Title: Through the Blue Vault of Varda
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: The city sang to John, and he understood at last why the scholars always spoke of the earliest days of Middle-earth through the medium of music. 3900 words.
Spoilers: All of Stargate Atlantis; J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Silmarillion"
Notes: For ladyyueh, who asked for John being related to Elladan and Elrohir somehow. (very) post-"Lord of the Rings", but most of the Tolkien references are actually from Silm canon. Also contains an italicized C.S. Lewis quote.
"I have to do this, Ada. You know I must."
"The Straight Road has been closed for many thousands of years. None know what conditions may exist in Arda Marred, my son."
"I know. But I've put this off long enough. I'm as old now as Elladan and Elrohir were when they made their choices. It's time, if I'm ever going to make an informed decision."
"Very well, then. If the Valar permit it."
"Oh, they will. It's their commandment, after all. I'll be back soon enough, I'm sure. I just need to know."
"So said my brother, once, long ago. I fear I named you too truly."
"I'm not him, Ada. And I'm not my sister, either. My fate will be my own."
The coin glittered in the air as he flipped it, catching the light; such a little thing to be the arbiter of his fate, but a fitting one, Aewil had decided. The sound of the water in the bay below soothed him as he caught it again; though the sky had ever been his home and the stars his destiny, like all those of Eldar blood the call of the sea was as much a part of him as breath and bone.
Atlantis. Home of an ancient people who shed their skins as other peoples shed raiment; a place of wonder and power, of teachings that had raised simple and primitive peoples to the height of civilized culture; once part of Middle-earth but long since removed from mortals' reach. He knew this story: knew it of old, from tales heard at his adar's knee, though under other names. Aman. The Ainur. And yet: they were not the same story. He'd been born on Tol Eressëa, to a joyously reunited Lord Elrond and his lady wife; had lived there for countless idyllic, peaceful years, before the pressure of his mortal blood drove him to explore the other side of the choice his siblings had made Ages before. He'd learned his history from kin who'd been there since the beginnings of recorded time, and there was much else about the Lost City that did not match any part of what they'd taught him.
Aewil couldn't not be curious about what the people at the Antarctic base had told him. Were the Ancients they spoke of kin to those who had long watched over his people? The Valar had never spoken of any such thing to his knowledge- but then, they still told of a great Song that brought the world into Being, of a flat earth broken by the malevolence of one of their number, and of a Sun and a Moon fashioned from the fruit and flower of wondrous trees. The truth was probably a lot less metaphorical. And if so, what of those of their folk who, according to the Ainulindalë, had not descended into Eä? Had they perhaps fled to Pegasus, and so out of the narrative of the Valar, instead?
Would he follow in the footsteps of his forefather, the Great Mariner, in search of the answers? He'd been aboard Vingilot a few times, when Eärendil had visited his family on rare afternoons free from his duties; it looked much like a large, finely crafted wooden sailing ship, but unlike any other such vessel in existence it could soar up to orbit with ease while maintaining all the necessities to preserve life- things like air, and running water, and a cupboard that was never empty of food. And the Silmaril- he'd sat in the Chair down in Antarctica. He'd felt the thrum of the power beneath his feet. And he knew it: knew it for the same jewel-bound fire that shone from the fixture at the front of his grandfather's ship, if in less concentrated form. Differing craftsmanship, but similar foundations.
He took a deep breath, then exposed the coin- and nodded. The family who had housed him for his adjustment to Middle-earth would not approve of his disappearance; but then, they'd seldom approved of anything he'd done since he'd joined the Air Force. His ada would grieve, but he would also understand, he was sure, even if Aewil never returned to Arda, or Aman. He was the scion of great scholars as well as great warriors, and this was an opportunity for discovery and exploration such as the Eldar had not seen for many Ages. He would go; and he would not regret his choice.
Major John Sheppard's first steps through the Stargate raised unexpected echoes in his memory. The dim-lit beauty of the gate room of Atlantis, the burnt umbers and cool blues and soaring shapes of its architecture, the way the lights came on as they entered- it was all familiar, and struck him to the quick with wonder. Valmar, which he had visited but once when he spoke at Máhanaxar for the chance to explore his human heritage, was similar in design; and it in turn was modeled after the Valar's lost home of Almaren, known to his people only through legend. The city sang to him, and he understood at last why the scholars always spoke of the earliest days of Middle-earth through the medium of music.
The Valar- who had called themselves the Ainur before they settled down and began to experiment with terraforming and guiding other species- were of the same race as the Ancients after all. The discovery roused the thread of Melian's blood that had long slumbered during his years in the human world... but at the same time raised questions he'd never have dared to ask before those same painful years had taken the shine off his idealism and naïve faith in the Powers.
The thought had occurred to him: where had Morgoth gone, when they shoved him through the "Door of Night"? And what was that "Door"? John could guess, now; and if his grandfather had been its guardian, it must have passed out of Eärendil's ken some five thousand years before. The SGC's stories of Anubis- of a being composed of malevolent spirit, frozen halfway between its natural ethereal state and a mortal form, cast forth from the company of its peers rather than utterly destroyed- resonated unpleasantly with the Ages-old songs of the breaking of Thangorodrim and the end of the War of Wrath. Could Morgoth have been exiled here, to this place, under another guise?
He believed he'd learned the answer to that question, too, after the culling of Athos.
Wraith. Orcs by any other name, cursed creation of a darkened mind. And they were not the only horror slumbering in Pegasus. The Valar might have expelled all their hateful kin from Terra, but it seemed they had only exported the problem to other worlds. Had those living in Atlantis, parted from the ones who had remained behind for who knew how many millennia, known what they welcomed among them? John could only guess from the fragments of history that surfaced in the city's database, but he thought not. The Ancients had apparently believed purely in science, without any evident faith to check them- and Morgoth had ever been both intelligent and persuasive.
Olórin had spoken truthfully when he'd cautioned John before his leavetaking: his family had been plagued by the heavy hand of destiny since its earliest origins, and he would surely not be exempt from the doom carried by that blood. That fate had led him unexpectedly to a group of other humans who carried the heritage of the Valar- or other Ancients- as he did the legacy of Melian; and then to this city, tarnished echo of all the Valar had spent so many Ages attempting to preserve.
Elvanwa, his father had called him: star-lost, a child ever daydreaming and looking up into the sky. Aewil, his mother had named him instead: star-bird, for she had Seen he would one day fly free of the world as had his grandfather. But the name he had first borne had been Atanion: Son of Men, the only one of Elrond's children born without the sharply defined ears and clear grey eyes that proclaimed their descent from the royal line of the Noldor. And so it seemed fitting, that it was among the Secondborn that he would add the next chapter to the verses of woe and triumph that echoed his heritage.
Men, John had discovered in his time among them, were every bit as capable as the Elves; but that they lived with a much greater urgency, and had less time to master their skills. They were far from a lesser people, and despite the occasional harsh disappointment, he had easily come to understand why his sister had chosen a mortal life, and why his brothers Elladan and Elrohir had been tempted likewise.
But their swift-moving blood, and short memories as a race, often led them to make dangerous choices. Not that he had much room to talk after various near-suicidal runs against enemies of Atlantis, and after tasting the dregs of mortality first-hand through various encounters with Iratus bugs and Kolya's Wraith. But those were choices that would harm only himself: interposing his body between those he sought to protect and the enemy's spear. The intellectual arrogance that led to destroyed solar systems and retroviral experiments and tweaked base code in sentient AIs reminded him of his father's tales of Saruman- not to mention Olórin's oft-repeated cautions that 'he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom' and 'perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves.' It bothered him- what the Ancients had been, and what the expedition was becoming.
It bothered him still more after they re-established contact with the SGC and learned of the discovery of the Ori. More pieces in the history of the Ancients- now known as the Alterans- snapped into place: the Ancients and the Ainur both must have fled the Ori to Terra, the three factions separated by their different stances on religion. One without; one who yet believed in a creator, Ilúvatar; and one that believed they themselves were due the worship of lesser species. It was undoubtedly the Ainur- through the stories of Morgoth and his servants the Balrogs- who were responsible for lingering Earthly associations between fire imagery and conceptions of evil, not the Ori who had never set ethereal foot on Terra, whatever Dr. Jackson might think. And it was also the Ainur who'd had enough faith to stay behind when the rest of their kin on Earth packed up their city and fled the plague to Pegasus.
But all three factions had meddled in the creation and manipulation of less-advanced species. All three had taught their arts to their particular favorites among such peoples, and held themselves aloof from others. All three had keyed certain of their technological advancements to beings touched by, or descended from, their bloodlines. And all three had produced both great beauty and greater horrors. The current idyll of the Valar was only maintained by the strength by which they clung to their past; they, and all the Eldar that lived under their guidance, were a folk trapped in amber, their lives golden but also unchanging. The longer John lived in Pegasus, the more distanced he felt from his life as Aewil.
The time they spent back on Earth when Helia kicked them out, only to be wiped out by the Asurans in turn, only clarified that for him. Call it cowardice, but he didn't want to take ship back to Valinor and revisit his home and family with eyes that had seen what he'd seen over the last few years. He didn't want to wander the gardens of Lórien wondering if his foremother had come onto Elwë like Chaya had ambushed him; or give into the urge to pull Olórin's beard and ask him what the hell the Valar had really been thinking when they'd levied their doom on the Noldor or wrecked Númenor or "bent the world" by cloaking their whole damn island so no one without special guidance could ever reach it again. They'd abandoned countless Eldar and all but one of Aulë's children to fade and die at the dawning of the Age of Men- why? Why had that been necessary?
They were related to the Ancients, all right. It turned his stomach to think about it; and more than that, he couldn't bear the thought of repeating all he'd learned and watching the light dim in his father's eyes, as well. Or his mother's, or his grandparents- Eru, how much had Eärendil and Elwing had sacrificed at the command of the Valar? Or Glorfindel, who'd served several generations of John's father's family with absolute loyalty, up to and including death and rebirth. He fairly glowed sometimes, if you knew what to look for, when his temper was up; John had never thought the mechanics of that through before Atlantis, but it pretty much proved that the Valar actually practiced the Ascension-after-death gimmick that the Ori only pretended to offer all their followers. Only- they'd genetically engineered it so every Elf did so when he or she died, and then spent all eternity on an ethereal plane known as the "Halls of Mandos" unless they thought said Elf was ready to return!
John had had all of that notion he could stand, after spending six months trapped in a time dilation field with people who cared about nothing but shedding their mortal forms. He still loved his family, would always love them, and dearly hoped he'd get at least one more chance to speak with them in his lifetime, but- never again. Life was meant to be lived, he'd decided, and if that meant it had to come to an end at some point, well. Everything worthwhile had its price tag.
The elves sang that their long years passed like swift draughts of sweet mead; and so they had, when he'd been a young ellon in Avallónë. But John feared he'd lost the taste for it, soured by what he'd seen. "What else have ye not lost," Fëanor had famously said before he led most of the Noldor back to Middle-earth in rebellion, "cooped here in a narrow land between the mountains and the sea?" John understood the father of the Kinslayings now better than he could have imagined in his sheltered youth- and that only added to his desire not to trouble his family with his new burdens.
He knew, then, what his choice would be when Círdan returned for him.
But as he had passed beyond the peaceful bliss of the Twilight, so too there came a day when he recognized the bitter poisons of Morgoth for what they were, and took his first steps free of the darkness he had mired himself in. It took a painful lesson from the artificial guardian of a slumbering alien race for him to see it; but the revelation was no less needful for the harshness of its delivery.
"You torture yourself every day, John."
He could only be grateful his subconscious had stuck to foes of his experience, rather than his fears; or perhaps it was that in his mind, Kolya was much like what he imagined the Enemy would be if limited to mortal form? As the hallucinations had forced him to contemplate his own failures, and castigate himself for the many ways in which a true son of Elrond should have surely have transcended them, it slowly occurred to him that he had reacted to his discoveries in Pegasus much like a petulant child first discovering that his parents did, after all, put on their undergarments one leg at a time.
No sentient being that had ever lived or breathed could possibly be perfect; what was so special about discovering that the Valar, too, had feet of clay? They did love the Eldar, which was more than could be said for the Ancients and the "second evolution of their form", or the Ori and their countless planets of worshipers; and if some of their actions had harmed rather than helped- well. He who woke the Wraith from their long slumber probably shouldn't be picking up stones.
Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.
He spent awhile wandering the city that evening, reacquainting himself with its wonders, and stood awhile in the power room, thinking again about long-lost Telperin and Laurelin, and wondering if perhaps Doranda should be added to that selective list, even as the zero point modules were poor, oversized cousins of Fëanor's "Great Jewels". Did the breaking of a marvelous thing truly erase all the glory it had carried before, or the potential that might still grow out of its ruin?
He was still testing that idea, like a child with a loose tooth, when a ZPM-powered Hiveship caught the coordinates of Earth and went a-hunting.
Through fire and water, across the sky and down to Earth, Atlantis returned to the home of its youth, splashing down in seas it had last visited more than five million years before. John was not aboard her when she touched down, but he made his way there as swiftly as he could, and stood on the balcony under the bright rays of Anor in the company of those he had learned to call friend.
Maybe- just maybe, he might be able to find another option.
He was unsurprised when a white ship sailed straight through the city's cloak the next morning.
"I'm getting an IDC," Rodney said in disbelief, checking the readout on his tablet yet again. Then he looked back up at the wooden side of the great vessel looming above him. "It's like the city thinks it's a puddlejumper, or something- I don't understand it. Something must have got knocked loose in the sensors when we landed."
"I don't think so, Rodney," John observed with a small smile, watching the bustlings of the crew up above; he'd expected to see the Shipwright, not the Mariner, but he'd never turn down a chance to see his grandfather. "Unless Atlantis reads her as something other than Vingilot?"
"You know this ship?" Woolsey blurted in surprise.
"Yeah, you could say that," John drawled, watching from the corners of his eyes as Rodney tapped something else on his tablet- then gasped and looked up, eyes drawn inexorably toward the brightly coruscating lamp visible at the ship's prow. "No, your sensors aren't lying, Rodney. That really is what you think it is. And no, you can't have it."
"But if that's an advanced ZedPM, just think..." the scientist objected.
"Greater men than you have fought wars over that thing, Rodney. Just let it go," John told him, calmly.
"How do you know of these people?" Teyla wondered, wrinkling her brow.
"And how did they get through our cloak?" Ronon asked, more practically.
"It's... ah, kind of a long story," John told them. One that had been a long time coming; but his team deserved the truth, and if the presence of that ship in the open meant what he hoped it might, Woolsey was the best choice of authority figure he could have hoped to have there, too. One whose sympathies lay first with the city, and didn't answer to any military masters.
"Is that an Ancient ship?" Rodney asked, turning his full attention on John. "An Ancient ship, here on Earth? I thought all the ones in the Milky Way had Ascended- not to mention the fact that, hello, ship. Why the hell would they disguise a space-capable vessel as, well, that?"
"Why disguise one as a city?" John shrugged, smiling wryly. "But- no, it isn't. Except, it kind of is."
"Could you be any more vague?" Rodney huffed.
"It is- very beautiful," Teyla observed, quietly, standing close at John's side.
She was right, of course; it was. "The Ainur always strove to lift form into art," he told her, recognizing the truth of the words as he said them. "Function was what you'd call a secondary consideration." Always, striving futilely to recapture the Springtime of Arda: but striving, the effort maybe not less worthy for the fact that it was doomed.
He knew a little about that, now, too, he thought, and the turbulence in his heart settled a little more.
"Quality over quantity," Ronon mused, speculatively.
"But how do you know them?" Woolsey fretted. "Is this something the SGC discovered in the last year?"
"Nope," John said, hands in his pockets, attention riveted to the plank as two of the crew slid it over the side. It wasn't the simple, narrow piece of wood it looked like either, of course. And as soon as it touched bottom- two tall, grey-eyed figures with long, braided dark hair appeared at the top.
John's breath caught in his throat. He coughed to clear it, then stepped forward, heedless of the others. "Elladan! Elrohir!" he greeted them as they descended.
A smile creased his eldest brother's face; his twin elbowed him, muttering something undoubtedly uncomplimentary under his breath, and then the pair of them were enveloping him in their arms. "Atanion," one said. "Little brother! Mae govannen," the other muttered into his hair.
"Wait a minute," Rodney spluttered from somewhere behind him. "Little brother? Little brother? But these are- oh my God, you can't be serious. What are they, elves? I knew it! You have the pointiest ears I've ever seen on a human being!"
John laughed ruefully, then pulled back and more formally clasped hands with each of his brothers. "Mae govannen," he told them. "I've got a lot to tell you guys. And somehow, I think you have a lot to tell me, too."
"Much has happened since you left," Elladan agreed.
"You left Arda, brother. Did you really think no-one would notice?" Elrohir added.
"Well, I..." John shrugged. "You know. I'd been in the human world a few decades already." Truthfully, he hadn't thought anyone might be watching- but he probably should have known better. "So what have the Valar decided?"
His brothers looked at each other- then back at John, expressions gravely serious. "They've re-opened the Straight Road," Elladan said.
"They never expected anything like this to happen. It will still be barred to most mortals, of course. But that you brought the original Atalantë here..." Elrohir shook his head. "The world is not the same place it was five years ago. No one knows what the next Age may bring."
"Only a son of Elrond," Elladan commented, grey eyes bright. "You always were trouble, Aewil. Think you can handle being the Valar's ambassador here?"
John snorted, then grinned back at him, relief welling up in his heart. They'd have to take the city back to Pegasus to finish exterminating the Wraith, of course. But the physical presence of Atlantis probably didn't mean as much as what its rediscovery signified; and it was hardly the only Ancient technology Men had uncovered. There was a lot to talk about; a lot he still had to get off his chest, and questions he'd have to face in turn. But in the meantime...
"Gee, let me think," he chuckled, then turned to introduce them to the others, who stood watching with incredulous expressions.
"Welcome to Atlantis, guys. This is my team."