Teyla should have known better. She had known dashed hopes all her life, and even though she had never given up, she had had to learn how to bear frustration after frustration in order to keep on hoping at all. So when she first spotted the jumper gliding over the meadow towards the latest settlement of the Athosian alliance, she should have steeled herself against dissolving into joy.
But she did not. Not at first. All she could see at first was the gleam of the setting sun on the jumper, its graceful arc evoking a long-forgotten happiness in her like a trill of effortless high notes. It was only when the jumper had landed and the ramp began to come down that she felt that happiness falter and die away under the knowledge that something must be wrong. And when she saw John, stooped, leaning awkwardly on Rodney's shoulder as they made their way painfully down the ramp, she knew she had been a fool.
For a minute, she and Ronon stood still in front of the knot of curious Athosians, uncertain, gazing at the other two. John looked terrible: pale, grizzled with silver, bone-thin. Rodney did not look much better, eyelids red with lack of sleep, jowls heavy with advancing middle age and something more.
Then Rodney said peevishly, "What, do you want our IDCs?" and John pushed himself away from Rodney's protective grip and took a few tottering steps towards her and her forehead was resting against his. Behind her, she heard a scuffle and an indignant "Ooof!" that meant Ronon was greeting Rodney. In that moment, she did not care again, did not care that she was supporting John's whole weight, did not care that Rodney was yowling something about his knees. She was purely happy again.
She and Ronon had talked of it from time to time, what they would do if the Earth expedition, or even the rest of the team, had returned. In fact, Ronon needed to return to the idea often, especially after some difficult defeat. Teyla always let him speak his mind, but she had nothing to add to the conversation. To her, it was as idle as a discussion of the return of the Ancestors—but more dangerous.
The departure of the expedition had left the Wraith, the Replicators, and the hybrids battling for control of the galaxy. Under these new conditions, the Athosians had to make themselves at least strong enough to defend themselves from the human marauders who had arisen in the chaos, or else be overrun. So, on her return, Teyla had, with great difficulty, prevailed upon the Athosian council to change their decades-old policy of isolation and underdevelopment. To her surprise, a number of peoples had looked to her for leadership—she had not realized how much attention she had drawn in her years as the rare Pegasus ally of the Earth expedition. Many more people knew of Teyla of Atlantis than had ever heard of Teyla of Athos, a thought that sometimes made her cheek burn. She had negotiated mutual defense arrangements that offered some shelter, watched their ranks swell with refugees and those who wished to fight for their freedom. But it had always been a game with the last of their stake in play; even with what remained of the Atlantean technology, they could not defeat the Wraith or the Replicators in direct combat.
Under these circumstances, talk about the return of the expedition could be nothing but a distraction. She could not bring herself to forbid Ronon from taking comfort in it when he was alone with her, but she asked him not to speak of the subject to any of the young warriors he trained.
"You're still angry," he had said, looking closely at her.
"I am not angry," she had protested. "Only realistic."
"You never used to be this realistic."
She could not argue with that. But the galaxy was not the same as it had been before the city rose, and she could not be, either.
So she was not as prepared as she might have been to see John and Rodney sitting around a fire in the settlement, eating tuttle root soup. She had spent so long guarding against this possibility in her heart that it did not seem real. She even half-wondered if this might be some sort of Replicator trap, though if that were the case they would probably all be dead already. She kept losing the thread of their story as she gazed at them.
"So we..." Rodney made a vague gesture.
"Borrowed a jumper," John put in. People passed nearby, casting glances, lingering. Curious, but also watchful. Few had ever spent time on Atlantis, and surviving stories of the Earth expedition were not all positive.
"Went through unbelievable discomfort to get here..."
"It wasn't that bad," John said.
"You weren't the one who had to spend the whole two days watching—watching the engine to make sure it didn't give out under the stress."
"It was doing fine."
The scowl Rodney directed at John suddenly snapped Teyla back into focus. It was as familiar to her as her own smile in the mirror. It would have been comforting to see them locked in one of their endless, petty disputes if the situation had not been so dire. Fortunately, Ronon leaned forward to cut off the argument before she had to. "So what you're saying is, you need Iratus larvae again."
"Yes," Rodney said. "Keller gave me the equipment, so if we can get the raw materials, we should be able to treat him."
"All right, then." He stood up. "I'll put together a team."
Teyla saw, as Rodney did not, the shadow pass over John's face as he watched Ronon walk off. She did not think John had complete faith in the promised cure, which might be just as well, because—
"So how about you guys?" John said. "Having fun without us?"
"Oh, yes," she said dryly. "A great deal."
"You didn't stay where we left you," Rodney said.
"Our first settlement was raided by the Replicators." After Ronon had provoked them with a raid on one of their laboratories, which had been working on synthesizing the Wraith feeding enzyme for purposes too grim to think about. "It seemed better to move."
"Well, it's a good thing you still had your subcutaneous transmitters." He peered at her owlishly. "Or, at least, that Ronon did."
"Mine was removed," she said. "I was injured."
John frowned. She noticed that he had only taken a few spoonfuls of the soup. "Bad?"
"I have recovered," she said. "Rest, eat. I will be right back."
Ronon was inspecting the best of the weaponry at their armory, his face mostly in shadow.
"Ronon," she said softly. "We could not take the last Iratus nest with all the force of the expedition."
He didn't look at her. "I know. It'll be a volunteer mission, Teyla. There are enough guys who remember Sheppard, or who owe me."
"Teyla. I have to."
"I know." She put her hand on his arm. "But first let me see if I cannot secure the larvae some other way."
"I can't think of anyone who would have them to trade. Except maybe the Replicators, and they're not going to give us anything."
"Nonetheless," she said. "Give me a few days."
Now he looked at her. "Do you think Sheppard has much time?"
"No. But we cannot ask our people to die for him for no reason."
"If we wait too long..."
"It should only be a few days."
She knew how slim the chances were. She would not need to spend much time on futility.
"I hope it's not too much for him."
"Ronon," she said. "This is what we owe our people."
"What about Sheppard?" he asked bitterly. "What do we owe him?"
Everything, she thought. I owe him everything. "Right now you owe him your care. Go back and see to them. Alar and Juvon will not mind sharing quarters for a while."
"All right," he muttered. As he loped back towards the fire, Teyla saw the first hint of age in the impotent stoop of his back.
As Teyla emerged from the armory herself, she saw that Halling and Jinto had joined their guests during her absence. She watched Ronon approach the group and the brief but animated argument when he, rather than Rodney, took John's arm over his shoulder to lead him off. Rodney trailed them anxiously, hands half-outstretched as if to catch John if he fell, with Jinto behind them all, unable to suppress his smile at his old uncles. Halling broke off from the group and came over to her where she stood beneath a young tree.
"It is good to see Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay again," he said.
She could see that he meant it. The pleasure flickered up from below his reserve, embers buried in a dying fire. "It is. But it is important that word of their arrival not leave the settlement."
He nodded. "Of course. I will have Jinto speak to the boys in particular." He started to turn away, but there was plainly more on his mind. "Why have they come, Teyla?"
"You see how Colonel Sheppard is."
"I do. And I am sorry for it." He hesitated. "Has he come for comfort, or in search of a cure?"
She glanced around. They were alone, though voices carried far at the edge of the settlement at night. "There is some hope for a cure."
He sighed and said, with all his profound gentleness, "Teyla..."
She frowned. "Would you have me turn away a guest in need of aid, Halling?"
"No. Especially not such a guest as John Sheppard. But your standing with the council...some have never forgiven you for the Replicator attack. If his own people could not help him..."
She snapped a tiny branch off the tree. "...what is he asking of us?"
Her own bitterness surprised her. The expedition's drugs had put to flight half a dozen illnesses that had always dogged the Athosians. Dr. Beckett had never turned an Athosian away from the infirmary.
With the expedition gone, she had thought that at least her exhausting days of divided loyalties, continually shifting perspectives, had gone as well. It had been a small blessing, but she had welcomed it.
Halling's deep-set eyes reproached her. "I will not be the only one asking this question, Teyla. It would be well for you to have an answer I can give to the rest of the council."
"I know." She began stripping the branch to make a switch. "For now he is asking only the comfort our healers can offer—which we give to any who come to us."
"And later? Forgive me, Teyla, but he does not seem to have much time."
She concentrated on the rough bark scratching her fingers, the green pith emerging from beneath. "I promise you, Halling, I will not ask our people to sacrifice anything for him."
He stilled her hand on the switch. "What about you yourself?"
"I do not know."
He patted her hand. "I pray that someday the Ancestors guide you onto an easier path, Teyla."
She did not tell him that she had learned on Atlantis that the Ancestors had no guidance to offer her.
Teyla glanced around the clearing near the gate. She had gone through three worlds before reaching this planet, an uninhabited forest world not so different from the one they currently lived on, but she had made sure to reach the meeting point three hours before she was supposed to. She could hardly be careful enough—
"Hello, Teyla," Michael said, emerging from the trees. "You're looking well."
He had come even earlier than she had. She was careful to keep her inflection neutral. "Michael."
She had wondered if the hybrids had changed much since they had given up feeding on humans, but if they had, she could not see it. Michael was a touch paler than before, the veins a little more prominent in his throat, but otherwise he didn't seem to have aged at all. He was wearing oddly human-looking garb, a black shirt and olive trousers. And he looked surprisingly nervous, his fingers drumming on his thigh, his words coming a little too quickly.
"I must admit, I didn't think you'd ever use that communications device," he said, his eyes darting about before they settled on her. A smile twitched one side of his mouth, then was gone. "At least not so soon."
"I wish to speak to you about trade. Nothing more."
He tilted his head, eyes going half-shut. "Oh? What do you need?"
Something that none of her other contacts had had, as she had known even when she had spoken to Ronon a day and a half ago. "Iratus larvae. I believe that you could infiltrate one of their nests and retrieve some."
He paced a little distance. "Iratus? The cousin-insect? I believe that could be arranged, but—" He abruptly looked back over his shoulder at her. "What for?"
"Does it matter?"
"It does to me. There will be no more retrovirus programs in this galaxy."
Except his, of course. They still came across survivors of his failed experiments at times, abandoned and pitiful. There was little she could offer them except quick deaths. "No. It is for medical purposes."
"Treatment? Of who?"
She took a deep breath. "John Sheppard."
"John Sheppard?" His features contorted with anger. "Colonel Sheppard abandoned this galaxy years ago."
"He has returned. He was ill once before, and we were able to help him with a treatment derived from the larvae. He needs to be treated again."
"And the rest of the expedition? Does he bring another conquering army at his back?"
"He is alone," she assured him.
"Sheppard," he snarled. "Why should I do anything to help Sheppard?"
"We will pay any reasonable price."
"For the life of the man who did this to me? There is no reasonable price."
She felt a pang at the savage justice of his position, but she did not acknowledge it. "I was there, too, Michael. I was the one who captured you. I did not stop the experiment. I lied to you, perhaps more than anyone else did. If you are angry at him, you should be angry at me also."
He inhaled sharply and looked down. "I wish I could be," he muttered.
She waited, letting the rapid shift in his mood follow its own course.
He looked back up, slowly, and her heart sank. There was something in the set of his face that she did not like. "So what will you give me, for the life of your precious Colonel Sheppard?"
"What do you want?"
"You know what I want, Teyla. I told you. When I came to you outside the markets on Nimor."
Just months after the expedition had left Pegasus, he had found her alone on a trading trip. She had braced herself for an attack, but he had spread his empty hands and asked her to wait. Then he had gazed fixedly at the ground and issued his startling invitation in a strange, detached tone, as if he were giving an academic lecture. She had never told anyone. Not even Ronon. It had been too disquieting, the memory of the strange convulsive movements of his features, the distorted echo in his voice as it had dropped nearly to a whisper. She had not imagined that he would ask for it again. How could it still matter to him what she did?
"That is not a reasonable price," she said.
He cocked his head again, cold, insectile. "But it's mine. From what I've heard of the Iratus, I don't think you'll have much success going elsewhere."
"Ask for something else, Michael."
"No. Take it or leave it."
He was determined. She knew how strong Michael's determination was, how it had carried him through circumstances that would have killed men any weaker. But she also knew better than to let him simply dictate his terms.
"Reconsider your price. I will speak to you again tomorrow."
"If Colonel Sheppard has that long. Does he?"
She could not bear the idea of Michael, in his strength and pride, gloating over a John who could hardly stand unaided. "That is no concern of yours."
"On the contrary," he said. "Now it is, very much."
"Good night, Michael."
He held out his hand. "I will listen for your signal tomorrow."
She turned her back on him and went.
Ronon was pacing in front of the ring when she returned. He had grown no better at waiting over the years. "Any luck this time?" he asked as he fell in with her.
"What does that mean?"
"I may have a lead."
He stopped her, leaning in close and dropping his voice very low. "Don't offer false hope, Teyla. It's not a kindness."
He only wanted reassurance, but she was still struck dumb inside. "Ronon," she said wearily out of that stillness, "I do have a lead. I do not know whether it will come to anything, but there is a chance it may."
"Who is it?" he demanded.
She began moving again. "I would rather not say."
He frowned, but the habit of deference to her was still strong. "You'll let me know if they need some special persuading."
"Kanaan has returned like you asked," he said. "He's waiting for you at your hut."
"Thank you. Now try to get some sleep."
"But I don't—"
"If I need you, Ronon, I will need you awake." She pointed towards his hut. "Go."
He grumbled, but obeyed.
A few children were standing near the hut they had just set up, pretending not to be watching the door. She shooed them away and went inside. She had expected John to be lying down, but he was slouching in the reed chair instead, looking exhausted. He opened his eyes languidly and, seeing it was her, tried to smile. "I was hoping you'd drop by."
"I'm surprised Rodney has left you alone," she said.
"Eh, I threw him out. A man needs some privacy now and then. We've been cooped up in the same jumper for days." He looked at the child in her arms. "Who's this?"
"Ah, yes. John, I would like you to meet someone very important to me."
He sat up abruptly and shot a series of startled looks from her face to Tagan's and back. "She's yours?"
"Congratulations," he said. "You and...?"
"Kanaan," she said. "An old friend, one of my people."
"Oh." He swallowed. "I guess that should be double congratulations, then."
She did not want to try to explain it all just then. Instead, she smiled and said to the baby, "Tagan, this is John. He is an old friend, too, so try not to spit up on him."
She came close and slowly lowered the baby into John's arms. That close, she could see the way the skin hung leathery and loose at his jaw, the way that his forearms were little more than the stubbornest of old muscle. He accepted Tagan awkwardly, tense as a new parent, but not as happy. She sat down on the bed.
"Hey," John said, peering at the child.
Tagan looked up and batted at his jaw. John wrinkled his eyes at her. Tagan laughed, an abrupt child's crow that made them both smile, then settled to fussing at his shirt, making little nonsense noises as she did.
"So," he said after a minute. "You, out of all of us, had a kid. Who would've thought?"
She certainly had not.
"I always thought that someday..." He trailed off. "I thought that there'd be time. That I'd leave something good behind."
It tore at her that he could not see, even after all this time. Ten years on and he was still the man who had woken the Wraith. "Her full name is Tagan John," she told him.
John's eyes widened, then went almost shut. "John. Not exactly a girl's name, you know."
"In this galaxy?" She laughed a little. "Since she is the only one, who is to say otherwise?"
The corner of his mouth twitched. "Yeah." He let out a long breath, but said nothing further. After a while, his chin slowly dropped, as though he were falling asleep, until it just brushed Tagan's hair. For a wonder, Tagan grew quiet, too, giving a little yawn and nestling in against his chest.
Teyla sat there and simply looked at him. Sick and sad as he appeared, she could not be anything but grateful that he was there, just breathing and holding her child, as vivid as one of the dreams she always put out of her head at once upon waking. Two days ago, she would have given anything for this, but she had not thought she had had the choice.
They sat together so long that she thought he had fallen asleep. She shifted, wondering if she could get Tagan without waking him, and he said, "So you're not still mad at me."
"Mad at you?"
"For leaving Pegasus. Leaving you."
Tears started in her eyes. "John, I could not..."
But she knew why he had asked. On board the Daedalus after the evacuation of Atlantis, it had become obvious that there were meetings from which she was being excluded, hushed conversations which she was not a part of, and she had begun to suspect. When John had appeared, his face hangdog, knuckles bruised, unable to meet her eyes, she knew.
"There'll be a place for you and Ronon on Earth," he had mumbled.
"My place is with my people," she had said bitterly. "My place is here!"
Those had not been the last words they had spoken together, but they had resonated even through their parting, when John had clung to her shoulders and whispered to her to take care, please, just take care.
She had not meant for him to carry her anger for five years.
John's eyes had stayed closed. She knew he was seeing things far distant. "It was bad on Earth, Teyla. Really bad. I never wanted to be anywhere but here. I swear."
"I know, John." She brushed quickly at her eyes. "Perhaps I should take the baby now."
"Ah, you'll wake her up," John said, putting his hand on her little back. "I'll keep her. Just a little longer."
"All right," she said. "Just a little longer."
When she emerged from her own hut after putting Tagan down, she noticed Rodney standing on the edge of the clearing, a wan little sentinel accompanied unnoticed by four or five solemn-looking boys. He was staring into the forest as dusk settled down. She joined him silently, and he greeted her with a forced smile.
"We have some malfunctioning laptops and hard drives I thought you might attend to," she said. Rodney busy was Rodney complaining, but also Rodney happy.
"Wonderful," he said, rolling his eyes half-heartedly. "I've really missed that old version of Unix."
"Perhaps you could update it."
"You don't have the processor speed. None of these old machines run the way they need to."
She pulled her coat closer about her. "How long do you really think he has?" she asked abruptly.
Though they had avoided the issue earlier, he had obviously been brooding over it; the answer spilled out at once.
"Not long. Jennifer wasn't even sure he'd make it here. Of course, the whole trip he was acting like Mr. Invincible, and I had to spend the entire time hoping he wouldn't..."
She flinched back from the images that flooded her mind. "I will send the healers to visit him tomorrow, after he has had a chance to rest."
"No offense, Teyla, but if we couldn't help him, what makes you think a bunch of herbs—" He stopped, looking stricken. "Oh. Crap. I'm sorry, I—"
She swallowed hard. "They will help make him comfortable, Rodney. They are very skilled at easing pain."
He kicked a stone with his shoe, and they said nothing for a little while. This was an old bitterness, and she could not pretend she did not taste it.
"Coming here was a very long shot if you were not confident you could get the larvae," she said.
"Oh, he wanted to come even before he knew about the larvae."
"He wanted to die here, Teyla." Rodney turned the full force of his distress on her. "That's what he asked me for first. Just to be able to die here. I saved Atlantis more times than God, and that's all I could do for him."
It kept coming back to her. It was always going to come back to her. This was not a new story. She would have thought that at some point it would stop being so difficult.
"He is not going to die here," she said firmly. "We are going to save him."
"I don't know why you're saying ‘we,'" he mumbled. "Right now, I'm about as useful as an anthropologist trying to solve a differential equation."
She stood reflecting in the gathering dark for a long moment.
"Tell me the truth, Rodney. You cannot go back now, can you?"
He sighed. "It doesn't matter."
She took one of his hands in hers, rose on her toes, and kissed his cheek. She felt him start and quiver beneath the touch, and drew back before the catch in his chest could give away entirely, but kept his hand.
"What was that for?" he demanded, blinking rapidly.
"You gave up everything for him," she said. "For only the chance that you could give him peace. You did a great thing, Rodney. Now you must let us do our part. I know you are afraid, but you must trust us."
"Ronon told me about your lead. Do you really think it's going to go somewhere?"
She nodded firmly. "I do."
"Can't I help? We brought a few things with us—I'd even be willing to think about giving up the jumper if we could—"
She shook her head. "It is not a question of goods to trade. I will handle it."
He could not even complete the question. She squeezed his hand. "There will always be a place for you here."
It was only the first lie she would have to tell.
Michael was waiting for her the next day in the same place. This time he was very still, like stone in the dusk. As if he had all the time in the world.
"We have intelligence contacts in the M38129 cluster," she said. "I know you are trying to drive the Wraith out—"
"I haven't changed my mind, Teyla."
"I have a child now, Michael. I cannot abandon her."
"So I've heard," he said. "You are welcome to bring her with you. I'm sure I can give her a better life than she enjoys now."
The thought of Tagan condemned to the nightmare half-life of a hybrid hiveship, of Michael as the only father-figure she would ever know, chilled her, and for a moment she could only stare.
"I notice," he went on, "that you don't mention her father. I'm glad to see you don't hesitate to abandon him."
It was well that Kanaan was not there to hear that. He had never reproached her, never shown jealousy, though he had always hoped for more than she had been able to give him in a relationship that had arisen out of a single night's blind reach for comfort. But even he had his pride.
"Why are you being so unreasonable, Michael?" she demanded. "If this is your idea of vengeance—"
"I would be more than justified," he said. "But it isn't. I know you don't believe this now, but you will be much happier with me, fighting your enemies, than trying to shelter a helpless little rag-tag band from their inevitable doom."
There was scorn in his voice, but it was not for her. He was not trying to be cruel, at least at that moment, and his sincerity was more terrifying than any cruelty of his could be. Cruelty might relent, might be placated with offerings. She bowed her head and swallowed.
"Come. I suspect that Sheppard doesn't have much time to waste," he said.
She could hear the pleasure that lurked beneath his mock-consideration, and had to force the words out. "Seven years."
Her voice rang strange in her ears. "I will stay with you for seven years in return for the larvae."
"You may not realize this yet," he said, "but that is a short time for both of us."
"If you are right," she said, raising her head and clearing her throat, "if you are right and I belong with you, then seven years should be more than enough to convince me."
He frowned, and his fingers began tapping his thigh again. "You are—you're very determined. You might—out of spite—"
"Do you really think that? Or are you simply afraid?"
He rocked a little on his heels. "Very well," he said tightly. "Seven years."
"Yes, I will do it."
He blinked. "Just like that?"
"I do not expect you to understand it, Michael, but I accept. Once you deliver the larvae to my people, I will go with you."
Despite his arrogant manner, he plainly had not expected she would accept—he stood there startled, with his eyes full of a dawning hope. But she refused to consider what that unguarded happiness meant. She would have to drive as hard a bargain as she could while she still had some leverage. "But you must go at once. And I will come with you while you do."
That brought him back to himself. "Of course. There mustn't be any confusion."
The tinge of bitterness in his voice was puzzling, but she ignored it. "It would be a pity."
"Don't worry, Teyla," he said. "I won't be giving you the slightest excuse to back out of our agreement."
"You're not going to tell me where you're going?"
The strain in Ronon's voice over the subspace communicator dropped it to a near-growl. Though Michael was waiting politely some distance off, she could almost imagine that he heard it.
"No. I am still following the lead. Tell Halling I should be back in no more than two days."
"I don't like this. Why won't you let me help you?"
"Because one of us must remain to lead our people."
"You're better at that. Danger is my job."
"But it is not always what you are called on to do, Ronon."
"It's not right."
Ronon had always fought against this lesson hardest. She wanted to be sympathetic, and she had been, but now--"No. It is not. Perhaps while I am gone you could discuss fairness with our guests."
There was a long pause. "That wasn't fair, either."
"I know," she said, but she did not apologize. It was time.
He swallowed audibly. "There's something else going on, isn't there."
"We will talk about it on my return."
"Teyla, whatever it is...just don't forget..."
"We need you here, too," he said quickly, roughly. "I need you here."
She touched her fingers lightly to her communicator. Nothing but cool metal. "I will not forget, Ronon. I promise."
Michael's back, turned to her, was rigid. "Are you ready?" he said as she approached.
"Let us go."
To the casual eye, the hybrid encampment looked like any other village built by a nomadic people: light huts thrown up defensively, small livestock wandering among them, small patches of green garden rather than farms. Michael must have improved his virus, because the hybrids themselves might have passed for human, at least from a distance; they had a life she had not seen in them in her last brief encounter a few years earlier. But they still fell to their knees in terrifying unison as Michael drew near, and the vacuum in the dark eyes they fixed on her as they knelt made her temple throb.
"I know it is not very impressive," he said to her, "but it is only a temporary encampment, a reserve. Our civilization lies aboard the hiveships."
"I am not here to judge your people," she said, even though the sight of them made her want to flee.
"That is not what your expression says."
She lowered her voice. "They are slaves, Michael."
He leaned in, lowering his own, clearly savoring the moment of confidentiality. "I have never understood why your people place such value on free will. Surely by now you have come to see what an illusion it is. How many of the people you rule are truly free?"
"No one kneels to me," she said.
"Oh, but they will." He gestured one forward. "Gather explosives and heavy weaponry," he told him. "Summon the first strike team and have them prepare themselves."
"Yes, my lord," he said and scurried away.
"You do not need a strike team," she said, turning away from the oppressive gaze of the crowd and taking a few steps at random. "Or the heavy weaponry."
She wished that was all that was needed. That would have been within the Athosians' reach.
To her relief, he followed. "I have been gathering research. Every report is that Iratus bugs are fierce in the defense of their nests."
"Against humans. Assuming you do nothing too alarming, you should be able to enter them freely."
He narrowed his eyes. "How do you know?"
She bit her lip. "Colonel Sheppard could."
He looked almost disappointed. "I hope you are not trying to lure me to an early death, Teyla. Colonel Sheppard is human."
"Not...not at the time."
He stopped short. "Are you saying—" He shook his head violently. "No. I was the first. The only."
"The first Wraith subject of the experiment, yes," she said quickly.
"Then what do you mean?"
She knelt to inspect a patch of avilo beans. They looked dispirited. "These will not be worth much in trade."
"I know. We'll do better next year with your help," he said. "But you haven't answered my question."
She toyed with a leaf. "There was an accident with an early version of the retrovirus. Colonel Sheppard was infected. When he was...changed...he was able to enter the nest to retrieve the larvae, because he had the right pheromones. You should smell at least as familiar to them as him. Probably more."
"Ah," he said. "So that's why you came to me. How fortunate, that you had a left-over monster to carry out the harvest again."
She could hear the build to one of his dramatic declarations of self-pity in his tone. She shrugged, hoping to defuse it. "Yes."
"And that is why..."
But instead of rising into a rant, he fell silent. She looked back over her shoulder at him. His eyes had glazed over, and his expression was very strange. After a moment, she prompted, "Why...?"
He looked at her with wonder. "Why he always hated me so much."
Now she shut her eyes. She did not wish to remember the way that John, and even more Ronon, had come to look to her in those days. "Even during the experiment, you were too much of a Wraith."
"No," he said. "I was too much like he had been. Changed. Wrong."
"Perhaps," she said. "Does it matter?"
"You keep asking that," he said, and she felt him take her hand to pull her to her feet. "when you already know the answer."
The gate stood alone in the midst of a deserted plain, like a forgotten monument to a dead race. The land was a stark and crackled grey; above it the sky glared blue ice. It did not look much like the location of the other nest—it seemed too cold—but as Teyla stared in the direction in which they were supposed to go, she realized that there was a smudge of cloud on the horizon too low to the ground. Thermal vents.
The wind scoured the plain, stirring up dust here and there. Despite her gear, she shivered, and pulled up her scarf to cover her nose and mouth.
"Your gear isn't warm enough," Michael said. "Take my coat."
Without looking at him, she set off in the direction of the steam-cloud. She heard him snort as he followed her.
The vents were a good two hours' walk. Teyla bent her head into the stinging wind and kept up a steady pace. The skin around her eyes burned with the cold. They did not speak. Behind her, she could hear the regular crunch of the brittle ground under Michael's heavy boots.
Was all the rest of her life to be like this? The thought might have staggered her if she were not already exerting such strength against the wind. But as her gaze moved over grey upon grey and Michael's footsteps thudded steadily in her ears, a treacherous voice asked, Would it really be so different? Except for Tagan's birth, she knew well how long it had been since she had been happy, since she had had hope. She might as well be miserable aboard a hiveship as anywhere else. And her people—would not they be better off without her? Several on the Council had always questioned her wisdom. Would not a more peaceful leader like Halling or even Kanaan keep them safer than she and Ronon did?
Tagan, she protested. It would be no life for Tagan. But even that was not convincing. For all the ill she thought of Michael, she could not make herself doubt that he would care for Tagan as well as he knew how. If she asked him to, he would ransack the galaxy to bring her child baubles to play with. The hybrids were more technologically advanced, with better medical care, better food supplies, and Tagan would be safer...
Michael's hand suddenly clamped down on her shoulder, arresting her progress. Startled, she lifted her head and realized that he had just stopped her from walking straight into a crevice. The land was growing more broken as they approached the vents, falling into furrows, rising into hillocks. As she scanned the area, she spotted the small cave that must be the Iratus nest. "Over there."
They moved cautiously, wary of stray Iratus, but there was no sign of any. The air was a little warmer there, and its dampness was relief against Teyla's parched cheeks when she lowered her scarf. They stopped just outside the cave to ready themselves.
"Colonel Sheppard was able to walk right in," she said, handing him the case Rodney had given her for the larvae. "I would still avoid any sudden or threatening movements."
Michael nodded and took a flashlight from his own pack, which he played into the entrance to the cave. No Iratus were moving in the short stretch of low passage that was visible. He clicked the light off before taking something else from his pack, which he offered to Teyla.
The hybrid version of a grenade.
"This will not kill them," she said. "Not enough of them, anyway."
"It's not for them," he returned. "If they should attack..."
"The blast would trap you."
"Hopefully a good deal more than that. Suffocation is a relatively clean death."
She felt a touch of admiration for his pragmatism, but still tilted her head, disbelieving. "You trust me with this?"
"After all the times you have betrayed me?" His smile was melancholy. "No doubt it is foolish. But I must. Take it."
His fingers pressed briefly against her knuckles as she lifted it from his hand.
He stopped and turned his head back towards the cave, features contracting into a troubled frown. "Do you hear that?"
"No," she started to answer, but then she did—a chitter that was much too quiet to have been caught by her ears alone.
"They're aware of our presence."
"I had better go in now, then."
"Go ahead. Fill the container completely if you can." She stepped back, remembering the last time she had done this. John had looked so alien, not very different from the way Michael looked now. She had been so afraid, and so unable to tell him what she felt. Colonel Sheppard? You know that we cannot go in there with you, but you need to hurry. It took us a little longer to get here than we would have liked. When what she had meant...what she had meant...
Michael gave her a strange look, and an oddly formal bow of his head, and disappeared into the cave.
Teyla's training told her to keep her weapon aimed at the cave entrance, but instead she shut her eyes and tried to concentrate on the chitter. It was maddeningly wispy and elusive, but perhaps that was a good thing—the Iratus did not seem to be stirred up. After agonizing moments, she heard Michael call, "I've got it."
She did not relax; it was much too early. The Iratus were slowly coming more into focus in her mind, a teeming mass of overlapping appetites, much cruder than the Wraith minds she had touched and more difficult to take hold of. She felt them part, skittering away from the movement of what they saw as a larger creature of their kind. Michael had to be getting close to the cave entrance.
Then she felt a tiny pinpoint of pain, instantly reflected among hundreds of Iratus.
One must have gotten caught underfoot.
The aggressive instinct blazed through the mass, and she heard a short, strangled cry. Seconds later, there was a thud at her feet, and she opened her eyes to see that the container had landed there. Michael had tossed it out. He must have gotten very close to the entrance, then.
She blinked at it, and then down at the grenade in her hand. She could do it and no one would ever know. He had as much as told her to do it. There could be no guilt in leaving an enemy to the fate he had brought down on himself.
She squeezed her eyes shut and reached out again for the Iratus, now an indistinguishable seething rage, and tried to tamp down their attacking impulse. Some of them went still, but there were so many of them; it was as if they were swarming through her grasp. She was overcome by a deep revulsion towards the hideous, deadly, alien things that had taken so much from her friends—from her—in their mindless violence.
"Be still!" she cried, scouring through them with her mind, and all fell silent. Michael staggered up out of the cave and fell to the ground a few feet away. A profound fatigue surged through her, but she managed to pull the pin from the grenade and toss it into the cave before collapsing herself.
When she sat up a few minutes later, ears ringing, she saw that Michael had not moved, though he was splattered with dirt from the explosion. Her head swivelled automatically back to the canister, which seemed to be intact. She reached out and felt the weight of its precious contents shift as she lifted it, and she had to steady herself with a hand on the ground as relief swept through her. The larvae. At least John would have a chance. Then her conscience reproached her, and she tucked the canister into her pack and crawled hurriedly towards Michael.
He did not look good. His boots were torn to pieces, but they seemed to have held off the Iratus just long enough. She saw nothing but minor lacerations on his legs. However, some of the Iratus must have latched onto his right arm, because the thinner leather of the coat was little more than a few hanging patches, and blood was seeping rapidly through the shredded fabric of his undershirt. She craned her head to look at his face. His eyes were dazed and his breathing was ragged.
She touched his uninjured shoulder with hesitant fingers. "Michael?"
It was as if her voice called him back somehow. "Teyla?" He blinked and smiled up at her, a small, confused smile.
"Congratulations," she said, unable to keep a slight smile from her own face. "You are the first known survivor of a mass Iratus attack."
"Well, I've always been lucky."
He did not rise, just lay there staring up at her with an oddly content expression, so she asked gently, "Can you move?"
"I think so." He tried to get up, but fell when he put weight on his injured arm.
"Perhaps not. Hold still." She fished out cleaning pads and gauze from her pack as he levered himself with difficulty into a sitting position. When she reached for his injured arm, though, he abruptly blocked her with his other.
"Don't," he said, earnest. "You shouldn't let yourself be exposed—I don't know what my blood might do to you."
She had not thought about contamination. She recoiled, almost dropping the pad. His breath hitched, and he swallowed and looked down.
"Here," she said, feeling her cheeks heat, gingerly offering him the medical supplies. He took them without meeting her gaze and began bandaging himself. She watched as he worked awkwardly on his injuries, trying but unable to suppress hisses of pain as he cleaned the wounds and bound them up himself. She wondered if the hybrids would even remember him if he did not return to them.
"You're repulsed by me," he said finally, keeping his eyes fixed on his work. "Don't deny it."
She felt a tiny pulse of shame. "Yes."
"And yet you are still willing to come with me if it will save Sheppard. Why?"
Her remorse vanished, and she raised her hands in frustration. "Have you never cared for someone enough to sacrifice everything for them, Michael?"
His eyes rose to hers again, and for a moment they were troubled; but then his expression hardened. "How should I know? You took those memories from me, Teyla."
She got up impatiently. "Come. We should go."
The return to the gate, canister clinking in her pack, seemed endless to Teyla. As she walked, a terrible fear crept over her that John would die before she could get the larvae to him and it would all have been for nothing. But barefoot and hurt, Michael could move only at a limping pace. She kept getting ahead of him, only to have to wait impatiently, back turned, while he caught up. At any other time, the occasional glimpse of him with his shoulder awkwardly set and his mouth drawn in a determined line might have stirred some pity within her, but all she could think of was the way John's head had sagged.
Michael, she thought, would heal.
When they reached the gate, she hesitated, looking at him. They hadn't actually negotiated the transfer.
Michael read her glance. "You can take the larvae back to your world yourself. As security, I ask only for the gate address."
She was surprised, but stayed wary. "Why be so generous now?"
Michael shrugged. "If you were planning to break your word, you could have left me to the Iratus back there."
"Do you promise to leave my people in peace?"
"Unless they attack me."
She did not want to trust him in this, but she did not see much choice. "They will not."
"You have three days," he said. "Go back to your friends. See that you get what you've paid for. I want there to be no doubt about that. I will come afterwards."
The thought of him coming to the settlement made her even more uneasy, but she could not bear not to know John's fate. "Thank you, Michael."
His smile was very thin. "Unlike your people, Teyla, I am no crueller than I must be."
She could have argued with that, but instead she turned and walked to the gate.
"Rodney!" she called the instant she walked through the gate, brandishing the canister. It took her a second to register that he was not there, that only the usual guard on the gate waited. But that was no real surprise. She had been gone two days.
Rakin was staring at her. "Run ahead and wake Dr. McKay," she told him. She did not dare race with her burden. They could leave the gate unattended for now.
Of course Ronon and Rodney met her halfway back to the settlement. They were both panting and sleep-rumpled. Rodney was wearing an Athosian overshirt that was vastly oversized on him and his eyes were puffy.
"You got it?" Rodney said. She knew that expression, like a child, hopeful but afraid to give into it.
"She got it," Ronon said firmly, and the moment she had handed the canister to Rodney, he swept her up in his embrace.
She clung to him, all that leather and rough wool and firm muscle, hiding her face in his shoulder. She wanted to burrow into that human warmth, human strength. Rodney was talking in the background, something about the canister and its contents, but all she could hear was Ronon's harsh, determined breathing. He was holding her just as tightly as she held him.
Eventually, she lifted her head. "How long will it take for you to synthesize the treatment, Rodney?"
"Twelve hours, more or less."
"Go on, then," she said, making herself smile. It felt strange, like a ritual on some foreign planet that seemed completely arbitrary no matter what meaning it held for the strangers. "What are you waiting for?"
"Right." He headed back up the trail.
Ronon still had not let go of her. She laid her cheek against his coat once more. She did not particularly ever want to move again. She had never let herself realize just how much she relied on Ronon until this moment.
The words escaped her. "I'm sorry."
He did not react. "How bad is it?"
"There is no use in talking about it now."
"Except that it would make you feel better."
She shook her head, faintly. "It would not."
"Teyla..." He cleared his throat. "What did you do?"
"I did not betray our people," she said. "Or Earth. I broke no law, did no injustice. I..."
To her horror, she began to weep. In that second, she hated Atlantis, hated the Earth expedition. They had never done anything but waken her hopes and then dash them to the ground. Better that she had lived quietly on old Athos forever, ignorant of her heritage, meeting her end in some random culling. That was the fate she understood, that all the stories of her people had prepared her for. Not this.
"Okay, okay," he said very softly, the way he spoke to the Athosian children. "You don't have to tell me now. Just come back with me."
"I need to see Tagan," she said thickly.
"Sure. Come on. Whatever you want."
She let him lead her back towards the settlement.
Her hut was lit only by the dim glow of the hearth-fire, which just picked out a glint here and there of the surface of some precious item. She had lost everything she had collected on Atlantis, and had not meant to acquire more artifacts, but a few things had crept into her heart against her wishes. They would all have to be left behind, too. She would not give Michael any more hostages than she had to.
Tagan was sleeping in her hammock, nestled into the blankets. Teyla walked straight to her and stopped, staring down into her innocent, careless little face. She had always known that Tagan would not have a tranquil childhood, but she had hoped for a little longer peace for her.
"What's going on?" Kanaan asked softly from his shadowed corner. "I heard noise in the settlement."
"I have retrieved the raw materials for Colonel Sheppard's treatment," she said.
"That should be a cause for joy."
"Yet you don't look happy," he observed.
She took a deep breath. "I am leaving the settlement. I am afraid you will have to look after Tagan alone for some time."
His voice remained neutral. "Are you leaving with Colonel Sheppard?"
She swallowed. They had never discussed John. She was not sure what Athosian gossip had told Kanaan in the old days—whether he knew enough to be jealous of John specifically or simply as a representative of her old life, the freedom, the excitement, the glories of the city. But whatever he felt, he had never shown it. And he was a friend and a partner. He deserved a kinder answer than the one that had first risen hotly to her lips.
"No. I am going to the hybrids."
"To secure Colonel Sheppard's treatment?"
There was no denying his intelligence. "Yes."
He said nothing for a while. Then: "It was a bad bargain."
She touched Tagan's cheek. "It was the only one open to me."
"I've always wondered why the hybrids have never tried to impress our men into their service. As I recall, they even released Jinto when he was swept up in one of their raids two years ago, though he was of age."
Kanaan did see a great deal when he was moved to. She hoped it was not anger at her that moved him now. She did not think she could endure it. "I showed Michael some kindness when he was a prisoner in Atlantis."
"And this is how he returns it?"
No, the anger was at Michael, but that was wrong, too. She said, very low, eyes fixed on Tagan's smooth and unmarked skin, "I showed him great cruelty as well."
Kanaan was quiet again for a long time.
"How long will you be gone?" he finally asked.
"He wishes you to give up Tagan entirely?" he demanded.
"Far from it. He wishes me to bring her. But I will not take her aboard a hiveship." She took a deep breath. "She will still be a child when I return. If I cannot visit, I hope she will remember me."
"Her mother? I will not let her forget you."
"I do not ask you not to seek another's company. It is difficult to care for a child alone."
"You set me free to do that a long time ago. I do not want another."
"To love without hope is terrible," she said. "I would want better for you."
"I have our child," he said. "I want nothing better than that."
Her child. She had not wanted motherhood, and it had been frustrating for her in so many ways. But Tagan was the one person who had a true claim to her, and she was being forced to sacrifice it before she was even old enough to understand what was happening. Looking down into the hammock at those eyes closed trustingly in sleep, Teyla felt a fierce tenderness and regret. She gathered the child up gently and moved to her own chair.
"You should go rest. I will watch her for some time."
She could see he wanted to ask to stay, but instead he rose. As he passed her on his way out, he silently rested his fingers on her shoulder.
"It could be hours before he wakes up," Rodney said, hands busy at what looked something like an IV. "You don't have to wait the whole time."
Teyla did not answer, but instead sat down next to John, who lay quietly on his bed, shrouded beneath several blankets. Someone had changed him into spare Athosian garb, ill-fitting muddled greys and browns. His cheeks were sunken and deathly pale beneath the several days' scruff that covered his skin unevenly like a fungus. He did not seem at all conscious of his surroundings, though she was not sure how much of that was his own weakness and how much the work of the healers.
Rodney looked at her, and then at Ronon, who had simply crossed his arms. "Okay," he said, "but there might be some bodily fluids involved. Hopefully less than last time, since he's already had it once..."
He was trying to protect John's dignity, Teyla realized. She put her hand on his shoulder. "John is among friends now, Rodney. He has nothing to be ashamed of."
He looked up at her, biting his lip, then away to the IV. "All right. Let's see if I can set up this line. Hold still, Colonel, it's your resident genius to the rescue for the eighty-seventh time."
The white liquid began draining into John's arm. Rodney immediately ducked down for a little plastic basin the healers must have given him and clutched it in his hands, comically tense, but there was no visible reaction from John. Teyla leaned back, prepared to wait for some time. Ronon, she knew, would prefer to stand, and could do so for hours.
But hours were not required. The change that passed over John was remarkable. Within minutes, she could see color threading up through his throat and blooming into his cheeks. The hanging wrinkles that dominated his face softened and seemed to fill in. His breathing grew round and full. Even the way he was lying changed: from limp and helpless in the grip of his illness to relaxed and easy. Athosian medicine was practical and well-adapted to their needs, and Teyla was glad that her own people had had a chance to tend to him, to give him back the care he had offered them in his own rough ways, but nonetheless there were times when Earth medicine could be nothing short of miraculous. Still, she waited, withholding her joy.
"I could really go for a turkey sandwich right now," John said suddenly, without opening his eyes.
Teyla's heart leapt.
"John?" all three of them said at once, bending together towards him.
"Yes, it's me." Now he opened his eyes, twinkling green up at them. "Geez, it's like a convention in here or something. Save Ferris."
"Very funny," Rodney said. "How do you feel?"
"Like someone just drained molten lead from my veins."
"I think it worked. Thank you, Jennifer Keller."
Yes, Teyla thought, and sent silent gratitude to whoever else had helped them on Earth. She suspected they had paid more than Rodney quite realized.
"Yeah. Good old Jennifer."
John was trying to sit up. With his laughing eyes, now his stubble looked merely roguish. Rodney grabbed his arm. "Hey, hey! Watch it, Colonel Incurable Optimist. You need to take the whole dose of this."
"When did you become a medical doctor again?" John asked, but submitted, lying back.
"You remember how long this takes. Just try to keep still til it's finished."
John patted his knee and smiled at him, one of his rare little private smiles. "Okay, buddy. Take it easy."
As she had been more than once before, Teyla was grateful that Rodney's dramatics were filling the space amongst them. Her heart was hammering against her chest and her throat was closed so tightly she did not think she could even swallow without shedding tears. She had worked this miracle, she and Ronon and Rodney. It had to be worth it.
"You look good," Ronon said.
"I feel good," John said. "I think I'm still a little high, though."
"The healers took care of you. They gave you some pain remedies. A lot of them, actually."
"Yeah, that's what I thought." John rubbed his hand over his face. "Speaking of which, how did you guys end up getting the Iratus larvae?"
"Teyla traded for them," Ronon said quickly.
"Ah, I should've known. Trust Teyla to take care of things. What did you have to trade?"
Now those eyes were twinkling at her, and each glint was like a glare. She almost had to turn away.
"Nothing of great importance," she got out somehow.
"I see," he said, and immediately shifted his attention over to Ronon. "Seriously, can a man get some kind of protein and carb concoction here before he starves to death?"
"Oh no you don't," Rodney said. "We've gotten so far without a visit to scenic Lake Vomit, and I'd really like to keep it that way."
"He can have some soup," Ronon said. "Clear soup. Good for hangovers."
"Come on then." Ronon tugged at Rodney's arm.
"What? No, I'm staying here. I have to supervise..." He waved at the IV as best he could with Ronon's hand on his arm.
"Teyla can do that. You're going to help carry the soup."
"What, are you bringing in a whole cauldron?" Rodney peered up at Ronon. "Fine. If you insist. If he pukes, it's not me on cleanup."
He handed Teyla the basin with a look of pity. She wanted to rise, too, but Ronon said, "You'll be fine, right?"
There was nothing she could say except, "Of course."
As soon as they left, John pushed himself back up into a sitting position. He looked at her brightly, perhaps more brightly than he ever had before. It was clear that she was as much a sight for his eyes as he was for hers. She actually felt herself coloring.
"So," he said.
She occupied herself with straightening his blanket. "Yes?"
"I learned something interesting recently."
"Something the healers said. Now, it might have just been a hallucination, but I don't think so. I hardly ever hallucinate anything good." He was watching her carefully now. "As you know better than anybody."
"What was it?"
"From what they said, I gathered that you and Kanaan aren't actually...you know, a couple."
She hesitated. It would be easy to lie here, but also dishonorable. "We are not."
"Okay, then." He leaned forward eagerly. "I know I should probably wait longer, at least til I've finished this IV, but I figure I've already waited around nine years too long. Teyla—"
"John, do not—"
He laid his fingers on her arm. "No, it's okay, Teyla. I have to. When I thought I was dying, back on Earth, all I wanted was to see you again. I mean, all of you, but especially you. Of all the things I fucked up, which is some pretty stiff competition, you were the worst. At least I could go and see Rodney, try to—but you. I couldn't stand the thought that I would die on Earth and you would never even know how I felt."
He had leaned even further towards her, and Rodney's contraption was listing. "John—your IV."
"Oh. Yeah." But he did not subside. Instead, he grasped her hand. Gently, so gently she did not have a defense against it. "But now, well, I'm not going to die. I'm not in the Air Force anymore, which means I'm not anybody's commander. I've got a pretty good guarantee that I'm not ever going back to Earth, which is that they'll shoot me on sight. And it sounds like homewrecking is not going to be an issue. So there're no more excuses not to say it. I love you, Teyla."
His eyes were shining with that purity of faith that she had always known had lain beneath his cynicism, his diffidence, just waiting for its chance. "I know," she said, feeling how weak a response that was.
"And I always kind of thought that you—you know. Might have been interested, if things were different. Well, they're never going to get any more different than they are now. What do you say?"
If she did not take some comfort here, she would never be able to endure the coming years.
If she did, she did not know how she would ever be able to go.
Sending her here to "make sure she got what she paid for"; had that been Michael's most refined form of cruelty?
At the thought, she jerked upright with anger. Damn him. She would. She would.
"John," she said, "I—"
Then her strength gave out on her, and she toppled into his arms. Startled, he still moved to cradle her, as though she were the sick one. The Athosian cotton was soft beneath her cheek. The healers had bathed him as well, and he smelled of the Athosian soap, thick and pine-green. She inhaled it as he stroked her hair, tenderly, with his free hand. He and she had had to be so wary of touch before, channeling stronger longings into sparring and the rough comradeship of field missions. Gentleness had seemed more dangerous than anything else. And so it was still.
She recovered herself enough to say, "I cannot—I cannot make you promises right now, John. It is very complicated."
"What's complicated?" he asked against her temple.
She shut her eyes. "It is better not to speak of it yet. But..." She drew in breath. "I love you, too. I have for so long...I was too proud to admit it to myself, but I have been waiting for you to come back, and angry that you did not come. I think I would always have waited for you. As foolish as that was, as much as life was passing me by..."
"I know," he whispered. "We were all stuck. It was pathetic, but now...now I'm glad."
There were footsteps outside the tent. Ronon said loudly, "I still think we could give him some bread. It'll only take five minutes."
"No bread," Rodney snapped. "In case you hadn't noticed, he's not a ... huge, strapping giant like some people. He can't digest a four-course meal at once!"
She felt John's fingers tighten on her arms like a question. She answered it by pushing herself upright. A quick pain flashed across John's eyes, but he nodded, giving her fingers a short squeeze before she could free them.
"You're sitting up again!" Rodney sputtered as he ducked into the tent. "Teyla, you were supposed to be looking after him! What would you have done if we'd been gone another ten minutes, taken him sparring?"
"Don't worry, Rodney," John said, giving her what was rarer even than his smiles, a little surge of pure affection narrowing his eyes, "I'm sure she's done me good."
Behind Rodney, Ronon made a little chuffing noise. Teyla did not meet his eyes.
Two days later, Alairi stood in the door of the hut at midnight, looking worried. "A hybrid has come, Teyla. He wishes to speak to you."
She rose from where she had been kneeling before the fire to warm her hands. "Bring him here quickly. Let him speak to no one, and tell no one that he has come. Then go rest. Leave the gate unguarded."
He frowned, but did not question her. The burst of pure gratitude she felt for his loyalty made her heart ache, and she wondered if she would ever deserve all the trust her people had placed in her over the years.
After Alairi left, she turned back to the fire. Michael was a guest, she thought in disgust, and put a kettle on to boil. She could not think of anyone she would less wish to share tea with, and hoped that he would not want to take the time.
The past two days had passed much more quickly than Teyla would have liked. She spent most of the time sitting in John's hut or walking with him and the others as he recovered his strength. Despite what she could see were Ronon's efforts, they were rarely left alone together, but John seemed content to take matters as they were.
This time was precious to her. Rodney and Ronon were each in high spirits in his own way, and John himself was easy, and charming, and free. It was startling to look at him and recognize the original of the grim parody of this self which he had presented to the world for so long. It made her heart ache for the John of the middle years and regret every moment of impatience or anger she had ever had for him. But he was not simply boyish now. The way he scattered little bursts of affection to each of them without shame or self-consciousness—she doubted even the young John had been like that. That was the way of a man who had suffered his way through to seeing the true value of things. It gladdened her heart to see him reach a safe harbor in maturity rather than in the worse things she had feared for him. As they laughed and reminisced about the old days, it was easy to forget the coming future.
Then, each night, she came home to her shadowed hut and prepared for Michael's arrival, packing a few necessary things, planning the political transition, holding the sleeping Tagan for hours on end and breathing in the sweet scent of her hair. In those hours, she could think of nothing else.
Now that Michael had come, she felt grim and ready. She had pressed Tagan to her heart one last time, laid her bantos rods on the table before Halling's fire, and written formal messages for the Council and her team, which she now set upon her own table. Her departure would be simple and straightforward. She would not give Michael the satisfaction of seeing her hesitate or suffer.
After a few minutes, she heard the rustle of cloth and looked up from her kettle. Michael was standing just inside her doorway, hands folded in front of him, watching her from the depths of the hood of his jacket. His face was unreadable. "Hello, Teyla."
"Michael," she greeted him. "You have come a long way. Will you have some tea?"
"Thank you." He pushed the hood back and took the seat she indicated across from her. She was glad that she had the kettle, the tea leaves, the ritual to keep her hands and eyes busy. He seemed fascinated by her preparations, leaning forward to watch her movements. "Is this an Athosian welcome?"
"We offer this tea to all strangers, welcome or not."
He caught her tone and smirked. "I see." When the tea was ready, though, he accepted the cup from her earnestly, tasted it, and raised his eyebrows. "Delicious. You should bring this with you."
Michael's praise was enough to lend a bitter tang to anything, but she sipped determinedly at her own cup. She did not know how often she might have it in future. "How is your arm?"
He set down his cup, rested his arm on the table, and drew back his sleeve. She caught a glimpse of ugly blue wounds twisting from wrist almost to elbow, and bit back a little gasp. "Don't worry. They will be healed in a day or two," he said, quickly letting the cloth cover them again.
His attempt at a reassuring smile irritated her. "We will leave tonight. At once. Quietly."
"No farewells to make?"
"I have made them already."
He leaned back and sent his eyes around the room, as though he were an old friend. "This is very...cozy. I have not yet furnished your chambers aboard the hiveship. I thought you would prefer—"
"Teyla?" She rose automatically as Kanaan stepped into the hut, Tagan dozing on his shoulder. "She is restl—"
He broke off as he saw her visitor. Michael rose too, but did not even acknowledge Kanaan; instead, he bent his gaze on Tagan, smiling, taking two steps nearer. "Is this your child? What is her name?"
Neither she nor Kanaan answered. The smile wavered, and Michael shrugged.
"No matter. Are you sure you won't bring her? She'll be better off with the hive than here, I promise."
"Her father will care for her," Teyla said, voice like flint. Kanaan was rigid, shielding Tagan with his arm. She wanted to pull the blanket up higher, to hide the little dark head from Michael's sight.
"Ah, her father." He surveyed Kanaan briefly, and now there was contempt in the line of Michael's mouth. "If you truly think that is for the best."
"It is none of your concern, Michael."
His lip twisted further. "Far be it from me to meddle. Don't let me interrupt your errand," he added to Kanaan.
She hoped desperately that Kanaan's natural reserve would prevent a scene, and that the same time that he would keep his dignity in the face of Michael's scorn.
"I have no errand with you," he said quietly, justifying her hopes. "Teyla, you are determined?"
"I love you," he said just as quietly as before, but something about it made her focus on him for a moment. The flickering hearthlight lent him a kind of mystery he had never had in her eyes.
"I know," she said. "I wish..."
"No, you don't." He bowed his head to her with a sad smile. "Goodbye."
After he had gone, she sat down without thinking. Her hand curled loosely around her cup as she stared into the fire.
Michael moved slowly to his seat. He, too, seemed to be lost in thought. Then, suddenly, he shook himself. "That was your choice, Teyla? Colonel Sheppard, Ronon, even Dr. McKay I could understand, but that?"
She snapped out of her reverie. "You are drinking my tea, Michael."
"Still," he said. "Your child is beautiful. So little and—"
"Enough of this." She set the cup down hard enough to crack it. "Let us go."
"As you wish."
She doused the fire slowly, methodically, as he stood by the entrance looking out. He offered to take her pack, but she pulled it on herself, ignoring his outstretched hand. The cloth fell heavily into place behind her.
Outside, the air was soft and mild. It was late enough that the camp was largely dark, but she could still hear its music of murmured conversation and snatches of laughter. She led the way easily despite the dark, and Michael, who had pulled up his hood again, was surefooted behind her. They reached the gate without incident.
"Dial it," she said grimly.
Michael moved to the control panel. She watched as the chevrons lit and locked with their heavy mechanical clang, as they had so many times for her in the past, but never so clearly spelling out her fate as now. It was all starting to feel very remote and dreamlike, as she counted the clangs and watched the gate flare into its eerie glow, until--
"What the hell is going on here?"
She turned to see Ronon, John, and Rodney standing a few feet away. Ronon had his stunner drawn; John and Rodney had only handguns. Her heart sank. She did not want this to end in violence.
Michael flashed her a savage, hurt look. "So, you betray me again after all."
The unfairness of it stung. She had given everything she had to keep it from coming to this. "I had nothing to do with this, Michael."
"That's right, she didn't," John said. "Didn't think her leaving was of any great importance. She was wrong."
"Geez," Rodney said, "I thought for sure Kanaan was crazy. But it is him."
Kanaan. She should have been angry, but she could not bring herself to be.
"Yes," Michael said smoothly, settling into the cool mask he had always tried to wear around them. "I don't know why you're surprised. Unlike some I could mention, I have always been here. As for what's going on—" He glanced over at Teyla, and there was a glitter of malice in his eyes. He still didn't believe her. "Why don't you ask her?"
She lifted her chin defiantly. He could not shame her now, and the thought was oddly comforting. She came to his side, putting herself in the line of fire, and put her hand on his arm, hoping no one could see how her fingers shook. He blinked in surprise and gazed at her as if he were trying to puzzle her out, but she turned away from him.
"I am leaving with Michael," she said. "I must ask you not to interfere."
"This was your trade," Ronon said, not making it a question.
"Yes. It was he who procured the Iratus larvae to treat John. He nearly died doing it. I owe him your life."
John had gone paler than he had been when he came to the settlement. Rodney burst out, "Wow. It turns out it's you who's crazy!"
"No crazier than you leaving your entire life behind to bring him here," she said, "or you, Ronon, about to go on a futile suicide mission for the larvae."
Perhaps, she thought, perhaps they all were; perhaps there was something in John that inspired an insane devotion.
"Teyla," John said, and he sounded as heartsick as she had ever known him, "I can't let you do this."
He had left her, left all of them, and he still thought he had the right to decide. It was exasperating and heartbreakingly sweet at once. "It is not your choice."
"But you don't...you don't care about him. Do you?" He swallowed. "You said it was complicated...I know I was gone for a long time..."
"I do not," she said. "I had already refused him. But this was the price he set. I would have done much worse."
"Well, you shouldn't have done this."
"I love you," she said. It seemed very easy to say now, even though she saw Rodney's eyes go wide. In the corner of her eye, Michael went very still. "Do you think you alone may sacrifice for those you love?"
"You won't be able to go with him if we kill him," Ronon observed.
She could feel Michael shift his weight. She wondered about how much of Ronon's failure to grow up was her fault, letting his dedication to her keep him with the Athosians, always in second or third place. "Michael came here unarmed and at my invitation," she said fiercely, linking her arm with his. "If you kill him, you will shame me and the Athosians beyond endurance. None of you will be welcome here ever again."
"But we can't just let you go, Teyla," Rodney blurted, his face a moon of distress.
"You have to," she told him. "Can you not see how—" Her voice broke on her unexpectedly. "How hard you are making this for—" She squeezed her eyes nearly shut, determined not to weep in front of Michael.
"Teyla—" he breathed, and his hand rose to her shoulder, an awkward pat. His fingers were trembling, too. She twisted her head away, but endured his touch.
They stayed locked in that pose for what felt like minutes, but could not have been more than a few seconds, before--
"Lower your weapons, all of you," Michael said, releasing her.
"You son-of-a-bitch," Rodney said. "You're enjoying every second of this."
"Not at all," he said coldly. "I had imagined I would, but you can have no idea how little pleasure this is actually giving me."
"What are you talking about?" Ronon growled.
Michael ignored him. "Teyla." She opened her eyes to look at him. "This—this is breaking your heart. I can feel it."
She nodded, confused.
"I was so angry when you came to me, I thought I didn't care, but it seems I do, after all." That quick, painful smile again, and his eyes wandered to the gate. "I want you by my side, but not like this. Not because you love another. Not because you think it is your duty to him. I want you to—to—"
He fell silent, flushing.
She felt a huge, rushing giddiness; she was being borne up over a great void. She had been helpless before Michael's anger, Michael's malice—how strange that she could be saved by Michael's pride. "Oh. I see."
"Do you what?" Rodney said. "Can someone please translate from the epic?"
She studied his expression, mouth drawn up in embarrassment, eyes on the ground again. Not just Michael's pride. Michael's—
"He has changed his mind," she told him. She brushed two fingertips over Michael's cheekbone, felt his faint shiver. "He does not want me to come."
"Then he should probably be moving along," Ronon said.
"Yes," Michael recovered himself and shot a venomous look at Ronon. "I'm not particularly interested in further conversation with you. But—a word in private, Teyla."
"Yes," she said, though she was afraid of what he might say. "There can be no harm in it."
She followed Michael a few steps away, just out of earshot of the other men. "Michael..."
"I want you to promise me something," he said.
That was a strange request at this date. A strained laugh escaped her. "If I can."
"It is nothing so very great." He sighed. "You must have noticed by now that you are different from the other Athosians."
"What do you mean?"
"You are not aging as humans normally age. Your Wraith DNA will extend your life for quite some time beyond the human span."
It was true that she had wondered at times, looking in the mirror, but—"My people have no legend of this."
"Your people do not generally live long enough for it to be noticeable," he said. "And you have activated certain biological pathways that none have dared to in generations. No matter what your friends die of, you are going to outlive them. When that time comes, you will need a friend. And a people who will not see you as strange to them. When that time comes—call me again."
"If it is true."
"It is. I have good reason to know it." They stood facing each other awkwardly for a minute. "Why couldn't you have lied, betrayed me again?" he burst out. "You would have made it easy for me to hurt you."
She thought of hospital beds with restraints, nuclear explosions blossoming on the surface of the world beneath her, a cowboy hat.
"What we did to you was unforgivable, Michael," she said. "I have only been trying not to add any more guilt to my burden."
He shuddered all over, then caught her hand and drew it to his mouth, kissing the palm. "Oh, my queen," he whispered. "If you only understood—but you will. I know it."
He let her hand go as quickly as he had taken it and then backed away. He did not take his eyes off her until he had stepped through the gate.
She looked back at the little group waiting for her. Older, more battered than the last time they had been together, but still hers. She moved silently to John and laid her head on his shoulder. He slipped his arm around her and squeezed her tight.
"I can't believe Kanaan got us out of bed for nothing," Rodney said. "If anyone needs me, I'll be sleeping til noon."
"Complicated," John murmured into Teyla's hair. "That was one way of putting it."
"You do not agree?" she said, shifting to a more comfortable spot nestled against his chest. They had all gone back to Teyla's hut for tea. Just as they had settled in, Halling had burst in in a panic and had been soothed. Kanaan had come in with Tagan, clearly expecting a scolding, but, thinking of what it must have cost him to turn to her team for help, Teyla had merely kissed her sleeping child tenderly and pressed Kanaan's head to her own for a long time. The Athosians had taken Tagan off to bed after that, Halling's hand on Kanaan's shoulder. A half an hour later, Ronon had hauled Rodney out by the ear as he admonished, "Don't keep him up all night!"
Ronon's advice had made sense. They had quickly taken advantage of Teyla's soft and well-appointed bed.
He moved on to her earlobe. "I can think of other ways I'd describe the scenario."
"I am sorry. I did not want to burden you any more than I had to."
"You mean, with helping?" His tone was a little wounded, but he was still nuzzling along the folds of her ear.
"I did not think you could."
"Hey! We did, didn't we?"
"Well..." She paused. "You were there."
"Hey," he protested, "if there's one thing I've learned from you, it's that sometimes just being there is help."
She had to laugh. "True enough." She put a hand on his chest, feeling the beat of his heart, the warmth of his skin beneath the hair. "It certainly is pleasant to have you here now."
She ignored his mock dismay. "Now that you have your life back, what do you intend to do with it?"
"Well," he said, rolling them over a little so he could meet her eyes, "I intend to spend a lot of it doing exactly what I'm doing now."
"That sounds very good to me."
"And then...there's still a chance we can recover Atlantis, you know." He kissed her again, and began moving against her with a more forceful intent. "It'd be a nice side project while we're working here."
Something else she had not let herself think of. "Careful," she said teasingly as he mouthed at her collarbone. "Would Rodney approve?"
"To be honest," he said, "I'm kind of more concerned about whether you do."
John in her bed. The possibility of Atlantis in the sky again, only this time in the hands of her people. It was more than she could have hoped for a week ago, much less given herself permission to. "I do," she said, and wrapped her arms around him. "I do."