Title: Midwinter Burning
Genre: Angst, gen
Spoilers: All the way up to This Mortal Coil
Summary: Teyla persuades her team to celebrate midwinter, and to find some hope in the darkness.
Note: This isn't really a Christmas story, but rather a midwinter one. For want of any evidence to the contrary, I am taking it that This Mortal Coil is set shortly before Christmas, and that the following episode is set after the New Year. This could very well be totally exploded when the next episode goes and starts two minutes after This Mortal Coil ends.
"What's this? What is this? Get them down!"
Teyla paused, hearing the distant sound of Rodney shouting. Alone, unwatched, her hand sometimes strayed to her belly. She straightened her jacket now, made sure her hands were casual at her sides, and headed for the lab.
"Who gave you permission to do this? No, no, no. More important than that: who did this?"
She heard a quiet mumble – a female voice, then a male. They were immediately obscured by Rodney's shouts. "You're not paid to waste your time on things like that. There's hundreds of Replicator ships out there and a Wraith on the base, and we… and they… and I…" She reached the door, and saw him waving his hand, as if he could physically drag out the right words. "There isn't time, and at a time like this… This is my lab. Get them down now!"
She watched. She saw Zelenka begin to say something, but think better of it. She saw a chastened scientist climb on a chair, looking close to tears. Her colleague watched, looking mutinous. Zelenka tried again. "Rodney, it was only –"
"Don't. Don't say it."
She broached it much later, at dinner, after Ronon and John had left the table. "Christmas decorations, Rodney?"
"Yes." She saw his hand tighten on his fork. "Trivial and stupid. There's too much work to do. A galaxy to save. There isn't time."
"I understand that your Christmas is only four days away," she said carefully. In her first year on Atlantis, there had been a desperate fervour to the way many people had chosen to celebrate their midwinter festivities. She had become familiar with the manner of their decorations, and with hearing snatches of certain songs journey down the hallways, passing unconsciously from person to person.
"Yes," Rodney snapped, "and we're facing a war and the very real possibility of total annihilation for us and for millions out there, because –" His mouth snapped shut, but she saw the misery in his grey-ringed eyes.
Elizabeth would have wanted you to celebrate, she could have said, but did not, because to say such a thing at that time would have been unforgivable. Instead she said, choosing her words carefully, "It is at times of danger and loss that people most require the hope that comes with ritual and celebration. Everyone –"
"Well, forgive me if I'm not feeling very festive." Rodney stood up, pushing his chair back noisily. "I'm too busy doing important things like… Oh, wait! Like trying to save us all from the mess I got us all into. Forgive me if I think it's more important than decking the halls with boughs of holly and bits of coloured paper."
He left the room. She watched him go, pondering
Somebody was singing about a child being born, and hope returning to the world. The voice was flawed, but that made it all the more powerful. Drawn by the tune, she walked slower and slower, but then someone else told the singer to be quiet.
Her steps sped up, and she walked on.
Then, with the tune still echoing in her head, and her belly heavy with her secret, she found herself knocking at John's door. She had not meant to go there, but as well as the tune, she had the memory of Rodney's angry misery. We need to help him, she wanted to say, because two people could help better than one, and three could help better than two.
She said none of that, though. John was sitting on the bed, with coloured squares of card strewn around him. "Christmas cards," she said, having received several over the last few years. Carson in particular had been a relentlessly optimistic giver of cards and gifts.
"Yeah." He nodded vaguely. "I picked them up when we were back on Earth, after…"
There was no need for him to finish. Pulling her jacket down, she sat down on the seat. She saw the pile of white envelopes, each one empty.
"I was going to give them…" he began. "It seems stupid, doesn't it, to give cards to people you see every day, but I thought…"
The pen was by his bed, still untouched. She saw a drink, almost empty, and wondered how long he had sat here, surrounded by images of jollity and hope, unable to bring himself to touch them.
"Why can't you write them?" she dared to ask.
He let out a breath, rested his head against the wall, and closed his eyes. "Peace and goodwill," he said quietly.
On the nearest card, a red-cheeked child was singing in the snow. "I do not understand," she said.
He opened his eyes, and looked at his hands. "Doesn't seem right," he said, "to sign my name to such things, when…"
His eyes flickered towards the mirror, then away again. She saw the darkness there, and the self-loathing. Ronon had told her what had happened on Earth. Only days before, he had allowed the sacrifice of people who looked and thought exactly like his own team, and of someone who could have been Elizabeth.
"I think it is right," she told him, but she knew that mere words were nothing, now.
The sky was the bleached blue that someone presaged frost, but the air was warm. "Did you celebrate midwinter," she asked Ronon, "on Sateda?"
She saw his strong hand tighten on the railing. "Of course."
He turned his back to the ocean. "Not with cards and paper decorations. With chants and drums and fire."
She wondered how far it was permissible to ask. Further than it had been just weeks before, she thought. "What season is it on Sateda now?"
"Midwinter is just past." Of course he knew. She still knew the passage of time on the deserted planet of Athos, although she had to think about it more and more as time went by, and was no longer tied intimately to the seasons.
Alone in her room, though, she still celebrated the Athosian customs of the year's waxing and waning. "Did you celebrate?" she asked Ronon now.
He shook his head. His face was almost closed to her now, but she had to ask, while one last chink remained. "Why not?"
He took several steps away from her, then stopped, his hand on the door frame. "At midwinter, you remember those who've died."
Elizabeth, she thought, and his team-mates, who betrayed him.
"Too many dead," he said, before she could ask. "I don't need winter to make me remember."
And then she was alone, summer twilight at her back.
It was almost dark before she knew what had to be done.
"Why are we here?" Rodney protested. "Some ritual, you say? Very interesting. Now get it over with, so I can get back to my work."
He looked tired, almost haggard. John and Ronon were both heavily armed, despite Teyla's insistence that they were off duty. Colonel Carter herself had ordered them to go. It was the first time Teyla had confided in her quite so closely, and she was pleased with the response. "It may seem trivial," Teyla had said, "but they need it, and Atlantis needs them," and Colonel Carter – "call me Sam" – had nodded, her eyes shining with understanding.
"My people are missing," she said now. "The midwinter festival is very important to them, and it is important to me to honour it."
"Yes, yes," Rodney snapped, "but why do you need us here?"
"Because it is done with friends," she said firmly, and despite everything, she saw the edge taken off Rodney's impatience, and a small glimmer of surprised happiness show through.
"What do you want us to do?" There was a dullness to John's voice, as there so often was now – too much loss and guilt pushed inside, and not dealt with.
"Gather wood for a fire."
"What? With our bare hands?" But she had to smile, for it sounded more like the normal Rodney, outraged about things that did not matter much at all.
They gathered wood, but she saw that each of them went separately, but that none of them kept their eyes off the others for very long. A bird erupted from the trees with a crack of sound, and both John and Ronon drew weapons, and started towards Rodney. As light slowly leeched out of the world, she stayed at the centre point, crafting what they brought her into a fire. She watched, too. Rodney, more often than not, passed branches to her with a muttered comment about slave labour. John attempted jokes. Ronon was just silent.
"We are nearly ready," she said, at last, when so much light had gone from the world that everyone looked like flat grey pictures painted on the night. "Now we need logs or stumps to sit on."
John and Ronon brought those, carrying them between them. Rodney slumped down onto the first one. "Are you trying to kill us with exhaustion? I'm sure you've given me splinters."
They were silent for a little while, as light flowed from the sky. The cold grew sharper, and she looked up as a night-time bird flew out on silent white wings. Bare branches murmured together in the light breeze, and she felt dew forming on the trampled grass where she sat.
"How long do we have to wait?" Rodney asked. "I'm freezing." His face was a pale smear, with darker patches that were his eyes. His feet and hands were moving incessantly.
"Until it is fully dark," she said, "and then we light the fire."
"What sort of a stupid ritual –?"
"Rodney," she heard John hiss. "What do I keep telling you about respecting other people's beliefs? We're supposed to be quiet."
The sky had darkened to a rich blue, like velvet. Trees were black, and a ribbon of yellow lined the horizon where the sun had set. She thought of a lifetime of midwinter rituals, her people all silent together, awaiting the spark. There had been so many of them, once, that you did not feel the cold, for friends and kin were pressed against you on all sides. By the end, the ring had been sparse, and now it was just her, her people lost, and far away.
"No," she said, grateful to the darkness for hiding her sudden tears. "There is no need to be silent." Rituals changed as people changed. The past shaped you, but the present shaped you more. These were not her kin, but they were her friends. This was for hope and healing, and silence brought very little of that, just the darkness of your own mind. "Please talk if you wish."
"Well, good," Rodney said, but then he, too, seemed to run out of words.
They sat in silence, sinking into darkness. The ribbon of yellow faded, and above them, she saw stars. She wondered which one was their current home, and what stars, if any, looked down on her lost people. Earth, she knew, was not even visible, its whole galaxy just a faint smear invisible to the naked eye.
"When does it count as dark," Rodney asked, "because I'm really getting cold now."
There was a tautness to his voice. The shapes that were John and Ronon were still, hunched forward in almost identical postures. It was hard to escape from things when alone in the darkness, with nothing to look back at you to counter your darkest thoughts. It was not yet time; the darkness was not yet total, but I will bring the light early, she thought.
"Midwinter," she said, "is the shortest day. It is the time when light and hope wavers on the point of extinction. Darkness and despair is on the point of triumphing. But it is also a time for hope." She struck a spark, and that tiny orange light turned the faces of her friends into faces of strangers from the otherworld. "Light and darkness are locked in an everlasting battle. Since midsummer, the light has been losing, and night has gained a little more with every day. Here, at midwinter, the darkest of the dark, the light has triumphed. From now on, days will grow longer, nights will get shorter. This is the darkest night; now comes the dawn."
She touched the spark to the pile of branches, and the fire took, fuelled with the dry leaves she had packed it with. It was weak at first, flickering, so the people around her seemed to flicker in and out of existence like spirits.
"The seed that is planted in the frozen ground will come again in spring," she told those fierce and unknowable spirits that were her team-mates. "Frost and snow give way to the green. The dead live on in memory, and from death, comes life. A fire awakens from the ashes of the old."
The fire grew in strength. Her back was cold, but her face and hands felt touched by the flame. The others, too, leaning forward, were faces and clasped hands, brightly illuminated, with their bodies lost in the darkness. John, perhaps thinking himself unseen, looked intense, gazing deeply into the living flames. Ronon's eyes were downcast. Rodney, furthest away, was almost hidden from her by the fire.
"My people give offerings," she said, "to the flames. We offer one thing –" She threw in a shard of wood, and thought a wordless wish. "– to symbolise something – a regret, or a sorrow – from the past year that we wish to lay to rest. Then we offer another," she said, throwing in a small twig, its fruit turned hard and dead before it could flourish, "to say what we wish to see or wish to be in the coming year."
"Oh, please," Rodney said. "It's one of those. Kum-ba-yahs and hugging, and sharing feelings."
"The wish can be silent," Teyla told him. "Some speak it aloud, and some prefer not to. There is no obligation to do anything you are uncomfortable with."
Ronon bent to snatch up a loose branch, and threw it into the fire. The fire lessened for a moment, then surged up more strongly. A second branch followed. "Trust," was all that Ronon said.
Teyla blinked back tears, and turned her head slightly away. Her hand closed on a forked twig, with dead leaves still attached. Her true offerings had not yet been given, but for a moment, she doubted that she could speak.
"Should have brought marshmallows." John's voice was slightly rough.
"And beer," Rodney said.
The flames rose higher, with more and more of the branches being consumed. One cracked sharply, and she saw how John and Rodney reacted, starting as if it was an attack. Ronon, more accustomed, perhaps, to open fires, was still. A gust of wind carried sparks and smoke towards Rodney, who coughed, flapping his hand in front of his face. He moved his stump further away from the fire, and then she could barely see him at all.
She threw the twig into the flames. "Solitude," she said, thinking of her missing people; of herself, the only one left; of Ronon, alone after Sateda; of Elizabeth; of Colonel Carter, alone in command; of Kate, dying in her dreams; of John and Rodney, each bearing their own burden of guilt, but condemned by their natures not to share it the way they should.
The second twig was larger. "Friendship," she said. New life, she thought, and truth, because she had not yet told them.
The wind shifted. John, too, moved back, but the fire was brighter now, and she could still see his face. She was sitting on one end of a log, with Ronon at the other. Theirs was the cold side of the fire, with the wind at their back. When she half-closed her eyes, the fire was like a blazing sun at the heart of a dark universe. When she opened her eyes again, she could see how the fire contained both light and darkness. There were patches of fierce whiteness, but also hollows of blackness, where branches still resisted the flames. It was death and life wrapped up in one.
No-one said anything. John, she saw, was resting his chin in his hands, and gazing deeply into the fire, as if he was trying to lose himself. Sometimes, when young, she had seen Wraith in the flames. She wondered if Ronon saw lost friends, and John saw in its gleeful movement an echo of what it was to fly.
She was just about to speak, when she saw John snatch up a twig, and throw it fiercely into the fire. "People dying," he said, "on my watch", and Oh, John, she thought, because some things were beyond the power of even the most fervent wishing to change. He threw another branch, the leaves curling into flames before they had even landed, but his wish for the future remained silent. After it, he stood up and walked away, lost in the darkness before he had gone three steps. She heard him, though, twigs cracking beneath his feet, and knew he had not gone far.
"Why's it called a bonfire, anyway?" There was an urgency to Rodney's voice.
"My people call it a bane fire," she told him, "because it keeps away evil, and is a weapon against the triumph of the dark."
"A bone fire," Ronon said. "We burn the bones of animals, to symbolise the dying of the year."
Rodney snorted. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"
She saw John edging closer again, a still shape close behind Rodney. No-one said anything more, though. Her cheeks were smarting from the flames, the heat emphasising the coldness of the air behind her. It was a familiar feeling from the past, but the smell of the fire was different, alien wood breeding alien smoke.
"You're waiting for me, aren't you?" Rodney said. "Rodney McKay, the first one to say something, always talking, never shutting up. You said I didn't have to…"
"There is no need for you to say anything, Rodney," she said. "You can give your offering silently."
"And if I don't want to give an offering?"
"Then you do not need to."
But there could be healing in the burning, even if it was silent. It could be a powerful symbol to see past regrets consumed by the flames of midwinter, and to entrust your hopes to the flames of spring. Please, Rodney, she thought.
"Okay. Then I won't." She saw John sit down again, closer to Rodney than he had been before. She saw Rodney look at him, then saw something dark pass over Rodney's face, but she could not tell what it was. The fire emphasised her companions' features, but at the same time made them more blank and less easy to read. "Mistakes," Rodney all but spat. He threw something miserably into the fire. "Stupid mistakes that come from thinking you know all the answers, but end up getting people killed. Mistakes that come from not thinking, from not listening. Mistakes when… when it's always other people who end up paying for it, and –"
He stopped. He was a stranger in the light of the fire. She had no idea what to say. The next offering needed to come from Rodney, but the next offering spoke of hope.
"We're in it together." John spoke up unexpectedly. He picked up a twig and thrust it into Rodney's unresisting hand. "We all made those mistakes. Sometimes it was my call, nothing to do with you. Sometimes we weren't to know the consequences. We did what we could, knowing what we did."
Rodney's head slowly rose. He looked at the fire, his eyes travelling from the darkness at its base to the delicate tendrils of pure light at the tips of the flames. His hand closed on the twig, as John released it. He threw it into the fire, and although there were no words, there was a smile.
When enough time had passed, John cleared his throat. "What now, Teyla? Drinking games and dances?"
She reached into her pack and pulled out a sealed bottle of Athosian Winter Spirit. "I do have drink."
"And songs?" Rodney said. "Oh, please, not singing."
She brought out goblets. Ronon accepted a glass, and drank it, nodding with appreciation. John hesitated. "You cannot be on duty all the time," she told him, and he eventually nodded, and took a sip. Rodney interrogated her about the ingredients, but tried some in the end. Teyla, though, only pretended to drink, remembering the advice of Doctor Keller. To new life, she thought, as she poured the contents of her goblet onto the ground, a libation on the ashes, and to truthfulness, but not today.
They talked, then, in the light of the flames, fire and spirit keeping the darkness at bay. Soon there was laughter. Ronon raised his goblet high and issued toasts, smiling as he had smiled in that short moment of reunion with his old friends. Soon, she thought, the misery had lifted from Rodney's face, and the guilt from John's eyes. Perhaps it was a false image painted by the fierce, one-sided light of the flames, but she thought it was not. Neither of them drank more than a glass of the spirit, so it did not even come from that. Rather, she thought, it came from the flames themselves – that symbol of light in the darkness, of hope reborn at the darkest of times.
No, she thought, much later, as the fire began to die down, but the smiles continued, it comes from friendship, from not being alone.
Perhaps that had always been the heart of it. Perhaps the midwinter fires had never been about light and dark at all, but had always been about fellowship. You stood around the fire with the warmth of your friends all around you, all united in one emotion, sharing each other's regrets and hopes. The fire was nothing. What was important was that you were not alone.
"Thank you," she told them all, looking from one to the other to the other. "Thank you for coming here with me."
"No, Teyla," John said, suddenly serious in the midst of laughter, "thank you."
Note: I stole quite a lot of the Athosian ritual from a solstice celebration my Morris dance side was invited to dance at a few years ago. Like Rodney, I was rather nervous, not sure what was going to be expected of us, but I ended up finding it quite powerful.