"You know what these things remind me of?" Colonel Sheppard asked.
Teyla fired a quick burst from her P-90, covering him as he tumbled into the corridor behind her. "Wraith probes," she said shortly, though she knew that wasn't what he was thinking. It seemed too obvious. She poked her head around the corner, and saw that again her shots had done no apparent damage, though she'd heard them ricochet off the metal shell. At least she'd knocked it off course, and it perhaps seemed a little disorientated.
She heard Sheppard's boots pounding along the metal floor, and rolled to one side as he fired above her head, then she pelted around the next corner. "Nah," He said as she passed him, "Those don't have lasers." On cue, the second sphere fired a red beam that streaked past her cheek and scorched a hole in the wall behind her. "They're more like that training droid thing from Star Wars."
Teyla didn't remember much about that film, having mostly awakened during the explosions and Doctor McKay's louder interjections, but she seemed to recall the "training droid" being non-lethal. She didn't see any point in wasting breath mentioning it. "I believe the City hates me," she said instead, which certainly felt true today. She flipped the expended magazine off her P-90, feeling through her vest for her remaining spare.
The spheres seemed to be learning, because the first one dipped under Sheppard's cover fire, ignored him entirely, and headed straight for Teyla. Not having time to finish reloading, she flipped the weapon in her hands, dove forward, and swung at her adversary with all her strength. The butt of the submachine gun connected with the sphere just as it fired, sending them both flying in opposite directions with a flash of searing heat. She flew back into the wall.
Teyla's cry overlapped with Sheppard shouting her name. She staggered to her feet, and drew her pistol, trying to ignore the pain in her hands. "I am all right," she said, hoping that sounded true.
"Any time now, Rodney!" Sheppard yelled into his radio.
"Working. Go away," the scientist snapped back.
There was a pause – in which Sheppard and Teyla combined their fire on the second sphere, driving it back – then McKay said, "Okay, go!" and they went.
Teyla threw herself sideways past the next junction, rolling as she landed, though not fast enough as Sheppard ended his own dive for safety by sprawling across her legs. The doors on either of them side slammed shut, and everything fell silent.
As the ringing in her ears faded, she registered her own laboured breathing, and Sheppard's, then a burst of static from her radio.
"Did it work?" Rodney demanded.
Sheppard disentangled himself from her legs, and rolled onto his back before answering, "A little too well, McKay. Now we're stuck here."
Doctor Weir's voice cut over McKay's answering sarcasm, asking, "Are you all right?"
"We are fine," Teyla said before Sheppard could mention her hands. "And very grateful for Doctor McKay's timely intervention."
Sheppard propped himself against the wall. "It could have been a little more timely," he commented. "So when can you spring us?"
Teyla could almost see McKay rolling his eyes. "I convinced the City that you had Black Death, which supersedes commands from wraith-killing droids," he said. Teyla winced. "The whole pier's locked down; if I reverse it, you'll be right back in there with the combat remote."
"Can't I just pull some crystals and open the door manually?" Sheppard asked.
McKay sighed. "Not since I rewrote the quarantine protocols," he snapped. "Look, Colonel, you're just going to have to wait patently until me and my unrivalled intellect can either reprogram half the city, or remotely power down an attack droid that I didn't even know existed fifteen minutes ago."
"And that will take...?" Sheppard started to ask.
"Much less time if I don't have to answer your idiot questions. McKay out."
Sheppard rubbed his forehead in frustration, but didn't try to re-establish the connection. "Wonderful," he said, and sighed.
Teyla tried to smile sympathetically, but now that she wasn't fighting for her life, she had nothing to distract her from the agony spreading through her scorched hands. A patch of skin stuck to the rough grip of the Beretta as she holstered it. She grimaced and levered herself upright with her elbows, resting her forearms on her knees. Letting her head fall back against the grey metal, she closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on breathing.
A moment later, she felt rough, cool hands lightly touching her wrists, turning her palms up, and gently cradling them. She opened her eyes a little and peered at Sheppard, who was kneeling before her, head bowed as if to examine her wounds, green eyes looking up at her face. "I'm sorry," he said. "You'll have to wait for the Doc. I don't even have any water for them." He laid her left hand back on her knee, and rummaged though his vest pockets, eventually producing a small bottle. "This might take the edge off of it," he said, and put down her other hand so that he could twist the lid off and place two of the little pills between her lips.
Teyla swallowed them them dry, then scrubbed the her tongue against her teeth in a vain attempt to erase the bitter taste. "Thank you, Colonel," she said. "I'm certain that Doctor McKay is working as quickly as he can, and that we will be released soon."
Sheppard grunted, and swivelled around so that he was sitting beside her, hip, shoulder and bare upper arm resting against her own. They sat in silence for a moment, then he said, "Atlantis doesn't hate you, you know."
She sighed an let her head fall against the wall again, not looking at him. "No," she said. "The City merely hates the Wraith."
Teyla had heard it before, and most days she believed it. "I know," she said, "Yet the Ancestors' 'droids' attacked only me, not you or Doctors Zelenka or Mallozzi."
"Yeah, well, that's because they're stupid," Sheppard said with conviction, then added, "I mean the droids, not Zelenka and Mallozzi... well, not Zelenka, anyway." He bumped his shoulder lightly against hers, and she couldn't help but smile.
For the next half hour, they sat companionably, listening to McKay and Zelenka – who was also caught in the lockdown – snarl at each other over the radio. Then they heard a clatter as the droid went dead and hit the floor; the doors opened, and they walked to the transport together.
John Sheppard stepped out of the Jumper into the fragrant woods and wondered, again, what the hell was up with Teyla. After Beckett sprang her from the infirmary, she'd taken ten days of medical leave with her people, not communicating at all past a terse daily check in. Today, she'd left a message asking him to meet her, alone, at dusk.
She waited for him, dark skin and brown skirts blending with the growing darkness under the trees. Shadows hid her expression, but he could see tension in the set of her shoulders. Something didn't feel right. "Thank you for coming, Colonel Sheppard," she said.
John shrugged. "No problem," he said. "Gave me an excuse get away from my paperwork. How are the hands?"
She held them up for his inspection, displaying only light gloves protecting the new skin. "Almost healed; I should be ready to return soon," she said without any great enthusiasm. "Is there news from Atlantis?"
John rubbed the back of his neck, trying to think. It really had been a boring few weeks for once. "Not too much. Elizabeth's mostly got me doing paperwork and breaking in the new people; and McKay's still in nerd heaven taking apart those droid things." He glanced down the path to the settlement, wondering why they were standing in the woods in the dark, not going to the nice tents with warm fires. He waited for her to say something, but she just stood in impassive silence, so he asked, "Teyla, what's going on?"
"It is politics, Colonel," she said, after another moment of thought. John realised she had yet to meet his eyes, instead focusing on the jumper behind him. "My people have chosen a new leader, and I would like you to stand with me at her..." Teyla paused again, frowning, "Inauguration, I believe you would call it."
John wasn't sure what to say to that, and finally settled on, "Well, that sucks."
Teyla nodded and smiled faintly. "My father taught me everything he knew so that I would be able lead our people with wisdom and strength," she said, "I hope that my choices since his passing have honoured him." She paused and met his eyes at last. "This, too, is my choice. I chose to fight at your side, rather than stay with my people and lead them. I believe that they hoped I would change my mind, or that you would not stay, and I would have to return to them. However, the harvest is over, both moons are dark, and they cannot delay any longer."
John tried to imagine what it would be like to make that kind of decision deliberately, rather than in the heat of the moment, or having it forced on him from above. He couldn't really picture it; it seemed the one time he'd actually got to choose, he'd decided to go back to his people, not away from the. Besides, he'd flipped a coin, so he wasn't sure it counted. "What do you need me to do?" he asked. "They're not going to want to paint me a different colour or something, are they?"
Teyla bit her lip, and said very seriously, "Not unless you wish them to." She glanced back at the settlement. "We must go. All you need do is hold my bantos rods, and answer 'yes' whenever anyone asks you a question."
"That sounds dangerous," Sheppard said as he followed her through the woods, grateful that the path from the clearing was largely straight and free of obstacles. Soon, he saw firelight flickering between the trees, and heard the rumble of three dozen voices in intense conversation.
The Athosians stood in a ragged circle in the centre of a stubbled field by the main settlement. They surrounded a more precise ring of six large bonfires inside earthen berms. The centre stood empty.
As they left the cover of the forest, Teyla lifted her chin and quickened her pace, striding towards the crowd. John squared his shoulders in an attempt to copy her posture, but he'd never been much good at that military BS, and he hated being on parade. The ring of people parted for them, and as they past the nearest fire, three others entered the inner circle. John recognised Halling, but didn't know the names of the man and woman with him.
Teyla touched foreheads with the woman, talking softly to her, and even though the onlookers had fallen silent, John couldn't make out the words. Now that he got a better look at the other woman, he remembered her from around the settlement. She was both younger and taller than his friend, but with black curls framing her round face and softer figure, she looked more like John's second grade teacher than a warrior. After a few minutes, the women parted and retreated to opposite sides of the circle, leaving Halling in the middle.
Feeling a tug on his sleeve, and John turned and found Wex behind him, grinning widely. "Isn't this great?" the boy whispered to John. "Jinto and me have to keep all the fires burning, and everyone is really excited!" Handing John a pair of bantos rods, he added, "These are Teyla's. You have to hold them for her." Wex disappeared behind the adults before John could say anything, and by the time he turned back to the inauguration, Halling had started a speech.
A really, incredibly long speech, as it turned out, which John couldn't really follow because it kept referring to Athosian history, or maybe mythology, he couldn't tell. Everyone else seemed to find it fascinating, so he tried to stand straight, look like he was paying attention, and not think about how much this was like the one and only time Great Aunt Wilma had dragged him and Dave to church. That hadn't ended well, for anyone.
"Colonel!" Teyla hissed, stepping on his foot.
"Wha...?" He blinked, and realised that everyone was looking at him expectantly. He smiled and said, "Yes," loudly and definitely, which seemed to be the right thing to do, as the crowd repeated him in unison.
Teyla turned to him, and gripped his arms. "John Sheppard, son of Marion," she said, speaking to the crowd, "Do you honour me above all the Children of Athos?"
"Yes," he said again, and they touched foreheads.
She trailed her hands down his arms until he felt her gloves on his fingers, then took the bantos rods and turned away. On the far side of the circle, John saw that the other woman had done the same.
"Wait," he said quietly, touching Teyla's shoulder. "You're not going to fight her, are you?" John had thought that the Athosians were more civilised than Election-by-Hitting-Each-Other-with-Sticks, but Pegasus never seemed to stop surprising him.
Teyla looked back over her shoulder and gave him one of her special smiles that seemed to suggest that she thought he was an idiot, but she was going to be nice to him because he was doing her a favour. "Do not worry, Colonel," she said, "It's ceremonial. Mikala is family."
She could have fooled him. As she circled Teyla – who she stood, motionless, in the centre of everything – the other woman, Mikala apparently, suddenly looked anything but soft. The bantos rods twirled in her hands, then blurred as she moved in on Teyla with a series of blows that John couldn't follow. As soon as the sticks had touched the crowd started stomping out a rhythm; a moment later, he realised he had instinctively joined in.
Teyla countered every move, but stepped back, and back again. Strike against strike, they moved together, hair and skirts swirling in the flickering light, his friend always retreating.
Though John knew it was a dance, and one they had to have rehearsed all week, or their whole lives, he felt the hair on his neck rise. When Teyla dropped to one knee, bantos rods sliding from her hands, he took a step forward, somehow thinking to intervene. Then he then felt a jerk as Halling grabbed his vest and pulled him back sharply. "Gah!" said John.
The Athosians fell absolutely silent. Mikala raised her arms to strike. John held his breath and strongly considered closing his eyes.
No bone-shattering blow fell. Instead, the Athosian woman slowly lowered the rods, and lightly touched Teyla's upturned face. Then, moving both weapons into one hand, she pulled her friend to her feet, and touched foreheads again.
John heard a massive sigh as everyone relaxed then started talking at once. He lost sight of his friend as the circle broke apart and converged her and Mikala. Jinto, Wex and some of the other kids ran off into the settlement, returning with food and booze, and pretty soon a party had got started.
It took a few minutes to elbow his way to the middle of the gathering, especially since the boys kept trying to ply him with bowls of soup, but he eventually made it to Teyla.
The Athosians seemed focus their attention on the new leader, with everyone wanting to touch foreheads and say a few words. Teyla stood at her side, two fingers looped with the other woman's. She had a smile on her lips, but John could see that tense set in her shoulders again.
"Do you want some wine?" he asked. If he were in her shoes, he figured he'd get as drunk as he could as fast as he could. However, given his military record, he probably shouldn't hand out advice on coping strategies.
Teyla shook her head. "The ceremony is almost complete," she said, "We will be able to leave once all of us have acknowledged Mikala as our leader."
John stood by her side for a moment, silently watching person after person touching and speaking to the younger woman, and pretty much ignoring his friend. "Have I mentioned that this sucks?" he asked.
Teyla's smile lit her eyes this time. "Yes. I believe that you have," she said, and reached over and snagged two of his fingers with her free hand. "Thank you for standing with me, Colonel Sheppard."
John shrugged, uncomfortable. "Any time. I'm not sure what just happened, but I'm glad I could hold your sticks for you." He looked around. "Where did they go, anyway?"
Teyla frowned. "Mikala's brother has them." She nodded in the direction of the big man who had stood opposite John during the inauguration. He was indeed holding four bantos rods. "They are hers now, and I will have to wear in a new pair."
He decided that commenting to the effect that that sucked would be too repetitive, and just gritted his teeth and waited for the end of Hell's receiving line.
When the the last person in line – an old woman who sniffed disdainfully before touching Mikala, then winked at Teyla – had come and gone, John looked down at his friend and asked, "You coming home with me tonight?" then grimaced, realising how she might take that.
She seemed to know what he meant though, and nodded.
The Athosians parted for her as she strode away from the settlement, as regal as an empress, with John in her wake.
One rather eventful week later, Teyla followed Sheppard into the messhall, the soldier having claimed to want a snack following their evening sparring session.
She blinked when she saw how deserted the room was, then again when a good quarter of the City's population leaped out from behind various forms of cover and yelled, "Surprise!" at the top of their lungs. She blinked a third time when she realised that the majority of her friends had brightly coloured paper cones balanced on their heads.
She guessed from the way Sheppard was grinning – hands in his pockets and bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet – that he hadn't been in the least surprised. "Happy birthday, Teyla!" he said, and she mentally upgraded his role from conspirator to instigator.
She raised an eyebrow. "My birthday was three months ago," she said, clearly remembering asking Sargent Markham to fly her over to the mainland so she could spend the day with her people.
Sheppard's smile widened. "That was your Athosian birthday," he explained carefully. "This is your Atlantian birthday. I did all the math: if you figure in the longer days and shorter years, you turn twenty-seven today. Congratulations!"
She opened her mouth to explain that being younger was not nearly as desirable among her people as it was for his, but decided there probably wasn't any point. Just then Doctor Weir approached, offered her complements, and placed on her head a paper cone with the words Birthday Girl sloppily written on it in silver glitter. "You put the elastic under your chin like this," she said, pointing to her own.
"General O'Neill sent the hats," John said, as he donned his own. "I guess he figured we needed a party." He tried to set it at an angle like a beret, but it only looked awkwardly lopsided and made his hair stick up even more than it usually did. "Come on, we better go get cake before McKay eats it all."
Teyla had attended most of the improvised celebrations the City had hosted while they were still isolated from Earth, but had not realised how close to authenticity the old gaudy decorations made of used paper coloured with highlighter pens and whiteboard markers actually came. The cake proved to be something else though, especially the candles. "Are you sure that I am meant to eat this?" she asked, poking the sun-bright orange outer layer with her fork.
"The icing's the best part!" Sheppard assured her, and Doctor McKay nodded enthusiastically.
She looked at Doctor Weir for confirmation, and noticed that the older woman had pealed the thick coating off the brown interior, leaving it in a little pile on the side of the serviette in her hand. Weir crumpled the paper and clasped her hands behind her back. "Absolutely," she said quickly.
John snorted. Teyla took a cautious bite of the orange goo, finding it extremely sweet and flavoured vaguely of chemicals. Grimacing, she started eating the chocolate cake from the inner layer, avoiding the icing. She could always give whatever she did not eat to McKay.
Looking around, she could see almost all of the the original expedition members who had survived and stayed, and even one or two of the new people like Major Lorne. Teyla wasn't sure if they attended because they liked her, because they wanted some of the dubious cake and rather good wine, or because Sheppard had bullied them into it. She thought about it, and decided that she did not especially care what the reason was; tonight, it seemed enough that they were here.
The very newest citizen of Atlantis had a flake of orange icing in his beard. He didn't seem to mind the clinical flavour in the least, but then she had yet to encounter anything that Ronon would not eat. He grinned across the cake table at her, licking his fingers. "You going to eat that?" he asked, eyeing the scraps on her serviette.
She shook her head and passed him the whole thing.
As he was devouring the last crumbs, he suddenly straightened and shoved his free hand into his pocket. "Oh, yeah," he said, and sounding a little unsure. "Weir said we're supposed to give you stuff." He extended his hand to her, palm down and fist closed around something small. "I... uh... don't really have that much, so..." He let the object fall, and Teyla felt something hard and sharp against her skin. Opening her cupped hands, she identified the sharp and viciously-curved tooth of a large animal, pierced and strung onto a rough cord, probably made out of the hide of the same animal. "I killed it with a rock," he added hopefully.
She looked up, meeting his hazel eyes, and smiled. "Thank you, Ronon," she said.
Then the crowd pressed around her, and some people had gifts, but most just wanted to wish her well. She wondered what the colonel had told them, as she didn't remember any other birthday celebration feeling quite like this, even accounting for the desperation of the last year. It seemed like more than just General O'Neill's theory that everyone felt past due for a celebration.
She caught a glimpse of Sheppard, standing at the edge of the group, watching her, and his expression seemed somehow strange. It contained neither sadness nor affection, exactly, but something close to a mixture of them.
She took a minute to excuse herself, then slipped out onto the balcony, leaning against the far rail out of sight of the gathering.
"Nice night," Sheppard said, coming up behind her. He leaned against the wall, hands shoved deep into his pockets.
Teyla nodded. "It is a very good night," she said.
He looked down, watching the water lap against the east pier. "I didn't get you anything. Sorry, you're hard to shop for."
"That is not true." She turned to face him, touching his upper arms. He straightened, hands leaving his pockets to clasp her arms. "Thank you," she said, and bowed her head to touch his.
They rested there for a moment, then, as they pulled away from each other, Sheppard's rough hands slid up her arms, coming to rest against her neck and under the line of her jaw. She could feel his fingers twining in the hair at the base of her neck, and his thumbs rubbing her cheeks. She closed her eyes and leaned in a little as she felt his dry lips press against her forehead.
"Happy birthday, Teyla," he said again as he released her. Their eyes met, and he added, "You deserve the best." Then he bit his lip and looked down at his feet, and she stepped back to the railing to give him space. "That wasn't..." he started to say.
Teyla smiled. "I know."
Sheppard rubbed the back of his neck. "I think the birthday girl should get back to her party."
"You go ahead," she told him. "I will follow shortly."
He left her there, and she leaned against the rail again, looking out at the moonlight on the ocean, and listening to the sound of the waves mingle with Earth music and her friends' voices.