so. said i'd put together a Things Already Seen filter, which i have, but wanted to check with you guys again, now that i'm going to be posting UNEDITED fic bits daily (i think/hope/pray...). public/flock/filter? speak now or later, but i don't want to inadvertently annoy people by clogging up their flists.
...or maybe i should post it on my, y'know, fic journal?
nah. too inconvenient and also this way i can use my damnit! icon when necessary.
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, none of it has to happen, he can save them, save everybody—)
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, 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 him; 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 yet, 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 feels like he could fly.
The euphoria sticks with him all the way through the Athosians' foul tea (it tastes like bark boiled in mud, not that he’s ever—would tell them that) and accompanying small-talk, the brief and almost painful dawn, and the trek out to Teyla’s cave paintings; this time, although still not quite able to match Teyla’s goat-like sure-footedness, he manages to keep within a few strides, to not fall down on his ass.
It feels a little like he’s cheating: he remembers every instance, almost every word before it happens, like a prescient echo or two realities just slightly out of phase. And he knows now that Halling loves kids and basket weaving and can drop a near-deer from a hundred feet with sling and stone, that Teyla’s small frame masks the ability to kill gracefully and without apology and that she would protect every innocent from the Wraith if she could. Knows that Jinto and the other Athosian children prefer football and oatmeal cookies and stories like the ones John’s mother used to tell him, about bravery and cleverness and the bad guys defeated.
He’s a ringer in their midst, a seeming stranger to knows them like family, and he would feel guilt if he weren’t trying to give them a better future than the one they had before—a future that might not have him in it, but he can’t (won’t) think that far ahead right now.
So he drinks the tea without grimace or hesitation (a skill quickly and bitterly won) and makes jokes he knows they won’t understand, smiles and charms and tap-dances his way through the conversation with all the confidence of Gene Kelly onscreen, gains their trust because he already has it.
When they reach the caves it’s easy enough to find Teyla’s necklace by stepping on it, although he doesn’t realize what he’s choosing to do until it's done; the sudden crack of the crystal breaking startles them both.
He pulls it out from under his boot heel, cutting himself on an unexpected sharp edge. “Ow,” he says, instead of What’s this, as he’s supposed to, and jams his bleeding finger into his mouth.
But Teyla gasps in delight anyway, says, “That’s mine, where did you find it?”
He hands the necklace to her carefully, removes the finger from his mouth and gives her a wry smile. “Stepped on it, actually. Sorry about that. Hope you won’t take that as a bad omen.”
It’s meant mostly as a joke, but Teyla answers seriously. “Of course not: something lost has been returned. I never hoped to see this again—the damage does not matter. You did not step on it intentionally.” She touches the pendant gently with one finger, as if half-expecting it to dissolve into nothing, and then tucks into a pocket.
Before, John had fastened it around her neck; before, she’d been a stranger and he’d been trying his hardest to win her heart, or at least her people’s assistance. This time he deliberately broke something she held dear; this time she is Teyla, whose heart he holds more closer than his own, for whom he has bent oaths and risked his life. He would make her hate him if it meant she and her people would stay safe.
If it wouldn’t mean sacrificing Atlantis’s chance of survival.
When he looks around at the cave paintings he see only everyone he failed the first time around, and for a moment he is heart-stoppingly grateful for a chance to do it right; grateful, and utterly, utterly terrified that all he’ll do is make things worse.
“So this is what the Wraith do,” he hears himself say, grim instead of flippant as he ought to be. “Destroy cities. This why you guys live in tents in the middle of a forest?”
“Yes.” She sounds half-surprised that he drew the conclusion so quickly; he’ll have to guard against that in the future. “They return often enough to cull us that we long ago ceased rebuilding. It is better run and hide and live as best we can despite them.” There is bitterness in her voice that he doesn’t remember, although maybe he just couldn’t hear it before, couldn’t have understood. “A few of us can tell when they are coming, which helps, but not enough.”
John wants to reach out to her, to lay a hand on her arm and tell her that it is enough, that she’s enough and no one could ask for more, but he never could lie to her. Instead he presses his palms against the hard metal of his P-90 and glances away, stares at the paintings as if to burn them into his memory.
“We should go,” Teyla says abruptly, sounding suddenly strange and distant. “It will be dark soon.”
‘It will be dark soon’, only in John’s ears it rings as ‘The wraith are coming’, because they’d never determined what exactly had caused the original raid on Athos—whether it was mere bad luck, or the unintentional activation of Teyla’s necklace. He’d taken care of the latter (he hoped), but. . . .
He wants to run back to the encampment, but can’t, constrained by the murkiness of light and a loose grasp of time-paradoxes as taught by Hollywood. “So what do the wraith do, exactly?” he asks, because it’s either talk or panic and one of those options is unacceptable.
“Feed off us. Treat us like cattin.” John’s seen cattin—they’re pretty much big, stupid, blue rabbits that’re bred on a couple planets for meat and leather. It’s not a flattering comparison, or one he’s heard Teyla make before, though it’s certainly accurate.
“Okay, yes—I got that part, but how do they do that? Are they big slime monsters or what?” Slime monsters would be easier to deal with: just find the equivalent of salt for slugs and voila! Problem solved.
“Ah. No, they are shaped much as we are, but they are taller and very strong and do not die when they should. And if they touch you, they can drink away your life so that you die as an old man while still young.”
“Vampires. Great. Does driving a stake through their heart work?” It’s a stupid remark and an even more stupid question, but at the back of his mind there’s a clock ticking down to zero and he can’t remember who he was a year ago, who Teyla was, how they fit together.
“I doubt anyone has ever made the attempt.” She sounds almost amused, though, so perhaps it was the right thing to say after all. “It is . . . safer not to fight, although we do, when necessary.”
“‘Safer’. Can’t see how that’d be true.” Another stupid comment, and he’s over-playing his hand and he can’t remember. . . .
But Teyla answers evenly, as if he’s not an ignorant stranger spouting inanities.
“They have enormous ships that cant fly, and if a world makes too much trouble. . . . They destroyed Sateda a few years ago, and they had guns that looked like your and their own ships that could fly.”
“Oh.” Sateda? The name’s only vaguely familiar, and he wonders briefly if he’d just forgotten it or if they’d never asked the right set of questions before. “So they fly, eat people, and you can’t kill them. Terrific. Any more bad news you’d like to share?”
“They can make you see things that are not really there.” And bingo, that’s what he’s been (ineptly, fumblingly) fishing for.
“Great. Just great.” He tries his radio, and lo and behold, he’s back in range. “Colonel Sumner? Sir, I’ve got some wonderful news you’re going to want to hear about.”
“Let me guess, Sheppard—you found about the local bogeymen.” Sumner sounds impatient and sarcastic and alive, and maybe this time John can keep him that way.
“Yes sir. Except I don’t think they’re actually either—local or bogeymen, that is. Teyla showed me records of entire cities being destroyed by them, and apparently they have spaceships and the ability to make people hallucinate.” And scoopy-beams, he doesn’t say, although he wants to. But Teyla hadn’t mentioned those and he doesn’t know how to ask without being obvious. More obvious.
The radio is silent long enough for John to start panicking in the very secret and somewhat irrational parts of his head, but eventually Sumner replies, sounding unexpectedly tired. “Of course they’re real and have spaceships. Do they have teleporters as well?”
John blinks at the unexpected salvation. “I don’t know, sir, but I’ll ask.”