"S'phad…" he mumbles into his gag, it sounds a little like a question and Sheppard knows what he means, covering the last few feet.
"Don't worry, Lorne, I'll get you out," John says and pulls the knife from its sheath to work on the half-meat, half-technology of the locking mechanism; it groans and sparks fly before the web falls away and opens the entrance.
The next thing to go are the bonds around their hands and Lorne pulls his gag out as soon as he can move his hands again.
"Sir?" he asks, his eyes wide and hopeful.
There is a whole set of questions that Lorne wordlessly asks, too, but there is no time for that now.
He nods his head slightly. "I know," John says and the tiniest nod from Lorne just enforces what kind of great XO he really is… was, before Sheppard died, ascended and went all spirit of vengeance on the Replicators.
He had called down a storm of flames and destruction on them and ripped their molecules apart with what felt like his bare hands, snapped their bodies into pieces and broke their incredibly complicated minds in less than a millisecond. Now, in retrospect, he has to admit it was perhaps a little much, but it was the last thing he could do for his people and seen in that light, as the last desperate measure to save them, it was not too much, just a little cruel.
There are so many cruel things done to his people in the past that he couldn't stop though, and someone had to do something to put an end to this circle, no matter the cost. He pauses to cringe as he frees the remaining Marines before he goes on to Rodney.
"Maphrem!" Rodney growls into the gag and Sheppard knows exactly what he wants to say, accuse him of, really, but he remembers now, he can remember everything, and perhaps he also knows why he did what he has done and accepted the consequences.
He grins, slowly. "Do you want to be saved McKay, or do you want to argue?"
"Hmph," is all McKay can say with the gag still in his mouth, but his eyebrows speak volumes.
"I thought so," John says smiling.
And Rodney smiles back for a long moment. They repeat their, he has to admit, stupid stare-and-grin game, one of the crucial trademarks of their relationship and Sheppard shrugs one shoulder awkwardly instead of saying anything. This had always worked for them; Rodney speaks for them both but today Rodney is strangely silent, too. Ronon stops the odd reunion with a hard slap to Sheppard's back and a sound of approval.
"Let's get out of here," he grunts and John has never agreed more with anything than that.
It brings back the question how to do it to begin with, though.
"Mies, where are you!" someone yells and John snaps to attention.
"He's probably got lost," Agni sniggers and elbows his friend. "Or slipped on something and hit his head again!"
John signals Lorne and the others to duck into the shadows of the alcove to hide for the moment before stepping out on the hall, the knife back in its place and acting as if his epiphany had never happened.
"Mies!" Agni calls as he sees him in the badly lit corridor. "There you are!"
"Sorry," John says sheepishly and shrugs coming towards them. "I guess I got a little lost in the corridors," he adds.
Agni snorts and shakes his head. "Yeah, I bet. Can't you pay attention to where you're going? Really, one day you're going to break your neck…" And it doesn't sound as if Agni would be particularly sad if that day came soon.
He shoves John forward with one hand on his shoulder and John is happy he remembers the moves now - no longer just muscle memory but his mind's as well – and grasps the other man's wrist, turns his arm and smashes him with the gravity of his body's own weight hard against the wall. The other boy is momentarily so shocked by the move he doesn't even react until a fist hits him in the face and knocks him out too; both crash to the ground in a heap and the others leave their cover to salvage what there is of crossbows and other weapons.
John grabs Agni by a handful of his furs and throws him on his belly, checking for his gun and knife, and throws the gun back to Ronon. The tall man grunts in approval – another thing John missed - and sets the gun's setting with the familiar artificial sound echoing through the hall.
"Just stun," John says and after a moment of wordless questioning Ronon nods, changing the setting again.
The other boy merely has a 9mm, no ammunition and John hands it on to Lorne while taking Agni's crossbow. Teyla takes the other one, probably the only other person from Atlantis – except perhaps for Ronon – who knows how to use it. It's a quick decision how to proceed and they send Sheppard off to lure them inside.
He yells that they have been attacked inside and Tuuli's men come running, stunned by Ronon's gun one after the other so fast the first three or four tumble to the ground within seconds of crossing the snowline. Given that they had started out with a little more than a dozen plus Arn and Tuuli, it's a good start. Arn and the last of the men are harder to get and throw themselves behind some of the fleshy beams of the hall.
"Kill them!" Tuuli yells over the noise of Ronon's gun and the men it fells. "Kill them before they can escape! Shoot!"
"They still have Mies and the others!" Arn yells back, ducking back into cover as the man beside him falls to the ground, stunned.
The younger man lets his crossbow fall as he crashes to the ground and also loses the P-90 he had taken as his loot from disarming Lorne's team.
"Shoot them!" Tuuli yells again.
Arn looks around the corner at the same time John raises his head out of cover and their gazes lock. It's that moment of recognition that packs a punch not unlike the previous flood of memories. Arn gapes in shock before he narrows his eyes and ducks back into cover.
John's sorry, Arn was something like a brother to him, a good friend, and this must be the worst kind of betrayal for him.
The next thing John sees of Arn is as he narrowly avoids being hit, rolls over his shoulder across the ground and picks up the P-90 the younger man discarded on the way. The younger one did not know how to use it but Arn, out of arrows, figures out fast what's going on with this thing, and fuelled with what John assumes is a feeling of hate caused by betrayal, fires.
"You dare to betray us!" Tuuli yells as he too finally picks up on whom they are facing down, face red with anger. "Kill them, kill them all for the Mother!"
John doesn't expect different from the chief and ducks as a miserably aimed round of bullets comes his way. Arn, and he must give him credit for that much, is not stupid and by no means unable to adjust; it really is not as much of a surprise as it should be that he, of all people, would be the first to figure out how to work a P-90.
John is now John again, but even as Mies he knew he would be the one to take Arn down, he owes him that much.
John hears one of his Marines – and they are now his again – yell as he ducks out of cover and fires his crossbow, he doesn't mean to really hurt Arn and wants to orchestrate this whole thing so that the least damage would be done to his tribe, yet it's the same game as a hunt and John is not allowed to be the triple-horn in this. He has two chances to shoot, thanks to Arn still having problems with the recoil of the gun, and the second arrow hits Arn in the leg. He jerks sharply and falls back against the fleshy wall.
John hates to do it, hates it as Ronon stuns Arn and sends him to the ground.
The rest is a matter of a few minutes and in the end they all fall as his team prevails, but John won't leave his tribe behind bleeding and unconscious. He can't do that, they had not left him alone and naked in the snow either after all, and he won't leave the bodies inside the cave either. All the time he is hoping the Wraith are slow enough to realize what's going on to not come running around the next corner any second.
They don't, even after the group of men are bound and outside and the shield rises after the last of them. He can ignore the questions of possible reasons for that for the sake of concentrating on escape, all but the uneasy sour feeling in the pit of his stomach he gets when looking a last time over the tribe's men and Tuuli.
John actually feels pretty bad for doing this to people who had treated him as one of their own, so not killing them is the least he can do. Talking them out of serving a Wraith Queen might be possible eventually but not today and not while still so close to the Wraith Queen's shrine; god, he is well aware that even leaving them here might be their death sentence, but right now, he can't change it, he can't.
The only one he truly no longer feels bad about leaving behind is Tuuli, lying in the snow at the edge of the area the force field usually covers. He looks indeed not older than John, and now that he can remember all he knows about Wraith and knows again how to look for the signs in the behaviour of the older man, he understands so much about him. Understands how he probably has lived a long life and had many children in that time, sending countless numbers of them off to be sucked dry. He understands how Vinte can be so proud of her son and look so sad for everything he has done at the same time.
"John," Teyla calls him and he leaves his tribe and Mies behind, reassuming his true role as leader of his team.
He has no time for doubt.
He knows the path down from the mountainside the shrine is on and towards the valley of the two rivers, but it's hard to hide where they're walking and John hopes the rain and murky weather it causes makes it harder to see their crouching figures against the grass. He's thankful as the village, visible as not more than a dark shadow perched on the slope above the two rivers, and the villagers within make no attempt to follow them as of yet. They probably do not see them as anything other than a few sheep or something, moving swiftly in the direction of the woods.
He signals Lorne with a twirl of his hand to stay low as they walk along the riverbeds. Some of the sheep baa and run off in different directions and it's just another thing John hopes won't alarm the villagers; it will take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours for Arn and the others to wake up or for the Wraith to notice that their lunch is missing.
And he isn't sure if he should be more afraid of the villagers, given that he knows how they hunt, or of the Wraith. He hasn't seen any Wraith activity; any foot soldiers or darts, and perhaps they don't have any around, though it's unlikely and he keeps expecting the hiss of Wraith darts echoing through the valley at any second.
"How far is the gate from here?" he asks.
"The gate's location is on the moon, we're here with a jumper," Lorne supplies. "It's parked in a clearing close to the forest's edge."
That explains the whole business with the village on the other side of the mountains. So a few hours walk, fewer hours if they run and he's glad he had made the forest his favourite hiding spot over the last months or he would be lost on the way in the upcoming night.
It's familiar, so damn familiar to lead his team, his people, across the grasslands and towards the bushes and trees. It's like slipping back into a well-worn pattern of behaviour, into a second nature that has just waited, and he is reminded of the first time he had stepped into the forest months back, of the way the crossbow felt like it had been made for his hands, like he always had it. He can remember how he paced the forest like a soldier patrolling the perimeter, like he'd done a million times on missions and it all makes sense now.
It all makes so much sense now.
The story of the Mother and the shadow bringers becomes clear; how the Ancients came and left again because of their war a long time ago, how people with the gene were culled or starved to death and how the Wraith came and made this place a steady source of nourishment in the times when most Hives where hibernating. It makes sense how the Queen had taken them as her worshippers, probably beaming in from a nearby Hive or base whenever the sensors showed activity… or so he thinks; that part of the theory still lacks in detail.
If the gate were in space – or on the moon - then the jumper would have noticed a Hive upon arrival. If the facility in the mountains had been big enough to be a real base, then the jumper would have picked up on the energy signals – which it should have anyway with the shielding and all - and where were the Wraith hiding anyway? Unless of course it's just the one Wraith, just the Queen and Tuuli and his men, he shakes his head.
"Did you notice anything about the Wraith when you came here first?" he asks, knowing that Rodney is behind his shoulder as they move. He is always there, was always there, and for a moment John grins stupidly at having that back now.
"There were Ancient ruins on the other side of the mountains, but we got no energy readings or anything out of the ordinary from our scans. It was all pretty much levelled," Rodney says.
John imagines how Rodney and a team just flew across the village in their invisible jumper and walked through the woods on the other side of the mountains while John worked and hunted and had no idea who they even were.
"Well, nothing but the life signs from a handful of villages that is," Rodney continues. "And obviously some greenery that they thought was worth checking out."
Rodney is openly disgusted by whoever he means by 'they' and swirls a hand to illustrate. It's just like in the old times, home.
"That was why you had Doctor Brown along?"
"Caldwell and Woolsey thought it might be a nice place to get the more base-bound scientists out for a change," Lorne adds. "They also thought it was better to stay away from the natives."
So Caldwell took over for John, he had figured that would happen, had actually watched it happen, though the details are all slowly floating out of reach already. The Woolsey thing, he senses, might be a bit of a longer story he might not enjoy too much by the way Rodney and the others around him look. The IOA had already tried to have more of an influence on the expedition before, now they just may have managed to do it.
"Didn't work out with the avoiding contact to the natives thing, huh?" John drawls.
"No, it didn't, sir," Lorne says, relief evident in his voice. "And you have no idea how glad Dr. Weir was to hear we saw you," he adds.
John may have a certain idea, but she certainly would have had anything on Rodney pestering Caldwell and Woolsey into agreeing to check it out. He actually would have liked to spy on that briefing.
The rain pounds down harder on them and the sky darkens a little more, the shortening of daylight the closer it gets to the dark season showing and yet there is no sign of the villagers or Tuuli and John hopes it stays that way as the first sporadic trees and bushes come into view. Lorne takes over the lead, navigating in an almost straight line towards where he is sure the jumper must be.
And John wants to believe it's as easy as that but there is a sound in the woods. The cracking of branches is hardly audible above the pitter-patter of the rain but all weapons are aimed at the source as their small group falls into complete silence. It's nobody John would have expected to catch up, though, of all the people to follow them, from Wraith to Tuuli, it's her.
"Mies," Vinte says and steps out from behind one of the trees, eyes wide and afraid at the guns directed at her.
"Lower them," John says and hurries over to her, guiding her back to lean against the tree. "Vinte, why did you come here? You should be back at the village!"
How could she even be upright right now the way she looks, let alone how she could have walked all the way here?
"How have you even managed to walk here?" he asks and she just smiles, her face bright and happy despite rain and cold.
"It's alright, John."
He raises his eyebrows at her mentioning his name and blinks, taken aback by the fact that after the second time his eyes close for just a split second, it's no longer the old woman but the young one from his dreams. He looks over at the others to seek confirmation he's seeing this but they don't seem to notice the change. They all look as if they don't even know that she's there, like they're suspended in their own little world for a moment.
"John…" she says and lays a hand on his cheek that draws his attention back to her. "I'm glad you remembered this. I was so worried you would never find your way back."
"I…" he tries to says something but doesn't know exactly what. He remembers her now from the months he spent with her and her people, helping them succeed against fear itself and showing them the way to ascension.
He had not done much in his opinion, nothing but fall asleep at meditation and fight, which was what he still did best, but it had helped to put their fears to rest and now she was here, again.
"Teer, what…" he says but she shakes her head and smiles.
He wants to ask a million questions and more, details of his dreams still sharp but other memories he has just regained less than few hours ago are already slipping away, so much is lost already and most of it from after the point of his death.
"It's okay, I told you I would help you, and I have helped you to remember." She looks over to his friends. "For now you're safe from them, so leave."
She doesn't mean Tuuli and his men but the others, those ascended who were keen on punishing him. Those bloody incorporeal bastards that haven't set foot on a solid piece of earth in several millennia who came up with the fantastic idea to make him the enemy of his own people.
"They will punish you for it," he says and knows they will come up with something, if they already haven't.
She has taken on the form of Vinte, who probably had died in the snow before John had even been made corporeal again, had hidden in the old woman's form to give him the dreams or… well, that is what he figures must have been the reason. He's a little foggy on the details. He has no clue what she has given up helping him, what kind of true punishment she will be facing or has already accepted.
"Don't worry about me," she says. "I've seen our story long before it happened and have told you so before. I may not have changed your punishment much, but I have postponed it in this way…"
He frowns at her words in confusion but then things fall into place and the grand scheme of things in the game they play becomes clear.
The Ancients have taken his mind for what he has done and Vinte… Teer… has helped him to preserve the memories of his people somehow, he knows, and it's bad enough that Baker died and John had done nothing before he truly could remember, but now, now the Wraith – be it just the one Queen or an entire Hive – will know something is wrong down here and because of the Queen draining Baker they also know that Atlantis is aware of this village and this world and his tribe.
They are still his tribe. Mies is still inside him.
The hunter who has been son to Tuuli and lover to Ilren, friend to Arn and who mourned Njir; Jesus, he damned them with remembering that he is not that man, has probably broken their entire lifestyle. Sure, they are Wraith worshipers and he now understands most of what has been going on over the months… but… Vinte has changed his punishment by making him remember and he starts to wonder if that's not the real punishment to begin with.
"It's alright," Teer says and pats his chest again.
"No… it's not!"
"Go now," she says.
He wants to protest, but the faint hiss of Wraith darts breaking the clouds above is suddenly startlingly clear in the cacophony of rain drops hitting the ground and he looks up to see the black darts zoom in on their location. So not just one Wraith Queen, he thinks as the world starts moving again.
"Sir!" Lorne yells for him and most of the team is already running.
Vinte… Teer… has vanished into thin air as he looks back to her, done with her part in this show, and he looks back in the direction of his tribe once before running as well.
The jumper is cloaked but the heavy rain drums over its surface and illustrates its shape sharply enough to know where it is and as John catches up to the others and sees it, just its ghostly imprint into the weather is enough to make him take a deep breath and feel a strange relief flood over him.
No matter his tribe and the darts, home is so close, so damn close.
He commands the ship to become visible and it complies. The sound of the hatch opening and the ramp lowering sounds like music to him. He's in and runs to the front, up to the pilot's seat, where he flops down and waits for a moment, laying both hands flat on the controls just to cherish the call that the Ancient machinery sends out to him. He grins and pats the console, closing his hands around the handles of the jumper almost gently.
"Seriously, you can flirt with your jumper later, for now I'd very much rather get the thing in the air before the Wraith are on top of us!"
"I'm on it, McKay!"
John takes her off the ground gently and virtually floors it as soon as he's above the treetops, zipping along the expanse of green and towards the mountains beyond with the hiss of the darts behind him and their weapon fire hitting the snowy tops of the mountains as he narrowly flies over their peaks, avalanches crashing down the ravines and cutting into the forest green as he touches the clouds and beyond.
It's like coming home to see the stars and the darkness of space again, even with the darts and the narrow misses that rock their ship.
It's a miracle they take no direct hits, and it's a even larger miracle that the Hive that looms above them, called as reinforcements to the scene, misses as well.
"Thank you," he whispers and knows to whom.
A dart hisses after the jumper, shooting narrowly past and he pushes the Ancient engine a little further, makes her purr in his mind as he flies a curve and lines up to the Stargate. He will have to do a hell of a breaking stunt on the other side, even with the city's dampeners catching him but right now, right here, he just has to reach the gate and get away.
"Hold on!" he yells and they cross the horizon.
The shield rises as soon as they are through and they can hear the three impacts into it even in the jumper, everyone looking a little shaken and soaked through with rain except for John, who smiles because he's home.
Home, he thinks as he sees the control room, Elizabeth on her balcony and the stained glass windows at the top of the stairs. Oh, and the looks on Woolsey and Caldwell in the background are priceless. He closes his eyes and welcomes the city into his head, letting her roam his thoughts freely for a moment and takes the jumper up into the bay without opening his eyes again.
"This is going to be one long briefing," he hears one of the remaining Marines mutter and can't hold the relieved laugh that wants to bubble from the pit off his stomach in any longer, looks over and sees Rodney in the co-pilot's seat.
He looks back, one hand still on the console before him, and grins as if he'd discovered something really cool like a really big gun or something, and John is just happy he can remember what to compare the expression with again. Finally.
The next hours give him no time to think about anything other than that. The briefing is indeed long and tiresome since he can't answer much. It's as if he has lost most of what he'd known the very moment he remembered himself – as odd as that may have sounded to Woolsey and the others present— the dreams he had had the entire duration he had stayed with the Wraith worshippers have mostly become fuzzy and unclear, too, and all he knows is that he is back and that it feels, ignoring the fact that it is well over 18 months since he died, like not much more time than perhaps a few days have passed.
The soldiers in the halls greet him with the same small nods or gestures of respect as they had back in the day and almost everyone smiles at him, welcomes him back. He even finds himself okay with the tendency of a large part of the female expedition members to hug him tightly, but that's mostly because Rodney looks a little pissed and he always loved to tickle Rodney's jealous streak.
Oh, and he can be pretty jealous and throw fits with the best of them; he's in his element when he is allowed to yell for whatever reason.
And John, as absurd as it sounds, missed that so much.
The wildly flying hands, the eyes, the mouth, the curve of his jaw and the spot where Rodney has that little, not quite double chin, well it's not really one, it's more like a small roundness at his chin becoming prominent when he glowers, oh, and he missed that, too, not quite as much as his city though.
God, he missed his city's beautiful soft voice in the back of his head, the warm motherly presence… although he thinks about not using that word to describe her for a while, rather naming her caring or provident something like that. She is pleased to welcome him back, he feels it, and the world he had picked to evacuate them to fits her and her inhabitants well with the wide oceans and the mild climate. The only true difference to Lantea are the two moons and the longer hours of the day, things nobody quite cares for anymore so he doesn't either.
Rodney has told him that it had been three months until the last of his minions managed to adjust to the newly calculated 31 hour system without arriving late all the time, told him that some of them have degrees in math and should know how to read a simple clock and probably just tried to sleep a little longer or something. He had babbled a lot as John was in the infirmary for the first day or so, and has rambled on at every given moment since then, determined to make him catch up to every last thing.
It's nice, and the offer that Caldwell made about retaking his position as military commander as soon as he has caught up to recent developments again makes it even better. That offer was the last thing John had counted on after coming back, but Caldwell seemed actually glad to get rid of the command although he, of course, didn't say that out loud.
John knows it, however, can read between the lines by now.
Rodney is still accusing him of having done several things while he was ascended, like giving him pointers to the energy station and the Wraith Queen hiding close to it, or that Carson somehow ended up with just a hand full of scrapes instead getting killed in an explosion – seriously, exploding tumours—and all the other small things.
"I can't remember anything," John says then and grins.
He can't remember anything of it, of course, but knows that he had not just stood by as his people got themselves into trouble. He also knows that this rescue, even with the victims on both sides, was still too easy and that the true punishment is waiting. Caldwell, after much asking from John and – what may pass as begging – sends the Daedalus which is now constantly stationed on Atlantis and may be another reason Caldwell would not mind John back in his position, back to the world of John's tribe to look for them.
It is no true surprise that the Wraith have taken out their anger about the escaped Atlanteans; in retrospect, the balance between Tuuli's people and the Mother was too fragile to hold in the current times anyway. Another part of him knows that Teer has been punished somehow, as well, in this game and not just for holding to him and helping him, and that the biggest part about his punishment may be that he is to blame.
His true punishment is to live and remember.
He had broken the rules and broken them again, lost his place as an ascended being in exchange for his people's security, eradicated sentient machines and is to blame for the Wraith destroying his tribe for saving his people again. Mies hates him for it as much as John is happy to be back. It's like Dex and Mitch and all the other times breaking rules ended bitterly combined, but for now, at least he's back home.
He tries to forget, even as he tries to get Rodney to stop babbling the best way he remembers, the punishment will never go away and he may never get used to this guilt.
"I seriously can't remember that Rodney," he says fondly, and covers the busy mouth with his own.
Rodney's mouth still moves and muffled words spill from his lips, but John is determined to get him to talk about other things instead, things John can remember, or better, things John can make new memories of. Relearning the cartography of a body he had forgotten for so long, have Rodney mock John's hairstyle after combing through his hair while John goes down on him. Oh and the shape of Rodney's mouth when he comes… all these little things.
He collects them and builds a wall with them around the guilt.
He knows the Ancients are watching, probably just waiting for him to mess up again and inflict yet another creative punishment on him, some trap here or unlucky mission there, but for now he may as well give them a proper show to make their time worthwhile.
He knows they will watch him.
John Sheppard awakes standing on a vast expanse of ice, lonely and freezing. There is a green valley spreading below and dark woods looming in the distance, endless incredible blue sky spreads towards the horizon and when he reaches out and spreads his fingers he can almost touch the clouds.
He looks up into the blue and remembers Atlantis and his friends, holds to them a last time, then closes his eyes. He imagines the ocean and the silver spires he knows inside and out until a tug on his hand brings him back into reality.
Teer looks up at him and smiles, and together they start walking towards the valley and warmth.
He forgets a face, a piece of his life, a fragment of his being with every step, until they are all gone, until even Rodney is gone, and only the blue sky and the smiling old woman's face above him where Teer was just seconds before is left.
That is how Mies is born.