A Narrow Bridge

by Kass

Many thanks to Lomedet, Sihaya Black, and Dafna Greer for invaluable beta help. FYI: a glossary of non-English terms appearing in this story is available here.

"All the world is a very narrow bridge. The important thing is not to be afraid." -- Reb Nachman of Bratzlav


"So the mitzvah is for 'all Israel to teach their sons Torah,'" Rodney rattled off, "as it is written, 'and you shall teach your sons,' -- not that my father taught me frankly so much as the alef-bet, but we'll overlook that for the moment -- 'and all who teach their sons Torah, it is as though he received it directly from Sinai,' and obviously what's unclear here is the antecedent for the 'he,' whether it's the father or the son, and you do realize you can interrupt me any time now, don't you?"

Glancing up, he glared at Radek, who was leaning on the shtender opposite him but manifestly not looking at his text at all. He was looking at something over Rodney's right shoulder instead.

"I'm sorry, do you have something better to do?" Rodney asked pointedly.

Radek gestured with his head toward the door. "New student," he pointed out, and Rodney turned his head to see.

Rav Caldwell, the rosh yeshiva of Sha'arei ha-Kochavim, was standing with his arm around the new guy. Who was dressed more-or-less exactly like everyone else: black trousers, white shirt, though it seemed to Rodney that he might have left one more button undone at the top of the shirt than was strictly kosher here. Black velvet kippah pinned securely over a fairly obvious cowlick.

Around them, voices rose and fell. Everyone in the hall was reading aloud, throwing interpretations back and forth, voices rising for emphasis and punctuation. It was noisy enough that Rodney couldn't hear what Rav Caldwell was saying, but he could guess. New classmate, please welcome him, blah blah. The usual.

New guy glanced around the room diffidently and Rodney resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Probably didn't know mishna from gemara. He had that look about him, as if he didn't entirely know why he was here.

"Are you finished staring at the new guy," Rodney asked, "and can we return to the Tur, please?"

Radek muttered something unintelligible (one of these days Rodney was going to learn Czech, if only to be able to make snide comments in response) and visibly turned his attention back to his book. "If learning Torah from your father is like receiving Torah at Sinai, that makes our fathers effectively deity," Radek noted.

"Mm, yes, I'm sure you're the first person to think of that."

Radek grinned at him and tucked a curl behind his ear. "Ah, Rodney, you say the sweetest things. Shall we continue?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Rodney said, and looked back down at his book. The words rose up around him like a curtain and he didn't spare another thought for the new guy at all.

Days were short in February at this latitude. After mincha and maariv, they ate dinner, bentsched the grace after meals, then trooped back into the beis midrash for the evening shiur. Rodney ducked out early; his back was killing him. He just wanted some quiet time with a good book, but when he got to the dormitory he almost jumped out of his skin: there was a woman there! Her long coppery hair gleamed: not a wig, he guessed, which meant she was just leaving it uncovered. He hovered in the hall for a moment to see what was going on.

"You're going to be fine, John," the woman said. She sounded confident, and her voice was rich and resonant. "I think this will be a good place for you for a while."

The man to whom she was speaking, who had his back to Rodney, sighed. "You're probably right." His voice had a slight nasal twang; Rodney hadn't heard it before. Had to be the new guy, he realized.

"We're not supposed to have guests," Rodney said, stepping out of the doorway and into the common room. "Especially, um, female ones?"

The woman rose, smiling at him. "Teyla Emmagen," she said, and twitched as though she had been about to offer him her hand and then remembered she wasn't supposed to.

"My best friend since childhood," the new guy said, also standing up. "I'm John."

"Rodney," Rodney said, glancing around to see if they were being watched. Of course, they weren't; everyone else was still in the mussar shiur. "Look, it's fine, just -- you'll want to be someplace else in about forty minutes when everyone comes pouring out of the study hall."

"Fair enough," John said. "Thanks. Hey, have a seat," gesturing to the couch beside him. Feeling slightly nonplussed at being welcomed into his own building, Rodney sat.

"So," Rodney said, turning to Teyla. "You're..." He floundered, not sure how to finish the sentence.

"An MBA student at Tufts," she offered graciously. "John and I grew up on the same street."

"Suffered through Hebrew school together," John said, grimacing.

"And all of those bar and bat mitzvah parties!" Her smile was mischievous. That was a useful clue; obviously John had grown up...he guessed Reform, though Conservative was a possibility. Sounded like he might have had more of a (limited) Jewish education than Rodney had gotten, given that Rodney's parents hadn't even belonged to a congregation after his cursory celebration of bar mitzvah. Not that it mattered in the end; Rodney had made up for lost time.

"Teyla's pretty much the only one of my friends still speaking to me," John said with a wry smile.

"Why, what'd you -- oh," Rodney said, understanding. "Since you became frum."

John nodded.

"You've got me beat," Rodney offered. "I don't have any friends left from my old life." He considered. "Well, to be honest, I didn't have an overabundance of them to begin with. I've always been an illui in one realm or another; most people can't handle that."

"Ah," Teyla said, nodding seriously. John looked mildly interested for the first time.

"What were you a genius in before you got religion?" he asked.

"Doesn't matter," Rodney said. "It wasn't Torah learning." A vision of his physics textbooks flashed before his mind, spines lined up the way his Talmud and halakha books lined up now. But in this realm there would always be more depths to plumb, more heights to scale. Not to mention the community of committed learners who welcomed him, which was more than science had ever done.

"Right," John agreed.

He couldn't tell whether or not John was mocking him, which was disconcerting. "Well," he said. "I'm going to bed. Nice to meet you," nodding to Teyla.

"See you for shacharis," John offered.

"Study first," Rodney said. "Study at 7, davening at 7:30."

"Okay then. See you in the study hall."

As Rodney walked down the hall toward his room, he could hear the quiet hum of their voices. "I'm just glad to have you back in my time zone," she was saying as Rodney turned the corner and went up the stairs. Just before he opened his door, he heard Teyla laughing. It reminded him of Jeannie; he couldn't help smiling as he fumbled for his key.


As the weeks went by, it became clear that John Sheppard was laconic to the point of absurdity. Granted, Rodney acknowledged that it was possible he himself talked more than most. But John was quiet enough that Rodney wondered sometimes whether he were an idiot.

Until the day when both Zelenka and Lorne were out sick with the flu, and they got matched for chevrusa learning together.

"Studying with Rodney McKay," John said, and there was a twinkle in his eye. "I guess I've really arrived."

"Just try to keep up," Rodney said, haughtily. John didn't blanch, just grinned at him.

Rodney flipped his book open to the page his ribbon bookmarked: the beginning of a new section of Shulchan Aruch, on matters of judicial appointment. As always, when he opened the book he felt a wave of glee: so much to read! Not for the first time he sent a surge of gratitude on high, thankful for the stipend from the yeshiva which let him learn full-time.

"In this time, judges judge matters of: things which are acknowledged, loans, and writings having to do with women; inheritances, gifts, and damages; and matters of money between peers; these matters are common always," Rodney sing-songed in the mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic which lay on the page before them.

"But matters who are not commonly found even though they involve financial loss, such as a cow which damages another person's cow," John sang back, "or a matter which involves no financial loss even though it is common, such as paying someone a double payment, matters of fines, and so on -- these matters may be judged only by those who are in the category of experts ordained in the land of Israel."

Rodney blinked. He hadn't expected John to have so much facility with the language. This was one of the thorniest texts they'd seen yet, and John seemed as comfortable in it as Rodney was. At least when it came to simple reading with comprehension. He might have to revise his opinion of the guy.

"So why is the example of an animal damaging another animal filed in the category of not-commonly-found?" Rodney asked, challenging.

"Karo was operating in an urban context," John said immediately. "Used to be, that was a much more common problem, but we're not talking agrarian society anymore." He shifted from response mode to challenging Rodney back. "What are the most important words in our first sentence here?"

Rodney paused, parsing the words on the page again. "In this time," he said, after a moment. "He's showing us that we're operating in an hour of need -- that this isn't the ideal situation, but it's the level to which we've fallen."

"Good, good," Rav Caldwell said, from right behind him, and clapped him on the shoulder and moved on.

John grinned. "Se'if two?"

"You're on," Rodney said, and together they dove back in.

"So you've obviously done some learning," Rodney said, pouring maple syrup on his oatmeal.

John shrugged. "A little."

"A little?" Rodney scoffed. "You must be running circles around Lorne."

"He's a good guy," John said. "Steady."

"Right," Rodney said dismissively. "Seriously, where'd you do your learning?"

"There was an Orthodox rabbi, the chaplain where I was stationed," John said. "Wasn't a lot to do on base, and he knew I was Jewish, so he offered to teach me some stuff."

Rodney waited, but John was eating now. "That's it? That's your whole story?"

"That's the important part," John said. "Spent a couple years in Israel after that."

"Stationed," Rodney repeated, his brain finally catching up with John's pathetic excuse for a story. "You're ex-military!"

"Knew there was a reason everyone here said you were so smart," John said. But there was a tightness in his posture now, and if Rodney wasn't necessarily a genius at reading body language, even he could see that John was defensive about this. He wondered what had moved John to join the military. He wondered what had made John leave.

"Well, whoever your chaplain was, he made my morning a lot pleasanter," Rodney said.

It turned out to be the right thing to say; John visibly relaxed and quirked a smile. "Next up, Talmud," he said. "That's your thing, right?"

"Just you wait," Rodney promised, and downed his coffee to the dregs.

"Rava said, it is the duty of a man to mellow himself on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai,'" John sang out.

He must have seen the look on Rodney's face; he didn't stop to discuss or to ask questions, just kept reading. Rodney was more grateful for that forbearance than he wanted to admit.

"So," John said at dinner. "You gonna play a part in the Purimspiel? I'd love to see you skewer Caldwell."

Rodney straightened his spine: chin up, shoulders back, old unhappiness settling over him like a tallis. "I'm not going to be here that weekend," he said.

"Oh?" John asked. "Everybody says Purim's a real kick here."

Rodney blew out a breath. "Look, I'm not a big fan of ad d'lo yada." Until one cannot tell the difference... John had to have figured that out this morning -- reading one of the rare Talmud texts Rodney didn't want to dwell on -- but he hadn't said anything about it. Until now. Thankfully they were at least sitting at a table by themselves, without any of their classmates listening in.

"Do people really get that drunk?" John asked, curious.

Rodney shrugged. "That's what they tell me. Frankly, I'd just as soon spend the weekend with my sister."

John paused, obviously debating with himself over something, and then said, "Did you -- I mean, was there someone in your family who drank too much?"

Rodney barked out a laugh. "Hardly. My father never touched the stuff. But I saw more than my share of drunken carousing when I was at MIT."

"MIT," John repeated, then hazarded a guess. "Computers?"

"Physics," Rodney said. "I started at sixteen."

John was nodding slowly. "Smarter than anyone else in the room, and not old enough to drink."

"Not remotely interested in it," Rodney corrected. "What a waste of brain cells! And the dreck those people were drinking..." Fruit punch with vodka in it; he suppressed a shudder, remembering the sickly-sweet smell of it. Having to call health services to haul his alcohol-poisoned room-mate to the infirmary.

Radek had scoffed at him last year when he decided to miss his first Purim at Sha'arei ha-Kochavim. What passed for debauchery at the yeshiva was tame compared with typical undergraduate hijinks, he'd pointed out, and besides, this was drunkenness not for its own sake but for the sake of heaven! Still, Rodney had come to know and respect these people. He didn't want to see them in their Purim incarnations.

"Anyway," he said, briskly banishing the train of thought. "I could go the rest of my life without seeing that kind of stupidity again."

"So, no revelry for you," John said lightly.

"Thanks, but no thanks." Rodney went to push back from the table to bus his dishes, but John put a hand on his arm, and then just as quickly withdrew the touch.

"I'm not a big fan of overindulging, myself," John said. "I'm just...sorry you won't be here, is all."

Rodney blinked. It was an obvious attempt to make him feel better; somewhat inept, frankly, but he found that he felt marginally less miserable now. "Thanks," he said, surprised that he meant it, and gave John a smile.


When Rodney returned from his little Purim break, he expected everyone to be talking about the holiday: the schnapps, the songs, the skits spoofing their teachers and the sages. How many bottles of slivovitz they'd gone through. Who had given over the best Purim Torah. Instead everyone was talking about the new guy. Not John; the new new guy, who'd arrived just as Purim was beginning.

Rodney spotted him at shacharis. That wasn't hard; he was at least a head taller than anyone else in the room. Where everyone else wore black trousers and a plain white shirt, he was wearing a long black frock coat. He had a real beard, and sidecurls that tumbled down past his face -- this was no recent baal teshuvah, this guy was clearly frum from birth. He davened with his whole body, swaying back and forth as if prayer was some kind of martial art, and his singing voice rang out over everyone else's in the room.

"The youngest scion of the Satedener dynasty," Radek told him in halakha class. Study-sounds rushed around them like water; no one would hear them gossiping. "Actually he may be the only scion, at least on this continent."

"Where the hell is Sateda?" Rodney couldn't keep all of the Polish and Lithuanian towns apart in his mind. The names were meaningless to him, and of course most of them didn't even exist anymore.

Radek shrugged. "Somewhere in deepest Byelorus, I don't know exactly."

"You're Czech! Don't you--"

"Czech is not the same as Russian," Radek said tartly. "And I did not grow up religious any more than you did. You know this, Rodney."

"Satedener," Rodney repeated, wondering. "He's going to have a hell of a time here; wouldn't a Hassidische yeshiva have been a better choice?"

Radek spread his palms. "I do not know why he was sent here. I heard something about his grandfather knowing Rav Caldwell's father, but the whole story is not known to me."

"I can't imagine," Rodney began, but then he caught sight of the rosh yeshiva approaching, and hastily flipped his book open and began to read Shulchan Aruch aloud, swaying a little in his spot as though that would camouflage the fact that they'd been talking instead of learning.

Ronon Dex -- the Satedener -- was silent at breakfast; relatively quiet during Talmud; spoke in monosyllables at lunch; sang the ashrei with abandon at mincha. At the end of their mussar shiur, he raised a hand and asked, "When do we get to do some Hasidus?"

The mussar instructor, a thin rav with a wispy beard and reedy voice whose surname was Levitan, clucked his tongue disapprovingly. "We don't do Hasidus here," he said.

Rodney would have sworn that the room was already quiet, but it got a lot quieter at that moment. Everyone in the room seemed to be holding his breath, waiting to see if Dex would be visibly offended by the lack of respect paid to his stream of the tradition. Though seriously, what had he expected, coming to a Mitnagdische yeshiva like this one?

But Dex just shrugged. "Okay," he said, and leaned back in his chair, and Rav Levitan started droning on about middot again. Across the room, Rodney caught John's eye; John looked vaguely embarrassed, though whether it was on Ronon's behalf or on the yeshiva's Rodney couldn't say.

"Okay, don't take this the wrong way, but what are you doing here?" Rodney plunked down his tray next to Dex's. John, who was already sitting at Ronon's dinnertable, looked like he was trying hard not to laugh.

"Nice to meet you too," the Satedener said. His voice was gruff but his eyes were friendly.

"Yes, yes, consider the usual social niceties to have been observed," Rodney said breezily.

"This is my buddy Rodney," John said to Dex, cracking a smile now. "Rodney, Ronon."

"Ronon...is that a Russian name?" Rodney guessed.

"It was my great-grandfather's name," Ronon said.

"May his memory be a blessing," John and Rodney chorused.

"It is," Ronon said firmly.

Rodney decided not to push back on that.

"So...I'm curious too," John said, his voice casual.

Ronon rolled his eyes. "There aren't any Satedeners in the States. My grandfather wanted me to spend some time chutz l'aretz. He has a connection with Caldwell's family. Here I am."

"I just don't get why you're not with the Breslovers," Rodney said. "Or with the Lubavitchers, or something. Why here?"

Ronon shrugged. "Satedeners don't get along so well with those guys."

"Okay then," Rodney said. If his family would rather send him to a staunchly anti-Hasidic environment like this one, their disputes with the other dynasties had to be pretty impressive.

"Nice to have you here," John offered. "Where in Israel are you guys based?"

"Outside Bnei Brak," Ronon said.

"Huh," John said. "Never made it there."

That was right; John had studied in Israel. Rodney kept forgetting. He'd mentioned it, but as backgrounds went, ex-military was a lot more unusual than ex-yeshiva, so that was what had stuck with him.

"I'd forgotten you studied in Israel," Rodney said. "You never talk about it."

John shrugged. "It wasn't that exciting. Until they started trying to marry me off. That's when I hit the road."

"Where were you?" Ronon asked.

"Or Somayach," John said. One of the best-known yeshivot catering to those who had chosen Orthodoxy. No wonder John was so skilled.

"You ever study in Israel?" Ronon asked Rodney.

Rodney shook his head. "Not to speak of. Two weeks, once, that's it. Deserts and I do not get along. And, I mean, it makes sense to me to study in a place that's cold -- Boston, Vilna, whatever -- but the notion of going to a yeshiva in a place where people surf is just bizarre to me."

John looked momentarily wistful. "I used to surf," he said. "A long time ago."

A mental image of John atop a surfboard glided through Rodney's mind. He felt himself flush, a mild tingle running through him. It was because he was thinking about the heat, of course. It warmed his body up.

"Gotta admit, these clothes make a lot more sense here," Ronon said, gesturing to his long black frock coat, and grinned.

Thursday in the late afternoon Rodney ran into Ronon and John heading for the rosh yeshiva's house.

"He wants to talk to the rebbetzin," John said. "I'm going with -- it's more appropriate if he doesn't go alone."

"Obviously," Rodney said.

"Want to come?" John asked.

Rodney meant to say no, but when he opened his mouth what came out was, "Sure." So he followed them to the house and stood behind as Ronon knocked on the door.

Rebbetzin Elizabeth Caldwell opened the door, her dark hair neatly concealed beneath a colorful scarf. "Rodney, John, Ronon," she said, beaming at them. (Rodney was always impressed that she knew everybody's names.) "The rav is busy at the moment, but--"

"Actually, we're here to see you," Ronon said.

She graciously stepped back to let them pass. "I'll make tea," she said. "Right this way."

The rebbetzin had been a Bais Yaacov girl before going to secular university. People said she'd studied political science, with a minor in business. Now she handled the business end of the yeshiva while the rosh yeshiva did the teaching and fundraising. They didn't have children -- there was speculation that she was infertile -- which was maybe why she seemed to regard everyone at the yeshiva as a surrogate son. When Rodney first arrived she'd told him her door was always open if he needed to talk. He'd never taken her up on it.

"Of course you understand that the rosh yeshiva has his reasons for developing the curriculum in the way he's done," she said to Ronon as he lifted a delicate china cup to his lips. "That's not something I can question."

"I understand that," Ronon said, and she raised a hand to pause his speech.

"But I can imagine that this is difficult for you," Elizabeth said gently. "To be so far from your community, and to be in a learning environment that seems so unlike the one you've always known."

Ronon just looked at her.

"My suggestion," she said, "would be for you to find something to teach us."

Rodney gaped. John looked intrigued.

"I'm looking to learn," Ronon said.

"And often the best way to learn material is to teach it," Elizabeth returned. "There's an open slot now at 10pm; in the summer months we add an extra shiur during that time, but since it gets dark so early at this time of year we've dropped that last lesson of the day. Maybe you could teach some Hasidus then."

"Would the rosh yeshiva sign off on that idea?" Rodney asked, then immediately regretted it when he saw the chagrin on both John's and Ronon's faces.

Elizabeth smiled at him. "Official additions to the curriculum would require the rav's approval," she agreed, "but a little informal study, run by students, for students...? I think we could let that slide for the time being."

"I could teach Tanya," Ronon offered. "Or the Me'or Eynayim."

"Which sefer you choose is entirely up to you," Elizabeth said.

"Thank you," Ronon said. His voice was quiet but fervent.

"It's my pleasure," Elizabeth said, and sounded like she meant it.

They were back outside the dining hall when Ronon piped up. "So she's really in charge, huh."

Rodney laughed. "More or less. I mean, the rosh yeshiva does all the teaching, but she handles practical matters."

"Does she ever teach?" John asked, and Rodney turned to him, surprised by the question. "In Israel I went to lectures by women, sometimes."

"Really?" Rodney boggled.

"Not at the yeshiva, but...around." John shrugged.

Rodney had learned from female university professors, of course, but somehow it had never occurred to Rodney that women might teach men at a yeshiva. Apparently he'd mentally compartmentalized his learning environments. He couldn't quite picture Elizabeth at the front of the room.

"I don't think that happens here," Rodney said, and opened the door to the dining room. "Shall we?"

"You coming tonight?" John asked Rodney as they trooped in to the beis midrash for the evening's ethics shiur.

Rodney shrugged. "It's late; I could imagine going to bed after this."

"C'mon," John wheedled. "It'll be fun."

Rodney gave him a dubious look. "Hasidus, fun? You need to get your head examined."

"What do you have against Hasidus?"

"Nothing," Rodney said. "It's just not my thing. Another night class on Codes, now, that I'd consider, but..."

"Ronon's a good guy. You should come," John said firmly.

Rodney sighed. "I don't even know why I bother arguing with you. Yes, fine, I'll be there; satisfied?"

John's smile made Rodney smile back; he couldn't help himself, even if he'd wanted to.

When Rodney walked in, Ronon was sitting on a desk he'd dragged over to the wall of the common room, rocking back and forth gently and singing a niggun. His voice was strong and his eyes were closed; Rodney shot Radek a glance that said 'get a load of this guy!' and Radek shrugged back at him.

Ronon kept up the niggun longer than Rodney expected; by the end, a couple of guys were humming along.

Then he opened his eyes and stopped singing, looked around the room to see who was there, and dove right in.

"'It was through the Torah, called 'the beginning of God's way,' that God created the world; all things were created by means of Torah,'" Ronon recited. He leapt down from the table and started walking back and forth across the front of the room, looking at each of his twelve or so classmates in turn. "Alma, the world: the resonances are both spatial and temporal, right? So the Kadosh Baruch Hu created space and time, together, through Torah."

He waited to see that everyone was following, then recited the next line of the Me'or Eynayim's commentary on the Torah's opening verses. "'Since the power of the Maker remains in the made, Torah is to be found in all things and throughout all the worlds.'"

"What do you mean, all the worlds?" John asked.

"This world and the world to come," Rodney said, without thinking. It was obvious.

"That's one answer," Ronon agreed. "But he might also be talking about the Four Worlds." Seeing blank stares around the room, he stopped pacing. "Sorry. I forget you guys haven't done any of this before. Okay, who can give me Isaiah, 43:7?"

It was John who spoke up. "Everyone that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him, I have made him."

Rodney shot him an approving glance. He hadn't figured John would have any of the prophets committed to memory.

"This is the prooftext for the idea that reality exists in four worlds or planes," Ronon said, and explained how three of the verbs in the verse implied the worlds of action, emotion, and thought.

"And what's left for the fourth world?" Ronon asked.

"There were only three verbs in that form in the sentence," Rodney objected.

Ronon flashed him a grin. "Right. The fourth world, the highest world, is the world of atzilus -- the world of essence in which all is God. There's no verb to represent that one. It's beyond words."

Rodney glanced over at John, meaning to roll his eyes, but John's gaze was fixed on Ronon. John was sitting forward in his chair, obviously interested.

Rodney wondered what he'd gotten himself into.

"Moving on," Ronon said, and they did.

Ronon Dex was an amazing teacher.

It pained Rodney to admit it. He'd done some TA'ing, back in his undergraduate days, and it had been an unmitigated disaster. Well: being years younger than any of the graduate students hadn't helped. But he hadn't had the patience to teach then, and he didn't have much patience for teaching now. He wanted to fly through Talmud at the speed of light; it was all he could do to work with a chevrusa who wasn't quite as brilliant as he.

Ronon, though: Ronon not only loved his texts, but somehow he was able to transmit that love to his students, even when it was obvious most of them had shown up just because they were curious about him, not because they cared about the Me'or Eynayim.

Rodney was prepared to admit to John that it was possible there might be more to Hasidus than met the eye. And this morning in the shower he'd decided to ask whether John might want to be his chevrusa for a while. He and Radek had been partners since he'd arrived at the yeshiva a year ago; they might both benefit from some new insights. The day he'd spent working with John had been surprisingly enjoyable.

And watching Ronon's teachings light John up like a lamp had made Rodney want to learn with him. Maybe he could expound on halakha in a way that would make John beam at him, too. The thought filled him with warmth.

But that morning when Rodney glanced over at the shtender next to where he and Radek customarily worked, Evan Lorne was there setting up his books.

"Boker tov," Rodney said, surprised.

"Boker or," Lorne replied, smiling at him.

"Did you and John move over here?" Rodney asked.

Lorne shook his head. "I'm actually working with Lee now," he said, and sure enough Bill Lee materialized and flipped open his Shulchan Aruch with a thud.

"Oh," Rodney said, surprised.

"John wanted to try working with Ronon for a while," Lorne offered.

"Oh," Rodney said, again. Disappointment washed over him. John and Ronon entered at the far side of the room and set up shop; John caught his eye and smiled at him.

Rodney looked down at his book, swallowing hard. Whatever he was feeling, it didn't really matter. There was studying to be done.

"Earth to Rodney," Radek said quietly. Rodney hadn't noticed him arrive.

"Yes! I'm here, let's get on with it," Rodney snapped.


The beis midrash doubled as their beis knesset. Each desk had a cubbyhole which held books. First thing in the morning each student stashed his tallis and tefillin there, then withdrew them for prayer, then put them back again.

This early March morning snow fell like a curtain outside the windows of the study hall as they prayed the morning service. Rodney was unwinding his tefillin from his arm when John, who was doing the same beside him, piped up.

"You'll never guess what happened to me yesterday."

"Probably not," Rodney agreed. He wound the retzuot around the little leather box, kissed it, and tucked it into its velvet pouch.

"The rebbetzin told me there's a shadchan scoping me out."

Rodney glanced over at him, surprised. "What? Here?"

John shrugged. "Apparently the teachers are in touch; they pass along the names of eligible bachelors."

Rodney snorted. "Perhaps not surprisingly, no one's ever breathed a word about this to me."

"They just haven't noticed your considerable charms," John said, mock-serious, and despite himself Rodney grinned.

"So, what, you're going to go on a date?" Rodney told himself that the disappointment he was feeling was purely because the shadchan had approached John instead of him. He was perfectly marriageable. Wasn't he?

"Crazy thing," John said, packing his tallis into its case. "The young woman she wants to introduce me to...? Jeannie McKay."

Rodney gaped at him. John stood up and headed toward the door.

"My sister is not ready to be married," Rodney called after him, panic starting to rise. Half a dozen guys looked at him funny, but he ignored them all. "Not ready at all! "

"You should have told me you were talking to a shadchan," Rodney said. He leaned against the wall of the hallway next to the common room and cupped a hand over his other ear, trying to tune out the payphone's crackle.

"I didn't want to worry you, Mer," Jeannie said. "I wasn't sure anything would come of it. I'm still not sure! This may turn out to be a whole lot of nothing."

"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Rodney hated how plaintive his voice sounded, but he couldn't help himself. The thought of his baby sister getting married...

"It could take a while to find the right guy," she said. "I figured I should start looking."

"What if you find him right away?" His voice cracked, which was embarrassing.

"You think John Sheppard's my guy, huh?" Jeannie sounded amused.

"What? No! I just..." Rodney took a deep breath. "I don't know how to do this," he admitted. "I wish Mom and Dad were still alive."

"Even if they were," she said gently, "they'd be totally at-sea when it comes to arranging a marriage. You know that."

"Yeah," Rodney admitted. "I do." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "Look, just -- be careful, okay?"

"I am. I promise. We're going to meet for coffee at a hotel -- nice and public, and the shadchan will be at the other end of the restaurant, so it's all aboveboard."

"Keep me posted," Rodney said, feeling like life was spiraling uncomfortably out of his control.

After they hung up, he leaned against the wall and stared at the ceiling for a while before heading out the door to Talmud class, for which he was going to be unconscionably late.

Rodney had to admit it made a certain kind of sense. John was a relatively recent baal teshuvah, and it was unlikely any shadchan would be able to match him with a girl who'd been frum from birth. But he was good-looking, well-educated, apparently had some money, cared about his education; aside from being BT, he was a perfect match for somebody.

And Jeannie looked like a good match for him, at least on paper. Once Rodney and Jeannie's parents had died, she had followed him into Orthodoxy, and she'd taken to it as naturally as he had. She was an appropriate age for marriage, and her mother wasn't alive to call the shadchan on her behalf, so she'd made the call herself; that showed initiative. She had a part-time job at the local library, so she had a source of income. She studied at the girls' seminary in Boston three nights a week, so her commitment to Torah learning was obviously strong.

But the notion of John... with his sister...! The thought was more than Rodney could handle. Evidently the notion of Jeannie starting a family was just too weird for Rodney to bear.

Enough people had overheard John and Rodney's conversation at shacharis that people were starting to tease both of them now. "Hear you guys might wind up brothers-in-law," Ronon said at lunchtime. "So I understand your family may be increasing," Radek said approvingly over their books. Even the rebbetzin gave him a special smile, which had to mean the news had reached her, too. Rodney wanted to tear his hair out.

When the day came for John and Jeannie's first date, Rodney had butterflies in his stomach all day. John left after maariv to get a cab to the hotel; he waved to Rodney on his way out. Rodney didn't wave back.

At ten-thirty the knock came on Rodney's door. "You awake?"

Rodney was, of course, and he opened it fast. John looked...normal. Exactly like John. Rodney couldn't help looking him up and down, though what he was looking for he couldn't have said; it wasn't as though there were going to be visible signs, wrinkled clothes or lipstick on his cheek or something.

"So," Rodney said, and had to clear his throat. "How'd it go?"

John shrugged, came in, sat on the edge of his bed. Rodney sat next to him and waited.

"Fine," John said, his voice noncommital. "She's smart."

"Of course she's smart," Rodney snapped. "She's my sister."

"Yeah, I kind of noticed that," John said, sounding amused.

"What did you do?"

"Had a cup of coffee," John said. "Talked about childhood."

Rodney felt an irrational pang of jealousy. "Oh?"

"You didn't tell me you used to play the piano," John said.

Rodney folded his arms. "It never came up." He knew he sounded defensive, but he couldn't seem to stop himself.

"I play the guitar," John volunteered. "Badly."

Rodney couldn't help laughing a little, at that. John grinned at him, and for an instant things felt normal again.

"So...are you going to go out with her again?" He regretted the question as soon as it came out of his mouth, but it was too late; he couldn't un-say it.

"I guess," John said, and stood. "I'd better head for bed."

"Laila tov," Rodney said. He felt his mouth turning down into half a frown as he closed the door.

For date number two, John and Jeannie went into the city and spent the afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts. The yeshiva wasn't far from Boston, just past the far end of the commuter rail, but going into the city still seemed like a big deal. Leaving the cloister behind.

Date number three was for dinner -- again in the city, at a glatt kosher Chinese place in Brookline. Each time, John came back in good spirits, and Rodney felt increasingly at-sea.

The week after the third date, Jeannie invited Rodney home for Shabbos, but he didn't want to go. He knew it was childish -- if she were getting married, he wouldn't have many chances to spend time just with her anymore -- but he couldn't face the prospect of listening to her spend a whole Shabbos talking about John. Or, worse, about the wedding. He'd been to plenty of weddings; that was how guys tended to leave the yeshiva, getting married and going off to establish a home of their own. But he'd never really considered what it would be like to play a central role at one.

Thinking about Jeannie married made Rodney feel painfully alone. Which didn't make much sense; it wasn't as though he saw her all that often now anyway. His life wouldn't change that much. John would probably even keep learning at the yeshiva, at least for the rest of the year.

But he didn't want it to be happening. There was the ugly truth of the matter. Rodney turned down the Shabbos invitation, and ignored how petulant that made him feel.

Friday noon, Ronon stopped by his room. "John and I are heading for the mikvah," he said. "Want to come?"

The yeshiva didn't have its own mikvah, but there was one a short walk away.

Rodney looked up from his book. "Mm: there's snow on the ground and you want me to go dip in cold water? Thanks, but no thanks."

"Shabbos is coming," Ronon protested. "It's a sweet practice. C'mon."

"Really, I'll pass," Rodney said.

"Suit yourself," Ronon said, and closed the door again.

Every Shabbos Ronon wore a white silk coat with an ornately-embroidered belt, and a tall fur streiml on his head.  An increasing number of students clustered around his Shabbos table for zemiros after the meal. Since he began every late-night shiur with a niggun, his regulars knew his melodies now, and would join him in singing and pounding the table even though no one had imbibed more than a glass or two of wine.

They'd always sung after dinner on erev Shabbos at Sha'arei ha-Kochavim, of course. But Ronon's songs were more plaintive. There was more yearning there. For the Satedener world that would never exist again, maybe. Or maybe just for Hashem.

Rodney had joined in once or twice, but this week he wasn't in the mood. He sat at a quieter table with Lorne and Radek. He wasn't facing Ronon's table, where John usually sat and sang, so he was surprised when John pulled out the chair next to him and sat down.

"Good shabbos," John said.

"Good shabbos," Rodney echoed. Radek nodded to them and excused himself.

"Sorry you didn't come to the mikvah this afternoon," John said.

"Lorne, come sing with us," Lee hollered from Ronon's table, and with an apologetic smile Evan stood up and headed that way, leaving John and Rodney alone.

Rodney toyed with his napkin. "Yeah, somehow getting cold just didn't seem appealing."

John grinned. "Kinda wish the mikvah was a hot tub."

Rodney laughed at that. "I'd like to see you suggest that to Rav Scherman!"

"I thought I might let you be the bearer of that great idea," John said, and Rodney wadded up his napkin and threw it at him.

"I guess I'll go with you before the wedding," Rodney said, swallowing around the inexplicable lump in his throat.

John grimaced. "Yeah. About that...?"

Rodney took a deep breath, feeling as though he were bracing himself for bad news. This was good news, he knew; the best news one could receive. Another Yiddische home! And soon there would be a bris, God willing. He tried to picture Jeannie pregnant. John holding a baby boy. He tried to imagine himself married to some nice frum girl, but he couldn't picture what she would look like -- what it would be like -- at all.

"You didn't hear a word I just said, did you."

Rodney looked up at John, chagrined. "No," he had to admit. "I'm sorry, I was... distracted."

"Right," John said drily. "Listen -- I'm not sure we're going to get married."

Rodney felt as if his heart had stopped. "What?" They'd gone on three dates; John had seemed reasonably happy; Jeannie had seemed reasonably happy. What was John waiting for? How long was John going to torture him like this?

"I like your sister a lot," John said earnestly, "but I just don't think we're right for each other."

Rodney stared at him. "Does she know this?" Relief warred with apprehension in his heart: was he going to have to take sides in this? Was Jeannie expecting a proposal? What had the shadchan told her?

"Oh, yeah," John said easily. "We talked about it. Y'know, at our dinner date."

Rodney had to swallow the laughter that was threatening to bubble up and overwhelm him. "You talked to my sister about how you don't plan to marry her."

John had the good graces to look sheepish. "We kind of...agreed. The spark just isn't there, you know?"

Rodney was so relieved he thought he might pass out. So he wasn't sure why he opened his mouth and started arguing. "Getting married isn't supposed to be about a spark," he pointed out.

"Yeah, well, this wasn't right," John said, with finality. "Jeannie and I agreed. I'm still coming over for Pesach, though."

That was when it really sunk in. Jeannie wasn't getting married. John wasn't getting married. But they were both still going to be in Rodney's life. He wasn't losing either one of them.

"That's...great," Rodney said, and beamed at John. "I mean it."

John smiled back -- a real smile, one that reached the corners of his eyes. "I'm glad you're okay with this."

"More than I can say," Rodney said, and it was true.


"Change of plans," Jeannie said. "For Pesach."

"Oh?" Rodney pressed the payphone receiver close to his ear.

"I talked with Rebbetzin Caldwell, and she made the excellent point that making seder is an awful lot of work, especially when one is doing it alone."

"I'd help," Rodney protested, and Jeannie laughed.

"The point is, the Caldwells want us to have seder at the yeshiva."

But what about John? Could Rodney ask that, or would it be strange, now that John and Jeannie weren't getting engaged?

"Would you mind, Mer?" Jeannie asked. "She says they'd welcome the opportunity to fulfil the mitzvah of hospitality, and it sounds like she has help for the holiday, so it wouldn't be an awful lot of work. I know you were probably looking forward to coming home this year, but -- I actually kind of don't want to stop studying right now; I've gotten kind of immersed in the learning I'm doing at the seminary...I'll tell you more next time I see you."

"I don't mind," Rodney said, "I just don't want John to be by himself."

"Oh, John's invited," Jeannie said. "And Radek, and your Satedener friend."

"Great," Rodney said, beaming. "That sounds really good. Yes, of course, I'll tell Caldwell yes."

"Thanks," Jeannie said. "My hands and my back appreciate it!"

It wasn't until after they hung up the phone that Rodney wondered what texts Jeannie was so excited about studying that she didn't want to set them aside to make seder. But then he forgot about it again.

The school emptied out on the day before Pesach. Most people went home to be with family -- some with families who were newly-observant; some visiting families who weren't observant, which posed its own challenges -- so they were barely able to make a morning minyan. But the seders were wonderful.

Rav Caldwell presided. They sang every word in the haggadah, stopping to question and discuss as the ritual demanded. Elizabeth and Jeannie sang, too -- not as loudly as the men, but they sang, because the words mattered to them too. Ronon turned out to be the youngest person there, so he asked the Four Questions, sing-songing them in the same lernensteiger trop he'd been using for study since he was just barely old enough to read.

They sang, and they argued, and they ate, and they sang. They praised and they sang some more. By the time they finished the last verse of Had Gadya it was one in the morning, and the men had to wake early for festival shacharis. But John and Rodney stayed up, helping clear the dishes and get them into the institutional dishwashers, and at the end of the night Jeannie hugged them both when nobody was looking. Not exactly shomer negiah, but even though she and John had decided not to marry, she seemed to regard him as family now.

And then they did it all over again the next night.

It was Rodney's second Pesach at the yeshiva, and it far outshone his first. The first year had been fine, but he hadn't felt connected with people. This year, seeing John and Radek and Ronon in their white kittels -- just like his own -- made him feel like he was part of something. (Even if he was slightly annoyed that John made a kittel look good; they were ill-fitting on everyone else...)

Most of their classmates came back during chol ha-moed, and by the end of the week the dormitory was packed again. And Ronon took a hiatus from teaching the Me'or Eynayim, and started teaching about the mystical resonances of counting the Omer. Marking the days between Pesach and Shavuos, from freedom to covenant.

Ronon's shiur had become so crowded that he added an extra session early in the morning, before their day formally began at 7am. But a lot of guys came to both. Rodney pointed out to John sotto voce that it kind of defeated the purpose of having two, but he accompanied John to both sessions anyway.

These days Ronon's students sang Satedener niggunim with gusto, and they asked good questions. Sometimes during halakha or Talmud or mussar class something would come up which reminded Rodney of something Ronon had been teaching, and he would look around the room knowing that half of his classmates were thinking about Ronon's teachings, too.

Rodney hadn't expected Ronon's Hasidus classes to be so powerful. It wasn't that he had anything against mystical connection with Hashem Yisbarach; he just didn't tend to see the world in those terms. He loved the law, the arcane twists and turns of classical legal thinking. He loved the dense web of references and intertextuality that enabled a writer in one century to quote two words from another century and have readers in the twenty-first century nodding their heads in comprehension.

But Hasidic texts had that quality, too. And they weren't in opposition to the legal material he cherished; just...operating on a different plane. As Ronon taught, night after night and dawn after dawn, connections sparked between the rational and the mystical. Rodney could feel that changing his worldview, despite his best intentions.

Sometimes after Ronon's night shiur Rodney was too wired to sleep. One night during the second week of the Omer -- the week of gevurah, boundary; it was the night of harmony within boundaried strength -- John knocked on his door close to twelve.

"I couldn't sleep," John said when Rodney opened the door fully-dressed.

"Me neither," Rodney admitted, and let John in. They perched on opposite ends of Rodney's bed, Rodney leaning against the wall at the head of the bed and John sitting cross-legged at the bed's foot, and talked until almost two.

They did the same thing the next night. And the next.

"I really thought MIT was it," Rodney found himself saying one night. "I was sixteen; I'd never had friends, not since I was maybe five or six, because I was smarter than everyone else put together and I was insufferable about it. I thought MIT would be the place where I would finally be in the middle of the bell curve."

"And that appealed to you?"

"It sounded like heaven," Rodney said fervently. "I didn't want to be a statistical outlier anymore, you know?"

John nodded. "Yeah," he said after a long minute. "I do."

Rodney stared at his tzitzis, tucked idly between his right thumb and forefinger. He didn't play with them often anymore; apparently this subject still made him reach for comfort.

"But it wasn't what you'd hoped for," John prompted, quietly.

"No," Rodney agreed. "I was still at the head of the class, only now I was two years younger than everybody else. It was a social nightmare."

"So what happened?"

Rodney gave him a rueful smile. "Chabad," he said.

"What, you went to services one Shabbos out of the blue?"

Rodney nodded. "I was lonely. There was a flyer. I figured, I'm Jewish, I can do this. And they were good to me, you know? And the rabbi figured out that I was bright, and put a translation of Mishneh Torah in front of me."

John's laugh was endearingly dorky.

"What?" Rodney demanded.

"He must have been a smart rabbi," John wheezed. "Intelligence doesn't get much more insufferable than Rambam!"

Now Rodney was laughing, too. "I guess he figured Rambam and I would be great friends."

The crazy part was, the Chabad rabbi had been right. Any other text probably wouldn't have grabbed Rodney's attention in the same way, but Maimonides was so systematic, and so erudite. And yeah, Rodney had recognized himself in the Rambam's certainty that no one else could possibly be as smart as he.

"How long did it take you to turn frum?" John asked.

"Less than a month. Another Shabbos or two, I devoured everything in English in his library, he found me a good Hebrew tutor, and..." Rodney spread his hands. "God took care of the rest."

There was a silence, but it was a comfortable one.

"What about you?" Rodney ventured.

"There was this chaplain," John began, but Rodney shook his head.

"You told me that part. I mean...did you ever think you'd be career Army?"

John looked down at his hands. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Air Force, actually."

"Oh," Rodney said. John as a pilot: that made a strange kind of sense.

"Some guys got killed," John said, almost inaudibly, "and I couldn't make sense of it. One of them...we'd been -- close."

John looked up at Rodney's face, and the vulnerability Rodney saw there made his heart clench painfully.

"I tried to save them, but I couldn't," John said. Rodney wanted to reach out -- to touch his arm, to clasp his shoulder -- but he wasn't sure whether John would welcome the touch. The length of his bed seemed suddenly like a chasm he couldn't possibly bridge.

"And the chaplain helped you see that it wasn't your fault?" Rodney asked, his voice raspy.

"He helped me see that there was a higher purpose at work, even if I couldn't understand it," John said. "That there was a higher authority I could be serving with my life than the Joint Chiefs. I studied with him the rest of my tour. And then I went home and had the fight of my life with my father, and then I went to Israel."

And from Israel, here. "Wow," Rodney said. It seemed insufficient, so he added "Baruch Hashem."

John raised an eyebrow.

"I'm...grateful," Rodney said, spreading his hands wide. Trying to explain. "I'm glad you're here."

John smiled at him, and something in Rodney's heart cracked open. "I'm glad I'm here, too," he said.

"Okay, I'm here," Rodney said, dropping his overnight bag in the foyer of their parents' house. Jeannie's house, now. Their house, though he didn't live in it anymore.

"Mer!" She launched herself across the room and hugged him hard. "It's been weeks! The Omer's almost over!"

"I've been busy," he protested.

"Uh-huh," she said, and headed for the kitchen.

"Where are you--"

"I made coffee," she called.

Rodney brightened. "You are the best sister there ever was," he promised, following her into the kitchen to get a cup.

They were settled into the breakfast nook when she curled her hands around her mug and gave him a determined look.

"What," he said warily.

"We need to talk."

His stomach turned a somersault. "What is it -- did the shadchen call again?"

Jeannie was shaking her head. "It's not about me," she said gently. "It's about you."

"I cannot believe you," Rodney said, for maybe the tenth time. "This is ridiculous. You are so wrong."

"I'm not wrong," Jeannie insisted. "You talk about him all the time."

"We're friends!" Rodney exploded. "This is the natural chemistry that exists between one chevrusa and another!"

"Radek Zelenka is your chevrusa," Jeannie said sweetly. "Not John."

Rodney glared.

"You light up when you say his name," she said, her voice quiet. "You light up when I say his name. I wish you could see yourself, Mer."

"Ribbono Shel Olam," Rodney murmured, all the fight going out of him in a rush. He stared at his reflection in the black well of his coffee mug. What if Jeannie were right?

"Hey," she murmured. "It's okay. Don't panic."

Rodney barked out a laugh. "Don't panic? Are you serious? It's forbidden, Jeannie," he pleaded, though he couldn't have said why he was pleading or with whom exactly.

"You think I don't know that?" Her voice was sharp; it reminded Rodney of himself. He wondered whether John had seen any of him in her. Whether that was what had pushed John away.

Rodney set down his coffee cup and put his head in his hands, as though he were bending his head for tachanun. Seeking absolution for where he had missed the mark...

"Hang on," Jeannie said quietly, and he heard the scrape of her chair pushing back from the table. Footsteps. And then she returned and plunked something down on the table.

Rodney raised his head. A book. A secular book with a bright paperback cover.

"I did some research," Jeannie said.

Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Steven Greenberg. The word made Rodney want to drop the book and run out of the room.

"He's an Orthodox rabbi and he's gay," Jeannie said, unnecessarily.

Rodney, who was reading the back cover, snapped, "I can read!"

Jeannie chuckled and sipped her coffee.

Some unknown amount of time later, she stood up and tiptoed away, leaving Rodney immersed.


Rodney didn't say anything to anyone about his own personal revelation. Still, the knowledge of it prickled along his spine, as though he had awakened a sixth sense he wasn't sure he wanted or knew what to do with.

Sivan turned to Tammuz. Leaves came out to replace the flowering trees. And Rodney began to feel as though he needed to tell someone or his secret would come tumbling out at the most inopportune moment.

Not that there were really any opportune moments for this kind of thing.

But who could he tell? He didn't want to burden Radek. He didn't know Ronon well enough to know how he would respond. And kal v'chomer, how much the more so with Evan and Bill and the other men with whom he ate and studied and prayed but never exchanged a word about anything personal or emotional.

Of course, the answer was obvious. There was only one person he knew well enough to share something like this. Perhaps not coincidentally, the one person who most deserved to hear it -- but of whose response Rodney was most uncertain. The thought of telling John filled Rodney with elation and fear. Half the time he imagined that John shared his feelings; the other half the time he was convinced that John would recoil in disgust.

If only he had some sense of how John might respond...

Worrying the problem late one night, Rodney realized that he'd been an idiot. Clearly hormones were clouding his ability to think clearly. True, Rodney hadn't known John long enough to have a clear sense for how he might respond, but there was someone else who had.

Rodney ducked out of halakha the next morning, ran back to the payphone in the dormitory, and called Tufts. The business school switchboard told him that no one had phones in their rooms anymore, but they could connect him with a student's voicemail and he could leave a message. So they did, and he did, and he left a slightly shaky voicemail message naming a place and time and date. And then he went back to class, where Radek looked at him funny but had the sechel not to ask.

Despite having been an undergraduate in Boston, Rodney still didn't know the city that well, and he'd never been to the Museum of Fine Arts. But he made his way to the terminus of one of the commuter rail lines, then took the T to the MFA stop, and was sitting in the café at the MFA well before ten.

There was a kind of irony in coming here to meet a woman for coffee -- here, where John had come with Jeannie -- but it was a place he could reach easily, a public place, and he knew no one else from his community would be there. It would be anonymous. It would be safe.

This had seemed like a better idea before it was actually happening. But now he was here and he was freaking out. At least he had coffee.

Rodney pulled out his pocket tehillim, but didn't have the focus to say the psalms; he got distracted midway through the first one he opened to. The restaurant was light and airy and full of conversation and he wondered whether he stood out in his black-and-whites.

"I am glad to see you made your way here safely," a voice said, and Rodney looked up hastily. Teyla Emmagen smiled at him from across the small table he had chosen.

"Yes, no problem, it was very easy," Rodney said, feeling flustered already. She was more beautiful than he remembered. She wore a turquoise summer dress with a linen jacket which covered her arms; he wondered idly whether she had chosen the wrap because of the air-conditioning or to protect his sensibilities. "Can I get you anything?" His own coffee cup was already empty.

"I have a cappucino coming," she said, "and I'm sure they would be happy to refill your cup."

"Ought to just bring me a carafe," Rodney muttered, and was surprised when she laughed.

Teyla pulled out her chair and sat opposite him. "Your call was a surprise," she said warmly, "but any friend of John's is a friend of mine."

Rodney put down his psalm book, hands shaking a little. "About that," he began, then fell silent.

The waiter appeared with her cappucino, took one look at Rodney's coffee cup, and dashed away again.

"I'll just wait until he brings the coffee," Rodney said, aware that he was verging on babbling but apparently unable to stop. "This is difficult enough as it is, I don't want to run the risk of being interrupted at a critical moment."

"Of course," Teyla said smoothly, and folded her hands and waited.

Once the coffee was poured and the waiter gone, Rodney no longer had an excuse.

"I think I'm in love with John," he said, all in a rush. Saying the words felt... strange. As though he were reciting someone else's unfamiliar liturgy. He glanced around the room by force of habit, to make sure no one was listening, though of course no one was paying them any mind at all.

"I see," Teyla said, and the compassion in her smile made him want to cry.

"Nothing like this has ever -- I mean, I'm not -- I didn't think I was..." This was ridiculous. He took a deep breath. "I didn't realize I was gay until quite recently." That was better; at least he was speaking in full sentences.

"I take it John does not know this."

"Are you crazy? Of course he doesn't know! My sister was the one who figured it out, and I've spent the last few weeks trying to come to terms with this -- whatever it means." Rodney was winding his tzitzis so tightly around his fingertip he was cutting off circulation. He had to force himself to unwind, let go, place his hands flat on his thighs.

"And how are you doing?"

That took Rodney aback; he hadn't expected her to ask that. "I'm...fine, I guess," he said. "Mostly. When I'm not panicking."

"Ah," Teyla said, and sipped her cappucino. Her eyes smiled at him over the rim of the enormous foam-topped mug.

"I haven't been panicking nonstop, I'll have you know," Rodney said. "Though it has been a bit distracting."

He'd spent days in a cold sweat, wondering whether everyone around him could tell, but it became clear that no one had any idea. No one except Jeannie, and now himself. And then he'd spent a while staring at other men: Lorne, Radek, Ronon, all of whom were attractive enough, objectively speaking. But none of them made his heart turn upside-down in his chest the way that John did.

"I applaud your strength," Teyla said quietly, pulling him out of his reverie.

"Excuse me?"

"It is not easy to change one's view of oneself," she pointed out. "You seem to be handling it admirably."

Rodney barked out a laugh. "You haven't seen me waking up in the middle of the night and breathing into a paper bag."

Though it seemed to him suddenly that just having said it aloud to another human being might make a difference. The secret felt less weighty now that it was shared.

"I know this isn't a fair question to ask you," Rodney said, draining his coffee cup again, "but do you have any idea how John would respond if I told him?"

Teyla sipped her beverage thoughtfully, then met his eyes. "I cannot speak for John," she said carefully.

"You've known him his whole life," Rodney pleaded. "You have to have some idea--"

"John's inclinations are his own tale to tell," Teyla said. "I do know that he cares for you deeply; he speaks of you often."

Rodney beamed at her, his anxiety temporarily in abeyance. "He does?"

"I would say not a conversation goes by that he does not mention you." She smiled.

That was something. That had to be good. Didn't it?

"So what do I do?" Rodney asked. His voice sounded more plaintive than he intended.

"It is my experience that hiding is unhealthy for the soul," Teyla said.

"You think I should tell him," Rodney said. He felt surprisingly calm, now. He had known Teyla would give this counsel, hadn't he? And if she hadn't been able to calm his fears entirely, she had at least told him that John cared.

"With your permission," she said, "I will hold both of you in my heart."

"Yes, please," Rodney said, and was surprised to discover tears pricking at the back of his eyelids. "I -- thank you, Ms. Emmagen."

"Teyla," she said firmly, and smiled.

The rosh yeshiva called Rodney to his study; when he stepped inside, he found John already seated there. Nervousness prickled along Rodney's spine. Had the rav found him out somehow?

But Rav Caldwell smiled at both of them. "I have a proposition for you," he said. "How would you like to spend a weekend in the mountains?"

"The mountains?" John echoed, obviously wondering what was going on.

But Rodney got it immediately. "You want to send us as shlichim. Yes, of course!"

The yeshiva sent messengers, to various campuses around the state. It was a form of keiruv, outreach aimed at bringing people closer to Hashem. Liberal and unobservant Jews, mostly. People who didn't yet know that they cared about being Jewish. Rodney had gone on a keiruv trip with Grodin the year before, but Grodin wasn't at the yeshiva anymore; he'd gotten married and moved away. Now it was Rodney's turn to show John the ropes.

"Sounds wonderful," John said, and grinned. "It's cooler out there, right?"

The outskirts of Boston in the summer were hot and swampy. The hills would be cool in the evenings -- blissfully so, Rodney thought. "Ought to be," Rodney agreed. "Though of course that's not why we're going," he added hastily.

Rav Caldwell looked like he was trying hard not to laugh. "Of course not," he said. "We don't typically do these visits in summertime, but we got a call from Hillel; there's a large-enough population of summer students to make this one worth our while."

"Okay," Rodney said.

"They wanted someone to come sometime this month; the Three Weeks begin on Monday night, so this Shabbos was our only option. I know it's short notice."

"We don't mind," John said.

"We've got bus tickets for you. The Hillel representative will pick you up on Friday afternoon, you'll lead davening Friday night and Saturday morning, and then they want you to teach a class, to attract the kids who might be intimidated by services. It sounds like they want the kids to be able to take notes, and Shabbos ends too late on Saturday for you to teach that night, so you'll stay two nights; after you teach on Sunday morning you'll come back on the bus. Acceptable?"

"Thank you," Rodney said fervently. John echoed him.

"Your bus leaves at eleven in the morning," the rav said, standing up. "Go and pack."

On the bus they read books and looked out the window to avoid the temptation of staring at their fellow travelers. Being out in the world was always a little bit of a shock after the monochrome world of the yeshiva, and Rodney's recent jaunt to the MFA seemed to have heightened that feeling instead of lessening it. And it was high summer, so most of the women they saw wore tank tops and shorts which exposed far too much leg for Rodney's comfort.

In Worcester a woman got on who sat right in front of them and talked loudly into her cellphone. Rodney didn't mean to eavesdrop, but her voice was piercing; everyone on the bus must have heard her prattle about her dress and the caterer and how perfect it was all going to be! He and John exchanged an amused glance. After about ten minutes, baruch Hashem, she hung up the call and plugged into her iPod.

But hearing her going on about her wedding had reminded Rodney, uncomfortably, that there was still a shachen out there working to match John. John hadn't mentioned it since the end of things with Jeannie, and Rodney hadn't asked, but now that he'd been reminded of it, the question burned inside him.

"You haven't gone on any more dates," Rodney said finally.

John shrugged. The bus seats were so close together that Rodney felt the motion all over his body.

"Honestly, I'm not sure I'm the marrying type."

Rodney snorted. "What does that even mean?"

"Guess I'm just not ready," John said. "I'm not sure I'll ever be."

It was embarrassing how relieved Rodney felt, hearing that John wasn't eager to date again. Not that he wished for John a lifetime of loneliness! He just...wasn't ready to say anything to him yet, but he also wasn't ready to think of letting him go.

John went back to his book, Rodney went back to his. Only long minutes later did it occur to him that 'not the marrying type' might have been code for 'not interested in women.' But surely that was wishful thinking. He pushed it out of his mind as best he could.

A kid from the campus Hillel picked them up at the bus station and drove them to the Hillel building. His name was Ari; he wore khaki trousers and a tie-dyed t-shirt. No kippah, no tzitzis; no visible sign of his Jewishness at all. But he was friendly, and seemed glad to see them.

The Hillel building was small and squat, but it had big windows overlooking the mountains. There was a single Torah in a repurposed cupboard at the front of the room, in between two couches; students had pushed the usual livingroom furniture to the side, and there was a cart full of stacked folding chairs in the middle of the room.

There was no eruv to make it permissible for them to carry materials from one building to the next on Shabbat, so they stashed their tallesim and siddurim at Hillel and their small duffel bags in the dorm room where they would be staying, a short walk away.

"I'm sorry the accomodations aren't so great," Ari said, and John assured him that this was no worse than their rooms at the yeshiva. Which was more or less true, though at the yeshiva everyone had his own room; here they each had a twin bed, set against opposite walls of their small cube.

Eight men and twelve women showed up for kabbalas Shabbos, which meant there was a halakhic minyan (counting the two of them), which was a relief. They had set up chairs in two sections with an aisle between them, as a nod toward separate seating, though there wasn't anything they could use for a mechitzah, and Ari had looked dubious when they asked. They'd never had a service with a mechitzah before, he said, and he didn't think the students would be comfortable with it. Sure enough, the kids ignored the two seating sections and sat mixed up, a few here and a few there. Well: they'd tried.

But the kids sang along with "Lecha Dodi," and seemed to know at least some of the prayers. Hillel had plenty of copies of Artscroll, and outside the windows on either side of the aron Rodney could see the mountains turning purple in the last rays of the setting sun. Afterwards the kids set up dinner in the back room -- roasted chicken, couscous, broccoli, all (they assured John and Rodney) completely kosher -- and they asked so many questions about yeshiva life it was all Rodney could do to eat a full meal.

After dinner a few of the kids stuck around to bentsch and to sing Shabbos songs out of their NCSY songbooks. Watching John with the kids made Rodney feel a warm, fluttery glow inside his chest which had nothing to do with the wine or even the presence of the Shabbos bride. John was good with them. He would make a good teacher, Rodney thought. (And a good father, but that mental image necessarily involved the wife that Rodney couldn't bear to imagine and that John had said he wasn't ready to pursue. Rodney pushed that out of his mind.)

One of the boys shook their hands solemnly at the end of the evening and promised to return in the morning. The girl who was with him looked at them wistfully; she'd asked a few questions about the women's seminary, but Rodney got the feeling that what she really wanted was to be learning with the men. Which once upon a time, in his secular life, would have made perfect sense to him.

He knew the argument against mixed-gender study, of course; the risk of becoming erotically entangled with one's study partner.

Rodney sighed.

Best to distract himself from that, right now. "That kid might make a yeshiva bucher," Rodney said, a little too brightly. "You never know. "

"Could be," John agreed. "And his girlfriend might do some learning, too. Makes it worth the trip, right?"

"Just being here makes it worth the trip," Rodney said, and John nodded.

They walked back to their dorm, let themselves in, and climbed the stairs to their room. They'd forgotten to leave a light on, and of course the lights weren't on timers here, so the room was dark. They groped for their books by touch and made their way back down to a common room, where a guy was playing something melancholy and sweet on the guitar.

"Will it bother you guys if I play?" he asked.

Rodney was debating whether or not to answer honestly when John shook his head.

"Not at all," John said, and flopped onto a couch with his book.

"Lucky for you it's Shabbos, or I'd ask you to play something for me," Rodney told John.

John laughed. "Yeah, I don't think you want to do that."

"Dude, you're welcome to the guitar," the guy said, obviously not quite following their conversation.

"We'd rather listen," John said. "Really."

Rodney was immersed in his book -- an old science fiction novel; it was Shabbos, he deserved some leisure reading -- until John started singing quietly. The guy was playing "I Still Miss Someone," an old Johnny Cash tune Rodney only dimly knew. But John knew every word.

"I never got over those blue eyes," John sang, "I see them everywhere..."

He heard John sing all the time. Every day, morning, afternoon, and night. But this was a different voice than the one John used for prayer. More plaintive. Rodney's heart felt as though it might burst with longing. He stared at his book and didn't read a word.

Eventually they made their way back to their room and undressed in the dark. Rodney was grateful for the blackness; he could feel his face turning red as he listened to the sounds of John unfastening his shirt, unzipping his trousers, pulling his fringed arba kanfos over his head and replacing it with pyjamas. Rodney's own hands shook slightly as he undressed only a few feet away. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the darkness, but he resolutely didn't look in John's direction. He climbed into his bed and stared at the ceiling.

"Thanks for doing this," John's voice floated over to him.

"Thank you," Rodney said. His whole body felt alive with longing, but he couldn't make his mouth form any of the words he needed. And what if he said something, and John were horrified? He rolled over to face the wall and closed his eyes.

They had a smaller crowd for shacharis than they'd had for kabbalas Shabbos. It wasn't surprising -- Friday night services were shorter, more accessible, and the kids could go from davening to partying. Saturday morning was more of an investment. But Rodney and John davened with gusto despite their fewer numbers. Who knew whether it would make a difference to any of the college kids, but it was satisfying to Rodney anyway. They ate leftovers for lunch, cold, and washed them down with a glass of wine so they could make kiddush again.

In the afternoon John went for a walk. Rodney took a Shabbos schluff, and when he woke the afternoon was fading.

They davened mincha by themselves on the little porch outside Hillel house, and then sat on hard plastic chairs and watched the sunset.

"One of my teachers at Or Somayach used to call this moshiach-tzeit," John said.


"Shabbos mincha. The hour before Shabbos slips away is supposed to be when Hashem is most accessible."

It was the kind of thing Rodney would have scoffed at, once. Maybe studying Hasidus with Ronon was changing him, because the idea made perfect sense to him right now. His chest felt tight with longing and with nostalgia for this Shabbos which hadn't even ended yet.

"It's been a good Shabbos," Rodney said lamely, because he didn't know what else to say.

"You should have come walking with me -- it's really nice out here," John told him. "There's a little stream that cuts through the other side of campus..."

"I'm not a big fan of nature," Rodney said automatically, and John snorted.

"You say that, but I've seen how you look at the mountains."

"Esa einai el he-harim," Rodney quoted -- I lift my eyes up to the mountains -- and gestured around them.

"Well, yeah," John said. "Kinda reminds me of Jerusalem."

John had never talked about his time in Israel, but now he'd mentioned it twice in the span of ten minutes. "Do you miss it there?"

John shrugged. "Not really. I guess being out here is reminding me of life before Sha'arei ha-Kochavim."

"Makes me wonder about life after Sha'arei ha-Kochavim," Rodney said.

"Let that be another problem for another day," John said lightly. "Sun's down, I can see one star, right over there -- bet another two will be out by the time we're done with maariv. Shall we?"

Rodney followed him back inside for maariv and havdalah. Making the blessing for Hashem who separates between holy and profane felt strange; maybe because they were still away from the yeshiva, and even though it was technically workweek now, this still felt like holy time. Separate from ordinary reality. As though the extra soul which descends on Shabbat hadn't yet disappeared.

In the foyer of the dorm where they were staying, John spotted a flyer for a 10pm screening of the first Star Wars movie -- the old one, the original -- and he dragged Rodney there with him. Truth be told, it didn't take much dragging. Rodney couldn't remember the last time he'd gone to see a film, and he hadn't seen this one in years, but he still knew it pretty much by heart. Turned out John did, too.

They walked back to their dorm still talking about it, unwilling to let the evening end.

"Han totally shot first," John said.

"I know I ought to find that reprehensible, but I really don't," Rodney admitted.

"Han Solo is not reprehensible! He's a great role model," John protested.

"You identify with Han Solo, don't you," Rodney asked, grinning so widely his cheeks hurt. "Why didn't I see that one coming?"

"I do not," John objected, but then he glanced at Rodney and started to laugh. "Okay, maybe I do. What about you?"

"Oh, I don't know," Rodney said. "Not Luke; he's whiny and annoying."

"Leia, then," John said. "She's smart. And resourceful."

"And has ridiculous hair," Rodney groused, but he couldn't help thinking: and she's in love with Han. Did John know? Could he have any idea? Nervous eagerness washed through him again.

When they got upstairs John flicked on the light beside his bed and began undressing. Rodney turned away, but that only inflamed his imagination further. The sounds of cloth moving, of John's breathing, made Rodney ache. And on the wall beside his bed, there were the flickering shadows of John's movements. Somehow Rodney managed to change his own clothes, to sit on the edge of his bed and recite the bedtime shema, but he was in a fog.

He hadn't realized he was staring into space until John's voice broke his reverie. "You okay over there?"

"I think I'm in love with you," Rodney said. He didn't mean to; the words just came out.

John froze, and Rodney's heart seemed to stop.

It was far too long before John said, "Rodney, you don't--"

"I'm sorry, I know this is sudden, I didn't mean to drop it on you like that," Rodney said. He dared to glance up; John was sitting on the edge of his own bed, a few feet (an entire world) away. He looked stunned.

"How long have you...known this?" John asked finally.

"Since Shavuos, more or less," Rodney admitted. Emotions were flickering across John's face too fast for Rodney to read them: compassion? Fear?

"I've never known anybody who made me feel this way," Rodney said in a rush. "You're smart, and you make me think, and -- you're just you." He felt helpless to explain. "Being around you makes me want to be...better than I am."

The pause stretched almost long enough to make Rodney start babbling again, but then John opened his mouth.

"I don't know how you could be better than you are." John's voice was low, almost broken.

Rodney's heart sped up. Slowly, excruciatingly so, John stood up and took one step toward him.

"I don't know--" Rodney began. "I mean, I can't--" There was so much he wanted to say that he couldn't make any of it come out.

John sat down beside him. "Don't," he said softly, and Rodney closed his mouth.

And then John's hands came up to frame his face, and he pulled Rodney close, and when Rodney opened his mouth again they were kissing. Sweet, at first, and then hungry. As though John had been longing for this as much as he had.

They fell back on Rodney's narrow bed, John pressing Rodney down into the thin mattress, and as they kissed and rocked and thrust against one another's bodies Rodney thought wildly that this was what it meant to taste heaven. He never wanted it to end.

When Rodney woke he was alone. It was seven in the morning; time for shacharis. John's bag was gone and his bed was neatly made.

Rodney showered, got dressed, davened shacharis by himself, but John didn't return. Rodney found him at the Hillel house, talking with Ari and a girl with a pierced nose and short hair.

"Boker tov," Rodney said, beaming.

"Boker or," John replied, not meeting his eyes, and Rodney's heart broke in two.


As if by agreement, they didn't talk on the bus ride back. John read his book, Rodney stared out the window. To an outside observer it would have appeared that nothing had changed between Friday and Sunday. But everything had changed.

And then things got worse.

Rav Caldwell dropped the bombshell just after maariv. They were on the summer schedule now, dinner and then two classes and maariv and then the final evening shiur, followed (for those who chose to attend) by Ronon's informal late-night lecture. Ronon had been about to begin giving over a series of Satedener teachings on being bein ha-meitzarim, in the narrow straits of the Three Weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha b'Av. These days when Ronon taught, the hall was always packed.

"Tonight after our evening shiur there will be no extra session," the rosh yeshiva said, and complete silence fell over the room. "Tomorrow morning before shacharis likewise."

Students glanced at one another across the beis midrash, their gazes bouncing off one another like ripples in a pond. Rodney caught John's stunned expression, Radek's mouth tightening, though Ronon looked perfectly calm.

"Is that understood?" Caldwell asked, looking right at Ronon.

"Yes," Ronon said, quietly.

Rodney felt a wave of unexpected emotion. Loss, he realized; he was going to miss Ronon's teaching more than he ever could have imagined.

Murmurings spread across the room as John stood up. The rav inclined his head, giving permission to speak.

"Is there a reason for this decision?" John asked. Rodney saw in his posture something of the military man he had once been.

"The va'ad has decided that Hasidus is not an appropriate subject for you at this stage in your learning."

The rav and John looked at one another. Slowly, John nodded and bent his head.

The rav turned toward the east and opened his siddur, chanting the verse which signalled the beginning of the evening service, and everyone else followed suit.

When the knock came at Rodney's door he knew it had to be John. He was proud that his hands didn't shake when he let John in.

"Do you think we can lobby the va'ad?" John asked, without prelude.

Rodney shook his head. "Once they've put forward a ruling, they're not going to be open to conversation."

John sat down on the edge of Rodney's bed, steepling his fingers between his open thighs. "I figured you would say that."

Rodney sat down beside John, and the nearness of him sparked like fire up and down Rodney's side. Refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love, Rodney thought.

"We can still learn," Rodney said. "We'll find a way."

But John was shaking his head. "It won't be the same."

"I know," Rodney admitted.

There was a silence.

"We need to talk," Rodney said, his heart pounding.

"I can't do this," John said flatly.

"It didn't seem that way last night," Rodney snapped, unthinking. John flinched and Rodney wanted desperately to un-say the words. "I'm sorry," he said lamely. "I just --"

This wasn't the way he had imagined this conversation going.

"Leaving aside the halakhic prohibitions," John began, and Rodney cut him off.

"Yes, yes, leave those aside. You wouldn't believe the number of alternative interpretations no one ever talks about! I can poke a lot of holes in that line of reasoning, believe me." He snapped his mouth shut again when he saw the look on John's face.

"The men I tried to save," John's voice was almost too quiet to hear, "one of them was my...friend."

Rodney stared at him. "You mean, friend, friend?"

"We were lovers, Rodney," John bit out. "I got a black mark on my record for trying to rescue him against orders. I'm lucky they didn't realize we were sleeping together."

Suddenly the story of how John had become religious took on a darker, more painful cast. Rodney's heart ached for him. He wanted so badly to reach out -- and he couldn't. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, though the words weren't nearly enough and they both knew it.

"I left the Air Force determined never to do this again." John stood up, his hands curling loosely at his sides as though he were consciously refraining from making fists.

There was nothing Rodney could say.

"Laila tov," John said, and walked away.

The remainder of the Three Weeks came and went. Tisha b'Av came and went. This year it wasn't difficult to muster weeping for the destruction of the Temple; tears were always too close to the surface for Rodney now.

Rodney went through the motions of ordinary life, but he wasn't really there. Study, davenen, meals, study, sleep. He and Radek argued over texts but by nightfall Rodney couldn't remember which psukim they had covered.

John was spending most of his time with Ronon. When he and Rodney glanced at one another, Rodney felt the weight of what had happened between them. He stopped looking at John, unable to bear the possibility that John might turn away.

They didn't sit together, and they didn't exchange banter across the beis midrash anymore. Rodney told himself things would get easier soon.

He saw John leaving the Caldwells' house once or twice, the rebbetzin watching him depart from the door. Rodney thought about going to talk with her, but his fears won out. He wasn't sure he could tell her this, and besides, it would be all too easy for her to figure out that his interest was in John.

Mussar class was the most painful. Studying Codes or halakha could still keep his consciousness mostly occupied, but Rav Levitan favored lectures over chevrusa study, which meant there was nothing for Rodney's mind to latch onto but the Rav's droning voice and his own whirling thoughts.

They were learning Iggeres ha-Mussar, Rav Salanter's classic treatise, and the words leapt off the page to chastise him.

Man is free in his imagination and bound by his intellect. His unbridled imagination draws him mischeviously in the way of his heart's desire, without fear for the certain future -- the time when Hashem will examine all of his affairs.

But was it really so wrong to yearn for his heart's desire?

"What is the significance of the saying of Chazal that 'the greater the person, the greater the yetzer'?" Rav Levitan asked.

"The greater a person someone is, the stronger his impulses will be," John offered, and Rodney wondered whether John was thinking of him.

"And the stronger his impulses, the greater the likelihood that he will sin," Rav Levitan added. "Yes."

"But it was sin'at chinam that caused the fall of the Second Temple," John argued. Senseless hatred. "Doesn't that teach us that the greatest transgression is failure to love?" For an instant Rodney felt hope flare, but the spark went out again as Rav Levitan shook his head.

"Be careful," Rav Levitan cautioned. "The yetzer ha-ra can appear as the force of impurity which causes a man to transgress, or as the force of desire which chooses pleasure over righteousness."

Was that what Rodney was doing?

No. It couldn't be.

Rodney knew he was flawed. He wrestled with anochiyut, egocentrism, and ga'avah, pride, along with a host of other imperfections; he knew that. But loving John: that wasn't his yetzer ha-ra, that was the whole of who he was. Desire might come from the yetzer, but love came from God.

And besides: the yetzer ha-ra was a necessary part of the balance of creation. The Talmud said so. Sanhedrin 64a: the rabbis had imprisoned the yetzer ha-ra for three days and not a single egg was laid in all the land. Without the yetzer there was no creativity, no procreation, no change. Desire was part of the world that Hashem had made.

Studying Torah and halakha were the prescribed cure for spiritual ills, but Rodney knew that if he studied for the rest of his life, he wouldn't become other than who he was.

Rodney didn't raise his hand. Didn't say any of those things.

He told himself he had to take his cues from John. A few times he thought he could see John mustering the will to come over to him, but John never did. John would be deep in conversation with Ronon, then glance or gesture in Rodney's direction, and Ronon would nod, but John never got up and walked over to where Rodney sat with Radek or Evan or alone.

So Rodney didn't reach out, either. John had made his position clear. There was nothing that Rodney could do.

And then late in the month of Av John disappeared. Had he just picked up and left? There was no way to know, and Rodney didn't want to ask Ronon, afraid the answer might be yes. Being near enough to touch but unable to reach out had been killing him, but having John gone from his life altogether would be worse.

A day or two before new moon, John materialized again. He smiled at Rodney shyly when he walked into the first morning class, and Rodney smiled back before he remembered that he wasn't supposed to let John see anything anymore. A heady cocktail of relief, curiosity, and exaltation fizzed through his veins.

John stepped up to lead birchot ha-shachar and psukei d'zimrah, and Rodney found the psalms more vibrant than they had been in ages. Just hearing John's voice in the chorus of voices around the room made him happy in a way he didn't especially care to examine. There was no reason to believe that John had changed his mind -- but at least John was here again; at least John had smiled at him. Maybe they could still be friends.

At lunchtime, John slid in beside Rodney at one of the outdoor picnic tables where some of the students chose to dine at this time of year.

"Hey," John said.

"Hi." Rodney felt anxious and hopeful and ridiculous all in one. "Where'd you go?"

The question burst out before he had the chance to self-censor, but John didn't seem to mind. "Had to do a little research."


"Yeah. Listen -- after mincha, you want to skip out of mussar? I want to run some things by you."

"Why can't you just tell me now?" But Rodney knew the answer as soon as he said it; the picnic tables around them were filling with students and teachers. Whatever was making John grin was obviously not for public consumption. "Yes, okay, fine, after mincha."

"Cool," John said, and dug in to his lunch as though he hadn't eaten well in days.

Rodney hadn't either. Amazing how pasta with pesto could taste so good.

"So I've been thinking," John said. They were sitting on a park bench in the little park a ten minute walk from the yeshiva. John had taken a coin out of his pocket and was flipping it absently, tossing it up in the air and then catching it again.

"About," Rodney prompted.

"Starting our own yeshiva," John said.

Rodney stared at him. "What?"

"Hear me out," John said, tucking the nickel away, but Rodney was having none of it.

"I'm sorry, you can't just -- we haven't talked in weeks," Rodney said, "you haven't even been able to look at me--"

"I looked at you!" John protested. "You didn't look back!"

Rodney kept talking. "And then you disappear, not a word, I thought you might have just left, and now you want to start a school together? Seriously?"

"Hey," John said, obviously uncomfortable. "I didn't mean to--" He blew out a breath. "I had to do some thinking."

"Yeah, well, that's not--" Rodney began hotly.

"I'm sorry." John's voice was quiet.

It took all of Rodney's bluster away.

John just waited.

"It's okay," Rodney said, finally. "I'm sorry too." For presuming. For pushing.

But John was shaking his head, his hand raised as if he were warding off Rodney's apology. "Can I tell you what I was thinking?"

"Okay," Rodney said, letting his dubiousness show in his voice.

"I've been talking with the rebbetzin; she gave me some idea of what's involved, how they got this place started."

It took an effort of will not to respond, but Rodney kept listening.

"Teyla's finishing her MBA this month. She's been working on a plan to take a small school to profitability; she can adapt it to this project pretty easily. I've got some start-up cash from the fund my father established before we stopped speaking. I scoped out a couple of places in southern Vermont and I think I found one that might work. Ronon can teach Hasidus. Radek can do Tanakh. I've got mussar covered."

"And you want me to teach Talmud and Codes," Rodney filled in. They were his specialty, plus the gap in the curriculum was obvious. "Not that I'm agreeing to this, but even if I were, I'm terrible with beginners, you know that!"

"Actually, I figured you could teach the advanced classes and we'd give beginners to Jeannie," John said.

Rodney gaped at him. If John planned to ask Jeannie to teach, he was talking about a very different kind of yeshiva than Sha'arei ha-Kochavim. "Mixed-gender learning?"

John shrugged. "Why not?" He was leaning back on the park bench, trying to look nonchalant, but Rodney saw steely resolve in his eyes. Despite himself, he felt a spark of excitement. This was crazy! But being in proximity to John was heady; it made him want to say yes.

"D'you think Jeannie would do it?" John asked.

"I don't even know what she's been studying," Rodney admitted.

"Everything but Shabbos and niddah and kashrus," John said, "and I wouldn't be surprised if she were learning that stuff on her own time. You know Jeannie."

His sister, a talmid chacham. Well, that wasn't any kind of surprise; she was related to him, after all. And she would probably be good with new students, too. Despite his skepticism, he was beginning to be able to imagine this.

"Teyla thinks there's a market of nontraditional people who want traditional learning -- liberal Jews, 'spiritual seekers,'" John made air quotes around the words, "women, obviously. And observant Jews who'd be open to studying in a mixed environment. We'd open our doors to everyone, regardless of hashkafa."

Rodney blinked.

"It's like the rebbetzin said -- the best way to learn is to teach. What do you say?" John's voice was eager.

"I --" Rodney stopped. "John, why?"

John took a deep breath. "Because it's going to take a long time for Rav Caldwell to change his mind, and I don't want the Satedener knowledge to be lost. Because I think Jeannie would make an amazing teacher, and so would you."

"Ah," Rodney said. Disappointment washed through him: this was just about John wanting to do something new, not about...him. Them. It was foolish to have imagined that it might be. Rodney looked away.

"Because I can't leave the tradition behind, but I'm tired of hiding." John's voice sounded rusty.

Rodney's gaze flew right back to John's face, which was unguarded. He looked terrified and hopeful and Rodney's heart suddenly felt too big for his chest.

"I am, too," Rodney said, and it felt like a promise.

"I was talking with Teyla," John said, and had to clear his throat before he could continue. "About...you, about the tradition. The learning, the community, you know."

Rodney nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"I don't want to live without..." John's voice trailed off. "I want both."

The community, and Rodney. The learning, and love. "Yeah," Rodney managed around the lump in his throat.

Not breaking their stare, John let his hand fall on his own thigh, knuckles just barely brushing Rodney's. Rodney moved his hand a scant milimeter until they touched. It was as though he were plugged into an electric current. Everything around him felt illuminated, coming newly-alive.

"I don't understand why we had to come all the way out here," Ronon said. "Couldn't we have just gone to your house?"

"It's an auspicious place," Jeannie said cheerfully. "Good things happen here. Right, Mer?"

"Would you please not call me that?" Rodney groused.

John grinned. "I think Meredith's a great name," he said.

"You would," Rodney retorted.

"The waiter is coming with several carafes of coffee," Teyla said, sitting down.

"Can I just say how excited I am that we're doing this?" Jeannie asked.

"You just did," Rodney pointed out.

John rolled his eyes. "I can see working with the two of you is going to be a real joy."

"What's the place," Ronon asked.

"It's in southern Vermont," Teyla explained, "an old farmhouse that used to be a yoga and meditation center. Hardwood floors, big beautiful windows -- one of them is stained glass, actually, over the front door."

"There's a pond on the property; living waters," John pointed out.

"Huh," Ronon said, approvingly.

"And a small outbuilding which contains a working hot tub," Teyla said.

That's my idea of a mikvah," Rodney said, just to see if it would make Jeannie throw her napkin at him. It did.

"And we can afford this?" Jeannie asked.

"Yep," John confirmed. "We've got startup capital and the small business loan looks likely to come through, thanks to Teyla."

"I have a friend from graduate school who's interested in teaching yoga, if we want to retain a link to the building's previous function," Teyla offered. "Her name is Jennifer and she is very good."

"I've never tried yoga," Jeannie said.

"'S fun," Ronon offered, and everyone stared at him, startled. He grinned. "We could do meditation, too."

"I couldn't," Rodney said tartly.

"Obviously," John agreed, giving him the kind of heated grin that made his toes curl. "You and sitting still, not such a great combination."

"What we need now," Teyla said pointedly, derailing their conversation, "is a name."

"It used to be called Atlantis," John said. "Atlantis Zen Center."

They were silent for a moment while everyone considered options.

"Why don't we keep the name?" Jeannie asked. "Atlantis Yeshiva."

Rodney opened his mouth to object, but Jeannie talked over him. "A zen center is a place where people sit zazen, right? And 'yeshiva' means 'a place where people sit.'"

"I like it," John said, leaning back in his chair.

"Atlantis Yeshiva," Rodney said quietly, tasting the words on his lips. He glanced around the table, seeing Jeannie in her long skirt and flowing blouse and Teyla wearing an Indian-looking tunic over trousers; John and Ronon in their black-and-whites; coffee cups steaming in the artificially-cool air. They were really going to do this. They were really, truly going to do this.

"We have to be insane," Rodney said, and drained his coffee cup.

"Yep," Ronon agreed, eyes twinkling.

"Insane's not so bad," John agreed.

Teyla and Jeannie traded an amused glance, and both shrugged.

"Here's to Atlantis," John said, and raised his cup high.

8. Epilogue

Rodney was perennially surprised by how much he liked Atlantis. Not their yeshiva -- well, yes, their yeshiva, but beyond that, just the physical place of it. The people who'd converted the old farmhouse into a yoga and zen center had enlarged the windows, so the building was bright and airy. When people were studying their voices rose and filled the rooms like sunlight.

They hired a man to mow the field behind the barn, and after a while some students came and pitched tents there, kids who couldn't afford longterm rooms but could pay a diminished fee for food and davening and learning. Hippies, Rodney had sniffed, though not where any of them could hear him. And when push came to shove, he had to admit that they were serious about their learning. Thirsty for it, even. And the first time one of the young men came to him and asked where he could buy his own arba kanfos, Rodney's heart swelled with pride.

The seasonal festivals felt different, out here. Roofing their sukkah with corn from a neighbor's field. Their chanukiyah blazing in the windows of their farmhouse at early nightfall, as some of their neighbors maintained candles in the windows during December to light travelers' ways. Making maple syrup candy at Tu b'Shvat. Counting the Omer and watching the dark earth begin, slowly, to sprout...

At every time of year he loved walking the halls of Atlantis once everyone else was asleep. Tonight was the fifteenth of Elul, late summer shading into fall again. Moonlight spilled through the stained glass windows of the foyer and painted patterns on the polished floor. He turned off lights as he went, climbing the stairs to the attic.

"We're all set for the new week," he said, closing the bedroom door behind him. "Teyla's on tap for registration tomorrow morning; between the retreat guests and the regulars, we're going to have a full house."

"I checked the rosters," John said, putting his book down.

"So you already know, then." Rodney pulled the blue sweater over his head and pushed his trousers down his hips, folding both neatly over a chair and stepping into a pair of loose pyjama pants before going to brush his teeth.

"What's Jeannie teaching this week, do you know?" John called.

Rodney emerged from the bathroom. "Bikkur cholim, I think." The laws of caring for the sick were among Jeannie's favorites. She liked teaching them; it was easy for students to grasp their practical implications, she said, which was a good hook for getting beginners excited about the patterns of argument and law.

"Elizabeth should enjoy that," John said.

"I hope so." Rodney still couldn't quite believe the Caldwells were taking their week of vacation here. But Teyla had been right; the reality of a kosher, frum-friendly, transdenominational retreat center in southern Vermont appealed to all kinds of people. Including, apparently, those who ran their own yeshivas elsewhere and needed a break from being in charge before the chaos of the Days of Awe set in.

"Maybe Rav Caldwell will take a yoga class," John said, a twinkle in his eye.

"Oh, don't make me think about that," Rodney complained, and slid under the covers.

"Not your idea of an inspiring bedtime image, huh," John murmured, reaching over him to turn out the bedside light. Moonlight streamed in their window and splashed a bright square across their bed.

"I'm not even going to dignify that with a response," Rodney retorted, though the haughty effect he was going for was somewhat marred by his happy sigh when John pressed against him and kissed his shoulder.

"Hang on, " he said, and murmured the words of the bedtime shema. Then he shifted, turning toward John, and they necked for a while, slow lazy kisses that built in urgency. Feeling John hard against his thigh still made Rodney lightheaded with joy.

"Let me," John murmured against his lips, and then, "I want to--"

Rodney made himself go slack, let John push him onto his back and shimmy under the covers and tug his pyjamas away. It was late enough in the summer that the nights were beginning to grow cool, and the breeze coming in their window was a counterpoint to the wet heat of John's mouth.

John pulled back and Rodney stifled a groan. "You okay up there?" John asked, his voice husky. Sounded like he was smiling; he knew perfectly well how Rodney was doing.

"John," Rodney pleaded, and John laughed and took him in again.

Of all the things Rodney had never imagined, this was high on the list: that sex could involve laughter. That they would still grouse and bicker and tease each other, only now sometimes interspersed with gasps and moans and, if Rodney were very lucky, broken little cries like the ones he was making now.

When he could breathe again, Rodney pulled John close and kissed him, loving the rasp of stubble against his face. "Tell me what you want," Rodney murmured.

In lieu of response John reached for one of Rodney's hands and drew it to his body.

"Hands, hm?" Rodney gave an experimental twist and squeeze and John made a needy little noise that went straight to the part of Rodney's brain which controlled arousal.

"I like your hands," John managed, in a rough whisper, and Rodney rewarded him with the stroke he knew John liked best. Talking in bed was a stretch, for John, but he managed it because it got Rodney going every time.

"Better not watch me lay tefillin tomorrow morning, then," Rodney murmured, and pressed a kiss to John's neck. John squirmed up into his hand, head going back to bare more tender skin, and Rodney flung a leg over John's to hold him still.

"Oh," John choked out, gasping and trembling as he convulsed beneath Rodney.

"That's it," Rodney whispered, awestruck again at his ability to do this -- at their ability to do this, here in their own bed, together.

They settled into a tangle of limbs, spooned and drifting.

"D'you set the alarm?" Rodney murmured, when the thought tugged him away from the edge of dreaming.

"Uh-huh," John said sleepily. "Radek's doing shacharis, so we just have to get downstairs by seven."

"Okay," Rodney murmured, relaxing now that he knew he didn't have to wake up and ready himself to lead prayer. "Sleep?"

"Sleep," John agreed. Rodney blinked once, taking in the sight of his beloved beneath the September moon, and then buried his nose in John's neck and closed his eyes.

The End