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we are the raven and the ghost

Chapter Text

we are the raven and the ghost

i.

emergence

he is eight years old
and dreams of a singing voice
settling him to sleep


They say the Bond between a human and their Dæmon is stronger than the powers holding nuclei together. It may not be actual science, a claim like that, but no one would ever dare dispute it. To do so would be Heresy – worse than lies.

He’s born on a silent night, and Valerie and Patrick Sheppard worry at first when he is so quiet, merely breathing; crying briefly before stilling into sleep.

Normally, a Dæmon begins to manifest right away; a shadow Emerging, growing exponentially brighter. Within an hour there should be an undetermined Shape resting on his chest.

Now, the hour turns into days and the days become weeks and there’s not even a flickering silhouette appearing. His parents’ concern turns frantic. There’s a rare condition, the doctors explain, where the Dæmon doesn’t Emerge for days, weeks, months. The slowest recorded Emergence is fifty-five days; the child in question had turned out fine and there’s nothing to worry about, they say, repeating: It’s going to be fine. It could be some fluke, odd but not harmful – surely not harmful – surely he cannot be in danger, their little child who sleeps so soundly;

He doesn’t seem to be in pain.


Fifty-five days come and go. His body grows as it should, and he sleeps and eats and cries as he should; but there is no sign of a Dæmon Emerging, and that Shouldn’t Be. His parents’ fear mutates to panic. What’s wrong with their child? Why is this happening? No one can answer them. This hasn’t happened before. Or, if it has, no one has spoken of it. Maybe, in darker times, such children would’ve been labelled Cursed, left out in the woods to wither – they can’t do that to their baby boy – their little child who sleeps so soundly.

When a hundred days have passed, they don’t call for any more doctors or other such proclaimed experts. They decide that maybe, maybe it’ll just take some more time A few more days – months – perhaps even a year. More. Time. They can wait. Because, surely, he can’t be in danger?


A year passes, and another, and time can’t be returned.

They don’t call the authorities. It won’t be an issue for years – a Dæmon’s Shape, and sometimes name, doesn’t Settle until adulthood, and that’s when they tend to be properly registered. It’s not law; it’s simply the norm. No one can force someone else to reveal their Shape – it’s like forcing someone to reveal their soul. For now, no one has to know. No one has to know.

No one has to know.


When John begins to notice that he isn’t quite like Other Children, he’s eight years old and he’s in the library watching Big Brother Dave playing with Nina happily, the squirrel dancing around the eleven-year-old’s feet. He’s wondered, before, briefly, why there are Dæmons curled around everyone else and not himself. It hasn’t really bothered him before, though. He has his Big Brother Dave and Nina, and Mother and Pete, and Father and Irene. He’s still small enough not to notice that he’s mostly kept indoors of the family country house, miles from the nearest neighbor; windows closed, doors locked, constantly guarded. He doesn’t notice the absence of guests or other family visiting every now and then or the rarity of outside contact. He doesn’t notice the absence of questions.

But he begins to notice the bewildered, stricken looks on his parents’ faces That hint in their eyes that might be pity or fear – he wonders what he’s done wrong, except he can’t recall: was is the cookies he plucked from the jar last week? or the accident with the ball because he didn’t mean for Big Brother to trip and be hurt, it was an accident and he’s apologized to him and Nina already, and –

Now Big Brother Dave and Nina are dancing, and he isn’t allowed to touch another’s Dæmon, John knows – but a surge of curiosity overwhelms his blood like someone’s replacing the reds with another poisonous liquid. What does it feel like? Can Dave feel Nina’s thoughts and she touch his? That’s what it says in the books – Telepathic Bond or some such, fancy words meaningless in their undefined grace – John would’ve liked to have that, especially at those times when he’s stumbled and hurt his knee or scraped up his hands all raw on the gravel or when Mother and Father are shedding angry tears behind their hands.

John knows that Father doesn’t want him to read Those Books at the top shelf yet but he’d peeked when Mother had left them on the coffee table. Those Books say that everyone’s got a Dæmon, and John had thought Father would be proud he could read freely fluently but he shouldn’t, according to Father, shouldn’t, and all questions had been briskly evaded.

What does it feel like to touch a Dæmon?

He doesn’t dare ask, in case they get angry, or upset. He doesn’t dare ask because he doesn’t want to see Mother looking at him like that, like she wants to weep, not again again like when she leaned over the cradle and sang softly and rocked him to sleep.


He’s eight years old and John wonders: is his Dæmon really, really tiny? Hidden away in a pocket. Though that’d be silly, he decides, he’d have found it by now if that’s the case.

(He double-checks all pockets anyway, just to make sure, turning every garment inside-out much to Mother’s dismay. Upturns the crevices in-between the wooden floorboards, old and creaking beneath his feet. Peers under the bed Where There Are No Monsters and Dave is silly insisting that there are.

There’s nothing there.)

Maybe his is a bird. Maybe it’s high up in the sky, flying high – high – high like the clouds. He likes the sky. An eagle? No, too pompous. That’s a word he learned from overhearing Father on the phone, and he looked it up in one of the Books. It means grand, important, self-righteously superior, and John doesn’t think it fits that much, except eagles fly fast and high and that’s pretty cool. Maybe a raven, wings black and glossy – he likes that color. He asks his mother; she’s always nice and calm except when Drinking From Bottles, and she answers some questions that Father doesn’t.

He asks: Do you think it’s a raven? and Mother smiles, though she has that look on her face like when she cries when she thinks no one sees.

The thought strikes him: it could be lost. Lost like in a maze in the fairytales, taken by the Goblin King. It could’ve gotten trapped somewhere, the bottom of a well, and can’t get out and that’s why he’s always so alone in his head when Big Brother can hear Nina singing for him. The thought causes a blaze of terror to tear through his bones, and when Father finds him in the Library white as a sheet, asking what’s wrong, John can’t answer.

What if his Dæmon is trapped in the clouds and can’t get back to him? Is that why he’s alone?


He needs to fly and find it. Yes. That’s what he must do, John decides, nine years old, like a mission: his Dæmon is obviously Lost Up There, so he needs to Fly and Find It.

“How do you fly?” he asks at dinner one night. “Can you learn to?”

“In an airplane, dummy,” Dave says, giving his brother a most condescending glare, mirrored by Nina Who Never Speaks to John herself. John has always had a sense that Nina thinks he’s weird. “Humans can’t fly on their own, stupid.”

“How do you learn that?”

Father looks at him, bemused, over the clinkering silverware. The tablecloth is white and pristine, and everything shiningly polished, and the Persian mat on the floor without stains, and Father’s in one of his business suits, imposingly. “You want to be a pilot, son?”

Yes. A pilot. Pilots get to Fly Up There. “Yeah. I want to be a pilot.”

Mother just chuckles, leaning closer to Father, murmuring fondly: “Next week he’ll say he wants to be a doctor.”

(But John doesn’t.)


Mother’s Dæmon is a shadowcat with scattered beige spots, and Pete is, like her, not that talkative Unless It’s Important. The first time John is allowed to talk with him, voice to voice – it’s one of the Rules: only speak to someone else’s Dæmon when spoken to, never without permission, never never never – he’s seven years old. He’s come down with this terrible head cold and he feels awful. Mother’s making him hot noodle soup, that sort he only likes when he’s got a fever and his throat burns coldly. Big Brother Dave isn’t being a meanie for once, and he and Nina don’t tease him for his weirdness for at least a week after, so John counts it as a win.

Pete and Mother have always been able to walk into two different rooms without feeling pain. That’s rare – most humans cannot survive being further than four or five feet apart from their Dæmon at any given time without collapsing. When asked about it, Mother says, a shrug of her shoulders: It’s just a bit of a fluke.

Like him being a Late Emerger. Mother calls him that – a Late Emerger, his Dæmon slow to develop but it’s on its way, of course it’s on its way. The thought refuses to touch her that it’s not on its way at all.

To soothe her, or trying to, John mentions that in his dreams he hears singing, peacefully, and that’s what a Bond with your Dæmon entails. Doesn’t it? Because Big Brother Dave has whispered (tauntingly, sticking out his tongue) that Nina sings him to sleep at night and John’s never going to hear it; John’s never going to know what it’s like. But John can hear Music, so his Dæmon clearly exists somewhere out there in the atmosphere. Mother, you don’t have to worry; I’ll find them.

Now Pete is sitting on the chair by the bedside, while Mother’s in the kitchen ladling soup into a bowl, and John feels rather terrible being sick all-over the sheets, and Pete asks about the Singing in his Dreams.

Is it Important? John evades answering, in the manner of a child: simply, sharply switching subjects. He looks at Pete, at those shrewd old eyes which are his mother’s, and asks: “Is Mother unhappy because of me?”

A Dæmon is the uttermost expression of your Soul, and the Soul cannot lie. But Dæmons can also think. They are not unmoving mirrors. They’re clever. “Not because of you,” Pete says, and his voice is gentle in the way of a warm hand on his shoulder, or a hug from Mother when he’s been pushed into the mud by Dave, or the way flowers bloom when winter thaws. “For you.”

John doesn’t quite understand, except a small part of him does. Everyone should have a Dæmon; it’s the Way Things Are, and he Isn’t Like That. Of course Mother is upset and unhappy. But he doesn’t want her to be. Can’t she see?

(He’s not in pain – their little child who sleeps so soundly.)

Maybe he chose this life without knowing.


Father and his Dæmon (Irene is dark and big, with threatening jaws and large sharp claws digging into the carpets, and John for some reason has his whole existence been a little scared of her, though Big Brother Dave claims he’s being ridiculous) very rarely smile or laugh. John doesn’t know when this began, or when it became his fault.

He only knows when he turns eleven years old, and Mother and Father have a big argument about him being home-schooled. They can’t keep up anymore. He reads too much, too fast, his mind swimming with facts and numbers and ideas. He’s read every book in the Library (even those at the Top Shelf He Isn’t Supposed to Reach), exhausted the possibilities. Dave, Nina clinging to his shoulders, has started calling him more than weird aloud – Dave doesn’t want to be called Big Brother anymore because he thinks it’s childish. He calls him a nerd and a Strangeling.

Strangeling. John looked that up in a dictionary when he was eight. It’s an old word and he was surprised Dave knows it because Dave rarely reads and it’s a Bad Word and it somehow scalds to hear. Strangeling. People with strange Dæmons, with a strange Bond to one, or no Bonds at all. Witches and evil folk, the villains in children’s stories, they’re always Strangelings – soullessly abnormal, dangerous, unnatural. The stuff of nightmares, wanting to burn the world around them into ashes. His parents don’t want him to read stories with Strangelings in them.

(Father doesn’t tell Dave off, though. He doesn’t stop using the word Strangeling for years and years, and John pretends that it’s all right.)

Your Dæmon is only slow to Emerge, Mother says, kindly, frustrated and unable to know what he feels. Don’t worry, Johnny, there’s nothing to worry about. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.

(In his dreams he is a raven – certain of nothing but the wind beneath him and the unending sky.)


He hears them arguing in the kitchen, four raised voices of various pitch: only close people, couples, parents, lovers, would have their Dæmons talking with others like this. Sometimes silently. John listens, for a moment, not sure who’s on his side or what his side even is. Because the doors have been closed for a long while, and he’s read a lot but wants to see the Outside for real, breathe it, touch it.

Public school sounds a little frightening, to be surrounded by Unknown Faces, but Dave goes to one so why shouldn’t he? He could make friends then. That sounds nice. Dave isn’t that nice all the time, and Father dismissed their butler Jason a month ago.

John had liked Jason, he was nice and always let him have an extra cookie after dinner, though Jason was a bit eccentric too and his Dæmon Tamlin looked at John like he’s missing a limb. John had never talked with Tamlin, of course; it’s one of those things You Don’t Do. The Rules (practiced in front of the mirror, carved into skin): Never talk with another person’s Dæmon without their express consent, never never never, and Never even after Death is it okay to touch a Dæmon other than your own with bare hands, and John will obey those Rules. There are others too, such as It’s Impolite to Stare, but those first two are the most important and they’re seared into mind and matter.

He dreams sometimes that the Rules apply the other way around to him too, that there’s a notion someone would care Not to Stare, that people would Stop Saying Names. John doesn’t have a Dæmon of his own, Rules to apply to or abide by.

What’s it like to touch?

Nina’s fur looks soft, a little rough at the edges. She doesn’t like him staring too much and John tries again to stop himself. It’s difficult.

He doesn’t ask. Dave doesn’t – wouldn’t – can’t ever let him know.


When the other kids ask what his is like, he lies. He says: She’s really tiny and shy. He’s not certain his Dæmon is a she or shy. He would like to be able to say: She flies among the clouds. But he’s read in the Books that no Dæmon has wings. They don’t fly. Why would they fly, when they need to be close to their human on the ground? It wouldn’t make sense.

They poke at him the first week, thinking that She’s this little bug crawled into his pockets. John doesn’t dispute it. A bug or wingless moth wouldn’t be too bad, he thinks. Or, oh, one of those funny larvae that turn into butterflies, sparkling with color and life as they unfold from their pale shell – he likes that thought; he’d have liked Her to be a butterfly. Except they’ve got wings and it is an Impossibility (his mother getting so upset at the suggestion of the raven).

So She’s got to be a bug. Maybe one of those with delicate green shells and eyes like tiny midnight stones, crawling across the pavement slowly. He’s picked them up in the garden just to feel them in his palm.

“Yeah,” he says next morning to his classmates, and he turns their jokes into the beginning of the Lie. “She’s a pretty little bug, here in my pocket. She’s still Shy, that’s why no one can look at her.”

And soon enough that becomes Her name.

After that they cease prodding albeit some of the boys still think he’s weird. Odd. Strange. Not because She’s Shy, but because he’s read too much and he’s cleverer than them and, apparently, They Don’t Like That. They don’t like it that he talks about the Books he’s read or that he smiles when facing all the numbers – everyone else seems to hate math. Mr Cleaves, their teacher, gives him extra homework. John isn’t certain if that’s good or bad.

John has learned from Dave that when someone kicks him, he’s got to kick back harder. He gets into trouble for that but doesn’t regret it. Returning home that day, he asks Dave if he could show him any tricks other than kicking, but Dave is uninterested, telling him to go away and bother someone else and if someone’s bullying him, why doesn’t he just run away from them?

(John learns to run. Really, really fast.)


Puberty is a horror. Voice breaking and pimples overtaking his body and all these emotional outbreaks. And he’s got no Dæmon to talk to, to share secrets and suffering.

He’s old enough to understand now. That he’s a Strangeling. Dave knows, of course, and his parents – how could they not? They don’t tell anyone. He can sense from his mother’s latent, horribly hopeful expression that she still waits for an Emergence. Crossing off days in the calendar, wishing, wishing for a final miracle –

John doesn’t think it’s ever going to happen.

Not that he feels that empty, one half missing the presence of the other. There is no giant black hole carved into his chest or belly. He can’t put himself in the same category as those heartless villains that Strangelings are supposed to be; he doesn’t want to burn the world. He feels hatred and joy and what could even be love and his body physically aches sometimes, sometimes, so deeply and without issue. Maybe too much, too sharply.

(At night there is no silence: at night in his dreams he can hear singing. He writes it off as an illusion and doesn’t linger on it if he can.)

His first crush is slow and painful and terrible, and Ross – they play for the same team – teases him mercilessly for it. All the same. According to everything he’s heard, he experiences teenagehood like anybody else: all jumbled together emotions, ragged happenstances passing by too fast, awkward meetings in hallways. He has too much to worry about all the time.

When Mother and Father start to fall out, it’s merely another thorn and he hopes they’ll pull it out quickly, not draw out the pain needlessly. They do, eventually; papers being arranged and they’re just about to sign them. And that afternoon, in the autumn rain, the car hurtles down the road too fast and the lorry driver is drunk, and there’s a scream lasting half an eternity.

(John doesn’t see his mother’s face again, and soon forgets what Pete’s voice sounded like.)


Ross asks, now and again, if his Dæmon has Settled yet. The other boy’s Dæmon is a rather large dog with glimmering eyes, not having changed Shape for over fifteen months so Ross reckons that this’ll be it. It fits. Ross is a very loyal person, with a bigger bark than bite.

At the question, each time, John shrugs (helplessly). And Ross smirks: Still Shy, huh?

The ever-ongoing joke has turned into a dull standard phrase that is losing its shine. He can’t remember the exact moments when he started referring to his Not-There Dæmon as Shy. Like a proper name. No, you can’t see or hear them ‘cause they’re really Shy, okay?

He’s already decided (long ago) that he’s aiming for the Air Force to be a pilot. To fly. To maybe find his true Dæmon one day Up There, somewhere, a childish dream. Not that anyone has to know. He’s not eight years old anymore.

He can’t ask his mother if she thinks his Dæmon is a raven.


Applying to the Academy is tough but oh so worth it, and John is glad to sacrifice sweat and blood and tears to get there. He gets a chance to shine, however briefly. He finds a sense of community unlooked lacking in anyplace he’s been before, slotting into place with the other cadets with surprising ease.

In some branches of the military some Dæmons are put into similarly rigorous training regimes as their human counterparts, depending on their Shape and Size. John hears from a cadet that there’s this girl with a mountain lion which could rip your throat out in three seconds flat – rumor has it there was a fight between hers and another’s Dæmon just recently, and the other got badly injured, rushed to the ER. John isn’t sure what’s true and how much is embellishment.

True, Dæmons can touch each other, if they want to, if they need to. They can harm each other. Fight. It’s not like humans touching another’s Dæmon without permission.

To touch another’s Dæmon is sacrilege. It is a form of rape, and, they’re all told the first week at the Academy, it’s something that unfortunately they could encounter in a near future. Because they’re not going to be civilian pilots. They’re training to be soldiers, not tourists, and war is ugly. Not a fair playground.

And John, fleetingly, feels relief. He needn’t worry about that.

Dæmons need to be proven on paper, certified, regular procedures. They fixed up his birth certificate long ago: once he’d decided on a name when he was twelve, make-believe like the fairies and the mushroom rings. The people fixing the paperwork won’t know that. No photographic IDs required. Not yet Settled on a single Shape, there’s just a name there: Shy – Undetermined. When signing up, John is asked to add the Current Shape, another little lie of a thousand and he breathes them now, because lies are easier than silence: silence leads to Questions. He has to write something. He refuses to feel shame, even if he knows that more than some of the cadets will find it hilarious and they’ll snicker and gawk: Seriously, Sheppard, it’s a bug? an insect? unfolding in his pocket slowly. Tiny and ridiculous, and useless in a fight for sure.

But soon enough the laughter dies, and people start forgetting. They always forget and move on, busy enough with themselves and their own affairs. There are other things to worry about than the laughable size of a guy’s unseen Dæmon, shy and tucked away.

The alternative is so much worse.


Shoot a person and they may survive. Shoot their Dæmon and they’ll probably swiftly die.

It’s a drill with one of their weapons instructors, Sergeant Mills, and she’s got a battle-hardened face and the hint of a scar curving down her throat from an accident with a knife someplace she never elaborates on. She says it only once. They’ll all remember it:

A big Dæmon can make a good weapon, but also a good target. They need to be swift to evade bullets.

Pilots can’t have too big Dæmons because then they can’t fit into the same craft, together, always together. There are tight restrictions. John passes the tests without issue – Lyle, too, and Dex and Mitch, and the four of them fall into a close fold fairly quickly. (Lyle teases him about Shy sometimes. Makes these passing comments, albeit he’s not as big a dick about it as he could be if he wanted to. In turn, John makes sure to make appropriate jabs regarding his Laila. They work on the same wavelength like that.)

Sergeant Mills tells them that if you have an enemy and their Dæmon coming at you and there is no choice but to retaliate, and the Dæmon is the easiest target, you don’t hesitate. You don’t ever hesitate.

After that particular session, Lyle says, in the lockers: “Must be lucky for you, Shep. Shy’s easy to hide from the enemy.” And he glances down at Laila resting contently by his feet, face warm with such open love and care laid bare that it hurts to look at him.

He’s right. Lyle’s Dæmon makes a much easier target than any insect.

John averts his eyes.


They say that when your Dæmon dies, those few seconds before the rest of you does, there is only Pure Pain. Like ripping something out, slitting out your liver barehanded, tearing out your heart from the cavity of your chest still beating. It’s not meant to happen. Usually the human and the Dæmon die the exact same millisecond, together – but sometimes, sometimes either one lingers like a ghost, refusing to accept the truth, to let go. Ghosting, they call it. It’s the thing of horror stories and tragic movies that would leave even the most cold-hearted mean bastards trembling and cold, and it’s Not Meant to Be.

The first time John sees it happen he’s in Afghanistan, second tour there, the Apache’s down and the rotors uselessly churning in the sand, and Captain Lyle Holland is dying.

The guy had said he was actually – momentarily – envious that John had such a small Dæmon that he could constantly carry around in his palm or his pocket. He wouldn’t need to worry about being separated as easily, forcibly or otherwise, about being cut off from each other. John had wanted to laugh at the irony but couldn’t. He doesn’t laugh.

Lyle is spitting blood, his leg in shreds and pulse staggering. The chopper’s down.

“Hey, hey, stay with me, Holland,” John urges him to stay awake. Tries. Tried to see to the wound earlier but it’s beyond his skills as a field medic and the meagre supplies he’s got at hand – “I didn’t come all this way just to leave you here, you hear me?! Lyle,” he barks, like an order. Like he’s the angry drill Sergeant or Commander of the base.

Curled up on the man’s chest, Leila is sobbing. The Dæmon is pale and writhing in pain and they’re both dying, and no one can do anything to stop it. For a split second – as if he’s eight years old again, sitting in the Library watching Big Brother Dave and Nina dance – John wants to reach out a hand. Touch. Put a hand on that shuddering body and whisper hey it’s going to be okay I’m going to get you both out of here it’ll be fine.

He can’t.

“Lyle, stay awake, damn it –”

The hot sun tightens on his back and Lyle, coughs, stiffens, eyes wide. Terror. He cries out for his Dæmon as if he can’t feel her anymore, and John is holding his breath without realizing. He can’t look away, can barely move, heartrate breaking through the roof, adrenaline making him clearheadedly dizzy and blood heavy –

The Dæmon shudders and stills. There’s a shout, raw and the most horrible sound John’s heard issuing from Lyle’s throat:

no! no no no no no

“Hey, shh, shh, it’s going to be okay,” John lies. Lyle’s gaze is wild. And John remembers the Books he read as a kid, naïve and fearful and unknowing of the hugeness of the world:

The Dæmon is the other half of you, your Soul, and without your Soul you are Nothing.

In the years they’ve known each other, he has never seen Lyle like this. He’s not weeping, not on the outside; he’s too tired and in too much shock for that. He’s so – empty. There’s nothing in his eyes but the searing endless pain.

The screams will linger in John’s heart forever.

“Hang on, buddy,” he says, gripping a grimily beaten bloodied hand. Or his hand is the bloodied one. Can’t tell. “Hang on …” Help isn’t on the way. Not in time for a rescue for the both of them. There’s nothing to be done. “Shh.” He’s not the first person John has seen die, but it’s the first one like this.

(Dex and Mitch were already dead when he found them, the wrecks of their bodies, their Dæmons turned to dust without anybody to give comfort.)

“Please –” a choke: end it. end it. end it.

Seconds now, just seconds left. John holds his hands. Waiting. Please, he hears Lyle whisper again before the man’s blue lips cease to move, and breath leaves his lungs. He doesn’t draw another.

He survived a full Ghost minute without his Dæmon.

(John has survived for thirty-two years now. Is it his time soon? Will he one day collapse and bleed out, waning like wind and tide, whisper please please end it – feeling like an empty shadow?

Is that what he’s meant to feel?)

Chapter Text

ii.

imagine all the wheeling stars

did he mention the aliens?  


The court marital does not come as a surprise. The outcome, however, does.

He tried to save his team but failed. He didn’t even gather much in the way of intelligence – his report is more or less useless in the months after. There was nothing but corpses.

(He didn’t write how Lyle spent that minute Ghosting, lingering after his Dæmon had passed on. No one has to know that. He’d much rather forget.)

There’s no discharge, dishonorable or otherwise, which was sort of what he’d expected. Brass don’t tend to like him. He isn’t busted down in rank. Instead he’s shipped off to Antarctica, remote, lonely. After the seas of blood, the unending sheets of white and the pale sky are calming. Beautiful. A certain form of meditation.

John likes it here. It makes him think of what Shy would be like, if She were real: like this, this calming soothing presence, a white shadow in his mind. He could have liked that, he thinks. Would’ve liked it.

There’s a remote half-secret base, some scientific research place, a few dozen klicks from the McMurdo Air Force Base. Classified, way above his paygrade. There’s a General waiting by McMurdo, and John’s glad to be chosen to chauffeur him to a Secret Outpost a few klicks away. It’ll give him something to do.


Fuck.

Aliens – there are aliens. And things called Stargates which let you travel to other planets in the span of a few heartbeats through physics which John had thought were entirely theoretical up until now. And there was once a race of people called Ancients who built them, and their memory is living in his genes, this thing called ATA, according to the man in front of him. Dr Carson Beckett. Scottish, with a kind and slightly rounded face, his voice has got a nice scratch to it, his rabbit-like Dæmon lingering close under the hundreds of feet of solid ice.

And they’re experimenting down here with alien tech and alien drone weapons and, holy fuck. Alien life exists. The General – O’Neill has stopped scolding him now for sitting in that damned Ancient Chair which he Wasn’t Supposed to Touch.

But entering the place, John had heard it sing. Eerily not unlike in his dreams but not as grand, and it is a bit like he has always imagined what it’s like to have a Dæmon: a presence unrelenting but gentle. Strong but not unyielding. Comforting. Just being close to the Ancient Chair causes him to shiver because there’s something – something clicking into place.

The Song in his head isn’t unnerving. It unfolds.

He’s dreamt about it.

Did he mention the aliens?

The woman – Dr Weir – is staring, astonished, expression echoed in her Dæmon’s eyes: as is the man with the glasses standing next to the General, the one who’d greeted them by the elevator and to whom O’Neill had described John’s flying as exceptional (which, John had to admit, is the nicest thing anyone’s said about him for months and it’s startling to hear it from a General). Daniel or something? There’s another man, wearing an orange fleece which is oddly fetching and totally clashing in color with the sharpclawed cat in his arms, and John doesn’t have the time to be overwhelmed or ashamed for disobeying the simplest of orders. The man in the fleece hurries forward and says, almost like a command though John thinks he looks like a civilian:

“Major, think about where we are in the solar system.”

It’s easy. To imagine all the wheeling starts, not just the solar system but the expanse of the Milky Way and the slowly turning disk and the Song increases in pitch – almost like the Chair itself is pleased, or happy.

And lights appear out of nothing above him, a diagram of the Earth and the Sun and the rocks in-between, unhurried.

“… Did I do that?”


This whole thing, an Expedition to be sent across the stars to another galaxy – another galaxy – John isn’t sure if he should laugh hysterically when Dr Elizabeth Weir frantically asks him to join them. Instead he sorts of shrugs and says: “I need to think about it.” Because – another fucking galaxy. What.

General O’Neill is succinct enough. Either it’s this, or they might even make certain he’s discharged from the Air Force entirely. The General could make it happen easily enough, with the black mark, and then John would be standing there, stranded on Earth.

The universe is probably laughing at him.

“Major,” Weir had said, enforced, seriously: “We need you.”


No one’s needed him before. Not like this. Even though – oh, ha – it’s for his body, for some random strains of genetics buried in his DNA, rather than any specific skill set. Guess the special ops training is just a bonus. Besides, the Expedition is to be led by a civilian and it’s not meant to be a military invasion. They want to go out there to seek out an alien civilization thought to be long dead, explore, find answers.

He’s not in the proper chain of command, not part of the SGC as such – more of a … contractor. At least until all the paperwork’s been sorted. There are no other airmen on this: just grunts from the USMC, and then all the scientists of various kinds, a long and complex list of names, nationalities, fields of expertise. They don’t need him as a pilot especially but for whatever Ancient tech they may happen to face on the Other Side.

They only have the power to dial once. There’ll be no backup coming, not in the foreseeable future, no guarantees, no way to return; they have no idea what could be waiting beyond the event horizon.


Tails.

It’s his USAF Special Ops-come-Good Luck coin. Weathered and worn away in the sleeve of a pocket for years. John’s not a guy to write elaborate lists of pros and cons and weigh them. Not in cases like this one, anyway. There is no right answer. Both are deeply regrettable.

Both could mean the End, and John doesn’t want to reach it yet.

Tails means to stay. On Earth. Bound to this soil which is the only one he’s ever known.

He looks down at the coin, considers it for a few seconds and a breeze carries over and past him and it tastes of Earth, of this one planet he’d thought to be the only one to house life: that was wrong. A lie.

Tails.

No one is watching, no one cares about this lonely soul sitting in the grass of the park, summer starting to make itself known here in Colorado Springs.

He flips the coin again.


John spends fifteen days inside Cheyenne Mountain before they’re due to depart. They have almost everything they need now – everything they think they need because how can they possibly foresee every probable, improbably detail? Tying up the loose ends, signing the last paperwork, a few straggling shipments of supplies to arrive. They have a full eight-chevron address.

He’s been cleared for a large part of the underground complex and he walks around, almost as if in a dream, for the first few days. Unsure if this is reality. The biggest lie and cover-up of the century right here, within grasp. Scouring the Mountain’s well-encrypted database for old mission reports, all these titbits of information, keeps him busy. They’re pretty easy to find, especially those concerning SG-1, the frontier Gate team, the one General O’Neill had used to be part of. But there are others too; SG-1 is only part of the story.

He’s not sure if fascinating is the right word to use to describe it all. Other planets, other civilizations. Humans and aliens. Goa’uld, Tok’ra, Asgard … enemies and allies. So many unknowns – it’s almost too much. Too absurd. He lets it pour over him to soak in later.

Whenever he isn’t catching up on the Program’s history, learning the works, getting his bearings, he spends time in the gym. Moves – for once a familiar setting: military grounds, military rules, military mindsets – among this curious mixture of marines and airmen, seeking altitude. And there he fiercely, for a moment, misses Lyle and Dex and Mitch, his old team, their easy-going natures and their inside jokes churned so old. Their voices and Dæmons; this tight-knitted group that meant something, and they’re gone now, irreversibly.

He spends hours practicing old moves in the gym, not all of it taught officially but by old friends with black belts, and he has no idea where half of those guys have ended up now. It offers momentary distractions. He watches and reads as much has he has the time for. One evening he’s so drained and generally stressed out by the realization that he is surrounded by strangers who take trips to other solar systems for granted, he curls up in his bunk with a tattered notebook (he’s had this one since he was in university) to scribble in, a polish a few equations, shut his mind off from this weird, weird place.

Not being assigned to a Gate team and with no particular task at hand, John is extremely aware of how he is an outsider. Normally, there’d be a tough vetting process. Interviews and getting shown around and tests here at the SGC, on Earth and offworld, and their Alpha Site. Now there isn’t time for that. Oh, there’s a medical exam, a brief psych evaluation, a talk with high-ups; but they rely heavily on his record, and they need him for his ATA-gene and don’t want to turn him away even if the record is tainted. They don’t have the resources and time at hand to send him on a training op or mission or whatever.

He doesn’t get to see the Stargate in action or walk through the wormhole beforehand to see what it tastes like.

There is no one for him to confine in. Sideways glances are sent his way in the commissary and the hallways, people wondering at his bland uniform and invisible Dæmon and the fact that he doesn’t seem to contribute at all. John can’t blame them.

He tries to get to know (or at least know about) some of the marines that’ll be going – there’s Colonel Marshall Sumner’s XO, Lieutenant Ford, a bright kid who in John’s weathered eyes is painfully young for this kind of uncertain mission. Not the only one, either. Stackhouse and Markham (fresh-faced like Ford, and the latter possesses the same ancient gene as John does necessary to use their tech); the slightly older LCs and Corporals like MacGrimmon and Hester; and one Sergeant Bates (who’ll be Head of Security according to the files). None of the marines have been airborne, attached to a fighter jet unit, and John is moderately disappointed to learn no Air Force personnel apart from himself is going on this journey. All of the marines have been preparing for this mission, for the SGC, for months or years. Most of them have been on at least one Gate team before, travelled to other planets;

Other planets;

To them, space travel and aliens aren’t new or strange; they aren’t complete newbies. John doesn’t like not having the required experiences. Sure, he’s Special Ops (although he doesn’t tend to speak of it and therefore not everyone’s privy to that information unless they have the clearance to read his unabridged file), and he wouldn’t call himself inexperienced as such. But he hadn’t heard of Stargates until last month. Didn’t consider aliens to be real or wormhole physics possible. Anyone would be unnerved.

He doesn’t think the CO, Colonel Sumner, or the man’s Dæmon like him very much. John puts on a charming grin anyway – as he always does – whenever they cross paths, because he must get by. He must get by. He can sort of understand – Sumner has been preparing for this mission for a long time, personally choosing each marine to serve under his command, and suddenly this zoomie’s turned up with a strong ATA-gene and Dr Weir insists he’s got to join the fold. And Sumner is the kind of commander that John has never been able to properly reconcile with: immediate intense mutual dislike.

There’s the upside: the gene making him the Special Boy. But the downside: he’s a stranger. Colonel Sumner doesn’t know him or his qualifications other than as words on paper, and words can be deceitful. And his file contains more than one marked area: issues with the brass. Insubordination. Disobeying orders. The black mark in Afghanistan. So far in his career John hasn’t met with any man or woman with a star on their shoulder who likes that.

Though General O’Neill seems weirdly laid-back and different, not too much a fan of protocol. This base is rather … peculiar, though. That must be why they’re tolerating him in the first place.


The days turn. The tension in the air is becoming almost aggravating. Everyone is waiting for the Day to come when they’re leaving – possibly never to return. John has already packed his bag. Would have written letters if he had anyone to send them to. Hasn’t spoken to Dave for years and years, and his Father for longer than that; they’re not interested in his career, his life, his undoings – why would they be?

They’ll be glad to be rid of the Strangeling. The reason why they haven’t let anyone know that he is one is because of fear: they couldn’t let the family name be sullied. The name, their reputation, the business. It can’t be known that Patrick Sheppard’s youngest son is a Strangeling.

For once, John is glad he never receives any phonecalls.


Dr Rodney McKay’s Dæmon isn’t shy at all. She’s constantly hovering around, poking at stuff, investigating, learning. A Dæmon is the uttermost expression of one’s Soul and therefore John isn’t that surprised: from what he can tell, the astrophysicist is, above all, a curious man. He wants – he needs – the answers to All Questions Imaginable. And he knows lots and lots, too, which he very loudly and often vocalizes.

The arrogance is on the verge of too much, but John finds, after a while, that he doesn’t mind it to be honest. If the guy’s half as smart as he claims to be, they’ve got nothing to worry about.

John sees them in one of the labs on Level 16 often enough. They’ve got machines and gizmos of Ancient design scattered over the desks, and now they want him to prod and poke at each of them in turn to see what happens. The Mountain’s new Light Switch. Oh, General O’Neill seems glad enough – he probably had to bother a lot with the scientists before, since, apparently, he had the strongest expression of the ATA-gene found thus far until John accidentally stepped into the picture. Now they have someone else to torment and John, unfortunately, does not have any other duties (or a high enough rank in this officer-heavy place) to make excuses.

Not that it’s entirely insufferable. Dr Rodney McKay (who is, John has learned, Chief Science Officer of the Expedition) talks a whole damn lot, and though much goes over John’s head, he can follow in broad general terms most of the time. And his Dæmon is quite talkative with him, audibly discoursing facts. The two spend hours bickering back and forth, discussion theorems of various kinds, scientific proof, disputing data, plucking equations apart. It’s actually kind of amusing to watch.

McKay’s voice is fast-paced. His Dæmon’s is like water. They’re in synch – of course they are. Not for the first time, John wonders what it feels like, but quickly brushes such thoughts aside as one of the scientists, with wiry hair and askew glasses (Zelenka? He keeps breaking into Czech) pushes a roundish silver-laden device at him.

John idly picks it up and turns it on without having to think, and it glows in multicolor in his palm softly. There’s the hint of the Song again but nowhere as strong as it was when he was sitting in the Chair staring at the miniature universe flickering into existence above him, or in his dreams.

McKay sighs loudly when it becomes apparent that the Ancient device isn’t a weapon or amazing power source or scientific instrument. “Seriously? A nightlamp – that’s it?! Well, that’s a complete waste of time!”

“Sure those Ancients had use of those too,” John says mildly, distractedly, nobody listening. “They probably read a lot if they were so clever.”

The Canadian mutters something about Why did they leave so much crap behind and not actual useful things?! And his Dæmon looks toward John – directly – she looks at him, and speaks, the hint of an apology there: “He’s just upset we haven’t found another ZedPM yet.” Her voice is honey-smooth and John startles because Dæmons usually don’t turn to talk to strangers – or acquaintances – like that. No. She tilts her head, dark eyes regarding him for a moment, tail flickering with impatience shared with her human, and John has trouble breathing because why is she talking directly to him? “I’m Meredith, by the way,” and it sounds like a smile.

Is that permission to talk with her? Is it?

Is it?

It’d taken seven years before his mother let him talk with Pete, and even after that moment each instance of conversation was rare and laden with thick emotion. Now McKay doesn’t even seem to be much aware of the fact or care that his Dæmon is chatting with – essentially – a stranger, fifteen odd days after they’ve first met.

“Uh, pleasure,” John adds, losing any sense of colloquialism, slightly dazed. But McKay and his Dæmon are already moving on to the next theoretical problem and taking little notice of him. Briefly, he wonders how to get past that awkward moment when McKay might ask about his Dæmon, if they’d want to say hello. Return the gesture. He’s dealt with such moments countless times before, evaded them, grinding the age-old joke into a stilted jaded dying phrase: She’s just so Shy, y’know.

(The idea of Strangelings is so inconceivable that most people never consider the possibility.)

But McKay, ever-distracted, doesn’t ask.


Others do, in that nudging manner people do in corridors and locker rooms when they have nothing in common to talk about and turn to general subjects like the weather, Did You See That Thing On the News Today?, and oh, you’ve got such a handsome Dæmon, what’s their name?. John hates it with a passion: he’s ashamed and a little afraid each time that this time will be the one they’ll figure it out and break the ruse.

It’s that young kid, Lieutenant Ford – reminding John of his days as a cadet, of countless drills, hours spend pushing weights and simulating flight, of Sergeant Mills yelling at them to run the course faster – and he’s bundling with energy in a way John isn’t on most days anymore.

(He still dreams of Lyle screaming for Laila as he Ghosted.)

Ford’s Dæmon is a cheeky, tabby thing with a long, curled tail and a constant chatter; that kind of youthful edge which can be heartening in a war zone. She’s nothing like Laila’s sarcasm and Lyle’s dry, twisted mouth. The kid has her balancing on his left arm, jacket slipping a little under her weight, as they enter the locker room. John watches them from the corner of his eye, standing in front of his own temporarily assigned storage locker; there isn’t much in it. Spare jacket, couple of t-shirts, towel, whatever gear that’s personal and not overseen by the Mountain’s Quartermaster. The few personal things he’d brought with him; is going to bring with him to that foreign galaxy.

He’s in the middle of changing for a workout, considering going through a couple of katas on his own because no one wants to spar with this stranger. With strange suddenly intensity, he misses Lyle and Dex and Mitch, watching Ford and his Dæmon prattling and laughing relentlessly. He can barely hear the Dæmon’s quiet voice, wary around other people perhaps. He can almost see Dave, for a moment, just like that: like when he was eight years old and Dave was dancing with Nina (carefree children) in the Library.

“Oh, hey, Major,” Ford says, pausing sharply to greet him. The Lieutenant had been there in Antarctica when John had, but they hadn’t really met. Not seen each other. They are strangers, but Ford’s probably heard more about him than most of the marines and doesn’t stumble over his rank or name out of confusion. But he sounds uncertain. “Headed toward the gym, sir?”

John fishes out a pair of Academy sweatpants and figures they’ll do. Doesn’t have many spares of anything. “Yeah.”

Ford, grinning, wipes a sweaty brow with a hand, just having come from there. His Dæmon makes a disgusted little noise as if berating him for not using a towel for that, and Ford, in a display of trust and youth, shares a look with her: “Hey, ‘s not like we –” and then halts, remembering that John’s still in the same room. Silences.

He just smiles at the pair pleasantly; his trademark grin which he perfected in front of a mirror at seventeen. “Don’t mind me.”

The Dæmon and her human chuckle in choice, embarrassed to be caught like that, this brief moment of intimacy. Shit, Ford’s just a kid. John tries to recall the files he’d skimmed the headlines of: due to his rank, Weir wants him to be aware of who’s going with them on this mission. Lieutenant Ford, Aiden. Good marksman, knows protocols like the back of his hand, Sumner’s XO for the mission. Twenty-four or something. Twenty-five at most.

“So …” For says slowly, blinking owlishly, innocently except not really. “I heard your Dæmon’s real shy.”

John shrugs; wants to squeeze out a dry ironic laugh but can’t without giving the game away. Instead he curls a hand within the right-side pocket of his favorite jacket, as if intently listening, this well-practiced move, and Ford’s embarrassment only deepens at this display of protective possession.

“Uh, no offence, sir,” he rapidly backtracks.

He has to cut the kid some slack. “No problem, Lieutenant.” There’s the unsaid, underlined: Just don’t say it again.

“‘Cause, uh, well, that’s what they said in the barracks. Not, not that I was privy to – more than that, sir.”

And in the mess and the lockers and the gym as well, no doubt: where exactly Ford picked up the words doesn’t matter. John’s used to it.

“Yeah, I guess they would be saying that. Don’t trust blindly in everything you hear, Lieutenant,” John says, voice slightly clipped, and Ford and his Dæmon shrink in shame.

Suddenly he’s not in the mood for sparring anymore. Instead he gathers his stuff, hand still protectively curled around air in his pocket, and steers away, toward Level 16. Maybe McKay could offer some distraction.


In the hours spent pouring over reports and data in the SGC archives, John finds an extensive file about the Goa’uld. A parasitic race that burrows into people’s heads, wraps around their spines, takes over their bodies, silencing their minds. It sounds like the stuff of a B-grade sci-fi except it isn’t, and John can’t get the image out of his head: something slimy and dark crawling into his neck and strangling him.

Nothing of the host survives. There’s a part, almost hidden away near the end because it’s so terrifying: the Goa’uld don’t have Dæmons. Dæmons are a human trait, and Goa’uld are not human. And they have no need for Dæmons, not with their healing abilities and sarcophaguses and their completely alien nature – so they cut them away. Starve them. Leave them to die.

Nothing of the host survives. That’s what happens when the larvae symbiotes of the Jaffa mature: it takes them over completely, and the Dæmon is cut loose. No longer of any use. The Tok’ra are different because they assimilate everything of their human host, becoming part of them, including their Dæmon. It’s the basis of their philosophy: without consent from the human and their Dæmon, the Tok’ra cannot take a host; and that’s one of the reasons why the SGC trusts them, has made them into allies. Though alien, they’re not that different from them – the Tau’ri: that’s what they call humans from Earth. Tau’ri. Strange new words.

And John can’t help it. He traces the lines, again and again and again bitterly: nothing of the host survives. Is that what he is somehow? An echo, nothing but an empty vessel, emptied of contents? If the Dæmon is the Soul, and the epitome of Soullessness is evil

He is not a Goa’uld. Nothing like it. Yet …

Sometimes he feels like he is the alien, or perhaps surrounded by them.


A lot of aliens they’ve encountered have Dæmons. That’s because most of them are (more or less) human and follow the same physiological norms: taken by the Goa’uld thousands of years ago, kidnapped, transplanted as slaves across hundreds of planets. Spread out across the stars. Some species are humanoid, like the Serrakin, DNA different; and they’ve still got Dæmons. It’s like a law of nature.

They’re not so sure about the Ancients since they haven’t met many of them to confirm the theories. (Whispers of a mission to Antarctica, a body still alive buried in the ice for millions of years: whether the woman they’d found there actually had a Dæmon remains unclear.) But since the Ancients are meant to be the predecessors of the human race, some sort of blueprint for the future, a First Evolution or some crap, it’s only logical to assume they had them.

What if they didn’t?

John considers: is it because of his gene, these impacts of alien in his genome? Though his brother and either one of his parents – or both? – should suffer the same fate as him. Shouldn’t they? He isn’t a geneticist or biologist, isn’t sure, but – they should. (And he has sometimes looked at his brother and felt like they are nothing at all alike; and looked at his Father and seen nothing of him in himself.) Perhaps the ATA-gene has made him too alien; and it’s not like he can casually ask questions like these. It’ll lead to suspicions because why, why would he be wondering if it’s possible Ancients didn’t have Dæmons and if such a trait could be passed down to a simple human, a million generations later down the line?

He cannot ask.


Leaving Day comes trickling, and momentarily time seems to slow down.

They gather in front of the Stargate, this wheel of light leading to the stars and John marvels at it. It’s beautiful. He hasn’t had the chance, in his days in the Mountain, to see it in person. Saw a picture attached to the introductory reports. The Gate begins to turn, one symbol lighting up after the other, chevrons locking in place. Everyone else present is so used to the Gate – it’s an ordinary thing to them – but never before have they attempted to dial another galaxy, and it is like the whole Mountain is holding its collective breath.

After all the reading up he’s done, John still has to suppress a shiver as the wormhole begins existing.

Dr Weir and Sumner pass through the Gate along with the first two security teams. Lieutenant Ford grins and whoops as he leaps through the event horizon before him, side-by-side with his Dæmon. Completely unafraid. They disappear.

And John takes a breath, hopes no one notices his slight hesitation, and steps forward.

Chapter Text

iii.

lullaby

when he, hours later, finally
closes his eyes, the reality sinks in:
he’s here, in a faraway galaxy


On the other side it’s dark. The eerie glow of the scattered flashlights gives some idea of the size of the room and it’s huge – a reception hall of some kind. The MALP readings didn’t do it justice. Even in this derelict state it’s an awe to enter. They sweep the perimeter, no time to linger on the fact that they’ve stepped into an alien city, possibly underwater, on an unknown planet orbiting a star in a galaxy, three million lightyears away from Earth. Relatively speaking it’s not even happening yet, John thinks; if a telescope on Earth could see this planet, right now, they wouldn’t be here. Spacetime’s funny like that.

And the City is singing. It’s not overpowering, though for a moment John staggers before regaining his balance. It’s not like the Chair at the Outpost. It is much greater than that. He takes a step forward, and the lights come on, flickering to life after ten thousand years of slumber. Around him he notices marines fanning out in groups of three or five, looking a little unnerved as the corridors steadily begin to brighten.

And he’d thought the Stargate was cool. This is much much better than the Stargate.

“Who’s doing that?” he hears Weir ask, but John can’t focus on her or anyone else right now because the City is singing so intensely at the back of his mind.

The clearing of a harmony, and if not for his previous contact with Ancient technology he might’ve blacked out, overwhelmed. Now he can sort of sift through it, trying to find single threads. Needs to focus on direr things.

Colonel Sumner is issuing orders via radio. They don’t have much time to keep the wormhole open: it drains energy so fast, can’t remain open indefinitely, and they’ve got to get the rest of their people and gear through. There is no time to stop and marvel at the beauty of the City: first they have to get everyone inside of it.

A spark settling like a voice somewhere in his chest, John shifts the grip of his P90 to free a hand, placing it loosely on the nearest wall panel. The brush of contact only intensifies the Song and he has to forcibly pull back not to drown in it.

There’s a Control Room overlooking the Gate – a plaza of sorts, John thinks. McKay hurriedly, eagerly takes the controls, inspecting the consoles and Meredith peers out at the rest of the room from her perch on the man’s shoulders. They are excited and nervous and perhaps a bit afraid. Dr Weir follows, and John falls into step with them.

“… this is obviously their version of a DHD,” McKay is saying.

“Oh, obviously,” John echoes, not really looking at the man’s swiftly moving hands as much as at the symbols on the dialing device, corresponding to the symbols on the Stargate which is somewhat different from the Earth one. More high-tech if that’s possible. And suddenly he sees the words [astria porta moderatoris], tastes them on his tongue, as if gently supplied by the City itself and maybe he should be freaked out by that but, oddly, isn’t.

A tentative thought: he’s not sure if it’s actually possible, reaching out with one’s mind like this, but he tries anyway: a careful Hello?

And there’s an answer, equally tentative, yet – there is a sense – relieved: [we have been waiting for you]. He’s not certain if it’s English or a message beyond the borders of language, but he can understand the idea of the thought.

Dr Weir’s question of “Major Sheppard?” startles him out of the corner of his mind he’d just dug out, and he blinks at Weir a couple of times to clear his vision as well as his focus, and she’s glancing at him in what could be a bit of concern. “Colonel Sumner is calling for us and wants to show us something. He’s two levels down.”

John nods and follows, barely resisting the urge to trace the walls with a hand to make certain that they’re real.


They’re underwater.

The City is slowly dying. Choking from the loss of power and the pressure of the ocean above. One section after another is surrendered to the darkness around them, the shield failing little by little, trying to preserve the core of the City. Their arrival has only hastened the process. McKay shouts in a fairly panicked voice and then, they’re talking about leaving – Weir looks stricken at the mere thought, but something is burning like a physical wound in John’s chest, his entire body protesting.

[potentiae], the City sings, that’s what She needs – power …? Yes, that is what it means, that is what they need to restore the shields and save the City, and John has to save Her.

“… where the shield’s failed and the City’s flooded,” McKay explains, gesturing at a digital map he’s managed to pull from the City’s vast databanks, now connected to a few Earth computers via a console. Somehow it works, and John idly thinks it shouldn’t be that easy to integrate Tau’ri tech with these thousand-year-old systems, even if McKay claims to be a genius. Atlantis is so very old and alien and there should’ve been at least one hitch.

Maybe She’s giving a helping hand.

“This section is most likely more protected because of the Stargate,” McKay finishes the tirade.

John doesn’t want to ask. “What if it fails completely?”

“It’s a matter of when,” McKay says, stressed, and the Song echoes his word precisely. “Not if.”

Weir turns to Sumner, and the Colonel orders his security teams to return to the Gate Room right away – they cannot explore the City. No time. There’s a hum of discontentment – or, maybe, more accurately, worry – and John tenses as he realizes this, realizes: the City is singing to him.

No one else can hear Her. If they did, he’s sure they’d be acting like it. Wouldn’t they? Is he the only one?

“We need to find more ZPMs,” Weir says.

John reaches out, like a reflex more than a conscious action, and he’s not sure how because he hasn’t got a Dæmon, he has no one to Bond with and he has never touched another’s mind. But he reaches out, like asking for permission or for answers, and there is an echo of [the potentiae are lost] in return, slightly forlorn. She wants to be saved just as much as they want to survive. If She floods, they’ll all drown.

McKay has already determined from their limited scans that the City has got – or had got – three Zero Point Modules. Potentiae. The third one is nearing maximum entropy. Failure imminent. Colonel Sumner asks how they’re meant to find more power sources if they’re not allowed to search the City, as if they wouldn’t be able to detect them with the sensors already, and McKay glares at the man as if considering him a moron which isn’t unlikely at all – though he does that with most people.

“Can we use the Stargate, then, if we can’t search the City?” Sumner says.

The astrophysicist shakes his head. “There’s nowhere near enough power to establish a wormhole back to Earth.”

They’d come here in the hopes of meeting Ancients.

The City has been still and silent and empty, and John recalls that mention of a disaster of old, a plague, the Ancients fleeing Earth for it. But they didn’t thrive here. They could all be dead, and the City is a ghost, an empty graveyard.

John (not suddenly: but clearly, a distinct plead of [do not leave us] tugging at his mind) doesn’t want to back to Earth. “What about somewhere in this galaxy?”

This gives them pause for thought, and John senses Meredith looking at him for a considerably long time, pondering something. The Dæmon remains quiet, and John isn’t that unsettled. He’s used to being stared at.

“That’s relatively easy.”

But where to go? There are addresses stored in the Ancient database (vast and old, they wouldn’t be able to read all the data in there even if they had a thousand years) – and there it is again: a suggestion. John edges closer to where McKay and Dr Peter Grodin are standing by one of the main consoles, hooked up to a computer. Grodin’s Dæmon is nervously peeking out from the cradle of his arm. They’ve managed to pull a list of nearby planets – relatively nearby – and John considers one of the addresses.

“What about that one?”

McKay sounds vaguely suspicious, albeit that’s not unusual. Grodin, however, shrugs. “It’s as good as anywhere. There’s very little information on the planet, but …” But there is: data pops up on the screen, unbidden. Not much, though. There isn’t a proper name for the planet, but there’s an indication that it is – or was – inhabited by humans, settled there by the Ancients so long ago.

“All data’s old; ten thousand years old, if not more. It’s like travelling back to the dawn of human civilization on Earth – we have no idea what’s changed in all that time,” McKay mutters, and Meredith strokes her small body against the man’s leg soothingly, murmuring something that could be Easy, Rodney, we’ll solve this; breathe.

They pick it anyway, preparing a MALP and a recon team and Colonel Sumner never summons him, but Dr Weir asks him to go along, and John nods his assent. As Grodin said – it’s as good as anywhere.


The Athosians are a nomad people, relatively simple, peaceful, gathering and hunting to survive – and wary of strangers. Not that John can blame them. If a bunch of armed folks suddenly turned up on his doorstep in the middle of night he’d be suspicious of them too. The kids seem alright, curious as kids tend to be regardless of origin, much more at ease than the adults.

Once it’s been established that they’re not here to hurt anybody (though there’s no way, John thinks, the Athosians will actually buy the lie that they’re traders), they’re led to a village by a man named Halling, whose son Jinto had been playing in the woods. The man’s Dæmon is a large bear-like creature, useful in a hunt or a spot of trouble, John reckons. It could probably tear at least one of the Tau’ri to shreds in defense if it had to. Halling isn’t convinced of their poor cover story.

(The Tau’ri are geared for war.)

The presence of Dæmons seems to soothe everybody on both sides of the camp. They’re not that different: alien, yet human, born galaxies apart. Their leader – a calm, dark woman named Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan, with copper hair spilling over her shoulders – allows them into her tent where a few her people are gathered for a meal. She looks at them, their foreign gear, listens to their foreign voices, and she is polite even if she must be uneasy and Colonel Sumner is belittling in his tone toward her. A feral being (reminding John of a large cat or possibly a small tiger with darkened marks) glares at the outsiders from behind her, teeth glimmering in the lights from the fires and candles: her Dæmon: it must be. The night is silent around them, dawn about to break.

Wraith, she says. The word echoes with something terrible, with death and screaming and the hollowing out of souls, and John feels a prickling sensation at the base of his neck – as if, even though She is lightyears away, the City is trying to warn him, tell him something. He can’t decipher what.

Teyla’s voice is haunted by nightmares as she says: “If the Wraith have never touched your world, you should go back there.”


There is a ruin of a City That Once Was, and Teyla says her people were once theirs; more advanced than today, not as afraid. The Wraith were not as numerous, for a few generations, and they had flourished. Traded, travelled, grown. They had built cities of stone and metal and wrought roads. Now there is little left, and nature is reclaiming the ruins.

The drawings in the manmade caverns are old, carved into the rock to endure long after the fall of the sun, and she talks about Cullings, about Herds, about living in constant fear. Never knowing when the end will come and if the next Culling will be the last her kind will have to endure.

And there in the sand he finds a locket, tiny and glimmering under the paleness of his flashlight. Picking it up it doesn’t move or shimmer or sing: it remains quiet, and not even She is suspecting something. Maybe, if they were closer, if this was in Atlantis, She could have warned him. It doesn’t look Ancient. In fact, the locket appears to be startlingly simple.

“I lost this years ago,” Teyla marvels. “We were playing here when I was a child … My father bought me this on the Balkan markets.”

And she accepts it gladly, reunited with a lost piece of childhood, and the moment slips from John’s mind when they hear the ships in the sky.


When the Wraith descend, it’s swift, it’s loud and there are screams of panic, of fear, and their ships are pouring wrath upon the ground. People and their Dæmons rushing to and fro, trying – in vain – to avoid the beams of light sweeping them up into the darkness.

John is running running running breath burning in his lungs and Teyla is right behind him, until there’s a whine and she pushes him out of the way, shouting at him to duck and he throws himself at the ground and the whining is gone – and she’s gone. She and her Dæmon, vanished, and John gasps, staring into the night, uselessly calling out her name.

There is no body.

(The drawings she’d shown him in the ruins: The Wraith wake every now and then, send their ships, to remind us of their power.)

They could still be alive.

He finds the village in burning shreds. There’s a downed aircraft, unlike any he’s ever seen – some kind of fighter, sleek, a black dart cleaving the sky – in pieces, its pilot torn apart. Rocket launcher did this.

One of the kids from earlier, Jinto, stumbles up to him out of the dark woods, and the boy’s face is quiet, and the terrifying thing is that the kid isn’t crying, though his face is streaked with dirt. The boy recognizes him, this stranger in foreign gear. He and his friend had checked out his nightvision goggles with delight: at that time innocent children and not surrounded by war. Jinto’s clinging to a furry creature in his arms, no doubt his Dæmon, both of them radiating the aftershocks of fear like a solar flare. But they don’t scream or weep uncontrollably.

“Please help me. I-I can’t find my father.”


“Major Sheppard! Major, who are all these people?”

The Athosians – the few: so few: survivors – crowd in front of the Gate as it shuts down, along with the marines who hadn’t been taken. The City is trembling, and the lights are out, and Weir rushes down to meet them. There is frantic confusion and panic in the air, and people are moving toward the Gate as if to dial it, to flee. And yet something in his heart tells John that it’s going to be all right and they don’t have to run, shouldn’t have to run –

“What’s going on?”

“We’re abandoning the City.”

Athos is burning. The Wraith – their ships – had fired on the village and felled it from the air, and John can bet that if they go there, soon enough more Wraith will show up, and the whole Expedition will die.

There is a sense, following his consciousness: [do not leave us] –

“Going back there is a really bad idea!”

“The City shield is about to collapse and the ocean to come crashing in on us. Do you have a better place for us to go?!” Weir cries, barely a shout, and maybe she too had dreams about to fail but John isn’t about to leave, not now. The City is shaking. A powerful growl is building up, a low rumble gaining intensity for each second that passes, and suddenly the ground is unstable as if someone tugged at the world trying to tilt it upside down and people fall, stumble to their knees. Voices blending in fear.

“The shield is collapsing!” he hears McKay shout warningly from above, by the consoles up there. They prepare to dial an address, any address, to get away.

And then John knows, suddenly, and doesn’t feel fear or terror: only clarity.

The City rises.

John thinks he could almost rise himself at the crescendo of Her Song, rise to the skies and not turn back.

[freedom], She’s singing, and [we are safe] even if it’s not true, not yet, not yet. There are those Wraith out there and they still have very little power, no shield, no way to send an S.O.S.;

She’s just glad to be alive again.


The worst form of torture, Sergeant Mills had said those years ago, is separating someone from their Dæmon. There’s no worse fate. No one can endure it for too long; being forced apart will kill you.

Common knowledge: the danger when being captured by the enemy is always that they’ll touch your Dæmon, take them from you, force the two of your apart and watch you die, one after the other.

John has never feared that.

But Colonel Sumner, Sergeant Bates, Teyla and several more Athosians and their Dæmons have been swept up by these aliens – these Wraith – and taken through the Stargate. Ford has the symbols of the address, and now Weir is refusing to let him go after them. Won’t risk it.

She doesn’t understand even if she tries to. Weir doesn’t get it. They don’t leave people behind. They never leave people behind. Not in the hands of the enemy, and John may not know who the Wraith are, but one thing is certain: these aliens Cull humans like a farmer fells wheat, and they will not just kill them. Sumner and Bates and the Athosians may be tortured for information, and John knows, John knows and how is he meant to stay calm and just let them die?

Unexpectedly, McKay approaches him, says there’s something he must see.

A few stairs up in the same tower as the Control Room, there’s a large hangar: what’s more, there are ships. Dozens of them. The design is unfamiliar, but they are clearly meant to go through the Stargate, and the Song intensifies as he steps into one of the vessels. Blends with new notes, harmonies of the ship – no more than puddle jumper, really – and it comes alive beneath his hands as easily as breathing. It seems to know who he is.

McKay watches him closely. “Think you can fly it?”


The ship reads his mind, like the City, albeit the interface is not as vast: concentrated, there isn’t a whole database of knowledge at his disposal, which makes things easier and harder all at once. It is pretty damn cool and he’s now going to be spoiled for the rest of his life when it comes to aircraft. No fighter jet and no helicopter could ever measure up to this – and he’s barely tested the ship out yet.

(Sitting in the pilot’s chair he whispers a second careful Hello and there’s an answer, vague in the way of murmurs: [we know you].)

He has a team assembled to go within the hour; the takes Ford, the kid bright-eyed and slightly nervous but also very determined and obviously wanting their people rescued. His sleek Dæmon is hidden in the young man’s TAC vest. Though the Lieutenant isn’t a pilot – there’s no airman around but himself, and as far as John knows none of the marines have aerial training – Ford is Sumner’s XO, so John has him take the co-pilot’s seat. Even without the ATA-gene Ford can access some basic systems from there including the ship’s own DHD. There’s Markham, who possesses a mild variant of the Ancient gene and John brings him along just in case, just in case they need someone else to fly them out of here. He also brings Sergeant Stackhouse and his team, their numbers and names determined back on Earth weeks ago, and Jenkins’ squad for back-up: some of them have the right training for this kind of a mission. John would’ve liked to know more about these guys before going on a mission with them, get to know them a little, but missions rarely give choice. It’s going to be a dangerous op: they have basically no intel, no idea what they’re expected to find, if the prisoners are even alive. But John’s going to bring those people back, one way or another.

They don’t leave people behind.

If anyone is weirded out by the alien craft, they don’t show it. There’s no time for that. One moment they’re in Atlantis; then they’re falling out from a Stargate in space – John would’ve loved to go for a lazy spin, relish the fact that they’re in outer space! – there is no time. No time. The planet below is greenish in hue, sort of similar to Earth but for the wide spread of rings around it, remnants of a moon that never managed to become one.

They need to find the enemy base: how? The glow of energy, he thinks, the whir of engines, it’s got to pollute the world around it somehow and at the thought, readings pop up on the vessel’s HUD – it’s all in Ancient, a language John intellectually knows he shouldn’t possibly be able to read and yet he can. It’s not a matter of translation as much as comprehending the ideas of the texts and diagrams in front of them. Maybe since the ship’s hooked up to his mind, or maybe because he’s a pilot and the instruments have a similar baseline function to many of those he’s used to – just very very high-tech, semi-holographic, alien, and unfathomably old. Never flown a spaceship before, though. Knows lots of fighter pilots would be awed to touch these controls.

He decides not to linger on it. Anyway, Ford seems too distracted to notice the particular details right now – or, if he does, he doesn’t voice questions or objections.

“So how do we do this, sir? Once we’re planetside?” Ford asks.

“I’ve been thinking about that.”

[this], is a whisper, and John reaches out and takes the device which – randomly, to anyone else – slid out from behind a panel in the left side of the cockpit. It’s some kind of pad reminiscent of a PDA, slightly stocky but small enough to fit in one palm. Holding it, there’s an impression of [for finding] slightly jumbled as if there’s a gap in translation. Maybe the device has more than one function.

He nestles it in-between his TAC vest and the jacket beneath, wedged close to extra ammo and hand grenades.


They set down some way behind the huge tree-covered hill which gives off energy readings suggesting a base, an artificial structure stuffed with technology that the Puddlejumper’s sensors can detect. John considers what Teyla told him in the ruins on Athos: that the Wraith are long-lived, hibernating for centuries, waiting, waiting until Culling their next Herd. Maybe that’s it. The base could’ve overgrown with brushes and trees in stretches of time beyond human conception.

The front door is easy to find. The security is frighteningly lax; there aren’t even sentries posted, and warning bells go off in his head. He’s never entered a place like this. Puts them on the edge.

The place smells of Death. The design of it is murky, dark – creepily organic, like this place wasn’t built, it was grown – and that horrible smell: it is of rotten flesh, of dried-up tears, of silenced screams: an open grave. They can’t tell if there’s anything like security cameras anywhere. They move, unhindered, through many winding hallways – some of them slope slightly up, or down, indicating that this base has more than one level which makes sense given its size. It takes several minutes before they see a single living being.

A guard on patrol. It’s tall, humanoid, very pale: white like chalk. It’s wearing some kind of horrid mask, reminiscent of what that kid had been wearing on Athos when playing with Jinto. The weapon (John assumes it’s a weapon) in its hands is long and glossy with a row of lights set in it, and he has no idea what it actually is. No plans on finding put. He presses himself against the wall, Ford and his Dæmon tightly behind, gesturing sharply for them to stop moving. They exchange a completely unspoken glance, fingers ready on the trigger.

Wraith have no Dæmons. There’s nothing following. It walks down the hallways, right past the corner where they’re hiding, not noticing them: John senses Ford relax minutely. It buys them time not to have to give their presence away through opening fire.

As the Wraith leaves, so does one of the bleeping dots on the handheld device – [for finding life] or, maybe, [detecting energy signatures] (it could be both at once).

John shifts so that Ford can’t see the faintly glowing screen because that’s it: it shows lifesigns. And right now, with the Wraith guard gone, it shows three: himself, Ford, and Ford’s Dæmon – even though connected to the Lieutenant she is her own and alive, breathing, and that is enough for this thing to detect.

One look at that, and Ford will know he’s a Strangeling.

“C’mon, down this hallway,” John spurs them onward. Ahead there’s a gathering of white blips. He hopes it’s the humans they’re looking for, and not a bunch of Wraith.


The cell is emptier than it should’ve been. One of the villagers and Colonel Sumner have been led away, one after the other; but their Dæmons are still here. John has no idea how far apart exactly these humans and their Dæmons can handle being before the pain strikes. Some are stronger than others.

One of the Dæmons is already dead, slack on the floor, and the other is writhing in a corner refusing to be touched or calmed. John recognizes it. It’s Sumner’s.

He’s still alive. Could be.

Ghosting.

“Major,” Teyla gasps, astonished to see him and Ford.

Halling grips the bars, staring at him intently. “Major, have you seen Jinto? Is my son alive?”

“Yeah,” John nods, “he’s safe and waiting for you.” The man releases a breath that sounds almost like a prayer, and John turns to Teyla. “Where’s Colonel Sumner?”

Sergeant Bates answers. The man appears very stoic, albeit he’s clutching his Dæmon and stroking her back in a display which John’s sure he wouldn’t normally. “They took him.” For interrogation left unsaid.

“Not long ago,” adds Teyla.

John glances at the Dæmon in the corner, pitiful and pained and refusing help. There’s none to give. Nothing but Sumner’s return can ease the pain and much damage, too much, might already have been done. It could be too late. It’s a matter of seconds, not minutes, not hours.

Suddenly the Dæmon is shrieking. It’s dying. Sumner could still be, but –

There’s time: has to be.


He leaves one set of screams behind and follows another.

There are more Wraith here, and one of them appears to be female – her hair is the color of fresh blood falling in a river and her voice is dark as if hundreds of years old. She’s got a hand on Sumner’s chest, and his face is sinking, his body slowly crumbling. Years wasting away in seconds;

John had thought that by Feeding and Culling and Human Herds, the Athosian had meant tearing apart the flesh and drinking blood. Teeth. The Wraith do not use their teeth. The Queen has her hand pressed to Sumner’s chest, and age is overtaking him, and John stares down the scope for a moment undetermined and horrified as the Wraith heals itself from the three bullets he just put in her back – it should’ve severed her, made her choke. Unable to word the terror touching his spine. Target shifting between the Wraith and the dying man.

A split-second decision. There is no way Sumner could return from that kind of damage. He … he reminds him of Lyle, of the Ghosting in Afghanistan, when Laila died before Lyle did – please end it please

John takes the shot.

The screaming stops.


Back in the City, John lets Her Song envelop him in a tidal wave. He’s tired, drained. Seeing Sumner die like that (withering: slowly, a drawn-out death, Dæmon screaming in the background and silencing) will haunt him for a long time. He can still feel the trigger under his fingertip, the shock of the recoil, the bullet going straight through the Colonel’s heart and ending it.

Afterward, Weir says: “You did the right thing, John.”

He only looks at her: “Did I?”

He’s just killed his commander, leaving him the highest ranking military officer on base. He will have to live with it.

Weir wants him to take Colonel Sumner’s place.

John doesn’t want to think about it. Right now, he wants to find somewhere to sleep, and sleep for a long long time and try to forget. But there are things to be done first. Security checks to complete, sleeping quarters of some sort for everyone to find – actual beds would be nice, too. Stuff has to be sorted and basic necessities unpacked; they’ll stay here in this Tower for now, until they’ve secured a larger area of the enormous City. There are people to house and heal and feed –

feed.

No, no, John can’t think in these terms again, not after what he’s witnessed.

Elizabeth Weir’s Dæmon has gentle understanding eyes. They always say the eyes are the windows of the Soul, and John figures there’s some truth in that. Like Elizabeth, the Dæmon is careful, a diplomat, a negotiator, knowing what to say when.

Right now, what John needs isn’t words.

Teyla, nearby, approaches. Leans forward and it takes a moment to catch on that she wants to touch her forehead to his, lightly, gently, like John saw Halling do with Jinto a few minutes ago. An Athosian gesture of some kind. Teyla doesn’t act as if he’s performed an ill deed, even if she knows Sumner is dead. But she’s not from Earth. She doesn’t know about the intricacies of their culture, the military ranks of command – just as John and the others know nothing but superficials and false presuppositions about the Athosians.

They’ve both got to learn.

Elizabeth might want to press the issue about command, but John is tired, aching, drained.

“I need to talk with Sergeant Bates,” he says to avoid the subject for now. Security arrangements. Timetables. Sumner had given Bates the position as Head of Security, and John sees no reason to change that. If she thinks he’s lying, Weir doesn’t try to undo him.

“Do that – and, John.” He pauses on the threshold of the balcony, glancing back at her. Beyond, the City stretches out like a monument atop of the sea. Weir doesn’t give him an order in the sense that a General would, but it still is one: “Get some rest.”

She doesn’t say Well done or Thank you, which is just as well.


Hours later, when he finally closes his eyes, the reality sinks in: he’s here, in a faraway galaxy

He lets Atlantis’ lullaby lure him to sleep.

Chapter Text

iv.

and save for grace

he’s always thought he’d die violently.


Settling in is surprisingly easy. Or, for John, when he thinks about it, it’s not surprising at all. In the yet so few hours they’ve been here, he’s grown used to Atlantis’ Song like a second skin. He doesn’t want it to stop.

They’ve found living quarters, set up an infirmary, even found what’s got to be the Ancients’ version of a kitchen so they’re prepping a commissary. There’s the hint of amusement in Her Song, entering a whisper of [meditation chamber]. John thinks it’s a big large for some kind of meditation chamber, and they have no use for that anyway, but doesn’t question it. She speaks the truth but remains adaptable to Her new inhabitants.

(Ten thousand years is a long time to be alone.)

Elizabeth has insisted he form his own Gate team. AR-1, apparently, for the records. Ford is already a given; the kid is going to be his XO and so John needs to get to know him better, teach him and learn from him in turn. Dr McKay, if he could get the scientist to learn to aim with sidearm and some basic combat maneuvers. Then there’s Teyla, if she wants to. She’s expressed the desire to fight the Wraith alongside them. She’s got intel on Pegasus, contacts, knowledge, and she looks like she can hold her own pretty well.

There’d been awe and wonder and disbelief on her face when they had returned to the City, when she had gotten to know their purpose as explorers from a foreign galaxy. That they now want to – need to – fight the Wraith.

“No one has fought the Wraith for millennia,” Teyla tells him during that night when they feast, celebrating the (mostly) successful rescue mission, and John can taste nothing but the ashes of Sumner’s death in his mouth. “No one has dared. Those who fight back are destroyed.”

She’s seeking answers, and John says: “We’re not the kind to take a beating lying down.”


Teyla’s Dæmon addresses him directly for the first time fifteen days after they’ve first met, and John takes it in stride, or tries to anyway. After Meredith’s easy-going nature with him around, he thinks little can surprise him regarding Dæmons anymore. Ford’s Dæmon, though, remains a little wary but John considers it’s because of the kid’s age, and the situation they’re in, the fact they don’t really know each other yet.

Fifteen days ago, John killed Ford’s CO and Ford was there to see the aftermath. The kid heard Sumner’s Dæmon screaming right before it died;

(John pretends not to be bothered by the strike of fear in the Dæmon’s eyes as she looks at him from out of Ford’s sleeve.)


“The self-destruct system requires two separate codes,” Dr Grodin explains. “Each code is unique, and everyone must memorize theirs.”

They’re gathered around him in the Control Room: John, Weir, McKay, Sergeant Bates, and the other senior staff who are the heads of their departments, such as Dr Beckett, and the botanist Dr Parrish. There is a solemn gravity hanging in the air. It’s a bright sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, and here they are waiting without a shield or means or protection, unable to see the Wraith coming: they don’t have enough power. Not enough power, the lingering issue. Cannot dial too far, cannot protect themselves, cannot use the Chair and its weapons.

As a last resort, Weir explains, Grodin and Dr Zelenka along with McKay have devised a plan: not of escape or survival, but to protect Earth. This Stargate is the only one that can reach the Milky Way and the Wraith cannot ever be allowed to get that far;

John isn’t planning on ever entering his code. He has memorized the sixteen-digit long string of numbers out of habit, anyway.

“If both codes are entered,” Grodin goes on, “the five naquadah generators connected to the City’s power grid will overload. It’ll take thirty seconds.”

Ford, slightly dubious, asks: “Sure that’ll do enough damage?”

McKay rolls his eyes, probably mentally insulting the Lieutenant’s general level of intelligence. “Ever seen a twenty-kiloton nuclear explosion?” Very droll.

“I have,” John remarks, and the others glance at him briefly, and for a moment he’d felt so at ease he’d forgotten he still barely knows these people. They don’t know about his past and he doesn’t know about theirs, other than what’s been worded on paper by someone else and reports (most of which he’s not had the time to read yet) only give half the truth. He shrugs self-consciously. “Not up close.” Switches the subject, to one that feels more pressing to him right now: “Look, I think we should let Teyla and the Athosians know what’s going on here.”

John has got a good gut feeling about those guys: they seem like a very tight and loyal people. He’s glad to bear Jinto’s hero worship ever since he got the boy’s father back. And Teyla speaks to him: she and her Dæmon speak with him, and John wants to trust them.

But the Athosians are aliens and Weir doesn’t trust them.

Not yet.


The Athosians seem to have settled in alright, except they haven’t because they aren’t having undue nightmares based on fear of the Ancestors’ wrath.

There’s some kind of creature, a shadow sucking energy from their generators. By the time they find Jinto in a previously undiscovered lab directly connected to an equally newly discovered transporter, the kid is scared and alone, and his Dæmon babbles that it’s not their fault, they didn’t mean to let the monster out;


Five hours earlier, though, Rodney – who is an ass and John wants to yell at him – managed to activate a personal shield for himself and his Dæmon, some kind of invisible force field, and he can’t shut it off. McKay is steadily slipping from the stage of self-pity to fear to actual panic, from that stage where he’s worrying he won’t be able to eat another sandwich in his life, to I Am Never Eating a Sandwich Again in My Life because it’s going to be cut short –

Meredith rests by McKay’s feet, and says to him: “I am never letting you live this one down if we get through this,” rather sourly, and Rodney retorts: “As if you would.”, and John concludes she’s the most level-headed of the two.

“Look, have you tried thinking about shutting it off really hard?” John asks because, honestly, fifteen days in alien galaxy in a million-year-old City and McKay is testing out weird gadgets? The guy who’s proclaimed Safety above all else, warning them about potential dangers every five minutes, No Don’t Touch That? Though, the device is kind of cool. Rather really cool. The bullet John had shot at McKay’s leg had bounced right off, ricocheting into a nearby wall (and John had spent a minute pressing his hand against the scratched surface, silently echoing I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you when McKay isn’t looking – how would he explain to him that he’d heard the City groan in protest?)

“Yes!” both Rodney and Meredith cry simultaneously and glare at him, and John raises his palms in a universal sign of peace.

“Just asking.”


It stops being funny when Rodney faints (Passed out from manly hunger, McKay snarks and Meredith insists her human needs to eat huge amounts of chocolate and drink potloads of coffee to soothe the ache). It stops being funny when the large shadow-thing-whatsit starts growing exponentially, spreading through the corridors like a virus and John can heard Her Song becoming tainted by what could be pain.

They hear Ford and his Dæmon scream in tandem as it strikes them.

This isn’t the way that John wanted to find out her name: Ford shouting after her desperately, nerves being stung and soul singed by burns for half an eternity before the energy creature moves on. Taking them to the infirmary they can’t budge Adria from Ford’s chest, and no one would ever dream of touching her. Stackhouse, who’d been with Ford on that City patrol, frets quietly all the while accompanying the gurney, and doesn’t seem convinced, outwardly, when Dr Beckett announces that Ford’s a tough kid and he’ll be fine.

(They let them sleep.)


“So how do we stop this thing?”

The attempted trick with the device hadn’t worked. It’d taken one brief look and left – obviously, then, it is somewhat intelligent. Intelligent enough to know that the device is bad and even when they’d shut off all the generators in the City, it still refused to go near it.

(The choking of Her voice had been strange, almost like being held underwater, or being trapped in a broken plane on high altitude, air slowly running out. When they’d aborted that plan and started up the generators again, the relief was immediate.)

“We can’t,” McKay says, stressed. Imminent doom does that to people. “Look, this thing is going to suck our generators dry and then it will kill us all.”

“Maybe,” Teyla murmurs, considering the quiet Stargate below them, “it doesn’t want to be here.”

John frowns. “What do you mean?”

“If it is as you say, and it has been trapped in that device for thousands of years, maybe it wants to leave this planet.”


Sacrificing a backup naquadah generator this early into the expedition sends a flare of distress through them all. But it’s this or being killed, and then there is no option.

Only it’s Not Working. The Stargate remains open, wormhole slowly draining power from the City and the creature isn’t moving, filling the room and soon it’ll suffocate them. Then Rodney grabs that shield, and Meredith – without hesitating – leaps onto his shoulders and together they descend the stairs.

Half a minute later, the creature’s gone, room cleared, and Rodney and Meredith are lying unconscious right in front of the Stargate. Breath catches in John’s throat. As on they are rushing forward, someone’s calling for a medic on the radio, maybe it’s himself but he can’t hear his own voice. He lets Atlantis’ Song roll over him in waves, soft and cool like ocean water.

They’re alive and McKay of all people saved the day.

“They’re breathing,” Elizabeth murmurs, sighing with relief. Meredith whines a little, burrowing her face into Rodney’s throat as if willing him to wake, even though she seems pretty out of it too. “McKay?”

“… hm?” The man groans a little, pained. The shield lying next to his head is empty and dark, no doubt depleted by that single action. “What happened …?”

“You did it, Rodney,” Elizabeth smiles.

“I did?”

“Yeah,” John says, grinning at him, and McKay looks dazed. “You must have passed out.”

“Thanks … for not using that other word,” Meredith mutters, and then John knows for sure that they’re going to be okay.


Once McKay has been rushed into the infirmary, Teyla and her Dæmon approach John and they say, together, that they have decided. They want to join them on the Gate team.

“Dr McKay and Meredith will be with us, will they not?” Teyla asks, and John nods. It’s interesting, that distinction: on Earth, a lot of people talk about people and their Dæmons as one, as if saying one name it means both and the other all the same. The Athosians don’t do that. They always say both names, in groups. Alien distinctions.

When they’d first met, Teyla had introduced herself and her Dæmon like two people, not one: tightly bound, yet not the same.

“And Lieutenant Ford.” Quickly remembered, he adds: “Adria.”

Teyla’s Dæmon – Kanaan – regards him for a moment. His voice is kind of like gravel on a steep road, deep and tough to trudge through, the kind of wise voice you’d expect from a diplomat with a lot of experience. “What is their name, Major Sheppard?” he asks, and it takes a couple of seconds for it to click what he even means.

John hopes they don’t notice the slight delay in his answer. “Uh, Shy,” dryly, the nonexistent awkward laughter failing in his throat: he can’t even joke about it anymore.

The Athosian raises her eyebrow a bit, but it isn’t condescending, and she doesn’t laugh. “I find it oddly fitting, Major.”

He has a sense she doesn’t mean it in the obvious way, in that his Dæmon is always out of sight, unseen, unheard. He’s managed to live with the illusion, the subterfuge for over three decades. If anyone anywhere were to break through that, it’s better it’s in an alien galaxy than anywhere on Earth.

(In the brief time he has gotten to know the Athosians, he hasn’t had the chance to learn if they have words like Strangeling and Freak.)


He thinks – hopes – they’ll make a good team.


From what he can tell, all the Athosian Dæmons are like Earth ones; they’re tied to the ground. There is no flash of wings. In a sense, John is a bit disappointed because – even if he can’t – the dream of being able to tell them, She’s a butterfly or She’s a raven – it’s never going to happen so why does he linger on it anyway?

He just wants to be normal for a while. Just for a while –


They pick Jumper Two for the mission (because Jumper One is his and nobody else is going to fly her, he’s already decided), and John chooses Stackhouse and Markham to come with them. He needs to train some pilots, and this will be an excellent exercise; they seem to be coming to grips with it pretty fast, though he hears Markham admit he finds the mental contact with the ship slightly jarring. (Maybe it’s the Dæmon Bond interfering, somehow.)

They find the spot easily enough; only, instead of the large compound that was there fifteen days ago, now there’s a giant crater, something having been dug out of the earth and left only dust behind.

McKay peers down the valley. His TAC vest and gear aren’t a perfect fit yet. John has shown him over and over how to assemble and disassemble and reload his 9mil but the astrophysicist remains in doubt about the whole thing. We’ll see how it goes, he’d said with a disdained snort when John had asked him to be part of his team. John had countered it with how they needed a guy with knowledge in Ancient tech (and other useful stuff) – like their version of Samantha Carter – and upon suggesting Zelenka or Kusanagi instead, McKay had been rapidly retaliating: Yes, yes of course I’ll be on the team because no way am I going to let you people be stuck with some asshole like Kavanaugh who’ll probably kill you all within five minutes of a mission and that would be Not Good.

“That’s not a base hidden in a hill, in fact that is the most opposite of a hill I’ve ever seen – I don’t see how you could possibly get the two confused,” Rodney mutters, disdained.

“It must have been a ship,” Teyla says gravely, and on her face lie the memories of lost generations, of people swept into nothingness, of histories left unwritten. “Like I showed you in the carvings in the ruins, Major.”

John remembers: the representation of beams of light carrying people through the sky and into the arms of death.

“Right. Didn’t they hibernate for hundreds of years? So trees could have overgrown the ship in that time,” John summarizes, shivering a little at the possibility. These Wraith are old, so old and fucking hard to kill – taking dozens of bullets, a whole clip sometimes – and that’s just Not Right. And these aliens have no Dæmons, no easy targets, either.

“They have left to begin Culling worlds.”


They have to get back to Atlantis and report this immediately, but there’s a Wraith patrol coming at them, blue beams of light emitting from their weapons. No one has taken a shot from one of those yet, but they’d managed to bring a couple back from the rescue mission and they think it’s a bit like a Goa’uld zat’nik’tel: the first shot stuns. They have no idea whether the second one kills, or if the comparison ends there. Right now, John isn’t keen to find out.

He hauls Rodney back from the ridge and they run toward the Jumper. It’s still quite a bit away and there are six Wraith that they can see right behind them. There could be more, out of sight.

Meredith is a good runner, sleek and swift, but Rodney struggles. Ford and Teyla, on the other hand, do not, and John provides cover fire and reaches for his earpiece simultaneously. “Markham, Stackhouse, warm up the Jumper!” Then he sees the fork in the road: and he shouts at Ford, “I’ll circle around and draw them off!” and it seems like a good idea at the time, because Ford and McKay and Teyla need the chance to get to the Jumper –

He doesn’t see the bug until it’s too late.


The Wraith doesn’t kill him.

One of them finds him and it doesn’t try to feed. It just looks at him, with empty disdain, almost like he’s a meal gone foul and good for nobody and maybe already dead. It’s difficult to breathe. The Wraith doesn’t even stun him, just walks away.

The thing – whatever it is, a bug with sharp claws digging into his flesh, threatening to suffocate him, to drain him via his carotid artery – refuses to let go and he can barely stand. Can’t walk. When Ford and Adria find him, John’s cradling his sidearm and wondering if he could possibly shoot it off. He’s already tried cutting into it but that hurt like hell and only made it hold onto him harder.

“Sir? Oh, shit. What the hell is that?!” Ford kneels beside him. It’s obviously not a Dæmon or a friendly creature by the way it’s slowly trying to strangle him. “Sir, three of the Wraith are dead but the rest got away. Markham and Stackhouse are coming with the Jumper.”

“Teyla, McKay –?”

“Safe.” Okay. One thing less to worry about. Good. The Lieutenant tries reaching out to touch the creature attached to his neck, but it causes a stinging sensation to John’s bones as if it’s somehow draining him of energy. Draining … feeding. Shit. Shit, shit – “Don’t do that –” Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Should I try pulling it off?”

“No,” John wheezes, already tried that; it doesn’t work, and Adria cues in, noting that the bug is digging into his neck right by one of his carotid arteries, and Her voice is cutting in and out like a radio signal being destroyed by static – [we will not let you die]. And John would do itself but doesn’t trust his own hands, his aim would tremble – “9mil. Shoot it.” Please, Lieutenant, he doesn’t say but it must show on his face.

Ford bites his lip. Draws his sidearm, and Adria is fretting; John tries to find focus, but his vision is swimming at the edges and it bloody hurts and he can’t hear Her singing anymore it’s only a very distant echo in his heart they’re too far away, and Ford reloads.

“Okay. Ready?” Ford asks, pressing the muzzle to the base of the creature’s body, guessing that the soft leachy part there is easy to kill. Hopefully.

No. “Yeah.”


It doesn’t help at fucking all, and then there’s the whine from the Jumper landing nearby, and Rodney and Teyla are rushing toward them. Somehow, they manage to get him into the Ancient ship, lying on his back.

Then the firing starts.

“Get some altitude!” he shouts, strangled, and Markham tries to respond without lifting his eyes from the HUD or moving his hands from the controls.

“We’re trying, sir!”

The Jumper rattles as it is hit by enemy fire.

“There must be something we can do for him,” Teyla says, frustrated, and McKay gestures furiously toward the cockpit.

“There’s a first-aid kit behind the pilot seat. Get it.”

The man’s hand is resting on John’s shoulder, half holding him down to stop him from writhing in agony, half comforting by just be there. Heat is threading needles through his body, his arms, his legs and John’s breath has returned a little, but he guesses that’s the only thing that’ll help is if (when) he starts screaming.

“Major, anything we do trying to remove it just makes the pain worse. Try to be still.” His voice is uncharacteristically soft, the admission one of care, and there’s no trace of the arrogant man who’s proclaimed himself the smartest human in two galaxies. It’s oddly touching.

After the storm, there’s the numbing sensation which is even more unsettling. Numb is bad. It’s like cold: when the shivering stops you really got to worry about pneumonia. He tries clenching a fist and wishes, dearly, he could hold onto something, a voice – Her Song – the memory of his mother and chicken soup and Pete finally talking to him – the sweet smell of all the forbidden books he’d searched and searched for answers –

Vaguely he hears the wormhole form, or he feels it because suddenly he feels Her again like he’s almost there in the City again. Worry hits like a tsunami: [you’re in pain] and [we want to help you] but they’re not in Atlantis yet, She can’t help, She can’t reach him.

They’re almost there –

The Jumper flickers into still silence.


thirty-eight minutes left:


When John comes to again, it’s dark save for the pale blue shimmer of the event horizon just a few feet in front of him.

Wait. What.

“Ford?” Don’t let that be the wormhole’s event horizon. Don’t let it be. Don’t … “Are we stuck – in the Gate …?”

“Yes, sir,” Ford murmurs. He looks a bit dazed, his Dæmon clinging to him in a fright. John wasn’t awake to see him being pulled out from the wormhole by Teyla and Rodney; he wasn’t awake to see Adria almost slipping out of his grasp. A separation like that, one of them demolecularized, would certainly lead to death.

There’s no sign of Markham or Stackhouse or their Dæmons. They must be on the other side.

(At least if the Jumper is cut in two and they all die, they won’t feel anything.)

Teyla is kneeling next to him, checking his injury (if that is the appropriate word, John thinks dryly, it’s more of a cling-on) – the bug hasn’t let go at all.

“Major,” McKay says, trying to ignore the sweat pearling on John’s brow, “do you know any way of manually contracting the drive pods?”

It’s difficult to think – [left] he hears Her voice from the Jumper’s core, a soft suggestion, and he manages to form a few raspy words. “Cockpit on the left.”

“Well, the cockpit is unfortunately demolecularized at the moment, so I was hoping that back here –”

“… No.”

“Right. I didn’t think so. If you’ll excuse me I’ll be back here and trying to take some readings, feel free to talk amongst yourselves.”

McKay’ll fix it. He will. He and Meredith will figure something out –


twenty-seven minutes


Within a couple of minutes Rodney abruptly stands up, presses a button, and darkness falls completely. A flashlight is flicked on, then two, casting eerie pale glows on their faces. “Anyone else claustrophobic or is it just me?”

“Why d’you close the bulkhead door?” Ford demands.

“So that when the wormhole disengages, and the Jumper is severed, we’re not directly exposed to space.”

“Will it hold?”

“Like a scream door in a submarine. I just prefer asphyxia to explosive decompression – it’s a personal thing.”

“The air’s going to get thin in here so you’re going to have to calm down, doc,” Ford says not too gently, and Meredith is echoing a protective worried murmur, showing that part of her human that Rodney can’t on his own, pulse agitated: 

“You’ll see how thin the air gets in twenty-seven minutes!”

John’s chest is tightening up all over again and breath threatens to stutter, and he musters his energy reserves to glare at the man. Not now. Not now. “McKay.”

“Vacuum! That’s thin!”

“Knock it off.”

“Oh, I apologize for being the only person who truly comprehends how screwed we are!”

The roar builds up in his gut. “Don’t talk to me about screwed!”

At least that causes McKay to silence down, momentarily, to shift his focus onto actually trying to fix the problem. Retract the drive pods, get the Jumper moving. Go home.

Home.

He knows, rationally, that they’re expecting that his Dæmon creeps out from his pocket right about now. Or that they will hear screams soon enough, a shared hurt. Yet it doesn’t come, and they’re left waiting.

(He’s sick of pretending.)


twenty-one minutes


“How is the pain?” It’s not Teyla but Kanaan who asks, and John has to seriously stop being surprised by the Athosian Dæmon’s way of talking directly to other people, not just other Dæmons. “You seem stronger.”

“Not too bad,” he admits and there’s a sign of relief from everybody, until he goes on – because he’s not stronger at all: “Arms are going numb. I can’t move my legs.” Can’t feel them, actually. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but he’s got a pretty good idea where this is going: this bug is going to slowly drain his life away – healing itself like after Ford had shot it – until he can’t feel a single muscle in his body anymore. Then his heart will cease to beat, and he’ll stop breathing;

Not at all like the much more violent ways he’d thought he’d go – a chopper crash, a bullet in the head. A landmine. Possibly execution by Russian Roulette. (He’s always thought he’d die violently.)

This way is too slow. He’s not a fan of slow. Slow gives you the chance to think, to doubt, to fear.


They get Carson on the radio, finally. It’s not much the doctor can do all the way from Atlantis, not being able to see the creature with his own eyes, to really determine the damage. At least Ford is a trained field medic, and able to describe the bug enough for the doctor to start thinking of ideas. Their options out here are limited and the longer the thing clings to him, the higher chances he won’t make it back even before the thirty-eight minutes are up.

Meredith is restless. John starts noticing how she is somehow alternating between checking on her human, and then pattering across the grated floor, up to about two feet away from him. She’s worried, for all of them. Showing what McKay can’t, or won’t, himself.

“Major, what are your physical symptoms?” Carson asks, voice all jumbled.

“At first it felt like a knife in the eye … I’ve lost all feelings in my extremities. Can’t move.” He has to gasp for breath again, in a pattern becoming far too regular for his liking. “Look, doc, I need this thing off. I need – to be able to help McKay with the Jumper. Markham and Stackhouse … are dead if I don’t.”

“What have you tried?”

Ford makes a list, brief but painful. The memory of the gunshot is still ringing in John’s ears. “Not much worse I could do without killing the Major along with it.”

Then Teyla says that it must be related to a Wraith somehow because it’s feeding off him, and John already felt certain that was the case, but hearing such a confirmation isn’t exactly comforting and Kanaan murmurs, darkly: We have heard stories of people dying this way; a means to keep the children from straying too far from camp at night.

“Listen, doc, the Major’s getting worse,” Ford says and then Adria agrees, voice brittle: “We have to do something now.”


nineteen minutes


Their inventory isn’t too large. They have neither the way nor the medical expertise necessary to surgically remove the creature. For all they know that’ll kill him too: sever his arteries: let him bleed out. For a while, John feels like that child again, sick in bed and seven years old and aching all over and not knowing much about the world. There’s no Pete now telling him that he’s causing the rest of the world unhappiness. Instead Teyla is assisting Ford, and while McKay is busy with the crystal interface, Meredith is watching them intently. She’s rather close, almost close enough to touch. He might just be imaging it, but John is sure that there’s body heat from the Dæmon slipping through his uniform.

(It might be an illusion brought upon him by the fever.)

He’s never been that close to a Dæmon before, not even Pete – definitely not Irene, because the memory of her still creeps him out. Only that once: when Lyle was dying and Laila was dead, and John tried to offer some kind of comfort (uselessly) those last few seconds of breath: he tried (wanted to reach out) to give relief;

(He’d almost touched her, then. A Dæmon, dead and still and cold. And still he hadn’t been able to do it because it’s Wrong and he remembers too well the rules having been drilled into his head as a child. Not even then. They wouldn’t have been able to feel it.)

Now Meredith is sitting there, agitatedly, tail twitching, and waits.


seventeen minutes


“Did Beckett not say to pour salt on the creature?” Teyla says.

“That was a metaphor –” but, “nevermind, try anything,” Rodney stresses from the open crystal tray where he’s frantically trying to break the laws of time. Ford reaches for the salt, but nothing occurs, and then in the brief respite of dulling senses She is promising [we will not let you die].

“Water. Give me the water.”

A cold trickle across his collarbone and there is a second of nothing and maybe it won’t work, no reaction like to the Other Things and John is almost relieved –


fourteen minutes


And he screams: he hasn’t felt searing agony like it before. Not when he was shot or crashed that time, or when he’d been MIA for three months and held in an enemy base and tortured for leisure nobody asking questions other than useless ones and now there aren’t even any questions to taunt –

She’s trying to calm him. Emotion can’t translate properly through a wormhole, but radio signals reach both ways and the City can hear him scream. She tries to reach out, through the Jumper – [we are here. shh, shh, shh, it will be all right] like he’d whispered to Lyle when he was Ghosting.

Maybe he’s Ghosting –

But [we will not let you die], She is promising oh the loudest Song he has ever dreamed;


nine minutes


As it finally finally fades, he doesn’t remember lashing out and hitting Ford across the chest, causing McKay’s hand to slip in startled shock and cross a circuit, the Jumper slipping forward another two inches into the wormhole. He won’t remember the actual screaming, just the rawness of his throat and his constricting heartbeats, Atlantis’ Song unable to pierce the veil entirely.

“… (Please) d–don’t do that again.”

“I won’t, sir, I’m sorry, sir.” Ford is almost stuck on repeat.

“Did it lose its hold on Major Sheppard?” asks Beckett, and he and everyone else heard the screams but John isn’t aware isn’t lucid enough, trembling on his breath and sweat pearls on his brow and next time next time the creature will kill him;

“If anything, it dug in more!” Teyla cries.

When the Stargate closes in seven minutes, every molecule of air left in the Jumper is going to disappear.


four and a half minutes
before the wormhole ends.


Then. The idea strikes him like an arrow, brilliant in its simplicity, remembering Teyla’s confusion with the machine as she’d found it – it could work – it could work

“Hit me with the defibrillator.”

“What?!” Teyla exclaims, and Kanaan says, doubtful: “Did you not say using this device would stop his heart and kill him?”

“That’s the idea …”

And then Carson catches on, understands what he’s meaning to do. “Teyla, you said the creature is much like a Wraith. So if we trick the creature into thinking the Major is dead by stopping his heart

“It would stop feeding!”

“Exactly.”

“Then, once it lets go, I give him another jolt,” Ford fills in. His voice is firm, though he is uncertain. Of course he is. They are.

Stopping someone’s heart, starving their body of oxygen, essentially means killing them – but the Dæmon doesn’t die until a person is brain dead. That’s why it works in the first place, why some people can be revived with CPR – if their Dæmon is Ghosting long enough, it could work. It’s still dangerous and the possibility is high that they won’t be able to wake him again, and that’ll mean two people of the expedition dead within a month of them getting here, and John wants to live oh he wants to live – 

“You can give it a try. If it doesn’t work, send him and his Dæmon through the event horizon; it should keep them in much like a deep freeze.”

They assume – they don’t ask – that Shy is hiding in his jacket pocket. That’s why they haven’t tried removing the garment from him, to not separate them. John would’ve laughed a bit hysterically at the irony of it all if he could. Instead, he has to focus on breathing, focus on the possibility of dying –

[we are here], She’s singing a lullaby. Like in his dreams, when he was a child, dreaming of the raven.

There’s a bout of movement, frantic, t-shirt being cut open, dog tags pulled aside. The whine of the defibrillator is almost overwhelming, but John can’t hear it over Her voice. Takes comfort in it. Four, three, two seconds –

Ford is hesitating, Adria looking decidedly ill on his shoulder (trying to comfort him, he’s going to kill his superior officer in order to save him) –

[we will not let you die]

Do it!”

The Singing stops.

Chapter Text

v.

waiting

it’s the first time he dies.


A flat, silent line.

It’s the first time he dies.


[we will not let you die]

Mother and Pete and Father and Irene are here, and Dave dancing with Nina in the library, they’re all here in front of the Stargate waiting for the wormhole to connect. He sees them, and She is singing for him as he’s looking up; Up There there’s is a raven and he wishes for it to come down and land on his hand like in the fairytales;

he read in the Forbidden Books in the library when Father wasn’t watching; Am a Strangeling like in those stories? (the villain wanting to take over the world and burn it) Mother, am I a Strangeling? Is that why you’re unhappy?


ten thousand years is a long time to be alone


[we will not let you die]

“You want to be a pilot, son?” Father asks over the dinner table, and Mother is crying oh Johnny boy, why do you want to be a pilot, why? asking him all this tearfully because She is not unhappy because of you but for you, Pete had said so accusingly;

“Yeah, I want to be a pilot,” he answers with a smile because when I grow up I want to be a pilot and I need to fly Up There and find them, my Dæmon, Mother please understand I need to fly and find them;

fly he needs to fly away toward the Lost City, lost like the time from when I was born and there was no Dæmon to hold my hand;

There is a voice whispering shh. shh, it’ll be all right, stroking his forehead, pushing the fever away, and Pete’s twisting voice is becoming the hot winds of Afghanistan and Lyle and Laila dying one after the other. Lyle screaming: Ford screaming: Teyla and Meredith and Adria and Sumner and the wrecked bodies in the car crash and the downed chopper’s twisted insides (with the bodies and the blood) and Rodney they’re all screaming trying to overcome Her Song but he doesn’t want Her to stop singing oh never stop singing, he pleads, please –

Am I Ghosting? Am I a Ghost?


[we are here], Atlantis sings to him and he responds in staggering words of hope and home; [we will not let you die] ten thousand years is a long time to be alone but no more no more no more and She is singing;

turning toward the open sky, past the atmosphere: the ocean glittering below, all so still and wide; he’s running, running, and then he reaches the edge of the tower and the raven spreads its wings and flies away and he knows in that width of a second:

he is the raven.


One two three four times;

They are gathered in the Jumper: ten people and their Dæmons; Elizabeth and her Simon, Teyla and her Kanaan, Rodney and his Meredith, and Carson and his team, and Stackhouse and Markham staring in befuddlement because the two marines don’t know that the Jumper was stuck for thirty-eight breathless minutes. It’s crowded and hot and nobody moves, and Carson shouts: “Again!” grabbing the paddles, bringing them to the still chest, to the unbeating heart, and it’s been fifty-eight seconds since John Sheppard last drew breath.

“You did good, Rodney,” Elizabeth murmurs but he shakes his head, “We’ll see,” because they got back, they made it through the wormhole, but Ford and Adria might be injured from being exposed to vacuum, and Sheppard is lying on the grated floor unmoving. And Carson shouts: “Again!” – and they are all too busy staring at the bodies to notice that the Jumper has gone dark as if in mourning.

and there is finally after a whole long silent minute a beepbeep beepbeep beepbeep – a sign of  life , and Rodney releases the breath he has been holding and Meredith murmurs A miracle, though neither of them believe in such superstitious things like miracles but this could be one, this could be one after sixty-four seconds of silence. A sign of life: and they don’t believe in miracles, That Kind of Thing Doesn’t Happen in Real Life, and they don’t know yet if it is the truth when Carson announces:

“He’s going to be okay.”


And then he wakes up to the brightness of the Jumper lights and the shadows of worried faces looking down at him. Awareness creeping into his bones, he can feel – he can feel again: the grated floor uncomfortable against his back, the tingling ache in his muscles and bones, his legs – he can feel again. The painful pressure of the creature on his neck is gone entirely.

A beeping machine gives something away, and that’s Carson, yeah, pressing a stethoscope to his chest. It’s cold and uncomfortable and John would like him to move it away, but can’t find his voice.

“Easy, lad. Just breathe. You’ve had a rough time of it. We had to try four whole times to revive you – we’re very glad you’re still with us.”

There’s Markham and Stackhouse and their Dæmons, so utterly confused and, dazedly, John tries to remember. The wormhole. The four of them had been stuck inside the event horizon all the time, unaware – he isn’t sure how he got here, himself, he can’t remember passing through the event horizon, only the cold sudden onslaught of dying.

They made it.

Atlantis?

[we are here] She sings, and he knows then, for certain, that he’s alive and they’ve made it back. He tries to speak, but his voice’s all groggy and Carson smiles, pats his shoulder and then there’s a team of people gently transferring him onto a gurney, wheeling him out of there.

Speaking doesn’t work so he thinks instead: Hey, I made it.

[yes] She chuckles, warmly. [we were worried.] To his mind’s eye there is an apparition: a ZPM, half-full, glimmering hopefully and then suddenly depleting. A pulse rocketing before falling. [the potentia almost failed], She says by way of explaining, [we almost lost you] – and is he the potentia or is it the other way around?

No matter right now. He’s tired, sore, he feels like he’s going to have a scar but hey – scars are cool. Or whatsit. Kind of difficult to think. Maybe because he had his heart stopped and restarted. Would make anyone woozy.

[sleep], She urges, and he follows the suggestion, calmed by the promise: [we will be here when you wake up. we will watch over you]


Next waking up happens in the infirmary in the Central Tower of the City, and there’s a large irritating patch on his throat and shoulder indicating just what kind of trauma that’s happened. The lights are dimmed, and there’s a nurse bustling in a corner; he can hear Carson talking some way off, distantly. On the bedside table there’s his jacket, torn but whole and mostly untouched and he thinks that no one has dared to jar it, to upturn the pockets – they’d not dare – and the relief could make him laugh because here he is, battered, sore, worrying about empty pockets.

The weirdest thing of this, he supposes (and that tells him a lot about this job), the most weird thing isn’t the aliens or the spaceships or having a bug attached to his neck slowly sucking the life out of him (which he will never think about again if he can help it). Instead the weird thing is that he remembers the Jumper, Ford’s panicked face and the jolt of energy destroying his heartbeat.

He remembers: Atlantis was singing, soothingly, in his mother’s voice, and laughing with Dave’s voice, dancing in the library; She was in Afghanistan dying in the sand alongside him and the downed chopper. She was flying with him across the wide expanse of water of this planet, the surface of which he has never seen with his own eyes and, yet, he remembers it.

He remembers: the broad stretch of sky, turning into vacuum and the freedom beyond all of those million gleaming stars. Holding out his arms oh so avidly except they were wings now, and they carried his weight up, away, away and he had breathed the air easily and he had been a raven, just like in his dreams when he was eight years old.

He shouldn’t remember stuff like that. Now, stuck in the infirmary, blanket over his feet and people always lurking around so he can’t escape, he has nothing but time on his hands to think. What just happened out there? He’s heard stories – people being saved from the brink of death, recalling moments of lights and tunnels – but he hadn’t seen any tunnel. And they always say that the Dæmon would remember and he has no Dæmon to ask what really

happened

Pausing, he glances at the high ceiling, crisscrossed with Ancient patterns of beauty in steel and glass and light.

 does he?

“Hey, doc. Going to let me out of here, yet?”

“Not quite,” Carson says good–naturedly, his Scottish accent uplifting, and he’s a bit of a bastard like that with his smile and needles and John can see easily now why Rodney likes this guy. “Your heart stopped for over a full minute, Major. Now, thankfully, there appears to be no lasting damage. We have found this neat machine here which is a scanner, so I am not just making this up.”

He doesn’t ask Like an MRI, or what? because She’s whispering [you are all right] and he doesn’t need any other answers. He lets the doctor talk, check his wound – healing nicely – You’ve been sleeping for eight hours; please do sleep some more because I know you military sorts and you won’t sleep enough once I’ve released you from here.

[sleep], She suggests.

Once Carson’s gone, the intents that he does just that, John closes his eyes but doesn’t relax. Instead he tries to focus, to channel that inner voice like they do in stories and he’s read that this is how it works, human and Dæmon, the silent game: focus, focus – thinking he can be heard.

Hello.

She sounds amused and there’s a tingle under his palms: [hello]

Is this normal? John thinks, yet, yes, it sort of is. He considers McKay and Meredith, their shared looks and glares and snickers, and Ford’s chattering with Adria doubtlessly happening not just with their mouths but also their minds. It’s supposed to be normal. But Atlantis isn’t a Dæmon. She’s a City, alien and wonderful and unique and, what was it?, a few million years old at least?

[that is the truth] She hums, pleased with this progress, imprinting the impression on him that [we have seen seven million and three-hundred-thousand five-hundred and forty-six point three-seven of your years] and that is staggering but not (weirdly enough) off-putting.

Upsides.

Are you – what? His Dæmon? Companion? What should he ask? – Should you be able to talk with my mind and nobody else’s and is that why I’ve been dreaming about your voice since I was a child?

Never had to ask that kind of question before.

He doesn’t even ask, because She’s saying [we are], or maybe [yes], before he can finish the thought. Transmitting things other than broad ideas and emotions is difficult, and he can’t understand all the details She’s trying to tell him, not yet.

Are we thinking in Ancient or English? he tries projecting toward Her, in some semblance of order and sanity.

[the Alterans created me. you carry their blood]

He’ll take that as a Yes, We’re Talking Ancient, then, though how that’s possible he doesn’t know. There’s this translation matrix thing on the Stargate, as explained by Dr Jackson in one of the several DVDs on the Stargate Program John watched back in Cheyenne. Maybe that’s it. The Stargate is translating. Or something. Hey, this is an Ancient City able to read his mind and he’s considering semantics.

This is too much for his sore body right now. He needs – he needs to sleep.

I think I’m going to sleep now, he thinks at Her. And he closes his eyes and relaxes for real this time, and lets the dreams take him.


Like shaking off a drunken night of bad decisions, John slips out of the infirmary two days later and couldn’t be more relieved, except Carson hasn’t cleared him for duty for another five days because, in case he’d somehow forgot, his heart stopped for a whole minute. As if a guy could forget, but John doesn’t press the issue because he’s just glad to be away from all the prodding hands and poking needles and being scanned for the umpteenth time and repeating Yes, I’m Fine.

He finds not much has changed in those two days he’s spent – forcibly – in the infirmary. The Athosians are on better terms in general with Tau’ri, there is less dissent, fewer suspicious glances in either direction – not wholly eradicated, but they’re getting there.

Sending the Athosians away is out of the question and John’s glad that Elizabeth shares that sentiment. However, they have the issue now of lacking supplies for a much larger group of people than originally thought. Since they’re cut off from Earth, they need to start building bridges Out There. Unable (or, at least, not allowed) to go out in the field himself just yet, John assembles a meeting with Ford and Bates that afternoon, starting to go over planetary addresses as provided by the Ancient Database, marking places of interest, and highlighting various Gate teams to go there and explore. As of now, they have about half a dozen teams already assembled, people who’s been on rotations in the Milky Way, who know the drill.

If Bates isn’t on the same page as he all the time, John tries ignoring it. Ford is happy to be helpful and Adria is rather the fusser, John has come to understand, because she’s always double-checking stuff (an echo of Ford’s loyal nature, wanting to make sure everything’s going to turn out okay). He brushes off the concerned offhand remarks.

The scar, fresh on his throat, will never go away.

Ford admits, in the mess hall later: “I think it’s pretty cool,” and Adria sort of shuffles sideways like embarrassed by her human’s lack of tact, but John grins.

“Yeah?” Scars show experience, or some such, that’s the word. And John has seen much, much worse in his days even if Ford mightn’t have, yet.

“Aiden,” Teyla scowls, clearly not thinking such a remark to be appropriate; and McKay just sort of groans, like he’s got a splinter stuck in his thumb.

“Must we talk about bugs and scars right now?” he whines. “While we’re eating? Way to ruin a perfectly good meal, Lieutenant. Good job.” and Ford actually, truly cowers, murmuring to Adria that Everybody’s picking on me.

John knew he’d picked his team for a reason and this is it. Nobody else would be able to put up with this motley crew. While McKay is being sufficiently distracted, he chances reaching out and stealing some potato-like things from his plate and the man doesn’t even seem to notice, or he’s just lost his appetite. On the other hand, Meredith does notice, and she winks at him. Winks.

Huh.

John, scrambling for a response, smirks and winks right back and, OK, never sort of flirted with someone else’s Dæmon before.

This could be turning out all right, after all.


And since no one is noticing his mind melding with the City now and then, they won’t have to know, and if anybody catches him slightly distracted and glaze-eyed, they don’t remark on it. Writing it off as aftershocks, maybe, due to the whole heart-stopping thing, and the Bug Which No One Is Allowed to Mention.

(Now he no longer wants to tell people that Shy is a pretty little bug, with green scales and pitch-black eyes like small pearls and no wings, because he’s got all kinds of awful association with that word now. But he’s thirty-three years old and a Dæmon always, always Settles in time for adulthood and no man his age should have a Dæmon of undetermined Shape –)

No one ever dares to touch his jacket. Not even McKay, whom John has spotted patting down other people’s pockets in search for powerbars and chocolate (or possibly answers to the universe), with Meredith on the lookout.

The jokes about Shy that the marines so friskily shared back in Cheyenne have died down, and John uses that to his advantage by Not Mentioning Her to sort of make people forget. People do that: forget, pass aside, move on. Eventually, given enough time, they might not take note to Her absence. That’s how it’s always worked out, after all.


McKay, yeah, he had expected the guy to make things complicated.

Not Teyla.

So, scratch that, then. She approaches him, after seven missions together, in the locker room when they’re divesting themselves of their gear post the regular check-up in the infirmary. Ford is swift, efficient in his movements and they’re serving some kind of beef-chicken-thing today which he likes, so he is quick to leave. Rodney’s not even here: he’s hurried to his lab to Get Some Work Done (apparently missions don’t count as Important Work). So there’s just him and Teyla, and Kanaan of course, and John thinks nothing of it until he’s checking his kit routinely and she says, rather solemnly, “John, what happened to Shy on board that Jumper?”

And reality comes crashing down.

Not with a bang but with a whimper.

All the lies are waiting on his tongue. He knows what she’s referring to. His heart stopped. He, technically, died. And there had been no withering screams, no dying pleads for help, just – nothing. Nothing they could see, anyway.

Kanaan leaps up from the floor to sit atop one of the benches lined up by the western wall, and John has a distinct feeling he’s trying to give them – privacy. Which makes no sense because humans and their Dæmons do everything together –

She’s looking at him, concerned (and there’s an echo there of his mother crying over his cradle and Pete saying She’s not unhappy because of you but for you). John sighs.

“John,” Teyla says. “There are people wondering.”

No news. “Yeah, I know.”

“You always appear to be alone.”

Again: no news. “Yeah.”

Do they have the word Strangeling in the Athosian language? Could the Stargate’s translation matrix carry it over?

“Are you thinking I should’ve died in that Jumper?” He doesn’t mean for his voice to become so harsh, but can’t really help it.

She doesn’t budge. Stubbornly. Shocked at the notion of such a wish: affronted, or perhaps saddened. “No! I am very glad that you are alive, John.”

“But you’re thinking it. Hey,” he cuts in, before she can say anything more, “I don’t blame you. Look. It’s –” a weird, unique situation and I have never told anybody because my parents always told me to keep quiet about it if I wanted to live a normal life? ”I do have a Dæmon,” he says instead because he does. He is the raven in his dreams, flying through the skies and the raven doesn’t even exist and he’s not even sure what’s going on – he’s like a ghost – he is the ghost. “You just can’t see Her.” Which is just sort of true because they can, in the physical sense of seeing but how could they possibly know what She is? “Or hear Her.” That part is more or less true. “She’s kinda Shy.”

“I just wanted to tell you, John, because some of my people have begun to worry. You are never seen in public with your Dæmon, and they wonder why.”

It’s not like he can say his Dæmon is some ugly dangerous monster, or a bird with wings, or something to be embarrassed about because really any possibility is impossible – [we have a bond with you], She tries to soothe him when feeling his pulse starting to pick up in angry frustration. He didn’t ask for this life. He didn’t ask to be like this. He didn’t ask to be a freak.

Teyla lets the issue go, and John lets her go, and he hopes that she and Kanaan will keep this conversation to themselves. He’s pretty sure they will. She’s loyal, and he trusts her.

He’s worried, though, because she just admitted that people have started noticing his oddities and rumors can spread faster than wildfire. This is a small confined base, everyone constantly threatening to step on each other’s toes and what will happen if people pick up dangerous ideas?

So he tells her: “They don’t need to worry.”


[we are not alone]

ten thousand years has been a long time to be alone

Chapter Text

vi.

icarus and the sun

he wishes his Dæmon was a powerful, vicious thing, now, visible to them all:
a wolf about to rip open throats because that’s what he feels like. 


The roll downhill begins when the Wraith are chasing them for the fifth time toward the Stargate, and they manage to climb through the simmering blue.

But they’ve barely stepped through when a beam of light hits Meredith squarely in her side and a surprised noise escapes the Dæmon’s throat – Rodney stumbles and falls with a strangled cry, right there in the middle of the Gate Room, and Meredith lies unconscious two feet from her human.

In a leap John’s heart is in his throat.

Then the Stargate shuts off and a medical team is scrambling down the stairs. They don’t dare moving Rodney or Meredith, not yet, until they figure out how to avoid touching the Dæmon; and not a second passes by, and, without thinking, John is letting his TAC vest fall to the ground and he tugs off his jacket, and managing to negotiate Meredith onto Rodney’s chest without stirring either of them, no direct physical contact but he can feel her body heat through the fabric. Then the medics are rushing human and Dæmon off into the infirmary, and John looks at them go except Ford is staring at him open-mouthed, and –

Shit. His jacket. His jacket is still covering Meredith’s back, like a shield, and they’re walking away. His jacket with the pockets with the-not-there-but-they-think-there’s-a-Dæmon-there. And if they walk away with it and he remain here, they’ll figure pretty fast that either there’s no Dæmon, or they’ll expect him to collapse in pain due to the distance being put between them.

Teyla tugs at his arm, and manages to make him follow, Kanaan on their heels. They follow the gurney, stares at their backs. 

“John, are you all right?”

“Am I – Teyla, I’m not the one who just got shot.”

Twenty seconds ago he touched – or sort of, anyway, because he moved her – he nearly touched Meredith without express permission from her or Rodney. Not that they’re able to give it right now. He acted on instinct, overriding everything else. Should he have done that? Shit. Is she hurt? She took one of those Wraith stunners right in her side, her tiny body crumbling, and Rodney had shouted in pain before collapsing – they have a pulse but are they okay?

Shit. He tried to touch Rodney’s Dæmon right there in the Gate Room. Shouldn’t have done that. Shouldn’t have done that.

“I know,” Teyla says gently. “But considering what you just did …” Ford staring at him. A little afraid even (of him?), but why? “People will be concerned.” For him? Or Rodney, and Meredith, the fact that John almost touched her right there? Or the lack of his Dæmon? The fact is that they’ve never seen it and this place is not full of asshats who are easily fooled –

They reach the infirmary within forty-five seconds and they are shifting Rodney from a gurney to a bed, Meredith asleep on his chest. Carson’s there, a flurry of movement and sound but all John can see is Rodney’s slack face and Meredith’s still body, and he hears Lyle’s screams as he ghosted, Sumner’s dying pleads –

[they are alive, John], She tries to soothe him: [they are alive]

It will have to be enough for now.


John stays by his bedside until Rodney wakes up, and no one questions it. He hasn’t dared touching Meredith again, even to remove his jacket. He lets it linger there. And since he can’t – shouldn’t – move from the room, Ford fetches him something to eat, and a PDA so that he’ll have something else to stare at other than Rodney’s face. Distractions, distractions. He tries writing up a report, but finds the words slipping through his fingers like sand, and gives up. He’ll do it later. Later.

After half an hour, Elizabeth shows up. He greets her distractedly.

“Major, what happened out there?”

He sighs. “Same old thing.” Should write in a postcard back to Earth: ‘We’re having a great time out here: exploring new worlds, being chased by the Wraith … at least all the running is keeping us in shape.’

She nods. “Which makes it the fifth time your team has encountered the Wraith, after how many missions …?”

“Nine.” He glances at Rodney. This is the first time any of his team has gotten hurt so far – par that Incident with the Bug – and it’s just typical that it’s like this, Rodney’s Dæmon getting hit and nearly killing them both due to the shock. “So, probably not a coincidence.”

“No,” Weir says. “I think it’s pretty damn obvious now: we have a spy in Atlantis.”


No, is his first instinctive reaction.

Investigating the Athosians, questioning them? No. No, Teyla’s one of his team, she’s trustworthy and her people are the same and have they even talked with them? None of them could be spies, least of all to the Wraith. Why would the Athosians, having been plagued by the Wraith for millennia, ever broker some kind of alliance with those things?

But Bates is disdainful, his Dæmon sitting on the table purring with suspicion – although Adria is trying to counter it by being uplifting – Ford seems torn between his loyalty to Atlantis and Weir, to command, and his trust in Teyla and his team.

But John is fuming.

Rodney’s still in the infirmary. Meredith hasn’t woken up. It’s put everyone on edge.

It’d been a tricky thing, the Jacket Problem – when the meeting had been called, Carson had eventually helped him out to lift Meredith out of the jacket, so that he could leave the place unhindered – and no one is the wiser (hopefully).

“If we’ve been compromised, which we have every indication that we have, then it is most certainly one of the Athosians,” Bates says and John barely manages to contain himself. He wants to stand up and give the guy a proper black eye.

[John], She whispers, [we mustn’t aggravate them], although the lights flicker overhead for a moment, causing them all to look up uncertainly. Power fluctuations, Weir wonders, before they move on. They can’t feel Atlantis trembling beneath their feet like John does.

“I don’t like it either, Major,” Elizabeth says, “but the safety of this base and its personnel are my main concern right now – as they should be yours.”


He can’t stop the interviews. Not without losing more face and Elizabeth’s faith. Their team is grounded for now, anyway, and John returns to the infirmary as soon as he can. Carson is checking on their vitals when he gets there, and he wants to hear it from the man too even if Atlantis sings, [they are alive].

“How’re they doing?”

“Better. I hope they’ll wake within a few hours. I think the neurons fired by the Wraith stunner overwhelmed their systems. But the shock is lifting now. Rodney’s blood pressure is a bit elevated, still, but we got it under control.”

A few hours. He nods. “Let me know when they wake up?”

Carson smiles gently. “I will, Major.”


Disorientated, Rodney wakes up the same moment as Meredith does, exactly eighty-seven and a half minutes later and John is sitting by the bedside, fiddling with a datapad in pretense of doing something important but, really, he’s just playing Tetris. There’s a groan from the bed and the PDA is forgotten in an instant.

“McKay?”

“Huh? Hm? Ugh, not so loud,” the astrophysicist grumbles, when his name is repeated and John quirks a grin because Rodney sounds like himself. “What happened?”

“Meredith got hit by one of those stunners in the Gate Room; you both collapsed.”

“This …” Rodney cranes his neck to look around, a hand already resting on his Dæmon’s soft back for support. “This isn’t the Gate Room.”

“Five points to Gryffindor. You’re in the infirmary.”

The man glares at him like he’s saying nonsensical things, which happens a lot of the time, so John isn’t jarred the slightest by it. “I’m going to let that hideous reference slide for now. I meant, how did we get here? I wasn’t holding Mer when we – oh, god, did somebody –?!”

“Easy, buddy,” John says quickly before any horribly ideas can enter Rodney’s mind. “No. Nobody touched her – er, you,” because Meredith is looking right at him now, obviously also awake. “I used a jacket to carry you. No direct contact. We had to move you because you were right in front of the Gate.” The most rational part of Rodney’s brain – not that there is much irrationality there – will understand. Lying there they’d be in danger of the kawoosh effect or at least be very much in the way, and they’d not be able to treat him.

“Oh.” The man’s hand is curved around Meredith’s back, worriedly, possessively, and John might even say a little scared. It’s not a look that fits Rodney’s face.

Meredith stretches carefully. “Ow. That wasn’t very nice,” she murmurs. “Stunned?”

“Yeah,” John lets out a breath. They’re both okay. “Carson said there should be no ill effects, now that you’ve woken up. You won’t believe what you’ve missed.”

“What? Okay, shoot. No, wait, don’t.”

His lips quirk in a wry grin. It doesn’t sound like there’s any lasting damage to Rodney’s head. “You’ve been unconscious roughly four hours, and Bates and Elizabeth have just launched an investigation of the Athosians because we think there’s a spy somewhere among them.”

Rodney and Meredith stare, and both exclaim “What?!” the exact same millisecond.

“And we’re grounded and all Gate travel is suspended until we’ve figured this out,” John finishes.

“Four hours and that happened?” Rodney shakes his head, disbelieving, sharing a look with his Dæmon; “We’re out of it for a little while, and Atlantis descends into chaos!”

“We really mustn’t get shot anymore,” Meredith complains, equally annoyed.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” John agrees, and realizes that he’s in an actual conversation with Meredith and Rodney, and neither one seem to care or stop him. That’s – rather huge. Ford’s Dæmon has never spoken with him, not like this, and Kanaan has barely done that either – but Kanaan is Athosian so does it really count? – building bridges right there.


Atlantis isn’t as upset now that they’re awake, Her Song less jaded. It’s comforting enough that John thinks he might sleep tonight, but Teyla’s under suspicion for being a Wraith spy and she and Bates almost beat each other up – would have, if not for his and Ford’s intervening.

“You do not understand!” Teyla doesn’t shout but almost, her anger radiating in waves. “By putting this blame on my people, you are accusing us of being Worshippers –”

Kanaan is growling, and would probably rip Bates’ Dæmon apart if given the chance, if not for the weapons watching. Now the two are circling each other, ready to pounce, and Bates shrugs off Ford’s grip, glaring at the Athosian.

“We’re not accusing you of that,” John cuts in. He doesn’t know what a Worshipper is, but it’s clearly got to do with Wraith and it’s an insult worse than traitor, worse than liar and thief. Atlantis supplies an idea: [slaves through death and life], and, fuck, can’t Bates come to grip with the fact that there’s no way in hell these people, tortured by the Wraith for generations, can be spies?

“Bates, get out of here, cool off. And Teyla, you stay away from him. You can’t go beating up the Head of Security. This happens again, and I’ll have to suspend you from the team.”


Four days later, Rodney and Meredith are deemed good to go again, and they gather for a mission to M49-237; Weir gives them a go. The issue is not resolved, though. Bates is insistent that one of the Athosians still has got to be a spy, despite Weir having interviewed every single one of them.

There are a people on this planet with whom the Athosians have traded before, and they’re supposedly a friendly bunch. They need some allies to trade with for food, so it’s a given. They bring a couple of other teams with them, too, just in case, for backup. Weir’s idea. There are some ruins here right by the Gate and Lieutenant Miller from AR-3 is especially interested – says they ought to send a team later to excavate, if possible and if the natives let them. Guy’s got an archaeology major.

It’s all going well. Too well. Then Teyla and Ford are leaving for the village a couple of klicks east, and in their absence the Wraith are on them. They don’t come through the Gate, which means they’ve got to have a ship nearby.

From the corner of his eye he sees Markham scrambling, grabbing a hold of McKay’s shoulder to keep him running. Rodney’s clutching his pack tightly, refusing to let go of their equipment – it’s not like they’ve got a lot of stuff to spare – and John kneels behind a fallen pillar, providing cover fire. Behind him he hears that distinctive sound of someone entering the Stargate, and counts: one, two, three. Half the team through. But Ford and Teyla are still out there – “Ford!” he cries into the radio. “Get back to the Gate! We’ve got Wraith!”

“Sir, Adria and I are on our own, Teyla and Kanaan went to –”

“Find them and get yourselves to the Gate stat!”

There’s half a dozen of them, bearing down and what if a ship is coming, one of those Darts? Or worse, a Hiveship. There could be a hundred Wraith on this planet by the time the twin suns have set.

He empties half a clip into the first Wraith, and thinks they really, really need to issue a lot more extra ammo on each mission because within a minute he’s going to run out of bullets. Turning around, he spots McKay, Jenkins, and Stackhouse hovering behind a half-crumbled wall of stone.

“Go! Go!”

They move. Firing off a round at another Wraith, downing it, John leaps back and he’s twenty feet from the Gate when, suddenly, he senses a prickle of awareness and – the Wraith isn’t dead, fucking stubborn sons of –

A flare across his side, his shoulder: he doesn’t remember hitting the ground.


John is seriously starting to hate the infirmary. Twice in a month is too often to wake up here. Especially now when he’s got little recollection of how he got here.

[you were shot], She says. She sounds worried, and tendrils of warmth spreads through his hands – he wishes he could reach out and touch the nearest wall, just to make sure. The bed is too far to lean over and if he does something like that then the doc will notice, wondering what he’s up to. Carson doesn’t want to let him go, yet, but he was grazed, not hit head-on, by the stun beam, and Teyla and Ford are still back on that planet because they’re refusing to send a rescue mission –

Entering the Control Room, there’s Bates and Rodney’s yelling at him, and Elizabeth is trying to mediate, and nobody’s listening. The Stargate is sill and quiet, and there’s no sign of a team being assembled for a rescue mission.

“… they went to check out the area, make contact with the natives,” Markham is saying to Weir, reporting the situation, and Bates’ Dæmon makes a disdained sound.

“And whose idea was that?” the sergeant says.

“Mine,” John says, calmly, ignoring the protests of Shouldn’t you be unconscious in the infirmary? Seating himself on an empty chair, leisurely, he crosses his ankles, expressing an air of almost boredom like being shot by Wraith stunners is something that happens to him every day. By the way Bates’ Dæmon eyes him with a twitching nose, the sergeant doesn’t like it. Good. Maybe it’s juvenile, this game, but right now John doesn’t care if he set Bates off a little. “She was following my orders. The natives are a shy people; Teyla told me we’d scare ‘em off by coming in a big group.”

Teyla told you.” Bates isn’t even trying to hide it.

“What’s that, Sergeant?”

“She was conveniently absent during the ambush.”

Rodney makes an exasperated noise, throwing out his arms, and John is relieved – very relieved – that Rodney’s on his side on this. “So was Ford! Maybe it was him!” His tone suggests that neither of them could possibly be spies, and that anyone thinking so are asshats.

But Bates looks at him, and John meets his eyes and holds them. “I’m merely stating a fact, sir.” It’s right there: he doesn’t think this is how it should be at all. If Sumner had been here, and not this wrecked zoomie in charge, it’d all be different. If Sumner had been alive –

Wrenching himself out of the chair, John steps forward, right into the man’s personal space. Neither of them flinches, though Bates’ Dæmon looks uncomfortable, like she wants to back away but can’t. He’s prepared to bust him, he realizes, protectiveness for his people, his team, starting to override common sense. Words lie poisonous and heavy right on his tongue;


A klaxon starts blaring; the Stargate is activating. Someone dialing in. One of the technicians relies: it’s the AR-1 IDC. Ford and Teyla. And a radio transmission, hurried:

“This is Teyla,” and she sounds concerned, fervent. They can’t hear any weapons fire in the background, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of harm’s way, that the Wraith aren’t close. “Lieutenant Ford is injured, he’s unconscious – I have him and Adria here with me, but we need to go through the Stargate. The Wraith are closing in on our position. Please lower the shield!”

Bates looks at Weir. “You lower that shield and we could be opening this base up to a Wraith attack.”

No, no – he’s lying – [we would not let that happen], Atlantis assures him, and John looks at Elizabeth, sternly.

“Atlantis, please, let us through!” Until she’s received confirmation that the iris is down, Teyla won’t dare stepping through the Gate.

Soldiers take up position, semi-automatic machineguns all pointed at the open wormhole, and the shield is lowered. Half a moment later, Teyla is dragging a body with her – Ford, he’s unmoving but breathing – and Kanaan is gently holding Adria between his teeth, lowering her onto the floor.

John is certain that that display is one of trust and concern, a friend rescuing another, but others just see this: a Dæmon holding onto another, possibly harming them. Teyla standing over Ford’s still body, armed, possibly the one who put it there. John wants to shout: Lower your fucking weapons! but the guards won’t, and Teyla and Kanaan look around, startled, as they’re surrounded. They don’t understand what’s going on – not until it’s too late, and the marines order them to lower their arms and surrender.

Surrender.


“If she was helping the Wraith, why bother bringing Ford back?”

John is prepared to argue for the rest of his life to clear his teammate’s name. The lack of surprise tells him a lot, too: he is loyal, and Teyla has deserved that loyalty, as has Ford, and McKay – and Elizabeth. Can’t they see that? Why can’t they see that?

“In fact, why bother coming back at all?”

Bates says, “She’s of more use to them here in Atlantis.”

Them. The Wraith. But she fucking isn’t. John bites back a growl. Wishes his Dæmon was a powerful, vicious thing, now, visible to them all; a wolf about to rip open throats because that’s what he feels like –

“As for apparently rescuing Lieutenant Ford –”

“She carried him through the damn Gate, what’s apparent about that!?”

The lights flicker, bright and dim all at once, and there’s a murmur of concern from Elizabeth’s Dæmon. Simon, John has learned his name is. And he looks at Elizabeth, hoping from the bottom of his heart that she can’t be believing this, can’t be trusting Bates’ words –

[not all minds are open to us], She says, a way of confirming that She doesn’t know either. It’s unsettling. John wants to be able to trust Elizabeth.

“Ford is still unconscious, sir, we still don’t know what happened,” Bates argues.

“That’s enough.”

“It’s my job to express security concerns –”

“I’ve heard enough of your concerns!”

“Again, with all due respect, Major, I believe you’re putting your personal feelings in front of –”

[he does not see like you do], She soothes, and he breathes, tries to control his angry heartrate. He wants to dismiss the man and never see that face again. But they’re stuck here, cut off from Earth. The sky is full of dangers and they can’t make any more enemies down here. They can’t. [focus on the right things]

“Gentlemen,” Elizabeth cuts in before physical blows can land, and John’s insides are boiling. They hadn’t even allowed anyone else onto this meeting; not any from the two teams that were part of the ambush, not McKay or Miller or Jenkins or anybody. If not for Carson’s word that he’s fine, John wouldn’t be here either, still tied down to a bed in the infirmary. “We need to work together if we are to find out what happened.” She fixes John with a stare, and he almost welcomes it. “Major, please sit down.”

He wants to pace, his whole body trembling. Reluctantly he pulls out a chair.

“What do we know, exactly?” Elizabeth asks. She wants the facts, objectively, the pure numbers in their rawest form.

“We’ve been ambushed by the Wraith on six planets. Six out of ten missions,” John says. Tries to be calm. “We’re being detected, or tracked, somehow. Something giving away our position.”

“Someone,” Bates corrects.

“Or something.”

“Do you believe that, Major?”

“Why not? The Wraith are technologically advanced, they’ve got ships. Maybe they have trackers of some kind …”

“So why only on six missions and not all ten?”

John doesn’t know, he doesn’t fucking know – [the blood of the Alternans], Atlantis reminds him, [the enemy fears them] – and John murmurs, more to himself, surprised: “Maybe the Wraith are trying to track the Ancients.”

“But they’re gone,” Bates says, frowning. “The Ancients are dead.”

Not all of them. Elizabeth is picking up on it too, now: “Major, are you saying you think the Wraith are somehow tracking people with the gene?”

“Well, we all know they hated them.” The last War, wiping them all out – She keens, a mournful wail [they are lost, and we are all that is left], and John can’t physically caress Her calmingly, so he tries to do it mentally instead – She is silently weeping, [we were so alone].

“But how? With some kind of device?”


And that’s what they find, eventually. But John hadn’t expected – hadn’t wished – to find it on Teyla, amongst her things. But there it is: a small thing, round, glimmering under the artificial lights, silver and with an etched design that is rather fetching. A pretty locket. A gift from a father to her daughter. Rodney leads him to the labs, cutting him off mid-rant because Teyla is part of his team, Teyla is loyal Teyla is a friend she and Kanaan cannot possibly ever be traitors –

Rodney sighs. “I know, I was as surprised as you are,” he says, explaining that Bates was right – but he isn’t – no.

Teyla’s innocent. “I found it,” John remembers sharply. “On Athos, by the ruins she showed me. It was there in the sand and I picked it up. gave it to her!”

McKay frowns, considers the words. “You touched it? Did you feel it activate?”

“Yes to the first, no to the second. What is it exactly?”

“A tracking device: a beacon. The signal definitely isn’t strong enough to carry very far – it doesn’t send a signal through subspace, so there must be relay stations on some planets.” The six planets they’d visited. Maybe in the ruins on M49-237 there was something hidden. Oh, but it explains everything. “So we don’t need to worry about them finding Atlantis.”

Relief washes through John’s bones like water. Teyla’s innocent; they’ve all been played. “So, when I picked it up …”

“I guess the Wraith made it to track Ancients. Your ATA-gene activated it,” Rodney summarizes, nodding. “It could’ve been dormant for centuries.”

Athos. Athos burning, the ships in the sky. Was that because of him? Is it his fault, the Wraith waking up, the Athosians losing their home? Did he –

[we could not have known]

“We’ve got to destroy it,” McKay is saying, but then John gets a better idea.

It’s time they got proper intel.


Ford wakes up in that same hour, with a headache but otherwise fine. It turns out he wasn’t stunned at all; he’d stumbled, hit his head on a rock. In a way that’s worse, because head injuries can be tricky and dangerous. Carson wants to keep an eye on him overnight. Adria isn’t protesting.

They visit him before they go: they’ve got a Wraith to catch. Ford is a bit annoyed he can’t be part of it, but John promises that he’s still part of the team, and will be back with them as soon as Carson clears him for active duty.

“You know, Teyla didn’t do anything, right?” Ford worries, and they tell him the whole story. The locket with the tracking device, its response to the Ancient gene; the fluke of John finding it in the sands on Athos. They don’t talk about guilt, or fear, or nightmares.


Hearing still a bit off after the explosion, John finds Teyla viciously sparring with the remaining Wraith in a sunlit glade. It’s ferocious, and she’s started teaching him those moves back in the gym, but this is not a game. This is deadly, and she’s so close to winning but the Wraith isn’t human. It’s dangerously strong. In flash it is upon her, and she lands harshly, wind knocked from her lungs.

Kanaan cries out – it looks like he’s been thrown aside like a rag doll – John grabs for his 9mil, but the clip is empty – the stunner. He’s got the stunner –

The Wraith crumbles and Teyla staggers to her feet. Kanaan is there at once, trying to support her.

“I am fine,” she murmurs, burrowing her fingers in her Dæmon’s soft fur.


[they are alive]

and for now that is enough.


They keep the Wraith locked behind bars and forcefields, with guards continually present. Most of the time it does not speak. It paces. It does not plead, but when it does speak it threatens with Death and Doom, and promises that soon soon soon a Hiveship will find them. Soon the Wraith will unleash their armada upon the City, finding it atop of the waves, and they will sink it a final time.

The Wraith does not speak about its own Hive or origins, about numbers or anything useful: it does not give up its secrets. It sits there in its cell and John is prepared to let it rot away and starve.

They need to restore the shield.

They need to restore the shield.

Chapter Text

vii.

and free us from this mortal coil

is this what they mean by Strangelings wanting
to burn the world? the villain in the fairytales,
turning all else to dust because they have
no Dæmon to stop them


« Emerging as a tiny light from right above the heart, a Dæmon takes sometimes seconds,
sometimes hours to form into a First Shape. And this Shape is the first Moment of the Soul … »


To expect a calm moment in this galaxy, one has to be in stasis or, quite possibly, dead. Whichever.

They have overcome three million lightyears and there is only upward and forward left to go, Earth far behind; and they have found some allies, through Teyla’s efficient skills at making first contact, and the knowledge of her people. But there are enemies too. Some right under their noses or, rather, in hidden underground bunkers and John wishes he’d just gone back to the village without checking out that weird energy signature that Shouldn’t Have Been There –

“So much for two separate cultures,” Rodney mutters when the heavy doors open and they see the leader of the Genii step through.


They want to build an A-bomb and destroy the Wraith.

It is an alliance Not Pictured.

If they don’t agree in their terms, help them on their mission, offering C4 and expertise – well, John figures they’ll all be executed, in a nice little row, and buried someplace, dumped in the heavy waters. And the Genii will send a doleful message back to Atlantis: the Wraith destroyed them, and none could dispute it.


The Alliance – fleeting as it was – ruptures at the seams, and they return through the Stargate with weapons pointed at their backs and constantly looking behind them.

There’s the lingering aftertaste that this isn’t the end: something worse might follow.

At least if the Genii attempt sending a nuke over, they have the Stargate shield to protect them.


They manage to interface the stolen Wraith device with the computers and Atlantis doesn’t like it, but allows it because this is information they need to know. They gather around as it flickers onto the screens: watching, hoping it can’t be that bad; how many ships could there possibly be?

[they will come], She warns, a bell tolling in the sunset: [they will swarm the skies] and John can’t make Her words into lies. They have no ZPM, no shields, no weapons. They are so tiny and exposed in the large waters of the planet’s ocean, an easy target. Outgunned and undermanned and no way to go back to Earth for reinforcements –

[we need potentiae to protect us]

But from where?


He’s carrying Teyla and Kanaan over to the mainland in a Jumper when they see the storm clinging to the horizon: the whole width of the planet, it almost looks like, and it’s unlike any Earth storm John has ever seen.

And they haven’t found any ZMPs yet, so they have no way to power the shields, and Atlantis is brittle in that odd way She shouldn’t have to be – [the Alterans made us to be not alone], She whispers, [we need the potentiae] – and if they don’t do something, quickly, then She’ll be destroyed.

(John can’t leave. Can’t imagine walking through the Stargate leaving Her corridors empty and letting Her drown all alone –)

He isn’t sure his fears are translating loudly enough for anyone else to see, but then Rodney and Meredith figure out a plan and She is assuring, [we can survive this], and John is agreeing because he’ll do whatever it takes to save Her.

Whatever it takes.


Then: Ford and Teyla are stuck on the mainland helping the last straggling Athosians to take shelter; he needs their backup, but the radio signal is breaking into static. He hears the Stargate activate, and Atlantis is shouting about [wrongness] and [intruders] – and there is the echo of gunshots and John knows, without ever seeing it happen, that Miller and Jenkins are dead, their lifesigns winking out like candlelights dying by the wind –

And on the radio, he hears Rodney and Elizabeth, crying out: What’s going on here?! as the Genii strike force overtakes them.


it is a thing that should not be


He doesn’t even need the lifesigns detector to move around: She is singing in his head so loudly, cutting out all other noise and he sees every room and every corridor, and She says, [we will help you].

The Genii have Rodney and Elizabeth hostage. A live feed in multicolor, right there in his mind, providing every angle and every word and every move: men in bland green uniforms; they’re not even cuffing or tying their prisoners up because they have them at gunpoint, and their leader is a man with cold eyes and a scarred face. John feels the floors tremble along with the staccato of his anger.

There is a shout – almost like a Ghosting and – a hand reaching out and it’s wrong. Acastus Kolya is Darkness and his Dæmon is in the likeness of a Terran wolf and – because She is letting him See Everything – there’s Rodney, refusing to answer questions, trying to be stoic, babbling uselessness to delay them –

and Kolya’s hand wraps around Meredith’s neck

Rodney turns absolutely silent.


Touching another’s Dæmon is forbidden, it’s the most terrible form of torture and it’s wrong it’s wrong it’s wrong;

and John has never, never really understood why because he hasn’t felt it before, because people are constantly walking through Atlantis’ halls unable to hear Her singing – except the Dæmon is the uttermost expression of your Soul; the Dæmon Is You;

and Kolya is holding Meredith by the scruff of her neck so she can’t breathe, and Atlantis is telling John Everything (he can feel the foreign boots stepping hollowly through the Gate Room and the echo of Miller and Jenkins dying, and each lifesign detected by the sensors is a star blinding in intensity);

and Kolya – John wants to cut apart the bastard’s chest and flay open his lungs and scatter his cold dark heart slowly – is pressing a gun to Meredith’s head and Rodney is absolutely silent –


(Anything else, John might’ve been able to live with and maybe even after some long while forgive, in the sense he’d no longer have the fierce desire to rip bodies apart but now, not now, not ever now –)


And Rodney can do nothing but relent.


Shoot a human and they may live. Shoot the Dæmon and they’ll probably die: Shoot the Dæmon and don’t hesitate. Shoot the Dæmon and don’t hesitate.

Yes, Sarge, John thinks and he presses the trigger utterly gently, and follows the bullets with a strange detached glee – the storm is whipping around them, now, water and lightning and ash: but they don’t know that there is another storm, coming to get them. They don’t know because Kolya says, smiling: “How is this for credibility? Dr Weir is dead.” – and he’s still holding onto Meredith, the Dæmon is whimpering and Rodney can’t breathe 

is Simon still and cold, too? Simon could be Ghosting because Elizabeth, Elizabeth is no longer

Maybe he should be terrified. These brisk, clear movements, all planned out in his head, and She’s is trying to stop him but it isn’t possible; maybe he should feel sick, but right now he can’t.

They’re not even human. They’re creatures, these Genii, and he sees them fall like the hours of time he’s forgotten from childhood. They’re nothing but whispers of ghosts, infesting the City and he’s setting them free setting them free setting them free

 

 

 

[John], She sings, sharp and sweet and trying to stop him – [we must save them] and there is Rodney, still alive and far too silent, and Meredith limp and quiet and scared in a way she shouldn’t be, and Elizabeth and Simon – but Elizabeth isn’t

[the haereticus is a liar]

And John has killed sixty-one men and let their weapons clatter to the ground uselessly and he feels his blood like ice, pouring across the walls and the floors and fill the City to the brim – he’ll freeze to death before the storm manages to swallow them all –

[the haereticus is a liar]

And She shows him: Elizabeth breathing, Simon resting by her feet, and She repeats [they are alive] and Rodney is holding onto Meredith so tightly they are winding into one, and [they are alive] and [we must save them] a hundred thousand times –

[John, listen] please, is the echo, because he is destroying himself;

is this what they mean by Strangelings wanting to burn the world? The villain in the fairytales, turning all else to dust because they have no Dæmon to stop them –

 

She is trying to stop him. 


Kolya has let go of Meredith, finally, finally, and she is slumped in Rodney’s weakened, shuddering arms and neither of them are speaking anymore. The Jumper has landed and John breathes life into the generators again, this one chance at saving them all from drowning, but he isn’t going to let them get away with this – he isn’t going to let them go.

Ford and Adria reach him, and Teyla and Kanaan, and they watch him as if he were a ghost and he wonders: can they see the shadow of all the bodies he has killed today, etched so prettily onto his skin?


Lightning strikes.

Kolya is standing in front of the open wormhole, the Stargate a bleak promise, and he’s got a gun pointed at them, at Elizabeth and Simon, at Rodney and Meredith. John feels Ford and Adria appearing behind him, the echo of Teyla and Kanaan and he’s not even sure – can’t remember – why Carson’s there but they’re all here together for the end, and he can’t hear their voices, only Atlantis screaming at him:

[we have to save them]

He’s not a diplomat and he can’t let Kolya go, he might have once, might have shown mercy but Kolya touched Meredith, Kolya stole Rodney’s voice and John can’t forgive.

A second of chaos: the four remaining Genii, scattering, confused, trying to return fire and Kolya is saying something, lips moving – not I give up, but taunts and there is no sign of him fearing death – Let me give it to you, John promises avidly and doesn’t look away as the bullet cleaves the man’s head.

The man’s Dæmon doesn’t even scream because it happens too fast and they both fall back, through the event horizon, and disappear.

(There is no settling of satisfaction in John’s chest, merely the dullness of rushing blood and the crashing of an aircraft right onto the runway, we were too late, we were too late a constant mantra.)


Lightning strikes.

[we have saved them], Atlantis whispers through the tears – singing Ancient words that could be meaning: oh hushaby my little lamb, the wolf has gone; and the shield falls upon them, and John can finally listen to the rest of the world again.


Afterward, Rodney is Too Silent and John doesn’t like it, but can barely speak himself. The refugees haven’t returned yet, still unaware of the chaos that has descended, and the bodies scattered across the corridors. They haven’t seen yet all of the bullets John has left behind him, like a trail of blood, leading through Her heart and to the Gate Room.

Instead Rodney is curled up on the floor by the console, holding Meredith so close so close can’t be close enough and he won’t ever let go, refuses to move and Elizabeth is shaken, but at least she can speak. She can speak because they didn’t take Simon from her to make her reveal the secrets of Atlantis.

He wants, so desperately, to reach out. Lay a hand on a shoulder, a nape of neck and whisper It’ll be all right. But last time he held a hand, Lyle ghosted after feeling Laila die – he cannot ever hold a hand again, not without it dying –

John watches, helplessly. Carson, even with blood on his face and a concussion making him unsteady, is trying to approach and help, because he is such a selfless soul and his Dæmon is murmuring comforts like weed, and they’re keeping Rodney and Meredith out of sight from the towering windows.


[we have saved them]

But he cannot believe Her – for once, he cannot trust Her words;

have we truly saved them?

Chapter Text

viii.

redemption

making even with death is the easy part;
it is much harder being alive


It’s been fifteen hours, and the Stargate is once again back to life and people and their Dæmons are streaming through. For a staggering moment, John watches the proceedings from the bannisters, realizing just their vulnerability, their numbers – so many yet too few – their lack of resources.

(They are stranded and they are all that has washed up on the beach, no life jackets or failsafes.)

Further within, in Elizabeth’s office, Rodney is pouring over a computer and yelling  at assholes through the radio and he won’t let anyone near him, near Meredith. No one questions. If they do, they’re backed into corners and forced to make a rapid escape and there’s such unbridled fury emanating from the man that most people are afraid to even look at him. Fury – because fear is too obvious, because that makes it reality that someone else – Kolya – dead, splatters of red and lead bullets and nothing anymore he’s gone – took Meredith from him, touched her, took his Dæmon from him –

“Someone should talk with him,” Teyla murmurs, softly, and John wants to shout How? What would they say? Rodney’s not the kind of guy who wants hugs and flowers and condolence cards, John thinks.

Elizabeth has told them what happened (a succinct report: impersonal and trying to forget all hurts) because they don’t know John Saw Everything and he can’t erase the images, can’t reach inside his head and yank them out even if he wants to. Instead Elizabeth took them aside, while the storm was raging at its peak and they could hear the towers rattle in the wind, and she told them about the strike force, about Miller and Jenkins – their bodies resting quietly under two white sheets – and about Kolya, what he did – Heresy, John remembers, tasting the word again, what She had imprinted – [the haereticus was a liar].

(Mother told him about that when he was a child who needed to learn the Rules, because he didn’t have a Dæmon to tell him themself: she sat with him, made him repeat the lines a hundred times: Never touch another’s Dæmon against their will, never, if it so is the last thing you try to do. That is Heresy and Sacrilege and John had never quite understood until now.)

They’re not taught this kind of thing at the Air Force Academy. He remembers the drills and sweat and the simulations – he knows crap about emotions, and about talking about emotions – really, talking at all – all he knows about that kind of thing are cheerful smiles, white lies, grinning falsely even when unhappy because then nobody can touch you. All he knows is how to dig graves and put things there. Talking makes them come alive again, and that makes them able to haunt you.

[the haereticus is dead], She promises, and unbidden a playback: the gun in his hand – no, I don’t want to fucking remember that ever again because it brought no sense of revenge fulfilled, of avenging a friend, just the hollowness of a carving: and he is the stone that’s cut apart little by little.

When no answer is forthcoming, Teyla and Kanaan move past him, to help carry crates and usher people through the gate: they must hurry, so that everyone and everything is through before the thirty-eight minutes are up. Ford is there, too, and Adria on his shoulder ever-close, and Bates is issuing orders and for once John is glad of that. That way he won’t have to speak.

Selfishly: a thought – why can’t Rodney shake it off and return to the status quo?

She doesn’t berate him for that.

It might be a sign. 


One two three four times;

Rodney wants to scream. Sound latched onto someplace in his throat and he can’t breathe. Meredith!, he wants to rage, he wants to be the storm outside the gleaming windows: Meredith! (strangled and desperate) but she is taken from his reach and it hurts, hot iron and steel pouring through his veins, and she can’t whisper his name and all that is transmitted through their Bond is PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE the sheer weight of pain like a planet on their shoulders STOP IT PLEASE STOP IT;

and Kolya is smiling, asking again, again: Is there a plan to save Atlantis? and Rodney can’t breathe he can’t breathe let her go please you have to let her go he can’t breathe

but for the roaring of silence and Mer is limp in the man’s arms and it’s difficult to move and they will destroy the City and they will all drown, Mer isn’t moving all ceaseless emotions coiling through their Bond breaking at the seams and Rodney can’t breathe;

And Kolya is pulling Elizabeth toward the Gate but a bullet sharply cleaves the air and then Kolya is not a man but a structure of flesh and blood and bones all splitting apart, it’s the most gruesome thing Rodney can ever remember seeing but he can’t look away. Mer feels too cold in his arms, and John Sheppard rushes forward, gun outstretched, and there is no Dæmon with him just this one man and the utter fury on his face unlike anything


The day after that, and the day after, the uncurling of emotions begins, and Rodney is somewhere in the state of Anger/Acceptance/Grief (except John has them all muddled up and doesn’t know where the beginning and the end is, or where he himself is on that scale). His color has returned, and his hands are steadier, but Meredith is constantly hiding under his jacket and refusing to let go.

They hold a memorial service for Miller and Jenkins, shot so ruthlessly before they knew it was a trap, and they can’t dig graves here; Elizabeth holds a speech in front of the Stargate, and then they are going to be burned and scattered to the wind.

John closes his eyes, and listens to Her mournful echoes, and maybe She doesn’t care much about those two men, but She is inside of his head like he’s in Hers and they are two more souls he’d failed – he shouldn’t have left just two men to guard the Stargate during the storm; he should have left orders to – but they thought they were helping refugees, they’d lowered the shield and shouted over the radio that there were wounded incoming we have to help them ignoring the tempest on the doorstep –

He didn’t know the names of their Dæmons.

It had taken four hours before anyone attempted to move the bodies.


John wakes up with a strange ache in his chest; dull, fading quickly. It comes and goes, and this is the third night he’s woken up like this, drenched in sweat. Reaching out he finds that She’s singing again, soothingly, [have no fears].

He doesn’t know what’s going on. He doesn’t like not knowing what’s going on.

There are the memories again: not of a Jumper, this time, but of the Gate Room and in his dreams, he walks through the wormhole, and the event horizon scatters into the library of the house where he grew up. The library with the books he Wasn’t Allowed to Read but did anyway and the stern voices of his parents reminding him to Be Careful because he isn’t like other children, he needs to Be Quiet About It or there’ll be Trouble. There is Rodney and Meredith, Elizabeth and Simon, and they’re screaming, they might be Ghosting, and John rushes forward trying to stop the storm –

And he remembers the silent night, when the light of an Emerging Dæmon should have formed but Didn’t, and the nights thereafter when they wept for him, this little boy who slept so soundly. He figures having dreams like that isn’t really normal but who should he tell? It’s not like he can tell that he sees reality in his dreams, it’s not just illusion but his past, he sees his childhood on repeat and no Dæmon is there to greet him.

And he wakes up with a dull ache in his chest and in his bones. He’s done it before: padded out of bed, found a mirror, and checked if there’s suddenly appeared a wound or bruise as he slept.

There hasn’t.

Next morning he’s almost moved on.


Both of them are having nightmares and neither is talking with the other.


One two three four times;

A heart shocked into living again and it’s not the first time this science is being used, but the first time Rodney is seeing it live and Meredith whispers, I’m sure they’ll be fine – I’m sure they’ll live – but John Sheppard isn’t moving, and there are no screams issuing from between the doors. Instead there is the silent and the long, flat line and sixty-four seconds pass before there is the quiet beepbeep beepbeep beepbeep

indicating life and that single one life and Rodney wonders why it is so silent, why is no Dæmon emerging from hiding and why is there no shout of please please we are dying please save us –

He might’ve suspected it if he’d dared to but this kind of thing is unreal, it’s in the stories about witch-hunts and burnings, it doesn’t compute with facts and Rodney sees the world in numbers and diagrams, and this doesn’t fit, it doesn’t yield, there’s something missing from the equation.

One two three four times Carson tries shocking John Sheppard’s heart into beating again, and they might have given up already because it’s been sixty-four seconds, passing like matter through the event horizon, and there’s no telling what kind of damage has been done, if he will wake up the same if he will wake up at all if he will wake up. They watch and wait and hope and Carson shouts “Again!” for the fourth time and there is a quiet hitch in the silent line and Rodney stares at the signs of improbability. And Carson presses a hand to the calmly rising chest and they look at the machinery hooked up to the fragile flesh and he says, “He’s going to be okay.” And Rodney, for those fleeting seconds, looks on and refuses to believe;

time moves on but Rodney cannot forget the minute the world held still, beyond thirty-eight minutes of closure and the wormhole that was going to end them, beyond the darkened Jumper and the electric shocks rushing through that unmoving body, unaccompanied and soundless “She’s just Shy, y’know”, a dry old joke that sounded hundreds of years old and Meredith, after hearing it, had said disbelievingly: A guy like that can’t possibly have a monster as a Dæmon, something he has to hide, hideous and terrible; a guy like that can’t possibly


“There’s a Lagrangian point satellite. A weapons platform, built by the Ancients – probably used during their last stand.”

In-between the human words She says a name it once had, and there is a list of dead buried within it, but John doesn’t want to probe further. Instead he leans back casually in his chair, looks at the screens as if everything is new and foreign, and listens to Rodney speaking. There’s the gleam of excitement, the hint of his usual old self, ankles crossed, and John relishes it – we might soon reach status quo.

“We should go there. Unfortunately,” he goes on, “there is no nearby Stargate. Ours is the closest.”

“And that would mean …?” Elizabeth asks. “Is it within range of a Puddlejumper?”

“Just barely. Fifteen hours there, fifteen hours back.”

“And, I assume, you need some time actually investigating the satellite as well,” she says, nodding.

“That’d be the easiest way to determine if it’s salvageable,” Rodney snarks, arms crossed and normally they’d be harder on him, John reflects, there’d be a sharp remark, a poke in his side but now they – don’t. John itches to do it, to edge him on a little but – he sees the Gate Room, the rain, Meredith all still in a stranger’s hands and Rodney not speaking – no. “The database indicates it could be intact, as do the scans. It used to be part of a big network.”

“The Ancients’ last defense before Atlantis,” John murmurs, without thinking and thankfully nobody thinks it’s weird, Rodney just nods (slightly disbelieving because he is agreeing with a flyboy with unruly hair? what?). Nobody notices John’s unmoving hand, wanting to stroke the City’s walls, comfortingly because She is whispering about the Final Siege and the thunderous assaults, her shields nearly failing, and the eternity spent underwater – her people fleeing – [we were so alone] – to Earth a final time.

“Yes. As I was saying, we need to check it out. I suggest a small team, say, myself and, uh, Garth –”

“Uh, it’s Gaul, actually,” inserts the man in questions nervously, a scientist with a kind of boyish face, and his Dæmon is a squirrel with a stripe down its back. He doesn’t have the air of someone who ought to be near a warzone, or out in space with vacuum threatening just five feet away. “Dr Brendan Gaul.”

“Yes, whatever,” Rodney goes on, impatiently, Meredith snickering quietly, “He here found the satellite on the scans, so, let’s make use of that; and whatshisface … Abrams. They need to do some fieldwork.”

“And me. I’ll be the pilot.” He almost says getaway driver, but then Elizabeth might never let them go. John makes his most innocent expression, and tries not to think about that he might be volunteering not because he wants to fly to some desolate satellite but because he doesn’t want to leave Rodney and Meredith out of his sight for too long.


Fifteen hours is a long time. It’s even longer stuck in a Jumper with only Rodney and two other guys – who are nervous and a bit fiddly because this is their first time off Atlantis, they’re not part of any recon team – and their Dæmons; it takes a long, long while before any of them manages to push away tension enough to small talk without it being awkward. Rodney is gripping the controls so tightly his knuckles are whitening, and Meredith is sitting in his lap flickering her tail back and forth clearly displaying Don’t come closer than two feet or I’ll claw your eyes out. At least, that is the impression John is getting.

Eventually (the sun far behind them and oddly small) they reach it: a massive structure – bigger than a Goa’uld Mothership, apparently, though John can’t honestly decide, having no point of reference. By now, Atlantis is so far away that Her voice is weak, but they are still in the same system, and She is not entirely gone – [it was one of a thousand], She whispers as the satellite comes into view – a final remnant.

It spreads across the whole windshield and it’s still miles away. It is also utterly silent, and gives off no readings at all. It’s a fluke, really, that they managed to spot it in the first place because out here so little light from the central star of the system reaches it and it reflects less than a percent of that light; maybe it’d wanted to be found, John muses, as the scientists behind him are stilling in awe. Even Meredith peeks out from her safe perch, Rodney’s hand burrowed in her fur.

And there are no readings coming from it, but there is a planet below which the satellite is orbiting like an artificial moon, and there, on the sandy surface – there’s something. A small outbreak in the ultralow frequency and as they channel it so they can hear, John suddenly feels the Jumper humming in unease beneath his hands and: “That’s a distress call,” Rodney says suddenly, exclaiming what is revealed: “A Wraith distress call.”


nothing could possibly stay alive that long

Ten thousand years, hardened by the sun and the harsh sands and the distress beacon has been broadcasting for ten thousand years and the ship has turned into a wreckage that will never fly again and there is just one lifesign left; but one is enough to kill them all.


“Nothing could possibly stay alive that long,

could it?” 

“Oh my god. It could.

                       We

                             we have to get out of here.”


One two three four times;

Gaul is dead – blood seeping onto the stones and the gun in his hand, that pale unmoving hand finger still resting on the trigger, and Rodney had stared at it helplessly and Meredith had tried to comfort him but Gaul is dead and Abrams a corpse and they’d died, their Dæmons refusing to let go and Rodney stares at Gaul’s Dæmon howling as he leaves, the seconds trickling by so slowly. He stares and the Dæmon is weeping and clawing at the air and whispering Please wake up wake up do not leave us  –

It’s all physics and theories in his head, all these untested territories but he’s not afraid of them except he has read about it, read vague witness reports about Ghostings and he’d shaken his head and said: “That’ll never happen to us, Meredith, I promise.”

On the radio, distantly, there’s an explosion and the ground shakes and Sheppard is out there, up there facing down this one Wraith and he’s killed those things before. Rodney’s seen him do it but all seared to his retinas now is the afterimage of Gaul and his Dæmon, and he doesn’t even know what Sheppard’s Dæmon looks like but he can’t bear it, what if it happens again – imagining it happening and then it’d just be him and Meredith left, alone on this desolate planet fifteen hours away from Atlantis and would the Wraith feed on him and leave Meredith witness to the last


seconds before explosion John rocks backward as the bullet strikes. First round was a draw, and he’s out of ammo and he’s got just his knife and his fist, and he seriously doesn’t want to die like this. The Wraith is the most stubborn bastard he’s ever come to face, and the echo lingers: I have fed on countless humans and Lanteans, and before this day is over I shall feed on you and I will savor your defiance.

She remembers the Siege like her own blood and She doesn’t want him to die, She can feel him even at this distance – the solar system is miniscule in comparison to all the stars across the universe and Atlantis promises [we will not let you die]

Ragingly he stands, and he’s ready he’s got to be and there’s still Rodney and Meredith, and Gaul and his Dæmon whose name John doesn’t even know and they need time and he can give them that. A hundred bullets and a knife through its feeding hand just to stop it a little while and the Wraith is moving relentlessly, and it strikes him down too easily too easily and John groans, hitting the sand heavily, he’s got nothing left to arm himself and the Wraith refuses to die. Fuck –

Another bullet: “Major!” there’s Rodney, he’s shouting and they haven’t had the time to train properly, there’s no shooting range in the City and the man has no aim, but the Wraith is impossible to miss and it staggers, maybe in surprise rather than pain.

Then the clip is emptied, and Rodney grips the 9mil like it’s scalding hot and he wants to let go wants to let go but doesn’t dare to.

“What do I do now?!”

“Reload!”

Rodney fumbles, grip all unsteady and unused to this, he’s only reloaded a gun before within the safety of the lab, hands guiding him Look this is how to do it – the Wraith looks between them, the man and his empty gun and then at the one on the ground – and the Wraith isn’t looking at the Dæmon –

John tries to crawl onto his feet, reach for a knife; the Wraith’s hand is descending and [we will not let you die] She promises softly, like in his dreams on Earth, a lullaby to make him sleep:

[we will not let you die]


The Wraith isn’t looking at the Dæmon,

and Meredith leaps forward,

and Rodney drops the gun with a strangled noise


Afterward they wouldn’t be able to laugh but what the fucking hell John thinks, absurdity striking: Meredith is only a tiny thing, she should be powerless next to a Wraith with ten thousand years and a million lives in its veins and she’s leaping onto it with a yowl, angry and desperate, ripping at its neck mercilessly and there’s a spray of startlingly red blood –

Afterward Rodney just stands there for a minute, and Meredith makes the most satisfied noise of It Needed To Die and then he gathers her into his arms, disbelieving and a rant resting on his tongue – ohmygod did you do that why ohmygod you could have DIED and look at you you’re covered in blood that’s completely abhorrent and messy and disgusting;

“Rodney,” John tries to remind him, “breathe,” and he does so himself, cracked ribs aching a bit but it’s all right. And to Meredith: “Thanks.”

She lets Rodney fret, and is not entirely calm herself but tries to be: “You’re welcome. I am also never doing that again. Ever. There’s Wraith all over me and it’s disgusting.”

“Yes! Exactly! Look at you –” Rodney cries, combing through her fur, thick and so soft looking on her back and there’s that itch in John’s hand from when he was eight years old again – Rodney is grimacing at all of the red and the things he doesn’t want to think about, and Meredith bears with it because feeling her human’s heartbeat this close to her own is immensely calming.

John can’t ask why she did it, and Rodney has to know but won’t tell him, he knows because they’re both terrible at talking. Instead: “What about Gaul?”

And Rodney’s face shutters up like windows trying to turn away the sky and – quietly – a shake of head – No.


This is not the redemption of the earth but it might be for them, and the ride back to the City is quiet but not awkwardly, and they edge onto mourning but they know they must wait – Ford, Teyla, Stackhouse and a team of marines sent by Weir in a rescue Jumper have gone to retrieve the bodies because Rodney can’t look at them, and John can’t go where Rodney can’t, in this moment the two of them bound by the air.

Meredith, resting and now clean again and only occasionally complaining, waits within sight of the both of them, and Rodney Isn’t Fine. John isn’t so sure of himself either, to be honest, but it can wait until the infirmary and Carson’s scrutiny – fifteen hours – he will outlast that.

He lets the Jumper fly, it knows the way back Home, and longs for the closeness of Atlantis with a strange intensity which isn’t completely new. Watching Rodney and Meredith like that, it causes a strange ache in his chest and it won’t let go and She says, in finality: [we feared we would lose you].

have we truly saved them?

Chapter Text

ix.

we are the conquerors

they don’t want to be buried in the earth.


« According to the many laws of quantum physics, there is an infinite number of possible realities and in All the Ones They Have Lived there is always a Dæmon for the human to follow, and their Bond is inseparable, and they Emerge together as a single Soul because that is what they are; »


John has woken up with a strange ache in his chest for five nights one after the other, evenly, but looking in the mirrors there’s nothing there –

But on this one different night he’s woken in the middle of a dream by rapid knocking. It takes a second to realize it’s not knocking on the door, and he stares at the ceiling as She – frantically? – whispers: [you must wake. there is another. you must find them. wake up]

What? Who? Another? What does that mean? Has someone wandered off and gotten lost in the City? She is a maze, large and dark and for most part unexplored – they’ve got regulations not to go out there without escort (especially not scientists with distracted minds and curious Dæmons egging them on). John hasn’t actually sat down and asked Her about things, about cataloguing rooms, mostly because it might take a shine off the whole exploring-a-new-world thing. She’s already told him there are no more potentiae and that’s what they need most right now. So what’s this, then?

[come. you must see this. hurry]

The hint of excitement reminds him almost of a child exploring the garden and finding a shiny thing, digging it out of the earth and rushing to the patio: Oh, look look what I found!

Pulling on a pair of boots, and grabbing his 9mil (force of habit: without a weapon he feels naked) – he follows.


There’s a lab in one of the towers of the East Pier and She lights the path for him, without hesitance, a trace of thrumming impatience in Her voice. Whatever lies beyond this door, it’s important. At first glance it looks like a lab – there are more labs than people in the City right now – and most panels are offline, consoles dark. But there’s a space right by the far wall, like an indent, and John finds a console right in front of it – [see! see!] – and powers it up with the sweep of a hand.

There’s someone there.

John fumbles for his radio but realizes he forgot it, but the City helps by activating Her internal communications, and he thinks about McKay, he needs to talk with McKay, not wake everyone else up, just – “McKay? You reading this?”

After a while, there’s a groggy response. For a minute John might feel bad about waking the man; he doesn’t sleep a lot – spending hours at the labs instead, willing away the nightmares – none of them do. But this is Important.

“… what?”

“Listen, I need you to come down to level 29 in the central tower of the East Pier, there’s a transporter nearby – there’s a lab, about two corridors’ walk from the transporter – and – listen, there’s someone here.”

McKay isn’t amused.

“If this is some kind of prank, Major, I swear –” but Meredith inserts: “What kind of someone?”

“A person; that kind of someone? What other someone could I be meaning? And she looks human. There’s …” His voice trails off because there, right by her feet, half-hidden under the whiteness of her dress, is a Dæmon. A very familiar Dæmon, curled up in a frozen sleep. “A Dæmon. I think they’re alive. They’re sort of asleep.” In his confusion, She murmurs [ever-sleep lasting through time], some kind of word that doesn’t translate properly, almost like … “I think they’re in stasis.”

They don’t have the City’s censors online this far from the Central Tower, he remembers sharply, even if he can See Everything they can’t; anything to save power from their generators. McKay won’t be able to track his lifesign – all just as well, then they’ll see him here all alone, or the three of them: the woman and her Dæmon – see an uneven number. An impossibility. Better they can’t know.

“Are you serious right now because if you aren’t I’ll make sure you get cold showers for the rest of your life.”

“I am! Get your ass down here, Rodney, asap. And bring Carson. And Elizabeth.”

Especially Elizabeth.

How’s she going to react? That’s her Dæmon, right there, John is certain, and Atlantis is confirming: [they carry the same biosignature] and – hell, this isn’t even the weirdest thing that’s happened this month.

(This kind of thing was never specified in the disclosure agreements: Upon joining the Stargate Program, you may one day encounter yourself from a parallel universe. Or whatever this is.)

While waiting for the cavalry to arrive, John nears the not-really-glass surface, reaching out, carefully. Some kind of forcefield. It doesn’t hurt to touch, stinging slightly as if he’s touching ice but it’s not cold and the image beneath doesn’t fade. The woman is sleeping. Kneeling to get a closer look at the Dæmon; it appears frozen, its tail isn’t twitching, and he can’t even see if they’re breathing. Maybe it’s shallow. He hopes they’re shallowly breathing because if they’re dead, then, well, he has no idea what to do because you can’t ask dead people questions.


The party enters the lab thirteen minutes later, dazed from sleep and wondering what’s going on and what’s all this about a not-dead woman and her Dæmon? And they enter the room, a couple of marines in tow, and they stare at the echo of a face gnarled by age yet hauntingly familiar –

Elizabeth, hair slightly tousled, approaches. ”Is that an Ancient?” she asks, voice full of wonder.

And John backs away, so that they can see what’s resting right by the old woman’s feet.

“I’m not so sure.”

A breath: released in disbelief.

“… Oh my god.”


They are alive. Ten thousand years old, weak and tired, a paradoxical impossibility – but alive. They are not frozen anymore, and slowly the old woman’s eyes open, locking onto each and every one of them like she knows them. Her smile is utterly content. It worked, she’s whispering; what worked?

Elizabeth is frowning, disbelieving. “John, how exactly did you find her?”

John shrugs. “Couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk.” because he cannot say otherwise without proving there’s something wrong going on. At Rodney’s exclamation of What?! Walking around an unexplored part of the city on your own – we have regulations about that! What were you thinking?!, he adds: “I brought my sidearm. Anyway, the lab wasn’t locked, so I walked in and there she was.” It is only a lie by forty per cent, or some such; saying She led me here wouldn’t go down too well.

“How did she get here?” Rodney wonders out loud, more of a thought than an actual question.

“And why is she –” Elizabeth trails off with a shudder, and her Dæmon settles by her feet so she can feel his warmth. “That looks just like Simon.” Except older, maybe, fur slightly disturbed and grayed at the ages, an image that cannot disappear. Otherwise – “That looks like Simon.”


And when the old woman wakes up, she’s pretty coherent for a woman who’s been in stasis for at least ten thousand years. She looks at them and finally her gaze lands on Elizabeth and Simon, and she smiles oh so fondly it could break hearts.

And she understands them, evidently, following their voices overhead, and Elizabeth asks gently: Who are you? Do you have a name?

“We are you, Elizabeth,” she says, before falling back asleep.


Once upon a time there was a time machine, breaking past the waves; it bore them from the Sinking City and directly into the heart of a long-lost war between the Ancients and an Enemy whose name Elizabeth and Simon did not yet know. There were others there, bodies buried in the sand, but they never managed to make it alive through the waters;


The older Simon is gray and gnarled and can barely see, and his hearing is a bit off too, but he is not as silent as his younger counterpart; and as they are brought to the Gate Room so full of life and movement, they look around in wonder. They take them to the conference room, and Simon rests in his Elizabeth’s lap because his legs are no longer strong enough to carry his weight; and it is the first time John hears him speak – the fox has a voice of snow soundlessly falling and settling on the ground, the gleam of copper, of sunlight through glass – a quiet murmur:

“It’s so beautiful here.”

This is the Atlantis they have dreamed about as they slept.


In the first reality (the first they remember), the City drowned;

[but we are here], She soothes when sensing his fear/shock/no-that-can’t-be, [we are alive], and dimly John hears Rodney talking about timelines and black holes and manipulating spacetime to fold in on itself and turning it inside out.

In some semblance of self, John smirks at him: “And you’d need a really nice DeLorean.”

And Rodney and Meredith glare, unamused: “Don’t even get us started on that movie.”


They almost killed them when they arrived, because the City sensors were dimmed but could still sense the wormhole, and a subroutine kicked in for Resurrection but all they had been able to see from the Control Room was more power draining, sapping life from their limited shields –

Rodney had pressed the button.

(John hadn’t been there at the time. He’d been on Athos, with Ford and Sumner and the others, chasing hope.)


There was a reality, a First Time (or perhaps not the first) when the City failed to rise, and Elizabeth tells them, voice wavering, about the screaming, about being trapped in the Jumpers – but having no name for them – confused and lost and not knowing what to do. She had managed to get to the Hangar just before the end, along with Zelenka and John; some other version of himself, born in his own skin and John wonders, as he listens, was he born whole the first time? Was he born not broken but with a Dæmon Emerging as a child, what did it look like, what did its voice sound like?

What name did he cry out before they drowned?


The DNA test is a match. Evidence like fossils in rock, carved by the eons: Elizabeth takes the datapad from Carson’s hands, looks at the report without actually seeing it and if she’s trembling, they all pretend not to notice.

Rodney explains, breezily: When they went back in time they created a second you, a parallel world; a second timeline. We’re part of that second timeline right now and it is unfolding –

The old woman and her Dæmon sleeping in the infirmary aren’t really Elizabeth and Simon, Rodney insists. Not as They Are, but as They Were and Have Been once long ago, but they’re living in the realm of possibilities and they don’t represent a certain future – quantum physics makes that impossible – Elizabeth and Simon aren’t in this reality ten thousand years old. Their journey isn’t going to end here.

It’s still pretty creepy, John agrees, watching the old woman and her Dæmon sleep.


One two three four times;

Meredith doesn’t Settle for real until they are nineteen years five months fourteen hours and thirty-eight minutes old, and she rests on the desk purring contently watching him break the numbers apart to make sense of the world because he can’t touch the piano anymore: You play perfectly but there is no emotion, you can’t create music when you are without soul – but Rodney has the numbers, the physics and the facts and he can use them to carry them forward.

They’ve been offered a high-clearance job and rejected it within the space of a day and there are two PhDs waiting to be resolved and his mind has no pause button – he designed an A-bomb when they were twelve and assembled it in the basement and Meredith cheered him onward, and then men in black broke into the house guns ablaze and dots of red circling their bodies and Rodney was terrified for a long moment, and then disbelieving at these asshats who are treating them like they are the undoing of the world because it’s just a model for the science fair;

Meredith changes Shape rapidly before she has Decided, and she lingers like that for fourteen months before announcing: This is what we are, and Rodney is pleased and content, and he doesn’t reflect much on what she looks like because it’s the mind that matters and she is clever just like him and that’s the important thing. Her claws and sharp teeth are just a bonus when he’s really annoyed but he hasn’t wanted her to seriously hurt someone, not really except the bullies in fifth grade and other such asshats – but he hasn’t wanted her to seriously hurt anybody, nevertheless kill. And then they’re stuck on that desolate desert planet, the sun beating down on them and Gaul and Abrams are dead, and John Sheppard is lying in the dirt waiting to die and Meredith leaps at the Wraith without hesitation and their bond is alive with It Must Die and it is the most gruesome horrible thing Rodney has ever felt;

ever felt except for Kolya’s head splitting apart, the bullet singing through the air, the storm wailing around them and the cold fury in Sheppard’s eyes not really quite human. And Rodney’s body was still in shock and Meredith trembling, and for that moment in the Gate Room, he saw the smoke of over sixty dead human bodies trailing behind Sheppard, their echoes in his hands, and Elizabeth and Carson and Teyla gathered around, “Just in time to see how this ends, huh?” Rodney would have said if he were able to speak; and the shields almost failed to rise –

In this one future Elizabeth tells them about, they all drown and die horribly and there’s just one human and her Dæmon left to Tell the Story, and Rodney tries not to imagine it, trapped in the Gate Room nowhere left to go the room flooding and not knowing about the time machine hiding among the alien Jumpers he hadn’t yet seen. He tries not to imagine it but the dream will haunt him for weeks, he and Meredith dream about different ways to die all the time and water is always involved one way or the other: water or air decompressing rapidly;

In this one future which Elizabeth tells them about, John Sheppard’s heart doesn’t stop beating for sixty-four seconds and Rodney thinks there’s something missing: not that he has ever wanted to witness a Ghosting, mind, because who does? but there had been something missing from the equation –

and the possible truth is starting to dawn like the inevitability of a sun;

but they have seen Sheppard smile and heard him laugh, they’ve saved each other’s lives, they’ve known each other for months now and faced danger together and Rodney wishes he could say he knows him;

and continually Meredith is insisting: John cannot possibly be a monster –


“And then we were alone. We set the City to slumber,

and begun our long journey home.”


“The note, there was a note … in case we didn’t survive.” She’s weak, heartbeat fluttering like leaves in a storm and soon they’ll be ripped from the tree and gone forever: her Simon is sleeping, already, softly upon her breast and his breaths are so quiet, a reminder: the hours are coming to an end. “Has Rodney figured it out, yet?”

It had rested in the woman’s deceptively frail hand. “Yes; a list of five Stargate addresses,” Elizabeth confirms, but unsure of why and they haven’t figured a way to search the database effectively yet, unindexed and messy at is appears to be to the untrained eye and they don’t know where those five planets are.

And she smiles at herself, hopeful because there is a whole new future waiting for them: “Ancient outposts, each powered by a Zero Point Module …”

Old Cities that Once Were, ships and harbors to descend the stars; [my sisters and brothers], Atlantis weeps because there’s nothing left, just the ruins – nothing alive, nothing like Her. She is the Last City and John cannot tell her it’ll be all right.

There should be potentiae there.

“This is amazing!” cries Rodney, Meredith hardly stopping to move, unable to hide their excitement at the possibility of salvation. “Elizabeth, we have to send some teams right away and –”

Desolate: bleeping noises dying into the long tone of a flat line.


“It worked. The stasis, the failsafe … (but) you gave up your entire life (for this one opportunity),” Elizabeth says, distraught.

“No,” her Dæmon answers: “Because we are the same person. The best part of our life 
is just beginning.”


Elizabeth spreads the ashes of herself and her Dæmon from a balcony, releasing them to the wind. John finds them there, she is cradling Simon close and whispering I’ll never let you go without using words and he means to go, rapidly, trying not to be intrusive – “We’re about to start the mission briefing.”

“We’ll be right there.”

But she turns around, looks at him but he is certain she doesn’t see him but rather an echo, a mirror: her old smile and Simon’s resting shadow, breathing – “Actually, John. Give us a minute, will you?”


Afterward, she says: 

“We wouldn’t have wanted to be buried in the earth.”

Chapter Text

x.

the final amendment

and he might be relieved, elated even because he’s not alone: he’s not the only creature in the Universe to be Different.


« Emerging as a tiny light from right above the heart, a Dæmon takes shape and this Shape is the First Moment of the Soul; and they will reflect every possible future and What Is Meant To Be, and this first moment of Emergence is always cherished and unforgotten ... »


The fifth time John wakes up and looks in the mirror, there’s – something. Something there. A not-quite-light, two inches to the left, there by the spot his heart is buried, gleaming under the skin. Pulling on a t-shirt to cover it (a reflex: This Shouldn’t Be Happening – if anybody found out because this almost looks like it’s described in the books: an Emergence, oh so gently) it’s not visible anymore because it’s so faint, but when he wills Atlantis to silence the lights he can yet see it: a shiver under the skin.

Idly, he thinks he should be a lot more freaked out than he is.

But all he feels is the gnawing sensation of I’ve been waiting thirty-three years for this to happen.

(Except he stopped waiting when he turned eight years old and realized he didn’t feel empty for his own sake, hearing Her voice singing in his dreams, watching Dave dancing with Nina in the library; Pete, so accusingly, staring at him with eyes the age of death and dust, saying: She isn’t unhappy because of you but for you, his Mother’s tears leaving the aftertaste of bitter disappointment – what is wrong with their little child who sleeps so soundly?)


The bond between a Dæmon and their human is stronger than the powers holding the Universe together, is written in every book some way or another and no one would dream of disputing it.

Now, John is getting confused because he’s become used to his bond with the City, this I Think I’ve Known You All My Life-thing, and now there’s a light growing in his chest as if – as if She isn’t, after all. It’s almost painful, actually, when he thinks about it because does this mean Atlantis isn’t his equivalent of a Dæmon after all? Then why is She singing to him when no one else can hear?

[no, no, no], She answers when his panicked thoughts reach Her – because of course they do. They always do – repeating, a vow: [we are not breaking our bond with you]

Then what is this?

What’s happening?

[materializing] She suggests, or [forming what should be] – there’s an Ancient word that doesn’t translate well, following it by [becoming the image of your soul] and – should he be happy? Should he be relieved or angry or what should he be?

If Atlantis isn’t the Dæmon He Was Meant to Have, then what is She?

Perhaps he is freaking out the silent way: panic attacks in empty, partly flooded corridors when the rest of the City’s inhabitants are asleep. Oh, hey, it looks like I’m having a Dæmon Emerging and it’s only three decades overdue. Should he write something? Not that they can send letters from the Pegasus galaxy, but, just to write it down, making it real: Hello, Dave, in an email that will never reach Earth: guess what.

Maybe even to the man who was his Father, those stern hands and the voice bitter ever since the car crash because of Regrets Never Mentioned: Hello, Dad. I’m not going to be a Freak anymore; aren’t you going to be pleased?

He even, in his disillusioned state, pulls out his laptop from where it’s charging under the bed, opens a blank document without lines and his hands are hovering above the keyboard, ready to make a planet–wide announcement.

[John], She says, calmly. Gathered, like a parent to their child, when they’ve had enough of the mess spreading around – this is not possible 

And he comes crashing back down again onto Lantea, down through its barren waters – who could he possibly tell about this?

How would the others react if they found out the truth?

It’s not like they haven’t got enough to worry about.


[do you not wish to be the raven?] and She has seen his dreams, vivid and exploding in color, nestled in those darkest corners: there is never hesitation when gripping the sky – When I grow up I want to be a pilot –

Because he has always feared and understood that he is the Impossible Thing, the villain in the stories: the Strangeling, raising the Gate shield and ruthlessly pressing the trigger and all those people dying remorselessly the guilt etched on afterwards like paper cuts these little details of what’s he meant to feel?

Because he has always feared and understood that he should be the Impossible Thing, his Mother and Father praying and weeping over his cradle for hundreds of days and Dave taunting him while Nina danced: You’re the freak and the Thing That Should Not Be – ”Do you think She’s a raven, or a butterfly? I would like Her to be that: to have wings. Mother, why do Dæmons never have wings?” – “We are grounded with the Earth, sweetheart,” she had explained oh so patiently with Pete at her side steadfastly: “We are meant to stay close to one another, and humans cannot fly.” – spreading his arms to catch the sky: his dying sixty-four seconds in the Jumper, dreaming of death and the waters below and space unfolding above unendingly;

[is this not what you want?] and She has seen his dreams, the tremble of ashes and death and the eruption of doubt, [you wish to be able to fly] and he can, he does, he will: the choppers and the planes and the Jumpers and the City beneath his hands (her engines are offline now, unable to lift without potentiae but if they could find them, if they could find them they could fly).

But you’re a City, he whispers, confused, staring at the mirror in the bathroom. At his ragged face and eyes that in some texts are Mirrors of the Soul except where is his if it isn’t Her? – Atlantis (beautiful marvellous powerful old, a cradle of history, a warm hand, a settling voice in his dreams, a city living breathing, a city whispering: Hushaby my little lamb the wolf has gone; a city built and made and programmed to feel; a conversation with a machine) you’re the City the Ancients built (for themselves a haven, a safeguard, a shield, a final resting place buried beneath seventeen hundred feet of ocean) and you weren’t born and you have lived for billions of years before I was ever conceived, he whispers, confused and dazed, how can this be happening?

[the Alterans created me: you carry their blood] She says, assuringly and did the Ancients have Dæmons because no one knows for certain and this whole thing with Ascension and whatnot never made it any clearer – there were SGC reports, John vaguely recalls, this Ancient woman found in the ice buried for millions of years a hidden secret: carrying with her a deadly virus and no language they could understand and here the reports deviate from one another: her Dæmon was there and it wasn’t, one of them stated so clearly there was none, lost beneath the ice and they hadn’t found it – but there was another possibility, observed –

[the next step toward Ascension is to become One once more], Atlantis supplies, and it slots into place frighteningly easy even if John isn’t quite sure exactly what Ascension entails – [the soul and the body as one and the same]

Daniel Jackson had Ascended after being radiation poisoned, those years ago, and he had been there, on the verge, his Dæmon put to sleep and there had been a brilliant shine of light. John remembers that report, too, and as he thinks it the City renders an image: the meditation chambers, one of which is now being used as a commissary by the expedition. And once ten thousand years ago the grand hall was filled with silence and the quiet breathing of Ancients meditating, and there is a rising of light, too, unforgiving and vast: [the becoming of pure energy]


Is that what you are? John asks, not afraid as much as startled, is that he had stumbled overwhelmed when stepping through the Stargate the first time; the memory of a thousand lives, stretched across the generations, blazing through the City’s hallways and through his blood and Her Song when he is asleep. A lullaby, words undetermined.

Are there ghosts lingering here, in the City’s core?

And She is smiling. Never really answering, She is a riddle and refuses to act otherwise, maybe it is – it has to be – written into Her source code –

Is that how I was born?

And if so, if so why why is this happening now after three long decades, why are atoms splitting apart separating from his body, forming a light so obscure: why is it happening now and not in the cradle where he rested as a newborn? Yet unknowing of the world’s turning and the axis of the earth and the path of all the stars;

Was I born a broken piece?

[you are whole]

but,

[not until now were you ready to emerge] – or possibly, She means: [not until now do you know who you are]


Over the next few days the light doesn’t fade, nor does it grow in any particular fashion. It just lingers there, above his heart, resting and waiting and John stares at it every morning and every night and nobody sees, he prays that nobody sees –

Their next mission is scheduled to start in five hours and John spends the minutes left beforehand briefly in the mess hall, the gym, walking the halls. Just to be seen, appearing normal, daily routines. He peeks into the labs, there’s Rodney and Meredith arguing about one thing or another in front of a whiteboard, drawing equations like striking landscapes. John doesn’t disturb them, just watches for a while, this familiar thing; normally he might butt in, rile them up a little, point out That thing there could be an error, hinting that Zelenka is smarter than them or some such. Now he can’t disturb this flow of time – there’s too much on his mind.

And the time left (savored because he appears in public enough to have private time as well without being suspected of foul play) he sits on the floor of his quarters staring out the windows, at the waves playing at sea, and She murmurs encouragements that This Is Happening, This Is All Right, Do Not Be Afraid.

The burn beneath his skin isn’t so bad, now. He’s taken to wearing two layers anyway, just in case; just to hide that tiny glimmer;

It doesn’t hurt, other than that faint ache. It is nothing of a gunshot, the sharpness of a knife, the torture of blood being drained; it is actually a bit soothing. Comforting. Grounding: a bit like pulling Gs.


They’re going to head for P7M-723, one of the places written in the Note, and the MALP sends back very little information because, it turns out, the Gate is hanging in orbit around the planet. There are no strong detectable energy signals, but that doesn’t mean they can give up. There might be remnants of an Ancient civilization down there. A Zero Point Module.

(Elizabeth always wishes them good luck, now with hopefulness lingering in her throat: the note written by herself ten thousand years earlier imprinted in their memories like an oath.) 


Two Darts are on their tail and normally – oh but what is normality – normally John should be able to take them out without having to look, the Jumper beneath his hands easily responding but there’s something, a glitch and the responds are sluggish like the ship has been injured – the drones won’t fire.

McKay is scrambling to the rear compartment, sliding open the crystal tray and begins to fiddle around, he knows what he’s doing enough to not upset flight but it’s doubtful he can fix the problem – they’ve taken a hit, and John rolls the Jumper around, skidding the planet’s atmosphere – anytime now –

And the Darts are firing wildly, the shield has already taken a beating and they won’t last a lot of direct hits; then, a soaring light and John feels the Jumper tremble or perhaps it is just he – they’re half-way across Pegasus, the City is so far away he cannot hear Her properly, but;

Grinding raw power sweeps through vacuum catches up with them and passes by: the sensors indicate a surge, two brief explosions and then the Darts aren’t firing anymore.

“The Wraith Darts have been destroyed,” Teyla remarks, looking out the windshield and John brings the Jumper around, veering sharply and they can barely spot the lingering wreckages.

Whatever that was – a weapon – it’s powerful, and it came from the surface. And a thing like that, is logical to assume, must’ve been made by the Ancients.

“And require a lot of power,” Rodney adds, gleeful, hopeful – Meredith makes a happy noise: “Like a ZedPM.”

They’ve caught the scent.


Or not, peering through the foliage at the village across the waters: still, peaceful, no signs of panic or the remnants of a Culling. Maybe, due to the weapon, these people have been spared.

They’ve set down the Jumper some way back, and approach on foot. Wouldn’t be good to set off the locals.

The natives appear friendly enough, if staggering a little with the nervous moments of First Contact but that is hardly strange, and since their Gate is in space they have hardly had a lot of visitors before – if any. They are human, and they greet them curiously, and there’s a Dæmon visible for every one of them and John figures these are not the people they’re looking for.

At the mention of a weapon, the Abbot in flaringly red robes like made for worship just says, confusedly, “We know of no such thing,” but he knows they are protected: the Wraith are just a story. A legend to be passed on as warning, but little else – “They have not come to Proculus for a hundred generations.” And there is not lie in his eyes.

“There has to be something,” Rodney insists, annoyed that he can’t seem to pick up any readings: no signs of electricity or other such technological advancements, no large energy outputs – nothing. Meredith’s tail flickers back and forth from where she rests in his lap, exuding clearly We Didn’t Come to Look at Peasants, or at least that’s the impression John gets. (Hopefully the natives don’t notice it like that.)

“Perhaps,” the Abbot suggests, polite and curious, “you would wish to speak with Athar, the priestess of our Protector?”

“Yeah, yeah we’d like that,” John says because that sounds like it could be – well, anything. Maybe an Ancient – though that might be a stretch – [they are gone], She had wept. Perhaps someone with the genes to operate Ancient technology; someone in control of a weapons platform, a Chair; anything, anything would be useful. “We’d like that very much.”


And there on the top of a grass-clad hill, in the middle of a meadow, is a simple house. It matches with the village below: wood and stone, beautifully carved, yet not in extravagance. The Abbot and the rest of his kin escort them, respectful and curious, asking questions yet not too many, and they form a trail of red and black on the path: the Proculus natives in their crimson robes, and the Lantean explorers in their TAC vests. The Abbot hasn’t asked them to disarm. Maybe they don’t understand the concept of guns, cannot see that they are weapons at all.

Faint bells toll, shimmering in the atmosphere and it is a temple, John realizes, of a religion he cannot name. There is something else: a presence, of a sort, a similar shadow to the Jumper and the City, yet he cannot see any technology –

A woman steps forward to greet them and John smiles, that trademark laidback one he always uses and he knows Rodney is spluttering a little next to him, awkwardly, reigning back all those questions – Teyla, inclining her head in solemn greeting – Ford, hand resting on his gun as always, always on the lookout, on his guard, checking the perimeter on automatic, Adria tense. The woman has been tending to the flowers by the paved path, she’s beautiful, and her voice oddly old for someone with such a young face, and her eyes do not quite fit with the rest of her.

And the woman steps forward to greet them, there’s no sign of a Dæmon next to her; the Abbot and his people do not appear alarmed, but John senses Ford and Rodney and Teyla tense, as one, their eyes scouring briefly for answers before – assuming, maybe, that she is like him. Her Dæmon is small and hidden away – maybe hiding in the nearby bushes, behind a tree, shy and wary of these armed strangers.

She is all clarity: clear skin and clear voice and clear robes, and she smiles, kindly, as the Abbot bows to her in honor – she looks at them without any sign of surprise, or fear. Her eyes are dark and John suddenly wants to shiver.

“Welcome,” and the woman says her name, calmly, saying they must stay here and tell her of themselves; curious about these aliens –

You have come from Atlantis.

John wheels back, sharply, catching himself after a millisecond and realizes he hasn’t physically moved – but his eyes snap to stare at her, sharply, she meets it without hesitance.

What –

His link with the City is nothing like that, he can’t sense this woman in front of them, only hear her voice: a brief echo, dimly, and her lips are moving saying other things. Talking with the Abbot and Teyla, who is their negotiator most of the time and John lets her handle diplomatic relations as a rule;

…Hi? he tries, it’s difficult to focus on a person like that, this woman isn’t Atlantis or a Jumper; 

And Rodney’s elbow is digging into his side, not too subtly, is he staring? He is probably staring, impolitely and Rodney is going to mistake that for drooling over a hot woman, but John can’t stop staring because

Are you one of the Ancients?

Ancients? A hint of amusement: I suppose that is what my people are in your young eyes.

A yes, then.

Oh. How are we – he starts asking. Wondering, briefly, can anyone else listen in? Is this like a phonecall between two people alone, or is the rest of the world privy to it too?

You carry the blood of my people very strongly.

It’s only half an explanation, and she is saying, aloud, “Please, enter.” And leads them through a garden, birds chittering in the trees and in the middle of the garden is a house, open and airy. “I would like to hear about the world from which you come,” she says, and reveals nothing to the others that she is what she is.

Umm… what – could I ask –

Your mind is very open, John Sheppard. It is undisciplined.

It’s not an insult: a statement, honest and bland, and she is so true because without a Dæmon Bond since he was a newborn, of course he’s not had any of that natural discipline which comes with the years to control such a Bond, to direct thoughts at one particular entity without being heard by any other. An open book, he almost laughs (oh the irony);

So you know why we’re here, then?


Chaya Sar is the name she was born with even if the people of this planet don’t know it, and she calls herself the Protector of Proculus. She cannot leave this world. Cannot ever leave it, but it takes a while for this to sink in. And Rodney is asking about ZPMs, trying to explain the concept because it is an Earth name, they don’t know the equivalent terms – it rests right there on John’s tongue, and it takes a huge part of his will to reign it back and not blurt: potentiae; we need potentiae to survive.

The Ancient woman is plucking this thought from him like air, but nods at Rodney’s words, listening patiently, as if just now grasping the concept; as if she is merely this mortal woman, a priestess devoting her life to a hidden Protector, innocently.

“… there has to be something; how do you explain the absence of the Wraith? Or rather the presence of the weapon that keeps destroying them, because we were attacked by them right up in your atmosphere,” Rodney keeps on, adding, dumbing down: “the atmosphere – uhh, right above your planet, the air –”

“I know what the atmosphere is,” she says, not condescendingly just very calmly. As if she is a hundred, a thousand years old.

A shiver rattles John’s spine and she looks at him, again, from the corner of her eye, while talking with Teyla –

You’ve Ascended, haven’t you, he accuses. Remembering those reports, what the City has provided him through Her database to console his confusions.

The truth. They just want, they need the truth, not these quests of lies and she should understand that. They need power to defend against the Wraith and if she could help them somehow, somehow;

I am bound to this planet by the Others.

(Interference if forbidden. That’s what brought Daniel Jackson back from his Ascension, forced him anew into a human body, memories all scrambled.)

It explains everything: her seclusion, her revered presence, her lack of a Dæmon. Honestly, they are bound to notice that last bit soon, John thinks, that this woman is alone out here – oh, she is like him like him and he might be relieved, elated even because he’s not alone: he’s not the only creature in the Universe to be Different –

But Chaya Sar doesn’t tell them all they need to know, yet. Maybe doesn’t trust them.

(and why would she? Armed foreigners on their door-step, demanding evidence of more weapons and power beyond reckoning – We Need It to Survive doesn’t seem enough of an excuse.)

They’re outsiders, from another galaxy and being able to read someone else’s mind doesn’t equal trustability: they try to be patient, though. Teyla is, and Ford, the kid curious and John hears him and Adria whispering furiously: She’s kinda hot isn’t she?  Which John lets slide, distractedly. Rodney isn’t patient at all: tearing at the seams, wondering where is this weapon and its power source and how do they find it and how do they make use of it?

There’s no weapon, is there?

No. And at the same time: yes, because,

I am the weapon, the shield, and I am bound to Proculus or else the Others will destroy me.


Chaya Sar doesn’t reveal herself until the end, when all is laid clear:

Proculus was once, a hundred generations ago, a planet ravaged by the Wraith and its population Culled to near extinction, and the Ancients planted a small outpost here before the War reached its peak, before it all was Destroyed. Atlantis was resting beneath the ocean that very same year, and the last of the Ancients were evacuating to Earth One Last Time, leaving Pegasus behind forever – but some lingered, desperately, and they fought until their ships were all lost, and all other cities sunken, and the Wraith spread across the whole galaxy like a plague. And there beneath the waves the last of them meditated, separating themselves from the rest of the world – for survival for being for remaining – on that one condition of Non-Interference.

And yet they were not all heartless, soulless things and Chaya Sar was one of those few who could not Let Go, and she grasped one single planet hoping to save it even if there’s a price to pay. A final Ancient Outpost where once she was born, and she had hoped, believed, and would have taken a potentia from one of the fallen warships to keep it going; carried it through the event horizon, buried it in the ground to create a shield if she could not learn to Ascend;

and she has.


There’s a light growing in his chest achingly, and Chaya Sar offers a hand: Let me show you something:

Enveloping them both in this state of Being Free;

Chaya Sar and her Dæmon, he was a bright thing, with clever eyes, and she remembers his voice every day because it is her voice too; he is not gone for we are one, and in this state of Being Free, purely energy and space between the atoms, John is hit by that one certainly: they are one and her Dæmon isn’t missing at all.


(the Dæmon is uttermost expression of your Soul
woven and bound tightly together, the body and the soul
never to let go of the other)


You were born on the edge, Chaya Sar explains, not omniscient but she was born ten thousand and a hundred and fifty-eight years ago, in an Ancient City now destroyed other in her one memory, and she remembers. And on that edge a Dæmon isn’t ready to Emerge, because she shows him the gleaming towers of a City not unlike Atlantis, full of laughter and life and movement. There are children running through the halls laughing and some have Dæmons and some have not and We do not have use of words such as Strangelings, a brief remark; and such a beautiful thing, there are outlines that look like wings, so unbelievable and gorgeous; You are not the only one who has wished for them;

Some never Emerge at all, ever on the verge, and before Ascension can occur there must be a Merging (again), and Chaya Sar explains it all in such clarity that John could almost weep, I cannot give your people a weapon, but I can show you this:

It’s all that she can too without being destroyed by the Others for breaking the rules.

(those Ascended are not dead:
they are everywhere
and nowhere all at once)


Some would have chosen to be part of other things: of the air, or the soil, ever-watching, Chaya Sar says, and John thinks of Atlantis and the music in his dreams. There is just one City left of our legacy, and a handful of bloodlines yet alive.

Cities full of life; Atlantis was one of Hundreds, created in the Old Times when the Wraith had not evolved, and the Ancients had not reached Pegasus. They spread human life in Avalon and there were no Goa’uld here, not yet, not yet, no scavengers and only lasting Peace. They built their Cities on their path to Ascension, craving it above all else (fleeing the long lasting wars of Pasts Forgotten, wars with old races humans will never meet; and their Final War with their brothers and sisters now cast aside, the Ori: They are not like us, they demand hallowed faith or they will burn the worlds they enter, only two extremes nothing in-between no gray shades, but they are a galaxy away and cannot reach us here). There were once Cities full of life; there may be again.

When she first was born, Proculus bore a different name, and its people spoke a different tongue, and they were awed by her presence because they knew of the Ancients not as legends but as living beings – and the Wraith were swarming the skies, and she had not yet reached full Ascension. And from one of the last warships, crashed into the surface of another sea, she had pulled a potentia, ignoring the orders of the Council to evacuate and now she smiles: I am the shield; the potentia is buried in the earth –

And there is a tree in the middle of her sacred grounds, the temple these people have helped her fashion, and crawled beneath its roots is a light. And Chaya Sar says: I am the shield; I have no use of it anymore.


Then she lets go and they are standing in the garden by the temple on Proculus again, flesh and bone and blood bound by gravity. John is reeling, as if by a shaky landing and the craft hasn’t settled on the runway.

They are standing by the foot of an old tree, twisted by the winds, and the soil is soft beneath them and John’s heart stutters in hope. Chaya Sar kneels, humanlike hands burrowing into the earth and there it is, shining, obscure – he has only seen them at a distance before, when powering the Stargate on Earth to get them to Atlantis, in old drawings in the City’s memory but this is reality;

Placing it in his human hands, Chaya Sar lets go. It’s surprisingly light, surprisingly small, and looks so easy to shatter; all fine glass and structures of fire frozen in time.

“Take your ship and return to Atlantis,” Chaya Sar says. “I will disable the Stargate after you have gone.” So they cannot return. For the safety of this people, and for themselves.

He wants to ask more, oh so much more, but Chaya Sar is not all-knowing. She isn’t wholly Ascended anymore. She is limited, even if she might be immortal in a way and she senses those questions on the fringes of his mind.

You have a Dæmon waiting to Emerge
but you must wish for it, too.

Is that really how it works? he wonders, thinking: those little children, newborns in their cradles, slipping into sleep; how could they be wishing for Dæmons before they’ve barely opened their eyes for the first time? Was it that he didn’t wish for one, resting on his Mother’s breast, the cold air of Earth clashing so with the safety of the womb?

But Chaya Sar is not answering anymore.

Go now, John Sheppard. I have shown you what I would.

(They can never go back here.)


One two three four times;

Rodney pretends not to be sorely disappointed because it has seemed such an amazing, remarkable thing, unannounced. A weapon to destroy the Wraith maybe even able to take out a hundred Hives to protect them all, but instead the woman – Athar or whatever it was, ringing fake in his ears – such an insufferable name and insufferable smile and insufferable softness and she is looking at John Sheppard like sharing a secret. And the man is staring at her in an openly disgusting way Rodney wants to hit him and Meredith murmurs, Well they are hardly compatible are they no no no they aren’t (don’t worry). The woman is saying There Is No Weapon and eventually after these hateful hours revealing;

She is the Weapon and bound to the planet and it’s utterly useless and she’s Ancient, oh a living breathing Ancient  and she cannot give them anything to help them in fighting the Wraith, no ZedPM no clues not anything and she is looking at Sheppard like splitting molecules and Sheppard looks at her in ways Rodney doesn’t want him to imagine. It is so so strange and he Does Not Like It and he complains, loudly, Meredith in choir, hoping they take notice and Stop This Weird Thing and has he mentioned her Dæmon? Or the lack of one rather;

And that is just creepy, this empty spot next to her and Chaya Sar does not try to explain it, explain herself except this mention of Ascension and Rodney is not a man for that kind of mumbo-jumbo, for ridiculous notions but Sheppard is hanging onto her every word like treasures and Rodney  can’t grasp it

And the rest of them have been sent off ushered away like children Not Meant to See the Rest and Chaya Sar is enveloping Sheppard in light, and they are gone for far too long and Rodney cannot admire it, cannot think it cool or fascinating, cannot think to dissect the prospect from every conceivable scientific point of view. Instead there is just that empty spot, Sheppard and the Ancient Ascended Woman (Rodney thinks of unflattering names and Meredith lets him) spirited away and is this some kind of kidnapping except Sheppard returns, two seconds later, but by the look on his face it must have been days or months or years;

And Sheppard returns on his own and Rodney is oh so ready to spit out: “So this was all just a waste of time, then,” not wholly prepared himself for the poison in his throat, the sting of it, and Sheppard sorts of shrugs – “I wouldn’t say that,” and there in his hands so innocently so easily where the hell did that come from – Sheppard grins that laidback way which is so infuriating and they stare at him, Rodney stares the most he thinks, mouth working noiselessly his heartrate furiously two hundred beats per minute because that’s a ZedPM that’s a real actual charged ZedPM is this a lie don’t it dare be a lie –

“Hey kids, guess what I found,” Sheppard says and Rodney could hit him, or possibly kiss him, or anything really because that is  salvation   and he carries it so carefreely fitting neatly into his hands.

And they reach the Jumper, and Sheppard flies them home in content silence unlike the usual banter, and Ford murmurs with Adria, a bit concerned but not too much, still distracted by the Ancient Woman, and Teyla and Kanaan are quiet but for other reasons, and Rodney is sure that Sheppard can feel Meredith staring at him but ignoring it stoically;

No answers are given, though a couple of prodding questions asked, just these hints tantalizing in their brevity, and Sheppard doesn’t explain anything the least important; how did he find that ZedPM and did the Ancient Woman give it to him how why when, and Sheppard avoids answering by not elaborating at all. Rodney is sure that the report is going to be just as useless because if Sheppard won’t tell his team, then he definitely won’t let Elizabeth or anybody else know either what happened exactly when Chaya Sar gripped his hands and flew him to Neverland.

Instead they fly to the Stargate in–between tense glaring looks, and Rodney notices, really notices, that the tension that has always lingered in Sheppard’s shoulders has waned, not wholly but largely, as if a weight has been unexpectedly lifted –

Entering the wormhole and they are back in the City, it’s nearing midnight on Lantea and Sheppard murmurs quietly enough to almost not be heard at all Home sweet home almost bittersweetly (this aftershock of a warrior wiping off the blood and laying down to sleep) –

“Is that –” Elizabeth gasps, meeting them in the Jumper Bay and again that trademark smirk Rodney wants to both covet and destroy, Sheppard’s teeth white and gleaming, he should smile like that always a thought crossing Rodney’s mind like lightning;

“Yeah.”


[we can be whole again]

Chapter Text

xi.

homecoming

part one:

water

if the City goes under he might die with it


Then: 


The air thrums with anticipation and John sees it written on Rodney’s face: I want to be the one to do this, but John can’t let him because She is singing [we will breathe again], the naquadah generators are just not enough to keep her steady.

They are in the City’s Core Room, looking at those three empty cells: the old potentiae have been removed weeks ago, for study, the scientists looking to see if they could somehow be used to squeeze out another hour, another second of lifesupport but so far nothing. John approaches the dais, no instruction manuals are necessary and he pretends to listen to Rodney’s babbling about That’s How To Do It, Meredith’s reminders of: Be cautious and don’t drop that thing or we’ll –

Easily slotting it into place: the corridors brighten minutely in happiness not quite bliss. One potentia isn’t enough to make Her fly, She is meant to have three but now they could raise the shield, they could activate the Chair – an actual shot at survival, once the Wraith come because they will, eventually, a day or a week or a month from now: the Wraith will attack sooner or later.

The Earthlings have caused too much trouble already.

[we have a shield now], She sings: [we can withstand]


John falls asleep heavily that night, or tries to, closing his eyes but the City is so loud so loud now with power partly restored, life retaken; She is reliving his memories and storing them in Her own. Before relaxing, he shrugs off his jacket, rapidly, removes those too-many-now layers of clothing and lays a hand on his chest on that spot – brighter now than ever it’s a wonder no one has seen it, yet, and only thanks to the scanner has he managed to get by Carson’s post-mission check-ups because the scanner is Ancient, and he tells Her every time to trick them just a little bit: fading away that one build-up of energy below his collarbones, its curve exponential.

(Like She is helping to fool the world that there are two of him, a shadow next to himself constantly, just so Nobody Will Find Out: if they see two on the scanners, nobody will think twice of it.)

Eyes closed and focusing inwards; could he feel it? could he make sense of it?

How many days or hours are there left until it unfolds entirely?


you have to wish for it, too

But he isn’t sure if he can. If he dares to, other than in dreams –


There are less than two dozen drones left – the Ancients left in mid-siege, they abandoned Her without leaving behind extra power cells or ammunition, they saw no use in it or they had no resources left or both. But they have yet to find a lab to make such things, and John inquires, gently, finding Her to be livelier now. As if She had before still been operating at point two per cent of full capacity, murmurs of sleep on the edges. Now she is Awakening.

[they were not here], She says, [my sisters and brothers the Cities of Old, there were those who made them] – if there is an answer somewhere in the City’s core about how to build a potentia of their own, they cannot find it.

But this has to be enough for now and the knowledge that they have a shield now to protect themselves has raised everyone’s spirits.

(They had tried dialing Proculus again, hoping for more, a well of information or the ruins of an outpost if they just explored further. Elizabeth is hopeful, Bates backing the decision up, what if there’s more out there.

But the Gate refuses to lock: John knew that Chaya Sar wasn’t lying, she would disable the Stargate on the other end one way or another. Her duty lies with the people on that planet.

He tries to act disappointedly surprised but cannot be in reality. Chaya Sar had shown him: there was nothing else left there, no more remnants of the Ancients than herself.

They have to let it go.)


The increase in power does more: sharpens Her senses, and there is a weight settling on his mind, then, this strenuous Bond which they share. Her sensors widen and there are no blind spots, any longer, no part of the City uncovered and they stretch outward, toward the sky – past the star in this system, all of its planets – into the depth of space.

It pops up suddenly as if a background program has been activated and brought to the forefront. Down in the Control Room, when it it’s initialized, Radek and his Dæmon and the technicians there stare at the screens in befuddlement – “What is this?” – and in the Core Room, John watches the City revel in the single potentia, [we can breathe again] and Rodney flinches when suddenly they’re being hailed via radio: there’s something happening in the Control Room.


“I didn’t know we had deep-space sensors,” Elizabeth says, looking at the screens. It is void, now, but there is something lingering at the edges – they make adjustments, shift focus because the galaxy is large and they can only look at one small part at the time.

“Well, a lot of systems we’ve never seen before came online with the power the ZedPM gives us,” Rodney points out, logical, rational. The haze of desperation hasn’t struck or, perhaps, it has already lifted – it lifted when John gave Atlantis the potentia, breathing life into Her systems like in the Old Days, it lifted when they started realizing they do not have to be stuck in this galaxy anymore, they can dial Earth – call for aid – they may survive.

There. There’s movement. Blinking dots, closing in.

“Is that…”

“Hiveships,” John echoes.

“Yes, I’d say so,” Rodney says, aghast. Solemn silence settling in the Gate Room: “Looks like a dozen of them.”

Bearing down upon Atlantis.

[they are coming to destroy us]


One potentia can raise Her shields, but it is not enough, it will not be enough, to stave off a whole armada – [we may suvive a little while], She says, [we have withstood before] – the Final Siege lasted half a century but the Ancients had more potentiae at hand and drones and people working in shifts sitting in the Chair relentlessly, they had warships to counter the attacks – in the last wave, the Wraith sent a hundred Hives cleaving the sky.

One potentia can raise Her shields but little else, cannot hold off the Wraith indefinitely; there are too few drones, no other weapons. They have no warships to send.

They need other options.

But one potentia is enough to dial Earth –


[do not leave us], She pleads and oh he cannot, he cannot leave even if She maybe isn’t his Dæmon they have a Bond and he cannot go –

There’s a debate, avid and heated, in the conference room and they’re all there, crammed into the darkened space. This is it. They could draw back now. Gather their survivors – bury the Stargate beneath the water and sand – but they cannot leave Atlantis here for the Wraith to find. The Wraith aren’t interested in merely them.

They want to get to Earth.

And Elizabeth says, “We need a self-destruct,” and John wants to scream they cannot think of destroying Her

All of Earth all that life all of it just a wormhole away and they have to protect that, It’s Their Duty and they are putting forth plans, we could dial home and leave this, leave Pegasus and its people to fade and eventually there will be only the Wraith left an unending dominion,

and John, breathlessly, wants to whisper No you can’t take Her from me you won’t I will not go


One meeting turns into two and the brief debates aren’t brief, and missions are suspended for the next couple of days while they decide what to do – but contact Earth, they need to contact Earth, they need to send a message:

“Then let’s send a message,” Rodney says, the second day, the simple solution of Message in a Bottle: “We don’t have to leave,” and John is so relieved so relieved that Rodney and Meredith are (unknowingly) on his side, steadfastly.

“We don’t want risk depleting the ZedPM, so I suggest a highly compressed databurst. They can open it up on the other side and we can relay terabytes of information: reports, data, you name it,” Rodney says, opening the folder of options and laying out the arguments. “All within a couple of seconds.” Then they can decide what to do. The Earth cannot answer – they don’t have the power – but once that information has gotten through, they can debate again: should they send someone back? If they do, they might not be able to return – never return –

I won’t leave, John promises, an oath: She is listening.

And surely Elizabeth won’t leave either. Or Rodney – not Teyla – if they all go, where would she go? She is of Athos, a child of Pegasus; she belongs here, not in the Milky Way. They cannot leave Atlantis behind and force Teyla to choose between her people and them.


It is decided. Whether or not they leave, the Wraith are still coming, there is no way to deter them –

“The Ancient satellite,” Rodney realizes. “We don’t need a ZedPM to run that and if we can fix it, given if we’re right about what’s wrong with it – then we could use it.”

Other options: they have to be found. They still haven’t visited all the potential addresses left in the note.

“It could destroy the Hiveships?”

“When fully charged it should be able to destroy all of them. Plus, the Wraith probably won’t see it as a threat since it’s deactivated and damaged since the last war with the Ancients. They’ll never see it coming.”

“All right. One thing at the time, though,” Elizabeth nods. “Ford, I want you to start recording messages from the personnel on this base. Rodney, I trust you to compress our files and reports and other useful data to be sent to Earth.”

Fingers flying across the keyboard: “Already on it.”


[if] a suggestion, careful – She wants to continue Being, to live on not just as memory but She reads his mind, his fears and dreams and the Wraith are coming to wipe them out, to lay claim on Her Stargate and dial Earth – [if we allowed you to bring us with you]

It would not be the same. It wouldn’t ever be the same. Her databanks, so rich and old – imagining them copied; a bunch of ones and zeros. Transmitted from Earth computers would She even Be anymore? Without what the Ancients built, would She be nothing then but a bleak copy, unable to connect with anything else, just streams of data? And they might be able to tap into it and read it, but not like this – John shudders – no.

[we know], She soothes, [but then we would not be wholly destroyed]

I won’t let it happen, he promises.

A piercing precognition: if the City goes under he might die with it. 


One two three four times; 

(recording starts)

“… Okay. Tape’s rolling, so: four three two one … This is Dr Rodney McKay speaking to you from our base of operations in the Lost City of Atlantis, located deep within the Pegasus galaxy. We record this message on the eve of hour darkest hour … As I speak, an alien armada of biblical proportions is on its way, bent –”

“Hellbent more rather, in keeping with the metaphor.”

“Yes, yes, thanks for that image, Mer! – but, yes, hellbent on our destruction. We will do our best to stave off their attack which is inevitably coming, but regrettably if we stay here and not go back to Earth – the horrific deaths of myself and my team is going to be – going to be inevitable– as our very lives are going to be sucked out of our bodies in a, in a – horrific – a – um –”

“… Let’s start over again. Just cut that, will you? … Hey, we’ve got plenty of time, let’s just start again.”

“Okay. Start over. Five four three two … I am Dr Rodney McKay of the Atlantis expedition, and as the facts of our heroic struggle against the Wraith and our ultimate demise are already known to you, in that light, I’d like to pass on some final thoughts. Now, my extensive education, training, and first-hand experience in the field of astrophysics –”

“And other stuff. Surviving stuff. We can’t forget our PhDs, Rodney, or the fact that we can shoot a gun now. Rather grisly, but still.”

“Yes, that, well; it has given me a unique perspective that few on Earth or, well, any other planet for that matter, can match. I’d like to take a few moments now to pass along that perspective to you …”

 

“… I almost caught mono from that one kiss in Algebra Club. Missed an entirely month of school. Still the kiss was – something probably worth it –”

“No. It wasn’t. Don’t you remember how we itched and scratched those four weeks, it was horrible –”

“Yes, Mer, but she was hot! And blonde! And shockingly clever for a hot blonde …”

“Hey, we don’t even fancy blondes anymore –”

 

“… and that’s another sight we’ll die without having seen. See – to be fair, when you’ve travelled as much as I’ve travelled, you’d think that missing Niagara Falls would be no big deal, but you know what? It gnaws at you. A lot of movies I wish I’d seen and won’t see –”

“Jeannie.”

“Yes. Yes, right. … My sister. Ford, if you cut everything else, just, keep this part, OK?  Uhm – Jeannie? Hi, this is your brother, Rodney – obviously! … Just, I want to say … I want to say something … Family is important. I, I’ve come to realize this because the people here are sort of like a surrogate family. Now I know what you’re thinking: I’ve never really been the poster child for that kind of sentiment, but, uh, when … when one’s contemplating one’s own demise, one tends to see things more clearly. I really do wish you the best, you know, and I’m sorry we weren’t closer. Perhaps … if (by chance) we make it out of this, perhaps one day we can be, and I would like that.”

(recording ends) 


Ford and Adria are scourging the halls, interviewing people one after the other, hours and hours of digitized speech: there are not just reports there, stilted and formal in their marvel, but personal stories, letters to loved ones, possible goodbyes if they cannot – won’t – return. If the Wraith get here and they refuse to abandon the City –

And in these hurried moments, everyone hard at work and watchful eyes kept on the faraway images of the approaching Hiveships, John feels it has to be close now, the unfolding: the aching light in his chest is seventeen days old, now, merely seventeen days since it first appeared and all of this has happened. In his daze, he rests a hand there and the skin is warm, too warm, something wanting to break free.

Is this the time to wish for it, to say it must come forth?

Everyone would know, then, it would be revealed to the world that everything previously has been a lie. He thinks, almost wanting to laugh, about the Jacket and its Pockets, the reverent sympathy, people avoiding taking it from him at all costs but it’s just a piece of cloth and doesn’t even matter.

Some might not be surprised. Teyla and Kanaan – they’d not be overwhelmed with shock. They might even had seen it coming – not like this, but in a sense. If he were to appear not with a Dæmon that is certainly not a bug, tiny and gleaming in his hands: he has no idea what his might look like (only what he’s dreamed of). Elizabeth, she’d be taken aback, the astonishment and fear – oh, Ford and Adria might react badly, they’re young, their Bond is so tight and Adria never speaks with anyone else and the thought of a Strangeling is so impossible.

(They might think he is the villain in the fairytales, the one they’ve been taught to fear.)

He doesn’t want them to fear him, to think him strange. What would it be like to be normal? The most average of Joes, walking around, a Bond easy-going between them and their Dæmon – is that what Ford and Adria, and Rodney and Meredith, and Teyla and Kanaan – is that what they all are?


you have to wish for it too

I’m think I’m ready now, John thinks, any day now;

So that he might see it with his own eyes and pull it into his arms and feel it beneath his fingertips – the same itch as when he was eight years old, watching Dave and Nina dancing in the library – just so he might sense it one single time before the City dies under the onslaught of the Wraith.

 he isn’t prepared to let them all die


They record messages for the families of the dead, John knows their names and their numbers like written on his wrist and he would never let anyone else do it, these are his people – and Elizabeth feels the same, she signs her name upon each letter. Their burden of command: they have to remember it all, these faces and voices and John has never even spoken to all the people here, yet, he doesn’t hesitate listing their heroics.

And life goes on and Elizabeth asks, once, if he would like to make a personal recording everyone else has even Rodney (filling up a whole hour of data, Cut it down Lieutenant but there are some good bits I promise you).

John pauses, thinking of his Father, briefly, You want to be a pilot, son? and Irene’s claws and that joyful loving smile which faded after Mother and Pete died. He thinks of those plans set out in a straight line since he was fourteen but disobeyed and the hints of fear, My son is a Freak, he will never be Normal, the abandonment of comforts. He thinks of Dave and Nina, they’re probably happily married now surely with two and a half kids and a picket-fenced lawn all fancy; he got a letter, bustling in the summer heat of ‘97, and he planned to answer to it but there was a firefight in the way and the month passed bloodily by.

“Nah, I’m good,” not looking at her eyes; wondering: who did she and Simon leave behind?

Earth isn’t his homeplanet anymore. It ceased being that when he first laid eyes on the Stargate.

We don’t want to be tied to the Earth.


Seven days after the first appearance of the Light, starting to crawl out of his body, they open a wormhole to Earth for three point five three four seconds. Just enough for a message to get through.

And Elizabeth is calling for a new meeting and they are discussing evacuation plans, the destruction of the City and all its memories, in case they cannot fix the satellite, the last line of defense – they are planning on Going and John can never, will never leave;

Chapter Text

xii.

præludium

part one:

the cradle

it’s a ghost, an echo:


Now: 


It is written in every book in every language that has ever been conceived: « the Dæmon is the uttermost expression of your Soul, lingering with you always » ; and it should Emerge as a tiny light, the first Moment, the First Breath and they are all waiting for it, all waiting for it to strike:

Nothing is more important.


John wakes up to the sound of sirens: blaring alarms, something has to be wrong is there an intruder? – but the Gate Room is silent, and there are no guns blazing, no one dead. He realizes the alarm comes from within, like nausea, dizziness. Off-kilter, he stumbles out of bed, toward those blasted mirrors unable to stop himself, checking like he does every morning; 

but half-way he falls – something is Emerging


you have to wish for it;

you have been wishing in your dreams


And it’s not pain, it is surprise, it is the overwhelming calm; a wave, rising, this is the crescendo – a hand outstretched, he reaches out to catch it as the light breaks free after those long long days and years and hours.

It is tiny still, like a feather, and terrifyingly breakable in its simplicity. He holds it (almost frightened) as it unfolds, separating until the glow from his chest has faded completely and there is just this singularity resting in his palm;

It takes fifteen seconds for it to settle, and it is not just nothingness anymore, not just air but he feels the brush of feathers against his fingertips soft as silk and it is beautiful and dark, two pair of wings carefully stretching for the first time and it is the most beautiful haunting thing John has ever seen –

He might not even be breathing, not daring to disturb it.

The form shifts, becoming clearer by the second and the lights overhead are all off, he cannot concentrate on Her voice or anything but this Shape in his hands, trusting and close; it’s a ghost, an echo:


Eight years old he watched Dave and Nina dancing in the library, they’re laughing carefreely and Dave whispers You’re such a weird little brother, Johnny, are you broken? are you a Strangeling? 

And John had looked in the Forbidden Books to find out what he meant, these words burned onto his heart. And he watches Mother and Father weeping over him, their little child who sleeps so soundly; leaning over him, whispering in a Song not Hers: rock-a-bye oh hush-a-bye for when the wind blows when the bough breaks the cradle’ll fall and down will come the baby oh the cradle and all –

Four and a half minutes’ worth of oxygen left and they’re stuck in the Jumper, trapped between Stargates and watching Ford pull forth the means of death, the whine of the defibrillator overtaking all other sounds – She sings, comfortingly [we will not let you die] and it began that second, though he did not know it yet, it began his heart stopping and body stilling and for sixty-four seconds
there was n o t h i n g

in the stillness, She had borne him away across the waters, the falling rising voice carrying him through the event horizon, full of oaths: [we will not let you die] and in his dreams, indulgingly; sitting by the dinner table and watching them all dance, asking for solutions and repeating Mother, when I grow up I want to be a pilot  

when i grow up i want to be a pilot 

when i grow up 


[we will not let you die]

and on the edge, waiting to die, She had sung like in his childhood dreams. And a growing certainty, it fills his blood: he isn’t merely a ghost brushing the edges of humanity, he is the pilot crafting his own wings; and he had died for sixty-four seconds and Atlantis not merely a City but an entity encompassing thousands of souls cradled him gently, promising [we will not let you die] and in that death and suddenly suddenly he knows why he has always remembered the weight of wings carrying him:

he is the raven 

 

The Raven opens its eyes.

Chapter Text

xiii.

homecoming

part two:

earth

there’s something missing from the equation


Then:


The Hives are yet far enough away to make plans; and John lays them out scattered on the conference table, please there must be some other way. What they need is more power, they have one potentia now yes and it could carry them back to Earth empty-handed and he cannot follow. He doesn’t vocalize it like that, but he thinks Elizabeth might see it in his eyes – hopes that she does, even, and that it’s not mistaken for merely stubborn muleheadedness that he wants them to die out here lost to the waves;

But he cannot leave; if he does, he thinks his body might shut down.

The enemy ships are still days and days away, there’s time, there’s time – without the sensors awakening they’d not discover them until it’s too late but now there is time.

(And he has seen Rodney and Radek at work in the labs, considering the broken satellite – we can use it; maybe it’s just out of power? – and mixed relief has sunk into his heart: they’re not giving up. They’re not considering only running away.)

They still haven’t visited all the planets listed in the Note. And John remembers the addresses, seared into his memory and he puts them forth now and says: “Look, we should check them out.”


Eventually, after a few hours, they relent: Elizabeth says, “You’re right, we still have time.” (for a Plan B, at least) and she and Simon are compiling lists, preparing orders. John has seen them, a glimpse on a datapad or overheard in a corridor. With the ZPM they can dial Earth, there’s no need for an Alpha Site as an evacuation plan. No – but John hasn’t told them, yet, that if that’s the course of action they take –abandoning Pegasus forever to the Wraith and letting them swallow the rest of the stars – he’s not coming with them.

Because when he admits it, he’s got to have the resolve to tell them: a few stars systems away I can handle, but a galaxy from Her is too far too far now that I’ve finally found Her.

They gear up that afternoon, the team isn’t silent yet and John watches them strap their guns and TAC vests on in quiet satisfaction, there’s another chance and they’ll find it. One more potentia and they could do more than just raise the shields in defense.


The planet is tilted in orbit around a binary star system, and it’s early morning when they get there. A brief walk down a well-trodden path – these people are familiar with how the Stargate works, then, either as traders or travelers – reveals to them a village, and a towering structure that looks like a castle or possibly a monastery. People are at work in the fields, and the sky is blue, harmlessly; people stir when the armed strangers approach, pointing and murmuring, and someone rushes into the great ruins to alert – well, somebody.

John smiles at them, gladly and blandly, eyes hidden behind his aviators. “Hi there, folks.”


It is a monastery, not a castle, it turns out and there lies a small treasure there: a library. One of those little things which John takes note of, briefly, quietly. Not a lot of folks they’ve come across have that. No, their knowledge is wiped out to never resurface again, the gathered wisdom of their forebears forgotten because the Wraith always make sure to burn down such things. Humans aren’t allowed to evolve anywhere past the wheel. But here there is a library, roughened at the edges and full of Memory, and the woman who greets them, showing them through the darkened halls says that some parts are lost but not all. That’s the important thing.

And this isn’t just any monastery. This was the seat of a Brotherhood of Fifteen, and they worshipped the skies through which the Ancients wrought their ships. So much has been lost but not their memory, and there’s a treasure to always be coveted and protected, and their guide – a woman named Allina, ranked Master Handler of what remains of the Brotherhood – says: “They left behind a sacred hiding place for the potentia, but we have not been able to find it yet. We have recovered three of nine stones, mentioned in the Old Texts, which appear to be part of a map …”

Rodney draws a sharp breath. “This potentia,” he stumbles a little over the word and John remembers, the word hasn’t been mentioned elsewhere but in Her song, and no one else would be familiar with it. “Did they say what it was, exactly?”

“Here, let me show you,” their guide says, and there is a mural, half–removed and the colors are faded, but it is unmistakable:

“Oh. Oh!”

“We might be able to help you find it,” John cuts in before Rodney can begin squealing in delight.


There is, of course, the issue that they are strangers, armed and foreign and these people, kindly as they act, can be no more than suspicious when their interest is not in trade or alliance, but the potentia, this sacred object that these people still worship, unknowing of it’s true purpose.

So John considers walking back to the Stargate, to converse with Elizabeth because she is the diplomat, and not he, and Teyla murmurs: We cannot simply take it from them. But before that, Rodney blurts, “– back in Atlantis, we could really really use it.” and that leaves no beating around the bush.

Their guide startles, and stares. “You are from the Ancestral City?”

“We are,” John admits, not mentioning that they’ve merely colonized it, taken over its empty halls and made a home there. There is no need to give the game away. 

And the woman and her Dæmon look hopeful, there are legends of the Ancestors and their battles, of their Leaving, and there are stories, they explain, whispers of prophecies that one day the Ancestors will return and save them all from the Wraith, like curing them from a Plague;

the lies taste badly, sourly, in his mouth, but they need the potentia and if they have it, once they have it they have a greater chance of helping anybody else too –


One two three four times;

Rodney can’t believe it, still, they have one ZedPM but it gives only temporary elation because in the mess of making Survival Plans, preparing orders for evacuation back to Earth, the plans for a destruction of the city – oh, Rodney wants to survive, but Meredith whines a little, We Can’t Let This Amazing City Go To Waste; so many opportunities will be lost and unless they’ve finished the last X-303 back on Earth there’ll be no way back to Pegasus – and where then would they go if the City is destroyed? This galaxy will remain hidden and, well, destroying the City and its Stargate and its knowledge will stop the Wraith from coming to get them, he gets that. It’ll save the Earth and the rest of them, and leave the dwindling population of Pegasus to suffer –

And throughout this mess, John Sheppard watches in a quiet almost creepy way, Rodney has to point out, this silence isn’t the usual one and he doesn’t like it, it’s tense and uncomfortable and if Rodney had to describe the look Sheppard gets on his face when he thinks nobody else is watching, he’d almost say the man is grieving;

Which makes oh so little sense, they’re making plans to survive so why does he look so withdrawn even when he jokes and banters in that familiar comfortable way, sharing smirks? And Meredith remarks when they’re alone in the labs, He looks so tired, as if he’s been injured, but Rodney is certain Sheppard hasn’t been shot or anything else like that because they spend almost all hours of the days side-by-side wandering through the event horizon, he’s come to know the guy in a certain extent that he’d never expected.

And continually, that nagging sense: something is missing from the equation, something is missing from the equation;

Even if Sheppard now and then hides his hands in his pockets possessively as if there’s Someone there, he never speaks of it anymore and he hasn’t made the dry joke of She’s just Shy, y’know, for fifty-seven days and counting, and Rodney hasn’t been counting but he Notices These Things, and it’s starting to seriously alarm him –

And sometimes Rodney scourges the database for answers, missing the internet for a little while even if the place is full of nonsense there are things to find there too, but his Ancient is a bit rusty in the manner of a person never speaking a language aloud. It takes time, more than he’d ever admit, but Meredith spurs him on, We Need to Find Answers, they require answers all the time and this is no exception, so they spend hours at night in front of double screens, reading and reading and reading for clues because, surely, there must be something because the Ancients have mentions of all kinds of allotted things, even these Soft Sciences Which Aren’t Really Sciences. And in that category this might fit, and he wonders: Do Ancients have a word for Strangeling? Is it translatable? because if it is, finding answers might be easier;

(do they really want to know?)

And they do this, night after night upon night, and pretend in the mornings to have Done Proper Work or Slept Well and try not to glance at Sheppard sideways, but there’s this glance in return as if the man is noticing, but neither of them speak up and there’s that. Rodney thinks, as the nights slip by and the Wraith draw closer and his attention begins to shift, that he’ll get past this soon and not forget but momentarily move on, and answers will come, in time, answers will come as to why Sheppard appears to be so – alone – even though Teyla and Kanaan has pulled them aside, once, in the earlier months, and whispered They are all right, John told us not to worry:

But Rodney and Meredith cannot believe


Digging into the earth of a planet with a foreign name is not the best idea of fun but the rewards are possibly huge so they work through the day, into nightfall. It’s heavy work, and though the adrenaline high eventually ends they still carry on; shifting the soil, plucking the grass and waiting for something to appear –

And they do: one stone after the other, the parts of this map that could lead to a potentia.

(They still haven’t told the truth, that they’re lying thieves-to-be, and John shoots such worries aside until they find this thing. Then, then they’ll have to talk but for now he doesn’t want to think about Explaining;

through the years, he’s gotten pretty good at lying.)


And there’s something: they’ve found eight stones, now, in total but the ninth is a mystery and there’s a gap in the map – rethink, they need to go back and rethink.

When the answer comes it is startlingly obvious and simple and puts a meaning to the phrase Right Under Your Nose. In the monastery, in the main hall, there’s a wall-covering tapestry centuries old and its edges are decorated with the symbols of the Stargate. They had thought little of it, at first, since the Ancients were the Gate Builders, but now, oh it makes such perfect sense and Rodney lets out a brief laugh which John, oddly, wants to savor like some sweet wine.

Reverently, Allina accepts the ninth stone from their alien hands.

It is no map at all: it’s the symbols of a Stargate address. And all they need now is to find the right pattern.

As far as missions go, this has been one of their most peaceful in – well, forever – and they have never had to raise their guns, never even had to look threatening and in any other circumstance John might feel bored, but not now, not ever now.

Back in the field where they’ve been digging, Ford has found something. A cry over the radio: “Hey, I think the doc should take a look at this.”


A hidden underground chamber: there’s no telling who was down here last, when that time had been. It’s dusty and dark, and the air’s thick, and they wait for a while before going down simply to make it easier to breathe – at least there’s no sign of poisonous fumes, sharp spikes or some other traps hidden under the stone floor. The Brotherhood must have thought the puzzle with the stones to give enough protection, and John is totally fine with that. It’s a little Indiana Jones, he figures, except there are no bad guys shooting after them trying to stop them.

There’s a dais, perfectly waiting for the stones and it is clear now: no map, only a pattern missing, and they need to find it; something with the representation of five frozen in the middle.

They don’t know what the cost of a mistake could be, but John doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks –

Their guide Allina steps forward, thrumming with excitement, this is what she has read about in her people’s library and finally she sees it with her own eyes. And she trust them, at least giving the air of it, believing them to lead them to the treasure and possibly salvation – You are from the Ancestral City? – so hopeful – her Dæmon reaches the dais before her, eagerly. And she places her hands each in the palm-shaped slots: “I cannot believe we are finally about to find it –”

A gasp: then, a keening wail of pain and John drops everything else, fuck, they shouldn’t have let her just do that without first checking if it’s safe –

Rodney’s stutters a confused: ”Allina? What’s wrong?” and Teyla rushes forward, Adria close by but Allina’s Dæmon is writhing, one second two three four and then;

then it stills, and Allina falls to the ground, whispers, dazedly confused and all that escapes it: “Sanir …?” panickedly; it must be the name of her Dæmon

before it fades.


One two three four times;

It’s going so well: not even a day has passed and they’ve almost found it, now, the location of the ZedPM. Their guide, Allina, has been helpful and kind and Meredith keeps pointing out She’s trying to flirt with us, but Rodney doesn’t see it, cannot see it, maybe blinded by the distraction which makes the puzzle of John Sheppard. And they’re so close, in this underground ruin, and then Allina is stepping forward, before Rodney can figure why she’s already fallen back and then Sheppard checks her pulse – her Dæmon is still, already, quieted down – and shakes his head, 

“No pulse.”

– she’s dead, it happened so fast and the thought strikes, selfishly that it could’ve been them: it could have been Sheppard, or Teyla, or Ford, or himself –

“Oh my god,” as it finally sinks in: they’ve just witnessed them die – killed them, even, bringing them here under so much hope. “Oh my god.”

And after a minute of silent debate, what should they do? Should they leave, now, bring the two dead bodies back to the village, it’s not like they’re going to let them go peacefully now, having inadvertently let one of them die –  should they keep searching for the ZedPM, relentlessly, it has to be here somewhere in fact it is probably in this very room, and that dais is the answer:


“We can’t just leave empty-handed! All this digging can’t be for nothing!”

“Rodney,” Teyla says, murmurs, could have yelled: calmly. “There has been two deaths; we cannot add more to the score needlessly.”

“Look, it’s a puzzle. We’ll solve it, get the ZedPM … not rush into it like she did. Then we’ll go back to Atlantis and toast.”

No, no one will be cheering, John thinks, but doesn’t say it out loud.

They’ve covered the dead woman’s face with a jacket – Ford gave his, silently, She seemed nice, she shouldn’t have died like that – hiding her bleakly staring eyes, and they know nothing of these people, what kind of rites they desire, how to pay respects. The kid’s right. She didn’t deserve to die like that.

And Teyla is right: the risk of losing another is too high, but Rodney’s right, and they are on the verge of a big argument and John clears his throat.

Declares, like a law: “We need the ZPM.”

(I made a promise.)


“It’s got to have to do with a number. Nine, or, or five or…”

In the middle of the sentence there is an epiphany:

[John]

and it is so sudden that he reels back, not expecting Her to contact him like this. They have half a galaxy between them, and he hadn’t expected to feel her this strongly, to be honest, at this distance – maybe the potentia – [something is wrong] She cries, and it is a little difficult to make out: gray areas within the transmission like static – but he does make out: 

[the enemy is here]

here –

Atlantis. The Wraith are in the City, but, no that’s impossible the Hives are lightyears away and they cannot go any faster –

[one of them only]

A single Hive? Or a Dart? Does She mean a single Wraith entirely? But even that is bad news, because that means they’ve gotten to the City – the shield may repel them, but they haven’t gotten the Chair online yet and they don’t have a lot of drones to begin with.

[portam navae are in the air]

She is saying, maybe this has already happened, or is happening right now: is there a delay in their Bond traversing all of the space and stars between them? [we are not in danger], She adds meaning: not in immediate danger;

[a scout; it has been destroyed; it could not pierce the shield]

“…ppard. Major Sheppard?”

Rodney’s clicking his fingers right in front of his face. He’s zoned out; John returns to his body in a sharp wave, uncertain. How much has he missed?

“Nevermind,” Rodney goes on, as if John is merely pretending to be a non-thinking soldier again, an odd whim of a fighter pilot; unsaid but underlined: oh, you’re of no use. ”Maybe if we try it backwards: nine to one –”

The other way around was what killed Allina and they don’t want to press repeat.

Taking a shaky breath, John is back to himself, beneath the earth and he looks at the nine stones, trying to focus – Atlantis is safe for now, they’ve got the shield, it will hold against a single Wraith. This …

“… fifteen. The Brotherhood of Fifteen.” Oh, it is so glaringly obvious: the simplicity of this whole puzzle, all to make the enemy overthink.

“What?” Rodney asks. “What about it?”

“The numbers one to nine can be put in a three-by-three grid so they add up to fifteen in every direction!”

“Yes, you’re right,” Rodney exclaims, tone strongly implying that he’d never believed that he’d agree with him, and sends him a startled look: “Hang on! How do you know that?!”

“It was on a Mensa test.”

Meredith flickers her tail. “You’re a member of Mensa?” she asks, sternly like it’s Important and John looks at her and Rodney confused for a moment because, honestly? That’s not what’s important right here right now at all.

“No, but I took the test.”

A shared look between human and Dæmon: You have to tell us the rest. Later. John ignores them, shifting the stones one by one, he remembers the pattern as it should be, and Rodney leans over his shoulder very close by the heat from his body slipping through John’s jacket, and the man is staring at his moving hands and murmuring alongside: “Two-nine-four, seven-five-three, six-one-eight …”

This might work. This might actually work.

He won’t let anyone else try just in case and puts his palms neatly over the spaces, waiting, but there’s no deadly sting nothing trying to trap him: only a whoosh of displaced air, the stirring of dust;


They carry Allina back to the village solemnly on a makeshift stretcher, between Teyla and Ford, and the seven of them had whispered How do we do this? before John had shrugged off his jacket – to hell with all the lies, he almost wants to scream – and he wraps it carefully around the still Shape of the woman’s Dæmon, not yet wholly cold, and places it carefully upon her chest, and for a moment he thinks about Laila and Lyle, about what he Did Not Do in the sands – he hadn’t dug a grave for them, only pocketed the dog tags and murmured goodbye.

He should’ve dug a grave for them.

In the distracted chaos, they hadn’t protested or asked, or wondered aloud; though John senses Rodney and Meredith staring at his back, eyes burning. 

They’re suspecting something.

This time, at least, they can bring them back to their people so they may bury the body, or whatever these people do to show their respects – maybe they open the Stargate and let the wormhole take them. John doesn’t want to think about it, suddenly exhausted.

He would rather have enemies shooting at them than this. Anything but this. They’d known them so briefly, but Allina and her Dæmon had been so genuinely curious and relieved and wanted to help them. You come from the Ancestral City?

Teyla talks for them. He lets her. She knows how to talk. He’s lost the ability, he realizes, staring at the two bodies, his silence shocked and humble. Rodney is a scattered attention by his side, Meredith is restlessly trying to be quiet, and he wonders if the shock has set in yet properly.

(They have hidden the potentia in a backpack like liars and thieves: they left the catacombs open and empty, nothing there for the Dagarians to find.)

This wasn’t how they’d planned the ending.


John doesn’t go to sleep that night, not joyful for claiming the potentia (stealing it like thieves), only recalling the wails of Allina’s Dæmon the seconds when she was dying, and he struggles to push the noises away. 

He’s seen civilians die before, innocent people caught up in the crossfire but this wasn’t a firefight, there was no enemy bearing down on them, it was them under the warm sun and the earth like a castle, and they had smiled and shared laughs during the day as they’d dug for the stones in the soil, and then they’d died so uselessly like leaves fall from trees. 


In the sand, 

he’d grasped Lyle Holland’s hand as the man was dying,

and he hasn’t dared to the same since, in case it is a curse spreading like foul air;

what if that’s what he does?

what if all he gives and gives is death?

 

Chapter Text

xiv.

præludium

part two:

the hourglass

carefully he offers a hand.


Now:  


«  According to the many laws of reality there should always be a Dæmon for the human to follow, and their Bond remains inseparable through all of time; »


The Raven opens its eyes and they are his own.

It isn’t a dream, not anymore.

John, breathing now, cannot move cannot whisper, cannot do anything but feel the seconds passing like eons and the Raven does not move other than tilting its head unspeakingly –

Can it speak? Should – should it? should it?

Newborn Dæmon do not speak because the newborn humans can’t – but this is not the cradle in which he rested, and, panic rising in attack he grabs for the one thing he does know:

Atlantis. Help me.

He has no idea what to do.


all this time before: he has been a ghost in body and raven in soul,

and John sits in the floor, numbly overwhelmed, and watches the Raven take flight.


Atlantis is the calm of a hundred storms having passed without a scar, She is the hand settling on his shoulder without recoiling;

This is happening, it can’t be happening, I thought it was a dream that would go away like any other – dangerously close to hyperventilating – what do I do?!

And She is, still so calm, a little amused and She says, [you always called them shy] and [it was not an untruth].

The Raven is moving, now. At unrest, testing its small sharp feet and its body its wings it looks at him with eyes that are His Own; it flexes its muscles, as if preparing for flight – and the room is dark, the lights not yet on and John realizes he’s sitting in the middle of the floor, dazed as if he’s hit his head, but he can’t stand up, not yet, what if he falls down again and finds this is nothing but a dream? So he sits, palms facing upward, and watches the Raven take flight.

And vertigo hits him like a bell: like he’s pulling Gs and the aircraft has left him, he cannot find the parachute –

“Hey, hey,” he wheezes, “wait –”

And the Raven, path uncertain, almost grazes the walls and manages to land precariously atop the window frame, silhouetted against the Lantean night and the waters below shimmering; it waits, patiently, as John regains his senses because whoa – was that a normal thing to feel?

[your bond is fresh] She explains, oh, She knows these things does She? Before he recalls what Chaya Sar showed him on Proculus: once all the Ancient cities were full of life, of people and their Dæmons constantly watched and guarded, and of course She knows –

Taking a deep breath, John closes his eyes, pulling himself to his feet slowly, and the Raven is looking at him, and if he keeps his eyes closed like this he might just feel: the Raven’s gaze, turned the other way, himself there, the room, wide beneath him, the slight gust of wind from the vents in the ceiling, the quietness of midnight.

Once, finally, the dizziness has gone and he manages to open his eyes. Adjusts to the darkness, and looks toward the windows. The Raven stares right back.

Carefully, John offers a hand.

Vertigo – but it is nowhere as strong this time, not knocking him off his feet – slams against his flesh, but he braces his feet to the ground, and the Raven spreads its wings and lands neatly in his palm, balancing a foot against his thumb precariously and trustfully without ever fearing to be dropped.

“… Hi there,” John whispers, should he be talking aloud, is that even necessary? – ”So … I guess I should probably give you a name, huh?”

It is still so silent and, in a way he isn’t used to, it’s starting to worry him, an ache in his gut, but She is there again, [give it some time] and, shit, he can’t keep calling the Raven an ‘it’ like a thing inanimate and unalive.

The thought must have carried over, somehow – the Bond is still fresh – because there is a return: gratitude, a warming sensation of hello and if John closes his eyes again to simply listen he could almost hear the wind whispering beneath their wings.

“How about Shy? ‘Cause you seem a bit like that, taking this long to appear,” he almost wants to laugh, suddenly, freely, weep because here they are, he is standing barefoot in his quarters in Atlantis while the others sleep, watching his Dæmon moving for the first time –

his Dæmon moving for the first time –

And the Raven is flying.


when i grow up i want to be a be a pilot


“Whoa,” unable to hide the thoughts of This is really really cool before the panic hits; John suddenly has the need to sit down again, to breathe.

This is happening.

And what should he do? For thirty-three years he has been pretending that Shy is just this tiny thing, hiding in his pocket all quiet and still. The illusion has settled like a second skin, and now he’s got to peel it off to make way for the truth. The Raven, slightly unsettled by the onslaught of emotion, doesn’t lose balance, but digs sharp claws into his palm like a reminder.

“Okay,” John says, aloud, glad for the thick walls, the fact that Atlantis is helping them hide. Now would be the worst time for a sudden visitor to open the doors. “Okay.”

The Raven has wings. The most amazing thing, what he’s always dreamed of, but therein lies the issue: his Dæmon has wings, and no Dæmon ever recorded in human history has had wings – at least not in the histories John has come across, read in the Forbidden Books in the library – not even in the fairytales was this possible. But Shy looks and feels very very real, wings fluttering, there’s the rush of air chilly but not uncomfortable, and a pair of dark eyes mirroring his own. Those eyes are not the eyes of an untamed bird taken from the wilderness and put in a cage.

The Raven remains quiet; maybe, because their Bond is so fresh, because of hiding for a Lifetime and it hasn’t learned to speak yet, to take control of all its muscles, at least not aloud –

Can you hear me, at least? He looks right at the Raven, focuses: this is not for Atlantis to hear.

[…yes.]

Is that your name, then, d’you think – Shy? An opinion is needed, isn’t it? This is not a pet to stamp ownership on;

[It’s what you’ve always been calling me.] The reply is edging on amused.

The voice is difficult to define: warm, and yet a little cold, the stirrings of a wind before December, like it comes from high up in the atmosphere where it begins to grow thin. It’s not the high-pitched broken cry of a bird in mid-flight, nor the roar of an engine, bursting with energy to rise: also, John realizes – because he has a sense of I Don’t Actually Know even though normally, normally the Dæmon is the opposite of the body; Are you a she at all?

[I haven’t quite Decided yet.] As if there are other possibilities – but he’d always thought – but has the Raven even settled? This isn’t like the normality of childhood, the Dæmon twisting into new forms until it’s Decided. Though a Raven feels most right. [I don’t know any more than you. I am you. I remember all the books we’ve read.]

All the books they’ve read: it always mentions Twos, always Both of them, together and ever-lasting. And continuing to work in destructive binaries, the Dæmon is the opposite of the human, male when the other is female, and whenever it gets more complicated than that the books would usually avoid the subject altogether. Later, the internet had been more helpful in the matter, as John hadn’t had a second voice with which to discuss the dilemma at the time, but now they don’t have access to those books or anything else.

He’s not even sure if he wants to know, to be honest. Right now he is trying not to be overwhelmed with all the new input.

Then: an idea.

“Hey, wanna go outside?”

Chapter Text

xv.

homecoming

part three:

air

oh, he is a coward: he is a coward who never learned to talk without feeling shame  


Then:


“I am merely saying the people of Athos wish you to know that if we are going to stay and fight, they too will help defend the City of the Ancestors.” Teyla’s voice is teetering on irritable, even aggravated; her usually reserved face is tense, and Kanaan, standing by her feet, is looking to be on the brink of his patience.

“We can’t possibly consider staying and fighting!”

“I disagree! I think it’s entirely within the realm of possibility,” John defends, has to, has to; he’s ready, they’ve got a potentia, can raise the shield, can use the Chair –

I’ll stay and fight, and She answers: [we know] even if everyone else is giving up.

“There are tens of thousands of life-sucking aliens in highly advanced spaceships on their way here to destroy us,” Kavanaugh whines, oh he is afraid but they all are. “And we have, what?, two hundred people, most of whom are scientists who’ve never even fired a gun!”

“Shockingly,” Rodney cuts in, sighing, “the first time I’ve ever found myself siding with Kavanaugh here.” – and John feels disappointment, sharp and sudden, like a knife; Rodney has always been on his side, on their side –

“All I’m saying is: let’s not give up! Granted, you guys are scientists; no one’s considering putting you on the front line, but science can turn the tide of war. Plus we’ve got ZPMs,” he nearly stumbles, nearly says potentiae instead, out of habit; “we’ve got shields.” 

The Last Siege: the thousands of days, held in silence – [we could endure again] –

They need to get the Chair online and see if there are any drones yet; it is not as if John could tell them up front, now, that there are none. Not enough to defend the City from the onslaught for long. Because how would he prove it? How would he prove that he’s right without revealing what Atlantis really is?

Instead, he lets them argue and debate, watching the mentions of evacuation and eventually Elizabeth turns to Rodney and Radek, telling them to schedule a test with the Chair in a few hours; John has to be there – the only one they trust with sitting in that Chair – and he doesn’t dispute it.


They’re right. The City has but three dozen drones yet, a mere handful in comparison to what’s coming. But with the shield they can endure. And they haven’t explored all the addresses left in the Note; maybe there other things out there, not just ruins and empty potentiae, but weaponry, ammo. Atlantis confirms, [most Outposts were protected].

But they are running out of time.

And the Wraith are very close, now, and within a few days they may be able to reach the satellite. Rodney’s already onto it, assembling a team to go and fix it. A secret weapon which the Wraith will never assume is even there; a prediction of their flight path reveals they will pass close by. Their ships cannot handle being in hyperspace for too long at a time, being organic in nature and thus perceptive to radiation; and they have drawn a map, showing where the Hives will stop.

There are planets there, populated by humans, thriving with life and some are allied with the Athosians, long-since trading partners in times of need. And Teyla does not beg for them to go there to warn them, but John sees it in Kanaan’s silenced movements and Teyla’s dark eyes. They need to go there.

A chance to save a few souls.

Elizabeth nods in allowance. “All right, go. Oakley can handle the satellite mission.”


Buying time.

That is all they are ever doing.


It is a peaceful world, with tiny villages scattered throughout the countryside and many people live on the far side of the planet, Teyla tells him, where it is safer. They have more time, then, if the Wraith come through the Stargate; time to find places to hide, to flee from the spreading shadow. Being close to the Stargate in case of an attack does not always help, since a tactic often employed is to dial in from another planet, cutting off any escape.

This day is slightly cloudy, and John breathes the air remembering their last mission to a peaceful world such as this one. Last time, ending in thievery and death –

In the closest village there are many farmers and families whom Teyla knows, and they greet here in surprised joy. Rumor has reached them even here, from Balkan traders, of the Athosians losing their home but taking up residence in a mythical place – no one has dared believe it. Now there is a stranger with her, and John smiles at them all pleasant-like, but they’re not here to socialize or bargain for crops.

“We know there are many Hiveships on their way and they will stop here. Please, you must take shelter,” Teyla deplores, pleadingly, though many villagers remain in doubt.

“We have not been Culled for over fifteen years,” one of them, a man with thinning hair, leaning on a spade, says. His Dæmon is rather small, with nervous eyes worn by age and time, and has a fluffy tail curled tightly around the man’s leg. It looks unlike any creature of Earth John has seen.

“Look, I know it’s difficult to take in but we’re telling the truth,” John says, not too gently, they don’t have time to be gentle and accommodating. How could one possibly be that when telling people they need to abandon their homes and seek dark places to hide until the war passes? “Listen, we can show you,” and he never discussed a part like this with Elizabeth, or Teyla, or anyone else. John searches his pockets, pulls out the Ancient scanner, and it’s easy to make it show something else. A flight-path, as recorded by the computers in Atlantis. It’s not a fancy holographic projection, but when passing it around the villagers begin to murmur. They recognize the stars plotted there, a mirror of their own sky.

“Have you got safehouses or some other place you can lay low until they’ve passed?” he asks.

“There are some cave systems in the south,” one of them answers, pale at the thought.

“How far is this place?”

“Not far. A day’s walk, perhaps, no more. But the path is difficult, and we have many children, and some who are too ill or frail to walk.”

John shares a look with Teyla. “I could use the Jumper, take a dozen people at the time …” And she looks so extremely relieved, relieved that he hasn’t just said We cannot help these people because they must. Turning back to the villagers, he asks about their numbers.

There are thousands of people on this planet. They might not be able to help all of them, but the Wraith are still well over a day away, and if they could help even a few…

They could give them time.

“All right. Teyla, I need you to help me organize people into groups. I’m going to radio back to the City, ask for some backup Jumpers.”


It’s not the first time in his life John has been part of a humanitarian effort, but this is the first time it’s been in advance of a disaster coming and knowing he could do something about it. The hours pass rapidly by: people and some precious possessions are helped into the alien ships – and they murmur in awe: You must come from the Ancestral City! – no one here has ever seen technology like this, only from the Enemy.

And day turns to night, and there is languid movement, frantic glowing fires: the villagers are leaving everything behind to uncertainty.

When the Wraith come and find the towns emptied, they might burn everything down out of spite.


Eventually, hands tired and body sore from all the lifting, John flies the Jumper back to the Stargate, not even controlling the stick as much as letting the craft fly itself. He is drained, but not in a merely bad way. Similarly, Teyla and Kanaan look tired but hopeful. They speak very little, watching the other three Jumpers and their pilots, who had been part of the effort, returning home.

They’re going to stay, wait, watch under the safety of the cloak, as the Wraith pass by: counting ships.


That is what they do.

It’s not just a dozen Hives; they come with Cruisers, supply-ships, Darts in the thousands. It’s an armada, and seeing them like this, not just a projection on a screen, causes ice to settle in John’s blood.

[they sent a hundred warships in the last wave]

Now, the Wraith descend onto the planet below, and the Jumper, invisible and unheard, follows.


One thing was true: the empty villages anger them, and Wraith are persistent, but also furious in an animalistic way. For a while they spread out, scourging the planet surface, seeking targets, but John parks the Jumper like a sentry by the mouth of one of the caves; the systems are far and deep, and hopefully, hopefully –

The Wraith stay away.

But they set everything ablaze: the houses and the fields, the barns full of food for the winter, the stores of hope for the following year, the coming generations. All their physical memories – forced away.

And John watches the devastation.


everything dies.

everything he touches dies.


The screaming of ships breaking the atmosphere lasts until morning, and then, at sunbreak, they lift again. Within half an hour they have all gone, moved on. The people hovering anxiously within the darkness peer outside, and the air is heavy with rain, falling gently and slowly putting out the fires.

Thousands of lives saved – for now –

All they’ve had and owned and lived for, wasted away, like dust; John finds it a little difficult to breathe, watching them walk out into the sun and greet their new future.

We caused this.

If not for …

A hand lands on his shoulder, and John whirls, an instinct born out of war and he grasps for his gun –

“I am sorry, John, I did not mean to startle you.”

Teyla. It’s just Teyla, not an enemy. Relaxing by a fraction, John pulls his finger from the trigger. “Hey. Sorry ‘bout that.”

“I understand,” she inclines her head; you’re a warrior, and the enemy is all around us. She has similar reflexes written into her spine. “I wanted to thank you.”

Mouth dry – a bubble of irony threatens to explode, laughter all hollow – “Thank me?”

And Teyla looks at the fields being filled with breathing people and their Dæmons, carrying what they can on their backs, digging into the soil, trying to salvage the last of their treasures. “You chose to stay and help these people. I know not all people would have done the same.”

And he has to look away. Away from the echoes of death. These people are alive, yes, but at what cost? Their homes are ashes. Rebuilding will take a long time.

(When he’d been on Earth still an out-of-the-mill fighter pilot, fighting human wars and unaware of Stargates, he’d dropped bombs and scattered death and followed the orders, struggling against them sometimes but usually he followed them because if he didn’t he wouldn’t get anywhere except possibly demoted and discharged – he’s spent years killing and watching things die – nothing really mattered; he wasn’t in personal disagreement with either side –

it feels like a lifetime ago.)

Something must have shown on his face, because Teyla’s eyes soften in sympathy, and Kanaan settles back on his haunches, looking right at him and John cannot look away. It’s the kind of gaze which requires full attention, reminding him of his old drilling Sergeant, Mills, of the scar across her throat and of the orders: Shoot the Dæmon and nothing will survive; never hesitate;

“You helped us when the Wraith burned Athos and took our people,” Kanaan says. “You have done the same here. No one else has done that. You are giving people hope, John Sheppard.”


Two potentiae are filling Her core with strength, and the shields are on constant standby; it is a matter of days now, of hours too few.

The Wraith are coming. 


Oh, he is a coward; he is a coward who never learned to talk without feeling shame.

He finds an empty hallway, an empty room. It’s still damp since the flooding that occurred during the storm, smelling horribly, but out here they are alone and Atlantis wills the sensors to darken, so that they’re not discovered. And he’s brought with him his laptop, placing it gingerly on the floor, angling it upward so that a flare of light reaches his face; turns on the webcam, too late to back down now if he won’t tell anybody to the face at least he can do this, like a memorial. Maybe later, digging up the bodies, someone will find it and watch it and maybe understand.

Here Atlantis will hide him for as long as he needs.

A deep breath: You can do this.

He’d backed out when they’d recorded private messages to send back to Earth. This isn’t for the remaining Sheppards to see: his father probably considers him dead, already, and Dave – well, better not linger. No. This is for himself. And maybe, someday …

He straightens his back. Presses a button.

The instinct, echoing the hours at the Academy, of stern faces ordering him about; State your name and rank – 


(recording starts)

“My name’s Major John Sheppard, US Air Force, identification code alpha-delta-charlie-niner-six. Just to make you certain this isn’t a mock-up. This is – I guess, this is a confession. Not a will, though it could … I suppose I could include this, too. Instead of a note. Mind, I’m not a religious sort, stopped going on Sundays pretty early on, by the time I was first shipped out and saw people dying and getting shot, I’d stopped believing – Jeez, if I start babbling I’m going to sound like McKay.

If you get to watch this, McKay, that’s not an insult. You’re a clever guy. Not sprouting nonsense – most of the time anyway. You and Meredith, you’re the good guys. I don’t know what I am, to be honest.

I’ve been lying. For a while. For a long while, actually. Hell, I was born and raised a liar, ‘cause that’s how I was going to survive. I’m not going to bore y’all with the dry details. Just, I was born and everyone knows that once you’re born your Dæmon should Emerge pretty soon. And I was born and they all waited, and waited, and waited …

So here I am. The cheesiest thing to say, but. Yeah. Am still waiting, in a sense. Not that I truly mind, a lot of the time, not having a Dæmon. Only the weird glances as a kid before I got used to it, and, y’know, being abnormal and a freak – Strangeling – I learned that word when I was, what? eight, I think? Felt like I’d found a brand, then. ‘Strangeling: that’s me’. Actually, it was a bit comforting. I mean, I was the odd one out but at least I (finally) had a name for it.

Then I found out about the Stargate. Came to Atlantis and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me because they I figured She’s actually real – because that’s the thing;

I’ve dreamt about Her voice ever since I was a kid. Strangest thing about it isn’t the dreaming. It’s that I never doubted it’s real, though anyone I ever told disbelieved … Course they did, I was just this kid without a Dæmon. Had these – these dreams. That if I had a Dæmon one day, it’d have wings. Course, I knew it wouldn’t happen. Dæmons don’t have wings.

A few weeks ago, that started changing. My team and I went to a planet called Proculus – damned if I remember the numeral designation off hand – and, we met this woman, Chaya Sar. An Ancient. I didn’t put all of it in the report. Should’ve but couldn’t. She showed me – actually showed, didn’t just talk about it – all kinds of stuff ‘bout Ancients, and Dæmons, and Atlantis, their old cities and – well, it started slotting into place. That maybe I’m not … not going to be the odd one out for the rest of my life. Chaya Sar’s Dæmon wasn’t there, by the way, not the in corporal sense but it definitely wasn’t dead

She told me that in order to Ascend, they had to become one. Ancient and Dæmon. Or human and Dæmon, whatever. Told me something weird … that I was born on the edge.

Edge of what? Ascension?

I’ve never even heard about the concept until a few months ago. Would explain a few things, though.

… Atlantis.

Imagine … imagine someone trying to force your Dæmon away from you. If you do that; sever that Bond and –

I’ve seen people Ghosting. I’ve seen it. I’ve heard it. Those few awful seconds. Once, this buddy of mine, he died in Afghanistan, chopper a wreck. Had known him for years, we’re a team and in a team, you tend to get pretty close; damned good pilot. And then his Dæmon died and he lasted a full minute afterward, all wild-eyed and frantic – I’ve seen it, and I don’t want it happening to me. Destroy Atlantis and I will have to go with Her. I can’t leave.

That’s my confession, I guess.

Press that self-destruct button and I die with Her. I’ll stay. I can’t leave.

I …

I guess there’s a lot of other stuff coming to mind. Sitting like this. Talking isn’t my strong suit but, but I suppose since I’m already onto it;

I hear Her, always when I’m here, and sometimes offworld too depending on how far away the planet system is from Lantea. Like a radio transmission. Sometimes there’s static, but it’s never truly broken. As long as we’re both alive … And damn if I know how it works. She’s a City, alien, built millions of years ago. Seven million three-hundred-thousand five-hundred and forty-six point nine years ago, to be exact. And I was born, well, hell of a lot later than that so, yeah, I don’t understand all the details. Something with my genes, probably; Atlantis keeps insisting that the Alterans aren’t truly dead. Sometimes I wonder if She had a similar Bond with them, with any of them. She’s never really told me. I’ve got the blood of the Ancients …

And that’s the other funny thing, I guess. She keeps giving me all these words and figures in my head, feeding me knowledge and I can’t blurt it out in front of anyone. Gives the game away. Could probably hold a conversation in Ancient now, if I wanted to: Atlantus lacun subo mare; ego Eius surgens ex dormata eteri … not on my own, but; almost. Sometimes it selfishly feels like it, because I’m the only one who can hear Her singing. Here we are, nou mundo noi ani explatorates inter astria Pegasos, and I’m still sort of … stuck – too stuck worrying about being a Strangeling to focus on that amazing thing. New planets, new star systems …

If the folks back on Earth could see it … Gives you a new perspective of things.

She’s got a bit of a sense of humor, Atlantis; most of the time She’s serious though. Keeps … Sometimes She tries stopping me. Fights me, even.

When the storm hit and the Genii attacked, I – I killed them and I didn’t feel remorse for that. They held Elizabeth and Rodney – they held people captive and, well. ‘Shoot the Dæmon and the person dies’, one of my old training sergeants used to say. So that’s what I did.

Shot a lot of Dæmons that day.

Should I be regretting that?

Tried saving them, my people … That’s the first time I saw with my own eyes what happens when you touch someone else’s Dæmon without consent. My own eyes – Atlantis’ eyes, then. Her sensors, all of Her systems, they were my senses right that moment. An extension of my body. That’s what She is. Or I’ve thought so, anyway, for a long while but it’s changed now. I …

I watched it all. Felt it. I don’t regret killing those people, on most days.

I’ve never expected for a Dæmon to Emerge. It’s like those dreams you have as a kid. They’re just dreams: like flying to Neverland, it's not going to happen …

Been having these weird pains, though, and this light – and Chaya Sar and Atlantis, they pretty much confirmed, it’s really started happening. Not yet but it will. I’m not sure how I’m going react when it does happen. Probably … probably freak out a bit.

I guess, I guess the consensus is, nothing’s straightforward and I’m not even sure who I’m recording this for, maybe just myself. Ha! Practicing a speech in front of a mirror. Always said I loathed speeches, which is very true. So now I know what to say when I’m confronted, ‘cause, honestly, I don’t want to keep pretending anymore. I just want to be the average Joe. Average-ish; hey, exploring a new galaxy and all. But otherwise – I really wanna be that average Joe.

The Wraith are coming, and either we flee or we die – die fighting. We’ve got a chance now, at least, with the two potentiae – we’ve got shields. Atlantis reckons we could hold out for months, possibly years. If we don’t – well. I’ve been close to death before. Technically died once, for a bit. She was there, then, actually. Right beside me, it felt like … She kept saying she wouldn’t let me die.

This time … I wanna return that favour. Save Her since She saved me, and if it doesn’t work …

I don’t want to die a liar.

I … That’s it.

That’s my confession: I don’t want to die a liar.”

(recording ends)


And the following midnight, right before the call is shouted to prepare for evacuation, John wakes up to the sound of sirens: it’s not pain but surprise and the overwhelming calm; a wave, rising, this is the crescendo – a hand outstretched, he reaches out to catch it as the light breaks free after those long long days and years and hours;

The Raven opens its eyes.

Chapter Text

xvi.

præludium

part three:

the atmosphere

this is their first flight.  


Now:


the raven has broken free and John wants to fling open the windows, enter the freedom of the air;

hey, wanna go outside?


Sneaking past the sentries is easy; Atlantis shows him all the shortcuts that he needs, and, within a few minutes, he’s standing on a large balcony overlooking the silent night. The lights are dimmed and from here he can see the wideness of the water and beyond it hundreds of towers reaching upward. To the outside eye, the City appears to be asleep. John knows better, and they walk out on the balcony. Vaguely, he realizes he didn’t bother bringing his gun this time, or even pulling on a pair of boots. Still in t-shirt and slacks, as if sleepwalking. The air is chilly but very still; there is little wind tonight.

Uncurling his hand, gently, the Raven shifts, moving from the safety of his shoulder onto his palm. And taking a breath, John closes his eyes, arms spread wide – like in the dreams: turning toward the open sky, past the atmosphere: the ocean glittering below, all so still and wide; he’s running, running, and then he reaches the edge of the tower;

The Raven takes flight.


It’s the most amazing wonderful thing; the freedom of the atmosphere, bearing their weight, and these eyes are not shy at all: wide open, letting them feel every flutter of wings – we already know how to fly, we have always known –

The Raven circles the balcony, once, twice, thrice, getting a little braver each time and John no longer feels his cold toes, braced against the floor; each time, they move further and further apart but it doesn’t hurt, and there is no shock. There is no lingering sense of wrongness, as he’s read in the Books that There Should Be. There’s only freedom: pure, exhilarating –

We’re flying.

Farther and farther: they find a gust of upwind and they let it catch them, and he’s not weeping he’s laughing, laughing uncaring if someone might hear, if the sound carries across the bay to the other side. Right now it wouldn’t matter if the universe could see them;

Up, up, up.

Fifty feet, a hundred feet between his body and the Raven, and farther further farther

Oh,

we’re flying! John wants to shout, shout for the rest of reality to hear: everything else is lies, we’re flying!

They circle the Control Tower, right up there to the highest level where the roof retracts to give way to the Jumpers, and they find a perch there when their wings begin to tire, unused to such prolonged movement. The soreness isn’t bad, though. It’s a reminder: they’re alive and free and real.


After a while the quiet has lasted long enough, and John murmurs I want you to come back down to me now, feeling this echo of loss: still nothing like he’s read about the separation of Dæmon and human, the pain it ought to cause. This is more like a hollowness carved somewhere in his lungs, not dangerous or deep, and he supposes it might take minutes or hours before it might start actually hurting, cripplingly. He doesn’t want to find out where the limit is, and the Raven gladly leaps into the air again and he follows the flight, down again.

He doesn’t open his eyes until the Raven lands on his shoulder again, so familiar and close and Shy sounds rather pleased, a quiet keen like only revealing a partial truth: [That was really cool. We ought to do that more often.]

“Understatement of the year,” John whispers, oh – oh, they’ve just flown!

Shy has given him wings.

He’s not sure of the time, they may have been out here for seconds or hours – a glance at his wristwatch (modified by the science teams to fit with the Lantean tilt of time) reveals it’s been well over an hour. Soon enough the night is over and he needs to be ready to join the others in the Gate Room; this could be the Final Night in Atlantis.

Reality falls back down onto them.

Shy (not really shy at all at this point but the name has stuck) nudges his throat, comfortingly. They don’t want to be apart now, but his worries must be clear across the Bond: the Raven is an impossibility according to the laws of Earth, and either he must keep hiding – how would the other humans react when confronted with this?

[Hey, whatever you choose to do, I’m with you], because the Raven is a manifestation of his Soul and the Soul cannot lie.

“Right,” he whispers. Looks down from the bannister, at the sheer height. So much of the City is dark and empty. Only the Main Tower is alight, and Atlantis is slipping him data in a constant stream when he asks for it: sixty-eight lifesigns on the move, night guards and scientists refusing to leave their labs. Sleepwalkers, like him.

Unconsciously he’s reaching with a hand like he has wanted when he was eight years old – and Shy, smiling across their Bond, meets him half-way. The feathers beneath his touch are soft and black like a night-sky without stars. Shy murmurs contently at the contact.

what do we do?

Remembering the message he’d recorded for nobody; it still await on his computer, either to be destroyed or relayed; and he hasn’t decided which, yet.


I don’t want to die a liar.


They deserve to know. His team – Elizabeth, too, he supposes – or maybe all of them – but mostly his team. They’ve become a bit like a family, now, haven’t they, the family he hasn’t had since he was a child. Saving each other’s lives every now and again, unbidden, like a reflex. Yeah. They deserve to know; Teyla and Kanaan, they might not react that badly, in the end. To them all Earthlings are aliens, and this is just going to be another alien thing. Ford and Adria … he’s not so sure. Rodney and Meredith even less so.

Shy makes a contemplative noise. [This Meredith, is she really a cat?]

Hey, you saying we can’t get along because Rodney’s Dæmon is a cat?

[According to the books we’ve read, cats are predators that eat birds for breakfast.] and there is a tinge of concern flooding the colors of their Bond, and instinctively John’s hand is curling like a shield around that tiny dark body, as if conveying Nothing Will Touch You;

(Nevermind the fact that Dæmons don’t actually have to eat, nor are creatures running on basic instinct and nothing else. In no reality would one Dæmon actually chase another unless they are mortal enemies, and John cannot imagine him and Rodney actually ever being that.)

John chuckles, warmly, feeling the thrum of the Raven beneath his palm. They killed that Wraith that was about to kill us, remember. I don’t think Meredith would ever try something like that. You know I wouldn’t let that happen to us, right?

Us. It is hauntingly easy to think it: them, together, twos, we. No longer alone. Strange, but not unreal. It’s comfortingly satisfying; it’s no longer a lie.

And with utter surety and unquestionable trust, the Raven answers: [Of course.]


The night isn’t over yet it and it could be their final night in Atlantis, whole and safe; soon the Wraith will come, and if the plan of using the satellites to destroy the Hives doesn’t work, Elizabeth will give the final verdict: they’ll evacuate, enter those few lines of code, upload a virus into Atlantis’ heart and await the explosion. The final night. But John’s steps are lighter than they have been for years, and he convinces himself he doesn’t need sleep – isn’t sure he can – not now. They don’t return to his quarters to rest;

this is their first flight – it lingers the night. 


They spend the remaining hours outside, flying, merely breathing, being in a sense that John can’t remember ever being – until the sun begins to break up the horizon. Then, slowly, the Raven circles downward again one last time and lands in his awaiting embrace, and he is shivering but not entirely from the cold.

Time to face the dragons.

Chapter Text

xvii.

distress call

part one

they have to tell the truth.


Shy’s wings are so fragile, easily breakable, John realizes when they’re walking from the privacy of his quarters toward the briefing room. He has no appetite to eat, and he doubts a lot of people have; right now, he is riding an emotional high, and the adrenaline will keep him upright today.

The Wraith are approaching.

Word has come: they’ve fixed the satellite, stapled it together with a naquadah generator and hope, and now they are waiting. It’s on standby, on automatic; Elizabeth refuses to risk people by having him left out there. Rodney, Grodin, plus Miller as their pilot, are waiting in an invisible Jumper, hanging in the emptiness of space – they’ve been out there, working nonstop to force the satellite into life again for the past twenty-four hours. Over the radio, Rodney sounds haggard but minutely hopeful in that way of his (still saying We’re all probably going to die).

John enters the Control Room with practiced ease and it is a bit strange, the room is abuzz and lively, and no one pays him especial heed – they’re too stressed for that – and John shifts, body not familiar yet with this new weight to carry. Shy’s claws sharply dig into the cloth of his t-shirt and the skin beneath, but it is a comfortable pain, a reminder of reality. He doesn’t want to shove his Dæmon – his Dæmon (still difficult to think it and breathe properly) – carelessly into a jacket pocket though they’re still small enough to fit there; Shy’s wings could break far too easily, or slip out, and since the hours (such a brief time ago) when the Raven first broke free, Shy seems to be growing in size, little by little, as if getting more comfortable in this form.

Now there’s a small Raven hiding like a misshapen lump on his shoulder, buried beneath his jacket and he’s chosen to wear a high turtleneck today, all darkness, to conceal the glimmer of his Dæmon’s eyes peering out at the world in daylight for the first time.

Idly he wonders if anyone, in these stressed moments, will notice enough to care. After all, he has always been so quietly private about his Dæmon, a rule of Not Mentioning Them if he can. And it’s not like he’s shouting and pointing (a child finding a beautiful creature in a garden and bringing it home), look! look! To have Something there would be a display of normality, not the opposite.

But he isn’t a child anymore; he cannot say: They haven’t settled yet – they were a tiny bug last week or they used to be invisible but, see, now they aren’t anymore.


They have no video transmission, only voices on the radio. Rodney, tersely, narrates: scanners are picking up approaching ships. It’s the Wraith, all right.” And movement ceases, everyone holding their breaths.

“Fingers crossed,” Elizabeth says, and they wait, and wait –

“Okay. It’s powering up. The Wraith don’t seem to have noticed. In range in five, four, three Firing weapon.”

An explosion. Nothing they can see or hear, no sound can carry through vacuum; but there’s a release of breath and a joyous, slightly disbelieving cry:

“We have a kill!”

The whole room breaks into cheer. Abruptly, John, standing nearby one of the consoles, finds a hand thumping his back enthusiastically – one of the technicians, Chuck (the name vaguely registers) not an enemy, but John jumps a little – what if – but the hand falls away, rapidly, as if embarrassed – he’s never been the touchy-feely sort of guy, so hopefully they’ll just think it’s that. Just that; not that his heart thunders briefly with fear of a hand unwittingly touching his Dæmon.

[I’m fine, he didn’t touch me], Shy assures him without him having to ask. [Though my tail was kind of squished.]

Sorry, sorry, sorry, echoes on John’s tongue.

[It’s all right. We’re all right.]

But it’s not over yet. 

the Wraith are firing,” Rodney is saying. “Thank god they cannot see us.” 

They still hadn’t figured out a way to shield it, if there’s one. Maybe it was just too damaged in the Last War, or a naquadah generator couldn’t provide coverage for it. Then, there’s a sigh, and Peter Grodin enters conversation: “They’ve destroyed the satellite.”

“We managed to take out one Hive, at least,” Elizabeth says. “Good work. Now, come back home.”

Home.

John’s breath hitches; Elizabeth considers Atlantis home enough to say it aloud, and yet she is prepared to bring it to complete ruin.

“All right. We’ll be back in a couple of hours. McKay out.”


A couple of hours. They are giving up, John realizes: they are ready for it, now. There are still eleven Hiveships cleaving the skies, destroying one star after the other and they will darken the skies above Atlantis too before nightfall. And they have the Chair, they have a few dozen drones and John could make it enough, he’s certain: he could hit true to home each and every one of them, make each shot matter.

They could survive, they could save the City.

But Elizabeth will not see. Caution overtaking curiosity to explore further. They are standing on the edge – oh, but John was born on the edge; he is ready to take the leap off it.

Rodney and the others haven’t returned, but they are on their way. Items are being assembled, all kinds of equipment from labs accounted for, ammo gathered. Packed into crates. They’ve been at it for days, even as John and his team have been out there among the stars, searching for more potentiae, for hope.

They’re preparing to dial Earth.


[We have to tell them, you know], Shy says; they’re wandering the halls, aimlessly, like in a dream; should be gearing up, loading his gun, but no orders of such have been given. In this part of the City, no one can see them, bother them. Shy isn’t hiding anymore, but explores the possibilities of flight indoors: [We have to tell Elizabeth that we’re staying.]

The Raven hasn’t found a physical voice, yet. Maybe won’t need one. This way John can be the only selfish creature to savor that voice, that presence. The only one –

John halts mid-stride, leaning against a wall. It’s warm beneath his hands, alive, Atlantis is pleading [stay with us] and [do not leave] and [we can save you] and She isn’t just talking about him and Shy; She’s talking about everyone on this base, about the world.

He wants to weep, to cry, but takes a breath. Got to pull himself together. This isn’t the time for a breakdown.

“You’re right,” he murmurs, and they’re alone in this corridor, one of those parts of the City no one visits anymore. Returning in a gliding sweep, Shy lands freely on his shoulder, wings flexing, stretching like after a long sleep. Not that Dæmons need to sleep, really. They tend to, when their humans do, but otherwise they never do.

Of course they’re right.

I don’t want to die a liar.  


One two three four times;

What makes a monster? Rodney wonders sometimes, watching the Wraith destroy worlds, devouring them. The Wraith have no Dæmons. They’re creatures, soulless things but he has seen them face-to-face, too, has heard them speaking; they have a language; they’re not merely savage beasts – oh, but they are. They don’t have Dæmons. And Rodney has (unfortunately) met people, human people, who are in a sense monsters in ways he had never dreamed before – the storm taking the skies and the water, the Genii entering Atlantis, killing mercilessly and Kolya –

He doesn’t want to remember that, his voice being stolen; but Sheppard had killed Kolya mercilessly, split his skull with a bullet, and then within twenty-four hours Sheppard had grinned and joked and bantered like usual, like he hadn’t just killed over sixty people and their Dæmons in a fit of uncontrolled rage, cold and calculating like some savage clever beast; and what makes a monster?

And he thinks about Sheppard’s human eyes and human hands and human mind, even though he cannot fathom most days how that mind works, so foreign – and Meredith claims she likes the guy, in that roundabout manner in which she has to share everything with her human: but she killed a Wraith for them, It Had to Die still a sharp memory, and she had never done that for anyone else ever before and Rodney would prefer if she didn’t again; and, well, they’re at ease around Sheppard at least ninety-nine percent of the time. But he has never seen Sheppard’s Dæmon or heard its voice, though Meredith has no issue talking directly with Sheppard now or even calling him John,

like dreams, Rodney doesn’t want to linger on dreams they need to  survive  focus on survival that’s what’s important;

is he a monster? Like in the fairytales, Strangelings without Dæmons, setting out on quests to burn the world;

but Sheppard has never burned it like in those stories.

And they are close to finding an answer to these questions, when the satellite is destroyed and they return to Atlantis in sombre silence, and Elizabeth says: “We are returning to Earth.”

And Sheppard is watching, carefully, with eyes dark, and he is silent the whole meeting right until the end when they’re filing out one by one and he says:

“I’m staying,” in absolute certainty, not asking for anyone else to follow; and Elizabeth pauses, wonders why, and Teyla is looking at Sheppard like seeing him anew like a first time on Athos, and Rodney wonders okay what the hell – except maybe not, because Sheppard has never talked about homelonging like everybody else. He has never mentioned family or roots or Anything Else of Importance with their origins on Earth; no, everything Important to Sheppard seems to come from here, from Pegasus, from Atlantis itself.

“I’m staying,” in absolute certainty and it is not a doom or judgement merely a fact: like stating that the planets revolve around the stars, or that the Universe is expanding;


And the meeting ends, this final one, orders being given, the Wraith are two hours away; Elizabeth says, “Prepare to dial Earth.” They move out, one by one, and half of them are out of the room in a few seconds,

And John cannot hold his breath any longer.

“I’m staying.”

Elizabeth turns back around. Rodney, on the threshold, move back inside. Teyla, Ford, the rest of them: a sea of faces. John hasn’t gotten up from his chair.

“What?”

Elizabeth frowns, confused, what’s this? because he is essentially disobeying a direct order from his commander, the thing she has been warned about before they set out by General O’Neill – there’s a black mark in Afghanistan, issues with command –

“I’m staying.”

Now Rodney edges forward, “Don’t be ridiculous –” and John looks at him, looks right at him properly and there is written somewhere that the eyes are like mirrors, mirrors of the soul, and if they can’t see his Dæmon curled where it is resting by the nape of his neck, at least they can see this – “You’re not bluffing. Why aren’t you bluffing?” Rodney mutters, clearly not liking this: an equation thrown at his face, unable to be solved in a flash.

And John starts reaching inside of his jacket, prepared, prepared to uncover all untruths – I don’t want to die a liar – prepared to say: Atlantis is tied to me, I can’t leave Her –

when a voice announces:

“We have an incoming wormhole!”

Chapter Text

xviii.

distress call

part two

they are here: the Wraith have come to destroy us.


Earth.

Reinforcements.

There is a ship coming; two days, they say, that’s how long they have to hold out. Two days. They bring people, weapons, ammo; we got your message.

potentia which brought them here.

Their commander is a man with rough edges, his Dæmon is a wolf and for a moment John falters on the stairs, seeing that echo which looks terrifyingly much like Kolya’s – but it’s not, Kolya’s dead gone destroyed – it’s not the Genii but a Colonel of the USMC, Dillion Everett. And he grins, “Some archaeologists found the ZPM in Egypt, right under our noses.”

Hope ignited: they will soon have three potentiae –

“We know what you’re thinking, but we have very few drones for the Weapons Chair Platform,” Elizabeth says, agitated, yet hopeful in a sense. Watching the Gate Room flood with strange new faces, guns, voices. Does she want to go back to Earth? Or is it that she just doesn’t want to die?

(For us there is no choice.)

And this man and his Dæmon might creep him the fuck out, reminding him too much of dark memories, of his Father and Irene sternly telling him to behave and stop reading those forbidden books – but now, for now they are the gates to salvation:

“We have to hold this base for two days, until the Daedalus arrives with the ZPM.”

“Actually,” John cuts in, respectfully sir, “we have two already. That’s how we managed to send the message back to Earth.”

Shocked stillness: silence descends onto the Colonel and his men. 

And, an idea, again: they can open a wormhole to Earth and back again – if – “We need more drones.”

Rodney, by his side, frowns. “What are you thinking?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure there’s a whole load of them back in Antarctica.” 


One two three four times;

The man in charge on the Other Side is a General Landry, and Rodney vaguely – in that disinterested sort of way – remembers the discussions before they headed out that O’Neill might not stick around for ever, wanted elsewhere – Head of Homeworld Command now, apparently. Not that he is particularly interested in the particulars or the politics, but they have less than two hours before the Wraith reach them and Sheppard is proposing they cross all treaties and oceans to get to Antarctica, the Chair there, and take some of its drones. Borrow. Well, take. Once taken they cannot give them back, only as smoldering ships falling from the Lantean sky.

And throughout it all, the wormhole open and calling their radio signals across, Sheppard stubbornly remains, saying, stuck on repeat: I’m not leaving.

Not leaving Atlantis. And Rodney wants to live, he and Meredith wish to see a hundred thousand more days – but Sheppard does not seem to be saying I’m not leaving with the sense of a man being stubborn refusing orders but knowing better; no, looking at him, his distraught pale face and sunken cheeks and dark eyes, Rodney might believe that Sheppard means If I leave I might die –

an improbability;

Eventually, a compromise is reached; Elizabeth is a diplomat, their best negotiator save perhaps Teyla, and Teyla is Athosian and completely alien to the SCG and so Elizabeth says, All right. Because she wants to save the City, too. Not like Sheppard wants to save it, maybe, but still;

they watch her step through the event horizon to Earth, and then it shuts down with the silent promise of maybe. They’ll need a ZedPM on the Other Side to open it up again, but the Daedalus hasn’t taken off yet; they can delay a few more hours.

And there’s no mistaking the sagging shoulders for anything but relief, and Rodney grabs his wrist before the man can manage to leave the Gate Room – the new Mr Big Hat Everett shouting orders in the background, soldiers unpacking ammo and machineguns like nobody’s business – “Sheppard,” staggering to catch up, Meredith nearly trips them both up. “What was that?”

“What was what?”

Oh, that smug bastardly man, Rodney wants to smack his head and shake some sense into that thick head; “That thing in the briefing room. You were about to do something.”

I’m not leaving, he had said, ready say something more: to move, pull something out of his jacket – 

“Rodney,” that drawl which is both annoying and making his toes curl, “I – it’s complicated.”


“It’s complicated.”

Meredith looks at him like Don’t Patronize Us, and John sighs, draws a hand through his unruly hair and now is not the time, in the Gate Room full of these unknown people, soldiers in uniforms all the wrong color – Colonel Everett is impatiently waiting for him, this Major oddly in charge and now Elizabeth isn’t there to act as mediator – there’s too much going on.

“Look, I’ll explain everything once this is over. Deal?”

Rodney fixes him with a stare that could implode stars. “I’ll hold you to that, Major.”


They’d brought an enhanced naquadah generator with them, but it’s not needed anymore, other than as backup, which is always nice to have; John watches it all unfold, the men and women armed to the teeth spreading through the corridors like water during a flood. They spill over the walkways and onto the balconies, setting up positions all over the City, one Tower after the next. Everett – he has no idea what they’re up against, but John’s throat is hoarse with thundering hopes, and cannot yell, because they are what they’ve got to defend Atlantis and he will stay, he made a promise: he will stay until they win or until they burn.

There’s no knowing if they can negotiate to bring drones here, or how long that might take and all they have now is thirty-eight minutes and counting, and they gather in the briefing room; him and Ford and all these strangers, strangers who don’t want civilian scientists to join them and help them even though they are the ones – not these marines – who have kept the City afloat ever since they got here – and John tells them upfront, We need these people here with us, not on the outside.

“Because I bet you could use my cooperation, as well as that of everyone on this base, sir,” and John doesn’t have to pretend liking this man, he realizes, he might have reached that point ages ago where he did no longer care: Earth is a foreign world, he is the alien and these people are foreigners, stepping into unknown territory with their flags planting them there – and maybe it is fury he could direct at Wraith instead.

But John has a lot of that fury buried in his guts, it’s easy to bring forward and use. And the Colonel gives him a look of disdained disapproval, and all these words rest in the air: You forget who is in charge –

Abruptly the lights of the room flicker, dimming, and John doesn’t blink. The Colonel gives the barest hint of a glance, all stoic and uptight, but some of the other newcomers give way to their unrest: something’s not right here, they think, there is no reason power should be fluctuating to cause such an effect, and Everett demands: “I thought you said you had two Zero Point Modules powering the City.”

“We do,” John smiles, dangerously, we have all that power –

[John, we are at war with the wraith, not them], She reminds him gently; even though Shy is murmuring [I don’t like this guy either].

Fifty minutes earlier, John watched his Raven fly up toward the rafters and the ceiling in the Gate Room is tremendously beautifully high. And Shy had found a perch there where to hide, upon a sleek beam, a perfect overlook and he can See Everything; layers upon layers, the faces in the briefing room and voices stretching from across the expanse of the City; sensory input that might be dangerously overloading any other time but John has looked upon the world like this before, and doesn’t flinch or stagger. With a blink he can filter the unimportant things away;

and the Hives are exiting hyperspace, giant windows opening in vacuum and tearing it apart. The City warns: [they are here] and John holds Everett’s stare, evenly, and eventually the man says, as klaxons begin to blare: “Dismissed, Major.”

And John leaves the briefing room without saluting just as the flares are sent toward the sky, declaring:

it’s time.


I’m headed to the Chair, John sends a thought and glances upwards and anyone else might perceive it as a brief prayer: Let us survive, and they haven’t seen the Raven in hiding up there. And the returned prayer is clear: [I’m your eye in the sky]

He breaks into a run.

Chapter Text

xix.

the ascent

 

he is the sky, every atom:


There’s no one in the Chair Room; they are waiting for the onslaught, but the shields are raised, allowing their gunfire to reach outward but nothing will touch them. Atlantis is singing, singing like when She rose from the depth of the waters: [they cannot touch us],

and John finds the Chair already alight, waiting for him; he might not even need it, he realizes briefly, but it helps him focus. Relaxing breathing sinking into Her voice, he is every computer, every terminal and he becomes the drones as they enter the air;

there are only twenty-six of them and they need a lot more to destroy all of the Hives, but John grasps five, ten of them all at once, flying through the atmosphere past the shields and up into space. The Hives weren’t expecting this – there’s an aftershock: surprise, anger, fear – they expected to find the City undefended, at least without a shield; not like this –

the Ancients withstood a hundred years of siege. Perhaps their own time is more limited but they will withstand this:


I won’t let you die;
the City and everyone within it

they have to survive


The first of the Hives breaks apart like dust. John guides the next set of drones past the Darts which are furiously propelling themselves at the shield as if to break it, past the Cruisers and into the belly of the next beast –

The Chair doesn’t let him go until all of the drones are spent. It’s still over all too fast, too fast, and there are still ten Hives out there;

Breathing again, John opens his eyes to find he’s in the Gate Room high above and there is a scene of chaos; people rushing back and forth, shouts relaying progress. The Wraith are trying to attack the shield with their beaming technology, but it cannot get past it. It’s holding.

But they are out of ammunition and it’s not enough –

Jumpers. They need to send fighters, except they have no fighter pilots except him.

[We can do it], Shy assures him, and lets him return to his body in the Chair, and he doesn’t pull himself up all at once –

Atlantis, will you help me do this? he asks and the answer is clear like a beam of sun:

[of course]


One two three four times;

They stand on a balcony watching the shield being attacked by fire. It’s almost beautiful, except the Wraith are sacrificing Darts in the hundreds in vain attempt to break the shield under the strain. They don’t know they have two ZedPMs and a third on its way. And in the glaring intensity of all this fire, it’s difficult to see: but Rodney peers out, and the computers can follow the path of drones rising and he can’t remember anyone giving the order – but they are rising, a dozen all at once with amazing precision. Not a single one is intercepted by the wayward Darts, they hit the targets dead-on:

Flares on the edge of the atmosphere: one Hive is destroyed. Then another –

They’re out of drones. They can wait, they can endure; the shields are holding, they are holding in a way Rodney hadn’t dared to dream, and he’s probably imagining that, mistaking it for something else, because he could almost swear he can hear the City singing.

And then one of the technicians is saying that the Hangar roof is retracting but that makes no sense, they never planned to launch Jumpers because those tiny ships can barely dent a Hiveship, nevermind a dozen of them; but the roof is opening and one, two, three, four Jumpers are rising. And Rodney demands a computer to see and the City isn’t registering any lifesigns aboard them, as if they’re being piloted by ghosts –


They’re flying.

He is the sky, every atom: parting the clouds – beyond it – Atlantis gives each Jumper life, and he fires all of the drones at once; the gathered arsenal there could destroy them;

They try to return fire, but the Jumpers are cloaked: [we have overridden safety protocol], the thing that makes it impossible to fire and be invisible all at once. They cannot see him, firing blindly and there’s a stabbing noise, a sudden headache – a hit, one of the Jumpers has been hit – but he won’t stop cannot stop 

we have to save them

And through the roaring, the echo returns: further and farther away from the City, into the dark midst of the Hives and he breaks them apart, one after the other; their ashes are being pulled by gravity toward Lantea, to burn up in the atmosphere and dizziness is threatening to overtake him, it’s too much all this input this noise the power of the drones like bullets flying from his hands –

[John]

A knot settling around his throat a gunshot wound ripping open his belly suddenly one the Jumpers explodes and he struggles to breathe

[John!]

it’s too much but he has to destroy them, he has to destroy them there are four Hives left threatening the skies and he needs to clear the atmosphere, free it, he needs to

I’ll die if Atlantis does

[John! We are in pain; you have to stop!]

blinding intensity he is the air and the wind and the weapon

I’ll die if Atlantis

Something grabs him: pulls him back down, and the Jumpers are flying out of control. Smashing into the side of one of the Hives, tearing right through it like a knife; another, downward downward so fast too fast he’s suddenly sick, can’t move and it slams into the ocean; and the final Jumper, he is the final Jumper and it spins almost lazily through the air, toward the Main Tower toward the shield the shield can’t hold back –

I’ll die if

[JOHN!]


Slamming back into his body, forcefully: John blinks at the overhead lights, confused, dazed, he was flying just a minute ago and now –

[John], a voice is chiding him and for a moment he can’t decide who’s saying it. His body aches, every muscle and every bone and he tries to pull himself from the Chair, but can’t, can just breathe – did I do that?

A hand being raised – it’s his own – there’s something odd tracing his jaw, and pulling back John blinks when seeing blood coating his fingers. Blinks again when trying to move his head but dizziness and a migraine explodes behind his eyelids, and – oh.

The Hives … what’s … It’s difficult to think. Too much input – output – it’s all the same.

[there are three left], Atlantis supplies but only in voice, withdrawing all of Her sensors and data as if knowing it’s overwhelming, and feeling oddly empty John is relieved because it lessens the physical pain some. And there’s a flutter of wings, brushing his mind, and Shy is saying across a different Bond: [I’m still in the Gate Room] and he wants so badly be there too.

Closing his eyes he shifts, follows the Bond like a trail beautifully woven out of shadow and light, and Shy worriedly lets him see:

The chaos of the Gate Room hasn’t dimmed but gotten worse. He sees marines, unknown designations, guns in their laps and there’s shouting, screens blaring Alert! and Danger!. And there’s Rodney and Meredith, pacing, yelling orders or something at someone; from this distance they cannot hear – John takes another breath, tests stretching their wings, and it doesn’t hurt as much as it did lifting his arms, so there’s that. Shifting in their hiding place, he strains to see the rest: to find out what’s going on –

[A Jumper exploded right outside the shield, above this Tower], Shy says. [It was pretty cool.]

We did that?

[Yes. You’re in pain – you should go back. John?] The Bond is hurting at the edges, as if fracturing. [John, you’re bleeding – John!]

Oh, but he doesn’t want to leave – here, with the weight of wings on his back he feels whole.

[John, you’re hurting. We need help. John –] and he is falling, falling, vertigo swinging like a bell except someone’s crying his name this time, scratched like old grainy vinyl –

this mortal body cannot handle the strain; it might be dying

and it is difficult to breathe

it’s difficult to breathe

it’s difficult to

Trapped in the Chair, John passes out.


One two three four times;

Rodney doesn’t like not knowing what’s going on. And that’s an understatement. Now he’s pacing, trying to find answers – what the hell just happened?!

Nobody giving orders, nobody actually handling things and the Colonel refusing to give the reigns to a civilian, as he had spat, everything is chaotic and wrong; Elizabeth isn’t here to handle things and Teyla and her people are helping the marines, arming themselves in case of an incursion, if the Wraith ever break past the shield. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, four Jumpers just rose into the air like puppets on a string, and eight of the eleven Hives have been turned to dust right above the atmosphere, and no one is certain as of how – or by whom, more like – but Rodney has a notion and it’s almost terrifying;

Because that display of raw concentration and power like a Bond but with a City and its ships rather than a Dæmon; it would frighten, should frighten, anybody but Rodney thinks no one is realizing it, properly, or handling it – definitely not handling it – and he’s shouting now for someone to give him a datapad and actual data not hearsay and rumors, though they all witnessed the explosion right atop of this Tower less than five minutes ago. And all of this is happening and none has laid eyes on John Sheppard since he disappeared from the briefing room thirty-eight minutes ago;

And finally he grabs hold of a computer and there are some readings, but then all screens are flickering out and are replaced with static and Rodney yells, What now –?, Meredith worrying: is this some kind of virus the Wraith are trying to send them or – but it isn’t. Everything returns to normal except atop of all the data is a phrase written in Ancient: 

nou deserde asordo

and, a second later,  as if clarifying: 

cathedra

What? What –

comdo asordo

which means absolutely zilch; Rodney has dabbled in Ancient due to the need to recognize key words for scientific interests, but even then his skills in the language falters, and now he stares at the words, spelled out on every datapad and screen across the City like a plead, a message in a bottle – “Does anybody here speak Ancient?!” he cries; what a time for Elizabeth to leave the City, she has never done that in all the time they’ve been here. His knowledge of Ancient is growing, yes, passable, yes, and limited to words of science. And now Elizabeth, who can’t claim fluency but almost, has travelled to Earth in hope to gain them drones and bring them along with the ZedPM aboard the Daedalus; and it’s been merely hours since she left, and the wrecks of eight Hives are drifting into the Lantean ocean.

And Rodney is not sure (only the vaguest of notions: terrifying possibilities) how all of this happened, and that’s the thing which frightens him the most.

comdo asordo

medikus

cathedra

comdo

words stuck on repeat, almost as if a voice is shouting;

Someone is by his elbow, suddenly; it’s Teyla and Kanaan, and they watch the turmoil and Rodney doubts they know actual Ancient, but Teyla ponders at the screen, murmuring that it looks much like Athosian in its original form. “It is a distress call,” she says and Kanaan adds, “It mentions a Great Seat, or a Chair –”

A Chair.

Rodney fumbles for his radio. ‘Medikus’ – medicine? – that means: Carson. Medical team. Chair. Crying orders: the marines are confounded, but Carson listens, says a team is being assembled and on its way he needs to calm down but Rodney can’t. Teyla follows as they break into a run, not knowing more than he but oh so trustful and there’s Ford, too, entering the Gate Room just then, retreating from a balcony. The shields above are taking fire unyieldingly – they’d hold for days – that’s not what they need to worry about now. The Wraith cannot touch them here.

Ford and Adria nearly crash into them: ”What’s the rush, doc?”

And Meredith answers for them: We’ve got to hurry –

Chapter Text

xx.

let pass my weary guiltless ghost

 

the first time he died, Atlantis promised [we will not let you die],
and he breathed; and everything began to unfold


When he is nine years old, he has made plans, grand and oh so simple. He is certain that his Dæmon is somewhere Up There, lost and wandering the skies, and the easiest way to find it would be to fly.

“Can you learn to?” he asks, and Mother indulges him, and Father looks vaguely amused and Dave sneers a little: “Humans can’t fly on their own, stupid.”

but he isn’t on his own; he will not be

And Father smiles: “You want to be a pilot, son?”

and he has dreamed, dreamed

“Yeah. When I grow up I want to be a pilot.”

when i grow up i want to be a pilot

when i grow up

i want to

be


He’s flying; the sky is opening, like a canvas, and he is spreading color in the shape of stars and dust and bullets, he feels the thrum of the explosions as the Hives fall one after the other; they can do this they will survive, but the seconds pass and control is starting to slip from his grip, the Jumpers are sliding out of his hands suddenly an explosion and another they weren’t meant to be and somewhere above, he can’t see it but he can hear it: a scream

someone is screaming his name and he recognizes that voice, it is his own just as the City is piercing his mind he can feel Her like a sheet over his eyes and whispers endless numbers he can See Everything and pain: pain, blinding, sharply

someone is

[John!]  


He opens his eyes and he’s standing in a corridor, he recognizes this place, the warm mahogany and the heavy paintings on the walls and the smoke-laden scent of old cigarettes; this is the house where he grew up.

The house where he grew up is a desolate place cold and full of dust and he is certain there’s little left; Father and Irene walking the halls, still dazed by the fresh soil on the grave, Dave waiting to inherit but he has moved on, married and grown up in a way John never did;

The house where he grew up should be a desolate place he doesn’t want to return to, except how he remembers it from childhood, the sun and the evergreen grass of the lawn where they’d run around playing and the library, a fire burning in the hearth welcomingly, the room is covered in the scent of creaking wood and warm smoke and old paper, and John walks through it, now, down the corridors upon the creaking floors, thick carpets soft beneath his feet. The library full of the Forbidden Books, all of them memorized, favourite passages ready to be recited;

In the house where he grew up, he stands on the threshold and looks down, confused, he’s geared up like for battle: but he isn’t on the front lines and here there is no echo of war, just the silent peace and looking into the library he sees Dave and Nina there, dancing, and Mother and Pete curled up on the couch, and Father and Irene reading from a newspaper headlines strange and familiar and they look up, in the soft glow, smiling at the sight of him: Hello, son, there you are, and John staggers forward, into the sudden embrace. They’re so young and alive and well again –

but he looks around, confused, he shouldn’t be here, this shouldn’t be happening. Is this an illusion? a virtual reality, trapping his mind? a cage; because he cannot be in the library, Mother and Pete are dead, the car crash a giant scar that swallowed them up, and Father and Irene estranged ever since the last letter sent, and Dave and Nina stopped dancing years and years and years ago –

where’s Shy? his pockets are empty. they shouldn’t be empty and he turns around, needs to get out of here and the sun has given way to heavy rain outside the windows but the door is gone; a wind settles, the fire dies;

where’s Shy? his Raven should be here, now they have finally been found and become whole and he cannot feel that voice the air it’s all gone it shouldn’t be gone –

where’s

[JOHN!] 

 

The library is gone, the house is gone. There’s a corridor, a long hallway which looks like the inside of a warship or maybe the cold grays of the SGC but there are no lines painted on the floor to follow, only a single direction ahead and he’s running, can’t remember starting to run; 

 

there is a city rising

and they are waiting: Rodney and Meredith and all these tiny souls, they’re all waiting

 

we cannot let them die we have to save them

 

but everything he touches dies

everything he touches

 

The first time he died, Atlantis promised [we will not let you die]

and he breathed

and everything began to unfold; 

[JOHN!]

They’re calling his name. The corridor is ending, finally, there is no door only a large opening and beyond: a Stargate, unlit and he can’t see a DHD, no controls and he can’t stop running;

slowly the wheel begins to turn, the first chevron locking and the second, and it is forming the address to Atlantis, to Home – there’s where he needs to go, he needs to back, he needs to find Shy again before –

He’s screaming.  His Dæmon isn’t here. Should be here. Missing. 

Lost –

when I grow up I want to be a pilot


Chaya Sar is standing in front of the closed wormhole. At least it looks like her, as he remembers her on Proculus, translucent and partly unreal with eyes not quite human. She’s blocking the way.

The third chevron locks into place.

“What’s going on?” is he dying? is this the white tunnel of light? “What is this place? Who are you?”

“You tried to do what you couldn’t,” Chaya Sar explains, gently. It is her voice and yet it isn’t. John looks at her, uncertain if her lips are moving at all. “Your mind was overwhelmed; the City is old and vast, and it gave you too much to control; your body is dying.” There had been a voice crying You have to stop you’re bleeding as he was trapped in the Chair – the Chair? He shouldn’t be here, he should be in the Chair – the shields covered in flame, there had been too much input too much too much – he tries to speak; Chaya Sar doesn’t move or smile. “Your body is dying.”

The fourth chevron locks into place.

Hoarsely, weakly: “Atlantis?”

“We are delving into your subconscious memory to speak with you;” and an image, an impression somewhere in the dark behind them, of a body struggling to breathe and a heart failing; “Your body is dying. We are trying to save you.”

His Dæmon his Dæmon is gone he can’t find it anymore – he needs to go back, needs to find – Why is Chaya Sar blocking the way? Can’t she see, she’s in the way

[JOHN!]

you were born on the edge; you have taken the leap away from it

“Shy; where’s –?!”

The fifth chevron locks into place.

“Your body is dying,” Chaya Sar repeats, like stuck, a record full of glitches, a databank running out of storage: “We are trying to save you, but we might not be able to. You have to let go –”

[we will not let you die]

let go of your burden;

exhale

He can’t close his eyes. “I don’t want to Ascend.” I want to live – To Ascend they must be One, the Body and the Soul, they must Merge again and they will be forced to Obey All Rules and the Raven is slipping into hiding again and he doesn’t want it to happen they’ve just tasted freedom he doesn’t want it please, we want to live

“Your body is dying.”

The sixth chevron locks into place, the inner wheel of the Stargate spinning lazily, like a haze of mist rising and there are no alarms; it is so very quiet. It is time to go.

sixty-four seconds waiting for the end but it never came; this is the delayed shock

Chaya Sar steps down from the ramp, leading to the Stargate and she offers a hand: it is time to go – the final chevron locks into place and the room is flooded with blue light, scattered on his irises, and he falling toward the event horizon;

exhale

He tries to look back, at Chaya Sar’s unreal face: “Who are you?” but she’s fading away and he is falling –

[JOHN!]

there is a light rising from the center of his chest and his human hands; coiling slightly, like how it did when Chaya Sar gripped his hands on Proculus and said let me show you something and brought them into a state of Being Free;

 


You were born on the edge, they keep repeating

but I don’t want to Ascend  


And the Raven is screaming, crying his name;

(there is no more singing)

 

exhale

exhale

inhale

exhale


and finally finally Chaya Sar disappears and in her stead flies down the Raven from atop the Gate, lands in his embrace so securely, but their Bond is surging with sudden pain: 

[We don’t want to die.]

John opens his eyes, slowly, slowly to the silence and finds the Bond to be laid open all bare, they are nothing but the Bond a thin trail of atoms through the air, coiled tightly together. His body is motionless he cannot feel it anymore but he feels the wings on his back, and Shy murmuring so soothingly, even though they are both so afraid –

we don’t want to Ascend

 

 

[I’ve got you.]

 

 

 

They fly through the Stargate together.

Chapter Text

xxi.

re-emergence

 

we don’t want to Ascend; we want to Live


Sixty-four seconds of silence.


« Emerging as a tiny light from right above the heart, a Dæmon takes sometimes seconds takes the Lifetimes in-between to form into a First Shape and nearly be forgotten. And this Shape is the First Moment of the Soul and they will reflect Everything That Can Be Imagined, and this first Moment of Emergence is always cherished forlornly misremembered; »


One two three four times;

Feet pounding harshly against the ground, hearts beating furiously, they are rushing through the corridors, Rodney and Meredith cram into a transporter, taking the shortcuts they remember.

John Sheppard is lying in the Chair, eyes closed and he looks so quiet and peaceful almost like he’s sleeping, except his breaths are so shallow they’re almost not there and his ears are bleeding – “Carson!” Rodney shouts over the radio, where the hell is he!? – and how did this happen? how can Sheppard be lying there so silently? 

They stumble forward, and Rodney checks for a pulse the way he’s learned, the way he’s seen Ford and Sheppard and the others do it – like they’d done the first time Sheppard died, trapped in the Jumper, the thirty-eight minutes running out –

Meredith is making an unhappy worried noise and pacing, she wants to be closer, and Rodney is blinded by noise;

there’s no pulse he’s stopped breathing there’s no pulse

A medical team swarms into the room and overtakes them, and Carson is shouting orders and Sheppard is being pulled from the Chair, laid flat on the floor and Carson starts compressing; one two three four one two three four – Rodney winces at the crack of a breaking rib –

The screaming starts.

The screaming: that which was missing from the Jumper, missing from every planet they’ve been too and now, it fills the corridors and Rodney’s blood turns to ice and he shivers, that sound isn’t human, it is the scream of a Dæmon in pain lost and forgotten and broken. The screaming: it Shouldn’t Be.

(They saw Gaul and his Dæmon Ghosting 

the gun still in their hands, and Rodney doesn’t want to witness it again

never witness it again)

They look around, and there are more people here now, starving the room of oxygen: Ford and Adria, and Teyla and Kanaan in tow, and marines with faces Rodney can’t remember but he isn’t looking at them: he cannot look away from Sheppard’s pallid peaceful form as Carson relentlessly tries to bring it back to life tries to tries to

Whispered words exchanged meaninglessly, a healer trying to explain what’s going on and distraught gasps of What the hell is going on from the marines; Rodney stares and stares at that pale face, and there’s blood, ruptured onto the floor; not much at all but still too much and Rodney isn’t a medical doctor but Sheppard’s ears are bleeding –

– all through the screaming: it won’t stop. The screaming is louder, filling the halls and it might even be the whole City writhing: the dying cries of please help us please stop it please in a foreign tongue, except words are breaking through; and the lights are flickering and Atlantis is trembling beneath their feet, the onslaught of the Wraith momentarily forgotten; all that exists is this one moment, these seconds in the Chair Room. Sheppard isn’t moving, all pale and slack; Meredith whispers Please, save him, because Rodney cannot speak, only stare, and Carson is grabbing the paddles for a defibrillator now, just like Ford did in the Jumper.

The scar is still starkly white on Sheppard’s neck, the edge of it visible reaching toward his jawline, and Carson shouts: “Clear!”

And a rushing thought overcomes Rodney’s mind: there is a weight, sudden, on his shoulder, brief but strangely real and he flinches, has to look back: 

and he notices, dimly, that the watch on his wrist has appeared to pause, or drags along very very slowly all of a sudden

Hey, Rodney.

what. the. this, this isn’t physically possible –

Yes, it’s me there isn’t much time listen:

tell them to wait

Shy is saving me

how? who is

(please) you’ve got to tell them to wait

And the word tears from Rodney’s throat in shock: “Wait!”


we don’t want to Ascend;

They walk through the Stargate together, and the event horizon breaks to a thousand pieces and then, there is the Chair, and the City is singing all around them a choir made of a thousand stars and these old souls of the Ancients fused into Her systems like scattered dreams. And they suddenly standing in the restless mass of people: breathing, living people slightly panicked their heartbeats are so loud and there, oddly enough, he’s lying on the floor all silent and Meredith is weeping, and Rodney is kneeling next to him, gripping his wrist as if searching for a pulse.

There is so much movement it’s difficult to make out all these details; but he sees the light, he is the light, perhaps, he is holding it up: and they don’t want to Ascend –

[Let me go back], Shy whispers: pleads: [let me go back]

and John lets the Raven fly, it breaks free from the light which is rising,

[I’ve got you. We’ll save you], Shy cries, a pained wail; 

and pain is flaring again, sharply: it a final protest, his body recoiling, the soul refusing to let go –

And Carson, he’s holding up the paddles of a defibrillator and Rodney is whispering, over and over, Don’t You Dare Die, and Teyla is silent in horror and Ford is pacing but he cannot see them, not clearly. He can see their Dæmons, though, like beacons in the night, acting like lighthouses calling the ships to harbor; they are brilliant and full of life – and he looks at them as they dial up the machinery, and considers the flickering atoms, the electric charge that would travel through his flesh and bones – and something echoes no, no it’s too early they’d break us apart –

Meredith. Rodney. John tries to call their names, but they aren’t listening – a hand, does he even have hands? he wonders idly but reaches out, concentrates like when flying Jumpers through the atmosphere:

Hey, Rodney.

what? what, no, no this isn’t possible, Rodney whispers feverishly, turns around to stare at him and John feels the prickling sensation of tidal waves tugging at him; and for a moment, even Atlantis stills, trembling under the onslaught of the Wraith above

yes it’s me – there isn’t much time – Rodney, listen:

you’ve got to tell them to wait

Shy is saving me

you’ve got to tell them to wait

who is, Rodney tries but John is losing his grip:

please Rodney listen you’ve got to tell them to wait!

And Rodney flinches, shouts: “Wait!” 

stopping all movement.


“Wait!”

and there’s a light, edging Sheppard’s face and his hands and right above his heart, a bit like Rodney imagines it must look like when a Dæmon Emerges, except this is everywhere and all too late, and Carson hesitates for a millisecond – they’ve connected Sheppard to a machine now, there’s a long flat line an empty tone calling to the world that he is dead.

Ford, upset, angry, furious: “What the hell do you mean wait – McKay, he’s dying!” and Teyla, too calmly: “Rodney, we have to save him.”

John Sheppard cannot be dead; after all  they have been through the storms and the rain he can’t die like this, without explanation, sprawled beneath the safety of the shields, right in the heart of the City. He can’t die like this –

The screaming is stopping and instead the light, lingering, brighter, is overtaking their senses; it is an exponential curve; this isn’t a Ghosting like they have ever seen.

And the marines are crying out, there’s something in here!, and they are shifting their weapons, but no creature walks through the doors, pleading for survival; instead there is an impossible flutter of wings and something dark is splitting from the light. A Shape frees itself in mid–air, past the silent line; it has been sixty-four seconds now and Rodney’s gaze shifts finally away from Sheppard’s quiet face;

It’s a Raven.

It’s a Raven, gleaming in the dark – all the lights have shut off as if the City itself is mourning, trying to save power – the only source comes from the surreal white wrapping around Sheppard’s body, originating from the center where his heart is buried. The Raven frees itself from the tangle of it, scattering shadows upon the walls, and it stretches its wings and the wingspan is protectively huge and a bit terrifying; and the Raven crashes onto Sheppard’s chest as if upon a cradle, wings curled like a shield, and it’s wailing, without words, wailing not even opening its mouth yet Rodney can hear it oh so clearly –

One of the marines, young and with the Dæmon of a snake, flinches in shock and a gun is raised and someone exclaims: What the hell is that? is that a – no it can’t be – and Rodney rasps, hearing the clicking of weapons being aimed:

“Don’t shoot!  Don’t fucking shoot, you morons!”

And the Raven silences as the light overtakes Sheppard and the machine, and Carson and his team are stumbling back confused What is going on, what is …?

Ford breathes, “Is that … his Dæmon?” But it’s a Raven; it’s got wings it can fly it is an impossibility – no, Rodney amends, looking at the weeping Raven: it’s an improbability. And in the breaking light, making it more and more difficult to see the body, all of their faces illuminated, the wailing stops after sixty-four seconds of silence and there is a quiet quiet stuttering:

beepbeep beepbeep

from the machine. Meredith’s claws are digging into his thighs and he realizes he’s on his knees, collapses in front of the Chair barely breathing and it is like watching a battle; a battle and they can’t see who’s holding the gun.

The light is dispersing –

beepbeep beepbeep

the rhythm strengthening; he remembers the reports, Daniel Jackson Ascending once and this light was like when Chaya Sar on Proculus took Sheppard’s hands and pulled them away, this looks just like that except it is reversing in the middle of it, like pressing a button:

“I don’t believe it,” Carson is muttering, he’s still holding the paddles, ready to restart a heart.

beepbeep beepbeep

And Rodney realizes he’s fallen to his knees while still grasping onto Sheppard’s cold wrist, except it isn’t cold, and there is a weak pulse beneath his fingertips he is alive

Suddenly, there’s movement again and Carson is dropping the paddles, grabbing his penlight and calling for assistance again; We have a cortical response! The medical team surges forward, preparing to intubate, because Sheppard’s breaths are nonexistently shallow, can he even breathe on his own without his lungs collapsing?

And the Raven, resting on Sheppard’s chest, moves slightly when the pulse picks up; a slight stretch of wings, glossy black and Rodney briefly thinks, faintly, a mantra which with Meredith he shares: Of course oh of course –


we don’t want to Ascend

John is flying, or floating, anywhere and everywhere and nowhere all at once. He is spinning on the edge, slowly, slowly out of control toward the crash site and his Dæmon is free now, form not so small and easy to hide as it was before but fully flared, like the caterpillar dying and emerging as a butterfly, breaking beautifully free: his Soul stretches across the room covering it all in darkness and it is freedom and it is slightly terrifying, too;

He is falling backward, toward the body on the ground: he remembers, Atlantis promising [we will not let you die] and had She taken a copy, then? grabbed as much as She could before the wormhole ended, stored it somewhere in her databanks, is that what he is is that what is happening is that what

[I’ve got you], his Dæmon promises.

we want to Live


The silence ends.

Chapter Text

xxii.

aftershocks

 

it’s a conversation long overdue.


John’s body hurts. It’s not the warm ache after a workout, muscles all strained, nor the sharp clawing of guts bleeding out after a gunshot wound; this is different. Like he’s been trampled on, or been run over by a truck, or crashed a chopper into the ground. There’s a slight weight, breathing, upon his chest, a Shape which he recognizes, dazedly:

[Yes, I’m here], a promise.

What ?

The false rooms, the Stargate turning; the false face and voice of Chaya Sar greeting him, it is time to leave. But John had fought, struggled with everything, I want to live – and Shy had landed, I’ve got you. 

[I almost lost you], is the cry now, and the voice is hoarse as if after hours of weeping; and John feels something awkwardly scratching inside his own throat, something in the way as if it’s meant to help him breathe but doesn’t, and there’s a strange flurry of motions above, and voices, and the distant realization that they’re not alone. He’s lying on something oddly flat and hard. This isn’t the Chair –

[your body was dying], Atlantis suddenly Sings; it is a careful admission, and She is withdrawing as much as She can, afraid of overwhelming him again. Overwhelming him, overloading his systems like She did last time. Not your fault, he wants to whisper. It’s not Her fault. He made the decisions.

[but we agreed upon them; the potentiae have made us stronger; we gave too much]

His body is out of his control; he’s coughing for breath, and the thing in his mouth is removed and airways much clearer and he can breathe, he can breathe, he can breathe.

Hey, he whispers, maybe out loud, he isn’t sure, and Shy sounds like on the verge of laughter/tears/relief/we almost lost you: [Hey.]

There’s a hand on his shoulder, as if someone wishes to shake him, furiously, berate him for something, and the heat of another voice enters his ears: “You owe us a big explanation, Major. Don’t do that again. You complete and utter –” And John wants to smile, fondly; of course Rodney’s angry with him for dying.

Didn’t mean to.

“Oh really. You are such a self-sacrificing pain in the –”

“Rodney,” says another voice, calm and admonishing and it could be Teyla or Kanaan or Meredith, he really isn’t sure; “let him breathe.”

It’s a time as good as any to fall asleep.


One two three four times;

They are still standing around, a bit like statues, frozen or glued to the ground; and their raging expressions range from shock to surprise to suspicion but Rodney’s heart is giving way to pure relief; they’re not dead. Sheppard’s not dead –

The man stirs, splutters, tries to breathe; chokes, they have to quickly remove the tubes and wiring and his heartbeat is strong, now, and he’s breathing unaided. Eyes a little glazed. He doesn’t react to the Raven, doesn’t try to move it away, doesn’t stare at it with feigned displeasure or shock or anything; he looks at the Raven as if always expecting it to be there. Glances sideways through heavy lashes, he looks exhausted and drawn, and there is a murmur, Hey, seemingly out of nowhere and Rodney wants to hit him or possibly kiss him; maybe both, for different reasons. And Meredith has stopped trembling now, her claws no longer digging into his skin.

They’re alive –

Rodney is ready to shout at him for being so selfish and irrational and thoughtless, lungs set in motion, but right that moment the man decides to pass out. And finally the others in the room are breaking their silence, settling in murmurs, staccato and fierce; still wondering what’s happened and the Raven, oh, the Raven; Sheppard’s Dæmon is a Raven.

(I told you, Meredith has purred; a guy like that can’t be a monster.)

And someone has finally brought a stretcher realizing one is necessary, and they carefully lift Sheppard up on it, and Rodney gets to his feet with a groan, knees aching – oh he is not doing that again. The Raven, contently resting too, doesn’t stir and no one touches it and Rodney is so fucking relieved because if anyone tries, if anyone tries touching Sheppard’s Dæmon … They’d aimed guns at it, guns, as if it’s some kind of monster –

A hand on his elbow.  It doesn’t hold the weight of the invisible hand that had landed on his shoulder earlier and slowed down time;

Teyla says: ”We should accompany them to the infirmary.”

Someone should be in the Control Room, watching the Stargate. Waiting for news. Someone should be monitoring the shields, the Hives above – but Rodney can’t, not anymore. Too distracted. So Meredith leaps onto his shoulders and together they leave, following the gurney like a quest to find the Holy Graal.

(And now the City is returning its brightness and its sounds again, as if panic has settled;

as if Atlantis itself was holding its breath while Sheppard was dying.) 


Through the years, John has learned to fall asleep in the most unlikely places, and sleep through noise and light and water. But he’s a soldier; he has also learned to sleep lightly, to stir at the slightest disturbance, be ready in case of danger, gun at hand. Now he feels all heavy like wading through thick mud, and he comes to little by little to the quiet, relentless beeping of machinery, and that septic smell which is undeniably from a hospital or infirmary. And the weight on his chest stirs with him, and across the Bond he feels his Raven stretching their wings, carefully.

It wasn’t a weird dream, then, after all.

Glancing to the side, he sees a chair – one of those uncomfortable plastic ones – and in that chair sits Rodney McKay, hair askew, and he man is gripping a PDA in a slowly slackening grip; his mouth is half-open, head thrown back askew, and he is snoring very loudly. In his lap, Meredith is purring. Maybe he should’ve expected such a sight, but John looks at them for a while, and cannot be surprised other than contently so, a tingle of pleasure in his bones. Rodney isn’t as much of an ass as he makes other believe, not really.

Also: Shy is resting on his chest, unhindered; how, exactly –

The Chair. He died in the Chair, and the Bond was almost breaking; his soul was saved in the last strenuous second, when the Raven landed and they flew through the event horizon together. He thinks … he might remember: the Chair, pleading for a few more seconds because Shy was saving him, and he’d reached out – managed to make Rodney look at him, make him shout Wait! – Rodney and Meredith were witness to that. Who else was there?

[At least we won’t need to make a Big Reveal now, do we?] Shy remarks tiredly.

And John thinks, dryly, in return: Just hand out some post-it notes to the uninitiated.


It takes some twenty odd minutes before Rodney wakes up from his nap, and, realizing he is awake too, the questioning starts;

But first John asks for status reports. He is senior ranking officer on base – not anymore with Colonel Everett here overriding old protocols, but he has always been, and security is priority. He can’t remember the attack in full, just these jumbled snapshots: the drones eventually running out, resorting to the Jumpers – that’s when the input became too great. Overwhelming. And he’s heard Carson murmuring over results from the scans; they’re clean now, mostly, except for the ribs (one broken, another cracked, because of the CPR, not yet fully healed because it’s not what killed him in the first place) and the twinging ache in his muscles as if from a marathon run. But there are no shadows indicating inner bleedings – [there was one], Atlantis had explained, once John’s mind was clearer, only slightly muzzy from the painkillers; and his ears had been bleeding, and there had been a swelling spot in his brain, draining the life of his body away. He might have had a seizure which no one else saw.

You were born on the edge, he remembers Chaya Sar saying, on repeat there in the cold corridors of the SGC. Blocking the way through the Stargate. But he doesn’t want to Ascend; has never wanted it; and so his Dæmon had helped him to Turn It Away.

Thankfully, Rodney indulges him, though he sounds terse and a bit annoyed. John cannot fault him for that. “There are three Hives left and they’re bombarding us, but the shields are holding; with the two ZedPMs we can last for weeks, possibly even years since they’re both nearly completely full… Anyway. That’s not what’s important right now. You almost died and we don’t know why, so: talk.”

John wants to sigh, but can’t without it causing pain like a burn across his throat and shoulders. “I said you’d get answers. So… In my quarters, you should find my laptop – I assume you can hack into it without breaking a sweat – and there’s this video file.”

The look given is high-strungly dubious: “It’s not some kind of, I dunno, secretly recorded porn, is it –”

Rodney.”

“What?”

“Just hear me out, OK? Find the laptop. Watch it. It’ll explain – not everything, but a lot, and right now I’m sore, I’ve got a broken rib and am too tired to have any kind of lengthy conversation. Watch that, then get back here with your questions.”

“I think you’re talking fine right now,” the man insists, and Meredith adds: “We checked the scans; there’s nothing wrong with your head. You can talk now.”

McKay.”

“Fine, fine. Going. Find laptop, hack into it, watch video, check. Anything else?”

“Well, if they haven’t completely shut up shop – bring back some pudding from the commissary?”

“You know, Major, you really are an overgrown child sometimes, and you are truly stretching your bound-to-infirmary-bed privileges here.”

John rolls his eyes, gracing the man with a smile, and winces a little because his chest hurts when he breathes too deeply. “Yes, McKay.”

“Fine, I’ll check if they got any pudding,” Rodney says, with the air of a man not against the idea at all; he’ll probably get himself a portion, too, as well as some blue Jell-O if it is available. Colonel Everett and his people had brought a lot of extras with them: gear and weapons and ammo, but not any food beyond some basics to feed the extra personnel. Certainly not extra servings of desserts. Trusting Rodney will stick to this mission with as few deviations as possible, John hides a fond grin and watches him and Meredith go. They cast a glance over their shoulders as if warning Don’t you try to run off! as if he could – would – attempt it.

[You know], Shy murmurs, watching the pair leave lazily, [I think I rather like them. Even Meredith. There’s this certain kind of charm, isn’t there?]

And John nearly throws his head back and laughs. Yeah. There’s this certain kind of charm.


The Wraith are still yet there, attacking relentlessly, but they have ceased throwing Darts at the shield; instead they are circling with their remaining Hives, prowling the skies, bombarding the city with energy cannons which are entirely silent within the vacuum of space. And day turns to night and dawn is approaching again; but the shields are holding. the shields are holding. the shields are holding.

They are waiting for the Daedalus to come. There has been no more word – they cannot be certain if Elizabeth’s mission was met with success or failure, if she will bring them any more drones. No other ammo is available, at least strong enough to pack a punch against the Hives above.

All they can do, for now, is wait.


One two three four times;

There is no way a guy like that could be a monster, they have thought, and now they are seeing that familiar face represented on a two-dimensional screen. Somehow, this feels too personal, intimate, giving Rodney shivers of discomfort. It’s … it’s Not Quite Right. A bit like peering into a secret journal, hidden entries spilling out, except Rodney knows he oversteps things and blunders into people and his social skills have only marginally improved over the years, and now Sheppard told them to Do This.

Still – this doesn’t sit well, somehow – but he cannot look away. He’s found a quiet spot, though, where no one can overhear, and he has an urge to plug in a pair of headphones but Mer wants to hear Sheppard’s voice live and not just transmitted through their Bond.

They press play together.

Sheppard’s unidentifiable accent gets more pronounced, words heavier, the more he talks. Judging by his tone and stance, he doesn’t want to be doing this but he somehow has to, and he’s looking into the camera unavertingly. He doesn’t look nervous, or afraid, or angry, or especially upset. Just strangely, oddly, detached and placated. As if it isn’t he talking at all, merely a ghost, a hologram. A Confession, he calls it. Rodney sort of wants to laugh, but daren’t. 

“… if I start babbling I’m going to sound like McKay. If you get to watch this, McKay, that’s not an insult,” the projection is saying. Hey, now! Rodney cries, poking at the screen, offended, but Mer bumps his hand away with a paw, Shh We Want To Watch. ”…you and Meredith, you’re the good guys. I don’t know what I am, to be honest.”

There is no way a guy like that could be a monster, they have thought;

And Sheppard is talking about Improbable Things. Rodney almost wants to call them wholly Impossible except he has seen Sheppard nearly die, nearly Ascend, or whatever actually really happened there. He talks about the City as if it – she; Sheppard calls the City her and proclaims Atlantis to be real and alive and sentient without actually using those words – Singing, he calls it, and then he sprouts Ancient clear as a bell, and they have to actually pause at least fifteen times. Reverse. Play. Reverse. Play again.

He’s speaking Ancient as if born for it, sounds fitting neatly onto his tongue. It’s … Rodney has to grasp words he rarely uses: it’s beautiful.

And something is aching, somewhere in his chest, a pain which Rodney isn’t used to. Hasn’t felt it since he was a kid, really, since his and Jeannie’s last big fight where they pronounced to Hate Each Other (except Rodney doesn’t quite, anymore), after sorting everything with the funeral and Jeannie admitting to wanting to marry some English major and, really, he’s deviating from the point.

“… found a brand, then. ‘Strangeling: that’s me’. Actually it was a bit comforting. I mean, I was the odd one out but at least I finally had a name for it.”

Maybe they should beat some sense into him. Metaphorically speaking. But after rewatching the same sentence four times, they have to move on or they’ll be stuck here for half an age. 

Sheppard says: “… told me something weird: that was born on the edge. Edge of what? Ascension?”

and things are making more sense, and yet not, and Rodney wonders wildly why his fists are clenching tighter around the datapad, breaths hardening in his throat: “I’ve seen people Ghosting –” and “I don’t want it happening to me” – and somehow, this was recorded before Sheppard evidently had a Dæmon actually Emerging. When he’d filmed this, in a City asleep, he’d thought he was alone, with only Atlantis itself carving a place in his mind. It’s an alien thought. Rodney cannot imagine a world void of Meredith – refuses to imagine it.

Sheppard lived for thirty-four years without a Meredith of his own.

What’s that like?

(Rodney isn’t sure if he wants to know.)

When the Storm is mentioned, the disaster with the Genii; even if that poisonous name isn’t explicitly spelled out every hair on Rodney’s body stands on end and Meredith wants to shriek, to cry, wail with the memory  – and Sheppard glosses it over quickly, as if in pain himself –  “That’s the first time I saw with my own eyes what happens when you touch someone else’s Dæmon without consent. My own eyes – Atlantis’ eyes, then. Her sensors, all of Her systems, they were my senses right that moment. An extension of my body. That’s what She is.”

The Chair. It was almost as if Sheppard had been bound to it, wound tightly into its seat, hand splayed wide over the pads in the armrests. Become part of it. An extension of his body. If it’s true

It has to be true, Mer says; John is tied to the City. This explains everything.

John. Meredith always insists to call him John and it is such a familiar brief name and to say it aloud would admit caring and Rodney is the Man Who Doesn’t Care About Anybody Else, he and Mer have always been fine on their own – always have been. But Sheppard and he, they’ve been saving each other lives and watching each other’s backs like a habit for the last few months, fallen into this rhythm. 

If John is tied to the City, part of it in a way – like a Bond – then why was he lying there dying in the Chair, bleeding out from the inside? What happened when no one else saw?

Also: the possibilities. John is admitting that he can access sensors, data, systems, in the blink of an eye and see it as part of his own vision, feel Her breathing, live within that world like a virtual reality layered atop of this one. It is an awesome yet frightening thought. 

“I’ve never expected for a Dæmon to actually Emerge. It’s like those dreams you have as a kid. They’re just dreams: like flying to Neverland, it's not going to happen …”

Oh, ha.

“… it’s really started happening. Not yet but it will. I’m not sure how I’m going to react when it does happen. Probably … probably freak out a bit.”

Or (almost) die, Rodney thinks and unbidden the images rise back to mind and Mer strokes her warm little body against his thigh, Shh it’s all right, we’re here, and Rodney slowly remembers how to breathe;

John is tied to the City; Atlantis both saved and killed him.

Mer murmurs: The ironies of the world.

Something does not add up, though, Rodney has this nagging sense of. The ease which John displayed when waking up, not startling at all at the contact of the Raven; as if he’d seen them before – not that Rodney remembers how he reacted when Mer Emerged, he was just a baby then. Still. John isn’t a child and should be aware, aware in a whole other sense than people usually are when their Dæmons Emerge. No. And it had looked like, well, like the Raven had been trying to flee, as if trying to flee the fate of death – not to mention the screaming beforehand –


When Rodney returns the guy is oddly quiet, but his face is brimming with questions, and it is Meredith who finally speaks;

“So when exactly did your Dæmon Emerge?” she asks, curiously. She might be annoyed and worried and angry, too, but John is glad she isn’t directing it straight at him like a bullet.

It takes a moment to remember. The hours that have passed by, all in a blur; he’d spent awhile asleep, too, oblivious to the world and unaware of any witnesses. “…Yesterday?” 

Even to his own ears it sounds like question. How long has he been asleep?

Rodney sits down heavily on a chair he’s stolen from a nearby desk, regards him with weary eyes. It strikes John the scientist hasn’t – cannot have – slept for well over twenty-four hours, having rushed back to Atlantis from the satellite and then Elizabeth had announced they were starting the evacuation and John had said, I’m not leaving –

Shit. Twenty-four hours ago he was still certain they were going to die, here, together; Atlantis sinking by explosions they’d put there, slowly falling apart, abandoned, alone. Now all that has changed.

“Yesterday? Of course, of course you get a Dæmon and almost die within twenty-four hours.”

“Maybe it was longer than that,” John murmurs; surely he’s had Shy for longer than that? The Raven, having been perched by his feet on the frame of the bed – and unintentionally probably freaking the hell out of everybody, watching over him as he slept – now moves. Shy’s bigger now, than he remembers, as if fully-fledged. They haven’t really talked about other Shapes, if there are others to try; they like it this way. They don’t want to change. “But, yeah.”

And Shy shifts, stretches a wing – John feels the movement like an echo, tendrils of muscles moving across their Bond, as if the wing is attached to his own back. It’s freeing, exhilarating, even such a small thing. And the Raven looks at Rodney. [We didn’t mean to almost die], Shy defends them, and Rodney almost falls out his chair.

It’s pretty funny, the way the man splutters for a moment. While watching him, it registers: Shy just spoke directly to Rodney, like across their Bond but openly, and John finds he has no issue with that at all. It’s like confirmation that he’s right, his gut instincts don’t lie, Rodney can be trusted.

Then Rodney regains his composure, pulling himself back up. “Oh, god, of course your Dæmon us just as stubborn and petulant.”

John grins brilliantly as the man rolls his eyes. “Dæmon; Soul.” He gives Rodney a look like pointedly asking: Have you forgotten what we’re taught in fourth grade, Dr Genius?

“Point taken. So, that video was – informative,” Rodney says, perhaps still reeling at being addressed by Shy like that, and he amends, “slightly informative, about certain things. I mean – god, Sheppard. You are such a mess.”

He squints at the man. Rodney’s arms are crossed over his chest and he looks serious enough. “Thanks, McKay.” He hadn’t even brought a pudding offering.

As if sensing his inquiring gaze, Rodney shifts a bit, and Meredith says: ”They’re out of pudding and they’re not even serving food anymore, they’d started packing everything together; they’re still setting everything back up.”

Right. Of course. The evacuation, halted in mid-air. John would like to shake his head to clear it, but refrains, unsure if the movement would just spark a migraine. After what’s just occurred, he might become a but paranoid about headaches. He’s not even certain on the details, and by the look on Rodney’s face, no one else is either.

“So, what happened?”

“You’ve got to be a bit more specific, Rodney.”

“The Chair.” The word is stressed as if it could be either a treasure or a curse. Probably a bit of both.

Right. ”Well. I remember launching the drones, and, when those ran out, I was flying the Jumpers to use their drones …” They’re alone in here, he realizes, and he can tell Rodney everything without being overheard and it is like a weight, lifting. Shy is just creeping out the nurses, he thinks, they’ve been looking at him and his Raven so oddly but at least they’ve not tried touching – now it’s just the four of them. Meredith and Rodney are looking at him expectantly, and John clears his throat; a shimmering crawl enters the Bond, and the Raven’s head tilts slightly, [Atlantis helped out].”The City sort of … pinched in.”

“‘Pinched in’. Right. Technical term, I gather.”

“As much as it can be. After that, things get fuzzy. I remember flying, and then I was having one hell of a headache, could barely move … I was in the Gate Room, for a while. Saw you and Meredith and the rest of you guys by the controls.”

“Wait, how were you in the –” And Rodney glances sharply at the Raven. From the way he’s sitting, tersely leaning forward on the chair, angled away, he doesn’t look at the Dæmon directly. Now he stares. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Shy was on the lookout. And also … smaller? Quite a lot smaller, I think. Easier to hide. That thing in the Chair Room … that wasn’t really an Emergence. It wasn’t the first time it happened.”

“Looked like it,” Rodney says, dubiously, but has to agree the timelines don’t add up. No; there’s more to this. “All right, it didn’t actually look like an Emergence. First off all, you were dying. Second, you’re very much not a child even if you do act like one a lot. And I gathered as much from the video. I can sure follow the discrepancies, even though some people here obviously can’t. Carson actually noted it, you know? Assumed it was the – well, the first Emergence – and am I right to assume that Ascension played a part here?”

John sighs. “Yeah. Chaya Sar explained that, in order to Ascend, the body and Dæmon have to Merge – ‘s what she called it, anyway – except I was kind of born the other way around? I struggled real damn hard, trying to reverse it … and it worked. Didn’t actually expect that. Who knows, maybe Atlantis helped out, somehow. It’s still a bit of a blur. Anyway, the Emergence happened in the middle of the night, while you and Grodin were off fixing that satellite. Woke up and – well. There it was.” He looks at his Dæmon, fondly, and the Raven says softly: [It was time]. “Shy appeared, though was a lot smaller then than now. We went on our first flight that night.”

“Of course you did.” But Rodney doesn’t sound irritable or sarcastic, only fondly amused. Odd whims of a fighter pilot, he’s probably thinking.

“Anyway; the Chair. We were watching the Gate Room. Shy told me one of the Jumpers exploded right atop the Tower.”

“One hell of a light show, I give you that,” Rodney says, huffs out a short dry laugh. “We were afraid it was going to pierce the shield, being Ancient technology and all that, but thankfully for some reason it didn’t.”

“Atlantis must’ve done that.”

Atlantis.” Meredith says the word as if it has all of a sudden become foreign, a new flavor to it. “You can communicate directly with the City … we’re actually pretty envious of that.” The Dæmon is resting on Rodney’s lap, a hand lazily buried in her soft-looking fur; a gesture so comforting and ordinary, and for a moment John feels his breath catching in his throat. He can do that, now, share such brief moments with his own Dæmon – 

“Hey, Major?” Rodney’s frowning. The heart monitor hesitated slightly, picking up a rhythm fractionally faster than earlier. “Do I need to radio Carson and have him perform some dubious voodoo?”

“I’m fine, McKay.”

“Okay. Good. I mean, it’d be bad if you – weren’t,” Rodney finishes lamely, changing subjects as rapidly as he can and with no amount of subtlety: “The video. I’ve got loads of more questions – could probably fit them right into your dossier –”

For the first time since he was standing barefoot on that balcony, flying with Shy for the first time, John laughs. It’s just a small sound, a chuckle really, and his ribs hurt at that – Carson had broken one trying to revive him. “You got a dossier on me? I’m touched.”

“I’ve got a dossier on everybody here, okay! And now I need to update it because, seriously, your Dæmon is not at all what I imagined, and that’s not the point; don’t pretend I won’t notice you’re trying to employ evasive manoeuvers,  Major, it won’t work with me.”

“Wow, you’re bossy today.”

Meredith purrs, “We always are.”

“Okay, fine, questions, answers. Want me to send you a file? I could write some stuff up.”

“Actually no. I – we want to talk. Person to person. Now.”

“I’m still tired and got a busted rib. You’re going to owe me pudding. Three servings, at least.”

The man rolls his eyes. “I’ll have some ordered. By the way, the Daedalus is on its way; the SGC contacted us while you were out, sent a transmission. Had to disconnect the ZedPM to hand it to the Daedalus, of course, so we won’t know anything more for certain until it gets here. Should be about two days. They’d better not squeeze out whatever’s left of that ZedPM on the way here.”

“Elizabeth?”

“With them,” Rodney makes a vague gesture with his hand, as if meaning with the ship or the skies. “From what I heard, they made some kind of deal. Couldn’t take all the drones, naturally, but we got our hands on some of them. Apparently transport was a bit of an issue, to get it handled so quickly and all. I mean, they’re one of the most powerful weapon to be found on Earth, not that easy to discreetly ship across the Atlantic from a supposedly secret outpost in Antarctica …”

He had always known she could do it; Elizabeth is the best diplomat he’s met. Not that he has met a lot of them, but enough to make such a statement. John relaxes back into the pillows.

“Two days,” he echoes. The shields are holding and Atlantis, carefully, supplies – not daring to communicate as freely as they’ve done before, as if afraid of harming him: [we can wait two days]. Then they’ll have a third potentia – with three, the City will be at full capacity. She’ll be able to break free, to fly –

“Now,” Rodney says, and pulls something out from his sleeve: a datapad. It’s full of text, streams of data, and under the layers John gets a glimpse of his own face – Rodney must’ve downloaded the video from the laptop. There are even a couple of handwritten post-it notes attached to its framework, as it out there in a hurry; thoughts caught right before they could disappear. Ah. ”You’re going to lie there without moving (because Carson will be most displeased otherwise), and tell me everything about …”

It’s a conversation long overdue.

Chapter Text

xxiii.

the smoke and the mirror

 

the wide windows are full of fire.


The Wraith are holding them besieged.

It has been sixteen hours, and the bombardment isn’t easing up. The three remaining Hives are taking shifts in firing, it seems like, and the shields are up at maximum, but Atlantis promises [we can handle the strain]. John is ready to plead, but Carson refuses to let him out of the infirmary. For a moment he wonders for whose safety it really is.

Because rumor circulates the City faster than a journey through an open wormhole. By now, everyone will have heard one version of the story or another, and whispers have carried through the corridors. His Dæmon isn’t a little bug, hiding in his pocket. It’s a Raven, terrifying with its claws and gleaming eyes and wide wingspan – Atlantis has relied some sensory data, security recordings, to let him Know; there is unsettled movement. People murmuring, behind covered hands. When John had spotted the curious glances peering into the infirmary, he’d tried to ignore it, pretended to be asleep. He’d like Shy watch for them.

At least Carson hasn’t put guards by the door.

He should be out there. Helping with the effort. Colonel Everett is sitting in Elizabeth’s chair and it’s all Wrong, the guy shouldn’t be there. That is Elizabeth’s chair. He is calling for meetings, discussing plans and tactics; they are standing watch by the balconies, machineguns aimed at the sky, ready to blow down any Darts coming this way. But the Hives have stopped sacrificing their ships, and they are too far up for any ammo they have left to reach. All they can do is watch and wait and endure.

John should be there.

Rodney says he and Meredith will have it covered. Two days: that’s how long they’ve got to hold out. It’s nearly been one day, now. Just one more day.


He and Rodney had talked for a long time. It had included coffee breaks (for Rodney: Carson won’t let him have some yet, says it’ll interfere with the painkillers. John steals some from Rodney’s thermos anyway) and the sharing of some Jell-O, and it had ended when the astrophysicist had been forcibly removed since they were being too loud and apparently disturbing everybody else, even if John is currently the only patient. Lousy excuses, he wants to accuse, but Carson looks so damn tired and his Dæmon so worn out – they relent. Once Rodney leaves, taking Meredith and his datapad with him, John tries to sleep for a bit.

It’s difficult.

(After a while he realizes he’s afraid of dreaming. Of waking up to discover this is some kind of parallel reality where everything’s titled sideways, and he’s stuck half-way. Of not waking up at all.

But Shy whispers [I’m still here; go to sleep], and he exhales.)


After a while, Ford and Teyla come to visit. They’ve been in the Control Room with Colonel Everett and the rest, monitoring the situation. Not just the Wraith has the City at unrest; his little display in the Chair ([Understatement], Shy declares) has stirred them all – again – and some people have dragged questions up at the latest briefings where they ought to discuss military strategy – and Ford explains that Colonel Everett had actually stepped in then, said sharply: This is not the place for such a discussion, and John isn’t sure how to react to that. He hasn’t considered Everett to be a clean-cut ally; absolutely not taking such a side. Sounds like a trick. Because there must have been murmurs, at least, of security risks; is he even human, they wonder, with a Raven as his Dæmon, Emerging so late?

With Elizabeth not present, Rodney is all of a sudden the highest-ranking civilian on base and supposedly meant to step up and take command, except Everett is overruling that; but with the shields up and guns loaded but standing still, everything’s ground to a halt. All they do is talk and talk and wait for the ship to arrive. Meanwhile Rodney hasn’t been to a lot of briefings, even when Everett had relented and requested his and the other scientists’ presence there. No, Rodney’s hung around a lot in the infirmary and John’s guts make a sudden backflip as he realizes this, just how much Rodney has been ignoring duties and orders to sit by his bedside.

And a lot of people know it, too. And normally John wouldn’t think twice of it – they have become a tightly knitted community here unlike any base he’s previously been stationed at, and they’re a team – except now Everett and the rest of the fresh-faced strangers know about it too, and they can draw their own conclusions.

(Rodney probably hasn’t given it a second thought.)

It’s chaotic out there, Ford says. The kid is slightly nervous, skittish, and John oh so badly wishes he weren’t. He’s staring at Shy in the kind of way where he’s trying so, so hard not to be obviously out of his depth. He can see it on the young man’s face, from the way Adria is trying not to hide; because they’re a team, they’re friends. They’ve saved each other’s hides more than once and covered each other’s six for months, and now this, this has thrown things off-kilter.

Eventually John has to say, “My Dæmon isn’t going to bite, Lieutenant,” and Ford stutters out a sorry, and Adria looks all abashed – and John has forgiven them in an instant.

Teyla is calmer. Fascinated. There are stories of Dæmon with wings, ancient ones, from the time when the Ancestors were a certainty and not mere legend. The Athosians have head whispers and recorded them in fairytales from the time of the Long War and First Cullings, that the Ancestors once had freedom not only in their great Cities and warships, but their Dæmons had strange new Shapes which humans could not reach. Dreams from their point of origin. But she has never seen such a Dæmon before with her own eyes. 

“I do not understand, Major,” she says, confusedly. “Where have they been this whole time?”

“Well,” John says a little awkwardly, “I guess I’m a bit of a late bloomer.”

One hell of a light show, as Rodney had put it: they’d been witness to that, Ford and Teyla and Beckett and a whole bunch of people. Marines, both of the original expedition and newcomers. Everett, too. They had followed Rodney and Meredith’s thundering steps, running from the Control Room to the Chair, thinking the emergency was about to spread from there to the whole City: Rodney hadn’t explained anything. They’d assumed it was Wraith, or a weapon, something else. No one had expected to rush in to find him lying there dying. Teyla says: There was a message, a distress call, in the language of the Ancestors.

Thanks, John murmurs, glancing upward briefly; the light are warm, in return: [we had to save you]

“So, uhm,” Ford considers, an echo of their first meetings: it is a distant memory now, but the words are still there, “your Dæmon was real shy, huh.”

“Yup.”

“I … You know, I always thought you had one, sir. I mean, there was the thing with the jacket and the pockets. I believed it. We all did.”

Or, if they hadn’t, they hadn’t thought to question it. Hadn’t dared. Which is just as well. The first months of this expedition might have turned out even worse if dissent had spread, if rumors had cloven them; John can just figure that Bates would’ve been mighty pleased to find a reason to ostracize him or at least cut him from the chain of command. After all, who would trust a person openly claiming to not have a Dæmon? It is an unthinkable thing.

“Yeah,” John says, sighing a little, all those old lies still itching. “I’d been working on that charade since kidhood.”

Teyla is stroking Kanaan’s neck, thoughtfully. It strikes John that she looks tired and pale, as if she hasn’t been sleeping well. Not that many of them have. The whole base is under constant stress: even with the shields up, it is impossible to feel safe with three Hives linger in the sky above and trying to tear the City apart.

“Your Dæmon is beautiful, Major,” she says, no hints of sarcasm or irony or fear; just a statement, dazzling in its honesty, and John tries really hard not to flush in a surge of pride as Shy preens. “I find it very fitting that you have been given wings.”


(we have always had them, hidden away:

now we have broken free)


After that, things ease up a bit. Ford doesn’t dare to tease him about the late bloomer statement – even if protocol is relaxed here, the kid doesn’t want to overstep (he never has issue poking fun at McKay, though) – even though normally the kid would jump at such a chance. They’d brought him some real actual food, which John inhales gleefully, and Ford reports everything he’s learned about their current situation. John doesn’t mention that he’s Seen a lot through the City’s sensors. It’s nice to have data delivered this way, too, though human words and actions.

Questions are asked, but not as feverishly as Rodney had posed them. Mostly about Shy, and what happened in the Chair Room. After being interrogated by Rodney, this feels rather relaxed. When Ford and Adria are called to the Control Room for yet another briefing with Everett – Ford is acting XO, after all – Teyla and Kanaan linger, sitting with him for a while.

The Hives are still out there, relentlessly, waiting. The shields are holding. Time: that is what they need, and what they have. The Daedalus is on route.

After Teyla and Kanaan have left, Shy says, [I like them. I’d prefer it if Aiden would stop staring, though].

“He’s just a kid,” John murmurs, half-aloud. “He’ll come around.”

This has been a day of startling revelations for them all; once the dust has settled, once the Wraith are gone and this mess cleaned up, the pieces will fall into place. They’ll be all right, and one day soon (hopefully) be back out there, exploring new worlds together, their team tight as it should be. Yeah, they’ll be all right, John will make sure.


Next morning, Rodney brings breakfast and new ideas he’s dreamed of that night. Not that’s slept a lot, the man complains; the Wraith constantly firing on the shields causes too much stress and noise. They can feel the vibrations all the way here. Ford’s back in the Control Room with Everett; Teyla has gone to give assurances to her people. The Athosians have once again been relocated, refugees from their second home on the mainland – they might never be able to go back there, they know. They’d taken everything they could from there. There’s no issue with space in the City, though, and the shield protects them all, indiscriminate.

They’re discussing plan Bs and Cs, what to do next. Everything hangs on the Daedalus making it here; they have no big guns left.

“…since it’s still so new, does that mean your Dæmon hasn’t actually settled yet?” Rodney is asking, half-way through a sandwich.

[We like this Shape], Shy declares, but there’s curiosity, the hint of excitement of an experiment, and suddenly John feels that curling sting in his gut, like you do when making tight turns at high speeds, and then Shy is a wisp of black smoke, form melding into something different; he’s not sure if he likes it, to be honest: he likes the wings – they want to keep the wings. Need to.

Rodney makes a sound, “Huh,” as the Raven isn’t there: instead, well, John isn’t certain – [Found this in Atlantis’ database], Shy says, and – oh, the world opens up with new information and John bathes in it.

“It figures your Dæmon can access all these Lantean lifeforms. That is actually rather … very cool.”

“Yeah,” John breathes, as Shy moves anew. This Shape is a bit like a bat, he supposes, in Earth terms, still dark and winged but with tendrils of emerald light scattered across the spine. It’s beautiful, in a very different way, and his Dæmon remains about the same size as the Raven was just a moment ago.

“Dragon?”

“Yes,” Rodney agrees, inner geek shining through except he quickly retaliates: “No? No! No.”

Shy says, sounding a bit disappointed, [I can’t breathe fire, that’s a pity] and Rodney looks torn between disappointment, too, and relief. Probably considering the potential of such an advantage over enemies, and also figuring the danger to this whole base if John’s Dæmon all of a sudden could breathe fire. Though it would be pretty awesome.

“Close enough. Atlantis says it’s called a volucera.”

“You know, it’s a bit…When you do that,” Rodney waves a hand, “that thing. It’s like being in a three-way conversation except I can’t hear the third person involved, and you’re only translating bits and pieces.”

Which is actually a pretty accurate description, looking at it from the outside. John surprises himself by asking: “Does it, I don’t know, freak you out?”

And he isn’t certain himself if he’s only talking about his Bond with the City, or his Dæmon and the wings – Shy is now flexing them, and suddenly leaps into the air. The movement of these wings are subtly different, catching momentum in another manner. The vertigo effect is tiny enough now not to be noticed.

“Oddly enough, no.” After a breath, Rodney adds, softly: “The City called for help for you, you know, when you were in the Chair. It’s obvious it – she – is … attached. You don’t think you could convince the City to translate its – uhm, her? – database (terribly unindexed database, might I add) into English? Because that would be useful.”

“Suppose I can ask nicely …” John wonders if a lot of stuff in there even is translatable, with no Earth equivalent of expressions and words, She is already saying [it would take approximately seven point three-two-six years to translate all content within the first portion of the databanks] – and Rodney’s glancing at him, John senses, like a prickle in the corner of his eye and he has to elaborate: ”She says it’d take a while. Years, actually.”

The man cannot hold back a disappointed groan.

“Hey,” John amends, “this just leaves a lot more for us to explore. What fun would it be to be given all the answers all at once?”

Unable to take his eyes off Shy testing out the boundaries of this unfamiliar Shape, John takes it all in. This Shape doesn’t have the softness of feathers, nor is it completely leathery like a bat ought to be. There is a hardness like a lizard’s scales forming ridges across the back, the torso, twisting into something more yielding toward the wings, growing lighter there, skin meeting sharp points that look a pretty impressive set of curved claws. After a few careful maneuvers to and fro in the confined space of the infirmary, Shy turns sharply and returns, lands smoothly.

[I actually don’t like this Shape too much], Shy says and eleven seconds later, the Raven is back, much more content and at ease. [This is better.]


The Daedalus is ten hours away when finally, finally Carson releases him with the stern order to get back right away if he feels any kind of aftershock. John makes his promise and, taking a breath to settle the nerves – he shouldn’t have to be nervous – he walks out the doors. Shy is heavier now than when first Emerging, but he doesn’t think the Dæmon will keep growing anymore, which is just as well. They want to stretch their wings, but while most corridors are very spacious there are some narrower ones they have to pass through as well, and John realizes they probably can’t fly in here without it being claustrophobic. 

In the infirmary, he’s had some time to adjust; the nurses and other personnel on duty, they’d been there, gotten their fill of staring at his Dæmon. It’s still not enough time and what if, what if there’s shouting and glaring and fear – he doesn’t want reactions of fear; he knows he’s a Strangeling, but this is just shouting it to the world in a whole new way. 

They’re just outside the infirmary and two marines and their Dæmons are walking the opposite direction, headed for one of the sentry posts on the upper level balconies for a change of shifts – DeSalle, John sees, and his Dæmon in the Shape of a sleek Russel, and a newcomer he isn’t sure the name of. Greene, the uniform name tag reads, and his Dæmon is much smaller than the other man’s, a dark squirrel nesting atop of his glaringly red cover. Greene’s BDU looks so mismatched in its camouflage grays next to DeSalle’s slightly darker ones. They had been walking ahead purposefully, talking quietly, but now they halt sharply and DeSalle moves to salute – John is ready to tell him to be at ease. He might be back on duty now, outside the infirmary, but the atmosphere here has always been relaxed.

However, the hand freezes in mid-motion, eyes widening by a fraction, and on his shoulder John senses Shy shifting a little. Nervousness rattles across the Bond, but also the thought of We Will Not Bend or Flee, and John steels himself. He can do this. He can do this. So he plays the game like he has always done, gracing the men with smiles and a brief greeting, As you were, and then he strides past them, evenly, calmly. Holding tightly onto the air of We refuse to be ashamed.

(They are acting as he is the alien.)

At least they’re trying not to stare at his back, unaware of Shy letting him See, and it’s frighteningly easy to do that, to share eyes and sensation and movements, to be in two bodies at once. The two marines linger, momentarily, before stuttering back into motion, remembering their orders – they move onward.

They’ll come around, he thinks. He’s not sure who he is trying to promise it.

He wonders who was there in the Chair Room when it all crashed; Rodney’s told him what happened, but he was in a state of shock, then, hadn’t registered all the faces. Ford and Teyla has told them there were marines present, but they too had been a bit too distracted by the light show to put names to all of them. Had DeSalle been there? What about Bates, or Stackhouse, or Markham? Had they witnessed him dying, his Dæmon re-Emerging? Not that they know it’s a re-Emergence; from their point of view, it could – would – have been the first time. There is usually only a first time.

Should he prepare some kind of announcement?

Maybe: Hey, folks, I know you’re probably busy wanting to survive but please stop staring at my Dæmon, it’s plain rude, and we’ve got bigger issues.

Maybe: Shy might have wings, but my Dæmon isn’t a monster. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Maybe simply: I’m still the Major John Sheppard you knew forty-eight hours ago.

(He can’t decide which one’s better.)


 

First, they take a detour to his – their – private quarters, if only for him to take a hot, long shower. Once he’s rinsed his hair and cleansed his body, he feels a little more human again. Grabs a fresh uniform as well. The BDU he’d worn while sitting in the Chair feels almost tainted by the afterimages, still smelling of death, even though no guns had gone off near it, there are no tears evidencing wounds or injury.

They enter the Gate Room quietly, from below, through one of the adjourning hallways. The Stargate stands there empty like a shrine, and John finds himself looking at it as if trying to discern a puzzle. There’s been a Stargate in his dreams – well, not dreams. The transcendence, really, might be a more appropriate word; he wasn’t asleep, and he didn’t ascend, just almost. Maybe he’d Ghosted, in a way. The Stargate had offered a solution, dialed home – back to Atlantis. Then sound assaults his ears, and he shakes himself out of the brief reverie.

The air is colder here than in the infirmary, more open. The vents system is working harder with the shields up, recycling everything, unable to use the oxygen outside of the borders. The slightest of currents ruffles Shy’s wings, and without conscious effort John lets them go: as he walks across the vast room, up the stairs, he feels Shy carrying upward, in a lazy circle, and land on the banisters overlooking the controls.

The wide windows outside are full of fire: the shields are holding.

Ghostly silence meets him as Shy flies into vision and lands; except Rodney’s there with Meredith running some diagnostic or other and the man greets him distractedly and loudly. As if this is any ordinary day, and, somehow, it forces people to react likewise. Like snapping clockwork back into motion, the technicians and the team of marines present, they all begin to talk and move again, getting on with whatever they were doing; or they try to, anyway. John pays them no heed, or tries to, anyway. Seems to work pretty well. 

“Carson released you, I see,” Rodney says and suddenly he’s shoving a PDA in John’s face. “Tell me what this is.”

[Jeez], Shy mutters. [We’ve just came to our feet. Metaphorically speaking.]

“Hello to you too, Rodney.” But John cannot bring himself to be that irritated. He’s been victim to this mode of Rodney’s before, and usually it’s led somewhere good, like a solution to an immediate problem and danger to their lives.

“Yes, yes, you’re on your feet, good.” So he’s been busy, then, explaining why he is so energetically distracted. As if he is on the verge of a bright sudden Idea. “Now, look. What do you see?”

An Idea might be anything: it might be a solution to the siege. So John takes the datapad without complaint and studies the contents on the display. It’s a jungle of diagrams, stapled atop of each other, and sprays of texts, looking to have been taken right from the database using a lot of copy/paste. The screen is far too small for this much information all at once. Sprawled atop of all this data is a headline, screaming silently: Machina ad transire inter astria. She supplies, gently, a suggestion: [to travel between stars, across space] – and it strikes like lightning, the plans that must be taking seat in Rodney’s brain right now.

“Hang on. This is the database entry about the City’s stardrive.”

Rodney barely pauses to breathe. “See, while you were sleeping off your …” he makes a vague gesture, hands splayed open: “… near-death/near-Ascension encounter, it got me thinking. You know, Ascension, transcendence, shifting forms, switching places. That first sentence there, what does it say?”

Slightly wary if this is some kind of interrogation, John considers the words: Transiens illac facit; illac ani subo spatio nostra … wait, subspace? Right; of course, the stardrive has to have the means to travel such vast distances faster than light; otherwise they’d not get very far. “So, the stardrive’s got a hyperspace generator. What’s the point of pointing out the obvious, McKay?” he asks, aware of how a couple of the nearby technicians are studying their conversation closely. Waiting for Rodney’s epiphany, maybe. Or just curious. John would they rather stared at him and Rodney, than at Shy.

There’s a tingle of amusement – [without the machina we could not have left Avalon], and Rodney, for some reason, looks gleefully pleased. The video, John realizes; in the video, he’d talked about his Bond with the City, about how She has been slipping him knowledge as easily and naturally as breathing, including the Ancient language. Is Rodney doing this on purpose? Oh, the guy definitely owes him that pudding now.

Rodney doesn’t answer the question. Maybe he just wanted confirmation, to see the text translated for real. Normally Elizabeth would be around to do that. “The Wraith know we’re here, and even if we defeat them now, there are probably more of them out there. A lot more.”

The thoughts are spreading so clearly onto Rodney’s face and John wonders if he’s the only one who can read them. “So, if we managed to disappear before the next wave…”

“Bingo. And if Daedalus arrives on time in,” the man casts a glance at his watch, “nine hours and twenty-eight minutes with a third ZedPM, then we might actually be able to do that. That is if we can figure out a way to get past the armada and somehow convince them not to shoot at us while we get the City to fly. I assume you can fly it.”

It’s not a question: Rodney doesn’t doubt his ability to do it, trusts him entirely, and somehow that makes John’s body feel hot and coil with a deeply rooted satisfaction, unexpected and surging.

And then John thinks about the Jumpers – Jumpers, easy to fly, easy to hide and evade –

“A cloak.” Abruptly. Heads turn, wondering what this is even about. Not following. “We could convert the shield into a cloak, like the Jumpers have.”

“Even if we could, that would essentially replace the shield, that’s how the Jumpers work,” Rodney says, following easily; “and we need a shield to travel in space, because vacuum. Plus, the Wraith shooting at us right now? Not the perfect moment to drop shields.” He looks at John as if conveying Aren’t you supposed to be Mensa?

“I mean to make them stop firing at us. They’d stop firing if their target disappeared.”

“What, make them think they’ve destroyed us? The shields have been holding up for almost two days. They’d not be that easily fooled – they must know, or at least suspect, that we have a ZedPM powering the City.”

“Unless we fake a self-destruct.”

Radek, unable not to overhear the conversation – like everyone else in the room – startles. “That could work!” the Czech exclaims, except amends slightly saying, “Unless they don’t believe us and keep firing, in which case we’ll be umírat strašlivou smrtí.”

“Still, how do we do that? We need to set something off. A naquadah generator might work, but the EM field generated would knock out a lot of our equipment, maybe even the shield, and that’s the last thing we want to happen. And naquadah generators are nice to have. Just in case.”

“The Daedalus, what does it come equipped with?” John seriously wished he’d spent some more time in Cheyenne reading up on specs, not just old mission reports. The latest Terran warship was still under construction when they left, and he hasn’t seen the slightest blueprints of it – at the time, John was still catching up on SGC history and had just found out about Stargates and the Prometheus and timetravel being a real possibility. Isn’t sure if Rodney has; he might’ve helped design some of the ship’s functions, in McKay’s typical fashion of Getting Involved. “Does it carry any warheads? Any nukes?”

“Yes, probably. Or we might be able to cook something together using a drone or two …”

They look at each other: this is the epiphany. Whoa.

“Which means we have nine hours to work out an actual game plan.”

Oh, Everett is going to love this, John thinks sarcastically. He looks to his left, where Shy had been sitting and, in a display of slight evilness, his Dæmon has been staring down anyone staring at the Dæmon and its human. They find the Raven’s silence unsettling, in combination with the wings – annoyance mixed with satisfied bemusement is slipping through the Bond like flickering water. Now Shy leaps off the banister and onto his right shoulder, and shining bright eyes considers the PDA still in his hands. The data displayed: the blueprints for the machina ad transire inter astria, footnotes and calculations, power requirements. The latter are sky-high numbers, enough to power whole countries; impossible to reach without a potentia.

[We can fly the City], Shy says confidently. [But we must be careful.]

They don’t want a repeat of what happened last time they sat in that Chair.


They’d patiently waited until the briefing had ended before interrupting. Ford is in there, and Bates, and Markham, and a couple of people John vaguely remembers meeting thirty odd hours earlier. Everett admits them, and John is secretly selfishly pleased how the man and his wolf are obviously rattled by Raven on his shoulder.

Before Everett can dismiss the others, Rodney’s already talking, and John has to shush the overwhelming enthusiasm. They’ve been going over calculations together – well, Rodney and Meredith have, and John and Shy have been looking over their shoulder and pointed out errors – and this, this might actually work.

“A plan?” Everett repeats.

“Yes, yes; this entry in the Ancient database provided –”

“Is it a weapon?” the Colonel cuts Rodney off, and Meredith glares at the man sourly.

“Actually, no, sir. It’s the machina – the stardrive.” At the befuddled look, perhaps caused by the sudden slip into Ancient, John elaborates: “If we can’t defeat the Wraith here, we could fly the City away from them.”

Ford is gaping. “Fly the City? Is that even possible?” Then, remembering the Colonel in the room, Ford silences awkwardly. Normally the chain of command doesn’t appreciate speaking out of hand like that; Atlantis has never really experienced that, though. They frankly haven’t had the time to worry about strict protocol, too busy surviving (and trying to enforce it with the civilian scientists has never really worked).

“Yes, of course it is,” Rodney says, with a tired air, Do I have to explain this again? honestly; “The City is really one giant spaceship. With the hyperdrive powered by the ZedPMs, we could find another planet in a nice location far from any Wraith territories, one that doesn’t have a Stargate of its own, off the grid, therefore uninhabited. Meaning, hopefully, the Wraith won’t know about it. We’ll need all ZedPMs – well, this entry indicates it’s possible to fly using only one but why take the chance? – plus we need to wait for the Daedalus to arrive, anyway. We still don’t know how many drones they might bring.”

“And how would the City be flown, exactly?” The words sit all foreign in the Colonel’s mouth. Before this, the man had probably never considered the City a ship as well. And he’s a marine bound to the ground, not a pilot. 

“Sheppard would be in the Chair, naturally, and then I’d be monitoring from the Control Room. It’s simple enough once we find the coordinates and, yes, I’ve already listed a few suitable planets with sizable oceans and no Gates,” Rodney says, off-handedly. “Look, the Flying in Hyperspace bit is the easy part.”

The Colonel’s frown deepens. “And the hard part?”

“Would be taking off without being shot at by the Wraith, oh, and not crashing into all the debris left from the destroyed ships out there? Not that I doubt Sheppard’s dodging capabilities,” John rolls his eyes at that, “but Atlantis won’t be very maneuverable. We need those ships out of the sky.”

“Which is why we’re waiting for the Daedalus to arrive with the drones,” the Colonel says, “so we can finish them off.”

“Actually, sir,” John edges in, “we have a different idea.”

Chapter Text

xxiv.

the second rising

 

take us to a safe harbor.


John lets Rodney do most of the talking. Instead, he focused on this, these moments: they are working to save the City and everything within it, and he lets that fact distract him. The murmurs haven’t died, nor the glances, the echo of confused fear in people’s voices as they look at him and his Dæmon. They could not have imagined this; a Dæmon with wings only occurs in fairytales – to a lot of people, he is now the alien; not part of the armada, but alien nonetheless.

Rodney talks: portrays the scenarios, gives accurate data, convincingly: we can do this. And Ford is nodding along, they’re on the same team and they trust each other, even if the kid might poke fun at McKay more often than not – and Rodney always retaliates – and even Bates seems to be bending, thinking: this might actually work. And as Rodney talks, Radek and Miko and the other scientists gathered start murmuring, tearing at the plan and examining it from new angles. Checking so that it’s waterproof. The calculations are presented on the data screens, and John flickers through them, finding no faults, and he’s more than happy with that. Atlantis is humming contently: [we wish to be free of the wraith] and this is a solution, as close as permanent as it gets without actually defeating all the Wraith in the galaxy.

And in this entropy of movement, they receive a transmission from afar. Coded and almost blocked out by the thick interference caused by the Wraith’s hailing fire upon the shields, eating up all sound. But it pierces through at last and they manage to amplify the signal: a cry –

“Atlantis, this is Dr Weir aboard the Daedalus. Do you read?”

They have arrived. John exhales.

The meeting is broken, and people scatter in the direction of the Control Room, gathering around. They all want to hear.

Everett gives the order to open a channel. “Daedalus, this is Atlantis. We read you loud and clear.”

“Good to hear your voice, doc,” John adds, smiling on the inside with relief; Elizabeth sounds all right, if perhaps tired, but unharmed and whole. And they are daring to believe now: this is going to work.


The Earthmade ship is orbiting a foreign star, just out of the Wraith’s sensor range. They do not have the capacity to cloak themselves and they are wary, the ship is much smaller than a Hive and last they knew there were eleven Hives crowding the Lantean sky. But they break the news; there are only three left and Elizabeth knows they had too few drones left; that was the purpose of her returning to Earth in the first place.

Scans are confirming: there are three Hives left, no more. Elizabeth gasps: “How?”

Long story, John thinks, and says: “We had a couple of surprises up our sleeve.”

And now they’ve gotten more of those.


Elizabeth doesn’t know yet about the Chair, or the dying, the brush with Ascension. She doesn’t know about Shy, resting on his shoulder.

The commander of the ship is a Colonel Caldwell and his voice is raspy and thin through the radio, drained in the seriousness of an experienced superior expecting all orders to be obeyed. They had set out on this mission unsure of what to find – not wholly believing the messages sent, about the potentiae the City now has to power its shields. Now they are approaching, they witness the bombardment from above; they reach Lantea in a wide arc, lingering outside of weapons range for as long as possible. Take cover in the shadow of a moon.

They bring drones, and a third potentia, and Elizabeth says they have Asgard beaming technology – John isn’t certain what that means, except Atlantis inputs [they can displace; move matter from one point to another]; Like in Star Trek then, huh? he asks Rodney, who replies: What, no, not at all! It works completely differently!, affronted at the comparison.

The Wraith are surprised by this new foe; and they fire, strained by fresh fears and the Daedalus returns fire, while its technicians work out a work to get past Atlantis’ shields because right now they cannot beam or land –

[we will allow it], She says suddenly and John has to spend a couple of minutes trying to convince them that, yes, they can beam into the City unhindered, the shield not interfering, and he tries covering it up by imitating Rodney’s technobabble which by now he knows enough of not to sound completely incompetent – and then they say: We have locked coordinates, and a bright light enters the air.

Suddenly Elizabeth and Simon are standing in the City for the first time in two long days, right in front of the console tables of the Control Room, and in her hand she holds a sturdy silvery briefcase in her right hand. John has to blink to clear his retinas of the afterimage. So that was pretty cool.

[Yeah], Shy agrees, and Elizabeth is staring at him openmouthed and, oh, right. Before she can drop the briefcase out of staggering shock, Rodney’s there, taking it from her grip not too ungently, glee and relief written all over his face.

Then, following her and Simon’s gaze, Rodney makes a noncommittal noise at the back of his throat, “Yes, that’s his Dæmon. Try not to stare too much, they don’t like it.”

“John…?” Elizabeth is frowning.

“Hi. We’ve managed to hold the fort while you were gone. Heard you were successful in gift shopping?”

The statement snaps her back into motion. “It was a difficult thing but given our current situation, the IOA sanctioned we take some of the Antarctic drones. There are around fifty of them in storage aboard the Daedalus right now.” The hint of a wry smile: “It was a slightly tense journey having them onboard, but thankfully the ZPM cut down our travel time immensely. It’s good to be back.”

Rodney kneels and flickers open the briefcase and there is a potentia, mostly full, gleaming in his hands, currently offline. John almost reels back when the City’s Song increases in pitch out of joy. Rodney cradles the potentia like it contains the answers to the Universe itself: “We’ve got to install this immediately!”

And John catches Elizabeth’s eye, not that it’s difficult – her eyes keeps drifting back toward Shy and she must be full of questions – “Look, we’ve got a plan to get rid of the Wraith.”


For a third time John is standing in the Core Room and breathing life into the City and now, now they have full power; their plan is about to roll into motion.

The City is singing louder than ever.


“Fly the City,” she breathes; “we can do that?”

“Yeah. We’ve been reviewing possible locations and decided on a planet, M35-117; it’s far away from known Wraith territory. Calculated travel time is about nine hours in hyperspace.” They have already elaborated the plan, attacked it from all angles and decided: this is the best thing to do.

Elizabeth looks briefly dazed. So much has happened while she was away that she wasn’t counting on. “John, what … how –?” For once, words are failing the diplomat. She falls as carefully silent as her Dæmon.

“Ah. Right.” He holds out an arm, and Shy shifts from the safe perch atop of a ceiling beam, ten feet up, glides through the air and lands securely. “This is Shy, my Dæmon.”

It still tastes foreign to say it aloud.

“Why … why haven’t we met before?” She doesn’t ask: Why do you have wings? though she must be thinking it.

“Because I didn’t have a Dæmon until roughly three days ago.”

It’s a whole lot more complicated than that, but once they’ve sorted it with the Wraith and landed the City on another planet, it’ll have to do. Besides, this answer, while sparking new curious questions, will sate Elizabeth for now and she too knows the urgency of the problems at hand. They are still under attack; the Daedalus is now resting under the cover of the City shields. While Elizabeth and Simon were being beamed down and the potentia installed, a couple of the Wraith cruisers and one of the Hives had shifted their attention away from the City and toward this new enemy. The Daedalus had taken a couple of hits, retained some damage, and John had – somehow, and with Rodney’s help – managed to convince them that just as they can beam through the shields without issue, so they can also land.

“I see,” Elizabeth says after a pause. Uncertain. How’s she meant to react? At least she forces her stares away, and there is nothing derogatory there, nothing angry, just a hint of fear but no hatred. John can live with that.

He doesn’t tell them that Atlantis is making exceptions by rewriting parts of Her own security measures. He’s not planning on telling them that yet, until this is over; then he and Elizabeth are going to have to talk. A long talk. Not even Teyla and Ford know the full extent of the City’s link with him, or how he hears Her singing – the video, probably, would be a good way to start. Maybe he should do another one. A recording, this time with Shy by his side. Explain everything. After revealing things to Rodney, and to his team – it might be easier. Should be easier.

After all, he has to tell them all eventually: he has to explain why he is staying. Why he cannot go back to Earth. Why he doesn’t want to risk it.

It’s still strange to walk around with Shy and not having to hide; there’s still an itching reflex trying to break free, like a piece of source code seared into his spine: you mustn’t let people know you’re a Strangeling.

He might never be full free from it.


The preparations don’t take long – most of them have already been done. Word has been announced, warnings shared. The Athosians and the marines and the civilians, they’re strapping down, preparing for the ride – might get a little bumpy, the take-off.

And aboard the Daedalus they have warheads – no nukes built for this especial purpose, of detonating above the City to fool the enemy, but Rodney and Radek have quickly created something new, implementing a couple of drones as well into the structure. They promise the result will be a big pretty bang. The original plan was to use a cloaked Jumper to drop the bomb atop the shield; the Daedalus’ beaming technology offers other options.

“Why don’t we just attack the remaining Hives?” asks Colonel Caldwell. His ship is waiting beneath the shield for now. He’s come here expecting to fight a battle heads-on, armed with drones and a ZPM.

“They’d just come back with a new armada. That is exactly how the Ancients lost the first time around,” Rodney argues, and he speaks the truth. The long-range sensors have already picked up movement elsewhere; there might be up to sixty Hives in this quadrant alone, and many more in Pegasus as a whole. “No, we do this and convince them we’re dead and gone, they’ll give up and leave us alone. By us flying away from the planet altogether, we just make sure they cannot get to us again.”

Hopefully, John mentally adds, though not aloud. Fingers crossed.

Caldwell nods, albeit perhaps not fully convinced. Why would he be? He is a stranger here, he doesn’t know them, doesn’t know Rodney or his genius, or how they have all struggled to survive. All he knows about Wraith comes from the reports they’d sent in the message to Earth; jumbled, vague, full of pain and lingering despair and the tingle of hope: we have found two ZPMs, we could survive.

The man’s face fits with his voice, with grave lines across it, and his Dæmon is a cold thing, but its eyes are warm and not unkind. When they’d entered the briefing room – awed at the City, but not so distracted by the alien beauty as to forget the Wraith above – they had stopped in their tracks, as had the rest of the newcomers, when seeing John by the table, the Raven beside him.

[Maybe we should wear a sign], Shy ponders, amused, as the meeting shuffles to a close; two airmen had followed Caldwell from the Daedalus into the City, and they’re all staring. Over the last few hours since he woke up in the infirmary, John has had more than enough time to get used to that kind of thing. Still. It is getting pretty darn annoying. 

Something like ‘we mean you no harm’.

[Add ‘we come in peace’, and we’re going to have an E.T. moment.]

John almost laughs aloud, holding it back barely but his shoulders shake a little, and Rodney sends him a glance as if asking: Everything OK? And he quirks a grin in reply: Yeah.

I’m in a City full of aliens, he doesn’t say.

As they file out, Caldwell lingers and John offers a wave his hand, not quite a salute – the guy is above him in rank, after all. Everett isn’t frowning as much as he used to, but at least the guy isn’t staring at Shy openly. Still. John isn’t sure if he dislikes this guy; this is a strange situation, one they’ve never come across before. There’s no precedent, no set of rules to follow. Plus, Caldwell brought them the potentia and the drones and returned Elizabeth safely; he’s got to give him that.

(In time they might stop acting as if he is the alien.)


[we do not want to hurt you again] Atlantis is worrying a bit. Truthfully, John is nervous himself. Flying he can do. He can fly anything.

But last time he sat in that Chair he almost died. Technically actually died, for a while, lingering on the edge of Ascension and only Shy managed to pull him back in time –

They don’t want that to happen again.

Rodney’s nervous about that too, he thinks, from the way the scientist is skittering around the room without touching the Chair itself. Checking last minute calculations, making minute adjustments. They have enough power – still, doesn’t hurt to be thorough and double-check. And Rodney isn’t merely doing it for the sake of the City, or safety; he is doing it for himself, like meditation. It’s going to be fine, John tells him, and Rodney doesn’t say Yes. He doesn’t dare to.

He might not need to sit in the Chair the whole journey; just in the beginning, the pilot guiding Her through lift-off. Then, once they’ve broken past the atmosphere and into hyperspace, She will take over and rush them toward their new destination on Her own. Only the first nudge is needed. This will be, after all, the first time in perhaps millions of years that the City has flown – ever since the Ancients first left Avalon for Pegasus, found a new home here, fleeing a plague and the Goa’uld and all other issues they’d left behind. The stardrive is dusty, but She remembers how to use it, the knowledge stored within the databanks like precious stones. To Her, time is irrelevant and brief.

Then Rodney is stilling and stands back, turning toward the door return to the Control Room from where he and Meredith will be monitoring it all. The Daedalus is ready, on standby. They’re all on standby, holding their breaths. Before he goes, he pauses;

“So – uhm. Good luck, Major.”

“Yeah.” Going to need it, he doesn’t say, nor Thanks. Instead John smiles: “See you in hyperspace.”


One two three four times;

It’s strange, this, how easily the plan’s being accepted and implemented but the sky is darkened by Hiveships full of Wraith wanting to destroy them, take the City and suck the life out of them all. Rodney’s glad they’re accepting the plan this easily. Having Elizabeth back is good – she belongs in that office, not Colonel Big Hat. It’s slightly unnerving to have two of them here, now, this Caldwell too – all of these new faces – they don’t belong. They’re too easily distracted by the little things, the unimportant things in the Grand Schemes of Current Affairs, and Rodney finds himself growing more and more offended, unable to pin down exactly why, when they keep staring lingeringly at John and his Dæmon. As if they’re the outsiders here, needing to be confined and examined and questioned –

Like they are echoes of the Enemy.

Or he might know, might be able to pin down the reasons for this exponentially gnawing annoyance and sense of care; but in this chaos is there time to acknowledge it? And Sheppard’s not in need of some knight’s shining armor, he’s already wearing one and, besides, this isn’t the time. But now they’re in the Chair Room and Rodney can still see it: the smoke and the light and John lying there dying, and what if it happens again what if it happens again what if

It won’t, Meredith tries to reassure, but she is fearing the same thing.

And John has already said, She just needs the boost; he only needs to be there to nudge the Cityship into the atmosphere and the rest will unfold on its own. He doesn’t need to sit there for the whole nine hour journey, only return to handle the landing – the slightest of reliefs – but Rodney cannot stop thinking about the noises of death; the memories will be burned into his palms forever, he thinks, every time he enters this room and sees the Chair he will remember remember the silent line for sixty-four seconds and the gleaming soul which had spread toward the high ceiling, casting a great shadow upon the witnesses.

He and Meredith linger, watching Sheppard mentally prepare – this isn’t a Jumper, there are no pre-flight checkups the pilot can make, no buttons for him to push. He can only take a breath, sit down; exhale. And Rodney has a strong urge, a surging wave of emotion curling through his bones, to do something – pat his back – pull an arm around his shoulders, awkwardly and sharp as he hasn’t embraced someone for years and years, not like that; and John’s not a guy for much physical contact, constantly with this invisible bubble around him which no one dares to cross – but Rodney want to move forward anyway;

But they remember: the storm, the aftermath, the wind curling around the City piers; after the shots had gone off and bodies fallen down, Elizabeth had pulled Sheppard into a sudden embrace of relief and thanked him, thanked him for the bullets and blood and bodies strewn around, and John had looked like a deer caught in the headlights, so lost and tense and wholly bewildered –

Rodney doesn’t want to imbalance him so much he crashes the City. That would be – bad.

Instead he holds still his hands, clenching them into tense fists to keep them from moving, and Meredith presses tightly against his leg, I’m Here We’re Breathing For Us, and he says, “So, uhm – good luck, Major.”

And Sheppard hints at that smile which is brilliant and rare, like he’d smiled with he’d brought back the first ZedPM from Proculus, burning like star, threatening to become a supernova – “See you in hyperspace.”


The City doesn’t let him See Everything this time. He contents himself with watching the screens, connected to the Control Room; there are readings, and voices on the radio accompanying them.

The Wraith aren’t here to kill them all in a big explosion; they want to take the Stargate inside of Her, use it to get to Earth. The new rich feeding ground which lies beyond the event horizon, unaware; then, they’d kill them all, but not before they had the Gate. This move will make them pause. To further the act, they open a commlink, the frequency one which anyone could pick up and Elizabeth conveys the message: We will die before we surrender; we will destroy the City before you can take it; we will lower the shield.

And the Wraith don’t want to help them ignite the tempest. The firing, so incessant, starts to break off: the thunderous glamour which has held them trapped for so long is suddenly silencing.

Showtime.

And the Daedalus signals: The bomb is away! and a light glaring and intense fills the air: the soundwall hits later, rushes through the City and down toward the water, scattering around the shield. Sensors are almost overloaded, blinded by the sheer blast so utterly close; but Atlantis ensures, It is done, and the Wraith are stunned by the blast –

Are they buying the act?

“Five seconds, that’s all we need, or we’ll be incinerated – five seconds!” Rodney repeats urgently over the intercom.

John barely resists the urge to count down so they all can hear. More than five seconds pass, but the smoke is slowly settling and then Rodney whispers, “We’re cloaked.”

And She confirms: [it is done].

And the readings change: the Hives are confused, altering course. Scanning for them. There’s nothing on the planet surface anymore, nothing but ocean free and wide – [they know we would destroy ourselves rather than be captured alive] –

Then:

“They’re opening hyperspace windows. Yeah, they’re breaking orbit – I think they bought it!” Rodney cries, voice slightly distorted, thin, alight like the stars. He has stopped whispering. “It actually worked!”

“Can be switch the cloak back to a shield?” Everett asks. Whom he asks, John isn’t sure, unable to see them. It’s slightly unnerving, this distance, being so unaware of what’s actually going on; he’s gotten so used to being close to Atlantis, to know what She knows.

“The scans show nobody is headed our way. There’s nothing out there but debris…and they think we’re gone. They bought it. They actually bought it!”

“That is a yes,” Elizabeth is clarifying.

“All right, Major,” Rodney’s voice returns in full surround, and John’s ears prickle in attention – this is it. “The sky’s clear and we are raising shields again; activate the inertial dampeners.” He does with a thought, brief and clear, and the voices monitoring from the Control Room feedback data in a quiet constant stream of chatter. All systems are in the green. His pulse is rising again, fiercely apprehensive, but his Dæmon whispers soothingly [We can do this.] and John inhales, exhales –

And Rodney says: “You have a go for launch.”

And John relaxes into the Chair, breathes in time with his Dæmon, and Atlantis sings: [take us to a safe harbor]

Chapter Text

xxv.

devil’s advocate

 

in a way, doing this is like disarming, to shed his gear and shields and weapons one by one:  


Nine hours in hyperspace.

Now is the time to lay bare all truths:


“…and once we have landed, we’ll re-establish a wormhole with Earth,” Elizabeth draws the final meeting to a close. They have been at it for so long, because there is little else left to do. That, and sleep – everyone deserves to rest. “Let them know we’re still here. The SGC is, however, requesting all senior staff return for evaluation. Yes, Rodney, you too,” she adds at the astrophysicist’s tired, disbelieving look.

[John] Shy reminds him, wordlessly; [they must know]

He clears his throat. “There’s a catch.”

Elizabeth pauses, blinks. “What is?”

“I’m not leaving Atlantis.”

Everett looks convinced: his theories were right, this zoomie needs to be discharged for continual insubordination, defying direct orders like this – John senses it in the man’s gaze: It’ll be good riddance.

(The man had confronted him: he hasn’t seen the Wraith for real, only sensors images imprinted from the sky above Lantea, their swarming ships. He hasn’t witnessed a feeding, heard the screams of Ghosting Dæmons as life is sucked out of their humans drop by bloody drop – he has no idea; all he knows is that John took the shot that ended Sumner, the shot which made the Major acting military CO when he shouldn’t have been. Should never have been – that is what Everett knows.)

Unexpectedly – though, in hindsight, not at all – Rodney speaks up, eyes rolling. Possibly at how diffuse he’s being. “What Sheppard’s saying is he cannot leave. Actually, there’s no certainty what would happen if he did but we’ve had this discussion and – what he is failing to tell you, Elizabeth, is that he has a Bond, for the lack of a better word, with Atlantis and oh, yes, the City’s sentient and Sheppard has unfortunately neglected to tell us any of this beforehand. This Bond might not work across the distance between galaxies and, as such, going back to Earth might be a Very Bad Idea.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows are rising to her hairline and John elbows Rodney sharply, out of reflex, jeez, couldn’t he have at least split that into two paragraphs and let him talk for himself?

Rodney.”

“You were never going to cut to the chase. You’ll thank me later.”

Doubtful, John sighs, palms down on the conference table and he faces Elizabeth, ready for the onslaught. “A Bond?” she asks. “Like a Dæmon Bond?” for clarification and of course they’re confused; Bonds occur only once, between one human and their Dæmon, no place else and certainly not between a human and a machine.

Because that is what Atlantis is. A City, a ship, a massive computer, millions of years old and created with science far beyond theirs; a machine – but She is so much, much more and they cannot even begin to comprehend –

“Yeah. More or less.”

“And…” Elizabeth exhales. Bewildered. And John is glad it’s just them here: he and Rodney, Elizabeth and Everett and their Dæmons. Nobody else. He’ll prepare a Citywide announcement later if he has to – only if he has to. “This Bond – since when …?”

“Since we arrived.” Technically longer and Rodney glances at him but John threatens him with the elbow again. “It took a while before I really understood what was going on.”

“And Atlantis is sentient?”

And the light overhead flicker briefly, but it’s not the dimming tide before a storm; rather, there’s a flicker of amusement, and John recognizes the pattern of warmth. This is Her version of a gentle smile. “Yeah. She’s letting me tap into Her systems sometimes, helping out. Sort of, see the sensors, access the database,” he explains and it is so strangely freeing, like an uplifting wind, to talk about it like this. Openly, aloud. To put words to it. “That’s how I managed to control the Jumpers from the Chair.”

“This … Bond.” Underlining the words: it’s an unnatural thing, to be able to whisper with a machine. “It lets you can tap into the City’s systems.” And Everett says, darkly: “We can’t deny that this poses a great security risk –”

Rodney almost leaps out of his chair. “Now hang on!”

“McKay.” John shoots him a sharp look: not now. Not that he doesn’t appreciate the sentiment.

But he does understand, in a way, Everett’s point of view. What the man sees is this: a black marked pilot, disgruntled and in the City by a fluke – no one recommended him; no one wanted him here, and if not for sitting down in that Chair in Antarctica none of this would have occurred – and he has a problem with the brass, and atop of that his Dæmon burst into being spectacularly just a couple of days ago. And now he is admitting to having access to the City’s systems, the sensors, he can fly Her with his mind – a display of control: one which Everett cannot influence, and that is unsettling, maybe even frightening. And John doesn’t need to sit in that Chair to hear Her sing and to whisper back and what if he were to turn on them somehow?

He isn’t an enemy, but the potential of power resting beneath his fingertips is unnerving to the Colonel and John glances around, at the other faces by the conference table and it’s written oh so clearly: they don’t know what this is. How to handle it. Is this a threat they should try to reign in and contain?

What they don’t seem to understand is that John has never thought of controlling the City like that. She is old and untameable – all one can do is ask nicely; and She would stop him, like she tried to do when Kolya stormed the City. He doesn’t want to rule and burn the world like they do in the fairytales – he’s not that kind of Strangeling. [Hah.]

But Rodney doesn’t do silence. He doesn’t follow orders. “No. Listen. What the hell? Do you think, what, that Sheppard’s some kind of – some kind of enemy here? Because, seriously? After everything – finding the ZedPMs to power the City, flying the City, defeating a big portion of the Wraith armada – if nobody else has caught on yet: somebody took out those Hiveships and it sure as hell weren’t you grunts waving around your guns –”

Oh, the look on Everett’s face is almost comical, except John’s torn and kicks Rodney’s shin, shut up!, and the man silences with an angry grimace.

“And that is exactly my point, doctor,” the Colonel says, rapidly. “The Major is openly admitting to easily being able to control the most dangerous weapon we know of, possibly control this whole City single-handedly, and ignoring such a risk of security to everyone on this base is unacceptable!”

[I don’t think She’d let us do that], his Dæmon mutters, glaring at the man and Everett visibly holds back a flinch at the cold, even stare from the Raven, who doesn’t even blink: John gladly uses this to his advantage. He’s not interested in ingraining respect in this man. [The City only lets us do what She wants to let us do.]

I know, John agrees, but it’s almost hopeless to explain. The words symbiotic relationship might be too tainted and messy due to connotations with the Goa’uld – this is nothing like that.

Last time Atlantis gave too much control to him it killed him.

“Colonel, with all due respect,” Elizabeth cuts in and her expression is guarded but dark and there’s something there which John has rarely seen, a fire usually reigned back; she is a cautious woman, with a damned good poker face. Now, though, now something’s slipping through – “John Sheppard has proved to be an integral part of this expedition and a trusted part of my command, and these accusations are founded on –”

“You’re right.”

Shocked heads swirl around to look at him and Everett is quiet and Rodney’s mouth hangs open, and John has an urge to poke his arm, to remind him to breathe.

“I can access the City’s systems: I can communicate with Her; I can See using the City sensors. And that is a valid security risk,” John says, calmly, breezily. Rodney looks unsteadily furious as if he wants to hit him –

And John looks right at the Colonel, who’s frowning, and he keeps his gaze steady. He’s faced Wraith, beasts that can sick the life out of you and he had killed the Queen which drained away Sumner like water during drought; he was here when the Genii struck, he cut them down like breathing, still remembering the recoil of the bullet that split Kolya’s head; in comparison, Everett’s a breeze. John isn’t afraid of him.

(Maybe that’s the problem. He refuses to bow.)

And he might’ve been born and bred a liar, but not about these things:

“But I would never endanger anyone who is part of this expedition.”

Everyone seems to be holding their collective breaths. John relaxes back in his chair, almost melding with the uncomfortable plastic and metal.

Elizabeth, tense, but not out of fear, says: “I know that, John.” She turns to Everett. “Colonel, I appreciate your concerns but without John Sheppard, none of us would be here right now.” She could be referring to the Chair, or maybe even the Genii – if they’d remained undefeated, he’d probably kept running, emptying ammo until the storm took the City completely and sank it, friend and foe alike. John doesn’t ask. He doesn’t like being reminded.

Stonefaced, like carved from something harsh and cold and unable to display emotions beyond riveted anger in the face of the enemy, Everett relents, somehow. At least he doesn’t order him to be thrown in the brig – not that it’d help, John thinks dryly. Atlantis wouldn’t keep him there. That’s the thing (a dark thought enveloping him, and Shy whispers [It won’t happen don’t worry shh]

(If he was to suddenly turn on them and become the enemy and Atlantis took his side,

they’d not stand a chance.)

What’s enough to make them believe?

“John,” Elizabeth goes on, softer;

and John nods: “I know, I’ve got explaining to do. I know.”

And he thinks about his team: they need to know. Rather get it over with – “Would you mind if I called Ford and Teyla over?” and he doesn’t need to elaborate more, because Elizabeth understands, we’re a team, and she nods.

Everett turns angrily around and leaves. John, vaguely, wonders if the guy is going to stay awake during the remainder of his stay in the City, alert and nervous and suddenly completely distrustful of the walls encompassing them; John almost hopes he will, that it’ll make the man and his wolf leave entirely –

[Would be good riddance], Shy murmurs, staring after the man and if the Raven’s gaze is further unsettling for him, John counts it as a bonus.


They close the folding doors behind them. Ford appears a bit out of breath, pulled from a gym session, and Teyla’s still wearing a BDU rather than more relaxed Athosian clothing. Still watchful and prepared, the siege remaining too close behind them. Rodney shuffles sideways a bit to make room as Ford asks: “What’s wrong? Is there an emergency?”

John shakes his head. Tells them to take a seat. Admits: So I didn’t tell you guys the full truth back in the infirmary and you should probably know this.

A team has to be able to trust each other.

Part of the setup reminds him too much of an interrogation, of glaring faces and security cameras but the City assures him all such devices have been turned off in this room, there’ll be no recordings – this is just for them to hear. They don’t split up; instead his team takes seat around him like protective pillars holding up an ancient temple and he releases a breath he wasn’t even certain he was holding. They’ve got his back; Elizabeth and Simon are on one side of the table and he and Shy and their team on the other. There’s not enough space in this room for his Dæmon to fly, so Shy lingers on his shoulder, restlessly. He takes comfort in the physical nearness, the heat of this body next to his own.

He might not be able to tell them everything, all of the layers, but they’ll be in hyperspace for quite a while yet. There’s time.

“So,” he says, hoping his voice doesn’t come out as scratchy/awkward/nervous/afraid/I don’t want to be here as he hears it echo inside his skull. “Where do you want me to start?”


The beginning is complicated. It ends somewhere in the middle, and John tries to make sense of it. Explain like he did to Rodney and Meredith in the infirmary and in that video, and fill in the gaps as he goes:

Elizabeth is a good listener. She’s not like Rodney and Meredith, who had constantly stopped to take notes and ask more questions, deviating to new points all the time; they don’t do it this time, at least not as often as they had in the infirmary. But Simon and his human are nodding, quietly, nudging him forward only when he completely stalls and they allow him to breathe and pause and wait and think.

Teyla is quiet, too, exhibiting another sort of calm than Elizabeth; Ford is full of fidgeting energy, but it begins to dissipate, as if his body shifts gear as John’s voice washes over them, the kid’s energetic impatience pooling into a disbelieving tranquillity. He looks at his CO like at a stranger, but not like at an alien. John’s usually not this serious or talkative, usually meaning never.

It’s making a bit more sense to him now, too, put forward so plainly like this. He doesn’t have all the answers, but Atlantis provides data when he needs it. He talks about Antarctica and having this nagging sense since childhood – he’s dreamt of Her voice, his Bond stretching thin across the lightyears and time and then they’d come here, found the City and he’d realized he wasn’t imagined it after all;

he talks about dying, dying twice and of Chaya Sar showing him things, how they were for the Ancients. Finding out he’s not alone in being a Strangeling, I was born on the edge;

he talks about dying in the Jumper and maybe it was the start of it, he’s not sure, but after that he began to grow this ache within his chest and the light evolved slowly; as they’d found the potentiae, the City had strengthened and so had their Bond. And then the light broke free for the First Time and his Raven was born, briefly before he died again – it’s fuzzy, still, most of those details. He skims over how he had dreamt his way through childhood and seeing his brother dancing with his Dæmon in the Library of the House Where He Grew Up, about running from them and finding Chaya Sar trying to stop him in front of the Stargate at the SGC. It was Chaya Sar, or maybe it was Atlantis Herself, sparking a form which was immediate and recognizable in his mind. Because he’s not sure if She could ever visualize Herself any way that his human mind could comprehend;

he talks about the Bond, how it’s Always Been There and he’s nervous about breaking it; he has travelled in all directions within Pegasus, and still felt Her, but Earth is so far away, the void between galaxies almost impossible to grasp. And he doesn’t want to break the Bond, accidentally or otherwise, and they have to see the hint of sheer fear in his eyes at this prospect, even as he tries to school his expression into something neutral;

he talks, and Shy murmurs sometimes when he runs out of air, [let me breathe for us], and he feels the stream of air from the vents curling around them gently, the closest to a physical embrace Atlantis can manage.

In a way, doing this is like disarming, to shed his gear and shields and weapons one by one: but they are not the enemy, they are allies, they’re a team, they’re friends – he’d like to alter the definition of the word: they’re family, the one he’d so unexpectedly found without meaning to. He trusts them, trusts them not to take the weapons he’s throwing to the ground and point them at him in a panicked rage.

He talks, and once he’s silenced, Elizabeth’s expression is extremely open and unguarded, unhinged; he hasn’t talked like this for – well, he’d say a long time, except he broke that silence with Rodney and Meredith. But before he came to Atlantis, he wouldn’t have dared to open up so. Now, things are changing.

They need to know.


And once he’s silenced, Elizabeth leans back in her chair, as if overwhelmed, so much input to analyze. Ford has stilled in a way John isn’t used to seeing him, and Teyla and Kanaan look at him as if this, not the light show in the Chair Room, is the Big Revelation and they don’t look at him as if he’s the alien. He is not a stranger, merely a friend cast into new light. The silence afterward falls like a sheet over them and risks being oppressing, but then Elizabeth exhales and asks: “We are the only ones who know about this?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“So you can actually, like, have a conversation with the City?” Ford asks, part gleeful, part confounded, and there’s an echo of that’s pretty cool and also how’s that possible?

And John shrugs, “Yup.”

“Huh. So, like a Dæmon Bond …”

Teyla ponders. “Then this means you cannot return to your home-planet.”

Homeplanet. Earth was never that. This is where they belong.

“Well, we can’t be sure,” Rodney intones, and shudders. Thinks about possibilities and Rodney usually considers the worst scenarios first, better ones later. And John wonders, is he thinking about Ghosting, thinking that’s what’ll happen if – “But that’s the issue, isn’t it? We can’t be sure. I mean, you seem to handle travelling inside this galaxy just fine but the void between galaxies is several times larger than Pegasus itself. I don’t think any of us actually want to risk finding out the consequences, if you were to –” He waves a hand, vaguely. “The end result may not be too pleasant,” he finishes a little lamely, but John unbidden wonders and the City supplies a fleeting scan of Rodney’s worried heartbeats, one thing the sensors look for to detect living bio-signatures and She conveys, albeit unable to read the man’s mind, [he is concerned]. The for you is left unsaid.

Suddenly he remembers his Mother, and Pete, being laid up in bed and sick and feeling awful and horrible, and looking at the Dæmon when Mother wasn’t watching – she’s not unhappy because of your but for you –

John forces himself to shake the thoughts off.

“Rodney, what’s our ETA?”

This stirs the reprieve, and the man considers his watch, modified to fit the time of Lantea. Got to convert them, once again, as they land on their new planet. M35-117 is a boring and dry designation; they have already begun to refer to it as New Lantea, and they haven’t even laid eyes on it for real yet. “Three hours and twelve minutes.”

“The SGC are expecting us to check in once we’ve landed,” Elizabeth reminds them.

“Yeah,” John nods. Three hours – some time to think of a viable way to make excuses to disobey direct orders that have been issued by General Landry himself. Perhaps he is under order by the IOA in turn, but it doesn’t matter: to disobey it could mean court martial, a discharge. Rodney might not grasp the finer shards of military protocol and politics, but Ford and Elizabeth certainly do, and Teyla has begun to understand more and more of these strange Earth things, and John shares a look with them;

“Can we not simply tell them the truth?” Teyla asks.

“Not sure if they’d believe it.”

Hurriedly: “And I’m not sure if it’s a good idea,” Rodney adds. “Look, it’s useful you can connect with the City and all that, but consider how the SCG and the IOA will take it, or, worse, if someone sniffs it out and suddenly thinks this is some kind of – opportunity?”

Ford frowns. “What d’you mean, doc?”

“I’m not that popular with The Powers That Be,” John remarks, dryly. They’ll surely jump at this chance to find a replacement. Everett, maybe. They’d not just chose anybody, and the Colonel is high-up enough, experienced enough. Has the proper rank.

“That’s not what I meant,” Rodney stresses. “Though it’s not excluded either. Look, this Bond, if it mirrors a Dæmon Bond a bit too much, which it might, could cause a lot of questions we can’t answer. And it poses –”

“Concerns,” Elizabeth nods, cautiously.

Security risks, John was going to say. An echo.

Somehow, in his heart, an unexpected yet not unwelcome warmth his blooming. This wasn’t the kind of discussion he’d expected them to have. He’d expected, been waiting for, questions, to be grilled again but instead they are past that point – maybe it’ because of all the shit they’ve been through during their months together as a team, travelling through the Stargate, exploring a new galaxy – such things changes viewpoints, alters directions, makes some things easier to handle. A year ago John would never have been able to look at the stars and think: There is where I’ll be. There is where I’m going. Maybe they’re past the point because the issue isn’t Atlantis being sentient, or him being able to hear Her singing; the issue doesn’t even seem to be his Dæmon, anymore, they are no longer staring at Shy’s wings as if looking at impossibilities.

Instead they are tearing at the issue of people finding out, of containing reactions, of handling chaos – of covering for him. Like a team would do. And breath knocks of his lungs as he looks at his team, we’ve got each other’s six –

“Wait, they can’t just order you to leave, can they, sir?”

“We’ve got too many unknowns here,” Rodney mutters, frustrated. Meredith tries to offer comfort, stroking her head against his open palm. “We have to make them understand Sheppard can’t leave the City. For, for safety and health reasons –” They can practically hear the gears turning in his head. “We don’t want a bunch of Area 51 lab coats to turn up and poke at Sheppard’s head.”

“Thanks for that nice image, McKay.” Very comforting.

“I’m serious.”

He sighs. “I know.”

“I do not understand,” Teyla admits, not catching the references and why would she? Earth is an alien place.

“They might decide the Major is a perfect lab rat to study. A Bond like this is unheard of. I mean, a human and a machine –”

The lights overhead flicker, as if annoyed, and there’s a prickle at the back of his neck, [we are more than a machine]. In a disgruntled motion the astrophysicist crosses his arms, “Is that –?”

“She’s taking offense being called simply a machine.”

Encouraged by Adria, Ford nudges Rodney’s arm. “Maybe you should apologize?” The kid isn’t completely certain how intelligent the City can be, but that flicker of lights definitely wasn’t a regular occurrence, and they’ve seen enough Ancient tech in the past few months to be wary of its boundaries. “I’d rather not have an angry City while we’re in the middle of hyperspace, doc.”

“Yeah,” John agrees, “or you never know what might happen. Cold showers for the rest of your life …”

“I could easily override –”

[only if we let him] is the stark reply followed by a softness: [though we do like this one; he carries much knowledge like the Alterans did. we have seen you care much for him]

Uhm. John hopes badly that no one hears the noise of abrupt surprise escaping his throat at the admission.

“Gentlemen,” Elizabeth cuts in, unaware of the silent exchange. “If we could please focus?” And she begins to ask, sparked by curiousity and concerns, what they should do then if not tell the SCG the full truth:

And then the conference room is overrun.


They don’t knock.

Instead the walls are forcibly folded open, inwards, and Elizabeth asks what’s going on, because Everett strides into the room grimfaced and shouldered by a mass of his own men, marines with whom the expedition has never before worked, and the Colonel doesn’t answer her directly. John’s nerves are standing on end, something very bad is going to go down and his instincts are reeling with warnings, and Shy whips around, braced for an attack –

They’re aiming P90s and tasers, and Everett is holding a Wraith stunner. One of the few the expedition has gotten their hands on and there’s no reason for the guy to have one. The weapons are aimed at him and Shy, not at anybody else, and in flash John is on his feet, and he senses Ford and Teyla moving too, swiftly but cautiously, reaching for their sidearms, and Rodney gasps What the …?!

“What the hell is this about?” Elizabeth demands. “Lower your weapons – that is an order!”

“That order is invalid,” the Colonel responds, curtly, not looking at her other than briefly; “You are no longer in command, Dr Weir. This base and all its personnel are now answering to the highest ranking military officer on base.” The stunner shifts slightly in the man’s steel grip. “Major Sheppard is to be detained immediately.”

So that’s what the Colonel was up to while they were sitting here discussing the past and possible futures; not stalking off in an angry hurry aimlessly, but going straight to assemble a security team. Looking at their faces, John cannot see anyone he recognizes from the original expedition, none of the men and women he’s helped to lead and fought alongside. There’s a guy with a Dæmon he recognizes, though, the one he’d spotted with DeSalle outside the infirmary. Greene. Then the guy had appeared anything but taken aback, uncertain, facing a winged Dæmon for the first time. Now the guy looks transformed, hardened with determination, possibly even disdain, or anger. It’s difficult to be certain and the guns pointed this way are rather distracting.

What has Everett told them? What orders have been given?

[Fucking great], Shy whispers, but suggesting We Can Take Them –

No. They’re too many, too heavily armed. There’s no strategic retreat in this room, and Rodney and the others are still here. Easy targets.

“You can’t do that!” Rodney protests, but he’s ignored. He’s not used to being ignored like that and he sounds furious and confused and John looks at the Colonel head on, ready for a fight – but the men surrounding them are armed to the teeth; are they even aware of why?

John doesn’t move.

“Under what charges?” Elizabeth asks, sternly.

“Major Sheppard has proven to be a high security risk, and that risk must be contained.”

He considers the options but the ways out are covered, guarded, and the guys are armed with P90s as well as tasers, very capable of lethal force and killing, not just incapacitating and if he moves, if he tries to struggle, bloodshed is inevitable. No one should have to be shot or die. From the corner of his eye, John catches Ford’s gaze and gestures, minutely, Stand down. The young man exudes angry confusion and anxiety, but slowly lowers his sidearm, the only weapon the had thought to bring, and Teyla follows suit even though both their Dæmons are growling and Rodney is muttering about fools and coups d’état – John gives Everett a smile, on the outside pleasant but with undertones of danger and death.

“That’s how it’s going to be, huh?”

Everett doesn’t flinch. Stalemate.

Shy says, urgently, [We can –]

But John clenches his fists and forces his muscles to relax, to stay compliant. No. They can’t risk it. Plus, it would only prove Everett’s point and make this potentially worse. No, he needs to get Shy out of here – and when they motion for them to walk out of there, John follows.

But the Raven takes a leap upward, the ceiling here high and narrowly manages to get out from the conference room, circling in broad everchangeable patters and John’s heart stutters a beat in shocked anger as a shot goes off, followed by another, trying to hit the Dæmon, and John is ready to turn around, to grab a gun and wrestle for control, to tear apart necks – they’re firing on one of their own, inside the City itself and now Rodney and the others are shouting in alarm.

[I’m fine! They’re lousy shots.] Trailing the Bond, he senses Shy fleeing the area, landing high up in the Gate Room, like during the heat of the Siege, and John forcibly relaxes. No wounds, no broken bones, their wings are still whole. The Raven assures him [We’ll be all right].

So he complies; grins at Everett, who remains like a statue carved from stone, the ears of his wolf Dæmon downturned and teeth slightly bared. 

“Fine. Lead the way.”

They do. His team stares after them, and they attract a lot of curious gazes as they wander through the Control Room and through a corridor and away, and John directs his thoughts upward: Hey. Some help, maybe?

[we are channeling the majority of our efforts into powering the machina] is the reply, slightly distracted, but it is followed closely by [we will not abandon you; we will do what we can to help]   


The hyperspace window will break apart
in less than three hours.

Chapter Text

xxvi.

seizure

part one

this is the uprising.


Unfortunately, Everett isn’t a complete fool. Unsure of the exact extent of John’s Bond with the City, he doesn’t just lock him in a cell in the lower levels and leaves him there unwatched. He places men to guard the corners, and John’s hands are even cuffed, as if that would safeguard against a mental link; and through it all, John remains obedient and silently pleasant, grinning a little and cracking a joke, and he sees it in the way they move that they find his blasé attitude a bit unnerving, unsettling. Good.

They’re probably wondering why John isn’t lying on the floor screaming and writhing in pain because of the physical distance between him and his Dæmon. Appearing completely at ease, John lounges back and remarks that this place could use some upgrades. Pillows and a blanket, mainly. Some pretty lights in the ceiling too to make it a bit cozier; Found this fancy little nightlamp in Cheyenne, y’know, it blinked with all these pretty colors … would fit in well with the decor.

The guards are silent; apparently under orders to not talk with him. Not even impatiently telling him to shut the fuck up. Everett begins to walk away, muttering something into his radio; John catches the snatches of: ”All teams, switch to secure channel number four, use call sign –” before the man and his Dæmon cross the threshold and the heavy doors slam closed.

He doesn’t compel the cell bars to break open and the forcefield to fall down, though he could probably convince Atlantis to do it. She is teeming with concern across the Bond, being a constant silent witness. However, She is also busy with journeying them safely through hyperspace, and he’s unarmed and the guards are very much not so. He’d rather not end up with a bullet in his gut.

Instead, he focuses inward –


One two three four times;

Rodney can’t believe it. He has never really trusted Colonel Everett, the guy sweeping into the City like an imaginary knight in shining armor, except his armor is anything but shiny and his face so false, and now Rodney wants to let Meredith claw those cold eyes out – it’s a horribly grim and violent thought, but it’s instinctive, immediate. Because John is finally coming clean to them, his team, and instead of fearing him (as Rodney had dearly hoped they wouldn’t) Ford and Teyla and Elizabeth are taking his words and saying We’ll help, we won’t let them take you from the City – and the surprised relief in Sheppard’s face is almost heartbreaking;

and still in hyperspace waiting for the new planet to arrive, Everett breaks into the conference room armed to the teeth and they’re aiming guns at John and his Dæmon, without hesitance, and now they’re saying John is a danger, a security risk, something that needs to be put in a cage and watched over in case he would somehow tear apart at the seams and become an Enemy and devour them all; 

And these people are such complete and utter Strangers and they don’t see anything and Rodney shouts protests, as do the others, but the Strangers aren’t listening. They’re walking away with John between them, a prisoner, a prisoner it shouldn’t be and then, midstride, John’s Dæmon breaks away, to flee – and a gun is raised, Everett aiming the stunner above their heads:

if hit, the Raven would fall over two stories. The neck would break with a snap and they’d fade away, human and Dæmon, and Rodney shouts, what the actual fuck are they doing?! – but the shot misses, the Dæmon curling around it like a fighter pilot manoeuvring a well-assembled craft, and the Raven goes into hiding in the rafters someplace where they cannot see; and John is going with them, not fighting or struggling – why the hell isn’t he struggling?!

They try to follow. People are looking, drawn by the noise of the shot and Radek stares from the consoles: What’s going on? and the question is repeated, again and again and again. Ford is clenching his teeth and Adria growling and Kanaan is muttering obscenities in a tone of voice which Rodney has never ever heard from the otherwise so gentle Dæmon, and Teyla’s eyes are darkened. Elizabeth stands, refusing to be defeated, but they’ve just rescinded her command as if she has no consequence whatsoever, as if she hasn’t led them successfully and alive through a harsh year of fighting the Wraith, as if she too is a danger –

They had heard them say: Colonel Everett is in charge now. Now it is being announced, and John, still not struggling, is taken down below, presumably to a cell –

“They cannot do this,” Teyla says, angrily. “There must be something we can do to stop this!”

And Ford finds a marine, suddenly, and Elizabeth might protest but they look at each other and some of that quiet military-like communication is going on, which Rodney doesn’t wholly catch or can interpret correctly. Then the marine – DeSalle? yeah, Rodney thinks that’s him, he’s seen that Russell-Shaped Dæmon before – is off, jogging, not too quickly but not too slowly, as if stressed but trying to hide it.

It is the unleashing of a wildfire. 

A wildfire which, when discovered, will be too widespread to be drowned: 


– he focuses inward, and Sees:

Shy is looking at the activity below: there’s a mix of marines in here, both of the expedition and not, and Ford and Teyla are with Elizabeth, who’s trying to hail Everett on the radio and demand answers. From up here they cannot hear any clear words. The Gate Room is swarming with activity. Perhaps news spreading: those who weren’t there to witness it know already what’s happened, because Atlantis churns through rumors like a windmill faster than a fire spreads through the grass. They watch for a while, John pretending to lie on the hard pallet in the cell and sleep. Sleep would actually be nice, right about now, after all that’s happened – perfect opportunity for a kip.

And while he’s lying there with closed eyes, they don’t know that he’s flying through the Control Room. Can’t fly too low, or the non-friendly marines will see and might attempt to take another shot. From here, they can observe;

And while they watch and wait, activity disperses, confusedly. The windows outside are alight with the gleams of hyperspace. John seriously hopes Everett’s taken it into consideration that the City is due to drop out and land in a couple of hours, and that they need a pilot with the ATA-gene for that.

Would be just lovely if this ended in a crash.


He’s been stuck in a cell for well over an hour;

As they watch, things change. Ford and Teyla suddenly split up from Rodney and Elizabeth, who linger in the Control Room, and they disappear from Shy’s edges of vision. The Raven murmurs, [Everett is withdrawing his men from this floor. Something’s going on.] Stackhouse, they see, and Markham is there too, though not Bates; they begin to catalogue faces. Radek and Chuck by the primary system consoles; the whole of AR-4, MacGrimmon’s team, is there too, and parts of other teams as well, Lieutenants and Corporals and various civilians. People who normally aren’t here this time of day, they have no Gate Room duty shifts right here right now. But this isn’t exactly a normal day.

What’s interesting is how their movements begin to slowly but certainly direct in two ways. Civilians are gathering by the consoles and computers, in a circle almost, and speaking in lowering voices, and up here they cannot hear their words. Markham is walking in a gentle circle around the whole room and marines are streaming outward, their gray uniforms setting them apart from Everett’s men. It’s eerily calm, orderly quiet but the anxiousness of the scientists betrays that something is going on, and John recognizes the subtle gestures in which the marines are communicating with each other.

Shy knows, too. The Raven knows everything he knows. [Want me to join them?]

No, not yet. I need you to be safe.

[Your eye in the sky, then.]

People are leaving the Gate Room in groups of four or six at an apparently random rate through different doors. One of Everett’s guys is standing by the west side exit on the lower level, the only door being guarded, and at first the man is not reacting. He’s rather young, back poised straight, and now and then his eyes nervously shift upward, toward the rafters, as if sensing something’s there but Shy presses tighter into the shadows, hidden out of sight.

Except after a few minutes, a fourth team – three marines and one of the scientists – moves toward the doors, and the guy holds up a hand, starts asking questions. Listens to his radio, someone at the other side relaying new orders. Lieutenant Olsen is talking, all amicably, marine to marine: Let us through, but the foreign marine insists: “The Colonel has given new orders – no one is to leave this room until we land.”

The scientist, Dr Parrish from the Botany department, says: “Look, we’ve got … stuff … to do. You can’t order us around.” Only his Dæmon’s twitching tail, swishing back and forth, gives away his nerves, or perhaps annoyance.

“Yes, I can,” the guy says, impatiently, verging on irritated. “You can’t get past this door. The Colonel gave the order that nobody is to leave Stargate Operations.”

“The Colonel doesn’t give the orders around here,” says Olsen, a bold move, and John itches to intervene – “I don’t see any issue with leaving this room. Not unless the Colonel is making it an issue.”

Someone moves, a hand reaching out and the guard turns slightly, grasps for his weapon. Olsen is faster on the draw. But all of a sudden from the side there’s a shout, Get down!, the bright beam of a stunner –


John hears a noise and quickly draws back to his own body, a little dazed after spending so long outside of it. He opens his eyes by a fraction. The guards are moving. The one he’d seen earlier – Greene – is exchanging troubled words with some other guy, who’s got a Dæmon in the Shape of a lizard. A radio urges them to attention.

“Lima Three to Lima Twelve,” says a voice, raspy through the tiny speakers: ”We’ve got a problem! Lima Fifteen is down at point Alpha; I repeat –”

The voice sizzles out, the signal cutting off but they catch the brief sound of a loud bang and John knows that noise intimately. The two marines have never heard it, though, and John opens his eyes fully now, sees their faces, slightly pale in the gloom of the windowless room. The darkness around them is a bit oppressing.

One of them curses, taps his radio. Set to a different frequency, John realizes, than the rest of the expedition; secure channel four, Everett had said – but it’ll take Rodney and the rest of the guys no time at all to figure it out and hack into it, surely – “Lima Twelve to Leader. We have an incursion in the Gate Room. Lima Fifteen is down, we’re not sure how. Repeat, Lima Fifteen is down. Over.”

Point Alpha … Gate Room. Call sign … Lima. Incursion?

Shit. Is Everett seriously distancing himself and his men so much that it’s driving forth an attack?

At the other end of the line, the Colonel sounds brisk and confounded, and busy – there’s a burst of fire – John holds his breath. He’d seen three teams and nearly a fourth leave the Gate Room. They’d be headed toward the armory first, if they weren’t properly geared up. Then that means … And the civilians around the consoles, covering the primaries and secondaries, the sensors; they’d have determined where Everett and his men have gone by scanning for lifesigns, using the process of elimination. 

An incursion. And it’s not the Wraith. It’s the kind of incursion that Everett least could have expected.

“… Check your scanners! The Lanteans are dividing into strike teams, and they’re engaging wherever they can. We have engagements by points Charlie and Foxtrot. Withdrawing toward Point Beta. Watch for ambushes! Over.”

With a start, John realizes at least one of the two guards must have the ATA-gene, either naturally or by inoculation, and they’ve got a lifesigns detector. Now one of them lifts one of the Ancient devices and considers it. Looks at his companion. “There’s nothing here, just us. Look – wait. It’s not showing us, either! It’s stopped fucking working!”

Frantic all of a sudden, a button is pushed again. “Lima Twelve to Leader; Colonel, we’ve got another problem. Our Ancient scanner has stopped working; can’t tell if anyone’s approaching. Over.”

The answer comes, from another voice: ”Lima Two to Lima Twelve. Our scanner’s not working either. Hold the detention area secure. Ov… hang on! Lanteans are breaching the concourse, they’ve got stunners! Repeat: we have a breach – they’re in the corridor. Lima Eight is down –”

And John smiles. There’s only one being he knows who could’ve jammed the lifesigns detectors like that. Thank you.

“Lima Two? Lima Two, respond!”

“Fuck, they must’ve gotten to him,” mutters the other one, sending a brief distrustful glare John’s way. John, giving up all pretense of being asleep, meets the glare with a grin. “What do we do?”

“They said to hold position.”

Another glance. John’s smile broadens, dangerously. The man shifts, his Dæmon ducking out of sight. The other guy mutters, “Stop fucking fidgeting.”

“He gives me the creeps, all right! That thing with his Dæmon, it’s not normal. I say we stun him.” A taser is waved around, and John rolls his eyes sarcastically. That’d just be great.

After a moment there’s a scattered reply, full of gunfire and what sounds like a cry, a scream – like someone’s writhing on the floor – then it stops, as if a door has been slammed shut. Across his rippling link with the City John senses a small groan of pain and a smell of burned fuses, broken crystals, and through the radios there’s the sound of gunfire, a quick burst: ”Lima Six. Lima Two’s been hit. We’ve withdrawn to the next corridor and jammed the doors. Pulling back to rendezvous point Gamma. Orders from the Colonel: stay and guard the detention area. Dispatching a team to back you up. Lanteans will probably target the cells. Over.”

“Copy that.”

[we can override security] Atlantis murmurs, and a visualization of the cell opening clears before his eyes; John would like a weapon first, though, because the two guards, armed with P90s and sidearms and tasers, may have orders to fire in case he moves in the wrong direction, and he isn’t wholly confident in his abilities to take down both of them before they manage to get a shot off. Instead he settles back, pretending to look very very bored, and waits.


This is the uprising:

They have control of the City – Chuck has already set up a rotation to keep an eye on the internal sensors, count lifesigns. Via radio they can begin to pin down their own people, and figure out which ones are the Colonel’s – these Strangers, spilling through the City trying to take command of it. Elizabeth says: We must not shed blood, and they find the frequency the Colonel’s forces are using within ten minutes – such things are laughably easy, by now, and Rodney wants to take up arms, because Sheppard is stuck somewhere in a cell after the Colonel trying to shoot his Dæmon –

Some things cannot be forgiven.

And something is boiling inside them all when word spreads and the Plans are made and throughout it all, Rodney realizes just how close-knitted they have become, this expedition of people from all over Earth’s shadows, they gather with a common purpose and he has never felt so surrounded by this feeling before. They are a well-oiled machine. They are reaching perfect equilibrium. And now someone’s trying to disturb that, tilt the world upside down, and no one will have it: the echo of what Sheppard has drilled into all of them: leave no one behind.

And this well-oiled machine cannot, will not, be stopped and at first, the five marines the Colonel’s left in the room don’t notice. Either they’re too slow, or not suspicious enough. Perhaps – not that Rodney knows a lot about military mentalities, but he’s aware of the glitches occurring when the Corps and Air Force meets, which is why everyone was hesitant at first when John took over after Sumner’s death, a pilot leading all these marines – it shouldn’t work, but it does, and that is what the Colonel isn’t expecting at all. And they don’t suspect the civilians, the scientists, these brilliant brilliant minds that converge at point zero:

They’re gotten three teams out there already, marines and scientists of various build mixed together and they leave the room quietly chatting as if this is a Normal Day and no hands are raised and no guns pointed, and they’ve already switched radio frequencies without anyone directly giving the order, Elizabeth tapping her earpiece seemingly at random, in patterns: now. now.

The decision is made and Elizabeth makes contact, offering a solution without violence, and the Colonel answers: You are forcing my hand. This proves my point.

They are staging a rebellion; they have become the aliens.

And orders reach the Colonel’s men and Rodney watches from the banisters as a gun is drawn and Olsen grabs his own, but it’s almost too late – except Dr Parrish shouts ”Get down!” and fires a stunner, pulled from his sleeve, with trembling hands, but the shot is accurate and the man falls. And the rest of the team stops pretending and the four others are quickly subdued: it’s started.

Ford turns to him. Elizabeth’s busy, Sheppard in a cell – that means the Lieutenant is now the highest ranking officer here as the XO, and Rodney had nearly forgotten because it’s been such a busy, messy day. “I’ve assembled a strike team,” Ford says. Adria is circling around, testily.

“Get going!” Rodney says, not really meaning to sound so high-strung. It’s the stress. Ford doesn’t blink at the aggressive tone, and Teyla inclines her head: “We will return momentarily.”

They’d better, Meredith murmurs.

And not alone, Rodney adds: they’d better not return alone.


Fifty minutes left until it’s time to land.

Chapter Text

xxvii.

seizure

part two

leave no one behind is a mentality he has instilled in everyone here
but somehow, somehow, he hadn’t expected it to include
 this.


forty-nine minutes left until arrival;

He doesn’t have to wait for long.

There is no shout of warning: suddenly, one of the guards freezes up and his Dæmon falls limply to the floor, the man’s body arching with the scattered blue light of the stunner. The second man tries to get a shot off in the direction of the attackers, but falls too and the bullet goes wide, burrowing into a wall. John leaps to his feet as the doorway clears and Ford and Teyla step inside, crossing the room rapidly, ignoring the bodies on the floor; two marines are with them too, and Sanchez lingers to cover the entrance while Simmons and Teyla start to cuff the two unconscious marines.

“Nice timing,” John greets with a grin, and no one has to touch any panels; the forcefield falls away like sand and the bars swing open. A clinking of keys is thrown his way, and the cuffs fall to the floor with a clatter. “I heard there’s a party going on up there.”

Ford inclines his head. “Yessir. We’re taking back control of Atlantis. Colonel Everett has got fifty-eight men in total, split into several squads spread throughout the City. Five guys were in the Gate Room; we’ve subdued them with stunners. Markham, Tyler, and MacGrimmon are leading a team each and we’ve got the rest of the Colonel’s forces pinned in the lower levels of the Main Tower. They’ve split up, and one squad looks to be doubling back toward the Chair Room. Bates sent AR-7 to guard the Core Room, so they can’t get to the ZPMs and cut power.”

Full-on coup d’état then. It’s going to be a mess once they get in contact with the SGC, a lot of fingers being pointed, and no doubt this will be labeled as a rebellion; but right now is not the time for doubts or hesitation. Besides, Elizabeth cannot be wholly unaware of this. Maybe even sanctioned it. No lethal force is being used, Ford explains, unless it cannot be avoided. They’ve decked out teams with all the stunners they’ve got, plus tasers, and stun grenades. Everett has already hold on of one of the stunners. John accepts the weapon handed to him, and together they’ve quickly locked the two unconscious marines in the cell.

Following the Lieutenant and the other two guys out of the detention area, he finds the corridor here’s been cleared. There’s no sign of that team which had been promised, but backup might still be coming, so they hurry out of there. 

“That was quick,” he remarks, and Ford looks grim.

“As soon as it was on the grapevine that Everett had put you in a cell and taken control from Weir, everyone got their act together pretty fast.”

Teyla agrees, solemnly: “There was much dissent when it was evident the Colonel had attempted to shoot your Dæmon. Do not worry, Major; Shy is waiting in the Control Room, unharmed.”

Something must have shown on his face, a mixture of confused gratitude and disbelief, because Ford adds: “They attacked one of our own, unprovoked. It’s gotten personal.”

Personal for them, for the base, for Atlantis – for the team. Something inside his chest clenches, a painful ache but not entirely unpleasant. This loyalty is almost physical, he can grasp it, and it takes him aback – leave no one behind is a mentality he has instilled in everyone here but somehow, somehow, he hadn’t expected it to include this.

But now is not the time for questions or doubts, so he simply nods, accepting the explanations. First, they’ve got to get this under control, and fast – sooner rather than later they’re going to reach M35-117, and he needs to be in the Chair then. He’d rather not land the City with a full-on attack from within going on. If this doesn’t give them all black marks and dishonorable discharges – well. John throws the thought out of the window as quick as it comes. He doesn’t want to be responsible ruining the careers of everyone on this base, but it’s too late now. They’ll handle the consequences later, together.

Sanchez hands him an earpiece. Apparently, Rodney has given instructions on adjusting to a frequency which Everett and his men can’t reach. As John puts it on, Ford taps his own: “Echo Four to Control: hunting went well, and we ran into an old friend. Over.”

“Echo Five to Echo Four: we copy all,” is the reply, a tiny blast of noise in his left ear. John recognizes it to be Sergeant Bates. “Good to hear; we’ve got an empty chair waiting. Over.”

“Copy that. Returning to the square. Echo Four out.”


While they jog toward the nearest transporter, Ford continues to lay out the situation, where the firefights have broken out, highlighting the important bits: “Just in case they get hold on one of our radios, we’re using call sign Echo. Bates is Communications Control along with Chuck, the tech, and Grodin. McKay’s sort of everywhere, and sometimes he forgets to answer to the call sign. We’re using the City sensors to pin down the location of Everett’s guys, but we can’t distinguish between them and us. McKay was working on the sensors when we left to get you.”

“Well, their scanners don’t seem to be working at all,” John reports as they reach the transport.

The Lieutenant lets out a surprised noise. “Is the City, uhm …?”

“Helping out? Yeah. A lot of power’s being directed into powering the machina right now, but She’s diverting some energy into disrupting whatever Ancient equipment they’ve got. I think She’s shutting some doors on them, too.” Aware of Sanchez’ and Simmons’ uncomprehending looks, John decides to skim over the details. Teyla is nodding, though, understanding or at least accepting the facts. “We need to get this under control before landing and secure the Chair. ETA?”

“Forty-two minutes.”

“Let’s step on it, then.”

Somehow, they manage to squeeze into the transporter, although it’s hardly meant to fit five people, four of which decked out in full gear, and their Dæmons, all at the same time. Their adrenaline-fueled breaths are harsh and loud in the confined space. Ford presses the open pad, directing them to the transporter closest to the Control Room. Then the bright white light takes them, and they disappear.


The doors open, and they come face to face with the business end of Lance Corporal Gladys’ taser, which then jerks away when she registers their faces, their familiar uniforms.

The Lance Corporal looks relatively calm, given the situation, but they’ve all got to be more or less shaken up. This is nowhere near a normal situation. Sure, the SGC has handled incursions before, from what John can remembers of the old reports he’d read back at the Mountain, but that had been about aliens taking over, real enemies they could fire at without feeling this kind of guilt; this is marines against marines, and no one is clear on the rules, or the full extent of damage. Why they’re firing at each other. They had left Lantea on a note of hope, hope for survival and a few days of peace

“Major! Sorry about that, sir; a couple of Everett’s men tried to get into Control via transporter earlier,” Gladys says, her British accent thick. Accepting the explanation, John asks her for a status report. Intel is what he needs after being stuck in that cell; the City is quite busy travelling them through hyperspace and She remains very quiet. He doesn’t want to probe Her for information in case it disrupts her processing from travelling through hyperspace – the last thing they need right now it to drop out early in the middle of nowhere, lost and crippled.

“Dr Weir is upstairs establishing radio contact with Colonel Everett, to order him to stand down. Dr McKay is working on something on with the City’s sensors,” the Corporal says, nodding at them. John sends a thought to the City, which She eventually answers with [we shall divert resources into shutting down transporters; we will scan bio-signatures entering them]. Still, distinguishing between friend and foe is hard. “Sergeant Bates has the comms; he knows more.”


They walk into the Control Room, which is loud with controlled chaos. They spot five of Everett’s people on the floor, unconscious, guarded and cuffed, and their confiscated gear is lying by the foot of the stairs; their weapons have been taken, including two tasers and their radios.

As they enter the room, Shy glides down from the banisters to meet him right away and he exhales with relief when the comfortable weight of the Raven settles on his shoulder. Even though he’d felt across the Bond that his Dæmon is safe and whole, feeling it in this physical sense is a necessity to be able to relax a little.

Hey. Didn’t expect you this close to the ground, he remarks, because last he trailed the Bond, stuck in the cell, he’d withdrawn right as one of the Colonel’s guys had gotten stunned and right then Shy had been perched in the rafters, high up and out of sight. They haven’t really communicated since, at least not in words, albeit their Bond has been continually thrumming with anticipation.

[I felt it when you left, right when the first stunner shot went off], Shy says. [Once they were down and I could move around freely, without having to duck from any blasted stun bolts, I went to join the organization. The folks were only weirded out for a little bit, until I had Rodney and Meredith convince them that, you know, we can function fine while that far apart. People are even too distracted to keep staring now. We’ve been having fun.]

So I hear. 

With a thought of [Going to go back and keep an eye out], they stretch their wings, and his Dæmon circles around, landing on a console by which Rodney is at work, completely absorbed and the man doesn’t blink, probably not noticing the flutter of air, his concentration absolute, and John has to bite back a fond smile. He bounds up the stairs two steps at a time.

Bates is standing in front of another console, next to Chuck and Grodin, and there’s none of that disdain or curl of upper lip that there’d been in the past. Deep down, Bates is a good soldier and probably a good man and they’ve rarely seen eye to eye, but now John approaches and Bates says, with honesty and no derision: “Good to have you back, sir.”

And he delivers a status report without pause or issue: whatever has convinced them all to do this, it has allegedly turned Bates around wholly, and John isn’t going to complain. “We’ve got five teams out there, three currently on recon. Markham’s squad has engaged in corridor nineteen on level twenty-five in this Tower. We’ve got one wounded, so far, but only by stunner. A lot of flashbangs and smoke grenades are being lobbed around. Lieutenant Olsen’s team just diverted to stop a group headed toward the detention area, as well, supposedly aiming to back up the guards there. They intercepted them just before Lieutenant Ford broke you out. Reporting zero casualties so far.”

“Let’s try keeping it that way.” This is already headed into the territory of becoming an all-out clusterfuck. 

Bates nods. “Looks like the Colonel’s making a retreat by this route.” He gestures to a three-dimensional tactical map on one of the screens: “We’re cutting of their escape here, and here, trying to stop them before they reach this bottleneck here. If they do, they’ll cut us off from the Chair. It’s all we can do to keep this situation from going FUBAR.”

“The Chair is probably their main target right now; they’ll want to secure it.” It is, after all, the key to the most dangerous weapon known to human kind, and it has recently been loaded with fifty fresh drones. “After that, they’ll work their way back, try to take Stargate Operations.”

Nobody knows this City like the expedition does. The Colonel is getting way over his head; age and experience notwithstanding, Atlantis is a battleground unlike any the Colonel has ever seen. The normal rules of urban combat won’t apply, not when the City itself can feel and see and think – and She is on the Lanteans’ side, not theirs.

“Yeah, we thought so too. We’ve got sentries posted here, here, and here. Some of the Athosians,” and now Bates says the word calmly, without hidden hatred or disgust, and John exhales in relief at that; “are part of those teams, though our weapons supply is running short, since we try to refrain from using lethal force.” Those people aren’t aliens, enemies hellbent on destroying the City. They’re marines, operating under some thoughtless order. “Remaining civilians are confined to their quarters, and no one’s near the fighting. We haven’t got a lot of stunners, and half an hour ago we handed out the last taser.”

“Blanks,” John points out, hoping that it’s not so obvious that the Sergeant has completely forgotten.

“Already onto it; Private Lindsay’s in the armory fixing cartridges and rounding up the few In’tars we’ve got in inventory.” John has never used those, but they’re training weapons, modified Goa’uld technology – these small red crystals, shooting electrical charges similar to a stunner, which the SGC has developed into a P90-like weapon. They’re perfect for weapons training and war scenarios; this was never their intended use. Set to maximum they could probably knock out a few people, though. “Not enough to arm everybody, but it’ll do.”

“The Core Room?”

“Secure. AR-7 has it covered. We’ll report right away if there’s a change in status.”

“Good work, Sergeant. Keep it up.”

“Yessir.” And for the first time, Bates salutes him, and it’s not ironic or false and John returns the gesture. They might have gained a bunch of unexpected enemies, but he’s also won an unexpected but very welcome ally.

[Let’s check on Rodney], Shy suggests.

Time to unravel the rest of this story.


“Hey, Rodney. What’s your sitrep?”

Rodney jerks around to face them. He looks pale, drawn with relief and fears and suddenly John has a distinct feeling the guy wants to either punch him or hug him. He does neither, just fiddles with the datapad in his hands, and John nearly reaches out to cover them with his own, if only slow down the frantic movement, the rattling heartbeats, to calm him down a bit. But then Rodney exhales, and Meredith cranes her neck to look at John as if inspecting him thoroughly, to check for wounds and bruises, and John is oddly touched.

“Sit…? You and your military speak. Ought to replace it.” At John’s raised eyebrow, Rodney adds: “Nevermind, I know what it means. They got you out, that’s good. Ford’s proving not to be fully incompetent.”

High praise coming from Rodney. “So, what have we got?”

“Full-on entropic anarchy,” the astrophysicist sighs heavily, and John raises an eyebrow, demanding a little more detail than that. “When Everett pulled his little stunt and dragged you off into a cell for everyone to see, word spread pretty fast. Everyone knows he has effectively removed command of Atlantis from Elizabeth, which caused protests. Some people were witness to them trying to shoot down your Dæmon – and do you know what kind of chaos that erupted when word got out about that? I’ve never seen Bates angry at other people for your sake before…! Anyway, Elizabeth tried to convince Everett to release you and give back command. She’s still trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution. He refused, kept saying you’re a security risk. Ford stepped up. Talks stopped working. Someone got stunned. This,” Rodney sweeps a hand, widely, “is the result.”

“We need to fix this, Rodney, before it’s time to land.” Before it escalates completely – but that might already be too late.

“Yes, I know, I know,” the man says, facing the consoles again and gestures at one of the large screens. It’s currently focused on a live scan of the City, mainly this Tower. John studies it, as Rodney’s hands move rapidly, pressing buttons. Then the image suddenly changes, giving readouts which John has never seen before, and he looks at the man for explanation. “We’ve reconfigured the sensors to pick up small but intense energy bursts.”

“Like weapons fire,” John realizes.

“Exactly. See, there, we’ve got something going on in that corridor. It’s got to be them.” The doors are closed at one end. In his right ear, noise presses relentlessly onward: a mingling of voices and footsteps and breathing. One of the teams is reporting in a constant feed their progress: cleared first corridor: zero casualties, one wounded by ricochet, one partially stunned. One of them is armed with a sidearm, two tasers, one stunner. We’ve got visual, fifteen people inside; it’s Colonel Everett, confirmed –

Everett. He’s got to be the one with the stunner. That’s his squad, the one they need to target.

John exhales. He’s got to keep it together. The others are looking to him for advice, for command and orders. “Where’s Elizabeth?”

“In her office with Radek; they’re trying to hail Everett and talk him out of this madness. Right now, they’re moving toward the Chair, and they’re soon going reach a bottleneck and could cut us off from it. Which is bad because we need the Chair to be able to land in … thirty-eight minutes.” Rodney sighs, frustrated, unable to let it all out. Meredith, perched on one of the consoles, is making a grumbling noise, her claws outstretched. “Carson reported just a while ago that they’ve received a couple of people with gunshot wounds – at least they haven’t taken control of the infirmary.” Rodney shakes his head, makes a noise of distress. “We’re supposed to be fighting the Wraith, not each other!”

“Yeah,” John murmurs softly. Sudden anger begins to brew within him. Two wounded is two too many, especially from other marines – shit. Marines against marines – this should never ever happen. For a moment John’s vision blurs into white, guts tightening. How can this have escalated so fast?


He enters the office to find Elizabeth in front of a computer, the screen alight, and Zelenka is standing around, looking harassed and frenzied. Elizabeth is talking into a radio.

“– to avoid more of this unnecessary violence. Colonel, you must order your men to stand down.” Her voice is cool and controlled, she has years and years of diplomatic experience. But this was never in the contracts: this kind of scenario was never even thought of.

She doesn’t lose focus as John enters, quietly, though takes a moment to breathe and looks at him, then at Teyla’s lingering shadow, a wordless exchange.

Static breaks into words.  “You forced my hand, Doctor,” the Colonel is saying, “when your people attacked my marines. We are only defending ourselves!”

“And you forced mine when you rescinded my command of this base, including its people, and arrested Major Sheppard for a crime he has clearly not committed. Colonel, we do not need to make enemies of one another. You may claim command of Atlantis by orders of General O’Neill, or Landry, or the whole of the SGC for all I know – but understand that this expedition will not remain loyal to such a command. I know these people, and I know they will not surrender while being fired upon.” She glances at the laptop screen, as if reading something. “Do the right thing, Colonel, and lay down arms before anyone has to die.”

But then a whisper: a lifesign winking out –

[it is too late], the City conveys, a sigh, and John’s blood freezes like ice in his veins. Who?! Nobody told him there’d been casualties – walking wounded, yes, but not – Fuck

Unbidden, an image ghosts on the outer reaches of his visions: the Core Room, Markham and his team defending it, coming under fire and Thompson suddenly cries out, taking a hit, a bullet cleaving an artery; the playback switches to a view of the infirmary, of Carson in full surgical gear, instruments and clamps in hand, hurry hurry hurry written in the air and the City murmurs, mournfully, [it is too late].

It happened while he was talking with Rodney. After he’d just left Bates behind and said: No casualties. Let’s keep it that way. 

A few seconds later, Bates is saying via radio: “Echo Five to Echo Two. Lieutenant Thompson from AR-7 is dead.” The words are brisk and tense and full of betrayal. Elizabeth hears it too, and her jaw tenses.

And the rage, brimming under the skin, threatens to overcome him an explosion and he breathes quietly through his nose. His heartrate is slowing marginally; he’s standing on the border, he realizes, between hot, ferocious anger and cold, calculating vengeance-seeking hatred. This was the border he had crossed when Kolya had stormed Atlantis, taken hostages, killed Jenkins and Miller, laid hand on Meredith and stole Rodney’s voice – it had washed over him, he had almost drowned in it and the City had reached out just in time to save him. Now, now he is wavering on that point again.

Marines turning on each other. This was never meant to happen –

“Let me talk to him,” he says, demands, and Elizabeth considers it;

“Colonel,” she says to Everett. In the distance, the echo of gunfire, shouting, advancements, fears – Chuck is reporting, constantly: Teams Three and Four have driven the Colonel’s forces back further. They had tried to take the Core Room but were held back. Echo Nine is injured – “You are losing whatever edge you might have had over us. This is a fight you can’t win. You must put down your weapons.”

Then she hands him the radio. John takes it. His hands aren’t shaking. They have completely stilled, as is necessary to be able to shoot a gun correctly, to aim at a person’s head and split it apart – 

“You’re doing this for all the wrong reasons,” he says and hears Everett stop short in surprise. Maybe he didn’t know yet that their prisoner had escaped; the two guards certainly haven’t been able to report it, but they must’ve drawn conclusions after losing contact. “I’m not even sure what the hell your reasons are, and frankly I don’t care. We’ve got marines fighting marines. Killing marines. Is that what you want, huh? ’Cause I sure as hell don’t. If you don’t stand down, you’re giving me no choice but to retaliate. And trust me, you don’t want that.”

When no reply is directly forthcoming, John goes on, icily, intense: “We are going to leave hyperspace in half an hour. If we don’t have a pilot in the Chair by then, we’ll all crash onto the planet surface and even with the shields up and inertial dampening to maximum, at that speed, it won’t be pretty. In fact, we might burn up in the atmosphere upon entry, and we’ll all die together. Is that what you want, Colonel? What do you want? Control of this City? Because that isn’t going to happen.”

A breath.

“I will not negotiate with a Strangeling,” the Colonel spits.

At the use of the word, John hears a gasp, perhaps from Elizabeth, and a muttered curse, throaty and raw – but he doesn’t move. That word stopped hurting a long time ago.

“We’re losing the signal,” Zelenka mutters, upset. “Do prdele! They’re switching frequencies again.”

Fuck.

John looks at Elizabeth, at her pale face, distraught and quiet, no doubt blaming herself for this – and Simon nods at him giving approval when he says: “I’m taking a team down there.”

No one moves to stop them.


the hyperspace window ends in thirty-three minutes.

Chapter Text

xxviii.

the breaking of souls

 

they are both falling:


twenty-five minutes until they drop out hyperspace:

this fire is coming from within.  


Halfway there they split up.

Colonel Everett and a group of his marines are blinded, their lifesigns detectors not working, and they have sealed themselves inside a corridor leading toward the Chair Room. They must have realized, hearing radios silencing one after another, that they’re the only ones left now. Atlantis whispers: [there are fifteen of them within]. All that remains of the Colonel’s forces which hasn’t yet been subdued. The rest are being escorted by Olsen’s team to some nice, cozy cells to spend the night.

While Ford leads Oakley, Markham and Stackhouse down a corridor to the left, John, Teyla, and MacGrimmon’s team circle around to approach the place from the opposite direction, a three-dimensional map of the City spread out before John’s eyes like a translucent hologram: he knows all the walls and doors and floors, and She shows the way to a shortcut which Everett and his people are not aware of.

They’re in the lower levels of the Central Tower, right in the heart of the City, and the corridor has got two points of ingress. The Colonel has busted the control crystals of both doors, a final effort to keep people out, but a carefully placed piece of C4 will take care of that. John loathes having to do this, but there’s no other way. Crossfire will be efficient, quick. It’ll end the chaos. 

They’ve got to be swift. Time is running out.

There are no security cameras in this part of the City, but She is sending him tidbits of information: scanning the people within, She can tell him that they’ve got tasers, one stunner, and twelve P90s. There’s no telling how many are willing to actually pull the trigger on the latter when the place is breached – or how many will do so instinctively.

John taps his radio. “Echo Two to Echo Four, we’re in position. Over.”

“Copy all,” Ford answers. “In position; we’re ready. Over.”

“Copy that. Together: in three, two –”


They breach the room simultaneously.

The C4 blasts the doors inward in a whoosh of hot air and scraping noise, and the moment the south entrance open Teyla throws a flashbang inside in a graceful arch, and it lands with a clatter and explodes: no smoke grenades are necessary. Within ten seconds, three people have been stunned and then the Colonel’s people snap into shocked motion, slightly dazed, disorientated. Everett swirls around, and John feels the loud shot from the stunner graze right next to his head, leaving a trail of whiteness in the air;

Kanaan is leaping inside with Teyla, the Athosian Dæmon onto the Dæmon of one of the marines, and the guy confusedly cries out and drops his weapon; and John feels Shy flying across the room, avoiding being hit and landing right atop of Everett’s Dæmon. The Colonel staggers, feeling the impact, and the wolf howls angrily and Shy leaps away; the wolf swipes. Misses. The two Dæmons are drawn into a sharply edged dangerous dance.

John’s breath is harsh and quick. Pulls the trigger once, twice, stunning two more marines. The orders are clear: stun, don’t kill, aim at legs and arms. Incapacitate. Don’t touch the other Dæmons; if you have to, let your own Dæmons hold the others’ down, but don’t harm them (such contact is not as painful, or utterly forbidden) – those are the rules which John declared, no one objecting. Now it strikes him Everett probably didn’t set down any such rules at all.

There’s a scream – Markham, John realizes, and swirls around to find someone’s snatched the man’s Dæmon in mid-air like a rag doll and hurled it at a wall. Markham buckles, crying out a name, and John snaps a shot from the stunner right in the attacker’s face. He falls backward heavily, and the Lieutenant crawls to his feet unsteadily. Grasps his in’tar, aims it shakily but manages to hit another man’s leg.

Seven down.

Everett’s Dæmon growls, pounces, but Shy laughs across the Bond, would have laughed aloud, tauntingly, but this voice is special, and they won’t let people like Everett savor it. John is selfish like that. The Raven sweeps upward, avoiding the raging fire and the wisps of smoke, taunting: Come and get me –

Eight. Nine. John ducks, world alight with the noises and voices on the radio; his instincts are constantly protesting this is wrong, these are our guys, we’re not meant to be fighting like this!

“Colonel!” he shouts. One last chance. “Surrender!”

Ten. Eleven.

Somehow the stunner has been kicked out of Everett’s hand. Instead he’s reaching for his sidearm – Hell no. John raises his weapon, manages to clip Everett’s shoulder, blue energy dissipating rapidly. Not enough to incapacitate, but the 9mil clatters to the ground loudly. By his side he feels the displacement of air as Teyla wrestles a marine to the ground and presses a pressure point right where the neck meets the shoulder, and the man goes limp.

Twelve. Thirteen. Stackhouse goes down with a grunt, hit by a taser and then Ford’s suddenly there, rushing forward, cuts the conductors with his knife in a swift arc, reacting and responding rather than thinking and acting; Stackhouse gasps, unable to make sound leave his lungs, then goes slack, his Dæmon stumbling to the ground. Still alive. The marine holding the CEW falls when hit by an in’tar round, two shots in quick succession from two different directions, spreading red bolts across his back.

Then there’s just Everett standing, dazed, the look of defeat detached and unfitting and the man tries to reach for his sidearm again. John kicks it away. Doesn’t fire. The Colonel is surrounded now. John orders: “Stand down, Colonel! It’s over.”

and Shy is still dancing away from the wolf, the wolf is following, angrily, 

come and get me

and the wolf takes a leap.


John doesn’t see it: but he feels it, fire, abrupt and sharp as if by an imploding star, it stretches outward from somewhere in his chest and his eyes water and he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe for five long seconds, and his grip on the stunner loosens – Teyla might be shouting his name, someone exclaiming “Major!” all too loudly but he cannot hear, can only feel the white noise enveloping:

The Raven is falling, they are both falling falling falling to the ground and they are crashing painfully, jarring their Bond and John’s whole body shudders – then there’s the overwhelming noise from a stunner, hitting the wolf in the side and Everett crumbles. And John realizes he’s already lying down, as if shot, but there’s no exit wound –

“Medic! We need a medical team stat!” someone’s shouting, voice echoing on the radio as well and there’s a hand on his shoulder, feverishly warm – the voices are fading, or perhaps it’s his consciousness that’s fading, and he glimpses a black wing, sprawled upon the ground, a body suddenly so small and far away and he wants to reach out –

Shy? Shy wake up wake up please wake up  please

he might be weeping the words aloud;

A wail: [We’re hurting, John, please we’re hurting –] 


Darkness. 


One two three four times;

Stuck in the Control Room, waiting and monitoring, is incredibly disconcerting. Most of the time Rodney wouldn’t mind. He and Mer are usually always gladder to be stuck on this side, at the safe place, working on calculations to help whatever poor souls are lost on the other side of the event horizon or, in this case, walking toward a firefight in another part of the City. Now, though, they aren’t. He’s uncomfortable and uneasy and his palms are wet with sweat and he itches to move, to do something besides listening – pacing a path into the floor and he wants to be down there, he realizes; he should be there, with Sheppard and Teyla and Ford, his team. They won’t let him because this is a purely military incursion and he hasn’t got the training, he can fire his gun but only sort of at a stationary target; after the whole thing with the Wraith That Refused to Die, there’s been a lot more PT and hours at the shooting range. Still, he’s not qualified, and he gets it and John had said Maybe next time in a tone which implied Possibly never (it’s not safe) – and he has to stay here, watch the sensors;

so he stays and paces and looks at the moving lifesigns, there tiny blips of life so easily distinguished like candles in the wind. And they surround the corridor and they are all holding their breaths, the radios screaming: Bates is assembling a second team, to back up the first, but the fighting area down there is cramped. Too many people and it’ll only lead to a higher fatality count. They listen; John says, In position, echoed by Ford and they breach the room efficiently, accompanied by the explosion of C4 and the confusion of stun grenades;

They listen to the turmoil, bits and pieces of words, odd commands, a shout of “Get down!” and “Stackhouse’s been hit!” but no one is dying, all lifesigns remaining strong and even. The thing is, that means they cannot tell one from the other, cannot see whether John and the others are faring well, or if the Colonel and his men are winning. They cannot be certain. Bates has gone very quiet, Rodney vaguely notices, as has the rest of the Control Room. They have been listening to other firefights today, but this is the One that Really Matters, because the Colonel’s in there, and if they can subdue him they can quell the fighting altogether.

Then Ford says, breathlessly, “Targets subdued, only the Colonel’s remaining,” and Rodney wishes they’d gotten to installing security cameras in that section – if only they’d had the resources to –

“Major!” Teyla shouts and there’s a groan of pain and the sound of a stunner going off. Someone’s cursing.

“Medic! We need a medical team stat!” Ford shouts, and Bates is on it; “The Major’s down, his Dæmon’s been hurt. Markham’s injured but walking and Stackhouse is unconscious. Control, do you copy?” If he’s verging on panic, Ford is reining back his voice incredibly well. Rodney is already moving, rushing toward the doors, Mer close by and someone calls after him, but they’re not listening.

Less than twenty minutes until they’re about to drop out of hyperspace and John is unconscious and what was that about his Dæmon –?!

If you die, Rodney cries a thought, I swear I’ll


His vision is blurring in and out of focus. Someone’s shaking his shoulder, while voices are nearby, reprimanding, and then the shaking stops and he hears a familiar Scottish accent tilting above: “Major, can you hear me?”

Yes, he wants to say, but his tongue feels heavy. There’s pain in his body, so wide and unspecified, he can’t pin it

                down

Shy? Shy?!

His Dæmon is so quiet, their Bond teeming with pain. It stutters. Something moves in the dark – [Yeah. Still here], breathlessly, [ow.]

What …?

[We took a hit. Or – bite. Wolf teeth. Remind us …  not to do that again.]

Tentatively, he reaches out. Stretches across the Bond and then the wings, their weight comfortable, are hurting – shit, their wings are hurting, bleeding onto the floor, feathers all messed up it’s difficult to breathe –

The hyperdrive. The Chair. They need to get there, to land the City, to make it safe.

“–pard? Sheppard?” He knows that voice. It’s tense and agitated and concerned, in that way when it doesn’t want to show it but it’s slipping through and John tries to sit up. His bones ache, his muscles protesting but somehow, he manages to complete the action without passing out, hands reaching out to steady him. He knows those hands, and he relaxes a fraction. Safe. It’s over.

[The Chair.]

The Chair.

“The Chair,” he rasps, they need to get to –

“Yes, yes, yes – Teyla, Ford, help me out here! We need to get to a transporter.” The rustle of motion, an arm briefly withdrawn. A watch being checked. “We’ve got just seven minutes and if we don’t have Sheppard in the Chair by then, we might break apart upon atmospheric entry. Hurry!”

John groans. Finds his feet. “I can walk,” he insists, but they don’t waver and now it not the time – he scoops Shy up, the body is trembling and there are dark spots in the feathers that shouldn’t be there, hot and sticky, and they can’t move their left wing at all – can’t fly – Shh, shh, he wants to whisper and rock them asleep, to rest, to heal. But they cannot stop. Cannot linger. Instead they stagger along, and he only manages every second step, not quite keeping up and it take a while before sensation returns in full and he gets control of his senses again.

Once inside a transporter, he leans against the wall

breathes, breathes, breathes


five minutes   


He manages to walk the rest of the way without being half-carried half-dragged like a dead weight, but his team stays close anyway, just in case, and he more or less falls into the Chair, alarms blaring, shouts from the Control Room and the City crying: less than a minute left –

He inhales, closes his eyes, and reaches for the machina: lets the sensors envelop him, trying to forget about Shy’s broken wing and their pain and the empty gun shots and the bodies, and just focus on this:

The hyperspace window evaporates and everything goes utterly dark outside, the shields straining and the inertia dampeners catching the momentum. The angle’s steep, and the City takes a moment to correct it – the planet below is a brilliant blue, with just a hint of greens around one of the edges, small specks of land. Otherwise: water, water a silent ocean and they can do this, they can do this –

The shields are set alight, the friction of the atmosphere causing it to burn: heat is rising, slowly, steadily but they have it under control, the three potentiae carrying them to safety, and he might not be breathing at all, not until they’re through and he struggles to compensate for the growing lurch of gravity pulling them inwards, for a moment unbalancing them all, the City’s artificial gravity fighting against the onset of that of this planet before the larger mass wins and unnecessary systems are shut down.

Then, after half an eternity, everything shakes, a huge wave and they splash down, not a very pretty or neat landing, but Atlantis promises there’s no damage, no broken towers. For now, that’s enough. It has to be enough.


[we are here], the City whispers, the storm abating, the wind stopping its icy howl, it’s over –

John exhales. The Chair lets him go.

That was close, he whispers, and Shy lets out a tiny laugh, shaded with pain, [Yeah. Let’s not make a repeat of … of any of this.]

Yeah, John answers. Eyes still closed. Body almost in a kind of stasis of shock.  

“It worked!” he hears Rodney cry out. “I can’t believe that worked!”

And then, before he can force his eyes open completely, whole body wrecked and tired and generally feeling like a single enormous bruise, two familiar hands clasp his face, firmly and gently and desperately and hotly – a mouth meets his own;

the kiss is messy and swift and there’s teeth clashing, and John forgets to breathe for completely new reasons –

then Rodney withdraws sharply as if hit by lightning, flushed red and fidgeting and he backs off: Uh, I, uhm – and John reaches out and grabs his jacket collar, leaning upward to meet the movement: come back here – forgetting the audience: it’s just the two of them, right at this moment, hands shuffling for shelter and support and tongues clashing, blood pumping fast and hot and they’re both riding on adrenaline like in the midst of a mission, and the gunshots still echo in their ears;

Eventually they have to part to breathe, and Rodney gasps – “Oh. Oh.”

And as the astrophysicist moves back a little John glimpses Teyla and Kanaan, smiling behind them, and Ford and Adria, staring all agape.

Oh.

“I, uhm. That was.” Rodney’s usual eloquence slips through the shock like sand in an hourglass, disappearing to the other side immeasurable.

“Yeah,” John whispers, hoarsely, throat feeling all parched. Somehow, he can’t stop the grin from breaking free, as if he’s smiling from within. They’re alive, they made it – and he and Rodney just –

Oh!

Teyla smiles. He can’t see her face, but he hears it in her voice: “You did well, Major.” She and Kanaan remain unfazed by this sudden display of affection. Right now, John can’t remember if anyone’s explained to them, yet, about Earth customs and DADT and, shit, he and Rodney just –

And Ford is turning to Adria, exclaiming (but not angrily, not disgusted or disdained): “Ad, you were right!”  and the words register dimly as if through fog and John blinks at the ceiling, vaguely; They’ve been thinking that …? and he’s probably blushing too, just as badly as Rodney, and he feels Shy murmuring in approval; and, thank god nobody but his team is in here right now –

Large slightly calloused hands are still resting on his cheeks. Slightly worriedly, because his eyes are sliding shut on their own volition.

If you don’t mind, I’m going to pass out now, he doesn’t say aloud although he tries to. Like a warning. The Chair is unexpectedly comfortable, warm and safe now that the rest of the world has stilled, planets frozen in their orbits and stars unblinking, and Atlantis is singing a lullaby so calm and familiar, like in all of his childhood dreams – John releases a sigh: it’s over. 


[we have found a safe harbor]

Chapter Text

xxix.

lighthouses

 

this has been a really messed up day


Someone is shaking his shoulder.

He’s still in the Chair, and it takes a moment to fight his way out of the blanket of sleep which had settled over his mind. It can’t have been more than a couple of confused minutes. His legs feel a bit like jelly, and his hands might be unsteady, clinging to the armrests. Rodney’s there, a mixture of agitated worry and relief, and Teyla, gently murmuring comforts, and Ford is talking into his radio. Asking for a medic.

No, John says, or tries to: he can walk to the infirmary on his own volition. They don’t need to send a team here.

“Can you stand?” Rodney asks, babbling in that way he does not when he’s excited about a Brilliant Idea, but when he’s nervous, and John can still taste the kiss as if it’s real –

Did we just do that? 

It wasn’t a hallucination?

[Yeah], Shy answers and suddenly almost laughs, despite the pain, breathlessly: [Was he a good kisser, huh? You certainly seemed to be thinking it.]

“Yeah,” he blurts, not sure which question he’s actually answering, pulse rising. Momentarily feeling lost, as if he’s jettisoned from an aircraft and is drifting with the wind, John grasps for support, any kind of support – he hasn’t kissed anybody like that for years, certainly not after landing a Cityship with his mind – never like that: warm safe hands grabbing his face and a hot familiar mouth pulling breath out of his lungs –

Arms are pulling him up, to his feet. He holds onto Shy tightly, their wings slack and useless and abruptly at the movement the pain spears them both, making his eyes water.

“I can walk,” he insists, hoarsely, throat dry.

“Yes, sure, and probably smack your face right into the floor and give yourself a concussion. Let’s just – Ford, help us out, will you? Jeez, you’re heavier than you look.”

He can’t fight the smile threatening to overtake him. Amidst the pain and the confusion and gnawing tiredness, fond elation is erupting – “Thanks, Rodney,” he rasps.

Cradling Shy to his chest, aching in this sudden inability to fly, his team escorts him to the infirmary, where Carson’s waiting. The corridors are lined with people and voices and John orders Lieutenant Kemp report back to the Control Room, where Weir’s waiting – he would’ve had Ford do it, but he and Teyla refuse to budge, we’re a team; we look after each other – and John gives in, not wanting to argue.

They get Shy under a scanner and they cannot touch a Dæmon, even to treat them; this kind of injury is rare, only seen among military personnel, John reckons, or when fights have really gone to hell: that’s when Dæmons attack, hurt each other badly and kill one another.

Final resorts. Something he has never before feared. Never having needed to fear. Now it is reality.

A Dæmon can heal pretty quickly, but now he looks at Shy and the bleeding wing and Carson murmurs about a snapped tendon, a broken bone, and John wants to weep. His hands are trembling, something they rarely do. He watches the proceedings distantly and Carson explains how to treat the injury as best he can, because the doc has seen to humans and to other Dæmons before but never one with wings – and John strokes Shy’s shivering back, comfortingly; shh I’m here it’s going to be okay;


The Daedalus should be arriving within the hour, and they are on their way completely unaware of the Uprising. 

The ship’s hyperdrive is not as powerful as that of the City, certainly not while the latter is powered by three potentiae, causing this delay, and right now it is a relief. It gives them some time to assemble the broken pieces, like gluing together shattered glass, and come up with plausible explanations, to gather evidence to support the truth – their cause. John tries to imagine what Caldwell’s face will look like once they get here and see what’s happened. When hearing about the fifty-four people locked up in the detention area and isolation room – they’ve had to re–purpose a couple of unused chambers just to have someplace to keep all those people.

They’re not treating them badly; some of those rooms are much comfier than the cells, which John is now acutely aware of. They’re well-fed and housed and kept warm, and anyone who’d been injured during the incursion is being seen to by Beckett’s medical team. This is, after all, no Wraith Hive or Goa’uld mothership on which they’ve been trapped to be tortured for leisure or fed upon; most of the men were just following orders, and probably had only half of the information needed to make a sensible decision; instead, they had trusted Everett and his command and why wouldn’t they?

They’re all taught to be loyal: Semper Fidelis – words John has heard echoed every now and then, especially now when working side by side with marines for almost eleven months. Having Ford as his XO has given him insight in the marine mentality, in a way he has never grasped before, soaring through the skies rather than ploughing through battlefields on ground level. Such things imprint on your skin and leave a sweet aftertaste; just as he has made them remember leave no one behind. Now, though, the words have taken a different spin. Become even more real.

If all goes to hell and the SGC declares them traitors, they might have to run and keep running. Somehow, John thinks some people might be able to survive that. Not everybody, but a surprisingly high number. The knowledge is both chilling and reassuring.

Elizabeth is compiling an initial report. Just to remember, to make the numbers official. An announcement has been made, gloomy and brief and silent minute held for the one life – one too many – that’s been taken. John is in the infirmary when Elizabeth’s voice fills the City speakers, tending to Shy’s broken wing and holding back angry tears, and Elizabeth says, voice full of sorrow: Lieutenant Thompson died defending his home and his people; let us not forget that, and let’s not make his sacrifice to be in vain. 

And Rodney breathes: This has been a really messed up day.

Neither of them mentions the Kiss, albeit John catches his gaze drifting from Rodney’s hands to Rodney’s lips once and again and he can’t look away, and sometimes there’s this trickling burn as if Rodney’s eyes are doing some wandering of their own, and neither of them move away.

Instead, theirs is comfort of silence, punctuated only by off-hand remarks that have nothing to do with war or death or pain – mostly, it’s Rodney talking, wondering about lunch, or dissecting some vague theory of astrophysics which his department thought up during his absence. John tends to Shy, gently cleaning the wound and wrapping it up, letting Rodney’s voice wash over them like water as he works. He tries to keep them both still, flinching away from the pain – he feels the broken wing like a dead weight upon his own back. 

Briefly, he considers asking Rodney things like: since when have you felt this way? and since when have I felt it?

And, shit, this isn’t the time: with the Uprising, trapped in the infirmary surrounded by doctors and the occasional marine and Ford and Teyla, the team standing around like sentries. Ford knows about Not Telling, that he can’t, that it’ll make things worse – before they’d made it from the Chair Room, John had overheard the kid murmuring in hushed tones to Teyla and Kanaan, You can’t let anybody know, and though the Athosians may be confusedly displeased about their friends having suppress their affections, they won’t break their vows of friendship, won’t risk anything bad happening because of this; and John had exhaled – they’ve got each other’s backs.

And he feels a surge of relief that Ford hadn’t reacted badly, and that the kid doesn’t appear to be uncomfortable with this. John knows a lot of marines wouldn’t react like that, the revelation that their CO – Air Force or not – isn’t straight – though John isn’t certain what label to wear – he hasn’t thought a lot about it, until now. Until Antarctica and that damned Chair and seeing Rodney for the first time, wearing that orange fleece, Meredith resting on his shoulder: Major, think about where we are in the solar system.

He won’t think about. Not … not until this is over – if it will be over.


While debris is cleared from the hallways, empty ammo shells swept up and injuries tallied, a letter of condolence to Thompson’s family is resting half-written on a computer waiting to be signed: we are sorry for your loss. One death and only a handful of seriously wounded is a slim solace – it could have been much worse, but if this could have been avoided, no such letter would’ve been needed to be sent at all.

Elizabeth requests AR-1’s full presence in her office once John has been released from the infirmary, which was pretty quickly given he has sustained no more physical injuries since the Siege itself; his ribs are on their way to healing, despite the jostling that occurred in the skirmish with Everett and his men. His steps are heavy and his breath’s not quite back, yet, and every heartbeat vibrates with anxious, teeming anger, loss, pain, all mixed together in darkness. Shy is going to be grounded for weeks – both of them are going to be grounded, tied to the earth in a way neither wishes to be. The combination of it all threatens to rupture him at the seams. 

He’s just so tired – he wants to sleep for half an age. But he can’t. Carefully, John shifts Shy and the Raven insists, stubbornly, [I’m not completely incapable.] and leaps with only slight difficult onto his shoulder. Wing held at an odd angle, but pain lessened, Shy’s claws dig into his jacket – thankfully, at least, their sense of balance hasn’t been impaired.

Rodney’s pale, and not as talkative as he uses to be. Stress. Fear. Meredith is muttering, but too low to hear the actual words. Teyla and Ford seem to fare little better. Pale and angry and upset, the lingering shadow from the last few hours has cast a sheet upon them all. They’re exuding what they all feel like.

Together they climb the stairway.


Elizabeth is sitting in her chair, the one she and no one else truly belongs in, staring at a laptop screen and the white gloom casts a shadow on her face; she’s just as exhausted as the rest of them. The last couple of hours have been intense. When John and Shy enter the room, she glances upward, sighing possibly with relief and John pulls out a chair, almost collapsing into it, and Rodney and Teyla follow suit, albeit Ford remains standing, straight with his hands clasped behind his back, waiting.

John doesn’t say: Hey, or quip something falsely light-hearted; instead they go to the point right away.

A lot more is going to be needed to explain this than meagre words on paper. Reports and witness accounts have to be gathered, people interrogated, information saved – at least, with so many clever civilians around, people had thought of the latter and recordings have been made of all radio transmissions from the get-go. There’s a video, too, starting in static and action appearing out of nowhere: a view of the conference room, and it’s as if someone pressed the on-button unasked; snatches of a conversation, then Colonel Everett and some of his men storming the room with guns at hand and orders of arrest.

It shows a clear angle of no resistance, John going with them quietly, except his Raven leaps off his shoulder into the air and Everett doesn’t desist but raises a stunner and takes aim – it’s all there.

“What Colonel Everett did was a violation of your rights, John. No, hear me out,” Elizabeth presses onward when John moves, disconcertedly self-conscious, about to speak up. “The UN Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that no person or their Dæmon is to be threatened with harm of violence. This applies to everyone, including suspected criminals and prisoners of war; even if the Colonel had jurisdiction to detain you, he had no right to use lethal force on you or your Dæmon, which was exactly what he tried to do when he took aim. Whether or not the shot actually hit doesn’t matter. In that one action he violated half a dozen clauses. We have video footage of what happened, evidence to back it up. Besides, you complied without struggle, so he cannot claim the move was in self-defense. The conflict hadn’t yet broken out and we are not at war with one another – at that point, the Colonel had no defensible, feasible reason to do what he did.”

“You’re saying we’re using his trying to shoot Shy as a reason to justify this mess?”

The incursion, the rebellion; the body waiting silently in morgue under a pristine white sheet.

He wonders what the headlines will be atop of all the reports, once compiled: The Atlantis Rebellion. He isn’t sure of General O’Neill will react, they had only interacted briefly in Antarctica, and the following three weeks John had spent at Cheyenne before leaving for the Pegasus galaxy, O’Neill had been quite busy running the base and John has spent most of his time researching and acting as the Number One ATA Light Switch. Still, he has more of a grip of General O’Neill’s person than this General Landry, whose voice had greeted them when they’d dialed to Earth, sending Elizabeth to negotiate for the drones. Landry is an utterly new card in the game, and there’s no telling how he’ll take the situation.

“I’m saying we have to. You’re right, John, we are in a mess right now. What Colonel Everett did was out of line, and it sparked a series of events difficult to stop and we couldn’t have predicted this outcome.”

“But we could’ve contained it; Elizabeth, I’m ready to take full responsibility for what happened.”

And Rodney groans, rolls his eyes, arms crossed: always with the moronically self-sacrificing attitude. John glares at him as if saying: I take quite offence to that.

“I know, John, and so am I,” she cuts in before Rodney has a chance to interrupt. “But you were trapped in a cell and took no part in the initial organization of the Uprising.” They’re already starting to call it that aloud. “You gave no orders to start it; I sanctioned it.”

“You tried to negotiate,” he points out. “I went in there guns blazing.”

“Yes, but not without warning; and Everett refused to listen which was why we had strike teams in the first place; to retaliate. We are all guilty in this. It’s not a clean-cut situation. In fact, what we did was defending ourselves and our home.”

Defending their home – that’s what they were doing. What they will keep doing.

John exhales, quietly. “And what if the SGC decides to denounce the expedition?”

Elizabeth’s face hardens, and Simon makes a worried noise, pacing back and forth behind her. Looks out the glass windows; from here they can see the Control Room, full of movement and people and voices, and the Stargate below. All this – their home. It could all be ripped away.

[Then we continue the Uprising. We could break free,] Shy murmurs, oh so certainly because John cannot think of it another way: if they’re all labelled as traitors and rebels, revolting against the SGC and the Earth – then they could flee. They’re already on a new planet. Rodney could remove the crystal from the DHD allowing them to dial to Avalon – and the other way around – they could become independent –

Could they live with that? He might be ready cit the ties, but he knows people here have families and friends and lives to return to. Grandparents and wives and husbands, children, siblings, lovers; letters written unsent, longing words of home – because not everyone considers Atlantis to be home, even though they are loyal to the City to the last.

They were ready to destroy Her to return and ensure nothing could ever follow.

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth says at last. “I don’t know what we’d do.”

“D’you think they’d shut us down?” Ford asks.

“If you mean they’ll react like Everett and attempt to subdue us with lethal force,” Rodney says, “well – some of them might be nonsensical enough to try, but I’m sure not all of them would be in on it. First of all, they’d need a ZedPM to dial us, or send a ship.”

“General O’Neill might show somewhat of an understanding,” Elizabeth admits, “but General Landry … I’m not sure. Besides, there are other forces to consider; the IOA will definitely not be pleased.”

“The IOA?” Teyla inquires, and John silently wonders too because he can’t recall hearing about it before. Perhaps he stumbled upon it during the fifteen days he spent in the Mountain, reading reports and catching up on the Stargate’s history, but he had been focusing more about potential enemies than Earth-bound organizations, which the acronym sounds like.

“The International Oversight Advisory,” Elizabeth explains. “They’re a supposedly independent group of bureaucrats meant to oversee the doings of the SGC and, by extent, this expedition. They formed shortly after the battle with Anubis over Antarctica, succeeding the Gate Alliance Treaty between several Earth countries, working in joint with Homeworld Security. I’ve had dealings with them before we were cleared to leave for Atlantis.”

Rodney lets out a sigh; he has heard of them, all right. They’d tries to mess up the research at the Ancient Outpost in Antarctica, that which had led to the finding of Atlantis, on several occasions; constantly fearing alien threats, he wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been trying to obstruct various decisions by the SGC during the time the expedition has been cut off from Earth. “They’re a bunch of conceited, arrogant busybodies who are going to poke their heads into everything, and once they find out about this …”

Elizabeth could lose command. John, too, and possibly Rodney as well – all senior staff could be out of a job and, moreover, face prosecution. As for the rest – well. John meant it when he said he’s ready to take responsibility. If he can take the blame and it means the rest of the personnel, at least the military contingency which all report to him, are left out of the equation without reprisal, without court martial or discharge – he’s more than ready.

“I see,” the Athosian says. “But, surely, they will recognize all that you have done for Atlantis, and that this was an act of self-defense?”

But Elizabeth sighs, shakes her head. “They might not see it like that. And we don’t have the full story yet; we don’t know what Everett was thinking or his orders. What did he tell his men to convince them to begin this by arresting Major Sheppard?”

“And rescinding your command,” John adds. That is a key factor, one which he personally feels more comfortable with defending: he might not have really taken it in, yet, the fact that the City’s inhabitants rose to fight not just for the City but for him, too, breaking him out like that. The reality of that loyalty and protectiveness, graspable now: he realizes he might not know how to be able to handle it, yet.

The Daedalus is going to reach them any minute now and they need to know what the hell to say. Caldwell is another unknown factor, and he’s got some hundred people aboard his ship, ready to report back to Earth, loyal to the SGC and so is Everett also proclaimed to be. The man is also a Colonel, high-up and knowing of the protocols, and though John feels a little more inclined to trust the guy since he’s Air Force just as he, other than that – this is a high-stakes game, and there’s no tell what hand has been dealt to either side. 

Everett is sitting in a detention cell, stubbornly staring at a wall and not making any noise: Tyler and MacGrimmon, who are on guard duty, report back at regular intervals that nothing has changed whatsoever. Only one thing had the Colonel said was when he’d first woken up from the effects of the stunner, finding himself in a cell: he had demanded his release, and the release of his men, immediately. Called this Uprising unlawful and traitorous, certain that the SGC is going to back him up. The thing is, it’s highly probable that the SGC will – and then what?

A knock on the door frame interrupts them, and they look up to see Bates waiting on the threshold.

“Sir, ma’am,” Bates says by way of greeting. “It seems like one of the prisoners is ready to talk.”

“Let me guess,” John says, dryly: “it’s not the Colonel.”

“No, afraid not. He’s still clammed up. But his XO, Major Wolfe, approached Corporal MacGrimmon and said he’s ready to answer some questions. He’s the chattiest one so far.”

“Said anything particularly interesting?”

Bates shakes his head. “Not really, but he’s a bit jittery, all right. Won’t answer my questions. He demands to talk with you two personally.”

John exchanges a look with Elizabeth, who nods, and they order Markham and Stackhouse go to fetch the prisoner – the term feels somewhat wrong to use, bitter and misplaced. These are people from the same planet, people who have received the same kind of training as the marines with whom John has been defending Atlantis – they all echo Semper Fi, proudly, honorably – and yet they are complete and utter Strangers.

“All right. Send for him,” Elizabeth says. “Let’s set up in the conference room.”

Chapter Text

xxx.

fallout

part one

is that what the other prisoners are whispering to each other now, alarmed: wondering: is he even human?  


Waiting for the return of the two Lieutenants, they move to the conference room which is already prepped for interviews. Bates takes seat by the large table, so that John has one on his left side and Ford on his right, and Elizabeth next to him, and Teyla next to her. Rodney disappears and re–appears five minutes later clutching a cup of coffee and a PDA, muttering half-aloud about ‘incompetent asshats who should be put on a moon without atmosphere’ and something about arguing with Kavanaugh. No one cares to ask further, because it would only encourage a half an hour rant so ferocious someone could probably be brought to tears. The astrophysicist squeezes in between John and Ford. Nobody raises an eyebrow at that, for which John is relieved, and Meredith jumps up on the table, making herself comfortable. Her tail is swishing back and forth tersely. 

An empty chair is left facing them, sternly and quietly. It will be an interrogation, though nothing cruel will ever occur – they didn’t set out to be at odds with these people, to make enemies of them. There is no visible video recording equipment, but the City will save every second for them to be able to use as evidence. A microphone is standing in the middle of the table. When the folding doors open again, even Rodney goes silent, though he keeps stabbing at his datapad very violently and from what John can glimpse, he’s multitasking, partly writing some kind of report, partly red-marking errors in a complex equation, and also pulling up a new empty document to take notes.

The man entering the room, shadowed by Markham and Stackhouse and their stunners, is still in uniform but without any tactical gear, and his frame is considerably smaller than it ought to be when facing battle: the Major’s Dæmon is hiding in his jacket pocket, the head peering out, giving away: they’re nervous and don’t want to be here and possibly wondering what the hell is this, how do we get out of here, how did we end up here?

“Major,” John says, amicably. “Have a seat.”

Wolfe does. When asked, he states his rank, his name, without hesitation; that’s what they’ve been trained to do, and what John also has had drilled into his spine about interrogation techniques: keep repeating your name and rank and nothing else. Nothing else.

He is effectively a prisoner of war.

But Wolfe’s hard voice is wavering, though, just a little bit, and the swishing noise of Elizabeth’s pen moving to take notes, even in the silence, causes the man’s eyes to flicker. Rodney appears quite ready to begin a tirade and hold a speech and utterly dehumanize the guy, barely holding himself back. Bates is quiet, arms crossed, mouth a grim line, and Ford is doing his best to stare the guy down.

And John smiles, all pleasant like, and even though Shy’s wings are thickly painful and difficult to move, the blood has been washed out and the feathers are no longer matted, and Wolfe’s eyes keep returning to the Raven, as if afraid.

It takes some time, but the Major slips into words eventually, words that make sense and brightens the picture. Willing to cooperate. They assure him that this cooperation will make things easier for him, and for everybody else: they do not want to remain in this situation for longer than necessary. The last thing they need right now is for the SGC to send yet another strike force to take the City – which is why they are waiting for as long as possible until dialing, so to procure as much information as possible, including interviews of prisoners. Major Wolfe had been part of the team that had come to arrest him, John recalls, vaguely recognizing the man’s Dæmon. He had stood by, witnessing events as they unfolded and following orders to the dot and never interfering.

John leans forward. “What were the Colonel’s exact orders?”

“That we were to take control of the City,” Wolfe recites, dutifully. “That we were to subdue any insurgents and secure this base by taking control of the power supply, then the Weapons Platform, and lastly Stargate Operations.” After all: own the potentiae, own the power supply, and you own Atlantis.

Insurgents. “And did he give any kind of motivation, any kind of explanation whatsoever?” Elizabeth asks, voice slightly cold in a way Wolfe mightn’t have been expecting. Because she’s a civilian woman, a diplomat.

“I, uh – yeah, he said some stuff.” After a brief pause, Wolf elaborates: “The Colonel said there’s a great security risk, that, that Major Sheppard had some kind of – I don’t know, some kind of psychic thing going on with the City, and that he had plans to take over everything. We’ve seen that sort of thing before from Snakeheads – he, he implied Sheppard could be one.”

Snakes – Goa’uld. John almost rolls his eyes. From what he recalls of the SGC reports, it’s a laughably clichéd assumption. Besides, since when have I been cackling evil laughter and my eyes been evilly glowing?

[One would think Everett would at least try to be a bit more original.]

“And you ate it up,” he remarks, the underlined like a good soldier hanging in the air, and Wolfe tenses, as if he wants to shuffle in the chair but dares not move.

“He said he had evidence. Real hard evidence to show that Atlantis was being run by some kind of Snakehead on the inside, that it had been from the start. That … that the report about Colonel Sumner’s death was a cover-up.”

Of course. John holds back a broken, frustrated sigh, no letting anything show on his face, no flinching, although Shy murmurs that [You had no choice; it was to end his suffering].

He can still taste the bullet cleaving the air and piercing the man’s heart.

The thing is, Wolfe is right: if this is the story Colonel Everett fed his men, of course they must’ve been inclined to believe it. Such a claim – that a Goa’uld had infiltrated the expedition and within twenty-four hours of arriving in Pegasus had killed the highest ranking military officer – would be difficult to dispute. No one but now dead Wraith was witness to that shot, no one saw John’s finger pull the trigger, and no one saw Sumner’s withered face even though the other captives had heard his Dæmon scream, pleadingly – at that point, John had done what he felt was right. He hadn’t known Sumner for long, and the guy hadn’t seemed to like him very much, but the Colonel had been a good solider, a good commander because he’d inspired loyalty in Ford and the others.

Ford had told him as much, afterward, when the dust had settled and the festivities with the Athosians that first night had dulled away – that night when Elizabeth had appointed John the acting military CO and given him Sumner’s chair, Sumner’s duties, and eventually they had all fallen in line, dutifully. With the threat of the Wraith around the corner, internal battles were pointless –

John really doesn’t want to open up those old scars, but in light of these events they’ll probably have to.

“Did he show anybody this evidence?” Elizabeth asks.

“No, but he said he had it. That once we’d control of the City he’d show us. And there’s, uh, the Dæmon – Everett told us, and some of us saw it too, that Major Sheppard’s Dæmon Emerged in the Chair when the Wraith were attacking. Like he’s some kind of alien – that it was some kind of ruse to make us think Major Sheppard is human.” Wolfe hesitates, glances at the Raven when Shy turns to stare at him. Freezes up. 

Is that what the other prisoners are whispering to each other now, alarmed: wondering, is he even human?

This part is one which might’ve tipped the scale from disbelief to loyal trust: that kind of Emerging doesn’t just happen. Of course some people must think it means he’s an alien, a foreign thing, an impostor; John can’t say he’s surprised to hear any of this. But he hears a tiny angry growl at his side and glances at Ford. The kid looks troubled but in a way John hopes is only visible to him and perhaps Elizabeth; he’s gotten pretty good at reading his teammate’s expressions. To the outside eye the young man appears stony and fierce, but Adria is hissing and rumbling, quietly, upset, from Ford’s elbow. 

And Rodney is basically about to burst, to stand up and yell, but John remains utterly calm. By some miracle he manages to stop Rodney’s outburst before it happens, and the man returns to stabbing at his PDA, alternatively glaring poisonously at Major Wolfe. It’s the kind of stare which can reduce people to tears and even kill and one which Rodney doesn’t spread around as much anymore, not since encountering the Wraith; not since encountering Kolya and the Genii, not since having stared death in the face. Now it is reserved for the Real Enemies. John knows that, too, has observed it often enough and Rodney is so tense next to him. John resists the urge to lay a hand on his arm, calmingly, holding his pulse, tell him to breathe. Not now, in front of Wolfe and Bates and the others.

“Was this the story which Everett told all his marines?”

“Yeah – he ordered me to spread the word to meet up in one of the empty rooms in corridor 15, level 29, of this Tower for an important announcement. There he gave the orders and explained we had a Snakehead to contain. Said it was real important, that we had to finish it up before the City was due to land. Then we went to make the arrest.”

“What, and you believed it without any actual hard evidence, just like that? And then went ahead to shoot at people?!” Rodney starts to interrupt, adding some degrading things about jarheads, and John sends him a sharp look. Not now, he thinks, and Meredith catches his gaze, burning. He can practically see the Dæmon’s thoughts of annoyance, of anger, and even of concern: she might not be speaking aloud, but that look is one he’s seen before. She had radiated with a similar – protective? – anger, though fueled with much more panic, back on that desert planet, with that Wraith which refused to die, when Meredith had leap between the Wraith and the humans and slit its throat.

No one’s commenting on it, and John partly hopes they won’t notice. That kind of fierce protectiveness is expected from a Dæmon given to their human, but to someone else? someone else who isn’t a lover or sibling or parent or child? John isn’t sure if he could face any more suspicion right now, especially not questions about his and Rodney’s relationship. Not without actually being pushed over the brink to fall into some kind of breakdown.

Instead he looks away and focuses on Wolfe’s words.

The Major hesitates. “Colonel Everett said he’d show us the evidence once we’d arrested the Snake … uh, Major Sheppard. That there were probably recordings and falsified reports in the database and we could only access them –”

“– once you had full control of the City,” John fills in, and Wolfe nods.

“We took his word for it. The Colonel hasn’t lied to us before.”

A commander has to instill a certain amount of loyalty in his people, regardless if it’s based on lies or truth, on raw charisma, or a shared sense of righteous goals – there has to be something, and evidently there is since the Colonel’s people kept following his orders. They may all have been played, unknowingly, become pieces in a game where the board is all scrambled and unfamiliar, and from the look on Major Wolfe’s face, his eyes gleaming with a sliver of honesty – John thinks they didn’t know they were being played. They’re part of the SGC, everyone there has seen some seriously weird shit over the years and if told that there might be an alien impostor trying to take over Atlantis, this long lost outpost of the Earth – of course they reacted as they did. John thinks he can see that, and probably Elizabeth and Bates, even Ford, can see it too. Rodney, however, doesn’t want to see it like that, and John isn’t surprised. 

Bates leans back, arms crossed, a show of defiance normally but now, John thinks he understands him a little bit better. At least he trusts him more than he did five months ago. “Did it ever occur to you that Colonel Everett was acting out order?”

A shake of head. “If there was a Goa’uld in Atlantis, it’s our duty to defend it. I’ve – I’ve been with the SGC long enough to see the kind of things we’re up against, and what the Colonel said didn’t … It made sense. Then, when your people retaliated, he ordered us to fight back. To regain control of the City.”

“Not even,” Bates goes on, coldly, “when the Colonel tried to shoot down Major Sheppard’s Dæmon? We have video footage of the incident, and we know you were a witness to this, Major: a co-conspirator, by your own account. If that shot had hit, the Major’s Dæmon would have been stunned, fallen down and possible broken its neck – killing both of them in the process. Unprovoked. Major Sheppard didn’t struggle; he complied with the arrest. Didn’t it strike you then that the Colonel’s actions were out of hand?”

“N-no,” Wolfe says, insists, repeats, though his voice has lost certainty. “No one was meant to die! And he told us the Major was a Goa’uld … that it wasn’t really his Dæmon, just a lie, some kind of fluke, a hologram maybe … No one was meant to be killed, I swear!”

And he does sound, if not apologetic, truly shaken. The Citywide announcement, the silent minute held for Lieutenant Thompson, had reached everyone including the detained forces in their makeshift prison cells. “We were told to keep live rounds to a minimum. Tasers and stunners unless given no other option. No one was meant to die.”

“But it didn’t turn out like that,” John says, softly. “A marine was killed, a damned good man, shot by another marine.”

“I, I’m not sure what happened. That wasn’t my team.”

“Who was it? Who was sent to take the Core Room?”

When the answer isn’t forthcoming, Shy intensifies their cold stare and Wolfe clears his throat. “I, I want a solicitor.”

“Unfortunately, we cannot arrange that right away,” Elizabeth says. “We are in another galaxy, Major, far from Earth and frankly right now I am dreading to open a wormhole back to the SGC; and I am certain you can see why.”

“I have rights!”

Elizabeth continues, calmly. “We know, and we are taking care in treating you and the rest of Colonel Everett’s people in accordance with the Geneva Convention.”

“Just answer the question. No one’s going to be tortured or maltreated, Major,” John says, sternly. “We want answers just as much as you do, and the quicker you give them, the easier this will be for everybody.”

“It … that was Corporal Jacobs’ team,” Wolfe relents. “They were sent to take the ZPM room. From there they’d coerce the insurg–… you into compliance with the Colonel’s demands. That was the plan.”

And they ended up trapped in a crossfire, and Lieutenant Olsen and his team had retaliated, and someone had grabbed their P90 and pressed the trigger, and Thompson had been dragged out of there into relative safety only to bleed out on the operating table. John’s jaw tenses at the memory, the images rising unbidden – they’re going to be burned to his eyelids for a long time to come.

He looks at Elizabeth, then Bates, and no one is needed to be uttered to come to an agreement. John gestures subtly, gaining Markham’s attention: he and Stackhouse have been standing by the doors with stunners at the ready, just in case Wolfe would attempt something unwise. The man hasn’t, remaining sitting calmly and obediently and it is a small comfort, this making of process.

“Take him back to his cell, and get Corporal Jacobs up here.”

“Yessir.”

Just as the two escort the Major out of there, a new voice enters the conversation: it’s Chuck, hailing them via radio.

“Dr Weir, we’ve just received word via the subspace comms. The Daedalus is approaching the planet and will be here within a few minutes.”

“Understood.”

John eases himself out of the stiff-backed chair. “Seems like Corporal Jacobs is going to have to wait for a while.”


One hour and forty-six minutes after the City’s spectacular Landing, the Daedalus enters orbit around New Lantea. One tempest has been overcome: another is about to be ignited.

“Atlantis, this is Colonel Caldwell aboard the Daedalus. I see you’ve landed soundly. Our ship has sustained minor damages from the battle with the Wraith and I’d prefer to effect repairs on the ground rather than in orbit. Request permission to land?”

“East Pier,” Rodney mouths soundlessly, and Elizabeth says: “Permission granted: please use the East Pier. Once you’ve landed we need to talk.”

“Copy that,” Caldwell says, and John thinks he hears the hint of that sounds ominous. 


The Daedalus touches down.

Time to face the music.

Chapter Text

xxxi.

fallout

part two

he wonders how he’ll report it to Stargate Command if it turns out the City has exploded
upon impact with the atmosphere of New Lantea and brought everything to ruin.
 


Colonel Steven Caldwell, commander of the USS Daedalus, prefers to think he is a pragmatic man; if not wholly, then at least when the situation demands it. Being Air Force and, later in his long career, part of Stargate Command, if there’s one thing he’s learned it’s how to be flexible, to not stare himself blind at numbers and blips on the radar. The numbers may be falsified; the blips may be unreal, decoys and echoes to fool them. It’s a policy reinforced aboard the Daedalus. Check, double-check, triple-check. Nothing can be left to chance. When traversing the space between galaxies in the extremely confined environment which a spaceship is, with a limited number of people onboard, everyone needs to be able to adapt, to perform different tasks, to see flaws and fix them before it’s too late. To dare raise alarms. Before a decision can be made, different scenarios must be taken into mind, information gathered. Too little information leads to unwitting errors in judgement and action.

Too much information, too, may be a problem. Generally though it isn’t because whether fighting Goa’uld in the Milky Way or, as of recently, facing down Wraith Hiveships in the Pegasus galaxy, Caldwell would rather have too much intel than too little: all this time, the months of preparation, ever since first signing that nondisclosure agreement, and Caldwell sometimes expects to wake up and find he is in the midst of a very, very vivid hallucination. But this hasn’t happened. Instead time has trudged on and once the first BC-304, the Daedalus, sistership of the Prometheus, was finished and he was appointed her commander, he just had to accept it, move on.

This is reality.


Less than two months after the completion of the Daedalus, a Message falls through event horizon:

The Message – like a note in a bottle, reaching between galaxies – had been tightly compressed and unfolded bit by bit, revealing an ocean of information, a wealth of data which they still haven’t had the time to go through properly. Instead, Colonel Carter and her team of scientists had tried to extract the most important bits to present to General Landry and the rest of the brass, the underlined footnotes, skipping the fine print.

The Atlantis Expedition is alive. Moreover, they’ve run into an enemy, some alien creatures they call the Wraith, humanoids who aren’t like the Goa’uld at all – they don’t want to enslave, to rule over other sentient beings like gods – they want to claim and destroy and feed. The Pegasus natives have a name for it: the Culling of a human Herd. Livestock, the reports say, humans are their livestock and they suck our lifeforce out our bodies with their hands. 

After reading that, Caldwell is never going to think of vampires the same way ever again.

Colonel Sumner is dead. Fed upon, says a report, signed by Major Sheppard, now acting as the base’s military CO – a man of his rank shouldn’t have that position, but there’s no one else. Not even a marine to step up. Dr Weir says, in her own video recordings, that Major Sheppard is doing a good job, despite the alarming circumstances.

Colonel Sumner is dead. Shot, continues the report by Major Sheppard: The Wraith Queen was killing him excruciatingly slowly. It’s not said in so many words; rather, the adjectives are lacking, and the nouns are decadent and distant, mirroring too little: Sumner fought to the last not to cave under torture. It was a mercy shot.

Something about the Major’s eyes says it wasn’t mercy at all. How is death the merciful option?

Arguments follow in the wake of these revelations. Of the Wraith waking from their long sleep as their Keeper was killed by the Major’s hand. But if he hadn’t acted, such a quick and instinctive thing to do, following the most basic will – to survive – then the Wraith might have gained more knowledge from Sumner. They would have woken anyway, with the knowledge of Earth and its large population. A new rich feeding ground, just waiting to be overtaken and claimed

Weir writes, defendingly, that she stands by the Major’s actions. That she trusts him with her and her Dæmon’s life, with the lives of everyone of the expedition.

There are some blurry pictures and even a few seconds of soundless moving footage of a Wraith in question, taken on some desolate planet somewhere with a generic, numeral designation. One of the teams had gone out there armed not just with guns but one of them had had a camera attached to his TAC vest and filmed the encounter. An ambush.

The creature is humanoid enough: tall, pale, slits in its cheeks, a hand eagerly outstretched – its dark garments, some kind of leather coat, is littered with bullet holes and there’s blood on the ground and on its face. It’s running, running toward the camera and very much alive even as the marines keep firing and finally it falls. They’ve analyzed every second of video, stretched time outward. Counted. Thirteen bullets. And it’s still standing, breathing, alive: angrily. Hungrily.

In one of the videos, Major Sheppard, voice evenly cool and distant and vaguely disconcerting in the way the Major’s eyes are hard and laden with something darkly inhuman, recounts: Colonel Sumner died with honor and courage in the performance of his duty. He carried the burden of a leader, and he carried it well. 

Sheppard had officially been under the man’s command for less than twenty-four hours when he’d pulled the trigger, but he doesn’t sound like a liar when he says he wishes the Colonel was still alive.


The days had passed so quickly once the archaeologists had found the ZPM in Egypt – something about timelines and another SG-1 and a video recording found alongside the Ancient device – Caldwell isn’t sure if he can follow the technical details. Then the crew had been rapidly assembled, recalled from their various positions across space, and a wormhole established to another galaxy; and Colonel Everett and fifty-eight marines had stepped through, armed to the teeth and with orders to defend the City until the Daedalus could catch up.

Unasked for, Dr Elizabeth Weir had returned through the Gate before the Daedalus’ scheduled liftoff. 

We have two ZPMs, she’d explained to their surprised faces – perhaps no one had truly believed the reports in the Message – and she had turned to General Landry and said: There are twelve Hiveships nearly upon us. We need more drones even more than we need another ZPM.

One battle they might win. With two ZPMs, they can already raise the shield and outlast an onslaught for days, weeks, months – but there are as many as sixty Wraith warships out there, relentless, and they’ll return and return and return and eventually Atlantis’ power will be utterly exhausted.

Caldwell is there to hear her negotiate with Landry, with General O’Neill urgently recalled from his Homeworld Command office in Washington, with the IOA representatives. The woman is stern and obviously has to be stressed, nerve-wracked and possibly angry, but her tone is gathered, strong, doesn’t tremble. She’s got experience. Negotiating is the easy part. Most of the time, Caldwell is not the one asking questions: there is little time for that, though Landry does try to probe, and the IOA cannot let certain matters go.

They ask about other senior staff. What about Dr McKay, Dr Beckett, and Major Sheppard? In her absence, normally the second the chain of command, the Major, should step in and take control. But with Everett’s arrival the chain has changed, and if she could step through then so should they. For questioning. For answers.

And Weir says: They’re busy trying to save the City and all of our lives.

If the Wraith get to Earth, no one will survive.

“Then,” one of the IOA ambassadors says, “why don’t you destroy the City? Make sure they cannot get here.”

Destroy Atlantis. Recall the expedition, recall Everett’s reinforcements. Change the plans yet again.

Weir, eyes full of fire, says: “I won’t give the order unless there truly is no other choice. Not when we now have hope.”

“You do not seem to understand, doctor –” slightly patronizingly, and Caldwell watches them speak, tersely: “You are no longer in Atlantis. You’re on Earth and, furthermore, we have full authority –”

“I won’t give the order,” Weir repeats, as if she doesn’t hear them: or as if she hears them perfectly clearly but meets their gazes unflinchingly, and Caldwell might see now why she was chosen to be the leader of the expedition. Why they chose a civilian diplomat, and not an Air Force officer with battle experience. Why and how this woman has defended Atlantis and her people, survived for nearly a year cut off from Earth, with dwindling ammunition and hope. “And you will have trouble finding anyone willing to follow it through.”

“Then we may relay the order to the people in Atlantis, to Major Sheppard, and have them carry it out.” It might be a test. A test of wills and strengths and Weir doesn’t comply: We need those drones.

And there’s something about the way she almost smiles, something hidden and dangerous. “Oh, believe me when I say that Major Sheppard will never obey such an order, no matter who gives the word.”

After half an eternity, they relent.

The Daedalus, waiting in orbit, takes them to Antarctica and onward.


Up until seeing those Hiveships with his own eyes, Caldwell was sure he is mostly a pragmatic man.

Now – he’s not so sure anymore.


They have been chasing after Atlantis’ trail in hyperspace for hours, and there’s been no chance in status: quiet calm, no errors, no danger. It’s a welcome relief. Yet, Caldwell returns to the bridge with a sinking feeling in his bones, as if waiting for a phone call with dark, heavy news. Phoebe is pacing. She rarely does that, and it’s a sign unwelcome, a confirmation; something might be wrong.

The constantly recycled air has a certain kind of smell, not quite stale but not quite pleasant. The bridge is silent but for the bright noises of buttons and machinery and computers, and one of the techs in conversation with one of the Navigators, Captain Meyers. They both look up as their commander and his Dæmon approach the viewport, filled to the brim with blue swirling light like a vortex.

“Captain, what’s our ETA?”

“We’ll be arriving within three hours, Colonel,” she answers, “right on schedule.”

They should be in comms range, so they try hailing the City. But there is no reply, only static. Lieutenant Stuart, the Communications Officer, frowns, switches to another secure encrypted channel; this time, through the static, they send a burst: is anybody listening?

There’s no response.

“It could be the hyperspace window interfering,” suggests Stuart, still frowning. “Ancient hyperdrives don’t work exactly like ours.”

Caldwell hopes it is just that. By now, if the calculations are correct, the Cityship should have landed.

An hour later, they attempt again: no signal this time either. Interference, Stuart repeats, uncertainly. Caldwell has Dr Novak and Hermiod investigate it, run a diagnostic. The result comes, clearly: nothing’s wrong with their equipment; the Daedalus is functioning well within expected perimeters. Whatever this is, it’s not on their end.

Briefly, Caldwell wonders how he’ll report it to Stargate Command if it turns out the City has exploded upon impact with the atmosphere of New Lantea and brought everything to ruin.


When not on duty – and even sometimes then – there is time for introspection. Work aboard the Daedalus is very much routine. Strict rules and patterns to adhere to. Their stint with the Wraith was their first time in battle, their first time seeing action – although not for most of the crew. For some the scientist, perhaps, but every pilot has been hand-picked, their track record so closely scrutinized that Caldwell can say that he knows each man and woman on this ship closer than he has ever known a crew. Out here, that kind of thing is necessary: you’ve got to know who you work and live beside; you have to know their limits and your own. Trust is, without a doubt, a thing necessary to keep the crew together. Trust, obedience, loyalty. 

That must have been even more important in Atlantis. Cut off from Earth, with limited supplies and no way to call SOS, they have had nothing but each other and the occasional ally. More enemies than allies, at least in terms of power, Weir had stated in her reports. There are some peoples they trade with – for food, for survival, the most basic of needs – but beside the Wraith, there are others they have fought against, are now hiding from. The Genii.

A complex situation, Weir has said about these people. Living underground, in dark bunkers miles wide, perfecting their atomic bombs to the last, a final hope striving to see the light and eliminate the Wraith. A useful potential ally but also a potentially dangerous enemy, as had been proven when a strike force had taken the City. They have numbers, technology, weapons. They are still not certain if the leader of the Genii, Cowen, had sanctioned or supported the action. No prisoners had been taken for questioning: over sixty dead, only four had managed to survive and slip through the Stargate, escaping just as the strike force’s commander, Acastus Kolya, was taken down by Major Sheppard. A headshot while the man was clinging to Weir, a gun pointed at her jaw, holding her hostage. A slip of focus and Sheppard might have killed her too.

There are still so many shades of the interplanetary politics that are unknown and untouched. Frankly, Caldwell doesn’t want to think about it too much. It gives him a headache. For now, he just wants to know exactly what’s going on with Atlantis and the people in it. And he wants to find out the hows and whys and wherefores of Major Sheppard’s Dæmon being a Raven, why it’s not registered as such in his file, and how it all ties together with the situation – if there is a connection at all. It’s just a fluke they’re only finding it out.

Once they’ve landed and contacted the SGC, hopefully more answers will come to light.


The planet below is very blue, with a single large landmass and an even huger ocean, empty except for a small speck of energy and there, clouds parting beneath the uneven number of orbiting moons, the Daedalus nears its target and the Ancient City of Atlantis fills the viewport. There’s no smoke rising, and in the golden gleam of sunset the towers and spires are casting huge shadows like a painting over the water. The shields are down.

It’s as alien as a Goa’uld Mothership, as alien as the Asgard working alongside them aboard the Daedalus – even more so. And Caldwell exhales when seeing that Atlantis is very much in one piece.

And, finally, someone answers to their calls. “Atlantis, this is Colonel Caldwell aboard the Daedalus. I see you’ve landed soundly. Our ship has sustained minor damages from the battle with the Wraith and I’d prefer to effect repairs on the ground rather than in orbit. Request permission to land?”

“Permission granted: please use the East Pier.” The voice belongs to Dr Weir. “Once you’ve landed we need to talk.”

Well, murmurs Phoebe, his Dæmon, softly, an exhale: that sounds ominous.


He doesn’t use the Asgard transport beam to enter the City. The Daedalus took some damage in the fight against the Wraith when they’d dropped out hyperspace for the first time in this galaxy, immediately finding themselves under fire; the technology itself hasn’t been affected, but he is reluctant to tax any of the ship’s systems more than is necessary until ground repairs are complete. Some things cannot be fixed wholly – they don’t carry a lot of spare parts with them – and will have to wait until they’re back on Earth.

A squad of marines meet up with the Colonel and his people. They’re led by Major Sheppard; Caldwell cannot place the other faces with names he knows, yet. In the brief time he had been in the City earlier, before faking the self-destruct, they had been quite busy, and he hadn’t bothered to remember the Dæmons, to match them with the correct humans. Except for the one of Dr Weir, and, of course Major Sheppard – it would be difficult not to.

And Caldwell has had quite a long while to mull over things while in hyperspace: the hours, brief and so strictly routine by now, had offered no surprises and little to pass the time. Once he’d left the bridge to Bishop and Meyers, aiming to rest for a while in his cramped quarters, Caldwell had done anything but rest, too much on his mind. He’d instead typed out a preliminary report on the Wraith siege – the part he and his crew got to witness, anyhow – and the defending of the City and ultimately its lift-off. And hadn’t that been a sight. 

The Daedalus had lingered under the City shields while the nuke went off and, once the smoke cleared, the shield turned into a cloak – the science itself is still a mystery to him, and Caldwell is just glad that it worked. And then, when the Wraith bought it and took off, the Daedalus had lifted, and Caldwell had them wait just long enough to see the City rise.

Knowing that Major Sheppard was sitting in that Chair, using little but his mind to fly the giant Cityship – well, Caldwell had been quietly impressed, and slightly disconcerted. He prefers to keep his hands firmly on the controls, to have instruments he can see and touch – things that are undoubtedly real. He’s tried imagining flying the Daedalus or an F-302 by closing his eyes and simply thinking it; is that what Major Sheppard does? The details thus far have been vague.

Then again, Atlantis is hardly normal ship by any means. The same measurements cannot apply.

Caldwell likes to call himself a realistic and not terribly optimistic man, with his feet firmly on the ground. Slightly contradictory, perhaps, for a pilot. Or perhaps some of the flares of excitement from his youth have slipped into deep hiding. After seeing and doing what he’s seen and done, after some time, exhaustion gets to you, and buries these rawer, more instinctive sides. He dislikes acting without thorough consideration. And from what he can tell from Major Sheppard’s file, and later when meeting the man in person, that the other man is very much the opposite. If not for his high clearance, Caldwell wouldn’t have been able to read those blacked-out areas of the man’s file. Special ops, difficult missions of extractions – there’s a taste of bravery there, and of adrenaline rushes and no doubt a certain amount of foolishness, of rushing into danger: he’s got to give Sheppard that.

And in the message sent from Pegasus, one which had urged the SGC to send a rescue mission, confirming that the expedition was still alive, there were video recordings and reports – and Caldwell had glimpsed one about a people called the Genii, who had attempted to seize the City and failed miserably. Sixty people thereabouts, versus one USAF Major.

It shouldn’t have been possible, but it was. Not just anybody would be able to pull such a stunt off, icily calculated, executed with precious and with a huge storm just around the corner waiting to strike: it shouldn’t have been possible, but Major Sheppard pulled it off.

Though Caldwell has some doubts about the man, especially since he took command – reluctantly, Weir had added in her own reports – after Colonel’s Sumner death when somebody of higher rank should have been there to do the job. The Major isn’t qualified, at least not officially. There’s a lot to say for field experience though and Weir’s praises had rung high and clear, though no doubt they cannot have seen eye to eye all the time. The Major has, after all, had a lot of issues with command in the past. That’s what landed him with the SGC in the first place. Still – Caldwell can respect Major Sheppard, if not for his obedience, then for his skills. General O’Neill had mentioned, in passing, how the kid had saved his life with some daredevil outmaneuvers above the white ice of Antarctica, and any words coming from O’Neill bear a certain weight.

For all this information, there were still missing pieces – vast gaps, in some places.

Which is why it shocked Caldwell to the very core when seeing him in person for the first time, standing in the Control Room with a Raven on his shoulder. That sort of thing – no, it’s the thing of stories, of myth; no real Dæmons have wings. Oh, people have dreamt of it, feared it, been in awe of such things. Caldwell can admit, quietly, that sometimes he wonders what it’d be like. He is, after all, a pilot. Flying is freedom: just how does it feel to be able to do it without the aid of a machine?

Questions like that he hadn’t asked because the Wraith were upon them and they had a plan to execute. Now, though, Caldwell hopes to get some questions answered.  While in hyperspace, the Daedalus had been out of contact with the City, approaching the rendezvous with rising trepidation. Therefore, when Weir had answered to their hailing comms and said to come down – We need to talk – Caldwell cannot shake off the ominous feeling that something’s awfully, bitterly wrong.

Perhaps it wasn’t hyperspace interference after all.

His Navigator and Second-in-Command, Lieutenant Colonel Bishop, has assured him that the ship’s scans are clean: there are no Wraith ships coming closer. No; this enemy, whoever or whatever it is, is coming from within. In a way, that’s even worse. Sabotage? Perhaps the City has retained damage during flight. But Caldwell exits the Daedalus – the old-fashioned way across a bridge lowered onto the ground, which is fairly strange after crossing the void between galaxies – with a cool, steeled expression of professionalism, refusing to let any doubts get ahead of him and cloud his judgement. 

So now he approaches the City on foot, walking over the East Pier’s outer edges, to be met by Major Sheppard and a team of his people – a woman and four marines, heavily armed, carrying something that is definitely not Earth-issued alongside their P90s. Wraith stunners, Caldwell remembers. That must be it. The Major looks oddly tired and weary, but Caldwell writes it off easily: after deflecting an armada of twelve Hives – there are some strange accounts there which Caldwell yet has to confirm, something about the Major nearly dying – and then flying a City with your mind – the Major has every excuse. There’s something else, though. A wariness. Shivers of distrust, shaking all five Lanteans – would that be the appropriate word, ‘Lanteans’? They’re Tau’ri from Earth, true, but they’ve also been away from it – apart from it – for nearly a year. Built a community, almost like a colony.

Resting quietly on the Major’s shoulder is the Raven. It’s dark like midnight and there’s an aura of discomfort, even of pain, surrounding its form, and Caldwell thinks there’s something odd about the angle which the bird is holding one of its wings. Like it’s injured, maybe even broken.

The Major inclines his head, a shadow of respect, but doesn’t salute even if Caldwell is superior in rank. The gnawing sense of unease is reinforced, and Caldwell feels an urge to berate the Major, but reigns in the instinct: this is neither the place nor time to question the man’s lack of discipline. The marines following the Major aren’t blinking or moving, and Caldwell isn’t so blind he doesn’t see how closely their hands rest on their weapons.

He lets Phoebe watch the marines for him, and she relays their names, as read from their uniforms: Ford, DeSalle, Hester, Kemp. The woman – her uniform doesn’t carry a name tag, as if borrowed from a bunch of spares, clean empty slates. Caldwell thinks he’s seen her before, during that briefing. She’d spoken for the Athosians, a people native to this galaxy, one of their precious few allies. Part of the Major’s team, AR-1. Teyla Emmagan. Her face is closely guarded, impossible to read, but her Dæmon – a creature that isn’t Earth in origin at all, though Caldwell thinks he sees shadows there of animals he knows about – is clearly tense. As if prepared for a fight. Prepared to defend, to deflect an attack.

“Colonel.”

“Major. Dr Weir said there’s something urgent we need to discuss?”

Something passes between two of the men behind the Major’s shoulder. A tense, terse look. To the untrained eye, the motion would be invisible. Caldwell’s sinking suspicions reach even further. Something is going on here. Wraith in the City? Intruders?

But they wouldn’t have been able to get through the shield, Phoebe reminds him.

But then what? And if there are intruders, why didn’t Weir request armed backup?

“Yes, sir. This way.”

The Major leads the way inside, from the wind where the crashing waves upon the Pier are singing, through a pair of automatically retracting doors. Without the overhanging threat of the Wraith, Caldwell takes a moment to glance around, just take in the alien architectural, this place with is so foreign. There’s a certain haunting beauty to it, but also a distant coldness, and Caldwell suppresses a tremor: a sudden feeling sneaking up on him, and his Dæmon presses closer. This isn’t a place where you’d want to be alone after dark. Caldwell rarely feels intimidated by places, but this is one of those few times.

In contrast, the Lanteans are seemingly at easy; the tension in their bodies comes from something else. The Major doesn’t refer to a digital map on a PDA, merely walks as if he knows the City’s layout like the back of his hand. He probably does.

The walk is brisk and mid-way, one of the Lanteans – his uniform’s name tag reads Sergeant Stackhouse – lays a hand to his earpiece, as if listening, then says to the Major: “Sir, MacGrimmon’s reporting they’re having an issue with the, the guests.”

A moment’s hesitation: Caldwell realizes it’s because of him and his people, their presence, disturbingly, and he wonders what the hell is going on to cause such a turnabout. Before departing from Lantea, Caldwell hadn’t detected the same kind of mistrust from any of the expedition personnel, not toward him and his crew. What’s warranting it now?

However, no more words are needed for the Major to seemingly understand. “It figures.” He presses the button on his own radio. “MacGrimmon, this is Sheppard. How’s the mood down there?”

“Well, sir, we’ve got a few more willing to talk,” replies a tinny voice, the thin sound from the small speakers amplified as they cross into a larger room, footsteps echoing heavily. “And the big boss is getting a bit jittery.”

“Copy that. Prep for an interview, and I’ll joint you in fifteen minutes. Sheppard out.”

“Copy all. MacGrimmon out.”

Caldwell bites back a noise of surprise; from what he can discern of that conversation, it sounds like they have a prisoner. But who, and why?

“Major,” he presses, but Sheppard shrugs off the underlying command all-too-easily, and nobody of the Lanteans react. A common occurrence, then. They’re not blinking. “What’s going on here?”

“You’ll find out in a moment, Colonel.”

They enter a small space, appearing to be little more than a closet, but since the Lanteans are piling inside in groups – three at the time – Caldwell figures that’s not really the case. The light doors close, and there’s a humming noise, a bright flash, and then they open: the room’s empty. Sensing the question in the air, Major Sheppard says: “Transporter. After you, sir.”

Once Caldwell, the Major and one of his crew, Marks, are inside, a two-dimensional map appears in the wall which slides open. Some kind of basic schematic of the City. The Major doesn’t touch anything or move, but the doors close as if he doesn’t need to give orders for it to function.

Using a transporter is a new thing, yet not disconcerting since it acts so much like a cross between elevator and Asgard beam, and Caldwell blinks just briefly when the light clears and the doors open – to a new corridor which, unlike the last one, is not so pristine and quiet. Two armed marines are guarding the doors.

The hallway is littered with scorch marks, as if from blasters or maybe stunners, and there are a couple of pins from stun grenades still on the floor. Right above a panel there’s a dark streak: a bullet embedded in the alien material, like a scar. A third person is sweeping the floor, and all three tense into attention as the officers enter the corridor – but the Major says, “At ease,” and exchanges a nod with the guards, wordlessly.

Some kind of fight took place here. But no Wraith were in the City – none of this makes sense.

Unless –


Dr Weir meets them halfway. Like the rest of the Lanteans, she has an air of discomforted disquiet, a heavy kind of silence and it’s almost visible, touchable. The glass walls of her office don’t filter out all sound, and the Control Room is busy with movement and orders and people and Dæmons, all in a quiet rush as if in the aftermath of an explosion;

Caldwell catches a glimpse of Dr McKay, the man who’d presented the idea to cloak the City and fly it away, and the man is angrily red-faced and yelling and no one is batting an eye, though Major Sheppard’s frown turns into something … different. Caldwell isn’t sure exactly what. But Sheppard doesn’t approach right away, doesn’t berate the astrophysicist, just – simply – watches. And then the man sees, eyes catching, and no words are muttered aloud, just slight shifts in expressions and hands as if between well-tuned experienced warriors on the battlefield conveying strategies. A team that doesn’t need words to convey meaning. Then both move on, in different directions, casually, and Caldwell suddenly gets the impression that he’s missed out a whole conversation.

Behind them the glass doors slide closed, quietly. Captain Marks and his Dæmon linger outside, slightly restlessly.

“Doctor, want to tell what the hell is going on?”

Weir leans back in her chair. Tiredly. Doesn’t sigh, but almost. “A few hours after leaving Lantea, still in hyperspace, there was an incident.” It sounds like an understatement, her tone not matching her stance. “Though that’s hardly the best word for it. While we were out of contact with the Daedalus, Colonel Everett, myself, and Major Sheppard and his team gathered for a brief where some details were put forth which drove Colonel Everett to arrest Major Sheppard.”

Caldwell can’t hold back the noise leaving his throat; this is not at all what he’d expected to hear. “What?”

Then: the Dæmon, perhaps? The Raven, which is so strange and foreign to all their senses – is that what …?

Maybe, murmurs Phoebe thoughtfully so that only he can perceive it; though such a decision is still a bit irrational, isn’t it? We’ve met Colonel Everett. On what grounds would be make such an arrest?

The question is obvious and doesn’t need to be asked aloud. Caldwell takes seat, realizing this is an explanation that’s going to be lengthy and possibly intricate. 

“Colonel Everett declared Major Sheppard to be a security risk and detained him. The Major went with them quietly, but despite this, Colonel Everett tried to shoot Sheppard’s Dæmon with a stunner. The shot missed, but I think it was only thanks to their flying skills – if hit, the damage might have injured or possibly killed them both.”

Knowing the confused shock must be slipping through his stern facade, Caldwell clears his throat. “Doctor, I know the Colonel. Granted, I have not worked together with him often, but I’ve never gotten the impression that Everett would do such a thing. He’s not that irrational.”

“Perhaps that’s the impression you’ve got, but to be honest he never got on the right foot with my people.” Her people. An entity: them and us. The implications are huge. “We have video footage of the incident, and much of what followed. After detaining Major Sheppard, Colonel Everett proceeded to rescind my command of this base. This was not a wise move. Apparently, from what we’ve gathered so far, the Colonel ordered Major Sheppard to be arrested believing him to be under influence of the Goa’uld.”

Caldwell’s blood runs cold. He wants nothing to do with those Snakes. But Major Sheppard had met him and his men, unafraid, on the pier, without restraint, and there’s been nothing about him to indicate a possession – certainly none of that arrogant behavior which Caldwell had assumed came with the package. Clearly, if this was true, Weir wouldn’t let him run free – unless she too is compromised – but then why not simply shoot the Daedalus out of orbit? Why let them land, unhindered and unchallenged?

“I understand what you’re thinking, Colonel, but Colonel Everett’s actions were based on assumptions, not facts. Major Sheppard is in no way compromised by the Goa’uld or any other enemy. In fact, without him, none of us would be sitting here alive right now. I owe him my life, and trust him implicitly. What Everett did was out of order. However, his orders were enough for his men to act: whatever he told them it was enough to make them believe Sheppard was compromised. From their reasoning, the Shape and circumstances of his Dæmon were quite enough evidence.”

“How does he explain his Dæmon, then?”

“He did tell us that, during the briefing,” Weir explains. “The fact is, the Major’s Dæmon only Emerged a few days ago. This is a unique situation. Moreover, Sheppard told us about a certain Bond, for the lack of a better word, which he shares with the City, and it goes beyond just being able to use Ancient technology. Atlantis itself is sentient, perhaps not in the conventional way we think of the concept, but nonetheless. The City has connected with Sheppard similarly to a Dæmon Bond, in which he can access many systems, like internal sensors, without actually having to use a console or interface.”

Which would make anyone nervous.

“How is that even possible?”

“He’s still not sure of all the details. All he knows, Colonel, is that the moment he stepped through the Stargate, he could hear the City in his mind. A link to his ATA-gene, perhaps. It’s the strongest expression we’ve found, after all; not even O’Neill could control the Chair in Antarctica as naturally as Major Sheppard does it. But this is what seems to have driven Colonel Everett to the actions he took.”

The way the Major had walked through the corridors, never having to check for reference: when he’d entered the transporter and never pushed any buttons … so that’s why. Is that why he was able to fly the City in the first place? There are other people with the Ancient gene – and they don’t seem to share in this affinity, or surely Weir would include it in her explanations?

Hear the City in his mind. Truth to be told, Caldwell cannot understand, cannot imagine it. Hear the City as – what? a voice, a presence? with or without words? Like a Dæmon Bond – Atlantis is sentient …

Does that mean the City is – watching them right now?

That’s slightly disconcerting. Perhaps a comfort to the Lanteans, but to Caldwell the thought only makes his spine crawl, as if he’s been watched by a potential enemy, surveilled by eyes he can’t watch in return; and he realizes, a slow and steady thought rising, that if he were to make any sudden move, then he and his people may not get away from here alive and whole. The City could raise the ZPM-powered shield and the Daedalus would never be able to get out.

“Something tells me I’m not going to like what follows,” Caldwell mutters wryly, and the woman across the table sighs, suddenly, exuding the same ragged weariness as Major Sheppard.

“No, I don’t think you will. Upon witnessing how Major Sheppard was restrained and my command rescinded, word spread through the City very fast. Now, you must understand, Colonel, that we have been living here, cut off from Earth for nearly a year. This … this has forged a tight bond between us all; out here, we are dependent on one another. If you have read the reports we sent to Earth, you also know that Major Sheppard defended the City from a Genii strike force a few months ago.”

Caldwell nods, but doesn’t say anything. The report from Major Sheppard had been succinct, efficient, impersonal, just like pulling the trigger of a gun; Weir’s had been much more in-depth, vivid multicolor, painting a clear enough picture so that they could enlarge it and examine it very closely.

“That protectiveness isn’t one-sided. When Colonel Everett had arrested the Major and rescinded my command, our people took action. And I sanctioned it. I assure you, though, that we did not head into this situation only using brute force. I made radio contact with Everett and tried to negotiate; he refused to listen. Nonlethal force was used, Wraith stunners and tasers, to take back control of the City a little at the time.”

Firefights. “So the damage I saw on the way here wasn’t from the Wraith.”

“The Wraith never got into the City. We had both military and civilian personnel taking action, once it was clear that Everett had no intention in justifying his actions. A team broke Major Sheppard out his cell and took him back here. This was roughly half an hour before we were about to land; and we desperately needed Sheppard in the Chair to actually do that. But Everett had sent men to take both the Core Room and the Chair. When attacking the former, one of our marines, Lieutenant Thompson, was unfortunately killed. This,” she says, pauses, voices softening; it was never raging, but held an undercurrent of tired anger, of wounds still too fresh: “this was probably the crucial turning point. John immediately took action. He led a strike team to corner Everett and make him surrender. The Colonel was attempting to cut us off from the Chair Room. If that had happened … Well, I hardly need to remind you, Colonel.”

Caldwell inhales, exhales, sharply. Doesn’t remark on the familiar use of a first name. Truly, he can’t be that surprised. These people have been stuck, trapped, in Pegasus for almost twelve Earth months, living and fighting and breathing together, side-by-side. Under such circumstance, no one could be blamed for letting protocol get slacker, for people to get more familiar, to almost step on toes. It’s unavoidable. 

“And you succeeded.” It’s not a question.

“More or less. Everett’s men were subdued, however Sheppard’s Dæmon was injured by Everett’s and had to be rushed to the infirmary once we’d landed – we made it in the nick of time.”

It would explain a lot of things – such as why the Major’s Dæmon had looked to be in pain when he’d met them on the Pier. 

“Now you have the story of what happened, or at least the extremely abbreviated version. So far, only one of the Colonel’s people, his XO Major Wolfe, has been willing to talk. He is the one who informed us about the suspicions of this being some kind of Goa’uld plot.”

“That would convince a lot of people they’re fighting for the right cause,” Caldwell murmurs, not unkindly.

This was not what he had expected at all. An alien incursion – but one from within? How are they meant to handle this? What is he meant to report to the SGC?

Elizabeth Weir’s eyes are burning, and he realizes that she is thinking the exact same thing. They haven’t opened a wormhole back to Earth for this very reason. She is studying him, carefully, as if unsure if he is an ally or an impostor. Not openly distrustful, but clearly unhappy with this situation.

“The video recordings you mentioned,” he starts, Phoebe agreeing: Evidence, that’s what we need to see – and Weir nods.

“Would you like to see it? Not all of it is gathered yet, and some pieces are out of order, but we have this.”

She opens up her laptop, rousing it from its standby mode, and clicks open a folder full of scattered images. She chooses one, marked with a timeframe that’s clearly outside of Earth’s boundaries, tiny red-blocked lettering reading 26:57 SAT – she explains, hurriedly: Standard Atlantis Time, still following that of Lantea rather than this new planet because they haven’t had the time to establish such things. The file is just hours fresh. She turns the screen toward him and waits. Watches. No doubt wanting to catch every detail in his reaction.

The image clears from black to white and forms a spacious room. Recalling the Conference room from the brief time he’d been there as they’d planned the details on how to fake the City’s self-destruct, Caldwell recognizes those uncomfortable chairs and the triangular table. Faces: Dr Weir, Dr McKay, a young Lieutenant, the Athosian woman – Teyla, if his memory serves him right. And Major Sheppard, a Raven on his shoulder. He’s sitting, slightly tense, speaking to them: the recording starts in mid-conversation, only catching the end of a few words. Dr McKay is arguing with the Major, it seems like, but amicably, in a way that doesn’t cause actual anger; the kind of familiar heat that occurs between close friends. They’re on the same team, AR-1, and both are senior staff, naturally spending time together even though one is a civilian and the other Air Force – perhaps that’s why.

“… She’s taking offense being called simply a machine,” the Major is saying, voice slightly distant yet very clear in the recording:

“Maybe you should apologize?” the young Lieutenant says, nudging Dr McKay’s arm lightly. “I’d rather not have an angry City while we’re in the middle of hyperspace, doc.”

An angry City? A City capable of any actual emotion? The thought is daunting, and foreign. Caldwell frowns. The Bond, Weir had said, the City is sentient, and the Major has a Bond with it – such an alien thought, and yet … 

“Yeah, or you never know what might happen. Cold showers for the rest of your life …”

“I could easily override –”

“Gentlemen,” Weir interrupts before it can escalate: and there’s something almost painfully intimate about the scene itself, the aggravated, pinched, slightly humored voices of the Major and Dr McKay, as if these kinds of personal informal exchanges are common at serious briefings, not following a strict protocol. ”If we could please focus? We need to be thinking of how, or if at all, we should tell the SGC about…” 

Then the doors open, without warning, all sections folding inward, and Colonel Everett steps within range of the video camera – unknowingly, probably, by the way he doesn’t react or look in the direction of the camera. Perhaps it’s hidden somehow. The man is armed with a Wraith stunner and a handgun, and flanked by marines: armed, too, and some of them with P90s. Lethal weapons. At the intrusion, the reaction is immediate and it’s obvious that the Athosian woman is a well-trained warrior, and even Dr McKay has had some rudimentary training, or perhaps his reflexes have just become better. The Lieutenant – Ford? The Major’s XO – is reaching for his 9mil.

“What the hell is going on here?” Weir demands to know as Everett crosses the threshold, weapons aimed solely at Major Sheppard and the Raven. “Lower your weapons – that is an order!”

“You are no longer in command, Dr Weir. This base and all its personnel are now answering to the highest ranking military officer on base. Major Sheppard is to be detained immediately.”

“You can’t do that!” cries Dr McKay, frustrated and with an edge to his voice which Caldwell might even dare call dangerous – or, at least, attempting to be threatening and there is something, like an undercurrent, as if it’s not emptily.

“Under what charges?”

“Major Sheppard has proven to be a high security risk, and that risk must be contained.”

Throughout all this, the Major appears laid-back, at ease, though there is a tension to his brow which can be seen from this upper angle, and his body is poised quietly screaming he is ready for a fight. He makes no sudden movements. “That’s how it’s going to be, huh?” he says, and Everett motions him to follow, to come quietly. He steps forward. 

No word is passed aloud between human and Dæmon, but Caldwell isn’t surprised. A Bond goes deep, everywhere, like bones in a body: and the Raven leaps up and away, no doubt following the instinct to survive – to flee – and Caldwell swallows, mouth suddenly a bit dry, when the Major remains so … calm. As if the distance between himself and his Dæmon isn’t steadily growing, crossing the lines of What Should Be Possible. The man doesn’t move, doesn’t cry out in pain, doesn’t scream.

But the Dæmon does move and so does Everett. A stunner is raised, trigger pulled and there’s a loud whooping noise, a sharp blast of blue light. Once, twice, three times. The Raven cuts past the blasts utterly gracefully, as if dancing, and flies out of sight. It does not turn around to fight, nor does it attack any marine: it’s clearly just trying to disappear someplace safer. The video angle abruptly shifts, to another source, a camera located in the hallway outside of the Conference room: the Raven is fleeing, upward, and Everett remains pointing the stunner skyward for a few more seconds. His face is harshly set, as if permanently carved out from a rock, an imprint of anger, of finely concealed shock, of frustration. And Caldwell has never seen fear on the man’s face, before, but there’s a glimpse of something in the washed-out imagines that might just be that.

“Fine. Lead the way,” the Major says, voice all still, all compliant and the images have color: Caldwell can see how Weir and McKay and the others are pale, fists clenched tersely, protests resting on their lips. The Major looks winded, as if he’d physically been up there, lifting through the air, narrowly avoiding being shot down. Everett turns his back, uncaringly, and the marines flank the Major and they walk out of there. Quietly. The Major doesn’t fight or struggle or shout alarms, even as they pass by others: civilians, marines, people on duty, and their faces mirror confusion.

The odd formation exits the corridor, and the video ends.

“Now you see our dilemma, Colonel.”

They can’t contact the SGC without being certain they could handle the consequences and, right now, Weir does not seem that sure. Granted, Earth doesn’t have a ZPM right now or a ship to send, unless they dispatch the Prometheus, but the Daedalus’ sistership is busy dealing with the issues of the Milky Way galaxy, and even then a journey to Pegasus would take three to four weeks. That would give Atlantis plenty of time to prepare for an invasion force: besides, with three ZPMs powering the City, even the Prometheus with its gathered technology would stand little chance against the Chair. And such an action – to declare – what? independence? war? Any kind of conflict – Weir is desperately trying to avoid it. Trying to fix this, mend the seams, before it’s too late. Find the answers, the right ones to send to Earth to explain.

Colonel Everett is still detained. This means that, technically, he is the highest ranking military officer on base. He could be – should be – taking command from Major Sheppard. But looking at Weir’s tired face, the eyes hardened with betrayal and distrust and fears –

We can’t, Phoebe says. Not unless we want to stir up another uprising.

Something tells him that if that would happen, the Daedalus would lose: badly.

So instead he asks: “What do you need?”

Chapter Text

xxxii.

fallout

part three

“you’re not meant to be the enemy –
marines fighting marines, dying from each other’s bullets – that’s not supposed to happen;
but it happened. and somebody’s going to have to answer for it.”
 


A cold wind washes across the East Pier as they cross the threshold. The giant imposing form of the Daedalus – all darkly matted grays and sharp angles – settles over the waters, stirring it sharply as the engines slowly grind to a halt. The air is tangled with salt, and something indeterminable and foreign; this is the first time they’ve tasted the atmosphere of this planet. They’re on a different part of the hemisphere than on Lantea, a few degrees colder. Maybe it’s winter. Got to check that with the scientists later. Right now, they’ve got direr concerns than to figure out the weather patterns of New Lantea.

John is holding his breath as the warship touches down and stills.

Ford, by his side, is clearly trying not to worry. Shifting, slightly, nervously, weapon close by. John keeps his eyes fixed on the Terran ship, unwaveringly. At least the ship isn’t powering weapons, no guns are pointed at the City – the people on board still have no idea of what has occurred.

Teyla, on his other side, is calmer. Together, flanked by DeSalle and Hester as well, they descend the gentle slope of the open area, as the Daedalus’ roaring engines slowly turn to silence. 

The Athosian regards the gray giant curiously. Still, for all its impressive shadows and technology, the Daedalus is much smaller than a Hiveship – more on par in size with a Wraith Cruiser, perhaps. But it’s more advanced, and a single warship like this can tip the scales in battle, surely, and it’s no lie it would be useful to have access to a ship like this at all times when fighting the Wraith. They may have bought the ruse of Atlantis’ self-destruct, but that doesn’t meant the Lanteans will never encounter the Wraith again – or that they’ll stop trying save human worlds from their slaughter.

“Does Earth possess many of these ships?” Teyla asks.

“Not really,” John says. Tries to remember details read eleven and a half months earlier, but some of them are very blurry.

“There’s the Prometheus, the first X-303,” Ford says, nodding, unknowingly sparing him from stuttering over an uncertain reply. “But this looks a bit different. Like, upgraded, I think. Not as bulky at the back, probably the engines or something.”

“Been aboard one?” John wonders. The Lieutenant’s never mentioned that, nor was there anything in his file to indicate it.

The young man shakes his head, and Adria looks decisively seasick at the thought. Perhaps it’s the claustrophobia-inducing walls, windowless for most part – the thought of being stuck inside the gray, mute machine for days or weeks or possibly months; and John’s a pilot, can handle a narrow cockpit well enough, but he’s sure that he’d be climbing walls within a day if stranded aboard the Daedalus.

“Seen pictures, though,” Ford says. “Not the full schematic, but, y’know, enough to see that this one’s a bit different. Plus they have that Asgard technology – the beaming? – the Prometheus doesn’t have that, as far as I know.”

As they watch and wait, a bridge opens and extends from the midsection of the hull. It’s narrow in comparison, reaching toward the unknown. Once it’s settled against the Pier, a sliding door opens, and a few faraway figures begin to move out. John fishes out his binoculars, peers the distance: for safety reasons, they’ve lingered a few hundred meters away from the ship, not wanting to get blast off their feet by the gusts as it landed. Granted, the ship’s a pretty impressive sight, but it also causes worry to churn in his gut. Fear. Whose side is Caldwell going to be on?

If all goes to hell …

[We’ve got drones for the Chair now], Shy murmurs, but uncomfortably; could he do that? Sit in the Chair and tear apart the Terran ship and everyone inside it? Even to defend Atlantis?

Terrifyingly enough, there is a tiny, defiant part of him that can imagine it, and John inhales sharply as the picture rises unasked for to mind.

Let’s hope we don’t have to make that decision.

Colonel Caldwell is clad in green, as are his crew; they also appear to be unarmed. Makes sense, John guesses, an afterthought: aboard the ship itself, there’s no reason for people to run around with sidearms and P90s. There are USAF officers aboard, experienced pilots – don’t they have these fighters, F-302s? – though they’d never launched them against the Wraith – and technicians, engineers, scientists. Probably not a lot of civilian ones, but still; none of them would be armed on a daily basis.

Not like the people of Atlantis.

The man is wearing a grim, guarded expression; as they come closer, John observes the man’s Dæmon, as well. Surprisingly fluffy, but with a certain determined grace in their steps, it looks similar to a Newfoundland, if he’s not mistaken, and bearing the same silent solemnity. Caldwell reaches them, shouldered by another officer – his name tag reads Captain Marks – and John inclines his head. A reflection of doubtful respect and obedience; but he doesn’t salute, cannot make his muscles move in that direction after everything that’s happened – he’s ready for confrontation, if necessary, should the Colonel take offence at this seemingly blatant display of disrespect. But Caldwell doesn’t berate him for the lack of a salute.

“Colonel.”

“Major. Dr Weir said there’s something urgent we need to discuss?”

“Yes, sir. This way.”


 

The route takes them through previously flooded areas, which still carry a heavily distinguishable smell of algae, past closed doors and toward the nearest transporter. En route, a radio crackles and MacGrimmon sends a brief sitrep; there’s a narrow miss of slip of tongue, and judging by Caldwell’s expression, a slight twitch between his eyes, he picked it up. However, the Colonel doesn’t remark on it, or ask questions about the so-called ‘guests’ though the man must be figuring they’re talking about prisoners of some sort.

They reach the transporter. John lets his team go first, before he beckons Caldwell to follow. It’s bit cramped, but the trip is short, and Caldwell takes it in stride; they end up in a corridor, close to the Control Room, where just a few hours ago Lance Corporal Gladys had stood guard with a taser. Now Sanchez and Evans are flanking the doors, and a technician is sweeping up the remnants of a stun grenade. The scars after the incursion are evident. The Colonel’s people had tried to take this corridor, via the transporter, just minutes before Ford and Teyla had broken him out of his cell – which was why they’d been greeted by the business end of a taser upon return.

Out of the corner of his eye, even as he nods at his people, John tries to keep tabs on Colonel Caldwell and Captain Marks’ reactions. Their trained gazes will have spotted the damage done, even if it is slight – a bullet buried in a wall, a couple of scorch marks from weapons fire – the millisecond the transporter doors opened. The Colonel is difficult to read. The lines in his face are already deep, and eyes shadowed; his Dæmon is too close to the floor for John to be able to discreetly glance at without being discovered. Captain Marks’ eyes widen a fraction, but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask questions.

He leads them onward. Ford and Teyla have already dispersed; in the Control Room, John takes the stairs up two steps at the time, closely followed by the Colonel, and he doesn’t need to give directions from here on. “Weir’s waiting for you in her office, sir.”

“Thank you, Major.”

John lingers as the Colonel disappears behind the glass walls, and once the office doors close he turns to leave: MacGrimmon had said Colonel Everett might be loosening up, so now might be a good time for a chat. And he needs to talk with Corporal Jacobs, the man who’d lead the team that struck the Core Room, where Thompson was killed. Answers need to be found.

However, right when he’s turning on his heel, he senses – or rather, Shy senses and alerts him – [Hey, look, there they are].

Movement on his left: there’s Rodney and Meredith, and John’s attention shifts rapidly and unasked: Rodney’s loud, as always, arguing with Grodin and Zelenka about something. Making broad shapes with his hands and arms, a PDA in a tight grip. Though he’s not listening to the words, the steady stream of noise is kind of comforting, familiar. In this chaos of foreign things, that comfort, sudden and sublime, is something he would almost like to physically grasp in his hands and hold close. John might be staring. When Radek tries to intone something, Rodney rolls his eyes; a display which John has seen before, exaggerated, all with a sigh and crossed arms –

As he does so, Rodney freezes in mid-motion, spotting him there on top of the stairs. Suddenly, John gets all uncertain. Like he’s – like he’s some kid, perhaps, caught in the headlights after stealing cookies from a kitchen jar; or, rather, like he’s that awkwardly freckled fourteen year old with his first painful terrible crush and caught staring and suddenly, weirdly enough, he remembers that kid – Ross, wasn’t that the name? they’d played for the same team – who’d teased him for it, endlessly. Unaware that John, the guy who called him a friend, was a Dæmonless Strangeling at the time; unaware –

[Hey, he’s staring at us. And we at him. Say something?] Shy suggests, breaking the one point three seconds of silence.

Like what? – Like: ‘Hey, I know we kissed just a little while ago and never talked about it and, I don’t know, maybe we should?’ Or: ‘Hey, I’m staring at you here in the Control Room for everyone to see just because you’re kind of distracting (in a good way)?’ Or: ‘Do we need to talk about it; would that make things better or worse?’

[Well, I don’t know.]

And Rodney and Meredith look at him; and he knows them so well by now, too well: he can tell, from those expressions, mixed things, that they’re annoyed and probably needing some coffee about two hours ago, and there’s this quirk, this tiny thing by the corner of Rodney’s mouth – the hint of a smile and John returns the glance, jerking his head minutely upward, sideways – like saying, I’ve got to be off; people to interrogate, that kind of stuff. And Rodney completes the eye-roll he started a few seconds earlier but it’s all different and aimed his way, not toward whoever’s actually annoying him. Meredith leaps off the console she’s been sitting on, strokes her body against Rodney’s leg, sit back on her haunches; and, like a bell, ringing clear in the morning sun above the dew, there’s a gentle probing asking for permission:

John feels it across the Bond, a slight tug on Shy’s end, except not directly connected to him; and his Raven bends their neck to press their head to the juncture of his jaw and throat, warmly, and like a transmission relayed from another point, there’s another voice: Meredith’s and Rodney’s, as one: Any particular reason you’re just standing there?

And the Bond feels open, centered and pointed in their direction, and John lets Shy think for them: Not really, no. And from the way Rodney’s eyes widen by a fraction, he guesses Meredith picked that up.

Whoa. That’s … that’s pretty cool.

Then let us finish yelling at these asshats, Rodney and Meredith say. 

It’s all passed by and over in less than four seconds, and Rodney’s already turned back to arguing with Zelenka and Grodin, who remain wholly unaware; everyone is wholly unaware, and like that, suddenly, it’s alright again. They can breathe, unhindered, though John’s chest is a little tight, his hands slightly clammy, pulse a degree more rapid than it should be.

He forces his legs to move.

 

The detention area is deep within the underbelly of the City and right now it’s a few degrees chillier in here than the rest of Atlantis. Probably doing it on purpose, cheekily; there’s something tense vibrating in Her Song, a lingering aftertaste of anger in Her murmurs. She had Seen Everything; the fighting and the yelling and the blood, the dying, the wolf. The wolf which now is pacing, circling slowly the few square feet of the cell, the length and the width perfectly measured and memorized. In contrast, the Colonel is sitting, waiting, perfectly still. Patiently.

Corporal MacGrimmon and Sergeant Bates are waiting for him, and they salute as John enters the room. A statement which the Colonel can plainly see. There’s a narrow of eyes, the dark expression tightening. John doesn’t smile, but doesn’t frown; remains coolly pleasant, like a breeze. MacGrimmon remains professionally detached; Bates, on the other hand, exudes coldness like a storm that could have been raging for years.

To be fair, it’s the kind of face John has often seen him make, much more often than he’s seen the man anything near happy, or pleased, or smiling. He’s always been serious. Now Bates’ Dæmon is glaring at Everett’s wolf between the bars, and John, distantly, gets the feeling that if not for Bates’ self-restraint, there might be an outburst and, if not for the forcefield around the cell, an attack: Bates’ wolverine-Shaped Dæmon might pounce – it’s because of Everett’s orders and actions that Thompson is dead.

“We’re setting up for an interview in the Conference room, sir,” MacGrimmon says. Corporal Jacobs is in another cell, a make-shift one; one of the empty rooms, quickly converted into isolation, where they’ve put people in groups of three to five or six, and they have disabled the crystal control panel on the inside so they can’t break out. Thankfully, nobody has tried. It’s still not clear what they all know, what they were told, what made them obey. What was the last straw. 

John nods. Taps his earpiece. Tells them to escort Corporal Jacobs to the Conference room, receives an affirmative. All the while, he stands in front of the cell, looks right at Colonel Everett, unwavering. Not like Bates, but with the echo of a smile: knowing that, for once, they have the upper hand.

He doesn’t except Everett to actually say anything. He’s a tough marine, who won’t crack under pressure easily, won’t bend or give in: he can’t even think he’s lost. No, because the SGC might back him up. He is – was, at least, until Caldwell landed – the highest ranking military officer in Atlantis. And if he had seen it fit to seize full control of the City – the SGC might agree that it was his call, his right. Everett knows this. He knows they won’t touch him, or threaten him – or fulfill any threats, anyway – he knows he is safe; he can wait, patiently, as the hours become days and eventually the SGC will act. One way or another, he’ll get out of here, surely. Yeah, John’s pretty certain that’s what the man is thinking right now, in his stern silence.

He can play this game.

John regards him and the wolf for a moment longer, and Shy shifts on his shoulder, moving weight from one foot to the other. Wishes they could spread their wings and fly, pounce, too: but they’re tied to the ground, now, by gravity, and the pain is still throbbing dully through the Bond. With a motion of hand, Bates is looking for cues, and John motions him to go, to head for the Conference room. He can handle it. Bates nods, but then, unexpectedly, Everett says – a mutter that wants to turn into a shout:

“Stargate Command won’t stand for this.”

“Maybe,” John drawls, as Bates halts on the doorstep, clearly itching to listen to whatever the man is saying too. To catch the slightest clue. There’s a constant video feed on the cell, hooked to the computers in the Control Room, but it’s always different to hear things live. “Maybe not. Whatever they decide to do, it’s on your hands that a man – a good man: a marine: one of us – is dead.”

Everett stands up. The wolf is still pacing. “I stand by my actions. It’s clear to me, Major –” he makes it sound like an insult, and John doesn’t move. Hey, he could try a little harder, and Shy whispers agrees: [People say more when they’re angry and upset] – “that you are unfit for duty.”

“Funny. They said the same thing at my court martial.”

“Did the jury know you’re a Freak, then, huh? That you’re a Strangeling?”

[See: upset equals talking.]

Though nothing new or useful.

[Point.]

A slight rustle gives away to movement, and John senses, out of the corner of his eye, how MacGrimmon has pulled out his stunner, knuckles pale, and Bates’ frown is deepening. 

John counters, calmly just to be antagonizing: “Did the SGC know you’re paranoid and trigger-happy? Is that why you got this assignment, so that when you saw a Wraith you wouldn’t hesitate to shoot?”

The Colonel’s crossed arms relax, fall to his sides. His whole body is tense, and he walks up to the bars, remembering to avoid the forcefield just in the nick of time not to get burned by it. “I’m doing my duty to protect –”

“Yeah, you are, or you think you are, at least. Same difference. So, told your men I’m a Goa’uld, huh? Yeah – we know. Some of your guys are rather chatty. You know, I was hoping for an excuse a bit more original than alien possession. What do you think, Sergeant?” John jerks his head slightly sideways, and Bates’ grim face consorts into the hint of a smirk, catching onto the game:

“I can think of a couple of more original things, sir.”

“Exactly. Alien possession is so last year.”

But John’s gaze is serious throughout, and his words harden, thinking of the unnecessary bullets and the cries and Lieutenant Thompson bleeding out –

“But I guess you thought all your actions were perfectly justifiable. I mean, just imagine it, being stuck on another planet, another galaxy, cut off from Earth for nearly a year without any chance to call the old folks back home. Imagine, then, after this year of being dependent on each other to survive fighting an enemy with far greater numbers and firepower than your own, and suddenly, after this year, a bunch of strangers walk through the Gate and demand complete obedience. Imagine they take away your command, like you did Dr Weir’s, and expected your marines to follow their orders – without hesitation – while they put you under lock and key, suspecting you to be compromised by an enemy which you’ve never looked at for real – which, let me tell you; first time I stepped through the Gate I ended up in Atlantis, and unless there were some Snakes hidden away in Cheyenne and one of them stowed away in my luggage, I’m afraid your theory’s going to fall far short. So, Colonel, imagine all this has happened and some stranger’s marching in, taking away everything. Would you think, then, that retaliation is out of the question? Because, let me tell you something, Colonel. You’re not meant to be the enemy – marines fighting marines, dying from each other’s bullets – that’s not supposed to happen; but it happened. And somebody’s going to have to answer for it.”

The Colonel stands there, frozen, and the wolf has stopped pacing in the middle of those words and John doesn’t ask questions. Just silences, and waits, meeting that stare, and if something wavers in the Colonel’s expression it’s slowly, and the man doesn’t look away. If there’s a slight realization, a hint of regret, then he’s very good at hiding it.

John hopes it isn’t nonexistent.

Eventually, his radio crackles to life. “Major Sheppard, this is Ford. We’re ready in the Conference room with Corporal Jacobs.”

He doesn’t break away his gaze. “Copy that, Lieutenant. Bates, with me. MacGrimmon, stay here and keep an eye on our guest.”

The wolf isn’t moving.

Without another word to the Colonel, John turns to leave.

Let the words already spoken simmer for a while.


The room is dimmed but for a faint few artificial lights in the ceiling and the glow of the conference table; all the screens on the walls have been turned off. Usually there’d be data there, live streams from the Control Room, visuals of the City and status of the shield. Now, the only tech online in here is that of the small microphone and video camera placed in front of Corporal Jacobs. He hasn’t been cuffed or restrained; it’s not necessary. Two armed guards are holding point by the folding doors, eyes bright in attention. In the silence, they can hear the Corporal breathing. He’s anxiousness is evident: the slight glistening to his skin of sweat, and John’s certain his pulse has to be rapid; his Dæmon is curled on the floor by the chair he’s sitting in, nervously, as if wanting to hide or flee or both.

The man knows what’s going on, at least enough to paint a vivid picture.

Weir is still in her office with Caldwell but has given her go-ahead; when John enters the room, exchanging a nod with Ford, who’s waiting, standing, behind the row of empty chairs facing the Corporal, and the Lieutenant waits until both he and Bates have taken seat until he follows suit. Normally, protocol is much more relaxed here – though only to a certain degree, because everyone in the Corps appreciates protocol for its usefulness, the comfort of knowing what to do when, who to salute, who gives the orders – but now they’re all a bit tenser, a bit more formal.

John can’t say he’s a guy who likes protocol personally, but it has its uses, and he knows Ford and his people. He understands, on a certain level, that this is a show for the Corporal – for all of Everett’s people – to see that they’re not aliens, that they’re not traitors who are that different. They work by the same rules and should be fighting the same enemies, not each other.

“Tell us what happened in the Core Room, Corporal,” John orders. When there’s hesitation, he adds: “This isn’t a court martial, and your cooperation will make this easier for everyone involved, including you. Tell us what happened.”

Jacobs clenches his fists. “My team – Lieutenants González and Mann and Lance Corporal Ramsay and I – we were sent to secure the ZPMs.” A breath, slightly shaky. “We had tasers, and one Wraith stunner procured via the City armory. The Colonel made sure each team was equipped with at least one. And P90s and sidearms but we were told to use lethal force only if necessary. Had to be careful not to damage the ZPMs. The orders were to take control of the power grid. But, there was resistance. Four … four marines. They had a stunner, too. They took out González as we breached the room. I tossed a flashbang inside.”

His eyes flicker, downward, at his hands, knotted in his lap, tightly, before he looks up again. “I entered first, then Mann, and Ramsay took our six. The one who’d hit González, he was on the left side of the doors, and he got Mann with his taser. I took a shot at him with the stunner, but missed first time. Hit his arm second time, and he dropped the taser. I ordered Ramsay to pull Mann out of there. I…I considered retreating; knew I shouldn’t have, but both Mann and González were down, and the four of them were in there. Except we could only see three. The fourth, he was crouched behind the console, right by the ZPMs, we didn’t see him at first. We didn’t have a scanner, those lifesign detector things – none of us have the ATA-gene. And, and he appeared so suddenly and Ramsay, his taser had been knocked out of his hand, I don’t know, I – I didn’t see … he had his sidearm, instead, and he fired without checking if … He fired. The guy dropped, and one of them – the one with the stunner, he almost hit Ramsay right in the face. We managed to pull out of there, dragging González with us – Mann could still walk, sort of anyway, and we doubled back a couple of corridors. No one pursued. We figured we could get another shot at it and keyed in with the Colonel.” Something almost like despair ghosts the man’s shoulders.

“What did he say?”

“To hold position while he sent reinforcements, but they never came. Then, ‘bout half an hour later, we were cornered and then … lights out. Then I came to in an isolation room.”

“You were stunned, Corporal, all four of you, and taken to a cell, along with the rest of the Colonel’s forces,” John explains. “I assume you heard Dr Weir’s Citywide announcement while in there?”

“Yes, sir. A … a Lieutenant. Thomas. Thomson?” The tone is uncertain.

“Thompson. A marine, like you. A good man. The bullet hit an artery. Sliced right through it and he bled out on the operating table. Got a girlfriend, got people back on Earth, waiting for him to come back, and now he’s going to be returned in a damned body bag.”

Jacobs is, by now, even paler, and obviously profusely sweating. “No one, no one was meant to die, I swear, sir! The Colonel told us we had to take the City to save it.”

“To save it? From whom?”

“From the enemy, from the Goa’uld, sir; the Goa’uld had infiltrated the base.”

[Same story. At least we know they’re not lying; they were just being lied to], Shy murmurs. [Or, as ‘just’ as that is … The one we need to talk is Everett, not these guys.]

Too damn right.

But they need to save these voices too. The more nuanced evidence they can present the SGC and the IOA (because John doesn’t think Elizabeth is willing to cut ties with Earth entirely, sharply and abruptly, especially not that the Daedalus has landed), the greater the chances are Generals Landry and O’Neill might be more sympathetic to their cause than Everett’s. They’ll see, then, how Everett played his cards, using his men’s trust and loyalty against them. They had been handpicked for this mission, and some of them had worked for the Colonel in the past, including Major Wolfe; and when you’ve followed a guy into battle, you expect them to have your six, just as you hold theirs. These kinds of games enter dangerously murky territory.

“That’s what Colonel Everett told all of you, and we understand you were following orders, Corporal,” John says, doesn’t look away, doesn’t pretend to flicker through the information presented on the PDA in front of him – there’s a live feed there, updates from the Control Room in case there’s any change. In case Elizabeth’s talk with Caldwell doesn’t go too well. In case the Daedalus decides to open fire. Nothing such has happened, though, and the feed looks the same as five minutes ago.

The Corporal clears his throat, anxiously. “Does this mean Ramsey’s going to be in trouble? Is he going to face court martial – sir?”

He could glare at the guy, demand silence, only speak when spoken to, pull rank. But John doesn’t want to make any more enemies; he’s far too fucking tired for that right now. “I couldn’t say, Corporal. We don’t know what the SGC are going to say about all this. For all we know, they may think the Colonel did the right thing taking control from Dr Weir – from us – and telling his men to seize control of this base. That’s up to them to decide.”

Bates’ arms are crossed, firmly. “What we want right now are answers as to how the hell this happened.”

Ford’s eyes are harder than usual – they have been ever since the beginning of the Siege. The hope that had been lit when they’d found the potentiae, one after the other, has faded, been replaced; and Adria is fixing the other marine with a sharp look. Thompson was a friend – on a base like this, everyone gets close enough to know each other’s names, especially amongst fellow marines – and Ford is still just a kid. Thompson was just about a year older. A life gone to waste so uselessly.

This combination is making Jacobs all the more nervous. And there’s guilt, too, almost so tangible they can smell it. And John feels sorry for him: he knows how it is, to be given orders that are clear enough to begin with but somewhere along the line, there are blurry parts, darkened by blood, and if you stop to think it’s easy to doubt, to question – it’s a sensation, deeply unpleasant and, yet, to a degree oddly fulfilling in the sense that you feel like a fully-fledged thinking responsible human, not just a machine. That’s what landed him in Antarctica after the hell that was Afghanistan. Then, he’d been presented with a choice: a litter of different paths and he’d chosen one like flipping a coin. Now, Corporal Jacobs is facing a similar thing, far too late.

“Did Colonel Everett say he had evidence to prove there’s a Goa’uld infiltrator in the City?” Bates asks, and the Corporal nods.

“Yeah. Didn’t show us, though. Said – we had to gain access to the City’s mainframe, to the computers in the Control Room, but you were cutting them off from us. We needed access codes … senior personnel access codes. Said, there was sure somethin’ there. Plus, uh, your Dæmon, sir,” Jacobs glances at the Raven – “the Colonel said it, it was fake, some kind of decoy.”

[Decoy? I’m seriously offended. Alien possession and now this.] The noise across the Bond can be nothing but a dramatically theatrical sigh, the audial equivalent of rolling eyes. 

Bates actually snorts. “Major Sheppard’s Dæmon may be highly unusual but it’s definitely a real live Dæmon, and one which your superior officer tried to shoot.”

Jacobs’ eyes widen by a fraction. “I, I didn’t know that, sir.”

“We supposed he might not have been very straightforward about the details. We watched the security tapes; we know you weren’t in the vicinity when it happened, Corporal. It was right here, in fact, right outside these doors.”

Surprisingly, that’s Bates who’s talking, and John bites back the startled expression that might show on his face if he was younger and more inexperienced. However, there’s a kind of heat in Bates’ tone which John has heard, occasionally, but never directed in this manner, with the underlying implications – except Bates had been very quick to help in Control the hours earlier during the Uprising, and hadn’t Rodney said something odd, too? Something like: Some people were witness to them trying to shoot down your Dæmon – and do you know what kind of chaos that erupted when word got out about that? I’ve never seen Bates angry at other people for your sake before …!

“He never said that he’d do something like that,” Jacobs says, insists, a notch of protest hitching his voice. “The Colonel said we had to take action –”

“Were those his exact words: ‘take action’?” Bates cuts in.

“Well, uhm, yeah, as far as I can remember – something like, we’ve got a situation to contain, there’s a Snake and it’s Major Sheppard and we’ve got to take action before it’s too late… Then he took a team with him to make the arrest. He sent a squad down to the detention area, to prep a cell.” No doubt to find the codes to said cell, so to enable the forcefield around the bars. “But there was nothing mentioned that we’d be shooting at our own guys. He said, once we had the Major, everything’d be sorted.”

“Did he say he’d take control from Dr Weir?”

“Not in so many words, sir, but there was a chance she was compromised too.”

“Except no one was compromised, Corporal. No one. There was just a lack of intel, or a misinterpretation of intel. What were his exact words about the nature of Major Sheppard’s being compromised? Alien possession, Snakes – did he use any other terms?”

Jacobs nods rapidly, clearly under duress. His tongue moves fast. “Yeah, yeah, he said there was a Snake, and that’s why Major Sheppard’s Dæmon’s so, uh, so different – that the Major must be … must be a Strangeling,” and the word is uttered slightly strangled, as if he has a difficulty saying it aloud.

Because such words are harsh and degrading and feared, deep insults on par with traitor or being accused of murder – the kind of words no one with a heart wants to spell out unless they have to, unless it occurs in a historical, dramatic fairytale or some other place unreal. Because Jacobs doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would throw around such terms, even though he’s a tough marine, even though he might even get involved in brawls and the throwing around of fists and harsh words and his own weight thoughtlessly.

But John has heard that word since he was eight years old, since Dave and Nina picked it up and learned how to use it – though Mother had been upset, had sternly told them off – he can still remember the echoing laughter as they’d danced in the library called him strange strange stange –

“What else?” Bates presses.

“In the Chair Room, when the Wraith were attacking … I was there, along with the Colonel, and some other guys, like González. There was this, this light and that’s when the Dæmon appeared. Emerged. It … The Colonel said, later, during that brief, that it was a creepy lightshow to make us think the Major had a Dæmon, but something went wrong, people weren’t meant to see it or something … And that the Dæmon, it’s a decoy, that’s what the Colonel said. That there was video evidence of the Emergence and everything, that we’d access from Stargate Operations once we had the City.”

“And then we rebelled before he could get his hands on this data and show you. Is that it?”

“Yes, sir.” The Corporal blinks, swallows harshly, looks at Bates and then John respectively. “Permission to ask a question, sir?”

John nods.

“What … what happened in the Chair Room, sir? With the lights and stuff?”

He doesn’t brush away the dust to clarify the details: those aren’t ones he wants to share with anyone outside of his team. John leans back and says, “My Dæmon didn’t Emerge. I was dying, or nearly enough, anyway. Heart stopped for – what was it? ‘bout a minute, I reckon. If you were there to see it, you also saw Dr Beckett giving CPR. Ever heard about Ascension, Corporal?”

“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. Everyone knows about Dr Jackson, when he …” Jacobs silences, eyes widening further. And he looks so young, now, painfully so. Whispers quietly Whoa, shit in an exhale. “I wasn’t with the SGC then, but everyone’s heard about it. The official version and some unofficial ones, too. There was a lightshow that time, too, and then he sort of disappeared. I don’t know, I didn’t really believe it, honest, ‘cause it’s just so weird.”

“You’re with the SGC, travelling to other planets to fight aliens, and a lightshow is what freaks you out, Corporal?”

John nearly wants to laugh, all of a sudden, because Oh, hell, of course. Shooting at an enemy you can feel and see and know for sure is real – perhaps born on another planet, but still undoubtedly real – is one thing. To be faced with the possibility of your Soul, your Dæmon, your whole Self transcending dimensions and time into something different, well – that’s a whole other matter. Before the Corporal can attempt to answer, John raises a hand, shakes his head. “What you and the Colonel and everyone else saw was … unfamiliar. And I’m honestly not that surprised that Colonel Everett then put together the pieces he had and drew conclusions.”

“You’re defending his – our actions, sir?”

“We’re trying to understand them.”

Actions that may have been avoided, and some that are truly regrettable, were committed on both sides. This wasn’t a conflict between saints and sinners, a cut line fine and clear between the light and the dark. 

“Did you ever doubt Everett’s orders, or his command? Did any of your team?”

“No, sir, not as such. I’ve served under Colonel Everett for four months, some guys longer than that. He handpicked each of us for this mission, so he knew most of us from earlier ops.” From the way he shifts in his chair, the Corporal might want to worry his upper lip and use a hand to wipe the sweat off his brow but doesn’t dare to move; he keeps his hands harshly clenched together in his lap, so hard he might be cutting off the blood flood in his fingers. His Dæmon is sitting all still underneath his chair, in the cover of its shadow, ears downturned.

And he might be realizing now, just as they, that he is – that they all are – victims to a leader whom they’ve trusted; “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Go ahead, Corporal.”

“I don’t think Colonel Everett meant for anyone to die. He’s very loyal to command. To the SGC. I know he got permission from General Landry to take over if it turned out Dr Weir was compromised in some way, as highest-ranking officer. I – I think the Colonel thought he was doing the right thing.”

He didn’t expect resistance, that’s all.

“All right. Thank you for cooperating, Corporal.”

John stands up, and beckons for Gladys and Hester, standing guard, to escort Jacobs out of there. The man goes silently, still pale, and clutching his Dæmon close.

Watching the three leave, Ford clears his throat. “Want to have Lance Corporal Ramsey called up here, boss?”

But John shakes his head. “Not yet. I want to have a proper chat with Everett first.”

“He’s not going to spill,” Bates says, doubtfully. “Nothing useful, anyway.”

“Maybe not to us. Let’s go see how Weir is getting along with Caldwell.”

Chapter Text

xxxiii.

fallout

part four

“Hey, it’s the truth. I know the definition and it applies: I’m a Strangeling. It’s just a word.”


One two three four times;

More than once have they seen, or almost seen, John die.

Now Rodney feels like he can, with some security, use that name: he’s not just the Major anymore, not just Sheppard, a professionally impersonal distance: no, after the Chair, after the Kiss, they could sure be on first name basis with each other. John doesn’t hesitate in using his, after all. And more than once they’ve almost died – John, and his Raven. Shy. Once that name had been oddly ridiculous. Not a proper name but a brief designation that didn’t really mean anything because it was just a word, it had other associations. It was the adjective that Rodney couldn’t really see fit to use about Major Sheppard. About John, though; maybe, in a way; yes.

Before, it was just a word, and when he was still just Major Sheppard he never said or more than once or twice: rumor spread it onward, through the Mountain in Cheyenne, onward, through the corridors of the city, onward, to every ear in vicinity and everyone knew without being able to pinpoint why that Major Sheppard’s Dæmon was an inscrutable little bug hiding in his pocket, color undetermined, its name even more anonymous;

Now, now they know better than that. Shy isn’t just a word, and Major John Sheppard (not a machine) is more than just a name;

it changed as the City was crashing through hyperspace toward New Lantea, and they’d dealt with the haziest, most painfully eventful hour of watching their people at war with people clad in similar uniforms, following other orders, and Rodney had wanted to shout to yell at them all to  stop  and he’d tried, he’d tried, he’s good at screaming at people (too good sometimes) but this time the Colonel and his people had remained silent and not listening, and John had gone down there, with Ford and Teyla and a few other marines whom Rodney can’t remember more closely; and they’d heard the radio transmissions. They’d heard the cries, and the gunshots, the churning fire. They’d heard the panicked shout and the order for a medic –

it changed as the City almost crashed into the fresh new ocean of New Lantea, and John sat in that Chair still undoubtedly shaken and Shy’s wing had hung at an odd angle, bleeding and broken, and they’d flown them down and settled them not too gently – is there such a thing as landing a City with one’s mind gently?  And John in that Chair with his closed eyes and face relaxed in a way it rarely is nowadays and the Raven’s blood splattered loosely on his uniform: he’d looked beautiful; a word which Rodney and Meredith rarely use about anything unrelated to science, but they’d thought it once before about John, when hearing him speak Ancient. And he’d looked so startlingly beautiful and alive and Rodney couldn’t think so far ahead to stop himself;

he’d been even more surprised when instead of yelling, instead of spluttering awkwardly and angrily and ashamed, John’s hands had curled around his head and shoulders and pulled him back down for another kiss and it hadn’t been the end of the universe. Nothing had imploded. Time hadn’t stood still. It had just been so simple and beautiful and left him wonderfully breathless and he’d wondered why the hell hadn’t they done this earlier –

And then they’d parted ways because there was a City to contain. And Ford and Teyla had been there, looking at them the whole time, no anger there either but Rodney had remembered in time about John, John’s not just anybody, he’s military with their regulations and rules even millions of lightyears from Earth – hell, he’s not even sure if John’s gay, or bi, or whatever, it’s not like they’ve talked about this, it’s not like either of them is good at talking.

And they’d parted ways at the juncture of corridors after the doctors had helped John patch Shy up, and they hadn’t spoken about the kiss or anything else of importance for minutes that turned into hours and what if it turns into days?

And more than once Rodney and Meredith have seen them so close to dying, to being taken away – oh, the difference there was difficult to discern at first. It’s not death itself that’s frightening, the finality of it. It’s the taking away. It’s the inevitable separation. It’s the loss and the what ifs and stuff that they’ve not considered in a long time.

Not that they believe in foretellings of the future, the spatial scattering of possibilities, but right now they’d almost like to hear it: a slight reassurance: an equation they could make sense of to be certain what words are safe and which aren’t, and which actions they can commit and which they can’t, and if this is something they should just forget and leave behind.

Few words nowadays remain just that: just words.


Colonel Caldwell could seize control, force it from them and into his own hands, with one word: but if he does, the Uprising will begin anew, for certain. He’s pragmatic. So instead of grabbing a weapon and waving it around, he asks: “What do you need?”

And Elizabeth almost laughs, so strained with relief, with hopes nearly dashed but saved in the last second – but cools her expression before it reaches her lips. “Your assistance. Your cooperation. Believe me, not everyone in this City is feeling very welcoming right after what’s happened and, quite frankly, you and your crew are strangers.” Strangers on their doorstep. Strangers aboard an armed vessel. “We have fifty-eight people in detention right now; people who shouldn’t be there. Major Wolfe, Everett’s 2IC, has told us one part of the story. Major Sheppard is going to interview Colonel Everett shortly. Hopefully he’ll explain his reasons in full.”

The conversation overheard in the hallway – the big boss is jittery – it makes sense now. “I know Colonel Everett. He’s a marine; he won’t crack easily.”

“We don’t want to ‘crack’ him, as you put it, nor do we expect him to; we just want answers as to how the hell this happened. A man has died, Colonel, and I do not take such things lightly.” Her tone is ferocious through the calmly even words, like a double-edged sword. “You may serve two different branches of the US military but you’re both part of the SGC and share the same rank. I was hoping this could … even it out a little. If he keeps refusing to tell us anything …”

“Then maybe he’ll answer to me; right. And you don’t think, doctor, that he’ll suppose everyone aboard the Daedalus has gone rouge as well?”

These endless issues, piling atop of one another: it’s like the endless chore of paperwork, once a document is signed, another lands on the desk. Elizabeth sighs, holds back a groan; shares a whisper with Simon, ready to tear at her hair; this is never going to end –

A knock on the framework of the glass doors.

Beyond them, Major Sheppard is waiting, and it’s difficult to tell from his expression what’s going on in his mind; usually, Elizabeth would call herself a good judge of character, but Sheppard has long been somewhat of a mystery. Though his shockingly gentle openness with her and his team when he’d told them about his Dæmon, and his Bond with Atlantis – that had changed some things, added a few more pieces to the puzzle, although there are still gaps missing.

Elizabeth wonders if she’ll ever truly know him: the Major rarely laughs as far as she can hear, or smiles in a truly joyous way that reaches his eyes; but he smirks and enjoys riling Rodney up more often than not, both on and off duty. There’s a deceptively easy-going nature, covering up something much darker, something fiercely protective – something which not everybody has seemed to realize yet.

She had tasted it during the Storm, when Acastus Kolya had held her and Rodney hostage; when the Genii had dragged her toward the active Stargate, holding her body in front of his like a shield; and John Sheppard had rushed into the Gate Room, weapon held aloft. There had been a raging fire in his eyes, then, unlike anything Elizabeth had seen in him before; and she knows he’s a soldier, a Special Ops pilot, has spent his tours in Afghanistan, in Iraq – words put on paper in a file, disassociating; but then a bullet had whizzed hotly past her ear so close so close and there’s been a splatter of dark blood as Kolya’s grip abruptly slackened –

And then, afterward, John Sheppard had lowered the weapon and resumed that laid-back stance and asked her if she’s all right, and he’d turned to look at McKay who was silent. And when the rest of the expedition had returned there had been no traces of that cold, calculating man who hadn’t hesitated. In that moment, Elizabeth and Simon had felt, suddenly, that they were dealing with a complete stranger. A stranger they trust with their lives and the lives of everyone in Atlantis – there’s no denying his loyalty to people he trusts, in return; to people he considers his, even maybe part of home: never leave anyone behind. A stranger – willful, able to switch between different cloaks but never truly pulling off the mask – never showing their true face.

Not until they’d sat down in that briefing room and Elizabeth had been taken aback, amazed, because finally there was this honest glimpse of the man she’s been working with, living and fighting alongside anxiously trying to defend themselves against the Wraith – he’s always so distrustfully guarding himself against everyone, always saying I’m fine when he shouldn’t have to; shouldn’t need to.

Elizabeth nods, doesn’t need to shout ‘Enter!’, and the glass doors slide open and briefly, she wonders – does John already know what’s been said? Has the City overheard and let him hear, too?

“Major,” Caldwell says, turning his head. If the Major can sense something the way the Colonel looks at him and the Raven on his shoulder, as if in a new light, he doesn’t remark on it.

“Dr Weir; Colonel.” His back is frigidly tense. It has been for hours, perhaps days: since the Wraith ships first appeared on their scopes, drawing ever nearer. But it’s gotten worse ever since Earth made contact and the reinforcements arrived, and he regards Colonel Caldwell now in that silent way which Elizabeth sees is more than just looking at the man: it’s threat assessment, it’s the quiet quick thinking of getaway plans, of trajectories; it’s a dangerous look, and Caldwell is probably seeing it too. “We’re about to go down to Colonel Everett for questioning.”

They’re not daring to move him up to the Conference room, not like the other men they’ve questioned thus far: they do not trust the man and his wolf to come quietly.

“All right,” Elizabeth says. “We’ll join you in a minute.”


John retreats from the office as soon as he can; all too aware of Caldwell’s gaze burning on his back, and having little idea of what the man’s thinking, his motives, and that’s disturbingly unsettling. He can’t name Caldwell as a friend or foe yet, trust him as an ally, and he doesn’t know what Elizabeth has told him. What has she convinced him about?

Every step urges on the jarred pain from their broken wing and thus far they’ve kept moving, just kept constantly moving their bodies and minds to stray away from it. Now that they’re given a chance to breathe, the onslaught comes sudden and sharp, and John sighs, exhausted, drags a hand over his face and eyes. Tries to force the weariness away. He needs to stay sharp. They need to stay sharp.

What he wouldn’t do for a hot long shower and a bed.

Not that he might sleep much. His body’s so, so tired, but his mind is wildly occupied with too many whirling thoughts; not just the aftermath of the Uprising, but the Chair; their kiss; Rodney. Do they need to talk? Should they? And about what, exactly? It’s not like either of them is good at that kind of thing. 

Maybe it could pass by unannounced.

Maybe –

[Would it be fair, though?] Shy wonders. Because the Soul is bare and honest and bright like a candle, undeniable about those closest things; and this is a matter over mind; John isn’t even sure what he feels. 

He’d reciprocated the kiss – it hadn’t felt wrong. It’d tasted like the slotting of a piece, finishing a puzzle; a bit like coming home, the echo of the City’s landing upon the waves of New Lantea and its untried ocean. His hands still bear the imprint: the tangle of Rodney’s hair, the burn of his scalp beneath his palm as he’d pulled him down again; it’d been so so real

Can they just let that go like the wind, refusing to let it carry them away?


They descend. 

The wolf isn’t pacing anymore. It’s lounging on the pallet of the cell, impatiently; the man, instead, is doing the pacing.

John hasn’t seen his file. He doesn’t know where Everett’s been stationed before, his tours. Frankly, he doesn’t care, except some places shape you deeper than others. He wonders: has the Colonel been to Iraq? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Seen the places other than on maps? Has he ever gone MIA in either of those places, forcibly enduring –

Weir takes the front, and beckons for the cell to be unlocked, while the doors behind are shut tightly. Her features are sharp in contrast with the white overhead lights, and Simon appears impeccably calm. They’ve pulled down a couple of chairs already for this, and MacGrimmon, ever on his guard, punches in the code to deactivate the forcefield. It drops with a small whooshing noise and the bars swing aside, and when Caldwell strides inside Everett’s expression flickers barely: he might be thinking, hoping, that Caldwell is going to see his side, his reason. That this is his getting out. 

The guard has been doubled. In’tars and stunners are pointed unwavering at the prisoner and his Dæmon, and the wolf doesn’t move, and the Colonel stops his pacing to face them. When asked – ordered – to sit, he does. Palms loosely knotted in his lap. Weir takes seat, opposite of him, and Caldwell next, and there’s no one-way mirror here, no table, no visible cameras. Nevertheless, the City is watching as She always has; now John quietly asks the City to record everything; every move, every word, every gesture of hands – [we are already doing so], is the answer, knowingly.

He feels far too tense to sit down. Can’t. Lingers by threshold of the cell, instead, the weight of the stunner comfortably familiar, finger resting, warningly, on the trigger.

He lets Elizabeth and Caldwell do most of the talking.

The Colonel is more forthcoming with Caldwell there; the other officer’s expression gives little away, and John doesn’t know what was said, exactly, between him and Weir in her office. He hadn’t asked Her to eavesdrop, hadn’t wanted to breach that trust with Weir; they’d been in there for quite a while. When on their way to the lower levels, Elizabeth had assured him that Caldwell’s going to be cooperative. Give his assistance.

John doesn’t want to deal with any more enemies and doesn’t question her judgment. She’s the diplomat, not him.

Everett isn’t saying much that is entirely new: things already mentioned by Major Wolfe, by Corporal Jacobs. Just a slightly different angle. Much more determined. He stands by his belief – theory – the orders: that John is controlled by the Goa’uld and how can he be sure – how can they be sure – that he’s not influencing them right now? That the Goa’uld haven’t been aware of Atlantis the whole time, following the expedition since the beginning, infiltrated them from Day One? Because isn’t it suspicious, isn’t it strange that the person with the strongest ATA they’ve ever come across was to fly General O’Neill to the Ancient Outpost that fateful day? Isn’t it strange that he disobeyed orders to sit down in that Chair and isn’t it strange that he’s now admitting some kind of psychic link with the City itself as if She were his Dæmon? And the Raven, what about the Raven?

And John can see it now: Everett isn’t merely suspicious and thinking about security and the SGC and orders to secure Atlantis from the enemy – the Wraith; but also from the Goa’uld – Everett is afraid, too. He’s afraid of him, this Strangeling;

And the Colonel uses that word, once, twice, and when he does Weir goes strangely cold and Caldwell’s frown deepens. And John is almost tempted to rile the man up, to make him say it again, repeatedly again and again and again until the syllables grow dim and utterly meaningless. He wants to hear it until it loses all sense of substance no matter the context, until he can’t make it out anymore in the din of voices; he wants to hear it until it’s forgotten – because Weir and Caldwell, they’re reacting like it’s the most terrible thing, worse than being accused of having a Goa’uld crawled inside of his throat and wrapped around his spine; worse than being called a traitor or coward or murderer or thief. And he wants to yell at them both, suddenly, that it’s just a word and they don’t have to react to it like that; they don’t have to react to it at all.

But they think it’s important enough to note, because Everett had refused to keep radio contact, had refused to negotiate with a Strangeling, still refuses to – he doesn’t look at John, only at Weir and Caldwell, doesn’t acknowledge his presence and that’s fine by John, really, because being ignored in this case is better than being glared at poisonously like he’s the monster dragged up from the dark.

Somewhere along the line, the Colonel has got to realize his argument is falling short, that he keeps repeating sentences that make no sense anymore, not anymore. 

Because even if he was a Goa’uld – how come no one had detected it before? With all their knowledge and technology and medical staff and scans, there’s no way he could have remained a secret spy for more than a few hours; and even if he was, there’d be no Dæmon, there’s be no Raven because a Goa’uld would find no need to keep it; would find no way to keep it if to destroy the remains of the host and leave only an empty physical shell, a body to possess but no soul to fight against. Only the slightest of imprints which would be of no issue anymore.

The plan was, Everett admits as much, to contact the SGC once he had control of the base. Once they’d landed. It wasn’t meant to escalate the way it did.

He thought he was preventing something greater and more dangerous. Because if there was a Goa’uld in Atlantis, he couldn’t let to reach all the way to Earth, not when it had this Bond with the City, such control, such power resting right at his fingertips –

John suddenly feels ill. Is that what they think of him?

A security risk. He’d been detained for that reason and he’d come quietly – Everett had tried to shoot down his Dæmon because they were trying to flee, the most basic of instincts, survive;

What else? The monster in the fairytales – the Strangeling wanting to claim the world and burn it down; and he can whisper with the City while no one else can, let Her voice lull him to sleep. And he’s told his team and Weir, and they’ve accepted it, offered support just because they don’t want him to be put on some pristine table and dissected; now the truth is spreading further. Caldwell doesn’t blink when the Bond is mentioned – Elizabeth must’ve told him. John had said she could do that if she had to, if that’s what it took to convince Caldwell not to order the Daedalus to open fire. Who else is going to find out?

If word spread through the whole City and to the Earth, would they try to –

(Like when they were back on Lantea, the Wraith hovering above, trying to blast apart the shield: when Elizabeth had told them to dial and John had announced I’m not leaving – he could do it again, if he must, he could say it a thousand times. What if they try to force him back to Earth, if they send more forces with minds like Everett’s, armed with more than in’tars and stunners?

What if this brings down Elizabeth and Rodney and Teyla and Ford and everybody else?

                       what then?)


Rodney isn’t in the Control Room anymore when John reaches it, climbing the stairs rapidly; he feels all too heavy and tense and, oh, what wouldn’t he do to be whole enough again to escape; to fly away away away.

Chuck mentions something about data retrieval or some such and McKay’s lab (which is more or less private as he always hogs all the tables, letting few of his underlings even come close to the computers in there), so that’s where John heads. True enough: the lab is well lit, its computers at work, the coffee-machine on stand-by, and Meredith is sitting back on her haunches closely studying a cluttered whiteboard. Well, technically, three whiteboards crammed together to fit neatly next to each other, the equations overlapping. Meanwhile, Rodney’s typing away at one of the computers, a couple of half-empty coffee cups next to the keyboard. As the doors slide open, Rodney looks up, a conflicted expression fighting its way across his face.

“I saw the security feed,” he says without preamble.

John doesn’t say Hello or roll his eyes. “Care to specify? It’s a big City out there,” he points out, leaning casually against the nearest littered desk. Peers at the devices spread out, randomly, and reaches out to grab whatever thing is nearest – happening to be the unpowered personal shield which they’d discovered during their first week in Atlantis, the one Rodney had worn saving the City from the unnamed shadowlike energy-eating monster. Must be trying to figure out if it could be recharged and reset for someone else to use. John fiddles with it, and the once brilliantly gleaming green crystal remains dull and quiet in his palm. He tries not to look right at Rodney’s face; somehow, it’s difficult to look into Rodney’s eyes.

“The cell with Everett. I heard what he said.”

Oh. right. “I thought you were busy yelling at people,” John remarks, and Rodney turns to him, arms crossed. “Or were you multitasking?”

The man doesn’t dignify that question with a response. “You’re ridiculous, you know.”

“Thanks, Rodney.”

“No. Listen. What he said, calling you a, a…” A shake of head. “I’m not going to say it.”

“Rodney,” John cuts in, and puts down the dead shield; it won’t protect anyone anymore. “It’s just a word.”

But he doesn’t cease: of course Rodney doesn’t. “Is that really true though? Your self-preservative tendencies are poor at best, and so – and don’t interrupt me because it’s true – so is your self-image. No, shut up,” Rodney interrupts before John can actually do so, and, accepting fate, John unfolds his hands, looks up. Looks at Rodney’s face, his constantly moving gestures and solid heartbeat and his eyes, and there’s energy there, a kind of churning rage. Familiar but it’s usually not directed this way, this intimate. “You keep acting all Kirk and pretending you’re happy with the current state of affairs but even I, who as admittedly quite bad social skills and reading people is something I rarely do –”

Rodney.”

“I said don’t interrupt!” He even waggles a finger and John bites back hysterical chuckles. “As I was saying, Major, you’re a self-sacrificing moron and, that’s not news I suppose; everyone knows it, except apparently you. That, that moronic maniacal asshat –”

“Oh, I like that. Could put it on a t-shirt.”

There’s no pause for breath: “– he had no right to use that word.”

“Hey, it’s the truth. I know the definition and it applies: I’m a Strangeling. It’s just a word.”

Why are they discussing just one single simple word as if it’s the undoing of time?

“But it isn’t!”

“Rodney. I don’t – listen, being called a Strangeling stopped hurting a long time ago.”

It’s almost frightening, how they’re on the same wavelength and how Rodney’s looking at him right now in a way which, John could think, was a bit how he looked during the heart of the storm as the waters struck the City towers harshly and he split Kolya’s head apart with a bullet – that fierce, determined glow: the bursting embers lingering long after the flames of the fire have burned out. 

“But it hasn’t, has it? You’re just accepting it. You shouldn’t have to accept it!”

“But I have!” John shouts, lurches upward. Why do they have to keep digging into the dirt and pull things out? Why can’t they leave the graves unstirred? Something in his chest aching badly, fists clenched, he forces his breaths to even out before they escalate; softens his voice, marginally – it’s just, he can’t quite grasp why Rodney is so upset.

Or perhaps he has an inkling for the reasons, but that makes it even more painful; to know that Rodney and Meredith, for all their brash arrogant exterior shielding them from the world, want to care;

“I am accepting it. You saw the video recording, didn’t you? Didn’t I say then –”

“Yeah. You did. Quote: ‘a brand; St-Strangeling, that’s me’, end quote. That doesn’t mean you have to like it.”

“Whoever said liking and accepting is the same thing?”

Stillness settles over the lab then, and Rodney’s crossed arms fall apart with a sigh, and he finds a chair, pulls it out, creaking, more or less throwing himself on it. Like some internal structures holding him up are collapsing; Meredith leaps into his lap, settles there and lets her human gently pull a hand through her fur, comfortingly, I’m here. Watching, unable to look away, John swallows, mouth all dry hopelessly and oh so badly wishes Shy’s wings were healed so they could fly again.

They shouldn’t be fighting over this. Over a fucking word.

He doesn’t want to talk about that anymore, quite possibly (if he can have his way) never. 

From the way Rodney and Meredith are watching him, they’re probably thinking less than flattering things about his sense of self-preservation or something. Rodney rants about that more than he probably realizes.

Inhale. Exhale.

“In the Control Room … what was that?”

(He’s not sure who starts asking the question and who finishes it.)

And he remembers his Mother and Pete, and Father and Irene, and how when he was still that little child over whose cradle they’d wept (such a terrible misfortune; theirs is a cursed son, the child who sleeps so soundly) they’d often shared looks wordlessly and perhaps not wordlessly at all.

He remembers all those books, the ages of paper gently pressed and he’d tried to smuggle them out of the library more than once, dragged them up the stairs heavily into his room, hid them under the mattress along with a flashlight so he’d read after dark, hiding under the covers.

He remembers what some of those books said, those about Dæmons and Bonds, those which he’d devoured whole starving for hope and confirmation of Being Not Alone:

Rodney clears his throat in a slightly awkward way that’s new and not new at all. “I thought you were Mensa.” You figure it out;

And John momentarily tries to forget the chaos in the Gate Room, the remnants of hyperspace and the scorch marks in the corridors; he wants to forget the faces and voices of the marines, these Strangers who’ve tried to take away so much from them on a whim; he wants to forget it all and go to sleep, and wake up to find it’s all a dream and the Wraith are still hibernating and for Shy’s wings to be whole so they can fly again. He wants to wake up to find out if that kiss was actually real; and Rodney’s eyes are so bright and blue, and he can still taste their clashing mouths.

“Never joined, only took the test, remember.” Inhale. That was the day they found a potentia hidden under the earth, after all of the digging, after causing the woman who’d guided them and her Dæmon to die – John swiftly stops that train of thought before it arrives. “Just. Are we … fine? about this? us?” Exhale. He sounds, feels, imagines himself to be that kid again, fourteen years old with his first crush (his only crush before Nancy and the Marriage That Almost Was) except he’s not that scrawny freckled kid anymore, he’s not naively thinking the world to grow brighter as time goes on, he’s not so disillusioned. Carrying a gun for so many years has shaped him this way.

“Why wouldn’t we be? We’re – oh,” Rodney cuts himself off, mid-thought. “It was one kiss, Major. That doesn’t have to equal … equal commitment of any kind. If you want to, to move on then that’s fine, I mean, with the absurdly repressed regulations of the American military – fine, I get it; I mean I don’t even know, I thought you were rather the, the epitome of Atlantis’ own Captain Kirk, the way, with the smirk sent to all the natives and by natives I mean women, I mean the Smirk probably is trademarked along with your messy hair, and –”

Usually Rodney has no problem babbling and others have to interrupt, sneak a pointed look, whisper Get on with it!, for him to get to the point. Now he’s stuttering in a way John really isn’t used to, and he dearly wishes they could cross this barrier more quickly, stride across the threshold confidently. And – Rodney’s face is turning redder by the minute, words clipped and fast and John has to concentrate to catch them properly and, hang on – is that jealousy?

Since when has Rodney even started thinking about – started looking at him like that? (Since when did he start dreaming of such things in return?)

“Hey, what’s with my hair?” And fondness creeps up on him, unasked for and unaided, and some of the tension in his bones is slipping away, giving way for something warmer and more comfortable; “And I don’t flirt with the natives.”

“Your hair is practically your pet and, yes: you do. Every time there’s a mission to trade for not-potatoes, or, worse, meeting new people, you turn on that megawatt grin; especially with that Ancient, what’s-her-face …”

“Chaya Sar; and that time was different, I’ve already told you that. Plus she gave us a potentia. And I’m not flirting – Rodney, listen. I’m being polite.”

The man actually rolls his eyes. Vividly. “You don’t notice, do you? They’re totally drooling after your … Huh, you honestly don’t notice. Oh, why am I even surprised.”

Their second heart-to-heart in less than a week. A record, John thinks, one he’d never set out to make. But maybe, hopefully, their bodies will feel a little lighter afterward; “And, nota bene, I never said that I wanted to move on, as you put it.”

Rodney looks at him. Holds his gaze. John lets him. On a good day, Rodney can be tricky to read; oh, there’s the basic stuff, that’s easy, whether the man is in need of another cup of coffee or just a bright idea or needs someone to yell at to vent his mind; but the deeper things, they’re so much more difficult to see. Now, though, now there’s an openness that’s almost frightening because Rodney trusts him with it, and John is honestly not sure if he’s brave enough to return that.

“What about,” the Canadian makes a gesture with his left hand, freeing it from Meredith’s fur; she’s sprawled out and purring contently, perhaps flowing words freely through the Bond with her human, reassuringly;

“– the absurdly repressed regulations?” John fills in, Shy snickering: [He’s got a point; they kind of are.]

But, oh, oh, what does it even matter? They’re fighting a war now with Everett and his orders, they haven’t contact the SGC yet and maybe they’ll cut all ties, after all, Weir’s still debating although Caldwell seems to be on their side, more or less; and their year here, in isolation from everything Earth, has led to a slackening of certain rules and strict protocol about Less Important Things or, rather, matters that people on Earth tend to stick their noses in unasked for.

Matters of mind and of heart and things that people here have started caring less and less about – over the past year, John hasn’t received or heard a single complaint in that direction, no heated angry whispers; though he is pretty sure there’s something between Stackhouse and Markham, and there are others too –

What does it even matter?

Fuck the regs. 

He doesn’t say it aloud, but it must show on his face, or perhaps Rodney and Meredith heard after all; and this new Bond, this Link, it’s almost overwhelming because just days ago, John didn’t have a Dæmon to share his heart with and the voice of Atlantis was the only one to lean on, and now suddenly – or perhaps not so suddenly? – a third Bond is establishing itself. Another element of the fairytales; but the Strangelings never had those. Bonds like these are always reserved for the beloved ones, the young couple finding each other in the aftermath of war, waking each other with a First Kiss from the bed of thorns and roses. The kind of Bond which John has never ever dreamed of. Walking through life with the lack of a Dæmon and trying to hide it, his mind has so long – too long – been fixed on other matters.

“So, are we…? We can try this,” John rephrases, midway through the sentence. This cannot be defined.

And Rodney and Meredith are speaking with one voice again, like the Control Room, for only him and Shy to hear;


The passing of judgment:

Elizabeth radios the Control Room, where the technician Chuck and Peter Grodin are waiting; they have enough answers now, and they’ve been delaying this action for hours too many, and if they do not make contact soon, the expedition and the reinforcements sent may be believed deceased or still caught in the throes of battle with the Wraith.

“Prepare to dial Earth.”

Chapter Text

xxxiv.

second contact

 

he wishes he could kiss him, heatedly, like in the Chair room, forgetting everyone and everything else;  


And Rodney and Meredith are speaking with one voice for only him and Shy to hear;

yes.

They’re in the lab, orbiting each other, hands tangled and they’re not sure who initiates the kiss and who follows: like gravity, both bodies pulling each other closer, there might not be one single source; and this kiss is slow, a gradual build-up of heat and tingling nerves and they’re in no hurry, now, it’s not like in the Chair Room when John’s consciousness was slipping steadily away, the shock of the landing still jarring their bones. This kiss is one they want to hang on to, possibly forever;

still unsure that this is really happening, this is reality; 

you and I, we are –

“Oh, oh,” Rodney gasps when there’s a gap, minuscule in comparison and John’s pulling him down as the astrophysicist whispers, not quite a question as much as it is a demand which John happily would like to indulge in – “Clothes: off: now.” and they needn’t worry about being watched or overheard, not in here, because Atlantis (he can almost feel Her smile) is keeping them secretly safe.

John’s hands slide down, finding a zipper, a button to undo and Rodney’s mouth ghosts over his jaw, his throat, the jagged edges of the pale scar – fervently, languidly; yes, yes, yes a chant that could reach beyond the atmosphere itself. The uniform jacket is tossed away and Rodney’s hand crawls beneath his t-shirt, and John can’t hold back the surprised giggle as fingers are splayed over his abdomen, muscles contracting as it tickles slightly and Rodney smirks, goes lower; John catches that grin with his lips.

Then warmth curls around his cock, and the hand is large and hot and surprisingly firm in its movements, and it figures probably that Rodney’s done this kind of thing before, no fear of regulations (only the strict norms of civilian life) holding him down and John doesn’t want to think about that, about whatever other mouths Rodney may have kissed until now, about whatever other men he’s touched – right now right here it’s about no one but us; 

The sounds Rodney makes when he mirrors his motions are the snatches of a symphony; and, keeping one of his hands there, exploring new territory, John wraps his other arm around the small of Rodney’s back, presses him closer and their cocks slide against one another, creating delicious friction and, oh, oh, why haven’t they done this earlier?

He can’t last long like this and neither can Rodney, arching against him and he feels the tension of muscles, roughly defined in a way they weren’t a year ago – the astrophysicist is surprisingly strong, like determination embodied and his name, his name is being chanted, a choir: John John John John – and Rodney has never used his name before, his first name unhindered and unprejudiced and unprecedented by an anonymous rank – and Rodney’s voice, so comfortingly honest and real and true, it’s something steady he can rely on; that voice is what might be bringing him over the edge.

Now so slow anymore but frantic, their movements, synchronized, grow slightly rough and uneven, the rhythm destabilizing, he feels Rodney’s whole frame shudder rigidly against his body, almost melding them into one, and through the Bond – from whom is hard to tell: maybe both of them – there’s pleasure like fire, scalding in its intensity, and as Rodney comes John follows, the cry swallowed up with another kiss and another and another;

After half an eternity, they fall still. Wrapped around each other, tightly, refusing to let go.

It takes a moment to regain the ability to think.

A startled, tired murmur against his throat: “Hey, the lights went out.”

And John opens his eyes a little, unsure when he closed them, and realizes – yes. And maybe they’d been flickering before, but neither of them had noticed, far too preoccupied. “Oh. Yeah.”

Who did that?

[you were very excited]

It sounds almost like She’s laughing, fondly, and John’s face heats up for whole other reasons, wondering: if the lights went haywire here then was it noticeable anywhere else? did the scientists monitoring the power grid from the Control Room notice the fluctuations?

“We didn’t even get our clothes off. Oh my god, we’re like teens with a first crush.”

And John lets out a laugh, from somewhere deep in his belly, which, by the way, is all sticky which is going to be kind of uncomfortable very soon and, oh, god – yeah

“A good first crush,” he amends, quietly, as sensation creeps back in his limbs and he tries to figure out how to actually move. Soon. In a moment. Just – oh. Above him, Rodney lets out a tiny groan, something about my back and this floor is far too uncomfortable: what was it with the Ancients and their excessive use of grated floors?

They could stay here for a few more minutes – hours – and, aside from the harshness of the ground, it’s not too bad, and an unexpected sigh flees John’s lips when a hand presses against his jaw, his cheek, the shell of his ear, exploring gently; wounding up in his hair, and Rodney – who cannot be silent: silence isn’t like him – murmurs about it being like a pet, again, and possibly if stroking it might make him purr; and John nearly feels offended, but feels too spent and slack to push him off for that. Instead he closes his eyes, relaxes: a nap would be like amazing right now, after all these tense hours of inquisition.

And as they lie there, Meredith and Shy approach each other unblinkingly, and there’s no flicker of that fear, brief as if may have been, that Shy had displayed when Emerging, when sharing his thoughts and memories: Meredith is in the Shape of a cat, and cats eat birds for breakfast –

Now they approach each other, playfully almost, like a first meeting: the first meeting that matters; and they dance lightly around each other – the throbbing pain of the Raven’s broken wing almost entirely gone – until they decide to still. Meredith is lazily settled upon one of the desks, tail flickering back and forth contently, echoing Rodney’s possessively slack grip, and the Raven follows – and the wing has stopped hurting now, enough so that they can leap up and John tastes the air beneath them, the two seconds of flight, like freedom: and Shy lands, nestles against Meredith closely and it’s safe and warm and it’s home.

Home is no longer just a word.

And John smiles into the juncture of Rodney’s shoulder before pulling him in for another kiss. 


Then: the summoning comes over the speakers. It’s the technician Chuck, alarmingly: “Dr McKay, Major Sheppard, report to the Control Room immediately.” – and the radios cry for attention, once, twice, thrice, and they have to break apart, reluctantly, to breathe –

“Fuck.”

Somehow, throughout, they’ve ended up on the floor, slightly cold and stiff beneath John’s spine and they must look utterly debauched, hair messy and a drop of sweat finding its way slipping down his collarbone.

“We should …”

“Yeah.”

“Give me a moment.”

Rodney pulls away, fumbling to find support and grabs the edge of a desk, nearly knocking over a cup of coffee and spilling its contents onto the floor, pulling himself to his feet. John draws himself up, fixing his zipper, trying to regain some semblance of professional self – he’d prefer to take a shower before going to face anybody else. But the message had sounded stern and urgent. If there’s an emergency of some sort … 

Watching Rodney tuck himself back into his pants and smoothing out his blue short-sleeved shirt is distracting, very very distracting, but John manages to get enough control of his flesh to move, to grab his jacket and pull it on. Check the weak reflection in one of the computer monitors, on stand-by; it doesn’t look too much like he’s rutted helplessly on the floor, only sort of, hair wind-swept and collar slightly askew, a glow to his skin the hue of brilliant sunsets. Rodney, similarly, doesn’t look a mess just almost, lips rough from kissing, and they could probably come up with some passable excuse if asked. Probably won’t be asked, because people are too busy, too stressed, too overcome right now in the aftermath of things.

They don’t speak with each other, not in words: right now, they don’t seem to need to; they can look at each other, and warmth trails across the Bond – their Bond, theirs only – and that is enough to pinpoint each other’s heartbeats. And John wishes that they could walk out of the lab, down the corridors, holding hands physically as well, without fears.

This is going to have to be enough.

Together they ascend the stairs leading to the Control Room.


The passing of judgment:

“Prepare to dial Earth.”

words that reoccur in John’s nightmares:
now they are coming true.


Files have been gathered and compressed and now they’re sent through, and the returning voice of General Landry says: “We’re glad to know you’re safe and sound, Atlantis.” – the base and everyone in it; because until now, the SGC cannot be certain if their endeavor to send reinforcements and a ship loaded with drones was a safe bet.

The IOA are quick to react.

When the say: All senior staff are to report to Earth immediately, Weir faces it grimly and answers: No.

There are complications.

And they wait for a moment – with three potentiae, they can risk holding the wormhole open a little while longer without depleting their energy reserves – and there’s a brief debate; and the scientists on the other side, including Colonel Samantha Carter, are given enough time to open a few of the files. A few – but enough to get the picture that there’s something major that’s happened, something that’s altered the attitude of every one of the expedition and when the video feeds reveal them standing before the Stargate armed and defiant, General Landry says to send someone through – a representative; preferably all senior staff – as well as all the fifty-nine prisoners they have in Atlantis’ storage.

Then there’s a call made over a red phone to Washington D.C., and General Landry mentions something about possibly calling General O’Neill back to Cheyenne as well, if only because the man’s experience with the SGC will give a valuable insight; or possibly because he’s in charge of Homeworld Command these days, and this could definitely be classified as a homeworld security matter.

They’re given two Earth hours to decide.

The problem is, of course, that no one wants to go, not really. They don’t want to be stuck on Earth, indefinitely, not knowing of their chances of return. The Stargate is a one-way journey.

But then Caldwell offers to take the Daedalus: because his crew have had no part in this, they’re neutral in this conflict; they could transport the prisoners, albeit some of the crew must stay in the City instead, or walk through the Stargate to Earth, because the warship only has an air supply for a limited amount of people. They could use the Daedalus to carry them back – it’d take four weeks, give or take a day, but then Caldwell could report to command, act as an intermediate. Not that that’s what he had in mind when he set out just a few days ago, he adds, and there’s a hint of a heavy, wry grin as he says this.

None of this is what any of them had in mind.

No one says it aloud, but everyone in the City would feel safer without an armed warship trailing the orbit of New Lantea, just waiting for the word to fire. With the potentiae, they’re no longer cut-off, and the ship is not immediately necessary to maintain contact. So Elizabeth gives her assent. The first tour of the Daedalus is being cut short; but they were sent to battle with the Wraith, not marine-to-marine – for now, the City remains safe, the Wraith thinking it obliterated in the blast of the self-destruct. They don’t need a watchdog; in fact, with the potentiae to power the shields and the extra drones brought from Earth, they are well-prepared in case of a sudden attack; and it presents a new argument in case the IOA and the SGC remain in stubborn disbelief; they need someone in the City ready to sit in the Chair if they are discovered. All the more reason for John to stay behind.

And when it’s laid clear that John isn’t going to go anywhere, Ford steps forward and says: “I can go in your stead, boss,” and the kid is so trustful and trustworthy, ready to place calls and do his duty and John doesn’t want to give that order. But Ford just grins; he’s his XO, and in this capacity – of going to Earth and report in person – John is incapacitated.

John trusts him with it. Surprisingly, Bates backs the decision up and says: “I’ll go too.”

There’s a chance the SGC might not send them back for weeks or months or, perhaps, frighteningly) ever.

They don’t want to send a potentia with them, with the risk of the SGC hijacking it – the Earth already has one to power the Chair, and right now John is so relieved to hear that everyone’s in agreement about the City needing all three potentiae that he doesn’t thinking about potential Milky Way enemies, whatever the SGC is dealing with right now.

All too quickly, the two hours are up and they don’t want another invasion; so they won’t give Earth a reason to send one.

The chevrons of the Stargate begin to turn. 


“… senior staff including recalling yourself, Major Sheppard, Dr McKay, and Dr Beckett,” recites Landry, the list of demands: who is to be recalled, because in those two hours, they’ve had time to start unloading the letters sent, and watched a few recordings. And, true enough, on orders of the President, General O’Neill is inbound. The IOA is at an uproar – how could this have happened?

“I’m afraid that’s not going to be possible,” Elizabeth asserts. “Major Sheppard needs to stay in Atlantis.”

“That means defying a direct order –”

And John has had enough; exchanges a look with Weir, and she nods, and he steps into view of the camera, a live feed sent through the event horizon directly to the conference room under Cheyenne Mountain. “Then I’m defying it.”

The look on General Landry’s face, tightened in displeasure and confound confusion, might almost be comical any other day; never having seen the guy before, John cannot be certain, but the General can’t be going around looking like that every day. Probably not used to having people disagreeing with his orders.

[Most Generals are like that], Shy reminds him quietly.

Maybe it’s the defiance, or maybe it’s the Raven: it’s all in there, in the files sent, the truth. Even some footage found from the City’s databanks of the Chair, the room being filled with brilliant light and the dying of the machine and the crowd gathered around his still body – have they seen that yet?

Elizabeth goes on: “If you had read my letter, you would understand this decision – I highlighted the reasons as to why the Major has to stay in the Pegasus galaxy. In fact, I am making it an order that Major Sheppard stays in the City as my Second-in-Command.”

“Yes, well, I wasn’t sure if you were trying to pull our leg,” the General admits, grimly: “The possibility of a man Ghosting or dying because of an alien City isn’t something to be joking about, Doctor.”

“Do I seem to be joking, General?”

“No, you don’t,” a voice fills in. O’Neill. His dress blues are on, sharply, and he’s tugging at the bottom of the shirt slightly as if adjusting it, as if he’s put it all on in a hurry and thrown himself into the first offered craft – probably not allowed to fly himself, being a General and all now. Coming into view, the man now finds an empty chair around the table and is handed a rapidly printed dossier, albeit he dismisses it without looking at it properly; just flicking through the first few pages, looking bored. “I received a pretty interesting phone call two hours ago. Am I right to assume you’ve got fifty-nine (or was it ninety-five?) probably pissed off young strapping marines behind lock and key in Atlantis – including one Colonel Dillion Everett – who were sent to back you up against the Wraith?”

“Yes, General,” Elizabeth says, nodding. “But not all of them are pissed off. In fact, the majority of them are as confused and upset as you.”

“I never said I was confused, Elizabeth,” counters O’Neill. ”More … pissed off, in fact.”

On their own volition, John’s fists tighten and something inside of his guts grow heavier. Body preparing to fight in a revolution if they have to –

“In fact, I’m wondering how the hell Colonel Everett came under the assumption that there’s a conceivable reason how a Goa’uld managed to infiltrate Atlantis without making everyone there into mindless drones and none of us noticing said Goa’uld getting there during the one time we opened the Gate to the City.”

And John isn’t imagining how Rodney, by his side but not in camera range, whispers on his breath: Oh, thank god, he’s being sensible.

“Which is something we’ll make clear as soon as we can,” Elizabeth says calmly. “Right now, Major Sheppard’s XO Lieutenant Ford, our Head of Security Sergeant Bates, as well as Dr Beckett, Colonel Caldwell, and myself are willing to step through the Gate to brief you in person and fill in whatever gaps you may find in the reports.”

Wryly, O’Neill remarks: “Isn’t Caldwell meant to be aboard the Daedalus?”

“Yes, he is, which is why he’ll be taking the long way back.”

“And the prisoners?” It’s clear the definition is uncomfortable in General Landry’s mouth; these are marines, and they’re not possessed by aliens, but were following orders that might be perceived to come from Earth itself.

“If you’re ready to receive them now, we can send them through the Gate directly, or we can have them aboard the Daedalus as well.”

“Well,” O’Neill says, “it’s not like we have a lot of extra cells here. Do they need to be detained?”

“To be honest: most of them, no. You may want to evaluate them, but aside from the Colonel himself and possibly his Second-in-Command, I wouldn’t advise against them being allowed to be sent home.”

“Not back on duty?”

“Some of these men are going to need some therapy, emotional counselling. They’re just been through a conflict of marines fighting marines. I’m sure you can appreciate their side of the story, Generals. In fact, I think most of these men, loyally following their commander’s orders, truly want to take leave or be re-assigned another duty.”

“We’ll take that under advisement,” O’Neill confirms.

From this distance it’s difficult to see his expression, face grainy through the feed: the two Generals confer with the others around the table – a guy in a black suit and strict tie, with a folder open in front of him, and a woman similarly attired – IOA, probably – as well as a couple of military men whom John has never before seen – from the voices, quieter now, he can pick up one is called Major Davis, some kind of Pentagon liaison because he’s talking closely with O’Neill about word from the President – and it’s rather reeling to find the US President has been called, possibly in mid-meeting, to be told that there’s been a rebellious Uprising in the most distant outpost of the Stargate Program.

At least, all these lightyears between the planets and no potentia on their end to open up a wormhole, they can’t decide to send a nuke to write it over quickly.

“All right,” General Landry says after five long minutes: “you can start sending people through.”


And they stand by the bannisters watching as the Gate Room floods with a steady stream of people in uniform; they’re unarmed, and uninjured except for the occasional bruise, and the guards are sparse; no one picks up a fight or makes a fuss, thankfully. Familiar with the time limit of Gate travel, they move onward relentlessly.

Finally, Colonel Everett is escorted to the event horizon and he’s the only one surrounded by an armed contingent: four marines, stunners in their grips. He walks with a straight back and raised chin, proudly, and the wolf doesn’t try to pounce or attack; but right before they pass through the Stargate, the Colonel glances upward, gaze finding the Raven and its human easily, and no words are spoken but John glimpses his face and there’s a hint of regret there, unimagined.

He could almost believe it.

Then the Colonel and his wolf walk out Atlantis, and John dearly hopes he’ll never have to lay eyes on them ever again.

Lastly, the senior staff is assembled go. Elizabeth doesn’t look like she wants to, but is by now too tired to argue: saving her reserves for the fight with the IOA on Earth; face slightly pale, washed out even in the sunlight streaming from the wide windows, and Simon strays close to her. Dr Beckett and his Dæmon are there, too, giving last fervent instructions to the persons who’ll stand in for him until his return – to run an infirmary in another galaxy is no easy thing, but they know the drill by now. Ford and Bates flank them, like an honor guard, and before they walk toward the Gate both turn around to face him, saluting, and John offers one in return – a quiet Good luck (and give them hell);

They’d argued for a long time. But Rodney’s senior staff and there had been threats of invasion – or near enough, anyway – if he doesn’t follow as well, to give his report. And on Earth he’ll get the chance to publish at least one paper he’s prepared in his year in Atlantis (if it manages to survive being mangled by the censure, that is). They’re stretching it as far as they can, letting John stay here in the City to keep the fort along with Teyla while Weir’s offworld.

(Odd, to think that: now, Earth is offworld, along with every other planet where Atlantis isn’t.)

In their minds and their hearts they may still be arguing. Because John doesn’t want Rodney to go, not now when they’ve just started figuring things out; it’s a four-week trip with the Daedalus back, and there’s no telling how long the SGC will keep him and Meredith on Earth. It could be days, weeks, months even.

If all goes well, they’ll all be back in no time – no time – possibly with good news, news of continuing the expedition, now with a ship regularly running with supplies and extra ammo, perhaps even expansion, an addition of personnel – John wouldn’t mind a few more P90s in fighting the Wraith. Just because they’re hidden doesn’t mean the war has stopped.

But if it doesn’t go well – if they are condemned; if the SGC decide to side with Everett, and think they are all insurgents that need to be tethered –

[they will return] She tries to promise; but this lies well beyond Her abilities to predict.

Now Rodney’s out of his TAC vest, though he keeps his sidearm in its thigh holster, a constant precaution even the scientists have learned here, and he’s got a heavy full backpack slung over his shoulder; bringing his two favorite laptops, and John knows he’s copied parts of the City’s database and compressed it so he can always have access and study it. And while Atlantis will be opening its Gate regularly to send through reports and personal emails from its people, Rodney and the others will not be able to return the gesture. 

It’s going to be a mournfully silent time.

And now Rodney’s standing in front of him, a little awkwardly and ill at ease, and John wishes he could do something – kiss him, heatedly, like in the Chair Room, forgetting everyone and everything else;

But they’re not alone, and there’s a feed running, still, a video of clearance from Earth, and the brass are watching, making sure the proceedings are as planned. Waiting. So, instead, John watches as Teyla gives farewell the Athosian way, foreheads touching – Rodney’s movements are less smooth than Teyla’s, and the Athosian says, “Good luck, and may the Ancestors bless you,” and for once Rodney isn’t muttering about superstitions, just nods, promises to bring back popcorn and other Earth-foods which the Athosian has taken a liking to; “Say hello to Halling from me, will you?”

The corners of Teyla’s lips quirk upward. “I will.”

She and Kanaan step back, offering a slice of solitude and John wonders which one of them will have to make the first move –

Then, taking a breath, John starts to give his hand to shake, but Rodney grasps it and foregoes it into a sort of embrace, arm suddenly clasped around his shoulders, and John exhales raggedly; wants the moment to linger forever. A mouth close to his ear; but it doesn’t move as Rodney and Meredith speak: Watch the City for us, yeah? And don’t get eaten by the Wraith or something else like that before we get back.

[They’ll come back], Shy says, insists; has to, because in their heart, beating so frantically, they know it to be true: [they’ll return.]

The embrace breaks, and John can’t remember afterward what exactly is being spoken aloud, only what is whispered quietly across their Bonds, like warmth embodied and made eternal, and they watch as Rodney gathers his bags, Meredith leaping onto his shoulder – yelling something at Radek as they pass, along the lines of: “Don’t wreck the labs or I’ll make sure you get to work at the most desolate lab at Area 51! And don’t touch my equations!” – moving away, downward.

The physical distance between them is measured not in feet or meters but in heartbeats; Rodney’s steps clattering down the illuminated stairs, the event horizon casting a shadow like a burn of the entwined silhouette of the man and his Dæmon; casting a look back, final, and they smile crookedly, and John can’t do anything but return it –

See you later.

Then they walk through the Astria Porta and are taken by the blue light.

Chapter Text

xxxv.

disclosure

(epilogue)

they lost the boy a long time ago.


Terra · Avalon
 2006 (Terran time) · 
131 days after the Uprising


In the shadow of a bright Tuesday morning, a letter arrives on Patrick Sheppard’s doorstep. The letter is being carried by a woman clad in sharp dress blues, with a Dæmon by her side that appears startlingly terrifying and clever for its smaller stature, a predator; she introduces herself as Colonel Samantha Carter of the US Air Force, he can do nothing but invite her inside, bewildered, wondering if this is a final defying act: if, making up for the lack of letters and phone-calls and news relayed from distant places, his youngest son has gone and gotten himself killed; a crashed helicopter, a bullet, a land-mine. 

Thinking of cancelling his plans for the day, that business meeting – it can wait; any parent would understand. He considers phoning his eldest, to let him know – it’s still early, and Dave mightn’t have left for the office yet. Considers how to prepare for the funeral, the reception of the will; did Johnny bother to write one?

A fulfilling pattern in this family: the youngest most defiant ones die first and violently. His wife and Pete in the car crash, just when they were fixing the divorce papers. Now, now this;

“Please just tell me,” he says, doesn’t quite plead but yet needing to know: “that if he died quickly?”

An explosion, perhaps. Already torn asunder. Because Patrick Sheppard would rather see an empty casket being lowered into the earth rather than a body scarred beyond recognition, and he doesn’t want to spread the ashes; he doesn’t want to know that Johnny suffered. They may not be close, but he was still his son. His son who once slept so soundly, small in the cradle and they’d wondered, asked at the hospital: Why is there no Dæmon Emerging yet? His son who was the Strangeling child who had run away from home to become a pilot; his son who is no little boy anymore;

But Colonel Carter does not answer yes or no.

“Your son isn’t dead, Mr Sheppard,” she says instead, smiling pleasantly. “Right now, he’s stationed at a very far-off base, part of a joint civilian and military research operation, and I’m afraid I cannot relay its exact location because of its highly classified nature. However, the President has given you full rights to know, if you would just sign this disclosure agreement …”

She holds out her hands and, in a daze, he accepts.

The stack of papers is thick, and Patrick Sheppard is a shrewd businessman; he scrutinizes them closely, before the words begin to swim, and the Colonel sips her coffee calmly and politely and doesn’t interrupt his thoughts. 

Eventually he just finds the thin empty line and fills it with his signature because he wants to know; needs to know; he has no more recent photos of his son since he graduated, and they’d moved on in separate ways and Patrick Sheppard likes to think he’s forgotten, now, gotten on with his life as John has his – but, truth to be told, John is a stranger; he’s no longer that little boy, Johnny asking if his Dæmon is a raven, wishing he’ll grow up to be a pilot – flying had always been the boy’s dream. He’d thought of little else.

Irene murmurs: We lost the boy when Valerie and Pete died.

This might be a chance to regain him.

Colonel Carter accepts the papers and the signature, and she exchanges them with words. And Patrick and Irene can do nothing but stare and listen raptly:

“Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard is currently the military commander of a place we call Atlantis, on a planet designated New Lantea, in the Pegasus galaxy, over three million lightyears away. There is a device, an alien artifact called the Stargate which was discovered near Giza in 1928, that allows us to travel to other planets in the network …”


He doesn’t open the envelope until the Colonel, with the medals gleaming on her chest and her breathtaking stories of travelling between the stars, is gone. Until they’re alone, he and Irene. Then he settles by his desk and reaches for the heavy letter-opener.

The letter is hand-written. Like proof: but Patrick couldn’t recognize the hand if it so was being created right before his eyes. His little boy who’d slept so soundly in the cradle – hundreds of days, waiting for the Emergence that never came; the boy who grew up without a Dæmon had a very neat handwriting, and would proudly show off his marked homework when they were returned with A:s, the margins cluttered with the professors’ compliments; but at the time Patrick had been so distraught, still, so uncertain as how to act and what to do because his son had grown up without a Dæmon had he’s heard about Strangelings. Those things which aren’t real. He’s heard about them, their coldness and anger, their inherently destructive nature;

And little Johnny had been anything but that – he’d smiled and laughed and played on the green lawn, adored the horses and the wind in his face, and he’d been that joyful child all until he’d started understanding he’s different, all until his brother and his father and his mother started pointing it out with every little action. Until he became old enough to sneak into the library, reading all those damned books. Until he started asking those questions.

(It hadn’t mattered if he’d locked the doors and covered the windows; Johnny would always figure something out to get inside the library, to reach the tallest shelves to pull out the dusty volumes, and at one point in time Patrick had ceased trying to stop him.)

This handwriting isn’t so neat and careful; a messy scrawl, hurried, yet the words are thought through like they’ve been erased and exchanged again and again until John had settled on them.

Hello, Dad, it reads: not the formality of ‘Father’, not the distancing of ‘Mr Sheppard’ – the remembrance of a child, still wanting to be happy:

 

 

If you’re reading this, then the President has granted you full disclosure about the Stargate Program. I’m not going to explain all about that, because, if you signed the disclosure agreement, then you will have already been told about the Program, or at least the 101 version, by whoever gave you this letter.

First I want you to turn the letter over: there’s a photo at the back.

Patrick flickers it over and yes: there’s a photo of a man he cannot recognize right away, except he can, because those eyes he recognizes; and that jawline and that nose, that’s so much like Valerie and like John when he was still eight years old, now filled out into maturity. The man is wearing some kind of uniform, all grays and blacks, with a patch on his shoulder that’s impossible to read from this angle, and on his shoulder – there’s a Raven, stark black and its wingspan must be huge, several feet across when it splays them wide open –

Desperately, unsure if this is real, Patrick flips over the letter again, seeking answers to this suddenness:

 

 

That’s me. John Sheppard, your son. And my Dæmon, Shy, my Raven. Yeah. My Dæmon. I didn’t think it’d happen, either, but it has; about four and a half months ago now. I don’t know if you remember that conversation, when I was a kid and said I wanted to be a pilot, or the times when I wondered if my Dæmon would be a bird, a raven. But that wish is what drove me where I am today and this is the best place I’ve ever been; that wish is what made my Dæmon real.

There’s a complication, of course. I’m not sure if whoever brought you in on this included that in their brief; they would have told you about Atlantis. It’s a City, and much more than that, built by the Ancients. A part of my genome comes from them. Yeah, I’m part alien. These genes allow us to control all kinds of Ancient tech, including its ships. Yes, spaceships. I guess I’m sort of like an astronaut now, not just a fighter pilot.

Atlantis is much more than just a City. And I don’t know if you remember this either, because I’m not sure if I ever told you. I did tell mom and Pete, though: that when I sleep I hear a voice, like music, like a song in my head. That was Atlantis, calling me from afar and that’s why, I think, Shy didn’t Emerge for such a long time. Because I needed to be home first. I needed to find Atlantis first. Not until then did I feel ready.

It’s a bit more complex than that; there’s a thing called Ascension, which basically means to evolve to a point when you can become pure energy. I know it sounds kind of like crap, too weird to comprehend. A lot of the Ancients did that instead of dying; though we think of them as an extinct species, they’re technically not really extinct. Not all of them. Shortly after Shy Emerged, I nearly died, and then I nearly Ascended. It was very much like the light of the tunnel, the flashing of life before your eyes … except it didn’t flash as much as flicker through a couple of important moments. I had a choice, then: to let go and die, or to Ascend, move on, become a being of energy that is so bound by rules they can’t actually do anything to help people. I rebelled, decided to hold on to life instead, and it actually worked: Shy managed to save me, pull me back.

I just want to explain that I’m not the Strangeling that you raised, believing that I’ll never have a Dæmon or a normal life. My life isn’t exactly average, but here, in Atlantis, I’m happy. I’m doing what I set out to do. So you don’t have to feel disappointed, or angry, or whatever else for raising such an unnatural child. You know what? I’m happier now that I’ve ever been. Not every day is easy, but I’m finally being true to myself. I always thought I didn’t want to die a liar, and I stand by that. Finally I’m not living as a liar.

Dave hasn’t been read in on this, so you can’t tell him about the SGC or Atlantis. But you can tell him I’ve got a Dæmon now. I wish mom could’ve known. I’m not foolish – I know she wept for me, despairing that there never was an Emergence … but at least you and Dave can know.

Because of my Bond with the City, as far as I know, I can’t go back to Earth. I’m not a hundred percent sure what would happen if I did, but the chance of dying or Ghosting is so high that we don’t want to risk it; plus, I promised not to leave. Atlantis is home, and I’ve got people here who are family. I guess that sounds kind of harsh, but I think we can both be honest enough to admit that we haven’t been real family since mom and Pete died, or maybe even before that. I’ve got a team, and other people here who I trust with my life and whom I’d unhesitatingly die for.

Maybe that’s not much of a consolation, but I figured that, after well over a decade of no contact, this might a first step, and I understand – I understood – why you didn’t want the world to know there’s a Strangeling among the Sheppards. Now, at least, I hope we could take the chance to change that. Atlantis is remote and staying in contact isn’t that easy, but there’s an email address here at the bottom. If you write to that, the letters will be forwarded to me in Atlantis. That is, if you want to stay in touch at all. I’d like to try, if that’s okay with you.

Hope you and Irene are doing well,

    Sincerely 

        your son

            John


And Patrick reads the letter once, and then lays it on the desk, face-down, to have another look at that photograph. The man there is smiling, smiling like Johnny the little boy hadn’t after his mother died, smiling so warmly and carefreely and it is so evident he’s Valerie’s son; and the Raven is magnificent if eerie, feathers slightly ruffles as if by a passing wind;

And there’s another man there, in a similar uniform but with blue patches instead of black. And this man bears a crooked grin, crinkles around his eyes, his hairline is receding a little and he doesn’t really look military – there’s no giveaway, no name; and the man’s left arm is curled around a Dæmon the Shape of a cat, sharp-clawed and bright-eyed. The two Dæmons are close enough to touch, a cat’s paw reaching out carefully in the direction of the Raven; they’re close, John and the man, trustfully, comfortably, loyally, and there might be glimmers of darkness in their expressions, haunting memories still fresh (Colonel Carter’s tales had been full of shadows: of enemies, of demons called Wraith, terrorizing the people in another galaxy for countless generations while human civilization on Earth yet lay in its fragile cradle).

But there’s also pure undimmed joy, and his son’s face is turned slightly so that he’s angled toward the other man, and the smile is one Patrick recognizes for he, too, was once young; he too was once in love. And for the first time in nearly a decade, tears spring to Patrick Sheppard’s eyes unbidden; he doesn’t know who this man is, if he’s a friend – colleague? part of a team? – or something more; but looking at this photograph, suddenly he knows that his son is alive and beloved and happy.

Patrick Sheppard puts down the photo and reaches for his phone. 

Dave’s number is on speed-dial.