It might not have been Atlantis, but the view John got as they followed their guide down into the valley of the Athosian city was still pretty impressive. Where Atlantis was all glitter-edged geometry, the Athosian city rose in graceful overlapping curves and open squares, with tilting coppery green roofs gleaming in the sun. Less lofty, more...organic. The road leading into the city was paved with large even stones, clean and well-kept, and lined with large trees, just coming into leaf in the soft early spring. From the SGC mission reports John had read, they could have done a lot worse on their first, desperate, semi-random dialout into Pegasus.
He drew closer to Sumner, who was surveying everything expressionlessly. "They look pretty advanced, sir," he said in a low tone. "Maybe they'll have access to a ZPM."
"And maybe they'll also know its true value," Sumner returned. "We don't have a whole lot to trade."
"Oh, come on," Ford said. "We're from another galaxy. We've got to have things that they at least think are cool!"
"Coolness probably won't enter into it, Lieutenant," Sumner said with a touch of frost. Ford looked abashed. John wanted to grin at him but figured it might only make trouble.
Actually, he knew what was on Sumner's mind. Without a ZPM, they'd lose Atlantis, the expedition would be a failure, and none of them would ever make it home. If these people knew what a ZPM was and wanted to hang onto theirs, well--the more advanced they were, the harder it would be.
Sumner wasn't the kind of guy to take no for an answer. Especially not from people with inferior weaponry.
"Maybe we should go back, get Dr. Weir, if we're going to be negotiating?" he suggested.
Sumner shook his head. "I'm not getting her involved in this."
Yeah, he knew what Sumner was thinking. John really hoped it wouldn't come to that, because there was no question what his duty would be. None at all.
The temple stood at the edge of the city, in front of a square that separated it from the other buildings. They were mostly low, in soft reds or browns, but the temple was built of a blue-veined marble that rose up in interlaced latticings. What John guessed were gargoyle heads were set into the latticings, their long hair flowing into the twists of stone.
A ceremonial guard in blue uniforms waited outside. A blonde woman came down the steps to meet them.
"Strangers to see the priestess," their guide reported. "They want permission to trade."
The woman looked them over. "What world are they from?"
"They say it's called Earth. I've never heard of it."
She frowned. "So they do not follow the Old Ones?"
"If you mean the Ancients," Sumner put in, "some of us, like Major Sheppard here," he nudged him, "are descended from them."
John winced. He still wasn't sure about he felt about the whole magic gene thing, and anyway--he'd read enough mission reports to know that you really didn't want to get mixed up in someone else's religion. It always led to awkwardness, and possibly unexpected ritual human sacrifice. Sumner didn't seem to have any compunction about it, but then he probably wouldn't be the one they'd be sacrificing.
The woman gave them an openly puzzled stare, but then nodded. "I will inform Teyla. Please wait here."
They didn't have to wait long. The woman reappeared and said, "You are most fortunate. Teyla will see you."
"Aren't we the lucky ones," Sumner muttered.
But as they mounted the stairs, one of the guards stepped in front of them and put out his hand. "Your weapons."
"No weapons in the temple. You can leave them with us. We'll return them when you've finished your business."
"No," Sumner said immediately. "We're not giving you our guns."
He had a point. Maybe multiple points. But...
The woman paused on the threshold. "I will not force you to surrender your weapons to the guard," she said, "but you cannot enter with them."
Sumner grimaced and pulled his gun from its holster. The woman drew back a step, and the guards tensed, but he only handed the weapon over to John. "Major, you'll stay out here with them."
He should've seen that one coming.
"But it is Major Sheppard that Teyla particularly wishes to see," the woman said.
Sumner looked at her, then back at Ford. John could practically read Why did it have to be a priestess? in the wrinkles on his forehead. "All right, Lieutenant. You can stay here."
As he passed him his gun and Sumner's, John did give Ford that grin.
Inside, the air of the temple was clear and cool, with sunlight filtering down from high-set windows. They followed the woman through a semi-circular foyer ornamented with more gargoyles. Another guard opened the doors for them. The woman stopped at the doors and let them pass her. The doors closed behind them with a clang that made Sumner look around sharply.
They had entered a long rectangular hall. It was mostly empty, except for a few more gargoyles scattered about. Near the far end stood something that looked like an altar, draped with many soft cloths. At the foot of the altar, there was a cushioned chair of a light-colored wood, and standing beside the chair was a woman. She glanced up at them, and the calm gaze of her dark eyes carried like one of the shafts of light all the way across the hall. John almost stumbled.
"Welcome to Athos," she said as they approached. "I am Teyla, priestess of the Old Ones."
She was beautiful, slim and high-cheekboned with long reddish-brown hair braided intricately. She wore a simple, low-cut blue gown. John thought she carried herself more like a princess than a priestess, with a cool, thoughtful air. She'd give them a fair listen, he thought. He hoped. He really wanted this not to go wrong.
"Colonel Sumner." John had been wondering if they were expected to bow or anything, but Sumner didn't even offer a handshake. "Of a planet called Earth. This is Major Sheppard."
She turned her eyes to John. "Ah yes. The one who is descended from the Old Ones."
"That's me," he said, and smiled.
"I have never met a person who has made such a claim. How is that you know this?"
He couldn't have said why he felt the urge to evade, just a little. "Well, light-switches like me. Also doors."
She tilted her head, only a fraction of an inch, and even though her expression didn't change, John had the same feeling he'd had when Miss Watson had caught him doing his homework at the last second in the back of the class: Busted. "Oh yes?"
"Look, we can discuss theology some other time," Sumner put in impatiently. "We have certain very specific and very urgent needs, Teyla. I have to know whether you can help us or not."
She looked back at him, becoming more formal again. "And what are these specific and urgent needs?"
"Primarily a ZPM. Ever heard of them?"
"Perhaps. But you may have been told that we do not trade with those who do not follow our ways."
"You mean this Ancient worship thing."
"If you wish to call it that."
His voice was disgusted. John hadn't exactly cracked the Bible with Sumner, but he could imagine that a career with the SGC didn't teach you much respect for alien gods. He clearly wasn't going to be stopped by some local's religious scruples. Thinking about the shape Atlantis was in, John couldn't blame him, but--it was like he was trying to take it to the next level because he wasn't comfortable there, in a temple to strange gods negotiating with their priestess. That didn't really seem like the best approach for someone in the SGC. He swallowed hard and waited for Teyla's response.
She only spread her hands. "Still, it is our way."
"Well, it's not our way. Our way is rational. We give something, you give something, everybody's happy. But we have things to offer you in return for a ZPM that you've probably never even dreamed of, and you're saying you won't trade with us because we won't bow down to some people who died millennia ago? You realize they were just people, right?"
A look of icy contempt flashed over Teyla's face and was gone almost before John could register it. She drew herself up, and John winced privately. This was where it could all get out of control. She was small, but from her bearing, you would have thought she was six feet tall. He felt a mixture of pity for what was probably coming and admiration for the way she was carrying herself. "Perhaps, Colonel Sumner, it would be better if I spoke with Major Sheppard alone."
Sumner looked surprised for an instant. He seemed to realize he'd made a mistake. "Why? Because he has the Ancient gene?"
"Let us call it that. I will have you lodged in the city while we speak."
"Well, if he's the only one you deem worthy to talk to--"
"As you say," she said dryly, "we are not a rational people."
Sumner shot John a look that it took no effort at all to decode. John nodded, relieved. He wasn't any kind of diplomat, but he doubted he could do worse than Sumner was doing. At least his first strategy wouldn't be to provoke hostilities. "Fine. But if he doesn't come out--"
She raised an eyebrow. "He has nothing to fear here, Colonel Sumner."
After Sumner had left, Teyla turned back to him. "Major Sheppard--"
"Please." He smiled. "Just Sheppard."
She still had a touch of chill to her voice. "This is not the most comfortable place for discussion. Come."
She turned and headed for an archway. He fell into step next to her. "Don't take what the Colonel said personally, Teyla. We just really need the ZPM."
"It has been a long time since anyone has been so rude to a priestess in our temple," she said. "Are you his servant, Sheppard?"
He half-choked. "No. He's just my boss."
"He should not be."
That line of thought led only to bad, bad places. To get away from it, he asked hastily, "Do you really have a ZPM?"
"I believe I know where one may be found," she said. "If we were to give it to you."
They had gone into a side hallway. A guard opened another door for them, and they emerged into a small enclosed garden, a tangle of lush greens. The only flowers were strange ones climbing on pale vines up the walls, white twisting around and clinging to white. It was very still--John couldn't even hear birds. A soft breeze carried a soothing scent of herbs on it, and Teyla paused, obviously breathing it in, the lines of her shoulders growing gentler. Several chairs stood around a wrought-iron table.
Teyla sat down and gestured for John to take a chair. He did, dragging his closer to hers. She gave him a curious look as he did, but she didn't pull away.
When she spoke, her tone was softer. "What do you need this ZPM for?"
He hesitated for only a second before making the call. He wasn't going to convince this woman with half-truths. "Earth isn't in this galaxy. It's somewhere called the Milky Way. We came from there to a place in Pegasus called Atlantis."
Her eyes met his, surprised. "Atlantis?"
"I see you've heard of it."
"In many tales," she said. "But they always said--I had always heard it was lost."
"Pretty much," he said. "But we found it. Only we need to get some power for it, quickly. The scientists say we need a ZPM, or preferably more than one, to give the place enough juice. I don't know much about it, but--Teyla?"
She had fallen back in her chair, eyes closed. That close, he could see that the bodice of her gown was covered with faint platinum embroideries. "Continue," she said softly.
"Um, okay," he said, a little disconcerted. "There's not much more to tell, unless you want us to get one of the scientists here. We brought supplies with us from Earth--I'm sure we could work something out to exchange. We have great turkey sandwiches, for instance."
There was a long pause while Teyla remained leaning back. Then, suddenly, she caught a breath and sat back up, as abrupt as someone emerging from under water. "I think we may be able to come to some sort of agreement," she said, and smiled at him for the first time. "Child of the Ancients."
He felt that he could just sit there in that green-smelling garden and smile back at her all day. He resented the faint uneasiness that made him ask, "Are you okay?"
"Of course," she said, and straightened. "If you are not to be a stranger, you must allow me to offer you our tea."
The blonde woman brought them tea, pale jade in white cups. John caught a whiff of the steam before he took a sip. It was strong, almost like beer, but mossy. The taste was strong, too, and woodsy, with a dozen more elusive flavors slipping off his tongue before he could catch them.
"So," he said, wanting to wait a minute before he tried another sip, "been priestessing long?"
"I came to the temple when I was nine."
Nine. When he was nine, he was mostly focused on pigtails-related activity. And skateboards. "What, you got gold stars in praying at school?"
"It was clear very early on that I had the gift of the Old Ones. I spoke with their voice when I was just a little girl."
He wondered what had really happened, how she had been chosen, what that could have been like. He took another swallow of the tea, then another. A sense of well-being was starting to warm its way through him. It was the first quiet place he'd been in for days. No Sumner looking for excuses to toss him in the brig, no McKay ranting at the top of his lungs. No pressure bearing down on him from the failing shield-wall. No sense that they had jumped into the end of the world. Just this serene woman who didn't seem to need anything from him. "Do you like it?"
She gave him the curious look again. "No one has ever asked me that before. You say strange things, Sheppard."
"Just trying to break the ice."
"You are a soldier, are you not?" she said. "Do you like protecting your people?"
He snorted. "Yeah. It's been a laugh riot so far. They don't tend to like how I do it, though."
She studied him. "Is that why you have come so far from home?"
The urge to tell her, about Nancy and Dex and Holland, the deserts and the frozen places, was amazingly strong. She wouldn't understand most of his story, just what it meant. It would be...safe.
"Maybe." He cleared his throat. "You didn't answer my question."
"I..." She hesitated. "It is..." She rose to her feet. "Do you hear that?"
For a minute, John thought she was pulling the equivalent of Look, it's the Goodyear blimp! But then his ears caught it, too: faint shouting from within, and the echo of running feet.
"What's going on?" he said.
She shook her head and started for the door, but it flew open. A tall, muscular man with flying dreadlocks and wild eyes burst into the garden.
"Traitor!" he said, and pointed a gun with a huge barrel at her. "You'll die for what you've done."
He was focused completely on her, ignoring John--bad tactics. As his finger tightened on the trigger, John didn't have time to decide what to do, so he let his instincts decide for him. He threw himself forward to tackle him. He got the assassin's arm, and the shot went wild.
They grappled, falling to the floor. The guy's moves were basic, but he was really strong. He hit John across the face, and John tasted blood and darkness for a minute. The guy half-rose to his knees, pushing John backwards, trying to bring up the gun again. "You idiot," he said through his teeth as John tried to wrest it away. "Do you know what she'll--"
John looked up, too. Teyla was standing over them, her face half-obscured in the dazzle of the early afternoon sun directly behind her head, her hair lit up with red. The guy was looking at her, too, transfixed, like he hadn't just tried to kill her. She had her hand on his shoulder, small and delicate against the surge of his muscle, but it seemed to have stopped him. John didn't know what the hell was going on, but he began to squirm around to try to get leverage. That turned out to be a waste of effort. In the next instant, there was a flash of metal and the guy crumpled, a knife buried in his neck.
John fell, too, sundazed and overloaded with the man's weight. As he sat up shakily, some of the ceremonial guard ran in. Just like an honor guard to show up after the fighting was over. The look Teyla gave them told him she was thinking the same thing.
One of the guards gasped, "Honored Teyla! Are you all right?"
"How did he get in?" she demanded.
"He disguised himself as a porter. When he was discovered, he killed three of us." He fell to his knees, pale, and the others quickly followed suit. "Forgive me, honored Teyla. He was a mighty warrior--"
She seemed about to say something, then glanced at John and stopped. "A better adversary than most," she said, stooping to retrieve the knife. "Worthier than all of you. Thank the Old Ones this man was here. He does not even follow our ways, yet he protected me." She shook her head and waved her hand to cut off the guard's excuses. "Rise. Take him away. See if you can find out what his cause was."
"Thank you, honored one," he whispered and scrambled up. John got to his feet as well while they dragged out the body. The guy had been something, all right; it took all four of them to move him. Teyla watched them, fingers tight around the haft of her weapon. Little strands of hair had escaped her braids to fan out across her temple. Her fabric of her dress had gotten twisted and pulled down, but she didn't seem to care. He had to wrench his eyes away from the curve of her breasts.
Her jaw was clenched and she was trembling. He didn't think it was from fear. He wondered what would have happened if he hadn't jumped in, and the image of her knife-fighting sent a rush of heat through him. He had to clear his throat.
"What was all that about?"
"Our people have many enemies," she said. "They resent the tribute we present to the Old Ones. Do you see now why we must be careful?"
"Yeah, I guess assassination attempts would make me cranky, too. But it looks like you don't have a problem dealing with them."
She looked down at the blade in her hand. "You saved my life."
"I'm not so sure about that."
"I am," she said.
"Well, does that at least help you trust us?"
They looked at each other. Teyla's gaze was appraising. John had the feeling that he had offered up something in their negotiations, something big, and with every minute he was sinking further away from being able to take it back. What the hell. Sumner would have done the same thing. She narrowed her eyes. "You are hurt. Come with me."
John realized that his jaw was aching, and when he put his hand up to his mouth, it came away bloody. "Okay."
They went through a different set of doors than they had come in by, into what was obviously a more private part of the temple, darker and quieter. They passed first through a gym with strange curlicued markings on the floor, where Teyla left the weapon, and into a sort of dressing room. She opened a drawer in a dresser that looked like it was made of ivory and removed gauze and bandages and a bottle.
"Sit there," she directed him, pointing at a low stool.
"You don't have to--"
"You cannot do it yourself, and Colonel Sumner would not be pleased if I returned you covered in blood."
"That would depend on whose blood it was," he muttered, but complied.
The antiseptic stung a lot, jerking an involuntary hiss out from between his teeth. Teyla laid her hand on his cheek to steady him. Then she applied more. The world dropped away, and there was nothing but the pain and the light warm touch of Teyla's fingers on his face. He bit down on his lip so as not to make noise. "Good," she murmured, and he felt her thumb brush over his skin. She bandaged his cheek up and stepped back.
"Thanks," he said, rubbing at his eyes. They'd been running on excitement and the sense of impending disaster since they'd first stepped through the gate to Atlantis, and he was finally starting to feel it. The fight must have put him over the the edge--the adrenaline was fading away and a blankness was slowly swirling up in his brain. His cheek pulsed, but numbly, only intensifying his feeling of detachment. When he tried to stand up, he staggered, and she steadied him.
"You need to rest," she said.
"'M good," he said. He meant it. He felt satisfied with everything: the dark, the quiet, the taste of the tea that lingered in his mouth, the gorgeous local woman who was letting him stare at her. Athos was treating him pretty well.
"Of course," she murmured, but she guided him gently into the room beyond. Her bedroom, obviously. So big he had trouble gauging the dimensions, and so sunk in dark blue that he could hardly tell what was in there. He could see the bed against the far wall, though, with its knotted spray of silver netting draping over the bed. Like a web. Tangling, supporting...
Her bedroom. He shook his head, and it cleared a little. "Hey, you don't have to--I mean..."
"I did not answer your question earlier, Sheppard." Her face seemed shadowed by some private sadness, though in the gloom he couldn't be sure. He saw her hands rise, as swift and sure as when they'd driven the blade home into the assassin's neck, and heard the sound of her dress falling away to the floor. He blinked hard, but could only catch a glimpse here and there of glimmering bronze curve. "It does not matter whether I care for my duty. It is in my nature."
"Mine, too," the words floated out of him as his hands settled on her shoulders.
"I know," she said, and lifted her face to his.
The kiss was brief, but it left him breathless and dizzy. Sumner wouldn't have done this. Sumner would have put a gun to her head. She sighed with pleasure, interlaced her fingers with his, and drew him backwards, humming a tune, rich and low. To hell with Sumner. He shut his eyes and let her lead him. His sight wasn't doing him any good here anyway, not like the touch of his hands, which were pressed into the smooth skin of her bare shoulders. They stopped and he dropped his head and began nuzzling against that softness. She smelled like the flowers in the garden, of some expensive honey. She was talking softly, her words circling and weaving around him, and it was like another caress, like there was no limit to the number of ways she could touch him now that she had hold of him.
"Kneel for me, Sheppard," she whispered, and it seemed so natural to do what that voice told him that he didn't even have to decide to obey. His palms curved themselves on the outside of her thighs, as if they fitted there. His mouth brushed against her flat belly, and she gave a murmur of languid satisfaction.
She sank down onto the edge of the bed. He could feel the spread of her thighs. Her fingers threaded through his hair, urging him forward. He moved blindly up her thigh, brushing kisses along the soft flesh there, til he found her. She tasted sweet, with a long gingery burn he'd never experienced before. She stroked his hair as he licked at her, intoxicated. He hadn't done this for anyone in so long, and those memories seemed crude and harsh in comparison to the still intensity of these moments. It all felt so right. He might not be a worshipper of the Old Ones, but he was perfectly happy on his knees for their priestess.
Teyla was talking again. He wasn't even trying to follow it, just listening to the intonations rise and fall, rise and fall. Slowly, deliciously slowly, they began to break up, stutter, interspersed with quick breaths and little hitching gasps. Under his thumb, the flesh of her thigh trembled rhythmically. Suddenly, she clutched at his head, jerked her legs against the bed, and cried out softly. "Sheppard--!"
He'd gotten her off, this strange and beautiful woman. The feeling of satisfaction stupefied him. "You know," he said with a dim smile, "you can call me John." He kissed the juncture between her leg and belly tenderly, and rested his head there.
After a little while, she patted his cheek. "Come here, John."
That made him realize that he wasn't exactly satisfied, that in fact he wanted to fuck Teyla like she was one of the poster-goddesses of his adolescence stepped off the page and beckoning to him. He fumbled hastily out of his pants and followed her further back onto the bed. He had assumed she'd want to be on top, but she lay back, tucking one arm gracefully behind her head, and smiled up at him enigmatically through the netting. It seemed to shine with its own light, casting a gleam across breast and hip.
For a second, the question of protection flickered across his mind, but she grazed him with her fingertips and he decided that she had to have taken care of it. He brushed the drapery aside and sank into her. Now, he thought, now, the whole SGC thing, he got it. Discovery and exploration were the sweetest things out there. Nothing sweeter than slipping into Teyla's hot wetness for the first time, feeling the welcoming softness of her breasts under his hands. Her expression was serene, as if she could absorb the vigor of his thrusts and transmute them into pleasure effortlessly. He clasped her hand and kissed her wrist, knowing that she was beyond his reach but wanting to claim some inch of her delicate skin as his own. When he looked back up at her, she was watching him with eyes gone remote and fierce. For a second, confused, he faltered. But she drew his head down to kiss him, biting softly at his lower lip, and he shut his eyes and surrendered to the rhythm.
Afterwards, he settled down next to her, sleepy, content to doze off gazing at her warm smile and half-lidded eyes. She stroked an intricate and soothing pattern on his chest with one finger for some time, then leaned over to speak in his ear. "John?"
"Mmmmm?" It was hard to concentrate on anything but her body, her touch, her voice.
"Tell...tell me of Earth," she whispered. "How many more are there of your kind? Thousands? Millions? More?"
He closed his eyes again and drifted away, listening to the sound of his own voice answering her. If he was saying some things that worried him, well, he was pretty sure he wouldn't remember in the morning. Teyla told him so.