If you'd like to read a thoughtful essay on Body Image, you should probably just go over to the comm. ;)
I've signed up for two days of this - let's see if I actually finish the other one. (Magic 8 Ball says: Outlook Not Good.)
The Words That Bind | PG | ~4,400
ETA: you can also read this story on my website.
Betaed by artemisiabrisol. Spoilers up to... The Shrine, I suppose?
She does not know the girl's name. English words are awkward and often clumsy in writing, and though she has been learning them for many years now, she is always encountering something that she does not expect, that does not fit the pattern she has been given. Every time she believes she can see the logic under the words, they shift, and are different again.
When she first mentioned this, Rodney snorted ungracefully and rolled his eyes and confessed that even native speakers found it trying, if they were bright enough to pay attention. "Hundreds of years of lingual inbreeding," he said with a shake of his head, the same tone in his voice as when he scolded John for taking too many risks for too little cause; fond exasperation. "It's no wonder you end up with a mutant." But it has been too common, for too long, to abandon, so they struggle through its difficulties. It is a conviction Teyla can respect.
The way she grew up - and she cannot imagine being a child in a world where speech is crippled by so many barriers of diversity - writing was a way of capturing words, making them do your bidding in a way that ordinary speech could not. She has always found herself returning to the study of written words when her mind is in need of occupation.
Despite all of Rodney's mockery of his own tongue, she knows that in this, they are alike. Words are a tool, a thing to lend light and animation to a universe otherwise inert. It is something they have always shared, even when they first knew each other. It was Rodney she approached in barely-tamped frustration when Elizabeth first asked her to write mission reports and the linguistic learning program kept contradicting itself. And Rodney who stared at her in blank surprise for a long time, cheeks pinking with what she later realised was gratitude.
He was astonished that she would come to him for help. That there was something he could teach her, when before it had always been the other way around, her guiding him as he fought to make a scholar’s body do the work of a soldier. Not that there are not a great many things Rodney knows that Teyla does not understand, but there are few who can appreciate his knowledge or value it. Teyla has often thought that Rodney is not accustomed to being valued, and never for his words, which have little to do with his brilliance with numbers, his understanding of the mechanics of the universe.
Written languages in the Pegasus Galaxy - the handful that exist - are more deliberate than they seem to be on Earth, meant to transcend culture the way that speech has always done. Writing, in Teyla's life, has always been there to serve an immediate purpose, rather than the purely idle uses to which the Lanteans sometimes bend it. Games! Tales! Her people have these things, but important things, she used to think, stay in the mind without being endlessly, repeatedly recorded. It's strange, for she supposes she always knew it was some trick of the Ancestors that let her people converse with their allies, their friends from other worlds so far from Athos. But until she came to Atlantis, she never really thought about the how, or the why.
Photography is not unknown in the Pegasus galaxy, but certainly not as common as it seems to be on Earth. Athos has - had - art, but the making of images always took second place to the thorough, more deeply emotional recollection of the moment. For the Lanteans, the freezing of an image, of the moment, is a thing taken for granted. It is perhaps a more vivid example of the over-careful, careless way they sometimes navigate their lives. Sometimes it fascinates her and sometimes it makes her sad - sometimes she worries they put memories away before experiencing them, trusting them and all their meaning to be there later, when there is more time. Twisted and woven through them all is the conviction that any experience may be put away and taken out and examined at leisure. Any memory. Any place.
The girl on the page is young - perhaps fifteen, with wheat-blond hair and wide blue eyes painted about with heavy black cosmetic. Her cheeks are brushed blush-pink and her lips are shiny and red. Her mouth is pursed, a childish pout made un-childlike by the hardness in her eyes. Her posture is inviting, in a sharp, defiant way, though she is turned away from the camera, one hand curled back over her own bare shoulder. Her dress is short and sheer, her hips cocked. Everything about the way she is standing is a challenge, and yet the coy way in which she tilts her head, looking up through her lashes, speaks of shyness. It is an act Teyla is more accustomed to seeing on market planets, pretty boys and girls who offered their time for food or goods or coin, if it was a world with coin. For those young beauties, it is the act, the time, that earns them their bread. Not the privilege of looking.
It is out of keeping with a world Teyla knows to be mostly prosperous, mostly safe, mostly not harsh enough to require its youngsters to sell themselves. Certainly not in this strange, staged way Teyla knows to be part of the odd imaginary otherworld created in front of cameras - like a movie, but smaller, and still.
The first time Teyla sees the picture in a magazine, one from a stack abandoned on the table in the lounge, she is shocked to realise that the girl has been posed, that someone arranged her limbs, her face, perhaps even the invitation in her gaze. The faint glitter of shame at being observed.
Next to the first image is another picture of the same girl, with softer curves and wavier hair and the flush in her cheeks healthy and genuine. But in this picture, framed in red with the word "before" printed below, the girl is frowning, cringing away from the camera, her shame the same, but different. Visible, as though no one had told her to hide it. As though it was more acceptable as she slouched miserably in a chair in a wrinkled shirt and pants, though aside from her unhappiness and the clarity of the image Teyla is not certain of the difference.
It's puzzling, and Teyla bends over the page, trying to eke out meaning from the few words provided. The girl stares out of the picture, mute.
Tagaan, Teyla's mother, was strong. It is always the first thing Teyla remembers about her, the first thing she remembers knowing. Tagaan was strong and wise, and Torren was gentle and loved them both, so, so much. When she was small, it afforded her a sense of safety that few Athosian children had. As a girl, gangly and the eldest of her cousins, Teyla was always the first to be taken off-world with one parent or another. Usually it was her father, and Torren was greeted by everyone, liked, trusted, welcomed.
But it was her mother they asked after, whose name they spoke with a respectful nod. Tagaan Emmagan was simply known, and her counsel was often sought, as had been her father's before her. As a child it was something that had made Teyla proud, made her wriggle in place while her father talked with traders. One day, she'd known, she would be like that, would take her mother's mantle and the leadership of her people. But only if she paid attention. Only if she learned.
There is no sense of born knowledge among her people. Knowledge is given, it is learned; it is carefully preserved against time, nature, the Wraith. She has known cultures where there are types of knowing meant only for men, or only for women, but on Athos knowledge was a precious thing to be spread as thinly as it might be spread.
As a child, Teyla had known that women carried babies, that the Ancestors had given them greater endurance, greater resistance to disease, sometimes more patience. As a young child it had seemed natural for her mother to be the one to lead them, rather than her father - her father thought about things, talked about things. Her mother simply did them.
As a young woman, Teyla had known that the Ancestors had given them memory, and wisdom, and the capacity for justice, and curiosity. She had known that each man, woman and child had these within them in equal measure, and that it took the exercise of will to make them into tools. She had known of the importance of discipline and cunning and honesty and strength, and that her too-skinny limbs had resisted her efforts to train them into grace and smooth strength until she was nearly seventeen. She'd known even at twelve that Charrin was growing old, and had earned the right to live gently and let the hard lines of her body soften into curves, to move slowly and carefully and teach others of medicine and drill the children in history and figures. She'd known that Kanaan Borren sometimes made her blood boil and sometimes made it spark, that he was no great warrior but kind and sweet and quick.
As a grown woman, the leader of her people, as a part of Atlantis and the great war on the Wraith and a member of John Sheppard's team, Teyla knows that the universe is vaster than her most impossible imaginings. She knows that justice is only a fond and comforting notion. She knows that John and Rodney and Ronon are her family as much as Torren and Kanaan. That Ronon has the heart of a child. That John sends dark looks at Jennifer's back when he thinks no one is looking. And that when they are in a room together, Rodney is always aware of where John is standing, even with his eyes closed.
She knows that her mother's things, safe in their bentwood chest, smell of sweetgrass and dried tava, and that sometimes, when Teyla misses her so much that it tightens her throat, she presses her mother's favourite blanket to her face and breathes it in and remembers what it felt like to believe in love and safety that could not falter.
She knows that all of these things together are important, are necessary, and that without even one of them, she is someone else.
It is somehow always Rodney that she asks these kinds of questions, these days. Once it would have been Elizabeth, who was always patient. Elizabeth might have been a teacher in another life, though she laughed when Teyla suggested it. She felt her talents laid in directing people, not in shaping them, though it had taken Teyla some years to understand the distinction.
Rodney, on the other hand, enjoys explaining things for the sake of explaining them, for seeding them in other minds. For all his claims of hating children, Teyla imagines that one day, should Rodney and certain others come to their senses, he will make a good father. Rodney will always be teaching even when they want to play, or to sleep. Rodney will be the brunt of complaints in youth and the subject of quiet gratitude in later years, and he will never, never quite believe that he has done well by anyone.
The lab is dark as she stands in the doorway, but for one lamp and the bluish glow of two laptops - Rodney's workstation. There he is, illuminated from below, a fuzzy-edged profile. He is frowning, she can see it from here, chin resting on the heel of his hand, fingers tap-tap-tapping against his bottom lip. After all this time she knows the shapes of Rodney's moods - this one is consternation, a shade lighter than true frustration. A small setback then, something not going terribly wrong but not going quite right in the way he finds so satisfying.
The magazine is rolled up in her fist, and as she hesitates at the door, inward-focused, inspecting the heat of the anger pushing against her breastbone. She is not certain of its source, which makes it all the more frustrating. It happens rarely these days, but sometimes she encounters something in Earth culture that is simply beyond her grasp. Sometimes she has no comparison from her own experience, and she fears this is one of those times.
Rodney is blinking across the darkened room at her, squinting as though he cannot quite make her out. In response to his curiosity, the lights in the room brighten slightly, enough to let Teyla cross into the room without stumbling over carelessly scattered stools and chairs, sliding them away under desks and tables as she goes. Rodney smiles at her, seeing it - satisfied, that is the look on his face. She knows that when he eventually left for his bed, he'd have done the same, and it is the kind of fastidious care for order that would make John or Ronon laugh at him.
"Is something the matter?" he asks, sitting up a little straighter in his chair to twist from side to side, stretching out his lower back. Teyla hears the crack-crack of bones popping back into place, and shakes her head at him, getting the usual wordless rueful shrug. "Sorry. Lost track of - Jesus, is that the time?" He scrubs a hand back through his hair and peers at her. "Is that why you're here? To send me to bed?" He scowls quite insincerely down at the benchtop. "Didn't think it was your turn."
This makes her smile, and softens her strange anger, because while he complains about having his work interrupted, she thinks he likes that his team will sometimes coax him away from work when he has been at it for too many hours, too many days. It was one of the first things she liked about him, that he could be so brash and self-certain and then be surprised and suspicious when anyone showed the least affection towards him.
"No, Rodney," she says, smiling. "It is not quite so late as that, and I think it is Ronon's turn."
He grins at her briefly. "Ah. Well. So..." He gestures vaguely. "What's up?" He is puzzled again, and then Teyla remembers why she came here. She holds up the rolled magazine and looks at it.
"I had a question about something... perhaps cultural? I am not sure."
Rodney leans forward. "What is that, People?" He rolls his eyes. "No, Doctor McKay, a full-size bed frame is an unnecessary expenditure of cargo space, but we're happy to facilitate the Atlantis expedition's subscription to ridiculous gossip rags." It trails off into a mutter, and Teyla unrolls the magazine, folded back to the page with the picture of the girl. She flattens it out between them, smoothes out the folded-over corner of the page. Rodney's blunt fingers take over as they can never resist doing, holding down the long sides of the page as he looks, and goes... strangely quiet.
When she looks up again, she sees that his face has gone hard. Irritated.
"What did you want to know?" he asks. His voice is... it happens rarely that she cannot place the tone of Rodney's voice, but right now she thinks he might be angry, and isn't sure that's right.
"I don't understand the purpose of this image," she says, almost tentative. "I think it is an… advertisement?” She found these fascinating when she first saw one. A market that was everywhere, always, in the very air. "An invitation to buy something. But I am... confused about the purpose of the product." She touches her index finger to another image under the girl's feet, of a bottle of something. The language of the advertisement is roundabout, euphemistic, the kind of phrasing that is meant to suggest that the viewer should already understand every word.
Rodney lets go of the magazine, and it curls in on itself. "The purpose is to convince teenage girls that they're too fat and nobody will ever love them," he spits, and then looks at her, going still. "Sorry," he says a second later, slumping back in his chair.
"But she is not..." Teyla looks down at the magazine, at the girl's face distorted by the curve of shiny paper. She flattens it for a moment, looking at the pictures, and then lets it curl again, rolling to one side. She is growing angry again. "I do not understand."
"That's because it doesn't--" Rodney begins again, and then again, stops himself, turns his chair towards her. "That's because it doesn't make any sense." He is facing her, but his eyes are on the magazine. "It's a lie that they sell. That’s what advertisers do." He twirls one hand in the air. "This is just a more efficient means of starving yourself."
Teyla blinks. That people sometimes starve themselves out of grief or terror was not new to her, and it had not even surprised her that Earth medicine had given it a name, even such a grim one. Mostly the domain of young girls, that it was an epidemic, that many skirted the edge of diagnosis without crossing it. Its numbers, ever-increasing, the way it had made Carson stiff with rage to talk about, she had not understood. How could so many be so afraid?
Now she makes the connection and her spine stiffens - that on Earth, some people starve themselves because they have been told they are ugly. That to be loved, they must be something else.
It seems such a small quality, one thing among many. Not strength, not health, not goodness or wisdom but beauty, alone? And all the other precious things discarded. Her fingers curl tight into a fist at her hip. It is so - she is so rarely offended by the actions of others. Rarer still to be insulted by the actions of invisible people light-years away from her, whose vicious lies have never touched her life.
Rodney is peering at her again, in that unnervingly knowing way he only occasionally displays. "I think it's pretty much exactly what you thought it was, isn't it?"
Teyla nods, slowly. She must focus to unclench her fist. "I simply do not understand why anyone would pay to be told they are ugly." She knows that sometimes on Earth there are those who become so large that it becomes unhealthy - this is outside of her experience, but not totally incomprehensible. She's always assumed that it was the inverse of those who surrendered to the inevitability of the Wraith - too much safety can be like a prison, after all. She knows about indulging the body just to remind oneself of life. But to imbue an image meant to tempt profit with such vicious nastiness as she sees on the page in front of her, on the basis of not quite matching an image... And for no other purpose than to be pleasing to look at? For no other purpose?
Can a person's life be whittled down to so narrow a pinpoint, that a moment's glimpse could comprise all pride, love, yearning, passion? How?
Teyla knows that this is a thing of vision, of sight, of the brief scattershot communion Earth people seem to have with anyone outside of a handful of those tied to them by blood and long-term circumstance. So few of them have any notion of community, but Atlantis is so different from Earth; after all these years she knows that well enough. The people who left their home with no hope of return, purely for the hope of learning what was to be had elsewhere - Lanteans are unlike other people she has known, in Pegasus or on Earth.
"Yeah, well," Rodney says, gruffly, "when you've got nothing else to offer, being nice to look at probably seems pretty important." He has crossed his arms over his chest. "We're really pretty shallow, when it comes right down to it."
He looks uncomfortable, and for the first time Teyla wonders if Rodney might not have been the best person to ask her questions. Rodney has always been self-conscious about his appearance, but it had not occurred to her that it went beyond simply being uncertain of his physicality, and more certain of his mind.
"It is easier to change the words that bind a thing," she agrees, and sits down in the empty chair at his side.
"It's easier to be beautiful than be smart, you mean," he mutters, his arms still crossed.
"Hmm," she replies, and for a long moment they both stare at the rolled-up magazine, Rodney glaring, Teyla shaking her head incredulously. "I think... I think that I think it is obscene." Her voice is quiet, but she is still shaking her head, very slowly. Every time she thinks she has a picture of Earth in her mind, she learns something new to change it.
"Huh! Well, that makes one of you," Rodney says. She looks at him, finds him slumped in his chair, weighed down with unhappiness that seems greater than this moment warrants. Then she remembers Jeannie telling her - regretful, tears in her eyes as they sat at Rodney's bedside - what she told her brother when they were being held captive by Henry Wallace, a man whose death Teyla still cannot bring herself to mourn.
Try as she might, Teyla simply cannot imagine it. Rodney being told he was a lesser person because he was not beautiful like John. Believing it. Letting the fear of it rule him so completely, almost into an ill-considered marriage.
"God, it was so stupid," Jeannie said, shaking her head. "Such bullshit. I just... it just came out, you know? He’s just so lonely all the time." Teyla bears her no ill-will - she knows Jeannie meant well, how sometimes you find yourself repeating something simply because it is what you have always been told.
Teyla thinks of her mother, of Charrin - thinks about being a child and dreaming of farming tava in a galaxy free of the Wraith, of growing fat and happy surrounded by children and friends. Of no longer feeling the urgency of keeping herself fit enough to fight.
A thing need not be true to hold sway. Teyla knows this very well.
"You shouldn't judge us by this crap," Rodney says now, reaching out to flick the rolled-up magazine until it spins away and onto the floor. "I mean, judge Earth, go ahead, there's not much I can do about that. But most of us here don't, well, feel that way." His mouth twists into a grimace. "Most of us spent our teenage years being stuffed into lockers over, uh, defying the ruling paradigm." Rodney often talks like this when she asks him questions about Earth, patchwork and unsure. "Not that this isn't there, but it's, well. Some of the worst parts of us. Not something most of us are proud of, when we think about it. Just, most of us don't, much."
If the lights were brighter, Teyla is sure, she would see that Rodney's face is flushed pink with embarrassment. And this, this is why she asks him, she remembers. Because he will always answer, even if he doesn't want to. And suddenly she feels guilty over asking him this, though she has asked him more difficult questions.
Without hesitation, she leans forward in her chair, places hands on his shoulders, and leans forward a little, waiting. It takes him a moment to respond, big hands cupping her shoulders, bending down to rest their foreheads together. He exhales gustily against her face. "I have found," Teyla says quietly, "that knowing makes seeing only secondary." It occurs to her only belatedly that the rhyme may not sound the same to his ears, that in English the alliteration may be lost. But he laughs, a short, soft chuckle.
"We've got that saying, too," he says. "Though... I can't say I've had a lot of chances to find out."
She leans back enough to look into his face. "Rodney," she says, gently chiding, "I do not believe that is true at all."
He blinks at her, and close-to she imagines she can feel the heat of his blush. He moves as if to pull away. But Teyla holds him there, hands curled over his strong, broad shoulders, presses a brief kiss to his temple before standing.
"Do not work too late," she tells him. "I will see you in the morning."
He stares a long moment, and then nods jerkily. "Uh, right. Yes. Then." No matter how many times he is caught out at wearing all he feels clearly on his face, he is always surprised. But that, she would not change for the world.
The corridors are quiet at this hour, and Teyla passes only one patrol on the way back to her quarters. She knows the way, and so she closes her eyes, and listens to the distant roar of the waves, the almost-inaudible vibration of the floors and walls. The city is sleeping, mostly, but it restores her balance, and her quarters are dark as she slips inside.
On the low couch by the window she finds Kanaan, slumped back against the cushions. Torren is asleep on his chest, his father's arm holding him safe, his smooth cheek pressed against Kanaan's collar. Kanaan's mouth is slack and open, and both of them are snoring.
Teyla stands there with both hands over her mouth to hide the smile, stifle the laugh that might wake them if she let it slip past her lips.
This is a true thing, this quiet soft moment in the dark with the ocean behind her, and all that makes it up; her letters and her victories and her hopes and her family. John's courage and Rodney’s loyalty and Ronon's reckless affection. This dear man and this dear child she fights to protect with her every waking breath, even when no one at all can see her.
She slips off her boots, and sinks down onto the couch, curling her legs beneath her to watch them breathe awhile.