AUTHOR: Alli Snow (allisnow)
CATEGORY: Angst, AU, weirdness
NOTES: Partly inspired by the psych_30 prompt "learned helplessness". Partly inspired by one of Rachel Luttrell's favorite books which, no, I haven't actually read yet. I've also never watched Quantum Leap *g* Thanks to seldear for the beta.
John lives most of his life now in stages, changing centuries as casually as some people change their clothes, moving through the fabric of time and through walls and through lives. The skips never last long – a couple of hours at most – but they come in sequences, fast and furious, one after another until he can hardly remember the taste of beer, or the cold bite of Antarctic winds through his Gore-Tex jacket, or the low, steady hum of a jet engine, or any of the other insignificant things that have suddenly become so meaningful to his life.
It’s always somewhere on the city. Past, present and future, Atlantis has claimed him, or maybe she’s saving him, keeping him chained to this place by a thin thread of sanity, fighting the Wraith influence that’s run rampant through his body and his mind and the very molecules that make up both.
Somewhere on the city. Control room, med labs, far piers, areas that haven’t been built yet, areas that were built and then destroyed and rebuilt in a completely different way.
John has seen Atlantis’ birth, and its death.
He has seen the faces of the first Ancients, and the faces of the expedition members, and then their descendants, and ultimately the faces of the Wraith. He’s not sure exactly when the invasion happens – he just knows that at some point in the future the humans lose, and the Wraith win, except they weren’t expecting the last-ditch self-destruct to be tied into the star drive. John figures eventually he will skip into that penultimate moment, when the smug superiority on the bastards’ faces fades into stunned horror, and then vanishes in an all-consuming fire.
He wonders if it’ll actually kill him.
When he skips, he’s not really there. He’s a ghost, a specter, walking through the familiar halls with no one any the wiser. He sees the Atlantean craftsmen installing the fine colored glass, laughing and talking in their pride and enthusiasm, and then he skips ahead and sees a Wraith feeding on someone, he doesn’t know who, a woman with dark skin and startlingly blue eyes, and then he skips and the city is bright and clean again and there’s a bronze-skinned young man standing on the balcony with a sheaf of papers in his hands, and then he skips again and it’s only silent still darkness and he knows the only living soul in the whole city is the other Elizabeth Weir, sealed up in the stasis pod where she’ll spend the next several thousand years.
He’s out of phase, out of sync. Isolated, detached from all the horrors and beauties of the world, the past and future of Atlantis spread out before him, and though the city herself has nothing to do with this torture he can almost hear her silvery voice in his head. See this. See me. See all that I was, all that I am, all that I will be.
And sometimes he thinks he hears her asking him for help.
He’s in no position to help anybody. The only reason he’s alive is because sometimes he skips back to his own time, his own universe, the existence that he originally came from. He knows that he’s home because the dissonance that rings through his body during all the other shifts is absent, and because everything around him suddenly seems a little bit clearer and brighter, and also because he usually shifts back into existence near Teyla.
More often than not, when he comes back he comes back within a few yards of her. Beckett and Rodney think it might have something to do with her Wraith gene. John doesn’t know, and most of the time he doesn’t care, because any constant in his life – no matter how small – is welcome and blessed and when he opens his eyes and sees her and realizes that she sees him it is probably the only real happiness he ever feels anymore. It’s the knowledge that, for at least a few hours, he isn’t alone anymore, he isn’t a shadow walking across the graves of his friends, he’s home, he’s home, until the next time.
These brief return trips are the only times he has to eat and drink, as the food and water in the other places are all as insubstantial as everything else. So the first thing he does is eat, and eat and eat, and drink and then eat some more. Sometimes he’s lucky enough to come back into the mess hall, which scares the hell out of everyone else there, but before he can even wipe away a stray tear of profound relief she’s there, with a sandwich or an apple or once even Jello, because it was the closest thing, saying “here, eat this”. And of course he’s starved, and feeling helpless and scared and sorry for himself, so he sits and eats and drinks his fill while somebody commandeers a backpack and fills it with water bottles and nonperishable items – MREs mostly, another facet of the punishment – in case his next series of skips takes longer than a couple of real time days. Then Elizabeth and Rodney and Beckett and Ronon and the rest of the base seem to descend on him en masse, and he’s dragged to the infirmary or the lab or some other bolt hole so someone can run more tests, use this brief time to try and figure out what’s happening, how it happened, how to stop it, what it’s doing to him.
Kate Heightmeyer attended the first dozen or so of these impromptu meetings, trying to gauge his state of mind; now she doesn’t even bother.
Eventually he feels it, the tightening sensation of a rubber band being pulled taut, and then the world snaps back together and he shifts again.
This is his life.
There is a council of Atlanteans sitting around the conference table, talking in serious tones, pointing to maps and diagrams, all intelligent and thoughtful, all completely oblivious to John’s presence. He passes the time by looking over shoulders, and eavesdropping on conversations, trying to learn something that could be of use back in what he’s come to think of as the Real World. And sometimes he tries to catch some of the cuter women while they’re in the shower, at least until his better angels get a hold of him.
There is only the sound of the city waiting in the darkness, settling around itself, sighing at the lightless rooms and empty halls. Atlantis has spent much of its time in solitude, and so John does as well. He always stays well away from the room where the stasis chamber is, and away from the ZPMs that Weir will periodically cycle. He may be a ghost, he may be unable to affect anything while he’s skipping, but there’s no point in risking it and screwing up the past.
Or would that be the future?
He’s on the outskirts of the city. The central spire is still being built. John looks around, wondering at the impossible view. Everyone is smiling and intense and dressed in neutrals, and John is almost positive that none of them have ever heard of the Wraith, or even imagined such a horror.
He’s in the jumper bay. It’s dark and dismal, and most of the jumpers are gone, and inside one is a Wraith. He’s trying to figure out how to fly it, John expects, and he amuses himself by taunting the son of a bitch for his ineptitude. But it hurts more than he wants to admit to see them here, knowing they won, enjoying the spoils of their long-sought victory.
He hasn’t told anyone back in the real world about this part. He should, but he can’t. How could he? How could he tell them that everything they’ve been struggling towards will eventually all be for nothing, because the Wraith will come and they will win? He can’t expect them to accept that. He can barely accept it himself, and he’s seen it over and over and over again.
A little human girl trails after the Wraith in the jumper, carrying his equipment, staring after the monster with loathing and fear in her wide, dark eyes. John knows that she’s a slave. He also knows that she’s the Wraith equivalent of an MRE. He leaves the bay and winds up alone in what had once been a science lab, shuddering, hugging his knees to his chest, waiting out the rest of the skip in painful solitude.
He’s exhausted, he should sleep, since sleeping is one of the few things he can do in these out of phase stages, but he can never sleep during the Wraith skips. It’s stupid, but he keeps thinking that if he’s asleep, blissfully unawares, they might be able to find him, and take him, and that would be the end of it.
Sometimes he wants it to end, but not at the hands of a Wraith.
John keeps seeing the little girl: not much older than ten or eleven, painfully thin, her young body not much more than a collection of points and angles, her dark hair cropped short, her dark eyes watchful and weary. He knows – he’s sure; instinct still speaks to him – that the Wraith have been on Atlantis for at least ten years, maybe even more than that, hungry for the promised banquet on Earth but willing to take the dissection of the city slowly. Wraith don’t know time as humans do. So where did the girl come from? Who is she, how did this happen to her, and why?
It’s the first time he’s really let himself wonder about the people in the other times, as though they’re real, as though there’s something he can do to help them. And of course there isn’t. He can’t even help himself. And if Rodney’s right about the physics – and that seems a given – even if he brought a nuke back from the real world and put it under the Wraith’s bed and set it off, nothing would happen. The explosion would be as out of phase as John himself, and the only person incinerated would be him.
Sometimes he wants it to end, but not in incineration.
He skips on.
Silence and darkness, as the city waits on the bottom of the ocean for the expedition to revive it. He tries to sleep, but he can’t.
Atlanteans crowd the control room, their normally-placid voices raised in alarm. The shield is failing, we need backup power, if even one dart gets through… This, then, is the first siege. John knows how it ends.
The mess is almost empty; there are just a few people sitting at tables, eating quietly as they read reports or essays or novels with questionable covers. One is the bronze-skinned young man that John has seen on several occasions. As John watches, the man looks up from his meal, staring into space with an annoyed, almost challenging expression.
Wraith again. They’ve turned one of the larger conference rooms into their own mess. Guards hold back a group of frightened humans, mostly young people, and in fact as John looks closer he sees that none of them seem older than their early twenties. A silver-haired Wraith has one of them by the neck, a skinny young woman with thin dark hair who struggles vainly in his grip, and John knows that it is the little girl from the jumper.
The Wraith drags the girl away.
John runs after them.
He doesn’t know what he intends to do. He can’t do anything. He’s a ghost, a shadow, a specter, and every blow aimed at the Wraith’s head passes through as though he were made of so much smoke, and when he stands in front of the Wraith and its captive they pass through him as though he isn’t there. Which of course he isn’t. Not as far as they’re concerned.
The Wraith takes the young woman to a smaller room and throws her to the floor. He’s angry. She hasn’t been breeding like she’s supposed to, and John realizes that with a small select group of humans in the city of course the Wraith would want them to make more humans, and maybe that’s the only way to stay alive. But the girl stares back defiantly and she climbs to her feet, and even though she’s shaking she tells the Wraith in colorful language where he can go, and what he can do with various parts of his anatomy, and then she spits in his face. John can’t help but feel pride.
A clawed, hungry hand thrusts out, catching the young woman in the chest, driving her backwards into the wall where she’s pinned. She screams once as he begins to feed, and then falls silent.
John wants to throw up, but there’s nothing in his stomach. He vomits anyway. When he’s done, the girl is a lifeless husk on the intricately patterned floor, and the Wraith is gone.
He shifts into darkness, not the darkness of the abandoned city he’s come to recognize so well but the darkness of a simple room dimmed for sleeping. This happens sometimes; he skips into someone’s private quarters, during a private moment, and in certain circumstances it can be pretty embarrassing and he’s almost happy to be invisible. But this is the first time it’s happened back in the real world, back in his own time, and he catches his breath and freezes.
It doesn’t matter. She always seems to have a preternatural sense for when he’s shifted back, or maybe it’s just well-honed instinct letting her know that she’s no longer alone in this room. Teyla stirs and pushes herself up in bed, and by the starlight filtering in through the window their eyes meet.
“Colonel,” she whispers, throwing aside the blankets and swinging her legs to the floor. John automatically averts his eyes, more out of common decency than a lack of curiosity. But this is Teyla, practical Teyla, and she’s dressed in a lavender nightgown that falls almost to her knees, although her shoulders are left bare. Her quick mind moves at once to the necessities. “I do not have anything to eat here, but-”
“I’m not hungry,” he interrupts, his voice sounding dull and strange in his own ears. He’s not hungry. He’s not even nauseous anymore, or sleepy. He just feels tired, which is completely different than wanting to sleep; he’s threadbare, fractured. It’s the stress, of course, and the trauma of what he’s been forced to see, forced to endure, but he’s also starting to suspect that these shifts are taking a more physical toll. The human body was never meant to move like this – erratic, unstoppable – not even a body with the Ancient gene. And when Teyla walks up and puts her hand against his roughened jaw, the better to lift his head and look into his eyes, he struggles against the temptation to lean into her touch, bury his face in her hair and feel the warmth and resiliency of her body against his.
It seems like a thousand years has passed since he’s felt anything.
Her expression is solemn as she drops her hand to his shoulder, her dark eyes liquid in the starlight. She seems to know that something isn’t right – or more accurately that it’s even more wrong than normal – and that he hasn’t been taking care of himself like he did at the beginning. John hasn’t looked in a mirror for weeks, it seems, and he already can tell that he’s lost weight. Like he’s leaving little bits of himself behind every time he skips.
“I should call Dr. Weir and Rodney,” says Teyla at last, glancing over her shoulder at the headset resting on her bedside table, but she doesn’t turn away from him. She just looks up into his face with that quiet, growing concern. “John?”
“How long has this been happening?” he asks her.
Her expression is guarded, and she hesitates for a moment as though contemplating a lie. “Almost four months,” she says at last, and she’s probably not counting the two weeks he spent as a captive of the Wraith. “This is the twenty-first time you have come back.”
“And is Rodney or anyone else even close to an explanation?”
She swallows, drops her gaze. “He is working. They all are. If they can piece together some of the equipment that was damaged, perhaps-“
“It’s been four months,” he says, more to himself than to her. “Rodney’s the best there is. If he can’t even figure out what happened to me, then there’s no way to find a solution. A cure, whatever. And I can’t do anything. I can’t help. This is just how it’s going to be.”
“You should not speak this way…”
But his little speech was more exhausting than he would have thought possible and he has no energy left to argue with her. He stumbles a little as he walks to the bed and she’s there next to him, helping him sit, one warm hand against his back, her face tight and drawn. Suddenly he feels guilty, incredibly guilty that when he comes back it’s usually to her, that he’s become such a burden in her life, and again he thinks about ending it.
Yet it seems like a shame after hanging on this long.
“If you will not eat,” says Teyla softly, “and if you will not let me call the others, then you must let me take care of you.”
He looks up, curious despite himself. “Meaning?”
“A hot shower,” she says decidedly, and she stands, taking his hand and pulling him up.
He feels like an invalid, a child, as she leads him into the water room and passes her palm over the sensor, activating a fall of steaming water. He undresses slowly, pulling the shirt over his head, unbuckling his belt, stepping out of his pants and then under the spray with no great enthusiasm. She closes the stall door and leaves with the promise of a brief, discreet absence and a prompt return. Like he might try to drown himself in the standing water if she’s gone for long.
There is soap, and shampoo, and even a razor that she probably wouldn’t kill him for using just this once, but he finds that he can’t reach for any of them. He simply stands there, letting the water fall down his body, down his nose and lips and chin, down his chest, his abdomen, his back and groin, streaming down his legs, swirling away down the drain, and when he closes his eyes he can see the dead girl, the man in the mess hall, the Wraith in the jumper, the vacant, lonely city that calls out to him to bear witness.
Not all of the water in that city – which is a considerable amount, considering its environment – can wash away all of it, wash away the helplessness that gnaws on his bones.
The shower stall door opens a crack; with a start John realizes that Teyla has returned, that she’s been calling his name and he hasn’t answered. “I’m fine,” he says halfheartedly as she peeks in, her eyes focused firmly on his face.
“I brought you fresh clothing,” she says, and then her gaze dips a little, not down his body but at the untouched soaps and towels. She frowns, purses her lips, and then she steps into the shower, lavender nightgown and all, and closes the door behind her.
The hot water falls directly from above, like rainfall, and she is almost instantly drenched, her long hair dripping, the nightgown plastered to her body as she pours soap onto a washcloth and confidently begins to scrub it across his chest, his shoulders, his back and stomach. A strong, clean smell wafts on the air, like herbs and sunlight, a scent he only now realizes that he’s always associated with Teyla.
Her touch is professional, her hands do not linger, and yet there is caring in the way she caresses him and the simple human contact is so strange and wonderful that he wants to sink to his knees with the pleasure of it. When she lathers his hair with shampoo he bows his head to allow an easier reach, and when she draws the razor along his jawline he stands very still, his eyes closed, concentrating on the sensation of her fingers light on his skin, and the rasp of the blade, and the nearness of his naked body to her own.
When she is done she does not loiter but passes her hand over the sensor again, stopping the water. In a few seconds there is a towel wrapped around his waist, and she leads him back out of the stall, still dripping. “Your hair is getting long,” she observes, as though she’s thinking of taking this to the next level and giving him a haircut, and the notion is so logical and so absurd that he actually smiles, and then the smile fades as she reaches up and brushes a strand from his forehead. He reaches out to touch the ends of her own hair, to make a comment of a similar nature, but somehow his hand instead falls to rest on her hip. The smell of the herbal soap still swirls around them, warm and intoxicating.
In the bedroom he loses the towel, she peels off the sodden nightgown and he covers her cool body with his own. His kisses are hard and demanding as he presses her down and he wonders if this is just a pity screw, but in the end it doesn’t matter because he wants her, needs her, needs the hands that clutch at his shoulders and the legs that hook over his hips and the back that arches her body so perfectly against him. He needs the soft voice that gasps into his ear when he takes her, and the way she moves, and the way she holds him when he can’t move anymore, when every muscle tenses, tenses, and then his body falls into that boneless stupor, and into trembling sleep.
They wake together in the dawn and move again in that same harmony, more gently this time but also with a new awareness of parting, and loss, and this time he makes sure that she cries out before he does, he kisses her neck and her shoulder and cradles her body against his as they ride to the top.
Afterwards he dresses, and slips on the pack she filled with food and water the night before. Teyla pulls on a robe and sits next to him, her head resting lightly on his shoulder. They do not talk. There’s not really anything to say. When the stretched feeling comes over him again he makes sure he moves away, because his clothing and his pack always travel with him, so there’s some reason to assume that by touching someone he would condemn them to this same hell. Instead of holding her hand he holds her eyes, until they disappear and are replaced by something else entirely.