Four steps into Atlantis (alien city, alien world, he reminds himself, and then wishes he hadn’t, because they’re not the only things that are alien), the lights come on—the city comes on, and suddenly he’s not alone in his head anymore.
Suddenly his head isn’t his anymore.
Well, it is—he’s still John Sheppard, still has all his memories of Antarctica and Afghanistan, and the places before those, but—
But he also remembers the feel of the city, knows what’s hidden behind the doors: the hallways and the rooms beyond, the catwalks, the piers, the balconies, the puddle jumpers. Knows all the ways a man can die here. (Has died, does die—except none of it has happened yet, maybe none of it has to happen—)
Marines push past him, loaded down with supplies. John can name them, name all the ways they sacrifice themselves or are sacrificed. He’s written letters that will never get sent to their families, full of stiff phrases that only ever approach the truth; even if the expedition wasn’t classified, he still wouldn’t have the right words to make people understand what these men have done.
Haven’t done. Might yet do. They’re alive, not dead (not yet, not real, he tries to remind himself, but it doesn’t work, because the thought different time line makes him feel like he’s been gutted), and he doesn’t know what to do with that.
He’s in the way, and beginning to draw people’s eyes away from this strange (familiar) new (old) city, which deserves their attention more than he ever could, so he steps aside, and keeps on stepping up the stairs to the control room. (He shouldn’t know that. Shouldn’t know the way it had looked—will look—with the dust covers replaced by laptops.)
Rodney (not Rodney, McKay—they aren’t friends, aren’t team yet, and John can’t let himself forget that or everything (John) will fall apart) follows on John’s heels. More lights come on, even as John tries to persuade them to stay off, and then various consoles and screens as Ro—McKay pulls the dust covers off. McKay makes a sound that is somehow both thrilled and irritated at the same time as something new blinks to life.
“Are you turning these on?” he demands, and John just shakes his head because he doesn’t trust himself to speak. “If you are, stop it. For all we know, this could be the city arming itself for self-destruct, all because you weren’t able to keep from playing light switch, and I did not come all this way just to die because some idiot pushed the wrong mental button.” He sounds exactly the way John remembers (knows) him, though at this moment it’s hard to see the two of them on the same team, as friends—and not just them, but Ford, as much as rank allowed, and Teyla (and he can’t let himself think of her, not yet—)
John knows exactly what each of the consoles controls, and the basics of how to read and manipulate them, but he can’t tell Rodney this, just as he can’t tell Rodney about the thousands of feet of water above their heads, or that Rodney’s already died once—and oh, John hopes that this isn’t the time line where they all drown.
“Cat got your tongue?” McKay asks, but he’s too distracted by all the Ancient tech for the question to have much bite to it.
“Nope,” John says, and he shouldn’t be able to sound as normal as he does. “Just feeling a little overwhelmed.” Which is true, just not the way Rodney will think. McKay, John reminds himself again with something close to despair.
He can’t do this, can’t pretend to be the man he was (should be) a year ago (now). But he has no choice; if he starts spouting things, if he tells this Rodney (McKay, because that’s all they are to each other in this now) everything he knows, he’ll likely find himself trussed up in a corner until things get settled, and if that happens, people will die (again), and he can’t let that happen. So he trails behind Rodney, clutching his P-90 as if it’s all that’s keeping him tethered to reality, and tries to remember what it felt like to be innocent of the future.
Apparently he does a good enough job of impersonating himself, because no one seems to think he’s anything other than mildly freaked by the whole “alien city, alien world” thing—and then, later, by the “we’re underwater and our shields are failing” thing. He almost, almost hits the button to send Atlantis upward, but they need a reason to go to Athos, to meet Teyla.
Maybe he’s being selfish, but he tells himself that the expedition needs (will need) the Athosians almost as much as John needs Teyla right now. He needs Teyla to look at him gravely, to touch her forehead to his, to help him believe that he is more than he has been. That he can do this. And the expedition will need good allies if they are to survive long enough to figure out a way to go home, for home to figure out a way to get to them—Colonel Everett said (will say) that there was (will be) a space ship on the way. They just need to hang on for a year.
John just needs to hang on for a year.
So he lets Atlantis stay where she is, with the shields running out of power, and Colonel Sumner takes him to Athos, where he meets Teyla for the second time.
“Nice to meet you,” he forces himself to say, even though all he wants to do is grab her arms and hold on, to say I don’t know why I’m here, now, and have her tell him that things will be all right. But she looks at him without recognition, and it’s worse than Rodney thinking he’s an idiot.
“We do not trade with strangers,” she tells them, and he hadn’t expected it to hurt this much.
“Then we’ll just have to get to know each other,” he says, because he can’t make it through the year without her. “Me, I like Ferris wheels and college football and anything that goes more than two hundred miles per hour.” She doesn’t know any of these things, but that doesn’t matter. He’ll have time to explain them badly later. If things go the same way as last time.
And Teyla smiles, and invites them for tea, and John knows that he can do this. He can fix things, can save the Athosians and Colonel Sumner. Can keep from waking the wraith and making all the hundreds of other mistakes. This time, he can make things go right.
“I love a good cup of tea,” he says, even though he doesn’t, and it feels like he could fly.