On those infrequent evenings when no crisis kept him in the labs, after nightfall Dr. Radek Zelenka would steal quietly to the far end of the north pier, strip to his underwear and slip into the dark ocean.
He had chosen the north pier for its remoteness and the fact that there was an unused desalination plant at one end of it. If anyone should ever ask him what he was doing there, he had a variety of different cover stories involving variations on the theme of improving Atlantis's water quality. Which story he might need to use would depend on the circumstances under which he was discovered -- obviously, having his life sign spotted on the scanners was a different situation from having a Marine happen upon him half-naked in the water.
The one thing he couldn't explain, even to himself, was why he couldn't simply come out and tell anyone that he was teaching himself to swim.
It was embarrassing, for one thing. He, a grown man, couldn't manage a skill that most children easily mastered. Worse, he was a grown man who lived on a city surrounded by ocean. The thought had occurred to him from time to time, throughout the months that he had spent on Atlantis, that learning to swim would probably be in his best interests, but there never seemed to be time. The longer that he went without doing anything about it, the harder it was to acknowledge it.
And then Rodney was inconsiderate enough to nearly drown himself. And learning to swim was no longer something that Radek felt he could put off ... even if he still couldn't explain to himself why it was so important to him to learn.
It would have been easy to ask someone for help. Most of the Marines could probably have taught him. Elizabeth surely could swim, and Sheppard probably would have been happy to show him. But he balked at the idea, and balked hard. Surely he could teach himself. It couldn't be that hard.
He practiced in the lagoon of calm water formed by the pier and the next-nearest arm of the city. At first, all he'd been able to do was cling to the edge of the pier, breathless with terror at the thought of the abyss under his windmilling bare feet. But slowly, the panic began to fade to more of a healthy sort of terror, such as a man might feel when looking down a hallway and discovering a man-eating tiger at the other end. As long as the tiger stayed over there, a certain amount of fear was perfectly justified, and a person could function around it. He'd gotten to the point where he could let go of the pier with one hand, clinging with the other while inexpertly treading water. He was pretty sure that he no longer needed the grip on the pier to keep his head out of the water, but he was absolutely not letting go until he was sure that he could get back.
It had not escaped his notice that what he was doing was quite dangerous. If he accidentally let go ... if a wave washed him away ... there was nothing between him and the bottom of the ocean except for a mile of cold, dark water. No one knew where he was. In all likelihood, they would never even know what happened to him. The expedition had lost a handful of people that way -- vanished offworld or in the depths of Atlantis, their true fate never known.
And yet this was something that he had to do.
In the darkness of an Atlantean night, he moved his legs against the resistance of the water and felt the tension slowly beginning to ease out of his body. The movements were becoming easier for him, more familiar. He no longer needed his grip on the pier to hold himself out of the water; it was merely a touchstone, his fingers curling loosely around a horn of water-slick plastic that might once have been used to anchor boats or cargo. With his free arm and his legs, he held himself comfortably at chest-depth in the water.
On this night, he felt that he might be ready to let go.
He allowed his fingers to uncurl gently from the pier, still hovering in case he had to grab hold again. He'd left his glasses on, preferring not to duck his head under the dark water. You could swim without dipping your face in the water, so he wasn't about to go that far yet. Besides, it seemed prudent to leave himself capable of seeing clearly. When the glasses came off, his depth perception was one of the things to suffer most, and he wanted to know exactly where that pier was.
His fingers trailed down the smooth surface, and then away. His last anchor to dry land was severed, and he floated alone in a world of water.
After a moment's numbing panic, he realized that he was treading water comfortably, and he began to relax. Although he could feel his arms and legs quickly tiring, his head stayed comfortably dry. Through his water-spotted glasses, the towers of Atlantis wavered and rippled -- glorious towers of lights against the stars.
His breath was starting to come short, and he figured that he'd given it long enough. He turned towards the pier.
It wasn't there.
Without realizing it, he'd been carried by either the water's own motion or by the activity of his own legs under the waterline. The dark line of the pier was now maybe ten or fifteen meters off to his right.
"No big deal, no big deal," he chanted softly to himself in Czech. He'd gotten out here on his own, so it should be a simple matter to reverse direction and propel himself back to the pier.
The question was ... how?
It's simple physics, Radek. Equal and opposite reactions. Surely you can figure this out. Don't give Rodney yet another reason to laugh at you.
He forced himself to focus on solving the problem and not on the growing heaviness dragging at his limbs -- or on the way that the pier continued to shrink in his peripheral vision. Turning around should be a simple matter of using the water's resistance against his arms.
But what he didn't count on was the difficulty of moving his arms and legs independently. As long as he maintained the slow, synchronized motion, there was no problem -- but when he tried to reverse the motion of his arms, this caused his legs to get tangled up. It was like that children's game where you try to rub circles on head and belly in different directions. Only in this case, losing the rhythm of his legs meant that he ended up in a brief fit of uncoordinated thrashing, and started to sink.
No no no no. His head dipped below the waves, and a fit of panic propelled him back to the surface. Don't think, don't think -- just DO. Somehow, he found the rhythm again, his arms and legs settling into that slow pistoning which kept his head out of the water. It was getting much harder, though. He had to gasp for breath between strokes. The lights of Atlantis ran together through his wet glasses like melting wax. He couldn't see the pier at all.
I have to get out of the water. He hadn't realized that he'd tire out so quickly. Who would have thought that simply keeping himself afloat would be so exhausting? But then, he'd never stayed in all that long at a time, and he was able to lean on the pier whenever he needed it.
Think, Radek; think. He was moving under his own power; the trouble was, he was moving in the wrong direction. All he had to do was control it. After what had happened before, he was terrified of trying to change direction again, but if he didn't, it was becoming abundantly clear to him that he was going to drown.
You can do this. Just keep the feet moving -- yes, that's it -- and sweep the arms -- yes --
Triumph flashed through him. He'd done it; he'd figured out how to rotate himself without sinking. Blinking his eyes rapidly behind his water-streaked lenses, he managed to locate the pier -- and his stomach sank. It had to be at least twenty or thirty meters away, and he was still drifting away from it. While his treading water must be accounting for at least a little of that movement, it couldn't be all of it. The ocean had its own cycles, its own rise and fall against the walls of Atlantis. Clearly, in this place and at this time of day, the prevailing currents flowed inwards, pulling him away from the pier towards the other side of the lagoon.
He swiveled again, finding that turning around really wasn't that hard now that he had the system down. Maybe if he could just tread water until he washed up on -- Oh. No. Across from the pier, the walls of the city were sheer, and the waves formed a ruffled white line along their feet.
He was panting now, and the drag of the water made it feel as if he were swimming in molasses. He had to get back to the pier. With that thought in mind, he tried to push himself forward, propelling himself through the water.
His head went under immediately. He came back up, coughing and gasping, completely disoriented. He had no idea which way the pier was, which way the city was. He couldn't see a thing through the water on his glasses. Frantically kicking, he bobbed under again, and only then, though his growing terror, thought to reach for his radio. He slapped at the side of his head and only succeeded in dislodging it. As it slipped through his fingers, he thought with panic-borne clarity: Radek, you are a stupid, stupid man.
Then something firm and unyielding hooked under his arms, and his head broke through to the surface. For a moment all he could do was gasp for air, until finally a voice managed to penetrate the rushing of blood in his ears: "Doctor Zelenka, please. Do not struggle. Relax. I have you."
He obeyed without thought, too disoriented and confused to even question the rescue. When the strong hands hoisted him onto a hard surface, he came back to himself and tried to help, scrabbling until he managed to get onto his hands and knees. The hands continued to grip his shoulders, helping support him as he gasped and coughed.
"Doctor Zelenka, are you all right?"
He recognized the voice, but couldn't quite believe that Teyla Emmagan had appeared out of nowhere to save him. Through his wet glasses, all he could see was a patchwork of blurry shapes. Then he remembered that he was mostly naked, and what little clothing he was wearing would be soaking wet. He hastily broke free and scrambled backwards. "Uh -- my clothes -- where are my --" Realizing that he was still speaking Czech, he switched to English: "Where are my clothes?"
"They are here." A soft bundle was thrust into his hands -- pants and shirt wrapped in the towel that he had brought with him.
Radek didn't look at Teyla as he gave himself a rough once-over with the towel and scrambled into his pants. Finally he risked a glance at her. He could see her a little better now, although he still couldn't make out the expression on her face. She was kneeling with her hands at her sides, head upraised. With her hair wet and slicked down to her head, she looked like something unreal -- a vodník, a water spirit from the folk tales of his youth.
He dried his glasses on his shirt, looking away. "Thank you," he said at last. "I owe you my life." Risking a glance back at her, he saw her wet dark head cocked to the side, her shadowed eyes fixed on him. "How did you find me?"
"Colonel Sheppard asked me to keep an eye on you."
The bottom fell out of Radek's stomach. "Colonel Sheppard?" And he thought he'd been so stealthy.
Teyla nodded. "Yes, he has been worried for you, out here alone in the water."
"How long has he known about this?" It came out snappier than he intended. He felt oddly betrayed.
"For some time now," Teyla admitted. "It was Ronon, actually, who first saw you, while he was jogging late one night."
Radek closed his eyes in despair.
"But Rodney does not know," she added quickly. "We did not tell him."
"Well, that's something, I guess," he sighed, and sat down to put on his shoes. After a moment he looked up to find that she had brought her knees up in front of her chest and folded her arms over them. She was still watching him. "I, uh ... would you like a towel? It's sort of damp ..."
She accepted it with that beautiful, gracious smile of hers -- as if she'd been given a gift rather than a wet military-issue towel. "Thank you."
Radek retreated. His shirt clung to his damp shoulders, and he was uncomfortably aware that he'd stupidly pulled on his dry pants over wet shorts. He had brought a change of underwear, but he certainly couldn't put them on in front of her. "I, ah, I suppose you're probably wondering what I was doing ..."
Teyla shook her head as she drew the towel over her water-slick hair. "It is fairly obvious. Among my people, it was common for boys to learn to swim in the lake, but it was not generally considered a suitable activity for girls." A slight smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "I had to convince some of my male cousins to teach me."
"Oh," Radek said, and he thought, Wonderful. As if this isn't embarrassing enough, not being able to swim is a girl thing on Athos.
"I could teach you, if you would like."
He stopped. Looked at her.
But still he remembered seeing her standing at the hors d'oeurves table, smiling uncertainly at something one of the Marines was saying to her. Radek didn't know who she was; he wouldn't learn until later that she was one of Sheppard's picks for his team, or that she was capable of kicking his ass in about forty different ways. He certainly didn't go over to talk to her, partly because he was distracted by a discussion with McKay and a couple of the other scientists on puddlejumper physics, and partly because she was surrounded by Marines and there was certainly no way he could compete with that. Women like her didn't go for guys like him.
And yet for just a moment, he couldn't help thinking that for all the scientific magic he'd seen that day, she was still the most wondrous thing in this city of wonders. She was autumn colors, golds and browns and dusty blues -- the colors of the city itself. She was sunshine and shadow, lightning and sky; she was earth and deep water, roses and ice; she was the cold perfection of mathematics, and the mellow glory of cathedral bells on a December afternoon. She was all the things he wanted, all that he craved, and all that he feared.
"Hey, Nelonka!" McKay's strident voice -- and mangling of his name, which Radek was starting to suspect was intentional -- dragged him out of a pleasant, poetic reverie. "I asked you a question!"
Zelenka shoved up his glasses and wondered if correcting the mispronunciation was worth it, decided it wasn't. "Yes, what? I'm sorry, I did not hear."
"Yes, I can see that." Rodney seemed to be on the verge of yet another rant on Zelenka's debatable intelligence -- it had already happened twice today -- but the sight of someone passing by with a plate of finger food distracted him. "Oh -- chicken? Is that chicken? Nobody told me they had chicken!" He wandered off, to Zelenka's relief.
When he looked back, Teyla had vanished into the crowd.
The first time that he talked to her was probably three or four months later. By that point, he and Rodney had settled into a semi-comfortable, semi-almost-friendship. At the very least, it was a combatively friendly working relationship. He didn't really know Rodney's teammates, though. Well, he certainly knew them by reputation, particularly Major Sheppard -- there wasn't a person in Atlantis who didn't know Major Sheppard. But the others, Teyla and Lieutenant Ford, were only names who appeared from time to time in Rodney's ramblings. Zelenka and the other scientists would often join Rodney in the cafeteria when none of his teammates were around, but by unspoken consent, they didn't intrude on the team. Zelenka honestly doubted if Rodney would care if they did butt in; half the time his boss ate alone anyway, and if Rodney happened to wander into the cafeteria when his teammates were already sitting there, he was about as likely to seek an empty table as to sit with either them or the scientists. But, truth be told, he wasn't really comfortable around Rodney's team. All of the military made him a bit nervous, but especially those who went offworld on a regular basis. They had seen things, done things, that he didn't even want to think about. Not that he didn't trust them; he did. But they belonged to a different world than his own, and he was more than happy to let it stay that way.
On this particular day, though, he and Rodney were arguing as usual, their half-eaten lunch forgotten in front of them. Zelenka could not afterwards remember the topic, but if he tried to remember everything that he argued with Rodney about, there'd be no room in his brain for anything else.
Without warning, and without asking permission, Major Sheppard slid his lanky form into the chair across from Rodney. The bickering scientists looked up, Zelenka in surprise and Rodney in apparent annoyance. Zelenka's eyes kept going up, to Teyla Emmagan standing a bit uncomfortably behind the Major. She smiled at him, and cleared her throat. "You do not mind if we join you, I hope?"
It took a moment for Zelenka to realize that she was actually talking to him, not Rodney, and then another moment longer to try to get his throat to start working, and by that time Rodney had already opened his mouth. "Of course not, sit sit, and Major, I'd like to know just what exactly you think you're doing, building earthworks along my borders."
The Major popped a cherry-like fruit into his mouth, and grinned. "I'm just starting some construction projects, and I notice I'm not the only one. Which reminds me, don't think I didn't notice the windmills, and I really don't believe windmills are particularly medieval."
"My windmills aren't the issue. Your impending designs on my country are the issue."
"I'm not planning an invasion of Gelding, McKay."
"It's Gel-dar, Major."
Having no clue what they were talking about, Zelenka looked up at Teyla just as she looked at him with equal confusion in her eyes. After a moment, she gave him a patient smile of commiseration.
Zelenka did not afterwards remember anything they talked about, any more than he remembered the topic of his argument with Rodney. The only thing he remembered was that at some point, something that he said made Teyla laugh.
It was like the music of the world. He would have given anything to hear it again.
He found himself growing increasingly comfortable with the various members of Rodney's team, even the new guy, Ronon. The only person he never really seemed to end up with, in a one-on-one situation, was Teyla. Radek wasn't sure whether to be disappointed about that or not. He didn't think she was specifically avoiding him -- at least, he didn't think so in his more self-confident periods. And maybe it was a good thing, because the less time he spent around Teyla, the easier it was to think of her as something other than a very beautiful, very intimidating woman. She was Rodney's friend, Rodney's very platonic friend ... Rodney's sister, in a way, which was an excellent thought for libido-killing.
And it wasn't as if he actually wanted anything to happen between himself and Teyla, even leaving aside the absolute impossibility of such a thing. It wouldn't be good for his friendship with Rodney, and probably wouldn't be at all good for him.
So he had to wonder what he was doing here, in a jumper headed for the mainland with two days in the Athosian settlement stretching ahead of him. He couldn't even figure out why he'd agreed to this, although having both Sheppard and Teyla gang up on him was an experience he didn't care to repeat.
Sheppard twisted around from the pilot's seat of the jumper. "Quit giving me that look, Radek."
"Look? There was no 'look'." Radek raised his hands in the air, and tried not to look over his shoulder at Teyla, sitting behind Sheppard's seat. "Simply because I have been shanghaied ..."
"Hey -- you agreed to this," Sheppard retorted.
"Only because the two of you threatened to tell Rodney about my ..." He trailed off, uncomfortable. He still couldn't quite understand why it was so important to him to keep his swimming project a secret from Rodney. "What did you tell him, anyway?"
Sheppard shrugged uncomfortably, returning his gaze to the jumper's HUD. "Carson let him know you were stressed and could use the time off."
"And he ... agreed," Zelenka said warily.
Okay, there was definitely some kind of blackmail involved on that end, too. He just hoped that Rodney didn't torment him for weeks in retaliation. Well, torment him more than usual, anyway.
Sheppard was talking again, sounding slightly defensive. "Look, Radek, the safety of everyone in this city is my responsibility, and having people try to drown themselves in the ocean is something I'd rather avoid."
"I was not trying to drown myself."
"Coulda fooled me."
"The settlement is just ahead," Teyla broke in with her well-honed sense for heading an argument off at the pass. She pointed ahead, over Sheppard's shoulder, and Radek settled back with folded arms. He'd been on the receiving end of Rodney's stubbornness on more occasions than he could name, but this was his first time truly receiving the brunt of the stubbornness of Rodney's team.
Teyla's people were their usual friendly, welcoming selves. Teyla introduced him around and then went to catch up with some of her friends, while Radek found himself taken under the wing of the village's old women. They brought him a platter of fruit, found him a nice shady place under a tree, pressed cool drinks onto him and generally spoiled him in a way that made him think of early childhood and his grandmother's extended family.
He didn't learn until much later that the Athosians had concluded that something traumatic must have happened to him. Generally, the only time that Atlanteans spent more than a couple of hours in the village was when Beckett had ordered them to the mainland for medical R&R. Naturally they assumed that he was convalescing from some horrible event.
In any case, he found himself pleasantly pampered until late in the afternoon. He'd flipped open his laptop and was halfheartedly working on a jumper power-supply reconfiguration when he looked up to Teyla's familiar figure approaching.
She'd changed her clothes. She still wore the usual midriff-baring shirt, but rather than her BDU pants, she was wearing a pair of long, flowing shorts that went almost to her knees. Her feet were bare. The sun lit her from behind.
Radek's internal litany of Rodney's sister Rodney's sister Rodney's sister slammed right into a roadblock and for a moment he just stared. When Teyla saw him looking at her, a smile lit her up from within.
"If you are adequately settled in ...?" she asked, inclining her head. "I believe we have swimming lessons to attend."
He folded up the laptop and got awkwardly to his feet. "You -- you really don't have to do this, you know."
Her smile faltered. "I am sorry?"
"Listen, I ..." He stumbled over the words. "This has got to be an imposition on your time. I know that Colonel Sheppard told you to bring me here. If you want, we can just make this a -- a regular vacation for you, and you can visit with your friends and then take me back to Atlantis in two days. No one has to know ..."
"Radek." Her voice was soft but firm, and she reached out to touch, lightly, his arm. "No one made me come here. Colonel Sheppard suggested this to me because he was worried, as your friend. We are your friends. You never, never need believe that you are imposing on us."
As he stared at her in amazement, digesting this, she drew back and jerked her head in the direction of the unseen ocean. The ghost of her earlier smile brushed her lips. "Shall we swim?"
Still in shock, although he could hardly even say why, Radek gathered up his small bundle of swimming things and followed her into the village. A few people turned around to look at them with lazy curiosity, but for the most part, no one seemed to wonder at the outsider and the woman walking with only a few steps between them. Teyla turned onto a well-worn path that led into the trees. Radek glanced down a time or two at her bare feet, but the ground was soft and did not seem to hurt her.
The afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees, and patterns of light and shade moved across Teyla's bright hair. Radek did not think he had ever seen a more peaceful place. The beauty of the world around him seemed to calm his own inner turmoil.
"Teyla..." he began, after they had walked in silence for a few minutes.
She looked over her shoulder and gave him an encouraging smile when he hesitated.
"I hope that I ..." He faltered again. Rodney wasn't the only person who had trouble expressing feelings with words. "I hope that I didn't offend you earlier."
Teyla only laughed quietly. "Your people ..." she began, and then shook her head. "You are all more closed up within yourselves than any people I have ever met in my own galaxy. Your world must be an interesting place indeed."
"Er ..." He wasn't sure if he'd been insulted, or how to respond.
"Oh," she said, "we are here..." and led him out onto a beach. The sun, even slanting low across the water, dazzled him after the darkness of the woods. Radek shielded his eyes against the glare off the sand.
"My people often bathe here in the evening. I imagine you would prefer more privacy; there is a more quiet place this way."
Feeling helpless, caught up in events beyond his control, he followed her across wind-swept dunes with curls of bone-white driftwood poking from their crests. They mounted a small rise and Radek found himself looking down into a narrow finger of the sea, framed by green hills. It looked like a movie set to him, too gorgeous to be real.
"You can change; I will be along shortly," Teyla told him, and then she turned and walked swiftly to the water's edge. The wind flattered her loose shorts against her legs and rippled her hair like a flag.
He wanted to watch her, but instead he slipped and slid down the dunes to the water's edge. Finding a tree to hide behind, he changed into the military-issue swim trunks that Sheppard had given him. He left his T-shirt on as a concession to modesty. No sense in blinding Teyla with the pallor of his chest.
When she came to find him, he was sitting on a rock at the water's edge, swirling his feet and watching small fish dart in the crystal-clear shallows.
Teyla gave him an impish smile. "We are not off to a very good start -- I see that you are still dry. I thought you wanted to swim?"
"I do," he retorted, stung. He slid from the rock into the water. As chilly as the water was around Atlantis, here the shallow pools had been warmed by the sun to air temperature. He barely felt the change as the water rose to his knees and then to his waist.
Teyla slipped in after him with barely a ripple. She ducked her head below the surface and rose, streaming water, her teeth flashing white.
"What were you doing earlier?" he asked her, as much to delay the inevitable as anything. "While I changed down here."
Teyla glanced up at the sky. "Merely offering up a small prayer to the Ancestors, asking them to extend a protective hand over us tonight." A teasing grin showed briefly on her lips. "From what I have seen of your swimming abilities, I believe we will need all the help we can get."
"Oh, that's very funny, very funny. I see you have been spending far too much time around Rodney." He slipped without thinking into the combative mode of interaction that had become his default state around Rodney and some of his other friends in the labs -- then remembered it was Teyla, and he wasn't sure how she would respond to that sort of thing.
However, she only smiled and reached out to take his hands.
"Uh -- what are you doing?" Unwillingly, he allowed himself to be led forward.
"You must get deeper."
"I am not fond of 'deep'." As the water buoyed him up and his feet began to float, he choked back a rush of panic. If he hadn't been phobic before, he certainly was now.
"Do not fight. Relax. Trust me; I will catch you if you begin to sink." She frowned at his glasses. "You should probably take those off."
"I would rather not put my face in the water, thank you."
"You cannot swim if you fear the water, Radek." Teyla kicked, pushing herself closer. Her wet, bare arms slid past his head, and suddenly she was nearly hugging him. He froze in a new kind of panic. But she only lifted his glasses from the bridge of his nose, folded them gently, and then kicked away from him towards the shore.
"Wait!" He swiveled to follow her, feeling abandoned and vulnerable. Without his glasses, land and sea blurred together into a haze of blobby shapes. In the ruddy light of the lowering sun, everything was painted in shades of gold and red -- a watercolor left out in the rain.
He followed Teyla's return mainly by the sound of quiet splashing as she stroked back towards him from the edge of the pool. "What did you do with my glasses?" he demanded.
"They are with your clothing. Radek ..." She took his hands again in her wet ones. At arm's length, he could make out her features, but not her expression. "You cannot swim by holding yourself apart from the water. You must give yourself over to it, learn its rules and master them."
"I am not good at ..." He shrugged self-consciously. "Giving over."
"I know. Your people are all about holding yourselves in tight control. You do not like to be in situations that you cannot control. But in life, sometimes you must be willing to relinquish control to gain it back."
Radek's mouth twisted. "Very Zen."
"I have heard of this Zen discipline of your people. I think I would like to learn more of it. Perhaps your people are not as primitive as we Athosians thought at first."
He'd opened his mouth to respond when he realized that he was being teased. "Primitive, are we?"
"Spiritually, emotionally ... yes, I sometimes think you are." As she spoke, she gently, insistently, tugged on his hands. He took a step to follow her, and found his feet leaving the sand of the pool's bottom. Desperate, he kicked to find it again.
"No. Relax. I have you and I will not let you sink."
It took him a bit of floundering to realize that she really was holding him up -- or, rather, she was providing him a stabilizing anchor, while his body's natural buoyancy did the rest. It was strange to feel himself rise and sink in the water as he inhaled and exhaled.
"Now we will go down, and come back up."
"I'd rather not --"
"Breathe deeply, Radek, and then begin to exhale when you are underwater. You need not struggle to hold your breath. We will not be down long at all."
He drew a breath because he didn't know what else to do, and he wanted to shout at her to stop as she drew him under, but didn't dare open his mouth. Then the water closed over his head and he was in another world -- a strange, alien world with no up or down, with water pressing on his eardrums and shutting out all sound except for an omnipresent low roar -- the pounding of the blood in his veins.
He meant to keep his eyes closed, but instinctively, he opened them and discovered that the water was clear as glass. Teyla floated in front of him, gripping his hands firmly, and he could see that her eyes were open. A stream of silver bubbles trailed from her mouth and nose. She smiled at him.
At which point he forgot he was supposed to be exhaling, and water flooded his nose and between his teeth. Hastily, Teyla dragged him to the surface and supported him while he coughed.
"And that is why you breathe out while you are under," she explained, floating in the water with his head resting against her shoulder as he calmed down. "You must push back against the water one way or another, or it will fill your nose. You are not like the diving sendas of the cliffs, who can close their ears and nose when they swim."
"What's a senda?" he asked, more to distract himself from all the water around and under him than from general curiosity.
"Small furry creatures that lived along the lakes back home. I suppose they are gone now." Her voice was distant, wistful. "After the culling of Athos, the fires made the lake waters stagnant and uninhabitable. All that lived there has moved on."
"You've gone back?" he asked in surprise, floating against her shoulder. If she'd seen that, then she must have.
"I've gone back many times," she said quietly, and then no more.
In silence, they moved in the water, and he realized that he was recovering the rhythm that he'd lost after his near-drowning off the pier on Atlantis. Teyla was no longer doing anything more than providing him a touchstone in the water; he was managing to hold himself up.
"See how much easier it is, when you hold yourself lower in the water," she explained, releasing all but a light touch on his shoulder. "You need not work so hard to stay afloat. If you relax in the water, you need only push yourself up every so often. You can float for hours with little effort."
As Radek relaxed, he felt his body begin to swivel backwards, the water soaking through his hair. He thrashed, panicking, until Teyla's grip tightened on his shoulder.
"No, no ... do not fight the water, Radek. Move with it."
She was right. As he relaxed, he found that his body came to rest in equilibrium with the surface of the water. Opening his eyes, he gazed up to see the sky above him darkening to a deep, rich purple. The sun had set. If he'd been wearing his glasses, he thought that he might have seen the first stars come out; as it was, there was just a great purple depth above him, like the depth of the sea below. Or ... even greater, perhaps. Compared to outer space, the ocean was only a shallow thing, after all.
He lived in a new galaxy; what was a fear of drowning, compared to that?
Teyla's loose grip on his shoulder tightened briefly. "Would you like to learn a few swimming strokes?"
"Yes," he said, surprising himself. "I would like that."
The twilight had deepened to full darkness and one of the moons had risen by the time that they slogged ashore to rest. Radek was startled at how heavy his body felt, now that the water no longer buoyed him up. It was like flying, and coming back again to be clumsy and bound to the land. He wondered if this was how Sheppard felt sometimes.
He got his towel and glasses, and then looked around for Teyla. After a moment, he found her sitting under the edge of the trees, and hesitantly went to join her. Rather than sand, there was soft grass here. He sat down next to her, and realized as he did so that he was no longer -- afraid of her? Had it been fear, before? Fear of rejection, maybe. Fear of embarrassing himself, of lowering himself in her eyes.
He didn't fear that anymore. And maybe that was why he wasn't afraid to lean across the space between them and kiss her, lightly, chastely, on the cheek -- this woman made of sunlight and steel, who could have snapped him in half without even trying. "D®ßkuji," he said. "Thank you."
She said nothing, and he wondered if he might have overstepped himself in his newfound recklessness. Then her hand came up under his chin, small and strong. She lifted his face and brought her lips to his slightly parted ones -- as lightly as he had kissed her. When she released him, and when he could breathe, he touched his tongue to his lips and tasted salt and sun.
"If it prevents you from drowning in Atlantis' ocean, then it will be well worthwhile," and he realized that she was smiling at him in the darkness. Then she lay back on the grass, pillowing her head on her hands.
After a moment, Radek settled back on his elbows on the grass. He could still taste her lips on his. It was very much as he had imagined she would taste. Through the branches of the trees overhead, he looked up at the stars.
There were many things he wanted to ask her, but none of the words would come. Instead, he looked up at the stars and found that he still expected to see the familiar shapes of Earth's constellations when he looked at them. He hadn't been much of a stargazer, but he still knew the common ones -- the Big Dipper, Orion's belt, the North Star. It was still strange to him, to see the stars splashed across the sky in different patterns, as if a giant hand had stirred them.
"The herdsman's crook," Teyla said suddenly.
Radek looked over at her in surprise. "I'm sorry?"
Teyla pointed to a particular line of bright stars just above the horizon. "I do not know if your people do this, but on Athos, all the star-pictures had names. On this planet, the stars are very different, so we have given them new names. That is the Herdsman's Crook. It is similar to a star-picture in a different part of the sky on Athos, by the same name. Do your people name the stars?"
"We do," Radek agreed, surprised to find her echoing his thoughts -- and he suddenly wondered if anyone on Atlantis had ever named the stars here. Or, when they looked at the sky, did they see nothing but flaming hydrogen orbiting nameless worlds? "Show me some of the others."
"That is the Branching Tree." Her finger traced its curves. "That is Marick's Knife -- he is a folk hero of my people. That one ..." She paused, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "That is the Puddlejumper, and the very bright star beside it is Sheppard's Star."
"He's got a star named for him?" Somehow he wasn't surprised.
Her shoulders whispered on the grass as she shrugged, and went on naming the constellations. "There are the Spires of Atlantis, and that one is the Fish, and there is the Wraith's Hand." Her pointing finger moved across the sky. "You can barely see them just now, for they are near the moon, but the two brightest stars in the sky are side-by-side, and are called the Ancestors' Eyes. It is said by some of the older people in the village that these stars only began to shine when we first stepped onto this world, and that it means the Ancestors are watching and protecting us."
Radek thought of the earlier prayer she had mentioned. There was something that he had often wanted to ask her or one of the other Athosians, but he simply didn't know any of them well enough to do so. In the dark, though ... in the dark it might be easier. And he really wanted to know, because if the answer was the one he feared, then he and his colleagues from Earth might have done her people a greater disservice even than waking the Wraith. "Teyla ... can I ask you a personal question?"
"I suppose that I had wondered ..." He hesitated, fearing that he was treading on ground too intensely private, but she merely waited. "I wondered if you and your people -- if your beliefs had been ... affected, I suppose, by the things you have seen. By what you've learned about the Ancients since you've been living among us."
"Oh," Teyla said quietly, and for a few minutes she was silent, staring up at the sky.
"I hope that I'm not --"
"Oh, no, do not worry. I am merely trying to find the words to explain." Her eyes glimmered softly in the moonlight as she turned her head towards him. "I was taught of the benevolence and wisdom of the Ancestors since childhood, Radek. And I worshipped them blindly then, as I was taught to do."
She shifted on the grass, folding her hands on her chest. "And then I came here, and I learned that the universe was wider and more wondrous than anything I had ever imagined. And I learned of the Ancestors as they had been when they walked the world as we do. I have met them, spoken to them. I have seen how very human they are, how petty and small, how very much like my people they are."
She paused, and Radek's heart twisted as his worst fears were confirmed. "Teyla, we never meant to steal your faith ..."
"No, no ... listen to me, please." After another pause, she went on. "I do not love and worship the Ancestors blindly now, like a child. I do so with my eyes wide open, in full knowledge of the incredible burdens they had to overcome to become at one with the universe. I admire them all the more for knowing that they were once like me. Rather than cowering at their feet, I open my heart and mind to the things they may be able to teach me. Rather than expecting magic and miracles, I am prepared to come before them as an adult, with an adult's understanding that they, like all else in the universe, have concerns of their own, and cannot always pause to grant my petty wants."
Turning her head towards him, she spoke so softly that he could barely hear her over the sound of the waves. "Your people have not stolen my faith, Radek. You have only given me a far deeper, better understanding of it. You have given me the ability to love my gods as an adult, rather than as a child."
He was silent for a time, breathless.
After a few moments, Teyla shifted towards him, turned her body so that her head was resting on his thigh.
He'd meant to ask her what her intentions were -- if all of this was simply Athosian friendliness, or more. But lying in the dark, with her body warm and soft against him, he realized that he didn't care. Whether or not this led to anything else, he was content in a way he'd rarely been before. Should more come of his relationship with Teyla than a chaste kiss and a little snuggling, then he would be happy ... but he didn't need it to be happy. He didn't want her to be more than she was. He didn't feel as if he, himself, had to be more.
Lying on the moonlit beach, he felt in perfect balance between earth and sky, land and water ... Atlantis and Earth. Whatever tomorrow might bring, he was happy.