there; they kept bringing in him for meeting after meeting. He was pissed; he thought he'd get a vacation, maybe a slap on the back. Ha. We had lunch a couple times. At first, we just thought they were using the opportunity of having Atlantis here to do some serious debriefing and share the technology. But scientists from every IOA country were pouring in and being funneled to the city. They'd pulled John out right away, and I had some bogus assignment in the mountain. It was obviously bullshit; they didn't even bother to come up with good stories. I'd ask when I was going back to San Francisco and they'd give me another job, ones that any half-way decent physicist could have handled. So I knew.

"When they pulled Landry out of the mountain and stuck him in DC, with John as his aide-de-camp --"

"Which both of us hated," John interjected.

"And brought in some French bureaucrat to run the SGC, well, I had to get out. So it was a matter of days before I started trying to figure out how to get us home."

"So when you couldn't come up with anything, you asked Colonel Carter," John said.

"I came up with the plan," Rodney said heatedly. "It's just I couldn't do it without her."

"Doctor McKay told me to get Ronon out of the mountain right away," Amelia concurred. "He took us to breakfast and was very mysterious."

"You suck at being mysterious," Ronon told him.

"I can't suck that badly. You got out, and got away."

"Amelia took us to meet her family in Mexico," Ronon said.

"New Mexico," Amelia corrected, though Teyla wasn't sure why it mattered. "I have some crazy cousins there. They drove us to Mexico City where we flew to Vancouver. After that, Chuck took care of us."

Chuck said, "I started in Toronto and just kind of swept west, picking up people."

Radek explained, "After my debriefing, I went home to Prague. Then Rodney sent me an encrypted email. I already had my suspicions. So as soon as I could, I flew to the Philippines, to interview for a job but really to meet Miko, and then we flew to Toronto, where we met Chuck and --" He gestured toward Ronon and Amelia.

"You can fly from Manila to Toronto?" Rodney asked.

"Direct," Radek said. "Very comfortably, too."

"Huh. Well, it was quite the world-wide conspiracy," Rodney said proudly. "Everyone converged on Tcenakun Point. Jeannie did most of that." He frowned. "She and Sam worked pretty closely, so I think she'll be all right. I wanted her to come with us, but she said they weren't ready to leave Earth yet." He yawned.

"We have time now," Teyla said. "We will talk more tomorrow. You are home now." She looked at Kanaan. "We are all home now."

He kissed her lightly. "The children are up early, so perhaps we should go to bed," he told them all. He stood, pulling Teyla with him, and the others rose. "Thank you, Rodney, for all you have done. Welcome home." He bowed slightly, and Rodney, looking surprised and pleased, bowed back. "Good night."

"Good night," Rodney said, and Amelia echoed him. As they walked to their tent, Teyla looked back at John and Rodney, who remained talking intently. She thought they would talk for a long time.

Teyla felt awkward in front of Kanaan. How long had she been gone? A little more than a month, but she had gone so far away that returning was difficult, like learning to breathe a different air. He gazed at her happily, pulling her into their bed so she lay atop him. She remembered sleeping in Hannah's room, listening to the Earth's ocean throb beneath her, trying to eat the coastline. She inhaled deeply, the scent of her childhood rising around her: the trees, the earth, the fabrics in the tent and bed, and Kanaan's scent, also known since her childhood. He kissed her closed eyelids and then her mouth, at first quickly, but she sighed into his kiss and squirmed closer to him, and he slowed, kissing her gently, as he stroked her back and sides. "I missed you so much," she whispered. "Near the end, I was afraid I would never be permitted to return."

"Oh, Teyla," he moaned, and she saw tears in his eyes. "I was so afraid I'd never see you again."

She pressed her face to his chest and tried to breathe steadily. So much had happened in such a short time. Then she turned her mind away from all that and to Kanaan, who had waited for her and who, she knew now, would always wait for her. He tilted her chin up and kissed her. She reached between them to slide her hand under his trousers and felt how much he wanted her. She scooted up and sat firmly on him; he groaned, and lifted his hips so she could push against him. She began to unlace the neck of his tunic, then helped him pull it over his head as he half sat up. He was smiling when he emerged, hair tousled, and unbuttoned her top. When her breasts were bare, he pulled her down and they gasped at the sensation of skin against skin. She moved slowly, dragging her nipples across his chest, sighing. Then he pushed her off and scrambled out of his trousers, his prick springing free. She laughed and grasped it, drawing it to her mouth. "Oh, Ancestors," he whispered. She tongued it, looking up at his face, and he groaned, grabbing at himself. He knelt on the bed, moving toward her, so she lay back until he was directly over her, his hands braced above her head so she could suck and play with him. But after only a moment or two, he scrambled back, saying, "Wait, wait." Naked, he stood at the foot of their bed, staring at her, and then began to remove the rest of her clothing. She stretched, arching her back, smiling as seductively at him as she knew how, and, when she was also nude, wrapped her feet behind his thighs and pulled. This time, he lay on top of her and she drew her feet up beside his hips so they could join. She groaned; it had been too long. He moved slowly, gently, but firmly, pushing into her and when they lay as one, their faces together, he kissed her until she relaxed. He began to rock his hips, and she moved with him. They took their time because, for once, they had time; all the time in the world.

Her climax came after his, while he was kissing her breasts and touching her between her legs, the palm of his hand pressed into so she could rub against him, gasping rhythmically against his lips until she froze, trembling, and then released everything.He held her gently and covered them with the blanket, one his mother had woven for them. Teyla stroked the blanket where it lay over Kanaan's shoulders. Now she was home, she thought. She was really home.

Morning light broke too early after her adventures, even now in early spring. Kanaan kissed her and jumped from their bed. "I'll get Torren," he whispered to her.

"And tea, please," she said, yawning and sitting up on her elbows. The bedclothes fell away, revealing her breasts. Kanaan eyed them and returned to kiss her again, fondling one breast. She laughed in delight, flattered by his attention. He rushed away, and she pulled on her chemise. This was one made on Earth that she had found in San Francisco when she'd stayed with Sunshine. It was soft and delicate, embroidered all over with pale blue flowers, and she had instantly loved it when she'd seen it through a window. Perhaps she could learn to embroider again, a skill she'd never taken seriously as a child. Now she wished she'd paid more attention to Charin's instructions.

"Ah! Ma!" Torren cheered when Kanaan carried him in, holding him in one arm with a pot of steaming tea in the other.

"I'm not sure which is more dangerous," he said, passing a wriggling Torren to her.

"How is my darling boy?" she asked him. "Did you miss me? I think not. I think not!" She kissed his forehead, and then blew a raspberry on his arm, making him screech with laughter. "Has he had breakfast?"

"I'm sure he has. He wakes before dawn and is ready to go."

"I have so much to learn and remember," she said, smiling up at Kanaan. "I see you have managed quite well without me."

He sat next to her. "Not that well," he said seriously. "When will you leave?"

"Leave? Oh, you mean to trade." She settled Torren between them so she could sip from Kanaan's tea. "Is there something we need? If not, perhaps I could be lazy for a little while."

"You've never known how to be lazy, not even when you were a little girl. But I would like you to stay for a while. For me, of course, and Torren, but also for your friends. They will be lost."

She nodded, letting the steam from the tea warm her face. They would be lost. What would they do without their city? Their technologies? She hoped they had chosen well. She had thought so yesterday but now that they were here, what would they do? Well, as Carson used to say, time will tell. She had time and so did they. She took another sip of tea and Kanaan set down the mug so they could lie back, pulling Torren with them. "Look how big you are," she said, stroking his thick hair. He was the most beautiful child she had ever seen, she thought, but he wouldn't stay settled long. He crawled around the bed until she was afraid he'd fall off, so she set him on the rug next to the bed. He pulled a bowl out from under and began banging on it with a carved stick. "Boo! Ah! Ooh!" he cried, so full of life that she couldn't take her eyes off him.

"Will he be a musician?" Kanaan asked her. She found the mug and sipped her tea. "Or a scientist, like Rodney? Or a hunter, like his father? Or a trader?"

"He will be everything," Teyla said.

She finished her tea and dressed, and sat on the rug to play with Torren a while. Then she and Kanaan, coaxing Torren along with them, went to see how their friends from Earth were doing.

Most of them were at the longhouse. It was very chilly this morning, so the big fireplaces had been lit and breakfast cooked and served indoors. She found John and Rodney sitting with the others. She fed Torren and herself and listened to their stories.

"We'll face prison time if we go back," John was saying. That caught her attention. "We deserted, Major."

Evan lifted his chin, reminding Teyla of Rodney. "Not a major anymore, sir. Just Evan. Evan, son of Sunshine, like Teyla is daughter of Tagan." She nodded at him. "And yeah, I know, but I don't plan on going home. I talked to the others a long time. Only the ones I was sure of. There's no way to go back unless they send a ship after us; the only gate that could dial another galaxy is in Atlantis. And they're keeping Atlantis because they don't think it's worth having a presence in Pegasus. I'm pretty sure they'll leave us alone. Probably court martial us in absentia, yeah, and convict us. But so what? I've got work here."

Everyone had quieted down while Evan was talking; now, many people nodded.

"John," Rodney said, sitting up straighter. "This was my decision. I mean, yeah, others went along -- Sam, in particular, and Evan, but ultimately I'm the one who made the decision. If you could go back, if a ship does show up, well, you could, since we basically kidnapped you. But --"

"I know," John said. "So, Radek, what projects you got going out here?"

"Power generation first," Radek said. "I maybe stole a few naquadah generators. Well, many naquadah generators. Much equipment, too, for to engineer material for solar photovoltaics for places like here, and geothermal for worlds like Lantire."

"I just want to study how individual planets' biodiversity has been affected by the stargate system," Dr. Parrish explained. "And of course, help with any agricultural problems. Like here on Athos, I'd been working with Bedrich to increase production of grains. I spent a week at the International Seed Vault in Svalbard and brought back not just seeds but some ideas about storage as well as sustainable agriculture and permaculture."

"Goldschmidt?" John asked. "Why'd you desert?"

Goldschmidt snapped into a position Teyla recognized; she thought the Earth military called it attention. "I deserted the Corps, sir, in order to serve Pegasus. When I learned that Major Lorne and you would be here, I decided I would come, too."

"Why? What're you gonna do?" John asked. "Without Atlantis, this is no longer an amphibious landing force." Teyla wondered if he was angry at Goldschmidt.

"Sir, the Corps is responsible for expeditionary operations, which this is. Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome, sir. I can be the best Marine here, sir; that's why I'm here."

"McCormick?"

"Sir, yes, sir! Gunnery Sergeant Goldschmidt speaks for me, sir! Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome, sir!"

Rodney put his hands over his ears. "Do Marines have to shout? I like the 'sir, yes, sir' part, but not so loud."

"Sir, yes, sir," the two men whispered.

Evan laughed. "Colonel, I'm here because whatever reason brought us to Atlantis originally, I made friends -- family. I'm not leaving them behind without support." He looked at the two Marines. "Service before self, sir."

John put his head in his hands. "God save me from gung-ho jarheads and an insane XO."

"Sir, yes, sir!" all three men shouted, making Rodney groan theatrically and John, finally, laugh.

"At ease, gentlemen," he said. "Okay, so we're here and we're gonna be here for a while. And while I was kidnapped --" he gave Rodney a look -- "not long before we left Pegasus, Woolsey told me that he'd committed Atlantis to greater day-to-day participation in the politics. So now that I'm here, that's why I'm here. Teyla?"

"Mister Woolsey also explained to me his agreement with the coalition, and I agreed at the time that it would be wise. However, Atlantis is no more." She handed Torren to Kanaan and rose, standing next to John with one hand on his shoulder. He frowned up at her as she addressed everyone who had clustered around the noisy outburst. "Dear friends from Earth and Atlantis, I beg your pardon, but I must say this. Hear me now."

That was a traditional opening, though she knew no one from Earth would recognize it. "Atlantis is no more. The beautiful floating flower is as gone from us as if it had never risen from the depths of the ocean. We mourn its passing." She bowed her heard and saw others do so as well. After five breaths, she continued. "Dear cousins, I beg your pardon, but I must say this. Hear me now: you are Athosians now. Athos is your home and your heritage. We are your family."

She looked at each person from Earth, waiting until each one met her eye. The warriors looked first to John, and some then to Ronon; the scientists to Rodney and Radek; the others, like Lizzie Hendrickson, looked directly to her. Teyla took her time. This was a ritual she had performed many times when culled people came to Athos to ask asylum or respite.

John stood, dusting his hands, and then taking hers. Rodney studied them and then he rose and took her hand. They stood side by side. Rodney twitched his head, and Radek, smiling beatifically at her, stood beside him, and Evan hurried to stand by John. "Ronon," John whispered loudly enough for all to hear. He grinned, winked at Teyla, and stood beside Evan.

The six of them waited quietly for the others, but there was no need, Teyla saw. John had been the only one to hesitate. The others climbed to their feet, made a bit shy by the ritual, but she saw on each of their faces happiness to be here. When everyone was standing, even Torren, holding his father's hand and staring up at her, she bowed to them, and then turned to bow to the men on either side of her. "Welcome!" she cried. She kissed Rodney, and then rested her hands on John's shoulders. He bowed his head in the Athosian greeting and they breathed together. When she raised her head, she saw he was grinning, but his eyes were glistening. "Welcome, my dear brother," she whispered to him, and kissed his cheek: right, left, right. She took a pace back and saw he had flushed and was smiling even harder.

Then Ronon slapped John on the back so hard he had to step forward, and everyone began hugging and talking again. Teyla was confident this melding would be a smooth and simple one; everyone already knew each other at least a little, and the people had chosen to come. Their home world hadn't been culled, or its population decimated by disease or natural disaster. They wanted to be here, and here they were. They were adults with skills and abilities that they wished to make available. And, she thought, watching Gunnery Sergeant Goldschmidt take the hand of Staff Sergeant McCormick, and Emily Simpson laugh with Bedrich, alliances had already been made that could not have been made on Earth, or even in Atlantis.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up at Halling. "You did well," he said smiling. "You have always been a good leader to us, Teyla, but I think your time among the Atlantians has made you even better."

"Thank you," she said, and impulsively hugged him. "Thank you, Halling. There is still much to do."

"We need another long house, and some individual tents for the families I already see being formed," he said. "And before they left, the Atlantians had planned to help us break ground for another wheat field. We need to break even more now. And they should learn our stories so they can tell their children." She watched his face; he was seeing future generations of Athosians the way Rodney saw the building blocks of nature.

"Soon," she promised. "First, a few days of planning. And we all need time to grow accustomed to each other."

"Yeah, Teyla, about that," John said. "I know you're the leader here, and I wanna say that, well, I respect that. It'll take some time, but you don't have to worry about a mutiny on my part."

She frowned, trying to parse his words. "You are saying that --"

"What I'm trying to say is that, um, you're the leader of your people, and we're part of your people now."

"I see." She was silent; this was unexpected. "Thank you," she finally said. John fidgeted a bit but before he could leave, she said, "You should be very proud of your cousin David. And he is very proud of you."

He looked at her, face open in surprise. "David? Wait, David?"

Behind John, Teyla saw Halling, arms crossed, waiting patiently. She said, "We will talk later. But yes, he rescued me as much as Rodney and Sam did. And all he wanted to hear about was you."

John, as he so often did, rubbed the back of his neck. Before either of them could continue, Halling said, "John, we need to organize new housing for your people. Will you help?"

"Yeah, yeah, of course. And Radek and Lorne; they're both engineers, and Rodney'll insist on puttin' in his oar, so yeah."

"Excellent. Let us share some tea and begin the work."

"Cool. See ya, Teyla."

She watched them walk away, no doubt to select locations for the new homes. "See ya," she murmured. Then Radek turned back, hurrying to her.

"Teyla, I was so excited I forgot, the first thing we can do, that we should do, is build a cloak for this village. Better with a ZPM, which unfortunately I do not possess, but we can do much with the naquadah generators. A shield requires more energy, so perhaps someday, but for now at least a cloak when we need, yes?"

She stared at him. "Why was this not done when Atlantis first allied with Athos?" Her voice sounded cold, she noted.

"Ah, I do not know, but remember we did not yet understand the Wraith. Elizabeth wished to negotiate with them, and we thought, oh Teyla, I apologize for our ignorance, but we thought you, well, the danger was exaggerated."

"Even after the death of Colonel Sumner, and what happened to your own people?"

He shrugged, looking very uncomfortable. "Later I think we forgot. I forgot. When it finally occurred to me, you were moved away, and it seemed unnecessary."

"But it was necessary, Radek."

His blue eyes shimmered behind his smudgy glasses. "It is my greatest regret and shame, Teyla. Then I knew what I should have done. But it was too late." He stared at her.

She took a deep breath. This was Radek, a friend, and she saw his great distress. "I will speak of this with Rodney and John," she finally said. And then, "But Radek, if you can create this cloak, then do so at once, before your housing."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, straightening his back. "Oh, Teyla --" She touched his shoulder and he stopped. "Yes, right away." He rushed after the others, stopping Rodney and Miko and Emily. John slowed and turned back. She watched them speak together and then look at her. She stood firmly before them. Her first decision as their leader.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

"Rodney," Teyla caught up with him as he walked toward the river, "Rodney." He turned, surprised when she touched his arm.

"Teyla, wow, you, uh, hi."

"Good morning, Rodney. I assume you are assisting with the design of the new irrigation system."

"Well, yeah, of course." They walked into woods, each step kicking up dust that rose in the early light, spiraling into the pine tree branches. Rodney sneezed.

"You have done good work. The cloak, the housing, the lighting system, the school -- I want you to know how grateful I am, we all are."

"Um, thanks. Of course, it's nothing compared to what I could do on Atlantis --"

"But you are not on Atlantis. And in fact, it is much more than what you did while on Atlantis."

She saw he ducked his head, then raised it defiantly, a very Rodney gesture. "Well, that's true, but I can't change the past." He thought and then said, "Actually, I probably could. Radek and I have kicked around some ideas --"

"That will be unnecessary. I prefer you here and now, and I know the others do as well."

"They do? They do, of course they do. Well, then. Good."

They walked in silence a bit longer, and then Teyla changed the subject to one that had been bothering her. It was, as the Atlantians would say, a nosy question, but she genuinely wanted to know. "What?" he snapped, coming to a stop. "All right, we were assholes, but we're trying now. Aren't we?"

"Rodney, I was wondering about Jennifer." Teyla didn't say anything more, just started walking again; he followed. Rodney sneezed again; remembering the Earth tradition, she said, "Bless you."

"Thanks. Ah, actually, I wondered when you'd ask me about her." He glanced at her; she saw he was flushing, but his chin was still up. She smiled. "I, I tried to talk to her about all this -- about what would happen to Atlantis."

"Jennifer was my friend," Teyla said. "But I know she did not feel about the city as you do."

"No, she didn't. She didn't understand Pegasus at all." They walked a bit further and then he said in a rush, "I loved her, you know."

"I know, Rodney."

"I did. But I couldn't stay, and she wouldn't leave. She believed the SGC would send you home, she didn't believe me. She said I was overreacting, and that I would catch more flies with honey than vinegar. But Teyla, I didn't want to catch flies. I wanted to get you home." He fell silent. She took his arm as they walked. "I wanted to come home," he finally said.

"Thank you, Rodney." She pressed her cheek against his arm. They broke from the forest to stand on a little rise overlooking the field that the community had decided would best be used to grow wheat next year. Already a few people were working, pulling the larger rocks from the field and dumping them into a wheelbarrow. Farther off others were weeding the vegetable gardens. At the base of the hill John stood with Bedrich, heads together, gesticulating as they spoke.

"It was John, too," Rodney said in a rush. "I didn't, I mean, we -- I didn't know how he felt, but." He sighed and clenched his hands in frustration. "It wasn't just that she didn't think there was any problem, though that contributed significantly. She didn't get it, and John did. He got Pegasus, he got the IOA, he got the military. And he got me. When I was back on Earth I realized -- everybody is so stupid there, compared to what we have here."

Teyla didn't say anything; she wasn't sure she entirely understood what Rodney was trying to say. He gestured down at the field being prepared, at John. Taking a deep breath, Rodney at last said, "I love him," simple and true.

"I know you do," she said. "And he has loved you for a long time."

"He did? Of course he did." Rodney beamed. "Yeah. I know that. Now."

Teyla squeezed his arm affectionately. After a few minutes, she realized that Rodney was embarrassed by his declaration, so she said, "I did not realize that John's family had been farmers."

"Well, businessmen and politicians," Rodney said, his voice scratchy with affection, "but he grew up on a horse ranch and they grew a lot of the feed."

She watched him watch John, and listened to how how he spoke about John: with knowledge and with affection. They were sharing rooms in one of the three bungalows the Atlantians had built, with the help of a few Athosians under the guidance of the Xii and the iXii. John and Rodney had named their bungalow Turtle Mother, which had made the Athosian children laugh wildly but the adults approved. Teyla approved. The fact that they remembered the story meant a great deal to her, and she understood it to be their acknowledgment that they were now Athosians.

"How is John?" she asked, still watching Rodney's face. He raised his eyebrows.

"The usual. Stubborn, laconic, a solitary man."

"But perhaps not as solitary as he was?"

He tilted his head and looked back at John, who had spotted them and was waving. They waved back and started the hike down to the new wheat field. "Perhaps," Rodney allowed, and laughed. "Hell, you already know the answer. I came home to John." He strode ahead, almost trotting, and she followed slowly, falling back a little to observe. "I suppose you think you don't need my advice," he shouted at John.

"Oh, I think we have things under control."

"Then you have another think coming," Rodney told him, and took John's outstretched hand, letting him pull Rodney to the top of the small ditch, which Rodney called an aqueduct, that would divert water from the river to the new field. When he reached the top, he nonchalantly leaned forward and kissed John. Teyla smiled so hard at the sight that her eyes water, but she was composed when John helped her up.

"It's not just for agriculture," Rodney was telling the people around them. "I mean, it's mostly for agriculture, but remember that big storm about six years ago? We need to be prepared for another one, and for droughts. I have some plans I'd like to show you." He pulled a scroll from his pack and unrolled it, John holding the bottom edge. "First step, of course, is to complete the aqueducts, and line them with that clay from P2 -- I mean, from Mhet. Then we'll cover most of them to prevent evaporation and to keep debris out of the water, and some kind of insect proofing. Eventually, we should build water storage facilities; I was thinking here." He tapped the scroll.

John let go of his end of the scroll so it zipped closed. "Later," he said. "Right now, grab a shovel."

"I'm the brains; you're the brawn," Rodney retorted, but he grabbed a shovel, and Teyla did, too.

"Hey, Teyla," John greeted her. "Your contribution is just symbolic, you know." She rolled her eyes at him and scrambled into the ditch next between Rodney and Bedrich.

"Good morning," she said.

"I was just thinking of you," John said, grinning. "Remember that time on M3X-299 when --"

"I would prefer not to," she said with great dignity, but grinned back at him. "Unless it's the time on P7X-847 when you --"

"No, definitely not that time," he said.

"Oh for god's sake, yes, yes, we're all old friends and carry terrible secrets that no one else should know, including many amusing anecdotes about falling into mud pits," Rodney snapped. "Quel amusant." He slammed the shovel into the ditch and scooped out a tiny cupful of damp earth. "Dig!" he said.

They dug. Teyla knew that, as John had said, this was largely symbolic but she enjoyed it. The resultant irritation system would benefit the existing gardens as well as the new fields. In addition, Rodney had insisted that the some of the water be streamed through tubing to heat for outdoor baths. Teyla thought that was a very good idea; the idea of soaking in a steaming tub while snow fell was very appealing. Today the sun was low and the air still cool, though it would be warm later. Some people walking to the vegetable gardens stopped by and took shovels away from Teyla and the others and dug a bit, and then a few from the settlement wandered down to see what they were doing, and they dug a bit, too. Nadez brought some of the children down so they could try to dig; Torren and his best friend Byru were the most enthusiastic and ended up covered in mud.

"Come along," Nadez laughed, pulling them out of the ditch. "Early bath time for you lot."

She was muddy herself, Teyla saw, and scooped up Torren. "I will help," she told her, and they herded the children back.

"Oh, nice way to escape," Rodney called after her.

"That man," Nadez said, but Teyla saw she was laughing and waving at him as he scowled at them. By now, no one believed Rodney's shows of exasperation, and most found them amusing. She thought he intended them to be.

Nadez said, "Teyla, a few of us have been talking."

When Nadez didn't continue, she said, "Hmm?"

"We have heard that the Mur had an exception year for hunting and have many ret furs. Perhaps you could assist them, as you have in the past."

"Perhaps."

"It's just that we --"

"And by 'we' you mean who?" Teyla asked, but without irritation.

"Kanaan, for one. And Halling, and Bedrich, and Anezka. The usual." She smiled at Teyla.

Teyla thought about this as she stripped Torren and began to bathe him. "Ma!" he complained, but when the other children splashed in with him, he was happy.

Maybe it was time for her to return. She had always loved going through the Ancestor's Ring, and she knew she was a skilled negotiator. More so now than ever, in fact, thanks to her experiences with the Atlantians. She missed visiting other worlds, missed knowing when and where the markets were being held. She had been born to do that.

"Perhaps I will," she said when all the children were clean and running around the grass naked as the day they were born, drying in the sun while she was stood next to Nadez, their arms crossed as they watched the chaos. "Perhaps John will come with me."

"He would be a good choice," Nadez said. "Would do him good to get off world once in a while, too. I think he misses it. Though you better not keep him over night; Rodney would be most unhappy."

They laughed, for Nadez was right. Those two were as close as two peas in a pod, as close as Kanaan and Teyla.

She spoke to Kanaan that night. "I do think you should," he told her as they lay in bed. He stroked her arms, and kissed her fingers. "You miss it, I know. Torren is well looked after, and I'm usually here. Ronon and I hunt only every eight or nine days. Go. I know that Halling wishes you would." He had been doing the trading recently. "Speak to him tomorrow."

"I will," she promised, yawning. "I will."

Halling was very glad. "I have not your skills," he told her over tea in the morning. "And it is easy for me to forget I am there to trade when I see an opportunity to study." She nodded, smiling ruefully at him. He was the same now as when he was young; he wanted to study, to meditate, to learn. "I agree that you should ask John if he would consider going with you, as a guard, yes, but also as your apprentice."

They sat and watched John as he helped clean up from the communal breakfast. He was a hard worker and always willing to help, but Teyla thought Nadez was right in that he needed more. Rodney was happy developing new projects to help the settlement, and everyone had several jobs, but John had none that suited his abilities the way Rodney or Evan or Miko did. Instead, he helped everyone.

"My apprentice," she said thoughtfully. She liked the idea very much. "I will ask him right away." She patted Halling's hand, and rose, carrying her steaming tea, and went to John. "May we talk?"

He looked surprised and happy. "Yeah, sure. Just let me . . ." He mopped up the floor of the long house from the front door to the cooking area and rinsed out the mop. "Okay!"

They walked back to the river to see how much progress had been made. "Are you glad you came?" she asked him.

He laughed. "Considering the alternatives? Hell, yes. To be honest, I keep expecting the Daedalus to show up so I can be court-martialed, though the odds are slim to none. Why would they come back? There's nothing here for them." She didn't think he sounded bitter, just very matter of fact.

"I am so happy that you came. Sometimes I believe you were born on the wrong world. That happens, you know. We call it touched by the Ancestors, as though their touch is so powerful it can move you."

He glanced at her, smiling shyly. "I'd like to think so."

"I have a proposal for you. I am about to resume my duties as chief negotiator and trader. Would you accompany me?"

"Wow, Teyla, that's great. But shouldn't I stay here, help Rodney, pull my weight?"

"You would, as you say, pull your weight. You would help me in many ways. Some worlds require a man be present; you know that. Sometimes I need assistance carrying the items I trade or bring home. I believe you should learn more about our neighbors. You would not carry a weapon, you know. And this would give you the opportunity to participate more in the day-to-day, as Mister Woolsey said."

"Yeah," he said thoughtfully. "Hmm." They walked in silence until they reached the edge of the forest. "If Rodney needs me for something, that would take precedence," he finally said.

"Of course. And we would rarely stay over night, though we often leave early. I have noticed that many of the great markets are on worlds whose times are earlier than hours. As a young girl, I disliked that very much."

"Rodney'll complain."

"But he enjoys that so much."

They grinned at each other, and then climbed down to the garden, to pick up baskets and begin to harvest the pole beans. John snapped one in half and popped it into his mouth. "God, this is good," he said, fingers flying.

He would be good at anything he tried, she thought, watching him greet Rodney when he appeared with his own basket. She would teach him the key markets and introduce him to her counterparts. Kanaan would be glad that Teyla would no longer trade unaccompanied, and John could take over entirely in a few months. She paused to eat a bean and rested a hand on her abdomen. Still flat, but not for much longer. Perhaps her new baby she would name Meredith.

The first world she took John to was where the Mur raised their ret, roly-poly furry creatures with appealing brown eyes and the warmest fur Teyla had ever worn. They were sheared every three years, so their trade was important to the Mur for many foods they couldn't grow on their world and supplies they couldn't construct. "Why'd we never come here?" John asked, his breath puffing white in the cold.

"The ret had just been sheared the year you arrived, and then my attention was turned," Teyla explained.

"My god, it's freezing," John said, clapping his gloved hands together.

"This is their summer."

He looked askance at her, and then Ieldra strode up the path to the Ancestor's Ring. "Is that Teyla?" she asked. "It has been too many years, my dear!" She embraced Teyla firmly, pressing her cheek to Teyla's: right, left, right. "I have heard mysterious stories about you."

"I am happy to return, Ieldra. This is my friend, John, son of Patrick. He is late come to the trade."

"Welcome, John! You could not have a better teacher than Teyla, daughter of Tagan. Both excellent negotiators with sharp shears, as we say, meaning a hard negotiator but a fair one." She looked at John closely, her hands on his shoulders. "You're as cold as a well digger's bottom, my dear. Come along." She turned, taking John by the arm, and led the way back to their settlement. The Mur lived in clusters of single-story homes they called murra, built with low, very thick walls and peaked roofs, all connected by passageways so no one had to go out into the snow to visit a neighbor, the public oven, or one of the other small specialized shops. In summer -- like now -- the walls of the passageways facing the prevailing winds were rolled up.

Ieldra took them to the public oven, which was more than an oven but a public house where the Mur gathered to chat as well as bake. She threw off her furs and announced, "Teyla, daughter of Tagan, returns from Athos! And this is John, of --" She turned to him.

"Also of Athos," he said quietly. Teyla smiled at him, and then the others.

"It is good to see you all," Ieldra said, and bobbed her head in their manner.

"Teyla, do you remember me?" a red-cheeked man asked her. She had no recollection of his face, but smiled. "I am Kino, son of Teur, of Vinmigt." He saw she did not remember. "I was a friend of Beri, who was Sora's cousin."

"Oh, Kino, yes," she said, but her heart clenched in apprehension. "I am afraid I have not seen Sora in some years."

He shrugged. "They went crazy. Everyone knows this. I married Ialla and moved from Vinmigt to Mur a dozen years ago. I am the ironmonger here. I learned my trade from Beri's uncle, but that family is all dead now."

"I am sorry," Teyla said faintly.

"They went crazy," he said again, shrugging. "I heard they had made crazy weapons that poisoned them. I was sorry; I liked visiting them. But after Beri turned thirteen, there was no friendship anyway. The Genii always went their own way."

"That they did," an old woman said. She must be the baker, Teyla thought; her face was flushed and sweaty from the oven's heat and she had floury patches on her apron. "I remember when I was a little girl. My aunt came home from a visit saying they were crazy; that must be forty years ago as the Genii count."

"At least they tried," an old man said. His face was red, too, but from the contents of his tankard, Teyla thought. "Not that they did a damn bit of good. Then those crazy Ancestors came back, ha, not so worshipful, were they."

"Shame, shame," another man said. He was slicing bread and building thick sandwiches of meat and cheese. "They're all with their makers now. No need to speak ill of the dead."

There seemed to be general agreement on that point, Teyla thought, and then Ieldra had the first old man pour them tankards of what he was drinking, a spicy ale. She bullied John into sitting by the oven, and the baker gave him a thick slice of just-made bread. Teyla sat next to Ieldra, sipping her ale. She knew they would talk for a bit, and then she would share out the chocolate she had brought for that purpose, and only then would the negotiations begin. She had told John all this and saw that he was watching closely. "You must be a different person for different worlds," she had explained to him. "When the four of us traveled through the ring together, the process was different because we were there not to facilitate trade among worlds but to locate resources you needed. Now, you must watch and remember."

He'd rubbed the back of his neck and said, "I'll try."

"Do or not do. There is no try," she had said primly, and he'd burst out laughing.

They chatted of the weather, of new babies, of injuries, and shared gossip from other trading partners. "That Eris, she was as sour as an early apple," Ieldra reminisced. "Gone now, without children, so you'll have to meet with -- what's that woman's name?" she asked the others.

"Bev," the man with the tankard said.

"No, it's like Bev, but not Bev," the baker said.

"It's Miah," the sandwich maker said. "She was Eris's mother's mother's sister's granddaughter. My cousin partnered with her uncle."

Teyla was very impressed with this bit of genealogy, but only John seemed to notice; the others all took it in stride. "That's it," Ieldra said. "Miah. Almost as sour as Eris, but not quite. She'll give you a hard time, though, Teyla. She'll make sure you've thought of every angle."

"Due diligence," John murmured, and Ieldra nodded.

"That's it, that's right; you better have done your due diligence."

When they left, night had fallen on Mur, but they carried two loaves of bread still hot from the oven and a skin of the spicy ale, plus the promise of twelve tuns of fur, a tun being a wooden casket that held the wool of approximately twenty ret. They went through not to Athos but to the Qinto where she gently explored whether they needed any wool and, if so, what would they trade. As she expected, they could offer labor most easily, but she learned they had been harvesting tava beans, which she didn't think had been produced commercially since the Genii. "These can easily be traded for what you need," she said letting the dried beans run through her fingers. "If they are truly the same."

"Come taste!" their host Eet said, and offered them bowls of tava bean soup better than any she had ever tasted.

"You could trade this soup," John said. "No, seriously," he added when he saw the faces of the Qinto around them. "I mean, only for special occasions, of course, but this is great."

Teyla said, "John is correct. If you like, we could assist finding you trading partners."

Eet looked at his kinsmen, who nodded. "We would, Teyla. You have always done fairly by us."

"Do you still offer labor as trade?"

"Yes, yes, of course."

"We will make inquiries and return within the next ten-day."

When she and John approached the Ancestor's Ring to go home to Athos for that night, the great surface began boiling out. They watched it fall back and shimmer, its rippling blue surface as seductive as ever to Teyla. Then an old woman with a tall walking stick broke through. Teyla gasped.

"Ancestors bless me, are you my sister Tagan's child? Teyla Emmagan?"

Teyla rushed forward, unbelieving. "Teralla?"

"I haven't seen you in, what, nearly thirty sun cycles. Child, you are grown! And so beautiful." They reached for each other, and rested their foreheads together, breathing quietly for a long minute.

Teyla stepped back to study her aunt. She was much shorter than Teyla remembered. Her face was darker than Teyla's, and deep grooves lined her eyes and mouth. Her hair was grey and frizzy, and she wore a flat red embroidered cap, the kind the Santhal wore. She carried the same tall, heavily carved walking stick that Teyla remembered from before. "Aunt, why have you never come home?"

Teralla laughed, and gestured widely. "I am home! Where there is a ring, each is king; you know that."

Teyla shook her head but didn't disagree with her aunt. Now that she had visited Earth, the old saying carried more meaning for her. "Teralla, this is my friend and kinsman, John, son of Patrick. John, this is my mother's sister, Teralla, daughter of Nialla. She is a guide and warrior."

"I haven't been a warrior for many years," Teralla said. "But I am a guide even yet. You are still trading?"

"I am," Teyla said, "and John as well."

"I have heard rumor of you over the years, Teyla. That you are the wisest and wiliest leader of the Athosians, that you befriended the Ancestors, that you learned to fly." Teralla studied her. "But you look very much like my beloved sister."

"I have led our people for many years," Teyla admitted. "As wisely and as well as I am able. But the Ancestors have not returned, nor have I learned to fly."

"Ah well. I didn't really think so, but the story is too good not to repeat."

Teyla stared at her aunt and hoped that one day she would look the same: wrinkled and withered, yes, but her back still straight and her spirit strong and welcoming. "It is good to see you, aunt," she finally said.

"And you. We may meet again, though probably not. The Rings are wide and time is short." She kissed Teyla on the cheek: right, left, right, and then gripped John's forearm. "I must leave you, my dear; I have some ways to go yet. Farewell, kinsmen. Ancestors bless you."

"And you," she and John murmured in return. They watched her march through the trading grounds. Teyla wondered where Teralla was going, and why she hadn't thought to ask her.

"Wow," John said as they pressed the glyphs for Athos. "She's a character."

She and John left again next morning, this time to meet Miah and attempt negotiations with her. Teyla saw Miah was taken aback by John. "The Athosian traders were ever singletons," she said to Teyla, staring at John.

"John is training. He came late to the trade," Teyla explained.

Miah still looked suspicious, but when John remained quiet and stayed still, she entered into vigorous negotiation. "Beans and soup!" she scoffed. "Ridiculous. We need hard workers who can help in the fields."

"I can arrange for as many as you need. When and where?"

When they had settled upon a series of time periods when the Qinto would assist in the fields, Teyla offered to share their lunch with Miah. Distrustful, Miah sniffed the flask of tava bean soup, then tasted it on the tip of her little finger. "This is good," she said, but nothing more.

Walking back to the Ancestor's Ring, Teyla said, "Most people are like the Qinto and slow to change. Even change that would help them is frightening. My father taught me it is best to suggest and forget. Suggest and forget. Suggest and forget. Eventually the individual grains of sand will coalesce into something more."

"Specially when it tastes as good as that soup," John commented.

"Most change does not taste as good," Teyla agreed. They returned to the Qinto with their news; John wrote it down in his slow careful print. Athosian letters did not come easy to him; he had started late to learn, but he was persistent. The Mur would have beans from the Qinto, and a supply of fresh vegetables from Miah's people in exchange for furs to the Qinto who would work for Miah. "Confusing," John said, staring at his notes.

"At first, yes," Teyla said, remembering when she was just starting. "Soon you will just know. Then you can pay attention to more subtle needs. For example, I noticed that Miah's skirt was frayed. That could mean she doesn't care about clothes, or their weaver is ill, or the flax did not grow. When we discover the cause, we can suggest trade."

"Suggest and then forget."

"Exactly. Though we have just met Miah, I feel confident she would at first tell us they have no need."

They sat alone in the trade tent on Qinto. The ring on that world was in high mountains where it was often cool and cloudy, and the soil was thin. John went over his notes again, adding to them, while Teyla watched, smiling to herself. This time next year, he would be here by himself. She would be caring for another baby. She was beginning to show but John, unsurprisingly, had not noticed.

"Tomorrow we will visit Uvulu," she said.

He didn't look up from his work. "All right," he said absently. She smiled broadly. "What?" He looked up at here. "What? Do I have something on me? On my face?" He looked at his jacket, and rubbed his mouth.

"You are fine," she assured him. "Just it has been several years since I visited Uvulu; it is one of my favorite worlds."

"Cool." He went back to work, and then Eet returned to share news and a bite to eat.

The next morning John met Teyla at the Ancestor's Ring on Athos. She had arrived early to ask the Ancestors to bless this journey and her apprentice, though she knew now the Ancestors were the Ancients, the Alterans, just people with incredible technology. Rodney had often told her that Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so I guess it's not entirely unexpected that people would worship them, besides which, they probably liked that, the sick bastards. Remembering that made her smile, but she still bowed her head and whispered her prayer, then burnt cedar shavings and needles, encouraging the smoke to coil through the ring.

"Should I do that?" John asked, looking embarrassed.

"No!" she said. "No, you do not believe." She paused. She no longer believed, yet she still perform the little ritual. But she had believed at one time. "Not unless you wish to."

"Uh, no, I don't think so."

"Very well." She brushed her hands together and she showed him the glyphs for Uluvu. "Now, before you go through, you must first take a deep breath. Normally you would exhale, and leave your mouth open, but not when visiting Uluvu. Remember!"

"Okay," he said, squinting at her suspiciously. She gestured toward what she had come to call the DHD and he entered the glyphs. When the roiling blue had fallen back into itself and gently rippled, they walked to the surface. "I know, I know," John said before she could open her mouth. "This time, hold my breath."

She took his hand, faced the ring's entrance, took a deep breath, and plunged through, feeling him at her side.

Instantly she was engulfed in the warm, light-filled waters of Uluvu. She swam upwards, kicking firmly, and they burst to the surface, bobbing beneath the arch of the gate. "Holy shit!" John shouted. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I wished to surprise you," she said. "Now, swim this way." She led him to the Uluvi settlement, where they had already been seen. On the floating mats she could see people waving at them, and watched as an aka, an outrigger canoe, was launched.

"This is amazing," John said. He swam well, smoothly and strongly. "I forget sometimes -- I mean, after the first few times, it was like taking the Metro to work in DC. It's like I deserted the Air Force for -- but it isn't -- this isn't like anything." She was a little puzzled but remained silent. The aka drew nearer and she saw her friend Hali'a paddling, her smile brilliant and welcoming. John said, quickly, "Going through the stargate -- I mean, through the Ancestor's Ring. It's, it's not a fucking subway."

Hali'a spun around them so they could climb into the stern. "Teyla!" she cried. "Ring-sister! Oh, it has been too long."

"It has, it has," Teyla agreed. "You look wonderful! Hali'a, this is my friend, John, son of Patrick, now of Athos, who is also a trader."

"Welcome, John," Hali'a said. "Athos has been too long away. We have much to share."

"We do," Teyla agreed. She turned to John, who was still beaming. He sat comfortably despite the motion of the aka and she saw that he would love Uluvu as much as she did.

He smiled at her, then caught her hand. "Why you think I'll be a good trader, I don't know," he said quietly. "You know I'm terrible at, uh, expressing, uh. Things. But damn, Teyla. We go through a ring to other worlds and they're all different. It's just -- it's all." He sighed, and ran a hand through his wet hair. "I've always trusted you, right from the beginning."

"And I you, John."

"Yeah. Well." He let go of her hand and faced forward. They had arrived at the mat; he leaned forward to catch hold of a cleat, then neatly tied the line.

"Well done, John," Hali'a said, and helped Teyla onto the mat. "Look at you. Teyla, you know better! You must take those heavy things off, let them dry."

Teyla happily removed her sodden shoes, skirt, and overblouse; under her clothes she had dressed for Uluvu. John wore a faded black tee-shirt under a laced tunic. He pulled the tunic over his head, hesitated, and then removed his shoes, socks, and trousers. He was wearing blue-and-white striped boxers. She saw Hali'a study him frankly, smiling at him.

"Hali'a, is it okay if I swim a bit?" John asked. She gestured toward the world wide ocean and he dove in, a graceful dive with no splash. He popped up and shook his head, grinning hugely before swimming parallel the mat. Teyla knew he would swim its length and breadth if he could, but she also knew he'd be shocked at its size. She found herself smiling at him as she rested her hand on her belly.

"Teyla, you're pregnant!" Hali'a cried, delighted. She embraced Teyla where they knelt. "We will celebrate this new life."

Teyla nodded, moved by Hali'a's gesture. Beneath her, the mat surged, strong and secure, and the sun glittered on the surface of the ocean. John was swimming back now, and they waited for him. She knew he'd be full of questions about this strange world. Beneath her hand, she sensed her baby. She thought, I have new Athosians to care for and love. "Hali'a, will you do us the honor of telling us the story of this world? My father told me when I was a little girl, but that was so long ago."

"So long ago," Hali'a laughed. "Oh, yes, you are an ancient one. But of course we will. My great-uncle Malu is the ulale this third cycle and he will be happy to tell." John was at the blunt edge of the great mat; Hali'a reached a strong arm to him and he swung up, dripping. "But first, you two must meet with the boki and tell them of Athos. We have heard strange stories."

They stood, and Hali'a led the way. Children clustered in a doorway; a school, Teyla thought, and waved at them. They giggled and waved back. "This is like a city," John whispered to her as they wound around the many structures.

"It is a city," she explained. "It is the city of Uluvu, though it can separate into smaller villages when needed. I have never seen that. But we will learn more soon."

"Cool," he said, grinning at a near-naked young woman who eyed him appreciatively.

Teyla, thinking of Rodney, punched John in the upper arm. Then Hali'a began ringing a large bell, copper faded to a green patina, and people Teyla had not seen in years appeared. She rang harder and on the horizon Teyla saw more aka appear, cutting swiftly through the glittering water. She shaded her eyes with her hand to see better and gazed out at this world, one of hundreds the Ancestors had linked through the rings. John and the others had had only one world, crowded and poor and alone, but she had hundreds. Hundreds of worlds, all different, all beautiful in their own way.

Hali'a grinned at Teyla. "You don't mind a little aina, eh? For the baby and your return?"

A gathering, Teyla remembered, or a celebration. "That would be lovely, Ring-sister," she said, clasping Hali'a's hand. They stood together, watching the people gather, many approaching John with smiles and words of welcome, and more coming to her. "Ring-sister," she heard, turning to greet each in the Athosian way and then accept their kisses. "Ring-sister, you have returned."


Opening quote by the Buddha from the Dhammapada, translated by Walpola Rahula.

Title from "The Coming of Light," by Mark Strand

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow's dust flares into breath.


Posted January 13, 2010