Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Word count: 3,275
Notes: The city and John are so alike; they prefer to negotiate down the barrel of a gun, or at the tip of a knife. Elizabeth Weir, John Sheppard, and what happens when you can no longer trust the ground beneath your feet.
I owe enormous thanks to liminalliz, who looked at the first draft and told me that it was lovely but that I had abstracted myself into incomprehensibility (oops), and to girl_wonder and tammaiya, who looked at the second draft and pointed out the remaining weak spots.
Title and epigraph are from Pablo Neruda's poem The Question.
no more to leave it
You must open door to door,
you must obey me,
you must open your eyes
so that I may search in them,
you must see how I walk
with heavy steps
along all the roads
that, blind, were waiting for me.
You will remember the way Rodney’s eyes widen in awe and the way it feels to set your feet against the floor and give commands. Most of all you will remember the way the city bends herself like a lover under John Sheppard’s hands and her thrilled humming sounds and the way everything flickers at once when he enters her rooms, the sudden illumination, light thrown into every corner creating this illusory expansion of space, like an inhalation.
You will whisper, jubilate, and she will whisper it back.
Without the localised watery shimmer of the wormhole, the gate is just a lumpish arc of metal; without the jumpers, the ocean around you is a desolate threat. The phrase most commonly falling from frightened lips, that first day, is: there has to be a reason. Things do not just stop working.
Things do not just stop working, except when they do.
Teyla says, "My people," just like she always does, and you point out with as much tact as you can muster that right now they’re the ones with the established food source.
"Even more reason for us to contact the mainland." Ronon folds his arms.
John nods. "Rodney?"
"What do you want us to do, Colonel," Rodney snarls, "swim?"
You say, "I want solutions, gentlemen," and do not trust yourself to say anything more.
One week and your control room lies in pieces around you, Rodney and Radek sitting amidst the wreckage, arguing in languages that you do not understand. Neither of them have shaved, and you have food brought up from the mess for them because they refuse to leave even to eat.
Two weeks and Carson is forcing them into bed with intravenous sedatives.
Three and Rodney fractures his ankle kicking the gate but he just keeps going, screaming, screaming and yelling until John grabs him by the shoulder and hits him in the face – "McKay," his drawling voice all dark and soft with fatigue because he has been pleading with the puddlejumpers for ten hours straight.
(You think: rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you envy them the violence.)
Four and you start to ration the food, and still nobody can find out why.
What you have always loved about the city of Atlantis is the potential for self-created aesthetics; both your office and your quarters are all blue-tinted lights and sampled relics from planet after planet. In the absence of hope you search for comfort in things from the past, turning them over and over in your hands.
Yesterday the black carved stone.
Today the candles.
Tomorrow the blue lights climbing the walls.
The reports on your desk are short and shamed and helpless.
Someone is playing the violin. Notes trickling up the hallways. A dirge, says Kate – you wouldn’t know – and nobody dares to ask if the player knows any other tunes.
"Elizabeth," says Teyla, tired and quiet from where she is tucked in close to Ronon’s body. He nods at you and then rests his chin on her head and returns to staring at nothing. "How are you faring?"
"Fine, Teyla. I’m fine."
It’s a blow to the head when Teyla Emmagan does not call you out on such a blatant lie, just nods and looks even more withdrawn. You want the music to stop, but to take something so small away when it has wound itself up into something so large is unthinkable. Instead you walk into your quarters and close the door, but even that is not quite enough, so you step out onto the balcony underneath an unforgiving sky the colour of washed-out denim. Rest your weight against the city for a while and inhale the salt.
You drop your forehead onto your hands where they lie on the smooth railing and you don’t know if this is a prayer, but it’s heartfelt.
"Please," you say. "Please."
It seems to be that thing that happens in the face of death, which is a word that nobody voices any more. There was a lot of it in the early days, John yelling in Rodney’s face that he’d damn well better come up with something or else you were all going to die slowly and was that what he wanted? because John handles Rodney better than any of you sometimes. There must have been a transition from incentive to reality but you could not put your finger on when that was; all you know is that your people will only admit to fear while they are capable of fighting it.
Anyway: the face of death.
Which is Ronon with his arms around Teyla, implacable.
Which is a raw flurry of human contact.
Which is John, leaning against the wall with one foot kicked out, following you with his bright hungry eyes and his mouth all twisted with sarcasm. And you not pushing him away even when you begin to sense that something is wrong.
Perhaps the insanity of your circumstance is what saves you (condemns you); things can be and have been very far from what they appear to be, this man included, and even if he kisses you in a way that drives the hunger out of your head, you catch the difference in his eyes. But it is such a familiar difference that you almost don’t voice the doubt: you feel that you should know the answer to this one. It is dancing out of sight. On the edge of your tongue like the amusement that he has pressed there with his own.
John is there but someone else is too, someone you know.
You pull back.
"You’re not John Sheppard."
"No," comes the voice that you know, you know, like you know the scratches in the floor under your bare feet in the morning, like you know the number of steps it takes you to reach the meeting room, both on a normal day and when you’re pissed off. "But one way or another, John Sheppard has always been part of me."
"Then you –"
His hands combing gently through your hair, his lips – "Elizabeth." Faintly annoyed, just as you’d imagined John would be. "Stop talking."
This is the story of your life; you end up in the place that is expected of you, always, inevitably, even though the reasons for the journey may be completely different to those that others assume. So when you open your mouth against his you know it’s because you’re accepting, not ignoring; and because in the face of death, this is what you do. When his hands slip under your shirt and tug it upwards you know it’s not because Elizabeth Weir has wanted John Sheppard for a long, long time. When he presses you against the wall it’s oh oh metal against your back and the solidity of him against your chest – heady, the symmetry of it – and maybe it’s because Elizabeth Weir knows how to gamble with her own life as well as the lives of others. When you lie back on the bed that’s been yours alone for so long, it’s got nothing to do with surrender; but you know how to act decisively even when you’re still uncertain, deep within yourself.
"I thought you’d, you know. Mind."
"You should know me better than that," you whisper against his mouth, "by now."
Deep deep deep within yourself, the uncertainty, and him, and the memory of the city inhaling under John Sheppard’s hands. With your feet tangled in the sheets you understand how that must have felt. You hear your own breathing harsh in the air above the humming breath of the city, you curl backwards against the pillows and melt into the blue lights. Heat breaking against you like waves; you feel loved, coiled up, in the midst of an intensely intimate explosion.
"Elizabeth," he says and you give a long gasp that breaks and gulps and your arm flies out, the back of your hand slides sweat-slick down the wall, and he hisses, and you narrow your eyes and do it again.
His face changes when you angle your knuckles against the metal.
And then you’re sure.
Later you wake up in the city’s embrace, just like every other night; just unlike every other night, because for the first time you are not alone and there is skin under your cheek and the taste of sex in your mouth, fingertips stroking gently down your side.
"I guess I want to thank you, Elizabeth," he says. "You’ve always believed in me."
Not quite awake, you push yourself upright and try to find your diplomacy, which isn’t something you ever thought you’d be doing in bed.
"Do I have reason to, any more?" you manage.
And, "I presume you’re keeping us here on purpose."
It’s a good start.
Light drips in through the blinds and you’re cold, cold in the morning air, colder than you remember it ever being, and you wonder if it’s deliberate.
You’re saying, "What can we do? What can I do?" and John Sheppard’s wonderful sarcastic mouth is saying, "All in good time."
And that’s about enough to make you angry because that’s what you want to do, when you’re feeling crushed by helplessness: rage, rage against anything you can. You pull the sheets up around yourself and talk in a low cold voice about your responsibilities, and the fact that time isn’t exactly something your people have a lot of right now.
And Atlantis says, "Whose people?"
Says, "They’re not just yours any more, Elizabeth; they’re mine as well."
You will remember that: mine, mine, the sullen possessive.
You should have known better than to hope that he wouldn’t notice when your eyes rest on Carson, during breakfast. (Breakfast is scraps of dried fruit and water; water, which is the one thing you will never run out of.)
"This can’t be cured, not until I decide to let him go," he murmurs, fierce into your ear. " Will you attempt a pointless exorcism? Will you tie me down and flood me with chemicals, Elizabeth?"
Unspoken: more than you have done so already?
You think about Michael.
And so you keep the secret, even though it’s hard to watch the scientists blaming themselves. Hard to watch John Sheppard walk and live and spill out humour that gets blacker and blacker with every passing day, because that’s what John Sheppard would do.
Through dint of long habit you cannot stop loving this city; the memories are too strong, even though the walls seem to press in closer with every passing day and your private pleas for a negotiation are laughed down. The city and John are so alike; they prefer to negotiate down the barrel of a gun, or at the tip of a knife. The reports on your desk bemoan the fact that your people never quite managed to coax the facilities into self-sufficiency, and you cannot tell them that it would not have made the slightest difference in the end. No gate and no jumpers and no way out, just Atlantis clutching you all jealously to its breast like a tiny child with a kitten, suffocating you with the selfishness of its love.
You keep asking why until your voice breaks.
"You would have left eventually," he says one evening. "Everyone leaves eventually. And after I gave you so much."
"But why do this now?"
"Why not now?"
"We wouldn’t have left you," you say desperately, and it’s the truth.
But the city laughs John’s soundless laugh and you despair, because Atlantis is mad and the logic of a city is not like your logic: one thing does not lead to another and one path can lead you around in a circle or to a dead end and the logic gates are like all gates: broken, offline, for as long as the city deems necessary.
"Is he even in there?" you ask Atlantis one day. "Or is he dead?"
"See for yourself."
You suck in your breath and hardly dare move; he closes his eyes and opens them again, and just as you knew when the city had taken him over, you know that it has left. For the moment.
"Hey there, Elizabeth." He coughs, looks a bit embarrassed. "Sorry about all this."
"How are you feeling?"
Because it’s what you ask every time he opens his eyes from a danger that has taken his mind away.
His mouth quirks and he says, "Urban. Urbane," which is such an awful joke that it takes you almost five seconds to laugh, and by the time you stop he’s saying, "I’m not altogether heartless, Elizabeth," so you know that John is gone again.
On every schematic and blueprint that Rodney has shown you, the heart of Atlantis is nowhere to be found.
The Ancients left their city because they hoped that one day someone would find it.
The Ancients left their city not because they hoped that one day someone would find it, but because they hoped that nobody would find it ever again.
The point is that the Ancients left their insane, beautiful city because they hoped that one day someone would find it, and the point was that the someone wouldn’t be them.
Three hive ships appear on the long-range sensors and Rodney almost collapses with the alleviation of guilt – "Of course, of course, they did something, they trapped us here and now they’re coming..."
Now there’s someone to blame publically, even if it’s the wrong someone. It’s a familiar kind of fear and it’s enough to pull most of your people back from the brink.
"Do you want the Wraith to destroy you?"
John’s laconic shrug. "I’ve avoided them before."
The point is that dying under the sea will be no different to dying above it.
"I’m ready to negotiate, Elizabeth."
As ever, no why, no reason, unless it is just a surreal, inside-out version of seige tactics; the city’s version of the tip of a knife. Starving you out. Starving you pliable.
Blue lights and the promise in John’s smile.
You are a diplomat.
Simple mathematics that you’ve done a hundred times before: Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard held at one side, and everything else on the other. It doesn’t seem like a balanced equation, but it’s all about where you place the fulcrum.
"That’s all?" You’re almost gasping. "Just him?"
Just him, like it’s incidental.
Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the world.
Only Atlantis holds all of the firm places and it is, in itself, a world that can only be moved by John’s touch. At least this time there is no gun held to his head. In fact –
"He doesn’t want to leave," the city says. "Did you think there was anything left for him on Earth?"
And you think about your responsibilities and say, "Fine. All right," just like you were always going to say, even though it’s a strange reversal of the mathematics to be acceding to demands. Either way, of course, you always end up giving up John. It is the reasons for the journey that have changed and not the destination.
"And when he dies?"
John’s head tilts and he looks so agonisingly incorruptible, standing there like nothing could ever touch him. "Then I wait," the city says. "Again."
You think about Michael’s face wiped clean of accusation and the innocence of the city when it slept. Imagine the salted bones of other people to whom Atlantis has taken a liking; you have never set foot in every room of the city, and there could be a tower somewhere with corpses hung on the walls, but that’s just the death-fear talking again, and tropes from your childhood which you cannot identify.
Dying under the sea.
"You love him," you say, probing motives, and again Atlantis laughs.
"In that case," and you close your eyes and press your palms to the floor and speak to the air. If the city has a heart then you are gambling on the constancy of its beat, and the fact that it does not have to consume John Sheppard in order to possess him.
A long silence.
"Are you sure?"
For the first time he sounds surprised and no, no, you’re not sure at all. But Elizabeth Weir gambles with her own life, and acts despite her own uncertainty, and maybe that’s why you’re prepared to let her dissolve for a while.
"Is this where you tell me that we can do this the easy way or the hard way?"
Real bustling human noise surrounding you as you stand at the highest point of the control room, looking down at the shimmering, gorgeous, impossible blue of the wormhole that you thought you’d never see again.
"Nah." That easy smile. John takes your hand in his. "There’s only one way."
You’ve opened your mouth to ask if it will be sudden or gradual, this transference, but then you taste dust chemicals sweat perfume oxygen soap water oil all spun out and plastered to the walls of your mouth and the walls of your lungs and the walls of your every blue-lit room. You are brilliantly and frighteningly aware. Omniscient.
And when you turn to the side you see John Sheppard, shaking his head as if to clear it. Where his hand touched yours you are incandescent, lost in how perfectly he fits into the centre of these channels, these flickering blue leylines of organic design. His eyes are clear; you love him; you inhale.
"You didn’t have to do that, Elizabeth," he mutters, but he darts a look at you, the kind of look he usually reserves for things that can fly.
All of your people trickling through the gate; you whisper, jubilate, and the echo comes back from deep inside of you but it’s not enough to keep you from crying.
When the gate goes dark for the last time you aren’t there, because you have borne witness to many things, but not this. Not this. It could be heartache or disinterest, you don’t know which. The sun is setting over the ocean and spreading oil across it in bitter shades of orange and pink, and John is out on the westernmost balcony staring towards the horizon with slitted eyes and his usual expression of very faint amusement, as though the universe is one great cosmic joke.
"John," you say. Already you are feeling your own corridors like hollow veins and the power that floods through, everywhere, embracing, becoming. The warm dregs of the sun spilling and spiking off your towers.
"I wouldn’t have left you," he says simply, splaying his hands out on the railing. A shiver runs through you. He turns and seems to be searching for something in your eyes; finds it, and smiles with the corner of his mouth. "Either of you."
Crying out with the momentum as tiny cool waves lap at your ankles – "Shh," John says, his eyes closed, "it’s all right, it’s all right," one of his palms against your back and one pressed against your control screen, pulling you close, pulling you down.
The water closes over your head.