Sequel to Gods That Slumber.
Altera was a beautiful place.
There were castles resting on clouds, marble floors inside each one and silver lattices all up the walls, water you could walk across until you decided to dive in. There was no fire anywhere. Fire belonged to the fallen and all of their stories of Origin. The Ancients decorated their temples with ice.
It looked like something out of a dream because that's exactly what it was. All of that faith pouring in, all those views of heaven taken shape.
John's certain that none of his people could have imagined the place on their own.
John is leaning back in the chair at the far end of the table, one arm swung over the back, spinning slightly side to side. He's got his wristband on and his combat boots and his dog tags, and he looks every bit the soldier--he looks like Major John Sheppard, U.S. Air Force.
Rodney knows he's not, but it's an easy thing to forget.
Colonel Caldwell is stiff beside Weir at the other end of the table. He's the new military commander. John lost the title along with his self-made identity. Caldwell's eyes keep narrowing in John's direction, but if he notices he doesn't seem to care.
No. Not if. John doesn't miss anything. Rodney should know that by now.
"So what you're saying is you tampered with the memories of the entire expedition," Caldwell says.
John meets his eyes easily. "It's not that simple," he says. "I just became who they needed--what they wanted."
A hero, Rodney thinks. They were so desperate, so out of their depth, and then there was John, with the city lighting up under his fingertips.
"You led them to believe you came with them from Earth, that you were a member of the U.S. Air Force," Caldwell continues.
"Well, some believed more than others," John says wryly. "Sumner never quite bought it."
"The man you killed, you mean," Caldwell says tightly.
"Yes, that would be him," John says.
"Colonel Sumner was being slowly tortured," Rodney says, shooting a look at John to show just how he felt about John's level of cooperation in this. "It was mercy."
"Maybe from someone human," Caldwell says. "But he could have saved him."
"Have you heard nothing of our dealings with the Ancients?" Rodney snaps. "They aren't allowed to interfere."
"I'm pretty sure shooting him is interference," Caldwell says.
"Sumner wanted me to," John says. "I used a gun to do it. Within the boundaries set for me from the others, that was allowed."
"I'm still not sure I believe that," Caldwell says. "How do we know you aren't messing with our minds again?"
John grins wryly. "Well, you wouldn't be arguing with me if I was."
"Gentlemen," Weir interrupts calmly. "This is not a trial. We're simply here looking for answers."
"It is a trial," Caldwell snaps. "We're here to determine whether or not Sheppard can be trusted to stay here."
John gives a bright grin and slouches in his chair. "No offense or anything," he says, "but you don't really have a choice. This city belongs to me, and she'll do what I tell her to."
"Is that a threat?" he snaps.
John lazily turns his eyes in Caldwell's direction. "It's a statement of fact, interpret it however you want."
"Please," Weir says, interrupting again, and getting to her feet. "Caldwell, John is an Ancient, and an ally, and I suggest you treat him with respect." Weir turned to John. "And you, yes, the city is rightfully yours, but I'm guessing you don’t want to be left here alone again for another ten thousand years, so you're going to have to start respecting us too."
John gives her an expression very close to pouting. "I do respect you, Elizabeth," he says.
Weir gives him a long-suffering look, well aware that he made sure to exclude Caldwell from any such admission, and shook her head. "We need to work together," she says.
Rodney clears his throat. "Elizabeth is right. Caldwell, Sheppard has saved our lives a number of times, and if he wanted us hurt or gone we wouldn't be here. So let's just listen to what he has to say."
Weir nods her agreement. "What can you tell us, John?"
"Yes, how did you manage to fool them all?" Caldwell demands.
John flashes him a smirk. "Memories are easy to manipulate," he says. "I should know. The others took most of mine."
"So you have no Intel," Caldwell says. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"
"I'm not a blank slate like Daniel was when he came back," John tells them. "But if I remembered everything I'd be dead. A physical brain can't handle the pressure of all that knowledge, it would shut down within hours."
"I'm surprised that hasn't happened to me yet," Rodney says.
John gives Rodney a fond smile, laughing as he slouches a little further in his chair.
"You let countless people die before you finally took action against the Wraith," Caldwell says.
"I explained that," John says. "And I'm getting tired of having to explain myself, but I'll do it once more since it's taking so long to sink in. You needed more help than I could give if I stayed as I was, Guardian of Atlantis. I would have been stuck here, a weapon, and nothing else."
"A very powerful weapon," Caldwell says. "You could have chosen to save everyone here. How do we trust you knowing that you didn't?"
"Look," John says. "I may not be human, but there's only so much punishment we can take too, before we break. I'd rather be flesh and blood than invincible, if it means I get to be who I'm supposed to be."
"And we're glad you're here with us," Rodney says. "Chaya's a weapon and she's entirely useless, gaining worshippers and keeping a few hundred people in a safe little bubble. You're not like that. We're glad you're not like that."
Weir gives a nod. "I think that's enough for now."
Caldwell looks like he has more to say, but John slips out of the room almost as quickly as if he just disappeared.
John's forgotten a lot since he's come back, but he still remembers his ascension.
Some just closed their eyes and dissolved purely through thought. John went covered in blood and screaming for all he was worth, dragged into that higher plane by a few well-meaning friends wanting to stop his suffering.
He never completely forgave them for that.
John stomped down the hall, burning out the lights behind him. They fizzled and sparked, showering the tiles with little broken pieces of light. He didn't mean to do it, but he didn't bother to stop it, either. It wasn't his fault the city was so sensitive to his thoughts.
"John, John, wait!" Rodney shouts after him, catching up. He lets out a heavy sigh. "Calm down, will you? This is good news."
"Good news?" John asks, glaring back towards the office. They held another meeting today, and it hadn't gone much better than the first. "You know what I am on paper now?" John snaps, pushing his hands into his pockets as he picks up his pace. "'Ancient consultant'. The bastard gave my team to Lorne."
"At least you're still on the team," Rodney tells him. "I thought Caldwell was going to do something stupid like try and lock you up."
"Yeah, that would have been fun if he'd tried," John says, grinning for a moment before deflating again. "But a consultant? He's not even going to let me have a gun, and I have to take orders from Lorne."
"You like Lorne," Rodney says.
"I know, it's just the principle of the thing," John says. "I haven't changed at all. It's just the perception of me that's changed. I don't know why I can't just go on like before."
"Not everyone has forgiven you," Rodney tells him gently. "And you make the military nervous. They're not going to give you any more power than you already have."
John bites his lip. "But you understand why I did what I did, don't you?"
"Honestly?" Rodney asks, looking towards the ground. "I don't think I'm qualified to understand. I can't begin to imagine what you've been through, or the things you've seen. I don't know what it was like for you and I don't know what you're feeling--"
"But you know I love you, right? I gave it all up for you." John leans closer, his hand tickling the back of Rodney's neck.
Rodney laughs strangely and backs away. "We talked about this, we have to keep things under wraps."
John tilts his head, staring at him with wide eyes, and it's one of those few times where Rodney can believe he isn't really human. "Why? I already got booted out of the military for being an alien, I don't think they can kick me out again for being gay."
Rodney shakes his head. "That's not the point. They wouldn't let us go off world together and--" Rodney trails off as a couple of marines walk by, their eyes on John the whole time. Once they're gone Rodney starts again. "They don't entirely trust you right now."
John looks back down the hallway, at all that shattered glass from those lights his bad mood tore apart. "Maybe they shouldn't," he says.
John remembers those years of self-imposed exile, but they blur together, and it's all rather like one very long day. He knows he could have left, and gone with them, lived in peace all this time, but he hadn't wanted to follow them, even way back then, because this was his home. So instead he sat in his chair as the city sunk into the sea, and waited.
He's still not sure how he had been so certain someone would come.
Rodney finds John in a room he's never been to before.
He found him by following that little blue dot on the life-signs detector that's just slightly brighter than all the rest. He's sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, Rodney's favorite screwdriver held between his teeth as fiddles with a live wire.
"What are you doing?" Rodney asks. "What is that?"
John doesn't look up, and Rodney frowns down at what he's holding in his hands. It looks almost like a ribbon device, but instead of a jewel in the middle there's an empty space.
"It's a Trelus," John tells him, as he takes the screwdriver out of his mouth and glances up. "You put it on a Wraith's hand, and it can repair someone they've fed on. It forces a reversal."
Rodney drops down on his knees beside him, eyes wide. "That's possible?"
"Sure," John says, and hands it to him. "The Wraith can do it on their own, it's just not exactly a common practice. They call it the 'gift of life' or something like that, only do it for the faithful few."
"This is incredible," Rodney says, but then he stops, and sets it down. It occurs to him again how little he knows about the man he's with. "John, were you a scientist?"
"God no," John says, laughing. "I was a pilot. That's something I never lied about. Someone else designed this. Hanri, or maybe Arabinel. I just reverse engineered it. I saved as many valuable memories as I could, but its best I get everything out that I can, because they won't all stay."
It's only then that Rodney notices the rest of the things John has left scattered around the room, ranging in size from toaster to go-cart. It feels like all of his Christmases have come at once. "This is amazing."
"I know, you said that," John says, laughing. "I'm both incredible and amazing."
"I wouldn't go that far," Rodney says wryly. "Maybe if you'd made me a ZedPM."
John glances over at him. "I left you a whole shopping list of where to pick some up."
"Yes, but most of those planets have people that want to kill us on them," Rodney says. "If I could make ZedPM's I wouldn't have to risk my life."
"I'll watch over you," John says, before getting to his feet.
The day John died, the tide of the war was already turning.
So many wanted to retreat, but John was sick of running. They'd let loose the replicators and the plague in one galaxy so they all moved on, started again, made the Wraith in another.
They liked to think of themselves as creators, but John knew the truth. They destroyed everything in their wake, and he made the decision not to be a part of that any longer.
And so he fought until the very end. Another thing he still remembers is the tip of that Wraith's weapon sinking in.
"Okay, lad, all done, you can sit up."
John slides out from under the scanner. Rodney watches him from a few feet away, tapping his foot on the floor. "Well?" he snaps.
Carson shrugs with a smile. "Pretty much the same as Chaya when she visited. By all accounts I'd say he was human, except any human would have some slight defect, some slight...something. His scans are absolutely flawless."
Rodney rolls his eyes. "Please, his ego is big enough already," he says.
John laughs. "You think I've got an ego problem?" he asks.
Rodney ignores him. "Are you clearing him to be on the team again, or what?" he demands.
"Yes, yes," Carson says. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with him. He doesn't even have a scar."
John's hand absently traces across his hip, remembering a phantom pain. It hadn't even hurt that much at the time, they didn't let him stay there long. He doesn't know if it's better or worse to have no reminder, no single mark anywhere on his skin.
Daniel had descended with all his precious imperfections, John remembers from his time among them. He doesn't know why he never gets to keep his, but every time he returns to this place it's like he's born again.
"Are you listening to me?" Rodney asks him, frowning.
John shakes his head. "No," he says.
Rodney lets out a long-suffering sigh. "Of course not. If you were listening you would know we were supposed to be at the gate five minutes ago. Lorne's not going to be happy we're late. Blaming Carson will only go so far."
"Hey," Carson says, half-heartedly.
John just frowns at the reminder of his new team leader, but shrugs it off, putting on his jacket and following Rodney out. He misses stepping out into other worlds, seeing again everything he's forgotten. He'll play the consultant if he has to.
At least for now.
He remembers being forced to his knees by the Wraith--and by the others, too, that first and maybe last time on Altera. They knew him so well. They said his punishment would be to remain there where they could watch him, where he could be powerful beyond belief, and powerless to do a thing.
He begged them to send him back instead. They were scared of his increasing influence within their ranks, so in the end that's exactly what they did.
It was better that way for everyone.
John comes out of the wormhole almost dizzy. He never really felt the rush before, when he'd still been ascended, it had been like walking through a door. He hadn't realized how much he missed the way it tingled, the way it made his blood pound.
Rodney is watching him carefully, but Lorne is still refusing to meet his eyes.
They haven't spoken much at all since it became general knowledge who he was. From what John had gathered from the grapevine, Lorne wasn't too pleased to have been designated his babysitter.
What grates the most is the way he talks to him as though he were some civilian ride-along. Lorne knows better.
"Okay," Lorne says. "Teyla, take point. Ronon, you bring up the rear." Lorne glances at John's boots. "Sheppard, you and McKay follow me."
John gives a mock salute. "Yes, sir," he says.
Rodney shoves him. "Stop that."
"You're lecturing me on manners now?" John asks, skipping out of hitting range. "When did that happen?"
John felt the eyes on him and looked up. Lorne was finally looking at him, shaking his head, before turning away again. John followed him slowly.
Teyla was tense. He could see it in the line of her back, the grip she had on her gun. He hasn't talked much with her either. She'd picked up the habit of stumbling over her words when she tried to talk to him, before walking away without goodbye, frustrated with herself.
Ronon was the only one besides Rodney who hadn't really changed the way he treated him. Ronon had just shrugged when he found out. "So you're not human, so what?" he'd said. "I've known weirder aliens than you."
"This isn't working," John says, stage-whispering to Rodney.
"It's just going to take time," he says.
John nods but isn't placated. He knows he's expecting too much of them. Considering all John knows of betrayal, he should know better than to push them at all.
It's just that they don't understand. He has more memories of being John Sheppard now than he does of the man he'd been all of those thousands of years before. His mind is unraveling bit by bit, he's still storing up too much.
They don't know what it's costing him by choosing to keep all of the memories he has of them.
Teyla pulls to an abrupt stop in front of them, eyes going up to search the sky. "Wraith," she says.
John reaches for a gun that isn't there and shifts in place. Lorne signals Ronon to stay back. Rodney presses against his side, and when he moves John sees it out of the corner of his eye and spins around, knocking Rodney's feet out from under him as he grabs the gun from Rodney's thigh holster.
Rodney hits the ground with a startled cry, but at least he's out of the line of fire. John aims and fires, shoots the Wraith five times in the head.
"What the hell was that?" Rodney shouts.
John glances at him, and apologetically holds out a hand to help him up. "Sorry, Rodney," he said. "He was about to shoot you."
"You could have just told me to duck," Rodney protests weakly, letting John pull him to his feet.
Lorne walks over to the dead Wraith and stares down at him, before looking to Teyla. "Any more of them around?"
She shook her head. "I do not think so."
Lorne looks back at John, and finally meets his eyes. "Nice shooting, sir," he says. He doesn't even take the gun back.
John guesses that's progress.
John's lived in Atlantis almost all his life. He doesn't watch them leave when they all abandon it, doesn't go to send them off. He's sure none of them even notice that he's not there walking through the gate with them.
They don't understand why he's been living here at all. He's ascended, he should be off somewhere doing something really enlightened.
The trouble is that John feels like a ghost. He came back to try and feel real again, only to find everyone leaving. He walks the halls alone for years before finally laying down to sleep, but never even thinks to leave.
Teyla isn't hard to find. She's in the training room taking a marine out at the knees.
John leans against the doorway to watch her fight, but it's over pretty quick. The marine limps off to lick his wounds and Teyla goes to the corner to grab her water bottle. John glances at the fighting sticks lined up along the wall, and grabs two of them as he walks inside.
"You up for another taker?" he asks.
Teyla spins around, startled. Her eyes narrow as she watches him, and she sets the water bottle down. She stalks the other side of the room, swinging one of the sticks absently in her left hand. "I do not wish to fight with you," she says.
John twirls his own effortlessly, mimicking her every move, in a challenge she doesn't miss. Teyla has often wondered how he had learned to fight as she did so quickly, when she had been studying since she was seven years old. Now she knew.
Except that isn't really fair, to attribute everything remarkable about him solely to his race, she knows. The things she loves about him most are decidedly absent in the rest of them she's met.
She tilts her head up, accepting his challenge. "So be it," she says.
John starts to say something else but Teyla is already moving, and he takes a step back and lifts his stick just in time to block the blow. Teyla doesn't let the missed hit slow her down. John's a little dismayed to realize he's having trouble keeping up with her, and he doesn't know if that's because he's lost a little of his skill with his memory, or if she's just highly motivated to knock him on his ass.
She knocks one of the sticks from his hands, and it isn't long before he's lost the other. She crashes into him with one of her sticks at his throat, and they both slam into the floor. The air is knocked completely out of him, and Teyla throws the stick aside, grabs his hands in hers instead.
She holds on tighter and tighter, like she's trying to stamp his fingerprints into the palms of her hands. He shifts beneath the intensity of her gaze, but he's glad at least to have her looking at him at all.
"I'm sorry," he says, "I know I haven't said it but I am, for everything--"
"I understand," she says, letting him go. "There has never been anything to forgive."
Teyla gets back to her feet and raises an eyebrow in his direction. "You seem out of practice. Shall we go again?"
It was the water that woke him. It had nearly filled the room by the time his eyes came open. It was rushing around the altar he was laying on, just lapping at the edge of his sleeve. Then he heard the people screaming, the city crumbling.
He went stumbling from the room, not sure how long it had been, or who those people he heard screaming were.
That was when he found Rodney for the first time.
John goes to Rodney's quarters instead of his own. He was pretty sure they'd put hidden cameras in there, on Caldwell's order, and anyway he didn't like to sleep alone anymore. He'd done that enough already for a hundred lifetimes.
"Where have you been?" Rodney demands, before he's halfway through the door.
"Were you worried?" John asks wryly, stripping off his jacket. He glances over at the window. Rodney had insisted on getting himself a room with a view. John had always found that kind of funny, since it was beautiful no matter which window was looked out of.
"A lot of people still aren't sure what to make of you," Rodney says. "I just like to know you're safe and I couldn't find you."
"I was letting Teyla beat me up," John tells him.
Rodney gives a reluctant grin. "Anyone else and I'd be worried, but with you two, I guess that means you've made up?"
"We've got a start on it, anyway," John says, leaning over to kiss him. "Have I told you lately how much I appreciate you for accepting me from the start?"
"Not enough," Rodney says, "but we've got plenty of time."
Rodney tugs him to bed and John turns out the lights. This is always his favorite part of a day, in the dark but not alone, with Rodney beside him.
"Thanks for accepting me, too," Rodney murmurs, throwing an arm over him.
He thinks about what Rodney said--plenty of time. But how much was that?
John's still readjusting to this mortal life. It seems so short when looked at from where he's been. He closes his eyes and wonders what happens to the people that die and don't ascend. He wonders where it is they go.
Then he lays his head on Rodney's chest and listens to his heartbeat. Whatever comes after, he knows it was worth it.
There's no coming back after this, the others say.
He sucks in air like he's been drowning and comes awake in the world below.
And all the time he's hoping that they're right.