This was written some time back, for the "Loss of a Child" challenge on the sheppard-hc LJ, and is just now being posted here. It may be seen as slightly AU.


Regrets

She used to think about him often, about both of them, but has learned not to. It is far easier, in this galaxy, to always look ahead and never back. Everyone learns that lesson sooner or later, but oh, it is a hard lesson to learn. The Atlanteans are learning it too, she thinks -- having seen the darkness in Sheppard's eyes when Ford's name is mentioned, the shadow that crosses Rodney's face sometimes when he looks at the chair where Grodin used to sit. They do not speak of it. This sharply personal pain is not helped by sharing.

Upon first coming to Atlantis, she was surprised that the Atlanteans did not ask her about certain aspects of her past. Now, two years later, she understands that the Atlanteans have not asked because the customs of their homeworld are very different from most of the worlds she has visited. Elizabeth, for example, is much older than Teyla and has never been married or even betrothed. Most of the people on Atlantis are not married. It is yet another odd thing about them. The idea that Teyla, at her age, should have already been married and a mother would never occur to them, and Teyla has never brought it up, because she is pleased to finally be able to bury that sorrow.

And while she feels that she's moved on as much as a person can, there are still late nights when sleep will not come and meditation cannot clear her mind of the old memories. Sometimes she will go down to the training rooms on these nights, where there is usually someone else to spar with: soldiers, or, if she's lucky, Ronon -- the one person in the city who understands old sorrow and regret even better than Teyla herself.

Sometimes she will run through the city streets, as if a thousand Wraith pursue her, running for hours until her sides hurt and her legs tremble.

But other times, as tonight, she drifts to the commissary, feeling like a ghost in the sleeping city, and makes herself a cup of tea which she takes to a quiet table in a darkened corner. It is interesting to watch the night people come and go. Most of them are scientists or gateroom technicians, working late shifts or simply too engaged with the thrill of discovery to sleep. She often sees Rodney here, although he rarely sees her -- he's always engrossed in something, either staring at the computer he carries everywhere with him, or just muttering to himself. Rodney does not, usually, seek people out. You have to get his attention if you want to talk to him. And, during normal hours, Rodney's friends will do exactly that, understanding that being Rodney's friend means being the one to make the first move, almost always.

But not on these nights, and if she sees him, she will watch him leave with a sandwich in one hand and his laptop in the other.

She often sees Elizabeth down here, too. Unlike Rodney, Elizabeth notices Teyla every single time. Few things escape the woman's sharp eyes. But Elizabeth is also wise enough to understand that Teyla wants to be alone, and if Teyla makes no move forward, then Elizabeth will simply smile, nod to her, and take her own cup of tea to her own quiet corner.

Teyla wonders what dark thoughts Elizabeth nurses on these long, sleepless nights, but she can guess enough of their substance never to ask.

Soldiers come to the commissary at night, too. Some of them are going on- or off-shift, and stop by for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Their too-boisterous talk and laughter echoes in the shadows and Teyla is both happy to see this affirmation of life, and glad when they are gone. Others are solitary and quiet, drifting into the room with books they won't read or paperwork they will set on a corner of the table and ignore. It is hard for Teyla to look at them. Most of these isolated men and women will probably be going home on the next flight of the Daedalus. They have seen too much in this galaxy, done too many things that their soft and comfortable world did not prepare them for. They are hurting in ways that Teyla cannot fix, and she must look away from them so that she does not drown in their pain.

Tonight, she chooses not to watch the others around her. She wants to be alone. Clasping the metal, military-issue mug of tea between her hands, she ignores the sting of heat on her palms and gently swirls the amber liquid, watching as light ripples on its surface.

"Is this seat taken?"

Teyla raises her head in surprise at the familiar voice, looks up into Sheppard's smiling eyes. She very rarely sees him here at night. Sheppard, she knows, spends his sleepless nights far out in the city, jogging or exploring or simply being alone. Sometimes he will spar with her. But when he gets those moods, he does not seem to search for the company of others. Sheppard is a friendly person, and Teyla has known him long enough to be sure that it is not merely a facade -- he is genuinely friendly, and open, and nice, and the fact that he can also be closed-off and hostile and even cruel is part of his conundrum. She sometimes feels that, while Sheppard is the person on Atlantis that she knows the best, he is also the one that she understands the least. She does know, however, that it is not in his nature to be quietly contemplative in a room with other people. He will see people he knows, and seek them out ... as tonight.

Her first thought is to tell him that she would like to be alone. But then she thinks of all that has happened this day. For the rest of them, a few tense hours went by ... but Sheppard has not seen any of them in months. Has felt himself abandoned for months. For a person so gregarious and loyal, that must have been very hard, and she can see why he does not want to be alone tonight. He has shaved, showered, and he looks just like the man she greeted at the gate this morning -- it is easy to forget that so much more time has passed for him.

"Please, sit," she says, and smiles.

He does so, and sets his mug of coffee and muffin down on the tabletop. Teyla does not like coffee and has never understood why so many of Earth's people have such an affinity for the bitter stuff, but she loves its smell. The warm, rich scent has quickly come to mean "home" to her.

For a few minutes, they just sip their respective drinks in silence. Teyla wonders if she should speak, apologize, something. They haven't really spoken since coming back to Atlantis this afternoon. There was a very long debriefing, then Sheppard muttered something about wanting a shower and Teyla did not see him again.

Finally, he is the one to speak. "Y'know, I just turned thirty-nine a few days ago."

She has learned about the Earth concept of birthdays, another odd custom to her, but having learned of their importance to Earth folk, she makes a point of remembering her teammates' and being sure to congratulate them. "But your birthday is not --" and then she trails off, feeling foolish. Not for months yet. But of course, months have passed for him.

A crooked smile tells her that it is all right. "I know. I didn't even realize it until I figured it up. And I realize, when you're thirty-nine, another six months or so in either direction doesn't matter at all. But it's still odd, to think about it. I'll be forty soon."

Teyla understands that the fortieth year is an important one for the Atlanteans. It is the point at which they traditionally begin to think about their own mortality. This almost makes her laugh, for her people think of mortality from their earliest days, and it is a lucky individual who lives to be forty.

Some live only a few days.

She does not want to think of that. For a moment she could almost feel the small, still body, so cold in her hands ... but she is past that now. "Congratulations on your birthday," she says, because she needs to be saying something, anything. "I am sorry we were not there for it."

He tries to smile, but there's something underneath it that makes her heart ache. "I understand," he tells her. "Really, I do. The important thing is, you guys got there before I died of old age. Or boredom, which was about equally likely. Do you know, they wanted me to meditate?"

She cannot help smiling at his tone of horror. "That is difficult to imagine."

"Tell me about it." He laughs, and goes to get himself a new cup of coffee. Teyla wonders if he will come back, wonders if she wants him to or not. She decides that she does, and is pleased to see him heading her way again, the coffee steaming in his hands.

When he sits down, he does not meet her eyes, but stares into his cup much as she had been doing earlier. Teyla hesitates, not wanting to intrude, but finally she reaches out and places her hand lightly over his. "Are you all right?" she asks him quietly.

He looks up, gives her a slight smile. "I'm okay," he says in that too-quick way he has. Teyla recalls Rodney once saying that when Sheppard dies -- which she hopes, Ancestors willing, will not be for a very long time -- his last words will probably be "I'm fine, don't worry about me."

She withdraws her hands and drinks her own tea, which is growing cold. If he wants to talk, he will talk; otherwise she will simply give him the comfort of her company. John breaks off small pieces of his muffin but does not eat them. Eyes downcast, he says to the crumbs on the table, "Do you ever think about the past, Teyla?"

Her heart catches, and she wonders what he means by it, where this is leading. "Everyone does, I think."

"I know, but ... The thing is, for the last six months I really haven't had a whole lot to do other than think about my life. And I'm thirty-nine, and I'm just wondering ..." He trails off.

Teyla believes that she understands. "You wonder if you have chosen the right path, if your decisions up to now have been good ones."

"That's kinda it." He shrugs and stares off at the wall of the mess. "You know what was the oddest thing about that village of Ascendant wannabes? No kids. I mean, there were a few, but they didn't act like kids, you know? And, no babies or little kids at all. Every village we go to has been full of kids. That one wasn't. And it felt wrong."

There was a time when Teyla had been painfully aware of children, on every planet she visited, but it has been a very long while since every child she saw was a knife in her heart. "I did not notice, I am afraid."

"That's what really got me thinking ... about kids, you know." John swirls the coffee, stares at it. He seems to be working himself up to something. "Did I ever tell you I have a kid?"

She has to process this for a moment. She knows her teammates do not often speak of their past, but this is still a shock. Her mental picture of John Sheppard slides sideways, and she must quietly reconstruct it. "No. You have not."

"Don't talk about it much." He shrugs. "It's in my file, so I suppose Elizabeth knows, maybe Carson. But this isn't really something that ... you know ..."

"I will not speak of it." But she does not understand, and she cannot put this picture together. On Athos, children are cherished. She cannot picture a people who are so distant from their children that they would pretend they do not exist. She cannot fit it to the person she knows John Sheppard to be.

"We were young," he says, still gazing past her. "Awfully young. I'd just gone on deployment for the first time. Didn't know she was pregnant when I left. A year later ..." He trails off, hesitates, shrugs. "Let's just say somebody else's boots were under the bed when I came back. And she'd had the kid, and he was four months old and his mom was getting married to this other guy, this guy she'd grown up with who was probably gonna take over his dad's hardware store in twenty years or so. Somebody with a future. The daddy type."

"Your son did not know you were his father?" Teyla asks quietly.

"I don't know what she told him. I doubt she lied ... the truth's on his birth certificate, anyway." John is aligning the muffin crumbs into neat little battalions on the table's surface. "He never came looking for me. I never went looking for him. The crazy thing is, I kinda just woke up and realized that if I'm thirty-nine, he'd be grown up now. I was about twenty when I shipped out, give or take a little. He'd be a man now. And I think the biggest regret of my life is not knowing what kind of man he's grown into."

Teyla does not know what to say. She would like to say something stupid and comforting, something like "It is not too late" ... except that she knows that's a lie. Sometimes it is too late. And any child of John's would have to have inherited that monumental stubbornness and pride -- she cannot imagine it any other way. Such a person would not take kindly to having a long-lost father walk back into his life after twenty years.

She has never been so tempted to talk about her own, brief dalliance with family life. The husband that her parents helped her choose at the age of sixteen. Being seven months pregnant and sitting quietly with Charin's hand wrapped around her own, as the village elders told her that her parents and husband had both been taken in the latest culling. Holding her son's body when, five days after his birth, he succumbed to the coughing illness that had been going around the village. Her anger when the elders insisted that she find a new husband, because her Wraith-sensing gift was too valuable to lose; her infinite gratitude when Charin stood at her side and argued against it until the others backed down. Her dreams of a life as a wife and mother, which have become so much dust under the feet of the Wraith.

But the moment passes, and she does not speak of it, because some pain is too personal to ever be shared. She is very flattered that John thinks so highly of her that he can share this piece of his past with her. It does not mean that she has to reciprocate.

"I think that your son must have grown into a fine young man," she says. "I imagine that he is very stubborn, and has driven his mother quite insane over the years."

John snorts a small laugh. "I wouldn't be surprised."

"It may be that he will come seeking you one day," she adds, although privately she does not think it likely. In her experience, such things rarely happen.

"Maybe. I thought about looking up Cindy -- that's his mom -- the next time I'm on Earth, but..." His hands wave in the air, losing the words.

"I cannot counsel you, because I do not know the ways of your people in these things." Teyla smiles a small, sad smile, and speaks from all the regret in her own heart. "I believe that you, and she, will probably be happier if you do not. I also believe that a child's needs are more important than his parent's happiness. You may take that as you will."

He gazes at her, and finally, slowly nods. "I'll think about it," is all he says before returning to his deconstruction of the muffin.

"Are you going to eat that or just molest it?"

The voice comes from over John's shoulder. Teyla looks up in surprise to see Rodney approaching them, attempting to juggle a cup of coffee, a tablet computer, and several items of various Earth snack food from the commissary's vending machines. She thinks for a moment that she must have lost track of time, that it's morning already, but a quick glance around the room shows her that it is still dim and quiet, deserted except for the three of them.

"I'm eating it, Rodney," John protests.

"Funny, doesn't look like it to me." Without asking permission, he joins them and neatly slides John's cup of coffee to the other end of the table to make room for his laptop. Ignoring the protesting noise from his team leader, he digs into his food as if he hasn't eaten in days.

The thought occurs to Teyla that Rodney's presence here is not a coincidence. He must have been deliberately looking for Sheppard, and not only that, but judging by the lateness of the hour, this was probably the place that he looked last, because he knew that Sheppard never comes into the mess at night. And that's when she begins to wonder if Rodney really pays as little attention to his friends as he seems to, and also wonders just how many times Rodney really has seen her in the commissary on those late-night excursions, and simply pretended not to see her because he knew she wanted to be alone.

The memories of dead children are far away. Here ... here is a cold plastic chair, and lukewarm mediocre tea, and the familiar faces and voices of people that she loves more than she would ever have imagined she could love those who were not bonded to her by blood or marriage.

Life, time and fate have taken away her family, only to give her another. Teyla is not a person to sit and bemoan her tragedies. In the Pegasus galaxy, you look always ahead, never behind.

Here and now, in the life she has chosen for herself, Rodney is asking Sheppard, "I said, are you gonna eat that muffin, Colonel?" This is followed by an immediate, petulant "Ow!" as he gets his hand smacked for trying to steal it.

And Teyla smiles.