"I don't get it!" Rodney panted as he ran through the forest. "These people are supposed to be friendly! Was it something we said?"
"I guess they don't appreciate random incursions of heavily-armed strangers," John said, darting a glance at Teyla.
"It would seem so," she said, the slight flick of her eyebrow as close as she would get to I told you so. John grimaced, grateful that they were too busy with the bullet-dodging to get caught up in blame-assigning. Teyla had recommended strongly against taking their usual complement of weapons to this planet, and he'd overruled her.
On reflection, that'd been—as it usually was—a mistake.
"Stop!" Ronon grabbed his shoulder, yanking him to a standstill. Teyla, hearing him, halted just ahead, and Rodney crashed into them from behind.
"Up ahead. There's someone between us and the gate."
John could hear it now, too: several hostiles moving through the trees nearby.
"Well, there are people behind us, too!" Rodney pointed out. "We can't exactly—"
"Drop your weapons!" came a harsh call from behind them. John stiffened and lifted his hands slowly, then turned around.
A squad of irritated-looking soldiers in epauletted uniforms had their guns trained on them.
"Drop your weapons!" their commander repeated.
"Look, there's a perfectly good explanation—" John started, but, suddenly, the commander wasn't listening to him. Instead, he was looking past him, at whoever had just come out of the brush behind them.
"Your highness," he said. "As you can see, we have just captured the intruders. We—"
"Lower your weapons, lieutenant," a cultivated baritone said. "These are no intruders."
Next to John, Teyla's face lit up, and she turned around to face the newcomer. "Ariston!"
"Teyla!" John turned around himself just in time to see a tall, pale, dark-haired man in a cloak of green and gold with a rifle slung on his back stride forward and clasp Teyla's hand. He was smiling with delight, and Teyla was...still smiling back. Not doing her usual friendly but reserved diplomat's face at all. "It is you. It has been so many years, but I knew I could not mistake your face." He looked at the soldiers again. "These are no intruders, but welcome guests. Any friends of Teyla Emmagen's are friends of mine."
Once everybody had stopped pointing weapons at each other, Teyla sorted things out pretty quickly. It turned out that they had managed to stumble into the way of the traditional royal hunt, and the guards had—not unreasonably, John had to admit—assumed that they were assassins rather than traders. With all the running and yelling and shooting, it had taken a while for anyone to realize what was actually going on.
Ariston explained all this to Teyla without ever letting go of her hand. It was a good thing, John thought, that she got to be the one to deal with the local greeting customs, but the explanation did drag on.
"Teyla," he finally said, and waited til she glanced at him, "you didn't tell us you knew the ruler of this planet."
"I did not know that I did," she said. "When I was fostered here, Ariston was...ninth?" She turned back to him questioningly.
"In the line of succession. I had no idea he had ascended the throne."
"It was a surprise to me as well," he said with a faintly melancholy smile. "I certainly never expected it. But a plague swept our world two years ago and carried off many. I myself was taken very ill. I survived, but I was the only one of my family who did."
Teyla's face darkened. "Oh, Ariston, your cousins," she said softly, and squeezed his hand.
He put his other hand over hers. "And my uncles. It was a great loss. I have done what I can to take their place, but it is always difficult."
She made a soft noise of sympathy.
"And what of you? I know we have not spoken in many years, but when we heard that Athos had been laid waste by the Wraith, I was very distressed. There were rumors that some of your people had migrated, but in all the chaos of the Great Culling, I could get no certain news."
"Yes, many of our people were lost, and the survivors were forced to move on. As you can see," she gestured back without looking away, "I have cast my lot with the Atlanteans now."
"Yes," John said. "The Atlanteans. Standing right here."
"Oh." Teyla flushed and finally withdrew her hand from Ariston's. "Yes. These are Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay, and Ronon Dex. We have come here to trade, and also in the hopes that you will give us permission to examine the ruins of the Ancient settlement near Arven."
Ariston gave them a slight bow. "I have heard much of your people, Colonel. I think we may be able to come to some arrangement. But before we talk business, you must come to the banquet tonight."
"Banquet?" Rodney, of course, looked just about as interested in the food as in the potential cache of Ancient technology. Ronon, too, got a gleam in his eye. Dammit, John thought, you'd think there wasn't an unlimited supply of blue jello at home. One of these days, his alpha team was going to be lured to their doom by an offer of milk and cookies.
"Yes. After the hunt, we always have a great feast. It is an old custom. You must be my guests of honor."
"Of course," Teyla said, and John frowned. Not that it wasn't her job to smooth the way with the locals, but did she have to agree quite that fast? They had their dignity, after all.
"Excellent. If you will follow me, I will take you to our encampment, where you may refresh yourself before the meal."
He offered Teyla his arm. She slipped her arm into his and let him lead her off into the forest.
"I'm going to need a word with your cook," Rodney said as they trailed after the two.
Okay, so maybe they didn't have much dignity. All the more reason to hang onto what they did have.
Four hours later, John sat staring down the table of honor, an untouched plate of venison and root vegetable in front of him. Ariston was at the head of the table; he'd put Teyla at his right hand, and the rest of them a little further down. He was bending to say something to Teyla, and she was laughing. Like it was something she did every day. Not smiling tolerantly. Not smirking. Not even chuckling, which was the most they usually got. Laughing with her head thrown back, her hair falling around her long throat. She'd been doing it all evening.
"I hate that guy's hair," he said glumly to Ronon, next to him. It just wasn't right. It lay there perfectly smooth and neat and unruffled, no matter how much he moved his head. Was this world even at the right level of technological development for product?
"I know," Ronon grumbled. "Want me to take him out?"
John sighed. "No, Ronon. You can't kill a man just because of his hair. That would be wrong."
"If you say so." Ronon didn't sound convinced.
"Hey," Rodney said from across the table, "are you gonna eat that?"
John pushed him his plate. Rodney immediately began scooping the meat to his own. John leaned forward and called, "Hey, Teyla. How do you know this guy, anyway?"
"You've never told him?" Ariston said, and Teyla colored a little again. He smiled graciously at John. "Teyla was my first real kiss."
Teyla cleared her throat. "Yes. It is the custom of many Pegasus worlds to send the children of prominent families offworld, to educate them and to build ties among peoples. I spent a little over a year here, living with Ariston's branch of the royal family."
She stopped, apparently thinking she could get away with not going on with the story.
Fortunately, Ariston continued, "I was thirteen years old and very impudent. I thought Teyla was the most beautiful creature I'd ever seen. One day, when we were both studying in the Great Library, I asked her to translate a passage for me. She bent close to read the book, and I stole a kiss."
"You were very bold," Teyla said, with a fond smile.
"And then what happened?" Ronon said.
"She slapped me for my effrontery, of course. I deserved no less."
John concurred heartily. "Way to go, Teyla."
"I learned my lesson, but I always..." He hesitated. "That was a happy time in my life."
"For me, as well." Her smile grew sadder, more reflective. "Before...all that has happened."
"Indeed." He leaned closer to her. "I have always hoped we might meet again. I am delighted that we have."
"As am I." Teyla pressed his hand.
"Sure," John said. "We're all thrilled."
"So," Ariston said that evening over the fire, "you do not fear the ruins of the Ancients?"
"Not particularly," John said.
Teyla had learned that one of her old attendants had come on the hunt and had gone off to visit her once they had made their deal. That left the rest of the team alone with Ariston outside the royal pavilion, which was also green and gold and hung with a lot of heavy, stiff-looking animal skins. John found that he didn't mind very much. Except that it meant he had to keep looking at the guy's hair.
"Fear? Why would we be afraid of them?" Rodney asked. "They could be a gold mine!"
"Some believe they are haunted. I do not agree, but..." He shrugged elegantly. "Folk beliefs often preserve old wisdom."
"We're a haunt-resistant bunch," John said.
"I am glad. If there is anything that may be of use against the Wraith, it would be foolish to let it lie unused, but the intricacies of Ancient technology are still beyond us."
John wished that, for once, the guy would not sound so damn reasonable. "Right."
There was a pause. Ariston reached down and stirred the fire. "I would like to ask you a question, Colonel, but I do not know your ways and I fear it may be too personal. I would not offend my guest for the world."
"Give it a shot," John said, though he was pretty sure he knew what was coming and was already tensing against it.
"I do not wish to trouble her, and yet there is so little time, I would be a fool not to at least..." He looked up, meeting John's eyes. "Has Teyla found love among your people?"
He could hear Ronon shifting next to him. He cleared his throat. Easy question, easy answer, but his face felt frozen. "Teyla is dedicated to the mission. Very dedicated. You could even say extremely dedicated."
"Then she has not." Ariston looked back into the fire, quietly pleased. "Your people must be slow to act."
"I guess," John said, though declaring his feelings on an open channel to the whole city might be considered acting. Even if he and Teyla had silently agreed afterwards to pretend it hadn't happened. Confessions about feelings didn't count if you were possessed at the time, anyway.
"What, are you gonna ask her out?" Rodney said, not disguising his skepticism.
Ariston raised one eyebrow. "That is, perhaps, too delicate a matter to be discussed among men."
John said, "Well, we'd sure hate to be indelicate. C'mon, guys, we need to get some sleep. You've got a big day ahead of you, Rodney."
"Oooh! Yes! I do!" Rodney was already distracted, talking to himself. Ronon rose silently and followed him off toward their tents. Ariston touched John's sleeve before he could go, too.
"I fear I have offended you, Colonel."
"Nah," John said—and he had learned from Teyla, his smile felt almost natural—"don't worry about it."
"So Rodney thinks there may be something of value there?" Elizabeth asked the next evening, her voice crackling over the subspace communicator. Some of the technology at the ruins was interfering with reception. Ariston had offered the use of the Kynerians' radio facilities back at the capital, but John had decided it was better to keep their transmissions secure. So he was pacing outside their line of tents, trying to find the sweet spot for the transmission.
"Yeah. He wants to stay at least a couple of weeks."
John had tried to hint to him that maybe it should be less, but Rodney had misunderstood—maybe on purpose—and kept increasing his estimate of the time he needed to Ariston, who seemed only too happy to let the team stick around as long as it wanted. But at least he was still out there, even after dark, working hard on his research, and he'd asked Teyla to stick around in case of ghosts. That was the spirit.
"Well, if he thinks so..."
"I'm not sure we should keep the whole first team here for that long, though. These people seem friendly enough. Lorne's team can babysit Rodney."
"Didn't you say Teyla knew these people, though? Including their leader?"
John grimaced. Did everybody know? Was it really so interesting a subject that everyone had to harp on it nonstop? "Yeah, I think she was an exchange student here or something, he might've pulled her pigtails a few times, but really..."
"Then she should stay with Rodney, in case there are any...misunderstandings. I seem to recall a few of those happening in the past. You and Ronon could come back, though, if you're worried about staying on top of things here."
"No, then we might as well all stay."
"We can't go offworld with half the team, Elizabeth."
He could hear her smile. "And you'd just as soon not have an excuse to catch up on your paperwork, John?"
"Something like that."
After he cut the channel, he realized that Ronon was looking at him skeptically. "What?"
He shook his head. "Nothing."
Teyla decided that she wanted to negotiate some further trades for the Athosians, so she and John came to the capital with Ariston, leaving Rodney with Ronon and half a dozen fascinated local scientists at the Ancient site. From their initial encounter, John had expected the planet to be yet another medieval indoor-plumbing-free wonder, but Kyner was actually at about World War I-level technology. The capital was crowded with half-timbered buildings that crumbled and clung together like they were too old to stand up on their own, but the occasional car-like object puttered by John as he walked the narrow, crowded streets, throwing up an incredible cloud of dust. The shop windows were full of swords, but also large watches with intricate overlapping dials. He saw farmers obviously coming to market, but also factory-workers going to their jobs. It struck John that he had never really paid a whole lot of attention to the details of the civilizations on the various planets they visited. He mostly just divided them up into people who would shoot at them with arrows, guns, or energy weapons, and didn't look further, especially if they were in the arrow group. Now he realized that he didn't even really know what to look for.
Ariston had suggested that he visit with one of the crack squads of the Kynerian troops during the negotiations. It was a lot like walking into a black-and-white documentary. They had rifles with fixed blades and crude grenades and little motorized chariots like Segways to ride...and no body armor to speak of. He halfway expected the Prussians to burst over a ridge and try to retake Schleswig-Holstein at any moment, but he had to admit, they all seemed very determined, despite the insane odds they were up against.
"We have to protect Kyner," his guide, a blue-eyed kid named Lieutenant Kismos, said grimly. "It's never been so bad before. It's as if the Wraith don't even care about leaving enough of us behind for the future. If we don't take a stand, this may be the end of civilization in Pegasus as we know it."
John nodded. "We're all doing what we can."
"Have you found any new weapons in Atlantis?"
"But the Ancestors held off the Wraith for so long—they have to have had something. What about the shield?"
John frowned. "Who told you about the shield?"
"Oh, everyone knows Atlantis has a shield. It'd be a lot easier if we had a shield."
"Yeah, well, it's complicated."
Kismos looked skeptical for a minute, but then his face cleared. "Maybe there will be something useful at Arven."
John didn't want to tell him that if there was, he'd almost certainly be taking it with him, so he just asked for a ride on the chariot thingy, which, it turned out, went almost as fast as a Ferris wheel.
Afterwards, he came back to the palace, an high-ceilinged, insanely ornate building of white marble and gold leaf that the prince had actually seemed faintly embarrassed to show them. One of the guards sent him several floors up to find Teyla. As he walked down the hall to find the room, he heard music—string and voice. The voice, he realized, was Teyla's. It was clear and pure, floating upward with utter unselfconsciousness.
Another guard opened the door and announced him. The room was lower and smaller, and had obviously been cleared of some of the ornamentation—the birds and flowers and things like angels—that swarmed the surfaces of the rest of the place. Teyla was standing, Ariston sitting near her with some kind of cello. They had been looking at each other, but John coming in obviously broke the spell.
"I take it negotiations are over," he said as they turned their eyes to him in unison.
"For the day," Ariston said.
Of course he knew that Teyla could sing. Carson had mentioned it. He'd just never thought to ask her to show him, and she'd never offered. "What was that you were playing?"
"Oh, just a setting of variations I have been working out on 'Autumn Showers.' I have not had the opportunity before to work with such fine accompaniment."
"What's ďAutumn Showers'?"
He looked surprised. "You do not know it? But every planet with a Ring knows it. It is a very old tune. Ah," he raised a finger. "Of course. You call it 'Long Western Road' instead."
"No, still haven't heard of it. Sorry. I guess I don't get out much."
"Of course, forgive me. I keep forgetting. You are new to this galaxy."
"Not that new," he muttered.
He thought of Atlantis, where everything came from either the Ancients or Earth. They ate the food hauled millions of light-years by the Daedalus rather than resort to what the Athosians grew, if they had any choice at all. They watched weeks-old TV and listened to MP3s brought in the Daedalus computers rather than go off-world for entertainment. Even Elizabeth's Liberal World Art Collection in her office was all Terran, except for that one stupid pot he'd given her. He expected Teyla to laugh at his jokes about football and Jeopardy...and he'd never even heard of "Autumn Showers." Maybe it wasn't so surprising that she'd never sung for him.
She shifted, taking up a pleasant, almost formal tone of voice, like she was talking to a local dignitary. "Was your visit with the Kynerian troops informative?"
"You've got a good bunch of guys there," he said to Ariston.
"It is not easy to assemble and maintain such a force when we do not know when or if the next attack will come," he said. "We have created a network among planets to try to provide for rapid response wherever the Wraith might strike, but of course that presents its own challenges, as you must know."
"We do not generally try to prevent cullings," Teyla said quietly. "We do not have the resources."
"Oh. I would have thought that if anyone—" He broke off. "Ah, well. We must all do what we think best in such difficult times."
"We certainly do," John agreed. "It's funny, though, that we never heard of this network before."
Ariston tilted his head. "We did not think you would join. It is not our understanding that your people have been inclined to form any military alliances in this galaxy, except—of course—with the Genii."
John winced. He certainly was well-informed. "Yeah. We're kind of antisocial that way, I guess. Now, if it's all right with you, I'd like a few words with Teyla here. Atlantis business."
"Of course." Ariston rose. "I will see you later, Teyla?"
She smiled him out.
"So," John said, taking over his chair and resisting the urge to slouch all over it, "trying to...improve relations?"
She arched a brow. "I know your people have little patience with more informal diplomatic approaches, Colonel, but I have always found them most helpful."
"Well, I'd be careful if I were you. He's into you."
He expected her to catch his tone and laugh it off. She didn't.
"Oh?" She turned away, looking out one of the windows. "How do you know this?"
"He told me."
"That would be unusual for him," she mused.
"Yeah, see, he seems to look at me as one of your honorary girlfriends."
At least that made her smile. "And yet you have never braided my hair."
He bit his lip, but held onto his joking tone. "You've never asked."
"I doubt it is one of your skills." She stayed at the window, apparently lost in thought, her fingers gripping the sill lightly.
After a minute, he said, "Listen, do you want to try to get some dinner around here later?"
"I would be glad to, but Ariston and I are going up the mountain. One of my instructors in bantos fighting when I was a girl here has retired there, and we are going to pay him a visit."
"Oh." An MRE it'd be, then.
"You are welcome to join us," she said, like an after-thought. "After all, you are a student of the art as well."
Wonderful. Climb up some mountain for the chance to watch Ariston make time with Teyla, probably with an ass-kicking thrown in for free. All he needed was an Iratus bug clamped to his neck, and it would be his best day ever. "Sure. Why not?"
That was the worst three weeks not featuring a funeral or a court-martial John had ever spent.
The visit to the mountain turned out to involve him getting his ass kicked by a tiny old lady about the size of a fire hydrant, so hard that he was moving like an old man himself for three days after. Teyla concluded negotiations with Ariston a little later, so the mission turned into an extended social call while waiting for Rodney to finish his research. She seemed to be having a great time; she went hunting with Ariston, played music with Ariston, discussed Kynerian political and economic problems in mind-numbing detail with Ariston. John was, of course, included whenever he happened to be around, but despite Ariston's unfailing good manners, he could tell when his presence was superfluous. Besides, if he had to have one more joke explained to him, his head was going to explode.
He spent some more time going over small-unit tactics with Lieutenant Kismos's elite squad, which hung on his every word, and it was fairly obvious that there were plenty of girls in the court and the city who would be willing to keep him company, but still he had never felt so useless in his life. He spent a lot of cold dusk hours sitting in cafes choking down their version of coffee and nibbling at their jam-laden, whipped-cream-drowned cakes, ignoring their newspapers, and glowering back at small, staring boys. He could hardly believe he'd come to this, being a ceremonial guard who wasn't even wanted. And yet he couldn't bring himself to go, not with Rodney all tangled up in tests on some Ancient experimental power grid and Teyla shedding her BDUs for the local dresses, high-necked and bare-shouldered. He had the sense of impending disaster, and he had to be there.
Two weeks in, there was an alarm on the defense network, and the troops rushed through the Ring to a culling in progress on Alyah. The call came in while John was training with Kismos's squad in a practice yard not too far from the palace, and the team immediately dropped everything to gear up and go. It felt weird, the way they didn't even glance at him to see if he would come. He wasn't used to being surrounded by the clatter and urgency and high spirits of a move-out order that he wasn't a part of. While they were still preparing, he got up and walked back to the palace, thinking that Ariston would probably be getting tactical reports there.
As he was waved into the grand entrance hall by the guard, Teyla was coming down the ceremonial staircase, trying to hang onto her P-90 while pulling on her BDU jacket. She had put her hair up again for the first time in days.
"What are you doing?" John asked, catching her sleeve as she went by him.
"I'm going to Alyah."
He shook his head. "You can't. You know what's going to happen there, Teyla. We can't stop it."
She frowned at him. "Are you willing to sit idly by while the Wraith ravage a world of innocents? To let others rush in to help while we do nothing?"
It was a sudden, painful reminder of the night they sat through a culling together in the jumper, side by side but completely separated, the wordless understanding they had always had gone and no way to build anything in its place. She'd never mentioned that their strategy bothered her before. Maybe it hadn't—until she had to stand by while other people did the heroically stupid thing. To be honest, he wasn't enjoying it, either. "For now, it's the smart thing to do. You know that, Teyla."
She was about to say something, but Ariston burst onto the steps. "Teyla! You must not go!"
She turned. "I am a warrior, Ariston. You sent your own soldiers and those from other planets into this battle, but not me?"
"I do not question your courage or your prowess, my dear, but my soldiers do not know you. They have not trained with you. The risk of your falling to friendly fire is too high."
That sounded a little hinky to John, but—"Yeah. Listen to the man."
She looked back and forth between them, then let out a frustrated sigh and stalked off.
And now John had to be grateful to Ariston, too. Just what he needed.
The Kynerian soldiers returned a few hours later, fewer in number than when they had gone, but not as fewer as John had anticipated. They hadn't been able to prevent the culling, but their unanticipated resistance had actually made the Wraith leave early. That was an unexpectedly good outcome, but it didn't change John's mind about whether they should have participated.
He couldn't face having that argument with Teyla, so he hitched a ride that evening back over to Arven, in the hopes of getting Rodney to hurry it up a little. He had only been monitoring and encouraging Rodney for forty-five minutes when Rodney threw him out. Ronon wanted to question him about all the gory details of the raid, making wistful noises about missing out on the Wraith-killing. John found himself back at the palace the next day.
Another week went by. Teyla was noticeably cool. Ariston lent him books on Pegasus history so boring John suspected him of doing it on purpose. Kismos and his squad, minus the soldier he'd lost, were caught up in debriefings, and it was incredibly awkward to be asked, "What would you have done?" when they were talking about the loss of a man who John just might have been able to help. He was actually considering allowing himself to be occupied by one of the local girls when the call came in on the subspace communicator in the middle of the night.
"It was an accident!" Rodney yelled, over what sounded a hell of a lot like explosions. "An accident, I swear, and if the Ancients would only—"
"Rodney, what's going on?"
"You know Arven?"
"Yes, I was there with you a week ago."
"You blew up the ruins?!?"
"The ruins, a chunk of the ground, maybe blew a hole in the ozone layer, it's hard to tell."
John clapped his hand over his eyes and groaned. "Was anyone hurt?"
"Well, when the first explosion happened I was so surprised I bit my tongue and—"
"Was anyone seriously hurt?"
"No. We evacuated just in time."
"Is the destruction going to spread?"
"Oh, the nearby villages and their quaint little pubs are going to be fine. It's only the invaluable Ancient technology that's self-destructing."
"All right. You hang tight. I'm going to go tell Ariston. He's going to love this."
There was only one, sleepy guard outside Ariston's chambers. John charged by him without waiting to explain. People generally took it badly when his team destroyed part of their country. Better Ariston got it directly from him.
He threw open the doors. "Sorry to bother you so late, Prince, but—"
"Who's there?" Ariston had been in bed, but he sat up and reached for a bedside lamp. "Colonel? What is it?"
John cleared his throat to begin some sort of explanation, something plausible, minimizing, you didn't really need that atmosphere anyway, but Ariston's companion sat up too, blinking away sleep. "John?"
His voice seized up in his throat. He blinked himself, thinking it might be a trick of the light. It wasn't.
"John?" Teyla sounded more concerned now. "What's going on? Are Rodney and Ronon all right?"
The sheet was pooled around her waist. Her breasts were...small and ripe and perfect and right there. She was naked, in bed, next to Ariston, who was, John's keen trained observational skills told him, also naked.
He took a deep breath and made himself focus on Ariston, who was starting to get that "perhaps the offworlder has spent a little too long in the sun" expression that John saw a little too often. "There was an accident out at Arven."
Ariston rose immediately and began searching for clothes, forcing John to find a new place to focus. He hastily chose the lamp. "Was anyone hurt?"
"No. But the site is kind of...not really accessible to the public anymore."
From the sound of it, Teyla had gotten up, too. John kept his eyes fixed on the lamp. "Rodney and Ronon are safe?" she asked.
It took a huge effort to answer her, like he had to drag each word from a million miles away. "They're fine."
Ariston again. "And the nearby villages?"
"Rodney says they're not at risk."
"What caused it?"
"He didn't really have a chance to explain." John raised a hand. "I'm sure whatever it was, it was a good-faith error on his part. This was an accident, nothing more."
"I must speak to our ranking scientist there. Excuse me."
He heard one pair of footsteps leave the room.
Well, he didn't want to have the conversation right there, but they weren't going to find anywhere more private at that point. He shifted his eyes to Teyla. She had pulled on her dress, all wrinkled, and was hunting for shoes on the opposite side of the bed, one hand on the footboard with its heavy carvings of nymphs and goldfish. She was actually planning to just go down and help Ariston out. John's anger suddenly overflowed.
"What the hell were you thinking, Teyla?"
She stopped and gave him a sharp, surprised glance. "What are you talking about?"
"We're on a mission and I come in and find you...you..." He pinwheeled his hands.
"Sharing Ariston's bed?"
"Yes! There is such a thing as professionalism, you know!"
Her expression grew remote. "I am not aware that such behavior is forbidden."
"Of course it is! You could compromise—"
"Since you yourself have several times enjoyed the company of a woman during a mission," she finished flatly.
His jaw fell. That was—she had even encouraged him with Chaya! "This isn't about me, Teyla. It's about you."
"Is that so?"
Now her stare was challenging. She had to mean...something she couldn't mean. He leaned forward and rapped on the night table. "Yes, it is. How could you get involved with a guy like that while we're on a mission? It's a completely unnecessary risk! He's practically a stranger!"
"A stranger?" She drew herself up to her full height, which seemed a lot higher than it ought to be. "He is no stranger, John. He is my intended."
He probably gawked. "Your...?"
"I accepted him tonight." Her eyes were sparkling bright with fury. "I believe even your people are allowed to marry?"
He swallowed. She looked at him as if she was actually waiting for an answer, but he couldn't say a thing. After a minute, she shook her head, pressing her lips together.
"Excuse me. I have work to do."
After she was gone, he stood there like an idiot for a ridiculous period of time.
John didn't sleep that night. After he finally left Ariston's quarters, he staggered around the palace for a while, no notion of where he was going, until he ended up outside, in the lush formal gardens, where it was too dark to see. He found a bench and sat there in the cold damp smoky smell of late fall, staring out at nothing.
It didn't take long for the protection of anger to melt away, abandoning him to incredibly unwelcome thoughts. The team had seemed like such a good setup for a long time. As Teyla's teammate, he was as close to her as any guy could be. He spent half his days with her, and there were plenty of nights he fell asleep listening to her breathing. He saw her fresh and cool and smiling in the mornings and he saw her weary and careful and self-contained in the evenings. They worked well together—he felt good with her at his back, or taking her six, and though she could get to him like nobody else could, she never used his feelings against him for anything stupid or petty. He knew he couldn't protect her from all the dangers of this galaxy, but at least he'd be there to do what he could when it counted. It was easy, and it was comfortable (usually), and it was safe, and if it meant that occasionally he had to breathe hard past a constriction in his chest, that was a price he was willing to pay.
He'd never asked what their arrangement did for her; he was just glad she went along with it.
Obviously, in the end, it hadn't been enough. Not if it only took three weeks for some guy to persuade her she'd be happier with him instead.
That guy was probably looking for him by this point, to have it out with him regarding the explosion, but he stayed where he was. Ariston could come to him. In comparison, that was nothing to ask.
But Ariston didn't come, even after the pinkish-blue dawn slipped through the trees and the birds began singing. Instead, he saw Teyla approach, in a long bronze nightgown and bare feet.
"Couldn't sleep?" he said, and he hadn't meant it to sound bitter, but it came out that way anyway.
"No," she said gravely, and stopped in front of him, looking down. He leaned back, stretching his arms along the bench. "Could you?"
There was an awkward silence. She rubbed the back of her neck, a gesture of weariness he recognized, and sighed. "John, I do not wish to quarrel with you. Not about this."
He grimaced. "I guess I made it kinda hard not to."
"Neither of us acquitted ourselves well last night."
"No. Not really."
"May I sit down?"
He withdrew one arm. "Sure."
She settled next to him, and they sat and watched the sunrise. The golden light warmed her skin, touched her throat delicately. He thought of a hundred companionable silences they had shared in situations like this one. A hundred times he might have said something. A hundred times he might have just reached out and taken her hand, and she would have understood. But he was her commander, and he was an SGC officer on assignment in another galaxy, and he was afraid he would mess everything up.
He didn't know what he had thought would be worse than this.
"Are you serious about him?" he finally asked.
"Yes. I am."
"You can't—you know you can't commute to Atlantis. It just wouldn't be practical."
He felt a butterfly in his pulse. "Well, I doubt he's going to move to the city. He's the prince here."
She smiled, a little sadly. "And I will be queen."
Just what he'd been afraid of.
Three weeks. It all seemed impossible. But there was none of the dry chill in his bones that always told him when he wasn't in reality anymore. "What will your people say?"
"Most of them, no doubt, will come to this planet. That is a more...natural arrangement than our present one. It is one great blessing my wedding will confer."
"Is that why you're doing it?"
He tensed, but she didn't look offended. "It is something I considered," she said quietly. "I must always think for the Athosians. But I care for him, John, and he cares for me, and we can build a life together, a life where we do much good and have a chance at happiness. I have always hoped for that."
John couldn't think of anything to say to that.
She sat up straighter and clasped her hands in her lap. "I wish to ask you something, if you are no longer angry with me."
He rubbed his forehead. "Ask away."
"It is the Athosian custom for a few close family members and friends to stand with each partner at the wedding. My family is gone, but you..."
He had to close his eyes against the sting of it. She still cared about his opinion, she just didn't..."Sure."
She touched the back of his hand with her fingers. "Thank you."
A wild impulse passed over him, the urge to catch her hand, go down on his knees, say God only knew what. But he didn't. He opened his eyes and smiled at her. "I hope you'll be happy."
She smiled back, very gently, patted his hand, and rose to go.
He sat and watched her til she vanished through a palace door.
"Can she do that?" Rodney demanded, pacing. "Just...get married? Just like that?"
"Well, we outlawed slavery a few years ago, Rodney," John said wearily, resting his forehead in his hand. He still hadn't slept. He'd called Rodney and Ronon back to the capital, ostensibly to debrief them about the Arven incident, but the minute they'd reached the palace, he'd taken them into the nearest ballroom, closed the door, and told them the bad news. The room was huge and freezing cold and they looked like tiny, ridiculous puppets reflected in the mirrored walls.
"But what about us?"
"Apparently, we don't count."
"Well," Rodney said dubiously. "If she's in love with him...I guess if anybody would make a good queen, it's her."
John's mouth twisted. "I'm sure she will."
"But...but...who will explain to the village leader next time that I really didn't mean to defile the sacred burying ground? Who's going to pull me out of the tiger trap while you two oafs are just standing there laughing at me? Who am I going to talk to at three a.m. offworld when I'm sc—when I have too many important things on my mind to sleep?" His eyes went wide and panicky. "I take it back. This is terrible!"
Ronon muttered, shoulders slumped, "Without her, we could run into a lot of trouble."
"Well," John raised his hands, trying to prevent a complete collapse of morale, "she isn't married to him yet. Apparently there's some long complicated engagement custom on this planet."
"Are we talking months or years? Because I don't have the defeat of the Wraith pencilled in for next month, do you?"
It had seemed so hopeless in the morning, but now, looking at the other two, an idea suddenly caught at him, the dawn of a crazy hope. "What I mean is—this all happened way too fast. It's not like Teyla. She's always been so...she didn't even call me by my first name for months!"
"Did you ask her to?" Ronon said.
John winced. "Putting irrelevant things aside. She's engaged to this guy after three weeks? Doesn't he seem a little too good to be true?" He warmed, persuading himself as he went along. "It's entirely possible that he's lying to us."
"What makes you think that?" Rodney said, furrowing his brow.
"When was the last time we met anybody who didn't have a secret?" he demanded.
"Oh," Rodney said, catching the idea. "I get it. So all we have to do is prove he's evil, and then everything will be all right."
"Except that Teyla's heart will be broken," Ronon interjected.
John had been trying not to think about that. "Well...if he's evil, her heart's going to be broken anyway."
"All right," Rodney said. "I can get some surveillance equipment here tonight. Assuming they're not going to kick me out for that little error in judgment back at Arven."
"No," John said. He had expected a lot more trouble on that score, but Ariston was apparently too happy to give it much thought, once it was clear that none of his people had been hurt. "As a matter of fact, Prince Ariston tells me that as Teyla's closest friends, we are expected to stay here until the engagement ceremony."
The bastard hadn't even had the courtesy to be smug. He'd been light, and gracious, and obviously so damn thrilled he could hardly maintain his princely decorum. Well, of course he could afford to be nice to John. He'd won.
"Great," Ronon muttered.
"So while everyone thinks we're just looking to score with the bridesmaids, we'll be snooping around, trying to figure out what's really going on here. Got it?"
"Got it," Rodney said. "Hm. Do you think they'll serve that venison we had the first night at the wedding ceremony? Because that was really good, if a trifle gamy."
"Rodney," John took his shoulders. "It's Teyla, remember. We have to concentrate. Unless you want to be the one explaining why we can't do the Nude Oil Dancing Ceremony on MX8-5871 next time."
Rodney shuddered. "Right. Focus."
"Now get going on that equipment."
Rodney left, muttering about how he was going to teach Q a trick or two. John started to go, too, but Ronon stepped in front of him, folding his arms. "Sheppard."
John braced himself. "Yeah?"
"I wasn't there, but they told me afterwards—when you were possessed by Thelan—"
"He lied to everyone, Ronon. Including you, remember?"
"Yeah. He lied to me."
Unaccountably, John began to sweat. "So he said a lot of crazy things to Teyla. None of it meant anything."
"He did say a lot of things."
But Ronon didn't move; he just kept his eyes fixed on John. A minute went by, and then another, and Ronon just kept looking.
"Look!" John threw up his hands. "I admit, I care about her. I want her to be happy. She's not going to be happy married to—to—Darth Vader!"
Ronon nodded. "I just wanted to make sure you remembered that."
"Remember—" John had to stifle a hysterical laugh. "I haven't been able to think about anything else for the past twenty-four hours."
"If you say so."
Ronon turned on his heel and stalked off.
John shut his eyes. This was just another crisis on a mission. He had a plan. He could cope with this.
John sat on a box outside the main city barracks, observing as Kismos's squad ran through a drill. They were a good team—worked well together, anticipated each other's locations, responded fast when one of them ran into a problem. It was hard to watch.
The network siren interrupted his gloomy thoughts. Kismos's team stopped what they were doing and immediately started gearing up. Kismos called as he went past, "Debrief after, okay?"
"Sure thing," John said. "Good luck."
There wasn't even a hint of resentment in the kid's eyes as he headed off to risk his own neck, leaving someone better-armed and better-trained behind. John should have seen it before.
He'd nixed Rodney's first plan, which had involved bugging Ariston's quarters, and Ronon's, which had involved kidnapping and beating up way too many people. Instead, he'd decided first to try worming information out of Kismos, while Rodney monitored radio transmissions and Ronon let himself be befriended by the local women. Four days of random conversation with the lieutenant had yielded surprisingly little information, though, and somehow his original theory—born, he could admit it, largely out of desperation—had gained the all-important support of his natural paranoia.
They were efficient. Within fifteen minutes, everyone had cleared out, leaving the barracks deserted. Leaving him, John realized, free to wander around with some of the equipment Rodney had given him. He walked out of the obstacle course and headed back towards the armory.
There was a locked back room in the building he'd never been in. Kismos had told him they kept their version of grenades in there, to discourage random pilfering. And at first, when he picked the lock using Rodney's little toy, that was all he saw. Crates and crates of grenades, along with other supplies. He really did almost miss it. It was inconspicuous among the bulky rifles and stacks of crude ammunition and Segways of doom, but there it was, sitting quietly on a shelf. John stood there and scowled at it. C4.
"Now what," he asked himself out loud, "is a nice principality like Kyner doing with an advanced plastic explosive like you?"
If they were allied with the Genii, that would explain it nicely. Or, he regretfully realized, if they had bought it on the black market from the Genii, which was considerably less incriminating. Well, it was still the best, not to mention the only, evidence of...evilness... he'd found so far.
Not enough to take to Teyla, though, and so after carefully relocking the door, he continued to work his way through the complex. It wasn't that big. He took one look at the warren of cubicles that they called offices and realized it was hopeless—they ran on paper. Nothing was obviously labelled Plans for the Death Star, and by the time he got done going through their files, Teyla would have evil grandchildren.
The enlisted men's barracks was even more hopeless. He discovered a number of offenses against God and basic hygiene, but then these weren't Marines. He also found more caches of cheaply-printed porn than he really wanted to know about, but he doubted that Teyla was squeamish enough to be bothered by that. After his second encounter with something that might have been a sock or might have been alive, or maybe both, he gave up and moved on.
The officers' cramped individual rooms were at least tidier, though no more porn-free. While peering under a bed, he realized that any papers that an officer had actually taken to his room were likely to be more immediately relevant and interesting than his socks, and circled back to the first room to start rifling through dressers. It had already been a good hour since he started, and he found himself rooting for a pitched battle off-world.
He felt a little pang going through Kismos's stuff while the kid was off getting shot at, but put it aside grimly. There were plenty of letters from his family, letters from bill collectors, memos regarding various lapses in discipline...everything you might expect to find in a soldier's desk that would be entirely useless for intelligence purposes. But, in his little lockbox which had no power to resist Rodney's gadget, there were also personnel evaluations, mission reports, planetary intelligence summaries—all of which might be important. He flipped through them as fast as he dared, hoping he wouldn't overlook some key piece of information.
When it came, though, it was impossible to miss. A hand-drawn map of the Atlantis gateroom, with the normal troop deployments carefully marked in. Some less accurate maps of part of the central city, with the grounding stations clearly marked. Behind them, an assessment of their troop strength, which overestimated their numbers by a good quarter.
John sat there and blinked at the file. In the end, even after the C4, he hadn't really expected—it had just been another damn Hail Mary. But there was no reason for anyone friendly to have this information. The Genii had obviously prepared the file, and only someone who was considering an invasion would have paid their price for it. And made a copy for the leader of their elite strike squad.
It meant another enemy, and they were going to have a grand time trying to get offworld, but his relief was much greater than his consternation. He grabbed the little camera Rodney had given him and took pictures. Not that Teyla wouldn't believe him without them—at least, God, he hoped she would, she couldn't be that far gone that she'd trust Ariston over him, could she?—but it would be good to know what the Genii thought the city looked like. Then he put everything back, locked the box, and strolled out. He should go to the palace and get an update on the battle.
It would be too bad if the Wraith took out this alliance before he could.
Rodney was waiting for him in his quarters at the palace with the smug look of discovery on his face. Ronon was watching the door, obviously tense.
"You'll never believe who I picked up chattering to our friends on the military subspace channels during the raid!"
"The Genii," John said.
"The—yes, exactly." Rodney looked disappointed. "How did you know?"
John told him the story. At the end, Rodney said, "It sounded from what they were saying like they're some kind of Pegasus-first alliance. Atlantis belongs to them, we're imperialist running dogs, and so on and so forth."
John bit his lip. He'd been assuming that they just wanted the C4 or the jumpers, like the Genii. If they had some kind of political argument...No. If Ariston had brought it up with Teyla, she would've said something to them. He refused to consider the alternative.
"Good thing," Rodney went on, "our genius always wins out over the low cunning of the bad guys. What did Teyla say?"
"I...haven't told her yet."
"I don't want to be indelicate, but it seems to me she'd want this information sooner rather than later!"
Rodney looked at him impatiently. "But you haven't said anything."
The fact was, as savage a sense of triumph as gnawed on John's soul, as determined as he was to thwart whatever plan the Kynerians had, when he thought about telling Teyla, his resolution wavered. He couldn't pretend it wasn't going to hurt. He remembered how much Chaya's deception had stung, and they hadn't done anything but make out. He didn't want to see the expression on Teyla's face when she learned the truth.
But it wasn't like they had a choice, and in the end, she'd be better off. "We have to have an exit strategy, Rodney."
"He means," Ronon said, "that we're still on their planet."
"But the gate is right...oh." Rodney's face fell.
"Look," John said, "the engagement party is tonight. It's a big deal. The whole city will be celebrating. I'll tell her after, and we can escape under cover of kegger."
"Sounds doable," Ronon said. "It's easier to outrun drunk guards."
"So get your stuff together. Discreetly. If there's anything you can't carry, you're going to have to trash it or just leave it behind."
"Conveniently," Rodney said, "most of my stuff blew up."
"Mine, too," Ronon said.
Rodney sighed. "I hate this planet."
John nodded. "You said it."
The party, in the grandest of the grand ballrooms, blue and white with more gold leaf than John had ever seen in one place in his life, was excruciating. All the court was there, and the parliament, and notables from all over the planet. John might have been on the planet for nearly a month, but the only acquaintances he'd really made were Kismos and his squad, and none of them were there. Not that he really wanted to make small talk with a guy who was apparently glad to take tips from him while planning to invade his city. He wished they could cut straight to the inevitable firefight; he'd be a lot more comfortable. He and Rodney and Ronon ended up clumped together in a corner, eating too much. He took one sip of the local wine and realized that it was much too strong, but Rodney, apparently petrified by the presence of so many women in low-cut dresses, had at least two glasses before John took the glass away from him. His hands were flying, and his Canadian accent had gotten really strong.
John did his best not to stare at Teyla, but it was hard to miss her; it was like the light was following her around. She was wearing a cleavagey gold dress that looked a lot like a wedding cake, a glittery netting in her hair, and a heavy gold necklace that had to be a present from Ariston. But he could hardly see any of that for how happy she looked, how at ease. Like she belonged there. He reminded himself that it was all a lie, that she'd be miserable once she found out—and then he felt even more like a jerk. He turned away with an effort. The aristocratic women, who looked daggers at her, were giving him entirely different kinds of glances. He bet that if he slipped off with one, she'd let him do whatever he wanted to, get all his aggressions out. He shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, hearing Teyla's laughter from all the way across the room.
Finally, the music stopped, and the crowd grew quiet. John opened his eyes. Ariston and Teyla stood together on a low dais at their end of the room.
"Welcome, nobles, consuls, honored guests," Ariston said. "Thank you for coming to my home. I have asked you here tonight for a purpose that most of you must already suspect: to announce that I have asked Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tegan, of Athos to marry me, and she has accepted me. We will be married in the spring. I have never been happier, and I am delighted beyond words that my people are here to share my happiness with me."
He paused, and the crowd applauded. John remembered just in time, and struck his hands together mechanically. Rodney only humphed and muttered to himself.
"As you all know, no one—least of all I myself—ever expected that I would be prince of this planet. I have done my best to shoulder the heavy burden, but it is too great a responsibility for one man alone. Teyla has been leader of the Athosians for many years. She will make our people a wise and noble—to say nothing of beautiful—queen. Kyner is as lucky as I am."
He looked at Teyla, who smiled and said, "I consider myself just as fortunate. I am sure I and my people will be delighted in our new home. We have been wanderers for too long, and I am most grateful to the man who has opened his world to us...and his heart to me."
"My dearest," Ariston said, and drew her into a deep kiss.
Into the hush that fell, Rodney said, "Oh, get your hands off her. We all know you're evil."
Ariston lifted his head and stared at him, a strained smile on his face. "What did you say?"
John's hand went to his belt, where of course there wasn't a gun. He looked over at the nearest exit. There were a lot of people in the way. And they couldn't leave Teyla behind.
Rodney turned an even deeper shade. "Well, of course I mean 'evil' in the sense that you're taking our friend away from us, and naturally we mind and think of you as a bad person, and...and...oh, forget it. Teyla, he's only using you! He's really planning to invade Atlantis!"
"I think you have had too much wine, Dr. McKay," Ariston started to say, but Teyla was staring at him.
"Ariston? Is this true?"
John saw the swift calculation go on behind his eyes, and he turned back to her, taking her hand. "You know I care for you deeply, dearest. You have had the proofs."
"But the rest?"
He hesitated a minute, then nodded firmly. "Yes. It is true."
The color, the radiance—it drained from her face as if she'd been struck dead on the spot. "Why?"
He wrapped his other hand around hers. "These Earthers, they come from another galaxy. They set the Wraith on us in numbers too great to be counted. They occupy and plunder the city of the Ancestors, our Ancestors, for their own profit. They share nothing except at the highest price. They demand help, and what is not freely offered, they take—by theft or by force. They betray their own friends and they treat the rest of us as playthings. I have even heard it rumored that they allied with the Wraith themselves to save their own skins. When they are weary or bored, they will return to their own galaxy with their loot and leave us to face the worst culling this galaxy has ever known. You would know this if you were not blinded by your loyalty to your friends. In fact, I believe you know it in your heart even now."
He paused, but she didn't say anything. Her face was absolutely unreadable.
"We and many other worlds have joined together in a league to defend ourselves from our enemies. It is our intention to send the Earthers back to their own home, where they belong, and use the treasures of Atlantis to save us all."
"You lied to me."
He cast his eyes down. "I did not tell you all my plans, it is true. You were too close to them. But I knew once you were no longer breathing their poisonous atmosphere, you would regain your senses and accept our strategy. It is the only hope for Pegasus. Your home, dearest."
John felt muffled, suspended. She wouldn't—but even the pause, the moment when she might, was too much. Too painful. "My home," she said softly, freeing her hand and reaching up to her neck. "My home is Atlantis."
She slipped the necklace off and offered it to him. He only stared at it. After a minute, she took his hand back and closed his fingers over the gold.
"We are leaving now."
"I can't..." He gazed dully at the necklace, and then back up at her, resolution forming in his face. "I can't let you do that. Your friends are the enemies of my people, and of all the peoples of Pegasus."
John felt Ronon press a knife into his hand. Probably only a steak-knife, but better than nothing.
"Then you were lying about the second matter as well," she said firmly.
"You would capture my friends when they come to celebrate my engagement and then tell me that you are not using me?" Though her voice was calm, John heard the near-crack. "Do you think me simple?"
She raised her chin, and John thought he had never seen her look more regal. "We are leaving. Now." She stepped down off the dais and swept towards the exit. John grabbed his cue and followed her, Rodney and Ronon bringing up the rear. The crowd parted in front of them, murmuring and hissing, but Kismos and his squad appeared to block the door, weapons drawn.
Teyla stopped and glanced back at Ariston. "Is it your order that these men imprison your welcome guests, Ariston?"
John had to admit, he pulled himself together pretty well. "No," he said, a little faintly, and then much more assuredly, "No. Let them go, Kismos."
"Another time," Kismos growled at him, and the contempt in his eyes was like a slap to the face, but John was too distracted to do much more than notice it. "Coward."
"Any time," John said.
They moved through the palace in complete silence, no one meeting anyone's eyes. When they stepped outside onto the great boulevard, Teyla kicked off her shoes, gathered her skirt in one hand, looked at him, and said, "Run."
For the first time in what felt like forever, they were in complete agreement on something.
So they ended the Kyner mission the way they began it, running like hell for the gate. There wasn't anyone obviously in pursuit, but John didn't relax until they were all through the wormhole. Teyla took two steps into the room, and then stopped so abruptly she nearly tripped. She caught up her skirt again, then stared down at the fabric in her hand with wide, blank eyes. For a few awful seconds, she stayed completely still, breathing hard. John reached hesitantly for her shoulder, but her head snapped up and she shot him a cold look.
"Well," he said, trying to smile, "glad that's over with. Hope all your exes are that friendly."
"How long did you know?" she asked, no humor at all in her voice.
"How long did I..."
Her mouth tightened. Okay, there wasn't going to be any wiggling out of this.
"A few days," he said awkwardly. "We dug it up a few days ago."
Disbelief flashed over her face, and she laughed, a brief bitter burst. "How dare you?"
Behind him, he could feel Rodney and Ronon edging away. "How dare I what?"
"You suspected my intended—you spied on him—and you did not tell me?"
"I didn't want to upset you if I wasn't right."
"And yet even after you had your evidence, you still did not tell me." Her voice was incredulous. "Did you think I was such a lovesick girl that I would not listen to you? Or did you think I would betray you?"
He looked at her helplessly. She didn't have to betray the team; she only had to agree with Ariston, and it would have been more than he could take. And how could John have possibly known she wouldn't? He wasn't one of her people. She wasn't even really one of them. The last few weeks had made that completely clear.
"I...I don't know...you were just so..."
He knew it was wrong the instant he—Teyla's eyes blazed, and she slugged him. John staggered. His lip tasted suddenly of bitter metal, but, as in so many crises of his life, the blood was redundant, a pointless physical representation of things he knew too damn well already.
"You deceived me, John. You agreed to stand at my wedding while all the while hoping to prove my intended wicked. You neither trust nor respect me. You are no better than he is!"
She stormed out of the gateroom, nearly knocking into Elizabeth as she went.
"Okay," Rodney said, "I officially vote this Worst Mission Ever."
Teyla skipped the mission debriefing, which John had to admit she was probably entitled to, and didn't appear for what little was left of the evening. The next day was normally their day to spar, but he ended up spending the hour in the gym alone, giving serious thought to whacking himself in the head repeatedly with one or both of his sticks. After dinner, he went to her quarters.
"Teyla?" he called, hovering a hand over the control crystal. "It's John. Can I come in?"
Her voice sounded very faint. "I do not wish to speak with you now."
"Kindly respect my privacy, Colonel."
He looked at the control crystal. He could get in. There wasn't anywhere in Atlantis she could hide from him. Or he could sit out in the hallway and wait. She had to come out eventually.
He punched the wall—great, bruised knuckles to go with the jaw—and walked away.
He went back to the control room and settled in to watch the life-signs detector. It wasn't exactly the most exciting way to spend the evening, but he'd had plenty of excitement on the mission. He tried not to be too obvious about it, working halfheartedly on his laptop, but he thought he saw knowing glances from some of the people who'd been on shift when they'd first gotten back. Rodney, however, who was in and out running some calculations, seemed completely oblivious. John wasn't sure whether to be relieved or annoyed about that.
The second shift ended, and the third shift came on, and still Teyla's dot remained stubbornly in her quarters, and the knot in John's chest didn't go anywhere, either. Rodney had taken up a chair nearby, and it got quiet and dim as usual, the few personnel conversing quietly in another corner about some betting pool it was probably his job to break up. If he cared.
John glanced again at the detector. Still the same.
"So," Rodney said matter-of-factly, keeping his eyes on his own screen, "when were you going to tell me? Note that I am charitably saying 'when,' even though all evidence indicates I should be going with simply 'were.'"
John started. "Tell you what?"
"About you being in love with Teyla. We're friends, right? Friends tell each other these kinds of things before they're forced to by complete catastrophe." He glanced up. "Or so I've heard."
There it was, out in the open for the first time, but somehow Rodney's offhandedness made it just bearable. "It wasn't completely obvious?" John said weakly.
"Not to me. She's Teyla, we're all a little in love with her, I just thought you were a little more..." He waved his hand. "Who would have thought that the guy who's scored with Ancients would be afraid to tell a girl he likes her?"
"Hey," John said. "There were some damn good reasons to keep my mouth shut."
"Oh, I know," Rodney said lightly. "They're very good, all of them. I've made a serious study of those reasons. That's probably why I'm still revelling in the delights of bachelorhood at age thirty-nine."
He grimaced. "Rodney..."
"But, hey, who am I to say anything?" He looked back at his computer screen. "Look at these numbers! I'm going to kill Zelenka."
At the twice-weekly the next morning, Teyla's chair was empty. Elizabeth caught John's glance and said, "Teyla asked to take a few days off on the mainland. Given the circumstances, I approved them, of course. She didn't mention it to you?"
He paused. "She's got a lot on her mind. Did she already leave?"
"I'm flying her over after the meeting," Carson said.
"Okay." No reason to panic, he told himself. She couldn't avoid him forever. Unless she just decided to stay with the Athosians. Her responsibility. Her own people. The ones who knew her jokes and probably heard "Autumn Showers" in their cradles. The ones who weren't plundering the city of the Ancients.
Rodney's voice seemed far away. "There's a problem with third-shift security in the labs..."
He was hardly conscious of the meeting ending and everyone else getting up and leaving. It was only when Ronon said, "Sheppard," that he snapped back.
Ronon was standing, leaning forward on his desk. "Is this all that happens when a team breaks up around here?"
"The team's not breaking up," John said. "She's only taking a few days' leave. Everything's going to be fine."
"No, it's not."
Fear spilled over his nerves. "Have you talked to her?"
"I didn't need to. I didn't think you would need to."
"Yes, well," John said crossly, "she and I obviously haven't been communicating very well lately."
Ronon tilted his head. "Sounds like the problem goes back a lot further than that."
He was trying to keep it together as Teyla was practically walking out of his life, and Ronon, of all people, was poking at him to talk about his feelings? He threw up his hands. "What do you want from me?"
"You told me you wanted her to be happy."
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe that's why I never said anything to her? I'm not some prince she knew from childhood with my own planet to give to her people. I'm a screwup of an Air Force officer from another goddamned galaxy who could be sent home at any time, and I'm her commander. I can't marry her!"
Ronon narrowed his eyes. "You could at least be honest with her."
John nearly choked. "Honest? Oh, it's that easy? Why didn't I think of that?"
"I didn't say easy. You two aren't in a easy situation. I think Teyla's been through a lot worse than having you tell her you love her, but I don't know who's tough enough to stand having to pretend not to notice day after day for years."
John stared at him, amazed. "Ronon, I think that's the longest sentence you've ever said."
He shrugged. "I save up."
"I thought it was working," John said after a minute, softly, looking away. "I thought this way I couldn't possibly screw it up."
But he couldn't pine like a teenager forever. Not when, for the first time in his life, he'd fallen in love with someone who was actually grown up.
Eventually—as with everything else since he'd come to Pegasus—you had to rise to the occasion, or lose it all.
"Congratulations," Ronon said gravely.
"Oh, you're a riot."
"Don't you think you should be..." He gestured to the door.
"Right! Yes!" He got to his feet, then hesitated. "I...I don't have time to figure out what to say."
"Is that bad?"
Ronon didn't quite have to push him out the door, but it was close. Once he was actually out in the hallway, though, he started to run.
He was just lifting his hand to knock on Teyla's door when it opened. She was back to wearing Athosian clothes; she had on a heavy pack and was carrying a big bag. When she saw him, some emotion flashed over her face, too quickly for him to read, then her expression went quiet and she sighed.
"John, it would be best if we waited to speak until after my return."
"Can't I just talk to you for a minute before you go?" He saw a frown start to form, and added, "You can clock me again if you feel like it."
She winced. "...Come in."
She stepped back to let him in and set down the bag, but didn't take off the pack.
"Look...I've been kind of an asshole lately."
She inspected him, still cool. "I am not the one with the large bruise on the face."
"No," he said, "listen. I'm serious. I hurt you, I know I hurt you. I'm sorry. And it's probably too late and this won't make any difference to you at all now, but I'm in love with you. I've been in love with you as long as you've been in Atlantis. Of all the amazing, beautiful things I've seen in this galaxy, you're the most wonderful, and even if nothing else good had ever happened to me here, I'd still be glad I came because I got to know you."
He lifted a hand. "I didn't say anything because...it's been years since anything like this happened to me. I just didn't know what to do with it. I thought I should just take what I could get and still be safe. But I was wrong. The next time I see Ariston I'm probably going to be shooting at him, but at least he knows how to go after what he wants like a man. So..." The flood of words dried up as abruptly as it had come, leaving him half-squeaking the last vowel as he watched her nervously. She was standing very still, and he couldn't tell what she was thinking at all. "I just thought...I just thought you deserved to know."
She didn't say anything, just moved to her desk to finger a statuette there. "I knew," she said finally.
He flinched. "You did?"
"I do remember what it looks like."
"But you never said anything."
She looked down. "Perhaps I should have," she said softly. "But you never spoke. Except when you were...not in control of yourself. And then you were so troubled, and you seemed to need me to deny that it mattered...and I did not understand..."
He grimaced, thinking of the times she'd let him off the hook—as he'd thought of it then. He hadn't really considered what it must have felt like, to have to help someone pretend he didn't care about you.
She swallowed. "I did not want to bring you shame or fear, and I was content, for a time, to be with you—as we were. But time passed, and nothing changed, and when I found a man who could open his heart to me, you acted as if I had betrayed you, and it was not fair, John. It was not."
He squared his shoulders. He'd done this, and taking it was the least he could do for Teyla. "No. It wasn't."
"I deserved to have you tell me."
"But I..." She raised her eyes again, and they were shining. "My people have a saying: better to cast your heart into the sea than to fall in love with a soldier."
He stared. He couldn't always decipher Athosian traditional wisdom, but he thought he caught the reference this time. "Wait! You're saying—you still—you do—"
"I do," she said, and a flush bloomed slowly in her cheeks.
"But you were going to marry..."
"A man who I cared for, and who cared for me. A man who I could build a family with, and so not grow old alone in some endless barracks existence. Yes." She shrugged painfully. "If I could not have what I most desired..."
"But it's yours. It's always been yours," he said, took her shoulders, and kissed her.
The first time he had kissed her, he had been out of his mind with wanting, and taking had seemed so insanely simple he couldn't even remember the reasons he hadn't before. Now he remembered them all, but in the blaze of the knowledge that she loved him back, some of them turned out to be weak and feeble, and the rest...well, if he'd never broken any rules, he never would have gotten to come to Atlantis in the first place.
Then his body realized he was kissing Teyla, and she was kissing him back without any hesitation at all, and he forgot about reasons completely. She was small in his arms, but so strong, so vivid, so sure, her proud curves unimaginably delicious against him. It seemed as if he would never be able to kiss her enough, every inch of skin his imagination had covered over with fantasies and denials suddenly, startlingly real. But he could feel her heart going hard—going for him, all this time—and the thought made him melt with tenderness, pulling her as close as he could with the pack in the way and gathering her head in.
"And you said you were not good at expressing your feelings," she murmured after a minute.
"Well, it did only take me a couple of years."
"I do not mind."
He did. He could have resented every stupid minute he'd wasted before, except then he'd be wasting this one, too. "It is going to be complicated."
She laughed softly. "And I had always thought love was so simple."
She always knew just how seriously to take something. He didn't know if he ever would. He'd definitely need his sense of humor to get through what would be coming. "I can't give you a planet, you know. Or make you a queen. Well, I probably could, but they'd end up throwing me in Leavenworth back on Earth. But if you really want me to..."
She kissed his jaw, just where she'd bruised it earlier. "I am content."
He shifted, thinking of getting them a little more comfortable, and she moved with him, but the intercom sounded. "Colonel Sheppard to the gateroom immediately, please."
They looked at each other. "Sounds like an emergency," he said reluctantly.
"Yes," she agreed, sighing.
"Are you coming?"
He still missed a couple of breaths waiting for her answer. She pulled away and stepped back, but only to reach up for the straps of her pack and slip it off. "I will tell Carson I do not need him after all."
"Good," he said, breaking into a grin. "Great. Excellent."
"Let us go, then." She started for the door.
He caught her arm. "One sec."
"Afterwards," he said. "I know I'm a little late on this, but afterwards...I'd like to hear some of your songs. Rumor has it that this galaxy has some pretty decent tunes."
She blinked slowly, a strange smile stealing over her face. "You had only to ask," she said, and he would have kissed her again, but the intercom repeated the summons.