by Eildon Rhymer
Twenty years on, Teyla remembers the loss of those who were like a family to her, and finally finds healing in the flames.
Note: This story was inspired by a short story of mine called Midwinter Burning. That story was set half way through season four, and showed Teyla helping her team find hope and healing at a dark time, by way of an Athosian midwinter ceremony. This story is not a sequel to that one. That story took place after This Mortal Coil, and after it, the rest of season four unfolded as seen on screen. This story is set in an AU in which the second half of season four never happened as seen. The only link between the two stories is the presence of the midwinter fires. Reading the other story will give additional emotional context to the ceremony, but is by no means essential.
Character death warning! This is a future-fic which shows the death of many main characters in flashback. It made me cry.
Teyla stood in the doorway and watched them leave. Some went in pairs, walking close with their arms around each other. Some went in groups, walking along in easy comradeship. Only Teyla stood alone. Her hand on the grey stone, she watched them walk away; watched their swinging skirts and thick coats disappear into the twilight. They had long since stopped asking her to come with them. They had learnt long ago that she did not participate in this ritual.
When they had gone, Teyla turned and went alone into the dingy house, shivering at the cold of it. The hearth was bare, dark with soot and ashes. The seats around it were empty. She ran her hand along the wood of the table – wood, she thought. Wood for the burning – then settled on a cold chair, big enough for two. The window showed her an expanse of grey, and a bird flew across it, picked out like bronze by the last light of the setting sun.
Like a puddlejumper flying between the stars.
Teyla was at the door before she was aware of moving. Away in the west, the land was black beneath the ribbon of light that lined the horizon. The people who waited there were far away and invisible, swallowed by the darkness, as if by death –
And we are dead.
She bit her lip and turned her head away.
The ribbon of light turned dark orange, then as red as blood. Like blood on a silver-grey chair. She saw footsteps in dust. A flock of roosting birds swirled up from the ground like smoke, chattering like a man who had never known how to be silent, even in the face of death.
Her hands fell to her sides. She stood there for a very long time, just breathing, as all light leeched from the sky. I should turn away, she thought, but she felt rooted, unable to look away. The fire started as a distant spark – a flame of life glowing in the midst of darkness. Everyone else was standing around it, she knew, celebrating the fact that after this shortest night, light would gradually return again.
How could she stand there when her own light had gone? How could she stand there when she had… when they had…?
She turned away with a cry, but even then she was not free. You have hidden from it for too long, said the footsteps in the dust, where one had gone alone. The stars danced, and whispered Remember. Bats darted around her head, speaking too high and fast for her ears to hear.
It had been twenty years. Perhaps, she thought very slowly. Perhaps…
She headed east, towards the tree line, moving as if in a dream. All the best branches had been harvested for the ritual bonfire, but enough remained. She hauled at one, bitterly aware that she was all alone in the darkness. When it was placed, she went for another, laying it carefully alongside the first. It was almost too dark to see, but she was accustomed to moving in the darkness, for I have been half-lost in darkness for twenty years.
It was not sorrow that caused her to pause, but breathlessness. It was years since she had run for her life, or fought for the life of a friend. Her muscles were unused to such exercise. Breathless from building a fire, she thought, when once my team and I…
No. She turned her back on that thought, and returned to her work, seeking the pain of physical exertion. But she was no longer alone. As she reached for a branch, she imagined ghostly hands beside hers, helping her carry it. A leaf fell onto her shoulder like the encouraging hand of a friend. The wind in the trees was a constant litany of words, and soon there were tears in her eyes, although she so seldom wept.
"I cannot do this," she said aloud.
There were no words in response, just the silent regard of the darkness. But she drew herself up taller, clenching her fists by her sides. She had never thought of herself as weak, but was it not weak to hide from pain? Was it not a betrayal of her friends to shy away from remembering them?
She lit the flame, her hands trembling. It was only a small fire, barely bigger than the fire on her own hearth, but it was enough. A flame in the darkness, she thought. The smell of wood smoke on a winter's night. The feel of the fire on your cheeks, and the cold of the night at your back. And light, falling on the faces of your family around the fire…
Tears blurred her vision. The flames rose higher, and their tips darted like someone who flew on shining wings and longed to touch the sky. They danced like a quick teasing grin, and deepened into a smile that was rare and true. They reached towards her with their warmth, wanting to keep her safe, but snatched themselves away when she reached unthinkingly for them, not wanting to be touched, not wanting to be truly known.
Then the orange faded into memory. John's jumper emerging through the Gate, and John rushing out, grim and driven. "You're hurt!" That had been Rodney. John had dismissed his concern with a distracted gesture, and had given his report. An armada, he called it, heading for the city, and they with their defences and early warning systems barely repaired after the last attack.
He had been everywhere over the next day, analysing what he had seen, preparing defences and counter-attacks, issuing orders, shoring up Rodney when he despaired. When the attack had come, he had gone to the chair room. When the lull finally came, they had looked around, blinking, barely able to comprehend that they had survived. Large parts of the city were destroyed, and there were few without wounds. "We made it," Rodney said, over and over and over. "We made it. We made it. We made it."
It was two hours before they realised that none of them had seen John. They found him still in the chair, cold and dead.
Rodney openly wept, his fingers hovering over the back of John's hand, still resting on the lifeless chair. Ronon bellowed, then turned away. Teyla touched John's cheek.
"Dammit, Sheppard, it isn't supposed to be like this." Rodney's voice was cracked with tears. "He didn't even say goodbye."
"He did." John's eyes were closed, but Teyla rested her hand on his brow, covering them. "All those drones that he fired, and that last one that took out the flagship… They were his goodbye, Rodney."
"But it's not good enough. It isn't good enough."
Rodney left, shouldering his way past the others who had come, drawn by the whispers of tragedy. Soon a dozen of them stood there, all bruised and battered, and all entirely still, gazing in silence at the chair. Teyla wept, then, and John's pale face and the silver-grey chair all flooded into one…
…into grey, into smoke, into flame…
"John," she whispered, and snatched a leaf as it floated in the air, and closed her hand upon it.
The flames crackled. Wood spat, and the wind took the fire and drove it noisily. The flames spoke constantly, speaking words that she could not hear. They were bright white light, but specked with patches of complete darkness. Hope and despair mingled, covering it all with words.
She wanted to cover her ears and turn away, but that just brought her to another place, long gone. Rodney had reacted to John's death worse than any of them. As Atlantis had crumbled around them, he had alternated between despair and a frenetic hope. Sometimes he had worked for days without sleep, shouting to everyone who came near him that he alone could save the city. Sometimes, though, he slumped down in the middle of it all, and said in a broken voice that there was nothing they could do, nothing at all.
Teyla had found him like that once, sitting forlorn in the middle of his lab. She edged towards him, but she already knew by then that no words could heal him. John could have, perhaps, but John was gone. "Rodney." She touched his shoulder. "I…"
"Nothing," he said. "We can't… And I… I can't… Sheppard… he…" He let out a shattered breath. "We're cut off from Earth, and they just keep coming and coming, and each time we repair, but each time they knock a bit more off, and soon…" His voice trailed away.
"I know that you are doing everything you can," she assured him.
"Am I?" He gave a harsh laugh. "Not enough to…" That, too, faded away.
But in the end, he saved them all. "Go!" he shouted, only weeks later, as his lab crumbled around him.
"Not without you," Ronon said.
"And you know how much about science? Go!" Rodney screamed. "I just.. need a… minute… more…"
The shield rose just in time. Twenty died that day, but the core of them lived. And Rodney? They found his body in the wreckage of his lab, his computer resting on his chest. The lower half of his body was crushed, but the upper half was intact. Was this a form of suicide? Teyla wondered, as tears fell on the cold hand clasped in her own.
"No," Ronon said, and she wondered if she had spoken aloud, after all. "McKay wouldn't betray Sheppard's memory like that. He kept to his post, like the warrior he was at heart. He died knowing that he'd saved the city."
"Rodney," she said now, grasping a twig, clutching it in her palm alongside the leaf.
Her legs gave way, and she sat down heavily, her face close to the fire. The heat assaulted her like a physical thing. She stared into the flames, and they stared back, but showed nothing about what lay inside. She reached towards them, and they recoiled, but when she openly wept, they seemed to reach for her, as if in comfort, or to hurt the thing that was causing her pain. Fire was warmth, but it was also a weapon.
She let herself fall into the charred dust of memory. Of the four that had stood together for so long, only two had remained. The war had fought itself into a lull, with all sides too battered with grief and loss to carry on. Atlantis was reduced to its central tower, like a tarnished beacon rising above the ruins. The enemy, too, scattered to distant planets to lick their wounds and rebuild.
And Ronon followed them. He left without a goodbye, although, afterwards, she remembered the intensity of his gentleness the day before, and knew that that had been a goodbye, after all. For months, he sent no message, but survivors of the war began to tell tales of a lone warrior who hunted the enemy, striking it even in its lair.
But when he took a mortal wound, it was to Atlantis that he returned. He came through the Gate, and stood there swaying. Summoned by the news, Teyla came through the door at a run. "Ronon!" Smiling, she made for him, arms open.
He fell before she could reach him. She called – screamed – for a medical team, and fell to her knees beside him. "Too late," he said. There was blood on his lips.
"No," she sobbed. "No, no, no."
His hand closed around hers – a living hand, still warm. His eyes met hers, and his lips began to turn into a smile. She heard the first wisp of a word, but then, before he could shape it, he died.
It should have felt better, she thought. John and Rodney had died alone, and they had come too late for any farewell. Ronon had died in her arms, with a smile on his lips, but it was worse, it was worse…
"Because no farewell is ever enough." Perhaps someone had said it to her back then. She said it now, and scooped up a clod of earth. "Ronon," she mouthed.
She saw them in the flames, all three of them, and they reached towards her, calling for news. What could she say? She had left not long afterwards, unable to bear it. Since then, she had never once tried to dial Atlantis, and had no idea if the city still stood. Once, a trader had brought news of a man called Radek who protected his village with his cunning mind. Another mentioned a warrior called Lorne, married, with three children. She had never had the courage to ask more.
"I do not know," she said, and the flames turned away from her, cold.
She sat there for a very long time, tokens clutched in her palm.
When she stood up, her limbs were stiff. She walked like someone who had never walked before, leaving her own small fire, heading into the darkness. Branches snatched at her hair. Away to the right, she saw the village that she had never truly allowed to become her home, the houses dark and solid against the night. Stars looked down on her, cold and questioning. She still had no idea which one hosted the planet that had once been home to her.
Slow and wondering, she drifted towards the light. A hundred people were gathered around the large bonfire. The ritual was past, and now was the time for storytelling and singing. She stood for a while and watched them. My people, she thought, but the thought was cold. Her own Athosians had almost been wiped out, and she had been unable to bring herself to face the few survivors. She had lost her first family, and then her second. After she had left Atlantis, she had wondered alone, until a gentle man had came upon her as her baby was born, had nursed her and nourished her, and offered her and her son a home with his people.
He was the first to notice her now. "Teyla." The flames showed the brightness of his smile.
She moved to his side, and into the embrace of his arms. Their children joined them, her daughter squeezing her hand. They had never asked her why she stayed away before, and they did not ask her why this time she had chosen to come. They had always accepted her without question. And she had lied to them.
"They're going to tell stories," her son told her.
"Yes." She smiled, trusting in the darkness and the flames to hide the tears that were still damp on her cheeks.
The storyteller stood tall, outlined with flame. "Come all ye," he said, "and listen while I tell a tale of the Great War, and of those sent by the Ancestors to save us. It is a tale of those who will live for ever – of Sheppard, who flew on wings on silver and would ever stand between an innocent and the swords of the enemy; of McKay, wizard and trickster, who could trick even Death with his wily words and who shaped wonders with his hands; of Ronon, who killed more Wraith than any man who has ever lived, and lost everything he ever loved, but still found hope; and of Teyla, name-sake of our own Teyla, close to our hearts, whose courage never failed–"
"No!" She had spoken aloud before she had realised she was about to do so.
The story ceased; the magic ended. All eyes turned to her, like the eyes of strangers in the firelight.
She had never told them. They had welcomed her and embraced her, but she had never told them who she was. When they told their stories, she turned away, hardened her heart, and said not a word. They had offered her family and fellowship, but she had held part of herself back, still clinging to the family she had lost. She had wronged them. She had wronged them all.
"No," she said, more quietly. "Her courage did fail. For twenty years, her courage failed, but now it is returning." She opened her fist, and ran her fingers lightly over the objects she held. "I was the Teyla in the stories," she told them, "but the story is not mine. It belongs to the others, and they were not the heroes that they are in your stories. Yes, they are, they were, but most of all, they were my friends. My family."
She moved closer to the fire, moving away from her new family as if they were a cloak that she was shedding. "John," she said, and held the leaf between two fingers. "John Sheppard," she said, "who was everything you say he was, but who got tongue-tied when trying to talk about his feelings. He joked even in the face of death, but he felt things far more strongly than he would ever say, and he knew that we knew it, too, but he trusted us not to say. He died…" She took a deep breath, but the tears were gone now, and her voice was steady. "He died as he lived, putting the safety of his people first. He died in the cradle of the Ancestors, and his final act was the gift of life to those who had become his family."
But she did not throw the leaf into the flames, not yet.
"Rodney," she said, over the twig. "Rodney McKay was arrogant and self-centred, but at heart he doubted himself, and there was a great selflessness at his core. He was the magician that you say that he was, able to create marvels with the power of his mind. He saved us more times than I can count. He boasted about it afterwards, of course." She smiled fondly. "He could be quite insufferable. But he died saving us all, facing certain death in the hope that he could use those final seconds of his life to save the rest of us. He died in the place that was home to him, and he died knowing that he had saved us all once again."
The earth was crumbling in her palm. "Ronon Dex," she said, "was a warrior, but he was so much more. Although he was a man of few words, he spoke with his body and his deeds. He had lost everything, as you say, and he lived on through sheer willpower and stubbornness. In the years that we knew him, he was like a flower unfolding. Although he was deadly to his enemies, he had a gentleness to him that only we saw, and even then seldom. He took his mortal injury while fighting his enemies alone, but he died in the place that had become his home, with me, his friend and his sister, at his side."
No-one existed around her. There was nothing but the flames and the memories. "John," she said, and threw the leaf into the fire. "Rodney." The twig joined it, and then the earth. "Ronon."
The flames surged like laughter, and warmth touched her face, once, then twice, then three times. She heard a sigh, but could not hear the words. Then, as she watched, three tongues of flame rose high, then twined together until they were one. Then higher still, until the flame faded into smoke, which flew high into the darkness, free.
"Goodbye," she whispered, and her family were there beside her, and her people flanked her, and she was home.