Four Seasons

by dossier

Notes & Warnings

 

Teyla heard a rumor of a peaceful, powerful people on a planet with an Alterran outpost. She and Ronon went planet hopping; bribing, cajoling and following word of mouth until they tracked down a moderately reliable source who alleged traveling there several times. Alavy, an itinerant trader, had given them the gate address in return for all of the goods they carried.

Upon their return, Rodney located said gate address in the database,discovered an oblique reference to the outpost, and immediately launched a MALP. Over a twenty-four hour period the MALP returned a series of interesting readings from the planet, or rather non-readings.

Sheppard's team migrated to their lounge-cum-ready room to prepare their mission prospectus for P27-398, and give Rodney a chance to vent. Woolsey, in his very sensible fashion, preferred to hold meetings after breakfast, unless it was a critical emergency.

Teyla sat on the low settee against the windows. "Alavy said that the Shenlin are healers with vast knowledge of medicines, but do not often suffer strangers to visit. It may not be a simple matter to obtain their trust."

John slouched down into his chair. "I think the question is, is it going to be worth it?"

"In a word, yes," Rodney snapped as he paced the floor. "The fact that the MALP didn't return any power readings, and I mean none, not even normal radiant energy from sunlight, indicates that there's a shield of some sort. Also, there are some very tantalizing clues about the outpost in the database."

Ronon shook his head. "Word is that they've never been culled. Might not just be supplies that we'd get from them, if they have a shield of some kind." He pushed away from the wall where he'd been leaning, and stilled McKay's pacing with hands on his shoulders. "We should go," he said to John, over Rodney's shoulder.

"All right, if you think this Alavy person is on the up and up."

"He is reliable enough to warrant further investigation. He did say that the Shenlin consider dusk the most auspicious time for beginnings," Teyla said.

Rodney rolled his eyes and sneered, "Of course they do. Okay. The planet's got a thirty-hour day, and the next dusk is," he consulted his data pad, "about thirty hours from now. Damn it."

John shrugged. "Can't go until we brief Richard. I want to do a jumper recon and see what we're up against first, anyway."

"Very well. I will see you gentlemen in the morning." Teyla nodded and left. Ronon grinned and followed her.

 

~*~

 

Once Woolsey agreed that it was worth a look, John and Rodney departed for the initial reconnoiter.

Fog clung to the ground around the huge trees that surrounded the gate, gauzy skirts obscuring forest's feet.

John angled the jumper skyward above the low fog, skimming the treetops toward the shell pink horizon. The landscape spread out beneath them as they gained altitude.

The forest below was a riot of fire colors, and crept down to a calm, dark green river. John followed the river to a glassy lake that reflected the sky and the puffy white clouds above.

John kept an eye on the HUD, while Rodney fiddled with the sensors and scanners. Eventually, Rodney shook his head. "I'm not getting anything, take it up a notch."

"All right." He headed further upwards, until the rivers and lakes were a lacework pattern.

"I've got exactly nothing, no sign of habitation, much less an advanced one. That Alavy person must have been into the Ruus wine."

"The energy readings?"

"The same, as in none," Rodney complained.

"What about the outpost?" John asked.

"We're not going to find it without energy signatures."

"Right. Seen enough?"

Rodney huffed, "What's there to see? We need to retrieve the MALP." John spun a long, lazy circle then landed a few yards away from the gate.

John powered the jumper down as Rodney lowered the hatch and headed for the MALP. John let him handle the retrieval and took the opportunity to scope out the area.

A hand-painted sign on a post appeared as he approached the forest's edge, bearing an unfamiliar script. "Hey, Rodney, check this out."

Rodney poked his head out of the back of the jumper and John pointed to the sign. "This just popped out of thin air. I would have sworn that it wasn't there a minute ago. You recognize the writing?"

"What, now I'm a linguist?"

"It was a simple question."

Rodney advanced on the sign and pulled out his data pad. "Hmm." He sketched the symbols into the data pad with a stylus.

John surveyed the edge of the forest as he waited, hand resting casually on his P90, alert for any sign of trouble, and a vague path materialized through the trees, with long tree limbs arching over it and forming a bower. Once the path became clearer, he nudged Rodney with an elbow.

Rodney looked up from his pad, and stared. "Maybe the sign wasn't there."

John rolled his eyes at the implication, and studied the area for a few moments. "I want to try something. Come on."

The path receded as they walked back to the jumper. Once inside, it disappeared completely when viewed through the windscreen.

"Okay, so either we've gone insane simultaneously or that's some pretty cool shielding."

"We probably flew right over the settlement."

"It pains me to say this, but I'll stop by linguistics to see if this matches anything in the database. It could say anything—'Eat At Joe's' or 'Here be Dragons.'"

John dialed the gate. "Sorry, buddy," he said as he urged the jumper though the gate.

There were no more mandatory post-mission exams, just a short wait for a scan of the jumper and its contents.

Dr. Horne, the new CMO, had discovered that the Ancient scanner in the infirmary could be integrated as a gate function, now that Atlantis had a full complement of zero point modules. Scans were performed as anyone stepped through the gate, cutting down on the number of post-mission physicals. Even with the increased medical staff, the Med division would've been hard-pressed to keep up with the number of people that streamed in and out of the gate, without Horne's improvement.

They got the green light as the jumper rose through the ceiling into the jumper bay. John certainly didn't miss Carson and Jennifer's ritual bloodletting, but as a consequence, he barely knew the guy.

Rodney waved his data pad, and said, "I'll run this by Linguistics, see if they have any clue."

"Okay, I'll brief Richard."

 

~*~

 

Rodney banged the side of the tablet with his hand in frustration, though that didn't cause the missing data to re-appear. He quickly re-sketched the symbols from memory back into the tablet, so there wasn't anything wrong with it. He handed it over to the linguist he'd cornered.

"Oh, that's really interesting." Bryce Kirk studied it, then compared it against various displays on her console. "There is a reference to a similar script, though it's not from the Ancient database. The closest match to it is actually from the SGC. I can check again, next scheduled dial-up, but I'm fairly certain—"

"Please, Dr. Kirk, spare me the commentary, what is it?"

"It's Nox, Dr. McKay." Kirk looked up from the terminal with wide, dark eyes. "There was only the one instance of it, from Tantalus, never found any other example, not even on their planet, but it's quite unmistakable."

"Hmm, so what does the sign say?"

"I can't say for certain, we only have a few phrases from the cross translation in Ancient, but my best guess is 'two days'."

"Two days, what?"

"I don't know, Dr. McKay."

Rodney shook his head, and tapped his radio. "Sheppard, presumably the sign says 'two days'—in Nox."

"Nox? Really? I guess we'd better gear up for a long walk, then."

He groaned. "Why?"

"I discovered that the Jumper logs are incomplete—it's as if nothing happened after we arrived through the gate. I verified that nothing's wrong with the equipment, but I don't want to take the chance."

"I had the same problem with my tablet."

"Gonna have to be eyes and feet on the ground. Come on, it'll be fun. We haven't been camping in a long time."

Rodney didn't have to be in the same room to see the small grin on John's face as he contemplated an adventure.

"Plus, outpost and mysterious shields. What do you say?"

"Yeah, but I'm not walking in the dark."

"I suppose that it all depends on which beginning they consider 'auspicious'."

"You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?"

"Get some rest, we've got about twenty five hours before we go."

 

~*~

 

John and Teyla sorted through the gear, packing the heavy backpacks with tents and sleeping bags, while Rodney and Ronon saw to the provisioning.

They hadn't been out on a lengthy mission as a team since their return to Pegasus. There had been day missions to catch up with old friends, Teyla and Ronon working with the Coalition, gathering up the rest of Todd's ZPM's, negotiating the trade for the chair at The Tower, and Rodney leading an all ATA crew to study the baby drones. John had let Lorne take that—he was pretty sure that Harmony still hadn't forgiven him.

Ronon and Rodney were already waiting at the gate level. Ronon looked bored, and Rodney grumbled, "We could at least take the ATVs," as he shouldered on the heavy pack, making sure his laptop was well protected.

John shook his head and grinned. "All signed out, I checked." He glanced up to Richard, standing on the catwalk. John made a rolling motion with his hand, and Richard turned to the gate tech with a murmur to "Dial it up."

The event horizon formed and they walked through the gate into absolute darkness. The planet had no moon, or none that they had detected. Rodney said, "Sunrise is about another hour away." Teyla turned on a flashlight, and held it low as John headed toward the sign post.

Mist roiled around their feet, and the cool, heavy dew dampened their faces and hands. John was glad for the light that pooled around them, though it bounced off the fog, and made it impossible to see beyond their circle of light.

The sign slowly appeared out of the mist as they approached it. John said over his shoulder, "Hey, Rodney—did Dr. Kirk happen to give you any Nox lessons?"

"Why?"

"The sign changed—it doesn't look the same."

Rodney shoved past Ronon and Teyla, who held the flashlight up a little higher, the light flickering against the fog and sign. "Huh. No, I didn't expect that it would change."

John put the question out for debate. "So, do we go on, or not?"

"Dial it up. I'll get Kirk out of bed, and get her over here." Rodney pulled Teyla along and headed towards the DHD, and John and Ronon stayed by the mysterious, shifting sign. "What do you think?"

"Dunno. Never been here before, but I like it—it's quiet. Smells good too. We should go, feels okay to me."

John reflected on that, and decided that despite the darkness, it felt tranquil, almost welcoming. "I agree." John tapped his radio, but he didn't get the expected click. "Ronon, check your radio, think they're out." It seemed wrong to disturb the peace with shouting. He called out softly, "Rodney, wait a minute, maybe we don't need Kirk."

Rodney had no such compunction, his loud voice cracked through the dark. "You could've said that before I walked all the way over here!"

"You didn't have to run off before we were done talking about it. Teyla, what do you think?"

"Perhaps it would be best to gather as much intelligence as possible, there may be other signs. We could bring Dr. Kirk with us."

If there had been a hint of danger, John would have disagreed, but the planet seemed peaceful enough despite the dampening field, and getting some experience on the ground would be good for Kirk.

"Yeah, all right. Go back and get her prepped. Tell Woolsey the radios are out, too." John hated going back just when they'd arrived, much like his father had hated turning back at the beginning of a car trip when his mother was concerned about having left the iron on, or some other forgotten detail. It had been years since he'd thought of his father in that context and it was nice to skip past the intervening years of bitter acrimony.

The brilliant wash of the wormhole momentarily blinded him and it seemed impossible to readjust to the complete darkness when they were gone. "She could have left the flashlight." John flipped on the light on his P-90. Considering what had happened to the radios and jumper logs, he wondered briefly why the lights even worked. Or the jumper hadn't just crashed.

"Wuss." Ronon's time back on Earth had completed his inculcation in Earth culture, including a getting a hobby—photography—and expanding his slang vocabulary.

John kind of mourned the days when he had to explain everything.

"Fair enough. You bring your cameras?" He swung the sight up in time to catch the eye roll and 'duh' expression. Yep, thoroughly indoctrinated.

"Soon as I get some light, I'll start shooting." Ronon had worked out a compromise with Woolsey to file photographic mission reports.

"It's pretty, but weird. It'll be interesting to see if you get anything."

A half hour later the gate activated, and John and Ronon took shelter behind the massive tree trunks, in case it wasn't the rest of their team.

Teyla led the way, flashlight at her side, and Rodney brought up the rear, with Dr. Kirk sandwiched between them.

Kirk let out a startled screech as John and Ronon stepped out from behind the trees as she approached the sign.

Ronon snorted. "Jumpy?"

"Ah. Yes. This is only second time I've been off world."

John couldn't imagine being trapped in the city, never getting out to explore the galaxy. "Think you can tell us what the sign says?"

She peered at it closely in the growing light, and consulted the data pad. "As far as I can tell, it's the same as what Dr. McKay brought back to the city yesterday. 'Two days.'"

Everyone crowded around the sign and stared at it. It had reverted back to its original state.

Rodney spluttered in confusion, "That's—I don't even know what that is!"

Ronon just shrugged. "Suppose it could have been a warning to not travel in the dark."

"Yeah, I'm leaning toward McKay's 'Eat at Joe's' theory." John turned to their tag along and studied her for a moment. She was shorter than Teyla, and very thin, but she looked fit enough. "Alright, Dr. Kirk, here's how it's gonna go—you'll stay behind Teyla and Ronon here, and in front of me. When one of us says duck, get down on the ground. When we say run, you run like hell, hide—you get the picture. Think you can do that?" Bringing an utterly green scientist out in the the field was probably ill-considered, but they'd go over the pre-mission briefing as they walked.

Kirk nodded diffidently, despite her excited expression. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Head out."

Teyla turned the flashlight off, and hung it on her pack as they walked towards the pathway that was gaining in clarity. When it became fully visible, Kirk gasped.

"Pretty cool, huh?"

"Yes! Thank you, Colonel Sheppard, I really appreciate this."

"Sure." He nodded at Ronon and Teyla's backs and they fell in behind them.

The cool morning sun filtered through the fiery leaves, and there was almost no underbrush, but beyond the illusion of the broad pathway, the rest of the forest appeared hazy, obscured. Ronon pulled out his dSLR, and fiddled with it as they walked. He was getting as bad as Rodney. "Not getting anything," he said, and Rodney snapped his fingers.

"Let me see." Rodney checked the settings and tested a shot as Ronon hauled out the camcorder, but it was the same. He handed the dSLR back to Ronon. "It's got to be the field that's inhibiting recording."

"Yeah, they both worked last night."

"Sorry, buddy."

Ronon shrugged and smirked. "My report's just gonna be slim."

In deference to Dr. Kirk's novice status, they made frequent stops to rest. They had fifteen hours of daylight at most, perhaps less considering it appeared to be early fall. Once the novelty of their surroundings wore off, the unchanging scenery turned out to be rather boring. Rodney had long ago given up on playing Prime/Not Prime with John; it wasn't a game if you couldn't stump your opponent, and Ronon and Teyla refused to participate. Instead, they had devised a new game, Pegasus Pursuit, that covered trivia in Pegasus and Atlantis, and eventually Rodney or John began winning as often as Ronon and Teyla.

Dr. Kirk hadn't played before and it was good to have a new player. She even stumped them a few times with Ancient history. After a long lunch break, she turned out to be a pretty decent storyteller and filled the afternoon with a drawn out Alterran tale that had been translated from the database.

The late afternoon sun angled down through the trees, and it looked to John like Kirk was losing the will to put one foot in front of the other. As he made mental plans to stop for the evening, a clearing began to appear down the path in front of them. Like the entrance at the edge of the forest, a small meadow covered in soft, green grass dotted with tiny white flowers slowly materialized from a hazy nothingness. A wooden building with a thatched roof stood in the center of the clearing. Beyond the cottage, a narrow, wooden bridge arched over a lazy river. None of it had been visible from their air recon.

John put a hand on Kirk's shoulder to stay her from moving forward, while Ronon and Teyla prowled around the clearing. It seemed idyllic enough, though all of them but Dr. Kirk had been fooled by pretty scenery in the past.

When Ronon called out, "Clear," they met in front of the building.

"Our accommodations for the evening, I presume," Rodney said.

John entered the one room building with his P90 ready, though he doubted it would fire, just like Ronon's camera and the data pads that failed to record. The hut was clean and neat as a pin, with five beds along one wall, and a fireplace with a heavy cast kettle hanging inside took up most of the opposite wall. A trestle table with two benches sat squarely in the center of the room. "It does seem as if they're expecting us," he agreed.

Further investigation revealed a cupboard filled with delicate hand painted ceramic dishes, and a lean-to in back with kindling and firewood. Though the temperature was mild, Ronon set about making a fire, explaining, "Cool, I'm cooking."

Rodney went nosing around with his scanner and Teyla strolled down to the river to inspect the bridge. John kept an eye on Dr. Kirk as she wandered around the hut.

"I think it's interesting, but I'm guessing from your reaction, this," she waved her hand to encompass the room, "is really bothering you."

"You could say that."

"Why?"

"It seems safe enough, but that's usually when it goes to hell."

"Ah. What should I expect?"

"I dunno, that's why it's bothering me."

"No, I mean just in general, what should I do? Is there some routine?"

John gave her a speculative glance. "Your last time off world, it was just a day trip, right?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Well, Ronon's pretty handy with a ladle, so in a while we'll eat. Feel free to sack out any time you want, but keep your boots on even though you won't take a watch rotation."

"Okay. Can I go outside?"

"Sure. Let's go."

The sunset turned the sky to vermilion and violet when Kirk went down to the river and joined Teyla on the bridge, where they conversed with their heads tipped together. The forest caught and echoed the light that limned the shadows of the two women. Kirk's matte black hair resisted the light, though Teyla's hair turned fire-red.

John stood watch, though he was too far away to hear what they said. He turned his head when Rodney joined him.

"It's pretty," Rodney complained. He gestured at the sunset and then the cottage. "I don't normally care because that's immaterial, but according to the scanners there isn't anything here."

Really immaterial. "An illusion, huh?"

"Hmm, no. The trees, grass, and cottage are all physical constructs you can touch. Though I can't find any evidence of a shield either, no power readings of any sort, man-made or natural."

"It's driving you crazy, isn't it?"

Rodney sighed gustily. "Yes."

As full dark fell upon the clearing, lamps manifested along the bridge, and light shined from the cottage windows. Teyla and Kirk left the bridge, and the four of them joined Ronon inside.

Ronon was a competent cook. He could make a meal out of almost anything, and while the results were sometimes odd, it was generally well-prepared. A tasty stew thickened with the impossible-to-eat-dry hard tack, dried fruit, crunchy fried tava on the side, and bark tea sweetened with Ylana rounded out the evening's menu. They could've requested MREs from the quarter master, but even Rodney had come to prefer Ronon's cooking.

They ate quietly. It had been a very long, uneventful walk, and they'd exhausted all topics of conversation somewhere around hour ten. The unchanging scenery, the same, weird shifting of the illusion as they traveled, had failed as new fodder for discussion.

Teyla banked the fire as John and Kirk cleared away the dishes. Rodney claimed a bed by throwing himself down face first and falling asleep almost immediately.

Kirk followed his lead, and collapsed into the bed next to him, boots still on. Teyla took the last bed to the right and Ronon the far left, leaving the bed next to Rodney empty for John, after his watch was over.

 

~*~

 

Breakfast was last night's leftovers and more hard tack softened in Ylana-sweet tea. The night had been very quiet. Though they'd had most of the previous day to become accustomed to the silence, the lack of any wildlife rustling around was disturbing on an unconscious level.

They walked over the bridge and the cottage behind them slowly disappeared. The forest ended at the river, though their course through the lush valley alongside the river was just as obvious as it had been yesterday.

The thick, tall grass parted in front of them to reveal a neat, hard packed roadway. A breeze toyed with the white flowers in the meadow and the water along side the path sparkled in the autumn sun.

Rodney was on point with Ronon and he'd put away his scanner. Teyla and Kirk were in the center, chatting together quietly on and off. John watched them from his position in the rear, and he considered that while Teyla certainly didn't lack for female companions in the city, having Kirk along on a mission was probably a nice change for her.

Day two was no different than day one. No animals, no birds or insects were seen or heard, and the path rolled along ahead of them.

At the end of the day, the village drifted into view. It was large as settlements in Pegasus went, with streets laid out on a neat grid. Several bridges crossed the river, leading to parts of the town that lay on the far shore. The buildings resembled the cottage at the clearing, though many of these were two and three stories tall with the shutters flung open to the breeze. Wide verandahs, tiny gardens filled with flowers, stone statuary and lantern-like affairs skirted the fronts of the buildings. Well-tended pathways led from the street to the houses, and the air was sweet with the scent of the flowers.

They walked down the main street in the village, passing a large number of people going about their business. Plump children with rosy cheeks played in the street while men and women tended the gardens. Some of the children ran around the team, giggling and laughing, and others ran ahead, presumably to warn whomever was expecting them that they had arrived. The adults nodded and smiled, the teens and 'tweens watched a little more warily, but with undisguised curiosity, though no one spoke to the team or returned their greetings.

The oldest person that John had ever seen in the entire galaxy came out of a single story cottage and met them in the street. "I am Bethel" she said, as she began to hobble down the street. "Come."

Teyla stepped forward to perform introductions, but the old woman turned around and held up her hand. "Do not speak your names until asked. Do not speak at all."

Teyla gave her a surprised lift of the brow, Rodney rolled his eyes, Ronon shook his head, and Kirk stood there, wildly confused, taking in the various reactions, and John shrugged when she looked at him.

Bethel said, "The first speaking will reveal your true nature, and you will be judged accordingly. Come now, night is near, and we must hurry."

John didn't like the sound of 'being judged', but he motioned the team to follow Bethel across the second bridge and into the first building on the right. It was a large structure with a garden in the front, though there was no porch. She held open the wide double doors for them to pass through, and closed them as they walked around the room.

The foyer was large and well lit, with three closed doors, and art on the walls, and a simple, well-made table stood in the center with an exquisite flower arrangement on top. "You may leave your burdens here." It was phrased as a sentence, but there was no doubt that it was an order, one which John associated uncomfortably with Rodney's near-ascension. The team unstrapped and unhitched their unused camping gear and backpacks, and when they were suitably unburdened, Bethel opened the door at the opposite end of the foyer and ushered them through.

The room was bare but for a ring of ten wooden chairs. Two men and two women occupied four of the chairs. Bethel directed them to sit as she took her own seat. The windows provided the only light.

One by one, the elders stood and formally introduced themselves: Lohn, who wore a long, silver braid down his back over a black cape with green emblems. Zin was tall and willowy, and her summery yellow dress looked out of place amongst the heavy robes and capes the others wore. Marte appeared to be as old as Bethel, nearly as round as she was tall, with leathery skin. Afal was much younger than the others, his hair barely shot through with steely gray, though looked no less grave and serious in his red robes.

When the introductions were over, the elders watched and studied them, saying nothing until the room had fallen into near darkness; the only light a thin thread of surprising moonlight shone through the window.

John had been through a lot of ritualistic greetings and tests, it was the only thing common amongst all of the Pegasus cultures, but the silence was new. Teyla calmly sat with a straight back, head held high, though she appeared awed, probably because of the advanced age of their hosts. Rodney fidgeted slightly, but managed to keep his mouth shut. Ronon was probably as impressed as Teyla, though he covered his expression better, and he was deceptively loose, while ready to spring into action. John couldn't decide if he should sit at attention, or lounge normally, and he fell into an uncomfortable mix of both. Kirk sat with her ankles crossed, hands folded into her lap, an expression of sharp curiosity on her face.

Marte raised her hand and lights flickered on from the lamps on the wall. "We must know the people with whom we treat. Until we know, we cannot speak of anything." She raised a bony finger and pointed at Rodney. "Stand and speak your name and purpose."

He stood as directed. "Doctor Rodney McKay, scientist, astrophysicist actually, and—"

Marte cut him off. "Enough. Sit." She pointed at Teyla. "Stand and tell us your name and purpose."

Teyla stood, "I am Teyla Emmagan, leader of the Athosian people, and I act as guide and liaison for Atlantis." She continued to stand, and the four old people shook their heads.

"There is more." Marte gave her a narrow, appraising look.

"I am also one who leads," she paused, "a coalition of the peoples of Pegasus."

Marte nodded once, and moved onto Ronon. "You."

"Specialist Ronon Dex, wraith killer." He didn't wait for permission to sit when he was finished, and the woman moved onto John.

He stood almost at parade rest, "Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, military commander of Atlantis, pilot." He waited until he was motioned to sit and the woman pointed at Kirk.

"Stand and speak your name and purpose."

Kirk stood nervously. "Dr. Bryce Kirk, I'm a linguist, that is, I study language."

They left Kirk standing as they pondered her words; the elders looked and nodded at one another for a few minutes, as if they were communing telepathically, until Lohn raised his hands, and the elders stood in unison.

The team stood with them, then Lohn said, "You have been seen and heard, but the time is inauspicious for your enlightenment." Bethel began to chant some song, and Lohn, Marte and Afal sang in counterpoint, overlapping and complementing each other.

John and Rodney exchanged disbelieving frowns; Rodney had eventually been broken of the habit of verbally abusing their prospective trading partner's odd practices, but John could see that he was actually biting his tongue. He kind of wanted to yell in frustration himself. Teyla and Ronon watched and listened with wariness, and Kirk's attention was wholly on the elders.

When the short invocation came to an end, Bethel spoke. "Return in two days, and we will begin."

As one, the elders raised their arms, elbows bent, palms toward their faces, and lightly touched their forearms together.

The room instantaneously disappeared from view and the team was standing in front of the stargate. The illusion was gone. In the pale light of the moon that appeared in the sky, the pathway that had been hidden in the trees was open and visible. The forest was alive with the soft, sad call of a night bird, and the rustle of fallen leaves disturbed by the passing of an unseen forest creature.

The team was arranged just as they had been in the meetinghouse, in a rough circle and their gear piled a few feet away. They looked at each other for a moment, before Teyla let loose a shaky, "What has just happened?" just as Rodney broke the silence with an explosive, "What the hell?"

John said, "I'll second that."

"The Nox, Colonel," Kirk answered. "They were reported to have incredible personal powers, even over death itself."

Ronon said, "Cool," as he loped over to their gear and picked the camera out of his backpack. He framed a few shots of the team and their matching deer-in-the-headlights expressions. "Camera works now."

"What was that mystical crap, anyway?" Rodney complained as he followed Ronon over to their gear.

John walked over to the sign, and studied it. It was now written in standard English, 'The way is open'. He looked down the broad avenue that headed straight through the forest; it was certainly big enough for a puddle jumper, assuming the illusion didn't return when they came back.

Because they were definitely returning. The question in the back of his mind was, 'What did the Shenlin want from them?'

 

~*~

 

It was near the end of the third shift and the team room was at low light as they put together their mission reports. John asked, "So, what do you make of the 'inauspicious time for enlightenment'?"

Rodney rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. "It's ridiculous," he snapped. "I'm as enlightened as I care to be. We're going to go through with this?"

"Yes, Rodney. You saw them—did they look anything like any of the other places we've seen recently?"

"No. But no other planet has people able to transport us by thought. We have no idea if we saw their real settlement or not. I say it's a trap."

Ronon grinned at Rodney's mild paranoia. "Don't think it's a trap, McKay."

Teyla laid a hand on Rodney's arm. "John's question is a valid one and I believe that it is the first of the tests. We must return."

John tipped his head and studied Teyla, unconsciously biting his lower lip. "Teyla?"

"I believe that there is much to be learned from them."

John gave Teyla a wry grin. "I was afraid you were going to say that."

"Only because you were thinking it as well, John. Rodney, we would do well to have such powerful and prosperous allies."

John chimed in, "Not to mention the outpost, remember? I'm pretty sure we can take a jumper the next time."

"Fine—but don't expect me to pull your chestnuts out of the fire when it all goes to hell."

"That's the spirit, McKay." Ronon stood up and gave Rodney a friendly thwack on the shoulder as he walked out.

Rodney scowled as he turned to John. "I wonder if they're using the outpost."

John had read all of the SG1's mission reports on the Nox prior to the mission. "I dunno, Rodney. I'd say they didn't need it."

"I certainly hope that we get a chance to find out."

John smirked, "That's it, Rodney, stay positive."

 

Winter

Woolsey readily agreed to a return mission, because while the Nox in Pegasus were an interesting puzzle, the as-yet-unexplored outpost was still their main objective.

John felt better after Dr. Kirk passed the field-readiness course, though he skipped the normally mandatory firearms test. He had a feeling that their weapons would remain disabled, even though the shield that prevented recording was lifted.

He made sure that she was familiar with everything in her scientist issue field pack, and made suggestions for non-standard items that he'd learned over the years were handy to have.

John was amused by her excitement as he ushered her to the jumper bay. He didn't get to see that very often since Lorne's team generally got to scuff the shine off the newbies.

He showed Kirk where to stow her kit, and ran down the checklist of where things were kept, as Teyla, Ronon and, finally, Rodney arrived. When the last piece of equipment was secured, Teyla offered Dr. Kirk a seat up front, behind Rodney.

Ronon chose to lurk in the door between the cabins. Rodney and Teyla took the empty seats as John dialed the gate while the jumper floated down to the gate.

John tapped the communication panel. "We'll be in touch."

Woolsey's voice crackled over the loudspeaker. "Good luck, and have fun."

"Don't we always?" Rodney asked as they headed through the gate.

Low, dark clouds and a fine, constant drizzle hung in the air and nearly obscured the path in the forest.

John murmured, "Good thing we brought the jumper," then decided to see what happened when they went off the beaten path. He pushed the jumper high over the forest and followed the river course. The rain splashed and rippled the surface of the river, and dripped off of the leaves that hung limp and sodden. The meadow to the right swayed wet and sluggish in the light gusts of rain that steadily fell from the heavy, gray clouds.

The HUD popped up unbidden, the route to the village mapped on the display. John landed in a field well away from the village. Rodney and Teyla gathered a few things as Ronon lowered the ramp. The chill, damp winter air invaded the confines of the jumper immediately.

They hadn't expected the Indian summer to disappear quite so quickly. Ronon pulled a rough knit sweater out of his pack and pulled it on, and offered his leather coat to Kirk. John caught Rodney smirking when she put it on. She looked like a Jawa.

John tucked the remote control into a large pocket in his leather jacket and Rodney tugged on a knit cap. Everyone grabbed their camping gear and backpacks as they exited the craft. "Everybody remember where we parked."

Rodney grinned, and Teyla and Ronon shook their heads. Dr. Kirk missed it altogether, but they'd already figured out she wasn't a genre fan.

The town was quiet in the gray afternoon, door and shutters were closed, and only a few people hurried down the empty streets. No children ran after them this time as Teyla led them unerringly to the old woman's house.

Bethel waited for them at the end of her walkway, sheltered in a voluminous white cloak, walking stick in hand. No one said anything as they approached her, and she nodded in approval. "Good. Come."

The rest of the Elders were waiting for them in the foyer of the meeting house. The meeting house was warm; the flower arrangement on the table had been changed to a low arrangement of dried leaves in brilliant fall colors. Bethel bid them to leave their burdens, and each of the elders took charge of one of the team. Afal chatted quietly with a rapt Teyla, Ronon looked down at tiny, ancient Marte with an amused grin, and Rodney looked a little wild-eyed at Bethel's forwardness; she had her arm in Rodney's and was almost frog-marching him toward the door. Zin leaned her gray head close as she spoke softly to Dr. Kirk.

John frowned and took a step to follow Rodney, and Lohn joined him. "Do not worry. Please, we would be honored for you to join us for a meal."

Two by two, they fell in behind Bethel and Rodney through the foyer to a long narrow dining hall with a low table surrounded by mats. The Elders arranged the seating around the table with an unknown purpose.

It was a veritable feast, but a sly one. Varied dishes of only a few bites each were served one at a time. John let Teyla and Dr. Kirk drive the dinner conversation with the explanation of how they'd come to inhabit Atlantis during the extended meal. The Shenlin were fascinated with the story of intergalactic exploration, and, in turn, told tales of their distant past when their ancestors had come to Pegasus with the Alterrans that seemed immediate and real, not millions of years old.

When Ronon questioned their reclusive ways, and why they hadn't helped fight the Wraith, Lohn shook his head. "We are not fighters, and we could not sustain the entire galaxy."

John watched Ronon to judge how he was going to take that, though Lohn's answer had seemed to appease him.

Eventually Rodney broke and inquired about the outpost that their database had indicated was on the planet.

Marte nodded. "Oh, yes. It is there, although we do not often visit. The Alliance of the Four was not reason enough for the Alterrans to gift us with their secrets, and it is said to be dangerous."

"Nor did we reveal many of our secrets to them," Bethel chuckled.

"I can deal with dangerous," Rodney said. "I live in Atlantis."

Teyla asked, "And your secrets, are we safe from them?"

Zin replied simply, "Yes. Though it may come to pass, that you will learn of them."

Teyla asked with some delicacy, "What may we give in trade for this knowledge?" Her question caused the elders to laugh, almost uproariously, and she looked put out at their hilarity at her expense.

Afal gave Teyla a fond look. "Child, there is nothing you have that we do not already possess. That you are willing to seek is all that we require."

"You present us with a rare challenge. We are quite looking forward to that," Bethel added.

Even Rodney and Ronon were starting to look ill when the seventeenth course was presented. John had waved away the last half of the meal.

Afal rose in a smooth, sinuous motion, untangling himself from the cushions. "Come, you are weary. There are rooms above that will shelter you."

They picked up their gear from the foyer and the other elders bid their good-byes when Afal led them upstairs. He opened each and every door, allowing them to inspect rooms with identical beds, basins and windows. There was a common area with a fireplace, and the last door revealed communal bathing facilities with a huge copper tub.

"Choose the arrangements that please you, and if you wish, explore the house and Binansu. I bid you peace and a good night." Afal disappeared down the stairwell opposite the one they had come up.

Each room opened out onto a long balcony in the rear of the building, with stairs at either end that led down to a formal garden. The light afternoon drizzle had turned into heavy snow, and the courtyard was already blanketed with a thick layer of snow and ice.

John thought that anywhere else these arrangements would be a security nightmare. Maybe it was another illusion, but even Ronon had said that he had thought it was safe. He let Teyla, Dr. Kirk and Rodney choose their rooms, and they wisely left the rooms at either end open for John and Ronon.

Atlantis' showers were effective, but the lure of an actual bath was attractive. Rodney had a bath in his room in Atlantis, so he magnanimously chose to be last in the queue for the tub. John left Ronon in charge of the vague security, and took a walk out in the town until it was his turn.

He guessed that Binansu was the name of the town. John trudged through the dirt streets that were a slushy, muddy mess. Where no one had trod, the snow looked peaceful, even and serene. Fat, thick flakes drifted downwards, melting on his upturned face. Clouds obscured the night sky, and the low lanterns in the gardens left eerie pools of light scattered in the dark. The snow muffled sound and it was almost as quiet as the illusory path had been on their first visit.

John had always liked the snow and winter; he hadn't been kidding O'Neill that he'd liked Antarctica, though that had been more about isolation than the actual weather. His best childhood memories of the estate were always of winter—sledding, skating, sleigh rides, snow forts, coming into the hot kitchen and sweating almost instantly, and hot cider or cocoa in front of a crackling fire. He stood in the gently falling snow a few moments longer before heading out the meadow to check on the jumper.

 

~*~

 

The 'negotiations' began at breakfast. The Shenlin seemed to want nothing more than to get to know the new Lanteans, especially after Dr. Kirk had mentioned the Asgard.

It was academically interesting—to Kirk, anyway—but eventually Teyla gently guided the conversation back toward actual negotiations. "There are many rumors that you have an extended knowledge of medicine."

"There are those Circles that have some skill in the healing arts," Zin replied, "But medicinal compounds are a very minor part of their repertoire. Healers are rarely needed."

"Is this knowledge available to us?" Teyla asked, "Or is this one of your secrets?"

"The Circles? No, there are many circles, but it takes some time for them to come into their power. If it is even possible for you, it would require many decades."

Teyla gave John an inquiring glance, and he took over with a shrug. "So what do we need to do to get access to the Ancient outpost?" That was what they really wanted, the rest was gravy, and they didn't have decades to spare. "Come to us for one week in each season. There are tasks to be completed, and the fruits of your labors are yours to keep, and more." Lohn added, "Please extend the invitation to any of your people that you wish to accompany you."

That wouldn't be too difficult to arrange, only slightly longer than the normal length of a mission.

"Stay with us now, it is a favorable time to begin your lessons," Bethel said.

John and Rodney's eyes met, and he could see that Rodney hated the idea, the phrase 'lessons' and 'fruits of your labor' implied weird rituals and hard work. He nodded, and Rodney asked, "At what point will we get access to the outpost?"

"If you agree, I will take you there tomorrow," Bethel said. "You can fly us in your little machine."

"Works for me," Rodney said emphatically.

John was pretty sure that they'd been careful to not reveal the jumper, but the Shenlin had appeared to know when they were coming and going, so maybe not so surprising they knew about the ship. "Ronon, Teyla?"

Ronon shrugged. "Sure."

"I believe that we have much to learn from one another. I would like very much to stay." Teyla smiled at Afal, who'd been quite attentive to her through out the day.

 

~*~

 

Teyla and Dr. Kirk stayed in Binansu with Afal and Zin, and Lohn, Marte and Bethel accompanied John, Rodney and Ronon to the outpost, which was a long flight to the top of a mountain range.

"It is called Rizq," Bethel murmured as the structure filled the view screen. Unlike many of the other Ancient sites throughout Pegasus, Rizq was pristine and complete and the slim spires echoed those of Atlantis.

"There," Lohn pointed out the entrance, leaning over John's shoulder.

Once the jumper had settled down, the Shenlin watched with some bemusement as John and Ronon geared up with P90s and one Satedan pistol before they headed to the arched entryway.

"This is fantastic!" Rodney said as he turned to Bethel. "Does anyone ever come here? I mean, can you open the door?"

"The door can be opened with a Circle, but I have only come to Rizq once before. Did we incorrectly assume that you have some method to gain entry?"

"No, no, we can get in. Probably. I was just curious," he replied as he returned his attention to the door. "Okay, here goes nothing." Rodney fiddled inside the panel, and the door swooshed open.

John stepped in front of Rodney, hand loose on his P90 as they walked in. There was a set of stairs on the left that led to an open second story, and a set of two doors on the right, below the high windows that flooded the room with brilliant light.

"Right or left?" John cocked his head.

Atlantis' control room was on an upper level, so Rodney made his choice. "Left."

The stairs lit up as John walked up, and Rodney gave him an excited, hopeful glance. Power.

The second floor contained sleeping quarters and very little else. The rooms behind the two doors under the windows revealed a warren of small, windowless rooms, almost booths, with a bench and console in each one.

Like Atlantis, Rizq was virtually untouched since the Alterrans had evacuated the Pegasus galaxy. Unlike Atlantis, Rizq had not spent those ten thousand years holding back an ocean.

Rodney was nearly beside himself with ecstatic joy when the outpost turned out to have three spare zero point modules, until Lohn made it clear, "You are welcome to come and study in Rizq, but you are forbidden to take anything from the city until your Cycle is complete."

Atlantis had a nearly full complement of zero point modules, though Rodney always wanted more. John couldn't blame him and offered a 'what can you do' flick of the eyebrows, and a gentle push towards the door.

 

~*~

 

Teyla and Dr. Kirk got the grand tour of Binansu. The wary teens had given up their posturing and were playing in the snow with the other children that were out in force. Men and women were clearing the snow from their porches and walkways into wheelbarrows; Afal and Zin introduced them as they followed the trail of wheelbarrows where they piled the snow high outside the smithy.

Inside was hot and smoky and the air rang with the hammers that beat glowing metal into tools. Half-clothed men and women gleamed red in the firelight as they fed the fires and poured fiery rivers of molten metal into molds.

They stayed near the door as Afal talked. "This will be your first task, to build the tools that you will need in the coming year."

Dr. Kirk elbowed Teyla slightly and leaned to whisper sarcastically, "Dr. McKay will love this."

Teyla returned the smile, for in fact she could already hear the bitching and complaining. The Daedalus would bring them any implements they required, but perhaps there was some meaning behind making the tools themselves.

They left the smithy and headed towards the farmland to the south of town, where the fields lay under the thick snow. It was bitter cold and the snow showed no sign of melting. The exercise kept them warm, though their faces stung and their feet ached with the cold. Birds and small mammals scratched and hunted through the snow for any grains left with the chaff and straw.

They stopped beside a field that looked like it had been abandoned for many years; weeds and small trees poked up through the snow. "This is your field for the cycle."

Dr. Kirk asked, "What do you mean?"

"Through the cycle, we will learn from one another and you will tend to the field. Is it not large enough?"

Teyla studied the plot. It looked huge her, though she was a hunter by nature and had not learned to gauge yield with a glance as Halling had when the Athosians had taken up farming. "I believe it is certainly large enough."

 

~*~

 

After another dinner, though not so long or elaborate as the evening before, they settled in front of the fire in their common room with the Shenlin equivalent of seed catalogs.

Kirk was the only one with any facility for the language, though there were helpful illustrations that were beautifully penned and colored. She was excited about the catalogs themselves, rather than their content. "These would be a wonderful resource—I wonder if they'll allow me to take them back?"

"No harm in asking," John said.

Rodney flipped through one casually, then tossed it aside. "So let me get this straight. We have to farm in order to get a ZedPM?"

"Yup. And we keep anything we can grow."

"This has to be some sort of cosmic irony. How, I don't know, but I'm working on it."

Ronon held up a picture of a huge green root vegetable, with purple knobs on it. "Think we can get a recipe for this?"

"Can't hurt to ask," John repeated. "Hey, you think these are tomatoes?"

Ronon leaned over to see. "Sure looks like it to me."

"Teyla, did you tell Rodney the good news?" Dr. Kirk asked with almost a giggle.

"I have not."

"Good news? What?" Rodney looked at her suspiciously. "Oh right, that kind of 'good news'."

Teyla's smile was barely contained. "We must forge our own tools with which to farm."

Rodney threw himself back in the chair and the stack of books fell to the floor. "Oh God. Please, just kill me now."

John asked, "Come on, McKay, how hard can it be?"

"I suppose you were a blacksmith in another life?"

"No, but I saw one on TV." John stood up. "I'm going to go check in, let them know that we're gonna be here a few days.

It was a beautiful flight back to the gate. Moonlight reflected off of the snow that covered everything but the river, and the clear night sky was awash in stars.

Richard was as amused by the requirements as Rodney was annoyed, and agreed that a few weeks of farming in the span of a year was a small price to pay for access to Rizq.

 

~*~

 

In the morning, Lohn, Marte and Afal were nowhere to be seen; only Zin and Bethel joined them for breakfast. When they were finished with tea, Zin took Dr. Kirk away after reassuring her that she was not needed for the day's tasks, and that her time would be better spent in study and meditation.

Bethel accompanied the rest of them back to the smithy, where the work was carefully orchestrated to some unknown rota. Only Rodney was allowed to handle the metal under Bethel's close supervision, bitching about the various little burns and grumbling about lessons in skills he didn't require.

Bethel looked amused by his treatment of her and John left her to it.

Teyla was set to stoking the fire with the wood that Ronon brought to her. John shoveled snow and hauled it in for the cooling of the plowshare that had finally taken shape under Rodney's hands.

At the end of the day, Rodney was sore and exhausted and collapsed into bed. Teyla got the first bath because she was sweaty and covered in soot. John picked the splinters out of Ronon's hands, and made sure Rodney's burns were treated while they waited for their turns at the huge copper tub. At least Dr. Kirk looked rested. She wouldn't—or couldn't—tell them what she'd been up to all day, but John figured that they'd eventually get a report. They spent two more days at the forge until Bethel deemed that Rodney's plow and hoes met her high standards.

On their last day, Rodney and Bethel took the jumper to Rizq, and Ronon and Marte went to the wood shop, crafting handles for the hoes, while John and Teyla watched. Dr. Kirk was still closeted away with Zin. After the handles had been attached to the hoes and stowed away with the plow, Marte left them to spend the evening however they wished.

The garden lanterns lit the street as they walked home in the bitter cold. Night was falling fast and the snow crunched underfoot. John stopped short of the stairs to the house and Teyla and Ronon turned to look at him.

Rodney stuck his nose out of the door. "Why are you standing out in the freezing cold? Get in here."

John grinned and took the steps two at a time, Teyla and Ronon right behind him. "What's up?"

"Bethel insisted that I had to come back early so Dr. Kirk and I could prepare some ritual thing. I just knew it was going to happen eventually."

John stifled a groan. "What is it this time?"

"It's some food for you. Apparently you were elected King of Winter." Rodney snorted in disgust.

"That's cool. The Winter King—I like it."

"Yes, I just hope it's edible."

 

~*~

 

Dinner was very much the same as any of the other evenings, except that Dr. Kirk and Rodney served John first as everyone watched expectantly. It turned out to be a simple dish of tiny winter grain, sweetened and cooked with a crunchy vegetable.

The tiny serving was gone in a few bites. It wasn't three things he would've ever put together, but it was okay. Much better than some of the awful things he'd been forced to consume ritualistically—like ragat brains.

The meal was informal and seriously reduced in courses and contents, a fact that pleased John as he wasn't sure his digestive tract would take another feast.

Ronon asked, "So, when are we supposed to come back?"

Marte smiled. "You may return at any time to visit, but the next ritual of the Cycle is spring."

 

Spring

Ronon guessed that Bryce Kirk was part of their team for these visits, because she was packed and ready to go in the jumper bay. Halling and Katie Brown came with them, too. Halling because he'd managed the Athosians' farms for years, and Katie because Woolsey wanted a botanist along for consultation, though Ronon didn't think the Shenlin were going to poison them.

Ronon liked Binansu in general, though the Shenlin's pacificism still bothered him, and he suspected that they were hiding something. John was similarly concerned, but apparently the outpost was important enough for them to go along with the year long ritual, since they didn't really need the food that would come from the field.

Whatever the possible issues, the Shenlin gave Ronon hope that the rest of his galaxy would eventually be similarly prosperous. He wished that he'd found this planet when he was running.

Marte met them at the bridge and gave them long enough to leave their gear in the foyer of the meeting house, before marching them directly to the field.

Ronon was was put in charge of the planting, though he didn't have a clue what was supposed to happen. He felt fairly certain that he was the wrong guy for the job, but Marte insisted that this was his part of the ritual. As a young soldier on Sateda, he'd sneered at farmers and peasants, but the years of running had broken him of that. It was folks like that who had kept him fed, whether they knew it at the time or not.

Marte laughed when Ronon asked where their tools were. "Oh, no. The tools forged together are symbolic, ceremonial," she'd said, then she'd brought out a team of horses and harnessed them to a heavy plow.

John, Teyla, Rodney, Bryce and Katie waited for and followed his instructions as Marte and Halling coached him all through the day and the work went quickly.

Despite the cold spring air, it was sunny. The field that they'd been given had lain fallow for years; clearing the volunteer trees and turning the soil with the heavy plow was hard work. Ronon worked up a sweat. There was time enough to stop and take pictures in the perfect light, too, because no one would believe him if he just said that Sheppard and McKay were digging in the dirt. McKay bitched about it, but he pitched in and did his share, mainly because Sheppard and Teyla were goading him into it.

Katie spent the morning running around and gathering up samples, seeds and plants tucked away into plastic bags, but after lunch she settled into the work. Ronon admired her for being a tough little worker, though he carefully did not say that out loud where Teyla could hear him.

It was Marte that held most of his attention. She looked old, but she didn't act that way, darting around and offering suggestions, and pulled her weight with John and the band saw to cut down the one tree too large to just yank out by the roots.

She asked questions too, wanted to know what a runner was and how he came to be that way, then clucked and tsked over his short explanation.

They had the field cleared and plowed by the end of the day. The satisfying sense of accomplishment of seeing dark soil turned over in neat furrows was interesting, though it didn't compare to the exhilaration of killing Wraith.

They headed back into town a few hours before dinner to rest and settle in. The meeting house seemed to have more rooms upstairs, enough for every person with them.

"Suppose they just remodeled?" John asked as they sorted themselves out.

McKay answered. "Or it's like the Tardis."

It caught on, and the meeting house became the Tardis House, and even Halling laughed. Ronon figured that Halling had been dragged down to movie night at some point.

They gathered around the low, long table. The food was pretty good, and there was lots of it, which Ronon appreciated. Everyone around him talked, discussing the day's work and planning for the next. Ronon listened as he ate, but they seemed to have it all worked out, no need for his opinion.

When the conversation turned to the seedlings they'd be planting, Katie perked up. Seemed she could talk, after all. Ronon grinned at himself. He liked that she didn't just chatter.

There wasn't much socializing after dinner. Everyone was exhausted, even him. The next day, Ronon wouldn't make the same mistake of going for his usual early morning run.

 

~*~

 

There were a hundred trays of seedlings that had been started for them. They loaded them up on a wagon, while Katie talked to the guy in charge of the greenhouse.

The Elders drafted a handful of teenagers to help with the planting. Toshe, Lindal, Ragen, Aberta and Innis were bright and gregarious, and it turned out they were one of those power circles, just formed and this was training for them, as much as manual labor. Marte said that the young circle would look after the field as part of their apprenticeship, then left the greenhouse with an admonishment to enjoy the planting.

Ronon didn't know what any of the plants were, and they had to be arranged in some kind of order, but between the five kids, Katie and Bryce, they got everything organized.

McKay was let out of the back-breaking work, because as he said, back breaking, and there was some old irrigation system that needed looking after instead. Innis took him to the river, and the rest of them got down to business. Ronon got partnered with Lindal, and she talked a lot, but worked steadily in tandem with him. They'd trade off jobs every couple of hours, carrying trays or digging. The black dirt smelled good in the sunshine, and the cool breeze that blew in off the river carried snatches of conversation across the field. Otherwise, it was quiet, unlike Atlantis with the constant low hum of equipment and the ocean.

Ronon saw why some people liked farming.

When McKay finally got the the pump working at the end of the day and the furrows filled with tiny rivers of clean water, everyone let out a groan of relief.

 

~*~

 

With the planting done, they took a day to just hang around. Ronon was pleasantly sore, farming used all sorts of different muscles than fighting.

McKay and Sheppard took off for the outpost early with Lohn and Bethel. Ronon had gone once to see it, but it was boring. He didn't hang out in the labs, not like Sheppard. Though that probably had more to do with McKay than the science, and Ronon couldn't play gene switch like Sheppard either.

Teyla and Halling were out in the rock garden meditating with Afal, while Bryce left Tardis House with Zin. They wouldn't see her again until it was time to go home, if this was anything like the last time they'd visited.

Katie joined him and Marte, who promised seeds to take home, and when Katie fretted because all of her sample bags were full, Ronon reminded her that they could come back to get more whenever she wanted.

Ronon carried his camera as they wandered around and explored the town. The park next to the bridge was busy, rows of long boats with oars laid out in rows, with folks running around getting them ready for some festival the next evening.

Marte got them attached to a boat and team, and though Ronon didn't know anything about boats or rowing, he could follow orders. Katie was put to work assembling lanterns that would decorate the park and river and Ronon ended up filthy from painting. People were people, because the teams shouted at one another. Sheppard called it trash talking when the marines did the same thing.

 

~*~

 

The next day, Marte took him to her home to prepare food for the evening's festival. The house was full of family. Marte's husband, Lennet, welcomed Ronon warmly, and introduced the passel of children and grandchildren, some of them older than Ronon.

The young children were in an uproar because it was a festival day, until Marte shoved them outdoors to work off some energy while the adults got down to work peeling the green and purple tubers that Marte called aplebar. Lennet was a man after his own heart, because barely an hour after breakfast, he served tall glasses of a pale ale, 'for lubrication'. Lennet probably didn't need any more lubrication, as he laughed easily and flirted with Marte, who blushed like a teenager.

It felt familiar, like home, his old home on Sateda. Ronon had known all of his grandparents, but none of them had been as old as Marte and Lennet.

 

~*~

 

The festival feast was held at the park, and there were whole beasts roasted on spits, dripping into the fire, and long, wide tables groaning with food, cold, sweet wine and ale. Lanterns were strung along the shore of the river and they glowed in the growing dusk.

Ronon spotted Sheppard and McKay as he headed to check in with the boat team he'd been assigned to the day before. McKay had one of the aplebar dumplings half-eaten, and Sheppard had a glass of ale in hand. He waved at them and hurried to the dock.

The boat team was another of those power circles. Jaren, Zebba, Teekat, Bin and Nunaf were middle-aged, and glad to have Ronon as their sixth. Jaren was the captain of the boat, and she waved off any concern that he didn't have any experience, then put Ronon in the stern next to her.

They pushed the boat off early to give him a little practice. Stronger than she looked, Jaren encouraged Ronon to put some muscle into the stroke of the oar. Teekat laughed when he had to over-correct for the extra power in the stern, and sent a splash with the wide paddle that would've drenched Ronon if he hadn't ducked.

Soon all of the boats were in the water, and rowing their way to the starting line up river. It was crowded with the fifteen or so boats, but they all managed to get lined up before the deep gong sounded, and they were off.

Ronon took Jaren at her word, and threw himself into rowing. The cheering townspeople lined up along the bank, and tossed early spring blossoms into the river. The boat slipped through the water, oars slicing downward without a splash, and they stayed ahead of the fleet and paced the leader.

It was a close finish; they came in second when the leader they had chased down the river eked ahead of them at the last moment.

Zebba reassured him that second was good, they'd never managed to get that close to Lenthal's team in the past, and invited him back for next year's race—perhaps they would even win.

It didn't seem to matter; there wasn't a trophy and every team was hailed with cups of pale ale and congratulated equally, even Toshe's boat that had come in last.

It wasn't that different than any of the other fêtes that Ronon had been party to in the last five years. He got pleasantly drunk, and stuffed himself with food, danced when asked, laughed and talked with the folks he'd met and introduced them to Sheppard and the rest of his team when they wandered by. The feast lasted long into the cool spring night, and it was near dawn when he drifted back to the Tardis House with Katie, Teyla and Halling.

 

~*~

 

In the morning, Ronon, Katie and Marte walked out to the field to check the planting before they gated home. Ronon thought the little seedlings looked alarmingly droopy, but Katie reassured him that it always took a day or two to get over the shock of transplanting, that they'd be fine. Toshe and his circle would take care of them, anyway.

When they got back to Tardis House, Teyla met them at the door with a wide grin. "Ronon, you must bring your camera into the kitchen."

McKay was bossing Sheppard around the kitchen, claiming he'd already had to do this once before, therefore he was in charge. Sheppard cheerfully sniped back that his Winter King meal hadn't been all that great, either.

Ronon hung around and photographed the show. The Sheppard/McKay folder on the Atlantis listserv would nearly double in size once they returned home. Every team had their own folder, but Ronon's prodigious efforts had already made theirs the largest.

McKay complained about Ronon's kibitzing, but he was going to have to eat this. It didn't really matter, he'd eaten some pretty terrible things, but it was fun to wind McKay up and let him go.

Eventually they finished their task and served Ronon a fat, misshapen dumpling of unleavened dough. It wasn't pretty, but the sweet and salty fruit in the middle was tasty. He'd have to get the recipe from someone.

After the late lunch, Afal gave them the date for their next visit, though they were always welcome before summer.

 

Summer

If the destination had been any other, Teyla would've left Torren with her people, but the last two visits had eased the apprehensions raised by the show of power upon first contact.

Kanaan smiled as they crowded into the first jumper; another was filling fast. She was not the only one who felt reassured and comfortable with the Shenlin and Binansu. Tales of the spring festival and Ronon's pictures had generated much interest and John had approved many requests to attend the summer ritual.

"You wanna fly, buddy?" John said as he swept Torren up into his lap. Kanaan shared a secret, indulgent smile with her.

Before Torren, Teyla had been unable to convince Kanaan that John had a 'soft, squishy side', as Rodney liked to mock, knowing full well the irony of it. Major, then Colonel, Sheppard was a personality construct meant to offer reassurance in his leadership. She often employed similar tactics for trading.

After Torren, it had been difficult to draw Kanaan out to join her with the team for rare moments of socializing. The months she'd been away on Earth after the Hive ship had given Kanaan the time to heal from Michael's depredations and regain himself however, and now he saw the truth of why she had taken the chance on John and his Ferris Wheels, then fought beside him for so many years.

Bryce made her way forward from the from the rear of the jumper, and announced that the hatch was closed, and John sheepishly turned his attention to the jumper's controls.

She leaned against the back of Teyla's seat, and asked, "Did Afal give you any information about the summer ritual?"

"Only that it is the Festival of Joy and to specifically invite Kanaan."

"Zin asked if I had anyone important that I wanted to bring along and seemed pretty disappointed when I said no."

It had bothered her, the way the people of the Expedition felt they had to be discreet in their sexual relationships. Now, Teyla had a better understanding that they were constantly at 'work', though she still disagreed with the practice.

The jumpers emerged from the gate on P27-398, and John paced Evan's jumper as he slowly flew over the deep green forest. The pathway was barely visible through the heavy boughs, and brightly colored birds flitted in and out of the trees, their wings flickering in the bright summer sky. The meadows were blanketed in red flowers on long stalks that bowed in the rush of the jumper's wake as they landed, the bright petals barely peeking over the top of the long grass.

They disembarked into heat and the low, lazy hum of insects that rose and fell in the still air. Teyla turned her face to the sky and breathed deeply. It was almost too perfect to be real, but she was here with the sun on her face, and the scent of the red flowers was rich and earthy.

Bethel wasn't waiting for them at her walk, though Rodney stopped in to say hello—more likely to visit Bethel's cat than her owner. The gardens surrounding the homes were in full bloom, and the townsfolk waved from their shaded porches as they made their way through Binansu. Torren had wiggled his way out of John's arms, and insisted on walking, though John and Kanaan held onto his hands to keep him upright. Teyla grinned as Torren giggled when they swung him high into the air.

Afal was waiting in the cool and dim foyer of the Tardis House. The arrangement on the table was more of the bright red flowers and Teyla decided the odor gave her a headache. Torren immediately crawled underneath the table when John released him.

Afal greeted her. "Teyla, it's good to see you."

"This is Kanaan and my son, Torren," she pointed under the table, then introduced the newcomers one by one. Everyone had been briefed to not speak until they were called upon, and Afal shook hands and took their measure one by one. Teyla thought that Afal bore an uncanny resemblance to Kanaan, in both appearance and demeanor.

"I'm glad that you have all come for the festival, may you find that which you seek." Afal waved towards the stairwell that led to the sleeping rooms above. "Tomorrow the preparations begin for those who wish to participate, though none are required to do so." Once again, the Tardis House lived up to Rodney's nickname, for there were enough accommodations for all. The room that Teyla regularly occupied was brightly decorated and a small bed for Torren had been installed to one side. Torren was immediately drawn to the assortment of children's toys.

The power to know that the Shenlin exhibited, as contemporaries of the Ancients, wasn't unexpected, but it was still mildly perturbing. Rodney had called it Clarke's Law, when he mused on the probability of some unseen, underlying technology. Bryce had disagreed, insisting that it was similar to the powers gained by near-ascension, and John had laughed when Rodney couldn't find any fault with that assessment.

"You seem upset," Kanaan said as he wrapped his arms around her.

"The Shenlin exhibit great power, and claim to want nothing from us—but I feel that there may be some price to pay for their hospitality."

He kissed her neck and said, "Perhaps. Generosity can be its own reward. Come, I want to see the things you have told me about."

Teyla smiled. Kanaan had been like a child, listening raptly to her stories when she returned to Atlantis from Binansu.

Ronon knocked on the open door. "We're going to check on the field."

"We'll join you," Kanaan said. He picked up Torren and the toy he was playing with. In the hallway, John waved and told them to have a good time.

Half of their complement was gathered in the foyer. The red flowers on the table were gone, and in their place was a wide bowl with sweet purple blossoms floating in water. Teyla shook her head and decided it was useless to concern herself. Rodney was just trailing in, a pleased look on his reddened face, and his shirt showed traces of white fur. He declined to accompany them, and thumped upstairs as Ronon led the way into the hot sun.

Teyla pointed out the blacksmith shop, the forges silent in the heat. There were children in the park, gleefully jumping off the boat dock into the cool, green water of the river.

Their field shimmered in the heat, and Toshe, Ragen and Aberta were there harvesting the green, yellow and red produce, carrying half-full baskets through the damp, steaming, dark furrows.

Teyla thought they should assist, but Toshe averred that they were done, this was the last of what was ripe enough to pick. More baskets stood in neat rows by the road, one for each of them to carry back to town.

After the baskets were stored in a cool cellar, Torren desperately needed a nap. The longer days on P27-398, combined with the time difference with Atlantis had made for a very long day, and truthfully the idea sounded wonderful to her, too.

Kanaan vacillated between joining her or going to back to the river where John and Rodney were lazily paddling in the cool water.

"Go, enjoy," she said.

Kanaan leaned toward her and Teyla stepped into the gesture. His forehead was hot and sweaty where it rested against hers. "I will join you later," he said.

His eagerness pleased and relieved her. Kanaan was finding his way back to himself, though he would never be entirely the same person that she'd fallen in love with so long ago.

She wasn't the same, either, but they were adjusting, and she had no doubt that their balance would eventually be restored.

 

~*~

 

Torren woke up ready to play far too early. Teyla thought, rather crossly, that this was the reason her people didn't generally allow small children to go offworld on trading missions.

The Shenlin didn't keep time, not the way the Lanteans did, and though she could take the time to calculate the difference from her watch, it made no difference. Torren was awake, therefore it was morning.

Fortunately, he was content to play on his bed quietly with the toys provided, and Teyla lay on her side and watched. Kanaan was curled up behind her, gently snoring.

Kanaan had always been a very quiet sleeper until Michael. Dr. Keller had explained that there was permanent damage to the soft palate and pharyngeal walls from the experimentation. It was a tiny price to pay, unlike the possibility that Kanaan could never father another child.

Her annoyance at being awakened too early melted away at the thought; Torren was precious and cherished. Living in Atlantis, he was very likely to become 'spoiled'—a phenomenon that Teyla had never experienced—but, that he was here, with both mother and father, still had the power to overwhelm her in the quiet moments.

The sky beyond the window began to lighten, and Teyla heard people in the hallway. John and Ronon, certainly, though there were several others that would accompany them for their morning run.

If Kanaan weren't so deeply asleep she would join them. When they returned she would ask if they could watch Torren, and she and Kanaan would meditate together in the rock garden.

 

~*~

 

Afal arrived during the leisurely breakfast. He sat down across from Teyla, and said, "The Festival of Joy is one for the joining of new and old pairings. All that wish to be joined may participate, it is as permanent and binding as you will it to be."

"A mass marriage ceremony." Dr. Corrigan said thoughtfully.

Rodney snorted, "Thank you, Dr. Obvious—as if we couldn't figure that out after seven years of people trying to marry off Sheppard."

"Uhm, I reached my limit a few years back," John said. "I'll pass."

Teyla glanced at Kanaan, and he nodded to her unasked question. "Kanaan and I would like to take part in this."

"I believed that you would. There are arrangements to be made, would any others care to join?"

Ronon said, "Yeah, sure."

"Ronon, buddy, you want to get married?" John asked.

"Why not? It's not permanent, right?"

"There are always women that choose from those who wish for a temporary liaison."

"Wait, what?"

"The women choose the men, though the men may refuse if selected."

In the end, only she, Kanaan and Ronon elected to participate. Ronon was sent to Marte, and Afal escorted Teyla and Kanaan to his home.

Mida took charge of the introductions with a brief embrace for Kanaan and herself, cooed over Torren for a few moments, then turned him over to their son Blenk to to take out to play.

Teyla had met Afal's family in the spring. Mida was taller than Afal, and her pregnancy had advanced enough that she would not be part of the joining this year. "There is always another year," she said with an adoring look at her husband. "But this year is for you, Teyla. Come, you must have a new dress!"

Teyla glanced back as she was drawn into the back of the house. Afal and Kanaan were leaving.

"They'll visit with Terat; she is a fine tailor." Mida threw open a door and ushered Teyla in.

There were bolts of fabrics stacked on a table in rich colors, some delicately embroidered in glinting thread, sheer gauze and satiny silks. Mida hauled two lengths of cloth out of the pile and shook them out; a vermillion damask with an elegant pattern of red and orange birds on dark green branches, and a pale orange silk embroidered with tiny red blooms, the same flowers that had given her a headache. "I made these for you."

"They are beautiful, Mida." Teyla lifted the cloths and let them run through her fingers. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Mida sized her up with a glance, and brushed Teyla's hair away from her face. "Yes. I'll have it ready for you in the morning. I'm looking forward to doing this for my daughter," her hand strayed to her belly, "though not for a few years."

Teyla laughed, despite the faint twinge of jealousy for the daughter that she'd never have. "You're very fortunate."

"Ah, child. Don't despair, fate has a way of its own. Come now, this is the dress I had in mind."

 

~*~

 

Blenk brought Torren back, both of them happy and filthy, and Kanaan and Afal returned from Terat's soon after. Teyla thanked Mida again, and they had the afternoon free. There were still many hours of daylight left, and no tasks needed to be attended to; they weren't even expected to show for dinner.

"I would like to go swimming, if you wouldn't mind?" she said. After all, Kanaan had been the day before.

"We can have our lunch in the park, too."

They stopped in the kitchen, and there were several portable lunches already prepared in the cooler, which made her uneasy. It was just too convenient.

"It isn't that strange, Teyla; there are many people visiting, it would be sensible to not expect everyone to return to Tardis House for a midday meal."

"Perhaps you're right." She was seeing trouble where there was none, but it was that sense that had kept her and her team out of trouble on many occasions. "No matter."

The park was busier today. There were several circles of teens preparing lanterns for the next evening, unflattening the folded paper with a twist and a pop, then stringing them into the trees.

Ronon had appropriated Jaren's boat, with Bryce, Evan, Sgt. Coughlin, Lt. Reed and Meg Biro as crew, while Katie and Sgt. Stackhouse acted as time keeper and referee. Jaren, Zebba,Teekat, Bin and Nunaf were on the shore, running up and down the bank, shouting instructions and laughing. It had looked so simple in the spring, but they appeared to be unable to keep the boat on a straight course.

Teyla and Kanaan sat down in the grass next to Dr. Parrish and what appeared to be most of their colleagues from Atlantis, though John and Rodney were notably absent. Torren wandered over to the lantern assembly line, where several youngsters were playing with a torn lanterns.

It wasn't so hot here, with the mild breeze blowing off the river. Dr. Parrish volubly offered a running commentary on a variety of subjects, and Kanaan easily conversed with Dr. Corrigan.

Eventually, Teyla and Kanaan took their turn at the oars. Though Atlantis was on an ocean, they had no boats, and she'd rarely had the opportunity, even as a child to go boating. It was marvelous and strange, such a light craft skimming over the water, the water splashing and dripping from the oars. The rowing came to a complete stop when Ronon neatly yanked the oar from the water and started a water fight, then Jeff Wong managed to fall overboard after he stood up to return the volley.

It was apparent to her that that they would never be a threat to Jaren and her team.

Then Bryce jumped out, and Katie followed her, either as a show of solidarity for Jeff, or because they could hardly get any wetter. Kanaan took matters into his own hands and managed to throw Ronon overboard, though his victory lasted only seconds, as he managed to turn the boat over completely. Jaren and her crew immediately dove into rescue the paddles that had come loose and threatened to drift away on the slow current.

Teyla felt herself an average swimmer, she could get where she needed to and keep her head above water, but Kanaan had taken to the sea easily. He swam regularly when they were in Atlantis, and had taught Torren too. He moved through the water efficiently, and when he reached the shore, Torren leaped fearlessly into his arms.

The boat and oars rescued by their rightful owners, Teyla was content to play in the water with her husband and son, both of them so dear to her heart.

 

~*~

 

Festival Day dawned cool and cloudy, with a hint of rain in the air. Tiny beads of fog collected on Teyla's face as she ran with John, Ronon and Evan, with Kanaan and Torren still tucked in their bed. After breakfast Toshe collected them at Tardis House, and they spent the morning pulling weeds in the garden, and exploring the fields beyond.

John shared her mild disquiet at the idyllic perfection. "It's like Camelot squared. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop."

"Yes. The Shenlin are courteous and warm, but it's too flawless—there are no hungry, injured or sick."

"Yeah. Maybe we're too jaded, though? We should just relax and enjoy it."

 

~*~

 

They returned to Tardis House, and sat down to an informal lunch gathering. The simple food was nourishing but delicious, and Teyla thought of the many baskets in the cellar waiting to go back to Atlantis. Ronon said that he was gathering recipes for the kitchen staff. The Daedalus, and their many trade agreements, kept the expedition fed and healthy, but Teyla always looked forward to going off world for the variety of foods offered.

John sat next to her with his small plate, and said, "If you like, I'll take Torren tonight, so you and Kanaan can have some private time. Consider it a wedding present, since I didn't know I needed to go shopping."

Having Torren with them certainly wouldn't put a damper on their love-making, it never had, but the offer was sincere and well-meant. Teyla laughed and shook her head. "Of course, John. Thank you, that's a very considerate gift."

He grinned back and said mock-solemnly, "Yeah, you know how it is—you get married six or seven times a year, and it loses some of its cachet. Gotta keep the fire alive."

"It does tend to be very wearing." She knew that the various times they had all been married, to one another or to someone from the people they were visiting, though merely symbolic of trust and family, disturbed John, even to this day.

"Yep."

"I didn't see you yesterday at all."

"Rodney wanted to go to the outpost, we stayed pretty late. I'm sorry I missed the spectacle in the park, heard it was pretty impressive."

"An impressively poor performance," Teyla said. "I do not think that Jaren will be so generous in the future."

"You never know. She probably thought it was hilarious."

Afal arrived with Kanaan's clothing. "Mida asked if you would consent to her assistance to prepare for this evening."

Teyla laid down a half eaten dumpling. "Yes, I would like that very much."

"I've got Torren," John said. "Go whenever you want."

"I am finished. Thank you, John."

"See ya later."

 

~*~

 

The long afternoon was spent in conversation and drinking cold sweet wine, as Mida directed her ablutions. Teyla bathed in cool, scented water, then sat for hours while Mida pulled her hair into complicated plaits held in place with pins decorated with tiny birds, and painted on delicate cosmetics.

Finally she deemed Teyla ready to dress. A floor length, form fitting slip in brilliant yellow was first. The hem was embellished with orange birds and red flowers, and alone it was the most elegant garment that Teyla had ever worn. Next was the pale orange silk, with long slitted sleeves that nearly touched the floor, though the hem skimmed the top of the embroidery on the yellow silk. The sleeveless, vermillion damask dragged the floor behind her and was held closed in the front only by a tight sash, tied in an elaborate knot at the small of her back.

For all the layers, knots and sleeves, it was surprisingly comfortable and the cool weather was a relief, for the dress would've been miserable in the heat. Mida held out the last piece of apparel, dainty slippers worked in gold and orange thread. Strangely, Mida did not offer her a mirror, and Teyla couldn't remember seeing one anywhere in Binansu.

"Kanaan will be proud to be your choice tonight."

Teyla laughed. "I would be sorely disappointed if he were not."

A deep gong sounded off, and Mida nodded. "The men and boys are gathering. The young ones will be nervous, especially if they wish for an enduring match, although most of them have already been promised."

"Are there many disappointments?"

"Some, especially if a previous match has failed. Young girls do not always choose wisely."

Teyla recalled her handfasting to Kanaan, a formal recognition of their existing relationship: there had never been any other for her. She couldn't imagine being spoiled for choice. She'd been lucky and found her heartmate among her people.

Another lighter gong sounded. "Now, the women," Mida said. Teyla picked up the long hems to keep them out of the street, but Mida batted her hand away and pulled her out the door and they joined the procession to the park.

Women and girls of all ages headed to the park, even those barely old enough to walk unassisted. Many of their costumes were far more elaborate than Teyla's, though some were modest and unadorned, but all were very colorful.

The park was full of people, though there were observers along with the male participants. Ronon had his camera, and she paused briefly for a photo and a compliment. "You look great."

"Thank you, Ronon. Weren't you going to join this evening?"

"Seemed like too much trouble," he answered with a grin, then wandered off.

John and Rodney were at the edge of the crowd, and they waved at her. Torren was in John's arms, and he was clad in a bright yellow vest. Teyla laughed, thinking of her son being chosen at such a young age, but it made sense, considering the many tiny girls in their miniature finery.

There wasn't a feast to go along with the ritual, instead there were only tables of wine and ale, and everyone mingled with glasses in hand until the third gong sounded. The chosen lined up in a neat row across from where the women gathered together. Kanaan was in the center, and he looked handsome in his black jacket adorned with emerald turtles and fish. He smiled at her gravely and she bowed her head in return.

Teyla had imagined the selection would be a mad rush, women running to their first choice, but it was orderly, as if the choice wasn't necessary.

She walked sedately across the line painted upon the grass, and took Kanaan's hands in hers and said, "I would choose you, always and forever."

Kanaan bowed over their clasped hands. "You are my life, my joy. I will accept your choice, now and evermore."

Teyla leaned in and whispered in his ear. "Were you worried?"

He smiled and kissed her cheek. "Not for a single moment." He kept her hand in his and they walked towards the end of the line. "Torren is this way."

They watched from a discreet distance. Rodney lingered nearby with a beer in hand as he closely watched the proceedings. John held Torren's hand, fending off the women that approached him with a firm smile, and grinning madly when a small girl dressed in white threw her arms around Torren. John knelt down and spoke with her very seriously, nodding as she talked.

Ronon was making sure to get plenty of pictures, and Teyla wondered how many data cards he'd brought with him.

Eventually John and Rodney joined her and Kanaan, Torren and girl in tow. "Teyla, I'd like you to meet Padar, your future daughter-in-law." John had to bite his lips to keep from grinning.

Padar was a few years older, and several inches taller than Torren, and now that she was up close, Teyla recognized her; Torren had played with her in the park yesterday.

Teyla leaned over her and shook her hand gravely. "It is my pleasure to meet you, Padar. I am Teyla, and this is Kanaan."

Padar looked up at her with wide, black eyes. "Are you going to live here now?"

"No, hesha, we must return home tomorrow."

"Okay." Padar nodded and hustled Torren off to play with the other children.

John wiped a fake tear out of his eye. "They just grow up too fast."

Teyla thwapped him as Ronon wandered by. "Got a lot of pictures of Torren, too."

"Good, it was very sweet."

"Congratulations, both of you."

Teyla dipped her head in in thanks, and Kanaan chuckled, "I'm a lucky man."

Rodney gave her fond look and said to Kanaan, "Yes, you are."

"You kids go, have fun, I'll make sure Torren doesn't break curfew," John said with a touch to her elbow.

"Have a good evening," Teyla replied.

Kanaan put his arm through hers as they walked to the Tardis House in the moonlight. He stopped on the doorstep and pulled her into his arms for a kiss, then it was a race to see who could get up the stairs and undressed first.

 

~*~

 

Since Ronon could cook fairly well, Teyla was certain that whatever he and John were making for her would be at least edible. Unlike the debacle in the spring, they had barred the kitchen door to prevent any interlopers or unwanted advice.

They were leaving for Atlantis almost immediately after, and Afal had insisted the toys were a gift, and brought a satchel for them, and a box for her dress. Teyla went upstairs with them, but Kanaan insisted that he could pack very well. "I believe this meal is meant only for your team, Teyla. Go and enjoy—if you can," he added with a sly grin.

Teyla laughed, and leaned in Kanaan's warm strength. So quiet, so determined, and she found new ways to love him every day. She was glad the Shenlin had gifted her with the opportunity to renew their bond. "Very well, my husband."

Bryce and Rodney were in the dining room, eating a snack of leftovers, and Teyla sat on the floor next to Rodney, and asked, "How is your work at the outpost going?"

"Slow. There's so much there, but it's nearly perfect. Bethel said I could bring a team to help in the fall, but not before," he groused. "I know we were meant to get the ZedPMs at the end of the year, but I'm reconsidering."

"Atlantis does have three zero point modules."

"Exactly."

The door to the kitchen was unlocked. John came through first, he looked sweaty and there was an unidentifiable stain on his shirt. Ronon followed with a tiny plate, piled high. He put it in front of her with a flourish.

Teyla examined it carefully, then poked at it. "What is it?"

"Dunno. We just got the ingredients. Afal said we could make anything from them."

"It's sort of a culinary experiment," John added proudly.

Teyla shot him a glance and said drily, "And you know that I love experiments." John smirked and shrugged. Ronon had his camera out, and she was certain that the results would be soon posted for every one to see.

The small bite tasted odd. The combination of tiny, sweet white beans and sour dried fruit was unusual. She smiled gamely, and took another bite. "Am I required to eat all of it?"

John shuddered. "Hell no, I wouldn't eat it."

"I didn't like it, either," Ronon said.

"Then I will say that this ritual is concluded. Thank you for your efforts."

 

Fall

Rodney guided his jumper after John's through P27-398's gate, with Lorne right behind him in a third. His jumper had a complement of science personnel aboard, along with the necessary equipment; laptops, MREs and sleeping bags.

His request to have Zelenka join them had been shot down by Woolsey, which Rodney had protested as overly cautious, but Woolsey had remained adamant. Instead, he got Kirk and Corrigan to finesse translations, as well as Kusanagi and Simpson because he trusted them. Christian Daugherty and Rupam Uunonen, the two newest members of the science team, had been included because they hadn't yet proven themselves as completely incompetent.

Rodney intended to stop in at Binansu only long enough to pick up Bethel; Sheppard and Lorne had plenty of people to help with the final harvest, and he had more important things to do.

It was only mildly annoying that Bethel insisted on being present, since she regularly avowed that she knew nothing of the Ancient's science, but his forthright manner didn't bother her, and Bethel had a sarcastic wit that Rodney admired; she vaguely reminded Rodney of his maternal grandmother.

John frequently mouthed off about the McKay personality that he and Jeannie shared, but Rodney never bothered to correct him that they shared Alfreda Parr's personality.

Arguably the best reason to pick up Bethel was the opportunity to visit with her cat, Nima. It was an exceedingly odd mystery; there were a lot of various feline-like animals in Pegasus, but so far Nima was the only actual cat, with thick, white fur that felt plush, and startling blue eyes.

Plus, Nima liked him.

Rodney sighed at the necessity, but he reminded everyone to wait until Bethel spoke to them, and they tromped off after John, Teyla, Ronon and Lorne's rather boisterous crew of marines slated for manual labor.

Teyla waited with Bethel at the end of the path to her house, Nima sitting neatly at their feet.

He picked up Nima, who head-butted him affectionately, and while Bethel did her weird introduction thing, Teyla drew him aside.

"Rodney, I know that the harvest is not a priority for you, but please remember to come down from the mountain for the Moon Festival. I'm sure those who have not been here before would appreciate the break." She put her hands on his shoulders, and Rodney dipped his head against hers, Nima purring loudly in the space between them.

"Yes, yes. Cultural significance, family, etc. Why didn't you bring Kanaan and Torren?"

"Aren't you also family?"

"Well, yes."

"Then that is your answer. I will see you soon." Teyla stroked Nima under the chin, gave Rodney a final pat on the shoulder, then headed toward the Tardis House.

He was curious to see how the accommodations there turned out, and perhaps if he badgered Bethel enough, she'd tell him how they did that, because magic wasn't an option, no matter what Kirk said about the Nox.

Nima jumped out of his arms and strolled back to the house. "Chop, chop, time is money, mysteries of the universe await us." Never mind that they were waiting for him.

Kirk shook her head knowingly, and turned towards the field where the jumper was parked. It was inconvenient, and Rodney grimaced at the memory of John nixing his plan to land in the park. "Too many people, and it's not that far, Rodney. Get over it."

All of that was forgotten as they approached Rizq. It was smaller in size than Atlantis, as aesthetically pleasing, and best of all, didn't have the same problems with a poorly organized database.

As far as Rodney had been able to determine in his few short visits, Rizq was an academic research center. He and John had found very little miscellaneous technology in their earlier explorations, no labs other than the small rooms that Rodney theorized were like library carrels.

Rizq had no gateroom, no stardrive, no cranky flotation or desalinization systems. Just one glorious, huge, uncorrupted database. The fact that there were so many ZedPms in a facility that obviously didn't require them was bizarre, but he'd long ago stopped trying to make sense of anything related to how the Alterrans had operated.

"All right, people, listen up. You've got your research lists, and we've got less than a week here. The upper level has sleeping rooms, everything else of note is here on the first level. Pick a workroom, they seem to be identical. Kirk, Corrigan, you've got Daugherty and Uunonen, they don't know Alterran nearly well enough to be left unattended. Simpson, Kusanagi, you're going to love this place."

Their lists each contained one hundred prioritized items, the combined wish lists of every doctor and scientist on Atlantis, from astrophysicists to xeno-zoologists: unidentifiable devices, drone production, the wraith, epidemiology, manufacturing, damaged or incomplete files that had hindered research, references that were missing altogether, and things that ought to be there but weren't.

Rodney's list was much shorter; Zelenka's list and zero point modules, which he'd been working on all year. The opportunity to do pure research was rare, usually relegated to his infrequent spare time. Nor did he want to have it handed to him on an Ancient crystal. Rodney was putting in his due diligence with each concept, so he would earn that heavy gold medal.

He'd wanted to bring more people in earlier, but Bethel had been adamant that the year's end was soon enough. The requirement of her presence seemed suspiciously like babysitting, too. He'd asked, of course, and her reply was frustratingly abstruse, "The speaking tells all."

As if they'd taken his measure based on ten words or less. It would've been more insulting, but he'd learned the depth of his hubris. Also, he'd been able to read minds prior to near-ascension and the Shenlin's power over the physical world could easily extend into the immaterial. Which led to a thousand more questions that were ignored or deflected by Bethel.

Confound it all, anyway.

 

~*~

 

Rodney had slept a total of ten hours in the last three days, and to avoid John's castigation for taking an unnecessary risk, Kusanagi flew them to the settlement.

It was cold and clear, and the forest across the river showed hints of red and gold. Rodney zipped up his battered, beloved orange fleece jacket and jammed his hands into his pockets for the walk into town.

Binansu seemed nearly deserted, but Bethel assured him that it was harvest season, and everyone was in the fields. He didn't get the dichotomy, why they insisted on performing various menial tasks when they could likely wave their hands and have it done, but Bethel had been resistant to his questions on the subject. It was what it was, though he had his suspicions.

Tardis House had indeed reconfigured yet again. There were rooms for everyone, and after a snack in the kitchen, Rodney faceplanted on his bed for a nap.

The room was limned in soft moonlight when he was awakened with a shake of the shoulder. "Hey, buddy. Time to go party," John said.

"Already?"

John chuckled, "Yeah. Twenty-two hundred and the night is still young."

"Crap." Thirty hour days were a curse in disguise, and he'd worked himself into a huge sleep deficit. Rodney dragged his pants and shoes on, then decided to skip shaving. No one would care, himself least of all. "How was the harvest, et cetera?" he asked with a hand flap as they head out of Tardis House.

"Everything's done. We've been ferrying food to Atlantis in the evenings, just a few more trips to go. How's the research?"

"Amazing. We were right, they corrupted the Atlantis system on purpose—I'd love to set up a relay satellite to stream the file structure repair data through the wormhole."

"Too bad it's stationary."

"There is an ocean, and we'll have power to burn—assuming we get the extra ZedPMs. "

John bumped his shoulder with a grin. "Huh. I'm always up for a Sunday drive."

"Only you would consider flying Atlantis to the distant reaches of the galaxy a Sunday drive."

The festivities were in full swing when they arrived, and as harvest nights went, it was pretty standard—jostling crowds, dancing and drinking under the light of the huge moon. John headed off into the crowd, and Rodney found Simpson and Daugherty not far from the tables of food and drink.

Rodney was perfectly fine sitting at the edge of the hullabaloo, snacking and drinking, while arguing about their discoveries at Rizq. Kusanagi, then Uunonen and Corrigan joined them. He had a passing thought that this would've been far more fun if Zelenka had been there to bait.

The lack of sleep caught up to him, and Rodney staggered back to the Tardis House. If there had been a point to the evening, some ceremony or ritual, he'd missed it completely. The little round cakes had been outstanding, though.

 

~*~

 

Rodney overslept, and they returned to the outpost late in the day. Bethel disappeared somewhere in the facility, and Rodney didn't give her another thought.

Simpson and Kusanagi knew better than interrupt him except for life-or-death emergencies and he was confidant that Rizq simply didn't contain the wherewithal to present such a scenario. The work rooms had excellent lighting and climate controls, no windows, and Rodney lost himself in research.

A knock on the door startled him, there was a very faint possibility that he'd nodded off for a minute. Rodney turned to unleash the full power of a scathing rebuke upon whoever had the audacity to bother him, but it was John and Teyla. "Oh. What are you doing here?"

John smirked, "We came to make sure you hadn't chained everyone to their desks."

"Don't be ridiculous—they are free to sleep when necessary," Rodney snapped.

"Rodney, the Elders have requested that we meet with them this evening," Teyla said quietly.

"Wait, what? We were supposed to have two more days!"

"Uh, Rodney, it's been two days. We're scheduled to return to Atlantis in the morning. Lorne went back yesterday." John peered at him. "Have you slept at all?"

"Some," Rodney hedged. "This might not look important to you, since there aren't any explosions or imminent death, but I assure you it is. We've barely gotten though half of the lists—"

"S'alright, Rodney. I'm pretty sure they'll let you come back."

A few days here and there was simply inadequate, but both John and Teyla had put on their determined faces.

John took Teyla on a short tour, and Rodney rounded up his team. "Pack it up, we're done." It probably was for the best, since they had very likely surpassed their peak efficiency days ago. All of them looked tired and owlish, but Uunonen and Daugherty were cross-eyed with exhaustion.

Bethel reappeared and followed him around while he put Rizq back to sleep. Rodney eyed the ZedPMs longingly, but left them where they were. He hoped that the entire year's worth of ridiculous rituals had been worth it, and they'd be back to further plumb the depths of the outpost.

 

~*~

 

The fall had turned to winter in Binansu. It was cold, and the light rain threatened to turn to snow. Rodney had time for a bath, and the shivers turned to shudders when he realized that Teyla and Bryce had been sent to the kitchen to make some awful thing he'd be forced to eat.

He marshaled his arguments for future rights to Rizq as he sloshed around in the huge copper tub. He'd maybe slightly understated their progress, but even so it wasn't enough. Most of their failures in the first five years could be attributed to desperation and meager resources, rather than a true intent to evil, if that was what concerned the Shenlin. Many of the ongoing projects on Atlantis were hampered by insufficient information—or even clues. The IOA was constantly hounding him for more and better results from the scientists. His personal research had been furthered by leaps and bounds in the last week, and Zelenka would be thrilled by some of the engineering schematics he'd found for him.

Rodney knew that he had the power of being utterly right behind his claims, but indubitably Teyla was more persuasive. He'd talk to her beforehand, then eat whatever she made with a smile on his face. The things he did for science.

John thumped on the door. "Get a move on, McKay."

Rodney grumbled under his breath about genius being hurried, but he got dressed and went downstairs, still slightly damp. The Elders were already seated at the table. Ronon was lying in wait with his ubiquitous camera, and John gave him an unrepentant grin.

There was only one plate on the table, though he wasn't sure it should be called food. The pale orange mush was interspersed with chopped vegetation. Teyla gave him a bright smile, and Kirk wouldn't meet his eyes.

Rodney tried his best keep a straight face, but the whir-snap of Ronon's camera told him that he hadn't been successful. He reminded himself that Teyla was his negotiator and they needed Rizq, then took a healthy bite.

It was sweet, the mush was a fruit of some kind with a bitter overtone, but the green stuff... he chewed a little more vigorously and concentrated on flavor that was familiar, but he couldn't quite— "Oh my God. Hemp?" He couldn't get stoned, they had negotiations to conduct!

John broke out into loud, honking laughter. "I couldn't believe it either. Don't worry about it. One bite isn't going to impair your brain, Rodney."

He turned to Bethel, and asked. "What is the point of all this, anyway?"

"It is the power of your circle, Rodney. You feed and are fed, one another in turn, each providing strength that supports one another."

Well that was refreshingly clear—not. "It wasn't horrible," he assured Teyla. It suddenly occurred to him the pattern was incomplete, assuming five people were a 'circle'. "Wait a minute—we missed Kirk, and that was supposed to be, uhm, me and Ronon."

Zin said, "The fifth season lasts but a day. We considered calling you together, but for many reasons, elected not to do so. I am certain that you will fulfill the obligation at the appropriate time."

Kirk didn't look the least bit perturbed by the unintended slight; no, she looked remarkably mischievous. As did Ronon. Rodney foresaw an embarrassing episode in the the mess in Atlantis at some future date.

"It is of no consequence, for you have been heard and seen," Lohn said. "Rizq was given into our stewardship, and now we relinquish that duty into your capable custody. Consider this our contribution to aid you in your struggles with the Wraith."

Rodney was dumbfounded, and John scratched the back of his head.

"You're just giving it to us? We can do anything we want, bring Atlantis here, if necessary?"

All of the Elders nodded and Bethel said, "Yes. The future has come to Binansu at last."

A tiny part of him mourned the fact that his brilliant arguments and logic had become a moot point, but still. They got to keep Rizq.

"Elders of Shenlin, we thank you for your trust," Teyla said. "It is a great responsibility, but we will carry it with pride."

Afal said, "We thank you. It has been our pleasure to receive you." They stood in unison, bowed deeply and left the room.

A stunned silence reigned until Kirk asked, "Bring Atlantis here?"

"It's that, or launch a satellite for data transfer. As nice is it would be to bring the city here, I'm sure Woolsey will disagree." There was so much to be done, but along with the avalanche of plans and ideas, he also looked forward to visiting Binansu again. The few weeks they had spent here with the Shenlin had been a respite, even though it had also included hours of horrible physical labor.

Excited conversation broke out, everyone talking over the other, and Rodney overheard Ronon say, "I guess that's why they never went out against the Wraith."

"Wasn't in their purview," John agreed.

They talked around the table until late, with the occasional foray into the kitchen for food. Rodney and Simpson were last to go upstairs. He was certain that he'd never be able to sleep for the mad whirl of plans, but he dropped off almost instantly as he snuggled into the warm blankets.

 

Winter, Redux

John's room was freezing when he woke up. He wondered what the hell had happened to the heat, then debated whether or not to stay under the covers. He glanced at his watch, but it looked like it had gone completely on the fritz overnight; the date was a few weeks shy of last year.

He got out of bed and located his pants, but he was sure that that pair of BDU's had been trashed months ago.

Something was seriously wrong.

He yanked them on and threw open his door. Teyla, Rodney and Bryce were milling around in the hallway, and John immediately knew that he wasn't the only one having issues. "What is it?"

"The other rooms, they're gone. Corrigan, Kusanagi, Simpson and the those other two," Rodney paused and snapped his fingers at Bryce.

Bryce supplied, "Uunonen and Daugherty."

"Why them?" John demanded. "Rodney, did something happen at the outpost you forgot to mention?"

"No! Nothing, it was completely uneventful!"

John grimaced. "Just a little too perfect."

"Yes," Teyla agreed.

"The house reconfigured at some point in the night—"

"Did it? Or is something else going on here?" Yeah, he knew things would go sideways at some point.

Ronon burst out of his room and asked, "Has anyone else looked out the window?"

"No," John said grimly. He went into to the closest window, drew back the curtain, and muttered, "What the hell?"

The town was gone. The rock garden below, the street, the homes and buildings had vanished, and as far as John could see were empty, overgrown fields covered in snow with vague lumps that suggested ruined foundations. "Dammit—the bridge." It was the only link to the jumper across the river, though Woolsey would send Lorne to check when they missed their dial in. Hopefully.

Ronon nodded, and said, "I'll go check."

"Be careful," he said to Ronon's back. "All right. My watch says it's last year."

Everyone's watch had the same date. "Rodney, Bryce, check your equipment. Prove to me you spent the last week at the outpost." They hurried to their rooms, and John turned to Teyla. "What do you think?"

"I don't know. We are here, this house is solid, but..."

"I agree, too much doesn't add up. Check downstairs, see if you can find anything. I'll look around up here."

Rodney came back, with a tablet and lifesign detector. "This is it. All the laptops, data storage devices—everything we brought with us is gone."

Which pretty much confirmed his suspicions.

Ronon pounded up the stairs, his face red with cold. "Bridge is there, but I can't see the jumper."

John knew that he'd left it uncloaked, parked in clear sight of the bridge when he returned from his last vegetable run to Atlantis.

Rodney said, "Is anyone else thinking what I'm thinking?"

"That the last year was a shared hallucination?"

"Well, I was thinking shared illusion," Rodney paused at his annoyed look, "but let's not split hairs."

John started handing out orders. "Ronon, come with me. I'm going to check on the jumper—I've got a pretty good idea where it is, and it may be cloaked. Rodney, get Bryce and you two help Teyla. Start looking for coats, food, anything to put it in. If the jumper really is missing, we may have to walk out of here. No one else leave the building for any reason."

The first step outside was shocking. John's breath froze immediately, and his leather jacket was woefully inadequate against the bitter cold. He sure as hell hoped that the jumper was just cloaked, because they were in serious trouble if it wasn't there.

John stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, and found the remote. "That's a good sign."

"Yeah. Move a little faster, Sheppard."

They jogged at a quick clip though the trail Ronon had broken through the snow, though it was too deep to really run. The bridge seemed real enough, and Ronon's tracks went all the way across.

John peered over the railing. The river looked frozen solid, but he didn't want to take the chance of falling through the ice. He was already getting chilblains in his feet, hands and ears; a polar plunge would be fatal. "Stay here," he told Ronon. He was scared that the bridge would disappear once he was on the other side, and if the jumper wasn't there...

A pair of snow shoes would've been really nice. His pants were frozen all the way above his knees, but he had to move fast, because the clock was ticking. Every minute he was out here, the worse his frostbite.

Ronon hadn't seen the jumper because it was parked at the far end of the field, where they'd parked the first time they came to Binansu—correction, the second time they'd come here—and it was buried in a snowdrift. John triggered the remote, and thank God, the hatch fell open. It was a good thing that the jumper didn't require too much manual dexterity, because he couldn't move his fingers. The HUD showed the exterior temperature at -18°C.

He picked up Ronon then parked immediately outside the Tardis House. John's face and hands burned miserably in the relative heat inside, and he'd already lost feeling in his feet altogether. Ronon wasn't in much better shape.

Teyla led them to the kitchen, where it was even warmer. Bryce had discovered that there was fire wood, and water was boiling for tea. He shuddered miserably, as Teyla piled him under half the blankets from everyone's beds, and Ronon under the rest.

"There is very little here that would be useful," she said. "Our backpacks are here, and the weapons, as well."

John nodded briefly, he'd expected that. It was like déjàvu all over again, the disconnect when perception and reality didn't conform to one another. "Doesn't matter, we wouldn't have lasted another ten minutes."

"Rodney can fly, we must return to Atlantis immediately."

"Better not forget anything, because I have a feeling that this place won't be here once we leave."

"I had the same thought. Rodney and I will make sure all of our belongings are stowed aboard."

"Here, take a blanket—you'll need it."

Teyla nodded, and stripped a blanket from each of them, and left the kitchen. Bryce handed him a lukewarm cup of tea, and it felt too hot to handle.

It was only a few minutes later when Rodney came into the kitchen, still stomping to knock the snow off his boots. "We're ready."

"Let me put out the fire," Bryce said.

"Don't worry about it." John stood up and nearly fell over, his feet were still numb. Bryce steadied him, and Rodney helped Ronon out the door and down the step. God, the cold was worse the second time.

John stopped at the end of the ramp and turned around to look, and the meeting house slowly vanished into thin air.

"Freezing!" Rodney said.

"Yeah, yeah."

It was a short flight to gate, and Teyla dialed as soon as it was in view. "Atlantis, this is jumper four, sending though my IDC."

Woolsey answered, "Teyla, it's very good to hear your voice. Lowering the shield."

"Thank you. Please have medical meet us, we have a class two medical emergency."

"Very well, see you in a moment."

 

~*~

 

John huffed in annoyance when he and Ronon were whisked out of the jumper bay, leaving Rodney, Teyla and Bryce to brief Woolsey as they followed along more sedately.

Doc Horne had proven nearly unflappable, and this was minor as emergencies went. "Core temp is down, we'll warm you up and keep you overnight, to monitor for damage."

"I can move my fingers already, Doc."

"That's good. I'll have some food brought in for you. Anything besides the touch of frostbite and hypothermia?"

"Not that I'm aware of. How long were we gone?"

"Four weeks. The Daedalus is supposed to arrive in system tomorrow to search for you."

Woolsey and Lorne joined them in the infirmary, and listened to their informal reports.

Lorne said that they hadn't gotten even a blip from their sub-cu transmitters or found any trace of an outpost in the month that they'd been scouring the planet looking for them. No dampening fields, or anything unusual about the planet, except that it was huge. "Zelenka confirmed that no other gates were dialed from there."

"Major, did you have any issues with your radios?"

"No, sir. None at all."

Rodney had a lot theories, selective shielding, masking and projected illusions, but they had to have eaten, or been nourished somehow, because Rodney hadn't fallen into a hypoglycemic coma. They could've been in stasis, but he'd been there before, too.

Stasis, or time dilation fields—John thought they both felt a little off. The subjective time frames added up, too. Binansu had been too real, the people warm, friendly and welcoming. In the end, the Shenlin hadn't wanted anything from them but to do a little farm work, eat some food, and play with them.

There was also the fact that the Elders said they were turning Rizq over to them, the outpost that was confirmed in Atlantis' database, and yet there hadn't been any trace of it when Lorne went looking.

Mr. Woolsey cleared his throat. "Colonel, in this case, I would prefer that your mission reports not be a collaborative effort. Please do not discuss this among yourselves until those have been filed."

John agreed. "To see how our experiences match—or not."

"Yes."

 

~*~

 

The team lounge was bright with sunlight, and the balcony door was open. Dr. Kirk was there, too. It was extremely weird, that John felt that he'd come to know her very well over the course of a year, and yet also knew that prior to stepping through the gate, he'd only known her for a few days.

All of their reports had been filed, even Ronon had fully cooperated, and they were reading each others reports. They synched completely. No missing time, no disagreements in the order of events, as to who had done what, or the outcome of any event, except for the normal difference in perspective.

There were a couple of kickers, though. Upon returning to her quarters, Kanaan had presented Teyla with a box, and said he'd found it under the bed. The dress Mida had made for her was inside.

The data card in Ronon's camera had as many pictures as he expected, but they showed empty landscapes or only the five of them in odd poses, interacting with unseen entities. John and Rodney were definitely digging in the dirt in more than a handful.

Rodney found traces of white cat hair on his clothing that the biologists confirmed as Felis catus.

Teyla sounded discomposed when she said, "It does appear that our experiences were real."

"So why didn't Lorne's team find us, or get sucked into whatever that was?" John demanded. He despised being jerked around and he definitely didn't like mysteries.

"What about an alternate reality, or folded space?" Rodney said thoughtfully, and nodded at Dr. Kirk. "As you said, the Nox had 'incredible personal powers', and as much as I hate to say this, the Shenlin could have manipulated both time and space."

"The Tardis House," John agreed. "Huh. That's interesting."

"If we agree that our experiences were not an illusion, and we have evidence to confirm that, then the converse could be true." Rodney said excitedly. "Lorne was subjected to an illusory reality—which means that Rizq is real. We need to go back."

"Yeah. Convincing Woolsey of that is going to be tough."

"Evidence," Rodney sang at the top of his voice.

Dr. Kirk nodded. "Dr. McKay is right, Colonel. I've compared some of what I found in Rizq with the database here, and found several things that had been previously hidden."

Ronon spoke up. "We don't really need his permission—we can get there from any gate."

John grimaced. "I know, but what if we get caught up again? No one will know what happened to us."

"I believe the Elders were sincere in their gifts to us, John. They are gone, and Rizq is ours."

"Okay. Let's put our heads together and come up with a mission prospectus that he's gonna buy."

 

~*~

 

In the end, Woolsey was already prepared for their bid to return to P27-398. "It is the original objective, and it appears that you've passed their test. The Daedalus is already on route as your backup. You have a go, Colonel."

Dr. Kirk was already in the jumper bay with heavy winter gear, and John immediately understood why she wanted to go. "Yeah, okay. Come on."

The five of them boarded the jumper, and John notified Woolsey that Dr. Kirk had been added to the mission roster.

"Rodney, the MALP is returning full readings," Zelenka broke in. "All within expected range."

Rodney replied, "Thanks, Radek. Good to know."

The atmosphere in the jumper was charged with a nervous tension. They had theories about what they'd find, but they couldn't really know, not until they went through the gate. The MALP telemetry could easily be faked.

The jumper paused in front of the gate, and John asked, "Everyone ready?" but he didn't wait for confirmation to guide the jumper through the event horizon.

The clearing around the gate was familiar, including the wide path through the forest, though it was now covered in snow. Long heavy icicles hung from drooping branches, glittering in the crisp, bright sunlight.

"Atlantis, this is Sheppard. Everything is copacetic."

"We read you loud and clear, Colonel. Two hour check in, please."

"Copy that."

The wormhole snapped closed behind them, and John landed the jumper. "Just want to check something out—Dr. Kirk?"

Rodney stayed in the jumper to finish his scan, but Teyla and Ronon got out, and they stood in a circle around the barely legible sign. John brushed the snow from it with a gloved hand.

It was back to the Nox alphabet, and it took Dr. Kirk a few minutes to work it out. "If I'm correct, it says 'the way is open.'"

"That's what it said the last time, too."

Rodney announced on the radio, "I found it."

Given that they remembered Rizq being a several hour flight, John informed Atlantis that their next check in would be in eight hours, and then he pointed the jumper skyward.

 

~*~

 

Rizq was at the expected coordinates, atop a mountain range on the edge of the continent. It was even colder in the mountains, and John was already shivering in his Arctic rated gear, when Rodney finally got the door panel clear of ice.

That Rodney needed to break in again gave John a funny feeling, confirmed by the undisturbed dust that thickly covered every surface inside. The lights stuttered twice, but then came on strongly. The temperature inside was barely above freezing, still much warmer than outside.

"I'm going to the power room." Rodney headed for the right-hand door under the windows, and Ronon followed him.

"Anything you want to check out, Dr. Kirk?"

"Yes. This way." She went through the left-hand door, and the warren of carrels was exactly like John remembered.

She initiated the console with a touch, sat down on the bench, unmindful of the dust. "The system seems to be operating in normal parameters, but Dr. McKay will know more about that." She pulled out the short list that had been attached to her mission report, and began checking the items off, one by one. "Everything I remember seeing is here."

Rodney announced over the radio, "The ZedPMs are here, all of them. I turned up the heat, too."

"Glad to hear it, McKay," John acknowledged, then asked Dr. Kirk, "We're going to go do some looking around, you going to be okay?"

She absently flapped a hand at him, such a McKay gesture that John suddenly felt a little better.

Teyla smiled at Kirk's dismissal, too. "I did not like doubting my memory, despite the evidence."

"I know what you mean." However it had happened, they had spent all that time together.

They wandered around the facility familiar only through shared memory. The broad stone apron in the lea of the mountain was buried in leaves and debris under the blanket of snow and ice, and the sleeping rooms were unlivable. The Daedalus arrived in system, and John, Teyla and Ronon were suddenly extraneous to the action, as Rodney and Dr. Novak conferred over a quick and dirty relay satellite launch.

The extremely harsh winter had nixed the fairly amusing concept of bringing Atlantis to P27-398, but still, disappointing.

Three of them went to report in to Woolsey, and once that was done, Ronon said, "We should go fly around."

"I would like to, as well," Teyla added.

"Hey, you don't have to twist my arm." John took them up a couple of hundred feet, and followed the frozen, meandering river to the little lake. It was a solid sheet of slick ice, and if it wasn't so dangerously cold, he would've liked to come back with skates and hockey sticks.

He knew what Ronon had intended when he asked to fly around, so John circled back and headed towards where Binansu had been.

It was still all very strange, though the realism of their adventure was already fading. John remembered looking forward to their ritual weeks, a nice break from the stress, returning to visit the friends they'd made, and if he were honest with himself, he was grieving for losing that.

He caught a glimpse of Tardis House out of the corner of his eye as the jumper passed over a familiar field. John blinked, then unfocused his gaze. If he looked elsewhere, all of Binansu was nearly-there, a shimmering Shangri-La, with their friends waving from the insubstantial houses, streets and bridges. The chimerical mirage of summer fields covered in white and red flowers in the glittering sunlight, the trees a fiery riot of fall colors, all time and place not-existing simultaneously.

"Did you?" John flailed his hand out, and Ronon caught it, held it firm.

"Yeah."

Teyla laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed tightly.

Which was answer enough.

~finis~

 

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Notes

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Team, Gen, E

Year/Length: 2009/ ~21,800

Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit, only having fun.

Summary: A mission, a mystery

Author's Notes: Written for sheafrotherdon in the 2009 sga_santa. Dear Cate, thank you for the joy you give all year long.

Beta: Many thanks to my betas, Auburn and Icarus, for talking me off the ledge, and doing their level best to make this a better story. There were many suggestions that I ran out of time to implement, and all errors are my own.

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