Those Who Favor Fire by anna_bird
FeatureSummary: AU, after Enemy at the Gate (series finale). The City of Atlantis and inhabitants have returned to Pegasus from their heroic rescue of the planet Earth at the hands of the Wraith. But something is wrong.

Almost completely gen. Mostly-offscreen Teyla/Kanaan, hints of past Jennifer/Rodney, possible John/Rodney. PG-13 rating for language and action-y stuff.
Categories: General, Ship Pairings > Teyla Emmagan/Other Characters: Jennifer Keller, John Sheppard, Other, Radek Zelenka, Rodney McKay, Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagan
Genres: Action/Adventure, AU - Alternate Universe, Challenge, Character Study
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 3 Completed: Yes Word count: 16503 Read: 13587 Published: 06 Dec 2009 Updated: 09 Dec 2009
Story Notes:
Roughly 17,000 words and posted in three parts. I strayed quite a bit from the original prompt, but I do think it serves as a good quote about the character of Teyla and her people in general. Boatloads of thanks to the best betas money cannot buy, sasha_feather and were_duck for their time and insightful comments/criticisms, and especially Taste for her big damn overhaul, helpful comments and a better, much more interesting title (which comes from this poem). Thank you, ladies. I really appreciate it. Any inconsistencies or errors are mine alone.

1. Part 1 by anna_bird

2. Part 2 by anna_bird

3. Part 3 by anna_bird

Part 1 by
1.

It began with malfunctions, a memory, and Jennifer Keller.

At first Teyla assumed these things were most likely unconnected, and anyway she did not often think in tautologies. It was best, in her experience, to simply expect the unexpected. And that was the Athosian peace of mind in, as Jennifer would say, a nutshell.

It was hard to have any kind of peace of mind when it was so hot, though.

The city had been up in arms since the return to the Pegasus galaxy a week ago. For the first time in scientific memory, a ZPM had failed without any warning. Rodney and the rest of Science were stumped. The sputtering-out of the environmental controls was the latest in a long stream of malfunctions that supposedly stemmed from the ZPM failure.

Consequently, Atlantis was sweltering. The sparring room was the hottest place, with the sun feeding relentless light through the gold-paned windows. But there was something more about the heat, something heavy and far back in her mind. Teyla could not quite name it; there was a smell of burning wood, a rush of heat to the face -- Charin's face -- why Charin's face?

Her wet hair settled aggravatingly against her neck, and Teyla threw away her thoughts just in time to scrape past a rough shoulder swipe from Ronon. The knowing grin on his face was enough to give her temper a decided edge.

The doors to the sparring room swished open just as she disarmed him with a strike to his unprotected side and wrist. It took both sticks to do it, but that was inconsequential.

Dr. Jennifer Keller hesitated in the doorway.

"Hrgh. Nice hit," Ronon grinned. "But lucky."

"Perhaps you are mourning the loss of your balance," she said, glancing at his close trimmed curls. Ah, but she was roasting.

Surrounded by heavy drifting trees, they sit in a half circle around a fire pit. To Teyla it feels like they -- ten young ones close to twelve, the age of the ordeal -- are all alone deep in the darkest wilderness of Athos, instead of a mere few meters from their homes with a trusted village relative.

" 'Least I'm comfortable." He easily dodged her next jab, but not her kick. "Ooomph."

Charin unfolds a cloth kit. She lays out stones, braided hide, beads made from hardwood. Then the firelighter glimmers briefly behind her cupped hands. They all watch, breath caught, as the flame leaps to the pile of brush and logs. It crackles and catches quickly, spitting small sparks that makes some of the smaller ones shift and giggle. Teyla rolls her eyes, and scoots closer until the warmth enfolds her.

It is past twilight and time for mischief. Charin's brow flickers with crawling shadows.

"Tonight," she says in the voice reserved for ceremony, "I will tell you of the Burnt Ones, the Serapha."


Teyla shook her head. She looked down, and saw she had gone from standing to straddling Ronon, her bantos rod firm against his throat. Her knees ached against the hard wood of the floor.

He quirked an eyebrow at her. "What's wrong?"

"Uh." The scene, no, the memory was gone like smoke before she could fully glimpse it. Strange. "I - nothing."

"Good." He grabbed her leg, and she let him wrangle her into a full-scale wrestling match. While it did absolutely nothing for the heat, the sweat did allow Teyla the satisfaction of wriggling out of all his silly Satedan death holds.

"Um," Keller said, still in the doorway. Surprisingly, she looked more impatient than embarrassed.

"Hey." Ronon rolled away from Teyla. "You look...good."

She did, Teyla thought as she hoisted herself up and over to the towels. Cool and neat as usual, with her hair tidied back into a ponytail, Keller looked as though she and her science blues had never known sweat.

"Yeah, Zelenka ran an auxiliary patch for the infirmary, so it's ice cold in there."

"Be seeing you soon," Ronon said. "I'm in need of medical assistance." Teyla pitched a sweaty towel at him. "What? You're the one who beat me up." He escaped out the door.

"He's like a little kid," Keller said, her face reddening. She helped Teyla pull the mats back and stash the gear, and then wiped her hands on her pant legs. Teyla rubbed away sweat with the last remaining towel and watched, intrigued. Whatever Keller had to say, it was weighing on her. Something regarding Rodney, perhaps? There had been heated words overheard, and rumors of an angry but bloodless scene during the hyperspace trip back to the Pegasus galaxy. Keller was pacing now. Teyla wrapped up her bantos rods, stuck them in her bag, and waited.

"Listen. Do you have time for lunch with me? I'm having some -- er -- issues with a couple Athosian kids that I wanted to talk over with you."

"Certainly." Teyla tied back her hair. Issues. It was such a vague, halfway kind of word, there was no real translation in Athosian. "Let us walk and talk, then."

The Marines had rigged fans in the primary corridors that served mostly to blow the stuffy air around, but it was better than nothing at all. They took the longer way through the gate room, where Chuck was talking Woolsey through a very complicated-sounding procedure regarding the Stargate. Woolsey looked up as they approached.

"Teyla, Jennifer, glad you're here -- we're having an emergency briefing in ten minutes."

"So soon, " Teyla said. "What is it regarding?"

Keller shot her a raised eyebrow, but Teyla couldn't help it -- no one who had skipped breakfast for a Ronon workout would voluntarily miss lunch. Woolsey frowned and gave a minute head jerk in Chuck's direction.

"City issues, among other things. "I'll need all the senior staff."

More issues.

"Guess we'll eat fast, then." Keller pulled at Teyla's arm and they escaped out into the corridor and down to the mess.

In the wake of the briefly-activated wormhole drive and the SGC's flat refusal to Rodney McKay's demands to use it to return Atlantis to Pegasus (just so the science team could run some tests and "iron out the kinks," a phrase which, Teyla noticed, had induced particular shudders in Colonel Carter), they all had endured the standard three week journey in regular hyperspace. The failure of the ZPM, the heart of the city, had come almost instantly after they set down gracefully and gratefully into the New Lantean ocean.

After the environmental controls began blinking in and out, the transporters had gone down. Operations and Science combined had spent two full days of tinkering to repair them. The following day a pair of water treatment consoles sparked and began scrolling text equivalent to Ancient profanity. It was perplexing and somewhat ominous to Teyla, especially when considering the talent available, that no one could get ahead of the problems.

According to Dr. Simpson, who earlier in the week had taken time out from console repair to eat burnt breakfast bagels with Teyla in the mess, turning on the wormhole drive was analogous to putting a free-loving multi-universal hand up Atlantis' figurative skirt, and the retaliating slap was reverberating throughout. The subsequent conversation they had regarding free-loving, hands up skirts, enterprising males and Earth slang in general was illuminating for them both.

"The only place that hasn't had a whisper of a problem," and Simpson had knocked her knuckles against the synthetic tabletop, "is in the ZPM room. Isn't that weird? Considering it all started there. But Dr. McKay's riding us hard enough as it is, and I don't think much for my personal survival if anything funny happened down there, much less to the other two modules."

Today the mess was hot and crowded, but no one was eating: some of the science staff were poking at a panel out on the balcony. A team of Marines surrounded Dr. Cole, who was handing out rations of stimulant.

Keller and Teyla snagged trays and loaded up with bread, soup and rice, and Teyla appropriated an entire bowl of ranna fruits with the vague intention of bringing some back to her room, for Torren. With a shameful thud in the pit of her belly, she realized she had not thought of him except in passing over the course of the morning. Kanaan had left with Torren for the New Athos settlement on the day Atlantis returned to Pegasus. For a moment, the longest moment she had spared her son that day, she had forgotten where he was.

She supposed it was due to the recent stresses, and to working in Atlantis, to having two homes. But that was not going to change any time soon. If she had her way, Torren would grow up in both worlds -- the way she had worked and lived in the last five years. That was good, another link between her two chosen peoples. That was wise. Wasn't it? Charin would have known.

There was already friction with Kanaan for so many reasons: the unexpected length of the city's absence from Pegasus, the fact that Torren had been in Atlantis and not safely relocated to the alpha site during the battle, her own constant work since the return.

She should go to New Athos tonight. She would.

"All right." Keller tried to steeple her fingers and tear a piece of bread simultaneously, and ended up with her brow furrowed. "God. Some days I just want a cookie, you know?"

Teyla raised her eyebrows.

Keller swallowed. "Right. Sorry. Anyway. I haven't brought this up with Mr. Woolsey yet because, well, frankly because there just hasn't been enough time and the infirmary's a mess -- er." She put down the bread. "I saw this type of anomaly, mark -- well -- injury in some of the Athosians who came to Atlantis yesterday. It's a little strange. I don't remember seeing it before, and I wondered if maybe you could identify it, ease my mind." She smiled ruefully. "I admit I'm inclined to jump at shadows these days."

"An injury? I don't understand." Teyla tried some soup. It tasted too heavy, too much starch. She pushed it aside.

"I left my laptop in my office, but -- " Keller pulled out a pen and started sketching on a napkin. "I'll try to keep it to scale. Here." She pushed it across the table.

She'd drawn a roughly-lined shape the length of Teyla's thumb. It was like a leaf, except it had sharp, jagged edges and a thin sort of barb on one end. The ink was thick and smelled like a liquor Teyla had once drank with the people of Pandaar. The drawing itself was odd and familiar all at once.

"I -- I am not sure. This is familiar."

The fire, the wash of light flickering up into the dark pockets of the trees. A stick tracing in the sand surrounding the ring of stones, tracing a shape.

Keller spooned up soup. "There's nothing about it in the medical database, but I haven't checked the main databanks yet. Rodney isn't letting anyone log in from outside Science."

"No, I know this." Teyla closed her eyes. "Continue, I will let you know when I remember."

"Oookay." Keller sounded slightly skeptical.

Teyla sighed. "You said there are injuries related to this. When did you begin seeing them, the Athosians?"

"I told you, yesterday. Woolsey has declared the city officially open, you know. He doesn't want to have bad relations with our allies. So a bunch of kids, well, teens, I guess, came over from New Athos."

"Yes, I met with Marta." Kanaan and Torren had not been among the Athosians who came. Because Teyla had been occupied with that, and with her duties, she had missed this injury, whatever it was. Think about that later. She tried to focus on what Keller was saying.

"Anyway. It's hard to classify as injury, but." Keller waggled her hands. "The kids I've seen have it branded into them. Um. Like the image was carved into metal, and then the metal heated, and then -- "

"Enough. I see." Too well. Teyla's throat constricted, and she tried to school her expression. Metal hot enough to burn... "Where? Where on their bodies were they branded, I mean?" The word felt heavy and uncomfortable in her mouth.

"Their necks, about an inch or two below the ear."

Teyla brushed her hand against the skin there. It was a tender place, even to her. The relaxed mentality she always had after a workout was long gone, and she could not begin to straighten out all her questions: which children, exactly? How old were they? Any patterns? Had any adults been seen with them? Where were they now? Really, it was too hot to think, as though she was sitting too close to the fire and stifling.

"The thing is," Jennifer continued. "And I wouldn't say this if I didn't know Wex and the others, you know? But they acted funny. This was before I noticed the brands."

"Funny how? In pain?"

"No. Like -- well, themselves at first. They're all into mimicking Ronon and Halling, becoming these big time stoic warriors and er, peaceful mediators, which is kind of a funny combination."

Teyla smiled in spite of herself. Keller grinned back.

"You should see Wex's older brother -- he's the worst, he encourages them -- "

"Gardani, yes." Teyla tapped her fingers and stilled them immediately. "Please go on."

Keller straightened her shoulders and took another spoonful of soup. "But this one time, on one of my first visits to the New Athos settlement, well, Wex and Jinto took me on a hike around the area. It was pretty. We saw a bunny-type thing, and a waterfall -- " She made a scrunched face and waved her hands. "Sorry. Anyway, I mentioned it to Wex yesterday, and he had no idea what I was talking about. And that would've been fine, because young guys, you know, they don't remember stuff sometimes. So I didn't push it."

Were her hands trembling? Teyla chewed her bread, ignoring the tightness in her throat.

"But then he started saying things."

"Such as?"

Keller actually blushed. "It's not really worth repeating. Explicit, er, sexual things -- and totally inaccurate, of course. Er, suffice to say, he's never said anything like -- like that around me or -- or in reference to me before. And he looked so strange. Like he wasn't really saying it. Like he was, um, just letting his mouth work off steam while he thought about other things."

"This is unacceptable." It was stomach-turning. It was frightening. Was it limited to Wex? Were there others? A plague, a sickness of some sort, induced by something among her people... "And then you noticed the brands."

"Yes. Understand, they didn't come to me for examination. I practically forced Wex to sit down while I checked him out, and honestly, he wasn't happy about it. There was a girl, too -- Liaya."

Tonight, I will tell you of the Burnt Ones.

And suddenly the memory was there, like it had never been gone. Charin, the fire, the other children. "The Serapha," Teyla said.

"Uh. Sorry, what?"

"The mark." Teyla touched the drawing. "It is part of a myth among my people. Creatures of energy. They are -- well, they are not well known." Already she felt drawn back to that night around the fire with Charin. "They were similar to the Ancestors."

"Oh." Keller looked uncomfortable. "Gods?"

Teyla pressed her knuckles against one of the ranna fruit until it turned to dark purple mush, staining her skin. She wanted nothing more than to 'gate to New Athos immediately. Calm, calm, calm.

Woolsey's voice burst into her earpiece, startling her. "Teyla, Dr. Keller, we're waiting for you in the conference room."

Keller sighed and gobbled a fast final spoon of rice. "I don't know about you, but I really hope this doesn't turn into another morale discussion."


******


"Replaced?" Rodney choked on his coffee, and Teyla was forced to smack him on the back until he regained his composure and frowned at her. "I thought you guys had all that political crap worked out."

The conference room was stifling, so they sat around the table with the doors open. At the sound of Rodney's voice, some passing scientists slowed to peek inside.

"That's not what I said, Dr. McKay." Woolsey frowned at the loiterers outside the door, and they hurried away. "The IOA is temporarily adjourning and will reconvene after a summit at Cheyenne Mountain to discuss the recent turn of events, that is, Atlantis making her appearance on Earth. In the interim, the SGC has lobbied that the expedition immediately be reclassed as highly sensitive -- "

"Reclassed?" John smirked.

"What were we before," Rodney snapped, "numb? I'd have to say that while we weren't top priority -- "

"Highly sensitive," Woolsey continued loudly, "and therefore under a combined military jurisdiction, in effect making this a military rather than a science outpost, until the IOA and the SGC come to a mutual decision. At which point I may be -- may be replaced as leader of this mission."

"First Sam and now you. Step right up for a limited annual appointment to another galaxy," Rodney said. He poured himself more coffee from the pot he had appropriated, and Teyla held out her mug for a fresh fill.

Woolsey took off his glasses and polished them against his sleeve. "Actually, Colonel Carter is on the short list of possible candidates to run Atlantis - "

"Oh. Well. In that case -- "

John snorted. "Oh, sure, in that case, for the love of -- shut up, McKay -- "

"What! What!?"

" -- but nothing is final," Woolsey pushed on. "It should be relatively painless if we all cooperate -- "

Teyla said, "I thought Colonel Carter was in command of the Hammond."

"I'm not privy to any decisions regarding the ships," Woolsey replied rather primly. "I've no plan to just hand over the job. I think we've done well under my leadership, and saving Earth should give me a leg up compared to the other candidates, as long as we don't start any wars, or, er, blow anything vital up in the meantime. Which brings me to the point of this meeting."

Woolsey paged through a thick sheaf of reports next to his notebook. "The malfunctions are spiraling out of control. Dr. Simpson reported a problem with the coolant tanks, and Dr. Kusanagi's team shut down a radiation containment leak on sublevel two -- "

"We are working on it," Rodney grated around the mouth of his mug. "It's unbelievable. We fix one thing and another breaks -- it's like the pissed-off ghost of Rube Goldberg down there."

They debated around the table for a while, and when Rodney pulled up the Ancient database schematics on the desalination piping and John made strange grimaces Teyla recognized as suppressed yawns, Keller interrupted to rattle off a quick summary of the Athosian anomaly and their lunch discussion. Rodney turned away, toward Teyla, and she saw his face before he shuttered it. She felt a stab of pity for him, and squashed the urge to pat his hand.

John's head jerked up halfway through Keller's report.

"Kids?"

"Well, I call them kids," Keller began, flushing. "But -- "

"Wex and Liaya are the same age as Jinto," Teyla interposed smoothly. "They have taken part in the Athosian coming-of-age ordeal and are now considered adults."

"Huh," John said. "It's only been five years since -- yeah, now I feel old."

"And you think that these, ah, entities may be responsible?" Woolsey asked.

"The Serapha. Yes."

Rodney looked skeptical. Teyla was somewhat bemused when he did not say anything, but instead began searching through the database.

"They were tricksters. Godly to us, like the Ancients. It was an Athosian tradition when I was young, to learn about them upon our coming-of-age. They possess bodies, influence minds, meddle with people. They could be in multiple places at once, and they were connected to fire. For example, they did not ascend into light as the Ancestors did -- they descended, burning, into fire."

"Fallen angels," John commented cryptically. "Things are the same all over. As usual."

"Energy entities," Rodney reported. "They give off heavy amounts of energy, and they feed on it, though there's no specifics about that. There's a whole section on them in here, and some linkings to other sections, though, huh, those are defunct. I'll get Zelenka on it, too. But if we're talking tricksters, I'm thinking all our malfunctions? Aren't so random or mystifying after all."

"With permission, I would like to investigate this among my people," Teyla said. "And for Dr. Keller to accompany me."

Keller coughed, her eyes widening. "Er," she said. "Just the two of us? I mean -- yes. I'd like that."

Things adjourned rather quickly after that. John left to oversee a jumper mission underneath the city. Rodney stuffed a doughnut into his mouth and left for Science, his muffled voice rising as he addressed a hapless someone over the radio. Teyla intercepted Keller before she could sidle out behind Ronon.

"Are you adverse to the idea?"

"No, of course not." Keller smiled, but it was guarded. "Meet me in the infirmary? I'd like to get that laptop."

True, the last time they had ventured out together to visit New Athos, things had been a little...rough.

Or she is worrying about Wex and Liaya. Or she is thinking of Rodney. No way to know, a little voice inside prodded her.

She smiled grimly. One issue at a time, she thought, and set off for quarters.
Part 2 by
2.

Teyla had always loved traveling through the Ring of the Ancestors. She was pleased to find that having a better understanding of the technology (and new phraseology compliments of Rodney) did not dim for her any of the pleasure: the way the entrance welcomed you, the way once you stepped into the static ripple you felt as though you'd turned into lightning, dancing and sizzling toward the ground.

They had radioed ahead, and when she stepped back to firm ground with Keller beside her, Kanaan was waiting for them. He wore a light leather pack and he had Torren against his chest, wrapped in a new pale yellow sling.

"Welcome," he said. His dark eyes were anxious and full of questions, and she felt her heart gladden as she met his gaze and brought his forehead down to hers.

"I have missed you," he whispered.

"And I you." She cleared her throat. "How is Torren -- may I take him for the walk? You remember Dr. Keller."

The way to the village had lengthened, as the Athosians had moved the settlement west of their original site. They trekked on a near-invisible path through thick acres of low-hanging trees and brush, stopping once to wet their throats at a cold stream. Torren pounded Teyla's chest with his fists, and she placated him with ranna fruits and the occasional nose-to-nose flutter.

"I'm afraid you come at a tenuous time," Kanaan said. "I apologize I sent no word. But when we received your hail, Halling thought it best I tell you in person. We have lost several in the past night, and their families are in mourning."

"Lost?" Keller asked. "You mean -- "

"Dead." Kanaan adjusted his pack. Teyla touched his arm, but he would not look at her. "By their own hand."

The trees swayed high and green in the breeze above their heads. Against her chest, Torren gabbled happily. She felt as though a cold fist had lodged in her gut. "Surely not."

"It was hard for me to accept as well. But there is no other explanation. They were each alone in their tents, except for Wex. Three of them. They were recently of age. Liaya took part in the ordeal last year, while the others were slightly older."

"Wait, Wex? Liaya?" Keller asked. "The kids I saw, Teyla. They're dead?"

"Yes." Kanaan took a deep breath. "And another -- "

"This can't be good, can't be good," Keller muttered. "Okay. All right. Ordeal. Is that what you were talking about in the meeting today?"

"It is a rite of passage," Teyla said. Her legs felt unsteady. She stamped them, and tightened her arms around Torren. "Upon a certain age, usually after we reach the age of twelve, we are taken by elders to a certain place and left with only our wits and our strengths to guide us for ten days."

"Ten days? At twelve -- " Keller opened her mouth, and closed it.

"It is dangerous, yes, but we do not coddle our children."

Keller frowned at that. "So Torren will undergo the same ritual."

"Yes, of course," Teyla said, frowning back. "It is imperative. How else should he put into practice the survival techniques we teach?"

Keller didn't answer. Teyla took a deep breath and pressed hard on the tiny curl of frustration at Keller's sudden seeming mulishness, her quickness to cast judgment. Had they not been through this dance every time a part of their people did not enmesh so easily? Or was this emotion coming out over the Athosians in general, people Keller did not know nearly as well as Teyla did -- no, it was nothing new. Surely Teyla had learned to suppress her anger more easily in the past five years.

"Kanaan," she said, "will you tell us of the Serapha?"

"That is an old myth. We have not told the story since I was a boy, and you should know as much as I."

"There may be something I have forgotten."

They walked the rest of the path in time to the recollections of fire and mystery and myriad faces, with Torren burbling against Teyla's chest and Keller silent alongside them.



The settlement was eerily quiet. The dwindling afternoon sunlight pressed orange through the trees and over the roofs of the tents. They walked on the main path through the village and met no one, saw only blank tent entrances and smoldering firepits. To their left, something with wings lit up and away into the trees. Keller jumped, and cursed.

"Sorry. Spooked me."

They passed Kanaan's tent, then Marta's, and Teyla felt a frission in the air. Kanaan had not said anything about the ceremony, but if the youths had died the previous night the rites would be underway, and Teyla had not seen a mourning cot since the death of Charin. They rounded the last row of tents.

The Athosians had gathered around their dead, but they were sitting in absolute motionless silence before the cots. There would be no singer, no general pacing or speeches of memory.

It was as Kanaan had said. There were three of them. They had been laid out as rays of a sun: their heads pointed at the forest, drained-white faces thrust up proudly in the dying light, and their legs stretching back towards the tents. They had no possessions piled by their feet, due the fact that none had yet left their families, but they had been prepared -- probably at Halling's insistence, he would never allow outright sacrilege -- with bright red and purple wraps. The colors seemed to bleed outside the wrapping's edges. Someone had attempted to make a ring of stones big enough to go around all of the cots, but they had run out of rocks a little over halfway through and substituted brambles, bits of pottery, even an oddly squashed bundle Teyla had to stare at before she recognized it as a skirt.

Then she heard Halling saying her name; and Jinto, his face wan, his eyes empty, drew up next to her.

Of course, she realized as she offered her forehead up (up, how he had grown) to his, Wex. Liaya. These are his friends.

She hugged him tightly, and he stumbled against her as though she had sliced an invisible tether. Torren protested volubly.

" -- do not know what to do," he said, his voice muffled against her shoulder. "I -- Wex and I spoke last night. I knew that -- that something was different. He was so strange. He was never -- he was not himself. But I didn't think this would happen. And Liaya. Liaya and I. I have no right to speak of her, but."

"Shhh." Teyla patted his back. "We did not know of this until we came through the Ring. But I promise you we will not rest until we discover why it happened."

He took a deep breath and stepped away from her. She moved on, spoke with Halling for less than a minute to find out what hard facts there were, and then crouched down by the edge of the bedraggled Ring. Almost immediately there was breath against her neck, and Keller's whisper in her ear, loud in the silence.

"I'd like to examine them. May we?"

Teyla pondered. "We can try. But anything invasive should wait until after the ritual." She divested herself of her pack and put Torren down so he could toddle around, and helped Keller unload her laptop and the evidence kit.

"How long will that be?"

"It depends. With three, and a shorter Ring ceremony -- "

"Why shorter?" Keller sounded off, almost angry.

"Because they have taken their own lives," Teyla snapped. She realized she was close to tears and dreadfully sick to her stomach. She was also fiddling with the medical pack. She put it down, and looked up to see that Keller, too, had tears in her eyes. "I am sorry. But suicide is forbidden, no, unthinkable among my people. We have been too long hunted by the Wraith or taken by the whim of others to throw away the gift of our lives."

Keller's mouth tightened. Ancestors, the girl was thinking she was a savage. "We do them no dishonor. It is just that -- we cannot celebrate them because they have made the choice to -- to refuse to live. They have not lived. So their families keep their possessions, and we observe silence, but we cannot rejoice."

Teyla suddenly felt exhausted. Perhaps she was tired, or worn down due to the malfunctions and continual political dancing on Atlantis; but she could not understand or answer this step-by-step discussion. Perhaps she and Jennifer simply needed to get reacquainted on a personal level. Perhaps Jennifer's former relationship with Rodney was bringing out -- no.

"Perhaps it is best to say there are differences in every culture. Let us keep to the task at hand, please."

Keller touched her arm tentatively. It felt like an apology. "It's not that -- it's just hard, I was just talking to them, you know? And suicide isn't considered a fantastic thing on Earth, either. I -- I could tell you stories, seriously."

"Oh." It was as though a breath of cool breeze had wafted over Teyla, and her irritation dissipated. She wondered if she should sit down. Keller looked embarrassed, and then looked away. When she spoke, Teyla had to lean close to hear.

"All the same, Teyla. What if they haven't killed themselves?"

"It is possible," Teyla said. "But Halling has informed me that they all died in the same fashion, and that Wex's mother saw him use his knife." She tried to recall Charin's face as an antidote to the nausea, but it would not come properly and it did not soothe her.

Keller swallowed, and seemed suddenly very interested in the contents of her pack.

Kanaan approached them, balancing three clay cups. "I made this," he said. "Jaru. It is stronger than ruus wine, but it will not leave the drinker as -- how did John Sheppard put it -- fuzzy?"

Teyla laughed. It sounded too loud, too near the quiet cots. She hastily put out her hand for the cup, and the three of them drank. The jaru was clean and light and fiery going down. All around them, other Athosians were tipping back cups, and the silence smoothed into murmurs, then shifting as people stood. The initial mourning was finished. Now there would be talking and eating.

"Now," she muttered to Keller, and together they stepped toward the bodies.

They looked startlingly young, despite their ages. As Halling had said, they all shared the same wounds: rough diagonal cuts up the soft inside of each arm. Their faces were relaxed, not contorted. Their lips were unbitten. The girl, Liaya, lay as though she were sleeping: her red-gold hair fanned around her head like a flame. There was something, though...Teyla bent close to her hands, avoiding the ragged flesh. Yes. Liaya's fingers, or rather just the tips, were strangely discolored; as though she had dipped them in ash or earth. Teyla rubbed the thumb tip with the cuff of her sleeve. The dark stain did not change.

She did not know the third victim. He (or she? It was impossible to tell) lay still, undisturbed and vulnerable like a pale fall of ash. How could she not know one of her people? Guilt threatened to choke her, and she recalled that Kanaan had not known the third victim, either. An interloper, or an immigrant from another tribe, another planet? She still should have known.

"Teyla, here." Keller was examining Wex's mouth and taking surreptitious samples. A few Athosian men and women had gathered a little ways behind her. They were talking to each other out of the corners of their mouths, their gazes locked on her and Keller, their expressions bleak and taut. Teyla replaced Liaya's hand as gently as she could and came around the cot to see where Jennifer was pointing. She deliberately placed herself between her people and Jennifer and, to her dismay, the murmuring grew louder and she caught snatches of their talk.

"The Burnt Ones...Serapha --"

"...stories of old..."

"Who? I do not know..."

"Serapha, Serapha..."

"Oh, Wex." Keller gestured halfway down the boy's neck. "It's still there. The mark."

The deep impression of a rather jagged leaf, thick and blue-black against the pale dead skin, leapt out at Teyla like a shout. She had a bad moment of dizziness, and there was a sudden inexplicable smell of smoke and there were words in her mind, words that felt stamped there rather than spoken:

Descended into fire, ever burning, ever pure
-- Let me tell you of the Burnt ones,
many faced, many guises
-- Power, more power than they could possibly need --
-- I didn't think this would happen --
so hungry
trapped
Serapha, bringing the world to a burning close
-- Let me tell you --
-- Let me tell you of


Something crashed into the back of Teyla's head. She clutched at her hair and felt stickiness under her fingers. Beside her, Keller squeaked.

"What's going on?"

Teyla breathed deeply, and then in the space between breaths she found herself suddenly kneeling on the ground.

"Teyla!"

Gardani, Wex's elder brother, stood before them, cradling a small rock in his fist. He looked at it in seeming confusion, and flung it away. "I -- Teyla, I am sorry." He stepped back hastily as Keller and Kanaan grasped her arms and helped her up. "I do not know what came over me. You and the doctor -- "

"We're here to help," Keller said, her grip tightening on Teyla's arm. "You didn't have to hit anyone."

Gardani shivered and shook his head. "I did not mean to -- I -- Teyla, forgive me, please."

"You are in mourning," Teyla said, willing her eyes to focus. Her legs were very unsteady. Thank the Ancestors for the jaru and Kanaan, she felt less pain with the liquor. "We should have waited to examine them. I apologize."

She let Keller draw her away from the growing onlookers. Kanaan ran toward his tent.

"Are you nuts?" Keller hissed as she snapped open her pack and rifled through it for bandages. "Here, hold this tight against it while I -- there -- he didn't have to hit you! He could have told us to back off, get away. I didn't even see him coming." She pulled Teyla's hand away and pressed something cold and stinging against the wound. "I don't think it's that bad, actually."

Gardani still hovered by the array of bodies, his angular face screwed up.

"Let me see your pupils," Keller said, pulling her attention back. "They look okay. No painkillers, sorry, not with that jaru. Let me know if the pain gets worse, or you feel drowsy or nauseated or both. And we should run an infirmary scan just in case."

Teyla shook her head, and managed not to wince. "Kanaan will have gone to get a numbing agent we use. You may apply it before you clean the wound. And we cannot leave, not yet."

"What?"

"You were right. Before Gardani struck me, I heard something. There may be Serapha here." She let Keller draw her head down and part the hair around the wound. "I am somewhat worried that -- well -- do you have paper and something for writing? I want you to take something down."


****


Three additional cups of jaru later, Jennifer Keller was less concerned about a possible attack from fiery Athosian deities, and more worried about a potential problem patient. Then again, since they still knew nothing about the Serapha, it was also possible that the two could combine. Oh, and she felt pretty drunk. That was certainly helpful.

Teyla was giving her the stone face and pacing. Her pupils looked fine, and she said she felt no pain. So she said. Apparently there was something about Atlantis that instilled stoicism, or maybe drew stoics in.

"So you heard these words." Jennifer shook the paper. "And had a feeling -- "

"Similar to the way I feel when linking with the Wraith, yes."

"You had a Wraithish feeling when you heard the words and saw the mark."

"Yes." Teyla frowned. "But it was different. There was tangible hunger, but not cold. There was nothing that felt like Wraith, or a hive, or a Queen, only -- the linking itself. I have not heard anything in our myths regarding the Serapha and telepathy."

"But we don't know anything for sure."

They had been sitting where she'd bandaged Teyla for nearly an hour now. Shouldn't they be radioing Atlantis? Maybe they could get a jumper escort back, it was getting dark. Teyla was still talking.

"All dead from their own hand, the knives found beside the bodies."

Jennifer stowed the kit and zipped her pack shut. "As far as we can tell without doing a complete autopsy, yes."

"All with the same mark, the same brand. All with stained fingertips."

"Yes. Look, Teyla." Jennifer found another brimming cup of jaru in her hands, and tried to ignore it. "Unless we do a complete autopsy, I won't know anything for certain. I didn't even get a sample of the branded skin, or even a better look. And unner -- under the circumstances and the jaru, I don't think that's such a good idea right now."

The sun had set, and the sky had dimmed considerably. The Athosians had covered the bodies and moved the cots into an empty tent for protection against any night beasts, and were going through the motions of what Jennifer supposed were their evening habits: they lit fires, they started cooking dinner, delicious smelling dinner of meat and mashed tuttleroots and fresh bread and whatever else Athosians ate on a regular basis.

God, she was starving. Come on, you're the doctor. You have the diploma and the anxiety medication to prove it. Be the doctor.

"I would like to stay," Teyla said. "See if I can summon this feeling again."

"And I'd like to get you back to Atlantis for that scan. Whatever you felt could be a medical complication from your burly buddy."

Teyla sighed. "I have been hit much harder in the past, Jennifer. Gardani is -- well, let us say he is less than adept at hand-to-hand."

"I'm sure. But I want to be sure you're all right before you try anything psychic. And although we're not far from the gate out here -- "

"Jennifer, I am well."

"Are you qualified to make that decision?"

Teyla looked amused. "I should hope so, considering that I inhabit this body on a daily basis."

Jennifer puffed out a breath. "I should so pull medical emergency rank on you."

"You could." Teyla picked up her own pack. "But it would be inadvisable. May I suggest you wait until we return to Atlantis, tomorrow, to do so. We could request a jumper escort, to transport the bodies back for further study."

"Fine."

"Excellent."

"Great."

They walked in silence to Kanaan's tent, and Jennifer sighed again.

"Okay. Should I bunk with you and Kanaan tonight?"

Jennifer regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. They didn't seem to bother Teyla, who smirked and lowered her lashes -- two expressions that regularly induced two feelings in Jennifer: one, that she was still in another galaxy and completely out of her element, and two: she had never understood her own womanliness nor would she ever. Hell, hell, hell. She felt like she was back in college, too young and flat as a board versus the sorority girls and the actresses and the women in literary theory and public speaking and an-phys, the women. Self-dissection of her own physical attributes hadn't been fun ever.

Teyla was speaking, something about beds. "...and I believe Marta offered?"

"Right. Gotcha. That's fine." Jennifer liked Marta, she was straightforward and tough. She hoped that she herself had been half as strong at 18. Yeah, she doubted it. The empty jaru cup was still in her hand. Wait. Had it always been empty? "Gah. I need to eat something. Can we?"

She honestly didn't know what to think of the Athosians, as she stood with Teyla and Torren and Kanaan and a line of others, all of them balancing wooden bowls filled with mashed root and generous slabs of roast beast and thick crumbly brown bread still steaming from the hearths. It was so similar to the sort of post-funeral buffet stuffings she'd grown up with, the same sounds of appreciation and silence. Though you didn't usually see Earthers punching anyone in the head as they leaned over the casket. What the hell, seriously?

She could tell Teyla was frustrated with her. Hell, Jennifer was frustrated herself; a headache had been radiating under her eyes since they'd stepped through the gate, the unexpected bodies had been awful especially in light of their investigation, and then the Athosian custom toward suicide, and Gardani's violence, had baffled her.

No, it doesn't. Be honest with yourself. It didn't confuse her. She was a big girl, a real universe traveler. She could accept different cultures. She could accept the dangerous ritual of the young, not with any real comfort, but she could.

She could accept that suicide might be taboo here. It had been hard to look at the jagged lines and the still faces. It had been hard to look at her mother, too, with her arms hidden under blue silk -- and Dad had never said outright, never would say out loud what everyone had been thinking at the funeral, what Aunt Evelyn had started to say before the other sisters dragged her out to Irish coffee and tears in napkins and embalmed sympathy. But she couldn't look away from it or call it forbidden. It was choice. Didn't everyone, in the end, have the right to choose their life, if nothing else? Would the Athosians refuse to acknowledge one of their people who, if finding themselves cornered aboard a hive ship, stepped away from a gaping Wraith hand and into air?

No. No, she was over-interpreting, exaggerating now. Damn Pegasus hard liquor anyway. She hoped she hadn't been too offensive. She hoped -- ah, what did it matter? She'd hoped for a lot of things in this assignment. Just because something didn't come to you when you called, or didn't work out the first time...she willed her mind to shut up.

They ate and drank, and Jennifer avoided as best she could the repeated outstretched offering hands, more jaru, more dizziness. She walked back to the gate with Jinto to radio Atlantis while Teyla fixed the sleeping arrangements with Marta, and then she followed her hostess into the warm well-lit tent, ending up with a comfortable squashy cot in the corner of the main room.

Warm and silent though it was, Jennifer couldn't sleep.

She tried counting sheep, but she got lost somewhere after eight hundred and, in the ensuing irritation, realized she'd made it all the way to eight hundred with alert eyes and brain. The walls of the tents appeared to be on par with those at her last Earth apartment complex in comparison to Atlantis' sound-muffling architecture. The soft, rhythmic sighs emanating from Kanaan annd Teyla's tent were not conducive to somnolence.

The Athosians seemed to have a very oral culture. And Teyla had not recognized the phrases, though she had thought they sounded ritualistic, some of them. Could the words have been something missed throughout the years, or something the Athosians had chosen not to pass down?

She thought of Wex and the way his eyes had glazed when she touched the brand under his ear back on Atlantis. She thought of his slashed wrists, his cold blue eyelids, the strange unidentifiable smell around his body she'd passed off as Athosian funereal ritual. It was almost like sulphur. Fitting, if these Serapha things were all about fire and brimstone.

A scraping would be quick. Two minutes, tops, if she checked all the bodies.

Jennifer threw back the blankets (quietly as a guest should) and jammed her bare feet into her boots. She pulled on her jacket and grabbed her kit.

"Let's go," she murmured to herself, and then felt ridiculous for the pep talk. She stepped outside.

The night of New Athos was bitterly cold, the sky clouded and starless, and Jennifer immediately revised her opinion of Athosian tent construction. Shivering, she stepped gingerly around Marta's lampfire and onto the general path. She stomped her feet in an attempt to drive off snakes, or worse, damn her photographic memory, creepy underground squid things.

The tent with the bodies was in the middle of the settlement, and it loomed dark and unencumbered alongside its lamplit neighbors. Jennifer swallowed, and went up to the front flap. Entering the enclosure of suicides probably broke fifty Athosian taboos, and although she didn't see Gardani or any other relatives hovering around, it was pretty flipping dark.

This was really stupid. Why was she doing this?

She put her hand on the string and parted the flap, just a crack. A soft hiss of sulfurous air greeted her, and Jennifer recoiled. Come on, now. She steeled herself, flung the flap open wide, and stepped inside.

The filtered light from the neighboring tents followed her in, and Jennifer was glad, because she could see a little and it was less spooky. The bodies lay arrayed on their cots as they had been in the open air, looking shrunken and lost amidst the swathes of cloth. But something was odd. There were the cots. Bare feet poked out like they were reaching for her, but they were visible only on two of the cots. The third looked curiously flat. The air was thick and choking, but not with the smell of rotting flesh. Wex, the biggest, on the far right, looked rather humped and thicker than he had outside.

Jennifer reached into her bag for her small penlight and the Ancient knife from the infirmary, and as her fingers closed around the smooth roundness of the flashlight the humped part of Wex shivered and straightened away from his body into a separate figure: a stooped craggy shape that stayed bent over Wex's neck.

Oh sweet Jesus. Did the Athosians have grave robbers? That makes no sense, her mind chided, because these teens had nothing to steal.

"Stop right there," Jennifer said, and was surprised to hear how clear and strong her voice sounded.

The shape did not move. It was hardly visible in the murkiness, and Wex's body was furthest from the door. But the outline of the thing loomed wide and tall: taller than Jennifer, taller than Wex had been in life. She could feel it looking at her.

"I don't know what you're doing in here, but these are not your bodies." She winced as the words left her mouth. She hoped it wasn't Gardani.

The shape made a hissing, coughing sound. It sounded like choking, or a rattling old car, or -- laughing, and it did not stop, it just grew louder and more awful. Jennifer could feel perspiration starting under her arms. Not Gardani. What the hell was it? The smell...

"Look, I'm not afraid of you," she said.

And it stopped making the noises, and it drew itself up in a smooth graceful flow like water. She could see now that it had eyes. They were cold pale things, milky and dull as buttons on a coat, and all the hair pricked up on Jennifer's arms and the back of her neck. She let go of the flashlight and felt around for the knife. Her fingers found it and gripped the hilt, but she couldn't draw it out of the bag. Her hand wouldn't move properly. The thing flowed around Wex's bare feet, trailing a hand -- or arm, or whatever it was over the pallid ankles.

Holy shit get out get out and she ripped the knife out of her bag and held it up as she eased back toward the door flap, toward the lights. The thing stopped and pulled back.

"Stay where you are." Her hand was shaking. God. Never mind. Get out and get some backup, anyone. "Stay." Her foot hit the tent flap and before Jennifer could react, it fluttered closed, cloaking her in complete darkness.

She could hear it breathing. She could still see its eyes like little sunspots, lit without the aid of firelight. The choking stench of sulfur insinuated into her nose and mouth and throat. She gasped for breath.

It muttered something at her, and for a second Jennifer's fear dropped away. "That's Ancient."

There was a sudden soft crawling sound. The odor of sulfur and ash intensified to a truly unbearable level, and Jennifer felt light, flaky bits powdering her face. She looked up. The roof of the tent was ablaze.

Then with a whump, the white-hot fire rippled down and enveloped the grave cots.

The heat blasted against her, and she tried to hold her breath as she flung herself back. Jennifer clawed at the door flap. The tent walls were igniting like paper, and the canvas and leather smoked under her scrabbling fingers. The thing was still in front of her -- she could still see it looking at her -- but as in the blackness, she still couldn't see it. It blended and blurred into the rage of flame and heat like it was burning with the tent.

The roof was going to fall in and kill her, smother her. Her lungs ached. The knife was gone somewhere. The flap would not part. The cloth burnt her hand. The smells of burning flesh and hair and fabric were thick in her nostrils, and she tore at the door flap, got it open even as sparks rained sizzling into her scalp and her hair caught fire.

As she lurched out a blistering iron grip caught her ankle. Jennifer fell hard on her face. There was cold dirt in her mouth, dirt on her chin, her legs were trapped, trapped, she could feel them burning. Someone was screaming. Oh good, they all woke up. Maybe someone would come and knock her out, or hell, maybe lay her down so she could finally go to sleep. No, idiot, stay awake. Who else is going to fix you but you?

She felt a hard jerk on her ankle, and shrieked at the pain. She could feel its fingers on her, trickling flame over her and through her, and who cared if it didn't have hands? It had something. It was -- she was -- oh, hell --

And then there was a cool grip on Jennifer's arm, and it yanked her out of the fire, wrenching her ankle in the process. She howled. The pain and the light went away for a moment, and then she was looking up into Teyla's clear brown gaze.

"Teyla."

"I have you. Remain calm -- "

"Oh. That's good. Just make it let go, huh?" She gestured at the thing, but when she looked down she only saw her boots and long twin trails her feet had left in the dirt as Teyla dragged her. Her boots were smoking. She wished she couldn't feel her feet. She tried to organize her thoughts. Ow. Did my brain burn? Teyla's mouth was moving. She struggled to hear. Teyla was kinda...naked. Damn it. Some restful evening. This was...embarrassing...

"...bag...any painkillers?"

Jennifer tried to shift. "Under me. My bag. Teyla."

"Do not try to talk."

"Teyla -- it was, I think -- I saw it. Serapha."

Teyla frowned down at her. The grave tent collapsed in on itself. The fire roared, a huge, hungry orange blur in her rapidly dimming vision. It sounded, Jennifer thought as she passed out, like glee.


****


Teyla cradled Keller's head in her lap. Halling knelt beside her and she handed him the small snub-nosed scissors.

"Be careful. They are sharper than they look. Jinto?"

"Gone for the Ring to radio Atlantis. Marta with him." Halling bent his head and cut at Keller's sleeves. "We will have to get her leggings off as well."

"Let me do that." Teyla gently pulled the cloth apart. "Go and wake Thet. Have her bring compresses, water and herbs. We have no guarantee how quickly Atlantis will respond to our summons, so we must keep her stable."

She took a deep breath and focused on the burns (Keller's -- Jennifer's burns), and then on the remedies and the careful removal of more clothing and gentle applications to the wounds, and the next thing she knew there was a hand on her bare shoulder -- John Sheppard. Ronon was there behind him, and some infirmary techs coming out of the jumper parked in the middle of the settlement. She had no idea how much time had passed. Worse, there was a niggling feeling deep in her gut that she had missed something, something critical. What?

"Come on now." John helped her up and away so that the techs could ease Keller onto their stretcher. He was studiously avoiding looking at her. Ronon, on the other hand, gave her an appreciative, one-sided grin that made her want to remind him just how unnecessary clothing was to her ability to knock him out. But then Kanaan came up beside her with his sleep robe held out in one hand and her clothes neatly bundled up in the other. She slipped her arms into the soft brown sleeves, and willed herself to stay in the moment.

One of the techs placed an oxygen mask over Keller's mouth and nose, and Ronon shifted closer.

"Stupid," John said. He looked angry and tired. "I wasn't needed for jumper duty, not really. Should've come along."

"You are here now," Teyla said. "That is all that matters. And Rodney?"

"Cleaning up the last of the problems in the city systems. Nothing too serious. He thinks we finally have a handle on things." John scrubbed at his face and left a streak of ash on his forehead. "Woolsey's using the down time to help with the Serapha research."

"He wants you to report as soon as we get back," Ronon said. He kept his gaze on Keller and his hands in his pockets.

"After you go to the infirmary for your head," John added.

Teyla touched the forgotten wilting bandage. "Now? But surely -- "

Ronon shrugged. "I know. But I don't think he has any plans to sleep. And hey, it's not like you're going to. I know I'm not."

"On one, two, three -- we need to go now, Colonel."

The techs lifted the stretcher and hurried past them into the jumper. Ronon half-turned to follow it, shook himself, and then stooped to pick up Keller's forgotten pack.

A pack -- her pack that she had brought -- was pressed into her hands, and Teyla turned to see Kanaan again. His hair was mussed and ridiculous.

"Where is Torren?"

"He is still asleep." Kanaan squeezed her shoulder. "I know you must go back. Help her. I will keep investigating here and radio you should anyone else become...infected with this madness."

"Be careful," she said. "I will be back."

"I can only hope." He gave her a sad, ironic little smile. "We will be waiting." He turned and walked back toward his tent without embracing her.

Do not think on it, she told herself, suppressing the hurt that threatened to boil up. Later. Later. The fire was dwindling, but the heat still made her head ache. She embraced Thet, Jinto and Marta, and let Halling stoop down last to touch her forehead with his.

"I will be back tomorrow," she said.

Halling frowned. "Is that wise? Your injury, and Dr. Keller --"

"What a foolish question." Teyla smiled to take the bite out of her words. "At first light. You need not send anyone to greet me."
Part 3 by
3.

"Teyla, are you prepared to give back the blood of the Ancestors?"

She is standing in front of the fire, before Charin and the rest of her clan who sit circled around like children. She holds a bulky something in each hand, and she can feel the weight of her dagger -- her first, she remembers, the one that Tagan forged for her -- heavy at her waist belt. In fact, the entire scene is so familiar she can almost taste it, the smell of burnt wood, the night breeze shushing through the trees, the heat of the fire and her own nervous sweat. But despite all these details, despite that Teyla remembers sitting around the fire during the approach to the ordeal...Teyla does not remember this moment.

"Teyla." Charin scowls at her, her lip protruding like a petulant child's. "You promised to go through the ordeal. You must rest your hand on every head. When the Ancients finally trapped them with the power, they were as dead."

"Yes," Teyla says, but she does not remember promising, either. "But I am afraid -- I am sorry -- I do not remember the words."

Her handfuls are so heavy, she can barely hold her arms up. The bundle in her right hand squirms. But she must not drop it.

"You are exceedingly naughty," Charin says, "and you will be punished for it. The Serapha coveted it and were caught, but they could not live in there. You should not live there, either."

"Thirty whacks with a wet noodle," Keller pipes up incomprehensibly from where she is crouching at Teyla's right. Her hair is shorn close to her scalp in asymmetrical patches. She looks apologetic for speaking. "Or they might just live with you for a bit. They like you. I think. They don't like me. The faces. They change."

"I'm sorry," Teyla says. As she speaks the fire flares up and reaches out to encompass her clan, Charin, and Jennifer Keller. There is no screaming. No one runs or rolls. Instead they all turn to give Teyla their full attention as the flames lick their faces, and they grin at her with razor-edged, rapidly blackening teeth. Together they are heads of a monster, with long snaky necks and white hot eyes. In the blaze, she can finally see what she is holding: in one hand, a strange chunk of metal that glints and reflects the flames. In the other, a wriggling mound of flesh, smaller than a human baby, hot and indistinct in her palm. It has flickering limbs, a face, rippling stalks of hair instead of babyfine whorls.

The thing opens its eyes and stares at her with molten fire, burning into her eyes, her skull, her will. She cannot look away, and it knows, and it shows her things no child would know or see, even in the Pegasus galaxy. It smiles at her horror, and laps it up. Teyla presses her palms together, and the babything screams and screams.

Jennifer sighs, flames dancing around her neck. "Well, you tell me. It's your galaxy. I'm just visiting."



Teyla came back to herself at the infirmary operating theater doors. She wobbled, and straightened before she pitched forward. Her head was throbbing, and her neck felt inflamed. Perhaps she had better follow Keller's instructions and have the infirmary staff scan her for head trauma. Her arms ached, and she clenched her hands to reassure herself of their emptiness.

The doors slid open before she could make herself enter, and Marie came out, stripping off her gloves.

"Ms. Emmagen? I thought Dr. Cole had radioed about Jennifer's condition."

She could not remember. "I - how is she?"

"Stable. Has been for some time now. They moved her into the main ward about an hour ago." Marie gave her a perplexed look before continuing. "The worst burns were on her feet, but the dermal regenerator, it's a great tool. She seems to be healing well. You can see her, but she's still unconscious and we've got her on a steady stream of pain meds."

Teyla nodded. Marie gave her another funny look, but her comm beeped and she strode back the way she had come. Teyla slipped into the recovery room.

Keller lay unmoving under a blue sheet that someone had pulled up under her chin. Her hair was singed and uneven. Her feet, covered by a rectangular Ancient device and swathed in white bandages, poked out the end of the bed; Teyla could not look at them very long without thinking of New Athos. She managed to put aside the images of Wex, Liaya and -- who was the third? She had never verified with Kanaan or Halling the identity of the third victim. She could still see the face, stark in its unfamiliarity.

In spite of the beeping machines, she drew back the sheet and felt for Jennifer's pulse on her tiny wrist. It was there.

-- Of course it is, Jennifer chided her.

Do not speak so lightly, the hut was an inferno.

-- Um, hello, I was there.

And you are speaking to me. Teyla glanced at the monitors. And you are still unconscious. Well. This is unexpected yet typical.

-- Ha. I guess. So much for psychic preparation. Could it have something to do with your Wraith telepathy? Or something similar? Agh I'm so hot. And I really can't feel my feet, which is a little freaky. Do I still have feet? And my hair...

There was a whispering threading through and under Jennifer's voice like background noise. Teyla strained to hear (it felt odd to do so psychically) and was surprised to hear Ancient. She could not imagine the syllables, and she did not understand the words.

-- It's them. I don't know what it means, though. Why would these things speak Ancient?

I do not know. All right. You are fine, apart from the fact that we are communicating this way. But I must ask you --

Woolsey's crisp voice popped in her earpiece. "Teyla, respond."

-- What is it? You're fading away. Don't leave me. Please.

"Yes, I am here."

-- What's going on?

"I've been radioing you since you got back for debriefing." Woolsey sounded impatient. "We're expecting your assistance and any new information you may have on our mystery guests."

"I apologize." Teyla looked down at Jennifer's still face. A moment. Remain calm, I will return. She dropped Jennifer's wrist.

-- Teyl --

It felt like a thread snapping. She was vaguely aware of Woolsey requesting her presence in the control room, and responding, and then the radio squawked and shrilled a high whine in her ear.

"Hello?"

All across the infirmary, nurses and patients winced and scrabbled at their ears. Then the lights buzzed and clicked off, bathing them in the auxiliary overheads. The wall panels groaned, and the weak blue light faded, covering them in darkness.

"Specs!" someone yelled.

There were rustlings and flicking sounds, and tiny lights -- surgical glasses -- winked on all across the room.

"Now, flashlights are -- "

" -- no -- "

"Generators -- in the back closet -- "

" -- get someone from Science here now, something's spitting out of this conduit -- "

Teyla forced the door open with the help of two burly nurses, and ran for the control room.


****


"Report!" Woolsey shouted. He stepped back as Rodney bulled past him and yanked a plate of crystals out of Chuck's console. The klaxon had been jangling for a few minutes now, and Woolsey could hardly hear himself think.

"I don't have anything to report," Rodney yelled back. "We've been been having glitches, sure, okay, mountains of glitches, but we've cleared everything. All systems were clean this evening. Honestly -- this shouldn't be happening!"

A spray of sparks erupted from the overhang. Woolsey ducked and felt a chunk of something sear into his neck.

"Ow!" Rodney clapped a hand against his throat. "We're all going to die."

Zelenka charged into the fray and dived under the console. "Rodney, here, help me."

Rodney muttered something, but he flung himself into the mess beside Zelenka. Chuck and Amelia were working feverishly to thread a naquadah generator into the core of the console. Simpson pushed Stackhouse away from a smoking wall panel. With no warning, the computer suddenly turned talkative and chirped a long cheerful garble of Ancient, English and French. Woolsey struggled to hear and caught a few words.

"...will self-destruct in two mathemalics, Serapha, Serapha, twenty-two, cursed, forty-four, eighty-"

"Just what we need, a blitzed Ancient Majel," Rodney yelled across the room.

"Why is it saying Serapha?" Woolsey yelled back. The ceiling overhang emitted another blast, and he ducked. "Where the hell's Colonel Sheppard?"

"Here." Sheppard stood beside him, panting, his face pale and eyes unfocused. "Woolsey, you're bleeding, you should get to the infirmary -- "

"Never mind that now. Where's Teyla? She was supposed to report here with you and Ronon, give us new info about this threat."

"I don't know." Sheppard frowned. "I. Shit, I can't remember. I know we left to get her on New Athos." He tapped at his radio.

"No good, the comm system's down. Sheppard, you returned from New Athos over an hour ago."

"I did? I don't know how I got here." Now Sheppard was wandering dreamily away from him, toward the DHD console.

"Colonel? What's wrong?" Woolsey reached for him with a blood-stained hand, and hissed at the pain in his neck.

"Feels funny in here, too hot..." He waded in amidst Rodney and Zelenka and the crazy loops of console wires.

"What the? Hey, ow, damn it, John," Rodney shouted from somewhere underneath. "Warn me, warn me when you're thinking at things!"

"And me," Zelenka said, blowing on his fingers.

"Many thanks and peace be among you," the Ancient Majel chimed, and the alarms cut out.

Woolsey let out a breath. His neck had stopped burning, it more itched now. He pressed his hand against the spot, but it felt odd, like the wound had crusted over already.

Chuck crawled up to his station and began poking buttons. "We should have the radio network back in a minute or so, Mr. Woolsey."

"Jesus." Rodney stood up and attempted to dust off his pants. "So, what was that, Radek? Some weird feedback through the naquadah backups you were experimenting with today? I know we allow for all the usual deadly consequences, ha ha -- "

Zelenka crossed his arms. "Yes, yes, yes, I was testing. But this is not my fault."

"Who else was messing around with the naquadah generators all day? This has to be generator related! I refuse to -- Sheppard, what are you doing?"

Sheppard had put a hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Don't move." He frowned.

"Don't move? No time, John, sorry -- when I said deadly consequences I wasn't exactly kidding. I know I made the throwaway ha-ha and all, but seriously, Zelenka and I have to go --"

"Rodney. Your neck. It's steaming." Sheppard sounded worried now.

A searing burn pressed into Woolsey's neck, and he jerked his hand away. "What the -- "

All around him the techs and soldiers and scientists were yelling and holding their necks and bleeding and just how in the hell did everyone get injured in the exact same place?

"Don't worry," Rodney stammered, his hand clenched to his neck. "We're fine. Jennifer, er, Dr. Keller is here."

"Always a treat, Atlantis," Woolsey muttered. "Who wouldn't want this job?" He felt a heavy rush of blazing heat, and then nothing at all.


****


Teyla sprinted around the final corner and into the gate room. It was a remarkable relief to see everyone standing, to see Woolsey white-faced but calm as ever and directing Sheppard and some soldiers, to hear Rodney speaking in a rising, panicked voice --

Well, it was somewhat relieving.

-- Of course it is.

Jennifer. How did --

-- I don't know. You left, and I just sorta -- reached somehow. And then rode along with you. You shouldn't have left me, you know.

That is not precisely the truth. I was speaking with Woolsey and he expected me to report to the gate room. And this is dangerous. We do not know enough about our -- communicating.

-- Granted. I read the report about the experience between Laura Cadman and Rodney, when Rodney and I were dating, you know.

Yes. So you will know they did not enjoy the sharing of his mind. And it had extremely negative physical consequences which you as a doctor should consider a priority.

-- But I don't think we're sharing a consciousness.

No? How do you explain your presence with me now?


Jennifer did not answer immediately. When she did, her voice sounded smaller.

-- Er. I have a really long reach? Or maybe you do? You're pretty advanced telepathically, for a human, with that spoonful of Wraith heritage. Are you feeling bad or ill at all?

"No," Teyla said as sternly as she could, "I have no discomfort with our method of communication."

-- Nausea, dizziness, maybe blurring or distortion of vision --

"Jennifer, I am well!"

"Jennifer?" Woolsey was beside her, and Teyla winced. "Teyla, who are you talking to?"

-- Okay, maybe I am in your head. I don't know how. But I feel a little disembodied. Maybe we shouldn't tell him yet.

Teyla huffed out a breath. "Due to an as-yet unexplained occurrence, Dr. Keller and I are somehow communicating telepathically. And she is still unconscious."

-- Damn it, Teyla. I was serious!

"All right," Woolsey said. He squinted at her. "You think Keller is still unconscious?"

"As far as I am aware, yes." There was something about the hunched set of Woolsey's shoulders that nagged at Teyla, and she touched his arm. "Are you well?"

Woolsey sighed. "Let's just say I might not fight a transfer out of this place." He smiled and patted Teyla's hand with his own. They had clearly been battered about up here: Woolsey was covered in soot, and his fingers were stained dark. His fingers...Teyla sucked in her breath. Her own fingers also were stained.

"What's wrong?" Woolsey turned to face her, and the black brand stood out against his neck.

-- Oh shit shit shitfields.

"When did you acquire that mark?" Teyla asked.

Woolsey's eyes flashed. It was brief, but it was enough to warn her. "What mark?"

Rodney stepped up. "Woolsey, you need to check these reports, not that I missed anything -- " and the mark was on him, too: stark and cut deep into the flesh of his neck, a leaf, an eye, a flame.

A flame. Fire.

-- Oh my god, Teyla. It's feeding on us. That's what that means.

We cannot know that for certain, only that is is inhabiting us. Did we bring the Serapha back with us? Or were they here all along?

-- Oh my god oh my god. I don't know.

The Burnt Ones, in Charin's stories. But I never. It was a fable. Stories. And we never saw them, or learned how to defend against them.

-- Crap. Of course not. And nothing out here is just a fable. Ships are alive and eat you. Freaky aliens suck out your life. The only way we'd know something was just a story was if it was totally boring and harmless.


"You mean the cut?" Woolsey asked. "Some of the ceiling fell on me."

"What's the problem?" John slouched up beside Rodney. The brand on his neck was heavy, the skin surrounding it angry and red.

"You have marks like brands on your necks." Teyla scanned the rest of the gate room. "All of you." She turned back to see them frowning at her. "What is it?"

- -We told them about the brands, in the briefing. Why aren't they worried?

"You see a brand on Rodney's neck?" Woolsey asked. "And on John's -- and mine?"

"Yes." She watched as they examined each other. John rubbed at the brand and shook his head apologetically. Rodney started surreptitiously scanning her with a life-signs detector.

"Teyla," Woolsey said. He stopped, and lifted his hands. "I don't know what to say. But I have to consider Dr. Keller's medical report."

This was unexpected. Teyla raised her eyebrows.

"She forwarded her medical report from your trip to New Athos, and she mentioned that you got a crack on the head."

"I am fine."

"She also said that you refused to let her examine you." Woolsey had a sympathetic look on his face. "Teyla, look. I know how you feel."

"Do you?" There was a crackling undercurrent to the air.

"Yes," Woolsey smiled. "I hate the infirmary. Can't abide all the poking and prodding, despite the necessary evils of an annual checkup. But Dr. Keller is the chief medical officer and although she's young and well, sometimes overly eager, she's in charge."

-- Hey! But, yeah, that's right.

Teyla swallowed. "I understand. It is just that -- "

"In fact, she came out of her coma about an hour ago. She got up here a little while ago, and she's been helping out. She's still concerned that you're experiencing symptoms of a concussion or worse head trauma. And I have to say, given what you've just told me about hearing voices, she may be right."

-- Wait. What?

"Oh, here she is." Woolsey turned, and Jennifer Keller was there, coming down the stairs behind them.

"Teyla," she smiled. It was perfect: hesitant, professionally distant but with that straightforward Jennifer Keller sweetness. Her collar was turned up high around her neck. Teyla felt a cold chill in her stomach, and smiled back.

"I'd like it, that is," the Keller thing said, "I'd appreciate it if you'd come with me to the infirmary now."

-- Ho. Lee. Shit. I don't have to tell you that's not me, do I? Teyla? Do I?

No. You do not.


"I understand." Teyla started back toward the corridor, breathing deeply to focus herself, her racing thoughts, her reflexes. It was not important right at this moment to discover the truth of things. Escape was the only priority. If they stopped her from leaving the control room -- no, relax, relax, do not let them see. She relaxed and readied herself. "I must ask, however: do you think you are sufficiently recovered from your accident to resume control of the Atlantis infirmary?"

"Dr. Cole examined me. Said I was fine." The Keller thing gave her another winsome smile. "She can tell you all about it while we're scanning your head."

-- God, this is creepy.

Teyla suppressed a shudder. "All right."

They walked out past some technicians hurrying into the gate room. Teyla turned the corner into the corridor, and then she hauled back and punched the thing in the face.

"Wha -- ow!" The Keller thing stumbled hard against the wall. Teyla shook her fist -- her knuckles were hot. She swept the legs of the thing. As it dropped, she followed it down and rolled it onto its belly. It was hot, so hot. How could Jennifer's body -- or any of their bodies -- hold this much heat and not burst into flame? She folded the struggling arms up behind the Keller's back until it yowled.

-- Okay. Okay! While I'm not in there right now, that IS my body. Don't mess it up.

"Please do not distract me." Teyla plucked the radio out of the thing's ear and pocketed it. She could see everything very clearly. Every decision, every motion felt relaxed and automatic now that the first danju blade was flung. The Keller flung itself upward convulsively, and Teyla placed her foot in the small of its back.

"No! Teyla, what are you doing -- it's me -- "

Teyla twisted her foot. The Keller screamed.

-- I'm serious, damn it. Dr. Cole is godawful at reconstructive facial surgeries. Do you think I should I try to. Um. Go back into myself?

"No." Teyla knelt on the struggling arms and wriggled out of her jacket. She wrapped it around the Keller's head. She wondered, idly, if it would start to smoke.

-- But I don't know how long I can last in here with you. You know?

"Stay with me. Rodney and Laura were connected for a few days. Let us -- how do you say -- beat them?"

-- Yeah.

Teyla snorted. "So, to best, or to strike them physically? Ambiguous language is a hallmark of your people. And you think my culture is primitive." She bound the thing's wrists with zip-ties and dragged her into the transporter. The control panel slid open, and she shoved the thing down and looked at the the layout grid. Rodney had showed her, once, twice, there -- that small section there. She tapped it twice, and when the box denoting the transporter enlarged on the screen, she pressed the blue lock down tab.

-- I...I do not.

Teyla sighed. She felt very warm. "I apologize. Now is not the time to have this conversation."

-- Well. I might think we're more technologically advanced. We have lots of problems and violence on Earth, lots of awful wars...

The Keller in the corner huffed and steam shot out from under the jacket.

-- Okay. But we can't all be Jean-Luc Picard and men and women and aliens working together in diplomatic harmony, you know?

"From what I have seen of that program," Teyla said, "it is hardly a sterling example of your planet's open-mindedness."

There was silence in her head. Her knuckles ached, and the tiny transporter room felt too hot and close. The discussion could wait until she and Jennifer were face to face again, although she doubted, somehow, that either of them would instigate one. She tapped her earpiece.

"Frequency alpha four niner, please. Ronon, come in."

"That frequency is denied," Woolsey said over her radio. "You can't hide, Teyla. We've got teams closing in your location now. So why not -- "

Teyla clicked off and cursed.

-- Ronon's probably just as possessed -- as infected as the rest of them.

"But he was not in the control room. We cannot assume the reach of this thing."

-- Exactly.

"Also the infirmary staff seemed to be unaffected."

-- Yeah, because they let my recently-comatose body walk out. Real unaffected.

"You are the chief medical officer, Jennifer. I am sure you told them you were in charge."

Teyla tried to concentrate. Even now, as she tried to pin down the memory of Charin's face, the firelight, the trees of Athos, long lost star systems away. It all slipped away like hot fat in the pan. Heavy, suffocating heat. The Serapha -- the Burnt Ones, how to defeat them? There was something about glowing metal, about cylinders of light and screams of pain...but she could not touch it, like she could not touch the Wraith part of her except in dreams, until --

Teyla took off her overshirt and stripped it into rags with her knife.

-- Um. What now?

"I want to meditate. And I am not doing anything until this thing is tied up properly."

-- Can I, um, help somehow?

"I do not know." She tied up the Keller and then got to work, loosening the strings on her undershirt and on the waistband of her pants. She unlaced her boots. She was sweating by the time she finished. The air in the transporter smelled fouled, thick. She went to the control panel again and brought up the environmental controls. According to the screen, the filters were functioning at normal levels. Teyla breathed as deeply as she dared. Kneeling, she arranged herself in the corner opposite the Keller. There were harsh rasping sounds coming from under the jacket now.

-- I feel dizzy. The feeling of Jennifer in her head became frantic and batted against the edges of her consciousness.

"I do as well." Teyla tried to center herself, to lock out sound and sensation.

The thing rasped. She gritted her teeth and willed herself not to be drawn, to focus, focus, focus, breathe, air, breathe. She sat for interminable moments. She thought of nothing, and finally she felt Jennifer-in-her-head gentle and relax with her, think with her, fill her mind with more soothing sights and sounds: thoughts of a landscape of rolling green hills, the sweetish smell of manure

What is manure, Jennifer?

-- Cow shit.

Oh. Excrement.


the firm rough roundess of a fence post, the feel of a tree branch against her hand like none she had ever seen before -- long and sweeping with soft bunches of green needles instead of leaves, a hedge of many such trees following the land, a house, rippling creek dog bark breeze breeze sweet barn grass

Too fast.

-- Sorry. It's just. I miss it.


She was in a room warm with yellow sunlight. The walls were painted a pale yellow, too. The windows were solid and clear against her fingers, simple glass, not like the Ancestor's work. There were wide wooden surfaces piled with cloth and sticky bowls and strange shiny devices, and a ceramic bowl of Earth fruit, bananas, pushed off to one side. The air smelled like baking bread, but sweeter, like chocolate too. A pile of cookies sat on a platter atop a central wooden block. They were the source of the smell, and also the strange thread of comfort woven throughout the scene.

Better. Where are we?

-- Um. My grandma's farm outside of Tilden. That's in Wisconsin, too. I went there after my mother, um. Died. She made the best cookies, oatmeal chocolate chip. Is it helping? Are you able to --


The thing made a rattling sound like all of its teeth were coming loose. Teyla was jerked out of the rush of peaceful imagery and into a blaze of fire, the walls of the warm safe room blackening and peeling away, the bowls and fruit and windows melting and cold so cold and pressure crushing her bones into strips and then heat, joyous heat. Jennifer was howling in her head. She looked into a blurring pale face. It ghosted past her.

Gasping, she pulled herself out of the vision. There was a vague suggestion of pounding on the other side of the transporter doors.

"There is nothing in this city that will help you. It is anathema to us." The Keller did not sound remotely like Jennifer anymore. Its voice was low and harsh and wrecked by fire.

"Then why are you here?" Teyla asked.

-- Should we be talking to it?

"What else do you suggest we do?" The pounding outside was getting ominously louder. "I do not -- I do not know what to do next. I do not know how to fight this." Her hands were empty. Her options were empty, lost.

"Yessss." The jacket shifted. Then the thing reached around and bared its head, the plastic zip-ties and overshirt rags singed and smoking off it. It no longer wore Keller's face, but its own: the face of the third dead youth, blurred, pale, bright as a white-hot coal. "Good, good."

"Serapha."

-- WHERE THE HELL DID MY BODY GO

Jennifer's words slipped out Teyla's lips and the thing laughed. "Where it has always been, asleep in that sickbed. There is no use in possessing a powerless form. But I can play and pretend."

"Tricksters," Teyla ground out. "Not gods. Not human. But how can this be its true form? In my vision, it was like a many-headed snake."

-- Okay. But that was another vision. Wait, when did that happen?

"There are supposed to be more of them." Teyla tensed herself. This was a small space, but she had fought in smaller. The air was chokingly thick. "Many faces, many guises. But I think -- yes. I can sense it now."

-- You can? Sense what?

"It is alone." It was like tracking a spark through the night. She could see it, perhaps because it had shed the false Keller skin. There was only one spark in all of Atlantis, and it was here in the transporter with her. Teyla hoped fervently that this meant that John and Rodney and all the others were all right, that they had not taken guns or blades to themselves like the Athosians.

-- Oh god oh god I didn't think of that.

"I can see you are an intelligent strong one." The Serapha regarded her with those burnt white eyes. "We will tell you the truth. We need form. You may be our body. You must fight for us as we journey through the galaxy together, sharing your body."

"What."

-- Seriously. Getting less sense than more here.

The Serapha shook its steaming head in impatience, or was it confusion? Teyla felt a press of heat against her neck, against the back of her head. She ran her fingers over the skin of her neck, and to her horror, felt a raised ridged mark. "Jennifer!"

-- How long has that been there?

"I do not know."

-- But it hasn't possessed you.

"No talking now," the Serapha trumpeted. "We must get to the main reactor. Save the princess."

-- Okay, now it's sounding like Star Wars.

"I agree." Teyla's eyes were itchy and painful and wanted to close. She could curl up under the heaviness in the air. Perhaps unconsciousness was the only sensible way to deal with an energy monster. "It is not comfortable here. The Serapha were enemies of the Ancients, we know, but why? We know they could not abide the city, yet they were here. This one was here, went to New Athos, and came back here again."

"We did not leave," the thing said. "They sank the City and left us in darkness. I woke when we entered the Sol system. They had scrabbled in the dirt for centuries when we found them and gave them the fire!"

-- Maybe it's crazy. It sounds...confused. Maybe there's only enough room in your head for one extra. I don't know. Are you okay?

Teyla shook her head. The metal was burning her palm, glowing against her flesh, such a bright glow, such colors.

-- No no no. You have to be okay. You're always okay. Get us out of here, will you?

Teyla levered herself up and went to the transporter's terminal screen.

"Get away from there. I am all that will save you. If you don't do what we say, I may eat you." The Serapha licked its steaming lips. "The young ones were so bright, so fresh, but you will be more filling."

Teyla thought of her vision of the babything and curious liquid metal in her other palm, and the screams. The colors, a cylinder of light, could it be a ZPM? "No," she said. "I do not think you could."

She slapped the location for the ZPM room. The transporter hummed, and the Serapha keened horribly.

She was not sure. She hoped it was right. "We are enclosed in Atlantis material here. We can hardly breathe for your ash and soot, but you can hardly breathe surrounded so closely. And the initial malfunctions were set off by the failure of a ZPM, yet the other ZPMs were untouched by your meddlings. So we will pay the heart of this city a visit." Please, let it be right.

The Serapha rushed the display screen, knocking Teyla over with a sizzling hot press against her flesh, but the doors slid open. Teyla got her feet under her, pulled the thing into the ZPM room and threw it against the console. Her arms blazed with pain, and Jennifer shrieked in her head. The transporter doors snicked closed -- hurry, hurry, they'll be here any minute -- in a haze of pain she reached over and keyed the sequence for removing the ZPMs, and when the computer beeped at her she entered Rodney's old password, was that her or Jennifer?

-- Strange that he never changed it, huh.

and then the Serapha laid its molten faded hands on Teyla's neck. She was being scalded.

-- Teyla! Teyla --

She could not move. Her heart beat double-time, as if it could escape from her body.

-- You have to --

"I cannot." The Serapha was laughing in her face, its breath sweet and strong and smelling of freshly seared meat. She could feel the skin on her neck loosening hurting sinking. It was excruciating. It was going to consume her. Her arms fell to her sides as the ruined ZPM cylinder slid up from the console, still glittering dimly despite its burnt-out uselessness.

-- YOU HAVE TO -- and then Jennifer pushed Teyla's arms up, Jennifer scrabbled for the cylinder, Jennifer clawed it out of the mount, Jennifer lifted it and pushed and Teyla could only watch as the ZPM sank into the thing's chest like a blade into dough. The ZPM pulsed once, and then lit in a spreading beacon that made the Serapha's light look feeble, a coal sparking in the sand far from the fire pit.

The Serapha opened its mouth and eyes wide, and disappeared without a sound.

The ZPM cylinder was still in her hands. It glowed with power, but she could not feel the weight. Jennifer held it.

And then Rodney and John and Woolsey and Zelenka and whoever else they had managed to cram into the transporter burst into the room, and Rodney had an apoplectic fit and wrestled the ZPM away, and Zelenka took it away from him and slapped him smartly, and John took one look and trained his gun at the floor instead of at Teyla.

"We're okay," he said. "It was bad, weird. We've got all these blanks in memory -- I don't remember anything after the computer started talking. But I came out of it, and you and Keller were gone, I think. Except that it wasn't Keller."

Teyla shook her head. She wanted to pass out.

He holstered the gun and patted her shoulder carefully. It still hurt her, a little. "You okay? Your neck looks bad. There's a medical team on the way, maybe you should -- "

Teyla let him lower her into a sitting position. Peripherally, she heard Rodney say something, but there was no answer inside her head.

Jennifer?

-- I ... I'm here.

Oh. I am glad. Are you all right?

-- I don't know. I think so. God. That really hurt, didn't it.

Yes. But you did it.

-- Yeah, I did. Um. But how did I do it?




Epilogue

"That's the first time I've heard of a zero-point-module being used as a bug zapper." John cradled the glowing cylinder in his hands and passed it to Zelenka, who reinserted it into place.

"Serapha," Rodney said, his face bleached calm again by the computer screen. He tapped furiously away at the keyboard, and Teyla rubbed her temples against the noise of clattering keys. "The links were destroyed, but I, er, we, Radek and I eventually traced the files. They were energy entities, true. But they were also a key component in some of the ZPMs manufactured here in Atlantis."

"You're kidding," John said. He leaned over Rodney's shoulder and poked at the screen. "Look, a picture. Would've been nice to find these logs before the creature feature."

Rodney batted at his hand, but it looked half-hearted. "Yeah. Anyway, just another chapter in the standard Ancient Questionable Ethics and Morals manual. And the Serapha were an endangered species. If we're to believe the logs in the containment chamber, this was the last of its kind."

"This was the last one? You're sure of that?" Woolsey was touching his neck surreptitiously. "And will these marks go away anytime soon?"

"Well, probably, no, and probably not." Rodney scowled. "And more importantly, I have no idea whether or not these things are merely disintegrated by ZPMs, or if they were augmenting the power, or if there's something else going on. Maybe they're imprisoned inside it, a key ingredient to the way it works -- "

"Also we have no idea how it escaped," Zelenka said, pushing up his glasses. "Something to consider with all the ZPMs in use around Pegasus and back in the Milky Way, perhaps."

"Lovely," Woolsey sighed.

It is anathema to us, the Serapha hissed in Teyla's memory. Horrible, sad. Her head throbbed. "It was mad." She shifted to keep the cold compress still against her neck.

"God, I should think so," Rodney said. "A being with that much power to jump around through the galaxy, trapped in a ZPM cylinder...madness by claustrophobia, maybe? According to the logs it was a single entity, but able to present itself in many different places, or with many ... faces." He looked superbly annoyed with the rhyme. "Similar to the Hydra, maybe?"

"It's the same old Ancient chicken and the egg -- did they crib from Earth mythology or did we crib it all from them?" Woolsey shook his head. "I'm going back up to the control room. Keep me informed."

The transporter doors swished open then, and Chuck came in with a stack of laptops. "I'm not sure which one belongs to who. When we all passed out up there, well, some stuff got knocked around."

Rodney glared at the battered casings. "Great. It's not enough that we look like we all got drunk and failed at Pegasus cattle-branding."

"These marks? Who cares?" Chuck laughed. "I think it looks cool."

"You would. In the future, please spare me your notion of tall, dark and dangerous..."

Woolsey coughed. Zelenka rolled his eyes. John kept darting slitty-eyed glances at Rodney's neck, and then fiddling with his thigh holster. And Teyla felt an urgent need for stronger painkillers.


*****


-- Thanks for walking me back.

"It is nothing. I admit I needed further attention." Teyla sat down in the chair beside Jennifer's still form, untouched and peaceful and safe in the hospital bed. She had worried. Well, she had worried as much as she could with her neck buried in bandages and her nerves comfortably dulled. "But I am concerned about your ability to, ah, rejoin yourself?"

-- I'm a little nervous about that, too. After all, this really isn't the same as getting mashed together in a beaming accident.

"Perhaps it is safer." Teyla tried to sound encouraging. "I can try to guide you, if you would like."

-- Okay.

Teyla settled herself in the chair, and closed her eyes.

She was back again in the warm sunlit room with the yellow walls and the smell of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. She could feel Jennifer's sheepish smile forming on her own lips.

-- Sorry.

Do not be. It is quite pleasant.

Silence.

-- It's kind of - well, it used to be my place. You know.

A refuge.

-- Yeah.

It still can be.

-- Kinda hard to reconcile that with all the burning. But yeah. Maybe. I could show you how to make those cookies sometime. Later. If we get some fresh eggs in the next shipment, or from around Pegasus.

I would like that.
Cookie baking, Teyla thought. It could be conducive to cultural discussion, as long as she was not required to teach. Although the discussion always got volatile, uncomfortable when she and Jennifer attempted it. She ended up doing all the work, making the peace.

How could she choose what was better for either side when she alone was part of both? Wait, that was another, different worry...she was not thinking properly. But not alone, Torren and Kanaan were part of Atlantis, too -- Torren liked the cookies from Earth -- Torren, Kanaan, oh, Kanaan. She was exhausted. And she was due back on New Athos at first light.

-- Hey, I can hear you thinking all that stuff.

I hope it is enlightening to you.

-- Um.

Yes?

-- I'd like to try that. To do some of the work.

Better.
Teyla sent her a smirky mental image. She was too tired to think anything else, or to fight against the twinge of hope Jennifer's hesitant tone sparked. Aloud she said, "Are you ready?"

-- Yes.

In one moment Teyla could feel her consciousness working, separating into distinct parts, and in the next Jennifer's eyelids were flickering open. They were no longer one mind.

Teyla relaxed in the chair. In a minute, she would get up and find Marie or Dr. Cole, she would have them run their scans or reassess her neck or force her into one of the hospital beds for the rest of the night.

Right now if she concentrated, she could still call upon the serenity of those yellow walls.






The End
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